The High Riders: WHI
The town sat right on the border between New Mexico and Arizona. It had sprung up five years ago when old Nate Wilkins had discovered a vein of silver ore in a played out old tin mine. It had taken a while for him to convince anyone that he had actually found anything, but after bringing in a mule weighted down with silver to the local assayer’s office, the rush was on and the town had sprung up like magic. The prospectors that had flocked to the location had needed a place to buy supplies and to get their finds assayed, and since there was only one fresh water spring within fifty miles, the town had naturally arisen around the spring. Unfortunately for the town, the rush didn’t last long. Most of the population had left when the vein finally played out, but a few hardy souls had stayed and eked out a living any way they could.
A year ago the town’s fortune had once more turned around. It now sat on the brand new stagecoach and trail line to California, and the citizens made a very comfortable living catering to the traveler’s needs; supplying food, accommodations, gear, and entertainment.
Strangers were a common occurrence, and few rated more than a brief glance, but this one was different. The young man rode his flashy buckskin at a slow walk right up the middle of the street. Looking neither left nor right, he rode with an insolent grace. The black pants and gaudy shirt marked him as something other than an average cowpoke, and the low- slung gun tied down on his leg confirmed that he was a man to be reckoned with. A dozen pair of eyes traced his movements as he walked his gelding up to the saloon and nonchalantly stepped down. He tied his horse to the rail before taking a slow look around. The townspeople that had been caught looking hurriedly looked away, and a slow smile appeared on the stranger’s face before he turned and confidently entered the bar.
The bartender glanced up and studied the newcomer. He wasn’t much more than a boy, of medium height and build, with a mop of unruly black hair. The older man thought briefly of refusing to serve him; he was obviously below the legal drinking age in this town, but a brief look into those icy blue eyes had the bartender hurrying to fill the young man’s order.
The young stranger tossed some coins on the bar, then picked up the glass of beer and sauntered over to a corner table. He kicked out a chair and sat with his back to the wall, discreetly studying everyone who came into the dusty saloon. Although it was fairly crowded, no one asked to share a table with him, a situation he was entirely satisfied with. He was used to the furtive glances and whispered comments, and had learned to ignore them. It was part of the game, a mark of his success. And he was successful; there was no doubt about that. If he weren’t, he would have been dead long ago.
When he had first become a gunfighter, he had never expected to live this long, and part of him wished he hadn’t. It was a lonely, tough life, but as much as he wanted to change, he knew it was an impossible dream. His life had been mapped out from the second his mother had finally left her abusive husband when he was two years old, and he had been helpless to change his fate. His mother had told him time after time about the cruel gringo who had married her and then callously kicked her and their half breed son out, leaving them to survive anyway they could.
Johnny smiled bitterly. Well, he had survived all right, and his ‘father’ just might be in for a nasty surprise when Johnny decided to introduce himself. The smile disappeared and he slammed his glass down in anger. The few other patrons looked around nervously, worrying about the gunfighter’s foul mood. He took a deep breath, angry with himself for letting his emotions get the better of him, and he lifted his glass in mock salute to the anxious men. Dismissing them from his thoughts, he took a sip of the warm beer in front of him and continued to watch the door, knowing that the whole town knew he was here, and eventually someone would come.
An hour later the wooden batwing doors flew open and a large, muscular man pushed his way into the saloon. His eyes flickered over the occupants, rested briefly on the young man sitting alone at the table, and then slid towards the bartender. “Gimme a beer.”
The bartender hurriedly poured the drink and pushed it towards the man who was now leaning his weight on the bar. The man took a long swallow, and then turned and looked at the kid at the table. “Johnny Madrid.” He made the name sound like a curse.
The young man leaned back in his chair and studied the man. “Do I know you?”
The man grinned. “Nope. But you will. I’m the one who’s goin’ to send you to Hell.”
Madrid nodded seriously and took another sip of his beer. “You’re welcome ta try.” He pointed at the bartender. “Does he know ya?”
The man looked confused for a moment and then his eyes narrowed. “What if he does?”
Johnny shrugged. “Don’t matter. Just wanted to make sure somebody knew what to put on the headstone, that’s all.” Madrid squinted up at the man. “Sure ya want ta do this? How about if ya just sit down and forget about it, and I’ll buy ya a drink?”
The man glowered down at the kid. “You’re nothin’ but a yellow bellied coward, Madrid. Now are you goin’ to fight me or am I goin’ ta have to take you down right now?”
Johnny took another swallow of beer, and then with a soft sigh he stood up and walked towards the door without giving the man a second glance. “Let’s dance.”
The man felt a flicker of doubt for the first time. He nervously took a gulp of his beer and wiped his mouth on his sleeve before glancing at the bartender.
The bartender met the man’s eyes and then shrugged. “It’s your funeral.”
The man turned and looked out to where Johnny had just disappeared, along with most of the occupants of the saloon, and some of his courage returned. “He’s just a punk kid,” he informed the bartender, “and I aim to shut that smart mouth of his.”
He turned and left the bar, shoving the doors wide once again. Scanning the spectator- lined street, he spotted the kid standing in the middle of it, the sun at his back. ‘Damn,’ he thought, ‘I shoulda got out here first.’
He sauntered out past the crowd, keeping his eyes on Madrid the whole time. When he reached the middle of the street, he turned to face his adversary and the cold blue eyes bored into him. There was no expression, no flicker of fear or doubt in those eyes, just calm self- assurance, and…. boredom? The man suddenly knew that he’d made a fatal mistake. He looked around frantically, hoping to find some sort of edge, some way out of this mess that his mouth had gotten him into, but he saw nothing but the expectant crowd. He knew that if he backed down now, everyone would know he was a coward and he’d have to leave town, and all because of a kid that wasn’t even old enough to drink. A surge of anger welled up in him at that thought, and his hand jerked toward his gun. His fingers hadn’t even touched the handle when he felt the explosion in his chest. He looked down in disbelief at the red stain spreading across his shirt, then brought his eyes up, seeking out his executioner. Madrid was already walking away when the man fell face down in the street.
Johnny walked casually over to his buckskin gelding and gracefully swung aboard. As he walked the horse past the fallen man, he reached into his shirt pocket and produced a couple of coins, which he tossed on the ground next to the body. “That should pay for the buryin’,” he said to no one in particular as he continued down the street.
Johnny kept his horse to a walk until they were out of town, and then kneed the gelding into a gentle lope. He had really hoped to be able to stay in a soft bed tonight, but the gunfight had dashed those hopes. He had learned long ago to never stay in a town after there had been any gunplay, no matter how it had started, or for that matter, how it had ended. He sighed softly. Since there wasn’t another town within thirty miles, it looked like he would be camping out again tonight. He rode for another ten miles, and then reined the buckskin off of the road towards a small stand of trees. He always checked out the surrounding area before riding into any town, and earlier that day he had found a hidden stream that would make a good campsite. He’d also mapped out several escape routes and places to hide out, just in case, but thank goodness he didn’t need those. At least this time.
He set up camp quickly, with a deftness born of long experience. After he had a fire going, he walked over and unsaddled his horse, checking it over carefully for any sores or injuries, and then giving it a thorough brushing. He talked to the animal softly as he worked, calming both it and himself at the same time.
He had killed his first man before he was old enough to shave, when his mother had been savagely beaten to death and the man responsible had then turned toward the young boy, his bloodlust still not satisfied. After several blows, Johnny had grabbed the man’s own gun out of its holster and shakily pointed it at his attacker. The man had laughed, and the desperate young boy had closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. Johnny’s eyes had stayed closed until he heard the thud of the man’s body hitting the wooden floor, then they slowly opened. The boy looked at the man’s body in disbelief for several seconds, then turned away and was sick. Finally, he crawled over to his mother’s body and cradled her head in his lap, his tears mixing with the blood on her battered face.
He had stayed there until morning, paralyzed by grief. But gradually another emotion began to intrude. The man he had killed had been cruel and cold, but he had also been a deputy whose brother was the local sheriff. Johnny knew that if he stuck around, it wouldn’t matter if it was self defense, he would be facing the hangman’s noose before the sun went down. He gently laid his mother’s head down on the floor, then leaned over and kissed her cold forehead.
“I’m sorry, Mama, that I couldn’t protect you. Please forgive me. I love you.”
He stayed for another moment, unwilling to leave her, but knowing his time was running out. The man had been a frequent visitor to their small shack, and when he didn’t show up, his brother was sure to know where to look for him. So Johnny ran. It wasn’t until later, when he was huddled miserably in a cave with no food and only the clothes on his back that he realized the only thing he had taken with him when he ran was the gun. He had stared at it for a long moment, and then flung it away from him as hard as he could. It hit the opposite wall with a thud and fell to the ground, but Johnny barely registered the sound as he buried his head in his arms and wept.
Johnny continued to brush his horse as the memory of the end of his childhood played out in his head, but his arm moved slower and slower and gradually stopped. Finally he threw the brush down, then wrapped his arms around the gelding’s neck and pressed his cheek against the silky mane, taking solace in the closeness. Letting go at last, he gave the animal a friendly pat before heading back to his lonely fire.
Murdoch Lancer sat on a hill overlooking his empire, his sorrel gelding standing quietly beneath him. He had come to this land as a brash and confidant twenty three year old, and had single handedly carved out a place for himself and his descendants. When he had first arrived, the land had been wild and untamed, and it still was to a certain extent. Right and wrong was more often decided by who was the strongest or who had the most guns than by any court of law. Lawmen and judges both were few and far between. Honest ones even rarer. A man had to make his own law out here and enforce it the best he could. This country tolerated no weakness in man or beast.
He had come from Scotland, where his father had been a judge. His mother had died when he was twenty- two, and shortly after her death he had decided to leave his father’s cold house. The Old Man had always assumed Murdoch would follow in his footsteps and go into law, but the younger man had despised the pomp and trappings surrounding that profession. Instead, he dreamed about someday becoming a rancher, a goal he had set for himself after reading a glamorized account of ranching in a book when he was twelve years old.
He had hesitantly brought up his dream to his father one time, but after being lectured on responsibility and education and the indignity of manual labor for the next two hours, he had never broached the subject again. At least not to his father. His mother, on the other hand, embraced his dream and encouraged it. She knew him well, well enough that she was certain that he would never be happy living in his father’s world. She made him promise that he would pursue his dream no matter what, and that he would let nothing stop him.
And he had kept that promise. He had come to America and fought and worked for and won this ranch. This land had cost him more than he would ever admit, even to himself. But he had succeeded. It was his, and he would make sure that it would always remain his. Nothing would ever make him give this land up. One hundred thousand acres in the heart of California, and every acre had been fought for and paid for and sometimes bled for. Every single acre had come at a price, a price that he had paid willingly enough at the time. It was only now, in the last several years, that he wondered if the price that he had paid so willingly had indeed been too high.
He had met his first wife, Catherine, in Boston. She was the daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate, and Murdoch had just arrived from Inverness, lost and confused. Thanks to his mother, he had a decent amount of money, however he was loathe to spend it on anything but a ranch, so he was working his way to California one job at a time.
He had met her in the park, of all things. He would go there after work to walk and get away from the bustling crowds, which he hated even then. She came to the park when she was troubled by her father’s cold attitude and controlling ways. The day he met her, it had started raining and he had seen her trying to run for cover when he had offered her his coat. She had appraised him with those clear blue eyes, and accepted his offer. On the way back to her house, it had stopped raining, but neither of them had noticed. The next evening after work, Murdoch had strolled the park, hoping against hope to see her again, and surprisingly, he had. There had been something special between the two of them, and they had both known it from the beginning.
Four months later, when he had saved enough money to move on, she had come with him. Her father had ranted and raved and threatened to disown her, but she had chosen to come anyway. The newlyweds had traveled to Kansas City, where he had worked for another six months and saved up enough money to finish the final leg of their trip. The trip to California was long and arduous, made more difficult by her pregnancy, but she never complained, nor did she complain in the months that followed, when he was trying to carve out the start of an empire. The ranch was still nothing much more than bare land and a few small cabins when his son Scott was born. His beloved Catherine had died two days later, leaving him with a newborn baby and a broken heart.
For a while, the ranch lost its charm, and the buildings and other improvements stayed as they were. He continued to amass cattle and land, but the comforts were not important to him without his wife. He went about his life mechanically, without thinking, and hired a servant to care for his newborn son. At first her had found it difficult to even look at the small being that had cost him his beloved wife, but slowly and surprisingly to him, he felt a bond forming. By the time the boy was two, Scott had taken a firm hold on the rancher’s heart, but Murdoch knew the boy also needed a mother.
Murdoch had met his second wife in Mexico, when he had ventured to her family’s ranch to buy some purebred Andalusian horses to improve his stock. She was totally unlike Catherine. Fiery and wild, she had taken his breath away and left his head spinning. He hardly knew what hit him, and in the week that he had been at her family’s ranch they had been inseparable. He had asked her to marry him, but when he had left to go back to his dream, she chose to stay in the safety of her family with its wealth and prestige. Maria had known what she wanted, even then. Three months later, something had drawn him back to her. He wanted to try one more time to convince her to join him in California. He visited with her family again on the pretense of buying more horses, and spent most of the time telling her of the beauty of his land and describing the sprawling estancia, spacious barns and groves of fruit trees.
Gradually his descriptions became more and more enticing to the young woman, and finally, and much to her parents displeasure, she agreed to marry him and join him at his ranch. After a proper ceremony, he had hurriedly brought his bride back to the ranch, where she had stood in shocked outrage on this same hill. She had been livid upon discovering that all of the flowing descriptions had been told before the improvements had actually taken place. She had taken one look at the ramshackle shack that was to be their home and had burst into tears. He had tried to explain that it was only temporary; that all of the things that he had described would come to pass with hard work, but she was inconsolable.
He knew that she had written her parents, but they had not responded, and then a month later she found out that she was with child. With a resignation that ate at him, she seemed to accept her lot in life and seemed to make the best of things. She became the only mother that Scott had ever known, and she did her best to run the household. Satisfied that his wife was now content, he threw himself into building the ranch and home that they both wanted. He was gone for long hours and came home tired and grumpy, but he refused to set aside their dream, and gradually saw those dreams become reality. The huge Spanish style mansion was finally finished, and was large enough to house several families with ease. The barns held scores of purebred Andalusian and Palomino horses, with herds of the more common Quarter horses running the land. They had servants and all of the comforts that could be had in this part of the country, and after the birth of his second son, John, his life was complete.
John was two years old when Maria had come to him and told him she was leaving him for another man, a gambler who had promised to take her anywhere she wanted to go. He had been shocked when she told him that she was tired of being ignored. After all, he argued, the long hours he put in everyday was to build up the ranch for her. It was what she had said she wanted. Their argument had been bitter and loud, but in the end he couldn’t make her stay. She argued that she didn’t love him any more, and she hated the home that he had tried so hard to build for her. She had packed up her things and both of the boys, and had gone out to the waiting buggy. The sight of her leaving was hard, but the knowledge that he was losing his sons was worse. He didn’t want to take the boys from their mother, but he didn’t want to lose them, either. He begged her then to leave the boys with him. He knew that she was an indifferent mother and pawned the boys off on servants as much as possible, but the opportunity to hurt him was just too tempting and she had refused.
Murdoch had stood uncertainly for a moment. Even though in the law’s eyes she had the right to take John, Scott wasn’t her son. He decided that he wasn’t going to lose both of them. Just as he stepped forward, Scott suddenly dashed back and stood by his father defiantly. As John tried to jump down and join them, Maria had grabbed him and pushed him back into the buggy and quickly left, with John’s frantic screams of “PAPA” gradually disappearing down the lane and tearing Murdoch’s heart out.
Murdoch had never seen or heard from his wife since. For a year or so after she had left, he had hoped she would come to her senses and return. Every holiday he half expected to see her walking in with John, but it had never happened. Several years later, desperate to at least see his son again, he finally swallowed his pride and contacted her parents. To his surprise they had answered his letter, but the news was unnerving. All the time she had been gone, he had assumed that she had gone back to Mexico and taken up her life there, but her parents told him that they had not heard from her since the last letter she had written them before John was born.
At that point, Murdoch had hired the Pinkerton Detective agency to try to locate her, but by then the trail was cold and the detectives had not been able to find any trace of his missing wife and son. Without knowing the name of the man she had supposedly married, there was no way to find her, and eventually Murdoch had stopped trying. Instead, he had thrown himself into running the ranch and raising his remaining son. No matter how hard s he drove himself, however, he could not forget the black haired boy who had cried out so desperately. Every night, Murdoch had said a prayer that his lost boy was safe and happy, and he knew that Scott still did. He himself had stopped three years ago, when the detectives finally brought news of his wife and son. He had read the note eagerly, at first overjoyed that they had finally found the boy. But after reading it over twice and feeling his heart breaking once more, he had walked over to the fire and thrown the letter into the flames, never telling Scott or anyone else of its contents.
The horse shifted underneath him as he watched the men moving a herd of cattle to a new pasture, and his heart filled with pride as he spied his son Scott. The sandy haired young man sat his horse with practiced grace, and was at ease with man and beast. The men respected him as a top hand and as a fair boss. Murdoch was content knowing that the ranch would be in good hands if something happened to him.
Paul, a loyal friend and the ranch foreman, walked his horse up the slope to join his boss. “Good bunch of calves this year, looks like.”
Murdoch nodded. “If nothing goes wrong, we should be able to buy the Parker ranch after we get this year’s bunch to market. That’ll give us another water source and a better chance of riding out any drought.”
Paul watched the cattle and horses milling around and then turned to Murdoch with a sly grin. “And it’ll give Scott a chance to try his hand at those new fangled irrigation methods he’s been achin’ ta try.”
Murdoch laughed. “I knew I shouldn’t have let him go to that school.”
Paul joined his boss’ laughter. They both knew that sending Scott back east to school had at one time been the cause of a major rift between father and son. At the time, Scott had fought tooth and nail against going, reasoning that he could learn everything there was to know right here on the ranch. His father had been adamant, however, and wanted the best for his son, including the chance to learn about new ideas. Scott had been sent to live with his grandfather in Boston while he attended school, and in the end, Scott had come home from college and thanked his father.
Murdoch continued to watch the young man that he was so proud of, but his thoughts strayed unbidden to his other boy. He snorted softly. Not a boy any longer, and from what he knew, he hadn’t been a boy for a long time. The short note had said he was making a living as a gunfighter. The report said that they didn’t have any specifics yet, but would forward them as soon as they knew. He had immediately written back, telling them to stop the investigation, that he didn’t want to know any more. He shook his head. A gunfighter. A man who sold his soul for money. What in God’s name could have happened to make his sweet boy turn out that way? Murdoch shook his head. He’d probably never know.
Johnny woke up the next morning and broke camp, working automatically as he thought about which direction he wanted to go. Not that it really mattered; he would find work no matter which way he went. There were a lot of range wars going on right now where a man with his talents could make some good money. But the prospect of yet another fight and more bloodshed no longer held the lure that it used to. Now that he was at the top, now that he could ask any price and take his pick of jobs, he found that he was tired of the game. He hated the death that always surrounded him and longed for a different life.
Unlike a lot of other gunfighters, he had never enjoyed the killing; it was simply a means to an end. A way out of the poverty and abuse that had marked his life for as long as he could remember. A way to gain respect. But the killing had always made him feel sick inside. Every man that had died at his hand had taken a little bit of his soul with him, and he was afraid there wasn’t much left. He had tried to abide by his own moral code; he never drew first, he never killed a man that wasn’t trying to kill him, he never shot a man from ambush or in the back. And he really tried to hire on to the “right” side in any disputes. Most of the money that he earned went to orphanages or churches to help the poor, anonymously of course. They wouldn’t want the money if they knew who was donating it. He figured it wasn’t enough to save his soul, but it was the best he could do.
As he grew older, he came to realize that his mother had been a lousy parent and nothing but a tramp, going from man to man, and doing or agreeing to anything as long as they would support her. Most of the men in her life had not appreciated the young half -breed boy that came with her. The beatings and abuse that they had showered on him was barely acknowledged by his mother; she was too wrapped up in her own self- pity to worry about him. She had never really been a mother to him, and when no one else was around to support her she expected him to bring home enough for her to eat. Since few people would hire a boy his age for honest work, he usually resorted to stealing.
He remembered one Christmas when he was eight years old and she kept complaining about how hungry she was. Spurred on by her whining and his own growling stomach, he had finally left the shack and tried to steal some food from a nearby cafe. He had been caught by the burly owner, and had been given a good beating before being handed over to the law. Several hours later, she had come crying and complaining to the jail where he was being held. In front of the sheriff, she had lectured him about stealing, but when the lawman had left the two of them alone, she had asked if he had managed to get any food. He had taken a lone piece of bread out of its hiding place under his shirt, and handed it to her. She had then left him in the jail without a word or a backwards glance.
Johnny smiled sadly. Actually, that had turned out to be the best Christmas he could ever remember. The sheriff and his wife had let him come to their house for dinner, and he had eaten until he thought he would burst. They had even given him a new shirt before they turned him loose to go back on the streets. That couple had been two of only a handful of people that had ever shown him kindness in his young life. He had learned not to trust anyone or to let anyone get too close to him a long time ago. He had learned that lesson early and well. The only things on this earth that he trusted beside himself were his gun and his horse. He had learned the hard way that it was safer that way.
Saddling up the Buckskin, he mounted and let Pete have his head. The gelding headed west, so west it would be.
He crossed the river from Arizona into California five days later. He had heard there was some trouble brewing up above Sacramento, so he would go to Los Angeles and then turn north. He had always avoided Central California before, because supposedly that is where his father lived, and he had no desire to run in to that man, at least not yet. He had promised himself when he was little that he would kill Murdoch Lancer when he got older, and he still figured that he might keep that promise one day. His mother had told him how the man had kicked them both out because he didn’t want a Mexican wife and a half-breed son. She had blamed all of their problems on the man, and Johnny had heard the stories of the man’s abuse his whole life.
As he rode north of Los Angeles, he kept thinking about his father. The name Murdoch Lancer was not unknown to him; as owner of one of the largest ranches on the west coast, even drifters like him heard the name frequently. He had always made it a point to listen to every scrap of information concerning the man, and it was a little unsettling to discover that not many people had the same low opinion of him that Johnny’s mother had. Most people thought of him as hard but fair and honest to a fault; an upstanding citizen. Johnny shook his head. He knew that looks could be deceiving. He had worked for numerous “upstanding citizens”, and usually they weren’t quite as upstanding as people thought – they were just able to hide their dirty laundry better than most people. He figured that a man as wealthy as Lancer had a lot of dirty laundry, and he wondered if any of the rancher’s high class friends knew about his half breed son. A smile formed on his lips as he imagined his father’s face if he found out just who and what Johnny was. Johnny shook his head and the smile slowly faded. He needed to forget about Lancer and keep his mind on business, or he’d wind up dead.
Johnny rode into the small town of Oakdale a week later. He arrived at night and went straight to the small hotel. When he walked in, he kept his hat pulled down hoping no one would recognize him. All he wanted was to get a hot bath, a decent meal, and a good night’s sleep. Luck was with him and he was able to get a room, with a promise of dinner and a hot bath to be sent up later from the half asleep night clerk who didn’t even bother to look him in the face. Johnny wearily climbed the stairs, his saddlebags slung over his shoulder. He paused outside the door and cautiously pushed open the door to his room, his right hand resting on the butt of his gun. A quick glance inside told him there was no danger, and he visibly relaxed. He went to the window and looked out, then carefully laid his gear and hat on the chair next to the bed before plopping down on the bed to wait for the tub and his dinner to be brought up.
An hour later, after a leisurely soak in the tub, he regretfully got out and put on some clean clothes before eating his waiting steak. He wasn’t really sleepy and thought of going downstairs and checking out the saloon, but he knew that would be pressing his luck. He carefully checked his gun before hanging it on the bedpost within easy reach, then, with a sigh, he lay down on the bed and soon fell asleep.
When he handed the key in late the next morning, the clerk glanced at him before asking, “You lookin’ for a job?”
At Johnny’s shrug, the clerk went on. “I hear the Lancer Ranch is hirin’. Ya might try there if you’re interested.”
Johnny carefully kept his gunfighter mask firmly in place. “Is that so?”
“Yep” the clerk replied. “They need some good hands to help with the cattle round up this next week.”
Johnny relaxed. The clerk hadn’t noticed his low-slung gun. “And where would I find the ranch, supposin’ I’m interested?”
“About forty miles due north,” the clerk answered. “Ya can’t miss it.”
Johnny walked slowly over to the saloon for lunch before he left. He still hadn’t made up his mind what to do. Part of him wanted to ride out and confront his father while another part just wanted to forget the whole thing and get out of town.
He hesitated just outside the saloon, glancing in to the interior and sizing up the occupants. It was second nature to him not to just walk into any building or room without checking it out for possible troublemakers and without mapping out escape routes. Once reassured that there were no obvious problems, he stepped confidently into the bar and sauntered over to a corner table where he sat in his usual position with his back facing the wall.
Scott Lancer stepped wearily off of the stage. He had been planning on getting home today, but the loose wheel on the coach had put an end to his plans and dumped him in the small town of Oakdale instead of taking him to Green River. He supposed he could get a horse and ride the rest of the way, but he wouldn’t make it by nightfall, and the overcast sky would make it virtually impossible to cut across country at night. Besides, he was looking forward to a hot meal and an even hotter bath. There was nothing pressing at home, and he could wait to leave until the stage was ready in the morning. First though, he was going to go to the saloon and ease the trail dust from his throat.
He had been on a trip for his father to check out a purebred bull that had been described as the buy of the century. Murdoch Lancer was always on the lookout for a bargain, so he had sent his son to check it out. Unfortunately, the trip had been a waste of both time and money, as the bull was nothing like it had been portrayed. The trip itself had been long and tiring. The stage had stayed over in several small towns along the route, and Scott had been so bored that he had actually purchased several dime novels to reading in the evenings. He chuckled, remembering a couple of the stories. One had been about a mountain man who actually had a grizzly bear for a pet. It seemed the bear was smarter than most people, at least it was in the story, and more loyal than any dog. The other story that he had read was about a gunfighter named Johnny Madrid. He had heard the name before, who hadn’t? But the tales and legends described in this book were so outlandish they could be nothing more than the imagination of a desperate author. They had been entertaining, however, and had kept him from having to socialize with the other passengers; an obnoxious salesman who insisted that everyone could use some of his famous hair tonic and a brittle old spinster who had a bible verse to quote for every comment or incident.
Scott stepped through the swinging doors of the saloon and chose a table in the middle of the room, facing the window. It was fairly early in the afternoon, and the bar was nearly empty. The only other people there were a couple of intensely serious poker players and a sullen, dark haired young man sitting alone at a corner table. Scott motioned to the bartender, who brought over a bottle and a somewhat clean glass. Scott hesitantly took a sip, but to his surprise the whisky was pretty good quality and he took several swallows before relaxing back in his chair and looking around. He glanced over at the young man and was met with a sarcastic smile, as if the boy were daring him to say something. Scott looked away and shook his head. The boy hardly seemed old enough to be sitting in a bar drinking, but it was none of his business. He knew it was a good way for a young man to get into trouble, and he wondered idly if the boy’s father knew where his son was.
Scott hadn’t even finished his drink when the batwing doors flew open and a couple of scruffy looking men walked in. After taking a quick look around, they sauntered belligerently up to the bar. For a few minutes they were busy quenching their thirst, but that soon lost its novelty and they began looking around for some other type of entertainment.
The larger man, who had bright red hair, looked appraisingly at Scott for a long moment, then spied the young man in the corner and glanced back and forth between the two, as if deciding which one to focus his attention on. Finally, he seemed to make up his mind and nudged his friend. “Lookee here, Vern, we got us a damn half breed sittin’ in our bar,” he said with a nod toward Johnny.
The other man nodded. “Yep, Clyde, it sure looks that way.”
Clyde walked over to the table where the young man was sitting. “You’re sittin’ in our place, boy. Now you’d best be getting’ yur rear outta that chair.”
Johnny looked up and met the man’s gaze as he played with his glass with his left hand. “Nope.”
Scott stood up and came over, hoping to save the boy some grief. “Why don’t you gentlemen sit here,” he asked, motioning to where he had been sitting.
Scott glanced at the young man and was amazed to see another sardonic grin creep across his face as their eyes met.
“I tell ya what, why don’t everybody sit down and have a drink and let bygones be bygones,” the boy said.
Clyde turned nearly purple. “I ain’t gonna drink with no half breed whelp. Now get outta my chair!”
Johnny’s voice turned cold. “Mister, you really don’t want to start nothin, believe me. Now all I want to do is finish my beer, and then you can have the chair, O.K?”
Scott opened his mouth to speak, and the young man glared at him “You stay outta this, I don’t need no help, understand?”
Scott closed his mouth and studied the boy. He was of average height and nineteen, maybe twenty years old. Certainly not intimidating physically. But there was something about him that reminded Scott of a rattlesnake ready to strike. The young man was doing his best to warn these two idiots off, and Scott had the distinct feeling that if it came down to it, the boy was capable of defending himself.
Clyde’s friend decided to speak up. “Boy, you got one minute to get outta that chair or…”
“Or what?” the reply came like a pistol shot.
“Or you’ll have to fight the both of us, and I don’t think ya want ta do that.”
Johnny leaned back in his chair and appraised the two of them, taking in the guns worn down low to intimidate, but strapped way too loosely to be useful. Their hands were rough from ranch work, not smooth like a gunfighter’s, and Johnny knew they didn’t have a prayer against him. “Ain’t my first choice, I hate an uneven fight, but if you insist, let’s go.” He inclined his head towards the doors.
“You callin us both out?” Clyde said in disbelief.
“Nope. I just want to finish my beer. You’re the ones that want to dance.”
Clyde’s expression darkened. “I think you’re the one that’s goin ta be dancin’, he spat. “Let’s go.”
Scott couldn’t help but speak up once more. The unfairness of the odds galled at him. “The two of you are going to face him together? Don’t you care about a fair fight?”
Johnny turned and gave him another grin. “Give it up. They’d have to get at least three more to make it fair, and I doubt if these two have that many friends.”
Scott’s mouth dropped open at the boy’s reply, but Clyde made a strangled noise. “Oh, you are gonna regret those words, BOY. You’re goin’ down.”
Johnny smiled. “Doubt it.” He looked at the bartender. “Ya better get what these guys owe ya now, before it’s too late,” he said as he turned and walked out of the bar.
Somehow the word had gotten out that there was to be a gunfight and people came out of the stores and other businesses to watch. A gunfight was a rare occurrence in this town, and anything to break up the monotony was a welcome relief. Scott walked out of the saloon grudgingly. He didn’t want to see the young man gunned down. It just wasn’t fair. The boy had done his best to get out of the fight, but the two older men had pushed him into a corner. Scott didn’t want to see it, but at the same time, he was irresistibly drawn to the unfolding drama.
He came out and stood on the sidewalk with a few other people. The young man had taken advantage of getting out of the saloon first to take up a choice position with his back to the sun. Scott felt a tiny glimmer of hope. Maybe if at least one of the men missed, the boy would have some kind of chance. He looked at the young man. Something about the boy had changed imperceptibly. He was standing nonchalantly in the center of the street, as though he didn’t have a care in the world, and his eyes bored into his opponents’ with a steely self-assurance. There wasn’t a hint of fear; just nonchalance as if this were an everyday occurrence and the outcome was preordained. And in that instant, Scott knew the other two men were already dead. And that was when he heard the whispers. Just an utterance here and there at first, and then as the word spread, more and more excitement filled the air.
And finally, the key to the riddle. “Madrid.” The name was spoken in awe and almost reverence.
Scott couldn’t believe he was really seeing the legendary Johnny Madrid. That young kid? A legend? There had to be some mistake. But when the boy’s gun blazed a moment later, he knew it was true. Although Clyde had made the first move, he was dead before his fingers could even touch the gun. The second man died a millisecond later, with his fingers wrapped around the holster-encased revolver.
Madrid stood there a moment, and then walked casually to his horse and mounted. As he turned his mount around, he gave a flip smile to Scott, and then he was gone.
Murdoch watched from the great room as the young man rode his mount into the yard and wearily dismounted. He could see the tired droop to his son’s shoulders and the preoccupied look on his face. Murdoch stood up just as Scott entered the house.
“Everything O.K?” Murdoch asked worriedly.
Scott shrugged wearily, and then plopped down on the couch. “The bull wasn’t worth the trip.”
Murdoch nodded, and studied the young man intently. “Is there anything else wrong?”
Scott looked at Murdoch for a moment, and then shook his head. “No, just tired. I guess I’ll go wash up.” Scott stood up to go then looked at his father as if about to speak, then changed his mind once again and continued on to the stairs.
Scott had been trying to forget about the incident in Oakdale, but for some reason he couldn’t get it out of his mind. He wondered how a man Johnny’s age could possibly be so lethal. What could have happened in his short life to turn him towards such a career? Scott shook his head. What really bothered him was that he had instinctively liked the young man. There was something about him that drew Scott to him, and in any other circumstance, they might have been friends. He snorted. Oh, that would be great. He could just see himself introducing Johnny Madrid to his father. He chuckled in spite of himself, feeling a little better.
An hour later, Scott joined his father, Paul, and the foreman’s daughter, Teresa for dinner. Murdoch watched his son worriedly. There was something bothering the young man, but he knew that Scott would bring it up in his own time.
After dinner, Murdoch and Scott retired to the great room, where Murdoch poured his son a healthy portion of brandy before joining him on the couch. He watched Scott wrestle with something for a few minutes before he turned to his father. “I saw something the other day.”
Murdoch waited for him to continue.
Scott played with the lip of his glass. ‘What causes some men to become killers?’ he mused.
Murdoch was surprised by the question. “I don’t know, son. What happened?”
Scott shook his head. “The stage stopped in Oakdale for the night. I went into the saloon for a drink, and there was this boy sitting there. He was maybe nineteen. A couple of other men walked in and started harassing him. He tried to talk them into quitting, but they just kept on. Before you knew it, the three of them were on the street, facing each other.”
“Both men facing one boy?” Murdoch asked. At Scott’s nod, Murdoch shook his head in disgust. “I don’t know, Scott. Sometimes I think some men are just plain born bad. Didn’t anyone try to stop it?”
Scott smiled slightly, remembering Madrid’s retort to him when he had tried. “I tried, but the kid told me to stay out of it. He told me he didn’t need any help.”
Murdoch sighed. “Too afraid of losing face, I guess.” He snorted. “So instead he lost his life.”
Scott looked at him a little queerly. “No he didn’t.” At his father’s raised eyebrow, he continued. “Pa, I’ve never seen anything like it. This kid was standing out there like he owned the street, and nobody was arguing. He was so cool and confident…bored, almost. Like he’d done it a hundred times.” Scott mused, “I guess he has.”
“What are you talking about?
Scott looked at his father. “Johnny Madrid. He took those two men down before they could even clear leather. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
Murdoch watched his son for a moment. “You say he was only a kid? With his reputation, I would have thought he was a lot older.”
“Me too. But if he was twenty yet, I’ll eat my hat.”
Murdoch shook his head slowly. “I don’t know what drives a man to become a gunfighter.” To himself he added, “I wish I did.’
Scott sighed. “I guess we’ll never know.”
The next several months were filled with hard work. The fall roundup was a success, even though they had lost quite a few cattle to mysterious circumstances. When they returned home after the drive, Paul informed them that there had been some trouble at home, as well. Some cattle had been rustled, a few outbuildings burned, but generally just minor irritations. So far. That was what Murdoch was worried about. He knew there was a band of land pirates that seemed to be working their way down the state. They would take over several small ranches in an area by force, and then use those as a base of operations to attack the larger ranches. So far, no one seemed to be able to stop them, and several good men had died trying. They were led by a man by the name of Day Pardee, who was by all accounts a very shrewd and ruthless opponent, one that would go to any length to achieve his goal. All year Murdoch had kept an alert and nervous eye on the surrounding ranches to make sure that Pardee was still well north of Lancer.
The first real sign of trouble in the area came just after Halloween. A small ranch just east of Spanish Wells was attacked. The rancher and his wife were killed, as was all the stock, and the ranch buildings were burned to the ground. Murdoch called a meeting of the ranchers in the area, to try to come up with a plan to defend all of them. Most of the small landowners weren’t willing to stand up to such a determined opponent, and decided that selling out or simply abandoning their property was the best choice. Two of the larger ranches decided to join forces with Murdoch and defend their land. They drew up a schedule of patrols that would circle all of the property at regular intervals, to try to find out if and when the attacks would come.
After the meeting, all that was left was to go home and wait. Murdoch made sure that no one, especially the women, went into town alone, and the men were sent out in groups to work. For a while, all was quiet. Then, two weeks before Thanksgiving, the nearby Collins ranch was attacked without warning. The Collins family managed to escape, but their house and property were destroyed.
Knowing that Lancer was still powerful, Pardee took his time. He would stage an occasional raid, and then back off and go into hiding for a few days. In between, he would try to scare off the hands, succeeding a good portion of the time.
Now it was a few days before Thanksgiving, and Murdoch, Paul, and Scott were sitting in the great room discussing what to do about Pardee. Every suggestion and idea that the men came up with had either been tried or was impractical.
Paul was the one that finally defined the problem. “The trouble is, we don’t know what we’re doing. And, we’re not ruthless enough. We’re trying to play by the rules and we expect Pardee to do the same, but it doesn’t work that way. We have to outsmart him, not just outfight him. We have to know what he’s thinking and how he operates before we stand a chance.”
Murdoch looked at him in frustration. “And just how are we going to do that? Unless there’s something in your background that you’re not telling me, you don’t know how a man like Pardee thinks, and I know that Scott and I certainly don’t. Anybody that WOULD know, I wouldn’t want around.” Murdoch sighed. “We’ll just have to try to guess.”
Scott shook his head impatiently. “That’s worked real well, hasn’t it? We’re down to a handful of men, most of our neighbors have been driven out, and our stock is being stolen almost at will.”
Murdoch blew up. “What do you suggest? We’ve done everything we can possibly do. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.”
Scott lowered his head so he could think. Slowly, an idea began to form. He looked up at his father. “We need someone who can think like Pardee, right?”
Murdoch grudgingly nodded.
“All right, then let’s hire someone,” Scott suggested.
Murdoch shook his head. “Scott, we’ve already hired everybody there is to hire around here. Anybody that can handle a gun is either already working for us or has been scared off or killed.”
Scott shook his head impatiently. “I don’t mean from around here. I’m talking about somebody really good. A professional.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “A gunfighter?”
Scott nodded his head. “Why not? We just decided that our methods aren’t working, that the rules sometimes have to be broken. So let’s play by THEIR rules for a change.” He smiled slightly. “They say ‘All’s fair in love and war.’”
Paul nodded in agreement, but before he could respond, Murdoch jumped to his feet. “NO! I will not have any gunfighters in this house. Do you understand?”
Scott also jumped to his feet to face his father. “Why not? He’d be an employee. That’s all. It’s not like we have to be friends with him or anything. He’d be here to do a job, period. And if we are going to stand a chance against Pardee, then I don’t think we have a choice.”
Murdoch glowered at his son and then turned to his friend. “Paul, you tell him.”
Paul hesitated and then spoke in a calm voice. “I think it’s a good idea, actually.”
Murdoch stared at his friend. “You can’t mean that.”
“Murdoch, we have our backs against the wall. We either have to try something drastic, or we have to admit defeat.”
“You can’t mean to tell me that you would be comfortable with a hired killer around? What about Teresa? Aren’t you going to think about her?”
Paul lowered his head. “I am.” He said quietly. “I saw what Pardee’s bunch did to the wife of that rancher up by Spanish Wells, remember?”
It was Murdoch’s turn to lower his head. He took a deep breath. “I don’t approve. I think we’re making a huge mistake. But if you both agree that we should try it, I won’t stop it.” He looked at his son. “But you’re the one that’s going to deal with him, understand? You hire him, and if it’s necessary, you fire him.”
Scott nodded his understanding.
Paul looked at Scott quizzically. “Do you have any idea who to hire?”
Scott smiled slightly. “Oh yes, I know who, I’m just not sure how.”
Johnny sat in a saloon in Modesto, trying to figure out where to go. He had hired on in a small range war that was more bark than anything else. He smiled as he remembered what had happened. The men that hired him could have saved themselves a lot of money if they’d just showed some backbone before he got there. As soon as he’d hired on, the boss had started struttin’ around and threatening the man who was after his water, and a week later the other man had backed down without a fuss. Johnny had been hoping that the job would last a little longer, but at least he was alive and unhurt.
He thought about maybe joining up with Day. There was probably some decent money to be had; Pardee knew what he was doing and ran a tight operation. They had run into each other a while back and Pardee had offered him a cut in the action, but Day’s idea of action made Johnny a little nervous. Somehow, when Day was in charge, things always got a little out of hand. He frowned. Usually a whole lot out of hand, he corrected himself.
There was always Mexico, he thought to himself, and then shook his head. The peasants were kicking up a fuss and another revolution was brewing. Probably no money to be had from either side. Still, it might be better than joining up with Pardee. He sighed tiredly. Lately, it didn’t really matter to him where he went. He was tired. Tired of always moving, of always looking over his shoulder, of always being alone. It had seemed so glamorous at first. Everyone treated gunfighters with kid gloves. Free drinks, free food, and hell, even free women. A gunfighter could ride into town and get just about anything he wanted, one way or another.
He lowered his head. It had gotten old pretty quickly. He would trade it all in a heartbeat for a real home, not that it would ever happen. He sighed, and wondered what it would have been like to grow up with a home and a family. He smiled as he remembered that he HAD had a brother when he was growing up. Every time he got into trouble his brother was there. His brother would help him out of scrapes, sneak him food, play games with him, and sometimes even take the punishment that should have been his. He shook his head and smiled. Too bad he was imaginary.
He glanced up as the doors to the saloon opened and a man stepped in. It took Johnny a second to place him, and then he remembered. Oakdale. He watched as the blonde looked around and finally spotted him. The man approached the table where Johnny was sitting and inclined his head towards one of the chairs. “Mind if I sit?”
Johnny studied him for a second, then took his foot and kicked out a chair towards the man.
Scott sat down. “What’re you drinking?”
Scott’s eyebrows rose at the mention of that foul drink, but he figured it was for a good cause. He motioned to the bartender, who scurried over with a bottle and another glass.
Johnny was just taking a drink when Scott held out his hand and introduced himself. “Scott Lancer.”
With a superhuman effort, Johnny managed to only partially choke on the swallow he was taking. He immediately ducked his head and studied the glass in his hand.
“Any relation to Murdoch Lancer?” he asked with studied indifference.
“He’s my father.”
Johnny slowly raised his head and looked at the man. Figuring quickly, he decided that the man sitting across from him was about three years older than he was. His mother had never mentioned an older brother, but she had told him that Murdoch had been married once before. Chalk another one up to his mother.
Scott studied the man sitting across from him. The gunfighter’s reaction to the name Lancer was not lost on him. “Do you know my father?”
Johnny’s blue eyes locked on the lighter blue eyes of the other man. “No, I’ve never met him.”
Scott returned the gaze. “You’ve heard the name.”
Johnny dropped his eyes. “Ain’t many people in California that ain’t heard the name Lancer.”
Scott nodded at the explanation. “I sure had a hard time finding you. I had everyone I know trying to track you down. I’d just about given up.”
Johnny studied his glass once again. “What do you want?”
Scott took a deep breath. “We want to hire you.”
Johnny froze. “We?”
“Yes, we’re having trouble with some land pirates, and want to know if you’ll help us out.”
Johnny leaned back in his chair and studied the man. He had to ask. “Why me?”
“Because you’re the best. I saw that for myself, remember?”
Johnny dropped his head. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was just a stupid coincidence. They didn’t even know who he was. He shook his head. This was impossible.
His expression hardened. “Go home, Scott. Go home to your FATHER.” He stood up and started to walk away when he felt the hand on his arm. The gun was out of its holster and pointed at Scott’s face in an instant, but Scott never faltered. Johnny looked at him like he was crazy. No one touched him like that, not any more. “Get your hand off of me, now,” he growled.
Scott was aware of the hushed expectancy of the rest of the customers. He slowly released his hold, but held Madrid’s eyes. “I’m offering you a job. If you can save our ranch for us, it will be very much worth your while.”
Johnny grinned sardonically. “And if I can’t?”
Scott gazed into those blue eyes. “Then you’ll have to get the money somewhere else, because my father and I will be dead.”
Johnny studied the man once more. “These land pirates that you’re talkin’ about. It wouldn’t happen to be a man called Day Pardee, would it?”
Scott nodded. “Do you know him?”
“Oh, yes, I know him. He’s a gunfighter and he’s pretty good. I’d say you have some kind of trouble all right.”
Scott waited, and when the other man offered nothing more, he asked, “Well, will you help us?”
Johnny appraised the man once more. “I’ll think about it. If I ain’t there in a week, I ain’t comin.”
Scott nodded. “All right. But a week may be too late.” He held out his hand, but Johnny just settled his hat on his head and walked off.
Scott was once more sitting in the great room with his father and Paul. He had filled them in on the meeting with Madrid, and his father was not impressed.
“So he turned you down.”
Scott glared up at Murdoch. “No he didn’t. He said he’d think about it, and if he wasn’t here in a week, then we’d know he wasn’t coming.”
Murdoch shook his head angrily. “I knew this was a bad idea. How do you know he wasn’t already working for Pardee? If he is, then Pardee knows what we’re trying to do.”
“I don’t think he is. I think he’s more honorable than that.”
Murdoch snorted. “Honorable? A gunfighter? You’ve got to be joking, Scott.”
“Why? Why can’t a gunfighter be honest and have morals?
Murdoch totally lost his temper. “Because they can’t, that’s why! Because they’re nothing but wanton killers! Because there’s nothing good about any of them. Do you understand? ANY of them!”
Scott and Paul exchanged a look and Paul shrugged his shoulders.
Scott kept his tone quiet. “Why are you so sure of that? Why do you hate gunfighters so much?”
Murdoch simply shook his head. After sitting in silence for several moments, he slowly raised his head, his eyes filled with tears. “Because they killed your brother.”
Scott looked up in shock. “He’s dead?”
When Murdoch didn’t answer him, Scott went over and stood next to his father. “Answer me! Is my brother dead?”
“Yes…probably. If not he might as well be,” Murdoch whispered.
Scott looked at him in confusion. “What are you talking about? You don’t even know?” Then Scott’s eyes narrowed. “Or do you?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No, I don’t know where he is, or even if he’s still alive. It’s doubtful, though.” At Scott’s look, Murdoch decided to tell his son the truth. “I received a letter from the Pinkerton’s a little over three years ago.”
“Three years ago, and you didn’t tell me?” Scott interrupted.
“Let me finish,” Murdoch snapped. “The letter said that Maria had been dead for quite a few years, but her son, at least at that point, was alive. They said he’d become a...” Murdoch closed his eyes. “…a gunfighter.”
Scott was outraged. “And you never told me? What else did that letter say?”
“But they had to know something.”
Murdoch met his son’s eyes. “They said that they had proof that he was working as a hired gun down in Mexico, and a more detailed report with specifics would follow. I sent them a telegram back and told them not to send me any more information. I figured it was already too late, and I didn’t want to hear about when he…he…” his voice trailed off.
“You never even tried to contact him, did you?”
Murdoch dropped his head. “Scott, you don’t understand. I couldn’t bring a man like that here. He was already beyond hope.”
“Beyond hope! He was sixteen years old! How could you just abandon him like that?”
“Scott, no matter what you may think, it was too late for your brother. Men like that don’t change. He was a killer. I just thank god that Maria didn’t take you, too.”
Scott’s mind was whirling. “He could be alive, then,” he said hopefully.
Murdoch shook his head sadly. “Three years is a long time. Most gunfighters don’t live three months. He would have had to be very, very good to have lived this long.”
Scott wasn’t going to give up. “It’s possible. Maybe he was….IS good.”
Murdoch met his son’s eyes. “Have you ever heard of a gunfighter named John Lancer? Good or otherwise? And Scott, why do you think I didn’t want Madrid to come here?” At his son’s perplexed look, Murdoch explained. “He could have been the one to…” Murdoch’s voice trailed off.
Scott dropped his head as realization hit. It wasn’t fair. His whole life he’d thought about his little brother. What he’d say to him when he got home, the things that they’d do together. He just couldn’t believe it. He closed his eyes and felt the dreams crumbling to dust.
Johnny slouched next to the fire, staring into the flames. He had left town a few hours after his encounter with Scott Lancer. Johnny shook his head. His brother. He smiled to himself. He’d wanted a brother his whole life, and now that he had one, he had no idea what to do with him. The smile grew wider as he had visions of forcing Scott Lancer to play kick the can with him at gunpoint.
He sighed and the smile slowly died as he thought about the problem at hand. He still didn’t have the vaguest idea whether to take the job or not. Part of him wanted to join Pardee –it would serve old man Lancer right. It sure would be a hell of a way to get even, and he had dreamed of revenge for a long, long time. But what Scott had said bothered him for some reason. That if they lost, he and his father would both be dead. He dropped his head as he thought about it. It shouldn’t worry him; he had threatened to put a bullet through Lancer’s heart himself more than once. But for some reason it did bother him. Maybe it was because of Scott. That day in Oakdale, he had taken a liking to him, and that didn’t happen with too many people. He smiled as he remembered how Scott Lancer had tried to stop those two saddle tramps from picking on him. Boy did he get a surprise. Johnny shook his head again. This wasn’t getting him any closer to a solution, and he needed to make a decision tonight.
He figured he could get along all right with Scott; it was the Old Man that was bothering him. He didn’t know if he could work for his father without his hatred for the man interfering with the job. He snorted. He was supposed to be a professional, and he hadn’t let his emotions interfere with a job for a long time. He guessed he could probably keep them under control if he wanted to. But did he want to? Crossing Pardee was the last mistake a lot of good men had made, and from what Scott had said, it didn’t sound like Lancer had much of a chance. If he had any brains, he’d go ahead and join up with Pardee and see Lancer in Hell. He laughed as he admitted to himself that he had never been known for his brains, and that his curiosity was going to win out.
He had crossed the Lancer boundary over two miles back, and there was still no sign of any sentries. Earlier, he had stopped at the saloon in Spanish Wells just to get a feel for what was happening in the area. Thanks to a couple of loud cowboys at the next table, it had only taken a little while to figure out that Scott Lancer had been telling him the truth and that the Lancer ranch was in big trouble. He found out that Pardee had already pretty much taken over the little town of Morro Coyo and seemed to be running his operation from there, only a few miles from the Lancer property line. Pardee had frightened off or killed most of Lancer’s hands, leaving only a handful of dedicated men who were being run ragged by having to do both their regular ranch work and nightly patrols. Johnny figured the men were so tired that even the most loyal of them were probably using the patrol time to get some much-needed shuteye. He would probably be able to ride right up to the house without being seen.
He had waited until nightfall to try getting any closer to the main house; he knew there would be plenty of moonlight that night to help him make his way in. He was moving cautiously just in case, and besides, he wanted to see just how close he could come to the Lancer house before he was spotted. That should tell him just how well things were being run so far. After several hundred more yards, he finally spotted a lone sentry, asleep with his back to a large rock. Shaking his head, he decided to skirt the house and see what else he could find.
Two hours later, he knew all there was to know about Lancer’s defenses, and he hadn’t been spotted even once. He had been able to easily avoid the patrols; the men were talking to each other and making no attempt at stealth. Rather than be happy about the circumstances, Johnny was deeply troubled. If Pardee chose to attack right now, the people on the ranch would be sitting ducks. He wasn’t sure why Pardee was waiting. If it were him, he would have tackled the ranch as soon as he found out how weak it actually was. He would have to find out what was going on in Day’s head, and soon.
Johnny sat on the hill overlooking the house, just enough down from the crest so that his silhouette couldn’t easily be seen in the moonlight. It was a huge house, actually a grand hacienda. He wondered what it would have been like growing up in a house like that, then immediately scolded himself for that thought. ‘You’ve come here for a job, that’s all Johnny; keep your mind on business.’ He left Pete tied up in some scrub bush where he wouldn’t be easily seen and started down the hill.
He avoided the front entrance, and instead slipped in the kitchen door, assuming correctly that the cook would be sloppy about keeping it locked, even if she’d been told to. He walked quietly through the kitchen and cautiously opened the door into a large room where the family was gathered. He noticed Scott seated on a couch reading a book; no surprise there, he thought. At the opposite end of the couch sat a young girl, maybe sixteen. She was totally absorbed in darning some socks.
His eyes were drawn to the other side of the room where two men were involved in a game of chess. Both of the men were about the same age and he tried to decide which one was his father, but at this point it was impossible to tell. He’d find out soon enough. He smiled. If his mother had told the truth for once, his old man would be the one with the loudest voice and the worst temper.
He noticed that they were all unarmed, the rifles neatly hung on a rack in the corner and the sidearms hanging from hooks by the front door. He shook his head in disgust. He had the distinct feeling he was going to regret trying to help them.
He took a deep breath and stepped into the room, waiting to see how long it would be until someone noticed him. It took almost a minute before the girl glanced up and gasped. The three men jumped to their feet, all of them glancing in the direction of their secured guns.
The white haired man made a move towards his desk, and Johnny’s gun was out before the man could even take a step. The rancher stared at him. “Who are you? What do you want?” he bellowed. Johnny smiled; his mother hadn’t lied after all.
Johnny motioned towards Scott. “He knows.” He looked at the younger Lancer and then smirked, “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
Scott, his daze broken, nodded towards the girl. “This is Teresa and her father, Paul O’Brien.” Johnny tipped his hat at the girl and nodded towards O’Brien. Scott continued, “And this is my father, Murdoch Lancer. Everyone, this is the man I told you about. Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny turned and looked at his father. The older man and the young one stared at each other for an eternity before Murdoch found his voice. “How DARE you come sneaking into MY home. I want you to get out now! We don’t need you, now or ever! Now GET OUT!”
Johnny felt his temper beginning to boil over and he made a conscious effort to calm down. He stared back at the older man and slowly lowered his gun. “You may not want me here, but you DO need me.”
Murdoch took a step forward. “We DON’T need you. You’re just a punk kid with a big mouth.”
Scott stepped between the two men and turned to his father. “Pa, stop. We already discussed this. We need somebody to help us with Pardee.”
Murdoch looked past his son and pointed at Johnny. “We don’t need HIM. He’s too damn young to do us any good anyway. He’s just a kid. We need someone with experience.”
Johnny’s eyes turned hard as he glared back at Murdoch Lancer. “Let me tell you something, OLD MAN, I ain’t been a kid since I was five years old. And as for experience, I got more than enough. You got eighteen men not countin’ the three of you. Four of ‘em are sleepin’ in the bunkhouse without their guns, ten men are out patrolling right now, and half of those are sleepin’. The other half are makin’ enough noise to wake the dead. They’re ridin’ about a mile out in a rough circle around the buildings, and changin’ directions every other pass. Ya got a man on the top of the barn, a man on the road to Morro Coyo in that bunch of rocks about three miles from town, and two on top of the house, both of them by the way, are facin’ the wrong way. You got your guns locked up where ya can’t get to em, and your doors are unlocked. And your house is lit up like a saloon on Saturday night.” Johnny stopped and drew a breath. “I came out here because I don’t like seein’ innocent people slaughtered, and that’s just what’s gonna happen. Pardee’s goin’ ta take this place, no trouble.” He looked at Scott. “Fix those things, and you might, and I mean MIGHT stand a chance.”
Johnny turned and walked out of the house, leaving the three men standing in shocked silence.
The three men looked at each other before Scott jumped up and went to the door that Johnny had just disappeared through. Before he snatched it open he turned to his father. “I am going to TRY to convince him to come back. If you have any sense, you’ll pray that I’m successful.” The door slammed as Scott went to find Johnny.
Murdoch went to the sideboard and poured two drinks, handing one to Paul before sitting down next to him. His thoughts were a million miles away. Why had he reacted that way to the young man? There was something about him…. Murdoch dragged his mind back to the present. “Do you really think that he can help us?”
Paul snorted. “From what I just heard, he’s exactly what we need.”
Murdoch sighed, and then said almost to himself. “He’s so young.”
Scott caught up with Johnny in the yard and found himself looking down the barrel of a gun. Scott took a deep breath before he plunged ahead. “Do you ALWAYS greet people by pointing that gun at them?”
Johnny had to fight back a grin. “Yep.”
Scott sighed. “Please. Come back in. We really do need you.”
Johnny stared at his brother. “I know. But I’m not goin’ ta stay just ta fight that Old Man every inch of the way. Either you, both of you, listen to me, or I’ll leave right now. And by the way, my fee just went up. I want one thousand dollars.” He stopped and waited for Scott to make up his mind.
Scott looked at him curiously. “If you leave, would you join up with Pardee?”
Johnny met Scott’s eyes. “No.”
Johnny dropped his eyes. “I got my reasons, and they’re none of your business. Now do you want me to stay, or do I ride outta here?”
Scott watched the young man for a moment before asking in a soft voice, “Can we trust you?”
Johnny looked up in disbelief. “Ya think I’d tell you if ya couldn’t?”
Scott looked deep into Johnny’s eyes before he responded. “Yes, I do.”
Johnny searched his brother’s eyes and was shaken by the beginnings of trust that he saw there. He lowered his head for a moment to get his thoughts together before he grinned and shook his head. “I ain’t no traitor. If I take your money, I’ll stick with it till it’s over, one way or another.”
“We’ll listen. Please, come back in.”
Johnny hesitated for a moment, searching Scott’s eyes once more, and then he turned and walked with Scott towards the house. As they approached, Johnny glanced up to see what the sentries were doing. Apparently nothing, as they hadn’t made an appearance. He shook his head. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Scott and Johnny entered the house and walked back in to join the other men. Johnny watched Murdoch Lancer’s expression as he approached and knew that even though the Old Man was listening to reason, he didn’t want him here.
Johnny’s expression remained neutral, revealing nothing as he came and stood by the fireplace. “All right, the first thing ya gotta do is stop all but the most basic of chores and let the men get some decent rest. I want them sleepin’ in shifts, but I don’t want anybody stayin’ up so long that they can’t react quick if need be.”
Murdoch shot up from his seat. “That’s out of the question. This is a WORKING ranch. We can’t stop taking care of business without it falling apart.”
Johnny looked at him with a glare. “Look, somethin’s gonna happen real soon. Probably within a week. Now either you let those men get some rest or you won’t have to worry about this ranch fallin’ apart, it’ll be TORN apart by Pardee. Understand?” At Murdoch’s grumbling agreement, Johnny continued. “Next, vary the circuits and the times of the patrols so that they can’t be predicted. Make sure each man carries extra ammo, but tell them not to try to fight if they see somethin’ but hightail it back here and let us know. If they see someone rustling a few cattle, they’re to let ‘em go and just come back here.”
Murdoch couldn’t contain himself. “Just let Pardee help himself to our stock?” he asked as he sank back onto the couch.
Johnny spoke to the man as if he were a little slow. “Yeah, one or two cattle ain’t worth losin’ another hand over. We’re goin’ ta need every man when it comes time to fight. Cattle can be replaced.” He stared at Lancer to make sure that he understood. When he saw a trace of a nod, he continued. “Third, at night, I want a bunch of lanterns around the outside of the house and barn so nobody can sneak in undetected, and all of the doors are to be locked at sundown, and kept locked. Nobody goes in or out of the house from dark to sunup. Also, I want heavy drapes or tarps put over the inside of the windows so that nobody can see in at night. I could have picked every single one of you off with a rifle without even getting’ near the house.”
Murdoch’s jaw flew open. “Cover ALL of the windows?”
Johnny snorted. “Don’t worry. You don’t have ta cover ‘em all. We don’t have that much time. Just make sure they’re covered in the rooms that are used.” He looked around to make sure everyone understood, and then continued. “Fourth, EVERYBODY has a firearm with them at all times.” He turned towards Teresa. “Do you know how to shoot?”
Teresa glanced at her father. “No, I’ve never been allowed.”
Johnny nodded. “Tomorrow morning I’ll give you and any other of the women that are here a quick lesson.”
Murdoch once more came to his feet. “You stay away from her,” he shouted. “She’s a decent young girl and I don’t want you teaching her anything!”
Johnny grinned sardonically, not missing the innuendo. “If you think YOU can teach the women anything, Old Man, go right ahead.”
Murdoch was ready to explode, but Paul laid his hand on his friend’s arm. “Murdoch, he’s right. I tell you what, tomorrow I’ll give the womenfolk a shooting lesson, O.K?” He glanced at Johnny for approval.
Johnny nodded. “Just make sure they not only know how but are willin’ ta use those guns.”
Murdoch glared at Johnny. “And what are you going to be doing when all this is taking place?”
Johnny grinned again. “I’m goin’ ta find out what Day’s up to.”
Murdoch looked at the gunfighter with suspicion. “You know him?”
Johnny glanced towards Scott. “Yep, your son here already knows that.”
Murdoch locked his eyes on to the blue eyes of Madrid. “How do we know that you aren’t already aware of what Pardee’s up to?”
Johnny stared back. “You got somethin’ ta say Old Man, say it.”
“Just this, how do we know that you’re not already working for Pardee and are just setting us up?”
Scott cringed as he waited for Johnny’s expected response, but to this surprise, the gunfighter just grinned. “If I was workin’ for Day, you’d a been dead an hour ago. And nobody has ta set you up, you’ve done a good enough job of settin’ yourself up. Instead of worryin’ about me, you need to make sure the men that are workin’ for ya are doin’ what they’re supposed to.” He turned towards Scott. “I’m goin ta turn in. I want to talk to all of the men first thing in the mornin’.”
Scott nodded his head. “I’ll show you to your room.”
Johnny glanced at Murdoch and saw him start to turn red. Johnny shook his head and nodded toward the window. “Nope, I’ll sleep out there. I can keep an eye on things that way.”
Paul spoke up. “What if one of the patrols spots you?”
“Not a chance.” Johnny turned towards Teresa and tipped his hat. “Ma’am.”
Scott spoke up. “All right, but at least let me get you some food. We have some leftover roast, and I doubt if you’ve eaten.”
Johnny hesitated. Actually he hadn’t eaten since morning, and his breakfast had consisted of some jerky and cold water. He shrugged his shoulders. Why not? He followed Scott into the kitchen and jumped up and sat on the counter while he watched his brother load a plate from the leftovers on the stove.
Scott set the plate on the table after raising his eyebrows at Johnny’s perch.
Johnny jumped back down and sat at the table. “Got any milk?” Johnny asked through a mouthful of food. Scott shook his head and smiled. Somehow right now the hardened gunfighter reminded him of a small boy. Scott poured the milk, leaving the pitcher on the table and then sat down and grabbed a biscuit. Johnny watched him with a preoccupied look for a moment, and then returned to eating.
Scott glanced up at Johnny. “So do you want your money now?”
“Ain’t earned it yet,” Johnny replied.
Scott put the biscuit down. “It might be hard to collect it if we lose. I told you we’d be dead.”
Johnny stopped eating and looked at his brother. “If we lose, so will I.”
The next morning Johnny met with the hands out in the yard. Johnny smiled grimly to himself; Scott must have filled them in, because there were no snickers or the usual comments about his age, just respectful questions and comments. By the time he was done about an hour later, he was feeling a little bit better about the whole thing. The men were eager to fight, and seemed loyal to a fault. Maybe, just maybe they had a chance. As the men took off to their appointed tasks, Johnny walked over to where Scott was standing next to Pete. “I’m goin’ into town for awhile. If I ain’t back by nightfall, you’d better get the men ready for a fight.”
Scott studied the gunfighter. “What does that mean?”
Johnny smiled slightly. “It means that if I ain’t back by nightfall then somethin’ went wrong and I ain’t comin’ back, and it’ll also mean Pardee will probably be out here by dawn, so you’d best be prepared.”
Scott was shocked at the man’s seeming nonchalance at the prospect of his death. “Then why are you going?”
Johnny stared at Scott. “It’s my job.” Johnny turned and picked up Pete’s reins.
Scott wasn’t ready to leave it at that. He grabbed Johnny’s arm. “You don’t even act like you care if you come back.”
Johnny’s temper had been simmering all morning as he watched Scott and his father and it finally flared. “Why should I? What’ve I got to look forward to but a bullet in the back and an early grave? Not like you, all comfortable in your fancy house. The only home I’m ever goin’ ta get is a six foot deep plot.”
Johnny looked around at the house and the buildings. “Maybe if I had somethin’ like this it’d be different. Maybe if I had a family or a father that cared even a little bit it’d be different. But that ain’t goin’ ta happen and I really don’t give a damn whether I live or die anymore. Now let go of my arm before I shoot ya.” He jerked his arm away from his brother and swung up on his horse and kneed it into a gallop away from the house.
Johnny had just passed under the arch when he began to calm down and slowed his horse to an easy lope. He breathed deeply as he tried to regain control of his emotions. He didn’t think it was going to be this hard to keep it strictly business. He didn’t know why Scott got under his skin like that, and why he let it bother him that his brother was accepted and loved while he was treated like an outcast. He had never expected anything different; after all, they didn’t know who he was. Not that it would make any difference. Old Man Lancer had made it clear just how much he cared when he kicked both he and his mother out. Johnny didn’t expect him to have any great change of heart.
He just didn’t understand why Scott cared about somebody he didn’t even know. He shook his head. Now, the Old Man he understood. There was no mistaking the hostility that Murdoch Lancer had shown him and that he had returned in kind. The way the Old Man had treated him he could handle, it was what he was used to; it was Scott that had turned everything upside down and made his resolve to remain detached so difficult. He forced himself to think of other things; he knew that if he didn’t regain control he’d likely get himself killed.
By the time he rode into Morro Coyo, he had his Madrid persona firmly back in place. He rode Pete down the center of the street at a slow walk, looking neither left nor right, but still taking everything in. He noticed the group of men standing on the porch of the cantina, watching his every move. He allowed a slight smile to grace his lips as he rode up to the hitching rack in front of the men and stopped his horse. Taking them all in, he didn’t see any that he recognized. He leaned forward and rested his left arm on the pommel of his saddle, being careful to keep his gun hand free. “Boys,” he drawled, “Tell Day that Johnny wants to see him.”
The men looked back at him in disbelief. Finally, a man around thirty stepped forward. “Maybe you should tell him yourself, BOY.”
Johnny appraised the belligerent man. “Maybe I should, but I ain’t gonna. You’re goin’ ta go in and tell him for me.” Johnny could see the anger growing in the man’s eyes.
The man glanced around at his friends. “Maybe you don’t know who you’re talkin’ to.”
Johnny quirked his mouth up into a smile. “Sure I do, Day’s number one stooge.”
The man went for his gun, but Johnny had his drawn and leveled before the other man had his out of the holster. Johnny glanced at the others, alert for any movement that might signal that one of them was trying to draw, but the men looked away, holding their hands well away from their sides. Satisfied, he turned his attention back to the first man. “Now are you goin’ ta go get Day, or am I gonna have to use this?” he said, motioning with his gun.
The man shot him a look of pure poison before turning and heading towards the doors of the saloon. Johnny watched, knowing the man was going to try something before he reached the doors, and the only decision Johnny was trying to make was whether to kill him or just wound him. He was saved from making the choice when Day suddenly appeared in the doorway. Bolstered by his boss’s presence, the man decided to make his move, but before he could carry it out, Pardee’s voice stopped him. “I wouldn’t.”
Pardee looked at Johnny and nodded. “Long time, Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny dismounted and smiled at Day. “Yeah, long time.”
As Johnny walked up on to the sidewalk, the men respectfully made way for him. The man who had come close to dying met his glance for a second and then dropped his eyes. Content there would be no gunplay, Johnny followed Day into the bar.
He and Day sat at a little table with a bottle of Tequila between them while Pardee told Johnny about his plans. Johnny had to sort through the information, trying to figure out what was real and what was brag on Pardee’s part. He did find out that the reason that they hadn’t attacked the ranch yet was that several of Day’s men were busy at the opposite end of the valley, and probably wouldn’t return for several days. Day was hesitant to attack Lancer without his full force to back him up. Johnny was surprised; apparently Pardee didn’t know just how weak Lancer really was.
He knew Day was trying to feel him out, too, and was wondering just why he was here. Pardee had tried to get Johnny to commit to joining them, telling him what his part of the plan would be, but so far, Johnny had been able to skirt the issue. Finally Pardee leaned back in his chair and gave Johnny an appraising look. “So, what do ya think? Goin’ ta join us? There’s a lot of money to be made right here in this valley, and I could use a man like you.”
Johnny continued to give full attention to his glass of tequila, and then said, without looking up, “I’m considerin’ all my options right now, figurin’ what’s best.”
Day’s eyes narrowed, it wasn’t the response that he’d wanted. “Johnny, you hooked up with somebody else?”
Johnny continued to concentrate in the tequila. “Like I said, I’m just considerin’ my options. I just want to make sure I don’t make any mistakes, that’s all.”
Day wasn’t entirely satisfied; he wanted Johnny to commit to working with him, but he figured Johnny wasn’t working for anyone else at this point, and relaxed a little bit. Johnny was a smart kid; he’d figure that his best choice was to throw in with him. “O.K. Johnny, take your time. I figure we’ll be hittin’ the Lancer ranch in about three days, and I’d like to know before then.”
Johnny leaned back and finally met Pardee’s gaze. “You’ll know.”
Scott kept glancing in the direction of town as he did his chores. He kept hoping that he’d see Johnny come riding over the hill towards the house. Even though he was very aware of the fact that the young man knew what he was doing, he was still worried. That mouth of his had to get Johnny into trouble, and with men like Pardee’s bunch, trouble could get him killed. And he definitely didn’t want to see the young man killed. Madrid had gotten under his skin for some reason, and he realized that he genuinely liked the gunfighter.
He thought back to the conversation they had before Johnny had gone to town. Johnny’s outburst right before he had left had bothered him. He seemed…lost somehow. Is that how his brother had felt? That nobody cared? Is that why he had chosen the life that he had? Scott shook his head. He guessed he’d never know. He was trying to get up enough nerve to ask Johnny if he’d ever heard of his brother, but so far the opportunity hadn’t arisen. Deep down he almost wished that it never would. He was afraid of the answer, and even more afraid of what he’d do if he found out that Madrid had been the one that had killed his brother.
He wondered what Johnny’s life had been like. Why had he turned to that life? Didn’t he have any other choice? He obviously didn’t have a home or a family and he wondered if his family was dead or had simply turned their backs on him. He shook his head as he wondered what sort of people would turn their back on a member of their family, no matter what they had done. Then he suddenly realized that is exactly what Murdoch had done to his own son! He had written him off without even knowing him, without even trying to understand why he had chosen that life. He didn’t know if he could ever forgive his father for that.
He had already written to the Pinkertons himself to see if they had found out any more about his brother, and if they hadn’t, he had told them to find out everything that they could. Even if it was too late, he at least wanted to know what John’s life had been like. In the meantime, he was going to take a chance and talk to Johnny to see if he ever heard of John Lancer. And, he resolved, he was also going to have a talk with Murdoch and try to convince him to be nicer to the gunfighter.
Surprisingly, Murdoch had backed off a little bit on his outspoken dislike of Madrid. He apparently had realized the wisdom of Johnny’s suggestions and ordered the men to keep the chores to the bare necessities and to get plenty of rest. Scott smiled; he could get used to that. He thought about how his father was acting, and he realized that even though Murdoch seemed to accept that Johnny knew what he was doing, he still didn’t hide the fact that he didn’t trust him. Scott, on the other hand felt that in his own way Madrid was honorable. It stood to reason that a man in his line of work would have problems getting hired if he made a practice of turning on the men who hired him.
There was more to it, though. Scott knew that he wanted to get to know Johnny better. Find out about his life, find out about the man behind the gunfighter’s mask. He was a paradox; cold as ice and dangerous one minute, then acting like a kid the next. Scott shook his head, he WAS a kid. A kid with a very lethal talent, and he wondered if that was how his brother had been.
As the day wore on with no trace of the gunfighter, Scott began to worry. Surely it wouldn’t take that long to go in to town and find out what he needed to know. And in the back of his mind he kept hearing Johnny’s words, “If I ain’t back by nightfall, then I ain’t comin back.”
By the time twilight was approaching and they were sitting down to dinner, Scott was sure that Johnny Madrid was dead.
Scott’s agitation was very evident at the table, and the later it got, the more upset he got. After dinner he and Paul and his father retired to the great room for some brandy. Scott went over to the large windows by his father’s desk and looked out for the hundredth time. Murdoch glanced at Paul before confronting his son. “All right Scott, what’s eating you?”
Scott spun around and glared at his father. “What’s eating me? What do you think? Where is he? What’s keeping him?” He shook his head angrily. “Aren’t you the least bit worried about him?”
Murdoch’s eyebrows shot up. “I assume you’re talking about Madrid?”
Scott’s voice rose. “Yes, I’m talking about Madrid! He’s the only one that rode into the lion’s den.”
Murdoch tried to make his son see reason. “Scott, it’s his job. You said it yourself; he knows what he’s doing. He’ll probably be back shortly.”
“And if he’s not? Then what?” Scott demanded.
Murdoch shook his head. “If he’s not, I don’t know what we could do.”
“So you’re willing to just write him off, just like you wrote off your son,” Scott erupted. “Well I’m not. If he’s not back in half of an hour, I’m going to take some men and go looking for him.”
“You will do no such thing! I am not going to have you risking your life to help that gunfighter!”
Scott stared at his father for a moment before replying. “What if he were your son? Is that how you’d want people to treat him?”
Murdoch dropped his eyes and was getting ready to reply when a burst of gunfire turned their attention to the courtyard. They grabbed their guns out of their holsters and headed for the door when they heard Maria, their cook, cursing at someone in the kitchen. Paul continued to the courtyard while Scott and Murdoch changed directions and rushed to the kitchen. They entered cautiously and saw the lady holding a gun on a grinning Johnny.
Murdoch recovered his senses first. “Maria, put that down before you kill someone.”
Maria responded with a volley of Spanish curses aimed at the gunfighter.
Johnny raised his hands in mock surrender and answered her back in her own tongue. Finally, eyes still blazing, she lowered the gun and then turned and left the kitchen, still mumbling. Johnny turned and smiled at Scott. “That went well.”
Scott couldn’t help but be angry. “What were you trying to do? You almost got yourself killed. And what was that gunfire in the courtyard about?”
Johnny kept grinning. “Just checkin’ defenses, that’s all. They did pretty good tonight. Whole sight better’n last night any way.”
Scott looked at him in disbelief. “It was just a game? You could have gotten shot checking those defenses.”
Johnny shrugged, and then said with a grin. “I’ve gotten good at ducking.” He looked around the kitchen, purposely ignoring Murdoch. “Got any food? I’m starved.”
Murdoch left the kitchen shaking his head over Madrid’s attitude while Scott started to fix another plate. Johnny helped himself to a glass of milk this time and then sat at the table, where Scott joined him. “Did you find out anything from Pardee?” Scott finally asked.
“Yep. He’s planning on hitting the ranch in a couple of days. He’s waiting till all of his men are together.”
Scott looked at him in disbelief. “And he just told you that?”
Johnny stopped eating and looked at Scott. “Sure, why not? He was tryin’ ta get me ta join him.” Johnny smiled. “He’s plannin’ on makin a bunch of money.”
Scott continued staring at the gunfighter. “And what did you tell him?”
Johnny shrugged. “Told him I’d think about it.” Johnny took another bite and then glanced up at Scott, who was contemplating him seriously. Johnny returned the accusing stare for a moment and then shoved his chair away from the table and stalked out of the house.
Johnny strode out of the house and headed for the small clearing on the hill where he had slept the night before. The camp was difficult enough to get to that someone wouldn’t just stumble across it. It was protected completely on three sides by a rock overhang, and Johnny had made his small camp right next to the wall so he couldn’t be seen from above. You had to make your way through some fairly heavy brush to get to the front side, and if somebody did approach, Johnny would hear or see them coming.
He wasn’t expecting any trouble, but it was always wise to be careful. And now he was glad that he had made the camp where he did; he sure wasn’t in the mood to talk to Scott Lancer if he tried to follow. Johnny walked into camp and went over and checked his horse. Pete was already bedded down and after a quick pat, Johnny turned away. As the night was warm, Johnny didn’t need a fire, although he sure could go for some coffee. He wished he hadn’t left the house so quickly; he should have at least eaten supper before he went stomping off. Johnny smiled grimly. It wasn’t the first time he regretted his quick temper.
He sat with his back to the wall for a while, too upset to sleep. He didn’t understand why Scott Lancer could get under his skin like he did. Anybody else he’d either ignore or he’d fight, simple as that. But for some reason he cared about what Scott thought of him, and he didn’t know why. It bothered him that his brother thought he was a traitor, but he’d be damned if he’d explain himself.
Scott sat in his room with his head propped up with pillows, too upset to sleep. He didn’t know why Johnny Madrid could get under his skin like he did. Scott wanted to believe in him, he wanted to trust him, but was he being a fool? Was his father right; were men like Johnny beyond redemption, beyond hope? Had they all been played for fools all along? Maybe Madrid had been working for Pardee from the beginning and had just used Scott’s offer to find out all about the Lancer defenses. Scott snorted. What defenses? Madrid had waltzed into the house the first night without any problem at all, and the gunfighter was right, if he’d wanted to kill them, they would have all been dead. No, deep inside, Scott still trusted the young man. He just hoped he was right.
The next morning, after a restless night, Johnny got up early and watched as the men started their daily chores. He thought about going to the house to get some hot breakfast, but knew he wasn’t welcome there, so he settled for some more jerky. He had thought about it a lot last night, and he realized that he had been letting his emotions get in the way. He had made a mistake letting Scott Lancer get to him, and he was going to make sure it didn’t happen again. From here on in, he would keep it strictly business. When this job was over, if he was still alive, he would leave this ranch and the people on it and never look back. He didn’t need them; he didn’t need anybody.
Scott Lancer got up the next morning and went downstairs to eat. He realized that he had made a mistake yesterday, and he planned on finding Johnny as soon as breakfast was over so he could apologize. He had let his fear and uncertainty taint the way he had acted towards him. He thought that beneath the tough front that Madrid put up, there was a lonely young man that needed to be trusted more than he would ever admit. He didn’t know why the gunfighter struck some cord in him; maybe it was because he didn’t act like a hardened killer. Well, at least most of the time. Scott smiled as he remembered Johnny sitting at the table drinking milk. No, Johnny seemed more like a lost boy, someone who was doing what he had to do until he could find a way out.
Scott wanted to help him; he wanted to see the young man on a path towards a different life. Maybe because Scott hoped that someone had given his brother a chance when he desperately needed it. He thought for a second and an idea hit him. He would approach Murdoch and tell him of his plan. When this fight with Pardee was over, he would ask Johnny to stay on as a wrangler; at least it could be a way out for him. Murdoch may not like it, but this ranch was half his and he would make sure that Johnny could stay if he wanted to.
After he had taken a quick ride and made sure everything was secure, Johnny returned to the yard to check the defenses there. He made sure the sentries were where they were supposed to be and that everyone’s gun was ready to use. This was the hardest part of any battle for him, the waiting. He had a lot of nervous energy to burn off, especially before a fight, and he needed something to occupy him. As he rode in, he glanced over at the corral and noticed a Palomino stallion trotting around the pen, blowing through his nose at some of the hands who were sitting on the fence watching him. Johnny sauntered over and watched the animal for a moment, and then turned to one of the men. “Aren’t you supposed ta be doin’ somethin’ besides watchin’ a horse?”
The man looked nervously at the gunfighter before answering, “No Senor, we are supposed to be resting, but we are not tired. Senor Lancer told us to relax, so we are watching ‘El Cabello del Diablo’.”
Johnny looked at the hand for a moment before studying the horse. “Why do you say he’s the devil’s horse?”
The man crossed himself. “He is a killer. Jose tried to break him, but the horse, he bucked him off, and broke his arm. Then Miguel tried, and del Diablo bucked him off and then trampled him to death. He is loco, that one. Senor Lancer, he says he must be shot.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Which Mr. Lancer are ya talkin about?”
Johnny turned and studied the horse. He was full grown, and looked like he might be a little older than most horses when they were broken. Johnny guessed the horse in the corral was about six or seven. He moved well, and had good conformation. Even though he was a Palomino, he looked like he had some Andalusian blood in him. He studied him for a few more moments, and then turned to walk off. “You leave that horse alone for now, comprende?” he told the hand.
The man looked nervous. “But Senor Lancer said….”
Johnny shot the man a look of pure ice. “Who would you rather get on the bad side of, me or that old man?”
When the man dropped his eyes, Johnny nodded. “Good. Now I’m goin’ ta go have a talk with MISTER Lancer. You make sure nothin’ happens ta that horse till I get back.”
At the hand’s nod, Johnny turned and walked towards the house. He strode up to the front, and after a moment’s hesitation he knocked on the front door.
Maria, the lady who had held a gun on him the day before, answered his knock with a glower. She immediately started scolding him in Spanish, telling him he didn’t belong there. Johnny kept his temper; he had learned a long time ago you could catch more flies with honey, especially when it came to women. He gave the lady one of his most charming smiles, and began agreeing with her, then complimented her on her cooking. A few minutes and a few compliments later, he was sitting in the kitchen of the hacienda, eating a welcome meal of tamales and chili, while she hovered over him like a mother hen. He knew he hadn’t won her completely over, but it was a start, and at least it looked like he wouldn’t be eating jerky the rest of the time he was here. After the meal was finished, he complimented her again, thanked her profusely for the meal, and after giving her a quick peck on her cheek, he went into the great room to find Murdoch Lancer.
The senior Lancer was sitting at a huge desk going over some bills. Johnny looked around the room, desperately looking for something that would trigger a memory, but nothing looked the least bit familiar. He saw with satisfaction that the Old Man was wearing his sidearm, and had a rifle within easy reach. He watched his father for a few moments unobserved, again searching for a lost memory, but there was nothing there.
Finally Lancer looked up, and after glaring at him for a moment said, “I wish you’d quit doing that. What do you want?”
Johnny kept his temper in check at the man’s abrupt attitude. “I saw that Palomino horse out by the barn, the one that you plan on havin’ shot.”
Murdoch looked at him impatiently. “What about it?”
Johnny locked his eyes on Murdoch. “I can break him.”
For just a moment, Murdoch lost his train of thought. Something in the young man’s eyes… Murdoch shook his head. Whatever it had been, it was there and gone. “I don’t want you fooling with that horse. He’s a killer, and I’m not going to take a chance on you being laid up with Pardee ready to attack.”
Johnny smiled wryly. “It’d be O.K. for me to get killed by him any other time, right?”
Murdoch looked up at him angrily. “No, it wouldn’t. I don’t want ANYONE else getting hurt by that outlaw. He needs to be shot. He’s already killed one man and nearly crippled another.”
Johnny met Lancer’s stare. “He’s too good a horse to just kill, and I can break him.”
Murdoch thought for a moment. To his surprise, he really didn’t want the young man to take a chance on riding that horse, and not because they needed him with Pardee. There was something about the gunfighter that was starting to win him over, although he wouldn’t admit it yet, even to himself. Murdoch shook his head decisively. “No. He’s going to be shot. I can’t take that chance.”
Johnny looked at him speculatively for a moment. “I tell you what. I’ll bet you I can break him. If I can’t, you won’t have to pay me.”
Murdoch returned the man’s stare. The horse was one of the best on the ranch, if he could be tamed. He leaned back and looked appraisingly at Madrid. “Why is it so important to you?”
Johnny shrugged. “He’s a good horse, and I figure everybody deserves a chance.”
The last line was said with just a trace of anger, and Murdoch had the strange feeling he wasn’t talking about the horse when he said it. Murdoch sighed and looked at the young man speculatively. “And what do you get if you can break him?”
Johnny’s response was immediate. “The horse.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s one of the best horses we’ve got.”
“Not worth much dead,” Johnny shot back.
Murdoch smiled in spite of himself. “What good would it do me to have you break him if you’re going to take him?”
Johnny grinned. “You’d be ahead one rifle shell.”
Despite himself, Murdoch laughed, and then looked seriously at the gunfighter. “Are you sure? I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Johnny shrugged. “The men pretty much know what to do now, and one less man won’t make a whole lot of difference in the fight.”
Murdoch shook his head. Why was this boy so convinced of his own worthlessness and so careless with his life? Studying him, Murdoch said, “My not wanting you to get hurt has nothing to do with Pardee.”
Johnny looked at him in surprise, and for some reason felt a tug in his heart. He quickly looked down. “I know what I’m doin’ and I won’t get hurt. Is it a deal?”
Murdoch slowly nodded. “It’s a deal. Just be careful.”
Again, Johnny felt a strange sensation when his father showed his concern. Ducking his head, he turned and headed for the door.
Murdoch watched him for a moment, wondering if he had made the right decision. The boy seemed confident enough, but his best wranglers had all tried their hand at taming that horse and none had gotten anywhere. Even Scott had tried to ride him a time or two. Murdoch shuddered when he thought about it. There was no way he would have let his own son on that horse if he’d known at the time just how mean the animal was.
Murdoch realized he probably shouldn’t have let the gunfighter try, but he was so insistent; he reminded Murdoch of someone, but he couldn’t quite come up with who it was. Murdoch stood and looked out the window towards the corral, waiting for the fireworks to begin, and then he looked back at his desk. He really should be working on those books, but maybe he could spare a few minutes. He turned and walked out the door and headed for the corral.
Johnny walked slowly out to the pen, thinking about the best way to start with this particular horse. He’d have to be more careful than he normally was, and probably take it a little slower. He thoughtfully mapped out a plan in his mind as he stood and watched the stallion. He sure was some piece of horseflesh. He’d be by far the best horse he’d ever owned, and he knew he needed a new mount. As much as he hated giving up Pete, he’d had the horse for several years now, and the buckskin was getting just a little old. He’d hate to get rid of him; the horse had been his only friend for a long time. Maybe he could make a deal with Lancer to leave him here and keep him pastured. He sure didn’t want to sell him to just anybody, but the horse wasn’t quite as fast as he used to be. Johnny grinned. In his line of work that could be fatal.
He climbed up on the rails and watched the palomino for a few moments, getting a feel for his movements and trying to figure out what was going on in the horse’s mind. When the horse seemingly ignored him, Johnny slowly stepped down into the corral. The horse took off like a shot, circling madly around the corral and avoiding the corner where the man stood. He continued the mad circling for a few minutes, gradually coming closer and closer to Johnny.
Murdoch watched in confusion as the young man stood in the corral. What was that boy trying to do, get himself killed? No one had ever approached that horse before unless plenty of ropes had been around him, ready to stop any sudden attacks. He watched as the horse circled the young man, and then to his horror he saw the horse suddenly turn and charge straight toward the gunfighter.
As the horse ran towards him, Johnny stood his ground, making eye contact and holding out his hands slightly. Undecided, the horse skidded to a stop a few feet from the man and tossed his head nervously. Johnny maintained eye contact and began talking softly. The horse hesitated another few moments, and then took off again.
When the horse took off, Murdoch yelled at the man in the corral. “Get out of there, now!”
Without turning around or taking his eyes off of the horse, Johnny replied, just loud enough to be heard, “Stay out of it, Old Man. I know what I’m doin’. And keep that gun in your holster; he ain’t goin’ ta hurt me.”
Murdoch looked down at the revolver that he had drawn, wondering how the boy knew what he was thinking. Quietly, he slipped it back into the holster and started to watch what was happening. The routine stayed the same for a while, with the horse circling and then stopping in the middle facing Johnny. The boy kept up a quiet conversation with the animal, and gradually the stallion’s movements evened out and became less frantic. Murdoch almost started to feel like he was watching a very intricate dance that only the boy and the stallion knew the steps to.
Glancing around, he noted that the usually boisterous wranglers were quietly watching the show. Murdoch motioned for Cipriano, one of his foremen, to come over. “Cipriano, why are the men so quiet?” What’s going on?”
Cipriano nodded his head towards the young man in the corral. “The men know he is a master horseman, a ‘whisperer del cabalo’. They have never seen one before and they don’t want him to send them away, so they are quiet.”
Murdoch looked at the Segundo in disbelief. “A horse whisperer? I didn’t know there were really such men. I thought it was just a story.”
“No, senor, there are a few such men, but there are not many, and they are usually much older. I know of none that are Senor Madrid’s age. He has the gift.”
Murdoch turned around and watched the activity with a more critical eye. “How do you know he has the gift? That he knows what he’s doing?”
Cipriano looked at him in astonishment. “It is a well known fact, senor. Everyone has heard of Senor Madrid’s way with horses. They say he is as good with horses as he is with a gun.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as he turned back towards the corral. “What’s he doing now? Why does he keep the horse circling, and then let him stop like that?”
“I do not know for sure, but I believe he is waiting for the animal to give in, to acknowledge that Senor Madrid is in charge.”
Books forgotten, Murdoch stayed and watched the drama. An hour later, Johnny was able to touch the horse anywhere on its body, without the horse showing resentment. Johnny walked over to where Murdoch was standing, and the stallion followed him like a puppy.
Johnny turned to the foreman. “Cipriano, would you get me a breaking saddle, por favor?” Cipriano hurried away to get the saddle and Johnny turned and rubbed the horse’s cheeks, still talking softly to the animal.
Murdoch watched as the killer horse dropped his head and nudged Johnny’s arm for more attention. “I can’t believe it. That horse was a vicious killer. I never would have trusted him.”
Johnny’s voice was sarcastic. “Well, I guess that’s why we understand each other, isn’t it, we’re both alike.” He turned and walked over to where Cipriano had thrown a saddle over the rail, leaving Murdoch wondering what he had said that was so wrong.
Johnny approached the horse, still speaking in a soft soothing voice, and gently eased the saddle onto his back. The horse’s back humped up as if ready to buck, but a few quiet words calmed him, and he stood, alertly watching the proceedings.
Johnny slowly reached underneath the stallion’s belly and fished for the cinch, then tightened it gradually. Stepping back, he chased the horse away from him, and when the Palomino felt the unaccustomed weight of the saddle he took off for the edge of the corral. The dangling stirrups jarred him some more, and the horse began to buck wildly. After circling the pen for several minutes and finding out that he couldn’t rid himself of the foreign object on his back, the horse once more began to calm down and circle in a smooth lope.
Johnny once more went through the process of circling the horse and then letting him come in to him, just to chase the animal away once more. Finally, Johnny let the horse stay close, and the gunfighter took his hands and ran them all over the animal’s quivering body. After snapping a rope onto the halter, he eased himself onto the horse’s back as the men on the rails held their breaths. The horse humped his back up once, and then at Johnny’s urging started to walk. Several times the horse thought about bucking, but each time Johnny urged him forward using his voice and legs. Finally, the horse relaxed a tiny bit and walked around the pen.
Johnny slid off and grabbed a bosal that he had hung on the post earlier. Talking softly, he approached the horse once again and slipped the bosal on over the halter. Mounting quickly, he rode the horse a few times around the pen, and then instructed Cipriano to open the gate. The horse started for the gate, and Johnny let him go, urging him to a faster pace. They tore out of the gate and the horse was in a gallop before leaving the yard. Surprisingly to Murdoch, the horse seemed to choose to take his frustration out in speed, rather than by bucking.
Forty minutes later, Murdoch was back at his desk pretending to work on his bills, but in reality keeping a worried eye on the window and the hills beyond, where Madrid and the horse had disappeared earlier. He had never seen anything like it, and if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he wouldn’t have believed it. The gentling of that outlaw horse was unbelievable, and Madrid hadn’t used one speck of force. Murdoch couldn’t believe how gently Johnny had talked to the animal, calming its nerves and soothing its fear. He had a gift, all right. Murdoch thought for a moment. That gift sure would come in handy when it came time to break the horses for the army. Maybe… Murdoch shook his head. No, it would never work.
Johnny let the stallion run until he felt the animal start to slow. Gently, he pulled back on the reins and coaxed the horse into a gentle lope. He kept the stallion in a lope for another mile and then reined him down to a walk. By then the horse was tired enough to willingly obey. As the horse slowed, Johnny looked around, getting his bearings and then headed back towards the ranch house. As he walked along, he heard a noise off to his left, and, drawing his gun, he went to investigate.
Johnny carefully approached the small gully where the noise was coming from, unsure of what he’d find. He started to urge the horse through the brush, and then thinking better of it, he got down and securely tied the horse to a large log. If the green horse tried to take off, the log would move enough that the horse wouldn’t get hurt and the rope wouldn’t break, but he certainly couldn’t go very far. Satisfied that the animal would be there when he came back, Johnny left to investigate the noise.
With gun drawn, he tried to quietly make his way through the brush before he realized that whoever was in the gully was making too much noise to hear him. Finally recognizing the voice and the words, he slipped his gun back in the holster and finished making his way to the edge of the wash. Carefully he peered down through the brush at a thoroughly dirty and disgruntled Scott Lancer, who was trying to wrestle a large calf out of a mud hole. Johnny smiled. “Havin’ fun?”
Scott, startled, tried to whip around to see who the voice belonged to and instead slipped and fell into the mud as the calf successfully scrambled out of the hole without assistance.
Johnny could no longer contain his mirth, and he started to laugh. Scott struggled to his feet and directed a glare in his direction, but a glob of mud chose that moment to disengage itself from his hair and fall onto the tip of his nose. Johnny stopped any semblance of trying to remain serious and sat down on the bank holding his stomach and laughing.
Scott meanwhile, was trying desperately to retain what little dignity he had left. “Instead of sitting there laughing like a hyena, why don’t you give me a hand?”
Johnny stopped laughing and looked at him in disbelief. “You didn’t hire me to roll around in the mud like a pig. You want me to do that, you’ll have a pay extra.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed. “Well can you at least give me hand up out of here?”
Johnny looked at him suspiciously for a moment before walking down the rest of the way. “What’s a hyena?
Scott looked up impatiently. “It’s an animal, now help me out.”
Johnny thought for a moment but made no move towards Scott. “No animal I know laughs.”
Scott stopped and looked at the gunfighter. “It’s not from around here. It’s from Africa.”
“How do ya know it laughs, then?”
“Because I read it in a book.”
“Ever seen one?” Johnny asked nonchalantly
“Stop asking questions and give me a hand out of here!” Scott voice rose.
Scott stopped and stared at Johnny in exasperation. He kept his tone even. “Why not?”
Johnny grinned. “’Cause I don’t trust ya, and there’s no way I’m goin’ ta wind up lookin’ like you.”
Scott stared at the gunfighter for a moment, and then grinned ruefully. “I guess I can’t blame you for that.” Scott started slogging his way out of the mud and up the bank. When he reached the top, he sank down on the grass and heaved a sigh. “Stupid cattle.”
Johnny came and sat a few feet away from him. “I don’t know about them bein’ so stupid. Ya don’t see cattle runnin’ around getting’ all messed up for us.”
Scott chuckled, “You may be right.” He looked at Johnny out of the corner of his eye, and said nonchalantly, “I’m going over to the stream and clean up, and then I’m going to sit beneath that oak tree and have lunch. Maria always packs enough for three men. Care to join me?”
Johnny was taken by surprise by the offer. Usually the men that hired him kept the relationship strictly business. That is the way he preferred it, too, less problems that way. And he certainly didn’t need any more emotional ups and downs on this job. He thought for a moment, but again, curiosity won out. He glanced at Scott and then shrugged his shoulders. “Sure, why not.”
Scott nodded his head, “Good. I’ll meet you over there.”
Johnny found his horse where he’d left him, and after a small skirmish, he was able to mount and ride over to the oak tree. He dismounted and tied the horse to another heavy branch, and then sat down to wait for his brother. He thought idly of what Scott would do if he knew who he really was, and if he’d be as friendly if he did know.
A few minutes later, a slightly cleaner Scott rode his horse up and joined him. He cast a disbelieving look at the Palomino tied up by the tree. “Did you break him?”
Johnny nodded. “Yep.” Then he grinned. “Wasn’t so hard.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up at the comment but he ignored it. “My father certainly will be glad. He’s been trying to tame that horse for a long time. He was too valuable to just shoot.”
Johnny smirked. “Yeah, I agree. But your old man isn’t so happy about it.”
“Cause the deal was if I broke him. I could have him.”
Scott grinned. “Not the smartest deal my Pa ever made.”
Johnny grinned back. “Nope.”
Scott dug into his lunch sack and came out with a couple of huge sandwiches. Handing one to Johnny, he unwrapped his own and dove in. For a while, nothing was said as the two men enjoyed their lunch. As the last cookie disappeared, however, Scott was trying to decide whether to bring up his brother. Maybe he could bring it up in a roundabout way.
Scott watched as Johnny plucked a blade of grass and chewed on it. “Why did you become a gunfighter?”
Johnny continued to gaze straight ahead. Normally he would just stalk off if someone dared to ask him a personal question, but for some reason it mattered to him what this man thought of him. He wanted to explain, somehow. He played with the grass for a few moments, and then started to speak softly. “I’ve been on my own since I was a kid, and I got tired of bein’ looked down on and beaten up. I thought that by bein’ a gunfighter I would get respect. I thought it was a way out for me.”
Scott looked at Johnny. “Didn’t you have any family?”
Johnny stared at Scott, an unfathomable look on his face. “No.”
Scott grabbed his own piece of grass and stuck it in his mouth. “Ever think about quitting?”
Johnny snorted. “Every day.”
“Then why don’t you?”
Johnny shook his head. “It ain’t that easy. A gunfighter can’t quit just ‘cause he wants to. Once ya got a reputation, there’s always somebody wantin’ ta prove they’re faster.”
“Don’t you get tired of it? The killing, the fights?”
Johnny decided he’d had enough. Brother or not, the man sitting next to him just didn’t get it, and he wasn’t going to try to explain any more. “Don’t you get tired of rollin’ around in the mud, babysittin’ a bunch of ungrateful cattle?”
Scott smiled slightly. “Every day.”
“Then why don’t you give it up?”
Scott looked out over the land. “Because we’re building something here, my father and I. Something to pass on to our children and grandchildren. Haven’t you ever wanted to be part of something like this?”
Scott turned and looked at Johnny, and suddenly he was afraid as he watched the gunslinger’s eyes turn dark and hard. He recognized that look from the gunfight in Oakdale. Johnny stared at him for a moment, and then jumped to his feet and strode angrily to his horse.
Johnny swung up on his horse, and before riding off, he turned and looked down at Scott. “I never got the chance. My Old Man saw to that. He didn’t want no half-breed kid messin’ things up. He had all the family he needed.”
Johnny let the Palomino have its head and it took off at a gallop. He let the animal run for a while to ease the tension in both of them, but gradually the horse slowed as both horse and rider calmed down. Johnny shook his head. He just didn’t understand why he was so testy. He was upset with himself for letting his emotions show like that, and he was even more upset that he’d opened up even a little bit to Scott. He had promised himself before he came here that he was coming for the money. That he wouldn’t let his emotions get involved no matter what happened, but he was failing miserably. The trouble was, he genuinely liked Scott but he was resentful of him at the same time, and he couldn’t reconcile those two feelings. Even his father brought on mixed feelings. He hadn’t thought he would feel any emotion except hate concerning his father, but he realized that Lancer didn’t seem to be quite the ogre that his mother had portrayed him to be. The first twinges of doubt began to seep in to his mind. Could his mother have lied to him about what really happened? Johnny shook his head once more. No. He couldn’t believe that, not after all of these years. Hate for his father was the one constant in his life. The one thing that had kept him alive when he’d felt like giving up. He wasn’t going to let go of the hate that easily. Besides, there was no reason to. He would finish this job and then move on.
As he topped a rise, Johnny was surprised to see Murdoch Lancer approaching on his big sorrel horse. Johnny reined up and let Murdoch ride up to him. Johnny held his tongue and managed to keep his stare neutral as his father approached.
Murdoch stopped his mount a few feet from Johnny. “Are you O.K?”
Johnny looked back at the man in disbelief. “What? You checkin’ on me? ‘Fraid I’d get lost?” he asked sarcastically.
Murdoch kept his temper in check, not wanting to admit that he had been worried about the young man. “That horse isn’t exactly broke yet. I was just making sure you weren’t having to walk back.”
Johnny’s frustration and confusion at the whole situation boiled over. “Quit pretendin’ like ya care, Old Man. I’m nothin’ but a filthy half-breed killer; nobody you’d worry about. And don’t be tryin’ ta say this horse ain’t broke. We had a deal, and you ain’t goin’ ta get him back, and if ya try, Day Pardee will be the least of your worries. Now why don’t ya just leave me alone and let me do my job, and quit actin’ like I mean somethin’ to ya.” Johnny urged his horse past Murdoch and sent the Palomino into a lope towards the ranch, leaving Murdoch with his mouth hanging open at the venomous attack.
As Johnny rode off, Murdoch looked up and saw his son approaching. When he got closer, Murdoch noticed the grim set to his mouth. “What happened?”
Scott stopped his horse next to his father. “I’m really not sure. We had lunch together, and I thought everything was fine and all of a sudden he ….” Scott shook his head as he remembered back to what had happened. “It’s like he changed. He was calm and pleasant, then all of a sudden his eyes turned cold and he got angry.”
Murdoch looked towards where Madrid had disappeared. “Just stay away from him, Scott. We shouldn’t have tried to get friendly. Like he said, let’s keep this strictly business.”
Scott shook his head sadly. “I know, but there’s something about him; he seems so lost sometimes. I don’t think he wants to be doing what he does.”
Murdoch looked at his son and sighed. “Maybe not, but it’s too late for him. He’s beyond hope.”
Those words conjured up thoughts of his brother, and Scott stared at his father angrily. “Like it was too late for John? Maybe if you hadn’t have given up on him or SOMEONE had taken the time to show him a little kindness, he’d be here right now. So don’t tell me to stay away from Madrid. I’m going to keep trying to get through to that boy. And I’m telling you right now, if I can talk him in to staying here and working at Lancer when all of this is over, I will. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go talk to a friend.”
After Johnny returned to the yard, he took the saddle off of his horse and began brushing him, trying to calm himself down after the confrontation between himself and the Lancers. The hands took one look at the grim set of the gunfighter’s mouth and gave him a wide berth. As he groomed the animal he gradually relaxed, but he was still angry with himself for allowing his emotions get the best of him. He just wished he knew what the Lancers were up to and why they were being nice to him. He knew there had to be an ulterior motive, but he just couldn’t figure it out, and that bothered him.
When Scott and Murdoch rode into the yard, Johnny purposely turned his back and walked off. He didn’t want to talk to them, although he knew eventually he’d have to. He went over to the corral to watch the horses, anything but face the two men. He stood by the corral with his hands draped over the top rail, watching a couple of the horses and trying to sort out his feelings.
“Are you O.K?”
Johnny jumped slightly and had his gun drawn and aimed at Scott before he knew what he was doing. Shaking his head, he replaced the revolver in its holster and turned back to stare at the horses. He couldn’t believe he had been so preoccupied that Scott had been able to approach him without his knowing.
“Shouldn’t sneak up on me like that,” Johnny snapped. “Good way to get yourself killed.”
Scott ignored both the young man’s remark and the now familiar feeling of having Johnny’s gun in his face. “I want to apologize.”
Johnny turned and looked at him in surprise. “For what?”
“For whatever I said that made you upset. I didn’t mean to, and I’m sorry.”
Johnny stared at his brother and realized that he was being sincere, and it confused him. “Why?”
Now Scott was confused. “Why what?”
Johnny dropped his head. “Why do you care? What difference does it make to you how I feel?”
Scott was taken aback at the question and thought for a moment before replying. “I don’t know for sure, but it does. I…I’d like us to be friends.”
Johnny once again felt the unaccustomed rush of emotions that almost left him panicked. He wasn’t ready for this, he didn’t know if he could go through with this. Part of him screamed to just get on his horse and ride out now, before he got hurt again, while a tiny part of him was insisting on staying to see what happened.
Swallowing hard, Johnny raised his eyes and looked at Scott, before the part of him that had been hurt so many times finally answered. “Just leave me alone, O.K? I don’t need you, I don’t need anybody. We ain’t friends and we never will be. Just leave me alone.” Johnny took off for his camp on the hillside, while Scott watched the retreating back, wondering what could have possibly happened in the young man’s life to make him so unwilling to trust.
Murdoch watched from the bay window in his study as Johnny stalked off, leaving Scott standing by the corral. He didn’t know why his son tried so hard. Madrid obviously didn’t want to be friendly; he had made that plain numerous times. Murdoch shook his head sadly. He was afraid that Scott was going to get hurt by his misplaced trust in the gunfighter. Gunfighter. He never believed that he’d resort to hiring such a man. He still didn’t think it was a good idea, but both Paul and Scott were solidly for it. He had never approved of hired guns, believing a man should fight his own battles, but since finding out that his son had evidently taken up the profession, his disproval had changed to something akin to hate, and he really wasn’t sure why.
For the first time in a long while, Murdoch allowed himself to really think about his youngest son. He remembered a small black haired boy with a dazzling grin and an awesome temper. A sweet, loving child who could melt your heart with his sweetness one moment, and then make you wish there were no such thing as children the next. Murdoch smiled as he reminisced. The boy certainly hadn’t been afraid of anyone or anything, that was sure. And he wouldn’t back down from a fight. He remembered one time when John and Scott were playing in this very room and the play had escalated into a shouting match. Two-year-old John was yelling at his not – quite five-year-old brother about the rightful possession of a small tin wagon. Scott had the wagon in his hands, but John was hitting at him to make him let it go. It had apparently been going on for some time, but Murdoch had come in just as the usually calm Scott had finally decided he had had enough. He broke John’s hold on the toy and hit his brother over the head with it. Both boys had been shocked into silence at the blood suddenly welling from John’s head. His younger son had started screaming, but even though Murdoch had yelled for them to stop, John had grabbed the toy out of his older brother’s hand and hit him over the head in the same exact spot. Murdoch grinned ruefully. Sam Jenkins, the local doctor, had put identical stitches in the boy’s scalps and given both boys matching lollipops and a lecture about brotherly love.
Murdoch dropped his head. The incident had happened only about a week before Maria left. Whenever he thought of John right after they had disappeared, Murdoch pictured him as loved and somewhat spoiled. Maria’s family certainly had enough money for all of the luxuries, and Murdoch had no reason to believe that John’s life was anything but good. When he had finally found out that Maria hadn’t returned to the family home is when he felt the first niggling fear for John. He knew that Maria was an erratic mother, sometimes lavishing the boys with attention and spoiling them unmercifully, and then the next day wanting nothing to do with them.
He realized now that he should have stopped Maria from taking John, but at the time, he hadn’t been sure. In the eyes of the law, Maria had the right to her son, and the ranch was going through some hard times. Scott was barely old enough to accompany him on most errands around the ranch, but John was still way too young. Murdoch was away from the house from sunup to sundown, and sometimes overnight. During drives, he was gone for weeks at a time. He had believed that it would be better to allow his son to be raised by his own mother than a nanny, but now he wondered. What had happened? Why had his younger son turned to gunfighting?
When he found out about John’s choice of professions, he was angry. Angry at the unfairness of it, angry at John for choosing that life, angry at Maria for allowing it to happen, angry at gunfighters in general for making the trade seem so glamorous to an impressionable young boy. He also knew the odds were that someone in that profession had ended his son’s life. Unwillingly, he finally allowed himself to wonder when it had happened, and how. Unlike his older son, he was under no illusion that the boy was still alive. He knew the odds, he knew the dog eat dog world of the gunfighter. He shook his head in despair. He just hoped that John had known how much his father and brother had loved him.
He realized now that his hatred of gunfighters was irrational. What had happened to John wasn’t their fault, it was Maria’s. He dropped his head. And his. For the first time, he realized just how wrong he had been in not trying to contact his son when the Pinkerton’s had found him. Maybe Scott was right; maybe it hadn’t been too late then. At least he would have known for sure, and at least he would have known that John had a choice. He had made so many mistakes in his life, but the worst ones revolved around his younger son.
His thoughts turned to the young man in his lonely camp on the hillside, and Scott’s words earlier. Murdoch sighed. Maybe he should try again to get through to the young man. Let him know that someone cared and was willing to give him some help. It was the least he could do to start to make up for the way he had treated his own son. He just hoped someone had been able to show his boy kindness when he’d needed it, and that John hadn’t been alone when he died.
The emotion finally overwhelmed him. He’d known in his head that his son was dead, but his heart had never admitted it before. Silent tears ran down his face at the thought of the life his son must have led, and the realization that he was in a large part responsible. He could never get his son back, or make up for his own actions, but he could try to help other young men that needed it, starting with Madrid.
He knew that Johnny had asked to speak to all of the men this afternoon, so he figured he’d have time to talk to him after that. Maybe he’d take him something to eat and try to convince him to stay at the ranch once the fighting was over. At least let the boy know that he had a choice. That decision made, Murdoch started working on the never – ending bookwork.
That afternoon, all of the men except the few that were patrolling gathered around the corral. Johnny sat up on the top rail, with the Palomino nuzzling his arm. When all the men, including Murdoch, Scott, and Paul had gathered, Johnny started. “First, I know how hard it is to just sit and wait for somebody else to make the first move, but in this case, we have no choice. Pardee’s men are strewn out all over the place, and the only place we have a chance of catchin’ them all is right here. Right now I figure Pardee’s got maybe forty men and we have twenty- two. Now I know that doesn’t sound like good odds, but actually, it’s not too bad. We’ll have cover, while they’ll be scrabbling to find what they can, and hopefully Pardee won’t be expectin’ an organized fight. He’ll also figure to take us by surprise.”
“When the patrols come in this afternoon, I don’t want anyone else to go out. We have four sentries scheduled to go out into the hills and watch the main roads into the ranch. When one of you spots ANYTHING, you hightail it back here and ring the fire bell. Hopefully, Pardee will be far enough behind that he won’t hear it, and we can take him by surprise.” He turned to the four sentries. “Any questions?”
One of the men spoke up. “How do we know he’s going to come by one of the roads? What if he cuts cross country?”
“We don’t know, not for sure. But if he attacks at night, he won’t take a chance on goin’ cross-country; he’ll stick to the roads. If the attack comes during the day, you’ll be able to see him from quite a ways away, no matter what way he comes in. Just keep your eyes open, comprende?”
Johnny turned and looked at the other men. “When that bell rings, all of you get to your posts as quickly and quietly as you can. Remember, we don’t want Pardee to know that we’re on to him. He’ll be less cautious that way. You all got plenty of ammo?”
At the men’s nods, Johnny turned towards Murdoch. “I want the women to stay on the upper floors in the center of the house. Tell them to stay down and away from the windows.” He looked meaningfully at Paul. “Make sure they all have guns and know what to do with them if Pardee gets by us.”
Paul swallowed hard. He’d told the women to save the last bullet for themselves. A quick death was far better then falling into the hand of Pardee and his men. Paul shook his head. NO one was going to get by them. He wasn’t going to let them.
Johnny looked at Scott and Murdoch. “You make sure that all of the lower windows and doors of the house are completely blocked. Put some of that heavy furniture of yours in front of them. You’ll start out on the roof, but if it looks like someone’s goin’ ta get in, you get downstairs and stop them. Understood?”
Johnny looked around at the assembly. “And no heroics. Everybody stay behind his barricade no matter what. Less chance on gettin’ shot, and we’ll need every man. Any questions?”
Scott spoke up. “When do you think they’ll come?”
Johnny returned his brother’s stare. “Tonight.”
That afternoon, Johnny went to his camp early, and made sure Pete was ready to go. “Sorry, compadre, but that cinch is going to have to stay tight and your bridle stays on for tonight.” He rubbed the horse’s head. I’ll make it up to you tomorrow, I promise. I don’t think either of us are going to get much sleep tonight.” He had been tempted to use the new horse for the upcoming fight, but he knew in an emergency he could count on Pete, and the other horse was too green to know what to expect from him.
He sat with his back against a large rock and absent-mindedly cleaned his Colt, letting his mind wander where it wanted. He wondered where he’d be tomorrow, and if he’d even still be alive. He no longer had the rush of excitement before a battle, just a resigned dread. He knew that he had bucked the odds for a long time, and one of these times his luck would run out. He found that it didn’t really bother him anymore; it was the price he had to pay. He never expected to live long, in fact he didn’t know if he wanted to; nothing much for him to live for.
He thought back on the day’s events and to his lunch with Scott Lancer. He guessed he shouldn’t have reacted the way he did; Scott sure didn’t know who he was, and hadn’t had any say in the Old Man’s kicking him out. Johnny was starting to have serious doubts about his mother’s version of that story, anyway. She had done a lot of lying to him throughout the years. Maybe things weren’t exactly the way she said about her leaving, either. Not that it mattered. Murdoch and Scott Lancer had a pretty good thing going here, and he doubted if they’d want to share it, even if they knew who he was. He sighed as he realized that he’d probably never know. He had made up his mind that he wasn’t going to tell them; he was just going to ride out when this was over.
Johnny grinned to himself; that is if he was still able to ride. The one thing that had changed, however, was that he no longer was going to put a bullet through Murdoch’s heart. He sort of liked the gruff old man.
He started to put the gun back in its holster when he heard a noise below his camp and a little to the left. He leveled the gun at the spot, and a few moments later, Murdoch Lancer called out in a soft voice. “Hello in the camp.”
Johnny put his gun away and tried to remain nonchalant as his mind frantically wondered what the old man wanted. Johnny had to grin as he followed the man’s progress by his muffled curses as he pushed his way through the brush. When Murdoch finally made an appearance, he went right to the rock next to Johnny and sat down, a little out of breath. “When you decided to camp out, couldn’t you find a place a little easier to get to?”
Johnny looked at Murdoch meaningfully. “If I make my camp easy to get to, I wind up with all sorts of unwelcome visitors.”
Murdoch returned the young man’s look, but he chose to ignore the comment, and instead handed the gunfighter a sack.
“What’s this?” Johnny made no move to get the bag.
“Take it. I thought you might be hungry. I had Maria put some roast in there, and a few tortillas. I think there might even be some apple pie.”
Instead of taking the bag, Johnny slipped the gun out of his holster and began playing with it. “Why you bein’ nice ta me?” he asked suspiciously. “What do ya want?”
The response caught Murdoch off guard. “Does everyone that’s nice to you have to want something?”
Johnny snorted. “Yep.”
“I don’t want anything, I just wanted to apologize for the way I treated you before.”
Johnny wouldn’t meet Murdoch’s eyes. “Why?”
Murdoch shook his head, not knowing what to say. But the boy was right, he did want something. Finally he decided to tell the truth. If anyone could understand, maybe this young man could. Speaking hesitantly he slowly started. “I had a son. He…. I lost him when he was young.”
Johnny’s heart was pounding in his chest. “He died?”
Murdoch hesitated. “No, his mother left me when he was just a toddler and took him with her.”
With tremendous willpower, Johnny tried to bite back the retort that threatened to leap from his mouth. He needed to listen to the rest of the old man’s story before he spouted off, but he couldn’t stop it. “But you kept the important son, right?”
Murdoch jumped up and started pacing. “NO! It wasn’t like that. I loved… I love both of my sons. But John was just a baby, he still needed his mother and I wasn’t here all of the time.”
Johnny played with a small twig that he’d picked up. “So what’s the problem?”
“I didn’t know… I thought my wife would go back to her family. They had money, and I knew the boy would be taken care of there. It wasn’t until much later that I found out that she hadn’t gone back. I tried to find them both; I wanted my son back, but there was no trace of them.” Murdoch hung his head, remembering those troubled times.
“So what does that have to do with me?” Johnny felt as if his heart just might explode. Did his father know?
“I… I’m not sure. I did something horrible. I realize that now. Something that probably cost my son his life.”
Johnny looked up curiously. “And what would that be?”
“I had the Pinkertons try to find the boy and his mother. There was nothing for a long time. Then, when he would have been sixteen, I received a note from the detective agency telling me that they’d found him.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. How could his father not know, then? “What happened?”
Murdoch hung his head and took a deep breath. “Nothing. When I found out he was a gunfighter, I told them not to send me any more information. I thought… I thought that it was too late for him to change.” Murdoch’s voice took on a pleading quality. “I realize now how wrong I was. I’d give anything to change what I did.”
Johnny snorted. “Don’t worry about it, Old Man, you were right. The boy had been on his own for too long, had been through too much, he wouldn’t have changed.” Johnny looked curiously at his father. “Is that what you wanted? Is that why you were being nice to me? So you wouldn’t have to feel guilty anymore?
Murdoch sat back down on the rock and studied his hands. “I don’t know what I wanted. I kept thinking that maybe if someone had shown my son some kindness, he wouldn’t have done the things that he did. That he wouldn’t be dead. And I thought maybe…” Murdoch shook his head. “Never mind.”
“You sure he’s dead?” Johnny asked quietly.
“As sure as I can be.” He looked at Johnny with a worried eye. “You didn’t know him, did you? John Lancer?”
Johnny looked at his father for a long time, anger and longing all mixed up in his heart. Finally he opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the frantic clanging of the fire bell shattered the night.
Johnny went over and grabbed Pete’s reins, cursing himself for letting his father come up here. There wasn’t time for the older man to get down to safety, not on foot. Tossing the reins over the horse’s neck, he led the gelding quickly up to the older man. “Here, get back down to the house and into position.”
Murdoch started to protest before Johnny cut him off. “We don’t have time to argue, now go!” As Murdoch scrambled up onto the horse, Johnny took off down the hill towards the outbuildings.
By the time Pardee’s bunch came thundering into the yard, all was quiet. The man leading the group stopped his men by the barn, a little uneasy about the continued silence. Usually when they rode into a yard at full speed, raising a ruckus, all hell would break loose as the frantic ranchers tried to defend their property. He looked around in bewilderment and wondered if maybe the Lancers had already hightailed it out of here. He reined his horse in the direction of the house, uncertain what to do without Day telling him. Pardee himself hadn’t joined in the attack; he would come in later and try to surprise the overwhelmed ranchers with an attack from a different direction.
The invaders were beginning to believe there was no one there to fight. Some of them started dismounting, while others rode towards the house. The leader looked around skeptically. Pardee had been so sure that Lancer would put up a tough fight. He shrugged. Old Day was getting’ careless, maybe it was time for a new man to be runnin’ things. Maybe he’d try to take over soon. He turned and looked back towards the barn when a glint of metal from the roof caught his eye. He started to yell, and then fell backwards off of his horse, never hearing the report from the rifle that killed him. Secrecy now gone, the defenders pumped every bullet they could at the outlaws as the surprised attackers scrambled for cover and began returning the fire.
Johnny figured they’d killed or seriously wounded maybe eight or nine of Pardee’s men in the first surprise skirmish. Not enough. The remaining attackers had managed to find cover, and picking them off would be difficult. Johnny ran around the side of the barn, firing his pistol as he went, catching one of Pardee’s men by surprise and dropping him. He ducked into the barn itself and quickly reloaded. Hearing a noise, he turned as the man who had challenged him in town stepped into view with a smirk on his face. “Day can’t protect ya now, boy,” he said as he leveled his gun. Johnny’s shot caught him between the eyes and he pitched forward as Johnny ran around him and back out into the battle. Firing several times, he managed to take out another two of the attackers before being forced to stop and reload.
Johnny took cover behind some bales of hay put there expressly for that purpose. Calmly loading his gun, he listened to the sound of the battle raging around him. Most of the defenders were using rifles, while Pardee’s men relied on pistols. From the sound of things, Lancer was at least holding its own. He was a little bit worried, though. He hadn’t seen Pardee, and knew that there weren’t forty men in the first bunch of invaders. Where was Day? He knew Pardee well enough to know that Day wouldn’t miss out on the kill. He would be here, but where and when? Johnny shook his head. He’d just have to keep his eyes open. Day was like a rattlesnake, always showing up when least expected. Just about as hard to kill, too.
He glanced out at the yard and saw one of Day’s men raise up to make a shot. The man was concentrating on the roof of the house and didn’t see Johnny down lower where there had been no fire so far. Johnny rose up just enough to level his gun and shot the man as he tried to duck back down.
Catching movement out of the corner of his eye, he turned just as a man leveling a gun at him from behind went down. Glancing towards where the saving shot had come from, he caught Scott Lancer’s eye and gave a brief nod of thanks before turning his attention back to the fight.
He noticed a man trying to sneak towards the house, using the shrubs as cover. He had almost made it to the French doors. A quick look told Johnny that no one on the roof had seen him, so he fired a shot, catching the man in the side and sending him to the ground.
The sound of the battle had subtly changed. There was definitely more rifle fire than pistol shots at this point. It looked like maybe Lancer would win this one. Taking aim, he dropped another one of Pardee’s men, and then suddenly the few remaining attackers tried to flee. Johnny had advised the men not to show any mercy at this point; if enough escaped they would simply regroup and try again.
The rifle fire chased the men out of the yard, and four or five more of Day’s men went down trying to get out of the yard. Johnny saw one of Pardee’s men trying to escape on Pete on the far side of the barn and he whistled loudly for the horse. When the gelding hit the brakes, the man hit the ground, and as the rattled man tried to stand up, a rifle shell caught him in the chest. As the remaining attackers tore out of the yard, most of Lancer’s men grabbed horses and went after them, firing their rifles at the hapless men.
Johnny quickly reloaded and then put his pistol back in its holster as he stood up to look around at the carnage. Glancing towards the house he saw Murdoch and Scott coming towards him with relieved looks on their faces. Uneasily, he looked around, but seeing nothing amiss to account for his worry, he turned and faced the two men.
Murdoch spoke first. “Do we know how many casualties we had?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, but I don’t think too many. Maybe four or five.”
Murdoch looked at him seriously. “Thank you, if you hadn’t helped us …” Murdoch shook his head. “We owe you a lot.”
Johnny ducked his head. “You owe me a thousand dollars.”
As Murdoch’s eyebrows shot up, Cipriano came running towards them.
“Senor Lancer, Miguel, Thomas and Tony were killed, and Jose, he is hurt bad. A few others have bullet wounds. We need to send for the doctor, Senor.”
Murdoch nodded his head, “Go ahead and send a man for him.”
“I will go for him myself, Senor. Everyone else went after Pardee’s men.”
As Cipriano headed back towards the wounded men, the unease that Johnny had been feeling suddenly sharpened as he realized what was wrong. “Who’s watching the house?”
At Murdoch and Scott’s blank looks, Johnny started towards the Hacienda.
“What’s wrong? Murdoch asked, “There’s nothing left to guard against.”
Johnny was furious at himself for being so careless, and he took it out on Murdoch. “I told you to watch the house. Pardee wasn’t with the attackers. He’s got something else up his sleeve.”
As Johnny broke into a run, he heard the sound that told him he was right. A woman’s terrified scream came from the house.
Murdoch and Scott looked at each other for a moment. “That was Teresa,” Scott breathed.
Johnny ran around to the back kitchen entrance with Murdoch and Scott right behind him. He cautiously poked his head around the corner, and then pulled back and drew his gun. Murdoch started to speak, and Johnny shushed him immediately. Scott looked questioningly at the gunfighter as Johnny motioned for them to follow him. Johnny thought quickly. Pardee was inside, with probably three of his top men, plus the two at the door. Johnny realized there was no way they could surprise the invaders. They were going to have to trick their way in, and if they were going to save Teresa, they had to get in there NOW. Johnny didn’t have time to explain his plan to the two men and listen to all of their arguments. He took a deep breath then brought his gun up and pointed it at Murdoch. “Put your hands up.”
Murdoch stared at the young man without moving, while Scott watched in shock.
“I said put your hands up, NOW!” Johnny motioned threateningly with the Colt, and finally both Lancers did as he asked. Johnny nodded and then jerked his head towards the door. “Go on.”
The three men marched around the corner, startling the two sentries. The guards immediately went for their guns, but hesitated when they recognized Madrid from his day in town. Slowly they got out of his way, then turned and followed him inside.
Murdoch and Scott, with Johnny close behind, entered the house and went straight into the great room. Scott looked in horror at the sight of Paul O’Brien sprawled in a pool of blood on the floor. He looked up and saw a sobbing Teresa being held by a man with a gun to her head, and he immediately started towards her, but in a voice he hadn’t heard before, Johnny spoke up. “Don’t try it, Lancer.”
Scott turned around and saw that Johnny’s eyes had turned as cold as ice, and a chill swept through Scott’s body at the lethal stare. Scott glanced at his father and saw him glaring at the young gunfighter with loathing.
Pardee stood up from Murdoch’s big leather chair by his desk. “Hey, Johnny boy, I see you decided to join us after all. Ya did real good, convincin’ them you was on their side.”
“Day. I told ya’ I’d let ya know,” Johnny smiled.
Day nodded. “What ya got here? Why didn’t ya just kill em,” he said, pointing to Scott and Murdoch.
Johnny shrugged. “Figured it might be more fun ta keep em alive for awhile. This here’s Murdoch and Scott Lancer.”
Pardee smiled and motioned to two of his men. “Get their guns and tie em up to those chairs over there.”
Both Murdoch and Scott were glaring as Johnny allowed them to be pushed towards the chairs. Scott tried to break away, but the man holding Teresa stopped the move by making Teresa cry out. The two men were shoved down into the chairs and tied with their hands behind their backs. Scott watched as Johnny came over and first checked Murdoch’s bindings thoroughly then stepped behind his own chair and gave his ropes several hard tugs. Pardee wandered over and Johnny straightened up to face him.
Pardee studied Johnny. “Old Man Lancer, huh? You’ve been swearing ever since I first knowed ya that you was goin’ ta put a bullet through his heart just like ya did the other one. Now you’re finally goin’ ta get your chance.”
As Pardee’s word’s registered, Scott tried to lunge out of his chair towards Johnny. “The other one? You bastard, you killed him, didn’t you?” Scott was furious. The niggling doubt he had about Johnny’s loyalty finally exploded into belief. He knew now that they had been betrayed. He had liked this man, had trusted him, and come to find out he was not only a traitor but he had killed Scott’s brother.
Johnny looked at Scott, wondering how he knew that he’d killed his stepfather, and what difference it made to him. He merely shrugged and grinned. “Sure I did, and I’d do it again. He was a cowardly bully that needed to be killed. I’m just sorry I had ta waste a bullet on him.”
Pardee laughed at Scott’s rage as the young Lancer cursed Madrid.
Pardee spoke up. “Sorry to interrupt the reminiscing, but we got work ta do. He looked at Johnny. “Ya played it just right, just like we planned. Got Lancer ta get rid of all our excess men so we wouldn’t have ta pay em, then got the drop on these two. I always knew I could count on ya, Johnny. There’s plenty to go around for the seven of us. We’ll live like kings.” He pointed to a pile of cash, obviously taken from the safe that had been beaten into submission.
Johnny had been watching the man holding the nearly hysterical Teresa and turned towards Day. “Well, since I did such a fine job, I think I know what I want.” He walked over to Teresa and lifted her head to look in her eyes. Teresa jerked away from his touch and Scott cursed him as Johnny grabbed her by the hair.
The man who had been holding her gave a token protest, but one look in Johnny’s eyes made him back off. Johnny pulled the girl towards him and gave her a sardonic smile. “I think you and I need to become better acquainted.” The grin left his face. “Upstairs, now,” he ordered as he pushed her towards the steps.
Johnny glanced around at Murdoch and Scott who were frantically fighting their bonds and then he looked at Pardee. You make sure you don’t start the fun without me, hear?’
At Day’s nod, Johnny dragged Teresa up the stairs and out of sight.
Pardee went over to Murdoch. “Guess ya only got one son left, old man. But don’t worry; you won’t have ta worry about it for long.” Pardee chuckled as he looked around. “Ya got a real fancy place here. Think I just might stay awhile. Yep, it suits me just fine.” Day went back over to Murdoch’s desk and sat with his feet sprawled on the top. “Yep, just fine. And I owe it all ta Johnny.” He grinned and watched as both Murdoch and Scott turned red with rage.
Just then a woman’s scream came from upstairs. The men looked toward the sound, but the scream was suddenly cut off.
The two Lancers both turned pale at the sound and Pardee grinned at the men’s fear. “Sounds like she don’t take a fancy ta Johnny boy.” He looked at the two men. “Where’s the rest of the womenfolk?”
Scott looked around, wondering the same thing. His eyes rested on Paul’s body and he felt a deep sadness that Teresa had probably had watched her father die.
When Scott didn’t answer, Day slapped him across the face, hard. Scott looked up at him in defiance. Scott didn’t have a clue where the women were, but he wouldn’t give Pardee the satisfaction of telling him that.
Scott looked over at his father. Murdoch was sitting with his head bowed and his eyes closed as if in deep thought. Scott leaned his head towards his father. “You O.K?” he asked. When his father didn’t respond, he leaned closer, but Day came and grabbed him back. “You two just stay put. I don’t want ya talkin ta each other, understood? Now I asked ya a question, where’s the rest of the womenfolk?”
At Scott’s continued silence, Pardee drew back his fist and struck Scott again, then he turned to one of his men. “Gag ‘em.” He smiled down at the two men. “Don’t worry, I’ll find ’em without your help.”
Scott felt the dirty rag being forced into his mouth and was concerned when he saw that his father wasn’t fighting the gag and appeared to be miles away. He started to lean over again when a voice came from the direction of the stairs.
“I thought you were goin’ ta wait till I got back ta start with them.”
Scott watched as Johnny came down the stairs, wiping a bloody knife on his pant leg. He felt ill and he prayed that Teresa was alive.
Pardee walked over to Johnny and looked at him questioningly.
Johnny shrugged and put the knife back in his belt. The he grinned at Pardee and showed him a bloody bite mark on his arm. “Sorry Day, but she got a little violent.”
“Did ya kill her?” Pardee asked.
Johnny turned towards Murdoch and Scott and looked at them. Scott shut his eyes in rage waiting for the answer.
Scott felt physically ill. He wasn’t sure if it was Teresa’s death or the knowledge that he was the one that brought Madrid here. He should have listened to his father, but he had been so sure that Madrid was trustworthy. He shook his head. He had never been so wrong about somebody in his life, and it was probably the last mistake he would ever make. He didn’t care what it took; somehow he was going to live long enough to get revenge on the gunfighter. The man had killed both his brother and Teresa, who was like a sister, and had turned on all of them and betrayed them.
The gunfighter deserved to die, and Scott was going to make sure he would be the one to send him to hell where the traitor belonged. Scott started working once more on freeing his hands, ignoring the pain as the ropes dug into his flesh. He felt some give, and was relieved that he didn’t seem to be tied as tightly as he first thought. He glanced over to his father once more, and to his relief saw that his eyes were open, intently studying Madrid’s every move. Then he noticed a slight movement behind his father’s chair and Scott realized that Murdoch was also concentrating on freeing his hands. Scott started working his ropes again.
The man who had been holding Teresa when they first entered the room glared at Johnny, then walked towards Pardee. Johnny purposely bumped him as he walked past, and the man turned furiously toward the gunfighter. Johnny punched him and the man backed up and then drew a knife. Johnny drew his own knife and the man began circling, with Day and the others watching with interest.
The man feinted a few times but Johnny focused on the man’s eyes, which told the gunfighter what the man was going to do as well as if he announced it. When the man feinted one more time, Johnny reached out and slashed his opponent’s arm to the bone. The man whirled around and tried to retreat but Johnny backed him into a corner. The outlaw feinted once more, but when it didn’t get the desired response the man panicked and started slashing wildly in Johnny’s direction. Johnny easily avoided the lunges by watching the man’s eyes, and finally, after a particularly violent thrust, Johnny sidestepped neatly and drove the knife into the man’s side.
Pardee was grinning as the man slumped to the floor. “Way ta go, Johnny. Guess that’s one way ta make sure that there’s more money ta go around.”
Johnny glanced over to where his father and brother were tied up and saw the look of disgust on both of their faces. Dropping his head, he cleaned his knife and once more put it in his belt. Looking up, he caught the eyes of one of Pardee’s men. “What’re you lookin’ at?” The man looked bewildered, but Johnny pressed the issue. “I said what’re you lookin’ at? Think you can take me? Come on, give it a try.”
At the man’s bewildered expression, Day stepped towards Johnny. “Leave him alone, he didn’t mean nothin’.”
Johnny kept his eyes locked on the man and shrugged. “He’s nothin’ but a coward anyway, wouldn’t dare try nothin.” Johnny saw that the man was starting to lose his temper and goaded him one more time. “Probably go home cryin’ ta his mommy when this is all over.”
The man finally lost it. “All right Madrid, you and me are goin ta have this out. You call it, guns or knives?”
Pardee spoke up. “You boys just settle down. I can’t afford ta lose any more men.” He looked at the man who had challenged Johnny. “Now you just apologize to Madrid, and forget about takin’ him on.”
Normally the man would have listened, but his anger and humiliation were too great. “You just stay out of this, Pardee. Ain’t no way I’m apologizin’ ta that half-breed pup. No way.”
Pardee turned to Johnny and spoke. “Johnny, leave him alone.”
Johnny grinned at the man. “No way, Pardee. He made his choice.” The gunfighter turned and stared at Pardee, and after a moment Day merely shook his head and backed off.
Johnny turned back to his challenger and simply grinned at him. “Well, what’s it goin’ ta be, guns or knives?”
The man glanced uneasily at his friend lying in a puddle of blood from the stab wound that Johnny had given him, and tried to figure if he had any better odds with a knife. He knew that to shoot it out with Johnny Madrid would be suicide, but he didn’t think he had much of a chance with a knife either. Hesitantly he took out the knife that was tucked into his boot. Johnny’s unwavering grin didn’t make the man feel any more confident, and he stopped to think about his options. He noticed that Madrid was holding his knife in his right hand, his gun hand, and the outlaw suddenly knew what he was going to do.
The man stepped towards Madrid and feinted with the knife a few times, not getting close enough to do any damage. When Johnny lunged forward, slightly off balance, the man jumped back and brought his hand that was holding the knife down almost to his side. Without warning, he opened his hand and dropped the knife at the same time he grabbed his gun, yanking it from its holster. It was almost level with Madrid’s chest when he felt the bullet plow into his own heart, and he fell soundlessly to the floor.
Johnny slid the gun back into its holster then bent to pick up his knife. Closing his eyes for a moment at his close call, he took a deep breath, knowing it was far from over and that he’d been lucky so far. He knew what he’d have to do next. When he opened his eyes, he walked over to the man standing next to Day and pushed him back against the desk. Pardee immediately reached out to grab Johnny.
“Johnny, what’s gotten’ into ya? You’re actin like a bull on the prod. Just take it easy. If ya want ta kill somebody, why don’t ya start with them two?” Day said, pointing at Murdoch and Scott.
Johnny shrugged out of Day’s grasp and went after the other man again. As Day grabbed him, Johnny turned and punched him, sending him back against the desk. When the first man drew his gun, Johnny turned and shot him between the eyes. Finally realizing what was happening, Pardee dove, cursing, behind the desk as the two other men opened fire on Madrid. Johnny turned and took one of the remaining men down, but one of Pardee’s bullets caught Johnny in the shoulder, spinning him around. He turned and fired off a shot, catching Pardee in the chest, and Pardee fell across Murdoch’s desk. Johnny felt the sting of another bullet and turned towards his last remaining adversary.
Scott had been fighting his ropes, and surprisingly he felt the bindings slip. He didn’t know why Madrid was fighting the other men, probably so he could have all of the spoils to himself, but it was a great distraction. Nobody was paying attention to what the prisoners were doing, that was for sure. Scott pulled his wrists out of the ropes, and as soon as he was free he snatched the bandana away from his mouth and dove for the nearest man that was sprawled on the floor. He yanked the man’s gun out of its holster and pointed it at the gunfighter.
Johnny fired once again, and the last of Pardee’s men crumpled into a heap on the floor. Taking a deep breath, he staggered back against the desk, then hearing a noise, he turned and brought his gun up just as Scott stood and took aim at him. Time froze as the two men stared at each other for a long moment before a single shot rang out, and Johnny crumpled to the floor.
Scott looked over and saw Murdoch desperately struggling with his ropes, but instead of helping his father, Scott walked over to where Madrid lay bleeding and kicked the gun out of his hand. Part of him wanted to put the gun to the man’s head and finish him off, but Scott wasn’t a cold- blooded killer, and he knew that Madrid wasn’t going anywhere. Instead he turned and ran for the stairs, steeling himself for what he would find.
Murdoch finally felt the rope give completely and wrenched his hands fee. He snatched the rag out of his mouth then went over to where the gunfighter was lying on his side, bleeding heavily and apparently unconscious. He bent down and used the rag that had been his gag to try to stop some of the bleeding.
Unlike Scott, Murdoch realized what the boy’s plan had been when he felt Madrid try to loosen the ropes when they had first been tied up. He had felt more than a moment of doubt about his motives when the gunfighter had apparently admitted to killing his son and swearing to kill Murdoch, but it had made the older man think about what kind of grudge Madrid could possibly have carried against him all of those years. Murdoch had closed his eyes and thought back on everything that had happened and everything that had been said, and an idea that had been lurking in the shadows of his brain ever since he had seen the boy started to surface. Was it possible? And if it were true, why hadn’t the boy said anything? Was it possible that he didn’t know the truth either? He had studied Madrid’s features, and although he wasn’t positive, the idea had become stronger.
When Johnny had taken Teresa upstairs, Murdoch once again prayed that he was right about the young gunfighter, and when he had heard his young ward scream, his heart had dropped into his stomach. But when Johnny had come back down, he had turned to Murdoch and Scott and winked. Scott, however, had his head down and apparently never saw the signal. It was the only explanation for Scott’s behavior. Murdoch shook his head in frustration. He had never known Scott to be violent unless severely pressed, but his older son’s attack on Madrid had left him shocked.
Murdoch knelt by the young man, praying that the doctor would be here soon. He still couldn’t believe Scott had gone off like that. Didn’t he realize that Johnny was trying to help them? When the two men had drawn down on each other, Murdoch had held his breath, praying that Madrid wouldn’t shoot his son, and he hadn’t. He had seen the doubt in Johnny’s eyes, but the boy had made no move to fire his weapon. Even after Scott had shot him, there was a moment before he fell that Murdoch was sure the gunfighter could have gotten off a shot if he had wanted to, but he had let the gun drop to his side. Why? The only explanation he could come up with was the one that was becoming more and more likely.
Murdoch took Johnny‘s bloody hand in his and talked softly to him, wishing there was some way of knowing for sure. He didn’t think the boy was going to make it, and if he didn’t they may never know the truth. He shook his head sadly and brushed a lock of the black hair out of the boy’s eyes. As he took his hand away he froze. Gently lifting the hair away from the gunfighter’s forehead, he saw a triangular scar just under the scalp line by his temple. A scar caused by a small toy wagon wielded in anger by the boy’s brother. He had seen an identical scar on Scott’s head too many times not to recognize it. He closed his eyes and prayed for a moment, then realizing how much blood the boy was losing, he ran to the kitchen where Teresa kept her first aid supplies and plenty of rags and bandages.
Scott came racing down the stairs after finding the top half of the house deserted. He had run through the empty rooms, throwing open doors in his urgency to find Teresa. Finally he gave up and tore back down the stairs and into the great room to find his father gone and the gunfighter still sprawled where he had left him. He ran over to Madrid, sliding to a stop and going to his knees next to him. Scott grabbed the young man by the shirt and yanked him up into almost a sitting position. “Where is she? What did you do with her? Answer me!!!” Scott gave Johnny another shake, then in anger at the man’s inability to answer, let him drop back. He ran his fingers through his own hair in frustration and was just getting up to find his father when he saw Madrid’s eyes flutter open. Scott grabbed him once more, asking the question again. “Where is she?”
Johnny opened his eyes and looked at Scott in confusion.
“Teresa; where is she? Answer me!”
Finally comprehension dawned in the young gunfighter’s eyes. He stared back into Scott’s eyes before answering. “She went to get help,” he whispered as his eyes slid shut and he passed out once more.
Scott sat back in disbelief. Teresa was alive? Madrid had sent her to get help? He looked down at the young man lying on the floor, bleeding from three separate gunshot wounds, and he realized that the one to the gunfighter’s head had been put there by him.
Murdoch cut his trip into the kitchen short when he heard his son’s angry voice. He hurried back to the great room, fearing for Johnny’s life. He rushed over to the two young men, but Scott was making no move to hurt Johnny. Murdoch sank down next to his youngest son and handed some clean cloths to Scott. “Here, tear these up. We need to get the bleeding stopped.”
Scott looked at his father in anguish. “He didn’t hurt Teresa.”
Murdoch was unsuccessfully trying to get the young man’s shirt off, and didn’t hesitate as he answered his older son. “No.”
Scott took the rags and automatically started tearing them into strips, then turned and stared at his father. “How did you know he hadn’t hurt her?”
Murdoch stopped for a moment and appraised his son. “Because he loosened our ropes when he pretended to come over to check them. There was no reason for him to do that if he were really working for Pardee.”
Scott looked at his father on shock, and then dropped his head. “I didn’t know. I couldn’t feel anything.”
Murdoch nodded his head. “And you were too angry to look at him when he came back down the stairs,” he said in exasperation.
Scott looked up sharply at his father. “Why? What did he do?”
“He winked at us when he said that he had killed her.”
Scott dropped his head once more. “I can’t believe I was so angry that I didn’t notice those things.” He shook his head emphatically. “But after I realized that he’d killed John, I just couldn’t think straight. All I wanted was to get revenge.” He looked at his father once more. “Why didn’t he shoot? You saw him; he could have taken me down easily. I just don’t understand.”
Murdoch looked his son in the eyes, knowing the pain he was about to cause. “Maybe he didn’t shoot you because he didn’t want to kill his brother.”
Scott looked up at his father in shock. “My brother?” At Murdoch’s nod, Scott stared down at the man lying on the floor. “John,” he whispered. He brought his head back up to look angrily at his father. “You knew? And you didn’t tell me? You let me shoot him down like … like a dog?”
Murdoch glared at his son. “I didn’t know for sure until after you had shot him. Besides, I wasn’t exactly in the position to stop you now, was I?” he said sarcastically. “Now we can sit here and discuss this, or we can get him upstairs and try to save his life. We can argue about it later.”
At Scott’s reluctant nod, Murdoch reached down and struggled to pick up his younger son. “Scott, go get some water boiling and bring up bandages and some more clean cloths.” Murdoch glanced over to where Paul was lying. “And get something to cover up Paul; I don’t want Teresa coming back in and seeing him like that.”
Murdoch carried his younger son up the stairs, a lump forming in his throat at the memory of the last time he had carried him up these same stairs, and of all the time they had lost. He carried him into John’s old bedroom and put him gently on the bed. He removed the young man’s gunbelt and the knife that was tucked into his belt, and then used the knife to cut off what was left of Johnny’s shirt. Murdoch swallowed hard when he noted the numerous scars from gunshot wounds and knife fights that littered his son’s chest and shoulders.
Murdoch glanced up as Scott came into the room and set the pile of supplies on the bed. Murdoch looked back down to assess the damage. “He took a bullet between his upper chest and his shoulder, just under his collar bone. It probably went clear through; we’ll turn him over and check it in a minute. That’s the one that’s bleeding the most. Here, Scott, put pressure on it from both sides if you can.” Murdoch handed his son some folded clean cloths to apply to the shoulder wound.
“What about the head wound” Scott asked worriedly.
Murdoch shook his head. “We’ll have to wait for Sam. It’s bleeding pretty badly, but I don’t know for sure how serious it is. There’s nothing the two of us can do about it except wrap it.” Murdoch saw the stricken look on Scott’s face and changed the subject. “This other wound to his arm is just a graze. It’s not bleeding too heavily so I’m going to bandage his head first.”
Murdoch grabbed a long strip of bandage and started to wind it around his younger son’s head. When he was satisfied that the bleeding was slowed considerably, he quickly wrapped the graze on Johnny’s arm. Bending over he grabbed Johnny by the uninjured shoulder. “Lets roll him over so we can make sure there aren’t any surprises, and we can make sure the bullet from the shoulder wound went clean through. If it didn’t, we’ll have to get it out.”
Murdoch and Scott eased Johnny over onto his stomach. Murdoch’s glance went immediately to the wound on John’s shoulder, but a strangled gasp from Scott caught his attention. Shifting his gaze further down, he saw what had caused Scott’s reaction. Murdoch closed his eyes and felt like he was going to be sick. His younger son’s back bore silent witness to the abuse that he’d endured in his short life. Some of the whip marks were fairly recent, while others were obviously extremely old and faded. Old? He must have been a child when some of them were made. Murdoch shook his head. He was still a child.
Fighting for control, he took his hand and checked out the boy’s shoulder, noting with relief that the bullet had gone all the way through, just under the collarbone. He and Scott eased him gently onto his back, and Scott kept pressure on the wounds while Murdoch removed Johnny’s boots and pants and made him comfortable.
Thirty minutes later, Murdoch heard some commotion outside and went to the window. He looked out and saw the rest of his men in the courtyard, and Sam helping Teresa out of his buggy over by the barn. Murdoch opened the window and yelled down at the men to let them know that everything was all right, and then he saw Sam disappear into the barn. He went over and took the cloth from his older son. “Go get Sam. He went into the barn to check the men in there, but we need him in here NOW!”
Scott ran down the stairs and out the front door to the barn. He found Sam treating a minor gunshot wound to a leg; looking around he saw that evidently Jose had not survived his wound. “Sam, we need you in the house, now.”
Sam quickly put the last tie on the bandage and stood up, concern etched on his face. “Is Murdoch all right?
Scott nodded. “Murdoch’s fine, it’s...it’s my brother.” At Sam’s shocked look, Scott continued. “It’s John. Please Sam, he’s badly hurt. You’ve got to help him.”
Sam turned and hurried towards the house, and as Scott turned to join him, he spotted Teresa standing and looking out of the doorway of the barn, looking lost. He glanced towards the house where his brother lay, wanting desperately to go back to him, but he knew Teresa needed him too. He went up to her and gave her a hug. “Are you all right?” he asked softly.
Teresa nodded and her lips trembled. “My father’s dead, isn’t he?”
At Scott’s nod, she broke into tears. “It’s my fault; he was trying to protect me. I was so scared, those men, they…”
Scott grabbed her and hugged her harder, trying to reassure her. “It wasn’t your fault, Teresa. Don’t go blaming yourself for something that you had no control over.”
Teresa turned a teary face up to him. “But I DID have control over it. My Pa wanted me to go and hide with the other women in the attic space, but I refused.” Teresa looked down. “I thought I could help.” She started sobbing.
“Teresa, it wasn’t your fault; those men, they would have done what they did whether you were there or not. Don’t feel guilty, besides, you couldn’t have known.”
Scott hesitated, hating to bring it up, but he had to be sure. “Teresa, when Johnny took you upstairs, he didn’t … hurt you, did he?”
Teresa blushed, and Scott was afraid of what her answer was going to be. He steeled himself for the reply, but when it came, his relief was overwhelming. “Oh, Scott, I feel so embarrassed. I BIT him. I was so afraid, and when he dragged me up the stairs I was fighting him the whole way, that’s when I bit him. Then he pushed me into Murdoch’s room and closed the door.” She hesitated, and Scott urged her to continue.
Teresa looked at Scott. “How was I supposed to know he was just trying to get me to safety?” she pleaded. She closed her eyes and dropped her head. “He asked me if I could climb down the trellis outside of Murdoch’s window. When I said yes, he told me to climb out and wait until I heard the commotion inside, and then I was to grab a horse and ride slowly until I was far enough away for them not to hear, and then go get help. He said he didn’t know if he could take all of Pardee’s men or not and he wanted me to get away in case he couldn’t. He said he tried to untie you, but all he could do without attracting attention was loosen the knots a little.” She looked at Scott. “Did you get free in time? Is everyone O.K?”
Scott dropped his head, and slowly answered. “Murdoch is fine, but Johnny is hurt pretty badly.”
Teresa dropped her head. “We owe him a lot, don’t we?”
Scott nodded, the guilt he was feeling making him almost sick. “I just pray he lives long enough to collect.”
Sam entered the hacienda and sighed when he saw the body of Paul O’Brien being carried upstairs by Cipriano. A couple of other men were taking care of Pardee and his cohorts, and Maria and the other women were already trying to clean the place up. He sighed again at the sight of all the carnage and then hurried up the stairs, wondering what he’d find.
He found Murdoch sitting on the edge of a bed, speaking softly to an apparently unconscious young man, and holding his hand. As Sam entered the room, Murdoch looked up, and the doctor was shocked to see tears in the rancher’s eyes.
“Help him Sam, please. I can’t lose him again.”
Sam walked over to the bed and looked down at the dark haired young man. “Murdoch, are you sure it’s John?”
Murdoch nodded sadly, and lifted up a lock of hair on the boy’s forehead, revealing a triangular shaped scar. Sam looked closer at the scar and then studied the boy’s features. Nodding, Sam bent over and checked his patient’s wounds.
“I’m going to need help. Can you send Maria up here?”
Murdoch immediately shook his head. “I’m staying with him,” he snapped. “I’m not going to leave him alone.”
Sam stared sternly at his friend. “I don’t want you up here. I need Maria, and the longer you wait to get her, the longer John will have to wait to get care. Now go!”
Murdoch glared at the doctor but he had butted heads with Sam before and had never won an argument yet. He reluctantly stood and walked to the door. Before he left, he turned and looked at his son one last time, wondering if he’d ever see him alive again.
Slowly the rancher made his way down the hall towards the stairs. Hearing a noise in Paul’s room, he glanced in and saw Cipriano and his wife laying Paul’s body out on the bed. He turned away quickly, not ready yet to face that reality.
He went downstairs and poured himself a drink, then went to the window and looked out at his shattered empire. He saw Scott by the barn, comforting Teresa and he hoped that she was all right. He was worried about Scott, too. He knew the guilt his son would carry over the shooting would stay with him for a long time, maybe forever if John didn’t live. He looked back out and watched the men trying to clean up and organize things so the ranch could start to get back to normal, and he shook his head. It would take a long time for the ranch to recover. He had lost so much, they all had, but he realized they all would have lost everything if it weren’t for his gunfighter son. The son that he had thrown away a little over three years ago.
He dropped his head. He had been so wrong, so self- righteous. He had stood here in this very room, with its massive furniture and luxurious appointments and had judged a boy who had probably had to fight simply to survive. No matter what his son had done in the past, he had proven that he was an honest and trustworthy young man. Murdoch knew a lot of men who had been raised in the lap of luxury who couldn’t claim those qualities, and wondered how he was lucky enough to have two fine sons.
Murdoch knew that if the boy lived he was going to do everything in his power to get him to stay. He was under no illusion as to the difficulty John would face if he chose to hang up his gun. His reputation was widespread; he was a legend, and as far as Murdoch was concerned, he deserved that reputation. He had never seen anyone as fast with a gun or as lethal in a fight. He just hoped the young man would be willing to give up the glory and the fame to settle down and be just a rancher. Because Murdoch knew that if he wouldn’t, no matter how good he was John would probably be dead before his twenty- first birthday, and that was not an option that Murdoch was willing to consider.
Scott took Teresa’s arm and led her into the house. He had seen Cipriano and the other men go in earlier and hoped that Paul had been taken care of and things were a little more presentable. Teresa was holding up well, but he knew she was probably in shock and needed to get some rest. Scott led her into the kitchen, hoping to avoid the scene of her father’s death, but Teresa pulled away from him and entered the great room. Spying Murdoch, she went over to him and when he enveloped her in his arms, she finally broke down and cried. He comforted her the best he could, and then led her to the couch to sit down. Scott worriedly watched Murdoch, not wanting to interrupt, but desperate to know about his brother. Finally his concern for John won out over his concern for Teresa.
“How is he?” he asked anxiously.
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know, Sam chased me out. He and Maria are working on him now. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Scott closed his eyes in anguish. “He’d be O.K. if I hadn’t shot him. If he dies it will be my fault.”
Teresa looked at him in shock. “You shot him? Why?”
Scott dropped his head, unwilling to tell her that he thought Johnny had killed her. “Because I thought that he had killed my brother.”
“Why did you think that?” she asked in confusion.
“Because of something he said.” Scott continued to look down.
Teresa knew there was more, and she suddenly realized what he was trying to hide from her. “You thought that he had hurt me didn’t you?”
When Scott didn’t answer, she put her head down and sobbed. “He didn’t hurt me; even when I was fighting him he wasn’t rough.”
Scott looked up at her and said softly. “I know that now. But at the time...” He let the sentence hang. “Teresa, there’s something you need to know, something that I just found out.” He glanced at his father before continuing. “Johnny Madrid is my brother, John Lancer.”
As she gaped at him, Murdoch stepped in and answered the question before she asked. “No, we didn’t know until he was already hurt. But he is definitely my son.”
Teresa smiled tremulously. “But that’s wonderful, you’ve looked for him for so long, and now he came home.”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, he came home. Now the trick will be getting him to stay.”
Scott looked at his father grimly. “You mean if he lives.”
Murdoch stared at his son. “He’ll live,” he said emphatically. “I am not going to let him die now, not when I just found him again.”
Two hours later an exhausted Sam came down the stairs. All eyes watched his descent until Scott finally couldn’t contain his impatience. “Well, Sam? Will he be O.K?”
Sam came over to the couch and dropped down on the cushions. He looked at Scott briefly and then turned his gaze on Murdoch. “He lost a lot of blood. The wound on his arm is just a deep flesh wound; it shouldn’t cause any problems unless it becomes infected. The shoulder wound is more serious; it caused a lot of damage and if it starts to bleed again he will be in trouble. He’ll have to stay still to keep the shoulder from opening back up, so if he starts to move around much you’ll have to restrain him.”
Scott looked at Sam worriedly. “What about his head?”
Sam shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s fairly deep; he has a concussion for sure, but it may be worse.” The doctor sighed deeply. “I want you to know there’s a good possibility he won’t wake up.”
Scott looked at the doctor in shock. “No. I won’t accept that. There has to be something you can do.”
Sam shook his head. “Scott, I wish there were, but this is between God and John now. Head wounds are funny things; there’s no way of knowing what will happen. He could wake up in an hour with no permanent damage, or he could wake up in a week with brain damage.”
“Or he could not wake up at all,” Scott said in a flat voice.
Sam slowly nodded his head. “Or he could not wake up at all,” he agreed. He wished he could give the Lancers some better news, but he just didn’t have any to offer. Sam sighed; he had to give them something. “Scott, there’s always hope. We’ll just have to wait and see about the head wound; in the meantime we’ll have to keep him quiet so he doesn’t tear anything open again, and we have to keep the fever down. That’ll be the hard part. If we can keep the wounds from becoming infected and the fever under control, maybe there’s a chance.”
Murdoch was staring at the fire in the fireplace. “Was he conscious at all?” Murdoch said in far away voice.
“No. And I really didn’t expect him to be.”
Murdoch turned slowly and stared at the doctor. “Sam, I want the truth. What are his chances?”
Sam shook his head sadly. “I’m not expecting him to wake up. I’m sorry.”
Scott slammed his fist into the chair, then jumped up and nearly ran out of the room.
Sam turned and looked apologetically at Murdoch. “I’m sorry. I know how difficult it must be for all of you.”
Murdoch watched as his elder son flew up the stairs. “Sam, you have no idea.”
The doctor shook his head, worried at just how John’s death was going to affect this family. He hesitated, unwilling to leave them, but he was needed elsewhere, too. “I’ve got to go check on Norma Peterson; her baby’s due any time now. I’ll try to get back in the morning. In the meantime, if he wakes up, try to get a little water down him and some Laudanum if he’ll take it. Don’t offer him any food; he shouldn’t have anything in his stomach for at least 48 hours. Go easy on the medicine, too. I have to go to my office to pick up the morphine, and if he’s awake I’ll give him some when I come back in the morning.” He laid his hand on Murdoch’s shoulder. “Don’t lose hope yet. He’s still alive, and with the grace of God, he’ll stay that way.”
Murdoch nodded, too numb to do anything else.
Scott opened the door and walked over to the pale figure on the bed. His brother. He had wanted John home his entire life, and now that he was home, Scott wished he’d never come. If he hadn’t come home, maybe he wouldn’t be dying right now. Scott shook his head. If his brother hadn‘t come home, all of the rest of them would be dead by now, but Johnny would probably be fine. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on him.
He wondered why Johnny had decided to come, and he wondered briefly if his brother even knew who they were. Looking back, he realized that Johnny did know. But why hadn’t he said anything? Was he that uncertain as to his welcome, or didn’t he care? After thinking about it for a moment, Scott knew that Johnny did care; maybe he didn’t want to, but he cared. If he didn’t, he never would have stayed and fought on their side, he would have joined Pardee. Scott thought maybe that was the problem. Johnny hadn’t meant to care, or hadn’t wanted to, and the unexpected emotions had made him angry.
Scott thought back to the morning that Johnny went in to town to find out what Pardee was up to, and his brother’s outburst about never having a family and not caring whether he lived or died. Scott had felt sad at the time, but now the memory was devastating. He also knew now why Johnny had become angry the day they had shared lunch under the oak tree. Scott had asked him if he hadn’t ever wanted to be part of something, and Johnny had lost his temper and stomped off. Scott hung his head. Those and a dozen other memories crowded into his mind and made him feel ashamed somehow. Ashamed that he had always had a comfortable home and a loving family growing up while Johnny had nothing. And now it looked like he never would. Johnny’s prophecy that the only home he would ever have would be a burial plot seemed about to come true.
Sighing, Scott pulled up a chair and sat down next to his brother. He reached out tentatively and touched his brother’s arm, then straightened a minute wrinkle in the blanket before sitting back and studying Johnny’s features. He didn’t need to look in a mirror to know that he and his brother looked nothing alike. Their features were as different as their pasts. A frown appeared as he remembered the scars that had marred Johnny’s body, and wondered again about the life his brother had been forced to lead. One thing was apparent, Johnny seemed to be all alone in this life, and Scott made a vow that at least John wouldn’t die by alone. He lowered his head and buried his head in his hands. Why hadn’t he seen the truth, why had his anger blinded him to the point where he had shot an innocent man? And why hadn’t Johnny shot back? His and Johnny’s eyes had locked in that fateful second before he had pulled the trigger, and Scott had seen knowledge in those eyes; knowledge of what was about to happen, and immediately after, acceptance. Scott put his head on the bed and prayed.
Ten minutes later Murdoch quietly opened the door and came in. He had been torn between wanting to make sure that Teresa was O.K. and sitting with his unconscious son. However Maria had taken Teresa under her wing and the two women were sitting in the kitchen, reminiscing and crying. Grateful for Maria’s help, he had excused himself and headed for the stairs. “How is he?” Murdoch asked Scott as soon as he walked in the room.
Scott shrugged. “The same. Pa, I’m so sorry; I didn’t know. I know that’s no excuse.” Scott hung his head in misery. “I’d do anything to take it back.”
Murdoch came over and put his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault, son. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. For not bringing him home three years ago, for letting his mother take him in the first place.”
Johnny moaned and thrashed around a little bit, and Scott immediately leaned over and talked to him softly. Surprisingly to Murdoch, the young gunfighter calmed down and became quiet once again. Murdoch realized that the two young men had almost immediately shared a kind of rapport, and he just wished there had been time for it to deepen into true brotherly love. He looked over at his older son and knew that Johnny’s death was going to be devastating to him. Who was he kidding? It would be devastating to them all.
Both Scott and Murdoch spent the night in the room with Johnny, but he never regained consciousness. They had tried to get a little water down him, but he had choked and they were afraid to try again. Murdoch kept going to the window and looking to see if Sam had arrived yet. He hoped the old doctor would come soon, but it was almost ten o’clock before Murdoch saw Sam’s buggy finally pull up in the courtyard. A few minutes later Sam walked into the room. “How is he?”
“He’s still unconscious, and I think he’s in pain,” Scott volunteered.
“It’s to be expected. Has he come around at all?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No.”
Sam came over and grabbed Johnny’s wrist to take his pulse. “I’m going to give him a small dose of morphine. It may be the pain that’s keeping him under. By the way Scott, there’s a letter for you in my bag. Bill said it came in four days ago but he was too busy to deliver it and asked me to bring it out. It’s from the Pinkerton Detective Agency.”
Scott looked at the doctor, stunned. Four days ago Johnny hadn’t even arrived at Lancer. He walked over to the doctor’s bag and took out a large envelope that obviously contained a report. He held it in his hands for a moment, cursing the fates that had kept it delayed. If he had received this sooner, his brother wouldn’t be fighting for his life right now. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then he opened the envelope and pulled out the bound report with ‘John Lancer AKA Johnny Madrid’ on it. He stared at it for a few moments before slamming it down on the table with a curse. He would read it later. Right now his concern was doing whatever he could for his brother.
Sam gave Johnny an injection of Morphine and kept a close eye on his vital signs, looking for any indication that he was coming around. After almost an hour, Sam shook his head and stood up. “I was hoping it was the pain from his wounds that was keeping him under, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. All we can do now is to wait. I’ll come back in the morning to check on him, and in the meantime the two of you need to get some rest.”
Scott shook his head. “I’m staying with him, Sam.”
Murdoch immediately spoke up also. “Me too, Sam. I’m not going to leave him.”
Sam shook his head. “You can take turns watching him. If you don’t, in a day or so you’ll both be dead on your feet, and you won’t be any good to him anyway.” Sam went to the door. “I mean it, get some rest.”
When Sam had left the room, Murdoch turned to Scott. “You heard him, go on. I’ll watch him for a while.”
Scott looked stubbornly at his father. “I’m staying.” His eyes strayed to the report lying on the table. “Maybe I’ll read for awhile.”
Murdoch followed his son’s gaze and he said quietly, “Maybe you can read aloud.”
Scott looked at his father. “Are you sure you want to hear it?”
At his father’s nod, he picked up the report and settled into a chair by the window. Taking a deep breath he opened the file. For the next forty- five minutes, Scott read about his brother’s life. He read about the abuse and neglect, and the fact that Johnny had been on his own since his mother was killed when he was ten. He read about beatings and how his brother had been horsewhipped for stealing food when he was eleven. He read how a thirteen-year-old boy had called out and killed a grown man in a gunfight, a man who had reportedly beaten the boy’s mother to death in front of the boy three years previously. He read about the range wars, the killings and a long stretch in a Mexican prison. He read about the people Johnny had helped and the men that he had killed. He read about the times his brother had been shot and the times he had been betrayed. But mostly he read about the legend of a gunfighter named Johnny Madrid.
By the time he put the report back onto the table, Scott’s hands were shaking. He didn’t know whom he was angrier with, his father or himself. He couldn’t believe the life that his young brother had been forced to endure, and he didn’t know if he could ever forgive his father for not bringing Johnny home three years ago. He walked over to the window and stared out, forcing himself to calm down before saying anything to the older man. When he finally turned around, the recriminations died in his throat as he stared at the weeping form of his father. Dropping his head, he realized that they both had a lot to make up for, if they ever could. And if Johnny lived.
Murdoch felt as if he were going to be sick. The abuse and violence that marked his younger son’s life was overwhelming. He couldn’t understand how the boy had even survived, let alone turned into a decent young man. By all rights what he had gone through should have warped him and twisted him into a monster. Murdoch shook his head. The young man that he had gotten to know these last few days was honest and caring. Why? Murdoch shook his head; he certainly couldn’t take the credit for it. Maybe no one could except for Johnny himself. If only… Those words rang in his head. There were so many things he would change if he could. He couldn’t go back, couldn’t change the past, but he would make sure that his boy would have every chance for a happy life from here on in. He would live, he had to.
Murdoch finally looked at Scott and saw the guilt and anger in his eyes. “I’m sorry, son.”
Scott’s voice was raised. “It’s him you need to tell – you didn’t want him here!”
“No, I didn’t.” Murdoch’s voice then dropped to a whisper. “I was so wrong.”
Scott stared at his father. “Do you want him to stay?”
Murdoch’s voice was still low. “Of course I do.”
Scott’s voice was deceptively gentle. “You’re not going to kick him out?”
“NO!!” Murdoch exploded at the thought, and his anger boiled over. “What about you? You’re the one that didn’t trust him.”
Scott stared at the man in the bed. “I wanted to kill him. I never should have brought him here.” Once again his voice dropped. “If I hadn’t he wouldn’t be lying there dying. I was so wrong. I’d do anything to take it back.”
“It wasn’t your fault, you didn’t know.” Murdoch turned away and looked out of the window. “He’s been through so much; I don’t want him to have to go through any more. I want him to stay here. I don’t want him to have to be Johnny Madrid any more; I want him to be able to be John Lancer. To be safe and not worry about catching a bullet in his back, not live that kind of life anymore.” He looked at his older son. “Do you think he wants to change?
Scott got angry. “It doesn’t matter if he wants to change or not. He’ll always be Johnny Madrid.” Scott tried to calm down. “He’s also John Lancer. Whoever he chooses to be, he’s still my brother and your son, and I’m not going to let you turn your back on him again.”
“Scott, I wasn’t planning on it. I want him here no matter what, too. I just hope that he’s willing to stay. I’m worried that he’ll want to leave.” Murdoch turned towards the bed. “You read about the warrant. What are we going to do?”
Scott also looked at the man on the bed. “I don’t know, we’ll figure something out.”
The two men were too engrossed in their argument to realize that the young man in the bed had awakened and was groggily trying to make sense of what was being said. The morphine had dulled his senses and he could only hear bits and pieces, but as he lay there with his eyes closed, he heard enough.
“It’s him you need to tell you didn’t want him here.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Do you want him to stay?”
“NO!! What about you? You’re the one that didn’t trust him.”
“I wanted to kill him. I never should have brought him here. I was so wrong. I’d do anything to take it back.”
“It wasn’t your fault, you didn’t know.”
“It doesn’t matter if he wants to change or not, he’ll always be Johnny Madrid.”
“You read about the warrant. What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know, we’ll figure something out.”
Johnny kept his eyes closed and tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter; it had just been a job, and it was time to move on. He lay there for a while, trying to get his thoughts in order and make sense of what had happened. With a flash of pain, he remembered his brother shooting him. He had known by Scott’s eyes that it was going to happen, but he hadn’t wanted to believe it. Somewhere deep inside, he had known how important it was that his brother trust him. He swallowed hard. He had made a mistake of believing that there could ever be something besides a business arrangement with these two men. He had started to care about them, and it had almost gotten him killed. He mentally cursed himself. He hadn’t made that mistake in a long, long time, and he’d never make it again. He would lay up here until he could ride, and then move on.
He forced himself to try and relax. He was going to need his rest if he planned on riding out anytime soon. Maybe he could play possum for a while, so he wouldn’t have to talk to them. If he could just fool them into believing he was unconscious until he regained his strength, he could wait until they were asleep and then sneak out. He could get quite a ways before they realized he was missing.
The only regret he had was that he’d have to leave that Palomino stallion, because he sure wasn’t going to take the chance of Lancer reporting it stolen. He’d made a big mistake when he hadn’t gotten a bill of sale from the old man right away. Seems like he’d made a lot of mistakes since meeting his ‘family.’
He sighed softly. He sure liked that palomino, but he guessed old Pete still had a few miles left in him. As his mind wandered, he realized that if he snuck out, he wouldn’t get paid, either. Oh well, it wouldn’t be the first time, and for some reason not facing the Lancers was more important than collecting the money. He wondered what it was about those two that made him feel that way, and as he was trying to figure it out, he drifted off once more.
When he woke up again it was dark outside, and by opening his eyes just a bit he could see Scott sitting by the bed reading a book. ‘Probably making sure I don’t get up and murder them all in their sleep,’ Johnny thought angrily. He slowly moved his arms, testing his strength, and had to bite back a moan when he tried to move his left arm. He remembered getting hit in the left shoulder and arm, so the pain in his head must be from Scott’s bullet. He snorted to himself. Scott sure must have been serious if he’d aimed for his head; it was just lucky that his brother wasn’t a better shot. A dark part of his mind wondered if maybe it would have been better if his brother hadn’t missed. He was tired of his life. He was tired of being alone. He shut his eyes once more and tried not to think about his future, and eventually he fell asleep.
The next morning Johnny woke up to sunlight streaming in through the window. Murdoch was sitting by the bed this time, dozing lightly with his arms crossed over his chest. Glancing around to assure himself there was no one else in the room, Johnny began to cautiously move his arm to see how bad it was. The pain was bad, but bearable. Keeping a close eye on Murdoch to make sure he didn’t wake up, Johnny slowly sat up. It took him a few moments to overcome the dizziness, and he realized that if he tried to leave now he’d probably fall flat on his face. He figured he’d just keep playing possum for a while till he could ride.
Lying back down, he thought about what he had heard the day before. Guess he couldn’t blame them, not really, but it still hurt. He knew they didn’t know who he was and for some reason that hurt too. He felt the sting of tears and immediately got angry with himself. He’d be damned if he’d let the old man and his son get to him or cause him any more grief. Wiping the tears away with his good arm, Johnny closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep.
Sam walked into the hacienda and noticed Scott sitting in a chair by the fire, fast asleep. He walked over and touched the young man on his shoulder, and Scott looked up in confusion, and then jumped to his feet. “Sam, sorry, I didn’t hear you. Is Johnny O.K?”
Sam smiled at the young man. “I was going to ask you the same thing. I just walked in. Has he come to at all?”
Scott shook his head. “He’s moved around a little, but he hasn’t regained consciousness.”
Sam sighed. If Johnny was still unconscious, it sure didn’t look good. “I’ll go upstairs and check him. Is Murdoch up there?” At Scott’s affirmative nod, the doctor turned and headed up the stairs.
Slowly pushing the door open, he spied Murdoch asleep in the chair by the bed. Sam shook his head. That couldn’t be doing his back much good. Quietly he went over to the still form of the youngest Lancer and felt his pulse. Frowning, he wondered why it seemed a little fast. Maybe an infection was starting; they’d have to watch him carefully. He undid the bandages enough to peek underneath them and was relieved to find no trace of infection. He expertly bound them back up, and then started to bend down to look in Johnny’s eyes when he heard a noise behind him.
The doctor turned and watched as Murdoch slowly stood up and stretched with a wince.
“Murdoch, you shouldn’t be trying to sleep in that chair. Now you need to get to bed and get some proper rest.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I’m not going to leave him alone. How is he?”
Sam looked at his old friend. “You tell me. Has he come to at all?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No.”
At the doctor’s frown, Murdoch continued. “Sam, tell me the truth.”
“Like I said before, we’ll just have to wait and see. But the longer he stays unconscious, the less chance there is of him recovering.”
Murdoch sighed but didn’t answer. Going to the window, he looked out and watched the Palomino stallion that Johnny had tamed. Half to himself he said, “He could have been such an asset to this ranch. I’m so angry with Maria for taking him away, for taking away my chance to have my son.” He turned to the doctor. “After reading that Pinkerton report, I realized just how bad things were.”
Sam dropped his head. “Murdoch, I’m sorry.”
Murdoch’s eyes filled up with tears as he looked at the boy. “So am I,” he said quietly.
Sam looked once more at the form lying so still on the bed. “I’ll come back tomorrow. In the meantime, I want you to promise me that you’ll get some rest.”
At Murdoch’s nod, Sam turned and left the room, cursing Maria himself for the pain she had caused.
Johnny remained totally still, fighting desperately to keep the tears from forming. They knew who he was, and they still didn’t want him. He had known the Pinkertons had been on his trail for a while, but until now he had no idea who had hired them. Evidently they had written a report about his activities and sent it to his father. He could imagine all of the gruesome details that they included and couldn’t really blame his father and brother for writing him off. A thought suddenly leaped into his brain. Had they known before? Had they known but simply used him to help save the ranch? Another, darker thought intruded. Had Scott known who he was when he had pulled the trigger? Were they planning on turning him in for the reward on that warrant, or was it Scott’s way of making sure that he was the sole heir to this vast empire?” Johnny suddenly felt cold. He had been betrayed. Again.
Murdoch tiredly walked into Johnny’s room. He looked at his older son sitting by the bed and said quietly. “It’s time, Scott.”
Scott looked up at his father. “I don’t think we should leave him.”
Murdoch shook his head, he didn’t want to leave Johnny alone either, but they needed to bury Paul, and for Teresa’s sake they both needed to be there. He thought about asking one of the women to sit with his son, but he knew how they had all loved his foreman, and knew they all wanted to pay their respects.
Sighing, he spoke to his elder son. “Come on, Scott, it’ll be O.K. to leave him for a few minutes.” Murdoch looked at Johnny thoughtfully. Sam had been very definite in telling them not to let the boy move around. If he opened up that shoulder wound again, it would be life threatening. Sam had suggested tying Johnny’s arms down if he had to be left alone, but for some reason Murdoch wasn’t comfortable with tying the boy. He decided to let Scott make the decision. “Do you think we need to tie him?”
Scott rebelled at the though of tying his brother down, but at the same time he certainly didn’t want to see him re- open that wound. He thought for a minute, and then finally answered his father. “No, we won’t be gone that long, and he’s been quiet all morning.”
Murdoch accepted his son’s decision. “All right, let’s go.”
Scott reluctantly stood up; he knew his father was right, but something was telling him not to leave. Shrugging off the feeling, he finally turned to follow his father out of the room. Just before shutting the door, he glanced back uneasily. For some reason he had the strange thought that this was the last time he’d see his brother.
Johnny couldn’t believe his luck. He couldn’t have asked for a better diversion. Slowly he sat up, giving the dizziness time to pass. Taking his time, he finally struggled to his feet and was relieved to find that he wasn’t quite as weak as he’d thought he’d be. He went over to the closet, hoping that his clothes would be inside, and was rewarded by the sight of his freshly washed shirt and pants folded neatly on the shelf. Better yet, his gunbelt and saddlebags sat on the shelf next to them. He reached in and took his clothes from the shelf, then turned and went to sit on the edge of the bed to get dressed.
After a struggle he was finally able to get his clothes on; his boots were more of a problem. By the time the boots had finally cooperated and allowed themselves to be pulled on, he was ready to just crawl back into the bed. He sat for a moment to regain his strength, but he knew if he sat there for too long he’d never make it out of the house. When they talked about tying him, it told him for sure that they planned on turning him in for the reward on that warrant, and he knew he had to get away quickly.
He resolutely got to his feet, ignoring the pain as best he could. He walked back over to the closet and took out his gear and gunbelt. After strapping the gun onto his hip, he turned and felt a wave of dizziness start to overcome him. He grabbed the edge of the closet and noticed the bottle of Laudanum sitting on the table next to the bed. He stared at it a minute, trying to make up his mind, but he finally reached over and grabbed it. He might need it later, even though he hated taking the stuff. Taking a last glance around, he took a deep breath and left the room and headed for the stairs.
Looking out of the house, he saw that the yard and barn were deserted, but he had no idea how long everyone would be gone. He figured it wouldn’t be long, and he had already wasted precious minutes just getting dressed. He crossed quickly to the kitchen and got some leftovers and biscuits and stuffed them into his saddlebags, then slipped out the door and headed towards the barn.
Talking quietly to Pete, he saddled the cooperative horse as quickly as he could with one hand. By the time he was finished, he was sweating and breathing heavily, and felt weaker than ever, but he resolutely pulled himself into the saddle. He had to sit for a minute as another wave of dizziness hit and his stomach lurched threateningly. Finally he felt a little better and urged Pete out of the barn. He had only gone a few feet when he noticed that Pete was limping. Bending over as far as he dared, he saw a deep graze in the horse’s upper leg. He straightened up and considered his options. He knew he didn’t have the strength or the time to go back for another horse, and hopefully the soreness would work its way out of the animal’s leg. It didn’t look like it was in danger of bleeding again.
Johnny sat up and stroked Pete’s neck. “Sorry amigo, guess ya shoulda decided to belong ta some schoolteacher instead of a gunfighter.” After one last pat, he nudged the horse into a lope and headed out of the yard.
When he had first arrived he had noticed a small cemetery to the north of the house and he figured that is where everyone would be, so he turned towards the hills to the south, hoping to find a place to hole up for a few days in the rough country where Lancer and his son couldn’t find him.
An hour later, Johnny knew he was in trouble. The dizziness had come back to stay, and he knew by the signs he was starting to run a fever. He grinned to himself; guess he should have stayed a few more days, but Paul’s funeral had been too good of an opportunity to miss. Besides, no matter what happened, it was better than being turned in on that warrant. If he was going to die, he’d rather do it a free man right here than in a cell or at the end of a rope.
He started looking for a place to hole up, but he knew he was still too close to the ranch. He thought he had done a pretty good job of covering his tracks, but he wasn’t sure how persistent the Lancers would be, or how good they were at tracking. He would feel a lot more comfortable if he could put a few more miles between him and the posse. Reluctantly, he reached back and drew out the bottle of Laudanum. Uncorking the bottle, he took a big swig and then replaced it in his pack. He sat for a few minutes, giving the drug time to work. After awhile, he resolutely nudged Pete forward once again.
By the time the sun started its journey down out of the sky, Johnny was barely conscious. He was staying on the back of his horse more by luck than anything else. When Pete stopped, Johnny raised his bleary eyes and looked around, hoping to find some sort of shelter. Instead, he saw that the horse had stopped to drink at a small stream. He half stepped and half fell off of the horse, and he fought for balance before landing on his backside, drenching himself. As he fell, he felt the stitches in his shoulder tear, and he cursed as a wave of pain hit him. He cursed again when he realized he hadn’t even taken an extra shirt and had nothing to use as a bandage to stop the bleeding. Using his hand, he pressed on the wound, trying hard to ignore the plain that flared as he tried in vain to stop the bleeding. He sat there for a long while until the bleeding finally slowed, and he figured that was the best he could hope for.
Still keeping a hand on the wound, he bent over to drink. The cool water felt good, and he drank deeply. Partially revived, he looked around to see if he could see anywhere to hole up, but the landscape was flat and barren of any sizeable brush. Looking downstream in the general direction that he had come, he spotted some large outcroppings a half mile or so back along the stream. He hated to go back in that direction, but he knew he couldn’t last much longer and needed to find shelter before dark. He pulled the bottle of Laudanum out of his bedroll and took a swig, then carefully replaced the bottle. Taking a deep breath, he managed to clamber up onto Pete, and without bothering to leave the stream, he headed back towards the outcroppings.
The horse and rider approached the rocks just as twilight fell. Johnny urged Pete out of the stream onto the rocky shore and started looking for shelter. Fifteen minutes later he was rewarded by the sight of a small cave set back from the stream and half hidden by brush. He guided his horse towards the opening, and saw that although Pete would have to lower his head to enter, once he was inside there was plenty of room. Johnny clumsily got down; jarring his arm and almost passing out from the resulting pain. He grabbed Pete’s reins and coaxed him into the cave, then resolutely went back outside and piled some more brush around the entrance. Finally satisfied, he staggered into the cave and collapsed, the blood from his shoulder soaking into the dirt floor of the cave.
Scott rode through the arch, feeling the exhaustion in both his mind and body. He had ridden in to Green River to see if there were any answers to their telegrams yet, and there had been three replies waiting for him; all negative. Since Johnny had disappeared almost two weeks ago, no one had seen him - it was if he had disappeared off the face of the earth.
They had come back from Paul’s funeral and found Johnny’s bed empty, his clothes and bedroll gone. Scott had felt more than a moment’s irritation at his father when Murdoch had gone to check the safe while Scott had gone to see if his brother’s horse was missing. Scott saw that Pete’s stall was empty and was surprised when he saw the Palomino still in his box. Scott had gone back into the house, and his anger had overflowed at the sight of his father counting the money that had been left in the broken safe.
“Everything there?” he ground out through clenched teeth.
Murdoch looked up at him with a troubled look. “Yes.” He shook his head in bewilderment. “Why didn’t he take the money we owed him?” Another thought came to him. “Is the stallion still here?”
At Scott’s nod, Murdoch’s frown became even deeper. “Badly hurt, an injured horse, no money and damn few supplies. What was that boy thinking?”
Scott’s anger evaporated as he realized that his father was thinking about Johnny and not the money. “It doesn’t matter. He won’t get far. I’m going after him.”
Murdoch nodded. “You go get the horses saddled and I’ll pack some supplies. He shouldn’t have been able to get far, but then again, he shouldn’t have made it out of bed, either.”
It had been hopeless from the start. No one had seen Johnny leave, and there were a multitude of tracks fanning out from the yard in every direction. The two men wound up following the wrong set several times, and then the rain had started. Thoroughly frustrated and upset, they had returned to the ranch to wait out the storm, knowing that any chance they had of finding Johnny was being washed away in the rain.
In the last week, he and Murdoch had sent telegrams to every town within a hundred miles, but Johnny Madrid had dropped out of sight. Scott shook his head in frustration. He couldn’t understand how a man that was hurt as badly as Johnny had been could elude them so easily.
Scott rode up to the barn and stiffly dismounted, handing Charlie to Cipriano to be put away. He turned towards the once welcoming home and heaving a sigh, walked through the courtyard and into the house.
The hacienda was no longer the warm cheerful home it had been a month before. Teresa was still grieving bitterly for her father, and many other long time friends were conspicuously absent. Scott was still angry with his father for not bringing Johnny home three years previously, and he himself was suffering from guilt over the shooting. Murdoch carried his own guilt and usually wound up drinking heavily to blot out the pain. Scott snorted. Even the weather had done its part to make the house seem cold. It had been raining off and on since Johnny had left.
He spotted Murdoch sitting at his desk and looking absently out of the window. Scott turned and hung his gunbelt and hat on the rack just inside the door, then went and poured himself a drink.
Murdoch’s chair squeaked as he turned to face his son. “Any luck?”
Scott dropped his head. “No. No one’s seen anything.”
Sighing, Murdoch swung his big leather chair back around until it was facing the window once again. “Maybe we should get the Pinkertons involved. If anyone can find him, they can.”
“NO! Not until we know what’s going on with that warrant. As soon as your lawyer figures out what to do about it then we’ll consider it, but if the Pinks find him now, they’ll have to arrest him.”
Murdoch shook his head in exasperation. “That might be better than losing him completely. We can fight the charges, but if we don’t find him….” Murdoch’s voice trailed off.
“We’ll find him. I’m not going to stop looking until we do. I want my brother here, where he belongs.”
Murdoch looked down. “So do I Scott. But there’s a possibility that we won’t find him. If he goes back down into Mexico, we probably won’t. And the longer we wait to bring in professionals to help in the search, the worse the odds are of bringing him home.” Murdoch swung his massive chair back so that he was facing the window once again and voiced his own fear. “Scott, he may not want to come home. He has to know that we’re looking for him, and if he wanted to be found, we would have heard from him by now.”
Scott thought back to the conversation they had that day under the Oak tree. No, Johnny wanted to come home, he was sure of it. Then why did he ride off? Scott finished off his drink and walked over to the window to stare out of it with his father. “Why do you think he left?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know. I wish I did. Even if he had already decided not to stay, I don’t understand why he left without taking that Palomino or collecting the money that we owed him. It just doesn’t make sense. It was almost like he was running away.”
Scott’s voice was plaintive. “From what? He had to have known we wouldn’t turn him in on that stupid warrant. What else could he possibly have been afraid of?”
Murdoch looked pensively down at the report sitting on his desk. “I don’t know, son, but we’re going to find out and we’re going to bring him home.”
Scott crossed over to the fireplace and ran his hand along the top, studying the pictures on the mantel. There were pictures of his mother, and pictures of himself and his father. There were even several pictures of Teresa and Paul. Scott swore that both his brother and his brother’s picture would be in their rightful place soon.
Lost in thought, it took Scott a moment for the shouts from the courtyard to register. Grabbing his gun from the rack, he bolted out the door with his father, unsure of what they’d find. He ran towards the corral, then stopped in shock as he saw Miguel leading a familiar buckskin horse towards the barn. He walked up to the limping animal, taking in his bedraggled appearance, and the fear in his heart made it feel like it would explode.
Cipriano came up and took the horse from Miguel and led it over to the hitching post where he unsaddled it. Scott came up and ran his hands over the once glossy coat. “It’s Pete isn’t it?”
Cipriano nodded. “Si, Senor. Miguel found him over in the west pasture, still wearing his saddle and bridle. The reins were broken off, and look.” He pointed at several raw saddle sores on the horse’s body. “The horse had been left saddled for some time.”
Scott took in the condition of the tack and the horse. The unease he was feeling intensified when he saw Johnny’s rifle and canteen hanging from the saddle. If he were able, he would have taken them with him. And by the dirt on both the saddle and on Pete, it looked like the horse had been running loose for a couple of weeks. Scott felt sick. Johnny had never made it off of the ranch.
Murdoch stood in the great room looking at the sole picture that he had of Maria. The picture had been taken only a month after they had been married, and her dark eyes and hair seemed to be alight, even in the faded depths of the photograph. She was so beautiful, and Murdoch didn’t think he had ever hated anyone quite as much. She had taken his son away from him and turned Johnny’s short life into a living hell. And now he was gone. He slammed the picture down on his desk with enough force to crack it. Why had he let her take him? At the time, it had seemed like the only thing he could do. Now he knew he should have fought her tooth and nail to prevent it. He realized that the only reason she had taken his son was to hurt him; she had never cared about Johnny.
He closed his eyes and thought back to the day he had burned the note from the Pinkertons. Johnny had only been sixteen years old, far from being a hardened criminal. He dropped his head. At the time he had assumed that Johnny had become a gunfighter because he wanted to. He remembered his son’s temper when he had been just a baby and had figured that his son had gone bad. Now he knew the truth; his son had never had a choice or a chance, but he certainly wasn’t bad. Now he knew, when it was too late.
Murdoch had pulled his hands off of all but the most pressing of chores after the buckskin had been found, and he had them looking for his lost boy from sunup to sundown. He and Scott had gone out every day for over a week, but no one had been able to find even a trace of the young man. They had searched the vast ranch as thoroughly as they could, but they all knew that there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of places a man could hide where he might never be found.
Murdoch was afraid Johnny had found a place to hide and then been unable to come out for help when he got weaker. Without a horse he would have been stuck in some of the rougher terrain. And without knowing the general vicinity or at least the direction that he had gone, it would be almost impossible to find him. Any tracks had been washed away long before, and Murdoch was beginning to worry that Johnny’s remains had suffered the same fate. The rains had flooded many of the small ravines and washes, and Murdoch was beginning to fear that they would never find his son’s body. Unlike his elder son, Murdoch held out no hope that Johnny was still alive. The boy had been out in the cold and the rain for three weeks now with no canteen, no rifle, and only the few supplies that he’d been able to take from the kitchen before he left.
Murdoch had gone into town and talked to Sam, and after assuring the old doctor that he wanted the truth, Sam had effectively dashed any hopes that Murdoch had about Johnny somehow being able to survive. Sam had pointed out Johnny’s weakened condition, and that the bloodstains on Pete’s saddle had confirmed that at least one of the wounds had started bleeding again. Murdoch had come home devastated by the news, and since then, he had stayed home while the rest of the men searched. He didn’t know if he could handle finding Johnny’s body, and had used his bad back as an excuse.
He had tried to get Scott to listen to reason and leave the searching to the other men too, but his stubborn son had refused to stop looking. The circles under Scott’s eyes had grown darker with each passing day, and his slim frame was bordering on gauntness. Murdoch thought about ordering him to quit, but the growing rift between them made him hesitate, and he doubted that Scott would listen to him, anyway. Scott was obsessed with bringing his brother home, and took his father’s realistic attitude as lack of concern. Murdoch was worried about the effect it would have on Scott if Johnny’s body were never found. He knew that his older son was suffering from horrible guilt over the shooting, and knew that as terrible as it would be, finding Johnny’s body and bringing it home would help give Scott the closure he needed to get past this.
Murdoch was sitting in front of the fire trying to read a book when Scott finally came home, long after dark. His son immediately went to the kitchen to get some leftovers, not even acknowledging his father’s presence. With a sigh, Murdoch stood and went to the kitchen where Scott was slapping together a sandwich from the leftover dinner roast.
Murdoch handed him a jar of Maria’s salsa. “Any luck?”
Scott’s mute shake of the head tore at Murdoch’s heart. “Scott…..”
Scott turned on his father with a vengeance. “Don’t you DARE tell me it’s hopeless, or suggest that I quit. I’m not stopping until I bring him home, one way or another.”
Murdoch put his hand on his son’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. He knew he needed to heal the growing distance between them. “I know son. Do you mind if I go with you tomorrow?”
Scott looked at his father with a skeptical look that soon gave way to understanding. “No, I don’t mind. Are you sure you want to?”
Murdoch felt like crying. No, he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to go out and look for his son’s body, but he realized that if he didn’t, he’d never forgive himself. He met Scott’s gaze. “I’m sure.”
The rain had finally slowed to a drizzle as he stood at the top of the hill. It was so beautiful up here, and so lonely. Scott used to enjoy coming up here and looking out at the panoramic view of his ranch, but the location had lost its charm. He had been here too many times in the last few weeks, and he hoped it would be a long time before he had to come back up here again. He thought back to the day of Pardee’s attack, and wished he could go back and change what had happened, take back the bullet that had come from his gun.
No one blamed him for what had happened, but he blamed himself. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to forgive himself for what he had done, for the pain that he had caused. Sighing, he looked over at his father who seemed to have aged ten years in the last month or so. Characteristically, the older man showed no emotion, but Scott noticed that the hand that held Teresa’s was shaking almost uncontrollably. Teresa’s mouth was set in a grim line; both Murdoch and Scott had tried to prevent her from coming, but in the end she had insisted on being here. Scott had to admit, her presence was comforting, and he was grateful that she was as stubborn as the rest of them.
He closed his eyes for a moment, then walked over and lightly touched the headstone. “I’m sorry, brother,” he whispered before he turned and hurried back to the carriage.
The gunman rode into the town at a slow walk, looking neither right nor left. The coal black horse added to the aura of danger that seemed to surround the man and his low- slung gun proclaimed his profession. The black hat was pulled down low over his eyes, and the restless right hand hovered just above the tied down holster. The sheriff of Green River, Val Crawford, came out and watched as the man rode up to the saloon and dismounted, taking a casual look around before entering the bar. Val’s eyes narrowed. The man seemed familiar to him for some reason, but he couldn’t quite figure out why. He thought about going over to the saloon, but better sense prevailed; the man hadn’t broken any laws, so why go asking for trouble? And one look at the man that had just ridden into his town told him that the man was definitely trouble. Val decided to go into his office and go over wanted posters before deciding what to do. He knew the man’s face was familiar, but he wanted to know for sure what he was facing before confronting the man.
The gunman entered the saloon cautiously, taking everyone inside in at a glance. He smiled coldly as the customers all looked hurriedly away from his stare. Casually, he sauntered over to a table in the corner and glared at the man occupying the chair that he wanted. When the man got up and left, the gunman sat down with his back to the wall where he could watch all of the comings and goings. The nervous bartender brought him a glass and a bottle of his best whiskey, hoping to avoid trouble, but instead the gunfighter took offense.
“Get that rot gut away from me and bring me some of your best tequila.”
The bartender hurriedly changed bottles and retreated to the relative safety of his bar, where he watched in dismay as the other customers gulped down their drinks and left one by one.
The gunfighter seemed not to notice the desertions and sipped at the drink, going over in his mind what his next step should be. Now that he was here, he wasn’t sure just what he wanted to do. It had taken him a while to decide whether to even come here or not. He had come close to just going back down to Mexico and forgetting about the whole thing, but the more he thought about what had happened, the angrier he had become. He figured it wouldn’t do his reputation any good to let something like that go, and besides, it was personal. He had been devastated by what had happened at the Lancer ranch. The old man and his son had destroyed any chance that he had of reuniting with what was left of his family. He had hoped that he and his brother could get to know each other again and someday be as close as any other brothers, but those hopes had been dashed, and now it was time for Lancer to pay.
Once he had made up his mind to come here, it had taken a while for him to be ready; he had been hurt and had almost no money; hell, he hadn’t even had enough bullets left to fill his holster. By the time his wounds had healed, he had lost some of his speed and had to practice for long hours before he was as fast as he was before. He had spent what little money he had on ammunition and food.
He actually had to take a hated job as a trail hand in order to get enough money for some supplies and a decent mount. He had spent three months choking on trail dust and cursing Murdoch Lancer before he had enough money to be able to quit. The trail boss had been none too happy about his quitting; he had threatened not to pay him if he left before the drive was over. The man had been even more belligerent when the gunman had picked out the best horse in the remuda to take with him. Of course, the cattleman had quickly changed his mind when the gunman had made it clear just who he was and that he had no intention of staying. He smiled at the memory of the man begging him not to shoot him. He had almost shot him anyway, just because of the foul mood he was in, but he had controlled his temper; that was the kind of thing that could get you hanged. And he had no intention of winding up at the end of a rope, at least not until he had gotten his revenge. After that? He shrugged. It didn’t really matter.
He no longer had any delusions that he could quit this game and someday settle down on a ranch with his brother. No, he was a gunfighter and he would be one till he died. But when he lost that hope he realized he had lost part of his soul; that he no longer cared about right or wrong, good or bad. He wouldn’t care any more what side he was on; the one with the money was the one that had his loyalty. The big dog got the bone, and he would be sure that he was top dog from now on. It didn’t matter who he had to destroy to do it. That was how he and Day had always differed; Day didn’t care who he hurt or how he got things. He and Day had argued about it more than once, and that is what caused the last argument when they had finally gone their separate ways. With a sad smile, the gunfighter realized he shouldn’t have been so quick to judge. But now it was too late, Day was gone and so was his hope.
Oh, yes, Lancer was going to pay. The gunman tipped his chair back and put his feet up on the chair opposite him as he formulated his plan. He wanted to hurt Lancer bad, make them pay for the pain they had caused him. He thought idly about hiring some men and trying to take the ranch the way that Day had, but he didn’t really want to share the kill. He wondered idly what the Old Man cared for most, his son or his ranch. A slow grin creased his features; maybe it’d be interesting to find out. He’d let Lancer decide, give him a choice
He called the bartender over to him. “You know Murdoch Lancer?” At the man’s nervous nod, the gunfighter looked intently at the man. “You know who I am?”
The bartender finally found his tongue. “Yes sir.”
“Good. Now I want you to give Lancer a message, O.K?”
The man nodded once again.
“I want you to tell him that he has a choice. Either his son comes in and faces me at noon tomorrow; alone and in a fair fight, or he’ll have a war on his hands just like he did with Day, only you tell him that I won’t lose.”
“You are NOT going to go in and face him!” Murdoch’s voice just about lifted the rafters. Bill had ridden out to the ranch just before dark and told the Lancers about the gunfighter’s challenge. Scott was ready to ride into town right then, but Murdoch made him see the wisdom of waiting until the following day to give everyone’s tempers time to calm down.
“Lancer can’t win another war, and you know it,” Scott exploded. “We don’t have more than a handful of men, and with someone with his reputation going against us, half of them will up and walk off.”
Murdoch turned and looked out the window. “Then we’ll lose the ranch. But I’m not going to lose the only son I have left.”
Scott went up and stood next to his father. With a deep sigh he touched his father’s shoulder. “I’m sorry about Johnny. It was my fault.”
Murdoch turned to Scott. “No, son. It was everyone’s fault – yours, mine, Maria’s, Pardee’s. It just wasn’t meant for him to be here with us.”
Scott dropped his head. “Yes, but if I hadn’t betrayed him, maybe he would be.”
Murdoch didn’t know what to say to his son. He knew the guilt and pain would be with Scott for the rest of his life. If only things had been different.
Scott spoke up once more. “I have to go in and face him, and you know it. It’s the only way.”
“Scott, I forbid you to even think about it. It would be suicide!” His voice softened. “Please Scott, I can’t lose you too. We’ll get through this together, one way or another, but please don’t go into town.”
Scott stared at his father. “Do you have a better plan?” he challenged.
Murdoch looked out the window and watched as the men went about their daily chores. There weren’t many men left, but the ones that were still around were loyal to a fault. “I think we’d better meet with the men and see if we can come up with something. I just wish I knew how much time we had to prepare.”
Scott sighed. “I’d be willing to bet not much.”
“Go tell Cipriano that we need to talk to the men tonight, and tell him I don’t want any of them to leave the ranch.”
Scott nodded in agreement. “I’ll go tell him, but I don’t think we’re going to have much of a chance, especially if he’s got men to help him.”
Murdoch faced his son once more. “Maybe not, but we’re going to face this the way families should. Together. Understood? Tomorrow you and I will ride into town and see if we can talk to him; make him see reason. Maybe if he knew what really happened here he might change his mind.”
At Scott’s reluctant nod, Murdoch turned towards the window and thought about his younger son. He still didn’t understand what had happened; why John had taken off like he did. He would give anything to have both of his sons home, together, but he knew that it was an impossible dream. His youngest son was lost to them forever. He would never come home again.
Johnny woke up at around nine o’clock feeling groggy and tired, and he shook his head in disgust at his condition. He knew he shouldn’t have had those last couple of shots of tequila, but he was angry and upset and last night he really hadn’t cared. It had taken him a while to decide what to do about Lancer, but now that he had made up his mind, he would see it through. He put his hand to his aching head. He just wished he could face Lancer without this dang hangover.
He got up and slowly made his way to the washstand and looked at himself in the slightly cracked mirror. The gunfighter stared back at him calmly for several seconds before Johnny dropped his head. He was sick of this life and sick of everything that went with it. If only things had been different. He had seen how Scott had been brought up, with love and a home, with everything that Johnny had never had. The resentment and jealousy boiled up in him again. No, Lancer owed him, and even though nothing could ever make it right, Johnny was going to make sure Lancer paid as much of the debt as possible.
He sat down on the bed and went through his morning routine of checking his rig thoroughly, going over every part of both the gun and the holster. His hands ran along the cold barrel without even thinking, caressing it, but at the same time hating its coldness. Taking a deep breath, he checked the chambers, making sure the lethal bullets were in place, then stood up and resolutely walked to the door. He had seen a small café last night and he figured he’d have a bite to eat before he faced Lancer. Maybe it’d help his hangover.
As he walked to the café, he was conscious of both the subtle looks and the pointed stares. He knew what kind of attention the rig he was wearing caused, and he was used to it. It came with the territory. He glanced over towards the sheriff’s office and caught the lawman looking at him with undisguised puzzlement.
Johnny smiled grimly. He figured the sheriff would probably figure out who he was about the time he was sitting down to breakfast. He hoped the man would wait until he was done eating to discuss it; he wasn’t in the mood for games today.
He walked into the nearly empty café and pulled up a chair next to a corner table. The senorita that waited on him took his order without so much as glancing at him, and he relaxed slightly and let his mind wander over to the upcoming battle. He figured The Old Man and his son would face him together, the two of them seemed thicker than thieves. Oh well, he’d faced down worse odds, and for a lot less money. He allowed a small smile to escape his lips. Maybe when he got the money that was coming to him he could quit fighting, at least for a while. Maybe his luck would finally change and things would start looking up. He glanced towards the man coming in the door and smiled wryly. And then again, he thought, maybe they wouldn’t.
The lawman pulled up a chair and sat down across from Johnny. The gunfighter met the man’s gaze and a quirky grin appeared on his face. “Mornin’ sheriff. Somethin’ I can do for you?”
Val stared at the man. He had seen him ride in the night before and hadn’t been able to place him, but this morning he knew. “You’re Johnny Madrid.”
The gunfighter smiled and nodded his head. “There a law against it?”
The sheriff’s eyes narrowed. “Not that I know of.” He looked at Johnny a moment before continuing. “Murdoch Lancer’s been lookin’ for you.”
Johnny returned the man’s stare. “Is that so? Well it just so happens that I’m lookin’ for him, too,” he said coldly.
“He thought you was dead.”
Johnny smiled grimly. “I bet he did. But I plan on surprisin’ him.”
Val looked at the gunfighter thoughtfully. “That don’t sound too friendly.”
Johnny stared at the lawman. “Lancer owes me, sheriff. And I aim to collect what’s mine, one way or the other.”
Val looked pointedly at Johnny. “I won’t put up with you startin’ anything in my town.”
Johnny looked down for a moment before locking his cold blue eyes on the sheriff. “Maybe you’d better tell that to the Lancers, because like I said, I aim to get what they owe me.”
The sheriff studied the gunfighter for several seconds, then leaned over and rested his hands on the table. “Just make sure you don’t hurt any of them, or I’LL make sure you get what you’re owed.” He smiled coldly at Johnny, and then turned and walked over to a nearby table and plopped down. He smiled at Johnny once more, and then motioned for the waitress, making it clear he was going to stay awhile.
Johnny angrily shoveled his breakfast into his mouth. He was tired of everybody stickin’ their noses where they didn’t belong. Johnny snorted. That damn sheriff was so worried about him hurting the Lancers, but nobody worried much about them hurtin’ him. He wondered again just how much fight the two men would put up. From what he’d seen, Murdoch Lancer was pretty tight with his money. He’d just about choked when the thousand dollars had been promised Johnny in the first place. Johnny had watched when Scott had told the Old Man how much Johnny’s services would cost. Murdoch’s face had gotten so red Johnny thought that the man just might pop, but Scott had stayed calm and given his argument, and Paul had agreed with the younger man. Finally Murdoch had given in, but he had glared at Johnny the whole time and had turned on his heel and walked out as soon as the conversation was over.
Johnny laughed grimly to himself; the Old Man had probably been prayin’ that stallion would stomp his brains out. It sure would have been cheaper for him.
As it was, they almost got away with it. If it hadn’t been for the rain, he probably would have died in that cave, but the water had pooled up by the entrance and kept his fever down and kept him from dyin’ of thirst. He really didn’t remember much of the time he spent in that dark hole, but he did know that he had been out of his head for much of it. When he had finally started to get better, he remembered being cold and hungry and, as usual, so very much alone. Pete had taken off, leaving him without any supplies except a blanket that he had probably pulled off of the horse sometime while he was out of his head. He couldn’t blame the animal; there wasn’t much for a horse to eat in a cave. He just hoped Pete was O.K. He couldn’t remember unsaddling his friend and it hurt to think he’d let his faithful horse suffer.
That first day past the delirium, luck had been on his side for once. A rabbit had wandered into the cave while Johnny happened to be looking in the right direction, and with the easy kill he had food enough for several days. He had cursed himself after the explosion had echoed in the small cave, though. He figured the Lancers were looking for him, and he was angry with himself for doing something so stupid. He had sat with his gun aimed at the entrance for an hour or more, till he was finally satisfied that no one had heard.
Only then did he allow himself to relax enough to gut and cook the rabbit. He was glad for the short time he had spent snowed in with an old Indian up in the Sierras. He had learned a lot of survival tricks from the old man, including how to make a smokeless fire. It was a good thing too, because Johnny didn’t think he could have choked that rabbit down raw.
His strength had gradually started to return, and the dizziness that had plagued him receded. The heavy rains had kept him trapped for long after he normally would have tried to leave, and looking back, he figured they had probably saved his life then, too. If he had left when he had originally wanted to, he probably wouldn’t have made it very far before collapsing. As it was, when the weather had finally cleared and he had hiked out, he had barely made it to the road.
He had lain there for several hours, trying to get some strength back to finish his trek into town, when a stage had rumbled by. He was surprised they had stopped, considering his disheveled appearance, but the driver and his guard were doing a solo run to deliver a mail shipment, and didn’t have to worry about upsetting any paying passengers. After slipping the driver some money, he had been allowed to ride the stage to its second to last stop, a small town just this side of Los Angeles. He had taken a room at the local hotel and holed up for another week or so until he had felt better. Luckily he had enough money from a previous job to buy some more supplies and a decent horse, and he had ridden out two weeks after he arrived, well on his way to recovery.
He had started to ride south back to Mexico where he felt comfortable. He wanted nothing more than to forget the whole incident involving his “family” and all of the pain they had brought him, but the further he went, the madder he got. He had only made it a few miles past Los Angeles when he turned his horse around in a fit of temper and headed back to Lancer to collect his money. By the time he had ridden into Green River last night, he was in one of the foulest moods that he ever been in. It was a good thing he hadn’t run in to either of the Lancers then, or he very well could have done something he would have regretted.
Johnny played with the bite or so that remained of his breakfast. He had lain awake for most of the night, even after trying to get drunk enough to sleep. He had tossed and turned and thought about everything. He still wasn’t sure how to go about getting what was owed him. Normally he’d just ride in and demand what was his; not many men would argue with him. But he was afraid the Old Man would point blank refuse, and as angry as Johnny was about the way he had been treated, now that he was calm he didn’t think he would be able to hurt either one of them. He shook his head. He guessed the only thing he could do would be to confront them. If he convinced them that he was willing to kill for the money they’d probably believe him.
Johnny snorted. No, make that WOULD believe him. They’d thought the worst of him all along; he might as well prove them right. And if they really refused, he’d have to make up his mind then how far he was willing to go for the money. He knew in his heart he would leave before he hurt them, but the question was, how far would THEY go to keep the money? He laughed silently. The worst that could happen was that he’d get shot again.
The sheriff interrupted his thoughts. “What’s goin’ on around here? You two together?”
Johnny looked at the sheriff, puzzled by his comment.
Val pointed out the big window to a man dressed in black, his tied down holster sitting low on his hips. He was walking arrogantly up the middle of the street, eyes glued on someone or something out of Johnny’s field of vision.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he recognized the man.
“You know who that is?” the lawman asked.
At Johnny’s nod, Val looked out the window once again. “He sure looks familiar, but for the life of me I can’t place him.”
Johnny felt a thrill of anticipation and just a touch of fear. “It’s Clay Pardee.”
“Day Pardee’s brother?” Val looked harder at the man, then whistled. “He’s supposed to be…” His voice trailed off as he looked back at Johnny.
Johnny finished the sentence for him. “He’s supposed to be the fastest gun alive.”
Just then Johnny caught sight of another man approaching from the opposite direction. Johnny jammed his hat down on his head and stood up. “If you’ll excuse me, sheriff, I think I have an appointment to keep.”
Murdoch was furious and more frightened than he’d ever been in his life. Scott was at least fifteen minutes ahead of him, fifteen minutes that might mean that he’d never see his son alive again. He should have known Scott would try something like this, but he thought his son had more sense. It was a good thing that Teresa saw him leave the barn and just happened to comment on it to Murdoch.
His laboring horse tried to slow down, and Murdoch buried his spurs deep into the animal’s side. He could feel the horse’s desperate breathing, and he prayed that the animal wouldn’t die before he reached town. He didn’t understand why Scott had decided to face the man. Clay Pardee was the fastest gun around, and Scott must know he didn’t stand a chance. What had possessed him? Murdoch just hoped he’d be able to get the chance to tell his son in no uncertain terms how stupid he was. He spurred his horse again.
Johnny walked out of the café and watched as Clay stopped in the middle of the street and let the other man approach him.
“Lancer,” Pardee sneered.
Johnny looked at the other man standing straight and tall in the center of the street. Even if he hadn’t already known the man’s capabilities with a gun, one glance at his rig confirmed the man was going to die. Johnny shook his head. Why was Scott facing Pardee? It was suicide and his brother had to know it. Johnny took a step closer to the street so he could hear the exchange.
Scott took a deep breath and waited. It was a strange feeling; he knew he was going to die, but he felt strangely calm. He had lain awake all night, and he knew that this was the only way to stop Pardee. He knew that if the man attacked the ranch, especially without Johnny there to help them, they didn’t stand a chance. Scott knew that if Pardee would be satisfied with killing him, then Murdoch and Teresa and the ranch would be spared. And maybe, if he could somehow goad Pardee into drawing without drawing himself, then Val could arrest the gunfighter on murder charges.
Scott took another deep breath before starting the fight that would end his life. He thought about what to say to Pardee that would make him angry enough to make him shoot.
“Pardee. I had heard you were a better man than your brother, but I guess you both crawled from under the same rock.”
Clay smiled. “Anytime you’re ready.”
Scott tried again. “Are you too yellow to draw on me?”
Pardee chuckled. “Nope. But I believe I’ll let you go first.”
“If you kill me, you still won’t get the ranch.”
Pardee shrugged. “I’ll have my revenge. You killed my brother, now it’s time for you to pay.”
Johnny turned to the lawman standing beside him. “Scott Lancer your friend?”
When Val nodded numbly, Johnny answered. “You get over there and get him away. Arrest him if you have to, but don’t let him interfere.”
Val searched Madrid’s face for a moment then turned and started towards where Scott was standing.
As Val hurried away, Johnny reached down and flicked the safety off of his Colt. He watched as Val started to approach Scott and then he stepped off of the walk and spoke. His voice sounded deadly. “Pardee.”
Pardee turned slightly to take in the new threat.
“Madrid!” he said in surprise. “What do you want?”
“You’re goin’ after the wrong man. I’m the one that killed your brother.”
Pardee’s eyes narrowed. “You weren’t even there.”
Johnny glanced over to where Val was pulling a struggling Scott off of the street. “I was there. I let old Day think I was on his side, but I was really workin’ for Lancer the whole time.” Johnny stepped further into the street and away from the buildings.
Scott stared in shock as Madrid stepped into the street. “He’s alive,” he said to no one in particular. Val came up and grabbed his arm and Scott jerked away. “He’s alive.”
Val took hold of Scott’s arm once more. “Yeah, but you won’t be if we don’t get you outta here. Now come on.”
Scott tried once more to pull away from the sheriff, but Val had a vise grip on his arm. “Come on, Scott; let’s go back to my office.”
Scott tore his eyes away from the two gunmen and glanced quickly at Val. “Aren’t you going to stop it?”
“Ain’t doin’ nothin illegal. Besides, it’s between them now. Let it go.”
Pardee watched as Scott was pulled to the side of the street, and then he turned fully towards Johnny. “Why are you protectin’ Lancer?” he asked in confusion.
Johnny shrugged. “They hired me.”
Pardee studied the other gunfighter. “Ya can’t take me, Johnny boy. You know it and I know it. Now why don’t ya just back off and let me get back ta work.”
Johnny kept his eyes on Pardee and grinned. “Be glad to, Clay, but you were after the wrong man. Like I said, I’m the one that killed your brother. Shot him down like a dog.”
“Day was your friend.”
Johnny’s eyes locked on Pardee’s. “Day was a dirty back shootin’ coward and you know it.”
Pardee’s eyes narrowed. “Why you lookin’ ta get yourself killed? You and me were always able ta get along.”
Johnny’s grin became wider. “Yeah, I always wondered about that. Figured maybe you was scared of me, that’s why ya left me alone.”
“I ain’t afraid of you, Madrid.”
Johnny just shrugged. “Whatever you say, Clay. But ya sure are draggin’ your feet about fightin’ me. Like Lancer said, maybe you’re yellow.”
Pardee’s eyes became hard. “All right Madrid, it’s your funeral. Anytime you’re ready.”
Johnny’s grin never faltered, but his eyes became as cold as ice. “You first, after all, you’re Day’s brother, ya need every advantage you can get.”
Scott shrugged out of Val’s grip and stood watching the drama unfold on the street. He couldn’t just stand there and do nothing. “Johnny!” he yelled.
Val grabbed him once more. “Shut up Scott, he don’t need no distractions right now. Ya tryin’ ta get him killed?”
Johnny’s eyes flicked towards the sound of Scott’s voice and Pardee made his move. Johnny’s hand snaked for his gun, cursing himself for letting Scott distract him. With one fluid movement honed by years of experience, he pulled the gun from the holster and leveled the gun at Pardee’s chest. Pardee’s gun was up too, the barrel aimed directly at him, and as Johnny pulled the trigger he saw the flash from Pardee’s gun as Clay fired.
Murdoch jumped off of his blowing horse and ran towards the crowd at the end of the street. He pushed his way through the mass of people and saw two men facing each other on the street. He hesitated, confused when he didn’t see Scott. Then his eyes focused on the man facing him and his heart lurched in his chest as he recognized his son. He had time to take one step towards the two men before the guns exploded. There was total silence and Murdoch stood there in shock. A moment later the sound of Scott’s voice shattered the silence. “JOHNNY!”
Johnny stood with his head bowed, breathing hard. He was starting to feel the pain in his left arm where Clay’s bullet had struck, but for now he was just grateful to be alive. He glanced over to where Pardee lay in the dirt, and knew that it could just as easily have been him lying there. The two men had fired at exactly the same time; Johnny’s aim had just been better on this particular day.
He looked up as Scott came running towards him. “Johnny, thank God you’re O.K. We thought you were dead.”
Johnny looked his brother in the eyes. “What do you care? Now get outta my way.” Johnny looked over and saw Murdoch approaching. His arm was beginning to hurt pretty badly, and he just wanted to leave before it got any worse. He didn’t feel like facing the Lancers now, he’d wait until he was stronger. He grabbed his arm to try and stop the bleeding then turned away from them and started to walk down the street.
Murdoch hurriedly caught up with Scott. “Are you all right?” At his son’s nod, he focused his attention on his younger son. “Johnny!”
The gunfighter didn’t even turn around and Murdoch and Scott followed the young man until they finally caught up with him. Murdoch got in front of Johnny, blocking his way. “Wait, son, please. You need to get that looked at.”
Johnny’s eyes blazed. “Don’t you be callin’ me son. I ain’t nothin’ to you.”
Murdoch met Johnny’s eyes. “You are my son, Johnny, and you mean a lot to both of us. Please don’t leave.”
Johnny glared back at the man. “You sure have a funny way of showin’ that ya care, and I’m not waitin’ around for you ta show me any more. Now get outta my way.” He shoved past Murdoch, and Scott reached out and grabbed Johnny by the right arm. Johnny jerked out of his grip, then turned and landed a fist on Scott’s jaw, sending him backwards into the dirt. “I warned ya before about doin’ that,” he spat. He glared at Murdoch, then turned on his heel and stalked towards his horse.
Murdoch looked around desperately and then saw Val approaching. “Val, I want you to arrest him,” he said, pointing at Johnny.
Johnny swung around and both Johnny’s and Val’s mouths dropped open, but Johnny recovered first. “On what charges Old Man; saving your son’s butt?”
Val turned to look at Murdoch as the older man turned red. Murdoch looked at his younger son for a moment before replying. “Assault.”
Val looked uncertainly at the gunfighter as Johnny glowered at his father.
“Maybe you should reconsider, Mr. Lancer,” the sheriff said hesitantly.
Murdoch met Johnny’s gaze calmly. “No. I want to press charges against him for attacking Scott.” He turned towards Val. “You saw what happened. Madrid threw the first punch. He also stole some supplies from us. Now arrest him.”
Scott finally found his tongue. “Pa, you can’t mean it.”
Murdoch turned furiously on his elder son. “I mean it, Scott. Now stay out of it.” Murdoch turned back to Val and watched as the sheriff cautiously approached the gunfighter. For one horrible moment Murdoch was afraid that Johnny would draw on the sheriff, but after glaring at his father, Johnny slowly took his gun out of its holster and handed it to Val.
Val motioned Johnny towards the jail and with a last angry glare at his father, the gunfighter stomped off towards Val’s office.
Scott started to follow and Murdoch reached out and grabbed his arm. “Wait until Sam looks at him and bandages up that arm. Then we’ll go talk to him.”
Scott shook his head as he stared at his father. “How could you have him arrested?”
Murdoch looked towards where Johnny and Val had disappeared and smiled sadly. “Easy.”
Johnny entered the jail cell and plopped down tiredly on the small wooden cot. Without even looking around, he leaned back against the wall and tipped his hat over his eyes. He’d seen the inside of plenty of jails and he didn’t need to study this one. His arm was really beginning to throb and he hoped they’d at least let the doctor take a look at it. It felt like the bullet was still in there, and the bleeding hadn’t slowed. He smiled as he thought that maybe that was what Lancer was hoping. Leave him in here till he bled to death. It’d sure solve all their problems. The smile left his face. He was more intent than ever that he was going to collect that thousand dollars and the horse, one way or the other. Be damned if he was going to bleed to death just to please the Old Man.
He sat up and looked at his arm, but the bleeding showed no sign of slowing down. “Hey sheriff, got somethin’ I can wrap this arm in? I’m bleedin’ all over your cell, and around here there’s probably some sort a law against that.”
Val came over and looked at the young man. “Sam’s on his way over here. Look, I’m sorry about havin’ ta arrest ya. I don’t know what got in to Lancer.”
Johnny tipped his hat back over his eyes and leaned back once more. “I do,” he mumbled.
A few minutes later Sam came bustling in. He had been just outside of town treating one of the Cooper boys for a bad case of poison ivy. “Where’s the patient, Val? Mike said somebody got shot.”
Val jerked his thumb towards the cell. “In there. Ain’t bad, got him in the arm.”
The doctor nodded and waited while Val opened the cell door. Val remained outside the cell as Sam approached the young man. “Hello there” he said to the top of the hat. “I’m Doc Jenkins, and I’m going to take a look at that arm.”
Slowly the man’s head raised and Sam gasped in surprise as he recognized the owner of those blue eyes. Recovering quickly, he approached the cot and sat down. “How do you feel?” he asked with concern.
Johnny grinned. “Well, Doc, except for the bullet in my arm, I’m just fine.” His grin disappeared. “Course I’d be a lot finer if I weren’t stuck in this jail.”
“Well, let’s get your arm taken care of, then we can se about the rest. Go ahead and take off your shirt so I can see what you did this time.”
When Johnny complied, Sam was again saddened at the scars littering the young man’s chest. The doctor shot a look at Val, who merely shook his head.
Sam examined Johnny’s upper arm, then quickly wrapped it to slow the bleeding. “The bullet’s still in there; it’s going to have to come out.”
Johnny nodded. “I know.”
Sam looked over at Val. “Go get me some whisky.”
Val looked uncertainly at the gunfighter. “Maybe ya better wait out here, Sam.”
“Go get the whisky, Val, I’m fine,” the doctor said angrily.
As Val turned to go, Johnny called after him, “I prefer Tequila.”
Val stopped and looked back at the doctor, who was chuckling.
Sam turned back and studied the young man, who once more had dropped his head. “Everyone thought you were dead.”
“Sorry ta disappoint them,” Johnny said flatly.
Sam shook his head at the young man’s attitude. He examined the old shoulder wound thoroughly and was pleased to see that it had healed quite well. He then looked where the head wound had been.
“You had everybody worried.”
“I bet. Can’t get a reward if they don’t have a body, now can they?”
Sam looked perplexed. “What are you talking about?”
Johnny shook his head tiredly. “Nothin.”
Sam tried again. “It looks like you healed up fairly well, in spite of pulling that stupid stunt and taking off. This time, young man, I’m going to make sure you stay put until you’re healed.”
Johnny snorted and gestured at the bars. “Seems like I don’t have a choice in the matter.”
Sam smiled. “Well, at least maybe those bars will prevent you from taking off until you’re well enough for the ride back to Lancer.”
Johnny snorted. “I DON’T think that’s where I’ll be goin’.”
Sam looked at him quizzically. “And just where do you think you’ll be going?”
Johnny shrugged and looked away. “Don’t matter.”
“It matters to your family.”
“I’m sure it does.” Johnny looked up as Val came walking in with a bottle of tequila. “And since Murdoch Lancer probably owns the judge as well as the sheriff, I guess I’ll be goin’ wherever he wants,” he said pointedly.
Sam looked up at the sheriff in confusion. “What’s he talking about? What’s he in for?”
“Assault and theft,” Val admitted reluctantly.
Sam’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, then he shook his head as he looked back at Johnny. “Don’t worry, Murdoch will take care of it.”
Johnny snorted. “He already has.”
Sam looked at Johnny with a puzzled look. “What do you mean he already has?”
“Why don’t ya ask your fine honest sheriff there?” Johnny pointed at Val
Sam shot a questioning look at Val, whose face had reddening at the implied slurs. Val ducked his head. “Murdoch’s the one that pressed the charges.”
Sam looked from Johnny to Val, wondering what in the world was going on. It just didn’t make sense. He shook his head. They’d get it sorted out later, but right now he had to get the bullet out of the boy’s arm. “Val, come on in here. I’m going to need your help.”
Johnny noticed the lawman’s reluctance to enter the cell. “What’s the matter, sheriff, ‘fraid I might bite?”
Val looked at Johnny suspiciously. “Sam, maybe it’s not a good idea for both of us ta be in there. I can go get Jake ta help ya.”
Sam looked at the lawman with exasperation. “Val, get in here. He’s not going to try anything.”
Johnny ducked his head to hide the smile forming on his lips. Despite himself, he liked the old doctor. He was the first one who had shown him any trust for a long time.
Scott followed his father into the café. Murdoch led the way to a center table and the two men sat down and quickly ordered. As soon as the waitress was gone, Scott leaned over towards his father. “All right. Do you mind explaining to me why you had him arrested?” he hissed.
Murdoch looked at his son in surprise. “Simple. If I hadn’t, he would have been gone by now. As it is, we can go in and talk some sense into him and he’ll be forced to listen.”
Scott looked at his father somewhat skeptically. He had to admit being arrested had kept his hot headed brother from taking off, but he had the distinct feeling it wouldn’t be as easy to get him to listen as his father thought. And he didn’t think Johnny would appreciate being hauled off to jail to spend the night. He was afraid his father’s good intentions just might backfire.
“And you think having him arrested will make him more inclined to listen to us?”
Murdoch glared at his son. “I’m sure it won’t, but I didn’t really have time to think about it, did I? We’ll just have to convince him I did it for his own good.”
At Scott’s strangled snort, Murdoch glared at his son once more before attacking his meal. He didn’t need Scott to tell him that he’d probably made a huge mistake, but he’d fix it somehow. He had to. He wasn’t going to lose Johnny again.
After their lunch Murdoch and Scott went over to the jail. Val was sitting with his feet up on the desk, whittling something with a pocketknife, and the ever- present wood chips were scattered over the floor. When the sheriff looked up and saw them, his feet hit the floor with a crash and he tried to sweep the chips from his desk, but instead only succeeded in scattering them more.
“How is he?” Scott asked.
Val shrugged. “Doc left a few minutes ago. He had ta get the bullet out and Madrid managed to talk Doc in ta leavin’ a bottle of tequila for medicinal purposes.”
“I thought Sam gave his patients whisky.”
Val nodded. “This was a special request. Anyway, between the tequila and the laudanum Doc slipped him, that boy’s goin’ ta be out for awhile.”
Murdoch sighed. “I had wanted to talk to him.”
“Sam says probably tomorrow morning at the earliest, maybe longer if he runs a fever.”
Scott looked worried. “Fever? I didn’t think the wound was that bad.”
Val looked at Scott. “Didn’t appear ta be, but Sam said he had a tendency ta run fevers. Seemed ta know him.” He looked at Murdoch expectantly.
Murdoch wondered how much he should tell Val, but then figured he would find out sooner or later anyway, and besides, Val was a good friend. “He knows him, Val. He delivered him when he was born.”
Val looked confused. “Madrid?”
Murdoch heaved a sigh. “No, not Madrid. Lancer. He’s Maria’s boy, he’s my son.”
Val whistled. “Johnny Madrid’s your boy? Is that why you were lookin’ for him?” Val looked at Scott for confirmation. When Scott nodded, Val shook his head in confusion. “Then why didja have me lock him up?”
Scott sighed. “It’s a long story, but we were trying to keep him from leaving.”
Val still looked confused. “Why?”
Murdoch looked at the lawman in frustration. “Were trying to talk him into staying with us at the ranch, and so far we haven’t had much luck.”
Val looked down at his desk. “Mr. Lancer, forgive me for sayin’ so, but maybe that’s a good thing. That boy’s nothin’ but trouble. You saw how he took down Pardee.”
Murdoch’s temper flared. “Johnny is MY SON. He’s been gone long enough, and it’s time he came home.”
Val tried again. “Ya don’t know nothin’ about him. He’s got a pretty wild reputation, and besides, within’ a month it’ll be all over the state that he took down Pardee. Gunfighters will be crawling out of the woodwork ta get a chance ta take him on. He sticks around and he won’t know a moment’s peace and neither will you.”
Murdoch glared at his friend. “That’s a chance I’m willing to take. We’ll get through this somehow. All I know is I’m not going to let him go again.”
Val shook his head in defeat. “Murdoch, I sure hope ya know what you’re doin.”
Murdoch said tiredly, “So do I, Val. So do I.”
Murdoch turned towards Scott. “I want you to go home tonight and get some rest.”
Scott shook his head stubbornly. “I’m staying with him tonight.”
“Scott, don’t be foolish. There’s no reason for both of us to stay.”
Scott crossed his arms over his chest. “Then why don’t you go home?”
Murdoch glared at his son for a moment before turning to Val. “Can we stay in the cell with him?”
Val hesitated. “That’s a pretty unusual request.”
Scott smiled tiredly at his friend. “It’s pretty unusual circumstances. Come on Val, it won’t hurt anything.”
Val snorted. “You’re the one that might get hurt. Don’t be blamin’ me when he tries ta finish what he started with ya when he wakes up.”
Murdoch smiled at Val’s dire prediction. “I think we can handle him.”
Val snorted again. “Don’t be too sure of that.” He dropped his head and sighed. “O.K., if you’re sure. But you’ve got ta give me your guns and I’m goin ta have at lock ya in. I’ll go get ya some blankets.” He watched the Lancers for any argument, but they both handed him their weapons and walked to the cell.
As soon as the door clanged shut behind them, Murdoch went over to Johnny and sat down on the cot next to him. He felt the boy’s forehead and wiped a stray lock of hair from his closed eyes. Sighing, he sat down on the floor and put his back up against the wall.
Scott came and sat down next to him. “Do you think we’ll be able to convince him to stay?”
Murdoch nodded his head. “We’ll convince him. We have to. I refuse to let him go again.”
“What if we can’t convince him?”
Murdoch caught Scott’s stare. “Then we’ll find some other way to keep him here. I don’t care if we have to hog tie him. He’s not leaving again.”
“I thought you said he was beyond redemption.” Scott said quietly.
Murdoch dropped his head. “I was wrong. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. I just hope he’s willing to forgive me.”
Scott looked at his brother. “I just hope he can forgive both of us.”
Johnny gradually regained consciousness and his first thought was that someone was attacking him. He reached down to his side for his gun, but the gun was missing. Grabbing at the hands that were clutching at him, his eyes flew open and met calm brown eyes looking back at him. It took a second for him to remember where he was, and as the memory resurfaced, his hands gradually lost their grip on the other man’s arms.
“Hey, Doc,” he croaked.
Sam felt Johnny’s brow. “How’re you feeling?”
Johnny tried to shrug his shoulders, and then winced. “Fine.”
Sam chuckled. “You look fine. You’re just like your father and brother. They never admit to being hurt either.”
At the mention of his family, Johnny’s features became grim. “I ain’t nothin’ like them.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because it’s true.” Johnny turned his face to the wall.
“Why don’t you think you’re like them?”
The gunfighter turned to stare at the doctor in disbelief. “Take a good look, Doc. I don’t see any Mexican blood in them. They haven’t made their livin’ by killin’; they don’t have to. They got that big old house with all the comforts.” Johnny dropped his head. “They’re educated, decent men. They ain’t like me at all.”
“John, you’re as much Murdoch’s son as Scott is. You should have been raised in that ‘big old house’ just like he was, and you have every right to be there now.”
Johnny just shook his head. “It ain’t that simple, Doc. They don’t want me there, besides…” he hesitated. “I’ve done things…” Johnny shook his head in resignation.
“You can change if you want to.”
Johnny turned his head and stared at Sam for a moment. “No I can’t. It’s too late for me to change.” He turned and nodded towards Val, who was standing just outside the cell. “Ask him, he knows.”
“Scott and Murdoch know about your past and they don’t care.”
Johnny snorted. “Oh, they care all right.”
Sam sighed. “You’re wrong, John. They were worried about you and they stayed with you all night. They just left to get some breakfast.”
“Why did they stay? They afraid I’d bust out and they’d be out the reward money?”
Sam shook his head. He wasn’t sure what John was talking about, but it was obvious that this young man had learned the hard way not to trust people. Murdoch was going to have a hard time convincing his younger son that anyone cared about him.
Sam tried again. “They wouldn’t have had to sleep on the floor of the cell to do that.”
Johnny turned and looked at the doctor. “You lyin’ to me now, too?”
“No, John, I’m not lying to you. They care about you, and they want you to come home with them. Murdoch has looked for you for years, and he regrets ever letting Maria take you with her when she left.”
Johnny felt his blood run cold. He reached out and grabbed the doctor by the shirt. “Why are you lying to me? What’s in it for you? They pay ya ta tell me that?”
Johnny heard the sound of a gun being cocked and he turned his head. The sheriff had stepped up and had slipped the gun through the bars and it was pointed straight at him. “Let him go, Madrid.”
Johnny locked eyes with the sheriff for a moment, but he was ashamed he had taken his anger out on Sam. He slowly let go of the doctor’s shirt and dropped his head. “Sorry, Doc. But ya don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
Sam sat down on the side of the cot next to Johnny.
Val immediately opened his mouth to say something and the doctor shot him a threatening look. “Stay out of it Val, John’s not going to hurt me.”
The gunfighter turned haunted eyes to the old doctor. “How do you know I won’t?” he whispered.
Sam smiled back at him. “Because, young man, I’m the one who delivered you and took care of you every time you got hurt or sick those first two years.”
At Johnny’s look of shock, Sam went on. “That scar on your forehead, do you know how you got that?”
Johnny unconsciously touched the scar with his hand and shook his head.
“Scott gave it to you. He hit you over the head with a toy wagon when the two of you got in a fight.”
“I hope Scott looked worse than I did,” Johnny said with a slight smile.
Sam chuckled at how close to the truth that was. “Actually, you both looked the same. Scott has the same scar on his head, and you both screamed bloody murder when I sewed you up. And if I remember correctly, you started it.”
Johnny looked down. “Figures,” he mumbled. After a moment he looked back up at Sam. “Why are ya lyin to me about what happened? Old Man Lancer kicked me and my mother out; he didn’t want no half- breed kid.”
Sam shook his head and sighed. How did he ever come up with that? Did Maria actually tell her son that? And what in the world happened to make him grow up the way he did? “That’s not what happened, John. Your mother left of her own free will and took you with her.”
“That ain’t the way I heard it.”
“Then you heard wrong. Believe, me, I know. Your father was devastated when she left, and has always regretted letting her take you with her. At the time he thought he was doing what was best for you. He thought that you were too young to be without your mother. He assumed she would take you and go back to her parent’s estate in Mexico, and that you would be well taken care of. By the time he realized that isn’t what happened, you and she had both disappeared. He didn’t kick either of you out, and you WERE wanted, John.”
When Johnny didn’t respond, the doctor stood up. He heard the front door of the jail close and some familiar voices. “I’m not lying to you John. Ask them yourself.”
Val opened up the cell door and Sam walked through to the front office.
After the doctor and the sheriff left, Johnny leaned back against the wall and shut his eyes. His mind and his emotions were going in about twenty different directions, and he felt like he just might explode. He didn’t like the feeling of losing control. He wished the Lancers would just leave him alone. He didn’t know what the truth was anymore, and he didn’t care. He just wanted to leave and put this behind him, forget the whole mess. Maybe if he could get away from them, he could think clearly. He never should have tried to come back and get the money; he should have just kept going till he reached Mexico. He dropped his head and sighed. Another stupid mistake in a long line.
Sam and Val walked into the office and Val carefully shut the door separating the front from the cell area. Sam felt bad for the young man but he didn’t know if anyone could help him; maybe John was right, maybe it was too late for him.
Murdoch spied Sam first. “How is he?”
Sam nodded. “He’ll be fine. There’s no trace of a fever and the wound is clean.” He hesitated and then shook his head.
“What, Sam? What’s wrong?”
Sam looked at the two men who were so hopeful about getting John back. “I just don’t want you to be hurt too badly if it doesn’t work out.”
Scott winced. “Did he try to escape?”
Sam smiled slightly and shot a glance at Val. “No. But that boy has been badly hurt his whole life, and I don’t mean just physically. I’m not sure he’ll be able to get over it, or ever be able to trust anyone again. And if he can’t, I don’t want the two of you to go blaming yourselves.”
Murdoch looked straight at the doctor. “Who else should we blame, Sam?” The doctor simply shook his head, and Murdoch turned his attention to his older son. “Would you rather I talked to him first?
Scott shook his head. “I think we should both be there.” He grinned wryly. “I have the feeling it’s going to take both of us to convince him.”
Murdoch nodded his head, but didn’t share Scott’s good humor. He was looking forward to this about as much as he had looked forward to visiting Green River’s dentist last year. He knew they were in for a fight, and he also knew it wasn’t going to be an easy one to win. He steeled himself; this was one fight he refused to lose. He didn’t care what it took or what methods he had to use to achieve a victory. He turned to Val. “How long can you keep him locked up on those charges?”
Val shrugged. “Until the circuit judge gets here, maybe another week.”
Murdoch looked at Scott. “We have one week to convince that boy to stay.”
Val shook his head. “Ya might as well try and tame ya a cougar, and it’d probably be a whole lot safer.”
Murdoch ignored the sheriff and stared at his older son. “You ready?”
Scott returned the look. “I’m ready, but just make sure you don’t lose your temper. Getting mad at him won’t solve anything.”
Murdoch nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
“You’d better do more than that,” Scott said grimly.
Johnny heard the men approaching and tensed, then immediately scolded himself. He didn’t know why his father and brother had that effect on him, but he was more apprehensive now than when he faced down Clay Pardee. He realized he had felt uneasy since he first met them, and he didn’t like the feeling. He was used to being in control of his emotions; never letting them get in the way. He had made shutting his feelings off his way of coping with the hurt and pain he had endured, and up to this point it had always worked. He couldn’t quite understand why this time was so different. He shook his head and breathed deeply, forcing himself to remain calm and giving him strength for whatever was coming. He didn’t know what they wanted, but he figured it couldn’t be good. He made himself look up and meet their eyes as the sheriff once more opened the cell door to let the men in.
They hesitated just inside the cell as the iron door clanged shut behind them.
“Just holler when ya need help,” Val smirked as he walked back out to the outer office, leaving the men alone.
Murdoch stood uncertainly for a moment, and then slowly approached the cot where Johnny was sitting. Johnny waited until Murdoch got closer, then jumped to his feet as the man approached. A wave of dizziness washed over him and he took a step back. Murdoch reached out to steady him and Johnny immediately pulled his arm out of the man’s grasp and stumbled back against the wall. “Get your hands off me, Old Man.” Johnny wrapped his arms around his body in an unconscious protective gesture.
Murdoch stood uncertainly as he watched his son’s face. It saddened him to see the anger and suspicion in those blue eyes, but what hurt the most was the trace of fear the young man was unable to hide.
Johnny glanced over to where Scott was standing then looked back at his father. “What’s the matter, ‘fraid ya couldn’t do a good enough job by yourself Old Man? I’m surprised ya don’t have the sheriff come in ta join the fun. Bet he’s itchin’ ta get his hands on me.”
Murdoch looked confused for a moment until he realized with shock that John was expecting to get beaten.
Murdoch sat down abruptly on the cot and shook his head slowly as he watched his son. The boy was jammed up against the wall, breathing heavily and darting glances between he and Scott. Any trace of fear was gone and replaced by a look of grim determination. Val was right. John reminded him of a trapped wild animal right now, and he knew that it wouldn’t take much to get the boy to react violently. He silently cursed Maria for doing this to their son and wondered sadly how many times he had been beaten in the past to make him react like this.
Remembering how his son had spoken to the stallion when he had been trying to calm the animal, he started talking in a low, soothing voice. “John, listen to me. No one is going to hurt you. Scott….your brother and I just want to talk to you.”
Johnny stared suspiciously at the older man.
“John, I promise, no one is going to do anything to hurt you. You’re not in any trouble; we just want to talk to you.”
“You had me arrested.”
Murdoch nodded his head. “Yes, I did. But I had no choice. You would have left. It was the only way we could make you stay long enough so that we could talk to you.”
Johnny looked at the man in disbelief. “You had me arrested just so you could talk to me? Boy, it must be nice to have that much money.”
Murdoch was puzzled. “What do you mean?”
Johnny answered with a smirk. “It must be nice ta have enough money ta have the sheriff in your pocket. Can’t wait ta meet your judge.”
Murdoch could feel his blood pressure rising. He opened his mouth but Scott interrupted him and shot him a warning look.
“John, we just want you to talk to us. If we have you released do you promise you’ll stay and talk?” Scott asked hopefully.
Johnny snorted. “Nope.”
Scott shook his head in frustration. “Won’t you at least listen to what we have to say before you judge us?
“Did you wait, Scott?” Johnny snapped. “Before you judged me?”
Scott dropped his head in shame. “I’m so sorry.”
Johnny dropped his head again and stared at the floor. “What do you want?”
“John, please come sit down.” Murdoch motioned to the cot where he was sitting.
Johnny shook his head but made no move to sit. “Get it said, Old Man,” he ground out.
Murdoch took a deep breath before starting. “I want you to know how sorry I am for letting your mother take you all those years ago. I never should have let her do that; I know that now, but at the time I thought it was for the best.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, the best for you. You didn’t need no half – breed brat complicatin’ things. You had the son that mattered.” He shot a look at Scott.
Murdoch felt his temper start to rise once more, and made a conscious effort to keep it in check. “That’s not the way it was. I loved you both equally. I wanted both of you at Lancer with me. It was your mother that had different ideas.”
“You threw us out!”
Murdoch’s voice rose. “Your mother left and took you with her! I did NOT throw you out!”
“Ain’t the way I heard it,” Johnny mumbled.
Murdoch exploded. “Your mother left me with no warning! She packed up one day and told me she didn’t love me any more and that she was leaving me for another man!” Murdoch watched his son’s bent head and softened his tone a little. “She had you and Scott in the carriage before I knew what was happening.”
Johnny’s eyes came up slowly and met his father’s, and Murdoch realized what he’d just confessed to.
The hurt in Johnny’s eyes was evident when he spoke. “Like I said, ya managed ta keep the important son.”
Murdoch shook his head in frustration. “That’s not how it was. You were little more than a baby, you…you needed your mother. Scott was older. I know now I was wrong, but then… I thought I was doing the right thing. I didn’t know until it was too late what a horrible mistake I had made….” Murdoch’s voice trailed off.
Johnny snorted. “I needed her? More like the other way around. I came in handy ta make people feel sorry for her. Poor Maria, kicked out by her husband and saddled with a half- breed brat. It was usually good for a handout or two, that is till I got older, and then I wasn’t much good for anything except being used as a punching bag by her men.” Johnny bowed his head and his voice dropped to a whisper. “I wasn’t even good enough to save her when one of her men decided to beat her to death.”
Murdoch closed his eyes and swallowed hard. There was nothing he could say. Nothing he could do to take back what had happened. He couldn’t imagine what his son’s life had been like. He looked back up at his younger son. “John, if there were any way I could go back and change the things that happened, believe me I would. I’m sorry for the way you were treated, I’m sorry for everything.” He looked into his son’s blue eyes. “Please son, give us a chance.”
“A chance at what?” Johnny spat. “I’m not a kid anymore, Old Man. I don’t need you or your son. I don’t need a father or a brother, I don’t need anybody. I can take care of myself. Why don’t you do everybody a favor and just leave me alone!”
Scott stepped towards him. “We are NOT going to leave you alone. You’re been alone most of your life and it’s time you were with your family where you belong. I’ve been waiting to find my brother my whole life, and I’m not going to let you go now.”
Johnny looked at Scott with a cold smile. “Why? Need some more target practice?”
Scott felt his temper rising and then he realized his brother was right. He bit back the words he felt like saying and bowed his head. “I’m sorry, I should have known better. I was just so upset that I wasn’t thinking clearly. I thought you’d betrayed us, and then Pardee said that you wanted to shoot Murdoch just like the other one, I thought….” Scott shook his head in confusion. “Just who was he talking about?”
Johnny dropped his head, the memory bringing back the pain he had felt at the time. “My stepfather.” He glanced at Murdoch before looking back down. “The man who beat my mother to death. I swore I’d kill both of you for what you had done to my mother.”
“Why didn’t you?” Murdoch asked quietly.
Johnny continued to stare at the floor as he shrugged his shoulders. “I did kill him. I gut shot him and left him ta die in the dirt.”
Johnny avoided Murdoch’s stare and instead looked up and studied Scott. “That wasn’t the only reason you wanted to kill me though, was it?”
Scott dropped his eyes as the gunfighter stared at him. “No.”
Johnny sighed then shook his head. “You thought I’d killed Teresa, didn’t ya?”
When Scott didn’t answer, Johnny laughed bitterly. “Ya talk about trust – how much do ya trust me? Give it a rest, Scott. Ya don’t trust me anymore than I trust you, and that’s not a hell of a lot.”
Scott’s voice rose. “I DO trust you, you’re my brother.”
“What difference does that make? You don’t know nothin’ about me. I’m a stranger to you. No reason for ya ta trust me, you’d be stupid if ya did.”
“I trust you. I know now that you wouldn’t hurt us.”
Johnny looked into his brother’s eyes and took a step towards Scott. “Don’t be so sure about that.”
Murdoch hurriedly got between his two sons. “John’s right, Scott. It takes time for trust to build; it’s not something that will happen overnight.” He turned towards his younger son. “Are you willing to stay here with us long enough to give that trust a chance?”
Johnny shook his head sadly. “Why are you trying to convince me that somethin’s changed? It hasn’t. You knew who I was before and ya didn’t care then. Well in case ya haven’t noticed, ya don’t need me any more. Pardee’s dead.” He turned towards Scott and looked him in the eyes. “Both of ‘em.”
Scott had a slight smile on his face as he met Johnny’s gaze. “If you didn’t care, why did you fight Clay Pardee? Why didn’t you let him kill me?”
Johnny snorted. “Don’t think I saved your sorry hide ‘cause I gave a damn whether ya lived or died; you hired me; it was part of the job. Besides, Clay was after the man that killed his brother and that was me. You had nothin ta do with it.”
Scott looked at his brother and smiled sadly. “Why can’t you admit that you care? Even a little bit? If you didn’t you wouldn’t have come back, and you sure wouldn’t have interfered when Pardee was trying to get me to fight him.”
Johnny smirked. “Actually you were goadin’ him into the fight if I remember correctly. And the only reason I came back is ta get the money ya owe me.” He looked at Murdoch. “You still owe me one thousand dollars and that Palomino horse,” he challenged.
Murdoch had been thinking about something Johnny had said earlier, and he was only partially listening to what Johnny was saying. Realizing John was speaking to him, he nodded and then asked the question that was bothering him.
“You said that we knew who you were before. Why do you think that?”
Johnny shook his head. “I ain’t stupid. I heard the two of you talkin’ that day when you thought I was still unconscious. You knew who I was all right.”
Scott took another step towards his brother. “We didn’t know until after you had gotten hurt.”
Johnny snorted. “Well, that was real convenient, wasn’t it?”
Scott’s temper was starting to wear thin. “I don’t think it was convenient at all.”
Johnny glared at his brother. “Sure it was. Keep me around long enough ta get rid of Pardee, then just happen ta remember who I am long enough ta collect the reward. Seems real convenient ta me.”
“Is that what you think we did?” Scott yelled.
“I don’t think it, I know it.” Johnny yelled back. “You didn’t want ta share your daddy or all your money with nobody, let alone a no good half- breed gunfighter, so ya CONVENIENTLY shot me so ya wouldn’t have ta worry about it. Getting’ the reward was just a bonus. The only problem is you’re a lousy shot and I didn’t die. Sorry I ruined your day.”
Murdoch started to step between the two men once again, but it was too late. Scott made a lunge at Johnny, who met him head on. Murdoch desperately tried to stop his sons but they were both beyond reason. He grabbed Scott’s arm and yanked him back a step but only succeeded in giving Johnny an opening. The gunfighter crashed his fist into Scott’s jaw and Scott went spinning backward onto the cot. Murdoch turned to face his younger son and saw Johnny’s fist draw back just as Val came barging into the cell. The sheriff grabbed Johnny by the bad arm, and like a cat, Johnny turned and lifted the gun from Val’s holster. Pushing away from the two men, Johnny backed up and leveled the gun.
Everyone froze. The gun that was pointed at Val’s chest never wavered as Johnny stared at the lawman. Murdoch was the first to move. He took a step towards Johnny, and the gunfighter flicked his eyes in his direction. Johnny’s voice was as cold as ice. “Don’t try it Old Man.”
Scott slowly stood up and approached Johnny. “Give me the gun.”
Johnny glanced at Scott and shook his head slightly. “You don’t know when to quit, do ya?” The gun changed direction until it was pointed at Scott. “Now everybody get back against the wall.”
Murdoch and Val immediately took a step back but Scott stood his ground.
Johnny locked eyes on the man. “Ya go deaf? I said move back.”
Scott started back at his brother. “No.”
Johnny cocked the gun and watched his brother.
“Scott, get back here, now!” Val’s voice was sharp.
Scott shook his head. “No.”
Johnny watched him with a disbelieving look on his face. “Ya think I won’t shoot?’
Scott shook his head again. “No,” he said calmly. “I KNOW you won’t shoot. You’re my brother, and besides, you’re not the type of man that would shoot someone down in cold blood.”
Johnny grinned coldly. “You willing ta bet your life on that?”
Scott nodded seriously. “Yes, I am. I have too much to lose if I fold.”
Johnny looked at him quizzically. “And what would that be?”
Scott looked the gunfighter in the eyes. “My brother.”
A flicker of uncertainty showed in Johnny’s eyes as he stared deep into Scott’s eyes to find the truth.
Scott’s voice was pleading. “Johnny, please.”
The two men stared at each other for an eternity, and then the gunfighter slowly lowered his gun as he continued to stare at his brother.
Val quickly came forward and grabbed the gun from the gunfighter’s hand and slipped a handcuff around his wrist, but Johnny never moved. A wave of emotions was warring in his soul, confusion and uncertainty topping the list. And somewhere, deep inside, the first glimmer of hope.
Murdoch had been watching, mesmerized by the drama. At last he came forward. “Val, you don’t need the cuffs. Take them off.”
Val shook his head stubbornly. “No sir. If you want ta stay and talk ta him, fine. Personally I think your wastin’ your time. But I’m not goin ta take any more chances. I’m goin ta make sure he can’t start no more trouble.”
Johnny was uncharacteristically docile as Val led him over to the cot and pushed him down, shackling the free end of the handcuff to the end of the cot. He sat with his head bowed, already mentally cursing himself for falling for it. He figured they’d start in on him any time now, and he braced himself as Murdoch approached him.
Murdoch saw the flinch and again silently cursed Maria for the life their son had been forced to live. He sat down next to Johnny and studied him for a moment. “Are you all right?”
Johnny’s eyes flew towards him and he looked at his father in surprise. Mutely he nodded.
Murdoch sighed and leaned back against the wall. “John, we didn’t know who you were until after you were hurt. I saw that scar on your forehead and then a report came from the Pinkertons. I guess I was pretty dense, not guessing before then, but heaven help me, I didn’t.” He lowered his head. “I thought you were dead. I thought you had died long ago. I’m sorry. Please, son, give us another chance. Come home where you belong.”
As much as he was tempted, as much as he needed to believe, there were still questions in Johnny’s mind; questions that needed answering before he could even start to think about going with these two men. He looked at Scott quickly before looking back down. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answers. “You said that ya made a mistake bringin’ me here, that I couldn’t change, that I’d always be Johnny Madrid.”
Scott nodded his head in agreement. “And that I wanted to kill you.” When Johnny didn’t respond, Scott glanced at his father before continuing. “I meant all of those things, but not in the way you took them. When I said that I had made a mistake by bringing you here, it was because you had been hurt. If you hadn’t have come, you wouldn’t have been shot. And you’re right; I did say that you’d always be Johnny Madrid. But you also have always been and always will be John Lancer. And you belong at the ranch with your family.”
Johnny sat with his head down. Finally he shook his head before looking at his brother. “You’re wrong, Scott. John Lancer died a long time ago, when my mother took me away. The only part of me that’s left is Johnny Madrid. It’s who I am, and I can’t change.”
Murdoch spoke up. “We’re not asking you to change.” At Johnny’s raised brows, Murdoch clarified. “John, we hope that if you chose to come home that eventually the part of you that is Johnny Madrid will fade away. We understand it won’t happen overnight, but if you want it to, it will happen. And I’ve met the man inside; he’s an honest and caring young man. That part of you will always be there.”
Johnny looked up at his father. “You don’t understand. I can’t just quit even if I wanted to. They’ll come after me, especially now. If I don’t fight em, they’ll go after you or Scott or even Teresa. I’ll be forced to fight whether I want to or not.” He hesitated, but they had to know it all. “I’ve done things that I’m not very proud of...” He smiled slightly. “And that I know you wouldn’t be very happy with.” He looked at Murdoch. “How can you want me to stay; you read the Pinkerton report. I can imagine what was in it; you think they made all that stuff up?”
“No, I don’t think they made it up, but I don’t think it’s all the truth, either.” When Johnny looked at him inquiringly, Murdoch continued. “All they gave us were the cold hard facts. They didn’t tell us the whys or the reasons you did the things that you did.” Murdoch dropped his head. “Besides, we’ve all done things that we’re ashamed of,” Murdoch hesitated, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I gave up trying to find my own son and then abandoned him when he was finally found.” He looked up at Scott. “And Scott shot an innocent man who happened to be his own brother.”
Johnny looked up at Scott. “It ain’t the same. I’ve made a livin’ from killin’ for a long time.” He dropped his head in resignation. “Besides, it don’t make no difference. I’m wanted. You know that, you were goin’ ta hand me in for the reward.”
Murdoch and Scott looked at each other before Scott replied. “Just where did you get that idea, if I might ask?”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, you can ask, but you already know. The day I left I heard you and the Old Man discussin’ whether ta tie me up while you were gone.”
Scott shook his head vehemently. “Is that why you left? You thought we were going to turn you in?”
Johnny shrugged, uncertain. “One of the reasons.”
“Johnny, the only reason we even considered it was because Sam was afraid you’d open up your shoulder wound. He didn’t want you to lose any more blood. He said if you got moving around to much while you were unconscious that we should tie you to prevent you from opening it back up.” Scott was shaking his head.
“You weren’t gonna turn me in?” he asked skeptically.
“No! Of course not!”
Johnny looked back up at Murdoch and sighed. “It don’t matter, I’m still wanted for murder.”
Murdoch returned his son’s stare. “No, son, you’re not wanted.”
Johnny looked up in confusion. “Sure I am.”
Murdoch shook his head. “No. I had my lawyer look into it. I couldn’t believe that you were guilty of murder, and I figured there was more to the story than what the Pinkertons reported. My lawyer went over to Colorado and found that the charges weren’t legitimate and got them dropped.”
Johnny looked at him hopefully. “Yeah?”
Johnny smiled slowly. “Sure ya didn’t send a hired gun? Baker hated my guts. Can’t see him droppin’ that charge without a fight.”
Murdoch looked sternly at the young man. “No he wasn’t a hired gun, but I never said he wasn’t capable of winning a fight.”
Johnny ducked his head, trying to hide the unexpected surge of emotions. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Murdoch looked hopefully at his son. “John, you said that we owed you one thousand dollars and that Palomino. Is that right?”
Johnny nodded. “I earned it.”
Murdoch smiled. “Yes, you did. But I have a different proposition for you.”
Johnny looked up warily, wondering what the old man was going to pull.
Murdoch glanced at Scott, who nodded. Murdoch took a deep breath. “I’m offering you one third.”
“Of Lancer and everything on it. One hundred thousand acres, thirty thousand head of cattle, and the finest palominos in the San Joaquin. If you’ll agree we’ll have the papers drawn up this week.”
Johnny looked from Murdoch to Scott, his eyes narrowing. “What’s the catch?”
Scott shook his head. “No catch. The three of us will be equal partners.”
Murdoch nodded. “But I call the tune. Agreed?”
Johnny studied the men. There had to be a catch. Nobody gave up something like Lancer without a fight. He had seen how determined Scott and Murdoch had been to keep it from Pardee, and now they were turning around and offering part of it to him. It just didn’t make sense. Johnny looked at Scott, who didn’t seem upset at all by Murdoch’s offer. “You’re O.K. with that?” he asked suspiciously.
Murdoch spoke up. “Actually, Scott insisted on it.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “What if I leave?”
Murdoch’s eyes closed in disappointment. “John, one third of that ranch is rightfully yours, whether you’re there or not. But we’re hoping you’ll stay.”
Johnny picked up his hand as far as the handcuff would allow and studied it. “Don’t have much choice at the moment.”
Murdoch shook his head, his voice catching. “John, you’re free to go if that’s what you want. But please give our offer some thought. We want you home where you belong.” Murdoch’s eyes looked pleadingly at his son.
Johnny thought for a few moments. He had always hoped for a home and a family and thought that it was out of his reach. He realized that this was probably the only chance he’d ever have to make his dream a reality. There was a good possibility that it wouldn’t work; they’d probably kick him out as soon as they realized just how much of a problem his past would be, and he was afraid of letting anyone get that close to him. He wasn’t sure if he could trust them, but maybe, just maybe it was worth the risk.
Murdoch and Scott exchanged worried glances. They knew that Johnny was finally considering their offer seriously and they were afraid he would turn them down. They watched him apprehensively as he hesitated a moment before glancing shyly at his father. “Think you can talk that sheriff of yours into undoing these handcuffs now?”
Murdoch smiled. “I think that could be arranged.” Murdoch’s smile faded. “Will you agree to come back to Lancer and at least give it a try?”
Johnny looked into his father’s eyes, and then shook his head before finally smiling. “You don’t know what you’re getting’ into Old Man.”
Murdoch grinned. “Neither do you. And the next time you call me ‘Old Man,’ you’ll be digging post holes for a month.”
Johnny’s eyebrows shot up. “The next time ya call me John I get ta sleep in for a month.”
Scott grinned; he had the feeling that life would no longer be boring. He went to the cell door and yelled for Val.
The sheriff came through the office door like he was expecting more trouble. Instead, he thought that Murdoch and Scott both looked like they’d won a hundred dollar pot in a poker game. He looked at the two men expectantly.
Murdoch walked over to the bars. “Val, turn him loose. I’m dropping the charges.”
Val’s mouth dropped open. “Why?”
“Because MY BROTHER is coming home with us. We’ve got a new partner.” Scott beamed.
Val shook his head and shot a warning look at Johnny. “You’re crazy. You’re goin’ ta trust him?”
Murdoch stared at the sheriff. “Val, give me the key to the handcuffs and open up this cell NOW or next election you can kiss your job good bye. And I don’t want to hear one more word against Johnny, understood?”
Val tossed Murdoch the key and opened the cell door, muttering under his breath about ungrateful friends who didn’t have any sense and were looking to get themselves killed.
Johnny followed Val out to the office where the sheriff grudgingly gave the gunfighter his rig and his few personal belongings. As Johnny strapped on his gun, Scott and Murdoch left to go get their horses. When Johnny was done he straightened up and looked at the disgruntled sheriff. “You’re a good friend of theirs, ain’t ya?”
Val nodded sullenly.
Johnny smiled. “You can stop worryin’. I ain’t goin ta hurt em, and I’m goin ta do my best ta make this work. Just keep watchin’ over em and you and I’ll get along fine.” Johnny hesitated a moment then continued, “Oh, and by the way, you should be more careful when ya lock somebody up, or ya just might wind up dead.” Johnny grinned and pulled a small derringer out of a hidden pocket and showed it to Val before turning and walking out the door.
When Scott led Johnny’s horse up, he mounted gracefully despite his arm. “Did ya find Pete?” he asked his brother.
Scott nodded. “He’s fine. One of the men found him in the west pasture. He had a few saddle sores, but Cipriano got him all fixed up.”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll have ta remember ta thank him. Pete’s been with me for quite a while. Guess we’re both gonna be retiring.”
At Scott’s puzzled look, Johnny explained. “Pete’s getting’ a little old, he deserves a rest. Beside, I think I’m gonna have my hands full with Barranca.”
“Yeah, that Palomino. He’s a fine animal.”
Johnny ducked his head and smiled. “Juan Martinez Barranca was the man who taught me how to break horses. He was one of the great horse whisperers from Mexico.” Johnny glanced at Murdoch and ducked his head. “He took me in and taught me how ta work with horses when I was just a kid. Gave me a chance. He was a friend.”
Murdoch looked over at his two sons. “Are you two ready to go home?”
Johnny looked over at Scott and grinned. “I still think you’re makin’ a mistake.”
Scott laughed. “Probably. Let’s go home.”
The three men pulled to a stop up on the ridge above the valley. Murdoch looked over to where Paul lay and sighed. Things were changing. The ranch had suffered great losses, but looking at his youngest son he realized the gain had been enormous. “That’s our land. As far as you can see. The most beautiful place in the whole wide world. Lancer.”
Johnny looked out over the land and felt a surge of hope for the future; a future he never thought he’d have. He wondered again what it would have been like to grow up on this ranch with his father and his brother. A memory surfaced of his thoughts when he had first found out that he had a brother and a grin formed on his lips. “Hey Scott? Ever play kick the can?”