“Hey, Johnny, do you know what tomorrow is?” Scott asked, riding quietly at his brother’s side. It had been a long hot day and they were both looking forward to getting home to a cool drink and a meal. The horses were barely moving at a walk, and both men were happy to leave it that way, enjoying each other’s company and the leisurely pace.
Johnny shrugged his shoulders negligently. “Sure, it’s Saturday – poker night in town. You comin’?”
Scott threw him a look of disgust. “Is that all it means to you?”
Johnny laughed. “Oh boy, you should see your face, brother,” he taunted him. “’Course I know what tomorrow is.”
Scott smiled at him. “One of these days, Johnny,” he warned him cheerfully. “You’re going to push me too far.”
“You think the ol’ man’ll remember?” Johnny asked him.
“Well, I’d like to think so.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“I’m betting Teresa will,” Scott told him.
“Ya know, we could go into town and celebrate,” Johnny suggested.
“No, I think we should celebrate at home - with family,” Scott replied. “After all, that’s what it’s all about.”
“Let’s not say anything to him tonight. See if he remembers,” Johnny laughed.
Scott laughed at his brother and saw right through him. That laughter camouflaged a nagging doubt he still held. Even now, he didn’t feel secure enough at Lancer to be confident of his own self-worth, and Scott hated it.
He wasn’t surprised by it though. There had been more than enough arguments between Johnny and Murdoch to instill a reasonable doubt in his brother. Sometimes it just didn’t seem like Johnny could do anything to please his father; but then, occasionally, very occasionally, Murdoch surprised him with a pat on the back.
It was no wonder Johnny had no confidence in his place in the family.
They’d been breaking up the tangle of logs and debris that had washed downstream in the north pasture and would have dammed the stream the next time they had good rain. It was tiring, dirty job, with no prestige to it at all. No self-respecting cowboy enjoyed that sort of work, but both of the men had come to realize that it was those thankless jobs that made up a large percentage of their days.
“Say, Scott, I kinda wondered…” Johnny began, but then he apparently thought better of it and the question remained unasked.
Scott looked over at him. “Wondered what?”
Johnny looked down awkwardly, and then seemed to come to a decision. He looked up and tipped his hat back just slightly and turned to his brother to ask, “What made you take Murdoch up on that thousand dollars? I mean, you know why I did it. I did it for the money – plain and simple. But you didn’t need the money.”
“No,” Scott answered slowly and thoughtfully. “No, I didn’t need the money. I don’t really know – curiosity, I guess.”
“Sure. A man who hadn’t shown the least bit of interest in me for twenty-five years was suddenly willing to pay me a thousand dollars and travelling expenses for one hour of my time? I had to know why.” He looked over at Johnny again, and grinned. “Are you telling me that you weren’t just a little bit curious, too?”
Johnny’s face hardened, remembering. “Maybe,” he admitted slowly. “I guess I had an itch to see the man I thought had thrown my mother an’ me out.”
Scott sighed heavily. “You weren’t the only one lied to, Johnny.”
“You mean your grandfather?” Johnny asked. He had no liking for Harlan Garrett. He’d only met him during his short visit to Lancer, but they had taken an instant dislike to one another. Johnny kept his feelings about the man to himself, though, out of deference to his brother.
Scott nodded in answer, then added, “When I was growing up, he told me all about Murdoch – his version, anyway. He described him as an uncouth, uneducated yokel who all but kidnapped my mother and took her to live in a cabin in the wilds of California. I remember he always referred to him as just ‘your father’, like there was something wrong with that.”
“He said that he came out here to rescue my mother, when she was having me, and that he found her living unprotected and in squalor. His version was that she died from it, that he got here too late to be able to save her.”
He shook his head sadly and continued thinking aloud. “I think he told me those stories so often that he started to really believe that it all happened that way.”
Johnny said nothing in reply and Scott considered him carefully. “Maybe your mother did the same,” he told him gently. “Perhaps she had convinced herself that what she was telling you was the truth.”
His brother shrugged his shoulders carelessly and said nothing. Scott let it drop. Johnny didn’t like facing the fact that his mother had lied to him about his father. He’d grown up with nothing but hatred for Murdoch Lancer, and it had kept him away from Lancer his whole life.
Scott grinned suddenly. “When that Pinkerton man suddenly showed up and waved all that money around, I got to wondering where an uneducated yokel would have gotten it from.” He frowned at the memory of that night. “I started to notice the discrepancies in the stories I’d been told.”
Johnny looked over at him and frowned. “The what?”
“Things didn’t add up,” he explained.
Johnny shook his head. “I know what it means, Scott,” he told him curtly. “But what do you mean?”
“Well, if he was the man Grandfather had described, how did he cajole my mother into marrying him and coming out here? He must have had something to offer her, surely? And that was a lot of money to offer me.”
“I thought about it all that night, then decided that I did want to find out if he was as bad as Grandfather had been making him out to be.”
“Well, I sure am glad you did come,” Johnny told him. “I have to admit, I don’t know as I would’ve gone lookin’ for you in Boston, even if Murdoch had told me ‘bout ya.”
Scott laughed at his confession. He had taken to the idea of having a brother with a great deal of pleasure, while Johnny had taken a little time to accept it. He was well aware of that. “And look what you would have missed out on,” he said with a grin.
Johnny joined him laughing. “Watchin’ you try to rope your first calf made it all worthwhile, Boston.”
“Oh, and you were a great help – laughing so loud that the calf panicked and ran one way and then the other.”
“Scott,” Johnny replied, trying to control himself. “In case you haven’t noticed by now, they do that anyway. Didn’t need any encouragement from me.”
The brothers rode side by side laughing, enjoying the cool air as the sun prepared to sink below the hill beside them. The last rays were just over the peak when Scott noticed a glimmer of sharp light bouncing off something metal just ahead and above them. Instinct took over. He threw himself sideways to the left and lunged at Johnny, taking him with him as he fell to the ground amid the rapid barrage of shots that kicked up dirt and stones around them.
They both scrambled over to the side of the road, looking for whatever cover they could find as the horses bolted – terrified by the explosions of noise around them.
Johnny rolled over and took cover behind a small boulder. He sat up, leaning back against the rock, and breathed a sigh of relief when Scott landed on the ground right beside him.
“Phewie…that was close,” he said, heart pounding with a rush of excitement.
“Yeah,” Scott answered breathlessly. “You okay?”
“Sure,” Scott replied, but a catch in his voice gave Johnny reason to suspect otherwise.
Johnny looked over at him. The light was starting to die and sending long shadows across them both, but, even in that light, Johnny could see that Scott was leaning back heavily against the rock and holding his right arm tightly. A stream of crimson ran through Scott’s fingers and down his arm, soaking the shirtsleeve.
“Don’t look like it to me,” Johnny snapped and slid over to his brother’s side.
Scott didn’t move, but panted heavily and leaned his head back.
“Let go of it an’ let me see,” Johnny ordered him. He pulled Scott’s fingers away and tore open the sleeve from the shoulder down to the cuff. He took a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe away the blood so he could see how bad the wound was.
“It’s nothing, Johnny. He just winged me.”
“Well, he winged ya good. The bullet’s still in there an’ you’re bleedin’ like a stuck pig,” Johnny told him firmly. “Hold still an’ I’ll wrap this around to make a tourniquet.”
The bullet had dug a hole in Scott’s upper arm and the blood streamed from it, through his sleeve and down his arm. There was too much blood for Johnny’s liking, and he wished he had his canteen so that he would wash it properly. This was no simple flesh wound. With that amount of bleeding, there was a good chance that the bullet had nicked a vein.
As Johnny finished tying off the makeshift bandage, a shot rang out from above them and ricocheted off the top of the rock that afforded them what little cover they had. Scott got hold of his brother’s shirt collar and dragged him down. “Keep that fool head of yours down, Johnny,” he told him angrily.
It had been too close for comfort and just how close it had been was obvious when Johnny lifted his head back up a little and wiped away a think trickle of blood from his cheek. The bullet had spat up dust and slivers of rock that had scattered everywhere, and one had nicked his cheek enough to have drawn blood.
Johnny grinned sheepishly. “He’s not such a bad shot, is he?”
“Better than I like to think,” Scott answered, still annoyed. “And he has the advantage of a rifle.”
The grin faded from Johnny’s face then. “Yeah,” he agreed. “It’s a shame you didn’t think to grab yours when you shoved me.”
“Oh, well, next time, I’ll just let him shoot you,” Scott countered.
“An’ what makes you so sure he’s after me, anyways?”
Another shot rang out, and both of the men ducked quickly. It bounced harmlessly off a rock to the left of them.
“I don’t really think it matters, do you?” Scott quietly asked his brother.
Johnny chuckled. “Nope, I don’t guess it does.” He chanced a look over the top of the boulder, but the sun had fallen behind the hill now, and the shadows had darkened considerably. It would be completely dark in minutes now. “Do ya think he’s on his own up there?” Johnny asked casually.
Scott turned around a little and looked up into the shadows on the hill. Even in bright sunlight it would have been hard to tell for sure. There was simply too much cover up there to see who they were up against.
“Can’t tell,” he eventually admitted, and leaned back against the rock. Now that the first alarm had faded, his arm was beginning to throb angrily.
The two of them turned around and sat back against the rock, side by side. Johnny took off his hat and set it down deliberately on the ground beside him. Scott’s was somewhere back up on the road.
“Well, Lieutenant Lancer,” Johnny said ironically. “You got any ideas?”
Scott was silent for a minute, thinking about his answer. “We can always wait until it’s good and dark, sneak out and walk home,” Scott suggested. “It’s what –about five miles from here?”
“Yeah, ‘bout that,” Johnny agreed. He eyed his brother’s arm and considered the amount of blood he had lost. He didn’t really think that was a good idea. Scott was fine right now, but a few miles of walking would take too much out of him. “Maybe the horses will keep goin’ all the way back to the house,” he answered. “They’ll send help if they come back without us.”
Scott glanced at his brother. “Do you think Barranca will keep going?” The horse was well trained and there was a good chance he would halt and wait for Johnny.
Johnny ran his hand through his hair thoughtfully. “Yeah, I think he will. He’ll stop if the reins are trailin’, though. I reckon yours will do the same.”
“Well, we can’t rely on that, then.”
“Nope, I don’t think so, either.”
Scott looked back over his shoulder and up towards the hill again. “I think we can forget about a frontal assault.”
As if to highlight the decision, another shot rang out and kicked up dirt just a couple of feet from Johnny’s legs.
“Ya know somethin’ brother?” he declared, pulling his feet quickly away. “That fella’s startin’ to annoy me.”
Within half an hour, the darkness of night had descended on them completely. There was some light from the half moon above them and it was a clear night, but it wasn’t much use in their position.
There hadn’t been any shots for the last ten minutes, but Johnny hesitated to trust that it meant anything more than that whoever was up in those rocks was enjoying a little break.
Johnny watched the rocks over the road for any sign of movement, but kept a surreptitious watch on his brother at the same time. Scott had him worried – he was leaning back against the boulder with his eyes closed and holding his right wrist to try to support the injured arm. Johnny came to the conclusion that there was nothing to see over there for the time being, so he turned all of his attention to Scott. He edged closer. “How’re ya doin’?” he asked him quietly.
“Fine,” Scott answered briefly, without opening his eyes.
Even in this light, Johnny could see the beads of sweat formed on his brow and he didn’t believe him. He put his hand to Scott’s forehead and found it warm and damp, but not fevered. That wouldn’t last long though, not here in the cool night air and with a bullet still lodged in his arm.
He cursed again that he had no canteen. He needed the water to clean that wound and to give to his brother to drink. Without it, Scott would soon dehydrate after losing that much blood, especially if a fever came on.
“Let me take a look at that arm,” he said, taking Scott’s wrist gently. Scott flinched away, and then relaxed and surrendered to Johnny’s help. “Easy, Scott,” Johnny soothed him. “I need to take a look at it.”
“Yeah,” Scott agreed with a sigh. “Go ahead. I’m okay.”
As soon as he touched the arm, Johnny knew that the tourniquet had to be loosened. Scott’s skin was cold and, in better light, he was certain that he would have seen that his brother’s fingers were turning blue. He didn’t like to do it. It meant risking more blood loss, but he had to let some blood back into Scott’s hand and fingers or he might lose the arm completely. “I’m gonna have to loosen the bandage, Scott,” he told him. “Lift your hand up a little so the blood flows in nice and easy. It’s gonna sting some when it hits your fingers.”
Without a word, Scott did as Johnny told him and lifted his hand up to his chest. When Johnny released the bandage he watched his brother’s face anxiously. He saw the frown deepen and knew he was in pain, but standing it.
Any hope Johnny had had that the pressure on the wound had stemmed the blood flow was lost as blood oozed slowly from the wound with the loosening of the tourniquet, and then gained momentum and ran in tiny rivulets down Scott’s arm. Only a doctor was going to be able to stop it now, and that meant getting Scott home quickly so that they could send for Sam Jenkins.
Johnny gently felt his brother’s fingers and found that they were warming up to a normal temperature. He sighed slowly. “Wiggle those fingers a little bit,” he ordered and clamped his hand over the hold in Scott’s arm to try to stop as much of the blood as he could. He had to allow a little time and then put the tourniquet back on and repeat the whole process every twenty minutes or so.
But that couldn’t go on. He had to find a way out of this predicament, and get his brother home.
Staying here and waiting for help was no longer an option. Scott would be in serious trouble by morning, and Johnny wasn’t going to wait for that to happen.
Johnny looked at his brother’s pale and strained face and decided he could wait no longer. He had to figure a way out of here and get Scott home to Lancer – and he had to do it fast.
Weighing his remaining options, he found himself discarding them one by one. A frontal assault would be suicidal, and even the best shot in the world wasn’t going to take out the shooter with a handgun when he was out of range. And that was if he even knew where the man was hiding anyway.
In the dying light it had been impossible to pinpoint the shooter’s location up in the rocks. He and Scott were looking directly into the bright sunlight when those shots had been fired. The glare had been all but blinding.
Position – that’s what it came down to. Theirs was the really lousy one. The sniper had the high ground, the cover, and a rifle with which he could take advantage of it all. And he seemed to have the skill to use that rifle.
Johnny knew that he had to alter that balance of power to get them out of this.
The first step had to be locating the shooter. He drew his revolver and sat looking at it for a moment, coming to a decision.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?” Scott asked.
Johnny turned his head to face him. “Scrunch down, Scott. Make sure you’re under cover.”
There was anxiety written all over Scot’s face, and Johnny hated seeing it there. But this had to be done. He had to find out where that shooter was.
Scott grabbed Johnny’s arm and held it fast. “Johnny, you can’t hit him from here. You don’t even know where he is.”
“That’s right. An’ I’m gonna find out.”
“The minute you fire…”
Johnny grinned. “I know, an’ I’m hopin’ he’ll fire back.”
Scott understood immediately and didn’t like it. “To see that flash, you’ll have to have your head up where you could get the fool thing shot right off your shoulders.”
“I know. I ain’t stupid enough to take chances.” Johnny ignored his brother’s snort of disbelief. “You just make sure your head is down, and let me look after my own.”
Scott glared at him for a moment, but relented. “Alright, but be careful, little brother- real careful.”
Johnny only grinned at him and turned to lean against the boulder. He frowned as he took an educated guess at the direction from which the shots had been fired.
Carefully, he squeezed off a shot and then ducked as low as he could while still having a view of the hill on the far side of the road.
He was bound for disappointment though. There was no return fire.
He considered things for a minute, and then, after checking that Scott was still under cover, fired again. He hoped that he was getting at least close enough to give the shooter a fright.
This time, his plan worked. He saw the bright flash of the shot being fired and noted the position quickly before ducking as the bullet zinged past him. It missed him by inches – proof once more that that shooter sure knew how to use a rifle.
Johnny had a pretty good idea of where the bushwhacker was now, but he wanted to be sure, and there was a good chance that the man would move once he fired. If he had any brains at all, that’s what he’d do.
Johnny looked over at Scott and took stock of his condition. Even in the moonlight, it was evident that his older brother was pale, and that he had his teeth gritted against the pain he was obviously in. Yet, Johnny was going to have to ask him to help. He hated doing it. “You okay?”
Scott looked over to him and laughed. “Sure! Let’s do this again sometime.”
Johnny laughed with him. “You’re really not gonna like my idea, Boston.”
“Let me guess. You’re going up there after him – right?”
Johnny sobered quickly. “Yeah. We can’t stay pinned down all night, Scott.”
“I know, but the minute you move, he can pick you off with that rifle. There’s enough moonlight for him to see by.”
“That’s why you’re gonna have to keep him distracted. I want you to fire a few shots up his way now an’ then. Keep him occupied while I try to get behind him.”
Scott shook his head slowly and determinedly. “Johnny, I can’t even move my fingers on my right hand any more. There’s no way I can hold a gun with it.”
Johnny nodded. He’d figured on that. “Think you can use your left?”
The frown on Scott’s face was more than enough answer. He didn’t like the idea much.
“Sure I can, but I can’t hit anything with it,” he argued. “I’m just as likely to hit you!”
Johnny smiled. “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he teased his brother. “But all you have to do is get off a shot and then get down. You don’t have to hit anything.”
“Well, that’s good news,” Scott replied with an answering smile. “But I still think it’s a dumb idea, brother. We can wait him out. Murdoch’s bound to send men out by daylight.”
“No,” Johnny told him with a determined shake of his head. “That arm o’ yours needs tendin’ to.” He could see that his brother was about to object, and stopped him with a mischievous grin. “An’ I’m damned hungry too,” he told him. “We’ve missed supper.”
He didn’t fool Scott.
“Be careful, Johnny,” Scott said seriously. “He’s got all the position, and he’s bound to know we’re up to something.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it all figured out,” he answered, hoping that he sounded more confident than he actually was. “I want you to fire a shot when I’m ready, then count ten and fire again. Then do it again. That’ll give me time to get across the road. I’ll work my way up behind him.” Johnny noticed, again, his brother’s pallor and wished he didn’t have to ask this of him. “Can ya do it, Scott?” he asked anxiously.
“Of course I can do it,” Scott replied with determination.
“Good, but remember to keep your head down!” Johnny told him. “Now, let me look at that arm again first. I’d better loosen that tourniquet for a while. Then we’ll get this party started.”
Scott watched Johnny ease himself cautiously from the protection they’d found behind their rock, readying himself for the sprint across the road and into the cover of the boulders over there.
Turning himself around and settling carefully into the most comfortable position he could manage, kneeling and leaning forward against the rock, Scott balanced the pistol in his left hand. He didn’t consider himself ambidextrous, but he had done this once before – back in his army days. He knew he could handle firing it, but he was well aware that his aim would be poor at best.
The wound in his arm was on fire now. Every infinitesimal movement sent bolts of excruciating pain through his arm and into his whole body. It was sapping not only his strength, but also his conscious ability to focus. His vision was blurring on occasions when the pain was particularly bad. It was going to make this that much harder. Telling himself, sternly, to concentrate on getting the job done, he looked over towards Johnny, who was bent over to remove those noisy spurs of his.
“You okay, Scott?” Johnny asked him.
“Don’t worry about me, brother,” he answered crossly. “Just be damned careful up there.”
Scott thought the grin with which Johnny responded was typical of his brother’s reaction to the prospect of danger. Scott sometimes wished he could know what went through Johnny’s head at such times. He wondered, vaguely, if that cool, almost emotionless exterior, hid a pounding heart like his own.
“Sure,” was Johnny’s reply, as the grin lingered.
“Alright. I’m ready when you are,” Scott told him. There was no point in trying to talk him out of it again. Johnny had made up his mind to go ahead with this plan, and there was a stubborn streak that ran deep in that boy.
Murdoch was the same – stubborn as a mule when he made up his mind to something. Scott was loath to admit that he had probably inherited the same trait from his father, but, truth to tell, he knew it for a fact. He was also well aware of the reason for Johnny’s decision to take on the shooter rather than wait.
Scott was no fool. He knew that he’d lost more blood than was good for him and that waiting until morning for help would result in his losing a lot more. It grated on him that he was responsible for Johnny feeling the need to take such a risk, but he also knew that, were their positions reversed, he’d be doing exactly the same thing.
A bead of sweat rolled into his right eye and the salt stung. He wiped the back of his hand across his brow and then resettled himself, blinking away the sting from his eye. One glance at Johnny’s face told him that he had noticed. “It’s all right, Johnny,” he assured him. “Go ahead.”
Johnny nodded and answered quietly, “On three, then.”
Scott nodded back without a word and Johnny lifted his hand and counted off with his fingers – one, two, and, finally, three.
The pistol kicked and tore into the still of the darkness like a thunderclap as Scott squeezed off the first shot, ducked, and turned to count off ten as they’d planned.
He got down just in time as a bullet whined past him and hit the trunk of the tree behind him.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Johnny take off fast from cover and out into the open. Then he got back up and fired off the second shot, watching his brother bend low as he sprinted across the road.
He ducked again, just as an answering bullet hit the rock in front of him and sent a shower of dust and rock splinters in his direction.
Counting again, he leaned over the boulder and pulled the trigger for the third and last of their prearranged shots. He ducked quickly enough, this time, to avoid the two shots that spat up dust beside him.
Scott wiped away the fresh beads of sweat on his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt, and then took the chance on looking up from cover for a glimpse of his brother, but Johnny was nowhere to be seen.
He’d made it.
Johnny could feel the rush of adrenaline in his veins as he bent forward and leapt into the open. His revolver remained snugly in his holster. Shots from his current position would be wasted anyway.
He’d watched the first return fire, and pinpointed the shooter’s position, moments before taking to the road. The sniper hadn’t moved and, since the shots were all coming from the same spot, Johnny was convinced that the man was alone up there.
Johnny reached the other side of the road and was a few feet up the hillside when Scott’s third shot rang out. He stopped and watched where the return fire came from so that he could reassure himself that he was looking at the right place from his own new position.
Certain, now, of where his quarry was, he got down behind a nearby rock and looked back to where he knew Scott to be. To his mixed anger and relief, he spotted the moonlight flash off his brother’s all-too-blond head as he peered over the top of the rock towards this side of the road.
Johnny gritted his teeth and thought seriously of calling out to Scott to get his blamed head down. Fortunately, Scott disappeared from sight again before the urge got too strong to ignore.
With Scott relatively safe, Johnny turned his attention back to the matter at hand. He figured that the shooter was about twenty yards to his left as he looked up the hill, and about thirty yards above him. He was sure the sniper was hiding behind a large boulder he had noted up there earlier.
He looked around him, picking his best path up the hill. His plan was to get above and behind him and so to surprise him. There were scarce bushes to hide him, but plenty of rocks and boulders of varying sizes to do the job. He had his sights on one boulder up there in particular. It was just above the shooter and Johnny figured it was the spot to work towards. From there he could, firstly, confirm that the man really was alone, and then catch him off guard.
Johnny’s face hardened at the prospect of doing whatever he had to do to end the standoff. The shooter up there was not only responsible for shooting Scott, but was keeping him from getting his brother the help that he needed. “If I have to kill him, I will,” Johnny told himself. “This situation was him making, not mine.”
Keeping low and moving with quiet stealth, he made his way cautiously up the hill, placing each step carefully. The last thing he wanted now was to dislodge stones or step on dried twigs, and give away his presence.
It took him nearly half an hour, traveling at that pace, to reach his objective, but reach it he did –and without allowing the shooter to even suspect he was up to something.
Johnny knelt quickly back on his heels, under cover of the boulder that he’d set his eyes on and headed for all the way up the hill. He watched his prey carefully.
They’d been right –only one man.
From this position, Johnny could only see the shooter’s back, so he still had no idea who he was up against, or what his reasons for attacking them might be. The man seemed to be reasonably relaxed, but the rifle rested right next to him. Even from his new perch, Johnny knew the man would be hard to take. To reach him, Johnny was going to have to reveal himself.
It would be risky, but far from suicidal. He reckoned he had a better than even chance of ending this thing successfully.
Well, there was no sense in putting it off. The more time he wasted thinking about it, the worse Scott’s condition was going to become.
He slid his revolver quietly and easily from the holster. The cold metal fitted into his hand like an old friend, comfortable and completely at ease with him.
The something else happened. He could feel the coldness taking over him, almost as though the chill of the metal in his hand pervaded his entire body and then concentrated itself in pools of ice in his eyes. His expression hardened and his mouth became a grim line of determination as Madrid took over.
He got quietly to his feet and slipped around the side of the rock. He’d lost sight of the man as soon as he had moved, so he stopped and peered warily around the side of the boulder to look for him.
He hadn’t moved, but that rifle was still ominously close to hand.
Johnny took a deep breath and settled himself for the next move. He stepped, with catlike grace, into the open and held his gun steady in his hand.
“Don’t move an inch!” he snapped and the man all but jumped in surprise.
The man leaped to his feet and spun around to see who had come up behind him.
He found Johnny grinning maliciously at him and the gun pointed right at his midsection.
“Lancer!” he sneered in reply.
Johnny finally saw the face of the man trying to kill him and his brother, and he recognized it immediately. He’d seen him in the saloon only two days ago, drowning his sorrows and complaining bitterly about being fired from Lancer. “Nate Pierce,” Johnny said clearly, staring the big man down.
He got no answer, just a sneering expression.
“Do you shoot everyone who fires you?” he asked ironically.
The man facing him finally answered him. He was a big man, with unruly dark hair, and he was unshaven and untidy. Where he’d been sitting, there were cigarette butts all over the ground.
“Murdoch Lancer will regret the day he crossed me!” he told Johnny maliciously, looking him in the eyes and standing up straight.
Johnny ignored the man’s bravado. He recognized a back-shooting coward when he saw one. He’d seen him drinking heavily in the saloon only a couple of days ago and figured now that he must have been stewing and trying to build enough nerve to try this.
“Back up a little, Pierce,” Johnny said coolly. “Away from that rifle.”
Johnny edged in closer, but the man moved way only a step or two – not nearly enough to satisfy Johnny. “I said, back up!” he repeated, and this time there was an edge to his voice that echoed the threat that the gun in his hand implied.
Pierce moved away another pace, allowing Johnny the space to finally get within reach of the rifle. Keeping his own pistol level, and his eyes on the man in front of him, he kicked the rifle out of Pierce’s reach.
Suddenly, in a blur of movement that seemed incongruous for such a big man, Nate Pierce lashed out with his left foot and hooked it under Johnny’s ankle just as he kicked the rifle away. With a hefty jerk, he overbalanced Johnny and spun him so that he landed heavily on the ground, facing the other way.
Instinct took over and, with the speed of a cat sensing danger, Johnny rolled over and spun around in time to see Pierce dive for the rifle.
Two flashes of light cut through the darkness. Two explosions of sound blasted the night to pieces - and then there was left only a reverberating silence.
Far below, Scott Lancer looked up into the rocks with his heart in his mouth.
Murdoch Lancer had begun pacing in the Great Room over an hour ago. Teresa had been watching him and he was getting on her nerves. She knew he was worried about his two sons. She was worried too, but this wasn’t helping.
“They should have been home by now,” he said aloud, for what must have been the fifth time.
“I know, Murdoch, but there could be a dozen reasons why they’re late,” she told him, telling herself at the same time.
One of the horses might have gone lame, or thrown a shoe, or… There were a dozen reasons she could think of, but it didn’t help. She was just as worried as Murdoch was and, as the minutes ticked by into hours, she became more and more convinced that something was seriously wrong.
“Johnny?” Scott called from below.
He’d heard two distinctly different shots, obviously from two different weapons. Things hadn’t gone to Johnny’s plan up there.
“Johnny?” he called again, fear for his brother rising with every second that went by.
He got to his feet quickly – too quickly. His head swam dizzily and he had to sit down against the rock while the world slowed to a nauseating stop. He cursed the wound that had left him unable to help Johnny up there.
Panting and sweating heavily, he waited only long enough to be able to get to his feet again without falling down. His mind was on his brother and those two shots.
“Scott!” he finally heard from the rocks above as he got to his feet.
Relief poured over him like a cool shower. “Johnny, are you all right?” he yelled, as loudly as he could.
“Sure, I’m fine,” Johnny called back. “I’ll be right down. You stay put.”
Scott couldn’t see his brother through the darkness, but he sounded like he had things under control.
With the relief he felt came a loss of the strength he had managed to find only moments ago. He slid back to the ground, almost gratefully, and waited for Johnny to come back.
Moving had set his arm on fire, but he hadn’t seemed to notice it before. He sure as hell noticed it now, though. He grabbed his wrist to support the weight of it, hoping that he could relieve some of the pain that way.
He was shocked by how cold it felt – cold and clammy to the touch – and he remembered what Johnny had said about the tourniquet. It needed loosening again.
With his left hand, he clumsily untied the knot and let the blood flow back through his arm. He gritted his teeth against the sting of the blood reaching his fingertips and leaned his head wearily back against the rock.
Closing his eyes against the pain, he finally let go and surrendered to the darkness that had been calling to him for hours.
When Scott came to, it was to find his brother by his side, tying up the bandage on his arm again. He blinked away the cobwebs that clung to his mind.
Blood, glinting silver in the moonlight, ran down the left side of Johnny’s face from an open gash that ran from the edge of his hairline back a good inch or more through his hair.
Seeing it, Scott struggled up. “You’re hurt!"
Johnny grinned reassuringly. “Just a scratch, brother,” he told him. “Nothin; to worry your head over.”
“Don’t be so damned casual, Johnny…ahh!” he exclaimed as Johnny tied the bandage off tightly. Everything went gray for a moment, but he clung to consciousness this time and hung on until his vision cleared again.
“Sorry, Scott,” Johnny said quietly.
“S’okay,” Scott managed to whisper.
“I’m gonna get you home now,” Johnny told him. He pulled out a canteen and opened it. Wiping the lip of it with his shirtsleeve, he held it to his brother’s mouth and tilted it to allow Scott to swallow enough to quench his thirst.
“Thanks,” Scott said, strength slowly seeping back into his body and echoing in his voice. “What happened up there?”
“It was Nate Pierce,” Johnny explained briefly. “Murdoch fired him a few days back. Seems like he didn’t like it much.”
“Dead? Yeah, he went for the rifle.”
Scott eyed his brother’s bleeding head and nodded. “Looks to me like he got to it.”
Johnny smiled boyishly. “Yeah.”
“Let me look at it,” Scott demanded, and struggled to sit up straight, but Johnny would have none of it and pulled back away from him.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it. I’m goin’ to get you home.”
“Johnny!” Scott tried to insist.
“Nope. Now, you wait here a minute. I’ll get the horse.”
“Pierce’s horse,” he explained as he got to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”
Johnny went to collect the horse. He’d tethered him to some scrub a few yards away.
H didn’t like the look of his brother. He’d found him unconscious with the bandage untied and bleeding freely. He was pale and starting to get feverish, and Johnny was afraid that the wound was getting infected. Scott needed treatment, and he needed it soon.
He led the horse back to where he’d left Scott and found him leaning back against the rock. His closed eyes and the frown on his face told Johnny that he was in a lot more pain than he was admitting to.
“Scott?” he said quietly as he approached. He hoped his brother was only resting and not unconscious. He’d be difficult to heave onto that horse in that case. Johnny had to admit, to himself, if not to his brother, that he felt pretty lousy himself.
His head felt as though that bullet graze had split it in two. His vision kept blurring, and dizziness was becoming a problem.
But he was going to get Scott home. He’d made up his mind on that much.
Scott opened his eyes and turned his head towards Johnny’s voice, but, even from this distance and in the dark, Johnny could see the pain in them. Scott had lost a lot of blood, particularly in the time that he had been taking care of Pierce.
Johnny led the horse to his brother’s side.
“Alright, big brother, let’s get you up.”
He took Scott’s good arm and put his own arm around his back and then lifted him to his feet. Scott was unsteady at first, so Johnny let him sit on the rock for a minute to catch his breath, supporting him so that he didn’t fall.
“You ready?” he asked him after a while.
He got a nod of the head and a faint “Yes” in reply, so he helped him to his feet. He lifted Scott’s foot into the stirrup and Scott took hold of the pommel and leaned against the horse for just a moment.
The animal edged away nervously. Johnny thought Scott would fall for sure, but he whispered reassurances to the horse and kept control of it long enough for Scott to straighten up again.
“Think you can make it?” Johnny asked him anxiously and got a silent nod in reply.
“Okay then, Boston. Up you go,” he said, and boosted his brother up into the saddle. He saw Scott waver for a second or two and then steady himself.
Johnny picked up the canteen and hooked it over the pommel, and then hoisted himself up behind Scott. He put his arms around his brother and took hold of the reins.
Scott said nothing and his head was already lolling forward. Johnny made sure that he had a firm hold of him.
“This is gonna be a long trip home,” he told himself, and nudged the horse forward.
Murdoch had run out of steam and stopped pacing some hours ago, but he knew something was wrong. He was only waiting for first light to get the men together and send out search parties. Neither of his boys had come home.
He knew that they had been working together yesterday, so they would have looked out for each other. If there was anything in this world he could be sure of, it was that. Those two had become so close that he almost envied them.
They trusted each other implicitly and each would willingly die for the other – a thought on which he tried not to dwell just at the moment.
They would help each other out of trouble, and he had sickening feeling that there was trouble right now. They could probably have walked in by now if one of the horses was lame. If one of them was hurt, the other had had time now to get back and get help…unless…
Unless what? That was what was worrying him. Were they both hurt? Was one of them hurt so badly that the other could not leave him? He’d gone over one possibility after another in his mind, and had worried his way through the night.
Teresa had sat reassuring him patiently for hours, too, but she hadn’t fooled him. He’d seen how worried she was as well.
She’d finally dropped off to sleep only an hour ago, still sitting in an armchair in the Great Room.
Jelly had come knocking on the door in the early hours of the morning, wondering if Murdoch had any idea of where Johnny and Scott were. Murdoch was sure that he was still up now too, and probably pacing just as he had been.
For what seemed like the hundredth time that night, he went to the big French windows and looked down the drive towards the great arch. The first signs of dawn were appearing and cast gray shadows across the ranch, giving the land an eerie look.
He could barely see as far as the arch, but he could just make it out – and this time his heart missed a beat.
There was a rider coming up the drive, just reaching the arch, and moving at a slow pace.
Murdoch ran for the door, calling for Jelly as he opened it and ran into the yard. He stopped when he heard Jelly running up behind him.
“What is it, Boss?” he heard the old man shout.
“There’s a rider coming,” Murdoch told him quickly. “It might be one of the boys.”
Jelly peered out into the half-light. “Or both of ‘em, Murdoch. Looks t’me like that horse is carryin’ two men.”
“Well, come on, Jelly. Let’s go see,” Murdoch called to him, already running towards the horse.
Jelly was right behind him as he ran to the end of the yard and stopped for a moment as the last rays of moonlight caught the ash-blond head of his eldest son, slumped forward on the horse. He could just about make out Johnny’s dark head behind him.
“It is them!” he shouted and caught the animal’s bridle as it came to a stop beside him.
There wasn’t a word from either of his sons. Scott was obviously unconscious, and Johnny looked done in as well.
“It’s alright, Johnny,” he told his son calmly, more calmly than he felt. His heart was beating hard and fast, with fear for Scott. “Let him go, son. I’ll take him.”
Johnny didn’t move or say a word, so Murdoch reassured him. “Let him go, Johnny. I’ll take him from here.”
This time, Johnny seemed to hear him and he looked at him questioningly before he released his grip on his brother and let him slide sideways from the saddle.
Murdoch reached up and pulled Scott down into his arms. The bandage on his arm, the blood-soaked clothes and his pale face told him more than enough for the time being. What happened was obvious, the how and why could be answered later.
He looked up at Johnny, who still hadn’t moved, and there was enough light now to see his face. Blood covered the whole left side of his face. His shirt was stained red too. That might be Scott’s blood, but it wasn’t Scott’s blood on his face, and he looked dazed and pale.
Teresa joined them at that moment, no doubt roused by the shouting, and she gasped at her first sight of the two young men.
“I’ll go get bandages and alcohol,” she called, already running back for the house.
“Jelly, grab him! Quickly!” Murdoch shouted in horror as he saw his younger son’s eyes close just before he fell sideways into Jelly’s waiting arms.
Johnny struggled through the fog to open his eyes. He could hear his name being called quietly and he tried to answer it, but he couldn’t seem to make his voice work.
He frowned and swallowed hard, then tried again.
“Murdoch?” he managed to say at last.
“It’s alright, son. You’re doing fine,” Murdoch told him softly.
Johnny frowned again. There was something that he knew he had to ask, but it wouldn’t come to him right away.
He struggled to clear his mind and finally, he remembered and panicked.
He lunged forward in the bed, but Murdoch caught him and forced him carefully back against the pillows.
“It’s alright, Johnny,” Murdoch assured him again. “Scott’s okay. Sam’s taken the bullet out and patched him up as good as new. He’s weak, but he’s going to be just fine.”
Murdoch watched his son visibly relax.
“Now, what about you, son? How’s the head?”
“Feels like it’s broke in two,” Johnny answered with a faint smile.
“Doc Jenkins said you’d have a headache for a day or two – and a new part in your hair for a bit longer,” Murdoch told him with a grin.
Johnny pushed himself up into a sitting position and leaned back against the bedhead. He put his hand up to his head and found it heavily bandaged.
The events of last night began to come back to him. At least, he thought it was last night.
“How long have I been out?”
“Most of the day. You were exhausted, son.”
“Then, it’s still Saturday?”
Murdoch grinned. “Yes, it’s still Saturday. Is that important?”
Johnny looked at him uncertainly. “Yeah, it’s poker night in town. Wouldn’t want to miss a good game.”
His father shook his head emphatically. “Oh, you’re not going to be leaving this bed for at least a couple of days. Doctor’s orders. No poker game for you tonight, Johnny.”
“I wanna see Scott,” Johnny told him petulantly.
It was pretty plain that today meant nothing whatsoever to his father, but he knew that his brother had remembered, and that was important to him. Besides, he wanted to see Scott and make sure that he really was okay, as Murdoch had told him.
Murdoch frowned briefly before answering.
“Well, I don’t see why not. I guess you can go that far for a short visit, and then you can come right back here to bed. Deal?”
“Scott’s awake and worrying about you anyway. It’ll do you both good.”
Johnny sat down on the side of Scott’s bed, one leg hanging over the side and the other tucked under him.
“How’re ya doin’, brother?” he asked, trying to sound cheerful.
Scott smiled back at him. “Oh, I’m fine, but are you supposed to be out of bed?”
“Nope,” his brother answered with unusual candor, and looked up as Murdoch came into the room. “But I got permission,” he added and grinned broadly.
Teresa followed Murdoch into the room with an ominous looking tray in her hands, and Jelly was right behind her.
Murdoch stopped and looked at his sons – Johnny, with his head swathed in clean white bandages, and Scott, still pale enough to worry him, his heavily wrapped right arm cradled in a sling. He’d come close to losing both of them. Again. And this time there wouldn’t have been any hope of a reunion, at least not in this life.
Teresa carefully placed the tray on the table near the window and set about pouring milk into the five glasses she had brought in on it.
“Milk, Teresa?” Scott complained, eying it distastefully.
“Buttermilk,” she corrected him with a brilliant smile.
“You two look like you b’n in a war or somethin’,” Jelly told them, shaking his head. “Can’t let ya loose for jest a few minutes without ya get yourselves into hot water. Jest natural-born magnets for trouble, ain’t ya?”
Johnny grinned and looked back at his brother. While it was good to see him sitting up and looking better, he still thought Scott looked ill. “Well now, Jelly, I guess it’s part of bein’ a Lancer,” Johnny quipped as he turned back to face the old man.
“Huh,” was all the answer he got from Jelly, but Murdoch had something more important to say to all of them.
“I wanted all of you here, together,” he began awkwardly. “Because we have something to celebrate today. I had planned on breaking open a good bottle of champagne that I’ve been keeping for the occasion, but since you two are specifically banned from alcohol for the time being, I guess we’ll all just have to join you in toasting with buttermilk instead.”
“Occasion, Murdoch?” Johnny asked with a teasing gleam in his eyes. “So, did you remember all by yourself, or did Teresa remind ya?”
“No, son, I remembered it all by myself,” Murdoch assured him with a mocking frown. “I’m hurt that you’d even think that I wouldn’t.”
He watched his younger son squirm uncomfortably for a moment, before putting him out of his misery, and smiling at him.
“Seriously,” he continued. “I waited far too many years, boys. I can’t tell you how much it means to me, having both of you here with me –with us.”
He passed a glass of milk to Jelly and then to each of his sons, first Johnny and then Scott, who took it a little awkwardly in his left hand. Then he handed one to Teresa before taking the last one for himself.
Johnny stared at the thick white liquid with open disdain, while Scott smiled gleefully at his expression. Then Johnny edged himself further onto the bed, lifted his legs up onto it and leaned back against the bedhead beside his brother. He crossed his legs at the ankles, his bare feet sticking out noticeably from the bottoms of his pants.
Murdoch surveyed them both critically and thanked God that he still had them both today. “It’s been a year of getting to know each other,” he began. “Of learning about each other, and trying to find ways to live together.”
He lifted the glass of milk and added, “Here’s to many more just like it.”
But, to his surprise, neither Scott nor Johnny joined him. Teresa had been about to take a sip when she too noticed their silence. “What’s wrong?” she asked anxiously.
Scott looked first at his brother beside him, and then back at his father and answered, innocence sparkling in his eyes. “Well, Murdoch,” he began. “We no sooner got here than Johnny got shot in the back by Pardee.”
Johnny continued for him. “An’ then Scott got hit in the shoulder when Dan Cassidy came after him.”
Scott turned his head towards Johnny again. “And you got knocked pretty hard on the head that time, too.”
Johnny shook his head dismissively. “No, that don’t count.”
Scowling, Scott asked him, “Why not?”
“Didn’t bleed,” Johnny answered without hesitation.
“Oh,” Scott said, nodding. “Sorry, I didn’t realize there were guidelines.”
“Sure, no blood – no wound. Don’t count,” Johnny assured him and then continued. “But then there was the time…”
“Alright,” Murdoch laughed, stopping their banter. “I get the point. I guess it hasn’t all been clear sailing. Maybe we don’t want it ‘exactly’ like the last year.”
The brothers grinned mischievously at him, while Teresa giggled and Jelly chuckled quietly.
“So, do either of you have something better to offer?” he asked them.
Scott looked around the room at the people who had become so important to him now. He couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, or without any of them.
He glanced at Jelly and smiled, thinking how the gruff little man had brought laughter and his own rare form of honesty and wisdom into their lives.
And there was Teresa, whose lovely face and eternally optimistic outlook on life hid a strong personality that was more than a match for any of them. She seemed to have grown into quite a young lady since she had met them at the stage that day.
He studied Murdoch, the man he had longed for and loathed when he was growing up so far away in Boston. He’d come to respect him and to love him as his father.
And then there was Johnny – the brother he hadn’t known existed until a year ago. He was such a complicated young man – both dangerous and gentle, all wrapped in one self-effacing package.
Scott’s own self-confident, trusting and easy-going nature had allowed him to accept that young stranger for what he was – his ‘long lost brother’. It was really just that simple.
“To many more years together,” he said finally, lifting the glass up. He glanced again at Johnny beside him, whose head was lowered in thought, before adding - “Long and happy ones.”
Johnny smiled before he looked up decisively. It was a lop-sided smile that was all his own. “Yeah,” he said in agreement with Scott. He lifted the glass up to tap it against the one that Scott held with a musical clink as glass met glass.
He smiled at the others
in the room, before adding, with simple pleasure, “To family.”