Johnny Lancer's sapphire eyes narrowed as he carefully perused the young man who stood some twenty paces in front of him. He was so young. In fact they seemed to be getting younger every time or was he just getting older? "No reason to draw, mister. I don't have a quarrel with you."
"Don't make a difference to me. Once I've killed Johnny Madrid, everbody's gonna know the name of Zeke Bates."
"I repeat. I don't intend to draw on you. Why don't you go home and come back in a few years? I'll still be here." From the corner of his eye, Johnny could see his brother standing on the wooden sidewalk, his arms wrapped around his body, waiting to see what would happen.
"You sayin' I'm too young to kill?" the would-be gunslinger demanded.
"Not likely. Boy that can carry a gun, can kill. Think about it. Don't you want to live awhile longer?"
For a moment the boy with the carroty hair that hung down in his eyes hesitated then his skinny chest swelled with pride. "Ain't gonna be me who's dead. Been practicin'"
"Practicin'? Just how much you done, boy? Is your draw as nat'ral as breathin'? Can you put a bullet into a livin' man, not just one of your ma's old plates? If you can't then you shouldn't be out here."
"Killed me a man before. More'n one. Now draw!"
Still, Johnny just stood in the dusty street, wishing, praying that the boy would listen to sense on this beautiful day or that he hadn't decided to join his brother on a little trip to Morro Coyo for supplies. The two had shared a couple of cold beers and had just about decided to leave when they had been accosted by the boy pretending to be a man.
Scott had tried to talk him into riding away, but the boy had stalked Johnny to the livery stable demanding his due. A curling stab of memory reminded Johnny of his own first gunfight. He had had no thought of dying either nor of how easy it would become to draw down on a man once that first shot was taken.
"You just gonna stand there all day, old man or are ya too yeller to face me?"
Suddenly, there was a disturbance from the crowd as the lean figure of Scott Lancer stepped forward.
stay out of this,
"I know." Icy cerulean eyes focused on the dark face for a moment. "I just wanted you to know that I'm taking the buckboard back to Lancer. Once you're done here, you can ride back on Barranca." Scott said no more as he walked over to the loaded wagon and drove off.
A low buzz emerged from the crowd. Murdoch Lancer's boys hadn't lived in the area long and the townspeople still weren't sure what to make of a famous gunfighter and a cultured easterner being in their midst.
Johnny didn't allow himself the luxury of following his brother's progress out of town. The boy might be untried, but the gun in his holster made him dangerous.
"He yur kin?" the boy asked.
"Don't seem like he's got the stomach for watchin' you die."
"Mebbe he just has better things to do than hang around while you make up your mind."
"I've made up my mind. You're the one who won't draw!" The words came out in an adolescent whine.
"Once and for all, you'll have to make the first move. It's hot out here and I'm buildin' a powerful thirst. Whattya say we go over to the bar and I'll buy us a round of beers? Sure better than dyin'."
Zeke stood there, sweat matting his hair and shirt. He had practiced so long for this moment. In the blink of an eye, his grimy hand made its move.
Johnny climbed down from Barranca's broad back and handed him over to one of the ranch hands. Making the slow walk into the hacienda, he stopped when he heard his name. "John, I thought you and Scott weren't going to stay in town long?"
"Somethin' came up," he murmured.
"Did you help Scott unload the supplies?" his father questioned.
"What you went into town for!"
"Didn't Scott bring 'em back? He left before I did. I rode home on Barranca."
Murdoch Lancer stood there for a moment regarding his younger son. "Scott didn't arrive with the wagon of supplies. I thought the two of you were together."
"Takes longer in the wagon. Should be here anytime."
"But you didn't pass him on the road?"
Johnny shook his dark head. His thoughts had been elsewhere, but he would have noticed the Lancer buckboard.
"I think I'd better ride out and look for him. He might have had trouble with the wagon breaking down and we need those supplies."
"I'll go too. Just let me saddle another horse." Johnny announced.
"Saddle mine as well while I tell Teresa where we're going."
For the next hour the two Lancers carefully followed the road to Morro Coyo. Then at the juncture of the road to Spanish Wells, Johnny spotted the wheel tracks of a wagon turning off. "That's him, but why'd he turn off?"
"Johnny, how can you be sure it's our wagon?"
The young man flushed. "Look at the one wheel track. See that funny mark. I did that the other day. Scott was showing me how to. . .anyway I thought I'd put a brand on the wheel and I slipped with the knife."
"You did what?" the big man demanded.
"Wagon still works fine. Just thought I'd try somethin' new so nobody could say the buckboard didn't belong to us!" Johnny reassured his father, but he could see the other man wasn't buying it.
"We’ll talk about this later. Right now, I want to find Scott and those supplies and go home."
They continued on for about a half-mile when a rifle shot hit the ground a few inches in front of them. Not used to the chestnut he was riding, Johnny tightened his grip on the reins and came to a halt.
"What the. . .sam hill is going on?" Murdoch muttered as he too halted his horse.
From a distance came a strong voice. "Move another inch without me tellin' you too and you'll both be dead!"
Johnny glanced around. The only place the man could be hiding was some boulders, quite a distance away.
In his stentorian voice the Lancer patriarch demanded, "Show yourself. What do you want?"
"Tell you in just a minute. Just climb down from them horses and walk forwards 'til I tell you to stop and I'm telling you not to try anything. You only got handguns. This here rifle of mine can take the eye of a worm at fifty paces."
Murdoch glanced at the dark-haired man at his side as they did as ordered. They were still on Lancer property; how could this be happening?
The two men walked forward for part of the distance to the rocks that Johnny had identified as the most likely spot for the man to be hiding when they were ordered to stop. "Now look down there on the right. You'll see what you come lookin' for," the shooter yelled.
Moving closer to the edge of the gully, Johnny and his father halted as they caught sight of the Lancer buckboard lying on its side near a dry creek bed. Tied to the unbroken part of the wagon was Scott Lancer.
"Sure was handy you havin' all that rope in your supplies. That boy of yours put up a good fight, but once I had him gagged and hogtied, he was more. . .cooperative."
The tall Scot straightened his broad shoulder to shout out his question. "What is it you want? Money?"
"T'ain't you what should be askin'. It's that boy of yours, standin' next to you."
Johnny raised his voice, "What's it gonna take to set him free?"
"Yeah, you see I got me here this special rifle. Fires a good long way. I used it during the War when I was with Berdan and his sharpshooters. I can easily drill either your old man or your brother and put 'em out of their misery. Thing is you gotta choose which one you wanna keep. I'll kill t'other one."
A great shudder ran through the dark-haired man's frame. "Why would you do that?"
"'Cause of what you did to my brother, Zeke. Wasn't in town or I'da knocked him upside the head for bein' so stupid. Good thing somebody rode out 'n told me what happened."
"Then you know I had no choice!"
"Mebbe not but he be my kin and now I figure one of your kin is gonna pay the price."
Murdoch Lancer stood there listening. He had no idea what had happened in Morro Coyo, but he could make a good guess. Men had come after Johnny Madrid before.
"Johnny, what. . . ."
"Quiet, Murdoch, I'll get us out of this."
Just then a shot rang out. It missed Scott's left ear by a fraction. "That was just to prove I can do it so make your choice."
"I. . .can't!" Johnny pleaded.
"Hey, you're the gunfighter. Just do it. I figure your brother's worth more to you than the old man. Hell, he probably won't live that much longer anyway. 'Sides I hear tell he's tighter than a corset with money. That way you'd have a bigger share of the ranch."
Down by the wagon, the two Lancers could see Scott struggling to release himself from the ropes, but it was obviously in vain.
For a long moment the whole world went quiet, even the birds stopped making noises.
"Johnny, he's right. I've lived a full life. Scott and you are just beginning. If you have to choose, make it your brother."
Sapphire eyes focused on the tall rancher. "I'm not gonna make a choice."
"Then he'll kill both of us. Is that what you want?"
Johnny pounded one fist into the other and then yelled, "All right, all right. I choose. . .my father." One shot rang out.
"Dammit, Johnny, I am not going to get off this horse until you go into the house and get me a blanket!"
"Aw, Murdoch, why don't you just use your hands to keep your breeches up?"
The older Lancer mumbled, "Oh, all right, but I warn you if they fall down and anybody sees me, you're not going to be paid for six months!"
"Don't know what you're so worried about. You got on long johns underneath, don't you?"
"Red ones, I believe," murmured the blond Lancer.
"You just be quiet, Scott. It doesn't matter what color they are! A man my age shouldn't be subjected to such humiliation!"
"I think you should just be grateful that Tom Bates wasn't aiming for your heart. You'd be dead now."
"I suppose. I just wish I had known what he had planned. My knees were wobbling."
"He. . .he really wasn't a bad sort."
Johnny and Murdoch glared at the third Lancer. "Sorry. When he told me what he intended to do after tying me up, I had to admire his ingenuity and skill with a rifle," Scott informed them. "It's just too bad he gagged me so I couldn't warn you."
"That's for sure. Well, let's go in. Johnny, you go in first and make sure neither Teresa nor Maria is in the great room. I'll head straight for my room."
Everything went as planned. Murdoch made it to his room without being seen while his two sons took the edge off their shakes with some of their father's fine brandy. Then Scott made sure that one of the hands took another buckboard to pick up the supplies that had been left behind.
Taking a sip of the amber liquid, Scott watched as Johnny paced up and down the room. "Something the matter, brother?"
"Yeah, I just can't figure that Bates guy out. He admitted his brother was stupid and yet he went to all that trouble to grab you and force me into that choice. Why?"
"I guess when you "undressed" his brother with your fancy shooting, he saw it as humiliating one of his family so he thought he'd do the same to one of your family."
"Yeah, but I chose Murdoch. Why undress him?"
"He told me why. He thought it would hurt more if it was the chosen one."
"Man's gotta be crazy. Still, he sure was a great shot. Wish I coulda got a look at that rifle 'fore he took off."
"Oh, who knows? Maybe we'll see Tom and Zeke again sometime. Perhaps the two of you can show off your shooting prowess."
"Nah, that was a lucky shot. Was aimin' for his belly button." Johnny grinned at the blond in the chair.
Scott rose to his feet, gently rubbing at his wrists where he had been bound. "Well, I'll tell you one thing. The next time I go into town, I'm buying some cast iron suspenders!"