The fire burned hot and bright, just like the sun above them. It seemed like summer was going on forever this year and there was a lot of it left yet.
One man squatted at the campfire, poking the embers with an iron rod in one hand to make them flare up hotter still, while he wiped the droplets of sweat out of his eyes with the other.
He looked around him nervously and then prodded the fire again. A breeze picked at his sleeve, too hot and carrying too much dust with it to bring any relief but it spun up a tiny dust devil that twisted and danced for his amusement for a moment before collapsing in on itself.
He hoped their lookout was wide-awake. Sure, it had taken no time at all to haze a few strays out of the sagebrush and rocks that were scattered around the draw; and yes, they were miles from the main herd and the likelihood of running into any of the ranch’s vaqueros was low but still, they were too exposed out here in the open for his liking.
Behind him was the rolling hillside where their lookout lay stretched out watching for interruptions. There was enough view from there to see anyone coming from a long way off.
He had no desire to get caught with the running iron in his hand. Just being in possession of one could get a man a prison sentence, but being caught red-handed using it would get him strung up – legally or otherwise. Yet it was worth the risk. It paid a whole lot better than the twenty a month and board that most cowboys earned.
“What’s taking so long, Bert?” his impatient colleague growled, still struggling with the steer’s head and pulling back quickly, away from a lethal horn that could easily have put him in an early grave.
“Hey, this ain’t no easy brand to change,” Bert replied, irritated.
“Well, we’re not lookin’ for no artwork. Jest get it done.”
Finished, Bert leaned back and surveyed his handiwork. It would pass and that was all that mattered. He stood up and tossed the running iron aside.
The man holding the steer’s head leaned forward to look and, with an aggravated “It’ll do,” he released his grip on the animal.
Getting to his feet, he loosened the ropes around its legs and let it struggle to its feet. In short order, it steadied itself and ran bawling the few yards to rejoin the small group of cattle in the rough-hewn sagebrush corral.
“That all of ‘em, Reb?” Bert asked.
“Yeah, that’s it. No point in pushin’ our luck. Let’s go.”
Reb was standing by his horse, coiling his rope. He stood a daunting ten inches over the tallest of the rest of the rest of the men but he was so thin that it seemed even a breeze would snap him in half. His gaunt face and deep cut frown lines on his brow gave away nothing of his age. It was all too misleading, Bert feared Reb Jarred more that any man he’d ever met, bar one – and that was the man they both worked for.
The remaining two men were both on their feet and dusting themselves off, watching Reb and waiting for instructions.
Reb walked over to his horse and hooked the rope over the pommel, then ran his hand through hair and pulled on his hat. He turned back to them.
“Best we get ‘em movin’ and get the hell outa here. No tellin’ who mighta spotted the smoke from that fire.”
He swung up into the saddle. “Charlie, I want you to follow behind us. Grab a chunk o’ that brush an’ get rid of all the tracks you can. We don’t want to go leavin’ no trail for ‘em.”
The sound of approaching hoof beats had him unsheathing his rifle and squinting into the sun to see who was coming.
A cloud of dust rose as the rider drew close and Reb relaxed as he recognized him.
“You all done?” the newcomer asked.
“Yeah, all done, Jess.”
“Then get the hell outa here,” he snapped. “This is Lancer land and those are Lancer cattle… and I don’t want to risk running into any of the Lancer men.”
Johnny Lancer stood up straight to stretch the crick out of his back. He turned to look at the row of posts he and Scott had already put in the ground today and felt a twinge of satisfaction. But looking over his shoulder, back to where Scott was still digging with the crowbar, he saw how much further they still had to go and his satisfaction disintegrated into dismay.
Johnny hated this work. More than anything else about working a ranch, this chore was the one that he would gladly give up. It was no game for a gunfighter; that was certain.
He suspected that Scott felt the same way. He’d tried to get out of the job this morning, pleading his case by offering to take some of the bookwork off Murdoch’s hands.
It had been a good try, but he hadn’t fooled anyone, least of all Murdoch. Scott had shrugged his shoulders and walked away to the barn to saddle his horse and Johnny had hung back long enough to see the gleam of amusement in Murdoch’s eyes.
Johnny walked over to Barranca and pulled the canteen from his saddle. After a long swallow, he poured a little over his head and savored the cool relief as it ran down his face and neck and trickled over his shirtless torso. It was hot work, digging postholes and stringing wire. He shook his head so that the last droplets flew in every direction, then he returned to Scott and offered the canteen to him. “Have some?”
“Thanks.” Scott took a mouthful and gave the canteen back to his brother. He swiped his forearm across his brow. Unlike Johnny, his only allowance for the heat was his sleeves rolled up to his biceps and an extra button undone. His shirt was wet front and back with sweat and Johnny wondered how he could stand it.
Taking a breath, Scott looked down the row of posts. “How many do you think we’ve done today?”
“Close to a dozen, I’d say. Could’ve done more if that ground wasn’t so damned hard.”
“You can say that again.” He sighed heavily. “You know we’re not goin’ to get it all done today.”
“Yeah, I know, and I don’t think my back will stand another day of this.”
Johnny ran his fingers through his wet hair and shoved a damp tendril out of his eyes. “You know, it’s a funny thing about this ranching.”
“Well, aren’t we supposed to be owners of this place? Don’t we pay men to do this kinda thing for us?”
Scott lifted an eyebrow and thought about it. He grinned. “I’ve considered that question myself more than once, Brother.”
“Seems to me we should be back home, sittin’ on the porch, feet up an’ sipping on a tall cool glass of Teresa’s fresh made lemonade.”
“Shut up and get back to work.”
Johnny laughed and slapped his brother hard on the back. He leaned over to look into the hole Scott was digging. “I think that’s deep enough. Shove in the post and I’ll fill her in. You move on up the line an’ start on the next one.”
“Actually, I will fill it in and YOU can move on up the line and start on the next one.”
“Hey, Scott! Johnny!”
Johnny heard the shout and looked up. There was a rider coming and he was in one hell of a hurry. “Ain’t that the new kid - Harry?”
“Yes, looks like him.” Scott dropped the fence post to the ground and dusted off his hands.
“Wonder what’s lit a fire under his tail.”
The rider had nearly reached them already. Johnny grabbed for the shirt that he had draped over his saddle and pulled it on over his sweat-covered back but didn’t take the time to button it.
Harry’s horse skidded to a halt, raising a cloud of choking dust and Johnny hurried forward to take the bridle and settle the animal for him. Harry Bilson, eighteen-year-old newcomer to the Lancer crew, was in a lather of excitement. He was panting heavily from the hard ride.
“Harry, what’s up?” Johnny asked, worried now.
“Saw some smoke. Over at the foot of North Mesa. Figured you an’ Scott’d want to know.”
Scott stepped forward anxiously. “Grass fire?”
Johnny drew a deep breath. That was all they needed. The days had been hot and dry for weeks now and fire was a constant fear. It could wipe out what was left of the grazing in a matter of hours if it really got going, not to mention the risk to man and animal.
“No, not enough smoke to be that. This was more like a campfire. Shouldn’ta been there though.”
“Could be a drifter,” Johnny suggested, glancing at Scott and looking for his reaction.
Harry nodded. “Yeah, could be. Could be somethin’ else too.”
“You haven’t taken a look?” Scott asked.
“No, Sir, I ain’t.” Harry was emphatic and Johnny bit back on a smile. The boy had only been with them for six weeks. He was the son of a storekeeper but already his sandy hair had bleached blonder from the sun; the freckles on his nose and cheeks were indiscernible under his tan and his gangly figure was building up with muscle. He was proving to be a good worker, young and keen to be a top hand. Like everyone else, he wore a gun at his hip but he wasn’t eager to find trouble. No one had ever seen him use it and many wondered if he even knew how. Harry liked things simple.
“Scott, Brother, how do you feel about leavin’ the postholes and goin’ to see what that campfire is?”
“Johnny, I think it’s our duty to check it out,” Scott answered ironically. “The postholes will have to wait.”
“You reckon Murdoch will think so?”
Scott smiled. “I believe he will.”
Johnny swung up into the saddle. “Then get a move on. Our stranger could up an’ leave before we get there if you keep on standin’ with that shovel in your hands.”
“And that would never do, would it?” Scott answered, grinning. He tossed the shovel and left it where it landed, then ran to his horse and mounted quickly. “Harry, can you show us where you saw this smoke?”
“Sure, Scott. “ He turned his horse back the way he had come and led the way.
Thirty minutes later, the three of them were within sight of the campfire. They stopped on a rise above it to take a careful look but they could see that it was abandoned and dying down. Near it was a roughly built corral, made of brush and saplings.
The three men slowly urged their horses forward and took a good look around them before making their way cautiously down the hillside to the corral and fire.
“Are we supposed to have any crews around here, Scott?” Johnny asked.
“No, I don’t recall Murdoch ordering anyone up here.”
“Me neither. Doesn’t take much figuring to know what’s been going on. Looks like we missed the party.”
“Not by long either,” Scott remarked as they reached the dying fire. The embers no longer glowed, but wisps of smoke drifted upwards from it.
Johnny dismounted and walked over to the corral. He needed only a quick look around the ground. “Rustlers… changing brands.”
Scott nodded. “Yes. I wonder how many they got.”
He was about to dismount but Johnny put up a hand to stop him. “You and Harry stay where you are. I want to check around for tracks first.”
Johnny searched for signs of which way they’d left. He stopped now and then, squatting to look more closely before moving on, but ten minutes later he snatched his hat off his head and slammed it against his leg.
“Nothing, Johnny?” Scott called to him.
Johnny turned around and walked back to join them. “Not much. Whole area’s been scratched clean with branches. We’ll get Val up here. He might be able to pick something up, but from anything I can find, they could’ve gone off in just about any direction.”
“They wouldn’t have headed west, Johnny” Harry pointed out. “That’d take them up into the hills. That wouldn’t do ‘em no good.”
“Unless they’ve got themselves a hideout up there. You know what those hills are like. If we had every man on Lancer to search out all the hiding places up there, it’d still take a month to cover it all.”
“If I’d checked on that smoke when I first saw it, I might have seen ‘em,” Harry said. His head hung low, accentuating the remorse on his face.
Johnny frowned at him and added firmly. “And you might be dead too, Harry. One thing’s sure, there was more than one of them in this. You did the smart thing.”
“Did you find anything to indicate how many there were at least?” Scott asked.
“Everything here is too scuffed up to be sure but I’d say three or four at least.”
Scott dismounted and walked his horse over to where Johnny had stopped. “I don’t recall ever having had rustlers, Johnny. At least not since you and I have been here,” he said. “But you know we’ve been hearing about a lot of it going on up north.”
“An’ no one’s had so much as a glimpse of them either,” Harry added.
“Yeah, not many of them would be ready to take on Lancer,” Johnny pointed out. “So they’re either stupid or confident; and I ain’t seen anything to make me think they’re stupid so far.”
“They say that Harper gang doesn’t care who they take on. Hal McHenry had some stolen last month and his ranch has a well-armed crew.”
Johnny was quiet, thinking. He’d been doing a lot of thinking about it since the name started popping up over the last couple of months.
“This was pretty brazen,” Scott added. “Changing brands out here in the open, in broad daylight.”
“Kinda risky,” Harry commented.
Scott nodded. “Or well organized, like they say.”
“Like these guys? Yeah, it’s probably the same gang who have moved onto our range,” Johnny agreed at last. He put aside what he’d been thinking. It was something to worry about later. Right now, the one certain thing was that they had rustlers who weren’t afraid of the Lancer name… or his own, whoever they were and wherever they were from.
He looked around again. “I’d say they weren’t here for long. Too much risk. Probably didn’t get more than ten or so.”
“Murdoch will not be happy,” Scott said dourly.
“Murdoch will be unhappy if they only got one!” Johnny replied. Then he looked at his brother. “You want to tell him?”
“No. I thought perhaps that you would.”
“Oh boy, no...”
A gleam lit Scott’s eyes. “Maybe we could send Harry back with word while we keep looking around. Maybe we’ll pick up some tracks further out.”
Johnny looked up at Harry and nearly burst out laughing at the fear on his face. He bit back on the urge to laugh and answered mischievously. “Watch out, Scott, that yellow streak of yours is showing.”
Scott sighed heavily. “Yes, and only Murdoch can bring it out.” He laughed. “Don’t worry Harry, Johnny and I will take care of telling Murdoch.”
“The rest of it wasn’t a bad idea though. If we split up and ride out in different directions, we might pick up a trail. They won’t cover their tracks forever.”
“They may not be far ahead, Johnny. I don’t think that any of us want to come up on them alone?”
“No. If we do this, it’s only to find tracks. No heroes.”
“I’m all for that, Brother.”
Johnny swung up onto Barranca. “Each of us picks a direction. We look for tracks and don’t get outa sight of each other. Right? You got that, Harry?”
Harry nodded. “Okay, Johnny.”
“Alright, let’s go.”
Johnny urged Barranca forward while Scott and the kid peeled off in other directions. Each walked their horses slowly, scanning the ground for any tracks.
“Oh, and if you find anything,” Johnny called back over his shoulder, “yell out. Don’t go any further. We’ll need clean sign to follow.”
An hour later, with the sun starting to drop behind the far off hills, Johnny had still found nothing. The ground was packed hard from scorching sun and lack of rain, and he knew that there was little hope of finding anything in this direction.
He looked to his right and watched Harry looking carefully at the ground and knew that he hadn’t found anything either.
Johnny turned around in the saddle. “Scott, you find anything?”
“No point wasting any more time then. We’re gonna run outa good light soon.” Johnny turned Barranca and headed back to the campfire where Harry and Scott joined him. “We’d better get back and tell Murdoch. I’ll go into Green River tomorrow and tell Val, get him out here in the morning and maybe he’ll find something.”
“They’ll be long gone by then,” Scott argued.
Johnny felt his blood begin to boil. “They’re long gone now, Scott! An’ if you can tell me which way to follow them, I’ll go now.”
He stopped and regretted his outburst immediately. He dropped his head and closed his eyes. “Sorry.”
“I know. It’s frustrating,” Scott wiped his sleeve across his face. “They can’t have just ridden off with the cattle and disappeared.”
“No, there’s some sign somewhere. But it’s gonna take some finding.”
“Let’s go then. We’d better get back to the hacienda and tell Murdoch.”
Jess Harper sat at the table alone, ruminating over the letter in his hand. He had read it, folded and unfolded it and then read it again, trying to come to a decision about what to do about it… or whether he should do anything about it at all.
His finely chiseled face wore a deep frown and his mouth creased at one side as he worried his bottom lip. Finally, frustrated by his own unaccustomed lack of decisiveness, he dropped the letter onto the table and ran his fingers through his thick dark hair.
“Something wrong, Pard?”
It was Slim, his best friend, partner and, in some ways, his savior. If Jess had never landed a job at Slim’s ranch, who knew where he’d be now? Or what he’d be doing? It wasn’t something that Jess liked to think about.
He looked up. Slim stood in the doorway, tall enough to take up most of it and the sun behind him glinting off his fair hair. “Yeah, some… I guess.”
Slim walked over to stand behind him. “What is it, Jess? Bad news?”
“Kinda,” he replied distractedly. “Got this letter from an old friend, someone I used to ride with years ago.”
He slammed his hands down hard enough to make the page lift and drop. “You read it, Slim. I don’t know what to do about it.”
Slim picked up the one page letter and took a moment to decipher the writing.
“Jess,” he read aloud. “Been awhile and I ain’t much for putting words on paper. I heard you settled down out at Laramie but I got no address so I hope this finds you. I was real happy to hear you got outa the business, which is why I thought some before writing this letter to you. Fact is, there’s word going round here in the San Joaquin about a gunhawk who’s making a name for himself. He’s calling himself Jess Harper…”
Slim stopped and looked at Jess but Jess had nothing to say so he read on. “… and there’s some who recall the name from a few years back. He’s up to no good, Jess. Been in some nasty incidents and there’s whisperings about him being involved in cattle rustling. Now me, I know it ain’t Jess Harper. I know you better than that, but we both know these fellas who hide behind another man’s reputation, and what it can lead to. I’m doing my best here to find and stop him but I figured you might want to know what’s going on.”
Slim stopped and turned the page over before looking directly at Jess. “Using your name,” he commented. “That’s not good.”
“No,” Jess answered curtly. He glanced up and saw a worried look on his friend’s face.
“You’re not thinking of going out there, are you?” Slim demanded.
“Don’t be a fool! If this is true and there’s someone using your name, you could end up in trouble yourself. When the law catches up with him, they’ll find out the truth. Leave it to the law.”
“Maybe… but in the meantime, that’s my name he’s using, my reputation. What would you do?”
Slim pulled out a chair and sat down, the letter still in his hand. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t like it.”
“I have to stop it, Slim.”
“You could ride into a whole pack of trouble. If this ‘Jess Harper’ is wanted by the law, how do you prove it’s not you?”
“Thought about that, too.” Jess clenched his fist. “Been doing a lot of thinking.”
“And you’ve made up your mind?”
He stopped for a heartbeat and then nodded.“Yeah, I think I have,” he said. Now that he was putting it into words, he was sure of what he had to do. “I have to go. I can’t sit here and let this guy dirty my name.”
“You could ignore it. Your name’s good here, Jess. You’ve come a long way since your gunfighting days. You have respect here. There’s plenty of people in Laramie who would vouch for you. No one will touch you if someone came looking for you over this. Everyone knows you’ve been here.”
“Yeah, I know.” He gritted his teeth, determined now. “It’s kind of hard to explain, Slim.” He pushed himself out of the chair angrily and strode over to the fireplace. Leaning one hand on the mantle, he stared into the cold ashes.
Jess didn’t answer, not for a moment or two anyway. When he did, he still wasn’t sure what he was going to say.
“Look, Slim, whether you like it or not, I worked hard to build my reputation. It’s who I was, for a long time. I know it’s gonna be hard for you to understand but, it’s still part of me. Even here… now…”
“I thought you’d put all that behind you.”
“So did I.” He smiled at the irony of it all. “Daisy and Mike don’t even know much about it. I like it that way.”
“That’s true. So do you really want to drag it all up again?”
“No, of course not. But Slim, this guy is dragging my name through the mud, an’ mud sticks.”
“He’s in California. That’s a world away from here.”
Jess spun around to face Slim, his eyes flashing with the fire that had built inside him. “Yeah, he’s in California now. But if he’s running from the law, he could end up in Nevada, New Mexico… even over here. I’m the one who’d end up being wanted. I could end up getting hung!”
Slim sighed heavily and Jess knew that he had him thinking about it now.
Looking the letter over again, Slim asked, “Who is this man Val Crawford? You know him well? Trust him?”
“Like I said, we rode together some. He got himself a job as a deputy a couple of years ago and seems he liked it. He’s a sheriff now, over in California – Green River. Yeah, I trust him.”
“He says here that he’s doing what he can to put a stop to it.”
“Yeah, but this is my trouble.” He turned back and looked at the stonework around the fireplace.
His mind made up, he reached for the stone that he knew would be loose and pulled it out, pushed his hand into the hole and touched the cloth he had left there.
He pulled it out of its hiding place and unwrapped it, putting the cloth on the mantle and folding his fingers around the cold metal of his gun. He held it in the palm of his hand.
There was something beautiful about it… the familiar weight, the balance, the way it had been modified to a hair trigger. Not an ordinary gun, this one… this weapon fit his hand perfectly, like it was part of him. He curled his hand around it and savored the feel of it like a lost love.
For an instant he had forgotten that he wasn’t alone. Jess looked up but he didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure what to say to Slim. He’d given him a break and here he was, ready to walk away.
He tucked the barrel of the gun into the belt of his pants, pushed the stone back into place and turned back to Slim. His friend looked worried and Jess felt a strong sense of regret.
“Sorry, Slim, but this is something I have to do.”
Slim put down the letter and rubbed his hands together, obviously thinking hard. He was silent for a while.
“If you go,” he finally said. “I’m going with you.”
Jess shook his head emphatically. “No, Slim. You can’t. This is my problem, not yours.”
“My mind’s made up, Jess. If there’s any trouble, you’d be on your own out there. Who knows what could happen. No, we’re friends, and friends should back each other up.”
“Thanks, Slim, but I can’t have you risking your neck in this.”
“I don’t want you getting strung up as a cattle thief. How would I explain that to Daisy and Mike?”
“You could get yourself strung up alongside of me.”
Slim smiled. “Preferably not.”
“Thanks. I mean it. But what about the ranch… the stage?”
Slim nodded. “I can get Harry Meyers to keep an eye on things here. He’ll look after the stage changes too. He’s done it before.”
‘I dunno, Slim. You could end up in trouble with me.”
Slim laughed. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Sheriff, something has got to be done. This is the third raid on Lancer in three weeks. I’ve lost nearly thirty head of stock in those raids and they’re getting bolder… taking more each time.” Murdoch Lancer towered over Val Crawford, still sitting behind his desk, and his expression was thunderous. He towered over most men, including his two sons, both of whom were in the office with him, and he was a powerful man, in stature and in local politics.
In this mood, he was a sight that would make most men quake and back down but Val Crawford wasn’t ‘most men’. He stood his ground but let him talk. Over the years, and working as a lawman for a good few of them, Val had found that letting a man get it all off his chest before talking it over with him was better than arguing most of the time. Men tended to be more reasonable once they had said their piece.
“That’s over six hundred dollars in cold cash come market time, Val,” Scott added. “At this rate, they’ll bleed us and every ranch around here dry before long.”
Val glanced at Johnny, waiting for him to add something, but he just sat on the front edge of Val’s desk, idly rifling through the paperwork behind him.
“You find any tracks, Mr. Lancer?” Val asked quietly.
Murdoch stopped. He pulled his hat from his head and slammed it against his leg. “No, nothing. Just the corral they’d built for the stock. Same as all the other raids.”
“The frustrating part is that there’s no telling where they’ll show up next,” Scott told him. “This is the third corral we’ve found. They build them rough and quick, take the cattle and change the brands… and then get out of there, all in one day or less. Clean… quick – and right out in the open.”
“Well,” Val drawled. “I’ll come out an’ take a look around this latest one. See if I can find anything this time. I have to tell ya though, these fellas are real slippery. If I find anything it’ll be the first time.”
“You know as well as we do that Harper and his men are responsible. It was no secret when he was robbing the ranches blind up around Modesto,” Scott said coldly.
Val nodded. “An’ they couldn’t prove anything up there either. We got nothin’ to tie him or anyone else to any o’ these raids.”
“We know he’s around. He was in a gunfight in Visalia last week.”
“Gunfight!” Murdoch growled in disgust. “He killed a seventeen year old farm boy. That was plain murder.”
Val nodded. “Yessir, it was. The boy didn’t stand a chance. I heard he was pushed into it but the fact is, he drew first. There were plenty o’ witnesses to it. Sheriff had no choice but to let Harper go.” Val stomped over to the desk and nudged Johnny off. “We c’n know what we know, but we ain’t got a bit o’ proof against him, Scott, there’s nothin’ we can do. Soon as I get some, I’ll go after Harper. I’d like nothin’ better than to get hold o’ the man red-handed.”
Murdoch Lancer looked anything but satisfied but he nodded. “I suppose that will have to do then,” he said with bad grace.
“It’ll have to,” Val agreed, holding back the angry retort he’d have liked to make. Murdoch Lancer didn’t worry him over much, not as much as a lot of men in the valley. That wasn’t what stopped him saying more. It was that he was Johnny’s pa, and Johnny was his friend.
Of course, you could add to that that Val could understand the frustration the ranchers were feeling – losing cattle and damned sure they knew who was doing it, but with no proof and no arrests. The Lancers weren’t the only ones who were angry. Tempers were running short all around the county.
Val knew that he and the sheriffs in other towns hereabouts were trying to keep a lid on a powder keg. Unless they could get something on these rustlers soon, men might start taking things into their own hands. Vigilantism wasn’t new to California but it was dangerous and it was too easy to lay blame on the wrong man in the heat of the moment.
And that was another of his reasons for wanting to bring in this ‘Jess Harper’; maybe more than solving the rustling problem. The idea of the man messing with Jess’ name was his own secret and it was getting to him.
“We’ll head out then, Crawford,” Murdoch said, still understandably testy. “I’ll have Johnny go with you tomorrow morning to show you where we found that corral.”
Scott followed his father to the door, but looked back at Johnny who was still sitting on the edge of the desk. “Johnny? You coming?”
“In a minute, Scott. I’ll catch up with you.”
“Alright. We’ll be over at the general store. I have to see if the order is ready yet.”
“Won’t be long,” he told them as they walked out.
When they were gone, Val looked at Johnny. He had picked up the eraser from Val’s desk and was nonchalantly tossing it lightly into the air and catching it. To someone who didn’t know him well, Johnny looked perfectly at ease, even bored; but Val knew the tactic. Johnny was thinking.
Val caught the eraser when Johnny flipped it again. The casual appearance vanished.
“We got some talking to do, Val,” he said quietly, but with that coolness in his voice that Val recognized as the exact opposite. “’Bout Harper.”
“Why? You know him?” Val asked calmly.
“Heard of him. Never met him… You?”
Val thought about how to answer the question. He’d been hoping to avoid it for now but, if anyone would understand, it was likely to be Johnny. He sighed. “Yeah, I know him. Least I know Jess Harper.” He dropped the eraser onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. It creaked and groaned under his weight. He’d have to oil that one of these days.
Johnny didn’t seem fazed by the news. “Friend of yours?”
“We rode together some, back in Texas. Yeah, he’s a friend, but I ain’t seen him in years.”
“You ain’t draggin’ your heels on this, are you?”
Val turned on him, glaring angrily. “That what you think?”
“I don’t know, Val. I don’t want to think so. I think I know you better than that, but if he’s a friend of yours, well, I probably wouldn’t blame you.”
“Just so’s ya know, Jess works on a ranch over Laramie way. He’s been outa the game for a while now. Longer even than you have.”
Val watched Johnny stand up and walk across the room to pour himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove. He poured a second one and brought it over to offer to Val. “Thanks,” he mumbled ungraciously, taking the hot mug.
“This guy workin’ around here isn’t Harper, is he?”
Val sighed heavily and scratched at the two-day-old beard on his face. “I ain’t seen this fella, Johnny, but no, it ain’t him.”
Johnny dropped his head, a sure sign to Val that he had something on his mind. “Val,” Johnny began. “You given any thought to the chance that this just might be Jess Harper?”
“Nope, never considered it. It ain’t him.”
“You sound awful sure.”
“As sure as I would be if he was callin’ himself Madrid.” Val snapped. He watched Johnny’s face intently and thought he saw a small measure of relief there. Val was surprised. “What made you think it ain’t Jess?”
Johnny shrugged. “Lotta things. There was plenty of talk about Harper when I was working, but nothing I ever heard made me think he was a bad one. This guy IS a bad one. He doesn’t match anything I’ve ever heard of Harper. I know people change but…”
“Not that much,” Val finished for him. “Johnny, you know better’n anyone ‘bout men usin’ your name, livin’ off your reputation.”
“Yeah, I know.” He sat down on the edge of the desk again. “You got any idea who’s doing it?”
“Nope. But I’m gonna get him.”
“It’s not just gonna be about gettin’ him. You have to prove that he’s not Harper as well.”
“Might not be easy. Tempers are running pretty hot around here and the name they’re all hearing is Harper.”
“Don’t much care how easy it is. Jess doesn’t deserve to have his name dragged around by this bastard.”
“Let me know what I can do to help then.”
“Thanks. We’ll see what we can come up with tomorrow.”
He watched as Johnny put down the coffee cup and then pulled his hat up from behind him and settled it on his head. Val marveled that the man could make even the little things look like he was getting ready for something.
“Okay, I’ll see you in the morning, Val.”
“Sure.” Val grinned. “Early, Johnny. Don’t you go sleepin’-in in that big soft bed you got.”
Johnny smiled and closed the door behind him. Leaving the sheriff’s office, he gave thought to the question of Jess Harper as he walked down the street. Like he had told Val, he had heard of him. Men in their line of work tended to hear about each other. They kept up with the rumors and stories about each other. Sometimes you could get an idea of a man’s weaknesses from the little things in those stories and that could come in useful if you had to face him later.
He had never heard anything particularly bad about Jess Harper back then and nothing much at all over the last few years. He’d gone quiet a few years ago and that tended to confirm Val’s story. But a few months ago, that had changed. The name Jess Harper was loathed around the whole San Joaquin Valley now. The rustling was bad enough but the killing of young Toby Willett, a boy who had never been in a fight in his life before that fatal day, had outraged every man and woman in the valley.
It had not been the first such killing in the last few months, though it was the worst. Johnny had heard of three other gunfights, all of them against men who hadn’t stood much chance of beating the man to the draw. Two had died, though the third had been luckier. He had survived, though badly wounded.
All of the incidents had turned Johnny’s stomach. It was the work of a coward, even if he was fast. Johnny felt the inclination to show him just what it was like to stand up against someone who could fight him on even ground.
Johnny sighed heavily as he stopped for a moment before crossing the street to join Scott at the General Store. He trusted Val’s judgment of a man, but he also knew that Val Crawford was a loyal friend. He had admitted that he hadn’t seen Harper for a while and, like he had said, a man can change. For all Val knew, Harper might have tired of ranch work and gone back to gunfighting… and worse. Val might not like it, but it had to be considered.
He shook away the thoughts and crossed the street to where Scott was hefting the last sack of flour into the back of the buckboard. Scott straightened up, took off his hat and swiped his sleeve across his brow, and then smiled at his brother.
“You’re just in time to miss all the work,” Scott said ironically.
“Yeah, I was watching from Val’s window. Figured it was mostly done, so I thought I’d come on over.”
Scott swatted him with his hat and laughed.
“When you two have finished, we have to get home,” Murdoch said as he came out of the store. “All done, Boys?”
“All done,” Scott agreed, stepping aside to allow Murdoch to climb onto the seat of the buckboard and pick up the reins.
“Good, let’s get home then.”
Johnny was ready and waiting with Barranca already saddled first thing next morning. He was still waiting when he finally caught sight of the sheriff passing under the Lancer arch and heading towards him.
A grin lighted on Johnny’s face as he watched Val come to a stop in front of the hacienda. “Oooo-ee! Don’t you look like somethin’ the cat dragged in?”
He got a scowl and a grouch in response. “I ain’t in no mood for your sass, John.”
“Oh, I can see that. Get down and come in for a cup of coffee. You’ll need to be able to keep your eyes open if you’re gonna be any use today. What happened, anyway?”
Val dismounted and walked inside with Johnny. “Couple o’ the HM boys got rowdy last night. Too much liquor an’ too few brains.”
Val flung a scowl his way. “Yeah, tore up the Last Chance real good so I put ‘em in a cell each for the night.”
They reached the kitchen and Johnny fetched the coffee pot off the stove and grabbed a couple of cups. Back at the table, he poured one for each of them while Val took a chair.
Johnny pulled out the chair opposite and sat down. He wouldn’t have thought it possible for Val to look worse than his usual slovenly self but, this morning, he did. “So I’m guessin’ you had to stay the night too?”
“Yeah.” Val sipped the coffee and lounged back in the chair. “Damned cot there ain’t fit for a dog. I reckon I’ve slept on rocks that were more comfortable.”
“You got no sleep, huh?”
“Not so’s you’d notice, no. Top o’ that, Frank an’ Tom were hard at it yellin’ half the night an’ snorin’ loud enough to lift the roof off the jail the other half.”
Johnny laughed. “Val, you wouldn’t be happy if you weren’t griping.” Sitting back, he hooked one arm over the back of his chair, sipping coffee from the cup in the other. “So, do I know these cowboys?”
“Could be. Frank Lockhart and Chas Miller from the HM.”
“Played poker with ‘em once or twice. I thought they were friends.”
“Might be, but it seems they ended up arguin’ over some little gal they both got their eye on.”
“That right? Which girl?”
“Delores Carmody, the banker’s daughter.”
A wicked gleam appeared in Johnny’s eye as he lifted one corner of his mouth into a wry smile. “That right? That’s too bad.”
“’Cause Delores Carmody has her eye on Scott.”
Val’s eyes widened and his eyebrows rose. “Scott? You reckon?”
“Teresa warned him the other day.”
Both laughed and finished up, then headed back to the yard, mounted and headed out to the area where the latest of the thefts had taken place.
They passed vaqueros with the main herd and then made their way further up the vast San Joaquin Valley. It was a few hours’ ride to the north pasture and there were times when it seemed to Johnny that Lancer must take up most of the huge valley. He knew it didn’t, just a good-sized chunk of it.
“Looks awful dry out here, Johnny,” Val said, looking around him as they neared the spot.
It was only midway through summer but the green of spring had already burned off in this part of the ranch. The grass had dried to the color and texture of straw. The leaves on the trees scattered around the valley hung languid and lackluster from their branches.
The raucous calls of a half dozen crows added to the forlorn feeling of the landscape. A ‘murder’ of crows – that was what Scott had told him they were called. Johnny thought it was an ironically appropriate term. He never had had much fondness for them. Somehow, the cawing of a crow – or several – left him with an empty, lonely feeling.
“This is always the first part of the ranch to dry out. The creeks here are shallow, don’t carry enough water to last long in the summer,” Johnny told him. Murdoch had explained that to him and Scott when he had first showed them over the ranch, two years ago. Those two summers had proved him right. “We moved the main herd out of here a few weeks ago, down to the south pasture. We've mostly got just strays and young breeding stock here now but there' a few of them.”
“Better grass down there?”
Johnny nodded. “And water. It’ll last a while and then we’ll move them up into the foothills.”
“Ol’ Murdoch really knew how to pick himself a piece o’ land,” Val said, sounding impressed for once.
“Yeah. He’s smarter than he looks.” Johnny smiled. “Well, he didn’t start with all of it, Val. He built it up over the years.”
“A lotta hard work, I reckon.”
“I’d say so.” It was a funny thing that, while Murdoch wouldn’t talk about the past in relation to Scott or himself and why they had grown up as they had, he would always talk about the ranch. He would tell them about the droughts and the hard times as well as the good, who he bought from and the improvements he had made. It was the personal things that were vetoed.
“Me, I’ll be happy with a few little acres an’ a house, maybe a little woman to keep me company.”
Johnny laughed. “What woman’s gonna want to grow old pickin’ up after you, Crawford,” he joked. “She’ll be old an’ gray before a month was out.”
Val scowled. “Ain’t you funny…”
“Look at you, Val! You got a hole in that hat you can stick your finger through.”
Val took off his hat and looked at the crown, then put it back on. “Hat’s are for keepin’ off the sun. It still works… why change it?”
Johnny happened to know the story behind that hole – that it had come from a bullet, fired at him by a drunken and overly exuberant cowboy who Val had proceeded to disarm and knock out, then lock up for the night. Well, two nights… it had taken that long for Val to cool off. It had been a close call and Johnny was pretty sure that it had shaken Val more than he cared to admit.
Cresting a small knoll, Johnny stopped.
“This it?” Val asked.
“Yep.” Johnny lifted his hat and swiped his brow, then settled it comfortably back in place. He pointed off to the right. “That’s the corral over there. We looked around, but it was just like the last two times… nothing.”
It was a well-chosen spot for what the rustlers were doing. On this side, it was hidden from view by the long low knoll that Johnny and Val were on. On the opposite side was a line of trees and to the left were the foothills that rose up into the ridge that bounded this side of the valley. Only the right side was open to view but the herd had been moved south from here already and most of the men were with it.
“How far out from the corral did you look for tracks?”
“A hundred yards or so in every direction.”
“They brushed it clear again, huh?”
Val scratched at his unshaven chin. “What about we try somethin’ different? We’ll move way out, maybe coupla hundred yards. We’ll ride a circle round that corral. You go left an’ I’ll go right.”
“Sounds like a good idea. They can’t have brushed out their tracks all the way back to their camp.”
“That’s right. Okay, let’s get started. Holler if you find anythin’.”
They separated then, each turning in his own direction and circling the corral. Johnny scanned the ground carefully. There had to be some trace of the rustlers and their stolen stock.
He let Barranca set his own slow pace while he kept his eyes on the ground and, one profitless hour later, he reached the line of trees on the other side and waited for Val.
While he watched, Crawford dismounted and was studying the ground.
“Val, you got something?”
“Looks like it.”
Johnny pressed Barranca into a trot and joined the sheriff, slowing to a stop just back from him so that he didn’t ride over any tracks. Val was crouched low to the ground, studying hoofprints.
Val straightened up. “Has to be them. The tracks of three riders and about a dozen cattle, no more than a day old.” He pointed off to the right, past the trees. “They lead off that way.”
“Good work, Val.” Johnny dismounted and walked Barranca over beside him. He leaned over to look at the tracks. “Yeah, looks like they followed the line of the woods over there.”
“Yeah. Sneaky bastards.” Val turned around and mounted his horse. “Come on, let’s go see where they lead.”
They rode together along the edge of the trees, watching the ground as they went.
“Over there, Val. Look.” A branch lay on the ground, in the shadows under the trees. The leaves had already shriveled and died. “Guess they figured they were clear from here on.”
“It’s them alright,” Val answered confidently.
Johnny felt a surge of excitement. Finally, they had something to go on.
They followed the tracks, easily visible now that the rustlers were making no attempt to destroy them. They led them around to the other side of the trees, only to loop back. The men had kept to the trees on the other side and doubled back towards the foothills.
“They’re heading for the ridges, Johnny,” Val told him.
“Yeah, looks like it.”
The tracks were clearer in the softer earth around the woods and it made following them much easier but at the end of the tree line they were forced to stop. Looking ahead of them, the landscape changed drastically.
Boulders loomed over them, the largest as big as a cabin while smaller ones lay strewn around the base of the hillside. The soil was almost as hard as the rocks and the tracks became more difficult to pick out until, finally, they lost them. Both men halted their horses and dismounted to look around.
Finally, Val straightened up and took off his hat, waving it across his face. The morning had gone and the sun was hot and bright and right above them. Johnny took a swallow from his canteen and then offered it to Val.
He took along swallow, then swiped away a trickle of water from his chin and handed the canteen back to Johnny. “Not much left o’ the tracks, Johnny,” Val told him. “But I’d say that they’ve headed up that game trail there.”
Johnny nodded his agreement. “Yeah, you’re right. Don’t see any other way they could’ve gone from here.”
“You know what’s on the other side?”
“It’s pretty open for a couple miles over there. Some pasture and then it heads up into the hills. Not much of a place for a hideout if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Probably trailing them off into those hills then.”
“I’d guess that’s the most likely place to find them. Maybe we’ll pick up some sign on the other side of the rocks.”
“Hope so. Otherwise it’s gonna be real hard to find ‘em up there.”
Looking up into the rocks, Johnny agreed. “Not sure I like the idea of going up there after them,” he said as he looped the canteen over the pommel.
“Yeah. Could be they have lookouts posted in case someone finds their trail. Be a good place for an ambush.”
Johnny grinned. “Tell you what, Val. You look out for tracks and I’ll look out for anything else.”
“Sounds fine to me,” Val said, remounting. “Just make sure you keep your eyes open.”
Johnny didn’t need to be told. He mounted Barranca and went after the sheriff. These rustlers were cunning. If he and Val were on the right trail and their camp was anywhere near here, it was a safe bet that they would have someone keeping watch up in those rocks, maybe with an itchy trigger finger.
He unsheathed his rifle from the scabbard and checked it, then nodded to Val. They left the relative security of the trees, rode out into the open and started up into the rocks.
They walked their horses slowly, picking their way over rocks while Johnny kept watch with his rifle ready. Now and then, Val was able to pick out prints that confirmed they were still on the right trail.
A shimmer of light above them caught Johnny’s eyes. They were too exposed here and Johnny knew that Val hadn’t seen it.
He threw himself at Val as the shot rang out.
Val swore loudly as Johnny’s body crashed into his, hurtling them both to the ground in an awkward tangle of arms and legs. They rolled a few feet through dust and over bruising stones before coming to a stop and managing to unravel themselves.
Johnny already had his .45 at the ready as he scurried over to a boulder that was just big enough to shelter the two of them, Val close behind him.
A second shot, and then a third, sent splinters of rock flying around them barely seconds after they made it, pinning them down before they had a chance to get off even one shot of their own.
“You hit?” Johnny asked.
“I’m in one piece.”
“You think there’s only one of ‘em up there?” Val asked, his pistol now in his hand and ready.
Johnny spat dust and grit, then wiped his sleeve over his eyes and face. He quickly took stock of himself and edged closer to the rock. “I only saw one rifle. But who knows.”
“C’n you see him?”
Johnny turned to carefully take a look up the hill. From where he sat, he had to stick his head around the side of the boulder or over it to see up there. “No, but I saw his rifle just before the first shot. Unless he’s moved, he’s up there, behind that big split rock. Can you see anyone else?”
“No, but I can’t see much from here.”
Turning back, Johnny saw Val chance moving further around. Johnny suspected that it was as much to draw fire as to look. If it was, it worked. Two more shots rang out from above them and kicked up dust inches from Val’s position.
Johnny grabbed Val’s collar and yanked him back to safety. “You tryin’ to get yourself killed?”
“Not if I c’n help it,” Val answered with a disarming grin. “Anyways, it looks like we only got us one shooter.”
“Maybe, but he’s got himself one hell of a good spot.”
“Yeah, he’s got the high ground an’ good cover. We’ll have to get up there behind him if we’re gonna stand a chance.”
“That won’t be easy,” Johnny pointed out. “We’ll have to break cover to get up there. We’ll be right out in the open a good part of the way.”
“’Bout sixty feet, you reckon?”
“Yeah, that’d be about right. Steep too.”
Johnny chanced sticking his head out enough to look for the shooter but pulled back immediately when another bullet ricocheted off the rock beside his face.
“It’s okay, Val. He missed me.”
“Now who’s lookin’ to get dead?”
Johnny laughed, then took a breath and tried again. This time he squeezed off three shots but the return fire soon told him that he hadn’t found his mark.
“Dammit!” Val fired one round but pulled back immediately to shield himself from the retaliating shot. He made it but his hat flew off behind him. He reached back to grab it and scowled, sticking his finger through a new hole in it.
“You okay, Val?”
“Yeah, I’m fine… but my hat got air-eated some again.”
Johnny laughed and shook his head, then leaned back against the boulder. “Got any ideas, ‘sides that one?”
“I dunno. You?”
“Well, there’s one of him an’ two of us.”
“Guess we’ll have to figure it that way an’ get on up there.” He shoved his hat back on his head and checked his gun. “You draw his fire. I’ll go.”
“Hang on, why do you get to have the fun?”
Val smirked. “I got the badge.”
Johnny answered with a grin. “Oh yeah, an’ it makes a bright shiny target, too.”
“Just count three an’ start shootin’, okay?”
Shots sounded from the top of the hill. Johnny stopped short of ‘three’ and grabbed Val’s arm. “Whoa, Val… wait up!”
After a moment of confusion, both men cautiously looked out. A volley of shots rang out from above them, and this time there was definitely more than one rifle being fired.
“Someone’s joined the fun uninvited, Val.”
“I figure two. Sounds like three different rifles bein’ fired.”
Johnny turned back and grinned at Val. “Well, we wanted them distracted.”
Val replied with an equally pleased expression. “Sure did. Let’s go.”
He needed no more urging. Johnny left his rifle and relied on his handgun instead as he charged out from behind the boulder. Keeping low, he crossed the open space and then ran from one rock to another, making his way up the hill.
The shooter’s attention was on the newcomers and Johnny made it about halfway before a bullet zipped past him. He dived for the ground and flattened himself in the dirt.
Timing, and a good measure of luck, brought the opportunity about. The shooter broke cover to take a shot at the newcomers, showing himself just enough to allow Johnny to target him.
One shot was enough. Even from where he lay in the dust, Johnny saw the shocked expression on the man’s face as he fell sideways. Johnny knew that he had hit him.
The thunderous reports of gunshots came to an abrupt and eerie halt and all Johnny could hear was the thumping of his own heart. Acrid gun smoke hung in the air like an ethereal curtain, slowly lifting and dissolving in the sunlight.
For a moment, no one moved. Then Johnny saw that Val was on his feet and walking up the hillside past him, with his pistol covering the shooter on the ground ahead of them. Johnny rolled onto his back and took a long, deep breath before getting to his feet. He slid the gun back into the holster and stopped to take in the silence.
It was useless to tell himself that he had had no choice, or that it was him or the shooter. That empty feeling stayed anyway… always did.
Two strangers stood up from behind a boulder off to his right and suddenly Johnny pushed away his thoughts and became cautiously curious. He slid his hand down to his side, close enough to his gun to feel safe. In the midst of the shooting, he hadn’t given more than an instant’s thought to who had joined the fray.
“Dead?” Johnny called to Val, who was crouched by the body of the shooter.
“Yeah. It’s a shame. Woulda liked to’ve gotten somethin’ outa him first.”
“Mierda, Val! It wasn’t like he gave me a lot of choice.”
“Yeah, I know. Keep your hair on.”
Johnny joined him and watched as two strangers walked towards them – one tall and fair and the other dark-haired and solid - both with their guns now holstered.
Val stood up and put his own gun back into his holster. “What the hell are you doin’ here?” he growled, apparently at one of the strangers. Johnny’s curiosity leapt up a notch.
The darker haired stranger grinned. “Looking for the sheriff. He wasn’t in his office.”
“Well o’ course I’m not in my office. You think I’d be sittin’ on my heels shufflin’ papers when there’s a no good, boy killin’ sonovabitch rustler needs catchin’?”
“Looks like you’re the one got caught.” The grin died away to a frown. “Boy killing?”
Val got serious and nodded. “Yeah, he killed a farm boy over in Visalia in a gunfight. Well, it was supposed to be a gunfight but you wouldn’t call it that. The boy got pushed into drawing against him. Kid was just seventeen years old an’ didn’t stand a chance.”
A black look crossed the man’s face, sparking a suspicion in Johnny.
“Damn!” the man cursed, curling his hands into fists at his sides.
His tall friend laid a steadying hand on his shoulder. “Easy, Jess.”
Johnny’s nerves tensed at the name. “Jess? Harper?”
The man turned to him, his eyes flashing. “Yeah, that’s right. Jess Harper,” he said angrily, “what’s it to you?”
Johnny frowned. “Been hearing the name a lot around here.”
“That right? Well, I might be a sonovabitch, Mister, but I’m no rustler and I don’t kill kids.”
So this was Jess Harper. He looked like a man who worked hard for a living, muscled and strong. He’d be tough to tangle with in a fight – guns or fists. Johnny watched him closely, how he stood and breathed. It was something Johnny had noticed years ago - that men who were nervous or uneasy tended to breathe harder to match their pounding heartbeat. Once he had realized it, Johnny had looked for it in men who faced him down. It was one more tool he had been able to use.
But this man showed no such signs. He looked like he had a temper and Johnny had always felt that that could be a handicap in their business, but some gunmen used it to their advantage. He struck Johnny as someone who would be prepared to stand toe to toe with any man, no matter what.
It set Johnny’s alarm bells ringing. He felt old habits taking over, unbidden, but met his eyes with his, and just as cold.
Val stepped between them. “Alright, settle down the two of ya.” He took a deep breath. “Maybe I oughta introduce you boys to one ‘nother, for the shootin’ starts. Johnny, this here is Jess Harper – the real one, like I told you ‘bout. Not the sonovabitch we’re lookin’ for. An’ Jess, this is Johnny Lancer. He an’ his family own the land you’re standin’ on… an’ a whole lot more ‘round here.”
Jess visibly relaxed a notch but he still appeared far from happy. “And this is my partner, Slim Sherman, Val. Slim, this is Val Crawford.”
“The letter writer,” Slim said with a smile, putting out his hand to shake with Val. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Howdy,” Val said. “You two got good timin’.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Johnny agreed. He said it casually, but Harper turned his head back to look him over. Johnny knew that it was his turn to be scrutinized.
He wasn’t surprised. He was well aware that a couple of years at Lancer had not changed some things about him. He still wore his gun low on his hip, comfortable and easy to reach when the moment arose, and he still knew how to keep his face from showing too much.
If Jess Harper was half the gunman that Johnny had heard he was, he’d be noting it all and wondering about him. Johnny saw the man’s eyes darken with suspicion and knew he was right.
“Pleased to meet you,” Harper said at last, though there was a suggestion of wariness in his voice. He looked perceptibly at Johnny’s gun belt. “So… you’re a rancher, hey?”
Johnny eyed him coolly. “Yeah.”
“And do all the ranchers hereabouts strap on a gun that way?”
A hint of a smile crossed Johnny’s lips. “No, not all.”
“A man who wears his gun that way better know how to use it.”
“Yeah.” Johnny looked down for a moment. A smile tickled on his lips and he didn’t want it showing, not yet. It took only a moment to control the urge, then he lifted his head and met Harper’s eyes. “Guess he had.”
“When you two’ve stopped circlin’ each other,” Val cut in. “Jess, maybe there’s a little somethin’ you oughta know ‘bout Johnny here.” He gave Johnny a questioning glance.
Johnny thought about it. Val didn’t need to use words. Johnny knew exactly what he was asking permission to do. He had to consider his answer carefully. At the moment, Johnny held the upper hand. He would be giving away an advantage, if a small one, if he agreed to it.
But he trusted Val with his life and, so far, he had been prepared to trust him in this too. Besides, Harper had been honest with him. He had openly admitted who he was and he had a lot to lose by doing it. Johnny silently nodded his assent.
“Jess, you mighta heard tell of him as Johnny Madrid.”
Slim Sherman’s eyes widened in surprise, but Harper’s narrowed. He tipped his hat a little further back on his head with one finger and then put his hands lightly on his hips. “That so? Madrid, huh? I heard a lot about you.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah,” the man said. “I heard you had the fastest draw on either side of the border.”
Johnny ducked his head to hide the hint of pleasure he felt. Despite what Murdoch and Scott might feel about it, Johnny couldn’t help but feel some pride in his reputation, even now after a couple of years at Lancer. It had taken him years to build his name – long, hard years that his family would probably never understand.
But he wanted to give none of those feelings away in front of this man. He looked up and said nothing, but shrugged his shoulders. He knew he was being tested.
Then Harper’s voice changed. “But mostly I heard you were dead.”
Johnny felt an unexpected surge of mischief rising at the challenge, but he fought the inclination down. Instead he nodded gravely. “Yeah, I heard that too… more than once. Heard about you too… fastest man with a gun that Texas ever gave breath to.” He stopped to look the man over again. “Of course, lately I just heard you were a cattle thief.”
Harper scowled and stared back at him in silence. Johnny waited and watched his eyes, ready for a move if it came. Then, suddenly, the scowl dissolved and the man broke into a good-natured laugh. “Yeah, so I’ve been told. Guess you can’t always believe what you hear.”
“Guess not.” Johnny smiled, feeling more at ease. Harper had taken his jibe well.
“Put them hackles down, you two,” Val said dismissively. “That ain’t gettin’ us nowhere.”
Jess turned his attention back to Val, making a show of looking him up and down. “And look at you, Crawford.” He flicked an imaginary speck of dust from the badge on Val’s shirt and gave it a little rub with his cuff. “I thought a respectable lawman like you keep tellin’ me you are would’ve cleaned himself up a little, maybe at least try to look the part. But here you are, still looking like the town drunk.”
“Some things don’t change, Harper,” Johnny told him. He looked at Val and frowned. “Lord knows, I’ve tried, but Val here just likes the casual look.”
“Casual, huh?” Harper snatched the hat from Val’s head and stuck his fingers through the two holes in the crown. “Moths?”
Val grabbed it back. “Wouldn’t have no trouble if people’d just stop throwin’ bullets my way.”
“You’re going to have to learn to duck quicker,” Johnny teased him.
“Oh, well ain’t you the funny one? You ever think that if I wasn’t so good at duckin’, I jest might have holes in me instead o’ my hat?”
“If you’re going to talk about bullet holes, Sheriff,” Sherman cut in, surprising them all. He walked over to stand in front of Johnny. “It seems to me that your friend there didn’t duck so good either.”
Up close, Johnny got a better idea of just how tall the man was. He could well rival Murdoch in height but, though he was broad across the chest, he wasn’t as heavy as Murdoch. His face was open and friendly, not the sort of face that could hide much. When he spoke, his voice was firm but surprisingly quiet.
Johnny involuntarily glanced down at the splash of blood on his left arm. He had felt it when the ricochet had hit him, but had dismissed it and had soon forgotten about it. It annoyed him that Sherman had brought it to their attention.
“It’s just a nick,” he told them. It was true. Johnny figured there was more to the tear in his sleeve than damage to his arm. Sure, it had bled some, but that had soon stopped.
“You sure, Johnny?” Val asked doggedly.
Johnny rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure. It’s a scratch.”
Despite his protests, Val stalked over to see for himself. He took Johnny’s arm and turned it enough to look at the tear in the sleeve and the scratch on his upper arm.
“Come on, Val. I told you it was nothing.”
“Yeah, an’ I’ve heard that line before,” Val snapped at him. He tugged off the bandana from his neck and tied it roughly around Johnny’s arm. Johnny was almost tempted to laugh. Val’s ministrations hurt more than the graze but there was no stopping him. “Least this time it really is a scratch. If I had to take you home draped over that horse o’ yours, Scott an’ Murdoch’d have my hide.”
Johnny grinned. “And here I was thinking that you cared.”
“Care? Me? Huh!” He finished knotting the bandana and let go of Johnny’s arm. “You okay to keep going?”
Johnny grew impatient. “Will you quit it? It’s nothing. I’ll be…”
He was grinning wide and Johnny couldn’t help but laugh and slap his shoulder.
Sherman put his hands on his hips and stood in front of Johnny. “So, what do we call you then? Lancer… or Madrid?”
“Johnny… Johnny Lancer.”
Sherman smiled. It was an honest smile and Johnny found himself drawn to the man. “Johnny it is.” He offered his hand. “I’m Slim.”
Johnny took his hand and shook it, then looked towards Harper.
“Well, Jess?” Slim asked.
There was almost a parental tone in his voice that had Johnny biting on the urge to laugh as Harper moved towards him, looking a little like a chastised schoolboy.
He stopped and looked hard at Johnny before he stuck out his hand. “Jess.”
Johnny shook his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Slim was smiling. “Well, now that that’s all settled, what do we do next, Sheriff?”
“Head on down the other side o’ this hill an’ look for tracks,” Val said with authority. “I wanta find these bastards.”
“Anything, Val?” Jess asked, waiting back with Johnny and Slim to avoid riding over any tracks that might be there.
“No. Nothing.” Val was angry. Johnny recognized it in his voice. He was frustrated, just like Johnny was. He was still on his haunches, looking in vain for some sign of the rustlers and the cattle they had stolen.
“Mierda! We had them!” Johnny snapped.
“Well, now we’ve lost ‘em,” Val called back. He stood up and led his horse back to join them. “All we got here is rock. Ain’t no way to find prints in that.”
“Let’s look at what we have got, then,” Slim suggested, the reasoning in his voice surprising Johnny. “We know they came this way. The tracks you found at the bottom of the hill led us here.”
Val nodded. “Yeah, it was an easy trail to follow most o’ the way, but they started thinnin’ out ‘bout a quarter mile back when the ground got harder. Still there was enough to follow ‘til now.”
Johnny looked up at the ridges rising above them. The grass of the foothills had given way to rocky mountainsides. There were paths and game trails meandering though the boulders, covering rough and rocky ground that was no help to men searching for tracks.
“They can’t have just disappeared,” Jess said tetchily. “How many ways are there that they could go from here?”
“There’s three different trails heading up into those rocks. They could’ve taken any one of ‘em.”
“We could split up, follow all of ‘em,” Jess suggested.
Slim shook his head. “We could walk right into another trap. They left one lookout, you can bet they will have left others.”
“He’s right,” said Johnny. “There’s plenty of places to catch a man in a crossfire up there.”
“Johnny, this is your land. You got any ideas where they could be hiding?” Val asked.
Johnny shook his head. “No. I haven’t been up there much.” He thought back to his first days at Lancer. Pardee and his men had made their headquarters in the mountains and managed to stay hidden for a long time. “There are probably a lot of places in those mountains where they could hole up with a bunch of cattle. We have mustangs up here that can find places that none of us can get into.”
“Then we’ll just have to search them all,” Val told him firmly. “I ain’t gettin’ this far an’ givin’ up.”
“We might have to, Val, at least for today. There are too many to search in one afternoon, or even in a week. And hell, I don’t even know all of them.”
“You think Murdoch might have some idea o’ where to start lookin’?”
Johnny thought about it. The man had ranched here for most of his life. “Yeah, he probably would. Him or Cipriano. Cipriano knows these hills better than anyone. Lived here all his life.”
“Then we have to head back to Lancer an’ talk to ‘em both.”
“We go back to Lancer now and it’ll be too late to come back here today. It’ll be near dark by the time we get back to the house as it is.”
“I know, but there ain’t much else we can do. We got no trail here an’ no idea which way to turn.”
Johnny sighed. Frustration built up inside him again, squeezing his chest like a vice. To be this close and have to turn back…
“We’ll hear what your ol’ man has to say ‘bout where they might be hidin’ out. Cipriano too.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, come on. Let’s get goin’.”
“What about them?” Val asked, inclining his head towards Jess and Slim. They were waiting together a couple of yards away.
“Take ‘em with us,” Johnny said.
“Murdoch an’ Scott won’t like it when they hear who Jess is.”
Val hesitated before answering. “We could maybe just not tell them.”
“No, Val. I won’t be part of lying to them. They’re my father and my brother. Remember?”
“Yeah, I ain’t forgotten.”
“We don’t have much choice.” Johnny watched Val’s hesitation and laughed. “Come on, they’re both reasonable men.”
“Most o’ the time. Your pa can be kinda unreasonable sometimes.”
Val sighed heavily. “Okay, let’s go face the music.”
The heat of the had sun manifested itself in a fiery orange sunset that faded slowly into the gray shadows of dusk by the time the hacienda came into view. Already a few lamps could be seen shimmering in the windows of the bunkhouse and of the house itself.
Barranca lifted his head and tugged on the reins impatiently, the way he always did when they passed under the arch to the hacienda. If the truth were to be told, it was only the presence of the men riding with him that stopped Johnny from letting the horse have its head and eating up that last bit of distance to the house. Sometimes, it still felt extraordinary that he could feel so much pleasure in just getting home. Even now, after a couple of years at Lancer, the feeling stirred within him every time he rode beneath the arch.
Val rode beside him and, a pace or two behind them, Slim and Jess followed. Behind them all, tied on his own horse that was led by Jess, was the sobering reminder of today’s shootout – the body of the rustler who had ambushed them.
There was no talk between them now. All of them were tired and hungry, worn out not only by the full day in the saddle with a hot sun overhead, but by the frustrations of finding and losing tracks all afternoon.
Not for the first time, Johnny tried to figure out just how he was going to break the news to Murdoch and Scott about Jess Harper. So far, none of the scenarios he had come up with ended with anything but disaster in his mind.
By the time they rode into the yard, he figured he had made up his mind. There was going to be only one way to handle it – just tell them and ride it out.
Scott was walking out of the barn and called out a hello as Johnny dismounted in front of the house. “You caught up with them then?” he asked, his gaze on the body draped over the horse at the rear.
“One of them anyway,” Johnny told him as Scott came over to join them. “We found a trail but they left a lookout. He fired… we fired back.”
“I see.” He was looking at Slim and Jess with open curiosity. He lowered his voice as he joined Johnny. “I thought it was only you and Val going. I didn’t know you were taking a posse.”
“They ain’t a posse. Just two guys who turned up at the right time. They bailed us out of a real tight spot.” Johnny turned to find that they had already dismounted. “Where’s Jelly?”
“In the barn.”
“Jelly!” Johnny yelled.
The old man appeared at the barn door, “I hear ya,” he groused as he walked towards them. “Ain’t deaf.”
“Jelly, can you get a couple of the boys to take care of the horses. And you’d better get a couple more to take care of our ‘friend’ back there.” He thumbed towards the last horse. “You’d better find some room in the ice house for him till tomorrow.”
“Had yourself a busy day, did ya, Johnny?”
“Yeah, I did, Jelly… and it ain’t over yet.” He sighed. “Can I leave you with this? I have to go talk to Murdoch.”
“Sure, I’ll take care of it all.” He walked to the last horse and looked at the body draped over the horse. “Friend, huh?”
“Yeah, a close friend. He tried to kill us,” Johnny answered ironically.
“Guess not then. I’ll go get a couple o’ the boys an’ make him comfortable. Harry an’ me’ll take care o’ the horses.”
Johnny turned back to his brother. “You’d better come inside, Scott. We’ve got some talking to do.”
He stopped Slim and Jess for a moment, pulling them aside. “Scott an’ Murdoch don’t know anything about this fake Jess Harper yet and they’re like most people around here – real angry. It might take a bit of telling to get them to believe you. I need you two to be patient with ‘em while I explain it all. You mind? You can wait out here if you’d rather.”
“No, we’ll come on in with ya,” Jess said. “I might need to defend myself.”
Jess sounded fine with it, but Johnny hoped this wouldn’t get out of hand. He had a fair idea of how quick Jess might be with that gun and he didn’t want anything going wrong in there.
“Okay, just let me do the talking… and keep your hand away from your gun. If there’s trouble, just remember – this is my father and my brother.”
Jess’ eyes were steely. “You handle ‘em right an’ there won’t be gunplay. You have my word on it.”
Johnny led them all through the doorway, pulling off his hat as he passed and slapping it onto one of the hooks by the door. He sucked in the change in temperature inside the thick adobe walls and it felt good.
As he stepped into the Great Room, he heard his father call out.
“Johnny, I thought I heard you.” Murdoch looked up from his work at his desk, stood up and walked across the room to greet his son and the men with him. “Val, it’s good to see you too. How did you get on?”
Johnny looked behind him. Everyone had reached the center of the room. Jess and Slim were behind Johnny and Val, with Scott bringing up the rear.
“Found some tracks, Mr. Lancer,” Val answered. “Followed ‘em ‘til we lost ‘em in some rocky trails in the hills. Thought we’d come back here an’ talk to you an’ Cipriano ‘bout where they could be hidin’ up there.”
Jess and Slim had both taken off their hats and stood looking around at the room. Johnny had a pretty good idea of what was going through their minds. He had felt the same thing that first day he had entered the Great Room.
The huge room was the heart of the hacienda. It served as a dining room, living room and even to accommodate Murdoch’s work desk. Murdoch liked to work here, instead of in his study further back in the house, because the huge arched window in the Great Room allowed him a vista of so much of Lancer.
The immense fireplace, the row of bookcases and the heavy, ornate furniture, and the huge man standing in the center of it all, could take your breath away. It was a lot to take in first time you laid eyes on it.
He turned back to his father. Murdoch loomed in front of him, suddenly seeming bigger than his six foot five inch frame, and twice as daunting.
“Murdoch…” he began, taking a step forward. Murdoch was obviously just as curious about the two strangers as Scott was and Johnny wanted to sort that out quickly.
Teresa came into the room in a whirl. “Oh, Johnny, you’re home! Good, dinner will be ready soon but you have plenty of time to wash up and…” She stopped. “Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t realize we had company. Hello, Sheriff Crawford.”
“Howdy, Miss Teresa.”
“Teresa,” Johnny said. “Just give me a minute, will you? There’s something…”
“Yes, I want to hear what happened today,” Murdoch continued. “Val you said you found tracks?”
“They caught up with at least one of them,” Scott joined in. “There’s a body tied over the back of a horse outside.”
Uncharacteristically, Johnny felt frustration rising. He clamped down on it. “Alright, everyone just… wait up a minute.” He raised his hands to quiet them all and take control.
“Johnny, your arm!” Teresa gasped. She took hold of the roughly bandaged arm. “You’re hurt.”
Damn! That was all he needed. The frustration threatened to break out into sheer aggravation. Too many people with too much to say.
“It’s nothing, Teresa. It can wait,” he snapped at her and regretted it immediately. He sighed heavily. “Sorry, Teresa, but really, it can wait. It’s just a scratch. Give me a few minutes here and then you can doctor it all you like.”
He looked up, caught a glimmer of a smile on his brother’s face and, unreasonably perhaps, it irritated him.
“Now, everyone, just hold up and let me say something,” Johnny insisted.
Scott’s amusement bubbled over. He made himself comfortable sitting on the arm of one of the armchairs. “I think Johnny wants to introduce his friends,” he said lightly as he folded his arms over his chest.
The thought crossed Johnny’s mind that Scott might be a whole lot less amused in a minute, but he was grateful for the help.
“Alright, Johnny, you have our attention.” Murdoch sounded a little amused himself.
Johnny looked from Murdoch to Scott, and then to Slim and Jess. Well, there was only one way to do this and that was to jump in, feet first. “Like Scott said, we ran into one of the rustlers this afternoon. He was holed up in the hills and we were pinned down. Might still be there if these two hadn’t come along.”
Murdoch looked them over. “I’m obliged, gentlemen.”
Jess nodded and waited for Johnny to continue.
“Well, yeah, they turned up at just the right time. Helped us out and…” he sighed. “Murdoch, Scott, Teresa… this is Slim Sherman from Laramie… and this… this is Jess Harper.”
“What?” Scott was on his feet before Johnny had even finished saying the name.
“What the devil do you mean by bringing that man into my house?” Murdoch shouted.
Reining in his own reactions, Johnny raised his hands to silence them. “Just simmer down, Murdoch. You too, Scott. Let me finish…”
“I don’t see what you can have to say. The man is as good as a murderer!”
Johnny turned to look at Jess. He’d seen a sample of his temper earlier today and he was pleased to see that Slim had one hand firmly clamped on Jess’ shoulder. Jess’ face was like stone but his hands curled and uncurled into fists at his sides as his anger rose.
“Murdoch, wait… let me finish…”
If Murdoch heard, he certainly didn’t pay any attention. “I thought the idea was to catch him and jail him,” he raged. “Not to bring him home for dinner.”
“The guardhouse will do. Scott, get one of the men and lock…”
“MURDOCH!” Not normally given to shouting, Johnny was stunned by the sound of his own voice. He couldn’t rival his father in volume, but the shockwave of surprise that shook the room stopped everyone cold. Johnny found all eyes on him. Scott’s jaw had dropped. Teresa’s eyes were wide open.
He shifted uncomfortably, but the frustration still simmered within him. He had to grit his teeth to rein in his own temper.
“If you will all just let me finish! Like I said, he’s Jess Harper. But he’s the real one,” he finally said. “Not the man who’s been robbing us all blind or doing the killings around here.”
“What are you talking about, Johnny?” Murdoch demanded.
“He’s trying to tell you that someone else has been usin’ my name,” Jess’ voice was low and tempered with cold, suppressed anger.
“Of course, you’d say that,” Scott threw back at him.
“It’s true, Scott,” Johnny told him.
“How do you know, Johnny?” Murdoch demanded. “How do you know he’s not the same man?”
Slim took his hand off Jess’ shoulder. “Look, Mister. Jess and I have a ranch outside Laramie. That’s where he’s been for the last few months.”
Scott wasn’t convinced. “And you heard about this, all the way over in Laramie?”
Val cleared his throat and spoke up. “I sent him word. Wrote him a couple of weeks ago.”
“Murdoch, Scott, remember that Jess and Slim helped us today,” Johnny told him. “If they hadn’t happened by when they did…”
“Oh, they just happened along?” Scott asked sarcastically. “By chance? That’s an awfully big coincidence, isn’t it?”
“Not so much,” Jess said, his hands still clenched by his sides. “Val’s deputy pointed us that way this morning. We were close enough to hear the gunshots and went to see what the shooting was about.”
“Well, I don’t believe any of this,” Scott declared furiously. “Everyone in the valley knows it’s Harper who’s been rustling… and killing farm boys.”
Jess tensed. He looked ready to fight and took one step towards Scott, but Slim grabbed his arm and held him back.
“Why, Scott? The only proof anyone has that the man’s name is Harper is that he says so.” Johnny asked. “He’s been throwing that name ‘round the San Joaquin like he doesn’t care who knows it.”
“Exactly. Why would he say he’s someone he’s not? What’s the point?”
“Because it’s easier to steal a reputation than it is to build one,” Johnny told him coolly. “And because he can walk away from all this whenever he wants.” He looked down at his hands as he rubbed them together in irritation. “You saying you believe everything that’s been laid at my door?”
“No, of course not!”
He turned back to Murdoch. “You remember about six months ago we got word that I was supposed to have been in a gunfight in San Diego when you both know I was here?”
“Yes… yes, I remember,” Murdoch said, nodding.
“Well, this is no different.”
Scott hesitated. He looked Jess and Slim over carefully before continuing. “How do we know you were in Laramie all this time? You could have been here; ready to rely on Val’s friendship to get you out of trouble if anything went wrong.”
Johnny looked at his brother. From the tone of his voice, Johnny knew that Scott’s anger and disbelief had subsided to mere misgivings. Scott was part way to being convinced.
“Do you want to see the train tickets?” Slim’s voice had a sharp edge to it this time that took Johnny by surprise. “And it happens that our ranch is also a way station for the Great Central Overland Stage. There are plenty of folks around Laramie who will swear that he was there. In fact, when he wasn’t at the ranch, he was standing in for the sheriff in town.”
“You’re kiddin’ me!” It was Val this time, giving Jess a shocked questioning look as he spoke.
Jess answered awkwardly. He looked embarrassed, the last thing Johnny had thought to see. “Well, no. It’s true.”
“All the guff you’ve given me over the years ‘bout turnin’ lawman an’ you went an’ done it yourself?”
A wicked spark of amusement gleamed in Harper’s eyes. He grinned unexpectedly. “Sorry, Val. You’re just such an easy mark.”
The room went quiet but Johnny caught a hint of a smile teasing at Murdoch’s lips. He looked in Johnny’s direction. “Johnny, do you believe them?”
Murdoch sighed heavily. “Alright, let’s all sit down and talk this through reasonably.” He turned back to Scott and, while he said nothing directly to him, Johnny caught what looked like a warning glance that Murdoch cast Scott’s way. Scott went back to his place on the armchair, this time sitting down in it.
“Val, take a seat,” Murdoch continued. He walked over to stand in front of the cold fireplace. “You too, Gentlemen,” he added, beckoning Slim and Jess to the sofa.
The two men passed Scott on their way to the sofa, Jess giving him a wary sideways glance. Then they sat down and made themselves comfortable, facing Murdoch.
Teresa took a match from a box on the mantle and lit the lamp on the coffee table by the sofa and another on the mantle. Johnny had barely noticed the darkening gloom in the room. The single lamp on Murdoch’s desk was no longer enough to light up the whole room. She excused herself then and went out of the room.
All eyes were on Murdoch and it was easy to see that he was well aware of it. Johnny had seen him take charge of a roomful of people before, often angry and unruly cattlemen demanding answers.
Murdoch Lancer was a big man, bigger than just about anybody that Johnny had ever known, but it was his force of character that could hold an audience’s attention. For every inch of him physically, there was an equal part of command about him that Johnny wasn’t even sure he knew about.
“Let’s talk about this calmly,” Murdoch said, standing with his back to the fireplace. He rested one hand on the mantle and frowned. “Val, I think you should start. You’ve obviously suspected for some time that it wasn’t really Jess Harper doing all this in the valley?”
“Suspected ain’t quite a strong enough word, Murdoch. I knew it. Knew Jess years back an’ rode with him some. I figured it’d take a lotta changin’ to turn him into the kind of man we been hearin’ about. ‘Sides, I’d heard a while back that he was workin’ on a ranch over Laramie way for the last few years. Slim tells me he’s partner in it now.”
Murdoch looked briefly at Jess but his face gave nothing away. “And when did you get here?” he asked Jess and Slim.
It was Slim who answered. “We got off a train at Cross Creek yesterday, hired ourselves some horses and headed for Green River to find Val Crawford.”
Murdoch nodded and turned his attention back to the sheriff. “So who do you think is behind it all, if not Harper?”
“Got no idea,” Val told him forthrightly. “Only know who it ain’t.”
“And what happened today?"
Johnny leaned back and rubbed his hands on his pants. He recounted the events of the day, impressing on them all once more that the arrival of Jess and Slim had turned the tide of the shootout with the rustler.
“When we finally lost the tracks at the hills, I figured you or Cipriano might have some ideas on where they might be in there,” he finished.
Murdoch nodded. “That makes sense. I might. Did you get anything out of the man before he died?”
“He was dead real quick,” Val said curtly.
“There wasn’t much time to pick where to shoot him.” Johnny said. He folded his arms across his chest and dropped his head forward while he thought.
When he raised his head again, he spoke quietly, but with sincerity in his voice. “The guy had Val an’ me pinned down pretty good. If Jess an’ Slim hadn’t come along, it’s likely one, or both, of us would’ve been bleeding or dead before we got out of it. When I got the chance to take him I was out in the open. Had no choice.”
The room went quiet as they digested Johnny’s words for a minute.
“You said you lost them in the hills?” Murdoch eventually asked and Johnny nodded. Murdoch pointed to the map on the wall near the fireplace. “Show me where.”
Johnny walked over to stand beside his father and looked the map over. He found the place and pointed to it. “About here, up near Oak Ridge.”
Murdoch nodded. “There’s rough country up there alright, but there are a couple of narrow passes they could be using.”
“Do you know of anywhere up there that they could hide a couple dozen steers?” Val asked.
Murdoch frowned and considered the map. “Maybe one or two. It’d be hard going to get cattle in there, but yes, they could be using them. Cipriano knows them better than me. I’ll get him to show you the way tomorrow.” He looked around the room and then seemed to come to a decision. “You three are welcome to stay the night. You can get an early start in the morning that way. I’ll have one of the men take your rustler to the undertaker in town.”
“You believe us then?” Slim asked, frowning.
“Yes,” said Murdoch, with no hesitation. “I do.”
They looked towards Scott and he nodded. “Yes.”
Teresa reappeared in the doorway, armed with a bowl of water and a roll of bandage. Johnny rolled his eyes but he knew he wasn’t going to get out of it this time.
She stood at the desk and put the bowl down, waiting impatiently. Johnny looked sideways at his father for help.
He got none. “Go on, John. Get it cleaned up so we can have dinner. She won’t give up until you do.”
The grin on Scott’s face and Val’s ducked head, hiding what Johnny knew was mirth, discouraged any inclination he might have had towards appealing to either of them for help. Instead, he reluctantly walked over to the desk where Teresa tugged the knotted bandana undone.
“I think there’s something else we have to consider,” Scott said while Teresa went to work.
“What’s that?” Johnny asked, trying to ignore her ministrations.
“Johnny, take your arm out of that sleeve,” Teresa said, quietly but firmly. He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled his arm free, but his attention was on Scott.
“It’s Harper here,” Scott said. “I’ afraid f he uses that name around the valley… well, there are heads a lot harder than mine that he’d have to convince of his innocence. You must know what will happen the moment he says who he is.”
Val nodded. “He’s right, Jess. First rancher hears you say your name is Jess Harper will wanta make you guest of honor at a necktie party.”
“What do you suggest then?”
“Use another name while you’re here,” Scott told him.
Jess stood up and walked around behind the sofa. His hat still in his hand, he slapped it hard against his leg in frustration. “My name’s Harper,” he said with resolution “I’ve never hidden from it and I’m not starting now.”
Slim shook his head. “I don’t know, Pard. They make a good point.”
“I know, Slim, but…”
“Scott’s right. Tempers are running hot around here,” Murdoch told him. “You might want to think about that.”
“An’ gettin’ your neck stretched ain’t gonna prove nothin’,” Val added.
Watching Harper’s frustration growing as he considered it all, Johnny winced as Teresa dabbed at the dried blood on his arm. He gave Teresa a quick, irritated glance before returning his attention to Harper. Damn, the thing hadn’t even hurt until she’d started in on it.
“Val’s right, Jess. Getting lynched won’t prove you’re innocent,” he said. “It’s just gonna give your imposter the chance to get out without paying for it. If you want to stick around and do what you came here for, you’re going to have to do like Scott says. Find yourself another name to use.”
Scott continued. “There is something else to consider. If it gets around that the real Jess Harper is here, the man is likely to go to ground. You’re never going to find him then.”
Everyone watched Jess struggle with the idea. “Alright,” he finally said, sighing heavily. “Don’t know as I’ll be much good at answering to another name though. I mean…”
“You’ll need to make it something that will be easy to remember then,” Scott suggested.
“Sherman would be easy enough,” Slim answered, smiling. “Jess Sherman, how’s that sound to you, Jess?”
“Funny,” Jess answered, disgruntled. “You mean like brothers? Who’s gonna believe you an’ me are brothers?”
“You taken much of a look at Scott an’ me?” Johnny asked, grinning.
Jess frowned as he looked at him and then took a look at his blond headed brother, Scott. “Well, yeah, now you come to mention it...”
Scott laughed. “Around here, people will believe it. Take it from me.”
Slim got to his feet and smiled. “We’ll tell anyone that asks that my folks took you in… adopted you. Just like Mike.”
Jess rubbed his chin. “Well…”
“That’s all settled then,” Slim said, slapping his friend hard on the back. He turned back to Murdoch. “We appreciate your putting us up, Mr. Lancer. If there’s somewhere we could wash up, we won’t hold up your supper any longer.”
Scott stood up and joined him. “I’ll show you. Harper? You coming?”
“Scott.” It was Johnny, still impatiently waiting while Teresa finished wrapping a bandage around his arm.
Scott cast him a questioning look.
“It’s Jess,” Johnny told him.
“And Slim,” Slim added for himself.
Scott slipped his hands on his hips and smiled. “Sorry,” he said. Then, offering his hand to each of them in turn, he added. “I’ll remember that.”
Jess was awake early enough next morning to see the first bright rays of sunlight filter through the curtained window of the bedroom. Despite the unfamiliar surroundings, he had slept like a baby, in a bed that was bigger and softer than any he’d ever slept in before. The thick adobe walls shielded them from the heat outside and made the house cooler by several degrees.
The room he had been given was like a hotel room, even with a clean towel and fresh water for washing up left out for him. He had slept in some fancy hotel rooms in his time but even the best of them paled by comparison to this. Old Murdoch Lancer sure knew how to live, and how to offer hospitality.
Graciousness - that was what he figured it amounted to. It sure would be easy to get soft living in a place like this. He wondered whether Johnny Madrid had. He certainly talked like he hadn’t, but that said very little in their game. It was his draw that counted. Being the son in a place like this, what need did he have of a gun?
He found it was easier to shake off the remnants of sleep than it was to make himself abandon the comfort of that bed. The feather-down pillow was so soft it was like having his head cushioned in a cloud.
Still, the sun was up and he figured there was no point in lying around. He got up, washed, shaved and dressed, all in quick time, and then made his way downstairs. As he walked down the hall, he looked around him, seeing it all more now than he had last night by candlelight and after a day that had been spent in the hot sun and fraught with emotions.
It was sure one big and impressive house. As he reached the staircase, he put his hand on the carved wood railing. It was polished to a high gloss and felt as smooth as silk under his hand. He reached the bottom of the stairs and took a look into the Great Room, empty now of people and with a different atmosphere in the daylight.
It was a comfortable room, bigger than most and filled with immaculate furniture and all the private trappings of a family’s history – books, a beautifully crafted ship on the desk. A liquor cabinet stood on one side and the massive fireplace opposite. Now, in daylight, he could see the view of the ranch through the massive arched window behind the desk at the far side of the room. No wonder Murdoch Lancer liked to work there.
He almost jumped when the grandfather clock chimed behind him, a twinge of guilt striking him as if he was prying in some way.
Jess didn’t go in. Instead he made his way to the big, heavy front door and found it open. He stepped outside to take a quick look around. The sun was bright already and promised another hot day. It was still pretty quiet but there were sounds of people stirring, getting ready for a new day and the smell of bacon frying wafted towards him from the cookhouse next to the bunkhouse.
He heard a voice he recognized and looked towards it - a hundred yards away or so, down by the corral. Madrid, no Lancer it was now – he had to remember that - stood leaning his forearms on the top rail.
He was watching a cowboy play with a lasso. Jess watched for a minute, until his curiosity got the better of him. He wandered down to join them, folding his arms over each other and leaning against the corral rail beside Lancer.
The cowboy they were watching turned out be young, still in his teens Jess guessed. He was a tall lanky boy with the beginnings of a moustache, or an attempt at one, on his top lip. Jess hid a smile. It seemed like a whole lifetime since he’d been that young and eager. The kid was practicing roping, and not very well. But his face was a picture of determination.
The boy stopped and turned his attention to Jess’ arrival, giving him an enquiring look.
“This is Jess, Harry,” Johnny offered as a quick introduction. He turned to Jess for a moment with what Jess thought was a mischievous smile, then added, “Jess Sherman. He’s staying here at Lancer for a bit.”
The boy didn’t pick up on anything unusual and merely nodded his head. “Pleased to meet ya, Jess.”
“Likewise, Harry. Don’t let me disturb you. Go on ahead.”
The boy went back to it. He swung the loop again and missed, frustration drawing a frown to his face.
“Loosen up, Harry,” Johnny told him casually. “Move your hand further away from the hondo. Swing it easy and don’t rush it so much.”
The boy did as Johnny suggested, swung and, this time, roped himself a post. The ensuing delight on his face was almost ludicrous.
“Told ya you could do it,” Johnny said, smiling.
The boy beamed. “You sure did, Johnny. Thanks.”
“De nada, Harry. You keep practicing and when you’ve got it right a few times, take a few paces back and try it again. Keep stretching the distance ‘til you’ve got that right, then you can try roping somethin’ besides a post.”
The boy nodded. “Reckon it’s gonna be awhile ‘fore I can do it from horseback though.”
“You’d be surprised, Kid,” Jess found himself saying. “We all started somewhere. You’ll get it.”
Harry stared at him and then looked to Johnny, who nodded.
“Like he said, Harry. You’ll get it. Just take it one step at a time.”
“Hey, Johnny. Maybe you could teach me to shoot after this?”
Johnny ducked his head, looking at the ground as he kicked dust with the toe of his boot. When he looked up again, his mind was obviously made up. “No.”
The boy looked lost. “I just thought…”
“I know, Harry. But there’s plenty of men here who can show you how to handle one safely. What I can teach you, you don’t need to know.”
He was disappointed. That was obvious. “Okay, if you say so.”
“Now, get back to that ropin’. I need you to catch cows, not shoot ‘em.”
The boy laughed. “Sure, Johnny.”
Johnny turned away from the fence and took a couple of steps towards the house before stopping and looking back at Harry. “An’ don’t get so caught up with practicing that you miss breakfast. You won’t be any good to us faintin’ dead away from starvation out on the range.”
The boy laughed again and called “Sure, Johnny” as he went back to his roping.
Jess walked after Johnny and fell into step beside him. “New huh?”
“Yeah, green as they come. His folks run a mercantile in Green River.”
“Seems like a good kid… eager anyway.”
“Oh yeah. Wants to be a cowhand, real bad. Loco, I reckon.”
They laughed in unison and headed for the house.
“Quite a setup you’ve got here,” Jess said, looking around him. The house, from the outside, was even more impressive than from inside. In the dusk last night, he hadn’t gotten a real impression of the size of it.
“I can’t take credit for it. All Murdoch’s doin’.” He led the way to the kitchen where they found Val already eating with Slim and Scott.
“Buenos días, Señor Johnny,” a small cheerful-looking Spanish woman said as they walked in. Then she noticed Jess behind him. “Y buenos dias para usted tambien, Señor.”
“Gracias, Señora,” Jess said quietly.
“Buenos días, Maria,” he replied, wrapping a familiar arm around her shoulders. “¿Qué es para el desayuno?”
She frowned at him and put her hands on her hips. Jess knew, even if he hadn’t understood most of what she was saying, that Johnny was in trouble. “¿Para ti?” she said. “Nada. Estás tarde.”
Late… Oh yeah, he was in trouble alright. Jess smiled. It had been a good while since he had heard Spanish spoken but he remembered enough of it to get by.
“Lo siento,” Johnny said, smiling at the woman with what Jess guessed to be much practiced charm. “¿Perdóneme? ¿Por favor?”
She shook her head and tut-tutted. She wagged a finger in his face “Ay… tu y tus trucos. ¡Siéntate!”
He grinned at Jess. “Pull up a chair an’ sit down, quick. Before she changes her mind.”
Scott laughed. “Maria has him bluffed.”
“Maria’s the best cook around, Brother. And you know it. It don’t pay to upset her.”
Scott forked eggs into his mouth and nodded. “No arguments from me, Johnny,” he said when he’d swallowed.
Maria returned with two plates piled high with huevos rancheros and placed one each in front of Jess and Johnny. Jess surveyed the huge helping and breathed in the aroma. If it tasted anywhere near as good as if smelled, he’d be more than satisfied. He picked up a knife and pushed some onto his fork, then took a bite, savoring the taste. It was as good as it smelled.
“Not bad, hey Jess?” Slim said, taking another bite.
“Been a long time since I had honest to goodness Mexican food.”
“You like Mexicano, Señor?” Maria asked.
Jess grinned. “Muy gustoso. I’m a Texas boy, Ma’am.”
“Ah, si, Señor. ¡Buen provecho! Then perhaps I will make more for you.”
Johnny gulped down a mouthful. “That’s what I like to hear, Maria!”
She waved a wooden spoon in his direction. “For you, only if you are not late to the table.”
Jess swallowed and smiled. “You know, Slim, I love Daisy’s cooking, but sometimes I miss this. You reckon she could learn to cook Mexican style?”
“It’s worth a try,” Slim agreed. “Maybe the Señora will let us take a few recipes back for her.”
Maria smiled warmly at him and nodded. “Si.”
“You coming with us today, Scott?” Johnny asked between mouthfuls.
“No, Murdoch has other plans for me. Do you think you can stay out of trouble without me to keep an eye on you?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got Val to rein me in.”
Scott looked doubtful and Jess found himself chuckling.
“Well, it looks like I’m going to have to wait to eat!” Murdoch Lancer said as he came through the doorway, smiling broadly.
Val looked up from his breakfast, almost guiltily, but Lancer laughed aloud. “I’m joking, Val. Actually, I already ate. I’ve been with Cipriano, putting our heads together to figure out where these men could be hiding the stolen cattle.”
“And?” Johnny asked.
“There are a couple of places up there. It would be hard to get the cattle into them but they’d be well hidden. There’s one place in particular, Cesto del ogro. It might be worth a look first up. There’s grass and a little water. It’s just a creek but there’d be enough to keep a few cattle going for a limited time. I’ll have Cipriano take you there first.”
“Cesto del ogro?” Scott asked.
“The Ogre’s basket,” Johnny interpreted for him.
“Oh. I don’t think I’ve heard you mention it before, Murdoch,” Scott commented. He laid his knife and fork down on his empty plate and leaned back in his chair.
“Me either,” added Johnny.
Murdoch shook his head. “I’ve never had much reason to. It’s not somewhere you’d find strays and it’s not an easy place to get into. I haven’t been up there in years that I can remember.”
“But maybe the rustlers have,” Johnny said.
“If they are there, they’ve got a good spot. You go in there very carefully, Son. There’s a lot of hiding places up around there. Plenty of places for an ambush.”
Johnny nodded. “You can count on it. We had a taste of how they work yesterday.”
Their guide, the man Johnny had introduced to Slim and him as Cipriano, led the way once they got close to the hills that had stopped them yesterday. Graying but vigorous, he was older than any of them - probably about the same vintage as Murdoch Lancer - and a man who was obviously confident of his abilities. Jess suspected that he had been a vaquero most of his life and Johnny had told him that he had been born in the area and knew the lay of the land better than anyone else at Lancer, including Murdoch.
Johnny rode in front with Cipriano, while Jess, Slim and Val rode behind them. For much of the way, Val regaled Slim with stories of their days riding together – some of them bringing back clear and amusing memories for Jess, others just plain embarrassing. Jess had been little more than a green kid when he had first met Val Crawford so there were plenty of the latter.
Jess tried to ignore the two of them and, instead, found himself watching Lancer’s back as they rode. He had a casual ease in the saddle that suggested he was born to it. He rode in silence most of the way, broken occasionally by conversation between him and Cipriano, and that usually in Spanish. Jess remembered hearing that Johnny Madrid was part Mexican himself.
He tried to recall the other things he had heard about Madrid. Most of the stories had talked about him as little more than a kid – probably true since he’d been active as a gunfighter for some years before disappearing from the scene. Yet he was still a young man. He had also heard about how cold the man was, cold as ice the stories had said and ready to take on all comers.
Jess had seen hints yesterday of how cool he could be but he’d also stood up for him when asked so he’d reserve judgment on that. That Val deemed him a friend spoke well for him and, for now anyway, that was all he needed.
And fast? That was the one thing he had heard about Madrid that he had some trouble believing. Jess was quick, but the tales he’d heard about Madrid made him seem too fast to be true. But Jess had no intention of testing those stories. He was confident enough of his own ability to feel no need to prove himself against Johnny Madrid.
It took hours to reach the place where they had lost the trail yesterday. The sun was already hot and wearing on them, sapping valuable energy from them. Once there, they stopped to give Cipriano time to look around. Jess looked around in a different way, looking out over the rolling hills and into the valley below.
It was dry now, high summer, and the grass was tinged yellow. But with a little rain it would green up and would be as pretty a piece of country as any he had seen in his wanderings. This was prime cattle country.
Jess took a swig of water from the canteen and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before looping the canteen back around the pommel in front of him. The water wasn’t cold but it was refreshing just the same.
Cipriano walked back with Johnny to join them.
“We found a few tracks on a trail into the mountains,” Johnny was saying to him. “Over that way.” He pointed to where they had been forced to give up yesterday.
“Si.” Cipriano nodded sagely. “El ogro is behind these hills. It is very rough country there, Señor, many places for a man to hide with a gun. ¿Entiende?”
“Si, entiendo. Gracias, Cipriano. Do you know those places well enough to warn us when we’re coming up on one?”
He nodded. “I can do that.”
“Good,” Val said. “We need to come up on these guys nice an’ easy.”
They let Cipriano lead the way again, this time up into the hills. The grassy meadows were left behind them and the treeline lay ahead. More and more, pines replaced the spreading oaks of the hillsides. They grew closer together, tall and strong and cutting off the sunlight.
Once in the trees, the trail became narrower and scattered with leaf litter, rocks and decaying logs. The air became cooler around them as the trees grew thicker and the scent of pinewood grew heavier.
Riding through the trees, a wall of rock appeared before them. It rose above them, sheer for at least ten feet and topped with an overhang that made climbing it obviously impossible.
“What now?” Val asked as they drew their horses to a stop.
“Follow me, Señores,” Cipriano answered, urging his horse forward. He turned behind a pair of tall pines and disappeared.
Val looked inquiringly at Johnny, who replied with only a shrug of his shoulders as he pushed ahead as well.
“The man said ‘follow’, Val,” Jess said, and nudged his horse on as well.
Pressing ahead, Jess went after Johnny while Val and Slim rode behind him in single file. They caught sight of Cipriano ahead of them for a minute and saw that the rock face that had looked so impenetrable actually curved around to the left and Cipriano disappeared again as he went behind it.
Letting him lead them without question now, they found themselves on another trail, this time with high rock walls on both sides of them and leading uphill. It was mostly rock under their horses’ feet now, clattering loudly under so many hooves. There was no hope of finding tracks through here but plenty of warning that they were coming.
There was just space enough for a horse and rider, with only a few inches to spare on either side. Could a man really get cattle through here?
The claustrophobic closeness seemed to make it seem unlikely but they continued. There was no way to turn around anyway. But a few yards up the trail they found what seemed to confirm that it had been possible to move cattle up this trail. Cipriano dismounted and checked out a cowpat in the middle of the path.
“It is fresh… maybe yesterday,” he said, looking up at Johnny.
“Then they must have come this way,” Johnny replied. “Good. Looks like we’re on the right trail.”
“Maybe one hundred yards further up, there is a sharp turn. There is a ledge which would give a man a good place to lay in wait for us, Señor.”
Johnny nodded. “Gracias, Cipriano. We’ll have to go carefully.”
They slowed as they got to the place Cipriano had warned them about, dismounted and tentatively made their way around the bend. There was no lookout, no shots and they passed through safely, this time.
The slope got steeper and went higher and higher, while the fissure they were traveling through widened slowly as they went further until the sunlight was once again able to lighten their way.
Further up the trail, Cipriano warned them again of a possible ambush spot. Johnny called a halt and left them to edge around it himself. When they heard no shots, Val beckoned them all ahead.
The fissure ended and they found themselves with rock on only their right side as the trail wound its way up the mountain. Above them were vertical cliffs, below them devastatingly steep drops with sharp rocks at the bottom.
The trail mostly allowed them only enough room to ride single file and they were about halfway up when they rounded yet another horseshoe bend. Cipriano called a halt again and they found themselves face to face with what had to be ‘Cesto del Ogro’.
It was a big lump of a mountain that was shaped vaguely like a squatting giant. There were two matching caves near the top, an overhang beneath them that could pass for a nose and there was a wider, deeper cavern below that. It didn’t take much imagination to see a face there – an ugly face sitting between wide hunched shoulders.
Looking down, there was a deep depression that bottomed out in a grassy meadow of no more than ten acres or so. But above it was what gave it is name and it took Jess’ breath away. A rock arch stretched from the side of the ‘ogre’ to the side of the next mountain. It was a couple of hundred feet across and curved over top of the depression like a delicately shaped handle.
He couldn’t even begin to guess how the elements had created such a remarkable piece of rock, but it certainly lived up to its name – the Ogre’s Basket.
“¡Madre de dios!” Johnny gasped. “I had no idea this was here.”
“El Ogro,” Cipriano said, almost reverently. “Y su cesto. He sits quietly and bothers no one. When I was a young man, I climbed to that big caverna, la boca del ogro. Gaspar and I, two young men, boys… proving to themselves that they are men by climbing to the mouth of the giant.” He sighed heavily and crossed himself. “Poor Gaspar.”
The sadness in his words was mirrored in Johnny’s face. Johnny’s head dropped a little as well – a lost friend perhaps. No, the hardness that crept into their eyes hinted at something worse than that… a wound that went deep and left scars that had not healed for either of them.
“Around this bend, we will be in the open,” Cipriano went on. “It would be well to stop here and go on with great care. It they are there, they will be able to see us.”
Val dismounted. “Alright then. Everybody down.” He handed his reins over to Slim then moved toward the corner of the rock wall. “Cipriano, if I keep low, are they gonna be able to see me?”
“It is possible, Señor Sheriff, that they will not.”
“Good. You wait here with the others. I’ll go take a look.”
“Johnny, this is where my job takes over. Stay here.”
Without another word, Val dropped to the ground and eased himself forward on his stomach. When he came back a minute or two later, he was on his feet and no longer concerned about being seen.
“No one there.”
“No one?” Johnny stood up straight and stared at him. “There’s no one down there?”
“Not a damned soul, an’ no cattle either that I c’n see.” Val pulled his hat off his head and slammed it against his thigh, as disgusted as he sounded. He walked over to join them and leaned back against the rock wall, heaving a long sigh.
Johnny turned away from them, staring out over the meadow. When he turned back, his eyes flashed with anger. “Damn! I was sure we were on the right trail.”
For a minute, no one spoke. Then Val peeled himself away from the wall. “Yeah, me too. Well, let’s go on down there anyway. Could still be they were here an’ left. If that’s right, we might pick up some sorta lead on ‘em.”
There was a prevailing sense of failure on everyone’s faces at not having found the rustlers and Jess felt it too but he mounted and joined the others in making their way down the trail to the meadow. The trail widened as it wound lower. It became less steep and started to reveal tracks as the rock began to give way to soil and grass.
Cipriano called a halt near the bottom and studied the ground. “They have been here,” he announced, standing up. If the man was pleased about it, Jess sure couldn’t say. His face was like stone. He walked ahead, leading his horse and following tracks while Jess and the others held their ground, waiting for him.
Finally, he beckoned them forward. “Aquí, Señores, look at this mark.” He pointed to a hoof print on the ground. It was the clearest one they had found so far. Jess dismounted with the others and took a close look. The print was marred by what looked like a crack in the horseshoe.
“That’ll sure make this horse easy to identify,” Slim said, voicing Jess’ own thoughts. “At least until his rider notices and gets the shoe replaced.”
Val smiled with satisfaction. “I can check with all the local blacksmiths. If he hasn’t had it done yet, I’ll tell ‘em to keep an eye out for him an’ let me know if he comes by.”
“It’s a start,” Johnny said. “More than we came in with, I guess.” He still sounded disappointed, but Jess was less so. If this was their only lead, it was still something to go on and there was at least some hope of catching the rider of this horse. Who knew what that could lead to… perhaps to getting the names of the rest of them? Jess had only one he wanted – the name of man using his.
They let Cipriano set the pace once they were back on their way and followed him down off the trail and into the meadow. Once there, they didn’t need Cipriano to tell them that there had been men and cattle there. Anyone who had spent time around cattle could recognize the smell of animals and manure.
“Let’s spread out and see if we can find anything,” Val suggested.
It was a natural corral and the rustlers would not have had to do much to keep the cattle in. Nor would it take many of them to do it.
The walls were sheer rock on all sides with only the trail coming in. It seemed unlikely that the cattle would willingly stray back up that trail and the grazing and water was more than enough to keep a good number of animals well fed for a while.
Jess looked up and his mouth fell open. From up on the trail, the scene had been remarkable, but now, from below, he could only marvel at the huge rock arch that spanned the width of the meadow over their heads. It was at least a couple of hundred feet above them and from down here he could see how narrow and delicate it looked. Ferns and lichens grew in the shadows of the underside while its sides were sheer glistening rock.
A small waterfall dropped a steep thirty feet down the side of the ‘ogre’, then splashed over rocks and into a pool at the bottom that the cattle had obviously used. Ferns and moss grew among the rocks and the water sang as it cascaded down to the pool.
Above it all rose the towering bulk of ‘the ogre’, silently looking down and watching them. The sun was directly overhead and shimmered as it caught the edge of the arch while somewhere an eagle shrilled its lonely call.
“Kinda takes your breath away, doesn’t it?” It was Johnny, suddenly beside him.
“Murdoch’s never even mentioned this place to me before. Makes me wonder.”
“What else there is that you don’t know about?”
“Well, your pa was right about this place being a perfect set up. It’d be murder getting the cattle in an’ out, but that makes it all the more unlikely they’d get caught. This ain’t a place you’d just stumble on, so it’s perfect for a hideout.”
Johnny nodded. “Which gets me to wonderin’ again.”
“Scott and I didn’t know about this place and we thought we’d worked every inch of Lancer over the last couple of years. Hell, we were all here yesterday and didn’t find it. We went right on past it.”
Jess frowned. He began to see where Johnny was heading with this. “Without Cipriano, we still would have missed it this morning. Woulda ridden right by it without knowing it was here.”
“Exactly. So, how did a bunch of complete strangers manage to just ‘stumble on it’ like you said? I don’t see it happening.”
“You’re saying someone had to have told them about it.”
“Yeah, that’s about it. And if only people like Murdoch and Cipriano know this place is here…”
“That means someone local might be in on it.”
“Yeah…” Johnny sighed heavily and Jess understood. It was never a good thing when you had to start considering that a neighbor or friend might be involved in something like this.
“It’s likely, I guess, but it ain’t the only explanation,” Jess answered, feeling the need to reassure him. He looked around the meadow and watched as Val dismounted and began looking over one section more closely. “I reckon Val’s found something over there.”
They rode over to join him and found him inspecting what appeared to be the remnants of a campsite. There had been a decent sized cooking fire that obviously had been used for some time and, a few yards away, the scraped hide of a slaughtered steer had been tossed over a rock to dry. Johnny walked over to take a look at it and found the brand, pointing it out to Val. It was a circle L – Lancer.
Val looked around some more and pointed out signs of a couple of small tents having been pitched. That meant they were accommodating themselves a whole lot more than most rustlers would dare to risk. To Jess, it all indicated that these men had not expected to be found here.
“Looks like they were here for a while,” he said.
“Weeks maybe,” Johnny agreed. “Damn! We were so close all that time.”
“And they’ve been free to come and go without having to worry much about being found,” Slim added.
Val bent over the ashes of the fire. “They ain’t been gone long, neither.”
“Si, yesterday, late, I think,” Cipriano agreed.
“Probably got nervous when the lookout didn’t show up,” Johnny suggested. He looked around the walls of the ogre’s ‘basket’. “Is there only the one way in an’ out, Cipriano?”
“Si, that path is the only one that I know of.”
Johnny frowned. “Val, you’ve taken most of the reports of stolen cattle. How many do you think they’d have had in here?”
Val pushed his hat back and scratched his head while he thought about it. “Let’s see. You think Lancer’s lost about thirty head, right?”
“McHenry’s ranch has been hit a couple o’ times. He said he’d lost about a dozen head… Conway place, they only got hit once each an’ they figure 5 or 6.” He scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Then there’s been small hits on the Driscoll ranch and the Bar T… about four or five from each o’ them.”
“That’s over fifty head, over how long? A month?” Johnny asked.
“That’s a good haul,” Slim commented. “Maybe losing their lookout yesterday scared them. If that’s why they left then it might be it’s for good.”
Val nodded. “Might be.”
“They couldn’t move that many head of cattle around here without attracting attention,” Slim pointed out. “Surely everyone is going to be watching out for strange herds passing through.”
A frown creased Johnny’s brow. “That’s for sure. Every rancher within one hundred miles is on the lookout for them. Any cattle herds being moved are suspect at the moment.” He turned back to Cipriano. “Murdoch said there might be a couple of places the rustlers might be hiding, not just this one… right?”
“Si, Señor Johnny. There are two others I can think of, but they would be smaller than this. I do not think they would be able to hide so many cattle for long.”
“They wouldn’t need to hang around in them for long,” Johnny told him. “Only long enough to lose us. Then they’d head out once they could see a clear path an’ get rid of ‘em.”
“Make sense to me,” Slim agreed while Val nodded.
Jess could see the sense in it too. The rustlers had been on a good thing but, at the moment, they were on the run. They could well be moving on but, if they laid low for a while and waited it out, then they might go back to whatever had been their original plan.
“We’ve still got most of the day to look some more,” Johnny said. “Cipriano, why don’t you lead us on? Show us those other two spots an’ we’ll see if we can’t still find them and flush ‘em out, once and for all.”
They agreed and remounted and then, turning their backs on El Ogro, they followed Cipriano as he led them back up the winding trail. With one last glance over his shoulder, Johnny looked again at the massive hulk of the ogre and the long, slender arc of rock overhead.
“I’ll have to bring Scott here one day to show him this.”
Once back in the open valley, they followed Cipriano over the foothills for another hour and then through a narrow pass to find a small valley – another spot that Johnny told them he had not known existed.
It was smaller and offered less room there than they had seen at El Cesto del Ogro and the grass showed no more sign of being grazed than could be accounted for by a few deer. A creek went through it but it was running pretty shallow at the moment and had steep banks that wouldn’t suit cattle.
It took only a brief look around to decide that the rustlers had not been there so they stopped only long enough to sit in the shade by the creek to eat the sandwiches that Teresa had packed for them and to rest and water the horses. Then they made their way back out and followed Cipriano once again.
The third and, apparently, the last location that Cipriano and Murdoch had figured on was another small meadow that could only be reached by a circuitous route over rocky trails and creeks, between enormous boulders and over fallen trees. Even as they made their way there, Jess thought it was unlikely that cattle could be gotten through.
It was a pretty glade with a waterfall that fell in a sheer drop for perhaps a hundred feet down the side of the mountain into a deep pool. Ferns and bracken grew in the shade of tall pines and the shade lowered the temperature of the air about them by several pleasant degrees.
Grass was abundant and would offer fine graze for cattle, but not in the numbers they had to consider. Besides, it was plain that there hadn’t been any here, recently or ever.
A deer, drinking at the pool, looked up at them curiously, wagging its small tail while it watched them. It showed no fear at first and then it darted away into the trees. It seemed pretty plain that no one had been here for some time.
“Cascada Mantilla,” Cipriano told them, pointing to the waterfall. “Beautiful, yes?”
“Beautiful, yes…” Slim answered. “But they certainly haven’t been here.”
“No,” Cipriano agreed. “Señor Murdoch and I thought that it was possible they had been here, but perhaps not very likely.”
Jess glanced at Johnny and grinned. “Didn’t know about this either?”
“Nope. Beginnin’ to think I don’t know Lancer half as good as I thought I did.”
Johnny looked around him at the unfamiliar scenery and it struck home to him again just how little he really knew about the ranch. He had been back at Lancer for two years and he had begun to feel comfortable that he knew it very well. He was sure that Scott felt the same way and would be just as surprised to find out about these places.
Together Johnny and Scott had ridden over the fields and hills of Lancer, hazed strays, dug post holes and cleared so many streams that they had gotten a feel for the land they now called home. These days, Murdoch could name a place where he wanted them to be and they knew how to get there without question.
But today, Johnny’s comfort level had plummeted. How many other hidden places were there at Lancer that he didn’t know about? He felt like a stranger again.
He shook the thoughts away and found Cipriano looking at him, an expression that could almost be described as sympathy on his face.
Cipriano walked toward him and stopped beside him.
“I didn’t know any of these places were here, Cipriano. How much else is there that Scott and I haven’t seen?”
“I have lived here all my life, Señor Johnny,” he said quietly. “Your papa for most of his. We have worked this land, dared to look for new places. It is not the knowledge of a couple of years. You cannot expect to know it all in so short a time.”
Johnny nodded, not looking at him.
“But you will… one day.”
Johnny did look at him this time and he found a reassuring smile on the older man’s face.
“It is one of the joys of life, yes?” the old Vacquero asked, “finding something like this… something unexpected.”
“Yes, you’re right, Cipriano. Even if we didn’t find any rustlers, this has been quite a day.”
“It is good then.”
Val walked over to join them. “By my figurin’, we ain’t far from Spanish Wells, are we?”
“No, Señor Sheriff… perhaps an hour’s ride. We are at the edge of Lancer land.”
“Okay. We might as well head over there an’ I’ll have me a little talk with Gabe. See if he’s found out anythin’ ‘bout these boys.”
Once again, they left empty handed. After riding out this morning with the first hopes they had had of catching the rustlers since the first raid on Lancer, it was a blow that they had found virtually nothing. It was hard to put aside the disappointment.
They rode into Spanish Wells and Johnny felt his life settle back into balance. He felt that he was back in familiar surroundings, though he could see that Slim and Jess felt differently, looking all around them with interest.
Of course, Spanish Wells was not much different from hundreds of small western towns – brash and new, and growing fast. It had changed a lot from the lawless little village Johnny had first visited with Scott and Murdoch a couple of years ago. Since they had built the jail, there had come that ‘civilizing’ element that always began with families, schools and churches and businessmen.
Johnny figured that it was a good thing, but it wasn’t as much fun as it had been. Used to be, you could have a fine old time in Spanish Wells. No one had cared about cowboys shooting up the place. But new civic laws were constantly being made and Gabe was just the sheriff to enforce them. Pretty soon they’d make it illegal to spit on the boardwalk. Yep, Spanish Wells was ‘growing up’ like so many other towns.
But, for now, you could still enjoy Saturday nights, particularly after payday for the local cowhands. Liquor, women and cards – they were all available and ready for the taking in any amount a man might think that he could handle.
Today was not Saturday. There was no loud music, no raucous laughter and shouting, no shots being fired into the air just to let off steam. The streets were quiet enough for the ladies to feel perfectly safe walking down the boardwalks, going from store to store and sharing local gossip. Wagons and buggies and horsemen traveled the streets at a sedate pace and children played around the tree in the new square in front of the hotel.
The door to the sheriff’s office was wide open, but that was hardly surprising on such a hot day. They stopped right out front where Val and Johnny dropped to the ground and lazily tied the reins to the hitching rail.
“Well, what brings you this far from home, Val Crawford?”
Johnny looked towards the voice and found the sheriff standing in the doorway. He was leaning one shoulder against the frame with his right hand resting on the butt of his gun.
“Howdy, Gabe,” Val answered, grinning as he stepped up onto the boardwalk and came face to face with his Spanish Wells counterpart. “Hot day, long ride… thought you might offer a little refreshment to a fellow lawman.”
“I got coffee on,” Gabe said. “Probably not what you had in mind, but you’re welcome to it.” He looked towards Johnny and greeted him casually. “Johnny…”
“Gabe,” he answered, nodding to acknowledge him.
He glanced at their companions but both Johnny and Val chose not to introduce them yet. There would be time for that later, when they knew how the subject of Jess Harper stood with Gabe.
Gabe seemed to take the hint and didn’t ask about them. “Come on in then.”
Johnny stepped up onto the boardwalk and walked across to join the two sheriffs in the doorway. Val turned back to the others. “You boys wait out here.”
Jess nodded and dismounted, followed by Slim and Cipriano, each of them tying their horses to the hitching rail and turning to look around the town.
Johnny walked inside after Val but he noted the slight frown on Gabe’s face as he passed him. He was looking past Johnny, out towards Jess and Slim but he said nothing as he peeled himself away from the doorjamb and went in, closing the door after them.
Val was already helping himself to the coffee on the potbellied stove. He poured another for Johnny and one for Gabe.
“Alright, so what really brings you all this way, Val?” Gabe asked, taking the cup and sipping from it. He winced at the heat of it and walked over to his desk. Sitting on the edge with one leg swinging, he looked less intimidating than Johnny knew he really could be. “It’s a long way for a cup of coffee and it seems to me you’re a long way out of your jurisdiction.”
“We’ve been tracking some cattle thieves,” Val told him.
“Harper’s gang? You found tracks?”
Johnny cringed a little at the name, but Val’s face showed no reaction. Val pulled his battered, dusty hat off and slapped it on the desk. “Well, might be I oughta say we been trying to track ‘em. Found a few tracks that led to where they’ve been, but they were gone.”
“That’s more than I’ve been able to do. How’d you find it?”
“We found a few tracks yesterday and ended up havin’ a run in with their lookout,” Val explained. “Ended in a shootout.”
“I gather he’s dead?”
“Yeah, there’s no gettin’ anythin’ outa him. He’s past talkin’,” Val continued. Johnny quietly sipped his coffee as Val went on to describe what had happened since then, judiciously omitting the names of their companions. “So, we ain’t much better off than when we started out this mornin’. But we were up this far so we thought we’d stop by an’ see what you know ‘bout all this rustlin’.”
Gabe took another mouthful of the coffee before answering. He sighed. “Not much, Val. Sounds like you’ve found out more that I have. They hit and run and then they disappear into the hills. It’s damned frustrating.” He looked at Johnny. “I hear Lancer’s been raided more than once, Johnny.”
“Four times. We’ve lost over thirty head. Conways’ve lost some an’ some of the others. We figure the number’s over fifty head total.”
Gabe whistled. “Hal McHenry says he’s lost about twenty head,” the sheriff added. “Santee lost a few last week, Johannson too.”
“McHenry been hit again?” Val asked. “I heard he’d lost a dozen or so.”
“Yes, he was in here two days ago. They hit him again an’ he’s fired up to do something about it… anything. I have to admit, it’s got me worried.”
“The numbers are higher than I’ve heard of for a long while,” Val agreed. “An’ they seem to be happy to strike in broad daylight.”
“They’re brazen alright.” Gabe put the coffee cup on the desk and got back to his feet. “The general feeling is that Jess Harper is behind it. You seen anything of him?”
“Ain’t had no killin’s in Green River. Last I heard of was the shootin’ in Visalia. Bad one that. You?”
“He hasn’t been here either.”
Val went quiet, thoughtful. “You’re a good man, Gabe, an’ a good sheriff. I figure there’s somethin’ you oughta know.”
“That right?” Gabe looked away towards the door. “About your friends outside maybe?”
Val looked at him hard. Johnny swallowed the coffee in his mouth and watched them both carefully. He liked Gabe and respected him more than he did most lawmen, but he was getting a bad feeling right now.
Gabe folded his arms across his chest and frowned. “You got something more
you wanta tell me, Val?”
Val said nothing, but dropped his head so that Gabe couldn’t see his face. When he looked up, there was a hint of mischief in his eyes. “I’m thinkin’ you maybe already know.”
“Val, I put a lot of miles under my belt before I took this job. And I’m a Texan. You know that.” He stopped and seemed to wait for Val to say something. Getting no answer, he continued, “I was deputy sheriff in a little town in New Mexico some years back. We had a couple of hard cases come to town one day and they picked a young fella in one of the saloons. Pushed him around a bit and we ended up with a gunfight in the middle of town.”
He ran his hand through his hair, deep in thought. “Sure was somethin’ to see. I gotta say that. I was kinda surprised that it was the young fella who came out of it without a scratch. Real fine shootin’ it was... faster than I’d ever seen back then. Not someone I was gonna forget easily.”
“Harper?” Johnny asked.
“Yeah, he was Jess Harper. He wasn’t much more than a kid and left town that same day so I didn’t get to know much about him. But I’ve been kinda sorry to hear lately that he’d gone bad.”
Johnny set down his empty cup. “You mean you haven’t seen Jess Harper since then?”
“Then you’re goin’ on hearsay now, like everyone else?”
Gabe frowned. “Well, yeah. I guess I am. You sayin’ that the rumors are wrong?”
“He is,” Val said quietly but firmly.
Gabe crossed his arms and paced across the room. “You sure?”
Val looked daggers at him. “Damned sure.”
“I believe him, Gabe,” Johnny said, stepping in before Val lost his temper. “We talked it out last night at Lancer. Jess was in Laramie when all this started. He can prove it if he has to. Only came out here ‘cause he heard about it from Val and didn’t like that his name was being muddied up.”
“He heard about it from you, Val?”
“That’s right,” Val answered, still glowering. “Wrote him when I heard his name bein’ bandied around. I know Jess Harper better’n to think that any of this was really his doin’.”
Gabe looked from one to the other and apparently came to a decision. He went to the door and opened it, then stood aside. “Why don’t you invite your friends in, Val?”
Val walked to the door with an obvious reluctance in his step that suggested to Johnny that he wished the situation had gone another way. “Come on in, Boys,” he called from the doorway and then turned and came back to stand with Johnny and wait for them.
Jess appeared at the doorway first, a wary look in his eyes, and then Slim and Cipriano filed in behind him, one after the other. Cipriano stayed by the door, closing it quietly behind him, then crossed his arms and stood as silent and stoic as Johnny knew him to be. Jess and Slim hung back as if they were waiting to find out what was going on.
Val introduced them. “Jess, Slim, this is Sheriff Gabe Bryant.” He looked at Jess directly. “He knows, Jess.”
“He knows?” Jess demanded, anger ringing in his voice. “What happened to ‘let’s not tell anyone’?”
“Val didn’t tell me, Harper. He didn’t have to. I’ve seen you before.”
Jess frowned and looked the sheriff in the eyes. “Is that right?”
“I was a deputy in Santa Rosa, five years back.” Gabe waited a moment. “Now, maybe you don’t remember, but…”
“I remember Santa Rosa, Sheriff,” Jess assured him coldly. “I remember what happened there.”
Johnny could hear in his voice the offence he had taken and understood. More than anyone else in the room, he knew why Jess was affronted. Why was it people thought that they could forget killing a man so easily? Like himself, Jess had been in gunfights – probably more than his fair share – but the towns, the names, even the faces… they stayed with Johnny and he was sure with Jess too.
Gabe ducked his head for a moment, before going on. “Yeah, well, I remember it too. I recognized you as soon as I laid eyes on you outside.”
“Val and Johnny tell me you ain’t been around here over the last few weeks. Not till recently.”
“Got here a couple of days ago.” He stopped, then added with a defensive tone in his voice, “I can prove it.”
“If you have their say so, you don’t need to prove it to me,” Gabe told him. “But bein’ Jess Harper around these parts might not be real wise.”
“He’s not callin’ himself ‘Harper’, Gabe, but not because he’s tryin’ to hide who he is. He’s usin’ the name Sherman ‘cause we told him to. He didn’t like it but we didn’t think it was a good idea for him to use his own name ‘round here,” Val explained.
“Yeah, I’ve gotta agree with you about that. We’ve got some real angry people hereabouts. Hal McHenry’s been hit a few times and he’s lost a lot of stock. He’s gettin’ real hot for someone to blame and there are others who’ll back him up. It’s a bad situation and I have to say I don’t want any more trouble than I’ve already got.”
Jess’ eyes narrowed. There was still a measure of distrust in them. “You sayin’ you’ll keep it quiet?”
Gabe nodded. “Yeah, the man I’m after is the man behind the cattle raids. Now, that may or may not be the man calling himself Jess Harper but I sure don’t want him in my town anyway… not with the reputation he’s gettin’ himself by shooting youngsters.”
Jess let out a deep breath. “Thanks. I’d like to get hold of him myself. It’s my name he’s using and draggin’ through the mud.”
“Just make sure you stay on the right side of the law to do it. You find him, you get the law involved.”
“You have my word on it, Sheriff.”
“Good enough.” Gabe turned back to Val. “Now, you said you found where they’ve been. You got any ideas on where they’ve gone?”
“We’ve been thinkin’ on that some, Gabe,” Val answered. “If they’ve decided they’ve had enough of the area, they’ll still have to do somethin’ with all those cattle. Must have a buyer somewhere.”
Gabe nodded. “You said about fifty head from down your way. With the new raid on McHenry and Santee and Johannson, we’re lookin’ at closer to seventy or eighty, maybe more. That’s not an easy number to hide.”
Jess pushed his hat back and whistled. “That’s a lot.”
“Trailing them to a buyer would surely raise attention,” Slim pointed out.
“Definitely,” Gabe agreed.
Johnny walked across the room to a county map that Gabe had on the wall. “They could take them over the foothills toward Panoche Pass. This time of year there’s not much doing up there. They just might be able to do that without being seen. If they take ‘em through the pass, they wouldn’t ask so many questions over that side of the mountains.”
“An’ they could sell ‘em in Gilroy, or take ‘em on up to San Jose or even San Francisco that way,” Val agreed.
“Tough goin’ up in those foothills with that many cattle, Johnny,” Gabe said doubtfully.
“Yes, but these boys aren’t afraid of a little rough trail riding. Not from what we saw today.”
Gabe nodded. “Could be what they’re up to then. I’ll send word to every sheriff over that way to keep an eye out. It’s worth trying.”
“We did come across one thing,” Val added. “One of ‘em is ridin’ a horse with a cracked horseshoe. Off fore maybe, wouldn’t you say, Cipriano?”
“Si, I think so.”
“If we pass the word around the smiths an’ liveries here an’ over Gilroy way, it might lead to somethin’.”
Gabe rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It’s not much but you’re right. It’s something. I’ll have a quiet word with Ollie, down at the livery. Tell him to keep an eye out too.”
“You haven’t seen this fella callin’ himself Harper?” Jess asked.
“No. He hasn’t been in Spanish Wells that I know of. And if I’d seen him, I’d have known right off that he wasn’t you.”
“You reckon you could get word to me if you come across him?”
“Sure, where can I reach you? With Val?”
“At Lancer, Gabe,” Johnny said. “He an’ Slim are stayin’ with us.”
“You heading back there now?”
“Actually, I thought we could head up towards Panoche Pass and see if we can find something.” Johnny grinned. “Cattle maybe… rustlers…”
“You mean keep goin’ now?” Val asked.
“Yeah, if they’ve given up on these parts, might be our only chance of catching them.”
Val rubbed his cheek thoughtfully. “I dunno. It’s a good idea, Johnny, but like Gabe said, I’m already a helluva long way outa my jurisdiction. I gotta get back before Green River forgets I’m sheriff. An’ your pa’s expectin’ you back tonight.”
“Yeah, I know. But we’ve got bedrolls with us. And Cipriano can head back to Lancer to tell Murdoch what we’re doing.”
“Sounds good to me,” Jess told him.
“Me too,” added Slim.
“You wouldn’t be a posse, Johnny,” Gabe said, crossing his arms over his chest again and giving him a stern look. “I don’t want any vigilantes running loose.”
“That’s not what we’ve got in mind, Gabe,” Johnny assured him. “If we find them, the law can have them. ‘Sides, we need to show everyone that Jess is not the killer.”
The sheriff nodded. “Alright, I’ve got nothing against it then.”
They left. Val made his way down to the livery to start spreading the word about the cracked horseshoe while the others walked over to the saloon to arrange rooms for the night.
After an early dinner, Johnny sent Cipriano back to Lancer to tell Murdoch that he might be gone for a few days. He wondered what his father’s reaction would be. Would he be angry at not being consulted first? Possibly, but Johnny was sure he would agree that this was a chance to catch up with the rustlers and maybe even get back the stolen cattle before it was too late.
Val sat at a table with Slim, Jess and Johnny, enjoying one last drink before turning in. He shook his head emphatically. “Nope, sorry Boys but I have to get back. I’m bettin’ ol’ Mayor Higgs is already takin’ nominations for a new sheriff. ‘Sides, that town’s fine while I’m there, but I can’t leave ‘em to themselves for long. Trouble always shows up.”
Johnny laughed. He nudged Jess’ arm. “He’s right you know. Downright indispensable he is.”
“An’ ain’t you the funny one,” Val groused. “You know I’m right ‘bout Higgs.”
“Well, yeah. You’re right about that. He’d just love to be rid of you.”
Slim frowned. “Is he corrupt?”
“Nope,” Val said calmly. “Just stupid an’ ornery.” He finished his drink and leaned back in his chair. “So, you three think you can really do this without turnin’ vigilante on me?”
“With Slim along, you can count on it, Val,” Jess told him with a sidelong glance at his partner to look for his reaction.
“You can count on it,” Slim assured him firmly.
“And you, Johnny?” Val asked.
“You want it written in blood?”
Val’s shoulders shook as he chuckled. “Put your temper back in your pocket. Ain’t like I don’t trust you.” He grew serious then. “But I want the three o’ you to be real careful. These boys aren’t afraid to throw lead around an’ I won’t be there to haul your asses home.”
Next morning, while Val started on his way back to Green River, Johnny rode north with Jess and Slim towards Panoche Pass – in search of the elusive rustlers.
The rolling grassy hills rose gently at first, with few trees to break the landscape or offer shade for a break. The ground was hard but not so hard that there would be no trace of tracks.
Finally, an hour outside of Spanish Wells, Johnny dismounted and called a halt. He called eagerly, “Here! I think this might be that shoe.”
Jess dropped from the saddle and joined him. The print stood out, deep and clean in a patch of soft earth on the bank of a creek.
“Yep, looks like the same one.” He searched the area around it and found cattle and other horse tracks, then he slapped Johnny on the back. “Looks like you were right. They came this way.”
“About time something went our way,” Johnny replied, gathering the reins and mounting Barranca with much more enthusiasm.
They followed the rustlers’ trail, struggling to find more sign as they left the creek behind and the earth hardened again. They followed for about an hour with their hopes rising but it was short-lived. The tracks petered out over a rocky patch of ground and they couldn’t find them again. Frustration began creeping up on them.
“There’s been cattle through here but which way they went is the question,” Jess said.
“What do you think then? Circle these rocks and see if we can pick anything up?” Johnny suggested.
“Better than guessing,” Jess agreed.
They found the end of the rocky outcrop and tried riding around the edges of it.
“Looks like they had the same idea,” Jess said, shaking his head. He took off his hat and ran his gloved hand through his hair in annoyance. “They’re tryin’ to shake off anyone trackin’ them.”
“Then it’s probably the right herd,” Slim said optimistically.
Johnny grimaced. “Yes, but they’ve got us going around in circles here. We’re wasting time.”
“So, what now? Keep going towards the Pass?” Slim asked.
Johnny sighed. “It still makes sense that they’re heading that way. They’d have come through here. The Pass is only another hour or so over there,” he said, pointing northwest. “Any towns or ranches around here will know those cattle are likely stolen so I’m not sure they’d risk goin’ further this way.”
“Then we go on,” Slim said decisively.
The steeper hills and the range that had been in the distance drew closer with every pace until they found themselves going higher.
“The stage road passes through here so it’s easy going, but there’s a few places that’d make real good spots for an a man with a rifle,” Johnny told them.
Jess shook his head. “Thanks. That’s just what I wanted to hear.”
They located and, keeping a wary eye for places where an ambush could have been set up for them, they followed the stage road through cuttings, winding up steep grades, then leveling off and even going downhill at stretches.
By the time they reached the pass, the road had narrowed so that the walls seemed to be closing in on them as they rode. Turning around in the saddle, they were high enough to look back over the San Joaquin valley and ahead stretched the much smaller Panoche Valley.
But they paid no attention to the view after an initial glance and searched instead for any sign of a herd going through while still watching for lookouts. It proved to have been a long hot ride with nothing to show for it. There were no cattle tracks or cowpats, or not recent anyway.
“I’m afraid there doesn’t seem to be much point in going any further, does there?” Slim asked.
“No,” Johnny answered. He was disappointed. It seemed as though that was happening all the time with these rustlers. They were winning at every turn. “They’ve turned off somewhere.”
“Probably back at the rocky patch we crossed,” Jess added.
Johnny nodded. “Most likely.”
“Then we need to go back there and try again. Maybe we can pick up some tracks this time.”
“Jess, we tried that already,” Slim argued.
“Then we try again, harder.”
Backtracking was easier going, being mostly downhill, but the day was wearing down. It was already well into the afternoon when they reached the rocky ground where they had lost the trail of the rustlers.
The ground was a slow falling slope of stone with tufts of grass growing from soil-filled crevices and holes. For the most part, the soil had eroded with rain and wind to leave what was essentially a bald patch on the landscape. It stretched for half a mile or more ahead of them and about the same to the left and right.
Hooves clattered noisily as the three riders walked their horses across the expanse of rock to the far edge. There they agreed it would save time if they split up and each searched for tracks on the ground beyond.
Once off the stone, the ground was good enough to carry signs of the cattle passing, but broken rock and stone so littered the paths that there was little hope of finding anything worthwhile.
This time, they expanded their search, circling wider. They came across plenty of cattle sign, but it went in every direction and petered out quickly. Once again, the three men came up empty.
“Anything?” Johnny asked as he rejoined Slim and Jess.
“Nothing,” Slim said.
Johnny nodded. “There’s a ranch over this way – McHenry’s place. Stretches right down to border on Lancer. From what Val said, his place has been hit two or three times. I’d go ask him if he’s seen anything, but not with Jess with us. He’s all fired up.”
Jess shook his head. He swiped his sleeve across his forehead. “We’re just goin’ in circles.”
“Yeah, I know. I don’t get it.” Johnny’s frustration rang in his words. “Where the hell can they be?”
“There’s a lota range here, Johnny,” Slim told him.
“Yeah, and we’ve been over a whole lot of it.”
“Well, we did what we could,” Slim said quietly. “Without some sort of lead, I don’t see there’s much more we can do.”
“No, we’ll head back home and just wait for them to hit us again, I guess.”
They had set up camp not far from the bald rock patch where they had wasted so much of their time in the afternoon. They found a creek with a couple of trees to shade the horses through the last of the sun and with enough grass to allow them to graze.
Johnny had left Slim and Jess long enough to come up with a rabbit for dinner and set about skinning and gutting it. Jess had volunteered to look after the horses, but had been nipped by Barranca for his trouble and was cursing loudly while Johnny chuckled. Slim fetched dry wood and set up the campfire, also smiling at Jess’ blue language.
By dark, they had eaten and were ready to sit back and relax before turning in. The flow of conversation was stilted after the obvious chatter about their day and the general disgruntlement at not having come up with the rustlers or the cattle, but they soon found some common ground in ranching and horses.
“Who trained that palomino of yours anyway, Johnny?” Jess asked, rubbing his forearm where the flesh was still raw. “He ain’t got much in the way of manners.”
Johnny laughed again. “Sorry, Jess, but he’s used to me takin’ care of him. He’s a one man horse.”
Jess frowned. “Is he? So he doesn’t nip you when you rub him down?”
Johnny grinned. “I’m too quick for him.”
“I’ve heard you’re quick at other things too,” Slim said cautiously.
“Some say,” Johnny admitted and shrugged his shoulders.
“Who would you say was the best you ever met then?” Slim asked.
Johnny smiled. “Depends.”
“Well, if you mean the best shot, I can tell you. If you mean the fastest…”
Jess laughed. “What he’s trying to say, without comin’ right out an’ sayin’ it, Slim, is that he’s the fastest.”
Slim’s eyes widened. “Is that right?”
Johnny dropped his eyes for a moment and picked at a tuft of grass beside his bedroll. When he looked up again, there was a roguish smile on his lips. “Modesty prevents me answerin’, Slim, but it’s not somethin’ any of us knows for sure. There’s more than one I wouldn’t want to go up against.” He glanced towards Jess as he said it.
“Well I ain’t gonna try to prove him wrong,” Jess added.
“Then what about marksmen?”
“Best shot I know with a rifle is my brother but with a handgun, well, the best I ever met was Hawke,” Johnny told him.
“Tony Hawke?” Jess asked.
“Yeah. He can shoot the head off a nail at twenty paces with a handgun, fifty with a rifle.”
“Never seen him shoot,” Jess told them. “But he bluffed me outa three ladies once, with a pair of eights.”
Johnny laughed. “Oh yeah, he can play poker alright. But he’s no cardsharp.”
“No, he doesn’t deal off the bottom. Just puts on that damned English poker face of his.”
“You’d know,” Slim chipped in, smiling.
Jess threw a scowl in his direction. “What d’ya mean by that?”
“Only that the first time I met you, you were teaching my kid brother how to deal off the bottom of a deck.”
“I was only showin’ him how it’s done,” Jess answered, puffing with belligerence. “There’s a difference.” Suddenly, the scowl dropped away and the fire caught a glimmer of fun in his eyes. “And it wasn’t the first time we met. First time was when you saw me off your land at the business end of your rifle.” He laughed heartily. “Or tried to.”
“Sounds like there’s a story there,” Johnny said and listened while Slim told him the story of how they had met, with Jess throwing in corrections and objections throughout the telling.
“So now you’re partners,” Johnny said when the laughter had subsided. “Funny how things happen sometimes.”
“That’s for sure,” Jess agreed.
“You know, I’ve been doing some thinking,” Slim said as he leaned back against his saddle. “Your ranch has been hit by these rustlers four times you said, right?”
“The others around you mostly only once or twice.”
“Yeah. What’s your point?”
“Lancer’s a helluva big ranch, Johnny. You’ve got a lot of men on the payroll. With so many hands, it seems to me these rustlers are taking a big chance in going after Lancer cattle. There’s so much more risk of running into some of the hands.”
Jess frowned. “More than on those small ‘mom an’ pop’ ranches. They’d be the easier targets.”
“I wouldn’t call Aggie Conway’s place small,” Johnny told them. “It’s not as big as Lancer, but it’s no ‘mom and pop’ ranch.”
“Yet they’ve only been hit once,” Slim pointed out.
“Slim, you suggestin’ that they’re targeting Lancer?” Jess asked.
“Maybe… might be just coincidence.”
Johnny looked into the fire, thinking it over. It was possible… anything was possible… but why? “I’ll talk to Murdoch and Scott when we get back. It’s worth thinking about.”
Jess walked out into the bright moonlight. The intense heat of the day had subsided but the air was still hot enough to raise a sweat. Sleeping would come hard tonight, despite the long day in the saddle.
He leaned heavily against the adobe arch on the portico and took a look up at the sky. The stars were brilliant. They looked close enough to be able to reach up and pull one down in your hand to admire. He folded his arms across his chest then dragged his attention back to Earth and his unfamiliar surroundings.
In daylight, the ranch had been a big, busy and noisy place. When they had returned, late this afternoon, men had been coming in from their work, chores were being finished – men and women had been hurrying in and out of doors, talking, shouting and laughing.
They had gotten back late to find dinner almost ready for them. There had been just enough time to clean up before sitting down to eat, so reporting their day and what they had, and hadn’t, found had waited until after they had finished.
Once they got started though, Murdoch and Scott Lancer had been full of questions and it had taken some time to go over it all. By the time they had got it all said, Jess had been keen to get outside and think… think about what all of this meant to him.
Now, with their excellent dinner over and the evening wearing on, everything was quiet. There were still some lights in the bunkhouse further down the road and the soft thrum of guitar music, played with a hint of uncertainty, filtered through to him.
Inside the house, Slim was cheerfully talking with the Lancers over some very agreeable brandy. Jess had stayed only long enough to be hospitable before excusing himself.
Thinking it over, all he had found out so far was that his name was ‘mud’ around these parts. It seemed that everyone had decided that ‘Harper’ was leading those rustlers, even if there wasn’t any proof. Of course, there was no doubt that the man was a killer and everyone Jess had talked to had been prepared to lay just about anything at his door.
Worse, Jess was no closer to finding him and showing them all that their ‘Harper’ was a fake, an imposter, and thus clearing his name. Nor did he have any real idea of how to go about finding the man. If he was one of the rustlers, then staying at Lancer seemed like the logical thing to do. The ranch seemed to be the center of things.
They had told Murdoch and Scott Lancer about Slim’s theory that Lancer could well be the main target and neither of them had laughed it off. While they were in no hurry to agree to it, they had not disregarded it either.
He didn’t hear any footsteps behind him, but he sensed someone’s presence there. He figured it would be Slim, but he looked over his shoulder to find it was Johnny who had come out to join him.
Johnny walked a few feet past him and leaned both hands hard on the hitching rail, looking first down toward the bunkhouse and then the other way to where the big adobe arch curved ostentatiously over the road. He was quiet for a minute before turning back to Jess and smiling.
He shook his head. “Wish Frank’d take some lessons with that guitar.”
Jess chuckled. “He’s still one up on me. I wouldn’t know how to start.” He glanced back to the doorway, taking in the sounds of pleasant conversation in there. “Slim still talkin’ books with that brother of yours?”
Johnny stood up straight, then set his butt against the rail and crossed his arms and ankles. He seemed to have a way of looking completely at ease almost all the time, but Jess was damned sure that it was not the case. He couldn’t have survived with that reputation of his if he wasn’t careful.
“Nothin’ Scott likes more than discussin’ books,” Johnny continued and laughed. “He sure doesn’t get far with me on the subject.”
“He ain’t much like you.”
“No, not so’s you’d notice. Not to look at anyway. But we got a few things in common – a father for one.”
“Yes.” Jess looked around him some more. “We did some riding today, yet we seemed to be on Lancer land a lot of the time.”
Johnny nodded. “A hundred thousand acres, give or take… or so Murdoch says. It does take some riding to cover it all.”
“You know, none of this fits with the stories I heard about Johnny Madrid.” He stopped, unsure whether he was crossing the line. “I mean, you can tell me if you think I should mind my own business, but I heard about a border town kid, not a rich rancher’s son.”
“There’s always stories, Jess. You must know that. Some are true, some aren’t.”
“Oh yeah, I know. But I don’t get it, Johnny. I don’t get why you left all this to take up the life you did.”
Johnny looked away. He didn’t answer right away and Jess began to think that he really had crossed the line. But Johnny nudged a little dirt around with the toe of his boot. “Well,” he drawled. “I didn’t have a whole lota say in it. I was just a little kid when my mother left the old man.”
“She had nothin’ good to say about him, not ever.” He shrugged his shoulders. “So when she died, I made my own way.”
“Yep.” Johnny cocked his head a little to one side. “What about you? How’d you come to choose gunfighting?”
“I was lookin’ for a man. The reputation just sorta happened with it.”
Jess hesitated, and then answered. “Yeah, I found him. I was fifteen when I started lookin’… some older when I caught up with him. Funny thing. After all those years, it wasn’t even me wound up killing him.”
“I started out ‘bout the same age. Wasn’t a whole lot of things I was good at, so…”
Silence fell between them. Jess was thinking, trying hard not to remember too much of the past. He wondered if Johnny was doing the same and glanced over at him. He still leaned back on the rail but he was toeing a tiny pebble with the tip of his boot, apparently lost in thought.
A raucous burst of laughter from the bunkhouse jolted both of them from their reverie.
Jess smiled. “Yeah, well, those days are over now,” he finally said. “I got outa that game – and I got out alive. Not so many of us get to do that.”
“No, you’re right. ¡Dios! I sure never expected to.” He laughed lightly. “Damn near didn’t. You know where the old man’s Pinkerton man finally caught up with me? On a hill outside a little Mexican village no one ever heard of, in front of a firing squad.”
“Nope. I was next in line.”
Jess smiled wickedly. “Guess that explains some o’ those stories I heard.”
“That I died there?”
“You know? Sometimes I think maybe it’s not such a bad thing if people think Madrid is dead.”
Jess looked at him squarely. “Folks around here know? Who you are, I mean?”
Johnny nodded. He slid his butt back until he was sitting on the hitching rail, his hands set on either side of him for balance and his legs dangling in the air. “Sure. Not much point in tryin’ to keep something like that a secret. Small towns talk. But I don’t make a big deal of it neither. Lots of ‘em didn’t like my being here at first… some still don’t. But mostly, they don’t care, long as there’s no trouble.”
“You get much of that? Trouble I mean.”
“Nope, not much. Well, not the gunfighting kind anyway.” He grinned, crossed his legs again at the ankles and started idly swinging them. “Lots of other trouble though, I guess. Scott says I attract it, but then I just remind him that he’s not one to talk. He’s near as bad.”
Jess laughed. “He doesn’t look the type.”
“No, he doesn’t,” Johnny agreed. “College educated, army lieutenant an’ all… but trouble sniffs him out more’n enough.” He smiled. “Don’t underestimate that brother o’ mine, Jess. He can outshoot me with a rifle.”
“Wouldn’t have thought that.”
“Nope, but he’s good. Saved my hide a time or two.”
“Slim can handle himself too. He’s good with a gun, fast too, but he’s no gunfighter. He’d rather talk his way out of a bad spot than shoot it out.”
Johnny nodded. “Scott too, mostly.”
He sat on that rail, swinging his feet and looking for all the world like a kid. Yet Jess had a good idea of the kind of things he had seen and done. He had done them himself. It had made them both the men they were now and it seemed that they had more in common than he’d first suspected.
Actually, it was strange talking one on one with another gunfighter with no hint of competition or malice between them. Not normally given to talking about his past much, Jess found himself feeling more and more comfortable. He had the feeling that this man was usually just as reticent.
“Jess, you ever miss it?” Johnny asked unexpectedly
It seemed Johnny Madrid, or Lancer, felt the same way. “No,” Jess answered without any hesitation.
“No, me neither. Sometimes I miss being footloose though. You know, goin’ wherever you want and no rules… but not so much now.” He frowned, his thoughts apparently taking a serious turn. “Of course, I didn’t know I had a brother back then.”
“You didn’t know?”
“No, him either. I don’t know what difference it might have made if we’d known or grown up together. Don’t suppose there’s much point in wonderin’ about it. But we kind of took to each other when we met.” He stopped for a moment. “Family’s kind of a new thing for me. Still gettin’ used to it. But if I was still on my own, with no rules like before… if I had the choice to make. I wouldn’t go back.”
“Me neither; I’m glad I’m out. But I had family growin’ up; seven of us squeezed into a tiny house down on the Texas Panhandle. Didn’t have much, but we had each other.” He stopped there for a moment, forcing back images of the fire. He took a deep breath before going on. “Still got a sister. She’s married now an’ livin’ out here. Once this thing’s over, I might go visit before headin’ home.”
He stretched his arms over his head and repositioned himself against the post, then went on. “But Slim’s as close to a brother as I’ve got now. An’ Mike, he’s a kid we took in when his folks were killed. He’s a good kid… always up to somethin’ like most boys but a real good kid. Then there’s Daisy, Daisy Cooper. Guess you’d call her our housekeeper but, fact is she pretty much runs the house… and us.”
Johnny dropped to the ground with a small thud and a little puff of dust around his feet. He was damned light on his feet, this guy, like a cat. He walked over to Jess and took him by surprise by swinging one arm around Jess’ shoulders.
“We’re gettin’ soft, Harper. That’s the truth of it.”
Jess laughed. “Reckon you might be right at that. But don’t tell the others. We got our reputations to think of.”
“Jess, you still out here?”
Johnny dropped his arm from around Jess’ shoulders. The words came from behind them and Jess turned around quickly, knowing the voice was Slim’s. Sure enough, he found him standing in the doorway.
“Yeah, and stayin’ here ‘til you two finish talkin’ books.”
Slim chuckled. “It’s safe to come in then. We’re finished. Come on, both of you. We’ve got things to talk over.”
The light inside was hard on the eyes at first but Jess’ readjusted quickly. He followed Slim back to the Great Room, with Johnny close behind.
“We were just discussing Slim’s theory,” Scott said as they came in and found seats.
“And?” Johnny asked, walking over to lean against the big desk .
Murdoch stood and poured drinks all round, handed them to his guests and then his sons.
“It’s possible. It seems we’ve lost a lot more head than most of the ranches, but then, we’re that much bigger too. They might just be finding us easy prey. But whether we are their target or not, we have to plug the leak of our stock. It can’t go on. These are prime stock that they’re taking.” He sat down again, his bulk making the armchair look small and cramped.
“The last three raids have all been in the north section,” Scott said. “We have to cover that area better.”
“That’ll leave us vulnerable in other areas,” Murdoch argued.
Johnny swirled the drink in his glass, watching it. “That might be, Murdoch. But I think Scott’s right. That’s where the biggest leak is, that’s where we put the plug.”
Murdoch sighed. “You’re right, of course. Both of you. We’re going to have to be smart with the way we assign the crews I suppose. I’ll have men riding that north boundary day and night from now on.”
“In pairs might be safer, Murdoch,” Scott suggested.
“No, in pairs they might think about taking these men on. That’s not what I want. So far, no one has been killed, and I want to keep it that way.” He tossed back what was left of his drink. “Besides, we will still have to cover the rest of the ranch in case the rustlers change their tactics.”
Jess held the glass of bourbon in his hand and looked at the rich red color glimmering in the lamplight, considering Murdoch Lancer’s words. “I know where you can find two more hands. I’d like to be one of those men, riding that north fence-line, Murdoch.”
“You’re a guest in this house, Jess. We don’t expect…”
“No, Jess has a point, Murdoch,” Slim said, intervening. “We’re both cattlemen and we sure don’t want to sit here and watch you all work. I think I’m speaking for both of us in saying we’d like to earn our keep.”
Murdoch frowned before answering. “Alright, but I think you’d better ride with my boys.” He held up his hand to stop Jess’ objection before he got a chance to utter it. “Please, let me explain. It’s not because I don’t trust you. It’s so that, if anything does happen, you have someone with you who can account for your whereabouts.”
Slim nodded and looked at Jess. “He has a point, Pard.”
He did have a point and Jess admitted it. He had no desire to end up at the wrong end of a rope.
“Well, I’m turnin’ in.” Johnny finished the last of his drink with one swallow and put the empty glass on the desk behind him. “Been a long day.”
Jess tended to agree with him. He intended to find his way up to that north boundary tomorrow and it would be another long ride, if he were any judge. “Think I’ll do the same,” he said and finished off his drink, then he headed up to his room.
“Might be a good idea for all of us,” Jess heard Scott say as he left the room. “If Slim is right, we’re going to have to be vigilant, and wide awake to do it.”
Murdoch sent several of his hands to the north section next morning. They were under strict orders not to engage the rustlers if they happened on them. They were to keep an eye out for cut fences, campfires where there shouldn’t be any and anything that didn’t seem normal; and they were to get away and report it, nothing else.
Jess found himself riding with Johnny, while Slim went with Scott. He wasn’t sure how they had wound up pairing together, but he found Johnny to be good company. There wasn’t much talk between them at first. Conversation started and stopped awkwardly, but slowly they began to find simple things that they had in common, besides guns.
They were soon discussing horses and found that they had a mutual admiration for good horseflesh.
“Barranca here is just one of the palominos Murdoch’s bred at Lancer,” Johnny told him. “And then there are the mustangs up near the mesas. There’s some fine looking horses in a couple of those herds.”
“Yeah? Well, if they’re half the horse yours is… he’s a looker,” Jess said, eyeing the horse from nose to tail. “I know he’s got himself a bad temper, but has he got any brains?”
Johnny laughed. “You ain’t gonna forgive him that nip, are you?”
“You telling me you’ve never been bit by a horse before?”
“’Course I have. Don't forget our place is a stage stop and some of those stage horses are damned obstreperous animals. But I never forgave any of them either.”
They laughed together and headed north.
“You do want to head for the north boundary, right?”
Jess smiled. “How’d you guess?”
“Just thinkin’ what I’d be doing in your place.”
They did exactly that, checking fences and making sure that all the hands assigned to the job were ready for trouble but by the time the sun started to drop behind the mesa to the west of them, they hadn’t found anything.
It became the pattern for the next few days. By the third day, they still hadn’t found anything, but neither had the ranch been raided. Jess was beginning to wonder whether he and Slim should move on, whether they ought to look further north for his nemesis. Maybe they had decided that Lancer was no longer an easy proposition and they’d left the area.
On a rotational basis, four men were being stationed at well-spaced intervals along the north boundary, day and night. It might well be enough to have discouraged the rustlers.
However, it was soon obvious that the line-riders were becoming bored. It was tedious and lonely work and it would be easy to let your guard down. But Johnny made a habit of going up there every day, usually with Jess tagging along, to make sure that they didn’t slacken in their watchfulness.
Morning dawned, offering the same routine but Jess soon found out that Johnny had done some thinking overnight. He came in to join Jess at the kitchen table. Slim and Scott had already headed out to the barn and Jess knew from past mornings that Murdoch would be out giving his orders to the crews for the day.
“Same thing today, Johnny?” Jess asked. He took a sip of the coffee and licked his lips, savoring the strong taste.
“Nope, I’m gonna talk to Murdoch about that.” Johnny turned the chair backwards and straddled it comfortably.
“What’ve you got in mind?”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of waiting for this bastard. We haven’t even laid eyes on him yet.”
“Tell me ‘bout it,” Jess’ voice echoing with frustrations he’d been trying to control.
“I was thinkin’ that if we can’t get a look at him, then we should go find someone who has. Time we found out more about him.”
Jess frowned. “Last time he was seen was in Visalia.”
“That’s what I had in mind. We leave now, we can be back by nightfall.”
Jess put down the coffee cup and smiled. “I like it.”
Johnny tucked into a hearty breakfast and ate it quickly, then joined Jess in heading out into the yard to tell the others of their plan. Jess was surprised to find that Murdoch Lancer proffered no resistance to the idea. He’d seen how the man liked to make the decisions. But, instead, he merely nodded and wished them a safe trip, asking only that they be back for dinner.
Making good speed, Jess and Johnny rode across the valley, through Green River without stopping and got into Visalia just before midday. Johnny had told him that he didn’t get this far across the valley very often and he didn’t know the town well.
“There’s the railway line there now,” Johnny told him. “But we use the stop at Cross Creek. It’s closer.”
It seemed that Visalia was the only town in this part of the San Joaquin that could justify the title ‘city’ with a population that made Green River and Spanish Wells look like villages.
“Just keeps getting bigger. More and more people, farmers mostly. They’re comin’ in in droves.” And sure enough, fields of wheat surrounded the town.
Riding down Bridge Street and into Main, Jess looked over the array of storefronts, still mostly false fronts despite the size of the town. There were a few brick buildings, though mostly only on the ground floors with timber above like the Palace Hotel and the bank, but they were still few and far between.
They turned into Church Street and rode past a brick building. “That’s new,” Johnny said, pointing it out.
The sign over a set of big double doors told them what it was. “Firehouse,” Jess commented. “Sure sign that a town’s growin’ up.”
The Town Marshal’s office was in the same street, not far off Main, in another obviously new building – a city jail building.
“Impressive,” Jess said as they came closer.
“Yeah.” Johnny laughed. “We had a new jailhouse built in Spanish Wells not long back. Scott was bound an’ determined to get it built and I have to admit, the town needed it. Old Charlie Wingate was so proud when he finished building it but it was nothin’ like this.”
They turned their horses towards the marshal’s office and dismounted.
Johnny had told Jess all about Greg McMurtry, town marshal. It seemed he was an aging legend. He’d been the law in Visalia for years and kept the peace so well that the town was now, despite occasional fights and shootings, one of the quietest in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
The marshal emerged from his office as they stepped onto the boardwalk. He was impeccably dressed in a pressed shirt, his hair tidy though heavily peppered with gray and a neatly trimmed silvery moustache. He folded his arms and looked them over.
“Johnny Lancer, ain’t it?” he asked after a moment or two of frowning consideration.
Johnny offered his hand to the man. “Yeah, that’s right, Marshal, and this is a friend of mine, Jess Sherman.”
McMurtry took his hand and shook it, then accepted Jess’ as well. “What brings you over this way?”
“Guess you’ve heard we’re having some trouble with rustlers over our way,” Johnny began.
“I heard. The Harper gang they’re sayin’.”
Johnny didn’t look for Jess’ reaction to his name and Jess forced himself to keep a straight face.
Johnny pressed on with his explanation. “We haven’t been able to get a look at them yet, but we figured you must have… at Harper anyway.”
“Yep, I did.”
“So can we talk?” Johnny asked.
The marshal nodded. “Come on in.”
Ushering them inside ahead of him, the marshal pointed them towards a pair of ladder-back chairs against the wall. “Grab a seat,” he said as he walked to a pot-bellied stove at the back of the room and poured a cup of coffee for each of them. “That’s my desk over there.” He pointed to one of the three desks in the room, tidy and piled high on one side with paperwork.
It was a big room, bigger than any town marshal’s office that Johnny had ever seen. Apart from the desks and their chairs, there was a pair of bulletin boards with wanted posters tacked randomly over them. There was a gunrack that was padlocked securely, laden with rifles and a pair of shotguns, and there was a heavy door at the back of the room that Johnny figured led to the cells.
“You did see him, right?” Jess asked.
McMurtry came back and handed the cups to each of them before walking to his own chair behind his desk and sitting down. He leaned back. “Sure, I saw him. Talked to him after the shooting.”
Jess carried one of the chairs over and put it in front of the desk. Johnny picked up the other and did likewise, then made himself comfortable leaning back into the chair and stretching one leg out to the side of the desk. “What can you tell us about him?”
“Like I said, I talked to him right after the killing. Cold as ice, that man was. He wasn’t bothered by it, not one bit. Didn’t seem to care that he’d killed a kid. Matter of fact…”
“I reckon he enjoyed it. Don’t come across that kind much. Oh, I’ve seen gunfighters, lots of ‘em. I’ve seen plenty of men who were just plain killers too. I’ve met some that enjoyed it like a sport, like hunters. But this sonovabitch, I reckon his thrill was in the actual killing, in watching that boy die by his hand.”
It was something Johnny had seen just once. The man had been a buffalo and scalp hunter and he’d clearly enjoyed killing for the sake of it. By the time Johnny had run across him, the man had had no problem in killing anyone who got in his way.
Johnny had gotten in his way. He’d been sixteen at the time and had seen an evil in that man’s eyes that had chilled him to the bone. Johnny had never forgotten what he saw in them. But the man had made a mistake in trying to knife him and even a very young Johnny Madrid had made him pay the ultimate price.
“And there was nothing you could do about that boy’s murder?” Jess asked, jerking Johnny’s thoughts back to the present.
McMurtry sighed heavily. “No. Believe me, if I could have, I’d have been more than happy to string the bastard up. But all the witnesses had to admit that Toby had drawn first, or tried to. Harper goaded him until the boy went for his gun. By the letter of the law, that made it self-defense, not murder.” He shook his head sadly. “The kid didn’t know much about guns. Shouldn’t have been wearing one. He was a farm boy, a good kid. Wore a gun for show mostly but he never caused any trouble. It’s got the biddies and the liberals around here all onto the gun laws bandwagon.” He shook his head. “There’s times when I think this town’s gettin’ too civilized.”
He sipped the coffee and Johnny sensed he had more to say. Swallowing, McMurtry started again. “Harper taunted him about bein’ too young to drink in a saloon, too young to wear a gun. All the things a kid that age’ll bite on.”
Johnny knew how it was done. It was surprisingly easy sometimes; wrong, but not illegal.
“So, what does he look like?”
The marshal sat forward and put the coffee cup down on the desk. “Let’s see… ‘bout five eight, stocky sorta fella. Real deep voice with a Texas way of talking. Dark hair and his eyes… now that’s what I remember most. They were dark… damn near black! Cold, dark eyes that bored right into you.”
“Did he actually say he was Harper?” Johnny asked.
McMurtry looked hard from Johnny to Jess and then back, curiosity plain on his face. But he answered the question. “Well, there was no formal introduction exactly, but I had no reason to doubt it. Why?”
“Because he’s not Harper,” Jess said, taking Johnny by surprise. “I am.”
There was silence for a moment before the marshal finally broke it. “I see. So that’s why you two are so interested in tracking him down. Why not just tell it outright?”
“Because most folks ain’t seen him. They find out who I am an’ I’m liable to be lynched before I get a chance to prove anything.”
McMurtry nodded. “Yeah, I see your point.”
“We figure the only way to prove I’m not him is to catch him.”
“Both Gabe in Morro Coyo and Val in Green River are doing their best,” Johnny told the marshal. “But these guys are all over the place. They’re like ghosts and they’re robbing Lancer blind.”
“They know who you are?”
Jess nodded. “Known Val for a while an’ he’s the one told me about it. We let Gabe know too.”
The marshal nodded. “Okay, fair enough.”
Jess sighed. He set the coffee cup, half full, on the desk. “Marshal, do you think he’s involved in the rustling as well?”
The marshal got to his feet and walked around to the front of the desk. “I’ve got no more proof of it than anyone else has been able to get, but yeah, I think he is. Before the shooting, he was seen talking with a couple of men, strangers who looked like cowboys but tough lookin’ fellas.”
“Who saw them?” Johnny asked.
“Over to the saloon where the shootin’ was. Billy, the barkeep an’ owner, he saw them. He might be able to tell you what they looked like. They weren’t anything to me ‘cause they were gone before the shooting started.”
“Maybe we oughta have a word with this barkeep. See if he can tell us anything about the other two,” Jess suggested.
McMurtry shrugged his shoulders. “Okay with me. Let me know if you find out anything. Don’t know that you will ‘cause I’ve already talked to him but the place you want is Billy Clark’s Billiard Saloon on Main Street, next to the Palace Hotel.”
They thanked him and left, walking their horses quietly through the street, past Kraft’s Bakery with its enticing smells that reminded Johnny that it was time to eat, and around the corner into Main. They passed Jacobs’ Mercantile and a restaurant that got Johnny thinking again of his stomach. He glanced through the window and the neatly dressed tables and lace curtains combined with the smell of delicious food. It looked like a good place to eat and he thought he and Jess might come back this way after their errand was done.
The number and variety of stores was mind-boggling – Somtag’s Saddlery and another across the street and down a little, Visalia Saddle Shop. ¡Dios! The town was big enough to support two saddleries!
Men and women, some dressed for town and some in work clothes, bustled around the boardwalks and ignored Johnny and Jess completely. Men on horseback, buggies and wagons all filled the streets with clattering noise and Johnny found it all kind of unfriendly. He preferred being able to walk down the street and know the person walking towards him, greeting and being greeted by them.
The Billiard Saloon wasn’t the only saloon on the street, but it was easy to find. It looked like a well kept up establishment, tidier and cleaner than most. At first glance as they entered, it was like any other saloon – a long, polished bar with a mirror behind, complete with stocks of glasses and bottles.
In front were ranged stools, and tables with chairs were spread around the room. But to the left and right sides of the room were two long, heavy tables, covered in green material and with lamps hanging over them.
Johnny and Jess walked straight to the bar and waited for the barkeep.
“Hello, Gents,” the man said as he walked down the length of the bar to serve them. “What’s your pleasure?”
He was a heavy man, shirtsleeves rolled up his arms and a blue waistcoat buttoned neatly. His ‘salt and pepper’ hair contrasted with a thick silvery gray beard, and his eyes shone with good humor, echoing in the friendly smile he offered them.
“Tequila for me thanks,” Johnny told him and looked sideways. “Jess?”
“Just a beer, thanks.”
They accepted and paid for the drinks and Johnny thought about how best to broach the subject of the killing. It seemed however, that Jess was ready to be more straightforward.
“You Billy?” Jess asked.
“Yeah, I’m Billy,” the man said with no hesitation. “Billy Clark, proprietor and barkeep, that’s me.”
“I’m Jess. This is Johnny. We’re lookin’ for some information on the fella who killed young Toby Willett.”
Billy’s eyebrows rose markedly. “Harper? Hey, you don’t wanta be messin’ with him. He’s a bad one.”
“So we hear, but we think he’s running with the rustlers who are giving us a hard time over the other side of the valley,” Johnny told him.
“Well, if you can find a reason to hang him, you’ll have half of this county there to cheer,” Billy said with enthusiasm.
“McMurtry told us he was here with a couple of other men, before the shooting. That right?” Jess asked.
“Yeah that’s right, couple of cowboys, hard ones I reckon. They were gone before it all started.”
“Can you tell us what they looked like?”
Billy played with his beard, thinking. “Well, I dunno. We had a crowd that night and I can’t say that I paid much attention to them at that stage.”
Disappointment tugged at Jess and he sighed.
“But the girls were with them for awhile,” Billy continued. “They might be able to tell you. Why? You two lawmen?”
“Nope,” Johnny answered. “Just ranchers losing too many cattle. We had the idea that those two men might be in on the rustling.”
“Well, I’m real sorry I can’t help you then. Maybe the girls can.” He turned around and called loudly, “Mary Sue… Mary Kate… Come on down here!” Turning back to face Johnny and Jess, he explained. “They mostly work nights. It’s kinda early for them yet.”
A woman came down the stairs at the end of the bar. She was brunette, pretty and very young. She was wearing a red dress that was too short to be decent outside of the saloon and had a couple of matching colored feathers tucked into her intricately coiled hair. Jess guessed her to be not long out of her teens.
“Well, ain’t you two the handsome ones?” she said as she sidled up to them. She nudged her way between them and smiled. “My good luck to get down here before Mary Kate.”
“These boys’ve got some questions for you, Mary Sue,” Billy told her.
“Questions? Well, that’s a new one.” Her smile widened and her eyes twinkled. “Buy me a drink an’ we’ll go grab us some chairs. There’s plenty of tables spare.”
“Name your poison and lead on, Mary Sue,” Johnny said, picking up his glass. Jess picked up his beer and followed them to a table.
She sat down and crossed her stocking-ed legs, bouncing her foot towards Johnny enticingly. “So, do you boys play?”
“Play?” Johnny asked, lifting his eyebrows.
She smiled and leaned her face in close to his. “Billiards, Handsome.”
“No.” They said it almost as one but it was Jess who continued. “We came to get some information, if you can help us.”
“Sure, anytime.” She looked towards Johnny and then reached out and grabbed his arm. She rose and laughed, pulling on Johnny’s arm until he got to his feet. “But first, let’s play. I’ll show you how.”
He looked towards Jess and shrugged his shoulders, then allowed himself to be led to the long table to their right. There, Mary Sue laid out the billiard balls and picked up a cue.
“Here,” she said, pushing it into Johnny’s hands. “Now, let me show you how it’s done. Lean forward and put your left hand on the table, like this. Now lay the cue on top of your hand and hold it with the right, so you can slide it back and forth… see?”
She pressed her body in close to him and wrapped her right hand around his, showing him how to use the cue. Her cheek was beside his as they leaned forward. “That’s right, Handsome. Now you take aim at that white ball and push it into the rest of them. Go on, try it.”
Jess watched and drank his beer as she ‘played’ Johnny, quietly amused. With her every move, she managed to get as close to him as she could, teasing in an obvious but enchanting way.
Mary Sue turned sideways and placed one hand seductively on her hip. She smiled at Jess. “Your turn, Good Lookin’. Come on over and I’ll show you how to play as well.”
Jess grinned back at her. “Oh, I don’t think I’d be any good at wranglin’ those little bitty balls around the table, Ma’am.”
“Pull the other one, Texas,” came another feminine voice from the staircase. Jess looked up and there stood a redhead, tall and slender but a good few years older than Mary Sue. This woman was dressed in the same way as the other girl, but wearing emerald green with feathers to match. She walked over and stood beside the table where Jess sat. “Mind if I join you?”
Jess looked up at her. “Sure, I never turn down a pretty lady.” Up close, he could see that she was probably ten years older than the other girl. She’d seen thirty and was past her prime as saloon girls usually went, but she was still an extraordinarily beautiful woman – green eyes, full red lips, cheeks that needed only a little blush to give them a rosy glow.
“I bet you could wrangle just about anything, Texas,” she said with a winning smile as she sat down in the chair Johnny had vacated. “It is Texas, isn’t it?”
“I reckon it is, Ma’am.”
“Mary Kate,” she told him. “You’re a long ways from home, Texas.”
“Texas hasn’t been home for a long time, Mary Kate,” he told her. Older women weren’t usually his style, but this one was certainly captivating.
“Maybe, but you still got the sound.” She smiled again. “You can take the boy outa Texas, but not the Texas outa the boy huh?”
Jess’ grin broadened. “Reckon so. Buy you a drink?”
“Sure.” She turned to call over the back of the chair. “Billy, get me a bourbon will you?”
Johnny brought Mary Sue back to the table and pulled out a chair for her and then one for himself.
“Same for me, Billy,” the girl called. “Johnny?”
“Sure, why not? Jess?”
“Another beer, Billy,” he called to the barkeep.
Billy brought the drinks to the table and then left with Johnny’s money in his pocket. Mary Sue put her glass of bourbon, still untouched, onto the table and leaned forward on her elbow, her chin resting on her upturned palm and her eyes locked firmly on Jess’ face. “So, what sort of questions do you have for us, Good Lookin’?”
“The night Toby Willett was killed,” Jess began, concentrating. “You were here, right?”
The coquettish twinkle died out of her eyes. “Yes, I... we were here. I… saw it all. Why?”
“You saw Harper, then?”
“Yes, I sat with him for a while.”
“We both did,” Mary Kate said. She pinched her lips. “Wouldn’t buy me a drink. I didn’t like him much, even before he killed poor Toby.”
“The marshal told us he was seen talking to two other men before the shooting,” Johnny said. “You didn’t happen to see them too, did you?”
The younger girl picked up the bourbon and took a swallow. “Yeah, I saw them. Mary Kate and me were sitting with the three of ‘em.”
“Then they chased us away so they could talk in private,” Mary Kate finished.
“Can you tell us what they looked like?” Johnny asked.
Mary Kate frowned. “Looked like? Like cowboys is all. Seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.”
“Thanks,” Johnny quipped.
“Don’t worry, Handsome,” Mary Sue said, lightly touching his chin. “There’s always exceptions.”
Jess sighed, exasperated, but Johnny persisted. “Alright, I’m glad to hear it. But there must be something about them that you remember. Just think about it for a moment – old, young, dark hair or light hair – anything.”
“Well, they sure smelled like regular cowboys,” Mary Sue said, screwing up her nose. “They’d been branding or something.”
“They weren’t old,” Mary Kate said. “One was maybe thirty-ish, the other a few years younger. The younger one was real tall with blond hair.”
“Yeah!” Mary Sue suddenly seemed to remember. "And skinny."
Mary Kate nodded. "Like a beanpole."
“And he had a southern accent, right, Mary Kate?”
“That’s right – he did.”
Mary Sue’s eye lit up. “Reb! They called him ‘Reb’! And there was a scar… a little one near his right ear.”
Mary Kate shook her head. “No, that was Harper,” she insisted.
Jess frowned. “A scar? Just here?” He indicated a point just beneath his right ear lobe.
“Yeah, that’s right. You know him too?”
“No, but it matches someone I heard about.”
Johnny gave Jess a curious look but Jess wasn’t saying anything in front of the girls. It would wait.
“What about the other one then?” Jess asked.
“The other one,” Mary Sue repeated, thinking. She drilled her fingers on her chin and frowned before finally adding “He was shorter, dark hair too, but he was real dirty. Didn’t like him much at all.”
Mary Kate nodded, obviously disgusted by the image she remembered. “Looked like he hadn’t bathed in six months.” She tossed back the bourbon and called back to Billy for another. “He had real beady little eyes, like a rat. Real untrustworthy type if you ask me.”
“You didn’t happen to get his name too, did you?” Johnny asked.
Mary Kate shook her head. “No, ‘fraid not. Wish I could help you more, Cowboy, but that’s about all I can remember.”
“It’s Johnny… Johnny Lancer. This is Jess.”
She raised one eyebrow and looked him over. “Lancer hey? Good lookin’ AND the son of a rich rancher. Boy, you got me any time you want.”
Johnny laughed. “And I just might have to come back an’ take you up on that, Mary Kate. But right now, we have to head back.”
“You goin’ after Harper and those two no goods?” Mary Kate asked.
“Yeah,” Jess answered.
“Let me know when the hangin’ is then. I’d like to be there. That Toby was just a kid, and a nice harmless one at that.”
“Sure, and thanks, Ladies,” Jess said as he pushed back the chair and stood up. “You’ve been real helpful as well as good company.”
Mary Sue stood up and walked over to stand close beside him. “I can teach you to play as well, Good Lookin’. Anytime.”
Johnny put his hand on Jess’ shoulder and grinned. “Come on, Good Lookin’. We gotta get home.”
Outside, they walked back toward the restaurant they had passed earlier to get something to eat before riding home to Lancer. They each ordered a steak and talked while they waited.
Johnny was quick to ask. “You know the guy who’s pretending to be you, don’t you?”
“Maybe. Least I know who it might be.”
“So is it a secret or something?”
Jess ran his hand through his hair and shook his head. “If it’s the same man, an’ that scar makes it sound like it is, he’s done it before.”
“Four years ago, just before I rode into Laramie, there was a man usin’ my name in Texas. Robbed a bank in Amarillo. I was in Colorado Springs, sittin’ in a jail cell as it happens so I had real good witnesses to say it wasn’t me.”
Johnny grinned. “In a jail cell, huh?”
“Disturbin’ the peace,” Jess told him with a wry smile. “A saloon, a pretty girl… there was a fight. It wasn’t much an’ it turned out to be good luck for me.”
“Did you try to find him that time too?”
“The sheriff in Colorado Springs straightened out the one in Amarillo. Wired him to say it couldn’t have been me. Then I went down there to try to track the man down, but he was long gone. The sheriff had no leads and I had nothing to go on. Nothing I could do.”
“You know his name?”
“¡Dios! Cobardes,” Johnny said quietly.
He looked up to find Jess eyeing him curiously.
“I’m guessin’ this has happened to you too, Johnny.”
“A few times,” Johnny answered hesitantly. “But mostly those were just mistaken identity.” He grinned wickedly. “You know how all us Mexes look alike.” He sighed. “Seriously, there was a shooting down Bakersfield last year that they laid at Johnny Madrid’s door. I was home at the time and had plenty of people willing to say so. Murdoch got all huffed about it. Made the newspaper retract the story.”
He didn’t say that Murdoch had been almost as angry at him at the time as he had been with the shooter. Somehow, he’d managed to convince himself that it had all been somehow Johnny’s fault. Well, at least Murdoch had apologized after thinking it over for a couple of days.
“At least, we have one name now,” Johnny added.
“Reb,” Jess said. “Not much to go on.”
“More than we came here with.”
“You sure are an optimist, ain’t you?”
Johnny smiled. “Sometimes. Right now, we eat an’ then go home. Might pay to stop in at Green River on the way an’ tell Val what we found out.”
“We oughta stop by the marshal’s office here too. Said we would.”
Conversation eased off as their steaks were brought to the table. When they finished, they left town after a quick stop at the marshal’s office. Jess rode out with an affidavit in his pocket that said Jess Harper, currently calling himself Jess Sherman, was not the man who had killed Toby Willett – signed by Marshal Greg McMurtry.
The new day dawned no differently from the rest of the week. Sunrise revealed clear blue skies tinged and streaked with gentle hues of pink and a silence that slowly gave way to the busy twittering of birds greeting the morning. As the sun broke over the horizon, the pink faded and finally fled while the rising heat of the new day seared the dew off the grass.
No, there was, perhaps, one difference. On this morning, Jess was awake to watch it. He had had no luck with sleeping, worrying over the damage being done to his name. There had been times throughout his life when his pockets had been so empty that his name and the reputation that went with it had been all he possessed. In those times, it had been a precious commodity and worth good money when the next job came up.
Now his name and his reputation were both mud, and mud could stick even if he did manage to clear himself. The affidavit that Sheriff McMurtry had given him would help, but it was not the answer. He had to find the imposter to prove to the world that Jess Harper was not responsible for the evils being done in his name, and that was looking less and less likely with the passing of each day.
He had already been out of bed and dressed when he heard the clock in the hall chiming five. The dark mood that had seized him made each chime sound like a death knell, marking the end of hope.
He’d made his way down to the kitchen and found it still steeped in the gloom of early morning when he got there. He had been the first one to arrive and it was from the kitchen door that he watched the sunrise before turning back and setting about getting his own breakfast.
Long used to fending for himself, he soon had the stove hot and eggs cooking already when Maria came in.
“¿Qué estás haciendo, Señor?” the woman cried out indignantly from behind him. “¡No tacto mi estufa!”
Jess turned around, surprised and with wooden spatula in hand. He smiled mischievously. “Buenas dias, Señora? Why shouldn’t I touch your stove?”
“No,” she answered crossly. “For many years I have cooked for El Jefe. Would you have me turned away for not doing my work?” She stalked over to the table and pulled back a chair. “¡Siéntate! ¡Ahora!”
Jess put down the spatula and meekly walked over to the chair. “Lo siento, Señora,” he said as he obeyed her and sat down at the table. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Just thought I’d save you the trouble since I was already up.”
The fire in her eyes flickered and died and she nodded. “Perhaps, but you are a guest of El Jefe. It is not right that you should cook for yourself in this house.”
“I meant no offence.” Then he grinned. “But I am kinda hungry and, ‘less I’m mistaken, those eggs are burnin’.”
The horror on her face was comical but Jess judiciously held back from laughing. He had already affronted her and he had no intention of embarrassing her as well. She threw her hands in the air and scurried over to the stove where she went to work rescuing the eggs and then began preparing the rest of the breakfast that she had planned.
By the time she put a steaming plate in front of him, she was obviously mollified. He thanked her with an honest smile and closed his eyes as he breathed in the aroma. “That’s a whole lot better’n I coulda done. That’s for sure.”
She nodded and lifted her head in satisfaction, then returned to the stove and went back to her work, humming softly.
“My, you’re up early!” Teresa said as she passed by him to join Maria. She stopped beside the small Mexican woman. “And you sound happy this morning, Maria.”
She lifted her head again, this time with pride. “And why should I not be happy in my work, Niña?”
Teresa kissed her forehead. “No reason at all.”
“Now, tell me what you want me to do.”
“Nothing? Then I’ll set the table.”
She nodded. “No quieres. But go ahead if you like.”
Teresa set the table with plates and flatware for Johnny, Scott, Slim and Murdoch, knowing they would show up soon, as well as a place for herself. She sat down and whispered to Jess. “Maria is in a good mood this morning. Is that your doing?”
Jess swallowed the mouthful of eggs he was chewing and sighed. “I kinda had to cajole her a little. She caught me cookin’ my breakfast.”
“Yeah. Seems she takes her job real serious.”
“Yes, she does. The kitchen is her domain and she likes to mother us a little as well. Especially Johnny.”
She sat quietly as Maria put a plate of bacon and eggs in front of her with a gentle “Eat, Chica,” then returned to the stove, humming again.
“I don’t think I can picture anyone motherin’ Johnny Madrid,” Jess whispered.
Teresa smiled. “He lets her.” She tried some of the eggs and swallowed. “I think he enjoys it actually.” She stopped for a moment before continuing, thoughtfully. “We didn’t know quite what to expect of him when he first came here, but he’s nothing like anything we’d ever heard of him. He’s… oh, I don’t know. Well, he’s just not a cold-blooded killer like a lot of people thought.”
“No, not all gunmen are.”
“That’s right. You were a gunfighter too, weren’t you?”
The innocence in her words beguiled him. “Yes, Ma’am, I was.”
“And you got out of it? Just like Johnny?”
“Yep. That game only leads to one place, sooner or later – a hole in the ground,” he told her. “Better to get out if the chance comes.”
The tread of heavy boots and the ring of Johnny’s spurs told them that the others were coming. A friendly, but hard, slap on the back had Jess fighting to stop choking. He spluttered and coughed, but got little sympathy from the culprit, Slim.
“Morning, Pard,” Slim said, smiling as he took a seat. “Woke up hungry as usual, huh?”
Johnny laughed amiably while, over at the stove, Maria rattled away in Spanish and shook her head.
Slim glanced over his shoulder at her and frowned in obvious confusion. “I think I’m glad I don’t understand much Spanish. What’s that all about?”
“In short, we’re a bunch of noisy yahoos,” Johnny explained. He leaned around the corner and smiled warmly at Maria. “Lo siento, Mamacita. ¿Perdona?”
Her wooden spatula waved in the air as she shook it. “Your charms will not work on me, Señor Johnny Lancer. ¡Siéntate!”
Obediently, he sat down at the table, joining his family and friends.
Scott laughed and whispered. “Coward.”
“Never upset the cook,” Johnny replied seriously. “Ain’t you ever heard that, Brother?”
Their laughter continued to ring throughout the meal, lifting the oppressive weight of Jess’ earlier thoughts from his shoulders. By the time they had all finished, his mood was more relaxed and he was ready to join Johnny once again on their now almost customary ride to the northern boundary of the ranch.
They rode out into the morning sun, already hot enough to raise a sweat… past crews of men that Murdoch had sent out on their routine assignments… past the main herd, now being closely watched in the lower half of the north pasture and eventually topped a small knoll and reined in.
Below them, Frank and some of his crew were hazing strays but the work seemed to have come to a halt amid loud cheering and laughter.
Curious, Johnny and Jess rode over to find out what the men were finding so entertaining. Johnny pulled Barranca to a stop beside a broadly grinning Frank. Another three men were standing around on the ground, noisily cheering and laughing as they watched young Harry riding after a steer.
The animal wasn’t much more than a calf and it was quick on its feet. It dodged left and then right, pulled up short and then scampered into brush to escape Harry’s determined efforts to run it down. The laughter and noise only seemed to confuse and frighten it more and it darted away again as Harry got close.
The boy swung his lariat and missed, but not by much. He pulled his horse up and shook his head, clearly disappointed with himself. “Come on, Kid,” Johnny called out. “Don’t give up now. You can do better’n that!”
The men shouted their own encouragement and Harry looked up at them, blushing rosily enough to blend the freckles on his cheeks.
“Don’t stop now,” Frank yelled from beside Johnny. “Get movin’ an’ rope the damned thing.”
“We ain’t got all day, Kid!” another shouted to him, laughing fit to burst.
Jess grinned. It was all so typical of ranch hands that they would get entertainment out of something so mundane. Life out on the range was mostly made up of boredom and plain hard work, but it held its dangers too and any break from the norm was welcome. Cowhands tended to be a rowdy bunch when they got a chance to play and good-naturedly baiting a youngster was a good way to break the boy into this kind of life.
The half-grown beast suddenly burst out of the brush ahead of the boy and a cheer went up from the hands. Harry pressed his horse into action, swung and hurled the loop again. It was an ungainly effort but this time he snagged the animal. The rope nearly slipped from around the top of the steer’s head before it finally slid down to take hold, but hold it did.
Shouts and yahoos went up from his ‘audience’ and applause followed as he pulled the animal closer and brought it, protesting all the way, back towards the group of strays they had already rounded up.
His face glowed with the pleasure of his success but he got only a few feet before the animal nearly shook itself loose.
“Wipe the grin off your face, Kid, an’ hold him or he’ll get away again an’ you’ll be chasin’ him ‘til you’re old an’ gray. Tie off that rope!” one of the men yelled.
The animal protested and pulled on the rope, shaking its head and planting its feet firmly on the ground, but Harry took control this time. He wound the rope around the pommel and again started back towards the small bunch of strays.
Once with the group, the steer calmed and allowed one of the hands to walk over and take the rope from around its head. It trotted away to stay quietly with the rest of the bunch.
“I suppose you think this here makes you a real cowboy, Harry,” the hand said, grinning as he walked back to the boy, coiling the rope and handing it over to him.
Again a rosy blush crept up from the boy’s collar and over his face, sending his ears pink to their tips. He laid the coiled rope over the pommel of his saddle without reply and tried to hide his embarrassment.
“Course it does!” another called.
“Well done, Harry,” Johnny said, smiling. “Told you you could do it.” He rode over close enough to pat the boy on the back, sending another blush up from under Harry’s collar.
There was a hubbub of noise as the men joined Johnny. Then the call went up. “I reckon this calls for a celebration.”
Frank chortled. “I reckon you’d celebrate the sun coming up every morning if you could, Randy. Anything for a drink.”
“Well, the kid’s put in a lot of time gettin’ that swing right,” Johnny said. “Seems to me a celebration wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
“Town then, tonight!” Randy pointed out. “What’dya say, Johnny? You gonna come?”
Jess was well enough versed in the ways of cowboys celebrating to know what he meant by ‘a beer’ and grinned. The boy would end up with a night to remember alright.
“I’d love to Randy, but I think I’ll have to pass. Murdoch an’ Scott have me lined up to go over some papers with them tonight.”
There was a general shaking of heads. “Paperwork! Johnny Boy, you been leashed.” Randy told him, laughing.
“Yeah. Well, it’s alright for you boys. You finish work an’ it’s done. Us ranchers never get to sleep.”
“Poor you,” Randy smirked, while Jess did his best to hide a smile. “You got a problem with us headin’ into town then, Bossman?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, not me. I’ll clear it with Murdoch. But see that you don’t drink all night. If you’re not up an’ ready to work tomorrow, it’s gonna be me he skins.”
“Sure, Johnny,” Frank agreed. “We can’t keep the kid up too late anyway. Not past his bedtime.”
The kid smiled. “I was gonna go see Mom and Pa in town tonight,” Harry said at last, rather shyly. “Reckon I could maybe stop by for one drink with you boys while I’m there.”
Randy laughed. “Boy, this is a chance to howl at the moon. They don’t come around all that often.”
“He’s right about that,” Frank agreed. “A man oughta howl when he marries, when his child is born, and when he makes his mark on the world. This is your first mark, Harry. Next thing you know, you’ll be a top hand.”
“Thanks Frank,” Harry answered. Then he laughed cheerfully. “Sure hope I don’t miss the next one now.”
Johnny and Jess left the men to their camaraderie and turned northward to ride on through the pasture until they reached the first of the north boundary riders. He was kicking out a small campfire and tossing off the dregs from a coffee pot and looked up at the sound of their approaching horses. He pushed his hat back to gaze their way and recognized them.
“Howdy, Johnny… Jess,” he greeted them with a wave of his arm.
“Hi Rusty. How’re you doing?” Johnny asked, slowing Barranca to a halt and leaning forward to rest his arms casually on the pommel.
“Same as always, Johnny. Gets kinda lonely out here but what the hell, it’s a livin’.” He swiped his arm across his forehead and looked up at the sky. “Gonna be another hot one I reckon.”
“Yeah, guess so. Seen anything shouldn’t be here?”
“Nah, nothin’ much. Saw a little smoke yesterday, just over that rise there.” He pointed to a hillside to his left. “Wasn’t nothin’ though. Turned out to be a couple of Johannson’s men settin’ up to do some brandin’.”
Johnny frowned. “You went over there to look?”
“Sure.” He checked himself, no doubt suddenly remembering Murdoch’s orders. “Well, leastways far enough ‘til I could see who it was.”
“Didn’t Murdoch tell you to steer clear if you saw anything?”
“Well, yeah, but this was just a campfire. Nothin’ to worry about. Just neighbors an’ all.”
Johnny shook his head. “It turned out to be nothing this time. But what if it hadn’t been Johannson’s men? You really think you’d be standing here telling me about it if you’d been seen by the rustlers?”
Rusty looked shame-faced and shook his head. “No, probably not. Guess you’re right, Johnny. But I was real careful.”
“You make sure you’re a lot more careful next time an’ don’t go near ‘em at all. You come report it to someone. You’re not being paid to take unnecessary risks.”
“I know, but we could miss ‘em that way. You really want to let them get away?”
Johnny straightened his back and Barranca moved a little beneath him. “It’s still better than burying you.” The leather creaked and groaned as he shifted in the saddle.
Taking a slow, deep breath, he continued. “Alright, so you saw these men? You said they were Johannson’s men. So you recognized them?”
“Yeah… well, one of them I did. Bert Carson, he was there with ‘em.”
“Bert Carson…” Johnny rolled the name off his tongue with a curious tone that caught Jess’ attention. Jess could see he was thinking. “Don’t think I know him,” Johnny said at last.
Rusty shrugged his shoulders. “He’s been around for a few months. I’ve played cards with him more’n once on a Saturday night in Spanish Wells. He’s been workin’ for old Stern Johannson most all of that time.”
“That right? And you were close enough to be sure it was him?”
“Did you know the other man with him?”
Rusty shook his head. “No, but I don’t know all of the Johannson crew, just one or two of them that I’ve run into in town.”
“Playing cards, right?”
“Alright, show us where this campfire was.” Johnny turned towards Jess. “Come on, Jess. Let’s go take a look.”
“You think it was the rustlers?”
Johnny nodded. “Yep.”
He scowled at Rusty, who should have known better. “Because it’s the middle of July and we finished branding around here more’n a month ago.”
The spot wasn’t hard to find. There was the remains of a fire to point it out. Dismounting, Johnny looked around a bit and shook his head. “Ground’s been brushed clean again. Let’s spread out an’ see if we can pick up some tracks.”
Rusty shook his head. “Hell, I’m sorry, Johnny. But when I saw Bert, well… I didn’t figure…”
“No, I guess not. Take a look around.”
The three of them rode slowly over the ground, looking carefully ahead and beside them for the next half hour.
“Nothing,” Johnny said in disgust, reining in.
“Nope, me neither,” Rusty shouted from Johnny’s left.
“Damn!” Jess growled. “They’re like ghosts or somethin’.”
“No, just better’n most,” Johnny answered. “They’re taking just a few each time so they can do it quick an’ cover their tracks.”
Johnny drew up the reins, ready to ride. “Okay, Rusty. We’re goin’ now and remember, keep an eye out but don’t take any more risks.”
“Yes Sir, Johnny.”
“Come on, Jess.”
“We’re going to go visit a neighbor, Stern Johannson. I want to have a word with him about one of his men.”
“That Carson fella, huh?”
“Yeah.” Johnny nudged Barranca forward without waiting for Jess, but tossed a word of advice at Rusty as he passed him. “I’d give up cards for a while, if I was you. You’ve probably just used up the best part of a lifetime’s luck by livin’ to tell this tale.
The Johannson place, ‘Solsken’, was a small ranch, even without comparison with its titanic neighbor, Lancer. The name had intrigued Johnny when he’d first heard it and the translation, when he’d gotten it from Stern, had surprised him. There was nothing of the romantic in their neighbor, so what it was that had made him name the place ‘Sunshine’, Johnny had never figured out.
Stern was a loner who raised just enough cattle to make a respectable profit and he seemed to have no ambition to do more. Johnny had met him a few times, mostly at local meetings – never socially, and never before at Stern’s own ranch. The man mostly kept to himself.
“Johnny Lancer!” Johannson called as they rode in. “As I live an’ breathe! What brings you to visiting?” There was a very slight accent in his words. That and the ranch’s name were the last lingering traces of the Swedish homeland he’d left behind in his youth.
The man was in his fifties, tall and thin as wire. His hair was still blond and if he was starting to gray, it didn’t show. His face had worn just as well with few lines to show for years of hard work in the sun.
“Howdy, Stern,” Johnny greeted him cheerfully. He pulled up Barranca and dropped lightly to the ground. Leading Barranca to the hitching rail, he thrust out his right hand. “How are you?”
Johannson shook his hand and grinned. “Too hot to be bothered standin’ out here in the sun jawin’ with you. Come on inside, both of ya.”
Jess dismounted and followed, stopping behind Johnny while he draped the reins over the rail.
“Thanks, Stern.” He suddenly remembered his manners. “This is my friend, Jess. He’s staying at Lancer for a while.”
“Pleasure to meet you, young fella,” Stern said, extending a hand out towards Jess. They shook hands and then the older man led the way up the single step onto the small porch and into the little house.
Johnny had never been in the house and he looked around. Inside, it was very much like the outside – functional and tidy, but with no hint of feminine influence. Johnny couldn’t recall whether he’d heard that Stern had ever been married but there was no woman in his life now.
This was a man’s home with rifles on a rack by the door, a saddle on the floor over by the fireplace and Indian blankets draped across the chairs. A tanned cowhide made a practical rug on the floor in front of the fireplace and a grizzly’s head trophy stared down at them from over the mantle.
Johannson disappeared for a few minutes before returning with pewter mugs for each of them and a pottery jug under his arm.
“Hard cider,” he said with a self-satisfied smile on his face as he poured into the mugs and passed them around. He kept one for himself.
Johnny looked into the mug in his hand hesitantly.
“Made it myself,” Johannson continued. “From apples off my own tree.”
Johnny took one quick uncertain glance at Jess, who looked just as leery of it, and took a sip. His taste in liquor ran towards tequila and beer mostly. The ‘home-made’ liquors he’d tried in the past had been mezcals that could rip the lining right off a man’s stomach.
But he was surprised to find that Stern’s drop was not half bad. There was a tart taste to it that he liked, so he took a deeper swig of it and licked his lips with pleasure.
“Not bad… not bad at all,” Jess commented, beating Johnny to it.
“Yes, Sir,” Johnny agreed.
“Good… good,” the old man said, nodding with pleasure and corking the jug. He tossed back his own mug in one guzzle, swiped the back of his hand across his mouth and sighed. “Now tell me. What brings one of Murdoch Lancer’s boys to my door?”
Johnny took another mouthful and swallowed it, then explained. “Stern, I hear you have a man working for you by the name of Bert Carson. That right?”
“Ja, I know the man alright.” The old man put the jug down on a small table with a thump. “He worked for me for a while. Damned lazy sonovabitch. You won’t find him on my payroll or my land now.”
“He doesn’t work for you now then?”
“No,” he growled back at them. “No more. I turned him off the minute we finished branding.”
“Do you know if he’s working for another ranch around here?”
He scratched his chin. “No, not that I know of. If I heard he was, I’d be warning that rancher about him, that’s for sure.”
“Why, Stern?” Johnny asked, surprised by his adamancy. It was not unusual to cut back on the crew after branding was done but Carson seemed to have gotten under the old man’s skin.
Johannson shook his head. “Well, I never actually caught him at it so I can’t prove it, but I’m damned sure he was stealing near as many calves as he was branding.” He frowned. “Why do you ask?”
“One of our men saw him this afternoon and it looks like he might still be around and up to the same thing with our cattle.”
“Rustling? Ja, I would not be surprised to hear it.”
“Could be he’s one of the men who’s been doing all the rustling around here.”
“With Harper’s men? Ja, I think that it is very possible. He is the type alright. I’ll tell you this, if you catch him at it, you be real careful. I would not put anything past that man.”
Johnny finished the cider and put the mug down, thanking the old man while Jess did the same. “Thanks for the warning,” Johnny added as they headed out the door to their horses.
“Say hello to Murdoch for me,” Johannson called to them as they mounted.
“Sure thing, Stern,” Johnny said. “And thanks again. Might be the first lead we’ve had on these fellas.”
“Then watch yourselves, Johnny. Heard some bad things ‘bout that Harper an’ even you ain’t indestructible, Boy.”
Johnny tipped his hat to Johannson and almost turned away, but his curiosity got the better of him. “Stern, the ranch’s name means ‘sunshine’, right?”
“Why call it that?’
The old man laughed heartily. “I’ll bet half the valley wonders that. Trust you to ask. Well, I’ll tell you, Boy. When I came here, long time back, it’d been raining for two weeks. I was plain sick of it. Got here to this spot and out came the sun. Simple.”
Johnny laughed. “Thanks, Stern,” he called, turned Barranca around and rode out with Jess.
“Bert Carson,” Jess mused aloud. “Johnny,” he said as they passed the bunkhouse. “We have another name.”
Johnny grinned in reply. “Yep, Reb and Bert Carson. Might be we’re finally getting somewhere.”
Bert Carson had seen and done a lot in his thirty-three years and he was well satisfied with what he had fallen into this time. Harper knew what he was about and things were turning out to be very profitable for all of them.
It hadn’t always been this easy for him. There had been times throughout his life when he’d been sure he was jinxed. He had started out dirt poor; helping his old man to scratch out a living from a rocky patch of land the old fool had called a farm, back in Ohio. When the war had come along, it had offered him what he thought was a way out.
Seeking excitement and adventure, and maybe even opportunity, when he had enlisted, he had very soon realized that, instead, it was uncomfortable, dangerous and there was no money in it. So, one night in the rain and the mud, he and a couple of like-minded men had decided they had had enough. Melting into the bushes, they had deserted with no qualms at all.
It turned out not to have been their smartest move. The one thing that the army had done pretty well was to feed them. They had found themselves driven to raiding farms for the odd egg and maybe an occasional chicken just to survive, but it soon led to other things.
They turned to looting. After a few months, they had found they were turning a good profit and he thought that he had finally found his way in life.
By the end of the war, Bert and his cohorts were happily living a life well outside the law and the morals that his parents had tried so hard for years to instil in him. He didn’t go back to the farm. There was nothing there for him but hard work and blisters.
He made his way west instead, trying his hand at buffalo hunting for a while. Now that had been good money! But he had fallen foul of some Indians and the risk to his own hide had sent him further west.
He had even tried keeping a trapping line in the mountains. He had done alright for himself too, mostly because he wasn’t particular about whose trap he cleared. Unfortunately, his neighbor had cared a great deal. Old Ezekial also proved to be a very fine shot.
Bert shifted in the saddle at the thought of it, lifting his right buttock just enough to ease the ache that still troubled him. Damn that old goat, Ezekial, and his buckshot!
It was just one of the reasons why he didn’t much care for working cattle - at least, not working for hire. Sitting for long hours in the saddle through heat and rain and wind, eating dust and breathing in the smell of cattle and manure for a miserable twenty-two dollars a month and board was a fool’s game. He only went back to it when nothing else was offering.
The one thing that Bert had learned out of his travels was to get to know your surroundings really well. You never knew when you’d need somewhere to hole up. Working on Stern’s ranch, small though it was, had meant he had a chance to look the country over real good. He’d stumbled across that strange valley in the mountains after talking to one of the old Mex coots in town.
Old Stern Johannson had done him a real favor in kicking him off his ranch. The old man had begun to suspect that he was taking the occasional calf for himself so he’d been lucky to get away with just being fired. He had hung around in town for a while and had then he had fallen in with Charlie and Reb and they had found his local knowledge very useful indeed.
Now, he was robbing the local ranchers blind without much trouble and from this, of all places. The irony of it! There would be good money at the end of this job – real money - and it looked like, this time, he was finally a winner.
He sighed heartily. Life was good.
“Howdy, Boys,” he called as he rode into the camp. “Had another good day.” He dismounted and unsaddled his horse, quickly wiped it down and then walked back to join the others for a meal. He was hungry and a cup of coffee wouldn’t go astray either.
“Only three steers,” Charlie grumbled. “Wouldn’t call that a good day.”
“Hey, we didn’t get caught, did we?” Bert laughed. “We take a few at a time an’ the number’s growin’, Charlie. Money in the bank.”
He stopped at the fire and poured a coffee for himself before going over to where he’d dropped his saddle, then he sat down. He finished the coffee and then unearthed a piece of tobacco from his pocket and bit into it.
Reb looked up from his coffee. “What’s this I hear about you boys bein’ seen?” he asked.
Bert frowned. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Never you mind where I got it from. Is it true?”
Bert glanced Charlie’s way and wasn’t surprised that the man couldn’t meet his eyes. He was the only one who could have told Reb about that little incident.
“Nothin’ to worry about, Reb,” Bert told him, chewing noisily on the new wad of tobacco. He leaned back lazily against the saddle and spat tobacco juice on the ground.
“It’s true then. One of the Lancer hands spotted you. Did he recognize you?” Reb persisted.
“Nah,” Bert lied. He smirked. “Just held up my hand an’ waved, all friendly like an’ the idiot rode off. He didn’t come in real close so I don’t see how he could’ve known me.”
Reb frowned. “Charlie?”
“He didn’t come in close, Reb,” the man confirmed nervously. “Bert’s right. He couldn’t a seen us good.”
“Did either of you know him?”
Charlie shook his head. “Nope. He called out a hello to Bert. Reckon that’s why he didn’t worry none about us.”
Bert watched Reb turn his attention back towards him. He tried to ignore the scowl, the suspicion on his face. “So, he did recognize you?” the man asked him. That damned southern accent grated on his nerves some days.
“Nah. He was only returning my wave. Just a friendly sort, I reckon,” Bert told him.
“You shoulda put a bullet into him right then,” Reb growled. “You know how Jess feels about us takin’ chances. No witnesses, that’s the rule.”
“Aw, come on, Reb. It wasn’t like the guy was suspicious of us,” Bert told him. “The fool probably won’t even mention it to anyone. He thought we were ol’ Stern’s men. You can count on it.”
Reb stared down into his coffee mug. “Yeah, maybe so. Well, I reckon you can ride herd tonight.”
Bert sat up. “Hey, it’s Charlie’s turn.”
Reb’s eyes turned hard. “I said it’s yours.”
Far from happy, Bert got to his feet and picked up the saddle. He grumbled all the way to his horse but Reb was not one to argue with. His temper was too short and he was just too handy with that gun of his.
He set about saddling his uncooperative horse. The animal was obviously just as unhappy about going back to work as he was. He tightened the cinch, mounted and headed out to the small herd they had put together.
There were only ten animals to keep an eye on at the moment and they were keeping them close by. The corral was temporary and they would pull it down when they left. It wasn’t as good as the hideout they’d had up in the mountains but the Lancers had discovered that one and they couldn’t afford to go back there.
They had gotten rid of the last bunch a few days ago, putting money in their pockets again for a time. Bert had meant to put some aside for later, but he always planned to do that. It never happened. What with the faro table and the ladies, well, it hadn’t lasted him more than a week. He had come back just as broke as when old Johannson had turned him off.
Still, once they built themselves another herd to sell, there’d be money again.
He circled the cattle and they settled down easily. There wasn’t much for him to do after that. He waited a while and then dismounted to find himself a rock to lean against, and then he stretched out his legs and crossed his arms. He might even catch himself a little sleep while no one was watching.
He was almost asleep when the jangle of spurs startled him awake. He sat up.
Bert peered through the darkness to see a shadow coming towards him. He didn’t need to hear any voice. He knew who it was and his heart jumped into his throat. He got to his feet and waited nervously while the shadow took shape and Harper came in close enough to be seen clearly.
“J… Jess! What’s up? Thought you’d be getting’ some shut eye by now.”
“Thought I’d check on you.” The voice was deep and sinister.
Bert felt his mouth go dry. “No need for that, Jess,” he said, trying to sound unconcerned. “You can trust me to do the job. You know that.”
“Sure, course you can.”
“I hear you slipped up today, Carson.” The man was right in front of him now and added “You were seen.”
Bert shook his head. “Nothin’ to worry ‘bout. He didn’t suspect a thing.”
“You’re sloppy… and I don’t like sloppy.”
“C’mon Jess. Nothin’ happened. No harm done.” His eased his hand down towards the gun on his hip, hoping that the dark night would cover his movement. He knew he could never outdraw the man, so he needed to get ahead of him.
But it wasn’t to be. Harper was as quick as the snap of a twig and Carson found himself with a Colt 45 pointed straight at his belly.
He tried to take his eyes away from the gun to look into Harper’s eyes… to get a feel for how serious the man was in threatening him. Maybe he was just trying to frighten him.
He was doing it damned well.
There was a rustle over where the cattle were circled. They were uneasy.
“No… You’re right… you’re right, Jess… sloppy. But it won’t happen again. You can count on it. I’ve learned my lesson.” He dug his nails into the rock behind him, desperately clinging to anything that would hold him up on his trembling legs.
“No. It won’t.”
The shot spooked the cattle. They were on their feet, noisy and trying to run, but with nowhere much to run to.
Harper ignored them and walked back to the campfire. Reb and Charlie were sitting up and watched his every move without saying anything.
“Go settle those cattle,” he said as he untethered his horse and mounted. He pulled viciously on the reins. “I’ll be in town.”
Jess leaned back in the armchair, his legs crossed comfortably at the ankles and a glass of good brandy in his hand. This place sure had its comforts after a long day in the saddle. It was hard to believe that Johnny Madrid had ended up in a house like this. The wonder of it was that the man hadn’t turned soft living like this.
Slim and Scott were talking together quietly at the table. They were exchanging stories about the war in somewhat subdued tones. Murdoch Lancer’s pretty little ward, Teresa, was in the other armchair stitching shirts and glancing occasionally towards the chess game over near the fireplace.
The game had Jess’ attention too. He never had learned to play chess and he didn’t really understand their moves but their concentration, tactics and good-natured bantering held him intrigued.
They had dragged a pair of the dining chairs to either side of a coffee table and had been at it since the two of them had finished with the ledgers over at the desk over an hour ago.
Johnny had his fingers hovering over a piece, his mind very obviously ticking off possible outcomes of the move he was planning. He lifted his gaze to look at Murdoch but the man’s face might just as easily have been chiseled from stone for all the expression there was on it.
“You’re countin’ on me makin’ this move, ain’t ya, Ol’ Man?” Johnny asked, a gleam in his eyes.
His father didn’t answer but Jess suspected that what he was enjoying was his son’s indecisiveness.
Johnny made up his mind and moved the piece, then he sat back to watch his father’s reaction. It came quickly. Murdoch moved his own piece immediately then leaned back smiling.
Johnny frowned. “That was kinda quick, Murdoch. You sure about it?”
Murdoch Lancer looked well satisfied. “If a man knows what he’s doing and thinks ahead, speed has nothing to do with it, my boy.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I don’t suppose it does.” He looked closely at the board and sighed heavily, then made his move. “Check.”
His father’s jaw dropped. “What!”
Scott and Slim looked up and Scott got to his feet to stroll over and look the board over. He smiled. “So, he got you with that one, Murdoch. He pulled that on me the other night.”
“And you got out of it?” Murdoch asked.
Scott only grinned and patted him on the back. “Good luck with that, Sir” he replied and walked back to his chair to rejoin Slim. They whispered for a minute and laughed and then went back to their previous discussion.
While Murdoch mulled over the game, Johnny went over to the drinks cabinet. “Anyone want a drink?” he asked as he opened the cabinet door.
“I’m good,” Jess answered while Murdoch merely grunted and stared at the chessboard.
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind a refill, Johnny,” Scott said. “Slim?”
Scott turned to look at his brother over his shoulder. “Johnny, have you seen Val to let him know what you found out in Visalia?”
“Not yet. Jess and me are planning on going into town tomorrow and telling him everything we have.”
“A man with a southern accent and the name ‘Reb’ is hardly going to stand out in a crowd I’m afraid,” Slim said.
“No,” Jess admitted. “Not when most every southerner gets called ‘Reb’ some time or other. But tall, skinny and blond might help. And there's the Carson fella."
"Names are one thing," Scott said. "The real question is where they are."
“Still, we’ve got something to go on,” Johnny told them. “Least we know they’re real people and not ghosts.” He handed a glass of brandy to Slim and to Scott.
“’Harper’ is still the one I want,” Jess growled. “Why the hell did he pick my name to use?”
Slim sighed. “If it’s the man you told us about, Pard, he seems to have made a career out of it.”
“Yeah.” Jess’ reply was short and barely concealed his anger and frustration.
“Well, we need to find out more… and soon,” Slim told him. “The ranch isn’t going to keep running itself.”
Jess scowled at him. “You want to go back, I’m not stopping you.”
“That’s not what I said, Jess.”
“I didn’t ask you to come in the first place.”
“I’m gonna find this guy, Slim. You wanta go on home, you go right ahead. Me… I’m stayin’.”
“Jess!” This time, Slim was angry and it rang in his voice. “I didn’t say I’m ready or eager to quit.”
Jess got to his feet. “Well, it sure sounded like you’ve had enough.” Jess felt his hot anger reach boiling point and clenched his hands into tight fists. Damn! He wanted something to hit. He needed something, no someone, to hit.
Johnny cleared his throat noisily and suddenly Jess jerked a little and realized that everyone in the room was looking at him. Even Teresa had looked up from her sewing and Murdoch from his game.
He unclenched his hands and flexed them self-consciously. He felt a hot flush of embarrassment creep over his face and hoped that his tan would cover it.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” he stumbled out. “I guess this is gettin’ to me.”
Slim walked over to his side and put one big hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright, Jess. I understand. I’m not going anywhere until this is over.”
“None of us blames you, Jess,” Teresa said. “It’s so frustrating, and especially for you.”
Johnny ambled over to Jess and refilled his brandy glass, a hint of a smile on his face. Jess took it gratefully. It occurred to him that he was glad Johnny was around. While everyone sympathized with him and stood by him, Madrid was someone who actually understood what he was feeling.
But before he could say anything, Johnny’s head turned towards the door. The sounds of horses outside came through the open windows. They were riding slowly and with none of the hoops and hollers that sometimes often came with their return from a night on the town. Johnny was pleased. He’d taken it upon himself to say yes to their night in town and he had talked Murdoch into letting them go.
“Sounds like the boys are back,” Murdoch said, following Johnny’s gaze to the door. “I’m glad they haven’t stayed late in town. I was worried they’d be out half the night and we’d end up with a crew that are so hung over they wouldn’t be able to tell one end of a steer from the other.”
“Well, Frank was with ‘em, Murdoch,” Johnny pointed out. “He’s got sense.”
“I know. I wouldn’t have let them go otherwise. There’s nothing worse than a crew with hangovers. Not to mention the trouble that they could get up to in town. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to bail out one or more of them.” He smiled. “Or you and your brother for that matter.”
Johnny laughed. “Well, Harry wouldn’t stay long at the bar, Murdoch. Even if he wanted to, which he won’t, the kid barely shaves. Two drinks and the boys’ll be tying him to a saddle to bring him home.” Johnny smiled. “He’s a good kid, you know. He’s worked hard to earn their respect.”
“I know, Son. I don’t begrudge him his night. And I have high hopes for him. If he sticks with it, he’ll make a fine hand one day soon.”
Johnny smiled, taking a sip of his own drink and looking down at the chess board. “You ain’t moved yet.”
Murdoch looked back at the game. “I know. You have me, I think. Did Scott figure it out?”
“Well, I’m damned if…”
There was a knock on the door. “That’ll be the boys reporting back. I’ll get it,” Murdoch said, getting to his feet and heading out of the room towards the front door.
“You just can’t figure your way out of that check,” Johnny called after him, a broad grin on his face.
It stopped Murdoch and he turned around just long enough to answer. “Don’t get cocky, young man. You haven’t won anything yet.”
Johnny laughed. “Yet.”
The door opened to reveal Frank standing with hat in hand. His face was enough to break the frivolous mood. He twisted the brim of the hat in his hands and his features were hung with pure anguish.
“Frank, what is it?” Murdoch asked quickly. He looked behind him to see the other men who had gone to town standing in a small group outside the bunkhouse, their horses still saddled and other men coming out to talk to them. “Did something happen in town? Trouble?”
Frank nodded. “’Fraid so, Mr. Lancer.”
“Well, out with it. What is it?”
Johnny put his glass down on the coffee table and walked slowly and purposefully over towards his father.
Frank swallowed hard. “I… I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer. It’s Harry.”
“What about Harry?” It was Johnny’s voice, low and harsh, from behind him. Murdoch glanced over his shoulder and found his son coming to his side.
“That bastard Harper’s killed him.”
The silence that followed Frank’s words was a devastating echo of their mutual shock. Johnny took a deep breath and tried to stay on his feet. Murdoch’s face was ashen and Frank, having spoken the words, looked ready to crumble.
It was Murdoch who was finally able to speak first. “You’d better come inside, Frank. We’ll all want to hear what happened.”
The man only nodded and walked in past his boss. He stopped while Murdoch closed the door and then followed him into the Great Room. Johnny walked quietly behind him. There was a pervading feeling of anticipation in the room and everyone was watching their entrance.
Johnny stayed on his feet, as did Murdoch. He did his best thinking that way so he took up a position beside the fireplace. He hooked one foot up behind him and leaned back heavily, his hands flat against the wall. He could feel the blood rushing through his veins and stared down at the floor while he tried to pull his emotions under control. It wasn’t time to let them loose yet – not yet.
When he looked up again, Jess Harper was eyeing him enquiringly. He breathed out slowly but said nothing to him. Harper knew something was up, that was obvious, and Johnny nodded. Jess’ attitude changed immediately. Beside him, Slim was also obviously aware of the tension. He and Jess exchanged meaningful glances and then sat down on the sofa, keeping their eyes on Murdoch and Frank.
“Scott, pour a glass of brandy for Frank, will you?” Murdoch said. “He’s brought some bad news that you’re all going to want to hear.”
Teresa put her sewing aside and walked over to join Murdoch. She took his arm and gently, anxiously, asked “What is it, Murdoch?”
He closed his hand over hers. “It’s young Harry Bilson. He’s been killed.”
“Oh no!” Her hands flew to her face. Murdoch wrapped his arm around her shoulders and led her back to her chair. Then he tuned around to face Frank.
Scott handed a glass to Frank and urged him to take a drink, and they all waited.
Frank sipped it, then took a mouthful and swallowed hard. After another moment, he looked up. “Thanks, Scott… Mr. Lancer. Guess I needed that.”
“Tell us what happened, Frank,” Murdoch asked.
“Yes, Sir.” He took another mouthful of the brandy and allowed it to go down, then started. “We got to Green River ‘bout seven o’clock, me and Harry; Randy, Charlie and Reed. Young Harry went off to visit with his folks first an’ said he’d join us later at the saloon so we went an’ had us a couple of drinks while we waited for him. It was real quiet, not bein’ Saturday. You know?”
“Yes, Frank. Go on.”
“Well, there was just us an’ a couple of the local townsmen drinkin’ there. There wasn’t even a card game goin’. We just sat around a table an’ talked a while, maybe for an hour I guess, then Harry came in. He was all grinnin’ and pleased as punch with himself, just like he should be. Came over an’ sat down an’ we bought him a beer. We joshed him a little, all in good fun. Everything was fine. Then this fella came in. Real bleak-lookin’ fella.”
“’Bleak-looking?’” Scott asked. “What do you mean by that?”
“Just that, I guess. He was dressed kinda dark an’ he looked like a real hard case. Had his gun tied down low an’ hard. His face was, well, there was nothin’ on it, no expression at all. Might just as easily be made o’ stone. He walked over to the bar, ordered a whiskey an’ then he turned around an’ looked us all over… like we were nothin’.”
His fingers had dug into his hat, crushing it. Then he continued with his story. “We ignored him, or we tried to. None of us wanted any trouble but it was like he picked Harry out on purpose. His eyes lit on him an’ he kinda smiled this scary smile. He drank his whiskey, all the while watchin’ us… didn’t say a word. Well, Sir, when he finished his drink, he started in on Harry; diggin’ him about bein’ just a boy an’ playin’ at bein’ full grown. Said he was too young to drink, his gun was too heavy for a kid like him. That kind of thing.”
“Why didn’t you just leave?” Murdoch asked, an edge creeping into his voice.
“Well, first we thought it was just a matter of payin’ him no mind, Mr. Lancer. Like I said, we weren’t there lookin’ for trouble. I told the fella that,” Frank said, his voice still broken. “He just grinned at us, and then I did tell the boys it was time to get home. We got up an’ that’s when the fella really got started on Harry. Talkin’ ‘bout runnin’ home like a rabbit an’ stuff like that. I tried tellin’ the kid to pay him no mind and we headed for the door but that fella had himself set on Harry. Gotta give the boy credit; he didn’t jump at him or anything. He didn’t want no trouble an’ he was gonna leave with us, but that bastard…”
He stopped and glanced at Teresa. “Sorry, Miss Teresa. Shouldn’a said that.”
“It’s okay, Frank,” she assured him quietly.
“It’s alright, Frank,” Murdoch said quietly. “Go on.”
“He played Harry like he was reelin’ in a trout, Mr. Lancer. Pushed him to the edge with words; played on all the things that kids his age hate hearing, you know? We’ve all been joshed about stuff like that, I guess… bein’ a man, but not quite.”
“Yeah, we know,” Johnny said. He knew it all too well. He knew the tactic too. You could push a man into a gunfight if you really had a mind to do it. He’d done it himself and he was good at it. You could play on their fears, their loves, their choice of clothes – anything. You could push a man to do what he least wanted to do that way. He cast a quick glance at Jess and figured that he was probably thinking the same.
“Anyway, I could see Harry was listenin’, getting antsy. I tried takin’ his arm an’ headin’ for the door but he shook it off. Then the guy started on how he was too young to be wearin’ a gun. Shouldn’t wear it if he couldn’t use it… maybe he was afraid to use it.”
“We get the idea,” Johnny said.
“Yeah, I guess so, Johnny. I ain’t even sure he planned to pull it, but it was enough for Harper. He got what he wanted. I don’t think the kid even knew what he was doin’ but his hand went towards his gun. He didn’t have a chance.” Frank finished off the brandy. His hand was shaking. "Harper just smiled and put his gun back in the holster.” Frank shook his head. “What kind of a man does that to a kid? It was like he picked him out an’ hunted him down. Harry was just a kid! Wouldn’t hurt a fly!”
His anger was building, as was Johnny’s. As was everyone’s in the room. Jess got up and walked to the window, shrugging off Slim’s hand when he tried to put it on his shoulder.
“Did he say his name at any stage?” Jess asked, looking out into the dark.
“No, Sir. He just walked outa the saloon. But he didn’t have to. It was Harper alright, Texas drawl an’ all. Just like what we heard about the man that killed the kid over in Visalia. Gotta admit he was fast, like they say. But he didn’t have any competition from poor Harry.”
Frank twisted the hat brim some more. “Wish I’d taken him down myself now. Maybe against a grown man he’d have turned tail and run, the damned coward. But we were all just too stunned. Reed went straight to Harry to see if there was any chance of savin’ him.” He stopped and lowered his head. “The poor kid was dead ‘fore he hit the floor.”
Teresa sobbed quietly and pulled out a handkerchief. Scott and Slim said nothing but their faces were solemn.
Frank looked up again then, his face haggard. “I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer, but what kind of a mongrel builds himself a reputation by killing half-grown kids?”
Once again, Johnny watched as Jess’ hands balled into fists at his sides. His own anger was getting hard enough to contain so he couldn’t imagine what Jess’ was at the moment. It was surprising that he was holding it.
“Did anyone try to stop this man from leaving town?” Murdoch asked.
“Yes, Sir. Sheriff Crawford got there just as he was about to ride out. Made him get down an’ come back in while he got the story. We checked Harry an’ the doc came over to see to him. Wasn’t any good. We all knew he was gone. One shot, clean through the heart.”
“So this man is in jail?”
Frank shook his head. “No Sir, Sheriff Crawford wanted to hold Harper. We could all see that. He was real mad. Asked us all what had happened, one at a time an’ we figured he was lookin’ for somethin’ that would make it murder. It was murder, Sir, but the fact was…”
“He went for his gun.” He looked back at Jess Harper, over there by the big arched window, staring out at the darkness. They knew how it was done and they had done it, but never with the malevolence that this man had. Never with this kind of evil in their hearts and minds. Never with a kid who couldn’t defend himself.
“Yeah, that’s about it, Johnny.” Frank put the glass down on the coffee table near him. “We left Harry with his folks.” He stopped, still shaken. “Mr. Lancer, Johnny… I know it was me who was in charge of the boys tonight. I should’ve gotten him out somehow.” He shook his head angrily. “I shoulda done more.”
“There was nothin’ more you could’ve done, Frank,” Johnny told him. “Don’t tear yourself up over somethin’ you couldn’t have stopped. He was gonna kill himself another kid and you would only have gotten yourself and maybe the others killed if you’d tried anything with him.”
“It was murder, Johnny… plain cold-blooded murder.”
His anguish was feeding Johnny’s own anger. If he’d only gone with them like they’d asked, he could have done something. That cobarde would never have taken on Madrid. He could have gotten that boy out of there with no harm done. He should have been there. The boy would be alive now if he’d only gone with them.
“Johnny?” He looked up. It was Scott, his hand so lightly on his shoulder that he hadn’t even felt it. “I know what you’re thinking, but you weren’t to know that anything like this was going to happen. You can’t blame yourself any more than Frank can.”
“Yes I can. They asked me to go. If I had…”
Scott nodded slightly. “Granted, if you had gone with them, you might have made a difference. No one is ever going to know for sure. But you had no way of knowing what was going to happen, Johnny.”
“Go back to the men, Frank,” Murdoch told him. “We’ll go to Green River tomorrow and see Val Crawford. I know you would have done what you could. You’re a good man, Frank. Don’t let this eat you up inside.”
Frank nodded sadly.
“And Frank,” Murdoch added, authority back in his voice. “I know how the men are going to feel and that tempers are going to be running high, but I don’t want anyone doing anything at the moment. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Sir.” He turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. “If it’s okay with you, Mr. Lancer there’s some of us, maybe all of the men in fact, who’ll want to, well…”
“Any man who wants to attend the funeral will be given time off to go,” Murdoch assured him.
“Thank you, Sir. He was a good kid, well liked.”
With that, the man left them. The news would already have been broken over at the bunkhouse and there would be need of a cool head as shock would turn to anger. Johnny thought he’d take a walk over there himself later and talk to them all too. But not now… now, there was a lot to talk over. They had to come up with something to stop this man.
‘Harper’ and his men might have been striking at Lancer, at the cattle and their income but now… now it was personal.
Johnny looked around the street as they rode into Green River the next morning. For some reason, he had thought it would look different after the events of last night – quieter maybe, in mourning perhaps with windows shuttered and curtains drawn.
But the streets were bustling just like any other day, with wagons trundling noisily down the street and horses tied to hitching posts. O’Shaunessy’s dog was out in the street barking and making a nuisance of itself like always, and there was Old Man O’Shaunessy yelling at it to quiet down.
The stores were open as usual, as if nothing had happened - until they got to the Bilsons’ Mercantile. There the door was closed and the curtains all drawn. A ‘closed’ sign was hung on the door.
“I’m going to go and have a word with the Bilsons, Johnny. You and Jess go and see Val. I want you to make sure that he did everything he could to find a charge against that man. He should be in jail.”
Johnny sighed heavily. “You know Val would have taken him in if he could, Murdoch.”
“I hope so. Go see him and get the story from him anyway. This has to end.”
“You’re right about that,” Johnny said coldly. “I’ll meet you later at the Bilsons’ place. I’d kinda like to give ‘em my regards as well.”
Murdoch nodded and left them to continue their way down the street to the sheriff’s office. Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt outside the office and unceremoniously walked through the door with Jess close behind him.
“Hello, Val,” Johnny said quietly.
He got a grunt for an answer. He glanced at Jess while Val had not even looked up to acknowledge them. He was writing and ignoring them to concentrate on it.
“No point in yellin’,” he grouched. “I ain’t deaf an’ I know why you’re here. I did what I could last night. There weren’t nothing I could charge him with.”
“We figured that. What? Did you think we were here to bawl you out?”
Val finally looked up, scowling. “Ain’t ya?”
Johnny let out a long breath. “Thought you knew me better than that.”
“Well,” Val relented. “Wouldn’t blame yas if you did. That bastard got away with murder last night and there was nothin’ I could do about it.”
“And if I’d been with them like they wanted, it might not have happened at all.”
“Well, that’s a plain stupid way to look at it.”
“If you two have finished,” Jess chided them. “All the what-ifs in the world aren’t gonna bring the poor kid back. What we have to figure out is where to go from here.”
Val sighed and threw the pen down hard on the desk. It bounced and rolled to the edge of the desk and hung there. Val made no move to rescue it. “Yeah, guess you’re right. Just eats at me that I had him an’ couldn’t do a damned thing about it. What the hell good is the law if a bastard like that walks away from a cold-blooded killing?”
“Did you recognize him? Know him by name, I mean?” Jess asked.
“No, sorry, Jess. No one I’ve ever seen before. He doesn’t look like you, ‘cept in a general way. Same height and build, dark hair and that same Texas twang you got. But no one who knows you would take him for you.”
“Did you notice a scar?” Johnny asked.
Val frowned and looked up at him. “Yeah, now you come to mention it. There was a scar near his ear. Why?”
Johnny answered for him. “Jess thinks it’s a guy who’s done this before. Used his name, I mean.”
“Well, that wouldn’t surprise me. I’ll tell you one thing, we’ll have to prove those rustling charges, ‘cause he’s real clever ‘bout how he goes about his killings.” He stood up and ran his hand through his already unruly hair as he walked across to the far wall.
He slammed his fist against the wall and turned around. “I wanted him, Johnny… Jess. I wanted to lock him up so bad it hurt. I tell ya, if ever a man needed hangin’, it’s that one. That was straight out murder and I had to let him go. Dammit! I had to let him go!”
“You’re not the first, Val,” Jess assured him. “McMurtry over at Visalia felt the same about not being able to charge him.”
“Yeah, well it don’t make me feel much better. I gotta tell you, facing Ralph and Freda Bilson was one o’ the worst things I ever had to do; tellin’ ‘em their boy was not only dead but that I’d let the bastard who done it walk away free. Two o’ the best folks in town they are, an’ they had a son to be real proud of. Nope, just ain’t fair.”
“Frank told us the whole story last night,” Johnny said. He crossed his arms across his chest. “He says Harry was pushed until he went for his gun.”
“All the witnesses said the same thing. You could tell they didn’t want to. Disgusted, every one of ‘em. But the plain fact was that the boy did make the first move.” He sighed heavily.
Jess took off his hat and slapped it on the desk. “Stinks… the whole thing. But we know you did your best, Val. No one is blaming you. Still, it’s a shame we couldn’t follow him to find out where he’s holing up.”
“Tried,” Val said.
“You think I’m an idiot? I had my hands full so sent Tom to follow him, real careful like. He stayed back so he didn’t attract attention but he lost him in the dark.”
“He followed him as far as Hale’s Crossing on the road to Morro Coyo.”
Johnny scowled. That was close to the southern boundary of Lancer land. “Well, it was worth a try. Good thinking to come up with it in the middle of everything, Val.”
“It’s not much I guess, but it’s better’n nothin’.”
“We’ve got a couple of things too – a couple of names. Maybe you’ve come across them already but it’s something for you to keep in mind… maybe tell the saloonkeepers. A couple of the girls in the saloon in Visalia told us the name of one of them. The other we got from Rusty when he saw ‘em changing brands.”
“He saw them…?”
“Thought they were Stern’s men, just doin’ some branding, but the cattle turned out to be ours. The one the girls told us about is called Reb,” Johnny told him, and gave him what little description they had of him. “Tall, thin an' blond. The other one is a man named Bert Carson. Used to work for Stern.”
“Carson, hey?” Val scratched at the two day growth on his chin, pondering. “Don’t think I ever come across him. I’ll go talk to Stern.”
“Already did. He fired him some time back. Doesn’t know where he went after that.”
“Damn! An’ you say you lost some more, have you?”
“A few head. The rustling’s getting out of hand. It’s starting to cost us a lot of money.”
“You and some of the other ranchers too. Seems like they’ve hit just about everyone – some more than others though.”
“Lancer and McHenry’s HM. Lancer more than any of the others though. Seems like they like Lancer beef.”
“Seems like,” Johnny said quietly. He was thinking. The HM ranch was Hal McHenry’s place just north of Lancer and was not even close to approaching the size of Lancer. Aggie Conway had far more cattle than the HM and her place bordered on Lancer too, on the southern end. Why hadn’t they hit Aggie’s place more? He took a deep breath. The strikes were just so random. It was so hard to figure where or when they would hit next. How did you think ahead of them?
He shook it all away. “Well,” he said, uncrossing his arms. “We’re going to see Harry’s folks. Told Murdoch we’d meet him there.”
“I’ll come with you then. Didn’t get much chance last night to give ‘em my sympathies.”
Val grabbed his hat and followed them to the door, flipping over the sign on the door to show ‘closed’ before he pulled the door shut.
Jess and Johnny left their horses where they were and headed back to the Bilsons’ store with Val. It was still closed up but after a light tap on the door, Ralph Bilson opened it. Johnny was shocked by his appearance. He looked drawn and haggard, ten years older than the last time Johnny had seen him.
Usually a happy man, always with a good word to say about his neighbors and a wife who doted on him and their son, Ralph looked anything but his normal self.
“Johnny, come on in. Your pa’s inside.”
“Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Bilson,” Johnny said, pulling his hat from his head and wringing the brim in his hands.
Ralph opened the door wider to allow him in. “Not at all, Johnny. Sheriff, good of you to come too.” He looked askance at Jess as Val moved towards the doorway.
“This here is Jess Sherman,” Val told him. “He’s a friend of ours, stayin’ with the Lancers.”
Jess’ hat was in his hands as well. “I don’t mean to intrude, Mr. Bilson,” Jess said. “I know you don’t know me but I met your son at the ranch. Thought I’d pay my respects with Johnny and Val if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. Come on in.”
Johnny led the way for Val and Jess as they followed Ralph Bilson past the barrels and the shelves laden with stock, behind the counter and through a back door. They found themselves in a pleasant little sitting room with lace curtains and pretty figurines on the mantle, a painting over the fireplace and not a speck or dust or anything out of place. It would have been a cheerful room in other circumstances.
But the curtains were drawn and the room seemed to have taken on the melancholy in the air.
Murdoch had put his big frame into a small armchair, facing the sad figure of Freda Bilson. She was as thin as her husband, but petite with hair as dark as Ralph’s was light. She was dressed in black but seemed to be holding up far better than he was. A demure little lady, Freda Bilson was well known for being a strong woman.
Even so, her sorrow was obvious and the darkened room only added to the terrible sense of her loss.
“Johnny’s here, Ma,” Bilson called as he entered. “He’s got the sheriff with him and another friend of Harry’s from the ranch.”
“We wanted to tell you how sorry we are about Harry,” Johnny told her awkwardly.
She nodded. “Thank you, Johnny. He thought the world of you. Talked about you and how you were teaching him things. He was so proud of himself yesterday… and so pleased that you were there to see him rope that cow.”
“Was always a pleasure, Ma’am. I liked him a lot. He was a real good boy.”
Ralph Bilson took his place at her side on the couch and reached for her hand to hold in both of his. She smiled at him and then turned back to Johnny, curiosity mingling with the unhappiness in her eyes as she took stock of Jess. “And you, Mr…”
“Sherman,” Val chimed in quickly. “Jess Sherman.”
“Mr. Sherman, you knew our Harry?”
“Only a little, Ma’am. I’m stayin’ at the Lancer ranch and met him a couple o’ times. I liked him.”
She nodded. “Everyone liked Harry. He was always like that, even as a little boy – lots of friends, never any trouble.” She dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.
“I just don’t understand why this happened to our boy, Sheriff,” Ralph Bilson said. Johnny noticed that his hand squeezed hers tightly. “What did that Harper fella get out of shooting my son down? Harry wasn’t no gunman.”
“I wish I could tell ya, Mr. Bilson. Wish I knew.” He sighed heavily. “An’ I wish I coulda taken him in an’ held him for trial. I know it’s hard but I hope you understand. I just didn’t have nothin’ that would hold up in court.”
It was Mrs. Bilson who answered. “We do understand, Sheriff. It’s just like that poor boy over in Visalia.” She dabbed her eyes again, then straightened her back. “That Jess Harper might not face a court in this world, but sure as I’m sitting here, he’ll face the Almighty one day and he’ll answer for it then.”
Ralph slowly nodded his agreement. “There’s been talk around town about lynchin’ Sheriff,” he said. “Tom Anderson told me so when he paid his respects this mornin’.” He patted Freda’s hand. “Can’t say I hold with it, takin’ the law into your own hands, but I reckon I’d look the other way if they did.”
Jess shifted uncomfortably and Johnny locked eyes with him. Johnny could see that he wanted to say something. Murdoch must have seen it too and moved to preempt him. He stood up. “Well, we should be going Ralph, Freda.”
“It was good of you to come, Murdoch,” Mrs. Bilson said. “And I want to thank you for being so kind to my boy. I don’t know why he had it in his head that he wanted to be a cowboy, but you gave him a chance and that meant a lot to him. I hope you’ll stop by for dinner with us when… well, after a while, I guess. You too, Johnny, Val… and you, Mr. Sherman. Any friend of Harry’s will always be welcome in our house.”
“Jess,” Val put his hand on Jess’ arm.
“Val…” There was almost a plea in Jess’ voice. Val sighed and looked at Johnny and then at Murdoch before relenting and letting him go on.
“Ma’am,” Jess began uncertainly. Then he plunged on. “Ma’am, all over town, they’re saying that your boy was killed by Jess Harper.” She nodded and let him continue. “It ain’t so. The man who killed your son was not Jess Harper.”
“But he was seen. There were plenty of witnesses,” Ralph said. He looked at Val. “You saw him yourself, Sheriff.”
Val nodded. “Let him finish, Mr. Bilson.”
Jess took a breath. “I know they did, and they think he’s Harper because that’s who he’s sayin’ he is. But I’m Jess Harper – and I didn’t kill Harry.”
There was silence. Ralph frowned and he squeezed hard on his wife’s hand. “I don’t understand…”
Val took over. “It’s true, Mr. Bilson. He’s Jess, but he’s not the man who shot your boy. He was at Lancer with Murdoch here, an’ Johnny an’ Scott, an’ he sure ain’t the man I saw last night.”
“Someone else is using his name,” Johnny added. “So that they can get clean away while Jess here gets all the blame.”
“Then who killed Harry?”
“We don’t know,” Val told him. “Least ways, we don’t know his real name. But we’re gonna find him and put him away for rustlin’, if nothin’ else.”
“Thank you, Sheriff, Johnny… and you, Mr. Sh…” She hesitated. “Mr. Harper.”
Mrs. Bilson looked Jess over. Johnny could see her scrutinizing him, weighing him up.
“Why are you telling us this, Mr… Mr. Harper?” she asked at last. “Does it mean so much to you that you have to prove yourself to us?”
“No, Ma’am,” he answered, “not exactly. I met your son a couple of times at the ranch. He was a real nice kid… a good kid, and I could see myself calling him my friend. I wanted to offer you both my sympathy and… well, I just don’t feel right about lying about who I am to do it.”
She nodded again, apparently accepting his words.
Johnny cleared his throat. “Mr. Bilson… Mrs. Bilson… it’d be kind of you if you kept this to yourselves for now. We don’t want this fella knowing that Jess is here or he’ll run for sure.”
Ralph nodded. “That makes sense. Yes, you can count on us. We won’t say anything.” He looked hard at Jess. “I’m bettin’ it’s hard on you too, all of this. I sure wouldn’t want that swine usin’ my name to kill kids. I’m obliged to you for telling us.”
There were a few moments of silence, awkward for everyone. Finally, Johnny broke it. “Well, like Murdoch said, we oughta be goin’. But we’ll be back for the service.”
“I’m giving time off to any of the men who want to attend,” Murdoch told them. “There’ll be a lot of them. Harry was very popular with them.”
They left then - Val to his office; Johnny, Murdoch and Jess to Lancer; and the Bilsons to their grief.
The next day dawned with bright blue skies and a dark heavy feeling to it. The Lancers and most of their men attended the somber ceremony to farewell Harry Bilson. There were others there too – townspeople who had watched the young man grow up, ranchers and farmers who knew the Bilsons from their visits for supplies and the entire congregation from the church.
Jess and Slim had thought about coming, but Murdoch had talked them out of it. Tensions were high in town and if anyone should happen to find out who Jess was, there was no telling what could happen.
As the solemn crowd dissipated, Hal McHenry left the small throng of ranchers he’d been talking with and made his way towards Murdoch. He had a young man with him who they didn’t recognize.
“Howdy, Murdoch,” the man said. He held his hat in his hand and was dressed in his best suit, as they all were, but the young man with him was almost a dandy compared with them. He had lace frills at his cuffs and on his shirt front and held himself with style. He was taller than McHenry and his dark hair was combed to perfection. “Like you to meet Aubrey Atherton. He’s married to my niece and they’ve come out here to live with me. You know I’ve no family and they are my only kin. Well, there’s not much left for them in Georgia, so I’ve invited them out here to learn about the ranch. It’ll be theirs some day.”
“I’m honored to meet you, Sir, though I’m sorry that it is under such sad circumstances,” the young man said in a voice that rang of the South. He extended his hand and Murdoch shook it, then introduced Scott, Johnny and Teresa in turn.
Johnny surreptitiously cast a glance at his brother and got a frown of curiosity back from him.
“Sad day, Murdoch… sad day,” McHenry said, shaking his head. The man barely reached Murdoch’s shoulders and he carried far too much weight and a perpetually self-important attitude. “Still, we have to go on. Since we’re all here in town, we’re gonna hold a meeting of the Cattlemen’s Association – over at the hotel in the restaurant. Pete’s closing it off for the afternoon for us.”
“Today?” Murdoch asked, frowning. “Hal, that hardly seems fitting.”
“Well,” he drawled out. “Maybe so, but we’re all here in town and there’s things need talking over, Murdoch. You and I both know it.” He put his hat on and straightened his coat lapels in an extravagant motion. “We’ll see you there then?”
“I’ll come. So will my boys.”
McHenry nodded and turned away to join the other ranchers. Murdoch stayed put.
“He’s had that planned,” Scott said. “He’s even got the room arranged.”
“Yes.” He looked at Johnny. “I want you to come this time, Johnny.”
Johnny smiled, but there was no warmth in it. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
“I’ll go with the Bilsons,” Teresa said. “I’ll wait for you there.”
They walked across the street and up the road to the hotel and then through the open doors of the restaurant. The tables had been moved out to the sides of the room and the chairs set in rows. There were ten or so men there ahead of them but Murdoch walked to some spare chairs at the front. Scott joined him, but Johnny stayed at the back, near the door.
He preferred to stand against the wall. Johnny had never enjoyed these meetings as his father and brother did. There was still an element within the cattlemen's association who had not accepted him. Those men tolerated him as Murdoch's son but they did not welcome him nor, he suspected, trust him. They certainly gave him no credence as a cattleman. Worse, he often disagreed with their decisions on important matters and he had a bad feeling about this one.
There was a murmur of several subdued conversations around the room and muttered greetings as Murdoch and Scott took their seats. These men were friends and neighbors as well as colleagues sharing an interest in the same business.
As Aggie Conway came in and took a seat beside Scott, the doors were closed and Hal McHenry called the meeting to order. The room went quiet as he stood in front of them.
“I think you all know why we’re here, today,” he began.
Murdoch stood up. “I’d like to point out again, Hal, that this is not the time for this meeting. We’ve just now buried young Harry. We should be toasting him, and being there for his parents.”
“His death is what makes it the right time, Murdoch. How much longer are we going to do nothing?”
“The law is getting nowhere and you know it. Harper was right here in town. He killed that boy and the sheriff let him walk away untouched.”
Murdoch stood straight and firm. “We all know what happened, Hal. Val Crawford had no choice but to let him go. As for the rustling, there’s no real proof against Harper and the sheriff can’t hold him without it.”
McHenry thumped his fist on the table behind him. “No proof! Huh. We all know it.”
“Knowing it and proving it in court are two very different things.”
“Then maybe it’s time we thought about doing it without a court.”
A buzz of voices swept the room. Johnny heard both dissent and agreement around him.
“I won’t be a part to vigilantism,” Murdoch insisted.
McHenry shook his head. “It’s a common enough practice.”
“That doesn’t make it right… or legal. You didn’t live here when there was no law. Those of us who were here fought long and hard to bring some semblance of justice to the valley. Blood was shed, men died – and I won’t be a party to throwing it all away.”
“You’d rather let all the stealing continue, Murdoch? The killing?”
“I happen to have faith in the law taking care of it.”
McHenry sneered. “Then you’re the only one!”
Again there were murmurs among the rest of the room. The door opened beside Johnny and Val walked in with Gabe beside him. Both men quietly took up a position with Johnny.
“Bad?” Val whispered.
“Yep,” Johnny answered, just as quietly.
Murdoch turned around to face everyone. “Is that true? Is Hal here speaking for all of you?”
Tom Tracy stood up at the back of the room. “Murdoch, I’d rather let the law take care of this, like you say. But they’re not getting anywhere. I ain’t lost but a few cattle compared with what I hear you've lost, but it’s more than a small ranch like mine can stand.” He dropped his head a little. “Not to mention I got me a son the same age as poor young Harry.”
The room fell silent. Johnny knew that Tracy wouldn’t be the only man there thinking the same way. They had families, sons…
“Yeah, Murdoch,” another man called out. It was Santee. “Your boys are old enough to defend themselves and there’s no way Harper will take on Johnny Madrid, but there’s others here have to worry about their kids.”
Scott stood up. “Alright, we can all understand your worry, but let’s call this what it is. Forget about ‘taking the law into your own hands’ and ‘vigilantism’… you’re talking about ‘lynchings’. Is that really what you want?”
There was silence and men moved uncomfortably in their chairs as Scott continued. “And how do you propose to go about finding these rustlers, Mr. McHenry? I’m pretty sure that Johnny and I are not the only ones who have tried tracking them.”
McHenry answered. “We’ll put on extra night-herds, guards on the cattle…”
A voice from the side of the room called out angrily, “You might have the men for that, Hal. I don’t have any to spare.”
“Then we’ll band together, form a posse and flush them out!” McHenry called back.
Scott asked quietly, “Out of where?”
McHenry looked surprised by the question. “They have to be around here some place. We’ll find them.”
Santee stood up long enough to answer. “Sounds to me like you don’t have much of a plan either, Hal.”
“So what do we do? Nothing? Like now? These men are robbing us blind.”
Murdoch nodded. “I know. I’ve lost more than I can afford as well, Hal,” he said reasonably. “But we’re not a lynch mob here. It’s too easy to hang the wrong man when hot-heads get going. And a mistake like that is not one you can make right again.”
“You calling me a hot-head, Murdoch Lancer?” McHenry growled.
“You are at the moment!”
“Why, I’ll show you who’s…”
He took a step forward but Johnny spoke up from the back of the room. “I think everyone’s forgetting something. These men aren’t your run o’ the mill cattle thieves. They’re cunning and they’re dangerous. You get close and they’ll shoot it out with you. I know – Val and me got too close to one o’ their lookouts.”
“Yes, and you killed him didn’t you, Johnny?” McHenry snarled. “You couldn’t have just winged him and bring him in. Typical!”
The room went totally silent. Every face turned to see what Johnny’s reaction would be. And Johnny was angry. He’d spent too long getting people to see him as ‘Lancer’ instead of the gunman to let McHenry throw it back in his face.
But even angry, Johnny knew how to handle a big mouth like him. He pulled himself away from the wall he’d been leaning on and slowly walked to the front of the room and faced McHenry. “Next time maybe I should just let him kill me then, right?” he said quietly.
Johnny knew he was being dramatic, but it worked. McHenry looked even smaller than he was. “Now, Johnny, I didn’t mean…”
“I think maybe you did, Mr. McHenry.”
“Johnny…” It was Murdoch.
Johnny didn’t need calling off. He knew exactly what he was doing, but he decided to let McHenry think that Murdoch had made the difference. “You’re het up, so I’ll let it slide,” he softly said to McHenry. “But I won’t do it twice.”
Aggie Conway Addison stood up and looked around the room. “I think we all need to step back and think about it all for a moment,” she said. She was the only woman in the room, the only woman in the local association for that matter, but she demanded respect and got it. “It’s been a sad day for the town and tempers are up. It’s not the time to be making rash decisions.”
Scott agreed. “Exactly,” he said. “What we really need to do is to look for something that’s been missed. Since we’re all together, let’s see if we can come up with some answers.”
“Like what?” asked Santee.
Scott frowned. “Well, let’s start with how many here have lost cattle. Can we have a show of hands?”
Virtually every rancher put up a hand.
“How many have been raided more than once?” Only a half dozen hands stayed up. “Three times or more?” Four hands stayed up.
From the back of the room, Gabe spoke up. “Is there a map around here?”
“Yep,” said Val. “Over at my office. I’ll go get it.”
With something practical to think about, tempers cooled. Even McHenry seemed more rational. When Val came back with the map, they unrolled it on one of the tables. Val had marked some of the raids already but they marked out all of those present for each time they had been hit and Scott noted down the dates and the time of day from those who knew them.
“We know they were hiding out at Cesto del Ogro until recently,” Scott said, leaning over the map with the two sheriffs.
“Where?” McHenry asked.
“The Ogre’s Basket,” Scott explained. “It’s a tiny hidden valley in back of the foothills.”
“And how do you know they were there?” McHenry demanded.
“We looked, Hal.”
“Well, it’s the first I’ve heard of it!” There were others around the room nodding and muttering.
“It don’t mean much since they were gone ‘fore we found the place,” Val told him. “Except that they knew about the place… an’ it ain’t a spot to just come across.”
McHenry scowled. “What are you saying, Sheriff?”
Val shrugged. “Sayin’ they ain’t there now,” he answered.
“Well, let’s see if we can find any pattern to the raids,” Scott said patiently.
Johnny walked quietly back to the rear of the room and sat down. This was Scott’s forte and he was good at it. Better to leave him to it. With Val and Gabe helping him and Murdoch hovering nearby, Johnny found himself pretty much alone.
At least until Aubrey Atherton came over. “Mind if I join you, Mr. Lancer?” he drawled.
“Nope, go right ahead.” Johnny’s hat was in his hands and he idly played with the hat band, pulling off a burr that had somehow attached itself and checking for more.
“I take it y’all are not particularly interested in the present proceedings, Sir.”
“Interested, but Scott will take care o’ that part an’ I’ll get the lowdown later.” He grinned. “Easier that way.”
The man produced an easy smile. “My uncle’s temper is on the boil at the moment. I’m sure he didn’t mean to offend you.”
“I don’t offend all that easy.”
“I’m pleased to hear it.” Atherton leaned back in the chair. “These cattle thefts are a source of great frustration for him.”
“Him and everyone else around here,” Johnny agreed. “Of course, Mr. and Mrs. Bilson are more’n frustrated today. We oughta be thinking of them and Harry right now and not ourselves and our pockets.”
Atherton nodded. “Yes, perhaps it is not the best timing but, since it’s been done, maybe your brother will come up with something out of this information. It seems a sound plan.”
Johnny smiled. “Yep. My brother’s a thinker… ex-military.”
“Really?” The man looked to the front of the room where Scott was engrossed in Val’s map.
While he was staring at Scott, Johnny took a moment to look him over. He was well-dressed – over-dressed for around here. He seemed friendly enough but a name kept coming to Johnny’s mind – the name Mary Sue had given him – Reb.
The man was tall enough too, and kind of lanky. His hair was fair enough to maybe pass for blond in the girl's memory,
Aubrey Atherton did not look or sound like a thief or a killer, but Johnny knew all about appearances and how much they really meant. He’d underestimated his own brother on that first day they had met.
“Didn’t know Hal had family,” Johnny said. “But then, I don’t know him all that well. Mostly just social occasions an’ these meetings. Been out here long?”
“Three months,” Atherton told him. “As my uncle mentioned, things are still not good back in Georgia. I’m afraid my family’s fortunes suffered somewhat during the late war.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, wars’ll do that.”
“You fought too, Sir?”
“Nope. Never been back East an’ it wasn’t nothing to do with me, even if I’d been old enough. No, the wars I’ve mostly seen have been range wars – smaller scale but same results.”
“Devastation and death, you mean?”
“Yeah. Men die an’ no one really wins.”
“I take it that you are against my uncle’s more radical idea.”
“Vigilantes can get it wrong an’ once you lynch a man, there ain’t no sayin’ sorry.”
“Well, yes, you do have a point.” He sighed. “Nevertheless, if a man was caught red-handed or if there was proof…”
“Then we got sheriffs to hand ‘em over to.”
“You’re not a vengeful man then, Mr. Lancer?”
There was a look in his eyes that Johnny couldn’t quite fathom. He got the feeling that Aubrey Atherton knew something that he wasn’t saying.
“No,” Johnny said slowly, then he paused. He could see Murdoch coming towards him and some of the other ranchers were making their way towards the door. He stood up, ready to join his father but added “But if I find the man who killed young Harry, I will kill him.”
He left then, walking out the door with Murdoch. He stepped lightly into the dusty street. Who knew? Maybe his words would make it to the right ears. He kind of hoped so.
“So, has anything come out of Scott’s mapping?” he asked Murdoch.
“Yes,” Murdoch said, short and terse.
Johnny looked at him. “Well?”
“There seems to be a center for all the activity – Lancer’s north boundary.”
Jess was up early again next morning. Sleep didn’t seem an option so he dressed and headed downstairs. He wasn’t wearing his gun. It seemed to him that it would be bad manners to wear it to breakfast in a house where he was a guest. He felt comfortable enough without it anyway, here among friends and besides, he didn’t wear it around the house at home any more either, not with Daisy and Mike around.
He walked into the Great Room where he came upon Teresa with a basket hanging on her arm. She was dressed in jeans and a checked shirt was tucked into the waist. She was what his pa would have called ‘a fetching little thing’ but her hair tied back in a pony tail confirmed that she was a mite too young for him. Given a year or so, the Lancers would have their hands full handling gentleman callers.
“Good morning, Jess,” she said with more cheer than he felt should be allowed so early in the morning.
“Mornin’, Miss O’Brien.”
She frowned at him. “I wish you’d call me Teresa.”
Jess smiled. “Okay, I will. Where are you headed at this hour? It’s barely sunrise.”
“To get the eggs,” she explained, “for breakfast. But don’t let it stop you. You can go on into the kitchen now if you like. Maria is there already starting.”
“Thanks.” He took a step and then turned back to her. “Ya know? I used to be pretty good at collecting eggs. Mind if I tag along?”
“To protect me from those ferocious hens, you mean?” Had he but known it, his responding smile disarmed her. “Sure, why not?”
They made their way out past the barn to the hen house. High wire sides caged in the birds and kept out the foxes and coyotes while a wire ceiling protected them from predator birds. It was a good sized pen too, in keeping with the size of the ranch. There were a few dozen hens in there.
It had been years since Jess had raided a hen house, and back then it had been to get a quick meal at a time when he couldn’t afford to buy one.
Those had not been his chickens either.
He took the basket from Teresa as they closed the gate behind them and held it for her while she collected the eggs.
“So, do you do this every morning?” He was surprised, considering her position in the household.
“No, not usually. Josepha usually does it, but she hasn’t been well for a couple of days and I don’t mind doing it until she’s back on her feet.”
She pushed her hand under a black hen with a mean streak and snatched it back just in time to avoid being pecked on the wrist. With a light swipe, she pushed the obstreperous bird off the nest, squawking and flapping its wings. She picked up the two eggs the bird had been sitting on and placed them carefully in the basket.
“Maybe I should’ve worn my gun after all,” Jess said, grinning.
Teresa giggled and placed two more eggs into the basket. “That hen is going to end up on our dinner plates one day soon. She’s the meanest bird.”
They moved on from nest to nest, Teresa comfortable with the rest of the hens. Finally she put one last egg in the basket and turned to him. “That’s all of them. We should get them to Maria. She gets cranky when she gets the eggs late and Johnny will want his huevos rancheros.”
“Does he get mean when he’s not fed?” Jess asked with a wicked gleam in his eyes.
“No,” she answered, laughing. “He just complains.”
She latched the gate to the hen house as they left. “I can take that basket now.”
He handed it over. “Don’t trust me not to drop it?”
She laughed again. “Heaven forbid. Maria would be so upset.”
“You sound like you’re afraid of her.”
“No, not at all. Maria is the backbone of the household. I don’t know what we’d do without her.”
“Sounds like Daisy.” He saw her curiosity in her eyes and went on to explain. “I guess she’s what you’d call ‘housekeeper’ back at the ranch, but she pretty much runs us all. You sure don’t want to upset her. I think she’d take to me with that spoon of hers, way she waves it around at me.”
She laughed brightly. “You know, it really is kind of hard to think of you as a gunfighter, Jess.”
He shrugged. “I haven’t been for quite a while now. Do you find it hard to think of Johnny as Johnny Madrid?”
She pondered the question for a moment. “Actually, sometimes no, it’s not hard. There are times when… I don’t know, he gets this look.” She stopped and blushed. “It’s hard to explain.”
“I think I know.”
A heavy knock of the barn wall behind them took them both by surprise. Jess spun on his heels. His right hand flew to his side – only to find his gun not there.
A moment of panic wrenched at him and he froze, crouched in position to draw the missing gun. Then came realization – his common sense overrode the old instincts. A second thud came from in the barn and he knew that it had been nothing more than an irritable horse lashing out a hoof.
He straightened and glanced, a little nervously, at the girl.
She looked surprised, but not shocked.
“Well,” she said with a reassuring smile, “now I can easily believe you’re Jess Harper. Don’t worry. It’s only Barranca – Johnny’s horse. He does it all the time. He’ll kick that wall right out one day.”
Jess rubbed his empty gun hand up and down the side of his pants, his eyes barely able to meet hers. “Sorry, Miss…”
“Oh no, please, you don’t need to be. I’ve seen Johnny react in just the same way often enough.”
She shook her head in a small show of frustration, moved the basket over to her right arm and slipped her left through his.
“Nonsense, now let’s get these eggs to Maria before she wonders what’s happened to us – or to the eggs anyway.”
He laughed, his embarrassment gone, and they walked on. The barn door was open as they passed it. One of the hands stood there, watching them. Jess didn’t recognize him as any of the few he’d actually met but he was sure interested in him and Teresa.
If she had noticed, Teresa certainly wasn’t showing it. She continued on without glancing at the man. Jess cast a look in the cowhand’s direction, then ignored him and headed for the house with the girl.
They walked on only another couple of steps. Jess stopped dead when the call came from behind him but he wasn’t really surprised.
Teresa stopped, uncertain of what was happening. Jess was still beside her and her arm was still whimsically in his, but she could feel the tension in the tightened muscle under her hand. She pulled her arm free.
Jess had not turned around, but Teresa did. One of the hands was standing at the barn door and had called Jess’ name… his real name.
She didn’t know the cowboy’s name, only that he had been with them for a few months. She’d seen him around but had found him to be a surly type and not like the friendly men who wished her ‘good morning’ every day.
Slowly, Jess turned around to face him. To Teresa, he whispered, “Go inside, Teresa.”
Her first thought was to ignore him and stay, hoping her presence would stop any fighting, but she could see that he didn’t want that. He was different now, not the cheerful engaging companion of a few minutes ago. He was tense, waiting.
She had seen Johnny called out once, but Jess was different. Where Johnny usually looked unconcerned, even casual about it, Jess was taut and ready. His whole body was like a cat tensed for the leap.
She looked sideways at him. His eyes had lost that friendly sparkle that she had liked about him. They were hard now as he frowned. Finally, she understood that, like Johnny, there was another side to this man – someone who was confident of himself and his ability. He didn’t seem to feel the need to wear that confidence like a badge nor hide it either. It was just there, like the gun at his side.
She stopped. The gun was not there. He was unarmed.
“Go inside, Teresa… now.” His voice was just as authoritative as his demeanor was.
The man by the barn walked towards them. “Harper!” he repeated, sneering this time instead of shouting.
Teresa stepped away from Jess to give him room to move it he wanted to.
Another of the hands appeared from the bunkhouse and stopped when he realized the tension between the two men. “Tom, what’s going on?” he asked.
This man Teresa knew. The men called him ‘Bull’ because of his size. He was a happy man and friendly but not famous for his intelligence. Teresa knew that he was strong enough to beat off three men at a time. She’d heard stories in town.
“Hey Bull, know who this is?” ‘Tom’ asked. “This here is Jess Harper.”
He was confused. “You’re crazy, Tom. The Lancers wouldn’t have Harper under their roof.”
“You think so?” Tom asked sarcastically. “Well I heard him and Miss Teresa here talkin’. He’s Harper alright – ain’t ya, Harper? You gonna deny it?”
Teresa hoped above hope that he would do just that, but a glance at his face shattered that. His jaw had tightened and his eyes had narrowed. “No” was all he said, but with a grim finality.
Bull stopped in his tracks He was about ten feet from Jess and Tom about five, close enough for Teresa to see the anger and hatred in their eyes and to feel her own fear grow with it. She backed further away, keeping her eyes on Tom and Bull.
Bull’s eyes had widened at first but now his lips had thinned as he clenched his jaw. And Tom? He looked pleased with himself.
Suddenly, Bull leaned forward and began running at Jess, charging at him like the beast he was named for.
Jess stepped aside as deftly as one of those dancers she had seen on stage in San Francisco. Bull kept running and lost his balance, falling in an ungainly heap while Jess quickly looked back to keep an eye on Tom. But a moment’s distraction had been all that Tom had needed.
Teresa looked away from the almost comical pile in the dirt that was Bull just in time to see Tom’s fist land on the side of Jess’ temple. Jess rolled with it, leaning back but not quite quickly enough. She knew he had to be dazed by the blow.
“Grab him, Bull,” Tom shouted as the big man got to his feet. “Hold him!”
More men ran out of the bunkhouse. “He’s Harper!” Tom shouted as Bull pinned Jess’ arms behind him.
Teresa didn’t wait to see any more. She knew where this was going and Jess was now defenseless. She dropped the basket and ran to the house. “Murdoch! Johnny… Scott!” For heaven’s sake – anyone!
The front door opened and Johnny dashed out, strapping on his gunbelt as he ran, and Scott was right behind him. They rushed past her with no need for her to tell them what was happening. It was all too obvious.
Even so, she called out “Help him!”
“Stay here!” Johnny ordered her as he raced across the yard and down to the barn. There was a small crowd of onlookers now, shouts and jeers, but no help for Jess. When they reached the melee, both Johnny and Scott tried yelling but their words were swallowed by the noise.
Despite the number of men around them, it was still Tom and Bull doing all the fighting, if fighting was what it could be called. It was a beating and nothing more. Teresa was sickened as yet another heavy blow hit Jess in the stomach.
As Tom wound back to throw another, Scott grabbed his arm. “Enough!”
But the man was in a fever of excitement and didn’t stop. He turned on his new opponent and the blow meant for Jess was thrown at Scott instead. It caught him squarely on the jaw and sent him reeling to the ground.
The noise stopped and Tom’s eyes widened in fear. Not of what he had done, but because of the barrel of Johnny’s pistol – touching his head just behind his ear.
Breaking the silence, she heard Johnny’s calm words. “My brother said ‘enough’.”
Scott got back on his feet and she saw Slim run past her towards them. Teresa followed him. She was sure it was over now.
“Bull, let him go,” Johnny said and Scott took hold of Jess and lowered him to the ground.
“He’s Jess Harper!” Tom cried out, breathing hard and still caught up in the fever of his anger. “He killed Harry!” His eyes searched for the men around him. “You all gonna stand by and let him go? He killed Harry!”
Teresa and Slim reached them and knelt by Jess. He was conscious but gasping for breath and wincing with every gasp.
“Easy, Pard,” Slim said. With one hand reassuring his friend, he was looking from Jess to the gathered crowd, his other hand by his gun in case he needed it.
Scott left Slim and Teresa to look after Jess. He grabbed Tom Cooper’s arms and pinned them behind his back while Johnny languidly put his gun back in the holster. Teresa knew that look and Johnny’s actions. He was watching for trouble and ready for it.
“I tell ya, he’s Harper!” Tom shouted. Now that Johnny’s gun was not aimed at his head, he was struggling against Scott’s hold.
“That true, Johnny?” Wade Cummings asked. The rest of the men were gathered with him and looking to him for an answer.
“His name is Jess Harper, yes,” Johnny said, watching them carefully. “But he’s not the man who killed Harry or any other kid. “Frank? You were there.”
“He’s right. That’s not the ‘Harper’ I saw kill Harry.”
Reed was behind him. “No, it weren’t him. Johnny, what’s going on?”
“This is the real Jess Harper. He heard about someone using his name and reputation around here and came to find and stop him,” Johnny explained. “He’s satisfied all of us here and three sheriffs besides that he was in Laramie when all this started. And I can tell you, he was with me the other night when Harry was gunned down.”
“Stands to reason you’d back him, Madrid!” Tom Cooper growled. “He’s one o’ your kind, ain’t he?” He looked at the rest of the men. “You men gonna take the word of one dirty gunhawk for another?”
There were shocked looks on the men’s faces. Some looked away and shifted their feet uncomfortably. But Johnny didn’t visibly react.
“Don’t matter what he calls himself, that ain’t the man who killed Harry,” Frank said bluntly.
“So, are you all satisfied?” Johnny asked them. He was answered by a mix of murmured agreement and nods.
“Alright.” He looked back over his shoulder at Jess. “What do you want done with him, Jess?”
Jess struggled to sit up and made it onto one elbow. “Let him go.” He took a breath and winced. “Both of ‘em. They thought I’d killed the boy an’… I guess I might have felt the same way.”
“Jess…” It was Slim and his tone suggested that he disagreed.
“No, Slim… Let ‘em go.”
Teresa helped him lay back down. His bottom lip was bleeding but, otherwise, his face showed little evidence of the beating he’d taken. But his pain-wracked breathing meant something more disturbing. Most of the punches had been to his midriff.
“Let’s get him into the house,” she said to Slim. “Slim, do you need help with him.”
“No, I’ll be fine,” Jess answered for him and let Slim help him to his feet.
She waited only a moment longer… long enough to see what Johnny would do. There was a cold kind of light in his eyes that worried her.
“It’s your lucky day, Cooper. I’ve killed men for less…” His voice was cold and harsh. “Scott, let him go.”
Reluctantly, Scott let him go. He said nothing but stayed beside his brother.
“Now, get off Lancer,” Johnny told Cooper. “If I ever see you on our land again, I just might put an end to you.”
The man did not move. “I don’t answer to you, Madrid,” he sneered. “Your old man hired me.”
“And I fired you,” Johnny said coldly. “You can leave on your horse… or in a pine box.”
This time he left. He walked away shaking his head while the rest of the men looked on with their disgust evident on their faces.
Johnny ignored him. “The rest of you, Murdoch’ll be out here with his orders for the day shortly. You’ll wanta be ready. If you ain’t had your breakfast already, you better grab it.”
“He really Harper, Johnny?” Wade asked as the others filed away.
“He is, but don’t spread it around.” He turned away as Wade walked off to join the others. “How is he?” he asked Slim. Jess swayed slightly on his feet.
“His breathing is none too good. You got a doctor in these parts?”
“Yeah, a good one.” He turned back to the men. “Frank, send one of the boys for Doc Jenkins.” He nearly turned away again but changed his mind. “And have someone see that Tom Cooper leaves Lancer.”
“I’ll send Wade for the Doc, Johnny,” he replied. Then he smiled, somewhat mirthlessly. “I’ll see to the other personally.”
“Thanks,” Johnny said and walked over to join Scott, Teresa and Slim with Jess.
“Slim, quit fussin’.” Jess swatted away Slim’s hand as he tried to wipe away from the blood from his mouth. Jess resolved the problem with a swipe of his sleeve.
Slim shook his head. “Yeah, you’re just fine aren’t you? Healthy as ever. Come on, into the house.”
Jess dusted himself off and winced as he straightened and clutched his chest with one arm.
“Oh yeah, just fine.” He wrapped one arm around Jess’ waist and helped him limp into the house.
“He’ll do,” Sam announced, putting away his instruments. “A few days rest will do the trick. Nothing’s broken, but there’s a rib or two that might be cracked. That bruising didn’t happen without some really hard punches.”
“He took a beating, that’s for sure,” Slim said.
“I thought so. I hope it wasn’t over something trivial.”
“No, Sir, Doc,” Jess said. He winced as he pulled himself up to lean back against the headboard.
“Well, as long as it was worth it. Seriously, I want you to stay in that bed tomorrow. After that, you can get up as long as you take it easy. Those ribs need time to heal.”
“Sure, Doc,” Jess answered meekly. “Thanks for fixin’ me up.” He looked down at the tightly strapped bandage around his chest. It made breathing hard, but far less painful. “When can I get back on a horse?”
Doctor Jenkins rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Another one!”
“Meaning?” asked Slim.
“Johnny,” the doctor told him. “You just about have to tie him down to keep him in bed.”
Jess smiled. “You got me wrong, Doc. Any other time I’d gladly lay up for a while, ‘specially in a soft ol’ bed like this. Just ain’t the right time for it at the moment.”
There was a knock on the door, though it was open. Slim and Sam looked towards it and found a grinning Johnny standing there. “You spreading stories about me, Sam?” Johnny asked. “How is he?”
“He’ll live,” Jenkins told him. He picked up his bag and walked to the door. “As long as you can keep him from doing something stupid.” He shook his head. “Like setting one schoolboy to make the rules for another,” and left the room.
Next day, Slim stayed close to the house. He figured that he had the best chance of all of them of keeping Jess in bed resting.
“He was telling the truth you know, Johnny,” Slim told him over breakfast. “Given the opportunity, he’ll take advantage of ‘doctor’s orders’. I’ve seen him stretch it out as long as he could for a sprained ankle. Yet he'll keep going when he's half dead in the saddle when it's needed."
He sighed. "Right now he's got a burr in his tail. I don’t think anything will keep him down.”
Johnny bit into a biscuit, nodding. “I get that,’ he said and swallowed.
"He'll take off if we don't tie him down."
“Well, you stick around here today. Scott and I should be back for lunch anyway.”
Scott and Johnny rode out early to check on the herd. Since they had moved it away from temptation, they had to keep a close watch on water and feed. By now, the herd was usually grazing further north towards their boundary
There was tension among the crew since Harry’s death. Everyone was more aware of the rustling and on the lookout for trouble. The word seemed to have filtered through that Lancer was somehow at the center of it.
The north boundary – it was the junction of three ranches: Lancer of course; Stern Johannson’s place ‘Solsken’ and the south-west corner of Hal McHenry’s HM Ranch. Stern had been hit once by the rustlers and it was not surprising that they had not returned there. The ranch was small and the cattle less dispersed than on a larger ranch. Those cattle were under far more surveillance than on the larger ranches.
McHenry though, had a ranch that was a good size, bought from the Warburton estate. The HM and the Conway Ranch were the only two properties nearby with any real size to them, though far from competing with Lancer. It made both of them ripe for the picking. But the Conway place was to the south of Lancer and had only been hit twice and those with long intervals between them.
Even the HM did not appear to have lost the number of cattle that Lancer had. It seemed logical to assume, therefore, that Lancer was the prime target.
Satisfied that all was well with the herd, the brothers turned for home.
“The men seem to be okay about Jess,” Johnny remarked. “Frank even asked after him.”
“And Bull is very sheepish about his part in it, too,” Scott replied. “I think Frank and the others being able to vouch that Jess didn't kill Harry is enough for them.”
“Yeah, guess so.” Johnny looked off into the distance. “Rider coming.”
At the rider approached, a metallic glint glistened on his chest.
“Is that Gabe?” Scott asked.
“I think it is. Wonder what’s happened now.”
Gabe slowed his big buckskin to a walk as he got close and pulled up beside them. “Morning, Boys.”
“Mornin’ to you, Gabe,” Johnny replied. “What brings you this way?”
“Well, nothing good, that’s for sure, Johnny,” he said. “A couple of Hal’s men came across some buzzards circling this morning and checked it out. It was that Carson fella you told me about.”
“Yep. Shot at close range. Been dead a couple days.”
“Damn!” Johnny shook his head in frustration. “You’re sure it’s him?”
“My deputy, Bill, he knew him. Threw him out of saloons once or twice. Yeah, it’s him.”
“His was the only name we had really,” Scott commented.
“He was probably killed because of it,” Gabe told him. “When they realized he’d been recognized, they got rid of him. Cold… very cold.”
“So, what now?” Johnny asked. “all we have is a Jess Harper imposter and a southerner called ‘Reb’. Might just as well have nothing!”
“Yeah, it’s a blow.” The sheriff pulled off his neckerchief and wiped his face. Then he sighed. “Johnny, Scott… I want these men. I want to see them hang. But it’s getting so’s that maybe the best we can do is to make it so hard for them here that they pull up stakes and move on.”
“To another town – and another boy like Harry and the kid over in Visalia? No…”
Gabe sighed and shook his head. “No.”
“You talked much with that young nephew of Hal’s, Gabe?” Scott asked. “I mean, we have to face facts. He’s a Southerner and while maybe he is new around here, he’s been here long enough to have garnered some local knowledge from locals. Maybe a lot if he was asking the right person.”
“I know, Scott and yes, I’ve spoken with him. He and Hal both took my meaning too. Aubrey didn’t take any offence, but Hal sure did. Matter of fact, he… well…”
“Well, he pointed the finger at Lancer. Said all the leads that keep going nowhere are coming from your information. He mentioned your two visitors and all.” He put a hand up to stop Johnny’s outburst. “’Fore you say anything, no one believes anything like that, Johnny. I know who your visitors are and I know how hard you boys’ve worked to find these men. Hal was just blowin’ off steam. He likely doesn’t really believe it either.”
Johnny tried hard to rein in his temper. “And did Hal have any suggestions? This visit maybe? Maybe he thinks Madrid is good enough reason to suspect Lancer? Hell, I’ve done a lot of things, but I’m no cattle thief.”
“Cool down, Johnny. We all know you're not in this. I’m only here to tell you about Bert Carson.”
“And what is Hal planning?” Scott asked, quietly and calmly. Johnny shot a look at him. Too calmly, he reckoned. He was angry too.
“Well, I do know that he’s setting men to ride the boundary line in pairs. He’s also sending men out in groups to keep an eye out for anything suspicious.”
“Are what are their orders?”
Gabe shook his head. He tied the neckerchief back in place. “That he didn’t say, but I think we all know.”
Scott drew a long breath and Johnny could see he was thinking. “This is not good, Gabe,” Scott finally said. “If he does suspect Lancer and one of our men crosses the fenceline? What then? Gabe, men worked up like that will shoot anything.”
“If he tries it, he’ll find that Lancer won’t take it,” Johnny growled.
Gabe’s face turned to thunder. “Then I’ll tell you what I told him, Johnny. I’ll take in anyone – ANYONE, who tries to take the law into his own hands. You got that? I won’t let this turn into a range war!”
“We understand, Gabe,” Scott said calmly. “Right, Johnny?”
Johnny’s fists tightened on the reins and Barranca danced sideways a step. “Yeah. Sorry, Gabe. This is all getting on everyone’s nerves, I guess.”
“Well, finger-pointing won’t get us anywhere and shootings and lynchings will only end in tragedy while the culprits get away laughing.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Johnny cooled off a little. “Let us know if anything comes up then?”
Scott was obviously relieved. “You’re nearly at Lancer now, Gabe. Why not come by for some lunch?”
“Love to, Scott, but I have to get back to town. Thanks anyway.” He turned his horse and waved as he headed north towards Spanish Wells, leaving the two brothers to ponder on his news.
“We should let Murdoch know about Hal’s plan,” Scott said. “He might want to warn the men about chasing strays on HM land.”
“Yeah. This could get ugly.”
When the sun rose on the next day, Jess was up and at the breakfast table. “You’re looking better,” Johnny said.
A crooked smile crossed Jess’ lips. “Don’t think I can lay around in bed for another day.”
“Doc said you could get up today, anyway. You just have to take it easy, right?”
“Oh yeah… sure.”
“Slim and I are heading for Spanish Wells this morning. I want to see the sheriff and ask a couple more questions about Carson’s killing. Scott’s staying here so Slim said he’d like to come along.”
“Leaving me here, huh?”
Johnny chuckled. “It won’t be so bad. Might even be downright entertaining.”
Jess frowned. “Why?”
“Scott’s got a plan he wants to put to Murdoch. He’s got some idea of digging a waterhole up in Cedar Canyon. Says if we put it in the right place, it’ll hold enough water to double the time we could have the cattle up there.”
“Yeah, he’s been running it by me for weeks. Says he knows just the right place, where the land is low enough and lays like a bowl. He’s probably right. With enough rain, that spot gets boggy already.”
Jess rubbed his chin. “And how is this going to be entertaining?”
Johnny winked. “You ain’t heard Murdoch’s reaction to any of our suggestions for the ranch.”
Jess laughed a little, then caught himself and winced. “Doesn’t like it much, huh?”
“Murdoch told us from our first day here, he ‘calls the tune’.” Johnny smiled. “Scott will handle it better than if it was me, but I’m thinking it might be a good day for a me to take a long ride. Right away from the explosion.”
Slim and Johnny rode out right after ‘orders’. Murdoch had made a point of telling the men not to chase strays on HM land until further notice. The risk of a terrible mistake was too great.
Johnny also decided against the shortcut through the HM to the Spanish Wells Road. Instead, they made their way to where the road cut through Lancer and followed it through. He had no more desire to upset McHenry right now than Murdoch did.
He had in mind a few questions for Gabe that he hadn’t thought of yesterday, mostly just where the body had been found. He was not completely convinced about Aubrey Atherton and if the body had been found on the HM, that only heightened his suspicions.
They were in Spanish Wells by mid-morning, found Gabe in his office and accepted a mug of coffee each from him.
“You know, Gabe, I’ll never say no to your coffee. Next to Teresa, you got about the bet around,” Johnny told him, breathing in the aroma and taking a sip.
“Sweetening me up for something, Johnny?” the sheriff replied.
“Nope, comparing it with another local sheriff I know.”
Gabe laughed loudly. “Well, that makes it less of a compliment. Val’d coffee’d rip the lining off a goat’s stomach.”
Johnny’s grin broadened. “Yep, sure would.” He finished the cup and put it down on the desk. Johnny had not bothered to sit down as yet and Slim was lounging against a wall with his coffee in one hand.
“So, I’m guessing you two are here about Carson?” Gabe asked.
“Yeah, we came up with some questions overnight.”
“Okay, fire away.”
“Well, you didn’t say just where the body was found. Only that a couple of HM riders found it.”
Gabe nodded. “No reason why I shouldn’t say. I’ve looked it over for evidence already. There’s a ditch, about a hundred yards off the road, just north of Eagle Pass. That’s where he was found.” As Slim put his empty mug down on the desk as well, Gabe picked them all up and took them over to the sink to clean up later. Turning around, he added, “But don’t go looking around yourselves, Boys. That’s HM land and Hal and his men are pretty riled up.”
“No, Wouldn’t be smart, would it?” Johnny replied.
“Wouldn’t do you any good either. Carson wasn’t killed there.”
“No blood anywhere near the body,” Gabe explained. “There was plenty on the body itself. He’d bled some before he died. But there was none on the ground anywhere.”
“He was dumped there,” Slim said. “To throw you off the scent.”
“Or to make a point,” Gabe replied. “Warning off anyone who might be looking for them.”
“And it was close range, you said?” Johnny asked.
“No bullet in the body?”
Gabe shook his head. “Doc Jenkins took a look but it was never likely. There was on hell of a big ol’ hole in his back where it came out.”
“He must have known his killer,” Slim said. He pulled himself away from the wall and walked over to join Johnny.
“I’d say so,” Gabe agreed. “My guess is that his boss found out your rider recognized him. These guys don’t play around. They cover every track.”
“Even the human kind,” Slim said flatly.
“Sheriff,” Slim began. “Speaking plain. Do you have anything on the killing?”
Gabe looked him in the eyes. “Speaking plainly? No.” He dropped into his chair. “Not a damned thing.”
“Jess, what are you doing?” Teresa demanded. “You’re supposed to be taking it easy.”
“Any easier and someone’ll throw me into a pine box an’ bury me, Miss Teresa,” he complained. She had followed him to the barn where he was saddling his horse. He stopped and turned to her. “Look, it’s okay. It’s just a couple of cracked ribs and I’m not going far. Nothing strenuous and I promise not to lift any rocks. Okay?”
She smiled. “You can be quite charming when you want to be.”
He felt a blush rising and turned back to the saddle.
“But it won’t do you any good. You’re supposed to lay up for a few days.”
“I have – two whole days.”
“Oh!” She stamped her foot. “You’re as bad as Johnny. Really!” She flounced away to the barn door. “If you must go, at least you shouldn’t go alone. I’ll get Scott.”
“I don’t need babysittin’.”
“Oh yes, you do.”
With her hands on her hips and her feet planted apart, she looked almost comical – and some years older than she was.
“I reckon Murdoch and Scott are still discussin’ things inside. “I wouldn’t bother them if I was you.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, that was nothing. They’ve finished talking. When Johnny gets home, they’ll go over it with him. I think Murdoch likes the idea.”
Jess stared at her. The yelling and arguing that had erupted an hour ago had sounded like anything but two men coming to an agreement.
“Is that why you want to ride out?” she asked. “Because, really, they’re both fine now.”
“No, I just thought I’d get some air. Maybe I’ll meet Johnny and Slim coming back from Spanish Wells.”
“Well, you can’t go alone. I’m going to get Scott.”
She was gone before he could stop her.
He tightened the girth and felt his own strapping pull. Catching his breath, he waited for the pain to subside, then continued with what he was doing. He acknowledged that he was not in the best shape, but every day lost to him laying around in bed was one more chance that his alter ego had to get away or, worse, to do something else to blacken his name.
It had been years since that incident in Amarillo when he had had to clear his name. Over the years he had heard, now and then, of similar incidents when someone had used his name, but he had never before considered that it might be the same man. Now he realized that it could be that this guy had been dogging him all those years.
True or not, he wanted to put an end to it. Back then he had had a lot to lose – with jail time the most likely outcome if he couldn’t convince the law of the deception, but now he had a lot more to lose.
From the day he had stumbled onto the Sherman Ranch, his life had changed. First unwanted there, then just a hand and finally a friend and business partner, he had a future and he wanted to keep it. It was his to make or break, not some two-bit kid-killing rustler’s.
He wasn’t sure what he was going to do today – just ‘do’. He would show them that he was back on his feet and ready to catch this bastard, once and for all.
He had finished saddling the horse and pulled his gloves on hard; then he set his hat firmly on his head and led the animal out of the stall.
There he stopped.
“Going somewhere?” Scott asked, half smiling.
“Yeah, and like I told Miss Teresa, I don’t need a babysitter.”
This time, Scott grinned. “Boy, you sure remind me of someone!” He walked forward to stand facing him. “I won’t try to stop you, if that’s what you think. I can see that would be a waste of time. But I’m coming with you, like it or not.”
“Well, I’m ready to go…”
“And waiting a few minutes while I saddle up is not going to wreck your day.” He walked past him to the familiar stall where he horse stood waiting for him and started saddling the animal. “What exactly have you got planned for the day?”
Jess didn’t answer. He had some unformed ideas, but nothing specific. It kind of annoyed him that he couldn’t answer.
Scott chuckled. “Thought so.”
“What you’re in such a hurry to do – escape.” Satisfied with the saddle blanket, he heaved the saddle onto the horse’s back.
A smile tickled at Jess’ lips but his mood overrode it. “So what makes you so sure o’ that?”
Scott turned back to him. “You think I’ve never done it too?”
Jess let the smile through. “Guess you don’t seem like the type.”
“No.” Scott tightened the girth and slid his rifle into the boot. “You’re hardly the first to think that way either.”
Jess picked up on a thread of resentment in his voice. “Forever the ‘Easterner’, huh?” he said. “I reckon there’s all kinds of reputations that can ride a man.”
“Yes,” he said tersely.
“Yeah, well, it wasn’t me yellin’ at you in there.”
Scott stopped and turned to him, then laughed. “No, you’re right. I guess I need some air too.”
“I was thinking of heading out to meet Johnny and Slim on their way back from Spanish Wells.”
“Alright, but we will take it slow and if you feel any discomfort, you tell me. We’ll come back.”
“I’ve ridden with worse than this.”
“I believe you, but there’s no one on your tail right now.”
Jess laughed. “Boy, it’s like you know me!”
“I know my brother, and enough of his past to suspect yours is similar. Gunhawks have to keep moving, right?”
“Did Johnny tell you about Carson?”
“Being killed? Yeah. There goes our best lead.”
They walked their horses out into the yard and mounted. Jess felt the pull of his bandaging against his chest and his ribs protested but he ignored it and hoped Scott had not noticed.
The two of them rode quietly for a time, with Jess sure that Scott was surreptitiously looking over to check on him. He hadn’t caught him at it, but he was sure of it.
“So, just how long is it since you came out here, Scott?” Jess asked, finally tired of the silence.
“It was two years in June.”
“Been back? Home, I mean.”
Scott smiled at him. “This is home. And no, I haven’t been back.”
“You miss any of it?”
“Now and then, but I have a lot to keep my mind off it here.”
Jess considered it. “Must be strange, meeting your pa and your brother like that. All of you so different…”
“It’s been… interesting,” Scott told him, still smiling. “But worth it. Do you have family?”
“A sister is all I have left. She’s married and living up near Stockton. Got a new baby.” He thought about Francie and that marriage of hers. He still had a lot of qualms about Ben but the man seemed to have changed into a law-abiding citizen. Still… “I’ll stop by to see them on my way home.”
They passed a couple of Lancer cowhands as they reached the North Pasture. The men called a greeting to Scott and nodded to Jess. Well, the word would definitely out at Lancer. No doubt it would soon reach town and pretty soon the imposter would be gone, and his chance of clearing his name with the general population would go with him.
At least the local law knew about it and there’d be no charges to face.
“You holding up alright?” Scott asked.
“We'll join the road from Lancer. We won’t go onto the HM.”
“Yeah, Johnny mentioned that too.”
They reached the road and turned onto it.
“Looks like rain’s coming,” Jess said, pointing out clouds rising over the mesa to their left. “Thought you didn’t get much rain here in sunny California?”
“We’d be in trouble if we didn’t,” Scott told him. “Hopefully it will hold off until we get home. You get wet and catch cold with those ribs and it’ll be me in trouble.”
“Scott… we got company.”
Scott looked to his right. Hal McHenry, his nephew and two of their hands were riding towards them – and one more rider – Tom Cooper.
“Keep riding, like we haven’t noticed,” Scott said.
The five men were riding down the hillside on Scott’s right. It was actually Lancer land, not HM, and they looked like men with a mission.
Following his own advice, Scott rode on at the same pace, a fast walk with Jess beside him doing the same. He heard his name called from a distance and chose to ignore it. They were still a couple of hundred yards away.
By the time the men had reached the road, Scott and Jess had gone by, though they weren’t far ahead.
“Scott Lancer! Pull up and turn around.”
“Best not to antagonize them, Scott,” Jess said and reined in his horse.
Scott stopped beside him and swung his horse around to face them. “What is it, Hal? You’re on Lancer land and this does not look like a friendly visit.”
McHenry and his men stopped and surrounded them. Scott’s horse frisked nervously… as nervously as he himself felt.
“I want Jess Harper,” the man answered. He was worked up so much that his voice was savage. “Him!”
He pointed at Jess while his men closed in tighter. “You denying he’s Harper?”
“He’s not,” Jess said, his tone cold and hard and taking away any thoughts Scott might have had of denying it. “But I’m not the man you want.” He nodded at Cooper. “And he knows it.”
“Huh. Fired him when he found out, didn’t you, Lancer?” Hal growled. “Found out what you’ve all been up to. All that talk about rustling and how many head you’ve lost. All those clues that lead nowhere; all that fine talk about letting the law take care of it. Tame law! Lancers’ got Val Crawford and Gabe Bryant both in its pocket and we know it!” He was working himself into a frenzy. His face was beet red and his hands clenched into tight fists.
“You’re worked up, Hal. You’re not thinking straight. When you cool off, you’ll see you’re talking nonsense.”
“Am I?” the man snapped back at him. “You Lancers have been bleeding us dry. I’m betting its so’s you can buy us all out cheap when we go broke. Is that how you built that fine big ranch of yours?”
Scott held hard onto his own temper. He couldn’t afford to lose it. It would only set off a powder keg. “Where did you get all this from, Hal? Was it from Cooper over there?”
“I worked it all out for myself… once he told me you’ve been harboring a killer in your house. Huh… why should I be surprised? That brother of yours is the same kind.”
“You’re talking wild. I think you and your men should turn around and go home to think about it. Take it to Gabe if you want. He’ll tell you…"
“Whatever you want him to say. You and that gunhawk brother of yours have been hiding this… this garbage all this time. For God’s sake man, he murdered that poor young boy!”
“Jess didn’t kill Harry. He was with us at the house when it happened.” He looked at Cooper and glared. “Which Cooper also knows. You’re listening to a man with a personal axe to grind.”
“He’s already admitted that he’s Harper!” this came from Cooper himself. “Don’t need anything more than that.”
“He’s right!” McHenry yelled. “Let’s get this done."
The men moved in and Jess went for his gun, but one of the riders closest to him was able to knock it out of his hand. Another took Scott’s gun from his holster and his rifle from the boot on his saddle.
“Hal, for the love of God! You’re wrong!” Scott insisted. “The man doing the killings is using Jess’ name. That was why he came here. He can prove where he was at the time of every killing.”
“An imposter, hey?” one of the men said and laughed. “That’s the one every gunhawk uses.”
“Shut up, Morgan!” McHenry snapped. “Take ‘em over there, Boys. And watch ‘em. The bastard’s not getting away.”
“Hal, wait. You’re making a terrible mistake.” Scott looked desperately at Jess. “Jess, have you got that affidavit with you?”
“Yeah, in my shirt pocket.”
“Hal, read that paper. It’ll prove…”
Cooper hit him, hard on the jaw.
“Tie their hands behind their backs,” McHenry ordered. “Scott Lancer, I haven’t got any proof against you or I’d hang you right alongside him. But I’m getting my men and I’m going to check every brand on every steer on Lancer. THEN we’ll hang you and your thieving family as well.”
Scott struggled hard while Cooper tied his hands. He looked at Jess and saw he was doing the same. He caught Jess’ attention and tried to get his last urgent plan across. To dig in their spurs and ride like hell.
It might not work. There would be shooting. But it was their only chance now – or Jess’ anyway.
Jess struggled some more, but he gave Scott a barely noticeable nod
They did it together and both horses shot off back towards Lancer and the hope of some help from the men they had passed a while back.
It took McHenry and his men by surprise. They bumped their way through and out of the circle of men and into the open, urging their horses to a faster pace and trying to balance themselves in their saddles with their hands tied behind their backs.
It was a frantic, frightening ride. There was shooting, as Scott had expected. Both he and Jess instinctively leaned forward, low in the saddle, to be smaller targets. A bullet seared Scott’s arm as it blazed past him. There was nothing they could do but ride hard and concentrate on staying on the horse. With his hands tied behind them, it was easier said than done.
Another shot zipped past Scott’s left ear. He dodged automatically and found himself struggling not to fall off. He tilted sideways but wrapped his legs hard on the sides of the horse and forced himself back up. Breathing hard, he didn’t have to look behind to see how close their pursuers were. He could hear the hoof beats and was sure they were gaining ground.
"They're closing in!" Jess shouted.
Jess was right. He felt someone close behind, almost as if he could feel him breathing down his neck. A moment later and their mad ride was over. One man leapt from his horse, throwing himself at Jess and knocking him to the ground. Another managed to get hold of Scott’s reins and pulled the horse to a stop.
Scott swayed in the saddle, listing crazily to one side and only just able to find enough balance to stay in the saddle.
Jess did not fare as well. His assailant had lost his temper and was taking it out on Jess in full. He punched Jess repeatedly and with all of his anger behind it while Jess fell, helpless with his hands tied, to the ground.
When McHenry, Cooper and Atherton caught up with them, it was Atherton who jumped to the ground and pulled the man off Jess.
“That’s enough!” McHenry said. “We’re doing this properly. We’ll hang the bastard, not beat him to death.”
“Yes, Sir,” the man said, panting heavily and looking anything but repentant.
McHenry turned in his saddle and looked around him. “Over there. That one’ll do.” He pointed to a black oak tree, tall and standing alone in the field. A jolt of reality hit Scott when he looked over there… a strong, thick branch – high enough to hang a man from.
Jess had taken a beating, but he furiously shrugged off the hands that were roughly pulling him to his feet. He was unsteady, but he held his head high.
“You’ll be the next to hang, McHenry,” Jess spat back at him. “And when you do, it’ll be a nice public one, too.”
McHenry jumped down and hit him, hard, on the jaw. It knocked Jess back a step but he stayed truculently on his feet.
“He’s right, Hal,” Scott persisted as he was pulled to the ground. A shove in the back nearly sent him down on his face but he stumbled and stayed on his feet.
“Get movin’,” the man ordered. “You’re comin’ to a necktie party, Lancer.” It was Cooper and the glee in his voice was frightening. Scott turned his head and saw maniacal enjoyment in his eyes.
They were marched to the tree, only about fifty yards from the road. There they stopped and the man McHenry had called Morgan pulled a rope from his saddle and began to fashion a noose.
“Forget about a noose!” McHenry said angrily. “That’s too easy for the bastard. A lasso is enough for the likes of him.”
Scott was appalled. It would mean a slow death by strangulation if this really went that far. “Hal, you have to listen to me. Jess is not the man who killed Harry, or the boy in Visalia. We can prove it. Look in Jess’ shirt pocket.”
McHenry glared at him but, finally, he moved to Jess and dove his hand into the pocket. He pulled out the paper and unfolded it, read it and then scrunched it into a ball of waste and threw it aside.
“Another sheriff on the payroll? Must be costing you Lancers a pretty penny. But then, you’re raking in all that money from stolen cattle. I guess it’s worth it for that.”
“Frank and Reed, any of the men who were with Harry will tell you it wasn’t him.”
McHenry scoffed. “For all I know, they’re in on it. They sure as hell did nothing to protect the boy.”
Scott shook his head in disgust. “Listen to yourself. You’re talking crazy.”
Morgan checked the rope and tested its strength. The other man led Jess’ horse to the tree and McHenry pushed Jess towards it.
“All of you will hang if you go on with this,” Scott called out to the rest of them.
Only Atherton began to look doubtful. “Uncle… perhaps we should take what we know to the sheriff…”
“Don’t be a fool, Ambrose. The law is in their pocket. If we want to stay above water, we have to end all this stealing now… and you have to toughen up to survive out here.”
The Southerner hung his head and stepped back out of the way.
“Put him on his horse,” McHenry ordered and the cowhand shoved Jess again.
Jess, his face bloodied and beginning to show bruising, struggled some more but couldn’t shake free. With Morgan’s help, he was wrestled into the saddle, his hands still tied firmly behind his back, and Morgan dropped the loop of the lasso over his head.
“No!” Scott shouted and wrenched himself free of Cooper’s hold.
McHenry turned away from Jess and glared furiously at Scott. “Cooper, shut him up.”
Slim pulled his horse to an abrupt halt. “Shots!”
Johnny stopped beside him, Barranca pulling on his reins in protest. “Not far ahead, either. Come on.”
They pressed their horses forward at a gallop and both ate up the distance. They came to a bend and saw a group of men ahead, not far from the side of the road, some on horseback and others not, but too far away yet to recognize any of them. But as they drew nearer, Johnny understood the full implications of what was going on.
“I know.” He urged Barranca on to greater pace and Slim did the same beside him.
Johnny could see Scott now, on the ground and fighting for Jess. Jess was on his horse with a rope around his neck and Johnny prayed they could get there in time.
They turned off the road with about two hundred yards between them and the tree. Johnny knew they were going to be hard pressed to get there in time to stop it. He pulled his pistol and considered whether he should fire. Conceivably, a shot now could spook the horse Jess was sitting on and do exactly what they wanted desperately to stop.
Suddenly, the choice was redundant. One of the men slapped the horse’s rump and it took off from under Jess.
Johnny heard an agonized “No!” from Slim and he slowed Barranca. Slim didn’t understand why. “Johnny?”
“Ride… ride hard and for God’s sake, don’t get in my line of fire.”
Slim nodded and charged away towards the tree. Johnny leapt to the ground and dropped the reins beside him. He looked at the tree, the rope… and he tried to ignore the image of his friend dangling from it. Jess was still alive. He was kicking and struggling against the rope.
Johnny judged the distance to be about thirty yards now. As he dropped to one knee, he saw the rope go taut, almost stationary. He rested the barrel of the gun on his wrist for balance and steadied himself.
He drew a breath and let it go slowly until he was as steady as he felt he could be, then fired. Not good enough… Slim was nearly there but time had run out.
Johnny set himself again. His mouth was dry. He could hear the beat of his own heart.
There was confusion over there now. They had heard the shot and could see Slim riding like the devil was after him. But Johnny concentrated all his thoughts on just one thing – the rope. He squeezed the trigger again and this time hit the mark.
The rope snapped and Jess fell to the ground in a heap, just as Slim reached him.
Johnny grabbed Barranca’s reins and threw himself into the saddle. His pistol was still in one hand and he raced over to join them.
Slim was already kneeling on the ground beside Jess and he had taken the rope from around his neck. Jess was still, too still.
But Johnny had to leave Jess to Slim to look after. He had five men to watch – angry men deprived of their prey – and Scott on the ground looking battered. Cooper was the one to make a move. Maybe he thought that Johnny wasn’t looking. He certainly must have known that he couldn’t out-draw a gun already in the hand, let alone in Johnny’s hand.
Johnny’s gun barked. Cooper dropped his weapon to the ground and grabbed his arm low at the wrist where the bullet had torn through the flesh.
“I’ll blow the head off the next man who tries it,” Johnny told them menacingly. “Now drop those gunbelts… all of you.”
He waited for all five gunbelts to fall to the ground. Angry, frustrated and vengeful as they were, none of them was going to take on Johnny Madrid Lancer with a gun in his hand.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Scott move painfully to stand up. “Scott? You okay?”
“Yes.” It was all too obvious that he was not. His hands were still tied behind him and he stumbled his way over to stand beside Barranca. “You wouldn’t have a knife on you, would you?”
Johnny dismounted, still keeping a wary eye on the five men in front of him. He drew a small knife from that back of his boot and sliced the rope from around his brother’s wrists.
“You okay to get those gunbelts, Scott?”
“Yes,” he answered, dusting himself off a little. He made his way unsteadily over to pick them up, retrieved his own and drew the forty-five from its holster to help cover the men.
Johnny turned his attention to Jess and Slim. Jess didn’t appear to have moved at all.
“He’s not breathing, Johnny,” Slim answered. “Give me that knife.”
Slim took it from him and turned Jess over enough to cut the rope from his arms, then he cast it aside and undid the top few buttons on Jess’ shirt, then put his ear to his chest.
Everyone was quiet, even McHenry and his men. Slim changed position to kneel behind Jess’ head and took hold of his wrists. He crossed Jess’ arms over his chest and pushed hard, then pulled them back behind his head, stretching him out. Then he repeated the manoeuvre.
Johnny had never seen it done before but Scott caught his eye and nodded approval.
There was no change. Johnny dropped his head in despair but Slim kept at it. As Slim pulled Jess’ arms back for a third time, and just as hope was fading, there was a loud gasp from Jess.
He coughed painfully and then sucked air into his starved lungs. It set him to coughing again and again and began a horrific pattern of gasping and tortured coughs.
“Take it easy, Pard,” Slim said gently and shuffled quickly around to his side so that he was in his field of vision. “You’re still with us, Jess.”
He got no answer but Jess’ gaze was on him, clinging to him like a lifeline. His breathing settled into a heavy wheeze, still with that hoarse cough.
Slowly, he raised his hand to his throat, tentatively feeling around it. “Close…” he said, though the word was only just recognizable. The voice was not Jess’. It was a rasping parody of it.
“Yeah,” Slim replied. “But it’s okay now. Let us see to this and you rest here.”
Johnny’s heart started beating again, or so it seemed. His relief was overwhelming but his eyes went back to the five men responsible for it all.
“You won’t get away with this, Madrid,” McHenry growled. “We’ll get justice for Harry yet.”
Johnny sighed. Funny how they always changed back to ‘Madrid’ when they wanted to upset him. Well, it was working this time.
"Oh, there’ll be justice for Harry alright. I can promise you that. But we’ll get the right man for it. You,” he paused for emphasis, “will be in jail.”
He turned away from him to face Cooper. The man’s face went white as Johnny moved closer to him. He took an involuntary step backwards.
“You, Cooper,” Johnny said, switched his gun back to his right and raised his pistol until it was pointed at the man’s navel. He kept the anger he was feeling out of his voice and off his face. To let it loose now would be to set off an explosion. This man had been the catalyst to a near lynching, Scott’s beating and very nearly the start of a range war – and all for spite.
“I recall telling you what I’d do if I saw you on Lancer land again,” he said, as coldly as he could. He knew what that tone of voice did to a man – at least, to some men. He hadn’t come by it naturally. It was a well-practiced ploy.
“No,” the man begged him. “You… you can’t. It’s be murder! You… you’d hang.”
Johnny allowed a smile to sneak over his lips but he kept his eyes bearing straight down on Cooper. “Nah… you’re trespassing… and you’ve just attempted murder as well. No one would blame me. I’m just taking the law into my own hands… right?”
“You… you can’t!” He backed away another step and looked around him. “You can’t let him do it!”
“You knew Jess didn’t kill Harry. You heard Frank and the others say so. But you wanted some payback, didn’t you?”
“No… no… it wasn’t like that…”
Johnny could hear riders coming fast, from some distance away. He didn’t look for them though. He focused on Cooper.
“There’s witnesses, Madrid. You won’t get away with it.”
Johnny’s cold smile widened. “None of ‘em are doing much for you though, Tom. Looks like you’re on your own.” He thumbed back the hammer and the click rang loudly in the silence around them.
“No,” he howled and the stench of urine filled the air. A wet stain on his pants and down his legs told the tale.
The riders were getting closer. Johnny grinned and uncocked the gun. He lowered his hand to his side but did not holster his gun. “You’re not worth the cost of a bullet,” he sneered and turned away. Cooper’s legs gave way and he fell to his knees, shaking.
“You sure can pick ‘em, Hal,” Johnny said with disgust. He pointed at Cooper. “This is where you got your information from?”
He turned away and walked over to stand beside Scott. The riders were closing in – four of them and he could see now that Frank was leading them.
“Glad to see you Frank… boys,” Johnny said as they joined them.
“We heard shots, Johnny,” he answered. He looked around him and it was obvious what had been going on, particularly with the rope on the ground beside Jess. “Everyone okay?”
“Yeah, just,” Johnny answered for them. “We’re going to need a couple of you to escort our friends here into Spanish Wells. I’m pretty sure that Gabe will put ‘em up for awhile – ‘til the trial anyway.”
“Sure, Johnny.” He turned to the men beside him. “Reed, you and Charlie can do it.”
"And watch them. I don't care who they are, they're going to jail... all of 'em." Johnny turned to the other man with Frank. “Mike, I want you to ride for Green River. Tell Doc Jenkins we need him.”
Mike looked from Scott’s battered face and bloodied sleeve to Jess on the ground. “I’ll go now, Johnny.” The youngster was not much older that Harry had been but more experienced. He swung his horse and urged it into a canter and then a gallop.
While Johnny was arranging everything, Slim noticed the crumpled piece of paper on the ground near the tree. He stood up and walked over to it, opened it and recognized it, then walked over to McHenry, now back on his feet and rubbing his jaw. There was purpose in his stride and his face showed black anger.
“You read this?” he demanded of McHenry, waving it in his face.
“Yes, I read it,” the man answered boldly. “It ain’t worth anything – just one more sheriff bought and paid for by the Lancers.”
“You read this so you knew you had the wrong man!"
"A worthless piece of lies, bought and paid for by the Lancers and that thriving murdering bastard! But I'll see he hangs yet!"
Slim hauled back and put all the pent up anger he was feeling into a fist that took McHenry square on the jaw.
It was a mighty punch and it lifted McHenry right off his feet. The man fell backwards and landed on his butt, his legs splayed comically in front of him. His face turned red as he seethed with fury and growled something about ‘paying for it’, but no one paid him any mind.
Johnny looked at the other men. Aubrey Atherton looked worried and the two Johnny did not know were scared.
“Frank, you’ll find rope around here real easy. I want you and the boys to tie these bastards’ hand and set them on the horses. We don’t want any trouble from them when you take them to the sheriff.”
Johnny and Scott kept their guns trained on McHenry and his men while Slim returned to Jess’ side. Frank, Reed and Charlie tied their prisoners and boosted them onto their horses.
Done, Frank looked over at Jess. “Can’t believe they did it! How’s he doing?” he asked.
“Alive,” Slim said, sitting again by Jess. “That was one hell of a shot, Johnny.”
“Shot?” Scott asked and suddenly realized what he meant. In the insanity of the moment, Scott had not given much thought to why the rope had snapped – only that it had and Jess had fallen free.
“From way back there, maybe fifty yards away, and with a forty-five,” Slim told him.
“And that there is how those stupid stories get started, Slim. It was nearer half that distance and the first shot missed,” Johnny said, dismissing it out of hand. “Slim, do you think Jess can ride back to Lancer? Frank can go back for a wagon is we need it.”
“No,” Jess croaked. His vice was hoarse and sound painful. “Give me a minute and I’ll be ready.”
He struggled onto one elbow and Slim reached out to help him. Jess accepted the steadying hand and reached behind his back with a groan.
“Jess, maybe the wagon’s a good idea,” Slim said. "Stay there and rest. We'll stay here with you."
But he shook his head. He looked over his shoulder at the tree. “Don’t want lay here lookin’ up at that any longer, Slim.”
All of them looked up, even McHenry. The length of rope, frayed and moving infinitesimally with the whisper of breeze, dangled from the branch. A thin line of shadow traced across the ground to where Jess laid. Staring at that piece of rope, Johnny understood perfectly what he meant.
Facing death was one thing when it was happening. You could hold your head up and tell the world to go to hell. But surviving it left a scar. It permeated your soul and changed you forever. In the back of his mind, he saw again a grassy hill on a fine clear day, a grinning rurale who enjoyed his work far too much, and the echo of the shots that signaled the execution of the man before him. His turn had been next… his turn…
Not every man was gifted with a second chance like that. Now Jess had been and they had to see to it that he was able to make the most of it.
And that meant finding the other ‘Jess Harper’.
“Okay, Jess,” Slim was saying and Johnny shook himself back to the present. “But take it slow getting up. We’ll try it your way.”
Johnny turned to his brother. “How about you, Scott? Can you ride?” He looked him over more carefully and noted the blood on his sleeve and on his face. His bottom lip was split and there was a cut above his left eye. Johnny had seen some of the pounding he had taken and knew that he had to be battered and bruised.
“I’m okay, Johnny. Don’t worry about me. Let’s just get Jess seen to.”
By necessity, the journey back to the hacienda was slow. Frank went ahead so that Murdoch and Teresa were warned of what had happened.
Jess, pale and drawn but determinedly independent, was able to stay on the horse. Slim rode close beside him, just in case it all got to be too much for him.
Johnny rode beside his brother and kept a close eye on him. He knew well enough that Scott was understating his own injuries in light of what had happened to Jess. His sleeve was stained with blood and his face battered and Johnny knew that his body was probably blackening with bruises all over.
When they reached the house, Jess was done in. Slim lowered him from the saddle and Teresa bustled about seeing that he and then Scott were both settled in their respective rooms. She scolded Scott when he tried to dismiss his injuries and berated Jess gently for going out in the first place. Slim stayed close to Jess and Johnny was left to tell the whole story to Murdoch.
Murdoch’s anger was monumental. “McHenry! That damned idiot! I knew he was a hothead but to pull this on my land! And you’re telling me that Scott showed him the affidavit?”
“Yeah,” Johnny said, more calmly than he felt or even wanted to be. But he could see that adding his own anger to Murdoch’s rage would only stoke the fire. “He didn’t believe it. He seems to think…”
He stopped, unsure that telling Murdoch about some of the accusations that McHenry had levelled at himself and Lancer would be wise when he was in this mood.
But Murdoch was already on his feet and pacing, well, striding one end of the room to the other. “Don’t shilly-shally about it, Johnny! Out with it! What did the idiot think?”
Johnny was leaning against the edge of the desk, His arms were folded across his chest while he tried to present some semblance of reason in face of the storm around him. “Alright, but stop that pacing, will you?”
“OUT WITH IT!”
Johnny sighed. There was nothing he could do now. “He’s got it in his head that we’ve bought off both Val and Gabe, even McMurtry in Visalia.”
“Why the hell would we do that?”
“Because we’re doing the rustling ourselves.”
His face was so red that Johnny began to fear he would have an apoplexy. “Remember, Murdoch, he had Cooper egging him on. The man hates us for throwing him off Lancer.”
“As I recall, it was you who threw him off Lancer!”
Johnny turned hard cold eyes on his father. Suddenly, this was his fault? “Yes, I turned him off. You saying I was wrong to do it?”
“You should have come to me first. I call the tune, remember?”
Johnny looked down at his folded arms and considered them for a moment. Alright, Murdoch was in a rage but he was still disappointed that this had all swung back on him. The fact was, he was more disillusioned than angry.
He shook his head and answered with a sharp edge in his voice. “Yeah, I should have checked with you before throwing out a man who tried his damnedest to beat the daylights out of a guest in this house. When he threw it at me that only you could fire him, I should’ve realized he was right and come running for you. Is that how it goes, Murdoch?”
His father huffed and muttered before calming down. He breathed out long and slow. “No, that’s not how it goes, Son. It can’t work like that. You boys are my sons and you have to have some authority. I hope that both of you know that by now. And you did just what I would have done.”
He walked across the room to stand beside Johnny and lifted his big hand to put it on Johnny’s shoulder. “I should never have implied otherwise. Scott told me some of what Cooper said to you the other day and he got off easy in my opinion.”
Johnny only nodded. He knew his father meant it and he accepted his apology, but words spoken in the heat of the moment could sting and Murdoch was good at that.
He put it aside, determined not to dwell on it. “I can’t believe that McHenry took that bastard Cooper’s word against us… all of us, Murdoch. Even Scott!”
“He’s been determined to hold someone to blame and itching to lynch someone,” Murdoch said but then he scowled. “But to blame Lancer! Hell, we lost Harry! Did he think we’d sanction something like that?”
Johnny nodded. “He’s out of his head with rage, but yeah… he believes that too.”
“He must be desperate,” Murdoch said, shaking his head. “Or downright crazy. I can’t believe he’d do it otherwise. He hasn’t said it, but it’s possible that the losses he’s suffering are hurting his ranch more than he can afford. It's hurting us too.”
“Don’t make excuses for him,” Johnny snapped. “He hung Jess. You weren’t there, Murdoch. You didn’t see him dangling from that damned rope. or lying as good as dead on the ground. You didn't watch Jess fighting for air. McHenry meant to see him dead and he did his best to do it. Not to mention that he had Scott beaten and shot into the bargain.”
“I’m not making excuses, Johnny. There are none. I’m only saying that desperation can create a kind of madness in some men.”
“He read that affidavit from McMurtry, Murdoch. That makes that lynching damned murder.”
“Yes, I agree with you. Let’s hope a jury does the same.”
Sam came into the room then and both men turned quickly to hear what he had to say.
“I know you’re anxious, but both of them will be okay. Scott’s badly bruised but there are no bones broken and nothing that time and rest won’t heal. The bullet graze is clean and didn’t need stitches.”
He stopped while Murdoch poured him a small whiskey. He took a sip. “Ah, Murdoch. I needed that. Now… Jess. He’s also taken some nasty punches and I'd say that one of those ribs that was bruised the other day has broken but, all in all, he’s a very lucky man. The drop from the horse was not fast enough or long enough to break his neck. His back is strained and it’ll be sore for a some time, but I don’t think there’s any permanent damage. Time will tell. His breathing is fine now, but his throat is going to be sore and bruised for some time. There’s some swelling there that’s making it hard for him to talk yet. That should go down by tomorrow morning.”
He took another sip of the drink in his hand. “For a man who was hanged this afternoon, he’s doing surprisingly well.”
Johnny was angry.
It had been two days since McHenry's lynch raid. Gabe had the five of them locked up despite the demands of that blowhard rancher. Johnny was still finding it hard to keep his temper under control every time he thought about it.
Scott was mending fast. Jess too come to that. Slim was sticking close to him yet and Johnny suspected that he was fighting his inclination to head into Spanish Wells and taking a few shots at McHenry.
He was also frustrated by the lack of progress in finding the rustlers or their boss – the fake Harper.
All they had managed to find so far was grief. Harry was dead; Jess Harper had damned nearly been the same. Tempers were frayed everywhere and the air was ripe for more bad news. Men were likely to start shooting at shadows soon.
And Jess Harper didn’t deserve what was happening to him. He seemed a decent man and Johnny liked him. He had made it out of the ‘game’ only to have his name dragged down by this imposter. No, it wasn’t right. And it sure wasn’t right that he had come so close to paying the ultimate price for the imposter’s sins.
Johnny was riding alone today, having told Murdoch he wanted it that way. Murdoch had not been pleased and it had occurred to Johnny that his father suspected him of being up to something. But he wasn’t. He just wanted to be alone to think.
He made his way to the first of the creeks he planned to check. Murdock had given him the task of cleaning out some of the creeks in preparation for the heavy rain that should come soon, at least in the hope of it. There had been a good shower last night clouds were hanging heavily over the mountains.
He’d clear out any minor snags himself and make note of anything major so they could get a crew to see to it.
It was a small creek and it was low at this time of the year. Its name reflected its importance to the ranch at most times – Little Creek. It was fed from a creek at the top of North Mesa by a series of waterfalls down the cliff face and it was a pretty place for a picnic if you happened to be so inclined. But that was the furthest thing from Johnny’s mind today.
He looked it over, checking it right back to its source at the falls, and found no snags. There were game trails here and there and further down where it fed into the lower end of the North Pasture, the banks were worn where cattle were constantly gathered to quench their thirst. While it was picturesque up at the falls, it was pretty mediocre down where the cattle used it.
Still, there were no snags to dam it up so he moved on to the next creek, a few miles further north. With most of the cattle being kept at the lower end of the ranch, the grass was better here at the moment. The creek was less trodden and the banks, when he reached it, had grass beginning to grow again.
Johnny checked the second creek and was pleased to find it was also clear. One more, far up near the northern boundary, and he’d be finished and could head home.
The sun was hot now, dragging the moisture and sapping the energy out of every living thing. He decided that he would take a break for lunch at the next creek. As he remembered, there was a quiet spot with a willow tree that would suit him and Barranca nicely.
He was very much alone out here. He hadn't seen anyone since getting here. The only men working this far north were the boundary riders. Usually only one rider rode the fence line if the herd wasn't in the pasture. The rider would cover a lot of ground in what tended to be a tedious job. Murdoch's orders had trebled the number of riders because of the cattle raids. There were other men further down the pasture tending the few cattle that were still up here.
He found the willow tree about half an hour later and dropped lightly down from the saddle. Pulling off his hat, he swiped his sleeve across his forehead and breathed in the air. It was sweeter here, whether it be because of the tree or that the creek had not been used by cattle for a while and wasn’t as polluted by cow dung and piss. He was sure and he didn’t much care.
“Barranca, I reckon this spot will do us for some lunch. Some good grass and water for you an’ Teresa’s sandwiches for me. Nice shady tree to sit under. Hell, Boy, this is damned near paradise.” He grinned and slapped the horse’s rump playfully. The horse reacted with a toss of his head and a mischievous glare that Johnny suspected meant he would pay for that slap when he mounted again.
He reached into his saddle bag and grabbed the packed sandwiches but they caught on something as he pulled them out. Pulling hard, they came free but the pliers he kept in the bag came with them and dropped to the ground.
“Damn!” he cursed and bent down to pick them up. There he stopped, still hunched over and looking at the ground.
There were tracks. A horse had passed this way since the rain last night. There was nothing unusual about that on its own. Travelers sometimes came across Lancer land and Lancer had no ‘no trespassing’ signs. But this track held him spellbound. This print was a horse shoe with a crack in it.
It was the print they had been looking for.
The ground was still soft and Johnny stood up and looked around. Sure enough, there were more tracks – and enough of them had that tell-tale crack to make it worth his while to try to follow them.
Abandoning his plan for a restful lunch, he stuffed the pack of sandwiches, and the pliers, back into his saddlebag. He took Barranca’s reins and led the horse as he slowly picked out the tracks.
They couldn’t be more than a couple of hours old. The ground had not had time to entirely dry out yet. He followed them towards the fence-line, careful not to tread over top of any of them. The tracks weren’t deep but they were clear and easy to see.
A part of him cheered. At last – a break. He knew that the others would want to be in on this, but he had to go forward on his own for now. The tracks might be gone later as the sun seared the ground to shrink them and turn them to dust.
They got harder to see as he got further down the creek. The ground was harder and grassier, but he could still make them out. He didn’t need to see the giveaway crack any more. He knew he was following the right trail. And he found that, now and then, a softer patch of ground would reassure him that he was right.
He reached the fenceline where a small gate gave access to Stern’s land. It wasn’t used often, mostly when cattle managed to get through fences and stray onto the neighboring ranch. Only wide enough for a rider and single file cattle, not many strangers would happen on it, hidden by trees as it was.
Johnny was more than ever certain that the tracks would lead him to the rustlers but, once again, it took local knowledge to know about the gate. Even most of the hands wouldn’t know of its existence.
Frowning, he opened the gate and led Barranca through, closing it behind him. “He’s sniffing out where our cattle are,” he said aloud to himself. “Running out of strays I guess.”
Or perhaps looking at stealing from Stern’s this time. He made a mental note to stop by Stern’s place to warn him.
Once through the gate, Johnny mounted Barranca. If he looked closely, he could still see the tracks from horseback and he’d make much better time. He lost the trail a few times over the next half hour as the ground hardened but picked it up again quickly enough further on to feel sure he was staying on the right trail.
The man had certainly ridden across Stern’s land and out in the open without fear of drawing attention. Of course, Stern only had a crew of four or five men to help him with the ranch so it wasn’t really surprising that the rustlers felt safe using it as a thoroughfare.
Johnny stopped and looked at the landscape around him. He didn’t know this area all that well, not being part of Lancer, but it was very similar. The foothills were off to his left, dotted with trees and occasional patches of scrubby woodland. The side of the big North Mesa rose steeply above them. Having seen Cesto del Ogro, he wondered if there were more hiding places in there that they didn’t know about. Stern’s ranch did not extend all the way to the mesa, but he might know if there were any likely spots in there.
The tracks were still leading off in a straight line with no attempt to cover them. Whoever it was, he was confident, perhaps because he had been alone and not pushing a few head of stolen cattle. With good reason really. If Johnny had not spotted that crack in the shoe print, he would have thought nothing of it either.
Still, he looked around often. The hairs on the back of his neck were raised as he went further. ‘No point in taking chances with these guys,’ he thought.
But there wasn’t much cover within a couple of hundred yards and that was sparse, so he pressed on.
Because he had been careful, the shot took him by surprise. It hit his left shoulder and knocked him sideways. He felt an explosion of pain and then the weightless sensation of falling but then – nothing.
When he woke, he had no idea how long he’d been unconscious. He did know that he had a throbbing headache. It took him a couple more minutes to become aware of two things. First, the burning pain in his shoulder and the blood that had oozed from it and, second, that he was surprisingly, alive.
He shouldn’t be. He was pretty sure of that. Their experience with the rustlers and 'Harper' up to this point was that they shot to kill and took no prisoners. No witnesses were left behind.
Yet looking around him, now that the haze of waking up had cleared, be realized that that was exactly what he was. His hands were tied behind him and his feet were bound as well. He was trussed up like a calf for branding.
Johnny knew that it was probably useless to try the ropes, but he did it anyway. Not only did they not give, but the movement caused his shoulder to sear hard enough to nearly knock him out again.
He gritted his teeth and rode out the pain, breathing hard through it all. As it passed, he started to take measure of his predicament.
He was flat on his back and staring at a roughly cut beamed roof with no ceiling. When he moved his head to the right, he could see bridles on hooks on the wall and saddles and blankets on the floor below. It was a tack room.
A tack room meant a ranch, and a ranch meant one of his neighbours. He thought about whose ranch this was and he didn't like the answers. The HM? McHenry was full of bluster and righteous wrath but was that a cover? Would he have gone so far as to hang Jess if he was guilty himself? It would have stopped the search for 'Harper' and left him and the others clear.
Johnny had never really trusted Santee since the Warburton affair so he put his name on his mental list. Aggie? No... Charlie Poe? He was a rogue, but a loyal one. He was loyal to Johnny and he couldn't imagine him part of it. Of course, he was ultimately loyal to his wife and if there was some threat to her...
He didn't want to think about it anymore. It hurt his head but it hurt his heart more. These people were more than neighbours; they were friends. His head cleared some more and through the pounding in his head he began to hear voices outside the door. They were muffled but, by straining a little, he could make out most of it.
One voice was loud and angry with a drawl that he recognized as Texas. The other had a southern ring to it and was quieter, harder to hear.
“Why the hell did you bring him here? You know the rules – no witnesses,” the Texan shouted.
“You know who he is?” the Southerner replied.
“Lancer’s son. So what?”
“So think about what kind of money his daddy will pay to get him back.”
Johnny swore quietly. So that was why he was still alive.
“We’re doin’ fine like we are. We don’t need someone around who can get us hung.”
“Sure, we’ve done well out of the cattle, but you and I both know it’s about time to move on. This is a bonus – and a hell of a bonus at that.”
The Texan quieted for a while and the Southerner pressed home his advantage. “We could make thousands on this.”
“Means we have to keep him alive. That’s a hell of a risk.”
“Yeah, but it’s worth it.”
The Texan went quiet again. Johnny thought about it too. They would kill him one way or the other. He had no illusions about that. But at least he would buy some time to look for a way out of this mess.
Texas spoke again, not yelling now. “What about the old man?”
“You leave him to me,” the Southerner answered. “I’ll take care of him. He won’t give us any trouble. He hasn’t so far, has he?”
“No, and he won’t over this.”
“Alright, see to it. We’ll try it and see what happens. But any trouble from young Mr. Lancer in there and forget it. Just kill him and we’ll move on.”
“Sure, Jess. I’m just as fond of my neck as you are of yours.”
“Remember that,” the Texan said, his voice fading as footsteps moved away from the door.
The door was opening. Johnny heard the rattle of the knob being turned and the creak of the hinges. He thought it wise not to let them know he’d heard anything. Closing his eyes, he feigned unconsciousness as the man walked over to his side.
The man toed him with a less than gentle nudge to see if he was awake. Johnny bit the inside of his lip as the pain in his shoulder fired up again, but he kept his eyes closed.
“Still out, huh Lancer?” the southerner said, obviously to himself. “Well, we’re going to need something to show to your daddy to make him believe we’ve got you. Hmmm… I could strip that pretty shirt off of you. That’s gotta be recognizable. Nice hole and splashes of blood too to frighten him into paying up.”
He seemed to quietly consider it. “No, might make him think you’re already dead. Let’s see…”
He reached down and Johnny felt himself being rolled onto his side. Dammit! It he could only get his hands loose.
“There you go… perfect,” the man said confidently. He was at Johnny’s hands, no his wrist. The Indian bead wristband – that was what he was after, and he was right. It was Johnny’s own. There wasn’t another like it hereabouts that he knew of. It would certainly convince Murdoch and Scott that they had him.
“Johnny’s late for dinner,” Murdoch said grumpily. He had a strict rule about it and dinner was never held up if someone wasn’t on time.
“He was checking on the creeks in the North Pasture,” Scott reminded him. “It’s a long ride back.”
“I’m aware of it, Scott. It’s not a job that should keep him late though.”
“Maybe he’s had to clear one of them out.”
Murdoch snorted. “Still, it shouldn’t take him that long. If it’s major work, he should have left it for a work crew. He has to learn how to delegate these things.”
Scott nodded acceptance. There was no arguing with Murdoch when he was in this mood.
“Maria, serve dinner, por favor,” Murdoch told her.
“Si, Señor,” she replied, but she muttered in Spanish all the way to the kitchen.
Murdoch took his place at the table and indicated that Scott and Slim should do the same. Teresa came into the room from upstairs and frowned. “No Johnny?”
“He can get something when he gets in,” Murdoch told her. “How is Jess?”
“Oh, he’s much better. He was able to swallow the broth much easier tonight and his voice is already coming back.”
Slim smiled, sitting down next to Scott. “Watch out. He’ll want steak for breakfast in the morning.”
She giggled and took her own seat next to Murdoch, but stopped before sitting down and looked towards the window. “That’s a horse coming in now. It’ll probably be Johnny.”
But a moment later, a knock on the door told them that it wasn’t.
“I’ll get it,” she said and half ran to the door to open it. “Jelly!” She stopped and frowned. “What is it?”
Scott looked up. He could see the doorway and Jelly’s face wore a worried expression. “Jelly?” he asked as well.
“Barranca just came in… on his own.”
They needed to be told nothing more. Scott was the first to the door, with Murdoch right behind him and Slim in hot pursuit. But Teresa had beaten them all outside and was on the porch waiting nervously while the men piled out past her and looked Barranca over.
It was still light enough to see by and Scott quickly scanned the saddle and the horse. “There’s no blood that I can see,” he said, relieved. “But Barranca has run hard to come back. Whatever happened, it wasn’t near home.”
Murdoch was on the other side of the horse and was surprisingly quiet. “Jelly,” he said hollowly. “Take Barranca into the barn and tend to him, please.”
“You want me to get the men together for a search party, Boss?” Jelly asked.
“No…” Murdoch answered and Scott looked at him curiously. He sounded distracted. “No. Don’t say anything yet. Just see to the horse.”
Scott knew something was wrong. It was not just the horse. There was something in Murdoch’s face… “Murdoch…”
“Let’s go inside, Scott.”
“I said inside!” his father snapped and stalked away and through the door.
Jelly cast a questioning look at Scott. “You heard the man, Jelly. See to Barranca. I’m going to find out what’s going on.” With that he strode into the house after his father, leaving Slim and Teresa to follow.
“Murdoch!” Scott yelled as he got into the Great Room. “What the…?”
“Keep it down, Scott and wait for Teresa and Slim.”
They came in and all three of them faced him with unspoken questions.
Murdoch pulled out a small scrap of paper from his pocket. “This was tied to one of the stirrups,” he said. Then he showed them the wristband. “This was with it.”
“Oh no!” Teresa crumpled into the nearest chair. “Murdoch, they wouldn’t have gotten that off him without…”
“Take it easy, Teresa. Let’s not jump to any conclusions,” Scott said, trying not to be harsh. “Murdoch, what does the note say?”
Murdoch looked down at it and seemed to be getting hold of his emotions before he spoke again. “It says that he’s alive. It also says that they want three thousand dollars to give him back to us. They want us to meet them at Little Creek falls tomorrow at four with the money.”
“Three thousand!” Slim whistled. “Can you raise that much?”
“Overnight? I doubt it,” Murdoch said and sighed. “I’ll ride into Green River tonight and get the bank manager out of bed, but it could take all night. I won’t be back until tomorrow. Scott, you’re going to have to go to this meeting place and try to get us more time if I’m late.”
Slim looked nervously at Teresa before saying very quietly, “Mr. Lancer, I hate to raise it but… well…”
Scott understood and answered just as quietly. “We have to make our plans on the assumption that he’s alive, Slim. I don’t think any of us wants to think any other way.”
“No, of course not.”
Murdoch folded the paper and fingered the wristband almost tenderly while he thought. Finally, he added, “Little Creek Falls is at the bottom of North Mesa. That’s a long ride from Green River. I’ll have to really push it to get there in time.”
Scott sighed. “What about Val? Are you going to tell him?”
“If there’s time I will. I don’t know how long it will take to find the money – if I can. We don’t have it ready to hand and I will have to look at what I can do to raise it. Three thousand dollars is a lot of money, Scott.”
“Yes, I know.” Scott ran his hand through his hair. “There’s a lot of cover at Little Creek, Murdoch. Bushes, trees… it could be a trap. I think we all know who’s responsible for this.”
“Yes, I know.” Murdoch was pale. “I know.”
“What’s going on?” They all turned as one. There was no doubt to whom that croaking voice belonged.
“Jess, what are you doing up?” Slim demanded. “Turn around and get back to bed where you belong. This is not anything you need to worry about.”
Jess’ stance told them he wasn’t about to budge. The now familiar straight back with his fists at his sides and the black look on his face confirmed it.
“I’ll decide that, Slim. I heard a horse come in. What’s wrong?”
“The rustlers are causing some more problems,” Scott told him, as casually as he could. “Like Slim said, we’ll take care of it.”
Jess looked from one of them to another and stopped at Murdoch. “They writing notes now?”
Murdoch looked guiltily down at the piece of paper in his hand. “No… no. It’s fine really, Jess. You should…”
“I’ll shoot the next man that tells me to go to bed!” His voice gave out and he coughed until he got his breath back, then he glared at them. “Where’s Johnny?”
“He’s not home yet,” Scott told him. “He was working up in the North Pasture.”
“Is this about him?”
Slim looked to Scott for help but there was no hiding it from Jess. He sighed. “Yes,” he admitted reluctantly. “It looks like they’ve taken him prisoner. His horse has come in without him… with a note attached to one of the stirrups. They’re holding him for ransom.”
Jess slid down into the chair beside him, his face blanched.
“And before you try to make it your fault,” Slim continued. “It’s not.”
“These men were raiding the valley before you even got here, Jess,” Scott added. “It makes no difference whose name they’re using, they are not you and you have no control over what they do. This is not your fault.”
Jess nodded slowly, regaining his composure. “No. I know you’re right. But it doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better. Still feels like I’m to blame when I hear my name bein’ bandied around.”
“Jess, you should be resting,” Slim said soothingly. “Leave this to us. We’ll get him back.”
Teresa stepped forward and laid one hand softly on his. “Come upstairs, Jess,” she said. “You’re not well and you need to let them make their plans. No one here is going to let anything happen to Johnny, believe me. He means too much to us. And you don’t want to hold them back, do you?”
Her voice rang with reassurance and reason. Jess nodded again and stood up. She took his arm and led him to the stairs.
“I’ll be fine, Teresa. You go on back.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
He trudged heavily up the stairs, feeling a great weight on his shoulders. Scott was right. It was not his fault. Slim and Teresa were right. He should be in bed. His body was so full of aches and pains that he knew that without them telling him.
So why did he still feel ‘guilt’?
He owed his life to Johnny. Slim had told him about the remarkable shot that had sliced the rope and dropped him to the ground before he’d strangled. Could he lie in bed while the others set out to rescue Johnny? Or try to…
What if it needed his own special kind of prowess with a gun to take down his namesake? Slim was fast enough, and he had heard the same about Scott but this 'Harper' they were dealing with was an unknown quantity. He was fast enough to have given Frank and the others the impression that he was a gunfighter.
Neither Slim nor Scott was ready for that.
He opened the door to his room and went in. His gunbelt hung over the back of a chair near the dresser and he walked over to it. Carefully, he looked it over, checked the chambers and then went to his saddle bag and took out the cleaning equipment.
He sat down and set to work.
Short of tying him down or shooting him, no power on earth was going to stop Jess Harper from going with them next morning. Slim recognized the stubborn look on his face and if Teresa and Scott did not immediately, they soon came to see it.
He was dressed, ready and waiting for them in the barn when they walked in. Murdoch had not come back from Green River last night but no one was surprised. He had warned them that he would stay overnight if he had to and would meet them at Little Creek in the afternoon.
“Jess, you’re not up to the ride,” Scott told him.
“Oh yes I am.”
“Your back… and a rib that’s probably broken,” Scott insisted. He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Look at yourself, Scott,” Jess growled. “Beaten and bruised too, ain't you? And I didn’t get myself shot.”
“It’s only a graze.”
“I’m as fit as you are!”
“You’re sure?” Slim asked him, stepping into the fray before someone lost his temper.
Slim shook his head. “Alright. Come with us. But I'll leave you behind if you slow us up."
So he joined them. In a couple of hours, they reached Little Creek but held back carefully from the falls in case there was a lookout there. It was hours yet before the appointed time for the exchange, but it was possible that the rustlers might already be there.
Slim scouted around and came back to tell them he had found no one.
“There are signs that someone has been here though,” he told them. “At least two horses, but not together.”
“Recently?” Scott asked.
Slim nodded. “Yes and, if I’m not mistaken, one was following the other.”
“And that could be Johnny,” Jess said, thinking aloud.
“I’d say so,” Slim agreed.
Scott was sitting on a large rock by the water’s edge. He had idled away the time Slim had been gone by tossing pebbles into the water, but now he was interested.
“Can you show me those tracks?” He stood up and started towards his horse.
“Sure, just keep an eye out. I didn’t see anyone but they’ll be here soon. They’ll want to be here ahead of Murdoch.”
Together, the three of them made their way to the waterfall.
Slim pointed the way and they dismounted as they got close. Looking around, there were a lot of prints where the ground was reasonably soft and still a few where it had dried out further from the water. Jess squatted and looked intently at them, moving now and then to the next set.
“Well, Jess?” Slim asked.
“One set is older, alright. A few hours older maybe, not much.” He stood up. “Over there by the water, they’re just all mixed up and on top of each other. Hard to pick one from the other, they’re so messed up.” He stopped. “But over here, the second guy is on foot and he’s being real careful not to step on the other fella’s tracks.”
“Following him,” Scott surmised.
“Yeah.” He sighed. “I can’t say I know Barranca’s tracks in particular. Do you?”
Scott shook his head. “No. I don’t know of any peculiarities to his tracks that would make him stand out to me.”
“Which means we have two possibilities. Either Johnny found something interesting enough to follow, or he’s the one being followed.”
“Either way, might those tracks not lead us to Johnny?” Scott asked.
Jess looked at Slim who nodded his own agreement. “Yeah,” Jess said at last. “They might. Might also lead us into the same trouble he’s in.”
“It’s worth trying,” Scott told them. “Come on.”
It was Jess who led the way on foot, each leading his horse. He was peering at the ground while they walked a few paces behind him. It was only a few yards before he held up a hand and called a halt. Down on one knee, he made sure of what he was seeing and felt a rush of what Johnny had no doubt also felt – exhilaration.
“What is it, Jess?” Slim asked.
“My guess is this is what Johnny spotted. A cracked shoe.”
Scott sat up in his saddle. “It’s them!”
“Good chance,” Jess agreed. “Fact is, I’d bet on it.”
“Johnny certainly would have followed then,” Scott said with confidence.
“Then we follow them too,” Slim said.
Jess stood up, wincing a little and holding the small of his back.
“You okay, Jess?” Scott asked, frowning.
“Yeah, just a little stiff an’ sore. You?”
Scott grinned. “Yeah, the same. I’m okay.”
“Alright,” Slim said, taking charge. “Here’s what I think. There’s still a few hours before four o’clock but they’ll be here early. You can count on that. They probably think we’ll be with Murdoch trying to raise the money at the moment. But we can’t rely on that. Jess, you keep an eye on the tracks. Scott, you take one side of him and I’ll take the other and we’ll keep watch for anything that shouldn’t be there.”
Jess nodded. “Okay, but you two stay in back of me, in case I lose the tracks. I don’t want you two ridin’ over top of ‘em.”
It was still early in the morning when Val Crawford spotted Murdoch Lancer emerging from the hotel. The storekeepers had not yet started opening their shops. Looking uncharacteristically disheveled and striding purposefully towards the bank, Murdoch looked like he had not had a wink of sleep last night.
The bank was not due to open for a couple of hours yet, but Murdoch’s knock on the door got him an immediate response and he was let inside, Val’s curiosity got the better of him.
He followed Murdoch’s lead and headed over there, knocking loudly on the door of the bank. “Martin, Murdoch,” he called out. “I know you’re in there so open up an’ let me in.”
It was a moment or two before he heard footsteps on the hardwood floor inside and the door opened noiselessly to reveal the bank manager, Martin Brewer. Brewer, usually a natty little man, looked like he had been up all night as well and Murdoch, standing in the shadows a few feet behind him, looked even worse up close.
Val stepped inside and the banker quietly closed the door behind him.
“What’s goin’ on here? You two’re up to something.”
“A little circumspection is needed if you don’t mind, Sheriff,” the banker twittered. “Please, keep your voice down.”
“He’s right, Sheriff,” Murdoch said quietly. “Come into Martin’s office and we’ll tell you everything, but not here please. The rest of the staff will start arriving soon and we don’t want to be overheard. I don't want any word getting around about my being here.”
They walked into the office and Val’s jaw dropped. On the desk were piled bills of every denomination in enough stacks to amount to more money than Val had ever seen in one place. “What the hell?”
“Shhhh….” Martin whispered, closing the door behind him. “Please, Sheriff, quietly."
“You two robbing the place? There's enough money there to buy the whole town."
"Unfortunately that is not quite the case, Sheriff Crawford."
“No, this is… this is for Johnny,” Murdoch said quietly.
Val frowned and turned business-like. “I think you’d better explain that.”
Murdoch pulled the piece of paper from his shirt pocket, crumpled now from reading over and over. “Here, read this,” he said and handed it over to the sheriff.
Val looked it over quickly. “Damnation! You sure it’s true? I mean anyone could say..."
Murdoch shook his head. “No, of course I'm not absolutely sure. But Johnny didn’t come home yesterday afternoon. Barranca did though and they sent his beaded wristband with that note, tied to a stirrup. That was enough to convince me. I only pray they took it from him alive.”
If ever Val had had any doubts about Johnny’s old man’s real feelings for his younger son, and he had to admit that he had had them now and then, they were cast into the fire by the desperation in Murdoch’s face and voice.
“You’re thinkin’ it’s those rustlers have got him?”
Val nodded. “Yeah, they’re a nasty lot alright.” He looked at the desk. “It’s a lot of money. Can you raise this much?” he asked and nodded towards the money. “Is this all of it?”
Murdoch closed his eyes and shook his head. “We’ve been at this all night but it’s only a little more than half.”
“We just don’t keep that much cash on the premises, Sheriff,” Martin explained. “Of course, with the young man’s life at stake, I’m more than willing to help Murdoch in any way I can, but most of our dealings are on paper. To keep excessive amounts of cash on hand would only make the bank a target for robberies.”
Val nodded. “Yeah, I can understand that, Mr. Brewer. So, Murdoch, you gonna try to get them to accept this much?”
"We've made it up into as many bundles as we can... Even made it look like more than it is, but... Well, it's the best I can do"
Val had a bad feeling. Scott Lancer was not likely to just sit and wait on the money. "I'm guessing that Scott is already moving on this."
"Scott and Slim are riding out to the meeting place early this morning. They’re going to see if they can find any trace of Johnny while they’re out there. I'm going straight out there from here to meet them."
“If you’ve been here all night, Johnny might have turned up back at the ranch after you left,” Val said hopefully. “He might be back there now, safe and sound.”
Murdoch sighed. “I'd like to believe that. I've prayed for it. But they would have sent word.”
“Yeah.” Val knew it had been a futile hope at best. “I’ll go with you. If anyone around town gets wind of what you’re carrying, you’ll be a sitting duck. And there’s no sayin’ these men won’t stop you on the way to that meeting. That crew is real smart. They might figure Scott will scout out the meeting place an' make their own plans."
“You’re right of course, and thanks. I appreciate your help, Val.” He sighed, looking more weary and crestfallen than Val Crawford could ever remember seeing him. "To be honest, Val... I'm worried. I think some company on that ride would be more than welcome."
“I’ll go saddle up. You get finished here an’ I’ll be waiting at the livery with both our horses ready.” He started for the door. “And make sure that money doesn’t look conspicuous. Pack it up real ordinary like.”
He led them through the brush, walking at first and stopping now and then to check for tracks. Slim and Scott stayed close behind, their rifles in their hands and at the ready, looking out for trouble. When they reached the gate, they filed through and mounted their horses.
Out in the open now, Scott and Slim increased their vigilance. Johnny had come this way, and now he was missing.
They rode slowly until Jess called another halt and stepped down to study the ground closely. There was a tree some way off that was the only cover anywhere near them, and Scott watched it closely.
“There’s blood here,” Jess said. “Not much, but I’d say this is where they took him.”
Scott’s heart missed a beat. He wanted to turn to look. He almost did but caught himself just in time. Something over by the tree - a glint of sunlight on metal? - caught his attention.
His military training kicked in like an old habit. He raised the rifle, sighted it and fired, all before the others knew that anything was happening.
Jess flinched, dove to his right and had his pistol in his hand before he hit the ground. Slim was already crouched and aiming at the tree.
But there was no answering fire. Scott had seen someone fall with his shot and leapt onto his horse to go check. Slim and Jess mounted and headed after him.
Scott reached the tree ahead of them and found his target, wounded in the wrist and gripping it in pain. Blood dripped freely. He was trying desperately to mount his panicked horse but the animal skittered sideways just as he got his foot close to the stirrup.
“Hold it right there!” Scott shouted.
The man froze. He lowered his foot from the stirrup and stayed put. There was fear on his face.
“Back away from the horse, slowly,” Scott told him as Jess and Slim arrived. “And if you make a move towards that gun, it will be the last thing you ever do.”
“Back away from the horse, slowly,” Scott told him as Jess and Slim arrived. “And if you make a move towards that gun, it will be the last thing you ever do.”
“Sure, Mister,” the man answered. “I’m not tryin’ nothing.” But his hands were not up. He held them in front of him, his left hand holding tight to his bloodied right wrist.
“Both hands up!” Scott ordered him. “Right up!”
Slowly at first, and then with a jolt, the man did as he was told. Surrounded, he had to know that he had no chance of escape. His wrist was bleeding and looked like it might be broken, but Scott was taking no chances… and he certainly felt no sympathy for him.
“Now, like I said - back away from the horse,” Scott told him again. “Slim, take his guns, will you?”
Slim moved in, careful not to get between their prisoner and Scott, and took the pistol from his holster. Then he picked up the rifle from where it had fallen on the ground. That done, the man looked helplessly from Slim to Scott.
“Sit down and put your hands behind your head,” Scott told him.
“Aw… come on, Mister. My arm!”
“You should have thought about that before you tried to pick us off,” Jess said angrily. “You heard the man, sit!”
He did and groaned as he reached behind his head with the wounded wrist. Scott felt not the least bit of sympathy for him. He kept the rifle pointed at him, but lowered it just a little. “Now, where’s your boss hiding?”
The man shook his head emphatically. “No… no, Mister. I can’t say.” He was visibly shaking. “Harper would kill me for sure if I said.”
“This Harper will kill you for sure if you don’t,” said Jess, pulling his pistol.
“Jess, let Scott handle this,” Slim said, his hand lightly pushing the gun down to point at the ground.
The man could, it seemed, add two and two to come up with four. He was staring at Jess. “Harper? Jess? I don’t get it.”
“I’m Jess Harper,” he said. “The real one – with the real reputation. Not some phony like your boss.”
“Nah… that ain’t true.”
“He is,” Scott said. “And he’s real unhappy about someone passing himself off as him.” He walked close enough to stand over him and pointed the rifle at his prisoner’s head; close enough to ruffle the man’s hair. “Nearly as upset as I am, seeing as it’s my brother you and your friends are holding.”
“I… I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that! Honest.”
Scott rather theatrically levered a bullet into the chamber. “You’re going to answer some questions for us, right now. Slim here can hold one of us back, but not both of us. So don’t push us too far.”
“N… no, Sir.”
“Then you have some questions to answer,” Scott said, the barrel of his rifle still close to the man’s head. “Firstly, is my brother alive?”
“You mean the Lancer kid? Yeah, last time I saw him he was alive.”
“When was that?”
“Couple of hours ago, I guess.”
“We found blood over there on the ground. Is he hurt?”
The man swallowed hard and his eyes widened in fear. “Nothin’ serious. I swear it, Mister. He took a bullet in the shoulder, but it ain’t bad.”
Scott scowled at him. “Your bullet?” he demanded. “You seem to have a habit of standing behind trees and shooting at passing riders.”
“No, Sir. Wasn’t me. That was Reb,” the man explained, finally eager to talk now that it was a chance to pin it all on someone else. “He recognized him as Lancer’s kid an’ took him back with him ‘stead of killing him.”
“Oh, there you are, Boys, we should be grateful!” Scott said to Slim and Jess with aggrieved sarcasm. Then he looked back to the man on the ground. “He’d better not be badly hurt.”
He took a breath. He did believe the man. He was too obviously scared out of his wits not to be telling the truth. “So that leads me to my second question – where are you holding Johnny?”
Murdoch and Val were on their way twenty minutes later, around the same time that Scott, Slim and Jess came across their rustler lookout.
But Johnny was only just waking. He hadn’t dropped off to sleep until the early hours of the morning, nearly dawn in fact. When he had, it had been the deep, dreamless sleep of exhaustion.
He didn't have to even open his eyes to know that his situation had not changed. The ache in his wounded shoulder and in his arms was enough to tell him that, let alone the cramp in his bound legs when he tried to stretch.
He had quickly figured that, short of a miracle, he was not going to get out of this one. They had offered him no food or water and had paid no attention to his wound, so it seemed he was only staying alive in case they needed him to get the money from Murdoch. Once they had it, he knew he was done for.
It was pretty obvious that he had only himself to rely on to try to get out of this mess and it would have to be before any payoff. If they had not found out where the rustlers were hiding out before now, it wasn’t likely that they would before his time was up. So he had looked around yesterday afternoon for something that might offer him some sort of hope.
It had turned up in the form of a spur – old and rusted and not particularly sharp, but something to work with. He had spotted it lying, broken and abandoned, just poking out from under a stack of saddle blankets on the floor. He had had to inch over there, about four feet, to get it and he had had to do it quietly so as not to raise any suspicions outside.
Actually, he wasn't even sure they had posted a guard out there. They seemed very sure of themselves, and not without reason. They knew that no one was likely to find them.
It took his mind off his troubles to at least be doing something. He had spent most of the night rubbing the broken rowel against the rope that held his wrists. He couldn’t see whether it was getting him anywhere but he had kept at it, his arms aching in the end, until he had fallen asleep.
He had woken now with what he knew was the start of a fever. It would make it harder to work the ropes free of his wrists, but he wasn't going to let it stop him.
It was gloomy inside the windowless little tack room. The floor was dirt, which he knew was not doing much for the still uncovered wound in his shoulder. the walls were plain wood without lining of any kind and already getting the room was getting hot and airless.
But it was light enough that he could see. It was obviously not early morning and he had to get right back to his work on the ropes before they came back.
Johnny wasn’t sure at first what had woken him, but then he heard voices outside the door. One voice was raised above the others and he recognized it immediately – Stern Johannson.
Suddenly the door opened, letting in a tide of blinding light so strong that he turned his head away from it, closing his eyes against the brightness.
“By all that’s holy!” It was Stern alright, and Johnny heard footsteps running in towards him and then the touch of a hand on his shoulder.
Johnny flinched and pulled away from it and then opened his eyes. It was the old man and he looked horrified.
“Johnny, I didn’t know they had you here,” he said quickly. He seemed desperate that Johnny should believe him. “Are you okay? Can I help you sit up?” He looked at the two men standing in the doorway. “Helvete! What have you done? This boy is a neighbor of mine.”
“You’ve seen him, Old Man,” one of them said sourly from the doorway. His voice rang with the southern accent that they had been searching for. “He’s alive just like we told ya. Now get on back to the house and outa our way. Let us take care of business and you go mind your own.”
“Business! Bah! I do not like your business. I want you off my place – once and for all.”
Johnny looked to the doorway. A man was standing there, silhouetted against the sunlight behind him. He was tall enough to stand the full height of the doorway, rivalling Murdoch for sheer inches but he was thin. A good wind would bend or break him. As Johnny’s eyes adjusted to the light, he saw an evil sneer on the man’s face.
“Is that right? Well, I’ll tell you again, you old goat. We’ll leave when we’re good and ready, and we ain’t ready yet.” He laughed. “That man is money in the bank and you’ll stay right out of it. Hear me?”
He pulled a gun and Stern scowled at him, but he was unarmed and twice the man’s age. There was nothing he could do and his face showed that he knew it.
"He is wounded. His shoulder needs cleaning... a bandage..."
"That's nothin' for you to worry about."
Stern patted Johnny softly on his good shoulder. “I will get you some food and water, Johnny. Maybe some cider even, ja? Trust me.”
Johnny didn’t answer. Stern stood up and straightened his back, his head high trying to salvage some dignity. Then he walked past them and out of the door.
The man in the doorway laughed. “Old fool,” he said and took one last look at Johnny before he turned and went out. He closed the door loudly and locked it behind them, leaving Johnny back in the gloom.
So, this was Stern’s place. Stern! Johnny couldn't believe it. What part had the old man been playing in the rustling then? Had he been the one who was feeding them all that local information? Had he been hiding the stolen cattle in with his own herd? It certainly made sense.
Except that it didn’t. Stern Johannson had always been a good neighbor. He had lived here for years and had backed Murdoch in many a fight. Johnny liked him and he had always thought himself a good judge of character. Murdoch sure thought of him as a friend and would see this as a terrible betrayal.
Was he being forced in some way to hide them? It would make more sense than the alternative – except that he had been in town, even at the meeting, and had had plenty of opportunities to ask for help.
Johnny sighed with disappointment. Whatever the story was, it was obvious that Stern had no control over them. Johnny was no better off now than he had been before, but for the prospect of food and water.
He felt around on the floor near his hands until he found the spur. Once again, he set to work on the ropes. He was forced now to do it with only one hand for the injured arm throbbed so much that it was virtually useless.
He kept at it until his good arm cramped. He grimaced and rode out the pain while clutching the spur in his hand. It was his only chance and he clung to the glimmer of hope it represented. If only the ropes would give, even a little, it would boost his morale.
When the cramp passed, he tried to pull his wrists apart, testing the rope. He held his breath against the pain that hit his shoulder and gave it his best shot. Nothing! He closed his eyes in disappointment and sighed heavily, then started on them again.
Murdoch and Val wasted no time. They rode out of town with all the restraint they could muster, but once out of sight of prying eyes, both of them pushed their horses into a gallop.
Murdoch felt the pressure of the minutes ticking by... minutes that could well be the last of his son’s young life if he didn’t get to the meeting on time. His whole body was tense, his stomach tight and churning with worry.
There was nothing said between the two men as they rode, not even when Murdoch had arrived at the livery stable with the all important saddle bags over his shoulder. They had just mounted and ridden out.
He knew that Val would be worried as well. He and Johnny had become good, if unlikely friends. Murdoch felt he could trust him to do whatever was necessary to get Johnny out alive, perhaps even breaking the law.
Alive… ‘Please God, let Johnny be alive,’ he thought for the hundredth time since he had read that note.
Unseen by Scott and the others, he had read it with horror, fear… a rage that so engulfed him that he didn’t know whether his hands shook from fear or fury.
The remembered emotions of that moment surged through him again and he fought them back. He needed a clear head. Breaking now was not an option… Not while his son depended on him.
They weren’t getting there fast enough, not for Scott’s liking anyway. It wasn’t like they had to find and follow a trail this time. Their prisoner was leading the way.
Or was he? They weren’t heading for the foothills and mountains as he had expected, but towards the neighboring ranches. Surely that wasn’t right.
The man might be taking them on a wild goose chase.
He had certainly baulked at taking them to Johnny. ‘Harper’ had certainly instilled a deep-seated fear in his men.
The rustler’s name was Charlie Tunks. He’d given them that but little else. It had been frustratingly difficult to convince him to take them to their hideout.
“No, it ain’t worth my like,” he had insisted. “You fellas might hurt me, might even turn me over to the law, but the Boss – he’d kill me for sure if he thought I was giving him up.” He stopped and bit his lips nervously. “Yep, he’d kill me and go right back to his dinner. Just like…”
Scott jumped at the words. “Just like Bert Carson?”
Charlie turned white. “I didn’t say that… you can’t make me say that.”
“But it’s what you were going to say,” Scott persisted. “Did you see him do it?”
“No… no I didn’t see nothing.”
“But you know he did it, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes.”
Charlie shook his head vigorously. “No, I’m not sayin’ no more. You can take me back to your sheriff an’ hand me over, but I ain’t sayin’ no more.”
Jess stepped in. “Okay, we’ll take you to town and turn you in. He’ll lock you up in a nice little cell, with a window.” He moved in closer. “A window to the alley outside… nice an’ easy to reach in the dark of night. Now, if you are a witness to that murder, or anythin’ else, you know your boss is gonna want to get rid of you.”
Scott took up the line of thinking. “Yes, how easy would it be for him to sneak up that alley and put the gun through the bars…”
“Bang, no more witness…” Jess finished.
The man was terrified. They had hit on just what Charlie would expect of ‘Harper’. “No… no you can’t do it. It’s be murder.”
“It’d be a turkey shoot,” Jess carried on. “Nowhere for you to run, Tunks.”
Scott walked over to stand eye to eye with him. “Your only hope now is to help us get to my brother and get him free. If your boss is locked up, he couldn’t shoot you in that jail cell now could he? Think about it hard… and quick. And remember, a good word from us in the Sheriff’s ear and you might not hang for rustling and attempted murder.”
“Attempted murder! Me?”
“Idiot, what do you think they will call you standing behind a tree taking pot shots at us?” Jess told him.
“I didn’t mean to kill no one.”
“Well, the law won’t see it that way, Tunks. Between the law and your boss, you sure are in deep trouble. Either way, you’re a dead man…”
“Unless you help us,” Scott said.
He had buckled then, all but crying for the chance to help them. But Scott did wonder if he was leading them into another trap.
It was only about twenty minutes later that they saw the riders coming. Scott, Slim and Jess all had the same reaction and went for their rifles. Scott was ready for a tion first, but he was also the first to recognise the riders.
"It's Murdoch and Val," he said, relieved.
"He's made good time, if he's got the money," Slim answered.
"I hope he has," Scott countered. "I don't want to place all my faith in our friend here."
They slowed their horses and waited for the newcomers to catch up with them. As they got close enough to see properly, Scott could see that their horses had been ridden hard.
"Murdoch! You're earlier than I thought to see you."
Murdoch and the sheriff both pulled their horses to a stop and openly looked over their prisoner.
"What have you got here, Scott?" Val asked.
"One of the rustlers," Scott replied. He took some shots at us from behind a tree but we got the better of him."
"At last," exclaimed Murdoch. "It's about time something went our way."
"And I take it he's leading us to Johnny, then?" Val asked.
Scott harrumphed. "So he tells us."
"And out of the goodness of his heart, I bet."
It was Jess who answered this time. "Let's just say we came to an understanding."
"Yeah, a little self-preservation goes a long way. Doesn't want his neck stretched huh?"
Murdoch scowled. "By God, if I don't get my son back alive, his he'll be lucky if stretching his neck is all he gets."
"That isn't helping, Murdoch," Scott growled at him quietly. "Right now he's all we've got to get us to Johnny. Did you get what you went to town for?"
"Yes," Murdoch answered, still glaring at Tunks.
"Alright, then we have a decision to make. We have only a few hours to either rescue Johnny, or meet them at the Falls as arranged. If all of us go with Tunks here, we're putting all our eggs in one basket."
"So you're sayin' your pa an' me should go wait there an' you lot keep going with this fella?"
There was shouting again outside, close to the door this time. Johnny stopped his work with the rowel and listened. It didn’t take much to understand that his life might just be hanging in the balance.
“You old fool! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The southern accent - it was Reb again.
“Open the door, Lucius. Open it now.” That was Stern. He was back.
“That old blunderbuss will go off in your face if you try to fire it,” Reb told him. “Give it to me.” The mocking tone was still there in his voice, but there was something else – uncertainty? Fear perhaps?
“Open that door right now and stand back,” Stern shouted. “I cannot let you do this. It’s bad enough that that devil you call your friend has done so much evil around here, but I cannot let you to this.”
“You won’t shoot me,” Reb said with a confidence that bordered on sarcasm and surprised Johnny.
“Like hell! You know you won’t. Now put that thing down and go back to the house, you damned old fool. And for the last time, mind your own business.”
“No. You’ve gone too far now, Lucius,” Johnny heard Stern say, this time with a hitch in his voice. “I won’t let you go any further – I can’t. Not even if I have to blow you to pieces with this shotgun. You have let your friends invade my home. You have stolen from my friends and neighbors. You have let that fiend commit murder and given him shelter in my own house. But no, not this, Lucius. I will take no more.”
He stopped for a moment, and then went on. “Murdoch Lancer has been my friend for years. His son, in there, is my friend too. I will not let you kill him.”
“Who said anything about killing him?” There was a snidely placating tone in the words this time. “We’re just holding him for money from his old man. Then we’ll hand him over. Fair trade. They can afford it. They’re rich. You call him your friend, but look how he lives and how you live. It ain’t fair that some have so much and the rest of us don’t.”
“He worked for it… worked hard. That is the difference, Lucius. You want it all, for nothing!”
“We’ll share in it all… you and me.”
“I’m not such a fool as you think, Lucius. That man you work for is the devil. No witnesses… is that not what he says? I have heard him. Will you kill me as well when he has no more need of me? Would you stand by and let him kill me too? Is that what you have planned?”
“Of course not.”
“Of course you would. You are as bad as he is. I curse the day you were born. Now get out of my way.”
There was quiet for a moment. Johnny strained to hear anything that might be being said.
“No, I know you better. You won’t do it!”
“I will say it for the last time. Open that door and stand back away from it, Lucius. I beg of you.”
There was scuffle. Johnny could hear enough through the door to guess that the two of them were struggling over the gun; and then there was the unmistakable explosion of a shotgun blast – both barrels.
A moment passed before there came the sound of a key rattling in the lock; followed by the doorknob turning. Johnny held his breath. Was it Stern or Reb?
Stern stood in the bright light of the doorway.
He beckoned quickly. “Come, Johnny. We must get out of here before the others come.”
“My legs are tied, Stern,” Johnny told him quickly, straining against the rope on his wrists. He could feel it nearly give. “You got a knife?”
Stern turned and hurried back outside. Now that his eyes had adjusted to the light, Johnny could see through the doorway the boots of the body lying on the ground. The rest of his body was mercifully hidden from sight by the wall. Both barrels of a shotgun at close range would have just about cut the man in half.
Stern ran to the body and disappeared from sight for a moment, then came back in with a knife in one hand and a rifle in the other. He cut through the rope around Johnny’s ankles first, as fast as he could. Then Johnny leaned forward to allow the man to get behind him and cut through what remained of the ropes around his wrists. It was soon done.
“We have to get out of here, Johnny. Before the others come back,” he blurted out. “Can you stand?”
Johnny flexed his hands and stretched his arms, re-awakening the vicious throbbing in his shoulder, and then he quickly rubbed some feeling back into his legs. “Yeah, let’s go.”
Stern dropped the knife and grabbed Johnny’s good arm to help him to his feet. Johnny picked the knife up as he rose.
“Come quickly. Their boss man will be here any minute. He is a killer, Johnny.”
“Is that right, Old Man?”
They both looked towards the voice. There was no mistaking who he was. He didn’t look at all like Jess Harper, though his build was similar and his hair was dark. And the scar was there - small but raised and wide. It stood out.
“I warned you, Old Man,” he drawled. “Told you what would happen if you interfered.” He smiled a smile that was pure evil. “And Reb ain’t here to protect you now, is he?”
“Harper, you bastard…” Stern began.
“He’s not Jess Harper, Stern,” Johnny said and watched surprise spread across the Texan’s face.
“What’d you say?” the imposter asked coldly.
“I said you’re not Jess Harper.”
His brows furrowed and narrowed his eyes. The evil in those eyes doubled in intensity. “Says who?”
“Says anyone who knows Jess,” Johnny told him. He tried to keep his voice steady and to sound unconcerned, despite being virtually unarmed and wounded.
Still, his hands were free now and that was something. And one of them held the knife. He knew what his odds were of a knife against a gun, even if he could manage to throw it fast enough and on target. His shoulder would make it hard, but he wasn’t going to let this bastard see any fear in him. Bravado it might be, but it was all he had left… and it was throwing ‘Harper’ off balance.
“And it happens I do know him,” Johnny continued. “You know? You don’t even look much like him really. So… what is your name?”
The Texan grinned. “Cocky bastard ain’t you?”
“And you’re a lying bastard.” Johnny threw right back at him. “And a coward too, I’m betting. You like to take on half-grown boys who don’t stand a chance against you. Easy pickings for a man like you. You really think that’s going to build you a reputation? You wouldn’t want to take on a man grown, like me, would you?”
The Texan laughed. “Ha! I’ve been around these parts long enough to find out who you are – and I’m not fool enough to take on Johnny Madrid, even with a bung arm. But right now, you don’t have that gun of yours on, do you? Seems like the perfect opportunity to take you down, Madrid.”
Johnny smiled malevolently. “Yeah, I thought so. Cobarde!”
“’Cobarde’ is right,” came a voice that Johnny recognized immediately. Johnny could see him through the doorway, behind his nemesis and about ten yards back from him.
‘Harper’ spun around in the doorway, crouching and reaching for his gun. But he was no match for Jess. Jess dropped and drew.
There was no real competition. Jess beat the fake easily, slamming a bullet through the man’s forearm so that he lost control of his gun and it dropped onto the dirt floor with a thud and a puff of dust.
Johnny leapt forward and picked up the stray gun and held it on ‘Harper’. “Meet the real Jess Harper,” he said. Then he glanced towards long enough to acknowledge Jess while holding his aim steady at the man on the ground. “And it’s damned good to see you, Jess. How the hell did you find me?”
“You’re easier to track than they are,” Jess told him with a smile.
“Johnny!” Scott was suddenly in the doorway. “Brother, I sure am glad to see you.”
Johnny nodded. “Not nearly as glad as I am to see you, Boston.”
He smiled. “I'll live...”
Slim was behind Scott, bent over the body of the man that he had come to understand was Reb. There would be no hope for him though. Now that Johnny could see him, Reb had indeed been blown to pieces by the shotgun blast.
Scott edged past Jess, now straightened up but still holding his gun on ‘Harper’. “Let’s take a look at you, Brother.”
Scott walked him over to sit him on a barrel in a corner of the room. He noticed the knife. “You’re not going to tell me you were going to try using that on him?”
“Better’n nothing, Scott,” he answered.
Scott sighed heavily but nodded. He undid the buttons on Johnny’s shirt and tried to ease it away from the wound. It hurt.
“Sorry,” Scott said quickly. “There’s blood caked on the shirt. It’s going to hurt some more before I can get a good look at it.”
“Yeah, thanks.” There was an ironic tone in Johnny’s voice, and he regretted it immediately. “Sorry, Scott. Go ahead.”
Jess had walked in to stand over the man who had caused him so much grief and anger. He frowned. “I know you…” he said hesitantly.
“Thought you said you’d never seen the fella?” Johnny asked.
“Not calling himself ‘Harper’,” Jess explained. “But this one I remember. Worked with him on a ranch outside Abilene, years back.”
Johnny could see that he was thinking back over the years.
“Rance… that was it. Rance Taylor,” Jess said. He looked over at Johnny. “He was a bully back then too; liked to pick on the new kids.”
The man sneered. “You ain’t no angel, Harper.”
Jess’ hand tightened around the handle of the gun, but he stopped short of doing what he obviously wanted to do. “No, but I don’t force harmless kids into fights they can’t win. Your type’s got no place on this earth, Taylor. There’ll be cheering when you swing.”
“Swing?” He laughed. “I ain’t gonna hang. I haven’t murdered anyone. You’ve got nothing on me for any of those deaths. Even the sheriffs all had to admit it.”
“Cattle rustling is a hanging offence,” Johnny pointed out, barely able to contain his own anger.
“And there’s no proof of that either.”
“Stern will testify.”
“That old fool knows nothin’.” He laughed. “He can’t say he’s ever seen me or even heard me talkin’ about it. You’re barkin’ up the wrong tree there.”
Johnny looked towards Stern and the forlorn look on his face confirmed what Taylor had said.
“A couple of years is the most I’d get for hijacking Lancer here. And I never even threatened him.” He laughed again, mocking them. “Reb’s out there dead so he won’t talk.”
Slim was at the door, his hand on Jess’s shoulder obviously trying to calm him.
“We do have one ace, Taylor,” he said, smiling. “That lookout you posted back at the fence, he’s not dead.”
Taylor scowled, less confident.
“Matter of fact,” Slim continued. “He’s very interested in saving his own neck. I think he’s willing to tell the law all they need to know.”
The man’s confidence shattered. He looked from one of them to another, then to the door, like a cornered dog.
“Make a move and I’ll willingly kill you,” Jess told him. “Just give me one little excuse.”
Taylor shook his head. “No, no… You need me. You need me to prove you ain’t me.”
“A corpse will do just as well. You left enough witnesses to those killings who will see the difference.”
“No… No. You can’t gun me down! It’d be wrong!”
“It’d be no less than justice,” Jess said coldly. “But I’d rather see you hang.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Scott said will stop “it’s crowded and I don’t like the smell of a Coward.” He helped Johnny to his feet. “Come on, Brother. I’m getting new home.”
“Town. We’re are all going into town to hand this bastard over.” He felt unsteady suddenly. “Not going to give him any chance to get away.”
“He won’t,” Scott assured him. “But town might be a better idea anyway. Doc Jenkins should be in Spanish Wells today anyway.”
They went outside then, Scott surreptitiously walking by Johnny side in case he needed help. Slim stepped forward with a length of rope and tied Taylor’s hands, ignoring the man’s protests about his bleeding arm. Jess held the gun on him all the while and waited until slim pushed Taylor forward and then walked him out the door. Then Jess followed them.
Stern Johannson was last. He stopped in the doorway, staring at the wrecked and bloodied thing on the ground that had been Reb.
Johnny watched him. The sun glinted on the tears in the old man’s eyes.
“Stern…” Johnny began.
“May God forgive me,” Johannson said quietly. He wiped away a tear angrily, and then continued in little more than a whisper. “May Lily forgive me.”
“Lily?” Johnny asked.
The old man didn’t lift his head. He couldn’t take his eyes off the body. “My wife…”
“Your wife?” Scott asked. “Stern, I didn’t know you were married.”
“It is a long time ago, Scott,” he answered. “We came by wagon train – Lily, me and the boy, Lucius.”
Johnny understood then if Scott and the others didn’t. “You’ve gone too far, Lucius”; “You won’t shoot me!” The sublime confidence in Reb’s voice had been the voice of a son using his father’s love against him.
He had forced his father into the ultimate betrayal… into making a choice that no man would ever have to make.
“There was an Indian raid not far out on the trail,” Stern continued. “Lily would go no further. She was too frightened. She joined some others and went back home with Lucius. They went back to her parents and I came on to make my fortune and bring them back here in comfort.” He shook his head sadly. “She was a stubborn woman, my Lily. So many times she refused to come. Then there was the war and she died. The boy broke his mother’s heart more than once, always with trouble with the law. He fought in the war, but he was no good… The war only made him worse.”
“Reb…” Scott said with sympathy in his voice.
“Ya, Scott, he was my son. I had not seen him since he was small, but for me it was not like your papa. My son was no good. He brought his friends and took over my house, robbed my friends and threatened me.” He looked up at Scott. “I know I could have told you that someone or even killed him sooner but…”
“But he was your son…”
“Ja, that was it. I could not bring myself to do it. Not until now. I could not let him and his friends kill Johnny… And I knew they would once they had the money.”
“I’m real sorry, Stern,” Johnny said softly.
“It was no fault of yours, Johnny. How could it be? No, it was Lucius’s own doing. But I could stand by no longer.”
“Well, I can’t say it hasn’t been an interesting few weeks,” Jess said. Slim stood with him smiled.
“That’s for sure,” he agreed. He finished off a cup of coffee and put it on the table. “I reckon it’ll be good to get home.”
“It’s some quieter there,” Jess told the rest of the room, but Slim laughed.
“Sure it is, Pard.”
Johnny and Scott both grinned and got to their feet.
“Well, it’s been a real pleasure meeting you both,” Scott told them. He extended his hand to shake theirs. “We’re sorry to see you go.”
“Like he said,” Johnny said, shaking their hands as well. “A real pleasure.”
“Com back, any time,” Murdoch agreed.
Teresa came forward and lightly kissed first Jess and then Slim on the cheek, standing on tip toe for Slim though he still had to lean forward to accept it. She smiled. “Next time, we’ll show you a less ‘interesting’ time.”
“Thank you, Miss Teresa,” Jess said. “Thank you all. Thanks for backing me up mostly. Without your help, I don’t know how far we’d have got.”
“You’re a good man, Jess Harper,” Murdoch told him. “And now the whole valley knows it. Everyone knows that it was Rance Taylor behind all the trouble now, not you.”
Jess nodded. “I can’t say I like hangings,” he said, touching his throat without really thinking about it. “But that was some crowd there yesterday to see Taylor take the drop.”
“I heard that people came all the way from Visalia,” Teresa said.
“Yep, they did,” Jess answered. “I saw Mary Kate an’ Mary Sue there. Sheriff McMurtry too. But I’m glad they didn’t charge Stern Johannson.”
“I can’t imagine having to kill his own son,” Teresa said sadly.
“Well, it’s done,” Murdoch said with a finality that they are all agreed with. “Time to let folks grieve who lost their boys and the rest of us to get back to some ranching.”
“And us to get back to Laramie,” Slim said.
“Are you going straight back?” Teresa asked.
“:Nope, stopping off to see my sister Francie,” Jess told her.
“Oh yes, you said that she lives out here.”
Jess nodded. “Yep. She’s got a little tyke I’d like to get a peek at.”
Slim laughed. “Francie named the baby after him.” He slapped Jess on the back. “Uncle Jess is real pleased with himself about it.”
“Aw, come on Slim. I ain’t made a big deal of it.”
“No, not lately anyway.” He turned to the others in the room. “You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face for a week when he first heard. He’s told the whole of Laramie.”
Jess scowled. “I did not.”
“Well someone did.”
They both grinned. “Daisy,” they said in unison.
Slim picked up his bag. “Time we went, I guess. We don’t want to miss that train.”
“And there is only one,” Scott agreed.
Johnny picked up Jess’s bag for him and walked over to his side. “We’ll have you hanging around here another two days if you miss it.”
Jess put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Sittin’ around, Johnny. Maybe even standin’ around. But I ain’t hangin’ around anywhere if you don’t mind.”
Even Murdoch laughed and they followed Jess and Sim out the door to the courtyard. Their horses were already waiting for them, saddled and hitched to the rail.
Johnny looked up and glanced down the drive. “Rider comin’.” He looked closer. “I reckon that’s Val.”
“Yep, sure is,” Jess agreed. He was pleased Val had made it before they left. He had seen him in town yesterday and had said goodbye then, but Val had been busy with a town full of strangers, in town for the hanging.
It was a couple of minutes before Val pulled his horse to a stop in front of them.
“Takin’ off without so much as a ‘howdy do’,” he growled. “That’d be right.”
“We were hoping you’d make it, Val,” Jess told him. “I gotta thank you for tellin’ me what was going on here so I could put it right.”
Val dismounted. “Sure, Jess.” He grinned, wide and cheerful. “You’re a troublesome cuss for sure, but it’s been good to see you again.”
Jess’s eyes twinkled. “Thanks, Val. Next time, we’ll make it Laramie.”
“Yeah, you never know.” Val shook his hand. “You take care, right?”
Jess and Slim mounted. “That goes for all you folks.” Slim told them. He pulled the reins up, ready. “Come visit some time.”
Val swung back up into his saddle. “I’ll ride with you as far as Green River. See ya don’t get into trouble.” He winked at Johnny.
Johnny grinned a broad mischievous smile. “Yeah, some people just attract trouble, I guess. Things should be nice an’ quiet around here once you two are gone.”