The Right Track
First released in the “Homecoming 2005 Lancer Convention Souvenir Fanzine”
from Yucca Flower Press, July 2005
Since the original release this story has been tweaked significantly for format and form –
but the tale itself really has stayed the same.
Thanks, as always, to AJ and Karen, my publishing pals.
L L L L L L L L
The heavily laden buckboard took a hard bounce across a
deep wheel rut scarred into the earthen road and the entire load shifted,
creating a cacophonous moment of mayhem as each piece of cargo made up its own
mind where to sit out the rest of the trip. Johnny Lancer was little more than
annoyed at the racket, but the buggy horse tied in front of the bank took
downright exception to the commotion behind him and began fighting for freedom.
Johnny stepped off the boardwalk and gave the startled animal a gentle pat,
crooning quietly until the horse finally calmed.
He couldn't blame the animal for being jumpy. The town of Green River seemed unusually overrun with local citizenry for a weekday, every person darting around like they couldn’t wait to be anyplace else but there. The throng pushed their way through stagnant air that grew ever more sultry beneath a cloudless sky and the blazing afternoon sun. But the heat did little to slow anyone’s pace, just kept them bubbling around like proverbial water in an un-watched pot.
Johnny was feeling increasingly edgy
himself. All he wanted was for Scott to finish up their business in the bank so
the brothers could get that cool beer they'd promised each other, then reclaim
their own supply-laden wagon and head back to the ranch.
‘Now who’s actin’ all restless?’ Johnny scuffed a pebble out from under his foot and reined in his impatience.
Johnny laid his forearms over the top of the hitching rail and leaned there languidly. As he casually surveyed the town, the former gun-for-hire pondered over how he'd trailed through a whole lot of places just like this over the years, but not a one had he come close to ever calling his "hometown." Green River didn't quite qualify yet either – but it was getting close. Johnny had lived back at Lancer for almost a year now and felt he knew every inch of the burgeoning hamlet and every person in the area. Trouble was, that knowledge went both ways, and everyone knowing him wasn't necessarily a good thing.
Being easily recognized had always been a double-edged sword to a man with Johnny Madrid Lancer's reputation – but lingering in one place too long was never recommended. It was still hard to trust anyone who dared title himself "friend," and knowing exactly where he could be found at any time might prove downright deadly.
Luckily Johnny found most of the area's residents were, if not welcoming, at least tolerant of having an ex-gun hawk living full-time in their midst. And those who absolutely didn't care for him or his former profession weren't particularly interested in trying to hide their distain. Knowing who considered his presence objectionable didn't bother Johnny – it simply made it easier to either steer clear of or face them head on, depending on the circumstances. Given his druthers, Johnny much rather preferred to know a snake as being a snake then find out while its fangs were already biting him in the . . .
Sharp eyes caught a curious movement down a ways on the opposite side of the street. Johnny couldn’t tell who it was, but the pretty flowered dress said “female,” and the considerable stack of packages she juggled cried “help.” He glanced back at the bank and found Scott still annoyingly occupied. Johnny gave the buggy horse one more pat, then made his way across the road.
As he neared the struggling miss, the top bundle of the package mountain began to slip. The more the woman fought to keep it in place, the more the rest of the pile shifted. Johnny bounded forward with two last long strides and snatched the troublesome parcel and two others before they toppled completely to the ground.
But misfortune was not totally avoided. Once revealed, the young woman turned out to be Miss Betty Jessup, daughter of one of Johnny Madrid’s most vocal detractors.
Young, petite, and on the skittish side, Betty was kind of shy, but a good friend of his sister Teresa. Johnny had met Betty plenty of times at town socials and such. But her father had made it perfectly clear that, regardless of his supposed friendship with Murdoch Lancer, he wanted nothing to do with a gunfighter, “retired” or not. To keep peace between the families, Johnny usually tried to avoid Betty and let the man bluster away – but that didn’t mean he liked Jessup or his attitude any. Johnny Madrid would have taught the old blowhard a hard lesson in manners well before now, but Johnny Lancer, for the most part, managed to hold his temper.
“Johnny!” The young woman peered nervously over the top of her remaining packages. She looked a little more than stunned.
Johnny had a fleeting notion that Betty
might actually share her father’s unprovoked animosity. But he really needn’t
have been concerned. Really. Betty gained control over her now
manageable stack of parcels, then stared intently into Johnny’s eyes . . . and
“Johnny,” she repeated breathlessly. “I mean, Mr. Lancer. I . . . thank you ever so much. I’m . . . I’m . . . well I’m just . . .”
Johnny couldn’t help but let loose a smile of his own over her awkward show of girlish infatuation. Betty’s face flushed as she realized how un-ladylike she appeared and her head dipped in unmistakable mortification.
The reaction had become all too familiar to both Johnny and Scott. Teresa’s female friends had a rather discomforting habit of getting all dreamy-eyed in the presence of the Lancer brothers. The women’s behavior created a domino effect that left the men feeling utterly embarrassed themselves.
Johnny took pity on the both of them and
claimed lead over the encounter. “It’s no trouble, Miss Jessup. I saw you were
havin’ a time of it all the way from the bank. Surprised no one else stepped up
ta lend a hand.”
Betty’s eyes glanced furtively up to his, but she hastily averted her gaze toward the bank. “That’s just where I’m heading. That’s my buggy out front.”
“I’d be pleased ta help you get these things packed away . . . if you don’t mind the company?”
“Oh no!” she blurted, too quickly, as she briefly caught eyes with Johnny again before she looked away demurely. “I mean . . . well . . . I would indeed appreciate your assistance, Mr. Lancer.” She finished with a very proper and reserved air, with only a residual smattering of puerile babbling.
Johnny clamped down on another smile. “It’d be my pleasure.”
The pair strolled slowly down the boardwalk as they chatted idly about harmless topics . . . like the weather, and how Teresa was faring. Johnny thought their pace could have been a little swifter, but he kept his opinion politely to himself, his amusement with Betty’s dawdling steps barely contained.
Eventually the street was safely
crossed, and Betty’s packages were carefully stowed in the buggy. Johnny
grasped the young woman’s hand in his, prepared to help her step up into the
carriage. That is, until he heard his name called – in a manner Johnny was just
never going to appreciate as long as he might live.
Betty stared over his shoulder, her eyes wide in apprehension. But Johnny knew the threat wasn’t anywhere near as menacing as it could have been. ‘Be thankful for small favors,’ he thought ironically.
Johnny turned slowly to find Betty’s father, Fredrick Jessup, standing on the bank's porch, fluffed out like a male turkey ready to spar, exploiting his large bulk and imposing stature to appear stern and commanding. Johnny easily saw through the façade to the sniveling weasel of a man he knew lay just under the surface of all that self-important show. But he was once again determined to remain polite and maintain an even temper – if only for Betty’s sake.
“It’s Lancer, Mr. Jessup,” Johnny returned evenly.
“I know who you are.” Jessup’s reply reeked with derision. He left his perch and hurried over to the buggy. “My daughter does not need help from the likes of you.”
“Stay quiet.” Jessup rebuked his daughter tersely as he squeezed his mass between her and Johnny. Betty’s head ducked in practiced submission.
Johnny could handle just about anything Jessup could spit at him, but he hated the way the man talked to Betty. He had his daughter cowed, and Johnny never did like a man who lorded over a woman. Being her father didn’t excuse the abrasiveness of the behavior.
“You can leave now.” Jessup glowered at Johnny contemptuously.
Johnny didn’t say a word back . . . but he didn’t move, either. He just matched the man, eye to eye.
Jessup didn’t last long. Not many a man did when trying to face down Johnny Madrid. Johnny never had to do much to make another man look away. There was just something about his stare that let another man know, in no uncertain terms, “Not today. Not ever.” Jessup acknowledged the subtle but very real threat with an embarrassed clearing of his throat . . . as he predictably turned away.
Johnny hadn’t been in the mood to start the confrontation, and he was even less inclined to keep it going. He caught Betty peering over at him, girlish infatuation replaced by a fearful concern. ‘He’s her father, Madrid . . . what else would you expect?’ Johnny softened and offered up a genuine smile. “Ma’am, you have a nice day now.” He touched a couple of fingers to his hat brim and dipped his head politely.
Betty spared a glance at her father, and in a surprising show of defiance boldly said, “Thank you for your help, Mr. Lancer. Please ask Teresa to drop by.”
Proud of her audacity, Johnny’s smile widened. “I’ll do that. You take care.” Without a bit of acknowledgment for Fredrick Jessup, Johnny turned to leave and spotted Scott on the bank’s porch.
“’bout time,” Johnny snipped as he stepped up next to his brother.
“What did Jess . . .”
“Let it lie, brother,” Johnny cut Scott off. “Let’s go.” He stepped away and led a brisk pace down the boardwalk.
It took more than a few of Scott’s long strides to catch up to Johnny, but he finally matched his brother step for step. The saloon was passed without so much as a glance. “I thought we were going to get a beer before heading back?”
“Not interested,” was Johnny’s clipped reply. In silence, Johnny marked the distance of three whole storefronts with hard pounding steps.
“You’ll have to teach me how to do that.” Scott’s remark held an exaggerated admiration.
“Do what?” Johnny asked distractedly,
wearily, his anger giving way to a too familiar disappointment.
“Put up with the likes of Jessup,” Scott said with all seriousness.
Johnny’s stop was so abrupt Scott passed him two paces before he finally turned, crossed his arms comfortably, and waited.
A dozen ways to respond flashed through Johnny’s mind, but he could tell Scott didn’t really need an answer. He was discreet in his empathy, but Johnny knew his perceptive brother realized all too well how the half-breed ex-gunfighter was often regarded.
With a sigh, Johnny released the last of his resentment. “Just savin’ money on bullets.”
Scott smiled. “Sure you don’t want that beer?”
Johnny squinted back at Scott with one eye. “You buyin’?”
“Seeing as how I’m the only one who went to the bank today, I would guess that I have to.”
“Then I want a beer,” Johnny said. The subject of Jessup’s intolerance efficiently covered and closed, the brothers made their way down the planked sidewalk, back toward the saloon.
L L L L L L L L
Johnny gave a little jerk to the lead rope, and the horse finally agreed to follow him out of the barn into the late afternoon sun. Johnny let the limping animal set its own pace as he appraised the bay’s gait. By the time the pair reached a small outer corral the man was satisfied that the wrappings around the horse’s injured leg were going to stay in place. Johnny opened the gate and led the horse inside. He slipped off the halter and gave the big bay a quick pat on the neck as he left the enclosure.
As he closed the gate, Johnny spotted a rider in the distance, just galloping under the Lancer arch. He set the halter over a post and rolled down the sleeves on his faded red shirt as he walked forward to meet their visitor. “Scott,” Johnny called into the barn as he passed the open door.
Scott was standing next to Johnny by the time Val Crawford, the Sheriff of Green River, reined up beside them.
“Whadda ya want, Val?” Johnny asked the lawman before he completely stopped.
“Good afternoon ta you, too,” Crawford groused as he dismounted.
"You been asked, but you don’t never pay us no social visits . . . so whadda ya want?” Johnny pressed.
“Val?” Scott’s simple question sounded decidedly more polite.
“Glad yer here, Scott.” The lawman acknowledged the older Lancer son with a nod. “There’s been trouble. Betty Jessup was attacked on her way home today.”
The brothers shared a quick look. Scott voiced their concern. “Is she okay?”
“She’s shook up a might, but wasn’t as bad as it could’a been. She was comin’ back from the Murphy place, an’ the hand that was s’pposed ta stay with her figured he had somethin’ better ta do . . . rode off an’ left her fer a bit.” Val shook his head in disgust. “He caught back up ta her before . . . well . . .” The lawman began to fidget – badly. “She’s still got her . . . aw hell!” He pulled the hat off his head and slapped it against his leg. “She’ll be okay with time.”
“She know the man?” Johnny asked, his impatience with the lawman’s awkwardness patent.
“No!” Val shot back. He ran a dirty hand through his hair, and then reset his hat with a swift tug. “She was so rattled she couldn’t tell me much, other than he weren’t no local boy. I got that no ‘ccount ranch hand to show me where it happened. He never saw the man hisself. Tracks are still fresh, so I’m gettin’ a posse tagether ta go after the varmint. Yer the best tracker I know, Johnny. Will ya come?”
Johnny hadn't seen Betty Jessup since their encounter in
Green River over two months before. But he could readily imagine how terrified
the petite young woman must have been out there on the trail, alone and being
manhandled by a contemptible stranger. The thought made him angry. Very angry.
"Don't need a big posse for one man, Val. I'll get ‘im."
"Jessup's payin’ a reward, so . . ."
"I ain't hirin’ out for this," Johnny spat, his voice rising. "That could'a been Teresa out there. I ain't lettin' no wanderin' piece of sin move on to try it again."
"I'm going with you," Scott said resolutely.
Johnny appraised his brother closely as he tempered his ire. “Fine. You do all right, but you got a lot ta learn ‘bout trackin’ in this kind of country. Be good practice.”
“Whatever you say, teacher,” Scott said wryly.
An abrasive snort busted out of Val that drew a grin from Scott and a sideways glare from Johnny. “Ugliest schoolmarm I ever saw!” The sheriff hooted with laughter.
“Come on, you worthless excuse for a lawman.” Johnny shoved Val forcefully toward the hacienda. The sheriff stumbled forward, dragging his horse behind. “Might as well let Maria feed your sorry hide while we’re gettin’ supplied,” Johnny said. “Just don’t get too comfortable. I wanna get on that trail tonight.”
Johnny got absolutely no argument.
L L L L L L L L
Scott crouched to take another close look at the tracks. Val hovered nearby and started to fidget again, his hat off, then on . . . hands in his pockets, then on his hips . . . moving in close, then backing off. The distracting movement clawed on Scott’s nerves.
“Can ya catch ‘im, Johnny?” the sheriff asked.
Scott spared his brother a glance, but Johnny merely continued to sit calmly atop Barranca, his arms casually crossed over the saddle horn, Charlemagne’s reins lightly gripped in his hands.
“Scott?” Johnny deferred the question evenly, as he gazed at Val in silent but obvious displeasure.
The lawman’s persistent questioning was getting to Scott. Val continued to stubbornly ignore the fact that Johnny had commanded Scott to take lead as head tracker. The elder Lancer son hated to admit it, but his own confidence in his tracking abilities was now severely waning as well. “You sure about this, brother?” He squinted up at Johnny as the sun began to descend in the sky behind him.
“Yep,” Johnny said decisively. “I ain’t leadin’ this posse, but I won’t let you do nothin’ stupid either. Now answer the crabby old man.”
Val let out an indignant huff and placed his hands on his hips in a show of feeble vexation. Scott merely smiled, Johnny’s words instantly bolstering his resolve. “We’ll catch him, Val,” Scott answered the lawman as he headed toward his horse. Johnny easily flipped him Charley’s reins.
“Direction he’s heading it might take us a day or two to find him, but we will.” Scott mounted up, and offered one last assurance. “Expect to see us sometime on Thursday.”
The sheriff took a step forward, tipped his hat back and faced them. “Didn’t bring no badges with me, but ya’ll are hereby deputies of Green River. Don’t shoot the varmint ‘less ya have ta . . . an’ if ya do, make sure ya get ‘im somewhere where it’ll hurt real bad.”
Scott shook his head at the lawman’s raw humor, and then turned to the man beside him. “You ready?”
“Yep,” Johnny said. “Let’s get this done.”
Scott prodded his horse, and Johnny followed.
L L L L L L L L
Leading Johnny around was disconcerting, and it took Scott a couple hours of miles to figure out why. It wasn’t that he couldn’t hold his own as a tracker, and he’d certainly commanded men as a lieutenant during the war. But tracking and scouting had been a part of Johnny’s livelihood for years, so Scott just naturally deferred to his younger brother when the need arose. To have Johnny purposely following behind on this trail left the elder Lancer son feeling strangely off balance.
For the moment, the man the Lancers followed was plainly interested in doing nothing more than putting miles between himself and the scene of the crime. He moved fast and left tracks that were plentiful and obvious. Scott remained vigilant despite the apparent ease of the chase, and managed to cover a respectable distance before the sun completely faded and the brothers were forced to stop.
Scott’s first real decision was whether or not to run a cold camp for the night – a choice the ex-cavalry man respected as not being quite as easy to make as one might think. A lot of factors had to be considered – number of men being tracked versus number of men in the posse, terrain being covered, expected length of the chase, vicinity of settlements where a man might get lost in a crowd . . . Sight of a campfire might keep a desperate man moving despite the darkness in order to lengthen his lead – or it could draw more dangerous prey back in ambush.
There was no doubt in Scott’s mind that the man knew he was being followed. A cup of hot coffee would have gone down real nice in the chilling air, but the brothers ate their dinner cold. Scott didn’t want to do anything that would give away how close he and Johnny might be to catching up. He’d told Val they’d be back on Thursday. Lancer stubbornness and pride had Scott determined to keep to that deadline.
Johnny pulled first watch, and Scott tried to sleep. But his mind repeatedly wandered back to something his brother had said earlier.
“Johnny.” Scott whispered into the pitch-black night, no moon overhead to reveal where his brother sat lookout.
The quiet reply came as a surprise from directly behind him, Scott embarrassingly unaware that Johnny had taken up that position. The ex-gunfighter’s ability to tread silently was notorious – and wholly unsettling. ‘Better get Johnny to teach me that little trick as well.’
“Back there with Val . . .” Scott hesitated, and Johnny remained still. “You said you wouldn’t let me do anything stupid. Is there something specific I do when tracking that I shouldn’t?”
“No more than most other men, brother,” Johnny answered softly.
Scott turned and propped himself up on an elbow. “What do you mean?”
It took a moment for a reply to come. “You pay too much mind to what’s in plain sight. To track careful but fast, you gotta learn how to consider the obvious without thinkin’ ‘bout it, all while lookin’ for what’s really important. It’s always the sign you miss that’ll come back an’ bite ya. If the man you’re chasin’ wants ta have a little fun, he’ll drop all kind of easy sign ta get ya comfortable . . . then double back and make you wish you’d been payin’ more attention.
“Some men need to get away, and just try to make it hard for you to follow. But it’s those ones who really don’t care if you catch up to ‘em or not that you gotta always be lookin’ out for, ‘cause they’ll teach you the hard way what you did wrong.”
The inference was sobering. “You’re speaking from experience,” Scott said.
Again, it took a moment for the reply to come. “Learned from some of the best, brother . . . some of the very best. And it wasn’t always me who paid the price for the lesson.” The night hid his expression, but the pain and regret in Johnny’s voice was clear.
Johnny’s tone was more optimistic as he acknowledged, “That’s why you’re out here, Scott. Better for you to learn to rope on a calf than a longhorn steer. The man we’re trackin’ I suspect might have a trick or two in ‘im, but he ain’t the best you’ll trail. Every man teaches you a little more, though, and if you’re smart, you’ll remember for the next time. I heard tell you take education kind of serious, so I reckon you’ll learn somethin’ over the next couple of days.”
Scott smiled into the darkness. “Yes. I do believe I’ve picked up a thing or two already.”
“Get some sleep, Scott. I’ll be wakin’ you soon enough.”
“Goodnight, Johnny.” Scott lay down onto his side. Sleep would come now, knowing that his brother had his back.
L L L L L L L L
Scott was indeed quick to learn, and Johnny’s advice paid off. When they picked up the man’s tracks again in the morning, Scott took swift note of the easily observable, then started looking for more obscure signs. Just before midday he found one, and led Johnny away from the obvious trail.
“Sure you want to go this way?” Johnny questioned, even as he followed along smoothly.
Charley was reined to an easy stop. Scott turned in the saddle, wearing a self-satisfied smirk. “Yes,” he said with all confidence.
Johnny merely smiled back as his horse stomped a foot impatiently. “Let’s get on with it, then. Barranca seems to think you’re right.”
Scott urged Charley onward. The man’s tracks soon became plain again, but Scott remembered his brother’s warning and fought off an urge to get “comfortable.”
It grew clear that the man knew the area. He continued to move quickly along a carefully chosen path that led through terrain that was hard to track over. Thick tree cover with tender foliage was repeatedly skirted in deference to hard packed earth, rocky passages, and creeks and streams.
“He ain’t bad,” Johnny said as the brothers searched yet another riverbank for tracks.
But Scott held his own against the man. Only once did he take the wrong trail and have to double back. Scott promptly realized the error and pivoted Charley sharply to set them back on track. “Sorry, Johnny,” he muttered as he circled past his brother’s horse.
“Don’t beat yourself up,” Johnny said as he turned Barranca. “Learn from it and move on. You won’t ever make that mistake again, I guarantee it.”
The day went long, and Scott knew they were gaining ground. But the terrain had grown treacherous, and the light was fading fast. Scott reined Charley to a stop. Johnny pulled Barranca beside him, and waited patiently. The words came hard for Scott. “We have to stop.”
“You doubt your decision,” Johnny said. “Why?”
Scott smiled wryly. “Because I think you’d go on.”
“Then why won’t you?” Johnny was serious.
Scott looked up at the sky, then forward to the trail in front of them. “We’re getting close . . . real close. But it’s getting dark. We won’t catch him if one of our horses breaks a leg, and over this ground that’s a real possibility. He finally seems to be slowing down, which could mean he either no longer thinks he’s being trailed, or he has friends or family nearby to help protect him. Riding on tonight is too dangerous, especially when we’ll most likely catch up to him early tomorrow morning.”
Scott paused in contemplation. “We’re stopping.” There was no question in his voice.
“I gonna have ta eat cold beans again tonight?” Johnny merely asked.
Scott scanned the hilly area that surrounded them, and spied a stand of trees that formed a thick canopy near to the ground, directly in front of a trio of huge boulders. He pointed toward the spot. “Think you can build a small fire over there that won’t smoke?”
Johnny followed his brother’s finger, then turned back to face him as he pulled his hat off, held onto the stampede strings and let it slide down onto his back. “I like the way you think, Mr. Lancer. You take care of the horses?”
“I certainly will, Mr. Lancer,” Scott replied, his confidence completely restored.
L L L L L L L L
Two nights sleep on hard, inhospitable ground made the brothers more than ready to catch up to Betty Jessup’s attacker and force him back to a welcome and waiting jail cell in Green River. Both men were up with the rising sun.
Scott stopped Johnny just before they crested a rock-strewn hill and motioned for quiet. The pair dismounted and walked up the remainder of the hillside to stand behind the cover of a large oak at the top. They looked down upon a small rickety cabin that had seen its better days some years past. The shelter was being reclaimed by the forest, as a mixture of tall lush trees and abundant undergrowth enfolded the hovel in a smothering embrace.
The horse that had invited Scott’s attention grazed in a small corral reassembled from rotted pieces of previously hewn rails. There were no other signs of life.
“You cut around and watch the back and far side. I’ll take the door.” Scott moved off to descend the hill without a glance back.
“Hold on.” Johnny placed a restraining hand on Scott’s arm. “You just hold on now. What makes you think he’s still alone down there?”
It only took one quick look at Johnny to check Scott’s annoyance. The younger Lancer had a mischievous grin plastered on his now stubbled face, purely relishing his role as instructor.
“Because, teacher,” Scott accentuated the title, “there obviously hasn’t been anyone living here for a long time and we haven’t found any other tracks. There’s only one horse in sight and we’re still in the middle of nowhere. I also plan on making absolutely sure once we get closer.
“Advice with tracking . . . I’ll take all I can get. But raiding a building . . . that I know. Satisfied?” Scott raised an eyebrow and smirked.
Johnny’s grin widened. “Well, I reckon’ you’ll pass . . .” he reseated his hat atop his head, “. . . that is, if you don’t get your head blown off walkin’ through the front door. Think you can manage that?” Now it was Johnny’s turn to favor Scott with an impish smirk of his own.
“Just get around the back.” Scott gave a vigorous push on Johnny’s shoulder.
Teasing aside, the brother’s each took up their assigned position cautiously. Johnny gave an all-clear sign. With gun drawn Scott listened carefully, then took a step back and kicked in what remained of the aged front door.
Scott followed the movement of splintering wood as it flew into the room and spied a startled man trying madly to disentangle himself from a mess of blankets tossed on the floor for bedding. “Don’t move,” Scott ordered, his revolver firmly trained on the man.
Desperate, hard of hearing, stupid, or all three, the man ignored Scott as he pulled himself up onto his knees and wrapped a hand around his own weapon. Johnny’s handgun immediately made an entrance through the long-glassless window opening right above the man. “I’d do what my brother says if I were you,” he drawled.
The man looked back to find Johnny’s gun staring him square in the face. Inescapably cornered, he gave up and raised his hands. Then a never-ending line of excuses started. “Look, I don’t know why you two been followin’ me, but I ain’t got no money,” he declared loudly.
“I have him, Johnny. Come on around.” Scott ignored the man and took a step further into the room.
“You got no call to be pointin’ a gun at me, mister,” the man blustered. “I don’t even know you.”
“We’re the men who are arresting you for assaulting a woman back in Green River,” Scott said calmly as Johnny entered behind him and crossed the room.
The man watched Johnny take his gun, then lowered his hands and gave an exaggerated shake of his head. “I don’t know who you think I am, but I ain’t never been near no Green River.”
Scott shared a look of incredulity with Johnny. “Two days on your trail says otherwise. Now stand up,” Scott ordered.
The man obeyed and stood. Cleaned up a might he could have been mistaken for Scott – about the same age and almost as tall. But his considerable bulky muscle mass looked to be turning flaccid from lack of use. Dirty and disheveled, from fair-hair to scuffed boots, he had the classic appearance of a long-time professional drifter – just the sort who might show up in a town to look for short-term work or cause a bit of trouble before moving on.
“There’s gotta be a mistake here,” the man changed tack. “Let’s be reasonable.” His outstretched arms begged for concessions. “You gotta know you have the wrong man. I would never harm no woman.” He was oozing charm and a cocky self-confidence, appealing for belief and making himself sound misjudged and honorable.
“That’s enough,” Johnny snapped. “Get outside. Now!”
Scott heard a familiar change come over his brother in the timber of his voice and cadence of his speech. The man noticed a difference too, and glanced over his shoulder to find a very angry Johnny Madrid with his gun pointed at him. Scott wasn’t surprised that the man put his excuses on hold, raised his hands, and obeyed.
But his compliance didn’t last long. Outside, Scott led the way over to the makeshift corral. “Saddle up,” Scott commanded.
“That ain’t my horse.” The man made his claim as he waved one of his equally talkative hands dismissively toward the animal. “Never seen it before.” He planted his hands firmly on his hips and dared the Lancer brothers to dispute him.
Once again, Scott and Johnny could only stare at each other in utter dismay over the stranger’s outrageous audacity. Scott took a firm step toward the man. “Mister, since you’ve already admitted that you know we were following you, I’m just going to ignore that lapse of memory and move on. Now saddle that horse!”
Johnny reached over and grabbed the saddle blanket off a rail and heaved it at the man’s chest. He caught it and coughed and waved away the dust that exploded out of the cloth, instantly clouding the air.
“I’ll saddle ‘im . . .” Cough. “But anyone comes after us and . . .” Cough. Cough. “. . . accuses me of stealing . . .” Cough. “. . . I’m tellin’ ya’ll made me . . .” Cough. “. . . take ‘im.” Cough.
“Unbelievable,” Scott uttered under his breath with an absolutely flabbergasted shake of his head. He glanced at Johnny and saw a totally different reaction. His younger brother was cool, calm . . . and still overtly Madrid. Whatever the man’s game was, Scott pitied him if he kept it up. Because Scott had no trouble reading this sign clearly – Johnny had obviously witnessed the clever ruse before, and wasn’t buying it for a minute. The only question was, how long would Johnny put up with it? Scott didn’t think he really wanted to know the answer. The man was already severely trying both their tolerance, and it was anyone’s guess as to whose temperament would win out.
The trip back was certainly going to prove to be educational in a whole other manner.
L L L L L L L L
As promised, mid-morning on Thursday the door to the Green River jail was flung open. From behind his desk Val looked up astounded as a man was pushed forcefully into the room. “I ain’t . . .” was all the man could utter before the walls shuddered from a thundering call.
“Shut up!” both Lancer brothers cried out simultaneously.
A flurry of activity and arguments
immediately followed that left the sheriff reeling.
The man stumbled a few feet. He caught sight of Val and his authoritative badge as he lurched across the floor. His performance started as soon as he recovered his balance. “Sheriff, am I glad ta see you. These two men done dragged me here against my will for no reason . . .”
To Val’s surprise, ever-composed Scott cut the man off with a resounding slam of the front door. “He’s the one who attacked Betty, Val,” he said loudly.
“No I ain’t!” came the swift retort as the man took up station right in front of Val’s desk. “They even made me steal a horse,” he added indignantly, gesticulating wildly, waving his hands accusingly in the general direction of the Lancer brothers.
Johnny stopped an angry pacing across the length of the room, and shot over to the desk. His boots stomped and his spurs jangled wildly. “It was his horse, Val, make no mistake about that,” he demanded. “This snake has an excuse for everything, and we’ve heard every one of them! If you’re smart you won’t listen to a word he says.”
“That ain’t fair, sheriff,” the man said. “I gotta right to be heard, and I’m sayin’ I ain’t done a thing they accuse me of!” He accentuated his claim with a couple of firm finger pokes to the top of Val’s desk.
Scott had taken up Johnny’s pacing of the office floorboards, but he pivoted sharply and managed to reach the desk just as his brother turned away in disgust. Johnny kicked a chair out of his way as he moved to stand by the front door. The chair teetered precariously for a couple of seconds before miraculously settling upright, several feet from the desk.
“We – got – the – right – man.” Scott
emphasized each word as he spat them directly into the face of the man both he
and Johnny looked ready to kill.
The man stared back brazenly. “No – you – didn’t.”
Val looked from face to face as the men hovered angrily over his desk. He glanced over at Johnny’s tense form by the door. Then he made the mistake of opening his own mouth. “You sure he’s the right man, Johnny?” he asked tentatively.
The Lancer brothers faced each other, then simultaneously faced the sheriff and again with one voice shouted, “YES!”
The man grew a self-satisfied, cat-that-just-ate-the-last-bird grin.
Val stood and backed away from the
palpable ire he’d drawn from the Lancers. “Well I’m sorry! I gotta ask,” he
Johnny took a couple of steps toward Val’s desk. The man dropped his grin and moved warily to the far side.
His tone carefully measured, Johnny
said, “He’s who the tracks led to, Val. Now you lock him up before Scott and I
do it for you.”
Val didn’t take orders from many men, but he knew Johnny hadn’t made a simple request. He’d seen that look on his friend’s face before, and wasn’t about to argue with him in such a dark mood. The man opened his mouth to speak again, but Val cut him off quickly. “If you know what’s good fer you, you’ll shut up . . . right now.”
The man glanced at Johnny – and his mouth snapped closed. Val led him to the back room and into a cell.
As he warily stepped back into the office, the Sheriff of Green River found Johnny with a shoulder leaned up against the front door and his arms crossed, staring straight ahead, his face now unreadable. Scott was seated on the previously abused chair by Val’s desk, elbows on his knees, his head down.
Val dared another question . . . cautiously. “He give you much trouble out on the trail?”
“Just that unlimited nonsense.” Scott answered without looking up.
His backwoods speech and disheveled appearance was deceiving . . . Val was actually a good sheriff, and a very perceptive man. “Look. I really don’t doubt you boys myself. But if he’s gonna keep that up, he’s gonna have more than me askin’ a whole lot of questions.”
“He’ll keep it up all right,” came the quiet reply from the doorway. “That’s his game.”
Val glanced over at his friend, who now looked absolutely exhausted. Scott wasn’t faring much better. The lawman figured there was a hell of a story to be had about this capture, but he knew the Lancers well enough to recognize that the tale would have to be heard some other time.
There was silence between the men for a minute, Val first to offer his thoughts. “Only way I can see to stop them questions before they start is to get Betty Jessup in here to identify him. Once she eagles him and brands him dog, won’t much matter what he jabbers on about.”
“Only problem with that,” Johnny said, “is the minute he lays eyes on her he’s gonna start that foolishness. Next thing you know he’ll have her so lost and confused her own father won’t even believe her.”
“Johnny’s right,” Scott said quietly as he finally sat up, leaned back, and crossed his arms over his chest. “She won’t have a chance.”
Val lowered his head, loathe having to state the obvious. “Well . . . can’t be helped. If I’m gonna hold ‘im ‘til the judge gets here, she’s gonna have ta identify ‘im.” He faced the other men and added, “That’s the only way I can see ‘round this. I’ll send a runner out ta their ranch right away . . . see if Jessup’ll bring her in.”
Scott turned slightly in his chair, and looked back at Johnny. Johnny returned the gaze and said, “I’d like to be here when they come.”
With a slight nod from Scott, both brothers turned back toward the sheriff. Val wasn’t sure what Johnny had in mind, but he didn’t often argue with the man’s reasoning. “You caught ‘im, so I got no problem with that.”
Scott stood and scratched at his face. “Soon as our horses are cared for, I want a bath, a shave, and a good meal while we’re waiting.”
Johnny’s brooding mood finally broke with a laugh. “Figures you’d find a good way to spend the time. I want a drink, too.”
Val followed Scott to the door. “Go on then and get your ‘chores’ done. I’ll send someone ta fetch ya when I hear if the Jessup’s can come taday.”
The brothers merely nodded and went along to cleanse themselves of the trail.
L L L L L L L L
Val’s runner caught up with the cleaned and shaved Lancers just as they were headed into the town’s best saloon. The excited teenage boy eagerly reported, “Sheriff Crawford said ta find ya and tell ya that Mr. Jessup said he’d bring Miss Betty in straight away. Should be here in ‘bout an hour or so.”
“Thanks, Virgil.” Scott pulled out a coin and handed it to the boy. “You tell Val we’ll be there.”
Virgil flipped the coin appreciatively in his hand, then held it up like a trophy before the Lancers. “I’ll do it right away. Thanks, Mr. Lancer. You can count on me!”
Despite his assurances, the kid made no sign of moving. “Go on then, Virgil,” Johnny said with amusement. “Get it done.”
“Yes, sir!” Virgil said, then turned too fast, jumbled his feet and practically tumbled off the porch. Without turning around the young man called back over his shoulder, “I’m going!”
Their laughter barely restrained, Scott and Johnny entered the saloon, eager to finish their “chores.”
L L L L L L L L
Cleaned, shaved, fed, and having enjoyed a couple of nice cool beers – each – the Lancer brothers appeared back at the jail as scheduled. The Jessup’s arrived nearly ten minutes later.
The mood was apparent the instant father and daughter stepped into the room. Fredrick Jessup was all hardness and purpose. Betty on the other hand practically had to be dragged into the building, her body tense and steps shuffling. Johnny didn’t think it possible, but she looked even more petite than usual, her distress making her appear fragile and vulnerable. She kept her head lowered, her eyes hidden, as if she were afraid or too embarrassed to let anyone look upon her. An angry bruise darkened the whole left side of her chin. The injury acted like a beacon of evidence against the man in the cells and demanded justice for Betty.
Fredrick Jessup closed the door behind his daughter, then nodded toward the Lancer brothers standing shoulder to shoulder beside Val’s desk. “Scott. John. I’d like to thank you for tracking the man down who attacked my daughter.”
That was the extent of Fredrick Jessup’s acknowledgement for the Lancers.
Turning his attention to Val, Mr. Jessup gruffly demanded, “Let’s get on with this, Sheriff Crawford. Show us the man so my daughter can identify him.”
A whimper emanated from Betty, and she took a step backward. Whether she moved consciously or unconsciously, Johnny, Scott or Val couldn’t tell, but at least they each noticed. Mr. Jessup seemed totally oblivious to his daughter’s abject anguish with having to be anywhere near the jail – or the man being held there.
“Mr. Jessup, first I’d like to tell you a bit ‘bout the man . . .” Val tried to explain.
“I needn’t know a thing about him, other than if the right man has been apprehended. That’s why my daughter was brought here. Now let’s get on with this.” Jessup grabbed Betty’s arm and pulled her toward the cells.
Johnny couldn’t bear the man’s insensitivity another moment. “Val, can I ask Betty a question before she sees him?”
The request stopped both father and daughter. Mr. Jessup was clearly piqued. Betty glanced up briefly, her sad eyes tinged with a bit of cautious expectation and even hope.
Val and Scott both stared curiously toward Johnny. “Sure,” Val said. “I got no problem with that.”
Of course, Jessup did. “Excuse me, John,” he harrumphed, “but Betty has nothing to say to you. We’d just like to get this over with and go home.”
Johnny took a step toward Fredrick Jessup, and matched the man’s disapproving gaze, eye to eye. “It’s just one question,” Johnny stated quietly . . . but clearly leaving no room for refusal.
Jessup tried to remain firm, but wavered quickly. With an embarrassed clearing of his throat, he turned away and gave in with a clipped, “Fine.”
Johnny rounded the desk and approached Betty. “Miss Jessup, perhaps you’d be more comfortable if you sat down for a moment . . . over by the window.”
Betty glanced up ever so briefly, and followed Johnny’s outstretched arm. He was indicating a chair clear across the room, far away from the jail cells. With her head down she moved swiftly and sat down nervously.
Johnny lowered himself to Betty’s level and settled on a knee in front of her. He spoke gently with a soothing tone. “Betty, I know this must be pretty hard for you . . . having to come here to look on the man who hurt you. And I bet you’re not real eager to see him again.”
Her eyes lifted, full of agreement and fear, but then she hid them again. Johnny knew he was on the right track, and doggedly kept going. “I got a very important question for you Betty, and you don’t have to look up at all to answer. Okay?”
With a small nod for response, Johnny said, “I’m gonna hold out my hand, and I want you to stare at it, Betty. You stare at it real hard. I’m not gonna touch you. Do you understand?”
Again she nodded. Making sure it would be clearly within her view, Johnny held out his right hand with the palm down. “Betty, you look at the back of my hand real close now. Don’t think of nothin’ else but my hand. All right?”
Another nod. Johnny let a moment go by, then very softly said, “Betty, I know the man touched you . . .”
Betty started to sob, but she didn’t look up and Johnny continued quickly. “I don’t need to know how he touched you, or where. What I want to know is, how is my hand different from the man who attacked you? Just look at my hand . . . keep lookin’ at it, and tell me how my hand is different from his.”
She continued to sob but, with amazing strength of will for a traumatized young woman, kept looking at Johnny’s hand.
“This is nonsense. Let’s get . . .”
His attention on Betty, Johnny didn’t know if it was Scott or Val’s doing, but Fredrick Jessup’s protest was abruptly cut short with a sharp, “Shh . . . !”
Suddenly a deep gasp emanated from Betty, and a hand flew to her mouth. Her head rose, and those previously hidden sorrow-filled eyes stared into Johnny’s with amazement.
Johnny remained focused and met her gaze unwaveringly as he demanded, “Say it Betty. What’s different?”
She began hesitantly, but quickly grew more confident. “He . . . he had a scar. Red and jagged . . . kind of like a lightning bolt. Running from his pointing finger all the way up to his wrist!”
Johnny lowered his hand to his knee, and offered Betty one of his warmest smiles. He turned briefly and asked, “That good enough to hold him, Val?”
Sporting a big grin of his own, the sheriff answered, “That’s good enough for me. Miss Jessup can go now.”
Once more facing Betty, Johnny found the young woman crying again. But this time her tears were clearly those of relief and gratitude that she would not have to do the unthinkable and go into that abhorrent back room to face the man who had assaulted her.
As she dabbed at her eyes with a dainty handkerchief, Johnny told her, “You done real good, Betty. No other man you’re ever gonna know is gonna have hands like that . . . you understand? We caught him, but you made sure we got the right man. Reckon you should be right proud of yourself.” To his delight she nodded her head vigorously.
“Would you like Teresa to visit with you tomorrow?” Johnny asked, pleased to be able to finally change the subject and offer Betty some way to regain a little pleasure in her life. “I’m sure she’d be happy to come by. Scott bought her a new hat in Sacramento last month that she’s been chompin’ at the bit to show off. She thinks it’s too fancy for church, so you’ll have to tell me what you think.”
The beginnings of a smile played at the edges of her lips. Johnny kept his eyes on Betty but over his shoulder asked, “Scott, you’d like a day off to escort Teresa over to Miss Jessup’s, wouldn’t you?”
“That most definitely would be a pleasure,” Scott said.
With a mischievous grin and a sparkle in his eyes, Johnny continued to throw his comments over his shoulder, but winked at Betty as he added, “You like pickin’ out ladies hats so much, an’ done such a good job at it, bet you could offer all kind of good advice ‘bout frilly things to the pretty young ladies while you was sippin’ on some tea.”
Her tears nearly gone, Betty’s smile widened appreciatively. Johnny leaned in conspiratorially and whispered – but not so the others couldn’t hear – “Just don’t get him started on parasols. I swear if I hear one more argument about tassels versus ruffles, I’ll just scream.”
The dam of tension burst as Betty broke into outright laughter. Her hands reached forward to pull Johnny into a grateful hug. She buried her head in his shoulder and offered an immeasurably appreciative, “Oh, Johnny. Thank you.”
For Betty’s ears only, Johnny returned her embrace and whispered, “Betty, you are most welcome.”
Johnny leaned back and finally stood. He pulled Betty upright with him. Facing the others he said, “Mr. Jessup, I’m sure your daughter would be pleased to be heading home now.”
“Yes. Of course,” was all Jessup could manage in response.
As Johnny walked Betty toward the door, Jessup regained some of his normal bravado and pompously added, “John, I’d like to pay you for tracking that man down.”
Johnny had been ready to take another step, but his right foot halted in mid-air. The rowel of his spur took a half spin more and jingled briefly to an abrupt silence. Johnny planted his boot, heel first, then slowly pulled his leg back, adjusting his weight until he held a firm, familiar, even stance.
Scott and Val both stared at Jessup like he’d gone insane. Betty looked up at Johnny. A fearful concern once more shadowed her features.
With eyes firmly focused on Fredrick Jessup, Johnny merely said, “Scott. Would you take Miss Betty to her carriage? I’m sure you two need to discuss when it’ll be best to visit tomorrow.”
Scott looked warily at his brother but, despite any reservations, stepped forward. “Certainly.” He stretched out an elbow and politely requested, “Miss Jessup, if you please.” As she took the proffered arm, Scott stared hard at Johnny. But Johnny just stared him right back.
The door opened and closed as the young couple exited. Totally oblivious to the depth of his discourtesy, Jessup took a step closer to Johnny and announced, “I’m sorry to bring up payment in front of my daughter. That was, of course, unthinking of me. I am, however, grateful for what you’ve done.”
The attempted apology might have stood, but Jessup made a grave error and added, “Whatever your going rate is for this sort of thing, I would be willing to double it.”
Johnny’s reply was quick, severe, and to the point. “I guarantee you can’t afford double my rate.” He promptly punched Mr. Fredrick Jessup right in the face so hard the bigger man fell to the ground before he realized what had happened.
Val did absolutely nothing to interfere.
As Jessup regained his senses, Johnny stood over him and asked, “You mean to press charges?”
Jessup cupped a hand over his swelling eye, then sighed heavily and, with his uninjured eye, looked up. “No.”
Johnny turned to his friend. “Val?”
“Free to go as far as I’m concerned.”
Johnny turned to leave. His hand closed over the doorknob, but a repentant voice stopped him.
“John . . . Johnny . . . Mr. Lancer.” The proud man’s act of contrition came hard. “I’m sorry. I . . . apologize.”
Johnny refused to face him. “Apologize to your daughter, Jessup.”
L L L L L L L L
Johnny calmly pulled the door closed behind him. Betty was already seated in her buggy. Scott stood beside her as they chatted.
As if absolutely nothing had just happened, Johnny sidled up beside Scott and said, “Come along now, brother. We need to get back to the ranch if you’re gonna get all your quiltin’ squares together to take over to Miss Jessup’s tomorrow.”
To the delight of both men, Betty started to giggle – just as any young girl might without a heavy weight burdening her shoulders.
Scott played right along. “I’m going to want to bring those strings of lace you’ve been collecting. Heaven knows we won’t be able to have a decent conversation about dressmaking without them.”
“Anything I have is all yours, you know that brother,” Johnny replied easily. “Just don’t get ‘em all dirty like you did the last time you was fingerin’ ‘em.”
Betty now laughed heartily. Johnny tipped his hat to the cheerful young woman. “Miss Jessup,” he said as he favored her with a broad smile.
Scott followed suit, and courteously bobbed his head as he touched a couple of fingers to his own hat brim. “Teresa and I will see you tomorrow around ten.”
With a relaxed smile on her face, Betty released an enormous sigh of relief. “Scott and Johnny . . . thank you.” Her peaceful countenance was more than enough reward for both men.
“Our pleasure, ma’am,” Johnny said.
Scott added, “You have a wonderful evening.”
The door opened behind them and both men turned. Fredrick Jessup made his way shamefacedly out of the sheriff’s office. One heck of a shiner could clearly be seen growing around the man’s puffy left eye.
Without further acknowledgment the brothers walked away, headed toward the livery.
“I’m disappointed in you, Johnny,” Scott casually said after a few steps.
“Brother?” Johnny wasn’t quite sure why he was being reproached, although he could guess.
“You led with your right,” Scott said as they continued to walk easily. “I thought a well-trained shootist would know better than to throw a punch with his gun hand.”
Johnny gave that comment due thought. “Some lessons are hard learned. I’ll try better next time.”
“So will Jessup,” Scott astutely replied. A moment went by before he added, “Still . . . I’d of gone with a roundhouse left.”
Johnny stopped abruptly, and Scott passed him a couple of paces before he too stopped, turned, crossed his arms comfortably, and waited. The brothers faced each other openly, words of understanding unnecessary between the pair. In the short time they’d known each other, their quickly formed friendship and the close harmony they shared was inexplicable but easily accepted by the pair. Johnny smiled lightly and merely nodded. Scott nodded back.
The brothers continued side by side down the street. Scott finally asked, “How in the world did you think of playing that man’s scar against him to make it easier for Betty?”
Johnny’s head dipped and swayed in disbelief as he laughed, marveling over the fragility of his tactic. “Whooee . . . that was a risky one, brother. Wouldn’t have worked if Betty hadn’t of seen it. Remember when I told you that to track careful you gotta learn how to consider the obvious without thinkin’ ‘bout it, while lookin’ for what’s really important? Well, I was wrong ‘bout one thing . . . sometimes you gotta pay closer attention to what’s in plain sight. With those talkative hands of his, that man had been flashing that scar right in front of our faces for a whole day, but was hidin’ it behind all that chatter. All I could do was hope that he’d waved it in front of Betty, too. He did, and she noticed.
“Betty caught him fair and square . . . I just showed her how to pay attention.”
“Brilliant,” Scott said. “Absolutely brilliant.”
The pair reached the livery, but before they could enter Scott pulled at his brother’s arm. “Johnny, I’m very proud of what you did today.” He held up a hand to stop Johnny’s planned denial. “You showed an enormous amount of discretion and respect back there, and I know Betty appreciated it.”
Johnny’s head bowed, embarrassed by Scott’s commendation. “It’s what I get paid to do,” he said quietly.
“I don’t believe that for a second,” Scott said. “It’s what a gentleman would do. You drop all kind of false signs to get people to think you’re anything but . . . but brother, you do a poor job hiding the real truth. Because that’s what you are, Johnny, a gentleman . . . in every sense of the word.”
His head still bowed, Johnny glanced up briefly to make sure Scott wasn’t just teasing him. Finding him completely serious, he took a moment to soak in the acclamation. “Cut it out, Scott.” Johnny squinted back at his brother with one eye. “You tryin’ to ruin my reputation?”
“Yes,” Scott said frankly. “Every chance I get.” He slapped Johnny on the shoulder, firmed up his grasp and led Johnny into the livery.
As the brothers saddled their rested mounts, Scott proclaimed, “You’re going to look excellent decked out in ruffles and plaid . . . I can see it now.”
“Oh no, brother,” Johnny protested, shaking his head with a grin. “One gentleman in the family is quite enough. Besides, I need to let you think you’re the best with at least one thing ‘round here. Wouldn’t do for you to be feelin’ like you weren’t good at somethin’, now would it?”
Johnny threw his hands up dramatically in mock frustration. “See . . . there I go! That wasn’t very gentlemanly of me, was it?”
The excuses continued under Scott’s barely contained laughter as the brothers led their horses from the stable and mounted up for the ride home. “I tell ya, Scott . . . I gotta whole lot I still need to learn from you in order to be anywhere near as good as you at bein’ polite and all . . .”