After the others had left, Howard Merar went back to the examination room to tend to the body of Johnny Madrid.He straightened the limbs, buttoned the shirt and removed the gun belt, placing it on the side table.A weapon wouldn’t be of much use where the gunfighter was now.‘Such a young man’, the doctor mused as he gently wiped away the trickle of fluid that leaked from the right eye.The doctor had seen many strange things in his day, but a crying cadaver?With a shake of his head he rationally came to the conclusion that it must have been the result of a tear duct contracting as rigor mortis set in.Going to the supply closet, he pulled out a clean white sheet and draped the body.The undertaker would come in the morning with a coffin.After making sure that the doors and windows were secured, the tired physician retired to the rooms he kept upstairs with his niece.
At ten o’clock, Emma Davenport, Howard Merar’s niece, crept down the stairs to the examination room.She was eighteen years old and was leaving the next day to go to medical school.Emma’s goal was to be a doctor, just like her Uncle Howard.Her only problem was that she had never inspected a dead body before and she knew that part of the schooling would be to work on cadavers.This was going to be her only chance to do an examination before leaving.It wasn’t very often that the dead remained in the clinic so, despite her uncle’s warning not to disturb the deceased, she resolved to take advantage of this last opportunity.
Quietly she entered the examination room, her attentions focused on the white sheet draping the body of a man who had been killed earlier in the day.Putting the candle on the side table, she lifted off the sheet and pulled it down to the man’s waist.She was startled to face one of the most handsome young men she had ever seen.Soft, coal black hair framed the pale rugged features.Moving closer, she studied the long black lashes of the closed eyes - only to jump back as they suddenly sprang open!A small shriek escaped her lips before she could clamp her mouth shut with both hands - stifling the scream that erupted from her terrified soul.Petrified, she watched as the once still chest now moved as expanding lungs greedily sucked in air.It took a few moments before she grasped that the man was not dead!
Realizing he needed help, she composed herself and went to give aid.“Let me…”she whispered as she helped the man to sit up.
Johnny’s eyes wildly looked about the room as a cold sweat broke out all over his body.“Where….?”
“You’re in my uncle’s office – he’s a doctor. I’ll go get him…”Emma turned to leave only to have her arm roughly grabbed as she was pulled back to the table.
“No!”Johnny panted trying to orient himself.His head ached and his stomach was rebelling.“Gonna be sick….”
Wide eyed, the girl looked around and found a basin just as Johnny’s stomach erupted – expressing the contents that had soured over the past eight hours.When he was done he lay back, still breathing heavily.Putting the basin aside, Emma pumped some cool water into the sink.Soaking a rag, she returned and mopped his forehead and neck.“Are you alright?”
“Don’t … know…” he rasped.Using his right hand he felt the left side of his heaving chest.Pulling his hand away, they both saw that it was covered with blood.Closing his eyes he remembered the gunfight with Brasure.Brasure’s shot had grazed the left side of his chest.“Got shot….”
“They all thought you were dead!”The girl whispered furiously as she unbuttoned the shirt, exposing the raw open wound. “God,” she swore, pressing the damp rag against the wound to stem the flow of blood.
Johnny grimaced in response to the pressure. “How bad?”
The girl lifted the blood soaked rag away and found a six inch tear in his flesh that went deep, possibly striking a rib.Gently she pushed on the ribs until one gave a little causing Johnny to suck in his breath.“You need stitches and I think that you’ve got a cracked rib…”
Johnny lay still, throwing his right arm across his eyes to keep out the candle light he was suddenly sensitive to.“Can you patch me up?”
Emma bit her lip; she was in way over her head.“I need to get my uncle…’
“Can you do it?”Johnny pressed.
Emma had assisted her uncle on several occasions and knew where he kept the materials.“Why don’t you want his help?”
Johnny sighed and moved his arm so he could look into her green eyes.“I’m supposed to be dead.The fewer people who know I’m alive, the safer they’ll be.I can’t put people at risk by helpin’ me….”
“And why aren’t you dead?”
Johnny studied this total stranger.Her long dark hair and milky white skin reminded him of a girl he had left behind eight weeks ago.He had a feeling that this girl and Teresa had a lot in common."What’s your name?”
“Emma, I need your help.There are a whole lot of people out there who would like to see me dead, for real, if I don’t get out of here - do you understand?The longer I’m here, the more danger you’re in.”Johnny squeezed his eyes closed as a pain lanced through his chest.It hurt to breathe and his head was pounding.“How about you sew me up and I’ll answer your questions?”
With a nod, Emma went to retrieve the materials she would need to first cleanse the wound and then sew it shut.
As she started her ministrations, Johnny pulled a small blue bottle from his belt and began to talk. “A few years back I spent some time with a Huichol medicine man.He patched me up, pretty much like you are doing now, after I’d been hurt in a fight.I stayed with the tribe while I healed.That old man showed me a lot of things during my stay.One of the things he showed me was a cleansing ritual where he damn near killed me with a poison – curare. It makes you look and feel dead, but you ain’t….”
“Why would he do that?”Emma glanced at the blue bottle, recognizing it as one that belonged in her uncle’s medicine cabinet.
“When you’re ‘dead’ you see things differently….”
“And did you see things differently?”
Johnny smiled and then winced as she applied carbolic to the wound.He waited until the burning was done before he could respond.“Yeah, I saw a whole lot of things differently – it changed my life….”
“And this time, did you see things differently too?”
Johnny closed his eyes, remembering how his father had come to him and confessed his love, his regrets and heartaches.He found his anger at his father waning,remembering how he desperately wanted to seize the opportunity to tell the Old Man that he wasn’t dead - that they still had time to make things right. “Yeah, I saw things different….”Johnny whispered as he clenched his jaw tight.Emma was pushing the sharp point of a needle through his skin as she carefully sewed the wound closed.
“Sorry if this hurts….”
“I could get you some medicine…”
“How did you know how much to take?”Emma decided that talking would be the best way to distract her patient from the pain of her work.
“I didn’t,” Johnny laughed. “I jus remember him tellin’ me that too much and I’d be real dead.So, I took just a little and prayed that if it were too much that the devil wouldn’t take too long in finding me…”
Emma paused for a second. The girl found nothing funny about the devil.“From what I hear, you belong with the devil….”
“Yeah, well you’re probably right – but it won’t be today.”Johnny clenched his teeth again.“You almost done?”
Emma completed ten stitches and sat back to survey her handiwork.“It’s not as good as Uncle Howard, but it will do.” With a pair of scissors she snipped away the extra thread.Going into the supply cabinet she found a bandage roll.“Can you sit up so I can wrap you?”
With a grunt, Johnny rolled to his right side, only to be reminded of his other wound.It took some time and with Emma’s help he sat up.
“What happens now?” she asked having finished with the bandages.Johnny’s entire chest was now tightly bound with white cloth.
“I have to get out of here…”He started to button up the remains of his favorite shirt.He wasn’t sure whether shiva was such a good color for him anymore.It didn’t seem to have brought him much luck, but at least he was still alive.
“You need rest, food and water…” the practical side of Emma was coming to light.Despite his reputation as a ruthless killer, the girl found herself drawn to Johnny Madrid.It was her ‘professional’ opinion that he was too sick to move.
“I’ll find a place…”
“I could hide you here…”
“No!”Johnny responded sharply.Immediately he relented, seeing that his prickly response had startled her.“I need to get away from here.”Lowering his feet to the floor, he attempted to stand on wobbly legs. Quickly he leaned back against the table before he fell.Johnny had forgotten that the poison took a lot out of him.
“Why, you can’t even stand, let alone walk out of here.” Emma admonished her hands on her hips.
“I got to.Things are gonna bust loose in this town if I don’t do something about it….”
“Why you?How can you help?”
Johnny gave the inquisitive girl a quick smile.“Anyone ever tell you - you ask too many questions?”
Emma smiled.“What can I do to help?”
Johnny’s empty stomach growled.“You got anything I can take with me to eat?”
“I’ll be right back…”
Before Johnny could stop her, she whisked out of the room.He could hear her as she tried to quietly go upstairs. Emma had asked a lot of good questions, not the least of which was why he was doing what he was doing.The entire valley, not just Stockton, was in danger.His plans for recruiting Victoria Barkley to help had been shot to hell when he ‘died’.Now he would have to find another way to intervene in the impending land war.He also had to think of his family.Murdoch’s words had gone a long way to soothe the hurt that he had felt eight weeks earlier.They still had a lot to work out, but at least he now knew where he stood in the Old Man’s heart.
Having Scott cry over him was the hardest part.Scott was right; having a brother was a dream that he had longed for as a child and for the past six months, Scott had been that brother for him.There was little doubt in his mind that Scott would be furious with him when he learned of his deception, but until the time was right – Johnny Madrid had to remain dead.
With a smile, he realized that being dead could have its advantages.It would enable him to move about without the feeling that he was being hunted.He also might be able to return to his stalling pranks now that Bartch thought he was dead.
His first task was to return one of the two bottles he had ‘borrowed’ earlier – deciding to keep the laudanum this time.He had hated to steal from the doctor and he had no idea that he would actually have to use the curare, but he was glad he had it.His experience with the Huichol tribe had taught him to trust his instincts – that the Gods were always looking out for him, presenting him with choices.Seeing the bottles in the cabinet were two choices he couldn’t deny.
Besides finding a place to hide, he had to figure an explanation for the disappearance of his body.Emma wouldn’t like it, but he was going to have to break one of the windows to the office.He had to make it look like someone had stolen ‘him’.A wave of dizziness overcame him as he tried to make sense of the jumbled thoughts that were going through his mind.So much to do and so little time.His body was almost beyond exhaustion, but there was no staying in Stockton. Wiping his sweaty forehead with his fingers he looked around and spied his gun belt on the nearby table. ‘There is a God’ he thought as he grasped the belt and pulled it closer.Now all he had to do was to figure a way to put it on.With great determination, he managed to slip the belt around his hips.The movements pulled on both of his wounds and he feared that stitches had broken, but thankfully none had.
Johnny found his hat and jacket where he had left them earlier – after he had first been shot in front of the saloon.Gingerly he shrugged into the jacket, relishing the warmth that it provided to his cold limbs.Nearly dying was hard and didn’t get any easier the more that you did it.Placing his hat on his head, he prayed that he would never have to pull a trick like this again.
Emma returned with a white pillow case. “I had some left over biscuits and meat from dinner.That was all I could take without my uncle getting suspicious.”She then went to the supply closet and added two bandage rolls to the bag. “Those wounds are going to need tending… I wish I could give you more….”
“This is perfect,” Johnny took the bag and brushed his lips against her cheek.“You get out of here.You never saw me…”
“Please…”Emma looked deeply into his sapphire eyes.“Be careful.I don’t want to see you back here again - at least not dead.”Rather than argue with the injured man, she turned away and proceeded to clean up the examination room. Uncle Howard kept a crock that he used for dirty rags that was still partially filled from the procedures he had done on Johnny earlier in the day.The clever girl dumped the contents of the basin in the crock and covered it with the rags she had just used.By the time she was done, the older doctor would barely notice that the crock had some additions added
Johnny watched her for a few moments, knowing that she was probably upset at the prospect of not telling her uncle about what she knew. “Me neither,” he finally whispered in response to her last comment.That made the girl turn and give him a smile.Johnny grinned in return and headed toward the door.“One more thing, if any one asks – someone broke in here tonight and stole that dead body.You got that, right?You can’t tell a soul what happened.”
“Who would believe it?”Emma wondered aloud putting the last of the materials away.The room looked as it had before she came down stairs – except the ‘body’ was gone.She turned to say good bye, but found she was alone.With a sigh, she took her candle and headed back up the stairs.Half way up., she heard a glass break.Afraid of what she might find if she went back down, she scurried up the stairs and went back to bed, pulling the blanket up to her chin.Tomorrow she would be gone to San Francisco and medical school.Re-lighting her candle, she pulled out her journal and made a note to be sure to ask her uncle whatever happened to Johnny Madrid.
It was after midnight when Johnny left Dr. Merar’s and stepped into the quiet streets of Stockton.A quarter moon provided barely enough light for Johnny to stagger his way to the stables of his friend Bernardo.Sneaking down the ally was hard, and personally Johnny was getting tired of it, but he realized that he was in no shape to confront anyone – not in the condition he was in.He knew that he would have to get out of town and hide out; give his body some time to mend before he could be on the prowl again.Bartch’s partner would be arriving soon and Johnny had the feeling that all hell would break lose when he did.
Arriving at the back door of the stable, Johnny was grateful to find it unlocked.Stepping inside, he saw a lantern lit by the front window.Bernardo was out and had left the lantern lit for when he returned.Slowly he made his way to Barranca.The palomino had sensed his presence and was already prancing in expectation.
“Hola, mi amigo,” Johnny whispered as Barranca nuzzled against his chest.For a moment he clung to the neck of his only true friend as blackness formed at the edges of his vision.“We’ve got to get out of here…”Both of his wounds ached with eachmovement he made, but the desire to find safety far outweighed the physical discomfort. Putting the bag down, he found Barranca’s saddle blanket on the stall rail and placed it on the animal.That was the easy part.With a grunt, he lifted and threw the saddle over Barranca’s back, causing stitches in both wounds to pop.The intense pain was followed by the warmth of his blood as it seeped from the openings.Again, he leaned against his friend catching his breath against the threatening darkness.When he found his composure again he finished securing the saddle.He then picked up Emma’s pillowcase and secured it to the saddle horn before leading Barranca to the rear exit.The doorway was small, but it was the only way to leave town unobserved.
Carefully he led the palomino from the building, walking slowly, listening hard for anyone who might happen upon them.On his way out of town, he spied the clothes he had left at the barber, hanging on a line near the hotel. Smiling at his good fortune, he snagged the clothes and stuffed them into the pillowcase. As he reached the edge of town, he pulled the horse up to an old tree stump so that he could mount the animal without causing further injury to himself.Once in the saddle, Johnny kneed Barranca forward and headed out of town.
During the time that he had spent in Stockton, he had done some searching for a place where he could hide out – especially after he began to raid the Circle A.Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to find one where he could hole up and rest like he desperately needed.Traveling north, he decided on the one place where no one would suspect a body to be hidden.He headed to Consuelo’s smallrancho. The night before they had burned the house but had left the barn standing.The small structure would provide Johnny and Barranca the safe haven they would need until it was time for him to make his presence known again.
It took over an hour for Johnny to make the journey.Every step that Barranca took jarred his inflamed muscles and injured rib. He was also aware of the blood that was steadily seeping from his wounds, soaking his shirt and pants. At times he had to fight to stay in the saddle, the pain threatening to overwhelm his ability to remain conscious.The brown bottle of laudanum was practically singing to him, but he refused to escape to the pain free world the drug would induce.He needed to be sharp, lest he be killed for good.
Riding past the ruins of the small house, Johnny rode Barranca directly into the barnpractically falling off the saddle into a pile of hay.In the dark he lay on his right side, knowing that he should tend to his horse, but exhaustion overcame him and he passed out.Barranca snorted at his master, as if sensing something was amiss.Walking to an open stall he found some oats in a bucket and began to eat.He had been through this before and knew that Johnny would take care of him eventually.
Sleep did not come to Murdoch Lancer that night. After arriving at the Barkley Ranch, he headed outside to watch the night sky.So many times he had seen his youngest do this after a meal.Johnny was drawn to the stars like a moth to a flame.He never took the time to understand the young man’s fascination but he knew that after a few weeks, Scott was also joining his brother in his evening ritual.Gazing at the heavens, Murdoch watched a shooting star fly across the night sky, only to burn up and fade as it entered the atmosphere.The older man could not help but compare the short lived radiance of the meteor to that of his now dead son.Johnny’s flame was now extinguished before he ever had the chance to find out what caused him to burn so brightly.
Victoria found him sitting on a barrel near the barn, his eyes fixed on the sky.“A penny for your thoughts...?”
“They’re not even worth a penny,” Murdoch responded without changing his gaze.“I’ve been acting like a worthless old fool.I’ve killed my son…”
“No, you didn’t!”Victoria insisted.“Ned Bartch and his men killed Johnny….”
“No,” Murdoch sadly shook his head.“You weren’t there when I said….”
“What did you say that made Johnny leave his home?”
Closing his eyes, Murdoch rubbed his face with both hands fighting the memory from eight weeks earlier.“I was having a discussion with Scott – our usual argument over how I used to treat Johnny differently… it got pretty ugly.I said some things that I can only pray to God that Johnny can forgive me for.”
This time, Victoria didn’t pry.Murdoch was paying the steepest possible price for turning his back on a child.Johnny was dead.What more could happen to make him feel worse?
“What do you mean he’s gone?”Scott Lancer demanded as he furiously paced the lobby of the Stockton Inn.The sheriff had awakened him at five A.M. to give him the news.“It’s not like he just got up and walked away!He was dead!”
“I don’t know how it happened, Mr. Lancer,” Fred Savage patiently started to explain.“From the looks of it, someone broke into the Doc’s office and stole the body, hat and gun.And, that’s not all….”
Scott stopped cold in his tracks wondering how it could possibly get worse.“Well?”
“They even stole his horse and saddle…”
“Barranca?”Scott stopped and sank disconsolately into a nearby chair. “They stole his horse too?”Not only was Johnny gone, now all of his personal belongings were too.Thieves!Scott swore to himself; someone wanting a piece of Johnny Madrid for a keepsake.Glancing at his own wrist, he saw the beads that had formerly belonged to his brother.The beads he understood, but to take the body?It was just too cruel for words.“Is there any sign of who or why?”
“I spoke with the Doc and his niece, neither of them heard anything last night.I’m awful sorry….”
Scott waved a tired hand across his eyes.He had not gotten any sleep last night.Grief did not make a good bedfellow.Today he was to go out to the Circle A with Joel Todd and act the part of a visiting friend.As deeply upset as he was, he was afraid that his emotions would get the better of him and that he might have to strangle Bartch where he stood.“Send someone out to the Barkley Ranch to tell my father….”
“I thought that you’d…”Fred started hopefully.
“I have nothing more to say to that man,” Scott said firmly as he watched Joel descend the main staircase.“I have business to attend to.”
Fred nodded his understanding before heading out the door.It had been hard enough to tell the brother, but to tell a grieving father that his son’s body had been stolen?The thought of it gave him the shivers.The only good thing to come out of the events of the day before was that there were no new raids in the county.It was as if the Circle A was marshalling its forces, waiting….
Scott and Joel left Stockton at eight AM to ride out to the Circle A.They rented horses from the livery that Heath Barkley had mentioned the day before.Scott had futility tried to engage the owner, an older Mexican, in a conversation about Johnny and the theft of Barranca.Scott almost had the impression that the man was feigning ignorance of English just so he could avoid talking about Johnny Madrid.After paying the man, Scott and Joel headed out towards the north and to the Circle A.
Bernardo watched as the two gringos left the livery.He spat into the dirt as if to cleanse himself of the bad taste they had left in his mouth.Bernardo felt strong loyalty to Johnny Madrid and did not take kindly to the gringo trying to say he was Johnny’s brother.Everyone knew the story of Johnny Madrid – and it did not include any gringo brother.
Watching as the two men left town, Bernardo waited until they were out of sight before closing his doors and heading to the Mexicano part of town.There was to be a gathering there.The death of Madrid had not been celebrated at the cantina like it had at the saloon.The Mexicanos drank to their fallen compadre while the gringos laughed and made loud noises at their triumph.The sounds of celebration had been very hard for Bernardo to tolerate; but when he heard the body had been stolen he called a meeting.It was now a time for action.
Stepping inside the cantina, Bernardo was pleased to see that the room was packed with people of Mexican and Indian decent.Johnny Madrid had been a pistolero to some, but to these down trodden peoples he had been a compadre, a friend.
“Is it true?” a voice called out as Bernardo entered.“Have they stolen Madrid?”
“Si,” Bernardo answered, taking off his hat.“The gringos from the Circle A, I think they have stolen the body of our amigo….”
“Who will help us now?” another man called out from the back of the room.
Bernardo recognized the voice of a small land owner, someone Johnny would have helped.“We will go to the Barkleys….”
“They will not help…”
“They will have to!”Bernardo responded.“If your properties should fall, then so will theirs.Johnny had mucho faith in the one they call Heath.I will go to him and ask for his help.In the mean time, we must do what we can to find Madrid and give him a proper burial.”Bernardo crossed himself before putting his hat back on his head.It was a very bad thing to disturb the dead.Bernardo had a feeling that the spirits were not going to be very happy with those who had taken the body of the dead gunfighter.
Scott and Joel rode in silence, following the trail the sheriff had pointed out to them before they left town.Joel glanced nervously at his friend.Scott had not spoken to him since the meeting at the lawyer’s office.Looking at Scott he could tell from the dark circles beneath the tired blue eyes, that his friend had little or no sleep the night before.Scott was obviously distraught by the loss of his brother.The news that Johnny’s body had been stolen only added to the emotional devastation.“Scott?”
Scott didn’t reply; he just kept riding, his eyes fixed on some place in the distance.
“Please, Scott – you have to talk to me!”Joel pleaded.The easterner was scared and needed some reassurance that they were doing the right thing.
“Why?”Scott finally responded without looking at his companion.
Joel breathed a sigh of relief.“Scott, what’s going to happen now?I mean, what will we be riding into?”
“I don’t know,” Scott whispered, momentarily closing his eyes and rubbing them with his fingertips. His mind was still adrift with all that had happened during the past twenty-four hours.He was awed that just the day before he had gotten on the train in San Francisco filled with such great expectations.He had found his brother!During the train ride, all he could think of were the plans he had dreamed for the two of them – returning to Lancer in triumph; telling Murdoch that he could either take them as they were or they were leaving.He remembered laughing to himself as he thought of how fun it would be to tell Murdoch that were leaving regardless of what their father wanted.All Scott wanted or needed was Johnny – his brother.Now those happy thoughts mocked him.Scott chastised himself for ever thinking the fates would allow Johnny any happiness.In his mind’s eye, he relived the scene out on the street – seeing Murdoch in the dirt, holding Johnny’s bleeding body.He scarcely remembered carrying Johnny to the clinic.Johnny had lost weight and seemed like a feather in his adrenaline charged arms.The doctor’s words still rang in his ears when he stated Johnny was dead.At that pronouncement, everything that had been important to Scott’s future died.It all died with Johnny.There was no purpose to go to the Circle A other than to see for himself what had warranted the murder of his brother.
“Joel,” Scott responded testily.“I’m not sure what is going to happen today.You own the Circle A.You have every right to see for yourself what is going on there….”
“But, what about Johnny…?”
“Johnny is dead.There’s nothing we can do now to help him.I just pray to God that I don’t see his body….”Scott swallowed hard at the thought that someone from the Circle A had stolen the body and was doing … he couldn’t even imagine what sort of person would take vengeance against a dead body.
Once again, Joel glanced at his friend.It was clear that there was no point in discussing this further.They were riding into a hell that Joel, in his impatience to start a business, had created. He had not given any thought or consideration to the people whose lives he was ruining.He just wanted to succeed.It had been so easy to sit in his luxury hotel back in San Francisco waiting for reports.He now had faces to put with the unknown lives that his investment had threatened to ruin.
Joel thought back to the time that he had spent under the command of Phil Sheridan.Sheridan had been an inspirational commander but unlike Scott, Joel had never aspired to be a leader.Now, he knew that the time had come to take responsibility for what he had set into motion.He had to make things right, not only for himself, but for the memory of Scott’s brother.
“What!”Murdoch Lancer exploded after the sheriff told him that Johnny’s body had disappeared, probably stolen.
Fred stood firm, prepared to take whatever verbal abuse Murdoch Lancer was going to throw at him.The man had not only lost his son, but now the body was gone as well.Fred’s visit with Scott Lancer had fully prepared him for the coming scene.
“What are you going to do about this?”Murdoch demanded.
“I’ve started a search, but I’ve got to tell you that I’m not too optimistic on finding the bod…him.”Fred looked to Victoria for support.
“Murdoch, I’m sure that Fred will do all that he can…”
Murdoch harrumphed, and looked away.“Have you told my son, Scott?”
“I told him first thing this morning…”
“And his response?”
“He and Mr. Todd went riding out to the Circle A….”
Murdoch spun on his heel to face the sheriff.“He still went out there?”He had already lost one son and was not about to chance losing another.“We’ve got to go and stop him….”Murdoch headed for the door only to be held back as Victoria grabbed his arm.
“Murdoch, the boys and I talked about this last night.Nick and Heath are going to the ridge above the Circle A and will be keeping a lookout.If anything happens they’ll let us know…”
“It’s the only thing that can be done until the rest of the Association arrives.Everyone knows that Scott and Joel are going out there today.Ted won’t harm them – of that I am certain!”
The tall man’s shoulders slumped as he resigned himself to Victoria’s words.“What can I do?”
“You’re going to have to be patient and wait.Nick and Heath will be back as soon as possible.In the mean time,” Victoria turned to the waiting Sheriff.“Tell the other members of the Association, when they arrive, that I’m calling a special meeting here in the morning.”
Fred put on his hat and headed toward the door.He paused, his hand on the knob.“Mr. Lancer, I’ll let you know if I find….”
Murdoch only turned away, heading back to the drawing room, his mind a whirl of dark thoughts.Johnny’s body was gone.He had nothing to take back to Lancer.How would he ever explain that to Teresa?To Jelly?Already, the images he had of Johnny alive were fading from his memory.They were replaced by the pale countenance of the body that lay so still in the doctor’s office.He remembered the blank stare of Johnny’s blue eyes – his eyes - the only part of Johnny that wasn’t Maria.For the briefest of seconds, he cursed the woman who had stolen his son, but immediately relented.He knew why she had left – the gambler was only an excuse.His cold heart had frozen her out of his life; she was a vibrant woman, much like their son.His indifference had succeeded in killing them both.
Now, Scott was playing a dangerous game and Murdoch was helpless to intervene.The tired man could only pray that God wouldn’t be so cruel to take both of his sons.
Scott and Joel rode their horses through the gates of the Circle A.To Scott’s experienced eye, everything looked as it should for a working ranch.That was until they reached the main house.There he saw the front porch littered with hired guns, much like the group that had littered the streets of Morro Coyo so many months ago.Looking into the blank faces of the men, Scott realized that he actually recognized many of them. Cherokee Joe and Kid Morgan both flanked Bushrod Smith who sat in a rocking chair closest to the front door.The gunhawk gave Scott a nod and a grin that sent shivers up the young man’s spine.How had his brother ever been friends with such evil men?
Riding up to the rail, Scott and Joel dismounted as Ned Bartch opened the front door and strode down the front steps.“Mr. Todd!You finally made it!”With a big smile plastered under his large mustache, Bartch stretched his hand out, welcoming his employer.
Awkwardly, Joel accepted the hand, somewhat embarrassed by the pleasant way he was being greeted.“Good to see you again, Ned.This is my friend, Scott Lancer…”
Ned turned from Joel and extended his hand to Scott.“Sorry to hear about your brother, Mr. Lancer….”
Scott was stunned by the sincerity of the greeting and found himself reaching for the hand of the man who ordered the murder of his brother.“How did you know….?”
“I told him, Lancer.”Bushrod Smith stood and came down the steps behind his boss.“I was in Morro Coyo during the Warburton fracas.I learn’t then that Johnny had another name that he went by.”
“He was working for me, did you know that?”Bartch glanced at Smith who nodded his confirmation.“Why just the other night he was out with my boys, help’n to protect the Circle A….”
“Then what happened yesterday?”Scott asked coldly, recalling the facts that the Barkleys had shared with him the day before.
“I’m afraid that was my doin’,” Bushrod looked down, studying his shoes, looking at anything but Scott Lancer’s eyes.His first instinct was to laugh in Lancer’s face, but Bartch had insisted on them telling a story to hide the truth, not wanting to frighten off Mr. Todd.“Seems that one of the boys, Doug Pinder, didn’t like working with Madrid on account of his bein’ a half breed…”The older gunhawk smiled inwardly as Scott bristled at the slur.“…’Ol Doug jus got it in his head that he knew he was better.I tried to warn him, but Johnny gunned him down in a fair fight.Isn’t that right boys?” The rest of the men sitting on the porch murmured their support for Bushrod’s explanation.
“What about the man on the roof of the saloon?”
“That was Doug’s brother.Them two was always a pair.Never learn’t to fight fair…”
Scott decided that he had heard enough lies.He turned away from Smith to face Bartch.“What about the hundred dollar bonus and the orders for no one to return to the Circle A until Johnny was dead?”
Ned bristled at the accusation, sticking to his story.“That is a bold faced lie!Why having Johnny Madrid on my payroll was like money in the bank.Everyone knew about Johnny…”
“So, why is he dead?”Scott interrupted, wanting to finally hear the truth.
“You’d have to ask Floyd Brasure about that…”
“Floyd Brasure?”Scott asked caught off guard.No one had mentioned anything about Floyd Brasure.
“You ask anyone in town; they’ll tell you that he had it bad for Johnny, ever since he crippled Floyd’s hand a few days back…”Ned paused when he saw Scott’s reaction to this bit of news.“It happened about four days ago.Floyd made a mistake; he was gonna hang an old friend of Johnny’s.Johnny shot him in his gun hand – crippled him for life.From what I’m told, Floyd decided to take advantage of Johnny – with Johnny being hurt and all – he thought he could take Madrid.Turned out he was wrong.They killed each other!”
Scott stared dumbfounded at Bartch.This was a totally different scenario than what he had been told by the Barkleys.The only thing that made him suspicious was the fact that Bartch’s porch was lined with many of the men that Scott knew hated his brother for what Johnny had done to Pardee and Warburton.He also remembered Val’s warning that there were many who wanted to see Johnny dead for his part in ending both fracas’s.Deciding that he had better act like he accepted the story, Scott made a mask of his face.“So you had nothing to do with the death of my brother?”
“Not a thing,” Bartch swore.
“And I suppose that you also had nothing to do with the disappearance of his body?”Scott looked carefully from one man to the other, noting their looks of surprise.
“His body is missin’?”Bushrod asked, scratching his chin.“That ain’t nothing that me or my boys would’a done.Steal’n a body… that ain’t right.Johnny deserved better than that.”This bit of news really surprised Smith.He had seen and done a lot of things in his life, but stealing a dead body wasn’t one of them.“Maybe some of the Mexicans in town know something about it…”
Ned shook his head in agreement.“I’m in the cattle business, not in the business of stealing the bodies of dead gun…dead men.”
“I had to ask,” Scott said looking away.The former cavalry officer did not believe their denials for one second.He felt sure that his brother’s body was somewhere on the Circle A and before he left Stockton, he would have it back.
Joel, who had been watching and listening to the entire interaction, wasn’t buying the story. The easterner decided that if he wanted to get out of this situation alive, that he had better start pretending. “Well, this is certainly good news!”Joel said lightly, knowing that his reaction was probably going to hurt Scott, who was mourning the loss of a brother.“So, how about we go inside and you show me the progress that you’ve made…”
Bartch smiled to himself thinking he now had Todd in line.Lancer appeared to have bought the entire story, leaving him and his partner in the clear of any wrong doing.He led the way up the stairs and into the house followed closely by Bushrod Smith.
“Damn!”Nick swore, taking the field glasses from his eyes.They were hidden behind a boulder about a mile from the Circle A – the same spot that Nick had used the other day to spy on Johnny.
“What?”Heath asked taking the glasses from his brother.He peered through the lenses and didn’t see anything.“Where’d they go?”
“Inside,” Nick rolled so that his back was now to the huge stone.He looked up at the blue sky and briefly studied a cloud that blocked the sun.“I can’t believe Lancer did that…”
“Sheridan would never have recommended that you enter the home of an enemy without proper backup….”
“So, you think that it’s a trap?”
Nick shook his head.“I don’t know, Little Brother.I don’t know.”
The two men sat in companionable silence for a few moments with Nick taking the occasional sidelong glance at his brother.
“You got something on your mind?”Heath finally asked, tired of being treated like he was sick or something.
Heath raised his eyebrows at the question and then sighed.“Yeah, I’m okay.”
“You and Johnny were pretty close…”
“Heath, what I’m tryin’ to say is that you don’t lose a close friend every day…”
“Nick, I appreciate your concern, but I’m alright.Johnny was a gunfighter.I guess that I always knew that he’d die by the gun.It’s just that I’m disappointed that he didn’t tell me…”
“About his father?”
Heath turned away, not wanting his brother to see the hurt in his eyes.He had given Johnny every opportunity to tell him about his father, but Madrid never did.Instead, he had shared that information with his mother – a total stranger.“I just don’t know why he didn’t tell me…”
“Well, from what you’ve said about Johnny, he was used to keepin’ secrets.The fact that he found his father and brother were just some of them.
Heath frowned, keeping his eyes averted.“Johnny deserved better than that bastard.”With a sigh, he turned back toward the Circle A and put the glasses up to his eyes.“I think that Scott Lancer really loved Johnny.For Johnny’s sake, I’m gonna make sure that nothing happens to him.”
Nick smiled; proud of his brother’s resolve to do some good in the name of his friend.From what Heath had told him, he would have liked Johnny Madrid as a friend, if only death hadn’t taken him away…
Scott and Joel spent an hour in the house, reviewing the maps and listening to Bartch’s tales of how he purchased some of the surrounding ranches.Scott had no illusions of how Bartch had been able to more than double the size of the spread in such a short period of time. The men sitting on the porch weren’t there for roping.They were there for their guns.It was clear from the maps that Bartch only needed three more properties and then he would have over twenty miles of a common property line with the Barkley Ranch.The small ranches would need protection, but Scott wasn’t sure how to go about accomplishing that.The only thought he had was that the Cattleman’s Association would be arriving soon, and hopefully the marshal would be coming too.As he studied the maps and listened to the lame explanations for the quick growth, Scott could only wonder – what would Johnny do?
By the time the meeting was winding down, Joel realized that he and Scott were in a nest of vipers – a nest that he had created with his own money and Bartch’s need for revenge. “Keep up the good work!”He said encouragingly, shaking Bartch’s and then Smith’s hands.“I’ll be heading back to San Francisco in the morning and I’ll be expecting great things from you…”
“Well, Mr. Todd,” Bartch started, pulling at the ends of his mustache.“There is one thing that you could do for us before you leave.”
“Anything!”Joel responded with a light brightness that nauseated Scott.
“The men could use a bonus.They’ve been working hard…”
“Of course!”Joel pulled his cheque book from his pocket and wrote a cheque for five hundred dollars, payable to the Circle A ranch.
Scott, who had cast a glance over his friend’s shoulder, nearly fainted.His friend was rewarding the outlaws who had killed his brother.Struggling to keep the bland mask on his face, he dug his nails into the palm of his hands.Joel was an idiot – nothing had changed since the end of the war.
Joel handed the note to Bartch with a flourish.“Tell the men that there will be plenty more where that came from when you are able to secure some additional lands.”
The four men shook hands before leaving the building.The gunmen were now lining the front steps and the path to the horses.To Scott it was like walking a gauntlet.He only felt relief when he was once again on his horse and headed out toward the main gate.
To his amazement, Joel spoke in a low voice without looking at Scott.“We’ve got to get out of here…”
“What…?”Scott asked disbelievingly.
“I can’t believe that they thought we fell for that bunch of malarkey…”
Scott glanced at his friend.This was a different Joel from the light hearted buffoon who had seemingly sucked up every lie that Bartch had spewed.Together, the men slowly walked their horses until they were out of gun range, then they spurred their mounts and headed back towards town.
“You think they bought it?” Bartch asked Smith.
“Nope,” Bushrod squinted through the mid day sunlight to watch the two men as they disappeared beyond the horizon. “Lancer wasn’t fooled for a minute.”
“Damn,” Bartch shook his head.“We could’a used more of Todd’s money….”
“So, you want to tell me the rest of the story?”Smith stood facing his employer with the other gunmen standing squarely behind him.
For a moment, Bartch was afraid that he had bitten off more than he could handle.“This is only the beginning boys.In a few days, we’ll have the northern end of the valley in the palms of our hands.
“What I want to know is – who is paying the freight?”Kid Morgan asked, twirling his gun.“I’m it in for the money…”
“And money you will have!” Bartch said loud enough for all of the men to hear.He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the pleased looks on the faces of the notorious gunmen who had come at Bushrod’s call.
Bartch climbed the steps followed closely by Smith.Once they were inside, Bushrod closed the door.“I want to hear it for myself.What exactly is going on here?”
Bartch nervously looked past Smith to make sure that no one was over hearing their conversation.“My partner is coming tomorrow…”
“Coming back, you mean,” Bushrod said bluntly.“I know there was a man here yesterday – a cigar smoker.I figure that he had to high tail it outta here so he could come back with the rest of them ranchers. That’s what Madrid figured out and that’s why we had to kill him”
A crooked smile crossed Bartch’s face.The secret was out.“Yeah, my partner will be here for the Association meeting.He’s got money – lots of it.He’ll see to it that you and your men are paid well for your talents.”
“And exactly what is it that you have in mind?”
want control of the entire valley.We
want the Barkleys and the Lancers – dead.”
Nick and Heath both breathed a sigh of relief when they saw Scott and Joel leaving the Circle A.“You better keep an eye on ‘em while they head back to town.I’ll go back to the ranch and let Mother and Mr. Lancer know that they’re all right.”
Heath nodded in agreement and watched as Nick turned his horse to the west and towards home.Mounting Charger, Heath decided to follow Scott and Joel at a distance, keeping a wary eye on anyone riding up behind them.The quiet man welcomed this chance to be alone.So much had happened within the past twenty-four hours that he barely had time to comprehend it all.Johnny had been more than just a kindred spirit; he had been a brother – a fellow loner whom he had met on his journey through life.From his own upbringing, Heath was painfully aware of how difficult his childhood had been because he had no father.He also remembered that what Johnny had faced as a child had been worse.
Heath could dream of a father who loved him, but died too soon.There was no such dream for Johnny, who had to face each day with the harsh reality that his father had thrown him and his mother out like so much garbage. Johnny once told Heath that according to his mother, his father had kicked them both off his ranch because he no longer liked the idea of having a Mexican for a wife and a mestizo as a son.Johnny spent his childhood as the object of ridicule and scorn – neither Mexicano nor gringo. He had no one to protect him; no one to champion his right to exist.As a result, Johnny had learned at an early age to fight for himself.From the first day that Heath had met him, Johnny had always cursed his father for what his mother said the man had done – for the life that Murdoch Lancer had condemned him to.
Heath’s mama told a different sort of story.She told him that his father had died in a mine collapse.Heath imagined that this father was a tall, ruggedly handsome man who would have loved to play with him and make his mama smile.It wasn’t until he was 19 that he finally learned the truth.Only after his mother died had he learned that he was the result of an affair she had with a business man whom she had tended to after he became ill.Going through her papers, he found the name of his father – Thomas Barkley – one of the wealthiest men in the state.Hell bent to raise a ruckus with his father, Heath headed toward Stockton.While on his way, he was stunned to learn that the man had been killed just a few weeks after his mother.Still ready to raise Cain, he continued on his journey to claim what was his.It was only by Victoria Barkley’s good graces and patience that he was accepted into his new family.From the time he had arrived in Stockton, his life had changed – for the better.Somehow, Heath had the feeling that his old friend hadn’t faired as well.
Riding along, Heath tired to imagine the circumstances that led Johnny to meet Murdoch Lancer.It must have been an extraordinary event.Knowing how much Johnny had despised the man, Heath was stunned by the fact that Johnny had apparently stayed for some period of time.It was the leaving that really burned at Heath.He remembered the day that Johnny had saved him from Floyd Brasure.He had asked Johnny about his father and Johnny had responded “….“Well, I did manage to find my own kind of truth.Turn’s out that I’m just Johnny Madrid.Always have been and always will be…”Heath took Johnny’s words to mean that Murdoch Lancer wasn’t his father.Clearly, the man who had held his friend’s body the day before was Johnny’s father. So, what had happened?There was a lot that Heath still wanted to know – like how Johnny had a brother.
Heath, who had remained watchful, was surprised when he rounded a bend and his prey was gone!Bringing his horse to a halt, he leaned forward in his saddle to look around when he heard the unmistakable sound of a pistol as it was being cocked several feet behind him.Slowly he raised his hands.“Don’t shoot…”Turning, he found Scott Lancer, followed by Joel Todd, riding out of the thick brush that lined the right side of the trail.He grinned when he recognized Scott and lowered his hands.“Boy howdy, you sure know how to give a fella a fright…”
“What were you doing?Did my father send you?”Scott’s voice was cold and stern, while his face was pale, dark circles of exhaustion rimmed his eyes.Obviously Scott was still mourning the loss of his brother.
A frown crossed Heath’s face.“No, I’m here because of Johnny…”
Scott considered the words and lowered his gun.“For Johnny?”
“For Johnny.He would be watchin’ your back if he could.So I’m doing the next best thing – makin’ sure that you don’t get yourself killed.”Heath smiled sheepishly, realizing that he had been slightly distracted from his duties and now found himself in this awkward position.
With a sigh, the edges of Scott’s mouth formed a slight smile.“So tell me, just how well did you know my brother….?”
The three men rode the remainder of the way to town with Heath telling stories about Johnny that clearly warmed Scott’s heart.Joel listened, amazed at all the living and near dying that Johnny had experienced in his short life.After a few miles, Scott had relaxed with Heath and they began discussing Scott and Joel’s visit to the Circle A.
“Mr. Todd…” Heath asked, drawing the easterner into the conversation.
“Joel…”Joel interrupted quickly; glad to finally have something to say.
“Joel,” Heath smiled, pleased to see Joel following through on his decision to take sides against his own ranch.“Seeing that you wanted Bartch to handle things all legal, it seems that there might be something more going on…”
“You mean more than Bartch making the Circle A the largest ranch in the valley?”
“That’s right. He’s forced a lot of people off their lands.He doesn’t need my family’s ranch to make the Circle A bigger, and yet, he’s made it clear that he has set his sights on the Barkley Ranch. …”
“What are you thinking?”Scott asked, noting the worried expression on Heath’s face.
“I got word from some people in town that Johnny had stumbled onto something – something big…I just don’t know what… Scott, have you gone through Johnny’s things yet?”
Scott’s face clouded.“I guess you haven’t heard…”
“Heard what?”Heath asked, wondering why Scott’s mood became suddenly dark.
“There’s nothing left to go through...”
Scott closed his eyes and turned away.Sensing his friend’s distress, Joel spoke up.“Someone broke into the doctor’s office and stole Johnny’s body; then they went to the livery and took his horse…”
“No!”The idea that anyone would steal Johnny’s body struck Heath like a knife.“Who would do that?”
“We don’t know, but I would suspect that it would be someone from the Circle A…”
Heath ran a hand through his short blond hair.“I can’t believe that!What about the things in his room?”
“Room?Where did Johnny have a room?”
“At the hotel, didn’t anyone tell you?”
“No,” Scott curtly responded.His sorrow was turning to anger with the reminder that Johnny had been murdered.With a determined look on his face, Scott spurred his horse forward.He had a mystery to solve and the place to start was the hotel.
Johnny awoke to a darkness that was blacker than any night he had memory of.Looking around, he realized that he was no longer in Consuelo’s barn.He found himself trapped within the dark confines of a wooden box. Confused, he strained to hear the words that were being spoken nearby.From the sound of it, a Padre was praying for him!It was then he realized that he was in a coffin!Panic rose within him as he felt the coffin being moved – swaying, none too gently, as it was being lowered into the ground.“No!”He shouted, hitting the sides of the box to let those outside know he was still alive.His shouts and bangs went unnoticed. Panting in the dark humid air of his prison, he listened again as shovels of dirt rained down on the lid, followed by the laughter of his father….
A wetness pressed against his cheek, startling the injured man.“What…?”Johnny mumbled as he opened his eyes.With a sigh of relief, he found himself laying on his right side in the hay of Consuelo’s barn.He didn’t have to look far to see that Barranca was standing over him, nuzzling his face with his damp nose.“Gracias, amigo…”Johnny whispered, slowly re-composing himself.He had no idea how long he had been dreaming, but the memory of his own burial had robbed him of any rest the past hours had given him.
Slowly he rolled to his back, the blood that had caked to his bandages pulled against the tender wounds, causing Johnny to hiss in pain.The motion of movement caused his head to spin and his empty stomach to rebel.Rolling back to his right side he puked up the bile that had accumulated in his stomach during the night.When he was done, he lay still, taking shallow breaths until the spinning in his head stopped and his stomach quieted.
It was hot; too hot. Opening his eyes again, he noted that the sun was high.‘Noon, I’ve slept too long,’ he thought to himself.Closing his eyes again, he tried to imagine the look on his father’s face when he was told that his ‘dead son’ was missing.The Old Man was sure to be angry that he wouldn’t have a body to take back to the ranch.Shaking his head, Johnny knew that wasn’t right.He had heard his father’s words and knew that they were heart felt.It was just wrong that Murdoch never had the guts to say those words when Johnny was ‘alive’.Johnny scowled remembering that his father had been as warm and compassionate as a cactus while he had been staying at the ranch.
It was deceiving Scott that tore at Johnny’s soul.Johnny had no idea that his brother was going to be in town when he quickly made his decision.Hearing Scott’s confession broke his heart.Scott was a good man, through and through, and didn’t deserve the pain that Johnny had put him through.Johnny resolved that somehow he would make it up to his brother for his loyalty and love.
Barranca once again nuzzled his master, reminding him that he was sleeping the day away.“Okay, okay…”Johnny moaned as he rolled to his stomach and hauled himself up on his hands and knees.Grabbing hold of a nearby stall rail, Johnny pulled himself to his feet, trying not to breathe too deeply, lest he strain his injured rib.Bits of hay stuck to his hair and clothing as he made his way outside and to the water pump near an empty trough.“This what you’re looking for, boy?” he panted, feeling light headed.Barranca followed Johnny out into the open coral, almost as if he was watching over the injured man.Slowly, and with great effort, Johnny moved the heavy iron handle of the pump until water began to spill out, filling the trough.He continued the motions, despite the pain, until there was an adequate supply of water for both himself and his horse.
Barranca came forward and began to drink, while Johnny stuck his head under the cool water.He was more than hot just from the noonday sun – he had a fever.After a quick dunk, he brought his head up, letting the water stream down his face and neck, soaking his shirt.Like a dog, he shook his head, his hair whipping his face as spatters of water rained out over the dry dirt.Instantly he regretted the action as his head once again began to spin.
With a groan, he sat on the edge of the trough until his world came to a stop.By then, Barranca had drunk his fill and had headed back into the shade of the barn.Johnny watched his horse, admiring the way in which the animal always took care of himself.Amused, Johnny realized that Barranca did a better job looking out for his needs than Johnny did looking after his own.Realizing that he needed to drink, Johnny found a discarded ladle on the ground near the pump.Standing, he returned to the pump handle and began the up and down motions until water was once again flowing.Rinsing off the ladle, Johnny then filled it – drinking the cold water, chilling him from the inside out.
With his thirst quenched, Johnny followed his horse into the barn and removed Emma’s supply bag from the saddle horn.The saddle should have been removed as well, but Johnny doubted whether he’d have the strength to put it back on when he was ready to leave.“Sorry, fella…”Johnny murmured gently patting the flanks of his friend.With the bag in hand, Johnny went to sit on a bale of hay.Opening the bag, he pulled out his rumpled clothing and extra bandages until he found the squished remains of the food she had packed in the bottom.His mouth began to salivate, causing him to realize just how hungry he was.Taking a small bite of the biscuit, Johnny gave a small sigh.The taste reminded him of a home he no longer had. The meat was a tender pot roast that practically melted in his mouth.He didn’t know much about Emma, but she was a fine cook and worked well under pressure – just like Teresa.
Johnny stopped chewing when he thought of the rest of his family back at Lancer.By now they had heard that he was dead.Bad news always traveled fast, and the fact that Johnny Madrid had been bushwhacked and then gunned down in Stockton was bound to have hit the telegraph wires like greased lightning.As difficult as it was to hear both Scott and Murdoch lament his death, he knew that Teresa and Jelly would take the news particularly hard.Jelly was like the father he always wanted.Though often grouchy and stubborn, Johnny knew that Jelly loved him without question.Ever since the time Johnny had found homes for all of Jelly’s kids, the old man had adopted the former gunslinger as if to replace the children he had lost.Johnny had never had a loving relationship with an older father figure.With Murdoch being as cold as he was, Jelly was the next best thing.
Thoughts of Teresa made his mind whirl. Though he loved her like a sister, the girl had a way about her that made him smile – made his heart warm.She was the only one who had begged him not to leave with Wes, and for that he was eternally grateful.With a smile, he realized that he would have a lot of making up to do once he returned to the land of the living.
For now, it was best that Johnny Madrid stay dead.
Finishing the food made him feel halfway human.The headache that had been pounding the top of his head had lessened to a dull tap.There was work to be done.The Circle A had to be put on notice that someone didn’t want them attacking any more of the small ranches.In order to do that, the men would have to be kept busy and Johnny knew exactly how to do that.
Bernardo rode out to the Barkley ranch – alone.None of the others dared to go to the rich gringos for help.They couldn’t see that the Barkleys were their only hope now that Madrid was dead
The older man had never been to the Barkley ranch.He had heard the stories that the house was like a grande Castillo, but not even the stories had prepared him for the mansion that he rode up to.Dismounting, a ranch hand came forward to take the reins while Bernardo straightened himself and strode to the front door.There was no hesitation in his hand as he made a fist and stuck the door with his knuckles.
Silas, the Barkley’s butler answered the door after the first knock.He had been in the library cleaning windows when he curiously watched as the stranger approached the house.While the man was dismounting, he went to get the door before Mrs. Barkley and her guest could be disturbed.“Yes?” he asked, opening the door in response to a thunderous knock.
“I’ve come to see Señor Heath…”Bernardo said boldly although he did not feel bold.He wanted to turn around and leave.In his heart he knew that coming to the Barkley’s would be a bad idea.
“Who is it, Silas?”Victoria called from the drawing room where she had been having coffee with Murdoch.
“Who shall I say is calling?”
Bernardo snatched his hat off his head.“I am Bernardo Cardoza, I come to speak with Señor Heath…”
By the time Bernardo had finished the sentence; Victoria was at the door and opened it wide.“Mr. Cardoza; you run the livery in Stockton…”
“Si.”Bernardo bobbed his head, surprised that Señora Barkley, would know who he was.Nervously, he looked around for Heath.“If it is not too much trouble, I would like to speak with….”
“My son is not here right now.Perhaps I can help you?”
Bernardo glanced apprehensively at the grand lady of Stockton.Everyone knew of Victoria Barkley, but Bernardo preferred to deal with her son.“I will come back…”
“Nonsense, you’ve ridden too long a distance just to turn around and go back to town.”With a smile, she invited the man into her home. “Please, come in.”
Sensing the sincerity of her words, Bernardo entered the grand foyer of the Barkley house.He was immediately impressed by the crystal chandelier that sparkled in the afternoon sun.Quietly he followed her into the sitting room, noting the tall gray-haired stranger who was standing near the fireplace. “I don’t want to be any trouble …”
“Nonsense,” Victoria admonished with a smile.“Now, what can I do for you?”
Again, Bernardo hesitated.“I am here on behalf of my sister and some of the other ranchers.Madrid, he was helping us…”
“Johnny?” Murdoch interrupted.
Bernardo turned to the tall man who seemed to take an interest at the name of his dead compadre.“Si, Madrid.He was helping us before he….”
“Johnny was helping you?Why?”Murdoch Lancer came forward to stand close to the older Mexican.
“That is what Madrid does…”
“But he was a hired gun…”
“No!” Bernardo vehemently protested.“He was more than that to us.He was a héroe!Many times over the years, Madrid would help los pobres at great risk to himself.What do you know of Madrid?”Bernardo took an instant disliking toward the arrogant man who questioned his now dead friend.Becoming defensive, Bernardo raised his voice as he asked “Just who are you – rich gringo?”
“Murdoch Lancer – Johnny’s father!”Murdoch responded, raising his own voice.
Bernardo’s eyes grew wide, flashing with anger.“You are a liar.Madrid had no father and he had no brother….”
“You’re wrong.I am his father and he does have a brother…”
“Then how is it that he grew up so poor?How is it that he had to fight to stay alive?Why is it that his death was mourned at the cantina while they celebrated at the saloon?”Bernardo continued his anger building.“Did you cast him out because he was mestizo and not worthy of your name?Is that why he fought with us....”
Victoria intervened, when she saw Murdoch clench his hands in fits of rage.An argument between Murdoch and Bernardo was not going to serve any good purpose.“Mr. Cardoza, why are you here?”
“Madrid said that your son – Heath, was a friend.I thought, perhaps, he could help….”
“We are trying to help everyone.The Cattlemen’s Association will be meeting in Stockton soon, and we’ll….”
“Señora, by then it will be too late.Bartch and his men have already ruined mi hermana’s rancho.They will be destroying the last rancheros between the Circle A and your rancho soon.”
“I’ll speak to my sons when they get back.I can’t promise you anything, but if we can, we will help.”
“Gracias, Señora,” Bernardo gave Victoria a small smile, but before he left the room, he cast one last glare in Murdoch’s direction.
Victoria returned to the drawing room after escorting Bernardo to the front door.Murdoch was gazing at the fire, his face a mask of confusion and rage.“What is it?” she asked, hoping to draw him into a civil conversation.
“I never knew…”Murdoch whispered, shaking his head.
“Could it be that I’ve been wrong about Johnny – about everything?”
Victoria sat down and studied her friend.“Murdoch, we’ve all heard the stories about Johnny Madrid and, quite frankly, none of them were very good…”
“But what if they were wrong?”
“What do you mean?’
“What if they were just that – stories?
“We all saw him out on the street.He was a gunfighter – a very good gunfighter…”
Murdoch interrupted - the pain of uncertainty in his eyes.“What if the stories were only half truths?What if Johnny was more?”
“Didn’t you ever ask him about his past?”
Murdoch’s face darkened and he turned to gaze into the fire.“No.”
“No?”Victoria asked incredulously.She remembered asking Heath all about his background, where and how he grew up.She couldn’t believe that Murdoch had never asked those questions of his own son.“Why didn’t you ask him?”
“Because I told him and his brother from the beginning that what is past is past – dead and gone, that our future was here and now…”
“But that wasn’t the case where Johnny was concerned.”Victoria concluded.“Why?”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow at this latest inquisition.“Having Johnny Madrid for a son didn’t sit well with the neighbors and my business associates…”
“And since when has Murdoch Lancer ever cared about what anyone thought?”Victoria interrupted her own anger beginning to blaze.
“Don’t think that I haven’t tried to answer that myself.I just….”
“Just what?What could have possibly been more important than your own son?”Victoria stood and faced her friend.“Do you think that it was easy for me to accept Heath into my home?No.But I’ll tell you now – I never denied him.He was a part of my family from the day he was born.Like any child of mine, I had him tell me everything!Just where did you get your information?”
Murdoch bristled, before realizing that Victoria was right.“Pinkertons.I have a report from the Pinkertons filled with the names and dates of all the men that Johnny had killed …”
“Did they include what he did when he wasn’t in gunfights?”
“Did it tell you which side of a fight he fought on?”
“No…”Murdoch started, stunned that his friend was choosing now, of all times to question him like this.
“Don’t you think that you should have asked?Did you ever think that they wrote what they thought made good reading – and not the whole truth?”
“You have no right to judge me!”Murdoch snapped defensively.
Victoria held her ground.“I’m not judging you, Murdoch.I’m just stating facts!There was a lot more to your son than you apparently ever gave him credit for.”
Murdoch caught the glare in her eyes and knew she was right.The exhausted man closed his eyes, remembering Johnny’s dead body – the only vision he had left of his son.“I should have done a lot of things differently.He’s gone now.What difference does it make now?”
“What difference?There’s a fight coming.A fight that YOUR son apparently felt strong enough to get involved in.So, what are you going to do about it?”
Murdoch opened his eyes, as if for the first time.Victoria Barkley was standing there, her green eyes ablaze with annoyance.She was right, and he knew it.It was time for him to face the fact – he was Johnny Madrid’s father and Johnny’s memory deserved more than just a back page story about how another gunfighter had met his end on some dirty street.His son had died fighting for a cause and Murdoch was going to make that fight his own – for Johnny.
Johnny tended to his wounds as best he could before mounting Barranca and heading out to the Circle A.Keeping to the shelter of wooded areas, he came across a pasture of Circle A cows that were apparently unguarded.Dismounting, he pulled a pair of wire cutters he had found in the barn, from his coat pocket.Within minutes, there was a gaping hole in the wire fencing.
Next, he worked his way along the edge of the woods until he came to a pasture of dry hay.The wind was blowing directly towards the herd.With a smile, he pulled a tin of matches from his other pocket and started several small fires that were quickly fanned by the winds until the entire section was blazing.The cattle, frightened by the fire, began to stampede through the open fence.
It didn’t take long before the fire bell rang and the area was flooded with hands who tried to extinguish the burning field.Bushrod and several of the other gunhawks joined in, attempting to save the field, but there was no turning the tide.Exhausted and covered with soot, they decided to let the fire burn itself out.As the men gathered to watch the remains of the field burn, their attention was drawn to a lone figure sitting on a horse at the top of a nearby hill.The heat from the fire caused the light to flicker like a mirage, but it was a mirage that every man to a one recognized – Johnny Madrid!
“I ain’t never seen no ghost before,” one hand gulped as he turned to run in the opposite direction.
A strong arm reached out and snatched the man’s collar before he could go too far.“That ain’t no ghost…”Bushrod spat.
“No?” the frightened man asked.“Then what is it?”
Bushrod looked from the man and back up at the crest of the hill.The lone figure was gone.“Your mind was playin’ a trick on you…”
“Oh, yeah?Then how come we all seen the same thing?”
As much as Johnny enjoyed the sight of the Circle A crew scrambling to contain the mischief that he had made, he was now exhausted from his activities.Muscles that had been damaged the day before, protested every movement and motion.Also, he felt the warmth of blood as it once again seeped from his wounds.Blood loss, mixed with pain was making Johnny dizzy.He needed something if he was to return to his hiding place in one piece.From his belt, he pulled out a small brown bottle.The little bottle had been singing to him from the moment he awoke.Removing the cork, he took a sip of the bitter liquid and closed his eyes. In a matter of moments he was enveloped in the deceptively gentle embrace that the narcotic gave him.He knew the dangers of using laudanum.He had fallen victim to it’s treachery before, and was determined never to let that happen again.But, the present circumstances demanded action and he had to respond.The laudanum was a tool that he would use sparingly.
With the pain almost gone, Johnny sat straighter in his saddle and guided his horse back to Consuelo’s ranch.He made good time, cutting through the wooded hills, keeping out of sight until he was safely hidden in the confines of the little barn.This time, he was able to remove Barranca’s saddle before he collapsed into the pile of hay that was his bed.
Bernardo felt like a fool for thinking that he could ever find help at the Barkley ranch.He was furious with himself for letting that old gringo goad him into a fight – defending his compadre.The gringos were so quick to believe the worst of any Mexicano, so it shouldn’t have been any surprise that Madrid’s own father didn’t even know the truth. ‘Estúpido,’ Bernardo swore, describing himself as much as he did the gray haired man who claimed to be Madrid’s father.
Too angry to return to town, Bernardo decided to ride by his sister’s place to see what was left.He rode steadily until he came to the bend in the road.Pulling hard onthe reins, he brought his horse to an abrupt halt.There was nothing left.Only the charred remains of what had been Consuelo’s home.Riding closer, he shook his head sadly.Consuelo and her husband had worked very hard to make a good life for themselves.It only took one night for the Circle A to wipe it all away.
Entering the yard, he was pleased to see that the little barn had survived, and possibly some of the livestock.Dismounting, he dropped the reins to his horse and headed to the barn.Opening the door, his eyes opened wide.There, standing in one of the stalls was Barranca – his friend’s beloved horse.Who in their right mind would think to hide a horse in the barn of a burned out ranch?“Barranca! Como esta?How did you get here?”The man smiled as Barranca responded to Bernardo’s soft voice and firm hands.So elated was he to have found Johnny’s horse, he almost missed seeing Johnny’s body until he was ready to lead the horse out into the yard.“Madre de Dios!” he swore, crossing himself as he bent to inspect the ‘dead’ body.As he touched Johnny’s exposed hand, he was further stunned to find the flesh pink and supple as if the man was still alive.
It was then that Johnny moaned, nearly causing Bernardo to have a heart attack.“Yi!” Bernardo jumped back as Johnny’s feverish blue eyes opened.“Dios!”Bernardo shouted, scrambling to get away.
“Wait….”Johnny called softly, causing the older man to stop in his tracks.
“Juanito…?”Bernardo whispered softly.
“Si,”Johnny sighed closing his eyes.
Creeping forward, Bernardo observed Johnny’s chest as it rose and fell with each breath that he took.“Not dead?How?”
“Long story,” Johnny moaned.
His fear gone, Bernardo went to Johnny’s side.The shiva shirt was soaked with blood and dirt.“This is bad, amigo.You have lost much blood.I need to get you back to town…”
“No,” Johnny grasped the other man’s wrist in a weak hold.“Too dangerous.Too much to do…”
“But you will die if you stay here…”
Johnny laughed at this comment.“Already done that this week.”Opening his eyes, he caught the pained look of concern in Bernardo’s eyes.“It’ll be alright.I just need to rest…”
Bernardo unbuttoned Johnny’s filthy shirt and shook his head.“You need clean bandages,” placing a hand on Johnny’s forehead he felt the fever that was beginning to build.“Por favor, let me get some help…”
“No,” Johnny shook his head and struggled to sit up.“I have a lot to do tonight and I’m going to need your help in the morning.There is a man returning to town for the meeting…”
“The hombre you asked about?”
“Si.I need you to come to me as soon as he arrives…”
“That I can do.But you need help…”Bernardo went to his own saddlebag and pulled out the clean shirt that he always carried with him. Quickly he tore the shirt into strips to use to clean the wounds.Then he filled a bucket with water from the pump and returned to the barn. After letting Johnny drink his fill of the cool liquid, he gently helped Johnny out of his ruined shirt and began the process of removing the bloody bandages. The wounds were red and inflamed and Johnny hissed every time Bernardo dabbed them with a damp cloth.“This is not good, chico.These need stitches…”
“No time,” Johnny whispered, exhausted by the ache of his wounds.The laudanum had long since worn off, leaving Johnny flinching with pain as Bernardo poked and prodded him.
Having done as best as he could, Bernardo found the clean bandages that Emma had provided and wrapped them around Johnny’s chest.He was about to throw away the shiva shirt when Johnny held on to it.“Help me put it back on…”
“Why?It is dirty…”
“It is the shirt of los muertos.That is what I am until this is over.”
“And what of your papa and hermano, don’t they deserve to know that you live?”
Johnny’s eyes flashed at the mention of his family.“No one is to know, comprende?”
“No.I do not understand, but I will do as you say.”
“Good,” Johnny smiled weakly, his eyes drifting closed.
“Rest now, amigo.I will return later with some food.”Bernardo pulled a horse blanket off one of the stall rails and shook it several times before placing it over his injured friend.Somehow, the young man had it in his head that he was going to continue to protect them.Bernardo resolved that he would do all in his power to help Johnny be strong enough to succeed.
Three riders beat a path down the main street of Stockton, their horse’s hooves pounding the dry dirt into a fine dust.Scott was the first to arrive at the hotel.Dismounting, he tied his horse to the rail before he marched into the building, going straight to the front desk.“I’d like the key to Johnny Madrid’s room…”
“I’m sorry, sir.The contents of the room now belong to the hotel, to pay his bill…” The manager started to explain.He was totally caught off guard when Scott reached across the counter and grabbed him by the collar.
“I’m only going to say this once, so listen carefully.”Scott brought the man’s face close to his and he spoke through gritted teeth.“His name was Johnny Lancer.He was my brother.I will take care of any outstanding bills he may have had.Now, give me the key!”Scott released his grip, sending the manager flying back into the key cabinet that stood behind the counter.
With a shaky hand, the manager found the key to Johnny’s room.“Room three at the end of the hallway…”
Without another word, Scott headed to the stairs mounting them two at a time with Heath and Joel following close behind.Taking long strides he made it to the end of the hall and quickly unlocked the door.The room was just as Johnny had left it, the bed unmade, his rifle tucked into a corner along with his saddlebags.While Scott went to inspect the saddlebags, Heath and Joel quickly checked the dresser drawers and closet.On the dresser were Johnny’s toiletries, but the drawers and closet were empty.
Scott sat on the bed holding the leather bags.He had given these bags to Johnny after their first cattle drive.He had noticed that Johnny’s old bags were worn and falling apart, so Scott had a pair made for him, having them engraved with the Lancer ‘L’.Holding the bags now, he saw the Johnny had defaced the ‘L’ – pounding the leather until it was a smooth circle.He couldn’t say that he blamed his brother for feeling that way.Scott was no longer proud to be a member of a family that so easily turned away one of its own.
Undoing the buckles, the first pouch was empty.In the second pouch, he found a scrap of paper – a receipt from the bath house for some laundry that Johnny had dropped off.That was all.
Scott sat in disappointment.“There’s nothing…”
Heath took the receipt from Scott.“I know this place, it‘s just down the street.The ticket is dated yesterday….”
A look of hope appeared in Scott’s weary eyes.They had a clue.If Johnny had discovered something, found another explanation for Bartch’s actions, then retracing his steps might lead Scott to the same information.Scott could only hope that he could solve the riddle and formulate a plan of action before he rushed headlong into the same trap that had killed his brother.
On their way down the street, the three men were nearly run over by two wranglers from the Circle A.The trio stopped when the wranglers headed straight for Joel.Afraid of a confrontation, Joel took comfort in knowing that Heath and Scott stood beside him.
“Mr. Todd,” one of the wranglers came forward, taking his hat off.“There’s been a fire out at the ranch!”
“A fire?Is everyone all right?”
“We lost some cattle, but the boys who are staying are rounding them up…”
“What do you mean ‘staying’?”Scott asked intrigued by the edgy actions of the two men.Both of the wranglers seemed to be distraught, holding their hats in their hands and nervously turning them round and round.
“Me and Jake here, we ain’t gonna work on no haunted ranch!”
“Haunted?”Heath interrupted.“What happened?”
“He was there I tell you, right as rain, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself!”Jake spoke up for the first time.
“Who?” Scott asked grabbing Jake by the shoulders.
“The ghost of Johnny Madrid, that’s who!”Jake answered, his eyes wild with fright.“He was there on the ridge – he appeared in the smoke and disappeared just as fast!”
“It must have been the heat…”Heath surmised.
“It weren’t the heat!I wasn’t the only one ta seem ‘im!”Jake looked to his buddy who nodded in agreement.“Everyone there saw him and then he was just gone! Disappeared!I ain’t workin’ on no haunted ranch.I’ve collected my wages and I’m headin’ south.I just thought you should know….”With that, Jake shook himself free of Scott’s grasp and headed toward the saloon, his friend in tow.
The three men were left stunned.Heath was the first to speak.“The ghost of Johnny Madrid?”
Scott pressed his lips into a thin line, his mind working overtime.“Whoever stole Johnny’s body is using it to scare the hands at the Circle A!”
“Whoa there,” Heath didn’t like the idea and didn’t think it possible.“I don’t know of anyone from these parts who would do that!Stealing the dead just ain’t natural and then using the body to scare people…”
“Who has the most to gain if the hands at the Circle A are scared off?”Scott demanded.
“Besides the Barkleys?”Heath asked wanting to know how Scott saw his own family fitting into this.
Scott backed off, a bit.“Besides your family.”
“The Mexicans?” Joel offered.
The three men looked at each other.Scott then remembered how Bernardo was so closed mouthed about Johnny when they went to the livery first thing in the morning.Turning on his heel, Scott went to the livery only to find a young dark haired boy in the place of the older man.“Where’s Bernardo?”Scott demanded, frightening the boy.
Heath shot a hard look at Scott before going to the boy and kneeling next to him.“¿Cómo estás?” The wide-eyed boy bowed his head and looked away, still frightened by the angry gringo.“¿Dónde esta Señor Cardoza?”Heath persisted gently.
With a glance up at Scott, the boy moved closer to Heath, as if seeking his protection.“He goes to your rancho,” the boy whispered in Heath’s ear.
Pleased that the boy was speaking English, Heath whispered back.“When will he be back?”
“Soon, I think.He told me he will only be gone a few hours.”
“You see those horses across the street?”Heath pointed to the two horses that Joel and Scott had rented for the day.”
“Si,” the boy nodded.
Heath dug into the pocket of his vest, pulled out a dime and pressed it into the boy’s hand.“You take care of them for me, okay?”
A look of delight crossed the boy’s face and he gave Heath a large smile.“Gracias Señor!”
With a quick ruffle to the boy’s hair, Heath walked away, taking Scott firmly by the arm.“You know, I don’t much like scaring children and neither did Johnny…”
Heath’s words had their desired effect and Scott immediately backed down.“Sorry,” he mumbled, rubbing his tired eyes.“I just wanted to know…”
“I know what you wanted, but that boy ain’t no part of this.The boy said that Bernardo went out to the ranch and that he should be back soon.”Heath gave Scott the once over.The man was exhausted – dead on his feet.Even the best of men made errors when they were so tired.Heath softened his tone out of respect for Scott’s losses. “How about you go back to the hotel and get some rest.I’ll track down this ticket and I’ll get back to you as soon as I find anything out.”
Silently Scott nodded his agreement and with Joel beside him he headed back toward the hotel.He was just starting to climb the steps to the hotel he heard a familiar voice.
“Scott, Scott Lancer!”
To Scott’s amazement, Jelly and Val Crawford were walking toward the hotel.Following close behind were Ben Anderson and Granville Trimper, members of the Cattlemen’s Association.The four men had ridden the train from Green River earlier in the day and were just arriving for tomorrow’s meeting. Val and Jelly practically ran to greet their friend while Ben and Granville, both large men, trundled after them, huffing and puffing to keep up.
“What happened?”Jelly immediately demanded as soon as he was within distance of Scott.
“Who done it?”Val chorused after.
Seeing his friends brought Scott’s turbulent emotions to the surface. He looked at their faces, so obviously filled with sorrow and concern that his heart began to swell.“He’s gone…” was all he could whisper.
“We know’d.Your pa sent a telegram to the ranch last night.I’m awful sorry…”Jelly started, tears brimming in his eyes.“How’d it happen?”
Scott wanted to answer, but the words caught in his throat.“A gunfight, here in town.”Joel explained.“Someone tried to bushwhack him in front of the saloon, and when that didn’t work, they got him someplace else…I’m sorry.”
The four newcomers listened and bowed their heads with respect.“They know who done it?”Val asked, ever the lawman.
“Floyd Brasure….”Scott spoke up.
“He used to ride with Pardee,” Val recognized the name.“He never liked Johnny.Always held a grudge of some sort…”
“Well, he had a reason this time.Johnny shot his gun hand earlier in the week and Floyd wanted his revenge.They killed each other…”
“Scott, I’m sorry about Johnny,” Ben Anderson started.
The man’s words inflamed Scott.“Are you?Aren’t you the one who told Murdoch that having Johnny around was a liability?”
“I said no such a thing,” Ben vehemently denied.“Johnny helped save our part of the valley from Pardee and Warburton.Now why would I say anything against him?I only told Murdoch what some of the other business men were thinking, that’s all.”
Scott viewed Anderson with narrowing eyes, sensing that something was wrong.It was then that Granville spoke up.“He’s tellin’ you true, Scott.Lots of people didn’t want to do business with a gunhawk, but…”
“But when it time for someone to be taken care of, he was sure handy to have around.”Scott finished bitterly his eyes flashing at the two rotund men.
“So, where is he?” Jelly asked breaking mounting tension.
Scott and Joel looked at each other.Joel, sensing Scott’s reluctance to say, spoke up again.“He’s gone…”
“Gone?What’s that supposed ta mean?”Val demanded.
“Someone broke into the doctor’s office last night and stole the body… and his horse from the livery too!”
“What’s the law doin’ about it? Nothin’?”Val snorted.
“I spoke with the sheriff this morning.He was going to see what he could find…”Scott was looking at Jelly, concerned for the man who loved Johnny like a son.“Jelly…?”
Jelly turned away, not wanting Scott to see his tears.“Gosh durn it!” he swore.“I don’t even git ta say goodbye…”
Scott laid a comforting hand on Jelly’s shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze.“We’ll find him and we’ll take him back to Lancer…”
“Where’s your pa?”Ben asked, oblivious to the emotional moment that was playing out in front of him.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care…”Scott retorted, his attentions still focused on Jelly.
“What?”Jelly asked turning around to face Scott, wiping his eyes on the back of his sleeve.“You and your pa, you need each other now mor’n ever…”
“He killed Johnny…”
“Scott, he did no such thing.Why ya just tol’ me that Floyd what’s-his-face done it…”
“You know what I mean, Jelly!If he hadn’t said those words, Johnny would still be alive.He’d still be back at Lancer where he belongs!”
“Don’t ya think that your pa has paid enough for what he done?”
“No, I don’t.”Scott said firmly, almost glaring at the older man.
“Now hold it right there, the two of ya!”Val intervened.“Johnny wouldn’t want ya fighting like cats and dogs!He’s dead an gone.Fight’n ain’t gonna bring him back.”He paused when he saw both Scott and Jelly relaxing a bit.“Now Scott, I’m mighty hungry, I been travelin’ all day and I could use a good meal and by the looks of it, so can you.I say let’s get something to eat and you can fill us in on what is going on around here and why Johnny really got killed.”
Scott and Jelly had both softened their expressions.Val was right.Their fighting wasn’t going to help anything and Scott wanted to do something – anything so that Johnny’s death wouldn’t be meaningless.“Sorry, Jelly,” Scott stuck out his hand.
Jelly looked at the hand, biting his cheek in thought he grasped it firmly.Small sad smiles crossed both men’s faces.There was enough going on without him and Scott fighting.“I know’d ya didn’t mean nothin’.We all loved yer brother, he was the best.”
“Yes, he was,” Scott sighed, refusing to let his emotions get the better of him.“I was just going to the hotel to get some dinner.How about you joining me and Joel and I will fill you in on the situation?”With everyone nodding their approval, the group headed toward the hotel.
Val paused when he noticed that Ben and Granville weren’t following.“You fellas gonna join us for dinner?”
The two big men looked at each other for moment.“You go ahead.”Ben responded first.“I’ve got some things to take care of before the meeting…”
“Right,” Granville agreed.“Don’t wait for me…”
Val regarded the two men with an odd look.Something had changed since they had gotten off the train.Gone was the camaraderie that they had shared.Too concerned about Scott to give it another thought, the sheriff of Green River, turned and entered the hotel.
Out on the street, the two men separated going their own ways.One of them now walked with a large smile on his face.Madrid was dead!Good riddance!He had never liked the idea of Bartch hiring Johnny.The dead gunhawk had ruined more than one plan of his.Now, with Madrid permanently out of the way, he had a real chance of grabbing the prize that had always eluded him – control of the entire San Joaquin Valley.
Heath headed down the street, the receipt in hand.He knew that he could be on a wild goose chase, but if the rumors were true, then Johnny had discovered a secret that had gotten him killed.Heath prayed it was true.He hated to think that Johnny was killed out of revenge for what Johnny had done to save his life.When Heath arrived at the scene of Johnny’s last gunfight and saw that Floyd Brasure had shot his friend, a sharp pain stabbed his own heart.Was he to blame for Johnny’s death?He didn’t want to think that just because Johnny had saved him from Brasure’s lynch mob that he was now laying dead in the street.It was a fear that he had not shared with anyone, including his own family.How could he forgive himself if he had been the true cause of Johnny’s death?
It was late in the afternoon and Heath knew that his chances of catching the barber were slim, but he had to have an answer.Luck was with him when he found the barber just preparing to close up shop for the day.“Heath!You coming for a haircut?”The balding older man greeted Heath with a broad smile.
Despite the urgency of the situation, Heath found himself blushing.He had only let the man cut his hair once – and that had been enough.The barber had left his sideburns uneven and had given Heath the worst haircut of his life.“Sorry, don’t have time today.I’m here about Johnny Madrid…”
The older man shook his head and headed back into his shop.“To think, I gave him his last shave….”
Heath raised an eyebrow at that, wondering how Johnny could have survived the shave and yet die on the street.“So, Johnny was here yesterday…?”
“Chased every customer I had out of here, just by walkin’ in the door.”The barber picked up his broom and began to sweep the floor around the chair.
“Did he drop his clothes off here?”Heath held out the receipt, handing it to the older man.
The barber pulled his glasses from his breast pocket and put them on to examine the slip.“Yep, I wrote that out.He left some laundry here for Sophie to take care of…” he handed the slip back to Heath who turned to leave.“You won’t find it there…”
Heath turned; his face a puzzle.“What do you mean?”
“Sophie came by this morning and told me that someone had stolen Madrid’s clothes off the line during the middle of the night! Can you imagine someone stealing a dead body, a horse and some clothes?It just don’t make sense.Just like all those questions Madrid was askin’ yesterday….”
“Questions?”Instantly Heath’s ears perked up.“What was he asking about?”
“Cigars, if I remember correctly…”
“This is important,” Heath said turning to face the man directly.“Tell me exactly what Johnny asked about.”
Knitting his eyebrows, the old man thought for a moment.“Well, he came in for a bath ‘n a shave when we started to talkin’.I told him that he was my second customer askin’ for a bath.Ya see, the the first one was a big man from Spanish Wells, a cigar smoker…”
Heath’s eyes blue sparkled with interest. “Can you describe the man?”
“Let’s see,” the barber closed his eyes and scratched his chin.“Big man, about six foot tall, heavy with solid gray hair and green eyes.‘Ol Johnny Madrid seemed right excited about this.Ya think this is important?”
Heath had to refrain from smiling.“Did the man have a name?”
“Nope.He never said his name, but I think he should be back for that meeting your Ma is planning…”
The need to smile was quickly replaced with a flash of concern.“You think the man is returning for the Association meeting?”
“Why your face has ‘bout the same look that Madrid gave me when I told him!This is important, isn’t it?”
“You never know...What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Why?” the barber asked suspiciously.
“You think you could come to the meeting at the hotel and see if the man is there?”
“I guess I could….”
“Fine,” Heath smiled.“I’ll meet you here around noon.The meeting is to start at one o’clock.”Heath headed towards the door and paused as another thought crossed his mind.“Who knew what you told Johnny?”
The man scratched the top of his head.“No one I think….unless…”
“Unless what?”Heath asked impatiently.
“Well, I got that small knothole in the back wall – you know, along the alley.Now that I think of it, I saw ‘ol Floyd Brasure hanging around there yesterday mornin’….”
“Are you sure?”
“As I can be.I saw him coming out the alley right after I finished Madrid’s shave…”
“Thanks,” Heath said, hurrying away before the barber asked questions.Now he was sure that Johnny had stumbled onto something big.If Brasure had been listening and went to Bartch with what he had found out – then it made sense for Bartch to send Smith and the other guns into town to make sure that Johnny never had the chance to tell anyone his secret. That meant that Brasure shot Johnny for the bounty! Heath never wished anyone dead, but knowing that Johnny had killed Brasure somehow made the whole situation easier to live with.It didn’t come close to making up for the death of a valued friend but it helped.
With a somewhat lighter heart, Heath headed back toward the hotel to get his horse.It was time to get back to the ranch.He decided not to share this information with Johnny’s brother, remembering how exhausted Scott looked when he left him.For now, Heath would work on this new information alone.He hated to get Scott’s hopes up, only to have them dashed by misinformation.
Mounting Charger, Heath also puzzled over why anyone would steal Johnny’s body, horse and clothing.It didn’t seem right, but Heath was sure that once they discovered the identity of the man from Spanish Wells, all of the other mysteries would be explained.
Heath headed out and was just about to leave the town limits when he was passed by Bernardo Cardoza traveling in the opposite direction.The man seemed to be in a rush - a look of concern on his face.Heath attempted to hail the man, to talk about Johnny, but Bernardo just kept moving as if there was a bandit after him.Without giving the man’s strange actions another thought, Heath continued on his way home.
Nick returned to the ranch and gave his report to his mother and Murdoch Lancer.He felt awkward, speaking to the older man.He knew Heath was angry at Murdoch for the way he had nearly gotten Johnny killed during the first shoot out.After all that had happened yesterday, Nick had only sympathy for the man who now wore a bruise to his chin courtesy of Heath Barkley. Nick just couldn’t be angry; the man had just lost a son and his other son wasn’t speaking to him.When he was done reassuring Murdoch that Scott was safe, the big man simply left the room and went outside.
“What’s with him?”Nick asked his mother after making sure Murdoch was out of ear shot.
“We got news about Johnny after you left…”
“News?What more could happen?”
“Someone broke into Howard’s office last night and stole Johnny’s body. They didn’t stop there either – they stole his horse too.”
“No,” Nick whistled, sitting down heavily in a chair.The dark haired rancher was completely dumbfounded to hear that someone would steal a dead body.“Any idea who?”
Victoria shook her head.“Murdoch seems to think that the Circle A….”
Nick shook his head interrupting.“We watched that place from sunup to nigh on to noon.Didn’t see any sign of that flashy palomino of his or of anyone moving a body.”Nick spun one of his spurs, flicking it with his index finger while he considered other explanations for the disappearance of Johnny Madrid’s body.“It doesn’t make sense.How’s he takin’ it?”Nick glanced out the French doors where he could see Murdoch leaning against one of the porch pillars.
“Hard,” Victoria stood and went to the window.She watched her friend.He wore the mantle of a broken man – his shoulders slumped as if in defeat.“He feels responsible for what happened to Johnny…”
Nick stood to stand beside his mother, puzzled by her comment.“He had no idea that Brasure was gunnin’ for the boy….”
“It goes beyond that,” Victoria took Nick’s arm and led him back to the sofa.“He and Scott were having an argument and Johnny overheard his father say some rather unkind words about him. Johnny simply left, leaving a note with a hand rather than leaving a note for his father.Now, he doesn’t even have a body to take back to Lancer with him…”
Nick looked out the window at the lonely man.“Scott should be here…”
“Yes he should.”Victoria agreed biting her lip.“Have one of the hands saddle my horse.I feel like going for a ride.”
“To town?”Nick smiled, standing.
“Could be.Where’s Heath?”
“I had him follow Scott into town, just to make sure that nothing happened.”
“Good thinking.This has been very stressful on your brother.I think that he was a lot closer to Johnny than he told us.”
“You’re right.Those two had a lot in common.I can’t imagine what it would have been like not to have father around…”Nick paused, looking up at the painting of his father that hung above the fireplace mantle.Thomas Barkley had been a caring father and husband.It had hurt them all when Heath showed up.They felt betrayed – that the life that they knew had all been a lie.It had taken a trip to Strawberry, the place where Tom Barkley had met Heath’s mother, for them all to learn the truth.To their relief, the event that had created Heath was a one time affair.Tom left without knowing that he had fathered a child.
Nick had a lifetime of memories of his father. Heath had none.After the initial shock of realizing he had another brother, Nick warmed to the younger man.Nick took Heath under his wing – showing him many of the things that his father had shared with him. Glancing out the window at Murdoch Lancer, Nick began to wonder if that father had ever taken the time to get to know his now dead son.
Victoria, sensing her son’s mood, stood to place a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Murdoch never gave himself the chance to be a father to Johnny.He’s realized, too late, that there is more to being a father than just giving orders.He learned more today about Johnny than he did in the past eight months; it hurt him deeply.Johnny Madrid – Johnny Lancer was more than just a gun fighter.Today we learned that, to some, he was a hero.There’s a whole other side to Johnny than the newspapers ever told – a side that Murdoch never let himself get to know….”Victoria leaned against her tall strong son, suddenly very grateful for the years that Tom Barkley had been there to guide them all.
“I’m one of the lucky ones, aren’t I?”Nick put an arm around his petite mother, giving her a hug.
“Yes, you are.”
“Thank you.”Gently he kissed the top of her head.“I guess that I had better see about your horse…”
Victoria looked after her son, her heart filled with a happiness that almost made her feel guilty in light of the sadness that was consuming Murdoch Lancer.If only her friend had learned to enjoy the gifts that God had given him.At least he still had Scott, and she was going to make it her business to let Scott Lancer know that no mater what, he and Murdoch were still family.
Bernardo rode straight into town, going directly to the livery.Juan, his cousin’s son, was still there watching things.The older man dismounted, looking about nervously.“How goes it, chico?” he asked the boy, affectionately tousling the child’s silky black hair.
“Bueno!”Juan chimed.From his pocket he pulled out the dime Heath had given to him.“Señor Heath gave me this!”
Bernardo smiled in spite of the anxiety that he was experiencing.He was worried that he needed to get back to Madrid; not Lancer as the old gringo had tried to tell him.The boy was in bad shape.He needed medicine, bandages and food.A doctor was what was really needed, but the gunhawk had stressed that was out of the question.“Juan, I’m going to close the shop now.Run home to your Papa.Tell him I will be by to see him later esta noche …”
“Cena femenino?”Juan liked it when his uncle Bernardo came for supper.
“No,” Bernardo shook his head.“Later, I will be by.Run along now…”Bernardo watched as the happy child danced his way down the street, dodging the horses and buggies of the gringos. Just as he was about to close the door, he caught sight of two large men that fit the description that Johnny had given him.Looking closely, he seemed to think that one of the men seemed to be familiar.“Dios!”Bernardo swore realizing he had no way of knowing for sure if one of the men was the man that Johnny was looking for.He watched with great interest as one of the men pulled a cigar out of his breast pocket and offered it to his companion.Bernardo made a mental note of the man – figuring he was the one Madrid was looking for.
With that resolved, Bernardo collected the supplies Johnny had requested as well as a few he hadn’t.Going to his supply cabinet, he put together a kit bag of medicines he used to tend injured horses.Johnny’s wounds needed to be cleaned and re-stitched.The man had confidence that if he could stitch a horse he could sew up an injured gunfighter.He also put together a small tin of some salted meat and biscuits he kept on hand.
Satisfied that he had all that Madrid needed, he packed the items into a saddlebag.He then saddled the black stallion that the pistolero had used a few nights earlier, tying the bag to the saddle.He would take the stallion with him for Madrid’s use.What Juanito had in mind was dangerous work and the gunfighter had requested the use of the stallion again. Bernardo wanted protection for the other small ranchers but not at the cost of Madrid’s life.Bernardo’s instructions were to wait until dusk before returning to Consuelo’s barn.Then, under the cover of darkness, Johnny would begin his night activities.
Heath had almost made it home when he saw Victoria and Nick headed toward him. Bringing Charger to a halt, he waited for his family to meet him.“Where’s Scott?”Nick asked a look of concern on his rugged features.
“I left him in town.Two men from Lancer arrived on the train from Cross Creek this afternoon along with two ranchers from the Morro Coyo area.His friends said that they would take care of him….”
“How was he?”Victoria asked.
“’Bout as good as a man can be after loosing a brother…”
“And you?How are you doing?”
Heath looked away, not wanting his family to know how upset he was over Johnny’s death.“I did some checking around this afternoon…”
“Heath…”Victoria pressed, wanting an answer to her question.
Slowly he looked into her green eyes, her concern was evident.He still didn’t now the how’s or why’s, but Victoria Barkley had a way of making him feel like one of her own – like he belonged.He couldn’t not answer her question.“I’m OK.I try not to think about it…”
“He was a friend, Heath.It’s only natural that you will want to mourn his passing….”
“Yeah,” Heath wiped a moist spot at the edge of his left eye with the back of his hand.“Anyway, I did some checking in town.Seems that Johnny may have figured out who Bartch’s partner is…”
Nick’s eye brows shot up with interest.“Who is it?”
“Near as I can tell, it’s a member of the Association….”
“That’s impossible!”Nick exploded.“There isn’t a man in that organization who hasn’t shed blood to tame this land!Why that would be like saying that I’m Bartch’s partner…”
Victoria raised her hand signaling for Nick to be quiet.“Are you sure about this?”
With a glance at his angered brother, Heath nodded his head in the affirmative.“I’m pretty sure that it’s one of the members from around Spanish Wells – a tall gray haired man…”
“Well that’s just great!”Nick snickered.“That describes about ten members – including Murdoch Lancer!”
“Nick…”Victoria warned, cutting off Nick’s tirade.She knew that her son had absolute faith in the Association, but she had been involved in the organization for many more years than her headstrong son and knew that what Heath was saying could be true.“Does Scott know this?”
“No.He was exhausted, so I decided that this could wait until morning…”
“You did the right thing.”Victoria nodded approvingly.With a flick of her wrist, she turned her horse back towards the ranch.
“I thought you wanted to go into town and talk to Scott…”Nick started.
“That can wait.We need to speak with Murdoch and see if he has any thoughts on this new information…”
With a sigh of exasperation, Nick turned his horse and followed after Victoria, leaving Heath in the rear.
The youngest Barkley regarded his family.He could clearly tell that his mother was concerned about this new information, while Nick thought it was a bunch of malarkey.Malarkey or not, Heath knew that whatever Johnny had found out had gotten him killed, and that was good enough for him to take this information seriously.
Turning to follow, Heath looked up at the darkening sky.It was going to rain; the first rain in three weeks.In the distance was the rumble of thunder.A storm was coming.
Johnny startled awake in the hay.He felt more rested than he had when he first awoke. With a smile he realized that it was probably because he hadn’t woke up in a coffin again.Slowly, he sat up and observed his surroundings.It was after dark and Bernardo should be returning any time.Using his right hand, he touched the wound to his right side and then the left side of his chest.The bandages were still dry, which meant that the bleeding had stopped.
With a groan, he reached for a stall rail and pulled himself to a stand, careful not to aggravate the healing wounds.Leaning against the rails for a moment, he steadied himself as a wave of blackness passed before his eyes.A rumbling in his stomach reminded him that he needed to eat to keep his strength up.
From the stall, Barranca nickered softly.“You hungry, too?”Johnny asked quietly.He remembered seeing a lamp mounted to the wall near the doorway.Lighting the lamp would be dangerous, but he needed to see if he was going to tend to his horse.
Slowly, he walked through the dark of the moonless night and found the lamp with a small tin of matches on the shelf next to it.After thanking God for small favors, he lit the lamp, keeping the wick as low as possible.The worst that could happen was that he be discovered now, while he was so vulnerable.Untying his horse, he let the animal go out to the water trough.The wind was whipping up and the night air smelled like rain.Occasionally the night sky was lit by lightning that coursed its way through the heavens.A storm was coming.Johnny smiled to himself thinking of the opportunities he would have due to the weather.
Once again, he pumped water into the trough, and filled the ladle with water for himself.Tiredly he sat on the edge of the trough and took small sips of the water until he was full.It was getting late and he began to wonder where Bernardo was.
Then, as if in response to his query, he heard the sound of approaching hooves.Moving as fast as he could, he led Barranca back into the barn and doused the lamp.Squatting behind a hay bale, Johnny pulled his gun from his holster - ready for a fight if need be.The former gunhawk remained well hidden as the sound of horses came to a stop just outside the barn door.
”¿De dónde es Madrid?A whispered voice broke the silence of the night.
The next sound was a ‘click’ as Johnny un-cocked his gun.“Aquí, Bernardo…”Johnny re-lit the lamp and watched as Bernardo rushed into the barn, quickly shutting the door behind him.
“I have brought you some food and medicines…”
“No medicine…”Johnny started, but Bernardo brooked no argument.
“You cannot fight if your are dead, mi amigo.Now, you will let me tend your wounds properly and then you will eat.”
With a sigh, Johnny realized there was no arguing with the older man.With some hesitation, Johnny allowed Bernardo to help him back to his straw bed and lay down.While Johnny opened his shirt, Bernardo laid out the contents of his sack.Johnny recognized many of the items to be like those Jelly kept handy for taking care of sick animals.“I ain’t no horse…”Johnny started and immediately stopped, remembering his father’s comparison of him to an animal that needed to be broken.
“Si, I know, but you are as stubborn as a mule, so I will treat you like one.”Bernardo smiled patiently while he removed Johnny’s bandages.The older man was displeased to see a layer of green crust on the gashes to Johnny’s chest.“First we will clean the wounds and then I will sew them shut…”
“But that’s string for horses…”Johnny protested, getting a look at the thread that Bernardo had brought to sew him up with.
Bernardo gave him his best glare.“This is what you get for playing los muertos. Now lay still so I can do this right.”
Johnny figured that he had to be a magnet for strong willed doctors.Even Emma had ordered him about while she had sewn his wounds closed.Closing his eyes, he lay still on the hay and let Bernardo begin this tortures.
Carbolic was used to clean the wounds, its sharp tingling burned at the raw and open flesh.Johnny clenched his jaw as tight as he could to avoid crying out loud.When the burning was done, he was left panting, a cold sweat having broken out on his forehead and chest.The burning was replaced by the pinch of Bernardo’s thick needle as he poked it through the raw and tender tissues.The pinch was accompanied by a different kind of burning as coarse thread was pulled through to close edges of his torn flesh.In many ways, Johnny was now sorry that he hadn’t let a doctor sew him up.A doctor would have used a finer needle and silk thread. Bernardo was only doing what had to be done with what he had.
It took a while, but Bernardo finally had both wounds cleaned and sewn up.Pleased with his handiwork, he sat back on his haunches.“This will do nicely.”
“Glad you think so…”Johnny groused.“What’s happening in town?”
“I have seen your brother; he does not look well….”
Johnny bit his lip at the mention of Scott.“What’s the matter with him?”
“I am told that he is mourning a brother - who is not dead.” Bernardo glanced at Johnny with some uncertainty.“You should tell him…”
“No!”Johnny’s eyes flashed.“Leave him out of this…”
“But he is yourhermano, surely you can trust him…”
Johnny shook his head, not wanting to hear more.“If I trust him with this secret, he could be the next to be killed.”Johnny winced as his deep breaths aggravated his injured rib.He wanted no more discussion about his brother – it hurt too much to know that Scott was making himself ill mourning for him.There would be a lot of explaining to do- when the time came.“What else is happening?”
Bernardo’s eyes lit up.“I think that I saw the gringo you were talking about...”
“Big man with gray hair…”
“There were two of them…”
Johnny frowned.“Two of them?”
“Si.Both men were tall, like the man who said he was your papa…”
“My father?”Johnny interrupted.
“I met him – Murdoch Lancer...” Bernardo said with disgust.He wasn’t surprised when he saw Johnny’s face cloud over with concern.“I do not like him much.I went to the Barkley’s for help and he was there.He does not know much about you, amigo…”
Johnny half smiled at the observation.“He didn’t want to.”
“I told him he was wrong to think such bad things about you…”
“What did he say to that?”
Bernardo smiled.“I gave him lots to think about.Señora Barkley, I think that she understands better than your papa….”
That, Johnny could believe.She had impressed him with her feisty intelligence, and keen powers of observation.“Maybe she’ll straighten him out.So, tell me about the men in town.”
“Si,” Bernardo hurried to change the subject and take the darkness from Johnny’s mood. “I saw one man carrying cigars…”
“In a silver case?”
“Si! Is he the one?”
“Yes.You need to go back to town.Keep an eye on him and come back here when he settles for the night.”
“And you, what are you going to do?”
A smile played its way across Johnny’s pale face.“Me? I’m gonna go and playfantasma!”
Reluctantly, Bernardo left Johnny at Consuelo’s.There was no arguing with the determined gunfighter.Even with the arrival of the fall storm, the older man could not persuade Johnny to remain in the barn and forget about whatever mischief he had in mind. With his hat shoved down on his head and his rain poncho wrapped tightly around him, Bernardo set off into the stormy night not knowing if he would ever see his friend again.
From the shelter of the barn, Johnny watched Bernardo leave.The rain was steadily coming down.As the wind blew harder, he knew that it would only be a matter of time before the sky fully broke loose - unleashing its pent up fury on the dry ground. After making sure the older man did not return, Johnny went to his hidden bottle of laudanum.Bernardo’s ministrations had helped.His chest was now tightly bound, supporting his cracked rib.With the horse thread now binding his wounds; he felt that it would take some doing for them to tear again.Removing the small cork, Johnny tipped the bottle back, taking a larger dose of the medicine than he had earlier in the day.What he had in mind would be physically taxing and he didn’t need to be hampered by his injuries – not when there was so much at stake.
Briefly, Johnny reflected on Bernardo’s admonishment that he let his father and brother know he was alive.In his heart, he knew that he should get word to his brother.He had heard the words Scott had spoken in the doctor’s office.Johnny knew that Scott would be hurt when he learned he had been deceived, but the younger brother had faith that his sibling would eventually understand. He didn’t care what Murdoch thought.The Old Man had hurt him and it was payback time.Since his arrival at Consuelo’s, he’d had time to reflect on the words that Murdoch had spoken, and how the man had cried over him.If Murdoch really wanted to prove to Johnny that he wanted a second chance, then he would have to live up to his spoken words and forgive Johnny his deception.After all, Johnny concluded, it was the Old Man’s words that had started this and it would be up to the Old Man to apologize and make things right.Maybe it was a dream, but it was the only way that Johnny could ever conceive of returning to Lancer.
At the moment, Johnny knew that he had a lot to do.He knew his enemy; a man who would hide behind a handshake and stab a neighbor in the back.Taking a deep breath, Johnny felt all the aches of his injuries melting away as the laudanum took effect.A crooked smile passed his lips.He mused to himself that in the end, there was always the possibility that he wouldn’t live long enough to hear his father’s apology, or incur his brother’s wrath.He could still end up dead.If the fates were running true, that was probably where he would wind up.Until then, he had a job to do.
Barranca watched him as he mounted the black.Johnny could just about read Barranca’s mind as the horse shook his golden mane; scolding his master for going out in the storm and worse – leaving him behind.“Don’t worry, I’ll be back…”Johnny said the words, hoping they would be true.
Johnny plunged into the darkness of the storm, an old poncho Bernardo had found in the barn flapping behind him.The wind driven rain slapped at his face, beating down on his shoulders as if to tell him to go back and rest.There was no deterring the gunhawk.He had to go to the Circle A; upset whatever plans they had for the evening and, if possible, find out what Bartch and his partner had in mind for the coming days.
Johnny actually saw the storm as his ally. He knew that he could use the foul weather to his advantage – masking his activities.Most cowboys were superstitious.The fact that Bernardo told him several of the hands had quit the Circle A after his disappearing act at the fire, led him to believe that his plan had a chance of working.
For the entire day, Howard Merar had puzzled over the disappearance of Johnny Madrid’s body.His home had never been broken into before and it disappointed him that someone would do it now.The old doctor also puzzled over the disappearance and reappearance of the blue curare bottle.He asked Emma about it before she left, but the girl had no answer.In fact, he felt she was quite evasive about the entire affair.Something was definitely going on.
Going to the medicine cabinet, he seized the blue bottle from its shelf and took a closer look.Just the day before, the bottle had been full to the top.Now, for some reason, there was a small amount of the liquid missing.A dawning came over the man when he considered the uses of the poison.He kept a small quantity on hand for emergencies – if he ran out of ether during a surgery, the curare could be used to keep a patient immobile…“He couldn’t have!”Howard exclaimed out loud as part of the puzzle fell into place.This was important news, and the doctor rushed to go tell the sheriff his suspicions.Opening the door, he was literally blown back into his office by the rainstorm that was sweeping through the town.The man had been so engrossed in his thoughts he hadn’t taken notice of the storm’s approach.Closing the door, he peered out into the pitch-black night.Lightning crackled overhead, and the thunder made the entire building shake.Telling the sheriff could wait – until tomorrow.
Water poured off Johnny’s hat and down his poncho as he sat on his horse near the top of a ridge.About a half mile away, he could see the flicker of a small fire near an outcropping of rocks.Apparently the men stationed to guard the herd were taking shelter from the storm under the rock formation.As the intensity of the storm grew he found the young stallion getting harder to manage; frightened by the storm.It took all of Johnny’s experience to keep the horse under control; riding until he was within walking distance of the shelter.
Tethering the animal in a clump of trees, Johnny removed his poncho and spurs before swiftly making his way towards the fire.The herd was restless; their agitated lowing masked the nervous whinnying of the stallion.He positioned himself just around the rock ledge and opened his jacket so that his bloody shirt was exposed.Taking a deep breath, he quietly walked to the cave entrance and waited for a flash of lightning.As luck would have it, he didn’t have to wait long.Standing in front of the cave, he was illuminated by the flash of lightning followed by a loud clap of thunder.Three men looked up and saw the bloody apparition of Johnny Madrid – their mouths hanging open at the sight.
“Sweet Jesus….”was all that one man could whisper before Johnny was gone, replaced by the pitch darkness that followed.The men stared at each other and then scrambled to their feet, each peering into the storm for a glimpse of the dead man.
“I ain’t staying on no haunted ranch!” one man declared to the others.He had been in the pasture and had seen the ghost of Johnny Madrid on the ridge.Only the presence of Bushrod Smith and his crew had kept him from fleeing.With the gunhawks safely bunked back at the ranch the three cowboys came to a common opinion. Dousing the fire, they abandoned the herd, hurriedly mounting their skittish horses and heading towards town.
Throughout the night, the ghost of Johnny Madrid made its appearance around the ranch, sending the hands fleeing into the night.Despite being cold and damp, Johnny found that he liked the effect he was having on the scared cowboys.It was a lot easier than lighting firecrackers or killing people. Physically, he knew there would be a price to pay in the morning, but until then, Johnny kept up his rounds.
With the number of men surrounding the ranch drastically reduced, Johnny headed towards his goal – the Circle A ranch house.
By the time he arrived at the ranch proper, the storm had passed leaving the night sky cloudy.With no moon, it was black as pitch making the going slow.A fine rain continued to fall, keeping the hired guns within the dry confines of the bunkhouse.Johnny cautiously crept by one of the windows.Inside, Bushrod Smith was going over the plans for the following day.Painfully, Johnny squatted, keeping his back to the outside wall, and listened carefully.What Johnny heard was a bold and daring plan for a complete takeover of the San Joaquin Valley – not just the elimination of a few small ranchers.From the way Bushrod was speaking, many lives would be lost unless someone intervened.
Stepping away from the window, Johnny’s mind was reeling.His father, brother and the Barkleys would be in jeopardy if they went to the association meeting.Leaning heavily against the building Johnny gathered his thoughts.He knew he needed more information and realized where he could possibly find it.With the wranglers now scared away from the ranch and the gunmen gathered in the bunkhouse, now was the perfect time to once again visit the main house and Bartch’s office.
Creeping along the barn wall and past the uninhabited buildings and fences – he made his way to the backdoor of the main building.The tired man paused for a moment, calming his thumping chest.The rib ached and his wounds hurt – the laudanum was wearing off.Steadying himself, he placed a hand on the door handle and slowly pushed down on the latch with his thumb.Ever so carefully, he felt the latch move until the door could be opened.Leaning his ear to the door he listened for a moment before sliding into the warm interior of the building.A single lamp was left burning near the stove, it’s wick kept low, providing Johnny with just enough light to make his way through the kitchen and to the hallway that led to Bartch’s desk.
His heart leapt to his throat when the mantle clock chimed out the hour – one o’clock, startling him.Once the clock stilled, he continued his movements until he entered Bartch’s office.Pulling the door closed, he made his way to thebroad desk, his hands fumbling for the candle that he had seen sitting on the corner two days earlier.With a grin, his fingers touched the waxy object right where he had seen it.From his pocket he pulled out his match tin and lit the candle.Then, as quickly as he could, he pulled the heavy drapes closed so that he could not be observed from the outside.
On the desk were the maps that Bartch had shown to him and Bushrod Smith – maps of Stockton and the surrounding area.Looking closer, he noted some writing had been scrawled onto the surface of the papers.Moving the candle over the maps, he noted a large ‘X’ near the area where he first met Heath – like a pre-arranged meeting place. Johnny briefly puzzled over the notation before moving the map aside.Underneath was the map of Stockton with a circle drawn around the hotel. There was a date noted and the initials C.A.Johnny knew that he was looking at the plans for Bartch’s attack on the Association.Frantically, he scoured the desk for any additional bits of information he could find.
After reading every note he could find, Johnny shook his head almost admiring the scheming man for the daring plan he had formulated. Or, was it the plan of Bartch’s partner? Johnny knew that the partner was a clever man in his own right, and he was apparently hungry enough for power that he would plot an attack against his ‘friends’.It was ambitious, but it could work – if the ranchers were taken by surprise.The Association was made up of the owners of some of the largest ranches in California.If Bartch and his partner planned on killing those men, then the valley would be left ripe for the pickings.
After making sure the papers were in order, he blew out the candle and made his way back through the kitchen.He had to get word to the cattlemen that one of their own was planning treachery.Careful not to make any noise, Johnny crept back to where he had his horse tied.Mounting was difficult, his body was tired and chilled from the rain, but he still managed to sit in the saddle and guide the horse back to Consuelo’s and the safety of her barn.
He had to think of a plan to stop Bartch and to keep his father and brother from harm.
Scott Lancer sat alone in his room, a bottle of the hotel’s finest whiskey in one hand and an empty glass in the other.He had been sitting at the window for over an hour, watching as the storm raged across the valley.His mind was filled with thoughts of his brother as he fingered the beaded bracelet that now encircled his left wrist. It was all he had left.
Johnny had lived a life very similar to the storm.He rode fast and hard; charging into situations, fighting, loving, playing with an intensity much like the storm at its peak.Now that the storm was gone, there was nothing left except the wet ground – like the tears that had coursed down Scott’s cheeks the night before.Once the wetness dried, life would go on as it had – but without Johnny.All Scott could envision was a life far darker than the one that had been previously lit by his brother’s presence.
Refilling his glass, he drank to his brother; a prayer crossing his lips.
He drank to his father, a curse following every sip of the liquor as it burned its way down his throat.All that had happened was his father’s fault.If only the man had taken the slightest interest in Johnny, none of this would have occurred….With a bitter laugh, Scott refilled his glass and downed the amber liquid in a gulp.If it hadn’t been for Murdoch, Johnny would have died in Mexico and the brothers would have never met!The irony was not lost on the mourning man.Murdoch had saved Johnny from a firing squad, only to throw him away and let him get killed on a dirty street in Stockton.
Closing his eyes, he struggled to control the depression and anger that threatened to consume him. His brother had been murdered; fighting for a cause.Scott desperately tried to hold on to that thought, but images of his father’s face that night in the living room kept returning to haunt him.If only he had tried harder to find Johnny.In his depressed state, he was shouldering all of the blame for Johnny’s death.
A light knock at the door interrupted his dark musing.Without waiting for a word of invitation, Jelly came into the room, closing the door behind him.“I kinda figured you’d still be awake.”The older man pulled up a chair and reached for the glass in Scott’s hand.“Ya know it’s bad luck ta drink alone…”Taking the glass, Jelly downed the remains of Scott’s drink and then reached for the bottle, refilling the glass once more.“What’r we drinkin’ to?”He waited several long moments, his eyes watching the wave of emotions that flitted across Scott’s fine features.When he realized there was no answer, he spoke for the two of them.“I sure woulda like ta seen your brother one last time…”Jelly raised his glass in a salute for the dearly departed.“Ya were a good man, Johnny Madrid Lancer…”
“Lancer…”Scott hissed.“His name was just Johnny Lancer. He wasn’t Johnny Madrid anymore.”
Jelly raised his eyebrows and a small smile gleamed in his eyes.“Lancer.Johnny Lancer.”Jelly corrected himself and tipped back the glass, polishing off the contents.“There, now that we’re done drinkin’ to the dead, what are we gonna do about it?”
Scott continued to gaze out the window, watching the falling rain.“We’re going to wait…”
“Wait for what?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”Scott sighed taking the bottle from his friend.“Johnny once told me that all things come in their own time. If they don’t, then you just make them happen a bit sooner.There is a lot going on around this town – around this area right now. I can feel it.I figure that tomorrow will bring us all the answers we need.One way or another, this is going to end tomorrow.We’ll have Johnny back and we can head home…”
Jelly smiled at the word home.Earlier, Scott had denounced Lancer as being his home.It had taken all of Jelly’s and Val’s persuading to convince the young man that Johnny felt that Scott belonged at the ranch.Now that Johnny was gone, it was even more important that Scott stay.Johnny had loved the land and everything about it – including his father.The old handy man had recognized Johnny’s need to be accepted by the man who had sired him – an acceptance that Scott had without question.It would be up to Scott to keep Johnny’s memory alive at the ranch – to constantly remind his father that family is more important than anything – including money.
Jelly opened his mouth to speak, he heard a sob hitching in the chest of the man next to him.“You should have seen him Jelly, stretched out in the doctor’s office…It was like he was asleep.I can’t believe he’s gone…”Scott whispered the slurred words.The combination of alcohol and exhaustion was finally getting the better of him.
“It’s time fer ya ta get to bed,” Jelly stood, stretching his tired bones.He then pulled at Scott, steering him towards the bed.The younger man seemed to collapse into a boneless heap on the soft mattress.With a shake of his head, Jelly took Scott’s boots off and pulled the comforter up to his chin.“Get some rest, Scott.Tomorrow is a new day and we’ll have our justice for Johnny.”
“What I want to know is when will the pain go away?”Scott turned to Jelly, his eyes red rimmed with exhaustion; pleading to know when the pain in his heart would leave.
Jelly laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.“It ain’t never gonna go away.Yer gonna have to learn to live with it…”
“I would rather be learning to live with Johnny…”
“I know,” Jelly sadly agreed.“We all would.”Wiping his eyes on the back of his sleeve, Jelly headed toward the door.“Get some rest.Somethin’ tells me that tomorrow is gonna be a day an a half.”
Closing his eyes, Scott pictured the smiling face of his brother, forever banishing the image of the pale body he had seen the day before from his mind.He could only pray that Murdoch was feeling twice as bad as he was.In the next instant, he was asleep; exhaustion finally claiming him.
A similar situation had just played out in another room in the same hotel.A single large man had been sipping whiskey, enjoying the turbulence of the passing storm.He reveled in its intensity and was disappointed when it had finally passed.Tomorrow, another storm was coming to Stockton – a storm that would forever change the complexion of the valley.When it was all done, he would be sitting on top of the world.
Stockton welcomed the sun the following morning.The main street was a mass of mud from the heavy rain that fell the night before.In the storm’s wake, came a break in the hot weather that had been oppressing the valley for the past few weeks.The air had a bite to it, a harbinger of the coming fall.
Howard Merer was up early, anxious to meet with the sheriff.He felt sure that he was correct in his assumptions – that there was a possibility that Johnny Madrid had faked his own death!Just as he was pulling on his coat to head to the sheriff’s office, he was greeted by a panicked Jake Stansfield, whose wife, Alicia, was expecting twins.“Doc!Ya got to come – it’s time for the babies!”
“Hold on there Jake,” Howard soothed the nervous first time father.“Alicia has been having pains off and on for the past four days.It’s not near her time yet…”
“Her water broke ‘bout an hour ago!Come on Doc!”
Howard’s eyes opened wide.If Alicia’s water broke, then those babies were due to come now, whether they knew they knew it or not.“Let me grab my bag while you go get Hortense McCray to come and help…”Before he could speak another word, Jake was gone.Also gone was any thought that the doctor had of speaking to the sheriff about Johnny Madrid.He was now focused on the living, not on the possibility that someone had faked a death.
After checking on Scott and finding him sound asleep, Val Crawford made his way to the sheriff’s office.As messy as the road was, the lawman was thankful that he didn’t have to cross any streets to get there.Val entered the office to find himself in a building very similar to his own office in Green River.Sitting behind the desk was Sheriff Fred Savage, his feet propped up on his desk, sound asleep.
A cruel grin crossed Val’s grizzled face just before he slammed the door shut, startling the sleeping man awake.Val laughed as Fred nearly fell out of his chair.
“You must be Crawford,” Fred grumbled as he recovered his composure and stood.
“That’d be me,” Val confirmed, his smile getting broader.“Ya got any cawfee?”
“Does it look like I do?” Fred retorted, going to the cold stove and picking up the empty coffee pot.“How about you startin’ a fire while I get the pot ready?”Without waiting for Val’s response, Fred stomped through the doorway to the back room.In a matter of seconds, Val could hear the clank of a pump handle and the sound of water filling a metal pot.
Knowing that a big time sheriff could be startled made Val feel good – that he wasn’t the only one to let things get away from him for a time.Picking out some kindling from the tinder box, Val primed the stove and with a smile, got the fire going with the use of just one match.
By the time the fire caught, Fred was back, his face washed and his hair slicked back with water.The older sheriff placed the pot on the top of the stove with a heavy ‘thunk’.“I’ve been expecting you.”Fred said returning to his desk.
“Is that so?”Val sat in a chair in front of the desk and leaned back.
“I heard that you were a friend of Madrid’s…”
“It’s Lancer.Johnny Lancer.He retired from the business…”
“Not around here he didn’t.”Fred said with some measure of satisfaction – knowing more about Johnny’s activities then a friend.
“Madrid rode into town a few days back.Registered at the hotel as Johnny Madrid.Hired on with Ted Bartch as Johnny Madrid.He died with a bullet in him …”
“…as Johnny Madrid.”Val finished angrily, tired of hearing his friend referred to as Madrid.There was a moment of taut silence as both men regarded each other.“I heard tell that his working for Bartch was a fake.”
Fred lifted an eyebrow at the comment.“I heard that too, but I haven’t seen any proof that it was.He rode with Bushrod Smith and the boys…burned a Mexican’s ranch just the night before he got killed…”
“Did you say Bushrod Smith is here?”Val was amazed that Scott had forgotten to mention the fact that an old adversary of Johnny’s was in town.“Was Bushrod there when Johnny was killed?”
“Nope.The only fella around was Floyd Brasure, and Madrid killed him dead as a door nail.Bushrod was there when Madrid was shot the first time in front of the saloon.To tell the truth, I kinda thought he set the whole thing up…”
“Is that a fact?”Val scratched his chin considering the set up.His mind wandered a second when he sniffed the aroma of coffee that was filtering through the small building.
Fred pulled two cups out of his bottom drawer and offered one to Val as they both moved towards the hot stove.“I still can’t figure out why anyone would want to steal his body…”
Val wrinkled his brow in thought.“It’s a new one on me too.I ain’t never heard of anyone stealing a body…”
“I’ve talked with everyone I can think of and no one is admitting to anything.If he’d been hurt, I’d say that Madrid… Lancer, just got up and walked away…”
Val, who had been about to take his first sip stopped, as if struck by lightning.“What did you just say?”
“I’d say that if Lancer had been alive…”
“I know what you said!”Val was getting excited now.He put the cup down and headed towards the door.“Where’s the doc’s office?”
“Down the street and to the right… Why?What are you thinking?”
“I’ve known Johnny Lancer for a long time and something tells me that if I’m lucky, I might get to know him a lot longer…”Val threw open the door and headed down the street, Fred hot on his heels. The two men waded across the wet roadway and were standing on the doc’s front porch in no time.Val began to bang on the door and when there was no response, he peered through a window.The place was empty.“Damn!” he swore.
Fred went around back and found a note tacked to the rear entrance of the surgery.He was about to go around to the front when he ran smack into Val.“Says here that he went to Jake Stansfield’s place to deliver twins…”
Val fumed that he delayed in starting his investigation.If only he had followed his instincts rather than staying with Scott….“Who else knew Johnny around here?”
“Heath Barkley said that he knew him…”
“Barkley?”Val wracked his brain and couldn’t picture a Heath Barkley as being a friend of Johnny’s.“Where can I find him?”
“He should be coming to town for the Association meeting with the rest of his family.”
“Good, I’ll speak with him then…”Val turned to leave, but was caught on the sleeve by the sheriff.
“What aren’t you telling me?What’s this about knowing Lancer a lot longer?”
Val smiled.“Johnny is a very clever man.Something tells me that he weren’t dead….”
“The Doc said he was…”
“Well, the Doc don’t know Johnny
Lancer the way I do.And, if I’m
right, he’ll be back…”
At first light Bernardo rode out to his sister’s barn.There he found Johnny Madrid shivering in the hay – his clothing still wet from the storm.The young man’s face was pale and his lips almost blue.“Dios!” Bernardo whispered, kneeling beside the unconscious man.He had been afraid that Johnny wouldn’t take the time to care for himself after he did whatever was so important the night before.Sadly, he was right.He couldn’t figure what drove the pistolero to place himself at such risk.
Standing, he went to his horse, returning with his saddlebags and a bedroll he had tied to his saddle.Setting to work, he quickly stripped Johnny out of his soggy cloths and wet bandages.The wounds looked good; the new stitches were holding.Binding the wounds with clean, dry bandages, Bernardo then wrapped the unconscious man in the dry blankets he had brought.Johnny had made no sign of waking throughout the entire procedure; his head lolling from side to side as the older man moved him about.Fear clutched Bernardo’s heart as he thought that perhaps his young friend was slipping away from him.Johnny’s hands were as cold as ice; his nails nearly blue.The older man realized he had to do something to warm the injured man.From his bag, he pulled a bottle of whiskey and attempted to pour a small amount into Johnny’s mouth.Johnny sputtered as the liquid slid down this throat, the first movement he had made on his own since Bernardo’s arrival.Blue eyes fluttered for a second before they closed once more.
With a sigh, Bernardo knew he had to do more.Gently, he moved Johnny to where the bright sunlight streamed into the barn.He then threw every dry horse blanket and empty feed bag in the barn on him.Satisfied that he was doing the proper thing, the older man set about making a fire and a pot of coffee.
With a watchful eye, he observed as Johnny’s shivering slowly subsided and his skin seemed to pink up.He kept himself busy, tending to the two horses – unsaddling the black and feeding them both.Picking up Johnny’s clothes, Bernardo took them out to dry – draping them over a corral fence.Shaking out the pants, a small brown bottle dropped to the soft earth.Picking it up, Bernardo pulled the stopper and sniffed the contents.“Medicina, analgésico,” he recognized the smell and knew what it was.It was how Johnny had managed to do all that he had done the night before.With a sigh, he placed the small bottle in Johnny’s overturned hat where he could find it when he needed it again.
“Damn!”Ned Bartch exclaimed.Bushrod had just informed him that the majority of the hands had lit out in the middle of the night.No word of explanation was given – it was almost as if they had been scared off by the thought of the coming fight.“I was counting on them to help…”
“I wasn’t,” the gunhawk sneered.“What needs to be done today has to be done by men who are willing to take the gamble – as long as you are willing to pay the price…”
“The price will be paid – just like we agreed.A thousand dollars for each Association member killed…”
“Then the twenty-five guns we’ve got left will do just fine.”Bushrod had laid out the plan for the men last night and made sure they were ready.He had never really counted on the cowboys anyway.“What about your partner? Won’t he be at the meeting?”
“Don’t worry about him.He’ll be able to take care of himself.Now remember, once you’re done – don’t return here.This is where the law will come looking for you.I’ll be waiting at the meeting spot with your money…”
“And after that?”
“We ride south and secure the spoils.”A broad grin formed on both men’s faces; each dreaming of their impending wealth.
At the Barkley Ranch, everyone was getting ready for the ride into town.Murdoch’s mind was set that he would continue the fight that had cost Johnny his life.Someone, a person he considered a friend, had Johnny killed and was planning a range war.It was hard to conceive that a man he had welcomed into his home and trusted was now going to betray them all.The tall rancher was determined that the war would end today – with no further bloodshed.He was looking forward to figuring out who the traitor was and making sure that the villain paid for all that he had done. Standing on the veranda of the Barkley home, he looked out at the green vista that lay before him.The rain storm had washed away the dust, leaving the valley as bright and clean as a gleaming emerald.It was the land that Johnny loved and once this was over, he would find his son’s body and return him to the land of his birth.
With pride, Victoria watched from the living room window as Heath finally decided to confront the man he had punched two days earlier.
“Mr. Lancer…”Heath stood behind Murdoch, his hat in his hand.
Murdoch turned and considered the young man; his blond hair and blue eyes painfully reminding him of a son who no longer considered himself his son.“Yes?”
“I just wanted to say how sorry I am…”
“What?For this?”Murdoch rubbed his still bruised and tender jaw.“I suppose that I deserved it.I did a foolish thing…”
“Well,” Heath chewed his lip, feeling slightly guilty.“It’s not the punch I want to apologize about…”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed, immediately knowing what Heath was referring to.“You knew my son for a long time, didn’t you?”
“He saved my life more times than I can count,” a sad smile formed at the corners of Heath’s mouth.“Mr. Lancer, Johnny was an honorable man.He sure had it tough growing up, but boy howdy, when he got it in his head to do right – he went all the way…”
“And just how often did he do right?”Murdoch asked with interest.
Heath raised his head, his eyes meeting Murdoch’s.“I’d be the first to say that when he was younger he was hell bent for an early grave, but he wasn’t all bad like some of the other pistoleros.Something changed him when he was about eighteen. .He spent some time with an Indian tribe in northern Mexico; he never told me the whole story, but by my reckoning it changed him. Since that time, he’s tried to do right just about every day.”
The two men stared at each other for a few seconds.“I’d like it if, once this is over, you would tell me about Johnny – the real Johnny.I’m afraid that I never took the time…”Murdoch coughed, and looked away.
“I’d be right proud to tell you anything you want to know, Mr. Lancer.”
“I’d like that Heath.I’d like that very much.”Murdoch stuck out his hand and Heath accepted it.The two men silently made their peace.They were united in their conviction that they were now going to fight side by side in a battle that Johnny had started. They were determined to bring it to a finish that Johnny would have been proud of.
The mantle clock chimed out eleven thirty.Heath remembered his appointment to meet the barber at noon.“I’m going to head into town early. I’ve…”Heath wanted to tell Murdoch of his plan to flush out the traitor in the Association, but decided against it.“I’ll see you and mother at the hotel at one.”
As Heath headed for the door, he was met by Jarrod and Nick.“Going somewhere, Brother Heath?”Jarrod asked.The eldest Barkley didn’t look much like a lawyer today.He was dressed in his range clothes rather than his business suit.A six gun strapped to his thigh rather than a briefcase in his hand.
A guilty smile formed at the corners of Heath’s mouth.Nick and Jarrod had taken him aside the night before and under the scrutiny of Jarrod’s cross examination, he told them about his plan to find the traitor.“Boy howdy, I was just about to come and get you….”
“Is that right, boy?”Nick stood with his hands on his hips, his right eyebrow raised as if to dare Heath to continue his lie.
“Yep,” Heath responded knowing that he had been caught trying to sneak away.
“See, I told you Nick.He wouldn’t leave without us.”Jarrod laughed putting his arm over Heath’s shoulders.“I just knew that our baby brother wouldn’t pull a crazy stunt like that…”
Together, the three young men walked out the front door and mounted their horses, heading into town.What they didn’t see was a gray haired man, hiding in the woods with his horse, a lit cigar clenched between his teeth.The man gave a low laugh and watched as the three brothers rode out of sight.Mounting his horse, he headed for the main house, and a promising meeting with Victoria Barkley and Murdoch Lancer.
After a few hours, Johnny’s tired blue eyes fluttered open.“I see that you have decided to rejoin the living, mi amigo.”Bernardo said with a smile.Placing a rough hand on Johnny’s forehead he could feel the heat emanating from the injured man. Fever.Gently he helped Johnny to sit up, propping him with an upturned saddle - readjusting the blankets that had been keeping the younger man warm.Satisfied that Johnny was stable, he handed the former pistolero a cup of hot coffee.
It took the use of two trembling hands for Johnny to keep the cup still enough to drink the hot liquid. He was cold – to the bone.“Gracias,” he whispered, inhaling the aroma of the hot beverage.“What time is it?”
“What does it matter?You are too ill to do anything but rest…”
“What time is it?”Johnny rasped, overcome by a fit of coughing.
From his vest, Bernardo produced a watch.“It is eleven o’clock…”
Johnny’s eyes flashed with alarm and he put down the cup of coffee.“I’ve got to get out of here…”
“No.I have been here since sun up.You are enfermo …”
Johnny interrupted, not wanting to hear the words of advice from his friend.“The cattlemen, when do they meet?” His words were whispered as he was finding it hard to get air into his congested lungs.
“One o’clock, I think…”
“They have to be warned….” Johnny started to move, only to be overcome by another fit of coughing.Gently, Bernardo pressed him back against the saddle to rest.When the coughing subsided, Johnny felt exhausted.Obviously his mind was willing to think action, but his body was not.The concern in Bernardo’s eyes was obvious. “You’re going to have to do it…”
“-¿A mí?Warn them about what?”
Johnny raised a shaky hand to his head which had started to pound.Wincing, he was barely able to manage a horse whisper.“Bartch is planning to attack the meeting; I think that he means to kill all of the members to gain control of the valley.”
Bernardo whistled at the thought.“How is it that you know this?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Johnny opened his eyes not liking the feeling of helplessness that had settled in his heart.Bernardo handed Johnny the coffee again, urging him to drink more.With a rueful smile, Johnny took a gulp of the hot beverage, enjoying the feel of the liquid as it warmed him and soothed his sore throat.“I just know it….”
The older man shook his head, not believing the words.“You are not telling me verdad.”
Johnny took another sip, avoiding the stare from the older man.There would be no lying to Bernardo, just like there had been no lying to Victoria Barkley. After several long moments, Johnny raised his eyes, blue eyes meeting brown.“Truth? I was at the Circle A last night.I heard their plans.They mean to kill every rancher in the Association, like cows to a slaughter…”
“Dios!”Bernardo swore.“What can we do?”
“Its what you have to do - you need to warn them…”
“They will not listen to me.”Bernardo said sadly.“I am but a poor man…”
“You gotta make them listen.”Johnny knew he was ill - too ill to do anything to prevent the Circle A gunhawks from completing their plan.His presence in Stockton would only distract Scott and the others from what needed to be done; and in his present condition, he couldn’t fight “Get me something to write with…”
With a sigh, Johnny considered sending a note to Scott.A bad choice; if Scott knew he was alive, then he would leave the Association to come and find him.He needed to tell someone who would follow his directions.
Bernardo went in search of the materials needed to write a note.After a few minutes of scavenging, all he could find was a label off an old tin can and a piece of charred wood from Consuelo’s destroyed home.
Johnny accepted the implements and then pondered on what to write.After a moment, he wrote a few words and signed his name. “You show this to Heath Barkley.Tell him that Bartch is planning an attack on the meeting…”Johnny then proceeded to tell Bernardo what else needed to be done to secure the safety of everyone involved.“Do you think you can do that?”
“Si,” Bernardo nodded his head.The second part of the plan would be easy.It was getting the gringos to understand that would be the hard part.He looked at the simple note that Johnny had written and frowned.“You must write a note to your papa and your hermano!Let them know you are alive and they will tell the other gringos and all will be well….”
“No,” Johnny shivered settling back in his blankets.He was cold again; his muscles shaking involuntarily.“Follow my plan – give the note to Heath and tell him what is happening.Only after the attack is over can you tell him that I am here.Stockton needs every man with a gun defending the town.Promise me…”
Brown eyes met blue and Bernardo swore to follow Johnny’s instructions.
With a satisfied smile, Johnny closed his eyes, exhausted.Once again, he felt his friend’s callused hand feel his forehead. “I will bring you a doctor when I return…”
“After the Association is saved,” Johnny interrupted, making sure that Bernardo knew to stick to the plan.
“Si.I will do that as soon as the banditos are taken care of.”Before leaving, Bernardo handed Johnny a cup of a thin soup he had made out of the dried meat from the provisions he left the night before.“You eat this to keep your strength.”It wasn’t much, but it was all he had to offer.
Gratefully, Johnny accepted the cup.“You need to get to town, now…”
Bernardo stood knowing that he had done all that he could for his injured friend.“I will be back as soon as this over.I will bring your brother and papa….”
Johnny wearily closed his eyes accepting what was bound to happen next.Once Bernardo showed Heath his note, Johnny expected to be found and the real fighting would begin. He didn’t care what his father thought.It was Scott’s voice that echoed in his mind; the tears and regrets.There was no way Johnny could avoid his brother’s wrath for his deception.“I will be here, my friend.Now go…”
Reluctantly, Bernardo mounted his horse and headed to town.As much as he hated to leave his friend, he took consolation in the thought that Johnny was too ill to be going anywhere.
Victoria was surprised to see the lone cattleman riding up in front of the house.“Murdoch?”Victoria softly called to her friend who was tightening his gun belt around his hips.
“I see.I wonder what he’s doing here?”
Victoria opened the door and stepped out on to the porch; Murdoch following close behind.
“Morning, Victoria!”the gray haired man smiled, tipping his hat to her.“Murdoch…”
Victoria folded her arms across her chest, looking at her stocky friend from Spanish Wells.In the back of her mind, the description of the traitor flashed loud and clear. With her boys gone, the house was virtually unprotected.The majority of the hands had been sent out to secure the western fence line with the Circle A.Even Silas had gone to the garden and hen house to collect the makings of the evening meal.Suspicious, she asked “What brings you out here?The meeting starts in an hour.The boys…”
“I passed them on my way here,” the man acknowledged.“I just wanted to go over a few things with you before the meeting.”
“What sort of things?”Murdoch asked suspiciously.
“Mind if I come in to talk?” the rider had dismounted, tying his horse to the rail.
An uneasy Victoria glanced at Murdoch, who acknowledged that his suspicions were also aroused.Slowly, she turned and led the way back into the house.The threesome gathered in the living room – Victoria taking a chair near the hearth and beneath the picture of her dead husband.“What’s this all about?”
Dumbfounded, Murdoch and Victoria watched as the man they had once considered a friend pulled his gun and aimed it at them.“It’s called pay back – and I’m here to collect!”
In Stockton, Val paced and fumed, waiting for the doctor to return to his office.He just had to speak with the man and confirm his suspicions before breaking the news to Scott.Jelly had approached him several times, asking what he was all fired up about, but the lawman knew better than to raise false hopes.
Finally, around noon, he saw three men riding into town, heading straight for the livery.A short time later a small buggy entered town, heading for the back door of the doctor’s office.Val made a beeline for the tired and disheveled man who slowly climbed out of the carriage.“You Doc Merar?”
The older man straightened and stared at the stranger who approached.“And if I am?”
“I’m Sheriff Val Crawford of Green River…”Val paused when the doctor eyed him suspiciously – no badge.Val blushed briefly.“I’m also a friend of Johnny Lancer…”
“Johnny Madrid,” Val groundout impatiently.
“Ah!I need to go talk to the sheriff!” The doctor tried to move past Val only to be pushed back.
“Why don’t you tell me first?”
Howard Merar considered the grizzled man who stood before him.He had heard that some of the sheriffs in the lower part of the valley were rough and figured that Val had to be one of them.With a sigh of defeat, he proceeded to explain what he knew.“Two days ago, two bottles of medicine disappeared from my office.One was a bottle of laudanum and the other…”
“Was a bottle of poison!”Val interrupted a gleam in his eye.
The doctor’s mouth dropped open.“How did you know?”
Val smiled triumphantly.“He spent some time with a medicine man a few years back.Learned a few things about livin’ and dyin’.Guess that he learned the lessons well.”Val took the doctor’s hand and pumped it hard.“Thanks for the good news!”
“But this still doesn’t explain where he is…”Howard called after the departing man.
“Don’t matter!”Val shouted over his shoulder.“He’s around, and that’s all that counts!”
In the livery, Bernardo waited for his chance to speak to Heath Barkley.Patiently, he took the reins of the Barkleys’ horses, catching Heath’s sleeve as the young man turned to follow after his brothers.“Señorpor favor, a moment of your time…”
Heath looked at the man impatiently and then glanced at his brothers.“I’m really in a hurry…”
“Por favor, this is muy importante…”
“Well?”Nick interrupted impatiently.
Heath looked at his brother.Nick was in a hurry to find out who the traitor was. “You go ahead, I’ll be there shortly.”
Bernardo smiled appreciatively.“Gracias!I have something for you…”From his pocket, he pulled out Johnny’s note.
With a quizzical look, Heath took the folded scrap of paper.“What’s this?”
“It is a note for you…”
Heath opened the note, his face instantly revealed the look of a man in total shock.“Where did you get this?”
“From Madrid.He said that you would understand…”
“Where is he? Is he alright?”Heath demanded as he looked around the stable, half expecting to find his friend.
Bernardo swallowed uncomfortably, Johnny had told him not to tell anyone where he was until after the threat in Stockton had been taken care of.The older man ignored the question and responded “he was most concerned that you be told to about the danger…”
Heath read the small note again.
Danger – Meeting.
Beware – Traitor.
“Do you know who the traitor is?”
“No! It is one of two men I have seen.I do not know their names.I know that it is an hombre who smokes cigarro …”
“Damn!”Heath swore aloud at the recklessness of his friend.Johnny was alive, and probably in need of help.On the other hand, there was a battle to be fought right here in Stockton that needed Heath’s immediate attention.In his anger he wanted to crumple the note, but knew that it would be needed to get some of the others motivated to help.Quickly he made the decision to let Nick and Jarrod get the barber and go to the hotel to point out the traitor.Someone had to tell Scott Lancer that his brother was alive.“I’m going to the hotel.If my brothers come back here, tell them what you’ve told me.We need to get this town ready for a fight…” Heath was halfway out the door when he paused.“Don’t you go and get yourself killed or nothing.When this is done, you’re going to tell me where Johnny is so we can go and get him!”
“Si!” Bernardo nodded in agreement.He had already followed Johnny’s instructions and had started to lay a trap for Bushrod and his crew.He had warned some of the shop keepers of the coming danger.They were closing their shops while some his friends, Mexicanos, were placed on the roofs near the hotel with rifles.Many of the people were all too eager to take reprisals on the men who had so recently forced them off their lands.
Heath ran across the street to the hotel, almost colliding with a scruffy looking man who was running in the same direction.The two men glared at each other briefly as they made their way up the stairs and into the building.It was a blessing that the building had a double door, for Heath was sure that he would have had to fight to get in first.
Without wiping his feet, Heath strode to the desk, while the other man ran directly for the stairs.The desk clerk looked in horror at the mud being tracked across the clean lobby carpets.“Gentlemen!Your boots!”
“I’ve got to see Scott Lancer” Val Crawford shouted, not slowing down.
Heath’s eyes lit up and he immediately turned to follow the scruffy man up the stairs.At the landing Heath grabbed the man’s arm to catch up. “You going to see Scott?”It was then that Heath got a good look at the man he was next to.“Val?”
“Heath?”Val looked at Heath incredulously.“You’re Heath Barkley?”
“Yep, but that ain’t important now.Johnny is…”
“Alive!” Val finished.
Both men stopped cold in their tracks and stared at each other.“How did you know?”Valasked first.
“It isn’t important.The Association meeting is going to be attacked.We’ve got to get this place protected.”From his pocket he pulled out the note from Johnny.
“Damn! That boy sure knows how to stir up trouble.Do you know where he is?”
Heath shook his head.“I think the livery owner knows, but we don’t have any time to worry about Johnny.The meeting starts in fifteen minutes – Bushrod and his guns could arrive anytime!”
“Pay back?”Murdoch responded, his eyebrows arched in alarm as he watched Ben Anderson point a gun at him.“Ben, I don’t understand…”
“No, I don’t suppose that you would,” Ben sneered. “The two of you have led charmed lives.Living in big fancy houses; plenty of land, plenty of money.Well in exactly thirty minutes it will all be over…”
Ben’s comments had their desired effect.Murdoch stood still – waiting for Ben to finish his threat.On the mantle, the clock chimed twelve-thirty.In thirty minutes, the Association meeting was to start.“Ben, what have you done?” the older man whispered, his voice tinged with fear.
Ben continued to smile broadly, enjoying Murdoch’s response.“I’m destroying your dreams and creating my own!At two o’clock, the Cattlemen’s Association will cease to exist…”
“No!”Victoria whispered, immediately thinking of her three sons.“Ben, that’s crazy!You can’t kill all those people…”
“But I can and I will.I want the two of you to live long enough to suffer like I have – to know that everything that you love has been taken away.”
Murdoch immediately thought of Scott.He couldn’t bear the thought of loosing another son.With fists clenched, he lunged at his former friend, only to have the wrong end of a .45 pointed at his chest.
“Not this time, Lancer.Things are going to be done my way from now on.”Ben motioned for them to move.“We’re going to go for a little ride…”
“Where?”Murdoch demanded, barely able to control his anger at his friend and his disappointment in himself.
“Somewhere we can talk and, when we’re done, somewhere you will never leave alive.”
Without a knock, Val and Heath burst into Scott’s room.Jelly was there helping Scott to get dressed.“He’s alive!” Val exclaimed a big grin on his face.
Scott was sitting on the edge of his bed, nursing the headache from the whiskey he had drunk the night before.“What are you talking about?” the younger man moaned.
“Johnny!He ain’t dead!”
Scott looked up, his eyes filled with anger.“You didn’t see him.I held him in my arms.He was dead!”
“No he wasn’t!”Val persisted.“Show him the note, Heath.”
Heath went to Scott and handed him the note.Scott looked at the note staring at the words and the handwriting.Without a doubt it was Johnny’s.Scott looked up at his companions, his face a mask of confusion and disbelief.Val and Heath could only smile broadly – nodding their heads.A rush of relief and hope lifted the weight that had been lying on his heart and mind since his brother’s ‘death’.
“Well – what’s it say?” Jelly asked impatiently; the only one not to know the meaning of the small piece of paper.
Scott handed the older man the note, his headache all but forgotten. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know,” Heath responded.“I just got the note from someone else.”
“We’ve got to go and find him…”Scott pushed past Heath, grabbing his gun belt and strapping it around his slim hips.In his mind he had one focus- seeing Johnny.Above all else he wanted to see his brother and make sure he was OK… just before he killed him for the anguish that he had put them all through!
“No.”Val intervened, ruining Scott’s good mood.“We’ve got to take care of things here first.”Scott opened his mouth to protest, but Val pushed on.“What did Johnny’s note mean – remember Pardee?”
Scott stopped dead in his tracks, thinking of the fight at the Lancer ranch against Pardee. Johnny had led a group of land pirates to the Lancer estancia and right into a trap that Scott had methodically laid out.“Damn him!”Scott said vehemently, clenching his fists in frustration.He desperately wanted to find his brother, but the message was clear and the danger imminent.“He wants us to lay a trap…”
“Then let’s do it! The sooner we get the trap laid and sprung the sooner we can go after Johnny!”Heath exclaimed.He then proceeded to tell his companions what he found out at the barbershop the day before.“My brothers will be here any moment with the barber so he can identify the traitor.”
“You’re telling me that a member of the Association could be behind this entire mess?” Val whistled.
Jelly, who had been watching Scott’s face ever since Heath began to tell his findings, got a worried look on his face.“What ya think’n?”
Scott’s eyes blazed and his voice was filled with anger.“A member of the Association? Then it would have to be someone who we know – someone we’ve eaten with…” Scott’s long fingers nervously clenched and unclenched around the grip of his pistol.“And Johnny probably knows who!”Scott’s lips formed a thin, grim line as his mind systematically organized a plan for defense of the town.The meeting is set to start in ten minutes, and we don’t know when the attack will come.We’ve got to get the members moving and into position now.”Scott paused for a moment.“The barber said that it was a big man with gray hair who smokes a cigar?”
“That could be any one of ten men,” Jelly whispered thinking back on members who had visited Lancer.
Scott shook his head.“Let’s hope the barber has a good eye and can pick out who the traitor is.Let’s get moving…” Scott flung open the door to his room and led the others out into the hall, nearly walking over Joel Todd who had stepped into the hallway on his way to the meeting.Quickly they filled him in on what was happening.The easterner was stunned to learn that Scott’s brother was still alive and that they now were now preparing to do battle against the gunhawks from the Circle A.
Scott led the way back to the lobby where a few of the Association members were gathering early.“Gentlemen, there’s been a change in plans.” he announced from the top of the stairs.
The men looked up, puzzled by the sudden pronouncement.“What’s going on? We were just getting ready to go into the meeting,” one of the men responded.
“Sorry, gents.But the meeting has been canceled by Ned Bartch.It seems that he has a surprise in store for us….”Scott paused when Nick and Jarrod Barkley entered the hotel accompanied by the sheriff and a frightened barber.
Jarrod looked at Heath who was standing next to Scott at the top of the stairs.“What’s going on here?”
“It’s a trap, Jarrod.Ned Bartch is planning a raid on the Association meeting…”
“Not in my town he isn’t…”Fred Savage protested.
“I don’t think that matters much to the men he’s got working for him,” Val responded, descending the stairs. “Johnny got us a note…”
Fred snorted at the ridiculous statement.“We all know that Johnny Madrid is dead…”
“Johnny is very much alive.Just ask Mr. Cardoza across the street!”Heath insisted.“We don’t have time to argue about this!We need to get into position to defend this town or we’ll all be killed!”
Scott came down the stairs to confront the quivering barber.“I want you to take a good look at the men in this room and throughout the hotel.Are any of the men the man you saw the other day?
“I’ll take him around,” Jarrod reassured Scott, taking the arm of the frightened man.
Scott turned to Nick.“You were in the military?”
“Served in the Union Army,” Nick responded proudly.
“Good, here’s what we’re going to do…”Scott, Nick, Val, Jelly and Heath all leaned together and listened as Scott spelled out a plan to defend Stockton.
A mile outside Stockton, Bushrod Smith and Ned Bartch gave their last minute instructions to the men.They were to split their forces.One group would storm down the main street shooting anything and everything while a smaller more select group would quietly come up the alley behind the hotel to ambush the Association members gathered there.Bushrod had chosen one of the men, Kid Kelly, to lead the group that was to go down the main street.Bushrod chose Injun Joe and a few others he had worked with before to follow him down the alley.
Ned was to wait on the outskirts of town for their report.Then, they were to go to a rendezvous, where they would meet Ned’s partner and get paid.Ned sat on his horse and watched the men ride away towards Stockton.He had no intention of waiting for their return. As soon as they were out of sight, he turned his horse and headed out across the plain to the rendezvous.Personally, he hoped that every single one of them, Association members and gunhawk alike, got killed.He had no desire to share the spoils with anyone, including his partner!Using Joel Todd’s money, he had already hired men he could trust to file claims on what would be newly ownerless ranches.The other ranches could be bought out in time – as wives and children left the area to start their lives anew.
Ben and his two captives mounted their horses and slowly left the Barkley ranch.Once they were out of sight of the house, they left the road, heading to the open range.With the broad sweeping fields, there was nowhere either of them could run and hide without being cut down by Ben and a single squeeze of his trigger.In silence they rode out into the hot afternoon, the temperature rising as their prospects for help sank.
No one would miss them.If what Ben had said was correct, their families were now dead or dying.The Cattlemen’s Association wiped out.Everything they had worked for the past twenty years was gone – picked clean by Ben Anderson and his band of thieves.
Victoria kept a watchful eye out, knowing every inch of her ranch.Ben seemed to be guiding them to an isolated area – one where they had trouble before where bandits would hide out.It was the same area where Heath had met Johnny just a few days earlier.
With every step, Murdoch’s anger rose.He had trusted Ben; listened to him and valued his recommendations without question.It was Ben’s subtle hints that had turned his heart and mind against Johnny.The older man fumed at how easily he had been manipulated.He had been played a fool and now it had cost him the two things that he loved more than anything – including the land.It had cost him the lives of his sons.Johnny had been the first to pay the price for his stupidity.Now Scott was to fall. His heart was broken, knowing that had failed them both so miserably.
Closing his eyes, he remembered how his life had changed with the arrival of his sons.It had been a rocky relationship in the beginning but had been smoothing out.That was before he let Ben’s poisonous words enter his heart.In a few hours, his world would once again be the same dark and lonely place it had been before their arrival.For the first time in his life, Murdoch felt a complete and utter failure.It was not a feeling that the old Scotsman liked, but it was one that he would have to live with – for the rest of his life – no matter how short.
A sweat soaked Johnny awoke from a fevered sleep.In his dreams he was back in Bartch’s study – reviewing the maps.The top map seemed to be calling to him - like a warning that he was missing something important.Lying still to gather his strength, the injured man felt confident that he had done the right thing by sending Bernardo to Stockton to warn the Association of the impending attack.That was why he couldn’t understand how the ‘X’ on the map – in the middle of nowhere bothered him so much.
Knowing that there was only one way to find out, Johnny forced himself to get up and get dressed in the clothes he had recovered from Sophie’s laundry.The plain brown pants did not give him the feeling of power that his concha pants had, but at least he was alive to put them on.Something told him that he would need all the power he could muster if he was to make it through the day.
Dressing was difficult.Between the fits of coughing and aches that wracked his body, it took him longer than he would have ever thought to put on a pair of pants.When he started to put on the blue shirt he glanced over at the ruined shiva shirt – Bernardo had called it the shirt of los muertos.The blood stained shirt now hung over a corral rail to dry in the sun.The shirt had served him well. A smile formed at the corners of his mouth, remembering the frightened looks of the men he had scared just a few hours earlier. Now was not the time to recount his minor victories.He needed to find out what was happening in the little valley where he first encountered Heath.
With great effort he pulled on his boots and gratefully shrugged into the warmth of his jacket.Moving was difficult and painful; every muscle was stiff and sore.A fire raged in his throat each time he swallowed.Bending to lift Barranca’s saddle nearly made him black out, but somehow he managed to heave the heavy object onto the palomino’s back – the tender skin of his wounds protesting the strenuous movement.After taking a moment to rest, Johnny cinched the saddle and gave some thought to mounting the animal.He was getting damn tired of having to use a stool to sit on his horse.When this was all over, he was going to sleep for a week.He didn’t care what Scott or Murdoch would want to say – he knew that when this was all over, there would be no avoiding them.It didn’t matter what they thought - he was going to sleep.
Walking out into the yard, Johnny used the remains of an old chair, standing on it to step up into the saddle.Every muscle screamed in protest.His head felt like it weighed a hundred pounds and his breaths came in pants.Congestion had filled his lungs making breathing a challenge.Hopefully, the trip to the valley would be a wasted one, but it was a loose end that he couldn’t ignore.With a gentle kick of his heels, he urged Barranca forward – towards the unknown.
Bushrod Smith and Kid Kelly led their men to the outskirts of Stockton.With a nod, twenty of the men followed Kelly, while the others followed Smith, taking the back way around the town.The men rode at the ready, guns already drawn.They all knew what was at stake. If they were successful, they would be wealthier than they had ever dreamed possible.Failure was not an option.
Within minutes of Scott and Nick taking control of the defenses, the once thriving town of Stockton resembled a ghost town.Scott stationed the armed members of the Association at the hotel windows, while the unarmed members were placed nearby to reload weapons when needed.Nick went outside, and to his surprise, was met by Bernardo Cardoza and several men who volunteered to take positions on the roof tops.Quickly, Nick had them positioned and out of sight; prepared for a fight.
Scott was beside himself – torn between his duty to protect the Association and his desire to find his brother.Since they had found out about the plot, reports had filtered in about how the ‘ghost of Johnny Madrid’ had scared half of the hands away from the Circle A.Reluctantly, Scott had to admire his brother’s guile.On the other hand, he was afraid that Johnny had once again placed his health in jeopardy.The boy had been shot twice and had apparently spent the night out in the rain.The fact that Johnny hadn’t come to town himself told Scott that is brother was probably hurt – badly.
“You OK?”Jelly asked as he took his position next to Scott.
“No,” Scott responded after a moment’s hesitation.“I don’t want to be here…”
“You don’t,” Scott ground out.“I’d rather be with my brother, choking the life out of him.” The older brother could not help but to worry about his still absent sibling.The not knowing was grating on his nerves.
Jelly smiled knowingly.He did know exactly how Scott felt.“Well, think about what your Pa is going to do when he finds out.”
Scott looked at his companion; a smile slowly came to his face when he tried to picture the look on Murdoch’s face when Johnny showed up.“Thanks, Jelly.”The smile left his face when he saw Jarrod and the barber approach.“Well?”
“He ain’t here!” the barber said, glad to be done with his task.
“You sure?”Scott asked, his eyes narrowing.
“I had him check out everyone in the building…”
“I shaved the man – I ain’t likely to forget his face!” the barber added indignantly.
“Alright – go…”The man didn’t need a second invitation to high tail it out of the hotel.“I don’t understand.Johnny’s note said that one of the men was a traitor.Either he was wrong or we’re missing something…”
“Or, someone.Perhaps not all of the men are here.”Jarrod offered, his mouth dropping open as he considered what he had just said.“Wait a minute.I think that we are missing a man… Where is Ben Anderson?”
Scott and Jelly looked at each other in alarm.They both knew Ben – he had spent a lot time out at the ranch.Murdoch considered him to be a good friend.“Could be him!”Jelly confirmed.“He likes cigars… I’ll go find out what room is his.”The older man turned and quickly headed to the main desk to find out which room had been rented to Ben.
“Well, if he’s not here – then where is he?”Scott pondered, looking around the hotel lobby.Something else was wrong.“Where are your mother and my father?”
Jelly returned a few seconds later.“He ain’t here!The clerk said that he rode out early this mornin’!”
“You don’t think he’s gone after them, do you? I’m heading back to the ranch…”Jarrod turned to leave, only to be held back by Scott.
“I don’t know where he’s gone or why, but you can’t leave now!You could be riding right into a nest of vipers!”
“Listen,” Jarrod hissed.“You might not get along with your father, but my mother and I get along just fine…”
“And I’m sure that she’d appreciate your getting killed trying to save her!Don’t be a fool! All I’m asking is for you to wait until this is done.”
Jarrod glared at Scott, his mind reluctantly accepting the validity of Scott’s argument.“Alright.As soon as this is over – I’m leaving.”
Both Scott and Jelly watched as Jarrod went to take his place near a front window.“What about Murdoch?”Jelly whispered knowing that Scott’s first priority was to check on his brother.
“Johnny first and then Murdoch.”Scott confirmed.There was no way he was going on a wild goose chase after Murdoch Lancer and Victoria Barkley without first checking on his brother.
Outside, Val and Fred Savage surveyed the main street of Stockton.Every window of the hotel was manned – front and back.A man was posted on every roof, and a lookout was placed in the church steeple.They had been waiting for an hour with no sign of any riders nearby.
“This is ridiculous!”Fred Savage swore under his breath.“You all are making a fuss over nothing.Ned knows that I won’t stand for any gunplay in my town….”
“It’s not Bartch I’d be concerned about,” Val commented, making sure his pistol was loaded and ready for the fifth time.“It’s Bushrod Smith and his boys that you need to be worried about.”
Fred harrumphed at the comment and surveyed his town.The sheriff was convinced he was right, until he heard the sharp whistle sound from the lookout.Within seconds they heard what sounded like a stampede of horses heading down the street.With a confident glance at Val, Fred stepped into the avenue and raised his arms to wave down the riders.To his dismay the almost twenty riders kept coming right at him and began firing their guns at anything and everything.
“Jeeze!”Fred swore as he dove behind a water trough and ducked his head for cover.Val hurried inside the hotel and locked the door.Two men came forward, blocking the entrance with a large piece of furniture.
Scott had placed the men under his command on alert as soon as the whistle was heard.The word had been given that everyone was to remain hidden until he gave the signal for them to fire.The former military man wanted to wait until the very last second before calling the signal to shoot. “Easy….”Scott ordered.“Let them come closer…” The former Lieutenant watched the approaching riders, his rifle already tucked securely against his shoulder.“Easy….. Fire!” Scott shouted. At the sound of his order, all the guns within the hotel began to blaze.From the roof tops, Bernardo and the other Mexicano’s opened fire, effectively cutting down the raiding party.
The Kid, who had been in charge, was killed in the first volley of gunfire.Some of the others, seeing their boss going down, threw down their guns while others tried to make a run for it. They were stopped when Nick Barkley and his men pulled a barricade across the road – trapping them within the gauntlet of gunfire.
Scott smiled in smug satisfaction; his trap had sprung on the outlaws just like clockwork.Moving from his position in the hotel, he confidently stepped onto the front porch. He found the Sheriff crawling out from behind the water trough he had been pinned against since the shooting had started.Sheepishly, the sheriff knocked the dirt off his damp pants. He had been scared to death and it still showed on his features and clothing. Nick and Heath meet the men on the porch to survey the carnage.Only Heath frowned.“He’s not here…”
“Who?”Nick asked his voice tinged with annoyance that his victory could be tainted.
“Smith.I didn’t see him come into town with the others.”
Scott reflected for a moment.“I didn’t either.You think he’s hiding around here?”The moment of quiet ended with the renewed sound of gunfire coming from the back of the building.With rifle in hand, Scott reentered the building running to the back to see several other gunmen on the ground and cornered by Val, Jelly and Jarrod.
By the time Scott arrived, the gun play was done.“Did you see Smith?” he asked anxiously, hoping that the gunhawk was among the dead.
“Yep,” Val clipped.“Him and that crazy Injun got away…”
“Damn!”Scott swore.He looked at Jarrod, knowing the lawyer’s thoughts.“Go to your ranch and check on your mother….”
“What about your father?”
Despite all that had happened, Scott was emotionally torn by the choices that were now presented.“I’ve got to go after Johnny and make sure he’s alive…”
“I understand,” Heath said softly.“Bring him to the ranch when you find him.We can care for him there.”
Scott smiled at the offer.“That’s if I don’t kill him first!”
“Before we leave, I’d like to talk with one of the raiders.”Jarrod, ever the lawyer was thinking ahead in case his mother was not at the ranch.“It could be that they know what their boss had in mind…”
“That’s a good idea,” Scott agreed.“I’m leaving for Johnny as soon as I can find the livery man.I’ll meet you at the ranch after we’ve found Johnny.”
“I’m ready whenever you are,” Jelly announced shouldering his rifle.
“Me too,” Val nodded.“The sooner we find that brother of yours the sooner we can all blister his ears and get life back to normal!”
Scott smiled at the sound of that – ‘life back to normal’.Scott hoped that he would find his brother and would be able to talk the younger man into returning to Lancer. He hadn’t spoken with his father since the day Johnny had ‘died’.After the meeting at Jarrod’s, Scott felt that Murdoch’s overall impression of Johnny had changed for the better after they found out what he had been up to.He wondered how his father was feeling – knowing that he had been betrayed by a friend and tricked into distrusting Johnny.Hopefully, his father had learned a valuable lesson and would now be willing to put it into practice.If they were to be a family, it would have to be unconditional.No ‘calling the tune’ when it came to love.
The defense of Stockton did not go without casualties.Joel Todd, who had been firing his rifle from an upper window, was injured when the glass next to his face exploded in a hail of gunfire.Shards of glass cut deeply into his face and shoulder.Several other Association members received minor wounds.A triage had been set up in the hotel, keeping Doc Merar very busy.
“I might need your help later, when I find my brother.” Scott said trying not to interfere with the doctor’s ministrations.
“None of the wounded are serious.Just send word on where you are and I’ll come as quick as I can.”
Before leaving, Scott checked on his friend. He found Joel sitting on the lobby steps holding a towel to his bleeding face.“Joel… I’ve got to go…”
“I know,” Joel could sense the anxiousness in his comrade.“Go find your brother.I can’t wait to meet the man who saved all of our lives.”
Scott smiled at the thought.In a way, Johnny had saved them all.Scott didn’t know why, but he was nervous about finding out how Johnny had done it.“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Scott, Val and Jelly headed out the door towards the livery.There they found Bernardo holding the reins to four horses.The older man had figured that all of Johnny’s friends would want to come to make sure he was alright.A broad smiled crossed the older man’s face as the trio walked into the stable.“We go to find your brother, Si?”.
“Yes.Where is he?How is he?”Scott asked anxiously, taking the reins of the horse he had ridden the day before.
“He is at my sister’s place – in the barn.He is ill señor.The bullets they hurt him badly and now the cough and fever have him…”
“Is that why he isn’t here?”
“Si, he was out riding all night long.That is how he found out about the attack.Come, I will show you.”
The four men mounted their horses and left Stockton in the hands of the Sheriff.Fred was still shaken that his quiet town had been so brutally attacked.He knew that Nick Barkley would forever be telling the tale how he and Scott Lancer had single handedly saved the town - while the sheriff hid behind a horse trough.It would take months for him to live this down - but at least he was alive.The sheriff, along with the help of many of the local townsfolk, rounded up the uninjured gun men and was herding them into the jail.
Jarrod Barkley sent Nick and Heath ahead to check out the house while he stayed behind to speak with some of the raiders.He found many of the younger men anxious to talk, but they had no information about what was to happen after the attack.All they had been told was that they were to meet Ned Bartch at some pre-arranged spot where they were to be paid.
“Not much help?”Fred asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Jarrod responded glumly.“Listen, Fred.If you hear anything send word out to the ranch.I’m going to go after Nick and Heath…”
“I hope your Ma is alright,” Fred said, his voice thick with concern.
“So do I, Fred.So do I.”
Bushrod Smith, Injun Joe and a kid that went by the name Arizona didn’t stop riding until they were five miles out of town.They finally slowed their horses when they had made sure no one was following them.“How’d they know?”Arizona gasped his face red with sweat and concern.He had never seen a massacre like this before, and longed to be anywhere but Stockton, California.
“I don’t know…”Bushrod
growled. He was angry.Bartch hadn’t
waited like he said that he would.The
seasoned gunhawk smelled a double-cross and he didn’t like it.
”There’s gonna be hell ta pay!” he swore.There was only one place to go – to the rendezvous.Not the one that Bartch had told him, but the one he had seen on a map in Bartch’s office when the boss hadn’t been around.“Let’s go!”
Wearily, Johnny made his way out to the area that had been marked on the map.After dismounting from Barranca, he stood at the top of a ridge and squinted across the valley watching for movement.He didn’t like what he saw.A quarter mile away he saw three riders making their way towards the woods.It was obvious the riders weren’t cowboys as they rode single file.Immediately alerted, Johnny tied Barranca to a tree where he could not be seen.Painfully, the injured man dropped to his knees and crawled back to his previous position.There he had a clear view of the riders without them seeing him.With interest he watched as the group came to a halt and the riders dismounted.From the way they got off their horses, Johnny knew that he was looking at a pair of captives.The gunhawk’s eyesight was keen, but not good enough to know who he was looking at.
With no one around to help him, he realized that if the captives were to be saved it would be up to him.Rolling to his back he looked up at the blue afternoon sky.“Why me, Lord?” he whispered.“Don’t I ever deserve no breaks?”In his heart he knew the answer – no.His life was predetermined. Johnny realized that he was being punished for all the men he had killed and the wrongs that he had done.Sometimes the young man felt as if he was being punished for just being alive.Isn’t that sort of what his father had indicated?
Knowing that he had to get moving, Johnny pushed himself up, his head spinning as he moved.Putting a hand to his forehead he knew his fever was getting worse.Sweat ran down his chest, stinging his wounds, a constant reminder he was not well.Periodically, he would cough thick green mucus from his lungs and was left wheezing for breath until the coughing subsided.He was in no shape to attempt a rescue, but since he was the only one around, he figured he had better get to it.
Mounting Barranca was difficult with no step, rock or broken chair to assist the injured man.With weakened limbs, he less than gracefully, climbed aboard.Barranca whinnied his disapproval of the awkward motions of his normally graceful owner.“I know,” Johnny soothed the animal before a fit of coughing overcame him.After it passed, he kneed Barranca forward.It would be another painful ride to reach the far side of the valley, but he had no other choice but to get started.
It was four o’clock when Ben Anderson announced they were at their final destination.The spot was just on the edge of a thick woods and a grassy draw.It was a desolate area and rarely visited by cow or cowboy.Pulling a watch from his pocket he smiled.“Well, it’s all over.The Association is gone, and so is every ranch owner from here to Morro Coyo!”
After he had his prisoners dismount, he had Murdoch tie Victoria’s hands - his gun thrust into Murdoch’s back as a constant reminder that he was being watched.Once Victoria was seated by an abandoned campfire, he instructed Murdoch to gather firewood for a signal fire.Night would be coming soon and a beacon was needed to guide his men to the meeting site.
Murdoch’s back and leg ached from the long hours in the saddle and he was limping badly while he gathered the makings for a fire.
“Ben, surely there is no need to torture Murdoch this way,” Victoria commented, concerned by Murdoch’s growing discomfort.
“Sure, there is!”Ben smiled, watching how Murdoch’s pain seemed to increase with each step he took.“Call it interest owed.”
“What did we ever do to you?”Victoria wondered aloud.
Ben raised an eyebrow at the question.“Do to me? The better question is what haven’t you done to me?”He turned to Murdoch who had gathered a large pile of wood.“That’s enough Lancer.Come here.”
Murdoch felt like a dog who had been summoned, realizing that the tone Ben was using with him was much like the tone he himself had often used when directing Johnny.It dawned on him that it was no wonder Johnny had always chafed at his directions.
Ben proceeded to tie Murdoch’s hands behind his back, pulling the rope as tight as he could before pushing Murdoch to the ground.His laugh burned in Murdoch’s ears as the Lancer patriarch shuffled on his knees to a position near Victoria.The two prisoners glared at their captor, but to no avail.Ben just kept on laughing…
Bernardo led Scott, Val and Jelly to Consuelo’s barn.As soon as they approached the structure, the older man knew that something was amiss.The barn door that he had left closed was now opened.
“Something wrong?”Scott asked sensing a change in their guide’s demeanor.
“No se,” Bernardo responded warily.“I left Madrid inside and the barn door closed…”
Scott bit back a storm of anger and frustration when the older man referred to Johnny as Madrid, but kept his mouth shut.Something was wrong.Urging his already tired horse onward, he rode up to the barn, dismounted and cautiously ran to the door.He didn’t want to startle his brother and look into the wrong end of a pistol.If he had learned one thing during his time with Johnny, he knew that the former pistolero did not like to be startled, especially when he was injured.Peering into the doorway, he saw no sign of his brother.“Johnny….?” he called softly. Bernardo was shaking his head while Jelly and Val looked puzzled by the lack of response.Scott signaled that he was going in.Crouching, he entered the barn and looked around.There was no sign of his brother."Johnny!” he shouted – not surprised when there was no response.Angry, he kicked an empty bucket, sending it crashing into a vacant stall.Johnny was gone – without a note; without a sign.
Bernardo followed Scott inside, his eyes opening wide at the sight of the now empty straw bed.“I left him here, Señor.He was muy enfermo …”
“Well he’s not here now!” Scott growled.A sharp whistle sounded from outside interrupting Scott’s thoughts.Running out, he found Val kneeling beside some tracks in the yard.“What have you got?”
“Tracks, goin’ north.”Val said looking off into the distance.
“Them are Barranca’s – I know it!”Jelly confirmed pointing out a rough edge on one of the shoe prints.“What ya supose’d got into him?”
“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out!”Scott remounted his horse and turned to Bernardo.“Go to the Barkley’s – tell them that we’ve gone to find Johnny!”Without waiting for a response, Scott dug his heels into the sides of his startled horse and set out after his brother.
Jelly paused to speak to Val before they followed.“I sure hope Johnny’s gotta good tale for all this.I don’t think Scott’s gonna be too easy on him…”The worry was plain in his voice and Val nodded in agreement.
“I’m sure Johnny wouldn’ta gone unless it were good…”With a grim face, the sheriff of Green River set off after Scott Lancer.
Nick and Heath rode up to the ranch, practically dismounting before their horses came to a stand still.“Mother!”Nick’s voice boomed as he entered the house.He continued to shout her name as he checked the sitting room and then the library.Heath ran upstairs and found her room empty.
“Mr. Nick – what is it!”Silas met Nick at the entrance to the kitchen, just before Nick called out his mother’s name again.
“Mother – have you seen her?”
“Why, she left here hours ago with Mr. Lancer and Mr. Anderson.Didn’t you see them at the meeting?”
“There was no meeting!There was a massacre!”
“Lordy!”Silas exclaimed.“Was she there?”
“No!”Nick shouted; angry at his inability to find his mother.
“She’s not upstairs…”Heath came down the back staircase, meeting his brother in the kitchen.
“I know!”Nick spat, taking his hat off with one hand and running the other through his thick black hair.
“They must have set off somewhere…”
“I know!”Nick repeated his anger mounting.He was more worried at this moment than he had been in his entire life. His mother was missing – his rock - and all he could do was stand there without a clue to her whereabouts.
“Maybe Jarrod found something out from the prisoners.We could ride back to town…”Heath suggested.
Nick chewed his lip for a moment.“We need fresh mounts…”
“What are you planning?”Heath asked worriedly.
“I’m getting us some rifles and ammunition…”Nick stormed out of the kitchen and back towards the library.
Heath told Silas to get the horses and followed after his brother.As Nick turned toward the library, Heath saw Bernardo riding up.Forgetting his brother for the moment, Heath hurried out to see what Bernardo had to say.
“Señor!” an exhausted Bernardo dismounted and reached out to Heath.“He is gone!”
“Madrid!He was not where I left him!”
“Where are Scott and the others?”
“They are tacking him to the north…”
“Are you sure?”Heath asked excited by this piece of information.
“Si! Very positive.”
A smile crossed Heath’s face.This was the first bit of good news that he had since leaving Stockton.“You go around back and get a fresh horse, I’ll be right out!”Heath ran back into the house.“Nick!”He found his brother in the library, loading two rifles with cartridges.“They went north!”
“And how do you know that?”
“Bernardo just rode in.Johnny is gone.Scott is tracking him to the north…”
“And what does that have to do with finding Mother?”Nick demanded impatiently.
“Boy howdy, can you just listen for a moment without acting like a bear with a bee up his butt?On our way home, I saw where someone had cut across the north pasture. We sent all the hands to the west to secure the border with the Circle A.Since that rain last night, no one has been through there…”
“Except for maybe Mother and the others!”Nick’s features brightened and he started to move, brushing past Heath, practically knocking the younger man down.
Heath rolled his eyes at his older brother’s impatience.“Good thinking, Heath.”He muttered, congratulating himself.
“You coming?”Nick shouted from the foyer.
“Yes, Nick!”Heath sighed and followed Nick out the door.Turning the corner, he nearly plowed into his brother who had stopped to watch Jarrod riding up the drive.
“They’re not here!”Nick announced loudly.
“I figured as much,” Jarrod dismounted, tying the reins of his horse to the rail. “Any ideas?”
“Heath saw some fresh tracks heading north across the pasture…”Nick said putting his hat back on his head.
“Bernardo says that Scott and the others are tracking Johnny who is heading north too” Heath interrupted, stepping forward to accept the reins of a fresh mount from Bernardo who had helped Silas get the fresh horses ready.
“Si, that is right!Madrid’s brother rides to the north…”The older man handed the reins of an additional horse to Nick.
Heath quickly mounted his fresh horse and looked down at his brothers.“Bernardo and I will head out and get a line on those tracks.You catch up as fast as you can.”Heath wheeled his horse and headed back down the road with Bernardo following close behind.
“He’s upset…”Jarrod started.
“We’re all upset!”Nick growled.“I just don’t want him going of half cocked and getting himself killed.You coming?”Without waiting for a response, Nick practically vaulted onto his horse and stormed after Heath.
Jarrod looked after his brother - amused.It was usually Nick who went off hell bent for leather.Somehow Heath had gotten the jump on him and Nick didn’t like it.Jarrod headed out to the barn to get a new horse.He signaled for Silas to walk with him, giving the servant a list of items that might be needed when they found his mother and Mr. Lancer.Silas took the instructions in silence.From the list that Jarrod requested, he knew the lawyer was preparing for the worst.“I’ll get it right together, Mr. Jarrod,” he said before running to the house to put together the items.
Jarrod looked after the older man.Silas had been with the family for as long as he could remember – through thick and thin; good times and bad.Bad times were coming – he could feel it in his heart.Saddling a fresh horse, his thoughts turned to his mother.He could only pray that they would find her in time to prevent the worst from happening.
Evening had come and the warmth of the sun was quickly replaced with the coolness of a late summer evening.From the time they arrived, Ben Anderson nervously maintained his stubborn silence and paced the campsite, waiting…
Finally, Victoria decided that she’d enough. “Why, Ben?Why this?”Victoria and Murdoch had been sitting on the ground for hours, their hands tied behind their backs.The light from the fire cast a soft glow against their confused faces.Ben had been a trusted friend and business associate for many years.For four hours they sat on the cooling ground; watching and waiting as Ben walked around them, brandishing his gun – lording his power over them.
“Why?” was the incredulous response.“You really don’t know why, do you?”He shook his head; a demented smile crossed his face.“I guess that the two of you have never had it rough enough to appreciate what I’ve had to do to get where I am.You’ve never suffered the losses…”
“That’s not true!”Murdoch spoke up.“You’ve known me for twenty years Ben!I lost my boys, my wives…”He didn’t have a chance to say more before the butt of Ben’s gun came crashing down in the top of his head, causing the tall rancher to fall sideways against Victoria.
“Murdoch!”Victoria called, struggling to assist her fallen friend, but her tied hands prevented her from doing anything.
It took a moment for Murdoch’s head to stop spinning, and after taking a deep breath, he struggled back to his position near the fire.He was aware of peculiar warmth seeping down the back of his collar.He was bleeding.“What losses Ben?What have we taken from you?”
Ben had moved to the far side of the fire and watched Murdoch struggling to sit upright.“My losses? I’ve watched you for twenty years as you built Lancer into one of the largest ranches in the valley.You didn’t care who you stepped on or who lost out.You had your plan and you stuck to it. Well I had my plan, and it almost worked only that boy of yours just had to get in the way!”
Murdoch and Victoria glanced at each other, not understanding what plan Ben had been working on.“What are you talking about?”Victoria finally asked.
“Pardee,” Ben said the single word and watched as Murdoch’s face transformed from question to anger.A smug smile crossed Ben’s face when he saw Murdoch was finally seeing the big picture.“Who do you think brought Pardee to the valley?He was a gunhawk, not a rancher.Didn’t you ever wonder why he was raiding the ranches but not working them?”Ben gloated at his captives, a look of glee spread on his face. “He was doing it for me!”
“But you came to the Association meetings….”
“Association?” Ben snorted.“A bunch of weak men looking for leadership.It was so easy to get you sucked into it!The Great Murdoch Lancer!Ha!After you lost more than half your wranglers you decided to send for your two sons.The boys you always talked about with such sorrow.It made me sick!Imagine how stunned I was when they showed up.That peacock Boston boy of yours, and your other son, the one you never talked about.Can’t say that I blame you not wanting to claim Johnny Madrid as your half-breed whelp!”
“You leave Johnny out of this…”Murdoch growled angered at Ben’s description of his dead son.
“Johnny?Out of this?”Ben laughed.“You brought him home, you bastard!You know what he did – he helped kill my son!”
“Your son?”Murdoch shouted.“Ben, you don’t have a son!”
“Not anymore!Day was my son, and your half-breed helped kill him!”Ben was raging with anger, and was spitting his words into Murdoch’s face.“Don’t you see? You weren’t the only one to have a taste for Mexican whores!You weren’t the only one to have a pistolero for a son! Day was my son!He came to me wanting his share of my ranch.When he found out how rich the valley was, he offered to help make my ranch bigger.Together we could have ruled California…”
Victoria glanced at Murdoch, wondering if her friend understood just how demented Ben had become.
“So, that’s why you wanted Johnny gone…”Murdoch whispered.
“A son for a son, it was so easy!”Ben laughed.“All it took was a little whisper in your ear.‘Lancer would lose money if Madrid stayed around’.You fell for it like a rock dropping into a well.Murdoch Lancer and his quest for the biggest, best and wealthiest didn’t include having no stinkin’ Mexican gunhawk living in his house.It was so easy to play you.You got rid of Johnny faster than a rattlesnake could strike!Imagine how surprised I was when he turned up here in Stockton and came to work for my new operation!”Ben was now once again on the far side of the fire, waving his arms to punctuate his points all the while gloating over his exploitation of Murdoch’s fears.
Murdoch considered the words and dropped his head in shame.Ben was right.He had played into his demented friend’s hands.All it took was a few choice words, whispers of concern and Ben had turned Murdoch’s heart against his own son.“He’s dead.You should be happy.”Murdoch snapped.
“Happy?”Ben walked up to Murdoch, pulling his gun from his holster.“Do I look happy?What will make me happy is when you to join your son in hell!”Ben raised his gun until the barrel was even with Murdoch’s forehead. Murdoch couldn’t help but flinch as Ben cocked the hammer - rotating the cylinder until a loaded chamber was ready.“Say hello to Johnny …”
“Say hello yourself…” a soft spoken voice came from the darkness.
“Who’s there!?”Ben demanded, whirling away from his intended victim.
From the darkness, a figure walked into the flickering fire light.Three sets of eyes widened as the figure of Johnny Madrid slowly walked into the isolated camp.
“Johnny,” Murdoch whispered, desperately wanting to rub his eyes, to rid himself of this ghostly vision.As the figure came closer, he realized that he wasn’t seeing a ghost, but the living and breathing figure of his son. His heart stopped for the briefest of moments.His dead son was alive and had come to save him – a man unworthy of this son’s concern.Ben’s words had struck deep into Murdoch’s cold soul.He knew he had treated Johnny badly, like a pariah.Johnny had no reason to be there to save him and yet he was.Stunned, all Murdoch could do was stare as his son moved closer towards the campfire – the warm glow of the flickering flames casting dark shadows on a pale face.
Unable to tear his eyes away – he drank in the sight of his youngest.The closer Johnny got, the more Murdoch was able to observe.Johnny looked to be as pale as a ghost, his frame shrunken as if from some great pain.The father was unsure whether Johnny’s appearance was the result of physical discomfort, or the depth of knowledge the young man now had about why his own father had turned against him.
“You’re dead!”Ben shouted.Quickly he started to raise his hand and point his weapon at the apparition but he was dead before he could pull the trigger.Johnny had drawn and fired his gun in the blink of an eye, shooting Ben Anderson in his heart.The man was dead before he hit the ground.
Johnny returned his gun to its holster and continued to walk towards the captives, never breaking his stride.He had killed again.What was another dead body to Johnny Madrid?It was expected of him – and once again, he had lived up to his reputation.
“Johnny!”Murdoch called sharply.
Madrid ignored Johnny Lancer’s father.Instead he focused on Victoria Barkley – the woman who had been honest with him.Moving was hard and his chest wheezed with every breath he took.He fought the edges of darkness that threatened to steal his vision.Briefly he paused when a fit of coughing robbed him of oxygen; the spasms causing his ribs to ache, finally causing some of the stitches to tear.There was a sharp pain, followed by the warmth of blood trickling down his left side.
“Johnny?”This time it was the gentle voice of Victoria Barkley that called out to him.
Johnny responded, his vacant cold blue eyes catching the look of concern on her worried face.He didn’t so much as glance at Murdoch, keeping his focus on the woman.Without uttering a word, he pulled a knife from his boot to cut the ropes that bound Victoria’s wrists.Bending was difficult, but he managed to cut the petite woman free.All the while aware of his father’s stare - wondering when the man would speak.Standing up straight, he wobbled as his strength finally waned.
“Sit,”Victoria commanded, guiding Johnny to the spot beside Murdoch that she had just vacated.
Johnny sank to his knees, wrapping his arms around himself as if to hold in the pain that was threatening to break free from his heart.Focusing on the fire, he struggled to breathe; to calm himself from the adrenaline rush that had coursed through his body during the brief gunfight.He was now exhausted – physically and emotionally.A loud wheeze could be heard as Johnny’s lungs struggled to suck in air through clogged breathing passages.
After making sure Johnny was settled, Victoria took the knife and cut through Murdoch’s bindings.She then went to check on Ben and give the two Lancers a bit of time alone.It wasn’t everyday that a man arose from the dead, and she figured that the two had a lot to talk about.
Murdoch continued to stare speechlessly, shocked to see Johnny alive.The young man stared into the fire as if, like Lazarus, it was an every day event to return from the dead.
“Johnny?”Murdoch waited for a response, rubbing his wrists to restore circulation to his numb fingers.
Johnny didn’t move a muscle.He didn’t know what to say.He had heard it all – everything that Ben had said.Now he knew why his father had felt the way that he had and it hurt. Closing his eyes, he struggled to remember the words of love that Murdoch had said just the day before.The words that Murdoch had spoken in the doctor’s office had soothed his wounded heart.Now, all Johnny could wonder was if Murdoch really meant them or if it was just easier for the Old Man to profess to love a dead son – a son he would never have to deal with again.Sadly, he came to the conclusion that it was better to be Johnny Madrid and never let people get close enough to hurt him.There was no Johnny Lancer; there never could be – not when it was so easy for his father to hate him for just living.
“Son…”Murdoch tried again.
“I ain’t your son…”Johnny hissed, not looking at the Old Man.
To his shame, Murdoch realized that Johnny must have been listening to Ben’s words. “You heard?”
“Every word,” Johnny shook his head, continuing to stare at the fire.“Money, is all you care about - money and the precious Lancer name.A name I’m not good enough to carry…”
“No Johnny.”Murdoch pleaded.“I was wrong.I know it…”
“Yeah, well now I know it too.”Johnny struggled to his feet, despite Victoria’s best efforts to keep him down.
She tried to steady him, her hands coming in contact with his bloody shirt.“You’re bleeding…” she whispered as she fought to keep the injured man from leaving.
“I’ve done a lot of that lately.Seems that no matter where I go, I’m just a target …”
By now Murdoch was up and on his feet.“No, Son, not anymore.”He tried to help Johnny, but the younger man shook off the big man’s hands as if they were poison to him.
“Why, Murdoch? What’s changed?I’m still Johnny Madrid.People are still going to fear the name…fear me. I’m still not good enough to be your son…”
“Johnny Madrid was killed in Stockton a few days ago.Maybe it’s time that we both let you be Johnny Lancer again…”
Johnny laughed, half drunken from blood loss.“Is that what you think?That Johnny Madrid is dead?You still don’t get it!”
“Then tell us, Johnny.What don’t we get?”Victoria asked the question that was begging to be asked.
“I am Johnny Madrid.It’s who I am.It’s who you made me to be.I can’t never not be Madrid.You said it yourself…”At that point, the dizziness got the better of him and he began to sag against Victoria.
Murdoch intervened and caught his son in his arms, gently lowering him to the ground near the fire.Johnny’s eyes were open, studying the concerned face of his father while Victoria opened his coat and saw the blood stained shirt.Placing a hand on his forehead, she was amazed at the heat.“Dear God,” she murmured.“We’ve got to get him back to the house.”
Without a second thought, Murdoch took off his coat, covering Johnny’s shivering body.“I’ll get the horses….”
“Don’t do me no favors, Old Man.”Johnny whispered venomously.
A grim line formed Murdoch’s mouth.Johnny’s words hurt, just like the injured man intended them to.Murdoch, however, refused to be baited.The father knew that he deserved every barb his son was throwing his way.“I don’t owe you anything but my love, Johnny.And that’s all you’re going to get from now on…”
As Murdoch stood, the sound of a horse rapidly approaching the tiny camp filled the darkness.There was no where for them to go.
As daylight faded into darkness - Scott, Val and Jelly found the going slow.The lawman was walking, squatting periodically to make sure that he was still following Johnny’s trail.“Val, can’t you..?”Scott started, impatiently.
Val raised his hand and his voice.“Don’t ask me again, Scott.I’m as all fired ready to find your brother as you are.Ask’n me every two minutes ain’t gonna help!”
Scott bit back the sharp retort that came to mind.He knew that Val was doing the best he could, but the feeling in his gut that Johnny was in serious trouble just would not go away.
“Uh, oh….”Val said squatting, taking a closer look at the ground.“Yer brother has got company…”
“How many?”Jelly asked, dismounting and taking a look at the tracks himself.
“Looks to be about two or three – riding fast!”
In the distance they heard the sound of gunfire.“It came from over there!”Scott stood in his stirrups, listening for the sounds of another shot.When none came, his bad feeling intensified.
“It coulda come from anywhar,” Jelly said shaking his head.“Sounds got a habit of movin’ ‘round…”
“I know what I heard and where it came from!”Scott snapped.“You coming or not?”
By now it was dark and the moon was peaking out from behind the clouds.Val caught a glimpse of Scott’s face in the moonlight.The not knowing was getting to the kid.“It can’t hurt.If we lose the tracks we’ll have to make camp and try again in the morning.”
Trying in the morning was not an option Scott felt they had time to enjoy.He just knew that his brother was in trouble and needed him now.
“Hold it!”Ned Bartch announced, riding into the campsite with his gun drawn.Quickly he considered the situation. He saw Murdoch and Victoria tending to a motionless form lying on the ground.There was another unmoving form near the campfire.Ned dismounted, his gun trained on the Murdoch and the others while he went to check on the obviously dead person.A smile crossed his face when he peered down at the pale face of his partner – Ben Anderson.The smile broadened when he realized that he had been relieved of the task of killing the man himself.“Who do I have to thank for this?”Ned asked, training all his attention on the live hostages.
“That would be me.”Johnny had been lying still, marshalling the last of his energy to meet this new challenge.He wanted to take advantage of the element of surprise.Initially he met with some non-verbal resistance from this father and Victoria before they moved aside, allowing him to sit up – all signs of weakness now gone. With gun in hand, he pointed at Ned’s chest.“Want ta join him?”
Ned eyes widened when he looked at the man now holding a gun on him.“You’re dead…”
“I get that a lot…”Johnny smiled.“What’ll it be?”
Ned moved as if to drop his pistol but then, at the last moment, he brought it back in line with his target - Johnny.Before he had the chance to fire, Johnny once again squeezed the trigger of his revolver and another man was dead.
This time, Johnny let the weapon drop from his fingers as the last of his strength left him.Slowly he lay back and closed his eyes.The adrenaline that had enabled him to rise to yet another challenge, left him as quickly as it had came.“Chalk another one up to Johnny Madrid,” he whispered bitterly.“I guess you got a little more use outta your private gun.Did I do it right Old Man?Did I kill him good enough for ya?”
Victoria glanced at Murdoch.Johnny was continuing the verbal attack on his father.She wondered how much more the short tempered Scotsman would endure before exploding.“Johnny, we need to get out of here,” she said decisively, trying to intervene and stop the brewing battle between son and father.
“Then go…” Johnny sighed tiredly.
“I can’t leave you, Son…”Murdoch swallowed his pride, looking at his son’s pale complexion; the ruggedly handsome face was marred by pinched lines of pain.The boy was sick and he had risked his health to come after him.Shame filled the big man’s heart.Johnny’s current condition was a direct result of his harsh words.If only he had taken the time to try to look past the lies and seek out the real Johnny Lancer.Like a fool, he had only seen the mantle of Johnny Madrid that the young man wore like a shield. “How did you know to come here?”
Johnny shifted uncomfortably.“I know a lot of things – like the fact that Scott ain’t dead…”
“How can you know?”Murdoch was unable to hide his excitement over this bit of news.
The relieved tone of Murdoch’s voice filled Johnny with bitterness.Clearly the Old Man was thankful that Scott was alright. So was Johnny.It just grated on Johnny’s nerves that the only time Murdoch had ever expressed any concern for him was after he had been shot by Pardee.Johnny had to give the Old Man credit that during his recovery Murdoch seemed friendly enough.That ended once the pistolero was healthy and back on his feet.Since then, it was always Scott.Scott seemed to be the only son worthy of Murdoch’s attention, patience and love.The only thing the Old Man ever saved for Johnny was his contempt and distrust.It took his ‘death’ for the Old Man to even acknowledge that he liked Johnny or call him ‘son’.Even now, he found it hard to believe that Murdoch was the slightest bit interested in him. There was no keeping the bitterness from his tone of voice.“I found out about Bartch’s plan to attack the meeting last night.I sent word into town this morning.I’m sure Heath took care of things…”
“You sent a note to Heath?”Victoria asked anxiously.
“I figured that he would tell Scott and get him to help defend the place…”
“Why not send a note to Scott directly?”Murdoch worried over this minor detail.
“I didn’t have the time or energy to choose a favorite.This is Heath’s town.His word carries weight ‘round here…”Johnny began to cough again, pressing a hand to his now bleeding side wound.
“Easy…” Murdoch soothed, constantly amazed at how badly he had misjudged this son.
“Got no time for being easy,” Johnny warned when the coughing subsided.“If Smith and any of his boys survived, they’ll be head’n here for their money.”
“Then we better get a move on!”Murdoch moved to help Johnny up.
“No! I’ll just slow you down…” The sentence ended as another fit of coughing painfully erupted from deep within Johnny’s chest.
Murdoch glanced at Victoria who appreciated the dangerous situation they were in.“Victoria, you go for help.I’ll stay with Johnny…”
“No.Either we all stay or we all go. Johnny may have saved a lot of people I care about.Now, it’s our turn to help him.I say that we all go, now!”She turned to Johnny who had finally stopped coughing.“You can ride with me…”
Johnny smiled tiredly and shook his head.“You sure have guts, Lady, but I brung my own horse…” with a sharp whistle, Barranca appeared out of the darkness.
“There!Did you hear that?”Scott exclaimed.A second shot had sounded.To Scott’s trained ear, they were headed in the right direction.
“Yeah, I heard that!”Val and Jelly chorused.
Excited, the three men quickened their pace and headed off into the darkness.
A quarter mile away from Scott’s party, Nick, Heath, Jarrod and Bernardo were tracking the three horses that had left the ranch.Heath and Bernardo were walking, carefully trying to keep their eyes on the tracks while Nick and Jarrod followed impatiently.From the darkness came the sound of a single gunshot.“Was that…?” Heath started to ask.
“Sounds like gunfire to me!I’m not waiting to find out,” Nick spurred his horse into the night in a desperate search for the source of the sound.
“Wait, Nick!”Jarrod called, his brother all but swallowed by the gloom of night.With a sigh, he looked at Heath and Bernardo, barely able to make their features out in the dark.“What do you think, Heath?”
“I say that we follow him before he gets into trouble.”Heath mounted Charger while Bernardo mounted his horse.Together the three men set off after the hot headed rancher.
After riding for approximately five minutes, they heard three gunshots – a signal.This way…”Heath turned slightly to the right, homing in on the sound.There they met Nick and three other men.“Scott?”
Scott was both surprised and relieved to be suddenly surrounded by the Barkleys.“We were following Johnny’s trail when we saw that at least two or three other horses were following his tracks…”
“You thinkin’ it might be Smith?”Heath asked, sensing the worry in Scott’s voice.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure that it means trouble.”Scott surveyed the entire group.“What are you doing out here?Where are Murdoch and your mother?”
“They weren’t at the ranch!”Nick responded, voicing his own concern.“Heath found their tracks heading out here…”
“Johnny must have known somehow …” Scott swore, his frustration at his brother growing.
“Hold on!”Jarrod spoke up as Scott visibly fought to bring his feelings back under control and focus on the new information that presented a threat to his father. “We don’t know anything other than the fact that we have loved ones out here and that two shots have been fired.I say that we keep heading in the direction of that last shot…”
“I’ve got an idea on that!”Nick spoke up.“Remember the trouble we had out by that remote draw in the north pasture a few months back?Those rustlers were using that section as a hideout?I say we try there – it’s isolated…”
“Makes sense to me.Anyone else got any other ideas?”Jarrod waited a few moments, but no one said anything to disagree with Nick’s observations.“That’s it then.Lead on, Brother.”
“Help him, Murdoch…”Victoria ordered as she watched Johnny struggling to get up.
Murdoch reached for his son, only to have Johnny roll to his stomach and drag himself up to his hands and knees.Grabbing his gun, the younger man slipped it back into his holster.Clearly Johnny was fighting to find energy to get to his feet. “We don’t have time for stubborn foolishness, John – let me help you…”Murdoch chastised his son before placing his hands under Johnny’s armpits.Instantly he felt the younger man stiffen.
“There ain’t enough soap made to wash my stink off your hands, Old Man…”Johnny spat as his father lifted him to his feet.
“We’ll worry about that once we get out of here…”Murdoch stopped when he heard the sound of approaching horses – worried, he glanced at Victoria.“You go and hide in the trees until we know who it is…”
Victoria was about to argue when Johnny looked her in the eyes.“This is my fight and you won’t be doing us much good if you get hurt.Here, take my gun…”Johnny handed her his weapon.There was no way he could handle it again – not in his present condition.If the riders were Bushrod and the others then he only had one other means to protect his father and Victoria – to bargain with the one thing he had left.
Victoria opened her mouth to protest, but one sharp look from Murdoch convinced her to go.“Alright,” she acquiesced taking the gun.“I won’t be far,” the older woman promised before she ran into the trees, letting the dark hide her.
“You might as well run too, Old man.I imagine that Bushrod is going to be pretty angry with me.”
“Why, for warning the town?”
Johnny shook himself free of his father’s grasp.He needed to stand alone.“Get out of here, Old Man.This ain’t your fight neither!It’s time for me to pay the price for what I’ve done…”
“No, Son.I’m not going…”Murdoch was afraid that Johnny was right.He recalled Scott’s warning that there was a bounty on Johnny – that some of his former associates wanted him dead for what he had done to Pardee and Sexton Joe.A shiver ran up his spine when he remembered how cavalierly he had brushed aside the threat to his youngest.It had been so easy to dismiss Johnny once he was gone from Lancer.Murdoch realized that his arrogance was now threatening to kill his son.Silently he vowed to himself that he would never again dismiss or under value Johnny.He would fight for Johnny – for his right to survive.
“Then suit yourself…”Johnny whispered under his breath sensing the nearing danger.Father and son stood facing each other when the riders finally rode into the light of the fire.
Bushrod Smith rode into the campsite, accompanied by two of his men – a kid and the Indian.Smith’s eyes instantly narrowed when he took in the sight of the two dead bodies.His gaze then turned to Murdoch Lancer and the live body of Johnny Madrid.If Smith was surprised to see Johnny, he didn’t show it.“Madrid!”Bushrod dismounted an evil grin on his face.“I shoulda know’d better than to think you were dead…”
“Yeah?”Johnny coughed, wobbling on his feet.Murdoch reached to steady his son, only to be shaken off.
“What happened to them two?”Bushrod asked, looking at his former employers.
“What do you think?”Johnny snickered.
Bushrod responded by backhanding Johnny across the face.
Johnny’s head whipped to the right, causing him to loose his balance and fall to the ground.
“That’s not called for!”Murdoch yelled trying to intervene only to be held back when the Indian whipped a knife against his throat.
“Not called for?”Bushrod questioned; his voice was low and dangerous.He looked hard at Murdoch before turning his attentions back to Johnny.“You did it – didn’t you Madrid?”
“What?”Johnny pulled himself up to his knees and grinned.With the back of his hand, he wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth, smearing the redness across his chin.
“You were the one who warned the Association!”Bushrod proceeded to kick Johnny in the abdomen causing the downed man to fall over backwards.Slowly, Johnny rolled to his side, vomiting the contents of his stomach.Looking away, Smith focused his attentions on Murdoch.“That’s some whelp you sired!He’s cost me more friends and money in the last year than I can count.”
“Please,” Murdoch pleaded, looking at Johnny who was once again stubbornly struggling to his hands and knees.“I’ve got money.I’ll pay you…”The Indian had put his knife away and was joined by the kid.Together they physically held the large rancher from moving towards Madrid.
An evil smile crossed Smith’s face.“Now, ain’t that somethin’ boys?What ya got in mind to save this worthless piece of trash?”Smith once again took his foot and placed it on Johnny’s back, forcing the injured man’s face into the dirt.”
“A thousand dollars…”
Smith snorted and the two men now restraining Murdoch laughed.“You know how much money we were fixin’ on making today?A couple thousand a piece, an you want ta give us a thousand?”
“Name your price!Whatever it takes, just leave him alone…”Murdoch pleaded as he struggled against the men holding him, but there was no breaking loose.Johnny had sacrificed so much for Stockton and the other ranchers – sacrificed himself for his father.Murdoch owed Johnny and now was the time for him to step up and save his son.
“I could just take it out of your hide – after all, he’s your young’n…” Bushrod stepped back, removing his foot from Johnny’s back.
“Leave him out of this…”Johnny rasped, struggling for breath.“It’s me you want - not him…”
“Johnny – No!”Murdoch responded, the anguish clear in his voice.
“Shut up, Old Man!”Johnny cursed, rolling to his side, trying once again to get to his feet.“Let me handle this in my own way.”Johnny then turned his attention to his tormentor.“It’s me you want, let him be…”
Smith looked from son to father and smiled.“He’s right, you know, Lancer.That kid of yours has done me wrong for the last time.Ain’t enough money in the entire State of California to make up for what he’s done!He’s caused me ta lose a lot of friends – good men who’s only mistake was ta trust Johnny Madrid.Well that ends here and now…”Smith took the rope from his saddle and then walked to Barranca and removed Johnny’s rope.Throwing his rope to his companions he instructed them to tie Murdoch up. He then went to Johnny who was still lying in the dirt.Grabbing a handful of thick black hair, he raised the injured man’s head, causing Johnny’s neck to twist painfully until Bushrod could look him in the eyes.“You always were too pretty, Madrid.”With that said, he slammed his other gloved hand into Johnny’s face, crushing cartilage, causing blood to spurt from Johnny’s damaged nose and lips.Seeing that his blow had its desired effect, he let loose of the hair and let Johnny’s head drop limply to the earth.
Bushrod walked away from Johnny and surveyed the progress that the others had made.Quickly the Indian and the kid had searched Murdoch, taking his money and watch.Then they tied his hands behind his back and pushed him to his knees. “Well, this is where we part company, Lancer.”He turned away, the others following him back to where Johnny lay panting for breath.“Get him up.”
“What are you going to do?”Murdoch asked his voice edged with concern. Apprehensively, he watched the three men pull his battered son to his feet.
Once again, Johnny was standing alone on wobbly legs.He managed to open one eye and stare at his father.It was easier to die hating someone with a curse on his lips than to think of the love they could have shared had their lives been different.Johnny figured it would be easier for Murdoch too, if the Old Man could hate him – that way his father wouldn’t feel guilty about what was about to happen.Johnny focused on the bitterness he felt when he left Lancer and let his heart harden.There was nothing he needed or wanted from Murdoch.Now, more than ever, he knew that his mother had been right in leaving such a cold hearted man.The only times that he had ever experienced the slightest concern from his father was when he had done something for the Old Man – like killing his enemies.There was no promise that anything had changed – that if he survived he would be welcomed back at the ranch.Johnny was tired of playing Lancer’s game.What he was about to face was the end Johnny Madrid had expected from the very day he had first picked up a gun.“What do you care?” he asked defiantly – bitterness ringing in every word.“I’ve never been nothin’ to you. Why start worrying now?”
The gunhawks sneered at the comment and roughly pulled Johnny’s hands in front of him, binding his arms together with one end of the pistolero’s own rope.The other end was then tied to horn of Barranca’s saddle.
Murdoch’s eyes flew open wide when he realized what the men had in mind.“No!You can’t do this!”Murdoch began struggle to his feet.He had one thought – to save his son.Bushrod had other ideas and used his fist to punch Murdoch in the jaw to shut the older man up.Like a rag doll, Murdoch fell backwards – dazed, but not unconscious.
Bushrod laughed as he signaled for his men to stand clear of Johnny.“Madrid needs to be taught a lesson.He’s turned against his own kind one to many times.This is payback.”
“You leave him alone,” Johnny whispered in a low voice for Smith’s ears alone.
The older gunhawk nodded, but no promise crossed his lips.
Johnny closed his eyes for a moment and dropped his head to his chest.His time for dancing was now over, but he had one more thing to clear off his chest before he was done.Mustering his strength he looked down at his father – still struggling in the dirt.A small smile turned up the corner of his mouth as he thought of just the right words to say.“I’ll try not to disappoint you this time…”
“What!?”Murdoch demanded with alarm, clearly understanding the meaning of Johnny’s words.He had once wished Johnny dead by Pardee’s bullet; he knew now how selfish and wrong that desire was.Johnny was reminding him of his words and that the time had come for his ‘wish’ to be granted.“Johnny – No!I don’t want this…!”
Hearing his father’s anguished cries only made Johnny’s smile broaden.His smile faded just as Bushrod slapped Barranca’s rear, causing the animal to bolt forward into the night.Johnny felt a sharp tug, as if his arms were being jerked from their sockets.This was matched by a sharp pain in his chest as he fell to the ground, knocking the breath from him. He was moving quickly now, over the uneven earth, his limbs bouncing off the soft grass and occasional rock.The pain was intense and as time stretched on – so did his agony.His arms were separating from his shoulders, while ribs were being crushed by repeated impacts with the rough earth.For a brief instant, he recalled having seen men dragged to death.It was not a death he wanted, but he wanted it to come quickly. In the next instant, his head struck a hard object and he was gone.
From the campsite, the four men present watched as darkness swallowed the man and horse.From the woods, Victoria Barkley silently began to cry.There had been no chance – no opportunity to save Johnny.They were out numbered and out gunned.No clever words had come – no bright ideas had formulated to save the young man who had saved her sons.
yelled, but it was too late.All
he could hear was the diminishing sound of the horse’s hooves as it disappeared
into the night, followed by the laughter of his captors.
Bushrod Smith smiled into the darkness until the sound of the departing horse could no longer be heard.When silence once again reigned, he directed his attention back to Murdoch.“Well, Lancer,” the gunhawk’s smile turned into a malevolent grin, “I guess that’s the last we’ll see of your little bastard…”
“I don’t care where you go or what rock you try to hide under, you’re a dead man!”Murdoch swore in a low deadly voice.All hope he had of ever reconciling with Johnny was gone.Hope was replaced with a deep and abiding hatred for the men who had murdered his son.
The kid glanced nervously at his companions.He was young and had never been part of anything like what he had experienced this day.Seeing Johnny being dragged by a horse and swallowed by the night had unnerved him.Now he was hearing threats from Madrid’s father and the words were having their desired effect – he was scared.
The Indian stood still and silent, trying to let the rancher’s words roll off his back.He had been threatened before, but there was something different about Lancer.The older man had a vicious look in his eyes that shook the seasoned killer.He wanted to leave, but was waiting on Smith to give the word.
Smith reacted by laughing at the threat.“That’s awful brave talk for a dead man.”
“Is it?”Murdoch challenged raising his chin in defiance.“My other son and the Barkleys will hunt you down.This won’t end with my death.I swear you’ll never have another moment’s peace for the rest of your lives.”
The gunman opened his mouth to make a retort when the sound of a pistol being fired nearby caught his attention.A group of riders could be heard approaching from the distance. “I guess we’ll never know, Lancer.I got my revenge on Madrid.You got one son left – you better hope he don’t waste his life like Madrid did!” Turning to his companions he gave the signal and they mounted up.
“You’re a dead man, Smith!”Murdoch shouted, struggling to his feet.
“And you have a big mouth!”Smith had made no promises to Madrid.Without a second thought he drew his gun and fired at the large rancher, causing the older man to drop to the ground.“’Sides ain’t no need to leave no witnesses.Let’s go boys!”Spurring his horse, Smith and his companions were swallowed by the same darkness that had claimed Johnny.
Once the men were gone from sight, Victoria came running out of the woods to find Murdoch sprawled on the ground.A quick examination determined that he was still alive; a bullet had grazed his head spilling blood into his eyes.“Murdoch…?”
Murdoch moaned, roused from semi-consciousness by Victoria’s voice.A groan escaped his lips as he fought back the pain pounding through his brain.“Johnny… we have to find him…”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Victoria ordered.Removing her neckerchief, she began dabbing the blood away from Murdoch’s face.
“Untie me,” Murdoch whispered.
Victoria still had Johnny’s knife tucked into her belt.Using the sharp blade, she swiftly cut Murdoch’s bonds.“You need to lay still.You could have a concussion and the wound is bleeding pretty badly.”There was a four inch gash to Murdoch’s forehead above his left eye.Despite Victoria’s efforts, it continued to spurt blood at an alarming rate. “We need to keep pressure on this wound…”
Murdoch raised a shaky hand and held the blood soaked cloth against his head.“We’ve got to find Johnny,” he insisted struggling to sit up against Victoria’s attempt to keep him down.
In the matter of moments, they were surrounded by seven men on horseback; Scott and the others had arrived.Nick was the first to dismount.Going directly to his mother he knelt to make sure she was alright.“You Ok?” he asked taking her into his strong arms.“We were so worried,” he whispered, planting a kiss on her forehead.
“So was I.They told us you were all dead,” Victoria responded, her eyes feasting on the sight of her sons.
Jarrod was next, followed by Heath.Together, the Barkleys were the picture of family unity, while Scott stood several feet from his father, surveying the carnage of the campsite.“What happened here, Sir? Are you alright? Was Johnny here?”
Murdoch looked up at Scott, drinking in the sight of his eldest.Scott was alive and well due to Johnny’s quick thinking.His jumbled mind found it hard to answer Scott’s questions.The injured man watched as his eldest son scavenged the campsite with his eyes - looking for something or someone who was missing.Gathering his thoughts, Murdoch finally found the words to answer Scott. “I’m alright, Son.This is just a scratch.Anderson was a traitor to the Association, he planned all this…”
“I know,” Scott interrupted, more concerned about the answer to his last question.“Where’s Johnny…?”
“Johnny was here.He…” for a moment Murdoch faltered.“He saved me from Anderson and Bartch…”
“Where is he?”Scott demanded his patience all but expired.
“He’s gone…”Murdoch choked, remembering how he last saw Johnny - being dragged into the night.
“Gone?!”Scott glared at his father, frustrated that his brother left before he had a chance to speak to him.“How could he?He was in no shape to be riding out of here in the first place.Where did he go?After the others – or did you send him away?”
“Scott,” Victoria reached out to the angry young man.Scott had obviously chalked Murdoch’s tone of voice up to his injury and not to emotional distress.“It’s not like that…”
“Then tell me – why would Johnny leave?”
Val and Jelly had been surveying the site too and had come upon some tracks at the fringe of the firelight that scared them both.“Scott!”Val called.
Still angry, Scott turned his back on his father and the Barkleys focusing on his friends.“What!?”
“Someone was dragged out of here,” Val said in a low voice that was shaking with fury.
“Dragged?”Scott whirled, finally taking notice of his father’s distraught face.“Johnny…?”
For a moment, all Murdoch could do was nod his head before mastering his emotions enough to speak.“It was Smith and two others.They took their revenge on Johnny for Pardee, Sexton Joe and now Stockton…”
“And you let them!”In his heart, Scott knew that Murdoch would have fought to save his brother from being dragged.His mind, however, kept pointing to the fact that his father was alive –meaning that he hadn’t tried hard enough.
“I tried to stop them Scott!Believe me I tried, but there was no saving him…”Murdoch’s hand had dropped from his wound - blood was now dripping down his face.
Scott turned and looked into the darkness where he brother had vanished. “You could have found a way if you loved him….”
“I tried…!” Murdoch protested, the pounding in his head increasing.A lingering doubt remained in his mind that maybe Scott was right.Had he tried hard enough to get through to Johnny – to save his son?Looking at Scott, he remembered Johnny’s last words.Johnny had told him that his fight with Smith was no business of his.Had he backed off and let Smith kill Johnny?His doubts were answered by Victoria Barkley.
“I was here, Scott.”Victoria stepped up to Scott, her hand gently touching his arm.“You’re father tied to fight for Johnny, but your brother didn’t want it that way…”
“And how would you know what Johnny wanted!”Scott angrily turned on the small woman; his mind ruling his broken heart. Pointing at Murdoch, Scott’s words lashed as sharp as a whip.“He didn’t care.He never cared for Johnny...”
“Watch it…!”Nick protectively growled in a low voice.He started to come closer, but was waved away by his mother.
Steadfastly, Victoria held her ground against the angry man before her. “You’re right.I didn’t know Johnny well enough to know what he wanted, but I do know this much – he did everything he could to protect me and your father – his father…”Scott started to turn away.He didn’t want to hear any words in defense of Murdoch Lancer.The hand on his arm became as hard as steel, not allowing him to go.“Your brother saved the two of us from Anderson and Bartch.He tried to save your father from those gunmen.What we have to do now is to find him.Perhaps…”
“Perhaps there will be a miracle and he will be alive?”Scott laughed, looking at the faces of the men who surrounded the campfire that Bernardo had just stoked.“Do any of you think there will be a miracle tonight?”
“We won’t know until we start lookin’,” Jelly stepped forward and faced Scott.The old hand was heartbroken – knowing that they had been so close to finding his friend only to be too late.“I say we start now…”Going to the fire, he pulled out a long stick to use as a torch.The night was as black as pitch.No moon shone to help light the way.The stars themselves flickered as clouds obscured their feeble light - as if to cry for the loss of Johnny.
“Jelly…”Murdoch said his voice thick with emotion.“He could be anywhere…”
“Then that’s just where I’ll be.I cain’t sit around har’ not knowing…”
“I’m with Jelly,” Val went to the fire and pulled out another long branch.“At least we can start to follow the tracks…”
“I’ll go back to the ranch and get a buckboard.I’ll have a hand go for the doctor and have him meet us at the house.” Jarrod volunteered.“Mother…?”
“You go on, Dear.I’ll be needed here when they find Johnny.”Jarrod gave his mother a brief hug before mounting his horse and heading back to the ranch.
Heath pulled another long stick from the fire started to follow after Val and Jelly.His silence spoke volumes to his mother.From what little Heath had said about Johnny, she knew that he had considered the former pistolero to be as much a brother as Nick and Jarrod.“Heath…?”
The tall blond stopped, not looking at his mother.He couldn’t bear to see the concern in her eyes.If he did, his focus would be gone and his emotions would win.If they were going to find Johnny, he needed to remain aloof from his feelings.“I’m alright.I have to try to help…”Moving off, he was joined by Scott.Together, they went in search of their brother.
Murdoch sat by the fire, watching the four men evaporate in the darkness.Realistically there was little optimism that Johnny was alive.He had seen men dragged before and the results were nearly always fatal.
“There is always hope…” Victoria offered.
“Hope?”Murdoch repeated the word as if were a foreign language.“Hope that death found him quickly and he didn’t suffer?Hope that if he is alive that he won’t be maimed for life?Victoria, I lost whatever hope I had with Johnny eight weeks ago when I let Ben Anderson poison my heart against him.How can I ever make up for that?”
The older woman looked at her friend.She had to admit that hearing how easily Ben manipulated Murdoch had stunned her.There was no way he could have been manipulated in such a manner unless somewhere in his heart he felt that Ben was correct.Recalling what Johnny had told her, she was able to put the pieces together and it wasn’t pretty.“Murdoch, you brought that young man into this world and you turned your back on him.For that, you will have to find your own path to forgiveness…”She hadn’t meant to be cruel, but her harsh words stunned both Murdoch and Nick who was listening nearby.
“It was Maria’s fault…”Murdoch started to blame, only to be interrupted by a very angry Victoria Barkley.
“It wasn’t Maria and it’s time that you stopped believing that lie!You need to take responsibility for what happened today, eight weeks ago and twenty-two years ago.You’ve always been a good friend, but you are a rotten, selfish father.It’s time you learned the meaning of the word and earn the right to use it!”Victoria stood, her entire body trembling.She had seen and heard too much today; a young man had sacrificed himself for her and for his father.There was no pity in her body for Murdoch, but even she knew that she had gone too far.Victoria turned to her friend and weakly smiled.“I’m sorry. It’s been a long day…”
“No,” Murdoch interrupted.“What you’re saying is true.But, it’s too late…”Staring at the fire he realized that everything he had done from the day he first learned his son had grown up to become a gunfighter to this very moment haunted him.If he hadn’t given up trying to find the boy; if he hadn’t washed his hands of Johnny Madrid over two years ago; if he hadn’t said those terrible words back at the estancia -perhaps he could have saved his son.Victoria was right: he had used every excuse he could think of to explain his failure to be a father to Johnny.Thinking of Scott, he knew that if he wanted to be a parent to his remaining son that he would have to change.His morose thoughts were interrupted by Bernardo who had been keeping lookout for Scott and the others.
“They return, Señor!”
Standing, they watched as three torches blazed closer and closer.“Well?”Nick asked impatiently, seeing that they didn’t have Johnny with them.
“We tracked him for about a hundred yards when we lost him.”Disgusted, Heath threw his torch back into the fire.“Smith and the others rode over the tracks.We’ll have to wait for sunup – or else we’ll just be stumbling around in the dark all night.”
“He’s right,” Val agreed, throwing his own stick into the fire.“We might as well get some rest and get a fresh start at first light…”
Scott walked to the fire and sat down, his eyes staring beyond the flames and into the darkness he had just come from.“He’s out there somewhere – I can feel it.”
“Son…?”Murdoch was concerned about the blank expression that had taken over Scott’s face.
Scott glanced at his father.The walk in the dark had gone a long way to cool the anger he had been harboring. “Sir?”
“Are you alright?”
Slowly the young man shook head.“Not until this is over.Not until I know for sure what happened to him…”Unconsciously Scott was clenching and unclenching his fists.“He could be out there, somewhere, needing my help…”
“Stumbling around in the dark, maybe killin’ yourself won’t help,” Jelly observed, interrupting the conversation between father and son.Throwing down his saddle, he sat next to Scott.Running a tired hand through his thinning hair he knew he was exhausted.“Get some rest.The sun will be coming soon enough…”Rolling to his side, he made a pillow of his arm and closed his eyes.
Murdoch stood and went to sit next to his son.“Jelly’s right, you know.Get some rest, Son…”
“Stop calling me that,” Scott whispered.“You never called Johnny – Son…”
“Look, I know I made mistakes.God knows that I would take them all back if it would have prevented this from happening…”
Scott’s anger was returning and his voice rising.“You made him feel less than worthy of the name of Lancer.None of this would have happened if you had tried!”
“Don’t you think I know that?I had to sit here and listen to Ben Anderson while he gloated over how he turned me against Johnny – against my own son!And you want to know why?”When Scott didn’t answer, Murdoch continued.“Revenge!Day Pardee was his son.He figured that he deserved his revenge – a son for a son.He said that Johnny killed Day so he had to kill Johnny…”
“But, Johnny didn’t kill Day!”Scott protested, finally listening to his father’s words.“I killed Pardee!” Scott’s stomach began to turn and his mind to churn.Was Johnny killed because of something he had done?
“Not according to Anderson.He wanted Johnny first.Killing you in Stockton was only the icing on his cake.”
“Did Johnny know any of this?”
Murdoch swallowed and dropped his head.“He heard every bit of it from the woods.I didn’t know he was there until Ben was going to shoot me.Your brother saved my life…”
Scott looked at his father.Victoria’s bright neckerchief was now tied around Murdoch’s head.The older man’s face was pale and gaunt – as if the weight of the world was sitting on his shoulders.He thought of his brother and how Johnny must have hated Murdoch to leave the ranch the way he had.Something had changed his brother’s mind if Johnny actually saved Murdoch’s life.If Johnny could have a change of heart, then so could he.Dropping the tone of his voice he asked, “did you and he resolve anything, before…?”
Murdoch shook his head.“No.There wasn’t time.After Anderson was killed, Bartch showed up and Johnny had to shoot him too.We tried to get your brother to safety, but he was hurt – his wounds from the shooting were bleeding…”
“Bernardo said that he had a cough from riding out in the rain last night.”Scott sadly shook his head.“If only he had let me know that he needed help…”
“We might never know what he was thinking, but he was obviously correct in warning the town of the attack…”
“Without his note, we would have been slaughtered,” Scott reflected on the note that Johnny had sent to Heath.Johnny had warned them, saving all the men who had despised him for his mere presence at Lancer.Scott reflected on how angry he had been that Johnny hadn’t sent the note to him – hadn’t asked for his help. He realized that it was Johnny who had everything under control; that they had needed Johnny to keep them safe.His brother had managed to save everyone, except himself.“Why did this have to happen- why Johnny?”Scott turned to his father, wanting answers to questions the older man could never answer.“Was he meant to suffer his entire life and if so - why?”
“I don’t know.”Murdoch looked at Scott, realizing that they were having a civil conversation. It gave the old rancher hope for a future with his remaining son – a son that he vowed he would never hurt – not like Johnny.“Get some rest, So…Scott.Tomorrow we’ll find your brother.”
The first rays of dawn broke in the east and the camp was already alive with activity.Heath had stayed awake the entire night.For him there was no sleep - his mind thinking about his friend.For Johnny, he had resolved to hunt down Smith and the others and turn them in for the bounty.The money would be used to fund an orphanage in Mexico that Johnny had once stayed at.Johnny had liked the nuns at Our Lady of Guadalupe.They had treated him with kindness and respect.Periodically, Johnny had returned there, whenever he had extra money.The nuns were instructed to use the funds to buy special gifts for the children – things that he had never had as a child.The nuns had first balked at taking his ‘blood’ money, but after a fashion they came to know that it was Johnny’s way of atoning for the life he had chosen to live.
Bernardo also had not slept.The Mexican had spent the night dragging the remains of Anderson and Bartch away from the campsite, slowly covering them with rocks and sticks to keep the animals away.
When the orange rays of the sun broke through the surrounding trees, Heath got up and saddled Charger.Scott was soon beside him preparing his own horse.In silence, the two men steeled themselves for the gruesome task they feared lay before them.No one had said a word last night, but it was commonly thought that there was little chance of finding Johnny alive.The temperature had dropped during the night, diminishing what little chance Johnny had of surviving his injuries and blood loss.
“You ready?”Scott asked his brother’s friend.
“Yep,” Heath clipped, mounting his horse.He looked down at his mother and brother.Victoria smiled encouragingly, acknowledging her son’s distress.
Murdoch stood beside Scott and studied his son’s haggard face.“Bring him home, Son…”With a gentle nudge of his heels, Scott set his horse in motion with Heath following close behind.
Jelly came from the woods and saw the Johnny and Heath had departed. “Ain’t they gonna wait for us?” he asked indignantly.
“No, Jelly.”Murdoch, put an arm around the grizzled man.“They want to take care of Johnny themselves.”
Jelly watched as the two young men quickly picked up the pace and disappeared around a stand of trees.“I guess their ain’t much hope…”
Murdoch closed his eyes not wanting to imagine the horror that the two young men would find.“No Jelly. There isn’t much hope.I think their need to say goodbye is the important thing now.”
With that said, they returned to the fire where Bernardo had brewed a pot of coffee from the supplies that Ben Anderson had stockpiled for his men.It was a bitter brew, but it removed chill that had set in over the night.
Scott and Heath rode to the east, the sun rising in their faces.The sky was a brilliant blue – too pleasant a day for the miserable task that they had chosen to tackle.Riding in silence they kept their minds on Johnny – friend and brother, not daring to think of what they would find at the end of the trail.
The grass was soft and green, dotted by an occasional rock.Heath carefully followed the tracks from the night before, picking out where the three riders diverged from the fourth.He marveled that the trail for the lone horse wove around the rocks as if, by some divine intervention, the ground Johnny had traversed was smooth.Riding slowly, Heath studied the ground while Scott kept his eyes focused on the surrounding terrain.After riding a mile, Scott pulled his horse up short, coming to a halt.Startled, Heath looked at his companion.“What?”
“Look!” Scott pointed to the brightening sky.Overhead, Buzzards flew in ever smaller concentric circles – preparing to land nearby.“It could be Johnny!”Kicking at the sides of their horses, the two men took off hoping that their search had ended and that they had finally found Johnny.
Frantically, Scott and Heath spurred their horses, rounding a clump of trees to come face to face with their worst nightmare.There, lying in a heap on the ground was the figure of a man.A golden palomino stood guard; raising its head and whinnying loudly as if to shoo away the large birds circling overhead.
The men slowed their horses until they were within walking distance of Barranca; their presence scaring away the birds.The animal was nervously pacing causing the rope attached to its saddle to gently tug on the limp arms of the unconscious man.“We don’t want to frighten the horse and have him take off again.” Heath commented as they dismounted.
Scott nodded his agreement.“What do you propose?”
“We need to untie Johnny before he’s dragged any further.Can you handle the horse?”
Scott looked at Barranca.He knew the animal and the animal knew him.The beautiful creature was in an agitated state.It had spent the night in the open standing guard over Johnny.The presence of the vultures, the smell of blood and the stillness of his master all played a part in making the high strung horse even more skittish than usual.“I can do it.”Scott said with confidence.He had to.There was no way he was going to be the cause of further harm to his brother.
Cautiously Scott approached the nervous animal.As focused as he was on Barranca, he couldn’t help but glance at his brother, lying still as death, in the dirt.Johnny looked like a rag doll; his body lay twisted - his legs going one direction, while the rest of his body was pulled in another.The rope had pulled Johnny’s arms over his head, which rested at an odd angle on the ground.The mangled body was completely covered with bits of grass and dirt.From what Scott could see, Johnny’s clothing was in tatters; bleeding gashes in pale flesh were visible through the torn clothing.Flies were buzzing around the open wounds; landing on the motionless dust covered face.Dark hair was practically brown as dirt mixed with blood from a wound to Johnny’s head.Scott fought the bile that rose in his stomach and focused on Barranca, murmuring soothing words until he could catch hold of the bridle – keeping the animal still.
Heath went to Johnny and quickly cut the rope that attached the bound hands to the horse.“He’s free!”
With a sigh of relief, Scott let go of the bridle and ran to check his brother.As fast as he could, Scott fell to his knees to help Heath who had cut the rope - separating Johnny’s bleeding wrists.Together, they gently rolled the unmoving man to his back.To Scott’s relief, he saw Johnny’s chest barely rising up and down; wheezing could be heard escaping from the unconscious man’s lips.“He’s alive!”Scott shouted triumphantly.The adrenaline that surged through his body made him giddy with happiness in spite of the serious condition of his brother.Raising his face to the sun, Scott whispered a silent prayer to the heavens, thanking God for the opportunity to save his brother.When the moment passed, he turned to Heath; “I’ll stay with him.Go get the others!”
For a moment, Heath fought the urge to tell Scott to go, but after observing the tender way Scott tended to Johnny – he changed his mind.“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”Heath threw his canteen to Scott before vaulting onto Charger and heading back to the camp.
Gently, Scott removed the remains of the ropes from torn wrists and lowered Johnny’s arms so they now lay by his sides.Scott could tell that both shoulders were injured, probably dislocated, and swollen from the intense pressure the dragging had subjected them to.“I’m here, Brother…”Scott cooed, maneuvering Johnny so that the unconscious man now lay flat on the ground.Taking a closer look, he noticed that Johnny’s left knee was swollen. The former cavalry lieutenant figured that the joint was broken, but that was the least of his concerns.The unconscious man had made no sound since he had arrived.No involuntary moans or sighs escaped the pale lips – it was almost as if Johnny were already dead.“Anytime you want to wake up would be a good time…” he encouraged. Pulling a handkerchief from his coat pocket, he used the water from the canteen to dampen the cloth and dab at the filthy cuts to Johnny’s fevered face and head. A closer inspection of Johnny’s grimy hair revealed a large gash above his right ear, and for the first time he noticed caked blood in both of Johnny’s ears. Next Scott ripped open Johnny’s torn shirt and shuddered at the sight of the large dark bruises to Johnny’s ribs and the reopened wounds from the shooting a few days earlier.“Oh, Johnny…”Scott moaned.His brother was alive, but for how long?
Taking off his jacket he pillowed it under Johnny’s head.He then removed his shirt, tearing it into strips to use as bandages.The soiled white handkerchief was used as a compress to cool his brother’s fevered brow.“You sure did it this time, Little Brother.But, you didn’t have to do this alone.You could have let me help…”Scott gently scolded, continuing his ministrations for what seemed like hours until help could arrive.
Back at the camp, the others were drinking coffee Bernardo had made, while they waited for word from Heath and Scott.Jelly and the old vaquero had the horses saddled and ready for their immediate departure.
Val prowled the area, anxious to be on his way after Smith and the others.There was no doubt in his mind that Johnny was dead.To his recollection, no one had ever survived a dragging without immediate medical attention.Someone needed to get revenge for Johnny and he figured that it would be him.Scott and Murdoch would have their hands full returning to Lancer and taking care of the details of Johnny’s burial.Val – he had nothing better to do than to make sure his friend’s death was avenged.
Jelly and Bernardo sat quietly by the fire, neither speaking, both wrapped up in their own thoughts and memories of Johnny.Occasionally, Jelly would catch a glimpse of Murdoch.The old man sat by himself, his head in his hands – as if the entire world had crashed down on his shoulders.Jelly mused that this was how Murdoch should have felt the day Johnny left.It took Johnny’s dying – twice - for his boss to finally get the message.After a few minutes, the old wrangler finally decided to take pity on Murdoch and sought him out.
“You OK, Boss?”Jelly tried to hand Murdoch a hot cup of coffee, but the gesture went unnoticed.With a shrug of his shoulders, Jelly took a sip and sat down next to his friend.
“I’m fine, Jelly…”
“Well, that’s a bald face lie if’n I ever heard one!”Jelly retorted.
Murdoch’s head came up and he looked his son’s friend in the eyes.“How can you speak to me after all that I’ve done?”
It was an excellent question and Jelly wasn’t sure how he would answer until the words actually came out of his mouth.“Johnny loved you – he tried to show you ‘cause he weren’t too good with the words…”
”Let me finish!”Jelly admonished, his train of thought slipping away from him.“Ya said that he fought ta save ya last night – that meant that he sill loved ya.If he could love ya after all that you done, then I suppose that I can still be your friend…”Jelly held out his hand to Murdoch.
After a moment, Murdoch grasped the hand and held it tight.“What am I going to do, Jelly?What am I going to do if Johnny is dead? How will I ever forgive myself?How will Scott?”Tears that he had been holding back ever since Johnny vanished were prickling at the corners of his eyes.
“I don’t rightly know,” Jelly responded sadly.“Ya got one son left.I ‘suppose that ya had best make yer peace with Scott, or you’ll be all alone again – and I don’t think that was what Johnny had in mind for ya.”
With the back of his hand, Murdoch wiped the ‘dust’ from the corners of his eyes.“I think you’re right. I know you and Val came for Johnny…”
“We came for everyone – Johnny, you an Scott.When Val came to the ranch with your telegram, we know’d that we’d have ta come and see that he was dead for ourselves.We know’d that boy was more slippery than an eel in water.Ain’t no one killed Johnny Ma…Johnny in a fair fight.I guess we was right…”
“Rider’s coming!”Nick and Val interrupted, sounding off at the same time. Everyone stood to watch as a lone rider made his way back to the campsite in a mighty big hurry.
It took ten minutes for Heath to ride back to the camp.Reining hard on Charger, the animal kicked up a mini dust storm before the rider could dismount. “He’s alive!”
Murdoch, who had resigned himself to the loss of his youngest, found himself stunned to silence. God had granted him another opportunity to try to resolve things with his son.
“How bad?”Victoria asked taking charge of the situation.
“It’s bad.He looks like he’s been put through a meat grinder.Can’t say if anything is broken – but his head was bleeding pretty bad…”
Victoria’s mind was whirling.“Nick, I want you to head back to the ranch.Jarrod should be coming along with a buckboard anytime now.I want you to make sure the doctor is with him.If not, go into town and bring Dr. Merar here….”
“And if he doesn’t want to come?”Nick squared his hat on his head and began to pull his black gloves on.
“I don’t care if you have to tie him to a horse, but you tell Howard I need him here now!”
Satisfied he knew exactly what his mother wanted done; Nick mounted his horse and took off in the direction of the ranch house.He could only hope that Jarrod had gotten home during the night and was already on his way back.Nick had seen men dragged before and was well aware that what was left of Johnny Lancer wasn’t going to be pretty.His mother was strong, but was she strong enough to handle an injured man and a warring father and brother as well?
Jelly brought Murdoch a horse and watched the big man as he struggled into the saddle.“You OK ta ride, Boss?”Murdoch looked old.Around his head was Victoria’s neckerchief, its bright color a sharp contrast to the pale, distraught face.Jelly took sharp notice of Murdoch knowing the heavy weight that was burdening the big man’s heart.“We’ll get there in time…”
“Thanks, Jelly.”Murdoch wheeled the horse and headed out in the direction Heath had come from.The others quickly mounted and followed close behind.
Scott sat with Johnny’s head cradled in his lap, his back providing shade from the rising sun.There wasn’t much he could do to help the unconscious man. With the damp cloth, he dabbed at the facial scrapes, damaged nose and mouth.What concerned him the most was the erratic breathing and wheezing that was coming from Johnny’s chest.It was steadily getting worse.“Damn!”Scott swore, feeling helpless.“Why couldn’t you have just waited?Did you have be a hero?”Squeezing a limp hand, Scott was willing to take any response as a good sign.There was none.
After twenty minutes, he saw a group of riders quickly making their way to his position.To his relief, he recognized Heath, Murdoch and the others.If it had been anyone else, he had vowed to fight to the death to protect his brother.
Murdoch was the first to dismount, quickly moving to his sons.“Johnny?” he asked hoping that his youngest would open his eyes. With a trembling hand, he reached out and stroked the side of Johnny’s face – the only place that wasn’t bruised or abraded.Hope faded when there was no response.
“He hasn’t come to yet, Sir.”Scott said, not wanting to give up hope.“We’ve got to get him to a doctor…”
Victoria knelt next to Scott and placed a hand on Johnny’s head.“He’s too hot.We need to cool him off - fast.Heath, isn’t there a pond nearby?”
Heath looked around the area, orientating himself.“Just beyond these trees is the prettiest spring fed pond that you ever seen…”
“Good,” Victoria said firmly.“We’ll need all of the blankets from the bed rolls to make something to carry him with…”
Reluctantly, Scott left his brother to join the others in making a litter for Johnny, while Victoria and Murdoch did a closer inspection of Johnny’s wounds – removing the tattered jacket, shirt and boots, trying to assess the numerous injuries.Some of the gashes were deep while others were merely superficial.Removing Johnny’s pants was proving to be difficult.The thick fabric had dried to some of the wounds and would need to be soaked off in the pond.What bothered the seasoned nurse the most was the lack of response to any stimulation.The wheezing from Johnny’s congested lungs was worse now than it had been the night before.Lifting one eyelid and then the other, Victoria frowned.
“What is it?”Murdoch asked anxiously.
“One pupil is normal - the other isn’t…”
“His brain?”Murdoch knew the signs of a head injury and Johnny’s symptoms were classic.Deep unconsciousness, pupils that did not react the same to light, and bleeding from the ears.
Victoria nodded and then went about running a stick along the bottoms of Johnny’s feet.There was no movement in response.Shaking her head, she sighed.“Murdoch, this isn’t good…”
“What are his chances?”Murdoch whispered in a fearful voice.The odds were definitely stacked against his son.
“I’m thinking that it’s a miracle he isn’t dead already,” she whispered her reply, afraid to be overheard by the others.“We need to get him back to the ranch and properly tended too...”
“Will this do?”Heath and the others brought the makeshift litter they had made and laid it beside the unconscious man.
“That will do fine,” Victoria and Murdoch moved aside to let the younger and stronger men gently lift Johnny and place him on the carrying device.Once he was settled, Victoria covered him with a blanket to keep the exposed skin from being burned by the sun.“Each of you take a corner.The pond isn’t too far.We need to keep him as level as possible rather than dragging him behind a horse.”Victoria winced at the poor choice of words, but they couldn’t be helped.
Scott, Heath, Val and Murdoch each picked up a corner of the makeshift litter and headed towards the woods and the pond beyond.Jelly stayed behind with Bernardo, leaving rock cairns as markers for Nick and Jarrod to follow.“He sure don’t look too good,” Jelly muttered, picking up stones and sticks to use to mark the way.
“Si, but he is young and strong.If anyone can fight this, Madrid can.He is famoso along the border – a leyenda.He is too young to die…”
“A legend?”Jelly repeated, remembering the time when he had first seen and heard about Johnny Madrid down in Texas.He was too young then and he was too young now.“Yer right about one thing – he’s too young fer dyin’”
The two men worked in silence until they were satisfied that they had clearly marked the path.They then set off in the direction where the others had gone.“You know’d Johnny a long time?”Jelly inquired, curious about the man walking next to him.
“I have known of Madrid for diez años – ever since he killed the man who murdered his madre …”
The words made Jelly stop in his tracks.“His Ma was murdered ten years ago?” the older man knew Johnny’s mother was dead, but there had never been any talk that she had been murdered or that Johnny had been on his own for so long a time.Thinking of all the boys he had helped, Jelly was left regretting he hadn’t found Johnny when he was younger.If he had, he would have kept him from the world of hurt that seemed to follow the former gunfighter.
“Si.A celoso amante – a jealous man - so the story goes. Johnny was onlydoce when his mother’s lover killed her and nearly killed Johnny – I heard the beating was brutal.He fought for his life then and eventually survived to pay his revenge on the killer.”
“Ya mean he was nearly kilt when his Ma was murdered?Well, who took care of him after his Ma died?He was only twelve…”
“Only doce and an hombre,” Bernardo responded knowingly.“He was taken to the Mission where the nuns cared for him, but once he left their care - he was a man and he looked after himself…”
“He weren’t no man - he was only a child…”Jelly closed his eyes, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice.The Johnny he knew and loved had the heart of a child – not a child who had turned killer to avenge the death of his mother.It was no wonder that Johnny had never spoken of his childhood.How could he?What little childhood he had was taken from him at an early age.
With Victoria in the lead, the men struggled to maintain control of the litter and keep it level.The path through the woods was littered with branches and fallen trees.Finally, they emerged at a sandy shore.“Lay him down here,” Victoria instructed, indicating an area at the water’s edge.
“What do you have in mind?”Scott asked, unsure of Victoria’s intentions.
The small woman sat on a rock and proceeded to remove her boots and pull up the legs of her pants.“He’s burning up with fever and his wounds are filled with dirt.I think that we should immerse him in water.It will help to cool him off and reduce the swelling in his arms and legs.”Victoria looked at the men and they all nodded that this seemed to be a reasonable way to proceed.
“What are you going to do?”Heath asked taking note of Victoria’s disrobing.
“Someone will need to go into the water…”
“We will,” Murdoch looked to Scott, their eyes locking.Scott smiled his consent.Together he and his father were going to fight for Johnny’s life.
Heath used his knife to carefully cut away the parts of Johnny’s pants that were not glued to open wounds.The rest would have to be gently soaked off in the pond.By the time he was done, Johnny had been stripped down to his drawers.Once the clothing was removed the extent of his injuries could be clearly seen.Deep bruises spread across Johnny’s chest and back.Both hips were black and blue and open lacerations snaked down both legs and both sides of his chest.His shoulders were swollen where they had dislocated from their sockets.The left knee was swollen to twice its normal size – possibly broken.
Gently, the men picked up the litter and carried it to the water’s edge where Scott and Murdoch waded in and slid Johnny into the chilled water of the spring fed pond.Bernardo produced several rags and a bar of soap that he had packed for use on Johnny back at Consuelo’s barn.Together, the father and son made an effective team, gently cleansing the dirt that had been ground into Johnny’s wounds, while Victoria waded in to tend to the head wound.Gently she used the soap to clean Johnny’s hair, softening the matted tresses so that the depth of the wound could be better inspected.She frowned at what she saw – a laceration that went clear to the bone.Once the dirt was removed, the area began to bleed again.Gently she pressed a clean cloth against the gash until she could tie a bandage around his head.
Johnny lay limp and unmoving throughout the entire procedure.Both Scott and Murdoch were bothered by this, but neither was willing to give up hope that somehow Johnny would survive.After ten minutes, Victoria had them bring Johnny out of the water.Gathering his brother in his arms, Scott carried Johnny to the shore where Victoria and the others waited to help lay him down.It was a sight that took Murdoch’s breath away.
Scott handled his brother with the same tenderness and love a parent would give to a child – the same tenderness that Murdoch himself had once cared for an infant Johnny with.Looking at the two boys now he wondered how he could have missed the growing bond between his sons all these months.
Once Johnny was down, Scott turned to look at his father who had remained in the water.To his recollection, he had never seen his father appear so defeated.“You need help, Sir?”Scott offered walking back to the water’s edge, leaving Victoria and Jelly to dry Johnny and apply the dressings that Bernardo had produced from his bags.
Murdoch wanted to turn away, to walk into the deepening water and to slowly immerse himself in the cold clear depths.Reality had set in.He had been a fool and Johnny was paying the price for his stubborn Scottish pride.He felt dirty but realized that no amount of soap and water could ever cleanse him from the guilt he carried.Johnny’s words from the night before rang in his ears.‘There ain’t enough soap made to wash my stink off your hands, Old Man…’Johnny was right.If the young man died, then his ‘stink’ would be on Murdoch’s hands for the rest of his life.“I’ll be right there, Son.”Slowly, Murdoch made his way out of the lake and up to the shore.
Victoria had rolled Johnny to his side and was taking a closer look at the bruises to the young man’s back.There was swelling and bruising present along the spinal column and hips.Gently she rolled Johnny back.
“You thinking we need to tie him down…”Heath asked remembering a time when Nick had fallen off a small cliff and had injured his back.For a while, they had feared that the tough dark haired rancher would be paralyzed.“You want to secure him now or after the doctor gets here?”
“I don’t think it will matter,” Victoria responded dejectedly.Johnny’s condition was well beyond her medical expertise.
“What are you saying?”Heath whispered, not wishing to upset the Lancers.”
“I’m saying that I think he has pneumonia and a bad head injury.He could have internal injuries I can’t see.A possible paralysis of his back and legs are the least of our worries.I just want him to survive so he can make a peace with his father…”
Heath bristled at this notion of Johnny being paralyzed.“There’s no way Johnny will want to live if he can’t walk... ”
“Can’t walk?”Scott had been approaching and could not help but overhear Heath’s last remarks.
“It’s too soon to tell,” Victoria ground out, glaring at her youngest son.
“Then what are you saying?”Murdoch asked, standing behind Scott.
“What I’m saying is that Johnny might not live and that if he is to survive, you’ll have to make choices that could affect him for the rest of his life.Like whether it’s more important for him to breathe or be able to walk…”
“But you don’t know those will be the choices!”Scott protested angrily, not wanting to hear anything but a positive prognosis for his brother.
“I don’t know anything,” Victoria sighed miserably.“But, if the choice comes to treating Johnny so that he can breathe better, which could aggravate the injuries to his back – will you?Or would you let him suffocate with the hope that he’ll be able to walk if he survives?”
As if to prove her point, Johnny began to gasp for air.Stricken, Murdoch and Scott looked at each other – afraid to make the decision to help Johnny breathe or to let Johnny die.
Johnny startled awake, half expecting to find that he was back in his bed at Lancer – the past several weeks just a nightmare.Surprisingly, he felt refreshed and free of the pain that had marked the past few days.Lying still, he hesitated to open his eyes, afraid of what he would see.Instead he chose to use his other senses to take stock of his surroundings.The bedding he lay on was made of animal skins, not a proper bed; the scent of an open fire wafted around him – both signs he was not at Lancer.The only sound he could hear was the rhythmic beating of his own heart and it unnerved him.Reluctantly, Johnny realized there was only one way to find out where he was.Slowly, the young man’s eyelids started to crack apart only to snap shut when he was blinded by a light that seemed to be brighter than the sun.
“Whoa – not at Lancer,” he thought to himself, placing a hand over his watering eyes.
“You cannot keep your eyes closed forever, Young One.”A deep familiar voice from Johnny’s past resonated softly around him, instantly gaining Johnny’s full attention.
“Katonah?”Johnny lowered his hand and slowly blinked open his eyes.There, sitting beside him was the one man who had never failed to be his friend – Katonah, the Huichol medicine man who had saved his life four years earlier.Johnny quickly sat up to face one of the few men who had ever treated him with kindness during his troubled youth.Stunned, Johnny studied the deeply lined face of an old friend.“How is this possible?You’re dead….”Johnny stopped mid-sentence, considering what he was saying.“Am I dead?” he questioned in a small voice.
The older man shook his head, a soft smile forming at the edges of thin lips, “No.”
A sigh of relief escaped Johnny’s throat.His feeling of reprieve was instantly replaced with sense of sheer puzzlement.Katonah and his tribe had been decimated three years earlier by a band of renegade Mexican soldiers.Johnny had returned to the Huichol just days after the massacre.He found the rotting body of his mentor lying on top of a dead child. The young gunhawk single handedly built an appropriate burial platform and had placed Katonah on top with the child.Afterwards, Johnny went through the village burning everything.By the time he was done, there was nothing left of the Huichol to be desecrated by scavengers of the desert.
Returning to the here and now, Johnny looked around, taking stock of his situation.He was wearing a buckskin shirt, loin cloth and breaches – an outfit that he had crafted himself with Katonah’s help. The outfit fit and felt as he remembered it, but the buckskin was now pure white rather than the normal tan of an animal hide. Remembering his wounds, he quickly lifted up the shirt and found his skin to be smooth and unmarked – the injuries gone.With questioning eyes, he sought answers from his friend.“If I’m not dead, where am I?”
“Come,” Katonah beckoned.Together they left the shelter and wandered out into the empty village.
Johnny looked up at the sky – it was the purest blue he had ever seen.They were in the village, just as he remembered it, but there were no people.Gone were the children who had laughed and played in the security of their elders.The village was located in the same fertile valley Johnny remembered; the grass lands were green, lush and peaceful – like heaven on earth.Katonah then turned him to face the other side of the valley.To Johnny’s dismay, the grasses were burned and the ground barren, the sky was overcast and gray. A chill ran up Johnny’s spine as he considered the cold desolation of this other area.The two areas were like different sides of a coin.A sheer canyon wall marked the end of the darkened area.Johnny allowed his gaze to follow the rise of the edifice, sucking in his breath at the sight of the brilliant sunset that streamed over the wall.Staring at the colors, Johnny could only dream of what lay beyond.
“What is this place?”Johnny finally whispered.
“This is the Bardo – the place between the white man’s heaven and hell; between life and death…”
“But I thought that you said I ain’t dead!?”Johnny protested.
The old Indian shook his head sadly.“You are neither…”
“What’s that ‘supposed to mean? And why am I here?”
Katonah motioned for Johnny to sit at an empty fire ring.The two men sat opposite each other; in an instant a fire began to blaze between them as the afternoon sky was claimed by the night.During his stay with the Huichol, Johnny had come to appreciate and enjoy the end of the day - the time when the young warriors would boast of their accomplishments, while the elders looked on with quiet amusement.Johnny had loved being with the Huichol.They had accepted him without question – made him one of their own.
Katonah looked at his puzzled student and smiled.“What do you last remember of your world?”
Taking a deep breath, Johnny closed his eyes – remembering…“I was being dragged by Barranca, my horse…”Johnny’s eyes snapped open and he gazed into the fire.There amongst the flaming embers he could actually see himself with a rope tied around his hands.He saw Bushrod slap Barranca’s rump, causing the animal to bolt into the darkness.At the edge of the fire vision was the anguished image of Murdoch.Unconsciously Johnny rubbed his wrists aware that they would be severely damaged from the rope; burying deep the memory of his father.“Why am I here?”
“You are on a journey; a Pilgrim…”
Johnny arched an eyebrow, remembering the term the priest had called him a lifetime ago. “The Padre told me the same thing, ‘cept I didn’t know what he meant.How can I be here and not a mark on me?I should be hurt bad…”
“And you are…”
Johnny looked back into the fire.This time he saw himself in a wagon bed.Scott was holding him upright, gently brushing his face with a wet cloth.He could clearly see the unshed tears in his brother’s eyes.Reaching out a hand to the fire, he wanted desperately to ease his brother’s sorrow – to tell him he was all right.Looking closer at the image of himself, he could see the open wounds where he had been shot two days earlier.There were lacerations, gouges and deep bruises covering almost every portion of his body.He knew that by all rights he should be dead.He could only wonder why he wasn’t.
“Death is close, that is why you are here.You must make a choice…”
“A choice?”Johnny echoed not understanding.
“The time has come for you to decide whether you wish to continue on your earthly journey or if you wish to be judged by your God….”
“…and sentenced to hell.”Johnny finished.
“You judge yourself too harshly,” Katonah smiled.“You have earned the right to make your choice.What you did for my people has earned you high marks with Bikegoididan…”
“With your God?Some how I don’t think your Great Spirit and my God are going to see eye to eye about me.”The former gunhawk bowed his head and closed his eyes.There was no denying that he had done many bad things during his brief lifetime. He had killed – one of the greatest sins a man could do against God. Somewhere in the dark area, just beyond the fire ring, the souls of those he had slain were waiting for him - wanting their measure of revenge – just like Smith.
The wizened man shook his head.“There is but one Great Spirit, Johnny.You are at a cross roads, a Pilgrim.Either you return to your world or you journey on to mine.”
“Do I have to make a decision now?”Johnny asked quietly, realizing the seriousness of his situation.
“You have but three cycles of the sun.After that, the decision will be made for you…”With those words spoken, Katonah began to fade from sight.
“No!Don’t leave me!”Johnny pleaded. There was something about this night that actually scared him.He didn’t want to be alone.He wanted someone to talk to; someone to help him make his choice.
“I will return, but it is you who must choose…”Katonah was all but gone; his disembodied voice resonated around Johnny like an echo in a cave.“Rest, Pilgrim.Rest and prepare yourself for your journey.”
Johnny found himself getting sleepy and gradually stood, shuffling his feet back to his tent. Slowly, he collapsed on the bedding – almost asleep before his head hit the pillow.
Jarrod, Dr. Merar and Nick arrived at the lake shortly after Johnny started to have difficulty breathing.Without any hesitation, Murdoch and Scott directed the doctor to do whatever was necessary to ease Johnny’s shallow panting.It had been necessary to move the injured man and the complications to internal organs or spinal injuries resulting from that decision couldn’t be helped.It was important to them that Johnny live.They would deal with the consequences of their decisions later.
Heath stood nearby, listening and watching closely.It was clear in his mind what Johnny would have wanted.There was no way Johnny Madrid would want to live out his days bedridden – unable to walk, ride his horse - make love to a woman.What they were doing was wrong, but he had no say.Frustrated, he watched in silence as they ‘saved’ Johnny’s life.
The injured man was carried back through the woods to the waiting wagon where he was loaded into the bed.In the hope that Johnny was alive, Jarrod had taken the time to have a thick layer of hay and blankets placed in the back.Scott volunteered to sit in the back and hold Johnny upright against his chest.There was a brief argument with Murdoch about who should be the one to hold Johnny, but Scott won after the doctor pointed out that Murdoch needed rest himself from his head wound.Scott hid his smile of triumph while his father pouted and fussed before lying down next to Johnny.It amused the former lieutenant that his father would actually fight to touch Johnny – something Scott never thought possible.
The doctor made a list of materials that he would need from his office and from the general store; Heath and Val were dispatched to get them and to bring them to the Barkley home.As futile as he felt the effort was he could tell the Lancers would accept nothing less than his best efforts to save the battered young man.Nick drove the wagon with Jelly sitting beside him, talking a mile a minute about how to keep the team moving at a steady pace.Bernardo joined the doctor in the back of the wagon, tending to both Murdoch and Johnny. Victoria and Jarrod rode on ahead back to the ranch, to make the house ready for the injured.
The going was slow for the men in the wagon.Scott and Murdoch both wanted the ride to be quickly over so Johnny could get the medical attention he so urgently needed.Both prayed for a miracle that would not only save Johnny, but their family as well.Scott would occasionally use a damp cloth to cool Johnny’s fevered brow and moisten drying lips.The dry breaths coming from his brother’s chest scared him – a feeling of death hung in the air.
Murdoch had lain down next to his son – taking a limp hand in his own; gently stroking the smooth surface of the top of the hand with his thumb.The older man was overcome with the feeling that if he let go, Johnny would be gone – forever.He resolved to be Johnny’s anchor to this world, refusing to give him up to the next.
Scott kept a watchful eye on his father and brother.More than ever he was learning that there was more to being a family than just taking orders from a man who said he only wanted to call the tune.Had Murdoch learned too late that being a family meant that there had to be caring and compassion?Scott reflected that they briefly experienced it after Johnny was shot by Pardee.Somehow in the ensuing months they had lost it.Now they were all paying the high price for not protecting what had been given to them months earlier.Holding his brother ever closer, Scott prayed for the opportunity that they could finally become a family rather than a group of men who just lived together.
Victoria rode back to the ranch, a grim frown on her lips.Jarrod studied her, in silence, for several miles before he asked, “You don’t think he’s going to make it do you?”
The older woman looked to her son, shaken from her thoughts of the young man who had, just days earlier, saved not only her life, but the lives of all her sons.In her haste to protect her family, she had misjudged him, learning the truth too late to save him from all that had happened. Even though she had only known Johnny very briefly, she couldn’t help but grieve for his impending loss.“No, I don’t think so and neither does Howard.The boy has lost too much blood.That combined with the rest of his injuries… I just don’t see how he can survive…”
“But you’re going to try?”Jarrod concluded, recognizing the determined look in her eye.
“I’m going to do everything I can to help the Lancers and, if in the end, Johnny dies I’m going to see that they stay together as a family.Johnny fought very hard to make sure his brother and father weren’t hurt by Bartch and Anderson.In my book, that translates to a love that forgave all of the stupid mistakes Murdoch made in the past few months.”
Jarrod reflected on his mother’s words.Nick had briefly told him of the angry words she had with the eldest Lancer.“Do you think Murdoch will listen?”
A wry smile formed on Victoria’s lips.“That is one man who can’t afford not to listen.He may have lost one son and will definitely lose another if he doesn’t change his ways.”The smile turned to a frown as her thoughts drifted to her own family.“Heath isn’t taking this well…”
“I could tell.He was very upset by Johnny’s condition.”
“He thinks that they should let Johnny …go.”
Jarrod raised an eyebrow at this bit of information.“How do you know?”
“You should have seen his face while Scott and Murdoch were trying to decide what to do.In many ways, he knows the real Johnny better than they do.There’s something there between them…”Victoria bit her lip and shook her head.“He’s going to need our help just as much as the Lancers.”
They had ridden into the yard of their house and were greeted by several of the hands.Silas came out the front door to stand on the porch.“Thank goodness,” the older man exclaimed seeing that his mistress had returned unscathed.
Victoria gave him a smile as she laid a hand on his arm, drawing him behind her as she entered the impressive mansion.Quickly she explained all that would need to be done to prepare the house for the arrival of the wagon.She felt certain that Howard was going to have to do surgery on some of Johnny’s wounds, and the best place to do that would be the kitchen.“Get Katie, the foreman’s wife, to come and help scrub down the kitchen and put some pots on the stove to boil water. The wagon will be here in about two hours and we need to be prepared….”
Jarrod stood in admiration of his mother, amazed at how she could maintain her aura of calm after all that she had experienced.“Jarrod,” Victoria’s voice startled the attorney from his ruminations.“I want you to get every lamp on the first floor and bring them into the kitchen.Howard is going to need light, lots of it, if he is going to be able to see what he is doing.”
“And just when are you going to get the rest you need?”
“Me?” the petite woman brushed off the concern.“I’m fine.There’s just so much to prepare for…”
“And we can do it while you rest…”
Victoria put her hands on her hips and stubbornly faced her tall son.“Jarrod, I appreciate your concern, but now is not the time.When this is all through and Johnny is resting in a bed, so will I.Until such a time, I would thank you very much if you would just do as I ask.”
The two Barkleys at stared each other, neither willing to bend until Jarrod blinked.When was he ever going to learn that there was no defeating Victoria Barkley when she was on a mission?
In two hours time, the kitchen had been transformed into a surgical theatre and the library into a sick room.Other rooms were also prepared for their additional guests.Heath and Val arrived ahead of the wagon and headed into the house.The two men were unfamiliar with some of the items they had picked up and had doubts as to their use. Amongst the unfamiliar items were several feet of black tubing, a glass tube, a jar and several containers of herbs that neither man had heard of before.
While they were in town, they learned that Joel Todd had reclaimed the Circle A as his own, rehiring all of the cowboys who had quit during Johnny’s night of haunting.Val was the first to make public the identity of the man who had plotted to take over all cattle operations in the San Joaquin as Ben Anderson.He followed up the stunning announcement with the news that Anderson had been killed by Johnny, whom they all thought was dead.This bit of information was not received well.Ben Anderson had been well liked by the majority of the men and neither Val nor Heath had the proof to support their statement regarding his part in orchestrating the attempted murder of the Association members the day before.The news that Johnny was alive, and had killed Anderson, caused further discord.In front of Heath and Val, they debated Johnny’s part in the attempted mass murder – some suggesting that Johnny had faked his death to cover his own nefarious part in the entire affair. The Sheriff intervened by suggesting that perhaps a meeting to be held at the Barkley ranch the following day would be the best way to clear up the misunderstanding.
On their way back to the ranch, the two men decided that the best way they could honor Johnny was to go after Bushrod Smith and his two companions.Once they delivered the doctor’s supplies and checked on Johnny they were both going to leave; neither wanted to be there when Johnny actually passed on.In their hearts and minds, Johnny had died back at the pond; only Murdoch and Scott hadn’t realized it yet.
The two men had just finished unpacking their supplies when Nick drove the wagon through the gates to the Barkley ranch.Murdoch was assisted out of the buckboard before Johnny was carried off and taken immediately into the kitchen.Victoria met the two Lancers and Jelly at the back door, barring their entry.Murdoch and Scott argued vehemently about their need to go inside, but the petite woman held her ground.
“Murdoch Lancer, you have no business being in there.No man should see his child…”
“I need to be there in case he…!”Murdoch protested, still convinced that if he wasn’t there, Johnny would die.Someone had to anchor his son and he was determined to be that person.
“And that is just not what the doctor needs to hear.You’re injured and exhausted.You’ll be of no use to anyone if you pass out.Scott, take your father around to the front of the house.There are rooms at the top of the stairs the two of you can use.Clean up and get some rest…”
“But…” Scott also started to protest.
“No ‘but’s young man; the two of you do as I say.The doctor needs quiet and calm if he is going to save your brother.”
The three men considered the convincing glare in Victoria’s flaming green eyes and knew they were beat.Reluctantly, they went around to the front of the house, none of them willing to give in to their exhaustion; they were all too worried about Johnny.Instead, they headed into the sitting room where they found Nick and Jarrod with a plate of sandwiches and a pitcher of iced lemonade.
“Mother had a feeling that you wouldn’t do as she said,” Nick smirked pouring three glasses of whiskey, ignoring the lemonade.
“Is she always so stubborn?”Scott asked taking a sip of his drink.
“As long as I’ve known her,” Jarrod smiled patiently.
“I think that’s what attracted your father to her,” Murdoch commented sitting on a couch, easing the ache in the small of his back.Closing his eyes he tried to imagine what was happening in the kitchen.
Jelly watched the two exhausted Lancers settle in on a couch and signaled the two Barkleys that perhaps the pair needed to be left alone.There was a lot of air to be cleared between the father and son and they needed privacy.Quietly, Jarrod showed Jelly upstairs to a room where he could clean up and rest.
“You don’t think he’s going to make it, do you?”Scott asked in a soft voice, sitting beside his father after the others had gone.
Murdoch opened one eye and looked at the concerned face of his son.“No, I don’t suppose I do.He’s a fighter – we both know that, but those wounds…” the older man sighed and closed his eye again.
“Do you think we made the right decision – to save Johnny no matter what the cost?”
“What other decision was there to make?Just stand there and watch him choke to death?That’s not the way that Johnny would want to die…”
“But what if he survives and can’t walk?What if his head injury…”
“Scott,” Murdoch interrupted more sternly than he meant to.“We can’t keep second guessing ourselves.I can’t keep second guessing myself – that’s what got us into this situation in the first place.”
“What do you mean, Sir?”
Murdoch groaned and stood up.“After the fight with Pardee, I knew that Johnny belonged at Lancer.I felt it in my heart and in my bones.He had been born on the ranch and he had nearly given his life to save it….”
“You never said that to him, why?”
“Why?”Murdoch shook his head, trying to make sense of the feeble excuses he had been using all these months.“I was afraid that if I told him, he would leave…No, that’s not right either.I wanted to tell him; I knew that he needed me to tell him but the right time never presented itself…”
“You could have made the time if you had wanted to,” Scott retorted bitterly.
Murdoch considered the words, taking another sip of his whiskey.“You’re right, of course.I should have made the time to talk to your brother but I kept putting it off.By the time I realized Johnny and I needed to talk, the Association was putting pressure on me to get rid of him.It wasn’t good for Lancer to have a hired gun on the payroll…”
“Hired gun on the payroll?! – Johnny is your son!”Scott jumped to his feet and began to pace the floor.
“I know that!”Murdoch retorted raising his voice.“I know that more than you’ll ever know. I was there when he was born – held him in my arms.I should have done more to rescue him from the border towns.I should have done a lot of things, like bringing you home so the two of you could be raised together...”He saw the questioning look on Scott’s face and decided to dig deep.“I’ve been a terrible parent to both of you.I don’t deserve to be your father.I had nothing to do with making you who you are.As much as I dislike your grandfather, I cannot fault Harlan for making you into the man you are today…”
Scott seemed to accept the explanation that was given, though he was sure there was more of the story to be told.However, it was the first time that his father had ever said a civil word about his grandfather.“So, what’s your excuse about Johnny?”
Murdoch looked at Scott and wondered if he could dare to tell the truth – to anyone.Turning way, he knew that if anyone deserved to hear the truth it was Johnny himself.“I have no excuse – not anymore.I know what I have done and Johnny is paying the price for my stupidity.I promise that I will sit down and talk to Johnny when he…”Murdoch choked and fought back the tears of regret that burned at his eyes.
For once, Scott knew exactly how his father felt.Johnny was as much a part of him as breathing. To loose his brother now would be a loss that Scott wasn’t sure that either of them could survive.“You had better hope he makes it – or you will be alone.”Scott didn’t make idle threats and this was one he swore he would keep.
In the kitchen, Howard Merar was having a similar conversation with Victoria.“Victoria it might be better to just let the boy go. His wounds….”
“You need to try Howard, that’s all I ask.Johnny has sacrificed too much.It’s not fair if we just let his life slip away.”
“Victoria, he’ll eventually die, no matter what we try.”To the doctor, the injured man before him was too far gone to bother saving.
Victoria blinked and looked at Johnny.It was hard to reconcile the pale battered features with the fiery spirit she had met just a few days earlier.Gone was the visage of Johnny Madrid.Lying on her kitchen table was Johnny Lancer, the son of a valued friend.Johnny’s breathing suddenly became more erratic.“Do something before he chokes to death!”
Shaking his head in disagreement, Howard went to his patient.There were so many injuries to tend to, but Victoria was right – the first step would be to see that Johnny had the oxygen he needed to survive.“If I’m going to do this then you’re going to be right here with me!”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.Now, where do we start?”
Four hours later, Victoria and Howard emerged from the kitchen.Both looked haggard and exhausted.They found Scott anxiously pacing the drawing room while Murdoch had finally given in to his exhaustion and fell asleep on the couch.Knowing that Murdoch would want to know the news, Scott kicked his father’s boot, bringing the man to full awareness.Both Lancers stared expectantly at the doctor.
asked finally, not liking the silence or the look of foreboding on the
Howard Merar frowned, flexing his aching fingers.Never had he seen a patient more deserving of a final rest than Johnny Lancer, but the kid was a fighter and had somehow clung to life“He’s alive.I’ll be damned if I know why.” The doctor paused when he saw the looks of relief on Scott’s and Murdoch’s faces – looks that he knew could be replaced with the heartbreak of loss at any moment.“He is still very sick…”
“Can we see him?”Murdoch asked anxiously, quickly standing on wobbly legs.
“Murdoch,” Victoria went to her friend and gently steadied him.“You better sit down and listen to what the doctor has to say before you see Johnny.”
The apprehensive tone of Victoria’s voice quickly swept what little hope Murdoch had from his heart.Slowly, the big man sank back down on the couch.“Well?” he asked, bracing himself for the worst.
Victoria nodded to Howard who started recounting all they had done.“I guess the best place to start is Johnny’s head.He must have struck it on a rock.One of his pupils is not responding to light.This means that he probably has a severe concussion or brain injury. I can’t be certain if his skull is fractured; he’s not strong enough to withstand the rigors of a full cranial exam.I cleaned the wound as best I could and sewed it up.The dislocations to his shoulders were reduced and the rib fractures bound.I checked out his knee – I’m thinking it’s only deeply bruised, but the swelling has got me concerned…”
“What about his breathing?”Scott interrupted.
Howard blew out a breath and rubbed a hand across his stubbled chin.“Johnny has pneumonia in his lungs.As long as he remains unconscious he can’t cough to expel the infection.I had to insert a drainage tube through a hole I cut in his chest.When you see him, don’t be upset by the black tube – it’s draining the lung infection into a jar.He’s breathing a little easier, but I don’t know how long that will last…”
“Just spit it out man, what are you trying to say?”Murdoch growled, not appreciating all of the details the doctor was providing; he wanted the bottom line.
“What the doctor is trying to tell you is that he did the best he could for Johnny, and he’ll still keep trying but…”Victoria intervened for the doctor, trying to keep a lid on Murdoch’s volatile temper. “Johnny still might…”
“You don’t think he’s going to make it, do you?”Scott interrupted, saving Victoria from saying the word ‘die’.When the physician looked away shaking his head, Scott knew he was right.Scott moved to the window and gazed out at the afternoon sun.It would be dark soon – dark to match the sinking feeling in his stomach; he had found his brother only to lose him again.
Murdoch would not so easily give in to the doctor’s prediction of doom.“He’s alive and as long as he breathes there has to be hope.”
Howard Merar was never one to sugarcoat a prognosis and he wasn’t going to give anyone false hope now.“Yes, he is alive, but until he awakens, we won’t know the full extent of his injuries.I’m concerned about fractures in his back and pelvis. He has no involuntary response to stimulation of his limbs.I haven’t even mentioned the blood loss.Even if he survives the pneumonia, he’s susceptible to infection, paralysis…”
Murdoch raised a hand, ending the doctor’s summation.“We’re going to deal with this one day at a time, hour by hour or even minute by minute if we have to. We’ll do whatever it takes to make Johnny well again.”Murdoch’s voice resonated around the room with a conviction so strong that no one dared to point out that he was missing one factor – Johnny himself.No one wanted to ask what Johnny would want.An eerie silence befell the occupants of the room.“Now, where is my son?”
Victoria took Murdoch by the arm and led him to the kitchen.She knew that Murdoch’s false bravado was about to come crashing down on him. First hand she had seen the infection that Howard had drained from the young man’s lungs; the torn flesh they had sewn together, the deep bruises and fever.Johnny looked like hell.No anesthetic was needed during any of the procedures as the unconscious man never stirred – which had scared both her and the doctor.
Entering the kitchen, they found Johnny being attended to by Silas and Jelly.The unconscious man was practically sitting up.White gauze was wrapped around his head; dark bangs were a sharp contrast to the white bandages.Strips of sheeting bound the gunshot wounds, allowing them to clearly see the deep black contusions to Johnny’s upper chest and shoulders.There was a black tube protruding through the dressings around his chest that drained into a clear glass jar.The jar was slowly filling with a thick green mucus.
Murdoch swallowed hard at the sight, fighting down the bile that was rising in his throat.Johnny’s face was flushed with fever.His eyes were swollen and rimmed with dark circles – a result of the punch in the face he received from Smith.A black tube was snaked up one nostril of Johnny’s damaged nose.“What’s that for?” Murdoch demanded, not liking the looks of the uncomfortable device.
“He needs fluids if he is going to survive.”Howard patiently explained.“That tubing goes down to his stomach.Every half hour we’re going to administer medicines and herbs that will assist with the healing….”
“Doc, ya better come look at this…”Jelly, who had been washing Johnny with a cool cloth, had noticed blood on the sheets covering Johnny’s lap.
“Damn!”Howard swore taking a closer look.
"What is it?”Scott asked, not liking the tone of the doctor’s voice.
“He’s got blood in his urine.His kidneys could be damaged.When I did my examination I noticed extensive bruising to his back.I was hoping there wouldn’t be any internal injuries.Luck isn’t on your brother’s side.”
From the doctor’s words, Scott got the impression that the blood in Johnny’s urine was another nail in his brother’s coffin.With a shaky hand he reached out – wanting to touch his brother, to let him know he was near.Slowly, he withdrew it, not knowing where he could touch Johnny without possibly causing further harm.
“Howard, can we move him to the library?”Victoria asked knowing that the kitchen was not the place for their patient.
Dr. Merar agreed with a shake of his head. “That would do just fine.”
Murdoch cautiously approached his unconscious son.The doctor hadn’t been wrong in his description of how Johnny looked.Strips of white practically covered every surface of the injured man.Some of the strips already showed signs of blood seeping through the bindings.The older man could only wonder how much more of the precious fluid Johnny had to spare before he finally ran out.Gently, he lifted a limp hand and held it in his own.He had never noticed how long and thin Johnny’s fingers were; almost like a musician. The calloused hands he held were a far cry from those of the small child he had so thoroughly loved twenty years earlier.For the life of him he could not justify why his feelings for his son had changed from love to…hatred. It took Murdoch’s breath away to finally put a name to his feelings and it stabbed at Murdoch’s heart like a knife.He had never dared to try to classify his feelings for Johnny before. It had to have been hatred for him to punish Johnny the way he had – pushing his son away from his home and back into a life no one deserved.The false bravado Murdoch displayed in the sitting room was all but gone, replaced by a guilt that was slowly drowning him.
“He’ll make it, Boss.”Jelly said, once again applying a cool cloth to the back of Johnny’s hot neck.
“How can you be so sure?I feel as if he’s slowly slipping away…”
“Pshaw,” Jelly harrumphed.“Johnny ain’t never slipped away from a fight in his life - and that is what this is.We’re gonna fight for him and make him stay.That is what you want, ain’t it?”
Murdoch continued to stare at his son.More than he could ever admit, he wanted Johnny to stay so that they both could be given a second chance.Blinking moisture from his eyes, he realized how selfish he was being.From what the doctor said, there was little chance Johnny would survive.Even if he did, there was the possibility that he would never be the man he was before he left Lancer.“Yes, Jelly.We’re going to fight this…” ‘God help us, but we are’ Murdoch swore.
Two hands brought a door into the kitchen to use as a litter.Gently, Johnny was transferred from the table to the door and carefully carried through the house to the library where a bed had been set up near a brightly burning fireplace.Dr. Merar oversaw the entire process, making certain that the tubes and bandages of his patient were not disturbed during the transfer.Once Johnny was settled in the bed they all breathed a sigh of relief.“He’s going to need twenty-four hour care.I’d like to suggest that we work in shifts.Mr. Lancer, you and Mrs. Barkley need rest.I’m going to check a few more things here and then I’m going to check that wound to your head…”
“I’m fine,” Murdoch protested, but Victoria would hear none of it.
“There is a bath drawn for you upstairs, Murdoch Lancer.You go and get cleaned up and let the doctor tend to that head wound.You won’t do Johnny any good if you fall over…”
“That goes double for you, Victoria.”Howard interrupted patiently.“Mr. Hoskins and Señor Cardoza have volunteered to each take a shift with our patient.”
With a grumble, Murdoch stalked out of the room with Victoria right behind him.Scott stood silently by his brother’s side.The injured man’s breathing had eased somewhat, but Johnny was clearly burning up with fever.Looking at Johnny reminded him of friends he had lost during the war; friends he had rescued on the battlefield only to later die at the hands of incompetent surgeons.Closing his eyes, Scott wished Sam Jenkins was there.If Johnny was going to live, then Scott wanted him to be tended to by someone he knew and trusted.Above all else, Scott wanted Johnny to be back at Lancer, surrounded by people who loved him.
“Scott?”Jelly interrupted Scott’s thoughts.“Ya best git some rest too.”
“I’m alright,” Scott wiped a hand across his weary eyes.
“I’m sure ya are, but how about cleanin’ up and just layin’ down for a few hours?”
Scott caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror that hung on the far wall.He looked like hell.A little soap, water and a shave couldn’t hurt.“You’ll come and get me if anything changes?”
Jelly gave Scott his most sincere look.“You can count on it.”
Scott did as Jelly told him.Going upstairs, he took a bath and shaved.Heath found some clean clothes for him and together they returned downstairs to where Johnny lay unconscious.Val was there waiting for him.“You getting ready to ride out?”Scott observed the former Sheriff of Green River had a packed saddlebag slung over his shoulder.
“Me an Heath are heading out after Smith in the morning.I just wanted to say goodbye…”A frown crossed the grizzled face.Val had known Johnny for several years and had been a good friend and confident to the former gunhawk.Scott was aware and was sometimes jealous of the past the two men shared.A past Johnny had never shared with his brother.That was all gone now.
Scott turned to Heath.“That right, you’re going?”
Heath looked at Johnny – even in unconsciousness he could tell Johnny was not at peace.It was almost as if his friend was determined to fight death – to the very end.“I can’t stay here and watch… I’m sorry.”
“No need to apologize,” Scott went to his brother and gently smoothed thick black hair off a fevered brow.“My place is to be here with him.It’s where I should have been for the last twenty-two years.I’m not going to let go now – not after all that we’ve been through.”
Heath opened his mouth to protest.He didn’t feel like he was letting go or giving up on Johnny.There was no hope that Johnny could survive and be the way he was a week ago.The thought that they were saving Johnny to be a cripple tore him up inside and he didn’t want to be a part of that mistake.“We’ll be back with Smith…good night.”
Standing next to his brother, Scott listened as the two men left the room, making their plans for an early departure. Looking back at Johnny, Scott knew that bringing the men who had done this to justice was not enough.Killing them was not enough.There was nothing that could be done here on earth that could ever fill the ache in his heart.Scott pulled a chair next to the bed and sat.From the basin, he picked up a damp rag and began to gently dab at his brother’s face.“You’ve got to fight this, you know.Teresa is going to be mighty angry if you don’t come home…”Scott swallowed hard thinking of the girl who was their sister.He made a mental note to send a wire in the morning.If the worst should happen she should be here.
Jelly returned to the room with Bernardo.Together they carried a pot filled with a thick oatmeal like substance.Whatever it was smelled awful.“What’s that?”Scott asked peering at the dark mush like substance.
“A poultice,” Jelly declared.“Bernardo and me decided that it cain’t hurt if we put our years of medical experience to work…”
“Is that right?What is it supposed to do?”Scott asked stepping away as Bernardo spread some of the warm substance on Johnny upper chest and neck.
“It will help with his breathing – the vapors will help ease the infection in his lungs…”
Scott couldn’t help but think that the smell alone could chase a cold away; it made his eyes water.“What’s in it?”
Jelly and Bernardo looked at each other conspiratorially.“Ya don’t want ta know,” the old hand declared as he assisted his new compadre.
“Does the doctor know?”Scott once again moved closer to see if he could identify any of the substances they had combined.He couldn’t.
“Si, Dr. Merar says that he has done all he can…”Bernardo looked at the flushed face of his friend.“The rest is up to Juanito.He must want to live – to stay among the living.We can only help to heal his body for his return.”
Knitting his eyebrows, Scott considered what the old vaquero said.Looking at his brother, he had the feeling that even though he wasn’t dead, Johnny wasn’t there.“You don’t think Johnny is here?”
“No.I do not.”Bernardo answered, without giving a further explanation.He and Jelly had finished their application of the thick paste to Johnny’s chest and neck.They then covered it with a thin sheet and then pulled up the heavy blankets until only Johnny’s head was exposed.Bernardo left, taking the pot back to the kitchen to keep the poltice warm.
While Bernardo left the room, Jelly set about mixing together the medicines to be given to Johnny via the black tube in his nose.Carefully, he blended medicines with water before pouring it into the tube. With that done Jelly left the room, leaving the brothers alone.
There was no mistaking the tenderness that Jelly used as he cared for Johnny.Sadly, Scott thought, it was Murdoch’s place to be tending his brother, but the older man had finally succumbed to his own injury and was sleeping upstairs. Now that he was alone with Johnny, much of the resentment he had held towards his father was returning.None of this would have happened if Murdoch had put more faith in his own flesh and blood.The old man had let his heart be corrupted by a back stabbing friend and his Scottish pride.
In fairness, Scott also knew that Johnny himself was also responsible for what had happened.If only Johnny had fought harder for his place at Lancer.If only he hadn’t run away or had given Scott the opportunity to help.His younger brother had taken their father at his word – ‘what is past is past’.Those words from their first meeting rang in Scott’s ears.They had applied to everyone except Johnny.Scott knew about the Pinkerton reports; he had seen them in his father’s desk when he was doing the books.As tempted he was to examine Johnny’s, he knew he didn’t have the right to read and pass judgment on his brother.Apparently his father didn’t feel that way.There was much that was going to change at Lancer when Johnny got better.
Scott settled into the chair and found himself getting drowsy.After a few moments, the older brother fell asleep, leaning against his brother’s right arm.Jelly found them together a few minutes later. Scott sound asleep, his hand holding Johnny’s. The older man smiled at the pair knowing that the bond between the brothers would be what would hold Johnny to this life.Love was stronger than any of the doctor’s medicines.If Johnny wanted to live, it would be because of Scott.
Throughout the night, Jelly let the two remain together.Quietly he and Bernardo took care of Johnny, careful not to disturb the exhausted Scott.In the morning, Murdoch found his two sons together.One as still as death and the other sleeping; clinging to his brother as if to keep him anchored to this life.
Johnny awoke as the morning sun shone brightly through the opening of his tent.This awakening was different from the day before.This time, he was greeted by the sounds of an awakening village.Lying in the warmth of his blankets, he could hear barking dogs and of children playing as they came out of their tents to see what their mothers had made them for breakfast.
“You going to sleep all day?”Helaku, the chief’s son was sitting next to Johnny, a large grin on his face.
Johnny looked up into the face of another old friend – another dead friend.He couldn’t help but smile.His friend’s name meant ‘morning sun’ and the meaning wasn’t lost on Johnny as he looked out at the beautiful day through his tent opening. “Why, you got somethin’ you want me to teach you?”
Helaku slapped Johnny’s leg and stood.“Come, I have much to show you!”
Eager to follow his friend, Johnny threw off his blankets and was outside in a flash.It was a beautiful morning – the air was crisp and clean and the sunlight as pure as the sky was blue.His eyes feasted on the sight of all of his old friends – members of the tribe, both young and old who came forward to greet him.Several of the children ran to him.Like feathers, he tossed them high in the air making them squeal with delight.A peace came over him, a feeling of belonging that he had all but forgotten.Before he knew it, Katonah was beside him, watching him with approving eyes.After all of the greetings were done, Johnny turned to his friend.“Why are they here today?”
“They are anxious for you to rejoin them…”
Once again, Johnny was puzzled.“Am I dead?”
“No.The ties that bind you to the other world are weakening – you are dying.”
“Show me.”Johnny walked to the fire ring.He wanted the fire to come so he could see for himself.
Katonah slowly walked to the ring and made the fire rise.Johnny saw himself, practically sitting up in a bed; black tubes sticking out of his nose and his chest.“What the hell is that?”Johnny asked pointing to the tube that was draining a green infection from his chest.
“You are sick.Your medicine man does things that he hopes will make you live…”
“Will they work?”
Katonah shrugged.“White man’s medicine is different than ours…”
“I thought you said I had to make a choice, whether I stay here or return…”
“Time is running out faster than I thought.You’re body grows weak.”
“How much time?”Johnny asked, nervously fingering the edges of his breach cloth.
“You have two days left.Then, if you have not chosen, a choice will be made for you.”
Johnny continued to stare into the fire.He could see Scott standing nearby, a look of devastation on his face.It was hard for Johnny to believe that anyone could feel that way about him – especially a brother he barely let know him.For the first time since awakening in the Bardo, Johnny felt a pain run straight through his heart.He placed a hand on his chest and looked to his friend. “What’s happening to me?”
“You are feeling the pain of those who love you…”
“How can that be?”
“In order for you to choose your path, you must know what you are leaving and going to….”In response, Helaku and some of the other braves surrounded Johnny, smiles on their tanned faces.
“Come Johnny!We are going hunting.I am anxious for you to ‘teach’ me a lesson!” the young brave taunted.
With one last look at his brother, Johnny allowed himself to be propelled away from the fire and out onto the green plain.
Katonah gazed after his friend.The old man wasn’t sure whether this was Johnny’s time to be with them or even if this place was where Johnny belonged should he decide to crossover.The younger man had changed in the four years since the village was massacred.Johnny was stronger and surer of himself – he had matured.Gone was the hunger for belonging that had brought him to the Huichol in the first place.The shaman sensed a new ‘hunger’ strong within the young man – the hunger to be loved by people of his own blood.
The medicine man also knew that there were more temptations that Johnny would have to face which would make his decision whether to stay or return that much harder.Turning to the gray area, the old man wondered if Johnny had the strength to even survive the journey through the darkness and scale the cliff to return to the world of the living.Letting his eyes gaze to the summit, he saw that the colors streaming over the edifice were stronger than before - brilliant hues of orange, purple and red shown brightly against the morning sky.The significance of those colors did not escape the wizened man.They meant that those who loved Johnny were marshalling their forces.Their love for the young man was beginning to shine through the darkness, like a beacon to summon the young man home.Perhaps there was hope for his friend that if he returned to the land of the living that he would finally find the love that had so eluded him in his youth.
Chapter 29 Johnny survived the night with
Scott by his side.Murdoch found
his sons together - one as white as his sheets, barely breathing, while
the other softly snored, blissfully unaware that the presence of death
hovered nearby. The
father first went to his youngest and laid a large hand on Johnny’s brow.His
temperature seemed cooler, but was still abnormal.The
wheezing had gotten worse through the night, and yet the boy still lived.Considering
the stillness of this son, Murdoch was torn by his emotions.Part
of him desperately wanted Johnny to survive so they could resolve their
differences, while the other part was terrified that if Johnny survived,
he would be paralyzed or worse.Was
he being selfish in his wish to have his son with him?Would
Johnny want to live if he was unable to live as he had – wild and free?Murdoch
grimaced to himself as he considered the words ‘wild and free’.Hadn’t
they been the words that he had used eight weeks ago that had caused his
son to leave? Looking at the unconscious man, Murdoch knew that Johnny
wasn’t the untamed animal he had once referred to him as.Johnny
was a man used to living life on his own terms without conditions.It
was a way of life Murdoch secretly coveted – jealous of his son’s confidence
and ability to survive – without him.
It was a bitter realization for
Murdoch to now admit how much he needed Johnny to be with him – not as
a gunfighter to defend his property or as a child to be taught, but as
a man he wanted to know better.He
wanted to know Johnny like Scott did, like the hands back at the ranch
did and like Heath did.They all
saw Johnny as a man of honor.It
had stunned Murdoch to see Johnny that way – as a man willing to place
himself at risk above the needs of others.That
was not the trait of a hired gun – it was the bravery of a young man wise
beyond his years.From what little
he had learned from Heath, it seemed that there was a quality in Johnny
that he had blinded himself to.His
eyes were open now and it saddened him to know just how he much had missed.
That wasn’t the only thing that
he had missed.He had missed the
opportunity to be a father to his son.Closing
his eyes, he realized that he had never given Johnny the opportunity to
see him as a father or as a man his son could turn to when he was troubled.In
the past months Murdoch had done everything he could do to distance himself
from his son.There was no compassion,
trust or understanding – at least on a consistent basis – not like how
he treated Scott.In the six months
they had been together he had only allowed Johnny glimpses of how it could
be between them.He could count on
one hand the number times he had allowed his son to get close – once when
he gave Johnny his father’s watch, the other was when he told Johnny he
wasn’t used to having his sons looking after him before the Warburton affair.Only
on those few occasions had he expressed himself in a loving manner to his
youngest.In short, he had not even
tried to be a parent to Johnny – like he had tried with Scott. Why
had it been so hard with Johnny and yet so easy with Scott?
In hindsight, Murdoch could see
how Johnny had desperately tried to follow the rules he had set in an attempt
to gain his approval.In reflection,
the father could see how he kept making rules harder and tougher on his
youngest while he had let his oldest into his heart without so much as
a single reservation.He
had lied to himself, thinking that neither of his sons needed a father
and yet he held that fact against Johnny because he had once been a father
to a dark haired toddler.It perturbed
him that he had no say on how that toddler was raised.He
had never been a father to Scott nevertheless he found his eldest to be
far more like him in mind and spirit.Was
Johnny too much like his mother, or too much like the other men who had
molded him into the man he was today?Lord
knew that Murdoch hated Harlan Garrett with every fiber of his being and
yet, his former father-in-law had taught Scott to be a man Murdoch was
proud to call son.Knowing what he
knew now about Johnny he realized that should have been proud of both sons.
The cold statistical truth of the
Pinkerton Report had hardened his heart to his son.He
should have realized that there was more to his son’s life besides the
printed facts.It had not included
any of the other facets of Johnny’s life – how he was almost killed by
the man who had murdered his mother; that he had a penchant to protect
the downtrodden – that there was a good man masked behind the cold veneer
of Johnny Madrid.Murdoch
prided himself on being truthful, he had difficulty in accounting for the
absolute faith he had put in the words of strangers when it came to passing
judgment on his son.It shamed him
that he had been so easily misled, so easily taken advantage of by his
‘friends’. A single tear began to course its way down his cheek as his
breaking heart overflowed with regrets.‘Damn
Ben Anderson’ – like a mantra, the words interrupted his thoughts as considered
all the suffering his former friend had condemned him and his sons to.
“Oh, I didn’t see ya come down,
Boss.”Jelly entered the room with
more of the poultice and medicines to be administered to Johnny.
Jelly’s words startled Scott to
awareness.Immediately he turned
to look at his brother, relieved to know that death had not claimed Johnny
while he had slept.He then noticed
Murdoch and the tear that was dripping off his chin.“Sir?”
“Good morning, Son.Johnny
made it through the night…”
“He’s getting’ a mite worse, if’n
ya ask me…”Jelly said turning up
the wick of the night lamp.
Scott again turned to his brother.Johnny’s
eyes appeared to have sunken during the night and the corners of his lips
were tinged with blue.Picking up
one of Johnny’s hands, he felt that it was getting cold. “Get the doctor
in here now!”
Jelly rushed from the room while
Scott and Murdoch began to rub circulation back into Johnny’s limp limbs.“Why
didn’t you wake me sooner?”Scott
demanded of his father.
“I didn’t see the color of his
lips until Jelly turned up the lamp,” Murdoch defended.
Scott wanted to send a sharp barb
at his father, but then immediately felt guilty for sleeping and not keeping
a better eye on his brother.
Moments later Howard Merar, who
had spent the night in one of the upstairs rooms, hurried into the library
to assess his patient.Placing his
stethoscope on Johnny’s chest he listened carefully.Johnny’s
heartbeat was slow and his breaths labored.“We
need to clear his windpipe.”Extending
Johnny’s head back, the doctor opened his patient’s mouth and slowly fed
another length of black tubing down Johnny’s throat.Terrible
noises erupted from the unconscious man as he struggled for breath.
“What are you doing?”Murdoch
demanded, convinced that the doctor was killing his son.
snapped.Once he felt the tube was
in the proper place, he fitted a syringe with a one way valve on the end,
along with a mouth piece.The physician
then began to suck on the tubing until a thick plug of mucus began to drip
from the valve.Both Murdoch and
Scott looked away, their stomachs turned by the sight of the treatment.Only
Jelly attended the doctor, wiping way the infection with a rag until it
nothing more came from the tubing.Satisfied,
the doctor stopped sucking on the tubing and used his stethoscope to once
again listen to Johnny’s lungs.“The
pneumonia is robbing Johnny’s body of oxygen.”The
doctor checked the chest tube and found that the dripping mucus was as
thick as ever.“Jelly, we need to
step up his fluids and keep him warmer.”
“Right, I’ll get some more blankets.Do
you want to keep trying the poultice?”Jelly
“It can’t hurt,” the doctor said,
but in his heart he knew that there was very little more they could do
to save Johnny.They were only going
through the motions for the sake of the Lancers. Howard felt like a man
drowning in quicksand.Everything
he did to ‘save’ Johnny, was just another nail in the boy’s future.In
order to placate the Lancers and keep Johnny breathing, he had Johnny sitting
up – a position that would aggravate the spinal injuries he suspected the
boy received from the dragging.Yet,
if he addressed those concerns, the boy could possibly suffocate on his
own fluids.It was an ethical situation
that he had never imagined in medical school or in all of his years of
Slowly, the doctor removed the
tubing from Johnny’s throat, once again allowing his patient to breathe
easier.He then did a quick check
of the other injuries.There was
no sign of infection to the areas he had sewn the day before.Checking
Johnny’s eyes, he noted that the right eye was once again starting to respond
to light, but still not as fast as the left eye.Lifting
the blanket off still legs, he ran the handle of a small mallet over the
ends of unconscious man’s feet. There was no response.He
then tested the reflexes in Johnny’s good knee and both elbows. Again,
there was no response.A frown formed
on the doctor’s lips.His best efforts
to keep Johnny alive were diminishing whatever chance the young man had
of ever walking again.
Howard signaled for Scott and Murdoch
to follow him from the room.“I’m
afraid that the congestion in his lungs is getting worse. He’s suffocating.What
I just did might have to be repeated more often if he is to be kept alive…”
“And if you don’t?” Murdoch asked
staring the doctor in the eyes.
Howard looked at the Lancers knowing
there would be no hiding the truth.“He’ll
stop breathing and slowly suffocate.”
“But if he wakes up?”Scott
“Then I would say that he’s turned
a corner.I’m sorry, but there’s
no sign of his coming around just yet.”
“What about his legs?”Murdoch
whispered, already fearing the answer.
“There’s no response to stimulation…”
“What do you think?”Scott
asked in earnest.
Howard sucked in his breath.In
truth, Johnny was worse today than the day before.Fever
had sucked all of Johnny’s strength from him.The
young man’s heart was weakened from lack of oxygen and as a result, circulation
to the man’s hands and feet was getting weaker and weaker. “Your brother
is Catholic.Have you thought about
Murdoch and Scott looked at each
other, stunned that the doctor would make such a suggestion.They
were further taken aback that the doctor would presume that Johnny would
be comforted by the presence of a priest.“Surely
something more can be done?”Murdoch
asked refusing to believe that nothing more could be done to save Johnny.
“Mr. Lancer, I am a doctor, not
a miracle worker.Your son’s injuries
are beyond my experience.I’ve done
the best I can; keeping his body alive.The
rest is in his and God’s hands.”
Scott turned away, looking back
at where Jelly patiently tended his brother.“What
made you think he would want a priest to give him last rites?I’ve
never seen him go near a church.”
Howard was puzzled by Scott’s comment.“Johnny
was in the church two days ago for confession,” the doctor blushed slightly.“I
was there and saw him speaking with the Padre. If
he sought direction from the Church before, then he might appreciate the
comfort of the Church now.”Having
said all that he could, Howard left for the kitchen and his first cup of
coffee for the day.
“All of these people know more
about Johnny than we did,” Scott blustered, angry that he had to be told
that Johnny would seek out the advice of a Priest; angry that there was
nothing more to be done other than keeping the empty shell that was Johnny’s
Murdoch had gone to a window and
looked out at the brightening day.Turning,
he looked back at Johnny.Gone was
the vibrant life that had so scared him.All
that was left of Johnny’s bright flame was a trail of smoke; like the tendrils
of smoke that drift from a candle after it has been blown out.“We
need to send for Teresa.She’ll never
forgive us if we don’t…”
“You’re giving up!”Scott
“I’m being realistic!”Murdoch
snapped.“If the doctor says that
Johnny is dying then we need to be prepared for the end…”
“Well, I’m not giving up!”Scott
declared, glaring at his father.“This
is what you wanted all along!”
Murdoch looked away, unable to
meet the accusation in his son’s eyes.“It
may have been what I wanted weeks ago, but it’s not what I want now.I
spent the night praying that God would forgive me and spare my son for
my mistakes.It was a selfish prayer,
but it was all I could think of.Looking
at Johnny, I can see that he is already gone.He’s
not in that room, he’s someplace else and I can only pray that he’s happy…”
a sob hitched in the big man’s chest and he returned to sit next to his
Scott’s anger diminished as quickly
as it had flared.He, too, had spent
the night praying that God would spare Johnny – the same selfish prayer
that his father had made.In that
moment he felt the same weight of heartbreak that was burdening his father.“I’ll
send for Teresa…”
* Johnny and the other braves spent
their morning out on the range, hunting each other, playing a game of tag.Johnny
was very skillful at the game he had mastered four years earlier.He
had peeled off his shirt and breeches and had enjoyed running with the
others in the warm sunshine clothed only a breechcloth.For
hours they had cavorted, not a care in the world.
When the game was over, they gathered
back at the fire ring.Johnny sat
and looked at his companions.None
had aged a day since he had found them dead.It
made Johnny sad to know that the others had not changed while he had grown
beyond his time with the tribe, beyond his days as Johnny Madrid.In
reflection, he was both troubled and afraid of what his life would be like
if he was to remain in this place.Observing
the tribe, he noticed that none of the children had aged since the massacre.There
were no babies, no new lives brought into being.Was
this death – the loss of new life; of new adventures?Was
he ready for eternity?
“It is a hard decision you will
have to make,” Katonah was beside him, laying a heavy hand on his shoulder.
Johnny jumped at the touch; unnerved
that his friend was reading his thoughts.“I
could learn to like it here….”
Just the word sounded like a nail
in Johnny’s coffin.“If I decided
to leave, what would I have ta do?”
Katonah pointed to the summit of
the cliff, just beyond the burned grass lands.“You
must traverse the dead land and climb to the summit.”
Johnny looked out across the gray
area, letting his eyes follow the wall of the sheer cliff up to where a
stream of brilliant colors filled the sky.“Ya
don’t make it easy, do ya?”
“Everything you could want is provided
for you here…”
“And if I don’t make the summit?”
“Then you could be forever trapped
in the darkness. Beware; there are unseen forces in the darkness that will
try to hold you back from your goal.”
Johnny walked to where the edge
of darkness started.It was like
an invisible curtain seemed to form – making a barrier between the areas
of light and dark.From where he
stood he was only a step away from the darkness.Raising
his right arm, Johnny waved his right hand through barrier and into the
darkness.Immediately he felt chilled
to the bone.Withdrawing his hand
he tucked it under his left armpit to try to revive the feeling that was
stolen in mere seconds.“Why is it
“It is the other side of the light.It
is the darkness where those who have been judged unworthy, live out their
“And if I don’t make the climb
that is where I could end up?”
Katonah smiled at his friend.“All
will depend upon what it is that you truly desire.Now,
get some rest and think.You’re time
is drawing near.”
* Heath and Val promised to send
the telegram for Teresa on their way through Stockton.Victoria
had attempted to talk Heath out of going, but there was no arguing with
the stubborn blond when he had that Barkley look of determination on his
face.She was there with him when
he said his final goodbyes to Johnny and then sadly watched as he and the
former lawman from Green River rode away.She
didn’t believe in revenge but felt, that if the two were able to bring
Smith and the others to justice, it might bring them some peace over the
loss of their friend.
A few moments after she closed
the front door, the sounds of riders approaching made her open it again
– hoping that perhaps Heath had changed his mind.He
hadn’t.A group of men were riding
up to the house led by Sheriff Savage.“Victoria,”
he nodded dismounting.
Victoria nodded in response, recognizing
four prominent members from the Cattlemen’s Association.“What
brings you out here, Fred?”
“We’ve come for Johnny Madrid…”
asked innocently. “Why are you here for Johnny?”
Hugh Owens, a rancher from the
southern end of the valley, brought his horse up to a position behind the
sheriff, acting as spokesman for the group.From
his saddle, he pointed an accusing finger at Victoria and raised his voice
in challenge.“He killed Ben Anderson!Heath
told us so yesterday.It’s not like
you to have a killer under your roof Victoria.What
would Thomas think?”
“What would Thomas think about
my trying to save the life of the man who saved me and saved our sons?He
would be proud, Mr. Owens.Proud
that I had taken the time to get to know the young man who, with no thought
of his own well being, may have single handedly saved this entire valley
and your sorry life to boot!Who
are you sanctimonious old fools to pass judgment on Johnny Lancer?”Victoria’s
voice rose in anger at the thought these men had come to accuse Johnny
of being a killer.
Murdoch stepped out on the porch
as soon as he heard Victoria raising her voice.“What’s
going on here?”
“Mr. Lancer,” Fred Savage stepped
forward with a writ of summons in his hands.“I’ve
come to take Johnny Madrid in for the murder of Ben Anderson…”
“On whose word, theirs?” Murdoch
pointed at his ‘friends’.“None of
them were there when Ben tried to kill me and Victoria!How
do they know what Johnny did or didn’t do?”Victoria
stood beside her friend and slipped her small hand into his large one.“For
the record, Ben Anderson came here and forced myself and Victoria to go
with him.It was my son, Johnny Lancer,
who tracked us to where Ben and his group of killers were going to murder
us.It was Johnny Lancer who waited
and shot Anderson in self defense! It is Johnny Lancer who is lying inside
dying….”Murdoch’s voice caught and
he turned away, overcome by his feuding emotions.He
had no use for these petty men.They
had turned him against his son.Turning
back, he looked each man in the eye.“You
professed to be my friends, convinced me that Johnny wasn’t worthy of the
name Lancer.Well, you got it wrong!I’m
the one who is not worthy of the name and you men are not worthy to breathe
the same air as him!”
Fred and the others listened to
the bitter words with their mouths open.They
had let their own anger at the situation cloud their judgment.Fred
found his voice first and asked “Is that what happened Mr. Lancer?Ben
Anderson tried to kill you and Victoria?”
“That’s right, Sheriff,” Victoria
answered for her friend.“Ned Bartch
is also dead…”
“So what happened to Johnny?”Hugh
asked, all pompousness gone from his voice
Victoria squeezed Murdoch’s hand
before answering.“Bushrod Smith
and two other men arrived and captured Johnny.They
tied a rope to his hands and had him dragged by his horse….”
“Oh, God,” one of the others moaned.“Murdoch,
“Get out,” Murdoch whispered, unable
to stomach looking at his former friends any longer.Their
simplistic way of viewing things had poisoned him for long enough.It
had cost him Johnny.
Scott, who had heard the raised
voices, stepped out on the porch.He
had listened to his father’s words and was proud.If
only Johnny could have heard them; heard his father admit his mistakes
and defend his youngest.Going to
his father, he laid a hand on the big man’s shoulder.Murdoch
recognized the touch and stood taller.
Hugh took his hat off and fidgeted
with it in his hands.“We’re awfully
sorry.What can we do to help?”
Murdoch was at a loss for words,
amazed at how quickly these men could change from hate to concern.
Scott stepped forward.“I
think that the truth needs to be told.Go
back to your homes and families.We’re
going to be staying with the Barkley’s until Johnny …” Scott’s voice broke,
unable to finish his sentence.
The meanings of Scott’s words were
clear to the humbled men.“Murdoch,
Scott – if there’s anything we can do to help…”
shaking his head, Murdoch turned away.They
had helped all that they could; they had helped him to kill his son.
After the Association members left
the Barkley Ranch, Murdoch retreated to the library and to the side of
his dying son.Seeing the men he
had once considered ‘friends’ for what they really were had disheartened
him.He had lived and worked with
them for twenty years.They had been
his support system; friends when he had been in need and in turn he had
helped them and the entire valley prosper.Lancer
had welcomed everyone who had come through the arch – everyone except for
Johnny.Closing his eyes, tears began
to fall as he considered how he had failed his son for the likes of the
men who had just left.
Scott stood at the entrance to
the library, wanting to be with his brother and yet uncertainhow
to help his father.A gentle hand
on his arm made him turn away.Victoria
Barkley guided him to the sitting room where he fell exhaustedly onto an
“Did you get any rest last night?”
“Enough to nearly kill my brother,”
Scott answered, loathing himself for his physical failing.He
had allowed himself to fall asleep and as a result his brother had nearly
Victoria raised an eyebrow at the
comment.“So, now you’re assuming
responsibility for what happened to Johnny?”
challenged.“Made Smith and the others
despise your brother enough to want to kill him?”
“Oh, you were the one who shot
Johnny on the street in Stockton?Or
better yet, you made them tie him to that horse…?”
“Now, wait just a minute!”Scott
protested, sitting up, refusing to let the older woman put another word
in his mouth.“I wasn’t going to
say any of those things! It’s just that I fell asleep…”
“And when was the last time you
had a good night’s sleep?”Victoria
Scott fell back against the soft
cushions.“I haven’t slept well since
Johnny left eight weeks ago.”
Victoria studied Scott.The
tall young man was so much like her own stubborn Nick; willing to place
the burden of the world on his broad shoulders and not giving an inch to
let someone help and lighten the load.“You
won’t be doing your brother any good if you collapse from exhaustion…”
“I’m worried about Murdoch,” Scott
interrupted, sidetracking the conversation from himself to his father.
Victoria was not to be dissuaded.“How
about if you go upstairs and rest and let me talk to your father?”
“Johnny might need me…”Scott
“And I’ll come and get you if he
does.”The petite woman stood with
her hands on her hips.Her cool green
eyes bore into slate blue ones until the young man had to look away.
Reluctantly, Scott stood on legs
weakened from exhaustion and headed towards the door.“You
“You have my word.”Victoria
watched as Scott left the room going to the foyer.The
young man paused for a moment by the entrance to the library, as if debating
whether he should go check on Johnny one more time before he rested.The
Barkley matriarch sighed, Scott was still torn.“Upstairs,
young man,” she ordered.
responded like a child who had been caught attempting to snitch a cookie
veered away from the library and awkwardly stood at the bottom of the stairs,
gathering the last vestiges of his strength before starting the long climb.
“I’ll have Silas bring a tray to
your room – and come clean clothes.” Victoria called out again, nudging
Without a word, Scott moved up
the stairs, slowly making his way to his room.The
more he moved, the more he knew she was right.He
was beyond exhaustion.As reluctant
as he was to leave his brother in the hands of his father, he recognized
the fact that he needed to rest.His
military training had drilled into him the dangers of fatigue and here
he was teetering on the edge.Resigning
himself to his fate, Scott entered his room and prepared to sleep.
* Victoria remained in the foyer
and watched as the lean young man disappeared down the hallway, out of
her sight.She liked Scott.He
impressed her as being a bright and intelligent man – much like his brother.Thinking
of Johnny made the smile fade from her face.The
road that lay ahead for the youngest Lancer was bleak.If
he survived, there would be the challenges ofregaining
all that he had lost – mobility, freedom, independence; all attributes
valued highly by young men.She
wasn’t sure if the Lancers would be up to the challenge of handling a handicapped
Johnny.She had been through it once
with Nick only a year earlier.The
experience had damn near destroyed her family.Only
love and perseverance had brought them through the experience – leaving
them stronger and more unified than ever.It
would be a miracle if that could happen with the Lancers.
Murdoch was all but destroyed by
everything he had learned about his son.The
former gunhawk had lived with him for six months but he hadn’t gained the
first clue as to who Johnny really was.It
was only now, as he stood on the brink of losing Johnny, that he realized
how wrong he had been.The revelations
It was clear to Victoria that the
brothers had created a bond that had transcended the thick walls that Murdoch
had built around his heart.They
had found each other, letting their differences make them stronger; much
like how Nick and Jarrod had taken to Heath.As
different as the three men were, they were devoted to each other.Victoria
could see that same devotion in Scott towards Johnny.
What Johnny had done – leaving
Lancer and resuming his life as Johnny Madrid - had sorely tested the relationship
between him and his brother; but he had done everything he could to protect
that brother - and the father who had rejected him.Johnny,
by his actions two nights earlier, had made it clear that he was still
seeking the love and approval of his father.Why
else would he have come to their rescue?He
had prevented their murder by Ben Anderson and Ned Bartch.By
surrendering to Smith he had tried to save his father.It
was clear to her that Johnny’s sacrifice was not the deed of a man bent
Johnny had wanted to punish Murdoch, then he had missed a very good opportunity
to have the man suffer at the hands of his enemies.As
it was, Murdoch was suffering for his own actions in a manner Johnny could
have never planned.The torment of
the father was clear confirmation that he had learned his lesson – a lesson
he was never likely to forget.
Standing at the entrance to the
library, Victoria watched as Murdoch tenderly bathed the flushed face of
his son.Closing her eyes, she could
almost see Murdoch tending to a two year old Johnny all those many years
ago.Where had that compassion and
tenderness been eight weeks ago?Where
had Murdoch buried the man who was so devoted to his son?Quietly
she stepped up behind her friend and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“He’s going to make it,” Murdoch
whispered, determination evident in his voice.“He’s
a strong lad.He came back to us
after Pardee put a bullet in his back.Johnny
can survive this too.”
Victoria looked at Johnny’s flushed,
battered face.His lips were dry
from the harsh breaths that escaped his lungs.She
didn’t have the same faith as her friend.“If
Murdoch closed his eyes for the
briefest of seconds before continuing his ministrations.“He’s
a fighter.He can’t leave me – not
now….”The older man’s head dropped
to his chest, much in the same manner Johnny would drop his head when confronted
with anything he didn’t want to share.
Victoria recognized the trait and
wistfully smiled; there was so much the two had in common if only they
had let themselves get to know each other.“I
spoke with Scott.He’s not taking
“I know,” Murdoch shook his head
and clenched his fist.“He thinks
this is all my fault;he’s right
“Murdoch, the time for placing
blame for what has happened is not now.The
two of you need to figure away to survive this together – to stay together
as a family…”
repeated the word acidly - as if it would burn his tongue.“I
had a family and I let it slip away….”
“Don’t be so quick to write off
Scott.”With a sad smile, she gently
brushed a strand of errant hair off Johnny’s forehead.“For
Johnny’s sake, don’t make the same mistakes with Scott.”Victoria
warned.With a gentle pat to her
friend’s shoulder, she left the room.Murdoch
had a lot to think about. He needed to make plans for his future and the
future of his sons.
* Rumors had been flying around Morro
Coyo and the ranch for days and it was tearing Teresa apart.The
news that Johnny was dead nearly destroyed her.After
first receiving the news from Val, she had gone upstairs and locked herself
in Johnny’s room. Throwing herself on his bed, she could feel his presence,
smell his masculine scent.The knowledge
that he would not be returning brought her to tears that could not be consoled.
In bits and pieces she had heard
stories of how someone had stolen Johnny’s body to scare the hands away
from one of the ranches.She also
heard that there had been an attempt to murder all of the members of the
girl was distraught thinking that perhaps she was the last member of the
Lancer family to be alive.Cipriano
had gone to town to try to get the latest news.If
the Lancers were dead, then there would be changes at the ranch that would
affect them all.Wisely, the Segundo
stationed men in strategic areas to fend off attacks from any would be
land grabbers – men who would see the battle in Stockton as an opportunity
to make a raid on the sprawling ranch.
It was late evening when Cipriano
returned from town.He was met by
a large portion of the hands as he went directly to the house.Teresa
and Maria came out on the portico to meet the men and get the news.
shouted, bringing instant cheers of relief from everyone.“I
have a telegram from Señor Scott. He says that he and the jefe are
fine and that Juanito is not dead!”Another
cheer was raised; Teresa turned to Maria, hugging her tightly while she
softly cried tears of relief.The
sheer joy that radiated throughout the group could be felt by one and all.
Cipriano dismissed the men, reminding
them of their duties to the Lancers, before taking Teresa and Maria inside.
“This is wonderful news!”Teresa
said brightly, throwing her arms around the older man – her father’s friend.
“It is not all good, Chica,” Cipriano
said slowly, gently breaking from the girl’s embrace.
“Not all good?” Teresa didn’t understand.Hadn’t
he just said that her entire family, including Johnny, was alive?
“Come, we must talk.”Guiding
the ladies back into the warmth of the kitchen, they sat down.“Juanito
is badly injured.They are asking
that you come to Stockton before he…”
screamed, putting her hand in her mouth, not wanting to hear the next words.
“Chica,” Maria whispered, going
to her friend.“Por favor, read the
telegram.” She asked of Cipriano.
Swallowing hard, the Segundo held
the small paper in trembling hands.
and I are fine.<stop> Johnny alive. <stop>Come
to Stockton immediately <stop> Johnny badly injured. <stop> dying.
<stop>Staying with Barkleys<stop>Scott.
* When he was done, Cipriano handed
the paper to Teresa.“We will leave
in the morning.I will take you…”
With shaking hands, Teresa tried
to read the note through tear filled eyes.“I’ve
got to get ready…” she whispered, looking around the room as if unable
to know where to turn to.
“I will help you pack, Chica.”The
small woman slipped an arm around Teresa’s slim waist and guided the girl
upstairs to her room.
Cipriano continued to sit in the
cozy kitchen.He remembered what
the rancho was like before the arrival of Señor Murdoch’s two hijos.The
house, despite Teresa’s efforts, was a cold and uninviting place.With
the arrival of Señors Scott and Juanito everything had changed.The
house had come alive with the sound of laughter.The
jefe had changed. He had become kinder and more understanding towards the
men, though many would argue that.Cipriano
had been at Lancer for many years – almost as long as Paul O’Brien.He
saw the change in Murdoch and was pleased that the man was no longer the
loner he had once been.
There was no denying that the two
sons were treated differently, but then Scott was the oldest, traditionally
viewed as the heir – despite the fact that it was said that the three men
owned the ranch equally.As a result,
Scott was treated with the respect accorded to that position.Johnny
had no illusions about his place and that had endeared him to the men.The
youngest Lancer made no mention of his past life and the men, in time,
had learned not to ask or to talk about the infamous Johnny Madrid.Cipriano
had heard stories about the gunfighter but found none of those cold hearted
qualities in the fun loving young man who worked beside him on a daily
When Johnny left, it was almost
as if a dark cloud descended to cover the vast lands of Lancer.Gone
was the loyalty that the men had felt towards the ranch; the camaraderie
that Juanito had encouraged was gone as well.The
men took it hard that the jefe would turn away a son.No
explanation was ever given and that angered many of the men who had befriended
Juanito.Essentially, life at Lancer
returned to the way it had been before the days of Pardee and his land
Cipriano had much admiration for
Señor Scott; the young man had been instrumental in their victory
over the land pirates.Scott’s recognition
that he needed the help of the men and valued their knowledge of the land
made him well liked by the hands.But,
he was not Juanito.They felt that
Scott, despite Johnny’s reassurances, seemed to hold himself aloof from
the men.Cipriano suspected that
it was just an ill perception they had, but it was an observation that
stuck to the well mannered easterner.
Rising, Cipriano, stretched his
legs.He had spent many hours in
the saddle today, trying to both manage the ranch and get whatever news
he could of the troubles in Stockton.Pouring
a cup of coffee, he reflected that when he heard Juanito was dead, he desperately
wanted to go to Stockton to see for himself; it wasn’t meant to be.Someone
needed to stay at the estancia and keep watch.The
Segundo prided himself on the land and the Lancers.With
pride, he had resolved to stay on as long as Lancer needed his protection.Now
that he knew that Juanito was alive, hope sprang in his heart that he would
not have to leave the place that had become his home.
The note from Señor Scott
was ominous, but he had faith that if there was a way, Juanito would be
returning and all would be well once again.
* Johnny spent the remainder of the
day with the other braves.Retiring
to his tent, he felt a contentedness that he had hadn’t felt in a very
long time.Thoughts of his family
had hardly interrupted the time that he had spent with his companions.Now
that he was alone, Johnny once again began to think of Murdoch, Scott and
Teresa.Slowly, he was overcome by
the sad realization that they would all be better off if he never returned.Murdoch
would find better things to do with his time other than yelling at him
for his ‘mistakes’.Scott and Teresa
– in time they would realize that it was best that he was gone.
“Is that what you really think?”Katonah
entered the tent, scaring the wits out of his pupil.
“Ya got ta stop doing that!”Johnny
said hotly, not liking the fact that his friend could read his mind.
“Well is it?”
“The old man ain’t never denied
that my being there upset him…”
“And what of the times when he
“Like when?” Johnny couldn’t remember
a time when his father hadn’t been upset with him.
“Come,” Katonah backed out of tent.
Johnny followed, pulling on his
buckskin shirt as warmth against the cool night air.Looking
around, he realized that the village was once again deserted.“Where
has everyone gone?”
“They have gone home.This,”
Katonah held his arms out wide, “is not where we live.We
have come here only for you.”
“What is it like where you…”Johnny
paused knowing that the word ‘live’ didn’t really apply to the dead.“Dwell?”
is a place much like this – only better.”
Johnny looked around again trying
to think of a place that could be better than where he was now.He
couldn’t.“You had somethin’ to show
me?”With a wave of his hand, Katonah
started the fire and the two men sat as they had the night before.“What
am I supposed to be seeing?”
“You were thinking that life would
be better off for your family if you were not there.”
“Sure, why wouldn’t it?After
all, Murdoch wouldn’t have me to be yellin’ at all the time.He
and Scott would get along better than ever….”Johnny
paused as he looked at an image of Lancer.The
magnificent hacienda had fallen into a state of disrepair.“What’s
happened?”The image changed from
the outside of the building to the inside.The
interior was dark and a thick layer of dust covered the once beautiful
never let the place get so dirty?”It
was then he spied the lone man seated near a smoldering fire.There
was no mistaking the figure of his father, except this Murdoch was different
from the Murdoch he knew.This one
was old – much older and there was a sadness on his features that spoke
of a loneliness that touched Johnny’s heart.
“This is the future of your family…”
Scott?”Johnny asked, wondering why
his brother would let their father be so abandoned.
“He is gone…”
asked, praying that it wasn’t so.
Katonah shook his head.“He
left this place after your death.”
looked around the room where he had spent many a night talking about his
plans for the future with his brother.
“Those ‘plans’ never came true
without you…”Katonah responded,
once again reading his friend’s thoughts.
“He coulda’ worked them out with
Johnny considered the simple response
and knew it was true.Scott wouldn’t
have stayed at the ranch without him.Scott
loved Lancer, but he loved being a part of a family more.His
brother had high principles and the idea that their father had cast Johnny
aside like he had would have made it impossible for Scott to stay.“What
“She is not there…”
“The girl had but one true love
in her life and he died when she was still but a young girl…”
Johnny’s eyes flashed at his friend.“Me?”
Katonah would not answer the question
and the fire died.“You have until
the end of tomorrow to make your decision.You
must choose wisely.”
Before Johnny could utter another
word, his friend was gone, leaving him alone beneath the starry night sky.A
shiver ran up his spine as he retired to his tent.There
was a lot more to this decision between life and death than he had thought.Pulling
off his clothing, he lifted up his covers and slid between the warm animal
hides to discover he wasn’t alone!
Johnny survived the night with Scott by his side.Murdoch found his sons together - one as white as his sheets, barely breathing, while the other softly snored, blissfully unaware that the presence of death hovered nearby. The father first went to his youngest and laid a large hand on Johnny’s brow.His temperature seemed cooler, but was still abnormal.The wheezing had gotten worse through the night, and yet the boy still lived.Considering the stillness of this son, Murdoch was torn by his emotions.Part of him desperately wanted Johnny to survive so they could resolve their differences, while the other part was terrified that if Johnny survived, he would be paralyzed or worse.Was he being selfish in his wish to have his son with him?Would Johnny want to live if he was unable to live as he had – wild and free?Murdoch grimaced to himself as he considered the words ‘wild and free’.Hadn’t they been the words that he had used eight weeks ago that had caused his son to leave? Looking at the unconscious man, Murdoch knew that Johnny wasn’t the untamed animal he had once referred to him as.Johnny was a man used to living life on his own terms without conditions.It was a way of life Murdoch secretly coveted – jealous of his son’s confidence and ability to survive – without him.
It was a bitter realization for Murdoch to now admit how much he needed Johnny to be with him – not as a gunfighter to defend his property or as a child to be taught, but as a man he wanted to know better.He wanted to know Johnny like Scott did, like the hands back at the ranch did and like Heath did.They all saw Johnny as a man of honor.It had stunned Murdoch to see Johnny that way – as a man willing to place himself at risk above the needs of others.That was not the trait of a hired gun – it was the bravery of a young man wise beyond his years.From what little he had learned from Heath, it seemed that there was a quality in Johnny that he had blinded himself to.His eyes were open now and it saddened him to know just how he much had missed.
That wasn’t the only thing that he had missed.He had missed the opportunity to be a father to his son.Closing his eyes, he realized that he had never given Johnny the opportunity to see him as a father or as a man his son could turn to when he was troubled.In the past months Murdoch had done everything he could do to distance himself from his son.There was no compassion, trust or understanding – at least on a consistent basis – not like how he treated Scott.In the six months they had been together he had only allowed Johnny glimpses of how it could be between them.He could count on one hand the number times he had allowed his son to get close – once when he gave Johnny his father’s watch, the other was when he told Johnny he wasn’t used to having his sons looking after him before the Warburton affair.Only on those few occasions had he expressed himself in a loving manner to his youngest.In short, he had not even tried to be a parent to Johnny – like he had tried with Scott. Why had it been so hard with Johnny and yet so easy with Scott?
In hindsight, Murdoch could see how Johnny had desperately tried to follow the rules he had set in an attempt to gain his approval.In reflection, the father could see how he kept making rules harder and tougher on his youngest while he had let his oldest into his heart without so much as a single reservation.He had lied to himself, thinking that neither of his sons needed a father and yet he held that fact against Johnny because he had once been a father to a dark haired toddler.It perturbed him that he had no say on how that toddler was raised.He had never been a father to Scott nevertheless he found his eldest to be far more like him in mind and spirit.Was Johnny too much like his mother, or too much like the other men who had molded him into the man he was today?Lord knew that Murdoch hated Harlan Garrett with every fiber of his being and yet, his former father-in-law had taught Scott to be a man Murdoch was proud to call son.Knowing what he knew now about Johnny he realized that should have been proud of both sons.
The cold statistical truth of the Pinkerton Report had hardened his heart to his son.He should have realized that there was more to his son’s life besides the printed facts.It had not included any of the other facets of Johnny’s life – how he was almost killed by the man who had murdered his mother; that he had a penchant to protect the downtrodden – that there was a good man masked behind the cold veneer of Johnny Madrid.Murdoch prided himself on being truthful, he had difficulty in accounting for the absolute faith he had put in the words of strangers when it came to passing judgment on his son.It shamed him that he had been so easily misled, so easily taken advantage of by his ‘friends’. A single tear began to course its way down his cheek as his breaking heart overflowed with regrets.‘Damn Ben Anderson’ – like a mantra, the words interrupted his thoughts as considered all the suffering his former friend had condemned him and his sons to.
“Oh, I didn’t see ya come down, Boss.”Jelly entered the room with more of the poultice and medicines to be administered to Johnny.
Jelly’s words startled Scott to awareness.Immediately he turned to look at his brother, relieved to know that death had not claimed Johnny while he had slept.He then noticed Murdoch and the tear that was dripping off his chin.“Sir?”
“Good morning, Son.Johnny made it through the night…”
“He’s getting’ a mite worse, if’n ya ask me…”Jelly said turning up the wick of the night lamp.
Scott again turned to his brother.Johnny’s eyes appeared to have sunken during the night and the corners of his lips were tinged with blue.Picking up one of Johnny’s hands, he felt that it was getting cold. “Get the doctor in here now!”
Jelly rushed from the room while Scott and Murdoch began to rub circulation back into Johnny’s limp limbs.“Why didn’t you wake me sooner?”Scott demanded of his father.
“I didn’t see the color of his lips until Jelly turned up the lamp,” Murdoch defended.
Scott wanted to send a sharp barb at his father, but then immediately felt guilty for sleeping and not keeping a better eye on his brother.
Moments later Howard Merar, who had spent the night in one of the upstairs rooms, hurried into the library to assess his patient.Placing his stethoscope on Johnny’s chest he listened carefully.Johnny’s heartbeat was slow and his breaths labored.“We need to clear his windpipe.”Extending Johnny’s head back, the doctor opened his patient’s mouth and slowly fed another length of black tubing down Johnny’s throat.Terrible noises erupted from the unconscious man as he struggled for breath.
“What are you doing?”Murdoch demanded, convinced that the doctor was killing his son.
“Shut up!”Howard snapped.Once he felt the tube was in the proper place, he fitted a syringe with a one way valve on the end, along with a mouth piece.The physician then began to suck on the tubing until a thick plug of mucus began to drip from the valve.Both Murdoch and Scott looked away, their stomachs turned by the sight of the treatment.Only Jelly attended the doctor, wiping way the infection with a rag until it nothing more came from the tubing.Satisfied, the doctor stopped sucking on the tubing and used his stethoscope to once again listen to Johnny’s lungs.“The pneumonia is robbing Johnny’s body of oxygen.”The doctor checked the chest tube and found that the dripping mucus was as thick as ever.“Jelly, we need to step up his fluids and keep him warmer.”
“Right, I’ll get some more blankets.Do you want to keep trying the poultice?”Jelly asked anxiously.
“It can’t hurt,” the doctor said, but in his heart he knew that there was very little more they could do to save Johnny.They were only going through the motions for the sake of the Lancers. Howard felt like a man drowning in quicksand.Everything he did to ‘save’ Johnny, was just another nail in the boy’s future.In order to placate the Lancers and keep Johnny breathing, he had Johnny sitting up – a position that would aggravate the spinal injuries he suspected the boy received from the dragging.Yet, if he addressed those concerns, the boy could possibly suffocate on his own fluids.It was an ethical situation that he had never imagined in medical school or in all of his years of practice
Slowly, the doctor removed the tubing from Johnny’s throat, once again allowing his patient to breathe easier.He then did a quick check of the other injuries.There was no sign of infection to the areas he had sewn the day before.Checking Johnny’s eyes, he noted that the right eye was once again starting to respond to light, but still not as fast as the left eye.Lifting the blanket off still legs, he ran the handle of a small mallet over the ends of unconscious man’s feet. There was no response.He then tested the reflexes in Johnny’s good knee and both elbows. Again, there was no response.A frown formed on the doctor’s lips.His best efforts to keep Johnny alive were diminishing whatever chance the young man had of ever walking again.
Howard signaled for Scott and Murdoch to follow him from the room.“I’m afraid that the congestion in his lungs is getting worse. He’s suffocating.What I just did might have to be repeated more often if he is to be kept alive…”
“And if you don’t?” Murdoch asked staring the doctor in the eyes.
Howard looked at the Lancers knowing there would be no hiding the truth.“He’ll stop breathing and slowly suffocate.”
“But if he wakes up?”Scott asked hopefully.
“Then I would say that he’s turned a corner.I’m sorry, but there’s no sign of his coming around just yet.”
“What about his legs?”Murdoch whispered, already fearing the answer.
“There’s no response to stimulation…”
“What do you think?”Scott asked in earnest.
Howard sucked in his breath.In truth, Johnny was worse today than the day before.Fever had sucked all of Johnny’s strength from him.The young man’s heart was weakened from lack of oxygen and as a result, circulation to the man’s hands and feet was getting weaker and weaker. “Your brother is Catholic.Have you thought about last rites?”
Murdoch and Scott looked at each other, stunned that the doctor would make such a suggestion.They were further taken aback that the doctor would presume that Johnny would be comforted by the presence of a priest.“Surely something more can be done?”Murdoch asked refusing to believe that nothing more could be done to save Johnny.
“Mr. Lancer, I am a doctor, not a miracle worker.Your son’s injuries are beyond my experience.I’ve done the best I can; keeping his body alive.The rest is in his and God’s hands.”
Scott turned away, looking back at where Jelly patiently tended his brother.“What made you think he would want a priest to give him last rites?I’ve never seen him go near a church.”
Howard was puzzled by Scott’s comment.“Johnny was in the church two days ago for confession,” the doctor blushed slightly.“I was there and saw him speaking with the Padre. If he sought direction from the Church before, then he might appreciate the comfort of the Church now.”Having said all that he could, Howard left for the kitchen and his first cup of coffee for the day.
“All of these people know more about Johnny than we did,” Scott blustered, angry that he had to be told that Johnny would seek out the advice of a Priest; angry that there was nothing more to be done other than keeping the empty shell that was Johnny’s body comfortable.
Murdoch had gone to a window and looked out at the brightening day.Turning, he looked back at Johnny.Gone was the vibrant life that had so scared him.All that was left of Johnny’s bright flame was a trail of smoke; like the tendrils of smoke that drift from a candle after it has been blown out.“We need to send for Teresa.She’ll never forgive us if we don’t…”
“You’re giving up!”Scott accused.
“I’m being realistic!”Murdoch snapped.“If the doctor says that Johnny is dying then we need to be prepared for the end…”
“Well, I’m not giving up!”Scott declared, glaring at his father.“This is what you wanted all along!”
Murdoch looked away, unable to meet the accusation in his son’s eyes.“It may have been what I wanted weeks ago, but it’s not what I want now.I spent the night praying that God would forgive me and spare my son for my mistakes.It was a selfish prayer, but it was all I could think of.Looking at Johnny, I can see that he is already gone.He’s not in that room, he’s someplace else and I can only pray that he’s happy…” a sob hitched in the big man’s chest and he returned to sit next to his lifeless son.
Scott’s anger diminished as quickly as it had flared.He, too, had spent the night praying that God would spare Johnny – the same selfish prayer that his father had made.In that moment he felt the same weight of heartbreak that was burdening his father.“I’ll send for Teresa…”
Johnny and the other braves spent their morning out on the range, hunting each other, playing a game of tag.Johnny was very skillful at the game he had mastered four years earlier.He had peeled off his shirt and breeches and had enjoyed running with the others in the warm sunshine clothed only a breechcloth.For hours they had cavorted, not a care in the world.
When the game was over, they gathered back at the fire ring.Johnny sat and looked at his companions.None had aged a day since he had found them dead.It made Johnny sad to know that the others had not changed while he had grown beyond his time with the tribe, beyond his days as Johnny Madrid.In reflection, he was both troubled and afraid of what his life would be like if he was to remain in this place.Observing the tribe, he noticed that none of the children had aged since the massacre.There were no babies, no new lives brought into being.Was this death – the loss of new life; of new adventures?Was he ready for eternity?
“It is a hard decision you will have to make,” Katonah was beside him, laying a heavy hand on his shoulder.
Johnny jumped at the touch; unnerved that his friend was reading his thoughts.“I could learn to like it here….”
Just the word sounded like a nail in Johnny’s coffin.“If I decided to leave, what would I have ta do?”
Katonah pointed to the summit of the cliff, just beyond the burned grass lands.“You must traverse the dead land and climb to the summit.”
Johnny looked out across the gray area, letting his eyes follow the wall of the sheer cliff up to where a stream of brilliant colors filled the sky.“Ya don’t make it easy, do ya?”
“Everything you could want is provided for you here…”
“And if I don’t make the summit?”
“Then you could be forever trapped in the darkness. Beware; there are unseen forces in the darkness that will try to hold you back from your goal.”
Johnny walked to where the edge of darkness started.It was like an invisible curtain seemed to form – making a barrier between the areas of light and dark.From where he stood he was only a step away from the darkness.Raising his right arm, Johnny waved his right hand through barrier and into the darkness.Immediately he felt chilled to the bone.Withdrawing his hand he tucked it under his left armpit to try to revive the feeling that was stolen in mere seconds.“Why is it so cold?”
“It is the other side of the light.It is the darkness where those who have been judged unworthy, live out their eternity.”
“And if I don’t make the climb that is where I could end up?”
Katonah smiled at his friend.“All will depend upon what it is that you truly desire.Now, get some rest and think.You’re time is drawing near.”
Heath and Val promised to send the telegram for Teresa on their way through Stockton.Victoria had attempted to talk Heath out of going, but there was no arguing with the stubborn blond when he had that Barkley look of determination on his face.She was there with him when he said his final goodbyes to Johnny and then sadly watched as he and the former lawman from Green River rode away.She didn’t believe in revenge but felt, that if the two were able to bring Smith and the others to justice, it might bring them some peace over the loss of their friend.
A few moments after she closed the front door, the sounds of riders approaching made her open it again – hoping that perhaps Heath had changed his mind.He hadn’t.A group of men were riding up to the house led by Sheriff Savage.“Victoria,” he nodded dismounting.
Victoria nodded in response, recognizing four prominent members from the Cattlemen’s Association.“What brings you out here, Fred?”
“We’ve come for Johnny Madrid…”
“Oh?”Victoria asked innocently. “Why are you here for Johnny?”
Hugh Owens, a rancher from the southern end of the valley, brought his horse up to a position behind the sheriff, acting as spokesman for the group.From his saddle, he pointed an accusing finger at Victoria and raised his voice in challenge.“He killed Ben Anderson!Heath told us so yesterday.It’s not like you to have a killer under your roof Victoria.What would Thomas think?”
“What would Thomas think about my trying to save the life of the man who saved me and saved our sons?He would be proud, Mr. Owens.Proud that I had taken the time to get to know the young man who, with no thought of his own well being, may have single handedly saved this entire valley and your sorry life to boot!Who are you sanctimonious old fools to pass judgment on Johnny Lancer?”Victoria’s voice rose in anger at the thought these men had come to accuse Johnny of being a killer.
Murdoch stepped out on the porch as soon as he heard Victoria raising her voice.“What’s going on here?”
“Mr. Lancer,” Fred Savage stepped forward with a writ of summons in his hands.“I’ve come to take Johnny Madrid in for the murder of Ben Anderson…”
“On whose word, theirs?” Murdoch pointed at his ‘friends’.“None of them were there when Ben tried to kill me and Victoria!How do they know what Johnny did or didn’t do?”Victoria stood beside her friend and slipped her small hand into his large one.“For the record, Ben Anderson came here and forced myself and Victoria to go with him.It was my son, Johnny Lancer, who tracked us to where Ben and his group of killers were going to murder us.It was Johnny Lancer who waited and shot Anderson in self defense! It is Johnny Lancer who is lying inside dying….”Murdoch’s voice caught and he turned away, overcome by his feuding emotions.He had no use for these petty men.They had turned him against his son.Turning back, he looked each man in the eye.“You professed to be my friends, convinced me that Johnny wasn’t worthy of the name Lancer.Well, you got it wrong!I’m the one who is not worthy of the name and you men are not worthy to breathe the same air as him!”
Fred and the others listened to the bitter words with their mouths open.They had let their own anger at the situation cloud their judgment.Fred found his voice first and asked “Is that what happened Mr. Lancer?Ben Anderson tried to kill you and Victoria?”
“That’s right, Sheriff,” Victoria answered for her friend.“Ned Bartch is also dead…”
“So what happened to Johnny?”Hugh asked, all pompousness gone from his voice
Victoria squeezed Murdoch’s hand before answering.“Bushrod Smith and two other men arrived and captured Johnny.They tied a rope to his hands and had him dragged by his horse….”
“Oh, God,” one of the others moaned.“Murdoch, I’m sorry…”
“Get out,” Murdoch whispered, unable to stomach looking at his former friends any longer.Their simplistic way of viewing things had poisoned him for long enough.It had cost him Johnny.
Scott, who had heard the raised voices, stepped out on the porch.He had listened to his father’s words and was proud.If only Johnny could have heard them; heard his father admit his mistakes and defend his youngest.Going to his father, he laid a hand on the big man’s shoulder.Murdoch recognized the touch and stood taller.
Hugh took his hat off and fidgeted with it in his hands.“We’re awfully sorry.What can we do to help?”
Murdoch was at a loss for words, amazed at how quickly these men could change from hate to concern.
Scott stepped forward.“I think that the truth needs to be told.Go back to your homes and families.We’re going to be staying with the Barkley’s until Johnny …” Scott’s voice broke, unable to finish his sentence.
The meanings of Scott’s words were clear to the humbled men.“Murdoch, Scott – if there’s anything we can do to help…”
shaking his head, Murdoch turned away.They
had helped all that they could; they had helped him to kill his son.
After the Association members left the Barkley Ranch, Murdoch retreated to the library and to the side of his dying son.Seeing the men he had once considered ‘friends’ for what they really were had disheartened him.He had lived and worked with them for twenty years.They had been his support system; friends when he had been in need and in turn he had helped them and the entire valley prosper.Lancer had welcomed everyone who had come through the arch – everyone except for Johnny.Closing his eyes, tears began to fall as he considered how he had failed his son for the likes of the men who had just left.
Scott stood at the entrance to the library, wanting to be with his brother and yet uncertainhow to help his father.A gentle hand on his arm made him turn away.Victoria Barkley guided him to the sitting room where he fell exhaustedly onto an overstuffed sofa.
“Did you get any rest last night?”
“Enough to nearly kill my brother,” Scott answered, loathing himself for his physical failing.He had allowed himself to fall asleep and as a result his brother had nearly died.
Victoria raised an eyebrow at the comment.“So, now you’re assuming responsibility for what happened to Johnny?”
“Youwhat?”Victoria challenged.“Made Smith and the others despise your brother enough to want to kill him?”
“Oh, you were the one who shot Johnny on the street in Stockton?Or better yet, you made them tie him to that horse…?”
“Now, wait just a minute!”Scott protested, sitting up, refusing to let the older woman put another word in his mouth.“I wasn’t going to say any of those things! It’s just that I fell asleep…”
“And when was the last time you had a good night’s sleep?”Victoria gently asked.
Scott fell back against the soft cushions.“I haven’t slept well since Johnny left eight weeks ago.”
Victoria studied Scott.The tall young man was so much like her own stubborn Nick; willing to place the burden of the world on his broad shoulders and not giving an inch to let someone help and lighten the load.“You won’t be doing your brother any good if you collapse from exhaustion…”
“I’m worried about Murdoch,” Scott interrupted, sidetracking the conversation from himself to his father.
Victoria was not to be dissuaded.“How about if you go upstairs and rest and let me talk to your father?”
“Johnny might need me…”Scott protested.
“And I’ll come and get you if he does.”The petite woman stood with her hands on her hips.Her cool green eyes bore into slate blue ones until the young man had to look away.
Reluctantly, Scott stood on legs weakened from exhaustion and headed towards the door.“You promise?”
“You have my word.”Victoria watched as Scott left the room going to the foyer.The young man paused for a moment by the entrance to the library, as if debating whether he should go check on Johnny one more time before he rested.The Barkley matriarch sighed, Scott was still torn.“Upstairs, young man,” she ordered.
“Yes, Ma’am.”Scott responded like a child who had been caught attempting to snitch a cookie before dinner.He veered away from the library and awkwardly stood at the bottom of the stairs, gathering the last vestiges of his strength before starting the long climb.
“I’ll have Silas bring a tray to your room – and come clean clothes.” Victoria called out again, nudging him along.
Without a word, Scott moved up the stairs, slowly making his way to his room.The more he moved, the more he knew she was right.He was beyond exhaustion.As reluctant as he was to leave his brother in the hands of his father, he recognized the fact that he needed to rest.His military training had drilled into him the dangers of fatigue and here he was teetering on the edge.Resigning himself to his fate, Scott entered his room and prepared to sleep.
Victoria remained in the foyer and watched as the lean young man disappeared down the hallway, out of her sight.She liked Scott.He impressed her as being a bright and intelligent man – much like his brother.Thinking of Johnny made the smile fade from her face.The road that lay ahead for the youngest Lancer was bleak.If he survived, there would be the challenges ofregaining all that he had lost – mobility, freedom, independence; all attributes valued highly by young men.She wasn’t sure if the Lancers would be up to the challenge of handling a handicapped Johnny.She had been through it once with Nick only a year earlier.The experience had damn near destroyed her family.Only love and perseverance had brought them through the experience – leaving them stronger and more unified than ever.It would be a miracle if that could happen with the Lancers.
Murdoch was all but destroyed by everything he had learned about his son.The former gunhawk had lived with him for six months but he hadn’t gained the first clue as to who Johnny really was.It was only now, as he stood on the brink of losing Johnny, that he realized how wrong he had been.The revelations were devastating.
It was clear to Victoria that the brothers had created a bond that had transcended the thick walls that Murdoch had built around his heart.They had found each other, letting their differences make them stronger; much like how Nick and Jarrod had taken to Heath.As different as the three men were, they were devoted to each other.Victoria could see that same devotion in Scott towards Johnny.
What Johnny had done – leaving Lancer and resuming his life as Johnny Madrid - had sorely tested the relationship between him and his brother; but he had done everything he could to protect that brother - and the father who had rejected him.Johnny, by his actions two nights earlier, had made it clear that he was still seeking the love and approval of his father.Why else would he have come to their rescue?He had prevented their murder by Ben Anderson and Ned Bartch.By surrendering to Smith he had tried to save his father.It was clear to her that Johnny’s sacrifice was not the deed of a man bent on revenge.If Johnny had wanted to punish Murdoch, then he had missed a very good opportunity to have the man suffer at the hands of his enemies.As it was, Murdoch was suffering for his own actions in a manner Johnny could have never planned.The torment of the father was clear confirmation that he had learned his lesson – a lesson he was never likely to forget.
Standing at the entrance to the library, Victoria watched as Murdoch tenderly bathed the flushed face of his son.Closing her eyes, she could almost see Murdoch tending to a two year old Johnny all those many years ago.Where had that compassion and tenderness been eight weeks ago?Where had Murdoch buried the man who was so devoted to his son?Quietly she stepped up behind her friend and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“He’s going to make it,” Murdoch whispered, determination evident in his voice.“He’s a strong lad.He came back to us after Pardee put a bullet in his back.Johnny can survive this too.”
Victoria looked at Johnny’s flushed, battered face.His lips were dry from the harsh breaths that escaped his lungs.She didn’t have the same faith as her friend.“If he doesn’t…?”
Murdoch closed his eyes for the briefest of seconds before continuing his ministrations.“He’s a fighter.He can’t leave me – not now….”The older man’s head dropped to his chest, much in the same manner Johnny would drop his head when confronted with anything he didn’t want to share.
Victoria recognized the trait and wistfully smiled; there was so much the two had in common if only they had let themselves get to know each other.“I spoke with Scott.He’s not taking this well.”
“I know,” Murdoch shook his head and clenched his fist.“He thinks this is all my fault;he’s right you know.”
“Murdoch, the time for placing blame for what has happened is not now.The two of you need to figure away to survive this together – to stay together as a family…”
“Family?”Murdoch repeated the word acidly - as if it would burn his tongue.“I had a family and I let it slip away….”
“Don’t be so quick to write off Scott.”With a sad smile, she gently brushed a strand of errant hair off Johnny’s forehead.“For Johnny’s sake, don’t make the same mistakes with Scott.”Victoria warned.With a gentle pat to her friend’s shoulder, she left the room.Murdoch had a lot to think about. He needed to make plans for his future and the future of his sons.
Rumors had been flying around Morro Coyo and the ranch for days and it was tearing Teresa apart.The news that Johnny was dead nearly destroyed her.After first receiving the news from Val, she had gone upstairs and locked herself in Johnny’s room. Throwing herself on his bed, she could feel his presence, smell his masculine scent.The knowledge that he would not be returning brought her to tears that could not be consoled.
In bits and pieces she had heard stories of how someone had stolen Johnny’s body to scare the hands away from one of the ranches.She also heard that there had been an attempt to murder all of the members of the Cattlemen’s Association.The girl was distraught thinking that perhaps she was the last member of the Lancer family to be alive.Cipriano had gone to town to try to get the latest news.If the Lancers were dead, then there would be changes at the ranch that would affect them all.Wisely, the Segundo stationed men in strategic areas to fend off attacks from any would be land grabbers – men who would see the battle in Stockton as an opportunity to make a raid on the sprawling ranch.
It was late evening when Cipriano returned from town.He was met by a large portion of the hands as he went directly to the house.Teresa and Maria came out on the portico to meet the men and get the news.
“They live!”Cipriano shouted, bringing instant cheers of relief from everyone.“I have a telegram from Señor Scott. He says that he and the jefe are fine and that Juanito is not dead!”Another cheer was raised; Teresa turned to Maria, hugging her tightly while she softly cried tears of relief.The sheer joy that radiated throughout the group could be felt by one and all.
Cipriano dismissed the men, reminding them of their duties to the Lancers, before taking Teresa and Maria inside.
“This is wonderful news!”Teresa said brightly, throwing her arms around the older man – her father’s friend.
“It is not all good, Chica,” Cipriano said slowly, gently breaking from the girl’s embrace.
“Not all good?” Teresa didn’t understand.Hadn’t he just said that her entire family, including Johnny, was alive?
“Come, we must talk.”Guiding the ladies back into the warmth of the kitchen, they sat down.“Juanito is badly injured.They are asking that you come to Stockton before he…”
“No!”Teresa screamed, putting her hand in her mouth, not wanting to hear the next words.
“Chica,” Maria whispered, going to her friend.“Por favor, read the telegram.” She asked of Cipriano.
Swallowing hard, the Segundo held the small paper in trembling hands.
Murdoch and I are fine.<stop> Johnny alive. <stop>Come to Stockton immediately <stop> Johnny badly injured. <stop> dying. <stop>Staying with Barkleys<stop>Scott.
When he was done, Cipriano handed the paper to Teresa.“We will leave in the morning.I will take you…”
With shaking hands, Teresa tried to read the note through tear filled eyes.“I’ve got to get ready…” she whispered, looking around the room as if unable to know where to turn to.
“I will help you pack, Chica.”The small woman slipped an arm around Teresa’s slim waist and guided the girl upstairs to her room.
Cipriano continued to sit in the cozy kitchen.He remembered what the rancho was like before the arrival of Señor Murdoch’s two hijos.The house, despite Teresa’s efforts, was a cold and uninviting place.With the arrival of Señors Scott and Juanito everything had changed.The house had come alive with the sound of laughter.The jefe had changed. He had become kinder and more understanding towards the men, though many would argue that.Cipriano had been at Lancer for many years – almost as long as Paul O’Brien.He saw the change in Murdoch and was pleased that the man was no longer the loner he had once been.
There was no denying that the two sons were treated differently, but then Scott was the oldest, traditionally viewed as the heir – despite the fact that it was said that the three men owned the ranch equally.As a result, Scott was treated with the respect accorded to that position.Johnny had no illusions about his place and that had endeared him to the men.The youngest Lancer made no mention of his past life and the men, in time, had learned not to ask or to talk about the infamous Johnny Madrid.Cipriano had heard stories about the gunfighter but found none of those cold hearted qualities in the fun loving young man who worked beside him on a daily basis.
When Johnny left, it was almost as if a dark cloud descended to cover the vast lands of Lancer.Gone was the loyalty that the men had felt towards the ranch; the camaraderie that Juanito had encouraged was gone as well.The men took it hard that the jefe would turn away a son.No explanation was ever given and that angered many of the men who had befriended Juanito.Essentially, life at Lancer returned to the way it had been before the days of Pardee and his land pirates.
Cipriano had much admiration for Señor Scott; the young man had been instrumental in their victory over the land pirates.Scott’s recognition that he needed the help of the men and valued their knowledge of the land made him well liked by the hands.But, he was not Juanito.They felt that Scott, despite Johnny’s reassurances, seemed to hold himself aloof from the men.Cipriano suspected that it was just an ill perception they had, but it was an observation that stuck to the well mannered easterner.
Rising, Cipriano, stretched his legs.He had spent many hours in the saddle today, trying to both manage the ranch and get whatever news he could of the troubles in Stockton.Pouring a cup of coffee, he reflected that when he heard Juanito was dead, he desperately wanted to go to Stockton to see for himself; it wasn’t meant to be.Someone needed to stay at the estancia and keep watch.The Segundo prided himself on the land and the Lancers.With pride, he had resolved to stay on as long as Lancer needed his protection.Now that he knew that Juanito was alive, hope sprang in his heart that he would not have to leave the place that had become his home.
The note from Señor Scott was ominous, but he had faith that if there was a way, Juanito would be returning and all would be well once again.
Johnny spent the remainder of the day with the other braves.Retiring to his tent, he felt a contentedness that he had hadn’t felt in a very long time.Thoughts of his family had hardly interrupted the time that he had spent with his companions.Now that he was alone, Johnny once again began to think of Murdoch, Scott and Teresa.Slowly, he was overcome by the sad realization that they would all be better off if he never returned.Murdoch would find better things to do with his time other than yelling at him for his ‘mistakes’.Scott and Teresa – in time they would realize that it was best that he was gone.
“Is that what you really think?”Katonah entered the tent, scaring the wits out of his pupil.
“Ya got ta stop doing that!”Johnny said hotly, not liking the fact that his friend could read his mind.
“Well is it?”
“The old man ain’t never denied that my being there upset him…”
“And what of the times when he wasn’t upset?”
“Like when?” Johnny couldn’t remember a time when his father hadn’t been upset with him.
“Come,” Katonah backed out of tent.
Johnny followed, pulling on his buckskin shirt as warmth against the cool night air.Looking around, he realized that the village was once again deserted.“Where has everyone gone?”
“They have gone home.This,” Katonah held his arms out wide, “is not where we live.We have come here only for you.”
“What is it like where you…”Johnny paused knowing that the word ‘live’ didn’t really apply to the dead.“Dwell?”
Katonah smiled.“It is a place much like this – only better.”
Johnny looked around again trying to think of a place that could be better than where he was now.He couldn’t.“You had somethin’ to show me?”With a wave of his hand, Katonah started the fire and the two men sat as they had the night before.“What am I supposed to be seeing?”
“You were thinking that life would be better off for your family if you were not there.”
“Sure, why wouldn’t it?After all, Murdoch wouldn’t have me to be yellin’ at all the time.He and Scott would get along better than ever….”Johnny paused as he looked at an image of Lancer.The magnificent hacienda had fallen into a state of disrepair.“What’s happened?”The image changed from the outside of the building to the inside.The interior was dark and a thick layer of dust covered the once beautiful furnishings.“Where’s Teresa?She’d never let the place get so dirty?”It was then he spied the lone man seated near a smoldering fire.There was no mistaking the figure of his father, except this Murdoch was different from the Murdoch he knew.This one was old – much older and there was a sadness on his features that spoke of a loneliness that touched Johnny’s heart.
“This is the future of your family…”
“Where’s Scott?”Johnny asked, wondering why his brother would let their father be so abandoned.
“He is gone…”
“Dead?”Johnny asked, praying that it wasn’t so.
Katonah shook his head.“He left this place after your death.”
“Why?”Johnny looked around the room where he had spent many a night talking about his plans for the future with his brother.
“Those ‘plans’ never came true without you…”Katonah responded, once again reading his friend’s thoughts.
“He coulda’ worked them out with Murdoch…”
Johnny considered the simple response and knew it was true.Scott wouldn’t have stayed at the ranch without him.Scott loved Lancer, but he loved being a part of a family more.His brother had high principles and the idea that their father had cast Johnny aside like he had would have made it impossible for Scott to stay.“What about Teresa?”
“She is not there…”
“The girl had but one true love in her life and he died when she was still but a young girl…”
Johnny’s eyes flashed at his friend.“Me?”
Katonah would not answer the question and the fire died.“You have until the end of tomorrow to make your decision.You must choose wisely.”
Before Johnny could utter another word, his friend was gone, leaving him alone beneath the starry night sky.A shiver ran up his spine as he retired to his tent.There was a lot more to this decision between life and death than he had thought.Pulling off his clothing, he lifted up his covers and slid between the warm animal hides to discover he wasn’t alone!