It was late afternoon on a picture perfect day in early summer. Scott Lancer had plans to take a short ride around the ranch and then come back and laze around with a good book. In the background he could hear his brother, Johnny, Johnny’s pals of the Prankster Posse, and Jelly Hoskins fussing at each other. Jelly was the handyman for the ranch and did a lot of the menial chores – when he wasn’t supervising somebody else doing them. Johnny, Kevin, Willie and Rico were all kidding him about the housekeeping job he’d roped them into a few weeks ago and how they’d done all the work while Jelly had merely supervised. Scott grinned as he heard it because that’s exactly what he and Johnny had been telling the grizzled old fellow for weeks. Jelly took pride in “his” work and he’d run the boys ragged. The barn looked good, as did the North Stable, for they had cleaned out all the stalls, disposed of old, moldy hay – as much for the benefit of the horses’ stomach as for the risk of fire. Every piece of tack, be it saddle, bridle, halter or harness, had been saddle soaped and polished. Blankets had been strung over clotheslines and the dust beaten out of them.
He was only half paying attention to what he was doing as he walked toward the ramp leading out of the barn and into the yard. Because of this he found himself stepping on something slippery that he had not seen. He lurched forward and thought sure he’d saved himself from an embarrassing fall but then he found tripped on a corner of the saddle blanket for it had shifted out of position the moment he lost his balance. Down he went in a heap twisting his ankle as he did so.
“Scott?” Johnny had heard his brother’s cry of pain as he fell to the ground. “What’s wrong?”
A moment later Johnny, his pals and Jelly were at Scott’s side relieving him of the saddle and blanket that he’d been carrying.
“What happened, Scott?” Johnny asked.
The blond grimaced, “I tripped over the saddle blanket but I would have been fine except I slipped on something when I stumbled.” Reaching down he rubbed his right ankle. “My ankle hurts like blazes!”
Pushing his brother’s hands away Johnny gently probed the ankle with his long, lean fingers.
“Doesn’t seem to be broken. Can you stand up?”
“I don’t know,” Scott replied.
Kevin, being the closest other than Johnny, reached down and took Scott by the left arm as Johnny took Scott’s right arm. Together they lifted him up so that he was in a standing position. Scott’s ankle refused to hold his weight and he found himself being helped to the house by Johnny and Kevin while Rico and Willie put the saddle he’d been carrying on the corral fence and hung the bridle over it. It was when they were walking away from the scene that they discovered what Scott had slipped on. For now they would keep it to themselves but it wouldn’t be long before they started giving him a hard time about it.
Doctor Sam Jenkins came out to the ranch a few hours later and diagnosed Scott’s problem as a severely sprained ankle. No broken bones or torn ligaments but it would be sore and unable to bear his weight for at least three days – if not a full week or more. On that cheery note he left instructions for Scott to stay off his ankle as much as possible and use the crutches he’d brought with him to help him get around. When he was sitting down Scott was to keep the ankle elevated and cold cloths were put on it to keep the swelling down if there wasn’t any ice available.
His family made him as comfortable as they could in one of the easy chairs with a hassock pulled up to rest his foot on. Once they were sure he was going to be all right the Prankster Posse started in on him.
“Hey Scott, I’m sorry we missed your acrobatics,” Kevin smirked.
“Must have been quite a sight,” Willie added, “when you slipped.”
“Especially when he slipped on that pile of manure,” Rico said with a smirk of his own.
“Is that what happened?” Johnny asked. “He slipped on a pile of manure?”
“Yeah,” Willie said with a sparkle in his dark eyes.
“Oh brother, you sure must have looked…”
“Don’t you say it, brother,” Scott said.
“Whatever it is that’s going through that mind of yours. Not one word.”
“Why not? You must have looked pretty funny,” Johnny said bursting into laughter.
The next thing Johnny knew his brother had pulled one of the pillows out from behind his back and was whacking him with it. The other four laughed and grabbed pillows of their own – pillows that were a recent addition to the Great Room furnishings and would soon be trash if this kept up.
The noise brought Teresa, on her way back from the kitchen with a pitcher of lemonade and a glass for Scott, into the room in a hurry.
“What’s going on in here?” she demanded to know. “What are you doing to my pillows?”
“Just having a little fun with Scott,” Johnny said as he continued to try and hit his brother who was fending him off quite well.
“Put those pillows back where you got them and leave Scott alone!” the little brunette commanded. “Now get out of here,” she added when they finally complied with her wishes.
Johnny and the Prankster Posse did as she said but only because Murdoch came in right behind her and repeated Teresa’s “request” in a stronger tone of voice. Their laughter could be heard as they left the house and closed the French doors behind them.
The next morning, Sunday, dawned bright, clear and hot. In deference to the weather Maria and Teresa served a cold lunch of chicken that had already been fried, plus bread, butter and a salad which all enjoyed after returning from church services. For dessert there was a buttery pound cake, which lasted all of five minutes once Johnny and Scott got to it. After dinner Scott hobbled out to the shady veranda where he settled himself in a comfortable chair with his injured leg propped up on a hassock that Teresa had provided when Murdoch had moved the chair. One of the chairs that they usually sat in would have been fine if it were not for the fact that Scott had to sit for extended periods of time with the leg elevated. However those chairs reclined too far back and he would have had difficulty in getting up and down from it by himself. Being under orders to keep off that foot altogether was tricky when it came to the stairs and certain pieces of furniture. Rest, ice, and elevation were what the doctor had prescribed and Teresa and Maria were making sure that he obeyed those orders. If not ice then cold compresses were in order.
The two women made sure that he was comfortable. Maria provided a pitcher of lemonade and a glass while Teresa fetched the books that Scott wanted from his room. One was a history of England’s Civil War. The other, which was about to be the cause of harassment from the Pranksters – including Johnny – was a book of poetry that Scott’s grandfather had sent to him. Currently Scott was up to the epic poem The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Had he known how much grief it was going to cause him he would have left that particular book in his room.
Lulled by the breeze blowing through the treetops, the smell of the flowers in Teresa’s garden plots and the buzz of the insects in the warm air Scott fell asleep in the chair with the book on English history on his chest and the poetry book on the floor of the veranda next to him. His awakening wasn’t nearly as pleasant.
“Hola the house!” Rico yelled from where he sat atop his horse, a dark bay gelding named Eagle.
“Hey Johnny, you ready yet?” Kevin called to their buddy.
“Come on Johnny, time’s awasting. It’s getting late to go fishing.” That was Willie adding his two cents worth.
Scott awoke with a start when he heard Rico’s voice. Groaning he looked over toward the hitching rail to see his brother’s three best friends dismounting as they went to the door. The three of them had become such a fixture at Lancer over the last year or so that they didn’t bother with the formalities of knocking at the door any more. They just rode up and yelled until Johnny made his appearance. It annoyed Scott, who had been raised to be a proper gentleman who knocked at the door of a person’s home, to hear these three, and Johnny had gotten to be just as bad. The only exception, as far as Scott could see, was when they went over to the Bar T. Maura Talbot might spoil them all with her home baked goodies, invitations to meals and the special little things she did for all of them but she expected them to be on their best behavior when they visited her home and that included company manners and knocking at the door before entering.
“Why don’t you fellows go up to the door and knock like civilized men instead of standing out here yelling?” the aggravated blond asked.
“Why should we do that?” Kevin wanted to know. “Johnny’s expecting us. We’re not looking to go into the house – we just want him to know that we’re here.”
“I think half the valley knows you’re here,” Scott retorted. “I know the ranch does.”
The three young men walked from the hitching rail to stand near Scott’s seat on the veranda. Willie was the first to spot the poetry book on the ground by Scott’s chair but first he took the book that Scott had laying on his chest and flipped through it.
“You really read this stuff?” he asked. “There’s no pictures or anything to make it interesting and the print is really small!”
Now Willie could read the book perfectly well but he, like his three friends, couldn’t resist giving the Eastern raised blond a hard time. As far as they were concerned there were far better ways to spend a hot, summer afternoon and fishing was high on the list.
“Yes, I really read ‘this stuff’! Now give me back my book!”
“Let’s see that book, Willie,” Kevin said with a grin. “It must be really fascinating stuff if Scott can fall asleep while he’s reading it.”
“For your information, Kevin Millar,” Scott said, “I fell asleep simply because it was warm and quiet out here. At least it was until you three showed up.”
Johnny came out the French doors at that point and joined in the fun at his brother’s expense. “What’s goin’ on out here?”
“We were just chatting with Scott,” Kevin said with an impudent grin.
“Yeah? About what?”
“About this book he’s reading,” Willie said with a wink. “It looks awful hard to me and there’s no pictures in it. Looks pretty boring.”
While they were talking Kevin picked up Scott’s crutches and began “hobbling” around with them. Willie continued to skim through Scott’s book about the English Civil War. Rico spotted the poetry book on the floor of the veranda and took the book Willie held in his hand while handing him the poetry book.
“Oh, look!” Willie exclaimed with a laugh. “Scott’s reading poetry! Are they love poems, Scott?”
“Love poems? You mean those ones where the man is always saying flowery things no real man would say to a girl?” Rico asked.
“No,” Scott said as patiently as he could. “Just poems in general by men like Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. No Lord Byron or any of the kind you’re thinking of.”
“Lord Byron!” Kevin exclaimed. “Isn’t he the one that wrote ‘How Do I Love Thee Let Me Count The Ways’?”
“No, that’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Lord Byron wrote ‘She Walks In Beauty’. Now will you give me my book back please, Willie?”
Willie thumbed through it and then handed it to Johnny who flipped through the pages until he came to one that he was utterly fascinated by – at least that’s what he wanted his brother to think. In reality he found it very silly and was about to let his brother know how he felt – as would his buddies.
“Hey, listen to this – ‘Should you ask me
Whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors’ – I think that means smells – ‘of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions’ – what does that mean?”
“Repetitions? That means to say, or do something, over and over again,” Kevin explained. He had an excellent grasp of the finer points of the English language – when he wanted to - while Johnny still struggled with what he called “fancy language”.
“Oh.” He continued on, “’And their wild rever-reverb’ –“
“Reverberations,” Scott said with a scowl as Johnny continued.
“’Reverberations. As of thunder in the mountains?’”
Willie took the book and picked up where Johnny left off. Kevin was leaning on the crutches deep in thought. Nobody had bothered to read the title but he knew that poem from somewhere.
“’I should answer, I should tell you,
From the forest and the prairies
From the great lakes of the Northland,
From the land of the Ojibways,
From the land of the Dacotahs,
From the mountains, moors and fe-lands
Where the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
Feeds among the reeds and rushes.
I repeat them as I heard them
From the lips of Nawadaha,
The musician the sweet singer.’”
Now it was Rico’s turn and he would struggle a little bit while both he and Willie tried to control their laughter at what he was reading. Scott, meanwhile, was looking more and more perturbed with his brother’s friends.
“’Should you ask where Nawadaha
Found these songs so wild and wayward,
Found these legends and traditions.
I should answer, I should tell you,,
“In the bird’s nests of the forest,
In the lodges of the beaver,
In the hoofprint of the bison,
In the eyry of the eagle!’”
Rico stumbled over Eyry but, having heard Willie a moment before, was able to handle Nawadaha pretty well. As Rico finished reading his passage, Kevin’s eyes lit up with recognition.
“Oh my gosh! I don’t believe it!” he exclaimed. “That’s The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow! Scott’s reading Hiawatha!”
“What’s the big deal about that?” Johnny wanted to know.
“The big deal is that that poem is a monster! Listen to this – I had to learn this in school about ten years ago. I hated it but my Pa had a book of Longfellow’s works and helped me with it.”
Kevin put the crutches down and took the book flipping through the pages until he came to the section entitled Hiawatha’s Departure. Rico picked up Scott’s crutches and began hobbling back and forth with them which further annoyed Scott who was helpless to defend his precious book or anything else, being lame like he was for the time being.
“’By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
At the doorway of his wigwam
In the pleasant Summer morning,
Hiawatha stood and waited.
All the air was full of freshness,
All the earth was bright and joyous,
And before him, through the sunshine,
Westward toward the neighboring forest
Passed in golden swarms the Ahmo,
Passed the bees, the honey-makers,
Burning, singing In the sunshine,
Bright above him shone the heavens,
Level spread the lake before him;
From its bosom leaped the sturgeon,
Sparkling, flashing in the sunshine;
On its margin the great forest
Stood reflected in the water,
Every tree-top had its shadow,
Motionless beneath the water.’”
Kevin could scarcely finish reading that passage, he was laughing so hard. The part about Gitche Gumee had always made him laugh and it was no different now except that his father couldn’t force him to read it any more and there hadn’t been one teacher, who liked this poem, who could get him to recite it without making fun of the Indian words in it.
Willie stared at Kevin with his mouth wide open while Rico eyed Scott in disbelief that anyone in his right mind would read such nonsense. Johnny took the book from Kevin and started reading more of the passages and soon they were all laughing – all except Scott who was ready to pounce but helpless to do so.
In the Great Room, Murdoch heard the laughter and came to the French doors to find out what was so funny. What he saw gladdened his heart even though it was at Scott’s expense. Johnny was completely relaxed and laughing as hard as his friends as they tossed Scott’s book of poetry back and forth between them reading other passages from the epic that they thought were just as bad. It hadn’t always been so and not so long ago – wait – was it really two years ago? Johnny had been restless and unsettled…..
“Maura, I’m worried,” Murdoch said as he sipped at the cup of black coffee Maura Talbot had just poured him.
“About what, Murdoch?” his neighbor, and good friend, asked.
“About Johnny,” he replied. “He still seems to be having a hard time settling in. He’s always restless and I’m never sure if he’s coming back when he goes somewhere.” Murdoch set his coffee cup down and continued, “I thought, after that incident with the stallion when his friend, Wes, was killed, that he was content to come home and stay but he still paces like a cat half the time. He can’t seem to sit still to play chess, checkers or cards with us and he spends a lot of time riding around at night on Barranca. I’m at my wits end as to how to handle it.”
“I think the problem is that Johnny hasn’t made any friends his own age around here yet. He works hard at Lancer, comes over here to help Alex out, and then goes home again.” She closed her eyes for a moment as she sipped at her own light and sweet coffee, before speaking again. “I think I can help you there, Murdoch. He needs to make friends with some boys his own age. I don’t think making friends has ever been easy for him. There are times when he’s very shy and there are times when he’s very bold but the shyness is usually around older women and the boldness when he sees an injustice that needs righting. His mixed heritage would make it hard for him sometimes.” Seeing the pained look on Murdoch’s face she added, “Now don’t go blaming yourself, Murdoch. You and Maria were young and in love. There’s nothing wrong with your having married her and having had a child – not to any decent people.”
Maura searched her memory for the names of neighbors who had children who were teens, or young adults, that lived in the area. It didn’t matter to her what color their skin might be – only that they would be good for Johnny. They had to be young but hard working and honest. Her eyes lit up when she remembered three young men she was very fond of – and they were just the right age for Johnny.
“I have it!” the petite redheaded Irishwoman exclaimed. “Kevin, Rico and Willie. That’s who I’ll see that he’s introduced to.”
“Maura! Not Andrew Millar’s boy and his friends! Please! Not them!”
“And why not?” she wanted to know. “They’re perfectly respectable young men…”
“Who have a habit of playing tricks on anybody and everybody they see if they think they can get away with it.”
“Why, Murdoch Lancer, you and Andrew have been friends ever since he moved into this valley when Kevin was thirteen.”
“Yes, I know, but Kevin has always been the ‘wild one’. Andrew’s had a hard time controlling him since they moved here.”
“Not wild, Murdoch, just high spirited. My own boys were just like that.”
“Your boys were never like that,” Murdoch protested.
“You have a very short memory, my friend,” Maura chided him. “They used to play tricks on each other – and their father and me – all the time. It seems to me that they played a joke or two on you and Paul as well.”
“I don’t remember any such thing,” Murdoch declared – conveniently forgetting Maura’s boys’ antics.
“What about the time Kenny replaced your good pipe tobacco with stink weed? You didn’t know the difference until you lit it up he made it look so good. Or the time that Rory replaced your wallet full of greenbacks with an empty one that was identical. You were in an absolute panic until he confessed and gave you your wallet back. And Blair replaced your ledger with an identical one that was filled in with incorrect figures and math? I could go on, Murdoch, but you get the point.”
“All right, all right,” Murdoch laughed. “You have a point – I had forgotten about those particular stunts and a few others they pulled.”
“I’ll find a way to get Johnny together with Kevin and the other boys,” Maura said. “Providing, of course, that you have no objections to Willie or Rico?”
“Willie’s a fine boy and so is Rico. Both of them are a big help to their fathers. They’re also good with their younger sisters and brothers in spite of any protests they make.”
“As is Kevin,” Maura pointed out. “It’s only natural that three young men would prefer the company of each other than their younger siblings. Don’t forget that Kevin’s brother is much older than he is. He’s also married and lives in another state. Kevin’s much steadier than he appears to be, Murdoch. He just likes to have fun. He’ll be good for Johnny, you’ll see.”
Maura walked with Murdoch to the door as he got ready to leave. “You just leave everything to me, Murdoch, we’ll have Johnny settled and with some good friends in the valley – other than some of those rowdies he’s always playing poker with – before you know it. You’ll see.”
Murdoch leaned down to give his friend a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you, Maura – for listening to a worrywart and being the mother figure the boys need. I know Johnny had Maria for ten years but you know how flighty she turned out to be. Scott never knew his mother – all he’s got is other people’s memories and a picture. They adore you as much as you spoil them.”
“I don’t spoil them, Murdoch!” Maura exclaimed. “They earn everything I give them.”
“Sure they do,” Murdoch chuckled as he went out the door into the bright spring sunshine. “Sure they do.”
A few days later Maura sent word to Lancer, the Rocking M and the homes of Willie Mays and Rico Portillo that she wanted the boys to help her out with some special projects at the orphanage. They were to meet her around ten in the morning. Lunch would be provided. They were to bring carpentry tools, paintbrushes and buckets among other things.
Johnny arrived bright and early the next morning driving a wagonload of building supplies that Murdoch had ordered several days earlier with this project in mind. Murdoch watched Johnny leave hoping that Maura’s plan would work. Johnny wasn’t unfriendly but there were times when, to a certain extent, his “Madrid” reputation and/or persona held him back from making friends. Some people were still suspicious and some were still afraid of him. Jim and Maura Talbot were among the very few, including Aggie Conway, who had accepted Johnny right off. They were the best friends Murdoch had in the area and had known Johnny the two years he’d been at home before his mother had taken him and left with the slick-talking gambler who’d made big promises he’d never kept.
Kevin Millar, a six-foot blond with brown eyes, arrived shortly after Johnny did. He was driving one of the Rocking M’s buckboards loaded with nails and tools. His friends, Willie Mays and Rico Portillo, rode with him. Rico was on the seat and Willie was riding in the back with the nails and tools and some paint.
The trio was laughing and joking as the buckboard pulled into the yard. Maura heard them as they arrived and came out to make the formal introductions and show them what they were to work on
“Good morning, boys!” Maura greeted them cheerily.
“Morning, Mrs. T.,” Kevin said.
“Good morning, Mrs. Talbot,” Willie greeted her.
“Buenos Dias,” Rico said.
“Morning, ma’am,” Johnny replied. “Murdoch sent this lumber and stuff. He said you’d tell me where you wanted it.”
“Indeed I will, Johnny,” she said to him, “but first I want you to meet your co-workers for the day. Johnny Lancer, this is Kevin Millar, Rico Portillo and Willie Mays. You’ve probably seen them around Morro Coyo or Spanish Wells especially. Kevin’s father owns the Rocking M and has been a friend of your father’s since the Millars moved here when Kevin was thirteen. How long ago is that now, dear?”
“Nigh onto ten years ago,” Kevin replied as he shook hands with Johnny. “The first time I met you I was out chasing strays and I wound up in your kitchen eating cookies and telling you all about us. Seems like it was the next day that you came over to get acquainted with Ma and Pa and the rest of the kids. Kelly was just a little thing then.”
Kelly was Kevin’s younger sister. She was twelve and had blonde hair and brown eyes like her brother.
“Willie, here, lives in Green River with his parents and younger sister and brother, Cecelia and Jimmy.”
“Hello,” Willie said with a smile. “What Mrs. Talbot didn’t tell you is that my father is the blacksmith. Only he does fancy work like iron gates as well. I work with him part of the time and do odd jobs elsewhere when he doesn’t need me.”
“Yeah, I think I’ve met him,” Johnny said. “Big man about six feet or so and twice as big in the chest and shoulders as I am. I wouldn’t want to get on his bad side and have him take a swing at me, I’ll tell ya!”
“Not too many men are that foolish,” Willie grinned. “A couple of rowdies have lived to regret they ever got Pa angry.”
Johnny grinned at that one. “Sounds like my father. I don’t think there’s too many men can stand up to him either if he gets mad.”
“I think you’re right,” Willie grinned back. “Our fathers are generally slow to get mad but you sure don’t want to mess with them.
“Johnny, dear,” Maura said, “I’d like you to meet the third member of your work crew. This is Rico Portillo.”
“I’ve seen you around,” Johnny said as they shook hands.
“Sí, I work at the livery stable in Spanish Wells. My family has a house there.”
“Rico’s father is a master carpenter and woodcarver,” Maura said with a note of pleasure in her voice. “Alex hired him to build the bookshelves in our living room and he carved a beautiful pair of wooden candlesticks for me for a gift just last Christmas. You’ll see his work in a lot of the homes in the area. I believe Señor Baldomero sells some of Manuel’s work in his store.”
“He sure does,” Kevin said. “I’ve bought a few things myself. I never did get the hang of whittling much, let alone the work Rico’s pa does.”
“Well, now let’s get to work,” Maura said to the boys. “Bring your wagons around to the back and unload. I’ll have Padre Felipe explain to you exactly what he needs done. If he won’t admit to it, I’m sure you boys can find plenty of places that need repair or painting and can take care of it. I’ve got to get back to the kitchen. It’s baking day and it takes a lot of bread to feed these children plus the staff and the occasional visitor.”
Three hours later the boys had made a good start on removing old shingles and replacing them on the roof over the girls’ dormitory. Johnny and Kevin climbed up the ladder to the roof while Rico and Willie kept them supplied with shingles and nails and finally, after much difficulty in keeping curious children away, they sent up buckets of tar with which to seal the roof good and tight.
Maura was quite dismayed when she came to call them to lunch and found them with tar all over themselves.
“Boys! How did manage to get tar all over yourselves and the roof?” she asked with raised eyebrows.
“It wasn’t hard, Mrs. Talbot,” Willie said. “Kevin’s clumsy and he spilled tar all over places he wasn’t supposed to.”
“Sí, and then Johnny – he tries to clean up the mess that Kevin made and he gets it all over himself when he does.”
“Yeah, and then Willie hands the bucket to Rico and Rico got it all over himself because Willie spilled tar over the top and on the rope and Rico ‘accidentally’ spilled some on Willie.” Johnny was quickly catching on to how this trio thought.
“Really?” Maura just gave them the look that she had often given her sons when they were boys – one that said she didn’t quite believe them but wasn’t going to say anything as it wasn’t necessary. “Well I suggest that one of you,” she gave Kevin a glare, “get the turpentine out of the storage shed and all of you use it, and some rags, to clean yourselves up. Then wash up at the pump. You don’t get any lunch until I think you look presentable enough to sit at the table.”
Kevin disappeared to the storage shed quickly and returned in a matter of minutes with the turpentine and some old rags. The four young men proceeded to clean up as best they could and then washed up at the pump.
Lunch consisted of thick ham sandwiches with fresh tomatoes and lettuce as well as homemade mayonnaise to put on them. All four had milk with their lunch and a big wedge of peach pie for dessert. Maura made them relax for an hour and visit while their lunch settled before going back into the heat to continue working.
When they went back out the boys set about cleaning up from the roofing job and looking around to see what the next urgent project was. From what Johnny could see all orphanages were alike. Not enough clothes, not enough food and the shelter – as in the buildings – was inadequate.
“I don’t know about you fellas,” he said, “but I think those stairs could use repair. Let’s make them our next project. With four of us it shouldn’t take too long to tear out the old ones and put new ones in.”
Maura exited the kitchen at the back of the building just then.
“You boys have done enough for today,” she declared. “I know you all have things to do at home. Johnny? Would you do me the honor of escorting me back to the Bar T? I have a lot of clothes to take home to be mended and I could use your help in loading, and unloading them. Lancer is next to the Bar T so it’s more convenient to have you help me than one of the other boys.”
“Sure,” he said. “Where are these things?”
“There are several large bags of clothes and some bolts of material in the front entry,” she told him. My buggy is parked out there but I’m afraid it won’t hold everything.”
“I’ll take the Lancer wagon and get them for you,” Johnny told her. “I’ll pick you up here in ten minutes?”
“That’s fine,” she smiled.
Johnny bade his co-workers good-bye and climbed into the wagon to drive around to do her bidding. When he was safely out of sight – and earshot – she turned to the other three.
“How did it really go, today, boys?” she asked the three young men still standing there. “Does he seem to be taking to you at all.”
“I think it’s a little early to tell, Mrs. Talbot,” Willie said. “He’s not entirely comfortable around us, I don’t think.”
“Sí, he doesn’t quite fit in,” Rico said. “But he does try.”
“I think he’s a little standoffish,” Kevin said, “but from what you told us about him he hasn’t had too many real friends. Hopefully he’ll loosen up once he gets to know us better. I’m thinking he doesn’t know if we’re sincere or not. That we want something from him.”
“Johnny’s a little standoffish yet, and I think you boys are a little nervous around him, aren’t you?”
“Kinda,” Kevin admitted. “He does have a reputation, you know and he never took his gunbelt off the whole time we’ve been here.”
“That reputation business is all in the past – or it will be once he feels at home,” Maura told them. “He’s taken care of himself for so long that he doesn’t know how to get along without his gun. Once he gets used to you he’ll relax. Besides we wouldn’t want his gun to be readily available for one of the children to get it, would we? Now I expect you three to help me make him feel at home. Johnny needs friends his own age that do normal things like fishing and swimming and going for rides when they’re not working. You three are the first ones that came to mind. No matter what some people may think – or say – about you, I know that you are hard working, honest and respectable, and that’s the kind of people I want to see Johnny become friendly with. It’s the only way he can completely leave his gunfighter past behind.”
“I don’t think he can ever do that, Mrs. T.,” Kevin said, “but I promise we’ll try harder.”
“That’s all I ask, dear.”
The rumble and creak of a heavy wagon was heard then as Johnny drove around the corner. He drew up a couple of feet away from them, set the brake and hopped down. Approaching the others he said, “All set, Mrs. Talbot. I got all that stuff loaded in the back of the wagon. I figured I’d leave the buggy here and you can drive it home tomorrow. I know you wanted us to work here all week so I thought I’d drive you home and pick you up again in the morning if that’s all right. I gave a couple of the older boys a dollar apiece to put your horse up for the night and move the buggy where it’ll be sheltered until you pick it up tomorrow.”
“That’s fine, Johnny, dear,” she said. Turning back to the other young men she said, “We’ll see you here around nine tomorrow morning. That gives you enough time to do some things around home for your parents before coming here – don’t worry I’ve already told them I need you all week. We’re going to have a community picnic here on Saturday. There will be games, food and prizes. Everybody’s contributing something.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. “That means you’ll want us here early Saturday to help set up, doesn’t it?”
“Now, Kevin,” Maura chided him, “you know you enjoy doing things for these children so why pretend otherwise?”
“Because then you wouldn’t have the opportunity to give him a hard time when he ‘complains’,” Willie chortled as Kevin took a swing at him.
“Sí, Señora Talbot,” Rico chimed in. “You know he just does this to – how do you say it?”
“Get a rise out of her?” Willie suggested with a huge grin.
“Sí! He thinks it’s funny to tease you like that.”
Johnny took all this in with a small grin of his own. He was beginning to like these guys more and more. Maura just smiled and shook her finger at Kevin and the other two in mock severity. Johnny gave her a boost onto the seat of the wagon and then climbed up beside her. Clucking to the team he headed them down the driveway that led past the front entrance and to the northbound road that led to Lancer and then eastward to the Bar T.
For the first couple of miles after they left the orphanage not a sound was heard except for the songbirds in the trees. The creak of leather harness, the jangle of the metal pieces of the harness, the whir of the wheels and the rustling of the leaves on the trees as a soft breeze blew through them, added their own music to the bird songs. Finally Maura spoke up.
“Well, what do you think of my young friends, Johnny?” she asked.
“They’re all right, I guess,” Johnny said noncommittally.
“Don’t you like them?”
“I guess. Was it your idea or my old man’s to introduce me to them?”
“Johnny Lancer! How many times do I have to scold you for calling your father your ‘old man’! That’s not respectful!”
“Hundreds I guess,” he said with a grin. He’d learned quickly himself that the petite redheaded Irishwoman would brook no nonsense from him, his brother or anyone else. He’d begun to enjoy baiting her as much as he could see Kevin, Willie and Rico did.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Maura said after she had slapped Johnny’s arm for good measure. “It wasn’t your father’s idea. He wants you to be happy and make some new friends but you should have heard him howl when I suggested those three!” She giggled like a conspiratorial schoolgirl at the memory. “I had to remind him of a few stunts my own boys pulled on him when they were young before he would admit that Kevin, Willie and Rico aren’t so bad. They have a bit of a reputation for playing practical jokes on people. Little boy pranks like frogs in pockets or beds, of the unsuspecting – especially their younger siblings. Kevin is especially fond of teasing his seven-year-old sister, Kelly. I’m afraid Kelly can be a little bit of a tattletale sometimes but Kevin won’t allow anyone else to give her a hard time.” She paused for a second, “However there is nobody and I do mean nobody, who is allowed to give his little sister a hard time but him and his closest friends and even they have to tread lightly.”
They rode together in companionable silence for a little while and finally drew into the yard at the Bar T about thirty minutes later. Six-foot-two inch blonde haired Jim Talbot approached from a nearby barn. A frisky collie puppy, about three months of age, followed close on his heels.
“Johnny, good to see you, boy,” Jim said with a hearty handshake. “Something wrong with the buggy?”
“Nope,” Johnny answered him. “Just thought I’d drive Mrs. Talbot and all that stuff in the back home in the wagon instead of her driving the buggy and me driving the wagon and unloading when we got here. ‘Sides I figured I’d pick her up in the morning and drive her to the orphanage myself since I’m going there anyway. It just made more sense to me.”
“Oh, I see,” Jim said with a twinkle in his eye, “trying to get in good with the boss, huh?”
Johnny laughed at that, “Something like that. I think Scott would tell me I was being logical about this – driving her and her stuff and leaving the buggy behind. I paid a couple of the boys to take care of Barnabas and the buggy. They’ll do a real good job.”
“That’s enough out of the both of you,” Maura said indignantly. “Behave yourselves or you won’t get any dinner tonight or lunch tomorrow,” she added with a stern look at her husband and Johnny.
The two men just laughed at her. They knew that she would never deprive either of them of a decent meal when they’d been working hard.
“Who’s this?” Johnny asked as he squatted down to pet the puppy who was now clamoring for attention from him, Maura and Jim.
“That’s one of Skye’s pups. His name is Ivanhoe.”
“Yes, Ivanhoe,” Jim laughed. “You can blame your brother for that. He and Maura got to talking about Sir Walter Scott and the next thing I know I’ve got a puppy named Ivanhoe on my hands. He’s a nephew of your Lady Sweet Friend.”
“Is he as smart as Lady?” Johnny asked as he stood up with the puppy in his arms.
“I think he will be,” Jim said. “We’ve already started obedience training and he does pretty well. Still he is only a baby and he does get into things he shouldn’t now and then.”
“Things such as my clean laundry waiting to be folded,” Maura said tartly but she, too, reached out to pet the puppy by scratching him behind his ears. “But he’s so adorable I can’t stay mad at him. Any more than I could stay mad at you when you were a baby, Johnny, and got into everything in sight”
“Yes, you,” Maura answered him with a smile. “You were a very active baby and toddler. You ran your parents ragged trying to keep up with you and keep you out of trouble. That was why our boys gave you Patty Pat – they thought she might be able to keep up with you and she’d be half grown by the time you could crawl. You kept that poor dog busy, too.”
“I hope you don’t tell Scott these stories,” Johnny moaned. “I’ll never hear the end of it if you do.”
“Let’s get your wagon unloaded, John,” Jim said. “Unless you saw your father today, at the orphanage and told him you were going to eat here I would imagine they’re expecting you home for dinner. You don’t want Mamacita getting mad at you for showing up late for dinner.”
“No, sir,” Johnny said with a grin as he put Ivanhoe on the ground. “She is kinda strict about things like being on time and being cleaned up. She won’t serve dinner until everyone’s at the table. I guess I don’t want to be responsible for my father and brother starving while they wait.”
Together the two men went over to the Lancer wagon and unloaded several boxes, bundles of empty feed sacks and a fair amount of children’s clothing in need of mending. Johnny was curious as to what she was going to do with all of the stuff he’d hauled home for her.
“I imagine the mending will be done by her and some of our employees’ wives,” Jim told him. “The empty sacks will be made into curtains and towels and the other things will be let down, taken in or whatever it takes to make them fit a child other than the one who has outgrown them. I imagine there are some bolts of clothing in those boxes, which will be made into dresses and such for the ones who need them the most.
Ten minutes later everything was in the house and Johnny was on his way home with a promise to pick Maura up around seven-thirty the next morning. Upon arriving home, Johnny was relieved of the wagon and team by Santos Lara who sent him up to the house knowing that Maria was probably ready to serve dinner at any moment.
“You had better stop by the pump on the way to the house, Juanito,” Santos told him with a grin, “and sneak in by the front door to your room to change your clothes. If Maria sees you at the table the way you look now with dust and tar all over you, she is likely to box your ears for you.”
“You’re right,” Johnny grinned back. “I’d better clean up good, huh?”
With that Johnny headed to the pump that was situated a few yards from the house and did a fairly good job of cleaning up. He hoped he’d pass Maria and Teresa’s inspection because, at this point in time, he was quite hungry and didn’t want to have to go up to his room and take a full-fledged bath and change his clothes.
Five minutes later he slid into his seat next to Teresa to whom he gave one of his brightest smiles as she did a quick inspection of his appearance before deeming him presentable enough to sit at the table.
“How did things go at the orphanage today, Johnny?” his father asked as he passed a platter of beefsteaks to Scott.
“All right,” Johnny replied. “We got most of the roofing work done. Tomorrow we’re going to do the steps – they’re really beginning to fall apart. I told the fellows I was working with that it wouldn’t take long to rip them out and rebuild them with four of us working together.”
“Who are these ‘fellows’ you’re working with, brother?”
“Why don’t you ask Murdoch?” Johnny told his brother. “He knows.”
Scott raised his right eyebrow at that comment. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that our father has conspired with Mrs. Talbot to get me to make friends with some of the locals my own age.”
“Maura said she was going to introduce him to Kevin Millar, Rico Portillo and Willie Mays,” Murdoch said. “I was against it at first – Kevin’s too much of a practical joker for my taste, but Maura reminded me that they’re no worse than her sons were and those three pulled a few jokes on me that I’d forgotten.”
“Do I know these fellows?” Scott asked.
“Sure you do,” Teresa chimed in. “Kevin’s the tall blond that’s always giving my hair or my hair ribbon a tug when he sees me. His father owns the Rocking M. Rico is Manuel Portillo’s oldest son – Señor Portillo does beautiful carpentry and woodcarvings. Rico’s fairly tall – about your height. He’s the oldest in his family. Willie’s a tall, slender Negro that spends most of his free time with the other two. They’re all gaining reputations as practical jokers. I don’t know what Mrs. Talbot is thinking of introducing Johnny to the likes of those three.”
Secretly Teresa liked all three of the young men – had since they’d moved into the area but she knew that, given Johnny’s sometimes obstinate and contrary nature, it might be better to pretend she didn’t. If her guardian were wise he’d do the same thing.
“Oh, yes,” Scott said. “I’ve met those boys in Green River or Spanish Wells on occasion. Doesn’t Rico work in the livery stable there?”
“Yes,” Murdoch replied. “He’s a very conscientious young man when it comes to his work there. The animals left in his care are well cared for. Willie sometimes helps his father out at the blacksmith shop he owns in Green River. John Mays makes nails and horseshoes and the like but he does some fancy work on the side – fire screens, door knockers, fancy grillwork and such like. He’s quite good. Willie seems more than content to work with his father part time and do odd jobs for some of the ranchers in the area on the side. Jim Talbot has hired him on many occasions to do jobs for him. I’ve hired him a few times in the past myself. He’s good with his hands when it comes to repair work like fixing fences or shingling roofs.” At this he gave his younger son a sly look. “From the looks of your hands and clothes, Johnny, I’d say you found out how those three can ‘accidentally’ get tar all over themselves and anyone within three feet of them.”
Johnny grinned self-consciously. “Well, I tried to clean up before I came in but tar just don’t come out of clothes with soap and water.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Teresa said with a look of disapproval. “Maria and I will have to work very hard to get those things clean again. I don’t know if we’ll ever get it out of that pink shirt of yours!”
“How many times do I have to tell you this shirt ain’t pink?” Johnny asked indignantly. “What color did you say it was, Scott? Some fish color or something?”
“Salmon,” his brother replied.
“Salmon is pink!” Teresa exclaimed and started to giggle.
Johnny looked highly offended. Scott attempted, unsuccessfully, to smother a grin while Murdoch out and out guffawed. Maria, hearing all the noise from the kitchen came out and inquired as to what was going on. When Johnny asked her, in Spanish, what color his shirt was, she answered, also in Spanish, that it was a dusty pink. This made Teresa start giggling all over again as Johnny looked disappointed that their Mamacita hadn’t told him it was something else. Even rose would have been better than to hear yet another person tell him it was pink.
“Well, at least there’s black embroidery on it,” he said in disgust.
“It was probably red, or even orange, at one time, John,” his father said. “But you’ve been wearing it out in the sun and wind and rain for a couple of years now and it’s faded.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Johnny said.
“Believe it or not Scott’s mother wore pretty bright colors herself.” With a sly look at his much less flamboyantly dressed older son he added, “I think his grandfather’s conservative taste in clothing has rubbed off on him.”
Scott ignored the dig. He was, as usual, dressed in brown pants and a beige shirt. He and Johnny were always going at each other over who was the better dresser. Teresa, being a wise young lady, stayed out of those battles for the most part though she and Maria had shared a secret laugh or two over them.
When dinner was over the men retired to the great room. Murdoch was deeply engrossed in a book he had borrowed from Jim Talbot while Johnny and Scott got into a game of chess, which Johnny won this time. Scott was a strategist – something he’d learned while he was in the army. At first glance it seemed as though Johnny were a reckless devil-may-care type of player. In reality he just planned his game several moves at a time and had an alternate for each time Scott - or anybody else – failed to move the way he first anticipated. As a result he won nearly as many games as Scott did and drove his father crazy when he, Murdoch, played Johnny.
Teresa and Maria washed the dishes and cleaned up the dining area and kitchen then Teresa retired to a comfortable chair with some mending until bedtime.
Bright and early the next morning, before breakfast was even on the table, Johnny rolled out of bed and headed for the barn. While he was working at the orphanage with Maura Talbot and her three young friends Johnny was not out in the far reaches of Lancer land repairing fences and the like. As a way of partly making up for this he was out loading the wagon that would be used to haul fencing supplies and tools that others would use. He was also mucking out stalls and placing fresh bedding in them as well as seeing to it that each working horse had grain while the others just had fresh hay and water. By the time breakfast was served he was more than halfway through and would be ready to leave for the Bar T to pick Maura up and head for the orphanage. One of the other hands would finish his work in the barn assisted by one of the vaqueros’ children, if not half a dozen of them, at their mothers’ insistence to get them out from under foot.
Breakfast consisted of pancakes, ham, eggs, and milk, or coffee, with plenty of maple syrup and several choices of jams and jellies as well as butter to go on the pancakes. Johnny loaded up his plate with pancakes and once again, disgusted his brother with the amount of maple syrup he put on them. It seemed that Scott, though he was raised in New England, really didn’t care that much for maple syrup – or maple sugar candy. Johnny, on the other hand, loved it and would essentially drown his pancakes in them while his brother spread a small amount of jelly on his. It was an endless source of amusement to Murdoch and Teresa to watch and listen to the brothers go at it over their taste in toppings. This morning was no different as Teresa tried to stifle her giggles and Murdock tried to keep his mouth busy with his own food and coffee. Maria clucked and scolded both brothers to no avail – they kept getting in their digs at each other.
Finally breakfast was over. Teresa and Maria took care of the dishes and saw to it that the boys had decent lunches to take with them. Knowing that Johnny’s new acquaintances had sweet tooths like his they packed an abundance of fresh molasses cookies so that there were enough to feed him and share with the others.
Picking up his lunch and heading out the door, Johnny went to the barn to harness the team that would pull the wagon, and also tacked up his Palomino – the horse he was now calling Barranca. His first morning at Lancer Johnny had broken the animal in and he’d acquired him for his own doing all the necessary training himself and teaching the horse to respond to verbal commands as well as the physical ones he would receive after Johnny was in the saddle. He’d decided that he wanted his horse with him in case there was an errand they needed done in town that wouldn’t require the use of a wagon and because he didn’t want Barranca to stiffen up with too many days of standing around doing nothing. The other three young men apparently had decided to travel together by wagon so there was no fast way of doing an errand unless they took one of the team and rode bareback.
Pulling out of the yard Johnny waved to Scott as his brother headed for the westernmost boundary of Lancer land to tackle the repairs on a footbridge over one of the creeks that wound its way through their property. Then he headed southeast toward the Bar T to pick up Maura Talbot and drive her to the orphanage.
Maura was ready and waiting for him when he pulled into the yard. Johnny didn’t have to climb down to help her into the wagon seat as Jim was right there with her. The older man smiled at Johnny and handed him a couple of books and some newspapers.
“Morning, Johnny,” Jim said. “Do me a favor and deliver these to John Mays this morning, would you? I promised him these Baltimore newspapers I got in a package a couple of weeks ago but I haven’t had time to get into Green River lately.” With a sly look at his wife he added, “I already made sure it’s all right with ‘the boss’.”
Johnny grinned at the indignant look Maura gave her husband, “Sure thing, Mr. Talbot.”
With that he clucked to the team and they started off to meet the others at the orphanage where Johnny planned on tackling the job of rebuilding the rickety staircase before somebody fell on them. The other three young men were already there when Johnny and Maura arrived. They were in the process of unloading lumber and nails that Rico and Willie’s fathers had donated. They were sorting the pieces of lumber into piles of similar size as Johnny pulled up near the back door and helped Maura down.
Maura greeted the boys cheerfully and went straight into the kitchen to help supervise the cleanup and to start preparations for lunch. Johnny untied Barranca from the back of the wagon.
“Hey, Willie, is your father home?”
“Yes,” Willie replied. “Why?”
“Mr. Talbot asked me to deliver some newspapers and books to him. I thought I’d do it now before we get too involved in our project.”
“Ok. We’ll just finish sorting everything and make sure the doorway is blocked off so nobody tries to come out that way while we’re working on the stairs. That all right with you two?” Willie checked with his two friends to see if they were agreeable.
“Sure,” Kevin said. “That’s fine.”
“Sì. That’s fine. I’m sure Willie’s papa will be happy to get those papers even if they are old. He and Mr. Talbot followed the news of the war in those papers and Señor Mays likes to read many of the same books as Señor Talbot, is that not so Willie?”
“Yeah, Pa and Mr. Talbot and Mr. Millar like to have long conversations about books and politics with Mr. Lancer. Now they’ve got Scott involved in them, too.”
“Pa says that they’re trying to get Scott to open up about his experiences in the war. Mr. Lancer is concerned that Scott, because he’s so quiet, keeps things bottled up inside him that he should let out.”
“Yeah, Scott’s quiet all right,” Johnny agreed, “I don’t know if he’s really keeping much bottled up inside him though –he just doesn’t talk unless he’s got something to say. Anyway I better get going and make this delivery. The ‘boss’, as Mr. Talbot called her this morning, might get mad if I take too long. “
The others laughed and went back to work sorting and finding the tools they would need to do the job. Kevin took some rope and tied it to a couple of heavy chairs to block the front doorway. Willie poked his head into the kitchen to let the ladies know what they were doing and Rico went to find Padre Felipe and let him know. Between Maura, Padre Felipe and the nuns the children would be kept out of harm’s way.
Johnny rode at an easy lope until he got to a point on the road about a mile out of town. Slowing Barranca down to a walk now, he went directly to the blacksmith shop where he found John Mays hard at work hammering out a set of shoes for a pretty little chestnut mare that was tied to a hitching rail.
“Mr. Mays?” he called above the clanging of the hammer against the iron shoe the man was forming. Not getting an answer he tried again. “Mr. Mays?”
“Sorry, son,” the blacksmith said when Johnny’s second call got his attention. “I can’t hear a thing when I’m pounding away and concentrating on what I’m doing.”
“That’s ok,” Johnny said to him. “Mr. Talbot asked me to deliver these newspapers and books to you. I thought I’d better bring them before I got so busy over at the orphanage that I forgot to do it.”
“Thank you,” John Mays said. “Say, aren’t you Murdoch Lancer’s boy? Johnny, isn’t it?” He put his hand out to shake Johnny’s.
“Yes, sir,” Johnny replied shaking the proffered hand.
“I’m happy to finally meet you,” Mays said. “I’ve heard a lot about you from your father and the Talbots. Welcome home, son!”
“Thank you,” Johnny replied.
“My, my, I remember how excited – and nervous – your father was when the Pinkertons finally found you. You’ve earned yourself quite a reputation over the last few years and nobody knew what to expect. I reckon you know that, don’t you?”
“I guess. Have you known Murdoch long?”
“Going on fifteen years,” John told him. “When my wife and I moved here my Willie was a shy seven-year-old who didn’t know what to expect from a big, important white man like your father. He’s proven to be a good friend. My father was a runaway slave. That made me and my children slaves in the eyes of the law but your father, he turned a blind eye to that law and offered us the hand of friendship. Jim Talbot, too, and Jim’s ideals were shared by those three boys that he and Maura lost.”
While they were chatting two small Negro children came scampering into the shop. The little girl was carrying a stuffed toy that was apparently supposed to be a dog. John smiled and introduced his two younger children to Johnny.
“This is my son, Jimmy and my daughter, Cecelia – Cece for short. Say hello to Johnny Lancer kids.”
Jimmy smiled and put a hand out much as he’d seen his father do in greeting many times. “Howdy.”
Johnny grinned and returned the greeting. “Howdy, Jimmy. How old are you?”
“How old are you Cecelia?”
“Eight,” the little girl whispered.
“Can I call you Cece? Mrs. Talbot told me that that’s what your friends call you. I’d like to be your friend.” Johnny spoke very softly to the shy little girl who finally smiled and nodded. “Who’s your little friend there, Cece?”
“Rascal,” she told him.
“Rascal, huh? That’s a real good name. Where did you get him?”
“Mrs. Talbot made him for me,” the little girl replied. “Someday I’ll have a real puppy. Won’t I Papa?”
“As soon as I can find the time to look for one sweetheart,” her father promised. “I just can’t get away to look for one right now. The last people I talked to,” he explained to Johnny, “wouldn’t sell to me because I’m not the right color and the time before that the man who owned them was asking too much money – said they were purebred champions and worth a lot more money than some old hound or mutt.”
This set the wheels to turning in Johnny’s head. He thought back to his arrival at the Bar T that morning and the frisky collie pup he’d seen. He made up his mind to ask Jim Talbot if the puppy was for sale. He’d heard that the rancher always kept at least one of Patty Pat’s descendents on the place and he knew that Skye was young enough to have more litters. Johnny knew he’d get a lot of pleasure from presenting these two children with their very own puppy.
A few minutes later Johnny headed back to the orphanage where he ended up spending more time chasing children away from the construction site than he did working on the stairs. By the time he got home for supper that night he felt like he did when he’d been chasing stray cattle all day – exhausted. After a delicious dinner of friend chicken, baked potatoes, corn, greens and biscuits Johnny was more than ready to sit in a comfortable chair and relax.
“How did you boys make out today, Johnny?” Murdoch asked.
“I’ll tell ya, I think I’d rather chase a bunch of stupid cows than ride herd on a bunch of kids that don’t pay any attention to you when you tell them to stay away from something. I don’t know how Padre Felipe and the sisters manage those kids! If we told them once, we told them a hundred times ‘stay away from the front door while we’re working’. The same five or six kids had to be chased away, or pulled away, at least once every hour!”
“You were like that when you were a toddler,” Murdoch teased his younger son. “Your mother and I told you ‘no’ so many times you began to think your name was ‘No Johnny’ or ‘No Juanito’.”
Scott laughed and Teresa giggled. Johnny was so active now it wasn’t hard to imagine him being like that when he was a little boy. Johnny just scowled at his siblings and busied himself with his supper. The laughter of his family rang in his ears.
“Why did you have to keep telling him no?” Scott asked his father.
“Because he’d run out to see the horses in the corral by crawling under the fence,. He’d lean over the watering trough to the point where he’d fall in if Patty Pat wasn’t there. He continually got too close to fireplaces, lamps and hot horseshoes. Christmastime was the worst. We had to build a cage, of sorts, around the tree to keep him away from the ornaments and the presents.”
“It sounds like he was quite a challenge, sir,” Scott said.
Johnny just ignored them and went to the great room to relax. He sat on one end of the sofa, took off his spurs and boots and put his feet up. It wasn’t long before he was sound asleep and his father roused him to head up to his bed where he’d be more comfortable.
As soon as breakfast was over Johnny saddled Barranca and headed for the Bar T. He wanted to talk to Jim Talbot about buying the puppy, Ivanhoe, that he had seen the day before. From what he’d seen of the two younger Mays children, they would be quite devoted to the pup and it would keep them close to their house instead of running around their father’s shop or the streets – two places where the youngsters could get badly hurt.
“Hola, Mr. Talbot,” he said as he rode into the yard.
“Buenos dias, John,” Jim replied. Thirty plus years of living in California had given him a fair grasp of the Spanish language as it was spoken in Mexico. He’d come to learn that Mexican Spanish was a totally different dialect from Spanish spoken by Spaniards or South Americans. He’d had business dealings with all. However, Jim and his business associates had always managed to make themselves understood. “What brings you over here?”
“I want to buy a puppy,” Johnny told him.
“A puppy? Why – is Lady SF getting too old for you already?” he teased.
“No, it’s not that and the puppy’s not for me. It’s for Willie Mays’ little brother and sister. They have an old, raggedy, stuffed toy that passes for a puppy but they really want a real one. Mr. Mays says they’ve looked but either the people won’t sell to him or the pups are too expensive.”
“I’ll bet I know who he talked to,” Jim said with a frown. “Pierce Wilson would refuse to sell to anyone who isn’t white if he could afford to do business with whites only. His store won’t make money if he does though and he knows it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he charges Susan Mays, and the Mexicans, two or three times as much as he does his white customers. Nobody’s actually caught him at it though. It’s his word against theirs. It’s a crying shame, too. Pierce is one of the biggest bigots there ever was and his son, Mike, is just as bad. They’re both heading for a bad ending.”
“Sounds like somebody to avoid,” Johnny said.
“Enough of this depressing talk of bigots,” Jim said, “and back to the subject at hand. You want to buy a puppy for the Mays children? Got one in mind, as if I didn’t know?”
Johnny just grinned at him. Jim gave him a knowing look and took him to the barn where the puppies were currently housed. Ivanhoe was the smallest of the litter but he was a feisty little thing. He was also the lightest in color – mostly a golden brown with a lot of white and a touch of black. Unlike his aunt, Lady Sweet Friend, he did not have the patch of color that made him look like he was wearing a cowl. Lady had a mostly brown head with enough black around it to look like she was wearing the cowl off of a brown and white cape.
“I have to pen them up at night and while the hands are getting their horses ready for the day otherwise they’re underfoot. Some of my cowponies don’t take too kindly to small animals under their feet and Ivanhoe has come mighty close to being kicked a pretty fair distance more than once.”
“I’ll make sure the kids know to watch out for him,” Johnny said. “They seem pretty smart. I’m sure they’ll make sure he stays out of trouble. It’ll teach them some responsibility and keep them out of things they shouldn’t get into as well.”
“I’m sure it will,” Jim agreed. Reaching the stall where he had shut the puppies up – Ivanhoe was one of three left from the litter of six – he took the pup by the scruff of its neck and handed him to Johnny who took it willingly.
Seeing the look on Johnny’s face Jim said, “Johnny – the pup is for the Mays kids remember? I don’t think Lady would appreciate your bringing a puppy home. I’m sure she’d be very jealous since she thinks she belongs to you.”
“Yeah, I know, but I love puppies.”
“Then you can come over here and play with these two that are left all you want until they’re gone and I’ll keep you informed of each new litter,” Jim couldn’t resist teasing the younger man.
The two men left the barn and Jim held Ivanhoe in his arms until Johnny was mounted on Barranca. Then Jim handed the puppy to Johnny who tucked him inside his jacket and reined Barranca around toward the road. Maura waved to him as he left and came out to join her husband.
“Johnny didn’t stay long,” she commented. “Is he feeling all right?”
“He’s fine, love,” Jim reassured her. “He’s a young man with a mission – he’s taking Ivanhoe to his new home.”
“Yes, Johnny is giving the pup to the Mays children. They want one and Johnny thinks Ivanhoe is perfect. I don’t know why I didn’t think of them myself. John did mention to me, some months ago, that he’d been thinking of getting them a dog. He told Johnny that he’s had a hard time finding one he could afford or someone who would sell to him.”
“That someone that wouldn’t sell to them wouldn’t be Pierce Wilson, would it?”
“I don’t know for certain but I wouldn’t be surprised,” Jim answered.
“How much did you charge Johnny for the puppy?”
Jim was taken by surprise by that question. “Huh?”
Maura laughed. “You two didn’t discuss price, did you? You’ll haggle for hours over the cost of cattle or a good horse but when it comes to kids and puppies you and Murdoch Lancer – and apparently Murdoch’s sons – are exactly alike. You’re all hopeless!”
“That may be but you should have seen the look on Johnny’s face when he held Ivanhoe. There’s a lot of little boy still left in that young man.”
“Yes, there is, Maura agreed. Never mind about the sale of the puppy, dear. I’m sure once the puppy is settled in his new home Johnny will be back to pay what he thinks is a fair price for that pup.”
“I’m sure he will be, too,” Jim said.
Arm in arm the two of them headed back to the house where Maura had a lunch for him to pack in his saddlebags and take with him out on the range that day. Five minutes later Jim mounted Pintauro, his black and white pinto, and headed toward his north range to check on the small part of his herd of Herefords that he was fattening up for early sale.
Johnny rode into Green River at a nice easy pace so he wouldn’t jostle the puppy too much. Instead of heading to the blacksmith shop this time he went directly to the Mays house. Mrs. Mays, a slender woman with very dark skin, black hair piled on top of her head covered by a bandana, and brown eyes, greeted him at the door with a dishtowel in her hand. It was obvious to Johnny that he’d interrupted her in the middle of some housework.
“Howdy, ma’am,” he said lifting his hat in greeting. “Are you Mrs. Mays?”
“I am,” she said.
“I’m Johnny Lancer – I met your son Willie at the orphanage the other day.”
“Oh, yes, you’re Murdoch Lancer’s boy.”
“Won’t you come in, Johnny?” she asked. I have some cookies just out of the oven that I was going to send over to you boys with Jimmy and Cece.”
“Only for a minute. I have something for the kids but I have to get back. It wouldn’t be right to leave the others with all the work.”
Just then Jimmy came into the room, from the kitchen, munching on a couple of ginger cookies that his mother had made.
“Hi, Jimmy,” Johnny said.
“Hi, Johnny. What have you got hiding in your jacket?”
“Go get your sister and I’ll show both of you at the same time,” Johnny told the boy.
Jimmy ran out to the kitchen and was back momentarily, pulling his little sister along with him. Both youngsters stopped and looked expectantly at their new friend and the wriggling, whining, bundle they could see in his jacket. A moment later a small, fuzzy brown head poked itself out of Johnny’s now partly unbuttoned jacket.
“A puppy!” Cece squealed excitedly.
“Is he for us?” Jimmy asked eagerly.
“Yep. He sure is,” Johnny told the excited youngsters. “His name’s Ivanhoe. Mrs. Talbot, and my brother, Scott, named him.”
“Ivanhoe’s a silly name!” Jimmy declared.
“That may be,” Johnny said, “but according to Mrs. Talbot Ivanhoe is the hero in a story by somebody named Sir Walter Scott. She seems to think he’s pretty special so she named the puppy after him.”
“I love Ivanhoe,” Cece told Johnny. “I love you, too!” So saying the little girl threw her arms around Johnny’s neck and kissed him.
Johnny was somewhat taken aback by the little girl’s show of affection. It had been a long time since he’d been on the receiving end of such an enthusiastic thank you. Jimmy forgot that he was too old for such nonsense and hugged Johnny as well.
“Johnny,” their mother said, “I don’t know how to thank you. You’ve made the children very happy. Their father hadn’t had any luck when he went looking for a puppy for them. Too expensive or the owners weren’t willing to sell to him.”
“I know,” Johnny told her. “That’s why I went to the Bar T. I saw this pup the other day and, when I heard that Jimmy and Cece wanted a puppy, I went back and got Ivanhoe. He’s almost the last one Mr. Talbot has.”
“You kids take good care of that puppy, now, you hear?” Johnny shook his finger at them in the same manner in which his mother had often shaken her finger at him when he was very small. “This pup is just old enough to leave his mama so you make sure you feed him once a day – put an egg in his food if you can afford it. Mr. Talbot told me it makes their coats real shiny – and make sure he’s got plenty of water. If I hear you’re not taking good care of him I’m going to come back here and take him away. There’s bound to be some other little girl or boy who wants a puppy who will take care of him the way they should.”
The children solemnly promised to take good care of Ivanhoe. The first thing they did was to take the puppy out to the kitchen and get him a bowl of cold water from the pump.
“He’s not house broke so they’ll have to teach him that. I hope you have some old newspapers around that you can use. That’s how we trained Lady and Murdoch says that’s how he trained Patty Pat and Lulu as well.”
“I’m sure we do,” Susan told him. “If we don’t I’ve got some old blankets and towels that we can use.”
As Johnny turned to leave Susan pulled his head down to her level and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“We can never repay you for your kindness, Johnny Lancer. Thank you.”
“It was nothin’. Just to see those two young’uns happy with the puppy is enough.”
“No, it’s not, and we will find a way to pay you back for your kindness.”
When Johnny arrived at the orphanage he found the other three hard at work under the direction of Maura Talbot who had driven herself over from the Bar T. They were setting up tables and putting together booths and a judges’ stand. Bundles of red, white and blue bunting were waiting to be hung from the grandstand and each of the booths. Taking Barranca’s saddle and bridle off and putting a halter on him, Johnny turned his horse loose in the small corral where the Talbots’ buggy horse was munching on some hay.
“What needs to be done, Mrs. Talbot,” he asked.
“Well, why don’t you help Willie hang the bunting while Kevin and Rico work on building some more booths? If you get caught up on that then you can put together some booths as well. Just follow the directions that Alex wrote out and you shouldn’t have any trouble.” Looking at him with a fond smile she asked, “Did you get Ivanhoe delivered to his new home all right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Johnny replied. “You never saw two happier kids than those two.”
“Oh, yes, I have,” Maura told him. “You, when my boys gave you Patty Pat and my boys every time Lulu had puppies.”
Johnny parted company with Maura and headed over to start work with Willie on the booths. Willie barely glanced at him as Johnny started to pitch in. In fact, all three of the others seemed a little put out with him for being late. There was a lot of work to do in order to get ready for the picnic that was being held there that weekend. Booths needed to be built on location and decorated as well. A table would be set up with chairs for judges. There were numerous contests planned for all ages including a sack race and a three-legged race. This went on for quite a while before Johnny finally got tired of the silent treatment and spoke up.
“What’s the matter? You fellas have been ignoring me practically all morning.”
The other three young men looked at each other and then Kevin took on the part of spokesman for the group.
“We thought we had an agreement to meet here at nine o’clock so we could get started on this. There’s a lot to do and it’s going to take all four of us working together to get it done.” Kevin sighed. “You agreed to meet us here at this hour and you were on time yesterday but today you showed up almost two hours late. We kind of thought that maybe you decided the great Johnny Madrid was above doing such manual labor and weren’t going to show up any more. The only thing is we know you promised Mrs. Talbot you’d help but you’re not much help if you don’t show up on time.”
Johnny looked at them through narrowed eyes. It really wasn’t any of their business why he was late but he knew that he’d promised to be there and it really wasn’t fair of him to take time to do personal errands when they were counting on his help. He also remembered that a few months back he’d left home after an argument with his father over some undone work and decided that these three were due an explanation. Besides which he knew that Willie would find out about his errand as soon as he went home.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I should have waited to do my errand later this week but I couldn’t stand to wait. I went over to the Bar T and got a puppy for a couple of kids in town that wanted one really bad.” Turning to Willie he grinned, “You got a new member of the family, Willie. A collie pup named Ivanhoe just came to live with your brother and sister.”
“You got one of Mr. Talbots pups for my little brother and sister?” Willie was amazed. “Why?”
“I met them the other day and they couldn’t hardly stop talking about how they wanted a puppy, or a dog, and your pa said he hadn’t been able to find one that wasn’t already sold or that someone would sell to him. He hadn’t heard about the Talbots pups, I guess, and said that he was going to start looking as soon as he could get away from the shop for a while. I just saved him the trouble is all.”
“That was awful nice of you,” Willie said. “What did my mother think? I know she’s home ‘cause she was planning on doing a lot of baking today – getting ready for that picnic here this Saturday.”
“She’s happy for them,” Johnny replied omitting the part about the kiss the woman had planted on his cheek.
“I’ll bet she rewarded you real well – like with some of her ginger cookies maybe?”
“Boys? Are you here to talk or to work?”
Maura’s voice reminding them of the purpose of their gathering broke up the conversation other than what pertained to the jobs they were doing. It didn’t take long for the boys to finish putting together the booths and building a few benches as well. The ladies that came were sure to want a seat while they watched the races. Tables were improvised by using sawhorses and long wooden planks. By noon the young men were ravenous and more than happy to take a break with sandwiches and cool water in the shade. Maura ate inside with the sisters and Padre Felipe to help watch the children. There were several that were very young and required more care than the others. The horses were checked on and fresh water pumped into the watering trough.
Late afternoon found tables and benches set up for the attendees to sit at while eating, benches for the spectators to sit on while they watched the sack race and other competitions and booths set up for the sale of pies, cakes, cookies, etc. There was a judges’ stand set up with a table to hold the ribbons and small trophies that would be awarded to those who won races.
Maura was very pleased. “You boys have done a lot today. All we have to do Saturday is make sure everything is in the right place and deliver the ribbons and such. Rico, I believe that Jonas Swanson has some feed sacks set aside for us?”
“Sí, he does,” Rico answered her.
“Then your job, Saturday, is to pick them up and deliver them here by nine o’clock.”
“I will do that,” Rico promised.
“Johnny could you see Mayor Higgs in Green River and pick up the boxes of ribbons he’s got for us? There will be several of them because the organizers want all the children to get a ribbon whether or not they win one of the races. The idea is that they will get one just for participating but the winners get the fancy ribbons – the rosettes we call them.”
“Sure, Mrs. Talbot, I can do that,” Johnny agreed though he didn’t look forward to dealing with the man his father referred to as a pompous old windbag.
“Kevin, Mr. Calvert has a couple of pigs he promised to lend us for the greased pig contest. You and Willie need to see him Friday afternoon and bring the pigs here. The children will see that they are fed Friday night and that they have plenty of water.” Turning back to Johnny she said, “Oh, and Johnny, while you’re at Mayor Higgs’ store please get a couple of pails of axle grease to use on the pigs.”
“Pigs?” Kevin asked.
“Pigs,” Maura affirmed. “It won’t hurt you to deal with some animal other than a cow or a horse. There’s going to be a greased pig contest for the children and for the adults. You might even get your fathers to participate.”
“The heck with our fathers!” Johnny exclaimed with a gleam in his eye. “That’s the perfect contest for my brother to enter. I’d like to see if he really knows how to get dirty!”
The other young men laughed while Maura scowled at him. Scott had a reputation for being an extremely neat person and Johnny was always teasing him about his propensity for taking a hot bath before supper every night. That gleam in his eye meant mischief and Maura knew it well. She had it in her head to warn Scott about his little brother but then she figured it was all in good fun and Scott might even enjoy his introduction into country entertainment.
About a half hour later the group broke up with the promise to meet at one o’clock on Friday afternoon to see to it that the benches, tables and such were placed in their strategic locations for the events of Saturday. Some benches were under the trees, a table near the barbecue pit that some of Lancer and the Bar T’s hired men had dug and then covered with planks that had heavy rocks set on them to keep the children from accidentally falling into it. All the older children had been warned to leave the rocks where they were but all of the orphans, and some of the town kids, had to be warned to stay away from it period. The organizers didn’t want anyone hurt because they were fooling around where they shouldn’t be. Any child caught near the pit would be barred from participating in the games this time and perhaps longer if that disobedience led to someone getting hurt.
The merry group, for such they were despite Kevin’s protests over picking up a couple of pigs and his initial irritation with Johnny’s late arrival, went on their way. Johnny drove the Lancer wagon, with Barranca hitched to the back, and followed Maura until they reached the fork in the road that went in one direction to the Bar T and in the other direction to Lancer. Thus assured that she would be fine he headed for the estancia to take care of the wagon, horses and clean up for dinner. Maria had promised to make him some tamales and sopapillas for supper and he didn’t want to be late.
The conversation at dinner that night, at Lancer, the Bar T, the Rocking M and in the Portillo and Mays homes, revolved around the community picnic that would be taking place in two days at the orphanage. Everyone was glad to hear that things were moving right along and that the boys would take care of the final details by picking up the prizes and the pigs and the grease as well as anything else that was being donated. Johnny made a bet with his brother that he, Johnny, would be sure to catch the greased pig because Scott had no experience with such things therefore it would be a waste of time for Scott to enter.
This, of course, proved to be too much for the older Lancer son to ignore. The bet was made, five dollars apiece, and they would see who was able to catch the greased pig. Their whole conversation had Murdoch and Teresa laughing until tears ran down their faces. Scott looked at them indignantly and left the table in somewhat of a huff that his own father, and his much beloved surrogate sister, could doubt him. This only made them laugh harder.
Murdoch decided to turn the tables on his younger son by betting him another five dollars that he and Scott would beat Johnny, and whoever he chose as his partner, in the three-legged race. Johnny’s pride was stung this time and he readily agreed to the bet. Teresa was wisely staying neutral and out of the discussion. Of course, she would cheer for them but she wouldn’t take sides. She’d be happy whichever brother won though she did think Johnny was a little mean for teasing Scott the way he did.
After dinner it was the usual routine for the family. Everybody retired to the Great room to read, play games or, in Teresa’s case, do some needlework. Tonight she was finishing up some mending. She hoped to get back to some embroidery work the next night but with three men to maintain a wardrobe for she was always repairing seams or replacing buttons. Johnny was hard on his shirts but the leather pants that he wore were one thing she didn’t have to work on. They didn’t tear as easily as Scott or Murdoch’s trousers and shirts, which were constantly getting torn on wire or tree branches. She was pretty sure, from the condition of some of their clothes, that at least one of her men had had a few close encounters with the horns on some of the cattle but she knew that they wouldn’t tell her about it if they had.
Johnny soundly defeated his brother at several games of checkers before retiring for the night. Tomorrow would be a normal day of ranch work but early Saturday morning he had that last errand to run for Maura. Then there was the picnic. He mulled over his choice of partners for the three-legged race as he got ready for bed. His feather bed felt wonderful after a full day of work at the orphanage. He fell asleep with a smile on his face as he remembered how thrilled Willie’s younger siblings had been when he’d presented them with Ivanhoe.
Next morning he awoke to the delicious aroma of coffee brewing, sausages and eggs frying and flapjacks too. It didn’t take him long to wash up, shave and dress in order to be at the kitchen table when breakfast was served. He ate three helpings of each prompting his father to comment on his hollow legs. Johnny didn’t understand what he meant since he’d never heard that expression before but grinned sheepishly when his father explained that it simply meant that Johnny was eating enough for two or three men. Young boys were often thought to have hollow legs as they constantly complained about being hungry. Johnny had been that way when he was a toddler. They couldn’t keep him filled up no matter how much they gave him. He would be back in an hour complaining he was hungry even though he’d had a big breakfast, lunch or dinner. He’d been such an active child that he’d burned off his meals very quickly. According to Murdoch he still did.
“Johnny, I’d like you to take a crew out to Wolf Creek where it flows into the South section. The water holes seem to be getting a bit low so I suspect that the creek is dammed up somewhere to the North. See if you can get it cleaned out. Scott, take a crew to the fence line by the Bar T and help Jim Talbot’s crew repair any broken down fences or gates. We don’t want the herds to mix – the pasture will be overgrazed in no time if we don’t keep them separated. Drive any of his stock back over to his side of the fence and drive ours back. I’m sure that Tim and a couple of the others will be glad to help you out. I’ve got Cipriano taking a crew out to move that herd in the west pasture up to a new section near the San Benitos today. There’s a new fence in place and the grass hasn’t been touched since we moved them down this winter.”
Murdoch issued the orders for the day and retired to his desk to try to bring the ledgers up to date, catch up on correspondence and review a couple of contracts he was considering bidding on. He’d discuss the contracts with the boys later and get their opinion. They both had a good head on their shoulders when it came to business matters – Johnny had come to know the lay of the land quite well and Scott’s experience in his grandfather’s business helped him spot many of the loopholes in the contracts that could cost them money. Together they had saved Lancer a considerable amount of money by cautioning their father not to bid unless certain changes were made. Johnny still struggled with the paperwork end of ranch work, and would for some time to come, while Scott was only now becoming familiar with the land itself. Murdoch was proud of his boys – they made a good team.
As soon as they were through eating the boys took off for their respective assignments. Maria had made nice fat roast beef sandwiches for them and packed small stone bottles of lemonade and some cookies to go with them. When they were gone she turned her attention to the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. Those chores were accomplished in short order and then she and Teresa put their heads together on a menu for supper. They decided on fried chicken, potatoes, biscuits and gravy with peach cobbler for dessert. They still had some peaches leftover that Murdoch had bought from a neighbor who raised them.
Shortly after noon, and after they had finished eating their lunches, Johnny and his crew finished their work. Wolf Creek had indeed been dammed up but with a little hard work on the part of the men, and using some of the horses, the blockage had quickly been removed so Johnny made the decision that they would move over to help Scott’s crew with the fencing work. When they caught up with Scott’s crew they found that the blond could use some help but not another full crew. After a brief discussion the brothers decided to split Johnny’s crew up and send half to help Cipriano’s crew with the herd. If he didn’t need them then the Segundo would decide what the unneeded men would do. It might just result in some extra time off for some of them, which the others would get at a later time.
It was hard to tell which herd had done the most damage but there turned out to be more fence that needed to be repaired than they had anticipated. Unfortunately that also meant that they didn’t have enough wire, or fence posts, to finish the job. Seeing the situation Johnny volunteered to take the buckboard to town and get some more wire in Spanish Wells. Scott agreed and told his brother that they would keep working as long as they could. If nothing else they could certainly patrol the fence line and keep the cattle separated.
“And don’t be all afternoon enjoying yourself at the saloon where it’s nice and dim and cool while we’re working in the hot sun, little brother,” Scott admonished Johnny with a grin.
“Scott! I’m hurt! Do you really think I’d hang around the saloon and let you slave away?”
“In a word – yes,” Scott retorted.
Giving his brother a cheeky grin, Johnny climbed up into the seat and turned the team toward the road. He didn’t really intend to hang around the saloon all afternoon – in fact he wouldn’t even set foot in it – but it was fun to try and con his brother into believing that he would.
The road was dry and the dust kicked up by the team and the wagon wheels settled on both the team and Johnny. Pulling up in front of the general store, Johnny stopped the team and hopped down from the buckboard’s seat. He made sure the brake was set before he stepped onto the boardwalk and entered. Inside the store, the owner was adding up the bill for a Mexican woman who appeared to be about the same age as Murdoch. Johnny smiled, nodded and removed his hat in the presence of the woman as he waited.
“That’ll be ten dollars,” the storekeeper told the woman.
“Ten dollars, señor? I do not have that much money! Are you sure that is correct?”
“Ten dollars lady – take it or leave it,” Pierce Wilson told her.
“Ten dollars is an awful lot of money, ma’am,” Johnny said. “What have you got in your basket that he’s charging you ten dollars for?”
“Some beans, molasses, flour, salt…,” the woman told him.
Taking a look inside her basket Johnny did the math in his head. The storekeeper was charging this woman twice as much as he should be.
“Mister, I think you’d better redo the math. There’s no way that what she’s got in that basket costs ten dollars. You’re cheating her – robbing her blind as my brother might say.”
“It most certainly does!”
“No, it don’t,” Johnny said. “I may not have gone to some fancy school the way my brother did, but I can do the math and that small amount of food she’s got doesn’t come to any ten dollars. Five, maybe, but not ten.”
“Mind your own business, boy,” the man told him angrily.
“I’m makin’ this my business,” Johnny calmly replied. “If you want any more of Lancer’s business you’d better change your tune about how much this lady owes you. I can just as easily take our business elsewhere.”
Begrudgingly, for Wilson didn’t want to lose Lancer’s business, he reduced the price of the food to what Johnny had said. The woman nervously took her change, picked up her basket and left. She didn’t want to do business with Wilson but Señor Baldomero, in Morro Coyo, was out of some of the supplies she’d wanted. They were due in any day but in the meantime she’d had her son drop her off here.
“Gracias, señor, gracias,” she said when Johnny had joined her outside.
“De nada,” Johnny replied. “It was nothing. Mr. Talbot said he suspected the man has been cheating Mexicans and blacks – anyone who isn’t white - now I know it’s true. We need a good sheriff in this town I reckon – one who will keep Wilson in line and see that he don’t charge anyone more than he’s entitled to. Until then I reckon Lancer can keep him in line somewhat by threatening to take our business elsewhere. I don’t think he likes us – well me anyway – too much but he doesn’t dare antagonize my father.”
The woman started on her way down the street to where a small black mare was hitched to a buggy. Upon learning that this was where she was to meet her son, Johnny took the basket from her and escorted her to it and helped her up into the seat. Reluctant to leave her alone due to the presence of some of the rowdies of the town, he stood on the boardwalk talking to her until a familiar looking young Mexican came along.
“Johnny? What are you doing with my mamá?” The young man was Rico Portillo. The woman Johnny had helped was his mother.
“I bumped into her in Wilson’s Mercantile,” Johnny said. “The man was going to cheat her but I took care of him.”
In rapid Spanish Señora Portillo explained to her son that Johnny was being too modest. Rico soon learned that Johnny had saved his family money and some of their food by intervening with the bigoted storekeeper.
“Mama says you did more than that. She wouldn’t have been able to afford these things that we need if you hadn’t forced Señor Wilson to redo the bill. Gracias, Johnny. I have many sisters and brothers. Because of this mama and papa sometimes struggle to put enough food on the table. I am the only one, besides my sister, Victoria, and my brother, Mariano, who is old enough to work. That’s why I work so long at the livery stable sometimes – to earn enough money to help buy food.”
“Listen, it’s not a problem and you ain’t beholden to me,” Johnny told his soon to be pal. “It’s only fair that you should get your money’s worth from the store. Your money’s as good as anyone else’s and he knows it. Mr. Talbot said the man was something of a bigot – I reckon that means he don’t like people whose skin ain’t the same color as his. If he gives you any more trouble you let me know. I told him Lancer would take its business elsewhere if he keeps it up. I’m sure Murdoch would agree with me.” Shaking hands with Rico and tipping his hat to Rico’s mother, Johnny sauntered back down the walk to Wilson’s store to pick up the load of wire he had come into town for.
As soon as the wire was loaded Johnny paid Pierce Wilson for it and left to return to the work sight. The storekeeper was glad to see him go. He detested Johnny for what he had been and didn’t think he belonged in the community as an accepted member. What he constantly overlooked was that his own son, Mike, was considered a bully and a cheat and was a much less desirable member of the community than the ex-gunfighter. He’d held his tongue for he knew that if he didn’t Johnny would make good on his threat but some day, he was sure, they would clash and the Wilsons would be on the losing end.
A few hours later Johnny, Scott and their crew finished replacing the rotten fence posts and restrung the wire that was missing – probably dragged off - or eaten by some stupid cow that then went off and died from it. The fencing materials that were leftover were loaded into the back of the wagon and one of the crew members drove it back to the estancia where it was unloaded and put into one of the storage sheds. By the time that was done, and the horses and wagon attended to, it was time for supper.
The day of the community picnic dawned bright, clear and warm but not excessively so. Johnny made short work of his breakfast and headed out to the barn to hitch up the buckboard for Murdoch and Teresa who would be bringing the food that Teresa and Maria had put up for the event. Johnny also saddled Barranca. Maura had explained to him that the boxes of ribbons weren’t very big and that Jim had already picked up the trophies, which had been ordered from a store in San Francisco. The trophies had been ordered months ago in order to ensure that they would arrive in time.
When Johnny got to Spanish Wells he saw Rico leaving the livery stable on a buckboard loaded down with empty feed sacks. The two young men waved to each other as they went their separate ways in order to complete the tasks that Maura had given them for that morning.
Pulling up in front of Mayor Higgs’ store Johnny could hear the man complaining about the heat (it wasn’t that warm) and about the money he was losing donating the ribbons and everything else he could find to complain about – including the incompetent clerk he had working for him.
Taking care of his errand as quickly as possible, Johnny picked up the packages of ribbons and tucked them into the saddlebags he had placed at the back of Barranca’s saddle for just such a purpose. He paid Mayor Higgs for them and quickly mounted and rode out of Spanish Wells toward the orphanage.
A couple of miles down the road he found Rico’s family having difficulty with their rented wagon and team. Reining Barranca to a halt, Johnny dismounted and approached the noisily laden wagon – noisy because all of Rico’s younger siblings were in it and several of them were under the age of ten.
“What seems to be the problem,” he enquired of Rico’s father.
“The wagon wheel is loose and is falling off. It’s too heavy to fix without something to raise the wagon – once the niños are out of it that is.”
“Hey you kids,” Johnny said as he helped Señora Portillo off of her seat and then turned to help Victoria who was just slightly older than Teresa. “Knock off the noise and get out of the wagon so your papa and I can fix it okay?”
Before he knew it Johnny was being swarmed by Tomas, who was six, Mariano who was fourteen and everyone in between and younger. Rico was one of eight children of whom he, at twenty, was the oldest. Johnny couldn’t help laughing as Tomas and Pedro, who was five, pestered him with questions about Barranca and did he know their brother and did he have any candy with him – all the usual questions that children their age would ask. Mariano was interested in art and wanted to know if Johnny had a caballero suit that he, Johnny, could wear while posing for a picture with Barranca. Mariano wanted to do a picture like that in the worst way but Rico was always so busy he didn’t have time.
Laughing Johnny answered all their questions and promised Mariano that he would see if he could find a suit like that if it made him happy. He then told the children to join their mother and sister over on the side of the road where they would be out of danger while he and their father fixed the wagon.
He had to range pretty far afield before he found a branch that would do as a lever to raise the wagon while they put the wheel back on properly. He didn’t find the hardware that would fasten the wheel on again so he had the Portillo children search for it. Each one went in a little different direction away from the wagon. A few minutes later Johnny came upon little Pedro who was searching about a quarter of a mile back down the road.
“Señor Johnny! I think I found it!” The little boy was jumping up and down in his excitement.
“Over there!” the little boy pointed to something shiny a few yards away.
“Well, let’s take a look,” Johnny said.
The two of them walked toward the spot that Pedro was pointing toward. Sure enough there was the piece of hardware they’d been searching for. Pedro ran ahead of Johnny to pick it up. In his excitement at being the one to find it the little boy did not immediately notice the large snake that was sunning itself a few feet away.
Quick as lighting Johnny grabbed the little boy with his left hand and pulled him toward him while simultaneously drawing his pistol with his right hand and blowing the head off of the snake. It was a little difficult as he had to practically move in two different directions at once but thankfully he managed it and little Pedro was safe.
The frightened child clung to Johnny until his mother came running up with her husband and other children close behind. When Señora Portillo reached them Johnny turned the child over to her. Silently he pointed to the dead snake when asked what had happened.
“Papa, mama, Johnny saved me! That snake was going to bite me but he pulled me away and killed it with his gun!”
“Gracias, Señor Lancer, gracias,” the worried mother said.
Señor Portillo echoed his wife’s thanks and shook Johnny’s hand telling him that they could never thank him enough.
Slightly embarrassed Johnny shook off their thanks and suggested that they get back to the wagon and get it fixed now that they had the missing piece of hardware.
“I suggest you have Rico check that wagon out thoroughly when you bring it back,” Johnny told Señor Portillo. It’ll hold for now and if you take it slow and easy it should be fine but it needs to be closely examined and maybe repaired. I think that wheel may even need to be replaced.”
The family thanked him and went on their way. Johnny remounted Barranca and turned him toward the fairgrounds and waving as he left the Portillo family behind as they climbed back into their wagon. On horseback he was able to arrive quicker and was there within twenty minutes. He sought out Maura who was at the judge’s stand and handed her the boxes of ribbons he had picked up in Spanish Wells.
He was rewarded with a kiss on the cheek and an admonition to go have himself a good time. There was nothing else for him to do. As he was leaving he saw Kevin arriving with a pair of pigs, which he rightly presumed were for the greased pig contest. Huffing and puffing the pair of them managed to unload the pigs and deliver them to the pen where they would be greased and from there they would be turned loose into the small fenced in area where the contest would take place.
“Thanks, Johnny,” Kevin said. “I don’t think I could have managed them a second time by myself. I had enough trouble loading them onto the wagon. Are you entered in the contest,” he asked as they walked back toward the crowd together.
“Nah, not that one. I have a bet with Scott but I need a way out of it that Scott can’t argue with and I’m gonna need a way toget my brother to enter it,” Johnny grinned. “Just watch how I do it. In fact you can help me. This is how…”
Kevin grinned. Johnny was as full of fun as he, Kevin, was and the chance to put one over on an older brother was a dream come true. The two of them put their heads together and worked out a plan.
“Hey, Johnny, Mrs. Talbot’s looking for us. She says she can’t manage the young ‘uns without our help.”
“Wait just a minute,” Scott said as Kevin approached the Lancers. “Johnny and I have a five dollar bet as to which one of us can catch that greased pig. He’s not backing out now!”
“What’s the matter, brother, afraid you’ll lose?” Johnny tried needling this time while Kevin tried to hide a grin.
“No, I’m not afraid I’ll lose – I know I’ll lose so why make a fool of myself?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because you’d find a way to make sure I lose so you can gloat about how good you are when you win,” Scott replied. “I don’t trust you that much – you and your grinning buddy here are up to something. I’ve been forewarned about him and putting the two of you together is bound to be trouble.”
“You really won’t enter without me?”
“No what?” Murdoch asked as he approached the trio.
“No, I won’t sign up for the greased pig contest alone. We had a bet and my little brother is trying to con his way out of it,” Scott explained.
“Why not enter anyway?” Murdoch asked. A lot of the young fellas sign up – it’s all good clean fun.”
Scott gave his father a disbelieving look.
“All right, so clean isn’t the right word but it is fun.”
“If Johnny’s not entering then all bets are off,” Scott insisted. “Why don’t you enter, sir? You seem to think it’s fun.”
“Oh I would,” Murdoch said, “except for one thing…”
“He can’t do it, Scott – think of his back! He’s only just now recovering from Pardee’s bullet. Isn’t that right, Murdoch?”
“Yes,” Murdoch said agreeing with his younger son whom he was really beginning to see was a bit of a scamp.
“Then why don’t you enter like you agreed, little brother?” Scott wanted to know.
“Me? I, uh,…” Johnny hadn’t come up with an excuse as to why he, himself, couldn’t enter. Kevin rescued him.
“He can’t do that - we promised Mrs. Talbot we’d help her until it’s time for the three-legged race and the sack race,” Kevin said. “She’s got lots of little things she needs us to do.”
“Such as?” Scott asked.
“Running errands, and watching to see that the kids don’t get too close to the barbecue pit and bringing more wood to the cooks and all sorts of other things.”
Johnny threw Kevin a grateful look, then turned back to his brother.
“I guess that lets me out and our bet is cancelled. You have to enter though - we can’t have folks thinking that the Lancer name applies to a bunch of cowards, now can we?”
“Cowards? Just because we don’t enter a silly contest where grown men wrestle with a dirty pig?”
“Not dirty – greased,” Kevin said.
“Oh, come on Scott,” Murdoch said. “You know he’s just going to nag you until you give in. Why don’t you make it easy on yourself?”
“All contestants for the greased pig contest please come to the pen. Spectators please stay behind the ropes.” Jim Talbot’s voice could be heard calling the entrants. He nearly choked on his laughter when he saw Scott Lancer among them. Somebody had either twisted the younger man’s arm or applied some emotional or psychological blackmail and Jim had a pretty good idea who that someone was. Johnny was conspicuously absent from the crowd at the moment and so was Kevin. Willie and Rico were nowhere in sight either.
Several explanations came to Jim’s mind the uppermost being that the quartet that would eventually be known as the Prankster Posse had set Scott up and were laying low so he wouldn’t come after them. His sandy eyebrows rose even higher than they had when Scott appeared on the scene when he spotted Johnny and the others in the back of the crowd waiting for the contest to begin. Shaking his head he got ready to start the contest.
“Gentlemen – we will be releasing the pig momentarily. The man who catches and hangs onto that pig for a full minute will be awarded the blue ribbon for this contest. He also wins bragging rights until next year.”
Nodding to Brad Walley, who was waiting for his signal, Jim shouted, “Now!”
Brad raised the gate on the cage that the pig was in and turned it loose in the small arena. Instantly there was a mad scramble among the men to get hold of the pig which was well slathered with axle grease.
Jim made his way down from the platform he was standing on to the crowd that was gathered around the pen where the greased pig contest was taking place. Shaking his head he approached Johnny and Kevin.
“Did you two have anything to do with getting Scott into the middle of that melee?” he asked with a grin, “If you did you’d better make yourself scarce before it’s over – whether he wins or not.”
The two younger men gave him their most innocent looks but they weren’t fooling Jim a bit. He stared right back at them trying to keep a straight face. Johnny and Kevin looked at each other and burst out laughing. Jim started laughing as soon as they did.
“I figured as much,” Jim said. “You two keep this up and even I’m going to question my wife’s judgment in bringing you two together.”
“Mr. Talbot,” Kevin said with a barely contained laugh, “I’m crushed! I thought we were friends.”
“We are, Kevin, my boy, we are,” Jim assured him. “It’s you and Johnny and the other two becoming best friends that concerns me.” Giving them a stern, paternal look he asked, “So how did you get Scott to enter this contest?”
“It’s a matter of family honor,” Johnny told him with a straight face.
“Yeah. We told him Murdoch couldn’t do it because of his back and his leg and I’m supposed to be too busy helping your wife. We couldn’t let people think that Lancers are cowards or anything so we got Scott to enter it. “
“I see,” Jim said with his right eyebrow cocked. “What about the sack race and the three-legged race?”
“I got a bet with Scott on the sack race and Murdoch and Scott are betting against me and whoever I choose for a partner in the three-legged race.”
Jim shook his head. “And I suppose Kevin, here, is going to be your partner – in the race as well as other things?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Johnny told him. “I might go for Willie or Rico instead and whoever’s left partners with the other one. We’re still workin’ on that.”
“Well I’d better get back to this contest and you two had better put in an appearance with my wife if you expect Scott to believe your story.”
The three men separated and, as Kevin and Johnny headed over to the area where the food was being served Kevin turned hesitantly to Johnny with something weighing heavily on his mind.
“About yesterday – when we gave you the silent treatment…”
“What about it?”
“I’m sorry. We should have known that you wouldn’t be late without a good reason.”
“You hardly know me so how could you know that?” Johnny inquired.
“Well then let’s say we shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. I guess we’ve heard too many horror stories about Madrid and confused them with the reality in front of us. You’re more than Madrid – just like Mrs. Talbot told us. My pa would skin me alive if he thought I was judging you, or anybody else, on rumors and legends.”
“I don’t blame you for being mad,” Johnny said with a sigh. “I reckon we all messed up. I shouldn’t have expected Mrs. Talbot to remember to tell you that I was going to be late and I should have explained sooner.”
“We shouldn’t have given you the silent treatment,” Kevin added his two cents worth.
“Well let’s just say we all made a mistake and leave it at that.” Johnny offered Kevin his hand.
With a grin Kevin took it and gave it a good shake and the two young men continued on their way dodging excited children and the dogs that raced in and out of the crowd. As they passed by one of the booths set up for children’s games they were waylaid by a small blonde girl with her hair in pigtails.
“Uh, oh,” he muttered. “Now I’m in for it.”
Johnny looked at him quizzically but before he could ask Kevin what he meant, the blonde whirlwind had caught up to them.
“Kevin, I need some help! I want to win one of those prizes at the ring toss but I can’t see over the top of the counter good enough! You have to play for me!”
“Why should I?” Kevin asked. “And where are your manners? You haven’t introduced yourself to Johnny or even said ‘please’ to me. Mama taught you better than that!”
“Oh, pooh,” the little girl said. “He’s just another one of your silly friends. Who cares about him?”
Kevin grimaced. “Johnny, this little brat is my sister, Kelly. She’s seven and real pain. Kelly this is Mr. Lancer’s son, Johnny.”
“Nice to meet you, Kelly,” Johnny said leaning down to shake her hand.
“Nice to meet you, too, I guess,” Kelly said, then immediately turned back to her brother. “Kevin, are you going to play the ring toss game for me or not?”
“No, I’m not,” Kevin told her. “I’m going to have a good time with some of my friends. Go find Pa or Sarah and Lori. Leave me alone. I’m busy!”
“You don’t look busy,” Kelly told him.
“I’ve got work to do for Mrs. Talbot,” Kevin told her. “Both of us do. Now scat!”
“I’m telling mama on you!”
“Go right ahead. She knows I’m helping Mrs. Talbot – she won’t do anything.”
“Whoa, hold it!” Johnny was getting a headache listening to the siblings. “Enough already! Kevin, what’s it gonna hurt to play ring toss for her a couple of times?”
“It means that I’ll never get rid of her that’s what!”
Kevin loved his siblings but seven-year-old Kelly was already showing signs of being bossy and could be an irritating little pest as far as he was concerned. The less time spent alone with her the better.
“Come on, Kevin,” Johnny said. “I’ll play one and you play one and then she can be on her way. Mrs. Talbot won’t mind.”
“Maybe she won’t but I do.” Kevin was adamant about it – he didn’t want to get stuck babysitting the seven-year-old menace as he thought of her.
As they stood there arguing a roar went up from the makeshift arena where the greased pig contest was going on. Apparently someone had just won and that someone, they were about to find out, was Scott. The elder Lancer brother came striding toward them a moment later getting slapped on the back and his hand shaken by most every man he met who had observed his victory.
Scott’s expression was a combination of distaste, pride and embarrassment as well as a little bit of anger. He’d been suckered and he knew it as soon as he saw his brother just standing around talking to Kevin. His hair was mussed, his face was sweaty and dirty and his shirt was covered with black axle grease from wrestling the pig. His pants weren’t much better off as far as dust was concerned. There was no doubt that Teresa and Maria would have their hands full trying to get those things clean enough to wear again. If they couldn’t they’d either become rags or be worn for the messiest jobs such as painting.
“Uh-oh,” Johnny muttered as he saw Scott headed their way. For a moment he wasn’t sure how he was going to handle this situation. Then he looked at Kevin and Kelly who were still arguing and came up with what he thought was a brilliant solution.
“Hey, Kevin, I think I just found a solution to two problems.”
“Huh?” Kevin was confused until he saw Scott approaching. The look on his face told Johnny that he understood and that he, Kevin, would play along.
“Johnny, I want to talk to you. What’s the big idea…” Scott didn’t get to finish his sentence.
“Scott, I want you to meet Kevin’s little sister, Kelly. Kelly, this is my brother, Scott.”
“Hello,” Kelly said briefly.
“Hello, Kelly,” Scott smiled at the little girl. “It’s nice to meet you.” Turning his attention back to his younger brother Scott started to speak again,” Johnny I’m going to….”
“Scott, Kelly here is looking for somebody to help her at the ring toss booth. Me and Kevin have to find Mrs. Talbot – there’s something she needed us to do but we got sidetracked when Kelly came to ask us to help. Now we explained that we ain’t got time but she’s insistent that she’s too small and we should help her.” Looking at Kelly with as innocent a look as he could make he said, “Kelly, I’ll have you know that Scott here is just about the best there is at ring toss. It’s no different from horseshoes and he’s real good at that. Why don’t you ask him to help you?”
“Would you, Scott? Kevin says he’s too busy but I’m too little to play by myself and I don’t know where my big sisters are.” Kelly turned her big brown eyes on Scott with all the pleading a seven-year-old child could muster. Scott was putty in her hands.
“Sure. Just let me see Señor Baldomero about a new shirt. It seems I’ve got grease all over this one.”
“But that’s what happens when you wrestle a greased pig,” Kelly said innocently. “Don’t worry – I’ll bet Miss Teresa or Señora Maria know what will take it out and that shirt will be good as new. If they don’t my mama probably does.”
Chattering away Kelly tagged along after Scott as he headed for where Señor Baldomero had set up a booth to sell some of the merchandise he carried in his store. Maura Talbot had made it a habit to ask local merchants to sell at certain community events so that they could do business and not miss out on the fun by being tied down to their store. The last Kevin and Johnny saw of the pair they were walking hand in hand toward the “merchant’s row” with Kelly talking a mile a minute and Scott politely answering her questions as fast, and as honestly, as he could.
As soon as the two of them were out of earshot Johnny and Kevin burst into laughter. They were still laughing when Willie and Rico caught up with them on the way to find Maura and all four of them were laughing at how Scott had been outmaneuvered when they found Maura handing out ribbons to the children who had entered pets in the pet show. All participants got one and there were so many children with puppies, kittens, rabbits and such that she needed the boys’ help to organize the children into a single line and to make sure that nobody got in line more than once which was a possibility with the chaos that surrounded her. In the midst of all this commotion Jimmy and Cece Mays stood with their new puppy Ivanhoe cradled in Jimmy’s arms. The roly-poly ball of fur was getting much loving attention from its new owners and their envious friends.
“You kids taking good care of that pup?” Johnny asked as they approached the crowd.
“Yes sir!” Jimmy exclaimed. “You bet!”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Johnny told him as he smiled at the two children with the puppy. “By the way, my name is ‘Johnny’ – not sir. Not Mr. Lancer either. Mr. Lancer is my father. I’m just Johnny and my brother is just Scott. Think you can remember that?”
“Sure, Johnny,” Jimmy spoke for both of them.
Johnny gave Jimmy a pat on the head and then he and his new friends set to work organizing the kids into a single line and sending those who already had their ribbons on their way. None of them could help but notice that every child had a blue ribbon even though there were red, white and blue ribbons for three levels of achievement. The blue ribbons were supposed to be for the top winners, the red for the second place and the white for the rest of them.
“Mrs. Talbot, did you give every one of those kids a blue ribbon just for bringing their pets?” Kevin’s eyes were dancing.
“And what if I did?” she asked him. “I don’t want any small child going home disappointed that their pet didn’t win a blue ribbon. The older children will get reds or whites as well as blues when they compete in some of the games.” Looking at the four of them and at the little watch she had pinned to her shirtwaist she asked, “Isn’t it about time for the sack race and then the three legged race? Run along and get yourselves entered. I won’t need you for the rest of the day.” As they started to leave she asked, “By the way how did Scott make out in the greased pig contest?”
“How’d you know he entered?” Johnny asked.
“I figured you’d find a way to trick him into it,” Maura told him. “I don’t want to know how you did it but I’m sure you found a way.”
“You know something, Mrs. Talbot? I’d hate to try and put one over on you – you’re awful smart!” Johnny laughed. “From the slaps on the back he was getting, and the handshakes, I’d say he won. I never got a chance to ask him.”
Maura looked askance at that remark. Her eyebrows rose and she looked at him disbelievingly.
“No, really, I didn’t,” Johnny told her. “It seems that Kevin’s little sister, Kelly, needed somebody to play ring toss for her – or was it to help her? Well anyway, Kelly ended up asking Scott. The last we saw of either of them they were walking over to see Señor Baldomero about a new shirt. It seems that big brother got axle grease all over the one he was wearing.” Johnny grinned at her as she shook her head and shooed them off.
The contestants for the sack race were lining up. Johnny and his new friends joined the others though it was a new experience for Johnny just as much as it was for his brother. He’d simply never participated in one before and Scott had never seen it. Murdoch, however, had won a sack race at a Fourth of July picnic some years before so he had a definite advantage over his sons who had never participated in such a thing before in their lives.
The Lancer Patriarch was at one end of the line. Next to him was Jim Talbot. Next to Jim was Scott. To Scott’s right were Brad Walley, Tim O’Connor, Johnny, Willie, Kevin and Rico. The contestants were eager to get started.
Brad Ingersoll, a friend from Green River, had volunteered to take charge of this contest and he stood to the right of the starting line with a red bandana in his hand ready to drop it when everybody was lined up and ready to go. At his cry and the drop of his arm the race was on.
Kevin managed five hops before he fell and had to get back up again. Rico managed to go ten. Willie managed only eight. Johnny fell the first time he jumped but was on his feet in a flash trying to catch up with his brother who was somehow managing to do very well for a beginner. Murdoch was way out in front but Jim Talbot was only a pace or two behind.
The crowd roared while the dust rose in a big cloud over the field where the race was taking place. Children could be heard squealing and laughing and dogs barked. The older men who were unable to participate had favorites and were loudly cheering them on. The women and girls rooted for their husbands, boyfriends, fiancés and brothers. Teresa was in a quandary. Who did she root for? Murdoch was a father to her since her own father had been killed. The boys were like brothers to her. It was much too difficult to choose so she just rooted for any or all of them to win.
Scott managed ten more leaps before falling. Then he struggled to his feet and started hopping again. He got about three feet before he fell again – this time knocking Johnny over. Johnny had gained ground when others fell back. When Scott fell into him a second time Johnny wound up knocking Rico down who, in turn, knocked Mark Malcom down. Mark fell into Kevin who fell into Willie but Willie was quickly back on his feet and was starting to gain some ground when Murdoch managed to cross the finish line one jump ahead of Jim Talbot.
When they regained their feet the two old friends pounded each other on the back laughing and congratulating each other. Scott finished a distant sixth behind his brother, Kevin and Willie. Rico got tangled up with Mark Malcom and never did finish the race – he was laughing too hard.
“How do you do that?” a breathless Scott wanted to know.
“How do I do what?” Murdoch asked.
“How do you manage to jump in a sack and not fall over?”
“Practice, son, practice,” Murdoch grinned with a twinkle in his eye. “I’ve done this before you know.”
“Oh, Murdoch!” an excited Teresa exclaimed as she joined them. “You did it again! Just like at the Fourth of July picnic last year!”
Murdoch put an arm around the girl’s shoulders and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Thank you, darling. I rather enjoyed myself.”
“You were very good, too, Mr. Talbot,” she said to their neighbor.
“Thank you, Teresa,” he replied.
“What about me?” Scott asked.
“What about you?” Teresa responded.
“How do you think I did?”
“Not bad for a beginner,” she teased him. “Murdoch will have to give you lessons.”
“Thanks a lot,” Scott groaned. “Not bad for a beginner,” he mumbled. “Some congratulations that is.”
“And how did we make out, Teresa?” Johnny asked for himself and his friends.
“Oh, you boys are all right, but you have a long way to go before you’re very good,” she told them.
When Kevin reached for her ponytail she ducked behind Murdoch and Jim who fended the young man off laughing and reminding him that they had a three-legged race to get ready for. They all headed back to the starting line of the sack race to line up for the three-legged race.
Willie and Kevin had decided to team up as a pair since they were pretty much the same size. Murdoch had already enlisted Scott days before so Johnny and Rico wound up partnered and pretty evenly matched in size. Scott may not have been as tall as his father but he wasn’t as short as his brother either. Murdoch and Johnny would have made a very mismatched pair.
Jim Talbot had elected to sit this one out but he was rooting for young Tim O’Connor who had recently come to work for him. Tim was paired up with a newcomer by the name of Val Crawford who had come to take the job of sheriff in Green River. He had interviewed with the Cattleman’s Association in just a few days earlier and had been invited to join in the festivities. It wouldn’t be long before everybody knew that beneath that crusty exterior beat a heart of gold.
The starter for this race was Brad Ingersoll again. Once he assured himself that everyone was properly bound together with their partner he went over to the far left side of the starting line, raised his pistol in the air and fired a single shot. The race was on!
Johnny and Rico did a fairly good job of keeping in step with each other. At Rico’s insistence – for he had been in this kind of a race before – they practiced walking together in unison. Murdoch had had Scott do the same thing with him. It would make all the difference in who won the race for many of the teams had a difficult time remembering that their inside legs were bound to the other’s inside leg and therefore had a tendency to fall because they weren’t working together.
Murdoch and Scott led the pack right from the beginning. Johnny and Rico were about three steps behind them struggling to catch up with the taller men. Kevin and Willie, unfortunately, were among those who forgot to work together so they didn’t fare very well. After about three steps they fell and had to drag themselves, and each other, up again. They kept at it though. Defeat was not going to come without them at least trying.
All around the area men could be heard cheering for their sons, best friends, neighbors, grandsons or no one in particular. Those who had no one in the race, or didn’t want to play favorites, cheered for everyone and laughed as the twenty or so teams struggled to be the first one across the finish line.
“Come on, Kevin!” Kelly could be heard cheering for her brother. Though the siblings sometimes fought they were actually quite close. As Maura had said – Kelly could be a bit of a tattletale but nobody dared give the little girl a hard time if her brother were around.
“Come on, Murdoch, come on Scott,” Jim could be heard cheering for his best friend and that friend’s older son. He’d heard about the bet they had with Johnny and figured the younger man deserved to lose after the way he’d tricked his brother into being the only Lancer in the greased pig contest.
Two minutes later Murdoch and Scott crossed the finish line several steps ahead of the teams of O’Connor and Crawford and Lancer and Portillo. It took several minutes for them all to catch their breath. When they had done so Murdoch congratulated the other teams on their fine performance. The newcomers, and strangers, were impressed that Murdoch would take the time to tell everyone else how well they’d done. Scott was right behind his father doing the same thing. Johnny tried to sneak off so he wouldn’t have to pay his father and brother in front of everybody in town. It didn’t do him any good, however. Scott broke away from the crowd and took him by the arm back to where Murdoch stood talking to Jim Talbot and Val Crawford. They were setting up an appointment for the man to meet with the Cattlemen’s Association for an interview for the sheriff’s job.
“Well, John,” Murdoch said with a grin. “I believe we have some business to conduct.”
“Yeah,” Johnny mumbled. “I guess we do.”
“Pay up Little Brother,” Scott said with a grin of his own. “That’s five dollars you owe us – apiece.”
Johnny reached into the pouch he was carrying with his latest pay and handed over five dollars apiece to his father and brother.
“Let that be a lesson to you, Johnny,” Murdoch said with a laugh. “Never bet against experience when you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Thanks, Brother,” Scott said. “I think I’ll put this aside toward a rainy day. I have about thirty dollars put aside that I want to put in the bank. I’d say a trip to the bank in Green River is in order.”
“Now that the races are over,” Murdoch said to his sons, “let’s relax and enjoy the rest of the day. I think I’ll challenge Jim, here, to a game of horseshoes. How about it, neighbor?”
“You want to play me at horseshoes? It seems to me,” Jim said, “that you’ve lost more than you’ve won but if you insist on adding to your losses, let’s go.”
The two older men left the brothers and Johnny’s new friends and headed for the spot that had been set aside for horseshoes. Johnny, Kevin, Rico and Willie wandered over to the barbecue area to see what, if anything was left to eat. Scott decided to wander around a bit before having a tall glass of lemonade and finding a quiet spot under a shady tree where he could relax and watch the activities that were still going on.
The rest of the day passed quickly and, before anybody realized just how late it had gotten it was almost dusk and many people were pitching in to help clean up trash and garbage and make sure that the fire was out in the barbecue pit once the trash was burned.
Tired, but content, Maura, Jim, the Lancers, their friends and neighbors packed up and headed for home. Maura was happy that each child had some sort of a prize. Murdoch and Scott were happy they’d won their bet with Johnny who really wasn’t sulking as much as he pretended – after all he’d gotten Scott to enter the greased pig contest all by himself. Not only that but Scott had won five dollars for doing it. Everybody who attended the community picnic at the orphanage had had a great time and some of the orphans had even found new families to adopt them.
Kevin, Willie and Rico had each found some sort of a game or a contest to win and had practically eaten themselves sick at the barbecue. Kevin’s least favorite part of the day was when his mother bawled him out for not taking Kelly to the ring toss. The little girl had had fun with Scott but word had gotten back to Mrs. Millar that it wasn’t her son that was looking after his little sister. She’d just about boxed his ears for leaving Kelly in the care of someone else rather than taking care of her himself. It was for this reason that Kevin found himself taking his little sister to the bank on Monday morning to deposit the money she’d saved up from birthday presents and from doing small mending and embroidery jobs for friends and neighbors.
The bank in Green River didn’t open until nine o’clock but Kelly Millar was ready to leave at six. She’d counted her money several times and knew exactly how much she had to put in the bank – twenty dollars. She’d been saving for a long time – over a year. Her older brother, who lived in Wyoming, always sent her a dollar for her birthday as did her mother’s sister, Aunt Mary, who lived in Texas. She’d earned some of it by selling the eggs from her little block of chickens to some of the people in Morro Coyo who had neither chickens nor a general store from which to get them themselves.
“Ma, tell Kelly to sit down and be quiet,” Kevin requested. “I’m not leaving for the bank for at least another hour. She’s going to drive me crazy!” he complained.
“Kevin, calm down,” his mother told him. “She’s just excited that she has money to put in her savings account. Remember she’s only seven.”
“She’s a seven-year-old pest!” Kevin exclaimed.
“You were just as bad when you were her age,” Mrs. Millar reminded her son. Turning to her daughter she told her, “Kelly, settle down and eat your breakfast. Kevin has some chores he has to do before you two go into town. Now leave him be. He’s not going in without you but your father has some things he wants Kevin to do for him in Green River. Kevin can’t leave until Pa’s finished with him.”
The little blonde settled down for about five minutes but then she was up bouncing around again getting on her brother’s nerves. Countless times her mother patiently explained why they couldn’t leave yet and that same number of times Kelly asked if they could leave yet. She was anxious to put her money in the bank.
At the Portillo household Rico was getting ready to leave for his job at the Spanish Wells Livery stable. His father was getting ready to open his little woodworking shop where he had several orders for bookshelves, curio shelves and small items such as candlesticks waiting to be worked on. Rico’s younger siblings were getting ready for school as their mother packed lunches for them.
It was the same thing at the Mays house. Willie had recently started working at the Bar T as Jim Talbot’s handyman. While his father worked as a blacksmith, and Willie was quite capable of the same quality of work, it wasn’t what he wanted to do all the time. At the Bar T he fixed fences, built gates, shoed horses when necessary if they couldn’t get them to town to the blacksmith shop, repaired roofs and steps and anything else that Jim, or Maura for that matter, could find. If they didn’t have any work for him they often knew somebody else who needed a handyman for a certain job and always steered Willie that way. Agatha Conway, a widowed neighbor, was one of several who spoke highly of Willie’s work and work habits. She willingly hired him when the Bar T didn’t need him.
At Lancer Johnny and Scott were both getting ready to go into Green River. Scott was going to go to the bank and Johnny was delivering a note to Val Crawford, the candidate for the sheriff’s job, that the job was his if he wanted it.
Around nine o’clock that morning Mr. Millar gave his son some letters to mail and a list of supplies he wanted Kevin to pick up. Admonishing his son to be patient with his little sister and to take good care of her he sent the pair on their way. Little did he know the trauma that awaited them all in just a few short hours.
At Lancer Johnny and Scott were getting ready to make the trip into town. Teresa and Maria had prepared an extensive list of staples and such that they needed in the kitchen while Murdoch had some business for them to take care of at the bank. A toss of the coin had given Scott the job of doing the banking while Johnny went to Mayor Higgs’ store, among others, to pick up the supplies they needed.
At nine that morning they set out with the buckboard as they had a fairly substantial list meaning that Teresa and Maria didn’t want to leave anything to chance. It took a lot of food to keep the hard-working men well fed and content. The boys received frowns and threats from Maria when they made mention of that to the women. Teresa just wrinkled her nose up at them and didn’t say a word.
It was eleven o’clock by the time they got into town. Scott pulled the wagon up in front of the general store owned by Mayor Josiah Higgs. Johnny hopped off and started in with the list of supplies they had been entrusted with.
“I’ll meet you back here in an hour,” Scott told Johnny. “You get started on that list and I’ll see about this business at the bank. I may have to negotiate a while – Mr. Johnson is always adamant that he didn’t make the mistake. It always seems to take an hour, or more, to get him to see that he’s wrong.”
“I don’t envy you brother,” Johnny replied. “But I ain’t got it any easier – dealing with Mayor Higgs.”
“Want to trade?” Scott asked with a gleam in his eye.
“No, thank you. The pleasure of dealing with a stubborn banker is all yours. At least I can pretend I’m listening to Mayor Higgs as he complains about everything. You have to really pay attention.”
“Thanks, brother,” Scott said with a grimace. “I’ll meet you at Mrs. Spencer’s café in an hour.”
With that the brothers separated and went about taking care of their respective errands.
Mayor Josiah Higgs owned the only general store in Green River. The man was a notorious, pompous windbag who thought he was more important than he was and repeatedly ignored good advice from concerned citizens, including the former sheriff, about keeping so much money in his store. It made him a prime target for armed robbers and he’d been robbed several times. Higgs was expounding on the deplorable lack of law and order in the town to several customers when Johnny walked in.
“It’s a terrible thing,” he was saying, “when a person can’t walk down the street without practically being run over. And the thieves – why I’ve been robbed five times since I opened this store! What does the law do about it? The law tells me not to keep so much money in my store. How am I supposed to run a store without money to make change?”
As the man went on and on Johnny wandered around the store waiting for him to finish taking care of the people in line ahead of him. He tipped his hat to Martha Pittman and her daughter, Holly, as he passed them. Holly giggled. She and her siblings – of whom there were several including twin brothers – were very fond of the Lancer brothers and had been ecstatic when Johnny came back home after the incident over the wild stallion. Martha smiled and nodded in return.
The interior of the bank was dim and cool compared to the bright sunlight outside. It was a bit of a relief to walk in on a hot summer day. That’s what Scott would have thought except for the gun that was suddenly pointed at his head.
“Come right in, friend, and join the party,” a cold, menacing voice said as the owner relieved Scott of his pistol and shoved him further into the building.
Turning around Scott found himself face to face with a tall heavyset man whose face was covered by a red bandana. Four other men, also wearing their hats pulled low and bandanas over their faces were posted in other parts of the room.
One man was behind the counter holding a gun on the bank manager, one was in front of the counter using elderly Mr. Napier as a shield against further intruders. The old man, who was nearly ninety years old, looked more angry than frightened. The same could not be said for the two ladies who were being menaced by the other two would be-robbers. Mrs. Ann Watson and Miss Rachel Caufield were terrified and crying.
“Shut up!” the one watching them said.
“Ease up,” the man who was watching Scott said. Apparently he was the leader. “We don’t want to attract any attention. If you keep yelling at them old ladies, they’re gonna scream and that will bring the law down on us.”
“Boss! He still ain’t got the safe open.” This came from the one who was watching the bank manager.
“What’s the problem, mister? Get that safe open – pronto!”
“I-I can’t,” Mr. Johnson said. “I can’t remember the combination.”
“Don’t lie to me, mister, get that safe open!” The leader of this gang was getting angry.
“He’s not lying to you,” Scott said. “He’s new and the safe is new. He hasn’t had time to learn it yet.”
“You must have it written down somewhere then. Find it!” the man ordered. “You go with him,” he told his cohort.
The frightened bank manager, and the robber, walked over to the manager’s office where the new bank manager, with shaking hands, started sorting through the piles of paper on top of his desk.
“Hi Johnny,” Kevin said as he and Kelly walked into Mayor Higgs’ store.
“Hi Kevin,” Johnny replied. “What brings you to town on a Monday morning?”
“Pa needed some errands done and Ma told me to bring Kelly so she can deposit her savings into her bank account.”
“Good morning, Kelly,” Johnny said to the little girl.
“Hello.” Kelly returned his greeting then turned to her brother. “Hurry up and give Mr. Higgs the list, Kevin. You have to go with me to the bank, you know.”
“I know, I know!” Kevin was getting irritated with Kelly’s constant chatter and attempts to boss him around.
“What can I do for you young folks?” Mayor Higgs asked as he finished with his last customer.
“Seems like the Rocking M and Lancer both have orders to fill,” Johnny said. “Go ahead and fill theirs. Scott’s at the bank. I’m supposed to meet him at the café in about fifteen minutes or so but I can wait.”
“Thanks, Johnny,” Kevin knew his new friend was trying to help him out. For all he actually adored his little sister she did get on his nerves sometimes and listening to her constantly remind him that he had to take her to the bank was beginning to get to him. “I have to take Kelly over to the bank. She’s got twenty dollars saved up to put in the bank.”
“Twenty dollars?! Where’d a little thing like you get twenty dollars?” Johnny asked the little blonde.
“From birthday presents and sewing handkerchiefs and stuff for the ladies of the area,” Kelly told him.
“That’s a lot of money for a little girl to be carrying around,” Johnny said. “You’d better take her over to the bank right away, Kevin.”
“We’ll be back as soon as we’re through,” Kevin told Mayor Higgs.
Kevin and Kelly started toward the door only to have it opened by scruffy Val Crawford who had just come from the interview with the Cattleman’s Association and been awarded the job of sheriff in Green River. Val stepped to one side when the saw the brother and sister coming toward him so that they could exit the store. He even tipped his hat to Kelly who nodded in response as she’d been taught by her mother. The siblings then walked down the street and crossed over to the bank.
“Can I help you?” Mayor Higgs asked the newcomer?
“Yeah, I need a few things,” Crawford answered handing him his list.
“I’ll take care of you after I take care of this gentleman and the Millars – the brother and sister who just left,” Higgs told him.
“That’ll be fine.”
Johnny looked the man up and down with a certain amount of amusement. For all he’d heard about Crawford he wasn’t sure if the man was up to the job. He certainly didn’t look like much but as he’d learned, looks can be deceiving and he’d soon find out just how capable a lawman Valentine Aloysius Crawford really was.
Things were getting tenser by the moment in the bank. The men who were there to rob it were getting more impatient by the minute. A half hour had gone by already and they still didn’t have the riches they presumed were in the safe.
“What’s keeping you?” their leader asked the pair that was searching the bank manager’s desk.
“I-I-I can’t find the piece of paper with the combination on it,” the new manager stammered.
“Well, you’d better find it!”
“Maybe I can help,” Scott said. He’d been silent up to this time but he couldn’t allow the man to be bullied any longer. “Threatening him like that isn’t going to help. Why don’t I help him look?”
“Go ahead,” the leader said, “but keep your hands where I can see them.”
Scott walked over to the desk and started searching it. Mr. Johnson kept catching Scott’s eye and looking down at his desk. Scott couldn’t quite figure out what the man was trying to do until he started opening the drawer while their guard was looking the other way. He got a glimpse of a small caliber handgun in the drawer before he reacted without thinking and reached over to slam the drawer shut. The noise drew the attention of the gang member who was supposed to be guarding them.
“What’s going on here?” he demanded to know. “What was that noise?”
“Nothing,” Scott lied. “Mr. Johnson was just checking his desk drawer. There’s nothing in there that will help get the safe open.”
“I’ll just have a look for myself,” the bandit said.
“No, really,” Scott tried to dissuade him, “there’s no need for that.”
“What’s the problem over there?” the leader wanted to know.
“These two are up to something,” his cohort answered. “And I aim to find out what.”
Waving his pistol at them he told them to move away from the desk. Opening the drawer he found the pistol.
“Why you…hey boss – he’s got a gun in this drawer. Reckon he was going to use it on us?”
“No, no – I wouldn’t do that,” Mr. Johnson said.
The perspiration was beading up on his forehead and he reached for his handkerchief. It was at this exact moment, as Scott and Mr. Johnson were being threatened that the door opened and Kevin and Kelly entered.
There was a shot and several screams – including one from Kelly – as Kevin went down with a bullet in his shoulder and banged his head on the doorframe for good measure as he staggered backward. Without hesitation Scott lunged for the man closest to him only to have the outlaw’s gun come down on his head. The first blow stunned him. The second one knocked him senseless. There would have been a third blow except that the outlaw suddenly remembered the real object of his wrath when Johnson gasped as Scott was struck. He then turned his gun on Mr. Johnson and fired point blank bringing more screams as the bank manager sank, mortally wounded, to the floor.
“I’ll have your order in just a minute, Mr. Lancer,” Mayor Higgs said. He was being extra polite because he knew that Johnny would take Lancer’s business elsewhere if he thought Higgs was anything but attentive.
“So how did the interview go?” Johnny asked Crawford after the man had read the letter from Murdoch.
“Fine. I start as soon as possible.”
Just then they heard gunshots coming from the bank. Both men looked at each other and ran for the door after only a few seconds of hesitation.
“Do you know where those shots came from?” the new sheriff asked.
“Sounded like the bank. The bank! Scott’s in there! And Kevin and his little sister were headed there!” As he headed out the door one step ahead of the new sheriff Johnny added, “Looks like it’s sooner rather than later.”
Johnny fought down the rising sense of panic as he and Crawford raced toward the bank only to have a group of armed men come out of the bank and start firing at them, and anyone else who came too close. Struggling to free herself from the man who held her so tightly around the waist was Kelly Millar with blonde braids askew and tears running down her face. Neither Kevin, nor Scott could be seen.
The men mounted horses that they had tied in front of the bank and fired a few more shots as they fled. The seven-year-old child they were holding as hostage could be heard wailing as they rode down the street.
Johnny and Val Crawford had drawn their pistols but didn’t risk a shot. If they had missed they could have hit Kelly instead and neither man was going to take that chance. Instead they ran into the bank to find Miss Caufield sitting on the floor weeping hysterically. Mr. Napier was helping a very dazed, and pale, Scott Lancer to his feet. Blood trickled down the left side of his face from the bloody gash where the barrel of the outlaw’s pistol had made contact. Scott swayed but the sturdy old veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War steadied him until he could sit in a chair. Mrs. Watson was trying to stop the flow of blood from Mr. Johnson’s chest but Johnny could see at once that it was a lost cause.
Val Crawford had stopped just inside the doorway when he saw the wounded young rancher. Kevin was unconscious, pale, and bleeding from his right shoulder and a bump on his right temple.
Stepping to the door Crawford called out to the crowd, “Somebody get the doctor! I’ve got a wounded man here.”
“Two wounded men, Sheriff,” Johnny said. “And my brother’s been pistol whipped.”
“Get that doc here, pronto,” Val Crawford called out again. “We got two wounded men and one that’s been hit with a pistol. While you’re at it somebody come in here and see if you can calm this lady down.”
The words had barely left his mouth when Maura Talbot arrived on the scene. She and Jim had driven in to pick up some supplies of their own when they heard about the shooting. In her normal, brisk and no-nonsense manner she walked in and immediately took charge of the hysterical woman. It took some doing but she was finally able to calm her down a little. Dr. Sam Jenkins was less than five minutes behind her having been summoned by Jim who entered right behind him.
“What happened, Sheriff?” the old medico asked.
“Don’t rightly know for sure, doc,” the new sheriff replied. “Me and young Lancer, there, were over at Mayor Higgs’ store when we heard gunshots. Five men rode off with the little Millar girl as a hostage. I gotta get a posse together and go after that little girl.”
After a quick examination of the bank manager, Sam Jenkins shook his head sadly. The man was dead on the floor where he had fallen. There was nothing he could do for him now and, from the looks of the wound there was nothing he could have done for him anyway. Next he started to examine Scott but Scott pushed him away insisting that he look after Kevin. Johnny’s hand on his shoulder kept the agitated blond from getting up and going to the younger man himself.
“You rest easy, brother,” he said to Scott. “That’s quite a lump you’ve got on your head. I don’t reckon you’re feeling too good right about now.”
George Napier concurred with Johnny, “You heard your brother, young man. You took quite a wallop trying to protect the Millar children. It’s best you sit and relax. I don’t think Samuel’s going to let you go anywhere anyway – except maybe to his office to lie down.”
“Maura, would you be so kind as to go to my office and get it ready for my two patients?”
“Of course, Sam,” the petite redhead said. “Scott, I’ll be there to take care of you as soon as you get to Sam’s office. You mind what Mr. Napier and Johnny tell you. Stay put until somebody can help you.”
She quickly bustled down the street to comply with the doctor’s request. It wouldn’t take her long to put the examination room to rights and have water boiling on the stove with which to sterilize the instruments he would need to get the bullet out of Kevin’s shoulder.
“Mr. Talbot? Would you mind seeing that this boy’s family gets notified of what happened? They need to know that their daughter has been kidnapped and their son is hurt.”
“I’ll do that and I’ll send word to Lancer about Scott. Johnny – you take care of your brother. I’ll see to it that Murdoch knows what happened. I’ll send someone there and go to the Rocking M myself to tell Andrew about his children.”
Jim left the bank and hurried down to the livery stable. If he was going to make good time getting to the Rocking M and Lancer, to notify the parents of their sons’ injuries, he was going to have to go on horseback and not driving his buckboard.
“A couple of you men take Mr. Johnson over to the undertakers. He got any family that you know of?”
“No,” Mrs. Watson replied. “He was widowed five years ago. My husband interviewed him for the position as bank manager and told me that Mr. Johnson lost his wife to a long illness several years ago.”
“Thank God for small favors, then,” Crawford said. “At least I don’t have to tell some woman she’s a widow.”
“Let’s get Kevin and Scott over to my office,” Dr. Jenkins said. “Is anybody else hurt?”
George Napier spoke up indignantly, “Those scoundrels merely frightened Miss Caufield and Mrs. Watson. They made me angry! Bullying poor Johnson when he really didn’t know the combination to the safe. There isn’t much in there anyway. Johnson was expecting a mine payroll but the owners changed their mind about when it was going to come. Johnson died for nothing and those two young men are hurt because five men got greedy and believed a rumor. Such a waste. I surely do hope the Millar boy is going to be all right.”
Johnny grinned and Scott smiled in spite of his aching head. The old man was known to be quite the character. Served in two wars. Trapped beaver and such in the mountains. Fought off claim jumpers in Sacramento. Not much disturbed the old timer and he was a fount of information – historical and otherwise. The “young whippersnappers” like Murdoch and Jim treated him kindly and with respect while their young whippersnappers got an education or an earful – depending on the mood he was in and how they acted toward him.
“I’m getting a posse together,” Crawford announced to the crowd. “Any man who wants to ride with me meet me here in ten minutes. Those men are killers – we have to catch them before any harm comes to that little girl they have with them. We can’t be sure they won’t kill her too.”
“Come on, brother, let’s get you over to Sam’s office,” Johnny said. “Then I’m joining that posse.”
Johnny took his brother by the arm and led him out the door. Two of the bystanders – cowhands that worked for other ranches in the vicinity took over and helped Scott. Two other men picked Kevin up gently and carried him down the street to the doctor’s house and office where Maura awaited with hot water, bandages and freshly made beds. Johnny went to the livery stable to borrow a horse. Barranca was back at the ranch. The brothers had ridden to town in the wagon. Johnny wasn’t happy about having to ride a horse he didn’t know as well as his beloved Palomino but there wasn’t any choice. It would take far too long to get back to Lancer, retrieve his own horse, and ride back again.
In exactly ten minutes a posse consisting of the new sheriff, the younger Lancer son and a half a dozen others was riding out of town in pursuit of the killer bank robbers and their hostage. The Reverend Hawk, having heard about the robbery, called the people together for a prayer meeting where the topic would be the safety of the posse and the safe return of seven-year-old Kelly Millar.
“Murdoch? Mr. Talbot’s riding into the yard in an awful hurry! And he’s not riding Pintauro!”
Teresa’s cry got the Lancer patriarch’s attention in a hurry. Something had to be dreadfully wrong for Jim Talbot to ride into the Lancer yard at a full gallop on a strange horse.
“Jim? What’s wrong? Is Maura hurt?” Murdoch’s first thoughts were that something must be wrong with his friend’s wife or he wouldn’t be riding so fast.
“The bank in Green River was robbed! Scott’s been pistol whipped. Kevin Millar’s been shot and the robbers took little Kelly hostage!” Jim told him breathlessly. He and his borrowed mount were breathing hard.
“Cipriano! Saddle my horse – and a fresh one for Mr. Talbot!”
“Sí, Patron,” the big Mexican hustled off toward the stable to do as Murdoch had asked.
“How bad is Scott?” Murdoch asked.
“Not too bad,” Jim replied. “He was conscious and coherent when I left town but he’s got a whopper of a headache and he was pretty pale.”
“Kevin’s got a bullet in his right shoulder and a nasty bump on the head. He banged it on the doorjamb when the bullet hit him.”
“Anybody notify Andrew and his wife yet?” Murdoch wanted to know.
“That’s my next stop,” Jim told him.
“I’ll go with you.”
“What about Scott?” Teresa asked.
“I’m going to see him and find out if we can bring him home but I think Andrew will need his friends around him.” Turning to Jim he asked, “Is Kevin’s wound bad?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t stay around. When Sam asked me to notify you and Andrew I went down to the livery and borrowed a horse. It’s faster coming cross country on horseback then driving the buckboard on the roads. I wanted you to get the news from me and not some drifter from town.”
“Is the sheriff there?” Murdoch asked his friend.
“He’s already in pursuit of the men who robbed the bank. Johnny went with him.”
Cipriano arrived with the two horses at this point in their conversation. He handed the reins off to his employer and their neighbor.
“What about a posse? I hope there are more men pursuing them than just our new sheriff and my son.”
“He was getting some men together when I left town,” Jim replied as they mounted.
The two men rode quickly down the road and turned in the direction that would take them to the Rocking M where Andrew Millar and his wife Rachel were in need of notification of their son’s injury and their daughter’s kidnapping. Both men sent up silent prayers for their friends. Rachel would take it very hard. She loved all of her children very much and Kelly was her baby.
The notification went about as well as Murdoch and Jim had expected. Andrew’s face was grim and worried while Rachel sobbed almost inconsolably. Millar left his wife in the care of his two older daughters and quickly mounted his dappled gray mare, Betsy, riding off with his friends to see what the situation was in town.
Along the way they encountered Willie Mays who had heard the news while working at the Conway Ranch. Willie’s face was grim and so was his mood. Kevin had been a good friend to him since Willie’s family had moved into the valley. As they approached Green River they were joined by Rico Portillo who had gotten the news in Spanish Wells from a local cowboy who had come in with a lame horse and needed another one to get back to his place of employment. Rico’s handsome face was as grim as his friend’s and his friend’s fathers.
The group pulled up in front of Sam Jenkins’ combination home and office and quickly tied their mounts to the fence. With Murdoch and Andrew in the lead they entered the house in a hurry.
Sam Jenkins looked up from his desk as they walked in. “I might have known you’d all show up at the same time,” he said.
“How’s Kevin?” Andrew asked anxiously.
“He’ll be fine,” Sam reassured the distraught father. “I got the bullet out and stopped the bleeding. He’ll be weak for a while, and he’ll need a lot of rest and fluids, but he’ll recover. The bump on his head wasn’t that serious. Combined with the bullet wound it put him into shock for a while.”
“May I see him?”
“Yes, he’s in the room at the back of the hall on the second floor. Maura Talbot’s with him. Willie and Rico you’re going to have to wait. I don’t want Kevin to have too many visitors at once right now.”
The two young men grudgingly agreed to wait. It would be hard but they knew that if they didn’t Sam would send them home and not let them see Kevin at all.
“What about Scott?” Murdoch wanted to know. “Jim said Scott was pistol whipped.”
“Not as badly as it could have been,” the doctor assured him. “He’s got a few stitches in his head and I’ve got him bandaged up. He’s had some salicylic acid to help with the headache – I don’t dare give him anything stronger with a head injury. He’s also got a slight concussion. You can take him home tomorrow. Tonight I need to monitor his condition to make sure it doesn’t get any worse. He’s in the room across from Kevin’s.”
At this Rico and Kevin started for the stairs, right behind Andrew Millar and Murdoch, only to be stopped by Sam Jenkins.
“Not so fast, you too,” he said. “I don’t want Kevin overwhelmed – he’s a very sick boy.”
“But you just said he was going to be ok,” Willie protested.
“He will be. Give his father a few minutes alone with him before you go charging in.”
The two dusty, and bedraggled friends sat down unwillingly in a couple of chairs. Sam looked at them and smiled. He was quite fond of these two scamps as he was of Kevin. He’d make them wait for five minutes and then let them go up. All he wanted was for the two fathers to have a chance to see their sons alone for a few minutes. He wouldn’t dream of depriving Kevin of his best friends’ company – he was going to need them to get through this trial.
Scott was lying down on a bed in one of Sam’s spare rooms. His head was neatly bandaged and his eyes were closed but moving around under the lids. It was obvious that the events of the day were disturbing him quite a bit. Murdoch was certain that his son was feeling guilty for not protecting Kevin and Kelly from the bank robbers though it was apparent, from what he’d heard, that there wasn’t anything Scott could have done to prevent it.
Murdoch pulled a chair up to the side of the bed. He didn’t want to jolt his injured son but he did want to be close to him. Gently the big man reached out and took his son’s left hand in both of his.
“Scott, wake up, son,” Murdoch spoke quietly to his injured offspring.
Scott’s eyes fluttered open and his glazed gaze tried to focus on the face that went with the voice. It took a moment before it became clear to him that it was his father holding his hand and talking to him.
“Yes, son, it’s me. How do you feel?”
“Horrid. I’ve got a headache like you wouldn’t believe but I’ll be fine.”
Murdoch snorted. It was hard to tell which son was worse but if there was anything he knew about his boys at this stage in their relationship it was that both declared they were “fine” or “ok” no matter how badly they were really hurt. It wasn’t surprising that Scott should make such a declaration.
“You aren’t but you will be,” Murdoch informed his son. “Sam says he put a few stitches in the wound and gave you something for the headache. He’s going to keep you overnight and we’ll bring you home tomorrow.” He hesitated but decided to ask, “Do you remember what happened?”
“Yes,” Scott replied. “Some of it anyway. Johnny and I rode in together. We flipped a coin and I won – or maybe I lost. Well, anyway, it was decided that I’d go to the bank while Johnny got the supplies. I walked in and there were some men in there robbing the bank. Mr. Napier, Miss Caufield and Mrs. Watson were there. The ladies were scared but Mr. Napier just looked mad.” Scott grinned slightly, “I think he would have tried to take them on by himself if the ladies hadn’t been there.” He sobered and continued. “One of the men took my pistol and made me join the others. They wanted Mr. Johnson to open the safe but he couldn’t remember the combination and he couldn’t find the piece of paper it was written down on. Mr. Johnson had a gun hidden in his desk. I made a mistake, though, when I closed the drawer. The man who was guarding us got mad when he found out about the gun. Then the door opened and there was a shot – I jumped the man with the gun and that’s the last thing I remember until people started showing up.”
“Johnson was killed. That shot you heard before you were knocked out was fired at Kevin Millar. He’s in the room across the hall with a bullet wound in his shoulder and a nasty bump on the head to match yours. The men who tried to rob the bank took little Kelly as a hostage.”
“No!” Agitated, Scott tried to get up from his sick bed but was restrained by his father.
“Settle down, Scott, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re not getting out of this bed until tomorrow. Our new sheriff has a posse out looking for them now. Johnny’s with them.”
Scott had no choice but to do as his father told him for his head was pounding and it made him dizzy, and sick, to sit up. Unwillingly he sank back into the bed. His father put Scott’s hand down on the bed and gave him a pat on the shoulder.
“Sam says Kevin will be fine. I’m sure the posse will catch up with those men and Kelly will be rescued soon.” He smiled, “Knowing that little wildcat,” he said, “they’ll be more than happy to let her go. She’s probably driving them crazy right about now with her attitude. She’s probably making demands as well. Kevin’s complaints about her are not without justification but his mother would tell you that Kevin was just as bad when he was that age.”
Murdoch stood to leave. He pulled the blankets up over Scott’s chest and made sure his son was as comfortable as he could be under the circumstances.
“I’ll be back later, Scott,” he told his son. “I’m going to go see Kevin now. I think Andrew needs some company. We left Kevin’s mother at home until we knew what was what. I’ll let you know how he’s doing. Maura Talbot’s here and she’ll look after both of you.” With a teasing smile he said, “Or I could send for Lady – she’s quite adept at acting as nursemaid for you and your brother when the occasion calls for it.”
“I think I’ll manage without her,” Scott said with a weak smile of his own.
Across the hall from Scott’s room Kevin was resting. Sam had had to dig fairly deep for the slug that hit Kevin’s shoulder so that young man was limp and exhausted and still slightly sick from the anesthetic that Maura had applied when she’d assisted Sam. The petite Irishwoman was quietly bustling around the room making sure that it was neat, that Kevin was as comfortable as he could be and that there was plenty of cold water in case Kevin got thirsty. As soon as Andrew was settled in the chair by his son’s side she went downstairs to see about fixing some soup for the two patients. Kevin would require a lot of fluids to help replace the blood he’d lost.
“Pa?” Kevin’s eyes fluttered open and focused on the figure sitting in the chair by his bedside.
“Yes, Kevin, it’s me. How do you feel, son?” Andrew reached out to smooth the sun bleached bangs from his son’s forehead. It was something he’d been doing for many years.
“Lousy. Head hurts. Feel sick to my stomach and my shoulder hurts.”
Andrew smiled tenderly at his younger son, “That’s to be expected, Kevin. You got shot and you banged your head on the doorframe when you staggered back. Doc says you’ll be right as rain in a few weeks.”
Kevin looked around in confusion. He was trying to figure out who was missing but all he could think of – at first – was his mother.
“She’s home,” Andrew explained. “I didn’t want her to come into town until I knew it was safe. She’ll be in to see you tomorrow.”
“They’re home, too.”
“Kelly? Where’s Kelly?” Kevin suddenly remembered that he’d been in town with his little sister. He didn’t see her anywhere, or hear her, and somehow that disturbed him. If Kelly was anywhere in the vicinity of the room he was in he should have been able to hear her even if he couldn’t see her.
“She’s not here, Kevin,” his father told him but withholding the fact that the little girl was in the hands of the would-be bank robbers.
“Where is she, Pa? Where’s Kelly?”
Andrew’s next words broke his son’s heart. “The bank robbers took her with them, son. Don’t worry, though, we’ll get her back. The new sheriff has already taken a posse out after them.”
“No! No!” Kevin became extremely agitated and it took both his father and Murdoch, who had just stepped into the room to check on the Millar men, to keep him down.
“Sam!” Murdoch bellowed. “Better get up here!”
The old doctor came at a gait that belied his age. One look at Kevin and he stepped up to the bed and spoke sternly to him.
“Kevin, if you don’t settle down you’re going to rip those stitches open that I put in your shoulder!” Reaching for the medical kit he had brought with him, he took out a syringe and filled it with enough morphine to put the boy to sleep for several hours. “Hold his arm out, Andrew, and you, Murdoch, keep him pinned down to that mattress.”
Down in the kitchen, Maura heard Murdoch’s bellow and Kevin’s cries of distress. Leaving the vegetables she was chopping for the soup she rushed up the stairs and into the sickroom just as Sam was about to administer the morphine.
“Sam! Surely not!”
“He’s got to calm down, Maura, or he’ll tear those stitches out!”
“Let me talk to him,” she said to the men. “Go on, now shoo! Give me a couple of minutes with him.”
Reluctantly the men did so and stepped across the hall to see if Kevin’s cries had disturbed Scott. They found Scott resting somewhat comfortably in the other room seemingly undisturbed by what had transpired.
Meanwhile Maura sat on the side of Kevin’s bed, holding the young man’s hand and crooning to him much as she would have if he’d been one of her three sons lost so long ago now in the war that had torn their country apart.
Smoothing back the bangs from his eyes she slowly got him calmed down with her voice and her soothing touch – much as his mother would have done.
“It’s my fault,” Kevin cried. “I was supposed to take care of her.”
“Kevin, my lad, machushla, from what Alex and I heard there was nothing you could have done. They shot you as soon as you walked through the door. You banged your head very hard on that doorjamb and it knocked you out. You couldn’t have done anything to help Kelly. Those men would have killed you if you’d tried. They shot at the sheriff and Johnny as they came running to the bank to see what was going on.”
Gently pushing him back into the pillows she added, “Val Crawford, the new sheriff, has already got a posse together to go after them. Johnny’s with them. If anybody can find those men and bring Kelly back safely it’s those two. I don’t know Val very well yet but I can sense something special about him. And as for Johnny Lancer – I know he’s special. I’ve known it all his life – even when he was missing all those years I knew he wasn’t going to go bad. It just wasn’t possible.”
“You’re sure?” Kevin still needed reassurance.
“As sure as I know your name is Kevin James Millar,” Maura smiled. “Now you just lie back and relax. Try and get some sleep. I’ll bring you, and Scott, some soup as soon as it’s ready.”
“Ok.” Kevin sighed and closed his eyes.
Andrew, Sam and Murdoch approached her as she exited the sick room.
“Well, how is he?” Sam wanted to know. “Do I need to give him some medication to get him to sleep?”
“He’s going to be fine,” Maura replied. “He’s upset, naturally. For all he complains about Kelly he’s really very fond of her. I told Johnny that, while the two of them may fight like cats and dogs, nobody is allowed to lay a finger on Kelly other than Andrew and Sarah. Kevin won’t tolerate it.”
Patting the distraught father on the arm she added, “He feels responsible for what happened but I think, with a little reassurance from you, Andrew, he’ll come to realize that there wasn’t anything he could do.” Looking at Murdoch she said, “And that goes for Scott, as well. I’m sure he feels he should have done more but he might have been killed if he had.” Turning to go back downstairs she told the men, “I’m going back to the kitchen and finish making that soup. Both of those boys will need some when they wake up again.”
She was just passing the front door when she saw a buckboard, pulled by a lathered team of blacks, pull up in front of Sam’s door. It was Sarah Millar come to be with her son and high time too, in Maura’s opinion. Andrew was wrong to try and spare her. Her son was hurt and she belonged at his bedside.
“Come right in, Sarah,” Maura told her as she greeted the worried mother at the door. “Kevin’s upstairs. Andrew is with him.”
“How is he, Maura?” Sarah asked.
“He’s in quite a bit of pain right now, and he’s very weak, but he’ll be fine. He needs you, Sarah. He’s very upset over not being able to protect Kelly. He’s been told he’s not responsible for what happened – he couldn’t have stopped it – but he still blames himself.”
“My poor boy,” Kevin’s mother murmured. “I’ll go right up to him. And then I’m going to give his father a piece of my mind for trying to keep me away from our son when he needs me most!”
Maura chuckled to herself. Sarah Millar was a good-natured – some even said jolly – woman but she was a tigress where her children were concerned. If Murdoch Lancer and Sam Jenkins knew what was good for them they would make what Scott would call a “strategic retreat” and not get between Sarah and Andrew when she gave him a tongue lashing.
The posse, led by the new sheriff of Green River, rode hard to catch up with the outlaws who had killed the bank manager and were holding Kelly Millar hostage. The gang had a pretty good head start on them but the posse was determined too - especially Johnny Madrid Lancer. He hated to think of a child being in danger and these men had given him a triple incentive for catching up with them. One, they’d hurt his brother, two they’d killed the bank manager in cold blood even though the man had told them the truth about not knowing the combination to the safe and three they’d kidnapped a little girl. That little girl’s older brother had offered Johnny friendship and companionship even though they’d had one or two minor squabbles. Johnny had been looking for a way to cement the friendship that would have lasting meaning. Not the nonsense of ganging up on poor, unsuspecting Scott when he least suspected it, but something serious and important. That was a fourth reason, when he stopped to think about it. The young man that he very much wanted to be friends with had been shot by one of those men without his ever having had a chance to draw his own gun or try to protect his little sister. They would pay for that if Johnny had anything to say about it.
Thirty minutes after the posse left town Willie and Rico joined them. The pair had left the doctor’s office without seeing Kevin for more than two minutes. When Mrs. Millar had come in they felt better about leaving their friend knowing she would take care of him. Now they were out to do what they could to rescue his little sister. Kelly could be a pain but they knew that Kevin loved her dearly no matter how much he complained.
“Hold up!” Willie yelled as they approached.
The posse stopped briefly to greet the two newcomers.
“How’s Kevin?” Johnny asked.
“He’s hurtin’ but Doc Jenkins says he’ll be ok,” Willie told him. “Have you found the guys who shot him and took Kelly?”
“They have about a half hour head start on us. How far do you reckon they could have gotten?” Crawford was new to the area and needed an expert’s opinion.
“Have you found any tracks indicating which way they’re going? I don’t see any dust clouds around here,” Willie asked.
“Too many tracks,” Crawford groused. “This ain’t exactly an unused road. They can’t be too far ahead, though, they didn’t have that big of a head start on us. You know the area better than I do right now. Got any ideas where they might be headed?”
Rico and Willie looked at each other and looked around them. They’d traveled this area many times as young boys and knew the area pretty well.
“They’ve got Kelly with them,” Willie said. “She’s bound to be giving them some kind of trouble and they might have to stop to let her answer nature’s call unless they want to risk her having an accident.”
Rico agreed, “Sí, and their horses are going to need to rest – especially since one of them is carrying Kelly. That’s extra weight that they didn’t have before. She’s not heavy but she’s not exactly a baby either.”
“And if I know that little wildcat,” Willie added, “she’s making life as miserable for them as Kevin claims she makes it for him.”
Willie wasn’t far wrong. Kelly was kicking, punching and biting anybody who was within range of her feet, fists or teeth. More than one of her captors was nursing a bruise or two where she’d connected. Now she was sitting on a log being watched, but not approached while the men who had kidnapped her discussed her fate.
“Why’d we bring her along?” whined the man who had clubbed Scott and killed Johnson.
“Because we needed a hostage and she’s better than those women and that old man,” the leader told him. “Nobody’s going to risk hurting a child.”
“I say we kill her and be done with it,” the other man snarled. “She’s going to be a millstone around our neck if we hang onto her.”
“I don’t want no part of killing a kid,” one of the other men said. “Killing that bank manager was enough to get us hung. Killing this kid is gonna mean a lynch mob instead of a trial with a lawyer that might get us off the hook or at least just a prison term!”
“I don’t fancy doing time and I definitely don’t fancy killing a kid – even one that’s as much of a pain as this one is,” said another man. “Let’s just leave her here and scram before a posse finds us.”
The men argued over and over again about what they would do with the little girl. Meanwhile Kelly sat on the log and insulted the men with every breath she took.
“You men are so dumb!” she exclaimed one. “My pa’s not going to be happy when he finds out that you took me. You take me back now and I’ll tell him to be nice to you.”
The men ignored this. They knew that that wasn’t going to happen. No father of a kidnapped seven-year-old was going to be nice to the men who had taken her.
Kelly tried another tact. “You know we’ve got a sheriff, don’t you? He’s probably already got a posse and they’re following us.”
“Quiet, you!” the outlaw leader said. “I don’t want to hear another word out of you unless I ask you a question.”
Kelly was undeterred. Again she changed tactics. She called on her memory of what her pa had said about Johnny Lancer when they thought she wasn’t listening.
“I know somebody else who isn’t going to be happy that you shot my brother and stole me,” she said. “Johnny Lancer.”
“Who’s Johnny Lancer? Why should we care that he’s not happy that we shot – your brother?” The man who had shot Kevin now understood Kelly’s fright a little better. “That fella that brought you into the bank was your brother?”
“Yes and he’s gonna be real mad when he finds out what you did and if he can’t come after you his friend Johnny will,” the child declared.
“Why do we care,” the gang leader asked, “that Johnny Lancer is going to come after us? He’s just a ….”
“Because he hasn’t always been Johnny Lancer,” Kelly interrupted. “He used to be a famous gunfighter.”
The one who had shot Kevin looked at the child in disbelief.
“If he’s so famous how come I never heard of Johnny Lancer the great gunfighter?”
“Because he didn’t use his real name when he was a gunfighter,” Kelly told him. “That would be pretty silly.”
“All right, Miss Smarty Pants,” the leader said. “What name did he use?”
“His name was Johnny Madrid. I heard my pa tell my mama that Johnny was real famous before he turned into Johnny Lancer again.”
“Madrid?” The youngest member of the gang, a youth of nineteen, was suddenly even more nervous than he had been before. “I’ve heard of him, boss. He was real well known down in the area around the Mexican border.”
“She said he used to be a gunfighter,” the gang leader said to the kid. “That means he isn’t one any more.”
“Yeah, but boss a fella like Johnny Madrid don’t forget how to use a gun even if he quits gunfighting.”
“Now, Little Missy, why would Johnny Madrid care about you and your brother?” The gang leader didn’t understand the consequences of their actions yet.
“Oh, it’s not just me and my brother,” the crafty little girl said. “I heard you say how you beat up on some cowboy at the bank.”
“I heard you talking about some fella you beat up on at the bank. You said he was tall, slim and blond and he didn’t talk like folks around here talk. That sounds like Scott Lancer – Johnny’s brother. So you see Johnny’s gonna be coming after you for that, for shooting my brother and taking me with you.”
“How can you be so sure it was this Lancer fellow?”
“Tell me what he was wearing and I’ll tell you if it’s Scott,” Kelly told the gang leader.
“He was wearing brown pants, a gray and brown jacket, a grayish shirt and a kind of funny looking hat – not like the ones most cowboys wear.”
“That’s Scott all right,” Kelly affirmed. “That’s Johnny’s brother and Johnny’s gonna be real mad. I heard my pa say that Johnny and his brother are real close. They get along better than me and my brother.”
Kelly’s words broke off in a sob. She was, after all, only a seven-year-old girl and she’d seen her brother get shot. When these men had taken her away from the bank with them she didn’t know if her brother was alive or dead and she was, quite frankly, scared in spite of her brave talk.
“Aw, quit your crying kid,” the leader told her. “We ain’t gonna hurt ya.”
“You shot my brother! I want my mama! I want Pa!” Kelly wailed in her grief and her fear.
“Do we have to put up with this?” the man who’d shot Johnson asked. “Why don’t we just kill her and get it over with?”
As he took a few menacing steps toward Kelly who cowered and stood ready to run, a cold voice called out, “You touch one hair on that little girl’s head and you’re a dead man.”
The man threatening their hostage stopped in his tracks. Startled the whole gang of outlaws turned and saw a very angry Johnny Madrid Lancer standing there with his pistol drawn and a deadly stare piercing them to their innermost being. It seemed like the little girl had been right. A posse had caught up with them and Johnny Madrid was with it. The man who had protested the suggested killing whispered “Madrid” in shock as his gun fell from his suddenly numb fingers.
“Kelly, come here,” Johnny told her. “Walk around them and come to me.”
Kelly quickly did as she was told and hurried to Johnny’s side.
Johnny gave her a quick hug and asked her, “Are you ok? Did they hurt you?”
“Did we hurt her? You ought to be asking us if she hurt us!” the leader said. “We’ve got bite marks, scratches and bruises from her!”
“If that’s all you’ve got by the time we get back to town you’ll be lucky,” Johnny said. Leaning over Kelly while keeping a sharp eye on her kidnappers he gave her a quick hug as he called, “Willie? Rico? Come get Kelly and start back to Green River with her. Sheriff Crawford and I will be right along with these men and the rest of the posse.”
The two young men came forward and took Kelly by the hand leading her to where they had left their horses. They had no intention of letting her see what might possibly transpire. They hustled back to their horses and, with Kelly sitting in Rico’s saddle while he sat behind her, they started back to Green River at a fast walk. Knowing how frightened the child must have been Rico held her close to remind her that she was safe and told her they would soon have her back to her parents.
As soon as Willie and Rico left with Kelly, the new sheriff of Green River made ready to put the men who had robbed the bank under arrest. As he approached them the man who had wanted to kill Kelly and be rid of her shoved the one who had been against it so that he fell into the sheriff’s path. The two men collided and fell to the ground. The others quickly scattered and attempted to run. The would-be killer was already on the run and was quickly on horseback attempting to make his escape. Johnny, always quick on his feet, left Crawford and the rest of the posse to handle the men who were left. He grabbed one of the bank robbers’ horses and took out after the fleeing outlaw.
The man’s horse was fast but Johnny gained on him pretty quickly. Where the fugitive was over six feet tall and more than two hundred fifty pounds Johnny was under six feet and far less than two hundred pounds. Johnny’s mount was gaining, slowly but surely. Johnny also had a way of coaxing more speed from his horse.
The outlaw panicked when he saw Johnny beginning to gain ground on him. He pulled his pistol and fired off a shot that went wide. Johnny pulled his own pistol and fired a shot over the man’s head to no avail.
“Stop right there!” he yelled.
The bandit’s response was to fire another shot – this one whistling a little too close to Johnny’s mount which caused the animal to shy a bit to the right. Johnny quickly regained control and fired a second shot of his own. It barely missed the man’s head hitting a tree branch several inches ahead.
“Give yourself up!” Johnny shouted.
The outlaw merely fired one more shot. This one hit a tree less than two inches from Johnny’s head. The ex-gunfighter saw red and fired one last shot. It hit the fugitive in the right shoulder and knocked him completely out of the saddle. He hit the ground with a thud and Johnny was on top of him a few seconds later. He used the man’s bandana to tie his hands and after retrieving the outlaw’s horse, put the man up in the saddle and turned in the direction of the posse they had left behind. They hadn’t gone more than a mile and a half when the new sheriff and one posse member appeared on the trail in front of them.
“He give you much trouble?” Crawford asked.
“Some, but he’s hurtin’ too much to be any trouble now,” Johnny grinned. “He took one too many potshots at me and I took him out.”
Crawford motioned for the posse member to take charge of their prisoner. He himself reined in beside Johnny and watched as the last of the gang was led away toward the town of Green River and its jail. As the temporary deputy led the last prisoner away the new sheriff and the ex-gunslinger retrieved their own horses and remounted.
“Care to be a full time deputy for me?” Crawford inquired. “I’m gonna need someone to help me ride herd on the yahoos at the saloons on Saturday night, never mind if something like this happens again.”
“Me? Nah. I’m a rancher – not a lawman,” was the reply.
“You’re pretty good with that gun of yours.”
“Yeah, but, as my brother would say, ‘flattery will get you nowhere’.”
Crawford grinned. “It was worth a try anyway.”
“All I care about right now,” Johnny said, “is getting that little girl back to her family. Come on.”
He spurred his temporary mount into an easy lope and they soon caught up with the rest of the posse including Willie and Rico who had stopped to make sure their new friend got back to them in one piece. Kelly, exhausted by her ordeal, had fallen asleep and was snug in Rico’s arms leaning into his chest. She didn’t wake up until they pulled in at Sam Jenkins’ house an hour later.
It was a tender, tear-jerking scene when the little girl was reunited with her parents and her siblings. Kevin was sitting up in bed, propped up by several pillows, when they arrived. He was very pale but his eyes lit up when he saw his friends and the sheriff enter the room with his baby sister. His parents were sitting at his side and standing close by were his sisters. Murdoch was sitting with Scott when he heard the noise and came to join the happy reunion.
“Mama! Papa!” Kelly cried as her parents engulfed her in their loving embrace. “I was so scared! Johnny saved me! Those bad men wanted to kill me but Johnny stopped them!”
“That’s not quite true,” Johnny protested. “Only one of them wanted to and he’s going to live to see the hangman for killing Mr. Johnson at the bank. He’s downstairs getting a bullet taken out of his shoulder.”
“Thank you, son,” Andrew said reaching out to shake Johnny’s hand.
Sarah Millar added her thanks and gave the man of the hour a kiss on the cheek.
“Johnny?” Kevin was weak but determined to have his say. “Thanks. You don’t know how much this means to me.”
“Don’t mention it,” the dark-haired Lancer said. “I’m glad we caught up with them in time. She’s still scared and shaken up but she’s not hurt. I hear she inflicted a lot of damage on them with her feet and her teeth!”
Kevin grinned. “I bet she did.” Sobering he held his hand out to Johnny, “Amigos?”
“Amigos,” Johnny confirmed.
Laughter from the patio brought Murdoch back to the present. Seeing the torment that his older son was being put through by Johnny and the Prankster Posse he decided he’d better step in before things really got out of hand.
He made a quick trip upstairs to his younger son’s room and gathered a few things. Then he went back down and out the French doors to the patio to put a stop to the younger men’s nonsense before they really got out of hand. Scott’s patience could only be tested just so long and he was in no condition to do anything about the four pests that were hovering around. It was time for father to step in.
“Here, Johnny, catch,” Murdoch said to his younger son.
“Hey!” Johnny looked up just in time to see his saddlebags and a bedroll come flying at him.
“Take a couple of days off to go fishing with your friends,” Murdoch said. “You’ve earned it. We could do with a little peace and quiet around here, too. You four are a bit much to take when you’re in one of these moods.”
Taking advantage of his father’s distraction Scott grabbed his crutches away from Kevin who was standing there unable to believe his good fortune that Johnny was being excused from ranch work for a few days. Caught off guard he lost his grip on the crutches and got a good whack on the backside with one of them by the annoyed blond Lancer brother.
“What was that for?” the younger sun-streaked blond wanted to know.
“For being an annoying little pest,” Scott told him. “Now scram before I let you have it again!”
“Ha, ha,” Willie laughed at his friend. “He sure got you good!”
“If you don’t watch your mouth,” Scott said, “you’ll be next.” He took a half-hearted swing at Willie who dodged so fast that he bumped into Rico and both went tumbling to the ground.
Johnny laughed heartily at his friends’ misfortune. Not for long though because Scott had a final parting shot for his little brother’s benefit.
“If you fellows are going fishing with my little brother,” Scott said, “there’s one thing you’d better do before you start.”
“What’s that?” Kevin wanted to know.
“Take his gun, gunbelt and all ammunition away from him. His style of fishing will scare all the fish away and you won’t get anything.”
The laughter that greeted that remark could be heard halfway to the San Benitos for everyone within earshot knew that Johnny had nowhere near the patience for fishing that his father and brother had. It was known far and wide that when the fish failed to be properly hooked and caught he would pull out his pistol and shoot at the fish almost every time.