He could see death hours before he found it – all he had to do was look up. Buzzards. They’d been a ways off, but there was no mistaking how they flew; dipping, weaving. They were watching from the heavens, damned hell birds. Flying lazy and slow, but biding their time. Riding closer, he could see a few holding in the sky. The younger birds, lower down the pecking order, were waiting for the older buzzards to have their fill.
Johnny hated them. Skin pickers – that’s what he called them. They’d trailed his bones a time or two in his fighting days. He didn’t know what he hated more, their yellow eyes or ugly heads. And Dios, they stank. He’d seen them pulling and picking apart the dead plenty of times, not caring what it was. His gut twisted at what they might be pulling at now.
He saw Toby stumble and Murdoch’s hands tightened on the reins. Johnny glanced at the stony profile. Worry sat on his father’s face stiffer than ice in January. His jaw was hard, his eyes straight ahead on the baked desert in front of him. Nothing had been said since they’d spotted the birds - but Johnny knew they were thinking the same thing. It could be Scott.
They kept heading in the direction the birds were circling. Why did it seem to take so long to get there? The hot wind blew the stink of rot across his saddle and his stomach flipped. Barranca snorted, and stepped higher over the stones, clipping rocks and scattering lizards and bugs. They were close.
A clump of
large boulders jutted to their left, hiding the birds and the carcass.
Murdoch swung his horse that direction and Johnny followed. He could hear
the whoosh of wings as they approached, the birds screaming as they gave up
their meal. The buzzards settled on the
rocks nearby and he could see their feathers were splattered with bits of
The horses stopped, and Barranca trembled. His words to Scott of ants crawling across your eyeballs came to mind but he forced them away and centered on his father’s back.
“It’s not him,” Murdoch whispered, letting out a long breath. He pulled ahead, out of Johnny’s way.
The bulging body of a horse lay at the bottom of a gulch, its neck twisted. The vultures hung back, and watched them. Johnny dismounted, picked up a jagged rock, and threw it at the stubborn birds. They flew off, but came back, and settled a short distance away to wait.
“Don’t bother, Son.” Murdoch dismounted and slid down the slope to the animal.
“His leg is
broke…and neck. Must have been a hell of a fall.” Lifting his hat, he
swiped a sleeve across his forehead. “He’s got a bridle.” He followed the
ravine a few yards and then bent to study
the ground. “Tracks are heading south.”
Murdoch walked along the gully, his body stooped as he scanned the area. He stopped, crouched lower and pointed. Johnny could barely make out the long edge of a boot print.
“Lots of wind, Murdoch. We’re lucky to pick this up.”
“I know.” He stretched his back and squinted at the sun before putting his hat back on.
His father looked done in, and Johnny couldn’t remember Murdoch ever looking so old. Damn. Why’d Scott have to try something so dumb? Crossing a desert like this? Idiot! Stupid a…
“We’d better get moving before the wind blows what’s left away,” Murdoch said, glancing at Johnny.
Murdoch was fretting over Scott, and who could blame him. But now he was staring at Johnny. He looked so hard to be studying him that Johnny lowered his eyes. Did Murdoch know what he’d been thinking? Like he knew he was cursing his brother – Dios - who might be dead? He heard his father approach, and then his hand rested on his shoulder. Murdoch paused, and squeezed gently, before he moved to his horse.
“Come on, Johnny. If he’s out there, we’ll find him.” Murdoch climbed into the saddle, and nudged Toby forward.
Patting Barranca lightly on the neck, Johnny swung into the saddle and followed, the warmth of his father’s hand lingering on his shoulder.
Johnny tried to focus on signs, but Scott kept coming to mind. They’d found
saddlebags a few miles back and that had spurred them on for a while, but
there’d been nothing since and the day was beginning to feel awful long. It
was too damn long with nothing but snakes and sand – and no Scott.
No one could make him think on things like Scott. And he didn’t have to try that hard. Scott would lift his eyebrow, or his mouth would twitch, or he’d ask real soft like, “You sure about that, Johnny?” and Johnny would get to wondering. Hell, sometimes Boston was even right.
Like the time when he didn’t mend the north fence and all those cattle got mired down in that bog. How was he to know that cows would amble along that part of the meadow? Murdoch, man, he was hard to face on that one; and then Scott came into town after him, when Johnny decided he’d had enough. Telling him he was giving up the best thing that ever happened to him and he’d be dead before he was thirty!
And when he did come home, Johnny expected Scott to rub it in. But he didn’t. Scott just sat down to dinner that night like nothing happened, except for the bum arm he got out of the deal. He wore that bandage like it was just part of his outfit, nothing to it. Johnny could have sworn Scott’s laugh was coming easier than before and everyone seemed drawn in by it. Hell, even Murdoch was chuckling most of the night.
Another thing about Scott was that when Johnny was tired, dirty, and aching to hit something, Scott coming in just as gritty and dirty could make Johnny feel good with a simple, “Little Brother.” He’d throw an arm around Johnny, and ask about his day. Scott would laugh away some mistake that he’d managed to fumble through, and before long, they’d both be smiling.
Barranca’s step seemed off and drew Johnny from his thoughts of Scott.
“Hold up, Murdoch. I need to check Barranca’s…”
“Damn it, Johnny. We don’t have time so you can spoil that horse. There’s not much daylight left.”
“I know that, Murdoch,” he murmured, surprised at his father’s outburst. “But he’s limping some and I can’t afford to have him go lame.” Johnny dismounted and picked out a small stone from the hoof, trying not to think of Murdoch’s bite. He could feel his father’s stare as he flipped the sharp rock away.
Murdoch cleared his throat and leather creaked as he moved. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I’m just edgy.”
He took in a deep breath. “I shouldn’t be taking it out on you.”
Johnny glanced at his father, and something stuck in his throat. Murdoch worried at his lip and tried to raise a smile. This was so hard, searching for a man who might be dead, hoping against odds that he wasn’t. He was Johnny’s brother, but more than that, he was Murdoch’s son. A son he had just started to know. What would be going through the old man’s head right now? Was he afraid what the next rise would show; that maybe Scott might be lying there, or dying somewhere close and they would miss him?
Johnny softened his voice. “Don’t fret about it, Murdoch. We’re both edgy.”
Murdoch nodded and scrubbed a hand across his face. They’d better find
Scott or the old man
ever get over it, Johnny thought as he
patted Barranca and mounted. Lifting his eyes to the horizon, the desert
seemed endless, but didn’t do any good to dwell on it. They clicked to the
horses and started the search again.
“Johnny. Look!” A dark clump was lying in the small ridge above them. Whatever it was, it didn’t belong in the desert. Johnny spurred Barranca and he jumped forward.
If the clump was alive, the sound of the horses would cause a stir; but there was no movement. He couldn’t make it out and Murdoch weaved in front of him, blocking his view. It wasn’t until they were on it that he saw what it was.
They dismounted and both dropped their reins. Murdoch strode to the saddle, lifted it up, and set it back on the ground. Johnny stepped over the saddle and picked up a rifle that was a few paces away.
“Well, we can’t be sure it’s his.” Murdoch studied the saddle, hands on his hips, looking grim. Johnny knew it was Scott’s and figured Murdoch did too.
Johnny looked around and spotted where someone had fallen. Dried blood on a cactus and a line of long fingers in the sand told exactly where he went down. The cactus was crushed, and Johnny knew how painful it was pulling out the needles. “That carcass we found is about … forty eight hours old. The timing’s right.”
“Traveling alone, on foot, in this heat.” Murdoch tugged on the brim of his hat, and stared at the ground. His eyes traveled to the bloody cactus.
Trying to gather enough spit to swallow, Johnny looked south. Scott. Dios, where are you? “You know, I think the best thing we can do, is do what Scott musta done. Taken a southwestern direction and just keep going.”
“Yeah.” Tight lipped, Murdoch picked up Toby’s reins. They mounted their horses and rode out.
“Murdoch,” Johnny said after riding a couple hundred yards. He pointed to a spot on the ground that showed traces of a man’s struggle. The sand was churned up and mesquite broken, like someone had been fighting to get up.
Murdoch nodded, his face dark. “Let’s keep going.”
They rode southwest, their shadows sloping across the badlands.
crawled in after the sun set. Johnny threw dried mesquite and tumbleweeds
onto the fire. They crackled and spat-sparked, but held off the chill. The
arroyo they were camping in had a good supply of the dry shrubs thanks to
the wind banking them up at the north end. They’d burn quick – but it was
all they had. And probably more than Scott had right now.
They’d also lucked out when Toby started pawing at the ground beneath a big, old, cactus and uncovered a damp spot. Johnny and Murdoch had dug with their hands, and discovered water licking into the sand. After the horses drank, there was enough to brew some coffee. They figured the shallow spring would refill by morning.
Johnny scratched at his stubble and sipped the hot coffee, thinking of the bloody imprint on a rock Murdoch had found a couple of miles back. Murdoch hadn’t said anything - just clicked Toby southwest. If his father hadn’t been so scared of missing Scott in the dark, they’d still be riding. Of course, Murdoch didn’t say that, but Johnny knew. Truth be told, he was just as scared as Murdoch.
Murdoch threw an armful of dried brush onto the fire, sending the blaze high.
“You think Scott might see the light?” Johnny spoke soft, not sure if his father was sick or something and needed the extra heat.
“He may,” Murdoch said as he squinted into the dark. “Light like that can carry miles away.”
Johnny swilled coffee around his mouth and swallowed. He could hear night things stirring in the dark; a rush of wings and a mouse must have lost to an owl. Just a light squeal before the wings moved off. He wished he could ask that owl if he’d seen his brother. Hell, he probably had. Those birds didn’t miss much in the darkness. Kind of like Scott, he sure didn’t miss much either. Well, except some common sense for trekking across this desert alone. That wasn’t like Scott at all and Johnny sure planned to ask him what the hell he was thinking.
His father moved away from the fire, but not out of its light. Johnny chuckled. “Careful. Anyone can see you for miles, remember?”
Murdoch snorted. “Hopefully they’ll allow a man some privacy.” After a couple of minutes, Murdoch returned and threw more brush on the fire. He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out some dried apples folded in a piece of cotton. He took a handful and passed the rest to Johnny.
“I like the way you pack.” Johnny reached for the sweet fruit.
“Only the necessities, Son,” Murdoch replied as he settled against his overturned saddle. He picked up his coffee and washed down the apples.
Murdoch’s eyes seemed glued on that cup, twirling it round and round, like Johnny had seen an old woman do trying to read fortunes in one of those long forgotten border towns. “I wonder where he is.”
His tone snagged Johnny. Murdoch wasn’t a man who wondered; he did. And if Murdoch ever was unsure of something, he didn’t say it out loud. Was he looking to Johnny for answers?
“Oh,” Johnny shrugged, “he’s probably holed up somewhere with a pretty girl.” His offhand remark almost choked on the way out but he still managed a weak smile.
A small grin flicked across the old man’s lips. “I’ll tan his hide if he is.” He sipped from the cup. “I may just tan his hide anyway for crossing these badlands alone,” he said, irritation smoldering with worry.
Johnny tossed a stray twig into the fire, and then decided to throw on more shrubs. “Someone must have warned him about crossing this desert. But then, he can be stubborn as old Sourball.” Johnny threw the scrawny brush into the fire and stood back as the flames ate it.
“Sourball has an excuse. He’s a randy old mule without an ounce of intelligence,” Murdoch groused. “Your brother is supposed to know better.”
His father was fuming and he was right to. Once they found Scott and made sure he was okay, a bawling out would likely be next in line. Hell, Johnny’d be right there with Murdoch. Scott could maybe take on one at a time, but he couldn’t hold up to two spittin’ Lancers.
The anger was
good. It kept Johnny focused on seeing Scott alive - not on burying him.
“He’s a smart man. Well, most times anyway.”
Murdoch nodded and popped another apple in his mouth.
Leaning back against the saddle, Johnny studied the stars. They sure were something, sparkling like everything was all right. Like they knew someone was going to be gazing at them – admiring them.
Johnny wondered if Scott was looking at the stars. Maybe Scott was alone – and hurt? But his brother had made it through the hell of a prison camp; he’d make it through this too.
“Murdoch, you ever wonder about Scott’s time in prison?” The flames flickered across his father’s face, making him look harsh.
Murdoch bent his legs and scooted down into his bedroll. “I have.”
At first Johnny thought his father didn’t want to talk about it, but then he growled, “He’s not always the easiest man to get anything out of.”
Johnny snorted. “Hell, Murdoch, he’s worse than you are.”
He felt more than saw the disapproving stare, but didn’t have to wait long for the snap.
“Young man, I am his father, and yours.” There was a pause. “I am allowed reserve.”
“And we’re not!”
“Yeah, well, weren’t you the one who said the past is the past, or words along those lines?”
“I said a lot of things that day that were not…appropriate.”
Johnny chuckled, surprised at his father’s answer. “Appropriate, huh? Does that mean you regret saying ‘em?”
“It does. But, to get back to your brother, has he said anything to you about the war?”
Well, if his old man wanted to change the subject, Johnny would let him. Besides, he wondered if Scott ever talked to Murdoch about the war or anything in his past. “Some,” Johnny replied. Should he tell Murdoch about their conversation? Scott hadn’t said not to, but still…
“What did he say?”
Johnny looked Murdoch’s way. The fire wasn’t burning as bright, but Johnny could make out that Murdoch was aching to know.
“Not much. He wouldn’t talk about the escape. Those sixteen men dying did something to him … Then Cassidy blaming him, trying to kill him. Something like that doesn’t die easy.” Johnny batted at the air and closed his eyes. That talk came back to him, in pieces. They hadn’t set out to talk, but it happened. As much as locked-mouth Scott would let go. What the hell, Johnny wasn’t much better, and knew it. But, his father was waiting.
“He talked about the hunger, cold, bugs, rats. Said at first he tried to pick the bugs out of his rations. After awhile he figured they were the most meat he’d get, so he ate ‘em. The bread was mostly ground corncobs and water; salt when they were lucky. Scott said the prisoners gave it out.” Johnny stopped, recalling how Scott had gone quiet; his eyes had been haunted, and he was somewhere that Johnny couldn’t see. He’d felt bad for Scott that day.
“Go on, Son.” Murdoch’s low voice soothed from across the campfire.
Johnny’s voice was low. “Some who gave out the rations started selling the cornbread for money, gold, jewelry, medicine … or worse.” Johnny knew what men could do. He’d ridden with the meanest. Still, he didn’t like to think of what Scott had gone through.
“That was the hardest part of the whole war for Scott. Learning that a cause doesn’t make a man any better’n what he is, and sometimes brought out the worst. He swore he’d never be like those men. Even if it meant his life.”
A night bug buzzed overhead, drawn by the fire. Johnny watched it dart in and out, until it got too close and crackled when the fire licked up at it. “Too close to the flame.”
“Oh, just the bug, Murdoch. Got to playing too close to the fire and burned up.”
“Hmm. It’s just a bug.”
“Yeah, but they kept Scott alive.”
His father grew quiet and Scott’s words came back to him. “It was like we were all just a nuisance; kept alive to torment. But when your own men turn on you for a bug filled piece of slop! I was lost for a long time. I thought women would take that feeling of worthlessness away but after a while, I felt empty, frivolous.”
Johnny had asked Scott what frivolous meant and couldn’t believe his brother ever thought of himself as unimportant or something to be tossed away, crushed … burned up in a fire. His brother’s pain had been hard to see, especially since Johnny thought Scott had never had a hard day in his life.
“Did Scott say anything else?” The voice sounded loaded down, as if learning of what Scott went through was too much to bear.
“Just that he felt useless for a long time. Couldn’t figure out why he lived when so many died.” Johnny smiled. “I told him it was to get to know his better looking, younger brother, but he smacked me on the head.” They dragged themselves out of the pit that day, and became closer than they ever expected.
Johnny wanted to talk about something else. He smiled when he thought of his first barn dance.
remember the dance that Abby and Lew Fielding had a few weeks after we come
“Yes, I do.” Murdoch’s leg jumped and he rubbed his calf. “I was worried…wondering how you’d fit in. But, everything worked out. Goes to show that worrying doesn’t pay.”
Johnny could hear the music, and see all those pretty girls looking so sweet … and ripe enough to be plucked. “First time I saw Boston at work with the ladies. Man, he sure had them fluttering and blushing, didn’t he?”
“Your brother can be very charming.”
“Hell, Murdoch, the way he’d smile at ‘em and bow over their hand. I teased him – asked if he was wiping his nose on their hands, or what?”
“Said he’d give me lessons so I wouldn’t drip on them.” Johnny chuckled at the memory. “Yup, those ladies sure ate it up. He had them all acting girlie and young, even the old ones.”
“He’s a good dancer. He ever try to teach you ballroom dancing?”
“No. That’s not my type of dancing. I like to swing a gal high.”
“Oh, Son. Holding a woman in your arms and dancing to a waltz.” His father’s eyes smiled. “Having her follow your lead, pressed against you, the beautiful music. It can be very relaxing.”
“Don’t know how holding a woman that close can be too … relaxing.”
“Johnny, I’m talking about dancing.” Murdoch tried to be serious, but his tone didn’t quite make it.
“I know, Murdoch, but still, they have bumps where we don’t. And pressed close like that, I mean, you’ve gotta notice those little … differences.”
“I have noticed a time or two,” Murdoch said, his tone dry.
“You think I should give Scott a lesson or two about women in this part of the country? He keeps falling for the wrong type. Maybe gals are different out here?”
“Son, he doesn’t seem to have much trouble with the ladies, wherever he goes.”
Humph, the old man had a point there, no arguing about that. When it came right down to it, Boston could be darn smooth without trying too hard. But, that smooth didn’t do him any good in this desert.
Scott’s safety slammed into him. “He’s got to be okay, Murdoch,” Johnny
murmured. He was surprised at how his brother had become so important to
“He is, Johnny, and we’ll find him or I’ll spend my life looking. I lost 24 years and I’m not going to give him up again.” Murdoch bunched the horse blanket under his head and turned on his side. “You get some sleep, Son. We’ve got a long day tomorrow - and the next - if we don’t locate your brother.”
Johnny felt better just hearing his father’s words. With the warm comfort of the fire and his father close, he finally drifted off to sleep.
been down before, but the bottom dropped fast and ugly when Scott wasn’t at
that old shack a few miles back. When they saw the bright flicker in the
hills, they both rode their horses harder than they should have. Dios, he
loved Barranca, but he’d ride him to death if it meant Scott’s life.
Ignoring the heaving of his horse’s flanks, he focused on Scott being the
one who signaled those flashes of light.
His disappointment was as miserable as the yard that they rode into. The dried up house was barely hanging together, and the mine to the west of the shack looked played out and sagging. Rusted junk and pieces of lumber littered the yard.
A dark haired young woman came out of the shack and stood on the rotting porch. They rode up to her and she offered them water. She looked clean and fresh. She seemed out of place in this hole, but gave Johnny hope that maybe his brother had found a pretty girl after all. The hope didn’t last long.
They went inside for the water and Johnny asked about the lights. She said she didn’t know anything about them. Murdoch did most of the talking, assuring her that she needn’t be afraid. But the fear in her eyes didn’t go away. Maybe she was afraid that two strange men riding in wanted more than they said. He couldn’t blame her for that.
When she said that there was no stranger about, Murdoch thanked her and asked if he could look around. She smiled and said it would be all right, but her eyes slid away and she seemed nervous. Johnny hung around after Murdoch left. He asked her if there was a man around that could have stumbled on a stranger. She had a wedding ring on so she must have a husband about. She said that her father would have mentioned finding someone. She didn’t say anything about a husband, but maybe her man was dead. She wouldn’t be the first widow. Besides, it wasn’t any of his business and he didn’t have time to dwell on anything but finding Scott. Johnny tipped his hat to the girl and went outside.
When Johnny didn’t see Murdoch, he figured he was searching the old mine shaft. He sat down on a tilting wooden bench to wait. Heat, goats and a worn out mine was all that was here. There wasn’t any grass for the goats so they’d need to forage for it and probably quite a ways out from the shack. If Scott came anywhere close, he would have spotted the goats. Would he know enough to chase them home? Hell, were they even searching in the right direction?
Murdoch came out of the mine shaft not looking too pleased.
“Find out anything?” Johnny asked, standing up to face his father.
“Yeah. A little kid made those light flashes we saw.”
Johnny wondered what little kid, but Murdoch got on his horse so fast that Johnny didn’t have time to ask him. He climbed into the saddle and hurried after his father.
“There was a kid in the cave?” Johnny asked pulling up next to Murdoch.
“Yes, and an old woman, the boy’s grandmother. They haven’t seen him.”
He could feel Murdoch’s disappointment as they left the shack behind. Oh, the old man didn’t say anything, but the set of his shoulders did. He usually sat pretty straight on a horse, like Scott. Seemed Toby could feel it too. His ears kept flicking back, and he’d twist his neck to look at Murdoch. His father patted the old boy a couple of times. He probably felt bad for riding him so hard.
A long quiet settled in. It was a big wasteland and Scott could be anywhere. His old man just let Toby lead the way, like he didn’t know where to go. Finally his father pulled up, stared west for a few seconds, and then turned around.
“We’ve missed something, Johnny. He couldn’t have come this far without water. Someone’s either found him or he’s dead.”
Johnny’s stomach felt hollow. “He’s not dead, Murdoch.”
“Son, we need to face facts. It’s been over four days since he left Tonopah. We found the saddle, saddlebags, signs that he was headed this way, but no Scott.”
“There’s a lot of country to look in. We can’t quit now, and I can’t believe you’d even think it,” Johnny stated, angry that his father was saying out loud what he had said to himself more than once.
“I’m not saying we quit,” Murdock said, his voice level. “But we do need to be realistic. We may not find your brother alive.”
to yell, but held back. His old man didn’t deserve that, not now. “He’s
not dead, Murdoch. We just need to keep looking.”
“Son,” Murdoch replied mildly. “What if he is?”
“He’s not!” The snap rolled out before he could stop it. His head was thumping. It seemed like his brain was slamming against his skull. He looked everywhere but at his father. He bit his lip, willing himself to firm up.
“Scott wouldn’t give up, Murdoch.” He focused on the pain from his lip and the salty taste of blood. “We can’t either. He knows we’re looking for him and hoping we’ll find him.”
Johnny felt Murdoch’s hand on his arm and he shrugged it off, but Murdoch snagged him anyway and held on. He looked at his father knowing that his old man would be able to see how scared he was. All the years Johnny spent hiding his weakness couldn’t hold back the fear of losing Scott. .
“I’m not giving up, Johnny. I’ll never give up. It’s just that…” Murdoch looked around, his eyes never resting. “Son,” he started again, “I’ve lost two wives and two sons. I don’t want to go through that again.”
“Then why are you talking like that?” Johnny’s voice sounded stopped up, crusty.
“Forget what I said.” Murdoch pressed his hand against his forehead, like he was trying to plug up a hole. “Forget it, Son. I was being…” He brought his eyes up to Johnny, his face set. He said, “We’ll find him. I promise.”
Johnny felt his heart slow, and the pound of the drum in his ears wasn’t so loud. He understood his father’s fear, but couldn’t stomach seeing it.
“We’ll find him.” There was no hesitation in Murdoch’s statement and Johnny nodded agreement.
Murdoch slapped Johnny on the leg, brought his shoulders up and looked back where’d they come from. “So, let’s say we backtrack a couple miles and then head east instead of west. He might have angled that direction instead of west like we thought. Maybe he got turned around.”
“Okay”, Johnny said softly, and glanced at his old man.
With a low,
“Come on,” Murdoch clicked to Toby as he reined him north. They rode until
they were a few miles from the shack and then headed east, looking for any
sign a man would make in passing. They didn’t talk and rode several yards
apart, scanning the ground on each side, looking for a crushed cactus,
disturbed rocks, a boot print, anything.
Murdoch pulled up and stretched. “It’s hopeless, Johnny. It could take weeks to find a trail down there.”
Johnny remembered the girl and her statement. “I think we oughta head back to that mine shack.” He grabbed his canteen and tipped up a drink of the warm water. “That girl’s father might’ve come back by now,” he said, putting the stopper back on the canteen.
“Father!” Murdoch said. “Are you sure? The old woman said there were no other men down there.”
They eyed one another, realization of a lie offering hope…and alarm. They dug in their heels and the horses sprang towards the shack.
ridden a short distance when Murdoch spotted dust rising not too far off.
There were horses raising that dirt, and maybe Scott was part of it. They
steered their horses towards the haze and it didn’t take long to find out
what the cause was. When the dirt settled they found themselves in the
middle of ten men; and each man had a rifle or pistol pointed at them.
“You gents want to put your hands up?” A scrawny chested man with a star on his vest gave the order.
Murdoch kept his hands high off the saddle and Johnny moved his arms a few inches out from his rig.
“Boy, you’d better get them hands up if you want to see tomorrow.”
Johnny almost laughed at the comment, but not at the look in the man’s eyes. He held his hands up.
“Sheriff, my name is Murdoch Lancer and this is my son, Johnny. We’re looking for my other boy. Tall, blond, slender, about 25. Was hoping you’d seen him.”
“You got anything on you that says who you are?” The sheriff kept his gun aimed in Murdoch’s direction, but took his boney finger off the trigger.
“Well, yes, if you’ll let me get my saddlebags, I’ll show you some identification.”
“Bruno,” the sheriff yelled, “get this man’s saddlebags. Make sure there’s nothing in ‘em that he could use against us.”
A dirty blond, skinnier than the nag he was riding, holstered his pistol, rode close to Murdoch and grabbed the saddlebag. He rummaged through it, and then looked at the sheriff. “No weapons in here, Holister.”
“Okay,” the sheriff spat a glob of dark green tobacco onto the sand. “Give it to him.”
Bruno tossed the saddlebag to Murdoch, and after a few moments, Murdoch fished out a piece of paper. “That’s a receipt for several wagonloads of oats I purchased, sheriff. Oh.” Murdoch searched the bag once more. “And here’s a bank draft for the sale of cattle.”
The sheriff studied the papers and then returned them to Murdoch. “You’re a ways from home, Mr. Lancer. Why you looking for your son in this hell hole of a desert?”
“My son was to take the stage from Tonopah, but decided to cross the desert on horseback instead of waiting for it. We found the animal a ways back, dead.”
“Why would your boy try to cross this land? It’s nothing but waste? Anyone for a hundred miles around knows that.”
“I know that, sheriff. But my son is from back East and isn’t familiar with this part of the country.”
“Hell of a place to be lost.” The sheriff spat again, holstered his weapon and the others followed.
“You seen any sign, sheriff, or any of your men, of a man alone?”
“No, sir, Mr. Lancer. Not a blond man.”
“So, you lose someone sheriff?” Johnny asked.
The sheriff looked Johnny up and down good before answering, like he was sizing up what kind of man he was. “Nope.”
Johnny smiled and bowed his head. The sheriff was like a lot of other sheriffs Johnny had met. Not given to a lot of words and sure not trusting a blue eyed half breed. It was always the same, and Johnny was long overdue and itching for a fight. He didn’t think that ten against one was the best odds, and at this point he didn’t care. But his father’s question broke up the fight before it got started.
“Who are you looking for? Is it anyone from around here who may have seen my son?”
Murdoch sounded like a worried father and the sheriff softened, or it could have been the dollar amount on that bill of sale. He sure got friendly quick after he’d seen that, at least to the old man with his ‘mistering’ and all. Johnny was feeling pissy enough to take a poke at him, but knew it wouldn’t get them any closer to Scott.
“Looking for a fella who robbed the bank and killed a teller. In fact, he’s close to your son’s description - tall, thin, but not blond.”
He fired another glob of juice at a cactus. It caught between two long needles, hung for a moment, and then dripped a brown trail down the plant. Johnny thought if he didn’t have cause to dislike the guy, tobacco chewing was reason enough. He’d been a target as a kid and hated the slimy habit. The splattered cactus brought back memories of the warm, slick gobs oozing down his neck.
“How long ago sheriff? We’ve crisscrossed this area and haven’t seen anyone?”
“We figure he’s about fifteen, twenty minutes maybe ahead of us, Mr. Lancer. Must have someplace to go to. No one in his right mind would hightail it across this desert when he could have headed north to the mountains.”
There he went with that Mr. Lancer crap again, all the while not even looking Johnny’s way. Dios, if he didn’t think the bastard could help find Scott … ‘are you sure about that Johnny?’
Johnny started. It was almost as if Scott was there talking to him, asking him to think again about the sheriff. He almost snorted out a, “yeah, Boston, I’m sure.” He squeezed the bridge of his nose with his fingers wondering if he was going crazy hearing his brother so real. When he opened his eyes the others were looking at him.
“You all right, Son?”
A frown of worry cracked across the rock of his father’s face. Damn, bet he didn’t fret like that before his sons came home. And now there was a killer out there running from the law. Johnny felt jumpy, like the only bridge to Scott was burning, and they needed to get to it while they could still cross. “I just want to find Scott. That’s all Murdoch. We should get going.”
Murdoch gave him a funny look, but let it go, and turned to the sheriff. “There’s an old mine shack a few miles over, sheriff. I wonder if your man could be running there.”
The girl - the wedding ring! Maybe that’s why she was so nervous. Her husband was an outlaw and she expected him back soon. Could Scott have stumbled into a family of thieves or maybe worse? Hell, Scott may not be there at all but if she lied about having a husband, she could lie about seeing Scott. And the old woman lied about no man being around.
“You mind showing us where that shack is, Mr. Lancer?”
The sheriff’s question brought him back. “Murdoch, I’m going ahead. One man can travel faster than ten. If they’ve got Scott and this…bandito gets a hold of him…”
“Boy,” the sheriff interrupted, “I’m thinkin’ that’s not a good idea.”
“I don’t give a shit what you think, sheriff,” Johnny snapped. “He’s my brother and I’m riding.” There was a clump of tobacco juice hanging on his moustache and Johnny wanted to smash it across his face.
“What if this fella gets the drop on you? I’m not gonna be responsible.” There was bluster to the tone, as if not wanting to lose face in front of his men.
“I can take care of myself, and anyone who gets in my way.” Johnny scanned the posse, but no one seemed willing to test him.
“Johnny, go. We’ll follow as fast as we can.”
“Mr. Lancer,” the sheriff started to protest.
“Sheriff, he’s right.” Murdoch shut the sheriff down and turned towards Johnny. “Be careful. We’ll be right behind you.”
The sheriff’s eyes fired anger, but Johnny didn’t care. He knew Murdoch would keep him in line. Without any more urging he kicked Barranca full out in the direction of the shack.
The air blew
hot against his face, and dried the sweat before it could drip. Dust
stirred under Barranca’s hooves but didn’t reach him. His father and the
posse would probably eat it and Johnny hoped it stuck in the sheriff’s
moustache. He could hear horses following, but it wasn’t long before he
left them behind.
Dios, he hoped Scott was at that shack. Johnny remembered how Scott had looked the day he took Julie for a ride. He was all gussied up and smiling broader than a prairie sunset. Johnny called him pretty, and up went that eyebrow. Garrett almost got him killed just to get him back to Boston. Johnny would have liked to hit that old man. All the crap that Garrett brought with him, the hurt of Julie; the betrayal, and Scott let it go. And now some worthless piece of crap could be trying to …
He heard the blast of a gun less than half a mile from the shack. He spurred and Barranca bolted. Damn, Johnny felt like hell and the horse was trying as hard as he could. Just let it be enough.
Another gunshot. Johnny could see movement in the rocks up ahead. A man was running, looked to be throwing something, and then he turned and disappeared. Johnny pulled Barranca up, jumped off the still moving horse, and hurried to the rocks where the figure had just been. Above, another man came into view and raised a rifle. He didn’t take much aim before he fired, and then he disappeared after the first man.
Was it Scott he was shooting at? Johnny wasn’t close enough when the first man appeared to see who it was, but the second hombre wasn’t his brother. Was he the bank robber or was he chasing the thief? Maybe Scott wasn’t here at all! Johnny couldn’t just start shooting. What if he shot an innocent man, or the wrong man?
Scrambling up the smooth faced rock, Johnny almost lost his footing, but grabbed at scrub growing out of a crack and pulled himself up. He jumped the last couple of boulders and saw the second man lift up his rifle. Johnny turned towards the target and recognized a fallen Scott facing that gun.
The man whirled his rifle at Johnny, but Johnny pulled the trigger first and the stranger fell.
The beating of Johnny’s heart didn’t slow down as he looked at the stricken face of his brother, changing slowly to disbelief, then relief. Scott stood on shaky legs.
“Hello, Brother.” How good those words sounded. Johnny was grateful just to say them. Dios, he could have hugged Scott, but didn’t. All of the gut churning fear of the last couple of days vanished when he looked at the pale man in front of him.
“Johnny, how did you …”
Seemed Scott couldn’t finish the sentence. Boston at a loss for words. That had to be a first. Johnny pushed the brim of his hat up with his pistol. “Oh, we put a few pieces together.” Almost too late went through his mind.
“Well, where’s Murdoch?”
“On the way back we ran into the sheriff’s posse.”
The young woman from the shack had run to the man’s body and was crying. It was the first time Johnny took a good look at him. He was about Scott’s height, and build. But, why would he want to kill his brother?
Johnny looked back at Scott and he seemed to be waiting. Oh, yeah, the sheriff’s posse and Murdoch. “He’s bringin’ em along.”
A dazed Scott turned and headed down the rocks in the direction of the shack. Johnny stared at the dead man again, and then followed his brother. Scott stumbled, but caught himself. Johnny wanted to reach out and lend a hand, but Scott seemed like he might break if Johnny took his arm.
Scott stopped close to the old woman who was waiting at the bottom of the hill. She just stood there, arms hanging by her side. She looked like she was the one who took the bullet. What did she have to do with the dead man? She moved, all stiff, her eyes dead.
“That’s my son … Luke Sickles.”
The dead man’s name made the killing more personal…and she was his mother. Still, Johnny didn’t feel much about it. The man had wanted to kill his brother. There was no regret for ending that life.
“I’m identifying ‘im. And I’m claiming the reward.”
Damn, a mother claiming a bounty for her dead son! Johnny had seen a lot of messed up people in his life, but this was as bad as any. He gazed at Scott, wondering what the hell had gone on here. Scott still didn’t seem himself. His eyes were hazy like, far away. Well, he’d be okay. He was alive and that’s all that mattered. Murdoch would sort it out.
The girl on the hill hushed to a whimper. The old woman went into the shack, came out with a blanket and was going to cover her son when Scott reached for the blanket. It sure didn’t seem like she could make it, so she let Scott take the blanket. Johnny watched as his tired brother managed to climb back to where Sickles lay. Scott stood there for a minute, just looking at the man, like he was trying to figure something out. Maybe the why. Maybe…well, knowing Scott, he probably felt bad that life was so cheap to some. It was hard for Scott to let that sink in, even after being in a war. After a few minutes, Scott turned away and limped back down the hill.
The dust from the approaching posse drifted in long before the animals. The wind must have shifted, or maybe it was just another whirlwind the heat kicked up. Whatever the reason, the wind blew sharp and hard across the ground. And it brought his pa. Johnny didn’t even notice the sheriff, or at least forgot him for the time being. He just was glad to see Murdoch. He would make sure Scott was okay.
His old man was something to behold when his eyes lit on Scott. Johnny could have sworn they watered up, but it could have been the dust. The lines of his face eased, like worry had washed away with the sight of his son. Johnny smiled at him when Murdoch looked his way, and nodded. They had shared lost sleep and a lot of pain over this man, and grown closer to him...and each other.
Murdoch dismounted and dropped the reins in the sand. He walked with a slow step to Scott. Johnny wasn’t sure if he was afraid he’d spook him or what. Scott didn’t move, just watched his father.
Johnny had never seen Scott look so tired. Dried blood was matted in his hair and leached onto his collar. A harsh bruise licked out from his hairline just above his right ear. His wrists were rope burned and his face scraped and dust covered. But the blank expression on his face vanished at his father’s approach. Murdoch reached out, grabbed his arm, and touched the bruise on his face. Johnny didn’t know that big hand could be so tender. Scott smiled, just a small lift of his lips, really, but enough to ease Johnny.
“Good to see you, Sir.” Scott’s voice cracked, but was strong.
“You too, Son,” Murdoch murmured, staring hard at his son, maybe checking to make sure he was all right. “We were worried,” he scolded gently and pulled at his arm, bringing Scott closer.
Scott glanced down, and then brought his gaze to the old woman. “Me too,” he said, sadness in his voice. He focused back on his father. The old spark came back to his eyes when he smiled and Johnny’s heart lightened. Whatever had happened, whatever the cost, including a man’s life, he had his brother back and nothing else mattered. His search was over.