Out of the Past
“Well, well, well… Scott Lancer…”
Scott stopped abruptly. Beside him, Johnny walked on for another pace before he too came to a halt and took a sideways glance at his brother. There was a frown creasing Scott’s face.
There hadn’t been anything obviously threatening about the tone of the words, just a deep resonating voice from behind them, but Johnny was alert for trouble anyway. Strangers had a way of bringing out that wariness in him, even though it was Scott who was being called and not him. After a year of testing each other out; rubbing against one another and getting into, and out of, scrapes together, Johnny had come to treat any threat to Scott as, by extension, a threat to himself.
Slowly, and deliberately, Johnny turned around to see who was accosting his brother.
Scott turned as well and they found themselves facing a tall, dark-haired man – dressed in a dark gray town suit, a neat collar and tie and a hat that looked distinctly out of place in Green River. He was almost as tall as their father, and Murdoch was a giant of a man, but he was not as broad. He was thin, in fact, thin to the point of looking like a tall string bean.
The man was covered in layers of dust and the stage pulling out of the depot suggested that he had only just now arrived in town.
Johnny watched the man’s face, searching it carefully for any indication of a threat, but he found none in the grinning, friendly face. And he found that the stranger had his eyes directed straight at Scott and he, himself, might not even have been there for all the notice he was getting.
It was also immediately obvious that Scott knew the man. After only a moment of hesitation, put down to as surprise by his very interested brother, Scott smiled happily and exclaimed “Frank! What the hell…”
Hands were extended and were shaken eagerly. Scott clapped his free hand on the man’s shoulder. “What in the world are you doing here?”
By now, both men were laughing. Johnny dropped his guard with the evident signs of friendship between them and, instead, leaned back against a nearby post to watch them quietly. He crossed his arms and lazily lifted one booted foot up against the post, wondering how long it would be before his brother even remembered that he was there.
“I had business to attend to in San Francisco. I’ll be there for a couple of months sorting it all out,” the stranger explained between grins. “But I could hardly come all the way out here to California without looking you up.”
“I’m glad you did, but San Francisco is a long way from Green River, Frank,” Scott protested.
“Yes, it most certainly is,” Frank agreed with a laugh. “And, may I say, it was not the most comfortable journey I’ve ever made.” He dusted off the sleeves of his suit coat, one at a time, with a flick of a well-manicured hand, and then looked down at the rest of his clothes and sighed. “I thought the train was uncomfortable but that hellish ride in the stagecoach just about jolted every bone in my body out of its socket. You certainly found yourself a backwoods part of the world to move to.”
Scott laughed. “Actually, Green River is something of a metropolis compared to some of the other towns around here. But I don’t live in Green River. Lancer is quite a few miles from here. It’s pure chance that we had to come to town today to pick up some supplies we had ordered.”
‘We.’ Scott stopped. The word seemed to strike a cord in his memory. A wry smile lifted the corners of Johnny’s mouth as he watched Scott recall that he hadn’t been alone when all this had started. Scott turned to face him with a dawning glow of embarrassment.
“Sorry, Johnny,” he said with obvious remorse. Then he turned back to his friend. “Frank, I’d like to introduce you to my brother, Johnny Lancer. Johnny, this is my very good friend, Frank Deal.”
“So, you’re Johnny!” the man exclaimed excitedly. “Why, you’re not at all what I expected. But then, I didn’t really know what to expect. Scott has mentioned you often in the few letters I’ve had from him, of course, but the letters have been few and far between.” He cast a censorious glance at Scott and then turned back to Johnny. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“I suppose I have been writing less often,” Scott admitted. “Things have been… busy, since I came here.”
Johnny unfolded his arms to enable him to take the hand extended towards him and shake it with more curiosity than anything else. Unlike his apparent openness with Deal, Scott had never mentioned the man’s name to him. “You’re from Boston?” Johnny asked uncertainly.
“Yes, from Boston,” Deal confirmed. “Scott and I first met at college and then we joined the army together.”
“Is that right?” Johnny asked ironically, even more surprised that Scott had never talked about him. It looked and sounded like the two of them had shared a large part of their lives in each others’ company. “Spend time in Libby together too?”
“No, I was more fortunate in my service than Scott was,” Deal told him. “Scott transferred to a cavalry unit and I ended up in the Adjutant General’s office for most of the war. My father was determined to keep me out of the way of the Rebels.” He laughed. “So was Scott’s grandfather, but Scott got his own way in the end.”
Scott wrapped his arm around his friend’s shoulders. “How long can you stay, Frank?” he asked, still grinning with pleasure.
“A few days or so,” Deal replied, smiling. “I’ve ‘run away’ from all those boring business meetings for a while so that I could visit you. I hope you appreciate the lengths to which I’ve gone. I thought that stagecoach was going to be the death of me.”
“Oh yes, I know what the stage is like,” Scott agreed. “Not exactly built for comfort.”
“Tell me; is your father in San Francisco as well? Did he turn you loose on us or doesn’t he know anything about it?”
“No, he sent me to take care of the San Francisco opportunity on my own.” He laughed lightly. “I’m now a valued member of the business, you know.”
“All grown up?”
“Not quite, but I’m not sure that he will ever see me that way,” Deal answered, laughing. “Now, does this enchanting little village have a decent hotel?”
“It does,” Scott told him. “Just up the street. It’s not bad for a small town hotel either, but you can forget about staying there. You’ll stay at Lancer. Right, Johnny?”
It was no more than what Johnny had expected. “Sure. We got more rooms at Lancer than any of us know what to do with.” He smiled mischievously. “Kinda makes you wonder just how big a family ol’ Murdoch had in mind.”
“Murdoch?” Frank asked, turning to Scott. “Your father?”
“That’s right,” Scott answered.
“Will he mind an unexpected visitor?”
“No, not at all,” Scott insisted, shaking his head. “He’ll be pleased to meet you.”
“Yeah,” Johnny agreed confidently. “He won’t mind.”
“Now, where are your bags?” Scott asked, looking around at the depot behind them. A single suitcase stood near the door. “That yours?”
“Is that all you brought?”
“I travel more lightly than I used to,” Deal said with a smile.
Their relationship was obviously of long standing and Johnny, while pleased for his brother, felt the beginnings of discomfort. The two of them would have a lot to catch up on and Johnny wasn’t a part of that. “Scott, why don’t you get the bag an’ bring your friend on over to the wagon? I’ll go make sure the supplies are all loaded an’ pay for ‘em.”
“Weren’t you going to visit Val while you were here?”
“I can catch up with him next time I’m in town. He’d only offer me coffee anyway,” Johnny replied with a grin. With that, Johnny turned away. He wasn’t sure why he felt uncomfortable but the fact was that he did and he wanted to get away.
As the jangle of his brother spurs died away, Scott slapped his friend on the back and walked over to the waiting suitcase.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” he said, shaking his head.
“I have to tell you, Scott,” Frank said, looking Scott up and down. “I’m surprised that I even recognized you.”
Scott took hold of the handle of the bag and lifted it easily. “Really? Why?”
“You look different. Tanned and you’ve finally gained a little weight, I see.”
“Unlike yourself,” Scott replied, grinning widely. “And this is not just weight, Frank. It’s muscle.”
“Is it really?” Frank laughed. “Still, you always took such pride in your appearance, for one thing,” Deal explained uncertainly. “Back home, Scott Lancer had a reputation for being one of the best dressed men in Boston, but you look almost… well, scruffy.”
Scott looked down and took stock of himself. His brown trousers were dusty from the trip into town, but he’d seen them worse. His beige-colored shirt was one of his favorites and he’d put it on clean this morning. It still bore the creases where they should be, though he wore it open at the neck. His coat was also a favorite, one that he’d bought when he’d first come home to Lancer, and he took care to keep it in good shape.
He scowled at the dusty boots but he’d come to accept that he would never be able to keep them clean on the unpaved streets and roads. “Actually, I have the same reputation here,” he said equably. “Johnny thinks it’s a great joke.”
Deal shook his head. “And what about that gun? Why on earth would you wear one of those?”
Scott glanced at his hip. After months of Johnny reminding him to wear it, he’d become as comfortable with it as he was with his hat. “Look around you, Frank. I don’t exactly stand out by wearing it. It’s a necessary tool out here.”
“I suppose so. Still, it doesn’t seem like ‘you’.” He smiled. “Can you use it?”
“Of course, I can. I’d be a fool to wear it if I couldn’t.”
“Don’t take offence, Scott. It’s just that you look so different.”
Scott sighed. “I don’t live in Boston any more.”
“No, you certainly don’t. Do you miss it?” Frank asked bluntly.
Scott hefted the case to get a better grip. He took the moment to think about the question. He’d asked it of himself on more than one occasion over the past year. “In quiet moments, when I’m alone, I sometimes miss it,” he admitted. “But mostly, no. I don’t miss Boston, or my life there. I think I’ve found what I’ve always wanted right here. Now, let’s go and join Johnny at the wagon before he gets bored.”
“You make that sound as though it would be a problem.”
Scott smiled. “If he gets bored, he’ll go looking for something to do, and what he usually finds is trouble.” A glance to his side revealed a frown creasing his friend’s forehead. “Don’t worry. Johnny’s a good man. He doesn’t make the trouble, it just comes looking for him. You’ll like him,” he told Frank firmly.
Frank Deal walked quietly beside Scott as they made their way down the sidewalk. “Your brother doesn’t look much like you, Scott,” he said at last. “I expected there to be some resemblance.”
Scott only shrugged his shoulders. “We have different mothers… different backgrounds. It shouldn’t be so surprising.”
“But we’re fine. He’s my brother.” To Scott, it didn’t even make sense when he tried to put their relationship into words. In the year since they’d first met, the bond between them had become such that the single word ‘brother’ seemed to encapsulate it all. “That’s about all there is to it,” he explained.
“Sometimes that’s all you need,” Deal replied. They walked down the planked sidewalk towards the general store where the wagon, and Johnny, waited. Frank stepped aside to allow a plump matron, with a basket on her arm, to pass by. He tipped his hat politely and smiled suavely at her blushing titter, and then he rejoined Scott. He leaned closer and whispered, “Please tell me that there are females in this horrid little town who are worth the effort of the chase.”
Scott laughed. “Definitely. You haven’t changed at all, have you?”
A grin spread across Frank’s face. “Not that much, my friend.”
Scott stopped at the store. The wagon was there, laden with the supplies, but there was no sign of Johnny. He put the suitcase into the back of the wagon with the sacks and parcels, then turned around to see if he could find his brother.
“Do you think he’s found trouble?” Frank asked somewhat ironically.
“I’d say that he hasn’t had time to, but that’s not so in Johnny’s case,” Scott answered nervously as he looked inside the store in hopes of finding Johnny. “You only have to turn your back for a minute.”
He wasn’t inside the store, but Scott heard the telltale jangling of spurs coming from the alley around the side of the building. He waited for Johnny to emerge and found that he had Clive with him.
Clive nodded and grinned. “Thanks, Johnny.”
“De nada, Clive,” Johnny replied easily. “Just rest him for a few days.”
“Sure, Johnny,” the storekeeper assured him. “Thanks again.”
Scott cast a curious look at his brother who saw it and answered innocently. “Ol’ Clive’s not much of a horseman,” Johnny told him. “He thought his horse was lame and asked me to take a look at him. But it was just a little bitty stone wedged up against the shoe. Easy enough to miss if you didn’t look real hard but even easier to fix.”
“And he asked you to look at his horse? Do I gather from that, that you know a lot about horses?” Deal asked with interest.
Johnny looked at him and shrugged, a little coolly. “On the trail, sometimes your horse is the only friend you have,” he answered. “A man has to look after his friends.” He turned and walked to the wagon. “So, you two ready to head home?”
“Yes,” Scott replied. “Are all the supplies loaded?”
“All done, Brother.”
“Then let’s get going,” Scott suggested cheerfully.
Johnny stepped off the sidewalk and into the street. He walked around to the other side of the wagon and was about to get up into the seat. He got as far as reaching his hand up to gain leverage when he stopped, glancing back at Frank and then Scott. With a sigh he stepped back. “I don’t suppose your friend is gonna be real comfortable riding in back.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine, Johnny. I don’t want to start by putting you out,” Frank said with a smile.
“Do you mind, Johnny?” Scott asked.
“Nope,” he answered phlegmatically, walking around to the back. “Ain’t the first time I’ve ridden in back.”
Johnny leaned against a sack of potatoes in the back of the wagon. It was hard and lumpy and he wished he’d chosen the bag of oats instead. Hard as a rock it might have been, but at least there’d have been no lumps poking him in the back. No matter how much he shoved at the sack, there was one potato that just kept on rubbing his shoulder. He put his frustrations aside. With his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, he pulled his hat down over his face and closed his eyes, trying to ignore the bumps and jolts of every rut and stone in the road.
Scott and Frank were engrossed in swapping stories and laughing. Johnny listened idly for a while, but soon tired of it. The stories meant little to him. They talked of people he didn’t know and places he’d never been to. The shortened form of their reminiscences didn’t even make much sense to him.
He squirmed a little, trying to get comfortable in spite of the potatoes behind him and his foot bumped against something. Not surprising, considering that he was crammed in with the supplies, but he opened his eyes in annoyance just the same. It was Frank Deal’s bag that he’d kicked.
Johnny smiled and nudged it with the toe of his boot and was vaguely amused when it moved. He nudged it a little bit harder and watched it teeter to one side before it rocked back into place. Mischievously entertained, he moved his foot to kick the bag again when, suddenly, the wagon hit a rock and jolted hard enough to lift him inches into the air for a split second and drop him heavily back onto the floor of the wagon.
“¡Mierde!” Johnny swore quietly, as his head bumped against the back of the seat that Scott was sitting on. Why hadn’t he ridden Barranca into town this morning?
“You okay back there, Johnny?” Scott asked solicitously, holding the reins and glancing briefly back over his shoulder at Johnny.
“Oh yeah,” Johnny grumbled, pulling his hat back into place and resettling it snugly on his head. “I’m fine.”
Scott took him at his word and they drove on, Frank and Scott reliving old memories and Johnny half-dozing off in the back.
The road started to wend its way uphill. Johnny didn’t need to open his eyes to know exactly where he was. He’d been travelling the road for over a year now and he knew it well. When he felt the wagon draw to a stop, he opened his eyes, pushed back his hat and edged himself up on one elbow to look over the side.
“There it is, Frank,” Scott said pointing out the view with real affection. “Lancer. That’s the house down there. The ranch stretches right across to those mountains over there.”
“Very impressive,” Johnny heard Deal answer in a tone that suggested that he was only mildly impressed at best.
Johnny looked out over the familiar scene. From this hilltop, he could see the hacienda and its surrounding outbuildings, the arch under which they’d soon pass to reach the house, the pasture with good healthy cattle and men working them, even the cornfields out back that served as feed for the stock.
He remembered, as he so often did when he passed this spot, his first sight of that view; on a day not unlike this one when he’d been sitting in the back of this very wagon. He recalled the feelings the sight of it had engendered in him. After all the years of alternately wanting his father to come for him, and hating him for not, Johnny had wanted to be a part of that ranch down there. It had brought out something in him that he hadn’t even known existed.
Today, without the threat of land pirates to take everything from him before he even had it, and with a full crew of men to work the ranch, Lancer looked even better than it had on that day. A year of relative peace had allowed them to re-build Lancer to her former glory; something that Johnny was happy to have been a part of.
Of course, it hadn’t been without its problems. All of them had, and still had, to learn to live with one another… three grown men from three entirely different backgrounds trying to work and live together. It hadn’t been an easy thing to do, but blood seemed to have won out. They’d come to enjoy each others’ company, for the most part.
So, Deal’s understated reaction inexplicably irritated Johnny.
“Just how much land do you have, Scott?” Deal asked.
“One hundred thousand acres,” Scott replied, his voice echoing the pride they’d both heard in Murdoch’s voice that first day.
Deal whistled. It seemed that, this time, he was genuinely impressed. “Scott Lancer, cattle baron!” he said with a good-natured laugh. “So, it really is true – you’re a cowboy!”
“There are some who might dispute that description,” Scott remarked and Johnny couldn’t help but feel Scott’s laughing eyes on him.
A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed it. “Been a full month since I called you a greenhorn,” he answered lightly.
“Ah, acceptance at last,” Scott said ironically.
“Yeah, well, don’t let it go to your head.”
Scott slapped the reins and the wagon lurched forward. The ride downhill to the ranch rattled his bones just as much as it had that first day – the day he and Scott had come home. Only it hadn’t been home then – just a big house and a man whom both he and Scott had grown up hating. It was the one, and only, thing that the two brothers had had in common back then.
Well, it was home now and he was going to be damned glad to get there. He figured he’d be bruised all over by the time he got out of this wagon. When they’d left this morning, he hadn’t planned on making the journey back from Green River in the company of oat sacks and bags of potatoes, especially in the hot sun. ¡Dios! They hadn’t even taken the time for a drink at the saloon!
“Greenhorn?” Deal asked curiously.
“A beginner,” Scott explained, preferring to leave out the derogatory nature of the expression.
They passed under the shadow of the arch and, a few minutes later, they pulled up outside the barn. Gratefully, Johnny sat up and stretched his back, resettled his hat and then stood up in the wagon tray. Scott jumped down from his seat just as Jelly Hoskins appeared at the doorway of the barn.
“Howdy, Boys. You’re back early! Saloon closed or somethin’?” Jelly asked with jovial sarcasm.
With one hand lightly resting on the side of the wagon, Johnny jumped over to land neatly on his feet. On solid ground, he stretched his back again and rubbed an irritated spot on his shoulder where that one damned potato had persistently dug in. “Picked up a stray, Jelly,” he said. “Thought we’d bring him home with us.”
Jelly looked up and noticed the stranger sitting on the wagon seat. His clothing must have given him away since Jelly asked casually, “Friend o’ yours, Scott?”
“Sure is, Jelly,” Scott told him cheerfully. “This is Frank Deal. We went to college together. Frank, this is Jelly Hoskins – Man of the World. He’s the man who really runs this ranch.” He grinned as Jelly puffed out his chest. “Just ask him and he’ll tell you so.”
The old man scowled at him, raising a laugh from Scott as he slapped him on the back.
“Well, now ain’t you in a good mood?” Jelly told him. “Maybe you oughta have friends drop by more often.”
Scott walked around to the rear of the wagon and reached over the tailgate to pull out Deal’s bag. “I’d have no problem with that, Jelly,” he said happily. “Come on, Frank. I’ll take you in to meet my father.”
“Johnny an’ me can take care o’ the supplies,” Jelly told him amiably. “Ain’t that right, Johnny?”
“Sure. Go ahead, Scott. The two of us can unload the wagon.”
“Thanks, Johnny. I’ll see you inside later.”
Johnny nodded and watched Scott walk into the house with his friend, Deal dusting a whole new layer of dust from his clothes and the two of them laughing as they went through the doorway. Something unfamiliar teased at Johnny for a moment but he shrugged it off and unlatched the tailgate and lowered it.
“Come on, Jelly. Let’s get to it.”
“We roomed together in college,” Frank explained. “I remember, in the first weeks, thinking I was stuck with a terrible snob.” He grinned at the affronted expression on Scott’s face. “Sorry, Scott,” he said affably. “But you were awfully anti-social.”
“I was not. I just hadn’t been away from home before.”
Frank nodded and turned back to the rest of the party. “Yes. It took me awhile to work out that he was just shy.”
Scott blushed hotly, his embarrassment heightened by Johnny’s low laughter from across the table.
Johnny avoided his brother’s eyes, still grinning as he concentrated on spearing a piece of beef with his fork. “Yeah, that’s our Scott – shy as a mouse,” he said quietly, lifting his head to reveal a pair of blue eyes flashing with fun. “Timid, you might even say.”
“I grew out of it,” Scott said firmly, directing his words across the table towards his brother. Then he turned back to his friend, sitting beside him. “And you certainly weren’t the easiest person to live with either. You snore!”
But Deal only laughed it off and continued. “When I first met Mr. Garrett, I saw why Scott was so stuffy,” he said, smiling. “Sorry, Scott, but your grandfather is kind of an elitist.”
Johnny glanced up quickly. “You know Garrett?”
“Why, yes, of course,” Frank answered, obviously surprised by the question. “Not well, but we travel in the same circles. We still meet occasionally, mostly at social gatherings.”
Johnny looked towards Murdoch and Teresa noted a moment of unease on both of their faces, but it was soon gone from Murdoch’s. “Stands to reason that you would,” Murdoch said, frowning a little in Johnny’s direction. Teresa guessed it was a warning. None of them had a fondness for Scott’s grandfather after his one and only visit to the ranch.
Frank didn’t seem to have noticed anything in their reactions and went on with his stories.
“Once he became a little more human, Scott got to be quite a practical joker. He instigated some of the pranks that are still talked about at the college to this day.”
Teresa giggled. She was enjoying the easy camaraderie between Scott and his friend. And she liked Frank. Tall and handsome with brown eyes and a deep cultured voice that held her transfixed whenever he spoke; Teresa couldn’t keep her eyes off him.
She caught an amused look on Murdoch’s face, though he refrained from joining in the laughter.
“Scott did? Really?” Teresa asked, surprised and intrigued. “Like what?”
Frank laughed. “Well…” Frank began, but Scott shook his head in dismay.
“Oh, no! No, you don’t, Frank. None of those old stories…”
Frank laughed, but it was Johnny who spoke. “Come on, Scott. We wanta know what you got up to in that misspent youth of yours.”
“My youth was not misspent, Johnny,” Scott insisted.
“Really, Scott?” Frank asked. “What about the bull?”
“What bull?” Murdoch asked.
“He left a bull in the dean’s office one night,” Frank explained, grinning. “The dean came in next day and bolted in terror. I heard that it was days before the office was clean enough to use again.”
All eyes turned to Scott. “That’s a gross exaggeration of the facts,” he told them defensively. “It was a cow… a very docile cow.”
Johnny was grinning broadly. “And here we all thought you didn’t learn how to wrangle cattle ‘til you got here.”
“How did you get it into the office?” Teresa asked, laughing.
“No one knows,” Frank told her. “And he never told anyone either. But he’s most remembered for the yacht that he deposited in the forecourt.” He laughed again, watching Scott’s discomfort. “Since the court was surrounded by buildings on all four sides, no one has ever figured out how he managed to get it there.”
Teresa giggled. “Did you get into trouble, Scott?”
“I denied it then, and I deny it now,” he replied innocently.
“But they knew you did it?” Johnny asked dourly.
“Let’s just say that he was credited with it. It was never actually proven,” Frank told them. “If it had been, he probably wouldn’t have graduated, for all of his grandfather’s money.” He laughed lightly. “The dean was a little upset.”
Teresa laughed with him. “I can’t imagine Scott doing things like that,” she said. “Now, if you were talking about Johnny, then I could believe it.”
“Thanks, Teresa,” Johnny answered sarcastically.
She giggled again and begged Frank to tell them more. To Scott’s chagrin, it didn’t seem to take much pleading and Teresa listened happily to his stories.
While Frank talked, Scott alternately laughed and blushed with embarrassment or continued to deny it all. Murdoch seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the glimpse into Scott’s past, but Johnny became quieter and less inclined to join in the conversation as their dinner progressed.
As they finished the dessert of apple pie and cream, the discussion turned to their professors and even to the subjects that they’d each studied.
It was then that Frank seemed to realize how quiet Johnny had become. “And what about you, Johnny? Where did you study?”
Teresa knew that he meant only to bring Johnny back into the conversation, but a deafening silence filled the room. Johnny kept his attention firmly on nudging what was left of the pie around his plate for a moment but, finally, he answered. “Didn’t have much time for schooling, Frank.”
He said it without looking up, concentrating on the plate in front of him. “I learned from experience.”
“But you must have gone to school as a child, surely?”
“Frank…” Scott began, but Johnny answered him.
He looked up. “I learned all I needed to know in more practical ways.”
“About horses, you mean?”
He stopped for a moment and then smiled, though there was no humor in his eyes. “Yeah, horses.”
“Johnny, that’s enough,” Scott told him quietly.
“Why? Don’t you want him to know all about me?”
Johnny turned to face him, anger lighting his face. “It’s who I am. Just like Boston is who you are.”
“It’s who you were,” Scott reminded him.
Johnny stopped and finally sighed. “Yeah, it’s who I was,” he agreed and looked down at his food again. “Past… over and done. Better not to remember it, let alone talk about it. Right?”
Silence engulfed the table and they all went back to eating. Johnny finished before anyone else, rose from the table and announced that he was heading for bed, pleading tiredness.
“Already?” Scott asked, surprised.
“I think the sun got to me comin’ home,” Johnny told him.
Murdoch pushed his chair back with a small scrape on the floor. “I was looking forward to finishing our game, Johnny,” he said as he got to his feet.
“Too tired for chess tonight, Murdoch. I’ll finish you off tomorrow night,” he answered with a smile.
“Chess?” Frank asked. “You play?”
“He plays a very good game,” Scott told his friend.
Teresa saw Frank’s skepticism in his face. “Really?” he said.
Scott must have heard the doubts in Frank’s voice. “He might not have the kind of education that you and I have had, Frank, but Johnny has a quick mind. He learns fast.”
Johnny looked away and Teresa couldn’t see his face, but she didn’t like the direction the talk was heading. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he said quietly and left without another word.
“What was that about?” Scott asked no one in particular.
Murdoch sighed and headed for the Great Room. He poured a glass of brandy for Scott and for Frank as they followed him. “Like he said, Scott, he’s just tired.”
Murdoch looked up as Frank Deal came into the kitchen. Both Scott and Johnny were at the table with him and Murdoch had been pleased to see that whatever had gotten under Johnny’s skin last night seemed to have cleared up. Johnny’s mood this morning was no different from any other morning.
“Good morning, Everyone,” Deal said with a yawn. “I thought I was up early. Do you people always get up at this hour?”
“Yep,” Johnny answered lightly before popping a piece of biscuit into his mouth.
Scott grinned. “You get used to it, Frank.”
“Not if I can help it,” Frank told him, pulling out a chair from the table. He looked around him at the plain kitchen table and the pots, pans and workbench. Maria was busy at the stove, muttering in rapid Spanish. “Do you usually eat in the kitchen?”
“Dinner is the only formal meal we have. This is simpler most of the time. We’re in and out at different times,” Scott explained. “It’s a lot easier on Maria if we just eat here.”
Frank looked dubious, but said no more on the subject. Maria walked over to place a plate of ham and eggs in front of him. “You would maybe like café, Señor?”
“Yes, thank you. White with two sugars.”
“Si, Señor,” she answered and walked off to get it.
“Johnny, Scott, what have you two got planned for today?” Murdoch asked casually.
“North pasture,” Johnny told him, swallowing the last of the biscuit and picking up his coffee to take a sip. When he’d finished, he put the cup back on the table and added, “It’s been pretty dry an’ that waterhole up there’s not real deep. Might be dryin’ up.”
Murdoch nodded. “Good idea to check it. We don’t want any cattle getting caught in mud holes,” he agreed. “Both of you going?”
“Yep,” Johnny answered, taking another mouthful of coffee.
“Well, actually, there’s a change of plans. I’m taking Frank on a tour around Lancer,” Scott corrected him.
“Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing your ranch, Scott,” Frank added. “You don’t mind, Mr. Lancer?”
“It wouldn’t take two of us to check the pasture anyway,” Scott suggested.
Johnny’s eyebrows lifted and he glanced at his brother over the top of the cup. Murdoch couldn’t tell what was going through his younger son’s head. When Johnny didn’t want his thoughts known, there was no seeing them.
“Johnny?” he asked.
He shrugged his shoulders idly. “Sure, only takes one.”
“I could have Hank go with you, if you think you’ll need a hand,” Scott suggested obligingly.
“Nope, I can handle it,” Johnny repeated. He finished off the coffee and got to his feet. “Better get goin.”
“I’ll see you tonight then, Johnny,” Scott said, smiling. Then he remembered something else. “Oh, and can you tell Jelly to saddle up a horse for Frank?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah. A nice quiet one?” He looked towards Frank. “You do much riding, Frank?”
“I go when I can,” Frank replied confidently.
Johnny answered with a smile. “A quiet one,” he decided aloud and picked up his hat from its place hanging on the back of his chair. He dropped it on his head and tightened the stampede string, then headed for the back door.
Maria stopped him as he passed her. She held out a package wrapped in paper. “Unos bocadillos, Juanito,” she said, shoving the package into his hand.
“Sandwiches? Ah, muchas gracias, Maria,” Johnny answered and gave her a light kiss on the cheek. “Usted es muy atento.”
Maria waved her hand at him dismissively. “De nada, Señor. ¡Marcharse! Go!”
With a grin, he left. Murdoch smiled. Maria looked after them all, but she seemed to have developed a soft spot for Johnny. Maria, in the meantime, came to the table with a cup and the coffeepot and poured coffee for Frank.
“Thank you,” Frank said quietly.
“De nada, Señor,” she answered with a smile and turned to Murdoch and Scott. “¿Más cafés, Señors?”
“No, gracias, Maria,” Murdoch told her.
“No, thank you, Maria,” Scott echoed and she went back to the stove.
With that, Murdoch pushed back his chair and got to his feet. “Frank, I hope you like what you see today. It’s not as green as it is in the spring, of course, but there’s still plenty of good graze out there. We’ve had a pretty good year.”
“From what I saw yesterday, I’m sure I’ll find it very impressive, Sir.”
“Scott, don’t wear your guest out,” Murdoch quipped. “Lancer’s too big to see it all in one day.”
Scott laughed. “Yes, Sir. We’ll be back in time for dinner. I’ll see if Maria has some more of those sandwiches to take with us.”
“Good, good. Well, I have work to get done,” Murdoch told them. He headed for the back door in Johnny’s wake. “Enjoy yourselves.”
When he was gone, Frank started into the meal in front of him. “You live a very different life here, Scott,” he said. “I can’t imagine what your grandfather must have thought of it when he visited. He was always such a stickler for formality.”
Scott sighed. “Yes, he is. But don’t be misled. Murdoch’s just as strict about his rules.” He smiled. “When we got here, Murdoch told us that he’d ‘call the tune’… and he does.”
“And you have no problem with that? I mean, he was a stranger when you got here and I seem to recall you had no fondness for him when you spoke of him in the past.”
“True, and I can’t say that it’s all been easy. But it has all been worth it, Frank.”
Frank finished the last of his coffee and shook his head in disbelief. “The only time you ever mentioned your father to me, you did it with such venom that I thought you hated the man.”
“I suppose I did,” Scott admitted. “Johnny certainly did, too. But things weren’t what we’d been led to believe, Frank. By the time we started to sort the truth from the lies in our lives, we realized we might as well just start over. That’s what we’ve done, and it works for us.”
“You really are happy, aren’t you?” Frank said.
“Yes,” Scott told him without hesitation. “Now, finish up and I’ll show you Lancer.”
Three men rode quietly into the bustling town of Green River. They drew little attention from the townspeople, all too busy with their chores and their own business to be concerned with anyone else’s, let alone strangers.
The men rode down the main street and stopped at the saloon, dismounted and tied their horses to the rail, then disappeared through the doors. There was nothing unusual about them. They brushed off the trail dust from their clothes and became three ordinary men.
Only one person really noticed them. They, and any strangers in town, were his business. While, from first glance and sometimes even long and studious observation, Sheriff Val Crawford looked deceptively slovenly and inept, those who knew him were well aware of how seriously he took his job.
Val ambled into the saloon an hour later. He’d seen the strangers walk out and head for the hotel up the street already.
“Hey, Sheriff,” the barkeep greeted him as Val let the batwing doors swing closed behind him.
“Howdy, Harry. How’s things?”
“Too early for much yet,” Harry answered.
“Had some strangers in,” Val said, walking over to the bar and leaning his elbows on the polished surface.
The barkeep nodded. “Yeah, no trouble though. Just had themselves a beer each and asked if there was any work around.”
Harry shook his head uncertainly. “Guess so. Lookin’ for ranch work. Asked if there was any decent sized ranches hereabouts where they might land a job. Told ‘em Lancer was the only one might be, but I ain’t heard of much goin’ right now.”
Val nodded. Just three cowboys looking for work.
It wasn’t so bad riding out by himself. Johnny liked working with Scott but he had learned to be comfortable with his own company a long time ago. While living at Lancer and having family and friends around him was great, every now and then it felt good to just kick up dust and spend some time alone.
Johnny nudged Barranca into a canter as he headed towards the north pasture. He’d chosen a horse for Frank and had one of the hands saddle it for him, ready to go, but he hadn’t waited around to see how he handled the animal. Johnny seriously doubted that Deal had ever had to saddle his own mount in his life. He seemed to be everything that Johnny had once thought that Scott would be.
But while Scott had surprised him, time and again, Johnny didn’t think that Frank would. He wondered idly whether the man could ride at all, then felt guilty about thinking it. He had no reason to think badly of the man. And it wasn’t that he didn’t like Scott’s friend. He had nothing against him and he sure had no problem with Scott having a friend come to visit.
He left the road and rode up a low rise and a shrill whistle caught his attention. He pulled up and looked down to see two of the Lancer hands rounding up strays. He sat watching the vaqueros, drinking in the pleasure of watching men and cowponies working as one, while he wondered at the feelings of pride that it brought him.
Even after a whole year at Lancer, that feeling still surprised him. It seemed to have crept up on him sometime over that year.
Another whistle, the calls of the men urging their horses and chasing the cattle… it evoked satisfaction in Johnny that was alien to the world in which he’d grown up, just as much as it was to Scott. It was something they had in common, even though each had no real understanding of the way the other had spent their lives.
One of the men looked up and noticed Johnny watching. “Hola, Señor Johnny!” he called amiably.
“Hola, Ruiz,” Johnny called back. He smiled and then pressed Barranca on up the rise.
It took a couple of hours to make it to the gate of the North Pasture and, by then, the sun had gotten damned hot. He stopped at the gate and pulled off his hat, wiped his sleeve across his sweating forehead and then grabbed his canteen. The water was already tepid, but it was a welcome relief just the same.
Fastening the canteen back into place on his saddle, Johnny leaned forward and opened the gate and rode in. Closing it behind him, he looked ahead at the pasture. The grass still had a tinge of green left in it, but that wouldn’t last much longer in this heat. Summer was coming on early this year and it was shaping up to be a real scorcher.
Water would be at a premium and, while the rest of Lancer had ample supply, most of this pasture was too far from the river to stay green for long. There were a few small creeks, but they had dried up quickly last summer and Johnny figured they’d do the same again this year. The waterhole that he’d talked about to Murdoch was probably already well on the way to being dried out already.
He rode on, noting the condition of the cattle he saw along the way. They weren’t in bad shape, but they would have to be moved if he found the waterhole and the creeks dry. The cattle out here, further away from the hacienda than the other pastures, were less used to having men ride through and ran into the scrub as soon as they sensed his approach. Rounding them up and moving them to another pasture would be time-consuming and hard work.
He hoped that it hadn’t gotten to that point yet.
Johnny crossed the first of the creeks. There was still water running in it, several inches deep and crystal clear. Good news… it would last a while yet.
When he reached the second creek, he found it shallow but still running. He began to feel more confident.
He let his mind run to Scott again, wondering if his friend was appreciating Lancer. They wouldn’t come out this far, Johnny was certain. And that was probably just as well. Frank wouldn’t think much of the scenery in this pasture. But Lancer wasn’t all about the land and the cattle. Lancer was about family now, in a way that it hadn’t for twenty long and lost years.
Johnny hoped that Frank would come to understand that, but he knew it was hard for outsiders to realize what he and Scott and Murdoch, even Teresa, had now.
And there was something else. The fact that Frank Deal had ever had anything to do with Harlan Garrett was troubling for Johnny. What if the man was an emissary of that crafty old man in Boston? Johnny wouldn’t put it past Garrett to have sent him.
He had to admit that the ‘Boston’ connection had stirred some dying embers of concern.
There had been two well-remembered meetings with Scott’s ‘back east’ associates – his grandfather, who had been prepared to do anything to get Scott to go back with him to Boston and who had nearly gotten Scott killed… and Dan Cassidy, who had tried his hardest to get Scott killed just for the sake of it. But, more than their treachery and the physical wounds he’d suffered; it had been their betrayals that had caused Scott the most pain. It was enough to make Johnny nervous of anyone from Boston.
He sighed. Of course, on the other hand, it was natural that Frank Deal would know Harlan Garrett. As one of Scott’s close friends, Frank was bound to have been invited to the house.
His musings were cut short by a mournful sound ahead of him. He’d heard it often enough to know that it was a calf in trouble. It was coming from the direction of the waterhole he’d been heading for, so he spurred Barranca forward.
The waterhole came into sight as soon as he topped the rise. It was a natural crater surrounded by low rises that was fed only by rainfall. With no creek to continue feeding it in the dry weather, it dried out quickly and became a clay mud pit - a trap for unsuspecting animals determined, or desperate enough, to try to get to the last remaining water in the middle.
For that reason, Murdoch had long ago fenced the waterhole off, with two gates that were left open to give the cattle access to the water when it was there, but closed when it became a bog, like now.
It was soon obvious that the calf had tried to get to the one puddle of water left in the waterhole. It was a few months old and had some size to it and its mother stood at the edge of the mud, unable to help it in any way but with instincts that kept her close while it bawled.
“¡Carajo!” he swore, urging the palomino down the hillside to the edge of the mud. The calf must have struggled hard against the mud and it had mired itself right up to its shoulders. There was no chance of it getting itself out.
Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and dismounted, taking a good look at the calf from where he stood. It was about thirty feet away from him but he could see that it was still in reasonably good condition. It couldn’t have been in there for long.
Seeing him, its bawling had become louder and more desperate and its mother was becoming agitated. He slapped her on the rump to move her and she skittered nervously aside, stopped and waited uncertainly as her instincts warred with each other – to run off or to stay close to her calf.
He judged that, if he could get the calf out of the mud, it was still strong enough to survive, particularly since its mother had not abandoned it. The trouble would be in getting it out. Roping it would be easy enough – a stationary animal and not too far off, it made an easy target. He sighed heavily, unconvinced that it would work. That calf looked mired in too well.
Grabbing the rope from his saddle, Johnny lengthened the loop and spun it over his head until it had some speed to it. Then he tossed the loop and watched it settle gently over the calf’s head. The calf shook its head in agitation, but the loop held its place and Johnny pulled just hard enough to tighten it around the animal’s neck.
With a good grip on the rope, Johnny tried pulling harder, hoping to give the calf enough leverage to help itself out of the mud’s hold. The small animal bawled loudly and struggled against the rope. At the edge of the waterhole, just near Johnny, its mother lowed in answer, edging closer.
This was getting them nowhere, and the rope was tightening around the calf’s neck so that it would either strangle or break its neck in getting free. Johnny relaxed the rope and sighed. There was only one way that he’d get the calf out.
“¡Dios! Just my luck,” he said to himself angrily. He turned back and tied the end of the rope to the pommel of his saddle. “Looks like I’m gonna have to get myself dirty, Barranca.”
Sitting down, Johnny unfastened his spurs and took them off, then dropped them on the ground and got to his feet. He took off his hat and tossed it on the ground beside them, then looked down at the gun at his hip and considered taking it off but, if anything went wrong and he needed help out there, a gunshot might be the only way to call for help. He left it on.
He walked over to the edge of the mud and stared disconsolately at it for a moment and then at the calf. “Damn you, you fool animal,” he said crossly and stepped into the mud.
The mud was slippery underfoot. It squelched like a fresh cowpat.
Johnny stopped, groaned at the thought and then made sure of his balance before putting his weight on his foot and taking another step.
The calf began bawling again. “Hold on, little one. I’m coming,” Johnny said to it as he took yet another step. His boot stuck in six inches of mud and he almost overbalanced trying to pull it out. “Things I do for dumb animals.”
By the time he was within arm’s reach of the animal, Johnny’s boots were completely submerged in cloying, foul-smelling mud and his legs were heavy from the exertion of constantly pulling his feet free.
With one more step, he reached the calf and gently put his hand on its head to calm it. Its first reaction was to struggle again, pulling its head back and jerking dangerously on the taut rope. It bawled in panic while Johnny stroked it reassuringly.
“Easy, little one,” he whispered. “Easy does it. This ain’t gettin’ you anywhere.”
It stopped fighting him and turned a wide pair of eyes on him that would probably have melted the cold heart of the devil himself. “That’s right, take it easy. I’ll get you out of here.”
He loosened the loop around the calf’s throat, then pulled it over its head. All four of the little animal’s legs were mired up to the shoulders. He stuck his hands into the mud and tried to pull one of the front legs free, but the mud was too thick.
Shaking his head in dismay, Johnny saw no way to free the calf of its trap than to try to lift it bodily. It wasn’t a small calf, probably a few months old and with some weight on it. Combined with the suction of the mud, it wouldn’t be an easy task.
“Alright, Little one,” he whispered again. “Time to get you outa this. Just don’t go kicking me while I’m trying to help you.” He stroked its head one more time and then leaned over to wrap one arm around its chest and the other around its rump. It wriggled and squirmed in his arms. “Come on, little one, hold still an’ let me do this.”
Johnny firmed his grip on the animal and put his back into lifting it free. It didn’t come free. Johnny felt it move a little but the mud held tight to its prey.
“¡Dios!” Johnny cursed and relaxed to ready himself for another try. “Okay, little one, let’s try that again.”
He tightened his grip again and strained against the hold of the mud. He felt it give and heaved some more, the muscles in his arms tensing almost to a cramp, his back tightening under the strain. He was almost ready to give up and let go when, with a loud ‘squelching’ sound, the calf pulled free.
It was so sudden that Johnny overbalanced completely and fell backwards with the mud-caked calf still in his arms. “Dammit!” he cursed softly.
Johnny pushed the calf aside, hoping it wouldn’t manage to mire itself again, and put his hands down into the mud to lever himself back onto his feet. “Yuck!” he groaned. “Just what I needed to make my day.”
He crawled back to his feet, looked down at himself and shook his head at the state he was in. Suddenly, something occurred to him and he glanced down to his side. He shook his head at the sight of his Colt covered in a layer of mud.
“¡Mierde!” he swore. There was no way in hell that it would fire like that. He looked across the mud to where Barranca stood patiently and realized that the horse would be his only help now if he needed it. He was alone. It was an unnerving thought and that surprised him. Johnny had had to rely on himself for most of his life. When had that changed?
He fought off the thought and looked at the calf. “Alright, little one. Let’s get ourselves outa this mess.” The cow at the bank of the waterhole lowed loudly. “Sounds like your ma’s gettin’ herself all worked up over there.”
He grabbed the rope, pulled it over his head and tightened it under his arms, knowing that he might need it. Then he picked up the slimy calf and started for the bank. His leg strained against the mud’s hold, almost pulling his foot out of the boot, but it came free. He took a step forward and then tried the other leg. When it came free he stopped, panting from the exertion.
With the dirty sleeve of his shirt, he wiped away the sweat from his face and squinted across what now seemed like an endless quagmire. With the heavy bull-calf in his arms slipping constantly in his muddy hands, his legs leaden and his back aching from the constant fight to pull his legs free.
The time had come to get some help and the only help around was his horse.
“Barranca!” he called and startled the calf into squirming again. “Back up, Barranca. Back, Boy.”
He saw the horse’s ears prick and it looked out across the mud at him, but did as it was told. Barranca steadily backed one pace and then another and Johnny felt the rope tighten across his chest.
With Barranca’s next step, he was pulled hard into the soft mud, the calf still squirming in his arms. Rolling onto his side so that he could keep hold of the bawling, writhing, panic-stricken animal, Johnny grimaced at the pressure of the rope under his arms as he was slowly but steadily pulled from the waterhole.
“Whoa, Boy,” he called out as he got to the edge of the thick, slimy mud. He had no desire to be dragged over the dried out mud that ringed the hole. “Whoa, Barranca!” he called again and the horse came to a stop and turned its head back to look at him. “Good boy,” Johnny said reassuringly.
Johnny lay there for a moment. He loosened the rope and took a couple of deep breaths, then got unsteadily to his feet. Setting the animal down, he waited to see if it had the strength to go to its mama on its own. Sure enough, the ungrateful little beast wobbled for a moment and then high-tailed it to the cow’s side. She checked it over, nuzzled it once and then led it away without as much as a backward glance at him.
“Dumb animals!” Johnny laughed, then looked down at himself. He was covered in mud. His feet even felt wet and taking one step towards Barranca, he felt the slimy mud inside his boot. “Damn! Ain’t this just great!”
He took hold of the rope around his chest and pulled it over his head. The rope had fared no better, covered in the muck – a new rope too.
“Easy, Barranca,” he said soothingly as he walked over to the horse. He wound the rope up and hung it from his saddle where it belonged. Already, he could feel the mud on his face drying, tightening and caking on his skin. “Looks like we’re gonna have to go find us the river, Boy.”
Johnny bent low to pick up his spurs and hat, his breath catching at the aches in his body, shoved the spurs into a saddle bag and walked Barranca up the rise – uncomfortable, annoyed and glad there was no audience to witness the indignity of it all. He stopped, pulling the creaking disused gate closed after them, then climbed atop his horse and rode slowly around the waterhole.
The fencing needed repair in a couple of places and one whole section needed redoing. He’d have to come back tomorrow with wire and tools and get it done. Reaching the gate at the opposite side, Johnny pulled it closed and then headed west towards the river. He planned to get rid of the mudpack he was encased in before anyone saw him wearing it.
Johnny heard them laughing outside well before they came into the kitchen. Scott was still grinning when he came over to the table, pulled back a chair and turned it backwards and sat down. Frank was soon beside him, but remained standing and watching Johnny at work.
“What’s all this?” Scott asked and Johnny glanced up from what he was doing to look blankly at his brother. It seemed a dumb question. What he was doing was fairly obvious.
“Cleanin’ my gun,” he answered flatly.
“Well yes, I can see that. Why?”
“Got some mud on it,” Johnny told him and went back to his task.
Scott frowned and reached out to touch Johnny’s shirt. “You’re wet. Don’t you think that can wait until you get yourself cleaned up?”
Scott picked up the soaking wet leather gun belt that lay on the top of the table and looked at it carefully. “Just how much mud?” he asked, frowning.
Johnny only shrugged. He had no intention of describing the whole undignified incident for their amusement. He’d never live it down.
Murdoch appeared at the doorway from the Great Room. “Scott! I thought I heard you come in. How was your day?”
“Better than Johnny’s by the look of it,” Scott told him with a broad grin.
Murdoch smiled and looked down at his younger son. “No doubt. How’s it coming, Son?”
“Nearly done,” Johnny answered, without looking up.
“Well, try out the action unloaded before you fire it. I don’t want you blowing your hand off,” Murdoch advised him seriously.
This time, Johnny looked up at him and scowled. “Think I don’t know what I’m doing?”
“Oh, I know you do, Johnny. But be careful anyway.” With that, Murdoch turned towards Scott and Frank. “Did Scott show you over the ranch?”
“Yes,” Frank answered. “It’s impressive. Much bigger than I expected.”
Murdoch nodded, obviously satisfied. “Scott, can I see you inside for a minute. I want to go over a couple of things in that Henderson contract with you.”
“Sure.” Scott got to his feet. “I’ll be right back, Frank. And, Johnny, get into some dry clothes before you catch your death of cold.”
With his father and brother gone, Johnny found himself alone with Frank Deal for the first time. But he was engrossed in what he was doing and not inclined to get into small talk.
“Surely, one of the men could do that for you, Johnny?” Frank asked, watching Johnny’s fingers at work with interest. “Scott’s right. You should get out of those wet clothes.”
“Si! I tell him so, Señor,” Maria said, popping her head up and calling out from across the room. “But no, his pistola es más importante! Ay!”
“A man has to look after his own tools,” Johnny said quietly, deftly putting the gun back together.
“Like you said about the horse yesterday?” Frank asked.
This time, Johnny looked up. “Yeah, that’s right.”
"But I’m sure that if the gun is damaged, Mr. Lancer would compensate you for it. Wouldn’t it be easier to just get a new one?”
Johnny scowled. “I like this one. But if I have to buy a new gun, I’ll buy it myself, Frank.”
“Oh, yes, of course. I didn’t mean…”
“Yeah,” Johnny said flatly.
Frank turned the chair that Scott had vacated around to face the table and sat down, watching Johnny. “You’re very good at that. I don’t think I’d know where to start.”
“Been doing it for a long time,” Johnny told him, snapping the cylinder into place and looking over the results of his work. The gun looked fine, but he’d have to try it out to be sure. He’d had it for a lot of years and it had seen him through a lot of gunfights. And it was comfortable… as though it had molded itself to his hand.
No, he didn’t want a new one.
He thumbed back the hammer and squeezed the trigger. With a sharp ‘click’, the hammer hit the empty chamber and Johnny nodded. “Think it’ll be okay.”
He turned his attention to the leather belt and pulled all the bullets from the loops. They’d been muddied up and then wet. Sure, they might fire, but he wasn’t going to trust his life with them. Better to just throw them out and replace them with new ones.
“I’ve never been much good with guns,” Deal said, leaning back in the chair and throwing one arm lazily over the back. “But I recall that Scott was a fair shot with a rifle by the time he came back from the war.”
“Yeah, he is,” Johnny replied, cleaning the last traces of mud from the belt with a wet cloth. It would need some oil once it dried out, but that would wait. Finished with the gun and happy that he’d done his best to keep it in good condition, Johnny was ready for a hot bath and those clean clothes everyone was so all-fired determined to get him into.
“And yourself?” Frank asked pointedly, but with curiosity in his voice.
Johnny looked at him and smiled a smile with no mirth in it. “Sure, I can handle a rifle, but I can handle a Colt a whole lot better.”
Jake Mills was the youngest of the three… only just turned twenty. But he had big plans for his future. He figured he was fast enough with a gun to make his living hiring out and he kept his eyes and ears open for any chance to build himself a reputation.
His companions had been at the game for years and Jake figured he could learn from them. Take Tom Reece… a hard man with a face disfigured from a knife slash down his left cheek years ago. But the man was smart. He’d assumed the role of leader of the three without a word.
“Lancer… that’s it all right,” Reece said firmly.
“Big ranch, they say,” Jake added. “Lotsa people ‘round.”
Reece nodded. “Yeah, can’t just walk into a place like that. Have to find somewhere quiet.”
“How we gonna do that? We don’t know the layout o’ the place,” Jake asked.
“Have to find us someone who does, then.” Reece stood up and walked over to the window. “The saloon tonight should be a good place to find us someone. Have to do it nice an’ quiet. Don’t want no one thinking we’re asking questions. Might spook ‘em.”
Jake grinned. “Don’t want that. We might never get near him.”
The third man in the room sat at the table with Mills, idly turning the lamp wick up and then down again. Anyone watching might have thought that he was paying them no attention at all, but Bert Hastings was a man of few words at any time. He pursed his lips and thought for a moment before finally joining the conversation.
“Ain’t likely we’ll be lucky enough to get him on his own,” he said, still playing with the lamp.
Reece nodded. “Well, you never know, Bert… you never do know. A chance is all we need.”
With dinner over, Teresa sat happily watching Johnny and Murdoch again playing the chess game they’d had going for almost a week now. Last night’s uneasiness seemed to have dissipated, to her relief. Scott was showing Frank some of the books in the bookcases that took up a large part of one wall.
“I must say, I’m impressed, Mr. Lancer,” Frank said, his deep voice carrying across the room to where Teresa was sitting. “The ranch is far more than I had expected. And some of these books are certainly not what I would have thought to find in the library of a ranch house.”
Murdoch looked up from the game and Teresa watched him nervously. What had obviously been meant as a compliment could easily be misconstrued. But he seemed to decide to let it go by. “Thank you,” Murdoch said politely and turned back to the game.
“You’ve built a ranch to be proud of, Mr. Lancer,” Frank continued. “I’m sure that Scott had no idea that he was heir to such a place.”
“One of them,” Murdoch said, an edge to his voice.
Frank noticed and reddened. “Yes, of course…”
Scott took over and led his friend into safer conversation. “Do you know if Lowell is still lecturing at Harvard?” And from there, the two of them lapsed into memories and reminiscences once more. Only Teresa noticed that Johnny was occasionally distracted by their laughter and glanced their way.
“What do you have planned for tomorrow, Johnny?” Murdoch asked as he moved his king to protect it, yet again.
“There’s some fencing down around that waterhole in the north pasture,” Johnny told him. He didn’t take his eyes off the board at all. “Have to get it done right away. The waterhole is just about all mud now.”
"Mud, Johnny?” Scott asked, smirking mischievously.
“Yeah. A bull calf got himself mired in the stuff. Had to get him out.”
Johnny moved his bishop and grinned at Murdoch’s frown. “How much of the fencing needs work, Johnny?” Murdoch asked, his eyes roaming the board for his next move.
“One section needs to be restrung,” Johnny told him. “Rest mostly just needs tightening an’ such.”
“You and Scott could get it done tomorrow morning then and be back to finalize that contract and sign it.”
“Murdoch, I was planning to take Frank up to Black Mesa tomorrow morning,” Scott interrupted. “He’s never seen wild horses.”
Murdoch looked away from the chess board to his older son. “I have most of the men working the herd tomorrow, Son. I don’t think I can spare anyone else to go with Johnny.”
“If it’s inconvenient, Scott…” Frank began.
“It’s okay, Murdoch,” Johnny said amiably. “Like I said, there’s only one section down and a few repairs to do. Scott can spend the time with Frank.”
Scott’s face showed all the gratitude that Teresa knew he felt. “I’ll make it up to you, Johnny.”
“Yep. You will,” Johnny told him, grinning.
“Alright, Johnny,” Murdoch agreed. “Then we’ll go over the contract first thing in the morning, before you all leave. Get it out of the way.”
“Good idea,” Johnny said, watching Murdoch make the move he’d hoped for… planned for. It was all he needed to get this game over and done. “You know how I feel about paperwork anyway.”
He moved his bishop into place and sat back, grinning with satisfaction. “Checkmate, Murdoch.”
Murdoch scowled and looked at the board closely. He shook his head and laughed. “I knew it was coming but I couldn’t get out of it,” he told him, sitting up. “Good game, Son.”
“That was a nice move, Johnny,” Frank congratulated him. “Especially for a beginner.”
“What makes you think he’s a beginner?” Scott asked.
“Well, I suppose I just assumed that you must have taught him since you came here,” Frank answered, shrugging his shoulders.
“No, Johnny’s been playing for years,” Teresa told him. She suddenly found herself annoyed, knowing that Johnny had been upset by the discussion of his education, or lack of it, last night. “He beats Scott at Chess all the time.”
“Not ‘all the time’, Teresa,” Johnny corrected her ironically.
She found herself turning crossly at him. “Often enough!” she pointed out.
“Teresa, Frank didn’t mean…” Scott began but she cut him off.
“Maybe not, but Johnny is NOT just some dumb cowboy. He might not have gone to college like you but he did teach school for a while, remember?”
Scott nodded patiently. “I know and no one is saying anything of the sort. Right, Johnny?”
Johnny’s discomfort was obvious and he merely nodded and answered, “Sure.”
“I’m surprised to hear that you taught school, though,” Frank added, and held his hand up defensively. “And, please, I mean no offence. I just wouldn’t have thought you were the type to teach.”
“I’m not,” Johnny told him, grinning. “I got talked into it and I was only filling in ‘til the teacher could take over.”
“Just the same, you did a good job, Johnny,” Murdoch assured him. “I saw you with those children and you handled it well.”
Johnny ducked his head at the unexpected praise.
“Exactly,” Scott agreed proudly. “My brother is full of surprises, Frank. Personally, I was more surprised that he agreed to do it than that he was able to do it. After all, Catha was there to take him through the lesson that he had to teach next day and, like I told you, Johnny learns fast.”
Teresa felt her heart drop. She knew how much those few days had meant to Johnny and she knew that he kept a little tin star that the children had given him hidden away in a drawer. She was sure that there was disappointment in his eyes when he looked up, so his reaction didn’t astonish her.
“Yeah, with enough time an’ patience, you can train me to do all kinds o’ tricks,” Johnny said sarcastically and got to his feet. “I’m going out for a little air before I turn in.”
With that, he left.
“Scott, how could you?” Teresa demanded, standing up and glaring at him.
“Teresa, how could I what?” Scott argued crossly.
“You made it sound like he was some sort of ‘puppet’ teacher or something.”
“That’s not what I said. It’s certainly not what I meant.”
“Well, I’m going to talk to him,” she told him hotly, but stopped at Murdoch’s shake of the head.
“No, let me go,” he said quietly and followed Johnny out the door.
Murdoch watched his son as he walked over to the adobe wall that surrounded the front garden. There was something off about the way he was moving, though he wasn’t limping at all. Johnny put his hands behind him on the wall and hoisted himself up to sit on it, wincing just enough to confirm Murdoch’s suspicions.
Walking quietly over to join him, Murdoch asked, “You okay, Son?”
Johnny was surprised. “Huh?”
“Did you hurt yourself today? You haven’t said much about that calf or the waterhole.”
Johnny shook his head. “Just strained a few muscles,” he said lightly. “Guess I must be gettin’ soft.”
“No, I’ve pulled a few calves out of mud over the years,” Murdoch told him. “It sounds easier than it is.”
“I have some liniment that might help.”
“Thanks, but don’t worry. I won’t die from a few aches an’ pains.”
Silence fell for a long moment and Murdoch leaned his back against the wall beside his son. There was just enough breeze to rustle the leaves of the bushes behind them and the air was cool after the heat of the day.
Finally, Johnny sighed heavily. “I overreacted, didn’t I?”
“Scott didn’t mean anything by it, Johnny. You know how he feels about you.”
“Yeah, I know.” He looked down at his hands, clasped tightly in front of him. “And Frank seems like he’s alright. Don’t know why I feel like I do.”
“How do you feel?”
He didn’t answer for a moment, but Murdoch left him to find the right words. “Like I’m not one of you when he’s around, I guess,” Johnny eventually said quietly.
“Not one of us?” Murdoch asked, stunned. “What do you mean? If this is about your education…”
Johnny shook his head, still keeping all of his attention on his hands. “No, it’s not just that. Frank seems to think I’m just a hand around here. It’s “Scott’s” ranch… “Scott’s” cattle. You’re “Scott’s” father and he’s your heir…”
“I corrected him on that,” Murdoch pointed out defensively.
Johnny smiled. Even with his head bowed, Murdoch could see it. “Yeah, you did. Thanks… but Scott doesn’t.”
Murdoch thought about it. “I think Scott is excited to have him here. He probably hasn’t even noticed it.”
“I know,” answered dejectedly, then suddenly chuckled lightly. “Boy, he sure is excited, isn’t he? Don’t blame him for that. They’re good friends, I reckon.”
“Yes, I think they are. They have a lot in common that neither of us can ever be part of.”
“Yeah. Guess so.”
“Do you think maybe you’re feeling just a little bit jealous of Frank?” Murdoch asked warily.
Johnny looked up at last, looking straight into his father’s eyes and frowning. “Jealous? Why should I be?”
“Scott’s spending all his time with Frank, laughing and talking about things we don’t know anything about.” Murdoch shrugged. “I’ve felt the same way myself, now and then.”
He watched Johnny’s face as he considered the idea. “Could be, I guess. Hadn’t thought about it.”
“Does what Frank thinks of you mean so much?”
Johnny laughed. “Hell, no!”
“Well, Frank is only here for a few days, Son.” He put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder reassuringly. “And he may be Scott’s best friend… but you’re his brother. Remember that.”
Murdoch took his hand away and turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. “And, Johnny,” he said, firmly. “You are part of Lancer. Don’t ever doubt that.”
“Thanks, Murdoch,” Johnny said quietly and went back to studying his hands. Murdoch left him like that and went back inside.
“The contract is pretty straight-forward,” Murdoch told Johnny as he picked it up and handed it to his younger son. “You just have to read it over and sign it.”
Johnny sighed as he took the sheaf of papers and started reading though it.
“Yes, but I’m not sure that I like that late penalty, Sir,” Scott pointed out from his place beside the fireplace. He was leaning comfortably against the wall. “It’s too high, especially for delivery of one bull.”
Frank came into the Great Room, smiled and greeted everyone, and then, seeing the papers in Johnny’s hands, realized that they were discussing business. “I’m sorry. I can come back later if you like.”
“No, it’s fine, Frank,” Murdoch told him. “It’s just a matter of signing it. Take a seat. We’ll be finished with this in a minute.” He turned to his elder son. “Scott, I agree, the penalty is more than usual, but Lancer has never been late with a delivery and I don’t intend to start now. I’m not worried about it.”
But Johnny was frowning. “I don’t know, Murdoch. I think Scott’s right. It is high. Besides…” he stopped and leaned over the desk, then looked at Murdoch. “You got that map handy?”
Murdoch pulled a drawer open and took out a folded map. “Here it is. Why?”
Johnny unfolded it and laid it out flat. He looked it over carefully. “Henderson’s ranch is here, right?” he asked, pointing to the spot.
Scott walked over to the desk, curious to see what his brother had in mind.
“That’s right,” Murdoch confirmed, glancing at the place on the map.
Johnny said nothing for a moment, studying it closely. “Then we have to cross the river at Berrigan’s Ford.” He pointed determinedly to the spot. “I don’t see any way round it.”
Murdoch looked again at what Johnny was pointing to, this time with a scowl.
“What of it, Johnny?” Scott asked.
“I know that ford, Scott,” Johnny said, turning his head away from the map to look at him. “It’s fine most of the time, but you get even a little rain up there in the hills and it flows right on down to the ford and floods it. You spit in that hole and you can’t cross it for days. You sure wouldn’t get ol’ Herbert across it like that.”
Scott scowled and studied it. Then he stood up straight and shook his head. “That’s why the penalty is so high, Murdoch,” he said crossly.
“Henderson stands to get a lot of money out of us if we get stuck there,” Murdoch agreed. He looked the map over again. “Yes, Johnny’s right. That ford is unreliable and I don’t see any other way we could go. We’d better send this contract back to Henderson with some changes to those penalties.” He looked up at Johnny. “Glad you spotted that, Son. Good work.”
“De nada, Murdoch,” Johnny answered modestly, but obviously pleased with being given some credit. He straightened up.
“Murdoch’s right, Brother,” Scott told him. “We’d have walked right into that.”
“The ford might be clear when we get there,” Johnny told him. “Might be nothin’ to worry about, but I think it would be taking a chance.”
“We don’t take chances with Lancer,” Murdoch said determinedly. “I’ll send this back and let you both know what Henderson says.” He turned to Johnny. “Are you heading up to that waterhole this morning?”
“Yeah, after I try out my gun. Wanta make sure it works okay before I go.”
“Do you mind if I come and watch?” Frank asked casually.
Johnny shrugged. “No reason why not. But it’ll be kind of boring. I’m only gonna see if it fires without blowing apart.” He grinned.
“I’m not at all familiar with handguns,” Frank explained. “It might be interesting to see.”
Johnny led the way out back and over to stand about thirty yards from the fence-line. There was open space and no one was likely to walk past. Scott stopped Frank far enough behind Johnny that they wouldn’t be in his way.
Johnny pulled the gun from the holster, then slid it back and repeated the process, making sure that the leather allowed the Colt to slide out easily. Satisfied, he aimed the gun and sighted it, then pulled the trigger. Still not loaded, there was nothing more than the hollow click of the day before, but the action seemed fine.
Then, one by one, he took the new bullets from his gun belt and loaded five of the chambers. Scott watched nervously but his brother seemed unconcerned as he lined up the pistol and squeezed the trigger. The explosion was no different from any other gunshot and a splinter of wood leapt off the top of the fencepost.
“Do you think he was he aiming at that post?” Frank asked quietly.
“Oh, I’d say so,” Scott told him with a grin. “Johnny doesn’t miss what he aims at very often.”
“Then that is very good shooting,” Frank declared.
“The gun seems okay, Johnny,” Scott called out.
Johnny turned around and smiled at him. “Yeah, didn’t pull any different either.” Then he turned back and fired two quick shots at the post, hitting it both times.
Scott noticed Frank tense beside him. “He’s a fine shot, Scott,” Frank said quietly.
“He’s a little more than that, Frank,” Scott answered, just as quietly and, as though to prove it, Johnny slid the gun into the holster and waited just a moment before pulling it back out and fanning the hammer twice with lightning speed.
Frank gasped as both bullets tore into the top of the post, but Johnny didn’t seem to hear or notice his reaction. He just reloaded and dropped the gun back into his holster, then turned around to them. “Works fine,” he said and headed back into the house.
“I believe that was the most outstanding exhibition of shooting I’ve ever seen,” Frank told Scott as Johnny disappeared through the door.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Scott replied casually. “Johnny has that reputation.”
“Does he? Then not everyone out here can shoot like that?”
“No,” Scott stopped and considered his next words carefully. “Frank, Johnny was a professional gunman before he came back to Lancer. Probably the best in this part of the country,” he told his friend with a hint of pride in his voice that surprised himself. He hadn’t been sure about telling Frank, hesitant about what his friend would think. After all, Frank was only going to be here a few days and he didn’t understand how things were here. But, now that he’d said it, he found that he didn’t care what Frank thought. He felt a lot of things about Johnny’s reputation, but shame had never been one of them.
“A professional gunman? How do you mean?”
“Johnny was a gunfighter.”
Frank’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean like in those dime novels people read?”
Scott laughed. “I haven’t read any of them, so I can’t really say. But Johnny did hire out as a gunfighter. He makes no secret of it.”
“Isn’t he dangerous to be around, then?”
Scott shook his head. “He’s given up that life, Frank.”
“I see,” Frank said quietly, though Scott wasn’t convinced that he did.
“You will, Frank. He’s a good man.” Scott decided to let the subject go. “We’d better get going or we’ll never get up to that mesa,” he said and led the way around the house to the barn.
“You need a hand with that, Johnny?” the young cowhand asked as he wandered out of the barn and over to Johnny’s side.
Johnny was in the yard near the corral, packing the equipment he’d need onto a pack horse. There wouldn’t be enough to justify taking a wagon and it would slow him down too much anyway. The mare was sturdy and good natured, ideal for this kind of work.
He reached down and picked up a thin roll of barbed wire.
“No thanks, Pat,” he answered, concentrating on what he was doing. Straightening up, he slipped it into a canvas bag and then attached it to the pack. He wanted to make sure that the wire with its sharp prongs wouldn’t burr the horse. “Just about done.”
“You headed off on your own again?” Pat asked, putting one hand lazily on the horse’s rump. It shifted uneasily and Johnny snagged a finger on the wire.
“Yeah,” he said tetchily, putting the blood-spotted finger to his mouth. Pat had only been at Lancer for a couple of months. He wasn’t long on brains but he seemed to be a hard worker and friendly enough. He was young, probably only about seventeen, but neither Murdoch nor Johnny thought that he’d ever make a top hand. The boy did a good enough job, but no more.
“The boss wants me workin’ with the herd or I’d come help ya,” Pat told him. “Seems like you’re spendin’ a lot o’ time by yourself, these days.”
Johnny grinned at him. “Can’t complain about the company then, can I?”
Pat laughed, his unruly dark hair falling into his eyes. He pushed it roughly aside and answered. “Nope, guess you’re right there. Where ya headed with all that fencin’ gear?”
“Waterhole in the north pasture needs closing off. Shouldn’t take long.”
“Scott takin’ that fancy eastern dude sightseein’ again, Johnny?”
“Yeah, guess he is.”
Pat kicked at the dust at his feet. “Scott sure is spendin’ a whole lota time showin’ him round. Ain’t seen none o’ your friends get that sorta treatment.”
Johnny looked up and frowned at the presumptuousness of the boy’s words, then went back to distributing the load evenly on the horse’s back. Without looking at him, he answered coolly. “None o’ my friends are exactly ‘fancy eastern dudes’, Pat.”
Finished with the load, he fastened off the pack and then checked the strong broad girth and the breeching rope one last time before he untied the lead rope from the corral fence. He turned around at the sounds of footsteps behind him.
“Hi, Johnny,” Scott said cheerfully.
“Scott, Frank,” Johnny replied.
“Pat,” Scott said amiably. “How are you this morning?”
“Just fine, Scott,” he answered, straightening and looking away towards the barn. “Just fine. Got work I oughta get done before I head out. See ya,” he added and walked away.
“You two still headed for Black Mesa?” Johnny asked.
“That’s right,” Scott answered. “I’m hoping to find some horses up there.”
Johnny nodded. “There should still be water there so you might be lucky. Saw some mustangs out that way a few weeks ago.”
“Good! We can ride with you until you have to turn off for the North Pasture.” Scott’s eyes lit up with inspiration. “In fact, why don’t you come with us? The fencing has waited this long. It can wait until tomorrow.”
Johnny shook his head determinedly. “Nope. We nearly lost that calf there yesterday and it’ll happen again. It’s a bog up there, Scott,” he explained. Then he grinned. “’Sides, Murdoch’d skin me if I left it an’ you know it.”
“Alright, then I’ll go up there with you and we’ll get it done together. We could have it finished in half the time and still be able to make it up to the mesa and back today.”
Frank interrupted. “I’m sure Johnny can handle it, Scott. There’s no need for you to do that.”
Scott turned a curious eye on his friend. “What?”
“I don’t expect you to reduce yourself to fixing fences on my behalf.”
Scott swung around. “Frank…!”
But Johnny turned away before Scott could finish. He walked the packhorse over to where Barranca stood, saddled and waiting. “Don’t worry ‘bout it, Scott,” he said, mounting Barranca without a backward glance. He pulled his hat up and settled it comfortably on his head and turned the horse to leave. “I’ll see you tonight.”
With that, he kicked his horse forward and was gone. Scott watched him ride out and then turned angrily back to his friend. “What the hell did you mean by that, Frank?”
Frank was taken aback. “I just meant that it wasn’t necessary for you to have to help with fence repairs.”
“You mean get my hands dirty?” Scott demanded.
“It’s not how I would put it, but yes,” Frank agreed.
“Frank, what do you think I do here? I string fences all the time,” Scott told him coldly. “I also rope and brand cattle. I dig post holes and I clear creeks just like anyone else here. This is a ranch, Frank, and I work here.”
Frank looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Scott. I suppose I assumed that, with your education and background, you’d be more responsible for the bookwork while Johnny is more… physical.”
“Oh, thanks!” Scott said heatedly and stalked over to the corral fence. After a few moments, Frank joined him. “We’re equal partners in this ranch,” Scott told him. “We do equal work.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you, Scott.”
“It wasn’t me you offended,” Scott said angrily. “And that’s not the first time you’ve brought up my ‘education’ in front of him, Frank,” Scott said, thinking about it. “I want you to understand something. Johnny might not have gone to Harvard, but he’s no fool either. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating him.”
“Well, yes, I must admit, his grasp of that contract surprised me,” Frank admitted, leaning his back against the corral fence.
“Well, it didn’t surprise me. He sees things from a practical angle.”
Frank crossed his arms and tilted his head as he considered his friend thoughtfully. “I’m intrigued by your relationship with Johnny, Scott. It must have been a shock to find out you had a brother.”
Scott nodded, cooling a little. “It was… for both of us.”
“And yet you seem to think a lot of him. I wouldn’t have thought so. He’s such a sullen young man.”
“Sullen?” Scott asked quickly, stunned. “Johnny?” He thought about it. Johnny had been strangely quiet over the last couple of days, but he would never describe his brother as ‘sullen’. “No, he’s impulsive, sometimes reckless and even damned mischievous at times, but not sullen.”
“Hmm… then I haven’t seen him at his best, that’s for certain. I know you must feel compelled to respect the blood ties you have, but you are from such different backgrounds. I just don’t see how it can work.”
Scott shook his head. “We have nothing in common; and everything in common,” he tried to explain. “When we first came here, we were both strangers – to each other, to Murdoch… to this kind of life. We were ‘fish out of water’ and neither of us felt we belonged. We had a lot to learn and we both had to prove ourselves.”
He stopped for a moment, before continuing. “I think I should explain something so that you know exactly where I stand on this, Frank. I respect Johnny for who he is. I trust him implicitly and he’s more than ‘my brother’, he’s my friend. I can’t imagine life without him now.”
Frank seemed surprised, but he nodded and laid his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Then I’m happy for you, Scott.”
“Good, now let’s go find some wild horses.”
Pat wasn’t riding towards the herd. Not yet. He had something to do first.
He felt bad about it. The Lancers were good bosses – all of them. He’d found work hard to find since his pa had died – and even harder to keep. Seemed like he’d been hired to help with round-ups and branding at one ranch and then another. But they always let him go when it was done.
It seemed to Pat that he worked for long hours and got paid real short money for his sweat. It got to him some days, so he’d sneaked out of the bunkhouse last night and headed into Green River. He’d downed a good few drinks before running into Reece and his men. Reece’s offer sounded real good by then.
Briefly, he wondered what those three had planned. It seemed like they were offering a lot of money for a little bit of information. Still, why should he care? The Lancers didn’t give a hoot about him, any more than any of the other ranchers he’d worked for. They’d let him go just as soon as this herd was rounded up, just like the others had.
When Scott Lancer and his dude friend had ridden out, Pat had taken his opportunity and headed off to meet Reece before going to join the rest of the hands out with the herd. It was all too easy.
Unexpectedly, a horse and rider appeared out of the bushes on the road beside him. It took him by surprise, even though it was the man he’d come to meet. Reece looked different this morning. In the light of day, that scar on his face gave him a grim, almost satanic, look. The cold eyes only served the heighten Pat’s sudden fear of him.
“Well?” the man with the scar asked impatiently. The other two appeared on their horses and stopped on either side of him.
Pat held his horse steady and wondered, not for the first time, if this had been such a good idea. But there was money in it, good money. He’d have to work hard for two months to make himself that much. And he’d agreed to it. These three didn’t look like the type to go back on your word to. A man just might get himself killed that way.
“Scott and the dude are headed for Black Mesa. That’s way up at the end o’ the north pasture,” he told them. “Johnny’s headed out to work on the fence at the waterhole in the north pasture. He’ll be in sight or shout of ‘em for a while, but not once they get near the mesa.”
The man he knew only as Reece grinned with satisfaction. “You done good, Kid,” he said. “That’s all I needed to know. Come to the hotel tonight for the other half o’ your money.”
The boy didn’t need a second chance to get out of there. He left with a feeling that he’d done something real wrong, but the thought of that fifty dollars was just too appealing. There were a lot of things he could do with that kind of money. But he didn’t think he’d go back to Lancer. If things got ‘awkward’, he wanted to be well out of it.
No, he’d head for Green River and be done with it. With that sort of money, he didn’t need to wrangle cows anyway.
He was nearly out of earshot when he heard Reece’s words behind him and shuddered. “Just what we need, Boys,” the man said. “Now, let’s go find us a likely spot. And one thing – there’s a change in plans. I want him alive.”
Johnny rode the low ridges, heading the same way he’d gone yesterday but feeling none of the blithe spirit that had filled him then. All he felt today was alone.
Maybe Murdoch was right and what he was feeling really was jealousy. It was kind of new to him. Oh, he’d envied kids when he was small – children who had so much more than he had, like parents who loved them, a home and a decent life. But he’d soon figured that it got him nowhere. It sure hadn’t changed anything and he had learned to just make do with what he did have.
He had never envied Scott’s schooling or upbringing and he didn’t now. It had just happened that things had been different. Besides, Johnny had always sensed that Scott hadn’t been as happy growing up as most people thought. Even with all he had had, something had apparently been missing and Johnny suspected that it had been the same thing he had wanted himself – the father who had, they’d both believed, cast them off.
He heard hoof beats and glanced down the hillside. There they were, Scott and Frank, riding at an easy pace towards the mesa. Johnny could hear them laughing as they got closer. The scene in the yard this morning ran through his head again. It confirmed what Johnny had been seeing in Frank for the last couple of days. The man had patronized him constantly and Scott had either not seen it or had ignored it.
But he’d been right in telling Murdoch that he didn’t care what Frank thought of him. So why did it even bother him?
Johnny felt a surge of anger rise within him, but not at his brother or even at Frank. He was angry with himself. Scott was so delighted to have Frank around that Johnny knew he couldn’t begrudge him the visit. And Johnny didn’t actually dislike Frank.
Well, all this thinking wasn’t getting him anywhere and he had work to do. He gave a sharp tug on the pack horse’s lead rope and pressed Barranca into a canter, then headed off for the waterhole.
Scott had heard the rider on the ridge beside them and looked up. He’d thought it might be Johnny and he was right. Johnny was riding slowly with the packhorse behind and Scott caught a glimpse of him looking down at himself and Frank for just a moment before Johnny took off.
He watched him until he lost sight of him over the ridge.
“Was that Johnny?” Frank asked.
“Yes, I wish he’d decided to come with us.”
“Would your father have minded so much?”
Scott shrugged. “What Johnny was thinking about was an incident just after we came here. He left some work unfinished and ended up in an argument with Murdoch.” Scott sighed heavily. “Johnny left. He didn’t plan on coming back.”
“What changed his mind?”
“I think he’d had second thoughts even before I found him and talked to him. But I couldn’t change his mind. Then the friend he was traveling with died. I suppose he realized how much he was walking away from… and I don’t mean Lancer.”
“You mean his family?” Frank asked.
“Yes, but it’s been hard for him to settle into the routine.” Scott looked wistfully at the ridge where Johnny had been a moment before. “He hadn’t had anyone telling him what to do before.”
“Surely there must have been someone there when he was growing up,” Frank said.
“No, apparently not. He was just a boy when his mother died.”
“Well, he seems to accept whatever you or your father tell him to do now.”
Scott turned to his friend and scowled. “Murdoch runs Lancer. I don’t give orders to my brother. What made you think that?”
Frank looked vaguely uncomfortable. He moved restlessly in his saddle before answering. “Just that you told him that he’d have to check that pasture without you. And again, today.”
“Frank, I didn’t order him. Those were favors,” Scott told him, stunned. “He knows that I’d do the same for him.”
Frank cleared his throat uneasily. “I must have misunderstood.”
“I think you must have.”
“So, he came back and stayed. I imagine you’re right, then. A gunfighter trying to be a rancher must have been hard.”
Scott nodded. “It hasn’t been easy for either of us.”
“And yet, you’ve stayed as well,” Frank said, smiling. “I have to admit that it surprised me. I wouldn’t have thought that you’d enjoy this sort of life. It’s not what you were raised to.”
Scott thought about what his friend was saying. “Frank, after the war, the Boston social world just didn’t hold anything for me. I was drifting, I suppose. I had some hard memories to try to forget.” He stopped, not wanting to touch on them. The war and Libby prison had taken a lot out of him and, even now, those memories were raw. “I do enjoy the life I have here. I don’t think I could go back now.”
He came to a decision. He pulled on the reins and drew his horse to a halt. Frank stopped just in front of him and turned to see what was wrong. “What is it?”
“Follow me,” he said decisively and with no further explanation. Then he turned his horse up the hillside and rode after his brother.
Johnny looked out across the expanse of mud in front of him and sighed heavily as he recalled the debacle that was yesterday. There was still a small puddle of water in the middle, enough to tempt an unwary calf again, and he was relieved to find that there was nothing stuck out there this time.
He dismounted and dropped Barranca’s reins. He could trust the horse to graze quietly while he worked, but he tethered the lead rope for the packhorse to the low branch of a tree. First stretching the aches that still lingered from yesterday out of his back; he straightened up and walked over to take out what tools that he’d need from the packsaddle.
Studying the fence, and particularly the broken section, he found that one of the fence posts was falling over and that putting it right was going to be the hardest job. The wire on either side of it had broken or pulled away and lay curled and tangled on the ground. He’d have to straighten and reattach the strands of wire.
He pulled on his work gloves and he set to work.
As he manhandled the post back into its upright position, the sound of riders coming caught his attention. He stopped his work and pulled off the gloves without thinking about it, checked his gun and waited to see who was coming. It didn’t take long. He recognized Scott immediately, and Frank was beside him.
“Hey, Johnny!” Scott called as soon as he was close enough.
“Hey, Scott,” Johnny replied relaxing. “Thought you two were lookin’ for mustangs. Ain’t none here.”
Scott reined his horse to a halt and dismounted lightly. He walked towards his brother. “I changed my mind,” he told Johnny. “I thought of something that would entertain Frank more.”
Johnny scowled warily. “What’s that?”
“Watching a greenhorn fix fences,” Scott replied, grinning broadly.
Johnny smiled back. “Yeah, that’s always good for a laugh,” he said as Scott neared him. Frank had gotten down and was standing beside his horse, looking at them.
Scott glanced out across the waterhole, taking in the amount of thick clay mud. “That’s where you were yesterday?”
“How far out did you have to go?” Scott asked.
“’Bout the middle. That calf sure was stuck.”
Scott turned back to him. “You didn’t have that much mud on you when I saw you yesterday. You were wet but…”
“Washed off in the river on the way home,” Johnny told him casually.
“Well, I see what you mean about getting this done today. It’s a wonder you didn’t get stuck out there yourself.”
Johnny just turned away. The memory of thinking exactly that yesterday was still with him. He pushed the post upright, concentrating on that instead of on the ordeal of the mud. The hole had widened around it and he would need more soil to fill the hole it had made for itself.
He pulled the gloves back on. “You wanta make yourself useful, Brother, then hold this post while I shove some dirt into that hole.”
Smiling, Scott held it and watched his brother. Then he looked at the sections of wire that had pulled loose on either side of the post. Barbed wire… the bane of their lives. It worked fine, but handling it was touchy – gloves and shirt sleeves tended to get torn and sometimes a layer or two of skin got ripped as well.
With the post secured, the brothers went in opposite directions and set about straightening wire and reattaching it to the post. Unexpectedly, they looked up to find Frank Deal standing and holding the post while they each tightened their length of wire around it.
“I got bored,” Frank told them, shrugging. “And I wasn’t about to stand and watch the two of you doing all the work.”
“You mean having all the fun?” Johnny asked, wiping sweat from his forehead with his sleeve.
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Johnny,” Scott said, smiling. “Three hands will make this job go a whole lot quicker.” He turned to Frank and said seriously, “And if you’re going to help without work gloves, stick with the posts and leave this wire alone. It bites.”
Johnny nodded and touched his finger to a tear in the upper thigh of Scott’s pants leg. “Yeah, an’ it looks like you got bit already, Scott.”
Looking down at the damage, Scott scowled. “Damn! New pants too.”
“Well, there’s no blood, so you got off light,” Johnny told him offhandedly, going back to work.
“Ol’ Wes was so liquored up he reckoned he could catch that rattler,” Johnny said, grinning. “Tried his damnedest too. Chased it round an’ round.”
“And you didn’t try to stop him?” Scott asked incredulously.
“Sure, but there was no stoppin’ Wes when he got an idea in his head and tequila in his belly.”
Scott shook his head. “He was lucky he didn’t get bitten.”
“Oh, he got bit alright,” Johnny told him seriously. “It was the drink that saved him though.”
“I’m tellin’ you, Scott! It’s all true,” Johnny insisted while his brother and his friend laughed and shook their heads disbelievingly. “The doc told us Wes had so much liquor in him, that rattler’s poison couldn’t kill him.”
“And I suppose you’re going to tell us that the snake was drunk for days!” Scott answered, still laughing. They sat in the shade of a black oak, drinking tepid water from their canteens. The work had been finished in record time with the three of them doing it.
Johnny laughed with him. “Nope. I don’t know what happened to the snake, but poor ol’ Wes wasn’t so good for a few days. Might not’ve killed him, but he was real sick.” Johnny grinned. “Course, it might have been one hell of a hangover.”
“It sounds like you led a wild life back then, Johnny,” Frank told him amiably.
“Yeah., guess so. With enough liquor in him, Wes thought he was indestructible,” Johnny replied, then sighed. “Got him killed in the end, too.” He stopped, feeling the mood change and added, “But things haven’t changed that much, Frank. With Scott around, there’s always something happening. He always seems to be in trouble.”
“Me?” Scott protested.
“Yeah. Weren’t you the one who got mistaken for a killer an’ thrown in jail?” Johnny asked innocently and turned to Frank. “Had to bust him loose or he’d be a dead man now.”
“Oh, and I’ve never had to break you out of jail,” Scott said sarcastically.
Johnny beamed with delight. “Oh, that was only so I could help you rob the train.”
“Rob…?” Frank exclaimed, turning his shocked expression from one brother to the other.
“It wasn’t like that, Frank,” Scott hurriedly tried to explain. “Johnny, you know that was all in a good cause. You’re giving Frank the wrong idea.”
His brother laughed. “Yeah, it was. Lucky the ol’ man got us off with the judge though.”
“You’ll have Frank thinking we’re the James Gang next,” Scott said disgustedly, while Johnny’s eyes gleamed with fun. “He’s exaggerating, Frank.”
“So, you two really enjoy this kind of thing?” Frank asked. “You obviously work hard out here and I know that neither of you was used to it when you came.”
Johnny nodded. “There’s worse ways o’ spending your day.” He grinned mischievously. “An’ now you can go back an’ tell your friends that you worked on a real ranch out west.”
Frank laughed. “Yes, it will make a very interesting topic of conversation, particularly with the ladies.”
“Oh, you’ll have to embellish it a little for them,” Scott advised him, grinning happily. It was pleasant sitting here, listening to Johnny tell one of his stories with only the occasional snort from one of the horses to interrupt. “Toughen the story up a little.”
“Yes,” Frank agreed. “I won’t be telling them that all I did was to hold a post for you.” He looked regretfully at his thumb. “And got splinters for my trouble.”
The brothers both laughed easily with him.
“So, just what exactly brought you our here, Frank?” Scott asked. “You haven’t said much about it.”
“I’m setting up a new office for the firm in San Francisco.”
“What line are you in?” Johnny asked.
“Shipping, - cargo, not passengers.”
Scott nodded. “I’m surprised your father didn’t do it years ago. San Francisco is a thriving port.”
“I know. I’ve been trying to convince Father for years to open an office in San Francisco, but he would never listen to me,” Frank answered, sounding slightly annoyed. “Now that his business partner has come up with the idea, Father has agreed to it.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I know that feeling,” he said cryptically. Scott shot a glance at him, but there was nothing in Johnny’s face to show how he felt about it.
Frank continued. “He sent me to get it all started and then he wants me to leave my cousin Lucius in charge of it.”
“Lucius Bradley?” Scott asked, surprised.
“That’s right - fat little Lucius... not the brightest brain around. He’s good at taking orders or if everything is all set out for him, but I don’t think he’s the right man for this,” Frank said, sighing. “I would have liked to take it over myself, but Father wants me back in Boston… Lord only knows why. He won’t let me have any responsibilities.”
“You’re his heir,” Scott told him. “His only son… his only child for that matter. He probably just wants you where he can be sure you’re safe.”
“Maybe,” Frank conceded. “But I can’t see the office doing any good with Lucius in charge. If he came up with an original idea, it would be his first.”
“Sounds like the Lucius Bradley I remember,” Scott answered, idly pulling a blade of grass and studying it. He turned his attention to Johnny. “You know, now that the fence is finished, there’s nothing to stop you coming with us today,” he suggested.
Scott nodded. “Sure, why not?”
“No, don’t suppose there is,” Johnny agreed. “If you’re sure you don’t mind me taggin’ along with you.”
“Not at all, Johnny,” Frank told him firmly. “And besides, I want to hear more about what Scott has been up to out here.”
Wending their way down along the rocky path from the mesa, Scott took off his hat and wiped away the sweat from his brow with his handkerchief while Frank and Johnny rode ahead of him. The sun was still high enough to be hot as they headed back for home, but it was getting late. The light would be almost gone before they made it back, but they should be in time for dinner so Murdoch wouldn’t be worried.
Scott was well aware that they were late because they’d helped with the fence and had gotten a late start, but the day had been a good one and Johnny had seemed to enjoy himself. It had been well worth it.
They had been lucky today. They had waited, talking and eating the sandwiches that Maria had packed for them and wondering whether any horses would appear below them, for over an hour before the sound of pounding hooves had reached them up on the mesa. The herd hadn’t been large, probably only a dozen or so, but Scott knew that some of the wild herds could be as few as half that number. There weren’t many big herds on Lancer land. Most ranged in size only up to about thirty or so, but there were several of them.
From above, the three of them had watched the horses at the water. The spring down in that small canyon held water for most of the year, fed from an underground source. The herd was a mixed bunch, some thin and scraggy while a few had good lines to them. Most of them were bays with varying white markings on their faces and legs, but a couple of pretty chestnuts ran with them.
Scott had pointed out a big bay stallion standing back and watching nervously over the herd. “There’s the stallion, Frank.”
“Yeah, and I’d be willing to bet that chestnut mare with the white blaze is leading ‘em,” Johnny had told him.
“The mare?” Frank had asked, surprised.
“That’s right. Most herds of wild horse are matriarchal,” Scott answered.
Johnny chuckled. “Fancy way to say the ol’ lady calls the shots,” he agreed. “But it’s true. The stallion keeps ‘em together. He’ll fight any other stallion that tries to horn in on what’s his. And he’ll watch out for them and protect them, but she makes the decisions.”
Abruptly, the stallion threw up his head and neighed. The mare that Johnny had picked out looked up and around, then whinnied and turned away from the water. She charged towards the other end of the canyon and, in a flurry of dust and flying hooves, the herd went after her and disappeared from sight.
They were gone so quickly and so unexpectedly that it might have seemed as though it had all been a dream, but for the settling cloud of dust they’d left in their wake.
“Something sure spooked ‘em,” Johnny commented, getting to his feet and swiping dust from his clothes.
“What could it have been?” Frank asked. “I didn’t see or hear anything.”
“Doesn’t take much to scare ‘em,” replied Johnny. “Even a breeze rustling the leaves could do it. But might be he got wind of a cougar or something.”
“A cougar? Here?”
“Sure. We get ‘em here now an’ then.” Then Johnny’s eyes had lit with mischief. “Could be he’s hungry. Might be down there waitin’ for us to ride past him right now.”
Scott stood and offered a hand to Frank to help him up. He turned and swatted his hat across his brother’s shoulder, laughing. “Don’t tease him, Johnny.” He’d looked back at Frank and reassured him. “If there’s a cougar around here, it’s not likely to take on three grown men.”
“Might pick off the last one,” Johnny suggested wickedly.
They’d laughed over it, Frank with them, and then mounted and started on their way down from the mesa. It was a winding track, steep in places and narrow. They had to ride single file.
“I sure would like to drop a rope over that chestnut colt,” Johnny said cheerfully as Barranca picked his way carefully down the trail. He was leading the way and Scott brought up the rear on the narrow path. Frank rode between them.
“The one with the blaze and stockings?” Scott asked. The colt had caught his eye too. It had not only been a handsome animal, he’d liked the way it moved. It had turned and changed direction with speed and ease that suited ranch work.
“Yep. He’d make one fine cowpony once he’s broken, but he’s a bit young yet.”
“And would you be able to catch him?” Frank asked curiously.
“It’d be fun to try,” Johnny answered, grinning. “He had some good moves all right, but I reckon I could rope him. I might go after him in a few months. How about it, Scott? You wanta come?”
Frank laughed. “It’s a shame I have to head back to San Francisco so soon then. I think that would be something to see.”
“Your faith in me seems to be boundless, Frank,” Scott said sarcastically. “I’ll have you know I can lasso a cow and hogtie it with the best of them.”
Johnny grinned. “Well, you’re gettin’ there, Brother.”
Scott felt his horse misstep just enough to loosen a few pebbles that trickled noisily down the trail.
Johnny turned quickly in his saddle at the sound. “You okay there, Scott?” he called back.
“Fine,” Scott answered as the path widened. They were reaching the bottom and he moved forward to join Johnny and Frank.
As the ground leveled out, Johnny rode ahead to where he had left the packhorse tied to a tree. “Come on, Dorothy,” he crooned as he untied the rope. “Time to go home.” He led her back to where Frank and Scott had stopped to wait for him.
“This has been a day that I’ll remember for a long time,” Frank told them happily.
Johnny was still facing them, a lopsided smile gracing his face. “Might’ve been more exciting if that cougar had been waiting for us,” he said mischievously.
“Very funny, Brother,” Scott chastised him.
“Yes, that sort of excitement I will gladly do without,” Frank added, smiling.
Johnny laughed and leaned to one side to get a better hold of the lead rope.
“Johnny, you’re…” But Scott didn’t get a chance to finish. The shot came from nowhere and with no warning. Johnny’s laughter stopped abruptly, replaced by a gasp of surprise and pain as he fell forward.
“Johnny!” Scott called out in horror, but he had only enough time to shout his brother’s name before a deafening second shot tore at the brim of his own hat and ripped it from his head. It was followed immediately by a third that plucked at his sleeve and another that ricocheted off a rock beside him.
The only cover around them was some boulders well off to Scott’s right. With a quick glance over that way, Scott knew that the shooting was coming from there but he could see no sign of their attackers. Whoever was shooting at them had all the advantages here. They’d have to make a run for it.
His own horse was stamping and shying badly beneath him and he fought to control it while taking in the situation around him at the same time. He could hear Frank cursing as his horse reared in panic. He hoped his friend could handle it because he had not only his own mount to control, but Johnny to worry about.
Johnny was lying across Barranca’s neck, an ominous crimson stain rapidly spreading across the back of his shoulder. Scott couldn’t even tell yet whether he was still alive. Amazingly, Barranca was standing almost still in the chaos, tossing his head and mane and pawing the ground nervously with one hoof but, perhaps aware that his rider needed help, remaining strangely calm.
Scott held his own reins firm and reached across to grab Johnny’s arm. “Johnny?” he shouted anxiously. More shots were pinging off the rocks around them and he ducked when he heard each one, but he knew that it was only a matter of time before another one found its target.
He prayed that Johnny would answer.
As if he had heard Scott’s prayers, Johnny moved his head, lifting it a little, and then turned a pale and pain-filled face towards Scott.
With a mixture of relief that Johnny was alive and fear that none of them would stay that way if they didn’t find cover, Scott asked quickly. “Can you ride?” Another shot whizzed past his ear.
“Yeah…” Johnny answered weakly. “Let’s… get outa here…”
Scott turned in his saddle, all too aware of the bullets flying around them. They were caught in a cross-fire and the only way out was straight ahead. Frank was still fighting his horse, but he seemed to be much more in control than he had been before.
“Frank. Go! Get out of here,” Scott shouted over the pandemonium, waving in the direction they had to go. “Keep low over the horse and we’ll be right behind you.”
“Scott, you can’t stay here,” Frank called frantically back to him.
“I’m not leaving without my brother,” Scott argued with him. “Now, get going!”
There was another moment of hesitation and Scott yelled in frustration. “Go!”
Frank finally sank his spurs into the horse and rode past Scott and Johnny. He was riding low over the horse’s neck, just as Scott had told him to do. With him gone, Scott turned back to his brother.
But Johnny pulled himself up until he was almost sitting straight again and dropped the lead rope for the packhorse. It would only slow them down. “Don’t wait for me. Get your sorry ass outa here!” Johnny ground out at him, wincing visibly.
The strength in his brother’s voice was a pleasant surprise and Scott nodded.
“Alright, we go together. Let’s go. Now!” Scott shouted back. He waited only a moment longer, until Johnny had swung his horse around, leaned low over the horse and pressed Barranca forward. The palomino didn’t need much urging. It surged forward into a gallop.
Scott kicked his horse and went with him, keeping as close as he could to Johnny’s side as they rode at full gallop away from the trap they’d fallen into. Bullets whizzed past them but they were soon out of range.
There was no time for thinking or for talking. Escape was all they had in mind as they rode, faster than Scott would have thought Johnny capable in his condition.
He hoped they’d gained some distance before their attackers managed to get to their horses and mounted to follow them. It wouldn’t be much but, at this stage, any advantage they could get was a plus.
They soon caught up with Frank and the three of them took off together. There was no road to follow, not even a path – and there was no cover, nowhere to stop and make a fight of it. They rode over an open field and low undulating grassy hills in the direction of home, with nothing but distance to put between them and the men behind them.
Scott stole a sideways glance towards Johnny. He was still holding on, still in full control of Barranca, but his face was white and he was drooping forward. It was obvious that he was weakening, quickly. Scott could see that he was sweating and breathing heavily already and the bloodstain was getting noticeably bigger.
Taking a chance and slowing down, almost to a stop, to take a look over his shoulder, Scott could see a cloud of dust stirred up by riders behind them. Too far back to be in range at the moment, or even to count how many of them there were, it wouldn’t be long before they started to catch up if Johnny’s condition worsened much more.
He knew that the horses wouldn’t be able to keep up this pace for much longer either, though the knowledge that the men who were following them would have the same problem was some consolation. He kicked his horse forward again and caught up with the others.
Johnny’s head hung low as he rode now. The bloodstain had spread over most of his back.
Scott reached over and grabbed the palomino’s bridle, then slowed his own horse and Johnny’s to a stop. Frank pulled his own to a halt with them.
“We can’t stop here, Scott!” Frank shouted.
“I know, but Johnny can’t go on like this.”
“He has to,” Frank answered in desperation. “There’s nothing we can do for him here.”
“Johnny’s not going to make it all the way home – not in this condition,” Scott told him angrily. “The hacienda is a couple of hours ride away from here.”
Frank cast a look towards Johnny and nodded. “But what choice do we have? Are there neighbors anywhere nearby? Someone who might help us?”
“No, not near here,” Scott told him. He looked around, anxiously trying to get his bearings and to think. There had to be a way out of this.
“Surely some of your men will be around somewhere?”
Scott shook his head. Normally there might have been, but Murdoch had ordered them all out to start moving the herd. “No, most of them are with the herd.”
“I can make it,” Johnny suddenly whispered breathlessly beside him. “Just keep going.”
“Don’t be a fool, Johnny!” Scott snapped at him. “You’re losing too much blood. You won’t be able to keep up this pace.”
He turned in the saddle to see how far behind them the bushwhackers were. They were still a long way back, well out of range; but Scott could count three of them now and they weren’t slowing.
“Then go without me,” Johnny insisted. There was anger in his words and he lifted his head to glare at his brother. “No point you two getting shot as well.”
Scott’s temper rose to match Johnny’s. “No! We’re in this together and we’ll get out of it together,” he told him grimly.
“Then we need somewhere to hide,” Frank interrupted, desperation clearly evident in his voice. “There must be something or someone out here - surely.”
Johnny turned his head, barely able to hold it up. But he looked around him and then dropped it again, unable to sustain the effort. “Line… shack…” he whispered, panting heavily. “The north line shack is round here.”
“What did he say?” Frank asked anxiously.
“The north line shack!’” Scott answered triumphantly. “And he’s right. There’s a line shack not far from here. It’s not much more than a cabin and there won’t be anyone there to help us, but it will be safer than out here. It will have medical supplies too.”
He made another decision and took Barranca’s reins from Johnny’s hands. It didn’t augur well for his brother’s condition that Johnny didn’t argue but let his hands drop. He was holding on bleakly to consciousness, but Scott doubted that he could continue it for much longer.
“This way,” he said to Frank and wheeled his horse off to the right, pulling lightly on Barranca’s reins to show him that he was now in control.
Barranca came with him, turning slowly, and Scott put his hand to his brother’s shoulder. “Just hang on, Johnny,” he reassured him. “Hang on tight for as long as you can. We’re going to have to pick up the pace again.” He looked worriedly at his brother. “Do you think you can handle it?”
Johnny nodded slowly and gripped Barranca’s mane in his fists.
“Alright, hang on, Brother,” Scott warned him and pushed the horses into a gallop. Johnny leaned further forward as the horse sprang away beneath him.
Frank kept pace with them, riding on the far side of Johnny as they headed up and over a rise. It was still too open for Scott’s liking but, at least, they were out of sight for the moment.
Ahead was another hill, higher than the rest and dotted with trees and bushes. Atop it was a thin line of woods that would afford them some cover. They were sparse and there wasn’t much undergrowth to hide them, but it was the best they had found until now.
“Up there, Frank. Head for those trees,” Scott called over the thud of galloping hooves. He glanced to his side and was relieved to see Johnny was still conscious and holding onto the palomino’s mane, but there was sweat flowing freely down the side of his face now. More worrying was the amount of blood on his back. Scott knew that he had to get his brother to the line shack and do something to stop that bleeding. Johnny was getting weaker by the minute.
The hill was neither very high nor steep, but Scott could feel his tired horse straining as they reached the top and the trees. He was sure that they had gotten there none too soon. Once there, Scott found a shaded clearing and pulled his horse, and Barranca, to a halt.
Taking his cue from Scott, Frank did the same. He was panting and sweating heavily from the exertion of riding harder than he had ever done before in his life. Catching his breath, he asked, “Do you think they’ll find us here?”
Scott nodded, edging his horse closer to Barranca to get a better look at his brother. “Yes. We won’t fool them for long, Frank. We’ll have to get to that line shack.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” Frank demanded angrily.
Scott turned a furious expression on him. “I want to check on Johnny, first.”
As if only suddenly aware of Johnny’s condition, Frank blanched and nodded. “Yes… yes, of course. I’m sorry, Scott. But I’ve never had anyone shoot at me.”
He sounded horrified, but Scott understood his terror completely. He remembered the first time he’d been shot at himself – in battle and what seemed now to be a lifetime ago. He remembered how unprepared he had been for it, but he turned away from the memory and the fear that it invoked.
Instead, he looked back at Johnny. His head hung low and his shoulders sagged. His eyes were closed tightly in concentration. He, too, was breathing heavily but Scott knew that it was from more than the hard riding.
The line shack was their only chance now. These woods provided some shelter but they weren’t thick enough to hide them for long. Abruptly, he wondered who the men were and why they were shooting at them, but he tossed that thought away too. There was no point in worrying about that at the moment.
“Johnny?” he said gently. “How are you doing?”
Johnny’s right hand clenched tighter around Barranca’s mane. He took a moment to steady his breathing before answering. “I’m still with you, Scott,” he said, his head still low. “Quit worryin’ about me an’ let’s get the hell outa here.”
“Sorry, Brother,” Scott answered ironically. “But worrying about you comes naturally.”
Johnny looked up and opened his eyes at that and surprised his brother with the wisp of a smile. “You’ll get old an’ gray doin’ that,” he said between heavy breaths. He couldn’t sustain the effort any longer though and closed his eyes, grimacing against the pain.
Scott worked hard at staying calm in the face of Johnny’s deteriorating state. He looked around him and tried to assess their situation coldly. Something had to be done to gain them some time and some more distance from those men behind them.
“Frank, come over here and take Barranca’s reins. I want you to lead Johnny off that way,” he said, pointing the way through the trees. “I’m going to try to confuse our tracks a little.”
Johnny’s head came up instantly. “No!” he exclaimed. “You stick with us.”
“I’m not going to take long, Johnny,” Scott assured him. “I’ll rejoin you and Frank in a couple of minutes.”
Johnny shook his head angrily. “No!”
“Scott, I think he’s right,” Frank said, earnestly. “I think we should all stick together.”
“And die together?” Scott hurled back at him. “Despite what you two might think, I do know what I’m doing. Now take the reins and get Johnny out of here.”
Frank sighed heavily, then nudged his horse over to Barranca’s side and took the reins reluctantly from Scott’s hand.
“Scott, no…” Johnny protested wearily. His breathing was becoming harder and the frown on his face told Scott that the pain was becoming hard for him to bear.
“You’re wasting time,” Scott told him brutally. “Frank, get going. Get him out of here. I’ll do what I can to mislead them and then catch up to you.”
“Don’t take any chances, Scott,” Frank told him with more determination than he had shown for some time.
“I don’t intend to,” Scott assured him. “Now, look after my brother until I get back to you.”
Frank nodded and turned his horse away. He pulled lightly on Barranca’s reins and trotted both horses off into the trees.
Scott watched Frank urge his horse on and pull Barranca behind him with a worried frown. Johnny needed attention soon and was likely to lose consciousness any time now. Frank had no idea where he was going and he wouldn’t be able to find the line shack on his own, let alone know what to do to help Johnny if he was left by himself to take care of things. No, there was no time to lose.
Scott looked down the hill to see if there was any sign of the men, but there was still nothing to see. He quickly kicked his horse into action and rode back and forth across the clearing a couple of times, confusing the tracks they’d left. The ground was hard but was showing their tracks clearly enough and he made sure there were enough hoof prints to cover what direction they had gone in.
He rode off into the trees in the opposite direction to the one in which he had sent Frank and then circled back, repeating the exercise a couple of times. Then he stopped for a moment to look out into the distance. There was no sign of the three men who were following them but he knew they were out there, and probably not far behind.
He doubted that they had given up that easily. The rolling hills were probably hiding them from view for now, but that wouldn’t last.
Turning his horse back to follow Frank, Scott hurried off into the trees to catch up with his friend and his brother. It took him a while, longer than he had expected. He hadn’t realized that he’d taken so long, but perhaps Frank had just made more ground than Scott had thought he would.
But, when he did find them, Johnny’s head had lowered until his hair hung forward and brushed the mane that he still gripped tenaciously. Frank must have heard the approaching hoof beats and had taken himself and Johnny to hide behind a couple of trees. He came out when he recognized Scott and came to a stop beside him.
“Were you able to hide our tracks?” Frank asked anxiously.
“For what it’s worth, yes,” Scott answered, checking his brother quickly. He was still on the horse, but his eyes were tightly closed in concentration. Perspiration rolled off his face. Scott frowned. Johnny couldn’t go much further. “It won’t fool them, but it might slow them down.”
He looked around him and tried to recall exactly where that shack was from here. He didn’t come out this way a lot, but he’d spent a night in it once with Johnny and Wade when they’d been hazing cattle and ran out of daylight.
“Then we have to find that shack.” Frank sounded frightened. Scott turned back to look at him and remembered just who his friend was and where he came from. This wasn’t a situation Frank Deal was used to being in.
“It’s not far from here,” Scott assured him.
Suddenly, Johnny swayed badly in the saddle. Scott instinctively reached out a hand and caught his shoulder just in time to stop him falling. “Johnny!” he said fearfully. But his brother didn’t answer. Only a moan escaped him this time.
Scott eased Johnny back until he was firmly in the saddle and then let him fall forward so that he lay across the horse’s neck, one arm hanging on either side. Johnny made no attempt to hold on this time and Scott wasn’t sure whether he’d lost consciousness completely or was just too exhausted to ride any further.
Either way, Scott would have to watch him carefully to make sure he didn’t fall off. Johnny was balancing on Barranca’s back now, nothing more.
Scott took the reins from Frank and headed off into the trees with his brother’s horse walking close beside him and Frank riding just as closely on the other side. He hadn’t suggested it to Frank, but his friend seemed to have taken it upon himself to guard against Johnny falling off as well and he was grateful.
It was only ten minutes later that they came upon the line shack and picked up speed to get to it.
The shack had been there for years apparently, originally a miner’s hut but abandoned years before Murdoch had even bought the land. Murdoch had improved it and he kept it well stocked as it was farthest north of the hacienda.
Remote as it was, the old shack was used a lot during branding time and round ups. After a full day at work, it tended to be too far to make it back to the bunkhouse before dark and it was easier to just lay up for the night in the line shack.
It was high, on one of the highest of the hills in the area, and it was surrounded by trees on all sides, though one side was far more open than the others. It was also larger than a lot of line shacks. Scott recalled that there were two or three bunks in there and there’d be plenty of canned goods and blankets. He was sure there’d be some medical supplies too.
He was going to need them. Johnny hadn’t come round at all and there was blood running down the sleeve of his shirt now than he was lying forward.
“Is that it?” Frank asked as they came upon the shack.
“Yes,” Scott told him, pulling his horse and Barranca to a halt at the lean to that provided shelter for the horses. “It’s not much, but it’ll give us some cover.” He checked that Johnny was still balanced in the saddle, then dismounted and went to his brother’s side.
“Johnny? Can you hear me?” Scott asked, resting his hand lightly on Johnny’s shoulder. “Johnny?”
“Is he alive?” Frank asked nervously.
Scott touched his fingers to his brother’s throat, fearful of what he might… or might not… find. But there was a definite pulse beneath his fingers.
“Yes, he’s alive,” Scott answered. “Johnny?”
But, again, there was no answer. It confirmed to Scott that his brother was more than exhausted from the hard ride and he sighed resignedly. Johnny had lost consciousness.
He turned back to his friend. “Frank, help me get him down. We have to get him inside.”
Frank nodded and dismounted, then walked around to stand beside Scott. Together, they gently eased Johnny down from the saddle and maneuvered him into Scott’s arms.
“Have you got him?” Franks asked worriedly.
“Yeah,” Scott answered, once he was convinced that he had Johnny firmly in his grasp. Johnny hadn’t uttered a sound or opened his eyes throughout the entire proceedings. His head was lolling back and one bloodstained arm was hanging limply at his side. His eyes were closed and the frown had left his face. He was no longer in pain, but there was no visible sign of life in him.
“Can you manage?”
“Yes, thanks, Frank,” Scott replied a little breathlessly. “Get the rifles and the saddle bags, then go ahead of me and open the door.”
Frank only nodded and did as Scott had asked. He hurriedly slid the rifles from both Johnny’s and Scott’s scabbards free, not having one of his own, and then grabbed all three saddle bags. Then, throwing the bags over his shoulder, he ran around to the front and up the two steps to the door.
He tried it and it opened easily to reveal a one room cabin with two bunks, a table and four ladder-backed chairs around it. There was a stove and a couple of cupboards over a rough bench, a back door and windows over a sink with a hand pump. It was all very crude to Frank’s eyes, but the walls were all made from logs, cut lengthwise. If, or perhaps when, their attackers found them, bullets would not easily penetrate those thick sturdy walls.
Holding the door open, he watched and waited as Scott struggled to get up the steps. He was on the verge of offering a helping hand when Scott reached the porch and headed for the door. Scott glanced down at his brother’s face anxiously and then carried him inside.
“Thanks,” Scott said quietly as he passed Frank at the door then strode over to one of the bunks and deposited Johnny, as lightly as he could, onto it.
Frank closed the door and walked over to stand behind Scott as he knelt beside the bunk. Scott was wasting no time. He rolled Johnny onto his side and undid the buttons on his brother’s shirt, then pulled Johnny’s arm free of the blood-soaked sleeve. With that done, he eased it away from the wound in Johnny’s shoulder and, for the first time, they got a good look at the damage.
Frank had never before seen a bullet wound. If the truth be told, he’d never actually seen any kind of serious wound. A privileged upbringing, college and a war fought from behind a desk in Washington had in no way prepared him for anything like this. The wound was a surprisingly neat, round hole in that back of Johnny’s left shoulder, but there was blood everywhere. It was even staining Scott’s hands now.
And there was something else – a long line of bruising that seemed to wrap right around Johnny’s body. He wondered how the man could have gotten something so ghastly. Scott touched it lightly and his eyes closed in obvious dismay.
Frank’s stomach roiled and protested, and he turned away from the sight of the ugly hole and the blood oozing from it. How had he ever gotten into this position?
This was supposed to have been a simple visit with a friend – not a life or death situation. He looked at the rifles on the table and wondered what he would be expected to do. Surely Scott understood how little he knew about firing one of those things.
“Frank, I need some water,” Scott said, without looking back at his friend. “It should be hot, but the smoke from the stove could give us away. I need a towel as well. Can you get them for me?”
But Frank didn’t move. He turned back when he heard his name and his eyes were held in horrific fascination by the wound. It appalled him, but he couldn’t take his eyes away from it. Scott was carefully examining it, cleaning the blood away with the edge of the shirt and, finally, he turned back to Frank.
“Frank! Don’t just stand there. I need water!”
Scott’s voice, tinged with frustration, jolted Frank back into the real world. “Sorry, Scott. Of course, I’ll get it.”
“And look in the cupboards for some medical supplies. There should be bandages and things here somewhere,” Scott added, turning his back to Frank again and his attention all on his brother.
Frank hurried to the other side of the room and pulled open the cupboards. A bowl was easily found and he fetched it over to the bench where the hand pump sat. Beneath it, a large basin was sunk into the bench. The handle protested with a squeal that grated on his already strained nerves as he lifted it to pump water into the bowl but it was easy enough to use.
Frank felt decisively out of place here.
The first gush of water was darkly tainted and unusable and Frank wondered if they’d managed to trap themselves here with no drinking water, but it was followed by a crystal clear stream that flowed gently into the bowl.
He stopped pumping and looked around for a towel as Scott had requested. What he did find was a good supply of canned goods, sacks of flour, coffee and sugar, plates, mugs and utensils, even a box that he opened and proved to have the medical supplies that Scott had hoped would be here.
But towels…? He turned around and finally found a shelf and what he needed. He picked one up and hurried back to collect the bowl of water, then back to where Scott was waiting with his brother.
Johnny lay unmoving and unresisting. He was lying on his stomach now, with the wound in his shoulder exposed and still bleeding. Frank took a deep breath and tried to ignore the awful sight as he got close.
Scott put his fingers to Johnny’s throat to find his pulse.
“How’s he doing?” Frank asked nervously. Johnny’s face was turned towards them, his eyes closed and his skin frighteningly colorless.
“His pulse is weak, and it’s too fast,” Scott informed him, concern echoing in his voice. “His breathing is very shallow too.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” was all Frank could think of to say. Hearing his own words, they seemed terribly inadequate. Damn, he felt inadequate too!
Scott folded the corner of his brother’s shirt and pressed it hard to the wound. “No, it’s not,” he answered. “The bullet’s gone deep.”
Frank walked closer. “I… er… I brought the towel and the water,” he said hesitantly, putting the bowl on the floor beside the bunk and handing the towel to Scott.
“Thanks, Frank.” Scott wet the end of the towel and set about cleaning the blood from around the wound. But the bleeding started in force again as soon as he let up on the pressure on it. He dragged his eyes away from his brother and looked up at Frank. “Could you keep the pressure on the wound while I try to clean him up a little?”
The thought of it horrified Frank, but he swallowed hard on the bile rising in his throat and moved close to them. Kneeling beside Scott, he put one tentative hand out to take over from Scott. He put the palm of his hand on the makeshift pad and immediately felt the warm blood on his skin.
“You’ll have to press hard,” Scott told him firmly. “Don’t worry about hurting him. Johnny’s not feeling a thing right now.”
Frank looked to his friend for reassurance. “Are you sure?”
“As sure as I can be. He’s unconscious.”
Frank swallowed hard again and forced himself to put more pressure on the pad. He took his eyes away from it and watched his friend go to work washing the surrounding area clean of blood and sweat.
“Did you see any medical supplies while you were looking for the towel?” Scott asked suddenly.
“Yes, I found the box in the cupboard. Do you want me to get it?”
“No, stay where you are. I’ll get it. It looks like the bleeding is slowing and it’s better to keep the pressure on the wound.”
Scott stood up and left him. Frank looked at Johnny’s shoulder and then at his back. There were scars from what must have been other bullet wounds over the years – testament to the life that he had led before going back to Lancer. He thought about what Scott had told him this morning. Johnny Lancer had been a gunfighter. It was a sobering thought. Surely that was a dangerous way to live? Had he brought that danger with him to Lancer?
Scott returned a moment later with the box of supplies. He took out a cloth pad and doubled it over, a jar of what looked like some sort of salve and a roll of bandage.
“Alright, ease it off and move the shirt out of the way so I can put this on him,” Scott told him.
Frank did as he was bid and sat back on his heels watching as Scott applied the salve and then placed the pad over the wound. His hands moved deftly and Frank wondered at his steadiness in the face of so much blood, especially when it was his own brother he was working on. He didn’t think he could have done it, but Scott didn’t falter at all.
“I’ll need you to lift him so I can bandage this shoulder,” Scott told him. “Move over to the end of the bunk and gently lift his shoulders. Just hold him up and I’ll do the rest.”
Frank lifted Johnny carefully and watched in fascination as Scott quickly and skillfully wound the bandage around the shoulder and Johnny’s chest and secured it. When, he wondered, did Scott get so adept at such things?
“You can let him down now – nice and easy,” Scott said quietly and waited while Frank lowered Johnny back onto the bunk.
Scott had his eyes on his brother’s face, an expression of fraternal concern plain to see. He moved Johnny’s head until it rested squarely and comfortably on the pillow, then he swept away the hair that had fallen over Johnny’s eyes. It was all done calmly and without any outward show of emotion, but Frank sensed the feelings that his friend was hiding.
Suddenly, Scott sighed heavily and stretched his back and shoulders. “I’ll go and get some clean water,” he said and picked up the bowl, full now with water dyed crimson from his brother’s blood. “Can you watch him for a moment?”
“Sure,” Frank answered and moved one of the chairs from around the table over beside the bunk. He sat down and looked at the prostrate form of Scott Lancer’s brother. Brother… it was still odd to think of him that way. He’d always known Scott as an only child, abandoned by a father he’d never met and doted on by his wealthy grandfather.
The man on that bunk bore no real resemblance to Scott, physically at least. Frank understood why. He knew about their having different mothers and about Johnny’s Mexican blood and he recognized that it wasn’t surprising that the two men looked so dissimilar. But there was more to it than that. Scott was cultured, educated and gracious. Frank had found Johnny to be none of those things but, rather, so different from anyone that he’d known before that he was totally unsure of him.
While Frank sat and contemplated Johnny, Scott walked away to what passed for a kitchen in the cabin. It was quite a few minutes later that Frank realized that he’d been gone longer than was needed to just get fresh water. With a jolt of concern, he turned back to see what his friend was doing.
Scott was at the basin, washing his hands and Frank watched him for a moment. He seemed to run water over them, again and again.
Frank took a quick look at Johnny, assured himself that he was alright for now, and walked over to Scott.
“Scott, what are you doing?” he asked, lightly placing his hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“Cleaning up,” Scott said distantly. He stopped then, looked down at his hands and turned them over to inspect them. “But it never feels like the blood is really gone.”
The remark sounded strange and it bothered Frank. He stood beside Scott and considered him carefully. It was then that Frank suddenly noticed the tear in Scott’s sleeve. He touched it and pulled the material apart. “Scott, you’re bleeding.”
Scott looked down and frowned at the graze on his upper arm. Frank wasn’t sure that he had even been aware of it until now.
“Just a scratch,” Scott told him calmly… too calmly.
“Well, scratches get infected. It should be cleaned and bandaged too.”
Scott seemed to suddenly snap out of it and looked at his friend. “It can wait. Is Johnny alright?”
“Yes, he hasn’t moved.”
“He shouldn’t be alone,” Scott said quickly, filling the bowl with water and going back to his brother’s side.
Frank walked over to stand behind him and watch. Scott sat on the edge of the bunk and carefully washed the dust and sweat from Johnny’s face, checked the bandage and set about removing his brother’s spurs. Then he gently took the shirt the rest of the way off and tossed it aside. Rolling Johnny very carefully onto his side, Scott unbuckled the gun belt and pulled it away, then lowered Johnny back onto the mattress.
Checking the bandage again, it did show some traces of blood already, but it seemed to be doing it job. The blood wasn’t oozing at the rate that it had been.
Apparently satisfied, Scott picked up the gun belt and buckled it. Then, inexplicably, he leaned forward and hung it from the end of the bunk, close to Johnny’s head. He stood up then, unfolded the blanket at the other end of the bunk and laid it over his brother, pulling it all the way up over his back and tucking it around him firmly.
Strangely, it was that concerned gesture that brought a reaction from Johnny.
His moan broke the silence in the room like shattering glass. Frank was taken aback, but Scott sat down again and moved closer to Johnny to immediately begin to reassure him.
“It’s okay, Johnny. Take it easy,” he whispered, lightly putting his hand on Johnny’s uninjured shoulder.
Johnny opened his eyes and lifted his head a little to turn it towards Scott’s voice. “Scott?”
“That’s right, I’m here,” Scott answered.
Blinking and then frowning, Johnny looked around him. “Where…?”
“The line shack.”
For a moment, Johnny seemed confused, but then remembered. “Oh yeah.” He lowered his head to the pillow and made to roll onto his side, but the pain that the movement brought on drew a shocked gasp from him. “Oh, yeah… I remember now…” he whispered ironically, catching his breath.
“I wouldn’t do that, Brother,” Scott advised him, matching his irony.
“Count on it,” Johnny told him, closing his eyes as if to seal the rest of the world out while he dealt with the pain. He buried his face in the pillow and took a moment to recover and then turned back towards Scott and opened his eyes again. “How bad is it?”
“The wound isn’t too bad,” Scott assured him, bluntly but honestly. “Sam will have to dig out the bullet when we get home. But you’ve lost a lot of blood.”
Johnny nodded slightly. “Yeah, figured that,” he said quietly.
“Johnny, where did that rope bruising come from?” he asked.
“What?” He looked down at his chest and shook his head. “It’s nothin’.”
“It is NOT ‘nothing’! You were dragged.”
“Got stuck in that damn mud is all,” he admitted. “Barranca pulled me out. Forget it.”
But Scott’s face dropped in horror. “I should have been with you.”
Johnny just shook his head again. “Then you woulda had to drag me out an’ I’d still have the bruise. Forget about it.” Suddenly, he scowled and looked hard at Scott. “Scott, what the hell’s going on?’
“I don’t know, Johnny,” Scott answered, sighing heavily. “I don’t know who they are or what they want. You?”
“Nope,” Johnny replied. “But they were waiting for us.”
“Yes, I know. I don’t know how they knew we’d be there.”
“Might even be they weren’t after us,” Johnny suggested wearily. “Rustlers, you think?”
Scott shook his head. “Could be, but we didn’t see any sign of it. Why shoot at us and draw attention to it?”
Johnny sighed heavily. “Beats me.”
“They had us pinned very neatly. We were lucky to get out of it alive.”
Johnny smiled enigmatically. “If not in one piece.”
“Well, at the moment, it doesn’t really matter who they are,” Scott said despondently. “We’re here, and we’re all alive.”
“Doesn’t matter?” Frank demanded incredulously. “Well, I’m sorry but I, for one, want to know who’s trying to kill us!”
Scott turned around to face him, surprised by the outburst. He was still sitting on the bunk beside his brother. “Frank, I know you’re not used to this sort of thing…”
“Oh, and you are?” Frank shouted back at him. “Since when? Since you met him?”
He pointed at Johnny and Scott’s temper soared.
“And just what do you mean by that?”
Frank glared at him. “I mean that your whole way of life seems to be upside down out here. And it’s all because of him.”
“This is not Johnny’s fault!” Scott roared at him, getting to his feet. “We don’t even know who those men are… or what they want.”
“Oh really, and I suppose they might have been trying to kill you?”
“For all I know, yes,” Scott said bluntly. “They might have been.”
Frank shook his head. “That’s ridiculous! Why would anyone want to kill you?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time, Frank,” Scott told him angrily.
“You’re letting all this ‘brotherly love’ blind you to what’s real, Scott,” Frank said brutally. “The man kills people.” He turned away and paced a circle in his passion, then stopped, fists clenched at his sides. “What else can you expect but that someone is going to come after him for revenge? And he’s going to get both of us killed with him.”
Scott didn’t answer. His face was red with rage and he glared at the man he’d always considered to be the closest thing he’d ever have to a brother.
It was Johnny. With a heart that was racing from unreleased fury, Scott stayed put and ignored his brother.
“Scott…?” Johnny repeated and this time, Scott answered; but it was Frank he answered, not his brother.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about, Frank,” he said, with an icy warning in his words. “Don’t you dare stand there in judgment when you don’t know who he is or what he’s been through.”
Stunned by the might of Scott’s rage, Frank’s own anger seemed to dissipate and he dropped into the chair miserably.
Johnny pushed himself up until he was sitting sideways on the bunk. “Scott!” he called to his brother, leaning back against the wall and breathing heavily. “Get back here an’ calm down.”
He got through to Scott this time. Scott spun around and saw him sitting up with his back leaning against the wall, his good arm pressed against the mattress and bracing him in position.
“And what the devil do you think you’re doing?” Scott demanded, his temper rising again. “If you start bleeding again, we might not be able to stop it.”
“Sit!” Johnny persisted and met his glare unwaveringly.
Finally, Scott shook his head in frustration and sat back down on the side of the bunk.
“Scott, you know as well as I do that he’s probably right.”
“I do not,” Scott insisted. “There’s absolutely no reason to think this has anything to do with you or your past. And even if they are looking for Madrid, it’s not your ‘fault’ that we’re here now. This is nobody’s fault, Johnny… no matter who, or what, they want. We’re all in this together, whether we like it or not.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I know.” He edged into a more comfortable position, still leaning heavily against the wall for support. “How long have we been here anyway?”
“About half an hour,” Scott told him, his tension easing somewhat.
“And how much light do you reckon we got left?”
“Probably about another hour… maybe less.”
“Still enough time for them to track us here,” Johnny suggested. He looked around the room quickly. “You bring the rifles in?”
“I did,” Frank answered dourly, still unsure of his place in this situation. He felt like an intruder. “The saddle bags too,” he added lamely.
Johnny was visibly tiring. “Check ‘em,” he told them, his breathing coming harder. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, but kept talking. “Should be ammunition in my bag…”
“Mine too,” Scott added and looked across to Frank. “Check the bags, Frank. Put the ammunition on the table with the rifles.” Then he turned back to check Johnny over. “And you lay down,” he said, more coldly than he’d intended to.
He reached over to help easy Johnny back onto the pillow, but Johnny noticed the tear in his sleeve.
“They nick you, too?” he asked, concerned.
Scott turned his arm so that he could see it. The bullet that had ripped his sleeve had caught his arm as well, but there was little more than a deep scratch and hardly any bleeding. “Just a little. I’ll live.”
“Yeah, well clean it up and bandage it,” Johnny insisted. He stopped suddenly and his eyes glazed over. The arm that was bracing him began to quiver slightly beneath his weight. “You… you might have to…” he stopped, his breathing heavy as his strength waned. “Get Frank to do it… Don’t think I’m gonna be able to…”
The arm gave way then and Scott caught him just before he fell awkwardly sideways, back onto the mattress. Scott gently eased his brother’s head onto the pillow and made him comfortable, surprised to find that Johnny’s eyes were still open.
“Stay put this time,” Scott ordered him firmly, but warmly and pulled the blanket back into position.
“Yeah, you might be right at that.”
“Big brothers always are,” Scott replied, smiling.
Johnny smiled wanly in reply and closed his eyes. “Get that arm seen to,” he said, sighing and drifting off into unconsciousness.
“We lost ‘em!” Jake Mills spat in disgust. “How the hell could we lose ‘em out here in the open?”
The three men sat on their horses on the breast of a small rise. Looking ahead, they could see clear, open country for miles and no sign of the quarry anywhere. Behind them, there was nothing but the dust they’d raised in getting here. Their horses snorted and heaved with exhaustion, covered in sweat and heads hanging low.
“They must’ve turned off somewhere,” Hastings told him.
“Ain’t nowhere to hide round here,” Jake answered testily.
Hastings turned in his saddle and looked in every direction. “I dunno. Maybe back there. That line o’ trees up on that hill.”
“That’s headed the wrong way,” Mills answered sarcastically. “Ain’t likely they’d backtrack here.”
But Hastings was convinced. “Bet that’ll be where they are, alright.”
“If they are, we’ll have to track them,” Reece told him.
“We’ll be outa light soon,” Mills grumbled. “Don’t fancy stumblin’ around tryin’ to track ‘em.”
“Won’t be so hard,” Hastings said confidently. “Ain’t so much cover up there. An’ we got light for maybe an hour yet.”
“Well, we ain’t findin’ ‘em sittin’ here talkin’ about it,” snapped Reece. “They’ve had plenty of time to hide out by now.”
“Ain’t much to hide out in up there,” Hastings told him. “Just a line o’ trees an’ not much cover.”
“Enough to slow us down while they make a run for it,” Reece said angrily.
“They won’t get far,” Mills assured him. “I hit one of ‘em. I know it.”
Reece glared at him. There was intimidation in his cold, steely grey eyes and Jake Mills cringed beneath the gaze. “If you could hit the side of a barn, they’d both be dead and we’d have him already.”
“Didn’t see you two doin’ much better,” Mills said snidely.
“We’re not the ones spoutin’ off about how good we are,” Reece told him. He grinned maliciously. “You might be fast, Kid… but you gotta be able to hit what you’re aimin’ at or you’re gonna be just as dead as a slower man.”
Mills looked almost ready to argue with Reece, but his courage failed him and he pouted inanely instead.
Hastings cleared his throat nervously and spoke up. “Seems like we oughta go look in those trees, Tom.”
“Yeah,” Reece agreed, finished playing with the ‘wanna be’ gunhawk. “An’ when we catch ‘em, remember, you can kill the other two, but I want him alive.”
“There’s money either way, Tom,” Hastings replied.
“I know, but I got a feeling there’s more in it my way,” Reece answered with a nod. He wheeled his horse around without waiting for the others and urged the animal into a gallop back towards the hill and the trees.
“Don’t get too close to that window, Frank.” He said it quietly, but with a hint of aggravation grating in his voice. Scott was sitting in the chair beside Johnny’s bunk, watching his brother sleep. But Frank had taken to pacing the room some time ago and his frustration was rubbing off on Scott and becoming annoying.
Frank did take heed of the warning. He stepped back and to the side of the window, still able to see outside but not so easy a target for anyone who might be out there.
Scott took his eyes off his brother and looked over towards his friend. “Can you see anything outside?” They both knew that he meant ‘anyone’ but the word sounded almost like some sort of jinx. He didn’t want ‘anyone’ to be out there…
“No, nothing,” Frank answered, peering out into the long shadows and the gloom that heralded the onset of night. “It’s getting too dark to see into the trees. It will soon be too dark to see much in here either.” He turned around. “There’s a lamp over there on the table. I think it’s time to light that.”
“No,” Scott said, quickly turning to stop him. “No, we don’t want a light showing them the way.” It would be like a beacon in the darkness and the longer it took those men to find them, the better he liked it.
“So what are we going to do? Sit here in the dark all night?” Frank asked petulantly.
“We just might have to.” Scott turned his eyes back to his brother’s still form on the bunk. Johnny hadn’t moved or woken, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped. At least that was something.
It wasn’t much, of course… not when he’d lost so much blood during that ride.
“But they will find us, won’t they?”
Scott sighed. He couldn’t see how they wouldn’t. It was only a matter of time. The line shack wasn’t exactly hidden, though it was surrounded by a number of trees and undergrowth. It had never been intended to be a hideout. “Yes, I think they will.”
“Maybe they’ve just given up.” There was hope in Frank’s voice. “Maybe they really were rustlers or something and we disturbed them. Once they knew we’d gone, they had no need to find us.”
“Maybe…” But Scott wasn’t convinced. Far from it, in fact… the scenario just didn’t fit. What they’d ridden into had been a trap – a very neatly laid out trap and, beyond doubt, it had been meant for them. The question was - why?
Was Frank right and they were looking for Johnny Madrid? Had his brother’s past come back to haunt him? Scott didn’t want to think so, but then, neither did he want to believe that his brother had been shot because those men were out to get himself either. That thought was even worse.
Still, as he’d said earlier, it didn’t much matter ‘why’ or even ‘who’… what mattered was getting out of this alive – all of them.
“You don’t think so, do you?” Frank asked anxiously.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You think they won’t give up until we’re all dead!”
“No one is going to end up dead, Frank. Not if we keep our heads.”
“But there’s no one to help us!” His voice had taken on a childish whine that Scott found unbearable. “What about your father? When we don’t arrive back at the house…”
“When we don’t show up they’ll worry alright,” Scott told him. “But it’s going to be dark by then and there’s nothing they’ll be able to do until daylight.”
“But they knew where we were going.”
Scott sighed heavily this time. The same thoughts had gone through his head and he’d given them due consideration. But he hadn’t much liked the answers he’d come up with. “Yes, but it’s a long ride, with no road, to the mesa. And even if they got there without trouble, there’s no way they can track us to here in the dark.”
“Would he think of this line shack?” Frank asked anxiously.
“He might, eventually.”
Scott looked at Frank through the growing shadows in the room. Frank was fretting himself into a panic and it wasn’t good. Panicked nerves were too hard to control and made men do stupid things.
“Frank, you should sit down and stop that pacing. It’s not doing you, or any of us, any good.”
“I can’t just sit there and wait for someone to come and kill us. What’s happened to you, Scott? You’re so blasé about men shooting at you… about your brother being a killer. Why, you even wear a gun yourself!”
“We’re not in Boston, Frank,” Scott told him icily. “Things are different out here. And if you call Johnny a killer one more time, I’ll knock you clear across the room. Do you understand me?”
Frank stood his ground, flushing hotly. “I get your meaning, but I don’t understand you. Not any more.”
“I haven’t changed that much.” Scott was weary of the conversation and turned back to watch his brother again.
Abruptly, Johnny moved in his sleep. He rolled onto his stomach with a sighing moan and a catch of his breath. But he didn’t seem to have woken up. Scott took the opportunity to pull back the blanket and check the bandage.
With the daylight fading fast now, overwhelmed by the murky shades of twilight, Scott knew it would be harder to see soon. Without risking lamplight, this might be his last chance to check the wound properly. The bandage was still firmly in place and while there was still blood soaking through, it wasn’t enough to make a considerable difference to Johnny’s condition.
“This isn’t the first time he’s been shot, is it?” Frank asked from just behind him. Scott hadn’t heard him walk up and was surprised to hear him so close. Obviously, Frank had seen Johnny’s back.
“No…” was all Scott said in answer to the question. There were certainly other scars to prove it - one of them still fairly recent. His fingers moved to that one scar, newer than the others and almost in the middle of Johnny’s back. He remembered that awful moment when he had seen Johnny fall from that shot. Scott had thought that he’d lost the brother whom he had never had a chance to get to know and had grieved for the loss, even in the midst of the battle.
It had been a defining moment – watching his brother die but, then Johnny had stirred. Murdoch had seen it first, but Scott had realized, right then, that he wanted to know that young stranger.
He suspected that Johnny had felt the same, watching Scott stand over him, firing rapidly into the throng of raiders and protecting him. They’d never talked about it, apart from a few brief and awkward words right after, but something had happened to change both of them that day.
“I don’t understand a man living like that,” Frank said.
“Then don’t question it. There’s a lot more to Johnny than you know. Besides, I’ve been shot more than once myself.”
Frank was shocked. Scott could hear it in his voice. “You?”
“And you still don’t think being around Johnny is dangerous?”
Scott swung around and glared at him. “Johnny had nothing to do with it,” he said furiously.
Frank stepped back. “I’m sorry, Scott. I just didn’t think… I mean, how could a man from your background possibly have enemies?”
“I guess it’s part of being a Lancer. It there’s trouble around, we can find it.” He chuckled quietly as he pulled the blanket back over Johnny. How many times had he said just that to Johnny? “Now, why don’t you grab a chair and just sit down over there and keep a lookout. I’ll watch him.”
With bad grace, Frank walked over to the table and took one of the chairs, dragged it over to the window and sat down to stare out into the growing darkness. He seemed to calm down and Scott was satisfied with that.
“What will we do when they find us?” Frank asked, his tone more despairing than angry now.
“If they shoot, we shoot back,” Scott told him bluntly. He laid his hand on Johnny’s brow and frowned at the warmth he found under his palm. A fever wasn’t exactly unexpected, but it was certainly unwelcome.
“I don’t know much about guns, Scott.”
“All you’ll need to know is how to load it and how to pull the trigger.” He got to his feet and walked out to the pump for some fresh water, then got himself another towel and went back to wipe it across Johnny’s face.
“I’m sorry. I’m not very brave, am I?” Scott heard Frank say forlornly from his place beside the window. “Hardly the sort of friend you need right now.”
Scott’s anger towards him died and he dropped his head sadly. How hard must it be for Frank to face something as unfamiliar as this? It was so different to his whole way of life.
He remembered coming here from Boston himself, certainly something of a ‘greenhorn’ but, at least, with his experience in the army, and in battle, to fall back on.
Even so, it had been hard to fit in. But Frank had none of those experiences. He hadn’t been raised to face any risks in his life. His parents had always kept a close eye on him. They’d arranged for him to be stashed away in an army office during the war. Even his father’s decision not to let him stay in San Francisco to run the new office was probably to keep him close to home and safe. Frank Deal, only child and heir to a shipping fortune, had absolutely no knowledge of how to defend himself.
“You’ve never faced anything like this,” Scott answered, glancing over at his friend. Frank sat in his chair by the window, staring into the deepening twilight outside, a picture of melancholy. “And you don’t know yet how you’ll react if we do have to shoot it out with those men.”
There was no answer.
“You might surprise yourself,” Scott added reassuringly.
Once in the trees, the three men slowed to a walk and watched the ground for tracks. Tempers were getting as short as the daylight by the time they came upon the small clearing where Scott, Frank and Johnny had stopped.
“This is where they came in alright,” Hastings announced, staring down at the ground. He decided it was useless to try to see tracks from horseback now, so he dismounted and looked around him carefully, then pushed his hat back and scratched his head. “Damned tracks all over the place.”
Reece stopped and pulled his hat off his head, swiped his shirt sleeve across his forehead and looked up at the sky. “Ain’t got us much daylight left,” he judged.
“Well, it’s gonna take awhile to sort this mess out. One o’ those bastards has tried to cover up which way they went from here.”
“Reckon we can find their tracks again before dark?”
“Probably, but I reckon they’ll lead off into the trees,” Hastings answered. “It’ll be too dark to follow ‘em in there.”
“Well, they ain’t gonna be goin’ far with one of ‘em bleedin,” Mills told him eagerly, still convinced he’d been the only one to do any damage to their prey.
“Maybe so,” Reece grudgingly admitted. “But if we go traipsin’ through there without tracks to follow, we’ll likely wipe out any trail they mighta left. Right Bert?”
“Yeah, reckon so.”
“Alright, Bert, you look around the clearing. See if you can figure out which way they lit out from here. We’ll wait right here so’s we don’t mess up the tracks. Once you find ‘em, we’ll make camp for the night an’ keep our eyes and ears open,” Tom Reece ordered. “Might be we’ll hear or see somethin’ anyway.”
Bert nodded quietly but the kid frowned. “Seems like we could press on for a bit yet. Ain’t nearly so dark we can’t see.”
“Will be by the time I find the right trail to follow,” Bert told him gratingly.
It was surprising how well the eyes adjusted to the darkness. The thought occurred to Scott as he continued to sit by Johnny’s side. He could see his brother’s sleeping form clearly, even if he couldn’t make out the details of his face. And he could even see Frank, still in the chair over by the window. The small amount of moonlight from the quarter moon cast a long tract of light across the room but it did little to actually brighten the room.
There was still no sign of their pursuers and that was a blessed relief. Over two hours had passed since darkness had completely set in and Scott was beginning to feel confident that they had either given up entirely or perhaps just for the night. Either way, he and Frank had some time to recoup and decide what to do.
Despite what he wanted to believe though, he knew that the latter was the more likely. Those men had set a lethal trap for them and then had followed them relentlessly on that mad run for home.
They weren’t likely to have given up now. Scott was sure that they wanted one, or all, of them dead. He’d thought about why until he’d given himself a headache, but still nothing came immediately to mind that would have put them in so much danger. He still had no idea what was behind the attack.
Johnny stirred again on the bunk. He’d been restless for a while now, trying to get comfortable. “Take it easy,” Scott whispered reassuringly, unsure whether Johnny was even conscious enough to hear him. He put his hand lightly on Johnny’s arm, flung over the side of the bunk and hanging limply, to soothe him, and he was rewarded with a small sigh as Johnny relaxed and his head sank deeper into the pillow.
Scott gently lifted the outstretched arm and tucked it under the blanket. He could feel too much warmth radiating from his brother’s skin and pulled the blanket closely around him.
Despite the summer heat of the day, the evening had turned cool. So much so, that Scott had pulled on his jacket now and Frank had done the same.
“How is he?” Frank asked from his lookout.
“Restless… and his temperature is still going up.”
“No, not that I’ve noticed. The bandage is holding.”
Frank stood and picked up his chair, carrying it over close to the end of the bed so that he was nearer to Scott. “But you’re worried, aren’t you?”
“Yes. He was weak enough from the shock and the blood loss without having to fight off a fever as well.”
“Is there anything we can do?”
Scott shook his head. “Just keep wetting him down with the towels. It’s not too bad yet.”
“You’ve been sitting there beside him for hours,” Frank pointed out. “Why don’t you stretch your legs and get yourself a drink. I can watch him for a while.”
“No, I’m fine and I’d rather be here with him.”
Frank sat. “You’ll be exhausted by morning and that won’t do any of us any good. Maybe you should get a couple of hours of sleep.”
Scott sighed heavily. “Actually, I have something else in mind,” he said cautiously. He turned around to face him, unsure how Frank would handle the plan he had come up with.
“Johnny’s getting worse and those men will probably find us first thing in the morning. I’m going to sneak out and bring Murdoch and some men back. If I go now, I can be back with help before daylight.”
“NO!” Frank all but shouted it, but it was the other, weaker voice echoing the word that drew both Scott’s and Frank’s attention straight back to the bunk.
Scott swung around. “Johnny?”
“Yeah.” The word was muffled by the pillow, but he was awake. For all Scott knew, surrounded by the darkness, he could have been awake for a while.
“How long have you been listening?”
“Long enough to hear your hare-brained idea,” he answered wearily.
“I know it’s risky but…”
“Risky? Madre de Dios, Scott!”
“Johnny, I’ve done this sort of thing before,” Scott assured him.
“In the army? How long ago was that? And this is different… No…” Johnny’s voice had an air of finality to it.
“You might not think so, Brother, but I can look after myself. And, if I need to, I will look after you, too.” But he didn’t want to get into an argument with Johnny. “We’ll leave it just as a plan, for now.”
“No!” Johnny stubbornly persisted. He pushed himself up on one elbow and faced Scott furiously. “I want you to swear to me that you’re not goin’ out there for help on your own. I won’t have you gettin’ yourself killed on my account.”
Scott’s own temper threatened to boil over. “’On your account’? Maybe I have myself and Frank to think about as well.”
“No,” Scott told him flatly. “I’m not giving you my word when I know damned well that I might have to break it. I’ve never done that and I don’t intend to start now.”
“I have to agree with Johnny on this one, Scott,” Frank interrupted. “We should all stick together.”
“I could get out of here and back before they even know I’m gone,” Scott insisted.
“Perhaps, but you could also get yourself killed.”
“Don’t let him do it, Frank,” Johnny said pointedly. “If I’m not awake to stop him, you do it.”
“Sure, Johnny. I don’t want him risking his life foolishly any more than you do.”
“Good. You hear that, Scott. Two to one – you’re out-voted on this one.”
“If it comes down to it, Little Brother, there won’t be any voting. I’ll make up my own mind.”
“If you ain’t the stubbornest man…” Johnny grouched angrily.
“Oh, I have competition for that title, but alright,” Scott conceded. “Let’s all forget about it, for now. But I’m not promising anything.” He wished he could see Johnny’s face better in the darkness. He was sure he must be sweating with the exertion of trying to sit up. “Frank, get Johnny a glass of water, will you. And Johnny, lie down before you fall down.”
The campfire was bright enough to light up most of the little clearing. Unlike the men they were chasing, they had no need to worry about being seen.
Reece lay back against his saddle, his hands clasped behind his head. He was finding it hard to sleep, what with Bert snoring so loudly and his own foul mood eating at him. Dissatisfaction rattled though his bones as he considered the position they were in now.
The plan had been so simple. They should have had him in their hands by now and two thousand dollars as good as banked. Maybe more, if his own plan paid off as he hoped.
But first they’d found themselves with more men to trap than they’d planned on - both of the Lancer brothers and the fellow from back east - and that meant that they had had to quickly change their plans. And then that good for nothing kid had fired too soon. The trap hadn’t been properly set when he’d started up. Bert had been barely settled into position and Reece himself had been forced to join in the shooting when he was far from ready.
And that stupid kid couldn’t hit the side of a barn. All his bragging on how fast he was and how the mere mention of his name would soon have men shaking in their boots had proved worthless. Fast or not, the kid just couldn’t shoot straight.
Oh sure, he’d wounded one of them, but it was still unclear which – one of the Lancer brothers or the dude. The melee that had followed, with horses rearing and the men on their guard and all of them moving targets instead of the turkey shoot he’d planned for, had left a sour taste in Reece’s mouth.
“Still don’t see how Bert can be right about what direction they headed in,” Jake complained.
It seemed to Reece that he was always bitching about something.
The boy didn’t stop when he got no reply. He just kept right on jawing. “Seems to me they’d have headed for the ranch house, not double back the other way.” He shook his head, scowling. “No Sir, don’t make no sense.”
“Likely it does to them,” Reece told him curtly. “Those Lancer boys would know the lay of the land better’n you do.”
Bert Hastings snored and snorted, oblivious to the argument. Reece wasn’t much for friends – didn’t care to get too close to anyone – but Bert was handy to have around. And he didn’t say much. Reece liked a man who could do what he was told without opening his mouth all the time.
Which was why Jake was becoming harder and harder to put up with.
“Might still pay to have a better look in the morning,” the kid persisted. “He coulda got it wrong, what with the light we had.”
God, he was like a dog gnawing at a bone. It was like to get on a man’s nerves. “Kid, you don’t shut up an’ get some shuteye, I’m gonna put a bullet right between your eyes.”
“Oh, sure, Tom. Didn’t mean to run off at the mouth. Just sayin’ what I think is all.”
He jiggled his shoulders around to get comfortable against his saddle and closed his eyes. Tom Reece breathed a sigh of relief as the boy settled down to get some sleep. He could stand some himself. They needed a real early start in the morning so they could catch up with their quarry and nab their man.
“Yep, five hundred dollars sure is a lota money, Tom,” the boy said quietly.
Reece gritted his teeth. “Yeah.”
“More’n I’ve ever seen all at once.”
“Well, we ain’t got one red cent yet,” Reece reminded him bitterly. He reached behind him to where he had his gun belt hanging, nice and handy, from the pommel of the saddle he was using for a pillow. He slipped the pistol out and cocked it. “An’ if you say one more word tonight, Kid, I’ll blow ya head clean off. I’m tryin’ to get some sleep.”
“Johnny?” Scott whispered the word close to his brother’s ear and, for once, hoped that he wouldn’t get an answer.
Sure enough, Johnny was silent. His breathing was regular, though a little harsher than usual.
“He’s asleep,” Scott told Frank, getting to his feet.
Frank looked at Scott suspiciously. “And?”
“And I’m going to head home for help. I want you to bar the back door and then close and bar all of the storm shutters except for that window by the front door. There’ll be less chance of them getting in that way. You won’t have to have eyes in the back of your head.”
“Scott, you can’t! You could be killed! And you promised Johnny…”
“I didn’t promise him anything and this has to be done.”
“But I can’t…”
Scott ignored him. He hated leaving Johnny with only Frank to protect him, but he’d made up his mind. If he could be back with help before daylight, he could stop it all before it started.
“You can, Frank. I’ll leave Johnny’s rifle for you. Check it and keep the box of ammunition close by you. Johnny’s gun belt is hanging there at the head of the bed. He’ll want that if he’s awake.”
“Scott, I really think you should stay with us. And not because I’m afraid. I am, but I don’t want you going out there risking your life like this. It’s crazy.”
Scott picked up his rifle and saddlebags, then made for the door.
No more arguments… no more explanations. He hadn’t time for it. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Look after Johnny for me.”
Scott led his horse to the edge of the trees. He’d already given a lot of consideration to his options. He was sure their pursuers must be in those trees somewhere and not knowing where made traipsing though the undergrowth risky.
So he had decided to head straight out of the cover and across the field. He’d be in the open but it would allow him to quickly put distance between him and them. That meant they’d be less likely to hear him and that he could get out of range of their rifles a lot sooner.
Once out of the trees, he mounted and walked the horse slowly for awhile. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to make his way around enemy lines with his, and other men’s, lives depending on him. And, like Johnny - once learnt, some things just became instinct.
He waited until he was well away from the trees before he picked up the pace. Then he looked across the dark rolling hills and pressed his mount into a canter.
Once he reached the road, he would be able to make for Lancer at a gallop and be there in no time.
“You hear somethin’?” Mills asked, sitting up and reaching for his rifle. The fire had died down and it was pitch black around them, but he peered through the trees just the same.
“Just you, Kid,” Reece growled without moving away from his bedroll.
But Jake wasn’t to be silenced that easily. “I know I heard somethin’.”
“Probably an animal. Go back to sleep.”
Mills got to his feet. Bert Hastings was sitting up beside him. “He’s right, Tom. I heard somethin’ too.”
“Don’t know how. Not over that snorin’ of yours,” Reece jibed. He pulled his blanket closer around him, unconcerned.
But Bert grabbed his rifle and stood up, heading through the row of trees so that he could see the fields below them. He looked out into the dark, almost moonless night.
Mills followed him, treading carefully and silently. He stopped by Bert’s side and stared out into the darkness as well. He couldn’t see much and he had to concentrate to hear, but there was the very faintest sound of hooves.
“There!” Hastings said in quiet triumph, pointing out into the open field.
Sure enough, Mills saw the silhouette of a figure on horseback appear on the crest of a hill some way off. Once at the top, the figure was easier to make out against the sky.
“You reckon he’s one of ‘em?” he asked.
“Gotta be. Crazy to ride on a night as dark as this without good reason.”
“He’s a good ways off.”
There was something surprisingly chilling in that answer. Mills had never considered Hastings much of a man, until now. He sounded almost pleasured to see so easy a target.
The kid raised his rifle, preparing to take aim, but Hastings reached out and pushed it back down again.
“I can make that shot!” Mills complained bitterly but his companion only grinned.
“Maybe you could, Kid. But this one’s mine.”
Sound seems to travel further at night. Or perhaps it only seems that way because the darkness forces your senses beyond the norm. Whatever the reason, the blast of the shot came to them – clear and unmistakable. It ripped through their silent universe and shocked Johnny awake with enough force to jolt him upright on the bunk.
From the chair at the window, Frank heard it too. He jumped with the unexpectedness of it and found himself trembling for a moment. Drawing a deep breath to put a stop to it, he heard a pained groan behind him.
He ran to the bed. Johnny was sitting up, his chest naked where the blanket had fallen away. Even in the darkness, Frank could see that Johnny’s face was almost as white as the bandage wrapped around him.
“Scott?” Johnny scanned the room agitatedly, then turned back to Frank and scowled. “Where’s Scott?”
“He’s not here.”
“I can see that!” he snarled through gritted teeth. “Where is he?”
The confusion that had rung in Johnny’s voice when he had first called for his brother was gone, replaced by something that frightened Frank. A chill swept through the room that had nothing to do with the night air, but a lot to do with what was emanating from the man on the bunk.
“He went for help,” Frank forced himself to say.
Johnny straightened. “That was a gunshot I heard.”
Its implication was crushing. Frank felt it as much as Johnny obviously did. “Madre de Dios…” Johnny whispered and shook his head angrily. “No… Scott…”
Frank closed his eyes against the awful truth behind Johnny’s words. “If he’s dead...”
“He’s not dead!”
“Oh God, I hope you’re right, but the gunshot?”
“Why didn’t you stop him?” Johnny’s words rang with accusation and hurt. They stung Frank to the core of his soul.
Could he have stopped him? No, Frank was sure that he had tried his best. He’d put forth all the rational arguments he had been able to think of. “He’d made up his mind,” he told Johnny firmly. “Nothing I said was going to stop him.”
“Did you even try?”
Johnny’s glare was unnerving, but Frank’s fear of him was being eaten away by his own rising anger. Did the man seriously think he would just let Scott walk out there and risk his life? “Of course I did! Nothing short of physical violence was going to work.”
“Then why didn’t you try ‘physical violence?’”
“I don’t know about where you come from, but in a civilized world, one doesn’t restrain one’s friends by force.”
“You do if it will stop them from going out and getting themselves killed!” Johnny leaned his good shoulder against the wall for support. Sitting up was quickly tiring him.
“So, you would have attacked your own brother?”
Without hesitation, Johnny answered. “I would have knocked him out cold an’ tied him to a chair, if I had to. He’d be real mad, but at least he’d be safe.”
“I argued with him. I told him it was foolhardy, but he was convinced it was the only thing to do. I did try.”
“Not hard enough.” Johnny’s head fell against the wall wearily. “Not nearly hard enough.”
Frank watched him struggling against the pain and remembered the promise that he had made. “You should be lying down. Scott asked me to look after you.”
Johnny’s head suddenly came up again. He glared at Frank. “I don’t need you to look after me!”
“I’m sorry, but it appears that you do. Unless you think you can look after yourself in that state.”
“Just leave me be. If you’d had any guts, Scott would still be here.”
Frank shrank back. He went to his chair and sank into it defeatedly. “I know. Scott has always been stubborn. I don’t think I’ve ever won an argument with him. But you’re right. I should have stopped him. Maybe then, he’d still be…”
“Don’t say it,” Johnny growled. “It ain’t so.”
“No, I don’t want it to be true either and we don’t know what happened out there.” He dropped his head into his hands. “He’s the best friend I ever had. I couldn’t bear it if…”
“I know he isn’t dead.” Johnny continued to glare at him, as if daring him to argue. “I’d know if he was.”
“How?” Frank asked. “You don’t know how much I want you to be right, but how could you possibly be so close to him that you’d know something like that?”
“Dunno. Just think I would.”
“You have nothing in common.”
“Why? Cos I’m an uneducated peón? Whether you like it or not, we’re brothers.”
“That’s nonsense,” Frank said dismissively. “Neither of you knew the other existed until recently. You were total strangers. And you can’t tell me that blood is that much thicker than water.”
“Well, I don’t suppose it matters why. We just are.” He shifted, still trying to get comfortable sitting up. “Can you even see anything out there?”
“No, not much. It’s terribly dark, but nothing seems to be moving around.”
“Well, that’s somethin’, I guess.” Johnny said irritably. He moved again, still vainly trying to sit up properly and finally lost his temper. “Come over here and give me a hand, will you?”
Frank looked at him uneasily. Scott had asked him to look after his brother, and those might very well have been the last words he had said to his friend. Asleep, that had been easy enough. But awake, Johnny was a whole different matter.
His hesitation only served to annoy the young man more. “¡Oh, por amor de Dios! I won’t bite!”
Frank sighed. Maybe he wouldn’t bite, and he was obviously in no condition to hit out very hard, but Frank was wary just the same. Nevertheless, he walked to the bunk and lent a hand, settling Johnny firmly and squarely with the wall for support and his feet over the side of the bed.
“Thanks, now where’s my gun?”
“It’s right here, hanging on the end of the bed.”
“Pass it over to me.” Johnny was tiring. Frank could see it in the way his head was pushed back against the wall. His eyes were closed and his breathing was heavy. And, while Frank couldn’t say for sure in the darkened room, he believed that Johnny’s face was covered in sweat.
Frank handed him the gun and belt, recalling that Scott had warned him that Johnny would ask for it. It appeared that, in this anyway, Scott really did know his brother well.
Johnny took the gun and checked it, then slid it back into the holster and put it beside him. Even tired and ill, he made it seem so casual. It was almost as though the gun was a part of him, rather than a weapon.
“What else have we got?” Johnny asked.
“Guns,” Johnny explained impatiently. “What else have we got?”
“Only your rifle. It’s on the table. Scott took his with him and I’m afraid I wasn’t carrying any weapons.”
“No reason you should be,” Johnny told him. “But that rifle ain’t gonna do you any good sitting on that table.”
Frank was flustered. “Well, no, I don’t suppose so, but there’s been no one outside and I didn’t think...”
“Be too late if they start shootin’ an’ you have to go get it,” Johnny explained. “Bring it over an’ check that it’s loaded. Keep the ammunition beside you too. You’ll wanta be prepared if they show up.”
“You mean ‘when they show up’, don’t you?”
“Yep. That’s what I mean.”
“I’m not used to this sort of thing,” Frank confessed. “But I understand you’re something of an expert in this kind of situation.”
A curious smile appeared on Johnny’s face. “So, Scott told you, did he?”
“Yes, and I still don’t understand how he can so casually accept a man who… who kills people for money.” Frank stopped, suddenly realizing what he was saying – and who he was saying it to. Johnny had that gun sitting snugly within easy reach and he himself was unarmed.
But Johnny’s reaction was far from violent, or even angry. “Yeah, wondered the same thing a time or two.”
Silence engulfed them for a long moment, before Johnny began again. “What are you good at, Frank?”
“You heard me. What are you good at?”
It seemed a strange question considering the conversation they had been having. “I don’t know. A lot of things I suppose.”
“Bet you dance real pretty,” Johnny said, grinning. “But what would you be doin’ now, if your daddy didn’t have all that money?”
Frank thought about it and wondered. He’d never had to worry about his future. His father had had it all laid out for him since birth, whether he liked it or not. “I’m good at the usual things – math, I guess. I think I have a good head for business. Far more than my father gives me credit for.”
Johnny nodded. “So, you’d be what - an accountant? Or maybe start your own business?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so. Why?”
Again, Johnny nodded. Then he picked up the gun belt and showed it to him. “I was good with this.”
“I see.” Frank said, hesitantly. He wasn’t really sure that he did. What kind of a man could kill for money, no matter how good he was with a gun? Surely it took more than that. There had to be something cold inside a man who could live that way. “Did you ever try anything else?”
“Sure, I used to swamp saloons when I was a kid. Mucked out stables, too; broke horses for a while.”
“Then you chose to do what you did.”
“Yeah, I chose.”
“And you have no regrets?”
There was silence for a long, drawn out moment before Johnny answered. “Don’t see that that’s anyone’s business but mine, Frank.”
He was right, of course. If the law didn’t want him, it was his own conscience he’d have to answer to. How did a man live with that?
“Yes, of, course. But Scott, he accepts what you did? I can’t imagine the man I knew in Boston doing that.”
“Scott accepts me for who I am now,” Johnny told him quietly. “The only man who has to live with what I did is me.” He turned his head towards the one window with any light coming though it, the window that Frank had been sitting at. He frowned and leaned forward, then eased himself a little towards the edge of the bunk.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Frank demanded, instinctively putting his hand on Johnny’s good shoulder to stop him.
“Get your hands off me!”
Frank pulled back, shocked. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you do this. You’ll kill yourself.”
“Scott could be lying hurt out there,” Johnny said, gritting his teeth and pushing himself further forward. “We can’t just leave him.”
Frank took a deep breath and steeled himself. He reached out and took hold firmly of Johnny’s shoulders. “And how far do you think you’ll get?” he persisted angrily.
“As far as it takes. Now get outa the way.”
“You know you’re not strong enough. Look at you. You can’t even fight me off!”
Johnny’s lips tightened. His breathing was faster and harder and he seemed to be summoning his willpower to struggle out of Frank’s grip.
“You can’t do it, Johnny. Scott’s already gone out there on a fool’s errand. Don’t you do the same thing.”
And then it was as though the pain and his weakened condition suddenly took its toll. Johnny’s chin dropped to his chest. “Scott…”
The word came forth with such anguish that Frank was stunned. “Johnny, if anyone should go, it’s me.”
Johnny looked up and stared at him; then, shockingly, he laughed. “You’d get lost within twenty feet of the cabin.”
True enough, though Frank hated to admit it. “Probably, but you’d be flat on your face before you reach the door.”
“We can’t just leave him out there.”
Closer to Johnny now, Frank could see the worry lines under the sweat on his brow. “Do you think I want to? Johnny, we don’t have much choice. Besides, I told Scott that I’d take care of you until he comes back. I intend to keep faith with that.”
“Told you… don’t need you takin’ care of me…”
Frank helped him back against the wall. He left him there and returned with a glass of water. “Maybe not, but you’re stuck with it.”
“We’re stuck with each other, aren’t we?” Johnny said ironically. “Great, isn’t it?” He was silent for a while, then added. “Maybe you oughta just grab the rifle an’ go sit by that window some more, Frank. Don’t want anyone sneaking up on us.”
Frank picked up the wet towel beside the bunk and wiped it across Johnny’s forehead. Then he laid his palm there to check the fever that Scott had feared was building. Johnny pulled back irritably, but not before Frank had felt enough to know that Scott had been right.
Fever hadn’t taken hold yet, but Johnny’s temperature was certainly rising.
“You ought to be lying down and getting some rest,” he told Johnny.
“No, not now. It’s gonna be light in a couple of hours and we’d better be ready for them.”
Frank picked up the blanket and put it around Johnny’s shoulders, wrapping it around his chest; then he did indeed pick up the rifle and ammunition and go back to the chair by the window.
To his surprise, he’d heard a mumbled “Thanks” as he’d turned away. He’d also heard the reluctance behind it.
He peered out into the darkness and satisfied himself that there was still nothing moving outside the cabin.
Was Scott lying out there dead or wounded? Should he leave Johnny and go look for Scott?
He desperately wanted to. Of the two brothers, it was Scott to whom he owed his allegiance. He didn’t want to be sitting here in the dark with Johnny. But Johnny was right. He’d be stumbling around out there, completely lost and of no use to anyone. More likely, he’d walk right in on those men and get himself killed as well.
The rifle lay across his lap, the barrel cold against the palm of his hand. Cold… like so much else this room - the night air; the cold, empty feeling of loss… and the coldness of the man in that bunk over there.
He glanced back over to where Johnny was still sitting up. Johnny looked a little more comfortable now. His head leaned back against the wall and he’d pulled the blanket closer about him. He’d pulled his legs back onto the bunk and crossed them – in what Frank imagined as Indian style.
Johnny’s determination to go out and find Scott had surprised Frank. While he’d seen how much Scott obviously cared for his brother, it was the first time he’d seen any real evidence that Johnny felt the same way. Frank had watched Johnny’s sullen attitude to Scott over the last couple of days and then there had been his flare up last night over something so trivial.
And then the revelation of the young man’s past. That, more than anything, worried Frank. He didn’t want to see his friend hurt by association with a man with such a reputation.
Whatever had possessed Murdoch Lancer to invite such a man back to Lancer? Surely he must have known the risk he was taking with his son’s life? And, for all his experiences, Scott had an enduring naiveté that endeared him to everyone. To him, Johnny would be a brother and that was all he needed to know.
And yet, Frank had enjoyed Johnny’s company yesterday. He’d laughed at his stories and listened to his knowledge of horses. The time had gone by pleasantly.
Johnny’s pistol was out of its holster now and held in his hands instead. His thumb was idly rubbing the barrel. He didn’t even seem to be aware of what he was doing and was deep in thought instead. But he did it almost lovingly. It was as though he was caressing a token from a lover.
To Frank, there was something very disturbing about it. The rifle he was holding in his own hands was a frightening symbol of the danger they were in. It was a tool, designed and built with the express purpose of taking life – be it man or beast. Whatever use it was put to, the rifle was lethal – and it was meant to be.
But Johnny seemed to treat the pistol almost like a friend. He thought back to when he had watched Johnny try out the gun at the back of the house. What he had seen had not been ‘showing off’ or parading his skill with the gun. Yet it had revealed Johnny for what he was – a man who was talented with a lethal weapon… a dangerous man.
It seemed like an age ago now, but it had only been yesterday morning. So much had happened since…
Johnny had been so at ease with the gun in his hand. And Scott… Scott seemed to be oblivious to it. No, more than that; Frank was sure that he’d seen a flicker of pride in Scott’s eyes when he watched his brother’s skill.
Johnny couldn’t get Scott out of his mind. Every time he closed his eyes, there was an image of his brother lying on the ground with his life’s blood seeping slowly out of him, alone and unattended. It wasn’t right. It shouldn’t be Scott…
A desperate need to go out and find his brother, bring him back here to relative safety and look after him, was eating at him. But Johnny also knew that Frank was right. As much as he loathed admitting it, his body would let him down if he tried it.
And he couldn’t let Frank go out there alone. It would be like sending him out to get murdered. Whatever it was that those boys wanted, they were all to keen to kill for it. Johnny wondered briefly about that. As yet, they hadn’t even seen who their attackers were. Perhaps, when he did, Johnny might recognize them and figure out where to go from here. He wasn’t in a position to fight it out with them. Frank would be no help with that.
He glanced over towards the window and studied Frank, unnoticed, for a few minutes. If only Johnny could rely on him to go out and bring Scott back. If only he could rely on Frank Deal for anything at all.
Johnny wasn’t even sure that Frank would know how to fire that rifle when it came down to it. No, it was like the old days. He’d have to rely on himself.
“You must be thirsty. Would you like some more water?”
There’d been silence between them for about twenty minutes now – a tense sort of silence that weighed heavily on both of them.
Johnny was surprised to hear Frank’s voice. He’d almost come to believe that he really was the only one in the room. “Yeah… yeah, I would. Thanks.”
Frank was back momentarily and, this time, he brought a full jug of water with another glass for himself.
He handed over a glass and stood by waiting for Johnny to drink it. “I’d make it coffee, but Scott was very insistent that we not have lights or a fire.”
“That’s good. Is the back door barred?”
“Yes. The front door too, and all the shutters are barred except for that one where I’ve sitting.”
“Good. Scott’s idea?” Frank nodded and Johnny smiled. “Looks like Boston’s learning.”
“Why do you call him that? It sounds so disparaging.”
“What? Boston?” Johnny frowned. Sure, the name had started out as a slight, but he didn’t think of it that way any more. That seemed a long time ago and, if anything, it was the opposite now. The ‘Boston’ in Scott was getting harder to find these days, anyway. “Not meant to be. It’s just a name.”
Frank cocked his head and looked curiously at him and then walked back to his chair and sat down. He looked outside, then turned back to face Johnny. “How are you feeling?”
“I doubt that.”
Johnny was not in the mood for small talk. Actually, he was surprised at how comfortable he felt sitting up. Once he’d found just the right spot to support for his back, the pain had eased to a level that he could manage. And he didn’t feel so vulnerable now. It was worth a little pain for that.
“You know, I find you quite an enigma, Johnny,” Frank said unexpectedly, and then hesitated. “I’m sorry, it means…”
“I know what it means. Scott said it once an’ I looked it up. Why?”
“Oh…” Frank seemed flummoxed for a moment. “Well, you obviously didn’t have any problem killing people for money and yet you really seem to care about Scott. And I saw that mud you must have waded through to save the calf the other day. Not many men would have gone to that much trouble for an animal. I don’t understand…”
“Who said I have no problem killing men?”
“If a man’s shooting at you, you shoot back.” Johnny wasn’t sure he liked where this was going. It wasn’t his way to make excuses for his past. It was what it was and he’d done what he did. He couldn’t go back and change any of it, even if he wanted to. No, in some ways, Murdoch was right. The past didn’t bear delving into.
Nevertheless, he felt the urge to put the record straight on this question. “But it doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.”
“Yet you intentionally put yourself in that position.”
“Yeah.” He was saying no more about it. He’d said enough. Johnny had made it clear to others that the subject was not one that he’d talk about, so why should Frank Deal be any different?
Frank looked at him for a moment, apparently with more to say, but unsure about pursuing it. But, annoyingly, he decided to continue. “Still, I’m curious. If you didn’t go to school and Scott didn’t teach you, just where did you learn to play chess?”
Chess? The past again. Well, not all of it was bad, was it? Johnny smiled at the images it brought to mind - of Tom Sullivan, a big Irishman with too soft a heart, and his pretty wife, Lucy-Anne… their daughter, Bridie. She’d been a cute little thing in pigtails and freckles when he knew them. But that had been years ago. She’d be a young woman by now and poor Tom was dead – from a fall from his horse only a few months after Johnny had left.
“I was working on a ranch down south, near the border,” Johnny found himself answering. “The rancher taught me.”
“Really? Then you did do ranch work before coming home? You weren’t always a gunfighter?”
“He had a problem with rustlers. Hired me to give him a hand.”
“Oh…” Frank sounded disappointed.
Johnny didn’t care. The memories of his time with the Sullivans were good ones, among the few from those years that he actually treasured. “It was years ago. Ol’ Tom kinda took me under his wing… or tried to. I think he thought he could ‘save’ me. He couldn’t, but he was a good man.”
“Years ago? How many?”
“Don’t know. Six maybe… seven.”
Frank gasped. “But you must have been little more than a boy?”
“Don’t think so.”
“You hired on to take care of rustlers? A mere boy?”
Johnny scowled at him. “Yeah. An’ they made tracks just as soon as they found out I was there. Wasn’t much I had to do.”
Shocked by the pride in Johnny’s voice, Frank shook his head. “But what about the law? Surely that was something for the law to handle?”
“Wasn’t any law there. That’s how it is out here sometimes, Frank. Even when Scott an’ me came home, there wasn’t much of what you’d call ‘the law’. Murdoch tried that before he sent for us. That peaceful little town you arrived in the other day was a whole lot different then.”
“I can’t imagine living under such conditions.”
Johnny laughed. “Frank, take a look around you. You ARE living under those conditions.”
Frank sat silently for a while. He looked outside, but there was still no movement – and no hint of daylight yet.
“Yes, I see what you mean,” he finally agreed. “I… I’m not sure that I will be much good at this, Johnny.”
“Scared?” Johnny asked bluntly. It brought Frank’s head up quickly and Johnny thought he was going to deny it. Most men would.
But Frank sighed heavily instead. “Is it that obvious?”
“Nope, wouldn’t say that. Just the natural thing to be.”
“Scott wasn’t. And I rather doubt that you are.”
“A man who’s not afraid when he’s in this kind of a fix is a fool,” Johnny told him harshly. “Or a liar. ‘Course Scott was scared. So am I. It’s not the gettin’ scared that makes a man a coward, Frank. It’s how he faces it an’ what he does about it when the time comes.”
“I’ve never had to face it. I don’t know if I can.”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” Johnny answered with a smile. He was beginning to feel cramped. Uncrossing his legs and stretching them out felt better, but he jolted his back in doing it and gasped. Damn!
Johnny felt hot and sweaty too. Frank was right about the fever. There was just enough there to make itself known and irritate him.
“Johnny, are you alright?”
Johnny winced as he tried to find that comfortable spot that he’d had before. “Oh yeah…” he said, catching his breath.
Frank stood and walked over to offer him another glass of water. He put his hand to Johnny’s forehead and shook his head. “I really think you should be lying down.”
Unexpectedly, Frank laughed lightly. “It would appear that I was wrong. You and Scott do have something in common – obstinacy.”
Johnny edged his back along the wall and sighed with relief as he found the spot; just that position where the pull on his shoulder wound lessened. “Yeah, but we came by it honest. We inherited it,” he said, with a hint of a smile. “If I lay down, I’ll go to sleep. Don’t want to take that risk this close to sunup.”
“Because of me…?”
The slight smile broadened into a grin. “Well yeah, but I’m kinda fond of my own hide too.”
This time, Frank laughed with him. “You know, I rather like you, Johnny. I think I see some of the things that Scott admires in you now and it appears that I’ve misjudged you.”
Frank went back to his chair. “I think I did just what Scott warned me not to do. I’ve underestimated you.”
“That right? You mean because you thought I was an uneducated bonehead… good for punchin’ cows an’ not fit to walk in my brother’s shadow?”
Frank shifted uncomfortably in the chair. “Well, I wouldn’t have used those exact words.”
“So, what’s changed your mind?”
“Well, your aptitude for chess was a surprise,” Frank explained. “But the way you interpreted that contract was most impressive.”
“Just being practical,” Johnny told him diffidently. “We work hard for what we’ve got – all of us. Don’t see why some sneak-thief oughta be able to fiddle us out of what’s due us.”
“Yes.” Frank cleared his throat. “I believe I misunderstood your position at the ranch.”
“Yeah, I figured it.” He closed his eyes and leaned his head heavily against the wall.
“And is that why you were so upset the other night? Because I had offended you?”
“I guess it’s a natural assumption to make… that someone like me was outa place with Murdoch and Scott.”
“No, it was wrong of me,” Frank insisted. “I saw indications that weren’t really there. I thought that Scott was giving you orders, for one thing. But he wasn’t, was he?”
“Then I found out that you were a… a …”
“Gunhawk. You can say it. It’s true.”
“Perhaps, but I made more assumptions because of it. It was wrong of me to…”
“Forget it,” Johnny told him firmly.
“No, I don’t think I can… or should. I owe you an apology and I’m offering it.” He stopped and looked away, into the darkness beyond the window. “I just wish that Scott was here so that I could offer him one as well.”
The reminder that Scott was still out there somewhere was appalling; perhaps alive… perhaps dead… or maybe lying on the cold earth – alone and bleeding to death. Johnny wrapped his hand around the gun belt at his side and felt his heart racing in anger. They’d pay …
Tom Reece woke with a start to the pre-dawn gloom. He looked around him. Surrounded by trees and undergrowth with dark shadows that still hung heavily over them, he felt closed in. And he didn’t like it.
It looked like Mills was still asleep. The boy was curled up with his hand on his rifle like a child with a favorite toy. And Bert’s snoring was loud enough to proclaim that he, too, was sound asleep.
Reece was glad of it. He didn’t want either of them to see him like this. He shivered, then closed his eyes to shut out the memories that were swarming around him. They came, unbidden and unwanted, whenever he found himself closed in. In his delirium, the trees became bars and the bushes solidified into cold grey walls.
They would always be there. He’d come to accept that long ago and he’d even given up fighting them.
They were dark, disturbing memories - created, set and hardened over five excruciating years in his cell. He wrapped his arms around his chest to stop the shaking, lest he wake the others.
A penitentiary they’d called it. Those righteous moralists who thought that putting a man alone in a tiny room with bars would bring him to repent his sins had been dead wrong in his case. He’d done the crime and he’d served his sentence, but he’d come out of that hell hole angrier and harder than when he’d gone in.
Assault and robbery - that was what they had convicted him of. Twelve good men and true had had their say and stolen five years of his life from him. It had left him scarred with memories of terrible cold and appalling heat… and solitude; dark, soul-destroying silence and aloneness.
He was sweating. It was still cool in the morning air, but there was no stopping the sweat. It was fear, and he knew it… and hated it.
Bert snorted, then rolled over. Reece sat up with a start and realized that he was shaking. It was the trees. Circled all around him, standing over him just as strong as the bars he remembered and loathed. They seemed to press closer and closer until, enraged and ashamed, Reece threw off the blanket and got to his feet. He strode through the undergrowth, pushing it aside furiously, and stopped at the edge of the trees. Looking out over the open fields, he panted heavily and wiped the sweat from his face.
The shaking was easing now. He looked back, embarrassed and hoping that neither of his companions had heard him leave. It was over now. The panic had gone. He could breathe again and he could feel his heart slowing and beating to its normal rhythm.
It was lighter out there in the open. The air was crisp and bright, offering a new beginning for anyone who wanted to take it.
Well, his new start was there for the taking alright. Everything he wanted was just about within his grasp… money, power and everything that went with them. Maybe then he would be able to put those years in San Quentin aside.
It was time to wake the others and get going. They’d soon find the tracks and then, it would be easy. Nothing was going to stop him now.
Daylight, and the fears it brought with it, crept slowly into the cabin. Frank was surprised that he wasn’t exhausted, what with sitting up all night after a long day in the saddle yesterday. He supposed that he was too wrought up to be tired.
He looked outside and could clearly see as far as the trees, and beyond in some places. The shades of night had fled and left him feeling exposed and afraid. There was no real cover out there; nothing to hide them. In the dark, the cabin had appeared protected, but the impression had been wrong.
Those men would surely find them… and it wouldn’t take long.
He looked across at Johnny and could see him properly now. He didn’t much like what he saw. Johnny was pale and sweating heavily. He was still sitting up… still leaning heavily against the wall. The blanket that Frank had so carefully wrapped around his shoulders had fallen away and lay in a heap on the bunk. The bandage across his chest looked clean and white but, behind him, the wall was smeared with dark patches of blood where Johnny had moved around through the night.
Johnny’s eyes were closed, but his fingers were wrapped around the butt of the pistol at his side. He looked as though he were asleep, or perhaps unconscious. Either was possible, since neither of them had spoken for the past half hour.
Frank got to his feet to go check on him. If those bloodstains on the wall were any indication, Johnny had lost a lot more blood than he could afford to.
“No, stay there.”
The words broke the strange silence around them. Frank stopped mid-stride and looked curiously at him.
“You need help, Johnny. You look awful.”
Johnny’s eyes opened and his head turned towards Frank. Those intense blue eyes seemed darker now, perhaps with illness and fever.
“No, stay by that window and keep a look out. They’ll be able to track us now that it’s light.” He straightened a little, pulling away from the wall and unable to hide the grimace from the effort.
“Johnny, you shouldn’t be trying to move around. You’ll start the bleeding again.”
“You just let me worry about that. You keep watch, but don’t stick your nose out too far. You don’t want to get it shot off.”
“How long do you think it will be… before they find us?”
“Don’t know, Frank. But we’d best be ready anyway.”
A chill ran down Frank’s spine. Was he ready? What would he do if he was faced with defending himself? He hoped he had it in him to face them squarely and prove himself a man.
He sat down and looked down at the rifle as he laid it across his knees. Picking it up again, nervously, he checked once more that it was loaded and that the box of ammunition was within easy reach. Considering the situation, he was determined to be a quick learner and pay careful attention to Johnny’s advice. Then he put it back on his lap and looked out the window.
“No, nothing but a few birds in the trees.”
“That’s good. Means they aren’t close yet.”
Frank heard a creak from the bunk and a groan, quickly cut off. He turned to see Johnny inching his way to the edge of the bed. Johnny had already made it far enough to be able to firmly grip the edge and his intentions were plain enough, but incredible to Frank.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Frank demanded, leaping to his feet. The rifle fell clumsily at his feet and he was nonplussed for a second. But he chose to ignore it and concentrate on Johnny.
“Gettin’ up.” The reply was so matter-of-fact that one might be excused for forgetting that the man who spoke was wounded and sick. But Frank didn’t forget.
“That’s insane, Johnny. You’re in no condition to get up.”
But Johnny only glared at him. There was anger in those eyes and it stopped Frank dead in his tracks, but only for a moment. Taking up the challenge, he strode over to the bunk and took Johnny carefully, but firmly, by the shoulders.
“Don’t do it, Frank. Let me go. I can’t sit here an’ do nothing.”
“Why? Because you have no faith in me at all? For all your fancy words, you don’t think I can face it, do you?”
The hot-blooded glare cooled instantly and Johnny’s strength seemed to fade with it. “It’s got nothing to do with my faith in you. It just isn’t in me to stay out of it. I can help.”
“How? You’re sick and hurt.”
“But I’m not dead. And I’m not going out sitting on a bed waiting for it.”
Frank let him go then. He put his hand to Johnny’s temple and found that, while there was a fever there, it didn’t seem to have gotten any worse.
He sighed in defeat. “Alright, but you’d better let me help you. Falling down isn’t going to do your back any good.”
But Johnny surprised him by not needing much help to get to his feet. Once there, however, he swayed awkwardly and Frank found himself supporting him for a minute or two.
“Thanks,” Johnny murmured, brushing Frank’s hand away at last. “How does my back look?”
Frank looked. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Claret red stains were smeared across most of his back where his blood had seeped through the bandages and rubbed against the wall. It was mostly dry. There didn’t appear to have been any recent bleeding but, even so, the man had lost a lot of blood.
Now, should he tell him the truth, or try to reassure him?
Reassure him? It struck Frank as odd that he had even considered this self-sufficient man might need it. But he sensed that he was right. On the other hand, Johnny would probably only read the lie in his words.
“There’s a lot of blood there, but it’s mostly dry. How do you feel?”
Johnny grinned wanly. His face was pale and a sweat was just beginning to break out on his brow. “Like shit, but I’ll make it. Pass me my gun belt.”
“Do you really think you can do anything? You can hardly stay on your feet.”
“This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a fix like this, Frank. I’ll be fine.”
Frank doubted it, but he let go and fetched the gun belt, then watched as Johnny’s unsteady fingers buckled the belt and then tied down the holster. Johnny slipped the gun out and then dropped it back into the holster and seemed satisfied with it.
It amazed him just how much that simple action changed Johnny. He no longer looked fragile and defenseless. In fact, the opposite was true. Johnny was steadier on his feet and gave the appearance of being ready for anything.
It was only when you noted the pallor of his face and the beads of sweat on his forehead that the truth became obvious.
“You go back to that window and keep your eyes open,” Johnny ordered. “I’ll grab a chair and take the other window. And, if you see anything, don’t yell out – just let me know. Right?”
Back in his chair, Frank took another look out the window and was struck by the silence out there. It took a moment to recognize what was different but, once he had, he turned back to Johnny with a sense of urgency.
“Hey, Johnny!” he called quietly, turning around.
“Damn!!” Johnny rushed to the other window, standing to one side and taking a careful look outside. There was no visible sign of them, but Frank was right. It was too quiet.
“Do you think…?”
“Yeah, I’d bet they’re out there,” Johnny whispered. “Keep outa sight and have that rifle handy.”
“There’s nothing to shoot at.”
“Not yet, but I’m guessin’ there will be soon enough.” Johnny glanced back to see that Frank was emulating him. He’d gotten up and was standing beside the window, the rifle in his hands. “Don’t shoot unless they start shooting first. And, when they do, look for branches moving, or a flash…maybe gun smoke. Anything that points out where they are. Got it?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Good, but don’t shoot unless they start something,” Johnny reiterated. “If we can talk our way out of this…”
Johnny stopped and turned back to chance a glance out the window. There was still no one to be seen, but the shout of his name told him more than just that they were there. The man hadn’t called for Madrid.
“Yeah?” he shouted back to the unseen speaker.
“Come on out.”
“What the hell’s this about?” Johnny called out. “What do you want from us?”
The answer came back immediately, and without revealing themselves. “Just want ya to send out the dude. We know there’s just the two of ya. Your brother’s already dead. Ain’t no reason for you to die too.”
“Guess we’ll have to take your word on that, won’t we?” Johnny called back ironically, barely finding himself able to breathe.
But that shot echoed through his mind.
“What? Don’t believe me?” A disquieting laugh followed the words. “Maybe I should send one o’ the boys back for the body.”
Johnny didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure he could keep up the façade much longer. Once again, he heard that shot in the night… and wondered…
“If it makes a difference to ya, it was a good, clean head shot. Reckon he didn’t even feel it.”
No… no, no, no…
“Guess he was running for help, huh?” the voice drummed on. “Wouldn’t count on it, Lancer. Don’t reckon there’s anyone knows but us. Ain’t no one comin’ to help ya.”
Johnny felt his heart stop. What if it was true?
He slowly turned around and sank to the floor, his knees drawn up to his chest and his back to the wall, oblivious to his wound. The pain in his chest was far too overwhelming.
Scott dead? He couldn’t be…
Damn him! He’d told Scott not to go out on that crazy run for home. Hadn’t he told him it was too dangerous?
“Damn you, Scott!” He heard the words and realized that he’d said them aloud and he regretted them immediately. A lump the size of a rock was suddenly in his throat and threatening to choke him. His eyes blurred with menacing tears.
But it was anger that bubbled its way to the surface. Scott would never have tried to ride for home if he hadn’t been hurt. No, Scott would still be here, alive and well, ready to fight it out if necessary. Johnny had needed help – and that had been all that had mattered to Scott.
Johnny’s chest tightened. He’d long known that he’d be at a loss without Scott. It had been him who had kept Johnny at the ranch for the first few months, not Murdoch.
He’d never wanted Scott to watch his back or protect him… never demanded it or even asked it of him. No, Scott had decided that, as big brother, it was his right to look out for Johnny. It was something that seemed to have developed in Scott with their friendship.
And Johnny had even liked it. Dammit! Why? Wasn’t he Johnny Madrid? Hadn’t he fended for himself all those years? When had he ever looked to anyone for help?
Scott shouldn’t have done it. Johnny closed his eyes and hung his head until his forehead rested on his knees. Oh God, Scott… what a stupid, wasteful sacrifice to make. Johnny Madrid just isn’t worth it.
Frank watched Johnny’s agony. There was no other word to describe what he could see in Johnny’s reaction. If he’d harbored any lingering doubts about Scott’s brother’s true feelings, they were extinguished. The depth of Johnny’s feelings, whether he wanted them known or not, was right there for the world to see.
Scott – dead…
Frank closed his eyes and tried to blot out the thought.
How could it possibly be true? Frank didn’t know anyone more alive than his friend, Scott Lancer. He didn’t know anyone more deserving of life… of the things he had so recently found and obviously enjoyed.
Frank had begun to envy him. He had a father who appeared to trust his opinions and consider them; a brother who, whatever or whoever he was, seemed to care about him. Then there was the freedom and the pride in the ranch that Scott had reveled in. He’d never seen Scott so happy.
Now he had to face the reality that it had all happened because of him. In his torment, had Johnny missed what the man out there had said? He wanted the dude… himself.
But why? What could he possibly have done in so short a time here that could warrant this?
“Come on out, Lancer. Ain’t no reason for you to get killed,” the voice outside called again, sneering.
Johnny’s head came up. He was scowling heavily.
“He’s right, Johnny,” Frank told him, with a firmness in his voice that surprised himself. “It appears they want me, not you.”
Johnny turned to him and the scowl deepened. “Why?”
But Frank only shook his head. “I have no idea.”
“You don’t recognize the voice?”
“Can you think of anyone who’d want you dead?”
“No. I swear to you, Johnny. I don’t know what this is about. I didn’t think I had an enemy in the world.”
“Well, it sure looks like you do, now.” Johnny got to his feet, using the wall for support and daring another quick glance out the window.
“Last chance, Lancer!” the man called. “Just send out Deal an’ you can walk away from this, free an’ clear. Ain’t got nothin’ to do with you.”
Frank was still watching Johnny when the man outside spoke. Johnny flinched and straightened his back. His right hand hovered over the gun at his hip but he made no move for it yet. Instead, he clenched his hand into a tight fist, visibly enraged and fighting to control his emotions.
“You just told me you killed my brother!” Johnny called back to them. There was no anger in his voice, only a cold dispassion that shocked Frank. “I’d say that has something to do with me.”
“Ain’t no point in Murdoch Lancer losin’ both his boys over the dude,” came the answer.
“Shut up, Frank. Let me handle this.” Then, to those outside, Johnny yelled again. “What’s he to you?”
“Money! That’s what. This is just business, Lancer. You can walk away.”
Frank felt his jaw drop. He turned to see what Johnny’s reaction was and found him, grim faced, staring at the window.
“Someone wants you dead, Frank,” Johnny said, alarmingly casual about it.
Frank’s mind swam with confusion. He searched for answers but only came up with more questions. “I don’t understand. Who? Why? What could anyone have to gain from my death?”
“Guess you an’ those men out there’d know that better than me.”
Horrified, Frank blanched. “Oh God, Johnny! This is all about me? Scott’s dead and it’s my fault!” He sank into the chair, exhausted and frightened.
“It’s not your fault, Frank. Not any more than it’s mine, I guess.” Johnny’s tone had warmed slightly but it rang with despair. The change took Frank by surprise again.
“Why? I mean, I just don’t know who would pay someone to kill me.”
“Well, we’ve got more important things to think about now. We have to get ourselves out of here.”
“You can leave…”
But Johnny shook his head emphatically. “Nope.”
“You’re not going to hand me over?”
“Did you think I would?”
Frank suddenly realized that the thought had crossed his mind. After all, he was nothing to Johnny.
“I… I don’t know what I thought.”
“Well, that ain’t what I do.” Johnny was angry. Frank could see that his misreading had upset him.
“You’d stay? To help me? I’ve only ever caused you trouble.”
“You ain’t that bad… and you’re Scott’s friend. That’s enough. Besides, I’m not fool enough to believe that they’d really let me just walk away from this.”
“You don’t believe them?”
“Nope. They’d be damned stupid to let me go now.”
Frank felt a shiver run down his spine. Those men out there were cold-blooded killers – the type of men that he’d thought Johnny to be. But now he could see the difference. Johnny seemed to know their kind, understand their thinking perhaps, but he wasn’t like them.
“And there’s one more thing…” Johnny added with the ice returning to his voice. “They killed my brother.”
Johnny heard himself say the words. Saying them out loud gave it a reality that he just didn’t want to face.
He didn’t want to have to mourn Scott. Inside, he warred with himself – wavering between belief and disbelief.
And he’d heard the cold hard way that he said those words but, inside, he was on fire. Bitter rage welled within him and he had to force himself to hold it down. When this was over… when he had himself and Frank out of here safely… that would be the time to let the world fall in on him.
“Last chance, Lancer!” The voice outside brought him back to the situation at hand. “Send out the dude or we’ll come in there an’ get him.”
“You said this is about money?” Frank called back to them unexpectedly. “How much? I’ll match it.”
“More’n you can pay me, Boy,” was the answer, with a chilling laugh. “I know who holds the purse-strings.”
“How could he know that?” Frank asked Johnny, frowning.
“Don’t know. Is it true?”
“I’m afraid so. I don’t want for anything, as you can guess. But it’s still my father who pays. I only get an allowance.”
Johnny heard the bitterness behind the words but this wasn’t the time to worry about it. “I can,” Johnny called out the window.
“Ain’t your fight, Lancer. Bring him out.”
“Guess you’ll have to come in an’ take him,” Johnny called back.
“You’re out-gunned, Lancer! There’s three of us and only two o’ you… an’ that’s only if ya count the dude. Don’t reckon you oughta count on much from him.”
They had six men with them. Murdoch figured that that should be enough, but the sun had risen already and time was fast running out for Johnny and Frank.
Murdoch pushed his horse as hard as dared with the distance that they had left to cover. The line shack was still about twenty minutes away, even at this pace. He prayed that it wouldn’t be too late when they got there.
Grimly determined and silent as he and the others rode through the field, Murdoch turned over the last few hours in his mind.
He’d expected Johnny to be home early. That fencing around the waterhole shouldn’t have been an all day assignment - even doing it alone. When he hadn’t shown up, Murdoch had wondered if Johnny had joined Scott and Frank after all. If there was one thing that was likely to tempt him, it was horses.
While he recognized that Johnny deserved a break after taking up the slack for Scott over the last couple of days, leaving the fencing undone wasn’t the way to do it. They’d been through that before and Murdoch had thought that Johnny had learnt that lesson.
But who could tell with that boy?
Then, when Johnny, Scott and Frank hadn’t shown up for dinner, he’d decided that they must be together. As long as the fencing was finished, he didn’t mind. He was only mildly annoyed that he and Teresa had held up dinner waiting for them in vain. If they were irresponsible, at least he was still pleased that they had included Johnny this time.
But, an hour after dark, he’d started to seriously worry. Teresa had been concerned as well, fluttering nervously around the house, constantly peering out the windows in search of the missing boys.
By midnight, he’d managed to chase Teresa off to bed. She’d fought with him over it, wanting to stay up and wait with him but eventually she had reluctantly trudged up the stairs. He wasn’t convinced that she was asleep. More likely she was just lying there, worrying.
Like he was… He’d paced the floor and drank more than one shot of whisky to try to quiet the fears that ran through his mind.
He was sure, now, that there was some sort of trouble. They could have walked the distance by now, if one of the horses had cast a shoe or if any other simple mishap had befallen them. And, if one of them had been hurt, surely one could stay behind with him while the other came home for help?
Jelly had talked to the men in the bunkhouse and found one hand who had seen Scott and Frank riding towards the North Pasture after Johnny, but that had been the last anyone had seen of them. Come daylight, Murdoch would have the whole crew out looking for the boys… but where to start? Had they gone to the waterhole and run into trouble there? Had they gone on to Black Mesa and something had happened there?
The trail down from the mesa was not generally thought to be dangerous, although it was steep in places. But then, Frank wasn’t exactly an accomplished rider either. Maybe there’d been a fall.
But, again, why hadn’t one of them ridden home for help?
No, something must be wrong, seriously wrong. He’d paced some more… tossed back another shot and then stood by the window to keep a look out. Somewhere, out there in the dark, was his sons, and he was terrified.
He couldn’t stand the thought that perhaps he had found his boys and brought them home, only to have something happen to one or both of them now.
The past year hadn’t been easy for any of them. They were three grown men from vastly different worlds, trying to forge a family out of an uneasy partnership. A rancher, a gunfighter and a Harvard man… three men who had little in common except for a frustrating amount of Lancer stubbornness and a mutual desire to make it all work.
He was still awake, sitting in his huge leather chair brooding and making plans for the search for his boys come daylight, when he heard a horse gallop into the yard. He’d made it to the front door in time to open it and find Scott in the act of turning the handle. One side of his face was covered in trails of blood that had proven to be from a nasty graze just above his hairline.
Gasping out his son’s name, Murdoch had tried to take hold of him and offer him some support as Scott had swayed unsteadily for a moment, but Scott had straightened and pushed past him, limping across the room and straight to the brandy decanter.
In the light, Murdoch looked him over. He was covered in dust and grass-stains. There was blood on his shirt, too far from the wound on his head and too much of it to be the result of that. Anxiously, he asked the question that had kept him up all night, but he wasn’t sure that he wanted to hear the answer.
“What happened? Where’s your brother? And Frank?”
“Johnny’s hurt, badly,” Scott answered hoarsely. He poured himself a fortifying drink and swallowed it in one gulp, then slammed the glass on the desk. “He and Frank are up at the north line shack.” He stopped to take a breath and to reach out for the back of the armchair. “We have to get back there… before they find them…”
Murdoch walked over and took his son’s arm, led him to the nearest chair and pushed him into it. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and pressed it to the wound on Scott’s head.
“Hold that and I’ll get you another drink. You look like you need it. Now, take it slow and tell me what happened.”
Scott took a moment. He was pale beneath the rivulets of blood that had streamed down his face and his hand shook as he took the glass of brandy that his father passed to him.
“Scott?” Teresa called from the bottom of the staircase. Her feet were bare and only a light wrap around her shoulders covered her nightgown. She hadn’t stopped for anything else. “Thank heavens you’re home. Where are the others?”
Then she’d walked further into the light and blanched at the sight of him. “Scott, what happened? Where are…?”
Forcing himself to remain calm, Murdoch had listened to Scott’s story with growing rage and fear for his younger son’s life.
“We helped Johnny finish the fencing and he came with us to the mesa. Everything was fine and we came down the track on our way back here. We reached the bottom and suddenly shots started coming from all around us. They were waiting for us.”
“They?” Murdoch asked.
“I don’t know who they were. We didn’t even see anyone. Johnny was hit in the shoulder, but we managed to all get out of there. God only knows how.” He stopped again, breathing hard and focusing. “We made a run for home, but Johnny wasn’t in any condition to make it that far. So we made for the line shack instead.”
Murdoch had to know. “And Johnny?”
“He’s lost a lot of blood and he’d started a fever when I left. Frank’s looking after him until I get back with help.” He stared blankly at the glass. “Those men followed us, Murdoch. I don’t know what they want, but they were determined to find us. I managed to get out and get back here.”
“Not without trouble, by the look of you.”
“It’s just a graze,” Scott insisted.
“Oh, that? I fell off my horse when the bullet grazed me. Like I said, I’m alright. It’s Johnny who’s in trouble.”
“Yes,” Murdoch had answered grimly. “I’m going to go roust some of the men and we’ll head for the cabin. Teresa, you see to Scott and get him to bed. I’ll send someone for the doctor.”
“NO!” Scott’s shout stopped them both. “No, Murdoch. I’m going with you.”
“Scott, you’re in no condition…”
Scott was on his feet, glaring at him. “I’m not sitting here while Johnny’s up there in trouble.”
“You’ll slow us up.”
“No, I won’t.”
Murdoch shook his head, knowing that this was an argument he’d never win. “Alright, but you let Teresa tend to you while I go round up some men.”
Scott had finally acquiesced and Murdoch had left him in Teresa’s hands to be patched up while he’d gone to wake the men in the bunkhouse.
Within thirty minutes, they had all set out for the line shack, with Jelly following behind with a wagon to bring Johnny back in. Daylight was approaching and, if Scott was right, they wouldn’t have long after that before Johnny and Frank were in serious trouble. Now, Scott rode at his father’s side, his head bandaged and his face cleaned up, but with a look of rigid resolution.
There was silence among the men as they rode. The only sound was the pounding of the horses’ hooves and the heavy breathing of both men and animals as they powered towards the cabin. Each man kept his thoughts to himself, but Murdoch was well aware that they were all anxious to get there and help Johnny. There had been no shortage of volunteers to ride into what might end up a shootout.
As they reached the top of a rise, Murdoch saw the line of trees in the distance. He knew exactly where the cabin sat – and how far away it still was.
Scott’s head was throbbing. His hip, bruised in the heavy fall he’d taken, seemed to jar with every stride the horse made.
But his mind was clear and focused on the cabin and what must be happening there now. The sun had been up for long enough for those men to have found it by now. He knew that leaving Frank to look after Johnny had been his only alternative but how much help was Frank going to be once the bandits showed up. What would Frank do if shots were fired?
If only the bullet hadn’t knocked him out for that half hour or so. The time lost could make all the difference.
“You think he believed us?” It was Mills who asked the question. Wasn’t it always Mills who came up with the stupid questions?
“That we’re gonna just let him walk away from this?” Reece asked sarcastically. “Would you?”
“Nah. Then why bother?”
Reece shrugged. “Nothin’ to lose by it an’, who knows, if he’d taken me up on it we coulda got that Deal fella without risking damaging the goods.”
“Well, Lancer ain’t sendin’ him out.”
“No, Boy, what we’re dealing with here is the bane o’ my life… a man with principles. Only good thing about that is they’re so easy to figure out.”
Bert looked up. “How so?”
“He’ll stay in there an’ try to shoot it out with us. Look after the dude like an honorable man would.”
“Yeah, guess so. You reckon it’s Lancer who got shot yesterday?”
“Could be. If he is, the odds are all in our favor – one dude who probably don’t know one end of a gun from the other, one with a bullet in him an’ lost a whole lota blood already an’ the other one already taken care of.” Reece stopped and looked back at Bert. “He was taken care of, wasn’t he?”
“I hit him. Saw him fall.”
Bert Hastings smiled malevolently. “Then this oughta be easy.”
“Yeah, time to show ‘em we mean what we’re sayin’,” Reece agreed. He turned back to Mills. “An’ try not to put holes in the dude, will ya? We want him alive remember… if we can.”
The first shot whistled past Frank’s ear and was followed by a volley of bullets so loud and so close that he dropped to the floor in fright. He wrapped his arm over his head as the window glass shattered and glittering shards showered over him.
And there he stayed, cowering like a coward – or so he thought until he glanced over towards Johnny and found that Johnny too had ducked for cover.
Ridiculously, he found himself wondering in what way self-preservation differed from fear. What made one acceptable and the other abhorrent?
But the question was no more that a fleeting thought. There was no time to ponder philosophy now. Splinters flew from the window frame above his head and off the wall beside him. The jug of water he had left next to the bunk was hit and broke, bleeding its contents into a puddle on the floor. It was as if Hell itself had opened around him.
He stayed hunched over until the first barrage of shots subsided a little and then the sounds of a crash and tinkle of breaking glass from over where Johnny sat, had him look up. But it hadn’t been a bullet this time. Johnny had knocked out the closest pane of glass to him with the butt of his gun and was clearing it away. Then, without a moment of hesitation, Johnny put the barrel of the pistol through the window and fired off a couple of rounds.
Frank watched him pull back out of the line of fire and wait for the return shots. They came, but he was safely under cover again. Watching him, Frank realized that he should be doing the same. Surely sitting here just thinking about it was spineless in the extreme.
He’d known the time would come when he would have to do this, but could he take the life of another human being?
“If a man’s shooting at you, you shoot back.” Wasn’t that what Johnny had said earlier? Well, men were shooting at him and he still felt unable to face it. “Well, there’s a first time for everything.” Johnny had said that too.
Another bullet hit the wall near him. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, anger balled up in his chest. Those men were here because of him. It was because of him that Scott Lancer was dead… his best friend. And it was because of him that Scott’s brother was wounded and in a fight for his life. And what was he doing? He was sitting here thinking about the right and wrong of it all.
No more… He looked at the rifle nestled in his hands and swallowed hard before daring to take a look out the window.
Outside, gun smoke filled the air and made it difficult to tell if anyone was moving but a shot rang out and he pulled to the side just as it went harmlessly by his head. He was sure he’d seen a flash as the gun was fired. Waiting just a moment, he raised the rifle and fired it out the window in that direction – towards the trees on his left and then he quickly pulled back to safety.
To his astonishment, a loud yelp of pain answered his shot, followed by a groan and then silence. Frank looked over to find Johnny watching him with a lopsided grin on his face.
“I think I hit one of them!” Frank exclaimed.
“Sure sounded like it. Good shooting.”
But Frank shook his head. “I wish it was. But I think it was sheer, dumb luck.”
Johnny grinned. “If it takes a little luck to get us though today, I ain’t saying no to it.”
Frank’s elation soon wore off. Abruptly, he realized that he had shot a man. At least, it seemed that he had. And he’d been excited about it! What did that make him? No different to the kind of man he had thought Johnny to be?
“Frank? You okay?” Johnny asked, watching him.
“Yes, I guess… I was just thinking… realizing…” He stopped and looked at the rifle. “I shot a man.”
“Well, I sure hope you did.” Johnny stopped then, obviously seeing Frank’s shock. “One less for us to have to worry about. Sorry, Frank, but we don’t have time to think like that now. Start doin’ that and it might be the last thing you ever do.” He turned back and fired another shot out the window.
It was answered by a volley of shots that sent both of them ducking for cover again. Just as he pulled away, a bullet slammed into the frame of Frank’s window sending splinters of wood flying towards his face.
“Yes, I see what you mean,” he said and began reloading the rifle.
It wasn’t long before Johnny was forced to admit to himself that he couldn’t keep this up for much longer. While he could face the pain and keep it at bay by fixing all his energy on the fight at hand, he couldn’t control the physical results of his injury.
Despite his focus, his head was swimming. The blood loss and the fever were taking their toll and he was finding it harder to concentrate.
Frank was holding his own. In fact, he was handling the situation a whole lot better than Johnny had dared hope. But Johnny knew that his own condition was going to worsen to the point where Frank would be left on his own to defend them both.
The wound in his shoulder ached from his constant movement and Johnny was pretty sure that it was bleeding again. Soon, he wouldn’t be able to raise his gun hand to fire. Frank would be an easy target on his own.
This had to end… and it was going to have to be soon.
Johnny fired off another round and then pulled back out of range, aware that he was moving slower than he should be. Pretty soon, his reactions would be affected to the point where he would be a danger to both himself and Frank.
He squeezed his eyes tightly to blunt the pain in his back, biting down hard on his lower lip, and hoped that Frank was still oblivious to the state he was in.
When he’d ridden out the worst of it, he faced the grim reality that he had to find them another way out of this.
Leaning back against the wall, he reloaded and then looked around. The bullets were all coming from in front of the cabin. It seemed that the men outside were oblivious to the fact that there was another way out. The back door wasn’t covered.
So, should they both make a run for it? With the horses in the lean to, beside the shack, they couldn’t reach them without giving themselves away. They would have to leave them and try for an escape on foot. But they’d be too easy to run down. That was out of the question.
But, perhaps, there was another option.
“Frank, I need to borrow your shirt.”
Frank fired off a round through the window and turned to him in surprise. “What? Why?”
“I’m going out the back way. I’ll see if I can get behind them and get the drop on them.”
“Are you mad? You can’t go out there!”
“We can’t go on this way. It’s a stand off and if no help is coming from Lancer…” The words hit Johnny like a hammer. In saying them he had virtually accepted that Scott was probably dead and it hurt more than he had ever expected a single man’s death would.
He’d come back to Lancer to meet, and most likely end up killing, his father. Staying had never crossed his mind. Hell, finding a brother had never crossed his mind! It had been a bonus in his life and he’d let down his guard, slipped into a bond of friendship unlike any he had ever experienced. He’d had friends before, but never one he could trust and depend on as completely as Scott.
Frank interrupted his thoughts. “Johnny, you’re in no state to go out there against them. Scott would never forgive me if I let you do it.”
“They don’t know I’m hit. And I can use your shirt to cover up the bandages…”
“Oh yes, of course. You can’t use your own,” Frank agreed with sarcastic fervor. “That’s covered with blood and that will never do. Can’t have them finding out that you can barely stand up!”
“Finished?” Johnny asked angrily.
“Not even started, Johnny. How can you even hope to pull it off?”
“I’ve been doing this a long time, Frank.”
“You told Scott not to try it.”
Yes, he had. And Scott hadn’t listened either. “I know what I’m doing. I can get us out of this fix.”
“You mean you can get ME out of it, don’t you?”
“Listen, Frank,” Johnny said, exasperated and wearying of using up valuable energy with this argument. “I can’t keep this up. We both know it. But there’s a way out and I intend to take it.”
Frank stopped and stared at him, then sighed heavily. “Alright, since you’ve obviously made up your mind. But I think you’re crazy.”
Johnny grinned. “Probably, but it’s our best shot and I’m taking it. Now hand over the shirt.”
Johnny crept around back and stopped at the end of the cabin wall. There were plenty of trees to take cover in, but he’d have to go real quiet if this was going to work.
He waited there for a minute to catch his breath. He hadn’t admitted to Frank just how much it had hurt to pull on that shirt, button it and tuck it into his pants, but he’d done it without help. The sleeves he’d rolled up so that no one would notice that they were too long for him.
Then he’d slipped his gun back into his holster and instructed Frank to keep them busy with his rifle and slipped out the back way.
Focus - that was what he needed. Just don’t think about the pain and it’ll go away. He wiped away the sweat from his brow and took a deep breath, and then he moved off into the trees.
“This ain’t gettin’ us nowhere, Reece,” the kid growled. “Why don’t we just rush ‘em?”
“’Cos I don’t care to have my hide filled with holes,” Reece told him angrily. The boy was getting on his nerves with his impatience.
The cabin was sturdier than he’d expected a line shack to be. The walls were thick enough to stop bullets that might otherwise have done the job a lot sooner than this. And Bert had been hit, so they were two against two now. Even if one of them was a fancy dude from back east, Reece preferred to have numbers on his side.
“We could burn ‘em out,” Mills suggested, his eyes bright with excitement.
‘Not a bad idea,’ Reece thought. The cabin wouldn’t burn easily, but they could set brush alight all around it and the smoke and flames would soon drive the two of them out. It would be easy to pick off Lancer as he ran out and then take the dude.
He still clung to the hope that he could take Frank Deal alive. He was worth good money to them dead, so he’d kill him if he had to, but alive he was a bargaining chip. He could play one off against the other.
“You might have somethin’ there, Jake,” he said aloud.
“Well, I’m tired of sittin’ here tradin’ bullets with ‘em. ‘Specially with a greenhorn.”
Suddenly, they had no more time to think. Bullets came from the cabin in a volley of shots that took both of them by surprise. Reece hid behind the thick trunk of a pine and waited. He didn’t see any point in sticking his head out there and getting it shot off when the shooter was bound to have to reload sometime soon.
Sure enough, the barrage finally slowed and stopped. Tom Reece cocked his rifle and leaned out from behind the tree.
“Wouldn’t do that.”
The voice was cool and toneless. Yet, there was something so intimidating about it that the words stopped Tom Reece in his tracks. His finger was on the trigger and all he had to do was squeeze the shot off, but that menacing voice behind him froze the finger where it lay.
But there was something else. There was something vaguely familiar about that voice.
“Put the rifle down, slow and easy,” the voice said, then Reece knew that he had Mills covered as well when he added, “You too, Kid. No fancy moves, just slow and easy.”
Reece thought about making a move. It couldn’t be easy to keep an eye on two men at once, so he was bound to be vulnerable. The trouble was, Reece had no idea where the man was… except that he was behind him. No, this wasn’t the moment for heroics. He’d wait for a chance.
He took one hand off the rifle and lifted that arm full into view, then he bent slowly at the knees and lowered the gun to the ground with his other hand.
“Good, now your turn, Kid, put down the rifle. And no sudden moves or I’ll take you head off with one shot.”
Reece heard the slight clatter of Jake’s rifle hitting the ground and glanced sideways to see what he was doing. He caught sight of him only about six feet away, partially hidden behind a tree similar to the one he had himself chosen as cover. The kid stood up slowly with his hands raised in surrender.
“Both of you; step out into the open where I can keep an eye on you.”
It went against the grain to meekly do as he was told, but Reece saw no alternative yet. Better to do what the man said and bide his time. Stepping carefully sideways, Reece moved out of the cover of the trees and into view, then watched while Mills did the same.
But who was this man who had so neatly gotten the drop on them? Reece was certain that it couldn’t be that fancy pants greenhorn they were after. He didn’t sound like an Easterner. So that left the Lancer brothers.
Had Bert and Jake lied about killing one of them last night? Or had he been mistaken, perhaps? None of them had bothered to go and check the body. Both men had seen Lancer fall and had taken the rest for granted.
Damn them both! He’d thought that he could rely on Bert, if not on the kid. But it looked like he’d been wrong about him.
“Nice to see you boys bein’ so reasonable,” the man behind them said, with a hint of satisfaction in his voice. “Now, you first, Kid, unbuckle that gun belt and let it drop. And you make sure that you do it real slow.”
“You’d shoot him in the back?” Reece asked, leering. “I don’t think so.”
“Don’t try me, Mister,” the voice warned coldly.
It was enough to make Reece stop and think for a moment, but no longer. He kept his hands high, offering no visible threat, but turned his head to look over his shoulder. He still couldn’t see him.
“No, I don’t think so, Lancer… a man of principle - that’s what I’m guessin’ you are. And men like that don’t shoot other men in the back.” He lowered his hands infinitesimally.
“They do if those men killed his brother.”
The words dripped with menace. Reece felt the first tingle of alarm run down his spine. This man meant what he said.
“Wasn’t either of us. It was Bert killed him,” Reece told him, desperately trying to keep from allowing his fear to show through his words.
“Three of you in it makes all of you guilty,” came the answer.
“You shoot us in the back and it’s murder. I don’t think you can do that.”
Holding his breath, Reece kept his hands in the air as he slowly turned around to face the man who had gotten the drop on them. But he wasn’t prepared to find out who he was facing.
“Well, look who we have here!” he exclaimed, grinning widely. “Jake, you wanta turn around an’ take a look at a bona fide legend?”
“What?” Jake asked, surprised. “What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
“I’m talkin’ about that chance at fame you’ve been hankerin’ after, Kid. It’s right here in front of us - Johnny Madrid, in the flesh.”
“Do I know you?” Madrid asked, curious but still as cold as ice.
“No, but I’ve seen you ‘round enough to know who you are.”
At that, Jake Mills did turn around, his eyes wide with fevered excitement. When he saw Johnny, he stopped at the cold blue eyes staring into his.
“If you’re lookin’ to make yourself a name today, Kid?” Reece said mockingly. “Now’s your chance.”
“That’s enough,” Johnny ordered dismissively, his voice still with that cool edge to it. “The name is Lancer.”
Reece wondered if anything ever got beneath that exterior. “So, Murdoch Lancer sired himself a wolf cub, hey? Bet he’s real happy ‘bout that.”
“Yeah, he’s a happy man, now unbuckle that gun belt real carefully and let it drop.”
Reece grinned. “Maybe I’m of a mind to make myself a reputation, here, Johnny boy. I know Jake is.”
“And if he isn’t, you can always goad him into it, right?” Johnny answered angrily.
“He doesn’t need to goad me into anything, Madrid,” Jake told him. His attempt to put the same ice in his words that Madrid had was almost ludicrous to Reece’s ears, but he was playing right into his hands.
“Don’t be stupid, Kid,” Johnny said harshly. “He wants you to make a play for me so he can get away… All you get out of it is dead.”
“You think so? You think I can’t take you?”
“Kid, I don’t know if you can take me… don’t really care. But you’d be real dumb to try it just so your ‘friend’ here can get away.”
“You too yella to try me? Afraid of me? You should be.” The boy had himself worked up into a lather and Reece smiled secretly to himself. With a little bit of patience, Jake would do just what he wanted him to do.
Reece let his arms relax and fall just a little and listened while Jake tried to get Madrid to draw against him.
“What if I told you that I wanted to be the one to take out your brother?” the boy persisted. “It was me that saw him… me that woke Bert an’ went after him. I wish it had been me.”
Reece noticed the effect of the kid’s words on Madrid. He could see the man forcing himself to stop from shooting Jake Mills right there and then. Madrid’s knuckles were almost white around the butt of the gun.
“Boy, I am not in a good mood, but if you think I’m giving you the chance to out-draw me now, you really don’t have the brains God gave a mule. Now, unbuckle that belt and let it drop.”
Reece watched the interaction with Mills and noticed something. Madrid was sweating. It got him to thinking. Maybe it was Madrid who Jake had winged yesterday? That shirt he was wearing was loose, like it was too big for him. He frowned. There was no sign of injury in his appearance. He seemed steady enough, but then…
Jake was studying Madrid critically too. “You’re the one I put a bullet in yesterday,” he finally announced triumphantly. “Hey Tom, I put a bullet in Johnny Madrid!”
And Reece saw the fleeting acknowledgement in Madrid’s eyes. He was wounded, though apparently not badly. Or was he…?
Madrid had his eyes on Jake – just long enough to give Reece the moment he’d been waiting for.
Frank watched the unfolding scene through the cabin window. He saw Johnny appear out of the trees and get the drop on the two men, then usher them out into the open. He could see that there was a lot of talking going on, but he couldn’t hear any of it from where he stood.
He shook his head in amazement. What was it that was keeping Johnny going? How was it that he was even on his feet? Wounded as he was, he should have been in bed – not out there, face to face with two dangerous characters.
Frank stood up, rifle in hand, and went to the door. Johnny wasn’t going to have to do this on his own. If he wasn’t good for much else, Frank could at least back Johnny up. The funny thing was that he was doing it for Johnny now, not just because of the promise that he had made to Scott.
He opened the door and stepped out, just as all hell broke loose.
One of the men suddenly lowered his hands and went for his gun. He got his hand to it but Johnny swiveled round to face him, dropped into a crouch and fanned back the hammer with lightning speed. Even as the man doubled over and fell to the ground, the second man made his move.
With Johnny looking away from him, the man had a clear moment to reach for his gun. He was fast and the gun cleared the holster and was leveled at Johnny, but Johnny swung back and fanned off another shot just as the man’s gun fired.
Johnny hadn’t missed. Even with only that instant to aim, he’d found his target. The man – no, he was a boy really, as Frank saw when he clutched his chest, turned and dropped to the ground – just wasn’t fast enough.
It had all happened in the time that it had taken Frank to draw a breath. He hadn’t even had a chance to raise the rifle in his hands to help and Frank was stunned. He stared at the carnage in front of him and realized that, even having seen Johnny trying out his pistol yesterday, he’d had no idea how good he really was.
At first, Frank thought that Johnny was just as stunned. He stood there, dazed, with the bodies of two men at his feet and his gun in his hand. Gun smoke still hung heavily around them and its stench had reached Frank now as well.
But then Johnny’s hand seemed to loosen around the gun. His fingers barely held their grip around the pistol. He looked up and into Frank’s eyes, a kind of dazed confusion in them as his legs buckled beneath him. As Johnny slipped to his knees, Frank raced down the steps.
His feet had barely hit the ground when he heard something in the bushes over to his left. Leaves rustled and a twig snapped loudly against the silence that had followed the gunfire.
He stopped and lifted the rifle, aiming it at the bushes. Out stepped a man, covered in a swathe of blood and staggering slightly. He raised the pistol in his hand and took another step, his eyes only for Johnny. But Johnny was barely aware of anything, certainly not of the danger he was in.
Johnny was on his knees, his head lowered and breathing heavily. But he must have heard the twig snap because he suddenly looked up and tried to raise his arm and the pistol in it.
Two shots rang out and the man dropped like a stone. Smoke curled from the barrel of the gun as it dropped from his hand and Johnny looked back at Frank in surprise, then fell face down on the ground.
Chapter Thirteen - Epilogue
It seemed that Frank was suddenly surrounded by a buzz of noise and people. He was too stunned for a moment to realize that help had arrived. He stood where he was and watched the activity without daring to take a step.
But Scott paid him little attention. His eyes were on the prone and bloodied body of his brother, out near the trees. Scott leapt from his horse and ran to Johnny’s side.
He ran his eyes over the blood staining Johnny’s back and then carefully rolled him over. He could feel the warmth still in Johnny’s body… the heaving breaths and he saw the twitch of his eyelids that gave Scott to understand that he was not only alive, but close to being conscious.
Lifting him gently and lowering Johnny’s head into his lap, Scott whispered urgently, “Johnny? Don’t you give up on me now, Brother. Come on, wake up!”
The eyelids fluttered once and then lifted, revealing blue eyes that were dark with pain. “Scott?”
A smile touched Scott’s lips and relief washed over him. “What did you think you were doing?”
“They said you were dead…” The agonized tone of his voice touched Scott deeply. He knew that it was more than the physical pain in his back. He understood how he himself would have felt, thinking he had lost Johnny.
“Not this time…” he told Johnny reassuringly.
Johnny scowled at him. “Nearly though,” he said, eyeing the bandage around Scott’s head. “They didn’t miss…”
Scott smiled and touched a finger to the bandage. “What this? No, it’s just a scratch.”
“Yes, only a headache.” He looked Johnny over. “What about you? Are you hurt anywhere else? Were you hit again?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, just tired…” His eyes closed again for a moment.
Scott put his hand to Johnny’s forehead and wiped away the sweat that was beaded there. The heat under his hand told him the fever was still hanging on.
“Yeah, tired,” Scott said sarcastically.
Murdoch was suddenly at Scott’s side. “Check those men,” he ordered his riders, pointing to the bodies scattered around the tiny clearing. Then he turned to his sons. “How is he?” he asked Scott.
“Sick and exhausted,” Scott told him. “We should get him back inside.” He looked around him at the men on the ground. His brother had pulled that off even in this condition.
No, not on his own. Scott lifted his head to look towards Frank. His friend was still standing, motionless, at the foot of the steps. The rifle hung slackly at his side and his face was pale and shocked.
“Frank took out the last one,” Johnny said quietly, opening his eyes again. “He did good.”
“Yes, I saw it,” Scott answered. “It was a fine shot.”
“He might need… some help…” Johnny told him, his voice fading.
“I’ll look after your brother, Scott,” Murdoch told him, resting one hand on his elder son’s shoulder reassuringly. “Go see how Frank is.”
Scott looked as though he was going to argue, but a glance at Frank changed his mind. “Don’t you move, Little Brother,” he warned Johnny, gently lifting him enough to slide out from under him. “I’ll be right back.”
“Not goin’ anywhere,” Johnny whispered wearily and sighed.
Murdoch lowered himself to the ground and took Scott’s place. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the dirt from his son’s face. “Jelly will be here soon with the wagon,” he told Johnny. “We’ll have you home in no time.”
Johnny nodded. It seemed he was too weak to answer now.
“I’m going to turn you a little, Son. I want to take a look at that wound. Can you handle it?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Murdoch answered, easing Johnny onto his side. Blood had soaked through the bandage and stained the back of the shirt red from shoulder to waist. Shaking his head, Murdoch added sternly, “I don’t know how you pulled this one off, Johnny. You shouldn’t even be out of bed.”
A wisp of a smile touched his son’s lips. “You know, I kinda wish I was in one right now. Think I could sleep… for days…”
“Are you alright, Frank?” Scott asked gently as he reached his friend’s side.
Frank looked at him and sighed. “Yes, I’m fine. How’s Johnny?”
“He’s lost a lot of blood but he wasn’t hit again. He still has a fever…” Scott’s anger rose. “… and I have no idea what got into him to try something like this.”
“We thought you were… we thought… Oh God, Scott. They told us they’d shot and killed you.”
“So Johnny said.”
“We didn’t want to believe it. Johnny wouldn’t have it… not at first. But they were convincing, and there’d been that shot during the night… just after you left.” Frank stopped and noticed the bandage around Scott’s head. “They did shoot you!”
“Only a little,” Scott assured him, grinning. “I’m alright.”
Frank let out a long heavy breath. “We didn’t think help was coming. That was why Johnny…” He looked at Scott and shook his head. “I told him it was crazy. I tried to stop him. But he was so sure he could do it.”
“Sounds like Johnny.”
“Sounds like you, too. It seems you two have more in common than I realized.”
Scott grinned and then answered seriously. “Well, my brother would have died a few minutes ago, but for you. I can never repay you for that, Frank.”
“It was my fault that he was hurt in the first place,” Frank told him disconsolately. “All this is my fault.”
“How? Why is it your fault?”
“It was me they were after, Scott. I honestly don’t know why, but it was me they wanted. You and your brother nearly died because of me.”
“That doesn’t make it your fault, Frank. But what did they want with you?”
“I have no idea. They said it was about money, but I don’t understand…”
His head hung down dejectedly and it was obvious to Scott that he really didn’t have any inkling as to what the men had wanted him for.
“That man was going to shoot Johnny. I couldn’t let him. I’ve never… is he dead?’
Scott turned to their men. Wade was closest, standing over one of their attackers while the other men collected guns and rifles.
“Wade? Are they all dead?” Scott called to him.
“Two of them. This one’s still breathin’.” Wade didn’t actually sound happy about it. Scott wasn’t all that surprised. He’d learned months ago that men like these were despised by honest men, out here in the west. And he knew that the fact that they had shot Johnny in the back made it even worse.
Scott took the rifle from Frank’s hand and ushered him over to where the injured man was lying. “Can he talk?”
“Yeah, he’s complainin’ plenty,” Wade told him distastefully.
When he and Frank reached the man, Scott had only one word to ask him. “Why?”
Tom Reece lay flat on his back, holding his bloodied shoulder and looked up at him. “Money.”
“Who was paying you?” Frank asked him.
Reece looked around him.
“The others are both dead,” Scott told him coldly. “You might as well tell us who was paying you or you’ll be facing trial all on your own.”
“It was some fella in San Francisco. Some high falutin’ guy named Bradley.”
Scott was shocked, but Frank gasped. “Lucius wanted me killed? I don’t believe it.”
Reece grinned. “He had a thousand dollars for me when I could show him you were dead. Seems you stood between him and a whole lot more.”
“Would Lucius inherit your father’s estate? If you were dead?” Scott asked Frank.
“Well, yes,” Frank admitted reluctantly. “But he’d never… surely!”
“Who knows what a man will do with that kind of money involved?” Scott told him.
“Yeah,” the man on the ground agreed and grinned malignantly. “But we weren’t tryin’ to kill you.” His eyes turned to Scott. “We wanted him alive. Figured he might be worth even more to his pa. Murder wasn’t in our plans.”
“Is that right?” Frank asked angrily. “Then what about the bullet you put in Johnny’s back? And the one that nearly killed Scott?”
“Wasn’t me,” he answered with a shrug of his shoulders.
“You might not have pulled the trigger, but you’ll hang for it anyway,” Scott told him.
“And Lucius with him,” Frank added, his fists clenched in rage. “Just wait ‘til I get my hands on that little toad.”
Scott nodded and looked back towards where his wounded brother laid on the ground with Murdoch at his side. The rackety noise of wagon wheels and horses hooves approaching told him that Jelly was here at last. “Let’s get out of here. I want to get my brother home.”
“It’s gonna be kinda quiet without you around, Frank,” Johnny told him, grinning as he slouched against the wall of the stage depot. The fingers of his good hand toyed with the edge of the sling that supported the other.
“Well, perhaps I could visit again some time.”
“You’re always welcome at Lancer, Frank,” Murdoch said warmly.
Frank smiled. “Thank you. I hope it won’t be so… lively next time.”
Scott laughed. “At Lancer?” Then he sobered and asked, “So, how long will you stay in San Francisco now?”
“Lucius is under arrest and will face trial there. I’ll have to be there for that. I’m afraid you boys might have to testify as well.”
“Hmmm… a trip to San Francisco… a few days off ridin’ herd on dumb cows…” Johnny mused aloud. “Yeah, I think we could manage it.”
“We’ll be there, Frank,” Scott assured him, amused and totally in agreement with his brother. “And you’ll have to stay there until you find a replacement for Lucius for the San Francisco office.”
“Oh, I’ve found one already. I’m staying to run it.”
Scott frowned. “But your father…”
“I’m telling my father that I’m running it,” Frank said boldly. “It’s time I took a hand in my own life and stood up to him. If he doesn’t like it, I’ll quit and find work elsewhere.” He looked at Johnny and smiled. “Someone once asked me what I’d be doing if I didn’t have my father’s money. I don’t think I’d go down the same path as he did, but I could manage.”
Johnny smiled and nodded. “Yeah, reckon you could at that.”
“If you stay in San Francisco, we can see a lot more of you,” Teresa said happily.
“Yeah, an’ next time you come visit, we might go back to Black Mesa…” Johnny suggested.
Frank and Scott both stopped and stared at him. As one, they asked “What?”
“Sure, why not?” Johnny answered. “I’d like to drop a rope around that little chestnut colt. I reckon he’d make a fine cowpony.”