Luke Mitchell peered down into the pale face of the man who had just staggered in to his livery stable. "You okay, mister?"
The slender figure seemed not to hear the question as pain-filled blue eyes clamped on the small man with the pitchfork in his hand. "Need. . .horse."
Mitchell moved a tad closer to the man. In this light he could see the blood along the hairline, blood that had trickled down the wide forehead and then dried. "'ppears to me you need a doctor, boy. Ain't got one in town, but I don' mind lookin' at ya for two bits. Not bad at fixin' folks if I say so m'self. Set plenty a broken bones."
The blue eyes never wavered from the rather thin face of the stable man. "Need. . .horse."
Mitchell's dark eyes narrowed. "Say, be you a furriner? Had some funny talkin' people through town t'other day. They was just a jabberin' 'n one of 'em managed to put tog'ther coupla words o' English just like yur a doin'. 'Course they wuz dressed lots nicer 'n you."
The younger man looked down at the ripped blue shirt and denims he wore. The pants were dirt-covered and had a stain on them, much the color of dried blood. Swaying slightly, the injured man reached into his pocket, hunting for something within. When the hand emerged, all it contained was a small silver coin which he held out to Mitchell. "Need. . .horse."
The stableman took the coin, bit on it, mumbling, "T'aint 'nough for a horse, but I'll look at yur head. Come on out inta the light." Gently, he took hold of the man's arm, guiding him out the door into the warm sunlight. Nudging him towards an upright barrel, Mitchell pushed him down. Just as he started to hold the handsome face still so he could get a better look at the wound, he stopped. Shaking his head at his forgetfulness, he walked over to the nearby water trough, dunked his hands, wiggled the fingers about for a moment and then proceeded to shake them dry in the light wind. "Now, let me look at ya, young feller. This is gonna hurt."
The injured man uttered not a word, but his lip began to bleed as his white teeth clamped down at the agony that the man's hands caused him. "Sorry, boy, but you took a real whack. Got some splinters in that wound which gotta come out. Guess ya better come up to the saloon with me. Millie'll give me some whiskey. Mebbe I kin clean it out some. Help yur pain while I'ma doin' it at least."
Few citizens of Dusty Springs were out at the early hour and those who were paid little attention to the two men who walked slowly up the street towards the dilapidated saloon which was the primary source of pleasure in the small town. In fact most of the citizens of Dusty Springs were barely hanging on. Those with enterprise or a few dollars in their pockets had moved on long ago, but a few hardy or some might say lazy souls had decided that they preferred to just scrape by rather than make the effort to start new lives somewhere else. Luke Mitchell was one of them. After losing his ranch to the dust which had settled over this barren area on the edge of the desert, he had taken the few horses he had left and moved into town. The livery stable was still in decent shape so he had just put up a new sign and became the owner. No one much cared.
The same was true for most of the other people who called Dusty Springs home. Millie, the owner of the saloon, had been there since she had climbed from a stagecoach one day to ask for a job over a decade before. The owner of the saloon had taken a liking to the young girl, proposed and they had married. Less than two years later, she was a widow, but had managed to keep the saloon going due to the travelers who could not pass up a chance to have one last drink before moving on to the next town, nearly fifty miles to the north. Millie, who had just turned thirty, looked close to forty, but for the most part she did not resent her life and could almost always be counted on for a quick drink when funds were running exceedingly low.
Being that it was early in the day, the Dusty Springs Saloon wasn't officially open yet, but Mitchell knew that Millie liked to get down early, clean the four tables of the everlasting dust and check her inventory. Not that the inventory was anything fancy. In fact, when the 'furriners' that Luke Mitchell had talked about had tried to order wine, she had burst into tears of laughter, telling them, "I ain't gonna go stomp on no grapes, even if I had 'em." The international visitors had ordered whiskey.
Peering over the doors to the saloon, Luke couldn't see Millie anywhere in the room, but there was a bottle of whiskey sitting on the bar. Plunking the injured man into one of the hard chairs at a table, Mitchell walked over and put his hand around the skinny-necked bottle. An iron hand clamped down on his arm. Looking down, he saw the hard face of Millicent Farmer Tybald behind the bar. "Want somethin', Luke?" her reddened mouth asked.
"Millie! Didn't know you were back there. Got a young feller over here. Hurt his head. Thought I might need to do some pokin' 'n it's gonna hurt somethin' fierce."
The once light blue eyes glanced over at the man slumped over at the table. "Where'd he come from. Didn't hear no horse ridin' in."
"Don't rightly know. Was mucking out and there he was standin' in the doorway."
"Didn't he say how he got hurt?"
"Keeps sayin' two words, 'Need horse.'"
Millie, who had only recently started wearing long dresses in deference to her voluptuous figure as opposed to the ones her husband had encouraged upon her, walked over to the young man, the whiskey bottle in her hand. "Mister, Luke here says you need a drink. You got any money?"
The blond dragged his head off the table using one hand to steady himself and tried to stand. Barely had the word, "M'am" emerged when his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped to the floor.
"Nice manners," the saloon owner intoned. "Reckon ya better git him upstairs inta one of the rooms. You can work on him there."
"Thanks, Millie. You gotta good heart."
"Enough of that, Luke Mitchell. I can tell a gentleman when I see 'im. Most likely he's got money."
"Don't know 'bout that. Only had one coin."
The red-haired woman laughed. "You don't think he'd show it to a little weasel like you? 'Sides even if he ain't got it on 'im, once we know who he is, we'll send a wire to his folks. Should be mighty grateful to them what helped their kin."
"Yur one smart woman, Millie. No wonder Jake Tybald popped the question so fast."
"Didn't hurt that I was good-lookin' neither. Lord, if he hadn't died when he did, I'd be dead by now. Hands all over me, all the time." The saloon owner winked at Mitchell. Both of them knew she still missed her husband even after eight years.
Just as the two of them started to pull the injured man to his feet, the doors to the saloon swung open and a man in a suit walked in. Since there was only one man in all of Dusty Spring that regularly wore suits instead of working clothes, neither Mitchell nor Millie needed to see his face to know his identity. "Miz Tybald, so nice to see you this morning. You too, Mitchell, I can't remember the last time I saw you up before !"
"Mornin', Mr. Crump. Didn't think we'd see you out this way for 'nother coupla weeks."
Elias Crump, while not well-to-do, tried to give that impression to the many people he met on his travels. To hear him speak the listener would have to assume that selling liquor by the bottle or barrel was only a hobby, a diversion from the mundane life of comfortable gentility. To keep up that illusion Crump had purchased two suits and kept them in immaculate condition. Riding about from town to town taking orders, he had become a fixture in many of the small towns. Sometimes he would stay longer in the towns which were more prosperous or which had prettier girls, but for the most part he enjoyed the solitude of his travels.
Moving over to stand beside Mitchell and Millie, he stopped to look down at the unconscious man at his feet. "Bit early to be so drunk, isn't he?"
"T'ain't drunk. Got a lump on his head. We wuz just gonna take him upstairs so I could take them splinters out of his wound."
"You'll make a lovely Florence Nightingale, Miz Tybald." Elias assured her.
"Don't know who that is, but I'm just providin' the whiskey. Luke's gonna take care of the diggin'."
"Oh dear, I do hope he doesn't die!"
"She didn't mean that, Crump. Feller's just got a bump. Ain't gonna let 'im die. Figure he's got money somewhere."
"Indeed, he does look a cut above the usual villain you see on the trails. In fact," Crump hesitated, "he resembles a face I saw on a wanted poster north of here. What color are his eyes?"
Millie blushed, "Real pretty blue."
"Hmm, I wonder if it could be him? There's a $500 reward. Seems like he killed his father and brother and took off with a pot of money. Let's see, I think the name under the drawing was Lancer."
$500?" Just the thought of all those crisp greenbacks made Luke Mitchell giddy. He'd once been an observer at a poker game when the pot had totaled $50l.23. The smell and sight of all those coins and wrinkled bills had never left his memory and now here in the figure of one man was a similar prize. "$500," he breathed again. "Must want 'im real bad." Mitchell reached out to touch the sleeve of Scott's ripped shirt as if to reassure himself that the man was still there.
"Luke Mitchell, you should be ashamed of yourself!" Millie's flushed countenance was so close to Luke's that the smell of the lavender water she used slapped him in the face. "We don't even know this here feller is the one on that poster."
"Aw, Millie, can't blame a man fer hopin' can ya?"
"Miz Tybald, it does credit to your kind heart to see the innocence in a man, but we are presented with a profound problem here." Elias Crump, along with his two suits, had long ago learned that a genteel way of speaking was most effective when dealing the impressionable.
"Problem?" The good lady echoed.
"Yes. While you are of course correct that this may not be the man on the poster; there is a distinct possibility that he is. We would be remiss in not determining his exact situation."
"Situation—he's out on his feet you durn fool!" Luke Mitchell might not have Crump's polish, but he didn't kowtow to any man.
Gritting his teeth, Crump tried to smile at the shorter man. "I realize that, Mr. Mitchell, but when he comes to, we must endeavor to find out as much as possible about him."
"Well, then let's git him upstairs and let me take a look at that wound. Don't want him dyin' on us, do we?"
Millie stood there with one rouged lip sticking out. "Just cain't believe he'd kill nobody. Skinny feller like him and he's got such pretty manners. Called me M'am."
"Miz Tybald, pretty manners can hide the blackest of hearts. I agree that he doesn't look like a murderer, but if he indeed killed his own brother and father," his stocky body shuddered, "then we must be prepared to take every step to protect ourselves."
"What's that mean?" Mitchell demanded.
"I think it is quite obvious, Mr. Mitchell. . .Luke. He must certainly be cared for, but I don't think we should take any chances. He might regain his senses and attempt to make an escape. If he has killed once, he would not hesitate again."
"How? He ain't even got a gun!" Millie pointed out.
"That is true, but I suggest that instead of taking him upstairs to one of your so-charming rooms," Crump stopped to smile at Millie. He had once had the misfortune to be stuck in one of those rooms overnight, "I think we should carry him down to the jail and lock him in."
"The jail? You know it ain't fit fer a man. It's only 4 walls, a barred window and a padlocked door. I'm not even sure anybody knows where the key to the padlock is!" Millie protested.
"I know, Millie."
The redhead turned on Luke. "And just how do you know, Luke Mitchell?"
The short, runty man gulped and quietly admitted, "Jake gave it to me 'fore he died. Said we might need it someday."
Startled, Millie said nothing. She had almost forgotten that since the town had never had a real lawman, her late husband had been in charge of feeding and seeing to prisoners before he died. Dusty Springs had had no prisoners since his time. Not even outlaws stayed around long enough to get caught.
A delighted grin filled Elias Crump's face. "Excellent. Luke, you go find the key. I will take our prisoner down to the jail. Miz Tybald, you gather the items we will need to clean up this young man's wounds and we will meet there as soon as possible."
Millie and Luke glanced at each other. Millie in particular did not like taking orders from any man, but a share of $500 could take her a long way from Dusty Springs so she just nodded her head.
As soon as Luke had headed out the door and Millie had gone off to collect bandages and a tub of water, Crump leaned over to pick up the still unconscious man. Heaving him onto one shoulder he began his slow journey down the dusty street towards the building which had etched into its side 'JAL'.
Bart Williams, who had been a fine carpenter but a miserable speller, had left the rectangular building as his final gift to Dusty Springs before moving north to find much more lucrative work. His gift had been much appreciated at the time, but over the years it had seen little use, due to the philosophy of much of its citizenry—"Live and Let Live". Most of them understood that extreme violence or major thievery would not be tolerated, but petty crimes were seen as the penalty for staying in the dying town. Fortunately, those who had stayed, too lazy to work for more than a subsistence living, were also too lazy to be real criminals. Besides, robbing Millie's till of the $2 or $3 she made of a night was hardly worth being tossed out of town. And the rest of the so-called businesses didn't do that well.
Arriving at the jail house, Crump put his burden on the ground to wait. It didn't take long for his two cohorts to show up. Carrying bandages, a tub with water and a cloth, Millie glanced down at the white face of the injured man. "You didn't have to put him down in the dirt, didya?"
Crump ignored her as Luke came running up out of breath. "Found it!" Putting the key in the lock, he started to turn it, but nothing happened. "Damn! This thing must be rusty or somethin'. Good thing I brought this here oil along." After dipping his dirty hanky in some oil he forced it into the keyhole. It still took some minutes, but eventually with a shrill creak the padlock fell open.
The dungeons of Torquemada's Inquisition would have been more inviting. Inside was a cot or what had been a cot. A disgruntled prisoner had seen fit to demolish the wooden legs. Now it was a mattress which had become the home for the vermin which had infiltrated the building over the years. Cobwebs were the lacey curtains that hung from the small barred window as well as adorned the corners. It was hot, nearly airless and dark. Fortunately, the lamp left in one corner still had enough oil in it to light in response to Luke's match.
Millie gasped in horror. "You cain't leave him here! This ain't fit for Luther Baird's hogs!"
"Now, now, Miz Tybald. I agree it needs a new cot, but he is after all a prisoner. Luke, you take this money and go over to the General Store and get what you think we'll need."
Crump's eyes rolled. "Miz Finch's place." Hazel Finch specialized in cast-offs, junk and unused items which she had scavenged over the years. She generally had something in her cluttered rooms that would make do whether it involved birth, death or somewhere in between.
"Oh, sure. Be right back."
While waiting, Millie carefully wiped the flushed face of Scott Lancer with some of the tepid water in the bowl. "Looks like he was out in the sun fer a time. Ain't so pale now."
Crump glanced down at the woman kneeling in the dirt. "What? Oh yes, I see what you mean. Sunburn."
"Yeah, that. . .that was sure nice of you to spend for a cot 'n stuff."
"No problem, Miz Tybald. I'll take the expenses out of the $500."
Millie dropped her eyes to the man whose head was in her lap. "You really think he's the man what did that? Seems young to be a killer."
"Miz Tybald, I don't care if he killed those men or not. If this is the man on that poster then that's all that counts. $500 split three ways could be the start of a new life for all of us."
It was just then that the blue eyes opened and quickly shut against the glare of the sun. Realizing his plight, Millie brought out a reasonable clean hanky and held it up as a shield. "Mister, you're gonna be okay."
A groan followed by an effort to sit up were her only answer.
"You just lie still there, mister, we're gonna take care of you in a minute. You got a name?"
Dry lips and throat prevented much of a reply but finally one word struggled forth, "L-Lan-cer."
Elias Crump grinned with delighted avarice.
Pain-filled blue eyes filled the reddened face as Scott stared up at the man and woman who hovered about him. Almost gagging from the lavender scent of the woman's body, even in the open air, Scott struggled to stay still so that his senses did not reel. Gently he touched at the spot on his forehead and winced.
"Wouldn't do that if I were you, Mr. Lancer. Luke will be back in a minute and then he'll take care of your wound," Crump assured him.
Millie smiled hesitantly. One of her front teeth was missing which made her ashamed. "He's the feller what found you. Well, I guess you found him. Over at the livery stable, 'member?"
Scott started to shake his head, but his stomach lurched in response and a slight sweat broke out around the patrician nose. "Can't say I do. The way my head's pounding, I can't think straight."
"I'm sure we understand, Mr. Lancer, but don't worry we'll take good care of you. Can you stand?" Crump leaned over to take one arm to help the blond to his feet. For one alarming second the slender man and the earth beneath him swayed, but then he righted himself.
"I. . .I appreciate your help. I hope you don't mind my asking, but exactly where are we?"
heard of it." Millie
giggled. The sound seemed so
incongruous to her appearance. Her
dyed hair, voluptuous figure, and warn
appearance spoke of age, but beneath the makeup, Scott could see that was
a mistake. "I'm
sorry," he continued, "but this is a strange part of
yes, you're from the
"Yes, I am," Scott admitted, "but how did you know that?"
"Oh, we know quite a bit about you, Mr. Lancer, including the fact that you have a father and a brother." Crump couldn't help letting a slight air of superiority enter his voice. He liked being in control since it was such a rare occurrence for him.
"As a matter fact, I do, but I still don't see. . . ." Scott's legs gave way from beneath him. The effort of standing even for a few moments was too much as he slid to his knees with a gasp.
a long way away the blond-haired man could hear Crump's contemptuous
you mean, you did have a father and a brother,
Mr. Lancer--since they're now dead by your hand and the good people of
Scott heard the words, but could not make any sense of them as the darkness began to blot out the glare of the sun. Covering his ears with his hands, the mocking question seemed to resonate in his thoughts until the merciful blackness overtook him.
Crump looked down at the prone figure, face pushed into the dust. "Better this way. Let's get him inside the jail. Luke should be back with the cot anytime."
"You. . .you didn't have to say that to him! If he didn't do it, he's gonna be awful upset about his kinfolk. Couldn't you have waited?" Millie pleaded.
been waiting all my life, Miz Tybald,
and I don't intend to wait a minute more than I have to.
We know his name is Lancer and he fits the drawing.
Just as soon as Luke gets him fixed up, I intend to ride north to
"And I s'pose you think me 'n Millie are just agonna let you ride off and grab that money?"
Crump whirled around to see Luke Mitchell stand there with the cot in his hands. Two of the legs were turned in, much like a V, but the frame was in one piece unlike the unlamented one inside the jail.
Recovering from his surprise, Crump walked over to take the unlikely piece of furniture from Mitchell. "Luke, glad to see you're back. Help me get OUR prisoner into the jail before he wakes up. Now that he knows we know about his heinous crime, he won't feel the need to be civilized anymore."
Mitchell continued to stand, jaw clenched in defiance. "I'll help you git him in and take care of that wound, but then we're gonna settle this. I'm the one who brung him in and you ain't gonna cheat me outta what's mine."
Crump laughed nervously, but then patted the smaller man on the back. "Luke, you're just being silly. I wouldn't cheat you and Miz Tybald."
"Mebbe, mebbe not, but listen up good, I don't trust you no more 'n what you trust me. If we decide to go north, then I'm not bein' left behind. Git it?"
"That goes double fer me!" Millicent Tybald's green eyes held a glint of the girl that Jake Tybald had fallen for hook, line and sinker. "I've known both of you fer quite a spell, but when it comes to $500, I don't trust nobody."
Miz Tybald, it's a
long ride to
"Don't you give me proper, Elias Crump. I ride better 'n most men 'n I kin shoot. You just ask Al Lawton. I peppered his hide good a coupla years back when he got out of line so I kin take care of myself. 'Sides I don't trust either of you two weasels not to shoot this feller 'n turn him for the money."
"Millie, I wouldn't be a party to somethin' like that!"
"Better be quiet, Luke. You fergit, I know a thing or two 'bout you. I may not be the smartest woman in the world, but I know what two yahoos like you would do for $500 'cause I know what I jest might do for the money. So don't git no idees 'bout leavin' me behind or I can promise that you'll be sorry," Millie's clefted chin stuck out in defiance.
Resigning himself to putting up with his two avaricious compatriots, Crump sighed, "Very well, Miz Tybald, we shall endeavor to stick together like the Three Musketeers, but for now I suggest we should take our prisoner inside before he expires in front of our eyes."
"Ain't got a musket, Mr. Crump. No good with a gun, but I'm mighty handy with a knife," Luke avowed with a gleam in his eye.
"That will have to do, I presume. I cannot go without sleep during our entire journey." Crump's martyred air came to an abrupt end when Scott moaned slightly.
Hastening to get the injured man locked in, Luke rushed up the steps and plopped down the cot. In ten seconds Scott was settled on it with his doubtful angel of mercy hovering over him. Crump held the lamp as near as possible to the wound as Mitchell began to dig for splinters.
The wail of pain from the man on the cot startled all in the enclosed space. Turning around to Millie, Luke asked if she had brought the whiskey with her. Silently, she handed over the bottle. Forcing Scott's mouth open, he began to pour a liberal amount down his throat, letting up only when the gagging threatened to suffocate. After he judged enough had been imbibed, he began to poke around again.
The laborious task took some time in the subdued light and with Luke's shaking hands. After a few minutes, he stopped as Millie took over the lamp holding. She had noticed the green tint on Crump's face. With derision in her voice, she had ordered the liquor salesman out into the relatively clean air. He had departed gratefully, allowing the other two to complete what needed to be done.
A few minutes later he retraced his steps into the dimly lit jail, only to find Scott's fair hair swathed in bandages. Not even looking at Crump, Mitchell announced, "Think I got 'em all. He's not gonna be stirring much after I poured that whiskey into the wound so I think I'll go back to the stable. Gotta take care of my horses. Crump, mebbe you kin sit with 'im a bit. Make sure he don't git no fever. Blood poisonin' a miserable thing."
Crump took a seat in the corner. Some of his pomposity had fled with his stomach's humiliation.
"I gotta go open the saloon. You stay here 'n have somebody send me word if you need me. I'll send down some food 'n drink later," Millie remarked.
sat there miserably. He hated
the smell of blood, dirt and disease.
He had tried to avoid serving in the army during the war by
volunteering in the hospitals, but he hadn't been able to stand that
either. One day he had just
taken off, heading west, not stopping until he reached a place where the
down the lamp to a minimum, Crump sat in near darkness.
The journey to
No, it was Millicent Tybald who was the true danger. He had once imagined that she might be a good wife for him. Not that he truly wanted marriage, but he had fancied taking over the saloon and building it up into a profitable business with his connections. Millicent had put paid to that idea in a hurry.
Now, there was a real chance to have more than a broken down saloon or endless journeys looking for customers. $500 could mean a new life—a life away from blood and dirt. A life where every man wore a suit and spoke like a gentleman. No matter what, Elias Crump would not let this chance pass him by.
A knock on the jail door jerked Elias Crump from the contemplations of his future as the door swung open to frame Millicent Tybald in the light.
"Brought ya somethin' to eat. 'Nough here for him too when he wakes up," Millie assured him as she looked around for a place to set the tray. The cot was the only piece of furniture in the room.
"Thank you, Miz Tybald. I didn't have a chance to eat this morning."
Millie's sharp eyes picked up the rather disheveled appearance of the liquor salesman. "Yur gonna ruin yur suit sittin' there like that. S'pect I kin let you use one of the chairs from the saloon. T'ain't like they're full."
"I would appreciate it, Miz Tybald. I would hate to see this suit destroyed."
Millie gestured towards the man on the cot. "He woke up at all?"
"Quieter 'n the grave."
The saloonkeeper shivered. "Mr. Crump, are you sure we're doin' the right thing?"
"Right? He killed his brother and father."
"We don't know that. He might just look like the drawin'," she pleaded. "I know it's his name on that poster, but you didn't get a look in them eyes of his. He's not the kind of man to kill."
Shrugging his broad shoulders, Crump's voice dropped, "Miz Tybald, any man or woman can be the kind to kill. You just have to find the key."
Handing over the tray to Crump, Millie walked over to the cot and knelt down beside Scott. "He's got a real nice voice. I can still hear him callin' me 'M'am' like he meant it, not just tryin' to fool some poor girl who woulda done anything to get out of a miserable town where her daddy treated her like dirt."
Crump said nothing as he filled his mouth with eggs, biscuits and coffee.
"I knew a man like that once. He even looked a bit like this one, but not as handsome. He talked 'bout rainbows and fancy places." Millie reached down to move the bandage slightly so she could touch the battered face in the darkness. "This one's got nice cheekbones, but they're hot from the sun. Don't think he goes out much without a hat with that fair skin. Wonder what he does."
he's really a Lancer, he must live on a big ranch up near
"What makes you say that? You know more 'n you been tellin' us?"
"Not really but I stopped in this saloon in Spanish Wells to see if they'd buy something. There was plenty of talk about that ranch and what happened there. What with the poster I put two and two together."
Millie backed up from the cot. "He just looks so young. I know he cain't be more 'n five years younger 'n me, but right now I feel old 'nough to be his mother."
"Miz Tybald, you've got a soft heart. . . ."
"Mr. Crump, if I ever had a soft heart, it hardened a long time ago. I just don't like thinkin' that a man with them face and manners could be so evil."
maybe he is innocent and once we get him to
"And if he cain't, they'll hang him. They'll stretch that smooth neck of his and them blue eyes will bulge in pain and terror as he feels the breath leave his body. Unless'n he's lucky 'n the hangman knows what he's doin' and there's nothin' but a sharp crack as he drops through that hole. Ain't a pretty way to die."
Crump stopped eating and took a deep breath. "There aren't many pretty ways to die, Miz Tybald."
"Gotta point there, Mr. Crump. T'ain't pretty watchin' the man you bedded with for two years gasp out his last breath while clutching at his chest and turnin' blue neither. One minute Jake Tybald was strong as a bull carryin' 'round barrels of beer; the next he's on the floor with the sawdust. Didn't even have time to tell him thank you for takin' me in, makin' me his wife, and for carin'."
"I'm sure he knew."
"Like to think so. He saved me from a terrible life. Not that I got so much now, but it coulda been worse."
"The $500 will give you a chance to have more."
The redheaded woman nodded. "I know and that's why I'm goin' along with this, but I still hope Mr. Lancer ain't guilty. Gotta be one gentleman still left in this world."
Crump flushed, unseen in the darkness. Wearily, he stood up. "Miz Tybald, would you mind staying here with the prisoner for a bit? I need to freshen up some. I'll take the tray back to the saloon."
"Guess I could do that. You sure he ain't gonna wake up, knock me over the head and escape?"
Grimly, Crump smiled. "You're the one who assured me you could take care of yourself, but I can ask Luke to take over if you're. . .frightened."
Millie flinched. "I ain't ascared. You just go on."
"Thank you. I can leave you my derringer if you like."
"No need, brought my six-shooter with me, just in case." Even in the dim light, Crump could see her grin.
"I have a feeling that this will be an interesting partnership, Miz Tybald."
"If we're gonna be partners, you kin call me Millie. . .Elias."
Crump smiled back at her. "I'll send Luke over in awhile. I know you want to get back to business."
"Much obliged. Don't trust my barkeep not to drink up the profits."
As soon as the liquor salesman left the small room, Millie moved back to the cot again. Gently, almost by touch, she wiped at Scott's flushed face. In a whisper she admonished the man lying there, "Don't be like Samuel. He was a real charmer. You got a strong face, not weak. Most men woulda screamed their heads off when Luke took out them splinters. Figure you've been hurt before." Carefully, she picked up one hand and held it.
The hot, dry hand in hers moved slightly. Her breath caught. "You awake, mister?"
"Ummmh." Scott's hand squeezed hers. "H-hurts."
"No wonder. Luke took six of them splinters out."
"N-not. . .not h-head."
"Didn't know you were hurt someplace else. Lemme turn up the lamp 'n I'll look."
Millie smiled in spite of herself. "No need to be 'barrassed. I was married fer two years and I seen more 'n you can imagine, mister."
"Nooo," he hissed. "Didn't. . .didn't kill Johnny. . .Murdoch."
Millie started to let go of the slim fingers. She had almost forgotten what the man was accused of. Scott gripped her hand as tightly as his limited strength would allow him. "Believe me, pl-please. H-heard what you said. Not evil."
"That's what Samuel said too. Feller you remind me of. Sweet talked me inta helpin' 'im then ran off. Knew I couldn't stay so I lit out and ended up here."
"With. . .Jake?"
"Good man Jake Tybald. Gave me a chance."
Scott raised himself slowly, panting in pain. "I need a chance. I need you to believe I didn't kill my. . . family. Didn't. . .didn't know they were. . .gone." The slim body slipped back down on the cot, his free hand covering his eyes.
"If that's true, mister, then you kin clear yurself when we git there."
"Not sure your. . . partner wants me to get there."
"Elias? He's not a bad man. Just got high-falutin' idees."
"Ideas like shooting me down so you all can collect the reward?"
"I won't let 'im. Don't you worry yurself 'bout that. You'll git back home."
"Home?" Scott closed his eyes as tightly as possible, trying to blot out the image of Lancer without his brother and father.
Suddenly the blue eyes fluttered open again with an intense gaze directed at the red-haired woman. Millie's heart beat speeded up as she recognized that maybe this man could kill and then the look was gone and only a vulnerable, injured man remained.
"M'am, could you send a t-telegram to the Lancer ranch in Morro Coyo? S-send it to Teresa O'Brien. I've got to know what happened."
"Land sakes, I don't s'pect we'll be here long 'nough to git a reply. I think Elias plans to pull out t'm'rrow."
"Please. I need to know if it's. . . true."
"I'll do it soon as Luke shows up," she promised.
"Don't . . .don't have money."
"Pay no mind to that. Mebbe it's all a mistake." Despite the $500, Millie suddenly realized that she hoped it was a mistake.
"Thanks." Suddenly exhausted, Scott closed his eyes again.
"Mister Lancer, you need ta eat somethin'. Gonna be a long ride."
There was no reply.
Five minutes later the door swung open to admit Luke Mitchell. "Here I am, Millie. Crump said you wuz here alone with that varmit. Don't know what he wuz athinkin' leavin' you alone like that."
"I was perfectly safe, Luke Mitchell. Now, I gotta go send a telegram if you think I can cross the street by myself!"
"Easy, Millie, who you gonna send the telegram to?"
of your business. Take
good care of Mr. Lancer now. Wouldn't
want him to get away 'fore we git him to
Dusty Springs did not boast a real telegraph shop, but being so isolated the citizens had persuaded one of its indigents to use his place as a spot for a key. He had served as a telegrapher during the War, but that hadn't stopped him from going west and starting a new life. Unfortunately, within a short amount of time, his old nemesis—booze—had taken over until he had ended up in Dusty Springs.
Weeze Jacobs needed little urging to send the telegram, despite the fact that he was still in his cot after a night of nursing a whiskey bottle. The small fee would pay for drink at the saloon later. Staring at the simple words that Millie had written out, Jacobs struggled to focus his bleary eyes on their meaning, but in the end he just sent it out as written. It wasn't until after Millicent Tybald had left that one of the words began to echo in his fogged-up mind.
That evening the three reward seekers held a meeting at the saloon. Crump, in particular, wanted to iron out the plans for their departure at dawn the next day. For once neither Millie nor Luke said a word but let the man have his say. It was only after his third drink from the whiskey bottle, which Millie had provided, that Luke felt comfortable enough to squeak out his objection to their leaving in the morning. "Ain't real sure we should go t'm'rrow. When I locked him in there t'night, he still seemed a might poorly. Ain't sure he kin ride that far."
"Are you saying he might die on us?" Crump demanded.
Luke rubbed at his grizzled chin. He hated shaving but he hated an itchy beard more. The dust would settle in it and then sweat would just add to the discomfort. Not that his job caused him to sweat all that much. "Don't think so but he took some whack 'n ya never kin tell with them sorta things. 'Member one feller what lived here got inna fight, hit his head 'n a coupla days later keeled over."
"Well, that's not going to happen here." Elias replied with certainty. "You've cleaned out the wound and he's strong. He'll make it. If we have to, we'll stop and give him a break on the road. I just want to get out of this miserable town."
Millie took a drink of her whiskey. "You ain't the only one who wants that, Elias, but maybe Luke's right. What's one more day?"
Crump's eyes narrowed as he took in the woman's painted appearance. "You got a soft spot for that feller, Millie? He's our ticket out of this hellhole and I don't fancy somebody trying to take him from us."
Luke glanced over at the woman and then back at the liquor salesman. "What's that mean? Nobody 'cept us knows 'bout the reward."
"I'm not so sure about that." Crump made a face as he took a drink of the whiskey he had sold to Millie. "We don't know for sure that whoever walloped him wasn't after the reward. Maybe he gave them the slip and they're still on his trail."
"Never thought o' that," Luke admitted.
"That's why I'm in charge of this venture," the younger man announced. Forestalling a protest by Millie, he continued, "Since I am the one who discovered the poster and informed both of you, I think it is only appropriate that if decisions are to be made, I should be the one to do so—after consulting with both of you, of course."
Sneering, Millie demanded, "'n I s'pose that means you git a bigger part of the reward?"
"Actually, I was thinking that I should take $300 and you two could split the rest, but. . .I am open to negotiations."
It was all Millie could do not to pour the bottle of rotgut over the arrogant man's head, but she was not a woman to waste anything just for the sake of a dramatic gesture. Curling her lips with all the disdain she felt, she leaned over so that only Crump and Mitchell could hear her words, "Like hell you are, Elias Crump! Me 'n Luke got a right to a bigger share a that money and you ain't cheatin' us."
Luke Mitchell nodded his head, his Adam's apple bobbing to the same rhythm.
"Oh dear, I was afraid you might be. . .difficult. Very well," Elias conceded, "I will settle for $200 and you can split the rest." His deep sigh could be heard across the room.
Millie smiled in victory. She hadn't expected him to give in so easily. Luke just sat there with a puzzled look on his face.
Crump poured Mitchell another glass of the dark liquor and said quietly, "That's $150, Luke. You can buy some new horses with that."
Luke's bewildered look cleared. Sums had never been his strong point. "That's mighty generous of you, Mr. Crump, considerin' we would never have known 'bout that feller if you hadn't seen that poster."
Preening with self-assurance, Crump merely replied, "Very true but I like to share good fortune and I know I can count on the two of you to be discreet."
Millie snorted, but said nothing more.
raised his shot glass in a toast, "To the author of our good
fortune, Mr. Lancer of
"Don't s'pect he sees it that way." Luke remarked. "Was right unhappy when I slammed that door shut and padlocked it."
Granite eyes with a just a sparkle in them moved from Luke to Millie and then the genteel voice slipped, "I don't give a damn. He's our ticket to a better life and don't neither of you forget it."
The abyss of darkness swallowed him whole, even as the grating of the key in the lock assaulted Scott's ears. Luke had taken the lamp with him so there was nothing to alleviate the blackness. Carefully, Scott reached out to touch the wall on his right side as a sliver of wood jabbed at his fingertips. Bringing the injured finger to his mouth, he could taste a slight coppery tang but paid no attention to the prickle of his flesh.
Endeavoring to pull himself into a sitting position, the young man gasped as vertigo attacked him. Fearing that he would fall head first from the cot, he lay down, holding on tightly to the two sides of the wooden frame until the sensation fled.
A cautious man by nature, Scott Lancer decided not to risk getting to his feet to search out his prison. What was there to find anyway, except the cot and a bucket in the corner. Luke had made sure to tell him about that before leaving.
Shivers overtook his slender body as the chill of evening deepened. No one had even thought to leave a blanket or even a glass of water although Luke had made sure that he drank something and had a couple of biscuits to eat. Unfortunately, the lard biscuits now lay heavily on his stomach, adding to the nausea that his attempt to sit up had caused.
Taking deep breaths, the easterner tried to will himself to sleep, much as he had done in similar circumstances while in solitary at Libby. Time passed much quicker in the escape of sleep, but sleep also left him vulnerable to nightmares. Since hearing about the supposed deaths of his father and brother, Scott had thought about little else—awake or not.
The injury to his head played havoc with his memories. He wasn't even sure how he had come to be injured, but one thing he could recall with ease was the fact that Murdoch and Johnny Lancer were very much alive the last time he had seen them.
The morning he had left Lancer, Johnny and Murdoch had been at odds over some supplies which the youngest Lancer had forgotten to pick up. Accusations had escalated until his dark-haired brother had stormed out of the hacienda, vowing not to return until Murdoch apologized. One look at the patriarch's face made Scott shudder. When Murdoch Lancer believed himself to be in the right, nothing could move him, not even the possible loss of his son.
Scott had offered to go after Johnny, but Murdoch had stiffly insisted that Scott should start his trip south. The deal he was to arrange would not wait for Scott to play peacemaker.
The young blond had flinched at his father's indifference, but had acquiesced. Perhaps this time the two stubborn men would make a more permanent effort to settle their differences if Scott didn't intervene. Now, that memory haunted him. The last time he had seen his father and brother there had only been words of anger and recrimination. If it was true that Murdoch and Johnny were dead then that image would remain with him for all time.
At dawn the door to the jail was unlocked. Luke entered carrying some food and coffee. Scott sniffed at the aroma eagerly. At that moment he felt it would be worth his soul for a sip of the hot, reviving brew.
"How ya feelin' this mornin'?"
"Better. I slept some and my head doesn't hurt quite so much," Scott assured him. "You did a good job."
"Shucks, t'weren't all that much. Figure you must've been wearin' a hat or you'd prob'ly be a lot worse off when you got hit."
"Hat? I usually wear a hat. I just don't know what happened to it." Scott blinked in the light coming in through the door that Luke had left open. He really wasn't all that thrilled with being shut in the darkness himself.
jest eat up now. I got
you a horse saddled 'n Millie and Crump'll
be along purty soon.
That Crump's all fired up to git
Scott stopped with the biscuit half way to his mouth. "I didn't kill anyone."
"Not surprised you'd say that. 'Sides it don't make no difference. The poster's got your face on it 'n your name. We turn you in and then let the law take care of it."
"I DID NOT KILL MY BROTHER AND FATHER!"
Luke sprang back as Scott staggered to his feet. "Now you jest hold it there, boy, or I'll stick you a good one." The knife in Mitchell's left hand appeared huge in the dim light. "I may be twice yur age, but this here blade evens things up so you sit down 'n eat and then we'll get on the trail."
Scott sank down onto the cot. "Please, you have to listen."
let the judge listen to you, Mr. Lancer—in
Scott didn't bother to look up. He knew it was the country dandy talking from the doorway.
"Let's go. Luke, you tie his hands in front of him so he can ride. Millie's waiting for us outside the saloon."
"Right ya are. Don't give me no trouble now or you'll be real sorry," Luke growled at the prisoner.
Scott thrust his hands forward to be tied and then followed Crump out the door with Mitchell behind him. The short walk brought them to the saloon where Millie waited, sitting on her horse. She rode astride instead of sidesaddle, due to the ingenious splitting of one of her oldest outfits, which had then been stitched to form a riding skirt.
The blond tried to smile at the woman, despite the light-headed feeling running through him.
Millie smiled back. "Mornin', Mr. Lancer. Hope yur up to ridin'."
"It looks like I'll have to be, M'am, unless you have some good news for me?"
"Sorry, Mr. Lancer, cain't say I have, leastways none that you want to hear."
Mitchell boosted Scott up onto the horse and the journey began.
The party of four had been on the road for over an hour before Millicent Tybald made her way to Scott's side. "Mr. Lancer, 'm real sorry, but I checked with Weeze jest before I left. T'weren't no reply to yur telegram."
From under the wide brim of his hat Scott mumbled, "I surmised as much from what you said. I suppose it was too much to expect that Teresa would answer so fast."
Millie grimaced. "Sorry, 'bout that hat. Jake had a much bigger head 'n liked 'em big."
The hat, which Luke had simply smashed down on the fair head, had tilted forward so that it was difficult for the blue eyes to see clearly. Scott had tried to adjust it but with his hands tied it had proven impossible to get it to the angle he preferred. "Doesn't matter, Millie. It's better than going without."
"Guess so," she conceded, but if I ain't bein' nosy jest who's this Teresa."
"My father's ward. She's like my sister. If. . .if something truly did happen to Murdoch and Johnny then she'd tell me."
"Real nice ya got a family. Ain't got nobody myself, not since Jake keeled over."
Hesitantly, Scott remarked, "I haven't known Johnny and Murdoch very long. I'd hate to lose them so suddenly."
"Say, how come you call yur pa by his name?"
"We didn't know each for most of my life so it didn't seem right to call him Father."
"Hated my father. He was a real bastard. Hit me 'n my two sisters. Drove 'em away 'cause he said they were sinful. Never had no brothers. Mebbe they'd a stuck up for us girls."
Scott smiled. "Johnny's the protective type. Of course, it helps that he's so good with a gun. Doesn't seem to be afraid of anything."
"Yur fond of 'im, ain't you?"
Scott started to nod but the hat slipped forward, cutting off his sight. Abruptly, he brought the horse to a stop. That brought an immediate reaction from the two men who were riding right behind who rode up level with the others. "Get movin', Lancer, warned ya not to try anythin'."
"Shut up, Luke Mitchell, cain't ya see that hat is ablindin' him? Let me shove it back and we kin move on." Millie moved over to adjust the brim.
"Don't git too close to 'im, Millie. Never know what he might do!"
Glaring at her partner, she snarled, "He cain't ride like that. He'll fall off 'n break his neck."
"Jest save the hangman the trouble, hehehe!"
Crump gave the older man a strange look. "Let's move on. I want to get as far as we can today before we have to stop for the night."
The foursome continued on until it was obvious that Scott needed a break, his face pale and drawn underneath the hat which persisted in shifting forward. Crump helped him down from the gray horse and then led him into the bushes so that he could have some privacy.
It took Luke only a short time to get a fire going and a pot of coffee made so they were soon enjoying the hot beverage. Luke glanced over at Millie who sat apart from the three men. "T'ain't too much fer ya, is it, Millie? If''n it is, I'll pick up yur share o' the reward 'n you can ride back to Dusty Springs."
Millie's chin came up. "The day I cain't out ride you, Luke, they'll be plantin' daisies over me. I'm fine. Jest been awhile since I been on horseback this long."
"Yeah, s'pect my bottom's gettin' a callous. You must be hurtin' too, Crump, fancy dan like you."
"I ride a great deal from town to town," Elias announced with a superior air. "I'm well-versed in equestrian skills."
"Wuz you in the cav'lry durin' the War?"
Crump's eyes shifted to the horizon. "Uh, no, I didn't have the means to purchase my own horse at that time. I was a lowly foot soldier."
"What regiment?" Scott asked quietly.
"I assume you served in a regiment since you weren't an officer doing staff work?"
yes of course. I.
. . this heat is becoming oppressive, I wasn't thinking
Crump mopped at his brow with a snow-white handkerchief as he
frantically tried to remember the names of the some of the regiments
he had heard of. "Actually,
I changed regiments a couple of times.
Had a run in with a snooty lieutenant who thought he was
Generals Grant and
"Oh, you knew Phil Sheridan?"
I can't say I knew him personally.
A lowly private doesn't mix with a general after all, but I
was there when he made his famous ride from
I was in a Confederate prison then but I thought that
"I know HE was."
bit back his answer and rose to his feet.
"Enough talk about ancient history.
on. I'm sure you can
impress the sheriff at
The rest of the day's ride was conducted mostly in silence. Crump's glares at Scott's hunched over back grew blacker and blacker. He didn't like being shown up at the best of times.
That night over the campfire, Scott sat silently listening to his three captors talk about what they intended to do with the reward money they collected. In some ways their words reminded him of those he had heard from his fellow prisoners at Libby, but there it hadn't been money, but freedom that was so eagerly sought. Thirty pieces of silver or $500 or escape--every man had his price. Slowly, an idea began to take shape in his tired brain.
As the fire began to die down, Crump insisted that it was time for sleep as he wished to be on the road at first light. The next day was much the same although Crump was careful to curtail any conversation during the brief stops. He continued to push until both Luke and Millie began to complain about exhaustion. Reluctantly, he gave in as darkness fell.
hurried meal was all that the four hungry people managed that night
and the next morning as Crump kept them
moving. Stops were few
and far between as Scott's strength returned.
It was obvious that the liquor salesman intended to push his
partners and his prisoner until they arrived at
However, Crump reckoned without Millicent Tybald. That night they camped early because of a nearby small creek. Tired of feeling dirty, she demanded the time to take a wash and make a dinner of more than jerky and some dried fruit. Luke volunteered to go out and look for some kind of prey so that they could roast it over the fire. Fresh meat would lift all their spirits.
A savory aroma reached Millie's nose upon her return from the creek as her mouth began to water. "Umm, smells good, Luke."
Luke Mitchell looked up at the young woman. He was startled to see her without any of the usual rouge she put on her lips and face.
Seeing the look on this face, she giggled, "Too hot to put on all that stuff. Feels good to be clean."
"Makes ya look younger, Millie. Should leave it off all the time."
"Aw, Luke, a saloonkeeper's gotta look the part. 'Sides a woman's got a right to purty herself up."
"You don't need paint to do that, Millie."
The woman looked over at Scott. "That's real nice of you, mister, but I know what I look like after bein' in Dusty Springs all these years. If Jake Tybald saw me now, he wouldn't asked me to stay. That's why I gotta get out of that town 'fore I end up dyin' there."
"There are other ways of doing that without turning me in for the reward." Scott's voice was very quiet, but it caught the attention of the three people sitting opposite him.
"Jest what might that be, mister?" Luke Mitchell practically licked his lips.
you take me to Lancer instead of
Crump's chest rumbled with laughter. "You must think we're fools."
"You’d be fools not to listen to me. I'm one-third owner of a 100,000 acre ranch. My life is certainly worth more than $1500 to me. All I need is the chance to find out if it's true that my. . .father and brother are dead. If they're not, and it's all a mistake, I'm still willing to pay you for helping me to go home. If. . .if they are dead then I want time to prove that I am not responsible."
"Oh sure and in the meantime you escape and we're out the $500!" Crump argued.
"Mr. Crump, Lancer is my home. If my brother and father have been killed then I want to find out why and see that the perpetrators are punished. I have no intention of running."
"Not even to save your neck?"
took a deep breath. "There
are only four people who mean anything to me, my grandfather in
"Now why would a big landowner have all that many enemies?"
"Why don't you jest listen, Elias? I'm thinkin' the man's makin' sense here."
"You would, Millie. I've seen you talking to him. Has he convinced you he's innocent?"
One of Millie's eyebrows arched. "He ain't convinced me of nothin', but $500 is a sight more than the $150 we'd get by turnin' him in. What would it hurt to take him to his ranch first?"
"Use your brain, Millie, he might have cohorts there who'd just shoot us down."
"If he's got friends who'd do that then why didn't they jest cover for him in the first place? Why'd he end up in Dusty Springs with a hole in his head?"
"That's a very good point, Millie," Scott coolly replied. "I wish I knew the answer to that question. All I remember is that I was riding south on a business trip for my father. The next thing I do recall is your saloon, but I assure you Johnny and Murdoch were alive when I left them."
"You wuz sayin' that yur brother's got lots of enemies? Mebbe one of 'em killed yur kin?" Luke liked the sound of having $500 in his pocket.
Scott took a drink of his coffee. "He used to be known as Johnny Madrid. There are still those who'd like to kill him."
"Johnny Madrid? Your brother was a gunfighter?"
"Before he came to live at Lancer."
"Seems to me a man like that wouldn't be easy to catch by surprise although he might let a brother get the drop on him," Crump suggested.
"I did not kill either Johnny or my father!"
"But you have killed men, haven't you?"
"During the War, yes."
"So it doesn't seem impossible that you could kill again. 100,000 acres would tempt any man."
"Are you speaking from experience, Mr. Crump? Just how many men have you killed?"
Elias flushed. "We're not talking about me. You forget I saw that poster. Someone certainly believes that you did kill your father and brother. Why shouldn't we?"
Scott dropped his eyes for a moment and then raised them to look at each of his captors. "I swear to you that I did not kill my father or brother. I'm willing to gamble on the fact that you want $500 more than you want to see me swing. If you agree to take me to Lancer first, you'll get your money—guaranteed."
"Mr. Crump, you said you wuz gonna make the decisions after talkin' to Millie 'n me. Well, I say we give this feller his chance. We can still turn him in if he's lyin' and I want that money!"
The woman just nodded in reply to Crump's question.
"Very well, Mr. Lancer, you'll have your opportunity,
but only one chance. If
things don't work out the way you want, you'll find yourself sitting
Scott's offer bore fruit the next morning when Luke made sure that their prisoner had an extra share of the breakfast, retied his hands less tightly than before and even gave him a boost onto the horse. Scott appreciated the gesture, especially since the ropes had begun to rub at his wrist, but he knew that it wouldn't take much for Luke or Crump to revert to their usual ways. He understood that his two male captors had little concern for his innocence or guilt while Millie's attitude was more puzzling. Her offer to send the telegram had given him hope that she was leaning towards believing him to be innocent; but in the time they had been on the trail, she had distanced herself from the blond although she obviously was willing to take the $500.
As the scenery began to change towards the more familiar country near Lancer, Scott found himself imagining what might have happened at the ranch while he was riding south. The only reality of that last day at Lancer had been the anger between father and son with Scott standing on the sidelines. Ironically, that had been the case almost from their first day at Lancer. The animosity between Murdoch and Johnny over the youngest Lancer's dealings with Pardee had only been the beginning. The relationship between the three Lancers, forged with bullets and blood, had grown slowly as they had struggled to learn about each other, but unfortunately, unanswered questions and fiery tempers had added to the struggle. Still, as long as Murdoch and Johnny were alive, Scott had hope that the two men would put aside their pride and stubbornness. If they were dead, the future seemed as dark as the Dusty Springs jail.
"Say, Mister Lancer, did you say yur brother's name is Johnny Madrid?" Scott looked over at Mitchell who had pulled up to ride along side the gray.
"He used to go by that name, but he uses Lancer now."
alotta stories 'bout him down in the
border towns. Some
feller came through Dusty Springs and we got to talkin'.
He even bought me a drink.
Said he saw
Scott's face tightened, "Johnny only shoots in self-defense."
"Oh sure, sure, but it don't take much to trick some young feller with no brains inta drawin' first, do it? Jest need alotta patience and knowin' what to do."
"Johnny's not a killer. Maybe he did hire out sometimes, but only to help those who needed it."
"'Course you'd know him better 'n me. Him bein' yur brother 'n all."
"Actually, I haven't known him very long, but I trust him."
"Now, ain't that nice?" Mitchell almost purred. "Trouble is once a man gets a taste fer killin', cain't see it bein' all that easy to give it up."
"Johnny isn't most men."
"Jest like you, I s'pose? Cain't figger why a man like you would kill his kin. Maybe a third of that big ranch ain't enough for ya?"
"I did not kill anyone. I told you that," Scott's head wound began to ache again.
"I know what you told us, but me 'n Crump wuz atalkin'. He figgers you offerin' us the money is jest a trick ta git us to believe yur innocent. 'Course it don't make me no mind long as I git the money."
"I'm sure of that, Mr. Mitchell. That's one of the reasons I made the offer. I wanted to make sure that I arrive in one piece."
"Crump never said nothin' bout collectin' the money if you wuz dead. 'Sides, I ain't the type to jest kill a man in cold blood."
"Maybe you're not, but I'm not sure about your partner. What if he left out that small proviso?"
"You mean he planned to kill ya and jest turn in yur body?"
"Yeah but then why bring us along?" he questioned.
Because you wouldn't be left behind," Scott replied "Maybe I'm wrong and Crump isn't that nefarious, but I decided not to take a chance. Just remember that you won't receive the $500 unless I am alive when we get to Lancer."
Mitchell tipped his hat to the young man. "You bet yur life, I'll remember. Got plans fer that money."
"That's exactly what I am betting, Mr. Crump—my life. I need to know what happened at Lancer. Hopefully, it's all a mistake, but if it isn't then I am determined to find out the truth."
"Mitchell! Ride up ahead and see if there's a place to make camp!" Both Scott and Luke pulled to a halt. They hadn't noticed Crump's closing the distance.
"Too early ta make camp, ain't it?" Luke groused.
"Miz Tybald's not feeling good. She needs to rest for a bit."
"Okay, I'll go look. Could use a cup of coffee, I s'pose." With a flick of the reins, he trotted on ahead.
"So, Mr. Lancer, you believe that I intended to kill you and then just collect the reward?"
"It had crossed my mind," the blond coolly assured him.
"Well, I suppose it makes sense—if the poster had stated 'Dead or Alive', but it didn't."
"I have only your word for it and I'm not so sure your word is worth much."
flushed. "And I'm
supposed to take your word that you didn't kill your father and
brother, just because you're some kind of war hero, I suppose?"
Scott's eyes narrowed. "Oh, don't give me that look.
I know you were trying to show me up with all that talk about
"I don't think you're a fool, just greedy."
Crump smirked, "Well, you're right about that. I need that money. I'm sick of riding around from town to town, scratching together a few dollars. This is my chance and I won't let anything ruin it."
"Not even the fact that I'm innocent?"
"Hell, I don't care if you're up for sainthood! In fact, I enjoy seeing a man like you squirm."
"I don't understand."
"No, you wouldn't. It's obvious that you've always had a good life. You've got money, looks, a big ranch and a family. You have no idea what it's like to have nothing, to be nothing but a man who needs to pretend, to always be afraid. Well, $500 can give a man lots of courage."
"You're not the only man to have grown up with nothing."
Crump chortled with laughter. "Like Johnny Madrid? Oh I heard you talking about him with Mitchell. I don't suppose it ever occurred to you that he might have killed your pa and took off? He could even have had that poster put out so you'd take the blame. Killers don't change their spots all that easily."
"I don't believe that!" the blond argued.
"Even if it means you'd get the whole ranch? Just think 100,000 acres and all yours. Of course, you'd have to prove you didn't kill them. That might not be so easy to do."
"Get to the point, Crump. If you've got something on your mind, say it!"
"All right, I will. As I see it, you need someone to prove it that you didn't kill your kin. For $5000, I'm willing to swear that you couldn't have done it."
"And just how would you know that?"
"Simple. Soon as we find out when your kin died, I swear you were with me out on the trail. I get around a lot and nobody seems to notice my coming and going. Believe me I can be very persuasive when I want to be."
"And just how did I end up in Dusty Springs with a hole in my head?"
"Simple again. We split up and you were attacked by bandits. When you woke up you found yourself in Dusty Springs and we were reunited."
"And what about Luke and Millie? Aren't they going to be suspicious?"
soon as we arrive at your ranch, you pay them their money and then
they'll leave. You
don't think they'll stick around to see you brought to trial, do
you? Then the two of us
will ride into
"Fancy name but what do you care if it clears you?"
"And how do I know you won't come back for more?"
"I'll sign a statement to that effect."
"And I'm supposed to take your. . .word."
"Mr. Lancer, as soon as I get the money, I intend to head east. I don't ever want to see this God-forsaken land again."
Scott's blue eyes shuttered over for a moment. "Let me think it over. We won't arrive at Lancer for another day or two."
"Fine but once we get to your ranch, the deal's off and you take your chances with the law. Now, I believe I see Luke riding towards us so I think it's time to make camp and see to Millie's needs."
The view of Lancer in the late morning sunlight was breathtaking against the background of snow-topped mountains. Even the cynical Elias Crump was impressed. This was the type of house he could see for himself as lord of the manor, but even $5000 wouldn't be enough for a home like Lancer.
Hands still tied in front of him, Scott Lancer perused the faces of his three captors. It was obvious that all of them looked upon their destination as the pot at the end of the rainbow. For Scott himself, there was only doubt and confusion. Terror filled his slender body at what he might find at the end of this road. Straightening his shoulders, the Lancer scion kneed his horse into movement. The last act had begun.
None of the four riders broke into a gallop, despite their anxiety. In fact, Millie held herself to a walk. She had been exceedingly quiet during the last part of the journey. Scott had tried to talk with her, but she had avoided him as much as possible, letting Crump and Elias do what was required for their prisoner. What had begun in Dusty Springs would end in this alien place.
Halting in front of the familiar house, Scott struggled to dismount as Crump and Mitchell tied up their horses. Suddenly, the wooden door open and a young woman emerged, running to fling her arms around Scott. "Scott, you're home! Are you all right? We were so afraid!"
Scott raised his arms to encircle the small woman as he whispered, "I'm fine. What. . .what about Murdoch and. . . .?"
Before he could finish his question, a tall gray-haired man, followed by a shorter dark-haired man emerged from the hacienda. "Scott, glad to see you back. We've wondered about what happened."
For an instant, confusion reigned in the blond's mind, but then a huge grin broke out on his dirty, bearded face. "Good to see you, too, sir. I was. . .concerned."
Murdoch Lancer glanced at the shorter man at his side. "So I understand. Something about a poster, I believe."
Scott's eyes dropped. "Yes, the poster. I don't understand why my face would be on a poster."
The dark-haired man with the craggy face moved forward to stand near the blond. "I suppose it's got somethin' to do with the reason you're tied up like this?" With a quick flick of a knife the ropes dropped away.
Scott nodded. "Why are you here, Val? Is it something to do with Johnny?"
"Johnny?" Murdoch interrupted. "We thought he went after you. You mean you haven't seen him?"
"Of course I haven't seen him! I thought he was dead! I thought you were dead until you walked out that door!" the middle Lancer protested.
It was then that Elias Crump made his presence known. "Mr. Lancer, I'm sure you're happy to discover that your father is alive, but my compatriots and I would like to be off so could we have our money and then we shall leave you alone."
Murdoch gazed from the man in the suit to the other man and woman. "Who are these people and why do you owe them money?"
Teresa, this is Elias Crump, and that's Luke Mitchell. The
lady is Millicent Tybald.
I agreed to pay them money if they would bring me here
instead of taking me into
"Just a minute!" Val Crawford quickly walked over to Millie's side. "I received a telegram from a Millie Tybald, sayin' that she was bringin' you in for a reward, seein' as how you killed Murdoch and Johnny. Was out of town so I didn't actually get it 'til late last night. Rode out here to ask your pa what it was all about."
Scott turned slowly to face Millie, his blue eyes ablaze with disappointment. "No wonder you didn't receive a reply to the telegram."
Millie bit her lower lip. "'m real sorry, Mr. Lancer. I jest couldn't lose that money."
"So, Miz Tybald, you wanted to sway the good sheriff here into believing that you were solely responsible for the capture of our desperado here? Tsk, tsk! And I thought you were a lady." Crump arched an eyebrow at the woman.
"Well, you ain't no gentleman, Elias Crump. You're nothin' but a phony and don't think I don't know about yur tryin' to sell me 'n Luke out."
"Dear lady, you must be suffering from the sun. My share is $500 just as yours is."
Murdoch gasped aloud. "$500? Are you crazy, Scott? You'd pay these. . .these people $500 to bring you back to Lancer?"
Quietly, Scott replied, "I would have used my own money, Murdoch. I thought it was worth that to get home, to make sure that you and Johnny were. . .all right."
"Yeah, but, Scott, all this don't make sense. There wasn't no poster, no reward that I know about."
"I know, Val, but Mr. Crump wanted me to think there was. He enlisted the aid of Luke and Millie to bring me in, supposedly for the reward."
"So you've figured it out, Mr. Lancer? It took you long enough." Crump pulled out his derringer. "Now, I would like the money you owe me, all $5000 of it and then I'll be on my way. This gun is small, but it would put a nice round hole between that lovely young lady's brown eyes." His lips sneered even as the small gun gestured towards Teresa.
"I don't intend to pay you $5000 or even $500. Whatever I told you was to insure that you brought me to Lancer. You see I finally remembered how I was injured. You should have killed me then."
Crump paled slightly as his hand shook. "You're right, I should have, but who'd have thought a man like you would have made it out of that desert to Dusty Springs? When you didn't recognize me, I thought I was home free."
"I'm sure you were annoyed when you found I didn't have more than a few dollars in my pockets." Scott gave him a careful smile.
"I was a tad upset, but I thought I could recoup when I gulled Luke and Millie into believing the story about the poster. It almost worked too."
"But you outsmarted yourself when you tried for the $5000!"
"Have I, Mr. Lancer? Perhaps you might consider your brother's life worth $5000?"
All eyes were on the man in the light gray suit, his derringer not wavering from Teresa's face.
"What have you done with my son?" the tall rancher demanded.
"Oh, he's fine—right now. Some friends of mine are taking good care of him. Once I get the money, he'll be released."
Scott's shoulders slumped. "All right, I'll get the money. It's in the house."
"Fine. Little lady, you come over nearer me. Luke, you go in the house with him and make sure he doesn't try anything."
Mitchell just stood there, fear freezing him into place. "Crump, I never agreed to this. . ."
"Shut up and do as I say if you want your share!" ordered his cohort.
Reluctantly, Luke complied, placing the tip of his knife against Scott's back. "Let's git the money, Mr. Lancer."
Suddenly, a small object flew in Crump's direction. Instinctively ducking, Crump took his eyes off Teresa. Scott wasted no time in tackling the man, who dropped the small gun. Fists flying, Scott pummeled the man under him, not letting up until he heard the sobbing pleas for mercy. Pulling Elias to his feet, the blond shook him until his loose tooth fell from the bloody mouth. "Where's Johnny? Tell me and I won't kill you!"
"My s-suit, it's. . .it's ruined," Crump slurred through the split lip.
Scott ignored the blood-spattered man's lament. "I don't give a damn about your clothes or you. I want to know where my brother is!"
Staring down at his ripped jacket, Crump seemed to crumple in front of them. "He. . .he's not far. There's an old ranch east of here, the Double B. Two men are watching him."
Scott shoved the man towards Murdoch. "You watch him. Val, let's go get Johnny!"
Val Crawford and Scott Lancer halted their horses at some distance from the ramshackle house known as the Double B. Horace Barker had tried to make a go of the small ranch for over a year, but had finally given up, selling off his horses and moving on. The house had stood empty for over six months.
Moving quietly up to one of the windows at the back of the cabin, Val could just see inside. What he saw reassured him that they were in the right place—and put a huge grin on his face. Gesturing for Scott to move back so they could speak, Val grabbed one of Scott's arms. "He's in there all right, just like Crump said. There's two fellers with 'im who look kinda familiar. Mighta seen 'em at Maude's."
"Do they have a gun on Johnny?" Scott inquired.
"Matter 'o fact, no, they're playin' cards, but Johnny 'ppears to be tied up good 'n tight. Plus they took his pants with the silver thingamabobs and his boots. S'pect they figured he wouldn't try to escape like that."
Scott nodded. "Right. Then I'll go in through the door and you can follow me. If we're fast enough, we should catch them by surprise."
"Fine with me, 'cept I'll go in first. I am the law." Crawford's lined face showed his resolve.
"And he's my brother," the blond quietly asserted.
"That's why you should get over to where he's at as fast as you can. Make sure they don't try to use him as a hostage. I'll take care of the two yahoos. One of 'em don't look old enough to shave!"
Reluctantly, Scott agreed. He knew that Johnny's life was important to Val too.
The plan went perfectly as Crawford lay his gun upside the head of the one man who tried to pull his 6-shooter while the younger man just dropped his cards and startled to babble about his innocence. Holstering his gun, Scott walked over to the corner where Johnny sat in the corner, bound and gagged.
Stifling a smile at his brother's precarious position, Scott removed the gag from the younger man's and gently jibed, "Having problems, brother?"
Johnny flushed as he demanded, "Get me my pants! Those bastards put 'em somewhere!"
walked over, tentatively hold the
missing breeches in one hand.
"This what you're lookin'
Johnny glowered at his two rescuers, muttering and mumbling as Scott cut away the ropes. Grabbing the pants from Val, he tugged them on and then began to search for his boots. Fortunately, they were on the feet of the man who Val had clubbed into insensibility. Johnny pulled them off and thrust his own feet into the leather. Gazing down at one of his captors, he spit out, "Now see how you like it!" The effect was ruined by the fact that the man was out cold.
By the time Johnny's holster and gun had been located, the man without boots was coherent enough to be loaded on his horse while the other prisoner, Billy Taylor quietly went along with whatever was asked of him. He was clearly terrified that Johnny would want revenge on his captors.
Riding together with Johnny in the middle and the two prisoners in front of them, the three men began the short trek back to Lancer so that Val could pick up their cohorts.
Still stiff from being tied up, the youngest Lancer reveled in stretching his muscles and having Barranca under him again. They had gone about a half mile when Val decided to chance his hand at finding out just how his friend had found himself in such a predicament. "You gonna tell us how they latched onto you, Johnny, or am I gonna have to pry it out of you?"
The dark-haired Lancer glanced over at his brother who seemingly evinced no interest, except for a strange look in his blue eyes. "Not sure I should tell you," Johnny admitted. Never let me live it down, but I s'ppose you got a right to know since you came after me. Took you long enough though!"
Val sneezed and then wiped at his nose. "Sorry 'bout that, we've had some trouble of own."
"Sure you did," Johnny replied sarcastically. "I had to sit tied up like that most of the time. The food was terrible, the water barely drinkable and I think I'm gonna be hunchbacked!"
Val glanced over at Scott and rolled his eyes. "So why don't you just vent your spleen 'n tell us what happened!"
after I left the ranch, I rode into
"Knew I'd seen 'em at Maude's," Val remarked.
"That's not the only place you mighta seen 'em. They worked at Lancer for a coupla days."
"At Lancer? I don't remember seeing them before," Scott interjected.
were only there for a coupla days,
"Sounds like they were no great loss," Scott mused.
"Got that right, but for some reason they reckoned Murdoch should be made to pay for cheatin' 'em out of their money. All I know for sure is that I had a few drinks at Maude's and then I started back to the livery stable to pick up Barranca. They must have followed me 'cause the next thing I heard was this noise and then I woke up flat on the ground 'n tied up. They flung me over Barranca's saddle and brought me out to that cabin. Ribs are still sore from all that jouncin' around."
"They intended to hold you for ransom," Val suggested.
"Yeah, I had that figured out from what they let slip while playin' cards. Strange thing is they seemed to be waiting for somethin'. Neither of them stirred from the minute we got to that cabin."
"I think I know what they were waiting for," Scott quietly asserted.
"And just what might that be?" the youngest Lancer demanded.
"The third man at the table was Elias Crump. I think he persuaded these ex-ranch hands of yours to grab you and put you somewhere safe while he went after bigger game."
Johnny snorted, "What makes you say that?"
Scott tilted his hat back on his head. It felt good to have his own hat back after wearing the too-large one for many days. "I'm not really sure about all the facts. I can only guess at some of this, but I'm positive that Elias Crump is at the bottom of what happened to both of us."
"Then he's a dead man! Soon as I get somethin' to eat and get cleaned up, I'm goin' after him."
clapped one hand on his friend's arm.
"No need for that, amigo, Elias Crump is waitin'
for us at Lancer right now. I'm
gonna take these two we just caught 'n
"I'm coming with you, Val," Scott announced.
"No need for that, Scott. You look kinda rough so why don't you get some rest and. . . ."
"I said I was coming with you. There are some things I need to find out from Crump as well as Mitchell and Millie."
Crawford didn't bother to argue. He knew Scott was not as tempestuous as Johnny, but he was equally stubborn.
"What about me?" Johnny protested.
"Teresa said she was going to make a chocolate cake while we were gone. I'll bet it's ready by now. And frankly, brother, you could use a long soak in the tub. Val and I can handle the prisoners and you can use some of Murdoch's tender, loving care." Scott hid his smirk behind one gloved hand.
"The only thing Murdoch gives tender, loving care to is a sick mare. Still, I think a hot bath and chocolate cake sound good. A little charm and Teresa'll make me anything I want."
Val started coughing violently. When his friend looked at him with suspicious eyes, the lawman meekly answered, "Sorry. Must be all this dust."
Johnny's welcome at Lancer was definitely warm and threatened to delay their departure, but finally Scott and Val were able to get on the road with their five prisoners. Teresa had allowed Millie to clean up some, but other than that the faces of the three Dusty Springs captives were still sullen with anger and fear.
Elias Crump certainly looked nothing like the dandy who had so arrogantly declared that Scott's face was the one that matched the drawing on the poster. Now his swollen eye, split lip and ripped clothing spoke of a beaten man, not the gentleman of leisure he had so hoped to be. At one point in the ride, Scott moved up to speak with the man out of the hearing of the others. There were things he needed to know for himself. His ordeal as well as the fear that he Johnny and Murdoch might truly be dead had unnerved him much more than he cared to admit. Answers to his questions might help him regain control of himself.
first Crump refused to answer any question, but with some measured
prodding he confirmed what Scott had guessed.
By the time Crump, Taylor and Stanley were in the cells at
Leaving Val in charge of the three prisoners, Scott led his two ex-captors over to Maude's for a drink and a frank discussion. After sitting down at the table with a bottle of whiskey and three shot glasses in front of them, Scott leaned back in his chair and then coolly glanced first at Luke and then at Millie. "So here we are," he intoned.
Luke took a hurried drink of his whiskey. "Jest how come we ain't in that jail with with Crump 'n t'others, Mr. Lancer?"
"By all rights you should be, Luke. Crump told me how he promised you more money if you'd go along with his plan."
"I. . .I admit I wanted the money, but I didn't know he had grabbed yur brother. Honest I didn't. He just told me to talk you up 'bout yur brother, git you to thinkin' he mighta had some thing to do with all of this. Thought you'd play along if it was yur kin what was guilty. Didn't know the poster was fake 'n he said we could git lots more money outta you. I don't hold with killin', jest thought I git a share of a rich man's money. Man like you wouldn't even miss $1,000!" the frightened man rambled.
"Except he was offered $5000, wasn't he?"
Luke nodded, his hands shaking as he picked up his glass again. "Yeah, the bastard tried to tell me we could get more 'n the $500 each. He jest used me 'n Millie."
"Ah yes, Mrs. Tybald. You appear to be the one who was left out of this. Why is that, do you suppose?"
Millicent Tybald blanched under her makeup. "Jest say what you got to say, Mr. Lancer. I admit to wantin' the money, but that's it."
"As well as sending the telegram to Sheriff Crawford, saying that you personally were bring me in to collect the reward."
"I already said I did that. Jest coverin' my. . . ." The pale cheeks turned pink. "Woman's gotta look out fer herself when she's all alone."
"But you weren't part of Crump's plan to kill me or kidnap my brother?"
"Kill you? What are you talkin' 'bout?
"Crump admitted he trailed me so that he could ambush me. He thought I was carrying a great deal of money. When I stopped overnight, he rode on ahead and set up an ambush, pretending to be injured. I stopped to help him and he answered my concern with a tree branch. He ransacked my bags and found very little since I was on a selling trip. He left me in the desert to die, but I fooled him and showed up in Dusty Springs. When I didn't remember him, he hatched a new plan."
"That don't make sense. Elias didn't have the nerve to try somethin' like that!" Millie breathed in disbelief.
"On the contrary, his need for money to start his new life gave him the courage. He had already paid two men to grab my brother. Those two men had a grudge against Lancer so they were more than willing to give him information and go along with whatever he wanted, but he decided to go after me himself. When I turned up alive, he figured that my loss of memory could be just what he needed to convince me that I was wanted for murder. Once I did remember that he was my attacker, I decided to go along with him in order to find out what he intended to do."
"You took a big chance, didn't ya?"
really. It was pretty
obvious that he was trying to string out the journey.
He wanted me to offer him money to delay going to
For the first time Millicent took a drink of her whiskey. "So what happens now?"
Scott took some money from his shirt pocket. "Luke, this is for you. That and the horses we rode on from Dusty Springs might give you a new start. I won't press charges against you if you take it and go right now. I never want to see you in this area again." The cold blue eyes brooked no argument.
Eagerly, the older man nodded and kept nodding. "Sure, sure, Mr. Lancer. That's real nice of you. I won't ever come back. Thank you." Not even glancing at Millie or Scott, he hurried out of the saloon.
Millie's lips tightened. "Why'd you do that? He woulda helped Crump out there at the ranch."
"I know, but I only gave him $10. If he sells those horses, he might have enough to start over. He's no longer my problem."
"Yur a strange man. Most folks'd jest have him locked up."
"I'm not most men. Desperation can lead a man to do ugly things. Let's just say, I'm grateful that I've never been as desperate as Luke."
From his other pocket Scott took out a larger wad of money. He handed it to Millie who counted out the bills. "$100? You'd give me that much after what I tried to do?"
"No, Millie. I'm giving you the money for what you did do. I saw you throw that small pot of rouge at Crump. That was all the diversion I needed to jump him."
Millie smiled at the man. "I. . .I just felt it in my pocket. Couldn't let him hurt you or yur brother. Gentleman like you needs his family."
appreciate that. There's
a stage out of here early tomorrow.
It goes all the way to
"Is there. . .is there a stage to Dusty Springs?"
The blond blinked in surprise. "I imagine so, but why would you want to go back there?"
"Left some of my stuff there. Things Jake gave me. Need to settle my past, 'fore I kin start a future."
A small smile crossed the firm lips. "It's your money, go wherever you like."
"Thanks and good luck to you, Mr. Lancer. You're a fine man." Millie rose to her feet, making her way out the door. The stagecoach office was just down the street.
Scott sat there quietly for a long moment then took a drink of the whiskey which remained in his glass. Forcing himself to his feet, he decided to spend the night in town. He would go over to the bath house for a long soak and a shave. His body ached and his beard's itchiness was driving him crazy. After his bath, he'd go out for a good meal and then get some sleep at the small hotel. Breathing in the cool night air, Scott stood under the stars reveling in his freedom.