"Damn!" Scott Lancer winced as the raw liquor hit the back of his throat. It wasn't really the alcohol that burned as much as the scalding memory of his earlier confrontation with his brother Johnny.
Gingerly touching the livid bruise on his left cheekbone, the handsome blond cursed the luck that had brought Pace Timmons back into Johnny's life.
Ironically the evening had started with the Lancers at the saloon drinking a few beers and talking about nothing in particular. The two young men rarely had the opportunity to just talk and laugh together since their father, Murdoch Lancer, was a stern taskmaster when it came to work around the ranch. He demanded twice as much "sweat" from his sons who were also part owners.
The two had just decided to leave for Lancer when in walked three men. The huge dingy-haired man walked with a slight limp which was apparent as he procured three beers for he and his companions.
As he turned towards the table, he spied Johnny. "Madrid! Get your ugly face outside! I thought I'd never get the chance to tan your hide, but now I'm a aimin' to do it."
The younger Lancer stood up. Scott reached out. "Johnny...."
"It's okay, Scott. I can take this hyena."
"Hyena am I? Well, mebbe so since I'll be laughin' at you when you're a lying there on the ground."
The big man's compadres followed them out with Scott right behind. He figured that Johnny just might need someone to watch his back.
Warily the two men circled each other. Johnny's natural grace was accented by the older's man's limp, but Timmons got in the first blow.
The brunet went down like a rock but got quickly up. "Okay, you got your one jab in. Now it's my turn."
The greasy-haired man pulled out his gun and pointed it at Johnny's head. "Oh, you think so, do ya?"
"No, I think so. You pull that trigger and you're a dead man."
Looking up at the blond who had a gun pointed at him, Timmons growled, "So Madrid, now you've got back up?"
"Scott, put the gun down."
"No, he'll kill you."
"I don't think so."
"Cause his gun's not loaded."
"Aw damn, Madrid, didn't think you'd remember that."
"Pace, how could I forget the only outlaw I know who goes around with an unloaded pistol?"
"S'pose you gotta point."
Scott stood there puzzled. What was going on?
"Hey, Big Brother, put your gun down. This is my friend Pace Timmons. Pace, that's my brother Scott."
"Didn't know ya had a brother."
"I didn't know either until a few months ago. Come on into the saloon. We'll have a few drinks and I'll tell you about it."
The five men walked into the saloon, and sat at a nearby table.
Scott knew that Johnny had had a colorful past as a gunfighter in the border towns. It was always amazing to meet some of his friends and learn new things about the legend of Johnny Madrid.
"By the way, these two fellows work for me, Madrid, meet Isaiah and Daniel Wilson."
The Wilson Brothers said nothing in response. Their sole concern seemed to be the shot glasses in front of them. Scott also said little, preferring to listen to Johnny and Pace talk.
After an hour of steady drinking, it was obvious that Timmons and the Wilsons were just this side of falling-down drunk. Even Johnny had a couple more than usual and was 'feeling no pain."
Finally, Scott decided that it was time to leave before his brother became so ddrunk he wouldn't be able to sit on Barranca, his palomino. "Johnny, don't you think you've had enough?"
Johnny's sapphire eyes locked onto Scott's face. It took a moment for the brunet to focus.
"NO, I haven't had enough. If you have, go back to Lancer. I'm spending the night here."
"But Murdoch expects us to be out on the range at dawn."
"Murdoch expects. Murdoch always expects. Hey, I own just as much of Lancer as he does!"
"I just thought. . ."
"That's the trouble, Brother. You think too much."
"What does that mean?"
"Hey, hey, let's all have another round. No need ta fight."
"No thank you, Mr. Timmons. I'm leaving."
Scott walked out the door and over to the stable. After saddling his horse, he led it back to the saloon. He had decided to give his brother one more chance to leave with him.
Before he could enter the saloon, Johnny stumbled out the door. Relief filled the eldest Lancer. "I'm glad you changed your mind. You wait here, I'll go get . . ."
"Didn't change nothin'. You got any money? It's my turn to buy a bottle and I'm plumb outta money."
"Sorry, I'm fresh out."
"That's a lie. I know you got money."
"Only the cash Mr. Owens gave me for Murdoch. Other than that I've got fifty cents."
Scott flipped him the coin, Johnny missed and went down after it. The blond tried to help him up. "Get your hands offa me!"
"I was just trying to help."
"Oh right, Mr. Do-Gooder. Always too good for everyone. Lookin' down your nose at gunslingers and all. Pace is just as good as those Boston bluebloods of yours."
"Allright, Johnny. I'm leaving. I'll see you at Lancer."
Scott turned. "What do you mean-maybe?"
"Just that. Pace wants me to ride with them."
"Why would you do that? You have a place at Lancer."
"Oh hell, Murdoch's still the boss. I'm sick of his orders. Never being good enough."
"Johnny, you know that's not true." He reached out to take the brunet's arm.
Scott retained his hold. Johnny swung his fist up connecting with his brother's left cheekbone. Caught off-guard the blond went down. He sat there looking up at his younger brother. "If that's what you want, I guess I can't stop you."
"Now you're gettin' smart, Boston."--sneering the nickname for the young man, Johnny picked up the coin and returned inside.
For a moment the older man sat there in the dirt. Tempted to just head back to the ranch, he decided to stick around for awhile. Maybe if I can see Johnny away from his friend, he'll listen to reason. So he took himself off to the cantina to wait.
As the alcohol slid down his throat, Scott pondered Johnny's actions. Does he really think I look down on gunslingers--on him? Johnny Madrid Lancer wasn't the easiest man to get along with. His quick temper sometimes flared for little apparent reason, but Scott had thought they had adjusted to the awkwardness of their long separation. He certainly didn't want to lose his brother now.
Maybe I should just go back to the ranch. Let Johnny's head clear and then we can talk. As it is now, we'll both say things we don't mean. So the older Lancer reluctantly left Morro Coyo and headed back to the white hacienda.
Back in the saloon the Wilson Brothers had their heads down on the table. The liquor bottle was nearly empty.
"Too bad your brother had to leave, Madrid. We coulda used another bottle. How come he gets to carry the money? Don't your daddy trust ya none?"
"Aw Boston's as broke as me. We still got a week to payday."
"That wallet he had didn't look empty."
"That's not ours. It's for Murdoch."
"I see, but I still don't understan' why he's carry'n it."
"Don't know. He just does."
"Mebbe he don't trust ya neither. Thinks you'll spend it on some fancy woman."
At that the two men broke into laughter.
"Yeah, mebbe so."
" 'Member that redhead in Sonora?"
"Whooee, she was a looker. How much did she take you for?"
"Don't reckon I 'member, but she was worth it!"
Timmons finished the bottle. "Well, I tell ya, Madrid, I'm aheadin' upstairs to bed since there ain't no more drink."
"What about those two?"
"Let 'em sleep. They snore like the devil anyways."
"Think I'll head upstairs too if they got an extra bed." He staggered over to the barkeep who informed him they were full up. "Damn, well, I'll just go bed down with Barranca."
"I'd share with ya, Madrid, but the room's kinda small as it is."
" 'S'okay. Not the first time I've done slept on hay. Maybe I'll see ya in the mornin'."
"Not too early, mind ya."
Johnny headed to the stable, took out his bedroll, made a bed on the hay and collapsed. Three minutes later he was sound asleep.
At the saloon Pace Timmons shook the two Wilson Brothers awake. "Okay, you two, let's go."
The smaller brother, who had consumed more alcohol, wanted to sleep; but Pace slapped him which immediately brought him round. "Come on. I don't want that fancy dan to get too far ahead."
The three men rode out to their rendezvous.
Damn, I shouldn't have had those last couple of drinks. Scott found himself by the side of the road retching up the alcohol he'd consumed. His head was pounding and his stomach kept doing flip-flops. Taking down his canteen, he wiped his face with a damp bandanna. He took a couple of deep breaths. It was on the exhale that he heard hoofbeats.
His roiling stomach forgotten, the blond mounted his horse and took off at a gallop. Maybe the riders meant no harm, but why take chances?"
Unfortunately, the riders were closer than he thought. A rifle shot sang out, grazing the right flank of his mount. Scott found himself on the ground as the horse bucked and then bolted away in pain.
The young man drew himself up, wincing as the agony in his head surged. He managed to get his pistol out of his holster, but it was too late.
"Hold it. Just put down that gun."
Scott looked up at the horsemen and did as he was told.
"Mr. Lancer. Mr. Lancer?" Johnny awoke to the shaking of his arm.
"Stop that!" The aching groan echoed around the stable. One eye opened. Then closed. Two men were shaking him. "Stop that, both of you!"
"Mr. Lancer, it's just me--Joe. You gotta get up. I got work ta do."
"Yeah. I gotta get the stalls cleaned out."
"What time is it?"
"Nearly 9 AM."
"What? I gotta get back to the ranch." As he stood, the stable did a spin but finally righted itself. He walked over to Barranca, got the saddle on and mounted.
The ride to Lancer was unending agony. It took, all the stubbornness Johnny possessed plus Barranca's instinct for home to get him there. Even as he dismounted and headed for his room, the torture became overwhelming. The young man collapsed onto his bed, sliding into welcome oblivion.
Some hours later Murdoch Lancer strode into his younger son's room. "JOHNNY? What the hell are you doing in bed? I told you to be out on the range at dawn. Can't I trust either one of you?"
The words slightly penetrated the abyss. The brunet turned over to head back into the darkness, but Murdoch would not be denied.
"Damn! You're drunk! I'm going to get you some coffee. I want you up."
Quickly the patriarch brought a pot of steaming coffee. Forcing his son to consume several cups, he had the satisfaction of seeing the blue eyes open.
Then Murdoch called in two vaqueros who grabbed the dark-haired son and dumped him into a tub of tepid water. Murdoch personally held his head under, only letting him up long enough to breathe before ducking the young man again.
Finally, his father relented. "Are you sober now?"
Looking down at his soaked blue shirt and jeans, the brunet realized that while his head still hurt at least it didn't feel like it was one big cotton ball. His stomach was still queasy, but at least he could stand without swaying -- too much. "Yeah, I'm sober."
"Good. Well, at least that's one down."
"One? What do you mean?"
"Well, since you came home dead drunk, I assume Scott did too."
"Don't know. He left town before me."
"He's not out on the range or in his room, so where is he?"
"What is it, Jelly?"
"One of the hands just brought in Scott's horse. He's got a nasty wound on his right flank and the saddlebags and saddle were still on him."
"Any sign of Scott?"
"Damn! What happened to him? Johnny, did you or Scott have the money from Owens?"
Murdoch's face paled. "He was robbed! Someone must have attacked him for the money! How could you two be so reckless as to get drunk and lose the money?"
Just then one of the vaqueros approached. "Seņor Lancer, here are the saddlebags."
Murdoch put his hand into one side -- empty. Then he tried the other -- empty. Handing the bags to Jelly, he turned towards the house muttering, "$200--gone."
Starting to shiver, Johnny followed his father. He went to his room to change and then returned to the living room where Murdoch sat at his desk.
"Murdoch, I'm sorry. I . . ."
"Sorry doesn't cut it. You and Scott are part-owners. You have responsibilities. I'm going to take the money from your wages."
At that moment Jelly rushed in. "Boss, look what I found!" In his hand was a wad of greenbacks. "It's the $200."
"Where'd you find it?"
"Evidently Scott musta rigged some kind of false bottom in the one bag. When I looked closely at it, there it was."
"Thank goodness. At least he had some sense."
"Uh Murdoch, now that you've got your money back--don't you think we should go looking for Scott?"
"Scott? He's probably on his way back here embarrassed because he lost his horse."
Johnny shook his head. "What about the horse's wound?"
"Maybe it was from a rock or something?"
"I think I should go look for him in case he's hurt."
Murdoch started to protest. "Oh, you might as well. You wouldn't have much time to work anyway. But tomorrow you're going to put in extra time to make up for this."
"Fine. I'll head out."
Johnny was an excellent tracker so it wasn't difficult to find the spot where the trail had gone awry. The point where his brother's horse had bolted was obvious. Leading west from there was a trail made by several horses. One horse must have been carrying two men as the track cut deeper. The former gunfighter followed these tracks.
As the long hours passed, darkness closed in. Since he could no longer see the trail, he would have to wait 'til morning to pick it up again.
Just as he was ready to give up for the night, he saw a flicker of light ahead among some trees. Tying Barranca to a tree, he moved quietly ahead on foot.
At the campfire were four men--one blond, bound and gagged. The other three were Pace Timmons and the Wilson brothers.
Even though Johnny knew Pace's gun was unloaded, he hesitated. Normally Johnny Madrid against two men was no contest, but Scott might be used as a shield. The gunfighter knew he had to do this right the first time.
"Hey there Pace, what ya plannin' on doin' with the Lancer feller?"
"Oh, I don't know. Mebbe I'll kill 'im or mebbe hold 'im for ransom. I suspicion his daddy might pay somethin' for 'im."
Listening to Pace's harsh words, Johnny shook his head. How could he have ever thought of Pace as a friend?
"On t'other hand I might do nothin' or I might jest take 'im with us."
"Take 'im? Why do that? Let's get us some money for 'im since we lost t'other."
"Is that all you think about--money?"
Both brothers nodded.
"Well, there's better things 'n money."
The brothers looked at each other. Now they were sure their compadre was crazy.
"Revenge is better 'n money."
"Revenge again who? Thought you never met this Lancer feller afore."
"Not 'im, you dumb jackals! Agin his brother!"
At that remark, Johnny's head jerked up.
"It's cause of Madrid my brother died so don't ya think it's fair I take his brother from 'im?"
"Ya had a brother?"
"This was afore I met ya. He was just eighteen. Happened in Texas."
"Why don't you tell them the truth, Pace?" As the three turned towards the dark-haired gunfighter, he barked out, "don't even think of drawin'," Knowing Madrid's reputation, they didn't.
"So Madrid, you've come after your brother?"
"Yeah, now one of you go over there and untie him. Then I want you three to ride off and don't let me see you around here again."
"Oh no, Madrid, it's not that simple. We're takin' your brother with us."
"Like hell you are."
"Oh, but we are! What do ya care anyways? Weren't ya the one complainin' about 'im? Besides, we'll be doin' ya a favor since your part of the ranch'll be bigger. And at least he'll be alive--for awhile."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Ta pay ya back for Luke."
"As I said, why don't you tell these fine fellows why you really don't carry a loaded gun?"
Timmons looked down, then back at Johnny. Hatred filled the tormented eyes. "Okay. Ya want 'em to know. I'll tell 'em."
The huge man seemed to shrink as he remembered back. "Madrid, me, Luke and a coupla others worked for this rancher. There'd been alota rustlin' goin' on."
"One night Madrid came ridin' in to say that he had spotted five or six cowboys takin' off with 50-60 head of cattle. He wanted us to go after 'em. It had been a long, hot day and I didn't wanta go. But Madrid here wouldn't give up, so we followed and caught up to 'em. They drew their guns and began blazing away."
"It was so dark and well--I heard...I heard someone come up behind me. I turned and fired. . . .It was Luke."
The Wilsons gasped.
"So I swore I wouldn't put bullets in my gun no more. I just carried it cause people expect ya to 'n it can be intimidatin'."
"So you see it was an accident. I did not kill Pace's brother."
"Mebbe ya didn't pull the trigger; but if ya hadn't been so all fired up to catch those rustlers, I'd still have my little brother. Now you're gonna have to live without yours."
Johnny Pointed his gun right at Pace's heart. "Now, how do you figure that?"
Just then, the bound figure moved slightly, diverting the brunet's focus for one precious instant.
In the next second the gun flew out of Johnny's hand.
"Now, ya just hold it, Madrid. Draw your guns, Boys. You see, I did stop loadin' my pistol; but I'm not totally stupid. I kept this little gun loaded and up my sleeve just for times like this." Turning to the Wilsons, he ordered, "Okay, Boys, I want ya to load blondie over there on the horse. We're gettin' outta here."
"What about Madrid? Are ya gonna kill 'im?"
"Kill 'im? Course not. I want 'im alive to remember that he's the cause for whatever happens to his brother."
With a smirk Timmons continued, "Ya see, Madrid, he goes with us. Mebbe I'll keep 'im alive and mebbe I won't. You'll just never know what happened to your precious brother. HAHAHA!"
"You hurt him and I'll hunt you down and...."
"You can try, but even the great Johnny Madrid can't track a trail that ain't there....Do it, Ezekial!"
Johnny sensed someone behind him. As he turned a blow struck him down. The fireworks blazed behind his eyes then the world faded into blackness.
Pace Timmons looked down at the gunfighter. "Sorry, Madrid. I forgot to tell ya--the Wilson Brothers come in threes. Now let's move. I wanna put alotta miles 'tween Madrid 'n us afore daybreak."