For the next two weeks the Lancer ranch was a bustle of heavy activity. Cattle were rounded up and the calves were branded, making for very long hot exhausting days in preparation for the upcoming drive to Stockton scheduled one week away.
Bruce Craddock and his men hid in the hills watching the goings on and planning daily how they were going to extract the money from the owner once he returned. He had two spies, brothers in fact, that he had sent on to the Lancer ranch in the hopes that they would be able to glean as much information as they could while working beside the other ranch hands and the Lancer brothers themselves.
It had seemed at first that Rusty and Jake Fletcher might not get hired on but as the count of cattle increased, Murdoch Lancer finally ok’d the hiring of the two young cowboys. Both were blonde with hair that reached down to their collars, gray blue eyes with faces barely old enough to produce hair, yet each man sported a soft downy mustache that gleamed in the light of the sun, giving them an air of maturity they otherwise wouldn’t have had at the tender ages of 18 and 19 years old.
The work was grueling and both men found it hard for one or the other to sneak away during the night to make their report to Craddock. So far the information had been limiting until today. The problem had come up as to how they were going to get inside the house once the family and hired hands returned. “They plan on comin’ back a coupla days before the rest of the men,” Rusty told Craddock by the light of the campfire. “Jake says that the old man and his son Scott, that be the one that looks like me and my brother, ya know, the one that’s been eyein’ that fine piece of…”
Craddock slung the remnants of his coffee into the fire and it sizzled when it hit the fiery embers, “Shut up Rusty! I know who the son is, what I want to know is do you have any more information I can use damnit, now git on with it!” he shouted at the kid.
Rusty thought about not giving him any information out of stubborn defiance but thought better of it when he saw the man’s hand move slowly toward the gun tied down to his thigh, “They’re goin’ into town tomorrow. One final trip for some last minute supplies.”
Craddock thought on this piece of news then made a decision quickly, “Git back to the ranch kid and keep yer trap shut. The boys and me will take care of the rest. You remember what I told ya and make sure that brother of yours don’t go blabbin’ his gums either and wait for my word. Be back here tomorrow night and I’ll fill you in on the plan. Got it?”
“Yep I got it,” the young man said getting up to leave.
When Rusty finally rode out Craddock turned to the rest of his men and started making his plans. The Lancer’s were in for a big surprise and he was just the hombre to give it to them. “Here’s what were gonna do boys,” he said eyeing each one of the remaining men.
The next morning after breakfast found the buckboard ready and waiting outside the barn for Murdoch and Scott.
“Walt, I want you and the men to make sure none of those cattle go wandering off. Jelly, go over the chuck wagon one last time and make sure you have everything you need. Teresa, go through the medical supplies again, if there’s anything at all that you think needs to be added then do it. Johnny I want you to check out that string of horses we’re taking with us. If you think there’s a bad one in the bunch, then cut him. We don’t want any renegades on this drive.” Murdoch checked the list in his hand one last time for any further instructions. Feeling satisfied that he had everything covered he stuffed the list in his pocket and climbed up onto the buckboard seat.
Scott climbed aboard sitting next to his father and as Johnny, Jelly, Walt and Teresa stepped away from the wagon, Scott picked up the reins and clucked to the horses to get a move on.
“Don’t forget the extra bags of flour,” Teresa shouted as they drove away. Murdoch raised his hand in the air in acknowledgement of her reminder.
“All right, ya heard the boss, let’s git her done,” Jelly groused and turned from the group.
They each took off to do their jobs. Morning would come soon enough and with it, one of the biggest, most grueling cattle drives they had ever undertaken in their lives.
Johnny readied Barranca and led him from the stabled barn, anxious to get another look at the horses they would be taking along. There had been one or two that he wasn’t too sure about and since time was now down to the last day and night, this would be his only chance to round up replacements if he needed to. He also wanted to get in an hour of practicing his draw now that he was physically well enough. If he worked it out just right he would be able to do both things before his father returned.
Murdoch and Scott pulled up in front of Will Hanson’s storefront. It was still very early in the morning and Will was just putting out some of his specials on the front boardwalk. At the sound of the approaching wagon he turned, pushing his spectacles up his nose and smiled a greeting to the two Lancer men. “Hello Murdoch, Scott. Didn’t figure on seeing you two any time soon, thought you’d be well on your way to Stockton bout now.”
Climbing down Murdoch grunted, “In the morning Will. Glad to see you’re opened nice and early, Scott and I have some last minute supplies that we need for the trip.” He shook hands with the storekeeper and Scott jumped down from the side of the wagon next to his father. “Scott, good to see you too.”
Shaking the proffered hand Scott replied, “Same to you Mr. Hanson.”
“Well let me get a look at that list and lets see if we can’t get you settled up nice and quick like. I remember the days before I opened my store and had to run cattle with my Pa. Seemed like we always forgot something,” he said laughing while he read the list and departed into the store, his voice trailing off as he went in search of the items requested. Scott and Murdoch followed him knowing better than to try and have a conversation with the man as he hunted through his store. They stood at the counter and looked around, checking to see if there was anything they might need that wasn’t on the list.
Scott spied some colorful licorice in glass jars on the counter as well as peppermint sticks and grabbed a handful of each, smiling at his father who watched in amusement. “Might come in handy if someone we know gets in a bad mood.”
Murdoch chuckled and nodded his head in agreement. Will Hanson made his way to the front of the store with two coils of rope loped onto his shoulders and three bags of flour held between his hands talking nonstop with every step he took. Scott and Murdoch quickly took them off his hands and loaded them onto the wagon as Will went back into the store for more items on the list, “Yep, nearly drowned my fool head off when we crossed that raging creek not five miles from…” he was still saying as he disappeared from view past the doors.
“I wonder if he knows we can’t hear a word he’s saying when he walks away like that,” Scott asked his father.
Murdoch shook his head and leaned toward Scott to say quietly, “I don’t think so.”
Will Hanson bustled through the store this time laden with several blankets and two extra lanterns dangling from each hand. The ranchers once again helped him with his load, listening as he spoke about the wild coyotes that dared to venture up to his camp even with a blazing fire lit to keep the chill off the night. His voice trailed away again and Scott said, “Now that sounded interesting. I wouldn’t have minded hearing what happened next.”
Murdoch had to keep himself from laughing out loud. Will Hanson was certainly a character and Murdoch had to agree that the story did sound a bit interesting. They leaned against the counter waiting. Suddenly Scott stiffened and turned his body around facing the counter and started fidgeting nervously with the bundles of candy he intended to purchase. Murdoch wondered at his son’s sudden agitated state but before he had a chance to question him on it a sweet southern pie accented voice called his name from the front door, “Murdoch Lancer, it’s so good to see you.”
Grace Richards stepped through the doorway and walked up to the rancher with her hand held out in greeting. Blonde hair was piled on her head and cascaded down her neckline in soft thick curls and waves. A tiny black bow adorned her crown of glory and Murdoch took the time to appreciate her ample attributes as she approached. She wore a beautiful black silk dress trimmed with white fluffy lace across her bosom hardly covering the daring cleavage behind its gauzy veil. When she placed her tiny hand into his larger one he noticed the matching white lace that trailed several inches from her wrist, and gave her hand a gentle squeeze in greeting as he smiled into her pale blue eyes and rosy red lips.
“Mrs. Richards,” the tall rancher greeted.
“Now Murdoch Lancer, we’ve been friends for a long, long time, I think it’s quite all right if you just call me Grace,” she said smiling and casting a quick look at Scott who still faced the counter. “I see your son Scott is with you today and looking mighty fine as always,” she said teasingly to get his attention.
Scott turned and faced Grace, a smile on his face and a hope and a prayer in his heart that she wouldn’t spill the beans about the dinner date he had promised her he would arrange when they got done with the cattle drive. He hadn’t had time yet to broach the subject with his father with everything else that was going on.
“Hello Mrs. Richards, how are you today?” he asked politely as he too took her hand in his and gave it gentle shake.
“Why I’m just fine as always, thank you for asking. How did Sadie like her new hat?” she asked, tilting her head just a little to the side, laughter threatening to burst from her as she watched the younger man fidget next to his father while glancing down at the toes of his boots. The merriment she felt at watching his obvious discomfort caused tiny crinkles to appear around her blue eyes and her lips twitched, holding back a grin.
Gathering up his courage he faced the woman he knew had designs on his father and smiled back as he answered, “Oh just fine ma’am. She thought it was beautiful.”
She unfolded her arms from beneath her ample chest and said good naturedly and with a tiny squeak that gave her voice a melodic and humorous tone, “Well that’s just dandy. I’m so glad she was pleased. I’ll have to make sure that Millie knows just how much she liked it.”
She placed a tiny hand on Murdoch’s arm and asked him, “I hear you’re leaving on a very long cattle drive Murdoch and that your sons will be going with you on the trip this year. It must be exciting to know that they’ll be by your side with such a large undertaking.”
Murdoch smiled indulgently at her and patted her hand, “Yes I am. It should be an experience we’ll never forget.”
“Well that’s good. Say, how’s your son Johnny doing?”
“He’s fine. He’s checking out the horses today, making sure we have quality stock for our trip,” he replied.
“Well that’s good to hear also. Now you tell him I said to make sure he comes back in one piece and that goes for you two as well.” She turned toward Scott, “You come by and see me when you get home Scott. I have another little creation that I’m working on and it might just be my best one yet.”
All eyes moved toward the sound of Will Hanson as he struggled with an arm load of items, some as small as oil skin wrapped matches, extra bags of beans, coffee and a new shiny enameled coffee pot haphazardly hung around his neck by a thin rope to allow him the use of his arms to carry the items on Murdoch Lancer’s list.
Murdoch and Scott excused themselves and started taking the merchandise from the storekeeper’s arms.
“Thanks Scott, Murdoch. I think that’s it. Unless you have anything else you can think of while you’re still here.”
They unloaded their supplies into the back of the wagon. Murdoch turned to Will and said, “No, no, I think that’s got it Will. Looks like you found everything that was needed. We’ll just get the bill and be on our way.”
Will Hanson brushed his hands down his apron covered chest and pushed the spectacles that forever slipped down the bridge of his nose back up to his eyes. “Sounds good to me.”
The Lancer men followed Mr. Hanson back into the store and casually waited in front of the counter while Will figured up the cost of the goods and Grace Richards perused the new stock of fabrics stacked on two tables on the far side of the store. “Be with you in just a few minutes Grace,” he said with his head bowed toward the receipt, his pencil moving sharply down the paper as he totaled the bill.
Scott pushed the candy toward him indicating that he wanted it added to the tab, his eyes crinkling and smiling at the bewildered look on Mr. Hanson’s face. “For Johnny,” he explained in a quiet voice as if it were a secret between them.
Will chuckled and smiled back, “And for you too if I’m not mistaken,” he said in the same equally quiet voice.
Murdoch clamped Scott on the shoulder grinning at he exchange of words between them and said, “I’ll meet you outside in the buckboard.” Before leaving he reached over in front of Will and took one of the long black twisted licorice sticks and took a bite before anyone knew what he was up to. Will’s eyes were about to pop out of his head, when Murdoch leaned slightly over the counter and gave Will a good-natured pat on his shoulder saying, “This is very good. See you after the drive Will to pay on that bill.”
Perplexed at witnessing what Murdoch had just done, he stammered, “Ah…sure thing Murdoch. Good luck! See ya when ya get back.”
“Grace, nice to see you again.” Murdoch held the candy in his hand and waved a goodbye in the woman’s direction, “Come out to the ranch for a visit sometime, Teresa would love it,” he added with a final wave and another bite as he departed the store.
Will Hanson looked from the departing back of Murdoch Lancer to Grace Richards on the other side of the room and back to Scott again and asked, “Who was that man that was just in here? Because I know that couldn’t have been your father.”
Scott almost doubled over with laughter and heard Grace’s tinkling laughter ring across the room as well and then her tiny footsteps as she joined him at the counter. “Well I know I certainly don’t know that man, but I sure want to. Whew!” she said fanning her face with a white lacy fan she pulled out of her side pocket.
Scott couldn’t resist, he leaned over and gave Grace a kiss on her cheek and said, “I don’t know who that was either but I’ll let you meet him when we get back.” Then on a more serious note he said, “Thanks Grace. For everything.”
“You bet darlin’. Take care now and remember what I said, come back in one piece, you hear?” she said with all her heart.
Scott grabbed the candy and the bill from the counter, “Thanks Will.” Striding toward the front door he suddenly turned around and said to Grace, “I haven’t forgotten my promise and I won’t. I owe you.” He started to leave again then thought of one more thing to say and hurried back up to her, leaning in and whispered in her ear, “I like you Grace, you’d be good for my father.”
Grace Richards hadn’t blushed so much or so red since she was a young girl of sixteen. She fanned her hot flushed face and watched as the young man vanished out the doorway. Her eyes sparkled with moisture. She reached into her other pocket and pulled out a lacy handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes, wondering how she could be so lucky to have such a nice young man who might one day be her stepson. At least that’s what she hoped.
“What did he say Grace?” Will asked from behind the counter, still in shock at seeing Murdoch eating candy.
“Oh Will, hush up. If he’d of wanted you to know he would have told you. Besides, what he had to say was for my ears only.” And Millie’s once she had the chance to fill her in on what had taken place in the store. She laughed at the thought, knowing she would have to shut all the windows and bar the doors to keep the roof from coming down on top of them.
Jake Fletcher rode side by side with Ray Corbett down the south section near a small stream that meandered it’s way through the valley and ended up spilling into a good sized lake several miles further south. To the west were rolling mountains and hilltops laced with thick pine trees and brush, a gateway to the many canyons and empty arroyo’s that carved their way through the lush terrain only to cross over into another world filled with dry dusty hard packed earth, cactus and desert heat that could fry a mans brains if he wasn’t careful with his water supply or knew the ways of the land and where mother nature hid her precious store of life giving fluids for man and beast alike.
Shots echoed out and filled the valley, causing both men to stop quickly. “What do you ya think that was Ray?” Jake asked, keeping a tight rein on his horse as another fast succession of firepower was heard racing across the valley floor.
Ray squinted his dark brown eyes and tipping his hat back, peered up into the sky to see where the sun was. He casually pulled his canteen from his saddle horn and after uncorking it, took a long deep swallow. When he was done, he offered it to the young man at his side, “Sounds like Johnny, unless I miss my guess,” was all he said.
Jake took a long swallow of water and wiping his mouth off with the sleeve of his right arm, he squinted back at Ray and asked, “Johnny Lancer?”
“Nope, Johnny Madrid,” came the quiet reply. More shots were heard in the same fast repeating action.
Jake handed the canteen back to Ray, his face showing his bewilderment and surprise.
“Yeah that’s right. I forgot you was new and didn’t know about him kid.”
“Know what?” the young blonde haired man asked.
“Johnny Lancer is Johnny Madrid,” the older ranch hand told him.
Jake’s eyes flew open at this piece of news. He and his brother had been working at the ranch now for nigh on to two weeks and not one word had been said that the infamous gunfighter Johnny Madrid was in fact Johnny Lancer. The same man who had been giving them orders and watching them warily from a distance each time either one of them had taken a moment to notice.
“Why didn’t somebody tell us,” the kid wanted to know.
Ray turned slightly in the saddle, the creak of leather loud in the kid’s ears, as he realized that he had said something the man didn’t like. “Because it’s none of your damn business who he was, except that now he’s your boss. It don’t make no never mind who he was to you or anyone else on this ranch. You get that thinkin’ in your head right now or else you’ll find a whole pack a trouble waitin’ for you if you know what I mean. There’s not a one of us that wouldn’t skin you alive and take you down faster than a mean ass polecat if you even entertain the idea of tryin’ to take him on. Got it kid!”
“I ain’t a kid. I’m nineteen years old and I’ve killed me five men since I was sixteen. That makes me a man,” the boy said his tone angry, proud and belligerent.
Ray snorted at that statement, “Killin’ a man don’t make you a man! Been bigger, meaner and tougher men than you that took on the boss’ kid and they’re all with their maker now. It takes a man to give up that kind of livin’, even when all the odds are against ya. Let it go, and don’t go bringin’ it up when we get back with the other men. I shouldn’t have said a blasted thing in the first place, now lets git.”
Ray Corbett whipped his blue roan around, pressing his heals in on his horse’s sides, leading the way back to main house to report that there were no loose strays on this piece of land. He hoped the kid didn’t try anything with Johnny. He knew how hard it had been for his friend to give up that life, settle down and learn how to live with his newfound family. He liked Johnny, Scott too for that matter. Ray kicked his horse into high gear hoping this snot nosed nineteen-year-old kid riding next to him didn’t start anything he wouldn’t be able to finish. He’d hate to see another one make that mistake.
Jake followed, his mind a whirlwind of thoughts wondering how he or his brother could get away and let Craddock know that maybe stealing from the Lancer’s wasn’t such a good idea now that he knew Johnny Lancer was the one and only Johnny Madrid. He had never seen Madrid in action, but being in his line of business the way he was he had heard the name often and knew for a fact that Clyde Willows and Butcher Drake, two of his comrades in Craddock’s gang, had seen him in action on more than one occasion.
Butcher had a scar across his chin from a near fatal confrontation after he was caught cheating at cards in a saloon they had both been gambling at. Johnny Madrid hadn’t actually been the one to cut him, but because he called him out on his cheating the other men who had lost quite a bit of money at the table decided to take the law into their own hands and punish him with a very sharp knife to the chin and some hard thrown punches and kicks to his body.
When Jake and Rusty had first joined up with the gang, they had spent many nights near the Mexico boarders camping out, waiting for their next job, listening to the tales of the blue eyed devil, told by their partners. This was news; big news and Craddock would want to know. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as he heard more shots, now further away but still audible as they rode back. First thing he would do is let his brother know. Together they would find a way to get the news to Craddock and find out what he wanted them to do.
The sun was high in the sky by the time Scott and Murdoch Lancer were back on the road that led to Lancer. The heat was stifling and both men kept their thoughts to themselves as they made their way home. After a while Murdoch picked up the sack that contained the candy Scott had bought and took out another piece of licorice. He tore it in half and offered the token piece to Scott with the same silly grin he had worn in the store. Scott took his piece and they both began to chew, “Guess I have a sweet tooth today,” his father said quietly next to him.
“Me too,” Scott replied mimicking the same quiet tone.
“You think Johnny will like licorice and peppermint sticks?” his father wondered aloud.
Scott hadn’t thought of this, he just assumed everyone liked candy, but now that he thought on it he couldn’t recall any time in the past year that Johnny had ever bought any. He knew he had a sweet tooth for things like cakes, pies and cookies. That much he had learned during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. At those times his brother had been like a little boy in a candy shop, tasting every treat the ladies had made with gusto, asking for seconds for the ones he liked and passing politely on the things he didn’t but trying them all at least once. The whole family had been astonished by the fact that he hadn’t ever had many of the sweet delicacies that to them had been a part of their everyday life and not just something you heard about or only had during a special season.
“Yeah I think he will,” Scott finally replied while hoping that he would.
Murdoch took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the sweat from his face and then uncorked the canteen at his side to take a drink, when he was done he offered it to Scott who also took a drink.
Handing the canteen back to his father he asked, “So how long do you think the trip will take with the amount of cattle and men we have?”
Murdoch repositioned the hat on his head to better shield him from the sun and said, “Oh, I figure with the amount of men we have this year, including you and your brother, maybe three, four weeks. If we’re lucky and don’t run into too many difficulties. It’s a large herd this year, but at least we won’t have to be drivin’ them to Kansas.”
“You said we’d be leaving earlier than the men this time. Is that what you’re still planning?” Scott asked not taking his eyes off the road in front of him.
Murdoch nodded his head in affirmation, “That’s what I have planned. Why do you ask?”
Scott looked over at his father, “I was just thinking that last time we stayed with them.”
Murdoch had to chuckle, he remembered the last cattle drive and their time spent in town while the men drank and gambled the night away. Many of the men had danced and spent time with the local ladies who were more than willing to spend time with the rowdy, just paid cowhands, who had been equally ready to spend their time and hard earned cash on a weekend of fun and lustful satisfaction. “Normally that’s what we’d do son. But this year I thought we’d get a head start home since we’ll be letting the men have a couple of extra days off than normal after such a long trip. Besides the sooner we get back the sooner I can take care of that purchase with Terrance Littleton. He won’t hold on to that parcel forever and the way I figure it, he’s doing us a favor by holding on to it longer than he needs to. The quicker I can settle up with him the better I’ll feel about it.”
“Makes sense,” Scott commented thinking once again what a shrewd businessman his father could be and how much alike they were when it came to making business decisions. He had to agree with his father that getting back and settling up on the deal for the Owens place was just plain good business. There was no reason other than the fact that Terrance Littleton and Murdoch were long time friends, that Terrance should hold the place since there were others who were more than willing to pay the price that was being asked and more should they get the opportunity.
Leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and the reins held lightly in his hands, Scott was shocked and suddenly anxious when he heard a loud report from a rifle and the reins were unexpectedly jerked wildly from his limp fingers. Both horses pulled roughly on their harnesses and the wagon sped down the dusty road in a calamity of dust and flying bits of debris completely out of control.
Ray Corbett and Jake Fletcher rode into a melee of activity surrounding the barns, stables and corrals that were situated all along the wide open perimeter of the Lancer hacienda. Jake spied his brother loading supplies onto the chuck wagon while Jelly, the man he had come to find in the short time since he had gotten hired on, was as close to being a part of the Lancer family as you could get without having been born one, was issuing orders right and left. He laughed when he saw his brother jump at the loud coarse words coming from the old mans mouth and nearly took a spill off his horse when he saw Rusty running back into the barn at Jelly’s request, ‘that this time, he get what he was sent in there fer’.
“And what cha think yer a laughin’ at boy. Times a wastin’ away. Git off of that dern horse and help yer brother with the supplies. I want ‘em right here,” Jelly pointed at an empty spot on the ground near the back of the wagon. “Gotta tell these younguns ever dern blasted thin to do or we’d be here ‘til dooms day getting’ it done.”
Jake looked at Ray for help but soon realized that there was none there when he heard the top hand say, “Go on boy. You heard ‘em. Make sure you get your horse down first. It’s been a hot one today. And don’t go forgettin’ what I told ya earlier,” Ray reminded the boy piercing him with his dark eyes and hardened features. Jake watched the tall ranch hand twitch the thick mustache on his upper lip as he lit a cheroot and placed it between his lips, all the while pulling on the reins of his horse and leading him in the direction of the corrals where the remuda for the cattle drive were gathered. All movements were done in one fluid extended movement and though Jake knew he wouldn’t be sticking around after the job they came here to do was done, he did admire the older man with his calm, cool and detached manner that hid what he feared was brute strength of mind and body.
Jelly walked up to Jake and his horse, pulling on his suspenders with a big grin on his face as he looked up at the young blond man, “Well I guess you need a little sweet talkin’ to git you on yer way. So I’m a gonna ask you real nice and polite like to git in there and help yer brother bring out those supplies.” The smile on Jelly’s face continued and Jake smiled back down at him before he knew what was about to happen.
Jelly reached up and catching Jake off guard dragged the boy down off his horse, catching him between his arms as he tried to gain his footing before he fell to the ground. “Now!” Jelly ground out between gritted teeth. “I ain’t ever swatted a boy before but you just might be my first one if you don’t get to steppin’ quick like and do what yer a told ta do.”
Jake wrenched his arm from the grouchy man’s fist and grabbed the reins of his horse pulling him toward the barn, “I’m going, no need to manhandle a man, Jelly. Geez, what did I do?”
“Nothin’, and that’s the problem. Now git on with you and help that brother of yers afore I decide to take a switch to both of ya. We ain’t got time fer none of ya to be lolly gaggin’ around. I want this stuff loaded up proper before the boss gits home and the onliest way that’s gonna happen is iffen we all work.”
Jelly watched the young man walk into the barn knowing he had been a little rough around the edges with him, but he had had just about enough of these particular two young men who seemed to find every which way imaginable of getting out of work. He had caught them both often enough sitting under a tree or sneaking off to parts unknown, returning hours later with nary a word to anyone. He had also watched them on several occasions sneaking out in the middle of the night when they thought no one was watching them because everyone was supposed to be asleep. He had mentioned it once to Murdoch who at the time seemed too preoccupied to listen to a word he had to say. About the time he was just about to walk away, Murdoch had looked up at the retreating back and said across the room, “Jelly.” The old wrangler turned around and faced the desk where Murdoch sat, “Make sure Cipriano or Ray keeps them teamed up with one of the older ranch hands. They’re young, might be that they’ll need to have someone working with them to make sure they stay busy. And go over the rules again. From everything you’ve said it sounds like they need to be reminded.”
Jelly grabbed his suspenders in the old habit that he had and pushed onto the toes of his boots, “Ok boss, but if you was to ask me I’d say they need a little bit more than just a reminder.” He turned back around when he got no response from Murdoch and opened the front door grumbling loud enough for Murdoch to hear his complaints as he exited the front foyer.
He decided this line of thinking wasn’t getting him any closer to getting the chuck wagon loaded and proceeded to climb up the back end of the tail gate and start arranging his supplies.
Inside the barn Jake was hurriedly unsaddling his horse and motioned for his younger brother to join him, “Got me some news for Craddock,” he hissed at Rusty while he loosened the cinch on his horse and his brother worked on the bridle and bit. “Found out that Johnny Lancer is Johnny Madrid. He’s down south right now practicing in some washed out gully.”
When Jake didn’t get much of a reaction from his little brother he reached over the neck of his horse and grabbed one of his hands and gave it a jerk, “Did ya hear me!” he whispered harshly through gritted teeth.
Rusty jerked his hand from Jake’s, “I heard ya. Now shut up afore the old man hears ya. I already found out and got word to Craddock.”
“When did you find out?” Jake wanted to know.
“Last night,” the fair-haired man replied. “Snuck off early this mornin’ when ya took off with that Ray fella. Fer all I know Craddock is takin’ care of business right now as we speak.” Rusty smiled at his brother conspiratorially and the rest was left unsaid as Jelly entered the barn and started issuing orders to both of them.
Scott and Murdoch grasped the edge of the seat they both sat on trying in a futile attempt to hold on for dear life as the team of horses thundered down the dusty road that led to Lancer. The reins were jerking up and down wildly as they hit the ground and bounced back and forth with each pounding step the horses made on their wild and woolly tear through the valley. As the wagon jerked and sped on, Scott called out to his father, “I’m going to try and reach the reins, hang on!”
Murdoch shouted out Scott’s name in vain as he watched his son holding on tight to the wooden footboard and lean precariously over the edge reaching frantically for the flaying leather strips that wantonly remained out of his reach. Scott turned his head and looked at his father imploring him to do as he asked, “Grab my belt!” he shouted, “I just need to get a little closer.”
Murdoch held tight to the seat with his left hand and leaned forward as far as the bouncing contraption would allow and grabbed Scott by the back of his belt. He scooted forward holding on tight and hoping that he was giving his son enough length to snatch the reins in his hands.
Scott’s right hand stretched farther and the leather straps landed once then twice in his hands, only to be pulled away as the wagon bounced and jerked, catching every hole, rut and rock in its path. Just when he thought that all was lost and he would never be able to reach them, they miraculously flew into the air once again and arched into the palm of his hand. He grabbed them furiously in his grip and called back to his father, “Pull me back!”
This was easier said than done as the wagon continued its barrage of punishment to Scott’s stomach and nearly caused him to plunge face forward over the footboard had his father not been holding on so tightly. Murdoch pulled with all his might while trying to keep himself from getting thrown forward as the wagon continued to buck up and down in a wild frenzy of motion. With one final herculean tug he managed to get Scott off the footboard and back to the seat without him falling off the side or losing his firm hand hold on his son.
Scott stood up frantically, pulling hard on the reins and tugging them toward his chest while he attempted to shorten the length of hold he had on them in an effort to stop the charging horses. He had a moment to think clearly in his head that his attempts were beginning to work when suddenly the wagon veered to the right side of the rode and hit a large rock embedded in the red clay. The front right wagon wheel instantly cracked and began to splinter apart on impact with the ground, hitting a rut with a solid thud that caused the wagon to tip precariously to the right. Only a second in time went by as Murdoch and Scott were suspended in midair as the back wheel hit the same large rock and all was lost but the precious few seconds that seemed as if the wagon might right itself but did not. The wagon flipped over onto its side with the horrendous sound of screaming horses echoing loudly through the air as both men were thrown from the buckboard landing with dull sounding thuds upon the hard packed earth.
The supplies they purchased had flown from the overturned wagon in every direction, some landing several feet away and the wagon moaned and creaked as it threatened to topple over completely but finally settled on its side like the dust that clouded the air. Men and beast alike lay still as death.
Far enough away but still close enough to watch the action, Butcher Drake and Clyde Willows picked themselves up off the ground and carefully wiped the dust off their rifles. They turned to their boss who sat atop his rangy mount watching with an eagle eye, the display of destruction through his long glass, a smug look of satisfaction etching the thin man’s chiseled and scarred features. They waited silently until he was done gazing upon the wreckage.
Bruce Craddock lowered the spy piece and said gruffly without taking his sight from the billowing dust cloud from far below them, “Nice work.”
Butcher scratched his black thick sideburns on his face and through a wad of tobacco asked, “What now?” as he spat on the ground waiting for instructions.
Craddock took a deep breath and absently rubbed a dirty finger down the red welting scar that marred his face, “I’ll send Kirk and Frank down to make sure they ain’t goin’ no where anytime soon.”
“What about Madrid? You heard what Rusty told ya this morning. If he finds out we done this we’re all dead,” the longhaired Clyde stated coolly, his tone casual and matter of fact.
Craddock glared at Clyde with steely blue eyes that were so light colored they looked like glass and cut through Clyde’s soul like a razor thin shard. “I don’t give a damn about Madrid! He doesn’t scare me. Besides, by the time we finally come face to face with the infamous Johnny Madrid he’ll be begging us to take that money and not kill his newfound family. He’s a man same as us, ceptin’ now he has somethin’ worth dyin’ for. And I aim to be the man that brings him and his reputation down. It’s just another added bonus.”
Butcher Drake shifted the dark wad in his mouth from one side of his cheek to the other and after spitting one large glob onto the ground said, “You gonna let us have a turn at ‘em boss when the time comes. I always wanted to go up agin’ that little blue-eyed Mexican Devil. Got this here scar across my chin cause a that bastard.” He raised his chin toward Craddock jutting it into the air and pointing with a chubby finger to the black thick stubble that covered the lower half of his face under his bottom lip. There was a clear and distinctive gap running horizontally across his chin and Butcher took his time as he ran his thick finger from one side of the red welt to the other, then spat thickly onto the ground again in disgust.
“Tell you what, when I have that money in my hands and Johnny Madrid has had a taste of this,” he patted the colt on his hip, “then you can have yer turn. Now stick to the plan and get this sight dusted. And make sure you cover yer own tracks like I done showed you and meet us back at camp.” Craddock whipped his horse around and rode up to Kirk Means, Frank Granger and Fred Wallace who waited several yards back in the shade of a huge oak tree, well out of sight of the melee that had transpired.
Reining in his horse just in front of the redheaded Kirk and brown curly haired Frank he told them things had gone as planned and ordered them to check out the wreckage and make sure that the Lancer’s weren’t dead but wounded enough to keep them from going on the cattle drive. He needed them alive if they were going to use them as leverage against Johnny Madrid. Looking over at Fred he said, “You ride with me, it’s time to head back and work on the next part of our plan.”
Fred twisted and played with the black mustache under his nose and cackled gleefully as the two of them rode off toward their camp in the hills. Kirk and Frank could hear their boss yelling at Fred to ‘shut and up and quit fiddlin’ with the hair under his nose’, as they led their mounts past the ambush sight and down to the wreck. When they passed Butcher and Clyde they simply nodded their heads and continued down the hill with only one job on their minds.
It took several minutes to reach the wreck and by the time Kirk and Frank got there the dust had settled. Dismounting both men approached the wreckage looking for the men they knew were lying somewhere around the strewn debris. They found the older man, known to them as Murdoch Lancer lying on his back, arms splayed in either direction. There was a large bleeding knot at the back of his head and a bloody gash marring his temple where a trickle of blood flowed thinly through his graying hair onto the dirt beneath his head. The wagon had turned over onto its side and rested across his legs. There was no sound or movement to be seen or heard save the calls of birds that twittered and chirped in the scattered trees that dotted the landscape along the road.
Frank knelt down by the older man’s head and leaned an ear to his chest listening for a heartbeat. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard one. Standing up he called to Kirk who was prodding with the toe of his boot, the side of Scott Lancer who lay sprawled, stomach down in the sparse grassy area not more than five feet away. “Stop kickin’ him with yer boot and find out if he’s alive.”
Squatting down near Scott’s head, Kirk took Scott by the left shoulder and flipped him over onto his back. Scott’s bloodied head flopped sideways as Kirk leaned in to see if the man was still alive. Scott breathed a barely audible moan as Kirk put his ear to his chest, “This one’s still breathin’. Might be comin’ around. Ya think the boss would want me to knock him out again iffen he does?”
Frank shook his head, “Nope. Now git over here and help me out. We’re gonna git this wagon off of his pa and be on our way.”
Now Kirk was shaking his head, “Uhn uh! Boss didn’t say nothin’ bout pullin’ that wagon off the old man.”
“Shut up and git over here. Craddock said he don’t want these men dead and that means getting’ this here wagon off the old man. I gotta make sure he ain’t been punctured and mebbe bleedin’ to death under there. You wanna git paid don’t cha?” Frank asked angrily.
Kirk thought on that statement for only a moment and making up his mind he sauntered over to where Frank was clearing away some of the supplies that hadn’t been thrown clear from the wagon but had landed in heaps around the injured man. “Whatcha want me to do?”
“I’m gonna lift and you pull him out.” Frank replied, “On the count of three.”
“Is that on three or after three,” Kirk asked.
Frustrated Frank replied with heated anger, “Dang it Kirk, just pull when I tell ya ta pull! Grab him by the shoulders.”
Kirk took Murdoch by the shoulders and cupped his hands beneath the heavy rancher’s armpits waiting for Frank to start the count.
Frank took off his hat, throwing it down on the ground and quickly ran a hand through the curly hair on his head. He brushed the sweaty mop of brown curls away from his forehead and then clasped the wagon with both of his hands near the legs of Murdoch Lancer and started the count, “One, two, three, pull!” he yelled and grunted as he heaved on the side of the wagon bed.
The wagon moved several inches as Frank lifted and heaved with brute strength. Kirk pulled on the giant of a man with all his might getting him out from underneath the massive weight that had the rancher trapped.
“He’s clear,” Kirk yelled.
Frank dropped the wagon and sank to his knees exhausted from the exertion. Kirk went to the horses and got his canteen, offering it to Frank when he returned. He took out a handkerchief and wiped away the sweat from his eyes and forehead, then scratched his fingers through the rough red beard on his face while checking one last time on both the men who had fallen victim to their boss’ greed and cruelty. “We better git a move on. Don’t look like the old man is bleedin’ other than his head.” He paused his thoughts as he stood over Scott, “Don’t wanna be here iffen this one decides to wake up,” he said as he nudged Scott one last time when he heard another faint moan.
Frank scrambled to his feet and recorked the canteen handing it back to Kirk. He walked to the front of the wagon where both horses lay on their sides panting heavily but unable to get up. It was clear that both horses were mortally wounded and needed to be put down out of their misery, but the extra sound of gunshots were sure to alert anyone who might be nearby so that option was out of the question. It would have to be left up to whomever came along.
Frank left the wounded horses to their misery and walked to where his hat lay on the ground and gathered it up. “Let’s git, ain’t nothin’ more we kin do without riskin’ us getting caught if someone comes along.”
Frank and Kirk gathered long branches from some nearby trees and cut them down with their knives. Handing the reins of his horse to Kirk, Frank told him to meet him back at the oak tree where they had waited earlier while he dusted the area of prints.
He was just about done when Scott opened his eyes and Frank caught him staring dazedly in his direction. He watched as the blond man tried to rise and fell back to the ground with a grunt of pain.
Frank walked over to his side and found the young man, eyes still open staring up into the sky, his hand reaching for the spot on his head that was covered in blood. Turning his head slightly as Frank’s shadow crossed his face, Scott looked at him blearily and whispered in a staggered voice, “Help…me.”
“Can’t mister. Purty soon this will all be over with. Just hope you and yer family cooperate,” Frank whispered back to the dazed man. Standing up Frank left Scott’s side dragging the tree branches back and forth as he made his way backwards away from the wreck and the injured men. Two hours later Frank and Kirk made their way back to camp along with Butcher and Clyde who had cleaned all signs they may have left at the ambush sight.
Johnny rode into the Lancer compound at an easy clip and slid off his horse next to the barn where Jelly’s chuck wagon awaited the last of the supplies that Murdoch and Scott were bringing from town. It was late afternoon and the sun was still high in the sky, the air hot and muggy. Johnny led his horse to the water trough and let Barranca drink his fill, taking off his hat and running the length of his arm across his sweaty forehead. Looking around he noticed there wasn’t much activity going on. Curious as to where everyone was he hollered out loud, “Hey Jelly!”
When he got no response he tied Barranca to the corral fence post and made his way to the front entrance of the barn, stopping just inside the doorway long enough to let his eyes adjust to the darkness inside. “Hey Jelly, you in here?”
Johnny heard a few angrily muttered words coming from the back of the barn, so he went inside to see if his friend needed some help. “Hey Jelly, answer me will ya.”
He heard another loud bang and continued toward the back of the barn wondering why Jelly wasn’t answering him. “Jelly?” he asked cautiously while putting his hat back atop his head and reaching for his gun in a slow moving reflexive action. When he got nearer the back of the barn his shoulders eased up and his hand left his side, a wide grin spreading across his face when he heard Jelly’s cantankerous voice grumbling at his helpers.
He heard him commanding to Jake and Rusty whom he could now see through the door of the store room, “Get yer cotton pickin’ hands out of yer ears and grab a hold like I done told ya.”
Johnny leaned casually against the door frame, sliding his right arm up the woodwork and watched as Jake and Rusty lifted a heavy trunk, each taking one end and trying ungracefully to carry it across the room while Jelly blustered and pointed, shaking his finger at each of them for their clumsiness. “Ok, that’s it, now git it outside and put it on the ground near the back end of the wagon so’s I kin go through it.” When he spied Johnny in the doorway, his face broke into an exasperated grin and said, “Bout time you was getting’ back. Where’s your Pa and your brother?”
“Don’t know. Thought they’d be back by now,” Johnny answered dropping his arm and moving out of the boys’ way as they clumsily moved past him.
“When you boys git that out there where I told, go find Ray. I’m sure he’s got some work left over fer the two of ya,” Jelly hollered at both boys. He took out his bandana and rubbed away the sweat that trickled down his face and into his graying beard, casting his eyes back toward Johnny. Taking off his hat he rubbed at his balding head and said to Johnny as he relaxed against the frame of the door, “I hope Murdoch knows what he’s a doin’ takin’ them two along. Got to be watchin’ ‘em ever dog gone minute.”
Johnny shrugged, “Oh, I don’t know Jelly. Murdoch’s done this plenty of times. Besides, he’ll have you taggin’ along playin’ babysitter, now won’t he?” His face stayed serious as he watched for Jelly’s reaction. It didn’t take long for the dam to bust.
Jelly slapped his cap back onto his head and stuffed his bandana back into his pocket, his face getting redder by the second, “Now you listen here Johnny Lancer. I ain’t no dang blasted babysitter,” he retorted, agitated at the idea. “Gave that up when my boys got them new momma’s and papa’s.” When he saw the big grin that suddenly lit up Johnny’s face, he snorted heavily through his nose and half closed mouth and said testily, “Think yer a smart aleck, huh?”
Johnny shoved away from the doorframe and threw his arm around the old codger he had come to know and love over the past nine months or more, “You know I’m just teasin’ Jelly.” He gave the older man a quick shake on the shoulders with his arm and a swat on his belly, “Come on, lets go see if those kids did what you told ‘em to.” He pulled Jelly along; his arm still over the older mans shoulders in a comfortable show of friendship and camaraderie.
Jelly snorted again and walked along side him saying, “Kids! Ya ain’t but a year or two older than them kids yerself Johnny, so what does that make you?”
“A man Jelly,” he said laughing. “You of all people know I haven’t been a kid for a long, long time.”
This time Jelly’s snorting was loud and boisterous as they walked out into the bright light of day outside the barn doors, “Wal now if yer a man, then what am I?”
Johnny stepped back and eyed Jelly thoughtfully, He tipped his hat back, exposing sweaty dark bangs and squinted from the sun as he leaned to the left and then to the right, looking Jelly up and down, with his hands firmly planted on his hips. When he was done perusing the old wrangler he cocked his head to one side and said with a lopsided wicked grin on his face, “An old man.”
Jelly might be old but he was quick. Before Johnny knew it the older man had whipped off his cap and started swatting the younger laughing man on the chest as he tried to dodge his way out of striking range around the back of Jelly, holding on to his shoulders as their laughter filled the afternoon air and they spun around in circles.
Their laughter came to a sudden standstill as Walt came tearing through the Lancer arch and galloped past the corrals and pens, skidding his horse to an abrupt halt just in front of both men. “Johnny you better come quick!”
Johnny rushed up to Walt’s side and clasped the heavily breathing horse by the reins and clamped Walt on his knee in a death grip. “What’s happened?”
Breathing hard the ranch hand said, “It’s your Pa and Scott, Johnny. We found them off the side of the road bout half way to town. It don’t look good,” he said miserably.
Johnny released his grip on Walt and his horse, sprinting toward Barranca who was tied down at the corral next to the barn. He heard Jelly call out that he’d be right behind with another wagon and medical supplies, but he couldn’t respond. His gut clenched and unclenched as he untied Barranca and leapt onto his back without using the stirrups. Wrenching the stallion’s head toward the road that lead away from the house, Johnny kneed his horse and raced away as if the devil himself was spurring him on.
Johnny leaned forward across the back of Barranca’s neck as they raced down and around the winding road toward Green River. His hat, held tight against his throat by the thin leather storm strap, flapped furiously on his back. The red shirt he wore waved stark and bright against the beige colorless backdrop of rocky cliffs to his right as he rode at a breakneck speed to reach his family. There were no wild thoughts, no thundering sound of hoof beats and no feeling other than the frightening fear that sat like a heavy stone in the pit of Johnny’s heart.
Horse and rider made their way to the wreckage site in record time. Before Barranca came to a heart stopping skid alongside the toppled over broken wagon, Johnny had swung his body off his horse and started running to where his father and brother had been placed beneath the shady overhang of a single large oak tree. He stumbled in his haste to reach them, catching himself with one hand and knee on the rocky ground as he fell and just as quickly was up and running once again.
Cipriano rose and caught him by the shoulders before he could reach their side completely, “Juanito! Do not panick! They are alive!”
Panting heavily from his ride and with fear crowding his mind, Johnny was not satisfied; he had to see for himself, “Let go Tio!” he yelled into the older man’s face, trying to free himself from his Uncle’s grasp.
Cipriano was strong and was not to be deterred, “No! You will listen to me. They are alive, but they are hurt and need help. I have sent Jose to get the doctor.” He shook him gently by the shoulders with a firm grip, “Listen to me chico. You must stay calm. They will need your strength and courage. ¿Comprende?”
Johnny swallowed the lump of fear that was in his throat, “Sí,” he replied, “¡Ahora déjeme van a ellos!” (Now let me go to them!)
Cipriano released his shoulders and Johnny shoved his way past him. Murdoch and Scott lay deathly still on thin woolen blankets taken from Cipriano and Jose’s bedrolls. Neither man made a sound or a move as Johnny fell to his knees between them, leaning first over his father and then his brother.
There was a bundle of cloth placed under Murdoch’s head and Johnny could see that a red stain had already soaked through and was in need of changing. As he gently touched the gash on the right graying temple, he felt rather than saw that Cipriano was on his knees opposite of where he knelt beside his father’s head. He looked up with anguish in his eyes and watched as Cipriano tightened a makeshift splint on Murdoch’s left arm. He forced his eyes back to his father’s face and grimaced at the jagged cuts and various bruises that were forming and with a tenderness not often seen by many he leaned toward his father’s ear and said hoarsely, “Murdoch.” There was no answer. No flutter of the eyelids. Johnny leaned his ear to Murdoch’s mouth and listened while he placed his palm on his father’s chest. He could feel the faint inhale and exhale of breath against his ear and closed his eyes, thanking God above for that small indication of life.
Raising his head he turned on his knees to Scott, who seemed more worse the wear because his blood was plastered down the side of his face where it had dried from what appeared to be a rather large cut above his left brow line. His shirt was tattered and torn in several places and blood stained the tan cotton in dark patches. The palms of his hands were cut and skinned back where he had obviously tried to catch himself as he fell out of the wagon and hit the rocky ground.
“Scott, wake up,” Johnny willed his brother to open his eyes as he laid a hand on his forehead and brushed the blond hair back, “Wake up right now,” he whispered brokenly. “Do you here me? I said, wake… up… right… now.” Johnny waited for a sign, any sign that his brother had heard him. Nothing! Frustrated, scared and angry, Johnny rubbed his face with the palms of his hands, trying to get control over his raging emotions and then slapped them down on top of his thighs. “Scott, you have to hear me. You have to wake up! Please! I need you!” he cried out from his heart in a broken, unsteady voice.
He closed his eyes and had just turned back to his father when he heard his brother say groggily, “Johnny…Johnny…”
Johnny’s voice cracked as he whipped his head around and found his brother’s gray blue eyes open and looking straight at him, “Scott,” he croaked, “God, I’m glad you’re awake.”
“Me too,” Scott replied in a faint raspy whisper. He lifted his hand and tried to touch his forehead but Johnny kept him from doing that with a gentle clasp of his long tapered fingers.
“Don’t do that. You got a nasty cut and lump up there and Cip’s got a bandage on your head,” Johnny told him. “Stay still, I gotta check on Murdoch.” Scott was content to let Johnny have control. Memories of their disastrous trip home flooded his mind and he turned his head sideways to get a look at their father, worry clouding what little capacity he had to think.
Johnny turned away from his brother, relief lining his face that Scott was awake and lucid enough to speak to him. That old fear came rushing back to him ten fold though as he twisted around and found that their father was still out cold.
Leaning in toward his ear he said, “Come on old Man. Don’t do this to me. Wake up!” Rising up he looked at Cipriano who laid a wet cloth on his father’s forehead and searched his face, hoping the older man had an unasked answer for him.
At the soul-searching look from Johnny, Cipriano said calmly, “He hears you chico. Just like your hermano. Keep talking to him. He will wake up. He will return to us.”
Grateful for the conviction in his tone, Johnny tried once again, “Murdoch, it’s me, Johnny. Wake up. Please wake up.” He took the wet cloth from Cipriano’s hand and continued his litany of phrases to no avail as he dabbed at the weathered and bloody face of his father.
He could hear Scott behind him, shuffling to get himself raised up onto his elbow but with his focus so firmly set on making the man who meant everything to him hear his voice, he couldn’t force himself to turn around if he tried. It was enough to know that Scott was alive and well, though injured, that kept his back to his brother. His concentration was solely on the man he wished he had grown up with. The man he wished for more times than he could count, he could get along with better than he did.
When spoken words said over and over seemed to have no affect, Johnny became desperate and found the shadows of his mind crumbling with defeat. His shoulders sagged and sorrow engulfed his being causing him to shudder with suppressed grief.
A hand touched his shoulder from behind and Scott scooted his weary body next to that of his brother’s, “Johnny,” Scott simply said.
Johnny turned his bowed head toward Scott as great pools of tears formed in those deep sapphire eyes that swam with grief, “He won’t wake up Scott.” He let out a choked breath. “I’ve tried and tried. He won’t wake up.”
Scott’s heart almost broke with the sorrow he felt at his brother’s tormented words. He felt light headed and faint but managed to find the strength to stay up for his brother’s sake. ‘Brother’ he thought. A dawning realization charged into his head. This wasn’t his brother Johnny Madrid, the fearless gunfighter. This was Johnny Lancer. His brother. The one he should have grown up with. The one who witnessed his mother’s death by a blow to the back of the head. The frightened, lonely and abandoned Johnny, who cried for his mother to wake up from her death sleep, but never did.
Understanding his brother’s need for Murdoch to wake up, Scott squeezed his shoulder and said, “Johnny, It’s going to be alright. You’ll see. Sam will be here any minute.” He glanced over at Cipriano, “Isn’t that right Cipriano?”
“Sí, Senor Scott.” The older man reached across Murdoch’s chest and touched Johnny on the arm, knowing he needed the contact from both him and Scott, “You will see chico. Su padre será fino,” (Your father will be fine,) he stressed for added assurance.
As if on cue, they heard the sound of churning wheels and pounding hooves. Looking up they saw Jelly approaching with another wagon, laden with provisions needed for just such a disaster, Teresa clinging to the seat next to him.
Pulling to a stop and jerking hard on the break Jelly climbed down and reached for Teresa who had a bag filled with bandages, ointments and liniments, hard liquor and sewing supplies for deep cuts and gashes that needed immediate attention. Jelly held her hand as he led her to where the men were under the tree. She and Jelly grimaced at the sight of the splintered wooden rails, broken spokes and tangled metal ring rims that hung precariously from where the wheels used to be. Scattered supplies dotted the surrounding landscape but it was the sight of an unconscious Murdoch and a bloody Scott that caused them both to gasp with fright.
Teresa broke free of Jelly’s hand and raced the last few yards to where the victims of the wreck were waiting. Seeing that Scott was up and coherent, she fell on her knees next to Cipriano and began her ministrations on the unconscious Murdoch.
As she worked she instructed the others, knowing that in times of crisis it was best to keep everyone busy. “Jelly, you and Johnny clean that wound on Scott’s head and help him to lie back down. He’s probably got a concussion and the last thing he should be doing is sitting up,” she instructed. “Cipriano, you take Murdoch’s head and keep it elevated while I get a clean bandage wrapped around his head.”
Jelly moved to Scott’s side, across from Johnny and was about to start cleaning his wound when he noticed that Johnny still hadn’t taken his eyes off his father. “Johnny boy, you with me?” When he got no response and was just about to say something else, Scott stopped him with an upheld hand.
Scott touched his brother on the arm and said, “Johnny,” so quietly it was almost unheard by Jelly.
Johnny turned his head to Scott, but what Scott saw was not the Johnny Lancer of just moments ago, but the mask of Johnny Madrid. His eyes were dry, the unshed tears now gone only to be replaced by a hardened veneer that was vacant of any emotions or feeling.
If this was what got Johnny through the trauma of the day then so be it. They would deal with the changes later. For now, his brother was functioning and doing as Jelly instructed with a stoic façade that made him work with pure efficiency as he helped with getting Scott cleaned and bandaged.
Within twenty minutes Teresa had both men comfortable and resting as best they could upon the hard ground. Murdoch was still unconscious as the minutes ticked slowly by and the sun began its decent toward the horizon. It had been at least two hours since Johnny had arrived when Sam’s horse and buggy were heard clopping down the road at a fast clip. Johnny was never so glad to see Doc Jenkins and his sturdy black bag as he was at that very moment.
Scott had drifted asleep while Cipriano and Jelly, who spent their time waiting for Doc, gathered the scattered supplies and placed them on the ground near the fallen wagon. Both men put the injured animals out of their misery; the thundering blast of gunshots rang loud and reverberated through the valley, echoing across the land. They then covered them with canvas tarps from Jelly’s wagon; both acknowledging with grim knowing looks, the scattered wounds on each of the horses’ chest, as they lay motionless on the ground, broken limbs askew and a final shot through each of their heads. Blood thick and scarlet, seeped into the ground as each man wondered what kind of inhuman being would fire at harmless animals and bring such wanton destruction to the Lancer patriarch and his son.
Sam whistled at the sight that greeted him upon his arrival. Jose dismounted and quickly rounded the side of Doc’s carriage and took his medical bag from him so the older man could climb down. When he alighted from the buggy he took the bag from Jose’s hand and made his way to the injured men, gingerly touching the wooden tailgate as he picked his way past the debris.
“Well it’s pretty obvious what happened here so why don’t one of you tell me what kind of condition these two are in,” Doc stated in his most professional and detached tone as he knelt next to Murdoch first.
Doc looked up from him ministrations, only to see the top of Johnny’s dark head staring unmoving at his father’s face. He knew only too well what must have been going through Johnny’s mind. Reaching over he touched his arm, causing the young man to flinch and lift his head looking blankly across at him, “He hasn’t moved or opened his eyes Doc.” He watched and listened as Johnny blinked several times and then continue his tortured thoughts, “I been here at least two hours…” he shook his head slowly, “and there’s been nothing,” the last word drifted off in a whisper.
Doc pulled back Murdoch’s eyelids one at a time; the pupils were slightly dilated, which to Sam confirmed his worst suspicions that Murdoch was out cold due to the blow to the head and most certainly a concussion. For the next half hour he checked Murdoch from head to toe, cleaning his wounds as he worked. He re-bandaged his head after making sure the gash and knot at the back of his head was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, nodding his head in approval at the thoroughness of Teresa and Cipriano’s medical handiwork. For now, there was nothing he could do about the fact that Murdoch was still unconscious, he just hoped that his friend would wake up soon. The best they could do for him now was to get him back to Lancer and in a soft bed with the hopes that he would regain consciousness soon. He feared the results if he were to stay in this condition for much longer.
Picking up his black bag he made his way around Murdoch’s prone body over to Scott’s side. He removed the wrappings set earlier by Jelly and Johnny and much has he had with Murdoch, inspected the gash on Scott’s temple. He was dabbing around the wound on his head with the carbolic acid when Scott began to move his head away from Doc’s care, moaning softly with his eyes closed and swiping at the irritant above his eye.
Johnny turned around at the sound of his brother’s distress and took the errant swathed hand in his own, hushing him gently with soft-spoken, caring words of admonishment to be still.
Jelly and Teresa sat huddled together near their family. Her shoulders shook with despair as she watched the scene play out in front of them, feeling helpless as Jelly curled his arm tighter around her shaking shoulders. “Now, now don’t fret girl. Doc’s here and he’s gonna git these two fixed up in no time,” the old man crooned as he brushed the hair away from her face and back behind her ear.
She shook her head up and down several times in acknowledgment of his sincere observations, then smiled into his whiskered features with a fresh reserve of courage lighting her face. Squeezing his rough callused hand in hers, she said, “I know, Jelly, I know.” She took a deep breath, “I’m sorry I’m being such a baby.”
Jelly squeezed her harder and scooted another inch closer to her and said, “Now you stop that, baby girl. There ain’t no reason fer you to be sayin’ such a thing. You got grit! You hear me? There ain’t a one of us that hasn’t benefited from yer hard work and care, so don’t go sittin’ there feelin’ sorry fer yerself, cause that’s zactly what yer doin’.” He gave her another tug and said, “Now buck up and dry them tears of yourn.” He smiled down into her face and was proud to see that she did indeed ‘buck up’. He could tell by the way she sat a little straighter and by the way she wiped away any signs of moisture on her face and smiled back at him, this time with much more conviction in her smiling eyes than before their talk.
Doc listened to the exchange with one ear thankful that with all that had happened to this family in the past year, the one thing that was constant and true was their undying loyalty and ability to come together in a crisis. His thoughts were interrupted when Scott opened his eyes and spoke to him, “Hey Doc.”
“Hey there yourself, young man. Looks like you and your Pa got into some trouble,” Doc reflected to his patient.
“I’ll say.” Scott closed his eyes and took a deep breath wincing at the effort.
“Hurt some?” Doc asked as he felt around gingerly on Scott’s ribcage where his shirt was open and pulled back.
With eyes still closed Scott answered, “Some.”
“I’m not surprised. You have a lot of bruises on your chest and I think you may have broken a rib or two. The bones seem too soft and pliable here and here,” he said, touching the spots he indicated gently.
Opening his eyes he moved his head so that he could see Johnny’s face, “How’s Murdoch?” he asked, seeing that same closed off look on his brother’s face.
Johnny winced at the answer in his head and said, “He’s still out. Doc’s got him wrapped up pretty good. Don’t know how much is wrong with him till he wakes up. Looks like he might have broken his arm.”
Scott looked back toward Sam who was getting more bandages out of his bag to wrap around Scott’s torso. “Why isn’t he awake yet?” he asked the doctor.
“He took a nasty blow to the back of the head Scott. He’s sure to have a concussion and other injuries I’m unaware of as yet, but we’ll have to let Mother Nature take its course until he comes around. Then we’ll see,” he explained patiently. “Here, let’s get you sitting up so I can get these bandages wrapped around you. Johnny you grab his other side and when I say go, lift him slowly.” Johnny did as the Doctor asked and they got Scott to a sitting position with little effort on either man.
They were just about done with binding Scott’s chest when a heavy moan came from behind Johnny.
Teresa was the first to jump up from her seat on the ground, Jelly only seconds after her, running to Murdoch’s side as he struggled to open his eyes and concentrate on the voices around him. Cipriano and Jose, alert to the sudden changes, joined the group hoping that their boss was finally coming to. When Murdoch opened his eyes and tried groggily to focus on the faces before him, both men made the sign of the cross and silently thanked God that he would recover.
Teresa brushed her hand along his bandaged forehead and said, “Murdoch?” in a quiet but firm voice, wanting to know if he recognized her or her voice.
Sam and Johnny, finished up with Scott’s chest and helped him scoot back toward the tree so that he could continue to sit up and watch as they tended to the now semi coherent and dazed Murdoch, still lying on his back.
Giving his brother one last final pat on the shoulder, Johnny turned on his knees to face his father’s prone figure. Leaning in closer and glancing up at Teresa face and then back to his father, Johnny said the same thing, wondering if his father could hear them since he hadn’t responded to Teresa, “Murdoch?” he said, “Can you hear me?”
Murdoch closed his eyes for a moment, but was quick to open them up again, getting restless as the events of the day came rushing back to him in full blinding force through his mind. He tried to rise, but Johnny and Teresa both held him down much to his chagrin. Anger clouded his mind at what had happened and he tried valiantly to rise again, only this time to be stopped by Sam who had made his way to Teresa’s side, asking her to move a little so that he could get a better look at the agitated Murdoch, “Whoa there Murdoch. Settle down, let’s not complicate your injuries more by getting rambunctious.” He watched as his friend calmed down and relaxed once again, though the questions in his mind were screaming to be asked.
“Let’s start off simple. Can you hear me?” the doctor asked.
Murdoch slowly nodded his head, but stopped as soon as the rush of pain pierced his skull.
“Don’t try to move, just try to answer me if you can.” Sam waited for what seemed like minutes as Murdoch gathered his thoughts enough to make a response.
“I…can…hear…you,” came the stuttered reply. He tried to raise his left arm and groaned with the effort and the shooting darts than ran from his hand to his shoulder. He also felt an uncomfortable pain in his thighs and wondered why that would be happening. So many thoughts ran rampant in his head that he was at a loss as to what to say first. Feeling the pain more and more by the minute he finally said, “Hurts.”
Doc knew he had a lot of damage to his body but he felt it was prudent to find out what hurt the man the most, “Where does it hurt Murdoch?”
Murdoch couldn’t believe the question. Couldn’t the Doctor see that he hurt everywhere? Seeing that he was still waiting for the answer, Murdoch replied groggily, “All over. My legs, my arm…my head! Ouch!” he said as he inadvertently moved his head while speaking.
It was Johnny who spoke next, concern filling his voice, “Your legs, Murdoch? Where do they hurt?” He didn’t wait for an answer, “Doc, did you check his legs?” he asked.
“Jelly, take Teresa over by the wagon and keep her there. Doc’s going to have to check Murdoch’s legs,” came the unsteady voice of reason from Scott.
“No…No…I don’t want to go over there. I’ve nursed your father plenty of times. He needs me,” Teresa cried out when Jelly went to take her by the arms and lift her off the ground as she protested the directive.
Seeing that his father was in good hands for the moment and at least awake and talking to them, Johnny got up off his knees and took Teresa from Jelly’s arms and led her to the far side of the toppled wagon speaking to her gently and with respect for her feelings, “Teresa, honey, Doc’s gotta take his pants off to see what’s wrong with his legs.”
“I know Johnny, but it’s not like I haven’t seen him in his drawers before,” she said pleading for him to understand.
“I know,” he cupped her chin and forced her to look at him, “I know querida. It’s not that. Please understand por favor. Cipriano, Jose and Jelly are here too. It would be… awkward…” he trailed off, hoping she understood where he was going with his thoughts.
Her eyes welled up and Johnny thought his heart would break if her tears should fall, “Please, Miel. Do this for me,” he pleaded gently.
“Bien. I’ll do as you say mi querido.” She quickly brushed at the tears and sat on the ground with her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around her knees.
Johnny squatted down in front of her wanting her to know that if it could be the other way around he would have let her stay by his father’s side. “Querida?”
She knew he was torn by mixed feelings at the moment and she was angry at herself for being selfish and making him feel even more anxiety than he needed, “Lo siento.” She touched his face with her fingertips and smiled at him.
Relief flooded his features at her apology. He took her hand in his and gave her a kiss on the palm and a look of understanding passed between them before he rose and went back to his father and brother.
With Cipriano’s help, Doc had managed to get Murdoch’s pants off and to their dismay found that his thighs were completely black and blue across the fleshy top of his thighs.
Doc asked him seriously, “Can you wiggle your toes?”
Murdoch concentrated and managed to wiggle his toes, but the movement brought sharp pain to both legs.
“I know it hurts, but lets see if you can lift your legs a little,” Doc then instructed.
Johnny dropped down between Scott and his father watching anxiously as the older man tried to lift first one leg then the other. Sam didn’t let him lift them off the ground very high, just enough to make sure there was complete movement in both his limbs. When he was satisfied with the results he told Johnny and Cipriano to help him get his pants back on.
“What do you think Doc?” Scott asked from his resting place.
Murdoch, had closed his eyes but he indicated with a, “Yeah Sam,” that he was awake and listening.
“Well, he can thank his lucky stars they aren’t broken. Very badly bruised but not broken.” Doc replied.
“What…what about my arm?” Murdoch asked groggily as he did his best to help Johnny and Cipriano get his pants around his hips without moving any more than he had to. “Feels like there’s a red hot poker putting its brand on me,” he continued, opening his eyes to look at Sam.
“Now that’s a different story. I’m afraid to tell you that I believe it’s broken and you’ll have to have a cast put on it as soon as I can get to it,” Sam answered his friend knowing this was the worst piece of news he could be imparting just before his biggest cattle drive of the year.
The growl that came from Murdoch’s lips spoke deeply of the feelings that Doc’s news represented. Before Murdoch could issue an epitaph of oaths through his clenched teeth, Johnny squeezed his good arm gently and said, “Don’t worry about that right now and don’t get yourself worked up. We’ll discuss this after we get you and Scott home. Right now that’s what we have to concentrate on.” He turned to look back at his brother who nodded his head in agreement. Nothing could be worked out or settled right now. The most important thing, as Johnny said, was to get them home and take care of their injuries.
The ride home wasn’t a pleasant experience for anyone. Murdoch and Scott were helped into the back of Jelly’s wagon, with Teresa sitting between both men, making sure that they were kept as comfortable as possible during the rocky drive back to Lancer.
Johnny followed on Barranca, his mind a whirl of activity. It hadn’t gone unnoticed that both the horses that had pulled the wagon had been shot in the chest by what looked to be buckshot. He suspected that the wounds received, sent both the animals thundering at breakneck speed down the winding roadway only to have their driver lose control of the reins and then crash to a deadly stop off the side off the road.
He left Cipriano and Jose in charge of the cleanup, thankful that they had both come upon his father and brother when they had or it could have been hours before anyone would have found out about the accident. He also let them know that he would send out a couple of the hands as soon as they returned to the ranch with a wagon and tools to aide with the burial and the reloading of the supplies.
Sam Jenkins led the way down the winding valley road and through the great adobe archway that was the gateway and symbol of the Lancer ranch. Within minutes they pulled up to the main house as several of the ranch hands approached, ready to lend a hand and help the injured men inside the house.
The Doctor raised his graying eyebrows in wonder as he watched and listened to Johnny issue orders to each of them as if it were the most natural thing in the world to him. He knew for a fact that issuing orders was not something that Johnny had ever been comfortable with and that generally he left the spoken commands up to his father or brother unless there was no other alternative. But it seemed that when the chips were down Johnny was more than capable of taking control and taking control was what he was doing.
Within minutes Johnny ordered men to go back to the wreckage and had both Scott and Murdoch inside the hacienda and in their rooms with a fussing Maria and Teresa lending a helping hand as Sam Jenkins worked first on Murdoch and then on Scott.
It was while they were upstairs that Jelly took the opportunity to speak to a very quiet and thoughtful Johnny, who stood with his hands on the mantel, staring into the unlit fireplace waiting on word about his father and brother, “Arrhaa hum, I think we need tuh talk Johnny,” the older man said.
Jelly watched as the knuckles of Johnny’s hands turned white as he gripped the mantel even harder and then pushed off with an angry oath muttered under his breath, “Dios Jelly! Talk about what! About how my father and brother are laying up there, all busted up and half dead or about the son of a bitch that did this too them?”
Jelly rolled his tongue around in his mouth and shoved his hands into the pockets of his trousers, “Yep! That’s what I want us to talk about,” he answered, knowing that Johnny didn’t want to talk about anything right now until he knew how his family was faring, but he needed to. His boss and his friend were upstairs and injured and something had to be done about it, “We’ve got to get Val out here and we’ve got to get some answers afore somethin’ else happens. Twernt no accident them two had, you know it and so do I.”
Johnny placed his hands on his hips, his head lowering as far as it would go toward his chest and kicked at an imaginary object on the floor with a loud sigh of frustration, “I know Jelly,” he said quietly, deadly to Jelly’s ears, “I know.”
He raised his head slowly and looked Jelly directly in the eyes, “I know,” was all he said, but Jelly nearly flinched at the look on Johnny’s face. His eyes were cold as steel and they squinted menacingly at nothing and no one, death shining brightly from their icy depths. Jelly watched him storm from the room without another word, the door slamming hard and furious behind him as he left the house.
Jelly shook his head and shoulders to ward off the ugly feeling that passed through his body and made the hairs on his neck stand on end, “Whoever did this better pray to the heavens that Johnny don’t find ‘em first,” he commented to the empty room.
He left the room and its deadly atmosphere to go upstairs and check on the two injured men. He made room for Sam as the Doctor brushed past him on his way to Scott’s room, noticing that Doc kept his thoughts to himself for the time being. Jelly quietly entered Murdoch’s bedroom. He found him sitting up in bed, which surprised him some, but then he thought better of it and realized that nothing really should surprise him when it came to any of the Lancer’s. They always did the unexpected even when they were injured and Murdoch was no exception.
Jelly approached the bed, where Teresa was just pulling up the covers and helping Murdoch to place his injured left arm over the blankets, “How’s he doin’?” Jelly asked.
“He’s doing just fine,” came a surly voice from the bed.
Teresa smiled wanly, “Doc, says he has a broken arm and it’ll have to go in a cast for several weeks,” she answered, then to Murdoch’s chagrin continued, “And he has a concussion.”
Murdoch sighed deeply and growled between tightly ground teeth, “Would both of you stop talking about me as if I weren’t here.”
The aggravated tone was ignored by both and Teresa said, “Don’t mind him Jelly, he’s a little put out because Sam just told him he won’t be going on the drive.”
“Wal now I’m not surprised at all bout that. Can’t go on a drive if your all busted up and lame,” Jelly reflected, “Sounds like someone around here has got some sense about him.”
Murdoch in his frustration picked his right hand up and forcefully hit the top of the covers next to him and said, “Oh for Heavens sake Jelly would you hush up!”
Nonplussed, Jelly took his suspenders by the straps and said to Teresa, while ignoring Murdoch, “If he keeps that up Doc’ll have to give him somethin’ to control his temper too.”
“Jelly!” Murdoch warned very loudly.
“Sorry Boss, but you’re as cranky as a cow that ain’t been milked in a week of Sundays,” Jelly remarked while he pulled a chair from across the room and set it next to the head of the bed and sat in it.
“You would be too, if I’m not mistaken. Where’s Johnny?” the injured man wanted to know.
Teresa looked at Jelly wanting to know that answer as well. Jelly shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t know. He just took off out the front door a few minutes ago without a by your leave. He looked madder than a wet hen after I told him we needed to talk about what happened and get Val out here.”
Murdoch rubbed his injured forehead with his good hand, “What are you talking about Jelly? Why would Val need to come out and why would Johnny be mad?”
Teresa crinkled her brow and looked at Jelly the same questions clearly written on her face, “Jelly?”
‘Oh Lord,’ he thought. With everything that had happened, it hadn’t occurred to Jelly that Murdoch and Scott didn’t know or realize that the team pulling their wagon had been shot while they were coming home. It was with great trepidation that Jelly informed his employer and friend of what they had found when he had reached their side.
When every last detail that Jelly could remember from the wreck was told Murdoch asked, “How’s Scott?”
“He’s doing well,” Teresa explained gently, still struggling with the realization that someone had tried to kill Murdoch and Scott. “Doc and Maria are with him now. I’ll go check on him and see how things are going.” She kissed him on the top of his head and left the room, closing the door quietly behind her to give the men some privacy. She knew by Murdoch’s tone he wanted to speak to Jelly alone.
Even with the revelation of news spiraling his adrenaline, Murdoch was beginning to get very groggy and tired, but he needed to speak to Jelly knowing that the man would do exactly as he wanted without question. “Get Johnny back here. I don’t want him going after whoever did this on his own.” He paused and Jelly thought maybe he had fallen asleep because he was quiet for so long, but he was wrong, “This is going to be a difficult time Jelly,” another pause, “For all of us.”
Jelly leaned in toward the bed and touched Murdoch’s arm ever so lightly, “I know boss. What can I do?” he asked feeling the shoulder of responsibility getting heavier and heavier with each of Murdoch’s words.
Murdoch opened his eyes and looked directly into Jelly’s, “Watch over him. Be there for him,” he said in strained earnest.
“You know I will boss,” Jelly answered, “Always.”
Murdoch barely shook his head, “You don’t… understand. He’s going to… fight me on this.”
Jelly’s brows went up, not understanding what Murdoch was trying to say. “Understand what Boss?”
Murdoch reached over with his right hand and grasped Jelly on his arm, “He’ll have to… go. He’ll have to… lead the drive.” Murdoch’s eyes were getting heavier and heavier, “You…you have to make him go. He won’t…want to.” The eyes did close, but Murdoch still struggled to get the last of his thoughts to Jelly, “Make him…understand…Val…can take care of…trouble here…” With those final words Murdoch succumbed to the tiredness of his body and the injury to his head.
Jelly squeezed his arm and although Murdoch was unaware of anything around him now that he was asleep, he seemed to relax when Jelly said with rough emotion lacing his voice, “I will Boss. Don’t you worry none.”
Scott was doing much better than his father. His hands were skinned pretty bad and he did indeed have several cracked ribs from his rough tumble on the ground but the good news was, he would be up and moving around much sooner than Murdoch.
Doc finished stitching the deep gash over his left eyebrow and announced to Scott that he would probably have a small scar there as a reminder of this day. When Scott was informed that neither he nor his father would be able to go on the cattle drive in the morning, Sam was taken aback by the similar outspoken, agitated and angry retort that sounded very familiar to him. ‘Well I see where they get it from,’ Sam thought as he chuckled. He forced angry words out of his mind and cleaned his instruments before putting them back into his bag.
The bedroom door opened and Teresa walked in and over to where Scott lay seething on the bed as Maria tucked the covers around him, “How’s our patient Doctor Jenkins?” she asked.
Sam harrumphed, “Why don’t you ask him. It seems that he has a very vocal voice and is completely capable of using it without a ounce of appreciation for his caregiver.”
Scott scowled at the man and pointed a bandaged hand in his direction and said heatedly, “I’m sorry Doc, but you can’t expect a man to hear that kind of news and still be the most patient of patient’s, now can you?”
“Sssshhh, senor Scott, you will give yourself a headache if you keep shouting that way,” Maria said calmly as she tucked the final piece of blanket around the angry man’s legs.
“Maria, will you quit tucking the covers in so tightly, I’m not going to be able to move an inch the way you’ve got me wrapped up in here,” Scott said as he kicked his feet and legs in frustration.
Maria glared at him and silently dared him to continue to speak to her in the same manner. Scott was quick to realize he had made a mistake with his harsh words and childish display and hastily apologized for his inconsiderate rebuke, “I’m sorry.”
Maria smiled, “Gracias chico. It would have been broth for you if you had continued,” she said with almost a hint of humor in her voice. With a final pat to the blankets, Maria left the room, knowing that a good meal was in order to bring back the pleasant personality of her patrón’s oldest son.
As soon as she left the room Scott said to Teresa who stood at the foot of his bed smiling, “Do you know what that man just told me?”
Teresa shook her head, “I can guess.” She looked at the Doctor who was just closing his bag, his back still to his patient, “You’re not going on the cattle drive,” she ventured on dangerous territory.
Sam turned to face his patient and smiled too, “That’s right and neither is his father.”
Teresa rested her chin atop her hand on the post of Scott’s bed, “Murdoch isn’t too pleased either.”
“Pleased!” Scott fairly shouted, “Is that all you can say?” he wanted to know. Teresa got the feeling he was looking to pick a fight with her and refused to take the bait.
Sam hefted his bag and said, “That’s my cue. I’ll be back to check on you both in the morning.” He left the room, leaving Teresa to fend for herself with Scott. ‘One injured Lancer was enough but two could drive a man crazy,’ he thought as he left the room.
Teresa pursed her lips and thought long and hard before she finally said anything to Scott, “There’s no sense in being mad at me or Maria or anyone. You can’t go and that’s that. Better to stop acting this way than to make it more difficult than it has to be.”
“What did Murdoch say?” he asked, not at all mollified by her words.
She shrugged, “Same as you. He’s not happy about it either, but then again he’s much worse off than you.”
Scott shifted in his bed to get more comfortable, his irritability lessoning with each passing minute, “How much?” he asked.
Teresa moved around to the side of the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress next to Scott, “Broken arm and concussion. We’ll have to keep an eye on him all night. Doc says he doesn’t want him sleeping more than a couple of hours at a time for the next twenty four hours,” she replied, sweeping back the blonde bangs off his forehead near his stitches. “There’s something else,” she said seriously.
Scott heaved a big sigh, “What?” he asked dreading more bad news about his father.
Teresa looked down at the blanket and began to play with the fringed edge between her fingers, “This wasn’t an accident,” she told him, then looked up into his eyes to see if he understood what she was telling him.
Scott watched her fingers as they played with the fringe, then took her hand between his bandaged ones and sought to find the answers in her brown liquid gaze as he held her hand in his, “The horses?” he questioned.
She shook her head up and down, “Shot while you were driving.”
Scott dropped her hand, stunned at the news, “Does…does…” he gulped back the bile that rose in his throat, “does Murdoch know?”
Her head bobbed up and down.
“Johnny?” he asked, the one word enough for her to know what he was asking.
Teresa looked away, “Yes,” was her worried reply.
“Where is he?” Scott demanded pulling on her chin and making Teresa face him.
“Gone… Jelly doesn’t know where.”
Scott started to get up, “Scott no! You can’t get up right now. Johnny won’t do anything foolish.” She held onto his shoulders, “We have to trust him and wait for him. He’ll be back soon, I know it.”
Scott gritted his teeth and gingerly touched the wound now throbbing on his temple, “I need to see Murdoch. We’ve got to discuss this and decide what we’re going to do next.”
“You ain’t gonna do a gall darn thing, ‘ceptin lay back down in that bed and mind yer manners,” came Jelly’s voice from the opened bedroom door.
“Jelly I need…” Scott started to say.
“I already heard ya. I could hear ya belly achin’ clear down the hallway and Teresa’s right. Yuh need to trust Johnny and wait fer ‘im to git home.” Jelly came all the way into the bedroom to stand next to Teresa, he put a hand on her shoulder as he spoke to Scott, “Yer Pa knows everything and he wants Val to take care of it and…” the old man paused, “He’s gonna make Johnny take that herd to Stockton jest like we done planned.” He watched Scott and his reaction was just as he suspected it would be. His facial expression mirrored the same earlier feelings he’d had when Murdoch made him promise to convince Johnny that he had to go.
Scott shook his head, the throbbing on his temple increasing with Jelly’s news, “He won’t go Jelly. He can’t. He’s never done anything like that before. You know it and I know.” Scott heaved a sigh, “Besides that, he would never leave knowing that we’re both injured and that it wasn’t an accident.”
Grabbing his suspenders, Jelly said to Scott, “And that’s why yer Pa made me promise to make him do it, and yer ah gonna help me.”
Tension hung silent and thick in the room, yet no one uttered another word.
Johnny rode back to the accident site. There was barely enough light to see anything but he decided to give it a try. Gone was the wagon and supplies that Cipriano and the men removed, the wagon had been righted but there was nothing much left to do other than take an axe to it and bring the pieces back to the ranch as fire wood.
Taking his time he scanned the area carefully hoping to find some sign other than the ones he knew should be there from earlier. His gaze came to the sight under the tree where he had first seen his father and brother and a cold shiver ran up his spine as he thought of all the blood that had soaked through the cloth under Murdoch’s head.
Images of his mother had temporarily clouded his vision and thoughts until he thought he might scream out loud with the memories long ago buried, deep within his subconscious. It had been a struggle to control his frightening thoughts until Murdoch regained his consciousness. The thought of losing his father at this time in his life was always an image he fought to control and feared to express to anyone, even the brother who had come to be his best friend and confidant.
The idea of losing his brother at the same time had nearly been his undoing and until he finally awoke, the persistent fear rode his soul like the devil in his worst nightmares. It wasn’t until he heard Scott utter his name and saw the blue of his eyes, that some of that fear began to dissipate only to be replaced by an even greater one when his father would not awaken to his continual pleas.
Johnny shook the memories out of his mind and replaced them with one sole purpose. He walked past the tree and circled around the whole area never finding any evidence to put him on a trail that would give him some clues as to who or why this had been done to his family. He was glad he took Jelly’s advice and sent Charlie to Green River. The only other person who was as good at tracking as he, was Val.
e returned to the wagon and stood staring at it, his hands splayed on his hips as he chewed on his bottom lip searching for clues big or small. It was then, in a brief instantaneous second that something reached out to him and made his mind latch onto something Cipriano had told him earlier. He remembered his Tio saying that he and Jose had found Scott and Murdoch somewhere between where the wagon was and the tree they had eventually taken them to lie under. ‘So why then were Murdoch’s legs completely bruised across the upper thighs?’ he wondered.
Standing he walked a few more steps toward the righted wagon and once again squatted toward the ground, searching the hard packed earth where the buckboard had lain on it’s side. He scanned the ground and found what he was looking for. He touched a large dark stain in a circular pattern in front of him, not more than a foot to his right side. Squeezing a pinch of the dark stain, he brought it up to his nose and took a whiff, then rolled the sticky dirt between his fingers, quickly rubbing it off on the side of his pants as he stood up.
Long strides carried him to Barranca’s side and he quickly mounted riding in the direction from where he knew the horses had come from when they had left town that afternoon. All along the traveled road there were signs of the wagon wheels that had careened to and fro from one side of the road to the other in what could be nothing less than frenzied panic. When he reached the point where the tracks were even and maintained, Johnny pulled his horse to a halt and studied the tracks to find the exact point where the chaos had begun.
It had only taken a moment to find the next clue. Dark spots littered the ground and the space of the horses hooves increased in stride, not more than two miles from where the buckboard had finally toppled over. Johnny reined Barranca to the left side of the road and led the palomino toward a small rise that rested not far, but well enough away to hide an attacker from sight. He dismounted and began a new search, hoping for more clues.
Being experienced and an expert at knowing how to cover his tracks, Johnny was not fooled by the signs of brushing he found on the other side of the knoll. This didn’t give him any clues as to who would have shot at his father and brother but he now knew for certain that someone had been lying in wait.
The sun was nearly down and spotting any kind of evidence was getting more and more difficult with each passing minute. Just as he was about to give up and return to Barranca he spied a small object near a bush he had just about missed the first time he had walked past it. Bending over he picked up a hollow gun shell, left unknowingly by the attackers. He stuck it under his nose and inhaled the odor from the casing. It was still strong and could only have been used just recently. He stuck the empty shell between his belt and the waist of his pants and took one last final look around with a twist of his head before heading back to the ranch as the darkness of the night finally encroached upon him and his faithful compadre.
Johnny returned to Lancer and gratefully handed Barranca’s reins to a waiting Clint who watched him approach from the bunkhouse door.
“Thanks Clint. Is Doc still here?” Johnny asked.
“Naw. Left awhile ago,” the ranch hand replied, “Hope the Boss is gonna be all right.” He shook his dark head; “He didn’t look so good when we took ‘im upstairs.” The man pulled on the palomino’s reins and began to lead him to the barn, saying over his shoulder, “Scott must be all right, we could hear him caterwauling through the open window of his room earlier. It weren’t much after that, that Doc left.”
Johnny listened and watched as Clint took his horse into the barn, his voice still rambling on. He swiped his face with a tired hand and smiled when he heard Clint say. “I’ll take real good care of Barranca and make sure he gets an extra ration of oats for all his hard work today.”
Feeling tired and angry, Johnny made his way to the house across the open yard. He was just about to enter the front door when the sound of wild pounding hooves caused him to turn and see who was coming up the drive.
Charlie rode hard and came to a skidding halt, jumping off his horse as soon as he got near the front of the house. The door opened quickly and light spilled onto the foyer as Jelly came out to see what the entire ruckus was about. He found Johnny standing with his back to the front of the door and Charlie running up on them, his chest heaving as he stopped and stood before the two of them.
“What in the sam hill…” Jelly began.
Johnny reached behind him with a stilling hand on Jelly’s chest, “Jelly,” he said calmly as he turned his head slightly and frowned at the older man, “Just wait.”
Johnny took a couple of steps and placed his hands on Charlie’s heaving shoulders, “Calm down Charlie. What’s happened?”
Charlie worked to catch his breath; “Val can’t… make it out here right now.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed, “Why not?”
Taking a deep breath, Charlie said, “The whole town is in an uproar.”
“Well what in tarnation fer?” Jelly asked heatedly, coming to stand at Johnny’s side.
Charlie held a hand to his chest and said with more calm than he had, “The bank, Jelly! It’s been robbed!” he exclaimed.
“Damn!” Johnny swore, taking his hat off and swatting it on his leg. He lifted his eyes to the night sky and took in a deep breath to calm his emotions.
Jelly was just as perturbed and ran a hand through the whiskers on his chin to help relieve his agitation, “Robbed!” he exclaimed.
Charlie nodded his head, “Yep and that ain’t the worst of it,” he announced grimly.
Johnny turned back to Charlie and asked, dreading whatever it was that the hand still hadn’t told them, “What Charlie?”
“We got us some trouble fer sure Johnny. Folks is saying they saw Rusty and Jake Fletcher ridin’ with the gang that done it,” he told them.
“Dang blasted! I knew them two was trouble. No good, bunch a no account sidewinders,” Jelly lambasted to no one in particular.
Johnny shoved his way past Charlie and made his way to the bunkhouse, a flustered Jelly and an anxious Charlie following his determined steps.
Johnny opened the door to the bunkhouse and found several of the men sitting at a table playing cards while others were simply sitting on their bunks working on their tack for the long day ahead.
“Where’s Ray?” Johnny demanded of the men.
Chuck Rogers pushed his chair away from the card table and stood before Johnny, “He’s out on watch I reckon. What’s the trouble Johnny?” the wrangler wanted to know.
“When’s the last time any of you saw Rusty or Jake,” was Johnny’s reply.
Chuck turned and took a cursory look around the room, expecting anyone with the answer to speak up. His crinkled gaze fell on Rob Tanner, whose bunk was next to Rusty’s. The young cowboy saw that he was being stared at an offered a quick answer, “Ain’t seen ‘em since early this afternoon Chuck, since they rode off toward the Windy Meadow section lookin’ fer Ray.”
Jelly put his hand on Johnny’s arm and tugged just enough to get his attention, “I sent ‘em out thar Johnny after they got done loading them supplies at the back end of the wagon.”
Johnny lowered his head and thought on the words and then said to Chuck, “What time was Ray supposed to be back?” He looked up and into Chuck’s eyes dreading what the answer was going to be.
Chuck winced knowing where Johnny was going with his questions, “Bout an hour ago, didn’t think nothin’ of it Johnny,” he answered, his face clouded with worry.
“You and Charlie ride out to the meadow and see if you can find him. When you get back, come and get me,” he stated and turned, leaving the bunkhouse with Jelly close on his heels.
Johnny stormed across the yard and Jelly had a difficult time keeping up with his fast pace. He managed to be right behind him as they entered the house with a few hasty skips and a, “Hold up Johnny,” issued from his lips as they crossed the threshold.
Jelly was able to catch Johnny by the arm but the angry young man was in no mood to be manhandled by anyone, let alone Jelly. Johnny jerked his arm from Jelly’s grasp and turned to the older man, glaring at him fiercely, “Don’t,” he said, his tone icy, his eyes so dark with rage they were almost black.
The demeanor didn’t shake Jelly, he knew Johnny wouldn’t hurt him so he continued with what he wanted to say, “Don’t you don’t me, Johnny Lancer. I told yer Pa I would talk to ya and that’s ah what we’re ah goin’ to do. Now sit!” he said pointing to the oversized sofa in the great room.
Johnny heaved a sigh, “Jelly I don’t have time…” he started to say.
Jelly took him by the arm again, ignoring his anger and frustration and pulled him further into the room, this time without Johnny jerking his arm free. He made him sit on the sofa and walked behind it to the little table that held the bottles of liquor and poured them both a generous amount whiskey, needing the fire the drink would bring to get him through the next several minutes.
He shoved a glass at Johnny and for just a moment thought he might not accept it as the young man sat and stared at the proffered drink several seconds without blinking. Johnny finally took the drink and before Jelly could find his seat in the chair next to the fireplace, he had gulped the entire contents. With his legs slightly apart he held the glass between his hands and said more calmly than he felt, “Go on, get it said.”
Taking a drink to calm his own nerves Jelly finally said to the bowed head across from him, “First off, yer Pa and Scott are gonna be fine. Doc said so. Murdoch has a broken arm and a concussion, yer brother has some cracked ribs and he’s plum skinned the top layer off ah the palms of his hands. Got a pretty good-sized goose egg on his head too,” he recited.
Johnny lifted his head and studied the old man’s face, “And?”
Jelly drank what was left in his glass before answering, “They’re both asleep bout now. Teresa’s upstairs keeping watch over both of ‘em.” Jelly watched as Johnny seemed to physically relax at the news. Maybe now he could talk to him about what Murdoch expected of him, but he knew it wasn’t going to be easy, especially now that Johnny had received more bad news from Charlie.
Jelly jumped up from his seat feeling the need for another stiff drink before he ventured into a subject he knew for sure Johnny would fight him on. As he walked past the younger man he took his glass as well and poured them both another drink and handed Johnny his. Sitting down once again he swallowed a gulp and proceeded with his talk, “Thar’s somethin’ else…somethin’ yer Pa wanted me to talk to ya about. I guess now’s the time.”
Johnny felt his heartbeat raise a fraction and lifted his eyes toward his friend knowing he wasn’t going to like whatever it was Jelly had to say, “So say it,” he demanded wanting to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Jelly took a deep breath, “Yer Pa wants you to lead the drive tomorrow. He’s puttin’ you in charge.”
Johnny suddenly stood up, his entire body engulfed with rage, “No!” he shouted. He began pacing across the room and eyed Jelly who watched him pace back and forth without a word. “No…no way…I’m not gonna leave them. No!”
Johnny stopped in front of the fireplace and set his glass on the mantle, reaching for the shell he had tucked between his belt and the waist of his pants. “You see this?” he asked, walking up to stand in front of the seated Jelly. “That’s a shotgun shell. I found it down off the road where Murdoch and Scott lost control of the horses.”
Johnny tossed the shell into Jelly’s lap and went to stand in front of the mantle, taking his drink and downing the last of it in an attempt to control his anger at the absurdity of Jelly’s and Murdoch’s suggestion. How could he leave his family knowing that there was someone out there trying to kill them? There was also the problem of Rusty and Jake Fletcher to consider. He didn’t know if they were involved with the accident that had nearly gotten his father and his brother killed, but his instincts told him there might be a connection and if there was, there was no way he would be able to leave knowing he wasn’t there to protect them.
Jelly set his glass down on the table and went to stand next to Johnny, “Yer Pa insist Johnny. If yuh don’t go, we don’t git the money from the drive and yer Pa will lose out on that piece of property he wants. You already know without me havin’ to tell ya, how important getting’ that land and the water rights that come with it are. Yuh ain’t got no choice boy. Somebody has to go and it has ta be you. Yer the boss’ son and yuh have to take charge.”
Jelly put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder as he watched the young man gaze into the empty fireplace his head nearly bent down to his chest. He was glad to see that he didn’t shrug away his touch and wondered if he was getting through to him, “I promised yer Pa I would make you understand the truth of the matter son. Yuh can’t let him down. He needs yuh to do this fer im and I’m gonna be right thar along side ya to make sure things go right.”
Johnny’s breathing started to increase to the point where Jelly could see he was visibly upset by the request, “I don’t know if I can do it Jelly.” He shook his head, his chest heaving as if he had just run a quarter mile. Still shaking his dark head he looked over at Jelly standing next to him and the anguish in his eyes nearly tore the heart right from Jelly’s chest.
“Yuh can do it. I know yuh can and so does yer Pa and yer brother,” he said, hoping the words of confidence would help calm Johnny down.
Johnny’s brow furrowed, “Scott knows what Murdoch wants me to do?” he asked.
“Yep,” Jelly said, giving Johnny’s shoulder another good squeeze to back up the affirmative.
“I don’t know Jelly.” Johnny shook his head again. “What if…what if whoever tried this does something while I’m gone.” His face contorted with a pained expression, “I would never be able to forgive myself if someone got to them and killed them,” he reasoned out loud, imagining the worst possible circumstances.
“Now that’s a might strong assumption, first off. We got enough men fer the drive and enough men that will stay behind to help guard the house. Yer Pa says that Val and his men will take care of the other trouble and find whoever it is that was taken pot shots at ‘em.” Jelly reasoned.
“I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit. Whoever it was taken a shot at the old man and Scott, brushed away their tracks. So I know whoever it was, did it deliberately. The only thing I can’t figure out is why they pulled Murdoch out from underneath wagon,” Johnny told him as he pulled away and went to sit back down on the sofa.
Jelly was surprised at the news that Johnny had just told him, “Now how in tarnation do you know that?” he wanted to know.
Johnny took a deep breath and filled the older man in on what he had found out as he searched the area around the wagon and also told him of the brush marks he found further out and all around the wreckage site.
Jelly rubbed at his whiskers thoughtfully, “Wal now maybe it was an accident after all. Maybe someone was out target practicing and a wild shot found its way to the horses they was leadin’.”
“Nope,” Johnny shook his head vigorously at the thought.
Breathing heavily through his nose Jelly asked, “Well why not?”
With his elbows planted firmly on his thighs and his hands held together between his spread knees, Johnny said, “They brushed their tracks away Jelly and there was more than one shot fired. Both horses were hit, not just one.” He sat up, “Besides, if it were an accident don’t you think that the persons would have stayed around till someone got there? They didn’t. Cipriano and Jose found them right where they were left by whoever did it.”
Jelly shook his head, amazed that Johnny could find so much out that they had all missed. “Wal, it still don’t change a dang blasted thing. Yer Pa wants yuh to go and that’s that. We’ll have to fill him and yer brother in on what you found out and let Val handle it while we’re gone.”
Johnny cast his eyes to floor, silently wondering what he should or shouldn’t do. He knew Jelly was right, but he still wasn’t sure he could make the final decision to leave his family.
“Let’s go up and check on yer Pa. He said he wanted you to come see him as soon as you got back.” He sighed heavily, “Guess that means wakin’ ‘im up since we don’t have time to spare.”
Johnny nodded his head and stood up. Together they made their way up the stairs and down the hall to Murdoch’s room.
Jelly quietly opened the door to the softly lit room and found Teresa sitting next to the bed, putting away a swatch of cloth she had just used to wipe Murdoch’s brow. Johnny followed and carefully walked to the side of the bed next to Teresa, while Jelly made his way to the end of the big four poster and gripped the rung of the foot board as he watched his boss begin to open his eyes when he heard them enter the room.
Adjusting his eyes to the light Murdoch blinked several times and when his vision was finally cleared he was glad to see his son standing next to his side and smiled tentatively up at him.
Teresa looked up at Johnny’s face motioning him to take her seat so that he could sit next to his father. He took the proffered chair and eased his way into the seat leaning forward and gently placed his arms on the side of the bed to be closer to Murdoch’s face. He was worried to see the waxy pale complexion and placed a hand on his forehead finding it thankfully cool to the touch instead of hot, as he had thought it might be if there was a fever.
He smiled at Murdoch, swallowing the lump in his throat, “You don’t look so good,” he said with a mild touch of humor.
Murdoch softly chuckled, “I’m sure I don’t son.” Murdoch lifted his good hand toward his broken arm touching it gingerly and said, “Kind of reminds me of someone I know.”
Johnny smiled knowing that he meant him and said back, “Yeah, I guess it does Old Man.” The half whispered words were spoken with pure reverence and the ‘Old Man’ was said with feeling of endearment rather than mockery as he was won’t to do on many an occasion in their sometimes heated relationship.
Murdoch reached over and brushed a finger down the side of Johnny’s cheek, smiling at him, acknowledging their little play with words, a silent understanding of what they meant to one another passing from one to the other.
They stayed that way just staring at one another wondering who was going to be the first to break the ice and say what needed to be said. Murdoch was the one to get the conversation going, knowing that time was of the essence and he needed to know that Johnny was going to do what he wanted without a fight. “Jelly spoke to you?” he asked, not taking his eyes from Johnny’s face.
He watched Johnny nod his head. Murdoch saw something cross his features he wasn’t sure of and continued when he saw that his son was going to let him say what he needed without interruption for once in his life. “You’ll do this for me?” he questioned.
Johnny swallowed that same darn lump that kept jumping right back into his throat making it difficult to speak, “Yes,” he croaked.
Teresa touched Jelly’s arm and motioned for him to leave the room with her so that father and son could be alone to discuss things in private.
When they left, Murdoch once again found Johnny’s face and said, “I know you’re scared.”
Johnny shook his head adamantly, “No I’m not.”
Murdoch smiled at the words, “Yes you are and it’s ok. You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t just a little bit scared. Besides that, you can’t fool and old fool and I was once your age myself. I was scared each and every time I had to embark on anything I didn’t know how to do, or whenever I had to leave my family behind.”
Johnny looked away toward the end of the bed. Murdoch reached up and pulled his face back toward him, “I’m going to be fine. Scott is going to be fine. And you…You’re going to be fine too. I’ve often heard that many times before from a very smart man I know.”
Johnny’s eyes welled with tears and if it hadn’t been for the fact that he was straining himself to the limits to remain strong he would have broken down right there in front of his father. Blinking rapidly, he took a deep breath and willed the heavy emotions brought on by his father’s words, out of his mind and concentrated on getting himself under control once again.
“There’s gonna be a lot to do. I’m gonna make Cipriano stay behind and take care of things,” Johnny said rubbing his face with his hands and then along his thighs in an almost nervous gesture. “The bank’s been robbed in Green River. Val and a posse have gone after them. Charlie says that Rusty and Jake were with the men who did it.” He stood up and walked away from the bed to gather his thoughts, “I don’t know if that part is gonna concerns us, but I don’t like it none.”
Johnny made his way to the end of Murdoch’s bed, grasping the end rail as he continued to talk to his father in a way he never had before, “What if they were responsible for what happened to you and Scott today?” he asked with a hint of anger in his voice.
“What if they were son?”
Johnny shifted on his feet, “If they were, I should be here. I should help Val and go after them. I should…”
Murdoch held up his right hand to ward off the litany of reasons Johnny was well prepared to make, “We don’t know for sure that they were. For all we know they got tired of the daily grind that comes with working a ranch and decided to try and take a risk that I’m sure Val and his men are more than capable of handling.”
“But…” Johnny began to say.
“No but’s. I know I’ve been saying that we need every spare man for the drive and spouting off about having everyone healthy and able to do their share, but that’s because I tend to over exaggerate for the sake of some catastrophe like the one we’re going through. I never feel like we have enough men. I never feel like there’s enough time.” He sighed loudly with his own frustration, “But that’s because I worry and I tend to think things are always worse than they are. I guess it comes from not having enough of either in my younger days when I was working so hard to build this place.”
Johnny thought on his father’s words, then lifted his eyes from the bed rail, “Are you telling me you have a hard time putting your past behind you?” he asked with a quizzical grin on his face.
Murdoch grinned back at his son, understanding the hidden confession in Johnny’s words. He found it amusing that his son was able to find a similarity between the two of them with such a small confession of his own.
Though he was tiring and wanted to know for sure if Johnny was going to obey his request. He thought this was a time in their lives where he needed to shake off his fatigue and continue where his son led the conversation, “Yes son, that’s exactly what I’m telling you and furthermore I’ve been told that I have a tendency to be a little controlling, stubborn and hardheaded. Not to mention the fact that I am also willful and have a temper that is sometimes beyond my control to handle properly when push comes to shove.”
Murdoch closed his eyes and then said, “Especially when it comes to the ones I love,” he half whispered this last part.
Opening his eyes, Murdoch was surprised to see that Johnny had made his way back to the chair next to his bed. He marveled again at just how quiet Johnny could be when he wanted to. Reaching over he took one of his hands in his own and gave it a gentle squeeze, “We’ll be fine, just like I said. I know you can do this for me, for us.”
Johnny turned his hand in the larger one of his father and squeezed it back, “Go to sleep ‘Old Man’ and don’t worry. I’ll take care of things and do what you want.”
Closing his eyes and feeling more peaceful about their relationship and Johnny’s acceptance to take on the huge responsibility asked of him, Murdoch drifted off to sleep, filled with confidence and trust in his son. He never saw the silent tears that fell down Johnny’s cheeks or felt the kiss placed gently on his forehead.
Well hidden in a covered arroyo at the foothills of the San Benito’s mountains, seven men watched greedily as Bruce Craddock counted out the money from the Green River Bank, stolen earlier that evening.
“That’s twenty thousand dollars men and more if you do what I tell ya, when I tell ya.”
Fred Wallace twisted the moustache under his face and cackled with the excitement of seeing so much money in their midst, “When are we gonna go after Lancer Boss?” He leaned forward and was about to touch the money placed on a rock in front of Craddock, when his hand was smacked with the butt of a gun. The short, black eyed man, yelped and jumped up from his seat, prancing round and round holding his injured hand in his good one, while the others laughed out loud at his predicament.
“I told ya before and this will be the last time I tell you. Don’t touch the money. Next time I’ll stick ya with this here knife.” Bruce Craddock held up a large blade knife with an ivory white handle and shoved it in the direction of the dancing injured man. The blade glowed red in the light of the dimly lit campfire and each man in turn closed their mouths and stopped their laughing.
They each knew that Craddock was not one to be messed with when he was in this kind of mood. He was meaner than a rattlesnake and twice as deadly if the urge to kill was upon him.
Butcher Drake spoke up, the jowls on his face puffing in an out as he glared at the irritating Fred. He scratched thick fingers through his thick black sideburns and said gruffly, “Sit down Fred and stop yer rain dance afore I kick the stuffin’ out of ya and save the Boss the trouble of havin’ to deal with yuh.”
When the little man sat back down Craddock replaced the long knife back into its sheath and spoke to the gang, “We hold up here for the time bein’ boys. We got supplies and no way fer the law to find us up here. That goes double for you two.” He pointed a long thin finger at Rusty and Jake.
“How long do ya think it will be boss?” Clyde asked.
Bruce Craddock scratched the scar along the side of his face and said, “Long as we need to. I figure mebbe a month, mebbe less.”
Kirk Means who didn’t like sitting around for such a long time without the company of a saloon girl to keep him occupied was fit to be tied at the news, “A whole month!”
Craddock looked hard at the red head across the camp from him, “Yeah, a whole month. You got anything else to say bout it?” he asked, his hand sliding to the butt of his holstered gun as he snapped out the question with a click of his teeth. A habit none of the men thought he was aware of.
Kirk lowered his eyes toward the fire in the ring, “Naw, reckon I don’t,” he said with a long slow drawl while scratching through the thick read beard that covered his face.
“That’s what I thought,” Craddock replied, letting go of the hold he had on his gun. “Now as I was sayin’ earlier, Frank will be the lookout and…”
Bruce Craddock spent the next several hours going over and over their plans. The men were right to think he was deadlier than a rattlesnake. The plans he laid out for them were well thought out and meticulously written down. In the wake of what he had in mind for them and the Lancer’s they were certain that before the job was finished there would be more bloodshed on his hands than any of them cared to think about.
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