Johnny leaned back in the hard-backed swivel chair, his feet up on the untidy desk and crossed lazily at the ankles. He had his hat pulled down low over his brow and looked down at his hands while he locked his fingers together and twiddled his thumbs.
The noise made by the two men coming into the office from the boardwalk forced him to look up. A wisp of a smile crept across his lips and his deep blue eyes twinkled with mischief, but he didn’t say anything to them. He just watched the circus good-humoredly as it unfolded in front of him.
“You ain’t gonna get away with this, Sheriff,” the brown haired drunken cowboy complained. “You ain’t got no right ta lock me up.”
“Sure, Pete,” Crawford said blankly. He’d heard it all before – lots of times.
The sight of Johnny Lancer sitting in the sheriff’s chair seemed to set off Pete Franks all the more. “What’re you grinnin’ at, Lancer?” he slurred obstreperously.
Johnny didn’t bother answering the drunk. Instead, he watched lackadaisically as Val shoved Franks towards the cells and listened silently to the boy’s complaints and threats. Val had handled his sort before and Johnny knew he didn’t need any help.
He heard the clang of the cell door and the rattle of the key turning in the lock, and then Val’s heavy boots clomped into the room.
Johnny looked up and his smile broadened to a grin as Val approached him.
Val didn’t say a word as he swiped at Johnny’s feet and knocked them off his desk with one blow. The slap resulted in the chair spinning a quarter turn and nearly spilling Johnny onto the floor along with the papers that fluttered down around his feet.
With a jerk of his thumb, Val taciturnly told Johnny to get out of his chair.
“Pete’s had a skinful,” Johnny commented without concern as he got casually to his feet.
“Nothin’ new in that. Jest about every Saturday that kid’s in town kickin’ up a fuss,” Val told him. He shook his head in disgust. “Gettin’ t’be damned borin’. Next thing’ll be his ol’ man’ll be here in an hour or so to bail him out. Then they’ll both leave here rantin’ an’ ravin’ like its all my fault.”
Johnny laughed lightly. “The excitin’ life of a town sheriff, hey Val?”
Val walked past him and sat down in his chair, leaned back and put his feet up in a mirror image of the position Johnny had been in when he came in. He grinned.
“Johnny boy, I c’n stand a little bit o’ boredom. Had my share o’ excitement over the years an’ I can’t say as I miss it much.”
Johnny helped himself to a cup of coffee from the pot on the pot bellied stove at the back of the room and then poured another for Val and handed it to him.
“Yeah, I know,” Johnny agreed quietly.
“So, you met the new owner of the Bar T yet?” Val asked him after taking a swallow of the coffee Johnny had given him.
“Nope,” Johnny answered casually. “Probably meet him at the dance come Saturday, I s’pose.”
“They say he’s got one real pretty daughter,” Val told him with a wicked glint in his eyes.
Johnny smiled. “Yeah? You met ‘er?”
“Still hope for the rest of us, then,” Val said with a smirk. He took off his hat and threw it onto the desk then raked his hand through the untidy mop of hair that complemented his unshaven face.
“You’d better at least wash up if you’re plannin’ on makin’ an impression, Val. Knew you were comin’ for five full minutes!”
Val scowled. “Oh, you’re real cute, ain’t ya? Like you’re a bed o’ roses,” he told Johnny. “Won’t make no difference if that brother o’ yours gets there first anyway.”
Johnny picked up Val’s hat off the desk and aimed carefully before tossing it onto the hook by the door. It landed right on target, spun for a moment and then came to a stop and hung as if he had placed it there nice and neat. He smiled with satisfaction. “Yep,” was all he said.
“So, is he in town, too?” Val asked him.
Johnny nodded and sipped the coffee. He grimaced at the taste, walked to the back window and tossed it out. “Your coffee just don’t get any better, Val,” he told him, putting the mug back next to the coffee pot, and then answered his question. “Scott’s down at Mrs. Crenshaw’s dress shop with Teresa. Said he was ‘escortin’ Teresa,” he said with a grin.
“More like hopin’ Miz Crenshaw’s gal is there,” Val surmised with a wink.
“Boston’s had his eye on her for a while,” Johnny agreed.
“Might leave us an openin’ with the new gal then.”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope, wouldn’t count on it.”
Val finished off his coffee and sat the empty mug on his desk in front of him. “Well, if Miss Teresa’s with ya, I guess you’ll both try to stay clear o’ trouble, for once.”
Johnny looked offended. “You know I never look for trouble, Val.”
The sheriff harrumphed. “You don’t need to. It finds you.”
Johnny heard boots tromping loudly on the boardwalk and strolled over to look through the front window. He turned back with a satisfied grin on his face.
“Don’t look now, but trouble’s comin’ lookin’ for you this time, Val.”
Crawford slowly pulled his feet off the desk and leaned forward to rest his elbows on it instead. He could hear the approaching footsteps as well. “Sooner’n I expected,” he said to Johnny.
They didn’t have long to wait. Jake Franks was a tall, thin spider of a man with a temper that belied his body. He stormed into the room and glared at Val Crawford.
“You’ve got my boy locked up again, I hear, Crawford,” he bellowed.
Johnny leaned back against the wall to watch what he reckoned would be good entertainment for the morning, but his movement caught Franks’ eye and the man turned his attention on him.
“You got something to say in this, Lancer?” he asked angrily.
But Johnny just put up his hands and stayed put - a small half smile crossing his lips. “Nope,” he said innocently and the man glared at him for a moment before turning his wrath back on Val.
Val sighed heavily without looking at the man for a minute. Finally, he looked up at Franks. “If ya wanta keep that boy outa trouble - keep him outa the saloon, Jake.”
“Pete’s old enough to drink. You ain’t got no right to keep throwin’ him in jail!”
“Don’t be a fool, Jake. I know how old he is,” Val told him irritably. “Don’t mean he c’n handle it. He pesters the gals an’ picks fights with anyone he meets. Time ya took a good look at that boy an’ took him in hand.”
“Rubbish!” the man bellowed.
“He broke up the saloon real good this time,” Val continued. “You come to some arrangement with Hal over there ‘bout the costs an’ I’ll think ‘bout lettin’ the kid out.”
“Pete didn’t start the fight.”
Val was obviously trying hard to keep his temper. He stood up and walked over to face Jake Franks. Even on his feet, he had to look up at the man. Franks stood at least eight inches taller than he did, but Val stood in front of him and held his ground.
“Jake, don’t be a damned fool. Nobody’s pickin’ on your boy. He’s outa control an’ if ya don’t do somethin’ soon, you ain’t ever gonna be able to.”
The man turned away and stalked off to the door, where he stopped and turned back furiously. “Crawford, you ain’t gonna get away with this. You’re gonna pay for it,” he raged. He glared at Johnny and then added, “An’ no gunfighter pal o’ yours is gonna be able to help ya!”
Johnny’s eyes turned to ice as he deliberately lifted his eyes and stared at the man, but he didn’t move.
As Franks stormed out the door and headed for the saloon, Johnny pulled himself up straight and walked over to Val. He put his hand solicitously on his friend’s shoulder and said coolly, “I thought that went pretty good, Val.” He grinned cheekily.
“There’s Scott now,” Johnny said, picking up his hat and setting it comfortably on his head. He walked to the door, with Val close behind him.
“Looks like his visit to the dress shop was worth it, too,” Val told him with an impressed grin.
Johnny smiled as he watched his brother strolling down the street with Teresa and another girl, about her age and pretty, even from that distance.
“Yep,” Johnny agreed, stepping out into the sunlight. “Looks like. Do you know who she is?”
“Ain’t Lucy Crenshaw,” Val told him, looking across the street at the approaching threesome. “Nope, don’t know her.”
“Well, guess I better go introduce myself. See ya, Val.”
With Val’s farewell behind him, Johnny stepped off the boardwalk and crossed the street to meet the little group.
“Johnny,” Teresa called excitedly as he got closer.
“Hello, querida,” he replied cheerfully. “Hi, Scott.”
“Miss Larkin, I’d like you to meet my brother, Johnny,” Scott said politely as Johnny stopped in front of them and took his hat off.
The young woman smiled charmingly. She was pretty all right, just like he’d thought from across the road. She had dark brown hair in tightly curled ringlets under a small fashionable hat, and she wore a dress of green watered silk that was immaculately tailored to her petite figure.
Scott walked on the outside of her, while Teresa was on her other side, but all three stopped when Johnny joined them.
“Johnny, this is Miss Rebecca Larkin,” Scott finished.
Johnny held his hat loosely in his hands, running his fingers over the brim. He looked down at the hat for just long enough to draw a smile across his lips and then looked up into her pretty green eyes. “Howdy, Miss Larkin. Real pleased to meet you,” he said in his most charming voice.
The young woman blushed prettily. “Likewise, Mr. Lancer,” she said in a sweet voice.
“Oh no, Miss Larkin, you call me Johnny. Mr. Lancer is my ol’ man… er my father.” He glanced at Scott and mischief glinted in his eyes. “An’ my older brother here.”
Scott shook his head and groaned mockingly at his brother’s outrageousness. He smiled and replied, “You’ll have to excuse Johnny, Rebecca. He’s still learning how to behave in public.”
The girl looked at one brother and then the other and she seemed to relish being the center of attention. She giggled. “Please call me Rebecca, Johnny,” she told him. “Folks are so friendly here.”
Johnny took a step or two backward as the trio moved forward. His eyes were locked on hers and she smiled at him as he slipped in between Rebecca and Teresa and walked along with them.
“Yep, we’re all just real friendly folks ‘round here,” he agreed. “You’re new in town, ain’t ya?”
“That’s right,” she answered.
“The Larkins have bought the Bar T, Johnny,” Teresa explained.
“Is that right?” Johnny asked, thinking that Val had been right. The new owner did have a real pretty daughter. “Well, I guess that makes us neighbors, don’t it, Scott?”
“It certainly does,” Scott answered with a smile for the young lady that was designed to charm and had worked for him time and again. “And I would personally like to do the ‘neighborly thing’ and escort the lady to the dance on Saturday evening.”
Johnny could see himself being cut out by his brother yet again, and he decided he’d do whatever it took to stop him.
“That mean Lucy Crenshaw turned you down, brother?” Johnny asked Scott, in all innocence.
A slight giggle escaped Teresa and Scott appeared to blush under his tan.
“I haven’t asked Miss Crenshaw, Johnny,” Scott told him, with a scowl that suggested he’d get even later.
Rebecca looked from one brother to the other. “Oh, please, Scott, if you have other plans I really don’t mind. My brother was planning to escort me anyway.”
“That’s all right, Miss Rebecca,” Johnny assured her. “I don’t have no plans, an’ I’d be happy to take ya myself.”
“I thought you didn’t dance, Johnny,” Scott pointed out acidly.
She looked back towards Johnny and smiled. “I wouldn’t like to put you out, Johnny.”
“Wouldn’t be puttin’ me out at all, ma’am. Matter o’ fact, it’d be real nice to learn to dance just for you.” He smiled smoothly and glanced at his brother out of the corner of his eye. Scott was going to get him for this one, but he was enjoying himself far too much to worry about it now.
Rebecca Larkin was captivated. She wasn’t foolish enough to not have noticed that she was at the center of some sort of game the two brothers were playing. Both of them were handsome. Both were charming in their different ways.
Johnny took her silence as an acceptance. “Good, it’s all settled, then.”
“Well…” Rebecca said, considering. “Yes, thank you. I think that would be lovely.”
She stopped quite suddenly, just outside the hotel. “This is where I must leave you,” she said. She smiled prettily and indicated a young man coming towards them. “I’d like you to meet my brother Bryce.”
A tall dark haired man stepped over to her. “Bryce, come meet my new friends. This is Teresa, and Scott and Johnny Lancer.”
“Lancer? As in the ranch over near Morro Coyo?” Bryce Larkin asked.
“That’s right,” Scott told him.
“Well, I’m pleased to meet you all,” Bryce Larkin told them suavely. “I’ve been intending to drive my parents over to introduce ourselves.”
There was an obvious resemblance between the brother and sister and the brother was as handsome as his sister was pretty. “Did you get what you wanted, Becca?”
“Yes, Bryce. I found the loveliest blue satin. It will make such a lovely party dress,” she bubbled. “And Johnny has offered to escort me to the dance on Saturday.”
“Has he?” the man asked her.
Bryce looked at Johnny and considered him carefully for a moment before smiling. “That’s very kind of you, Johnny,” he said at last and then passed his attention back to his sister. “Now, Becca, we really must go. My business here is finished, and Dad will be wondering what’s taking us so long.” He turned back to Scott, Johnny and Teresa and tipped his hat to Teresa. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you.”
The girl smiled happily and took her brother’s offered arm. As the turned away from their new friends, she turned her head back over her shoulder and said, “I’ll see you on Saturday evening, Johnny,” and they strolled away.
Johnny watched the pair walk off, the girl with an elegant sway in her step.
A nudge of his arm caught his attention though.
“Johnny, Scott, are you about ready to go home yet?” Teresa asked them with a knowing smile. Both of them seemed smitten with Rebecca Larkin.
“Sure, Teresa,” Johnny told her.
“Well, I have one more stop to make. Why don’t you two wait for me at the wagon?” she asked them.
“I have a better idea,” Scott suggested. “Why don’t we have a drink while we wait for you?” He scowled at his brother. “I think my brother owes me a drink.”
“Why?” Johnny asked him innocently.
“Because you play dirty, little brother.”
“Natural good looks an’ charm is all it took, Scott,” Johnny told him with a laugh.
Teresa laughed and slipped an arm into each of theirs and led them towards the road to cross. “Come on, you two,” she said happily. “Round one to Johnny.”
Scott grinned. “I’m looking forward to Round two, little brother,” he warned him.
The dance was in full swing, and Johnny had surprised his family by joining Rebecca on the dance floor and doing it with style.
“I thought you couldn’t dance,” Teresa accused him as she joined the group outside the church hall. Johnny was there with Rebecca and Scott was with Lucy Crenshaw.
Teresa had danced the last dance with Bryce Larkin and was still catching her breath. He had an elegant style on the dance floor.
“Nope,” he replied bluntly. “I don’t dance much, but that don’t mean I don’t know how,” Johnny told her.
“Why don’t you young folks take in the evening air?” Albert Larkin suggested. He and his wife, Emily had joined Murdoch in watching the younger generation tread the boards. He was a corpulent man with a round face and a ready smile. He bore no resemblance - that anyone had noticed - to either of his children.
Mrs. Larkin, on the other hand, was tall and scrawny, making her an odd match for her husband. She wore an expensive dress that did nothing for her. She was a dour, unanimated woman whose eyes reminded Johnny of a lot of women he’d known down around the border. She seemed to have been sucked dry like a lemon and she looked tired, tired to death.
Yet, it was Emily Larkin who Bryce and Rebecca looked like. Once, years ago, perhaps she’d had those same sparkling green eyes and a shine to her hair.
Johnny wondered what life had thrown at her that had changed her.
“That sounds like a good idea to me,” Bryce Larkin replied, interrupting Johnny’s musings. “It’s kind of close in here.”
“Too many people and not enough windows,” Murdoch remarked. “I’m afraid these dances are all like that.”
“Ah well,” Larkin senior laughed. “It’s worth it to see so many young people having fun. They work hard, so they deserve it.” He turned to his son and daughter. “Go on, go out in the cool for a while. Your mother and I have excellent company in Murdoch here.”
Rebecca kissed him on the cheek and laughed happily. Then she put her arm through Johnny’s and joined him and the others in going outside.
Some chairs had been placed outside because of the heat. Summer had set in hard this year and the hall was hot with so many people crowded inside.
The ladies sat down and Rebecca opened her fan with flair and fanned herself briskly. “The heat here is so different from what I’m used to back east,” she informed them breathlessly.
“Do you miss New York?” Teresa asked her.
“Oh, I was a child when we left New York,” Rebecca answered. She looked at her brother proudly and explained. “When the war ended, Bryce was convinced there was a fortune to be made in the South. He talked Dad into selling his business and going to Georgia. We were there for a few years before we came here to buy the ranch.”
Larkins smiled right back at her. “Well, I was right.”
“Of course, you were!” She turned back to Scott and Johnny. “Bryce is a very astute business man,” she informed them. “He and Dad made their fortune in real estate.”
Scott threw a glance at his brother, who looked a little uncomfortable. But Johnny seemed to recover quickly and asked Larkin, “So how did ya end up in Green River?”
Larkin laughed. “Dad had wanted to retire to a ranch for years,” he told him. “In fact, it’s all I can remember him talking about when we were children.”
Rebecca giggled. “Oh, didn’t he though? Once he had some money to his name, there was no stopping him. He just had to have his ranch.”
“Your father isn’t a rancher, then?” Scott asked.
“Dear me, no. Dad’s a tailor by trade. He’s hired a man to manage the ranch for him. He just wants to live quietly now.”
“And what about you, Bryce?” Scott continued. “Are you happy here? It’s not exactly Wall Street.”
Bryce laughed at the idea. “I’d have gone mad with boredom,” he admitted. “But I had some money of my own and I’ve bought the hotel. I think it could be a good investment. Green River is on the stage route and when the new spur to the railway comes through in a couple of years, the hotel will be a real money earner.”
Scott nodded. He’d already heard that the young man had purchased the hotel. He’d been surprised, but Larkin’s explanation made sense, particularly if he planned to stay. A man with a head for business and a little ambition would soon become disgruntled living on a small ranch like the Bar T.
“Bryce will make it earn money,” Rebecca told them. “It’s a talent he has.”
Bryce Larkin laughed at his sister. “Becca, please…”
“Well, it is. Dad says it’s a gift.” She turned to her companions. “Dad says that everyone has a talent for something and they shouldn’t waste it. That’s why he listened to Bryce in the first place.”
“So, this is where everybody got to,” Val said loudly as he stepped outside to join them.
“Howdy, Val,” Johnny answered with a grin. “Come on out here and talk to us.” He turned to Larkin and his sister. “Have you folks met Val Crawford? He’s Sheriff o’ Green River.”
Bryce Larkin extended his hand politely and shook Val’s hand. “No, we haven’t. I’m Bryce Larkin. It’s a pleasure to meet you, at last, Sheriff,” he said. “And this is my sister, Rebecca.”
Val looked uncomfortable. Scott and Johnny had managed to talk him into dressing up for the occasion. Even his hair was combed and parted, sitting as smoothly as his untidy curls were capable of. He shook hands with the man, but he didn’t seem quite sure what to do around the young lady.
He tugged at his string tie awkwardly.
Johnny smiled again, but took pity on him and tried to include him in the conversation. “We were just talkin’ about talents, Val,” he told him.
“That’s right, Sheriff,” Rebecca said brightly. “Everyone has a talent of some sort. I know that Bryce is a good businessman. He’s proved that over and over. And Dad says that talents should be used and not wasted. Don’t you think so?”
Bryce laughed loudly. “I think we all know what Becca has a talent for – talking!”
“Very funny, Bryce,” she told him with a frown. She looked at Johnny. “What do you think yours is Johnny?”
There was silence for a moment as all eyes turned on Johnny. He ducked his head. He didn’t need to see everyone looking at him to know that they were. He felt like a huge fist had hit him in the throat.
Johnny knew what his talent was. He knew and he’d used it for years. He wondered just how much Rebecca’s father would have approved of his using it.
No, those days were gone – and he didn’t want to tell her what it was.
“Horses, my brother’s talent is horses,” he heard Scott say and he looked up at him. He looked totally at ease and caught Johnny’s eyes, meeting them confidently.
Johnny didn’t say anything. He couldn’t speak. There were so many ways to rescue a man and Scott had just found a new one.
“You got that right, Scott,” Val added eagerly. “I ain’t never seen a man break or train a horse like Johnny can. It’s purely a joy to see.”
Johnny smiled at last. Yeah, he did know how to handle horses. He just hadn’t ever thought of it as a talent.
“Really, Johnny?” Rebecca exclaimed. “I’d love to watch one day.”
“I’d like to see that myself,” Bryce agreed. “It must be exciting – a real battle of wills – the physical challenge of mastering a wild horse.”
“Not the way Johnny does it,” Val told him. “Johnny is a real horseman – a whisperer.”
“Johnny can walk right up and gentle a horse, Bryce,” Teresa confirmed.
“Well, it ain’t quite like that,” Johnny said awkwardly.
“It’s a gift, Johnny,” Scott added quietly, looking straight at his brother.
“Yeah, well, horses an’ me got an understanding.” He looked at his brother and hoped he knew just how grateful he was.
“What about you, then, Scott?” Bryce asked.
Johnny grinned. “That’s easy. Scott’s good at figurin’.”
“Figuring?” Rebecca asked curiously. “Do you mean numbers?”
“Numbers, contracts, all kinds o’ things,” Johnny told her. “He c’n look at a page an’ spot a mistake right off.”
“I wouldn’t say that, Johnny,” Scott replied, embarrassed.
“It’s true, brother. You’re smarter than anyone I know.”
“Well, I had the benefit of a good education,” Scott told him simply. “I was lucky.”
“And you’re happy on a ranch?” Bryce asked him, a little surprised.
“Lancer’s a big ranch. There’s plenty of bookwork to be done there, unfortunately,” Scott explained to him. “To be honest, I prefer working the ranch and getting my hands dirty.”
Johnny and Val laughed, while Teresa coughed delightedly. “Well, hard work don’t worry him,” Johnny confirmed. “But getting his hands dirty…”
“Funny!” Scott replied with a grin.
“Well, Teresa’s got a gift for nursin’. Don’t she, Scott?”
Scott nodded, but Teresa answered with a scowl. “And I get plenty of practice now you two are home.”
“What about you, Sheriff? What’s your talent?” Rebecca asked sweetly.
Val looked even more uncomfortable than he had before. Johnny clapped his hand on his friend’s shoulder and grinned mischievously. “Well, it ain’t coffee,” he said cheekily.
Val turned his head and gave Johnny a look that threatened revenge, but Johnny only laughed at him. “Val’s usin’ his talent.”
“He’s good at what he does,” Scott confirmed. “He’s the best sheriff Green River’s ever had.”
The sheriff shifted awkwardly.
Johnny grinned. “Okay, so everyone has a talent. It don’t matter what it is, long as he uses it. Now, let’s go do some more dancin’.” The twinkle came back into his eyes. “You ain’t seen Val dance yet, Rebecca. Now that’s talent.”
The next ten days saw summer arrive with a vengeance. Scott couldn’t remember it being this hot over the last two years.
It was a searing, dry heat that sapped the energy from man and beast alike, and a sensible human being wouldn’t be out here on horseback. He’d be stretched out under a tree somewhere. Scott’s first experience of a California summer, a couple of years ago now, had given him a whole new understanding of the traditional Spanish custom of ‘siesta’.
Right now that was what he wished he was doing – resting up in the shade.
Scott pulled his horse to a stop, grabbed his hat from his head and wiped the perspiration from his forehead with his sleeve. He pushed the hat back on then. It was the only shade around at the moment, scant though it was.
He grabbed his canteen and took a healthy swig of the tepid water.
It was surprisingly quenching though and he screwed the cap back on and looped it back over the pommel of his saddle. He had to be careful with the water. It was the sort of day when there was a temptation to keep going for it and it would run out before he knew it. That would leave him with a very hot and thirsty afternoon.
It was still morning. It wouldn’t even be noon for another half an hour. The sun wasn’t even over top of them yet. The afternoon was going to be a killer.
The weather had been threatening to heat up like this for weeks. There’d been no let up at all, no sign of relieving rain, and the grass was withered and brown and tinder dry. Lancer had been on the alert for fires for most of the summer, but these last two weeks in particular.
They’d been lucky so far, with no fires to speak of, although one or two of their neighbors had suffered losses from grassfires.
That was why he was here now. From this vantage, on top of the north mesa, he and Johnny would be able to see most of Lancer and, hopefully, spot any fires before they took hold.
Johnny had ridden only a few yards further ahead of him before pulling Barranca to a halt and taking a water break just like his brother.
“Hot enough to fry eggs on them rocks, I reckon, Scott,” he called back to his brother as he took a handkerchief from the pocket of his pants and wiped the sweat out of his eyes.
He looked out over the range and shook his head. No smoke – so that was a relief – but a heat haze drifted over the hills on the far side of the valley, spoiling the view he loved to sit and admire. He remembered his first view of Lancer – two years back. Everything had been green in the early spring sun then.
“I don’t see anything, do you?” Scott asked him as he rode up beside him.
“Nope, nothin’. That’s somethin’ to be grateful for, anyway. In this heat, the last thing we need is to be out stompin’ out a grassfire.”
“I’m with you. It’s hot enough as it is.”
Johnny nodded. “Yep, it’s gonna be a bad summer this year.” He looked away from the landscape and seemed thoughtful.
“Scott, I can’t help but wonder. Do you reckon Bryce Larkin was one o’ them carpetbaggers?”
Scott sighed. “I don’t know. I’ve been thinking along the same lines myself, but a lot of businessmen invested in the South after the war. They weren’t all profiteers.”
“No, maybe so, but a lot of ‘em were,” Johnny answered. There was an angry note in his voice that Scott didn’t miss.
Scott shifted uncomfortably and sighed heavily. “I’m afraid that I didn’t take a lot of notice of the state of affairs for some time after the war,” he admitted. “I got out of prison and went home and tried my best NOT to think about it.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I don’t blame ya for that. Musta been hard on ya.”
Scott said nothing, and Johnny sat silently for a while.
“I spent some time in Texas not long after the war,” Johnny finally told him. “It was pretty hard on everyone down there for a while.”
He looked out over the land in front of him. Scott recognized that he had some harsh memories to deal with and let him take his time about continuing.
“Carpetbaggers came in like a pack o’ vultures,” Johnny told him eventually. “They were buyin’ up the papers on land that good men owed back taxes on – men who’d fought an’ bled for that land, just like Murdoch did here.”
“I heard about it,” Scott said quietly. “But, you couldn’t have been much more than a boy, Johnny.”
“Nope, I was old enough to see what was happenin’. There was no law to speak of. Those fellas got away with just about anythin’ they wanted. I hired on to help settle a few ‘disputes’ there.”
Scott glanced sideways at his brother. He knew, only too well, what Johnny meant by ‘hiring on’. But he must have still been in his teens back then. He shuddered at the thought of his younger brother selling his gun and building a reputation as a pistolero even at that age.
“I ain’t got much time for ‘carpetbaggers’,” Johnny continued with a touch of ice in his voice.
“Well, we don’t know enough about Bryce Larkin to make that kind of assumption,” Scott told him. “He seems like a decent sort of man.”
“Yeah, I kinda liked him, myself,” Johnny confessed.
Johnny turned in the saddle and looked back over the other side of the mesa. Boulders as tall as a man and twice as round lay strewn down both sides of the trail. They made visibility hard, but something was moving down there.
An awful squawk echoed around the boulders and a vulture flew up over them to circle round and round in a kind of eerie ritual of anticipation of death.
“There’s somethin’ down there, Scott. That damned buzzard up there is gettin’ mighty anxious.”
“It’s probably another dead cow. We’ve lost a few over the last couple of weeks,” Scott surmised.
“Most likely,” Johnny agreed. “Could be a calf round here though. We’d better go check.”
“All right, let’s go,” Scott agreed wearily and urged his horse over to join Johnny’s.
They rode down the side of the mesa. Both horses were sure footed enough to trust to find the best way down. Dirt and gravel slipped under their hooves, but they were never at risk of missing their step.
By the time they reached the bottom, another vulture had joined the circle of death above them. Johnny hated them. They brought back memories of a close call he’d had in the desert before he came back home to Lancer. He recalled coming to and having to swat one over-eager bird away before he’d managed to get back on his feet and start walking again.
He’d made it that time, but those harbingers of death were a reminder of that awful day. There was a small scar on his right leg that had intrigued his family when they’d seen it. He’d never told them what had made it, but those buzzards above him sent a chill down his spine when he remembered.
He pulled up when he cleared the boulders and could see the dry creek bed ahead of him. It was the only break in an otherwise relentlessly flat landscape.
There was certainly something lying on the ground over there. It was just a shapeless form under a black oak tree and he couldn’t tell exactly what it was from here.
Something moved further over in the distance. It was a horse, saddled but riderless, grazing peacefully not far from what they figured was a body.
Johnny heard his brother stop beside him, but he didn’t say anything to him. His mouth had gone dry and his heart thumped in his chest so hard that he couldn’t get any words out.
“Johnny – what is it?” Scott asked, seeing how his brother’s face had blanched. He looked off into the distance and finally caught sight of what had shaken Johnny so badly.
He recognized the horse immediately. It was a buckskin and Johnny had spent days breaking the animal. It had given him a hard time, harder than most, but it was worth it. That was one fine animal.
But he also knew what had happened after he broke it. Johnny had been talked into a ridiculously cheap bargain that had had Murdoch roaring at him for an hour.
Johnny had sat his backside on his father’s desk and taken the lecture without losing his own temper. He’d known Murdoch was right and let him get it out of his system. But Johnny had no regrets over it. Scott knew that better than anyone.
He’d let that buckskin go for a pittance and glad of it.
Val Crawford had bought it from him.
“Johnny…” Scott started to say something, but he couldn’t find the words. Scott knew that he was Johnny’s brother, and probably his best friend, but one man in the entire world rivaled that honor –Val.
Johnny didn’t answer. He spurred Barranca to a gallop and headed for the shapeless form lying under the tree.
Scott took off after him. Johnny was going to need him.
Johnny pulled Barranca to a shuddering halt, frightening away one vulture that had finally gotten brave enough to go right up to the prone figure on the ground. He leaped down and pulled his pistol from his holster to take a potshot at the bird that so enraged him.
He got no more satisfaction than a couple of tail-feathers dropping to earth as the bird took off in a hurry. He quickly tossed the reins over the horse’s head and let them fall to the ground as he ran to Crawford’s side.
He stopped just for a second, appalled at the sight in front of him.
It was Val all right. He was lying in the dust face down with blood spread all across his back and more on the ground by his side.
He knelt down beside his friend and put his fingers to Val’s throat, praying silently that he would find some trace of life. He didn’t find anything at first, and his blood ran cold. But finally, he found a faint thread of a pulse and breathed a sigh of relief.
Scott arrived at his side. He hadn’t even heard him ride up or dismount.
“Johnny?” he asked quietly. “Is he alive?”
Scott ran back to his horse and took the canteen from his saddle, and then he pulled out the supplies of bandages that he kept there. When he got back, Johnny had already pulled up Val’s shirt to reveal the wound.
One bullet in the back had done all this damage. Johnny guessed that the bullet had hit a vein as it ploughed through his friend’s body. He carefully lifted Val and checked for an exit wound, but he found none.
He looked him over to make sure there were no other wounds and came across a small tear in the leg of his pants with a nip taken out of his flesh. Johnny knew right away what it was. That damned bird hadn’t been ready to wait for Val to die. It had taken a bite out of him just as Johnny had turned up.
Well, Val was going to have a scar to match Johnny’s, if he made it through this. It would be something else the two of them had in common.
“He’s just barely alive, Scott. We’ve gotta get him home.”
“It’d be quicker to take him straight to Green River so Sam can see to him there.”
“Maybe, but he won’t make it that far. He’s too far-gone. Lancer’s closer.”
Johnny took the canteen from his brother and poured it over Val’s back to clean the wound. The blood was dried solid around the entry hole, so he took out his handkerchief and wet it thoroughly. He wiped away as much of the scabbed blood as he could without starting the bleeding again.
“He’s been lying here for awhile, Scott. He’s lost way too much blood.”
Scott agreed. The pool of blood beside Val was almost dry too. “I know,” he said. “Lift him up a little, Johnny. I’ll wrap the bandage around him. Be real careful, though. We don’t know where that bullet ended up or what damage it’s done.”
Scott tied off the bandage and they lowered him back to the ground. His face was ashen and clammy to the touch.
“Johnny, we should really get a wagon to take him home,” Scott told his brother.
“Yeah, I know, but he won’t last that long. I’ll take him back to Lancer on horseback an’ you head into town for Sam. We’ll save some time that way.”
“Johnny, he’ll start bleeding again as soon as we try to get him on a horse.”
“I know,” Johnny admitted, closing his eyes and biting his bottom lip in anguish. “I just don’t see any way ‘round it. The sooner we get him into a bed, the better he’ll be.”
Scott nodded. “Okay.”
“Give me a hand with him,” Johnny said. He slipped his arm under Val’s shoulder and lifted him very carefully, rolling him over slowly until he held him in his arms. He got to his feet slowly and Scott helped him get Val to his feet.
“Think you can hold him up while I get mounted?” Johnny asked his brother.
“I’ve got him,” he told Johnny, taking hold of Val firmly around the waist while his head lolled back on his shoulder.
Johnny walked Barranca over beside them and mounted quickly. Then he edged the horse closer to his brother and Val.
“If you can lift him a little, I’ll get a hold of him an’ get him up here,” Johnny suggested.
Val Crawford was not a big man, but he was dead weight and hard to maneuver into position. It took a bit of man handling to get him comfortably onto Barranca and in Johnny’s arms.
“I’ve got him,” Johnny told his brother at last. “Get Dusty an’ bring him over here. I’ll lead him back.”
Scott looked doubtful. “I think you’ve got enough to handle.”
“If he gets to be a problem, I’ll just leave him behind. Barranca don’t take much handlin’, an’ Val thinks the world o’ that animal.”
“Well, all right,” Scott relented, although he hardly appeared convinced. He got the Sheriff’s horse and handed Johnny the reins. “Are you all set, then?”
Johnny shifted his weight just a little so that Val rested more comfortably against his chest. “Yeah, I’ll be okay. Now you head off to town an’ bring Sam back quick as you can.”
“You take it slow and easy getting him back to the ranch, Johnny,” Scott advised him. “I know we need to get him there quickly, but if he falls, you’re not going to be able to get him back up there without help.”
“I know,” Johnny nodded. “I know. I’ll take it easy. You just get Sam.”
Johnny kept up a steady even pace as best he could, but, even so, he didn’t have to see Val’s back to know that the bleeding had started again. It had started almost as soon as they’d started the ride.
Johnny could feel it running down his arm as he kept hold of his friend but there was nothing he could do about it.
He kept a close eye on Val. His breathing was so shallow that Johnny could only just barely feel his chest rise and fall against him. He hadn’t moved an inch in the long ride to the hacienda, and it was only the faint beat of his heart against Johnny’s chest that kept Johnny’s hopes alive.
Johnny had a lot of friends. He had the sort of mischievous charm that people liked. But he didn’t have close friends – confidantes. That was what Val Crawford had become. He’d known him years ago, before he came home to Lancer, and when he had come home, he’d found Val working as sheriff in Green River.
It had been a surprise. In fact, Johnny had enraged and embarrassed Val by bursting into a fit of laughter when he’d first seen the star on his chest. Johnny knew enough about Val Crawford to know that he was an unlikely sheriff, but he soon found that his friend was good at what he was doing.
Together, they made an incongruous pair. Johnny and Val both knew it. They knew that they had raised a few eyebrows when they’d become good friends – the lawman and the ex-gunfighter – but neither of them cared.
Val understood him in the same way that Scott did, better sometimes since he had a similar history himself. He knew when to press him and when to let him alone, when to laugh at him and when to stay clear of that volcanic temper of Johnny’s.
A man didn’t find that good a friend easily. Johnny didn’t trust many men, but Val was one of those few.
He looked down at the man in his arms and sighed heavily. Johnny was no fool. He knew that the chances of saving Val’s life weren’t good, but he intended to give him every chance he could.
“You hang in there, Val,” he said aloud. “You ain’t done yet.”
Val suddenly took a deeper breath and moved his head infinitesimally.
Johnny frowned and pulled Barranca to a halt, but it was all the movement Val made so he urged the horse on.
Crawford’s hair was damp now and his face was no longer pale but flushed with the onset of a fever. It was the last thing Val needed now.
Johnny rode under the big adobe arch at the end of the drive into Lancer with a heavy heart and a heavy burden. His arm was just about numb from the weight of his friend resting on it. His shoulder was cramped and his back strained from the effort of keeping him in position.
Along the way, Johnny had thought he’d lost Val more than once. He’d even stopped Barranca once to make sure that Val was still breathing. His heartbeat was so weak that Johnny hadn’t been able to find a trace of it for a while.
He’d come close to panic before the faintest throb echoed against his own chest. He’d started off again with fear weighing heavily on him.
But he was nearly home. Relief washed over him as he realized that he’d gotten Val back to the hacienda alive – only just alive, but alive.
When he got close to the yard, he heard the uproar that his approach had created. Men came running from everywhere, but when Jelly and Murdoch got close, he saw their anguished faces and knew why.
“It ain’t Scott,” Johnny reassured them. “It’s Val. Scott’s gone to town to bring Sam.”
He handed over the reins for Val’s horse gladly, but held tight to his friend. He rode as close to the front door as he could before coming to a halt. Murdoch and Jelly were by his side, and Teresa ran out of the house to see what was going on.
“Murdoch, get a couple of the men to give me a hand with Val. He’s hurt real bad.”
Murdoch gave orders and two men appeared from behind them. They reached up and gently took the Sheriff as Johnny carefully let him slip into their arms.
“Take him up to the spare room,” Murdoch told them.
“I’ll go with them,” Teresa said and followed them, urging them to be careful with their charge.
Murdoch waited for his son. Johnny looked done it. Heat, stress and the strain of holding Val’s dead weight for so long had left him played out. And he was covered in his friend’s blood.
Johnny didn’t dismount right away. He waited to get his thoughts together first.
When he did drop to the ground at last, Jelly stepped up and took Barranca’s reins from him. “I’ll look after Barranca for ya,” he told the boy. He looked just as worried as Murdoch was over Johnny.
“Thanks Jelly,” Johnny finally said quietly.
“What happened, son?” Murdoch asked him as Jelly led the horse away.
Johnny shook his head. “I dunno. We found him over by the North Mesa, near the boundary with the Franks’ place. He’s got a bullet in his back, so I guess it don’t take much figurin’ to know what happened.”
Murdoch drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Bushwhacked.”
“Yeah,” Johnny answered slowly. “He didn’t have a chance. Looked like they hid in the rocks up on the mesa an’ fired from there.”
“You’re right,” Murdoch agreed. “He wouldn’t have had a chance.”
“Yeah. I don’t know how long he’d been there, but I’d say a few hours at least.” He looked towards the front door and put his hands on his hips.
“Did you find anything to suggest who did this?”
Johnny shook his head. “I didn’t even look, Murdoch. All I could think of was gettin’ him some help.”
“All right,” Murdoch said quietly, putting his hand on his son’s shoulder. “You did the right thing.”
Johnny shifted from one foot to the other impatiently. “I’ve gotta go see how he is, Murdoch.”
“Sure son,” Murdoch agreed. “What about you, though? You look like you could use a drink first.”
“No, I’m okay.” He looked down at his feet. “He’s bad, Murdoch – real bad.”
Murdoch Lancer wasn’t much given to expressing his feelings, but he put his arm around his son’s shoulders and said, “We’ll do what we can for him, Johnny.”
Johnny nodded silently. He was afraid to speak, lest his emotions get the better of him.
“How long ago did Scott go into town?” Murdoch asked him.
“About three hours ago.”
“Well, even if Sam was in when he got there, it’s going to be a few more hours before they get here.”
“Yeah, that’s about how I figure it,” Johnny said sadly. “I’m not sure he’s gonna last that long.” He turned away, took his hat off and slammed it against the wall. “He’d lost too much blood before we started back here. He lost a whole lot more gettin’ here. Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe Scott was right an’ we woulda been better off waitin’ for a wagon.”
“He might have lost less blood, but the wait might have been too long,” Murdoch assured him. “You can’t go second guessing yourself, son. You did what you thought was best, and you got him here still breathing. That’s all that counts.”
Johnny looked at his father, surprised by his reassurances. “Yeah, thanks Murdoch. I guess you’re right.”
“Of course, I am. Now let’s get you inside and cleaned up.”
Johnny looked down at himself and realized he had nearly as much blood on him as his friend did. He shivered ever so slightly at the sight and then straightened up.
“If Sam sees you like that, he’ll have you in bed too,” Murdoch said lightly, hoping to relieve the tension. “Come on, son. We’d better go help Teresa get him settled and see what we can do for him.”
When Johnny and Murdoch got to the spare bedroom where Teresa had put Val, Teresa had already had Walt and Hank strip Val and put him in the bed. Blankets covered him to his waist and she was easing away the bandages that he and Scott had used.
She looked up quickly when they came in. “Murdoch, I need some extra pillows,” she ordered. When he didn’t move fast enough to do her bidding, she glared at him. “Now, Murdoch,” she demanded.
Used to seeing his father giving orders, rather than taking them, Johnny was surprised when Murdoch acquiesced so easily to her orders. He left the room to get the pillows, but Johnny walked over to the bed and watched her remove the bandages to reveal the awful wound in his back. Teresa worked so quickly and so efficiently that he had to remind himself that she wasn’t even out of her teens yet.
It was a shame in a way. She’d had far too much practice at this. She’d nursed all the men in the house – himself, Scott and Murdoch. And she’d had a hand in helping with injuries to the men who worked for them as well. She knew, better than women twice her age, what had to be done.
She finished pulling the soiled bandages away, bundled them and tossed them behind her for the time being.
“Johnny, pass me that towel from the basin – and be careful, the water’s hot,” she ordered him.
He wrung the water out of it and passed it to Teresa and he watched her clean away the dried blood from Val’s back.
“Has anyone gone for Sam, Johnny?”
“Scott went for him while I brought Val here. I didn’t think he’d make it all the way to Green River.” He sighed. “I didn’t think he’d make it here.”
Teresa took a moment to look over at Johnny’s face. He was nearly as pale as Val was. “He’s going to be all right, Johnny,” she told him sympathetically. “We’ll look after him.”
“Yeah,” he said quietly.
Teresa held the towel firmly against the wound and looked at Johnny again. “Can you get me the bandages from over there on the dresser, Johnny?”
He walked over and collected them all and brought them back to her. “I’ll lift him, you put the bandages on,” he suggested.
Murdoch arrived with the pillows and held them while he watched the two of them at work. Johnny was as gentle as Teresa was with his friend, moving him gingerly with his strong hands. Together they wrapped the bandage tightly around Val’s back and laid him carefully face down on the bed.
“Thank you, Johnny,” she said quietly. She turned around to where Murdoch stood. “Pass me the pillows please, Murdoch,” she ordered him, and, when he passed them to her, she turned back to Johnny.
“Can you roll him onto his side, very gently, so I can put these in front of him?” she asked him.
Johnny didn’t answer, but did as she asked. He eased Val onto his side so she could place the pillows, holding him there until she was sure that Val was supported by them and unable to roll over.
“Thanks, Johnny. I remember Sam telling us not to let you lay on your stomach for too long when Pardee shot you in the back,” she explained.
She pulled the covers up over Val’s chest and ran her hand over his damp dark curls to his forehead and checked for fever.
“He’s pretty hot. There’s a fever taking hold,” she told them. “Murdoch, can you take that hot water and throw it out?” She poured some cool water from the jug into the smaller basin that sat on the bedside table.
“Wait a minute,” Johnny said. He pulled the blankets away from Val’s legs. Sure enough there was a small ugly wound on his leg that no one else had noticed.
Teresa frowned. She hadn’t been present when Hank and Walt had stripped his clothes from him and put him into the bed. “I didn’t see that. What is it?”
Johnny sighed. “Those damned vultures get impatient sometimes,” he told her cryptically. “Pass me that towel, Teresa. An’ some o’ that special salve you keep.” He picked up another of the bandages and kept it handy.
Teresa stared at him. “Do you mean that they took a bite out of him while he was still alive?”
Johnny nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“Oh no, that’s horrible, Johnny!” Teresa gasped. She quickly rinsed the towel in the hot water and wrung it out before handing it over to Johnny. “I’ll get the salve. It’s in my room.”
With that she ran from the room, leaving Johnny to clean up the jagged laceration on Val’s leg. He bathed it and looked carefully for signs of infection. So far, there weren’t any, although the wound would need a few stitches. Teresa’s salve had a good chance of keeping out infection. Even Sam recognized its value.
Murdoch went closer and watched his son at work. He also took a look at the wound and frowned. “That wound looks a little like the scar you have on your leg,” he remarked suspiciously.
“Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?” was all that Johnny said in reply. He had no desire to go into his past right now, and Murdoch took the hint, for once.
Johnny deftly cleaned up the wound and finished just as Teresa hurried back in with the salve. She handed it to him so that he could apply some and then bandage the wound.
When he’d finished, Teresa gave Murdoch the bowl of water. “You can throw that out now, Murdoch,” she told him and then pulled an armchair over close to the bed. She poured clean cool water over a soft cloth and wrung the water out of it before placing it over Val’s forehead.
She sat down in the chair and looked at both men. “I’ll stay with him for a while. We have to keep that fever off if we can,” she said determinedly. “You, Johnny, get cleaned up. You have blood all over you. If Sam sees you like that, he’ll think you’re his patient.”
Johnny cleaned up and redressed as quickly as he could and then he headed straight back to what he already thought of as Val’s room.
“How is he?” he asked as he walked in.
“No different from when you were here before,” Teresa told him. “He’s feverish, but not too bad at this stage. There isn’t much more we can do until Sam gets here, except try to keep that fever down.”
“The bleeding seems to have stopped,” he remarked, noticing that the bandages showed no stains. “That’s gotta be good news.”
“Yes, but he’s lost so much already,” she answered sadly. “But Sam will know what to do.”
Johnny nodded slowly. He wished that he had her faith in Sam Jenkins’ doctoring. He did believe in the doctor. Sam had brought them through some pretty tough spots. They all knew how lucky they were that a doctor of Sam Jenkins’ caliber was content to work in a small town like Green River.
He knew that Sam would do the best he could, but he also knew that he couldn’t work miracles. Looking at Val now, he had an awful feeling in the pit of his stomach that a miracle was what he was going to need.
Val hadn’t moved or made a sound since he’d found him under that tree. He just lay there - still, pale and desperately ill.
Teresa saw the sorrow on Johnny’s face. “He will be all right, Johnny. You have to believe that.”
Without taking his eyes off his friend, he sat down slowly and carefully on the edge of the bed. Suddenly, something started to build up inside him. He could feel the lump in his chest hardening physically as rage began to take over.
Teresa saw it too. She saw his eyes turn cold and he started to shake.
“Johnny…?” she whispered, and reached out to take his hand.
He didn’t answer and she stood up and walked around the bed to put her arm around his shoulders. “Johnny, please…”
He pushed her away and got to his feet, striding across the room angrily. “No,” he snapped at her. “Whoever did this is going to pay for it!”
Dr. Sam Jenkins had been with Val for twenty minutes. His arrival had calmed Johnny considerably but waiting impatiently in the Great Room with Scott and Murdoch was going a long way towards restoring him to the black mood he had been in earlier.
Sam had thrown them all out, asking only that Teresa stay and help him and they’d been sitting here waiting ever since. Waiting was something that Johnny didn’t deal with well.
Johnny sat in one of the armchairs; his hands were clasped tightly in his lap and his feet were bouncing rapidly on the floor.
“Scott, did you tell Earl what’s happened when you were in town?” Johnny asked.
“Val’s deputy? Yes, I did, right after I told Sam. Why?”
“Just figured he woulda been here by now. You know, to check things out,” Johnny wondered idly.
“It hasn’t been long, Johnny, despite what it seems. Maybe he’s looking into it from another angle?”
“Yeah, well, he sure don’t seem too worried ‘bout his boss,” Johnny said sourly.
Scott glanced over at Murdoch and shook his head. They both knew that Johnny was bordering on an eruption of temper.
“For heaven’s sake, Johnny. Will you settle down?” Murdoch finally demanded. “I know you’re worried, but that’s getting on my nerves.”
“Johnny, this could take hours,” Scott told him. “You know that.”
Johnny stopped and looked up. “Yeah, I know.”
But they were wrong. Murdoch was the first to see Sam come back downstairs and jumped to his feet. Scott and Johnny followed suit and looked anxiously towards Sam.
It was too soon. Johnny knew it and so did Scott and Murdoch. Johnny froze to the spot, while his brother and father took over.
“Sam? What is it?” Murdoch asked anxiously.
Scott looked at his brother nervously, but Johnny didn’t say or ask anything, so Scott had to put their fears into words.
“Sam, he’s not…?”
“No, no,” Sam hurried to reassure them. “I came down to ask Scott if he’d mind giving me a hand with the chloroform.”
“Has he come to?” Johnny asked urgently.
“No, Johnny, but I’m not taking even the slightest chance that he’ll wake up while I’m operating. It would be fatal.”
“I’d be glad to help ya, Doc,” Johnny offered.
“I know you would, Johnny. But I think you’re too close to Val for this,” Sam told him sympathetically.
“He’s that bad, Sam?” Murdoch asked.
The doctor sighed. “I’m afraid so. Outwardly, the bleeding appeared to have stopped, but he’s still been bleeding internally,” he explained. “I’ve found where the bullet is lodged. It’s near his armpit. My guess is that it went through his lung as well. It’ll be easy enough to remove it if I go through his chest, but unfortunately it’s going to mean even more bleeding and he’s lost far too much already.”
“What are his chances, Doc?” Johnny asked him.
Sam looked down awkwardly. He hated this part, but he had to prepare them. “I have to be honest, Johnny. His chances aren’t good. He’s barely hanging on at the moment. I’ll tell you right now, if I could put this surgery off, I would. But I have to stop that bleeding. I don’t have a choice – not with internal bleeding and possibly a punctured lung.”
The expression on Johnny’s face demanded that he reassure him.
“I’ll do my best, Johnny,” he continued determinedly.
Scott stood quietly at the bedroom door, watching his brother.
Johnny had been sitting with Val Crawford for four hours now. It was the middle of the night and Scott had said that he’d relieve him sometime soon. He wasn’t sure that Johnny wanted him to take over. He understood that Johnny felt a need to be here for his friend.
Leaning forward, Johnny wiped Val’s face again. The fever had been getting worse most of the night and that was a serious threat. Val was so weak that his body may not be able to tolerate the fever.
Sam was sleeping in a room down the hall, preferring to stay in case he was needed through the night. He’d been exhausted after three hours of surgery. The miracle was that Val had come through it at all.
The bullet had gone through his lung and perforated it in two places, going in and going out, but Sam had managed to patch him up and stop the internal bleeding. He’d done what he could and he had done it well. But he couldn’t do it all. None of them could.
They could sit and watch Val and nurse him carefully, but, basically, it was up to Val now.
If he made it through the night - that’s what Sam Jenkins had said. He hadn’t been prepared to make any promises, but he’d told them that if Val survived the night, and if they could keep that fever at bay, then he stood a chance.
There were a lot of ‘ifs’ in there, but a chance was enough to pin their hopes on.
Johnny pulled the covers higher up over him.
“How’s he doing?” Scott asked as he came in the door. The lamp in the room was turned low, but Scott could see the worry on his brother’s face.
He was surprised that he’d gotten so far into the room without Johnny hearing him. Johnny was usually tuned in on any sound around him and it was a measure of how much his brother was concentrating on Val that he hadn’t heard him.
“Fever’s up some,” Johnny told him quietly. “You don’t need to take over, Scott. I’m c’n sit with him some more.”
“You’re exhausted, Johnny. Hanging onto Val all the way here, and then all the worry over him – it’s taken a lot out of you.”
“Well, if you want to stay that way and be of any use to Val, you need to get some rest,” Scott pressed him. “I’ll call you if anything happens.”
Johnny looked up at his brother, a flash of anger in his eyes. “Ya mean, if he dies!”
“That’s not what I said, Johnny,” Scott told him patiently. “And it’s not what I meant. You ought to know that.”
The anger died and he looked down at his hands. He rubbed them together nervously and nodded. “I know,” he admitted. “Sorry, Scott.”
Scott put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “It’s all right. You’re tired. Go get some rest. I’ll take good care of him.”
Obviously resenting the need, Johnny realized that his brother was right. He stood up to allow Scott to take his place in the chair. Then he walked slowly to the door, turned around to look at his friend again, and then walked outside.
Scott looked Val over carefully. His face, so pale a few hours ago, was now flushed with the fever that was growing slowly, but ominously. He couldn’t hear his breathing, but he could see the small rise and fall of his chest. He reached over and took Val’s wrist to check for a pulse.
It was little more than a thin thread of a beat, but it was still there.
He was lying on his side, supported by two pillows lying along the length of his body. His chest was swathed in white bandages from under his arms almost down to his waist. They were blessedly clean and white since it meant that he was no longer bleeding.
His unruly curls lay limp and damp and the beginning of stubble darkened his face, and Scott couldn’t help but think that he looked a lot like his usual self. Val Crawford had to be about the scruffiest, most untidy man that Scott had ever met, but he scrupulously hid a heart of gold under that façade.
Scott wrung the water from the soft cloth in the basin and washed the perspiration from Val’s face, neck and shoulders. He was determined to keep this man alive, and not for Johnny’s sake. He liked Val himself.
They fought for Val Crawford’s life just as hard as if he had been one of the family, and it was late the next afternoon before the fever dropped and he began to stir.
Sam had had to leave a few hours before, telling them that he had a few patients to see to and that he would be back as soon as he could. He did, however, make sure that they knew where he’d be so they could send for him if he was needed.
Teresa was with Val when he finally opened his eyes. He sighed heavily and frowned, attracting her attention immediately.
She stood up from the armchair quickly and sat down on the edge of the bed, putting her hand very gently and reassuringly on his shoulder.
“Lie still, Val,” she whispered soothingly. She saw the confusion in his eyes and leaned forward so that he could see her. “It’s all right. You’re at Lancer. Now, don’t try to move – you’ve been hurt.”
Despite her efforts and her soothing words, Val tried to shift in the bed. She didn’t want to frighten him, but she shouted for Johnny. She was sure that she’d need help to keep him still.
Johnny’s hurried footsteps could be heard on the staircase, so Teresa set about trying to reassure Val while she waited for him. But he was still weakly trying to move when Johnny reached them.
He sat down beside Teresa and firmly put his hands on Val’s shoulders. “Val!” he said resolutely. “Val Crawford, you lie still or so help me I’ll get a rope an’ tie ya to that bed.”
Crawford’s eyes sought and found Johnny’s. At first, he seemed confused, but he seemed to recognize him and frowned heavily. He opened his mouth slightly, obviously trying to say something, but Johnny hushed him.
“Take it easy, Val. Don’t waste your strength on tryin’ to talk,” he told him. “You’ve gotten yourself shot, but you’re gonna be fine. You got that, Val? You’re gonna be fine. What you gotta do is to lie real still for a while. Do ya hear me?”
Getting no response, Johnny repeated his question. “I said, do you hear me?”
This time, Val gave the slightest of nods and Johnny breathed a heavy sigh of relief. “Good,” he said, with a smile. “Now you listen to what Teresa tells ya. She’s gonna help ya, so do as she says an’ you’ll be just fine.”
Johnny turned back to Teresa. “I’ll go send for Doc Jenkins. Will you be all right with him?”
“Don’t worry,” she answered with a smile. “I can handle him now.”
“I won’t be gone long.”
“I know. We’ll be fine.”
She watched him leave and then turned her attention back to Val. She poured a glass of water and helped him to drink it, lifting his head very gently.
“I want you to swallow some water,” she told him. “Slowly though, Val.”
It was awkward, what with him lying on his side and his being so weak, and she made a mental note to have a straw handy for him in the future.
She put the glass back on the bedside table and, as she turned back to him. She saw his hand clench, grabbing the sheet, and what sounded like a whimper escaped him despite his obvious efforts to keep it back. His eyes were closed tightly and she knew that he must be in terrible pain.
Sam had left laudanum for him in case he woke up, so she measured it carefully onto a spoon and leaned over him.
“Val, look at me,” she whispered gently, and he opened his eyes. They were haunted with pain
“That’s good,” she continued. “Now, I have something I want you to take for the pain. Open up.”
He looked at her curiously and she smiled reassuringly as she slipped the spoon into his mouth and made sure he swallowed it. Then she gave him a little more water to wash down the bitter taste.
She sat down gently on the edge of the bed.
Val seemed to be watching every move she made, so she smiled again. She put her hand to his forehead and was relieved to find there was no trace of the fever. Nevertheless, he was sweating and she realized it was from the pain.
She wrung out the wet cloth in the basin and gently wiped away the beads of perspiration. Then she brushed aside the damp curls that clung to his face.
“Val,” she whispered. “It’s Teresa. Do you recognize me?”
He looked at her and nodded, ever so slightly.
“Good. Now, you listen to me. I know you’re in pain. You were badly hurt, so it’s only natural. Don’t try to hide it. We can help, so there’s no reason why you should put up with it. Do you understand?”
Again, he nodded slightly.
“If you’re in pain, tell us,” she told him firmly.
“Don’t…don’t want to be…bother,” he struggled to tell her.
“Sh…don’t try to talk, Val,” she chided him tenderly. “Don’t waste your energy, especially on foolishness like that. You’re a friend, Val, not a bother.”
He closed his eyes, his strength waning, and Teresa watched him drift off to sleep.
She didn’t look up until Johnny came back into the room a few minutes later. He stopped when he saw Teresa sitting on the side of the bed, softly running her fingers through his hair.
“Is he okay?” he asked anxiously.
“He’s asleep,’ she answered. “I know you were hoping to have some time with him, but he was in a lot of pain. I gave him some laudanum for it.”
“How’s he doin’?”
She looked at Val’s face. Now that the fever had dropped, he was no longer flushed and was very pale. Her heart went out to him. Teresa didn’t know Val Crawford very well. He was the sheriff in Green River, and he was Johnny’s friend. He was around a lot, but she hadn’t really gotten to know him.
His scruffy appearance was something of a joke both at Lancer and in town, but right now, he didn’t look untidy. He looked ill –deathly ill. Teresa reached over and took his hand, even though she knew that he didn’t know it.
“The fever’s down,” she replied. “He’s still terribly weak, but I think he’s a little bit stronger than he was last night.”
“Did he say anything, Teresa?”
“Only that he doesn’t want to be a bother,” she told him with a smile. “I told him he was being foolish. “She released his hand, stood up and adjusted the covers around his shoulders, and then she sat down again in the armchair. “Did you send for Dr. Sam?”
“Yeah. Walt’s gone after him.” He moved closer to the bed where his friend slept. He seemed more peaceful now anyway. “I wonder if he knows who did this.”
“Even if he does, I really don’t think he’ll be well enough to tell us much for a while.”
Johnny sighed. “No, I guess not.” He wandered over to the window and looked outside curiously. Something had caught his attention.
“Johnny? What is it?” Teresa asked.
“Riders comin’,” he explained. “But it’s too soon to be Sam.”
“Unless he was already on his way. He did say he was coming back when he finished with his other patients.”
Johnny continued to stare out of the window and shook his head as they got closer to the house. “No, it’s not Sam,” he said in an annoyed tone of voice and left to go downstairs.
“What’s wrong, Johnny?” Murdoch asked as his son came rushing down the staircase.
“We’ve got visitors. Earl Tomkins has finally turned up,” Johnny told him in a hurry. “He’s got the mayor with him.”
Murdoch frowned deeply. It had been more than a full day since Johnny had brought Val here and Scott said he’d told the deputy before he left with Sam. He could understand why Johnny was angry. They certainly hadn’t been in any hurry to find out how Val was doing. And if the deputy planned on finding the man who shot him, he’d left it a little late to start his investigation.
Johnny had already run out of the door, and Murdoch knew his temper was on edge from worry and tension. He hurried out to join him.
The two men drew their horses to a halt outside the front door and dismounted without hurry.
“Howdy, Murdoch,” Howard Randall said cheerfully. He was the new mayor of Green River and Murdoch was glad that he didn’t live in the town. He wouldn’t have voted for the man. Howard was a self-serving man with a smile that looked like it was glued onto his face most of the time.
Neither did it go unnoticed by Murdoch that he hadn’t acknowledged Johnny’s presence, even though he’d been there before Murdoch. A glance in his son’s direction told him that Johnny had noticed it as well, and it didn’t look like it was helping an already emotionally charged situation.
“Hello, Howard,” he replied, coolly. “Hello, Earl. It’s good to see that you finally turned up.
“Hello, Mr. Lancer,” the deputy answered nervously. He looked towards Johnny and nodded. “Howdy, Johnny, good to see ya.”
“I thought it woulda been long before this,” Johnny commented acidly.
The man looked uncomfortable and seemed to turn to the mayor for help in handling them.
“Johnny,” the Mayor said patronizingly. “I realize you and the sheriff were close and all…”
“Were?” Johnny snapped. His body went rigid with fury.
Murdoch moved closer to his son to keep him from doing anything stupid, but his attention was on the mayor. “What do you mean, ‘were’?” he demanded. “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to ask if the man is alive or dead before making that sort of an assumption?”
“Oh, well, Murdoch, we all heard that he’d been bushwhacked. Scott told Earl here that the sheriff was real bad and might not make it.”
“He’s hurt bad all right, but he ain’t dead!” Johnny fumed. “Seems to me one o’ you mighta been interested enough to’ve asked after him.”
Howard Randall ignored Johnny again and spoke to Murdoch. “Look, Murdoch, we came out here in good faith. Earl here has some questions to ask about the shooting, and I wanted to come and pay my respects. I don’t like being criticized out here in the yard for everyone to see.”
“If you’ve got questions about Val’s shooting, we’ll answer them,” Murdoch told him. “We want to find the man who did it just as badly as you do, but don’t go throwing around any condolences yet. We don’t have any plans on letting him die.”
He turned aside and looked at Johnny before going further. “All right, come on inside, both of you.”
If Murdoch thought that Johnny was going to object, he was wrong this time. Johnny stepped aside to let the two men walk by him.
He looked his father in the eyes with an expression that showed he wasn’t happy about it, but he was cool enough and he turned and followed the two men into the house.
When they got inside, Murdoch offered them seats and got each of them a drink of whiskey. He intended to be as cordial as he needed to be, but no more.
“I’m real glad to hear that Val ain’t dead, Mr. Lancer,” Earl finally said.
Johnny stepped back and leaned against the wall. He folded his arms across his chest and lifted one foot and pressed it against the wall. Outwardly, he appeared relaxed, but Murdoch knew better. He was wound up like a spring.
He said nothing, so Murdoch handled the conversation for now. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said curtly.
“Just what happened, Murdoch?” Howard asked
“All we know is that he was shot in the back and left for dead. Johnny got him here and Scott went to town to get Sam Jenkins,” Murdoch told him.
Randall shook his head in dismay. “Back shooting! It’s a terrible thing.”
“I’m gonna need to talk to Val, Mr. Lancer – see what he remembers,” Earl said awkwardly.
“Val hasn’t come ‘round yet,” Johnny said suddenly, before Murdoch got a chance to answer. “Doc says he might not ever wake up.”
He steadfastly ignored the confused look he was getting from his father.
Earl was startled. “But I thought you said he’s okay?”
“No, I said he ain’t dead – which he ain’t. But Doc Jenkins says he ain’t got much of a chance.”
“Well, I’m sure sorry to hear that, Johnny,” Howard said, addressing Johnny directly for the first time. “Val’s a good man and a good sheriff.”
Johnny lowered his head dejectedly. “He was hurt real bad. His lung was punctured an’ he’d lost a hell of a lot of blood,” Johnny told him. “Now he’s got a fever. It don’t look good.”
Earl rolled and unrolled the brim of his hat uncomfortably. “Well, I was kinda countin’ on him givin’ me somethin’ to go on.”
Johnny looked up and directly into Earl’s face. “Well, you’ll have to figure another way, ‘cause Val ain’t gonna be able to tell you anythin’.”
Murdoch watched Earl sitting uncomfortably. He seemed to be trying to decide what to do next. Murdoch wasn’t sure what Johnny was up to. Val was certainly not able to see them or tell them anything, but Johnny seemed to be trying to give the impression that he wasn’t likely to survive. Only a short while ago, he’d been excited that Val was improving.
“Did he tell ya anythin’ when ya found him, Johnny?” Earl asked him at last.
“Nope, he was unconscious. Didn’t come to at all.”
“Well, did ya see anyone?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope.”
Earl seemed to have run out of ideas. He looked at Howard for help, but none was forthcoming.
Johnny seemed to come to a decision himself and continued, “I can show you where I found him.”
Tomkins looked relieved. “I’d be obliged to ya, Johnny.”
Johnny sighed heavily. “You boys go wait for me then. I’ll be right with ya.”
Howard Randall and Earl Tomkins both finished their drinks and got to their feet. Then, with a hasty thank you to Murdoch, they went out to their horses.
“Well?” Murdoch asked Johnny, once they were out of earshot. “Just what was that about?”
“Val can’t tell ‘em anythin’ yet, an’ I didn’t want them comin’ here pesterin’ him.”
Murdoch shook his head. “There’s more to it than that. Surely, you don’t think one of them could have done it?”
“No,” Johnny assured him. “Earl’s stupid, but he ain’t mean. He ain’t no back shooter. An’ Randall, well…”
“He’s stab a political enemy in the back,” Murdoch told him, and then saw the look on Johnny’s face and added, “Not literally, of course, son. I’m talking metaphorically. But I don’t see him sitting out there shooting Val in the back.”
“No, me neither.”
“Then why did you want them thinking Val’s going to die any moment?”
“I don’t know,” Johnny confessed. “Not really, anyway. Neither one of ‘em has the brains God gives a mouse, an’ I figured they’d end up sayin’ somethin’ to someone, an’ then someone else, till the man who DID do it hears. Who knows how he’d react to hearin’ that Val’s alive.”
“They’re going to find out sooner or later.”
“I know, but not till we hear what Val has to say,” Johnny said coldly. He turned and took his hat down, pushing it down hard on his head. “Sam should be here soon. Can you tell him to keep it to himself that Val woke up?”
“Sure. I’ll tell Walt too, when he gets back with Sam.”
Johnny stopped and looked at his father briefly. He didn’t know what he’d expected from Murdoch, but he hadn’t expected him to just agree to his plan so easily.
“Thanks,” he said and then turned to join the others outside.
Johnny stopped Barranca at the same spot on the mesa where he and Scott had stopped yesterday.
“This is where we were when we first saw him,” he told them.
“We? Who was with ya, Johnny?” Earl asked.
“Scott was with me. We were checking the range for spot fires.” He shot a look at the deputy. “Why? Were ya thinkin’ I done it?” he asked him in a tone of voice that chilled Earl.
“No, Johnny, o’ course not!” he hurried to assure him.
Johnny smiled icily at the man. “I don’t need to shoot a man in the back.”
“I know, Johnny,” he told him, in near panic.
Johnny gave the man a moment or two to worry, and then he continued with his story.
“Yeah, well, I spotted a vulture circlin’ over there by that tree, so we came over this side of the mesa to check it out. That’s when we saw Val’s horse an’ then him, under the tree.”
Howard looked out over the flat landscape. There were a few trees, but not much else – not once you left the boulders here on the mesa.
“Not much cover out there to hide a bushwhacker,” he mused.
“No, there isn’t,” Johnny agreed. “I guess he mighta fired from here, but that’s a good five hundred yards. He’d have to be good.”
“What did you do then?” Howard asked and Johnny shot him an angry look.
“Well, what do ya think I did? I lit out over there to check him.”
“How’d ya know it was Val, Johnny?” Earl asked.
“The horse - I recognized the horse.” He glared at the deputy. “I broke Dusty, remember? I sold him to Val.”
“Oh yeah,” the man replied.
“Come on, I’ll show ya where I found him,” Johnny said impatiently and pressed Barranca on.
Johnny rode to the tree where he had found Val yesterday. It seemed like longer than that. In fact, it all seemed unreal when he looked around him.
It was quiet, peaceful. There was no sign of the vultures that had made it all the more frightening then. Val was safely ensconced in a bed at Lancer, with Teresa watching him and Sam doctoring him.
But the pool of blood was still there. It was just a dark stain now, soaked into the soil, but it was a vivid reminder of the events of the day before.
He sat staring at it while the other two riders caught up with him.
The clatter of their horses’ hooves brought him out of his reverie. He looked up as they came to a halt.
Both men stared at the bloodstain on the ground and were silent for a minute. Finally, Earl spoke up.
“I see what ya mean, Johnny,” he said. “Looks like he lost a lot o’ blood here.”
Johnny had had about enough of their callousness. He was convinced that it was from stupidity, at least on the part of the deputy. Earl wasn’t known for his brains. He wasn’t sure of Howard Randall. He didn’t know him well and he had no idea what sort of professional relationship he had with Val.
Val had certainly never mentioned the new mayor to him, and didn’t know if they had ever clashed, so he had no reason to suspect him. But Johnny just couldn’t like him.
“Yeah,” was all Johnny said in the end.
“Ya didn’t hear nothin’?” Earl asked him eventually.
“Nope. Looked like he’d b’n here a few hours. Some o’ the blood was dried already.”
“Wonder where he was headed?” Earl pondered.
“He didn’t say anythin’ to you?” Johnny asked.
“Nope. I didn’t see him ‘fore he left.”
“Maybe he was coming out to Lancer,” Randall suggested. He stepped down from his horse and was looking around on the ground. Johnny had no idea what he expected to find here. If the shooter had gotten this close, he would have known that Val was alive and would surely have finished him off.
“Don’t think so,” Johnny told him. “He wouldn’t have come this way. It’s twice as long this way as it is by the road.”
He started to think about what Val might have been doing out here yesterday. Looking around him, he realized where he was standing. This was the boundary with the Franks’ ranch. He remembered the ‘circus’ in Val’s office a couple of weeks ago. And he remembered their threats.
Johnny watched the two men ride off towards town. He was convinced that Earl wanted to do something about finding the man who had shot Val Crawford, he just didn’t know how. He wasn’t the smartest man in Green River.
He wasn’t sure of Howard Randall, but suspected that the man had come out to the ranch only to do the politically correct thing and pay his respects on Val’s death. Johnny didn’t think he’d counted on having to appear interested in finding who was responsible.
But Johnny sure did. He had no faith in what Earl could do and there was no one else to do it.
He headed back to the top of the mesa and dismounted. Looking back towards the tree where he had found Val, he tried to calculate the direction from which the bullet had come.
A little more than an hour later, Johnny’s efforts paid off. He found a shell casing by one of the boulders, as well as signs that a horse had been standing close by for quite a while. He was sure this was the spot that the bullet had been fired from.
Now he just had to work out who had fired it.
He tossed the piece of metal in the air and clenched his fist around it as it landed back in his hand. Then he tucked it into his back pocket and went back to where his horse stood patiently waiting for him.
He mounted and rode back to the hacienda, thinking things through as he went. The Franks were the first on his list and he planned on paying them a visit soon.
Sam’s horse was tied to the hitching rail outside the house when Johnny rode back in. Jelly came out of the barn and ambled over to him.
“I’ll take Barranca for ya,” he said helpfully. “Saw ya comin’ an’ I figured you’d wanta go right on up to see the Doc.”
“Thanks, Jelly,” he answered gratefully. He was constantly surprised by how well Jelly knew him.
He let the old man walk the palomino over to the barn and then walked into the house. Murdoch was there waiting for him and Scott was with him this time. He pulled off his hat and tossed it onto a table negligently.
“Sam’s with Val now,” Murdoch told him. “Val came to again, just before he got here. You can try getting into the room, but I don’t like your chances. He tossed both of us out.”
“I’ll give it a shot anyhow,” Johnny answered with an impish smile and walked quietly up the stairs.
He got to the door of Val’s room and found it closed, so he tapped very quietly and opened it, peeking in.
“You’ll have to wait downstairs, Johnny,” Sam told him firmly, without even turning to see who was there.
“Come on, Doc, I won’t disturb anyone,” Johnny answered charmingly and walked in very quietly.
Sam finished with bandaging Val and then turned around to Johnny. He sighed heavily, knowing full well that he wasn’t likely to be able to toss the boy out. He couldn’t do it when it was Scott who was hurt and he wasn’t going to be able to do it now that it was Val in the bed.
“All right, stay. But you get in my way just once and you’re out of here – understood?”
Johnny held his hands up in front of him and smiled reassuringly. “Sure, I know.”
He walked over to the window and took a seat on the sill as he watched Teresa pull the covers back up to Val’s shoulders and smooth them over. The doctor moved further down the bed and pulled the blankets away from Val’s legs so he could check the wound on his leg. He cut away the bandage and looked carefully at it before applying salve to it and re-bandaging it.
Then he pulled the blankets back and tucked them in carefully.
Johnny could see that Val was awake. He was gritting his teeth, stoically doing his best not to show the pain that he was in. And he was in a lot of pain. Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead and one sweat bead rolled down the side of his face. He was breathing heavily and frowning.
Teresa had noticed too. She wiped his face gently with a cool cloth and put her hand softly and reassuringly on his shoulder.
“Well, Val Crawford, you are one lucky man,” Sam told him, packing his things neatly into his medical bag. “I’m going to leave Teresa in charge of you, Val. She knows what to do, so you do just like she says and you’ll be back on your feet before you know it. I’m leaving her some laudanum for you and I recommend that you use it when you need it.”
He gave Johnny a meaningful look and added, “There’s no reason to put up with the pain when you don’t need to.”
Val said nothing in answer. He looked far too exhausted to be able to say anything. So Sam continued.
“I’m going to leave you with Teresa and take Johnny downstairs. Teresa knows what to do to help you, okay?”
Val nodded slightly and Sam patted his shoulder gently, then turned to leave. He looked at Johnny and said, “Come on, Johnny. I want to talk to all of you. Teresa will look after him.”
“Can I have a minute with him first, Doc?”
Sam looked dubious and then finally relented. “All right, but just a minute – no more.”
Teresa looked at Johnny, and then at Sam, and followed the doctor out into the hall.
When they had both left the room, Johnny stood up from his place on the windowsill and walked slowly over to the bed. He pulled the chair close and sat down so that Val could see him easily.
“Don’t try to talk, Val, just listen,” he told him. “Doc says you’re doin’ real good. You’re stayin’ here at Lancer till you’re back on your feet…”
Val drew his breath in and Johnny was sure that he was going to try to argue. He cut him off quickly and stubbornly. “Don’t even think about arguing, Crawford. You ain’t in any condition to try it.” Johnny smiled. “An’ you do whatever Teresa tells you. Take it from me, there’s no one better to look after you.”
Crawford met his eyes and then closed his own tiredly.
“Good thing,” Johnny said with a grin. “Get some sleep, amigo. You look like hell.”
A wisp of a smile crossed Val’s face and he relaxed into sleep. Johnny got up and went to the door. Teresa and Sam were there waiting and Teresa passed him quickly to go back to sit with Val.
Johnny joined Sam and the two of them walked silently down the stairs to the Great Room where Murdoch and Scott were waiting for them.
Scott handed his brother and Sam each a glass of whiskey and Johnny dropped into one of the armchairs, leaving the other men standing.
He looked down at the glass, but didn’t take a sip from it yet.
On the other hand, Sam drank his down immediately. He looked tired.
When he’d finished, he put the glass down on the table next to Johnny’s hat. He sighed deeply and looked at the men around him.
“He’s doing much better than I expected,” he said at last. “But he’s not out of the woods yet.”
Johnny hadn’t looked up at his words. He sat in the chair, staring into the still full glass.
“His lung was punctured, not once but twice. We have to watch for any signs of pneumonia. I want you to call me if there’s even the slightest hint of a cough or fever.”
“Of course,” Scott assured him.
“Johnny,” he said firmly. “You said that the wound on his leg is from a nip from a vulture?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah.”
“Then we have to keep a close watch on it. It could be even more susceptible to infection than his chest wound.”
Johnny nodded again, but he didn’t say anything.
Sam stared at him for a moment. He could see the boy was hurting, but a glance back at Murdoch and Scott reassured him that they knew it too and he relaxed a little.
“Now, I’ve given Teresa instructions on how to care for him. I’ve left medicines for you to give him. But I want someone with him at all times for now. That means you’ll have to arrange some sort of roster so that no one is over-tired when they’re with him.” He stopped for a minute.
Johnny finally looked up at the doctor. “Sam, tell us, is he gonna make it?”
Sam shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “Johnny, barring another fever, infection or pneumonia…yes, he’ll pull though. But it’s going to be a while before he’s beyond those dangers. You’d better be prepared to have him as a guest in the house.”
“That goes without saying, Sam,” Murdoch assured him.
“I know,” Sam replied with a smile. “Now, I’ll be back tomorrow morning to check him and change those bandages again. If there’s any change before then, come get me. I want to roll him onto his back tomorrow too. I’ll have plenty of pillows behind him to make it easier to stand it, but it’ll be better for his lungs if he’s off his side. I’m going to need one of you there to help.”
“Sure, Sam,” Johnny told him casually.
Murdoch looked towards Johnny to see if he intended to say anything more, but he obviously didn’t.
“Sam, there’s a favor we’d like to ask of you,” he said clumsily.
“What is it?” Sam asked. Scott looked at his father curiously as well.
“We’d like you to keep it quiet that Val has woken up,” Murdoch told him.
Sam scowled and looked from one of the Lancers to the next. He noticed that Scott seemed just as confused as he was, but Johnny hadn’t even looked up.
“Of course,” he accepted. “But can I ask why?”
“Well, someone wants him dead pretty badly,” Murdoch explained. “We want to be able to talk to him about it before it becomes known that he might be able to tell us who did it.”
Sam nodded. “Yes, I think I see what you mean. But I want to make it clear that I don’t want you trying to get him to talk yet.”
“You don’t need to tell us that,” Johnny said angrily, speaking up at last.
“I don’t suppose I do, John,” Sam told him patiently. “But I’m telling you anyway.”
Johnny cooled down immediately; regretting his outburst at a man who he knew had only Val’s best interests at heart.
“Sorry, Sam,” he said apologetically.
“It’s okay, Johnny,” Sam said, unruffled. “I know this is hard on you, but we’ll pull him through it.”
Johnny stood up and drank down the glass of whiskey in one gulp and then put it down on the table with the doctor’s glass.
Sam looked towards Murdoch curiously. “Does anyone have any idea who’s responsible for this?”
“No, that’s why we need to talk to Val. Even if he doesn’t know who did it, it’ll be helpful to know what he was doing when it happened. He obviously trod on some toes pretty hard.”
Johnny had walked over to the fireplace and was leaning back against it. He looked like a man with something on his mind, and everyone in the room could see it.
And everyone in the room was worried about what it was going to lead to.
“Johnny, I didn’t expect to see you up so soon,” Murdoch told him as stepped lightly off the last step and into the Great Room. Murdoch was already at his desk with the books in front of him. Pen in hand, he went back to his work and paid little attention to his son. “You can’t have had more than a few hours sleep.”
“I’m okay. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sleep late. Where’s Scott?”
“He’s gone out to get the men started on clearing the undergrowth from the creeks. We need to get that finished before we get some decent rain.”
Johnny frowned. “That was my job for today.”
“I’ll go take over,” Johnny told him, grabbing his hat. “He should have woken me.”
“There’s no need. Scott said he’d do it so you can stay around here for Val,” Murdoch explained absently. He finally put down the pen and looked up at Johnny. “Something wrong with that?” he asked, seeing Johnny’s frown.
“Nope, nothin’ wrong with it. Didn’t ask him to, that’s all.”
“I know that. You were up half the night sitting with Val, and Scott knows how worried you are about him. He just wanted to help. Why don’t you go get some breakfast? Maria will have kept it for you.”
Johnny nodded and paced over to the fireplace.
“Johnny, what’s bothering you?” Murdoch asked. “I looked in on Val this morning and he seemed to be sleeping peacefully.”
“Yeah, I checked on him, too,” Johnny assured him. “Teresa’s says he’s doin’ better this mornin’.”
“Then what is it?”
He looked down at his feet, willing the thoughts in his head to form words that would make some sort of sense when he uttered them. Finally, he shook his head and gave up, deciding to try to get his point across anyway.
“You know Earl ain’t up to findin’ the man who did this, don’t you?” he asked his father.
Murdoch stood up and walked around to the front of the desk, and then leaned back stiffly against it. “Well, I know Earl isn’t the smartest man in town…”
“Earl’s a good guy, Murdoch, but I can’t see him even knowin’ what questions to ask.” Johnny paced over to one of the armchairs and sat down on the arm facing Murdoch. “You saw him here yesterday. He had no idea what he should do.”
“Yes, I saw, but it’s his job, Johnny – not yours.” Johnny looked at him suddenly and he sighed heavily. “I know what you have in mind. I don’t blame you for wanting to find out who’s responsible. But I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Because the man who did this doesn’t play by your rules, son. He’s not going to meet you in the street and face you like a man. He’s a back shooter – a coward - and I don’t want the same thing to happen to you as happened to Val Crawford.”
“Val was caught unawares,” Johnny told him resolutely. “I won’t be.”
“You don’t have eyes in the back of your heard, Johnny.”
“Murdoch, you know I can’t let this go.” Johnny persisted. “You wouldn’t if it was a friend o’ yours.”
Murdoch stood up and walked over to his son’s side. He put his hand on his shoulder comfortingly. “I know it. But be careful, very careful.” He sighed and walked slowly back to his desk and sat down in his leather chair. It creaked slightly in the silence of the room and he glanced out of the huge French windows for a moment before turning back to face Johnny.
“You’ve got someone in mind, haven’t you? You think you know who did it.”
“Maybe,” Johnny answered, rubbing his hands together and staring at them uneasily. “He’s been havin’ some trouble with Pete Franks an’ there were a lot of threats flyin’ ‘round.”
“Val told you that?” Murdoch asked him, surprised.
“No, I was there. It was a couple o’ weeks ago. Pete was real drunk an’ tellin’ Val he’d get even. He’s got one real mean temper when he’s drinkin’. Then his ol’ man came in an’ said he’d pay.”
“Pete Franks?” he exclaimed. “No, Johnny, he’s just a boy. And Jake might be vocal with his threats, but he’s all bluster. I can’t believe either of them is a back shooter.”
“Pete Franks is what? Close to twenty? That’s not a ‘just a boy’, Murdoch,” Johnny told him angrily. “He’s old enough to get into brawls in the saloon an’ pester the girls there.” Johnny stopped and glared at his father. “He’s plenty old enough to pick up a rifle an’ wait behind a rock for a man.”
“An’ ol’ Jake had a lot to say,” Johnny continued determinedly. “If he thought he was gettin’ even for his son…”
Murdoch shook his head, disbelieving. “No, I’ve known Jake Franks for years. He’s not that kind of man.” He saw the expression on his son’s face and knew that he hadn’t convinced him.
“He might be, if he thought he was protectin’ his son,” Johnny persisted.
“Rubbish!” Murdoch bellowed furiously. “I don’t believe it, and I don’t want you going over there half cocked and stirring things up.”
Johnny stood up and looked his father in the eyes. “Half cocked? If you opened your mind for one minute…”
“Johnny, just leave it to the law!”
“Boss!” Jelly yelled from the front door. Neither of them had heard him opening the door, but there he was. “If you two’re through bitin’ each others’ heads off, ya got visitors.”
Murdoch glared at him before he got to his feet and strode over to the door. He walked straight past Johnny without a glance, while Johnny, on the other hand, watched him go.
“Buggy comin’ up the drive,” Jelly informed them. “Looks like Scott’s with ‘em.”
Johnny turned around and walked over to the window. “Who is it, Jelly?” he asked
“Looks like them Larkins from the Bar T. That fella Bryce an’ his sister.”
Jelly had only just said the name when the buggy came into view through the window. Sure enough, Bryce Larkin was driving, with his pretty young sister sitting beside him. Johnny sighed. He was still angry with his father and really didn’t feel like facing them right now.
Murdoch walked past Jelly and out into the courtyard. Johnny seriously considered heading out the back way but knew he shouldn’t do it. So, instead he followed his father outside. He knew he had no options here and, sociable or not, he’d have to greet them.
Scott stopped outside the house and dismounted quickly, just ahead of the newcomers.
“I spotted them on their way here and thought I’d come back with them,” Scott explained hastily.
Bryce pulled the vehicle to a halt just in front of them and Jelly walked up to take the horse for him.
“Good morning, Mr. Lancer,” Bryce said cheerfully to Murdoch. “Johnny, how are you?”
“Howdy,” Johnny answered, almost over the top of his father’s “Good morning.”
Larkin pulled on the brake and stepped down. He walked around to the other side of the buggy and offered his hand to his sister.
Despite his mood, Johnny couldn’t help but notice what a pretty girl she was. Fashionably, but not elegantly, dressed, with a parasol open over her head that matched the yellow of her dress, she was a perfect companion for her brother in his casual suit and string tie.
She deftly folded the parasol down and took her brother’s hand, smiling sweetly at Johnny and his father as she stepped down from the buggy and strolled over to join them.
“Hello, Johnny, Mr. Lancer,” she greeted them politely. “We heard about poor Mr. Crawford and we just had to come and pay him a visit.”
“He’s really not up to having visitors yet, I’m afraid, Miss Larkin,” Murdoch told them. “But, it’s kind of you just the same. Please, come inside.”
“Thank you,” she replied with a glowing smile and let them take her and her brother into the house.
“We heard in town that the sheriff had been shot,” Rebecca explained to them from her place on the sofa.
“Yes,” Bryce Larkin added, moving over to stand beside Johnny and Scott. “Sadly, we were misled into thinking that he’d died. Rebecca was terribly upset. Then we met the doctor this morning – and he told me that Mr. Crawford is actually alive. Though he did intimate that he’s very badly hurt. Scott has said the same thing.”
“We came out to see him,” Rebecca told them brightly. “I thought we might be able to cheer him up.”
“Unfortunately, Val is badly hurt,” Murdoch informed them quietly. “He hasn’t regained consciousness yet, so a visit is out of the question.” He glanced quickly at Johnny who ducked his head with a small smile on his face at his father’s lie.
Well, it wasn’t such a big lie. Val was certainly not in any condition to have visitors.
“Oh, no,” Rebecca sighed. “That’s a shame.”
She looked up at Johnny pleadingly. “He will be all right, won’t he?”
Bryce Larkin leaned closer to Johnny and said, confidentially but just loud enough for the others in the room to hear as well, “Becca’s been quite distraught since she first heard. I think she’s a little taken with the sheriff.”
“With Val?” Johnny asked, startled.
“Val Crawford?” Scott asked in disbelief.
“Bryce, really,” Rebecca demanded, blushing. “How could you say such a thing? I only wanted to make sure he’s all right. He’s a friend, after all.”
Larkin only smiled at her mischievously. “Of course, Becca.”
“Well, you can be sure we’re doing everything we can for him,” Scott assured her. “So is Dr. Jenkins. If anyone can bring him through, it’s Sam Jenkins.”
She sighed and took out a handkerchief from her purse. Twisting it nervously, she answered. “I’m sure the doctor is very good.”
“You can bet on it,” Johnny assured her.
“Sheriff Crawford is very fortunate to have such good friends,” Rebecca said quietly. She lowered her head sadly. “Is it true someone shot him in the back?”
“Yeah,” Johnny confirmed sullenly. “They shot him in the back an’ left him to die.”
“It’s so awful! I’ve never known anyone who was shot. Who could do such a thing?”
Johnny was sure that there were tears in her eyes, trying to escape. It looked like Val had made himself a conquest here.
“I wanta know the same thing,” he told her angrily.
“We all do, Johnny,” Scott assured him, catching the glare that his father was throwing Johnny’s way. Johnny knew that Scott could feel tension between them and had probably already guessed that they must have argued. He wondered if his brother had also figured out that he wanted to hunt the man down himself.
Rebecca turned pleading eyes on Johnny and he found them hard to resist. “Johnny, do you think it would be possible to… well… to maybe peek in and see him? I’d just like to…to…see him.”
There was an awkward silence in the room until Murdoch finally answered her.
“Johnny, why don’t you go up and see what Teresa says,” Murdoch suggested, taking pity on the girl.
Johnny looked at his father and then at the girl sitting on the sofa, looking miserable. He could make sure that Val hadn’t woken again and then maybe let the girl in. It couldn’t hurt.
In fact, she’d be able to tell people who asked that Val really was dangerously ill.
He nodded and went quickly upstairs. He knocked lightly on the door before opening it and looking in.
Teresa was sitting in the chair by the bed, watching Val closely. Val’s back was towards him, so he couldn’t see whether he was awake or asleep.
“How’s he doin’?” Johnny asked her quietly.
“He woke a little while ago and I was able to get him to take some water. He went back to sleep right after,” she answered in little more than a whisper.
“Is the fever gone?”
Teresa nodded. “Yes, but he was in a lot of pain. I was going to give him more laudanum, but he fell asleep without it.”
He walked further into the room and around to the other side of the bed. He checked Val for himself. He was certainly pale, but the fever was gone and his breathing sounded a lot better.
“Did I hear voices downstairs? Have we got visitors?” Teresa asked him.
“Yeah, Bryce an’ Becca Larkin are here. She wants to come see Val.”
“Becca Larkin wants to see Val? Why?” Teresa asked doubtfully.
“Seems she’s got a soft spot for him.”
“Rebecca has? I had no idea.” She sounded just as surprised as he and Scott had been.
“Yeah, well, I wanted to make sure he wasn’t awake before I let her come up.”
Teresa looked at him – stunned. “You’re bringing her up to see him? Johnny, he’s in no condition to have visitors! I don’t want him disturbed. He only went to sleep a little while ago. ”
“You an’ me will both be here. An’ she doesn’t want to disturb him. She’s worried,” he told her. “She just wants to satisfy herself that he’s okay.”
She looked dubious. “She’s really that worried about him?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
Teresa obviously wasn’t happy about it, but she relented. “Well, I suppose so. But if she disturbs him, I’m tossing her out.”
Johnny smiled. Teresa was known for getting her feathers ruffled when one of her ‘chicks’ was at risk. She was a real ‘mother hen’.
He led Rebecca into Val’s room, having admonished her first to be very quiet.
She tiptoed in shyly and made her way to the bed. Val was facing away from her, so she couldn’t see his face. All she could see above the covers was the back of his head and his shoulders.
Teresa still sat by the bed, but she got up and stepped back so that the girl could go to that side.
“Please, be very quiet,” Teresa warned her when she got close enough to hear.
Rebecca was nearly as pale as Val by the time she got to the chair. She sat down and studied him intently, still twisting the handkerchief in her hands.
“I…I wish there was something I could do to help,” she whispered helplessly.
“Sam…Dr. Jenkins, he says that we won’t know much for a day or so. But I’m sure he’ll pull through,” Teresa assured her kindly.
“It’s just so awful. He looks so helpless.”
“I know. It’s terrible, but we’ll do everything we can for him. I promise you,” Teresa told her.
The girl said nothing at first but stood up and turned to face Teresa. “Thank you, Teresa. Look after him, please.”
Johnny rode out towards the north boundary later that day. He’d checked in on Val first to see how he was doing. He was still asleep, undisturbed by his visitor.
The Larkins had left soon after Rebecca had seen Val.
Scott had gone back to join the men at the creek and Murdoch had relieved Teresa in watching Val for a few hours.
It pleased Johnny that everyone in the house was taking a shift. But it also meant that it was a lot easier to get out of the house unnoticed. It gave him the opportunity to take off on Barranca without telling Murdoch of his plans.
It had already caused one argument between them today and Johnny was not in the mood to go another round.
He also wanted to get this over with so he could be back by the time Sam came to check on Val.
When he passed the mesa and then the tree under which he’d found Val, he’d pulled up for a minute. The stain was still there, but less distinct now. It wouldn’t be long before it was gone and there was nothing left to show what violence had happened here. He felt a chill that ran down his spine and then surged back up into his chest in the form of a ball of rage and he pressed his horse on resolutely.
He slowed Barranca when he passed the boundary between the two ranches and kept him to a walk. That old ‘sixth sense’ of his needed to kick in. At his best, he was able to sense trouble around him and he hoped he hadn’t lost that sense from lack of use over the last year at Lancer.
There had been a time when he’d relied on it completely, and it wasn’t that long ago.
Once he’d crossed that boundary, it was another hour of riding before the ranch house came into view. It was as different from Lancer as it could be – a long low building made entirely of timber and with no upper level. It was set in the middle of a yard with a barn to one side and a big bunkhouse to the other. The whole establishment had been built to be totally utilitarian. It had none of the beauty of Lancer.
Johnny rode into the yard at an easy walk and hailed the house.
Jake Franks came to the door to meet him within minutes.
“Mornin’, Mr. Franks,” Johnny said politely.
“Mornin’, Johnny,” the man replied from the doorway, still holding the edge of the door and leaning against it. “What brings you here?”
Johnny dismounted and led his horse over to the hitching rail outside the house. He looped the reins easily over the rail before answering.
“I wondered if I could have a word with Pete,” he said at last.
“Pete’s in bed, restin’ up, Johnny,” the man said curtly. “You look like a man with somethin’ on his mind. Why don’t you come on in an’ tell me what it is?”
With that, Franks stepped aside to allow Johnny to walk past him into the house.
Johnny tipped his hat back to hang behind him and walked through the door. “Thanks,’ he said quietly.
Jake Franks had been a widower for ten years or more. He’d raised his son alone since then and there was no doubt that there was no feminine presence in the household.
The living room was huge and must have originally been built for comfort. It wasn’t exactly dirty, just untidy. Clothes, dishes and coffee mugs – even a rifle – were spread in piles around the room. A pair of boots lay on the floor in front of the leather sofa and a jacket laid spread across the back of it. Books were stacked untidily on the floor by one of the armchairs and there was even a saddle behind the door when it was closed behind him.
On the wall, next to the huge fireplace, was a set of antlers with a pair of hats hanging from them incongruously. And, over the fireplace itself, was a painting of one of the most beautiful horses that Johnny had seen. It was a magnificent black stallion with a white flash on its face.
Johnny found himself staring at it, but it wasn’t just the majesty of the animal, or the skill of the artwork itself, that held his attention. It was that such a beautiful painting would be hanging askew. It wasn’t all that crooked, but it occurred to him that Maria and Teresa would have straightened it immediately.
He wasn’t the tidiest man himself, but anything he left laying around was in its right place before he got around to picking it up. ‘Guess I didn’t know how much those ladies spoil me,’ he thought.
“Have a seat, Johnny,” he heard Jake Franks say hospitably, dragging his thoughts away from the housekeeping.
“Rather stand, if ya don’t mind,” Johnny replied rigidly. He took his eyes off the painting and looked straight at Franks. His hands hung loosely at his sides and Franks sensed the tension in the young man.
“Cool off, boy,” Jake said grittily. “What’s set the burr under your saddle?”
“Val Crawford’s been shot,” Johnny said bluntly.
Franks drew in his breath and then slowly let it out again. “Ain’t b’n to town for a few days. Hadn’t heard. Bad?”
“Yeah, it’s bad. Doc Jenkins isn’t sayin’ if he’ll make it or not,” Johnny told him. “He was shot in the back.” He watched the man’s face as he spoke. “We found him out by North Mesa, near where Lancer meets the Circle F.”
“So, you think Pete done it?” The man shook his head. “No, the boy’s got a temper when he’s been drinkin’ – I ain’t denyin’ it. But he ain’t no back shooter. An’ he ain’t been drinkin’ lately either.”
Johnny shifted uneasily. For a moment, he found his eyes drawn back to the painting. Obscurely, he found that it annoyed him and he turned his attention back to Jake Franks. “I was there when both of you threatened him, remember?”
Franks nodded and sighed. “Yeah, I know. Well, I was mad at Val at the time. Seemed to me like he was pickin’ on the boy.”
“Mr. Franks,” Johnny persevered. “I’d like to talk to Pete anyway.”
“Well, you can’t. He’s restin.”
“Restin’? What for? I thought you said he ain’t been drinkin?”
“No, not lately. He ain’t hungover. The boy…”
“I’m here, Lancer,” came a voice from behind Johnny and he spun around to meet Pete Franks. He was stunned by what he saw.
The boy’s eyes were both blackened and his nose was swollen and obviously broken. He had no shirt on, so Johnny could see the bandages strapping his ribs. He was covered in bruises and had been savagely beaten recently.
“What happened to you?” Johnny asked.
“Had a few drinks,” Pete told him with a kind of broken smile. He carefully made his way over to the sofa and eased himself down into it, holding his ribs with one arm. Despite his care, a grimace escaped his lips. “I guess I got a little too friendly with the girls an’ the bartender didn’t like it. The price of a drink got me angry, too.”
Johnny frowned and the boy answered the question that Johnny didn’t ask. “I see you ain’t been to town lately. The price has gone up ten cents this week,” he explained. “Anyhow, I had my say an’ left. Next thing I know…”
“You’re not goin’ to tell me that Val did that to you,” Johnny snapped angrily. He knew that Val Crawford would never have done that to a man in his custody.
“Hell, no!” the boy exclaimed. “Three men nailed me in an alley. Two of ‘em held me while the big fella pounded on me. Real big man he was, an’ he had his gun tied low. Guess you know what that means, Johnny.”
“Yeah, I know what it means. It means he’s either a professional gunhawk, or he’s someone who wants you to think it.”
“Don’t matter much, anyhow,” the boy replied. “I can put up a good showin’ man to man, but he didn’t give me a chance.”
“When did this happen?” Johnny asked him.
“Saturday. I always go to town for a drink on Saturday night.”
“When was Val shot?” Jake asked.
“Near as we can figure, the mornin’ before last,” Johnny told him.
If it was true that Pete had been attacked on Saturday, then there was no way Pete Franks had been the man who shot Val. Today was Wednesday and with those injuries, he would have been in bed for the last few days. It wasn’t possible that he had been on horseback in that time.
A cracked laugh from the boy surprised Johnny. “’Bout then I was in my bed, feelin’ real sorry for myself. I ain’t b’n outa this house since Saturday.”
“Wasn’t him, Johnny,” Jake Franks told him confidently. “You can figure that for yourself.”
“Yeah,” Johnny admitted. “I already have.”
“An’ it weren’t me, if that’s what you’ve got in your head,” the man added. “I didn’t have no reason to do it.” He looked Johnny squarely in the eyes and continued. “An’ if I had, I woulda stood up to him face to face. I ain’t no back shooter neither.”
Johnny believed him. He was going to have to look elsewhere to find the coward who had shot Val and left him for dead.
“Do you have any idea who these men were?” he asked Pete.
“No, not who they are. But I know who they work for. They followed me from the saloon.”
“They were that fella Larkin’s men,” Jake Franks spat.
“Larkin?” Johnny exclaimed.
“That’s right, Johnny,” Pete told him. “They work for that Larkin fella.”
“Bryce Larkin? The fella that bought the hotel?” Johnny asked him.
“He’s bought the saloon now, too. His ol’ man has the Bar T,” Pete confirmed. He leaned his head back wearily.
Johnny frowned. “What makes you think they were Bryce Larkin’s men?”
“They were at the saloon, takin’ their orders from him. Everyone in town knows they work for him. The big fella, he struts ‘round the place like he owns it.”
Johnny walked across the room and sat down in one of the armchairs. “Do you mind tellin’ me what happened?”
“Sure, Johnny,” Pete answered agreeably. “Like I said, I had a few drinks an’ I guess I got a little drunk.” He closed his eyes and dropped his head before admitting, “I reckon Val was right ‘bout me drinkin’ too hard an’ losin’ my temper.”
The admission raised a smile on Johnny’s face. “Hard way to learn a lesson, kid,” he said ironically.
“Yeah, I reckon.” The boy looked back at Johnny and continued. “Anyhow, I got pissed with ‘em ‘bout the price of drinks. Downright robbery, those prices are. I got angry an’…”
“Got into another brawl, huh?”
Pete nodded. “I don’t remember all of it. I remember yellin’ at the barkeep, slammin’ my fist on the bar. Next thing someone grabbed me from behind, pinned my arms back an’ threw me out in the street.”
“Did you go back in?”
“Nah, I think I yelled somethin’ at ‘em an’ then headed down the street to get my horse from the livery. I got down the block an’ someone shoved me from behind – pushed me into the alley. Two of ‘em held my arms an’ the big guy whooped me – pretty good, too. I don’t remember anythin’ more till I woke up in Doc’s office.”
“Did you tell Val Crawford ‘bout it?”
Pete looked at his father who answered for him. “Val wasn’t in town that night, Johnny. I got word the boy was hurt an’ took a wagon into town to pick him up. I left word with Earl ‘bout it an’ ain’t heard nothin’ since.”
Johnny sighed. That could explain why Val was out this way when he got shot. “He musta been comin’ here the other day, then.”
“Yeah,” Jake Franks agreed. “Could be.” He was silent for a moment and then continued. “Green River’s b’n a nice peaceful town since Val’s been sheriff. I know I had words with him, but he does a good job. But, Johnny, things are changin’ in that town. Pete was drunk an’ lost his temper, but he didn’t hurt no one. He didn’t deserve what he got. An’ if Val got bushwhacked on account o’ him lookin’ into it, then things have got worse.”
“Earl came out to the house yesterday. He’s the law now, with Val down,” Johnny informed them.
Jake shook his head. “Earl’s a real nice guy, but if he’s all that stands between the town an’ the likes o’ them three, then we ain’t got a chance.”
Johnny got to his feet. “Well, I wanta thank ya for tellin’ me everythin’. I hope ya don’t take offence.”
“No, none taken, Johnny,” Jake told him. “Whole town knows Val’s a good friend o’ yours an’ I’m real sorry to hear he’s hurt bad. I sure hope he pulls through.” The man stopped and looked at his son for a minute, and then added, “An’ I guess we were pretty loud with our threats that day. Don’t blame ya for thinkin’ that way.”
Johnny felt awkward at the man’s sympathy, especially after having thought badly of him.
“Same goes for me, Johnny,” Pete assured him.
“Thanks,” Johnny replied. “I better get home. The Doc’s comin’ over this afternoon to see Val. I told him I’d be there.”
He turned to leave and started for the door, but Jake stopped him. “Johnny, you plannin’ to keep lookin’ an’ askin’ questions ‘bout this?”
“Maybe,” Johnny answered, turning back to face him.
“If these fella’s know who you are…I mean, who you used to be…well, they won’t come at ya fair. They don’t play by the rules,” Pete warned him. “These guys are cowards.”
Johnny considered Pete Franks for a minute. The boy certainly had a lot to learn about being a man, though Johnny tended to think he’d learned one lesson already. But he was no coward and he knew how to fight. Or, at least, he knew how to fight against one opponent – three was different matter. Even without his iron clad alibi, Johnny was now certain that he wasn’t the type to have shot Val, or anyone else, in the back.
He was just as sure of the boy’s father.
Jake Franks looked him in the eye. “You watch your back, son,” he said seriously. “You be real careful if you go askin’ questions ‘bout this.”
Johnny rode into the Lancer courtyard to find that Sam had gotten there ahead of him. It wasn’t much past two o’clock, so Sam was earlier than he’d expected.
Jelly came hurrying out of the barn shaking his head and muttering. “Murdoch’s b’n lookin’ for ya,” he said gruffly. “Mad as hell, he is, too.”
“How long’s Sam b’n here?” Johnny asked him, ignoring his comments.
“Only ‘bout ten minutes,” Jelly told him, watching him dismount. “Where’d you get to, anyhow?”
“I needed to talk to someone, Jelly. That’s all.”
“Well, I hope you got some answers. From the look on yer face, ya didn’t hear what ya wanted to hear.”
“Nope, just more questions,” Johnny said, morosely. He started to walk Barranca to the barn, but Jelly took the reins from him.
“I’ll look after him for ya,” Jelly told him gruffly. “You go on up an’ see what the Doc’s got to say ‘bout Val.”
“Thanks, Jelly,” Johnny answered, with a grateful smile for the old man.
He released the reins into Jelly’s hand and watched the old man lead Barranca away, then he turned and went into the house. Murdoch was in the Great Room and tried to call him over, but Johnny ignored him and hurried up the staircase, two steps at a time, to Val’s room.
He stopped at the door, just long enough to catch his breath and regain his composure. Then he pushed the door open quietly.
Val still lay on his side facing away from Johnny, so he couldn’t see his face. Sam was bent over his patient but the doctor and Teresa both looked up when Johnny came in. Teresa had a scowl on her face and he figured that she’d been looking for him too. He had promised to be here, after all.
On the other hand, Sam simply appeared satisfied that he’d arrived.
“Here he is, now, Val,” Sam said quietly, pulling the stethoscope away from Val’s chest and putting it down on the table beside him. It was the first indication Johnny had had that Val was awake.
He walked over to the end of the bed. With Sam and Teresa both on the other side, he’d only be in their way there. “Had some things to do, Val,” he said, evasively. He got no answer, but he saw his friend nod his head slightly.
Johnny watched as Sam carefully cut the bandages and gently pulled them away from the wounds. He looked closely at both the entry wound on his back and the incision near his shoulder and seemed content with both.
“Well, Sheriff,” he said when he’d finished. “You’re doing better than I expected you to be this soon. You’re a lucky man.”
“Oh sure,” Val replied weakly. It was little more than a murmur, but they all heard it and smiled. For the first time, Val sounded like himself.
Sam looked at Johnny and said, “Can you lift him a little so I can put clean bandages on him, Johnny?”
He walked over and sat on the opposite side of the bed to the others, facing Val’s back. Even with his own personal experience with bullet wounds, it looked repulsive and Johnny found himself trying not to look at it.
The doctor poured a measure of laudanum and offered it to Val. “This will make it a little easier on you, Val.” He forced the spoon into Crawford’s mouth and then offered him a glass of water to help wash it down.
Val grimaced in disgust at the bitter taste. “Damn, that’s awful, Doc.”
Johnny leaned forward over Val’s shoulder so his friend could hear him easily. “How’re ya feelin’?” he asked quietly, while Sam gently bathed first the wound on his back and then the incision.
Val closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them and answered, with sarcasm. “Like I’m full o’ holes.”
Johnny chuckled. “Well, take it easy. Doc says you’re gonna be just fine. He’s plugged the holes for ya.”
Sam glanced at Johnny and smiled his approval as he delicately rubbed some salve into both wounds.
They all heard a sharp intake of breath and Val pulled away.
“Hold him, Johnny,” Sam ordered quickly.
Johnny took a firm hold of his shoulder and whispered soothingly, “Easy does it, amigo. This won’t take long.”
Val flinched under Johnny’s hands and caught his breath, but he nodded.
“That’s right, Val. Doc says you need to lie quiet an’ get your strength back for a while. Think you c’n do that?”
“Yeah,” his friend managed to say and then, after a very slight pause to get his breath back, he added, “If you don’t keep…”
Johnny grinned and cut him off. “Shhh…I know – if I don’t keep askin’ fool questions.”
He looked at Sam and the doctor bowed his head to give Johnny the go ahead.
“Okay, Val,” Johnny said softly. “I’m gonna lift you a little so Doc c’n wrap ya up again. We’ll be as quick as we can.”
“Okay,” Val whispered through gritted teeth.
Carefully, Johnny slipped one hand under his friend’s lower shoulder and then wrapped his other arm around the front of him until his hands met. Very gently, he lifted his friend’s shoulders and upper body off the bed and Sam quickly went to work, with Teresa handing him extra bandages as each ran out.
Val didn’t utter a word throughout his ordeal, but Johnny could feel his body begin to shake as time went on. His head began to sag towards the pillow and Johnny was sure that he was losing consciousness.
Sam deftly finished up. “Okay, Johnny, I’m finished. You can ease him down.”
Johnny did, glad to release Val from the pain. He pulled his hands out from under him and put his hand lightly on Val’s shoulder. “It’s over, Val. Just rest awhile,” he told him comfortingly.
Sam moved to the end of the bed and pulled the covers away from the wound on Val’s leg. He cut away the bandage and checked it out, frowning enough to worry both Teresa and Johnny. He bathed the wound carefully, patted it dry and applied some salve before he asked Teresa to lift his leg while he wrapped it.
Val hardly seemed to have noticed it, though Johnny knew he was still aware. His breathing was rapid and heavy as he tried to come to grips with his pain.
“Teresa, I want you to take the soiled bandages downstairs. And knock before you come back in, all right?” Sam said quietly to his helper and ushered her out of the room.
“Johnny, we’re going to have to turn him very carefully. He’s been on this side for far too long now. There’s too much pressure on his lungs and heart the way he’s lying,” Sam told him very quietly when he’d closed the door and walked back to the bed.
Johnny nodded. He didn’t look forward to this.
Sam walked back to the far side of the bed and sat down in the chair. “Val, I’m going to have to turn you over on to your back. It will be more comfortable for you and it’s not good for you to lie on your side for too long.”
Val looked at him and nodded grimly.
“All right. Johnny and I will be as careful as we can and the laudanum should help a little with the pain. Now, I want you to relax and do nothing. Leave it all to us. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I got it,” Val answered wearily.
“Good man,” Sam said and lightly patted his shoulder.
Sam stood up and pulled the covers back, leaving Val naked as a jaybird. “Johnny, slide your hands under him and be ready to keep his back off the bed when I roll him over.”
Johnny nodded and did as the doctor instructed. He felt Val flinch and he whispered to his friend, “Take it easy, amigo. I’ve got ya.”
Jenkins rolled Val cautiously until he lay on his back resting on Johnny’s arms. Despite everyone’s care, Val groaned and his face contorted in pain. He tensed and his body went rigid. But he was determined not to let it get the better of him and bit his lip hard to stop himself from letting another groan escape.
“Loosen up, Val,” Johnny told him firmly. “You’re just makin’ it worse.”
Val’s eyes sought and held Johnny’s. He fought for control and he did relax a little – enough for them to be able to continue.
Sam knelt on the bed and put his hands under Val’s armpits and pulled him forward. “Now, Johnny, stack those pillows behind him, quickly.”
When Johnny was done, Sam slid Val up the bed until he was almost in a sitting position and then laid him back to rest against the pillows. They pulled the covers back over him and tucked them in tidily while Val panted heavily.
Val’s bottom lip was bleeding where he’d bitten it and his face was beaded with sweat, so Johnny picked up the cloth from the table and wiped his face clean.
“It’s done, Val,” he said softly. “It’s over now. You can rest.”
Val glared at him with open hostility. Johnny hadn’t expected it, but he couldn’t blame him for it.
“Sorry, buddy,” he told him dolefully.
“I know,” Val managed to answer between gasps.
Sam offered him a glass of water and helped him to drink it. “You’ll be more comfortable now, Val. Now, you have to try to rest and get some sleep.”
Johnny cautiously sat on the edge of the bed and put his hand on his friend’s arm. “You rest, Val. I’ll send Teresa back in an’ she’ll stay with ya for a while.”
Quite unexpectedly, Val shook his arm loose and grabbed Johnny’s wrist.
“What is it, Val?”
His friend scowled at him angrily and tried to catch his breath for a moment before he answered.
“Get me some damned clothes!”
Sam walked down the steps and turned into the Great Room. He found Teresa there with Murdoch, talking quietly.
When they heard him come in, they both looked up.
“I thought you’d want me to wait for a while,” Teresa told him. “I’ll go up now.”
“No, give Johnny a minute or two with him,” Sam suggested.
“How is he?” Murdoch asked.
Sam sighed. “Which one?”
Murdoch frowned. “What do you mean? Johnny, is he hurt?” he demanded anxiously. “He didn’t talk to me when he ran through here before.”
“No, Johnny’s not hurt,” Sam told him soothingly. “At least, not physically. He’s taking this hard though. Has he been sleeping? He looks tired.”
“He’s worried about Val. He sits with him as much as he can,” Murdoch explained. “But I think he’s been sleeping, when he gets the chance.”
“All right, see that he gets the chance, then. We all know he overdoes it when he’s upset,” Sam warned them.
Murdoch looked around Sam when he heard footsteps coming down the staircase. It was Johnny, just like he thought it would be.
“How’s he doing, son?” he asked him.
“He fell asleep a few minutes ago,” Johnny replied.
“Actually, he’s doing very well,” Sam told them all. “Considering the damage, he’s improving nicely. Now that we’ve got the weight off his lungs, I’m hopeful that the risk of pneumonia will decrease.”
“What about that leg wound?” Johnny asked him. “Unless I miss my guess, you weren’t real happy with it.”
Sam sighed. “Animal bites are always high risk when it comes to infection. By the very nature of it, a vulture’s bite is bound to be higher than most. It’s inflamed, but it doesn’t look too bad at the moment, but it needs watching carefully.”
“I’ll go up there and sit with him until Scott comes home,” Teresa said and started for the stairs. She turned back briefly to talk to Johnny. “If you’re still planning on sitting up with him tonight, you should try to get some sleep this afternoon.”
Johnny smiled at her. “Whatever you say, sweetheart,” he said as she passed him.
He turned to Sam. “Is he up to talkin’ ‘bout what happened?”
Sam considered the question carefully before he answered. “I think so, if you don’t push him. Keep it short, Johnny.”
“Sure, we’ll go easy with him,” Johnny assured him.
With Teresa gone, Sam took his leave as well. He promised to be back again tomorrow and said his goodbyes, leaving Johnny with his father.
“Where did you get to today?” Murdoch asked him, walking back to his desk from the front door.
Johnny couldn’t see the point of evading the truth. “I went to see Jake and Pete Franks.”
Murdoch shook his head angrily. “I thought I told you not to go over there, stirring up trouble.”
“Who said anything about stirring up trouble?” Johnny asked calmly – unusually calmly.
“You went over there to accuse them of murder! What else do you call it?” Murdoch growled at him.
Johnny turned around furiously. The volcano was about to erupt.
“Dios, Murdoch, give me credit for some sense! Just what did you think I was goin’ to do – ride in and shoot ‘em?”
“Those people are neighbors of ours!”
He whirled back on his father. “You haven’t asked if they’re still alive yet?”
Murdoch was stunned by the outburst. “Johnny, I didn’t suggest any such thing!”
“You don’t have to!”
His father backed down. “Cool off and tell me what happened there,” he said, trying to remain calm in the face of his son’s ‘fire and brimstone’ attitude.
A door slammed and distracted both of them. Both men turned to find Scott striding into the room. He looked tired, hot and dirty, but, more than that, he looked angry.
“What the hell’s going on here?” he demanded. “The whole ranch can hear you two.”
Murdoch patiently tried to keep hold of his own temper in the face of both his sons yelling at him. “I’m just trying to find out what happened at the Franks’ place when he went there this afternoon. Your brother got defensive about it.”
“The Franks’ place? Why did you go there?” Scott asked his brother.
“He thinks they had something to do with the shooting,” Murdoch explained before Johnny got a chance to answer.
“Jake and Pete Franks? What have they got to do with all this?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Murdoch told him. “The very idea is ridiculous.”
“Is that right?” Johnny snapped at him. “Tell him what you really thought, ol’ man! You thought I went over there to start something.”
Scott looked inquiringly at his father.
“That’s not what I said, Johnny, and you know it,” Murdoch insisted.
“You didn’t have to. You made it damned clear!”
Scott stood between them and frowned - first at one, and then at the other. “Shut up, the two of you,” he demanded. “Johnny, cool off!” He turned back to his father. “And you sit down and be quiet so we can hear him out.”
He waited for a minute to make sure they were both doing what he wanted. Murdoch glowered at him, but gave up and sat down. Scott breathed more easily now that one of them had relented and then turned to his sullen brother.
“Now, Johnny, tell us why you think the Franks have anything to do with Val’s shooting,” he said calmly.
“I’ve already explained it to Murdoch. He just doesn’t wanta believe it,” Johnny told him furiously. “No, Murdoch doesn’t think I can ask a few subtle questions. He’d rather believe that I’d head over there and shoot the lot of them in cold blood.”
He was losing his temper again and Scott sighed.
“Sit down, Johnny,” he told him firmly, but Johnny ignored him and glared at him, enraged. Scott took no notice and growled angrily at him. “I said, sit down!”
Johnny continued to stare his brother down for a moment, before relenting and dropping into one of the armchairs.
“Good!” Scott declared. “Now, make me believe that Jake and Pete had something to do with this.”
Johnny glared again at his brother. “They didn’t!”
“What? I thought you said…”
“Look, Val was shot where the boundary of their place meets ours. Add to that, Pete’s been drinkin’ a lot an’ gettin’ himself locked up. He an’ his ol’ man have threatened to get even with Val more than once. I heard ‘em. So I figured it was a possibility.”
“Well, that sounds reasonable,” Scott agreed.
“It’s absurd!” Murdoch yelled. “I’ve known Jake Franks for years. He’s not a back shooter.”
“Murdoch, sit down and shut up. Johnny has a valid point, but he’s already said he doesn’t think they did it,” Scott told him emphatically. “You’re argument is superfluous.”
“Pete Franks got beaten up last Saturday night. He’s got a couple of busted ribs an’ a whole lot of stitches and bruises.” Johnny stopped for a moment, thinking about how to explain his conviction of their innocence. “No, it wasn’t just that. They both know he’s been behavin’ like a jackass lately. Threatenin’ Val was just bad temper at the time. Neither of ‘em is the type to hold a grudge once they cooled off.”
He looked over at Murdoch before adding, “An’ they’re not back shooters.”
To Scott’s relief, his father refrained from saying ‘I told you so.’ Instead he spun the big leather chair he was sitting in and stared out the window.
“All right, so you’re both agreed that Jake and Pete had nothing to do with it,” Scott said, relieved.
“I think Val was headed out to their place when he was shot,” Johnny told them. “Pete got jumped by three men in a alley and Val was out of town at the time. He was probably coming out to find out what happened to him.”
Murdoch sighed heavily. “Johnny, leave it to the law,” he said. “We nearly lost Val. I don’t want to find you dead, with a bullet in your back.”
“If the law had a few more brains than Earl Tomkins, I would,” Johnny said angrily. “Someone has to find out what happened. Someone put that bullet into Val, an’ he ain’t goin’ to get away with it.”
There was a short silence in the room. This time it wasn’t tension. There was something else in the air – apprehension perhaps.
“Do you know why Pete was beaten?” Scott asked him, breaking the unnerving quiet.
“He was kickin’ up some dust in the saloon again. Got himself thrown out an’ three guys followed him and jumped him in an alley.” Johnny looked at his brother. “He thinks they work for Bryce Larkin.”
“Bryce Larkin?” Scott asked, shocked. “Why does he think that?”
“Seems Bryce has bought the saloon as well as the hotel. Pete reckons they hang ‘round the place an’ do what Bryce wants.”
“Bryce wouldn’t have anything to do with shooting Val, Johnny,” Scott assured him. “Not when his sister is sweet on him. He dotes on Becca.”
Johnny shrugged. He didn’t know what to think about Larkin. Until he’d heard Pete’s story, he’d liked the man. There wasn’t a shred of evidence against him either.
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Johnny admitted. “I guess we have to wait to hear what Val has to say anyhow.”
Johnny heard voices coming from Val’s room when he walked past. One of the voices was obviously Teresa and he stopped to listen at the door. It sounded as though she was trying very hard to be patient with Val.
He opened the door slightly and poked his head in. He grinned at the sight of Val sitting up a little, definitely feeling better, and he stepped inside.
“Mornin’, Val,” Johnny greeted him cheerfully. He closed the door behind him and strolled over to the bedside. “It’s good to see you’re feeling well enough to grumble.”
Teresa smiled at him and sat down in the chair by the bed, but she didn’t say anything. She certainly looked glad to see Johnny though. Maybe he could deal with the sheriff better than she had managed so far.
“I ain’t askin’ for much,” Val complained puerily. “Just somethin’ to eat an’ some clothes. A man just don’t feel decent with nothin’ to cover hisself.”
Johnny grinned and turned his attention to Teresa. “He givin’ you a hard time, querida?”
Teresa smiled charmingly at him. “No more than other men I’ve nursed.”
Johnny laughed lightly and walked over to the dresser. On top of it, he found Val’s clothes, cleaned, mended and folded. He picked up the folded underwear and walked over to sit on the side of the bed.
“These what you’re lookin’ for?” he asked naively. He unfolded them and held them up against himself. Then he pulled them up and inspected them more closely. “Teresa’s done a good job on stitchin’ up the holes. Bet they’re better than ever.” “Johnny, you give ‘em over,” Val demanded, blushing with embarrassment in Teresa’s presence.
“I’ll get Jelly to help me get you into ‘em,” he said helpfully, tossing them down beside him, but a mischievous light sparkled in his eyes. “When you’ve finished off that broth that Teresa went to all that trouble to cook up for ya.”
Val scowled at him. “I’m hungry. I want somethin’ I can sink my teeth into.”
“And you think you could swallow steak an’ eggs, do ya?” Johnny asked him, the mischief dimming from his eyes. “I guarantee you couldn’t.” He looked to Teresa. “Give me the bowl, Teresa,” he told her and she handed it to him.
“Try it, Val. It’s not that bad,” he said to Val and held it to his mouth to try.
Ten minutes later, Johnny had coaxed, cajoled and harassed Val into finishing the broth.
“I’ll go and get Jelly for you, Johnny,” Teresa said and left the room, smiling at Johnny’s efforts. He nodded and watched her leave.
When she’d left the room, Johnny saw Val lean his head back against the pillows wearily. He was pale and his breathing was heavy. His bluster had worn him out.
“She’s only looking out for you, Val,” he said gently. “I know it’s hard to lie back an’ let us do things for you, I know how it feels. But you have to give it some time. You were hurt pretty bad, pal.”
Val nodded. “I know it. I’m the one with the holes in me.” He closed his eyes and took a minute to catch his breath. “I ain’t used to it, is all.”
“Yeah, I know,” Johnny said with a smile.
Val opened his eyes and watched Johnny for a minute. “You look like someone with somethin’ on his mind.”
Johnny sighed slowly. “Yeah, I want to talk to you about the shooting, Val,” he told him gently. “I know you’re tired. Do you think you can answer a question or two?”
“Yeah,” Val sighed. “But I won’t be any help. I didn’t see a thing.”
“Not surprisin,” Johnny answered. “Do you know what time it was?”
Val concentrated on his answer. “I left town ‘round nine o’clock, I guess. Musta b’n ‘bout two hours after that.”
“Did you see anything at all?”
“No, nothin’,” Val told him, shaking his head sullenly. “I was ridin’ at a nice easy canter. Next thing I know I heard a shot an’ got knocked clean off my horse.” He laughed lightly. “Funny, I didn’t even feel much at the time.”
“Where were you headed?”
“I was goin’ to see Pete Franks,” Val told him. “He got into a fight in town on Saturday an’ I heard he got busted up pretty good.”
“I went to see Pete an’ Jake yesterday. Accordin’ to Pete, he wasn’t exactly in a fight. He got jumped and beaten in an alley. They left him for dead.”
“How bad is he hurt?”
“He’s got a couple of stove in ribs,” Johnny told him. “There’s no way he had anythin’ to do with this. He couldn’t have ridden that far.”
“No, I didn’t think so either. Pete an’ Jake are all talk.”
“Can you think of anyone who could have? You b’n treadin’ on any toes, lately?”
“Nope.” He thought hard about it. “I dunno, John. There’s b’n some strange things happenin’ in town. Rob Anderson, down at the livery stable, he had some stupid accident ‘an busted his leg. He’s gonna be out of action for a few weeks, an’ he won’t say what happened.”
“You don’t think it was an accident?” Johnny asked him.
“I can’t say for sure,” Val answered slowly. He was getting tired and Johnny knew he needed to end this soon.
“Do you know anythin’ ‘bout three strangers in town, hangin’ ‘round the saloon?” he asked Val.
“Riker, Douglas an’ Cameron.”
“Pete thinks they work for Bryce Larkin.”
“Yeah, that’s right. He’s bought the saloon.” Val stopped and waited to catch his breath. “I never would’ve thought Hal would sell that place.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I never would’ve thought so either.” Johnny placed his hand calmly on Val’s shoulder. “All right, take it easy now,” he said reassuringly. “You get some rest an’ leave this to us.”
There was a knock on the door and Jelly peeked in. “Come on in, Jelly,” Johnny told him. “We’re gonna see that Val, here, is nice an’ comfy – so that he stops givin’ Teresa such a hard time.”
“Scott, have you seen Johnny?” Murdoch asked him as he came in the front door. He’d been at his desk and stood up when he heard his elder son come in.
“No, I thought he was here, with Val.”
Murdoch shook his head angrily. “He was here earlier, but I haven’t seen him for an hour or so.”
“And you’re worried? Why? Where do you think he’s gone?”
“To Green River – where else?” He turned away and pounded his fist on his desk. “I told him to leave it to the law. Just once I’d like to see that boy do as I say.”
“He’s been hanging around the house for days now. Maybe he just wanted to get out for a while.”
“He’ll be headed to town to start trouble with Bryce Larkin. I’d lay my life on it,” Murdoch growled angrily.
“Are you telling me you wouldn’t be doing the same thing if this had been Paul O’Brien?” Scott asked him.
Murdoch glared at his son and, suddenly, it was as if the fight had gone out of him and he dropped into the big leather chair behind the desk. “You’re right. I know it. But I don’t want to see him killed, Scott. Val Crawford was lucky you and Johnny found him alive. If Johnny does find out who did it, or if they think he’s getting close…” He looked up at Scott. “We both know what could happen.”
“Yes, and they won’t give him any more chance than they did Val.”
“Less, if they know he’s Johnny Madrid,” Murdoch confirmed.
Scott turned around and headed for the front door.
“Scott, where are you going?”
“I’m going after my brother,” Scott told him quickly. “Where else?”
Green River didn’t look much different from usual at a casual glance. It was a tidy little town, but a busy one. People were going about their business just like they always did. Nothing looked different. There was no sinister feeling running down his back when he rode into town.
It looked the same as ever.
He decided to leave his horse at the livery stable. It was a hot day, and not a good one to leave a horse tied up to a hitching rail for who knew how long.
Rob Anderson ran the livery. He was usually there to greet all his customers, but he wasn’t there today. Today it was his fourteen-year-old son, Chris, who met his clients at the door.
“Howdy there, Scott,” the boy welcomed him with a proud smile.
“Hello, Chris,” Scott answered amiably. “Where’s your dad?”
“He’s inside, sittin’ down. He busted his leg last week an’ he ain’t gettin’ around real good yet.” The boy nodded towards the barn. “You want me to take your horse?”
“Yes, thanks Chris.”
“I’ll put him inside, like I did Barranca. Johnny wanted him outa the sun for a while.”
“How long ago did Johnny get here?” Scott asked quickly.
“Oh, ‘bout an hour ago. He talked with Pa for a bit before he left.”
“Did he? Well, I’d like to say hello to him, too. Give him my regards,” Scott told him.
“Sure, come on inside.”
The boy led the way into the barn. It was surprisingly cool in the big airy building and Scott found Rob Anderson sitting on a bale of hay with a pair of crutches beside him. On closer inspection, he had an awful lot of bruises clearly visible on his arms and face. There were undoubtedly more that weren’t so visible under his clothes.
“Hello, Rob,” Scott said cheerfully. “You look like you’ve seen better days.”
The man nodded. He was a big man - bigger than Murdoch Lancer. He was at least six feet seven and his shoulders looked big enough to carry the weight of the world. He was the strongest man in five counties but he was as gentle as a lamb. Rob was famous for taking in stray or injured animals and liked by everyone who knew him.
“Yep, you called that one all right, Scott,” Rob answered slowly.
“Have you seen Johnny?”
“Yeah, he was here a while ago, askin’ fool questions,” the man told him with an unaccustomed trace of annoyance in his voice.
Scott grinned. “Like how did you break your leg?”
Rob looked unhappy about the question. “Yeah like that.” He shifted uncomfortably and grimaced at the pain it caused. “You here to meet up with Johnny?”
“That’s right. Do you know where he is?”
“He was headed for the sheriff’s office when he left here.”
“Thanks,” Scott said. He folded his arms across his chest, leaned back against a post, and then asked, “So, how did you get hurt?”
Anderson looked apprehensive. He dropped his head and didn’t answer for a minute or two. “It was an accident. Rope on the hoist snapped an’ I got hit by a bale. It knocked me on my butt an’ busted my leg. Simple, stupid mistake is all.”
Scott frowned at him. “Didn’t you check the rope?”
“It was new. Musta been faulty,” Rob told him, still without looking up at him.
“Come on, Rob, you’ve been swinging bales for years. Tell me what really happened.”
“Damn Scott, you’re near as bad as that brother o’ yours,” he growled, looking up at him at last. “I’ll tell you what I told him. It’s my business, not yours. I gotta think o’ my boy, an’ I’ll do it my way.” He glared at Scott, his usual mild nature in tatters – torn away by something that Scott recognized and was surprised to see.
It was fear.
Someone had proved his point. Someone had shown Rob Anderson, the gentle giant, just how vulnerable he and his son were.
“Fair enough, Rob,” Scott acquiesced. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Anderson nodded forlornly. “I do,” he said. “You’d be better to look to your brother. He’s in a mood to get himself into trouble.”
Scott took the hint this time. “You said that he was going to the sheriff’s office?”
“Yeah, Earl’s running things.” He looked up at Scott. “Johnny said that Val’s doing a whole lot better.”
“That’s right,” Scott agreed. “He’s starting to complain, so he must be feeling better.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“Thanks, Rob, I’ll tell him.” With that, Scott turned and walked out of the barn, into the hot sun and the dusty street.
He crossed the street and walked the hundred yards or so up to the jail. He stopped there for a minute. It was quiet inside. That meant that Johnny wasn’t here either, though Scott had hoped to have caught up with him here.
Scott knocked on the door and opened it. He walked in to find Earl Tomkins sitting comfortably at Val’s desk. His feet were crossed and resting on the desk and he leaned back with his hat lying on his face. There was faint snoring emitting from under the hat.
He’d certainly made himself at home, quickly.
“Good morning, Earl,” he said equably and loud enough to wake the man.
The deputy jumped in fright and leapt to his feet. His hat fell to the floor and he stooped to pick it up awkwardly.
“Scott,” he exclaimed hastily. “What brings you here?”
There was a small smile pulling at Scott’s lips as he watched the man’s discomfort. “I’m looking for Johnny and Rob Anderson said he was coming here.”
“Sure, he was here a while back, Scott. He came in to tell me Val’s awake an’ doin’ better. It’s real good news.
“I take it that you’ll be coming out to talk to him, then.”
“Oh yeah, sure. I was plannin’ on goin’ out there this afternoon. I was just waitin’ on the mayor,” Earl told him.
“Why?” Scott asked curiously. “What has it got to do with him?”
“Oh, he just wants to pay his respects and see how Val’s doin’,” Earl explained pleasantly.
“I see. Well, you won’t be able to stay for long. He’s still very weak.”
“We’ll keep it short, Scott. Wouldn’t want to set him back,” Earl assured him.
“And do you have any idea who shot him?” Scott asked.
The deputy looked uneasy. “Well, no. There’s not much to go on, ‘specially if Val didn’t see anythin’.”
“I suppose not,” Scott agreed caustically. “So tell me, which way did Johnny go from here?”
Scott sighed. It seemed Johnny wasn’t far ahead of him, but he’d been busy in that short time.
“I think he was headed for the saloon. He wanted to talk to Mr. Larkin.” Earl seemed concerned at the idea. “Sure hope he don’t cause no trouble over there. He’s got some idea in his head that Bryce is involved in havin’ Pete Franks beat up.”
“And you disagree?”
“Well, sure! Bryce is a real nice fella.”
Scott couldn’t see himself getting any further here, so he took his leave and headed further up the street towards the saloon. He wasn’t happy with Johnny’s apparent plan to accuse Bryce Larkin without proof of any kind.
But Scott had the feeling that there was more wrong here in Green River than Val’s shooting. Rob Anderson hadn’t admitted it, but he’d certainly been the victim of something more sinister than ‘an accident’. And, from what Johnny had told him, Pete Franks had been soundly beaten with very little provocation.
He stopped suddenly, his thoughts vanishing into thin air.
Mrs. McConachy, the widow who ran the general store that her husband had built years ago, was on the sidewalk, sweeping broken glass into a dustpan. The front window of the store was gone – replaced by boards nailed across the gaping hole where it had been.
The widow was a tiny woman, under five feet in height, but she was a gritty pioneer survivor who brooked no nonsense.
She looked up when she realized that she was being watched.
“Why, Scott Lancer, it’s real nice to see you,” she said brightly.
Scott grinned. “Likewise, Mrs. McConachy. What’s happened here?”
The woman scowled angrily. “Mischief is what some say,” she told him sarcastically. “I call it downright vandalism. Someone tossed a rock through the window early this morning.”
He reached forward to take the broom from her, but she kept hold of it determinedly. “Thanks, boy, but I’m about finished now.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No, no, it’s all taken care of. Johnny nailed the boards up for me – the dear boy.”
Scott was amused by her endearment for Johnny but he was beginning to feel like he was following a trail of breadcrumbs, left by his brother. But it seemed to be a trail of destruction instead – though not of his making, at least.
“Mrs. McConachy, what’s going on around here? There seems to be a lot of ‘accidents’ lately,” he asked her outright.
“Accidents, my eye!” she snapped. “Johnny asked me the same thing – different way, but the same question. Come on in. Ain’t no point lolly-gaggin’ out here for all the world to see.”
She picked up the dustpan and led Scott inside.
He looked around and was enthralled, as he always was, by the clutter of organized disorder in the store. Apparently, everything had a place and was in it, but it seemed that only Florrie McConachy knew where that place was. It was so cramped you couldn’t swing a cat, but whatever you needed, you were likely to find it there.
There was no one else in the store this morning, so they were free to talk and the woman emptied the dustpan into a pail before turning back to face Scott. She leaned the broom against the wall.
“Would you like some coffee?” she asked hospitably.
Scott smiled and answered. “No, thank you, but I’m trying to catch up with Johnny, so I can’t stay long.”
The widow grinned. “That’s probably a good thing. That boy’s on a crusade.”
“You were going to tell me what’s been going on, ma’am.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s a long story though, Scott.” She sat down on a barrel and started her story. “The last couple of weeks, it feels like this town has been turned on it ear. First, Bryce Larkin bought the hotel. Now, that kind o’ surprised me ‘cause Charlie Daniels had put his heart into that place. But Charlie told me himself that he got a good price for it, so I didn’t think much of it. He said he was going to start over – maybe in San Francisco.”
“I knew Bryce had bought the hotel. I was a little surprised too, but there’s nothing in that.”
“No, that’s what I thought too. Then Hal sold the saloon to Larkin as well. I know he had no intention of doing that. He came an’ told me he’d sold up an’ was leaving town. Said Green River wasn’t his idea of home any more.”
“Mrs. McConachy,” Scott began, surprised. “Are you saying that you think they were pressured into selling?”
“I don’t know for sure, Scott. Neither of them came right out and said it.”
Scott frowned. “What about yourself?” He nodded towards the boarded up window. “What about that? Has someone made you an offer for the store?”
“No,” she said with an ironic laugh. “My little business isn’t big enough to be of much interest to them.”
“But they have been here, haven’t they?” he persevered.
She sighed. “Yeah, they’ve been here. They’ve got what they call an ‘insurance plan’ that they want me to join.”
“What sort of ‘insurance plan’?” Scott asked uneasily.
“The idea is that I pay them a few dollars a month an’ they make sure that nothing ‘bad’ happens to me or the store.”
Scott was furious. “When did this happen?”
“They came in here the other day, and again yesterday. I sent them away with a flea in their ear. Told them I’d have buckshot waiting if they showed their faces again.”
Scott smiled at the image she invoked. He’d loved to have seen their reaction to the little whirlwind’s response.
“Just who were these men?” Scott asked, keeping a lid on his anger. The very thought that men had been putting pressure on an elderly widow appalled him.
“It was that Cameron fella and his men. He’s a great big fella - nearly as big as Rob Anderson. They hang around the saloon all day long. Everyone says they work for that Larkin fella, but I don’t know it for sure.”
“So, this happened last night, after you’d told them you wouldn’t pay. Quite a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?”
“I thought the same thing, but Earl says it was probably just a couple of kids out for a lark,” she scoffed angrily.
Rob Anderson’s ‘accident’ made more sense now. It was no wonder he looked scared. He’d said that he had his son to consider.
“And are you the only one who’s been approached by these men?”
“No, just about every business in town has. Lots of the others have given in to them, though. That nice little Chinese family with the new laundry down the end of the street, they didn’t argue at all. And that fool woman, Charlotte Crenshaw, she says it’s a good idea! Do you believe that? Says she’s always been worried about robberies and such.”
The widow was shaking her head in disgust.
“Rob Anderson must have tried to argue with them too,” Scott suggested.
She nodded grimly. “The day Rob Anderson can’t swing a bale of hay, is the day hell freezes over.”
“Did you tell all this to Johnny?”
“Yeah, I told him. He was real cool about it though.” She looked thoughtful for a minute. “But, you know son, I don’t think he was very calm. I got the feeling that he was stone cold furious.”
Scott left the store with a polite farewell and hurried to take up his brother’s trail again. So many thoughts were running through his mind but, uppermost among them was the fear that Johnny was heading right into a firefight.
If Bryce Larkin was the man behind all this, and Scott couldn’t see how he could not be, then he wasn’t going to like Johnny turning up and making threats.
These men knew only one way to deal with that.
He pushed open the batwing doors and waited there while he scanned the room. Johnny wasn’t there.
The barkeep would know if he had been, so he walked, as casually as he could, to the bar. He leaned forward, resting his arms on the top of the bar and waited for Ben to come down and serve him.
“Has Johnny been in?” he quietly asked the barkeep when he finally arrived.
Ben leaned forward and whispered, “He was here. He talked to Mr. Larkin and then left a few minutes ago.”
“Which way did he go?” Scott asked him.
“Back downtown, towards the livery,” the barkeep answered and Scott sighed heavily. He’d missed him again. He’d been chasing his tail for over an hour and he felt frustrated, but relieved. It sounded like Johnny was still in one piece.
“Scott!” he heard from across the room. If he’d hoped to get away unnoticed, he’d failed. Bryce Larkin strode towards him with a friendly welcoming smile on his face.
He turned around to meet the man and forced a smile onto his face.
“Hello, Bryce. I was just looking for Johnny,” he told him amiably.
“Oh, you just missed him,” Larkin said as he reached him. He put an arm around Scott’s shoulder. “Come and join me for a drink. It’s on the house.”
Scott felt himself swept away by Larkin. Bryce found him a chair at a table in a corner and then sat down opposite him. He called for the barkeep to bring them each a drink and leaned back cheerfully.
“So, what do you think?” he asked, spreading his arms expansively. “I’ve never owned a saloon before,” he added with a winning smile. Then he gave a short laugh. “I think I’m going to like it!”
“What made you buy it?” Scott asked innocently.
“The opportunity came up and it was too good to miss,” he said happily. He nodded thanks to the bartender when he brought the drinks over to them.
It was strange, but Scott didn’t sense anything menacing from the man. What he sensed, instead, was a man who was getting a kick out of what he was doing. He emanated euphoria, and Scott just couldn’t make it fit with the atmosphere of fear that prevailed in the rest of the town.
He took a sip of the whiskey Bryce had bought him and let it burn pleasantly down his throat before continuing.
“Well, you’re certainly not one for letting the grass grow under your feet,” he told him good-naturedly.
“No, I guess I’m not. This town has potential, Scott. I can feel it. It’s exciting!”
Scott looked around the quiet little saloon and wondered at his words. There wasn’t anything exciting going on around him. In fact, there were only a few customers in the place. Potential wasn’t what he immediately thought.
He stopped there. Something suddenly occurred to him. There were only a few customers in the saloon.
There was no mountain of a man named Cameron – or his friends – the men who spent their days in the saloon.
The word ‘diversion’ popped into his head and he leaped to his feet and ran for the door.
Johnny had found out a lot on his travels today and all of it bothered him. He’d been seething by the time he reached the saloon, filled with rage at the thought of so many of his friends being put to so much trouble. No one would have known it by looking at him though. Outwardly, he looked cool and calm.
He’d donned his Madrid façade before he went into the saloon. There was nothing about him to suggest that he was enraged.
And despite what his father and his brother seemed to think, Johnny was NOT fool enough to go in and accuse the man without proof - and he had none.
He knew it going in. There was no link between Bryce and the incidents around town, and certainly none to Val’s shooting. Even the connection to Cameron, Riker and Douglas was tenuous. No one was absolutely sure whether they actually worked for Larkin or not.
It was frustrating but he was still determined to talk to Bryce and see what he could find out there.
But Bryce had been charming and talkative, without saying anything. He hailed him from across the room and asked him to join him for a drink at his own table in the saloon.
He’d seemed genuinely pleased when Johnny had told him that Val had improved. He’d even wanted to arrange a time to bring Becca out to see him.
Johnny had sat down with him, had a drink with him, and had been frustratingly unable to get anything out of him.
When he’d finally asked him about Cameron and his friends, Bryce had simply shrugged and said that they were good customers and nothing more. They came in most days and spent most of their days there drinking and playing cards, but they had never caused any problems.
Bryce had explained away the beating of Pete Franks by saying that he had no knowledge of it, but that if they had been involved, he was sure that Pete had provoked them.
“I don’t really know much about them, even though they’re here so much. I haven’t had any trouble with any of them in here, Johnny,” Larkin had said. “And I can’t answer for anything they do outside of the saloon.” He’d given Johnny a quizzical look and then asked, “I hope you’re not inferring that I had anything to do with that Franks incident. I don’t even know the boy.”
Johnny had assured him that he hadn’t meant to infer any such thing, and he didn’t – at least, not yet.
Looking at the facts he’d gleaned so far, Johnny had to admit that there didn’t seem to be any reason for Bryce to order the attack on Pete Franks or any of the other incidents. If Pete was to be believed, and Johnny did believe him, then all he had done was to raise a bit of a ruckus over the price of the drinks. That hardly justified what he’d gotten.
Then there was the story that Mrs. McConachy had told him. It was possible that Cameron, Riker and Douglas were working on their own, but none of them looked the type to come up with this sort of plan. They didn’t have the brains for it.
Cameron, and company, had been there at the time. Johnny had seen them sitting across the room. They’d been playing cards and laughing while they drank whiskey from the bottle on their table. One of them, the one he’d identified as Cameron, was an enormous man while the others looked like any other cowboy in the room.
One of the smaller men, or, at least, he was smaller than the one he’d identified as Cameron, had gotten up and walked to the bar for another bottle of whiskey while Johnny was talking to Bryce. It was the first opportunity he’d had of seeing the man properly and Johnny noticed that he wore his gun tied low on his hip.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed and watched the man move. He didn’t know him, but he’d been out of the game for a year or so and, even when he’d been working, Johnny hadn’t known every gunhawk around by sight. He didn’t recognize the name either though - Riker. Bryce Larkin had at least identified each of the men for him.
That he didn’t know Riker, by sight or name, meant one of two things. Either he was relatively new to hiring out or he was a ‘wanna be’. It made no real difference to Johnny in the long run. It didn’t pay to underestimate the opposition. Johnny had learned years ago to look on every gunhawk as the one who could beat him.
He finished the drink and said goodbye to Larkin and left feeling deflated. In his eyes, he had achieved nothing. If anything, he had only more questions than answers now.
Johnny stepped out into the sunshine, blinked for a minute or two while his eyes adjusted to the bright light and pulled his hat on comfortably.
Turning down the street, he decided he’d go back home and talk this over with Scott and Murdoch. He needed to sit and think it all through and, at the moment, his head was so full of questions that he could hardly think straight.
So, when a hand reached out and caught his right arm he was caught completely off guard.
Johnny was dragged sideways into the alley. He went for his gun, but a second hand had already wrenched it from the holster. He was spun around and when the whirl of grasping hands and faces came to a stop, he found himself face to face with Cameron.
He barely had time to realize that his arms were firmly gripped by Riker on one side and Douglas on the other when Cameron balled his huge fist and slammed it into his stomach. Johnny folded forward to try to absorb the impact but the iron hold on his arms kept him from doubling all the way over.
It knocked the air right out of him, but it took a moment longer for the pain to radiate through him. He stayed that way for a minute while he caught his breath and the man at his side leaned over him.
Johnny could feel Douglas’ warm breath on his right ear. The smell of stale whiskey and tobacco assaulted his senses as Douglas whispered evilly, “You’ve been askin’ a lot o’ questions, Lancer. Too many questions.”
With all his might, Johnny straightened up and threw himself backwards. He tried to wrench his arms free, but the hold was too strong and Johnny was hit with another mighty punch – this time to his ribs. It knocked the wind out of him and he doubled over again.
He knew another blow was coming and his old instincts kicked in. Johnny had grown up in the rough nursery of border towns streets, where fighting had no rules. There were no gentlemen in those brawls and Johnny had learned his lessons both early and well.
He lashed out with his boot, lifting it high and hard. It was well aimed. He caught the giant of a man right where he had hoped and the man doubled over in excruciating pain.
Next, he dragged his spurred heel back into Riker’s shin. Riker shrieked and hopped on one leg and the man’s hold on Johnny’s left arm weakened slightly. Johnny pulled hard to try to free himself and managed to break Riker’s hold on him long enough to turn and get one good punch in on Douglas.
The man reeled but somehow managed to keep his grip on Johnny.
He thought he finally had a chance. He dared to hope that he could beat the odds, but he felt a blinding flash of pain at the back of his head and nearly blacked out. Someone had hit him, and hit him damned hard.
Before he knew it, Riker recovered and pulled his arm back behind him, tightening it so much that Johnny could feel the circulation being cut off.
He was pulled back up straight. His arms were held out to his sides so that defending himself was not an option and the huge figure in front of him straightened unsteadily. His face was white and his teeth gritted against the pain Johnny had inflicted, but his eyes were black with fury.
For a moment, Johnny allowed a lop-sided smile to grace his lips. He was going to go down – he knew he had no chance against the three of them – but they weren’t getting away without paying for it. He’d do what damage he could.
The next punch hit him on the side of the head and dazed him, so that everything became something of a blur from then on. He thrashed, ducked and weaved as much as he could against the firm grip of Riker and Douglas, but the fact of the matter was that he was no match for them. Blow after blow landed on his ribs and stomach. His head was hit repeatedly and he began to lose touch with reality.
A few minutes of the pounding they were dishing out left Johnny gasping for breath and only dimly aware of what was happening. His legs sagged at the knees and blood flowed from a cut lip but he was just conscious enough to hear the gunshot.
“Lay one more finger on my brother and you’ll be dead before you hit the ground,” Scott told the three men. There was a dangerous resonance in his voice that stopped all of them in their tracks and they looked at him in amazement.
It would have stopped them even without the backup of the gunshot he’d already fired. And it would have held their attention even had he not held the gun in his hands.
He meant it – and they knew it.
“You,” he growled at the big man standing in front of Johnny. “Get back over against the wall.” The man’s enormous fists were still balled up and ready to take another swing at Johnny.
Then Scott glanced cautiously at the other two. “Now, you two. Let him go and move away from him.”
The two smaller men let Johnny go and he dropped to the ground, curled on his side and clutching his chest. Scott fought hard against the instinct to run to his side. He had to keep those three under control or risk falling into their hands along with his brother.
He watched them slowly move over to stand with Cameron, keeping an eye on him warily. One of them was bleeding steadily from a gash in his leg, a second had a split lip and the big man, Cameron, moved so awkwardly that Scott was convinced that Johnny had caused some damage there too.
“All right - you,” he said firmly nodding towards Douglas. “Unbuckle your gun belt and drop it, very carefully. You make one wrong move and I’ll put a bullet between your eyes.”
The man said nothing, but did as he was told. The gun and the belt fell to the ground with a thud that was almost deafening in the quiet of the alleyway.
“Kick it over to me,” Scott demanded and watched him do it.
“Now, take the guns from the other two and toss them over here.”
He did and, with the three of them disarmed, Scott stole a quick glance at his brother. Johnny was still lying on the ground barely conscious.
Scott edged his way to Johnny’s side and knelt down on one knee, still keeping a careful eye on the three brutes across the alley from him.
“Johnny, can you hear me?” he asked anxiously.
It was a moment before Johnny answered. “Yeah,” he gasped, his voice catching with pain.
“Lie still, brother. I’ll get you some help,” Scott said, putting a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Hearing running footsteps, Scott looked up to see who was coming. All the while, he kept his gun aimed steadily Cameron and his two friends.
“Scott, what’s happened?” Florrie McConachy asked as she turned the corner. She stopped when she saw, for herself, what was going on. “Oh my! Johnny!”
Hot on her heels came Earl Tomkins with a variety of townspeople behind him. “I heard a shot,” he told Scott. “What’s goin’ on here?”
“Well, that’s a bloody fool question!” Mrs. McConachy yelled sharply at him. “Look for yourself.”
“Earl, I’m glad you’re here. You can lock these three up,” Scott demanded. “I’ll come over later and press the charges against them.”
The deputy looked uncertain for a moment, but eventually drew his gun and collected their weapons from the ground. Then he ushered them out of the alley. The gathering crowd parted to let them pass. A murmur rose among them, but Scott paid no attention to it.
With the three men out of his way, Scott immediately turned his attention to Johnny.
“Mrs. McConachy, can you get Dr. Jenkins here?” he asked her as he carefully eased Johnny’s arm away from his ribs and gently rolled him onto his back to check him over.
She didn’t have to be asked twice and ran off to find Sam.
Scott slipped his gun back into his holster, then sat down beside Johnny and supported his head in one hand.
Johnny’s eyes opened to look up at his brother, but they appeared glassy so he was probably having trouble focusing them.
“Easy, Johnny,” Scott crooned to him softly. He took his handkerchief out and wiped the blood away from the cut lip and from another small gash just over Johnny’s eyebrow. “Easy does it. Sam’s going to be here in a minute.”
“Scott,” Johnny whispered, his voice hoarse and labored. He managed the barest glimmer of a laugh and added, “Boy, I’m glad to see you. Help me up, will you?”
“No way. Stay where you are this time. Sam’s on his way,” Scott persisted, holding him down in case he tried to get himself up. It didn’t take much to stop him. He was too weak.
“I’m okay,” he said vaguely. “Not as bad as it looks.”
Johnny’s protests ended in a barrage of coughing. He tensed and grabbed at his chest, then he drew his legs up and rolled back onto his side until the coughing fit subsided. He fought for breath and beads of sweat dotted his forehead.
Scott gently rubbed his back until Johnny relaxed a little. “Oh yes, you’re just fine, little brother. I can see that. Now, just rest there till Sam gets here.”
Johnny closed his eyes. Scott knew he was trying to black the pain he was in, but his pallor and the intense frown on his face made it bitterly obvious to Scott that he was fighting a losing battle.
He sat in the alley, lightly stroking Johnny’s arm comfortingly, oblivious to the crowd on on-lookers who had gathered. He was still coming to grips with the image of those three animals beating the life out of his brother. Firing a shot over their heads had stopped them cold, but it hadn’t been very satisfying. The urge to put a bullet into each of them had been far too tempting.
The passing minutes seemed to tick by like hours before Sam finally arrived, and Scott heard him before he saw him.
He was pushing his way through the small crowd with frustration echoing in his demands for people to step aside and get out of his way.
“Scott, tell me what happened,” he said quickly as he knelt down on the opposite side of Johnny. He set about moving Johnny’s arm out of the way and undoing the buttons of his shirt so he could check him over.
“Three of them were beating the daylights out of him when I came on them,” Scott explained. “The same three who beat up Pete Franks. Two of them held his arms and that big bastard was beating him.”
Sam opened his bag and pulled out the stethoscope. He listened to Johnny’s chest and frowned a little – something which Scott did not like. Then he cautiously prodded Johnny’s ribs and abdomen.
Johnny gasped, but he bit back the groan before it escaped. He opened his eyes and glared icily at the doctor.
“You tryin’ to finish me off?” he complained, dragging air painfully into his lungs.
The doctor ignored him and looked into his eyes, pulling down Johnny’s bottom eyelids before answering.
“You’ll live,” he told him briskly. “But you’re going to be pretty sore for a while.”
He turned to the people behind them and chose one. “Harry Danvers, come over here and give Scott a hand to carry Johnny to my office. The rest of you, go about your business. There’s nothing more to see here.”
“I can walk,” Johnny protested weakly.
Sam turned back to him impatiently. “I don’t care if you think you can dance your way there. You’ll do as I say.”
Scott grinned at the petulant expression on his brother’s face, but he said nothing and was glad that Johnny hadn’t noticed it.
Johnny looked around him and became agitated suddenly. Scott forced him to lay back. “Johnny, what is it?”
His brother scowled. “My gun. They took my gun. Where…?”
“Here it is, Johnny,” came a young voice from further down the alley. A young boy appeared from nowhere holding the weapon carefully in the palms of his outstretched hands. He passed it to Scott who slid it into Johnny’s holster.
“Thanks, Toby,” Scott said gratefully, and the boy smiled proudly and ran off to tell his friends that he had held Johnny Madrid’s gun right there in his hands.
“Scott, help him to sit up so I can strap those ribs for him,” Sam Jenkins ordered calmly. He pulled some bandages from a drawer and turned back to Johnny and Scott.
Johnny was lying on the examination table in the doctor’s office. He was pale, but far more aware than he had been in the alley. His left eye was already showing signs of blackening, and the split lip had swollen to twice its normal size.
Scott lifted Johnny’s shoulders so he could pull himself upright. Johnny turned and swung his legs over the side and swayed a little.
Scott put his hands firmly back on his brother’s shoulders to keep him steady. Johnny was obviously having a problem with dizziness.
“My guess is you’ll be covered in bruises before you even get home, John. I don’t think there’s any serious damage. Those ribs are badly bruised, possibly cracked, but at least nothing seems to be broken.” He walked over to his patient. “Do you think you can hold your arms up long enough for me to wrap these around you?”
“Sure, Doc,” Johnny answered vaguely and did. He seemed almost oblivious to his pain as the doctor began to wrap the bandage firmly around Johnny’s chest.
“Scott, he’s taken some heavy hits to the head and there’s a lump on the back of his head that’s going to be tender for some time. He’s got a nasty concussion out of it. That’s my main worry right now. I don’t think any of the ribs are broken, but it won’t take much to snap a cracked rib. I want him in bed with someone watching him tonight and he’s to stay there for a few days at least.”
Sam saw the expression on Scott’s face and nearly laughed. He might have if the situation hadn’t been serious. The doctor was well aware that he was asking the near impossible. Keeping that boy in bed was nigh on impossible, short of tying him down with rope.
He finished off the bandaging. “You can put your arms down now, Johnny,” he told him, but Johnny didn’t move.
“Put them down now, John,” he repeated patiently, and this time he lowered them to his side. Scott gave him a worried look, but Sam just shook his head calmly. “It’s just the concussion. He’ll probably be fine in a few hours. We’ll just have to watch him, particularly tonight.”
“I have to go down and make a statement to the deputy,” Scott told him. “Will he be all right here till I get back?”
“Of course,” Sam assured him. “I’m going to take him home in the buggy. I was going out to Lancer to see Val, and I want to check on Johnny again when we get there anyway. You meet us down at the livery stable in an hour.”
“Thanks, Sam,” Scott agreed eagerly. Johnny was in no condition to ride.
“You what?” Scott exclaimed.
He stood in the middle of the sheriff’s office looking at Howard Randall and Earl Tomkins. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Now, Scott, you just calm down an’ listen,” Earl protested earnestly.
“Listen? What in hell could you possibly have been thinking of – letting them go?”
The deputy wavered indecisively for a moment and looked across the room to the mayor for support.
“Well, Scott,” Howard began, trying to sound reasonable. “Earl had nothing to keep them on. They said it was self defense.”
“And you believed that? Two of them were holding him while the third one beat him, Earl. They were three to one, and you believed them?”
Howard nodded, almost as though he understood Scott’s frustration. “I know, it probably looked bad to you, and you’re Johnny’s brother an’ all, but you know what Johnny can be like.”
Scott glared at him. “No,” he said coldly. “Tell me!”
“Come on, Scott,” Earl said at last. “Johnny’s got one hell of a temper.”
“Earl, I caught them cold. They were beating the hell out of Johnny. They could have killed him.”
“They said that Johnny pulled a gun on them and they were just defending themselves,” Earl told him.
“Well, he sure wasn’t armed when they nearly beat him to death!”
“It was a street brawl, Scott,” the mayor insisted. “If he locks Cameron and his friends up, he has to lock up Johnny as well.”
“What!” Scott roared at him. He turned and paced across the room and back again to face them. “So, they’re getting away with this, just like everything else.”
“What ‘everything else’?” Howard asked innocently.
Scott balled his fists at his sides. He was in serious danger of losing his temper now.
“Rob Anderson, for one. Someone tried to kill him - and what about Mrs. McConachy over at the store? Her window was smashed just last night.”
“Accidents, kids on a lark,” Randall answered, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “There’s absolutely no proof that those men had anything to do with those incidents.”
“What happened to Johnny was no accident! And the same thing happened to Pete Franks last week!”
“Pete was drunk and belligerent, Scott. If he picked a fight with them, and lost, there’s no fault there.”
“And it’s the same with Johnny?” Scott demanded dangerously.
Randall shrugged expansively. “You said it, Scott, not me. Of course, I don’t know how much he’d had to drink…”
He got no further. Scott’s fuse was not just lit, it burned right down to the gunpowder. He drew back and slammed his fist into the mayor’s jaw, knocking him a good three feet across the room where he tripped over a chair and ended up sprawled on the floor.
He sat, rubbing his jaw. His eyes expressed his shock – and his fear.
Earl tried to step between the two men, shouting and throwing his hands up in front of Scott. “Hey, Scott,” he yelled. “You can’t do that!”
Scott’s face stopped him from making any further attempt to appeal to him. The normally easy going easterner was red faced with rage.
“Put it down to extreme provocation, Earl,” Scott fumed. “Does that make it self defense in your book?” He looked down at the mayor, still sitting on the floor looking frightened. “And hear this. If you’re not going to look into this, then just don’t get in our way.”
He turned aside and started to leave, but he stopped and turned his head back towards them. “Or you’ll have Lancer to answer to – all of us!”
With that, he stormed out of the sheriff’s office and down the street to Sam Jenkins’ office.
By the time Sam Jenkins’ buggy rolled into the Lancer courtyard, Johnny was more than just aware of his surroundings again. His head felt like someone had taken to him with a hammer. His ribs were sore and bound up so tight that he could hardly breathe and his right eye was so swollen it was almost closed. Lousy did not even begin to describe how he felt.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to see what he looked like in a mirror. He was pretty sure that he wouldn’t like what he saw. And he wished that he could say that the other guy looked worse, but he didn’t even have that satisfaction. Though he did have the comfort of knowing that the big guy’s voice might be an octave higher and that gave him reason to smile.
Scott had met them at the livery stable. Johnny’s mind was still a little fuzzy, but he had some memory of that. Scott had ridden back to the ranch beside the buggy and he’d told them along the way that Earl had released the miscreants before he’d even gotten to the sheriff’s office. Johnny wasn’t happy about it, but he wasn’t all that surprised. It wasn’t like it was the first time it had happened to him.
Growing up half-Mexican in those border towns, he’d been pounded on plenty of times with no punishment handed out to the men who did it. He had come to expect that there would be no retribution. But that didn’t mean that he liked it.
He’d changed it all for himself. Well, Madrid had changed it. As his reputation as a hard case gun hawk had grown and he was recognized as Johnny Madrid more and more, those beatings had happened less and less.
This time, however, Scott had been outraged more than enough for the two of them. His sense of justice rebelled against how wrong it was. He hadn’t often come up against this sort of thing, whereas Johnny knew that the law out here was vulnerable when weak men wielded it. And Earl was definitely weak. While he was in charge, there’d be no law in Green River.
And Val was going to be out of action for a couple of months.
When Sam pulled his horse to a halt, Johnny dismissed his and Scott’s help to get down. Nor was he in any mood to endure Jelly’s gruff questions or to accept Teresa’s ministrations when she saw the state he was in. Instead, he sucked in his breath and walked past them and into the hacienda.
Trouble was - he knew there’d be more from Murdoch when he got inside too.
But all he wanted right now was to escape to his bedroom – away from everyone. He was tired and sore and, for once, he just wanted to go to bed. If the truth were told, he was a little embarrassed. Johnny Madrid Lancer, jumped in an alley like a greenhorn. If his brother hadn’t turned up, he might have died there. Some way for Madrid to go out, beaten to death – unable to defend himself.
Johnny’s head not only hurt from the beating. He had so many confusing thoughts running through it at the moment that he couldn’t think straight. If anyone was going to pull him out of a tough spot, he knew it would be Scott. He knew it and he appreciated it. But he hated the idea of depending on anyone. It went against everything he had taught himself when he was growing up on his own.
Even after being at Lancer for this long, he still felt uncomfortable with the idea that his family was there to look out for him and even protect him if need be.
He walked into the house, leaving Teresa listening to Scott’s and Sam’s version of what had happened in town while he made good his escape and sought the calm of his own room.
It wasn’t to be – not yet.
As soon as he heard Johnny’s spurs in the house, Murdoch was on his feet in a minute and striding across the room. Johnny had hoped to get to the staircase without his father spotting him, but the man was there waiting for him – like a dam in a river. There was no getting past him.
When Murdoch reached his son, Johnny already had one foot on the bottom stair and his back to him.
“Johnny, I thought you were letting the law take care of all this. I told you to stay out of it,” he raged. “I thought I told you I didn’t want you going into Green River looking for trouble.”
“I didn’t go looking for trouble, Murdoch,” Johnny answered with a weary sigh. He put his hand on the stair rail and made to start up the stairs. He didn’t want an argument.
The Lord knew he just wasn’t feeling up to it. His head hurt so much that Murdoch’s shouting boomed at him like an explosion, threatening to split it in two.
He closed his eyes tightly to try to block the pain, but it didn’t work. “Now, I’m going upstairs. If you wanta argue, do it with Scott. I’m going to bed.”
“To bed?” Murdoch repeated, an anxious tone suddenly replacing his anger. He’d assumed Sam was here to see Val, but now he wasn’t so sure. He reached out and grabbed Johnny’s arm, not hard, but enough to stop him.
It stopped him all right. He gasped and grabbed his ribs with his free hand, doubling over as he tried to pull air back into his lungs. Johnny felt his legs turn to water and his knees started to buckle and give out from under him.
“Murdoch, let him go!” Scott shouted and ran to his brother’s side. He pushed his father’s hand away and got in front of Johnny, wrapping his arms firmly around his brother’s shoulders to keep him from pitching forward.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he growled at their father. “Can’t you see he’s hurt?”
“I…I didn’t know…” Murdoch tried to explain, his face nearly as white as Johnny’s. “What happened?”
“The same three who jumped Pete Franks beat up Johnny,” Scott told him furiously. “One look should have told you he was hurt.”
“He had his back to me…” Murdoch began, but Johnny finally had his breath back enough to speak.
“Forget it, Scott,” he murmured weakly. He leaned heavily against his brother and heaved air into his lungs. Waves of pain washed over him, bringing nausea and dizziness with it. “He didn’t see me come in. He had no way of knowing.”
If Scott thought Johnny was being easy on their father, he let it go. “Can you make it up the stairs with a little help?”
Johnny nodded, but he made no immediate attempt to move. “Yeah, just give me a minute.”
Scott could see that Johnny wasn’t going to make it yet, even if his brother couldn’t He eased him around and sat him down on the stair, giving Murdoch his first view of the devastation heaped upon his son by Cameron and his partners.
Johnny heard Murdoch’s breath catch and looked up at him. His father’s face was lined with worry and - Johnny suspected - a sense of guilt.
The man had a habit of jumping into the water without checking its depth. Johnny managed a haggard smile at the thought.
“Forget it, Murdoch,” he told him wryly. “You weren’t to know.”
“How bad is it, son?” he asked solicitously.
“I’ll live,” Johnny joked. He added another weak smile to reassure him. “At least, Sam says I will. I’m not so sure.”
“It’s not funny, Johnny,” Scott said testily.
“Lighten up, Boston,” Johnny told him. “It wasn’t Murdoch’s fault.”
Another voice pushed into Johnny’s already aching head. “What’s going on here?” Sam asked as he came into the Great Room.
“Murdoch pulled on Johnny’s arm and…” Scott began, but his brother cut him off before he could finish.
“I said it wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t see I was hurtin’.”
Sam stooped to look him over. Once he was satisfied that no further damage had been done, he turned to Murdoch. “I think he should be in bed.”
Teresa had come in and was standing with Murdoch, concern written all over her face. “You’re right, Sam,” she agreed. “It’s doing him no good sitting there on the step. Scott, help him up. I’ll go turn his bed down.”
Johnny grinned, but he shook his head. “You know somethin’, Sam? For once I agree with you,” he said quietly. Despite his flippancy, having so many people around him fussing and worrying over him began to unnerve Johnny. He felt caged. “Don’t worry ‘bout it, Teresa. I can make it that far.” He carefully reached up and took hold of the railing to pull himself up.
“Here, let me help you,” Scott insisted. He wrapped his arm around Johnny’s shoulders and supported him while he swayed dizzily on the step and then helped him as he climbed the staircase.
At the door to his own room, Johnny straightened up.
“I can make it from here, Boston. Thanks. I just wanta sleep for a year or two – okay?”
Scott grinned. “Sure, okay. But I’ll be in shortly to check on you. Sam wants us to watch you with that concussion.”
Johnny nodded and went inside. He sat on the edge of the bed and waited for the dizziness and the nausea to pass. He didn’t dare to hope that the pain in his head would go away so soon.
Once he’d forced back the worst of his aches and pains, he decided he just had to lie down and get some rest. He thought about getting undressed first, but it just seemed like it was all too hard. Instead, he decided taking off his boots would be enough.
But when he leaned over to take his boots off, he thought his brains were going to fall out of the front of his head. He gasped and changed his mind immediately, settling for just taking off his spurs and tossing them aside.
Then he lay back on the bed and passed out.
Johnny woke to darkness. Through the fog of sleep and the screaming pain in his head, there was only confusion.
Obviously, it was the middle of the night, but – was it the same night? He wasn’t sure. He wasn’t certain how he had gotten into the bed either. He sure didn’t remember doing it himself
In fact, he didn’t remember much of anything. Something had happened to him; he figured that out quickly enough. The awful ache of his head was a good indication that something was wrong.
The only light in the room was the steady stream of moonlight flowing through the window. Someone was in the room with him. He could see the light shining on the head of someone sitting in the armchair. At first, he thought it was Scott’s fair hair glistening in the moonlight, but when he shifted his head a little he realized it was the gray hair on Murdoch’s head. He frowned and shifted in the bed in an attempt to get more comfortable.
He’d barely moved, but every muscle in his body shrieked in protest. His memory flooded back - the frustrations and unanswered questions, and the beating. He lifted his hand to his head but the movement wrenched a soft moan from him before he could stop it.
Murdoch moved over to sit on the side of the bed and Johnny felt his hand on his forehead.
“Shhh…take it easy, son,” Murdoch said gently.
“What are you doin’ here at this time of night?” Johnny asked wearily.
“Just making sure you’re all right,” Murdoch told him quietly. “Sam said we should check on you through the night. Are you thirsty?”
“Yeah, thanks,” Johnny told him. He didn’t recall having eaten anything much yesterday. Or was it yesterday? “How long have I been out of it?”
Murdoch poured some water into a glass and put into his son’s hand. The glass shook unsteadily, so Murdoch wrapped his big hand around his son’s and helped him to hold it while he drank it down.
“Only since yesterday,” Murdoch answered. “How does your head feel?”
Johnny laid his head back on the pillow. “Like there’s someone in there tryin’ to chisel his way out.”
His father grinned. “That bad, huh? What about the ribs – can you breathe okay?”
“Yeah,” Johnny assured him.
“Hurts all over – right?”
“Some,” Johnny agreed awkwardly.
“Sam says you need to stay in bed for a day or two. Between the concussion and those ribs, you have to take it easy for a while.”
“Sure, Murdoch.” He really couldn’t remember much after getting home yesterday. He frowned uneasily. “How long have you been sitting there, Murdoch?” he asked, confused. “Who put me to bed?”
Murdoch smiled. “Scott found you stretched out cold across the bed. He put you to bed and then stayed here for a couple of hours. Now it’s my turn.”
The idea of being watched over discomfited him. “I’m okay. You don’t need to stay.”
“Maybe,” Murdoch agreed. “I don’t mind, though.”
He watched Johnny’s face fall and smiled. “Humor an old man, son. Let me play ‘Papa’ for a while.”
Johnny closed his eyes and sank further into the pillow. He didn’t see the concerned expression on his father’s face and had no idea how pale he looked in the shadows of the room. “Sam left some sleeping powders in case you needed it. I can get you something.”
“No, thanks. I don’t need it,” Johnny assured him. It wasn’t pride that made him say it, either. He honestly felt a wave of exhaustion wash over him.
Murdoch saw it and put the empty glass back on the table by the bed. He patted Johnny’s shoulder lightly. “All right. Go back to sleep.” He stood up and went back to his chair and watched as his son drifted back to sleep.
Johnny heard Val’s raised voice from across the hall in his own room. He’d almost finished getting himself dressed so he tenderly stretched his arm out and eased the shirt on.
He didn’t bother with the shirt buttons or with his boots. It was just too hard to bend over at the moment. His head was still hurting and his ribs ached, but he was determined to get up.
He slowly pulled himself up and walked over to Val’s room to find out what was going on.
Without bothering to knock, he opened Val’s door and stuck his head in. Teresa was standing by the bed with an angry look on her face and her hands on her hips. He recognized that stance. She had her mind made up about something and wasn’t taking any nonsense about it.
“Really, Val Crawford, this is so silly,” Teresa told him sarcastically. “I’ve nursed Scott and Johnny lots of times.”
Val had a desperate hold of the bedclothes. He was clutching them to his side so Teresa couldn’t move them.
“Yeah, well I ain’t your brother,” he told her petulantly.
Teresa smiled obtusely. “Actually, neither are they!”
“Don’t make no never mind! You just run on an’ let me be,” Val protested vehemently.
“Sheriff Crawford,” she persisted, and the formal tone in her voice would have been enough to warn anyone who knew her well. “I will NOT let you be. I will stay right here until you show some sense.”
“What’s going on here?” Johnny asked them quickly. It was time to step in and break this up.
“Val’s being absurd. He has a fever starting and I want to check the wound on his leg,” she explained angrily. “He says it’s indecent.” Suddenly realizing to whom she was speaking, she turned and glared at him.
“And just what are you doing out of bed, John Lancer?” she demanded, crossing her arms across her chest.
Johnny grinned broadly. He should have known he wouldn’t get far without her saying something about it. “Well, how’s a man supposed to sleep with all the noise you two are making anyway?”
He walked over to the bed and laid his hand on Val’s forehead. Sure enough, it was a little warm. “She’s right, Val,” he told him. “You have got a bit of a fever.”
“Don’t matter,” Val replied.
“Is that right? What’s the problem, Val? You’ve got your drawers back, an’ she only wants to look at your leg anyway.”
“It ain’t decent,” he declared irritably. He continued to clutch the covers on the bed, but looked over to scowl at Johnny. Taken aback by his friend’s face, he frowned. “What happened to you?” he asked.
Since Johnny had seen himself in the mirror before leaving his bedroom, Johnny knew what he was talking about. His eye was black, but not as swollen as it had been. He could see out of it this morning and that was an improvement on yesterday. His split lip might look nasty but the swelling had gone down on that too.
He pulled the shirt closed across his chest and started doing up the buttons. “I had a run in with a grizzly bear,” he told Val with a wry grin.
Walking around to the other side of the bed, he lifted the covers off Val’s leg while he was distracted. Val tried to reach forward to pull them out of Johnny’s hand, but the stitches in his back grabbed and he groaned and fell back against the pillows.
“That’ll teach ya,” Johnny said bluntly. He edged past Teresa and went to Val’s side. He pulled his friend forward just a little and checked that the wound on his back hadn’t opened, but there was no trace of blood there, so he eased Val back. “You’re lucky, pal. There’s no new damage there.”
Val closed his eyes. He’d paled terribly and his breathing had gotten ragged. Johnny put his hand gently on his friend’s shoulder.
“Just take it easy, Val,” he said soothingly.
Teresa pushed the blankets back a little further from Val’s leg and set about cutting away the bandage so she could check the wound. She nodded to the empty chair behind her and said, firmly, “That goes for you too, Johnny. If you must be out of bed, you’d better sit down. You shouldn’t be on your feet.”
“Some friend you are,” Val growled at him as he leaned back and caught his breath. “Thought I could trust you.”
“It’s only your leg, Val. There’s nothin’ indecent in that.”
“Yeah, well, so you think.” He looked hard at Johnny. “So what really happened to ya? There’s near as much bandages on you as I got, an’ that pretty face o’ yours would scare a hog.”
“I met up with the same three fellas that Pete Franks tangled with,” Johnny told him somewhat cryptically.
“Oh,” Val replied, understanding completely. “How’d that happen?”
“I got jumped,” Johnny admitted sheepishly. “Two of them held me, while the big guy threw the punches.”
“Nice. An’ why would they do that?” Val asked pointedly. “You weren’t bein’ nosy, I suppose?”
Johnny looked horrified and then smiled. “Nosy? Me? You know me better than that.”
“Yeah, I know you,” Val answered knowingly. “You pressed charges, I hope.”
“I wasn’t up to it at the time,” he said with a smile. “But Scott went over to take care o’ that. Earl had already let ‘em go,” Johnny explained casually.
“They claimed ‘self-defense’,” Johnny told him with a laugh. Then he shrugged. “It was my word against theirs.” He smiled again. “Oh boy, you shoulda seen Boston. He was real upset.”
“An’ you weren’t, I suppose?” Val asked.
“Scott hit Howard Randall,” Teresa informed them negligently, while she looked at Val’s leg.
Johnny turned around to her quickly. “Why?” he asked, ignoring Val’s question.
“Oh, he was with Earl at the jail,” she explained, nervously. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but he got real mad with the mayor.” She was sorry she’d mentioned it at all, now. She’d remembered that Scott had been upset over a remark that the mayor had made about Johnny.
“I wish I’d been there to see it,” Johnny said with a frown. Scott was rarely provoked enough to hit anyone, no matter what was said. He could usually be relied on to resist the temptation. He couldn’t help but wonder what Howard Randall had said that had gotten him slugged.
“And how did they come up with ‘self-defense’ if they were three on one?” Val continued.
“You’ll have to ask Scott,” Johnny told him, dismissing the subject. “Teresa, how’s his leg?”
“It’s inflamed all right. It might be getting infected,” she answered. “Sam’s coming this morning to look in on both of you. I’ll let him know when he gets here.”
She bathed and dried off the wound and then he re-bandaged Val’s leg and pulled the covers back over him. In spite of Johnny’s attempts to keep him occupied, Val had been in pain throughout the process. Johnny had seen it on his face.
Nevertheless, Val scowled at her. “Still say it ain’t decent.”
“Play nice,” Johnny said with a laugh.
Teresa finished and decided to leave them alone. She packed up her things and rolled the soiled bandages to take with them. She walked over to the door and left, taking one moment to turn back and remind Johnny to go back to bed when he was finished visiting Val. “Sam will eat you alive if he finds you up and around,” she told him and closed the door behind her.
“So what’s under those bandages anyway? How bad did they hurt ya?” Val asked seriously.
“Just some bruises an’ maybe a couple of cracked ribs. It hurts some, but it’s not as bad as it looks,” Johnny answered honestly.
“An’ is that all? You look like you took a couple of belts to the head there.”
“Yeah, well, maybe a couple. That big guy can pack some punch though,” Johnny told him with a lopsided attempt at a smile.
“Earl shouldn’ta let ‘em go,” Val replied. “Hell, he shouldn’t even be in charge o’ things.”
“Maybe, but there ain’t no point in your worryin’ about it. You’re not gonna be able to go back to work for a while,” Johnny said firmly.
“If I just wasn’t tied to this damned bed. I hate not bein’ able to do somethin’ ‘bout it,” Val said. His voice echoed with frustration.
“I know what it’s like. But listen, Teresa doesn’t go away, you know,” Johnny told Val. “An’ she won’t be happy till you’re back on your feet.” He smiled cheerfully. “If you have to be in this position, Val, you should be glad you’ve got Teresa to look after you. You couldn’t do any better.”
Val looked miserable. “Yeah, I know, Johnny,” he confessed. “I just ain’t used to havin’ a pretty little gal fussin’ over me.”
Johnny smiled. “She sure is pretty, ain’t she? But she knows more ‘bout nursin’ than most women twice her age.”
Val nodded. “I know,” he admitted, but he looked horribly uncomfortable. “But she wants to wash me!”
Johnny laughed out loud. “All right, all right, I see what you mean. If I get Jelly to look after your personal stuff, will you let up on Teresa?”
“Good. That means you do everything she tells you. Medicines, food… the lot!”
“Yeah, all right.”
“Okay, done. Now, tell me about Becca Larkin. You got somethin’ goin’ with her?”
Val looked thoroughly confused. “No, why?”
“Well, she came out here to see ya. She was all cut up that you were shot,” Johnny explained with a touch of irony.
Val smiled. “Well, I sure didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout it.”
“But you don’t mind, huh?” Johnny asked with a devious grin
Val leaned deep into the pillows and smiled cheerfully. “Nope, not one little bit.”
“Johnny, wake up son.”
He heard the words vaguely through the haze of sleep that had wrapped its tendrils around him and held him in its warm and tender grasp. But rousing himself meant a reawakening of the pain. It was just too hard.
He tried to ignore the words. Maybe if he did the speaker would just go away and leave him in peace. But then he heard them again, beckoning him out of the comfortable embrace of sleep.
“Come on, Johnny, wake up. Sam’s here and he wants to take a look at you.”
He sighed with resignation and moved his head towards the voice, and then slowly he opened his eyes to see Murdoch’s anxious face.
Sleep - when did he go to sleep? He raised his hand to rub his eyes and the pain hit him hard. It felt like every muscle in his body was screaming in protest. He winced heavily, but quickly tried to cover it up. He didn’t want his father to see how much he hurt.
As the mist evaporated and his head began to clear, Johnny began to remember this morning.
He’d visited Val and talked with him about listening to Teresa and behaving himself. Johnny knew that being stuck in bed injured was going to wear on Val’s nerves as he started to improve, but he wasn’t going to let him get away with giving Teresa a hard time.
Then Johnny remembered that he had gone back to his own bed. It might not be in him to admit to Val or his family just how much that beating had taken out of him, but he had to face it himself. After even a short time on his feet, breathing had become an ordeal. His head pounded and the dizziness had come back with a vengeance.
He hadn’t bothered undressing. He’d just lain down on top of the bed and waited for Sam to come so he could take a shot at convincing him that he didn’t need to lay up any longer.
He didn’t recall very much after lying down though. He must have fallen asleep straight away. He wondered how long he had been lying there.
Looking around the room though, he realized that Murdoch wasn’t alone. Scott and Sam were with him.
So much for his plan to convince them that he felt just fine. His argument was going to fall a little flat in the circumstances.
“Musta dozed off for a minute,” he said self-consciously, pushing himself up to sit on the bed.
“It’s only to be expected with a concussion, Johnny,” Sam told him from behind Murdoch. “You’ll find it’ll probably continue to happen for most of today.”
Johnny looked around the room at each of them. They looked concerned, but he had the feeling that that wouldn’t get him any latitude. Murdoch got up and made room for Sam to step in, while Scott stood back near the doorway, leaning back against it with his arms crossed in front of him.
Johnny had the feeling that he would be the hardest of them all to convince. He sure looked like he was standing guard on that door.
Murdoch walked over to wait with his elder son while the doctor looked at his younger.
Sam checked Johnny over thoroughly, poking and prodding him until he was pale and uncomfortable. But the doctor kept his opinions to himself until he was finished. This was despite Johnny’s steady stream of assurances that there was nothing wrong with him. He still planned on escaping this bedroom if he could.
“Come on, Doc,” he complained. “I’m really fine. You’ve got my ribs all strapped an’ my head’s not hurting now.”
“Not at all?” Sam asked dubiously.
Johnny looked at him, and then at his father and brother. He could see they didn’t believe him. He ducked his head a little and admitted reluctantly, “Okay, so maybe just a little. But I’m not dizzy and I know what day it is!”
Sam laughed in spite of himself. “Rest up today then. You should be all right to get up and about tomorrow,” he advised him. “But I don’t want you on horseback for a couple of days yet. Do you understand me?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, okay,” he agreed reluctantly. He’d known all along that he wasn’t going to be able to get away with it.
Having accepted that, his thoughts turned another way. “How’s Val?” he asked.
Sam sighed. “His leg is definitely showing signs of infection,” he admitted. “We need to get the fever under control and clear up the wound quickly so it doesn’t affect his lung. But, so far, it’s not serious.”
“Well, that’s something,” Johnny said with some relief. “Hell, Doc, this whole thing’s a mess. You’re livin’ in town. What do you make of what’s happenin’ there?”
Sam sat down on the edge of the bed beside him and thought about Johnny’s question. “I don’t know, Johnny. Rob Anderson wouldn’t tell me what happened, but I don’t believe that was an accident. I got there before they moved him and I saw that rope. I’d swear it was cut part of the way through.”
From behind him, Scott frowned and asked, “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” he said, turning to address Scott. “I know Val wasn’t happy with what Rob told him had happened. I don’t think he believed it was an accident either.”
“Yeah, he said as much to me,” Johnny agreed. “Have there been other ‘accidents’ that you were suspicious of?”
“Not that I can think of, but there’s a feeling in town, John. It’s everywhere you go. It’s fear. That whole town is afraid. Just yesterday, Florrie McConachy’s window was smashed…”
Johnny nodded. “I know about that. Earl thinks it was kids.”
Scott scoffed at the idea. “Mrs. McConachy definitely doesn’t agree with that. She had an interesting story to tell, too.”
“You mean the ‘insurance plan’?” Johnny asked him.
“What ‘insurance plan’?” Murdoch demanded, not liking being left out of the loop.
“It’s nothing less than extortion, Murdoch. Mrs. McConachy thinks the smashed window was to get her to join their little scheme,” Scott began.
“Just what did Florrie have to say?” Murdoch asked again.
“She’s had a couple of visits from those three characters who jumped me. They want money to ‘protect’ her from accidents,” Johnny told him acidly.
“That’s what she told me, too,” Scott confirmed. “And that they’ve been to nearly every business in town as well.”
“You mean the sort of accidents that get you a broken window or leg?” Sam asked. “Surely, they can’t be getting away with something like that?”
“Apparently, they are,” Scott replied in a disgusted tone. “According to Mrs. McConachy, quite a few businesses in town are paying.”
“Florrie would never give in to something like that,” Murdoch told them firmly.
Johnny nodded. “I just hope she doesn’t get hurt.”
“They wouldn’t hurt an old lady,” Murdoch assured him, but, even as he said it, he felt a twinge of fear for her. He turned to Sam. “Have you heard anything about all this in town, Sam?”
“No, nothing at all,” he admitted. “But the town has certainly changed since those men came.”
“I don’t think Earl has any idea what’s going on,” Scott continued. “Or maybe he does and doesn’t know what to do about it.”
“Earl thinks whatever Howard Randall tells him to,” Sam said caustically. “And Howard’s been spending a lot of time over at the sheriff’s office lately.”
“I know. He was there when I went to see Earl yesterday,” Scott told him.
Johnny grinned. “Yeah, I heard you an’ him had ‘words’.”
Scott frowned in annoyance. “Who told you about that?”
“Teresa mentioned that you put Randall on his butt,” Johnny answered, still grinning. “Hey, don’t worry ‘bout it. I was glad to hear it, but I’d like to know why you decked him.”
“He had some interesting theories about what constitutes self-defense. Let’s leave it at that,” he said bluntly.
“Well, Earl is all the law we have in Green River for the time being,” Sam pointed out reluctantly.
Johnny frowned. “Yeah, funny ‘bout that.”
Murdoch glowered at him. “What’s your point, Johnny?”
“My point is,” Johnny began, exasperated. “Earl is the law in town because Val is lying in our spare room with a bullet hole in his back.”
“You mean he’s out of the way?” Scott asked him bluntly.
“It makes sense, Murdoch,” Sam said. “Even if he didn’t die, Val’s going to be laid up for a couple of months. There doesn’t seem to have been any plans made in town to replace Val, even temporarily.”
“They’re just the right sort of cowards to shoot him in the back,” Scott pointed out.
“But they’re not very bright,” Johnny said contentiously. “I can’t see them comin’ up with this on their own, let alone organizin’ it.”
“Well, they’re certainly doing the ‘leg work’,” Scott persisted. “But, I agree. I don’t see them thinking of it.”
Sam shook his head. “That might be true, but all of this has only started since they came to town.”
“Or since Bryce Larkin came to town,” Johnny said acidly. “Mrs. McConachy sure was surprised that Hal sold the saloon to him.”
“Yes, I admit that took me by surprise. I didn’t know that Charlie was looking to sell the hotel either,” Sam added.
“Johnny, there’s nothing to link Bryce with any of this and certainly not to Val’s shooting,” Murdoch reminded him grimly.
Johnny frowned. His head was hurting more than ever with all the wild thoughts he had going through it. “Why did they need Val out of the way?” he asked at last.
Scott stared at him. “I would have thought that was obvious. He’s the sheriff.”
“I know, but how is it they don’t seem to be worried about Earl?” Johnny persisted.
“I think that’s obvious, too. Earl isn’t any threat to them,” Scott replied.
“But how did they know that so soon, Scott? What made them think that Val was any smarter than Earl? He’s a small town sheriff.”
“I think Johnny has a point,” Murdoch agreed. “Johnny, you talked to Val. Was he able to come up with anything that might have led to the shooting?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, he couldn’t think of any reason for it,” he said thoughtfully. He looked down at his hands and frowned while he considered the problem. “Sam, I need to talk to Val. Do you have a problem with that?”
Sam thought over the question. “I’d rather you stayed in bed, Johnny. Can’t it wait?”
“Maybe it could, but I think Val knows something or did something that made them think he was a threat to them. Maybe he doesn’t even know what it is.”
“It can wait until tomorrow, Johnny,” Scott told him determinedly.
Murdoch agreed. “Get some rest first, son.”
Johnny didn’t argue with them; a fact that both knew meant that he had made up his mind and would go ahead whether they agreed or not.
Sam sighed heavily. He wasn’t fool enough to think that saying no now would keep the boy in bed once his back was turned. Perhaps it would be prudent to allow him to do this now, while he could keep an eye on both of them.
“All right, but that’s as far as you go,” he relented. “And I’m going with you. Neither of you should be worrying about this right now and I don’t want either of my patients overdoing it.”
In the end, Scott and Murdoch wanted to go with them to Val’s room as well. Sam vetoed the plan and walked across the hall with Johnny, leaving the others in Johnny’s room to wait for him.
Johnny followed him into Val’s room and immediately knew why Sam had insisted they go alone. The change in his friend’s condition since he had seen him this morning came as a shock to Johnny. He was flushed with the onset of the fever that Teresa had seen coming, and he laid back wearily against the pillows. His breathing was rapid and shallow and his eyes were lightly closed.
Teresa sat on the side of the bed wiping his face with a wet cloth. She looked up and smiled at Sam and Johnny, but didn’t leave her position at his side.
Anxiously, Johnny looked to Sam for reassurance. He was no longer so sure that this was the right time to sort this question out.
“Changing those bandages takes a lot out of him, Johnny,” Sam explained in little more than a whisper. “And the fever is starting to take hold. But go easy and he’ll be fine.”
Val heard them come in and looked over towards them.
“I’ve got a visitor to see you, Val. Are you feeling up to it?” Sam asked him gently.
A frail smile was their answer. “Sure, Doc,” he said quietly. “Come on over.”
“Don’t let this take long, Johnny,” Sam whispered to him as he walked past.
Johnny nodded and sat down carefully on the edge of the bed, opposite Teresa. “Hi buddy,” he said gently. “I need to talk to you. Do you think you can handle a couple of questions?”
Val’s smile grew slightly broader. “It ain’t as bad as it looks, Johnny. I’m just kinda tired is all.”
“Okay,” Johnny agreed. “So, listen to me. Do you remember talking to me about the day you were shot?”
“Yes,” Val answered concisely.
“You said you didn’t know of any reason why someone would shoot you,” Johnny reiterated. “Is that still right?”
Val nodded slightly.
“Val, I want you to try to remember everything you did that day,” Johnny told him and got an annoyed look from Teresa.
“Johnny, he’s not well enough for this…” she began, but Val cut her off.
“No, it’s all right, Teresa,” he answered calmly, giving her a smile. He looked back to Johnny. “But, I don’t know what I c’n tell ya, John.”
“I know, Val. Just take it easy an’ let’s see if we can help you to remember,” Johnny suggested sympathetically. “Now, you were going out to see Pete Franks, right?”
“What did you do before you left town?”
Val frowned and thought about it, while Johnny gave him time. “I…ah…I remember talking to Ben, the barkeep at the saloon. I wanted to find out what he knew ‘bout Pete gettin’ beat up.”
Johnny smiled and put his hand on Val’s arm reassuringly. “Good, now we’re gettin’ somewhere,” Johnny said cheerfully. “Do you remember what Ben had to say?”
“He didn’t have nothin’ to say ‘bout it,” Val told him disgustedly. “Said he didn’t see anythin’, but he kept lookin’ past me at Cameron an’ his friends. He looked real nervous.”
“Did you talk to Cameron or any of the others?”
“Nope, wanted to talk to Pete first.”
“All right, now think for a minute - did you talk to anyone else that morning?” Johnny asked patiently.
“No, I don’t think so,” Val answered with a deep sigh. He leaned his head back heavily into the pillow.
Teresa wiped beads of sweat from his face and gently laid her hand on his. She turned to Johnny and her expression voiced her concern for Val. Johnny nodded to her. He could see that Val was tiring badly.
Val didn’t say anything for a minute or two, and then he added, “I did run into Howard when I came outa the telegraph office, but we didn’t really talk.”
The mention of Howard Randall’s name caught Johnny’s attention. The man just seemed to be everywhere in this – nearly as much as Cameron and Larkin. Was it possible that there was a connection?
Johnny scowled. “Telegraph office? Val, why were you at the telegraph office?”
“I sent a wire to the police in New York City,” Val said candidly.
Johnny’s heart missed a beat. “About Bryce Larkin?”
Val stared at Johnny, realizing what he’s said. “Well…yeah,” he admitted. “I sent it off before I went to the saloon to see Ben.”
“Val,” Johnny said, trying to remain cool. “Did you mention that wire to Randall?”
“Nope,” Val answered firmly. “I’m sure I didn’t. I only sent it to find out a little ‘bout him.”
“Nothin’ much,” he replied wearily. “Just that he’d bought both the saloon and the hotel. I guess I was kinda curious.”
Johnny sat up straight and felt Sam’s heavy hand on his shoulder. He took the hint, although he didn’t need it. He could see for himself that Val was exhausted.
And he figured he had an answer now anyway.
“I think that’s enough for now, Val,” he said quietly. “You get some rest now, okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, Johnny.”
“Glad to hear it. Now, you be nice to Teresa an’ do what she says. You got that?”
Val smiled wanly and closed his eyes.
Johnny stopped just outside Val’s door and leaned back against the wall, his arms crossed protectively across his chest. He hated to admit it, even to himself, but his ribs were aching badly.
“You didn’t tell me how bad he is,” he declared accusingly to the doctor. “You said it wasn’t serious.”
“I know he looks bad, but it’s not, Johnny, not yet,” Sam assured him. “He’s exhausted from the strain of changing his bandages, not from the fever.”
Johnny closed his eyes and sighed. “But the fever is getting worse, isn’t it?”
Sam looked down at his feet uneasily and then looked up – straight into Johnny’s eyes. “Johnny, he was seriously wounded by that bullet in the back. He’s still very weak, and he’s not out of the woods yet, but he’s been making good progress.”
“Yes…but that wound on his leg is infected, though not badly at this stage. We have to keep treating it and trying to get a hold on that fever, Johnny.” He looked unhappy about what he was going to say, but Sam believed in honesty. “Otherwise we could lose him.”
Hearing his fears confirmed was a blow, but Johnny had already guessed at it. He nodded miserably. “Thanks for bein’ honest,” he said quietly and straightened up.
“Let’s get you back to bed as well, Johnny,” Sam suggested. “If we’re talking honestly, I should tell you that you’re as white as a ghost. You need to lie down before we have to pick you up off the floor.”
He put his hand under Johnny’s forearm and ushered him back to his bedroom, where Scott and Murdoch were still waiting for him.
Johnny did feel woozy. He couldn’t deny that he wasn’t ready to be on his feet for any extended length of time, and he realized that he must look as bad – or worse – than he felt. Scott ran to his side as soon as he walked through the door.
“I knew that was a bad idea,” Scott said impatiently and hastened to help the doctor to support his brother.
With Scott’s arm around his waist and the doctor at his other side, Johnny was escorted back to his bed. He sat down wearily on the edge, but it wasn’t enough for Sam. He lifted Johnny’s legs onto the bed and forced him to lie down.
Johnny saw the room spin dizzily for a moment, but settled down quickly enough once he was off his feet.
“Thanks,” he said to both of them, more than a little embarrassed by his weakness. “I’m okay, now,” he told them.
“I don’t believe that for a moment, John. Now, you don’t leave that bed for the rest of the day. Do you understand me?” Sam ordered.
At the reluctant nod from Johnny, he continued. “I probably shouldn’t have let you talk me into that little interview in the first place.”
Johnny smiled. “No, it was worth it, Sam, wouldn’t you say?”
Scott and Murdoch looked quickly at Sam. “Was Val able to tell you anything?”
“Yeah, I think I know why he was shot,” Johnny told them, worn out now himself.
They looked at him eagerly. “Why? What did Val tell you?”
Johnny felt better now that he was off his feet. He pushed himself up into a sitting position and explained what he had learned from Val. “The morning he was shot, he sent off a wire to New York askin’ for information ‘bout Bryce Larkin. He ran into Howard Randall on the way outa the telegraph office.”
Scott considered the information. “Bryce might have found out about it.”
“Did Howard know about the wire?” Murdoch asked.
“Val says he didn’t tell him, but he could have asked in the telegraph office,” Johnny replied.
“There might have been an answer by now,” Scott pointed out. “Maybe I should ride into town and ask if there’s been any wire for Val.”
“No,” Murdoch said definitely. “If that’s the reason for trying to kill Val, they’ll do the same to you.”
“He’s right, Scott,” Johnny agreed. “Bryce has probably got someone watching the telegraph office just in case Val sends one of us for the answer.”
“You’re sure it’s Bryce then, Johnny?” Scott asked.
“Yeah, it seems kinda coincidental otherwise,” Johnny told him. “The way I see it, Bryce found out ‘bout the wire from Randall. I ain’t figured out where he fits in yet. He might’ve been just dumb enough to mention it to Larkin without meanin’ to tell him.”
“If Bryce is involved, there’s probably something in New York that he doesn’t want us to know about,” Scott continued for him. “So he must have sent Cameron, or one of the others, out to bushwhack Val to stop him before the answer arrived.”
“That’s how I figure it, Scott,” Johnny confirmed. “When Val wasn’t killed outright, it didn’t make much difference to him anyway. Val’s outa the way an’ the law in Green River is easy to control.”
“If that’s the reason Val was shot, then you’re right - Bryce Larkin must have something to hide,” Murdoch theorized. “It doesn’t go far towards linking him to the shooting, but it makes sense.”
“We have to find out what’s in New York that he’s afraid we’ll find out,” Scott declared. “If we can’t ask about the reply, maybe we can send one of our own.”
“Not from Green River,” Murdoch said with iron determination. “You’re not walking into the same trap that Val did.”
Scott stared at him, but he had to acknowledge that his father was right. Sending another wire to ask for information on Bryce was likely to be just as fatal as it had nearly been for the sheriff.
“All right, I’ll ride to Cross Creek to send it,” Scott suggested. “I’ll arrange that the reply be sent straight back here when it arrives.”
Johnny looked at his father, trying to gauge his reaction to Scott’s idea. His father was hard to read sometimes, but he finally nodded his agreement.
Scott saw it too. “Good, I’ll head out first thing in the morning,” he told them, before either had time to change their minds. It was too late in the afternoon to get all the way to Cross Creek and home again today before dark, otherwise he would have ridden out right away.
“All right, Scott,” Murdoch acquiesced hesitantly.
He still didn’t like this involvement of his sons in something that, to his mind, was patently for the law to handle. But, as soon as Scott had told him what happened to Johnny, and that they had been released, he’d known that there was virtually no law to turn to in Green River.
And hearing that the three men responsible had been allowed to go free without so much as a warning had infuriated him.
He had reprimanded Scott for his attack on Howard Randall, but he knew that he would have done the same thing under that sort of provocation. He had never liked the man, but he loathed him now.
And it wasn’t in him to let what was happening in town go unpunished. There were a lot of good people in that town – people who had been his friends for years. With Val down for some time to come and only Earl Tomkins to uphold the law, he knew they had no choice but to do this themselves.
But he also had to admit that this was personal now. He was in this with Scott and Johnny. He wouldn’t let them get away with it – not after what had happened to his son.
Johnny stood alone in front of the mirror above his dresser, surveying the damage to his face. He grinned tentatively. It sure wasn’t pretty.
Fortunately, the cut over his eye hadn’t needed stitches, but it had left him with a black eye of immaculate proportions. In fact, most of the left side of his face was brutally bruised. It was certainly not swollen, but now, two days after the fact, it was at its blackest and its most tender.
He touched it gingerly and winced a little, and then turned his head to see it from all angles. There was no getting around it. He didn’t look good!
His lip had been split during the fight but it didn’t hurt any more and it was almost completely healed over. That was something, at least.
Last night, he had slept, but fitfully. Every time he’d rolled over, the pain in his ribs had jolted him awake. In the end, he had just given up and lain there waiting for morning. It had made for a long night and, when dawn finally came, he was more than ready to get up. He watched the darkness slowly give way to long gray shadows and, finally, to light. He got out of bed with just a slight pull on his ribs and got himself dressed.
Johnny had a natural capacity for healing fast. By now, his sore ribs were little more than a hindrance most of the time. They made it hard for him to bend over and pull his boots on. It was difficult to stretch his arms out to pull on his shirt. But he wasn’t in constant pain like he had been yesterday.
No, if anything, he was feeling frustrated. Not hurt badly enough to be bedridden, he found it annoying to be confined to the house and yard.
He went down to breakfast with the rest of his family, only to be inundated with questions about the state of his health. Did his ribs hurt? Did he still have the headache?
They meant well. Johnny understood that and was even glad of it on some level, but the questions were exasperating just the same. Despite all his assurances that he felt just fine, he caught the doubting glances passing between his father and brother and he shook his head with impatience.
“So, what do you want done today?” he asked his father, hoping to change the subject.
It didn’t work.
“I don’t think you need to go back to work right away, Johnny,” Murdoch told him patiently. “It’s too soon yet.”
“Murdoch,” Johnny persisted. “I told you. I feel just fine. I don’t need babyin’.”
Murdoch shook his head. “No, we’ll wait to hear it from Sam first.”
“Murdoch!” he argued.
Scott smiled. “Hey, brother, no one’s babying you. Just enjoy the time off,” he said, taking a last sip of his coffee. He pushed his chair back and stood up. “I’ll get going now. I ought to be back from Cross Creek by noon.”
“Have you thought about how you’re going to word this wire?” Murdoch asked. “I don’t see the New York Police handing over information to a private citizen.”
“I’ll mention Val’s earlier request and his injury. Maybe that will be enough,” Scott explained.
“I can do it, Murdoch,” Johnny suggested. “If you won’t let me work, I can easy ride to Cross Creek and back.”
Murdoch glowered back angrily at his younger son. “For heaven’s sake, Johnny, Sam said no riding yet. Just this once, do as you’re told.”
Johnny slammed his cup down on the table and pushed his chair back furiously. Coffee spilled on the table, next to the half-eaten breakfast in front of him, but he barely acknowledged it as he stood up and glared at them both.
“That’s it! I’ve had enough,” he shouted. “I’m sick of being patronized and ignored. I told you I feel fine and I do.”
With that he stormed out of the room. A moment later they heard the front door slam and the two men looked at each other anxiously.
“We should go after him,” Scott said quietly. “You know what he’s going to do, don’t you?”
His father nodded and sighed. “He’ll have Barranca saddled and be gone in a few minutes,” Murdoch surmised. “He probably hasn’t even thought about where he’s going to go.”
“He just wants to get out for a while,” Scott replied. He turned and walked to the door. “I’ll go talk to him.”
Johnny mustn’t have been able to walk as fast as he had planned. Under normal circumstances, he would have made it to the barn and been half way to being out of the yard by now. Instead, Scott found him just as he reached Barranca’s stall.
“Johnny,” he called to him, only to be ignored by his brother as he continued on his way and turned into the stall.
“Johnny, wait up,” he shouted again, and hurried through to the back of the barn where Barranca was housed. His brother hadn’t even turned to acknowledge him but he persevered anyway.
He reached the stall and stopped, facing Johnny. “Johnny, listen to me. This is not the way to prove your point.”
This time his brother finally looked at him. He was standing beside the palomino with his arm draped over him, rubbing his free hand over the animal’s neck lovingly.
Scott sighed heavily as Johnny looked away again. “Look, I understand that you feel all right, but the instant you get on that horse you not only won’t feel fine, but you risk breaking those cracked ribs and spending more time grounded.”
Still there was no answer, and Scott began to lose his temper. “Have you looked in a mirror lately?” he demanded sarcastically. “Have you seen your face?”
Johnny faced him and glared angrily. “Yeah,” he threw back at him. “As a matter of fact I have! So what? It doesn’t feel as bad as it looks.”
“Maybe it doesn’t,” Scott conceded. “But it’s black and blue just the same. It hasn’t healed yet- and neither have your ribs. Sam doesn’t say ‘no riding’ for no reason.”
His temper eased a little and he continued. “Johnny, for heaven’s sake don’t be paranoid. We’re not against you. Don’t fight us on this, please.”
“I feel fine,” Johnny insisted, predictably. There was a hint of child-like petulance in his voice, but, suddenly, his patience snapped. “I won’t be treated like a child!” he sneered.
“Then don’t behave like one,” Scott flung back at him angrily. “I know you heal quickly, but you’ll have to convince Sam that you’re all right before I’m going to believe you.”
“That’s what it comes down to, isn’t it?” Johnny fumed and rounded on him. “You don’t believe anything I’m telling you.”
Scott grabbed his brother’s shoulders resolutely and shook him enough to get him to look him in the eyes. “You’re being a fool, Johnny. Who are you trying to convince? Yourself maybe?”
Johnny threw his brother’s hands off him furiously and his eyes froze over frighteningly, but he said nothing.
“You don’t have to prove anything to anyone on this ranch,” Scott told him stubbornly. “Every man here knows how tough you are. They all respect you already. You don’t have to prove anything to them or to us.”
Johnny ignored him and walked away to lift his saddle off the side of the stall. While his brother looked on, he heaved it over Barranca’s back and settled it comfortably on the horse.
Scott noticed small beads of sweat starting to dot his brother’s forehead and he decided it was time to end this. “Johnny, I know your survival instincts force you onto your feet as fast as you can. I know you don’t want to appear vulnerable…”
But Johnny stopped him there. He slammed his open hand against the saddle, sending the animal skittering sideways nervously.
He made no attempt to settle Barranca, but the horse seemed to calm down almost immediately all the same. “Instincts!” he repeated ironically, and in what was little more than a whisper with his face in the leather of the saddle.
Suddenly, he turned to face Scott head on, his striking blue eyes full of uncertainty. “Dios! What instincts?”
Scott was perplexed by the turn of his mood. “What are you talking about?”
He walked past Scott and leaned back against a post facing him. He folded his arms desperately across his chest and stared down at his boots. “Where were my precious ‘instincts’ the other day?” he said in an agonized voice.
Scott had to turn around to look at him. Johnny hadn’t looked up when he spoke and Scott frowned at him.
“What do you mean?”
“Madre de dios, Scott. I should have guessed they’d be there. If I hadn’t had my head in the clouds, I woulda sensed them there. I shoulda…”
Understanding began to dawn on him. “Johnny?” he began, surprised. “You can’t be embarrassed about what happened – surely?”
Johnny shifted his feet and still didn’t look up, virtually confirming Scott’s idea.
“Let it rest, Scott,” Johnny finally said, very quietly and walked past him back to the horse. There was a kind of cold resignation in his manner.
“No, I won’t let it rest,” Scott persisted angrily, turning and following his brother.
Johnny stopped and turned to face him. He looked up at Scott and, for just a moment, there was a flash of ice in his eyes. It died away quickly as Johnny fought to control his emotions. “It shouldn’t have happened. They jumped me like I was some greenhorn,” he said scornfully.
“Johnny, you didn’t have a chance against the three of them,” Scott assured him, still stunned by his attitude.
“They should never have been able to get hold of me in the first place,” Johnny answered him. He shook his head angrily. “They shouldn’t have been able to get my gun. Before I came here…”
“Oh, what? The great Johnny Madrid would never have let it happen to him?” Scott said sarcastically. “I have news for you, brother. Even Madrid wasn’t invincible. No man is.”
Scott walked over to Johnny’s side and then stood in front of him, forcing Johnny to look right at him, but Johnny didn’t answer him.
“All right,” he said quietly and determinedly. “So your pride is dented. Mine probably would be, too, if it had been me. But you didn’t have a chance against them, Johnny. No one would have, and that includes Madrid at his best.” He stopped long enough to let his words sink in, and then he continued, pressing his point. “That’s how they planned it.”
Johnny looked down again and kicked at some imaginary something in the dirt.
“Don’t let those feelings get in the way of common sense now, little brother,” Scott persisted, calmly but doggedly. “Go back inside and lay up for a while. You really don’t have to prove anything to anyone – and that includes yourself.”
Looking up and catching his brother’s eyes again, Johnny frowned and, quite unexpectedly, a wicked glint of mischief glistened in his eyes. “I’ll go back inside, but I ain’t goin’ back to bed,” he told Scott. “Just don’t be all day goin’ to Cross Creek. If you leave me alone for too long, with Murdoch and Teresa fussin’ over me, I WILL take off.”
Scott laughed and clapped Johnny on the shoulder, harder than he intended. It evinced a very slight gasp from his brother that convinced Scott that he had been right. Johnny was nowhere near as well as he protested he was.
“Fine,” he said with a matching grin. “Now go back inside. I’ll look after the saddle for you.” He pushed past Johnny and pulled the saddle down off Barranca, putting it back where it had been on the side of the stall for the time being. He’d put it back in the tack room when he was sure Johnny really had gone inside. “And then I’ll head off to send that wire.”
Johnny didn’t go inside right away. He stayed long enough to watch his brother ride out for Cross Creek before going back into the hacienda.
Murdoch was there waiting for him when he walked through the door. He was at his place at his desk with the ledgers in front of him.
“Was that Scott riding out?” he asked, barely looking up from his books.
“Yeah, he just left,” Johnny told him. He didn’t stop on his way to the staircase. “I’m going up to see Val.”
Murdoch didn’t look up from his desk but negligently acknowledged his son’s words.
So Johnny eagerly mounted the stairs and went to his friend’s door. It was a relief that he hadn’t had to face another barrage of arguments from his father when he came back in.
He was about to knock when he heard the delicate tinkle of Teresa’s giggle coming from inside. He stopped, surprised. The last time he’d gone past the door, he’d heard raised voices and acrimonious arguments from both of them.
Then he heard Val’s voice answering quietly. Johnny didn’t make out the words but he gathered that the two of them were getting along better now. He smiled and turned away.
Feeling like an intruder, he stepped back from the partially open door. But the two had already heard his arrival.
“Johnny?” Teresa called from across the room. “Johnny, come on in.”
He turned back and walked into the room. Val had a towel lying across his chest and Teresa sat on the edge of the bed and held a bowl of broth and a spoon. Her eyes were bright with mischief and Val turned a merry look at him.
“You two look like you’re gettin’ along a whole lot better,” Johnny told them.
“Well, not at first,” Teresa said with a playful note in her voice. She smiled at Val and offered another spoonful to him.
Johnny was a little surprised that Val accepted it as easily as he did. There was no argument, no complaints, and no fuss. What a difference one day had made!
“But then we came to an understanding,” Teresa continued cheerfully.
“Is that right?” Johnny asked with a hint of suspicion. “What sort of an understanding?”
Val grinned and explained. “If I behave, she don’t yell at me no more,” he told Johnny. He gave Teresa a sidelong glance before adding, “She was givin’ me a headache.”
Teresa grinned broadly. “Well, that’s an awful thing to say.” She put aside the bowl and spoon, and then took the towel to wipe his face lightly.
“Teresa, honey, why don’t you go down for some breakfast yourself an’ I’ll sit with Val for a while?”
“Okay,” she said brightly and stood up. She lifted the tray carrying the bowl and spoon and walked around the end of the bed and past Johnny. Stopping to look at him, she asked, “Are you sure you’re up to this, Johnny?”
“Yeah,” he answered with a smile. “I feel better than I look.” He glanced over at Val and asked her, “How’s he doing?”
“The fever’s a little higher this morning,” she said in a whisper. “Sam’s coming later this morning to see him.”
“An’ his hearin’s just fine,” Val called from the bed.
Teresa turned her head towards him and laughed. Then she walked out, leaving Johnny alone with his friend.
“Come here an’ let me get a good look at ya,” Val demanded, and he watched Johnny stroll across the room to his side. He snorted and shook his head. “Damn, John, you look worse’n I feel.”
Johnny laughed. “Yeah, well, I’ll get my good looks back,” he told him with a roguish twinkle in his eyes. “That’s more than I can say for you, Val.”
He put his hand to his friend’s forehead and trained himself not to let his worry show on his face. Teresa was right – the fever was growing worse. Crawford was propped up with pillows and looked far from well. His face was a flushed from the fever and beaded with perspiration but, all the same, he seemed in good spirits.
Crawford managed a laugh. “Does it feel as bad as it looks?”
“No, I’m fine,” Johnny assured him and eased himself delicately onto the edge of the bed. He’d look like a fool if he ended up wincing at the pain in his ribs after saying that.
He took the wet cloth from the bowl of water that Teresa had left on the small table by the bed and squeezed the water out of it. Then he wiped Val’s face with it and placed it on his brow with a gently teasing tap. “So, tell me ‘bout this ‘understanding’ you have with my sister.”
“She ain’t your sister, Johnny,” Val told him with what sounded like raillery.
“Close enough not to matter, Val,” Johnny said with mock severity.
Val sighed and replied awkwardly, “Yeah, well, you were right. It’s easier to just go along with her than fight her. She’s got one fearsome temper when ya cross her, ain’t she?”
Johnny laughed. “Yep, she has.”
Val smiled wickedly. “Nice smile, though,” he said. “I like it better when she smiles – an’ ya did say I should be nice.”
Noises out in the yard distracted them both. Horses, and more than one, were stopping outside the house. Johnny went to the window and looked down to see who was arriving.
“Who is it?” Val asked.
“Earl’s here,” Johnny told him and he couldn’t help but sound disgusted. “An’ Randall’s with him.”
“Wondered where that boy’d got to,” Val said casually. “Thought he’d be here before this.”
“Oh, they came a couple o’ days ago,” Johnny informed him. “But you weren’t up to it then.”
Val nodded. “I’m up to it this time,” he assured Johnny. “I got some things to say to that boy.”
Teresa hurried from the front door into the Great Room where Murdoch Lancer was just rising from his desk. He’d heard the sound of approaching horses too and was going to see who it was, but Teresa had beaten him to it on her way to the kitchen.
“It’s Deputy Tomkins and Mr. Randall,” she said unhappily. “They’ll want to see Val, I suppose.”
“It’s about time Earl turned up,” Murdoch said savagely. “But what the devil does Howard Randall think he’s doing coming to my house!”
“I don’t want them staying long with Val, Murdoch,” she told him candidly. “He has a fever and he’s not very strong.”
“All right, honey. I’ll see to it.”
“And one of us should be there, too,” she continued insistently. “Someone needs to be there in case Val needs anything.”
Murdoch smiled patiently at her. She was ‘mothering’ again, and he wondered how long it would be before the sheriff started to complain about it.
His mellow mood lasted only as long as it took to catch sight of Howard Randall riding up to his front door.
In only a half dozen striding steps, Murdoch had reached the front door. He opened it angrily and stood on the porch, glaring at the two men as they dismounted and tied their horses to the hitching rail.
Earl beamed a smile at him and called a cheerful hello, but Randall was more restrained. He looked like a fish out of water in a town suit with a waistcoat and a black felt hat that appeared to be new. His boots had probably gleamed with spit polish before he’d ridden all the way to Lancer, but they were covered in dust now.
In short, Randall looked exactly like what he was – a politician. His appearance gave the impression more of a vote-seeking exercise than a neighborly call and it infuriated Murdoch all the more.
There was a certain amount of trepidation in Randall’s movement as he followed the deputy over to the door. He stopped when he first saw Murdoch standing there waiting for them, but after a moment’s consideration, he puffed out his chest, pulled himself up straight and walked warily past the man.
*Now, it should be noted that Howard Randall was not a big man, but neither was he small or puny. The fact of the matter was that Howard Randall was average, in every sense of the word. However, beside the six feet four inch titan that was Murdoch Lancer, Howard paled into insignificance and, unfortunately, he was all too aware of it.*
When Earl stopped in the Great Room, Randall clung to his side. The tall, lanky deputy was not only taller than he was, but far fitter. No doubt Randall felt protected in his presence.
“Howdy, Mr. Lancer,” Earl greeted him cheerfully and removed his hat politely. He seemed to be blissfully unaware of any awkwardness in the mayor’s demeanor, and appeared perfectly at ease. “Howdy, Miss Teresa,” he continued, nodding and smiling at her.
Howard appeared to only become aware of the girl then and quickly pulled his hat off and nodded to her, without actually saying anything.
“Good morning, Earl,” Murdoch said gruffly. “I take it you’re here to talk to Val Crawford.”
“Yessir,” the deputy agreed. “Johnny an’ Scott both said he was awake an’ doin’ a whole lot better.”
“Yes, well that was the other day,” Murdoch told him bluntly. “He has a fever now so any visit with him will have to be short.”
“Sorry to hear that, Mr. Lancer,” Earl said genuinely. “We won’t stay long. Only got a couple o’ things to ask him.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Murdoch answered, but he glared at the mayor. “But there won’t be any ‘we’. You can see him, Earl, but I don’t see any reason why Randall needs to be there.”
Randall puffed wordlessly for a moment and finally found his voice. “Really, Murdoch, I only want to pay my respects to the sheriff – as mayor of Green River and all.”
“You can do that when he’s in better shape,” Murdoch told him firmly. “Right now I don’t think Sam would okay it. Earl, Teresa will show you which room is Val’s.”
The mayor was obviously aghast at the idea of sharing the room alone with Murdoch Lancer, without his ‘body guard’ to stand in front of him. His eyes widened considerably and he looked towards Earl, hoping he’d argue with Murdoch.
The deputy himself looked lost at the idea of going without Randall, but he eventually nodded equably and followed Teresa out of the room and up the staircase, leaving Murdoch glaring at the mayor.
Murdoch walked over to his desk and sat down in the huge leather chair behind it. He swiveled it idly from side to side and watched Randall’s discomfort. There wasn’t a shadow of a doubt in his mind that Howard Randall was afraid of him, and he had no intention of changing the situation.
For his part, Randall stood in the middle of the room, rolling and unrolling the brim of his hat. Murdoch almost smiled at the thought that the hat wasn’t going to look new by the time he left Lancer.
“Sit down,” he finally commanded the man offhandedly.
“Is…er…is Scott around?” the mayor asked nervously as he took a seat in one of the armchairs.
Murdoch glowered at him. “You’ll be pleased to hear that he’s not,” he growled at the man. He interlaced his fingers across his chest and scowled aggressively.
“Did he…er…did he mention…?”
“That he’d ‘talked’ to you the other day? Yes, he did. He told me that you saw fit to release the three bastards who beat up my son before he even got to lay charges.”
“It wasn’t exactly like that, Murdoch. There was no evidence against them. Just Johnny’s word against theirs.”
“So you took theirs before you even heard Johnny’s story?” Murdoch argued coldly. He shook his head angrily. He had the feeling that if this conversation continued he’d end up doing just what his son already had. “I’m not discussing this any further. There’s nothing you can say that will make things any better. But I’ll tell you this right now - if you have one word to say about Johnny, you don’t need to worry about Scott. I’ll knock you all the way back to Green River myself.”
“Howdy, Val,” Earl said happily when he walked into the room. “How’re ya feelin’?”
He passed by Miss Teresa as she held the door open but she didn’t stay with them. Instead, she glanced across the room at Johnny and he nodded almost imperceptibly.
Earl didn’t miss it. He got the impression that Johnny had no intention of leaving the room. So he wasn’t surprised when she closed the door behind him and left him with both Val and Johnny.
Earl took stock of the sheriff. Val Crawford certainly looked poorly. He was thinner than he remembered, and his face was gaunt and pale. He was leaning heavily against two clean white pillows, and his shoulder and chest were heavily bandaged.
Even so, Val looked over at him with his innate authority and Earl felt less in charge than ever. Neither of the men in the room with him was particularly big in stature. In fact, he was taller than both of them. But Val had a ‘presence’ about him that was daunting to a man of Earl’s limited ability and Johnny – well…
“Come on in an’ sit down, Earl,” Val said firmly and with more impatience than welcome. But the deputy didn’t move. Instead, the younger man stood in the middle of the room and turned the brim of his hat nervously round and round in his hands.
Earl eyed Johnny warily. Johnny was standing over by the window, his back to the wall, his arms folded in front of him and one foot crossed lazily in front of the other. He wasn’t wearing his gun belt and to the casual observer, he looked perfectly at ease. Earl knew better.
His face was black with bruising all down the left side. He had a scabbed gash over his eye and the mark of a split in his lip as well.
The young deputy hadn’t seen Johnny since the beating in town and he was shocked at the damage the three men had done. From what he’d been told, it was no more than a bit of a fracas and nothing to worry about. That was why he had been happy letting Cameron, Riker and Douglas go free.
Now he wasn’t so sure that he had done the right thing.
He hadn’t moved since he’d come into the room and Val repeated his intention grumpily. “Will ya get on over here, boy, an’ sit down on the chair. Johnny ain’t gonna bite ya.”
Val turned his attention to his friend and used the same tone on him. “Are ya, Johnny?”
Johnny’s cocky smile certainly wasn’t designed to instill confidence in his answer, but he said lightly, “Nope.”
Earl walked around the end of the bed and, with one quick sideways glance at Johnny as he passed by him, took his place in the chair. Johnny was behind him but hadn’t moved at all.
“Ya look pretty good, Val,” Earl finally said. He continued to twist the hat in his hands.
“Like hell I do,” Val replied crossly. “I don’t need a mirror to know I look damned awful. Now, don’t go wastin’ my time. I ain’t got all day. Ain’t ya got questions for me?”
The deputy looked disconcerted. “Well, yeah,” he answered. “I guess I do, Val.”
Crawford rolled his eyes impatiently. “Then get on with it an’ ask ‘em!”
“Sure, Val, sure,” he replied quickly and more than a little bit frazzled. “I…ah…”
Val shook his head with real anger now. “Oh, for the Lord’s sake, Earl. Ain’t ya given any thought to this at all?” He reached over and pulled the hat out of the deputy’s hands and threw it irritably onto the floor. “Leave that alone an’ think for a bit!”
This time, Johnny stepped forward and past the deputy. “Quit it, Val,” Johnny told him sternly, pushing him firmly back against his pillows. “You do anythin’ like that again an’ I’ll get a rope an’ tie you down.” He turned back to Earl and added caustically, “And don’t you go wastin’ our time. Val ain’t strong enough to sit here waitin’ for ya. If you can’t think of any questions, just get Val to tell you what happened and what he knows.”
Val looked ready to argue with Johnny, but he was instantly quelled with one swift glance from his friend.
Earl nodded eagerly. At this point, he’d accept any help he could. He’d expected to have Howard Randall with him to lead him through the questions and he hadn’t really given much thought to it. He wouldn’t have had much need to. Now he felt confused and unsure of himself.
“All right,” Johnny continued, studying Val carefully for any sign of physical distress. He was a little flushed and he was breathing hard, but he didn’t seem to be in any trouble. His eyes were blazing angrily. “Val, cool off an’ tell him what you do know. He doesn’t know where to start.”
“Yeah, I do, Johnny,” the deputy finally said, almost confident that he could do it. He turned to the sheriff and finally saw him as a witness instead of as his boss. “Val - Johnny took us out to where he found ya. We didn’t find nothin’ there to help us figure out who shot ya. Did ya see anythin’, or anyone before ya got shot?”
“No, I didn’t see anyone,” Val answered gruffly. “I kinda remember hearin’ the shot, but nothin’ else.”
Earl looked disappointed with the answer. “Where was ya going?”
“I was goin’ to see Pete Franks. I heard he was jumped on by three toughs while I was outa town an’ I wanted to hear his side o’ what’d happened.” Val gave him a glare that unnerved him more than a little. “See, I figure ya have to hear both sides to a story afore ya c’n make up your mind.”
Earl wasn’t a smart man, but the meaning of Val’s words didn’t escape even him. “Yeah, I guess that’s right,” he said quietly.
“Then why in hell did ya let them fellas go the other day?” Val growled at him.
“Val…” Johnny began, but Val cut him short.
“Shut up, Johnny,” he snapped at him. “This isn’t just about me now, it’s about everythin’ that’s goin’ on in town, an’ that means you too.”
“Well, Val, I let ‘em go ‘cause I thought it was just a little bitty street fight,” Earl tried to explain. He glanced carefully at Johnny before he continued, but went on undaunted, though with a quieter tone. “You know Johnny gets into fights like that all the time, an’ you usually let ‘em all go – once they sober up.”
“I find out what happened first!” Val shouted at him, sitting forward. “Did ya know it was three to one?”
“Yeah,” Earl admitted. “But Johnny doesn’t usually worry ‘bout how many he takes on. I’ve seen him take on two or three at a time before.”
“He didn’t ‘take on’ anyone. He got jumped in an alley. That ain’t no street fight – not by any man’s standard!”
“Val, settle down before you bust somethin’,” Johnny told him seriously, pushing his shoulders back against the pillow. He turned to Earl. “Who told you it was a street fight?”
“Well, that’d be Mr. Randall, I guess,” Earl told him naively.
“Since when did ya start listenin’ to him?” Val demanded breathlessly. His face was red with fury.
“I think I’d be more interested to know just WHY Randall told him that, Val,” Johnny declared.
“What made ya think Randall knew what’d happened?” Val asked Earl. “Did he tell you he’d seen it?”
“No, I guess not,” Earl confessed thoughtfully. “Maybe Mr. Larkin saw the fight an’ told him.”
“An’ what the hell has Larkin got to do with this?” Val yelled at him.
Johnny turned on his friend furiously. He pointed a finger right in his face and warned him, “You lose your temper one more time, an’ we’re outa here. I’ll send Teresa in here an’ then you’ll be real sorry.”
Val leaned back again and pouted contrarily. “Johnny, this has gotta be sorted out,” he said angrily, but then he glared at Johnny and slowly relented. “All right, I’ll sit still if that’s what ya want.”
“If you start that bleeding again, this’ll end up a murder investigation, Crawford,” Johnny told him tartly. “You got that?”
“Yeah,” Val answered contritely.
“Good!” Johnny finished and sat back to let the two men continue.
“What the hell’ve ya done about what’s happenin’ in town, Earl?”
The deputy looked genuinely confused. “Ain’t nothin’ goin’ on, Val. The town’s real quiet. Mr. Randall says that’s why they’re leavin’ me in charge till you get back.” He stared down at his hands and said emotionally, “I wasn’t real sure I could do it, Val. I mean…I ain’t smart like you are. But Mr. Randall thinks I can an’ he says the town is nice an’ quiet ‘cause I’m doin’ a good job.”
Johnny shook his head sadly. There was no harm in Earl, but he was in a position to be used by unscrupulous men.
If Crawford felt the same way, he wasn’t going to let anyone know it. “So, there’s nothin’ goin’ on in town?” he asked furiously. “In the last couple o’ weeks, you’ve had Pete Franks an’ Johnny both beat up, Rob Anderson has had a stupid accident that you knew I didn’t believe for a minute was an accident, an’ Florrie McConachy’s window got all smashed.”
He stopped for a minute to catch his breath. Johnny saw beads of perspiration forming and knew that it was nearly time to end the interview.
“An’ you’re gonna sit there an’ tell me that nothin’s happenin’?” Val finished. His breathing was ragged and heavy and his face flushed red.
Earl was thoroughly bewildered. It was painfully obvious that he hadn’t noticed any possibility of a connection. “I guess I didn’t see it that way, Val,” he admitted and then shook his head sadly. “I dunno, I guess maybe I ain’t cut out for bein’ sheriff.”
Val finally relented and calmed down, though Johnny suspected that tiredness had a lot to do with it too. He sighed. “All right Earl, I know you’re doin’ your best. Just learn to keep your eyes open an’ don’t listen to fellas who ain’t got nothin’ to do with the job. Do some thinkin’ for yourself instead.”
“Yessir, Sheriff,” he answered, nodding vehemently. Johnny tended to doubt that Val’s advice would make much difference, but Val had always had a soft spot for Earl and it looked like he still thought he could make something of the boy.
“Do you know who Cameron and his friends work for, Earl?” Johnny asked.
“Sure, they work for Mr. Larkin, Johnny,” the deputy replied confidently.
Johnny nodded. It was what he’d thought himself. “An’ what about Howard Randall? Does he have much to do with Bryce Larkin?”
“Yep, they’re friends. He’s a real nice fella that Mr. Larkin, Johnny.”
“Yes, he is,” Johnny agreed pensively.
He looked again at Val and decided he’d had enough. “Earl, I think we oughta let Val get some sleep now,” he said quietly, though Val heard him and gave him a glare that said he wasn’t happy with him for saying it.
Ignoring him, Johnny continued, taking a kinder note with the deputy. “You go on downstairs an’ I’ll stay here with Val for a while,” he added.
“Okay, Johnny. He does look kinda peeked,” the deputy answered and received another warning glare from Val.
“All right,” Val conceded. “But you pay attention to what I told ya. Don’t go listenin’ to what everyone else thinks. You make up your own mind.”
“Yessir, Val,” he said cheerfully. He bent down to pick up his hat from the floor where it had landed and then stood up. “I won’t pay no mind to anyone, not even Mr. Randall,” he promised.
“Good man,” Val said wearily. He closed his eyes and sighed heavily, but the deputy wasn’t sure if he was finished with him. Val opened his eyes and found the man still standing there. “Now git,” he said firmly.
Earl did just that and went out of the door, leaving Johnny to take care of the damage to Val’s health. He’d overdone it, which they had expected, but he seemed to be all right except for being exhausted.
Johnny wrung the water from the cloth in the bowl and gently wiped away the sweat from his friend’s face.
“Johnny, what d’ya think all that means?” Val asked, breathing heavily.
“Right now, it don’t matter what it means. I think it shouldn’t be any worry o’ yours is what I think,” Johnny told him determinedly.
“Randall’s in cahoots with Larkin,” Val persisted. He opened his eyes and looked at Johnny. “What the hell’s goin’ on in my town?” he asked with distress. “Seems to me, Larkin is takin’ it over. I need to get outa here an’ get this thing sorted out.”
“Well, that’s not happenin’ any time soon, Val. You know that.”
Johnny poured a glass of water and offered it to Val, who took it in his shaky hand and took a sip. Johnny helped him to hold it while he finished and then wiped his face again.
“He won’t get away with it, Val,” Johnny assured him. “Scott an’ me will make damned sure o’ that.”
“Johnny?” Teresa said quietly as she poked her head around the door.
“It’s okay, come on in,” Johnny told her.
She stepped into the room and immediately took stock of Val Crawford’s condition. She didn’t like what she saw. He was flushed and exhausted, and there were lines of pain on his forehead that worried her, but he didn’t look like the interview had done any real damage to his recovery.
“Mr. Randall and Earl have just left,” she informed them, sitting on the side of the bed. “How did things go here?”
Johnny grinned. “Well, Val lost his temper a couple of times, but he’s all right,” he explained. “I had to threaten him to keep him still.”
“Really? What with?”
Mischief sparkled in Johnny’s eyes. “With you,” he admitted with mock regret that didn’t fool her for a minute.
“Oh, that’s nice,” she said and reached over to cuff him across the shoulder.
She stood up and walked around to the other side of the bed. There she opened the cupboard under the bedside table and took out a small brown bottle. Without a word, she poured a measure out and offered it to Val on a spoon.
He shook his head weakly. “No, I don’t need it.”
“I’ve heard that before, Val Crawford. You take it and get some rest.”
For a moment, Johnny thought that Val would argue with her, but he surrendered and accepted it. She poured some water into the glass for him and passed that to him. He swallowed it down without any help from her.
“I’ll stay with him, Johnny,” she said gently. “I think Murdoch wants to talk to you downstairs. He asked me to send you down.”
Since it didn’t surprise Johnny at all that his father would want to hear what had been said here, Johnny stood up and walked around to the other side of the bed. He looked back at Val for a minute and reassured himself that he was all right.
He was certainly exhausted from the interview, but Johnny was pretty sure that it was no more than that.
“Call me if you need anything, Teresa,” he said quietly. Val had closed his eyes and his head had sunk heavily into the pillows, so he left without disturbing him any further.
Teresa stood up and walked around to take her place in the now vacant chair by the bed. She sat down and watched Val move uneasily a few times, trying to get comfortable. Finally, he seemed to settle down. His sighed lightly and his breathing evened out.
She reached over and took his wrist to check his pulse. Satisfied that he had relaxed a little, it was a small move to take his hand in hers to reassure him.
He opened his eyes and glanced at her, but said nothing. With a supportive smile, Teresa watched him close his eyes again and drift off to sleep.
She was still there when he woke again some hours later. Val groggily tried to shake the cobwebs from his head but the movement seemed to set the threads alight and burn through his brain. He winced and closed his eyes tightly to fight the pain.
A cool soft cloth - damp and soothing - brushed against his cheek and brought him some welcome relief. He felt hot and didn’t understand why for a moment, only to come to the conclusion, with dismay, that he had a fever.
It didn’t surprise him. He felt lousy. But he was heartily sick of lying trussed up in this bed, even if it was the most comfortable bunk he’d ever slept in.
He lifted his eyelids and sought Teresa. He knew she was there. Her touch was lighter, more delicate than that of the others and he had learned to recognize it easily.
Sure enough, she was there, still sitting in the chair beside him, wringing out the cloth in the basin of water. When she finished and turned back, she smiled.
“So, you’re awake,” she said cheerfully and placed the folded cloth on his forehead.
“You’re still here,” he answered, stunned by the weak rasp in his own voice.
“Yes, well, we wrestled Johnny into lying down to rest for a while. You know what he’s like. He thinks he’s indestructible and then it all catches up with him. And Murdoch has been trying to sort out the books for hours. His temper is suffering from it and he wouldn’t be good company for you. Scott’s not back from Cross Creek yet. So,” she smiled warmly at him and shrugged casually, “you’re stuck with me again.”
She poured a glass of water and handed it to him but, to Val’s chagrin, he found it shook in his hand so much that she took it back and held it for him to sip from. He endured the embarrassment and let the cool water slip down his throat pleasantly.
“Thanks,” he whispered as she wiped a stray drop of water from his chin. “Thanks a lot.”
“Your hair needs cutting,” she told him. “Perhaps I can get Jelly to clip it for you.”
“No need,” he answered quietly. “It don’t matter to me.”
“Perhaps not, but you need a shave too,” she pointed out with a laugh. “Are you hungry, Val?”
He actually had to think about it, but he decided that he was. Unfortunately, he wasn’t so sure that he would be able to keep it down. His stomach rolled and lurched nauseatingly at the moment.
In the end, Teresa made the decision for him. “I’ll go and get some broth for you. Will you be all right if I leave you for a few minutes? Is there anything you need before I go?”
He sighed heavily. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry so much, Teresa.”
Teresa sighed and moved to the edge of the bed, close to him. She took both of his hands lightly in hers and smiled. “Val, stop thinking that way. You are not a bother to any of us. All we want is to see you get well again.”
“I…I appreciate it, Miss Teresa,” he told her wearily. He could smell the lavender scent she wore and the touch of her fingers was so soft and gentle that it moved him in ways he wasn’t used to. “I guess, I just ain’t used to havin’ someone fuss over me.”
She laughed agreeably. “Johnny’s the same. I’m quite used to it. That’s why I won’t take any foolishness from you.” She released his hands and stood up. “Now lay quietly and I’ll be right back with something for you to eat. Maria has been keeping some chicken broth ready for when you woke up.”
With that she left the room, leaving Val alone with his thoughts.
Teresa was on her way back through the Great Room with the broth Maria had made up for Val when she heard a buggy pulling up outside. She put the tray on the dinner table and walked over to the front window to see who it was. She pulled the curtain aside and almost cried out in dismay.
“Murdoch, Bryce and Rebecca Larkin are here,” she called back to him.
He looked at her from his desk, stood up and strode across the room to join her. “Great,” he said in frustration. “That’s just what we need right now. All right, you go on up and stay with Val, I’ll look after this.”
“What about Johnny? Should I get him?”
“If he’s asleep, leave him be.”
“He’s awake,” they heard from the stairs. Turning around, both of them saw Johnny walking carefully down the stairs, holding his injured ribs tenderly. “I heard a buggy outside. Who is it?”
“It’s the Larkins,” Murdoch told him candidly, watching for his son’s reaction. He saw what he expected. Johnny looked about ready to explode.
“Take it easy, son,” he said, as calmly as he could. “I don’t like them being here any more than you do, but we don’t have any proof that Bryce Larkin is involved in anything.”
Johnny barely concealed his feelings. “You an’ I both know different, Murdoch.”
“You and I both SUSPECT something different, Johnny. That’s all there is at the moment.”
Johnny snorted in disgust. “I don’t need to see the rattle to know a snake when I see it,” he said angrily.
His father scowled at him. “If you can’t get a handle on your temper, go upstairs and stay with Val for a while.”
“I’m not gonna hide out.” His eyes ignited with anger. His fists clenched by his sides.
Murdoch had to bite back a retort. The last thing he needed to do now was get into a full blown battle with his son with Bryce Larkin, the reason for the argument, about to walk into the house and hear them.
He counted to three under his breath and walked over to stand beside Johnny. He said, very quietly, “Unless you want to tip him off to what we think, you’re going to have to play innocent around him, Johnny.”
Johnny glared at him, but the flash that Murdoch had seen in them a moment ago was gone. His fists were still balled but his breathing was more relaxed.
“Make up your mind, son,” Murdoch continued. “Either stay here and play it out, or go upstairs now with Teresa.”
At last, Johnny’s fists unclenched and he visibly mellowed. Unbelievably, he smiled – a smile full of charm that stunned his father. “Sure, Murdoch. I can do it.”
“Good,” he said and turned resignedly towards the door.
“Teresa, how is Val? Is he any worse after that visit from Earl this morning?” Johnny asked her as she picked up the tray from the table. He watched his father stop and wait for the answer before opening the door.
“He was terribly tired and he still is, but the fever is no worse,” she told them. “Unfortunately, it’s not any better either. I’m worried that it’s lingering for so long. It could get out of control at any time.”
“I guess he’s awake, since you’ve got that,” he assumed, indicating the tray with the bowl of broth on it.
“Yes, he’s awake.”
Johnny nodded. “Don’t let him know that Bryce Larkin is here if you can help it. He’ll want to play sheriff an’ talk to him.”
She laughed and went up the staircase. She had no intention of letting either of the Larkins in to see him if she could help it.
Murdoch and Johnny reluctantly donned smiles and walked outside to meet their guests.
In the courtyard, Bryce Larkin had already brought the buggy to a halt and helped his sister down when they got there. The man smiled charmingly at each of them and escorted Rebecca over to meet them.
“Good afternoon, Murdoch,” Bryce said jovially. “I hope you don’t mind our inviting ourselves over. We heard that the sheriff is faring a little better and Becca hoped to see him.”
He caught sight of Johnny and the smile dropped from his face. His jaw dropped as he stared at the bruising on Johnny’s face. “Good heavens, Johnny. Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m just fine, thanks,” Johnny told him casually.
“Whatever happened, Johnny?” Rebecca asked with obvious concern. “Did you have an accident?”
Johnny produced a lop-sided smile that had enchanted more than half the female population of Green River before her. “You might say that, Miss Becca,” he said lightheartedly. “I guess I just sorta fell on the other fella’s fist.”
She gasped. “Oh!” she exclaimed and blushed lightly.
Bryce saved the situation. “Don’t be a prude, Becca,” he said quietly. “There’s nothing wrong with a young man letting off a little steam.” He turned his attention back to Johnny and his father. “I have to admit, Johnny, I did hear that there was some sort of altercation the other day.” The man smiled superciliously. “I hope there’s no serious damage under all those bruises.”
Behind his back, Johnny’s hand clenched tightly into a fist, but he smiled calmly and answered. “Nope, nothin’ that won’t heal,” he told him. His easy smile belied the steely gaze he gave Larkin. “And I heal pretty quick.”
Larkin’s eyes couldn’t hold Johnny’s gaze and he looked away and turned to Murdoch. “Is the sheriff up to receiving a pretty visitor?” he asked with a winning smile.
“Why don’t you both come inside and we’ll talk about it,” Murdoch suggested and ushered them into the house.
Johnny allowed the others to go ahead of him and sauntered in behind them. He watched them take a seat, side by side, on the sofa while Murdoch stood with his back to the fireplace. Johnny, himself, took a position against the wall standing under the carving of the Lancer brand that took pride of place in the room.
He leaned one shoulder comfortably against the wall and studied Bryce Larkin. The man seemed to have no qualms about using his sister to gain entry into the house where two men he had tried to have killed were living.
Strangely, Johnny could almost admire the audacity of the man. Part of him wished that Larkin wore a gun. Bryce might have made a fine gunfighter with that calm insolence behind his smile. Johnny felt he’d have had no scruples about calling him out.
At least, he might have admired him, if it weren’t for the knowledge that his friend Val was still not out of danger upstairs and the fact that his own ribs were troubling him right now.
Murdoch offered a glass of whiskey to Larkin and a small glass of sherry to the girl, which she accepted delicately and politely.
“You have to understand, Val is awake and he’s doing much better,” Murdoch told them. “But he still has a fever that just won’t quit. He’s also still exhausted from talking with the deputy this morning. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to tire him any more than he already is.”
The girl was visibly disappointed. “Oh, I was hoping to see him and see if I could cheer him up a little. But, of course, I wouldn’t want to make him ill.”
Murdoch smiled at her sympathetically. “Perhaps in a day or so…”
“Murdoch, I’m sure that five minutes wouldn’t do any harm,” Bryce said tenaciously.
But Murdoch shook his head stubbornly. “I’m sorry. I know he’d love to see your sister, but you have to understand just how ill he is.”
“Oh, we do,” Rebecca told him. “Dr. Jenkins explained it to me the other day. But then, Johnny told Bryce that Val seemed to be improving.”
“Improving – yes, but he’s still very sick,” Murdoch insisted patiently. “He’s had a fever for several days and we haven’t been able to bring it down. It’s taking a lot out of him and I just feel that having visitors would only exhaust him. He needs all the strength he has to fight that fever.”
Johnny chose to let Murdoch do all the talking and listened to the conversation from his aloof standpoint. The scene seemed surreal to Johnny. He heard what they were saying, and yet their words didn’t penetrate his consciousness. He didn’t really care to listen in anyway. He didn’t trust his temper and he was likely to say something he shouldn’t, so it didn’t bother him that they talked on without him.
On the edge of the chat but without participating, Johnny suddenly felt a tug on his sleeve. Jerked back into reality, he turned his head to see who was there.
Teresa stood around the corner, just out of sight, trying to attract his attention.
“Johnny,” she whispered. “Can I speak to you for a minute?”
He slipped around the corner with her silently. He didn’t think they’d miss him anyway.
“What is it, Teresa? What’s wrong?”
“Val knows they’re here,” she told him quietly. “He wants to see them.”
“How? How does he know?”
“I’m sorry. He heard their voices through the open window and recognized them,” she explained miserably.
Johnny put his arm around her shoulders. “Don’t be silly,” he whispered. “It’s not your fault.”
“There’s nothing wrong with his hearing, that’s for sure,” she said with a wisp of a smile.
“No, I guess not. So who does he want to see – Bryce or Rebecca?”
“He says both of them.”
“He wants to see them both?” Johnny asked, surprised.
She nodded. “That’s what he says, but I think it’s Bryce he really wants to see.”
“No,” he said firmly and louder than he wanted. He stopped and checked the three people in the next room. They weren’t looking in his direction, so satisfied that they hadn’t heard him, he turned back to Teresa.
“I’m not letting Larkin anywhere near Val.”
She shook her head sadly. “I’ve tried everything I could think of to talk him out of it. I even tried laying down the law with him. It’s no good, Johnny, he’s insisting. He got terribly worked up when I said no. I’m not sure what would be worse for him – giving in to him or trying to stop him.”
Johnny stood indecisively for a moment. This went against everything he thought smart in the situation, but he also knew just how stubborn Val Crawford could be.
“I’ll go talk to him and make him see sense. How is he?”
“He’s tired and he still has a fever, but he’s awake and he’s alert.”
Johnny thought quickly. “Did he say why he wants to see them?”
“No,” she replied, shaking her head slowly. “But he’s determined to do it.”
He scowled. “How determined?”
“Well, I think it would do more harm to say no than to say yes,” she said quietly. “I wouldn’t normally advise it, Johnny. But he’s working himself up over it.”
“Damn!” Johnny hissed. He turned and looked around the corner at the two visitors in the Great Room. “I don’t want that guy in the same room with Val. I don’t know why he tried to have him killed, but I’m not taking any chances on him trying to finish him off.”
“I could stay with them.”
“No, if we let him do this, I’ll stay with them,” Johnny told her firmly. “He won’t like it, an’ neither will they. But if it happens, that’s the way it will have to be - five minutes an’ me in the room.”
He paced a step or two and then back again. “Let’s go see Val,” he suggested. “Then I want you to give me a couple of minutes to talk to him alone. I want to try to talk him out of it.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Thanks,” he said with sigh but there was iron determination in his words when he continued. “I’m goin’ up there to lay down the law – my law.”
Val obviously heard Johnny coming in well before he got within sight. When Johnny walked into the room, with Teresa quietly at his side, he found Val scowling at him impatiently.
“Don’t go thinkin’ you’re gonna talk me outa this, Johnny,” Val said emphatically, leaning back and not even facing him.
“Well, I sure am gonna try,” Johnny told him, straight up. “Are you crazy?”
Val turned on him. “Maybe, but it ain’t got nothin’ to do with you.”
“Oh, is that right?” Johnny demanded. “If you think I’m gonna let you throw away all the work we’ve done to get you this far, you’ve got another think comin’.” He strode over to the bedside and put his hand firmly on Val’s forehead.
“You’ve got a fever,” he told him coldly.
“No kiddin’,” Val snapped.
“Val, you’re not up to this. What do you think you can do anyway?”
“Last I heard, I was still sheriff o’ Green River,” he said angrily. “’Less you’ve heard different?”
“No,” Johnny assured him. “I ain’t heard any different either. But I don’t know what you think you’re gonna be able to do an’ you ain’t given me an answer.”
Val glared at his friend, but slowly, the fire in his eyes died out. “I’m not sure I know what I can do either,” he confessed. “But I’ve gotta try. That’s my town he’s tearin’ apart, an’ I ain’t lettin’ no one do that if I c’n help it.”
“Please Val, you’re not well enough for this,” Teresa told him. “You’re still tired from this morning. It’s too much for one day.”
“I c’n handle it,” he answered sullenly, lowering his head so that he didn’t have to look into her eyes. He could feel her disappointment and sensed her worry too, but he was convinced that he could manage this interview. He hoped that he could get something out of Bryce Larkin that the others hadn’t succeeded in doing.
“You’re not on your own in this, remember?” Johnny pointed out. “You can let me an’ Scott help you take care o’ things.”
“Oh, an’ you’re doin’ just fine so far,” Val said sarcastically. “Look at ya!”
“No, Johnny,” Val persisted. “I’m here in this damned bed with holes in me ‘cause someone wanted me outa the way. Well, I ain’t outa the way. That lunkhead Earl might be runnin’ the town, but I wanta let this guy know that I ain’t down yet. I’m still the sheriff o’ Green River.”
Part of Johnny sympathized with Val’s decision. He could feel Val’s passion and understood why he wanted to do this, but he also knew how weak his friend was.
“All right, I know why you wanta do this,” Johnny said quietly. “But…”
“No ‘buts’ Johnny, I c’n do it,” Val snapped at him.
“You stubborn jackass,” Johnny argued furiously. “I’m on your side, remember? Now let me finish.”
He watched Val glare sourly at him for a moment. “All right, go on,” Val said at last.
“I’ll get Teresa to bring ‘em both up here, but I stay with you the whole time,” he told him firmly. He stared down Val’s continued glower, ready for an argument, before he continued. To his surprise, he didn’t get one. “Five minutes Val, that’s all you get with ‘em. An’ I just hope Sam doesn’t take my head off for lettin’ you do it at all.”
“Just what the hell do you think I c’n find out in five minutes?”
Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know what you think you can find out at all!” Johnny replied firmly. “Five minutes - take it or leave it.”
Val glared angrily while he considered what Johnny was offering. In the back of his mind lurked the knowledge that Johnny was probably right. He wasn’t feeling well. He knew about the fever, and no one knew better than he did just how lousy he felt. Just sitting up was a strain on his chest. His leg was a constant source of agony, though he hadn’t told that to anyone.
Five minutes might be all he could handle if he faced the truth.
But he didn’t want to face the truth. If he did he also had to acknowledge that he was weak and vulnerable – that he was forced to rely on others for protection.
Johnny saw the stubborn expression on his face. “Val, take it or leave it,” he repeated with steely determination.
Val sighed and relented. “All right, you win – five minutes.”
“Good, that’s settled then,” Johnny told him quietly and headed for the door with Teresa in his wake.
“I don’t like it, Johnny,” she whispered urgently. “I wish there was another way.”
“I know, but I’ll be here with him,” he assured her. “If I think he can’t handle any more, I’ll put a stop to it.”
“All right, I’ll go and get them,” she said quietly. “But I’ll be waiting right outside if you need me.”
Johnny followed her out, but he was back within a few minutes. He had his pistol with him and placed it on the dresser, just out of sight. That done, he set about straightening Val’s pillows and making sure he was able to sit up comfortably. He poured him a glass of water and handed it to Val then waited for him to finish and took it back from him.
“You b’n takin’ lessons on motherin’?” Val asked him, grinning.
“You wanta look like a sheriff for this or not?” Johnny answered ironically and then looked up as Teresa ushered in the Larkins.
Rebecca came in first and Johnny stood back against the dresser so that he could watch what happened. Bryce was right behind her and escorted his sister around the bed to the chair and then he sat on the windowsill behind her. He cast a curious glance in Johnny’s direction.
Johnny responded with a half smile but said nothing.
Rebecca barely noticed him. Her eyes were on Val and no one else. “You look so much better!” she said happily to Val.
For a moment, Val looked flustered. Johnny smiled secretly. He knew his friend wasn’t used to attention from pretty young women.
“Thanks, Miss Becca,” he answered uncomfortably. “I’m feelin’ a whole lot better.” He looked at Bryce Larkin. “I hear you’ve been buyin’ up half the town.”
Larkin laughed lightly. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Only the saloon and the hotel.”
“Maybe so, but that’s a whole lot in Green River.” Val sounded unimpressed.
“Let’s just say that I keep busy, Sheriff,” Larkin said easily.
“I guess so, but I’ve also been hearin’ a lot of other things, too.” There was no mistaking the accusation in Val’s words and the grin quickly left Larkin’s face.
“Just what do you mean by that, Sheriff?”
“There’s been a lot o’ bad things happenin’ in Green River,” Val replied. He watched as a frown crept over Larkin’s face. “Just ‘cause I’m laid up doesn’t mean I don’t keep up with what’s goin’ on in my town.”
Bryce Larkin’s frown deepened and, watching the two men, Johnny went on the alert. He didn’t show any change in his stance, but Madrid had stepped into Johnny Lancer’s shoes. Only Val saw the difference in him, out of the corner of his eye, and he gave no indication that he had seen it.
“I don’t know of anything out of the usual happening in Green River,” Larkin said quietly.
“Really?” Val asked ironically. “Seems like there’s been a lot o’ threats and ‘accidents’ in town.”
“I wouldn’t know about that, Sheriff,” Larkin replied easily.
The girl looked from Val to her brother and back. She seemed confused. “Is something wrong?” she asked naively.
“No, nothing at all, Becca,” Larkin told her gently. He glanced over towards the sheriff and glowered. “I don’t know what you’re being told, but if you think it has anything to do with me, you’re misinformed.”
Val smiled. “Oh, I ain’t said anythin’ like that,” he said with steel in his eyes and honey in his voice. “But I would like to know who Cameron, Riker an’ Douglas are workin’ for.”
“They work at the ranch,” Rebecca told him. “Why?”
“What do they do there?” Val asked, provoking a curious expression on the girl’s face.
“I don’t know,” she said, glancing at her brother helplessly. “I suppose they’re cowboys. Why?”
“Cowhands don’t have much time to sit around saloons all day.” Val shrugged lightly. “They seem to be ‘round every time there’s trouble in town.”
Rebecca turned back to her brother. “I don’t understand,” she told him, disconcerted. “What have they got to do with anything?” She looked over at Johnny and seemed to get angry that he was standing there watching them, without saying a word. “What have you been telling him, Johnny? Is that who you had the fight with?”
“Johnny didn’t get into a fight,” Val told her coldly. “Those three men jumped him from an alley – same as they did Pete Franks. They would have killed him if Scott hadn’t gotten there in time to stop them.”
“Well, if they did, it certainly had nothing to do with my brother,” she answered angrily. She stood up and glared at Crawford. “We came here out of kindness and all you can do is make unfounded accusations against Bryce. How dare you?”
This time, Johnny stiffened noticeably. He was watching them closely.
Val leaned forward and looked past the girl, straight into Larkin’s eyes. He steeled himself before asking outright, “Are they followin’ your orders or not?”
Johnny stood up straight, tensed and alert, but Val hadn’t taken his eyes off Bryce Larkin.
To their surprise, it was the girl who answered.
“I’ve heard enough!” she insisted furiously. “We’re not staying here to be insulted like this.”
She stamped her foot and turned to her brother, who had still said nothing. “Let’s go, Bryce,” she told him and then spun around angrily on Val. “You’ll be sorry you did this, Sheriff Crawford. We’ll be making a complaint to the mayor about your behavior. You won’t have a job to go back to.”
Beads of sweat appeared on Val’s brow but he ignored her and kept his eyes on her brother. Val’s breathing was becoming labored, and Johnny could see that he had gone as far as he could.
Larkin still said nothing. In fact, he paled under Val’s scrutiny, but he stood up slowly, ready to leave with his sister. His eyes remained locked with Val’s.
Suddenly, without warning, Val’s concentration broke. He gasped and started coughing uncontrollably. He fell back into the pillows coughing harshly and trying to get his breath.
“That’s it,” Johnny said loudly, stepping forward and striding to the bed. He glared at the girl and was surprised to see that Bryce Larkin was staring at Val and had paled to a sickly shade of white.
“Time’s up,” Johnny declared icily. “This is over.”
He sat down on the bed beside Val and, taking his shoulders, pulled him quickly but gently forward against his shoulder. He rubbed his friend’s back in soothing circles in an attempt to ease the coughing and, slowly, it stopped and left Val gasping loudly for breath.
The girl stood by the bedside, frozen rigid. Her brother stood at her side, still pale and unmoving.
When, at last, Val’s coughing seemed to be over, Johnny realized that Teresa had come into the room and was standing beside him. He felt Teresa’s light touch on his shoulder.
He hadn’t seen her come in, and he guessed that she had probably been waiting just outside the door.
“Lay him back now, Johnny,” she suggested calmly. “He’s over the worst of it. Lay him back so he can catch his breath.”
Johnny eased him back against the pillows and Val closed his eyes, his chest heaving as he fought the pain in his chest and tried to get air into his lungs.
Satisfied that the worst was indeed over, Johnny turned to face the Larkins. “I’m thinking you can find your own way downstairs,’ he said, straining to keep his temper.
“Is he…is he going to be all right?” the girl asked.
Teresa took her arm and led her to the door. “I’m sure he will,” she assured Rebecca quietly. “But he needs to rest.”
Larkin followed in their wake and took his sister’s arm from Teresa. He ushered Rebecca from the room but, at the doorway, he stopped and turned his head so he could see them.
“You know, Sheriff, some people don’t like it when you ask a lot of questions,” he said solemnly. He hesitated for just a moment before going on. “I heard that you would have died if Johnny and Scott hadn’t stumbled on you that day. Now, a smart man would take heed of that – and learn from it.”
Val’s face was white and beads of perspiration trickled from his forehead and down his cheeks, but his breathing had evened out to a harsh panting. His eyes followed Larkin as he finally left the room.
He turned back to Johnny and closed his eyes wearily.
Teresa walked around the end of the bed to the other side and picked up an ominous looking brown bottle. Val opened his eyes again and watched as she poured a measure into a glass and added water, mixing it with a spoon before handing it to him.
“Drink it, Val,” she ordered firmly. She was frowning irritably at him. “You’ve probably set yourself back by days with this little effort. I should never have allowed it.”
Val took the glass without argument and swallowed it in one swig. He grimaced at the bitter taste of the laudanum and then managed a half smile.
“She’s right, Val,” Johnny agreed. He shook his head disbelieving. “Tact ain’t one o’ your strong suits, is it?”
Crawford tried to laugh, but he ended up coughing again - just once before he caught his breath again. “I only had five minutes, remember?” he complained. “Didn’t have time for tact.”
“So you just dive in an’ accuse him? What good did it do? He’s gonna know we’re onto him now,” Johnny said disgustedly.
Val shook his head. “No, it’s not him.”
“What?” Johnny exclaimed.
“He’s not the one in charge,” Val reiterated.
Even Teresa stopped and stared at him. “But surely it has to be him?”
“Nope, the fella who’s doin’ all this wants power. He wants to control the whole town.” He shook his head again. “Bryce Larkin can’t even control his own life. Did you see the way his sister jumped in an’ defended him? He just sat there an’ let her. He’s used to it.”
“Like he’s been doing it all his life,” Teresa added blandly.
“Yeah,” Val agreed quietly. “Exactly. There’s no way he could control those three misfits in town. Someone else is behind this.”
Johnny looked him over. “Well, you don’t have to worry ‘bout it right now,” he said firmly. “You get some rest an’ we’ll talk about it later.”
Val sighed. “Sure…” he murmured the word, slurring it a little as he tried to stay awake.
Exhaustion and laudanum had combined to sap the last of his strength. He moved slightly to try to make himself more comfortable, but only succeeded in evincing a groan as he bumped his bad leg unexpectedly.
His eyes fluttered a few times as he fought to keep himself from falling asleep, but he finally gave up and let sleep take him.
“I’ll stay with him, Johnny,” Teresa told him, taking her place in the chair and settling herself for a long stay. “You should go back to join Murdoch. He’ll want to know what happened here.”
They both heard the noises outside in the courtyard. Johnny stood up and went to the window to watch the Larkins leave. Murdoch was with them and stood at the edge of the portico until they had left.
Johnny heaved a sigh of relief. He hadn’t wanted to go down there and force himself to be polite. Whatever Val might think, he was sure they were tied up in this mess somehow.
Scott rode back into the Lancer yard just minutes after the Larkins had left. He’d been coming back from Cross Creek, where he’d sent the promised wire to the Metropolitan Police in New York City, so he hadn’t passed them on the road. Green River was in the opposite direction.
He wasn’t exactly unhappy that he had missed them. In fact, he was glad he hadn’t had to play host to them. He was amazed to learn that Johnny had stood in the same room with Bryce Larkin without losing his notoriously volatile temper. He wasn’t sure that he could have done it.
Of course, Scott didn’t have to venture a guess as to how his brother had pulled off that little miracle. He’d obviously stepped into Johnny Madrid’s shoes. It didn’t bother Scott that he’d used that guise to do it, as long as nothing had backfired on him as a result.
He’d also been stunned by Johnny’s revelation of Val’s interpretation of his interview with Bryce Larkin.
“He can’t be serious! Larkin must be involved,” he’d exclaimed to his father and brother. “Those other three haven’t got the brains or the initiative to do it on their own!”
“No one’s got any proof against him, Scott,” Murdoch had reminded him calmly.
“An’ Val has a point, too,” Johnny told them both. “Larkin didn’t react to his accusations at all. It was his sister who made all the fuss. She did all the talkin’, an’ he let her. An’ he turned white as a sheet when Val started coughin’.”
Scott shook his head in confusion. “Well, I can’t see it. Those men work for him. He has to be the one giving the orders.”
“That’s still not proof, Scott,” Murdoch said. “There’s nothing that says they’re doing all of this under his orders.”
“Rebecca says they’re just hands who are workin’ at the ranch. You got any ideas on how we can prove otherwise?”
“No, I haven’t,” Scott answered with a sigh. “Anyway, I paid the telegraph office enough to deliver the reply here just as soon as it comes in. Maybe then we’ll have some sort of an answer to all this.”
“I hope so,” Murdoch said with a sigh. He turned to Johnny and smiled. “In the meantime, I think you should get some rest, son. I haven’t forgotten about those bruised ribs of yours, even if you have, and you’ve been on your feet a lot more than Sam would like.”
“My ribs aren’t botherin’ me, Murdoch,” Johnny told him laconically.
“And if you want it to stay that way, you should get that rest,” Scott added with a smile.
The subject of their discussion slept the rest of the day and all through the night. He’d been exhausted by the interview with the Larkins and Teresa was still annoyed with herself for letting him talk her into it.
She’d hoped that he would just sleep for a while with no adverse effects, but she was soon sure that they weren’t going to be that lucky. He slept heavily and soundly, though the fever that had been with him constantly lifted a little higher. It wasn’t enough to concern her unduly, but she knew that it needed watching.
So, they all took shifts watching him as he slept, but there was no change in his condition. It was exhaustion that was taking its toll right now.
By morning, he was still sleeping upstairs in what had come to be recognized as ‘Val’s room’. Teresa sat in the chair beside the bed where Johnny had left her, watching Val closely and changing the wet compress on his forehead when needed.
On the floor beside her were the two volumes of books she’d been going through for the last hour. They were her main source of herbal advice these days. Murdoch had told her that Scott’s mother, Catherine, had bought them after they had decided to come west, where she knew there wouldn’t be much in the way of medical help if they needed it.
Teresa liked the idea that Catherine had had so much forethought. It reminded her of Scott. He always planned ahead like that. It was nice to think he had inherited that from his mother.
Sadly, Catherine had not had enough time to use them, but Murdoch had given them to her, Teresa, to take advantage of after she had shown an interest in herbal remedies.
Teresa loved the feel of them, bound in leather with lettering in fine gilt. And the engraved illustrations were beautiful. She admired the work that had gone into them.
Sometimes she wondered if it was right that she should have them. By rights, they should belong to Scott since they had been his mother’s books. But both Murdoch and Scott had assured her that they were hers to keep. She was the one with the interest and Scott liked to think that they were put to good use.
She reached down and picked them up off the floor again to go through them one more time. Perhaps coneflower would help, or sage. There had to be something that would bring that temperature of his down and clear the infection from his body. If the answer was anywhere, she was sure it would be in Constantine Rafinesque’s manuals.
She looked at Val and watched his chest rise and fall rhythmically.
His coughing had stopped when he’d drifted off to sleep after the departure of the Larkins and it had shown no signs of returning. To her relief his breathing had settled down to as close to normal as it had been since he’d been shot.
He seemed to be sleeping peacefully now. His breathing was heavy and a little labored, but it was steady and even. Teresa was worried nonetheless.
She hoped that the coughing had been brought on by the excitement of the moment and that it wasn’t a portent of something to come. With a chest wound, it didn’t pay to take chances. Pneumonia was always a risk. She’d seen that happen before with Johnny.
The fever that had kept them all on their toes for days still persisted. Her consolation was that it hadn’t worsened, but the fact that it lingered meant that there was still infection somewhere – and that was a major concern.
She was convinced that the infection stemmed from the leg wound. It was slightly inflamed and resisted all of their attempts to get it to heal. She’d been using her special salve right from the beginning but it hadn’t made any difference. That was disheartening. It was usually a sure cure and Sam had great faith in it.
Plying Val with willow bark tea may have been keeping the fever from worsening, but it hadn’t done enough to stop it. She had to think of something else to try.
Val stirred slightly and shifted in the bed, uttering a low moan as his eyelids fluttered open. He moved his legs uncomfortably and grimaced in pain.
Teresa got to her feet and went to his side. She sat down on the edge of the bed and took away the cloth from his forehead.
“Good morning,” she said, putting on a cheerful smile that was meant to distract Val from his pain.
He frowned and stared at her. “Morning?” he asked, obviously confused. “What happened to the rest o’ the day?”
She laughed. “You had a busy day, Val. You were exhausted, so we thought it best to let you sleep through,” she explained. “You must be hungry.”
He had to think about it for a moment and then answered. “Yeah, guess I am.”
“I’ll get you something,” she said quietly. “There’s some broth being kept warm for you down in the kitchen.”
“Oh great,” he answered with an exaggerated sigh. “There’s somethin’ to look forward to.”
“You’re not exactly ready for steak and eggs yet, Val,” she told him with a smile.
He closed his eyes for a minute and then opened them on her again. “Ya know, Teresa, I really appreciate what you an’ everyone have done for me, but I gotta tell ya – I’m gettin’ kinda tired o’ lyin’ here like this.”
She looked into his eyes and noticed they were glazed and didn’t seem to focus on her very well. For the umpteenth time, she felt his forehead and then took his wrist and counted off his pulse.
Satisfied that his fever hadn’t risen, she smiled at him. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “But I think you’d better get used to it. You’re going to be there a bit longer.”
He grimaced and sighed. “Yeah, I guess.”
Her face gave away nothing of her concern and she stood up to go down to the kitchen.
He moved his legs to get comfortable and groaned before he could stop himself.
Teresa threw back the covers to reveal his bandaged leg. Val made no protests this time as she gently lifted his leg and unwound the bandage. When she’d finished she took a good look at the injury and came to a quick decision.
She took one of the pillows from behind him and placed it under his leg, and then she eased his leg on top of it to prop it up off the bed.
“Val, I don’t want you to move that leg at all. Do you understand?”
“It’s that bad, is it?” he asked with an ironic smile.
“Let’s just say it’s not good. I’ll get some warm water and bathe it for you,” she told him, waiting for the expected argument.
It didn’t eventuate. “Thanks,” he answered instead, still smiling.
She headed for the door and he called out, “An’ don’t forget breakfast.”
Despite the gravity of the situation, she laughed lightly as she left the room.
Teresa came back with some chicken broth in a mug that she thought he’d be able to manage and a bowl of steaming water.
She placed the tray carefully on the bedside table and passed the mug to him, watching to make sure that he could hold it without spilling any of it. When she was sure that he could handle it, she turned her attention to the wound on his leg.
“This is going to hurt, Val,” she warned him. “I have to make it hot to draw the poison out.”
“Infected, huh,” he said, more as a statement than a question.
“I think it’s abscessed. I’m going to clean it up as much as I can and put a hot compress on it. And I’ve sent one of the men to get Dr. Jenkins.”
She cleaned around the wound and then soaked a soft clean cloth into the hot water and wrung it out tenderly. She folded it neatly and asked him, “Are you ready?”
“Yeah, just do it,” he told her, wrapping both hands around the now empty mug. He leaned his head back against the pillows and waited.
Teresa held back for a moment. She hated the idea of hurting him again, but she knew it had to be done. She took a breath and laid the compress across his leg as gently as she could.
Val drew in a shocked breath. His body went rigid and one hand let go of the mug and clutched the blankets. He closed his eyes and didn’t breathe again for a long moment.
Teresa pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat down. Then she reached out and pried Val’s hand loose from the blanket and held it comfortingly. “Hold on, Val,” she said soothingly as he gripped her hand. “Hold on as tight as you want.”
With her free hand, she took the empty mug from his and placed it lightly on the little table. Then she wrung the water from the cloth in the cool bowl of water and gently wiped the beads of sweat from his face.
She sat with him over the next two hours, changing the compress each time it cooled and comforting him as best she could until Jenkins arrived.
She stayed with him while Sam worked on him and was still with him when Sam left.
“All right, Sam,” Murdoch said when he saw his friend come down the steps. “How is he?”
Sam looked from one anxious face to another. Johnny hadn’t asked the question, but he looked worried about his friend.
“Teresa was right. The leg wound is abscessed,” he told them candidly. “With luck we’ve caught it in time. I’ve lanced the abscess and drained it, and Teresa is going to try using poultices to draw the infection out. She’s been going through the Rafinesque books and came up with some herbs that might help.”
He sighed before he continued. “If the infection spreads from that abscess and gets to his chest, Val could be in serious trouble. I’m sure that the fever is linked directly to the leg wound so watch him carefully for any change.”
“We’ll keep an eye on him, Sam,” Johnny assured him confidently. He hadn’t gotten him this far to let anything happen to Val now.
“I sedated him to operate on the wound and he’ll sleep for a few more hours. If his temperature spikes - or if he starts to get chills - send for me right away. I don’t care what time it is.”
“Understood, Sam,” Murdoch told him.
Sam turned his attention to Johnny. “Yes, well, since I’m here, Johnny, I might as well take a look at those ribs of yours. Come on upstairs and we’ll do it right now.”
“Come on, Doc, I’m fine. It’s Val we need to think about.”
“I’m a doctor, Johnny,” Sam said with a smile. “I’m fully capable of worrying about more than one patient at a time.” He glared at the young man and finished with “Upstairs, now!”
Johnny knew better than to argue with Sam and trudged up the stairs ahead of him. He ducked into his room and shrugged out of his shirt to reveal the bandaging around his chest.
Sam unbound the strapping and poked and prodded Johnny until he was satisfied.
“There’s still a lot of bruising there, Johnny,” he said at last. “How do they feel?”
“Just fine, Sam,” he assured the doctor.
Sam shook his head. “You’d say that anyway,” he said with a grin. “Stand up and raise your arms for me – slowly.”
Johnny did as he demanded and stopped himself from wincing by holding his breath, but Sam didn’t miss it just the same.
“All right, you can put your arms down and start breathing again,” he said, shaking his head.
For the rest of the day and into the night, they took shifts to keep watch over Val as his fever rose higher.
Teresa kept up a steady supply of poultices. She hadn’t needed her books to tell her to use slippery elm on the abscess. She’d used it before and had a lot of faith in its value. She kept them hot and as one cooled and dried, she’d arrive with another to replace it.
Val didn’t wake for four hours and, when he did wake, he was weak, silent and exhausted. He barely seemed to notice others in the room with him, but he accepted their help to eat and to swallow the water they offered him.
As the day wore on, he dozed fitfully while they kept him as cool as they could with compresses. Nothing seemed to be working though, and the atmosphere in the room was heavy and somber.
Around four in the morning Johnny walked into the room to take over from Teresa. He found her in the dimly lit room, looking tired and anxious.
“Teresa? How’s he doing?” he asked her nervously.
She shook her head sadly. “I don’t like this, Johnny,” she answered. “He’s been restless for the past half hour.” Replacing the compress on Val’s forehead, she added, “The fever is up again, too. I think we should send for Dr. Jenkins.”
Johnny looked from her worried face to Val’s flushed and fevered one. While he watched, Val tossed his head to one side and then the other. He muttered something softly but Johnny wasn’t able to understand any of it.
Teresa reached for and took his hand in hers and he seemed to relax a little.
“I think you’re right. I’ll go and send one of the men for him,” Johnny told her. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
With that, he left the room and Teresa was once again alone with her charge.
She loosened her grip on his hand and reached for the cloth in the bowl, but Val immediately started to toss from side to side.
“Shh… Val, take it easy,” she whispered. She put her hand lightly on his shoulder without success, so she tried pushing him back onto his back. She stood up and tried to hold him down, but nothing worked. She found herself wishing that she had gone to send for Sam and Johnny had stayed with Val.
“Please Val,” she said firmly. “You must lay still.” She took his hand in hers again and sat on the edge of the bed. With her other hand, she ran her fingers through his damp curls and he finally began to relax.
He’d quieted by the time Johnny came back in. He stopped at the door and watched her until she looked over towards him
“Come help me, Johnny,” she said quietly and waited for him to walk across the room to her. “We need to wipe him down and replace that compress. He gets restless when I let go.”
Johnny did as she asked and pulled the chair over close to the bed so he could sit with them for a while. He watched Teresa comforting Val and saw a young woman instead of the girl he thought of as his little sister. The idea came with something of a jolt to the young man.
“Did you send for Sam?” she asked him, shaking him out of his thoughts.
“Yeah, Wade went for him.”
“It’ll be a couple of hours before he gets here. I hope we can keep this fever under control for that long. He’s beginning to get delirious.”
Johnny watched her for a minute and then answered. “You look awful tired. You’ve been up with him for hours. Why don’t you get some sleep?” he asked. “I c’n manage him.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m okay, and he seems to rest easier when I sit here with him.”
He nodded and dipped the cloth in the water again.
Together they did their best to bring down Val’s fever and keep him from tossing. The night slowly gave way to dawn and found Val Crawford becoming more and more uneasy as the hours wore on. The fever began to alternate with chills and rose still higher.
By six o’clock Teresa was constantly looking out of the window, hoping to see Sam arrive.
“He should have been here by now, Johnny,” she said anxiously.
Johnny tried not to let her see that he was just as worried as she was. “I know,” he said calmly. “He’ll be here any minute. Just relax an’ stop worryin’. Sam’ll know what to do.”
After another half an hour, Val had stopped moving around and lay unnaturally still. His breathing had become heavy and his face shone brightly from the heat his body was generating.
Teresa tried releasing his hand and found he remained quiet so she arched her back to stretch the kinks out of it. She’d been sitting in the same position for the last few hours, so she stood up and walked over to the window and stared out of it.
Glancing back at Val, “I wish Sam would hurry and get here.”
They both realized now that the doctor must have been delayed somewhere. He would have been here by now if he’d been at home when Wade got there with their message. He’d said day or night and wouldn’t have wasted any time in getting here otherwise.
They both heard Scott come into the room and looked over at him. “He doesn’t look so good,” Scott remarked and Johnny nodded.
“Yeah, we sent Wade into town for Sam,” he told him. He sighed and added, “That was about three hours ago.”
Scott frowned. “Perhaps he wasn’t there when Wade got there. Has Wade come back?”
“Not that I’ve seen, but we’ve been busy here with Val,” Johnny answered.
“Teresa, how long have you been here? I thought Johnny was taking over for you earlier than this.”
She walked back over to the bed and sat down in the same place she had just left. “He did, but Val needed us both here,” she said quietly, reaching once again for the compress on Val’s brow and wetting it down again.
“Then get some sleep and I’ll stay and help Johnny. You must be exhausted.”
She shook her head determinedly. “No, I’ll stay. I’m really not that tired.”
Teresa hadn’t looked at him, so Scott looked in Johnny’s direction instead. He only smiled and shrugged.
“We’re okay, Scott,” Johnny assured him. “Thanks.”
“Well, I’ll get you each some coffee, anyway,” Scott said firmly. “You both look like you could use it.”
“Scott,” Teresa called to him as he turned and went to the door. “Can you see if Wade is back? Maybe he can give us some idea of when to expect Sam.”
“Sure, Teresa,” he answered and left them alone with Val.
“I don’t like how quiet he is,” she told Johnny.
“I know, but at least he’s not rolling ‘round,” Johnny reassured her.
She took Val’s hand gently in hers. “Come on, Val,” she whispered softly. “You can beat this.”
When Scott came back he found them both sitting anxiously watching their charge. He handed each of them a cup of coffee and a plate of pancakes. “Maria thought you might need something to keep you going,” he explained.
“Thank you, Scott,” Teresa said, taking her eyes away from Val to look at him. “Did you find Wade?”
“No, he must still be in town.”
“That seems strange,” she answered with a little frown. “I would have thought he’d leave the message on the board for Sam and come home.”
Scott had wondered the same thing himself. Sam kept a small blackboard outside his door so messages could be left for him if he was away from his office. He covered a lot of territory on his rounds and was often away when an emergency came up. He was the only doctor working in the area and covered three towns as well as all the country between them.
Scott left them and went downstairs to update Murdoch on what was happening and to wait for the doctor.
Johnny and Teresa kept their vigil in frustrated silence for another half an hour before Teresa straightened excitedly.
“Johnny, look,” she said quickly. “He’s broken out in a sweat.”
He pulled away the wet compress and felt his forehead, and then looked at Val carefully. “Fever’s down a little. I think he’s breathin’ a bit easier too.”
She stood up and moved past Johnny to cautiously pull away the poultice from Val’s leg to look at the wound. It certainly looked less raw and angry than it had. The swelling was not so pronounced.
She put it back carefully and looked over at Johnny. “The wound looks a lot better, but the poultice has cooled off. I’ll go downstairs to get another one ready. If we’re starting to get on top of this, we need to keep it up.”
“Sure,” he answered. “I’ll watch him an’ keep up the compresses.”
Teresa gently placed the cloth back over the wound and started towards the door, but she stopped suddenly and turned back to go to the window.
She sighed heavily with relief. “It’s Sam,” she said.
Or, Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America
RAFINESQUE, Constantine S. Philadelphia. 1828/. 30. Two volumes. , xii, 268; 276pp. plus one hundred plates printed in green. Bound in are two copies of the titlepage and dedication leaf of first volume. 12mo. Modern calf, gilt morocco spine label.
The most important work of the eccentric polymath naturalist, Rafinesque, based on his fifteen years' experience collecting American medicinal plants. Rafinesque visited the United States in 1802-4, returning as a permanent resident in 1815. He travelled extensively in the eastern and midwestern United States, and was professor of natural history at the University of Kentucky in the early 1820s, making a significant contribution to American botany.
This book, self-published in an individual style, as with many of his productions, contains cataloguing of hundreds of American medicinal plants. It is illustrated by one hundred plates printed entirely in green. This is Rafinesque's most extensive work, as well as being one of his most important contributions. As with all of his works, it is quite rare.
"Rafinesque's most important work was his Medical Flora - which became the vade-mecum of the Botanic physicians. It must be remembered that medical treatment was at that time largely based on vegetable drugs and what Rafinesque sought was to write a medical botany adapted to the needs of the American physician and pharmacist" (Lilly 137).GM 1849; Nissen 1579; Reynolds 3451; Sabin 67457; Pritzel 7401; Bernard Jaffe, Men of Science in Americapp. 104-129; Meisel, Bibliography of American Natural History: I, pp. 222-23.
---Description---The Slippery Elm is a small tree abundant in various parts of North America.
The branches are very rough, the leaves long, unequally toothed, rough with hairs on both sides, the leaf-buds covered with a dense yellow Wool. The flowers are stalkless.
The inner bark has important medicinal value and is an official drug of the United States Pharmacopoeia.
The bark, which is the only part used, is collected in spring from the bole and larger branches and dried…
The Native American Indians have long used this viscous inner bark to prepare a healing salve, and in herbal medicine a Slippery Elm bark powder is considered one of the best possible poultices for wounds, boils, ulcers, burns and all inflamed surfaces, soothing, healing and reducing pain and inflammation.
It is made as follows: Mix the powder with hot water to form the required consistency, spread smoothly upon soft cotton cloth and apply over the parts affected. It is unfailing in cases of suppurations, abscesses, wounds of all kinds, congestion, eruptions, swollen glands, etc. In simple inflammation, it may be applied directly over the part affected; to abscesses and old wounds, it should be placed between cloths.
Sage Tea or infusion of Sage is a valuable agent in the delirium of fevers and in the nervous excitement frequently accompanying brain and nervous diseases and has considerable reputation as a remedy, given in small and oft-repeated doses. It is highly serviceable as a stimulant tonic in debility of the stomach and nervous system and weakness of digestion generally. It was for this reason that the Chinese valued it, giving it the preference to their own tea. It is considered a useful medicine in typhoid fever and beneficial in biliousness and liver complaints, kidney troubles, haemorrhage from the lungs or stomach, for colds in the head as well as sore throat and quinsy and measles, for pains in the joints, lethargy and palsy. It will check excessive perspiration in phthisis cases, and is useful as an emmenagogue.
Sam walked into Val’s room looking tired and drawn. He’d obviously had a long night, so neither Johnny nor Teresa asked him what had taken him so long to get here.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said quickly and stepped past them to have a look at Val.
Both Teresa and Johnny stepped back out of his way and waited.
He put his hand to Val’s forehead, frowned a little and then checked his pulse. Then he took out the stethoscope from his bag and checked his heart and lungs. Still without a word, he moved down to the end of the bed to take a look at the wound on his leg.
Through all this, Johnny and Teresa silently stood across the room. Val still showed no sign of regaining consciousness either, though they were sure he looked better.
Finally, Sam put the poultice back over the wound and looked across at Johnny and Teresa.
“Johnny, give me a hand with him, will you?” he asked quietly. “I want to get those bandages off and look at the chest wound.”
“Sure,” Johnny replied and walked over to the opposite side of the bed, well out of his way. He pulled Val forward and leaned him against his shoulder to let Sam get at the bandages. He was shocked at how little effort he had to put into it. Val had lost a lot of weight over the last few days and it had left him thin and frail.
Sam cut through the bandages and pulled them away to get a look at the wounds in his chest and back. Without a word, he studied them carefully before nodding for Johnny to lay his patient back gently.
When he did finally speak, it was with a tone of relief.
“The fever is certainly breaking, and the poultice seems to be working, Teresa. The abscess definitely seems better. But he looks like he had a hard night. Am I right?”
“Yes, he did,” Teresa confirmed. “He had us terribly worried, Sam. His fever went right up, then he started getting chills and he was even delirious for a while. That’s why we sent for you.”
“Well, he’s not exactly out of the woods, but I think we can breathe easier,” the doctor told them. “It looks like the infection hasn’t gotten to his chest yet and I don’t think it will now. I think he’s beaten it.”
“He’s gonna make it then, Sam?” Johnny asked nervously.
Sam nodded. “Yes, he’s going to be fine with a lot of rest and good nursing.” He smiled. “I guess I can rely on you for that part, Teresa.”
He stopped and studied her more carefully. “You look awfully tired yourself,” he said sadly. “I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner to help you with him. There was an emergency in town and I couldn’t leave right away.”
“It’s okay, Sam,” she answered. “We figured it was something like that.”
“I’ll get you to hold him, Johnny, while I fix some bandages back around his chest,” he said wearily. “Then I’d like you to leave me with him and I’ll meet you both downstairs.”
Sam came downstairs slowly. To Murdoch’s eyes, he looked tired. He must have had a long night.
Murdoch had a brandy waiting for him when he arrived in the Great Room.
“I know it’s early, Sam,” Murdoch said with a smile, holding the glass out to him. “But you looked like you could use it.”
Sam Jenkins accepted it gratefully and sat down in one of the comfortable armchairs to take a sip. He sighed and leaned back, closing his eyes for a minute before facing them all again. He looked like he could fall asleep right there and then.
“Johnny and Teresa have told us that you’re confident Val will make it,” Murdoch said cheerfully.
Sam nodded. “He still has some fever, but it’s showing signs of breaking. The abscess on his leg is looking a lot better too. That seems to be where the fever is coming from. The chest wound is still looking good. It’s clean and healing well and there doesn’t appear to be any sign of infection.” He looked over to Teresa and smiled. “Your poultices have worked a treat on that leg wound, Teresa.”
She blushed lightly and smiled. “I’m just glad they worked.”
“Keep them up for a while yet, just in case,” he added. “But I think the worst is over. He’s physically exhausted so don’t be surprised if he sleeps for most of today. In fact, he’s going to be weak for quite some time. His state will leave him open to all kinds of risks so we’ll still have to watch him carefully - build his strength up. I take it you have no objections to his being here for a couple of weeks or so, Murdoch?"
“No, of course not. He’s welcome to stay for as long as he needs to,” Murdoch told him.
“Good, because I don’t want him moved for a while, and I certainly don’t want him left alone to look after himself.”
“He won’t be,” Johnny said with the kind of cool certainty in his voice that always raised eyebrows among those who knew him well.
Murdoch knew that he was pressing his point with them, just in case anyone had other ideas and he felt the need to reassure his son.
“Johnny’s right, he’ll stay here so he can get his strength back, whether he likes it or not.” He looked directly at Johnny and pressed his own point. “He won’t be alone.”
Johnny visibly relaxed and Murdoch wondered why even now, when he had been at Lancer for nearly two years, his son still felt the need now and then to revive his Madrid persona – even with his family. Instinct, he presumed. And instinct could be a hard taskmaster.
Sam Jenkins nodded wearily and leaned back again.
“Sam, you look exhausted. Why don’t you borrow one of the rooms upstairs and get some sleep before you head back to town?”
The doctor sighed heavily. “That sounds like a good idea. I could use some sleep. I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner, Murdoch. But you’re right it has been a long night. Bessie Robertson delivered a healthy boy around two this morning and I got home just as a fire broke out in town. Frank Taylor had a burning beam fall on him and had some serious burns to his shoulder. I was still tending to him when your man arrived.”
“There was a fire in town?” Scott asked. “Where?”
“Mrs. McConachy’s store caught fire. Everyone pitched in to help put it out. Poor Frank was the only one who was hurt, thank the Lord. It could have been a lot worse.”
Johnny sat forward – on the alert suddenly. “Mrs. McConachy’s store? Is she all right?”
“Oh yes, she’s fine, Johnny. There was quite a bit of damage to the store though.”
“What happened?” Scott asked. He was aware of the change in his brother and he suspected he knew why. “How did the fire start?"
“I have no idea. Earl was there, looking around when I left,” Sam answered. “He seemed to be taking quite an interest in it all, but then the beam came down and hit Frank so I was too busy to hear any more.”
“That must be where Wade is, then. He probably stayed to help out,” Scott suggested.
Johnny got to his feet suddenly. “I’m going to town,” he said quickly.
“Johnny, wait,” Scott called to him. “I’ll come with you.”
“I don’t need no babysitter, brother,” Johnny told him perversely.
“Good,” Scott said firmly. “Because I don’t plan on being one. I happen to like Mrs. McConachy too.”
“What’s going on here?” Murdoch asked warily. There was something in their urgency that started alarm bells ringing in his head.
Scott frowned. “Unless I miss my guess, Johnny thinks someone deliberately set fire to the store.”
“Johnny, is that right?” Murdoch asked him gruffly.
“She told Larkin’s men where to go when they came to her for money,” Johnny explained. “It’s an awful big coincidence that the place burns down a few days later.”
Murdoch scowled. “I don’t want you getting mixed up with that,” he said sourly. He didn’t want either of his sons involved any further. Johnny had been hurt already and it could have been so much worse if Scott hadn’t arrived in time to stop it. “Neither of you. Leave it to the law.”
“The law is upstairs unconscious, Murdoch,” Johnny told him angrily. “Remember?”
With that, he turned and strode to the door, slowing only to grab his gun belt and hat from the rack at the front door before walking out and slamming it behind him.
“If he thinks that Bryce Larkin had anything to do with burning down an old lady’s store, there’s no telling what he’ll do,” Murdoch said nervously.
“I know, Murdoch, that’s why I’m going too,” Scott told him, with as much determination as his brother.
Murdoch looked into his son’s eyes and saw that all too recognizable Lancer obstinacy there. He nodded reluctantly. “Watch his back, Scott,” Murdoch said quietly, relenting since he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop either of his sons. “And watch your own while you’re at it. I don’t want either of you hurt.”
Scott emulated his brother, stopping only to pull on his gun belt and grab his hat. Murdoch followed him to the door and outside onto the porch and waited there to see them both off.
He didn’t have long to wait. Johnny brought Barranca out of the barn, mounted and cantered out of the yard.
Murdoch sighed heavily. Johnny’s penchant for fighting for the underdog was coming out in all its glory. He could understand it. He was even proud of him for it. The idea that someone had tried to burn out the widow while she slept was as abhorrent to him as it obviously was to his sons.
But he hated the idea of Johnny or Scott riding into the middle of it.
He watched Scott walk his horse out of the barn and mount, ready to follow his brother. He was about to leave when a rider galloping into the yard caught their attention.
He was a youth, waving his hand wildly and calling “Mr. Lancer, wait up!”
Scott swung his horse in the direction the boy was riding. It wasn’t until the boy got close and pulled his own horse to a dust raising halt at the porch that Scott recognized him. He was the boy who worked at the telegraph office in Cross Creek and he had to have left town early to have gotten here at this time of the morning.
“It’s the answer to your wire, Mr. Lancer,” the boy yelled out. “Harry said you’d want it real quick.”
Scott nudged his horse over beside the boy’s and took the envelope that he was waving at him. He thanked him absently and then quickly tore it open and read the contents.
“What is it, son?” Murdoch asked. “What does it say?”
“It says it’s not Bryce Larkin we have to be worried about,” Scott told him cryptically and passed the piece of paper to his father while he kneed his horse into action and raced off in pursuit of his brother.
Johnny made it to town in good time. He’d cantered easily most of the way thinking things through as he rode.
He wanted to talk to Florrie McConachy before he did anything, but if he thought for even one minute that those men had set fire to the woman’s store… Well, he’d see about that when he found them.
As soon as he got into the main street, Johnny could smell the acrid smoke of last night’s fire still lingering in the air. It didn’t smell like plain wood-smoke either. There was something sickly sweet in it as well.
He rode past the Sheriff’s office, preferring not to stop to talk to Earl yet, until he caught sight of the store. He pulled Barranca to a halt well before he got there, shocked by the smoldering ruin of the storefront.
The boardwalk outside had burned through and what had been the front door and windows were gone completely. Part of the roof had caved in, including a rafter beam that hung at an angle from the floor to what was left of the roof. That must have been what had caught Frank Taylor’s shoulder.
Most of the damage seemed to be the front half of the building – the store itself. The back half, where Florrie lived, looked comparatively undamaged. That was something at least.
He walked Barranca over to the hitch rail outside the store and tied him negligently while he kept surveying the damage.
Outside, in the street and on the undamaged part of the boardwalk, there were stacks of barrels, cases and bolts of material, as well as jars and all kinds of merchandise. There were men inside the store, working to move everything outside and it appeared that they were sorting everything into what could be salvaged and what had been lost.
Johnny was pleased to see them. At least the lady wasn’t being left to sort this mess out all by herself.
He dodged and weaved his way through the stacks outside, avoiding the burned and dangerously fragile boards of the sidewalk as he pulled off his hat and stepped into the store itself.
The smoke was gone, except for wisps here and there where wood still smoldered, but the smell lingered. He frowned and wrinkled his nose in disgust as he looked around him.
“Johnny! What are you doing here, boy?” Florrie asked cheerfully. She stood there, with a broom in her hand and covered in soot and grime. A wiry little woman with gray hair pulled back in a bun at the back of her head. Stray strands of hair fell around her face and she pushed them back with soot covered fingers.
“Heard you might need a handyman,” he said, spinning his hat in his hand while he flashed a mischievous smile.
Florrie laughed out loud. “That I do, Johnny. That I do.”
“What’s that awful smell?” Johnny asked.
“Sugar,” she told him. “Lost some sacks of sugar in the fire. Nothin’ like the stench of burned sugar to keep a woman outa the kitchen for a week.” She laughed, but there was a catch in the laugh and a glisten in her eyes that gave her away.
“What happened, Mrs. McConachy? Tell me.”
She shook her head slowly and sadly. “Nothin’ much to tell, Johnny. I woke up to the smell of smoke. Heard the crackle of the fire burning and made a dash out the back way. There was already men runnin’ around outside tryin’ to organize water buckets.”
“Nice feelin’ you know, Johnny, havin’ so many neighbors come rushin’ to help you,” she added.
The sadness in her voice was overwhelming. Johnny took the broom from her hands and put his arm around her shoulders. She suddenly seemed small and fragile instead of the little whirlwind who had half of the town afraid of her.
He led her back into the undamaged part of the building and found the kitchen. Sitting her at the table and tossing his hat onto it, he walked over and looked through the cupboards until he found a glass, then continued his search. He finally found what he was looking for and turned around with the glass in one hand and the bottle of whiskey in the other.
Johnny filled the glass to half-full and put it in front of her. “Go on, ma’am. Drink it down. You look like you need it.”
She looked at it for a minute and then reached over and took it. She took a sip and coughed a little. Then she took another.
“You’re a good boy, Johnny,” she told him with a smile.
“Thanks,” he said and sat down in the chair next to her. “Just don’t spread it around. I have a reputation to think about.”
Florrie laughed until she suddenly broke and tears fell. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her over to cry on his shoulder until the sobbing softened to sniffles. She lifted her head from his shoulder and wiped away her tears with the back of her hand.
“Thank you, dear.”
“Do you feel up to talkin’?” he asked her kindly.
She nodded. “Yes. I’m fine, now.”
He let go of her shoulders and poured another glass of whiskey for her.
“You’ll have me drunk before long, boy,” she said with a smile. “Why don’t you join me?”
“Thanks, but I gotta keep a clear head. Any other time, I’d be real honored, ma’am,” he said with a cheeky grin. “Not often I get to share a drink with a fine lady.”
“Get on with ya, Johnny Lancer,” she said, laughing. “You save that line for one of those young gals in town. Now, what were you going to ask?”
“Have those three men been back since we talked the other day?”
She looked down at the glass in her hand. “Yeah, they came ‘round again.”
“Did they threaten you?”
“Not right out, Johnny. They just said it’d be a shame if something happened to my store. Said they could protect me from bad things happening. I just had to pay them.”
“You turned them down, I take it?”
“Sent them off with a flea in their ears,” she told him merrily. “Got the big fella right on the backside with my broom.”
He laughed, but he wished she’d been a little more careful who she embarrassed.
“I think I’ll have a word with ‘em,” he said quietly.
“Don’t you go doing something stupid, Johnny,” Florrie McConachy told him firmly. “There’s still three of ‘em. I don’t want you getting hurt again – not because of me.”
He smiled calmly at her. “I’ll be careful.”
She stood up from the table and Johnny got up with her, picked up his hat, and then followed her to the doorway.
“I have to get back to cleaning up this mess, boy,” she said as she stepped back into the blackened store. She led him through the debris to what had been the front door.
He stood there with her for a minute and drew a deep breath. If this fire had been intentionally lit, as he thought it had, then he had to wonder what sort of man would do this to a widow who had never harmed anyone.
It was a low act – lower than he could comprehend.
“Miz McConachy, if you need anything…” he started awkwardly, lowering his head and looking at his feet as he scuffed the toe of one boot on the floor.
She put her hand on his arm and squeezed lightly. “You’re a good boy, Johnny. Said it before and I’ll say it again.” She smiled happily at him. “Thank you, boy, but I’ll be fine.” She laughed lightly at a passing thought. “You come see me next time you’re in town. I’ll have some peppermints for you.”
He shoved his hat on his head and settled it comfortably, and then he looked up and grinned at her. “I’ll take you up on that, ma’am,” he said and turned away to leave.
But he didn’t even take a step. His grin left his face and his eyes turned to ice.
Riker was strolling across the road towards them.
The man stopped when he saw Johnny step onto the boardwalk. He was almost face to face with Johnny and he looked at the destruction around him.
“Oo-ee, this here’s a real shame, ma’am,” he said, shaking his head. “Kind of a shame you didn’t go along with our idea. We coulda protected ya from this sorta thing.”
“Miz McConachy doesn’t need your protection, Riker,” Johnny said coolly. His tone had changed so much that the woman was stunned speechless and stared at him. “I’m lettin’ you know, right now, that she’s under MY protection.” He smiled a smile that was meant to purvey anything but pleasure. “You might want to remember that from here on.”
Riker laughed maliciously. “Is that right, Lancer?” he said. His hand slipped to his side and hung lazily within easy reach of his gun. “Maybe that’s more than you can take on, all alone.”
“Johnny…please…” Florrie McConachy whispered beside him.
“Go inside ma’am,” he told her calmly. “All the way inside.”
He didn’t look at her, but kept his eyes on Riker instead. He heard her back away slowly and was satisfied that she was obeying him.
“Be careful, Johnny,” she pleaded as she left.
Johnny heard the scuffling sounds of the two men inside the store who were helping with the clean up. At least they had the sense to get out of the way without his having to say anything. He didn’t want to take this all the way, but he wasn’t going to back down to Riker at this point either.
“You heard the lady, boy,” Riker sneered. “Might pay ya to listen to her. You oughta think about it real careful before you do somethin’ stupid.”
In a town the size of Green River, Johnny found it difficult to believe that no one had told Riker about Madrid. He had no idea who Johnny was, or, at least, that was how it seemed. Just the same, Johnny didn’t want this to end in a gunfight – not here in town. There were too many innocent bystanders who could get hurt.
And he’d spent a lot of time trying to let the town forget about his past. Most of the people here, with the exception of a few self-righteous citizens, had slowly come to accept him and treated him as plain Johnny Lancer – albeit a little carefully sometimes.
He’d been able to put Madrid aside most of the time and he liked it just fine. He had no desire to bring him out and show him to his friends and neighbors now.
Riker was a professional. Johnny knew it just by looking at him. But he’d never heard of him. He didn’t like going up against a man without knowing how good he was, but Riker, if that was his real name, didn’t seem to think the same way.
He obviously thought that it would be just as easy to take Johnny Lancer as it had been to drag him into an alley and have Cameron beat the life out of him.
Johnny felt rage rising inside. He clenched his fists in anger, but something deep inside him warned him. This was no time to let his emotions get in the way.
He took a deep breath and let the anger go. His hands unclenched and his shoulders relaxed. It was gone. As usual, Johnny’s survival instincts and the lessons learned from years spent facing men in the street held him in good stead.
Johnny watched Riker grin and step cautiously back into the street.
“First rule of the game, Riker,” Johnny said coldly. “Know your enemy.”
For a moment, Riker looked doubtful. He seemed to study Johnny’s face and frown, but he took another couple of steps back until he was in the middle of the street. His doubts seemed to disappear and his faith in himself returned.
“Come on, Lancer,” Riker jeered. “Let’s see what sorta protection you can offer the old biddy.”
He was eager – too eager. Johnny kept his eyes on him, but one thought went through his mind over and over – there should be three of them.
“Are you in that much of a hurry to die, Riker?”
There should be three of them. Where were the other two?
Riker laughed again. “Scary words, Lancer,” he said and stepped back another step. This time his hand flexed at his side. “No more talkin’. You think you’re good enough? Prove it.”
The other two were around somewhere. Where were they?
Time ran out. It didn’t matter where they were now. Johnny saw it – the flicker in Riker’s eyes that told him he was going to make his move.
It was over in seconds and gunpowder and smoke filled the air when the bullets stopped.
Scott couldn’t help but find his brother when he got into Green River. He was pretty sure Johnny would head for Mrs. McConachy’s store before he did anything else so he expected to find him there. He knew he wasn’t far behind him, but Johnny had obviously ridden at a good pace all the way to town and he hadn’t been able to catch up to him.
Just as he thought, he spotted Barranca outside what was left of the McConachy store, so he had no doubt about where Johnny was. He’d figured that he would still be there.
He made his way towards the store, in no real hurry now that he was satisfied that Johnny hadn’t had time to get himself into trouble yet. But he pulled up short. He saw Johnny and Mrs. McConachy appear at the doorway of the burnt out store and then saw Riker head towards them from across the street.
Scott dismounted quickly and tied his horse to the nearest hitch rail. Riker had stopped in front of Johnny and the old lady, and Scott listened intently to make out what was being said. He couldn’t hear much but he knew they weren’t talking about the weather.
So much for Johnny not having had time to get into trouble yet.
Scott stepped onto the boardwalk across the road from where Johnny stood but further down the street, aware that his brother probably couldn’t see him. He didn’t want him to. The last thing he wanted to do was to distract Johnny now.
As he got closer, he heard more of the conversation. Listening to the exchange between them, Scott was amazed to realize that Riker didn’t appear to know that he was taking on Johnny Madrid. It seemed incredible, in a town like Green River, that no one had mentioned Johnny’s past to them. But Riker was taunting him, apparently determined to get him to fight.
Scott almost laughed. It was foolhardy at best. But then he remembered – there should be three of them. That was why Riker was so confident. Whether he knew about Madrid or not, he had backup.
Three of them – where were the other two? He had to find them and put them out of the game before Riker drew his gun and started his murderous plan.
He looked over to where Johnny was standing. Scott watched Johnny send Florrie into the building and the men in there eagerly join her in getting out of the way.
Then he looked at where Riker had stopped in the street. He wouldn’t want to be in the line of fire so Scott looked around to see where they might be hiding.
He found one of them, up high on the roof of the saloon. He was well hidden and Scott couldn’t get a bead on him from where he stood.
But then he spotted the third one. It was Cameron. The big man was hiding around the corner of the saloon in an alley – the same alley he and his friends had waylaid Johnny in - and he already had his rifle trained on Johnny.
Scott drew his gun and checked it carefully. Moving with all the stealth he could muster, he ducked down the alley beside the hotel and wound his way behind the building and into the rear end of the same alley where Cameron was standing. He edged up quietly behind him and got to within a few feet of the man without attracting his attention.
Leveling his pistol on the man, Scott thumbed the hammer back with a sharp ‘click’ that finally made the big man start. With a hard edge to his voice, Scott said quietly, “Drop the rifle, Cameron.”
The man froze, but he didn’t lower the weapon. He didn’t turn around – didn’t move at all, except to straighten up warily.
“Don’t give me an excuse to shoot you,” Scott added grimly. “That’s my brother over there and I don’t intend to give you a chance to squeeze that trigger.”
The huge man still didn’t look around. He still didn’t move, but he let the rifle drop to the ground.
“Very wise, Cameron,” Scott told him. “Now, unbuckle the belt and let it drop.”
Cameron reached down to his belt, apparently eager to obey and Scott added quietly, “Slowly.”
The gun belt fell with a thud that raised a cloud of dust around it. Scott picked up the belt and the rifle and nudged the big man into the street. He followed him and looked around the corner to see if he could spot the last man.
He saw him just as the shots sounded.
Aghast, Scott looked on as Johnny’s hand flew to his side, whipped his pistol from his holster and fanned the hammer back. It all happened in a split second and Riker fell in the dusty street. Riker’s own shot whizzed past Johnny as he dived off the boardwalk and onto the street. It hit the fallen beam inside the store where Florrie McConachy and her friends had been only a minute ago.
“Johnny! The saloon roof!” Scott screamed urgently.
Johnny rolled to the right as a bullet spat up dust where his head had been. He rolled back again in anticipation of another shot and stopped to get off a shot towards the rooftop.
A yelp of pain rang through the air and a rifle fell all the way down to the street. Johnny’s aim had been spot on, even from his position lying in the street.
Suddenly, Earl appeared from nowhere and ran up the staircase on the outside of the saloon, heading for the roof.
And, just like that, it was over. The shooting stopped, smoke hung heavily in the air and the sharp smell of gunpowder filled Scott’s nostrils.
He pushed Cameron forward and made his way over to where Johnny was picking himself up off the ground.
“You all right?” Scott asked him anxiously. He couldn’t see any blood on him, but he needed to be sure.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he answered lightly, brushing the dust off his clothes. “You?”
“Not a scratch, little brother,” he said with a smile.
Johnny turned and looked up to the rooftop. “Earl, you got him?”
“Yeah, I got him, Johnny,” Earl called back to him from the roof of the saloon.
Johnny returned his pistol to its holster with apparent calm and turned his attention to the man lying in the street dying.
He walked over to him and knelt down on one knee beside him. Pulling the man’s coat aside, Johnny saw the ragged hole in the man’s chest and the massive blood loss. It looked like the bullet had severed an artery. There was no hope for him. He probably only had seconds.
Riker was staring at him, pain engrained on his face but still holding the gun limply in his hand. Johnny took it from him and put it aside, out of the man’s reach.
“I told you, Riker – know your enemy,” he said cryptically.
Riker frowned and managed to whisper, “Who…?”
Johnny leaned over him and whispered in his ear. Scott didn’t hear what he said. No one but Riker heard it. His eyes widened and he gasped one last breath, let it out and died.
Earl reached the street with Douglas in tow. Douglas was holding his bleeding hand and tripped, without falling all the way to the ground, when Earl gave him a shove.
The deputy reached down and picked up the rifle that had fallen from the rooftop. He already had Douglas’ gun belt and gun slung over his shoulder.
He pushed Douglas one last time and then reached Scott and Johnny in the middle of the street.
Johnny glared coldly at the two surviving gunmen. He knew that, without help from his brother, he would probably be dead now. Even without knowing who he was or about his reputation, the three men had set him up for murder.
He didn’t say anything. He just stared at the men, leaving the others wondering what was going through his head. Then he turned and faced Cameron. His eyes flashed with cold fury.
“Johnny…” Scott started, but his brother ignored him.
“You’re brave men, aren’t you?” Johnny sneered at them. “Old ladies sleepin’ in their beds; a big gentle fella like Rob Anderson who wouldn’t hurt a fly; Pete Franks – a kid who didn’t know any better; and Val… did you do the backshootin’ too?” His fists balled in rage. “Yeah, you’re real brave men.”
Cameron smiled malevolently at him. “An’ you,” he told Johnny with a sneer. “Ya left yourself off of the list, didn’t ya? That’s what’s really gettin’ ya, ain’t it?”
Johnny didn’t answer and his face was rigid. He unbuckled his gun belt and pulled it off. He shoved it angrily at his brother and took a step back. “You wanta try it without someone to hold me for you?”
Scott was appalled. “Johnny, no… this is crazy!”
“Stand back, Scott,” Johnny told him angrily, without taking his eyes off Cameron. “Stay outa the way.”
“Don’t be a fool!” Scott begged him. “You can’t take him on. You’re r…”
Johnny turned a look of rage on his brother that stopped him cold.
“This is between him an’ me,” Johnny told him. The last thing he needed, if he was going to do this, was for Scott to let slip the word that his ribs were already damaged.
Scott was going to appeal to his better judgment but Earl put his hand on his shoulder and held him back.
“Ain’t gonna do no good to argue with him, Scott,” Earl told him quietly. “He needs to do this.”
He remembered his brother’s reactions in the barn that day – his humiliation and his embarrassment over the beating. He didn’t agree with him but he knew that Johnny needed this chance to recover some of his own self esteem.
Johnny was angry. Scott could see it in his eyes and in the way his body was tensed. Would he be able to think smart enough to beat Cameron in this mood? Scott hoped so. He hoped so because a part of him accepted what Johnny wanted to do.
But then his brain rebelled at the idea of Johnny taking on Cameron. “No, Johnny, you can’t do it!”
“Just stay out of it, Scott. And make sure his friend there stays out of it, too.” Johnny stepped back from Cameron. “Come on, Cameron. Let’s see what you can do without your friends to help you.” He smiled antagonistically and the big man looked first at Scott and then at Earl, as if for acquiescence. “Or can’t you do it on your own?” Johnny finished.
Cameron uttered a deep rumbling growl and charged at Johnny.
Why? Why did he need to do this? He wasn’t sure. All he knew was that he had to do it.
And Johnny also knew he had to use his head in this fight. He was all too aware that he wasn’t in peak condition for it. Even if he was, Cameron had to be about six inches taller than him and he was built like a bull. He figured the man had to be at least 40 pounds heavier than he was.
But, being so big, Johnny hoped he would be slow. He had to stay clear of those massive fists. With the power that Johnny knew the man could summon in his balled fists, one punch would have the fight over.
But he knew that he had a chance. He’d seen a matador training once and remembered the way the man had edged and weaved and stayed clear of the bull. It had fascinated him then, but he figured he could use those tactics now. Cameron certainly fit the bill to play the part of the bull.
He heard an animal-like growl and saw Cameron bend over and charge at him. Johnny stepped lightly aside and the man powered past him with a roar before he came to a stop a few yards away. He stopped, straightened and turned around quickly. An almost comical look of surprise appeared on his face briefly, only to be replaced with an expression of sheer rage as he ducked and ran at Johnny again.
Again, Johnny dodged him and, this time, he stuck his boot out and tripped him.
Cameron got to his feet quicker than Johnny had thought he would, but he grinned anyway and made sure that Cameron saw it. The angrier the man got, the more mistakes he would make. And the better Johnny’s chances of beating him were.
This time, he didn’t run at Johnny. Instead, he stepped up close to him and took a swing at him. His reach was much longer than Johnny’s, and the brute force behind that swing was frightening, but Johnny saw it coming. He ducked beneath it and came back with his own fist.
He connected with the big man’s gut with all the strength he could find and Cameron doubled over in pain.
Cameron gasped breathlessly, but he straightened up and blindly took another swing at Johnny’s head.
Johnny stepped back and dodged sideways to keep away from the enormous fist but he wasn’t quite fast enough. He avoided most of it, but the edge of his fist caught Johnny on the side of the temple. The force was enough to set his ears ringing and he stumbled dizzily.
He shook his head and got to his feet, while Cameron laughed and balled his fist for another shot at him. Johnny ducked and jumped aside and the momentum behind that massive swing carried Cameron on till he lost his balance and landed face down in the street.
A cheer went up around him and Johnny became vaguely aware that he had an audience now. There were cries of “Now’s your chance, Johnny!”, but he ignored them. He wasn’t going to kick a man when he was down, even if Cameron would certainly have done it to him.
He waited while the monster of a man got slowly to his feet. Cameron’s face was red and he shook with rage as he turned around and glared at his tormentor.
The man’s brain seemed to disconnect. All thinking went and the man charged furiously at Johnny but Johnny once more sidestepped and easily eluded him. He drove his fist ruthlessly into Cameron’s stomach as he powered past and the man fell to his knees on the ground.
He coughed and gasped while Johnny wavered on his feet, fighting the dizziness that threatened to be his undoing. He steadied himself for the next onslaught and waited to see what the man was going to do. His head roared, but he knew that Cameron was tiring badly. He’d wasted a lot of energy trying to run Johnny down and lay hands on him.
All around him there were shouts and jeers from his audience, but Johnny tried to put it out of his mind. Memories out of his past flooded his dulled brain and confused him for just a moment.
He shook them away just in time to see Cameron coming at him again, his huge arms opened wide to grab him. Johnny desperately tried to jump away in time, but Cameron grabbed one of his arms and pulled him into a crushing embrace.
Johnny thought that the words ‘bear hug’ were a most inadequate description for what was happening. It felt more like he was in the vice like grip of a boa constrictor and it was wrapping its coils murderously around his chest, tightening its grip and squeezing the air from his lungs.
His arms were free and he put everything he had into a punch to his captor’s jaw. It was like hitting a brick wall. It hurt his knuckles but it didn’t have the slightest effect on Cameron. He pulled back and tried again, and then again, but he soon realized that it was no good. He was getting nowhere.
And what was worse was that he’d wasted too much of his precious strength. His lungs were on fire. His brain was ready to explode from oxygen starvation. He could hear his own heartbeat pounding so loud in his ears that there was nothing else reaching them.
He was going to die there. He knew it. If he couldn’t break Cameron’s hold on him he would die there. He felt something give in his chest and knew that at least one of those bruised ribs that Scott was so worried about had just given way.
Johnny concentrated with all his might and summoned every last iota of strength he had left. He lifted his arms, flattened his hands and slapped them as hard as he could simultaneously against Cameron’s ears.
There was a loud popping sound and Cameron roared. His hands flew to his ears and he reeled back, releasing his grip on Johnny.
Johnny slipped to his knees, dragging in precious air to fill his lungs. He wrapped his arms around his chest. Every breath was agony and he knew that more than one of those ribs was broken. The pain brought unwanted tears to his eyes as he fought to get control of it.
His head swam and his thoughts wouldn’t coalesce into sensible thought. But, somewhere, an instinct kicked in. He had an advantage and he had to take it. This fight had to end, now.
He staggered to his feet, stumbled and nearly fell. He put his hand down on the ground to get his balance back and pulled himself back onto his shaky feet.
His blurry eyes rested on Cameron as he whimpered in agony. He took three tortuous steps towards Cameron and drew in his breath. He stood up straight and gathered every ounce of his waning strength, balled his fist and slammed it into the man’s jaw.
It was awesome to see. Most of those watching couldn’t believe he had enough left in him to loose that punch. Even Johnny himself was surprised by it.
The impact knocked Cameron back off his feet and Johnny dropped to his knees. He didn’t think he could get up again this time. If Cameron made it up before him, it would be all over.
A hand on his shoulder brought Johnny back to his senses with a start. He clenched his fist and drew back spontaneously.
“Hey, hey…Johnny it’s me, Scott!”
Johnny heard the words through the clouded haze in his mind and lowered his fist. “Sorry,” he whispered as he gasped for breath.
“Are you okay?” Scott asked, anxiously taking stock of his brother’s condition. He’d wanted to stop it long before it got this far, but Earl had reminded him that it was his brother’s fight and he wouldn’t forgive him for interfering.
Even so, when he saw his brother in that monstrous embrace, Scott had stepped forward to stop it. But Johnny had stopped it himself before he got to him.
Johnny replied with a short laugh. There was an almost hysterical twist to it that worried Scott more than his state.
“Brother, if I ever come up with an idea as stupid as that again, hit me over the head with somethin’, will ya?” he finally said.
Scott laughed and reached around Johnny’s shoulders to support him as he got to his feet. “You have my word on it, Johnny.”
There was noise all around them as Scott led his brother to the boardwalk to sit down. Hands patted Johnny on the back and grinning faces swarmed around them.
“It’s all over, folks,” Scott said angrily. “Give him some air.”
Johnny sat down and finally took some notice of what was going on around him. Earl had grabbed a bystander and the two were ushering Cameron and Douglas towards the jail. Cameron was stumbling unsteadily, looking worse than Johnny had expected him to.
And there were people everywhere. Men loitered in the street talking and laughing. Women were standing on the boardwalk on the far side of the street tut-tutting and shaking their heads over the scene, but apparently engrossed in it nonetheless.
“Bring him in here, Scott,” he heard a lady’s voice behind him. He twisted around to find Florrie McConachy looking at him with concern.
“I’m okay, ma’am,” he assured her.
“Maybe so, but I’m not leavin’ you sitting out here. Come out back to the kitchen.”
Johnny pulled himself wearily to his feet and started after her, but Scott turned back towards the milling group of onlookers. Their presence offended his senses and infuriated him.
“There’s nothing more to see,” he called out to them. “Go home.”
“Forget it, Scott,” Johnny said quietly, resting his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s go inside.”
Scott was angry by now, but he gave it up and followed his brother into the burned out store and out through the door to Mrs. McConachy’s kitchen.
“Sit yourself down right there, Johnny,” the lady said firmly, pulling one of the chairs out from the table. She took a hand towel and wet it down, folded it neatly and placed it on the back of Johnny’s neck as he did as she told him and sat down.
He thanked her quietly and, with his elbows resting on the table, he leaned forward to with his head in his hands. His head throbbed and he wondered where the salty taste of blood in his mouth was coming from. He wiped his hand across his mouth and looked at the blood smeared on it.
Tenderly checking it out, he realized that the split in his lip had reopened. He sighed heavily. It could have been worse.
Florrie dampened another cloth and pulled a chair over beside him. She sat down and gently wiped the blood and grime from his face. He thanked her again and she shook her head.
“I thought I told you not to do anythin’ stupid,” she told him when she finished. She stood up and went to the cupboard where she kept the whiskey. Then she grabbed some glasses and took them back to the table.
Sitting down beside Johnny again, she poured a drink for each of them.
“This time you will have a drink with me, boy,” she told him with a wry grin.
“Sorry, guess it wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did,” Johnny answered with a smile designed to melt even the hardest female heart.
“You’ve got that right!” Scott said, angrily dismissing the smile on his brother’s face. “Do you want to tell me just what was going through your head, brother?”
“Just let it go, Scott,” Johnny told him. He sounded spent and harassed.
“I know you were embarrassed…”
“Scott, will you let it go?” Johnny repeated, his temper rising. “You don’t understand.”
Scott furiously pulled out the chair opposite him and sat down. “You’re right. I don’t understand. You picked a fight with a man who could kill you with one good hit and made me stand by and watch. So, you make me understand!”
Johnny kept his head down on his hands and went quiet.
“Talk to me, Johnny. Make me understand,” Scott implored him.
The answer was so quiet that Scott had to listen carefully to hear him. Florrie sat back, staying out of it.
“Where I grew up, beating up mestizo kids was a spectator sport,” he said. “I learned how to fight almost as soon as I could walk, but the bigger and better I got, the more of ‘em would come after me. There were no rules. Street fighting in border towns is every man for himself, so no one cared if a couple of ‘em held me while the others whooped me.”
Scott didn’t interrupt him now that he was finally talking. He sat silently listening to his story, already wishing he could reach out to him to comfort him. His brother was hurting from more than the beating he’d taken at Cameron’s hands. Well, he’d asked why, and now he was getting it.
“I couldn’t walk down the street without someone draggin’ me into a fight. An’ there was always a crowd cheering them on.” He stopped and breathed a heavy sigh. “Then one day, I picked up a gun. They didn’t pick on me after that. I could walk any street I liked. I could go into any saloon an’ get served without an argument. I got respect…or maybe it was fear. I didn’t care which.”
He looked up at last and into his brother’s eyes. “I survived, Scott, an’ I swore no one would ever do that to me again.”
The silence in the room was haunting. Johnny’s battered emotions, his past, were out there for both Scott and Florrie to see. If he regretted saying anything in front of her, he didn’t say and she knew enough to keep her peace and stay out of the conversation for now.
He’d revealed more than either of them had expected to hear. Johnny looked exhausted, both physically and emotionally. His head hung low. His eyes were closed and his breathing was deep and slow.
The bruises on his face, from the beating he had taken from Riker, Douglas and Cameron days ago, were fading to yellow now. They were healing fast, but she wasn’t so sure about the internal bruising – the result of all those years of beatings.
What she did do was to reach out and rest her hand gently on his forearm with tacit compassion.
Johnny didn’t react and Scott leaned back in his chair and let out a long slow sigh. He felt like he’d been through a ringer as well. He looked away from his brother and considered what he had heard. He’d wondered what Johnny’s childhood had been like. He’d always known there was a world of hurt lurking behind those sapphire blue eyes of Johnny’s.
Hearing it had confirmed his conceptions, and more. Well, he’d asked, hadn’t he? He’d asked and now he had to face it.
“I’m sorry, Johnny,” he said quietly, when he could finally find the words. “I didn’t realize.”
“No way you could,” Johnny said, breaking his silence at last but without looking up at his brother. “It doesn’t matter now, anyhow. It’s over.”
He picked up the glass full of whiskey and downed it in one gulp, letting the liquor burn its way down his throat. It chased all thought from him mind and he was grateful for it.
He took a deep breath and felt the stabbing pain in his ribs again but quickly controlled his reaction so that his brother wouldn’t suspect.
“I thought I was over it all,” he continued. He couldn’t look them in the eyes yet. Sentiments and feelings he thought were long ago dealt with and buried had resurfaced and poured out of him like a leaky jug – out of control, for once.
Johnny looked up at last and, amazingly, he smiled. “Guess I was wrong. Forget it, brother, we have more important things to think about.”
He still had things to do.
Johnny stood up from the table, cautiously testing his feet. Dizziness washed over him, followed by a wave of nausea, but he stood his ground until it passed.
“Where are you planning to go now?” Scott asked.
“I thought I’d go see what Cameron and Douglas have to say over at the jail,” Johnny answered. “I want to find out what they had to do with Val’s shooting.”
Scott considered this and agreed to it. “All right, that sounds reasonable,” he answered. He looked Johnny over and wasn’t satisfied that he was unhurt. He’d seen that bear hug and knew what damage it could have done.
“How are those ribs of yours, Johnny?” he asked.
Johnny grinned at him. “Let’s get this over with, Boston. I’m real sore, real tired an’ real sorry for myself. But I’ll survive – okay?”
“I’m not sure that I believe you, but okay – for now,” Scott answered warily. “Since Sam isn’t in town anyway, I won’t badger you into getting yourself checked over.” He grinned right back at his brother. “But the minute Sam gets back to town, you’re going to see him.”
“Sure, now let’s go visit those animals,” he said calmly.
Earl sat at Val’s desk with his feet up, lazily crossed at the ankles. He looked far too comfortable for Johnny’s liking – like he’d taken over.
“Where are they?” Johnny asked as he stepped into the office.
The deputy looked up at them. “Why, hi there, Johnny. You lookin’ for Douglas an’ Cameron?”
“Who else would I be looking for, Earl?” Johnny snapped at him. “Where are they?”
“In the cells, out back,” Earl told him, without concern.
“I want to see them,” Johnny told him curtly. Scott had followed him into the room and stood behind him.
“We want to see them,” Scott corrected his brother from behind him.
“Well, sure, boys, just as soon as…”
He stopped as the mayor walked into the room from out back where the cells were. What he’d been doing there seemed obvious to both Johnny and Scott and they were furious.
“Howard, you got some special interest in Earl’s prisoners?” Johnny asked him angrily.
“I wanted to find out what had happened, Johnny,” the man answered with infinite calm. He puffed his chest out with self-importance. “I have to wonder why they’re locked up and you’re not.”
“What?” Scott exclaimed.
“We don’t hold with gunfights in this town,” Howard told him pompously. “Or with brawling in the street.”
“You’re going too far this time, Randall,” Scott fumed. “There are at least two dozen witnesses to the trap they set for Johnny. And they all heard him push Johnny for a gunfight. Johnny didn’t want it. And then, Riker drew on him first.”
“Incidents like these need thorough investigation,” the man told them. “A man is dead, and everyone saw Johnny here kill him. As you said, Scott, there are plenty of witnesses to that.”
“And they’ll all tell you the same as I just did,” Scott said furiously. “Even Earl saw what happened. Didn’t you, Earl?”
“Sure did, Mayor,” the deputy answered honestly. “That fella Riker had Johnny set up real good. Had two guns on him from hiding.”
“What about the fight?” the mayor asked, scowling angrily.
“Well, Johnny was plenty mad. Can’t say as I blame him neither. But it was Cameron who started things.”
“Why are you so interested in keeping ‘em out of jail, Randall?” Johnny asked coldly. “You seem to be around to get ‘em out every time they’re in trouble. You wouldn’t be in somebody’s pocket, would you?”
The mayor huffed and puffed out his chest angrily. “How dare you, boy!”
There was a brief pause before Johnny answered him. “Take a bit of advice for free, Mayor,” Johnny quietly, his eyes stone cold and glaring at the man. “Don’t call me ‘boy’.”
Faced with those eyes of Johnny’s, and the icy tone in his voice, the mayor backed down quickly.
“There’s no need for hostility,” Randall told him. He was trying desperately to cling to his dignity, but his cowardice was overwhelming. He turned to Earl. “I’ll talk to you later, Deputy,” he said and edged carefully past Johnny and then passed Scott with a wary glance.
Scott watched the man leave and didn’t try to disguise the disgust on his face.
“Earl?” Scott asked briefly. “You can’t be thinking of letting them go, surely?”
Earl shook his head. “No sir, Scott. I seen what they did with my own eyes. An’ Val said I was to do my own thinkin’ from now on, an’ not listen to what other people said.”
Johnny relaxed and smiled. “That’s good to hear, Earl.”
“Guess I oughta be there when ya talk to ‘em too, Johnny,” the deputy added.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Earl,” Johnny answered cheerfully.
“Now’s as good a time as any, then,” he replied and stood up.
The deputy stopped for a second and looked uneasy.
“What’s wrong, Earl?” Scott asked.
“Well, Val usually gets visitors to leave their guns outside,” he said awkwardly.
Scott smiled at Johnny, who winked back at him and grinned. “Sure, no problem,” he said and took the gun from his holster and handed it over to the deputy. Scott did the same.
“Thanks,” Earl said, pleased.
He took the keys from the top drawer of the desk and put the two guns in their place. Then he led them to the cells. Unlocking the door to the jail proper, he let them both pass before he followed them in and closed the door behind him.
Douglas sat on one of the two cots, his right hand roughly bandaged and covered in bloodstains. Cameron stood against the wall. His massive frame gave the impression that he needed a cell all to himself. He seemed to take up most of that one.
His jaw was bruising already. His bottom lip was split and dried blood was caked in a trail down his chin. The man was still covered in dust.
“You boys up to talkin’?” Earl asked authoritatively.
“There’s nothin’ to talk about, deputy,” Douglas said with a sneer. “We won’t be here long.” He glared at Johnny and added, threateningly, “An’ then maybe we’ll do some talkin’.”
“Oh, I don’t think you’ve got that right,” Scott told the man. “There are too many witnesses this time. Even Howard Randall knows when he’s beat. You won’t be getting out of here like the last time.”
Cameron flashed a questioning look at Douglas, but Douglas said nothing. He sat on the cot, obviously thinking about what Scott had said.
“What d’ya want?” Douglas asked nastily.
“I want to know who shot Val Crawford,” Johnny told him. He said it in a soft tone with no actual threat, but his voice had gone ice cold again. Douglas and Cameron looked at him and then at each other. Even if there was no threat in Johnny’s words, the tone of his voice dripped with unspoken danger.
“The sheriff?” Douglas asked innocently. “We don’t know nothin’ about that.”
“I kinda think you do,” Johnny answered frigidly. “And, if you want to know a moment’s peace for the rest of your lives, I reckon you oughta tell me ‘bout it.”
Scott looked at his brother in surprise and Earl simply gaped. Neither of them added anything to the exchange, but Scott wasn’t sure that he liked where his brother was going with it.
Just the same, Johnny seemed to want to handle this his own way and, as long as it didn’t involve beating the information out of them, Scott was prepared to let him have his head for now
Douglas grinned. “An’ who’s gonna make me, boy?"
Johnny shook his head in dismay. “You know somethin’, Douglas? You’re the second man to call me a boy today,” he said quietly. “I’ve been all grown up for some years now. I don’t like it.”
Douglas tilted his head to the side and stared at Johnny. “You talk real big, don’t ya?” he sneered. “You wanta be sure you can back it up.”
“Oh, I can back it up,” Johnny said lazily. “Your friend Riker found that out, didn’t he?”
Cameron shifted uncomfortably but didn’t say anything. Douglas looked doubtful but refused to relent. He stared suspiciously at Johnny and seemed to be wondering if he was missing something.
“Riker talked big, but he wasn’t all that good,” Douglas answered. “Beatin’ him ain’t no great feat.”
“You’re right, he wasn’t good enough on the day,” Johnny said with a grim smile. “So, are you faster than he was?”
The fear on his face was answer enough for Johnny so he laughed.
“I’ll give you some advice for free. Val Crawford has this friend,” Johnny said coolly and indifferently, as if reciting a story. “This friend doesn’t like the fact that someone tried to murder Val.”
He stopped for a moment and looked down to his feet. He sighed. “He’s kind of upset about it,” he told them and then he slowly lifted his head and glared at them. “Oh, boy, is he upset about it. He’ll follow you to the ends of the earth if you get out of here. He’s the kind of man who holds a grudge, and he can back it up.” Johnny walked a little closer to the cell door and smiled. “You really don’t wanta mess with him.”
“Johnny…?” Scott began nervously.
“It’s all right, Scott,” Johnny said calmly. “The boys are goin’ to tell us what we want to know. They don’t wanta have to look over their shoulders for the rest of their miserable lives.”
“No…no, we’re dead men if we say anything,” Cameron declared in panic.
“You’re dead men, if you don’t,” Johnny told them candidly and decided it was time to play his ace. They thought he was bluffing and now was the time to show them that he wasn’t. “Or are you happy to have Madrid dog your steps?”
“Madrid?” they exclaimed together.
“He’s a friend of Val’s,” Johnny explained malevolently. “I know him well enough to know that he won’t let you off the hook for backshootin’ Val Crawford.”
There was real fear in their eyes now. “Johnny Madrid?” Douglas asked nervously.
“The same,” Johnny said with a cold smile. “So tell me, which one of you shot Val Crawford?”
“It was Riker,” Cameron shouted, before Douglas had a chance to stop him. “It wasn’t neither of us. Riker did it.”
“That’s kinda convenient, isn’t it?” Johnny asked, suspiciously. “Him bein’ dead an’ all?”
“It was Riker,” Douglas confirmed.
“On who’s orders?” Johnny demanded.
The two men looked at each other and appeared to be silently weighing up their positions. It depended on who they feared the most – their boss, or Johnny Madrid.
Apparently, they feared Johnny Madrid more.
“Larkin…it was Larkin told him to do it,” Douglas declared.
“Which one?” Scott asked before Johnny knew what was happening.
Johnny swung around and stared at his brother. He scowled curiously, but didn’t say anything. He trusted his brother to have a good reason for asking the question.
But Douglas looked frightened. Actually, he looked worse than frightened, he was terrified. He looked from Johnny to Scott and back again. Johnny had seen it before. Douglas was like a trapped animal. He didn’t know which way to turn.
“Which one?” Scott repeated, louder and more forcefully. “Which Larkin?”
Johnny watched Douglas’ face. He looked scared.
The man finally looked down guiltily. “It was the girl – Rebecca Larkin,” Douglas finally confessed quietly.
“Rebecca? Not Bryce?” Johnny asked, stunned.
Scott hadn’t said anything, but he was frowning curiously. “The girl?” he asked at last.
“Yeah,” Douglas confirmed. “She gives all the orders. Her brother’s just there for show. He don’t have no guts for it.”
Earl was dumbfounded. “Are you sayin’ that nice little gal told that Riker fella to bushwhack Val? I don’t believe it.”
“I’m not sure that I do either,” Scott said, the frown still crossing his brow.
“I do,” Johnny told them. “I think Val suspects it too. You should’ve seen her when Val talked to her the other day.”
“She really pulls Bryce’s strings,” Douglas informed them with a spiteful laugh. “She might look like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, but she’s one real strong gal. You really don’t wanta mess with her.”
“Is she behind everything going on here in town as well?”
“She ordered the ‘accidents’ and the fire?” Scott demanded.
Douglas nodded again and added, “Yeah.”
“Will you testify to it?” Scott asked him candidly.
Douglas paled at the idea. “I…I don’t know, maybe…I…I guess…” he stopped and looked up at Scott. “What are you offerin’ me?”
“You’ll be able to sleep at night,” Johnny told him coldly. “Out with it!”
The man looked at Cameron, who only nodded vigorously in agreement. “All right,” Douglas finally relented. “I’ll testify against her. We both will.”
“What about Howard Randall?” Scott asked him. “Where does he fit into all this?”
“The mayor?” Douglas asked, surprised.
“Yes, the mayor,” Scott confirmed. “Why was he here just now? What has he got to do with the Larkins?”
“Nothin’, not as far as I know,” Douglas said with a grin. “He’s always ‘round, big notin’ himself. Just wants to be in good with ‘em, I guess.”
“He has no connection at all?” Scott asked, surprised.
“Not that I know of,” Douglas agreed. “Miss Larkin just laughs at him. Says he’s a ‘pompous fool’ but she likes havin’ him run after her.”
Johnny turned away from the cell, back towards his brother. “Come on, Scott. I’ve heard enough. Let’s go,” he said with quiet determination.
Scott looked at him and guessed what he wanted to do next. Johnny’s face was a mask, but Scott knew what lay beneath it. Anger – revenge – his own humiliation – all of those emotions and more were lurking there ready to burst forth in a fury of violence.
He turned and left the room with Earl right behind him. Johnny walked out behind them, but stopped abruptly when he heard Douglas call out “Hey, Madrid…?”
Johnny stood there for a second, with his back to the prisoners, before he turned his head around and said quietly and coldly over his shoulder, “The name’s Lancer,” and walked out.
Johnny went to the drawer where Earl had stowed their weapons and grabbed his out. He slid it into the holster, turned and stormed past Scott without a word and left the office. He strode purposefully down the street to where he had left Barranca and mounted quickly.
He’d left his brother far behind in his wake but Scott hurried to where he had left his own horse and headed out after his brother. He galloped out of town to catch up with Johnny.
Johnny’s volatile temper was way past boiling point and was headed for ‘explosive’ now. Scott didn’t want him reaching the Larkins’ place before he had a chance to cool him down.
He was angry too. She’d played them all for fools. Her tears and supposed concern for Val had been a ludicrous farce all along.
And the wire he’d received from New York made less sense now. It hadn’t mentioned Rebecca Larkin at all. Could it be that the girl had taken over?
Scott had never met a woman who was capable of this sort of brutality before. It was all new territory for him.
Still, something didn’t ring quite true.
He put the thought aside as he got closer to Johnny and Barranca. He caught sight of him and pressed his horse harder to try to catch him. Johnny had been galloping hard. But common sense – or, more likely, consideration for his horse - had slowed him down. It was just as well. Even on a good day, Barranca was too fast for his horse.
Scott reached out and grabbed for his brother’s arm.
“Johnny, pull up for a minute. We can’t just ride in there and start making accusations against the girl,” he said loudly enough to be heard over the pounding hoof beats.
His brother didn’t look at him so Scott repeated his demand that he pull up. When Johnny still ignored him, he leaned over and pulled on Barranca’s bridle.
The horse slowed to a halt and Johnny turned furiously on Scott.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Johnny yelled as Barranca pranced skittishly under him.
Scott took one look at his face and was appalled.
“I could ask the same thing of you, you idiot,” he threw back at his brother. “You are hurt, aren’t you?”
Johnny’s face was beaded with sweat and he was so pale that Scott knew immediately that he wasn’t perspiring from the hot summer day.
“I’m just fine,” Johnny lied, and Scott knew it for the bald faced lie that it was. He could see that Johnny was far from being fine and he was outraged.
“It’s your ribs, isn’t it?” Scott persisted. He didn’t wait for an answer. With Barranca’s bridle still in his hand, he tried to pull the horse and his rider around to take them back to town.
“Let go, Scott,” Johnny fumed and hit his brother’s hand aside. The effort and the sudden movement cost him dearly. Scott saw it. Johnny tried to hide a grimace and suffocated the groan that he started to utter as he leaned forward in pain.
“You’re in no condition to face anyone,” Scott insisted. “We don’t have to do this now.”
“Yes we do! And I’m going to be there,” Johnny declared. “I wanta see the bitch’s face when she finds out that we know about her game.”
“You shouldn’t even be on a horse,” Scott told him angrily. He had a lot more to say, but he was interrupted by the clatter of hoof beats coming from behind them.
Scott turned around and saw Earl riding towards them. Johnny pulled himself up straight in the saddle and turned around to see who was coming.
“Well, I gotta hand it to him,” he said resignedly. “Earl’s tryin’.”
The deputy reined in beside them and grinned at them.
“I gotta make this official,” he said laconically. He frowned when he looked at Johnny and his grin faded. “You don’t look so good, Johnny.”
“Don’t you go startin’ in on me, Earl,” Johnny said irritably. “Now, let’s get going.” He kneed Barranca forward, but Scott still held the bridle and gripped it firmly.
“Just hold on a minute, Johnny,” Scott demanded.
“No, I’m going, Scott. I’ll be all right. Now let go.”
Scott sighed and thought seriously of using the butt end of his gun on the back of his brother’s head. The man’s hard head wouldn’t be any the worse for it.
But, realistically, he knew that he couldn’t do it.
“I know I’ll regret this, but all right,” Scott said quietly. “But slow down and be more careful.”
The three men slowly rode into the yard of the Bar T ranch and dismounted. Scott watched Johnny surreptitiously and noticed that he climbed down slowly and carefully. He stood with his hand resting on the saddle for just a moment, and Scott got the impression that he was fighting off a bout of dizziness. It was just for a moment though, and then Johnny stood up straight and joined Scott and Earl.
Scott had been keeping a wary eye on his brother all the way here and so far he seemed to be holding up all right, but, nevertheless, he wouldn’t be happy until he had him home with Sam checking him over.
He looked around him. Scott hadn’t been to the Bar T very often, but he remembered it being a bit run down in the days when Ted Taylor had owned it. Ted had been elderly and alone after the death of his wife and his daughter having married and gone to live in San Francisco. The whole town knew that he had lost interest in the ranch and let it go downhill.
The place he was looking at now was far from run down. There was new paint on all of the buildings. The corral looked like it had been repaired recently and the barn didn’t have a nail or board out of place. There was even a garden in front of the house and the windows glistened crystal clear.
A lot of money had been sunk into this place lately, but there was something strange about the ranch.
It took him a minute to nail down what it was. Cattle! There were very few around, and he hadn’t seen many out on the range either, certainly not enough to make the ranch a money making concern.
They tied their horses and waited as Albert Larkin came through the door to greet them. The man smiled and waved to them cheerfully.
“Why hello! Scott and Johnny Lancer, as I live and breath,” Albert called to them jauntily. “Come on in outa the sun, boys.” He squinted in the sunlight and stared at Earl. “Who’s the young fella you got with you, boys?”
“This is Earl Tomkins, Mr. Larkin,” Scott told him. “Earl is the deputy sheriff in Green River. He’s taken over while Val is laid up.”
“Well, it’s real good to meet you, lad,” Larkin said, extending his hand and shaking Earl’s grandiosely. Albert Larkin did nothing in a small way apparently. “Now, come on in outa the hot sun, all o’ you. My Emmie’s got some nice cool lemonade that’ll go down well.”
They followed Albert Larkin into his house and looked around them. The house was spotlessly clean and tidy. Not a thing was out of place.
Scott suddenly saw it for what it was. It was a family home, with pictures on the mantle and knickknacks on the table; and they were here to tell them that their daughter was capable of murder and more.
All three men took off their hats and held them in their hands. Johnny kept his by his side, leaving one hand hung free – his gun hand.
“Emmie!” Larkin shouted from behind them as he stepped through the door.
Emily Larkin hurried into the room at her husband’s call. Her tall, thin frame was dressed plainly but well, and she twisted her hands nervously at the sight of visitors.
“Yes, Bert dear?” she asked quickly.
“Emmie, love, we have visitors. The Lancer boys have come visiting and they brought the deputy with them,” he explained jovially. “Why don’t you bring some of that cool lemonade you made up this morning? These young fellas must be parched after a long ride in that hot sun.”
The woman looked over at them and nodded. “It’s nice to see you, gentlemen,” she said formally and smiled a little. “I’ll get the lemonade,” she added and hurried out.
“Good girl,” Larkin said as she left and turned back to his guests. “Take a seat, boys and tell me what can I do for you?”
None of the three men sat down. They each looked awkwardly at each other for a moment.
Larkin noticed their discomfort. “Come now, boys. Don’t stand on ceremony. We’re all friends here.” He looked Johnny over and took note of his pallid complexion under his tan and bruises. “Johnny, you sure look like you need to sit for a while.”
Johnny looked uncomfortable. He looked down at his feet and shifted uneasily, before answering simply, “Thanks, but I’m fine. I’d rather stand.”
“Well, suit yourself,” he answered and shrugged. “So, what brings you boys all the way out here?”
“Mr. Larkin, sir,” Earl said awkwardly. “We need to talk to Miss Rebecca.”
"To Becca? Why?”
“It’s kinda important, sir,” Earl continued. “Could ya get her, please?”
“That sounds ominous. Is something wrong?”
“There’s been some doin’s in town today, Mr. Larkin. There was a fire at Miz McConachy’s store…”
“A fire? Was anyone hurt? And what has that got to do with Becca?” he asked anxiously.
“No one was hurt in the fire,” Scott assured him.
“I’m real glad to hear that, but, I repeat, what has that got to do with Becca?”
“There was a gunfight, too,” Earl continued. “One o’ your men – Riker – he’s dead.”
“Riker? Well, he worked here, of course, but I really didn’t know him very well. It doesn’t pay to get involved with the hired help,” Larkin told them arrogantly. “Just the same, he seemed like a decent enough man and I’m sorry he’s dead. But I still don’t see what this has to do with my daughter.”
“His friends are in jail,” Scott told him. “They’ve admitted to setting Johnny up to be murdered in the street in that gunfight, and to lighting the fire, as well as several other crimes.”
The man looked shocked. “Why, that’s terrible! And you say they’ve admitted it?”
“That’s right,” Scott answered. “And they’ve implicated your daughter in their activities.”
The man stopped dead and stared blankly at them.
“Implicated? How?” Larkin demanded. His jovial manner had slipped away. He was like any other father concerned about his daughter. He was furious.
“His friends are sittin’ in jail right now,” Earl told him. “They reckon Miss Rebecca told ‘em to do it all.”
Albert Larkin stared at them speechlessly for some time and no one else stepped in to say anything more to him. “I don’t believe what I’m hearing,” he said at last, shaking his head in dismay. “Do you mean to tell me that you’re taking the word of two criminals against my daughter? That’s ridiculous!”
“Maybe, Mr. Larkin,” Earl replied. “But that’s what they said.”
“She’s not even twenty years old. She’s a protected, beautiful angel. She wouldn’t know anything about this sort of thing. And you want to take their word against a child? Are you mad?”
Earl shook his head slowly. “No, sir,” he said seriously. “We ain’t.” He twisted the brim of his hat nervously in his hands for a moment before he continued. “But we still gotta talk to Miss Becca. Find out what she has to say ‘bout this.”
“I’ll tell you what she’ll have to say about it – absolutely nothing. I’m not going to even let her dignify such a suggestion with an answer.”
No one said anything for a minute. Scott glanced towards his brother. He’d been uncharacteristically quiet and Scott was worried about his condition. He looked all right for now though. He was pale, but he seemed steady on his feet.
“Do you even have any sort of evidence against her at all?” Larkin finally asked sharply.
“It don’t really matter, Mr. Larkin,” Earl replied. “I gotta talk to anyone who’s imp…imp…”
“Implicated,” Scott finished for him quietly.
“Yeah, implicated,” Earl repeated. “Don’t mean no more than that till I hear what she has to say.”
Bryce Larkin strolled into the room, carrying a tray with glasses and a jug of lemonade. He was smiling charmingly.
“Mom asked me to bring this in for you all,” he said, placing the tray on a small table by the window. “We could hear you shouting from the kitchen, Dad. So what’s going on in here?”
“These idiots think that Becca’s a criminal!” his father shouted.
An enigmatic smile crossed Bryce Larkin’s face. “Really? So, what does Becca have to say about that?”
“Bryce! This is not funny!” his father yelled back. “This is your sister they’re talking about.”
“Then perhaps she should be here to hear this,” the younger Larkin suggested.
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“I don’t think so,” Bryce told him. “She has every right to face her accusers, whether they’re right or wrong.”
The lady in question appeared in the doorway from the kitchen and stood awkwardly looking into the room. She was dressed elegantly, unlike most of the young women around the district who tended to wear skirts and a blouse, or even jeans, when at home.
She could certainly turn a man’s eye, and Scott had the distinct impression that the girl was well aware of it.
“Is something wrong?” she asked naively. “What’s going on?”
“Go to your room, girl,” her father demanded uncompromisingly.
“Why, Dad? What is it? Mother’s terribly upset by all the shouting.”
“I’ll deal with this, Becca,” he told her. “I don’t want you involved.”
“It seems to me she’s real involved,” a quiet voice came from across the room. Johnny’s tone was so cold and so unexpected that every pair of eyes in the room turned on him in surprise.
Rebecca Larkin walked haughtily across to where her father stood and stopped beside him. Her chin was up and the naivete was gone. Her eyes cut into Johnny like a knife but he didn’t flinch.
“What’s going on here, Dad?” she asked coolly. “I get the impression that all this yelling involves me in some way.”
Her father put his arm around her shoulders. “Don’t you worry about a thing, girl. You go on to your room. This whole thing is ridiculous. They’re mad.”
“I think I’ll stay,” she told him resolutely.
The son leaned back easily against the sofa and slowly crossed his arms. “All right,” he said casually and looked towards Earl. “Just what is it that Becca is supposed to have done and what makes you think so?”
Earl looked uncomfortable under the man’s scrutiny, but he spoke up anyway. “We’ve got two men in jail who are ready to testify that they were takin’ orders from Miss Rebecca when they tried to take Johnny down today, as well as orderin’ Riker to ambush Val Crawford.”
“Today? What happened today?” Bryce asked.
“Riker called Johnny out.” Earl began, and then stopped and glanced over towards Rebecca Larkin uneasily. “Scott caught Cameron in an alley ‘cross the road, with a rifle aimed at Johnny. An’ Douglas was on the roof o’ the saloon. They had it set so Johnny couldn’t get out o’ that fight alive.”
“And yet you did, Johnny,” Rebecca said lightly. “My congratulations. You must be very lucky.”
“Yeah, I was born lucky,” Johnny answered coldly. “Your friend Riker wasn’t.”
She smiled. “Mr. Riker worked here, Johnny. I wouldn’t exactly call him a friend.”
“Is that all?” Bryce Larkin asked negligently.
“No, there’s settin’ fire to Miz McConachy’s store an’ some other charges as well,” Johnny added uncompromisingly.
“Oh dear,” the girl said with a smile. “You left out offering the apple to Adam. Am I responsible for all the sins and criminal activities in Green River?”
“These are real serious charges, Miss Rebecca,” Earl said earnestly. “I have to take ‘em seriously.”
She laughed lightly and threw her hands up to her cheeks. “You can’t honestly believe I had anything to do with those things. Why, it’s absurd.”
“We’re here, ain’t we?” Johnny asked, his voice frigid enough to freeze the room.
The girl looked at him and smiled sweetly. “So you are, Johnny Lancer,” she said. “But you don’t look very well. Why don’t you sit down, before you fall down, my dear? I’m sure we can find you a comfortable chair.”
Scott drew in a sharp breath. If ever there had been an invitation that his brother would ignore, that was it. It had come out as more of a challenge than consideration for him. Accepting her offer would have been tantamount to admitting some form of weakness.
The problem was that Johnny really didn’t look well. His face was ashen and, beneath the cool exterior he was presenting to the room, Scott could see him trying to control his breathing.
He did need to sit down, but Scott knew that he wouldn’t do it now – not if his life depended on it. And that was if he had ever considered it at all. It seemed strange that, out of all the people in the room, the girl seemed to have focussed on Johnny. Her eyes had hardly left him since he had first spoken.
“I’m fine, thanks,” he answered her icily, maintaining eye contact with her. “Nice o’ you to be concerned.”
Scott began to feel that they had both forgotten that anyone else was even in the room.
“Why, of course I’m concerned, Johnny,” Rebecca replied. Her voice was flat and emotionless. “You took quite a beating, didn’t you? The other day, I mean.”
Johnny said nothing at all to that. Scott watched him struggling with the urge to answer her. He’d brought Madrid out as a reaction to his instinct for self-protection. He was in a weakened condition and he knew it. And when Johnny felt vulnerable, he used Madrid to cover it.
Scott wondered just how badly he was hurt. He had guessed that he was injured, but he was beginning to realize that Johnny could be in more trouble than he had suspected. He studied him carefully and could see traces of strain on his brother’s face.
“A man like you must find that very hard to take,” she continued, smiling. “It must have been awful for you, being held like that while Cameron beat you. How did it feel to be defenseless, Johnny?”
Johnny tilted his head to the side and half-smiled at her. “I survived, didn’t I? Wasn’t I supposed to? Did Scott interrupt too soon?” he asked coolly. His eyes bored through her. “And what do you mean, ‘a man like me’?”
“Oh, I know all about you, Johnny. I’ve heard so many interesting things about Johnny Madrid.”
The smile on Johnny’s face broadened. “Is that right?” he answered, apparently unfazed.
“Yes, it was quite a surprise at first. Your father and brother are so…respectable.” She walked over a little closer to him. “I find your past fascinating.”
Then his eyes narrowed. “You didn’t tell your men about it though, did you?”
She smiled and then laughed, but, before she said anything else, Bryce Larkin jumped to his feet and called out to her.
“Becca! That’s enough! Don’t say another word,” he yelled, and she turned to him with a vacant look in her eyes that Scott didn’t miss. Then the smile fell from her lips and she glared at her brother.
“Sit down, Bryce! Don’t interrupt,” she said coldly, her eyes flashing lethally at him and he took an unsteady pace backwards.
He stared at her and slowly stepped back again until he had reached the wall, saying nothing the whole time. Scott thought he had never seen anyone back down quite so literally. In that moment, he saw what Johnny and Val had seen. Rebecca Larkin could control her brother with little more that a look.
It was a strange scene to watch. She was just what her father had described – young and pretty, with an angelic aura. She wasn’t even twenty years old and she was standing toe to toe with Johnny Madrid and hadn’t even batted an eyelid.
In fact, Scott thought that it was almost as though she was throwing out some sort of challenge to Johnny. She seemed to want to see him as Madrid.
Bryce Larkin, older than his sister by ten years and with all his size and maturity, couldn’t stand up to her. He sat down pathetically in a chair against the wall and Scott had to wonder what had happened between them in the past that had made him so completely subservient to her will.
Scott was entranced by the episode, as were most of the onlookers.
She turned back to give all of her attention to Johnny.
“My men? Fools! Cowards!” she hissed at him. “If they’d known who they were facing, they would have run for their lives.”
“You sent them to face me without warning them.”
“Riker would never have called you out if he had known. But I knew that he wouldn’t face you, or anyone else, fairly. I knew he’d have the others back him up. I didn’t expect to see you again, Johnny.”
She walked over closer to him. So close that he must have been able to smell her perfume and feel her warm breath on his face.
Scott watched her lift her hand to Johnny’s face and touch a finger to a single bead of sweat that fell from his forehead and down his cheek. Scott sighed heavily, knowing that Johnny’s body was betraying him. It was revealing his pain despite all his effort.
Her nearness seemed to have a bewitching effect on his brother. Johnny stood rigid, his eyes locked on hers.
“When I first learned about you, I thought perhaps you would help me,” she whispered. “I heard such wonderful stories about Johnny Madrid – and all the men you’d killed. We could have been good together.”
Johnny’s answer brought a chill to the room.
“Val Crawford is a friend of mine,” he said icily. “Did you think killing him would bring us together?”
She took a step back from him and stared at him in surprise.
“You were wrong, lady,” he continued coldly. Suddenly, his head was flung sideways from the shock of her hand viciously slapping his face.
He hadn’t expected it. Scott was certain of that, but Johnny managed to stay on his feet and he turned back to face her. The side of his face that wasn’t already colored with aging yellowed bruises was now glowing red from her slap, but a smile graced his lips just the same.
“Guess that says it all, Becca,” he whispered to her.
Earl cleared his throat nervously. “Seems to me that you’ve said all we need to hear, Miss Larkin,” he said quietly. “You haven’t denied anything.”
She laughed. “I don’t need to. I’m a girl. No one will believe it anyway.”
“I reckon we need to talk some back at the office in town, Miss,” Earl told her awkwardly, but she turned towards him and laughed again.
“Oh come now, Deputy,” she sneered. “You don’t honestly think you can convince a jury that I’m guilty of anything. You’ll be laughed out of California…out of the country.”
“You’ve just about admitted it all right here in front of us,” Johnny said.
“Really? Who did I admit anything to – a gunfighter with your reputation? I hardly think that means anything. A deputy with the brains of one of those stupid cows of yours? And Scott? I’m sure I can convince them that he’d lie for you if he had to.” She smiled ironically. “And what evidence have you got? None at all, have you? There is nothing to tie me into anything that’s happened except the word of two criminals with a vested interest in accusing me to save their own skins.”
Scott watched her and tried to fathom her. She was so very young – so very pretty. Her eyes sparkled as she spoke, but they shone with something purely evil. He was sure she was thoroughly enjoying herself.
It was as if she was glad that it was all out in the open. She was happy that they finally knew how clever she had been, and confident enough to believe that she was untouchable.
But Scott also feared that she might be right. They didn’t have any proof against her except their word and the word of Douglas and Cameron. Convincing twelve men on a jury that this sweet little thing was capable of controlling men like them and ordering them to commit murder and arson wouldn’t be easy. The girl could be charming even while she planned her next atrocity.
“Face it, gentlemen,” she continued in honeyed tones. “There’s nothing you can do about it. If I want to walk out and leave right now, you can’t stop me.”
Earl shook his head angrily. “Miss, you sure are somethin’,” he said disgustedly.
“I am, aren’t I?” she answered proudly.
“I reckon some o’ them alley cats in the saloon got a better notion o’ what’s right an’ what’s wrong than you do,” Earl told her bitterly.
“That’s enough,” her father intruded furiously. “You’ll keep a civil tongue in your head when you speak to my daughter.”
“Actually, I’d say she’s her father’s daughter,” Scott said suddenly, and Johnny and Earl gaped at him.
“Isn’t that right, Rebecca?” he added. He stared into her eyes and knew he had her attention. “Maybe you’re right and we can’t do anything to you, but we can still do something about your father. I have a feeling he’s known all about this, all along.”
She fired up and glared at him. “How dare you! I didn’t need my father to help me. It was all me!”
“Shut up, girl,” the older man ordered fiercely. “He’s trying to get you mad.”
“Well, he has succeeded,” she stormed. “I did this all on my own. I didn’t need you or any man to help me.”
“You let everyone believe it was Bryce,” Johnny argued, bringing her attention quickly back to him. “You hid behind him. I’d say you didn’t do it ALL on your own.”
“Bryce…” she sneered. “He’s nothing – a mummy’s boy! He doesn’t have the brains or the guts to succeed at something like this. Everyone thinks he’s such a clever man.” She looked over at her brother and added, with disgust, “I know better. He’s a failure. He’s been a disappointment to Dad from the day he was born.”
“But not you. You’re Daddy’s little girl, aren’t you?” Scott asked pointedly. “He taught you everything you know.”
She smiled, pleased. “Yes, I am…and he did.”
“Rebecca!” her father snapped angrily.
“When he caught me with my hand in the cookie jar, he told me – ‘why take one cookie, when the whole jar is there for the taking?’ I listened…and I learned. And now? Now, I’ve proved myself.”
“We might not be able to prove anything against you, Rebecca,” Scott said grimly. “But we can send your father back to New York.”
“No!” she screamed.
Scott looked at her father. “The New York Metropolitan police are very interested in your whereabouts.”
The man said nothing but glared at Scott.
“Before he was shot, Val sent a wire to them to check on Bryce,” Scott explained. “That was what prompted Rebecca to have him killed. No one knew anything about it until the other day, so I did the same thing.”
Scott turned his attention to the girl. “I got the answer this morning,” he told her. “They didn’t know anything about a Bryce Larkin, but Albert Larkin is wanted for two murders in New York. They want him back.”
The girl paled perceptibly and stood stock still for a minute. She turned her head far enough to see her father and realized that she might have said too much. Then, before anyone realized what was happening, she pulled a gun from her skirts and aimed it at Scott.
Bryce Larkin jumped to his feet. “No Becca!” he shouted at her, but the gun didn’t waver.
“No one is taking Dad anywhere!”
“Put it down, Becca,” Bryce warned her. “You’ve gone too far.”
“I don’t think I’ve gone far enough,” she called back at him. “No one is taking my Dad away. I’ll kill the first man who tries to take him. I’ll kill all of you if I have to.”
All hell broke loose. With her attention on his brother, Johnny leaped from behind her and knocked her hand, and the gun with it, up in the air. He pushed the girl to the ground and fell down grappling with her while she screamed and kicked and tried her best to sink her teeth into his arm.
As Johnny got control of the girl, Scott took the gun from her hand so she could do no damage with it.
Johnny’s struggle with the girl had held Scott’s attention and he didn’t notice any movement from the other side of the room. He had decided to end the wrestling match beside him before Johnny did himself any more harm and was about to take the girl off his hands when he caught a glimpse of a flash of movement and heard the report of a pistol from behind him.
He looked around quickly to find Earl crouched with his smoking gun magically in his hand.
Scott stood up and looked over to where Earl’s gun was aimed. Albert Larkin lay bleeding, but unmoving, on the floor, his hand clutching a rifle beside him.
Turning back to Earl, Scott saw the deputy shrug casually. “Saw him reach for the rifle, Scott,” he explained easily. “An’ you an’ Johnny was kinda busy…”
Still holding the girl’s gun, and ignoring the screaming, writhing mass of humanity on the floor beside him, he stared at Earl.
“You’re fast,” he said, stunned.
Earl slipped his gun easily back into the holster and walked over to the older Larkin’s body. He knelt beside him, picked up the rifle and made sure that the man was dead.
“Well, yeah. I guess so. I couldn’t take Johnny,” he said with another shrug. “But Val says I’m handy to have around.” He grinned and stood up. “He didn’t make me deputy for my brains.”
“Hey, Scott,” Johnny called from the floor beside him, intruding on his reverie. “You think you could give me a hand here?”
Scott looked down. Johnny had gotten control of the situation and was straddling the girl’s waist with his hands pinning her arms to the floor. She was screaming and kicking maniacally and his brother looked distinctly uncomfortable.
“I don’t know, you look like you’re handling the situation nicely,” he answered, reaching down and grasping the girl’s hands and pulling her to her feet as Johnny rolled away and lay on the floor, exhausted.
Earl came over and took her from him, pulling her hands behind her back and taking control while Scott squatted down beside his brother.
Scott looked Johnny over carefully as he panted and winced. He was hurting. Beads of sweat rolled off his forehead and his skin was pale and clammy, but he didn’t seem to be in serious trouble.
“I thought you said you were ‘fine’,” Scott said with an ironic grin.
“Since when did you believe me?” Johnny answered, just as ironically.
“Sam’s probably back in town by now. Can you make it to town, or shall we head straight for home?”
Johnny glanced into his brother’s eyes and then sighed heavily and closed his own.
“You know something, big brother? Right now, I reckon home an’ bed sounds real good.”
An ear-piercing scream rent the air in the room. All eyes turned to Mrs. Larkin standing in the doorway, her hands covering her face and shrieking relentlessly.
Bryce Larkin seemed to come back to reality then. He jumped to his feet and ran to his mother’s side, turning her away from the sight of her husband’s lifeless and bloody body and embracing her comfortingly.
“It’s over now, Mother,” he said to her gently. Wrapped in his arms, she stopped screaming and proceeded to sob heartily into her son’s shoulder.
He held her close and patted her back soothingly, but he looked over at Scott and Earl. Johnny was still on the floor, pale and breathing hard. He was obviously in pain, but didn’t seem to be in any danger.
Finally, Larkin looked at his sister. She was staring at her father’s body, appalled and finally shaken out of her arrogance.
“Daddy!” she cried out. “No…no…no…”
“It’s over, Becca. He can’t hurt us anymore,” he said flatly. “And neither can you.” Turning to Scott, he added. “I’ll testify against her, too.”
“No!” his mother wailed.
“It’s time to end all of this, Mother,” he whispered. “You’ve lived in fear most of your life, thanks to him. And she’s the same. You’ll never have any peace with her dictating to you in Dad’s place. You know it.”
“You can’t do it, Bryce. Please,” his mother begged him.
“I have to, Mother. With him backing her up, there was nothing I could do to stop her,” Bryce told the woman. “But now I can. She has to be stopped, Mother. She’s just like him.” He looked towards Scott, Johnny and Earl and dropped his head in shame. “You were right, Scott. Dad was wanted in New York. He headed up a gang of thieves and killers there. He wanted me to join him, but I couldn’t do it. When he made his mistake and the police got the warrant for his arrest, he took us all south to make whatever he could there.”
“He made himself a fortune cheating those poor people out of their land and selling it for huge profits and he taught Becca everything he knew.”
He looked at his sister a little sadly. “From when she was a little girl, Becca wanted to please him. Eventually, she found ways to cheat people and threaten them with her own plans. He was proud of her for that. Green River was her chance to show him what she could do. She’ll never change. That’s why I have to stop her now.”
“Go ahead and try!” the girl hissed at her brother. “It won’t get you anywhere. No one will believe you – any of you. You’re all fools to think you can. Dad was the only real man among you!”
Johnny sat up, cautiously wrapping one arm around his chest. Scott helped his brother to his feet and steadied him. He started to wrap his arm around Johnny’s waist to support him, but Johnny pushed him away stubbornly.
“I c’n make it, Scott,” he said very quietly and Scott rolled his eyes with frustration.
Scott studied him carefully and decided to let him try. He was no longer sweating or having any trouble breathing. He didn’t argue with him and turned his attention back on the girl as she continued to rant.
“Call yourself a man? You’re nothing, Bryce – nothing! You were a disappointment to Dad right from the start,” she cried out at her brother. “I was the one who made him proud. Me!”
“Oh, don’t I know it!” Bryce Larkin answered her. “You learned his lessons all too well. That’s why you have to be stopped, now, before you can do any more harm.”
“You can’t stop me, Bryce. Not you. You’re just a stooge – a cover to hide behind. Don’t you realize that they all think it’s you? How can you possibly think they’ll believe you’re the innocent? You’ll never convince them.”
“I think we’ll give it a good shot,” Scott told her determinedly.
“I’ll take her into town an’ lock her up, Scott,” Earl told Scott and turned her to escort her outside. “You get Johnny home an’ I’ll send Doc out there for ya.”
Scott looked from Larkin to his sister and wondered how it had come about that it was the pretty young girl who had inherited their father’s immoral talents and his lust for power, while her brother had turned out so craven. Or perhaps cowardice wasn’t Bryce Larkin’s problem. He seemed to have a sense of right and wrong that had eluded his sister.
Her father’s influence couldn’t be the only reason that she was evil. For that was what she was. Bryce had survived his upbringing without crossing the line like Rebecca. And Johnny had survived his childhood without losing his soul. Perhaps there was something born in her that led her down that path.
Well, in the end, the reason didn’t really matter. He turned back to his brother and guided him out of the room.
“Do you think you can ride home?” he asked anxiously.
“Yeah,” was all Johnny said as he concentrated on pulling himself awkwardly up onto Barranca and turning him for home.
Val knew she was there before he felt the butterfly soft touch of her fingers pushing his hair from his forehead. He knew it before she placed the cool soft cloth on his brow and took his wrist delicately while she searched for his pulse.
It was the lavender – the gentle wisp of scent that wafted gracefully around her. He’d never be able to smell lavender again without thinking of her.
A week ago, she’d been nothing more than Johnny’s kid sister. That was all he had ever considered her. She was pretty and always ready with a smile for him, just like everyone else, but he had never had much to do with her before.
She couldn’t be more than nineteen years old, but he didn’t think of her as just a sweet kid any more. Now he knew she was a lovely, caring young woman. She had been a bright light in this dark time for him.
So, just what did that mean? He’d given it a lot of thought lately, and he knew the answer to that question now. It meant nothing – it never could.
Teresa was like a flower bud beginning to open. She was blossoming into a woman who promised to be strong, beautiful and loving. She’d make a man a wonderful wife, but it wouldn’t be him – never him.
He figured that he was an old man compared to her – nearly ten years older, he reckoned. And he had a wealth of experience in life behind him – good and bad. There were things in his past that he would never tell anyone.
And, even on his best day, Val knew he was no catch. What could a pretty young lady like Teresa O’Brien possibly see in him? He sure wasn’t much to look at, and his aversion to bathing and shaving was notorious. Even running a comb through his unruly curls was too much trouble for him most of the time.
And he had nothing to offer her. He was sheriff in a small town, with enough pay for a man to live on but not enough to keep Teresa in the way she deserved to be kept. He couldn’t imagine taking her from a grand place like Lancer to the little house he called home.
No, there were plenty of young bucks in town with much more to offer her than he had. He’d just have to stand by and watch while one of them wooed and wed her.
But heaven help the man who ever hurt her.
Val sighed heavily. He felt hot all over, though not as hot as he had been earlier and he knew that the fever that had gripped him for so long was still there, but waning. His limbs felt heavy and just the idea of moving was too much to think about.
He sighed again, and let the darkness carry him away again. He was just too tired to fight it.
Teresa was there when he opened his eyes at last. She was sitting in the chair by the bed, her hand wrapped gently around his. He thought she was sleeping at first, but the smile she beamed at him disproved that.
Stunned, he watched her eyes well up with tears. One drop escaped and slowly made its way down her cheek.
He concentrated with all his might and finally managed to lift his hand out of her grasp and whisked the tear away with his finger.
“Val Crawford,” she said, smiling. “You had me… you had us so worried.”
She took his hand and put it back on the bed by his side. Then she poured some water into a glass and stood up over him. He felt her arm slip under his shoulders, and she eased him forward and held the glass so that he could drink some of the water.
It felt good going down. The parched feeling washed away, and he finally found his voice.
“Thanks,” he said, and the sound shocked him. To his own ears, it sounded like little more than a croak.
“Do you think you can manage a little more?” she asked. “Sam said we should get you to drink as much as you can.”
“No, not yet,” he rasped in reply. He closed his eyes, surprised by how tired he felt.
She let him fall gently back into the pillows. “All right, but don’t be afraid to ask when you do. It’s what I’m here for.”
Teresa put the glass back onto the table and sat back in the chair. For a moment, she wondered if he was still awake, but eventually he opened his eyes again.
She smiled reassuringly at him. “Dr. Sam will be in to see you soon. He’s with Johnny right now. But I can tell you that the fever is right down and the infection in your leg is clearing up nicely. I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but you really are getting better.”
Her words seemed to take a long minute to sink in, but he finally looked over at her and frowned. “Johnny?”
“He managed to get himself into another fight in town,” she explained briefly. “Sam is not very happy with him.”
It was an understatement. Sam Jenkins was more than unhappy with the youngest Lancer.
“I heard all about what you did,” he said sharply. “The whole town was talking about the great battle. Huh!”
He was unwrapping the bandages from Johnny’s ribs as he spoke – and none too gently.
“Hey, Sam, take it easy will ya?” Johnny protested.
“Take it easy? I seem to recall that was what I told you to do, just the other day!” Sam retaliated, without letting up on his victim. “And what did you do? You headed straight for town and picked a fight with the biggest brute you could find! That it was the same man who beat you to a pulp the last time just adds to the stupidity of it.”
Johnny winced as Sam pulled the last of the bandages off and threw them aside furiously.
“Come on, Sam, let up. I didn’t go lookin’ for a fight.”
“Oh, I know you didn’t want the gunfight,” Sam admitted coolly. “But you challenged Cameron to the fist fight and don’t bother trying to deny it. You’re damned lucky he didn’t kill you – the shape you were in!”
Johnny sat on the edge of his bed and held his breath while Sam started his prodding and poking. Sam found one of the broken ribs and Johnny couldn’t prevent the gasp that escaped him.
“Just as I thought,” Sam said bluntly and poked around some more. He found another before he finished his examination and stood up to tower over Johnny, who was still sitting down on the bed. Johnny was forced to look up at him.
“Busted?” Johnny asked, knowing the answer already. He’d felt them snap.
“Two of them,” Sam confirmed. “And other one cracked unless I miss my guess. You’re a damned fool, Johnny. You don’t even sound surprised.”
Johnny felt like a small boy in trouble with the schoolteacher. He ducked his head to avoid Sam’s glaring expression. “Yeah, I figured I’d busted somethin’.”
“And yet you rode out to the Bar T instead of looking for me? Don’t you know how dangerous broken ribs can be? You could have punctured a lung, or worse, you could have put one of those broken ribs through your heart! And Scott let you do it! I’ll be having a word with him when I’ve finished with you.”
Johnny looked up at last. “Oh no, you won’t. He didn’t know. I fooled him.”
Sam picked up the fresh bandages and sighed heavily. “Yes, I can believe that,” he admitted. “Well, when I’ve finished strapping them up, you’re getting into that bed and staying there until I say otherwise. Any arguments, or any of your tricks, and I’ll sedate you for as long as it takes. Have you got that?"
Johnny ducked his head again and nodded. “Sure, Sam.”
“See that you do it, this time. I have to see to Val yet,” Sam grumbled. “I honestly think I’d be better off putting up my shingle on your front door. I spend more time here than any other house in the district.”
One week later, Johnny was finally reprieved and allowed out of bed. Scott, Murdoch and Teresa had backed up Sam Jenkins completely and had kept a constant watch on him. So much so that every time he had managed to get his feet over the edge of the bed, one of them had turned up and berated him into submission.
He hadn’t managed to escape their attention even once and all the complaining, sneakiness and even cajoling, hadn’t gotten him anywhere with them.
Scott watched him swing his legs carefully over the side of the bed and get to his feet. Johnny wavered dizzily for a moment, but he reached for the bedpost with one hand and waved his brother off with the other.
Scott handed Johnny his pants and waited for him to pull them on before helping him into his shirt. Johnny gingerly pulled the sleeve over one arm and then the other, wincing as he pulled on his sore ribs.
“Sit down and I’ll pull your boots on, brother. There’s no way you’re going to be able to bend over enough to do it yourself,” Scott told him with a grin.
Johnny sat down and started to fasten the buttons on his shirt. “Thanks,” he answered ungraciously.
“Don’t try to rush things, Johnny,” Scott said, grabbing his brother’s socks and boots. “You’ll end up with Sam retiring you back in that bed.”
“I think he gets some sadistic satisfaction out of it,” his brother said morosely.
“Oh yes, sadistic of him to want you healthy,” Scott replied sarcastically. “He’s going to have his hands full down the hall soon, too. He’ll let you alone when he has Val to threaten instead.”
“How’s Val doin’?”
“Well enough to be complaining about bed, boredom and food.”
Johnny laughed lightly. “Sounds like he’s doin’ okay then.”
“Yes, he’s improving all the time.”
“Think I’ll look in on him before I head down to breakfast.”
“Sure,” Scott agreed. “Will you be all right to get down the stairs on your own?”
Johnny sighed resignedly. “Yes, I’ll be fine on my own,” he answered drolly. “If I think I’m gonna fall, I’ll yell out. Okay, Mother?”
Scott heaved the boot on with a little more force than was needed, jolting his brother. Johnny caught his breath and Scott immediately regretted it.
Johnny burst out laughing. “Don’t worry so much, brother,” he said to Scott and stood up. “Come on, let’s go see Val.”
“You go ahead. I’m not up to that pleasure this early in the morning,” Scott told him cryptically and headed down the staircase.
Johnny knew Crawford was awake well before he got to his room. The sound of raised voices met him even through the closed door.
He opened it tentatively and stuck his head through to see if either of them was going to snap it off.
“Johnny! You’re up!” Teresa cried out when she saw him.
“Yeah, Sam said it was okay,” he answered. “Is it safe to come in?”
“Of course,” she replied happily. “Don’t mind Val. This is just his morning disagreement. He can’t start the day without a good argument.”
Johnny looked at her curiously. He’d known Val for years and never knew that. “Is that right?” he asked. “So what’s it about this morning?”
Val had his arms folded across his chest and a sour look on his face. He said nothing.
“He doesn’t want broth,” Teresa explained with a determined expression aimed at Val Crawford.
Johnny walked further into the room and stood beside the bed. “Val, I thought I told you to behave yourself for Teresa.”
“I ain’t eatin’ no more o’ that stuff,” Val declared.
“Sam says you’re not ready for solids yet, Val,” Teresa said patiently. “You were terribly sick for a long time and your body needs to readjust.”
“A man needs somethin’ to sink his teeth in,” Val told her, still with his arms folded and without looking up at her.
“Well, you can’t have something to sink your teeth into,” she argued firmly. “And, unless you want to starve, you’ll eat what I give you.”
“You should listen to her, Val,” Johnny said calmly. “You’re lookin’ kinda scrawny. Starvin’ doesn’t sound like a good idea.”
Val looked over at him and pouted. “I WILL starve before I touch any more o’ that stuff.”
“It’s not all that bad, Val,” Johnny told him.
“Then you eat it. I want a steak an’ some eggs.”
Teresa’s eyes flashed fire and Johnny saw it. He knew what was coming and instinctively looked for cover.
“Val Crawford,” she said crisply, glaring at the sheriff. “You will follow doctor’s orders. I’ve spent too much time and energy on you to get you this far, to let your bad temper, and even worse manners, set you back again. This is your breakfast. Your only choice is whether you want it hot – or cold.”
Johnny smothered the laugh he felt bubbling inside, and schooled his features not to let the smile that was twitching on his lips show either.
Val glared right back at her. “Then I’ll just have to go get myself somethin’.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea,” she threw back at him sarcastically. “You’ll be flat on your face before you get two steps from the bed.”
“Right!” he shouted angrily and threw back the covers from the bed, revealing his long johns.
He quickly dragged them back to cover himself and pulled them tightly to his chest. The embarrassment on his face was ludicrous and either the fever was coming back, or he was blushing scarlet.
Teresa giggled and sat down on the bed beside him. She put the bowl on the bedside table and touched one of his hands gently. She was still smiling at him.
“Please…” she said quietly.
Crawford sighed and nodded, while Johnny looked on in surprise. “Oh, all right, but this is the last time.”
Johnny stepped into the sheriff’s office and grinned broadly. Val was sitting at his desk with his feet up lazily and his hat lying over his face. Whether he was sleeping or not was anyone’s guess, but Johnny took a chance on it.
He slipped in quietly and slapped Crawford’s feet off the desk.
Val jumped. His hat fell to the floor and his chair rocked dangerously back before he swiveled it around and sat upright.
“Johnny Lancer,” he growled. “Mighta knowed it’d be you. Sneakin’ up on a man like that.”
“You’re losing your edge, Val. What if I’d been Wes Hardin?"
“Wes Hardin ain’t got no reason to go sneakin’ up on a man like that. What brings you here?”
“Came in for supplies, an’ heard some things in the saloon that I just had to see for myself. Looks like it was true.”
“Oh, I heard some wild talk ‘bout you havin’ new clothes an’ just had to find out if it was true,” Johnny laughed. “What got into you?”
Val got to his feet, letting Johnny get a good look at the clean, new green shirt and his new pants. Only the boots were still the same scuffed pair he’d had for years. He brushed an imagined speck of dirt from his sleeve and grinned comically.
“Well, Teresa did a real fine job o’ mendin’ that shirt o’ mine, but she said it weren’t really worth the cotton she was darnin’ it with. Said even the moths were turnin’ their nose up at it an’ it was time I got me a shirt that weren’t so full o’ holes. So, I got me some new duds.”
Johnny walked in a circle around him, scanning him carefully. “Nice,” he finally concluded with a mischievous smile. “I like it.”
“Yeah,” Val answered awkwardly. “Well, you might wanta think about some new clothes yourself. That shirt o’ yours has b’n mended more times ‘n I c’n say.”
Johnny picked up the coffee pot and poured himself a cup. He lifted it negligently to his lips and tasted it. Without a word, he walked over to the back window and tossed the contents out.
“Guess not everything’s changed for the better,” he said carelessly and walked back to the desk. He sat down on the edge while Val sat back down in his chair. “So, the marshals picked up your prisoner all right?”
“Yeah, she ain’t gonna get a chance to cause no more trouble for a while. Douglas an’ Cameron have gone too. It’s real peaceable around here now. Green River’s a nice quiet town again.”
“I see Mrs. McConachy’s store is all fixed up.”
“Yep. Nothin’ keeps that lady down. An’ Bryce Larkin was in town the other day. He’s sold the hotel an’ the saloon.”
Johnny lifted his eyebrows in some surprise. “Yeah? He leavin’ town?”
“Nope. Turns out he likes ranchin’. He an’ his ma are stayin’ on at the Bar T.”
A soft knock on the door attracted their attention. They both looked over to the doorway where Teresa stood waiting for them.
“Johnny, I’m all finished shopping. I’m ready to go,” she said cheerfully as she walked into the office and joined them. She smiled for Val and looked over his new ‘image’ with approval. “How are you, Val? You look well.”
“I’m just fine, thanks Teresa,” he replied with a smile. “You?”
“Oh, I’m fine, too,” she answered. “I’m always well.” She laughed brightly. “I can’t afford to be anything else at Lancer. Too many men to worry about.”
“We couldn’t get by without her,” Johnny confirmed, grinning.
“I know,” Val said quietly.
“I like the new clothes, too,” she told him and smiled again at the way he dropped his eyes away in embarrassment.
Johnny laughed. “Now you just have to get him to take a curry comb to that mop o’hair.”
“Oh, and you should talk, Johnny Lancer. You’re overdue for an appointment with the barber yourself,” she told him pointedly. “Well, we’d better go, Johnny,” she suggested then. “Murdoch will be wondering what became of us.”
“Sure,” Johnny agreed and got to his feet.
“And Val,” she added quickly. “You’ll have to come out to Sunday dinner this weekend.”
Val smiled. “That’d be real nice, Teresa.”
He saw them to the door and they both turned and said goodbye, leaving Val Crawford alone with his thoughts.
He watched them walk across the street to their wagon and found that he had only one thought.