Disclaimer: this is a work of fan-fiction based on the TV series Lancer. No profit is being made from this story and it is written purely for entertainment.
No-one else is responsible for the mistakes, just me.
Errors relating to the time-line are entirely mine and I beg your indulgence in over-looking them.
No insult is intended by the depiction of any characters in this story.
All feedback is very welcome, even critical. I’m a feedback junkie!
“Whoowee! That hit the right spot! After three weeks ridin’ behind smelly, dumb, dusty steers, my throat felt like a desert.” The dark-haired young man swiftly sank the level in a beer tankard and regarded his companion.
The slightly older blond sitting across from him was making equally swift inroads into his own beer. Both men were liberally covered in trail dust, with rough beards and a weary demeanour. They had ridden long and hard to get their beeves to market and having paid the temporary cowboys off were now setting about a few days rest and relaxation before starting the long ride home.
Home…the men were half-brothers, sons to Murdoch Lancer and equal partners in the largest ranch in the San Joaquin valley. Normally Murdoch would join the men in the cattle drive, but he was just recovering from a flare-up of his old back injury and had had to delegate this particularly tedious drive to his boys. This was their first drive since coming home and Murdoch had been disappointed that he couldn’t be there with them.
“Well, you always feel more at home in a desert than a civilised town, Johnny, so your throat must have enjoyed it.” Scott’s accent was Bostonian, having been raised there by his grandfather. He regarded his brother fondly. “I think another of those might hit the spot even better. Why don’t you get them in whilst I enquire of mine host about a room.”
Johnny grinned and beckoned the saloon girl as Scott rose stiffly and crossed to speak to the man behind the bar. The girl, Molly Maguire, recognising a handsome man even through the dust and grime, smiled winningly at Johnny, appreciating what she saw.
“What can I do for ya, honey?”
“Two more beers, chica.”
“Nothin’ else, sugar?” Molly wasn’t averse to a little entertainment if the money was good and the customer the right side of ugly, which *this* customer most definitely was.
Johnny’s ear-to-ear grin could have lit the entire saloon. “Maybe later, querida, after my bath. Right now, I can’t stand bein’ around myself. I ain’t fit for company, but you keep that thought warm an’ your bed warmer.”
With a conspiratorial smile and a swish of her full skirts, Molly moved off to fill his drinks order, giving Scott an appreciative smile as he moved back to the table. Not averse to the charms of a willing saloon girl himself, Scott returned her smile before regaining his seat.
“We’re in luck. They have one double room left and the bath-house is at the end of the street. Did you order the beers?”
“Sure…and maybe somethin’ for later.” Johnny slapped Molly’s round butt as she brought the drinks to their table. She giggled coquettishly as she ran her fingers through first dark hair and then blond before moving away.
“I’m doing nothing until I’ve soaked in a warm bath for about a week. She’s all yours, brother.” Scott raised his glass and toasted his grinning sibling.
“That bath sounds about right to me, too. I’ll race ya!” Johnny put the frothing glass to his head and downed the contents in a couple of gulps, spilling some onto his dusty salmon-coloured shirt, and wiping his chin with his free hand. “An’ these whiskers are long overdue to come off. I’m startin’ to feel like Jelly.”
“Worse than that, brother…you’re starting to look like him, too! And don’t forget to pay for our drinks.” Scott ruffled his brother’s thick thatch of black hair as he raced from the saloon, leaving Johnny to fish in his pocket for the coins he cast onto the table as he ran after Scott’s departing back.
“Hey! That’s not fair…Scott…wait up!”
Enjoying the luxury of a refreshing soak in their tubs, of which there fortunately had been more than one, the boys relaxed under the skilled hands of the barber as he scraped away the offending facial hair.
“Now, that’s much better, young sirs. Quite presentable now, if I do say so myself.”
The barber displayed his mirror to the two men still soaking. When they’d first walked into his establishment, he’d been a bit wary of them, especially as the darker one wore his rig low on his hip in the manner of a gunfighter. But neither man had given him any cause for concern as they’d courteously requested a bath and a shave. They hadn’t taken offence at his request for payment ‘up front’, either. He’d even gone as far as to provide them with further libations and a fine cigar each.
“D’ya think Murdoch would miss us if we stayed here for a week or so? That little filly in the saloon sure looked lonely.” Johnny grinned around the fat cigar clamped between his even white teeth.
“A couple of days, brother, no more. You’ll just have to cure her loneliness quickly.” Scott set his cigar on the shelf beside the tub as he prepared to immerse himself and wash his hair.
“I don’t know, Boston. She looked awful lonely to me. An’ our horses need restin’ up, too. Make it four days an’ I won’t tell him if you don’t.”
His answer was a chortle and a shake of Scott’s blond mane as the man ducked under the soapy water, coming up again sleek and wet.
“Seems to me you’re wasting time soaking in that tub, brother. Come Monday morning we’ll be on our way again, and if your lady friend hasn’t got over her loneliness by then, she’ll just have to look elsewhere for company.” Scott reached across the short distance to Johnny’s tub and tested the water. “And your bath’s cooling, brother. You know what happens when you stay in water that’s too cool.”
Johnny grinned, enjoying the banter as he flicked water at his impudent brother.
“I ain’t had any complaints up ‘til now. But you’re right, time’s a-wastin’. I’ll just have to go an’ see that Molly’s not pinin’, an’ see ya later. Stay outta trouble, Boston.”
Scott snorted as he watched his brother emerging from his bath like a dark otter and reach for a towel.
“Seems to me it’s you who needs to watch his back. When you get into the arms of a willing…um, lady, you tend to forget that not everyone loves you. I’ll see you for dinner?”
“Maybe later Scott…much later.”
Molly was nowhere to be seen by the time Scott discretely made his way to their shared room, ready to hit the hay. It was three weeks since he’d last slept in a bed, three weeks of sleeping on the trail, and Molly or no, he was fighting to stay on his feet.
He tapped the bedroom door before cautiously opening it. Johnny was sprawled across the bed, sound asleep, exhausted from the cattle drive and the attentions of the voluptuous Molly. Scott grinned down at his brother’s relaxed face, amazed at how young this dangerous man still was, not yet twenty-three but with a lifetime’s experience under his belt. He was tempted to waken the boy but having been on the receiving end of waking Johnny unexpectedly once before, he didn’t relish having a six-shooter stuck under his nose.
Crossing as silently as he could to his own bed he sat down with a groan on the mattress, only to have the springs announce his presence. Johnny came awake with a jolt, the gun appearing like magic in his right hand, the blue eyes wide open.
“Sorry…I didn’t mean to waken you. Where’s what’s-her-name?”
“Now that ain’t any way to talk about a lady, Boston.” Johnny grinned as he re-sheathed his weapon.
Scott nodded in agreement. “From what I saw in the saloon, that was no lady.”
He continued to prepare for bed as Johnny rolled onto his side, almost dislocating his jaw as he tried to combine grinning and yawning.
“She may not meet your exactin’ Boston standards, brother, but sweet Molly was just what this cowboy needed after weeks in the company of you and those darned steers. Soft, sweet woman…bliss!”
Scott snorted softly as he blew out the light.
“Sleep well, brother,” he called.
Johnny’s sleepy voice drifted back to him with words that reminded him of their first meeting 10 months ago. “I always sleep well!”
Molly smiled seductively at her dark-haired customer as she set his breakfast before him.
“Mornin’, Johnny. Did you enjoy last night, honey?”
“Oh boy, ma’am, you have no idea! I’d nearly forgotten what a good woman was like, an’ chica, you’re a naughty woman, but you are good.”
“So where’s Blondie this mornin’? You boys travellin’ together?”
Johnny made inroads into his breakfast, relishing the savoury treat in front of him instead of what they’d been eating for the last three weeks. He grinned around a forkful of eggs.
“Ain’t I enough for ya? You lookin’ to entertain my brother, too?”
“Well, honey, you’re fully occupied with your breakfast. No sense in not enquirin’. So you’re brothers. Don’t look much alike to me.” She cast a furtive glance at the barkeeper but his attention was elsewhere and she sank onto the chair beside Johnny’s.
“Different mothers,” Johnny explained, economically.
Scott crossed the saloon and sat opposite his brother, nodding at the girl. She stood beside him, gently stroking his cheek as she looked from man to man.
“Such handsome boys, out here on your own. You want any female company on your ride home? I’d be willin’ to come along.”
Johnny laughed at the girl’s expression. “Molly, you’re a trollop, if a real pretty one. We’ve a long, dusty ride back home, and it ain’t any place for a girl. An’ like as not, as soon as we ride outta here you’ll be bendin’ the ears of the next saddle tramp sittin’ here, make no mistake. We’ll just be two more notches on your bedpost.”
Molly pouted, her expressive eyes misting briefly. “I ain’t gonna forget YOU that quickly. An’ I’m serious about comin’ with you. I’ve been here too long, and I just wanna spread my wings, travel anywhere they take me. I wouldn’t be any bother; I can cook and…er…see to whatever you need seein’ to.” She smiled her most winning smile.
Scott chuckled at his brother’s slightly trapped expression. Johnny was as afraid of being tied down by one woman as any man, but it didn’t stop him from falling into the seductive arms of every woman he met.
“I’m sorry, Molly, but we’ll be riding hard to get back. We’ve nearly one hundred miles to cover and we haven’t time for passengers.” He patted the girl’s hand, consolingly. “Now, if you’re still offering to see to whatever I need, I’ll take a plate of whatever that was my brother’s demolishing.”
Johnny grinned appreciatively around his ham and eggs as Molly walked dejectedly away.
“Brother, you’ll have to polish up on your pillow talk if your companions are getting the idea that they can come home with you. I can just see Murdoch’s face, not to mention Teresa’s, if you were to arrive back at Lancer with Molly on your arm.”
“Pillow talk? Is that what you do, Boston? I don’t waste time talkin’.” Johnny smirked.
Scott tucked into the plate of food the barkeeper set before him, raising his eyebrows at the sudden absence of the girl. Looking around he saw her at the rear door in conversation with a young black man. He appeared to be asking her something and she was shaking her head, casting worried glances at the barkeeper from time to time. Johnny followed his brother’s line of vision and frowned at the scene. Molly didn’t appear to be being harassed by the boy, but it was clear that she wasn’t getting rid of him, either.
“Molly, is everythin’ alright?” The words were spoken quietly, but they gave the girl reassurance as she turned to smile up at Johnny.
“You part Indian, boy? I never heard you creepin’ up behind me. An’ yes, everythin’s alright. This is Joshua an’ he was just askin’ about work, but I’ve tried to tell him that it wouldn’t be safe for him to stay around here. Folks here don’t take too kindly to darkies.”
Johnny regarded the young black man at the door. His clothing was barely rags, and his bony frame was visible in many places. The boy looked as if it was a considerable time since he’d either eaten or slept.
“Joshua, I’m Johnny Lancer. You hungry?”
Joshua turned huge dark eyes on the speaker, startled to be addressed in such gentle tones by a white man. He gulped his dry throat and nodded, finally finding his voice again.
“Molly, set up another plate of that fine food ya brought me, an’ set it in front of Joshua. Come on, boy, let’s get you some food inside you before you fall over.” He startled the young Negro by throwing his arm across the other’s shoulder as he led him into the interior of the saloon.
“Johnny…I don’t think you should do that. Tommy ain’t gonna like it.” Molly nodded towards the rear kitchen where the barkeeper had disappeared.
“Just tell him I’ve a healthy appetite,” he leered at her, winking saucily. “You should know!”
As they approached their table, Scott stood to greet the new arrival. Joshua eyed him warily until Johnny effected introductions.
“Boston, this here’s Joshua. Joshua, meet my big brother, Scott.”
Scott held out his hand to shake the other’s but Joshua simply looked at the outstretched hand, mystified. Sensing the man’s confusion, Johnny removed his hand from Joshua’s shoulder and grabbed his right hand, pressing it against Scott’s. Scott clasped the hand gently and pummelled his arm up and down in the age-old tradition, smiling at the black man as he did.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Joshua. Why don’t you sit down and we’ll get some food into you.” He pulled the extra chair out from the table and between them they got the dazed man to sit.
Johnny scratched his head as he watched the confusion on the face of their new friend.
“What’s eatin’ at ya, Joshua?”
Dark brown eyes swung in his direction and the young man frowned at him.
“Sir, I don’t wanna cause any trouble fo’ ya. I ain’t supposed to sit with white folks, an’ shake they hands, so.”
The brothers exchanged surprised looks before Johnny grinned and nudged the equally surprised Negro.
“This is what ya might call a mixed bag we got here, Joshua. Old Boston there’s the only truly white man amongst us. I’m a sort of…half ‘n’ half. An’ anyway, we invited you to sit down, so don’t go frettin’ over other people’s rules.” Johnny looked up in appreciation as Molly returned from the kitchen with the food. “Get your mouth round that; you look like ya haven’t eaten for a while.”
Scott studied the man sitting across from him, now tucking in heartily to the savoury meal before him. He looked as if he’d been travelling for some time in just what he had on his back, and those clothes were thin and threadbare. He wore as much stubble as they had had prior to their shave of yesterday, and overall he looked underweight and exhausted. But what struck Scott most was the furtive glances Joshua fired over his shoulder every time a door opened or closed.
//’Almost like he’s afraid someone might find him.’// Scott mused.
“Where are you from, Joshua?” he asked.
Joshua’s eyes took on a hunted look as he scrambled to his feet.
“I thank yuh fo’ the food, sirs, but I best be goin’.”
“Now wait a minute, Scott didn’t mean anythin’ by askin’, did ya Scott?” Johnny grabbed Joshua’s arm as he made to shuffle past.
Scott placed his hand on the other arm and applied gentle pressure.
“Sit down and finish your food, Joshua. I apologise if I made you uncomfortable with my question. You don’t have to tell us anything you don’t want to, but we do want you to eat that meal. Then, if you feel you want to leave, no-one will stop you.”
“I want y’all to leave, now!” the gruff voice sounded behind them.
Johnny swung round to discover Tommy, the angry barkeeper, brandishing a scatter gun and pointing it in their general direction.
“Now is that any way to treat paying customers?” Scott tried to defuse the volatile situation. The last thing he wanted was for that scatter gun to go off at such close range, but he also didn’t want Johnny reaching for his ever-present side-arm.
“Ya ain’t got enough money to make it worth my while fer the likes of him to be here. So if he’s with you, you’re all leavin’. Now did I make myself clear?” Tommy made the mistake of swinging more towards Scott, leaving Johnny unguarded. The next thing the unkempt barkeeper knew was the feel of cold steel under his right ear.
“Ya know, I don’t think I like you very much,” Johnny purred in his ear, but there was no hint of warmth in the voice. “I think I’ll just take your toy away from you and you can let us finish our meal in peace. Just as soon as we’re through, we’ll go, gladly, because something around here stinks, mister.”
He removed the lethal scatter gun from Tommy’s suddenly lax grip and propelled the man towards the back door of the saloon.
“Scott, you and Joshua finish up, there. I’ll just keep an eye out for any more of ol’ Tommy’s mates.” He pushed the man before him as he sauntered through the back door, pulling it almost closed behind him.
Joshua turned sad eyes on Scott.
“Sir, I don’t want no trouble. I’ll jus’ go an’ you an’ Mister Johnny can be on yo way. I ain’t worth gettin’ into no trouble for.”
Scott sighed dramatically. It was tough sometimes being the older brother, feeling that you had to be giving guidance at all times, never feeling that you could just relax and act a little childishly from time to time. And here they were, finding themselves with another of Johnny’s strays. That boy had a propensity for picking up waifs and strays of the animal *and* human kind like…well, like Jellifer Hoskins, if truth be told.
“Don’t ever say that you’re not worth it, Joshua. I don’t want to hear you belittle yourself. Every man has a right to be treated fairly and justly, no matter the colour of his skin.”
“Not if he be a slave, sir.” Joshua confessed quietly, his eyes downcast.
Scott’s eyebrows soared towards his blond bangs.
“Is that what this is all about?”
“Yessir, an’ I’ll die afore I go back to him. I don’t want no trouble fo’ anyone else, but I ain’t goin’ back there, no sir.”
Scott pinched the bridge of his nose and drummed the table with his other hand. He found it hard to believe that there were still pockets of slavery dotted about their fair land. After all he personally had been through in fighting in the war, he could hardly credit that this man, and perhaps many others, were still being kept as slaves. There was something radically wrong about that.
“This country of ours has a lot of things still wrong with it, Joshua, but one thing they *did* get right was a set of amendments to the Constitution. I don’t suppose you know what that is, do you?”
“Ain’t never heard about no constitution, sir.”
“No, I don’t suppose you have, but your, ah, master should have. I can’t believe that he thinks he can defy the law. The 13th and 14th amendments finally abolished slavery a few years ago. You’re a free man, Joshua, as free as my brother and me. I should know; I fought a long and bloody war to help bring that about.”
Scott’s face grew grim as his memory took him back to the stench of the trenches and the sight of so many young men dead or dying, a lot of them good friends. He sat with his jaw clenched and his interlaced fingers gripped tightly to stop a tremor.
Joshua’s head came up, eyes brimming with unshed tears at the startling news, but any rejoinder he might have added was cut short by the sound of gunfire. Johnny pushed open the door and called across to his brother. The sound of Johnny’s urgent calling brought Scott back from his own personal hell.
“Boston, get him outta there, there’s a mob headin’ this way an’ somethin’ tells me they ain’t comin’ for breakfast. Go saddle up an’ I’ll hold them off as long as I can.” Molly rushed in from the kitchen at the sound of his voice. “Molly, be an angel an’ gather up our things from the room, would ya?”
“Only if you take me with you, Johnny.” At his shake of the head, she persevered. “If I help you and am still here, they won’t take it too kindly. So if you want my help, you accept my deal. What’s it to be?”
Scott pulled Joshua with him as he headed for the front door. “Deal, Molly. Meet us at the livery stable. I’ll see if I can get another horse or two. Johnny, you need any help?”
“Nope, I’m good for now. Be right behind ya, now get!”
Scott cast a worried glance at his cock-sure brother as he hustled Joshua out into the still deserted street. He knew that if a mob was descending on the saloon from the rear entrance, it would only be a matter of time before someone realised that they hadn’t the front covered. If they caught up with Joshua and the Lancers, things could get VERY ugly.
They made their way as quickly and discretely as they could towards the livery stable and Scott blew his breath out as they arrived unscathed and unchallenged. Their horses were the only two there, just another set of bad luck, and he sighed as he calculated their chances of escape when each horse would be carrying two.
“Help me saddle up, Joshua. We need to get back to Johnny as soon as possible. My little brother tends to think he’s a one-man army, sometimes.” He looked sideways at the still figure beside him. “What? Don’t you know how to saddle a horse?”
Joshua’s head dropped in shame. “No sir, I ain’t never bin near one afore now. I worked in the fields an’ wasn’t allowed near the master’s horse.”
“You haven’t even been on one, before?”
“No sir. I think you an’ Mister Johnny an’ Miss Molly should get outta here without me, Mister Scott. I’ll take my chances on the open road, but I don’t want nobody gittin’ hurt because of me.”
Scott sighed again. At this rate, he was going to have used up his month’s quota of sighs in one day.
“Keep an eye out for trouble, and don’t even think about trying to make it on your own. You might stand a chance against the mob, which I seriously doubt, but if I leave here without you, I won’t stand a chance against my brother. He tends to get one-track-minded from time to time.”
Scott saddled first his own slightly skittish gelding before turning to the cantankerous mount his brother had named Barranca. The bond between horse and rider was something he’d heard about but never before witnessed. Johnny could get his beautiful Palomino stallion to perform like a trained dog. One whistle from Johnny’s pursed lips and Barranca seemed to know instinctively what was required of him. But Barranca was a one-man horse and tended to nip at anyone he didn’t know or trust.
“Barranca, I’ve no time for this, right now. Johnny’s holding off half of the town and we need to be there for him, so if you wouldn’t mind, a little co-operation would be greatly appreciated.” Scott spoke sternly to the stallion as its teeth flashed close to his hand.
Joshua couldn’t help but overhear the one-sided conversation between man and beast, and he grinned in spite of their situation. He hadn’t realised that a man was supposed to talk to his horse, too. He’d often spoken to the old dog his master kept at the farm, but everyone knew dogs were smart. Horses? They were an unknown quantity to the young black man.
Scott led the now saddled horses towards the large doors and indicated for Joshua to cautiously open them. They swung round, startled, as the smaller side door opened, and Scott used another of his allotted sighs as he recognised Molly.
“Any sign of Johnny yet?” he asked, hoping his headstrong brother was hot on her heels.
“No, but I came out the front in case they saw me. Scott, there’s an awful lot of shootin’ goin’ on. Will Johnny be ok?”
“He’s one of the best when it comes to a shootout, but even he can’t hold off a mob single handed. Can you ride a horse?”
The girl nodded as she handed him their packed saddle bags. He quickly tied them to the saddles and swung the girl onto Charlie. With some difficulty he got Joshua into the saddle behind her.
“Hold on tightly to whatever you can, Joshua. This isn’t going to be the ideal situation for your first riding lesson, but needs must. I’ll take Johnny’s horse and pick him up. Molly, head north and we’ll catch you up.”
He checked the street before opening the stable doors and leading the two horses out. Handing Molly the reins he watched briefly as she and Joshua made a slow escape from the town.
//’That’s one stubborn mule and two passengers sorted. Now for the other stubborn mule…and his equally stubborn horse’.//
“Come on, Barranca, let’s go get Johnny before he shoots up half the town.”
Scott climbed into the unfamiliar saddle and clucked at the stallion. The animal seemed to know the gravity of the situation and moved off without complaint. Scott rode straight down the centre of the street as there appeared to be few people paying him any attention. Many eyes were drawn to the rear of the saloon where a full-scale battle seemed to be under way. Scott contemplated hitching Barranca to the rail and finding Johnny on foot, but he thought better of it when he realised that speed would be their ally in getting out of this alive. He placed two fingers inside his own lips and gave a mighty whistle, causing Barranca to shift edgily under him.
“Whoa, steady boy. That was a call for your headstrong master. You just hold still ‘til he’s on board.”
Johnny was fast losing patience with the men folk of this small burg and pretty soon he was going to start hitting the people he’d been pinning down. None of them had come anywhere close to hitting him and from his vantage point behind a couple of large crates he could keep them pinned down until he ran out of ammunition. The problem was, that wasn’t going to take much longer.
The shrill whistle pierced the morning air and with a grin he recognised it as belonging to his brother.
//’Guess that’s the Cavalry an’ Lt Lancer. Time to get outta here.’//
He tossed the men a silent, sardonic salute as he bolted through the saloon and out of the front door. Scott leant down in the saddle and grabbed Johnny’s arm, helping to haul him up behind him as Barranca sensed the need for speed and took off, not yet complaining about the extra load he was being expected to put up with.
“Good timin’, Boston. That little dance was becomin’ a mite tedious. Another minute an’ I was gonna have to make those bullets hit somethin’.” Johnny clung on tenaciously to Scott’s belt as his Palomino did its level best to put air between them and the angry men they’d left behind.
Scott simply nodded at Johnny’s words and rode on relentlessly. And if he noticed Johnny give a soft gasp just as they left town, he didn’t comment on it.
Molly was finding the going tough enough. She could ride a horse, reasonably well, but she was no cowgirl, and her full skirts were bunched up around the front of the saddle, taking up space. Not to mention that she was closer to a black man than she’d ever been before, what with him gripping her waist as if the hounds of Hell were trying to pull him from her. She rode at a fast canter for several miles before slowing Scott’s horse to a walk, and finally stopping. She turned round to gaze back down the road they’d travelled, and after ten minutes could see a dust cloud travelling towards them.
She walked the horse off the road into the shade of an oak and watched fearfully to identify the rider of the one horse she could see approaching. With a lightening of her heart she recognised the golden horse as being the one Scott had ridden out on. What gladdened her further was the sight of Johnny clinging to Scott as they rode up.
Scott grinned at her and she shook up her mount and moved onto the road to join them.
“Glad you could make it, boys. Joshua and I were just wonderin’ where we should head next. Everythin’ alright?”
“My brother has left the good citizens of Cooper’s Crossing with a bit of a repair job on their saloon, but otherwise we’re ok. Right, Johnny?”
Scott tried to slew round in the saddle but Johnny stopped him.
“They’re pretty mad right now, so keep movin’. No sense in slowin’ up an’ gettin’ caught. It’s about 40 miles to the next decent-sized town, if my memory serves me. Head in that direction an’ we’ll stop when we have to.”
Scott looked at the nervous young black behind Molly.
“How are you doing, Joshua?”
“I’d be happier walkin’, Mister Scott, but I don’t reckon on keepin’ up with your horses. I apologise, Miss Molly, for touchin’ ya so intimate.”
“Hush, man, I don’t mind one little bit. An’ you just keep grabbin’ hold of me, ‘cause I think the pace is about to pick up a bit. Scott, you know where you’re goin’?”
“We’ll stay on this road for a while and veer off into across country when we have to. If anyone is of a mind to follow us, we’ll try to throw them off by wading through any brooks we come across.” He looked up at the position of the sun, calculating. “We can’t expect the horses to cover the normal amount of ground carrying two, so we’ll stop in an hour to let them rest. Joshua, you just do your best to stay in that saddle. We’ve come this far, we’re not about to leave you behind. Come on.”
He didn’t make any comment but made a mental note to tease his brother later. Johnny seemed more inclined than usual to rest his head against Scott’s back.
//’Molly must have tired him out more than he thought last night!’// he smiled.
He clicked his teeth and Barranca responded, setting off at a gentle canter. They dearly would have loved to ride at top speed but they knew to go too fast too soon would be hard on the horses, and they had a long way to go before they were home.
“This looks like a good place to rest up.” Scott pulled off the road and made for the edge of a creek and some trees for shelter from the noon sun. He pulled Barranca to a halt near the water’s edge and made to dismount. Seeing that Johnny wasn’t making the first move, and sympathising silently with how his brother must be feeling having ridden out of the saddle, he stiffly dismounted by easing his leg over Barranca’s lowered head. He wrapped the reins around a low branch to let Johnny dismount in his own time. Scott knew that riding second behind the saddle wasn’t any fun, and if he was stiff and sore, Johnny would be worse.
He walked across to where Molly and Joshua had just arrived. Molly slid ungraciously into his waiting arms as she practically fell out of the saddle.
“Ooh, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to walk again. I’ve got bruises on my bruises.”
She hobbled over to a convenient rock and gingerly eased her bottom against it, sighing in relief that they were no longer moving, although not entirely convinced that they still weren’t.
“Joshua, you can open your eyes now. We’ve stopped and I think it would be a good idea for you to get down for a while. The horses need water and rest, and so do we.”
Scott smiled up into the troubled face of the young Negro as he tentatively peeled open his eyes. Joshua noted that his erstwhile riding companion was on terra firma and he nodded at the blond man holding out his outstretched hand in an offer of help. His dismount was even more inelegant than Molly’s and his knees almost gave way when his feet touched down.
Scott laughed as he helped Joshua to the same rock Molly had commandeered, but the laugh died on his lips as he realised that Johnny was still sitting where he’d left him. Puzzled, he crossed to stand beside his brother.
“You’re not planning on riding back to check on them, are you? Barranca’s done well to get this far; he needs a rest, too, Johnny.”
Johnny’s chin was down, and for the first time Scott noticed his brother’s face was pale and beaded with sweat. Fear clutched at him as he realised that something wasn’t right with this picture. He touched Johnny’s hand and the cold clamminess of it appalled him.
“Johnny? What’s wrong?” The words were almost whispered, so fearful was he of what the answer might be.
He moved closer and shook his brother gently by the arm, and gave a startled cry of anguish as Johnny sighed and collapsed into his arms, barely conscious. His weight and the fact that he was higher off the ground than Scott meant that momentum brought him tumbling effortlessly towards the earth. Scott fought to catch him but Joshua had noticed what was happening and ran forward to help, his soreness forgotten.
“What’s wrong, Mister Scott?”
“I don’t know, Joshua. Help me get him into the shade. Molly, could you get us some fresh water?”
The two men carried Johnny into the refreshing shade of a large tree and Scott set about discovering what was ailing his brother. It didn’t take long to find blood, too much blood on the back of Johnny’s bolero jacket. There was more on his left pants leg, too, over the calf area. Scott swore under his breath as he eased Johnny’s jacket carefully off. The blue and white shirt Johnny wore was already soaked in blood and the bullet hole in the fleshy part of the left shoulder was all too evident of what was wrong. Scott eased the shirt off, too, and glared angrily at the ugly wound in the hope that his anger would be sufficient to cauterise the still-bleeding injury. He looked in vain for an exit wound and used another sigh when he didn’t find one. Turning his attention to his brother’s leg, Scott opened the silver conchos to reveal another wound which was persistently bleeding, oozing Johnny’s life blood onto the dusty ground.
Molly approached with the replenished canteens and knelt beside Scott, soothing back the sweaty bangs from Johnny’s clammy forehead.
“Johnny?” When she didn’t get any response she turned to his brother. “My poor lamb. Scott, when did this happen?”
“He didn’t say a thing, but I imagine it was just as we were leaving Cooper’s Crossing. Some of the mob had followed him through the saloon and there were a few bullets flying around and I guess a couple of them found their target. If only I’d been behind him…”
Johnny moaned and opened bleary blue eyes to regard this brother whom he loved so fiercely, having heard the last few words.
Scott grabbed his brother’s right arm in a fierce grip, so glad to see him awake and nearly fearful to let him go again.
“What am I to do with you, boy? Murdoch’s going to have my hide for bringing you home like this. How is it that you can turn an innocent breakfast into a full scale battle?”
“Natural…talent. Gimme a drink, Scott…thirsty.”
Molly brought the mouth of the canteen to Johnny’s dry lips and he relished the cold spring water as it slaked his thirst. Seconds later his rebelling stomach returned it with interest. Scott held his trembling brother as he lost the meagre amount of water he’d swallowed as well as the breakfast which seemed to have been eaten about a week ago. He rubbed gentle circles on Johnny’s upper back until the trembling subsided and he could lower his brother onto the ground, propped on his side.
“I need to clean these wounds out a bit, Johnny. I’m not going to lie and tell you it won’t hurt, but I’ll be as quick as I can.”
His only response was a nod and a clenching of Johnny’s fists.
They had been in their sheltered hiding place for one hour now, and Johnny had been unconscious for most of the time. He’d hung on for as long as he could whilst Scott ministered to his wounds, but it had proved too much and he’d allowed the mists to claim him for a while; just until he rested up, he had told himself.
So Scott had breathed a sigh of mixed emotions as he had watched his stubborn brother give in to the clutching darkness. He knew it was because of Johnny’s past life as a hired gun that he felt he couldn’t relax, that he had to always watch his own back. And the fact that he now allowed Scott to do just that warmed the blond’s soul, even if the fact of his brother’s unconscious state worried him.
He rose quietly to cross to where Johnny now lay on his side under the shelter of the clump of mature trees. He eased down beside Molly who had taken personal charge of cooling Johnny’s rapidly heating forehead and gave her a grateful smile.
“How’s he doing, Molly?”
The girl looked up with troubled brown eyes. “I haven’t any experience of gunshot wounds, Scott, but he’s gettin’ awful hot. I’ve tried keepin’ him cool with the spring water but I don’t think it’s workin’. He needs a doctor.”
Scott laid his hand on his brother’s forehead and exclaimed in dismay at the fire he felt there already. Molly was right; Johnny needed a doctor, and badly. Those bullets would have taken with them cloth and grease and all kinds of dirt, and infection was a real worry. The trouble was they were closest to the town they’d fled from, and something told him it wouldn’t be too healthy for any of them to go back there.
“Do what you can for him. I’ll take a ride on a short way and see if there are any farms nearby.”
Scott saddled Charlie, glad to leave Barranca until later, although the cantankerous beast had been on his best behaviour up until now. Still, there was no point in jabbing at a snake just to prove that it would strike out. Joshua stepped forward as he went about his tasks.
“Mister Scott, I think it would be better if’n I was to go on ahead. I’s the reason folks is comin’ after us, an’ if I wasn’t here they’d leave y’all alone. I can try an’ make it to the next town an’ send a doctor.” His face was earnest as he looked into the troubled blue-grey eyes of the blond Lancer.
“Don’t let him…not safe on…own.” Johnny had come to and overheard the last part of Joshua’s sentence. His voice, often softly spoken anyway, wasn’t up to its usual strength, but Scott was overjoyed to hear it, nevertheless.
He crossed and knelt in front of his brother. “Glad you could join us, brother. How do you feel?”
“I’m fine…help me up, Scott…gotta keep movin’.” The white face and clenched teeth made a liar out of his ‘I’m fine’ declaration, and Scott wasn’t fooled for a moment.
“Sure you’re fine. You’re *always* fine, even when you’re not. But if you feel up to a gentle ride, I think that’s probably a good idea. And I wasn’t about to let Joshua take off on his own. You rest there and take as much water as you can stomach. You’ve lost a lot of blood. I’ll get Barranca saddled, if he lets me.” He gave his brother’s sound shoulder a gentle pat and threw him a wide grin, the grin barely hiding his concern.
Barranca regarded his master’s stable-mate approaching and snuffled quizzically. This tall blond was one of the few others he tolerated near him. This same man had ridden him just after his master had broken him, taking him flying over the corral fences and scattering some of the cheering vaqueros who’d been encouraging Johnny’s skill. But the horse could sense that his master was close by, and under most circumstances undertook the task of saddling him personally. He looked to his own stable-mate for information, but Charlie either didn’t know anything, or refused to tell. Sometimes these two didn’t hit it off as well as their two-legged counterparts.
Scott spoke soothingly to the Palomino the way he often heard Johnny do it, although he wasn’t nearly as conversant in Spanish as his brother. He had a good ear for languages and Johnny had taken great delight in his new brother’s desire to learn Maria’s native tongue. Many a lunch break would find them relaxing near a brook, or beneath a towering oak, with Johnny schooling his brother in a few new words and expressions before they took their siesta. Scott’s Boston accent made for some moments of hilarity as he gave the words too much of a French flair, but Johnny had to admit that the man was giving it his best effort. On Scott’s part, he had to hope that the phrases his impudent younger brother was teaching him weren’t likely to have his face slapped, or worse. He hadn’t had the nerve to try them out on their housekeeper, just in case.
“You’re a good boy, Barranca. We just need to get Johnny to the next town and then I promise you an extra portion of oats.” He glanced at his own quietly waiting steed and spoke conspiratorially to the Palomino. “Just don’t tell *him* that,” he nodded in Charlie’s direction. Barranca snorted and nodded in understanding as the cinch was tightened.
Molly gathered up what little they had scattered about the meagre camp and regarded her mount without enthusiasm.
“Couldn’t we just walk for a bit? Johnny’s not up to goin’ too fast, anyway.”
“Even a horse’s slow walk is faster than ours, Molly, and Johnny needs help as soon as possible. I know this isn’t comfortable, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” Scott helped the protesting girl into the saddle.
Joshua crossed to where Scott was now trying to get Johnny to unsteady feet and with his extra assistance they had the injured man upright, if swaying alarmingly. Together they staggered like the town drunks towards Barranca, but when the jittery horse spied his compadre he settled again, allowing the others to unceremoniously shove Johnny into the saddle.
“Mount up, Joshua. We need to get going.” Scott indicated the other horse and helped the young black to clamber up behind Molly, his own protest unspoken.
Since Scott and Johnny had refused to let him go on his own, he resolved to give them as little trouble as possible. He’d only ever known to follow orders, anyway, so this wasn’t something new for him; just someone different issuing the orders.
Scott climbed up behind his brother, alarmed at the heat coming from Johnny’s freshly shirted back. He gathered the reins, wrapping protective arms around his precious burden and clicked his teeth. Barranca responded with a graceful walk and when he was ready, broke into a gentle canter. Scott glanced over his shoulder to ensure that the others were following, and sighed silently. Things were seldom dull when Johnny decided to poke his nose in where others thought he oughtn’t.
Johnny had long since lost any pretence at keeping himself in the saddle. At first he’d clung tenaciously to consciousness, making Scott talk to him about anything and everything, and Scott had been only too happy to do so. They talked about the ranch; about their father whom they had gradually got to know and love; about their feisty foster sister Teresa who took personal charge when any of them got injured; about Jelly Hoskins, the grizzled old conman who was now a trusted and much loved ranch hand and who had a mad goose as a pet. They reminisced over some of their more colourful exploits since meeting each other, like the time they’d actually held up and robbed a train. But mostly Scott talked to and cajoled Johnny to ‘hang on, brother’. He was afraid that if he stopped talking, Johnny would slip away from them, and Scott wasn’t about to let that happen.
However, he knew he was losing the fight against Johnny’s blood loss and rising fever when the younger man’s responses started to peter out, and eventually stopped completely. He’d gently shaken his brother, but Johnny had slumped like a dead weight in Scott’s clutches, almost causing the blond to drop him. Riding behind his brother as he was, Scott tightened his grip across Johnny’s chest and held on for dear life.
That had been about one hour ago. Scott wasn’t absolutely sure as he couldn’t get at his pocket watch, but judging by the sun’s setting position he reckoned it was late evening, probably about 7pm. The day had been warm and pleasant, and under different circumstances he would have enjoyed the countryside they were travelling through, and the company he was keeping.
He glanced over at his own horse and smiled slightly at the sight of Molly and Joshua plastered together as they clung uncomfortably to the saddle. Joshua’s expression was glazed, to put it mildly, never having been in the saddle before. Although, technically speaking, he wasn’t in the saddle this time, either, being over the horse’s rump behind the girl. As for Molly, she wore a resigned look as at least she got to sit on leather.
Because of the gentle trot they had now slowed to, the going was slow and it was almost dark before they saw the outline of a small town on the horizon. This wasn’t the one Johnny had suggested they aim for, but there was no way their horses could cover 40 miles carrying two. They would have to make do with stopping here overnight.
Scott fretted over whether to simply ride straight in as they were, but knowing what a raggle-taggle group they presented, he reined Barranca to a halt and turned to the others.
“I think it might be a good idea for you to stay here for now, Joshua. Whoever is looking for you might have already reached here. We’ll set up camp and when Johnny’s settled at the local doctor’s I’ll get some provisions and send Molly out to you.” Scott regarded the other man’s expression in the gloaming and wagged a finger at him. “And I don’t want you getting any ideas of taking off on your own. You stand a much better chance of out-running your pursuers on horseback, and you know it. Let us help you, Joshua. We just need time to regroup.”
Joshua regarded the earnest young blond with mixed feelings. Over the past days he’d been living on his instincts, keeping ahead of his pursuers by the slimmest of margins, and right now his instincts were screaming at him to keep moving. But he felt responsible for the condition of the younger brother and his innate goodness refused to allow him to run away from this situation. If there was anything he could do to help these boys, he would do it.
“Okay, I’ll stay, sir, but ya need to look after yo brother an’ not worry ‘bout me. I’s good at hidin’. Yo send Miss Molly when yo can.”
The good citizens of Cooper’s Crossing had long since lost any enthusiasm for the chase and were to be found propping up the bar of the saloon, recounting the episode of the strangers and the darkie they’d taken with them. Of course, one or two had bemoaned the loss of the ever-willing Molly, but it was just too much like effort to pursue them. And for what? That half-breed had proved very handy with his gun and had effectively pinned them down in the rear alley. If they were to meet up with both men, some of those brave souls of the small town might not live to tell the tale.
It was by now late evening and the stories were gradually dying down having been embellished into a full-scale massacre involving no less than the James gang. Some of the wiser citizens wondered at the James gang lowering their standards to shoot up a humble saloon rather than robbing banks. The ‘survivors’ were enjoying their new-found popularity with any strangers in their midst, and the others kept their own counsel, having ensured their silence with a steady supply of paid-for drinks from the raconteurs.
The batwing doors swung open and most of the men looked around to inspect the newcomer with undisguised curiosity. And he was certainly a curiosity!
From the toes of his patent leather riding boots, via the styled pants and handsomely fitted jacket, passing over the heavy brocade waistcoat and finishing with a red, bullish face sitting atop a thick neck, the man standing before them was the most remarkable spectacle any of them had ever seen. His outfit was finished with the presence, under his arm, of a polished wooden riding crop.
Tommy set down his ever-present wiping cloth and stepped forward.
“Something I can help you with, Mister?”
The stranger in their midst examined the barkeeper with little interest. He tapped his leg impatiently with the crop and turned to one of the men who had entered behind him. The other man stepped forward.
“Mr Duprés has lost some property. Perhaps you might have seen it?”
Tommy scratched his greasy head and looked around at the shambles that was his saloon.
“Maybe if ya told us what he’s lost, we can look for it. Otherwise, we could have found it an’ not know,” he added to the conversational melting pot, not unreasonably, he thought.
“One of my slaves has run away. I will not tolerate such behaviour. Joshua must be found and taught some manners.” Duprés spoke through clenched teeth, refusing to wait for his man to speak.
Tommy’s eyebrows rose at the words, his interest piqued.
“I might have seen your property, if it’s worth my while.” He grinned suddenly, giving the others a fearsome display of nicotine-stained teeth.
Duprés examined the loathsome specimen in front of him, and the impulse to threaten the man with physical violence if he didn’t reveal what he knew was almost too strong to ignore. With a Herculean effort he fought his temper and strode across to an empty table. One of his companions scurried forward and wiped the chair for Duprés to sit, and the others stood behind the florid man.
“I may reward you if your information leads to the recovery of my property. Now tell me what you know, and be quick about it.” He looked around and regarded the saloon with distaste.
Tommy licked suddenly dry lips as he realised that he would be well to settle for not antagonising this man.
“There was a darkie here. Don’t know if he was this Joshua you’re lookin’ fer, but he left early this morning.”
“When you say he left, was he still on foot?” Manson, Duprés’ right-hand-man spoke up.
“No sir. He met up with two other fellas an’ a hooker, an’ they all took off on horseback. ‘Course there were four of them an’ only two horses, so fine gen’lemen like you could probably catch them in no time.” Tommy was almost tripping over his tongue now, having decided that he just wanted these men out of his bar. The décor hadn’t been great to start with but it had certainly taken a beating today and he didn’t want any further damage inflicted on it.
Duprés and Manson put their heads together and conversed quietly for a few moments before Manson rose to his feet and left with the other men. Duprés regarded the sweating barkeeper.
“You have been somewhat helpful. If you can tell me in what direction this unsavoury gaggle of travellers left, I will see to it that you get something towards the repairs this establishment very obviously requires.” He reached inside his jacket and withdrew a billfold bulging with notes. Tommy’s eyes turned into saucers at the sight of such wealth and his treacherous tongue couldn’t work fast enough.
Manson was an excellent tracker, and it helped that they had brought along two of Duprés’ bloodhounds, but not even the dogs could keep going indefinitely, and Manson couldn’t track in the dark.
“Mr Duprés, it’s no good, we have to stop. Joshua isn’t going to get that far ahead of us. We’d nearly caught him today, so a night’s sleep won’t hurt. After all, he’s going to have to sleep, too.”
Duprés looked down his nose at this, his most reliable of men, and nodded curtly in acknowledgement of the man’s logic. It stuck in his throat to allow Joshua to get further away from him, but there was nothing they could do about the lack of light.
“Very well, we’ll stop here, but be sure to have the men ready to head out at first light. I will not tolerate any unnecessary delays. Be sure that they know that.”
They made arrangements for the horses and hounds to be stabled and Duprés demanded the best room and ‘entertainment’ that Tommy could provide.
Manson had stepped outside and moved some way away from the saloon to get a feel for the direction they would be taking in the morning, and something in the moonlight caught his attention. He crouched down and studied the patch of darkened earth and a smile creased his face as he returned to his employer before he took his ‘entertainment’ upstairs.
“I’ve found what looks very like dried blood out there. If we’re lucky, someone or something was hit in that little war they had here. It might slow them up even further. Looks like Joshua might just get that lesson in manners some time soon.”
Duprés smiled mirthlessly at the words and nodded for the man to continue his scouting. He thought back to seven days ago when he’d discovered that young Joshua had run away. His escape had been carefully hidden by some of the other slaves and it had taken one of the older ones to be savagely beaten before Duprés learned that the boy had a three day head start. Since then they had made steady progress and now it seemed they were within grasping distance of their quarry.
Duprés’ anger started to climb again. The boy would be taught a lesson he would never forget for having caused his owner such embarrassment amongst his peers. Didn’t the boy realise that a man was judged by the number of slaves he had stabled? To allow even one to leave was to open the door for the remainder. No, Joshua wouldn’t forget it when they caught up with him, and if *anyone* got in the way, it would be a sorry day for them, too.
The small town of William’s Ridge boasted one main street, a few shops, a livery at the far end, and a saloon. Beyond the street were a scattering of private dwellings but the overall impression was one of prosperity never having called here at all, never mind having left. Scott gripped his unconscious brother more firmly and encouraged Barranca towards the saloon. Reining in, Molly struggled off Charlie with a groan. She stretched backwards in an attempt to get her spine back to the shape the Good Lord had originally designed it and gave Scott a tentative smile.
“I’ll be alright, Scott. You don’t think I can handle myself in there? I haven’t exactly been a Sunday school ma’am of late, you know. You just hang onto that brother of yours and I’ll find out where the doctor is.”
Scott could only watch as the girl stepped inside the dimly lit saloon. Clutching Johnny as he was, he couldn’t get down in a hurry if the girl got into difficulties. He looked up and down the mostly deserted street and hoped the bar was as empty as the town.
What seemed to Scott to be five hours later, Molly emerged unscathed but most definitely downcast. She stepped down from the boardwalk and placed a shaking hand on Scott’s leg, biting her bottom lip in pearly white teeth.
“Molly? Are you alright? What’s wrong?” Scott didn’t like the girl’s mood.
“They don’t have a doctor, Scott. Not even a vet. The only person here to look after the horses is the man who runs the livery, and the barman says you’d need to be desperate to let him near you. Scott, what are we going to do? Johnny needs help, now.”
Scott was touched by the concern in the young woman who’d only known them for a very few days, but he wasn’t surprised. His charismatic brother had that effect on almost everyone he met, especially women, old and young.
His head hung in despair as he tried to think what to do next. He’d placed all hope on getting help for his unconscious brother before sending the girl back to Joshua, and now that hope had been cruelly dashed. They simply *had* to find someone to look at Johnny, even if it was the liveryman. He looked around at the town shutting down for the evening and noticed the general store hadn’t yet closed.
“See if the storekeeper can give you any more information. Here,” he awkwardly fished out and gave her some money, “buy some provisions and ask around. Maybe somebody can offer some help.”
“Where will you be?” Molly tucked the money into her skirt pocket as she watched him slowly moving off.
“I’ll take the horses to the stable. They deserve a drink and some feed, and Johnny can rest on the hay for a while.” He smiled sadly at her sudden fear. “Don’t worry; I won’t let the ‘Butcher of William’s Ridge’ at my brother. I’m not ready to be an only child again.”
If Molly was perplexed by Scott’s words she didn’t show it. Instead, she moved towards the store with a determined step.
Duprés and his trackers had stopped at the edge of a wide creek. The horses took the opportunity for a refreshing drink as the two hounds with the hunt sniffed and bayed in frustration. The scent had vanished at the water’s edge and it would take some time to search the far bank to once again pick up the trail.
Over the past miles they’d seen more and more signs that someone was badly hurt, but so far, it hadn’t slowed their quarry down by much. Here at the edge of the creek they found signs of a temporary camp, with more proof of someone having been hurt.
Duprés wasn’t a patient man and he lashed out vocally at his minions as the time dragged on.
“How long does it take to search one small stretch of riverbank? It’s not exactly the Mississippi!” His bellow could be heard quite clearly by the men still looking for fresh signs.
Manson knew his employer was fast running out of tolerance for the delay and tried to placate the angry man.
“They knew what they were doing by crossing here. It’s shallow enough for horses but wide and they’ve most likely walked some distance in the water before climbing out again. But we’ll find their tracks, there’s no doubt of it. And unless whoever’s bleeding has stopped, we’ll pick that trail up again quickly. The only problem is, we’re going to have to take the hounds across on horseback, it’s too far for them to swim and too deep to walk.”
Duprés merely snorted, refusing to be pacified by the man’s words and not caring to dwell on the fact that getting the hounds across would cause a further delay. It all ate at his mood, darkening it dangerously. The longer it took to find his slave, the more his anger grew. By the time he caught up with that boy he promised himself that he’d have thought up some suitable punishment for his ‘property’ and anyone who had the misfortune to be anywhere near him.
Scott had ridden up to the livery and eased to the ground, gently pulling his brother into his arms before pushing open the stable doors with his shoulder. Clancy, the liveryman, had looked up from the forge at the sudden visitors, his grimy face creasing at the site of the unconscious boy being gently lowered to the hay.
“I need to feed and water my horses, and if you don’t mind, we’ll rest here for a few minutes. I’ll pay you for whatever we use.” Scott had stood and addressed the mountain of a man lumbering towards them.
“You want me to take a look at that young feller?” He nodded towards Johnny who lay unmoving on the hay.
“He needs medical attention, but I understand your town doesn’t run to such luxury as a doctor.”
Clancy struggled with Scott’s fancy words, his impressive brow wrinkling as he scratched at greasy hair.
“Nope, old Doc Aiken died a few years back an’ no-one took it up after him. It’s quiet around here, don’t get much need for doctorin’, an’ what needs to be done, I do.”
Scott sighed heavily as he sat beside his unresponsive brother.
“Why do you do it, Johnny? Get into these scrapes for people you barely know! Murdoch’s going to confine you to the ranch for months at this rate.” As he spoke he teased the sweat-soaked bangs from Johnny’s flushed forehead, the heat rising too quickly. He spared a glance at the large, grubby man standing near and was tempted to let him treat his injured brother, if only because that seemed their only option. But when he saw the man spit on his hands before returning to the forge he quashed the temptation as quickly as it had been born.
Molly found Scott seated beside his brother, bathing his face and checking the make-shift bandages.
“How is he? Any change?” The girl eyed the huge smelly man working at the forge as she spoke to Scott.
Scott shook his head. “Did you find anything out?”
Molly leant across to speak privately to the blond Lancer. “About five miles further on there’s a small farm run by a brother and sister called Henderson. Seems she’s taken in a few strays from time to time, and has some know-how in treating gun shot wounds. She’s our only hope, Scott. Do you think he can make it?” She looked in anguish at the fevered man at her feet.
“What choice does he have? Take my horse and fetch our mutual friend. We’ll meet you on the main road.” Scott spoke quietly, wary of giving away Joshua’s name in case anyone came asking for them.
Molly helped him to fasten the provisions to the saddlebags and then haul Johnny back into the saddle, all the while conscious of the hulking figure of Clancy behind them, his smoke-laden breath fouling the air.
“I’ll be as quick as I can, Scott.”
The daylight had almost gone by the time they were once again heading north. The storekeeper had seemed quite willing to tell the girl of the spinster Miss Henderson and had given reasonably clear directions to the farm. He’d emphasised, however, that they shouldn’t scare the old couple as the brother was a dab hand with the scatter gun and would likely shoot any unannounced visitors.
Scott was apprehensive over their progress in the poor visibility, knowing how critical it would be if one or both of the horses were to catch a foot in a gopher hole or something equally absurd. He slowed the pace right down to a walk and it was nearly ten o’clock when they found what they were looking for.
And so it was that Molly found herself on foot, heading towards a moderately large, ramshackle one-storey dwelling where one lighted window was visible, the three men waiting silently amongst the trees a few yards away. She knocked politely and stepped back from the door, not wanting to present a threatening figure. After a few moments she saw the curtain twitch before the door was slowly opened to reveal a tall grey-haired man clutching an enormous scatter gun in very steady hands.
“What ya want, Missy? Kinda late for payin’ decent folks a visit.”
“Are you Mr Henderson?”
“Might be. What business is that of yours?”
“Mr Curtis in William’s Ridge said you might be willing to help us. We don’t mean you any harm, sir.”
The old man regarded the travel-weary girl with suspicion. “Who’s this ‘we’ you’re referrin’ to? Seems to me you’re on your own.”
Molly turned and beckoned Scott to come forward and Eli Henderson took in the approach of the three men with a cool expression and a noticeable lifting of the scatter gun. He noted that two men shared a horse and that the young dark-haired man on the palomino wasn’t contributing anything to his staying in the saddle. Movement behind him announced the arrival of a smaller equally grey woman who tucked in by his side, careful to not impede his use of the gun should it be necessary.
They also noted that the third man was a young black but that didn’t worry them unduly. They had no truck with people who bad-mouthed blacks. Many a farm hand during their brother Walt’s time had been black and they’d been some of the best workers ever.
Stepping forward with his gun raised and pointed straight at the new arrivals, Eli Henderson examined the injured boy before turning to the others.
“Well don’t sit there with your mouths hangin’ open. Get that boy offa that horse an’ into the house. An’ somebody put those nags in the barn. Y’all look like three miles of bad road, an’ I don’t want ya advertisin’ that you’re stoppin’ here.”
He turned and stomped back into the house, his sister close behind. She turned and beckoned for Molly to follow. Inside, she seemed to take over, throwing orders at the dumb-struck girl with military precision.
“Boil that kettle an’ get some clean rags from that cupboard. An’ turn down those bedclothes. Eli, stir up that fire some.” She looked around as Scott appeared, carrying his brother’s limp body. Moving out of the kitchen they came to the first of three bedrooms. “Set him here…that’s right…now get him outta those blood-stained clothes.” Seeing Scott looking doubtfully at her she grinned with a twinkle in her eye. “Now don’t go lookin’ at me like that. I may be an old woman but I’ve seen men’s bodies afore now. I lived here with my folks an’ after they’d gone, my brothers an’ if there was any fixin’ to do, I did it. If you want this young feller taken care of, you’ve gotta trust me. Ronnie Curtis trusted me enough to send you to me, so now it’s your decision. But from the look of that young’un, I wouldn’t take too long to decide.”
Molly stepped forward and placed a gentle hand on Scott’s arm. “We have no choice, Scott, we *have* to trust them. I’ll get Johnny out of his clothes. After all,” she smiled suddenly to ease the tension, “it won’t be the first time I’ve done *that*. You take care of the horses. Now go on.” She pushed him towards the door and with dragging feet he moved to comply with her words, but not before touching his brother’s shoulder lightly.
“I’ll be right back, Johnny. Don’t you be thinking of going anywhere, you hear?”
Annie Henderson watched the interaction between the two boys and wondered at their closeness. They must be good friends to care for each other so much. With a sigh at the task ahead she turned her attention to the injured man. She tutted over the heat from his fevered body as the girl efficiently stripped off his blood-caked shirt to reveal a well-defined, bronzed torso, marred by the ugly bullet wound in his shoulder. She also noted, with some interest, that there were some old scars, too. This boy, for someone so young, had led an interesting life if his body was any testament to that. She fervently hoped he’d be spared to tell her about it.
Scott stripped the tack from the Lancer horses in double quick time, guiltily taking very little time over their care, his mind totally absorbed by what might be happening inside the small house. He knew that if anyone could survive gunshot wounds it was his tenacious brother, but he was very worried by Johnny’s condition.
Although he didn’t know this brother and sister, it was with a great feeling of relief that he handed his brother’s care over to them. His knowledge of field surgery was basic, and he hadn’t relished the idea of having to cut out any bullets from his brother’s tender flesh.
He gave the two horses a brief rub down, demonstrating what he was doing to a very attentive Joshua who had followed to help in any way he could. The young black felt every ounce of his own guilt at the situation these two white men now found themselves in. If he hadn’t called at the saloon looking for work or food, the lynch-mob wouldn’t have come looking for him, prompting Johnny to take an active part in the whole mess that his life had become.
“I got it, Mister Scott. You go see to yo brother an’ I’ll do the talkin’ to the horses.” Joshua gently removed the tools from Scott’s nerveless fingers and pushed him towards the barn door.
Scott didn’t need a second invitation to get back to the house. The scene greeting him inside the bedroom was grim. Johnny lay covered by a blanket, his bare torso wreathed in sweat as he lay propped on his side. His dark bangs fell into his eyes which were shut, and his breathing seemed laboured. Scott crossed and knelt in front of him, placing a supporting hand on Johnny’s shoulder. He looked around at the bustle of activity that could be seen through the open doorway.
Eli was stoking the iron stove into fierce life as a large pot of what Scott assumed would be water came to the boil on top of the range. Molly was rolling rags into bandages and the older woman was searching through one of the cupboards for lotions and potions. Scott felt totally helpless until the kindly woman, recognising it, handed him a cool cloth to bathe Johnny’s damp face.
“So who are you folks? A mighty motley crew you make up: a white, a black, a Mex and a girl. You runnin’ from the law?” Eli spoke from where he was feeding the fire with logs. From where he sat, they could speak clearly into the first bedroom.
Scott sat back on his heels as he thought of what to tell these people. It wasn’t in his nature to be as suspicious of people as Johnny was, but over the past 10 months his younger brother had been teaching him the importance of being cautious about trusting strangers.
“Not from the law, no, but you could say we’re running. We offered Joshua some help in Cooper’s Crossing and the locals objected. And Johnny isn’t a Mexican, he’s my brother. Molly helped us get out of town, so she tagged along.”
Annie looked up from her tasks with interest at the blond’s words. These two young men couldn’t have looked more different than chalk and cheese, and yet he’d stated they were brothers. Her own two brothers had had their physical differences for sure. Dear departed Walt had been pale skinned and red-haired, so like their father. Annie and Eli favoured their mother’s side of the family with their darker hair and brown eyes. But the injured man seemed to be so unlike the blond.
Scott felt he needed to explain a little more.
“Our father married twice, so…you know, different mothers. Johnny’s mother *was* Mexican.” He watched as Annie set out some instruments on a clean towel as she set about preparing to remove the bullet from his brother’s back. “Do you think you’ll be able to get it out?” He nodded at the wound.
The grey-haired woman smiled sadly at Scott and dropped her gaze back to her patient. Eli watched his sister’s countenance fall and offered an explanation.
“You rest easy, boy. Our Annie’s been doctorin’ people for longer than you’ve been alive. She an’ Doc Aiken were good friends an’ she helped him more times than enough. Your brother couldn’t be in better hands if there was a doctor in these parts.” Eli sat back from his labours at the stove and they all looked up as the house door opened.
“Horses are bedded down, Mr Scott. Figured I’d bed down there, too.” Joshua stood uncertainly in the open doorway.
“Eli, get these young ‘uns some food. Boy, you sit yourself at that table an’ get some vittles in ya an’ *then* ya can think of kippin’ in the barn. Reckon you an’ Blondie will both have to sleep out there. Space is kinda limited in here, an’ this ‘un ain’t goin’ anywhere tonight.” Annie smoothed the damp bangs from her patient’s forehead. “The girl can have the spare bed.”
Molly brought the pot of steaming water over to the small table beside the bed where Johnny lay as still and pale as death. Scott longed for his volatile brother to open those startling eyes and give them even a pale version of his cock-sure grin, but Johnny was lost to them for now. He had to trust this elderly woman to look after his most treasured possession: the brother he hadn’t known about for too many years.
Scott had resolutely refused to leave his brother’s side, insisting instead that Molly and Annie get some well-earned rest. The struggle to remove the bullets from Johnny’s back and leg had been difficult and gory, but they’d eventually succeeded, and for now, the injured man was still unconscious.
At one point during the agonising procedure Johnny had been on the verge of regaining consciousness, and Annie had quickly handed a small bottle of chloroform to Scott with instructions to apply a very small amount to a cloth and hold it over his brother’s mouth and nose. Scott was familiar with the anaesthetic agent from the surgical field hospitals during the war, and the pungent odour had brought back some very unwelcome memories.
Once the bullets had been removed, the wounds had been scrubbed as clean as possible with carbolic acid. Again Johnny had moaned and writhed, trying to escape the fiery torture but Scott held him down, all the while fighting his own agonies.
Annie had packed and bandaged Johnny’s wounds as tightly as possible, not having the means to sew them up. Scott had little grounds for complaint about the treatment his brother had received at this gentle woman’s hands. He’d seen many a supposedly trained medic deliver much shoddier care to wounded soldiers.
Annie had seen the blond watching her every move, allowing her to care for his brother, but not totally relinquishing his responsibility. He would occasionally lift one of the brown ridged bottles containing her lotions and she knew he must be wondering how she came to have such items.
“Willoughby Aiken was a dear friend. We…well, if he hadn’t died of the influenza, we might have got hitched, even though we weren’t in the first flush of youth. People were used to seein’ us together, anyway, so we figured on makin’ it legal.” She sighed over fond memories before continuing. “Don’t know if Will knew he’d a weak heart, but the ‘flu was bad that year an’ he didn’t make it. He knew he was dyin’ an’ made me promise to take his supplies and keep up the doctorin’. He had a few bottles of each but they’re nearly gone now, an’ I don’t reckon on bein’ able to get any more, not bein’ a proper doctor, an’ all.”
Scott had mulled over what she had said about supplies and vowed to have a word with Sam. This was a good woman and if there was any way he could repay her for what she was doing for Johnny, he’d bend over backwards to help her.
That had been an hour ago, but for now Johnny was still lost in his own particular war, whilst Scott stayed by his side, bathing his heated skin and speaking softly in his ear, calling him back from wherever he was.
The two women slept on the house’s other small beds and the lantern by Scott’s elbow winked and flickered as dawn slowly approached.
A gentle hand on his shoulder startled Scott as he guiltily realised that he’d dosed off. Head jumping up from where his chin had settled on his chest, he frantically looked for any sign that Johnny was worse due to his neglect.
“Take it easy, boy. He’s no worse, an’ you ain’t made of iron. Why don’t you shut your eyes proper for a few minutes an’ let me take care of the kid.” Annie nudged Scott to his feet and he nodded gratefully as he stretched his spine. Before accepting the proffered relief he laid a cool hand on Johnny’s brow, frowning at the findings.
“He’s awfully hot, Annie. We need to do something to get that fever to break. Our family doctor usually has a steady supply of herbs ready. Is there anything around here that will be of any good?”
“You boys so in the habit of gettin’ shot up that you have your own family quack?” The old woman smiled to rob the words of any insult, and Scott, tired and worried as he was, returned her smile.
“We do seem to have acquired that particular habit, yes.”
“I’ve got some herbs in my garden that might meet with your Doc’s approval. Soon as it’s daylight I’ll get some tea brewin’. Your brother a good patient?”
Scott snorted softly at the very idea. “Oh boy, are you in for an experience! My brother is one of the most stubborn, mule-headed, contrary, cantankerous…did I mention stubborn? Well, let’s just say he’s not a good patient.”
“Okay, so I know what to expect. Now you go lie down afore ya fall over. I ain’t fixin’ to have two of ya to look after.”
Scott trudged wearily towards the bed, tired to the marrow, but reckoning that he wouldn’t sleep, anyway.
He was surprised to find Molly nudging him awake some time later with a scalding cup of strong black coffee.
Struggling to his feet and moving back towards the kitchen he looked around and saw only Molly and Annie, the latter sitting by Johnny’s bedside in the other room, wringing out a cloth to lay on the boy’s forehead. Scott accepted the mug from the girl, giving her a grateful smile as she moved towards the stove. Now that he was awake, he was aware that his stomach was making rumbling noises, and the smell of ham and eggs was stirring it up even more.
“Breakfast is nearly ready, Scott. Why don’t you go freshen up an’ call Eli and the boy in for vittles?” Annie looked out from her ministrations.
“Eli and one of the local boys are working the fields and Joshua offered to help,” Molly explained.
Scott nodded as he once again checked his brother’s condition before heading for the outhouse.
In the harsh light of day he could see that the farmhouse they were staying in seemed to have been added to over the years, such was the oddness of its shape. The land around seemed sparse small and barely enough to sustain Eli and Annie. The ground was scrub and unforgiving, and he couldn’t imagine what they might raise on it that could supply their needs. The last thing these good people needed was four more mouths to feed for any length of time. He’d have to give serious thought to what to do next.
At first he couldn’t see anyone, but when he shielded his hand from the already-soaring sun he saw Eli and a younger man with scythes some distance from the house. He was surprised to discover fields of wheat and maize flourishing where he’d failed to see beyond the immediate surroundings of the house.
Joshua’s dark head could be seen bobbing up and down as he gathered the stalks the other men had cut. Scott waved his arm and Eli nodded, the routine of stopping for breakfast one that he was familiar with. Joshua shook his head at whatever the older man said to him, but Eli wasn’t to be dissuaded and the two headed towards Scott, leaving the farm hand to his task.
“Mighty fine mornin’, young feller. How’s yer brother?” Eli grinned from a sun-burned, wrinkled face, and Scott was somewhat alarmed to discover that the old boy hadn’t a tooth in his head.
“No change, yet, I’m afraid, but he doesn’t seem any worse, either. You’ve got some nice crops there, Sir. Do you sell them to the local town?”
“Mostly. We keep some of it for our own needs. Annie bakes a mean cornbread. An’ we’d better not dawdle. If’n there’s one thing sure to get her goat, it’s the food she’s cooked gettin’ cold on the plate.”
Eli cast aside the large scythe and stepped out of his working boots as he stepped into his home. Scott regarded the old man with respect as he appreciated how this brother and sister worked so well together. She looked after the house and took care of him, and he looked after the farm and respected her domain in small ways like the removal of his dirty footwear. Scott looked guiltily at his own dust-covered boots and sat on the step to remove them.
Molly regarded his sock-clad feet with quiet amusement as they sat at the table to enjoy their repast. Eli surprised them again by calling a blessing on the food and Scott was reminded of his strict upbringing where his grandfather, not a deeply religious man but who nonetheless made his grandson attend church every Sunday, would say Grace before each meal. Scott had eventually come to cynically realise that attending church was as much a social statement in Boston as was the style of clothing, or the number of one’s serving staff.
He wolfed his food down as quickly as it was possible to do so without causing offence and thanked his hosts before crossing to Johnny’s side. He laid a freshened cloth on the boy’s brow and spoke softly and cajolingly to him. In response, Johnny turned his head back and forth a few times, but his eyes remained shut. Annie crossed to stand beside the blond brother.
“I’ll fetch in those herbs an’ brew a tea, an’ then we’ll see just how stubborn this boy can be. Molly, will ya help me fetch them in?”
The two women gathered a trug and some shears and headed towards the promised herb garden. Scott scooted over to the water pitcher and poured a glass of cold, refreshing liquid. He gently raised his brother’s heavy sweat-soaked head from the pillow and placed the glass against pale lips, trickling a small amount of water onto them. Instinct reached through Johnny’s fever and he opened his mouth slightly to admit the life-giving liquid. Encouraged, Scott repeated the exercise and smiled as he saw his brother’s reflex swallowing action kick in. If they could get some herbal teas into him as well as the water, he felt certain that Johnny’s innate stubbornness and refusal to die would bring him round.
Molly returned shortly after and started to chop up some of the items she’d brought in with her. Scott watched the girl going about the tasks as if she’d been born on this small holding, nothing like the brash young saloon girl who’d shared his brother’s bed such a short time ago. Sensing that she was being watched, the girl looked almost shyly at Scott before returning to the task in hand. Once she’d the herbs chopped to her satisfaction she placed them in a large pot of water and placed it on the stove to brew.
“I’m just going to…see if the men out there need anything. You okay, Scott? Anything I can do for you before I go?”
Scott recalled seeing the younger, MUCH younger man who’d been working alongside Eli in the field and smiled as he realised that Molly was as much of a flirt as his younger brother. She’d obviously seen something, or someone she’d liked the look of and wasn’t wasting any time in getting acquainted.
“No, I’m good, Molly. I’ll keep an eye on your Witch’s brew. What do I do when it’s boiled?”
“Oh, I won’t be THAT long, and Annie will be right in, anyway. But if not, let it boil and cool, and then get Johnny to take a glass. It’ll most likely taste like poison,” she giggled the last line, and Scott had to agree with her prediction. He and Johnny had been on the receiving end of enough of Sam Jenkins’ and Teresa’s teas in the past months to know that *nothing* brewed from their herbs ever tasted pleasant.
“Go on, and be careful, Molly. We don’t know anything about that boy out there.”
Molly regarded the concern on the blond’s face and gave him a small smile.
“But honey, I didn’t know anything about you or Johnny, either! Listenin’ to Annie an’ how she misses that doctor makes you think. Sometimes you just have to grab life’s opportunities.”
Johnny’s fever started to break later in the afternoon. He had tossed and turned so much he’d caused more bleeding from his shoulder wound. Scott had sat for what seemed like a lifetime putting pressure on the wound, but still hadn’t elicited any response from his brother. Annie had had to rip up yet more sheets for bandages. The bed linen would have to be boiled to remove the blood stains and Scott apologised over and over again for landing on their doorstep.
“Now you hush up, Scott Lancer. What were you gonna do? Ride your brother into an early grave? He wasn’t fit ta go any further, an’ you know it, so let’s hear no more of that talk. These are only sheets, a small price in comparison to a man’s life. If it makes you any happier, when you get home you can mail me some new ones.”
Scott had told Annie a little of their life at Lancer and her eyes had got bigger and bigger as he’d described the ranch and estancia.
“I’ll do better than that. I’ll personally bring you some of the finest linen ones money can buy. You deserve it,” he promised, engrossing the old woman in a huge hug and enjoying the blush settling on her wrinkled cheeks as he planted a kiss. She swatted him off with a smack to his rear.
“Now quit that charm an’ see to your brother. I believe he’s comin’ round. Could ya fetch some fresh water from the pump?”
Scott gathered the large pitcher and headed quickly out the door, not wanting to refuse the old woman’s request but desperate to be there if Johnny *was* going to come round.
Annie sat in the freshly vacated seat and watched her patient. His eyes moved rapidly under closed lids, a sure sign that he was close to consciousness. She bathed his flushed face gently, cooing to him to waken, and was suddenly rewarded with the vision of two of the deepest blue eyes she’d ever seen. Sitting back a little she observed his confused state.
“Hello sonny. Do you know who you are?” She leant over a little again, bringing her face into Johnny’s line of sight.
Johnny Madrid Lancer was as confused as he’d ever known. This wasn’t the first time he’d wakened from being shot and unconscious, and he hated the feeling it left him with every time. It was one of the reasons he always fought Sam over taking anything strong for pain relief. He hated to be out of control of his circumstances, and unconsciousness certainly stole that control.
He blearily regarded the kindly old face before him and noticed the way the daylight from behind her head bathed it in a soft glow, making her seem unworldly. He attempted to wet dry lips, swallowing painfully. This old woman didn’t look like a threat, but he wouldn’t be content until he knew what was going on and where he was. More to the point, where Scott was!
Annie laughed to herself at these two boys. There was no doubt that they meant the world to each other. She’d witnessed for herself the devotion Scott had shown his injured brother, and now that the younger boy was awake, his first instinct was to ask of his brother. Still, she decided to have some fun with him for a while.
“Now I know you boys had different mamas, but don’t tell me your pa called ya both Scott?”
Johnny rolled his head around on the pillow from where he’d been trying to take in all that he could make out of his surroundings, and regarded the woman with the beginnings of a smile on his pale lips.
“Nah, he’s not…that loco. Where’s__”
“This place?” She thought he’d probably prefer to know his brother’s whereabouts but he accepted her reply with a small nod. “My brother and I live on a small farm about 70 miles from your grand home, accordin’ to your brother. It’s not much judged by your standards, but it does for us.”
“Scott an’ the others?” Johnny was tiring already, Annie could see, and she’d have to get some tea into him before he fell asleep again, so she poured a cup as she answered him.
“They’re all here, waitin’ for you to shift that sorry ass of yours outta my bed. Now you need to take some tea, an’ I ain’t about to take any cussin’ or sass from ya.”
Johnny regarded the mug of evil-smelling liquid brandished under his nose and drew his lips into a compressed line.
“Nah-uh, ain’t taking…no skunk juice. I’ll be fine…just need to rest up. Get Scott, would ya?”
“I’m right here, brother.” Scott had entered the house and on hearing the sound of his brother’s voice had hurriedly set the pitcher down. He crossed to take his brother’s hand in his two cool ones. “Glad to have you back, but you need to drink, Johnny. We’ve been through this routine too often by now, and you know what has to be done as well as I do. This is Annie Henderson and she saved your life, so how about a little co-operation as a mark of your gratitude?” He knew he was playing dirty but it would be worth it if the ploy worked.
“Low blow, Scott…get you later.” Johnny grimaced as he attempted to raise his head to a drinking position. Scott saw his intentions and helped him to raise up slightly, sliding in behind his semi-recumbent brother to support him.
Johnny choked and gagged on the evil brew and thought for certain that he’d be sick, but it refused to come back up once it had got past his teeth. The sweat broke on his brow as he forced mouthful after mouthful of the worst tea he’d ever tasted into his stomach. He amused himself with the notion of going back to Cooper’s Crossing with a large batch of that vile liquid and forcing every man in the town to drink a quart of it.
Scott eased out from behind his exhausted brother and watched with compassion as he lowered him back onto the pillows and Johnny’s eyes closed again. His breathing settled into a slow, regular rhythm that let the watchers know he was asleep. So much for being a stubborn patient. For now, Johnny was being a pussy cat!
Annie gave him a grin as they inspected the empty mug.
“Wasn’t so bad! Eli’s worse when he’s hurtin’. Don’t know what it is about you men that makes you such babies when yer hurtin’.” Annie looked around, noticing for the first time that her ‘assistant’ was missing. “Where’s the girl?”
Scott eased cramped back muscles as he smiled up at their angel of mercy from where he still sat beside Johnny.
“It would seem that your ranch hand has caught the fair Molly’s roving eye.”
“Young Johnny’s gonna be a mite miffed at that,” Annie observed.
“Don’t give it a second thought. My brother isn’t the settling-down type. He and Molly are just…friends.” Scott thought that was nicely tactful. There wasn’t any need to let these good folks know that the young woman sharing their table had the morals of an alley cat. Of course, he and Johnny didn’t exactly have much higher morals when it came to a quick dalliance with a willing female!
He rose from his brother’s side and crossed to look out at the farm again. This was as good a place as any for Johnny to rest for a few days but Scott felt the need to send a telegram to their father explaining the enforced delay. He worried also for Joshua. The young black was constantly looking over his shoulder any time he heard the sound of someone approaching. It was only a matter of time before he decided to make a run for it again, certain that whoever was pursuing him would be close by.
Reluctant to leave Johnny, he nevertheless recognised that he needed to act.
“Annie, I need to send a telegram to my father. Where would the nearest office be?”
Annie pondered the question. They had no need for such modern technology, not knowing anyone they’d want to write to, anyway. She hadn’t heard Jeb or Eli talking about one, and knowing the lack of progress William’s Ridge wallowed in, she doubted if Scott would be in luck.
“Talk to Jeb. He’s the redhead out there with Eli. If there’s one a them things in town, he’ll know. But don’t feel ya need to go rushin’ off. That brother a yours is gonna need to rest a day or two afore he goes throwin’ himself onto a horse again, or he’ll start bleedin’.”
“I’m not in any hurry to move him, but as soon as he starts to feel better he’ll be hard to tie down. Johnny doesn’t like being coddled, and that includes being told he can’t ride. I’d say we have a maximum of two days before he’s itching to get on his way.”
When they’d arrived at Cooper’s Crossing, Manson reckoned they had been about 12 hours behind their quarry. He had persuaded Duprés to stay overnight in the small town, assured that they could make up good time the next day. They hadn’t foreseen the problem of losing the trail at that creek and running out of daylight before reaching the next town and he had thought he would feel the wrath of his employer across his shoulders. Duprés had taken a fearsome grip on his considerable temper and surprised them all. Manson reckoned the man was saving himself for Joshua, and felt a pang of sorrow for the young slave.
Francis Duprés had never been a patient person. Even as a child his governess had rebuked him on many an occasion for demanding everything yesterday. He’d even been impatient for his bullish father to die so that he could inherit his estate. There were some who even suggested, behind his back of course, that he’d aided his father’s departure in shuffling off this mortal coil.
Whatever the truth, the fact was that Duprés was mean-hearted and a bully, ruthless in his dealings with man and beast alike. Many of his slaves bore testimony to this from the healing stripes on their backs. He carried a bullwhip with him most of the time, and from many hours of practice as a boy, he could hit his target accurately with military precision and monotonous regularity.
He sat on a boulder now, idly flicking the cane he presently carried at unfortunate insects that chose unwisely to land within striking distance. The new sun was rising to herald another hot day and he was on the edge of his patience. If Manson didn’t get this rabble of trackers licked into readiness some time soon, he’d take the cane to them and make sure for himself.
Manson watched with unease at the tell-tale signs of another day under the tyranny of his employer. Sometimes he almost sympathised with the few slaves who had attempted to run for freedom. He was almost as much a slave as they were. Oh, he knew he was much better off, no question of it. No-one made him work from sun-up to sunset with no break, only a paltry meal at midday, and not even a decent bed to rest on at night. No-one had taken his offspring and forced them into slavery as soon as they were old enough to be put to work. All of these things he knew as well as the next person, but somehow he still felt trapped. Duprés didn’t believe in letting anyone leave his employ, and if anyone dared, he made it his business to make certain they couldn’t get work locally.
Giving himself a shake Manson rounded up the trackers and saw to the saddling of Duprés’ horse. There was one thing to be said for working for the man: he had a stable of fine animals.
“We’re ready to go, sir. The next town is about ten miles away, name of William’s Ridge. The hounds seem to want to head there, so maybe this will be where Joshua’s luck runs out.” Manson knew his role well, that of court jester to this king.
Duprés regarded with little interest the man he probably trusted the most. Manson had been with him for 6 years and had served him faithfully in all that time, never once questioning his orders. But he’d become complacent in his attitude towards Manson, simply expecting the man to be at his side, even sometimes standing in front of Duprés if there were bullets flying about.
“You’d better hope so, because I didn’t appreciate that enforced stopover last night.”
“The hounds will only go so far, sir. If you want to kill them you keep right on driving them like that. But if you really want to catch Joshua, you’re going to need those dogs, and they need rest, just like all of us. How far can they have got overnight, anyway, with one of them badly injured?”
Duprés sucked his teeth as he thought of Manson’s words. Last night he’d been livid with the man for even suggesting that they needed to stop. He had been almost able to smell his quarry without the aid of the hounds, and was tempted to keep riding, even though it was pitch black. Only the soothing tone of Manson had eventually made him accept the situation, albeit with bad grace. His trackers had very astutely kept their camp-fire revelries to a very muted conversation, sensing that it would take precious little for Duprés’ famous temper to find a target.
“Very well, let’s get going. This town, William’s Ridge…find out if there is a doctor. That will have been their first port of call. From there, we’ll simply follow the scent of blood.”
Joshua stood in the doorway, looking at the sleeping figure of Johnny Lancer and the seated but definitely not relaxed figure of his blond brother by his side. He approached silently to avoid waking the injured boy and tapped Scott’s shoulder. When the blond head turned in his direction with a soft smile, Joshua nodded in the direction of the outside yard. Scott frowned at being asked to leave his brother’s side, but reassuring himself that the boy was sleeping, he rose and followed the young black outside.
“Joshua, is there something wrong?”
Joshua’s head was down and he nudged at the hard-packed soil with a torn sandal.
“I have to go, Mister Scott. You have to let me get away from here. Those people what’s afta me ain’t gonna be far behind, an’ if they catch me here, they’ll hurt these good people for takin’ me in. An’ maybe hurt you an’ Mister Johnny, too.”
“You never did get around to telling me who’s after you. Why don’t we have a seat and you can fill me in.” Scott led them over to a bench close to the door.
Joshua sighed in frustration. He so earnestly felt he had to move on, and the longer he waited around here, the more at risk everyone else would be. But these two men had risked their lives to help him so he felt he couldn’t just run out on them. He owed them an explanation at the very least.
“Mister Duprés’ a very bad man. He whipped ma friend an’ he died. He forces himself on our women an’ we don’t get to say nothin’ ‘bout it. Afta he killed ma friend I swore I’d get away or die in the tryin’. But he don’t let anyone go, no sir. He’s got good trackers, too, so they’ll find me. Ma only chance’s to keep runnin’.”
“Your only chance is to get to somewhere where the law will protect you. Duprés has no right to keep you a slave. He’s breaking the law and should be made to emancipate all your friends and pay for his crime.”
Joshua’s brow wrinkled at the strange word.
“This ‘mancipate…it likely ta hurt?”
Scott chuckled softly. “Not a bit, my friend. But if you keep running and Duprés catches up with you, you’re not going to get that chance. The way I see it, you’re the best chance your friends have to be set free. Now are you going to let that opportunity pass by?”
“Don’t reckon I can do that, Mister Scott, but I can’t stay here. Mister Duprés’ gonna be mighty angry with me an’ he was more than likely gettin’ closer.”
“How close?” Scott was worried by this news. There was no way Johnny would be ready to ride for a few days.
“Don’t know for sure but I reckon he could have been about a day or two b’hind me. With us stoppin’ to take care of Mister Johnny, they most likely’s catchin’ up.”
“Scott…take Joshua an’ Molly…an’ get outta here.”
Scott looked up in alarm as he recognised the soft tones of his brother’s voice, a brother who had no business standing swaying alarmingly in the doorway of the house. He was barely upright, his pale face bathed in sweat and his bare chest heaving in an effort to get air. The white makeshift bandages were stark against his tanned skin and the hand that kept him upright against the door jamb was shaking with effort.
Scott bit back an oath about irresponsible little brothers as he sprinted towards his rapidly wilting sibling. Catching him around the waist he helped Johnny to limp back to the bed, where he dumped him somewhat aggressively on the mattress. Johnny bit back the moan such action invited, knowing full well that he’d invoked anger in his normally placid brother by his movements.
“What in tarnation are you trying to do, Johnny? Do you know how much effort Annie and Molly had to put in to get you to stop bleeding to death? Sometimes I don’t think you were in the line up when they handed out brains!” Scott stood hovering over his brother, both hands on his hips and breathing hard, his glare doing its best to bore a hole through the top of Johnny’s skull.
Johnny’s head was down and eyes closed as he tried to ignore the whirling and spinning of the room. He caught his bottom lip between straight white teeth and gently shook his head, the only action that didn’t hurt right now.
“Lo siento, hermano mio…thought I was stronger. But Joshua’s right…ya gotta get him outta here. They’ll follow you…an’ I’ll rest up here with Annie an’ Eli. When you get Joshua to Lancer…ya can come back for me. I’ll be ready by then.”
Scott’s own head lowered as he thought over Johnny’s words. It curdled his stomach to think of Joshua falling back into the hands of this despot who was hunting him like a wild animal, but it definitely didn’t sit well with his digestion to think of riding out without Johnny, either. He knew he could trust Annie and her brother with his own brother’s life, and he knew with certainty that Johnny wouldn’t be well enough to ride for another day or two. He also knew that if he didn’t accept Johnny’s suggestion, the boy would stubbornly force himself into the saddle so that they could all get going.
“Johnny, I’m not sure about this.” He held up a hand for silence as his brother made to comment. “I know the arguments for it, but I don’t like leaving you here.”
“You’ll be the one needin’ to watch your back, Scott.” Johnny paused to catch his breath before continuing. “They’ll be after you an’ Joshua. He’ll have no reason to stop here. I wish I was goin’ with you to look out for you, but I’m only gonna slow ya down.”
Scott nodded reluctantly, acknowledging that his brother made sense, even if it did worry him. He clasped his brother’s trembling right arm in his own firm grip, their eyes promising that this was merely a temporary parting.
“I’ll saddle up and you can explain it to Molly.”
“I’m not going, Johnny.”
“Molly, I told Scott they wouldn’t stop here, but the chances are that whoever’s after Joshua will come here before following him, an’ they’re not likely to be in a good mood. I’d be a lot happier if you weren’t here when they called. I don’t want you stayin’ because of me.” Johnny was fast losing strength and didn’t really want to be having this argument, but he needed to impress the girl with the importance of getting her safely away.
“I’m not staying because of you. I’m staying for me. You’re not the only good looking fella on this farm and there’s someone here I’d really like to get to know.”
“So who’s caught your eye, then? Old Eli? Reckon he must have money.”
Molly smiled coyly at the look of confusion on his handsome face. She slapped his good arm as she laughed. “You probably haven’t met him yet as you’ve been too busy lolling on your backside. His name’s Jeb and he thinks I’m an angel.”
“I’d better have a man to man talk with him, then. Put him straight on a few things, like what you like from a man, that sort of thing.” His grin belied the dizziness he was feeling. If this conversation took much longer he reckoned he’d be finishing it horizontal.
Molly stood with her arms akimbo. “Johnny Lancer, you say nothing of the sort. Jeb knows I ain’t a choirgirl but he doesn’t need you tellin’ tales. I’ll tell him all he needs to know in my own time.”
Johnny sighed as he saw the chance to get the girl away slipping from his grasp. If she was as smitten with this farm hand as it seemed, wild horses weren’t going to get her to leave him.
“Ok, but if the bullets start flyin’, promise me you’ll keep that pretty head down. I’d hate to see you get it shot off.”
Within 30 minutes Scott and Joshua were on their way. Scott hadn’t been too disappointed that the girl had decided not to come with them, as he’d talked Joshua into riding Charlie, or rather, staying on his back if that could be called riding, and if the girl came, too, someone would have to double up. As it was, with her staying behind they would be able to make quicker progress, and every minute they could snatch back from their pursuers was a minute to be treasured.
Joshua for his part found his concentration totally absorbed in simply staying on the horse’s back. He swore to himself that if they got out of this alive, he’d never sit on a horse again.
The news that William’s Ridge didn’t run to a telegraph office hadn’t been a total surprise to Scott, but it was a disappointment. If he could have, he would have sent word for his father to meet them.
For now, they would push Barranca and Charlie for as long as they could ride, and as long as Joshua could stay in the saddle.
Johnny watched Scott and Joshua ride off with a foreboding in his heart, not for his brother but for the good people at the farm. He’d made his argument for Scott and Joshua going as plausible as possible and had felt a huge relief when his brother had accepted it. But he had spoken the truth of his fears to Molly in an attempt to get her to leave. If *he* was Joshua’s pursuer, he would certainly stop at the farm to make sure the boy wasn’t there, and whilst there would vigorously question anyone at the farm about the young slave’s proposed destination. So it was down to him, a decidedly shop-soiled gunslinger, to protect these innocents as best he could. Not that that would amount to much, the way he felt.
He insisted on sitting at the kitchen table, facing the door as he awkwardly checked his gun. Scott had left him a few extra rounds but the total amount of ammunition he had wouldn’t exactly fuel much of a fight. He hadn’t had the opportunity to replenish his supply after the contretemps in Cooper’s Crossing and hadn’t wanted Scott to leave himself short, either.
“Annie, you keep any weapons around here?”
“There’s that old shotgun we keep for seein’ off the foxes. Eli keeps it in the back bedroom along with some buckshot. That’s about it. You think we’re gonna have trouble, boy?” The old woman looked worriedly at her still not recovered patient. “You ain’t up to takin’ on any shoot-out.” She touched the back of her hand to his forehead, not liking the warmth that persisted there.
Johnny caught her hand in his and squeezed it gently. “Might not have any choice. I want you to get that shotgun, and until any unwanted visitors have come and gone, I want you to stay around the house.”
“Heavens boy, this is a workin’ farm. I can’t go hidin’ myself in here behind my skirts just in case some crazy man comes a-callin’. I got chores the same as ev’ryone else, an’ you’ve no business bein’ anywhere but in bed, or at the least sittin’ in that easy chair an’ restin’. If your brother an’ pappy come back for you an’ find you’ve been bleedin’ again, like as not they’ll take me to task.”
Johnny’s strength was waning rapidly and the arguments were draining him.
“I’m a mite tired, sure enough. Reckon I’ll go lie down for a bit. But promise me you’ll just try to watch out, Annie…and get that shotgun loaded for bear!”
The callers came in the afternoon.
Johnny had succumbed to exhaustion and was dozing by the range, the heat and blood loss having caused him to fall asleep in spite of his worries. Annie had managed to get more herbal tea into him in spite of his arguments and it had lulled him into a fitful rest.
For her part Annie had agreed to stay indoors when it wasn’t essential for her to be out, and to make her sorties outside as brief as possible.
Molly had stayed inside all morning, grumbling about the precautions she’d deemed too extreme. She’d helped the older woman to prepare the lunch and had watched in a degree of envy as Annie had effortlessly rustled up home made breads and preserves. The girl had left home without these skills, always considering them too tame to be of any interest to a free spirit like herself. But now that her heart was thinking seriously of settling down somewhere nice and quiet like this, she realised how little she could contribute to building a nest.
Her thoughts had turned again to the young man toiling alongside old Eli. Jeb was quietly spoken and blushed bright red every time Molly looked in his direction. He’d been courteous but shy, and she had decided that she’d liked what she’d seen and wanted to coax him out of that shyness.
With Johnny she had given in to animal lust, and had enjoyed every minute of it, but all the time she had known there was no future to the relationship. Boys like Johnny Lancer weren’t the settling kind, and certainly not for someone like her. She could just imagine his father’s reaction if his son had brought home a saloon girl. Not that she’d met Murdoch, but what little she’d picked up from Scott’s comments about the man gave her the distinct impression that he wouldn’t be impressed.
And if anyone had asked Molly, she would have said she wasn’t ready to settle down yet, either.
Until she’d met Jeb, that was. There was something about him that made her want to get to know him, and she wasn’t about to ignore her inner voice.
And so, when Johnny had been helped into the deep armchair by the range and had fallen asleep, Molly had waited for a little while before quietly slipping out the door and making her way towards the fields.
Or at least that had been her intention. The arrival of five men on horseback and two baying hounds had changed her plans. One of the riders had forced her towards the pack and she found herself looking up at the man she instantly knew was Duprés. He looked at the girl in the inappropriate attire for a farm and knew instantly that he’d found one of his prey.
“I’m looking for a young black you may have been travelling with. Is he here?”
Molly looked frantically over her shoulder to see if anyone had noticed the arrival of these people but there was no sign of anyone in the near fields and the house door was firmly shut.
“W-who d’ya mean, Mister? Ain’t no blacks around here.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t take your word for it. From what I’ve heard, you’ve been closer to my slave than is decent for a young lady. Not that too many would call you a lady. Manson, Wilson, check the barn. You men, search that hovel.”
Duprés dismounted and grabbed Molly’s arm, twisting it cruelly behind her back. She cried out in pain and watched helplessly as the men moved to search for their quarry. She wondered where Jeb and Eli were, and whilst she longed for rescue, she prayed that they wouldn’t come barging in and get hurt. And she watched with her heart beating like that of a trapped animal as two of the men moved towards the house door.
“That’s far enough. Let the girl go or I’ll drop you where you stand, Mister.” Johnny’s voice was cold and deadly and for a moment Molly didn’t recognise him as the speaker. The barrel of Eli’s shotgun poked out through the partially open door.
“On the contrary, sir, I believe I hold the advantage. Drop your weapon or the girl will get hurt.” To back up his words, Duprés pulled Molly closer to his chest and shielded behind her. The way he gripped her arm she was unable to get free.
Inside the house, Annie and Johnny huddled together near the door. Johnny had the shotgun trained on Duprés but he couldn’t get a clear shot because of the girl. Agony coursed through his injured shoulder as he hefted the gun and sweat stung his eyes as he fought his persisting fever. And his hands shook more than he cared for. He shifted painfully as his left leg threatened to collapse under him and Annie searched around for something to support him.
He swore a blue streak in fluent Spanish and was glad when Annie didn’t seem to understand the words. This was what he’d been afraid of, and Duprés had him where he wanted him. There was no way he was going to risk the girl catching some buckshot. He had no choice but to step outside and hope to convince this man to ride away without any further violence.
“Annie, is there a back way out of here?”
The old woman nodded as she cast a worried look at him. “From the back bedroom. It hasn’t been used for many a year an’ we mightn’t be able to get the door to budge. You think we can get outta here an’ ambush them fellers?”
“Not we, Annie. I’m going to step out there and distract him. I want you to get out the back and stay hidden. Get to Eli if you can, but whatever you do, don’t let those men catch you. Something tells me they’re no respecters of age or gender.”
“Johnny, no! You can’t go out there unarmed, an’ ya can barely stay on yer feet. Them fellers is likely to shoot ya down without a thought. Can’t we wait here an’ Eli or the boy’ll come an’ help?”
Johnny shook his head as he shooed her towards the bedroom. “You don’t want anything to happen to them, do you? I’m just going to step out and talk to this fella. I’ll make him believe this is my farm and Molly’s my woman and with any luck he’ll just ride away. But you keep out of it, whatever happens.”
As he spoke, Johnny pointed to his gun belt on the table. “Shove that down behind the cushions and if luck’s on my side I might get a chance to retrieve it later.”
Annie hurried to follow his instructions as he kept the shotgun pointed towards the yard. He watched her as the scatter cushion was replaced and then turned his attention to the old woman who was once again beside him.
“Go on, Mamacita. I don’t want you gettin’ hurt.” His voice was soft and entreating, and Annie found she couldn’t deny the pleading in those sapphire eyes.
“An’ I don’t want you gettin’ hurt, either, boy. Don’t go provokin’ them fellers. I’ll get Eli an’ we’ll see what can be done.”
She crossed the short space between them and kissed him fondly on the cheek, caressing his other cheek with one work-roughened hand. Handing over her large broom she turned it upside down and he recognised her idea of a crutch.
Johnny fought the sudden lump in his throat at her display of affection. It made him all the more determined to step outside and prevent anything happening to her. He waited until she had disappeared into the bedroom then set the shotgun down.
Every step jarred straight through to the top of his head leaving him weak and dizzy but he squared his shoulders as much as his injuries would allow, and stepped clear of the door.
“Now I consider myself a civilised man, so I’ll give you another chance. Tell me where the boy is and I’ll let you and the little lady go.” Duprés regarded the young man in front of him.
When Johnny had limped from the house, Molly had cried out in both despair and hope. She didn’t really know what Johnny hoped to achieve by surrendering to this man, but it was a relief not to be alone in his clutches any more.
She watched in sympathy as he was hustled forward and forced to his knees before Duprés, the support of the broom wrenched from him. She could see the large beads of sweat on his too-pale forehead and a glazed look in those beautiful eyes, and knew it wouldn’t take much for Johnny to pass out. She watched as he caught his bottom lip in his teeth to stop his automatic cry of pain at the rough handling he was receiving.
Duprés handed her to Manson and stepped up to meet him.
“Where is my property, boy?”
“Don’t know what ya mean. This here’s private property, an’ you’re trespassing, Mister.” Johnny’s words of bravado had barely been delivered when Duprés’ riding crop landed on his left collarbone, stinging and numbing in equal effect. Johnny wondered if the bone was broken, but after a few moments sensation returned with a vengeance and he knew that it wasn’t. Yet!
“I’m not inclined to believe you. My slave ran from Cooper’s Crossing in the company of a saloon girl,” he indicated Molly, “and two other men, one of whom fits your description. And we followed a trail of blood. Seems to me you have hurt your leg.” Duprés pointed to Johnny’s left leg where the pant was partially opened to reveal the white of a bandage.
“Farmin’ accident. Dangerous places, farms. Never know what might happen to a man if he’s not careful around a farm.” The threat was thinly disguised, but Johnny didn’t care.
Duprés looked down his nose. There was something about this boy’s colouring that he didn’t like.
“What are you, boy?”
“Whaddya mean?” Johnny knew what the man was getting at but he wasn’t about to make things easy for him. He was torn between getting rid of him to keep Annie and Eli safe, and keeping him from chasing after Scott and Joshua. He also knew with a sudden cool insight that this bully who kept slaves illegally would be just another bigot in his young life who had no love for half-breeds.
“You’re too dark to be pure-bred. Are you part Negro?”
“Don’t see what business that is of yours, Mister. Like I said, there’s nobody here but Molly an’ me, an’ you’re trespassing.”
His arms were wrenched painfully behind his back and Johnny watched with a cool detachment that amazed even him as the riding crop descended towards his shoulder again. At this rate he wasn’t going to be using that arm for a very long time.
Whether Duprés intended it or not, this blow was harder and Johnny’s world lurched sickeningly as his collarbone shattered.
Duprés watched with clinical interest as the boy before him greyed and all but fainted. He noticed for the first time that the boy’s shirt wasn’t fastened all the way, and he glimpsed white bandaging peeping out. Stepping forward he ripped the shirt open and seized Johnny’s injured arm in a vice-like grip, wrenching a gasp of agony from the injured boy.
Johnny though he would be sick over this man’s fancy riding boots if he didn’t let go soon. His shoulder had really had more than enough with the bullet, but now that his collarbone was gone his world had descended into a sea of pain. A drumming in his ears let him know that he wasn’t going to take any further part in this conversation, just before his eyes turned up in his head and he went limp in Duprés’ clutches.
Scott and Joshua were making surprisingly good time, in spite of Joshua’s lack of horsemanship. What he lacked in style he made up for in enthusiasm and determination to stay on the horse’s back.
Charlie didn’t take too kindly to his mane being grasped quite so enthusiastically and the signals coming from his rider’s legs were confusing to say the least. But he doggedly followed his stable-mate as they travelled onward.
Not that he had much choice.
Scott had taken Charlie’s reins in his own hands, reckoning to make better time if Joshua didn’t have to worry about steering his mount as well as staying on. And if Barranca didn’t appreciate having Charlie at such close quarters, he uncharacteristically kept his objections to himself.
They cantered when they could, and walked when necessary to allow the horses to rest and recover. Only when it was absolutely necessary did they stop altogether, and then only for about 30 minutes. Scott knew he was pushing the horses hard, but the hairs on the back of his neck prickled with anxiety for Joshua, himself, but mostly for Johnny.
It had taken all his strength of character to leave his injured brother at that farm. He knew Johnny thought he’d convinced him that Joshua’s pursuers wouldn’t stop at Annie and Eli’s, but he knew differently. It would only be sensible to call at William’s Ridge, and the locals would have been quick to absolve themselves by pointing them in the direction of the Henderson’s. Scott could picture his headstrong brother squaring up to Duprés and his gang without any care for his own safety, and not for the first time did he curse their bad fortune at having stopped at Cooper’s Crossing in the first place.
He didn’t mean Joshua any ill-will, and now that he’d put his hand to this particular plough, he’d see the boy safely to Morro Coyo and get word to Lancer. Straight after that he’d be heading back to Johnny…and Heaven help that boy if he was any worse than when Scott had left him.
And so they rode on throughout the day, little conversation passing between them. Scott’s mind was firmly at that farm, and Joshua wasn’t all that talkative anyway, not being used to being allowed to speak in the presence of a white man. They finally stopped for the night at a creek and Scott watched in sympathy as the young black dismounted painfully. He was a mite stiff himself.
“We’ll catch a few hours’ rest and head out again before daybreak. I reckon we’re about 10 miles from Morro Coyo. That’s the closest town to my home, and you’ll be safe from Duprés there. My father is quite influential in the area and he’ll offer you refuge.” Scott unsaddled the horses and rubbed them down as best he could with their blankets before draping them over a rock to dry out. The horses looked around for feed and settled for munching on the succulent grass by the creek’s bank before enjoying a long, cool drink.
Joshua made himself useful by filling the canteens and gathering firewood. They took the risk of lighting a camp fire, hoping that they were far enough ahead of their pursuers to do it. In short time a pot of strong coffee was brewing and they were finishing off the last of the rations Annie had hurriedly packed for them. From here on in, it would be trail rations only, but one more day of that wouldn’t be insufferable.
“Why don’t you settle for the night, Joshua? I’ll waken you when it’s time to go.”
The young black looked at his companion with troubled eyes. “Mister Scott, if we’re that close to yo town, why don’t I set off there by m’self an’ you can head back to Mister Johnny? I reckon Mister Duprés done worked out where we stopped, an’ Mister Johnny an’ those good folks ain’t up ta fightin’ him off.”
Scott’s head was bowed as he studied the ground intently.
“I’m itching to get back there, but there’s no sense in going alone. I need to round up some help in Morro Coyo and even if you were to tell them I needed help, they wouldn’t know where to come and it would waste valuable time for them to have to find me. Much as I’d love to take you up on your offer, I have to keep with you. But we’ll make it long before tomorrow noon, a lot sooner if we get an early start. After that, nothing short of an earthquake will keep me from William’s Ridge and Henderson’s farm.”
Annie Henderson had never been so afraid in all her days, not even after her parents and older brother had passed away. She managed to push open the door from the rear bedroom and slither quietly outside, away from the sharp eyes of the newcomers. She had toyed with the idea of going back for the shotgun Johnny had left inside the house, but reckoned she’d probably get caught if she took the time and the risk.
So she gathered her skirts around her and ran as quickly as her shaky old legs would carry her. Recalling the conversation at the breakfast table, she knew that Eli and Jeb would be in the far pasture, well away from the house, and had most likely not seen or heard the arrival of their unwanted visitors.
It took a few moments to reach the field, and she was out of breath by the time she got there. Her brother watched with surprise as she stumbled towards them.
“Annie, what in tarnation’s gotten into ya, girl? Yer all bent outta shape an’ breathin’ like old bellows.” Eli put up a hand to steady his sister as she all but collapsed against him.
“J-Johnny an’ Molly…gotta help them…men here…”
Jeb grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her to face him, his sun-weathered countenance suddenly pale. “What about Johnny and Molly? Are they alright?”
Eli watched in surprise at the reaction of this quiet boy. “Take it easy, lad, take it easy. Give her a chance to catch her breath.”
Annie swallowed hard to moisten a suddenly bone-dry mouth. “Those varmints lookin’ for Joshua showed up an’ have Johnny an’ the girl. Johnny made me sneak out the back so’s I wouldn’t get caught. But Eli, you know he ain’t up to rough handlin’. We gotta help them.”
Eli pulled at some of the tall ears of corn around him as he fretted over what, if anything, they could do. He looked at the worried boy beside him. Jeb was young and impressionable, and had fallen hard for the pretty young thing riding with the three men who’d stopped at his farm. But he was a good lad and would want to help.
“Jeb, you think you could get outta here without goin’ past the house?”
The boy looked at the old man for a moment, wondering what he had planned. If it was simply to get him to leave in order to keep him safe, Jeb had other intentions on that score. He had never been tested for courage in anything like this, and he hoped he wasn’t going to be found wanting.
“Sure, Eli. Reckon I can do that. What ya want me to do, then?”
“Go to yer Grandpa’s place an’ see if he can rustle up some help. We ain’t gonna be able to take these men with not even a shotgun between us.”
Jeb instantly protested: “I don’t wanna leave you, Eli. What are you an’ Annie gonna do? Don’t go tryin’ to do somethin’ on yer own.”
“We’ll keep outta the way but I ain’t happy about lettin’ them varmints hold Johnny and the girl. We’ll just get closer an’ I’ll do my best to keep an eye on the girl for ya. Now git!” Eli slapped the boy on the shoulder to encourage him.
Jeb took off without further conversation, his heart pounding in case he got spotted and caught, but also in fear for Molly. In truth, he was worried for all of them: Johnny was too weak to be on his feet, never mind trying to fight, and Annie and Eli were too old.
He kept a keen eye on the men loitering around the house as he skirted around the back, towards the hills. Occasionally he thought someone was looking in his direction and he would hide in the tall grasses, but his luck held and he made it unchallenged to the steep hill that marked the edge of the Henderson farm. This was where he’d be most exposed and vulnerable to capture, but whatever was happening at the farm had grabbed the attention of Duprés’ men, and for that Jeb was thankful.
He took one last long look at the farm before disappearing towards his own home. He hoped and prayed that everyone would still be alive when he got back with help.
“Johnny…can you open your eyes for me, honey? Come on, try.”
Johnny struggled to the surface of consciousness as he dimly heard the soft voice calling to him. He ached in every bone of his body and really didn’t want to try opening his eyes in case they hurt, too. He couldn’t recall what had happened to have him feel the way he did. Had he been caught in a stampede? Or had he overdone it again at breaking fresh horses? Whatever the reason, he knew only too well he’d be getting a tongue lashing and a lot of fussing from his well-meaning but stifling family.
Reluctantly, he once again listened to that softly cajoling voice.
“Come on, honey. You need to take a drink of water for me.”
This must be Teresa. No-one else at Lancer would think of calling him honey. Maria would call him niño or chico or Juanito, and Jelly would call him Johnny-boy, and the voice was certainly too soft to belong to either father or brother.
“T’resa?” He swallowed hard against the dryness in his throat, that one stumbled name all he could manage. Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember ever hearing Teresa calling him honey, either.
“It’s Molly, honey. We’re still at the Henderson’s, don’t you remember? I need you to take a sip, Johnny. Can you try an’ help me?”
“Molly? W-what happened?” His eyes remained resolutely shut.
He half-heard a catch in the girl’s voice as she knelt close to him, her soft breath fanning his cheek, her hand caressing his forehead. He found the action soothing and hoped she wouldn’t stop, or insist that he open his eyes. All he wanted to do was lie here with his eyes firmly shut and will away this new agony.
“That man who’s after Joshua showed up an’ started throwin’ his weight around. After he attacked you, you passed out. They threw you in here an’. . .”
The tailing off of the girl’s conversation filtered slowly through Johnny’s fog and he forced open one eye to look at her. Molly’s luxuriant curls were bedraggled and hanging around her face but he glimpsed one bruised and tear-stained cheek.
“What did…they do, Molly?” His heart ached for this girl. He knew she enjoyed the company of men, but that was her choice, and no woman deserved the forced, unwelcome advances of any man.
Sensing what he meant, she turned her face full on to him and gave him her best smile, in spite of torn lips.
“Not what you’re thinkin’, thank God. When you passed out, Duprés turned his attention on me, demandin’ to know where his slave was. Johnny, you should have heard how he talked about Joshua, like he was filth on his ridin’ boots.”
She lowered her head as she recalled the vicious beating Duprés had meted out to her.
“I’m sorry, Johnny. I tried not to tell them anythin’, but he just kept on hittin’ an’ hittin’. I couldn’t__”
“It’s alright, querida. Just tell me what you told him.” Johnny forced his battered body to respond to demand and struggled to a sitting position and swung shaky legs over the edge of the bed he was lying on, surprised that his attackers had even had that much thought for him. He couldn’t quite bite back a groan as his left shoulder screamed at him. That simple movement left him dizzy and nauseated.
“I told them truthfully that I didn’t know where Joshua was, but he wouldn’t let it go. He worried at it an’ threatened to throw me to his dogs, so…” she took a deep breath to get through the next part, “I had to tell him they were headin’ for Lancer. Johnny, I’m so sorry.”
Johnny’s head was bowed as he listened to the girl’s confession. He didn’t hold any spite against her. She had been placed in a no-win situation and no-one should have been expected to hold out against such abuse, especially a slip of a girl. He reached out shakily with his right hand and caressed her bruised cheek. She turned her torn lips into his palm and kissed it and he could feel the wetness of tears.
“It’s alright, miel. Don’t fret. You shouldn’t have had to face that. Bet you’re sorry you tagged along, now.” He squinted towards the kitchen and tried to find some sign of the whereabouts of the elderly brother and sister who should be here. “Where’s Eli and Annie, Molly? Have you seen them?”
It seemed to suddenly occur to the sobbing girl that the Hendersons were missing. She rose to her feet and ran to a window, pulling back the drapes.
“I completely forgot about them, Johnny, and. . .” she stopped, appalled at her next thought. “Do you think they’re alright? And Jeb was with Eli. . .oh Johnny, what are we goin’ to do?”
“How long was I out for?” He tried to ease his aching shoulder but couldn’t seem to find a comfortable position.
“Not long. One of the men with Duprés pulled him off you when you collapsed, sayin’ they didn’t want you dead. Then Duprés started in on me an’ later they brought us in here. The man, I heard Duprés calling him something like Mason, he put you on the bed an’ gave me some cold water an’ a cloth for my mouth.”
“What happened then?”
“I couldn’t be sure, bein’ in here an’ all, but I heard some of them leavin’, but those dogs are still here.” She shivered as she recalled Duprés’ threat to have his dogs let loose on her. She’d been scared by a dog when she’d been a child and the fear had never left her. If it hadn’t been for the threat of them, she might not have given in to that bully. The fact that she had, soured her stomach in spite of Johnny’s understanding.
Johnny took a steadying breath. “Molly, I need to stand up. Can you help me?”
“I don’t think you should be doin’ that, Johnny. You’re like as not to fall down again, an’ I couldn’t lift you if you did.”
He bit his lip in determination and eased to the edge of the bed, intent to stand with or without her help. Seeing his intentions, the girl slipped in beside him and passed her arm around his waist, slotting her left shoulder under his right arm.
“Okay cowboy, if you’re all bent on doin’ this, let me help. Now where are ya plannin’ on goin’?”
“Just to the window. I want to get a feel for what’s happenin’ out there, how many men are still here, an’ where the Henderson’s are.”
A shout from outside drew both heads up and the door suddenly and violently opened. Johnny gasped as he recognised the bloodied face of Eli Henderson as the man staggered into the room. Behind him came his sister. Annie was pale and stifling a sob but to Johnny’s immense relief the old woman appeared to be unharmed.
“Thought you folks would like to get re-acquainted. Mr Duprés is waiting for word from your pa.” This was addressed to Johnny before the snarling man continued: “We’ve sent him word to return the slave or he gets his boy back, bit by bit!” The man chortled loudly in appreciation of his own humour and slammed the door shut behind him.
He must have thought better of his parting shot as the door opened once again.
“Oh, and in case you’d any thoughts about that mighty nice rig you hid. . .don’t.” he brandished a gun and to Johnny’s dismay he recognised his own piece.
This seemed to sap Johnny’s dwindling strength and he staggered to the kitchen table and eased wearily onto one of the hard chairs. Eli sat opposite him, holding a hankie to the cut above his eye. Annie shook her head sadly as she looked at their raggedy group. She set about finding water and bandages as she realised that she was the only unscathed person in the room.
Molly stepped away from Johnny’s side and moved to help the older woman who turned worried eyes on her.
“Oh child, what have they done to that pretty face? Let me see. . .now hold still, this might sting some…there, that’s a bit better. Now take this cloth and wash Eli’s face, an’ then wrap his foolish head in that bandage. I need to see to Johnny before he falls on his own pretty face.”
Johnny could sense there was some tension between brother and sister. He looked at his ministering angel with amusement that he managed to drag up from somewhere.
“Don’t you come near me if you’re brewin’ a temper, Annie Henderson. I’m hurtin’ enough without a chewin’ out from you. An’ I thought I told you to stay away from here?”
Annie cupped his chin in her wrinkled hand, and frowned at the signs of pain he couldn’t hide.
“We’re here thanks to that stubborn brother of mine. Thought he could flush one or two of them varmints out with his charm alone. Stepped right up to them an’ bid them the time of day, askin’ for directions like he was a stranger. They just lit on him an’ dragged him to that fancy-dudded man, an’ he swung at Eli’s head with that stick o’ his. Well, headstrong or fool-headed, whatever you call him, Eli’s my brother an’ I wasn’t about to let no fancy pants hit him, not if I got there first! So I ran at him, screamin’ like, but two of them just laughed an’ grabbed me most ungentlemanlike, an’ here we all are.”
All this had been delivered as she eased Johnny’s shirt off his back. She sucked in her cheeks at the fresh blood on the bandages, but what drew her attention was the heavy black and purple bruising over his left collarbone and the way his arm sagged.
“Got you good, boy, that he did,” she cooed softly, her gentle eyes brimming with unshed tears. “I’ll have to find somethin’ to bind up that arm tighter. You just sit there an’ don’t move.” She ran soothing fingers through his dark hair.
“Don’t think I can move, Annie, but I’m sorry about all of this. We should never have stopped here.” Johnny’s face was ashen and his brow wreathed in sweat, the simple act of shedding his shirt having almost made him pass out again.
“If’n ya hadn’t, you’d be dead by now, sonny. Yer brother made the right choice at the time. An’ I saw what that varmint did to you, an’ him hittin’ the girl. I may not be Annie’s idea of a bright spark, but I ain’t about to watch as a man beats up on girls and hurtin’ young un’s, no siree! What sort of man would that make me? ” Eli spoke around the swathing Molly was wrapping him in. “Now don’t go fussin’ yerself. I got the boy away, an’ he’ll try an’ bring some help.”
“Jeb’s safe? Oh thank God!” Molly exclaimed, accidentally jostling the older man. Eli reached up a kindly hand and patted her shoulder.
Johnny sighed heavily and looked around at his little army. “I don’t want any more people thinking they can tackle this man. As soon as it gets dark, Eli, I want you and the women to get out that back door and stay out. I can’t defend you, and I surely don’t want anybody gettin’ hurt on my account.” Johnny grimaced as Annie took his left hand in hers and wrapped a long thin piece of bandaging around it, then passed the long end gently around his neck.
“Hush, boy, that’s foolish talk. We ain’t about to be driven from our own home by the likes of himself. An’ you ain’t stayin’ here alone to fight him off. Right about now you couldn’t fight yer shadow an’ win. Now hold still, this is likely to hurt some.” As Annie spoke she gently pulled the two ends of the bandage towards each other, gradually bringing Johnny’s wrist higher, until his forearm ended at right angles to his shoulder.
She watched in sympathy as he paled even more and caught his bottom lip between white teeth. His eyes screwed tightly shut as he blocked out the tipsy-topsy room and fought the rebellion taking place in his stomach. He really needed to lie down, just for a while, and the conversation around him faded to a buzz, words no longer coherent as he concentrated all of his being into not passing out. He reckoned if he did pass out he would likely hit the floor, and he really didn’t want to do that anytime soon.
Duprés joined them in the small house some time later and looked around in disdain at what he clearly thought of as a hovel.
“Fix me some food, woman,” he addressed Annie and she bit her lip but set about preparing some stew. By her reckoning, Johnny and Eli needed some nourishment anyway. Her brother had a slightly glazed look in his eye and she suspected that he had a mild concussion, even though he hadn’t lost consciousness from Duprés’ blow. But Johnny was drifting in an out of awareness, not exactly unconscious, but definitely dazed. She knew it was blood loss as well as the agony he had to be in from his various injuries, and longed to be able to get him back into bed.
“Mister, you got no right to be abusin’ folks the way you do. This boy’s likely to be dead afore his pappy gets here if’n ya don’t let him rest.”
“Shut up, woman, and get on with what you’re told. I don’t care if he’s alive or dead, as long as his father trades my property back. If he dies, I’ve still got you three. After I get what’s mine you can all get on with your sad pathetic little lives and I can get back to a degree of civilisation. Now as it looks like we will be spending a few nights here, we’ll have to discuss the sleeping arrangements…”
The following morning Scott and Joshua were on the road before dawn. Joshua was making slightly better progress in staying in the saddle but for speed, Scott still took Charlie’s reins.
The young black still adamantly told himself that he and horses would soon permanently part company, but for now he had made a mental pact with this sturdy animal. If the horse didn’t throw him off or try to bite him, Joshua would ease up on the death grip he had on Charlie’s sides.
Scott’s mind was elsewhere as they eventually rode through Morro Coyo, their first sign of a town for the last few barren miles. He didn’t intend to halt here as he was anxious to get to Lancer.
And I can get back to Johnny, Scott thought to himself.
They rode on through the dusty street, with Scott responding briefly to one or two hails of greeting, but nothing and no-one was going to delay him that day.
In the street, a wagon rolled through town, the two grey-haired occupants of the bench engrossed in conversation. It wasn’t until they’d pulled up nearly outside the general store that the men bothered to look about them.
“Boss,” the smaller one spoke, “ain’t that Barranca an’ Charlie?”
Murdoch Lancer followed the outstretched finger of his good friend’s hand and nodded as he looked at his sons’ mounts as they headed away from them.
“I believe you’re right, Jelly. Now who do you suppose that is on Charlie, and why is Scott riding Barranca? And just WHERE is Johnny?”
“Maybe he’s stoppin’ off in town fer a drink, if’n they’s bin ridin’ double-like. Why don’t we catch them up an’ ask that young feller who he is, right out?” Jelly removed his peaked cap and scratched at his sparse hair.
Murdoch shook his head at the old horse wrangler’s lack of tact. But he was as curious, if not more-so, to know his son’s whereabouts. He raised his voice and called out to the retreating figures.
“SCOTT! Hold up, son!”
Scott Lancer’s heart took a definite climb out of the Doldrums as he heard and recognised his father’s deep baritone. This would save precious time having his father here. Now they could start immediately for the Henderson farm, and find out what sort of state the youngest Lancer was in.
He grabbed Charlie’s reins tighter and halted their mounts. He turned in the saddle, grinning tiredly at the two men approaching, and raised a hand in greeting.
“Murdoch, Jelly, am I glad to see you! This is__”
“Where’s Johnny, Scott? He buyin’ out the store?” Jelly interrupted, impatient to see his young friend.
Scott’s head went down in a gesture so like Johnny’s that Murdoch’s heart took a jolt. Something told him that Johnny wasn’t simply dawdling in the general store or even the saloon. In fact, that niggling worry told him he’d be more than happy to have it as simple as that. It was Scott’s air of concern that he picked up on.
Placing one giant hand on his son’s leg, he gestured for the tired man to dismount and follow him towards the small restaurant. Both Scott and his travelling companion were sheathed in dust, and fatigue was dripping from them like rain water.
“Son, why don’t you fill us in on what’s happening. Is this young man with you?” He indicated Joshua who was still clinging resolutely to Charlie’s saddle.
Scott nodded as he took a swallow with a suddenly dry mouth.
Murdoch clasped his shoulder gently, anxious to hear what Scott had to say but keenly aware that his normally composed elder son was very worried about something. “Why don’t we have a cup of coffee? You both look as if you’re ready to fall over and could do with something beneath you that isn’t moving. You can introduce your friend and tell us where your brother is.”
A few moments later the two Lancers, Jelly and a reluctant Joshua were seated around one of the small tables in the corner of Morro Coyo’s only restaurant.
Jelly’s eyes darted back and forth between Scott and the other young man as he listened to Scott recounting their adventure. Murdoch remained grim-faced and silent as he heard of yet more injury and misfortune befalling his younger son. He realised that this had come about because of his lion-hearted sons wanting to help someone in need, and in spite of the gravity of the situation, he was proud of them and their actions.
He turned to Joshua and gave him a reassuring smile.
“Scott’s right, Joshua. You are indeed a free man. But your former master has broken the law in at least that much by keeping you and the others as slaves. You can stay safely on Lancer until we can get this legally settled. Jelly, I want you to take Joshua and the wagon and head home. You’d best take Barranca and Charlie back, too. They’ve done their bit but we’ll make better time on fresh horses from the Livery. Scott and I will ride to Green River and get Val to ride with us.”
“It might not be a bad idea for Sam to come, too, if he’s there. Johnny had lost a lot of blood and his fever wasn’t completely gone.” Scott couldn’t disguise either his impatience to be on their way, or his worry for his brother.
Murdoch nodded his agreement.
“I wanna come, too, Murdoch. You know how much Johnny means to me. Why, he’s closer to kin nearly than even my sister, an’ she’s mighty close.” Jelly’s chin jutted out obstinately in anticipation of an argument.
“I know you want to be there, Jelly, but driving the wagon would only take too long and besides, I need you to see Joshua to the ranch. Everything they’ve been through has been to get this boy to safety, and I’d be failing Johnny if we fell at the last hurdle.”
Murdoch sighed as he recognised the sadness in his old friend’s eyes. He was constantly amazed at the closeness Johnny and this curmudgeonly old man had forged, almost like two lost souls united through shared sufferings. Johnny had been rescued once by the raggle-taggle group of boys Jelly had been struggling to look after, and after they’d all been rehomed, Jelly had stayed on at Lancer.
“Alrighty, but if Johnny’s hurtin’ like ya say, maybe I should follow on with the wagon as soon as I get Joshua to Cipriano. Scott, you just let me know how to find this Henderson place an’ I’ll be there, maybe even afore ya!”
If any of the travellers heading for the Henderson place had been able to see inside that small house, they’d have spurred their borrowed mounts even faster.
Johnny had been bound hand and foot, a position he had found most uncomfortable with his injured shoulder and leg. He’d been forced into that position at gunpoint the previous night and had no option but to comply; either that or risk further injury. Apart from an initial gasp of agony he’d suffered in silence, reluctant to give these men the satisfaction of witnessing his pain. In spite of his pain, he’d eventually fallen into a semi-conscious state during the course of the night.
Eli had been similarly tied and the old man now lay on his side on the wooden floor, inches from Johnny’s unmoving form. A bruised laceration above the farmer’s eyebrow was testimony to the previous day’s heroics.
Annie and Molly had been spared the ignominy of being tied up, but only so that they could fetch and carry, and cook. At first, Johnny had feared that Duprés or one of his men might try and force himself on one or other of the women, most likely the girl, but thankfully they had escaped that fate, so far. Had they done so there would have been nothing he could have done to prevent it, trussed as he was.
As soon as Eli and Johnny had been secured, Duprés had claimed one of the beds, giving it a sneering inspection before deigning to lie on top of the blankets. Manson and the other man had been posted to spell each other as guards and the house had shut down for the night.
Molly and Annie had asked to be allowed to see to Johnny and Eli, but had been refused, and had settled on the hard chairs at the table as best they could.
So now the long, painful night was over.
“Get that pan on, woman; I like my eggs sunny side up.” Duprés’ less than welcome voice boomed from the bedroom as he yawned and scratched his way into the kitchen area.
“An’ what makes ya think I’m gonna cook fer the likes of you?” Annie’s spunkiness wakened ready and spoiling for a fight.
Neither she nor her brother had slept much last night, her less than him as he was mildly dazed from his head injury. But both had kept keen ears peeled to the sounds of the outside world, hoping against hope that Jeb had been able to convince his grandfather and some others to mount some form of offensive against these men. It had been a long shot, they realised, as Zack, Jeb’s Grandpa, was nearly as ancient as Eli and not up to scampering around in the dark playing at heroes. At least they had got the boy safely out of it. Zack and his family were friends.
“You’ll do what you’re bid, woman, or I’ll have to convince you.” Duprés raised his cane in a meaningful gesture.
“It takes a big man to hit a woman,” she fired, her loathing of him overcoming her sense of self-preservation.
“I won’t lay a finger on you, but you seem mighty concerned about these others. Who should I start with? The old man? The girl? This breed?” He indicated Johnny whom he was now standing over. Seeing her outraged expression, Duprés allowed himself a smug grin. “I know exactly how to pull your strings, and don’t you forget it. Now get that breakfast made, and no more arguments.”
Molly roused from her uncomfortable position at the table and moved towards Johnny and Eli. Duprés caught her arm as she moved past him.
“Who told you to go near them?”
“You’re plannin’ on tradin’ Johnny for Joshua, so I thought ya might want him alive.”
Manson moved from the window and regarded the two men lying on the floor. Eli was awake and glaring at them, but Johnny hadn’t moved in several hours. He knelt and touched the boy’s forehead.
“He’s burning up, Mr Duprés. I think we should at least get him onto the bed and let them look after him.”
“Going soft on me, Manson? I thought better of you than that.” Duprés’ face was purple and ugly with anger.
“Mr Duprés, I agreed to help you get your property back, but I ain’t killed a man before, and I’m not about to start. This boy’s sick and needs proper attention.”
After a moment’s thought, Duprés nodded curtly. Manson untied Johnny’s bindings and he and Wilson, the third man, lifted him onto the bed in the first bedroom. Molly scampered in behind them with a bowl of cool water and a cloth. Annie made to follow them but Duprés just laughed as he held her back with his ever-present cane.
Manson settled on the chair and kept an eye peeled, just in case the boy had been playing possum as Wilson returned to the kitchen.
Molly smiled coyly at him. “Thank you for speakin’ up for Johnny. It was very good of ya to take the risk.” She shuddered suddenly as the full weight of their predicament hit her, tiredly swiping at a loose lock of hair as it hung into her eyes.
Manson looked more closely at the slip of a girl tending to the injured cowboy and admired how she tried to overcome her own fears to put the boy first. He turned his attention to the figure on the bed and saw the flush of fever on the tanned cheeks.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“You mean besides the broken bone that. . .animal you’re ridin’ with give him?”
“We helped Joshua escape from a town where they didn’t take to darkies, an’ Johnny stopped two bullets for his trouble. He’d only got over that fever when you showed up.”
Manson’s eyebrows rose at her words. “Why did he let himself get shot for a slave?”
Molly looked at the man pityingly. “Just what backwater have you been livin’ in, Mister? Scott says slavin’s been against the law for years now. You’re boss is no more Joshua’s master than I am. That boy’s as free as you, but come to think of it, the way he’s got you jumpin’ to his tune you look like you’re one of Duprés’ slaves, too. Are you ready to go to jail for him, ‘cause that’s what’ll happen when the law gets here?”
Manson sat back in the chair as the girl’s words penetrated. He *had* suspected that Duprés was outside the law, but any time he’d questioned him about it, Duprés had clipped him on the ear with that ever-present cane and he’d learned to keep a civil tongue. Now in the cold light of day, he examined his past and immediate future and didn’t like what he saw.
Molly watched him out of the corner of her eye as she tended to Johnny, but Manson made no further comment. Turning her attention back to Johnny, she tutted as she noticed the heavily blood-stained bandage over his left shoulder. She rolled him onto his right side with some effort and stripped the soiled bandaging away, sighing at the sight of the inflamed skin.
“He really didn’t need that smack on his shoulder. He’s been through enough.” She snatched at the words, determined to keep the sob under wraps in front of the enemy. Rinsing the cloth she swabbed away the dried blood and placed a clean pad against the wound. On her own she couldn’t re-bandage him and would have to allow the pressure of him lying on his back to keep the wadding in place. His left arm was leaden and the skin over the collar bone was black and the bone misshapen. She took one of the pillows from under his head and placed it gently beneath his left elbow, raising the injured arm to a slightly elevated position. Once she was happy with the arm’s position she reapplied the support she’d watched Annie apply the previous evening. At least his arm looked more comfortable, but she knew that as soon as Johnny wakened, he would be in agony.
The leg wound had fared much better and seemed to be healing.
//’So much for that, anyway.’//
Manson sat and fretted over what the girl had said. He’d been an employee of Duprés’ for six years and although the man was a bully and all too handy with that cane of his, he’d always treated him reasonably well. The Duprés farm was well away from towns and other homes and Duprés tended to mix only with his own type, swapping notes on this and that, but never including Manson in their discussions. Although Manson was his foreman, he never got to take any dealings with the hiring or firing of workers, and if he’d wondered from time to time how Duprés had managed to attract so many blacks, he’d decided it was in his own best interest to ignore their status.
But now that the situation had spiralled out of control, for the first time Manson was truly concerned. There was no way he was going to stand by and watch his boss order them to kill people, and he certainly wasn’t going to go to prison for him.
“If I can get you out of here, can you get help?” He spoke quietly in Molly’s ear, causing her to jump slightly, so intent was she on her ministrations to Johnny that she hadn’t noticed his approach.
She bit her lip in thought. Whilst the idea of leaving Johnny and the old couple filled her with dread, the idea of getting out of there and maybe being able to fetch help was tempting. She had almost decided when Johnny decided to rejoin the living. He moaned softly and his eyes darted back and forth behind closed lids. She bent over, bringing her mouth close to his ear.
“Johnny, honey…come on, that’s it, open them baby blues for Molly.”
He heard her cajoling voice, but Johnny remembered vaguely how he’d felt the last time he’d opened his ‘baby blues’…and he’d have to take her to task on that particular description. It wouldn’t do Johnny Madrid’s reputation much good to be referred to as ‘Baby blue’!
With a sigh that instantly turned into a groan he peeled open one eye, his right hand snaking down his thigh in search of his pistol. Failing to find it brought home the reality of the situation and he reluctantly opened both eyes to look into Molly’s worried face.
“Hey, querida…¿qúe pasa?”
Molly didn’t speak Spanish but she thought she’d recognise that question in any language.
“You passed out again an’ this man,” she indicated Manson standing behind her, “got Duprés to let us bring you in here. How ya feelin’, honey?”
Johnny tried moving into a more comfortable position and discovered that there wasn’t one to be found. Even the slightest movement brought the broken ends of his collarbone grating together and he clamped his teeth shut to stop the scream that was building in his throat from escaping. But he couldn’t prevent the beads of sweat erupting on his forehead, above his lip, on his throat and in the small of his back. He’d known many forms of injury before, and could usually convince himself to keep moving through the pain, but this injury, coupled with the bullet wounds, seemed to have sapped his strength completely. He lay back with a groan and shut his eyes again.
“Lo siento, querida…don’t feel so good.”
“Mr Lancer, perhaps you can persuade the girl to allow me to help her escape and get help.” Manson edged right up to the mattress. He spoke barely above a whisper, anxious in case he was overheard from the kitchen.
Johnny opened weary eyes and regarded the speaker in surprise. “Now why should we trust you?” His reply was also in whisper form, uncertain as to why the man was speaking so quietly, but instinctively going along with it.
“The way I see it, you’ve nothing to lose and little option,” Manson whispered. “I’ve decided I don’t like how things are shaping up, here, and I’ll try to stay Mr Duprés’ hand from any further violence, but he has a reputation for…er…spoiling young girls, if you understand my meaning. Last night he was tired. Today she might not be so lucky.” He nodded at Molly whose eyes had widened at his words.
Johnny raised his right hand tiredly and Molly stepped forward and clutched it in her two smaller ones, alarmed at the heat coming from him.
“Go, Molly…don’t want that happenin’…get outta here, please.”
“Johnny, ya know I ain’t pure any longer, but…”
“Girl’s gotta right…to choose her…own bedfellows, Molly… Head north…maybe see Scott comin’…” The talk was too much for Johnny’s dwindling strength and he dropped his hand back onto the mattress, exhausted.
Tears flowed down Molly’s bruised and dirty cheeks, tracing little paths down each side of her full lips and she turned away to wipe them on her skirt. Regaining some measure of composure she replaced the cool cloth on Johnny’s forehead and kissed him gently on the lips. He’d drifted off again and she caressed his cheek sadly before nodding at Manson. She led the way from the bedroom as they made their way back to the small living area.
Eli was by now sitting at the table, his hands bound in front of him, but looking much better. Annie was cooking breakfast and Duprés was picking at his fingernails with a small pocket knife. Molly crossed to help Annie and the older woman raised anxious eyes towards her, tacitly asking of Johnny’s wellbeing. The girl shook her head and both women sighed. Annie took the plate of cooked ham, eggs and fried breads and set it before Duprés, resisting the temptation to dump it all in his lap. She returned to the range to serve up more food and Molly spoke quietly to her, nodding in Manson’s direction.
“That man wants to help me get away, Annie. Johnny’s in a bad way an’ we need to get help. Whaddya think?”
“Stop that whispering!” Duprés’ bellow caused both women to jump apart guiltily.
“We were just talkin’ about gettin’ more vittles from the back bedroom. You’ll be wantin’ food later on, an’ we only keep a small supply in the kitchen. If’n ya want fed, ya gotta let the girl an’ me fetch more.”
Manson moved from where he’d been pouring himself a cup of coffee. “I’ll keep an eye on them, Mr Duprés.”
Duprés nodded sourly, his patience with the squawking women wearing thin as it was. “Very well, take as much time as you like if it gives me some peace. Here, fill this up before you go!” He held out his empty mug and Molly meekly filled it to the brim, tempted to scald him in the process.
The two women and Manson moved to the rear bedroom where Annie showed them the hidden doorway she’d used the last time. Molly’s heart soared at the thought of getting away, but she knew she couldn’t go right now. Duprés would have to be distracted at some stage in order for her to slip unnoticed into this room. They gathered up some supplies and returned to the kitchen, with Annie casting a concerned glance in on Johnny’s sleeping form as they passed his room.
Scott and Murdoch had hired fresh mounts from the Livery and were now on their way to Green River. It was a small detour from the route they’d eventually be taking, but they both felt the need of the weight of the Law behind them when they confronted Joshua’s self-appointed ‘master’.
Val Crawford was at his desk, as usual a heavily littered desk, and his dusty boots were propped up on the edge as he reclined in his chair with a coffee mug in his hand. The sound of the door opening caused him to open one eye and when he recognised his visitors he swung his feet to the ground and rose to greet them.
“Mr Lancer…Scott, what brings you to Green River?”
“Sheriff, we could use your help on a matter of Law.” Murdoch cast an exasperated glance around the untidy office. Val Crawford was a good sheriff, and an honest man, but he was SURELY the most untidy man Murdoch had ever met.
Scott carefully shifted several bundles of papers and sat one hip on the edge of the desk.
Val regarded his visitors and noticed an edge about them. The air of impatience was common enough to the brusque Scot but his elder son was normally much calmer than either his father or volatile younger brother. Speaking of younger brothers…
“Ok boys, let’s hear all about it. If this is somethin’ I can help ya with, I will. How’s Johnny, by the way? Haven’t seen him for a few weeks.”
“We were on a cattle drive and ran into a spot of bother. I’ll tell you all about it.” He turned to his impatiently pacing father. “Sir, why don’t you see if you can find Sam? That way, we can be ready to go sooner.” Murdoch nodded his agreement.
“He was headin’ for the Sandford ranch this mornin’. Old man Sandford near took his foot off with that new saw of his. Don’t think he’s back yet, but ya can try. So you were on a drive__” Val left the sentence open for Scott to jump in.
Murdoch left the sheriff’s office and crossed towards the contrastingly neat office of their good friend Doctor Sam Jenkins. The door was locked and the hastily written sign stuck to the window confirmed Val’s story. Murdoch sighed in frustration at the delay. Scott had convinced him that it would be desirable to have Sam along for when they met up with Johnny, and Scott wasn’t given to exaggeration.
He sat for a while on a seat on the boardwalk, watching the world struggle by, and wondering how things were with his missing son. It ate at his nerves to know that the boy was hurt and far from home. Of course, if there was any man on this earth more capable of taking care of himself even when hurt, it was Johnny Lancer. He’d survived too many previous injuries without anyone to help, but things were different now. He had a family to look after him, if they could just get him home.
“I find that pretty darned disgustin’, Scott, but technically I can’t touch him. He’s in another county an’ I don’t have any jurisdiction down there. If ya got him to cross the county line an’ commit an offence, *then* I could arrest him, but not where he’s at. An’ ya don’t even know where exactly he *is* at, yet. Do ya?”
Scott sighed as he shook his head. Johnny had tried to convince him that Joshua’s pursuers wouldn’t stop at the Henderson farm, and Scott had allowed him to think he was convinced simply to get Joshua away. But all the while it had niggled at Scott’s mind, knowing that the old brother and sister, a slip of a girl and a decidedly under-par ex-gunslinger were no match for a ruthless hunting party. Logic told him that if Duprés turned up at the farm and found signs that his prey had been there, he’d make it his base before spreading out his reach like tentacles to embroil the Lancer family in his wickedness.
“Call it instinct, Val. I’ve picked it up from Johnny. We stopped a few times, not for long, but if Joshua’s right, these men weren’t very far behind him. They could easily have crossed the county line by now, and you could take them in for questioning. And if they’re still at the farm, the chances are you’ll have more than enough reason to arrest them!” That last thought brought grim looks to both faces.
“Alright, alright. If Johnny’s involved, more’n likely I’ll have to arrest *somebody*! I’ll go saddle my horse an’ meet ya in ten minutes. Go see if yer pa’s had any luck with Doc Jenkins. Now git!”
Scott gave him a grateful smile as he exited the office. Looking across, he spotted his father sitting on the hard-backed chair outside the doctor’s office. Of course, the reason for that might have been that Sam was treating someone and Murdoch was giving them some privacy. Scott stepped into the street and crossed to stand beside his father.
Murdoch’s gaze rose from examining the toes of his boots.
“He’s not back, yet. I’ve been sitting here wondering should I ride out to the Sandford ranch and see how long he’s likely to be.”
Scott kicked at the boardwalk in frustration. He hated the idea of not bringing Johnny the medical help he needed, but this delay was alarming him even more.
“I don’t know, sir. I think that might take too long. Val’s ready to go, and if we delay to wait for Sam, we might not get either man to come with us. Much as I want Sam there, I think we should leave him a note and directions, and hope that he feels he can get away. I suppose it’s a bit much expecting him to abandon everyone else to ride almost 70 miles to see to Johnny. It’s your call…”
Murdoch thought back to that moment 10 months ago when he’d met his two sons together for the first time and had offered them equal partnerships in the ranch if they stayed and fought for it. At the time he’d made it abundantly clear that it was *him* who called the shots. This was one of those times when he’d have dearly loved there to be a democratic vote. The responsibility weighed heavily on his shoulders.
“I vote that we go without him. We’ll leave a note and if he can get away, we both know that Sam will do everything he can to find us.” He looked in the direction of the livery and saw Val riding towards them. “Let’s go, and hopefully when we catch up with your brother, Sam won’t be needed.”
Jelly watched as Scott and Murdoch rode out on their hired horses, then set about getting the purchases he and Murdoch had come to town for in the first place. He talked Joshua into helping to load the wagon and was almost through with his order when he noticed that the young black hadn’t reappeared for the last few packages. Scratching his head, the old wrangler stepped out onto the boardwalk, expecting to see Joshua perhaps resting against the wheel of the wagon. What he saw instead took his breath away.
The wagon sat with the tailgate down and most of their purchases neatly stacked in the back. But where there should have also been two Lancer horses, there stood only Barranca. Jelly looked up and down the small dusty street for any sign of the boy or Charlie, but although there was plenty of traffic, it didn’t include what he was hoping to see. Señor Baldomero came out of the store with the last of Jelly’s purchases and Jelly swung round to look at him.
“Didya see where that young black feller went that was with me?”
Miguel Baldomero shook his head sadly, as he could see that Jelly was working himself into a lather.
“Lo siento, Señor Jelly, but I did not. He was helping you and then…he wasn’t. Perhaps he took the caballo to the livery, no?”
“Yeah, maybe, an’ he ain’t too happy ‘round horses so he wouldn’t take them both. I’ll settle up with ya in a minute, I just need to find him or Murdoch’ll hang my hide out fer the crows. ‘Scuse me!”
He took off at a run towards the livery and threw open the side door. Inside, the air was still and warm and the two occupants of the stalls regarded him with mild curiosity. He slapped his battered cap against his leg as he regarded the strange horses. Obviously Joshua *hadn’t* brought Scott’s horse here, so he and Charlie were somewhere else entirely.
//Blamed fool, where’s he at? All the trouble those boys went through to get him here, an’ at the first chance he takes off. Question is, what direction did he go?//
He stepped out into the street again and moved slowly back to the wagon. Miguel Baldomero had finished loading the packages for him and he settled the account, thankful that in their haste, Murdoch had actually remembered to give him the cash.
“Howdy, Jelly. Warm day, innit?” Pete Waterson the liveryman rode slowly up the street and greeted the old wrangler. Lancer did good business with Pete and it always paid to keep them happy.
Jelly looked up and acknowledged the man with a distracted nod. “Sure, Pete, an’ Mr Lancer borrowed two of your horses. He’ll square you up when he gets back in a day or two.”
“No problem, Jelly. Oh, an’ I saw a horse just now, just like Scott’s, headin’ south. You tell him if he ever wants to get a pair, there’s a young black feller hereabouts with one like it. Only thing is, he don’t look like he could handle it so good, an’ Scott could probably buy it fer a dollar or two. Funniest thing I ever saw the way his arms an’ legs was flailin’ around like that__”
Jelly almost grabbed Pete’s horse’s reins as he ran forward. “Say that again…”
And Pete did, almost word for word and as the facts settled on Jelly’s heated brain he realised the significance of what he was hearing. Joshua hadn’t simply stolen Charlie to make good his escape; he was heading after Scott and Murdoch, for whatever reason he thought right.
“Darned fool! There’s gonna be hell to pay when he catches up with Murdoch an’ Scott. An’ I didn’t even think he liked horses. Sure seems ta have gotten over that pretty darned quick!”
“Jelly, you ok?” Pete watched the emotions flying across the bewhiskered face of the Lancer hand and tried to make sense of what was being said.
“Gonna need another horse, Pete, an’ can ya take care of Barranca and Zanzibar for a few days?” Jelly indicated the horse attached to the wagon.
Having secured the hire of a fresh mount and arranged the storage of the wagon and packages, Jelly headed as quickly as possible after the fleeing Negro and Scott’s horse. He wasn’t looking forward to catching up with the Lancer patriarch, though! No siree, not one little bit!
Jelly was a proficient enough rider to easily catch Joshua and his stolen mount after about 5 minutes. He watched with amusement diluting his annoyance as the young black did his level best to stay in the saddle. Charlie was one very confused horse and it was a wonder that man and beast had even managed to get this far from town.
He rode up and crossed in front of Charlie, causing the horse to rear and unseat his rider. Catching the trailing reins, Jelly steadied both horses and looked at the boy picking himself off the ground.
“Horse thievin’s a crime, boy. Don’t ya know that? All the good them boys did fer you an’ ya repay them by stealin’ from them!” He conveniently forgot the sorry episode of his involvement with Teresa’s pearls as he admonished the boy before him.
“Wasn’t stealin’, Mister Jelly. I’d a returned it soon as I found Mister Lancer.”
“But what in tarnation are ya doin’ headin’ back the way ya came? Are ya loco?”
Joshua crossed to stand beside Jelly’s right knee, turning mournful brown eyes up to the older man.
“I have to go back, Mister Jelly. There’s no tellin’ what Mister Duprés’ done to them folks on account of me.”
“But Johnny an’ Scott went to all that trouble to get you away from him. Makes no sense to be ridin’ straight back to him now that yer free.”
Joshua hung his head but not before Jelly saw huge droplets of tears running down his cheeks.
“I knows now that I’m a free man, but Mister Duprés don’t give things up without a fight, an’ I can’t take my freedom at the risk to someone else. That’s why I have to go back, Mister Jelly. He’s like as not at the Henderson farm, an’ there’s those good people, an’ Miss Molly an’ Mister Johnny, an’ he ain’t up to fightin’ nobody. Can’t you see?”
Jelly looked to the heavens for help, but saw only a few fluffy clouds passing lazily by instead.
“I reckon my head’s gonna roll for this, but I gotta agree with ya. Mount up an’ I’ll go with ya. Only, best if I take the reins or you’ll never get there, at the rate you were goin’ in circles. Hang onto that saddle horn, not his mane. Old Charlie don’t take kindly to havin’ his hair pulled. An’ when we catch up with Murdoch, you be sure to tell him this was your idea!”
Scott and Murdoch had wasted precious time detouring to Green River, but they felt more reassured having Val ride with them. Of course, he’d once again reminded them that the Henderson farm and any wrong-doings going on there would be outside his remit, but they still wouldn’t, couldn’t think of going there without him. Perhaps the presence of a lawman might help to persuade Duprés to capitulate quietly.
As it was, they re-joined the road south at about the same time as two riders could be seen in the distance coming towards them.
“No reason to suspect that those two fellers ain’t just mindin’ their own business, but what say we split up an’ see if’n they pass by?” Val suggested.
Scott nodded in recognition of a good tactical move. Although this was public land and the main route south, it was maybe something of nothing that had the hairs on the back of his neck tingling, but he wasn’t about to let these men catch them flat-footed if they were a threat.
Val rode high into the rough ground and allowed father and son to continue on. After 5 minutes the four riders were within hailing distance. Scott doffed his hat in polite greeting as they approached each other and the two strangers slowed their mounts.
“Lookin’ fer the Lancer ranch. You fellas know its whereabouts?” one man asked.
“I know it like the back of my hand, young man. Why do you want to find it?” Murdoch asked, not unreasonably. This could still be an innocent encounter, after all.
“Got a message for Murdoch Lancer,” the second rider added, feeling left out of the conversation.
“If you like to give me the message, I’ll be sure to pass it on to Murdoch the minute I see him again,” Scott added his two cent’s worth.
The two strangers conversed quietly before shaking their heads.
“Nope, Mr Duprés specifically said we’re to see this Murdoch Lancer personally.”
At the mention of the name, both Scott and Murdoch knew this was no innocent, chance meeting. At the same time, they registered deep dismay that Duprés knew of the Lancer name. That could only mean that he was at the Henderson farm and had learned of Johnny’s name and Joshua’s whereabouts. And that information would *not* have been volunteered!
“Well, let me put you out of your misery. I’m Murdoch Lancer, so say your piece, and while you’re at it, raise your hands high!”
Murdoch kept his voice calm and his suddenly unholstered gun steady, much steadier than he felt as he watched Val ride down onto the road behind Duprés’ two men, his shotgun primed and loaded for bear. The unmistakable sound of it being primed had also reached the strangers’ ears and they raised their hands without further encouragement.
Scott and Val relieved them of their side arms and rifles and tied their hands to the saddle horns before Murdoch could once again address the matter of a message from Duprés. One of the men was persuaded to deliver the words he’d ridden hard and long to bring.
“There’s some old folks an’ a girl, an’ some hurt fella who the girl says is your son. Mr Duprés says he’ll be reasonable. All he wants is the darkie back, an’ everyone else gets to go free. If he don’t, people might start getting hurt.”
In the end, Val had ridden back to Green River with his two prisoners, promising the Lancers that he’d do his best to follow them. Just before the turn-off for Green River he was startled to find Jelly and a young black man coming towards them.
As they neared each other, Joshua’s eyes widened in alarm as he recognised Val’s prisoners. The two men spat invectives at him as he and Jelly stopped beside them.
“Howdy, Jelly. Is this who I think it is?” Val nodded in Joshua’s direction.
Jelly ran a finger round his bandana which suddenly seemed much too tight, all the while silently berating himself for getting into a paddy over what Val might think. It was the Lancers he had to face, sooner or later!
“Now Val, don’t you start, ‘cause you won’t use any arguments that I ain’t already thought of. Joshua needs to be there, an’ I need ta take him.”
“I’m takin’ these two into town. They’re from the boy’s boss,” he nodded at Joshua. “Scott an’ Murdoch an’ me was ridin’ for the Henderson’s when we met them.” Val explained his prisoners.
“Say, just how long ago did you catch these varmints?” Jelly had an uncomfortable feeling he and Joshua were too close to riding into the Lancers.
“About ten minutes past. They rode up as nice as you like to Scott and Murdoch an’ said Duprés had taken the Henderson farm an’ everyone in it, an’ unless the boy was returned, there’d be trouble. I’m just gonna lock these two up an’ be right back on the trail as soon as I can. Johnny’s a good friend, an’ I don’t take kindly to people threatenin’ him with physical violence. If you ride hard enough, you could probably catch them up.”
Val turned his mount and those of his prisoners towards Green River and failed to see the look of concern that crossed the grizzled countenance of the old horse wrangler. He wasn’t exactly in THAT much of a hurry to catch his boss up.
Johnny opened one eye cautiously and moved his head slightly to allow him to peer around the bedroom. He could hear voices but it seemed he was alone and unguarded for now. Moving his head too much wakened the fiery beast in his left shoulder so he decided, after the first careless movement had made his head fall off, that he’d refrain from such exercise. They could call him stiff-necked if they wanted to, but too much of that sort of movement would find him flat on his back again, and it was time he took a more active part in proceedings.
Gingerly he swung both legs over the side of the bed and raised his upper body slowly and painfully to an upright position. The room tilted and twisted and he thought his stomach would heave, but he clenched his teeth and forced his stomach to obey the silent command to behave. Gradually the world found and settled on an even axis and he eased his feet to the floor. The stiffness and weakness in his left leg was a nuisance and he knew he was still far from fit enough to be actively offering any resistance, but he needed to know what was going on at the farm.
Lurching to his feet he all but fell against the door jamb, the sound carrying to the kitchen. Manson and the other man, Wilson, appeared with their guns drawn but the sight of the ashen-faced wobbling boy before them had them re-sheath their weapons and grab at him before he hit the floor. They ushered Johnny unceremoniously to the kitchen table and dumped him into a chair.
Duprés regarded him with little interest. These people were a means to an end, nothing more, and he wanted nothing more than to have his property back so that he could leave this hovel. They weren’t fit company and he was rapidly tiring of each and every one of them. Except, perhaps, the girl…
He rose suddenly to his feet and grabbed Molly by the arm as she scurried towards Johnny.
“Come on girl, I’m bored and you and I are going to kill some time.”
“NOOO! Get your filthy hands off me, you animal. I wouldn’t go with you if you were the last man alive!” Molly kicked and struggled against the bullish man’s grasp whilst Manson looked on in thinly concealed horror. Wilson merely laughed, wondering if Duprés would let him have his turn later.
Johnny gathered his scattered wits and dwindling strength and threw himself at the struggling pair, his momentum causing all three to tumble to the ground, with Duprés at the bottom of the heap.
“Go, Molly…por favor, get away…” Johnny gasped, and the girl ran!
Wilson lunged at the fleeing girl but Eli very obligingly took that exact moment to stretch his cramped legs, catching the other man across the shins. Manson managed to trip clumsily in front of Wilson at the same time and they too went down in a heap. It took what seemed an eternity to separate all the tangled limbs.
Molly didn’t look behind her but simply gathered her skirts and ran through the front door as fast as legs and fear would carry her. She knew that if either of the men came after her on horseback, she wouldn’t get far, but she was determined to put as much space as she could between them and her.
She ran past the barn where the two baying hounds were tied up, thankful that they weren’t free to snap at her heels.
She climbed the hill into the tree line, reckoning that the pursuit would be slowed through there, and had barely made it to the top of the rise when she heard her name being called. With a sinking heart she turned to face her pursuer and cried in relief when she saw Jeb’s pale face peeking through some shrubbery.
“Jeb…oh Jeb, thank God it’s you. Did you get help?” she collapsed into the startled young man’s arms, sobbing and trembling.
“Molly! What did they do to you? Are you hurt?” He set her back at arms’ length to inspect her and she wiped at a runny nose with the back of her hand as she looked around.
“H-he tried…but Johnny stopped him…oh Johnny!” She suddenly pictured what must be taking place inside that house. “Jeb, we have to help them. Duprés’an animal. Where are the people you went to get?”
Jeb sighed as his head lowered. “I’m sorry Molly, but I live with my ma an’ my Grandpa. My pa was killed in the war and Grandpa’s an old man, like most of the people around here. Most folks of my age left for the bigger towns. I couldn’t think of anybody to get, short of ridin’ to William’s Ridge, an’ they wouldn’t wanna get involved, neither. Johnny can take care of himself, I’ll bet.”
Molly grabbed his arms and did her best to shake him. “He’s hurt real bad, Jeb, an’ he helped me get outta there when that man wanted to…if you haven’t anybody to call on, then it’s up to us.”
Jeb looked at this beautiful creature with the mussed hair and torn dress, tears streaking down her bruised face and making her nose run, and thought she was the most captivating thing he’d ever seen. But what she was saying was too wild! That he and she alone could take on these desperados!
“Molly, I want to help the Hendersons and Johnny as much as you do. I’ve worked for Eli and Annie for three years an’ I’m real fond of them but we can’t do this alone. If we could head for where Scott went, maybe we could meet up with them, and then we’d have more help. I’ve got Bel waiting at the bottom of the hill. Come on…”
He grabbed her arm and dragged her towards where his old mare stood placidly chewing grass and Molly reluctantly accepted that for now, this was probably their best option. To try to go back to the farm on their own would have been foolish, and would have made a mockery of whatever Johnny might be suffering as a consequence of his actions.
Johnny lay winded and dazed where he’d landed after throwing himself at Duprés, feeling more than a little ill. He had pleaded with the girl to run, but he had no way of knowing what had happened after that. He was aware that two other bodies had landed near him on the floor, but his mind was in a whirl and couldn’t make sense out of it. Duprés wriggled to get out from under him and he leant all his concentration to keeping the man pinned down.
Beside them, Wilson and Manson eventually untangled their own mess and struggled to their feet. Manson was pleased to see that Wilson was more concerned with getting his boss to his feet than pursuing the girl. They both moved towards Johnny and hauled him off the struggling man, tossing him onto the chair once more. Johnny was breathing heavily and his face was bathed in sweat, but his heart was singing as he realised that Molly was nowhere to be seen.
Duprés climbed unsteadily to his feet and glared at the cause of his discomfort. His head whirled round as he saw the open door and noticed that the girl was gone.
“Manson, get after her!”
The man nodded, turning his head quickly to hide his relief at being the one sent after the girl. He had no intention of catching her, even had she been standing right outside the door, but he had to make it look like he’d tried. He moved away from the farm and made a half-hearted attempt to locate her, and had been surprised that he’d actually not found her. The tracks led towards the woods, and he tossed her a silent salute as he wished her well.
Turning back to the house he quickly summed up what had been happening in his absence. Eli, still bound and sitting in a chair, was bleeding from a split lip and showed signs of new bruises around his face, but he was conscious and glaring in fury at the other people in his home.
Annie had rushed to her brother’s aid as soon as Wilson had stopped beating him. She’d grabbed at the man’s arm but he’d merely snorted derisively as he tossed her aside effortlessly, before turning on the old man. The punishment had been short but painful and Annie held his head in her arms, comforting him against her. She yelled over and over for Duprés to stop what he was doing but the man ignored her.
Duprés was taking another swing at Johnny’s face with his fist whilst Wilson stood behind him, gripping him mercilessly in strong hands. The boy’s nose was bleeding and his eyes were starting to close, but he was still conscious. Manson stepped forward and caught Duprés’ descending arm in a firm grip.
“Sir, you’re going to kill him at this rate. Look at him…he’s barely conscious. If you want to trade him, he needs to be alive. No slave…or girl, for that matter, is worth killing a man over. Please!”
Duprés heard the words through a roaring as his senses reeled. The smell of blood had excited him and he was as close to killing this boy as he’d ever come to violent murder. When he’d watched his father die, it had been a cold, calculated death of slow poisoning. It was a simple matter to get one’s hands on Arsenic around a farm and his father had never suspected. But this…this was an entirely different feeling, and he had to admit it thrilled him. If it hadn’t been for so many witnesses, he could have taken his actions through to the natural outcome with absolutely no remorse. As it was, he forced himself to take deep breaths and close his eyes in an attempt to block out the sight of the bleeding boy in front of him.
With some effort Manson gradually pushed Duprés into a chair and stood over him as the man continued to breathe deeply in an effort to control his temper. Over his shoulder he watched as Annie rushed to Johnny’s side and caught the boy’s battered face against her breast, smoothing his hair with her hand and crooning to him. Johnny showed little response to her comforting action.
A sound from before him turned his attention back to his employer. Duprés had his eyes opened and focussed, and appeared to once more be in control. “Thank you, Mr Manson. Once again your voice has been the voice of reason. For now, I do need that breed alive, but when this is all over, he and I will have some unfinished business to attend to. What of the girl?”
Manson shook his head. “She got into the woods and I couldn’t see any sign of her. She’s only one girl, what can she do on her own? Best to forget about her.”
“Set the dogs on her…I want her back here now!” Duprés’ face was florid with newly inflamed anger and Manson knew he had his work cut out in soothing him.
“Lancer will be here soon. What does it matter about one slip of a girl? You can get plenty more from where she came from, and willing, too. Forget about her.” He spoke as if gentling a skittish pony and slowly lethargy settled over his employer, the adrenaline of the moment vanishing like husks in the wind. He sensed the calm and stood back from Duprés. The man most definitely didn’t like to be crowded.
Duprés looked around him at the scene in the kitchen and sneered: “Get that breed out of here. Lock him in the barn with the dogs where he belongs. I don’t want to have to look at him again until his father brings my property back. Make sure he’s tied up.”
Manson and Wilson dragged the barely conscious Johnny to his stumbling feet and exited the house. Annie desperately wanted to follow them to see to his new injuries and made to follow them, only to be stopped by Duprés’ cane spanning the doorway.
“Forget about him. Make me more coffee and food. And he gets nothing, understand me?” his head nodded in the direction of the barn and Annie’s heart sank.
The sound of approaching horses made Scott and Murdoch look up from their temporary camp, where they’d agreed to a 30 minute stop to rest their mounts.
“What the blazes__” Murdoch was on his feet as soon as he recognised the riders. “JELLY! I gave you explicit instructions to take Joshua to Lancer, not to follow us!”
“Now jest grit yer teeth an’ keep a hold a yer britches, boss. This ain’t my idea. Go ahead, Joshua, tell the boss why we’re here.” Jelly swung expectantly towards the younger man.
Joshua gulped suddenly in the face of obvious wrath from the towering Lancer.
“I’m sorry, Mister Lancer, fo’ goin’ ‘gainst everythin’ you said. But I knows my master an’ we saw those men with the sheriff. Mister Duprés won’t let Mister Johnny go without gettin’ me back. I gotta come with ya.”
Scott and Murdoch regarded each other silently, Joshua’s words merely confirming what they’d each dreaded. Tossing aside their unfinished coffee they broke camp and all four headed south, their hearts beating faster at what they would find at the end of their journey.
Molly and Jeb made slow progress, Bel not being able for much speed any more. But the girl gradually relaxed as she gripped the young man firmly about the waist, resting her weary head against his back, hearing the steady thrum of his heart and allowing the comforting sound to ease away the torment of the past few days.
They travelled as long into the night as possible but in the end sheer exhaustion made them stop. Sleeping rough on the single bedroll, they wakened early the following morning without feeling any further rested.
They ate a dry breakfast and resumed their journey without daring to stop again for fear of pursuers catching them. From time to time Molly imagined she could hear the baying of hounds and if she closed her eyes she could see the dogs snapping around Bel’s feet, causing the animal to rear up and unseat them.
She shuddered suddenly as her mind drifted back to the last image of Johnny, sprawled across Duprés, pinning him to the floor as he pleaded with her to go. And she remembered too, that Manson had somehow stopped the other man from reaching her as she’d run past. She had a lot to thank those two men for.
“Riders ahead, Molly. Reckon we oughta hide ‘til they go by?” Jeb startled her from her thoughts, his voice rumbling in his chest and sounding extra-loud to her ear.
She sat upright and peered around him, seeing four horses approaching.
“I suppose so. We don’t know if it’s Duprés’ men bringing Johnny’s pa with them.”
They guided Bel into some cover and waited patiently for the others to pass by. Suddenly Molly cried out, much to Jeb’s surprise, as he hadn’t been watching as closely.
Hearing the familiar voice, Scott stopped his horse and turned to meet the two riders on the large horse.
“Molly, am I glad to see you. We were worried that Duprés might have turned up and__” Scott’s voice tailed off as he took in the bruises on the girl’s face. He stripped off one glove and reached out gently and caressed her cheek. “What happened?”
The gentleness of the caress unlocked the floodgates of Molly’s emotions and she wept as she told them how she had got her bruises.
Wiping her tears away with a grubby hankie Molly regarded the young black man with a look of confusion. “Why did you come back, Joshua? Scott had got you away to safety, so what made you come back?”
Joshua looked around at the anxious faces, knowing that what he and the girl could confirm would only add to their anxiety, but he couldn’t ignore the question.
“You’ve met Mister Duprés, Miss Molly. He do that to yo face?” he raised a finger and pointed to her bruised cheek.
Molly nodded, knowing now what Joshua was going to say and wishing she’d never started the conversation. She moved to forestall him but he was already speaking.
“Mister Duprés’ a violent man an’ you should be thankful you got away when you did. I’ve seen him hurtin’ women fo no reason. Is Mister Johnny an’ the other folks alright?”
The girl’s head dropped and her bottom lip trembled, as did she against Jeb’s back. He didn’t need to be able to see to know that she would be fearful of telling Johnny’s family how things were. He cleared his throat and addressed the man next to Scott.
“Mr Lancer, I’m Jeb Brennen, I work for the Hendersons. Johnny helped Molly to get away last night but she reckons Duprés was most likely pretty mad. We couldn’t go back an’ help against dogs an’ men with guns, but we’re real sorry if anything more has happened to Johnny or anyone else.”
Murdoch regarded this young man, no older than his younger son, and thought how much these boys had had to grow up suddenly in an increasingly violent world. He reached out a comforting hand and tapped the boy’s shoulder.
“That’s alright, son. No-one expects you to take on those kinds of odds. Why don’t you take Molly back to your house and stay out of danger. We’ll ride on to the farm and see what can be done.”
“Isn’t there anything I can do, Mr Lancer? I don’t have a gun but I’d really like to help,” Jeb pleaded. He recognised the logic of getting Molly to safety but his blood was on the boil at what might be happening back at the Henderson farm.
Murdoch thought of how he could let the boy save face without getting into danger. Molly’s words supplied the solution.
“What about those other two men? Did they find you, Mr Lancer?” Molly suddenly feared the opposition doubling back behind them.
“They found us, and right now they’re having a rest in the sheriff’s office in Green River. Don’t worry about them, but if you really want to help, you could wait here for Sheriff Crawford and tell him how to find the farm.”
Johnny regarded the hounds tied up too close to where he lay, bound. They could reach his feet and sniffed him curiously, their brown eyes sad in saggy-jowled faces. He was glad that they showed no interest in wanting to attack him as right this minute he didn’t reckon he could fight off an energetic five year old.
He was lying on his right side with his arms tied uncomfortably behind his back and secured to a hook on the wooden upright. Agony seared through his shoulder at the exaggerated angle it was forced into, and his face was on fire from Duprés’ most recent attention. He’d hoped that Manson might have shown some leniency when tying him up, but if he had it wasn’t readily noticeable. Of course, at the time they’d dragged his sorry ass into the barn he wasn’t actually aware of much more than an all-encompassing sea of pain.
//’Well Johnny-boy, got yourself into a right old mess. No chance of Lt Lancer riding to the rescue this time.’//
He ran an experimental tongue around the inside of his mouth, relieved to find that none of his teeth seemed to have been knocked loose in the beating. But he was thirsty, that much was certain. And hungry, too. It seemed like a lifetime since he’d had the last mug of Annie’s witch’s brew, but even that would have been welcome right about now, anything to assuage the thirst building up in his throat.
He knew it was a symptom of his generally dehydrated condition and blood loss and there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Nor was there likely to be anything done about it by his captors. He couldn’t see Duprés worrying about whether he went hungry or not. In fact, the way his eyes were swelling, he could see precious little.
Looking around to the extent of his ability he spied a bowl near the dogs and smiled at the irony of the situation. At least the man’s precious hounds had been left water, even if he hadn’t.
“Nice doggies…you’d give old Johnny a drink, wouldn’t ya?” he called softly to them, snorting at his own folly. Even if the dogs were of a mind to share their water rations, the bowl was beyond his reach, tied as he was. There was nothing for it but to go without.
He allowed himself a groan of pain and frustration as he worried over what might be happening in the house. He couldn’t remember whether Molly had got away or not and his mind taunted him with images of her being abused and maybe even killed.
He worried too for Annie and old Eli. They weren’t up to any sort of physical manhandling. He bitterly blamed his own folly at trying to hold off half the town back at Cooper’s Crossing when the lynch mob had started to appear. If he had taken Scott’s offer of help or maybe even left sooner, they might have made a clean getaway and he wouldn’t have got shot. That would have meant never having called at the Henderson’s and placing them in this awful situation.
Of course it also meant he’d never have got to meet the endearing pair but he would give anything to take this poisoned chalice away from their lips.
He pulled ineffectually against his restraints, succeeding only in aggravating his shoulder, and closed his eyes at the resulting agony. He allowed himself only one thought, that of taking Duprés apart, piece by piece when this was all over…if he lived that long!
Annie served Duprés some food and coffee and looked covertly at Eli to see how he was faring. Her brother had high colour in his cheeks where Wilson’s fists had connected but the split lip had stopped bleeding and the white bandage around his head seemed slightly extreme now. But he wasn’t a youngster any more, and the blows to the head had stunned him. The violence of these animals, Duprés and his men, stunned her beyond thinking.
Never in all their days at the farm had they witnessed the likes of the callousness of these men against their fellow man. They had been forced to watch from a distance as Duprés had abused first Johnny and then the girl, unable to get to them in time to prevent what took place. It was all that Eli had been able to do to keep his sister from hurling herself at Duprés when they’d seen, with dismay, Johnny collapsing at the man’s feet.
The old woman straightened from serving the coffee, sorely tempted to brain that despicable man with the pot or pour the scalding liquid into his lap.
“I need to visit the outhouse,” she declared, daring him to refuse her.
Duprés looked at her with disbelief. “Do you seriously expect me to let you swan around out there on your own? You’d be down at that barn cutting that breed free. What kind of fool do you take me for, woman? You can keep it in, or go pee in the corner for all I care, but you are *not* leaving this hovel unguarded.”
Annie bit her lip in distress, the embarrassment of being the only female suddenly hitting her hard. There was simply no way she was about to soil her home just to give this animal that satisfaction. If need-be, she’d leave through the rear door, but she hadn’t wanted to let Duprés know about it in case they could make use of it and get out. Of paramount importance to her was to get to Johnny. She hadn’t liked how dazed he was when he’d been dragged from the house. And she was furious with Manson for joining in with the doling out of that punishment.
She cast a quick glance towards him now and saw him nod slightly, his face grim and determined.
“I’ll take her out, Mr Duprés. I don’t think we really want her soiling the house when we don’t know how long we’ll have to be here. She won’t get away, I’ll stand right outside.”
Duprés nodded, bored with the conversation, and Annie and Manson headed for the outhouse. He stood guard outside as he’d promised, and when she emerged she looked longingly at the barn. Manson read her look and gently steered her back to the house.
“He’ll get suspicious if you take too long. I’ll see to the boy when I can.”
Annie suddenly realised how difficult things were for Manson. He trod a fine line between helping them and getting caught, and if he was caught, they’d lose any friend they had in the enemy camp.
“Thank you, if you hadn’t stopped him, your boss would a killed Johnny, for sure. I think his collar bone’s broke, so if ya can untie his hands it’d help.” Annie trudged alongside her guard, slightly less pessimistic about their immediate future, but still worried about the injured boy. “He really oughta be in a bed, not lyin’ out there in the dirt.”
“Duprés wasn’t always as bad as he is now. When I first started working for him, he had a temper, for sure, but he usually managed to contain it against everyone but the blacks. Nowadays he’ll lash out at just about anyone. I think it’s time I found a new job.” Manson spoke quietly to the old woman as they approached the house again, and all conversation stopped altogether as they entered the kitchen.
He looked once over his shoulder towards the barn, and thought of the injured boy out there. He’d sworn to Duprés that he wasn’t about to commit murder for him, and if that boy didn’t get some food and water soon, he might just be a party to it after all.
Scott, Murdoch and the others rode back in the direction of the Henderson farm. It would take longer than any of them wanted to cover those miles and each person’s thoughts were with the missing Lancer and the old couple who had offered them all refuge.
Scott’s mind was forced back painfully to his time as a prisoner of the Confederates in Libby. He’d seen too many people thrashed with a cane. He’d even suffered the punishment himself for very little. His warders had thought it amusing to beat their prisoners into pleading for food and water, and Scott had refused to co-operate with their vindictiveness. He’d suffered plenty for what the Confederates saw as snooty stubbornness. Occasionally on a cold day his bones still ached from the beatings. The thought that his brother, already weakened and injured, had been subjected to this made his blood boil. He promised himself that Duprés would face the wrath of a vengeful older brother’s protectiveness.
Murdoch willed their mounts into a ground-eating gallop as they neared the Henderson’s. He worried for his younger son, knowing all to well the debilitating effect of a bullet in the back. He still suffered too often from Pardee’s shot and it hadn’t been that many months since Johnny had suffered a similar injury. They had nearly lost him that time, only for him to recover and throw himself whole-heartedly into learning about the ranch. Now Johnny was badly hurt again, and if Murdoch got his way, he’d wrap that boy in cotton wool and refuse to let him out of his sight for about a month. Once they got him out of this mess, that was. And in the meantime he silently promised this Duprés that he’d learn all about a father’s anger and need for revenge.
Joshua kept his thoughts to himself, blaming the entire fiasco on his selfish desire to escape Duprés’ cruel regime. It was up to him to do whatever he could to bring this situation to an end, even if that meant giving up his fought-for freedom.
Jelly watched the concern written all over his boss’s face and that of the elder son. He loved this family as if they were his own and it grieved him to see them all suffering like this, but he couldn’t get his mind away from fretting over Johnny. That boy had sneaked into his heart right from the start, when he’d been taken in by Jelly’s eight ragamuffin boys. Initially suspicious of the stranger, he’d soon learned that the youngest Lancer had a heart of gold. It was that very heart that had him in this present pickle, and Jelly told himself he’d give Mister Johnny Lancer a good talking to about riskin’ his neck yet again for strangers. Not that he’d listen. Oh no…sometimes these Lancers were harder work than those eight boys had ever been.
They rode on for as long as they could, Murdoch determined to ride through the night if he could, but the horses needed rest, especially Charlie who hadn’t ever been replaced. Reluctantly they stopped for a few hours, worried beyond measure about what they’d find in the morning.
Some time after they’d stopped, they were alerted to the sound of two horses. Scott rose swiftly to his feet, gun in hand as they waited cautiously for the riders to reveal themselves. The soft calling to the camp relieved them when they discovered that Val had caught up with them. He dismounted from his tired horse and joined the camp.
Murdoch spoke quietly to Jeb and Molly, still sitting on Bel’s back, spooned together like peas in a pod.
“Now I don’t want any arguments from you; you’ve helped a great deal and I thank you, but please stay out of it from here on in. We won’t have time to watch out for you if bullets start flying.”
He held his arms up and helped Molly to climb out of the saddle, Jeb sliding easily to the ground behind her.
Molly reached up and patted the Lancer patriarch’s cheek softly, a half-smile struggling to be born on her bruised lips. “You tell Johnny to keep his fool head down, that’s what he told me. An’ tell him I’ll come see him soon.”
They settled their bedroll close to the welcoming fire and helped themselves to coffee.
Scott regarded the sheriff for a few moments as he helped himself to coffee before settling on his own bedroll. “Any sign of Sam before you left, Val?”
Crawford sipped cautiously at the hot coffee, thinking it much too mild for his taste, but welcome nonetheless after the long ride.
“None before I left, Mr Lancer, but I didn’t hang around. Once I got them fellers locked up an’ told ma deputy about them, I high-tailed it onto your trail. Ol’ Sam’ll come if he can, you know that.”
“I know, I know, but it would have been good to have him with us. Something tells me his expertise might well be needed before this is over.”
Manson fretted in his own way. The Henderson farm had settled down for another night with Duprés in its midst. Wilson had the first watch and Duprés had commandeered the biggest of the three beds, leaving the others to fend for themselves, but with orders that the Henderson’s were to remain under guard at all times. Annie had helped her still-bound brother to the comfortable chair by the range and had settled herself at the kitchen table, too worried about Johnny to settle to sleep.
She glanced at the man who had shown them some kindness from time to time. Manson was a mystery to her but she felt his heart was good. All he needed was an opportunity to prove himself.
Wilson scratched coarsely at himself before announcing a trip to the outhouse. Annie’s head came up as she realised she had an opportunity to talk alone with Manson.
“You get a chance to see to the boy?” she indicated the barn with a nod of her head.
Manson shook his, grimacing. “I haven’t had an opportunity. As soon as Wilson comes back in, I’ll take a trip myself and go via the barn. Give me a mug with water and I’ll get him to drink.”
Annie crossed quickly to the pitcher and filled a mug, wondering how they could get it past Wilson’s watchful eyes. The man in question entered the kitchen, fastening his pants as he came and Manson rose to his feet, clasping the mug in his hand. He raised it to his lips and took a sip.
“Watch them, Wilson. I’m going for a leak and to stretch my legs. All this sitting around’s making me seize up.”
Annie watched his retreating back as he strode towards the darkened outhouse but Wilson had little interest in anything but another cup of coffee.
Outside, Manson veered off and moved silently to the barn. The hounds were well used to him and merely sniffed at him to see if he’d brought any food before turning away and curling up again. He looked at the boy lying on his side, knees bent towards his stomach in an attempt to get some comfort from his cramped position.
“Hey…I brought you some water. Let me help you up.” He spoke in a whisper to the bound figure at his feet but didn’t get a response. He nudged Johnny lightly with his toe and the boy groaned. “Come on, can you sit up?”
Johnny opened one swollen eye and tried to make out who was standing over him. His persistent fever and the intermittent loss of consciousness meant he’d lost track of time. Lying out here with his hands bound excruciatingly behind his back he had no idea of what was happening but it was pitch black inside the barn so he reckoned it was night.
“I’m Manson, Duprés’ foreman. Don’t you remember? The old woman’s worried about you not having any water so I said I’d fetch you some. Come on, let’s sit you up. I can’t stay too long or they’ll get suspicious.” He crouched down and eased Johnny slowly forward, trying to block out the gasp of agony wrenched from past the other’s cut lips, and held the mug to the boy’s bruised mouth.
Johnny took a cautious sip until he was satisfied that the mug contained only water. And what nectar it was, too. He’d never tasted anything as fine as that cool spring water. After the first sip it was all he could do not to gulp the rest in spite of the sting to his lips. He forced himself to drink slowly, savouring each and every mouthful as it slaked his dry throat. The action of swallowing was made all the more difficult by fighting for his breath as his shoulder awakened and let it be known that it didn’t take kindly to being roused.
Johnny squinted at the dim image of his benefactor. “What’s happenin’ with the others?”
“The girl got away and the old couple will be alright as long as they don’t talk back to Duprés. Wilson gave the old man a smack or two, but he’s ok. How long will it take your people to get here?”
Johnny had lost all concept of when Scott and Joshua had ridden off. It seemed like it had all happened in a previous lifetime, so much had happened since.
“Dunno, what day is it?”
“Wednesday, nearly Thursday by now. When did they start for your home?”
Johnny squirmed in an attempt to get comfortable, an almost impossible task. “Don’t remember. Can you untie me? I ain’t goin’ anywhere, I promise.”
Manson regarded the injured boy and reached for the knife in his gun belt, concentrating on slipping the thin blade between the strands of rope tying Johnny’s hands behind his back. A sudden movement and awakening of the hounds brought Johnny’s head up from where it drooped wearily.
“Look out,” he gasped, startled to see a figure looming over them, an arm raised in a threatening action.
“So soft, Manson. Thought you’d sneak out and side with the enemy, did you? I heard you and the old crone whispering, but I gave you just enough rope to hang yourself.” Duprés brought his cane whistling down to land a bruising blow to Manson’s right arm, the knife dropping from his suddenly numb fingers. He reeled away from the scything action of that detestable cane, the hounds snapping and growling at the sudden commotion, straining at the length of their rope to reach their master.
Johnny tried to trip Duprés as he came close, but he was still securely tied and couldn’t get anywhere near the man’s legs. Duprés kicked at him as he moved past, the cane once again raised in anger.
Manson was on his knees, scrabbling in the dirt for the knife he’d dropped, his only thought to defend himself from this madman. His fingers closed around the hilt and he felt a surge of elation. He made to stand, bringing the knife up in a defensive move just before the cane descended again and his world descended into darkness.
Duprés stood back, breathing heavily as he looked at his downed foreman. That last blow had struck the man on the side of the head and he’d gone down like a felled tree.
Johnny watched in mounting horror at the tableau before him. He felt angered that Duprés had found out about Manson’s having helped him, but he was worried for Annie. If the man had overheard her talking with Manson, he might well exact some punishment on her, now that he’d seen to the man lying so still on the earth.
“Mister, you’re loco. He was only givin’ me some water,” he gasped hoarsely.
Duprés sneered at him. “I told him you weren’t to have any, and don’t play me for a fool. I saw the knife. It doesn’t take a knife to give you water. He got what he deserved, as will all of you if I see fit. Remember that, *boy*!”
Stopping only to retrieve Manson’s knife and without any further inspection of the man’s still body Duprés strode past Johnny, once again lashing out and catching him an excruciating blow to his injured left leg. Johnny caught his lip between his teeth to capture the groan he was determined wouldn’t escape in front of this madman but beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, wasting precious body fluids that he could ill afford. He lost all pretence at being able to stay upright and sagged to the earth.
As the barn door once again closed and the restless hounds settled, he contemplated his situation briefly before turning as far as he could to examine Manson.
“Hey,” he called, softly in an attempt to not antagonise the dogs. On getting no response he called a few more times before giving up for the time being. His leg was on fire from where Duprés’ boot had connected and he could feel the all-too familiar warmth of blood running over his skin.
//’Just what I really needed. At this rate, I’m gonna be lucky to get outta this confined to bed for only days. Once Sam gets a load of this, he’ll have those mother hens cluckin’ round me like I’m their only chick an’ I’ll be lucky if I ain’t in bed for a month!//
Seeing nothing else for it, he rolled gingerly once again onto his right side, clenching his teeth in agony as his shoulder protested. It would be all he could do to hang on for whatever help might be coming his way. He just hoped they wouldn’t take too long, because he wasn’t sure if any of them had time on their side.
The riders pulled up short of the boundary of the Henderson farm and dismounted, tethering their horses. Scott produced a telescope from his saddlebag and surveyed the distant farm house for signs of activity before turning to the others.
“It looks quiet enough. How do you want to tackle this?”
“Let’s split up. If we go in with a show of force, people are likely to get hurt. We’ll make use of that rear door Molly told us about. Scott, you and Joshua come in through that way and see how things are inside. I don’t need to tell you not to get caught. If you can get Johnny and the others free, well and good but I don’t want this man getting any more of an advantage.” Murdoch turned to the older man. “Jelly, I want you to scout around the outbuildings for any sign of either dogs or more men. Don’t go tackling anything on your own, but it’d be good to know if we’re about to be attacked from behind. Val, let’s you and I invite this man to talk and take it from there. The first thing we need to determine is where everyone is.”
“An’ how they is, too,” Jelly muttered, fretting over the missing Lancer.
The other men nodded in agreement of his words and Joshua watched their concerned faces intently.
“Mister Lancer, yo not gonna get Mister Johnny an’ those folks free without havin’ me there. Mister Duprés ain’t gonna take no for an answer. I think I need to be beside you when you talk to him. If he don’t see me, he ain’t gonna want to talk none.”
Murdoch placed a large hand on Joshua’s shoulder. “I know what you’re saying, and I don’t for one minute expect him to simply hand Johnny over, but there’s no sense in going in there and just giving him what he wants. That would leave us with nothing to bargain with. If he doesn’t see you, I can keep him negotiating and give everyone a chance to get into better position. Come on, let’s get this show started.”
They split into three units, Jelly skirting well away from the front of the farm house, shadowing Scott and Joshua for part of the journey. They kept inside the tree line for as long as was physically possible, thanking their luck that so far, there had been no sight or sound of the dogs these people had with them. Stealthy approaching could be hidden from men much easier than from the keen senses of hunting dogs.
Murdoch allowed them five minutes, during which he fretted some more for his injured son, and then started for the yard in front of the house, Val backing him closely.
From inside the house, Wilson pulled aside a drape and watched the approach of the two men, noticing that they had walked in.
“Some people here, Mr Duprés. Might be nothin’ or somethin’.”
Duprés climbed to his feet, snorting at the lack of articulacy of his minion’s words. He didn’t employ men to think, just follow orders, and in this Wilson was efficient enough. He’d watched his boss return from the barn and hadn’t raised even an eyebrow at the disappearance of Manson, nor when Duprés had crossed in front of Annie and slapped her face sharply. When Eli had struggled to his feet in an attempt to defend his sister, Wilson had crossed to them and thrown the old man back into the chair he’d climbed out of. No words had been exchanged, Eli simply giving his sobbing sister a look of deep concern and sorrow. He was aware of what may well have happened after Duprés had suddenly appeared and followed Manson outside. The fact that only Duprés had returned spoke volumes.
Duprés crossed to another window and pulled aside the drapes. He regarded the men who neared the door and recognised formidable opponents in the men’s demeanour.
“Come here, woman,” he snarled at Annie.
She stood slowly and stiffly, casting a furtive glance at her brother before moving across the room. Duprés grabbed a fistful of her grey hair and pulled her in front of him, breathing foul breath down the back of her neck.
“Who are they?” he whispered menacingly.
Annie shook her head. “Don’t know either of ‘em.”
Outside, Murdoch was certain their approach had been noticed. He’d spotted the twitching of the drapes at the small windows but as yet no-one had opened the door.
“Hello in the house!” he called, loudly.
In the barn, Johnny jolted painfully as he recognised his father’s voice. He’d been drifting again, enjoying the moments of dazedly floating away from the sea of pain he seemed to be drowning in.
“Murdoch?” he gasped, his throat again as dry as the desert and lips almost refusing to co-operate. Near him on the dirty floor, Manson stirred slightly before settling again.
Johnny saw the small movement and hope raised its head a millimetre or so. He couldn’t reach the man with his hands, but by twisting his body away from the barn door as far as his bonds would let him, and by causing his shoulder to scream at him, he managed to nudge Manson’s left boot tip with his toes.
“Hey,” he called hoarsely. “Waken up, Manson. Come on!”
In response, Manson merely rolled further away from Johnny’s reaching foot, but the fact that he’d moved at all was the first sure sign of life he’d shown for some time. Johnny licked dry lips and swallowed painfully before once again calling to the man, over and over. The hounds had, by now, got used to the noise and ignored him contemptuously.
Outside, Jelly heard the quiet calling of a name he didn’t know, but by a voice that was as precious to him as his own, albeit slightly hoarser than usual.
“Johnny! Where are ya, boy?” He skirted the rustic walls of the small barn, keeping well away from the house. In response, he heard the tell-tale sound of dogs stirring and yelping.
Johnny’s eyebrows soared along with his heart as he heard those cherished words.
“Jelly…I’m in here…careful…dogs!”
The warning hadn’t been entirely necessary but it nevertheless stopped Jelly in his tracks. He prided himself that he was as brave as the next man, but if those dogs were on the loose in that barn he didn’t fancy meeting them without either a gun or a stout stick in his hand. Searching around, he found a stray tree limb lying on the ground and hefted it experimentally in his hands, satisfied that it would do in an emergency.
Johnny watched through his swollen eyes as the door inched open. The small, bewhiskered figure of Jellifer B Hoskins stepped through cautiously, a stick brandished in his hands like a sword. He was no-one’s idea of a gladiator but to Johnny he looked fit to take on the world.
Jelly’s eyes darted about in the awakening light of early dawn and he didn’t have to look far to find those darned dogs. They were yapping and straining to get free from their tether, and he sent up a silent prayer of thanks to whoever had made that rope.
“Nice doggies…ol’ Jelly’s just gonna step past ya. No need to get yer tails all outta shape over me. I ain’t gonna do ya no harm, just as long as you don’t try to take a lump outta me. I’m just gonna see to Johnny. Why don’t you go lie down, have a nice sleepy-bye?”
As he spoke he kept the stick brandished between himself and the dogs, easing towards the boy trussed so painfully. Stepping clear of the dogs’ reach he felt more confident at taking time to look around. He noticed the other man lying on the hard earth and wondered who else they’d joined up with, but his concentration was given totally to his friend.
He clucked his teeth as he regarded Johnny’s physical state. The boy’s cheeks were flushed with fever and the lines around both eyes and mouth were etched in pain. The faded red shirt was marked with dry blood and he thought he detected the white of bandages against the bare chest underneath. Scott had told them Johnny had been shot twice and Jelly could now see dried blood on the ground just beyond where Johnny lay, as if he’d been there recently.
“What in tarnation did ya run into, boy? Can’t let ya outta my sight fer half a day an’ ya go gittin’ all beat up an’ shot. Yer pa’s gonna tie yer hide to a bed ‘til Christmas at this rate. Now let me look at ya__” he knelt in front of Johnny, his small knife ready to cut the boy’s ties.
“No - see to Manson, Jelly. He’s been out a long time. I think Duprés really hurt him.”
Jelly sat back on his heels and regarded this son of his soul. “In good time, Johnny.” He held up a hand to forestall the argument he knew was coming. “Now yer just wastin’ precious time arguin’. I’ll see ta thon fella once I’ve seen to you. He may well be hurtin’, but ya ain’t exactly in tip-top condition yerself. Now hold still…”
Murdoch and Val stood shoulder to shoulder outside the door of the small house, waiting for some response from within.
“What do you want?” Duprés called through the window he’d made Annie open.
“Mr Duprés, I presume? We need to talk. I’m Murdoch Lancer and I believe you have my son.”
“If you want to claim that breed as your whelp that’s up to you, but you’ll not see him until I get back my property. Where is he?”
Murdoch stiffened at the loathsome words from this man’s lips and beside him Val shifted restlessly. Crawford was Johnny’s friend and he wasn’t about to take such an insult lying down. He saw Murdoch squaring his shoulders and seemingly stand even taller than his 6 foot 5 inches, if possible.
“Easy, Val, he’s trying to goad us. We need to remember this animal has hostages in there. Just stay calm and give the others a chance to get into position.” Murdoch surprised even himself at how calm he sounded, but he felt anything but. He promised himself that he and this man would have a confrontation before this day was over.
Val swallowed his instinct to respond physically and stood as calmly beside the tall rancher.
“I want proof that my son is alright. I’m not about to trade Joshua without it.”
In the barn, Johnny squirmed painfully in Jelly’s hands as the ropes fell away. The dogs bayed incessantly and he longed to tell them to shut up but he strained to hear the conversation taking place outside. He heard his father’s last words with dismay.
“Jelly, he can’t…I don’t want Joshua goin’ back to that animal…he’ll kill him!”
Jelly put a gently restraining hand on Johnny’s good shoulder. “Now don’t get yer britches in a twist. Yer daddy’s not about to give the boy up, but he has to play this out. Scott’s makin’ his way in the back door an’ Val’s there with Murdoch to take this animal into custody.”
“Help me up, Jelly. I gotta get out there.” Johnny tried to wriggle out from Jelly’s restraining hold but his lack of strength made a mockery of his feeble attempts. He barely got his head off the ground before it sagged heavily back down.
“Now don’t be a fool, boy. You can barely sit up, never mind stand. Leave it to yer pa and brother. Why do you always have to be the one to be in the thick of things?”
Johnny bit his lip as the circulation started up again in his cramped hands, thankful that it was returning. For a while he’d lost all feeling in his hands and fear had taunted him that he’d be a cripple for the rest of his days. Not that an ex-gunslinger without any means of protecting himself would live long once word got out.
Jelly helped support his leaden left arm, gently cradling it in his two strong hands as the boy rolled slowly onto his back, pale and sweating profusely. Johnny screwed his eyes tightly closed as the barn roof started a merry jig. The last thing he wanted right now was to start heaving. That would entail sudden movement, and he really didn’t want to move for at least a week.
Behind them Manson stirred and opened his eyes, blinking owlishly as he tried to focus. Johnny rolled his head round and watched the man struggling to consciousness.
“Hey, how ya doin’?” he called softly, swallowing the bile in his throat. He was glad to notice that the dogs were settling again, bored by the relative inactivity in the barn.
Manson rolled onto one elbow and levered his shoulders off the ground, fighting the sudden turmoil in his gut and the corkscrew way the ground beneath him moved. He looked around the barn, trying to focus his scattered wits and sight into where he was and why his head felt as if an axe was embedded in it. In the grey of dawn he saw the boy and a bewhiskered stranger looking at him curiously.
Johnny licked dry lips. “Your boss didn’t care for you tryin’ to cut me loose. He hit ya several times with that dinky little stick of his. I thought he’d killed ya. You were out for ages.”
Manson raised his hand and tentatively felt the gash on the side of his head. The action cleared his head instantly as searing pain lanced through it at that simple touch.
“I remember now. He’s got a nasty temper but I’ve never been on the receiving end before.”
“Not so nice, is it?” Johnny asked, not unsympathetically.
“No, it’s not. Where is he now?” Manson struggled wobblingly to his feet and staggered to the grime-covered window.
“Somethin’s happenin’ out there but I don’t know what,” Johnny sighed in frustration, realising that Jelly had been right about him not being able to do much. It twisted his guts to think that his family were taking risks to free him and he couldn’t give them any back-up.
Murdoch and Val stood waiting, and the door opened to reveal a small, elderly woman in the clutches of a tall, overly-dressed man who could only be Duprés.
“I have more people here than just your son. Do you really want to be the cause of this hag getting hurt? I’ve a man inside holding a gun on her brother, so think well before you answer.”
Val crossed the short space between them and leant his head towards Murdoch’s. “Where in tarnation’s Scott?”
Murdoch shook his head, unable to supply the necessary information, all the while keeping an eye on Duprés and his hostage and anxious almost beyond endurance to know the whereabouts of both of his sons.
Inside the house, Scott and Joshua finally had got the back door to open, but not without it squeaking in protest. Molly had warned them of the squeak and they had moved it as slowly as they dared.
Annie and Eli recognised the sound but neither could do anything to assist whoever was coming into their home. Wilson, standing with his gun trained on the older man, looked over his shoulder curiously towards the rear bedroom. He looked once towards Duprés for guidance but the man was occupied with keeping his hostage firmly in his grasp. Annie had started to squirm when she recognised the sound of the back door and knew she had to create some sort of diversion.
“Hold still you old hag or I’ll break your arm,” Duprés snarled at her, tightening his grip. She cried out in pain and fear and stopped squirming.
Wilson snatched a glance at Eli and saw how the man still had his hands tied. Reckoning he could safely make it to the rear door without interference from the old man he moved silently through the house.
Scott signalled for Joshua to step back behind a wardrobe and conceal himself as he did likewise on his side of the small room. They watched with held breath as Wilson entered the room, gun leading the way. It wouldn’t take long for him to discover their hiding places so Joshua deliberately stubbed his toe against the wooden panel, creating enough noise to distract Wilson from Scott’s location.
As Wilson turned towards Joshua Scott crossed swiftly behind him and brought his gun down onto the unsuspecting man’s head. Joshua caught him as he fell, lowering him silently to the ground.
“I didn’t tell you to do that,” Scott berated him as quietly as he could control his temper. “He might have shot you. Next time, when I say to stay hidden do me a favour and follow orders. I intend to get both you and my brother out of this alive so that *he* can yell at you for coming back here.”
Joshua flashed his teeth in a sudden grin and Scott sighed in minor frustration. The boy seemed to be having the time of his life! He moved quietly towards the front of the house, checking each room as he passed, somewhat puzzled as to Johnny’s whereabouts, before catching Eli’s attention. The old man nodded towards where Duprés stood firmly holding Annie in his grip. Scott held a finger to his lips, somewhat unnecessarily, and padded silently up behind the man.
Duprés flinched suddenly at the unexpected feel of cold steel snuggling into position below his right ear. The voice which accompanied the sensation was quiet and civilised, but left little doubt as to what it wanted.
“Let her go, Duprés, or you’ll be meeting your Maker ahead of schedule and I don’t think you’ll like what He has to say to you.” The unmistakable sound of a hammer being cocked backed up the threat.
Duprés wondered briefly where Wilson had gone. Was this some sort of bluff and double bluff? Was his man merely waiting for the best moment to disarm this newcomer?
The voice continued to torment him. “Don’t hold out hope for a rescue by your friend. He’s having a lie down in the back room. Now let…her…go!”
Annie almost fell as the grip on her arm was suddenly released. Outside, Murdoch and Val had stood transfixed as Scott played out his hand, and now moved forward quickly to catch the elderly woman as she stumbled.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, are you okay?” Murdoch steadied her and she stepped back a few inches to take in his tall frame.
“I shall be, Mister, thanks to Scott. An’ you must be the pappy of these fine young men.” She was quick to recover her formidable composure now that the ugliness that had hovered over their home was being lifted.
Murdoch reddened under the intense scrutiny of those tired but twinkling brown eyes. “Murdoch Lancer, ma’am, and I believe I owe you a great deal for looking after my sons.”
Annie’s eyes suddenly widened as he mentioned his sons. “Johnny! O my sweet Lord, the poor boy. He’s out there in that filthy barn where he’s no business bein’ an’ I don’t even know what happened to Mr Manson. He went to help the boy an’ disappeared ages ago. We gotta help them.” She grabbed Murdoch’s suddenly tremulous hand and dragged him towards the barn.
Scott had overheard her words and realised with dismay that that must be where his missing brother was. After Duprés had released Annie, Scott had held the man at gunpoint whilst his father talked to her. Remembering the condition he’d left his brother in, and also recalling what Molly had told them about his new injuries, Scott’s blood boiled. He nudged the despicable human being in front of him out of the house at gunpoint and pointed to the bench where such a short time ago, he and Joshua had had their talk about life on Duprés’ farm.
“Sit there, and don’t even breathe out of sequence. I might still put a bullet in you, so don’t push your luck.” Scott’s voice was as quietly menacing as anything Johnny Madrid could have produced and he was secretly pleased with the effect it had on the man. Duprés’ face had lost its florid complexion and taken on a putty colour.
Scott longed to follow his father to the barn and he called Val’s name, stopping the other man in his tracks as he made to follow Murdoch.
“Look after this scumbag, would you? I’d like to see how Johnny’s doing.”
Val was torn between seeing his amigo himself, and allowing family to win. In the end he pulled his own gun and stood menacingly over the cowed figure of the punctured bully.
“Go see to him, Scott. Tell him ol’ Val’s here, rootin’ for him.”
Scott didn’t need telling twice and Val watched him almost sprint towards the barn. He became aware of movement and turned to watch the young black man helping Eli from the house. The older man was grinning widely in spite of his cuts and bruises as he regarded their tormentor being held at gunpoint. He tried his best not to gasp as Joshua tenderly cut away the ropes from his chaffed and bleeding wrists, the hands puffy and discoloured.
Duprés raised his gaze from the ground where he’d been sitting contemplating what had gone wrong. He had become aware of someone else watching him and his eyes met those of his former slave. Anger filled him as he noticed what he took to be a look of gloating in Joshua’s eyes and he tossed caution to the wind as he body-charged Val aside, his shoulder catching the distracted sheriff in the gut and knocking all the air from his lungs. As Val collapsed to the ground Duprés launched himself at his ‘property’, a feral scream leaving his throat.
Murdoch stopped suddenly as he entered the barn, watching warily as the two dogs yapped and snarled at him. He was relieved to see that their rope prevented them from reaching him and he glanced over to where Jelly was bent over his son. His throat tightened as he realised that Johnny wasn’t on his feet, a sure sign that the boy was badly hurt. He noticed another man in the barn and looked questioningly at him.
Manson crossed unsteadily towards the tall rancher, a shaky hand held out. Murdoch grasped it, noticing the dried blood on the man’s cheek and the glazed look in his eyes.
“Mr Lancer, sorry to meet you under these circumstances. Believe me, I had no idea things would get so out of hand.”
“I’m assuming by your appearance that Duprés turned on you,” Murdoch suggested, not wanting to be ignorant but anxious to cross to his boy still on the ground.
Scott followed hot on his father’s heels, almost cannoning into him just beyond the barn door. Annie had already left the barn again, having expressed her intention to bring Johnny some water.
“Excuse me sir, but I want to see to Johnny,” he hustled past his father, barely sparing the third man a glance. Murdoch stepped aside and watched in envy as his two boys met up, hearing Scott’s solicitous enquiry of Johnny’s wellbeing, and unable to hear the reply. Enough was enough. You could stand around all day being polite to strangers, but not when your son was hurt only feet from where you stood jawing.
“Forgive me, Mister…”
“Bob Manson, Mr Lancer, and please, see to your son. Nothing I have to tell you is more important than that. I’m afraid he’s been through a lot at the hands of that animal I used to work for.”
Murdoch heard the words but now wasn’t the time to dwell on them. He hurried to Johnny’s side, his breath catching as he took in the state his son was in. He could just imagine the reaction from Sam Jenkins if he were here now. His gut instinct was to go right up to that house and teach Mister ‘slave-driver’ Duprés a lesson he’d never forget, but he swallowed it to kneel by his son.
Scott caught his eye as he reached out tentatively to touch Johnny’s right shoulder. Their look spoke volumes for how they felt about any man who could inflict such pain on another. Johnny stirred under the gentle touch and prised open one eye. The faces before him were blurred but recognisable. Beside the whiskered jowls of Jelly swam the clean-cut, chiselled features of his cherished brother and the stern, concerned face of their father.
“Hey,” he addressed them all, economically.
“Hey yourself, young man. How are you feeling?” Murdoch spoke, surprised to find his throat tightening with emotion.
“Don’t ask him that, Murdoch. You know he’ll say he’s fine,” Scott choked out, angry beyond measure at his brother’s condition. “We need to get him in to bed. Johnny, we’ll carry you up to the house, but it’s going to hurt.”
Johnny looked around as much as he was able and saw Manson wavering in the background, a hand to his head.
“Manson helped…take care of him…concussed,” he managed, his dry throat making talking difficult.
Scott looked at the man behind them in surprise, taking in the blood on his face for the first time. Rising reluctantly from his brother’s side he led the dazed man to a hay bale and sat him down.
“What happened to you?”
Manson shook his head, “I don’t remember. Your son tells me Duprés attacked me, but I don’t know why.”
“Johnny?” Scott looked over to where Murdoch and Jelly were easing him upright from the hard earth.
“Give me…minute…Boston,” Johnny grunted, concentrating on keeping the barn from pitching back and forth. He swallowed the rising bile and closed already half-closed eyes as his stomach threatened to rebel. Refusing to allow it to take centre-stage, he quelled the nausea and opened one swollen eye. “Manson was tryin’ to cut me free, an’ Duprés hit him real hard. He was out for a long time…thought he was a gonner.”
The talk had left him weary and Murdoch placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “That’s alright, Johnny, we’ll take care of Mr Manson. Let’s get you propped up against something for support as we figure out how to get you back to the house.”
“I don’t want ya all fussin’. Just help me up, Murdoch, I can make it.”
Scott heard the quiet words and exchanged a wry look with his father. How many times did Johnny think he could get away with such a blatant statement?
“Sure you can, son, but humour an old man and let me help you. I came all this way, and now you’re telling me I needn’t have bothered?”
Johnny was spared having to summon up an answer as Eli staggered suddenly through the doorway, stopping short at the sight of the dogs.
“Help, come quickly…it’s Duprés and Joshua…”
Scott was furthest away but made a start for the door only to be beaten there by Murdoch’s large frame. For such a big man he could move swiftly when he needed to.
“Watch your brother, Scott. This one’s mine…” The words were plain, the tone leaving no doubt as to what exactly was going through Murdoch Lancer’s mind. He had brewed himself into a lather on the ride there thinking of what he might do to the man who had beaten his son, and the opportunity for revenge wasn’t about to be passed up on.
Scott crossed to Johnny’s side, supporting him with Jelly’s help as Murdoch edged past the dogs and outside.
Crossing the short distance to the house, he noticed Val picking himself off the ground, a hand rubbing tenderly at his midriff. In a flurry of movement on the dry earth, Duprés was beating the daylights out of his former slave. Joshua had the advantage of youth on his side, and was defending himself as best he could, but Duprés was much heavier, and was fuelled by an all-consuming rage. When he had seen Joshua emerging from the house, seemingly sneering at him, he’d finally lost all sense of reason and had hurled himself at the young black, knocking him to the ground, stunned.
“They’ve been rolling around like madmen. I can’t get them separated, an’ the boy’s takin’ an awful hammerin’. Ya gotta pull them apart, Mr Lancer.” Eli stood with his hands wringing, hoping the tall rancher would somehow have some means of stopping this. A sudden shot halted everything in a frozen tableau. The men rolling in the dirt stopped, locked in a strange embrace as Murdoch and Eli turned to regard Val Crawford brandishing his pistol.
“ALRIGHT! Break it up or the next bullet won’t be aimed at the birds.”
Joshua took the opportunity to wriggle out from beneath the furious man trying his best to murder him. The boy was bleeding profusely from his nose and sported various aches and pains, but he was alive and thankful for the timely intervention. Annie cautiously emerged from the house, having feared to do so earlier in case she distracted Joshua. She dabbed at his bleeding nose and he smiled gratefully at her.
Duprés rose stiffly to his feet, glaring at the men surrounding him, well aware that he had no friends here. He smoothed his clothing before sneering at the sheriff.
“You’re out of your league, little man. This person is my property and I was merely punishing him for causing me considerable expense and time. You have no right to threaten me in this manner. I’ll have your badge, just see if I don’t.”
Murdoch heard the bald words of admission to slave-driving and his blood pressure soared. He didn’t know whether they could take Duprés in for his crime in another state, but he was certain the man wasn’t about to get off hurting Johnny. He slowly and carefully unbuckled his gun belt and handed it to a mystified Val.
“Sheriff, I think Johnny would like to see you, and I’m sure you’d like to see him, too. Eli, could you and Annie take Joshua inside and see to his cuts?” Murdoch spoke calmly and quietly, the words direct orders but seeming not to be, the way he delivered them. Val was reminded in that quiet voice of how some animals mesmerised their prey, and he glanced briefly at Duprés, who seemed to have lost some of his bluster.
“Sure thing, Mr Lancer. I’ll be right there in the barn when you’re through. You an’ Duprés got somethin’ ya wanna discuss, seems like ya got the right to some privacy.”
He turned to go and Murdoch shot him a glance of gratitude at the scruffy sheriff’s understanding.
“Thanks, Val, I owe you one.”
Val’s hand waved off the words. “Just be sure ya win. I don’t wanna be the one to tell Johnny he got away.”
Inside the barn, Jelly and Scott had got Johnny moved slowly across to the bales and he now sat wedged against one, his colour settling after the move. They looked up in surprise as yet another visitor stepped warily past the dogs.
“Mangy mutts, can’t somebody get them outta here?” Val muttered as he stepped away from their snapping teeth.
“What’s going on, Val?” Scott enquired, perplexed that the sheriff should be here if something was happening outside.
“Yer pa’s havin’ a one-to-one with that ol’ stuffed shirt an’ I didn’t wanna crowd him,” Val grinned, before crossing to crouch in front of Johnny. He took in his friend’s sorry state and blew his breath out in a whistle. “They sure did a number on you, amigo. If Murdoch hands out as much as you’ve taken, I might have to arrest him. But I’ll give him a minute afore I stop him. Seems to me yon feller might just deserve a smack or two!”
Johnny gave a lop-sided grin that did his brother’s heart good to see. He rolled his heavy head round to look at Scott.
“Help me up, Boston. I don’t wanna miss this.”
Scott thought to refuse him his request, but the truth was he didn’t want to miss it either. His only regret was that Murdoch was claiming the right to mete out the revenge. His blood still boiled enough for two men and he wanted a cup of that revenge himself. Still, Johnny was going to be alright, this time, so perhaps he’d allow seniority to claim the stakes.
“Come on, shaky, let’s get you out of here.”
Scott and Jelly carefully eased their precious burden to his feet and stood for a moment or two to allow Johnny to recover his equilibrium. For a minute he thought he wasn’t going to be able to make it, but determination won and he gave them a dazzling smile, marred by the bruised cheeks.
“Think yer so smart, doncha? Ya’ll be in bed afore ya know it, once you’ve seen yer pa knock seven bells outta that feller. Now quit yer dawdlin’ an let’s get ya outta here. Them dogs is givin’ me the willies, all that howlin’.” Jelly gripped Johnny firmly around the waist as Scott crouched slightly and eased his shoulder beneath his brother’s right arm, supporting most of his weight.
Outside, the combatants were dust-covered and bleeding in equal proportions. Murdoch wasn’t alien to a bare-knuckled fight having indulged in more than one in his time, and should have knocked this pompous ass out long ago. But Duprés was fighting for his life. He had no means of knowing that Murdoch would stop short of actually killing him, and he was judging the man by his own standards. He knew that if the roles were reversed, he wouldn’t hesitate to murder to exact revenge, and thus he condemned himself.
The warm sunshine seeped into Johnny’s bones and he sighed contentedly as he relaxed against his brother’s strong frame. He knew Murdoch was a mean fighter and thought back to one memorable time when he and Scott had covertly watched their father brawling in a public street in a strange town to retrieve what had been stolen from him. He had handled himself well in that fight, and he was doing fine in this one. Plus old Harvard was itching to get in on the action should things start going pear-shaped for the old man.
Val and Manson came out behind them and watched the action for a moment or two before Murdoch finally got the upper hand and floored his opponent with a well-timed uppercut. Duprés collapsed silently in a crumpled, deflated heap and lay still as the Lancer patriarch sat back on his heels, breathing heavily. He sucked his knuckles before raising his eyes to those of his sons and grinned at them.
“That felt so good. Man’s gotta learn that Lancer takes care of its own.”
“Johnny Lancer, I won’t tell you again, you’re to stay in that bed or I’ll steal yer britches!” Annie wagged a wizened finger at her young patient.
“Annie, I ain’t fixin’ to stay in bed another minute. If I do I’m likely to forget how to walk. All this fussin’s doin’ my head in.” Johnny threw back the clothes and snatched them quickly over him again when he discovered he wore nothing at all but embarrassment. His face reddened at the thought that someone had undressed him at some stage. What he really didn’t need to know was who!
What he also needed to know was when the room would stop that infuriating whirling. He was fed up with being less than 100% fit.
After the excitement of seeing Murdoch pulverise Duprés, his legs had buckled and he had collapsed against his brother. He remembered nothing more until waking up once again in one of the Henderson’s beds. He’d lain dozing for a while, relishing the soft mattress after the uncomfortable time he’d endured in the barn, but counting the minutes until the inevitable fussing began. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the concern of the others. It was just still relatively alien to him to have so many people care about him.
“An’ take this darned contraption off me, Annie. It’s playin’ havoc with my shoulder.” He fingered the heavy strapping wrapped around him.
“It’s necessary to stabilise your fractured collarbone, Johnny,” Sam spoke quietly from the doorway. “I know it can’t be comfortable but it’s a bad break and you need to have your arm immobilised.” He sat on the edge of the mattress, inspecting his patient openly.
“SAM!” Johnny grinned at the old doctor. “When in tarnation did you get here?”
“Just in time to see you do your wilting flower act out there. I can tell you I was in two minds as to whether to travel all the way here just because you’d got yourself into another scrape, and then I sat back and thought about what exactly you might have done to yourself if Scott and Murdoch were asking me to come. So here I am, and not a moment too soon. When you decide to get hurt, you pull out all the stops.”
Johnny rested back into the pillows, feeling his face redden further under the other man’s teasing.
“So what’s your prognosis, then, doc? Will I live?”
“This time…Annie did a very good job with your wounds and whilst you were getting some beauty sleep I stitched them up. The collarbone’s going to take about 6 weeks to heal and you’ll have to keep it strapped for most of that time, but you’re not going to be doing too much around the ranch for a while, anyway. I’d say it can’t have been too pleasant what with the hole in your shoulder, already. That man has a lot to answer for.”
Johnny’s head went down characteristically as he tried to deflect the sympathy coming from the older man. “I’ve had worse, Sam. I’ll live, or so you tell me, but do I really have to be trussed up like one o’ Teresa’s steam puddin’s?” He squirmed in discomfort and the doctor’s heart went out to him.
“There’s nothing we can do about that, Johnny. The bullet wound is clean and healing well, but if you don’t have your collarbone properly immobilised and straightened, it’ll heal crooked and might impair the use of your arm. But,” he held his hands up in mock surrender, “the decision is yours. If you want to take the risk of not having a fully mobile left arm…”
He watched the warring decisions being played out across his patient’s expressive face and almost laughed at the comic expressions. Johnny was clearly weighing up how much he really needed his left arm to fully function if he still had his shooting arm. A heavy sigh let them know he’d reached the right decision.
Scott entered the small bedroom in time to watch the mental gymnastics. He grinned at their doctor as they realised that Johnny was about to give in. Sam rose to his feet and moved towards the hall. He looked back at the dark-haired cowboy.
“Play nice, Johnny. You need to rest and take some food to build your strength back up. It’ll be a day or two before you’re strong enough to tackle the journey home. Now I’ve a few cuts and bruises to treat out here, so I’ll see you later.”
Annie patted Johnny’s knee in sympathy. “I’ll fix ya some broth an’ send in somethin’ fer the pain, boy. You stay right there.” With a cheeky grin she disappeared towards the kitchen.
“No… Annie, come back…” he looked in desperation to his brother. “Scott, tell her I ain’t takin’ any more boiled skunk. I’ll lie here, good as gold, but I ain’t taking any of her teas. No siree!”
“Is the patient being difficult?” a softly laughing voice queried.
The two brothers looked up in delight as Molly entered the room, a steaming mug held in her hands.
“Molly…boy, is it good to see you. You ok?” Johnny sat forward to touch her arm, pleased to see that she didn’t appear to have any lasting injuries. Her bruised cheeks were the only testimony to what she’d been through.
“I’m fine, boy, but you’re a mess. Here, Annie sent you this an’ said if you didn’t take it…somethin’ about stealin’ yer britches? Now me, I don’t mind if you’re not wearin’ any britches, you know that,” she smiled seductively and Scott suddenly felt superfluous to the conversation. “But you’ll not want to be in bed *all* day, will ya? So, no tea…no britches. Personally I’d take the tea!”
To emphasise her point she held the mug out to him and with a grimace he took it and drained the contents.
“Now that was a good boy,” Molly teased, as she straightened the quilt where he’d hastily pulled it back over his nakedness. “Scott, I’ll stay with him for a while. Why don’t you take a break?”
“Quit fussin’, don’t need anyone sittin’ with me…” Johnny’s voice slowed as he realised just how tired he really was. As he watched Molly rise as if to leave with Scott, he changed his mind and reached out his right hand, touching her arm lightly. “Lo siento. Stay…por favor.”
“Now honey, you go talkin’ that sweet talk of yours an’ we might end up putting your other shoulder outta action, too,” she chided, laughing at the expression of longing fighting with a yawn on his battered face. “Still, I’ve got me a beau now. Wouldn’t do to be dancin’ with you in here an’ him just outside.”
Both men looked at her with renewed interest and she laughingly filled them in.
“Me an’ Jeb, well, we’re gonna take things slowly but Annie an’ Eli say I can stay here an’ help around the farm, so we’re gonna get to know each other, an’ who knows? Annie’s promised to teach me all I need to know about farmers,” she smiled coyly before continuing, “as there’s not too much more I need to learn about men. I’ve had a few good teachers!”
Both men grinned but she watched in sympathy as Johnny’s eyes started to droop. Pulling the chair closer to the bed she combed her fingers through his thick, silky hair, watching him struggle to open those mesmerising eyes.
“Don’t fight it, darlin’, we’ll be here when you waken up again,” she crooned, and he gave in to exhaustion and the effects of Annie’s witch’s brew.
“So how is he really, Sam?” Murdoch asked, trying to avoid wincing in front of Annie as she prepared lunch.
He sat at her kitchen table whilst Sam bathed his skinned knuckles with carbolic. He suffered in silence as the doctor bathed his facial cuts, all the while listening to the good doctor’s criticism of his actions.
“He’ll live, or as he’s so fond of saying, he’ll be fine. What he needs is rest and some decent food, and he’ll get plenty of that here,” he smiled at the old woman as she gave him an appreciative grin. “This good lady makes a great nurse.”
He turned to address her. “Annie, Scott told me about your dwindling medical supplies. Now whilst I can’t condone members of the public having access to narcotics such as Laudanum, I can leave you a few recipes for herbal preparations and get you more carbolic. I’ll also write to some people I know in San Francisco and let them know that William’s Ridge is in need of a country doctor. It’s not right that it should all rest on your shoulders. Not that you didn’t do a fine job with Johnny.”
Annie grinned in appreciation of the praise. “Weren’t anythin’ somebody else wouldn’t a’ done. That boy might a’ bled to death without help.”
“I’m not so sure that everyone would have taken strangers into their home so readily, Annie, and you have to know I’ll be forever in your debt,” Murdoch spoke quietly, his voice choking. “It wasn’t always the case, but my sons mean more to me than I can possibly tell you.”
Sam listened to the heart-felt words and his heart glowed. It hadn’t really been that long ago that this man before him was an empty, bitter old man with nothing to fill his heart except the land he toiled over. He turned back to address his old friend but couldn’t stop the reprimand on his lips.
“A man your age should have more sense, Murdoch Lancer. Brawling like that’s the sort of reckless behaviour I’d expect from your sons, not you. What sort of example are you setting them, wrestling about in the dirt?”
Murdoch felt his anger simmering. “If you’d been here at the time, Sam, I’d bet good money you’d have supported my actions. You’ve seen Johnny, and Joshua’s lucky we got Duprés off him when we did. That maniac was going to kill him, and he darned nearly managed it with my son. I don’t regret a single action and if I had to make the decision again, I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same. OUCH!” This last was delivered as Sam dabbed perhaps too enthusiastically at his split lip.
The kindly doctor shook his head at the folly of old men who ought to know better, but he had to admit that when he’d taken inventory of Johnny’s injuries he’d been closer to hitting anyone than ever before. He turned to look at Duprés sitting in a chair with his hands bound before him. Val sat opposite him, his baleful glare trained on the man. Duprés had quite a few injuries of his own that would need cleaning, but as far as Sam was concerned, he was very far down the list of priorities. He’d been unconscious for about an hour after Murdoch’s uppercut had laid him out and little or no sympathy had been wasted on him.
“I know, Murdoch,” he sighed. “I suppose I can’t really blame you. Joshua got off lightly; just a few cuts and a bloodied nose, and it could have been a lot worse. And Johnny will be fine, eventually. Just promise me that I’m not going to have you as a regular patient, too. Between your two sons, I’ve barely time to look after my other patients. Now hold still!”
“Mr Lancer, I’m glad to see you’re feeling a bit better,” Manson started, sitting in the chair at Johnny’s bedside.
“Call me Johnny. There’s too many Mr Lancer’s around here an’ it’ll save confusion. So fill me in with what’s gonna happen about Duprés’ farm an’ the people who worked for him.” Johnny was propped up on pillows against the headboard, the position not exactly comfortable but he refused to greet people lying down.
Manson was amazed at the generosity of this young man who had suffered so badly at his boss’s hands. Whilst Manson hadn’t actually dealt out any of the punishment, he’d helped to restrain him and hadn’t intervened in time to prevent further suffering. And yet here the boy was, looking decidedly battered but inviting him to call him by his first name. He looked down at his hands, twisting them back and forth.
“Well, Joshua and I are going back to set everyone free. Duprés has no family to take over the farm so I suppose the courts will have to decide what’s to be done about it. As for the slaves,” he held up a hand to forestall Johnny’s objection to the derogatory term, “they have never known anything other than captivity and it’s not going to be easy to rehabilitate them. I don’t know that I’m up to that task.”
“You did something very brave in standing up to Duprés when it can’t have been easy. Joshua tells me he feels ok about goin’ back an’ doin’ whatever it takes to find work for everybody, so if *he* trusts ya, ya gotta trust yourself. But what about Duprés? Will you testify against him?”
Manson swallowed as he realised the enormity of what was being asked of him. He hadn’t actually moved in the same social circles as Duprés but he *had* enjoyed a reasonably comfortable lifestyle as his employee. What was being asked of him now would ostracise him to those people he’d once moved amongst.
“Sheriff Crawford seems to think that the courts will deal severely with Duprés over the slavery issue but that it might not be enough to get a prison sentence. As for his attack on you, he might even get off with only a reprimand. Apparently the injuries inflicted by him personally, whilst serious, weren’t life-threatening.
He’s a rich and influential man in his own town and has friends in high places. So it seems it’s down to me. I’ve given it some thought and I’ve decided I’m going to press charges against him for attacking me, too. With both cases of assault and the slavery issue we might get somewhere. Your brother seems to think a good lawyer might even push for attempted murder.”
Johnny graced him with a dazzling smile, the effect dampened somewhat by his blackened eyes and bruised cheeks but the joy on his face was obvious.
“You’re doin’ the right thing an’ I’ll back you all the way. I saw him hittin’ you an’ believe me, I thought you were a gonner for sure. An’ Scott’s a smart man, educated too; if he thinks we can get Duprés convicted of attempted murder, he’ll be locked away for a very long time.”
Murdoch and Val were to ride back to Spanish Wells with Duprés and Wilson. Although the law would most likely decide to bring charges of complicity against Manson, Johnny didn’t want to accuse him of anything, having seen that the man had helped Molly and had tried to help him, too.
However, there was no way that Murdoch was leaving the Henderson’s until Johnny was more comfortable. This meant at least one night’s stay and the accommodations were stretched to say the least. Johnny had one bed; Annie was persuaded to take her own but insisted that Molly shared it with her, and Eli had wanted to give up his but as he was the eldest, he was kindly but firmly denied his gesture.
Murdoch declared his intentions to sit by his son’s bedside during the first part of the night, and Scott volunteered to relieve him half way through, much to the disgust of the third Lancer.
“I’m fine, old man. Don’t need no babysitters. You get some decent sleep or your back’s gonna play you somethin’ merry tomorrow.”
“John, this isn’t open for discussion. You’ve still got a trace of fever and I’m claiming parental privilege in doing this. Save your breath for getting out of that bed tomorrow and shut up!” Murdoch watched his son’s open-mouthed stare and mentally chalked up a victory point. It wasn’t often that he got the last word with either of his sons when it came to their health, but he had this time, and it felt good.
Val had marched Duprés and Wilson to the barn with Scott’s help and they’d found themselves trussed in much the same manner as Johnny had spent the previous night. Neither man was comfortable and Duprés had complained bitterly about his treatment.
“You have some nerve, Duprés. You trussed my brother up out here in the cold with bullet holes and broken bones, and it’s no thanks to you that he doesn’t have a worse fever, so unless you want to share a few more injuries, I’d suggest you shut up!” Scott took small delight in tying the man’s hands and feet together more vigorously than was totally necessary, but if he wasn’t getting his chance to wallop the man this was the lease he could do.
Val remained in the barn with them, once the dogs had been tied up outside. Jelly was more than happy to stay there too, once the delicate matter of the dogs had been sorted out.
“Ain’t about to share my bed with no snufflin’, slobberin’ beasts. Bad enough I have to be in the same place as them animals,” the bewhiskered one nodded at Duprés and Wilson.
So that just left Sam and Scott to sort themselves. The armchairs beside the range in the kitchen were deep and comfortable and Annie settled the men with coffee and blankets before retiring for the night. She had checked in on Johnny and between her, Murdoch and Sam they’d coerced him into taking another cup of herbal tea. His fever was well settled by the time his eyes slid shut, and Annie caressed his bruised cheek with a wrinkled hand.
“You have two good boys, Mister Lancer. They’re a credit to you.”
Murdoch looked from his sleeping son to the kindly old woman. “I can take no credit for them, but you’re right: they are good boys. I didn’t get to see either of them growing up, and they didn’t grow up together, but these past 10 months we’ve all been gradually getting to know each other. We still butt heads occasionally, but I can’t imagine life now without them.” He spoke softly, anxious to not disturb Johnny who wore a frown on his face, testimony to the fact that his injuries still pained him.
His voice caught slightly as he thought of the times during those months when first one son and then the other had been injured. There had been far too many of those occasions and he wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to the feeling in his gut when it happened. Not having had much experience at parenting, he was as much on a learning curve as they were. He sighed deeply and felt Annie’s hand rest gently on his forearm.
“He’ll be fine, Mister Lancer. You leave him with me for a few days an’ I’ll feed him up so good he’ll not wanna come home.”
Murdoch snorted. “I don’t really want you putting Johnny off coming home, you know,” he grinned, his heart so full of gratitude to this old woman and her elder brother. “I’ve got used to his noise about the place.”
“Seems to me I ain’t the one makin’ the noise right now,” Johnny’s sleep-thickened voice murmured.
“Sorry son, we’ll take this outside and let you rest.” Murdoch pulled the quilt up to his son’s chin and Johnny was asleep again before they left the room.
The following morning Johnny rose stiffly from the mattress and plucked at the contraption wrapped around his shoulder with disgust.
Doc Jenkins raised one eyebrow as he sat around the breakfast table. “I believe I’ve been summoned. Anyone care to place bets as to the nature of this morning’s complaint?” He addressed Lancers senior and junior as well as Jelly, but no-one offered to take him up on the venture, all three faces grinning but heads studiously lowered.
Strolling in to Johnny’s room with a steaming mug of coffee in his grip, he regarded the battered features of one of his favourite patients.
“Good morning, Johnny. And how are you this fine morning?”
“What’s so fine about it? This thing’s nearly strangling me. Get it off, Sam. Please! I can’t ride back all trussed up like this.” Johnny pulled at the restraining bandage with his right hand and Sam sighed.
“I thought we had this discussion yesterday. The bandage stays, John, and so do you. I want you to rest here for a few more days.” He held up his hand as Johnny’s mouth opened to protest. “Now I’m not going to argue with you. You’d be too sore to ride a horse over 70 miles and it’ll take Scott about 3 days to get home and back with a buggy, so you’ve three days here to recuperate and be polite to these good people. I’ll check in with you when you get home. I have to head on back now. Sometimes I think you Lancers think you’re my only patients. Heaven knows you supply me with enough work!”
Johnny looked up sheepishly to find his father hovering in the doorway.
“Is he giving you any trouble, Sam?” Murdoch enquired.
The doctor snorted, “Trouble from Johnny Lancer? Who ever heard of such a thing? We were just saying goodbye, Murdoch. I’ll get saddled up and be ready to go as soon as you are.” He turned back to Johnny. “I came here as quickly as I could under the circumstances, so I didn’t drive my buggy down. If I had, I’d stay and bring you back with me. But some people seemed to think I needed to get here in a hurry.”
He made to leave the room but turned back at Johnny’s soft calling of his name.
“Sam, you know we think the world of you, don’t you? Except for those times when you push tubes up our noses an’ stick fingers where they’ve no business bein’! But we can’t imagine you not bein’ there to patch us up. I guess what I’m tryin’ to say is, thanks for comin’ all this way for a bad-tempered fool. I really am grateful.”
“We all are,” Murdoch murmured.
Sam smiled kindly at the boy struggling to his feet. “You’re more than welcome, Johnny, you know that…all of you. But it wouldn’t do any harm to exercise more care around flying lead. And I don’t recall giving you permission to get out of bed or walk on that leg!”
Several hours later Jelly and Johnny sat on the bench outside the kitchen door enjoying the sunshine and watching the bustle of activity. The older man was weary after the long ride down and had suggested to Murdoch that he should stay and keep an eye on Johnny, in case he had a relapse and Annie needed help. Murdoch had been only too happy to take him up on the offer, aware that it also saved face for Jelly.
Scott disappeared to saddle up and Val was in the barn with the prisoners.
Manson and Joshua were preparing to depart south for the farm and who knew what sorts of problems in getting everything resolved satisfactorily. Manson was well aware that when the time came to testify against Duprés, the courts may well punish him, too, for having been involved in the illegal use of slaves.
Murdoch took the young black man aside.
“Joshua, things will be difficult for you, going back there and facing an uncertain future. I just want you to know that if you would like it, there’ll always be a job waiting for you at Lancer. I’ve written the offer down on this letter, so that if ever you find yourself headed back to California, someone can direct you to the ranch.”
Joshua’s eyes filled and overflowed at the act of kindness shown by this man to whose family he felt he’d brought nothing but pain and suffering.
“Thank you, Mister Lancer sir, an’ I might take you up on that job, but I gotta go help my friends first. An’ I don’t know how I’ll ever pay you back for everythin’ you an’ your sons did for me,” he spoke quietly, head downcast in a style that reminded Murdoch so much of his shy younger son.
Murdoch glanced over at that son now, breathing a sigh of relief that Johnny seemed once again to have beaten the odds. Too many times in his young life Johnny had been the subject of abuse and violence perpetrated against him, and in spite of it all, he had come through with a warmth of personality that never failed to amaze his father.
“You have no need to think you owe us anything, Joshua. What was done to you was against the law and any decent man would have done the same. And if Johnny got hurt, that was down to those other men, not you.” He looked over to where Johnny was indicating with his head that he wanted to talk to Joshua, too. “Why don’t you go say your goodbyes. I think Johnny wants to talk to you.”
Joshua trudged over to the two men seated at the kitchen door.
Johnny put on his most dazzling smile as the doleful brown eyes came up momentarily to meet his sapphire ones.
“Hey Joshua, bet you never thought you’d be volunteerin’ to go back to your farm, never mind on a horse! You gonna be ok doin’ that?”
Joshua had found something completely fascinating in the earth and refused to maintain eye contact.
“’m ok, Mister Johnny, but I’m so sorry you got hurt. Ain’t right another man hurtin’ fo me.”
Jelly bristled at the obvious worthlessness this young boy held himself in.
“Why, Johnny gets hurt all the time, don’t ya, boy? Don’t you go beatin’ yerself up ‘cause he’s laid up again. We got a theory on that: the more often he gets hurt, the less time he has to spend roundin’ up dumb steers.”
Johnny balked slightly at the idea that he got hurt a lot, but grinned anyway at Jelly’s words, especially when he saw the beginning of a smile playing around Joshua’s lips.
“Makes sense to me. What about you, Josh? You think I’d rather sit about the house getting’ spoiled with freshly made lemonade or be out wranglin’ stupid animals?”
Joshua’s head came fully up this time and the grin was something to behold. “Reckon you got it right, Mister Johnny. But if you’d rather sit about than work the ranch, how come yo pappy’s so keen to give me that job?”
Jelly snorted, “That’s ‘cause he’s a man short most o’ the time with Johnny laid up. You come work for us an’ we’ll have ya ridin’ them cow ponies like ya was born to it!”
Val checked the bonds of his prisoners for the umpteenth time, not taking any chances of them getting loose on the journey ahead. Scott and Murdoch stood beside Johnny as Jelly busied himself talking to Sam.
“You sure you’re going to be alright this time, brother? The last time I left you here and told you to watch your back, you didn’t exactly listen to me,” Scott chided, the words hiding his true feelings about leaving Johnny behind.
“Hey, I watched my back; the person you should be yellin’ at’s sittin’ on that horse over there. You all watch your backs when you stop for breaks. Don’t go lettin’ that fella loose or he’ll slither away in the long grass like the snake he is.”
“Seriously, son, you *are* feeling alright now, aren’t you? Because I could stay here with you if you wanted.”
“Murdoch, quit fussin’. I’m gonna get enough of that from Annie an’ Jelly! Why he has to stay here’s beyond me. Them two’s likely to put my head away. I’ve told ya I’m fine; now get goin’ before you lose any more daylight. An’ tell Teresa I want a double chocolate cake waitin’ for me in 5 days’ time. She’s got plenty of time to get it right.”
He stood to grasp their arms in a firm grip, neither man wanting to relinquish their hold on him, until Johnny pulled away, embarrassed at the show of affection.
“Scott, help me over to Duprés, would ya?”
“What on earth do you want to go anywhere near him for?” Scott’s eyebrows rose towards his blond bangs.
“Just wanna see his face out here in the open for one last time. The next time I see him, he’ll be up before the Judge an’ with any luck he’ll get put away.”
They hobbled the short distance to where Val had now mounted and was holding the reins of his prisoners’ horses. Duprés saw them coming and refused to make eye contact with either man.
Johnny grinned up at him, nonetheless. “Don’t matter that you can’t look me in the eye, Duprés. Fact is, you’ve lost everythin’. Joshua’s a free man; Manson’s gonna dispose of your farm an’ release all your slaves, an’ your reputation won’t be worth spit; an’ I’ll see you in court where, with Manson’s help,” he noticed the head swinging round in shock at those words, “that’s right, you didn’t know that, did you? Manson an’ me, we’re gonna get you put away for a very long time. How are you at breakin’ rocks an’ wearin’ chains round your ankle? I hear it’s this year’s latest fashion. An’ there’s one thing you won’t be doin’ this side of eternity, an’ that’s causin’ people like Joshua any more trouble. This is one thing you can’t run away from. Ain’t life grand?”