Bright lights filled the lower half of the Lancer hacienda, glowing yellow and bright in the closing hours of day, casting its brilliance like a beacon through the large windows that ran along the front of the house.
Alberto rolled a smoke, his rifle nesting in the crook of his left arm as he strolled along the front courtyard, every now and then glancing inside to where he could here the lilting strains of women laughing, the bawdy declarations of men gathered together in the great room, drinks in hand while pipe smoke swirled around el jefes de la cabeza…his head.
A faint smiled tugged upon his thick mustachioed mouth, glad to see and hear his boss enjoying himself. The years before his sons return had been sad and lonely years, no laughter let inside. “Muy malo,” he whispered hauntingly, thinking of the past years, dragging on his cigarillo and shifting his rifle to a more comfortable position on his arm.
He passed into a darkened spot near the guesthouse, tipping his chin into the air and blowing out a stream of smoke that hazed the stars in the sky, unaware that he was being watched until he passed the corner of the building and heard a slight scuff in the dirt. Too late he turned around, the glowing cigarette in his mouth hanging limply from his lips as blood oozed between his teeth and ran down his chin, “Muy…malo…” he cried hoarsely from his throat, the sound barely reaching the ears of his attacker. The knife was pulled roughly from his throat with a hateful deep-throated laugh. Alberto’s rifle slid from his arms as it fell slowly to his side, his mouth moving in speech, no words uttered that could be heard, swaying as his black eyes blinked slowly open and closed against the specter of death that leered at him from cold lifeless blue eyes that steadily watched him sink to his knees and into deaths waiting arms.
Rusty and Jake Fletcher crouched beneath an oak tree several yards from the barn and the smithy workshop. They watched as two men met up with one another, one laughing while the other continued to softly tell what must have been a bawdy joke.
“You go around the left side of the smithy…I’ll go around the right side of the barn,” Rusty whispered, pointing out the paths the two of them was to take. “As soon as that cloud passes by…we go in and take ‘em both out. Yah got it,” he whispered to his brother.
Jake nodded his head. Rusty clamped him on the arm, “Make sure that hat stays on. Don’t want yah bein’ seen before we do what we gotta do.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout me…worry ‘bout yerself Rus!” Jake whispered back irritably. “I know what I’m doin’.”
“Just makin’ sure little brother…just makin’ sure,” Rusty whispered back.
With knives in hand, the two blond brothers crept along the dirt pathways, crouched low and moving slowly across the opening while the backs of their intended victims were turned away from them. Conversation between the two guards lowered and they parted for a short time. Long enough for Rusty and Jake to make their way around the side of each building.
The two killers waited as Rusty instructed until the light of the moon was shadowed by a single floating cloud drifting lazily through the evening sky on a soft breeze, filtering the bright glow of the moon to a dull shine that hid behind its frothy white clumps.
Ned and Hector walked their way back to one another, unaware of the danger that lurked so closely by, “So you gonna ask Rosita to the festival Hector?” Ned asked when he got close enough for them to talk again.
“Sí. Ella es muy bonita, como una flor,” Hector replied.
“That’s why her mama named her Rosita…pretty like a flower,” Ned commented turning to look up at the moon. He took his hat off and wiped the inside with his bandanna.
“Sí, mi amigo. Es muy bonita…es muy…” The words died off with a grunt behind Ned. He whirled around and saw Hector on the ground, a knife held between two hands by a man who crouched at his side, his face hidden under the brim of his hat.
“What the Hell!” he exclaimed reaching for the gun thonged to his leg. “Uhff…” His breath left his body, his shoulders stiffened, the hand that had been reaching for his gun sagged back down into the holster without the gun ever having been drawn. His eyes grew cloudy, he coughed, “Who…who…”
Rusty lifted his face to the man just as the white puffy cloud passed across the face of the moon. He grinned up at Ned his face pale and menacing in the light of the moon, devoid of any emotion other than the sick thrill he was getting from twisting the knife just a little deeper into the back of Hector Gonzales, “Just me Ned…remember?” he asked with murderous intentions radiating evilly out of his pale blue eyes.
“And me,” Jake said softly into Ned’s ear, so close that Ned could feel the warm breath of Jake’s words on his sweat beaded face.
Ned’s brown eyes opened wide with rage on his face. He pulled himself forward with one last bit of brute strength, lurching his body away from the blade stuck between his shoulders, “I’ll kill you both,” he swore, staggering two steps away from them.
Rusty stood up, pushed his hat off his forehead and he and Jake watched the man twist his body, staggering to stay upright, stumbling backward as he reached for his gun. He pulled the pistol from his holster, the weight heavy in his hand as his waning strength gave up on him at the last crucial second. The gun rolled forward on his finger, the hand holding it suspended in midair. Jake walked up to him and pushed him on the chest with the palm of his hand. When Ned hit the ground, so did his gun. It flopped hard on the hard packed dirt with a lifeless bounce, the butt of his gun nesting in the palm of his outstretched hand, while open dead eyes stared up into the midnight sky above.
While Rusty and Jake fulfilled their part of Bruce Craddock’s plan, so too did Frank Granger. It took him only a few minutes of waiting behind a storage shed near the barn corral, to catch Leon Moore by surprise, coming at him from around the corner of the little building, pretty as you please like he was just another one of the other hands. With his hat pulled low over his dark curling hair, he sucked in his gut and walked straight toward his prey saying, “Nice evenin’ ain’t it?”
“Who the Hell are you?” Leon demanded, his hand hovering over the butt of his gun, his eyes darting to the rifle that lay propped against the door of the storage shed.
“Frank,” the killer said taking the last few paces along the building in a quick stride, grabbing the rifle up as he did so.
At the same time that Frank answered him, Leon drew his gun and said, “You ain’t Frank…” his words died on his lips as the stock of his rifle slammed against the side of his face. The blow knocked him over, dazing his senses as he tried desperately to pull his gun while landing hard and heavy on the ground. He kicked his heels in the dirt and scooted back as quick as he could, mindless pain throbbing on the side of his face, his teeth grinding in his mouth, as he tasted the copper of his own blood. The gun was drawn but only to be knocked out of his hand with another swift swing of the rifle.
Heels dug deep, his body flipped around until Leon was on his belly, pushing with the toes of his boots, reaching for the only weapon he had with frantic outstretched fingers that were suddenly shattered when the butt of the rifle slammed down onto them, his cries stifled by a strong hand firmly pressed against his grinding teeth. Leon’s head was pulled back by his hair, his face slammed hard in the solid ground beneath him. He flayed and bucked his body, trying to get the weight off his back, unable to when the lights in his head went immediately dark as his face was pounded over and over again without mercy into the hard packed earth. The fingers that curled and clawed at the ground went lifeless and still, his body nothing more than a bleeding bag of bones by the time Frank was done with him.
Blood pooled rapidly around the hands that pushed themselves off the ground and off Leon’s inert body. Frank stood up, heaving from the exertion of the fight, his hands bloodied and clutching into fists. He looked at the stain on the palms of his hands with disgust, snorted loudly as he bent over and wiped them on the back of Leon’s shirt. He was uncaring and unconcerned for he’d done, a long-winded sigh escaping his lips as he turned toward the house with a grimace and a firm set to his shoulders.
So far not one shot rang out as Bruce Craddock’s men went about on their killing spree. The two men at the front gate met a quick and senseless death at the hands of Butcher Drake and Kirk Means.
Paco and Miguel stood guard at the entrance, neither man prone to talking much, both with their minds set on the business at hand of guarding Lancer from any would be intruders. Both wore sombreros, each with bullet cartridges strung crisscross their chest with rifles at rest in the crooks of their arms. Two sets of matching ivory handled peacemaker .45’s strapped to their hips, the butt of their guns facing in what would seem the wrong direction, stylish and customary for the two men who took pride in their Spanish heritage and image. Strapped to their calves were highly prized and specially crafted Bowie knifes given to them by Murdoch Lancer for their steadfast loyalty and commitment to him over the years.
Both were older, well trained and would fight to the death if need be, though none of that mattered in the end. Paco and Miguel never saw or heard their attackers come up from behind, each getting his throat slashed by the quick sure hands of ruthless men who knew what they were doing and did it well.
No words were spoken between Butcher and Kirk when the vaqueros fell to the ground in a well-armed heap of ammunition and weapons. They simply cleaned the blood off their knives on the legs of their pants and walked down the darkened lane, barely lit by the light of the moon.
Fred Wallace was probably the most inept of all Craddock’s men. He crouched while running past the corner of the Lancer home, having just barely made it by the undraped window of the Great Room without being seen. From a darkened overhang of a tree he pressed his body onto the ground and watched as the tall man known as Murdoch Lancer laid a hand on the shoulder of a very tall red headed young man, who was solidly built with muscles bulging tightly in a tan cotton shirt. They disappeared behind a door in the corner of the room where a large map graced the wall beside it.
Fred could see two other men; one was older with red hair like the one who just left the room, the other, tall, slim and fair-haired. Scott Lancer he supposed, having seen the man from afar when Craddock had Clyde Willows and Butcher Drake shoot at their horses while coming back from town just a few weeks ago.
He twisted his mustache, nervous with evil excitement, glancing to the man that was his to bring down who sat upon the ledge of the adobe staircase to the right of the picturesque window. Scrambling with his hands on the ground, Fred found several pebbles and gathered them up in his hand. Getting to his knees, he threw one out beyond the front of the stairwell.
With gleaming black eyes he watched the cowboy on the ledge. He didn’t move or appear to have heard the noise when the pebble hit the ground. ‘Maybe that one was too small,’ he thought. Fred dropped the ones he had left and found two bigger rocks this time. He threw it in the same place and this time the cowboy sat up and slid off the ledge.
Howard Nichols eased off the ledge and backed up against the door of the landing he was using as his guard station. He heard a noise just below and all his senses were on high alert. He listened in the dark, straining his ears for any more sound, wishing there was more light than that which shined from the great room down below. The moon was on the other side of the hacienda and it virtually left this side of the home in total darkness until the wee early hours of the night when the moon finally made its way across the sky above.
His brows furrowed when he heard it again. A dull thud mixed with the shifting of leaves and grass. Leaning forward he looked out and could see nothing. Seconds later there was a scurry of movement. He pointed his rifle and shouted down, “Who goes there?” He waited, “Come out with your hands in the air or I’ll shoot!”
A dark figure moved forward with hands held high, barely discernable in the darkness, “Es solamente yo Howard…Jose…Cipriano’s sobrino,” a young boy was heard to say.
“Damn it kid! Get the hell away from here before you get yourself killed for snoopin’ around in the dark. I damn near almost shot yer head off,” Howard yelled down, lowering his rifle to the floor.
“¡Sí señor!” the boy said, running off toward the back of the house.
“Damn fool kid…outta be in bed this time of the night,” Howard grumbled. He was just about to relax again on the perch of the staircase when he heard another thump and shuffle of leaves and grass.
“Damn it kid. I told ya to get lost!” he yelled storming down the steps. When he reached the landing of the staircase, Howard peered into the darkness. “Jose?” he called out.
A cackling giggle was heard. Irritated, Howard clomped in his boots toward the big tree that grew between the house and the fence line, “Yer uncle ain’t gonna like it kid, but I’m gonna tan your butt so hard you…”
His words died on his lips when he felt the thrust of a knife imbedded into his chest. He grabbed the hilt of the knife and tried desperately to pull it out, his hands slick with blood, refusing to get a clean hold without slipping off. He stumbled backward, falling, his arms splayed to either side of him as he landed on his back, his head thumping softly in the green grass and leaves that covered the ground. The breeze picked up, swirling green and gold feather like wafers of foliage onto his face, his breathing ragged and harsh as blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth and down the side of his face.
Fred Wallace stepped out from beneath the overhang of the tree, twisting his mustache as always, prodding the man in the side with the toe of his boot. He laughed to himself, the sound coming more from his nose more than from his throat. Crouching next to the man he killed, Fred withdrew the knife from his chest, brushing away the leaves that landed on the cowboy’s face, smiling with an evil grin as he closed Howard’s eyes for the last time.
“What are you doing here sobrino?” Cipriano asked of his nephew who lay perched on the limb of a tree.
The boy smiled and said, “I want to keep you company Tío.”
“You cannot be here with me muchacho. It is late and you should be in bed.”
“But I want to be with you Tío!” the boy pleaded. “I can help.”
“Si, Tío Cipriano.”
“Come down to me now. I will not ask you twice.”
The boy sighed. When his uncle used that tone there was no getting around him. Jose sat up and swung his right leg over the limb, nimbly jumping down onto the floor of the tower his uncle was standing guard in.
“Go now,” Cipriano said sternly. “I will speak to you mañana.” Cipriano ruffled the black hair of his thirteen-year-old nephew, a playful boy full of mischief and surprises. Big brown eyes looked up at him adoringly and Cipriano was hard pressed to deny him anything. But in this case he wasn’t going to relent on his decision. It was late and Maria would skin him alive if he let their nephew stay up the entire night. The boy was a precocious handful on any given day and going without his sleep would only make him that much more of difficult to deal with if there were not enough chores to keep him busy.
Cipriano clamped his large brown hands on the boy’s shoulders, kissed the top of his head and spun him around. “¡Vaya!” he said, moving with Jose to the staircase that would take him to the lower part of the house and out into the back courtyard.
Cipriano’s formidable figure cast a long shadow across the flooring in front of Jose. The boy smiled, appreciating the comfort he felt by knowing that it belonged to his uncle…his tío. He shuffled his sandaled feet across the floor in front of Cipriano; his shoulders slightly slumped in dejection, the only indication he courageously gave to let his uncle know that he was not happy about having to leave him.
They hadn’t made it much more than half way across the tower when a single shot pierced through the night like a screeching mountain lion. Cipriano’s shadow tilted, the hands on Jose’s shoulders tightened their grip and together man and boy fell to the floor in one large heap.
Jose gasped for air, his dark brown eyes growing wide with fear as his face slammed against the adobe flooring, his arms thrown above his body, his hands splayed wide and frantically gripping at nothing as he felt the weight of his uncle on top of him. He tried to move…he thought he screamed…but his throat was lacking air and no sound but the one in his head could be heard by anyone but him.
Jose tried to move, but couldn’t. He could hear the ragged, guttural breaths of his uncle in his ear. His hands lifted, pushing back behind his head as far as they could reach, feeling the coarse hairs on his uncle’s head. Tears swam in his eyes, a stream of saliva dripped from his mouth as terror welled within him, his young frightened mind screaming silently in his head. Something wet and sticky dripped down the side of his neck. His fingers hysterically searched and found the gooey substance, pulling away instinctively when he realized in horror what it was. Lowering his hands until he could see his right one, another well of tears spilled unstoppable from the corners of his eyes, running over the bridge of his nose and onto the floor.
Just when he thought he might die from the fright of seeing his uncle’s blood on his hand, the older man groaned loudly in his ear scaring him all the more. With trembling body firmly trapped upon the floor, he finally found his voice and cried brokenly, “¡El tío, tío... despierta, satisface por favor despierta a tío!”
Another groan and Cipriano shifted, moving his body away from his nephew until he was able to roll off of him onto his back. Jose quickly got to his knees, rubbing the blood on his hands onto the thighs of his pants, tears of panic streaming down his face. He scooted close, next to Cipriano’s massive chest, spreading his palms open wide over his uncle’s breast, flinching only a little at the spurting blood that pumped from Cipriano’s right breast. Fabric was gathered wildly in his little hands as his head leaned down until it lay upon his dying uncle.
Jose felt a warm hand on the back of his head. Instantly his eyes shot open and he lifted his head, running an arm long and hard across his face and under his nose. His fingers found his eyes and pushed the tears from them in haste, not wanting to show his uncle his tears or how terrified he was.
Cipriano knew though. Jose was but a boy, too young not to be scared or terrified of what was happening. His ears could hear the beating footsteps of someone running toward them, his fear for his nephew stronger in his heart than the one for himself. He lifted a weak hand and touched his nephew’s face, “Muchacho... Jose... que usted debe ocultar. Lo oigo. Él viene. Oculte mi piel del hijo....”
Jose shook his head his held back tears now flowing freely down his face, “No Tío…No!” the boy cried, not wanting to hide. He couldn’t leave him.
“¡Sí! ¡Ahora va el muchacho... antes de que sea demasiado atrasado y le matan también!” Cipriano demanded, telling his nephew to go, to hide before it was too late, not wanting him to suffer a murderous fate.
With the last of his strength Cipriano pushed at his nephew, pointing to an air vent in the wall covered by a wooden slat screen. With a final gasp of breath Cipriano said, “Hide now!”
The boy got to his feet, looking back at his uncle as he stumbled across the room. Cipriano lay lifeless, his eyes cold to the world, breaking Jose’s heart with every sacred step he took until he reached the ventilation hole.
He pried the wooden panel with trembling fingers until it snapped out of place. Shaking uncontrollably when he heard the sounds of running footsteps coming up the outside stairwell to the tower. Crawling inside backwards, his nose running profusely, his eyes filled with tears, Jose pulled the cover back on and waited terrified while laying on his stomach, the tips of his fingers pulling back when a dangerous looking man approached the landing and came to stand next to his uncle’s side.
Jose covered his mouth and kept his screams silent as he watched the man through the slits crouch next to his uncle and shove at his head with a rough looking hand. The man then stood, looking around as if searching for something. Jose wondered if it was for him. Without making a sound, he scooted further back and waited.
The unknown assailant walked around the perimeter of the tower, then leaned over the far edge and whistled by putting two fingers into his mouth. His long hair hung limply down his back, tied with a leather thong and he carried a long rifle in his left hand.
Jose’s tears suddenly dried, his face took on a mask of hate for the man, wishing the killer dead and knowing in his heart that somehow, someway, he would be. It was only a matter of time. He was scared, frightened more than he ever had been in his entire life. His eyes drifted to his uncle, promising Cipriano then and there in a silent vow, that this killer, this pendejo, and all the others would pay for what they had done to him.
His eyes darted to the newcomer, a short man with a black mustache and thinning black hair. Jose listened and watched.
“He dead?” Fred asked, pulling a black hat from around his neck and plunking it down on the top of his head.
“Dead as he’ll ever be,” Clyde replied gravelly.
“What now?” the shorter man asked, tweaking on his mustache.
“We get inside. By now Craddock’s expecting us…so lets go.”
Both men made their way to the staircase that led to the lower level. Their evil looking guns were reholstered and only the rifle remained to where Jose could still see it through the slats.
He waited long anxious minutes, not wanting to come out too soon. When he thought it was finally safe, he pushed on the wooden cover and kept it from falling by keeping a hold with his fingers through the slats. Laying it down carefully, he pushed with his sandals and toes until his body slinked out of the opening, his knees hitting the rough flooring when he was finally free of his hiding place. Crouching on his tiptoes, he rotated his body and recovered the opening just as quietly as he had gotten out. When he was done he crept silently to his uncle’s side and squatted down next to him, his hand pressed gently on his chest, keeping the new tears that wanted to fill his eyes at bay with a sharp deep intake of breath.
He wished, he prayed that all this was but just a nightmare, but the longer he watched his uncle the more it sank in that it wasn’t. He felt old in those few minutes. Age old and weary of a sudden. Not wanting to leave but knowing in his heart that he had to. As a final offering of respect and love he laid his head on his uncle, his eyes dry, his hands burning where Cipriano’s blood still stained his fingers and palms of his hands.
He closed his eyes and his heart and soul cried in rhythm to the beat beneath his ear. Forgetting in those long silent cursed minutes of tribute that his uncle lay dead beneath him. He could almost feel that warm hand pressed against the side of his face, rubbing the soft inky blackness of his hair, caressing and comforting in its strength. His heart lurched in his chest when the spirits called his name, sounding just as he remembered his uncle saying it, sighing softly and smiling at the urgent tone used only minutes earlier.
“Jose?” Cipriano breathed from his lips. “Chico…help me.”
The dark head lifted unbelievingly from the chest of his uncle, wondering what kind of spirit it was that could speak through the mouth of a dead man so clear that he knew it wasn’t in his mind, but a real sound heard by his ears.
“Tío?” the boy whispered, peering intently into the sky blue eyes looking back at him. Not some dead lifeless specter, not a shimmering ghostly spirit, but his Tío, his familia whose hand brushed his hair, and touched his face.
“Ayúdeme para arriba. Debemos ir,” Cipriano told Jose, urging the boy to help him up so that they could go.
Jose took his hand and pulled, his feet planted firmly on the flooring, his arms strong, his will to get his uncle to safety, fierce and growing stronger now that he knew his uncle lived.
Cipriano managed to get to his feet. His stance was unsteady as he clamped a hand over the bullet hole in his chest and held fast with the other hand on his nephew’s shoulder. With careful steps taken they reached the outside stairwell and made their way to the ground level. Cipriano leaned heavily onto Jose and told him where they should go, allowing the boy’s strength to help him across the tree shaded side lawn and toward the fence that lined the drive into Lancer.
Collective sighs escaped the mouths of Johnny and Jelly. There was Lancer in all her glory sitting like a jewel in the valley below with its bright lights sparkling like precious diamonds. Too far away yet to grab and take of hold of but close enough to grasp in their hearts the brilliance of a welcome they hadn’t expected to see at such a late hour.
“Takes yer breath away, don’t it kid?” Jelly asked with tired wonder.
The kid Jelly referred to didn’t respond. He couldn’t, his heart was in his throat, too swollen with heady emotions to say anything other than nod his head. Johnny hadn’t realized until this very moment just how very much he had missed Lancer and the family that awaited his return.
His family. How many times had he thought about them since he’d left them behind at his father’s request, not wanting to, but having to? ‘So many,’ Johnny thought the words aloud, his voice too soft, too wistful for the man next to him to hear.
“Can’t believe they’re all still up,” Jelly reflected quietly. “You suppose they knew we was comin’ home early?” Jelly continued to stare down the valley. The long winding road leading to Lancer was lit up by the light of the moon, snaking its way down the easy sloping mountain, slithering through the valley bottomlands like a viper, past the shimmering lake and the glistening streams that kept it filled from the mountains that peaked to the east of the valley.
Daisy May shifted tiredly under Jelly. The older man held her reins in his right hand and when Johnny didn’t answer, Jelly turned to look at him, reaching over with his left to touch Johnny on the shoulder. Tired but full of adrenaline now that they were almost home, Jelly didn’t figure in his mind that it was much different for Johnny. He knew how much Johnny had missed his family even if the boy nary so much as said a word about it. Johnny didn’t have to for Jelly to know. “Johnny?”
Barranca shifted too when Daisy May inched closer. Johnny felt Jelly’s hand on his shoulder but he was still wrapped up in his thoughts and drinking in the sight before him, to give an answer straight away. He knew he had to though or the old man beside him would start to fret and worry, turning the last few miles they had to travel into a barrage of ill tempered, ear splitting rants of concern, he’d rather not have to listen to.
“Let’s go home Jelly,” he said quietly in answer to his name. Johnny pressed his knees to Barranca’s sides, urging the horse on down the road, knowing Jelly would follow and understand his need to say nothing more.
It was very late but Maria didn’t mind as she searched the pantry for supplies. She had volunteered to stay up with Teresa and Sadie as they continued to work on baking pies and preparing the foods they would be cooking for the fiesta that would be held after her Juanito returned home.
She took another sack of flour off the shelf and put it on the wooden tray she used to carry her ingredients on when she had more than one item to carry. Reaching high above her head, standing on the tips of her toes, she nearly lost her balance when a loud crash banged from the next room, the kitchen. Loud voices could be heard shouting out angrily while terrified shrieks from the two young girls chilled her to the bone.
Maria quickly snuffed the lamp she had with her and scurried to the door. She pulled the handle until the door was almost closed, leaving her in the dark but with a clear view of what was happening. Her brown eyes went wide with fright when she saw two men she didn’t know grab the girls by an arm and roughly jerk them to their chest.
One man, tall and maybe only a little younger than her boss, with long hair tied back with a leather thong and sweaty brown hat on his head, held a gun under Teresa’s chin. The girl struggled valiantly but the more she did so, the angrier the man seemed to become. He lifted his gun hand as if to hit her up side the face, while gripping her upper arm tightly. Teresa cringed dropping half way to the floor in fright, her hand coming up to stave off the hit the man was prepared to make if she didn’t stop her struggles.
Sadie was held to the chest of another man, shorter, dark haired with a swooping black mustache and beady black eyes that looked as if he enjoyed taunting and hurting the young girl. Maria watched with her hand to her mouth as Sadie was whipped around in front of the man, held in check with a fist that grabbed a handful of auburn hair in it and forced her back upon his person, a gun held to the side of her neck.
“Make one sound girly and Clyde over there will make sure your friend never makes it to the next room…yah got it?” Maria heard him say to Sadie.
Shaking uncontrollably, Sadie managed to nod her head, her eyes darting wildly from Teresa then to the other side of the room, knowing that Maria was in the pantry and hoping she didn’t come out.
Maria watched as the man pushed on Sadie with his body, making her walk with her body pressed firmly to his chest, the gun in his hand never wavering for a second. She saw Teresa whipped around as well, her struggles gone but defiance marking the look she gave the older man before she was forced to follow Sadie and her tormentor.
A shot was heard in the great room before the girls ever made it to the entrance. Maria stifled the urge to cry out, tears streaming down her face. She stepped back into the cold darkness of the pantry, shivering with fright, hands clamped to her face, her body jumping almost out of its skin when another shot was heard, that one putting out the lights with a crash that hung over the kitchen table.
She heard the men shuffle the girls out of the room and loud angry voices yelling commands she couldn’t understand from so far away. Maria waited several seconds, then cautiously terrified made her way back to the front of the pantry. She pushed the door open just a little and could see that the hanging light fixture in the ceiling had been shot down to land upon the tabletop. Flames licked the surface and promised to spread if not put out. Taking a chance that she wouldn’t be seen or heard in all the commotion that was going on in the front room, Maria stepped into the kitchen. The flames from the little spots of fire danced in her eyes, brighter for the tears that filled them. She ran to the table and quickly put them out after hurriedly wetting the towel she had slung over her shoulder. Her hands grew warm, then hot from her efforts, her heart beating a staccato rhythm in her chest the longer it took.
From the open back door she heard a curse, a scurry of boots along the earth. Frantic with terror, she picked up her towel and brought it to her chest, chanting wildly in Spanish against the evil that threatened to find her. Backing up, she made her way into the pantry again, closing the door to merely a slit. She heard someone come into the room, unable to see who it was this time because of the lack of light.
Heavy breathing filled the room. Boots clomped against the tiled floor, drawers could be heard opening and closing, curses, wild and muttered under the breath coming from the man who’s large towering shadow filled the back doorway, black and menacing with each muttered, unintelligible word that flowed to her ears.
The front door was shoved open with a mighty force that banged so hard against the wall behind it, that the handle left a deep groove in the adobe. Butcher Drake and Kirk Means came through the doorway, guns drawn, their faces a mask of evil and destruction written all over them.
Four people were in the great room; Murdoch and Boyd McIntyre were standing in front of the empty fireplace, a glass of scotch held in their hands, while Scott sat on the arm of the sofa, having a conversation with Fiona McIntyre.
When the front door had burst open, Scott jumped from his seat and made as if to draw his gun, only to be stopped short when a fat dark haired man shot his colt at Scott’s feet, effectively cutting him off from any form of daring self defense. Two glasses shattered behind him simultaneously echoed by the frightened scream from Sadie’s mother.
Butcher Drake walked up to Scott and slowly took his gun from his holster as Kirk Means held a gun on the whole group. He ignored the glare from the blond man’s eyes and smiled into his face, inciting Scott’s anger all the more with his audacity.
Scott took an inching step, just enough to show the man he wasn’t scared or threatened by his intimidating and irritating show of force. The man felt the aggression, the slight move and swung his big beefy arm in an arch until he landed his gun and hand against the side of Scott’s face. Knocking him over with one powerful punch that left him dazed and bleeding from the lip on the floor.
Murdoch made as if to go to his son, but was stopped short when the French doors were flung open and in walked a tall, thinly built man with the coldest set of blue eyes the patriarch had ever seen.
“Get up and get over there with the rest of ‘em,” Butcher shouted to Scott, pointing his gun in threat of retaliation if the boy so much as looked cross eyed at him.
Scared out of her wits and more than a little frightened for what they did to Murdoch’s son, Fiona jumped to her feet unthinking and ran the few steps to where Scott lay sprawled half sitting, half lying on the floor. Her protective motherly instincts had taken over and she took Scott’s arm quickly in her hands, watching fearfully the big man with his thick black sideburns and scarred face, as she helped Scott to his feet. Together they backed up until Fiona could feel the strength of her husband’s grip upon her upper arms, helping her and Scott to stand beside him.
Bruce Craddock stared long and hard at the tall rancher, “I guess I should introduce myself,” he said, pushing back his hat and walking toward the big wooden desk where Murdoch did his ledgers.
“No need Craddock,” Murdoch said, calmer than he felt. The anger and rage at this man’s ability to have gotten past his men and into his home, simmered hotly just beneath the surface of his cool words. He wanted to rush the man, tackle him then and there and beat the ever living daylights out this fool who dared to attack his home, his family and his friends.
Heads twisted when Teresa and Sadie were thrust into the room from the hallway that led to the kitchen. Clyde and Fred let their victims go, laughing at the scurry of colorful skirts that flashed across the room and into the open arms of Scott and Murdoch.
Scott wrapped his arms around Sadie, his head throbbing with pain as Sadie hid her face in the folds of his shirt, terrified by the blood that she saw dripping from his lip. She started to reach up and touch his lip, but when she tried, Scott took her hand and kept her from doing so. His eyes never wavered from the man who struck him, piercing him with a deadly glare the man only laughed at.
“What do you want from us,” he asked angrily over the top of Sadie’s head.
“Oh I think you know what I want?” Bruce growled from the other side of the room. “Ain’t that right Lancer?” Craddock asked the tall rancher.
Murdoch took his right arm from around Teresa and pushed her into Boyd’s arm. Sadie’s father said with warning, “Murdoch…don’t…”
“Better listen to him Mr. Lancer…or should I call you Murdoch…since we’re goin’ to be friends for a while,” Craddock asked wickedly.
“You won’t get away with this,” Murdoch growled taking a step away from the fireplace and away from Boyd and Teresa’s side. He held his broken arm to his stomach and looked down at it fleetingly before continuing. “I owe you one for this I think,” he remarked with vengeance in his eyes for the man.
Craddock laughed, the sound cruel and sadistic as he lifted a paperweight off Murdoch’s desk and rolled it in the palm of his hand. “Well it looks like you know everything.” Craddock hefted the paperweight and threw it at Murdoch’s feet, “I guess that sheriff ain’t as dumb as I thought after all.”
The paperweight shattered and broke into hundreds of pieces at Murdoch’s feet. Fiona gasped as she gripped Boyd’s arm more closely. Sadie clung fast to Scott while Teresa pulled herself from Boyd’s circle and came to stand behind Murdoch, her hands grasping his upper arm, trying desperately to get him to move back with her.
Murdoch straightened up, a granite wall, taller it seemed to Teresa standing next to him as he scoured the faces of the other men in the room that held them hostage, “Guess not since he found the money you hid.” Murdoch smiled brutally back at the man glad he had at least one weapon to use against this man, hoping his guess was right and that his cronies didn’t know that the money had been found.
The surprise was felt by all in the room as all eyes shifted to Craddock when his men gaped furiously at him from all directions in the great room. Clyde was the first to speak, “That right boss?” he asked, his gun hand shifting slightly in Craddock’s direction.
Craddock didn’t flinch at the threat nor did he seem concerned that his men might turn on him at any minute. He walked behind Murdoch’s desk and casually seated himself in the big leather chair. The guns trained on the McIntyre and Lancer families, wavered and shifted back and forth as each man digested this news and wondered what Craddock had to say about it. In their minds, eight thousand dollars wasn’t worth the price of a hanging split eight ways if they were to get caught when this was said and done.
“That money may be gone,” he looked at each of his man in turn, “but that don’t make no never mind with the kind of money your boy is bringin’ home…now does it?” He propped his feet on top of Murdoch’s desk and took out his gun. He held it out in front of him, rolling the chamber with his thumb, the click of it loud in a room that was suddenly quiet as a church on Monday.
“By the way…Thanks for lettin’ me know who took it. I kinda figured it was him…but I had my doubts too. Looks like he’ll be gettin’ a visit too along with that stuff shirt banker friend of his.”
Pointing his gun at Fred, Craddock said, “Take Kirk and the two of you go get the rope. We don’t want our new friends here to get too comfortable while we’re waitin’ on Johnny boy to show up.”
“What about our money?” Kirk insisted to know before doing anything more for Craddock.
Bruce dropped his feet to the floor and shoved his gun back into his holster. “You’ll get your money and a whole lot more before we’re done. Now go do what I told yah tah do,” he growled at the red head.
Butcher scratched his sideburns with one hand while the other was trained on the group in front of him. When Kirk looked at him questioningly, ignoring Craddock’s orders, Butcher shrugged and said, “He ain’t let down before. Gone on with yah and do what he says.”
Kirk licked his lips, not liking this turn of events, wondering if Rusty, Jake and Frank knew that the bank money was gone. He figured that since he hadn’t known, it was most likely that they didn’t either. He planned on making sure they knew before he and Fred came back with the rope.
Twisting his dark little mustache, Fred Wallace and Kirk Means left the house together. They would go to the barn where Rusty and Jake waited for them making sure that on the way they got Frank’s attention so he could join them. Both men felt as if they had been kicked in the gut with Lancer’s pronouncement. It bothered them greatly that their leader hadn’t told them about the money and each wondered silently if things were indeed going to turn out the way Craddock promised or whether they were going to get killed in the process for having put their trust in him.
Change was bad when things didn’t go the way they were supposed to and this was a mighty big change. Neither man knew what Craddock meant when he said, “but that don’t make no never mind with the kind of money your boy is bringin’ home…now does it?” From the sound of it, Craddock knew more than he was telling them, another change that might not prove to be good, or would it, they thought idly on their way across the darkened compound.
Milo had been sitting in the study, another back room across from Murdoch’s desk when everything came crashing down upon the heads of the Lancer household. His first instinct had been to run to the closed door of the room and burst through it. He almost did but stopped just short of doing so when he heard the first shot fired in the next room.
He could hear the cries of his mother, the shattering of glass as his father and Murdoch Lancer dropped their drinks to the floor after being startled from their conversation by the intrusion of two armed men.
With his ear to the door, Milo heard the entrance of two more men and the stifled cries of his sister and Teresa as they were shoved forcefully into the room to join the rest of the family. His hands clenched and unclenched, rage turning his face red and angry. He looked around the room for a weapon and found nothing but books. The table he had been sitting at contained nothing more than model parts, brushes, paints and glue, the half finished body of a sailing ship moored atop brackets that kept it sitting off the table and at eye level for the person working on it.
In the back corner of the room was a door. He didn’t know where it lead to or what he would find on the other side, but at the moment going through the one that would take him into the great room didn’t seem like a logical choice. Milo made his way across the room and opened the door, looking back just once to eye the other one, the one that opened up to his where his family was, knowing that he would need to escape and find a way to get a hold of a weapon if he was to fight these men off and have any chance at all of saving his family and the Lancers.
He opened the back door into a darkened hallway. There were only two directions he could take, one to the left and one straight ahead. The left side he figured would lead him down toward the kitchen area, the one in front of him…possibly to the outside world and a chance to find what he was looking for…a weapon. Making a decision he closed the door behind him and crept along the dark hallway. At the end of it was another door. He grabbed the handled and with his thumb, pressed on the latch until he heard the door release from the frame with a loud click.
Pushing the door open, Milo found that it opened up onto the back of the house. A towering wall to his left had him lifting his head to see where it went. It seemed to be a tower of some sort. He seemed to recall from a distance that the back of the house had a very large tower covered in rose-colored tiles like the rest of the house. He figured this was that tower and made his way around it, making sure the door he came out of was closed firmly behind him.
In the dark of night he crept along the back of the house, stopping only now and then to hide in the shadows if he thought he heard a sound. It took him a few minutes but he finally made his way to a back courtyard that flowered with a profusion of foliage that in the bright light of day was magnificent to behold with all its bright pinks, reds, purples and yellows, colors dimmed and hidden by the passage of the night.
Flickering sparks of light flitted across the grassy patch in front of an opened doorway. He watched the light dance across the grass and inched his way closer, crouching low so as not to be seen too quickly should someone poke his or her head around the doorframe.
The lights went out just as quickly as they appeared, his path once again shrouded in darkness. Feeling with his hand along the wall, he moved closer to the door, cursing when he heard the crunching under his boots, pausing to see if anyone heard him. His breathing hard in the face of the panic he was feeling in his heart for his family. Wishing for the first time that he wasn’t so big, so clumsy in his movements.
Milo made his way to the open doorway and peered around the corner. When he saw nothing but darkness he entered the room to find that it was the kitchen. His boots clomped loudly in his ears as he entered the kitchen and walked across the tiled floors to the kitchen drawers and began to pull them open. Searching for anything he could use as a weapon. Finding nothing but forks and spoons, potholders and towels, he cursed under his breath wildly searching franticly with his hands. He finally managed to find a knife holder on the top of the counter. Pulling one out, he felt the edge of it, the thickness. Satisfied that he at last had something with which to use as a weapon Milo went back to the open door, pausing under the door frame for just a moment, deciding where he needed to go next but not really sure if he was doing anything right. He cursed under his breath again, pissed off and mad that he hadn’t brought his gun with him. Angry for feeling so useless in the face of the danger his family was in.
The click of a gun could be heard when Kirk and Fred got within ten feet of the barn. Frank Granger came of hiding in the shadows, his gun pointed directly at them.
“Just me Frank,” Kirk said.
Frank lowered his gun and asked, “What are you two doing out here?”
Fred told him, “Gettin’ rope for the boss.” He laughed annoyingly, the sound grinding on Kirk’s last nerve.
“He got everythin’ under control in there?” Frank asked.
Kirk nodded and said, “Yep, but there’s somethin’ I think ya should know ‘bout.”
“Yeh…something ya should know ‘bout,” Fred said mimicking Kirk.
“Shut up Fred. When you finally get some brains and ya can find your butt from a hole in the ground then yah can speak up. Otherwise keep yer trap shut until someone tells yah otherwise.”
“I did what I was supposed to do. Why ya pickin’ on me?” Fred asked whining and twisting his mustache.
“Cause yer an idiot. Come on Frank. Might as well tell you and the boys at the same time,” Kirk said nodding in the direction of the barn door where Rusty and Jake waited for them.
Kirk opened the barn doors to two guns trained right on them, hammers pulled back and ready to fire. Rusty and Jake backed up and lowered their guns when they saw who it was.
“We need them ropes,” Kirk said, nodding his head at the pile of coiled ropes that lay at Rusty’s feet.
Rusty bent over and picked them up, handing them over to Kirk and Fred with a grimace. “What’s goin’ on inside?” he asked.
“Everthin’ Craddock told us ‘ceptin one thing,” Kirk replied.
“And what would that be?” Jake asked.
“Seems Craddock forgot to tell us the money we stole from the bank was found where he hid it.”
Frank Granger took his hat off and threw it on the ground. Fred cackled and Kirk elbowed him in the side.
“What the hell happened?” Frank yelled.
Rusty hit him with the back of his hand, “Calm down. Let’s hear what he’s got to say before we get all heated up about it.”
Kirk shifted in the light of the kerosene lamp that sat on the ground near a pole structure where Jake stood. “I don’t know much else other than what I just told yah. Butcher seems to think that Craddock will come through for us on the money no matter what. Found out from Lancer that the sheriff found the money.”
“By God…then what the hell are we still pokin’ our noses around here for?” Frank said angrily. “Without that money we’re puttin’ our necks on the line and killin’ off people fer what…eight thousand dollars?”
Kirk shrugged his shoulders, “It sounds to me like there might be more ‘an that comin’. Least wise, Craddock implied that there was. Said he would make good on the money.”
“I don’t like it,” Jake said standing next to his brother.
Rusty sighed and glared at Fred, Craddock’s constant companion most of the time, “You know anythin’ ‘bout this Fred?”
Fred dropped his hand from his mustache, “Don’t know any more ‘an you fellas. News tah me when I heard it too.”
“Well I ain’t hangin’ fer no measly eight thousand dollars split eight ways,” Frank spurted hatefully. “That bank money was over two thousand apiece. We should have taken the bastard down right then and there when he took off with it and made him tell us where it was. Leastways we woulda got our cut out of it.”
Frank kicked the ground, stirring up the dust, “Hell, we been holed up in that damn canyon fer three weeks without a single nickel to rub together from that pole cat.”
Kirk nodded, “I thought the same. But Butcher insist that Craddock will make it right with us.”
“I don’t give a tinkers damn what that butcher from hell thinks. I’m tellin’ you boys right here…right now…if Craddock don’t come up with the cash he promised us and do it quick…he’s a dead man, same as the rest of ‘em. And that goes for Butcher too if he gets in my way!” Frank declared madly.
“Kirk…what do yah have to say ‘bout all this? What are yah thinkin’ we should do?” Rusty asked.
“I think we play along for now. Least wise it can’t hurt none. We won’t know nothin’ until Lancer’s son comes ridin’ in. After that…well we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Frank kicked the dirt again, “Well that’s a big howdy doo. You know who that son of a bitch is that’s ridin’ in?” He looked them all dead in the eye, “Madrid!” he yelled, reminding them whom they were up against.
Rusty backhanded him again, “Cut it out Frank. He’s just a man same as the rest of us. It ain’t no different now than it was before. There’s eight of us. No man alone can go up against eight men and come out alive.”
“Butcher says he has a score to settle with ‘im,” Jake added. “I don’t think Madrid’s gonna have a chance with Butcher on his tail.”
Kirk sighed and turned around with the ropes coiled over his shoulder, “Keep yer watch. We ain’t got no choices here no more. We gotta go with it or come out with nothin’ to show for our trouble.” Kirk walked away from them and left the barn with Fred following close on his heels, no better off in his thinking than before he told the boys what was going on. Irritated more than ever and wishing that Fred had kept his self inside with Craddock.
Two hands let go of the opening in the far back wall of the barn, having heard and seen enough to know that one steel bladed knife wasn’t going to get him anywhere with these men. They were armed to the teeth and madder than ever now that they felt betrayed by the man who led them. His only hope was to somehow get help and get his hands on a gun.
Dropping out of sight, Milo crouched along the back of the barn, making sure his large body didn’t give away any sound that he had been there and had been listening to these men. He made his way across the open expanse of yard in front of the bunkhouse, never seeing the two dead bodies that lay on the ground near the smithy shop that was just to his right. The night was too dark and the buildings too close, cutting off the light that hid their bodies from his view.
He needed to get to the main road without being seen and find his way back to town. Without a horse it would be a long journey but there was no other way he could think of to get help any quicker unless he happened upon someone along the way. There were horses in the barn, but that was an impossible situation for him to get through without getting himself killed in the process. He wondered briefly where these men had their horses, hoping without hope that maybe he would stumble across where they were if he kept his eyes open and his ears listening for any sound to indicate their position. He knew they had to be around somewhere, but judging by the fact that no one had heard their approach, Milo feared they were well hidden on a land too vast for him to spend time exploring in the hopes of finding them.
Well past the storage area beyond the main corral, Milo stopped his trek and took one last look back at the house. His hands clenched into fist and he sighed heavily. Turning his back on the scene he took off at a lope and headed for the Lancer arch, feeling overwhelmed and depressed for having to leave his family in such a state, praying more than he ever had in his life that Heaven would help in his time of need.
The road leading to Lancer was easy enough to ride along during the day but with the evening stars above them and the moon well past its zenith, Johnny and Jelly took their time not wanting either one of their tired mounts to stumble and fall because of a hasty misstep trying to get home just a little quicker. They were nearing the Lancer arch, its white luminous presence a beacon of sorts on the lonely flat grounds of the valley, welcoming them home and reminding them that they had only a short stint to ride before they entered the front gate and the tree spotted lane that led up to the front lawn.
Dozens of lamplights blazed from the hacienda, casting a golden halo around the house, a most unusual sight for the late hour that it was. Johnny saw with some trepidation that the one light he expected to see in the window of his room wasn’t there. Every thought imaginable swept through his head, the most disconcerting of them all was that Teresa might have had a change of heart in the short span of time that he had been gone.
It wouldn’t surprise him very much if she had changed her mind. It was one of the many reasons he wanted to wait on declaring his intentions to court her properly as a man should. She was only sixteen, soon to turn seventeen within a few more weeks. Too young he reasoned in his mind for a girl to know for sure if she could handle being his steady girl, let alone the thought of marriage to a man she’d only known for close to a year. His background held him off as well, along with his need to prove himself to his father and show to Murdoch that he had well and truly changed his ways from that of a gunfighter to that of a prominent ranchers son who could be trusted and depended on to follow in his footsteps one day, putting his violent past behind him once and for all.
It was a hard road to travel, a hard time to change when he already had a reputation that followed him like the plague and kept rearing its ugly head up time and time again. Every day though got better and better as far as he was concerned. He just hoped that Murdoch saw it the same way too. There was the hope too that coming back with the news that he had been successful on the cattle drive would make his father see once and for all that he could be a leader, a responsible son who could accomplish just as much as Scott could when given the opportunity to prove himself, high education or not.
Still, the lack of that one light in the window bothered him just a little if he were honest with himself. While gone, most of his thoughts had centered round the brown haired, blue-eyed girl, missing her more than words could say, wanting with every fiber of his being to touch her once again and to feel the warmth of those loving eyes upon his face. His thoughts touched briefly on the fact that there could be something wrong, but the warm glowing lights, so welcoming from afar, brushed those thoughts aside, a provocative deception of what was really going on behind the walls just as effectively as an imagined broom sweeping away the cobwebs in the corners of his mind. There was a reason there was no light in the window as promised, good or bad he knew he would find out soon enough.
They had just crossed beneath the large adobe archway when Johnny suddenly pulled up and came to a stop unexpectedly behind Jelly. The old wrangler looked over his shoulder to find why Johnny stopped when he registered in his head the sound of only one horse clip clopping along on the hard dirt road. Pulling left on the reins, he brought Daisy May back around and rode up next to Johnny from behind, “Whatcha stoppin’ fer…we’re almost there?” he asked curiously, befuddled that Johnny would stop now, when they were so close to home.
Johnny held up a hand and said, “Shhhh.” Facing straight ahead, his eyes dropped to the spot between Barranca’s ears, his head tilting to the left ever so slightly, listening for what, Jelly didn’t know.
Jelly stayed quiet and strained his ears, unable to hear a thing. After what seemed like several minutes a weary Jelly huffed through his nose and said, “I don’t hear a gall dern thing.”
Barranca shifted and took a tentative step forward with one foot, only to be held in check by firm hands that pulled back on the reins. Johnny held his hand up in silence again and said, “Shhhh…I know.” His whispered words commanded silence as he continued to listen to a far off sound he knew his friend couldn’t hear but he could.
Lifting his eyes from Barranca’s head, Johnny stared for long moments at the house just in front of them, so close it was, that Jelly thought he could feel the downy softness of his bed and hear the snores he’d soon be making in his head. He kept quiet though and didn’t disturb the boy beside him again, knowing that Johnny never did anything remotely like this if there wasn’t a good reason for it. Tired and weary from lack of sleep, Jelly felt sore of a sudden and rubbed his elbows and then his knees, feeling in the quiet of the moment that things were about to change. He hoped for the better but reckoned not when he saw that Johnny’s body tensed and his shoulders stiffened as he sat in the saddle, keeping Barranca at a standstill.
He listened too, still not hearing a thing, but not thinking much on it since his hearing wasn’t as good as it used to be. His jaw nearly dropped though when Johnny dismounted and stepped cautiously around the front of the horses, his right hand resting on each mounts nose as he walked by, his gaze having shifted to their far right, where nothing was as far as Jelly was concerned other than open fields and sleeping cattle. Feeling the uneasy discomfort of not having the young man at his side any longer the further away from him Johnny got, Jelly started to get down but was kept from doing so with four sharp words whispered back to him heatedly, “Stay where you are.”
Jelly stayed where he was, the hair on the back of his neck suddenly standing on end as he watched and waited silently. The black void to their right was giving up no secrets, but loomed beside them like a starless sky on a night when there was no moon or heavenly bodies to soften the shadows that could hide all manner of fiendish beings. His hands shifted to his elbows again, they ached like the dickens, more painful than any other time the further Johnny got from his comfort zone. Jelly thought to remark aloud on his aching elbows, for they always warned him when things weren’t right in his world, but kept his tongue when he saw Johnny take several more steps until the darkness almost enveloped him completely. His old gray eyes grew wide with fear when he saw Johnny casually sweep aside his tan buckskin jacket and reach for his gun, slowly releasing the looped thong, which kept it from flopping out of its holster.
Jelly heard it then, a creepy, scary, swish thwonk, swish thwonk that pounded rapidly on the ground toward them. His hands began to shake, his eyes blinked hard and dared to look in the direction of the menacing sound he could now hear as clearly as a bell. Trembling hands pulled fearfully on his reins and Daisy May sensing his fear whinnied and snorted as her head flung back in protest, loosing the reins in Jelly’s tightly held fists. He quickly brought his horse under control, reaching with a shaky right hand for the old peacemaker .45 in his leather holster, imagining all sorts of monstrous things in his head, and wishing Johnny would get back on Barranca so they could run from whatever it was that seemed hell bent on coming toward them.
The swish thwonk, swish thwonk stopped just as suddenly as it was heard coming at them, from Jelly’s point of view. Clutching the butt of his gun and feeling a cool evening breeze ruffle the tied knotted ends of his kerchief around his neck, Jelly sat frozen in time and space, his eyes darting back and forth from Johnny to the black void, his body tensing when he thought he heard an indistinct voice floating toward them from across the field.
A single name, a whisper on the wind… “Juanito.” The name was ghostly sacred in the dead of night, uttered breathlessly from the black void. It seemed to come from nowhere and yet everywhere all at once as the breeze picked up and rustled the leaves on the trees and shifted the tall grasses in a discordant rhythm. It made Jelly feel all the more uncomfortable with what was out there and unseen, sending a spine tingling sensation up and down his back, the awareness of things unnatural and wicked sinking quickly to his toes.
It came again, faster this time, that swish thwonk, swish thwonk menace. The horses began to stir uneasy. Jelly reached over with a trembling hand and grabbed Barranca’s reins, shushing the horses’ fears with a voice that barely croaked out the sound. As the swish thwonk drew nearer, he chanced a glance at Johnny, watching fearfully as he pulled his gun, pointing it in the direction of the oncoming sound.
The name ‘Juanito’ filled their ears, cried brokenly from the mouth of a boy that Jelly recognized instantly when Jose, Cipriano’s nephew, ran exhausted and heaving into their view. Jelly sighed a sigh of relief when he realized that the monstrous swish thwonk he had been hearing was the sound of Jose’s sandal’s meshing on the grass as he ran towards them. His relief was soon squelched though when it became evident that the boy was in a near panic and shirtless, his face covered in tears as he threw himself against Johnny’s chest and wrapped his arms around his waist in total unadulterated fear, his eyes closed tight, his hands gripping the back of Johnny’s jacket in tight little fists.
Johnny stiffly holstered his gun and hugged the boy tightly. He laid his cheek on top of Jose’s head speaking to him softly in Spanish, bidding the boy to stop his tears and tell him what was wrong. “Shhhh Jose, shhhh…Dígame cuál es incorrecto.”
When the boy would not stop crying, Johnny took him by the shoulders and pushed him away from his chest without letting go, feeling his jacket pull from Jose’s frightened grip. Dropping to one knee so that he was eye level with Jose, he asked again what was wrong, this time in English hoping to stir the boy from his cries, “What’s wrong Jose? What’s happened?” He shook Jose by the shoulders when he continued to weep and not answer him. Johnny’s fear for his family, his father’s men, crowding his mind with a terror he could not afford to show the boy in any other way than a rough shake.
Jose reached up to clutch at Johnny’s forearms, his head nodding up and down with heaving panic, hiccoughing as he tried to dry his tears and find his voice. Johnny let go of his shoulders and with the tips of his fingers, wiped the tears from Jose’s face, “Tell me Jose…quickly. What has happened?”
Jose released the grip of his right hand, pointing to the black field behind him from where had just come from, “It is Tío, Juanito!…He…he’s been shot…¡por los hombres muy malos!” He shook his head and the tears started up again, “Very bad men…¡los hombres muy malos!”
Johnny gripped his shoulders again and shook him harder than he intended, “¿Dónde ahora está el tío?” he fairly shouted at the boy, wanting to know where Cipriano was at the moment. “¿Usted sabe?”
Jose nodded and pointed again from where he had just run from, “Sí. Él está allá, donde vamos a nadar a veces. Debajo del árbol grande.” Johnny knew where the boy meant. Maria often scolded Jose and his friends for taking off in the middle of the day to go swimming near the giant oak tree by the stream.
Johnny cupped the boy’s cheeks in his hands, “¿Está el tío vivo?” he asked wanting to know if Cipriano was alive.
Jose nodded his head, putting his hands up over Johnny’s, feeling safer just by touching them, “Él vive, pero apenas apenas,” he said anxiously between heaving breaths. Johnny dropped his head glad to hear that their uncle still lived as he breathed a sigh of relief, not forgetting for one second that his family was most likely in terrible danger by men who were willing to kill to get what they wanted.
He dropped his hands and stood up. Taking off his jacket he wrapped it around the boy’s shivering shoulders and helped him put his arms through the sleeves, calling over his shoulder to Jelly, “Jelly come over here.”
Jelly dismounted, having heard most of what was said but not understanding fully the scope of what was going on since half of it was in a language he didn’t have a full grasp of. All he knew was that there was trouble, big trouble and Johnny looked like he was going to tear someone’s head off any second.
When he joined them, Johnny pushed Jose into the elder man’s arms, “Go with him to that spot where the boys go swimmin’. Cipriano is there and he’s gonna need help.”
Jelly wrapped his arms around Jose’s slim shoulders, “He the one been shot?” Jelly asked, knowing someone had to of been from the little he did understand of their conversation.
Jose looked up at the old man with tears in his big brown eyes, “Sí, Señor Jelly, he is hurt bad, here. ¡Muy malo! ¡Muy malo!” he cried, placing his fist on his chest to indicated where Cipriano was injured.
Jelly looked at Johnny over the top of Jose’s head, his arms going tighter, protective of the young boy who was so scared. His chest puffed out, feeling the stirrings of courage and bravery well up within his heart, the need to defend and protect overriding any sense of fear he was feeling for himself. His large hand drew up and rested on the boy’s hair as he watched Johnny’s eyes turn cold and deadly before them.
Johnny dropped his gaze to Jose and asked, “How many are there, Jose?”
Jose shook his head under Jelly’s hand, “Many men, Juanito…many. We saw five of them in the estancia when we made our escape past the Señor’s big window. But I think there are more. I saw others from far away…by the barn. Too far for me to count with Tío by my side.”
Johnny stood rigid, his clenched hands hanging tightly by his sides, the only indication to Jelly that Johnny even heard the boy’s answer. He seemed unapproachable, an impenetrable statue of rage and stone cold fury. A smoldering fire just waiting to be ignited with a single touch or a solitary word.
Jose pulled away from Jelly’s hands, unafraid of the stranger that Johnny transformed into. Reaching out he grasped Johnny on either side of his waist, “¡Soy primo muy asustado!” he said, his hands trembling in tight fists, telling his cousin he was very scared.
Johnny took Jose’s hands and pulled them from his waist, holding them tight within his grasp. Kneeling down he looked the boy in the eye, letting go of one hand and cupping the side of his face he said, “I know you’re scared Jose…but I need you to be strong…courageous and fearless for me.” He looked up at Jelly who stood right behind the boy then back to Jose, “Le necesito proteger al viejo hombre. Él es asustado que usted. ¿Puede usted hacer esta cosa para mí?” Johnny asked the boy, hoping that by asking him to protect the old man, he could diminish some of the fear Jose was feeling.
Jose drew his frightened gaze from Johnny, looking over his shoulder at the old man behind him seeing the fear on Jelly’s face and the sense in Johnny’s request. The old man certainly looked more scared the he felt and that was saying a lot in his mind. Turning back, he nodded his head, his fear reduced greatly in the face of a responsibility he wanted to show Johnny he could handle, his burgeoning pride for being given such a huge task melting away the terror that had been there only a moment ago. He felt Jelly’s hands on his shoulders. Placing one of his own over the older man’s, the boy said, “Lo protegeré con mi primo de la vida,” telling Johnny he would protect the old man with his life.
“Bueno,” Johnny said, cuffing Jose under his chin, letting the boy see how proud he was of him with the flash of a bright smile, hoping deep in his gut that Jose would never have to protect Jelly or anyone else with his life, at least as long as he was around.
Johnny stood up and walked away from them without another word on the subject. He took Daisy May’s reins and led her to where Jelly and Jose stood. When he got to them he said, “Take Jose and ride. Help Cipriano and don’t leave that spot until I come get you.”
“Johnny yah can’t go up against five men…maybe more all by yourself.”
“Give me your pistol Jelly,” Johnny said ignoring the remark with a deadly calm.
Jelly sighed heavily, resignedly and let his hands drop from Jose’s shoulders, “It’s primed and loaded. Just oiled it before we left. It’s old but it works,” Jelly told him, taking his gun out of his holster and handing it over to Johnny reluctantly.
Johnny stuffed the gun down the back of his black leather pants, adjusting the red shirt he wore just a little tighter in the waist. When he started to walk away, Jelly grabbed him by the arm, “You take a care and make sure yah come back.”
Johnny looked at the hand on his arm, then to the side where he could see the bright lights of the house in the distance, knowing now that the welcome he felt earlier when seeing them was nothing more than a false deception, a lure to entice him in. The lack of light in his window, explained without having to question why.
With an assurance born of a natural instinct to survive and come out the victor in battle, Johnny said with complete conviction, “I’ll come get you within two hours.” He pulled his arm from Jelly’s hand and strode to Barranca’s side, mounting with a fluid swiftness and grace, God given to him at birth. Reaching behind the saddle, he untied his bedroll and threw it at Jelly with a final nod of his head, “Two hours,” he ground out between his teeth, a look of fury on his face.
The older man caught the bedroll and watched Johnny put his heels to his horse and ride off into the night on a promise Jelly wasn’t sure the boy could keep. Not directly towards Lancer, where their unwanted guest might suspect him to go, but across the adjoining field, the far east side of Lancer. The golden palomino and the man who rode him, fueled by a burning hatred for what these men had done and criminally dangerous with a gun, disappearing like a mystical wraith, swiftly dwindling in the twilight it was if he had never been there in the first place.
Jelly turned to the boy behind him, holding out his arm, “Come on son. Let’s go find yer uncle and get ‘im patched up the best we can.” His words sounded calm to his ears, but Jelly was anything but.
With his hands cupped, Jelly helped Jose onto Daisy May, hauling himself up after the boy, riding off in the opposite direction, praying, hoping that Cipriano was still alive and that somehow, someway, Johnny would be back in the two hours that he promised. Jelly silently prayed too for the people within the home, his worst fears for what might be happening to them in the forefront of his thoughts, quickly dashed away when he realized that thinking the worst could only bring them more bad luck. His superstitions floundered back and forth in his head, but his confidence in Johnny overshadowed his fears and stopped his superstitions cold in their tracks, depending on his faith to see him through the next harrowing couple of hours of anxious waiting in the company of a man and a boy who needed him more, now than ever.
Johnny flew across the open grasslands, heading straight for a copse of trees that stood next to the lake on the east side of the property. Thundering hooves pounded into the ground, echoing the thumping in his heart as he imagined all sorts of horrendous things being done to his family, ever fearful in his flight that he might well be too late to help anyone. He knew without doubt that if his family were harmed in any way, neither Heaven nor Hell would be able to help the bastards who hurt them.
The red fabric of his shirt, loose fitting and almost too big for him after the few pounds he’d lost recently on the trail, flapped noisily in the wind. His hat flew back from off his head, flapping uncontrollably on his back, held to his neck by thin leather strings that kept him from losing it altogether. Black hair, glossy and thick, whipped off his forehead in a wild frenzy, his jaws tightened, his eyes narrowed and focused on what lay ahead as he and Barranca raced onward toward their secret haven of refuge.
When they reached the stand of trees, Johnny brought Barranca to reckless stop by pulling hard on the reins, all four hooves digging a deep grove into the softer earth under the old oak and willow trees. He leapt from the saddle, pulling his rifle from its scabbard, all in one fluid motion, landing on his feet with a dull thud, the sound softened by the thick bed of foliage that lay on the ground.
Barranca snorted and reared his head, taking several steps back when Johnny took the reins and pulled them over the horse’s head, throwing them to the ground in his haste to see that Barranca stayed put.
“Shhhh…De la estancia amigo aquí,” he said rapidly in hushed tones, telling his horse to stay where he was. Johnny rubbed a hand down Barranca’s face and briefly held his hand over the horse’s nostrils and mouth, urging him to quiet his heavy breathing, “Shhhh.”
Pure animal, the horse could only shake his head from Johnny’s palm, showing in some small way that he seemed to understand the need for silence. Barranca backed away, snorted and then moved forward a step to nudge his master when Johnny bent his head to check the rig he wore on his side. The action of the horse would generally provoke a smile or a hug from the dark headed man, but not on this night, and so the horse stilled his uneasy movements and waited patiently by Johnny’s side.
Johnny readjusted the gun at his back, making sure it was secure in the waist of his pants, he knelt and checked for the knife he kept sheathed inside the leg of one boot. Finding all his gear in place and ready to use with a satisfied grunt of approval, Johnny stood and gave his horse one last smooth hand down his neck and loped off at a steady pace toward the house keeping under the overhang of the tree branches for as long as he could.
Nearing the little used back road that ran along the banks of the river that flowed from the lake, Johnny stopped just before the edge of the clearing, catching his breath, getting his bearings for where he was in relation to the house, still a ways off in the distance, clearly visible with it’s cluster of lights shining from most every window on the lower level.
He was just about to take the last sprint that would take him to the bunkhouse when a lurking figure loomed out of nowhere, crossing the road just a little ways from where he was. The figure loped toward him, breathing heavily, unaware that he was there, watching from the dark expanse of trees that hid him from view by anyone traveling along the road.
Johnny put his back to a large tree, stepping around the trunk until his body was completely out of sight. Setting his rifle down against the tree trunk, he waited, holding his breath. Soundlessly drawing his gun, he brought the barrel up to his face and rested it on the tip of his nose, the chamber pressed tightly against closed lips, holding the butt of the gun in a steady hand, his finger on the trigger, ready to take a shot if this was someone he would have to kill to get to his family.
When the clomping boots got so close that Johnny could almost make out the size and weight of the man by the sound, he pulled away from the tree and turned his body until he was face to face with whomever it was that was coming his way, his person obscured by the darkness of the tree branches above him, a dark silhouette that could barely be seen.
“Hold it right there mister,” he called out with an icy calm. The heaving figure abruptly stopped short, and Johnny could see that whoever it was held a knife in his right hand when a small glint from what little moon light there was shone on the blade.
“Lift ‘em high and keep ‘em that way,” Johnny ordered, pointing his pistol square on the man’s chest.
Arms lifted high and for just an instant Johnny thought he might know this person. He wasn’t sure and wasn’t about to rely on uncertainties until he was convinced otherwise. “Drop the knife, but keep your hands in the air where I can see ‘em.”
The man in front of Johnny seemed as if he wasn’t going to follow the order, back stepping as his head twisted right then left, obviously summing up his chances for an escape among the trees if there was one. “Don’t try it mister…or I’ll shoot you now where you stand,” Johnny told him, the gun in his hand lifting a touch higher and aiming for the spot where he knew the man’s heart would be in the large heaving chest.
The blank face, unrecognizable in the dark, lowered until it seemed as if the chin met the chest, from Johnny’s vantage point. With a regretful sigh, the knife dropped from high above the man’s head, landing with a soft thunk upon the ground.
“Now step back,” Johnny said, holding back the urge to shoot and ask questions later. It still seemed as if he might know who it was in front of him, the only thing saving the man from a bullet right then, thinking the man was too big for it to be one of the men he left behind with Cipriano. A fuzzy, hazy recognition was on the brink of his mind, but with his judgment mired by tormented thoughts of his family, the name wouldn’t come to him no matter how hard he tried to think on it.
The man did as he was told, taking several steps back as Johnny came forward to where the knife lay on the ground. Without taking his eyes or gun off the dark looming figure in front of him, Johnny crouched down and grabbed up the knife. Once it was in his hand, he stepped back and tried to make it out in the light of the moon. It didn’t look like the knife he had in his boot sheath, but more like one he remembered from the Lancer kitchen.
With his gun trained on the man, Johnny asked, “Who are you?”
The man lifted his head, unclear in the night and said roughly, “Milo McIntyre.”
Johnny continued to stare at him, remembering the name all too clearly and the great hulking figure that had gotten into a fight with him and his brother in Green River several weeks ago. The person in front of him seemed to fit the image he remembered but ever cautious Johnny asked just to make sure, “Is your sister that hellion that’s got her sights set on Scott Lancer?”
Johnny didn’t have to see the man’s face to know instantly that he was angry and that his anger was soon going to overtake any reasonable sense the man had to stand still in the face of his sister’s slight. Hands that were held high dropped to his sides and a menacing step was taken toward Johnny who stepped back at the same time.
The hammer of the gun was pulled back stopping Milo in his tracks, “I’ll kill yah with me own bare hands yah little runt!” Milo ground out between his teeth, ignoring the cocked pistol pointed at him. He took another step, daring Johnny to shoot him, not realizing that he was being set up with a question to prove to Johnny that it was indeed Milo McIntyre.
“Hold on Milo,” Johnny said, taking another step back, keeping his gun cocked and ready. “I was just making sure it was you.”
Milo peered into the darkened shadows of the trees unable to make out more than just a black silhouette of a man whom he knew had a gun ready to fire at him. The voice, now that he had time to think on it, sounded awfully familiar to him, taunting him with a physical memory he had forgotten until this minute. The words he said, broke up the murderous thoughts he had of rushing the man, even if it meant getting shot in the process.
“Who are you?” Milo asked, daring to question someone who had all the advantages over him.
“Back up and I’ll show you,” Johnny replied.
Milo backed up and waited. The man who threatened his life and slighted his sister stepped out from beyond the shadows of the trees. When the light of the moon shown on Johnny’s face, Milo’s eyes went wide, hope for the first time overriding any sense of danger or anger he may have felt in the presence of someone who could have killed him at any time.
“Johnny Lancer,” he whispered under his breath.
Johnny lowered his weapon, released the hammer and holstered his gun, a thin smile showing all the while. “You’re still a hot head when it comes to your sister, Milo,” Johnny stated emphatically.
“No more than you would be, I reckon,” Milo said, taking the few steps needed to come face to face with Johnny.
“I doubt it,” Johnny said answering his remark with a smirk on his face. “Ain’t nobody like you when it comes to being overprotective ‘bout their sister,” Johnny told the big man, staring up into his face, clear now that they were both out in the open and they could see each other.
They stood there staring at each other for one long second. Milo eventually held out his hand and said, “Don’t care what you have to say ‘bout my sister right now. I’m just glad to see your scrawny butt.”
As they shook hands, Milo said, “We got us some trouble Johnny. Big trouble.”
Disgusted by the news that there was no bank money to split between them, but feeling there was no other choice than to follow through on what Craddock demanded of them, Kirk made his way back to the estancia with the requested ropes slung over his shoulder.
The irritating Fred Wallace ran to catch up, clutching him by the sleeve of his shirt before they got to the front door, “Hold up Kirk,” he said, causing the red head to stop in his tracks.
Sighing loudly, Kirk Means brushed Fred’s hand off his arm and asked, “What do yah want?”
Fred’s black eyes looked fearfully toward the front door, “What if the Madrid don’t have the money?”
Kirk reached up his hand and grabbed a hold of the rope he carried, “What makes yah think he might not?” he answered with a question of his own.
Fred knew what the others thought of him, that he was irritating, inept and always toeing the line where Craddock was concerned, but what they didn’t know was that he wasn’t as stupid as they all thought, a little crazy maybe, sadistic even, but not so stupid. In fact, in his previous life before joining up with all of them, he had once been considered a prominent citizen of one of the most revered families in all of Baltimore. The son of a wealthy banker, his only fault for having been dismissed and sent packing to the west coast from his family home, a few small demented and sexual indiscretions that his family said brought shame upon their family and the Wallace name when his secret lifestyle came to light. “It don’t make any sense to think that Madrid would be carrying a lot of cash on his person. I mean…well…I know I wouldn’t,” he replied nervously, twisting away at the infernal mustache he took so much pride in.
Kirk narrowed his blue eyes at the short little man. “Craddock says Madrid is supposed to have the money on him. He wouldn’t say it if he didn’t have somethin’ to back it up. He’s been right ‘bout everythin’ else so far, so I expect he knows more ‘an we do ‘bout it. Now let’s get inside before…”
The words died on his lips when Kirk heard the unmistakable sound of a gasp coming from behind him. Fred reached up and pushed him to the side to see behind the taller man, his beady eyes honed in toward the corner of the house where darkness prevailed. Kirk dropped the rope he held to the ground and spun around with his gun drawn.
Fred pulled his own weapon and together they crept toward the corner of the house, guns pointed and ready to fire. They no sooner rounded the corner than Kirk swore under his breath and took off at a run. “Stay here!” he hollered back to Fred over his shoulder.
Fred stayed where he was, keeping his gun trained on the spot where Kirk ran off to, unable to see a blasted thing but hearing a great deal of running then the terrified shriek of a woman. From the corner of the house, Fred thought he heard the whoosh and thump of bodies landing heavily on the ground, then very clearly the angry voice of a woman screaming in Spanish, then the loud smack of a hand on someone’s face and then another.
“Shut up bitch before I cut your throat!” Kirk could be heard yelling.
As Fred watched without seeing, but hearing all, Kirk came huffing back into view, dragging an elder Mexican woman by the arm. Tears streaked down her face, her right arm jerking madly to and fro with every vicious jerk of Kirk’s hand on her other arm. When Kirk got her around the corner and pulled her with brute force to the front of the house, Fred could see that her face was red and puffy where his angry partner had obviously hit her, not once but twice to stop her verbal tirade toward him.
Heaving from exertion, Kirk said to Fred, “Get the rope and get inside…now!”
Fred holstered his gun and quickly grabbed up the rope as Kirk pulled the woman with him and forced open the front door. Standing inside the doorway, he pushed the woman to the right, into the great room of the Lancer home, only letting her arm go when he saw that she was willing to flee into the arms of the younger dark haired woman who dared to move from the tall rancher’s side to go to her.
Teresa ran across the room and Maria stumbled into her arms, crying frantically, her hands held fiercely to her face where Kirk had slapped her, “How could you?” Teresa screamed at Kirk and Fred.
Kirk started toward the younger woman with a vengeance only to be stopped by the cold deadly voice of Craddock, “Kirk!”
Kirk stopped immediately, held back from going after the young woman with her hate filled eyes and the weeping Mexican he wanted nothing more than to kill right then and there. He swiped his hand across the side of his face where four long deep gouges could now be seen, bloody and painful. He pulled his hand away from his face and stared at the blood on the palm of his hand and then moved his eyes with narrowing menace toward the Mexican woman, “You’re gonna pay for plowin’ my face bitch!”
Teresa’s arms tightened around the frightened Maria. Scott took a tentative step toward them, “Stay where yah are blondie…unless yah want a belly full of lead,” Butcher growled, drawing his gun in the middle of the melee.
“So is this your game…hurting and terrorizing innocent women?” Scott asked, looking first to Butcher Drake and his drawn gun, then to Craddock who sat behind Murdoch’s desk. Changing his tactic just a little he said, “You’re all cowards…the lot of you.”
Murdoch pressed forward a step, sensing that things could turn in an instant if Scott kept pressing them, “Scott?” he called hesitantly.
Scott whipped around to face his father, “What?” he asked angrily.
Murdoch looked to Craddock then across the floor to his son, “They aren’t cowards,” he said mildly, watching his son go rigid with the statement, “They’re fools…every last one of them.”
Murdoch took another step forward then another, until he was able to cross in front of the sofa and go to Teresa and Maria, ignoring the deadly looks from Butcher and Kirk. He put his good arm around them, pulling them back with him until he was able to get them both to the chair that sat next to the right side of the fireplace. Once they were settled he turned around again, ignoring the incredulous look on his son’s face. “They won’t shoot us…not yet.”
Murdoch turned to face Craddock, “Because they don’t have what they want yet. Isn’t that right…Craddock?”
Craddock smiled from the laid back position he was in with his feet crossed upon Murdoch’s desk, “You’re a whole lot smarter than you look old man.”
The words ‘old man’ incensed Murdoch. With his mending arm held fast to his belly he strode from the chair, his boots crunching on the broken glass of the paperweight that lay scattered on the floor. Stepping up to the desk, he leaned forward with his right hand on the desk and said warningly, “Don’t call me ‘old man’.”
Craddock pulled his boots off the desk, wondering why the term ‘old man’ had the rancher so all fired up when he should be worried more about their lives, which were at stake. Setting his feet on the floor with a loud clomp he asked, “And what if I do?” Leaning forward the two men stared eye to eye, daring one another to throw the first punch if that was what was in their mind to do.
As the seconds passed and a deafening quiet hung over the room, Craddock finally pushed away from the desk and laughed out loud, “Looks like we got us a Mexican standoff boys. Got me a papa here who thinks he can save the world and his family…with only one good arm.”
The taunt flared in Murdoch’s gut, his anger over his family and friends captivity and torture fueling him with bravado like nothing he had ever felt before. He stood up, ripping at the bandages that covered his arm, shredding the thin strips of cloth with fingers that itched to find their way around Craddock’s accursed neck.
Scott seeing what his father was doing, feeling at once proud, then worried, strode across the room to stand behind Murdoch. He couldn’t believe the bravery of his father in the face of these men, but this was going too far. Murdoch’s arm was supposed to remain wrapped in the tight bandages for at least another week and he couldn’t let his father harm himself further just to prove a point to some jackass who didn’t deserve anything at this point but a bullet in the head.
Murdoch ignored the hand that tried to stop him at his side, getting angrier the more he focused upon the smirk on Craddock’s face which enhanced the scar running from his right eye to his chin, imagining his meaty fist pounding the sickening grin into the man’s skull. He heard the voice of his son in his mind, calling him ‘old man’, time after time. He wasn’t mad at Johnny, oh no…far from it. His anger was directed at the criminal in front of him for calling him the name that only his youngest son ever used. But coming from trash like Craddock the words reeked of hatred and self-loathing, reminding him in a time of danger that not everything had been settled between him and Johnny, hating that he might never get to have the chance to settle things if Craddock has his way. It was in that instant when Craddock called him ‘old man’ that Murdoch wished with all his heart that it was his son calling him that instead of the bastard that dared to hurt his family. In his own way he wanted to fight back, to show some sign of strength, courage and protectiveness to those who depended on him, wishing he had a lifetime of showing these traits to his sons, all of which made him strip away the cloth that now felt like more of a hindrance than a help for his arm.
Scott stilled his hand on his father’s arm, understanding the rage that was climaxing within his soul, feeling the smoldering anger as it radiated hotly off his body and realizing with swift clarity that in Murdoch’s mind there was some kind of primal instinct, a driving need to illustrate some semblance of power, no matter how small and ineffective it was.
He grinned, feeling the pain in his jaw when he did so, watching Murdoch for the first time with something akin to hero worship when his father flexed his fingers and his newly freed arm in front of the thin man. Craddock seemed almost passive and unimpressed, yet there was a new light of defiance and accepted challenge in his pale blue eyes that wasn’t there before. Scott sensed that he enjoyed watching the display whether his face showed it or not, as if his father’s actions were merely a prelude to some kind of dance they were going to perform as soon as the lights went down, the curtains were raised and all the audience was there to watch. The only thing standing in their way was the fact that all the audience wasn’t here to witness what could very well be his father’s last dance if he didn’t back off.
“Feel better?” Craddock asked smugly, effectively cutting off any remarks Scott might have been about to make to his father.
“Good enough to take you on,” Murdoch taunted back, surprising his son even further who stood beside him.
Murdoch’s adversary shook his head, “Too bad your little display was all for nothin’.” Craddock backed up and stood on his feet. He crossed around the side of the desk and stood next to Clyde who watched the scene with mild curiosity, his trusted rifle nested in the crook of his arm.
“I suggest that if your courageous effort to intimidate me is over…you move back to where your friends and family are.” He looked to Boyd McIntyre who stood in front of the fireplace with his wife and daughter by his side. “You ain’t said much mister,” Craddock spoke to the big man. “I reckon right ‘bout now you’re thinkin’ twice on lettin’ the dandy here court your little gal. These two been makin’ sparks fly ever which way…which reminds me. Where’s that big oaf you call a son at?”
Fred suddenly got uncomfortable standing behind Kirk. He remembered seeing the McIntyre boy go into the far room earlier that evening but had forgotten all about it. Now he wondered for the sake of his own skin whether or not he should say anything. But then again if he didn’t, the boy could well be hiding out somewhere ready to shoot them on sight with the first opportunity.
“I saw him go in there earlier,” Fred pointed lamely, deciding it was best to keep things on the up and up with his boss.
“You two…back up now,” Craddock said to Murdoch and Scott. “Clyde…check it out and let me know what you find.”
Clyde walked to the study door and pushed it open cautiously. He walked inside, his eyes darting from one side of the room to the other, noticing the door in the far back wall. He stepped back into the room and said, “No one in here…but there’s a door in the back. Looks like we might have one on the loose boss.”
“Sit down now!” Craddock ordered, “All of you!”
“There ain’t any chairs boss,” Fred said from the French window.
Craddock slowly turned his head and glared at Fred, “I don’t give a damn if there are chairs are not. I told them to sit and that’s what they’re gonna do.”
“Butcher…take the girl and…” Craddock started.
Fiona clung to her daughter and shook her head, tears forming in her eyes, “No…you leave her alone,” she cried out in terror.
Ignoring the woman Craddock repeated, “Butcher take the girl and put her in that chair. Kirk get the rope and tie up these two,” he said pointing to Boyd and Fiona.
Butcher moved in toward Sadie, her green eyes filled with fear when the big hulking man got closer. Boyd stepped in front of his wife and daughter saying, “I’ll not be havin’ you put yer filthy hands on me daughter or me wife…not now…now ever.” His fists came up, his bare knuckles aching to connect with the burly mans face.
“Fred…take out your gun and show this man he has only one choice and the count of three if he doesn’t back off now,” Craddock commanded.
Fred gleefully did as he was told, pulling his gun from his holster with ease, enjoying the fact that he was the center of attention with a man much bigger than him, who if he didn’t do as he was told would find himself summarily defeated by his hand and his gun with a single shot. The little man had a sadistic streak that belied his little man complex, giving him a brutal delight in all things designed to make him feel bigger and smarter than he was. With a twist of his mustache he started counting, “One…two…three…”
Jelly and Jose rode through the dark field and found where Cipriano lay wounded up against the trunk of a large tree. There was no sound coming from the man, and Jelly feared he might well be dead.
Jose slid from Jelly’s horse even before the old wrangler had her fully to a stop, landing quickly on his feet with the agility that only youth could give to a young boy. He ran to his uncle, coming down hard on his knees when he reached Cipriano’s side.
“¡Tío, tío es yo... Jose!” he cried putting his small hand on Cipriano’s chest, telling his uncle that it was he.
Jelly was soon there on the opposite side calling to Cipriano as well, “Hey Cip…it’s me…’ol Jelly.”
Cipriano groaned when he heard his name being called. Heavy lids pried themselves open grateful to hear not only his nephew but a welcome friend as well. Sluggishly he grasped Jose’s hand, smiling the best he could through the pain in his chest, willing his head to turn so that he could see Jelly, “Hola mi amigo. Es bueno tenerle aquí.”
Jelly sighed, pulling open the man’s shirtfront to see what kind of damage was done to him, saying as he did so, “Now Cip…yah know dern good and well I don’t speak hardly a word of Spanish. So iffen yer gonna be a nuisance to me…at least do it in English so’s I can understand yah.”
Cipriano groaned and tried not to laugh, coughing when he held back the feeling to do so. “I said…it is good to have you here, my friend.”
Jelly bit back the fear he felt when he lifted the shirt that covered the bloody hole in Cipriano’s chest, “It’s good to see you too Cip,” Jelly commented as he squinted in the dark at the wound. “Looks like it’s a good thing I’m here too. Can’t none of you take care of yerself when I’m not around. Don’t know how yah survived this long.”
“Por la tolerancia del dios, mi amigo. Por la tolerancia del dios,” Cipriano whispered weakly, his strength draining from the effort of talking.
Jelly looked across at Jose who was making the sign of the cross in front of his chest, “What did he say Jose?” he asked the boy.
“He says…by the grace of God Señor Jelly,” the boy repeated in English for him.
Jelly reapplied the wet and bloody bandage muttering under his breath, “You can say that again.
The boy smiled at the whiskered man saying over his uncle’s chest, “He did Señor Jelly. He said it twice.”
Jelly rolled his eyes at the boy, though Jose couldn’t see that he did so in the dark, “Go on over tah Daisy May and bring me my saddlebags and the blankets.” The command was asked a bit gruffly, but Jose, feeling hope for the second time in one night, obeyed without question after one last look at his uncle’s face and a reassuring squeeze of Cipriano’s large calloused hand clasping his.
When the boy left their side, Jelly bent down near Cipriano’s ear and said, “Doc Jenkins ain’t around Cip and that bullet has got to come out. You know I gotta take care of it or watch yah die before Johnny can get back to us.”
Cipriano opened his eyes wide, their dark depths completely lost to Jelly’s searching gaze, trying his best to read the Segundo’s face for a sign that he heard him and understood the meaning of what he just had told him. Cipriano reached over, though it pained him to do it and grasped Jelly’s hand in his, “Juanito…he is here?”
Jelly nodded his head and said, “Sí, mi amigo.”
Cipriano patted his hand and Jelly thought he heard the unmistakable sound of a short deep laugh coming from deep within his friend. “I thought you did not understand a single word of Spanish, mi amigo?”
Jelly took off his cap and placed it on the ground beside him, “Never said I don’t understand a single word amigo…just can’t follow you folks when yah get to carryin’ on…like yer doin’ right now. So hush up and tell me if yer gonna be all right with me diggin’ out that bullet.”
Cipriano sighed wearily, “Por la tolerancia del dios, Señor Jelly. Por la tolerancia del dios.”
It hadn’t taken long for Milo to fill Johnny in on all he knew about what was taking place inside and outside the Lancer home. Johnny listened to the bigger man with a burning hatred growing in his heart with each and every word that was spoken, sensing the desperation, helplessness and fear between Milo’s words for their families. He stared at the ground while Milo spoke hurriedly, his muscles coiled into tight knots, his gun hand flexing without thinking, lost in a turmoil of quick thinking, unformulated plans that might or might not work with Milo’s help.
When Milo was finished Johnny pulled his hat from off his back and planted it firmly on his head. Walking to the tree where he had hidden from Milo, he reached down and picked up the Winchester propped against the trunk of the tree. He held the rifle for long seconds thinking, a basic plan coming to his mind as he touched the cold metal and fingered the fine engraving etched upon the surface of the brass frame plate.
Looking up Johnny asked, “You know how to use this?”
Milo nodded and said, “Yep.”
“Good…you’ll probably need it.”
Johnny tossed the rifle at Milo who caught it with one hand, feeling a whole sight better now that he had a weapon that could be more useful to him than the knife. The cold brass and warm wood vibrated with life in his hand, chasing away the fear and the desperation he felt just moments ago. Now that he had a weapon he could use and use well, his thoughts turned from fear for his family to a sobering desire to fight back.
Looking up from the weapon Milo’s eyes turned steely and cold, “You got a plan?”
Johnny nodded, “I got a plan.”
Ten minutes later they were down the road nearing the corner of the storage shed by the main corral. They took their time making as little noise as was possible, putting their backs to the wall as they cautiously crept toward the front of the building with their guns drawn. When they neared the front corner of the building, Johnny came to a sudden halt, the back of his gun hand coming to rest on Milo’s massive chest.
Milo looked down at the gun barrel that was pointing straight up at him, then in the direction to where Johnny had his vision focused on. There on the ground, not two feet from the front corner of the storage shed, lay the body of a man, his face to the ground, a pool of blood surrounding his head and matting the fringes of his hair. Though it was dark and little color was visible, the sight of such a brutal and malicious beating was more than plain to see.
Johnny dropped his gun hand, inching forward, peering around the corner of the building. When he didn’t hear or see anyone, he crouched down and edged closer to the body. With his hand he flipped the body over, sucking in his breath without a sound when he recognized the battered face of Leon Moore. Dead eyes open, Johnny reached over and closed them with his fingers, dropping his chin to his chest with the misery he felt for the pain this man must have suffered.
Milo crouched down as well and came up behind Johnny, “Who is it?” he asked.
Johnny swallowed hard with no intention of answering Milo. Leon’s name wouldn’t matter one iota to the man and the anger he felt for seeing one of his men, dead at his feet, fueled a rage in him that left him without words. He stood, uncaring if anyone saw him at this point. Breathing heavily through his nose, Johnny scanned the yard behind and in front of the main corral until he at last saw what he was looking for.
Moving his head slightly to the right Johnny said to Milo, “Stay here out of sight until I give you the signal.”
Milo stepped back into the darker shadow of the building, staying silent the way Johnny told him to, his eyes drifting now and then to the lifeless form on the ground, a sight that sent chills up and down his spine. He wasn’t aghast so much about the bloodied face, but more because the man lay dead on the ground, a life erased for no apparent reason he could fathom, other than the man had been doing his job…or had tried to. The grooves in the ground at the feet and head of this man he didn’t know, attested to the fact that he had put up at least some amount of fight while being attacked.
Pulling his gaze away from the corpse, Milo peered around the corner of the building and waited, listening as Johnny instructed earlier. The early morning hour was still too dark to see much of anything from where he was other than the dark shadowy figure that silently found his way around the back of the enclosure and toward the back side of the barn. He watched until Johnny’s crouched figure disappeared completely from sight, realizing at the same moment that he had been holding his breath all the while, stilling the sound of his own breathing, for it seemed loud to his ears.
Johnny made his way behind the large corral toward the back of the barn. His steps were light, without sound, a feat he mastered at an early age when one single broken stick or crunch of leaves could easily have been the death of him had he not.
The moon was nearly gone, leaving little light to see anything; an advantage to Johnny who had an uncanny ability to see things others could not in the faint light of the evening stars and waning moon. No supernatural talent, just long years of having traveled mostly by night and sleeping during the day when no job required him to do otherwise. He relied heavily now on all the things he had so wanted to put behind him, calling upon the learned and practiced talents to give him the edge he needed to confront and kill the man he stalked, having seen the man pass from the bunkhouse to the barn.
It was easier than Johnny thought it would be, for the man he walked up on didn’t hear him approach until he felt the light tap on his shoulder after he had turned away to check the south side of the barn.
When Frank Granger, the man who mercilessly killed Leon Moore, turned around and saw Johnny, he dropped the rifle in his hands and went to draw his gun. Too late and too close for any of his actions of defense to matter, his mouth opened up in round circle of surprise, his hat falling back off his dark curly hair when his head flew backward from agonizing pain. His hands gripped frantically for the knife that was buried deep in his gut, finding it covered by stronger hands that held it firmly in place.
Blood gurgled up his throat and spilled in great rivulets from the side of his mouth, down his bristled chin and further along his neck. Frank’s fingers trembled and shook from the pain, unable to get any kind of purchase on the knife or the fingers that gripped it. His life flashed before his eyes, gruesome and horrifying as each and every man he ever killed appeared one after the other, until he was surrounded by a moaning, wailing throng of sufferers that clutched at him from all angles with clawed hands gone ashen gray, gnarled and bony from death and decay, their putrefied bodies filling his nostrils with a decomposing odor that stank of rotting flesh and muscle.
The ground sucked at Frank’s feet, swirling like a whirlpool, pulling him with a demonic force that promised eternal suffering and torment, once his spirit crossed the eternal gates of Hell. When he stumbled backward, Johnny stepped with him, holding him up by the hilt of the knife and one hand on his shoulder, keeping him from being sucked into the ground and pulled down by the claw snatching spirits that shrieked his name over and over. Hands falling to his sides, Frank was immobilized as Johnny twisted the knife and pulled up hard, causing Frank to grunt and drop his head to his chest with one last guttural croak that bubbled up from his chest as he struggled to survive.
Still standing with the man as close as one could be with a knife stuck between them, Johnny lowered his face to the dying man’s ear and said with bitterness in his voice that only Frank could hear, “That’s for killing Leon…and that…” Johnny pushed the knife in just a little more, “is for making me have to kill you.”
Johnny pushed Frank off the knife, watching without remorse as the man fell to the ground in a silent heap of flesh and bone. The last thing registering in Frank’s remaining consciousness, the grit of Johnny’s teeth, the harshly spoken words and the wraithlike set of eyes, darkened until they were black as coal, containing no sign of mercy in their unforgiving depths. His last breath was taken from him by those vaporous phantoms that clung to his blackened soul, pulling on his spirit for the last time, sucking him ever downward into the fiery pit of Hell where he was destined to spend eternity.
With his mind turned off, Johnny stared down at the man, feeling empty and yet venomous… his heart notched by another kill that doomed his soul, turning him once again into the killing machine he’d hoped to forever keep locked away or at the very least, hidden from his family, his friends and even himself.
He stared at the unnamed man on the ground, hating him with a boundless vengeance and hating the world for giving him the gift of death. Johnny lifted the Bowie knife, unblinking, indifferent even as he contemplated briefly the blood that dripped from the finely honed blade, the carved wooden handle and his wet sticky fingers. Mechanically he knelt to the ground and wiped the blade off on the man’s trouser leg, then his hand, wondering idly if he would ever feel clean again once his family was saved and things went back to what they considered was ‘normal’.
Johnny quickly doused the thought, knowing there was no time to dwell or think on what might be later on. He sheathed the knife and stood up, chirping out a whistle that Milo expected to hear if all had gone well, prepared to carry out the next phase of their plan, knowing full well there might never be redemption for what he planned to do next.
As Fred counted and reached the number three of his count, some of the bravado Murdoch had recently exhibited shot to the forefront of Scott’s protective personality. No stranger to deadly challenges and mocking exhibitions of power, Scott took two quick steps to Boyd’s side and grasped his arm with one hand while holding another, palm up to the would be maniac who seemed to find a thrill in what he was told to do by Craddock.
“Hold up….we’ll sit…if that’s what you want,” Scott said with a reasonable calm in his voice, his eyes darting back and forth from Fred’s gun to Craddock, the only sign that he was far from feeling reasonable or calm. “Just don’t shoot.” Scott pulled on the Boyd’s meaty arm, willing him with a squeeze of pressure not to push the situation to a higher level than it already was.
Scott turned his head to Boyd, “Help your wife to sit down Mr. McIntyre,” Scott said. His voice had taken on the old military tone he had used while serving the Union. The nature of his command, authoritative and controlled, leaving no room for argument and in the end Boyd did as he was asked without resistance.
Maria held her hand to the red hand mark on her face, the tears she’d been holding back, spilled down her cheeks. Teresa held her tight, keeping a firm hold around her shaking body, shushing her quietly when the elder woman began to chant and rub anxiously on the wooden crucifix she wore around her neck, “¡El dios nos ayuda por favor! ¡El dios nos ayuda por favor!”
Craddock laughed as he watched the tearful woman chanting her prayer over and over again, “Your God ain’t gonna help you now old woman.” He swayed his look to Murdoch, “Make shut up now…or I’ll shut her up for you.”
Murdoch moved to stand next to the large overstuffed chair where Teresa and Maria sat huddled together. Sitting on the arm of the chair, he reached down and grasped the woman’s nervous hand in his large palm and gave it a small amount of reassuring pressure. “Sea Maria tranquila. No dejaré cualquier cosa sucederle.”
Murdoch knew that promising Maria he wouldn’t let anything happen might very well be a false hope, but the very words, spoken in her native language seemed to sooth her nevertheless. He knew he did the right thing when her tears were snuffled back and she quieted in Teresa’s arms, nodding her head gratefully up at him. He could tell she was fighting for the courage to remain calm when he knew all she really wanted to do was start screaming at the top of her lungs frantically and wailing in rapid fire Spanish. The likes of which he’d heard on more than one occasion when she became overwrought with emotions and fired up energy. If the situation wasn’t so dire and they weren’t all under the gun, Murdoch was sure this would have been the case and so he smiled down at her, telling her with his eyes that he knew how she felt and hopefully would have that chance to vent once this was all over.
With Scott’s help, Boyd and Fiona McIntyre found seats upon the floor. Kneeling in front of Fiona, Scott whispered to Sadie’s mother, “Don’t worry, things will be fine. We just have to do what they say.” Scott then moved to take a seat beside Fiona, getting as close as he could to the chair where Butcher made Sadie sit down.
He was so proud of her. Not a tear in her eyes, but the fear he saw when she looked over at him, fueled his anger and made him feel so helpless to do anything about it. He would have liked to have had the comfort of having her in his arms, sitting next to him just as Fiona was with Boyd, but he took a small amount of comfort in the fact that their captors seemed not to care when he reached over and placed his hand over hers. His fingers curled between hers and his heart wanted to cry because of the smile he saw tremulously and bravely form on her face. Knowing it must be the hardest thing in the world for her to do, when they could all be dead within the next hour.
“Very touching…both of you,” Craddock sneered, wagging his finger from Murdoch to Scott, “Like father like son.”
“What in the name of all that’s holy have ye taken us prisoner for?” Boyd demanded, despite the danger that Craddock and his men presented to them. It irked him beyond rational temper that Fred still had his gun trained on them, and Craddock seemed not in the least hurried to have him lower it.
Craddock laughed, looking down at the hotheaded burly rancher who dared to challenge anything he was doing right now. He looked over at Murdoch, deciding to torment him with the impending death of his younger son and the theft of the money that would soon be in his clever hands. “You want to tell the foreigner or should I?” Craddock asked of Murdoch.
Murdoch started to stand up but Craddock stopped him, “Uh, uh…just keep your seat ‘old man’,” Craddock taunted, “Never said you could get up.” The gun in Fred’s hand moved across the room to point directly at Murdoch.
Murdoch resettled on the arm of the chair, “You have the upper hand…for now,” Murdoch taunted back at him, almost as if he knew something Craddock didn’t.
Craddock narrowed he steely blue eyes and moved across the room to where Sadie sat, getting a sadistic pleasure out of the scare he was putting into the couple that sat next to Murdoch Lancer’s son.
Butcher Drake moved back as Craddock approached, putting himself just under the arched hall leading to the kitchen. He scratched at the thick black sideburns on his face, enjoying the show that Craddock was putting on for them.
Craddock walked until he was directly behind the chair that Sadie sat in. She took in a deep breath and held it when she felt Craddock run his hand from the top of her hair until his hand was palmed at the back of her head. Craddock bent down next to her ear, ignoring the cold dark look that Scott gave him as Sadie squeezed her eyes shut and curled her fingers on the arm of her chair. “You’re a pretty little gal…my men could have a lot of fun with you,” he whispered.
The breath rushed out of Sadie, “Scott!” she whispered brokenly. She tried to move forward, intent on leaving the chair and scrambling down to where Scott sat next to her. She was kept from doing so when Craddock took a handful of hair and pulled her back against the headrest with a quick jerk.
Sadie’s name came bursting forth from Scott and Boyd simultaneously, “Sadie!” Both men started to jump up but only Murdoch was able to get to his feet fast enough. All were quickly halted in their positions when three guns were quickly drawn and cocked noisily in the room.
Craddock stepped back and roared with laughter, finding a sadistic pleasure in goading these people, predicting what they would do before they ever did a thing. He toyed with them, enjoying the game as they waited out the time for Murdoch’s son to return, taking satisfaction in finding his predictions to be right on target with each one of them.
“Why are we here boys!” he shouted out loud.
Clyde Willows wavered his gun at Murdoch, “Sit back down.”
Fred Wallace twitched his mustache and Kirk glared at the young dark haired woman and the elder Mexican in her arms. “We’re here for the money…and the women,” Kirk said, watching the terror grow in Teresa and Maria’s eyes, taunting them with his direct line of evil looks and threatening retribution by his hand when the time came.
Murdoch sat down as Clyde instructed, “What money is it, that you think you’re here for Craddock?” he asked mildly, putting together a short plan of attack between Craddock’s men and their leader.
“You know damn good and well what money I’m talking about Mr. Big Shot Rancher!” Craddock shouted at him.
“What’s he talking about?” Fiona asked her husband fearfully, helping Murdoch with his impromptu plan without realizing it.
“I’ve no idea, darlin’…these men are fiends!…Crazy!…Too stupid to know when they’ve barked up the wrong tree,” Boyd told her, blue eyes blazing, goading Craddock personally with a direct flash of fire and brimstone. He knew what they were talking about, but he also knew by Murdoch’s antagonistic, yet mild question what he was up to. Ranching and cattle prices, one of the many topics they’d spent comparing to his ideals on the capital he could make growing produce in the rich valley they lived in rather than beef raising as most were wont to do.
“Enough!” Craddock shouted madly. “I know he’s coming. It’s just a matter of when. I heard you say he’s to bring the money here.”
Scott looked at his father, joining in on the attack, “What is he talking about Murdoch?”
Murdoch shrugged his shoulders, “I think he’s referring to Johnny and the money he ‘was’ going to bring back to the ranch.” Murdoch shifted his gaze to Craddock who was making his way back to the desk. “Isn’t that right Craddock?” Murdoch asked.
“That’s right ‘old man’. That’s the plan. Then you and your friends can kiss his ass goodbye.” Craddock smiled and a deep laugh rumbled in this chest, not quite making it sound like anything more than a ragged cough in his throat. “Butcher over there has a little surprise for Johnny boy when he comes marchin’ home…ain’t that right Butcher?”
From across the room, Butcher holstered his gun and pulled out a long, evil looking, thick bladed knife, kissing the steel blade as the group looked on. “Got me a little score to settle with Johnny Madrid,” he said, dragging the tip of the blade along the scar that marred his face.
“My brother’s name is Johnny Lancer…not Madrid,” Scott said, trying to convince them otherwise, knowing it most likely wouldn’t do any good if Rusty and Jake were somewhere around and a part of their gang. They would have told Craddock otherwise, but he had to give the statement a test. They had nothing to lose by seeing if his declaration would work.
“Don’t even try it blondie. I know Madrid’s your brother and I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he finds out I’m here. He’s gonna pay for knifin’ me and I’m gonna start with killin’ you first if you get in my way,” Butcher threatened. He laughed, “I’ll probably kill yah anyway.”
“Too bad you boys are following orders from the likes of Craddock,” Murdoch told them, interrupting Butcher’s laughing threat.
Kirk Means, still rankled over the missing bank money asked, “Why’s that?”
“Because,” Murdoch said, “He has his facts all wrong. He’s lying to you just like he’s lied to you about the bank money.” Murdoch was taking a chance, guessing with what he did know to be fact and making up things as he went along. Kirk’s curiosity and Clyde’s tensing of his shoulders, told him he was at least causing some kind of doubt in their mind, so he kept it up, bidding for more time. “My son is Johnny Lancer…not Madrid. Whoever told you that didn’t tell you the truth. And as for the money my son is supposed to bring home…I’m not that stupid. Plans change…our plans changed…just as it seems yours has changed.”
Taking another risk, Murdoch stood up, dropping the hand that Maria had kept in his. “You made your first mistake when you shot at me and my son, Scott. The injuries kept us from going to market. We…” he emphasized the word, “would have brought the money back. With our injuries and our inability to go with him, you wouldn’t really expect me to have my youngest son take on the kind of risk or burden you seem so hell bent on thinking, now would you?”
Kirk’s anger increased tenfold. He shoved Fred out of his way and stalked up to Craddock, “What if he’s tellin’ the truth? Then what!” Kirk demanded, egged on not only by Murdoch Lancer’s words but also by the conversation he and Fred had outside earlier.
Craddock put his left arm against Kirk’s chest and moved him from his path. He walked over to Murdoch and stood eye to eye with the man, searching his face, not giving any hint that he questioned anything in his mind of what Murdoch had to say. Bending down, he picked up a larger broken shard of the glass paperweight he thrown to the floor earlier. Lifting the jagged piece between them, Craddock rolled it around in his fingers, holding it up to where the light reflected and shot rainbows of prismatic colors in every direction like a finely cut diamond. Lifting his eyes over the object of his demonstration, Craddock said, “He’s lyin’ boys. He’d do anything to save his precious son and I know why.”
Clyde asked from behind both Craddock and Kirk, “Why boss?”
“Tell ‘em Fred,” Craddock said mildly, not taking his eyes off Murdoch.
Fred laughed gleefully, thinking Craddock had to be right since Murdoch Lancer was trying so hard to persuade them their boss was wrong, “Got a hold of that boy earlier today. The one Craddock sent me after while all of you were hold up waitin’ for night to come.”
“And what did our little friend Andy tell you Fred?” Craddock asked, backing up with a smile on his face, tumbling the broken shard over and over in his hand.
“Before or after I shook the teeth right out of his head?” Fred asked with a malicious grin on his face.
Teresa gasped and Maria let out a wail that would not be contained no matter how hard she tried. Murdoch’s hands curled into tight fist at his sides, his left arm aching with the pain of tensing the muscles in his healing arm.
“Said Johnny was coming home….Early.” Fred cackled, twisting his mustache, barely containing himself from dancing a jig right there in front of them all. He knew instantly, the same as the rest of them, that this was a piece of news the Lancers and their friends hadn’t expected them to know. He was glad now, that Craddock had sent him after the boy to find out what he knew after they had watched him through the spyglass and wide window of the estancia’s great room, give Murdoch the yellow telegraph from town.
Not knowing what the message contained, Craddock had sent him after the boy as soon as they watched him ride away from the ranch. Catching up to the gangly youth hadn’t been all that hard, pretending to be lost, the boy had happily offered his assistance, unaware when Fred sidled up to him on his horse, that his gun would be taken from him and that he would be backhanded unmercifully off his horse.
Fred had dismounted and picked Andy up by the scruff of his neck, the boy winded and scared out of his mind, demanding to know what the message was that he had been given to the Lancers. When Andy jerked from his grip and made as if to run, Fred had shaken the boy so hard that Andy had thought his teeth might fall out of his mouth. The stranger then threatened to kill him where he stood, pointing a cocked revolver at his temple. Not wanting to die, but not wanting to give away the message either, but not feeling that there were any choices, Andy told the man what he wanted to know.
The man shoved him away, slapped the rear of Andy’s horse and told the boy to run after him and not look back. Andy started running, following his horse, expecting at any moment to be shot in the back, finding himself eternally grateful when he dared to spare one courageous look over his shoulder after several long minutes had passed. The only thing he saw was a dark speck on the horizon, heading off in the direction of Lancer.
With shaky hands, Andy pulled his hat off his back and placed it on his head. Even from the distance he was at, he could tell that the stranger had thrown his gun to the ground. It lay dark and heavy on the ground, a stark contrast to the golden summer grass growing under the crush of his boots. Brushing away his fear, shifting his ever-loose fitting gun belt a little higher, Andy trudged back to where he was attacked, hoping the man wouldn’t return. Determined to get his gun, find his horse and high tail it back to Green River as fast as he could, hopefully to catch up with Val and let him know what had happened and what he thought might be happening even now. His fear for his friend made him move quick, ignoring the pain in his back shoulders from the fall, unknowing at the time that Val was already figuring out much of what Andy would have told him had Andy had the chance to catch up to him before he left with his posse.
“So you see, ‘old man’…I know your kid is on his way…whether he’s Madrid or just plain Lancer,” Craddock said. “Either way, he’s gonna get it just like this fancy doo-dad from your desk. He’ll have the money on him, cause that’s what you told him to do, what I heard you tell blondie over there he would do and…what I heard you tell that fancy bank owner you were gonna do.”
“Get over there and get the rope Kirk. I want all of ‘em tied up and gagged.” Craddock put the broken shard on the corner of Murdoch’s desk, “You understand why I have to do this…right?” Craddock arched his eyebrows at Murdoch and without waiting for an answer said, “Can’t have any distractions when Johnny boy comes walkin’ through the door.”
Craddock eyed the rest of his men, “Keep your guns on ‘em. If any of ‘em give Kirk a fight, shoot ‘em on the spot.” He grinned at Murdoch and then the rest of them, “Only no counting this time.”
Kirk strode across the room, glad to finally be doing something, eagerly anticipating the moment when he would get to string the rope around the woman who scraped his face so fiercely outside. He planned on making sure the woman was tied tight and miserable, wishing Craddock would just go ahead and give him the order to slit her throat now. He bent over when he got to the rope, barely getting it into the palm of his hand when a shot rang out and the sound of broken glass filled his ears from the other side of the room, making him drop it in a fleeting instant, causing him to turn swiftly on unbalanced feet before being slammed sideways onto the floor by an unexpected turn of events and a force he hadn’t reckoned on so soon.
Milo made his way to the front of the barn, the doors were not closed, but neither were they opened all the way. The light from inside cast a long golden sliver of light away from the entrance and inside he could hear the sound of voices.
Following Johnny’s instructions, Milo propped the rifle up against the barn just to the left of the doorway. Without an ounce of fear, he pulled aside the left door and walked into the barn bold as brass, stretching his arms to the roof and yawning as if he had just woken up.
Looking sleepy and doing his best to stumble as if still tired, Milo reached for a bucket hanging on a hook just inside the entryway, ignoring the fact that there were two men staring at him as if he had just lost his mind.
Rusty and Jake looked at each other, not recognizing Milo for who he was, thinking it must be some hand they missed when they originally reported to Craddock how many there were.
They watched as Milo took down the bucket and began to fill it with feed from a bin by the barn entrance, all the time with his back to them, apparently unaware that they were there.
Rusty pulled his gun and spoke, seeming to startle the big man, “Hey mister! What are you doin’ in here?”
Milo started, his big frame jumping at the sound of Rusty’s question, whirling around and dropping the bucket and the feed onto the ground, “Now look what you fellas done made me do. You ought not to scare a man like that when he’s half asleep,” he said, dropping to his knees and scooping up the mess he made.
“I asked yah what you’re doin’ in here?” Rusty asked again, irritated that the man wouldn’t look up at him.
“I hear yah,” Milo replied his tone picking up a mild trace of orneriness. “What’s it look like I’m doin’? Can’t a man get his work done a little early without bein’ assaulted for doin’ his job?” Milo looked up at them then, his face covered in shadow by the hayloft above his head, “Got me a hot one tonight fellas. She’s a real purty gal down at the Summer Rose House of Perdition…all the way from St. Louis.”
Milo scratched the top of his head, plopping the bucket up on end with his other hand, “Say…watcha got that there pistol trained on me for? If yah was worried I was a varmint of ill repute, just can put you’re worries away. I only come to feed the horses and stack the hay Mr. Lancer wants moved.”
Rusty and Jake looked at one another again, wondering what in the world they should do with this yokel who didn’t seem to have a clue about what was going on. He almost seemed too dumb to have to kill and yet he was a liability if he was to find the dead bodies left outside the barn in the back. Smiling at the big ox of a man, Rusty holstered his gun, deciding to have a little fun at the man’s expense before taking him out just like the others.
Jake looked at his brother like he was crazy, wondering why he didn’t just go ahead and either shoot the idiot or knife him one, “What are you doin’ Rusty?” he leaned over and asked in a rushed whisper.
Milo bent his head as if not hearing a thing they were saying and began scooping up the feed in the palms of his hands, dropping the scoops a little at a time into the bucket, slowing his movements and pretending to be a little clumsy while doing it. He knocked the bucket back over again when his meaty palms hit the side of the pail, “Gosh darn it all to Hell,” he complained when the bucket fell over spilling it’s half filled contents once again.
Rusty laughed, elbowing his brother in the side, “See what I mean. Dumb a as a bag of rocks.”
Jake smiled, thinking his brother was right, “Yeah he is kind of dumb.” Leaning his head to the side and pushing back the brim of his hat, he asked Milo, “So where’s the Summer Rose House of Perdition?” he asked Milo.
Milo looked up and grinned at them, “Why…it’s in Spanish Wells fellas. Don’t tell me yah ain’t never heard of Summer Rose House,” Milo retorted, dropping a handful of grain absentmindedly and scratching at the hair on his head. It stuck up then in several places, making him look even dumber than Rusty and Jake thought he was. “They got some fine ladies there. All soft and purty, just like the name.”
“What’s you’re name fella?” Rusty asked.
“Oh well…my mama…she named me Oliver. But my friends…well they just call me Ollie. You two can call me Ollie iffen yah want. You boys is right nice,” Milo told them smiling, really pressing the act he was playing for their benefit. He picked up the bucket again set it down on the ground, pressing on it as if to make it stay there in place, bringing a chuckle to Rusty and Jake.
“Hey…If you fellas are of a mind too and yah want to help me out with the hay in the loft, I can take yah down to the Summer Rose and introduce you polite like to Miss Lottie who runs the place. She’ll give yah the first round with the girls for free…long as yah pay for the second.”
Rusty lifted his eyebrows, “Yah don’t say.”
Milo laughed, “I do say.”
Jake asked, “Now why would she do that?”
Milo shrugged, pretending to be embarrassed, “She says I’m special.”
“Is that a fact?” Jake asked, elbowing his brother in the ribs.
Rusty laughed, elbowing Jake back, “Why does Miss Lottie think you’re special.”
Milo scooped more feed from the ground of the barn into the bucket, “Says I’m big and strong…says I got me a slow mind and a slow hand. She says her girls like that in a man.”
“Just how strong are yah Ollie?” Jake asked, doubling over with laughter at Milo’s description.
Milo stood up and tilted his head as if he were thinking real long and hard on the answer. “Guess I’m strong enough to lift a bale of hay over my head. Done that once or twice for the ladies. They seem to like watching me do that. In fact, they hang on to my arms and I can usually lift them up too. That’s cause they be little and all.”
“Maybe you could show us,” Rusty said.
Milo shook his head, “Naw…he wouldn’t like it if I showed yah.”
Rusty and Jake both looked puzzled at that statement. Rusty asked him, “Who wouldn’t like it?”
Milo pointed to the rear of the barn, “He wouldn’t.”
Rusty and Jake peered into the back shadows of the barn, not seeing anything at first, until a figure, a ghostly silhouette, started to emerge from the black abyss. The figure loomed before them, indistinct and unrecognizable, stepping ever closer, one booted step after another, the sound ominously forbidding with every heel to ground sound it made in the sudden quietness of the barn.
Milo moved back into the feed area, well away from the scene, watching from the dark corner of his sanctuary, feeling death enter the building just as surely as he could see Rusty and Jake Fletcher mesmerized by the approach of their impending doom.
Rusty and Jake were hypnotized by the specter that came at them slowly, momentarily paralyzed by the curiosity that kept them from drawing right away. By the time the faint light from the lanterns exposed who it was, it was too late. Both men reached for their guns, never having a chance to pull them completely from their holsters before two knives were sent flying, whistling through the air, end over end, until they were embedded to the hilt in Rusty and Jake Fletcher’s chests.
Before they had time to fall to the floor, Johnny stalked up to them, grabbing each knife with the hands that had thrown them, trembling with a new found rage that Milo was unaware of, “I found Hector and Ned,” he ground out between clenched teeth, “you both deserve worse than this.” The knives were pulled out, Johnny drawing downward as much as the weapons and bone would allow him to, leaving them momentarily standing on their feet.
The life that was left in Rusty and Jake Fletcher ebbed and died in front of Johnny’s eyes, but he saw none of it. His mind was a red haze of hate for what these men had done. While making his way around the back of the barn and to the farthest south side where the smithy building stood, Johnny had stumbled over the bodies of Hector Gonzales and Ned Rogers, two long time employees of his father’s.
He fell on his knees, tripping over the body of Hector Gonzales, his hands landing in the middle of the man’s blood soaked back, his keen eyes seeing Ned just two feet away, lying in a puddle of blood that was quickly soaking up into the earth. Pulling back from Hector, Johnny held his hands up in front of his face, his stomach churning, a part of him wishing with all his might that what he was experiencing, just another nightmare in a long line of frightening dreams that occasionally plagued him.
This wasn’t just a nightmare. He could touch, smell and taste this hellish dream without the fading moon to give him sight. His soul rebelled at the grizzly scene in front of him as the bile in his throat rose to a new level and threatened to make him lose what little control he had over his body. He swallowed hard, wiping his hands off on Hector’s trousers. “Estoy tan apesadumbrado. Estoy tan apesadumbrado. Perdóneme por favor,” Johnny apologized, pleading the dead man for forgiveness, suffocating from the stench of death as he wiped his hands dry, swallowing the bile that made him want to throw up, unwilling to defile Hector any more than he had to.
He stood up, thinking he had combat the churning of his stomach, only to find that the acrid smell of blood and death still clung to him with a persistent hold on his gut he couldn’t shake. He lunged for the corner of the smithy shop, very nearly tripping onto his knees again as he stepped hurriedly over Ned, and grasped for the building with two hands.
It came to him then, the vileness and cruelty of man, rising up in him like an active volcano. Leaning over, Johnny retched, his stomach heaving, his chest constricting with each spasm, tearing him up with a fire he couldn’t put out no matter how hard he tried. When he was done, he felt wiped out, dislocated from this world and sent spiraling headlong into another more evil plane of existence. Sweat beaded his forehead, soaked his shirt, making him tremble with exhaustion and gnawing guilt.
The boy in him that grew up with such hatred and malice, hurt and abuse, wanted to run away, to hide like he had done as a little child, the memories flooding his mind like an avalanche, bringing to his soul a desolation he thought well behind him now that he had his family to lean on and people to care about. But as he wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt and turned to where Hector and Ned lay dead on the ground, he knew he couldn’t run away or hide from the ugly truth this time. He was a man now, not some cowering child who couldn’t defend himself or his family. This time there would be no running or hiding…this time, he would fight back and keep his family safe, something he hadn’t been able to do for his mother.
With a new resolve and the bitter taste of death in his mouth, Johnny made his way into the back of the barn through a loose section of boarding he remembered his father having asked him to fix but hadn’t got around to, listening all the while to the conversation between Milo and the two men he knew had only minutes yet to live.
As Rusty and Jake Fletcher fell to the ground, dead before their heads hit the hard packed earth, Milo came out of his darkened corner, making his way to Johnny’s side. He didn’t think for one second that killing a man was easy and so respectfully he didn’t comment on the deaths of the two young men. Johnny seemed almost lost to him though and it worried him since there was still so much to do.
He took the knives out of Johnny’s hands, disturbed only a little by the lack of resistance and the stoic gaze of Johnny’s eyes. Milo tossed the knives well away, the clanking of the blades sounding loud to his ears as he turned back to Johnny and said, “We need to go Johnny. Our families need us.”
Johnny blinked once, swallowed hard and pulled his stare off Rusty and Jake. Nodding his head after one quick glance at Milo, he walked between the two lifeless bodies whose chest where stained crimson, never once looking back to see if Milo followed, knowing that he would.
When they got outside the barn, Johnny said, “Get the rifle.”
Milo picked the rifle up and caught up with Johnny before he got too far ahead, “I’ll get in place,” he told him running up beside the shorter man.
“I’ll move in when I hear the shot,” Johnny told him.
Milo left Johnny then, running off into the night, disappearing in the shadows of the large trees that surrounded the house, making his way to an area where he could see clearly into the home by the French doors on the west end where he knew the Lancers and his family were held hostage.
As Milo made his way to the far end of the house, Johnny stared at the front door. It was lit up from the lanterns hanging on either side of it. A false welcome if ever there was one, the warmth of the setting begging him to just walk up and open the door as if nothing were amiss inside. The entrance seemed to have a life of its own, growing in size, hurtling toward him only to be swiftly dragged back to its rightful place, time and time again. An illusion that made the palms of Johnny’s hands sweat, reminding him of the blood that stained every line and every crease of his skin, until he heard the sound of a rifle shot, his signal that it was time for the final showdown.
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