A disastrous trip into town to pick up supplies and Murdoch’s birthday present, combined with a chance encounter with friends and an old enemy starts the wheels in motion for one of the greatest adventures in Johnny’s young life. He struggles with the relationship between the mistakes and sins of his former existence with the experiences and lessons of his new life. He learns the parallel paths of Madrid and Lancer; always lead to the same destiny for him…Bound For Honor.
Disclaimer: New and improved Version OU812
This glow in the dark disclaimer, though it is non-toxic, is a necessity born of fear of legal repercussions (snicker...actually this is a good chance to thumb our noses at 'da man') should the fools at Twentieth Century Productions ever take their heads out of their butts long enough to realize we have absconded, gone on the lam, are hiding out with Johnny and Scott and enjoying nefarious and carnal activities with them, if only in our minds (Yes JC, we have lusted in our hearts, but we didn't inhale, BC). They are not being held against their will, they came with us of their own accord. We did not steal them; we lured them away with our womanly wiles. We dare 'da man' to do anything about it. No money in any recognized legal currency has been made, exchanged hands or fattened our bank accounts (That means no profit to sue for). Should they catch us and decide to sue, we are willing to compensate them with 2000 bottle tops from coke with Sorry No Winner Try Again printed in it and 400 Kool-Aid points. Anything not belonging to 'da man' ... is all ours.... and possession is 9/10ths of the law...bwahahahahaha. Any of our original fictional characters resembling any known live persons (other than the actors) is purely a kwinky dink, a freakish one at that since we made this lit-er-roo-chure up off the top of our heads. And anyone who thinks they see a character based on, or resembling them are seriously afflicted, really out there and 'tetched' in the head from reading things between the lines that just ain't there, or perhaps you're totally narcissistic. So let us take a pin to your balloon over those unsubstantiated and unfounded notions right now, post haste and with sadistic glee. POP!
Warning: In case the afore mentioned disclaimer didn't spell it out well enough for you, here's the scoop: The authors of this legend of Lancer are enough to drive a reasonable person nuts or at least pathologically crazy, insane or zany. They are no longer in possession of their faculties. Due to their persistent avoidance of real life and their propensity to reside in a fantasy world they should be considered cracked, maniacal, non compos mentis, incoherent, off their rockers, psychotic … two cards short of a deck ...well actually the two together are about fifty cards short of a full deck... so there happy NOW"
Beta'ed by Texas T and Southernfrau. We swapped off parts and vice versa. Compliments to the story should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and complaints to email@example.com . All compliments will be printed and framed, if flowery enough. All complaints will be secreted into the swamp where they will be sacrificed to the bubbling cauldron of curses, heated by the fire of hate, after being read and laughed at maniacally.
Kona: Shiver Me Lancers, we moved your squeak.
Gratuitous authorial commentary:
How the story came about: Well Texas said, "When are you gonna write another story?". I mumbled, (munch munch, I was eating chocolate covered cherries at the time), "I don't know. I have been cheating with these 7 other cowboys and it takes up a lot of time, you know how needy men are." "Well", says she, "Between my little bit of time and your little bit of time, we can make a block of time and write something together." "Texas", I exclaimed, in a drawl so it took several syllables and a few seconds, “You genius! (there's another time killer in a southern drawl). Whatever will we write about?" "Nothing," says she, "If you don't shut your pie hole and give me a chance to explain." So anyhoo, after discarding the mundane and redundant, we came up with this epic tale of what happens when eccentric southerner with drawl collaborates with peculiar southerner with twang... drum roll please, or perhaps more appropriate the theme from that cartoon Fractured Fairy Tales....
Note from Texas T- I hope you gals like this twisted little tale of ours. I also hope ya’ll find it exciting, and adventurous, different, based on our uniquely diverse writing styles and ideas. Some of you are bound to shake your heads. I hope you do…its good exercise. Some of you will be envious; I hope you are, because writing with Southernfrau was an experience of a lifetime. I had fun, like you’re supposed to at our age, and I pooh pooh all over her doubts and concerns about how well she would do, because she was awesome! Personally, I think it will be fun for you gals to try and figure out who wrote what, (sort of like a scavenger hunt) because as SF said, this was a joint effort…50/50.
Thanks for taking this idea and running with it Southernfrau, I will write with you again, any time, any place. Hmmmmmm….in fact….email me….got another idea for later. TT
For Lori S.) I’m on it girl! Thanks for your patience!
For Sam ) You are an inspiration to me! I’m going to get crackin’.
For Cheryl) You always make us laugh. You rock….southern style.
Bound For Honor
“I don’t know Walt. It isn’t exactly the way I pictured it. In fact…I don’t think this is the one that I ordered. It don’t have them fancy silver studs and it sure as heck isn’t the color I expected either.”
“Well now, Johnny…it…it might not exactly be the one that you ordered,” Walt said, fidgeting as he dropped his eyes to the floor, unable to look Johnny Lancer in the face.
“What do yah mean it might not exactly be the one I ordered? Either it is or it isn’t.”
“Well…I reckon it isn’t then.”
“Then why the hell did you accept it? It’s not like the thing came wrapped up in cloth or fancy wrappin’ paper.”
Walt had the good grace to look embarrassed, “Well it’s not exactly like I had the option of not accepting it.”
Johnny sighed and put his hands on his hips, “You know Walt…you haven’t been ‘exactly’ sure about anything so far.”
Walt Grimley smudged the heel of his boot along the wooden floor of his mercantile store, “Aw come on Johnny. If I’d a been here, you know I would of told them this wasn’t the right one.”
Johnny stretched his neck and popped the tension he felt at the base of his skull. It was taking everything he had to remain calm and not throw the biggest temper tantrum of his life in the face of the shopkeeper. “Where’s the one I ordered?” he asked more calmly than he felt.
“Apparently it’s on its way to Buck Morgan’s house,” Walt confessed to knowing.
“Apparently?” Johnny asked with raised eyebrows.
Walt nodded his head, “That’s what Tim told me when I asked where it was.”
Johnny closed his eyes, counting to ten silently. “So you did know this wasn’t the right one! What I wanna know is, are you’re gonna go out there and get the one that belongs to me?”
Walt stepped back as if he had been hit square in the gut, “You want me dead and buried, don’t yah?”
“It’s your fault!”
“It’s not my fault. I already told yah…Tim’s the one who accepted the delivery.”
Johnny laughed, “Well then, Tim can go get it if you’re too scared to.”
Walt shook his head, “Now that ain’t possible and you know it.”
Angry, Johnny slammed his hand down on the counter causing Walt to nearly jump out of his skin, “Why not?”
“You know why not, Johnny! You know he’s just a kid.”
“He’s fifteen Walt. You know what I was doin’ at fifteen?” Johnny asked, as he thrummed his fingers on the butt of his gun.
Walt didn’t miss the thrumming fingers on Johnny’s gun. It scared him a mite, but facing Buck Morgan (old man Morgan to the locals), scared him more than the young Lancer he had come to know as a friend and a good customer. He shook his head again and sighed in frustration knowing good and well what Johnny had been doing at fifteen and it made no difference in this case. “Can’t do it Johnny. I can’t let a kid go out there to face old man Morgan by himself. It just wouldn’t be right and besides…”
Johnny closed his eyes and opened them slowly, looking straight at the shopkeeper with the iciest blue stare Walt had ever seen. “Besides what?” Johnny asked curtly.
“Martha would kill me.”
“Maybe I’ll kill you…shoot you right here, right now,” Johnny said, his voice taking on the deadly tone of Johnny Madrid.
Walt laughed nervously and moved to stand behind the sturdy counter. The sane part of him, old friend that he was to Murdoch Lancer, didn’t really think his ex-gunfighter son would shoot him, but he wasn’t going to give the young man any bigger a target than necessary just in case he was wrong.
“No need to threaten me Johnny Lancer. This was just a little mistake.”
“Walt…I’m not threatening you. I’m telling you. I will kill you if you don’t get this straightened out for me.”
“Now Johnny…I know you better than that. I also know your Pa, we’re friends and I don’t think he would appreciate knowing you’d want to kill me over a little mistake that Tim made.”
Johnny kicked the counter with the toe of his boot, that temper tantrum getting closer and closer to becoming a reality. “If you say one word to Murdoch…so help me…”
The door of the mercantile opened and a trio of brass bells tinkled and swayed on a short leather string from the ceiling, “Calm down, will yah?” Walt said leaning over the counter. “There’s customers’ coming in.”
Johnny leaned over and met Walt halfway across the counter saying quietly, “I want the right one, the one I spent a whole months wages on. Now are you gonna go get it or not?”
“You’re better equipped to handle old man Morgan than I am.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’m not the one who messed up,” Johnny replied.
The couple that entered the store was making their way toward the counter with a few items they wanted to purchase. Walt didn’t want to be having this discussion as he rang up their sale so he said to Johnny, “I’ll see what I can do.”
“You do that Walt,” Johnny said with a sidelong glance at the waiting couple. The woman smiled at him. Not missing it or the sudden blush that colored her cheeks, Johnny leaned against the counter and tipped his hat smiling back at her, “Ma’am.”
Walt had to refrain from rolling his eyes. He shoved Johnny’s receipt at his hand and motioned for him to leave with a quick jerk of his head toward the door.
“Thank you, Mr. Lancer…Come see me tomorrow and we’ll settle up on your order.” Walt had raised his voice for the benefit of the customers and moved down the counter to help them with a promissory look toward Johnny that said he would do what he could do.
Disgusted, Johnny pushed away from the counter and without a backward glance left the mercantile. So far, nothing he did was going right and the day wasn’t even half over yet. On the way to town one of the horses had thrown a shoe and to make matters worse, had gotten a bruise from a lodged stone imbedded in its hoof. Cursing under his breath, Johnny drove the wagon off the side of the road and unhitched both horses. He long tethered the healthy horse to a nearby tree and with hand grappling the headgear of the lame horse, walked him the rest of the way into town.
Green River was visible from where he’d broke down, but that didn’t stop the short distance from being a grueling experience. It was one of those hot muggy days and the sun beat down on his back relentlessly. The smell of rain was in the air though a body wouldn’t know it by the cloudless ocean of blue overhead. The weather was a fickle friend, it could change in a heartbeat and have a man wishing he’d never thought bad when it could always get worse.
Sweat dampened the back of his shirt and more than once Johnny took out a handkerchief to swipe away the perspiration on his face. Each step was more miserable than the last, his irritation increasing as the minutes passed slowly by, giving him time to decide what he would do with the animal once he got into Green River.
Thinking on his options, Johnny decided before getting to town that he would leave the horse with Karl Bennett at the blacksmith shop and rent another from the livery. He had to get back to Lancer with the supplies at a decent hour or Murdoch was liable to skin him alive for being gone all day. That’s where his next set of troubles began. By the time Johnny got to the smithy shop, he was disappointed to find the smithy closed and a note on the door stating Karl wouldn’t be back until well after noon sometime. Not good since Karl also owned and ran the livery by himself.
Hot, tired and just a little more than exasperated at the bad timing, Johnny corralled the lame horse and borrowed one from Karl’s stock. He left a note of intent, yelping when the butt of his gun hit his finger in the process of tacking it to the door. He had supplies to pick up at the hardware store and he hoped that if he timed things just right, he’d be back at Lancer before his father had a conniption fit. Holstering his gun and sucking on the offended finger, Johnny harnessed the horse and led him out of the corral, ready or not for the hot walk back to retrieve his wagon.
Things hadn’t got much better by the time he got the abandoned wagon re-hitched and made his way back to the hardware store. The supplies he expected to pick up weren’t in yet and from what Morely Thompson told him, they weren’t expected for another two maybe three hours at best. A telegram had been sent from Modesto saying that the freighter was running late because of a broken axle and it had to be replaced before the drivers could haul their load.
Johnny figured this wouldn’t matter so much; he had to wait on Karl to get back anyhow. They way things were going though, he wouldn’t make it back to Lancer until very late in the day, and that wasn’t such a good thing. Murdoch was expecting him back by noon or a little after, loaded and ready to drop off supplies for the men to start work on a major section of fencing that had come down in the south end of the valley.
Now, as things stood, the ranch hands would be kept waiting on him, watching the cattle, making sure they didn’t roam off and Murdoch would soon find out sure as shootin’ that he never got there on time. In his mind, Johnny thought this spelled nothing but a whole pack trouble he’d rather not have. For as sure as he was that the day wasn’t going to get any better, his father was sure to blame him for the small little catastrophe’s for which he had no control over.
And all these mishaps happened before he had the heartache of learning his gift for Murdoch had wound up in the hands of Buck Morgan, a man no local wanted to face on a good day, let alone one of the most miserable days Johnny could remember. The old geezer was rotten to the core, mean as a rattlesnake and twice as ornery if he caught wind of anyone coming within a mile of his place.
Resigning himself to a long wait since it wasn’t quite noon yet, Johnny made his way toward the saloon. He sidled up to the bar and tossed a coin on the counter and ordered a beer, wondering all the while why the saloon was empty of customers. “Kind a slow today, Frank,” Johnny commented as he propped his elbows on the countertop and watched the barkeep slide his cleaning rag down the slick bar in slow circular motions.
Frank leaned on the counter too, his cleaning rag resting just under his hands. “Yep…kinda slow today. Guess that’s cause I’m all out of beer. You want the strong stuff instead? Got plenty of that.”
Johnny dropped his head down to his fists, laughing to himself over his bad luck. He looked up at Frank incredulously, “You have to be joking?” Johnny asked him.
“Wish I was, Johnny. Some dern fools shot up the kegs last night during a free for all and now I ain’t got any beer. Least…not until Jack can get here from Modesto sometime soon. Heard the freighters were down and won’t be here until later today.”
Frank pushed the coin back toward Johnny, “How ‘bout a tequila Johnny? It’s on the house.”
Johnny shook his head and pocketed the coin. “No thanks, Frank. Think I’ll pass.”
Franks eyes shot up, “You’re gonna turn down a free drink?”
Johnny smiled and gave the barkeep a nod, “Yep. I didn’t eat much this mornin’. Don’t want it goin’ to my head.”
Frank sighed, smiled and began to wipe the counter again, “I can understand that. Maybe next time.”
“Yeah…next time. See yah later Frank.”
“See yah, Johnny.”
With nothing to do until the freighter arrived and Karl came back to town, Johnny decided to go talk to Val. Maybe if he spent a little time with his friend it would take his mind off the fact that things weren’t getting any better on the most piss poor day he could ever remember having in his whole life.
Johnny opened the door to Val’s office and stepped inside. The sheriff of Green River was no where to be found, but the cells were filled to capacity with six sleeping men that Johnny figured were the culprits from last nights free for all that left the town without any beer to drink.
With no Val to talk to, Johnny turned around and stepped out onto the boardwalk. What to do now he wondered glancing up and down the street. For the most part, the town was quiet, not too many people out and about unless he counted Charlie Bear Claw and Obadiah Jones whittling away on thick sticks of wood down by the stage depot, smokin’ and spittin’ chewing tobacco like it was a lazy Sunday evening, an old cracker barrel between them that was used as a table for an ongoing checker game that never seemed to have a winner. They were both older than the hills, the one an old Indian medicine man, Apache, Johnny thought, the other, a black man who used to be a mule skinner in his prime. You couldn’t go near either one of them without getting a history lesson or some kind of words of wisdom thrown in for good measure.
He wished for the first time that day that he had Barranca with him. At least if he had his horse he could have rode out to old man Morgan’s place. He’d probably wind up having to do it anyhow. Walt was right on one point, with Buck Morgan’s reputation, it would be a cold day in hell before Martha Winslow would ever let her son go out to his ranch for any reason. Which only meant that he’d eventually have to do it himself. Johnny couldn’t picture Walt going out there any easier than he imagined Martha letting Tim. He thought briefly of asking Val, but just as quickly rejected the idea. Val wouldn’t go either. After the last encounter with old man Morgan, Val swore the old man’s house could burn down around his ears and he’d never lift a finger to help put it out. And with each proclamation, Val would rub his backside as if the stinging pellets from his last attempted visit still hurt.
He thought for a moment about borrowing a saddle horse from the livery but quickly changed his mind. If old man Morgan got a craw up his butt, getting away from him would be better if he had his own horse and not some fleabag he couldn’t depend on for a fast getaway.
The old geezer had a temper like no one else Johnny knew. Folks tended to stay away from his house because Buck Morgan could usually be found sitting on his front porch, smoking on an old corn cob pipe, rocking back and forth with an old Sharp’s carbine rifle tucked up against his belly, all set and ready to blast anyone who got too close for his comfort.
Mostly this had to do with his granddaughter, Belle Morgan. Everyone in town said she was ugly as sin and mean tempered because of it. Of course old man Morgan didn’t see her that way because he was a mean cuss too.
Johnny hadn’t ever seen her, Belle that is, except from a great distance the one time his father had told him he had to take a load of chopped wood over to their place just before his first winter at Lancer. Belle Morgan had been standing in the doorway of her grandfather’s home, a dark silhouette against the shadowy interior of the house, with old man Morgan rocking back and forth on the front porch, both of them waiting it seemed, neither one inclined to say hello or how do, as Johnny drove up to the yard.
He tried not to pull up too close, his father had warned him not to. He told Johnny not to let their appearance fool him into thinking he was welcome if they should be out front. They were always there, on the front porch if someone was of a mind to get close enough to visit them. Said he would get shot if he got too close and just to leave the wagon about a hundred yards away, horse and all. Johnny thought his father was exaggerating about the Morgan’s and thought the idea of leaving the wagon and the horse behind was a crock of bull, but he soon learned this was not the case when he erringly drove the wagon just beyond that imaginary hundred-yard line boundary without realizing it.
After the first shot from the old Sharp’s, Johnny, unable to back the nervous rig up had climbed down and quick as a jackrabbit untied Barranca from the back of the wagon. He’d barely gotten on the saddle before a second shot blasted from the front porch that sent dirt flying in every direction from just a few feet near Barranca’s hooves.
The horse reared, nearly unseating him, and if there had been any time to spare, Johnny thought he would have returned a shot or two just to give the old man a little scare of his own. But he’d been warned beforehand not to, and given no excuse for why.
His father had grinned and laughed good-naturedly at him later that same day when he’d carried on about his feelings concerning the whole damn thing and told Murdoch what he’d thought of doing as he rode away.
“Son,” Murdoch said, “If you had shot at Buck Morgan you wouldn’t have been riding back on your horse. We’d have had to go get you and most likely you wouldn’t have been able to sit for a month of Sundays after he filled your backside with buckshot. Old man Morgan can hit a gnat on a nail head from two hundred yards away and,” Murdoch added smiling, “that’s with his good eye closed.”
Johnny had stormed off pissed and angry that Murdoch seemed to think the whole thing amusing. He didn’t want to hear his father say another word about the old goat and thought the next time someone had to take anything over to old man Morgan’s then it could damn well be his father.
He wondered briefly how the hell the wagon and horse were going to fare, and for that matter, how the hell they were going to get them back when a body couldn’t get close enough to get them without risking their lives in the process. Johnny’s worrisome thoughts on the matter were answered the very next morning, right after breakfast when he left the house with Scott by his side. They found the horse and wagon, mysteriously parked in front of the barn without anyone aware of how it had gotten there.
Scott laughed, slapped his brother on the back and said, “Guess you don’t have to worry about that little problem anymore.”
Johnny turned his head toward his brother, his face scowling, “I wasn’t worried,” he said, even though he had been and had expressed his concern to Murdoch about it over breakfast that morning and got a, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ for his effort.
Scott lifted his brows, “You weren’t?” he teased.
Johnny blew out an irritated breath and walked away from his brother, calling over his shoulder, “Nope…not worried at all.”
Scott shrugged and smiled at his brother’s back, “Could have fooled me,” he said under his breath.
Bound For Honor
Johnny checked his pocket watch; saw that he still had about a half hour until Karl was back in town. With no Val to visit, no beer to drink and no way to load supplies when there wasn’t any to load, Johnny decided to make his way down the street toward the stage depot. Charlie and Obadiah were there in front of the building, smoking and chewing, playing their never ending game of checkers with a mess of wood shavings littering the wooden planks beneath their feet.
Johnny took a seat on the edge of the boardwalk, leaning against the awning post with one leg bent and the other one dangling off the wooden sidewalk. He swung his leg, letting the toe of his boot scuff through the dirt, kicking up swirls of red dust that covered the top his boot and the bottom half of his pants.
“Mornin to yah Johnny,” Obadiah said as he rolled a thick wad of chew around in his mouth. His skin was dark, a rich chocolate and wrinkled, his eyes white as snow around the black irises when they rolled toward Johnny in welcome.
“Mornin’ Obadiah…mornin’ Charlie,” Johnny replied pushing his hat back off his head. “Anybody win yet?” he asked casually.
“I’s ‘bout ready to whup him good,” Obadiah answered giving his spongy black head a scratch with long tapered shiny fingers. When he was done scratching, he picked up a tin can, spat into it and set it back down again with slow deliberate care, his eyes back on the game, “Ain’t that right Charlie?” he asked the Indian opposite him.
Charlie Bear Claw’s mahogany colored face seemed as if it were set in stone as he studied the worn out checker board. All he said in answer was, “Huh,” more a sound really than a word before he drew a long puff on an intricately carved wooden pipe. The smoke drifted lazily from his mouth when his lips parted slightly from the mouthpiece, swirling around his weathered face and shiny black hair that hung long and thick down his back in a tight braid. Leaning sideways, his obsidian eyes, black marbles in his face, Charlie moved a red checker and then leaned back with the barest hint of a smile on his granite face.
Johnny wasn’t really sure about that smile, if it was a smile. The old Indian had little expression other than serious on his face any time Johnny had ever spoken to him. He was an ancient soul, an Apache elder, a retired shaman who once held the power to heal his peoples wounds with chants, herbs and a tipi full of ritual smoke that was supposed to chase away the specter of evil and cleanse the soul. Some say, and it was never actually confirmed, that he had once married a white woman with flaming red hair and that was how he had come to eventually live in peace among the white man.
But Obadiah, his smile was more than noticeable; it was big and brilliant on his black face. Big white choppers that almost seemed to glow they were so bright against the darkness of his skin. His smile was always quick and easy, never having been a slave nor much bothered by that great disgrace to his people. Obadiah had reached a rather untainted old age and good humor by being a man of the mountain wilderness and the great open plains where civilized persons didn’t bother him much because there hadn’t been any. Most times if he ever saw folks of any color, be it red, yellow, white or black, it was when he delivered his pelts or buffalo meats to the solitary government forts or trading posts.
“Oh, that ain’t ah gonna help yah none, Charlie. Cause I’m just gonna do this now,” Obadiah said moving one of his black pieces. He drew his words out, long and slow like poured honey from a jar, his voice deep and rich sounding to the ears.
Charlie Bear Claw seemed not to care, nor did he look to see what kind of move the old Negro made. He smoked his pipe, let the smoke swirl and ebb around his head as he studied Johnny with thoughtful wisdom in his eyes.
“You waiting on the White man?” Charlie asked, his voice neither soft nor deep, but somewhere in between, clear as if he’d gone to the white man’s school but with a mix of his old halting English to make it not sound quite so perfect as it could be. And it could be perfect Johnny knew, but that would make the old Indian more white than he wanted to be and that would not do for Charlie Bear Claw, no matter how long he’d lived among the white man.
“Yeah,” Johnny said. He took out a handkerchief and pushing his hat back, wiped the sweat that was matting his hair to his forehead.
“You gonna have a long wait,” the Indian remarked sitting forward and glancing slowly down one end of the street to the other before sitting back again. “The White Devil’s go inside their tipis soon and sleep.”
Johnny chuckled, “Well…I’m not waitin’ on any of them. They can all sleep as long as they want.”
Charlie put his pipe between his lips and sucked. When he was done blowing out a cloud of smoke he added sternly, “I could scalp them all in their beds.”
“Don’t think they’d like that much Charlie,” Johnny told him, readjusting his hat back on his head.
“I know’s I wouldn’t,” added Obadiah soulfully, frowning with big puckered lips at his friend.
“Maybe I won’t do it this time,” said the old Indian thoughtfully with another one of his thin, not quite there, smiles on his face.
Obadiah laughed hard and slapped a palm on his thigh and stomped his foot on the boardwalk. The force of it made the cracker barrel jump and the checkers to move just a fraction, but not enough for either man to notice it made a difference. “You allus know how to give a fright Charlie. Yes sir, you allus know.”
“You ever scalp anybody for real?” Johnny asked Charlie as he squinted up at him.
“Naw. I might have, long time ago when this place was still an infant and I could ride for many moons with my brothers.”
Johnny smiled and said, “That right?”
Charlie nodded and offered his pipe over to Johnny who declined. “You miss those days, Charlie?”
“Charlie don’t miss nothin’, do you Charlie?” Obadiah said to his friend. Long black fingers picked up a thick stick of wood he’d been working on and while he waited for Charlie to make his next move, began to slice off a sliver of wood with his knife.
“I miss nothing,” Charlie agreed solemnly as he studied the checkerboard. “The past is always with me, in here,” he stated placing his hand over his heart, “and in here,” he added, touching his fingertips to his forehead. “It gives me peace.”
“He got a lot of stories in there too, Johnny,” Obadiah added, “Can’t miss nothin’ when you hear them stories. He make ‘em seem real, Johnny. Like yuh was there or somethin’.”
“Looks like I have time to hear one Charlie, if you’re mind to tell one while I’m waitin’,” Johnny said. The town was downright dead now, not a soul in sight as everyone got out of the sun and took the midday siesta that was so common in this part of the country. He was feeling more than a little drowsy himself and maybe listening to a story would help keep him from falling asleep on the boardwalk.
“Oh he got stories to tell Johnny, and he ain’t never turned down tellin’ one since I knowed him all these years gone by,” Obadiah said with a hearty laugh and a shake of his spongy head. He and Charlie had known each other for more than thirty years and they were very good friends. They relied on one another in their old age as only two elderly retired bachelors did who had lived a lifetime of hard work and adventure.
Charlie looked straight ahead, his head barely nodding in agreement with Obadiah. The fingers of his left hand thrummed against the top of his thigh, the right lifted his pipe and slowly, more slowly than Johnny thought before, inhaled a long deep breath of smoke from the intricate pipe.
He closed his eyes and told his story to Johnny and also to Charlie who had turned around on his chair and leaned against the building, anticipating a great tale from his old friend.
“Long ago in a village far far away,” said the rich smoky voice, “Many many moons ago, it happened. Um…during the time when Mother Earth started her winter sleep. That time, the snow came swiftly, silently, more quiet than the flight of brother Owl. The winter was hard. The mountains, the valleys and the little village lay beneath a thick frozen blanket so white and pure that when the sun touched the icy surface, man had to look away or go blind from its brilliance.”
Charlie opened his eyes and the look in them was more alive than Johnny had seen them in a long time. The corners of his mouth twitched, anxious to hear more.
“There were those who claim the animals knew what was to come. The proof, they said came when the creatures began to leave their homes. This is true since we know that an animal will not leave his home for good unless it is for something grave and truly important. There were also signs from the forest, the trees. The leaves dropped from their branches long before they were supposed to, leaving them stark and barren, skeletal and without life…or so it seemed. A snowstorm, cold and frigid as you’ve never felt it before began to blow from the north. An evil snowstorm it was called much later, because it froze the land and turned cold the hearts of those living in the little village.”
Charlie’s eyes seemed to narrow at this point, as if he were seeing the changes in the land and the people and remembered it not as a good thing at all, which it wasn’t, but a wicked and cruel thing that was going to happen no matter what.
“Those people of the village, they became selfish and greedy. They chose not to care or share any comforts that Mother Earth had provided for them long before the evil winds and snows came roaring down upon them. Soon, every villager closed their frozen hearts more tightly than they closed their doors. No friend, no neighbor was welcome for they all thought the world was coming to an end. Even a stranger, a person of need would have found no better welcome because it just wasn’t in their hearts any longer to be so kind as they once were. In their selfish need to think only of themselves, kindness and charity became a lost memory and the villagers were unable change what evil had altered.”
There was a long pause at this point. Charlie refilled his pipe, his head bowed, his black hair parted down the middle, looking sleek and oiled. Johnny glanced up and down the street while he waited and Obadiah decided this was the time to pick out a new wad of chew and plop it into his mouth. Before Charlie went on with his tale, Obadiah cocked his head to the side and said slowly, “I told you he could tell them’s stories. He tells ‘em good, don’t he, Johnny?”
Johnny took off his hat and whipped it back and forth in front of his face. “Yeah Obadiah, he tells a great story. For a while there I forgot how dang blasted hot it was today.”
Obadiah chuckled and skimmed his knife along the piece of wood again, slicing off another long slender shaving that curled until the knife reached the tip end of the stick. “Ah’s almost feel like its winter…that I do.” He slid his gaze over to Charlie who was done refilling his pipe and put his finger up to his big lips. “Ssshhh…He ‘bout ready to start again.”
Charlie, satisfied his pipe was ready for lighting, continued his story.
“It was during this time of great iciness and greed that an unfortunate stranger, A young Indian woman named, Ishkeh, who found herself without food or shelter, far from her people and the safety of her tribe. Had she been on her own, the young girl would have tried to find her way back to the Yavapai. But she carried with her, a girl child who had yet to see very many suns rise and fall beyond the mountains that surrounded their village. She knew that if she wanted her baby to live, she would have to find shelter and wait out the storm.”
Charlie stopped and looked over to his left, weighing his options on the checkerboard. He glanced up at his friend, moved a checker and then settled back, straight as an arrow against the front of the building while he gazed over the top of Johnny’s head in thoughtful reflection of his next words.
Nodding once as if finally remembering where he’d left off, Charlie went on with his tale, “It was at this time that Ishkeh stumbled upon the village of the white man. Even cold and hungry, frightened for the life of her child, she hesitated walking into their world. To do such a thing might bring her and her child great misery and maybe even death. Old stories told by the elders of her tribe rushed at her like the mighty waters of the great rivers. But while she felt great fear, the smoke from their wood tipis gave her a sense of peace and hope. She felt surely these people would not look upon a lost mother and child from the winter world, without some kind of mercy in their hearts and willingness to help.”
“My people say,” Charlie continued with a growing fire in his old eyes, “that Ishkeh was more than brave on that day. She rose above her fears and pressed her child close to her heart. She ignored the icy winds and the snow that swirled about her, biting her hands and face, piercing her skin like small daggers through the thin blanket she had wrapped around her shoulders and the baby to protect them.”
The old Indian paused and drew heavily on his pipe. The fire in his eyes settled and he asked Johnny, “You want to hear what happened next?”
The corners of Johnny’s eyes crinkled as he smiled and looked up at Charlie, “Yeah, I do.”
“He’s a good boy, Obadiah,” the old Indian said to his friend.
Obadiah moved one of his checkers, then rubbed the palm of his hand up and down his thigh, “Ah knows, Charlie. Allus said he was a good boy.”
Johnny ducked his head a little, his grin widening and hidden beneath the rim of his hat.
“Ishkeh put her babe closer to her chest and started trudging through the snow. I say she was brave because not only did she banish the fear inside her heart, but she also moved through the snow with great misery and pain to herself. The snow soaked her moccasins and made walking difficult. Her feet were so numb she could barely feel the ground but she kept putting one foot in front of the other, moving closer and closer to the village. She would have stopped and cried from the pain of it all but she could not. The cold would only turn her tears to sparkling glass upon her cheeks. Her baby’s strong gusty cries were nothing more than weakened pitiful mewing sounds as the weather took its toll.”
“When she finally made her way to the outskirts of the village, she was able to see a flicker of light in one of the homes. She pushed through the blizzard, nearly falling into a heap when she finally reached the little house. It took every last bit of her strength to lift a weary hand and knock on the door.”
“This is where it gets really good, Johnny,” Obadiah said in a near whisper.
Charlie made a coughing sound and looked at his friend, “I would say interesting…not good.”
“Ah’s corrected,” Obadiah said. “Interesting,” he repeated toward Johnny who grinned at the two old men.
“As Ishkeh stood there, the door opened just enough that she could feel the warm rush of air from the crackling fire inside the room. But sadly, the face that peered out at her showed nothing but irritation and scorn for being bothered on such a cold night. The woman asked Ishkeh, ‘What do you want?’”
“Ishkeh’s child mewed weakly in her arms. It was enough to cast away her new fears and beg the harsh woman at the door for food and shelter. The woman started to back away, shaking her head and closing the door. But Ishkeh put up her hand and kept the door open. She begged again, hating to, but knowing that it was necessary. The woman still would not help Ishkeh or her baby. The woman grew very angry and said there was not enough to share with a dog, let alone share with the likes of her after such a bad winter.”
“Ishkeh grew desperate, if the woman would not share her food, maybe she would share her fire. It was so little to give, the young mother thought. And so she begged the angry woman to let her and her baby come inside and get warm. The woman only shook her head, not wanting to share even the fire provided by Mother Earth, and closed the door in Ishkeh’s face.”
“At first, Ishkeh wanted to slump to her knees and cry. But she was a young Indian woman, full of spirit and heart. She tried to understand the woman who would not help her. The woman did look as if she had little. But what she did have was so much more than what Ishkeh had, it was hard to be completely forgiving. She turned around and looked all about her. There were many homes in the white man’s village. Some were much bigger than this woman’s house, and many lights shined through those windows. She kept her faith that someone would help her sooner or later.”
“Ishkeh stumbled from the first house and went to many others, her legs were leaden, wanting to crumple beneath her at any minute. One by one she went to each home only to be turned down by each and every person she met. Not a single soul was willing to help her or her baby. The houses got bigger, the lights brighter the faces more impatient and eager to send her away. So desperate was she, her strength fleeing as swiftly as an antelope’s, Ishkeh decided to knock on the door of the biggest, finest looking house in town. She felt certain she would receive the help she needed because the people inside must surely be the richest of all and have plenty to share without feeling pinched for their charity.”
Charlie paused and set his pipe down. He moved a checker piece and for several moments seemed to forget that he had been telling a story.
Johnny’s curiosity peeked he asked, “Did the rich people help the young girl?”
Charlie and Obadiah silently shook their heads in unison. “A body would think they would. But them’s people, they didn’t help the gal either,” Obadiah said sadly.
“Obadiah is right, you would think that being blessed with so many treasures and comforts, the people of the house would be thankful for what the Great Spirit gave to them. They had more than they needed, and more than they could share. But for all the fruits of the earth they enjoyed, the man and his pregnant wife were just as cold hearted and without compassion as those that had less. Not only did they turn Ishkeh and her baby away, they threatened to see her jailed if she did not leave their porch instantly. It was a grand porch too that was denied her use. There was a great awning overhead and thick bushes on either side of porch that helped to keep the icy wind from ripping the blanket off her and her baby.”
Obadiah let out a slow sorrowful sigh, “This is the sad part, Johnny.” He shook his head. “Ah’s know people can be mean, but I never thought they could be as mean as the folks in that town.”
“What happened next?” Johnny asked after he had checked up and down the street again and still there was no sign of Karl or Jack. Johnny wondered briefly what was taking them so long. It was well past noon by now and Murdoch was sure to have a fit no matter what excuse he gave. But a part of him didn’t mind. Charlie’s story was interesting and he was having a good time listening to the two old men.
“At the very moment the rich couple threatened to send Ishkeh to jail, the young woman felt the spirit leave her daughter’s body. Her last breath was like a whisper in Ishkeh’s ear and the tiny body went limp and lifeless in her arms. She no longer wanted to be in the presence of these people. She blamed them all for their selfishness and could no longer look at them. She turned away and staggered from the grand house until she reached an arched gateway at the front of the lawn. Under the leafless arbor she turned around and shrugged the blanket off her shoulder, sinking until her legs were half buried in the snow. Ishkeh lifted her daughter in her hands toward the heavens and cried, hot tears that did not freeze but ran down her cheeks in great rivulets until they plunked heavily upon the ground.”
“What the people did not know was that Ishkeh was the daughter of a great and powerful shaman. So when her daughter died in her arms, Ishkeh first cried out to her grandfathers, demanding that they accompany Nahdoste on her spirit journey to join her ancestors. Then she cursed the unborn girl child the woman carried. The child would be born, just as Nahdoste was born, happy and healthy, and all that gazed upon the girl child would love her the same as Nahdoste had been loved. Cold hearts would melt, happiness and compassion would once again fill their hearts as it once had before the great winter set in and turned them hard. The difference, Ishkeh promised in her curse to the rich couple, would be that on their daughter’s eighteenth birthday she would fall into a deep sleep. A sleep from which she would never rise again unless awakened by the kiss of a man who had survived sacrifice and loss, who knew love and honor, a man who would fight the devil himself to right a wrong.”
“Once the curse was said, Ishkeh pulled her baby back to her breast and cradled Nahdoste to her heart. She bowed her head, kissed her little girl one last time and gave her spirit to her ancestors and joined her daughter in death.”
Charlie picked up his pipe and relit it, smoke swirling all around his head when he exhaled after taking a long draw on his pipe. “The next spring, in the spot where her soul left her body and her last tears had soaked the ground, a rose bush sprang up. By the middle of summer it completely entwined the bare arbor, covering the archway with the sweetest smelling roses, white as the snow from that winter, and each with a blood red spot in the heart of each flower. The spots were shaped like Ishkeh’s tears and the bush grew and twisted its vines until it hardly looked like a bush anymore. The leaves grew large, hiding the sharp thorns that tangled and tore man and beast alike if they got to close to it, protecting the spot where Ishkeh and her babe died that fateful night so long ago.”
“Eighteen years later, the daughter of the rich couple who turned Ishkeh and her child away, decided she would pick several of the roses and make a bouquet to give to a sick neighbor. The girl was very beautiful, raven haired and full of goodness. She was a blessing and a wonder to her parents who had never in their lives ever been so kind and as thoughtful as their daughter. She was different than they were. This girl was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside and cared about others more than herself.”
“The girl ran to the arbor and reached to pick the first bloom, a large, beautifully shaped rose with the perfect red drop in the center of its flower. One of the thick thorns, hidden by the large leaves, pricked the palm of her hand and pierced the skin. She turned bewildered eyes toward her parents who were sitting on the front porch, feeling at first strange and then suddenly very very tired until she could hardly stand up. Her parents who were watching her, smiling at first from the very spot where they had turned Ishkeh away, then curious and worried, stood up and started running toward their daughter when they saw her take two steps and then collapse.”
“She wilted to the ground like a dying flower that had not been watered and they picked her up and carried her inside the house, all the while remembering the curse that was put upon them years and years ago by the young Indian woman. Since that time, they learned to be caring and compassionate, charitable and giving, because of their daughter. But after the doctor was called and the prognosis was given, they knew the changes in their hearts had done nothing to break the curse that was put upon their daughter.”
The jingle of harnesses and the clomping of hooves broke the silence that hung heavy in the air when Charlie was done telling his story. Johnny stood up and glanced down the street, glad to see that Karl was finally getting to town and not far behind him was Jack and his team of freighters.
Johnny stepped off the boardwalk, waving as the teams drove by, hollering out a how do to Karl when the big man waved back.
Johnny looked back at Charlie Bear Claw and Obadiah. He almost wished he could spend more time with them but he had to get his work done and get back to the ranch. But before he did, he just had to know what happened to the young girl in the story. So he asked Charlie, “What happened to the girl, Charlie? Is she still asleep or did the man of her dreams come wake her up?”
Charlie and Obadiah looked at one another mysteriously, as if they knew great secrets and weren’t about to tell. But then Charlie leaned forward through the haze of smoke around his head and said, “She’s till sleeping, Johnny. Waiting for the kiss of a man who willingly knows about sacrifice and loss, love and honor, a man like you Johnny, who would fight the devil himself to right a wrong.”
Bound For Honor
Johnny Lancer swayed with the rhythm of the sideways motion to the rise and fall of the wagon on the rutted uneven dirt road. The dust from the plodding of the horse's hooves and the turning of the wheels rose in the air along with the heat waves that skewered and distorted the view of the landscape. The gritty puffs of sand and particles would hang suspended until gravity and the heat in the air forced them back down again, to settle on anything impeding their path to the ground. So not only was the dark haired Lancer covered in a wet sticky layer of sweat, that trickled down his face and back in rivulets, soaking his shirt and dampening his disposition, he also looked like he had rolled in the dirt.
Johnny sighed, huffing his breath with heavy exasperation. His weary arms rested on his knees, while his hands hung limply between his legs, the reins loosely held in them. He sighed again, blowing his breath out this time slowly and softly as he lethargically raised his right arm and used the sleeve of his shirt to wipe the moisture and dirt from his face.
He thought back over his morning and all the things that went wrong. He smirked and snorted to himself as he wished it had been his blond brother that had been errand boy today and in his position right now, trudging home hot, tired and late. Yes sir, he would have gladly traded places, stayed home and worked on the books in the cool interior of the hacienda. In fact right about now he believed he would happily endure a blizzard, like Charlie described in his story, for the chance to feel anything but this oppressive energy sapping heat.
The jingle of the harness and tack, as the horses picked up the pace a little, drew Johnny from his ruminations. Looking around he realized he must have been daydreaming; he was still on the main road but only about a mile from the turn off to the Lancer arch. The horses had increased their speed of their own accord in anticipation of returning to the shadowed and cooler interior of the Lancer barn.
Johnny's spirit lifted along with the quick trot of the horses as he finally thought he could put this day behind him. His first indication that things might not have gone any better at home than it did for him in town was when Barranca flew by him like a flash of a golden blur, hooves thundering and rumbling with as much noise as an approaching storm.
The wagon wheels had barely quit turning from the hasty stop Johnny made before he was jumping from the seat. Johnny again used his sleeve to wipe the grime from his lips, this time, before placing to fingers in his mouth and whistling shrilly for the palomino. The first sharp outburst of sound stopped the horse in his tracks, but he was still agitated and worked out his frustration by kicking out his hind legs, as though punching them at some unseen enemy.
Realizing he had his steed's attention, Johnny let loose another high-pitched blow. The golden horse fretfully tossed his head, mane swinging crazily about his liquid brown eyes, he dropped his head and pawed the parched ground then trod slowly to his master. The now docile beast stood before his amigo and nudged his shoulder, nipping at his collar, releasing his oats and hay breath to caress Johnny's neck.
"What's the matter, boy? What has you running from home like the hounds of Hell are on your heels?" inquired Johnny as he absent-mindedly scratched Barranca's ears, along with rubbing the velvety nose. Peering into the shiny eyes of his trusted palomino, Johnny’s stomach plummeted at the turmoil raging in the loyal eyes.
Fetching a length of rope from the bed of the wagon, Johnny fashioned a loop, slipped it over Barranca's head and tied the free end to the wagon, while voicing his concerns out loud. "I don't even know if I want to go home now. Things must be in a serious uproar for horses to be escaping. I'll bet the old man is practically standing on his head, foaming at the mouth and gnashing his teeth ready to tear into me like a mountain lion into fresh killed meat."
Lithely jumping back onto the wagon seat and taking up the reins, Johnny shook his head and snorted. "Maybe I'm just borrowing trouble, as Boston would say, could be I'll get home and they'll all be on the patio, relaxing and enjoying a nice tall cold glass of lemon-aid, just waiting to welcome me home and shower me with sympathy and care when they find out about my horrible, terrible, no good very bad day."
Johnny's delusions of peace and harmony vanished faster than spit on a hot griddle when he passed under the arch. The corral was open and the horses were loose. Cattle stood grazing in areas they shouldn't have been in. The voices of the ranch hands were raised in a disjointed cacophony of shouted directions that no one seemed to be following. He headed for the side of the house with the entrance to the kitchen and before he even rounded the corner of the hacienda the din of angry shouts, screams, squeals, mooing and honking assaulted his ears.
The sight that greeted him had him blinking in disbelief. He tried covering his eyes with his hands and rubbing furiously at them. Yet when he looked again, it was to see the same view. He thought to himself, this is what a three ring circus would look like, if put on by the inmates of an insane asylum. Jelly was running from the kitchen door, hands clasped tightly on his suspenders as if he were pulling himself along by them, angry Spanish shouts trailing at his heels. He charged past the youngest Lancer so fast, Johnny felt his first breeze that day.
Murdoch was standing by the gate of the vegetable patch, drenched and dripping not only with water but also apparent mad agitation, not to mention the foamy white substance spotting his face and chest. Teresa was in the process of falling on her rear, from kicking the cow in the behind that was munching in her garden, an empty laundry bucket still gripped in her hand. Just about the time the heifer bit into a hot pepper, bellowed and began a wild hopping see-saw bucking motion as it rampaged through the vegetable rows and tore through the fence, smoke began to boil from the kitchen doorway.
Out of the midst of the dark billowing smoke pouring from the house, came a wildly honking Dewdrop, in frightened erratic flight, followed by an irate Maria rapidly pursuing the goose with a meat cleaver, her wooden spoon and a steady stream of threats in mixed Spanish and English. The goose flew by Johnny's head as he sat on the wagon seat in mute shock.
The first sound Johnny made since rounding the corner of the house was a grunt of surprise when a tomato sauce covered wooden spoon struck him in the chest as he fanned feathers away from his face. He watched in bemused resignation as the utensil slid down his favorite shirt, leaving a trail of red before the spoon plopped into his lap.
Raising his eyes, Johnny studied the intensity of emotions raging across Maria's face as she stood there shaking the meat clever. He figured he got off fairly easy, she could have thrown the over sized knife at the rapidly fleeing goose.
Johnny finally found his voice and sense of humor when his brother stumbled from the door next. The normally immaculate gentleman was using language usually reserved for sailors and the bunkhouse. He was carrying Maria's large kettle with the lid clamped down on it. He dropped it on the ground, causing the cover to fall off and a few dying puffs of smoke escaped into the air. The blond snorted in disgust as he placed his hands, his ink covered blackened hands on his slim hips and glared at his giggling younger brother.
"It's about time you got home. While you were enjoying your respite in town the rest of us have been holding down the fort, and barely at that. What's so funny?" ground out Scott.
"Uhhhh.......Boston....are you aware you have ink all over you?"
"Yes, I'm aware I have ink all over my hands. I accidentally knocked the ink over."
"Maybe you should start wearing your gloves to do book work. And by the way, you don't just have it on your hands, you have a handprint on each side of your face," chuckled Johnny.
Scott screwed his face up, his war painted looking face, in righteous indignation, clamped his mouth shut tighter than a clam's and glared his brother down with rock hard glacial slate gray eyes. " I wish I could say I am pleased to be a source of entertainment for you, little brother. However the fact, remains I would not be standing here covered in ink if I had not been so distracted by YOUR father hollering every five minutes about you not being home, yet."
"Oh...so I guess he's my father when he's shouting and in a mad fit."
"Precisely, since no one can incite or push him to such unbalanced and angry outbursts as often or easily as you do."
At the moment Murdoch did resemble an unbalanced person. He seemed unable to decide which direction to go in. At first he seemed to be intent upon walking over to Teresa, who was once again sprawled on her backside in the dirt after angrily drop kicking the laundry bucket that had been in her hand. The dark haired girl was virtually shaking with frustration and pain. The forceful impact of her foot with the metal pail had thrown her backwards and most likely broken her toe.
Few and far between are the times when Murdoch Lancer doesn't know what to do next. But in this instance he was bum fuzzled. Should he go help his ward up, the one that carelessly threw a bucket of suds and water all over him as she fought with a cow? Or should he make his younger son explain his blatant disregard of his orders to pick up supplies and come straight back to the ranch? He decided on the latter, since the root of this chaos, panic and disorder currently running amuck at Lancer could be traced directly back to Johnny's tardiness. He stomped towards his son, huffing and puffing his way to a full head of steam, his face a violent shade of red.
"JOHNNY!" bellowed Murdoch, with enough force to lift his son from the wagon seat had he not already been in the process of standing to jump from his perch. The loud shout startled the dark haired Lancer and he stumbled, pitching forward. Murdoch caught him under the arms and practically snatched him the rest of the way out of the wagon.
Johnny's feet connected solidly with the ground and he felt a little panicked to find himself sandwiched between his extremely tall irate father and the wagon. Johnny slowly raised his eyes to slyly peer at his father. The first thing he saw was the set and determined jaw, jutted out, teeth clenched, lips pursed but yet trembling open and shut as his father fought to bring himself under control. It was a fight he was losing and Johnny braced himself for the onslaught of words headed his way any second.
"Young man, how many times do I have to tell you this ranch is a working ranch, everyone has a job to do and for this to work that job has to be done on time with consideration for others who can't do their part until you do yours, answer me!"
"It all started when........"
"Don't interrupt me when I'm talking to you! Well, do you have an explanation?"
"It's not my......."
"I don't want to hear excuses! I want to know what on God's green earth you could have been doing that would take all day while the rest of this ranch waited on you!"
Rolling his eyes over being stopped again, Johnny started to speak when his father interupted again. The giant of a man towered over his son, his face now an incredible shade of raging purplish red, his wet clothes flecked with un-dissolved soap flakes and clinging to his madden twitching body. All these things combined did nothing to propagate a normal visage. And neither did Murdoch with his next bellow. "Don't roll your eyes at me, I'm not blind, I can see you think I'm crazy. Do you think I'm crazy?"
This was one time when Johnny Lancer would have dearly loved to agree with his father, but decided not to push his luck. After all there's no telling what a crazed man will do. So biting back his retort and lip, Johnny shuffled his feet on the dusty ground, smirking as the dirt stirred upward to settle on Murdoch's drenched pant legs. His bemused smile widened as he thought his father could lecture the devil into the ground without stopping to take a breath and the devil begging for the Lord's mercy while he does it."
Twenty minutes later, a rather desolate looking Johnny sat hunched on the hearth as his father still carried on with his long-winded tirade. He felt as though he had been carried through the house on a wave of angry words and deposited on the hard bricks, none too gently. In fact, his behind was beginning to feel as numb as his ears. Johnny's eyes seemed to be crossing of their own accord, his slim tan fingers found their way to his ears when his wearied mind become worried that perhaps they might be bleeding.
Seeing his younger son place his fingers in his ears, as if trying to block out his words, Murdoch bellowed, "JOHNNY! Son, have you listened to one word I've said? How can you be so irresponsible? You are a partner in this ranch too, you are honor bound to live up to that agreement to the best of your abilities and slacking off, loitering in town while others wait on you is not the way to do it. There's just no acceptable excuse .........."
/Blah blah blah blah...... if he doesn't soon shut up my ears are gonna bleed, my eyes are gonna roll up backwards in my head, my hairs gonna catch on fire..... I wouldn't be surprised for him to start with those ‘when I was your age stories again’. Snicker..... Why when I was your age, when I went to town I had to cut my own path through a deep dark forest, leaves and limbs so thick the sunshine couldn't burn it's way through....and did I mention that forest was straight up the side of a mountain, inhabited by bears so big they could knock you over with a sneeze. Then when I finally got to the top, I had to cross a raging river, with whirlpools and rapids, even had to strap my horse to my back to keep from losing him to a watery grave......./
Realizing Murdoch was glaring at him with an expectant look on his face, Johnny shook his head scattering the maniacal musings like dust beaten from a rug. He had no idea what his old man had just said, but deciding it was most likely along the same lines as past 'discussions', Johnny pasted on his best contrite look and said, "Yes, sir. I'm sorry for not pulling my weight. I'll do my best to make up the time lost by getting up and getting started early tomorrow morning. I'll stay out until bedtime, if I have too."
Maria bustling into the room, muttering in Spanish and angrily slapping platters on the table, startled both men. Neither man could swear under oath to exactly what she said but it sounded suspiciously like it had to do with wayward niños, know it all hairy-faced men and stuffed goose.
Father and son took their places at the table. Supper at Lancer was usually a big meal, but tonight due to the original meal having ended up as charred as a burnt sacrifice, the family would be dining on ham sandwiches, leftover potato salad and refried beans. Johnny was pretty sure he would have indigestion before the morning came if he ate potato salad and beans.
He decided to fill up on milk while they waited on Teresa and Scott. He was just beginning to sip from his glass when Teresa limped into the room, rubbing her backside and pinning him with a disgruntled look that made her eyes seem as narrow and close set as a worm's. He hid his smirky grin behind the rim of his glass.
Scott stomped into the room; Johnny took one look at him, snickered, snorted and then got strangled on his milk. He coughed and gasped as the mouthful he had sprayed from his mouth and nose. Even spewing milk he thought he couldn't look as ridiculous as his brother. Scott has been in the bathhouse the past twenty minutes trying to scrub off the black indelible ink. Obviously, if his face were any indication, his endeavor was not successful. Scott's face was a shiny red, the skin appeared to be tight and he still had two faint gray handprints on either side of his head. His hands look like a recalcitrant little boy’s that had been digging in the blackest river mud.
Supper progressed with the only sounds being forks scraping plates, the clink of glasses being picked up and set back down and the muffled gasps of Teresa as she squirmed trying to find a comfortable position to sit in. Johnny kept peeking at his brother and sister as they mechanically went through the motions of eating. Their silence was speaking volumes for their continued discontentment with him.
His father drew his attention when he grunted as he reached for the coffee pot. Johnny was relieved to see that getting some food in his belly seemed to have relaxed his disposition. Keeping his head down his blue eyes were trained to the side as he observed Murdoch's large hand grasp the silver pot and pour the steaming black liquid into the delicate china cup. In his father's hand the cup looked like a miniature, like a little girl's play tea set he had seen in the window of the general store. Johnny studied his pa's face as the cup was slowly raised to his mouth, his lips puckered as he blew a stream of cooler air across the surface of the scolding drink with enough force the coffee rippled and a bit sloshed over the side.
Scott's curiosity finally got the better of him. He really wanted to know why a simple chore like picking up supplies had taken Johnny all day. He realized that once again he would have to play diplomat if the family was going to get past this rather large obstacle. Scott knew Teresa wasn't going to extend any help, as she was still nursing a bruised backside as well as pride.
The older brother sighed as he poured himself a cup of coffee, thinking of how insufferable his father and brother could act. He frowned as he lifted his cup to his mouth and was once again confronted with his ink-blackened hands. He watched as Johnny continued to secretly observe their father, so he took a sip of coffee and broke the silence with his question.
"So, little brother, I missed your explanation as I was otherwise pre-occupied in the bathhouse trying to make myself more presentable. Exactly what did you get into that keep you out all day?"
Johnny glanced at his brother, both amused and irritated at the same time, but seeing as how his father looked calm enough to let him speak now, he swallowed the emotions back, along with the last of his milk.
"Boston, it might make y'all happy to know that my day didn't go any easier than yours. First of all, just when Green River was coming into view one of the horses picked up a stone. I had to pull the wagon over, unhitch the horse and walk it into town. I got into town and the smithy was closed until noon, so I decided to leave our horse and borrow one of Karl's."
Johnny paused and studied the blood blister on the thumb of his left hand after running it tiredly through his hair. "I bashed my thumb with my gun nailing up the note I left him. I had to walk the borrowed horse back to the wagon and hitch it up. Then I drove into town and tried to get the supplies. That's when I found out the freighter hadn't come in yet because it had a broken axle and was delayed for two to three hours."
Johnny frowned as he realized he hadn't got around to changing his shirt before supper due to the long-winded lecture. His hand rubbed the smear of tomato sauce down the front of his shirt and he grimaced, silently hoping Maria would be able to work her magic on the stain. "I couldn't visit with Val, he was out. I couldn't get a cold beer after all that walking I did because the kegs got shot up in a brawl last night and they were waiting for more to come in on the freighter. So I ended up passing the time with Charlie and Obadiah listening to some crazy tale about cold hearts, blizzards, frozen women, a sleeping girl, curses and roses. As soon as I could I came straight home, only to find out y'all's day was a bust too."
Johnny was careful to leave out the added aggravation of finding out Murdoch's birthday gift had been mistakenly given to someone else. The whole thing was irritatingly similar to his losing the 1 of 1000 Winchester he’d bought the year before. He’d given in on that one eventually, left the best present he’d ever gotten anyone to a total stranger just because the man’s story socked him in the heart. Pushing back the memory, knowing he’d make things up to his old man this year, he finished his narrative with a jaw-cracking yawn and a stretch of the neck to one side.
Murdoch listened to Johnny's tale of woe, his gray eyes taking note of the fatigue on the faces of the younger members of the family. He stood and arched his back as he tried to stretch out the kinks and tightness. When he spoke it wasn't to offer an apology for jumping to conclusions about Johnny's late return, both Lancer's calm demeanor during the relating of the events would pass for their silent acceptance of the fracas being over and done with.
"Well, I think I'll have one night cap and turn in. We have a lot to catch up with tomorrow, boys."
The two younger Lancers stood too and much to Teresa's surprise they began to load their arms with the dishes from the table. Between the two of them and their long arms, they were able to tote all the leftovers, dishes and utensils in one trip. The dark haired girl limped after them, quietly thanking them for the help. They left her to put away the remaining food and to wash the plates and glasses.
The brothers returned to the great room to find their father had poured a drink for them. They picked up their glasses and sank down, side by side, into the softness of the oversized sofa. Murdoch sat in his favorite chair and the three men spent the next ten minutes planning the work details for the next day. The Lancers fell silent as they contemplated the day's events.
Scott was broken from his quiet reflection and studied observation of his stained hands when he felt an increasing weight pressing into his shoulder. Turning his blond head slightly to the right, he softly chuckled at the sight of his dark haired brother. Johnny had slipped bonelessly sideways; the only thing keeping him from falling completely over on the couch was his left cheek coming to rest on Scott's arm.
Murdoch laughed lightly at the sight. He stood and stepped to the sofa and gently prized the empty glass from Johnny's hand, then took his older son's too. "I guess all that walking in this heat really did him in."
Scott jostled his shoulder until Johnny opened his bleary eyes, then he patted him on the leg as he sat forward. "Come on, little brother. Let's head upstairs to bed, morning will be here before we're ready."
The three Lancer men trudged upstairs and called good night to each other as they disappeared into their respective rooms.
Bound For Honor
Johnny crossed to his window and opened it all the way, pulling back the heavy drapes so as much fresh air as possible could get in. This time of the year the weather was hot, sultry, almost suffocating after all the years he’d spent outdoors sleeping under the stars. He looked up at those same twinkling stars, let out a deep and thankful sigh, hot or wintry cold, glad he had four walls to call home and that it was his home that was stifling the air that he breathed. Funny thing to be glad of, he thought idly. Still and all, he wished just a little that the hacienda had one of those grand porches surrounding it. Open air, big enough to sleep in like the one that Scott described to him not so long ago during one of his many tales of the Deep South. Teresa had called the description of the large plantation homes, charming, fascinating, and asked to hear more with sparkling glee and interest.
Johnny softly snorted through his nose, closed his eyes for a moment, breathed in the night air and admitted silently, secretly that he enjoyed hearing the tales too, though he’d never say so to anyone. How strange would that be to admit he liked listening to his wise and older brother drone on about something as mundane as the comfort of housing and porches in some far off southern state he’d never visit in this lifetime or any other? He thought very strange and looked one last time at the stars that glistened brightly against a midnight blue, a pinch of happiness settling deep in his heart that Scott was his brother and not someone else’s. He’d be a mighty jealous man if that were the case now that he was becoming more domesticated and solidly entrenched at being a brother himself to a man he admired and respected beyond anything or anybody else. It was a lot to think about on such a warm night, too much, his thoughts added.
Turning from the window, Johnny began to unbutton his shirt, pausing in front of his dresser to pick at the dried tomato sauce that was splattered there. He scratched at the dried sticky paste with his fingernail, shaking his head when parts of it flaked off and frowning when he noticed there was a greasy bright orange stain underneath. “Great!” he muttered, dropping his hands to his sides and looking up at himself in the mirror with disdain clearly written all over his face. Grimacing at his reflection, Johnny decided the shirt was going to need a little work done on it that night rather than letting it wait for Maria to take care of latter.
Tugging on his shirt, Johnny pulled the tails out of his pants and soon had it off. He laid it on the washstand, running his hands across his chest before toeing one boot off and kicking it haphazardly across the room where it landed underneath a chair. The second boot came off just as quickly ending up next to the dresser with a hard plop and a slow lean as it settled half bent onto the floor.
Sitting down in the chair, he peeled off his socks, wiggling his toes in delight when a soft gentle breeze finally blew through the window and whispered lightly across his feet. The relief he felt earlier was nothing compared to taking off stiff leather boots and too warm socks on a hot day in July.
Not wanting to get up but having to if he wanted to rid himself of his pants, Johnny pushed himself up from the chair, corded muscles rippling in his arms from the effort, and began to unbuckle his pants and unbutton the conchos that lined the soft leather leggings. Belt and pants stayed right where they were once they were off, in a heap on the floor because it was too hot to pick them up and he was too tired to try, besides they’d just be thrown in the corner if he did manage to think to pick them up, which he didn’t.
He crossed the room to the washstand and poured cold water into the white porcelain bowl he used for spit baths and shaving. Skimming the water with cupped hands he splashed it on his face, relishing the cool relief it gave his hot skin and let it trickle down his neck, over his shoulders and down his sides until he shivered from the feeling of it. He chuckled at the goose bumps that rose in spots on his arms, his sides, thinking how strange to get them when he felt so warm. Must be more tired than he thought because he sure wasn’t cold. He picked up the dry wash cloth, freshly set out by the ever thoughtful Maria…or maybe Teresa he corrected. Either way, it was fresh, soft and smelled a little like lemons before he dunked it in the water and put the soap to it.
The muscles in his back, well defined and taut, stood out in the dim light of the room if a person had been watching, admiring. He stretched, rubbing, cleaning, feeling better and better as time floated by and the dirt came off his body. He thought himself maybe a little too lean, checking his visage out in the mirror, inspecting the lean torso of his upper body as he rubbed the wet cloth around his neck and over the hard pectoral muscles of his chest. No wonder Maria and Teresa were always fussing at him to eat, not that he had to be overly encouraged, but looking at himself in the mirror, he thought maybe there was a little truth to them saying he needed to eat more, fatten up a little. But on second thought, extra weight might just slow him down…get his timing all messed up, so it most likely wasn’t such a good idea after all. He didn’t know it but he ‘tisked’, rinsing his cloth, rinsing his body, minding his own business and just thinking about anything and really…nothing at all that was of any importance.
Instead of emptying the bowl, he picked up his shirt and pushed it down into the water, vigorously rubbing the stained area with the bar of homemade lye soap. He chuckled to himself over the thought of Johnny Madrid doing laundry, of caring enough about a simple red shirt that could just as easily, at this point in his life, be replaced with a few pesos. But this was his favorite shirt, comfortable, well worn and soft, mended time and time again just because he asked it of Maria and Teresa.
The shirt represented the first real change in his new life and in Johnny’s mind, saving it from certain destruction was something akin to Scott keeping those colorful plaid pants he thought so stylish and smart to wear. His brother had bought them specifically for the trip out to California when he was summoned by their father, the new chapter in his life that started well over a year ago, and no matter how many times Scott was told ‘it just wasn’t the style’, he wouldn’t give up the brightly colored pants up any more than Johnny could his favorite red shirt.
Scott never wore them out on the range…that would be too distracting not only to the men but the cows as well he had laughed and told Johnny jokingly one night. But Scott would wear them now and again, after a long bath, when there was nothing more to do than sit comfortably by the warm fire in the great room, sipping on a little warmed up scotch while he read the latest novel or concentrated on writing a lengthy letter to his grandfather, expounding on the exploits of being a rancher in the great wild west.
The thought of that made Johnny scrub harder before he was satisfied he had done his best and no one would be the wiser for his domesticated handiwork, he left the shirt in the bowl and dried his hands on a clean, lemon smelling towel. He’d get up early enough and wring it out, let it dry and hope the stain would disappear from his effort. If not, he’d have to give it to Maria and let her try some of her magic on it.
Johnny tiredly shuffled his way toward the big bed. Room for two, it was one of the few things he missed greatly when he was away from home and had to sleep on the earth with just a bedroll to soften the ground. He couldn’t wait to climb in, to pull the pillows close, to stretch out if he wanted or curl up as he mostly did.
The temperature wasn’t much better in the room than it had been a half hour ago, but the wood flooring beneath his feet was shades cooler and for just the oddest second or two, Johnny stopped before stepping onto the rug, hoping the coolness of the floor would somehow flank its way up his body and lower his temperature to a more comfortable degree before climbing in that big bed he couldn’t wait to get into. It didn’t and so he had to console himself with the fact that he would at least be marginally comfortable by the fact that he wasn’t going to be sleeping on the ground but in his bed.
He took the last few steps, hating to leave the blessed coolness of the wood floor and pulled the made up covers down to the foot of the bed. He left only the sheet, thinking there was the slightest possibility that even that lightweight material would be too much on such a hot night. He climbed into bed, pulled the sheet over his body regardless, preferring to have something over him when he was barely dressed as he was. It made him feel less exposed and vulnerable if there were trouble. Not that he expected any, but one never knew when trouble would hit in his previous life, the one before Lancer, the one that gave him tendencies for self preservation at all times, even when he felt his most safe in this life.
Hot, slow, sticky minutes ticked by with Johnny staring across the room, tossing then turning, trying to find any position that might feel less like he was on a hot bed of coals and more like he might feel lying on the cool green grass in the wee early hours of the morning just before the sun came up.
It hadn’t taken long before he damned self-preservation and the implied security being covered gave him and opted for either throwing the sheet off or ridding himself of the cut off long johns he wore to sleep naked under the sheet. The option for less clothing won out and he climbed out of bed, stripping his underclothes off and piling them on the floor in a soft heap next to his pants. He sighed gratefully, climbed back into bed and pulled the sheet up to his chest. Much better, he thought. He just hoped no one came poking in his room too early or pulled back the sheets if he wound up oversleeping. If they did…someone was going to be in for a big surprise. And furthermore, he wasn’t about to apologize if it did happen and some female of the household got her sensibilities all hurt and bothered in the process…teach ‘em to knock first, he reasoned, yawning into his bed pillow.
Johnny's weary body was more than ready for sleep, but his mind was still actively buzzing with the events of the day. Thoughts of lame horses, picking up supplies, shot beer kegs, missing saddles, lectures on responsibilities and honor, blizzards, Indians, curses, and prickly roses swirled and churned together mixing one thought into another, much like the potato salad and re-fried beans that seemed to be tumbling around in his stomach, poking and prodding him from the inside out.
Johnny's last conscious thoughts as his tossing and turning body drifted off to sleep was that he had to find a way to get his father's saddle back from Buck Morgan. He didn't care if he had to cut his own path through a forest, climb a mountain and fight a bear, then swim a raging torrent river. Reality and fantasy melted together and swiftly carried him to the regions of the nether world where the mind had trouble separating fact from fiction, truth from imaginary.
Bound for Honor
Johnny awoke feeling more tired than rested. He shook his tangled mane of hair, shoving his dark bangs back with a frustrated sweep of his hand. ‘Ought to get it cut,’ he thought, yanking the sheet from around his legs and letting it fall where it may. He didn’t care much one way or the other whether the thing landed on the floor or out the window. The bit of modest covering had given him great discomfort all night, getting twisted and tangled up, cutting off his air it seemed. Or maybe it had been one of the many hoary fingers squeezing the life out of him in his dreams that he remembered. Either way, he’d felt suffocated and miserable all night long and was glad to finally get up.
He had things to do, important things that couldn’t be put off any longer. Murdoch’s birthday was just around the corner and this year he was bound and determined his father’s gift would be something grand instead of some trinket Murdoch wouldn’t know what to do with.
The room was still swathed in semidarkness but since there was little that Johnny had done to personalize the room, it held only the bare necessities, utilitarian furniture that hadn’t been moved since he’d made the room his and someplace he knew like the back of his hand. No fear here of stubbing a toe or knocking a knee. He could maneuver the room with his eyes closed if he had to but that thought wasn’t one he wished to linger on since he almost lost his eyesight permanently nearly a year ago.
Cold water was poured into the basin and soon, with the beginnings of dawn just about to peek its way over the top of the mountain range, Johnny was washed and shaved. During his ablutions he pondered his first challenge of the day, getting away from the ranch without Murdoch finding out what he was up to. He figured the best course of action was to get downstairs first, grab a biscuit or two from Maria, for she was sure to be up and cooking already, and head out before his father could dictate his day for him.
With a plan of action in place, Johnny belted on his gun and grabbed up his hat. A last look in the mirror over his dresser told him he looked good, like a ranchers son ought to in a silver gray shirt and soft black denim pants. Not his usual garb, but the last clean set of clothes he had and a full sight cooler than the leather pants that were out of sight beneath the sheet on the floor. The muted colors were good for him today, might even keep Buck Morgan from shooting him straight out of the saddle from a hundred yards away, especially since the old coot wouldn’t be able to see him half as good against the dark background of the tree lined road Johnny had to travel to get to Buck’s house.
A small tinge of guilt made him hesitate at the door and think about picking things up before leaving, but the sound of a rooster announcing the rising of the sun tossed the idea right out of his head again. ‘No time now,’ he thought shamefully. Better to deal with a cross Maria later on than to get caught sneaking out early by his father, or for that matter, Scott.
The last thing he wanted was for Scott to know what he was up to. That would mean having his brother have to lie to Murdoch for him, and that, he wasn’t about to let happen. Besides, he didn’t want Scott knowing what he was up to because most likely his brother had a great gift too. The two of them had become quite competitive in the gift-giving department of their new lives. Both of them thought they each had the perfect gift for their father last year, but ultimately, just as Johnny’s had somehow found its way into someone else’s hands, so too had Scott’s great gift.
The house was quiet, but as he descended the stairs and got closer to the kitchen he could hear the sounds of Maria hustling and bustling with the pots and pans in the kitchen, smell the fresh aroma of coffee and practically taste the warm biscuits in his mouth. His stomach rumbled as he entered the room and walked up behind Maria.
The housekeeper had seen him coming from the corner of her eye and just shook her head at his early presence. She knew it was too early for him and knew too that he was most likely up to some kind of mischief. It was that air of mischievousness that the patron’s youngest son infused the house with that had once again made the hacienda a home.
Maria cringed, slapped at his hands when Johnny wrapped his arms around her from the back and gave her a kiss on the side of her cheek. She turned around, smiling because she couldn’t help it, and then replaced the smile with a stern look when he eased to the side and moved toward the biscuits, hot and buttered, lined up on the baking sheet.
“And Buenos Dias to you too, niño,” she said smartly, raising her eyebrows and crooking a finger at Johnny.
At first, Johnny dropped his chin then raised his face, smiling as he tentatively reached for a biscuit, “Lo siento, Maria. Buenos Dias.”
Maria couldn’t resist that smile and she knew that Johnny knew it too. She shook her finger at him and placed her hands on her hips, “Mucho mejor. What brings you down so early, niño, and do not try to trick me with foolish answers?”
Johnny grabbed up another biscuit. The first one had gone down so fast he hardly knew what it tasted like. This second one he was going to savor a little while longer while he wriggled his way verbally past the ever-knowing Maria. His answer would have to be a good one and one that wouldn’t be a lie. “I’ve got business to attend to…for Murdoch.”
Maria rolled her eyes and crossed her chest as if to pray and ask forgiveness for his sins, “¿Tu papa sabe? (Your papa knows?)
Johnny shook his head, grabbed up two more biscuits and gave her another quick kiss on the cheek, “Nope.” He grinned. “And I’d like to keep it that way.”
Maria turned and pulled up the apron she was wearing, wiping off flour that wasn’t really there, a nervous movement that gave her something to do while she watched the young scamp saunter out of the kitchen and tuck the biscuits into a nap sack he’d be taking with him.
“Ay yi yi,” she whispered, shaking her head and smiling despite the headache the boy was giving her. Maria knew without a doubt that Murdoch Lancer was going to throw a fit. She sent up another quick prayer, hoping that with a little luck she’d be on her way to Consuelo’s house before Murdoch’s fuse burned up.
Johnny didn’t think about what might or might not be going on back at the hacienda. Doing so would break his concentration and that’s the last thing he wanted to have happen as he rode up to Buck Morgan’s place. He figured the best thing to do was just ride on up there, plain as day and hope he got close enough to yell out a greeting and his name before Buck could fill him full of lead. Letting him say his piece before getting shot was, to Johnny’s way of thinking, the least the old geezer could do considering the things his father was always doing to help the old man and his granddaughter out.
To his knowledge, Buck had never actually killed anyone trying to get up to his place, but he’d heard of more than one man who’d had his backside damn near shot off just for getting a little too close, and that included himself. Johnny wondered what it was that made a man like Buck Morgan so standoffish and sour like he was. Probably full of old regrets, piss and vinegar. Or, Johnny thought, maybe he’s hiding a poke of gold up there in the house and he’s afraid someone’s going to rob him blind. There were a lot of old timers just like Buck Morgan who didn’t believe in using the local banks. Especially if the bank they kept their money in had been robbed a time or two. Yep, Johnny thought more on it, that’d be just like the old geezer to have a mother lode sitting in his house. Why else would he be so ornery and cussed, shooting at folks for no good reason?
Johnny lifted his head and looked at the sky above. Dark clouds were starting to roll in and the wind was picking up a might. He sniggered at the approaching storm, reached down and gave Barranca a soft rub along his neck. “Looks like we’re in for a storm soon,” he said out loud.
Barranca nickered, shook his head and kept plodding on. The trees began to sway, the leaves danced, shifting, bending, shaking, making all manner of wild music to Johnny’s ears. He hoped he’d get to Buck’s soon and though anybody else would have dreaded the coming rain, Johnny was glad for it. It meant the end of the hot dry spell that had plagued the area for several weeks, but not only that, it gave him a greater chance of getting close up to Buck’s house without getting shot. The darkening sky fit perfectly with the color of his clothes, made Johnny feel as if he blended that much more with the background if he had to reach the house by working his way on foot.
One more downward slope, one more rise to climb and then just a little farther. So far, it still hadn’t rained, but Lord it looked like it was going to be a gully washer any minute. Johnny squeezed his legs tighter and Barranca quickened his step. By now, the clouds were rolling, one on top of the other looking more like a mass of dark tumbling tumbleweeds than billowy vapors of cottony fluff.
The trees along the roadside were getting thicker, dense and foreboding on either side of the road as Johnny got closer to Buck Morgan’s place. He knew he was close now, knew he’d be coming up on the front gate soon and riding past that point Murdoch always told him was the safety range when delivering a load of goods from their ranch. Old anger resurfaced for a moment and Barranca, sensing Johnny’s mood and a little disturbed by the approaching storm, came to a sudden stop and his head reared up a couple of times, his headgear rattling from the move.
Johnny let go of his anger at Walt…at Tim…at Buck Morgan and spoke to Barranca, softly, kindly, just enough to ease the animal’s mind and set him on his way again. He’d gotten so lost in thinking of the last time he’d come to Buck’s place, of Tim accepting the wrong saddle, of Walt not having the courage to right the wrong and get it back without him having to shoot the man to get it done, that his spurs had nicked Barranca in the side one time too many for the horse’s liking. Not that he would really shoot Walt, for wasn’t that why he was on his way to Buck’s place to begin with, because in all truth he couldn’t shoot Walt for something that Tim had done. And of course he couldn’t consider shooting Tim. His mother would have something to say about that and it wouldn’t be good, and of course the law would too, Johnny supposed. Val would be real put out with him if he went around shooting up folks just because they made a little mistake. But right now, though, shooting someone for this mess he was it seemed like the best solution, even if no one else agreed with him.
There were the gateposts. The same ones Johnny had driven past before and so far so good, he was still in the saddle and not a single shot had been fired. Of course, the wind was blowing something fierce now and any person in their right mind, except him, Johnny thought with wicked humor, would be out of the approaching storm and in their home. The good thing, he wouldn’t have to shout out his name or try and explain while riding up, what the hell he was doing there in the first place. This storm was so loud that Johnny felt sure, confidently, that he’d be able to ride right up to the house and get off his horse like a normal man would do and knock on the door and then state his business without trouble.
It could go like that, he thought, hoping. Truthfully, the closer he got to Buck’s house, especially now that he could see it, the more nervous Johnny was getting. So far, it was just too easy. He felt the first drops of rain on his hands, looked up and thought surely the sky was going to open up and swallow him whole, right then and there. Maybe he should have told someone where he was going after all, because the closer he got to Buck’s house, the more and more his instincts hollered at him to just turn back and forget the whole thing.
That thought no sooner went threw his brain when the sky opened up, black and thunderous, rain falling in great sheets that made a man feel like he was drowning though he knew he couldn’t be. Fire crackled in the sky, crooked lines of white lightening that streaked toward the earth and made the ground tremble. And in all that noise Johnny heard another sound of thunder, one that he recognized but couldn’t pinpoint now that Barranca was fighting the reins and wanting to dash back the way they had come.
The animal twisted and turned, this way and that, rolling his eyes until they bulged white and insane, his white mane flying wantonly in the wind, whipping ferociously across his face and tangling with the reins. Johnny was a great horseman, better than most but in the circumstance he found them in, it was hard to control the beast beneath him and get a grip on the animal’s natural instinct to run in the face of such great danger. And there was that sound again, that recognizable pop of thunder that was playing along with Mother Nature’s symphony of music, such as it was.
It hit him then. What ‘It’ was, he did not know, what with all that was going on around him in the world. All Johnny knew was that his world was coming to an end and in that last moment, the one singular thing he took with him was an image he hadn’t expected to see…the open door to Buck Morgan’s house, a smoking rifle in his hands, so close he could read every wrinkle on the old man’s face, see the wicked grin and the squinting eyes that said, ‘I warned yah’.
What bothered Johnny most as he let Barranca have his head and carry him away was the presence of something different standing just behind the old man. Something good, something pure and angelic, so out of place that he thought he was hallucinating. Nothing could be that sweet looking, that precious and that beautiful when the fiery gates of Hell had just opened up and he was being urged to race through them just as fast as his horse could take him.
And then there was nothing. The gates of Hell were gone, the raging demons urging him to go faster, to join them, vanished into nothingness. The nothingness scared Johnny more. There was a world of black, and all around him the sound of thunder carried on but it sounded so far away. He reached out his hand, tried to grasp something, anything, but to no avail. He wanted to scream then, but he wouldn’t. No man screamed…they might holler, throw their hat down, stomp the ground, maybe even find something to punch, but a man didn’t scream, he reasoned.
He waited, it seemed an eternity and that screaming feeling came back to him, burning him up inside, making him want to cry, but damn, he couldn’t do that either. Where was he and what had he been doing? Johnny couldn’t remember. So instead of screaming, as he was wont to do, or crying like he felt like doing too, he tried to think, to figure out where he was and what was going on. Nothing. He was in nothing and he could remember nothing. He couldn’t feel or see anything, but he could still hear the thunder in his head, only now, it seemed even further away and a part of him dreaded that little piece of solace forsaking him in this new world of nothingness he found himself in.
Softer, softer, the thunder pulled away from him and then Johnny was alone, no memories, no sound, only the black nothingness where his body seemed to float suspended as if floating in water. His eyes grew heavy and at least one sensation came back to him, pure lethargy, the need to close his eyes and go to sleep even though it really didn’t matter if he closed them. Everything was black, so really, how would he know if he’d closed his eyes? But questioning himself only made him more weary, and somewhere in the back of his head the voice inside him told him to sleep, even if he didn’t think he could because somewhere in all this loose reasoning and questioning in his mind, sleep seemed like it might be the only way out. And so, he finally closed his eyes, at least he thought he did. And within time he knew he’d done the right thing.
“Johnny. Come on boy…you come on now and open those eyes of yours for me.”
Johnny could hear a familiar voice. His chest heaved and sank back toward his heart, hard and labored. He thought he should be scared, wasn’t he scared just a little while ago? He couldn’t remember. He was too tired. His eyes moved but he couldn’t see a thing.
“Shake him again. Maybe he not hear you so good,” said another voice that Johnny couldn’t quite place either, but thought very familiar.
“Johnny…You hear me boy? I can see your eyes movin’ under them lids ah yours. Come on now, we need yah. Old Charlie, and me, we been waitin’ a long spell for you to wake up. Come on now, I knows you kin hear me.”
Johnny sighed, he strained to open his eyes but he just couldn’t do it. They felt so heavy and he was still so very tired. He wished the voices would go away and leave him alone. Wherever he was, it wasn’t such a bad place. He felt cocooned, safe, protected from the rest of the world and if not for their persistent urgings would gladly have gone on sleeping in that peaceful void without a care in the world.
“Give him some firewater. He wake up when he taste this,” Johnny could hear that other voice say to the first.
“I’ll try it. You git on over to the other side, though, and help hold him up. Don’t want to choke the boy to death on your poison.”
There seemed to be a shuffling of feet near him and for the life of Johnny, even though he could hear what they were saying, his head wouldn’t register anything other than just wishing them to go away so he could go back to sleep.
He felt his head being lifted, strong fingers under his neck. And then there was fire, a slow liquid burning flame sliding down his throat, scorching his insides like nothing he could ever remember. It settled in his stomach, whirling, sending fumes back up his neck, making him choke and cough until his guts wanted to explode and spew forth out of his mouth. And with that horrible feeling came a sudden brightness that made him automatically lift his hand, heavy and awkwardly toward his face to try and blot it out.
“That’s it…that’s it,” said the voice to his left. Feeling tens times slower than a snail and groggier than Rip Van Winkle, Johnny turned his head and tried to focus on the person speaking. He saw Obadiah and wondered at that but couldn’t find the words to ask him why he was there. His throat was still on fire and someone to his right was singing a song. No…not singing exactly, chanting, humming.
Johnny turned toward his right, his eyes watering from the brightness he wasn’t used to yet. And there beside him, he suddenly remembered that person. It was Charlie Bear Claw, friend to Obadiah, and the two of them usually could be found playing checkers in front of the stage depot.
“You okay now, Johnny boy?” Obadiah asked quietly from beside him, worry frowns creasing his brow.
Johnny nodded his head, reached up an arm and swiped it across his eyes, wishing he had his hat on. With Charlie’s help, Johnny sat up a little straighter, and then turned his head from one to the other. “What happened?”
“You were attacked,” came the calm answer from Charlie Bear Claw.
“By who?” Johnny wanted to know.
Obadiah shook his head slowly, rolled his eyes over Johnny’s head and with a grim look at his friend Charlie, said, “We’s don’t rightly know, Johnny. He was a smarted up fella, though, had him one of those fancy walking sticks. Said you and him was old friends.”
Johnny looked from Obadiah then to Charlie. He swallowed hard, wishing he had a drink of water to tamper the taste of the old Indian’s firewater he could still taste in his mouth. His voice soft, a little raspy after his ordeal, Johnny asked them both, “What did he look like?”
Charlie sat back on his haunches and said solemnly, “His spirit was not of this earth, Johnny. When he spoke, the winds howled with great misery.”
“Ah’s could hear the screech of a mountain lion too,” Obadiah added ominously. “’Bout scared me half out of my wits, I tell yah.” He shook his head slowly, “Never heard nuthin’ like it before and I ain’t hopin’ to hear nunthin’ like it again, no Suh.” Obadiah’s big cheeks puckered, filled with air as he rolled his eyes toward the mountain range behind them and shivered involuntarily in the heat.
Johnny brought his knees up and he laid his forehead against them. His stomach was sinking to the tips of his toes and he thought he just might get sick. If the man Charlie and Obadiah described was the same man Johnny thought he was, then all Hell had broken loose and the world was coming to an end.
Now that Johnny had a chance to clear his head, he looked around him, wondering how he’d gotten to the edge of town, flat on his back when the last thing he could remember was sitting on the boardwalk, listening to Charlie Bear Claw go on about some sleeping gal he’d never heard of before.
“Where’s my hat?” he asked the two old men.
“Right here, Johnny,” Obadiah drawled, slapping the gray felt hat against his thigh before handing it down to Johnny.
Johnny settled the hat on his head, wincing a little when he pulled it down low and could feel a newly formed lump growing on the back of his head. Hell and damnation, he grumbled getting to his feet with a little help from his friends.
Though he felt the weight of his gun on his right hip, Johnny reached down and touched the butt of the gun for the measure of reassurance it always gave him when he felt disturbed or unsure of his situation. He still wasn’t quite sure how he’d wound up flat on his back, near the edge of town, but where his nemesis was concerned, in an odd way it made sense.
The old reprobate had of way of changing the world around him, turning it into something ugly, something evil and frightening that seared him clear down to his toes. He thought the old man had died after their last encounter, but without a body to claim otherwise, Johnny had always had the suspicion the old devil would show his face once again.
Absalom Weir had a bone to pick with Johnny. The devil himself couldn’t have been more incarnate or more disgusted with himself when Johnny had thwarted his plans to gain riches off an innocent boy left behind after his father had died. The small rancher had made a pact with the devil and the devil had come calling as soon as the rancher left this world for the next.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if the man had been a long lost uncle, a cousin or some other kind of kinfolk to the young boy. But he hadn’t. Absalom Weir had been a wholly dangerous adversary, a minion of the underworld who came and went without nary a soul the wiser for how he came to be in one place and the next within the blink of an eye.
Johnny’s experience with the man, if you could call him that, had left him feeling weak kneed and sick to his stomach, his nostrils filled with the stench of sulfur, and something else he would never admit to another soul, fear. When Absalom was near, he felt it to the marrow of his bones, much as he tried not to. It had taken every ounce of his inner strength not to show his fear of the man in front of the boy, Jelly or his family. Instead, he had taken on the devil, chased him down and fought for his life and won, in the end. Or so he thought until Obadiah and Charlie made him realize his efforts in the past had been in vain.
Apparently Absalom Weir still lived if Johnny was to give any credence to what his friends just told him. But what he wanted to know now was, why? Why was Absalom Weir back again? And what did he want with Johnny this time? There was no land to claim, no souls to gather that he had been forewarned of as when the rancher had done so on his deathbed. So why?
As if he spoke the question aloud, Obadiah answered it. “He says he’s gonna git to her first.”
Johnny stopped cold in his tracks and so did the two companions by his side. “¿Qué?”
Charlie nodded his dark head as if to say that Obadiah was right. But right about what, Johnny wanted to know. “What are you talking about, Obadiah?”
Charlie raised his chin and lifted a finger, pointing to the opposite end of town. There on the far horizon, dark clouds formed over the hills and valleys, a tumultuous sea of torrential rains that could only be caused by one man that Johnny knew of, Absalom Weir.
Speaking for his old friend, Charlie’s tone was low and mournful, “He said if he gets to her first, you would have to go all the way to hell just to get her back.”
Obadiah shook in his boots, his thin shoulders scooping forward as he clasped his thin fingers around his arms and ran them up and down with worry. He rolled his big bulgy eyes toward Johnny sorrowfully, “He’s a mean man, Johnny. He laughed and ah’s could feel the ground shake under my old boots when he did it.”
They didn’t need to say who the ‘her’ was. Johnny knew. It was that sleeping gal that Charlie had told him about, but what he didn’t understand was why it had to be him that had to go after her and save her from Absalom Weir. He felt pressed into the situation, not only by the two men standing next to him, but by the forces of evil that seemed to be calling him out, looking for another showdown that he hadn’t had time to think or prepare himself for.
He knew in a way it was selfishness on his part. Johnny didn’t want to seek out the devil in the three-piece suit with his fancy walking cane and craggy know it all smile on his face. He didn’t want to feel that overpowering sense of fear like the kind that ran through his soul the last time he had to face down Absalom Weir. And what about his family, he thought?
And that was a big thought, something that niggled at the back of his brain. He had a sudden prickly sensation in the pit of his stomach, a touch of déjà vu in his head when he saw Ethel Simms run out of the hotel restaurant, wooden spoon in hand, covered in red sauce, chasing a young towheaded boy out of her establishment. And after that, Hiram Furst, hands covered in what looked to be printer’s ink, understandable since he was the new local newspaper editor, tore out of the Green River Tribune madder than a wet hen and heading straight to the laundry room down the street.
As the angry man stormed past them, Hiram glanced their way and said quite angrily, “What? You never seen a man covered in ink before?”
The question made Johnny stumble on an imaginary object, that feeling of déjà vu getting stronger and stronger as each second passed. In that moment, he thought there should be something different about where he was and what he was doing. Even the whole episode of finding out that Absalom Weir was around and had actively sought him out, and obviously done him some kind of harm, little as it must have been, seemed out of sort and unreal now.
A part of him, plodding down the road toward the stage depot, felt that all wasn’t as it should be, but he couldn’t figure it out or put his finger on what it was that was making him feel this way. To his surprise, and he didn’t understand this any better than he understood anything else that was going on in his life right now, waiting at the hitch rail was Barranca.
Johnny could only shake his head at this new and unexpected development. The last that he remembered, he’d driven to town in the wagon. So how the devil did his horse get there?
And then he heard it, even as he watched old Charlie and Obadiah settle down on the chairs they’d vacated earlier, Absalom Weir, laughing, talking to him as if he were standing right behind him. Johnny whirled around, expecting so see him, drawing his gun at the same time, only to find the street empty, quiet, not a soul around.
“That’s right Johnny Lancer. Or should I say, Johnny Madrid?”
Johnny stepped back, looked up and down the street, ran his sights along the tops of the buildings, expecting to find nothing, but feeling better for doing it anyways.
“I’m going to take her Johnny, and when I’m done…I’m coming back for those two old fools who don’t know how to mind their own business.”
There was no more going back at this point, not that he’d gone anywhere, really. In his mind it was a figure of speech, a decision he made to answer the call out. He couldn’t let Absalom get her, his sleeping beauty as Johnny now thought of her. Nor would he let the devil come back and harm one hair on either Obadiah or Charlie’s heads. They were his friends, like it or not, and the little gal Charlie told him about, a total innocent in this world who needed him to rescue her.
Sliding his gun back into the well-worn holster, Johnny turned to Obadiah and Charlie, his blue eyes hard, his manner confident, “Tell me how to get to sleeping beauty.”
Bound For Honor
Johnny pressed the palms of his hands firmly over his eyes; his long tanned fingers extended into the area above his brow and disappeared underneath the sweaty wealth of dark hair that hung damply on moist skin. The heels of his palms bore heavily against his cheekbones exerting a weighty pressure onto eye sockets that felt as if they were occupied by square eyeballs instead of round.
His head felt like it was wrapped tight with thick rope, as though it was being compressed and squeezed to the point it would cave in on itself, if it didn't explode from the internal pressure first. He pushed his fingers further up under his hair and used his fingertips to massage his scalp trying to relieve the uncomfortable sensation. He wondered how his head could feel so heavy and still be supported by his neck. He shook his head, trying to get his scattered thoughts to fall into place, to seem as though there was some semblance of order or meaning to them. He quickly realized that was the wrong move to make, now he was light headed, his vision swam in and out of focus, his ears rung with a resounding vibration, like a bucket was over his head and someone had given it a powerful kick.
Johnny was pretty sure the oppressive heat and air hanging heavy with the promise of rain was the cause of some of his discomfort. The relentless throbbing in his head and muddled mind could be blamed on the convoluted directions given to him by Charlie. The tingle crawling up his spine, chilling his heart and knotting his stomach like a ball of Teresa's yarn after the cat got hold of it was all the doing of the specter of Absalom Weir, his evil presence hung in the air as thick and dark as the black clouds that diluted and obscured the sunlight.
Charlie was one of those rare Indians with a good grasp of the English language, but what he told him today made about as much sense as a mouth full of gibberish. Personally he felt like he had been given the longest, most difficult route that would take him around his elbow to get to his thumb.
Johnny snorted as he thought back on all the crazy ramblings of the prophetic old Indian, you would think he went to Harvard the same as Boston, the way he could use words. He rubbed his weary face with a hand that was still shaky as he realized he must be just as crazy himself. After all, here he sat on his horse, determined to save some sleeping girl he didn't even know, from a devil he had fought before. He mused to himself over the cryptic instructions from Charlie. What the hell did he mean by my heart would put me on the right path, no matter what direction I went in? That sounded more like the parables from the Bible he had learned from the rigid stern-faced nuns at the mission school.
Johnny could still feel Charlie's earnest dark eyes boring into his soul as he reviewed his words. Charlie seemed as old and wise as the land itself. Those thoughts brought a picture to his mind of how Charlie's glossy black hair framed his dark features, which were shadowed by the natural crevices and cracks that the sun, wind and time had etched there upon, as though Mother Nature had carved his face from the side of a mountain.
The old Indian had cautioned him that the quest to find and awaken the sleeping beauty would be fraught with perils both physical and mental. He warned that some obstacles would require his mind, body and soul to conquer if he were to succeed in his mission. The first thing he needed was to conquer the riddle of the correct path to choose. Johnny shifted in the saddle, the leather creaking in defiance to his movement. Barranca neighed and huffed his sweet hay and oats breath as he adjusted to the shift in his rider's weight.
As he often did when he was by himself, Johnny began conversing with his amigo, Barranca. "Well my golden friend, you were there. Could you make any sense out of Charlie's instructions? He sounded like one of those books of poems the old man likes to read. Ol' Charlie has been around longer than most of these towns so maybe he knows the landmarks by different names. Now how did that ol' Indian phrase it...”
"Johnny, if you are to awaken the girl that still sleeps, then you must be bound for Honor, for that's where she lays. Over the years the little village has become a town, its name a perpetual reminder of the one who would one day come and break the curse that keeps their sleeping beauty spellbound upon her throne. I cannot give you a map to get there, nor can I show you the way. It is a journey a man must make on his own. It is a test of your true self. I can only tell you that no man finds his way there without first conquering the Mountain of Conceit, traveling through the Valley of Humility and crossing over the River of Tears. Sometimes you are unable to see the right path if you let the trees block your sight of the Forest of Friends, that is when you must follow your heart, for it alone knows the way. Be careful you do not bog down in the Swamp of Regrets."
The wild chattering of birds calling to each other startled Johnny from his contemplative ruminations. He was shocked to find that his loyal and trusted horse had at some point left the road and began foraging his way through the thickest forest Johnny had ever seen. /Madrid, what the hell is wrong with you? You know better than to get so lost in thought that you lose sight of what is around you. You're just asking for a bullet./
"Come on, Amigo. Let's get out of these woods and see if we can find our way back to the road."
Johnny tugged at the reins trying to get Barranca to turn back. The golden horse had a mind of his own in this matter. He stood stock-still. Sighing in exasperation and scrubbing tired hands over his face, Johnny took stock of where he was. His eagle eyes noted that as thick and full of foliage as the forest was, there seemed to be a somewhat worn path running through it. The lush, leafy green branches of the various trees hung low and formed a natural canopy over the path making it look like the area was just woods but there was definitely a path there. It was several degrees cooler here under the protection of the treetops; in fact the covering was so thick it hindered the light from getting in. The air was still full of humidity. The air contained so much moisture that it collected on the surface of the leaves, causing them to droop and dribble fat raindrops onto the forest floor.
As he sat taking a breather and studying his surroundings, Johnny's ears honed in on the sounds of the forest. Along with the dripping plop of water from the leaves, he could hear a variety of birds squawking angrily at each other. Their chirps, peeps and tweets announced their displeasure with each other. He heard the yip of a fox and a growl that sounded suspiciously like a bear. Immediately after hearing the growl he heard what sounded like frantic footfalls racing towards him. Johnny dismounted from Barranca and glanced nervously around him. He jumped in alarm and quickly drew his pistol as the noise of frenzied fleeing grew louder and closer.
Johnny could not recall a time when he was in circumstances quite like these. Normally his lightning quick reflexes and instincts would have already identified the source of danger and neutralized it. But these woods were confusing, he couldn't quite pin point exactly which direction the seemingly impending harm was coming from. The very next second out of no where a wildly honking goose struggled in erratic flight to make it's way through the dense low hanging greenery. It would fly a few feet, dropped gracelessly to the ground, run a few wing flapping hops before lifting skyward again. He would have been hard pressed to say which direction it had first appeared from. As the wildly frightened bird skimmed just over his head, he turned to watch its escape. That's why he missed seeing the direction the madly agitated little man materialized from.
Johnny's mouth dropped opened as his befuddled mind tried to make sense out of what his eyes were telling him. This all seemed so familiar, like he had experienced it all before. He couldn't reconcile what his eyes were telling him with what his brain knew. Personally, he didn't know one goose from another and he hadn't even considered the one that just flew over his head might be Dewdrop, that is, until he spied the little man high tailing it out of the massive area of limbs and leaves. And that man looked like Jelly or else it was his long lost twin only he was dressed better. The small man ran past him huffing and puffing, his whiskered face red with the exertion of his escape from whatever had him on the run.
After he got over the shock Johnny fell in step right behind him. "Jelly.....JELLY...stop...where are ya going?" Either Jelly didn't hear him or he was too scared to stop. Johnny's younger quicker legs caught up with him and he reached out and snagged his friend by the elbow, pulling him to a stop. At least he thought it was his friend until he twisted him around and got a good look at his face. This man was a few years younger than Jelly, his beard was just as white, but he had more hair with a salt and pepper look to it when seen closer up.
"What the hell is going on here, didn't you hear me asking you to stop?"
"Well now, I heared you hollering for some fella named Jelly to stop, since my name ain't Jelly I didn't figure you were speaking to me." The old gentleman, filled his cheeks with air as he blew his breath slowly out trying to get it under control, his nostrils flaring as he drew air back in again in deep sucking motions.
"Sorry about that. You look an awful lot like my friend Jelly Hoskins. Do you mind if I ask where you're going in such a hurry? Don't have a bear hot on your heels do you?"
"Young man I would hardly be fleeing from a bear. Why there ain't no bear alive that can make Paul Brinegar run away like a scared little schoolgirl. Why if a bear was to git on after me, I would give him what for. I'd pack such a punch on his snout he'd be seeing stars in the daylight, then I would reach down his throat, grab the nub of his tail and turn him inside out. No sir ain't no bear alive gonna put the fear on me."
"Okay, that still doesn't answer my question. Why are you in such a hurry? Is there some danger back there that I need to know about too?"
"DANGER! I'll say there's some danger. At the edge of this here forest is the base of a mountain and on that mountain lives some fool man that takes pot shots at innocent people cause he thinks he's protecting something or someone. The man is crazier than a starving bedbug. I reckon he's sitting on a mountain of conceit cause he's convinced everyone wants what's his. I never thought I would be one of his victims. He usually only takes shots at young men, like you. I suggest you turn around and go back where you came from, if you know what's good for ya."
Johnny's bright blue eyes twinkled and his mouth curled into a smirk. "I've been accused by more than one person of not knowing what's good for me. My own brother once warned me I wouldn't live to see 30 taking chances with my life. I intend to prove him wrong in about eight years. But right now, I think my personal mission is to get up the side of this mountain, if I can find the right path."
"Just follow the hearts...."
"Now don't tell me to follow my heart. I already heard that one time today and it didn't make any sense then either."
"Well Mr. Smart Aleck Know -it -all, if you would let a body finish speaking before ya go slinging off their advice, you'd be better off. Now as I was telling ya, this path here is kind of obscure but it's lined with trees with heart shaped leaves, just make sure ya see one every few feet and eventually you'll come to a clearing at the base of the mountain. Be careful not to veer off the path, ya cain't see it from here, but there's little swamps hid all through these woods, you'll be in a world of regret if ya get bogged down in them. Oh, and when you get to the clearing right at the base of the mountain there is a long narrow section of the river. Be most particular there, that river floods real easy from the least little bit of added water dropping into it. If you was to cry some tears in it, it would jump its banks in a hurry. From the looks of the sky we could be in for a gully washer and it'll turn into churning rapids for sure."
Johnny wasn't sure if the old guy had even said anything else after the bit about tears and river. All he could think about was the fact ol' Charlie's advice on finding Honor was just about repeated by this stranger. This day just kept getting weirder and weirder, he wasn't even sure what day this was; he seemed to have lost some snatches of time along the way. Johnny scratched his head and massaged his scalp. /If it wasn't for the fact my head is throbbing worse than a thumb smashed by a hammer, I would think I was dreamin' this stuff. At least the pain serves some purpose, it tells me I'm awake and alive./
"I've got to be on my way. My boys will be waiting for me. I left them peeling and pitting peaches to be put up for preserves. I been gone long enough, I was hunting up some meat for supper until I got shot at. Now I don't even know where my rifle is, I dropped it and took off."
"You have children?"
"Well ain't that what I just said? I got me eight boys and it takes a mighty lot to keep'em fed. Now I done gone and lost my gun. You don't listen very well do ya?"
Johnny chuckled and fiddled with the buttons on his shirt with restless fingers. "Not according to my Pa and brother, they say I'm too quick to react too." /And I'm afraid they're right in this case. If anybody had told me when I woke up this morning I'd be off on a mission to find a sleeping girl, I might have shot them./
Johnny considered the man before him, he sure did remind him of Jelly. And what were the odds he would have a passel of boys. The youngest Lancer's heart twisted in sympathy for the man's plight, he reached in his pocket and handed over all the money he had, except for two bits.
"Sir, I want you have this money, buy something special for your boys."
"Son, I cain't take ya money. You don't owe me nothing. I ain't asking for charity, I'll provide for my boys."
The old man's hand trembled slightly as he pressed the money back into Johnny's. But his posture was ramrod straight and proud. Johnny thought back on the days when he lived on pride and what he could scavenge. He knew sometimes he had to swallow back that pride and accept help. Those same feelings of humility made him a better man because it taught him to receive with grace and to later give back what he could, when he could, for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.
"Didn't you say you left the boys preparing peaches for preserves?"
"Yes sir, my boys work hard. They tend those peaches, harvest and put them up in quart jars to sell. They'll earn enough money to buy shoes for when school starts come the fall." The little man rocked back on his heels, chest stuck out and swelled to the point it looked like his buttons might pop.
"If there's one thing I love it's a hot biscuit and good peach preserves. How about you take this money and have your boys keep back as many jars as the money will pay for. I'll pick them up when I come back through. Where bout's do y'all live."
"The boys sure will be pleased about this. Ya won't be sorry you bought from them. They make a tasty product. Oh, we live at the old Hackett place."
Johnny schooled his features to keep from showing his shock. It was a hard feat to accomplish too. He could swear he heard the evil laugh of Absalom Weir in his head and it sent a chill from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, followed by a heated flush that broke out a cold sweat on his face.
"I better be on my way. I'll see you on the return trip."
"I tell ya what boy, if you happen upon my rifle, if you'll hang on to it and bring it back, I'll have the boys throw in an extra jar of preserves. Now you be careful, don't stray off the hearts path and end up in the swamp, cause you will regret it." The elderly man reached out and shook Johnny's hand and then strode off with a step that was quick and lively for one as old as he.
Johnny watched until the thickness of the forest and the filtered and diffused light swallowed him into the eerie silence that had descended in the woods. Turning on his heel and heading back to Barranca, Johnny was startled when a sudden gusty cold wind blew across his path, the leaves shook angrily on the trees and the rustling sound they made sounded like a multitude of voices whispering together "you won't win, you won't win". The water collected on the greenery pelted him like a small shower of rain. Just when he was within a few feet of his horse, all sound and motion ceased again. The hair on Johnny's neck stood up and his heart clenched in his chest. He felt as though he was being watched, like he was someone's prey.
In the next instant, a horrifying animal scream rent the air with such violent force it felt as though the ground shook. As Johnny's mind was processing the fact the scream had sounded like the hunting call of a cougar, he realized Barranca was squealing in fear. The golden horse took off like a cannon shot, straight into the swamp he had been warned not to enter. Johnny had no choice but to follow, he hoped he wouldn't regret it.
Johnny ran into the swamp and had only gone a couple of yards when he stopped to peer around him. The swamp was an eerie and gloomy place. It was dark, dank and musty smelling. The trees were crowded together in groups. Their upper branches were thick and bushy, with sparse areas that let a little sunlight through. The bits of light that filtered in cast shadows and glinted off the black water giving the illusion of movement where there was none. Some of the trees had no leaves at all. Their bare trunks and stretched out gnarled limbs resembled giant ancient people congregating. The Spanish moss gave them the appearance of having curly gray hair.
Due to the recent dry spell there were spots where the water had receded to bare the tree roots, making it look as though those trees were standing on their tiptoes because of the open area between the base of the tree and the waterline. In other areas the water was completely gone leaving behind a thick mucky goo that would suck the boots right off your feet if you didn't step carefully. The scent of mud was overpowering until the wind kicked up again, and then right after hearing the unearthly screeching of the cougar, Johnny smelled the nauseating odor of sulfur.
Over the sound of Barranca’s frantic escape, Johnny could swear that he heard laughing; a cold chilling sound that pierced the heart and soul with dread. He lowered his hand, slowly, cautiously, toward the butt of his gun. The warmth of the walnut grip did little to ease the instant fear coursing through Johnny’s veins. From the corner of his left eye he picked up the dark movement of a sinister being, an evil that swamped and flooded the very air that Johnny had trouble breathing. There was a glint, a flash of metal caught by a patch of sunlight that daringly found its way through the thick canopy of the forest above. Johnny drew his gun, spinning in the direction to where the evil presence formulated out of the darkness, watching him, taunting him, and shot the center mass of the being. Before his heart found its next beat, Johnny looked into the vacant, soulless eyes of Absalom Weir’s grinning face. His heart found its next beat in that instant, skittered and jumped a second beat when he heard the dull thud of the bullet embed itself into the trunk of a tree just behind his nemesis. Just like that, before his next heartbeat, Weir disappeared like the mist that swirled and floated above the swamp.
Johnny was instantly more alert; his wary eyes scanning the shadows, watching intently for the next attempt on him. He scrubbed his face, wiping with more than mild agitation at his eyes. His heart did not want to believe what his eyes relayed to his mind, but there was no doubting Absalom Weir was up to his old trickery and treachery. He shook the morbid thoughts from his head as he muttered to himself. "Devil get behind me. You're not gonna be messing with my head this time."
Re-holstering his gun after checking his outer perimeters one more time, Johnny finally spied Barranca about 100 hundred yards to his right. The equine's reins appeared to be tangled in the low hanging vines that entwined themselves about some of the trees like oversized snakes. The golden horse's sides were still heaving from his blind dash in a state of panic. His silky mane and tail had twigs and leaves snagged in them. His legs, sides and hindquarters were coated in splatters of swamp mud, as was the saddle. The rays of light creeping through branches shifted, changing the pattern of shadows over the landscape. The shift in light along with the effect of the dark splotches of wet dirt on the pale horse served as a type of camouflage, part of the horse blended into the scenery making it seem as though Barranca was some type of spirit horse with no legs.
Even though he was too far away for his horse to actually hear him, Johnny murmured in his soft reassuring voice as he started toward the palomino. The sounds in the swamp seemed magnified as Johnny picked his way through patches of ground that alternated between the batter thick oozing mud and knee-deep water in others. Some areas felt like walking on a wet sponge as the water would squish and bubble up around his footfalls. Then his next step would find his boot sinking into the sludge and he would have to wiggle and twist his foot to free it, the earth making a disgruntled slurp as it would finally relinquish it's hold on his sole. Wading through the knee-deep water, the rhythmic sound of the splish splash cadence of his walk caused a chorus of bullfrogs to sing out to him. As he drew closer to his horse he could see the tremble of his withers, and hear the swishy slap of his long tail as it struck at the buzzing mosquitoes feasting on his rump.
Johnny exited out of the trench of water and stepped onto the same piece of high ground Barranca stood on. He stopped long enough to bend back and catch each leg by the ankle so the water would run out of his boots. He stamped his feet down snuggly into his shoes and strode forward, the next thing he knew, and he was almost waist deep in some kind of depression in the earth that felt like it was full of runny oatmeal. It only took a second for him to realize he had stepped right into a quicksand pit and he could feel himself sinking further.
"Don't panic, Madrid," he said out loud to himself. "You aren't completely sunk, think this out and don't move any more then you have to, while you do."
Telling himself to stay calm was one thing, convincing his heart not to beat slap out of his chest was another. He imagined he could see the front of his shirt protruding out with every double time beat of his heart. Taking deep breaths and slowly letting them out until he felt more in control, Johnny was able to clear his head and begin thinking about a plan. He had been told by some of the old ranch hands that if you ever fell in quicksand to stay still because the more you struggled the deeper you would sink.
He cast his eyes about. If he could get Barranca to walk this way, he could grab the reins and let the horse pull him out. The question was, would Barranca be able to pull his reins free of the tangle of limbs. There was one way to find out, he could whistle for the well-trained horse. He worried that perhaps the palomino might step into the quicksand too until he realized the horse probably sensed it's presence to begin with and that was how he avoided it.
Johnny's shrill whistle pierced the tranquility of the swamp and ceased all animals and insects noises except for the blowing and huffing sounds of Barranca as he tried to pull his reins free. The horse dug in his back hooves with a ground-shaking stomp and tossed his head about with a frantic agitation. Johnny could hear some of the limbs and snaring twigs snapping.
The second shrill call cause the horse to triple his efforts and finally the reins were released, so quickly they flew back striking the horse in the face before dropping to the dirt.
"Good boy. Now back up, come here, that's right."
The golden horse picked his way gingerly to Johnny. His actions telling Johnny for sure that the animal had known to veer around the pit he had fallen into. Barranca walked right to the very edge of stable ground before the quicksand and tossed his head, nodding it up and down. Johnny grinned when he realized the reins were swinging out to him, he very carefully lifted his right hand to grab the leather. Just as his fingers were getting ready to close around the reins, the sulfur smell wafted across his nose and the unholy brutal scream of the cougar returned. Barranca's terrified cry joined the cacophony of noise along with the thunder of his fleeing hooves. Johnny watched as the tail end of his horse disappeared deeper into the forbidding forest of trees.
Johnny shuddered from the bone deep cold the quicksand wrapped him in, as well as the fear of what to do next. He spent a few minutes trying to whistle the horse back before giving it up for a lost cause. Who would have thought he could be in such a hot spot of trouble yet feel like he was freezing. He threw his head back in exasperation and when he did he saw the thick, sturdy vine hanging just above his head.
Calming his breath once more as he realized he still had a chance, Johnny very slowly and carefully extended and reached with his right hand for the vine, being extremely careful not to shift his weight and send himself deeper into the pit. As cold as his lower body was, his head began to drip with sweat as he concentrated on gently stretching his too short arm to reach the vine that was just another hand's length away. In frustration he drooped his shoulders and immediately regretted the action as he felt the quicksand rise to just above his gunbelt.
"That was stupid, Madrid. You better calm it down and think out your actions cause you can't take an action back once the deed has been done." He continued his nervous chatter with himself as he exclaimed, "Why couldn't my arms be as long as Scott or Murdoch's?" He giggled nervously as he retorted, " Of course then none of my shirts would fit because the sleeves would be too short." He berated himself for his own sarcastic thoughts by declaring, " This is not the way Johnny Madrid ends, buried alive in mud. I expected to die by the gun like I lived by the gun."
No sooner had that thought skimmed across his mind then his next idea formed. Johnny with great caution, and extra slow motion lowered his right arm to his waist; the butt of his gun was barely visible. Thank God he had not secured it back in the holster with the leather strap, with economy of movement he pulled his gun from the holster, he switched it to his left hand so he could grab the end of the barrel with his right. He raised the pistol in a steady sure motion until the butt of the weapon extended above the vine. He canted the handle forward and snagged the vine and pulled down. After a few heart stopping seconds he was able to firmly grasp the life saving vine with his left hand. He quickly replaced his gun and then firmly grabbed on with his right hand. He prayed the plant would be strong enough to support his weight. As he lifted his legs, feeling the terrible heaviness of them as the mire tried to suck him back down into its depths, he grunted and strained as he traversed sideways hand over hand across the vine. He knew his feet had cleared the quicksand when he heard a loud slurping sound followed by a pop.
Looking down he saw solid ground, he pitched himself sideways as he dropped, and he hit the dirt with a thud and very nearly kissed it in relief. He lay there a minute sucking in the musty muddy air as the sweat evaporated from his brow. As he considered the close call he had just gotten himself out of he chuckled, then drew his gun and kissed it. "Thanks old friend, that's another time you saved my life. Now to find that horse of mine. Me and him are gonna have a nice long talk. I have lost my mind; I'm standing in a swamp, covered in mud, talking to myself."
Having just pulled himself from a boggy pit Johnny had no desire to fall in another one. Since the scattering of leaves on the ground deceptively hid the quicksand he decided he needed to take some precautions. Looking about him he found a long slender broken branch, it was about twice as long as a walking stick. "This will work just fine. I can hold it out before me and poke the ground to make sure it's firm before I step onto it."
Johnny picked his way through the swamp, trying to make his way back to the path lined by the trees with heart shaped leaves. His progress was impeded because he had to slow his pace as he checked the ground for safety, he was also trying to keep an eye out for Barranca and every mosquito and his cousin too was buzzing about his head and feeding on any bare skin spots they could find. Johnny took consolation in the fact that the pesky little bloodsuckers were getting a mouth full of dried swamp mud with every bite.
He didn't know how long he had been walking because he couldn't get a direct view of the sun to estimate the time of day. He knew he had been walking in his wet boots long enough his feet had blisters and the blisters had blisters too. He didn't dare take off his boots because he had no idea what kind of bugs or other critters might be populating the floor of the swamp. Johnny was totally miserable, he itched, his feet throbbed with every step, he was hot, and the hotter he got the more he could smell just how bad he stunk. He was about to make himself sick from his own odor.
When he finally realized he was on what looked like a worn little footpath, he began studying the trees for the heart shaped leaves so he could make sure he was indeed headed in the correct direction. He continued to use his stick though; there was no sense in letting his guard down just because he was back on the right path now. Those thoughts had no more than crossed his mind when he stumbled and went down. He groaned as his knees took the brunt of his weight and just his luck on rock hard tree roots.
"Well this is just great, now I have sore knees along with feet as raw as meat."
He slowly pushed himself up, brushed off his legs, not that it mattered much as his pants were stiff with dried caked dirt. He backtracked to find what had tripped him. It was a rifle. And it hadn't been here long; it was clean, well cared for and loaded. /This must be the little old man's. Guess I'll return it when I pick up my peaches. Hey, I must be near the clearing to the small valley before the river, cause that's where he was hunting. /
Johnny was pulled from his thoughts by a familiar sounding snort. He turned back to the path and within a few feet he saw Barranca, standing in front of some trees that were back lit by bright sunlight. The light shining on his horse made what part of his coat that wasn't covered in mud glitter and glow. The poor palomino had never looked so ragged because Johnny had always taken great pride in his appearance.
Reaching his horse's side Johnny took a few moments to reassure him with his quiet murmuring. He checked him over to make sure he didn't have any injuries, paying special attention to his legs and hooves. Satisfied that Barranca was fine, he tightened the cinch of his girth strap and laboriously hauled himself into the saddle. It was not the graceful mount he usually made but his legs and feet were just too abused to do better.
"Let's go boy. I sure hope we don't run into anybody else cause you and me look about as throwed away as can be. I'm gonna be down right humiliated to be seen out in the open looking like this. After we cross the valley leading up to the river we'll stop to clean off and spruce up."
Rider and horse stepped out of the woods into the clearing. The valley was composed of a wide beautiful meadow. Johnny sucked in several deep breaths of the fresh crisp air, glad to rid his nostrils of the cloying stench from the swamp. He had ridden maybe twenty yards when he got that tale tell tingle that he was not alone!!
Bound for Honor
Johnny stood in the stirrups and looked all around the valley. He saw nothing of great significance and settled back in the saddle, unafraid but wary because he knew he was being watched, just as he had been watched in the swamp and forest. But just because he couldn’t see Absalom Weir, it didn’t mean he wasn’t there. The man, if that’s what you could call him, had a way of appearing and disappearing at the drop of a hat.
It rankled something fierce to know the man was following him, just waiting to pounce at the first sign of any slip in Johnny’s concentration. He didn’t know why Absalom Weir was making his presence known and felt once again. Johnny had hoped he’d seen the last of that devil a long time ago. If it rankled to know he was being followed, Johnny reasoned as to how it was downright infuriating to have to deal with Absalom at all, especially when to all intents and purposes the man should be dead, lying six feet under, his soul, if he had one, burning in Hell somewhere for all eternity.
But apparently there was no justice in the world where ghostly apparitions and disappearing devils were concerned. The man simply would not die or go away and leave him alone. Johnny thought on that last bit, the fact that Absalom was suddenly there in his life again wreaking havoc when there was no need. Which led Johnny to wonder what the purpose of Absalom’s sudden appearance in his life meant.
It wasn’t as if Johnny believed in the supernatural, ghost and goblins, but Absalom Weir certainly made him wonder if all the scary stories he’d heard as a child couldn’t somehow have a bit of truth in them after all. There was a little part of him, after nearly drowning in a pit of mud and scraping the skin damn near off his knees through his pants, that he wished his father was with him, or that he could somehow be magically transported to wherever Murdoch was. Hell, for that matter he’d settle for Scott and his analytical and logical temperament after the experience he’d just went through.
He’d come to think of his father as a safe harbor in his life, and his brother Scott, a lifeline. His dependency on them over the short period of time he’d come to live with them had changed his outlook on life dramatically. He wanted to live for the sake of living, to love and be loved, to have all the things in life he always envied and secretly dreamed of every day of his life. And now he could, so long as he didn’t go spoiling it all by getting himself shot or drowned or whatever else the Devil was trying so hard to do to him as he made his was toward his destination.
Barranca jerked his head up, his nostrils flared and without any prompting from Johnny, quickened his pace and headed straight for the river that lay just ahead. Even from this distance which was still a fair piece away, the sound of the river could be heard, roaring through the valley, gurgling with furious speed over rocks and boulders of various sizes and shapes that forged a rollicking frothy path all along the base of the looming mountains ahead.
In its way, the sound of that raging river was a blessing as far as Johnny was concerned, for the farther he rode, the drier he became, the mud hardening until it was so stiff it was hard not to stop and strip off his clothes well before he reached the waters edge. Soon enough they’d get there he reasoned silently. No doubt Barranca was feeling a bit stiff as well, coated in the same drying muck and mire as he was.
They took their time, Johnny and Barranca. Johnny didn’t want his horse to go lame stepping in a gopher hole or worse. And so, they picked their way slowly, easing through the tall grass and multitude of flowers, bright spots of color that almost chased away that foreboding feeling Johnny had sitting in the pit of his stomach since escaping from the black hearted forest and swamp behind them.
The closer they got to the river, the brighter the color of the flowers, reds, whites, oranges, pinks, none of which Johnny knew their names, but in his mind, he thought them pretty all the same. The river too, was louder and more colorful the closer he rode to it, churning foam, fluffy and white like the clouds above, with ribbons of velvet blue snaking its way up and around, in and out of those clumps of white and gray boulders.
It was then he got to thinking a bit harder on things, like how it was that he was going to cross that river, for it looked near impossible from where he sat riding astride his horse. Barranca was brave, would face most any danger but swimming across an unruly and unforgiving river would be suicide, and like the quicksand in the swamp, Barranca had the good sense not to try something he couldn’t possibly conquer on a good day.
They were so close to the water, to cleaning up and maybe feeling better than they had all day, when a strange noise, one that could be heard above the din of the rushing water, floated through the air pleasantly or unpleasantly, depending on the person, to Johnny’s ears. He pulled back on the reins and Barranca came to a reluctant stop in a low dip just before the river.
“What is that?” he asked his horse. Of course, Barranca did not answer him, but Johnny felt sure the horse knew what he was referring too, because Barranca’s ears perked up and he sidestepped nervously, bouncing his head up and down as if he too objected to the off key sound he was hearing. Standing up in the stirrups, Johnny could see nothing to indicate what the awful sound was, but he could definitely hear where it was coming from. So with a slight pull of his right hand, Johnny squeezed Barranca’s sides and headed straight for it, thinking maybe it was a wounded animal, hurt and needing his help. He only hoped it wasn’t a bear, out for a snack or supper, fishing in the river. A bear would be mighty hard to run away from given the fact that Johnny wasn’t wanting to run his horse helter skelter through the rocky terrain near the rivers edge.
No need to worry he soon realized when they topped the low rise and saw where the noise was coming from. In fact, if it had been any other time, Johnny might have fallen out of his saddle riddled with walloping pains of laughter eating away at his gut, so funny was the sight just ahead of him. Down by the waters edge was a man, bent over a cook fire, stirring something deliciously sinful from the smell of it in a black cast iron skillet.
Barranca whinnied; snorting his disgust and Johnny wanted badly to join him but could not. The colorful site that met him, reminded Johnny so much of his brother and their first encounter with each other, that it was all he could not to laugh and shout out, asking Scott why he’d resorted to wearing his plaid pants again, and in the wilds of California no less, in the middle of nowhere as far as Johnny could tell. But then again, reason came quickly and Johnny knew this could not be his brother, though in that moment, he wished fervently that it were. Instead, of doing any of the things he’d been thinking of, Johnny called out a hello and waited patiently for a response.
The man, his back to Johnny, glanced around but not behind him. Johnny noted the man was tall, like his brother, and thin too, but not so thin as to be called skinny for the man was well muscled with a rather fine physique from behind. Johnny smiled, thinking of all the times he’d heard that said by one or more ladies without them realizing he’d overheard their scandalous conversations behind a pile of colorful calico’s in Green River’s general store. The gossipy repeat of said conversation never failed to make his brother blush a bright crimson red upon hearing it, but then too, the conversation always gave way to a friendly tussle as Scott tried to pound it out of him ‘who’ had said such things in the first place. The woman or women in question invariably got a gentlemanly visit and an invitation to the church social, a dance that was held monthly in Green River after the end of the month Sunday sermon was over.
The man not only had his brother’s backward appearance and style for crazy patterned pants, but apparently he had a penchant for wearing dazzling do hats as well. The dandy soon gave up his halfhearted search for the ‘hello’ he thought he heard and then dismissed as a figment of his imagination, and made his way toward a broken down buckboard. Long thin hands reached up and straightened the roundest, soft gray derby Johnny had ever seen. It was quite a sight, much like the pants that hugged the long legs like a second skin. A great feather of many colors was perched in the band and it twitched in the wind, looking like it might blow right out of its perch with the first good breeze to come along. The shirt was the only thing that seemed somewhat normal to Johnny, it was white if not a little on the dusty side and over that, the dandy had on a bright red vest trimmed in gold.
Johnny smothered a laugh, his eyes squinting at the stranger, thinking it was a good thing they weren’t in an area where renegade Indians could see them. They wouldn’t have any trouble at all spotting this guy from a mile away so bright he was. Johnny noted too that his shoes were impractical, pointed and string tied, the shine that must have once been there all but long gone, and scuffed, flapping a little as he made his way toward that wagon because the soles were coming loose.
Johnny tried again with a hello and was rewarded when the man finally turned around, clearly having distinguished where the hello came from this time.
Hair the color of wheat, looking a little unkempt, straggled and curled longer than was fashionable for such a man that was surly city bred through and through. A total greenhorn if Johnny didn’t miss his guess. He also sported a mustache, well groomed and quite handsome on his face, Johnny thought, once again struck by the similarities of this man to that of his brother in a physical sort of way. It made Johnny miss Scott all the more in that brief moment. A thought that Johnny quickly chased away since wishing this man to be Scott would not make it so, no matter how much he wanted it just then.
The man took off his hat and with a flourish, swung it down and away from his body, bowing a greeting, “Howdeee,” the man said, drawing out the greeting a little too long, sounding more like he was testing the word for the first time.
Johnny smiled and tipped the brim of his hat with two fingers, “Howdy,” he clipped back at the man. “Name’s Johnny.”
The man plopped the rounded hat back on his head, giving it a final tap before dropping his hand and bestowing a white, brilliant smile at Johnny. “The name’s Wayne, Wayne Maunder.”
Johnny tilted his head and studied the man, sizing him up and wondering what in the world a greenhorn was doing out here all by himself with little or no protection that he could see and with a broken down wagon to boot.
“You’re not from here,” Johnny said.
“No sir, I am not from here as you have so accurately surmised. So what gave me away, my stunning good looks or my dapper unassuming eastern wear? And before you answer, I have to tell you, I did my homework before I came out west and I’m told that I fit the bill.”
“That so?” Johnny remarked humorously, not wanting to be the bearer of bad news and say that the person or persons who told him so, told him wrong.
The man nodded, blushing ever so slightly, hard thing for Johnny to tell what with easterner’s face nearly red as it was from being out in the open too long and not having enough of a hat brim to help shade his face and neck from the sun.
Wayne looked up at Johnny, motioning toward his attire, “I’ll tell you what, I won’t make fun of the way you’re dressed if you don’t make fun of the way I’m dressed.”
Johnny looked down at his mud-incrusted clothes virtually unrecognizable they were so covered in filth. He laughed under his breath, lifted his chin and pushed back the brim of his hat, “Guess we got a deal, so long as my horse gets the same courtesy.”
The man smiled warmly, bowed gracefully and said, “As you wish.”
Johnny ran his tongue over his bottom lip then asked, “You mind if I share camp with you?”
Wayne’s face beamed, more than glad it seemed to Johnny to share his camp.
“I’d be delighted and would welcome the company.”
Johnny dismounted, a little stiffly because of his clothes, and motioned toward the broken down wagon. “I could help with that before I leave.”
Wayne visibly relaxed his shoulders as if a great weight had been taken off them, “I’d be obliged more than you could know. I’ve got business across the other side of the mountain and I’d like to get there as soon as possible.”
Johnny wondered what kind of business the man could have on the other side of the mountain when there wasn’t much there but a small village and his sleeping beauty. He wanted to ask, but for the time being he was going to leave well enough alone, at least until after he got himself cleaned up some and felt human again. The fact that they were virtually headed in the same direction was a little disconcerting to say the least, and he meant to find out exactly ‘where’ across the mountain this greenhorn was going.
Johnny nodded toward the wreckage of the broken wheel, “You have a spare wheel in the back of the wagon?” He thought the answer would be a firm no, but Johnny was surprised when the beaming man nodded and affirmed that he did indeed have another wheel. What kind of luck was that for a greenhorn, Johnny wondered in silence.
Looking a little embarrassed the man said, “Been held up and couldn’t get it fixed or I’d of been long gone by now.”
Johnny turned away from Barranca to look at this city bred man, thinking that he might have heard a double meaning behind the words, but out here, in the middle of nowhere? That was the only reason in his mind that he put any suspicion out of his head and turned back to the task at hand.
Johnny began to unsaddle his horse, while he worked he asked, “So where are you from?”
“Connecticut,” the man answered. “I graduated from Yale and decided that the Wild West was where I wanted to be.
Johnny tossed his saddle to the ground and pulled the blanket off Barranca, “Yale? Is that a place like Harvard?”
Wayne grinned and tilted his head to the side a little. “It’s very much like Harvard, only better.”
Johnny thought his brother would disagree with Wayne’s opinion but didn’t say so.
“Why do you ask?” the easterner wanted to know.
“No reason,” Johnny answered, giving Barranca a pat on the rump. The horse would make his way to the bank for a drink and then find a place to lie in the tall grass and roll until every bit of the dirt was off his body. It wouldn’t be the same as a good rub down like Johnny would have done if they were home, but it was the best for the situation they were in at the moment.
Johnny on the other hand very much wanted to get cleaned up. He sorted through his gear, making sure the rifle he found was secure in the leather scabbard.
“That’s some fine piece you have there,” Wayne commented, pointing at the rifle.
Johnny eyed the rifle then the greenhorn with narrowed eyes, “It belongs to a friend.”
Wayne seated himself on a flat rock near the fire, picked up a tin mug and raised it in salute to Johnny, acknowledging the implied warning to keep his hands off the firearm. “You planning on crossing the river too?” he asked, watching a stiff Johnny put his things in order.
“First thing tomorrow, soon as we get your wagon fixed,” Johnny replied.
The greenhorn took his hat off his head and once again, Johnny was struck by the likeness to his brother. “You’re limping,” the easterner said, pointing with his tin cup. “I have some salve if you’d like.”
“Thanks, but I think I have everything I need.”
Johnny opened his saddlebags and pulled out the extra shirt he always carried with him. It was wrinkled and worn thin, a once bright red faded to blushing pink. He stopped counting a long time ago the many times that Teresa or Maria had threatened to throw it away. It was after all his favorite shirt and he meant to keep it until there was nothing left but to use it as a rag. Having owned few things in his life before Lancer, the shirt to him was a symbol of sorts, a talisman that had brought him good luck and so therefore, he couldn’t bring himself to throw it away. There was also a clean pair of socks, he would need those for his aching feet, and an extra pair of black trousers.
Holding the items in his hand, he wondered when it was that these extra bits of clothing had been put into his saddlebags. Johnny had no memory of having put them there and finally concluded that it must have been Maria. The woman was forever putting little items of import into his saddlebags saying, “You never know, mijo, when you will have need.”
Well, he certainly had need and was grateful for her forethought on the matter. He half wished for a cake of soap, expecting none, but when he dug a little deeper in his bag found one. With a little sigh of relief, Johnny stood and turned to his newfound friend, “I’ll be cleaning up, down by the river.”
The man snickered glancing toward the ridge of mountains across the river and back again, then slapped some trout into the black skillet. “I’ll have supper ready when you get back.”
Johnny thought the man looked like he was up to more than just frying fish for supper, in fact, he thought Wayne looked as if he had a secret hidden up his sleeve and Johnny had the sudden urge to throttle him. A last minute decision had him picking up the rifle and taking it with him just as a precaution. He had no worries over Barranca. The horse was faithful and would come back if called. Besides, Johnny didn’t think that anything could pull the horse away from a good roll any more than Johnny could be pulled away from the thought of getting out of his mud soaked clothes.
Johnny grinned as he made his way over rocky terrain to reach the banks of the river. He winced too, in between his thoughts, those of Wayne being unceremoniously bucked off Barranca’s hind end and the other of taking his boots off and soaking his sore feet in the cold waters of the river.
When he reached the edge of the bank, Johnny threw his things down atop a flat boulder and sat next to his little pile. Stiffly, he pulled up one leg and removed his boot. He tossed it down with disgust and lifted his other leg to pull off the remaining boot. Johnny was almost afraid to remove his socks. His feet hurt so bad from walking, running and nearly drowning in the forest and swamp that he had to ask himself was it really all worth it. There were times when he didn’t think so, and then there were times, when his mind pictured Charlie and Obadiah’s sleeping beauty, his sleeping beauty, that he thought it would all be for the better good in the end. Inside himself, Johnny had a heart of gold and the thought of some pretty little gal not being able to wake up because of a curse, a curse he was supposedly going to be able to break, was just the sort of thing to bring out the chivalrous knight that lived inside him.
He stepped carefully along the rocks and pebbles, the flattened boulders, until he could stand in the soft wet sands along the waters edge and disrobe. The second pant leg had barely been drawn half way down when all the sudden bullets whizzed past him and hit the ground just inches away. Half stumbling and cursing a blue streak for instinctively not knowing he was being watched from across the river, Johnny pulled up his stiff pants and hotfooted it toward his pile of boots and socks, to where his gun lay half hidden under his things next to the rifle.
Another round of shots came at him from somewhere across the river. Not one bullet actually hit him, if anything, they kept pinging or thudding all around him as if the shooter were trying to scare him off rather than trying to do him bodily harm.
Johnny scrambled toward the nearest boulder and ducked behind it, propping his gun along to top edge of the rock to aim toward his assailant. It was during this quick respite in bullets being fired and Johnny eyeing the opposite side of the bank for the shooter’s position, that he remembered what Paul had told him earlier. “At the edge of this here forest is the base of a mountain and on that mountain lives some fool man that takes pot shots at innocent people cause he thinks he's protecting something or someone. The man is crazier than a starving bedbug. I reckon he's sitting on a mountain of conceit cause he's convinced everyone wants what's his. I never thought I would be one of his victims. He usually only takes shots at young men, like you. I suggest you turn around and go back where you came from, if you know what's good for ya.”
On his knees, and peering over the rim of the rock, Johnny shouted out, “Hey mister!”
He waited interminably for an answer, scratching distractedly at the beads of sweat that ran down his temples. “I’m calling yah old man. Put down your gun so I can come out from behind this rock. I don’t want anything from you except to take me a bath in this here river before I move on.”
Johnny thought he called out loud enough that surely the man had to have heard him. There was still a great silence to be heard over the rush of the water, no sound of a shout back, no cocking of a rifle. It could be though, Johnny reasoned, that the man was old and couldn’t hear. Maybe all the old fella had left was his sight. But then again, that couldn’t have been all too good either if the man was aiming to shoot off a limb or better yet, kill him outright because, he’d missed every opportunity when Johnny had been square out in the open.
Johnny laid his gun down flat on the boulder, still holding onto it, and sighed heavily, not liking his position, and getting more than a little irritated the more time passed. He was reaching that point of, ‘don’t give a damn’, and was ready to just stand up and take his chances. He had his gun, he had Paul’s rifle, and when it really came down to it, it was all the firepower he needed to outshoot some old geezer who thought he owned the whole damn world on that side of the river. He’d get the man to firing at him again, watch for a flash and just shoot back. This tactic had worked plenty in the past with great success and Johnny didn’t see any reason why it shouldn’t work this time. Only thing was, did he want to shoot an old man?
He might have said the answer was yes, if Wayne hadn’t shown up at that moment, his head peering over the rim of the boulder where Johnny had his gun hand resting, with a big fat grin on his face. “Boo!” he said.
Johnny jerked up from his half prone position, his hand jerking automatically to twist and fire, would have too but for the hand that kept it still and flat to the surface of the boulder. “I could have shot you,” Johnny seethed, jerking his hand away.
“You could have, but you didn’t. River washes away all the sound, doesn’t it?” Wayne reflected, letting go of Johnny’s hand and setting himself into a sitting position atop the boulder.
Johnny ignored the question and asked one of his own, “You knew about him?”
“Yeah. Thing is, I thought he might be a lot friendlier with a normal looking fellow such as yourself, being a cowboy and all.” He grinned like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, “Guess not,” he added lamely. “Sorry.”
“So, why isn’t he shooting at us now?” Johnny asked, pulling himself up from the ground to sit next to Wayne.
“Oh…about this time of the day, I think the old guy can’t see so well. It’s getting darker, what with the sun setting behind the mountains.”
“You’ve been out here long enough to figure that out?” Johnny asked, looking over at Wayne with the same degree of wariness he’d felt before.
Wayne nodded his head and turned to gaze in the direction of the mountains, “Been here about two weeks I guess. Stopped counting a while back and now I’m not sure exactly how long we’ve been at it.”
“We’ve been at it?” Johnny repeated.
The blond man shrugged his shoulders and said sheepishly, “Yeah.” Wayne scooted off the rock and turned to face Johnny. “Every place I’ve tried to cross, the old man takes a pot shot at me until I turn back.”
“Why didn’t you just wait ‘til dark and cross over with a gun?”
The man shrugged again, reddening from his collar up to his tender hairline, “Can’t swim.”
“You’re kidding?” Johnny said.
Wayne shuffled his feet over the pebbles, kicked one a little in his frustration, “Never learned,” he told Johnny. “Thought if I tried to get across in the daylight, though, I’d have a fighting chance of it. Thing is, mister potshot kept me from ever getting the chance.”
Johnny was at first shocked, and then a little admiring of the man. Wayne’s very declaration and attempts said he was a man of courage, not the sissified dandy from head to toe that Johnny thought he was.
Wayne picked up a small rock and threw it at the river, “When I turned around and saw you in my camp, well…I…I thought….maybe I finally have a chance now. We could fix the wagon, cross after the sun sets if the old man still has it in him to try and keep us from crossing. You look like a man who can swim…and you look like you can save a man if he were drowning.”
Johnny wasn’t so sure about that part of saving a man if he were drowning, but the confidence in Wayne’s tone made him feel like trying if it came down to having to do that sort of thing. “Sounds like a plan,” Johnny said, keeping his other thoughts to himself. “I’ve got business on the other side of the mountain as well, so we might as well work together.”
Wayne said nothing, but merely nodded, his hair golden in the wash of the setting sun, his teeth, straight and brilliantly white in a smile that set Johnny to thinking of his brother again and the similarities between them.
Bound Hor Honor
The next day, the work on the wagon was done quickly by the two men, who when they put their heads and brawn together came up with a quick way of hoisting the wagon off the grassy flatland with the use of a boulder, hefted and carried to the wagon, and a good sized piece of fallen timber to use as a lever.
Though the work was hard and grueling for the time it took them, Johnny felt all kinds of better simply because he had washed off all that dried up swamp mud from the day before. Nothing had felt so good as to feel clean again, something Scott always appreciated and now Johnny even more so than usual. His feet felt better too, having been washed and covered by a cushiony new pair of socks Johnny was ever so grateful for having found in his saddlebags.
As the sun neared the cap of the mountain range, they began to load up the wagon, Johnny and Wayne, each of them wondering what kinds of trouble they would run up against if for some reason the old man decided that on this day of days, he could see better after the sun set behind the mountains and keep them prisoner, for that’s what it had been feeling like to Wayne, and take pot shots at them again.
For his part, Wayne didn’t think he could stand another day out in the wilderness, at least not like this, but hadn’t the heart to tell Johnny, his new friend, how he truly felt. Why? When they’d be gone soon enough, each on his way toward whatever adventure awaited them.
Johnny’s thoughts were running much along the same lines, wanting to find his sleeping beauty and get things done and over with. He was missing home something fierce, an emotion he was still getting used to, but enjoyed feeling now that he wasn’t constantly looking over his shoulder for the next man who wanted to kill him just for being Johnny Madrid during a small portion of what would be the rest of his life.
When the wagon was loaded and all they had left to do was sit and wait for the sun to set a little more behind the mountains, Wayne offered up a surprise for Johnny.
Johnny looked at the extended hand, a book that was held out to him almost reverently, “What’s that?” Johnny asked.
“A gift,” Wayne replied, smiling.
Johnny held out his hands, palms forward, shaking his head, “You don’t owe me anything.”
Wayne pushed the book toward him until it touched Johnny’s chest. “Yes I do. And…it’s not only that…I want you to have it.”
Wayne was so sincere, so hopeful that Johnny wouldn’t turn him down a second time that he felt pressed to take the gift so as not to injure the man’s feelings any more than he already had. Taking the book, Johnny turned it right side up and tried to read the cover. Too worn to make out the words, he opened it and began to thumb through the well-worn pages of colorful pictures inside. There were exquisite pictures of knights in shining armor, jeweled swords and beastly fire breathing dragons. It was a book of medieval hero’s, of what one man could do if he had the strength, courage and love to fight for a fair maiden’s hand or just cause.
He looked up at Wayne, questioning with his eyes, unable to say even a thank you because his throat felt too tight to even breath. Johnny knew old, valuable, and a book with such wonderful images, miniature copies of famous paintings inside its gold edged pages, was worth a pretty penny. A small treasure he knew Scott and his father would say was a grand gesture on Wayne’s part.
Wayne smiled that smile of his that Johnny had quickly come to expect from his dandified friend, “I thought it suited you.”
The wind began to pick up and the pages began to flip and snap on Johnny’s lap. He found his voice and said, “Why do you say that?”
With lips tight, but a grin spreading the corners wide, Wayne dipped his head and then looked back up again, “Because they, those knights in there, are you.” He stood up and plopped his derby, feather and all on his head, “I don’t know what kind of adventure you’re on, but I know it’s going to be grand. You’re just like those men in that book, only you carry that gun of yours instead of a sword.” He held up a hand when Johnny started to speak, “No…don’t ask me how I know or why I would say such a thing. Let’s just say, it’s a gut feeling I have.”
The wind grew stronger and dark clouds that weren’t there in the sky above just minutes ago were starting to gather and form like big wads of dirty cotton. They both looked up and it was Johnny, standing now, the hairs on the nape of his neck bristling like a mangy ole alley cat ready to fight off some big burly dog, who knew without seeing him, that Absalom Weir was back. On the wind he could hear his name being called, and it made his heart lurch, his hand to grip harder the book he was holding.
Swallowing hard, Johnny lowered his head and searched for his saddlebags still lying by the snuffed out campfire, “Thanks for the book,” he said gruffly putting it in an oilskin wrapper of soft leather and stuffing it inside the leather pouch of his saddle bags once he got it opened. “Anything else you need from here, get it now,” he commanded, “and lets go!”
The words were almost a shout by the time Johnny finished speaking. The winds had increased in speed and the clouds above, dark and ominous, rolled and tumbled in the sky, looking for all the world as if they might fall to the ground in one big lump instead of a steady downpour that was surely imminent. And with those same thoughts, and one last bit of personal belongings thrust under the box of the wagon, the first dollop of heavy rain hit the little brim of Wayne’s fancy eastern hat.
Johnny on Barranca shouted, urging Wayne to pick up the reins and get the mules going. It didn’t take much urging on Wayne’s part. At the first flick of the reins, and with a hope and prayer in his heart, Wayne and Johnny set out for the edge of the riverbed. The wheels trundled through the now spongy grassland and onto the rocky bank of the river.
Thankfully no shots were fired from the opposite side but Johnny could have sworn that the river was getting higher by the second. It came to him then in a flash what the little man with all those boys had said to him, Paul, Johnny remembered. “Be most particular there, that river floods real easy from the least little bit of added water dropping into it. If you was to cry some tears in it, it would jump its banks in a hurry. From the looks of the sky we could be in for a gully washer and it'll turn into churning rapids for sure.”
Well Johnny hadn’t cried but he darn sure just about felt like it when he saw what he and Wayne were going to have to go through just to get to the other side. He knew he could make it on his own, but traveling through that wicked forest and murky swamp, through the long seemingly endless valley, to meet Wayne, to receive his precious gift, had left him feeling a surge of humility so strong, he knew he would have to make sure that Wayne made it too.
The river surged, swirled around the wheels of the wagon, sucking it down and dragging it way off its straight and narrow path as Wayne valiantly drove the team across the river.
The rain poured down in a torrential flood of pelting bites that stung the skin and seemed almost to burn they hit so hard. The wagon skidded sideways, seemed to be stuck in a rut, water lapping only a mere foot from the top of the side rail.
The wood groaned, creaked and made horrible sounds as if breaking apart, and surely, soon, it would, Johnny thought.
When the wagon wouldn’t budge, no matter how hard or how many times Wayne snapped the reins over the mules back. Johnny knew what he had to do, knew it would be dangerous, but there was no helping it. He slid off Barranca’s back, and just before he gained footing behind the wagon, holding on for dear life as the water swirled past him at whirlwind speeds, that sound, his name, called to him from out of nowhere again.
Holding on to the back corner of the wagon, Johnny caught a glimpse of the opposite shore, and standing there with an evil grin plastered on his face, his chin tilted upward in a smug defiant lift toward the hell spewing heavens, was Absalom Weir.
Johnny felt in that moment, when their eyes met across the stormy waters, his strength ebb and nearly fade. His grip loosened its hold onto the wagon and water splashed, swished and swirled up, down and around his face, sucking at him, more powerfully than any quicksand in some mud sucking swamp. That seemed like a piece of cake now, Johnny thought with a morbid, dying sense of humor.
The wagon rumbled under his thin grip, moved and dragged him with it. The reins in Wayne’s hands sounded like snippets of lightening, sons and daughters to the great flashes and streaks of lightening that crackled and electrified the air above.
Absalom Weir shook his fist at the heavens, at Johnny, chanting then screeching like some wild animal, a sound that could be heard above the roar in Johnny’s ears. The wagon lurched, pulling Johnny under and up again. He tried to take his eyes off Absalom Weir, to fasten them on anything else but that devil who could make him feel like his life was just a thin strand of wool, hardly worth anything at all, and something no one would miss, but couldn’t. Tears of frustration squeezed from his eyes, making the river rise to higher levels and crash over his head and shoulders like furious ocean waves.
Weakened, his strength nearly gone, the frigid cold of the river making his teeth chatter, his eyes want to close, Johnny let go of the wagon. If he couldn’t pull from the devil’s spell, he’d do it by the only means he had, his determined will.
Free from Absalom’s damning gaze, Johnny’s body tossed and turned, rolling over and over until there was no air, no sky, no Wayne. His body felt like a dishrag in one of Maria’s washing tubs, beaten and pulled, wrung out and left alone to…die.
Drowning was no easy way to go, Johnny thought. It hurt like hell, over and over again. He wanted to give up, for it to be all over with, but some inner voice, at least he thought it was an inner voice, called out to him, urged him to open his eyes. And when he did, Johnny saw a hand extended to him, a hand that like that Lady of the Lake in some poem Scott had read to him once, was there to rescue him.
In that second, he thought of all that he still had to do, of his family and friends, the changes he’d made in his life, and he wanted to live more than anything in the world. And so, he reached out and clasped the hand.
When he could finally open his eyes and could feel again, Johnny was there, lying on the ground, looking up at the biggest man he’d ever seen, choking up river water and coughing fitfully. Even though he hurt everywhere and had to remind himself to breathe Johnny had the presence of mind to know who it was that stood over him.
It was the old man who shot at them from the opposite side of the river; only he wasn’t so old as Johnny had been thinking. In fact, Johnny would have sworn the man couldn’t have been any older than his father. He even looked a little like his father. This thought made his head hurt, or maybe it was the multitude of bumps and bruises he could feel on his head. Either way, as the light began to fade from Johnny’s eyes, and dreams began to hazily dance across his vision, Johnny could see a rifle lying stiffly across two folded arms, a rugged, stern look upon the big man’s face. A look that said, Johnny better have a damn good reason for being on this side of the river and on his land….his mountain of conceit.
Bound for Honor
Johnny lay wet, dazed and confused. Absalom’s laughter still ringing in is ears. His limbs felt as weary and heavy as his mind. When he finally forced his eyes open again he saw that indeed the mountain of a man was beyond tall; he made Johnny feel like one of those Lilliputians, the little people that captured a giant of a man in that book Gulliver’s Travels, another book his well-educated brother had read to him. The only difference was he was laid out before the giant, instead of the other way around.
A closer inspection of the giant towering over him caused Johnny to suck in his breath in a startled and choked gasp. He sat up coughing and sputtering, wiping desperately at the rivulets of water that ran from his sodden hair into his disbelieving eyes. It was strange, but everything about this man, this place, reminded him of his father, of home. Shaking his waterlogged head he tried to reconcile what he knew with what appeared to be. The man in front of him wasn’t Murdoch, not by a long shot, but he was to Johnny’s thinking, very similar in appearance and manner, a fact that didn’t help his confusion when the big man knelt down beside him and spoke.
“Can I offer ye a drink?” said a voice in a thick Scottish brogue. A work calloused hand extended a beat up old canteen that had obviously seen better days, but was still serviceable.
Johnny eyed the stranger warily, unsure whether to trust him or not. It was a tough question since he was vexed with the strangeness that surrounded him, his journey supplemented by the vague familiarities that persisted on popping up and clouding his instinctual judgment.
But the man persisted, his granite face splitting into a most welcoming grin, inquiring with some hesitancy of his own, and in that strange and very bewildering accent that Johnny could barely understand. “What’s the matter son, has the cat got yer tongue or do you take exception ta drinking with a man ye dinna know?” He nudged the canteen at Johnny’s hand in a friendly gesture, not waiting for an answer. “Me name is Duggan, Andrew Duggan and I’ve been here on this mountain near twenty years or more.”
When Johnny didn’t take the canteen right away, Andrew dropped it between his knees, staring hard at Johnny. He half wondered if the boy lost his wits when he nearly drowned in the river. He tried again to be friendly; to show the lad there was nothing to fear. “This land yer on, I ain it. Look around ye. I have a gray hair for every green blade of grass on it. It might seem a wee bit inhospitable to ye, especially after ye nearly drowned and all, but it’s good land.”
The craggy eyed mountain man shook his graying head, smiling but seeming almost sorrowful at the same time. “Feast yer eyes on it lad, it’s all I have left after living the life of a conceited old fool. Ye see, I dinna know it was going to cost me all that I loved most in this life.”
The similarities between the man before him, and his father, tumbled and agitated Johnny’s thoughts as violently as the raging river had tossed and churned his bruised and battered body. He hesitantly took the canteen from the man and took a swig of water, which he swished around, then spit out, trying to wash the taste of river debris from his mouth.
Johnny’s eyebrows raised in arched surprise, his eyes turning a midnight blue when the notion struck him that just as his father had once saved his life from certain death, so had this man.
He shivered remembering how he had gone under; choking for breath while at the same time thinking his end had finally come in the midst of the raging river. There had been little else to think about at the time, so fast did everything happen, and now he realized it could have all ended in one little heartbeat if it hadn’t been for Andrew extending a helping hand out of nowhere. The big Scot’s massive paw had been like a lighthouse beacon in the dark, pulling him up through the gloomy depths of the swirling water to the safe harbor of thick muscular arms.
Johnny swallowed another sip of water, his throat feeling a little raw. The parallels between his life and the one that he’d been living for the past couple of days were beginning to wear thin in his mind. It was more than a little disconcerting, and more than a little coincidental, especially when he compared Andrew to his father. That was the most disconcerting of all that had happened to him so far. If he could have picked one word to describe what he was feeling right then he thought the word would be, surreal. He handed the canteen back to Andrew, wondering not for the first time when his adventure would be over or when and if he would wake up and discover the entire quest had all been one bizarre dream he was having. He chuckled, rubbing at his sore throat. If this was a dream, it sure as heck didn’t feel like one.
Johnny ducked his head, his fingers going automatically to the stampede strings of his sodden hat. He felt nervous and didn’t know why since he wasn’t normally the nervous sort. Maybe a little edgy, maybe even a little restless when he was in a hurry or he had too much to think about which caused him to sometimes pace or thrum his fingers along his thighs, but generally as a rule, not nervous. But nervous he felt and he couldn’t help it. The tall giant was just too much like Murdoch, crouching in front of him, staring at him as if he could see right through him, straight into his heart and into his soul.
He didn’t like the feeling much and shifted uncomfortably, hating the way his clothes clung to him like a second skin, chilling him to the bone. He gave as good as he got, though, staring right back through thick strands of wet hair that fell across his forehead, his dark lashes dotted with beads of shiny moisture he ached to wipe away.
For the second time that day Johnny longed for the presence of the man he had come to equate with security and future. Since coming to Lancer, Johnny had finally gained a sense of home, of belonging and being loved. It was a heady experience when he finally allowed himself to feel those things for the first time. It hadn’t been easy getting to that point in his life either. He and Murdoch had butted heads on more than one occasion; sometimes so roughly that he didn’t think there was any way on earth they could ever patch things up again. But then things had changed, slowly at first, until there seemed to be that understanding between them that should have been there all along had their lives been the lives of a normal father and son who had always lived under one roof. He’d been slow in recognizing it at first, but Johnny now realized that it had been Murdoch’s tough love parenting and grudging patience that had seen them through the rough times, when all Johnny wanted to do was rebel against all the constrictions that came with being part of a family.
And then there was Lancer. A land so beautiful it near took his breath away when he was alone and allowed himself the full experience in believing it all true, that he was a part of it all, that he owned a little slice of Heaven on Earth. So Johnny understood Andrew’s pride in his mountain of conceit. He understood the self satisfaction the man had in giving up everything and everyone he loved for the rough, hard scrabbled land he was sitting on. Wouldn’t he, and didn’t he feel almost the very same thing about Lancer? Johnny thought he did.
This mountain wasn’t the beautiful place he knew and loved like Lancer, but he thought he knew how the man felt all the same. Staring back at the big Scot in front of him Johnny remembered something his brother had told him once, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. How true those words seemed for this place, this time and this man. Johnny understood and any nervousness he might have been feeling started to slowly disappear.
Even though he had just barely beaten back the specter of death with the help of the tall man, the happy thoughts of his family slowly curved Johnny’s mouth into one of his heart-stopping smiles. The smile made his eyes sparkle and warmed his soul from the center of his heart out, radiating to every part of his being. The joy behind it was such an apparent emotion that the stern giant before him found himself reciprocating with one of his own.
“Son, are ye sure ye are na hurt?”
“I’m fine. Just thinking about my Pa and brother.”
“Yer a lucky lad indeed ta have a family. I had a family once; two sons… but I lost them. Now I’m alone with nothing but this land ta put my pride in. The sad thing is I put more stock into trying to make something out of this land instead of making something of my sons. My oldest ran away to join the war and died in a prisoner of war camp. My younger son took to stealing to get the things I wouldna give him. He fell in with a bad bunch and met his demise in a hail of bullets from the soldiers that hunted him down.”
The giant of a man slowly lowered his body to the hard ground, grunting his discomfort as he positioned his long legs next to Johnny’s. Now that the two men were on the same level, Johnny could see the weariness etched into his face. The old man’s eyes were as green as his father’s were blue. The mountainous man appeared to be the same age as his father, yet his eyes seemed ancient, clouded by deep sorrows borne of lessons learned by taking the wrong path and realizing it too late.
“I envy your da. He has something worth fighting and making sacrifices for. All I have is this land, and it canna give me love, honor or companionship. One day when I’m gone it will no longer be mine, either. Yet here I sit spending my days, acting the conceited old fool, defending a piece of land worthless to everyone but me. I have driven off anyone who might get close ta me by being so prideful.”
Johnny fidgeted under the scrutiny of the wise green orbs of the giant. The fingers that unconsciously fiddled with the strings of his hat stilled, sliding lower to his chest, feeling the cold damp wetness of his shirt upon his skin. He shivered involuntarily, hating the cold air that swirled along the base of the mountain, chilling him to the bone. It was still raining, a gentle mist like the tears of resignation he could hear in the big giant’s voice.
He pulled his hat from behind him, trying with little success to wring out the water and give the soaked felt some kind of shape while he thought on what the older man had told him. Andrew’s story about his sons could have been his family story, and in a melancholy sort of way, this disturbed Johnny just a little. It made him realize just how close his father had come to having a similar tale of his own.
And while he thought these things, pondered the what if’s of his life, of Scott’s and Murdoch’s, he worked his felt and waited patiently, as patiently as man could being soaking wet and all, for the old man to say more.
As if on cue to Johnny’s thoughts, the old man sitting beside him sighed with a heaviness originating from his heart. His gnarled work hardened hand slowly tracked to Johnny’s leg, then lowered to softly pat the abused knees as he spoke to the bowed head and the steadily working fingers.
“Tis all right ta have pride in a thing, but when we put our pride above good and right, it becomes conceit, and that’s an awful thing ta have ta get over. Tis disrespectful and selfish, I ken. We should take pride in our accomplishments, not in our material possessions. I ken if ye take pride in the things that gladden the heart then ye canna go wrong.”
Johnny nervously chewed his bottom lip as he looked up to meet Andrew’s intense gaze. A lesson learned the hard way was a good lesson to teach another, if that person chose to listen and learn. Johnny knew what the man was trying to say to him so eloquently, so sadly, and he chose to remember the words of this gentle giant and keep them with him always.
He plopped his wet, but slightly less mangled hat on top of his head, grinning at the giant, who in turn smiled back at him. The effect of that smile was like a great surge of light shining down into their dark and dreary little world. It was all warmth and golden sunshine, a reminder of the best things in life, thick green grass and sweet smelling flowers, warm zephyr winds, and clear starry nights. Sweet things that smile evoked, a smile created from the rekindled fire in Andrew’s heart when he spoke of his sons and the lessons he’d learned, a fire that relit the life force in those old green eyes and showed Johnny the man this Scot once just to be and not the conceited fool he thought he was.
It was at that moment, when good thoughts were going through both their minds that an angry yowl shattered the imaginary golden glow that enveloped the two men. It shattered their reverie and startled both of them, Johnny instantly reaching for his gun while the older man reached cautiously for the old Sharpe’s that lay on the ground near his pack.
Evil beast, Johnny thought. It was almost funny, that terrifying animalistic scream, because the closer he got to doing the right thing for the right reasons, the more that devil dogged his steps. He thought it strange that Absalom, for he knew that’s who the sound was coming from, hadn’t figured out yet that his presence actually helped him stay on the right path instead of veering away or running home with his tail tucked between his legs. He never liked his fun organized, and though his adventure wasn’t exactly what he would call fun, it was the type of thing that he was used to being the best at. No one, not even Absalom Weir would make him give up the cause, retreat or shy away, if anything, Johnny would plod head on, danger be damned, because there was an innocent involved, someone who couldn’t fight for themselves that needed his help.
Shaking off the minute seed of fear that floated through the air and settled on their shoulders to be ignored, Andrew made to finish his personal spirit quest with the young man he rescued.
“Will ye heed these words of a fool who has finally seen the light? A light I see shining in you. Dinna ask how I know, but I sense yer a man who has known personal sacrifice out of love and honor for what is right. The moment yer hand grasped mine, I felt as though a veil was peeled back from my face. I have stopped or stood in many a man’s path, trying to cross this river ta climb my mountain, but that ends today. Ye are free ta journey across my inhospitable land with my blessing.”
“I’ve known some dark times, mister…Duggan. I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve seen a lot of things, some bad and some good. I had to figure out how to survive and ya sure can’t do that on pride alone.”
Both men struggled to their feet, their boots seeking purchase on rocky ground that had become slick and slippery, first from the hard rain and now the continued misting one. Suddenly the giant reached out and locked forearms with Johnny. Their weight served to counter balanced each other enabling them to stand straight and steady.
The old man’s eyes twinkled as he said, “My Grandda Lancre always said, poor is the man who hasna friends to lift him up when he has fallen. I’d like ta start my riches today by being able ta count ye as a friend.”
Andrew dug into a pouch that hung from his belt. He pulled an object out that was revealed to be a pipe. The pipe appeared to have a bowl of ivory. An intricate design was carved into the side of it of impressive majestic mountains.
“I’d like to give this to ye ta remember me by, it was Grandda Lancre’s, and perhaps ye can benefit and learn from the mistakes I have made by keeping it as a reminder. Can ye bear with me, as an old man waxes poetic? The carved mountains depicted here are in my homeland of Scotland. When you look at this, think of me and the mountain that I guarded so jealously and selfishly. I could have learned from this pipe. I see now, I should have been more like the smoke and risen gently and silently above the prideful trappings of my conceit, instead of being like the packed and tamped down tobacco in the bowl, so tightly bound by my convictions until when the fires of life licked at me, I roared back, steadfast in my refusal ta let go, therefore I was consumed by the fire until all that was left of my life was a burned out shell and some ashes.”
As Johnny reached with hesitant hands to take the offered treasure, the mist ceased to fall and the clouds began to roll like tumbling tumbleweeds across a wind swept prairie. They parted ever so much, as if by some great magic, just enough so that they allowed a single ray of sunshine to light the big man from behind and cast his shadow over Johnny like a protective shield. An omen of things to come, Johnny wondered, receiving help when he most needs it? Johnny surely hoped so, though he wasn’t prone to giving much hope on things of the supernatural. Most times, it just didn’t pay to count on anyone but himself, but maybe this time, the unspoken and not too much thought about premonition would be something he might come back to rely on. It was certainly worth keeping in the storeroom of his thoughts, gathered there with all the other wonderments his adventure had given him so far.
The wind went from breezy to brisk as it switched directions and whipped across Johnny’s wet clothes, once again bringing with it the familiar scent of sulfur, causing him to shiver from the chill to his body and soul. He clutched the pipe and held it to his chest, right over his heart. The smell of cherry tobacco, same as Murdoch used, assaulted his nose and he took comfort in the familiar scent of it. The essence of it, the sweet aroma warred with the sulfuric evil stink that was Weir. Oh how he hated that man, that devil that kept getting in his way.
“What’s wrong, lad?”
Johnny debated answering. What could this man do? And for that matter, maybe it was only he and Jelly who had that keen sense of smelling evil, an odor that seemed to be able to blaze a trail in the wind and make its way straight to his and Jelly’s nose whenever something terrible was about to happen. He decided he had no choice but to give in and trust this man. Choice or not, there still was that protective air about Andrew Duggan that made Johnny think of his father. It gave him comfort enough to trust and say what he was thinking.
“Do you smell that? Every time I smell that rotten odor, something bad happens.”
Andrew sniffed the air but didn’t catch the scent of anything out of the norm. There was the sweet smell of pine, the clean scent of rain, but he wasn’t fool enough to think that there wasn’t something else in the air that shouldn’t be there. The lad was looking sickly, swaying slightly on legs that seemed to want to fold beneath him and his face had gone a deathly white, pale and tight looking in the wan light of day. He had no clue that the grimace on the lad’s face came not from being sick with cold and maybe the possibility of new fever, but from the annoyance Johnny felt each and every time the stench of evil assaulted his senses and did its best to hinder the progress of his quest. No, instead, he thought the lad was becoming ill and the very thought of it moved him in the heart and made him want to help.
The giant’s face softened in concern as his rough yet gentle hand grasped Johnny’s elbow to steady him. “I keep a stocked cabin at the base of the mountain. I use it when I dinna feel like making the trip back up. Why dinna ye come there with me and let me get ye something to eat and something to wear while your clothes dry out?”
Normally Johnny Madrid Lancer trusted no man on his first meeting, especially not one that had shot at him for no good reason like this man had done only the day before. But for whatever reason, and Johnny wasn’t sure exactly what or why, though he did speculate to some degree, the big Scot found something in him that reminded the older man of one of his sons, probably the younger one given the story he told, and therefore that changed the big blistery, shoot and ask questions later personage from one of distance and cold heartedness to one of being genuinely earnest and contrite. For Johnny this was a good thing. He was bone weary, and this man offered sanctuary, a place to recoup from his near drowning and subsequent feelings of loneliness and despair that he would have to fight for every step he took to save his sleeping beauty.
And to all of that, Johnny was cold. He was so cold at this point his teeth felt like chattering and it was only by the grace of God and a strong countenance that they didn’t. A most hated affliction if ever there was one that this man was generously offering to remedy. All in all, the big Scot reminded Johnny so much of his father that he couldn’t turn away, saying no, from the helping hand he seemed so anxious to extend and that Johnny was beginning to be all to anxious to accept. All his instincts honed from years of experience told him this man could be trusted, the Andrew Duggan had found his paternal heart and was ready to be a safe harbor to a son that was not his own.
A brilliant smile inched across the young man’s face as he nodded his agreement. He hadn’t realized until just that moment that while he knew Andrew’s name, he had yet to identify his own. “By the way, my name is Johnny…Johnny Lancer,” he stuttered out in uncharacteristic shyness.
“Well, come on then Johnny…Johnny Lancer, let’s round up your horse and get ye into some shelter.”
The two men made their way towards the river and onto the sandy bank, carefully avoiding the slippery wet rocks along the way. The last of the clouds that had earlier formed a blackened canopy over their heads rolled away, revealing the hidden glory that was Andrew’s mountain of conceit. The sun kissed the peak of the mountaintop, a gold bejeweled crown that chased away the prior darkness and gave the mountain life. It’s bright rays of sunlight slid from the sky like yellow satin streamers, dappling the water with sparkles of light that twinkled and danced to a merry tune that only nature could hear.
The river was quiet now; so smooth and calm that Johnny could scarce believe he had nearly drowned in it just that morning. Maybe a trick of the eye it was, or maybe, this was how the river ran all the time. Or maybe, Johnny thought, Absalom Weir had a way of mangling with the earth, the wind and the rain. Maybe those calm, swirling eddies of water, gently rippling and rolling over small rocks and boulders changed at his command. Maybe the sweet scene before him wasn’t the happy, splashing, slow meandering river it seemed to be. Maybe the whole thing, this river, this mountain, the peacefulness of it all was just an illusion to draw him in again.
Johnny looked over at the older man plodding beside him. For his sake, Johnny hoped he was wrong, that Absalom Weir had only meddled with what was there at the time and that this peaceful, beautiful place he had come to appreciate with every passing minute, was just as Andrew saw it, a mountain of conceit turned to paradise in his eyes.
As they trekked along the river’s edge, moving ever closer to where Barranca had made his way to land, Johnny noticed a slight mist had begun to rise from the boulders and stones where the sun’s heat bore down on them. He shook his head in stunned bewilderment, staring mesmerized, as the mist seemed to take the shape of an ethereal form that beckoned to him. He realized Andrew’s longer stride had taken him several feet ahead of him. Johnny picked up his pace to catch up to the big man, feeling curiously vulnerable and exposed as if he were being stalked by some unseen predator.
Though the clouds had made room for the sun, and great light filled most of the pressing shadows and gloom that filled the landscape, there was still a feeling of intense malevolence pressing in on Johnny. And it happened, just as he was wondering where his nemesis had gotten to, that an angry and violent screech rent the air once again. Johnny had just reached Duggan’s side and the man had thankfully grabbed up Barranca’s reins just before the sound exploded from the copious dark depths of the wild forest to the north. Barranca tossed his head nervously, rolling his eyes and stomping the rocky ground where he stood, worrying Johnny that he would pick up a stone and bruise his foot.
“It’s a mountain lion, that ye hear. I’ve tried for years to hunt it down and kill it, but some how it eludes me and slips back up the mountain, out of my reach.”
Andrew held the palomino still as Johnny checked him over to make sure he was not harmed. He ran his lithe hands over the horses legs and hindquarters. Other than a few scratches and some debris tangled in his mane and tail Barranca appeared fine. He made sure Paul’s rifle was still in the scabbard. He then opened his saddlebags and took out a red plaid napkin that had once held biscuits; he used it to wrap the pipe in, and then tucked it in the saddlebags for safekeeping. As he pushed his hand past the other items in the bags his fingers encountered the oilskin wrapped book Wayne had given him. It was at that point Johnny realized he did not know what had become of his friend.
Johnny gasped as he whirled around to search the river with frantic eyes. “My friend, did you see my friend…did he make it out of the river?” he pleaded with worried agitation.
“The wagon made it, lad. Just as he left the water a bolt of lightning struck the ground right by it. I’ve never seen mules move as fast as those did. The last I saw of your friend he was holding on for dear life as those terrified beast tore off down the banks of the river.”
Johnny let out a sigh of relief. He was grateful no harm had come to his friend and he hoped for Wayne’s sake the man had been able to get control of the team and find his way over the mountain to do his business. He coughed, his lungs still a bit clogged and sore from sucking in half the river, and rubbed his throat to help relieve the pressure of swallowing.
Andrew must have seen his feeble attempt to relieve the soreness and said, “Come on, son. Fairly soon now the sun will drop completely behind the mountain and the temperature will fall. When that happens outside will be the last place you need to be in wet clothes. From the sounds of that cough, I fear you have congestion building in your chest. Indulge an old man who hasn’t had a soul to look out for in many a year now.”
Johnny fell into step beside the big man, Barranca’s reins clutched in his hand. He kept his head down as they were once more walking over the rockier ground away from the river. Johnny was surprised he was able to keep up with the tall man, until he noticed Andrew was matching his stride to Johnny’s shorter one. He wondered how many times his father had done the same thing for him so he wouldn’t feel left behind or rushed because Murdoch’s legs were just as long, in fact Scott’s too, now that he thought about it. This caused a lump to form in Johnny’s throat the size of which put a pleasant achy pressure on his heart. He thought surely this was an example of that quote Scott told him last week, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’.
“What are you thanking me for, lad?”
“For saving my life today. I would have drowned if you hadn’t pulled me out of the river.” Johnny dipped his head, thinking of Murdoch once again.
Andrew waited patiently, sensing that the boy had more to say.
When Johnny looked up again, his bright blue eyes were filled with dark memories untold. “I was hell bent for trouble mister. But my pa…well…he put the bit in my mouth and pulled back on the reins real hard. And I fought him.” He shook his head, “I fought him hard ‘til I figured out he was right and I was wrong.” Johnny shifted, nervous about getting so personal but feeling like he needed to after what the man had done for him.
“I would of died last year if he hadn’t cared without my knowing it. Sure as hell thought he didn’t give a damn for a long time, so it came as a mighty big surprise to me when he pulled me out of my other life into my new one.” Johnny looked away, toward the peak of Andrew’s mountain, “I was someone else back then…somebody you wouldn’t have liked.”
Andrew started to put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, but he backed away a step, not quite ready for anyone to touch him, even though the man had saved him. He often felt this way when his mind was fighting off the emerging personality that was once considered an outlaw by some, and a savior by others.
Johnny swallowed then sighed, and as quick as that, had tamped down the resurgence of his old self to that of Johnny Lancer. A trick he was mastering almost as fast as his draw. And like a parting of the clouds, Johnny’s smile replaced the dark memories in his eyes. “I want to thank you for the pipe too. I won’t forget what you told me. I’ll keep it as a reminder of your words of wisdom.”
“See that ye do, son. It’s too late for me ta pass any of that wisdom on ta my own sons. I would consider it an honor and a privilege ta be able to pass it along ta another man’s son in his absence. Here we are. I’ll go in and get the stove stoked up. There’s a lean-to around back where ye can bed your horse down for the night. ”
The old man clumped noisily up the steps knocking dirt from his boots as he went. Johnny traveled on around the cabin until he came to the lean-to in the back. He made quick work of removing saddle and tack, before drying his horse with some old feed sacks. He gave Barranca a quick brushing, and then gave him a flake of hay to begin chewing as he filled a bucket with oats and another with water from a barrel standing near the stall.
“Well, boy, enjoy your supper. Hopefully you’ll get a good night’s rest before we continue our adventure tomorrow. Then again we may be fleeing in the night if the old guy decides to run me off, like a loon, after I tell him I need to cross his land to get to my sleeping beauty.”
Johnny made his way back around the little house in the dying light of the day. The cabin was sheltered by an overhang, and the far side of the building was against a wooded area. The patch of scrub pines and vines looked sinister, shadowed by the encroaching darkness of a dusky evening. The wind was no longer blowing, yet the underbrush, vine leaves and pine needles shook and twitched as though something was moving through them.
Just as Johnny ascended the first of the steps onto the small porch, he got that tingly, hair-raising sensation that he was being watched. The foliage in the woods jerked wildly, followed by a scratching scampering sound and then by an unholy demonic animal scream. He quickly stamped the dirt from his boots and rushed through the door to safety.
Bound For Honor
Andrew turned away from the stove where he stood stirring something in a large pot and chuckled as he asked, “What’s the matter, lad, the devil on your heels?”
“Something like that,” Johnny muttered.
The giant went back to his cooking after instructing Johnny to make himself at home. Johnny was startled to find the cabin was quite homey and well kept. Andrew had made quick work of it, getting the lamps lit and supper started while he had tended to Barranca.
The cabin had definitely known a woman’s touch at one time. There were curtains hanging over the windows, something a man wouldn’t have bothered to hang. A medium sized horsehair sofa graced the main part of the room in front of a handsome fireplace made of various rocks that must have been carted up from the river. A mantel of highly polished dark wood resided several feet above the open pit and over that rested an old flintlock that even Jelly would have envied.
The room also boasted having a cherry Bentwood rocker, an expensive piece of furniture that was upholstered in red velvet, its curved wooden rocker and armrests polished to a high reddish gleam. By the looks of its worn seating, Johnny thought it must have been the very chair that Andrew’s wife used to rock their two babies in after they were born and while they were still young. Beside it were a small table, a well-worn bible and a small kerosene lantern to read by.
The oddity in the cabin besides the expensive rocker, were the multitude of bookshelves that lined the wall on either side of the fireplace. Built ceiling to floor, the shelves were filled with all kinds of books, from horse husbandry to gardening, doctoring to mining, romance to mystery. And there were great books too, of which Scott would consider a literary ‘must have’ for the man who has the refinement to have such a library in the first place. And this man’s taste ran the gambit much as Scott’s did, for there was Shakespeare and Dickens, Whitman and Poe and a great many others that Johnny didn’t have time to notate in his mental files.
The thing that caught Johnny’s eye the most, though, had to be the great clipper ship that was nestled in a safe little harbor amongst the books on the shelves. Johnny raised his brows, amazed to see the duplicate of Murdoch’s most prized possession sitting in this cabin so far away from the rest of the civilized world. He half wondered if Andrew and Murdoch could have possibly sailed the seas together at one time. Maybe that explained the amazing similarities, or perhaps by some fluke of fate, Johnny had met up with some long distant relative he’d yet to learn of and Murdoch was unaware of a family relation living near enough to visit. Hadn’t Andrew mentioned he had a Grandfather by the name of Lancre? He thought that was right, but it was something he’d have to ask his old man about when he got home.
Johnny turned his attention to the area that would be considered a kitchen. It had a stove; some open shelves stacked with can goods and other food items, a sideboard that held dishes and even a sink with a pump. The area was large enough it also held a round table with four chairs. There were two rooms, or at least two doors, along the end wall of the cabin. Johnny assumed they were bedrooms.
“Where is my mind at?” grumbled Andrew. He turned from the stove and pointed to the second door on the end wall. “Johnny, you’ll find a towel and a change of clothes on the bed in there. They might not be a perfect fit, but it’s better than being wet. Bring your things out here and well hang them near the stove ta dry.”
After stepping into the room and closing the door, Johnny realized not only had Andrew laid out the items for him he had also lit a lamp on a little desk that sat next to a bed. The bed was pushed against the wall and was covered by a colorful quilt in a riot of fall colors. One wall had a cedar wardrobe on it. The room was Spartan compared to his room at Lancer, but it was clean and well cared for.
Stepping to the foot of the bed, Johnny removed his gun belt and belt and hung them on the bedpost and capped it with his hat. His nimble fingers made fast work of his shirt buttons and he peeled the damp garment from his skin and laid it across the footboard. He toed off his boots, unbuttoned his fly and skimmed out of his pants, pulling his socks off as the bunched material pooled at his feet. He picked the pants and socks up and put them with his shirt.
When he picked up the towel he saw Andrew had found clean drawers for him too, so he shucked off the damp ones and added them to the pile. He took the towel back up and vigorously rubbed his sodden hair. The strands of tousled black silk stood in spiked attention around his head from its treatment. Next he patted his arms and chest dry, mindful of the numerous small cuts and scratches he acquired in his wild tumble in the river. He gave the same care to his legs.
Satisfied he had removed all the excess moisture from his body he picked up the underwear that smelled of cedar and slipped them on. /I imagine it all smells like cedar./ They were soft from many washings but in good repair. They were loose in the waist but would be held in place by his pants and belt.
Johnny picked up the pants and smiled they made him think of Scott as they were just like his brother’s favorite brown pair. He stepped into the trousers and pulled them up. They were roomy and long, his boots would keep the pants from dragging the floor and his belt would secure the pants tightly enough. His smile turned into a smirk as he noted the plain beige shirt, another staple of Scott’s wardrobe. He pulled the shirt on and chuckled out loud at the too long sleeves. He rolled the cuffs up, buttoned the shirt and then tucked it in. He retrieved his belt from the post and threaded it through the loops.
He was pleased to see Andrew had also provided socks. He sat down on the bed and put them on. While he sat there he cuffed the pants legs since he wasn’t putting on his boots yet. He wanted to stand them by the stove to dry out.
Johnny gathered up his wet clothes and boots and headed back into the kitchen area. He stood quietly for a spell observing the man that reminded him of his father. Andrew was busy at the stove finishing the meal, humming happily to himself. He was the picture of contentment. For the life of him Johnny couldn’t shake the safe feeling the man inspired in him. He wondered idly if maybe Andrew’s immense size made him project that air of security. He didn’t really think that was all there was to it. It was more the fact he was acting like a father would, like he had come to expect from Murdoch.
Andrew had taken two of the chairs and placed them near the stove with a stick broom laid across their backs. Johnny walked over and draped his garments over the makeshift clothesline, and then he laid the boots on the floor and scooted them under the edge of the stove.
The big man bit back a laugh as he eyed his guest in the clothes that did not quite fit. His mind couldn’t help but wander back to when his two boys still lived at home. Many times he saw his youngest son Jim dressed in his older brother’s hand-me-down clothes. Stacy was taller than his brother so poor Jim would have to roll the sleeves and cuff the pant legs.
“Sit down, the stew is ready. I’m about ta put it on the table.”
“Do you need some help?” asked Johnny as he lowered himself into a chair.
“Ye can help me out by telling me what you prefer ta drink. I have apple cider, water, coffee or milk.”
“Milk is fine.” Johnny choked out around another rumbling coughing fit.
The big man carried the pot of stew in one hand and the biscuit tin in the other and sat them down on the table.
“Go ahead and fix your plate while I get the milk.”
Andrew bent over at the end of the sink cabinet and pulled open a trap door in the floor, reaching in he pulled out a crockery pitcher that contained the milk. He brought it and the coffee pot back to the table. The coffee pot was puffing steam and the milk pitcher had condensation beginning to form on the outside. The older man poured Johnny a serving of milk in the tin cup that had been sitting on the table with the other dinnerware.
Now that the two men were sitting down face to face, they both felt a little awkward in the ensuing silence. Andrew began to fill his own plate with stew and placed a biscuit on his plate too. As he was pouring himself coffee, Johnny pushed past his rising feeling of discomfort and spoke.
“So have you read all these books?”
“Aye, I’ve read a good many of them. They’re not all mine, a goodly share of them belonged ta my older son Stacy. That boy didn’t just read a book, he dissected it until he understood every little part.”
“That’s the one who died in the war, right? Did your younger son like to read too?”
“Jim? Oh Lord no. We had the devil of the time keeping Jim in the house. My wife use ta say if his eyes were open he was moving. He loved being outside. He was a child of nature. He loved all God’s animals great and small, yet he grew up ta have no respect for his fellow man,” ended Andrew sadly.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up sad times.”
“Oh no, dinna you worry. Those were not sad times; they were the best of times. The sadness comes from realizing I would have had many more fond memories of my sons if I had participated in their lives more instead of leaving it all to my wife. She did her best, I ken, but boys can be a stubborn lot and it takes the firm hand of a father sometimes ta set them on the right path. No matter what happened those boys ken their mother loved them. I wish I could say the same for myself. I was too busy putting all my time and effort into this land.”
“You might not have spent a lot of time with them, but I bet they knew you loved them in your own way. From what I can see you provided for them, they had a comfortable home here.”
Andrew studied Johnny’s sincere face as he chewed his stew, and then picked up his cup of coffee blowing across the hot surface, rippling little waves in it that caused some to splash over the too full side. Johnny’s heart constricted as the action reminded him of Murdoch, once again he longed for his familiar presence.
“I sometimes think we would have been happier if we had stayed in this little cabin. It felt like a home, still does for that fact. Instead, I worked from sun up to sun down ta make money so I could build a fancy house on top of the mountain, so people would ken I was a man of means. That fancy house never felt like a home, it was just a house, a showplace that no one felt comfortable living in and I became known as a man that was mean. My wife much preferred this house. After both of our boys were gone, she got sick, I often think from a broken heart. She lingered a while, growing weaker each day. One night she made me promise ta bury her down here when her time came. She claimed this was where her boys were. The next morning she was gone, she slipped away from me in her dreams. So I brought her down her and buried her next ta the climbing rose bushes. Now I find I prefer this little cabin too.”
Andrew watched Johnny enjoying his meal as he talked. He grinned to himself as the young man broke his biscuit open and used it to sop the thick gravy that clung to his plate. The gravy dripping biscuit was devoured and followed by draining the glass of milk.
“I don’t think it’s the size of a house that makes it feel like home. I think it has to do with how the people who live there treat each other. Least ways that’s what I’ve been learning. Our home is a big old Spanish hacienda, we have more rooms than we can use. When I first came home after being gone all I saw was property. Now when I’m away and come home I see the place where my father and brother wait for me. A place where we eat together, talk together, share our burdens. It’s a place where I can challenge my brother to a game of chess in front the fireplace while our Pa smokes his pipe, reads the paper and watches over us. It’s the safe port I can rest in every night before facing the next day.”
It clicked in Andrew’s mind who this boy was when he said hacienda. He had heard that Murdoch Lancer finally had both his boys home. How he envied the man that he was able to retrieve what he had once thought lost. There would be no reprieve for Andrew Duggan, he couldn’t bring back the dead or turn back time.
To change the subject and to get to know Johnny a little better, Andrew said as he scooted back in his chair and began to clear the table, “I thought we might relax in the parlor for a bit. I’d like to know why ye would make such a long trek from your home.”
There seemed to be no required answer to Andrew’s statement so Johnny got up and grabbed up some of the dishes. He placed them in the sink where Andrew had set the others and then watched as the big man poured a pot of hot water that had been heating on the stove over them.
“Leave the dishes to soak, lad. I dinna think they will disappear during the night.” The big Scot laughed heartily as he grabbed a couple of glasses, handed them to Johnny and motioned for him to have a seat on the sofa. “I canna say I like doing the dishes verra much. Tis one of the things I miss about having a woman to care for me and my home.”
Andrew picked up a jug near the base of the sink and ambled toward the rocker with a big smile on his face. “Good corn liquor,” he said for explanation. With a sigh and a grunt, Andrew lowered his big frame into the fragile looking rocker; Johnny thinking that at any minute the frail piece of furniture would crumble to pieces under the man’s heavy weight. He stifled a cough, and sat down at the end of the sofa, glasses in hand, ready for a good stiff drink after the day he’d had.
Andrew pulled a wooden cork from the neck of the jug and quickly poured the two of them a three-fingered portion each. “Mind you dinna swallow too fast, lad,” he warned, handing Johnny his drink. “It willna kill you, but it sure will make yer eyes water if you canna handle the fire it puts in yer stomach.”
The big Scot raised his glass in salute and Johnny returned the gesture. “This stuff will put hair on yer chest and fix that cough right up.”
Johnny smiled at that, nodded his head and took a tentative sip of his drink, his eyes watering as soon as the alcoholic fumes wafted under his nose.
Andrew grinned and swallowed a healthy dose of his own self-medicating drink. Over the rim of his glass he asked, “So tell me, lad. What brings ye this far from home, and without yer family or friends?
Johnny sipped some more of his corn whiskey, and then coughed at the burning sensation as it slid down his throat. He slouched down on the couch and stretched his legs out, as he got comfortable. The steady creak of the floorboards as Andrew rocked in the big rocker lulled him into a sense of security and trust. When the sporadic animalistic screech spilt the air outside, it was more an annoyance than a fright. /You don’t scare me, Weir. You’re trying to shake my confidence and make me question my choices./
Johnny’s face took on an animated glow, as he got ready to spin his yarn. Andrew stared into the knowing blue eyes that projected an air of experience that belied his young age.
“It all started when Walt Grimley sold the saddle I ordered to someone else…”
The two men sipped and talked their way through two glasses of corn liquor as the convoluted story of a saddle, delayed freight wagons, borrowed stock, shot up beer kegs, an old Indian and black man, a tale of cold hearted people, an Indian woman and child freezing in a blizzard, curses of retribution, thorny vines with majestic flowers, and a sleeping beauty paying for the selfish sins of her parents until she is released by an young man who willingly knows about sacrifice and loss, love and honor. He told of his adventuresome race against time to beat that devil Absalom Weir. He included his meeting Paul and Wayne, and how they reminded him of Jelly and his brother Scott. He ended with how Andrew reminded him of his father.
Several hours later, the blackness of night had cloaked the little cabin. The descent into darkness was not still or quiet. The two men inside were unaware of the formidable evil that permeated the air. It seemed to be in constant motion, marked by restless and agitated movement as a cougar pacing in fretful anticipation. More than once, disturbed growls frightened the little woodland creatures into oppressed silence as they sensed the danger around them.
Inside, the wicks in the lamps had burned low; the floorboards continued their creaking protest against the rocking of the chair and Johnny’s cough worsened, his voice had gone raspy as he finished the tale.
“Well that’s the adventure right up to this minute…I guess maybe you might be thinking I’m crazy.”
“No, lad, I dinna think yer crazy. I think yer a young man of honor who is willing ta sacrifice even his dignity if need be to help another you perceive to be in danger. You have a good heart and a strong sense of right and wrong. How proud your da must be.”
“Thank you for not laughing at me. I’ve been up against Weir before and things aren’t always, as they seem with him. He’s good at twisting things around. He’s definitely not someone you want to deal with in person or in dreams.”
“Speaking of dreams, why dinna you use the bedroom where you changed ta lay down for the night. It’s too late for ye ta be traveling, and ye dinna need to be outside with that cough. In fact, that blush of color on your cheeks tells me ye probably have fever.”
“ I appreciate it. I am kind of whipped.”
Johnny stood and stretched the kinks from his back and trudged with heavy feet, socks dusting the floor as he went to the bedroom. Just before he stepped into the room Andrew instructed him to holler out if he needed anything in the night; he had no idea what a busy night he was setting himself up for with the statement.
The big man watched as the door softly clicked shut, closing out even the shadows that danced on its wooden surface. He rocked a few minutes more as he pondered on his guest. He smiled to himself at the pleasure he had felt in the younger man’s company. Andrew’s smile flattened out to a grimace of displeasure with himself as he considered the fact he had shown more paternal care to a stranger this night than he ever had to his own sons. /The water passed doesna turn the wheel. You canna go back ye old fool, but ye can certainly go forward/.
Andrew hefted his tired body from the chair and began blowing out the lamps; he picked up the one on the table to take into his room. He moved over into the little kitchen area and checked to see if Johnny’s clothes were drying. He took the time to flip the boots over so the side that had been lying against the floor would have a chance to dry.
Hearing Johnny’s barking cough he opened his door a crack to check on him. Holding his lamp up, he was able to spill enough light into the room to see the dark haired youth curled up on his left side, facing the door. He grinned to see he had removed the borrowed clothes and folded them neatly over the footboard. He really found that amusing because he would be willing to bet the young whirlwind took no such pains at home for tidiness.
Detecting a tapping and scratching sound coming from the outside wall of the room, Andrew stepped further into the room with his lamp to investigate. Other than a few growls and one loud yowl of a mountain lion that caused Johnny to stir and mutter in his sleep at the disturbance everything seemed fine. Nonetheless he made sure the window was locked and the curtain pulled before exiting for his own room.
The house fell into the peaceful silence of night as both occupants slept, unaware of the malevolent entity that gained strength by playing on the fears that came with darkness. It stalked the ground, moaning and growling in discontent. For many years now it had made a home on this mountain of conceit, that is, until the light of honor, care and compassion threatened to reveal all the pitfalls and traps that made the mountain a hard path to travel. The treacherous journey delivering many an unsuspecting to soul into eternal darkness.
Johnny awoke with a startled gasp. His breath felt hot in his lungs and his mouth was drier than a dirt road during a heat wave and drought. He was concerned to find himself in a strange room, not in his own. The room was black but his eyes could still detect movement. It appeared like there was a crowd of dark shadows floating on the far wall, reaching for him with gnarled hands, even though there were no people present to cast those shadows, or for that matter a light source to cause them either.
Squeezing his eyes shut and pinching the bridge of his nose, Johnny began chanting to himself…there’s no one there…over and over as sweat began to form all over his body from some intense heat. He kicked the suffocating covers off as he continued chanting. His mantra was finally interrupted by a maniacal laugh causing his eyes to fly open. The first thing he saw were the soul-less eyes of Absalom Weir staring into his own.
Johnny sat up and grabbed for the demon, but he danced deftly out of his reach and at the same time used his silver tipped cane to sharply push Johnny back down on to the bed that had become as hot as a frying pan. Johnny rolled to the side; out from under the pressure of the cane poking in his chest, the beds springs squeaked their protest of the jarring violent movement. He intended to drop over the side of the bed but to his horror he saw the flames of a roaring fire licking hungrily from underneath the bed to consume the covers and sides of the mattress. All the while Weir and his shadows cavorted in the hellish realm just beyond the bed. Figuring he was done for, Johnny’s thoughts turned to warning his new friend.
“FIRE, ANDREW, FIRE!”
Having heard the tossing, turning and moaning, Andrew was already up lighting a lamp when Johnny’s distressed scream shattered the night. Hurrying into the bedroom, the big man found his young friend in the throes of a fight with his covers, his hands slapping and pushing at some foe seen only by him.
The big man hurried to the bed, setting his lamp on the desk by the bed. He grasped Johnny by the shoulders trying to straighten him out so he could untangle the covers around him. He drew his hands back in shock at the heat that radiated from the feverish young man.
“ Och, lad yer burning up. Calm down now, yer all right. Andrew is going ta take care of ye. Hush now hush, there isna fire, son, it’s the fever making ye feel so hot.”
The giant man’s lilting brogue finally broke through the febrile visions that held Johnny in their grip. The frantic body stilled on the bed, glassy bright blue eyes connected with concerned green ones.
“Ye lay here just a second, I’m going to get some water ta cool ye off.”
Andrew rushed to his sink and pumped water into a bucket, hearing Johnny’s rattling cough even above the sound of the water. When he reached onto the shelf to grab a clean piece of flannel he spied his hammer, which gave him an idea. He snatched the heavy tool from the shelf too, and quickly jerked open the trap door to his icebox in the floor. He hurriedly struck a couple of blows to his precious ice, breaking off a few chunks to add to the water. Ice was hard to come by this far out from any town but he thought it a small sacrifice for a friend. He dropped the broken bits of ice into the bucket, pulled a glass from the shelf and then sped back to the bedroom.
“Where is he? Did you see him?” questioned Johnny in a weak raspy voice.
“Who, lad. Who did ye see? No one has been in here, the door is locked and so is yer window,” said Andrew as he pulled the desk chair to the bed to set the bucket on. He sat on the edge of the bed and handed Johnny a glass of cold water. The young man swallowed it down enjoying the relief it brought to his dry mouth and the sore ache in his throat.
“Weir was here. I’d know that devil anywhere. He’s trying to stop me; he doesn’t want me to succeed. He wants me to be as selfish as him and take the easy way out by not trying at all.”
The big Scot shushed him, assuring Johnny that there was no one else in the room, and even went so far as to remind the feverish lad that there was no way that he, nor anyone else for that matter, would ever believe that Johnny would take the easy way out of anything. Andrew knew in his heart this was true, but it was also mighty hard to convince the boy otherwise so deep was he in the throes of whatever feverish nightmares he’d been having. He didn’t give up tired as he was, soaking and bathing Johnny until he had the boy’s fever was in retreat.
All the while Johnny mumbled and carried on about loss, sacrifice and honor, frequently chastising this Absalom Weir that only he could see. Andrew kept up his ministrations for hours, until the sun came. As the light of a new day dawned filling the room with hope that the darkness had been beat back, the giant felt his heart contract and then seem to fill and grow five times larger. This was the first time he had ever sacrificed a whole night’s sleep to help his fellow man instead of hinder him. He had never even sat up by his own child’s sick bed. It felt good…better than that it felt right!
As those pure thoughts vibrated in the air, a wounded and desperate howl rumbled down the mountain, and then the sound began to dissipate and grew further away as if it were in retreat. At that moment Johnny sighed and the tension flowed from his body. Andrew smiled as he felt the now cool forehead. He got up and stretched, his weary back making a popping and crunching noise like acorns being trod on. He walked to the window and pulled the curtains completely back. He opened the window about four inches to let fresh air in to replace the stale odor of sweat.
Johnny stirred on the bed. His sleepy blue eyes fluttered open. The first thing he saw was a tall man, for a moment he thought it was his father until he remember it was Andrew. The man stood utterly still, staring out the window at the sunlit mountain outside. Johnny’s eye’s widened in surprise; he blinked trying to clear his vision and looked again, it was still there. This time he huffed a startled breath of air and muttered, “It’s a heart.”
“Excuse me, did ye say something, lad?” inquired Andrew as he turned from the window to his guest, which opened the entire view from the window.
Johnny lifted a lethargic hand and pointed a weak shaky finger at the window. “It’s a heart shape, in the window pane.”
“Yes, it’s a flaw in the glass. It’s an air bubble within the glass that took on that shape.”
Andrew walked to the bed and sat on the edge as Johnny continued to observe the oddity in the glass. In actuality he was studying the view that could be seen right through the center of the heart shape in the pane. It lined up perfectly with a wide clear path that the bright sun on the morning side of the mountain revealed. With the shadows driven away by a glowing stream of light and at this angle, a wide winding path appeared to wrap the rugged mountain.
“Andrew is that what I think it is. A path up the mountain?”
“Yes son, indeed it is. It’s a gradual climbing path that winds completely around the mountain. It takes longer ta get ta the top using it because ye actually must travel further. Most people are too impatient ta use it, they think quicker is better even if the faster path is more perilous. They rather chance their own lives ta the pitfalls and dangers than ta take their time and do it the right way.”
The older man shifted his gaze from the window, the slight movement of his head and body caused the bed to protest with a creaking moan. His wizened eyes studied the youthful features of the honorable lad that had re-awakened his paternal heart. Andrew felt an overwhelming compulsion to provide a little guidance and advice to this son that was not his own.
“Why? Why fight ta crawl and scramble over the rocky spots, just ta get there faster? Why try ta conquer the mountain, when ye can rise above it by taking your time, by following the best path ta rise ta the top. If ye do it right ye can walk with your head up.”
Johnny fought the shuttering of his eyes as he tried to keep the view of the path behind the heart. He yawned and muttered tiredly, “Now I know I can find the right path. ”
The gentle giant pulled the covers up snug to Johnny’s shoulders as his body relaxed into a healing sleep. His large hand softly cupped the young man’s cheek as he whispered, “ Yer an honorable lad, Johnny Lancer, ye were always on the right path; ye have a loving and sacrificing heart.”
It was a sad parting for Andrew as he watched Johnny ride up his mountain and out of sight the next day. The fever had run its course the night before, leaving the lad looking tired and a little gaunt by the time he was feeling well enough to get up and have a bite to eat. Andrew had stayed up most of that night, just to reassure himself that the boy was truly on the mend, dozing only now and then when he thought Johnny was fully in his sleep.
The next morning, the one in which he watched him leave, Andrew had tried to convince the lad that one more day would do him a world of good, but Johnny was having none of it. Silently, the big Scot had watched him strap on his gun with the ease of a man use to wearing it like a second skin, understanding the boy’s reasons for having to leave, but not exactly agreeing with them so soon upon his wellness.
He supposed there was a bit of selfishness to his thoughts. It worried him some to have rescued this boy who reminded him so much of Jim, only to have him leave so soon with a promise to return that might never happen. Oh, if there was anyone who could manage to make it up his mountain and down the other side, it was Johnny. But that old fear, the one born from his own misgivings, reared its ugly head, casting shadows on his faith for what Johnny was bound and determined to do.
He wasn’t so sure about the sleeping beauty Johnny talked about, or why it was that Charlie and Obadiah thought he was the one who could wake the girl from the eternal sleep she was in. There was also Absalom Weir, a man who by all accounts was nothing more than pure evil incarnate, determined to keep Johnny from reaching the fair maiden on the other side of his mountain. He had listened to the earnest boy with great attention, though he hadn’t believed much in the Devil taking such an interest in Johnny.
But as Johnny prepared to leave, there was reason for Andrew to worry. He had not mentioned it, but there was a noxious sulfuric smell to the air, one of rotten eggs and decomposing flesh that gave credence to Johnny’s description of the frightful creature that called himself ‘just a man’ and not a devil. The odor hung thick and heavy in the air making Andrew loath the idea of Johnny riding off on his own after all he had learned.
Before he could
put any more thought into it other than a quick passing one, Johnny was gone,
out of sight but not out of Andrew’s mind. He turned back to his lonely cabin
silently wishing the boy good will and good luck on his journey. It was then,
just as his hand clamped loosely on the latch of his front door that he heard
the awful noise that Johnny had told him of. And to his astonishment, it was not
the big cat of his worries, the wild lion that scavenged his mountain and
threatened to kill what little livestock he had. No, the sound was
different, a piercing screech, high-pitched and feral, louder than any wild thing he’d ever heard. And it was piercing to the ear, making Andrew feel squeamish and all dizzy in the head. He thought too, he heard a calling in the wind, an invitation directed at Johnny, an invitation to see who was faster, who was stronger, who was more fearless. It was an invitation to see who would live and who would die.
He clutched at his chest, feeling the pressure of strong fingers squeezing the life out of his pumping heart. The pain was intolerable, a crushing avalanche upon his person that made him gasp for air. And in his pain, he thought he heard a deep rumbling laughter, a pitiless expression full of malevolence and hate.
Andrew dropped to his knees, falling forward, his head thumping hard upon the weathered boards of the cabin’s front porch. He heard it clear then, hollow and drifting quickly on the wind, “Johnnnny…come to me Johnnnny…come meet me on the other side. We’ll see who gets her first Johnnnny…We’ll see who’s faster with the gun, Johnny Madrid.”
Andrew’s head hurt, his chest pounding against the weathered porch like a running band of wild mustangs. He hadn’t known…he hadn’t guessed…that the boy he’d saved was none other than Johnny Madrid. Things Johnny had told him, little mysteries not quite clear while spoken with a fevered state of mind, made sense now. The Devil was calling the lad out, goading him into a fight where only one man could be the victor. The big Scot just wished…
Pain squeezed his chest on what Andrew wished for, taking his breath away, but not his last few words. “Johnny,” he rasped, stretching out a hand and looking toward where the boy, the gunfighter with a soul, had disappeared up the path. “I ken…ye were right lad,…the Devil wants you dead.”
Suffering green eyes closed with a flutter, the heart of the man seeing for the last time, his mountain of conceit turning into a whirling, frenzied mass of flying debris and falling timber.
The wind howled ever stronger the further Johnny rode up the mountain. The path was narrow and the boughs of the trees whipped across the passage, slapping at his horse, clawing at his head and shoulders as if they had a life of their own.
He had to work hard to control Barranca, the big palomino strained his thick neck wanting desperately to break free from Johnny’s firm grip. The equine’s natural instincts were to turn tail and run for the nearest open pasture or high walled canyon in which to hide, but there was neither, and no way to go back.
Johnny cast a quick glance behind him, the straps of his felt hat tied tight beneath his chin. The way from which they came seemed to have all but disappeared, as if there had been no trail, no arching limbs over a darkened pathway, and no wicked, slicing branches save those that wiggled and wavered high above in the dark canopy of the forest.
The air was chilled enough to make him shake, but it wasn’t the cold that made Johnny swallow hard and reach for his jacket tied behind his saddle. It was the way the forest seemed to be alive, a writhing mass of undulating brown and green limbs that took on the shape and form of wretched arms, reaching toward him as if to grab him and suck him back like quicksand never to be seen again.
He tugged his jacket loose, dodging branches from the front and side of him as he donned the soft black kid leather, still damp from his near drowning in the river. As he pulled it tight to his chest, ducking his head while urging Barranca to go a little faster with a might more pressure to his heaving sides, he heard a familiar voice riding the crest of another temperamental wind current. “Johnnnnny…there you are Johnny. I’ve a surprise for you Johnny.”
The sound of Absalom’s voice hit Johnny like a blacksmith’s hammer. He wanted to reach out and wring the invisible tormentor’s neck, squeeze the old man’s jugular until his face turned blue and he promised to never bother him again. But Johnny knew that Absalom wouldn’t be so careless as to put himself within talking distance let alone touching distance after the last time they had battled it out. No, Absalom’s style was to chant fiendishly from a smart distance away, or perhaps, take a shot or two at him if he thought it would do any good. It wouldn’t, which most likely was the reason Weir didn’t attempt it. He would soon think differently of his adversary.
Johnny pulled hard on the reins halting Barranca’s progress and waited. After what seemed like a small eternity, he shouted into the wind, “I don’t want your damn surprise! So come on out! Fight me like a man!”
Menacing laughter circled and swamped its way through the thick forest and down the trail Johnny traveled. “No need to shout Johnnnnny. No need to shout.” The words were slow and easy, tinged with laughter, dragged out and condescending as if being spoken to a child.
The laughter increased and from a thin slit of gray colored sky, a ball of fire whizzed through the air and struck the ground not fifty feet from where Johnny sat his horse. Barranca reared in terror, his eyes rolling back into the sockets until they were white glassy marbles in his head. The palomino whirled, pivoting to find some kind of escape, his hind legs slipping on the slick leaf-covered ground, while Johnny hung on for all he was worth.
The back trail they had come from was still blocked, a barrier of green vegetation and branches effectively cutting off any form of escape. With no way out and no sanctuary to the left or the right, Barranca balked, his breath labored and rumbling as he fought the bit and shook his head in fear. He lost his balance on the slick ground, falling to his back haunches with an awkward lumbering plop that almost unseated Johnny. Quick to recover, though, the horse heaved himself back to his feet, turning with a quick cutting motion toward the only avenue they had for escape…the fire breathing trail up the mountain.
Bright flames flickered and licked at the groundcover, quickly climbing the trunks of the trees, snapping and popping at the dipping branches and limbs until the trail was a fiery circular tube of death.
Johnny pulled his bandanna up until it covered half his face, his eyes blinking hard against the growing inferno and the bright blaze of color that threatened to blind him. The heat was stifling, and Johnny coughed, his lungs burning with acrid smoke that curled and floated his way.
Barranca’s frightened screams and gnashing teeth echoed and bounced off the tight earthy walls of the forest. They were trapped like mice in a cage, no way in and no way out unless Johnny could get his horse to run straight through the towering inferno.
Gritting his teeth, Johnny raised his heels and rammed the rowels of his spurs into Barranca’s heaving sides. The palomino lifted his upper body off the ground, a screech of rage and defiance drowning in the thrumming noise of the hellhole they were in. Large hooves hit the ground and with a mighty surge of bullish strength Barranca took off.
Horse and rider lowered their heads, while waves of red and orange flames struck out at them, spider webbing the exit, scorching the hair on their bodies as they thundered through the red-hot tunnel of liquid flames. It seemed to never end, the prickling heat, the blistering pain, the conflagration of reds and yellows, the fear and suffocation.
Johnny thought he was dying, or that he would soon be dead. There was no release, no solace for the pain he was in. When he looked down at his arms they were on fire, burning him so badly he could see the skin peeling off his arms like molten wax. Barranca trudged on, running at the greatest speed of his life, his mane, a flume of whipping fire that burned his stout neck and shoulders. Johnny choked, horrified by the exposed muscle beneath the flames. Barranca’s flesh sizzled like cooked meat over a campfire, bubbling and oozing its way to Johnny’s thighs.
There was no air, no way to catch his breath in the raging inferno. He felt himself rising off the saddle, his eyes closing, his soul leaving his body where there was no more light from the fire, no more pounding of hooves on the ground, no more suffocating smoke or pain. He rose above the carnage; a forest on fire, his body burned beyond recognition and turned to ashes in the dust, his beloved Barranca dead, a burnt mound of courageous flesh and bone. Regret and sorrow hit him hard, piercing the last bit of feeling Johnny had in his heart before his world became a black mass of nothingness.
“Get up Johnnnny. We haven’t finished yet.”
A sweet breeze touched Johnny’s face cooling down the last vestiges of the horrifying nightmare that was still in his head. He sat up with a start, sucking in his breath, waiting for the pain to hit him. It didn’t. He held out his arms, feeling of them, rubbing his hands up and down, not quite able to believe that it had all been a dream.
He instantly thought of his horse and looked around. There was Barranca, bold as brass munching away on the lush green grass as if nothing had ever happened. And maybe it hadn’t. There were times when he didn’t know what was real and what was conjured up by Absalom in his haste to keep Johnny from making it to the other side of the mountain.
“You awake now, Johnny?”
The voice was directly behind him and Johnny scrambled to his feet, his hand automatically grasping for his gun and pulling it from the holster.
Absalom smiled, his craggy face and bushy peppered eyebrows indignant. “Come now, Johnny. There’s no need to be rude…or, hasty.”
Johnny narrowed his eyes and backed up a step. “I ought to shoot you right now.”
Absalom lifted his arms until they were outstretched, his cane dangling like a writhing snake from his right hand. “Then why don’t you…shoot me, that is.”
The evil man smiled at Johnny, curling up one side of his lips at Johnny’s hesitation. “If it were me, Johnny Boy…I wouldn’t hesitate at all.”
The gun pointed directly at Weir’s chest, unwavering, and Johnny knew he had to keep his features impassive or risk making a mistake with this man. It didn’t matter that his gun was drawn and ready to fire, Absalom Weir had a way of evening out the odds if they weren’t in his favor by playing tricks on the mind, using slight of hand or voicing magic incantations.
“But then again,” Absalom continued, “Johnny Madrid wouldn’t kill a man unless he drew on him first. Am I right?”
“I told you I don’t go by that name anymore,” Johnny reminded. “And I also recall telling you I don’t like hearing you use it.”
Absalom pursed his lips and grinned, showing high prominent cheekbones in his ruddy face, his eyes narrowing to mere slits, “Yes, yes…seems I do recall you telling me that.” He placed one hand over the other on top of his cane, “Seems to me we still have the question hanging over our head as to whom is faster…you…or me.”
Absalom shifted, walking to his right without ever taking the cane off the ground, his right arm stretched to the limit like some kind of staged orator about to give a speech. “I believe I can take you…but right now…that’s not what I want most.”
Johnny looked the man from head to toe, his brows deepening only the slightest bit to reveal his interest in what the man had to say. Absalom…noticed.
Weir chuckled, “All in good time, Johnny Boy. All in good time.”
Johnny was not amused in the slightest, nor was he intimidated by the figure before him. If anything, he felt a loathing for Weir that seemed to have no bounds whatsoever after the horrible nightmare he’d been through. His finger tightened on the trigger of his gun.
Absalom Weir lifted his right hand, “Hasty, Johnny…let’s not be hasty. You’re angry. I can see it in your eyes.” He grinned, clasping his hands together on his cane again, “Didn’t like my little spit ball…hmmm?” Weir bowed his head apologetically, “I can’t say I’m sorry, but, well, maybe I’m a tad wee bit ashamed of my behavior. It wasn’t fair to go at you that way, not unless you could fight back, fire with fire…hmmm?”
“You have ten seconds…then I shoot you.”
Something in the ex-gunfighters tone made Absalom rethink his taunts toward Johnny. “I want the girl,” drastic change and to the point. He knew his ten seconds had just been stretched out.
Johnny’s finger released the pressure on the trigger. “Why?”
“Because she belongs to me and I plan on making sure I get what’s mine.”
Johnny’s face hardened, “You can’t own a person.”
Weir got a look on his face, one of indulgence, “I beg to differ with you, Johnny. Sleeping Beauty is a product of my giving nature…and now…she’s mine. I own her, lock, stock and barrel.”
“That’s not what I was told.”
Weir shook his head, “I don’t care what you were told. Besides, who would take the word of an old Indian and an ex slave on anything? They only told you what you wanted to hear, not what you needed to hear…which is the truth. And the truth is, I’m the one and only salvation that girl will ever have. Only I have the power to break the curse because it was I who allowed the curse to happen in the first place.”
Johnny fought the urge to shoot Absalom where he stood. The unmitigated gall of the man made him want to retch. “You weren’t there…you couldn’t have been.”
“Oh I was there, Johnny Madrid. Why do you think those people wouldn’t help a half frozen Indian woman and her baby?” Before Johnny could respond Absalom added, “Because my dear boy, protector of the innocent and fool that you are, because I made them greedy and selfish knowing just what they would do and what they would say.”
Absalom took a step closer, leaning over his cane and peering straight into Johnny’s eyes, “And superstition and ritual did the rest.” He turned his back to Johnny spreading his arms to the world, to the forest around them and the sky above them. “I am the master, the maker of all evil. And you,” he shouted, turning and pointing his cane at Johnny, “will heed my warning and turn back now or you will perish by my hand. Just as I made Nahdoste and her mother perish in the cold freezing winter, all those many moons ago, as your sacred shaman said.”
Johnny shook his head, backing up, step by step, feeling the earth rumble beneath his feet, the wind stir, the air grow colder and colder until flakes of white snow began to softly fall from the clouds above. His gun wavered, having no other choice but to do what he knew was right. He closed his eyes, shutting them tight for a brief second, asking God to forgive him for what he was about to do, and squeezed the trigger.
Heat filled Johnny’s palm when he fired his gun, and when he opened his eyes that split second upon shooting, thinking he would find Absalom with a bullet through his black heart, he was surprised and yet not so surprised to find that he was all alone. Weir was gone, vanished into thin air just like before. The only sign that his demented presence had been there in the first place, the rank odor of rotten eggs and the acrid smell of sulfur in the air.
Holstering his gun, Johnny made his way to Barranca and checked him over. The horse was just as sound, just as golden as when they’d first started up the trail. And for that, Johnny was thankful. His time with Weir had stolen the nightmarish hell they had ridden through, but as soon as he was gone, those memories which seemed so real only a little while ago came back to haunt him now.
He shivered, but not from the dropping temperature, but because he had thought his life and that of Barranca’s was over. Everything was happening so fast, so furiously that he wondered if he could be of any help to the sleeping beauty on the other side of the mountain. Every minute seemed to drain the strength right out of him, and there was a part of him that felt the call of his family, the tug of their love for him calling him home. If only he could turn back, take the few precious things he gathered along the way and call it good. But he knew that was impossible.
Neither Johnny Madrid, nor Johnny Lancer could do such a thing. That was the sole reason he’d found himself in front of a firing squad down in Mexico. He was the protector of the innocent, born to that fate whether he wanted it or not. It was in his nature, like breathing he was bound for honor, bound to help the less fortunate, the weary sufferers of the world, whether by their own fated mistakes or by happenstance. Either way, no man, woman or child deserved to be punished or persecuted for the evil things the devil threw in their way just because he could.
Johnny grappled for the cinch, checking to make sure it was tight after their long trek up the mountain. They still had a ways to go before getting to the top, but he thought there was a chance that Absalom would leave him be for a while. At least he hoped so. The next time he saw him again, he’d shoot first and ask questions later. He was dead tired of playing Weir’s games, vowing not to let the man and his illusionist powers take control over him again. It was hard, though. The visions were so real, so all powerful that they left little room to think or consider that it all might be a figment of his imagination. But if there was next time, he thought, I won’t be so gullible to his tricks. The thought was comforting, if only for a time, because honestly, he didn’t know how he would react if the illusion had a way of actually doing real harm to his person.
He hauled himself into the saddle, picking up the reins with a swamping weariness that seemed to come and go. Snow continued to fall, blanketing the ground, finding its way miraculously through the heavy boughs of the trees. From one extreme to the other, he thought, shaking his head as he gave Barranca the signal they were to move on with his knees.
Johnny pulled the coat around him tighter, adjusted his bandanna and settled his hat just a little bit lower to shield his face. The clomp clomp of Barranca’s hooves grew quieter and quieter the more it snowed. Johnny began to wonder if Absalom was going to try and freeze him to death like he had done with Ishkeh many moons ago. It wasn’t likely given that it was summer and that this was only an illusion. He’d deal with it, find a way to make his mind and body endure knowing that it was all a false impression of the mind.
The peak of the mountain loomed before him an hour or so later, dark and forbidding because it seemed to touch the thick inky clouds in the sky. It seemed impenetrable, the crest of the trail, for there was only a thin heart shaped opening that might let him pass through unhindered if he were careful.
The higher they climbed, the thicker the forest got and the colder the wind that sailed down the trail. He was almost there, following the path of hearts as Paul instructed when a great crashing sound infiltrated the quiet and magnified the loneliness and despair of Andrew’s mountain of conceit.
He twisted halfway around, his horse sidestepping and nervous, but saw nothing. Johnny couldn’t help but hear it though, something akin to a train crashing through the dense undergrowth where no light penetrated the ground bed of the forest.
Slowly, with great care, he pulled Paul’s old rifle out of the leather saddle scabbard and dismounted. He swatted Barranca on the rump and yelled for the horse to get. It didn’t take another urging for the horse to obey. Barranca dug his hooves into the ground and shot up the trail as if the devil were after him. And maybe he was, Johnny thought. This had to be another of Absalom’s dirty tricks to try and keep him from getting over the mountain. But this time, he was ready for whatever the devil had in mind. There would be no retreat, no running away. He would stand and fight whatever it was.
It came crashing through the darkness, the largest, meanest grizzly bear Johnny had ever seen. He came to an abrupt stop just as he reached the trail’s clearing, standing on his hind legs and looking to be well over ten feet tall. Johnny felt like a dwarf by comparison and gulped down the bile that rose in his throat. This animal was big enough and strong enough to kill him in one quick slice of its massive paws.
The animal bellowed, his jaw opening wide, exposing sharp carnivorous teeth that dripped saliva. The sound of his monstrous growl echoed in the small clearing, piercing Johnny’s chest with rumbling waves. The beast was injured, blood dripped from one paw where there were two missing claws. There was a rage in the beady black eyes, too small and too close together for such a massive body as this animal had.
Johnny raised the rifle, too late to check on whether it was loaded or not. This could be real, but a part of him thought there was the chance that it was all an illusion again. The rumbling in his chest told him not to count on it. Whether it was an illusion or not, the beast had just dropped to the ground and was pounding his way toward Johnny.
Johnny put the rifle to his shoulder, sighted down the barrel and waited for the one shot that would count. The time that it took the big grizzly to bear down on him seemed like hours instead of mere seconds. Squinting his right eye, Johnny aimed for the head, right between the eyes of the great beast in just the manner that he had wished to put a bullet in Weir. He pulled the trigger, his shot true, a full blast of powder and buck shot felling the animal not two yards from where Johnny stood.
Johnny remained as he was, staring down the barrel of the rifle, his breathing labored, his body immobile as he watched the bear writhe and huff his last breath. Every muscle in his body protested the stance, his face ashen, his forehead beading with an unnatural sweat in the cold light of day. He trembled, a mixture of relief and awe that he hadn’t ended up being fodder for the bear after all.
The silly thought of fainting dead away on the trail wasn’t so very far removed from the way his body was inclined to act. Slowly, oh so slowly he lowered his eyes, the rifle wavering in his hands but never more than a single inch from its original position. His breathing sounded loud to his ears, a staccato rhythm that rivaled the dancing nerves in his body.
He swallowed, biting back the soundless screams that wanted to burst forth from his dry throat. The desert, he thought. I feel like I’ve been walking in the desert for days. No, not the desert…the moon, he might as well be on the moon. There was no water on the moon. If there was he’d have seen it on one of those clear silvery nights when he sat on the highest plateau overlooking Lancer.
Johnny moved the rifle, tucking it under his arm, careful not to put it away too soon just in case. His thirst was driving him mad, that’s why he was having all these strange thoughts in his head. He backed away, never taking his eyes off the bear, the rifle still pointed at the unmoving carcass.
He wanted to shout for Barranca, to give a shrill whistle and have his companion by his side once again. But he couldn’t, his throat wouldn’t let him and it was still all he could do to just keep moving away, farther and farther until he could no longer see the big brown bear, and farther still, until the sky covered the ground in a thick white blanket.
Only when he couldn’t make out a shape, a hump on the earth, did Johnny finally turn around and make his way up the mountain. He would find his horse, for Barranca wouldn’t go too far without waiting for him to show up. Then he would have his drink, slake his thirst and move on.
Johnny made camp that night, just on the other side of the mountain. Barranca was there for him, just as Johnny thought he would be, waiting for him to show up, take off his saddle and rub him down, feed him the little grain he had left in his pack.
And Johnny, by the light of a glowing campfire, melted snow in a small tin pot and filled his canteen, his thirst long gone, his body tired but glad to be alive. The mundane tasks of setting up camp had lifted his spirits. Knowing he was on the tail end of his journey bolstered his reserves. Fighting off the grizzly bear and coming out of that terrible nightmare unscathed gave him the courage to face the morrow.
He lay in his bedroll, the stars hidden by the clouds that had stopped snowing as soon as he crossed the peak of the mountain, thinking of home. He felt that strange pull again, as if he could travel across time and space and find himself back at Lancer if he only wished it hard enough.
Johnny rolled to his side, hands beneath his head, watching the fire die down to orange glowing embers in the pit. He had checked the rifle after eating his range-cooked meal of beans and hard tack, noting when he pulled the barrel down from the stock that the rifle was empty. No second shot, no second chance had he missed the first time with the bear.
He closed his eyes, thinking he wouldn’t be able to sleep, dreaming of a waterless moon, saliva dripping bears, shooting balls of fire and a faceless girl, an innocent he was honor bound to save before the new day was over.
Absalom Weir didn’t sleep. He didn’t have to. He was immortal. But his powers were dwindling with every step that Johnny took. He hated the boy, the gunfighter, the son of Murdoch Lancer, who was the only person who could wake the sleeping beauty. He would not let him have the girl, though. Absalom needed her. He needed the innocence of her soul if he wanted his powers to regain their full strength, and if he wanted to defeat Johnny Madrid once and for all.
Bound for Honor
The all-encompassing evil of Weir seemed to be everywhere at once. He could slip effortlessly into the minds of men in innocent states of sleep when their tendency to guard themselves was down. He laughed manically as he thought about how he could manipulate their dreams, morph their concerns and fears into doubts and nightmares. He quite enjoyed his power of suggestion that enabled him to make things seem like what they weren’t.
Most mortals were fools, they wasted time raging against the darkness instead lighting it. Every person has a dark and a light side, a natural balance between good and evil. Some lost their balance and leaned too far on the side of darkness, becoming jaded, conceited and selfish while others fell too far into the light becoming too trusting, giving and naïve. These people Absalom could exploit preying upon their weakness, but it was the ones like Johnny who for some reason are able to see into the dark and the light, to balance the scales, sacrificing themselves if need be, that he found the hardest to defeat. The ones with a code of honor forged out of steel and tested through hard knocks and adversity.
Absalom cackled out loud as he planned the fall of Johnny Madrid. The coldness of his dead heart flowed from his malevolent core and escaped into the night air forming a mass of low lying clouds that spread out into a ghosting haze of white that floated down the mountain.
A gloomy cold mist descended from the mountaintop, mixing with the warmer air at the base. The differences in the temperatures of the two air masses caused more white swirls of condensation to form. The wind whipped the swirls into ethereal shapes that seemed to glide across the landscape, dipping and twirling as they danced their way around the little cabin where the insensate form of Andrew lay outside exposed to the mercies of the weather and anything else stalking the mountain.
The rush of moving air also lifted the foliage and shook it with an angry rustle, the movement causing the leaves to cast their shadows on the ground making it appear as though the darkness was crawling out of the forest preparing to consume the little house.
Watchful eyes studied the old man’s supine form on the porch. Deciding it couldn’t hurt to get a closer look, the man stepped from the shadows and made his way across the rocky pathway to the front of the cabin. Just as Wayne climbed the three stairs he heard the man moan. All hesitation and caution were thrown aside as the younger man dropped down beside Andrew. He didn’t see the conceited man that had shot at him and virtually held him prisoner on the other side of the river for weeks, he saw another human being in need of help. He reached with a timid hand to touch the tall man’s chest when that elicited another groan he briskly rubbed his sternum.
“Hey Mister! Are you all right? Come on man, wake up!”
Andrew heard someone calling to him, his first thoughts were of the boy he had pulled from the river and nursed back to health. His heart clenched in fear, the terrible pain returning to his tight chest as he remembered the horror of the danger he had envisioned.
The giant of a man struggled to sit up, his movements so wild and jerky Wayne was forced to back up. Fearing that the man meant to fight him because he was on his land, the younger man scrambled backwards as Andrew finally found the strength to lift himself into a sitting position. The old man’s eyes searched frantically around.
“Johnny…Johnny where are ye lad?”
Realizing the distressed man was calling the name of the very person Wayne had come to find out about, the younger man scooted forward and grasped Andrew’s shoulders. His concern for his new friend’s well being far out weighing his sense of safety or his innate distrust of the old man that had formerly wielded a shotgun after him.
“Johnny’s not here. Have you seen him? Is he all right?”
Andrew calmed as he came fully aware. He studied the blond man before him. His face colored in shame as he recognized the young man he had terrorized so ruthlessly for no other reason than his selfishness, his inability to understand that some people wanted nothing more from him than his blessing and permission to pass across his land. He shook off the melancholy moroseness his self-serving actions had caused.
“I kin Johnny isna here. The lad has carried himself off on a mission ta the other side of the mountain and he is in grave danger. The devil his self is trailing along on his heels ta make sure he doesna make it.”
“I thought you were the devil,” mumbled Wayne, “You sure stopped me from crossing.”
“Oh lad, I would spend a lifetime apologizing for me ways if it would change anything, but alas it won’t. We have got ta go after the lad. He is in more danger than he realizes.”
“Don’t you think we should wait until sunrise? We won’t be much help to him if we kill ourselves going after him. As much as I would like to help Johnny, I can’t climb in the dark. Not to mention the fact you don’t even look well enough.”
“We’re wasting time lad. Ye don’t have ta climb, there’s a fine wide path that winds its way around the mountain, people just choose ta climb instead of taking the safer longer path. Are ye with me or not.”
“I’ll come but only because Johnny is my friend and he helped me when he could. I won’t let what happened between us keep me from helping him.”
“The lad awakened the father’s heart in me…brought me into the light from the dark. I canna change my past but he has given me the chance ta return to the right path and the compassion ta help others stay on it.”
The two men quietly sized each other up. The older man struggled to his feet, the younger one smiled in relief of their newfound understanding. He reached out with a strong young hand and lent his support and aid to make sure the giant was steady.
“Poor is the man who has no friends ta lift him up when he has fallen. Thank ye lad, ye have a forgiving heart and a giving nature. I’d like ta count ye among my friends.”
The big man extended his hand and warmly clasped the younger man’s hand that met his halfway. Both men shuffled their feet and chuckled nervously but with wide inviting grins on their faces.
“My name is Wayne Maunder. A man’s past is his but the future is for all.”
“The name is Andrew Duggan. Come let me show the way around this mountain the good Lord gave to us all. Shall we go rescue our young friend now?”
“Lead the way, my good man.”
Both men startled when a third man walked towards them from the direction of the river. He strode right up to the porch and wasted no time before stating his mind.
“I’m Paul Brinegar. I heard ya say ya was going ta rescue Johnny, if’n that’s the case, I’d like ta come with ya. If we all combine our efforts to do what’s right, I’m sure we can defeat this devil trying to keep Johnny from doing the right thing. I ain’t got no reason to hold a grudge about what happened in the past, especially if it causes someone else to pay the price for that hate.”
A calm and serene ease flowed from the three men over their acceptance and forgiveness of the past. The clouds rolled away, the mist waltzed out over the river dropping so low it just skimmed the surface of the water before disappearing into its wet depths. The moon filled the now clear sky with its luminescent beauty, streaming heavenly rays of moonbeams directly onto the path around the mountain.
The three men hurried to load any supplies they might need into Wayne’s wagon, that he had left parked out of sight down the river and around the bend. They bantered good-naturedly among themselves as they set off on a mission they had no intentions of failing. If Johnny was willing to make sacrifices for a girl he had never met, then they could certainly extend the same to the man who had freely given of himself to them.
The bond of friendship when formed willingly and without prejudice for past acts or persons is a powerful weapon in the battle against injustice and indifference for our fellow man.
Unbeknownst to the three new friends the path was wide open and free of obstacles for them because the far-reaching extent of Weir’s evil powers were dwindling, fading away the closer in proximity Johnny got to the sleeping beauty. Absalom had no choice but to concentrate his demonic powers and black magic on the most eminent threat to his acquisition of the poor cursed soul that could revitalize his malevolent abilities and insure his continued reign of hatred.
Johnny felt like he was floating, as though the very essence of his being had slipped from its earthly bonds, no longer shackled by gravity or convention. He was soaring; a heady lightness of being consumed him. He looked down expecting to see his body curled up next to the waning embers of the ash-covered wood bits of his campfire. As he looked down he was seized by the sensation of falling, he cried out, the noise of the cry foreign to his ears, it didn’t sound like him but he knew it had come from him. The funny thing was the wail had not been in distress but excitement and anticipation.
In the next instant, the free fall ended and Johnny felt strong large hands grasping him under his armpits, the long fingers of the hand wrapping around his back in a gentle pressure. And then he was staring into the knowing blue eyes of his father, he could see himself reflected in the dark pupils; he was a baby! He studied himself mirrored in his father’s eyes and listened as his father chanted, “ My boy…my son…Johnny Lancer.” His father grinned widely and laughed before counting to three and sending Johnny flying into the air again.
Angry low growls rumbled in the air, the wind picked up and swirled the remnants of the campfire breathing new heat into the dying embers. The red-orange flames shot upward, yellow tips of fire giving way to a thick creeping black smoke that drifted slowly towards Johnny’s unaware form. The smoke circled his head and settled into the hair so black it camouflaged the wispy vapor, while Weir slipped maliciously into his sub-conscious mind and replaced the happy moment with a dark event. Johnny twitched and moved restlessly in his disturbed sleep.
Johnny Madrid felt himself falling, something silky brushed past his face…pale mane, he wanted to grab hold of something to stop his descent but there was a gun in his hand that for some reason he could not put down. He felt a searing pain in his back that robbed him of his reflexes, the hard ground rose up swiftly to meet his all too vulnerable body, the impact drove the last of Johnny Lancer’s breath from his body, his lungs screamed to be refilled and he sucked in greedily through his mouth and nose but the air he drew in smelled of rot and decay.
A disconsolate screech split the heavy night air and Johnny jolted from his sleep on alert for signs of whatever made the noise. He laid perfectly still, wary eyes watching the thick foreboding forest around him while his right hand lay nestled upon his gun. When he was certain there was no clear and present danger, he pushed himself upright. Johnny wiped at his nose, the cloying scent of sulfur that he thought he had dreamed invaded his sense of smell.
“I know you’re out there Weir, lurking in the shadows waiting for me to mess up. Well it’s not gonna happen, you’re wasting your time.”
Johnny felt a little silly sitting alone talking to the forest that seemed to be growing and covering his path as he waited for the dawn. He thought about his dreams. He wondered if the one with him as a baby was a long suppressed memory or just the call of his father pulling him home. How he missed his father and brother. He wished for their presence but settled for the sense of peace as well as the acceptance and belonging their love made him feel.
Johnny thought about the second dream. The pain of the fall and the bullet in his back were more vividly felt in the dream than in his memory. He had let go of those past aches when he had let go of his misplaced hate and anger, it was curious to have revisited that time and place in his sleep. Time, trust, the truth and mostly love had taught him he was still Johnny Lancer the son of Murdoch Lancer as well as Johnny Madrid, survivor. He knew without a doubt he would lay down his life for his family, just as he knew they would for him. Realizing the quicker he completed his mission, the faster he could return to the home calling out to him, Johnny decided, even though sunrise was an hour away, to have breakfast, break camp and be on his way.
As soon as his decision was made, he felt like the woods around him began to breath, to shake in agitation, the ground rumbled and it sounded as if the trees were whispering their displeasure. The wide path down the mountain was plainly visible if you kept your eyes on it and didn’t let your self be fooled by the thick canopy of foliage that tried to obscure it.
Johnny pulled some of the biscuits Andrew had given him out and made a meal of them and some jerky. He went without his cup of coffee because he didn’t want to stoke the fire or waste too much water. He picked up the old beat up canteen, the same one the giant had shared with him after pulling him from the raging river, and took a couple of swallows of tepid water. Johnny’s eyes crinkled in amusement as he thought of the big man and how he had coddled him, and he let him get away with it because the old man seemed to enjoy it so. Not that he would ever admit it, but secretly Johnny enjoyed it to an extent when his father and brother went all protective of him.
Shaking off the melancholy thoughts of his family the youngest Lancer stood and kicked dirt over the fading coals of his campfire. He rolled up his bedroll and picked up his saddle. As he walked towards Barranca the disturbing and vexed screams of a wild cat rent the air, Johnny sped up and grabbed his horse’s reins before he could bolt in frantic flight.
“I’m not falling for it Weir. Every time you kick up a fuss I know it’s because I’m closer to winning this battle. I won’t let you make me doubt my self or what I have to do. You sit there and caterwaul all you want to…me…I’m bound for Honor.”
Johnny saddled the palomino and with a firm grasp on the reins strode back over to the fire pit to kick more sand over it. He ignored the trembling wind swept noises in the forest agitating not only the leaves but moving with enough velocity to shake the tree limbs like angry arms raised in vehement protest. Once Johnny was satisfied the fire was out he stepped into the stirrup and swung gracefully into the saddle and started down the mountain.
Absalom was angered by the insolence of the cocky young man. He called upon all his resources, upon every evil minion that owed him allegiance. The wind blew hot and dry, the earth rolled and rumbled and the ground beneath the campfire pit cracked, hot air swept upward sending ashes into flight, a flame escaped the fissure and acrid black smoke coiled away from the fire.
The burning smell caused Johnny to turn around. His stunned eyes saw the smoke take on life. It growled and snarled and inched closer to the ground and upon touching it grew legs and morphed into a pack of hungry wolves with blood dripping from razor sharp teeth. All thoughts of turning back to kick more dirt on the pit fled from his mind. Johnny kicked Barranca into a gallop and with his eyes firmly on the path he raced for Honor.
The wolves trailed on the golden horse’s hooves. Johnny’s heart thundered as loudly as the strikes of hoof to ground, but he kept to the path. The closer he got to the base of the mountain, the louder and angrier the wolves became. Vines and limbs stretched out of the foliage and snatched at rider and horse. Quite some time had past because Johnny realized he was seeing light filter through the greenery, dappling the ground with dancing light and causing shadows to cavort and leap along the trail.
Johnny slowed his horse as he realized these apparitions of Weir’s couldn’t actually hurt him, more like make him hurt himself. The palomino whinnied and snorted as he was slowed to a trot. “ I’m sorry, Amigo. I didn’t mean to run you that way.”
Straight ahead, around three hundred yards down the path sunlight streamed into the woods. Johnny grinned in relief when he noticed the trees on either side of the trail had the distinctive heart shape leaves. Johnny pushed onward to the wide opening in the forest.
Absalom howled in distress; he had to stop him; he had to defeat Madrid. He sucked in a mighty breath and blew a gusty gale along the dirt path. The force of the wind was so strong it threw dirt and small debris into Johnny’s face and it felt like the wind would tumble him backwards from the saddle. It sucked the air from his lungs and sent chills down his spine, he squeezed his eyes closed and pressed on, and then he felt the sun on his face, his eyes fluttered open and gazed upon the village before him. He had made it to Honor.
Johnny stared down at the town that had once been a small village. It lay nestled in the rocky hollow of the high hills, protected on all sides by sheer, towering cliffs and the mountain from whence he just came. The fortress of walls was gray and harsh, casting a gloom over the town that seemed barely to have any life at all. The treasure it might have been was overshadowed by the haunting memories of a past that could never be forgotten.
For all its gloom there was beauty within the heart of the simple yet secluded setting. Tall pines and giant oaks dotted the little haven and Mother Nature, unhindered by the cursed affliction that bound the people to their valley, had kissed the earth with a profusion of bright and colorful wildflowers. Never was there a more beautiful spot to behold, surrounded as it was by crystal streams, shady nooks and sunny glades.
An outsider, someone who just happened upon the town by grave mistake, someone ensnared by the deception of the beatific setting, would never know the idyllic, peaceful little paradise was just an illusion, a place where once the threshold of evil was crossed there was no going back to the outside world or what once was.
Now it must be remembered that the curse was put upon the daughter of a well to do family who cared too little and was too selfish to help someone less fortunate than themselves. In that time and that place, those people who normally might have been good souls with kind hearts felt the bite of winter like no other in their experience. The snows that dreadful year when Ishkeh found her and her baby lost and near froze to death had fallen thick and heavy like no other winter before. There was little food and little warmth, and frozen as all things were, it seemed as if the world was coming to an end and so this created a great fear within the four walls of all who dwelled in the original little village.
It was this last family, a family of substantial means who could have well afforded a little pity, a little food and warmth, but didn’t. Their uncharitable behavior, the end of a long line of cruel rejections, was the death of Ishkeh’s daughter and the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The white man’s callous rejection and uncharitable behavior resulted in their own cruel twist of fate that night. Moments before her spirit left the world, Ishkeh cursed the family and by doing so the evil that had come that year never fully went away.
By virtue of their own misconduct, however warranted the villagers thought it was, the curse made it impossible for them to come and go out of the hollow as they may have wished. It made no difference that their cold hearts had repented by the time the snows had thawed, for that is what all people who have been made aware of their guilt seems to do upon further reflection of their behavior and the slow moving passage of time. Evil was always with them, hidden just below the thin veils of repentant happiness and health, prosperity and peace.
The only salvation for one and all was the hope of a chivalrous knight, but since one was not to be had in the conventional sense of the word, and since Ishkeh would not have known about such things, she saw in her vision a shadow of a man. He was by all accounts not one of those knights of whom such fairy tales are written, but rather, a dark shadowy figure that if she closed her eyes she could almost see.
He seemed to her life-learned, young and full of sorrows, a man who knew first hand all about sacrifice and loss by the tragedies in his life. He was a man filled with many regrets, a fallen angel who hadn’t quite hit the bottom of degradation and defilement as his fellow associates had. And as her vision became clearer, Ishkeh saw a man reborn, repentant of his sins and willing to fight the devil to right a wrong.
The man in her vision was much changed by embracing his long ago past, his heritage and birthright of his people, his family. No other person would do, for no other person but the man of her vision had felt the same level of pain as Ishkeh had felt the night Nahdoste died in her arms. She knew not why or how, only that that type of death, the mournful, frightening, in your arms, feel the last breath leave your body kind of death, was an experience they both shared. And because of all these things his love and honor was pure, undiluted because it had always been a part of him, and so he was the chosen one, the only one Ishkeh would allow to break the curse.
Johnny urged Barranca forward, wending his way down the same path, following the trail of hearts as instructed by Paul. The town’s people saw him coming and stopped what they were doing to stare open mouthed at the flashy rider. There had been several other people over the years gone by who had found their way to Honor, but none of them had had the intrepid bearing and darkly fearsome look as this lad who boldly picked his way across the field and into their midst. His horse was mighty awesome too, one lad remarked, marveling at the golden steed before his mother took him by the ear and fairly dragged him away with a quick word of admonishment.
One brave man, older and looking like grandfather time, stepped away from the growing crowd, raising his hand in salutation, but stern of face when he said to Johnny, “Ho there stranger, from where do you come?”
Johnny pulled up on Barranca’s reins and the horse danced lightly for a few seconds before he was settled down by few softly spoken words. “I’m from the other side of the mountain…Lancer.”
“Never heard of a town named Lancer, boy,” the elder replied while moving rheumy gray eyes from the top of Johnny’s head to either side of his person. “You got anyone else coming down after you?” the man continued without waiting for Johnny to speak on his first statement.
Johnny shifted resting crossed forearms on the horn of his saddle. He waited, half expecting the older man to fire a couple more queries at him before he’d have a chance to speak. When it was clear that the elder and everyone else who was taking an audacious gander at him was waiting for an answer, Johnny said, “I’m from Lancer. It’s my father’s ranch just outside the town of Morro Coyo and no, there isn’t anyone else coming down after me. Leastwise, nobody I’m aware of.”
“Then state your business, boy. It’s not very often we see anyone new around these parts this time of year.”
Johnny believed that to be true. He felt more like he was standing trial rather than trying to find some little gal who needed his help. Thinking it best to explain right off, Johnny sat up straight and said, “I’m looking for someone. Maybe you or someone here can help me.”
The looks Johnny got were somewhat suspicious but he gave it no never mind and continued to wait for the answer with the patience of a saint since these people were so slow with making a body feel welcome. Hard thing to do he thought, when he knew that at any minute Weir could be howling down his back trail or magically finding his way to the girl right that very minute.
A woman who looked to be nearly as old as the man who’d been talking to him, stepped up beside the elder speaker and asked, “Who are you looking for?”
Johnny thought that by the way the old woman asked the question she already knew the answer. He tipped his hat. “Ma’am.”
The old woman, gray haired and looking a little scary eyed took a few steps closer and grabbed Barranca’s halter. The horse raised his head and would have taken a bite of the woman’s hand had she not lost her grip in the small tussle. “I wouldn’t advise doing that again, Ma’am. My horse doesn’t like it much when someone tries to grab at him.”
She pointed a finger up at Johnny, and then the wind seemed to pick up just a little, enough so that she grabbed her bangs and held them to her forehead. “I’m desperate…so desperate. I gotta know.”
The words were desperate and Johnny felt the depth of them right down to the soles of his feet. Somehow, he knew this woman was a part of his destiny, the beginning of the end so to speak. Johnny’s eyes narrowed, they crinkled at the corners and slowly roamed across the crowd that had gathered. He felt the wind brush along the back of his neck, the prickle of doom so close he could almost smell it. Weir, he thought, sighing.
“I don’t know her name Ma’am. ‘Cept in my head I’ve been calling her Sleeping Beauty.”
The gasp from the crowd was so loud that it startled the horse and Johnny had to work quickly to get Barranca back in line.
The old woman sobbed and the elder grabbed her around the upper part of her body and held her close up to his chest so that she would not faint. Johnny thought he heard the woman saying, “It’s him…I know I’m right…it’s him.” But the old man did not look convinced.
The crowd was starting to get a mean look about them when they saw how the old woman reacted and they did not hear what she had to say, so Johnny thought he better say something fast or lose the only chance he might have to help the girl he’d come so far to save. “I’m here to help!” he declared quickly, but the words were drowned out by a sudden gust of wind that sounded like a herd of buffalo on the run.
Collectively the crowd moved back. Johnny swung his leg over the back of his saddle and hopped down to the ground. He held Barranca’s reins loosely in his hands and stepped toward the old woman and the man who held her, “I’m here to help,” Johnny said again.
No wind blocked his words this time, but the people didn’t seem to think he was telling the truth either. Their suspiciousness only seemed to increase their protectiveness toward the old woman and Johnny watched as they collectively began to get closer to her.
“You’re not the one who can help her,” the elder said taking the old woman by the arms and placing her behind him. “I think it’d be best if you got back up on that horse and go back the way you came.”
Johnny sank to a crouch and picked a blade of grass, sticking it between his teeth to chew. “I can’t do that,” he said standing up and moving toward the crowd a little closer. “I know she’s here and I’m gonna find her with or without your help. She needs me.”
“She’s cursed!” someone shouted from the crowd.
“Go away!” railed harsh words across the heads of the people.
“She don’t need your kind of help, gunfighter!” another cried.
Johnny stopped cold in his tracks, “Why are you people acting this way?”
The elder man stepped forward, so close that he and Johnny could reach out and touch each other if they were of a mind to.
“You don’t understand, boy,” the man said, looking down towards Johnny’s gun slung low and lethal on his hip. “We’re waiting on a savior for that girl and there’s just no way that can be you.” The man’s eyes pleaded with him to understand, which Johnny didn’t.
“Why?” Johnny asked softly.
“First off, you’re too young. You can’t have lived enough of your life to be the one she needs. Second, you’re a gunfighter. It’s plain enough to see. You got hard written all over your face. I see death as a mirror in your eyes, and he rides with you. And,” the man hesitated here, “the man who’s going to save that child has to be big enough, strong enough and man enough to fight the devil and win. You’re not any of those things from what I can tell from here.”
The old man looked down at the ground then up again. “I don’t know who or what sent you here, and I’m half feared that you won’t be able to leave now that you’re amongst us.”
“Ain’t no one been able to leave since the evil come on us,” someone called out, and it was true though the older man was always hopeful that someone could make it out the way they came.
Johnny shook his head and breathed a big deep sigh for these folks. They seemed to be stuck sort of and he was sure they’d be nothing more than a heap of trouble if he didn’t get them to come around to his way of thinking real soon.
“I’m not gonna lie to you. I used to be a gunfighter…long time ago.” Johnny shrugged and stepped back a little. He looked at the ground then up at the deep blue sky, “I’m young…but I’ve lived ten lifetimes already.” He put his hand over his heart, “And I’m old in here,” he said, “ ‘Cause I’ve been there and done what I had to do to survive this life since I was ten years old and some mad man killed my mama, and made it so.”
Just thinking of his past, quick visions of all that had happened to him in his lifetime gave Johnny a melancholy look to his eyes. “I’ve been fighting the devil ever since.” He shook his head and bowed his chin almost clear to his chest and added, “And I’ve never had to fight him so hard in my life as I’ve had to these past several days just to get here. And I’m not leaving. Not ‘til I do what I came here to do.”
As Johnny said those last words he looked up at the elder and his eyes were clear of all the pain filled emotions of his shocking past, instead, his eyes were cold glaciers, hard with set determination written plainly on his face for all to see. “At this point…I don’t want to be here any more than you people want me here. I have a family and friends…people I love who don’t want me getting into any trouble if I can help it. But I’m honoring a request from a couple of friends…friends who said it was me that had to come here and save your little gal. So I’m gonna ask you just one more time…where is she?”
The elder, a Sirus Gump, church pastor, mayor, doctor…everything to these people of Honor for the past sixty years or more, had listened and listened closely. Maybe, he thought. The young man’s impassioned speech certainly listed off the good qualities that everyone knew would be needed to break the curse. Could it be? He was so young…so very young and not at all what Sirus had been expecting to show up one day. That is, if the man who was to break the curse showed up at all in his lifetime. At his current age, it seemed more and more unlikely that he would.
Sirus and his wife were so much older now, near the age when the children they begat should have been caring for their needs instead of the other way around. If only he had known what the cruelty of his and his wife’s selfishness was going to do to them…to the whole village, they would have done things vastly different. He didn’t think of the others who had committed the same such selfishness back in the time of the great freeze because it was himself that knew better than anyone right versus wrong and had ignored it. He had been their leader; their example at the time and he not only failed the entire village, but had encouraged that selfish behavior in his wife as well.
It was his daughter who was cursed, his and the woman he’d held in his arms. Her name was Eudora and over the last two decades their daughter’s year round hibernation had nearly driven his wife insane. For during all that time, while they had grown old with age and weathered in guilt, their daughter remained the same youthful image as she had been on that cursed day some twenty years before.
So hearing this young man speak of the traits that were needed to release the spell, set a spark in Sirus’ heart to burning bright, so bright that he felt for the first time ever that nothing could extinguish it ever again. And so, he found himself hopeful that the day they wished for over and over again had come, and that this boy, whoever he might be, was the one who could break their daughter’s curse.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“My name is Johnny.”
Sirus stepped away from the crowd to stand face to face with the young man. “My name’s Gump…Sirus Gump and the woman that near fainted is my wife Eudora and the ‘little gal’ as you call her…she’s my daughter.”
Johnny looked down and saw that Sirus Gump was holding out his hand to him. He put his hand in the old man’s and they shook. “We’ve been waiting for you for some years now, boy. I’ll be straight with you like you was with me. You’re not what we were expecting, but I’m hoping you’ll do.”
The old man let go of Johnny’s hand and said, “Follow me, Johnny.”
Sirus Gump stopped and took his wife’s hand. He stared into her eyes with Johnny and everyone else looking on. “I’m thinking you were right, my wife. He’s the one come to save our child.”
The old woman sobbed again and leaned into her husband’s chest, resting her forehead against the beating of his heart. “I’m so glad the time has finally come.”
With his arm around his wife, Sirus walked through the crowd checking only once over his shoulder to see if Johnny was following, because he was that scared to believe. To have their daughter’s savior so close, and for this to be the first hour, the first day of the rest of their lives knowing the curse was possibly about to end left him feeling scared and quaking inside that it could also be a most horrible mistake.
He isn’t far from the truth of it, Weir agreed, reading Sirus’ thoughts as he watched from his vantage point, the crowd making their way through the town toward the girl he knew would be Johnny Madrid’s ultimate undoing. The death of the infamous gunfighter that Weir knew in the blackest depths of his wicked heart he was faster than. He laughed wickedly, “This will be the biggest mistake Johnny Madrid ever made.”
It was time to show himself, time to stop the freak show and give these poor wretched creatures something new to think about other than that stupid girl under that stupid canopy of roses they built for her. Time to put Johnny Madrid in his place, six feet under ground.
The crowd, led by Sirus and his clinging wife Eudora made their way to what looked to Johnny to be a shrine of sorts. And there, under a wooden canopy covered with a multitude of lush red roses was a long crystalline box and from where he stood, allowing the multitude to pass him by, he could see that inside was the loveliest girl he’d ever laid eyes on.
Sirus and Eudora, who by now had collected herself properly and let go of her husband, stood at the head of the unusual casket and waited silently as the village of people made their way to join them. Like the procession of a parade, all the people filtered in and around and under the canopy leaving that side toward Johnny free and open so that he could see the girl he’d come to rescue.
As if he were the star on center stage, Johnny watched them all respectfully with stillness in his heart for he thought that if he so much as breathed the whole scene would disappear and he would find that all his past few days had been a dream. With so many people looking at him with hope and expectation he was beginning to feel a might queasy in the stomach and worried that maybe he wasn’t the one who could wake the girl up.
It didn’t help matters much that she looked dead lying in her glass bed, still and unmoving, her skin alabaster white, her hair the color of rich onyx, and lips…her lips so red that Johnny, uneasiness aside, felt a stirring in his soul to kiss her as Charlie Bear Claw told him he must do. He wondered at the color of her eyes and took a step closer.
Nervousness seeped into his bones. I’m never nervous, Johnny thought trying to shake off the feeling. He swallowed and it was hard doing it. His throat felt tight and without them saying a word, it seemed as if everyone was talking to him at one time. But they weren’t. It was just the nerves playing tricks on him, but Johnny had learned long ago…long long ago…to tune it out, to focus, to tunnel his vision and let everything and everyone else disappear and that’s what he did.
As if floating on a cloud he moved toward the girl, seeing her and only her. Sleeping Beauty, he thought. Kiss her…touch her with your lips…touch her with your hands…wake her…believe in her…make her alive again. And then he was there, touching the cold outer casing of her living coffin, gazing down into her face, talking to her in that other world where she might hear him, reaching for her with his finger tips.
“Johnny Madrid!!” a voice broke from behind the crowd. “You can’t have her Johnny boy…you can’t have her.”
And Johnny couldn’t…at least not right then. His hand flung back, away from the girl as if it had been touched by fire, torched until there was nothing but searing, blinding pain running from his hand clean up his arm and to his neck. He stumbled backward, holding his left hand with his right, shaking his head and hissing with pain. But then it was gone, just as soon as he was well away from the girl and the people who fearfully parted to make way for him…Absalom Weir.
When the crowd acted as if they might ignore their fear and move in on the dark stranger, Weir swung his head to the right and screamed a terrifying sound like that of a wild cat. To his left he held up his cane like Moses parting the Red Sea, and those that had moved toward him more menacingly than others were sent flailing backwards in the open air. Eudora and several of the other woman wailed and would have fallen flat on their backsides had they not grabbed hold of the wooden trellis and hung on for dear life. The land stretched, parting the people from the casket even further by his will and he laughed, shaking his head at Sirus Gump when the man called out for the Devil to be gone in a very religious tone.
Quite a show all in all, Weir thought with mischievous delight, wagging his brushy brows up and down. With a clear view of his opponent and a desire to finally finish Johnny off for good, Weir challenged, “Tell you what I’ll do, Johnny boy. You fight me, fair and square and the girl’s all yours. You’re mine anyways, always have been.”
Weir could issue this challenge because in his black heart it never occurred to him that he wouldn’t win. His confidence was an all-consuming thing, a self-prophecy he’d had ever since the day he saw Madrid take down one of the fastest guns in the west back when Johnny was still just a wet behind the ears youth of fifteen years.
Never had he seen a man, or a boy for that matter, draw so fast in all his life, except that is, for himself. Over the years of taking soul after soul, perfecting his way with the black thunder piece on his hip had Weir wanted any man more than he wanted Johnny Madrid. And the day was finally here, the setup for bringing Johnny down having started long before the boy was born.
A hush fell over the weaponless crowd as they waited for Johnny to answer, more scared by the mystic evil power the issuer of the challenge had than by the man himself. Sirus Gump looked to the young man, the gunfighter, for that was surely what he was or had been at one time, and wondered again that he didn’t look old enough or experienced enough to take on such a challenge and win. He would soon discover how wrong he was in judging a book by its cover when the boy answered with a firm response of acceptance.
Johnny looked up at the sky and licked his lips. With a great sigh he put his sights back on Weir, “Looks to be good day to die.”
Weir smiled and his eyes lit up like a man who’d just been given the greatest gift of all, “Yes it is, Johnny boy…Yes it is.” He lifted his cane, thrusting it toward a clearing well away from the enshrined girl, her family and friends. “Over there,” he said, pointing at the edge of a thick stand of trees.
One side of Johnny’s mouth went up in a grin, “After you,” he said.
Weir turned his back to Johnny, unafraid because he knew that Madrid in all his years as a gunfighter never once shot anyone in the back and he wasn’t about to start now. It would be his undoing, Weir thought. In his estimation the very fact that Johnny wouldn’t shoot him in the back showed that the boy lacked courage, or at least his definition of courage.
His cane thumping on the ground with each step he took, Weir made his way to the edge of the small woods, never worrying for one second that Madrid hadn’t followed him. And when he turned around, there Johnny stood, a hundred paces away, looking like the kid Weir remembered from that long ago day.
“I think this will do Johnny Madrid,” Weir said confidently.
Johnny just shrugged his shoulders, his head tilted ever so slightly to the left. His hands flexed, but that was about all the attempt he made at finding the situation he was in serious. In the past, his nonchalance had been a deceptive quality that others mistook for being green and unprepared for the reality of what was about to happen. It was the last mistake in judgment they ever made.
Johnny gauged the distance with a hard steely glare beneath the brim of his hat. The sun was at his back, one good thing in his favor, but it was low and not such a deterrent, as he would have hoped for. Still in all, he had the advantage and he would take it. He was wise to Weir’s talents. The man had shown off on more than one occasion and that to Johnny was another advantage.
Thinking on it, Johnny realized that the last time Weir had seen him in a gunfight had been way back when, years ago, and at a time when Johnny wasn’t at his best. In the years since, Johnny had perfected his trade, becoming even faster while maintaining the hard edge that had kept him alive when he had no one but himself to depend on. The very thought of it made Johnny smile a knowing smile that spanned the distance and slapped Weir right on the face.
For the briefest of seconds Weir faltered in his bravado. That smile, it was almost his undoing mentally. It made him instantly want to draw and shoot without a care or thought for precision. But he checked himself just in time and once again felt the imminent domain of success that would be his in just a few short moments.
“You just gonna stand there or are you gonna draw?” Johnny asked with great calm.
Weir lifted one side of his mouth in a smirk and reached across his belly for his gun with a lightening quick speed the spectators could hardly see.
Far above on the steep trail of hearts that Johnny had followed from Andrew’s cabin, three men were just beginning to make their way down into the valley. Wayne pulled the reins tight and called a ‘ho now’ to the team of horses and set the brake. He’d stopped them mostly in the same spot where Johnny had sat his horse, taking in the scene before them with a grimace on his face.
“Are ye out of yer mind? Dinna ye see what’s goin’ to happen?” Andrew asked incredulously over Wayne’s shoulder.
“I can see,” Wayne spoke calmly to the older man.
Paul stood up in the wagon bed to get a better look at all the commotion. He too didn’t understand why they had stopped when it was perfectly clear that Johnny was in danger of getting killed. Confusion in his pale gray eyes, he asked, “Ain’t we ah gonna help him?”
There was no answer from the splashy man with the plaid pants and soft gray derby on his head.
Andrew and Paul started to get out of the back of the wagon, frustrated by the lack of response and the inactivity. If the young man in the citified duds wasn’t going to help his friends, then with like minds, the two older men decided they would do it themselves. Jumping down from the back, they didn’t get any further than the hind end of the horses when Wayne cautioned them to hold up with a stern voice that belied his cultured manner.
“Just stay put for a minute,” he told them quickly. “If you two go bolting down there, tearing up the earth trying to get to Johnny, you’d only put his life in more danger than it is right now.”
“So you say,” Paul told him sarcastically from over his shoulder. “I thought Johnny was your friend?”
“He is my friend, and that’s why we’re going to give him time to do what he’s got to do.”
“He wasna all that well when he left me to come here,” Andrew lamented sorrowfully, his head swiveling from the scene down below and back to Wayne again.
“He might not have been, Mr. Duggan, but if we make a ruckus now we’ll only put his life in more danger. You’ve got to trust him. I know.”
“What makes you so all dang fired sure?” Paul asked pursing his whiskered lips together.
“Because,” Wayne replied patiently, “we spent time enough across that river to do a lot of talking, and after getting to know him, I know this is right.”
“I dinna ken my heart can stand the wait,” Andrew told them. He wanted desperately to go down to where Johnny was and help him. In his minds eye he saw his one and only last boy dying, and he just didn’t think he could bear that again. In the short time that they had gotten to know each other, Andrew saw in Johnny, the son he wished he’d been able to keep by his side, alive and well. The agony of it hurt beyond mere words. “I just hope yer right, son…I just hope yer right.”
They grew silent then, watching the scene play out before them. All three of them holding their breaths while the man in black broadcloth, the man Johnny called the Devil, reached across his middle and drew his gun.
The blasts were terrible, frightening as they echoed off the gray walls that surrounded the village and all its inhabitants. There was nothing in its time more fearsome than the deadly .45 Colt Johnny used, or the .45 Scholfield that Weir carried in a backward draw holster slung high along his side.
Andrew, Paul and Wayne watched until the last booming sound died away. When they saw him fall to the ground the two older men were quick to cast a heavy, judgmental look at their young companion.
Wayne ignored their condemnation and with narrowed eyes and told the two older men to get back into the wagon. They obeyed instantly, both of them regretting their harsh blame toward the greenhorn when they saw the hard look of fury that set the young man’s gray eyes to blazing like a firestorm in the night. The fearsomeness of it was all they needed to put their trust back in Wayne’s command.
The brake was released, the buckboard lurched and they held on tight, a prayer on their lips as the wagon raced down the mountainside at breakneck speed, hoping in their heart of hearts that Johnny was alive by the time they reached him.
The fine lines of demarcation between sight, sound and time, which allows them to co-exist on the same plane separated and reality took on the surreal sensation of a slow motion dream.
The gathered crowd appeared to be frozen in place, clothed mannequins who didn’t have a clue what was happening to them. Silence hung in the air thicker than the sheer rock walls of the surrounding mountains. Realization sunk in like a rock thrown into a river, the action causing a rippling effect. First the startled gasps came so fast and quick they seemed to suck the oxygen from the air. Time stood still for the space of a few heartbeats, and then seemed to slowly begin to move forward again.
Johnny became aware of sound…women crying, the murmur of men whispering and the thunder of animal hooves in panicked flight. He blinked and rotated his head; in such small increments the movement was almost imperceptible. Johnny took in the looks of shock upon the faces of the crowd. He blinked again and the continuum of sight, sound and time merged once again and chaos reigned, everything seemed to be happening at once with a speed that snatched the breath from him. Johnny’s ears were assaulted by sounds jumbling together; his eyes were assailed by motion from every direction.
The evil smile on Absalom’s mouth drooped downward into a frown, his mouth gaped in astonishment, time had been kind to Johnny Madrid. The passing of time, time spent in relentless practice had refined the young man’s natural coordination into a speed and skill that now crowned him the best. And honor… honor in choosing to use his gun for right made Johnny’s aim accurate.
Weir was no longer the fastest, time had mocked him, had stolen his lightning fast speed while letting his ego grow out of proportion to his skill. He sunk slowly to the ground; disbelief bore him down like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Weir knew cruelty; he was a master of it, and by his standards it seemed cruel that he was the one taking the fall. His gun was still clutched in his hand, pointed to the side. Weir never even got the chance to bear it around on Madrid. Weir had been so surprised when Johnny’s bullet pierced his heart he had pulled the trigger reflexively, his shot flying harmlessly into the woods.
The pain was like nothing Weir had ever felt. He had never known such a burning searing ache even though he had always danced among the flames. He was consumed by the disbelief of it. How could this happen? Absalom had been so sure of himself! He had been beaten! There was nothing he could do now to change the outcome, the wrongness of his darkness was pushed back by the light of right. Weir shuddered as he felt his decades long hold on the little town fade away like morning mist in bright sunlight. He screamed out his denial of his own failure.
A desolate screech of distressed pain rent the air and Johnny was jerked back from his dreamlike state. He had done it…he beat Weir at his own game. Just a minute before he had felt like he was the only other person present except for Absalom. His concentration was so great he had blocked out everything except defeating the evil specter before him. Now his sight took in the throngs of cheering town’s people as they converged on him. He barely had time to holster his gun before he was lifted up and bore upon the shoulders of the grateful crowd.
From his tall perch Johnny was able to see his three new friends racing towards him, the wagon jolting and jumping as it sped along at an impossible speed. He heard the jingle of the hitches and tack ringing out loudly joining the chorus of the booming cadence of running hooves. It was certainly a more welcome sight than the four horsemen of the Apocalypse would be.
The mass of people moved towards the sleeping beauty, their backs towards the thicket of woods where the showdown had taken place. The three new arrivals had their eyes trained on their friend trying to assure themselves that he was alive.
Neither man nor beast witnessed the departure of evil. Absalom Weir lay on the ground where he had dropped in utter shock when Johnny’s bullet had penetrated his demonic body before he had even completely leveled his own gun. His only consolation was he couldn’t die, he was already dead, had been for years…he didn’t have a soul of his own to lose yet he lost two today…Madrid’s and the beauty’s.
Weir screamed out his dissatisfaction as his body trembled in rage. His face contorted, his features distorted and morphed as his skin seemed to melt and drip. Wisps of black smoke rose from his clothes along with a smothering stench, the clothes began collapsing in upon themselves as the evil entity disintegrated. The vaporous mist continued to rise from the clothes until they were just limp piles of cloth upon the ground.
The wind howled and swirled in a twisted rush above the abandoned clothing; it whipped the vapor and smoke into the form of a harbinger of death…a raven. The large black bird flapped his wings as he took shape and further dissipated the last of the essence of Weir. It flew straight towards the sun, calling out his mad discontent over losing the battle. One man, a man with human frailties, a man who had known sacrifice and loss greater than many had defeated him!! Johnny Madrid had been able with his honor to bring light to a town that had been in darkness for so long.
The wagon careened to a stop, almost tipping sideways as it only had two wheels actually connecting with the ground at the end of its dash to Johnny. The poor beasts pulling the conveyance heaved and huffed, rolling their eyes in distress. Andrew, the giant that had found his father’s heart again, jumped from the seat before the wagon had completely settled upon four wheels.
“Johnny, are ye all right lad? Ye are not hurt?”
The tall man reached achingly upwards with his arm, his actions imploring the men who had hefted Johnny up to place him back down. As the men lowered him Andrew caught hold of Johnny’s arm and guided him safely to the ground. Once he was upright and steady on his feet, the giant could not resist the urge to wrap him in a bear hug. Johnny’s ear came to rest right over the big man’s heart and he took comfort in the sound of the sturdy beat of it.
When he was released from the tight embrace Johnny’s eyes connected with Wayne’s. The familiar looking blond smiled as he studied his new friend. “Well Sir Lancerlot, I believe you have been on quite the adventure, but it’s not over yet. He removed the hat Johnny had thought silly and inclined his head towards the glass enclosure wherein beauty lay.
Paul preened and pulled his suspenders and crowed, “ I never doubted you for a skinny minute. You have a fine heart boy…a real fine one.”
Johnny’s heart longed with a deep and abiding desire to be with his family that these three men reminded him so strongly of. The way to get back to them was to finish this mission…this quest…this test of honor.
Stepping under the canopy of roses, he noticed the scent was much sweeter than previously. Each rose seemed to be bathed in miniature teardrops; the moisture fell softly from them as a fresh breeze blew across them. Sirus and Eudora stepped to the left of the glass casket, Wayne and Paul at the foot of it. Andrew stood at the head of it. The other three men were going to lift the top to open it. However before they could touch it, Johnny placed the heart of his palm right over the spot above beauty’s own heart and like fragile new ice touched by the strong rays of mid-day sun the glass enclosure melted so rapidly it left no trace of wetness behind only a cool fresh smell.
The gathered crowd chanted in excitement, “It’s true he is the one.” Eudora cried silently her hands clasped in prayer position under her chin, her salty tears leaving trails on her face and fingers. Her eyes were glued desperately to her child’s face that she longed to see animated with signs of life again. Sirus had his eyes closed in silent fear that things might not go the way his wife prayed.
Johnny took in a deep breath as he studied the sleeping beauty. His own heart felt as though it would beat out of his chest. He questioned himself, was he really the right man. He glanced at his new friends and all he saw there was belief in him.
Johnny brushed the hair back from his face, noticing his hat had slid to rest on his back. Bending forward he placed a hand on either side of beauty, closed his eyes and then swooped down until his lips connected with hers. They were like silk, smooth and delicious, perfectly formed. He smiled, his mouth turning up in his unique quirk as he realized the lips were warm and moist. He increased his pressure, taking pleasure in the sensation until he felt an equal amount of pressure kissing him back. Blue eyes flew open in great surprise, his body pulsing with a need to touch, to feel the beautiful girl in his arms. But her body, come to life at that very moment sucked the air right out of his lungs or so it seemed. As the pressure increased his head began to swim and the world became a topsy turvy spinning top. He gulped for air feeling as if he were smothering and being pulled in ten different directions. Drowning, he had an instant to think before he felt himself being pulled away by the invisible hands of fate and time.
Pitching backwards, Johnny felt like he was falling off the edge of the earth. Confusion gripped him, as his mind seemed to fade in and out of awareness and understanding. The sensation of falling continued and Johnny braced himself for the inevitable impact of whatever hard surface halted the dropping motion.
To Johnny’s bewilderment he began to be consumed by the impression that he was back in the River of Tears, tossed and turned like a piece of driftwood caught up in a violent churning whirlpool. Scenes of the past few days played out in his mind…but they were no longer the clear vivid experiences they had been originally.
Johnny was now seeing them with his head caught under the water. The memories blended together mixing with the rampaging current until they jumbled together and blurred confounding his reality. Once again he saw Jelly running at him, hands on his suspenders as he fled from Maria, yet as he passed him he saw it was Paul. Johnny saw Scott materializing out of a cloud of boiling black smoke carrying a pot and to his astonishment he was wearing bright plaid pants, a gaily colored vest and the rounded gray derby with the ridiculous multicolored feather, just like Wayne. Johnny fought the dizzying effects of the twisted and deformed specters of his mind. He tried forcing his eyes wide open and in the next second he was watching his father blow his coffee to cool it, only to blink and see Andrew at the table in the small cabin performing the same act.
Johnny turned and flipped, striking his head on some object causing his ears to ring. Johnny managed to turn his face upward towards where he could sense light above the water. The ringing was replaced by the metallic jingle and jangle of hitches and harness swaying in rushed rhythm, the pounding impact of hooves and the creaking and groaning of a wooden buckboard pushed almost beyond its limits as it sped over rough ground. Only this time instead of seeing Wayne, Andrew and Paul in the wagon it was Walt, Charlie and Obadiah. He closed his eyes to the conflicting sights.
Johnny’s confusion intensified as he realized he had been under water too long. He needed to breathe, to break for the surface. He pushed his head upward as the sights and sounds of the memories continued rushing over him like water over his head, until finally he felt the air on his face. Johnny gulped and gasped, inhaled deeply and exhaled with force. Water dripped from his handsome features, he opened his eyes to stare at the vision of his sleeping beauty…now wide-awake and her lush full lips only inches from his and holding an empty glass.
“You’re awake,” Johnny slurred groggily. His eyes drooped closed then open again, “Sl...sleeping beauty.” He laughed short and shallow, hurting, the face above him losing focus. “I did it,” he breathed out on a whisper. “I did it.” His eyes felt heavy, so very heavy. “He was right…I did it.”
“Who was right?” a sweet voice asked next to Johnny’s ear.
She sounded so young…so pretty. He was so tired he couldn’t even open his eyes to answer her, to look at her. He whispered haltingly, “Charlie. He was…was right…said I was…right man for…” Johnny sighed deeply, “the job.”
“What’s the boy talking about Belle?” an old man asked grumpily.
“I don’t know Gramps. He’s had his bell-rung good. You really gone and done it this time,” she said looking up at the grizzled old man who was her grandfather. The girl wiped Johnny’s brow with a kerchief, dabbing at the lump on his temple and the small cut near his eye that had bled like a sieve for several minutes.
A large man knelt next to the wounded Johnny and the pretty girl who held his head in her lap. He shook his head, reaching out to gently touch the growing lump on Johnny’s temple. Taking out a kerchief from his pocket, he pushed it at the girl and indicated with a nod of his head that she should pad the trickle of blood running down toward the boy’s ear. He looked up, anger etched in the lines of his face at the old man, “Dog gone it, Buck Morgan you should be ashamed of yourself taking pot shots at this boy. Do you know who this is?”
“Of course I know who he is Mr. Smarty Pants Walt Grimley, and I also know his daddy told him not to set foot on my property. Ever! Everybody knows I don’t take cotton with no man, young or old, gettin’ near my Belle. And that includes you too. I’d shoot you soon as look at you.”
“Buck Morgan you better not be threatenin’ me after what you’ve done. This whole thing is your fault yah old coot! The only reason this boy set foot on your dang ol’ property anyways is because you have the saddle he ordered for his daddy’s birthday.” Walt shook his head and his finger at the old man who stood shifting his yellowed corn pipe from one side of his mouth to the other next to his pretty granddaughter. “And after all Murdoch Lancer’s done for you too. And while I’m at it,” he shook his finger with a little more vinegar at the old man, “Johnny Lancer wouldn’t do you or Belle one bit of harm and you know it. Ain’t that right, Charlie?” he asked turning on his squat heel toward the old Indian who had come along with him to help get Johnny’s saddle back from Buck Morgan.
“Why you askin’ that old Injun? I know rightly enough all ‘bout Johnny Lancer,” Buck defended. “An’ he shoulda’ known better I tell yah.”
“Shut up, you old buzzard bait. If you didn’t have the whole damn county scared to death about comin’ out here, this woulda never happened in the first place.”
“You shouldn’t have sent me the wrong saddle for my granbaby girl,” Buck shot back at Walt, his grip tightening on the old Sharp’s breech loader he held, getting madder by the second with each insult the mercantile owner slung at him.
If Walt had had a mouth full of nails he supposed he would have spit them right out at the old man in rapid succession. He didn’t carry a gun, and the image was about as violent as he could muster up right now while listening to the old man go on and on like he had all the good reason in the world for shooting at Johnny, or anyone else for that matter.
“You’re a black hearted skunk, Buck. And when I get into town and let Sheriff Crawford know ‘zactly what you’ve done, I’ll just bet he’ll high tail it out here and put your mangy hind in the hoosegow for a change just to teach you a lesson.” Walt shook his head, “ ‘Specially if it means teachin’ you some manners,” he added more under his breath than aloud.
“Val Crawford come out here and he’ll git the same thing this here boy got!” Buck shout back at him, his hearing evidently clear enough.
“Why you old…”
“Both of you stop it!” Belle cried, lifting tear streaked eyes from her ministrations on Johnny.
“Ah’s listen to the little chile,” Obadiah said gently, allowing his hand to rest on Walt’s shoulder when he ambled up to the scene.
“Sides, Charlie done got somethin’ mighty powerful to say to you folks. Might do you’s some good. Might even be you stop complainin’ when he done,” the black man added wisely.
Charlie Bear Claw had taken his time joining the group. He had stopped just on the outside of them all and lifted his eyes to the heavens, chanting one of his many prayers to the Great Spirit that lived up there in the big blue yonder. Taking his cue from his friend Obadiah, the sturdy old Indian studied the group of people gathered around the supine form of Johnny Lancer, and then began to speak.
“The boy you argue over has more honor in his little finger than both of you combined. His medicine is good, powerful, and he has done great things you cannot know.”
Charlie lowered his head and studied the fingers of his hands for a moment that were laced in front of him. “Um,” he grunted, lifting his face to the small group again. Walt and Buck began to squirm under the scrutiny of those small obsidian black eyes. He laid a hand on Walt’s right shoulder, “You, man who sells to the people. You could have gained much honor, much good medicine if you had not tried to sell Johnny a saddle you knew did not belong to him.”
The Indian grew bolder in his assessment of Walt, “Would have done you heap good to have come here earlier. Your brave heart would have shone like the rising sun instead of waning like the winter moon.” He patted Walt’s shoulder somewhat like a father would a child, “Better late than never, though, I’ve heard the white man say.”
At the coughing grumphf from Buck Morgan, the wise old Indian swung his black gaze to the rifle wielding man. If ever there was someone who needed his ears pinned back, it was that man. “You need peace in your old age brown bear. Put down your stick that shoots fire and listen to the drumming of your heart. It will give you harmony with the earth and with your fellow man.”
Charlie dropped his hand from Walt and walked over to the old man who stood staring at him like he was crazy. “You could have gained much honor if you had sent the saddle back. It was bad medicine to keep it and your bad medicine has touched this boy.”
Sadly Buck Morgan realized this was true as he dropped his gaze to the prone boy lying at his feet. He felt worse than a motherless grizzly for what he’d done…and even worse that he could have prevented it from the start by doing what Charlie said.
“You have both made great mistakes, but I think Johnny would tell you to learn from them.”
“Charlie do know ‘bout them things. Yes sir, he surely do.”
Obadiah might have said a little more about his good friend Charlie, but just then there came a shout and a thundering, pounding of hooves that cut off anything else he was about to say.
All heads swiveled towards the bellowing form of Murdoch Lancer racing into the yard with his oldest son Scott in hot pursuit. The mane on his horse’s head was still swinging into place as the big man dismounted before the beast had stopped completely. Scott’s horse skidded to a stop sending dry dusty dirt into a billowing cloud about man and beast’s legs as Scott jumped swiftly to the ground. He ran a few steps to catch up with his father’s long stride.
Buck Morgan cringed as the angry countenance of Murdoch Lancer bore down on him like an over heated steam locomotive. It didn’t take a wise man to see how disturbed Murdoch was. In hindsight Buck could understand how the big man would be just as protective of his son as Morgan was his granddaughter. The prominent rancher had never been anything but a kind, caring and concerned neighbor and here he had repaid that kindness by injuring his son.
“I’m sorry Mr. Lancer. I never meant him no harm. I was just trying to scare him off. The horse reared and he fell back and hit his head on that tree root.”
“We’ll discuss this later, Morgan.” The upset father growled at him.
Scott dropped down on the ground next to his brother. Murdoch braced himself on his older son’s shoulder and slowly lowered himself stiffly down. They watched as Johnny struggled to focus on their faces. Scott helped Johnny sit up and Murdoch pulled him against his chest when he swayed unsteadily.
The youngest Lancer graced them with one of his brilliant, but sleepy smiles, “ Hey, I been wishing to see y’all for days, you won’t believe where I have been.” Then his eyes rolled back in the sockets and he went limp in his father’s arms.
Johnny’s face appeared relaxed, though pale underneath the riot of colors that decorated his temple along with the lump raised from impacting a tree root. The small cut over his left eye was puffy and tender. He was so tired he didn’t sense his father’s presence or either he was so used to it that he was no longer fazed or disturbed by it. To his father’s eye he looked small and vulnerable laid back against the stack of stark white pillows.
Murdoch continued to study his youngest son’s face. He ground his teeth in irritation over the circumstances that had him sitting vigil at Johnny’s bedside. The Lancer patriarch had been shaken to the core when he had ridden into that conceited old fool Buck Morgan’s yard and saw Johnny laying on the ground, his head in Belle’s lap, his face dripping water and dotted with traces of blood.
The big rancher had felt a fear so deep it was like a searing pain running from his gut to his heart. Murdoch had wanted nothing more than to snatch Buck’s rifle from his hands and pummel him with it until he had been nothing but a greasy wet spot soaking into the desolate dirt of his dried up land. However his need to ascertain that his son was alive overrode the impulse.
Murdoch shifted uncomfortably in the bedside chair as he tried to relieve the pressure on his leg and back that caused his leg to go numb while his back throbbed, the nerve endings singing out in twisted, contorted agony. Johnny sighed bitterly in his sleep and stirred. The concerned father stretched out a large hand and rested it softly on his son’s forehead, there didn’t seem to be a fever building. With more gentle care than one would think such an oversized calloused hand could show; Murdoch’s hand glided tenderly from Johnny’s temple to his cheek, where he cupped it lovingly.
Johnny’s eyes fluttered open as he turned his cheek into the embrace, with a lethargic breath and a hint of a smile his eyes closed again and he sank deeper into the comfort of his bed, his face resting trustingly in his father’s palm. It reminded Murdoch of how Johnny had greeted him yesterday at Buck’s before going limp in his arms, scaring a good ten years off his life.
The remembered horror of the situation once again had Murdoch consumed with the desire to inflict as much suffering on Buck Morgan as Johnny had endured. Murdoch had easily scooped Johnny’s insensate form up into his arms, as if he weighed no more than a sack of grain. The strain had pulled on his back some, but Murdoch endured with a mild grimace, and carefully laid him in the back of Walt Grimley’s wagon. Once Johnny was settled on the soft bed of hay, he took the time to glare hard at Buck, promising the old man he hadn’t heard the last of him on the subject of shooting, ‘wild eyed and crazy’, were his exact words, at any passersby just because he was old and had done so for years.
“Times have changed, old man,” Murdoch berated as he put his foot in the stirrup and swung up into his saddle.
He could still hear Buck’s stuttering, blustering and inane attempts to justify his actions. The big rancher had heard but not listened, as he was more concerned with getting his son home.
With a possible concussion to deal with, the trip home for Johnny had been nothing short of torture. The wagon must have hit every rut and rock in the road, jarring his body and rocking his throbbing head back and forth until his stomach couldn’t take it anymore. Ignoring the dull throbbing pain, he sat up, the movement bringing a halt to the clomp clomping of Walt’s team when the mercantile owner realized that Murdoch’s son was scrambling around the back, his face a pitiful shade of blue. Quickly putting on the break, he had hopped over the back of the seat and reached the back corner tailgate for the tin pail he knew Johnny needed. None too soon either, he thought, when Johnny grasped it with quaking hands and practically spilled his guts inside the metal container.
Murdoch had barely gotten off his horse and around to the back end of the wagon when Johnny was done. He climbed up the tailgate and into the bed, tying off his horse on a black iron tether ring, deciding to hell with his back and that he ought to be sitting with Johnny rather than letting the boy suffer without the comfort of a parent’s arms to help soothe him in his time of need.
Good friends that they were, Charlie Bear Claw sat crossed legged in the back of wagon and kept a silent vigil on them all, too old, he thought for all that up and down, in and out activity that was going on. Obadiah Jones being a mere five or so years younger but still old himself, climbed out of the back of the wagon, taking the bucket with him and his canteen, coming back several minutes later with a big smile on his face.
“Hereyah go Mistah Lancer. You’s be awready for the next time.” Obadiah laughed gently, handing him the empty cleaned out pail. “If they be a next time that is. As right smart puttin’ that chile’s head on yo lap. Ought tah help out a whole bunch.”
Murdoch might have smiled back at Obadiah, but he couldn’t. Not with Johnny moaning the way he was, rambling on about people and places he didn’t know or understand, and wondering if Johnny had somehow done more permanent damage to his head than at first thought. The idea of it all had driven him crazy, making him feel like a madman in a maze. He needed Sam. He hoped that Belle hopped on that gray mule of hers and rode to town like promised. If not…it would be another huge disappointment on Buck’s account he’d have to address.
Murdoch would find out later, after Johnny was settled in his own bed that Belle had followed through on her promise. Sam had gotten there just minutes it seemed after they had gotten Johnny to bed, and none too soon to Murdoch’s way of thinking at the time.
The ramblings had gotten worse along the way, Johnny calling his name over and over, moaning intermittently for someone named Andrew and Wayne, two men Johnny insisted looked exactly like him and Scott. And just when Murdoch thought his son had gone crazy mad for sure, Johnny had called out to his brother, telling him how much he needed him, begging Scott not to leave him alone because the Devil was trying to get him. That bit of confusing talk had Murdoch shaking his head in bewilderment, leaving a wicked niggling thought in the back of his mind that there might be something to what Johnny was saying, even if it didn’t sound like he was all there in the head. He remembered all too well Abasalom Weir and the chaos he’d caused them all a while back.
Jelly wasn’t excluded from the ramblings either. If Johnny’s delirious description was anything to go by, apparently like he and Scott who had replicas by the name of Andrew and Wayne running ground with him in his adventure, Jelly also had a twin somewhere in the wild vivid imaginings of his son, named Paul. When Murdoch musingly asked who Paul was, the incoherent slurring reply was punctuated with a feverish giggle that worried Murdoch, a reply that described a man who resembled their faithful handyman, although a little younger and little better dressed, Johnny added in a dazed afterthought of staccato words.
As they pulled into the courtyard of the hacienda, Johnny was still agitated and rambling, his jumbled thoughts centered on some gifts he said his friends had given to him, a smoking pipe, a book of knights, and an old rifle, none of which were found on Johnny or in his saddlebags when he insisted Murdoch should not forget them. Murdoch couldn’t exactly forget them since there weren’t any such items anywhere to be found, but it seemed to make Johnny happy to say he had not. His son hadn’t mentioned them again until they got home, and so long as Murdoch told him they were safe, that seemed to help ease Johnny’s mind and make him cooperative about getting up the stairs and into his bed.
But the most bizarre revelation had been afterward, after Johnny had been safely tucked into bed, his clothes removed and a nightshirt haphazardly slipped over his head and pulled down to his knees. Johnny liked to sleep in the buff when possible, so getting the nightshirt on his son had been a chore and a half that Murdoch would have sooner forgotten. He ordered Johnny to stillness, pulling the striped cotton material down, then ordered him into bed. Murdoch had no problem with that one since Johnny in fact wanted nothing more than to lie down and be still. It was then, tucked in with a clean bandage wrapped around his forehead that Johnny grasped his hand and whispered sleepily that Belle was his sleeping beauty, and that he had kissed her awake.
Not knowing what to make of the whispered comment, nor what to say in response to it or any of the other things he’d heard Johnny tell of as if his adventure had been real and not a bit disjointed, Murdoch had gently squeezed his hand and like any father who only wanted to please his child, had told him, ‘That’s good son. You can tell me all about it tomorrow. When you feel better.’
It was his hope that on the morrow, Johnny would forget all about the foolishness he’d spoken off, forget that the devil had been chasing after him, forget that there was such a thing as sleeping beauty or multiple doppelgangers residing in a parallel world where balls of fire shot out of the heavens, people got sucked into the earth, and rivers were overflowing because of too many tears. Ridiculous, Murdoch thought as he settled in during the night to watch over Johnny after Sam had left.
Back to his present state of mind and assured that Johnny had settled back into sleep, Murdoch sat back in his chair once more. He held his breath as his back protested the movement and jiggled his leg to fight the pins and needles sensation that was crawling up the reawakening limb. Hearing the door squeak open Murdoch turned to see who it was. Scott came into the room carrying a tray with two cups of coffee and two hearty slices of peach pie. He sat the tray on the nightstand and pulled the desk chair over beside his father and sat down.
“You do realize this is not necessary? Sam told you to expect Johnny to have a headache for a few days and some nausea.” Scott passed his father a plate with a slice of pie and had to suppress the smirk that threatened to bloom on his face over his father’s disgruntled huff. He picked up his own serving and watched his father as he chewed his first bite.
Murdoch’s older son studied his father’s stern and taciturn features. The waning glow of the day’s sun streaming in the window softened the older man’s face revealing the uncertainty and fear that had taken up residence there from the ordeal the day before.
“Scott…” Murdoch shifted in the chair to look his son in the eye, his mouth silently working to find the right words to continue. How could he say what he wanted to say without sounding like a disloyal, disbelieving, heartless parent?
Scott was somewhat taken aback to witness the hesitancy and indecision warring on his father’s face. It wasn’t like Murdoch to be so…so unsure. It worried him further when Murdoch slowly closed his eyes and tightened the grip on his plate hard enough that he thought the dish just might shatter under the pressure.
He was anxious to know what was going on, hardly able to breathe for fear that Murdoch was possibly having an attack and might collapse right there in front of him after all the excitement that he had gone through.
But, finally the gray head went back and rested a second on the high back of the chair, and one old slightly gnarled finger rubbed alongside the proud nose in a gesture that had become reassuringly familiar to both Lancer sons. It gave Scott the reassurance he needed.
“I don’t know how to say this, I’ve never been very good at expressing my feelings verbally. I felt like actions could stand in for the words that everyone needs and deserves to hear.”
“Well sir, in the words of your younger son my advice would be to just let’er buck.”
With a heavy sigh, Murdoch loosened his hold on the plate and for a few seconds studied his cramping fingers as he pulled his thoughts together. The scent of the peach pie at any other time would have been enticing, but the knot that had formed in Murdoch’s stomach yesterday had effectively killed his appetite, so much so that the aroma of the pie quite nearly made him feel as sick to his stomach as Johnny had been in the wagon the day before.
“You see those bruises, the lump and cut on your brother’s face, I can handle those physical hurts better than I can deal with his confusion. He’s so certain he has been on some quest. I have tried to dissuade him every time he wakes up, but he won’t listen to me. He seems fine in every way but that…..I’m stumped as to how to help him sort out what was real and what part was him combining actual events with unconscious dreams.”
Breathing in deep, Murdoch’s nostrils were filled with the sweet peachy scent of the pie and he found his mouth filling with saliva as he fought the urging of his stomach to empty itself. He startled Scott when he abruptly shoved the plate back at him, wanting nothing more to do with the baked treat.
Scott sat the plate back on the tray along with his own and motioned at the coffee but his father shook his head negatively as he continued to swallow against the feeling of nausea. Scott picked up his coffee and sipped it as Murdoch shifted around in the chair to once more guard his youngest son.
“Sir, perhaps the best way to help Johnny is to invite the Morgans, Charlie, Obadiah, Walt, Tim and anyone else connected to his confusion out here, all together at once, perhaps at a barbecue for your birthday. Johnny is so certain this is real because he has merged it with some actual occurrences and people. The concussion has him addled enough that he can’t separate fact from fiction. The more you try to argue with him about it the more stubborn he’s going to be about it. Trust Sam, Johnny will get it all straightened out, we just need to give him the chance to do it his way.”
“All right Scott, you’ve made your point. Though I must say I’ll be surprised if Buck Morgan shows up, after the ass he made of himself.”
“Ahhhh…but that’s the very reason he will come. He feels horrible for what happened and did you see the way his granddaughter was laying into him when we left the other day?”
Johnny moved restlessly and flipped to his stomach and mumbled as his covers slid off the side of the bed and pooled in a heap on the floor. Murdoch stooped over and retrieved the blankets and then stood to lay them back over his son, tucking them in securely.
Scott watched the tender moment with a twinkle of amusement in his eye. He caught his father by the elbow before he could sit back down in his chair.
“How about we leave this boy to his rest and go inform Teresa and Maria we’ll be having some dinner guests on your birthday.”
“I guess we better, I know how those two like time to plan.”
Scott picked the tray up he had brought into his brother’s room and followed his father out into the hallway, secretly pleased over the awakening paternal instincts he had seen from their father.
The party planning went well. Of course Maria, with Teresa’s assistance had it all planned out, organized and orchestrated just about the time that Johnny was feeling back to his old self.
Murdoch sat at his desk, watching both his sons gather up their belongings and head out the front door. Since that day almost two weeks ago, Johnny had done nothing but improve in his health. And much to Murdoch’s relief, Johnny had all but given up any more of his tall tales.
But there was still a problem. And Murdoch couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. Johnny had become quiet, almost pensive in the days since and though Murdoch might have enjoyed this little bit of change in Johnny, Murdoch knew it really wasn’t right. Johnny was not, and never had been since coming home, an overly quiet person. His gregarious son was known to one and all, as the son of Murdoch Lancer, to be opinionated, stubborn, and very, very verbal when it came to speaking his mind. Never mind that in addition to those qualities, Johnny wasn’t prone to sitting still for overly long either. So if he wasn’t talking, contradicting, explaining, or proving his point, then he was at the very least, physical in showing he had something to say.
Oh but not these past two weeks. Murdoch allowed that there could be something to the change based on the fact that Johnny was ill when they’d brought him home. Thanks to Buck, Johnny had a concussion and a good size lump on his head that was still visible if he moved his hair back away from his hairline. And occasionally he did that, showing Murdoch that in his words, “I got proof I’m not crazy.”
When he and Scott insisted with Johnny, and that took some doing, that Johnny hadn’t traveled nowhere near any mountains, nor had he sunk into a swamp or been nearly drowned, Johnny had merely shaken his head and said that they didn’t know what they were talking about.
Supper for the past week had been a solemn and quiet affair. Johnny chose, after coming to grips that he could no more prove his wild tales than they could prove that he hadn’t, to fall into a retrospective, contemplative mood most every waking hour he spent with his family.
Murdoch thumped his pencil on the desk, wondered for the hundredth time if he should have Sam come out and thoroughly exam Johnny one more time. Only he was loath to ask again. The last time he did, Sam admonished him like an errant child and told him to leave Johnny be. Said the boy would come ‘round on his own because he was young and full of piss and vinegar just like his old man. The accompanied grin didn’t lesson the jibe any less, but Murdoch had to admit, that though Johnny was more quiet than normal, he did seem to be getting back to his active self and had gone back to work without an ounce of hesitation in the doing of it.
So it was with these thoughts rolling around in his head that he accepted the inevitable party that was to take place the next day, Sunday, his birthday. He hadn’t gotten too involved with any of it, the planning that is. His last birthday had been a very secretive affair that had wound up making him prouder than he ever thought possible of his two boys, and Jelly for that matter. And this year, they were just as quiet, just as sly about their gift hunting as ever.
It almost made him laugh to think of them this way, his two sons. He honestly wouldn’t have thought they would have given a care one way or the other about his birthday, but they’d proven him wrong on that thinking, not only for his birthday but on Christmas as well. It made him wonder what the two of them and Jelly would come up with this year. He knew that come hell or high water there was no way anyone was going to get any gift away from them this time. So he was anxious to see what they found for him that could possibly beat the presents he knew he was supposed to have received the year before.
Shaking his head at his musings, Murdoch put his pencil down and got up from his desk. He might not be able to find out what his boys had planned, but he could sure as heck take a peek into the kitchen and see what the ladies were cooking up.
The sweet tangy aroma of barbecue wafted through the air. He smiled, shuffling his big body toward the kitchen, glad that so far, everyone, including Buck Morgan, whom he’d spoken to personally, was going to make it to his grand affair. It had taken some doing, getting him to decide to come after berating him half a day on account of Johnny first. But, true to his apology on the day things had gone all haywire and crazy for Johnny, Buck seemed to truly mean what he had said. He’d even agreed to bring his pretty granddaughter. When that announcement was made, it was Johnny that had seemed the most interested. In fact, thinking back on it, Murdoch thought the boy had been down right pleased to know she was coming. He would have thought that innocent enough, except that Johnny had a gleam in his eye afterwards that said it wasn’t.
Guess he’d find out soon enough. Tomorrow would come mighty quick he thought, walking into the kitchen and snagging a sip of the tasty barbecue on the stove before Maria and Teresa came out of the pantry and caught him.
Sunday dawned bright and clear. A good day for a party Murdoch thought, scooting up in his bed and propping himself against the headboard. He listened to the sounds of preparations taking place on the patio below, Maria’s bilingual instructions, Teresa’s tinkling laughter, Cipriano’s stalwart commands at some hand far out near the corrals. Some of the hands were constructing tables for the barbecue. The steady pounding of a hammer to wood was interupted by a muffled yelp followed by handyman Jelly Hoskin’s disgruntled admonishment.
“Johnny Lancer . . . boy, ain’t you got no better sense than to sneak up on a body when they have a hammer a swingin’. Don’t ya be laughing at me . . . git on outta here ‘fore I cut me a switch and tetch up your hind end.”
Murdoch chuckled out loud at the idle threat, he knew as well as Johnny did, Jelly would no more raise a hand to his youngest son than anything. He yawned and stretched his long limbs, content to just sit in bed for a few more minutes. But then he thought about all the activity downstairs and decided not to waste one minute of his birthday in bed.
The tall rancher threw back the covers and swung his legs over the side. Murdoch placed his hand firmly on his back just above his right hip bracing himself for the painful stiffness that accompanied his first attempts at bearing his own weight in the mornings. He raised his eyebrows in delighted surprise when he detected no discomfort at all.
“You might be another year older today, old boy, but you’re certainly not feeling it. I do believe it’s going to be a wonderful day indeed.”
Making his way to the washstand, Murdoch rolled up his nightshirt sleeves and then poured water in the basin. He picked up his shaving cup and brush and began mixing the soap for his morning shave. As he stirred he heard feet running down the hall accompanied by the frenzied jingle of spurs.
//Johnny is running in the house . . . again! But it’s my birthday, my back doesn’t hurt and I’m in a good mood. I think I’ll let it slide this time.//
In the next instant his good mood was almost frightened right out of Murdoch when his bedroom door was thrown open with a bang. He was lathering his face and was so startled he almost put the soapy brush right into his gaping mouth that had dropped open in shock. Johnny bounded across the room, took a flying leap and bounced onto his father’s bed. Scott who had been right on his heels bellowed at the same time as Murdoch.
The scamp merely rolled over on the bed to face his father. He showed no sign of remorse for his flagrant disregard of house rules and cheerily called out, “Happy Birthday, old man.”
“Little brother, it would have been nice if you had knocked before barging in.” Scott leveled his best disapproving glare at Johnny before turning to his father, “Happy Birthday, Sir. Johnny and I have some last minute errands to run so we have already had breakfast. We just wanted to wish you happy birthday before we left.”
“Thank you, boys. Johnny kindly take your spurs out of my linens before you rip them. I guess I’ll see you at the party.”
Murdoch turned back to the mirror to finish lathering his face and watched fondly as his sons left the room quietly bickering and shoving each other. My, my, he thought. What a difference a day makes. If he didn’t know better Murdoch would swear that wasn’t the same boy who’d been so sullen and quiet the past week. In a way, it made Murdoch a very proud father. It was his day, his birthday in fact that seemed to have pulled Johnny out of the quiet slump he’d been in all week and brought back the spunky, bright eyed boy he’d come to know and love more than life itself. Remarkable too what it did for Scott. Big brother was absolutely at his best when life was running on normal. He didn’t know what he’d do without him now. Scott was the very essence of the Rock of Gibraltar in their lives, a man he’d come to respect and love with the fearsome pride of any father.
Yep, today was going to be one fine day and one fine birthday.
Bound for Honor
Finally dressed and ready to face the day, Murdoch lumbered down the stairs into the kitchen. He stopped to enjoy the chaos. Every available surface had some form of food in different stages of preparation resting upon it. Maria stood guard over the stove, her face glistening with moisture as she stirred the contents of a large pot. Teresa having noticed his entrance, rushed towards him coffee pot in hand, wisps of fly-away brown hair fluttering about her harried face.
“Good morning, Murdoch and happy birthday!”
“Thank you, darling. It’s been very nice so far . . . I didn’t wake up with a sore back this morning, so I’d say it’s off to a great start.”
As she poured his coffee, Teresa pointed out his breakfast was already on the table. She cautioned him not to eat too much so he could save room for his party. Just smelling the barbecue sauce had Murdoch’s mouth watering in anticipation of the good food to come, so he decided to make do with coffee and a couple of biscuits smeared with preserves.
There was a brand new jar of preserves on the table, Murdoch picked it up and struggled to release the lid. When it finally came loose with a loud pop and whoosh, he was greeted with a sweet peachy smell. Taking up a warm biscuit he sliced it open, covered one side in butter and the other in the fruit. Pressing the two pieces together he took a bite. “Umm, umm,” he mumbled with a full mouth. The whole concoction fairly melted in his mouth. They were the best homemade preserves he had ever tasted. He savored every bite and then proceeded to make another, asking a question as he did.
“Where did these peaches come from? They are the best I have ever tasted. Did you and Maria can these from our trees?”
Teresa stopped in mid stride to answer. “Oh no they didn’t come from our trees. We bought them from a group of boys. They earn extra money by preparing and selling them. They said they were brothers. I believe they’re from the family that bought the old Hackett place. I heard there’s eight of them.” She laughed, “Reminds me of Jelly and those eight boys he was taking care of when we first met him. You remember?” she asked sweetly.
Having just taken a bite of his second helping Murdoch nearly choked at Teresa’s answer and question. He felt the first stirrings of unease as he thought back on what he had considered tall tales told by Johnny.
Absentmindedly he told Teresa, ‘yes’ and she was then on her way to other things.
Could some part of what Johnny had told them been true? He swallowed, thinking the answer, no, but saving a place in the back of his mind for changes to his thinking just in case. It was then he felt a stirring in the air and looked up. Standing in the open doorway at the back of the kitchen was a dark silhouette. It sent small shivers up Murdoch’s spine, and before he could speak up and demand who was there, Charlie Bear Claw stepped out into the morning sunlight.
“You just about scared the stuffing out of me Charlie,” Murdoch bellowed before stuffing another bite of biscuit and peach preserves in his mouth. “Come on over here and taste this. It’s like…heaven.”
Murdoch handed Charlie Bear Claw a biscuit filled with the tasty peach fruit.
The Indian ate it, licking his fingers when he was done and smiled at Murdoch. “You right, Murdoch Stands Tall.” It was Charlie’s name for him. “It is very good.”
Murdoch flicked his gaze toward the kitchen again. No dark shadows this time, but there was Teresa, smiling at him from the doorway, carrying another bowl of food out to one of the tables. He noticed she sparkled with life, the shine of the sun giving her a wondrous youthful glow as she went about her business. Iridescent dust particles floated in the sunshiny air, their fragile existence floating away in the breeze made by the swish of her skirt.
He drew his gaze back to his friend, realizing that his thoughts had drifted for more than was fashionably acceptable when entertaining a guest.
“Forgive me, Charlie. My mother used to say I had the manners of a billy goat,” Murdoch said. “Why don’t we sit, have a cup of coffee.”
Murdoch pulled a couple of chairs from the side of the house and brought them around to where they could sit and talk properly for a while.
When they were settled, Charlie Bear Claw said, “You look puzzled my friend.”
Murdoch lifted his brows and smirked, “You can tell, eh?”
“I can tell. I heap big medicine man you know.”
“Oh, stop it, Charlie. And you can lay off the thick Indian accent too.”
Charlie laughed and took a sip of the coffee that Murdoch poured for him. “You know me for long time. You know this accent is no act.”
Murdoch would have rolled his eyes at his friend, but he refrained. It wouldn’t do on his birthday to insult one of dearest friends. “I’m wondering about something,” he said, changing the subject and kind of veering it in the direction of his earlier ponderings.
“What is that, my friend?” Charlie asked mildly.
“I’m not so sure, but…I think I might have been wrong about something concerning Johnny.”
“Does that happen often?” asked Charlie, setting his cup down and folding his arms across his chest in a most Indian like fashion.
“Umm . . . I’m not sure I understand. Does what happen often?”
“That you are wrong or doubtful of something where you’re son is concerned. I’ve known you most of our lives. You have always lived like the great mountains in your back yard. Strong and without worry, sure that you are always right…which is why you call the tune. ” Charlie moved his right arm, balled his right fist and coughed into it. “At least, that is what I have seen in my spirit world, Murdoch Stands Tall.”
Murdoch shrugged and had to laugh a little at Charlie’s description of him, “Not so much anymore. I suppose that’s why this is bothering me so much. You see, I thought that Johnny was being delusional because of his concussion. But…”
Charlie tilted his dark head, the feathers tied to the long strands of hair in the back, wafting a little as he did so. “But what my friend?” Charlie prompted when Murdoch didn’t continue.
“It’s just that…there was something Johnny told me. The day I brought him home from Buck’s. He said he met a man, like Jelly but not Jelly. And that this man, he called him Paul, had eight kids and that he tried to give Paul money so that he could help them out.”
“What is so strange about that?”
“Johnny said they were going to give him peach preserves.” He looked down at his newest acquisition slathered in butter and peach preserves. “Teresa said these peach preserves we’re eating come from a passel of boys, eight of them to be exact, who have moved onto the old Hackett place.”
Charlie Bear Claw seemed to contemplate this before answering. And when he did, Murdoch was even more confused than before.
“Sometimes, my friend, we do not always see what is right before our eyes until the actions of another reveals it? You will have to ask yourself if you believe only in the existence of what you can see, or if you can take a spiritual step into the unknown and believe in what you can’t? That means believing in your son, believing without doubt that his adventure was real, and that the people he met are real, and that the places he has seen are real.”
Charlie stood up and grabbed another biscuit from the table and slathered it with the peach preserves. “Remember when, Murdoch Stands Tall. Remember the time before you came to the land of my ancestors. Remember the dreams, the vision you had of living here. At that time, you did not know the people or this land, and yet, you knew of them through your dreams and it was…real.”
Charlie stuffed the biscuit in his mouth and chewed, “Some may have called you delusional.” When he saw the look on Murdoch’s face, Charlie knew he’d hit the nail on the head with that one. For how else would Murdoch think such a thing of his own son. He finished his observation and wise old advice by saying, “They were wrong…and now you are wrong.”
Charlie turned away to shuffle slowly back toward the kitchen. Murdoch called out, “Where are you going, Charlie?”
Charlie Bear Claw turned back to his friend. “Long speech make me heap tired. I go lay down. Wake me when that old black man gets here, though. That ol’ fool can’t whittle or whistle without me by his side. Can’t see why he didn’t come with me in the first place,” the Indian mumbled as he turned away from Murdoch and shuffled quietly inside the house.
Murdoch thought back on what Charlie had said, thinking that in all that speech from his old friend, that somewhere in it lay a lesson to be learned. He supposed he had, but being Scottish and having lived a lifetime with superstition and myths, a little stubborn and set in his ways, it was very hard to accept it or believe in something he hadn’t seen for himself. He settled for now on waiting to see what happens…if anything. So far, Johnny was doing better, the day looked to be fine with sunshine, and most, if not all his friends were about to come and spend the day with him. What else could he ask for?
As the afternoon wore on, guest started arriving by the wagon loads, on horses, in buggies, and some…walked. Never in all his years since he first came to this land and started a home for his then, expectant wife and unborn child, had Murdoch seen so many people, and all for him, to celebrate his birthday.
He whistled through his teeth from his bedroom window, noting that there were some folks he didn’t recognize and others that had an all too familiar air about them that recalled a name and time in his memories when he’d first met them.
So lost was he in his absorption of the scene below, he failed to hear the door open behind him, or the soft jingle of spurs as his son crossed the room to stand next to him.
“Lot of folks,” Johnny commented softly.
Murdoch breathed deeply through his nose and let out a long sigh, “Yes, there are.”
Johnny dropped his head just slightly; “You’ve made a lot of friends over the years.”
Dipping his head in like fashion to Johnny, showing their similarities though no one could see it, Murdoch said, “I have. But none of it compares.”
Johnny wrinkled his face, and then turned it up and to the side to look at his father. “Compares to what?” he asked curiously.
Murdoch smiled, “Doesn’t compare to having you and Scott home. I’ll take that any day over all the friends in the world.”
There was silence between them. Then Johnny nodded his head. “We feel the same way, you know.”
And Murdoch did know. That was just it. He’d known for a long time now and tonight, he’d make sure that everyone knew. He laid his hand just beneath Johnny’s neck and gave it a quick squeeze with his big fingers, “I know, son…I know.”
“You ready to go down. There’s lots of food and well…some of us…that is…me and Scott and Jelly…we all have some things we’d like to give to you.” He smiled, toothy and white at his father, a smile that never ceased to remind Murdoch of where it came from and how much he missed his second wife. “It’s your birthday yah know.”
Murdoch held on to his son, but prodded him with a slight push to turn and move toward the door of his room, “I know. How could I ever forget with all this going on?”
Johnny laughed, not minding being moved along by his father, “I don’t know, but it almost seemed like you had.”
As the door closed behind them, Murdoch said, “Never.”
They walked down the hallway, Murdoch’s arm slung over Johnny’s shoulder, Johnny’s right arm wrapped around his father’s waist, his hand creeping up to lay clamped on Murdoch’s shoulder blade.
“I thought we had a gentleman’s agreement not to do presents,” Murdoch asked as they clomped side by side down the steps.
“That was last year, Murdoch,” Johnny stated laughing. “I said you didn’t raise no gentlemen.”
“I didn’t raise you at all,” Murdoch reminded gently.
“You did in spirit,” Johnny debated him as they got to the landing and opened the front door. “Besides…whatever you did…it was in the blood.”
“You reckon?” Murdoch asked smiling; holding the door open while Johnny let go and stepped outside first.
“Yep, I reckon.”
The door closed behind them, shutting out the noise and revelry of the guest who were just starting to gather around a makeshift dance floor that had been built just a little ways from the house. It also shut out the laughter between two men, father and son who would have a few surprises thrown at them before the night was over.
The party was in full swing. Murdoch sat at the head table in his place of honor, sipping a glass of fine scotch, for the moment he was enjoying a brief respite from visiting. Almost from the second Johnny and he had stepped outside the house, he had been swept away into happy chaos.
The atmosphere was magical. A nice cool breeze began blowing, as the sun slipped behind the mountain peaks, painting the night sky a vibrant red that had slowly morphed into an inky midnight blue. Random clouds floated about, resembling scattered jigsaw puzzle pieces. The night shadowed outline of the mountains made a dark rolling border of the horizon. Torches and Chinese lanterns ringing the patio provided the light along with oil lamps on the tables.
The haves and the have nots mingled freely amongst each other. All races and creeds had at least one representative there . . . Charlie Bear Claw, Obadiah, Mr.Ling, the Chinese laundry man. There were a wide variety of ethnic groups in attendance for Murdoch Lancer did not judge people on their physical attributes but on their actions.
Murdoch’s anxious eyes scanned the patio area again . . . he had actually lost count of how many times he had repeated the action over the course of the evening. He just couldn’t shake the niggling doubt that he had not given enough credence to Johnny’s adventure. Finally Murdoch spied his youngest son, utterly still and hiding among the shadows where he could observe the party without actually having to join it.
The paternal side of Murdoch sighed hopelessly. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out why Johnny rebelled so against ‘organized’ fun as he called it, other than knowing his son didn’t like crowds very much. There was a part of him, though, the part of him that had experienced over and over again the unrestrained enthusiasm Johnny had for loving life and having fun that made him wonder about this particular change in his personality. He wanted his son to have fun this time, especially after the harrowing event that could have killed him had Buck Morgan not been aiming to scare Johnny off his land rather than aiming to kill him, as most folks in the area thought he was trying to do when someone trespassed on his land.
His thoughts on the matter were diverted, however, when Johnny deliberately pushed away from the stonewall he leaned against, and the sound of metallic ringing against glass reluctantly pulled his attention to the far end of the table.
Johnny had felt his father’s eyes studying him several times tonight since they had come down the stairs together arm in arm. He knew he had worried the old man during his recovery and afterward with his stubborn insistence that Andrew, Wayne and Paul were real and that he had in fact taken a perilous journey through the wilds of the countryside in search of a sleeping girl who needed his help. He wished he knew how to make him understand that they had in their own ways helped him on his perilous adventure, and that it had all been real, not imagined or dreamt about as was suggested more than once by his family while he was comfortably recuperating in his bed.
Safe in the dark on the fringes of the party, Johnny turned his attention once more to Belle, his Sleeping Beauty, as he liked to think of her. She looked beautiful, radiant and glowing, her cheeks flushed, her eyes sparkling like diamonds with each treasured smile upon her face. There was a sultry aura about her too, as if she had just been woken from a long deep slumber. Belle was different now, nothing like the girl that so many people had whispered and made fun of in the past.
The old Belle, she had spent her life sheltered from the public by an overprotective grandfather. The poor girl had not even been allowed to attend school with the other children. Belle had no friends her own age not to mention any suitors, because what man would dare to take the notion with such a cantankerous old coot of a grandfather who would rather shoot you as to look at you just for crossing over onto his land. It just wasn’t right, Johnny thought.
At the moment Belle was surrounded by a throng of new peers, eager to befriend the amiable young girl. And far from being shy, she reveled in the attention. The same could not be said about Buck Morgan. The old man, while having reluctantly agreed to partake of the invitation by his father, had been within five steps of the girl all night. But as Belle found out, there was safety in numbers. Her newfound friends, made up mostly of girls who had longed to meet her all the while, flocked around her like she was a princess and they, her courtly entourage of ladies in waiting. They giggled and gaggled the whole night long, never giving Belle’s grandfather more than a cursory glance now and then as they chattered away like magpies in a language that made Buck want to put his hands up to his ears and start squalling like a pig just to make them shut up.
Johnny snorted to himself about the conceited old man. As far as he was concerned, the fool should be thanking his lucky stars that Belle had finally been brought into the light of society instead of hidden away in that dark cabin like a shameful secret. At least now she would have a chance at a normal life. Buck couldn’t expect to live forever; eventually he would have left his granddaughter alone and with no friends. Who knew, perhaps she was meeting her potential husband at this very party. She was a sweet tempered girl, really reminded him of Lucrece, but instead of a domineering mother she had a controlling grandfather.
From the mass of milling people Johnny thought he heard a familiar Scottish brogue, he tensed, becoming extremely alert, he pushed off the wall ready to wade into the crowd to find the owner of that voice but was prevented from his mission by the action of his brother.
A fork, clanking against the crystal of a glass had the guest quieting, shuffling toward the blond haired speaker with a smile on his face. Scott Lancer, ready with a speech, and an announcement.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention? Please.”
The assembled guests continued moving forward as one, drawn to the older Lancer son standing in front of the table piled high with gifts. Parents shushed little ones and grabbed the bigger ones that had been darting in and out of the crowd, snatching goodies from the tables before running off to play. There were a few muffled words as conversations were ended. And then their full attention was trained on Scott.
The lull among the crowd prompted one party member to shout out, “How ‘bout a toast to Murdoch Lancer!”
Scott smiled and dipped his chin toward his chest and back up again. “My friend,” he said, lifting his glass, “I was just about to do that. But before I do,” Scott turned to his right and smiled at his father, “I thought it would be appropriate to have the whole family up here to do just that.”
Scott turned back to the crowd and said with a clear voice, “I’d like to ask my brother, Johnny Lancer to come up here and join us.”
The crowd gave a great thunderous round of good cheer and like the parting of the Red Sea made room for the young cowboy to pass through.
Johnny thought he must be turning three shades of red as he made his way across the yard, his eyes scanning the sea of faces in search of the one person he was most certain he’d heard just seconds ago. But as all things go when you want something bad enough, and in such a hurry too, it seemed to Johnny that finding the one person who could help him with his minor dilemma wasn’t going to be easy to find just then. Not with hands reaching out to him, touching him good naturedly as he walked by, urging him up to the table where his father was sitting and Scott was now waiting with drink glass in hand.
The brothers gave each other knowing grins, having planned this particular part of the festivities well in advance. The stood side by side, glass in hand, and turned toward their father who kingly sat in place and waited for whatever surprises his sons had in store for him.
“Ready, brother,” Scott asked Johnny.
“Can’t get any more ready,” Johnny replied, his smile tight but wide, his head slightly dipped as he looked down the table, and almost as if shy about it, raised his glass toward Murdoch.
Scott’s glass was raised midway in the air, the guest squeezing closer to hear clearly what Murdoch’s elder son would say.
“To our father, Murdoch Lancer,” Scott shyly bent his head, his eyes crinkling, his mouth quirking into an easy smile. He lifted his head, “May you never know another day of sorrow or loss. May you always prosper and have good health. May each day be better than the day before, and may you always feel the love we have in our hearts for you, now and forever.”
Scott stepped back just a little, proud that he hadn’t faltered on his part of the speech, allowing Johnny to continue the toast to their father in his way. Johnny dropped his head, black bangs drooping thickly only to be flicked away when he tossed his head back and wiggled the wine glass in his hand at Murdoch. “I ain’t much good at this. But we agreed I’d say my part. So, for what it’s worth, here goes.”
Johnny swallowed hard, feeling the depth of his emotions swell up inside of him.
“Our lives are different now, better…much better. The sky is bluer, the grass is greener, and there’s no better smellin’ place in the whole wide world.” Johnny sighed his words thoughtful as he continued with a wistful smile on his face, “I even think the sun shines just a little bit brighter here than it does any other place on earth.” Johnny paused, wetting his lips, his eyes making bold contact with Murdoch’s. “It’s good to be home. We love this land you worked so hard for, our home…I…we…love…you. Happy Birthday.”
The pauses, the silence in between each word, were like fragile bubbles floating in the air, wafting invisibly until they reached Murdoch, popping in his ears like an old war cannon, melting any last vestiges of ice that might still have remained from his lonely years without his sons. If he had only this for all time to remember, and the feeling of the moment never changed, Murdoch knew he could die a happy man. He loved his sons, and with their toasts he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they loved him too. The euphoria would still be there later, long into the night and the next day. In fact…he would have much to remember for after all…the party was just starting.
The gathered guests cheered heartily, but for this moment in time, Murdoch and his sons were the only people that existed. His eyes gazed upon their visages, so different, one light and one dark, but they belonged together, complemented each other. Just as the day makes the dark of night not seem so eternal, and the dark of night saves the light of day from burning until it withered the earth into a vast wasteland. His sons balanced his world as the moon and sun did the universe. His heart swelled with the knowledge of it.
Murdoch realized Scott was talking, again; he shook off the rapturous feeling of ecstasy that clouded his ears, eyes and mind to the happenings around him. His face was flushed with exhilaration and he was glad for the sudden gust of wind that cooled the heat of it.
“Ladies and gentlemen, all honored guests . . . please feel free to continue to enjoy the refreshments. If you, gentlemen of the band, would be so kind as to resume your playing for those that would like to dance…” Catching movement from the corner of his eye, Scott spied his father trying to move away from his seat. “Oh, no you don’t, Murdoch, you stay right there, it’s time to open these gifts.”
“This was not necessary, I don’t need gifts. Just the fellowship of our friends and neighbors would have been more than enough.” Murdoch shifted uncomfortably on his chair, and not because his leg or back pained him, but because, in essence he truly was a simple and modest man.
Many of the party attendees went back to their table, but positioned themselves to watch as the guest of honor received his presents. The band struck up a quiet waltz so that those wishing to dance could still see and hear the proceedings.
Johnny, Scott and Jelly began to pile the gifts in front of Murdoch. He tentatively began to open some of the smaller items. Not all of his friends and neighbors had prospered as he had, so while some might think a few of the gifts to be small or insignificant, they had the greatest meaning to Murdoch. He saw them for the sacrifice their cost represented to the givers.
The lanterns strung above his gray head danced merrily in the breeze that seemed to be rushing through the courtyard, with increased speed. The flickering of the light on his face made it all that more animated as he untied bows and ribbons, peeled back paper or sometimes scraps of cloth to reveal the treasures within. At times the wind would lift an errant strip of ribbon or gaily-colored paper remnant and scatter it away, disappearing into the dark beyond. Murdoch exclaimed excitedly and called thanks to the presenters of such things as homemade candies, hand embroidered handkerchiefs, knitted socks, pouches of tobacco, bottles of ink, and stationery.
As the opening of the gifts continued, and more and more people turned their attention back to the food and dance after they saw their offering opened and accepted Murdoch’s thanks.
The mountain of unopened gifts grew smaller than the opened. Soon it would be time to see what his family would present him with this year. His thoughts on that were interupted as a particularly strong gust of wind marched through the courtyard, turning over glasses and causing the swinging lanterns to bump against each other as they tangled within the current. A few of the lights flickered out; their flames too fragile to fight the dark and wind. All the while the increased air movement had been sailing the clouds, that had resembled scattered jig saw puzzles pieces, into each other, coalescing them into one huge ominous looking mass, that appeared to be on a direct course for Lancer.
The gathered guests cheered heartily, but for this moment in time, Murdoch and his sons were the only people that existed. His eyes gazed upon their visages, so different, one light and one dark, but they belonged together, complemented each other. Just as the day makes the dark of night not seem so eternal, and the dark of night saves the light of day from burning until it withered the earth into a vast wasteland. His sons balanced his world as the moon and sun did the universe. His heart swelled with the knowledge of it.
Murdoch realized Scott was talking, again; he shook off the rapturous feeling of ecstasy that clouded his ears, eyes and mind to the happenings around him. His face was flushed with exhilaration and he was glad for the sudden gust of wind that cooled the heat of it.
“Ladies and gentlemen, all honored guests . . . please feel free to continue to enjoy the refreshments. If you gentlemen of the band would be so kind as to resume your playing for those that would like to dance…” Catching movement from the corner of his eye, Scott spied his father trying to move away from his seat. “Oh, no you don’t, Murdoch, you stay right there, it’s time to open these gifts.”
“This was not necessary, I don’t need gifts. Just the fellowship of our friends and neighbors would have been more than enough.” Murdoch shifted uncomfortably on his chair, and not because his leg or back pained him, but because, in essence he truly was a simple and modest man.
Many of the party attendees went back to their table, but positioned themselves to watch as the guest of honor received his presents. The band struck up a quiet waltz so that those wishing to dance could still see and hear the proceedings.
Johnny, Scott and Jelly began to pile the gifts in front of Murdoch. He tentatively began to open some of the smaller items. Not all of his friends and neighbors had prospered as he had, so while some might think a few of the gifts to be small or insignificant, they had the greatest meaning to Murdoch. He saw them for the sacrifice their cost represented to the givers.
The lanterns strung above his gray head danced merrily in the breeze that seemed to be rushing through the courtyard, with increased speed. The flickering of the light on his face made it all that more animated as he untied bows and ribbons, peeled back paper or sometimes scraps of cloth to reveal the treasures within. At times the wind would lift an errant strip of ribbon or gaily-colored paper remnant and scatter it away, disappearing into the dark beyond. Murdoch exclaimed excitedly and called thanks to the presenters of such things as homemade candies, hand embroidered handkerchiefs, knitted socks, pouches of tobacco, bottles of ink, and stationery.
Slowly, the guests began to dwindle from around the table where Murdoch sat.
He was humbled by the generosity and thoughtfulness of his friends who gifted him, embarrassed that anyone would go to so much trouble just for his birthday. The whole affair was such an unaccustomed sensation to him that it left him feeling rather embarrassed by all the attention. It got better, though, as the minutes ticked by and one by one the gift givers returned to the gaiety of the party, the food and the raucous music and dancing.
What once seemed like a mountain of gifts, was now a small intimate grouping of presents the family had set aside for the very last that were just from them. He knew his sons and Jelly were anxious for this birthday to go well, especially after the way things had petered out for them in the gift giving the year before.
He didn’t think there was any way for them to top the greatest gifts he’d gotten last year, the knowledge that Scott, Johnny and Jelly all had hearts of gold for the less fortunate and needy. Their sympathy for human life, for helping others was something he hadn’t taught his sons or passed on to Jelly through friendship. No, those kindly traits were a part of their character; the fabric of what made each one of them a man from the inception of their birth.
If he were honest with himself, Murdoch couldn’t wait to see what his family would present him with this year. His thoughts on that were interrupted as a particularly strong gust of wind marched through the courtyard, turning over glasses and causing the swinging lanterns to bump against each other as they tangled within the current. A few of the lights flickered out; their flames too fragile to fight the dark and wind. All the while the increased air movement had been sailing the clouds, splashes of mercurial gray against the inky black sky that resembled scattered puzzles pieces, bumping and locking into each other, coalescing into one huge ominous looking mass that appeared to be on a direct course for Lancer.
“You better git them gifts opened up boss. I don’t like the looks of that sky up yonder and my elbows are hurting worse ‘an they ever have,” Jelly commented, rubbing his elbows.
The wind died down just as suddenly as it came, but Murdoch agreed silently with Jelly, the sky did look as if it could open up at any minute near the base of the mountains near their home.
“Here, Sir. Why don’t you open this one first?” Scott handed Murdoch the first of three presents still remaining to be opened on the table.
Murdoch gingerly took the flat wrapped package, poking and prodding at it, his face a master of study until Teresa could stand it no more.
“Oh, Murdoch! Just go ahead and open it,” the young girl cried.
Murdoch smiled at Teresa, and proceeded to rip the paper off Scott’s present.
“I hope you like it. I had it inscribed,” Scott told his father.
Murdoch ran a flat hand along the surface of the book, impressed with the raised silver embossing of a knight on the front leather cover. “Sir William Wallace, Knight of the Realm, Guardian of Scotland.” He looked up at Scott smiling. “I’ve wanted this book for a long time. In fact…I’ve tried to order it but I was always unable to get a copy for one reason or another.”
Scott, pleased that his gift was appreciated, smiled back at his father. “I’m glad you like, Murdoch.”
Murdoch opened the book reverently, pleased more than he was letting on to have received such a fine piece of history literature from Scott. He knew it had to have taken Scott a lot of thought, time and money to get it. Like his grandfather, Harlan, Scott seemed to have the Midas touch when it came to getting what he wanted where others could not. In this case, it pleased him greatly that he was the recipient of that golden ability.
“I do. I like it very much. Thank you,” Murdoch said.
“Open another one, Murdoch,” Teresa urged, clamping her hands together, delighted that Murdoch’s night was going so well.
“Yeah, Boss. Open the one by Johnny,” Jelly said with just about as much excitement as Teresa. “It’s from me.”
Johnny picked up the wrapped present. It really wasn’t any kind of secret what it was, but everyone played ignorant knowing that Jelly had spent a great deal of his wages to obtain this particular gift for Murdoch.
“Here you go, Murdoch,” Johnny said, leaning down the table and handing Jelly’s present to his father with one hand. “Jelly wrapped it up good. No tellin’ what’s inside.”
There was laughter all around. Charlie, watching from a small distance away, puffed on his pipe while Obadiah rolled his dark eyes and grinned wide enough to see both rows of gleaming white teeth.
“Well now. What could this be?” Murdoch asked, playing along with the joke.
Jelly shrugged, shifting his shoulders around, his chin held high. He gummed his jaw, thumbing the braces of his coveralls as he rolled back and forth upon the balls of his feet. “Wahl now, you’ll be findin’ out right quick what it is soon as you open it up. Now ain’t that right?” he asked no one in particular.
Belle, standing by her grandfather Buck during the opening of these gifts, smiled sweetly at Jelly, making him blush red through the gray whiskers on his face. “You’re absolutely right, Jelly.”
Jelly pushed back his cap and leaned in toward the young girl, “I knew you was smart like me. Just had to get you away from that ol’ goat standin’ next to you to find out.”
“You best shut your trap Jelly for I…”
“Grandfather…” Belle said sweetly, tugging at his arm, squeezing it as a reminder to hold his tongue.
Buck looked away from Belle and caught Murdoch’s burning gaze on him. He coughed, his fist over his mouth and said, “Sorry ‘bout that Jellifer. No ‘ffence.”
Jelly tugged on his hat, wiped away at some imaginary something or other that swiped across his face when the wind began to pick up again. “None taken,” he replied, seeing the look that passed between Murdoch and Buck.
“Good,” Murdoch said. He tugged and pulled, tearing at the paper and rough string holding it in place, revealing at last what turned out to be one of the most sought after guns in all the great west, a .54 caliber Hawken Plains Rifle.
Murdoch lovingly lifted the grand old rifle, running his hands down the worn and polished maple stock with something near to awe in his touch. The weapon in his hands seemed to have a life of its own, warm, thriving with tall tales secreted within the rich wood and iron.
It didn’t take a genius for Jelly to see that Murdoch liked his present. He felt emboldened by his boss’ quiet inspection, offering a bit of history to rival Scott’s present. “I was told that there trail blazer used to belong Bridger. Took me some doin’ but since we crossed trails once a long time back…well…lets just say he owed me one.”
Murdoch looked up at his friend, “Are you referring to the old mountain man, Jim Bridger?”
Jelly snapped the braces of his coveralls, “One and only.”
Murdoch narrowed his eyes wondering at that part of Jelly’s life. He dropped his gaze from the handy man to study the mounted plates on both sides of the stock. On one side was the word, Lightning, engraved in polished brass and on the other side was the word, Thunder, engraved in the very same way. The filigreed plates were worn but the beauty of them still remained. He turned the percussion shooter to the underside and saw the name S. Hawken etched onto the barrel. A fine piece of weaponry if ever there was one, a gun that had helped the first men to tame this country survive in the wilds and fight off attacks from the Indians.
Impressed by the magnitude of the gift, Murdoch looked back up at his friend and couldn’t help but reach out his hand in friendship and gratitude to Jelly. “I’m honored, Jelly. Thank you.”
Jelly swiped a quick glance to the right and the left, feeling like the king of the world as he took Murdoch’s hand and shook it. “You’re welcome, Boss.”
There was one more gift on the table. No one claimed it as being from them when Murdoch picked it up and looked around at the faces watching him. He noted that Johnny had taken that moment to disappear and he wondered briefly where he went.
Scott slid his hands down his thighs, then rubbed them together knowing his brother was off to get the special gift he had for Murdoch. “One more Murdoch. Go ahead and open it.”
“It came several days ago,” Teresa told him. “Val brought it over but we don’t know who sent it or where it came from, and neither did he.”
Murdoch held the package in his hands gingerly. “Johnny?”
Scott smiled, “He’ll be right back. He’s gone to get your gift from the barn.”
The wind seemed to pick up while Johnny was in the barn. The door slammed shut and bounced open time and time again, causing Johnny to wonder at the unpredictability of the crazy weather they were suddenly having. He tossed the blanket down he had taken off the hidden gift to his father and strode toward the barn door with the intentions of lashing it down, open, so that he could get out without being slammed back down on his butt with the heavy saddle in his arms. He made it halfway back to the door when he heard a faint whispering in the still air of the barn. The sound made him freeze in his tracks, unsure with all the noise just beyond the great opening, whether or not he had really heard anything.
Goosebumps rose on the back of his neck and on his arms, but there was no repeat of any whispers. The silence within, the noise of the wind, the cracking and banging of the door made him think of Weir. But in his mind he didn’t think that was possible. Not again at any rate. He killed the man, or whatever he was fair and square, out in the open for all the world to see. Or had he? Murdoch, Scott, well hell, the whole family said he hadn’t gone in search of any girl, let alone taken a trip with Barranca across half the territory and over a mountain. So could it be?
Johnny shook his head. His mind made up, he decided the answer was a positive, no. But still he waited just a fraction longer, watching in the dim lighted interior of the barn as the door whipped back and forth in a frenzy of wild abandon. He didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary. No soft whispers, no evil calling of his name. He gave it up then, decided he must have imagined the first stirrings in his ear and strode the rest of the way to the door.
He caught it just as it was making a swinging arch back to the opening, pushing it against the wind with little force since it seemed that the fickle weather was ready to settle down once again. Johnny shook his head glad he’d left his hat in the house since he wasn’t keen on chasing after the darn thing if it blew off his head.
The door propped good and tight, he made his way into the back interior of the barn, bending, lifting the heavy, blanket-covered saddle made special just for Murdoch’s birthday in his arms.
Johnny whipped around, nearly toppling over from the weight of his burden. “What the hell?” he whispered out loud.
This time, he knew he had heard something. He hadn’t quite caught the word or words, though, having been heard as he heaved the saddle from the floor of an unused stall.
He stared suspiciously into every dark corner, studied every shadowed nook and cranny. His body felt coiled and tensed, as his eyes searched for the form that belonged to that sinister voice.
The wind picked up again outside, howling through the open doorway and down the main walkway of the big barn, lifting loose bits of hay, tossing them through the air with chaotic abandon. Just as swiftly and unexpectedly as the wind increased, it abruptly died, causing the floating bits of hay dancing merrily in the current of the wind to abruptly stop and fall from their lofty heights.
Carefully moving forward, his instincts on high alert for any unseen dangers he felt sure was nearby, Johnny missed the strange occurrence happening behind him. Some of the falling particles of hay managed, whether by chance or design, to fall into the glass chimney of the burning lantern. The captured bits of fodder caused the small flame to flicker and flare as it consumed the dry combustible. Black smoke rose, undulating wisps of vapor that wafted up and over the lip of the globe, drifting through the barn, trailing behind Johnny, dissipating over his head only when he had finally cleared the doorway and was gone.
As he stepped from the barn into the yard, Johnny heard a menacing laugh. /No, he’s not here, I killed him, I won . . .I will not let him continue to taunt me./ Johnny set a determined course for the courtyard where the party was still in full swing. Halfway to his destination, a massive cloud floated over the moon obscuring it’s light, leaving him to struggle through the dark with the heavy saddle, he stumbled and almost went to his knees. At least the lights of the party provided him with a point of reference to walk towards.
Johnny sighed in relief as his boots stepped back on to the stone paved patio, the saddle was heavy and truth be told he was glad to be back amongst people he knew to be real. He felt somewhat exposed and vulnerable as his reappearance drew attention from them. He passed Charlie and Obadiah on his way back to his father. Murdoch sat with a last package in his hand.
“Hey, ol’ man, why don’t cha go ahead and open that before I present this to you,” Johnny stated as he hefted his burden onto the empty chair beside his father.
Holding up the last gift, Murdoch inquired to the small group gathered about him still, “Does anyone know whom this is from or where it might have come from?”
He received a smattering of negative replies; some voiced others insinuated by shaking heads. Obadiah stepped closer, scrutinizing the package with great care. After a moment he pursed his thick lips and rolled his tongue, pointing at it with a long ebony finger as he turned to Charlie Bear Claw.
“Ain’t dis heah the package that smarted up fella with one of dem fancy walking sticks had in town the other day? He said he was old friends with Johnny, but I don’t recalls that I ever seen him ‘round before.”
Murdoch handed the present to the Indian. Charlie inspected the small parcel, turning it over in his tanned leathery hands. He cryptically answered, “It appears to be, but sometimes things are not always as we perceive them to be, and sometimes they are what they are because we want them to be.”
That funny knot of apprehension renewed and made its self known in Murdoch’s stomach again, but before he could dwell on it too long, Johnny lightened the situation with unexpected humor.
“Well, I can tell you what I want it to be . . . I want it to be ‘opened’, so we can get on with this shindig and I can give you the present that I had to practically move mountains to get it for you.”
Murdoch laughed and took the present back from Charlie.
“Well, lets see what I’ve got.”
He tore the plain brown paper from the mystery gift, sucking in his breath when a beautiful ornate pipe was revealed. His stomach did all kinds of somersaults as he recognized the delicate carving, the smooth textures of the wood and ivory that had seen so much use over the long years of his life and then some. He began to tremble at the memories, seeing in his minds eye his grandfather clenching the old pipe between straight white teeth, telling tall tales of the great seas, encouraging the seed of imagination to grow that would one day give him the courage to leave his homeland of Scotland for the great unknown of the Americas. How? When? Why? These were questions he would have to write home about if he wanted answers.
“Gran’father,” he whispered, absorbed in thought and memory, astounded that the old relic was now in his possession rather than with his brother Iain who lived in their father’s house back home.
He was brought back to reality, to this time and place when he heard a gasp from Johnny standing next to him.
“That’s Andrew’s pipe, the one I told you about, the one I couldn’t find,” Johnny stated emphatically, pointing for emphasis.
He glanced at the other presents; the ones given to Murdoch by the family and a dawning of recognition began to settle in the marrow of his bones. They weren’t exactly as he remembered, but they were all so close, so familiarly similar to the gifts he’d received on his quest. But how could that be if what his family told him was true, he’d been injured and hadn’t gone on any great adventure to save a girl he’d never met before? It was all very confusing and he no longer knew for sure what, if any part of his adventure was true or dreamt up in a state of unconscious awareness after Buck shot him.
“No, Johnny. This can’t be the pipe you were telling me about, son. This one belonged to your great-gran’father Andrew D. Lancer,” Murdoch said, unknowing that there were confusing thoughts running around in Johnny’s head, attempts to make sense out of things that didn’t quite add up and others that did. “Look at the bottom of it.”
Murdoch handed the pipe over to Johnny. He turned it over and read the words in a barely audible whisper, “Andrew D. Lancer.”
“What I’d like to know is how did it get here. The last time I saw it it was on the mantle in my Da’s house,” Murdoch mused aloud, puzzled that Johnny would recall his ancestor’s name when he couldn’t remember ever identifying him as anything other than ‘your great-gran’father’.
Before he could question his son on his knowledge the ever-changing weather that evening took a sudden vicious turn for the worse. The surprising velocity of an unexpected windstorm screamed like a banshee as it barreled through the courtyard. The decorative lanterns smashed into each other while the edges of the tablecloths rose, flapping in the wind, snapping like a thousand cracking bullwhips over the hulking backs of snorting trail driven cattle. Glass and cutlery scudded along the table, falling over the edge, the sound of breaking glass and clanking metal on stone all but lost amid the terrible onslaught of the suddenly foul weather.
Swirling dirt devils skipped across the yard, a chaotic frenzy of dancing sand that forced everyone to squint their eyes lest they be stung blind. Frightened screams from women and children joined the cacophony of riotous sounds, and somewhere embedded within the noise was a sinister laugh that blended with the storm and all its damaging components.
Scott and Jelly rushed to the French doors and battled against the wind to pull them open. They each held onto a door while imploring the guests with jerking hand motions to move into the safety of the house as quickly as they could. It didn’t take much incentive to get the people moving, they were glad to seek shelter, afraid by the suddenness of the fierce weather.
Murdoch stood just outside the doors, seeing no one other than Johnny, still searching while making his way toward the house. He shouted into the wind, “Johnny! Lets get inside, we’re the last ones!”
His shouting fell on semi deaf ears. The noise was so great that Murdoch’s words seemed to slap him in the face so quick did they come back to him. He was not deterred, not by much anyway. For reasons he couldn’t explain, Murdoch felt the need, the irrational compulsion to see that Johnny obeyed him immediately. Uncanny reasoning declared there was danger present, and it wasn’t the foul weather that was causing him to think it. It was more a feeling, a premonition of things to come that had the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end, electrifying and curdling his blood. A feeling he was all too familiar with and half expected never to feel again after his sons had finally come home.
Johnny staggered across the yard, head bent as he battled to stay upright against the ferocity of the windstorm. Though there was flying debris everywhere, hindering his every step, he lifted his head and checked around once again for any stray person who might not have found their way to the hacienda. He thought, but couldn’t prove it otherwise that something had moved in the open field far beyond the reach of the glowing lights and white planked fencing lining the main drive. He braced himself against a stone pillar, ignoring the insistent call from his father, staring into the wildness of the night over his shoulder.
He saw it once more. A dark shadow, a black wobbling hole that seemed able to move, to shift, to take form and then retreat into nothingness before his eyes.
Johnny let his hands run down the rough adobe support, squinting to see better, reaching slowly, carefully for the butt of his gun. He wouldn’t draw it. Not yet. But there was comfort in knowing it was there, knowing he had a defense if the suspicions he had proved to be true. He turned, stepping away from the stone pillar, determined to find out who or what was in that field. Ignoring the mindless onslaught of fury, he started to move only to find himself at first rooted, then jerked back by a firm grip on his arm.
He whipped his head around, unexpectedly facing a very determined father who wouldn’t let him go, his voice of protest lost in the drilling whine of the relentless wind current surrounding them.
Murdoch, a bit disturbed by the sudden squall, the hidden danger that seemed to crackle in the air, pulled Johnny toward the door and into the great room with more force than he intended. Scott and Jelly, windblown and grateful to see that everyone was finally inside, followed in the wake of Murdoch and Johnny’s bulldogged entrance. The French doors slammed shut behind them, rattling the panes of glass in the frames. Reflected light shimmered, rolling like waves as the wind beat upon the doors, making the enclosed glass tinkle and hum as if alive.
Everyone, guest and all turned to look, jumping when something unseen and heavy bashed against the darkened doors, the sound full of dynamite, explosive to the ears as the lights went out in one great whoosh throughout the entire house.
At first, it was as if the world had come to an end, that all things had died and were gone for good so quiet did it become. The pitch-blackness was like a smothering blanket over the head, suffocating, excruciatingly dark and scary.
And in that black torturous moment of quiet dead a revelation came upon one man. His fear became real, and all that he ever dreaded was now…a reality.
“Belle . . . Belle . . .BELLE, answer me!” Shouted a frantic Buck Morgan.
“Johnny, Scott! The doors!” Murdoch shouted across the room, holding Buck’s arm in a firm grip. It wasn’t for lack of care for Belle, but more out of worry that the old man would plunge headlong into the chaotic world outside to search for his granddaughter.
“Belle! He’s got my Belle, Murdoch!” Buck wailed, turning frantic eyes toward the man who held him and then to all those in the room who stared as if he’d lost his mind. He jerked trying to free himself from Murdoch’s grasp.
“Hold on now!” Murdoch admonished. “You can’t go barreling out into that storm, Buck. My boys will find her. She can’t have gotten far.”
Buck shook his head, his rheumy eyes glistening. “He’s got her, Murdoch. I’m tellin’ yah. I heard her screamin’. Askin’ me to save her. Listen, can’t you hear her.”
Buck went quiet, cocking his ear toward the French doors that even now, Johnny and Scott were trying to open unsuccessfully.
Jelly harrumphed, pushing Johnny aside to see if he could do any better. He twisted and turned the latch, yanking on it just as hard as Scott was doing on his side.
Try as he might, Murdoch couldn’t hear any screaming and thought for a moment that maybe Buck had finally lost the last bit of rational thinking he had left in his head.
“What’s taking so long,” he asked of his sons irritably.
Johnny held out a palm, facing the doors and turned to Murdoch, “They’re trying Murdoch. Somethin’s wrong. The doors won’t open.”
Jelly squatted, twisted his hat around sideways and stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth in earnest concentration, with no better luck than with the first effort.
“He’s right,” Scott said frustrated, running a hand through his hair, turning to face his father. “I can’t get it open either. It’s as if it’s locked from the outside.”
Buck grappled at Murdoch’s hand still holding his arm, trying valiantly but without any success to loosen the grip. “Let me go, Murdoch. I’ve got to get to her before she’s gone for good.”
Murdoch pulled Buck behind him. “Stay here and let me do this,” he warned. “If you run out there in a panic you’ll only do yourself harm, old man. Belle can’t be far away. It’s my guess she’s taken cover in the barn and wondering where you are and if you’re alright.”
Buck shook his head in denial. “ I don’t hardly think you would be saying that if it was one of your boys out there!” He didn’t know how he knew it, but he knew that Belle was not in the barn, knew that she was in trouble and that somehow she was being spirited away this very minute. He had to get out of the house and go find her.
“I’s tried the front doah Mista Lancer. She locked up tight as a drum. Nobody gettin’ in an’ nobody gettin’ out. It ain’t right. No sah…it ain’t right.” Obadiah shook his wooly head dramatically, eyes rolling big and white rimmed in his black face.
“El Diablo ha venido!” shrieked Inez, an older woman who occasionally worked in the kitchen with Maria. She made the sign of the cross and pulled together the dangling ends of her shawl as if that would ward off the evil that surrounded the house and kept them all prisoners.
“Inez,” Murdoch growled over his shoulder as he hung onto Buck, “That isn’t helping.”
Charlie Bear Claw raised his hands to the ceiling, chanting softly. All around the room people cowered, frightened by the terrible onslaught of the howling wind. Looking more like he was in a trance rather than thoughtful prayer, Charlie lowered his head, beckoned to Johnny with eyes dark as midnight. “You must go. He waits for you and will not let the girl go unless you stop him here and now.”
“What do you mean?” Johnny asked, knowing deep down inside him exactly what Charlie meant but not knowing exactly how to go about doing it.
“He’s waiting for you,” Charlie repeated in that slow hypnotic voice that sent shivers up and down Johnny’s spine.
Charlie closed his eyes, swaying slightly back and forth from the waist up, his hands held palm forward toward the front door.
Johnny took the cue, small as it was and began making his way past the guests toward the front door.
Scott grabbed his arm when Johnny started past him, “Oh no you don’t. Not this time.”
Johnny jerked his arm free and glared at Scott. “I’ve got to get out there.”
“You could get killed.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“I didn’t say you were little brother. But let’s not be stupid. There’s a storm outside and you wouldn’t make it three feet past the door. Look out there,” he exclaimed, going around behind Johnny, taking him by the shoulders and pushing him toward the French doors. “Even you can’t fight the forces of nature. Let it pass. Then we’ll got out together and find Belle.”
Johnny huffed and turned away from the maelstrom. “You don’t understand.” He looked at his father, then back to Scott. “None of you understand. I’ve got to do this.”
“Johnny,” Murdoch began.
On silent feet Charlie made his way to Johnny and said, “He must go…now.”
Johnny shook his head and with Charlie by his side moved past Scott and his father to the front door.
“Johnny, no,” Murdoch called from across the room.
Johnny put his hand on the door handle, turning his head to meet his father’s eyes. “I have to.” And with those words Johnny lifted the latch and the door flew open.
In that instant of opening the door, and with Charlie Bear Claw standing right behind him, Johnny saw that the sky was a swirling black and blue mass filled with streamers of roiling gray clouds that twisted and turned, whirl pooling into a vortex of energy so extreme the ground fairly trembled with its force.
For a moment Johnny was struck dumb by the sight of it, scared if the truth were known because the magnetic energy force seemed to want to suck him right out the door and into the middle of the frenzy. He felt his heart pounding in his chest, but he clenched his fist determined more than ever to find Belle and rid the world once and for all of Absalom Weir.
Johnny knew it was Absalom Weir. The very air around him reeked of Weir’s scent, sulfur, decaying death and mayhem. He swallowed taking little comfort from the hand that squeezed his shoulder. “You go now. You’re a warrior. The Great Spirit has blessed you and there is no need to fear. Go. Do what you have to do.”
Charlie was right. He had been all along. This was Johnny’s destiny, his trial and tribulation and there wasn’t anything his family could do to help him.
Johnny checked his gun belt, snug against his lean hip, the holster tied low against his thigh. He slipped the leather thong off the hammer and slid the weapon up and down testing the ease of his draw. It pulled easily and with great familiarity, feeling more like an extension of his person than something he actually strapped to his body on a daily basis. If he once feared, it was all but gone and with his resolve, so was the raging storm outside in the same instant.
The sky opened up, clear and sparkling bright with all the lights of Heaven blinking a summer night’s welcome. The world slowed, and all things flying hither and thither in the wild wind floated or fell to the ground like chunks of fresh hay, broken and tossed from the loft of their barn.
There was an evil laugh, a strangled cry for help somewhere deep within the arms of darkness, and Johnny walked toward it with all the courage of a knight in shining armor.
When Murdoch and Scott tried to follow, an unforgiving Charlie Bear Claw barred their way with an upraised hand and determined set of his jaw.
“You’s cain’t get past him. No suh,” Obadiah said laughing softly from behind them. “Nobody can. Not right now anyhow. You best just to wait here and calm these folks down ‘til Johnny gets back.”
“I want to know what the hell is going on and I want to know right now,” Murdoch demanded.
“Evil is outside,” Charlie said stoically.
“Evil my foot!” Buck yelled. “Someone has taken my Belle and I want all of you to git out of my way so I can go after her.”
“No one is going anywhere,” Murdoch replied caustically. “It’s bad enough that Johnny’s gone out there looking for Belle and God only knows what without having you get hurt trying to do the same thing.”
“But you’re just standing there, doing nothing!” Buck accused.
Murdoch whirled on the older man, “I’m doing nothing because I’m not sure what the hell is going on and I don’t have the time or the inclination to pacify an itchy fingered old man.”
The barb hit home and calmed Buck down a little, but Belle was still missing, hurt for all he knew.
Murdoch turned back to the front door and the stoic Indian who barred the exit to the outside world. “I want to know what’s going on, Charlie. I want to know why the doors won’t open and why the weather seems to turn off and on of its own free will.”
Charlie was slow answering Murdoch. But when he did, the answer sent chills up and down the rancher’s spine.
“The Devil has come to claim what he thinks is his,” was the unhurried response.
“What the devil does that mean?” Murdoch shouted louder than he intended out of pure frustration.
“It means that Johnny has to finish what the Devil started or none of us will be free,” Charlie answered evenly.
“That’s it! You aren’t going to keep my father or me from going out there and finding out what’s going on.” Angrily Scott tried the glass doors again and found them still closed tight as a drum with no amount of twisting, pulling or shoving making a difference.
“Scott!” Murdoch called from across the room.
Scott stormed over to where Murdoch stood near the front door, barely keeping himself from shoving at anyone who dared to be in his way.
“That’s my brother out there, Devil or not and I’m going to find him and Belle. Are you coming with me?”
Murdoch sighed, turning his head to look at Charlie Bear Claw’s profile. The man didn’t flinch, standing in the doorway like a stone statue, or look their way.
“I’m going with you.” He addressed the room full of people, “Stay inside. Jelly, you get my rifle and make sure everyone stays put while we search for Johnny and Belle.”
“You got it, Boss,” Jelly said, making his way across the room to the gun rack on the wall. He pulled down Murdoch’s favorite rifle and made his way through the guest to the front door.
Their gun belts buckled, Jelly handed Murdoch his rifle with a grim look on his bearded face. “Be careful…both of you, and bring them two kids back home soon as you can.”
Murdoch clamped a hand on Jelly’s shoulder, glad to have the old handyman as a friend. He would have conveyed the message in look and feel of hand but just as he was about to give the older man a firm squeeze on the shoulder for assurance, gunfire crackled outside, sounding like war zone.
At that moment, Charlie Bear Claw stepped away from the door’s entrance and said, “It is time now.”
Murdoch wasn’t sure what the hell the man meant but it didn’t take him or Scott another second to know that they were needed. All hell was breaking loose and fear gripped their hearts as they ran out the front door unhindered by Charlie.
When Buck would have followed, Jelly held him back with a firm grip on the old man’s elbow.
“Dang blasted, Jelly! Would you let me go!” Buck shouted.
Jelly clenched his teeth tight and jerked on Buck’s arm. “Murdoch said I was to keep you and ever’body else inside and that’s what I plan on doing. Now hush up and let ‘em do what they gotta do.”
Murdoch and Scott could hear shouting and cursing, the unexpected sound of several voices cutting through the clear night.
He didn’t know who was speaking, shouting rather, but he could hear the unmistakable command of, “Stop ye shooting, stop ye shooting! Ye’ll never get him from here boys. We canna fight what we canna see.”
“I think Johnny got him,” another voice said loud and clear.
“Don’t matter if he got him or not, that beast been shot clean through more ‘n once by Johnny and he’s still kickin’ ‘n screamin’ like some wild banshee.”
A woman’s voice, a clear frightened scream echoed away, the sound fading as it drifted toward the dark purple mountains that bordered the ranch.
The sound of pounding feet running toward them caused Murdoch and Scott to draw up their weapons. Unbelievably three men came into view looking oddly familiar and yet they were total strangers to Murdoch and Scott.
The five men stared at one another in the starry night, none of them quite sure what to say with each of them toting a weapon and all of them pointed straight at the heart of the person in front of them.
Murdoch was the first to catch his breath, to find reason in his mind once again. He said with more calm than he felt, “Who are you and what are you doing on my land?”
“We’re here to help ye’re son.”
“Johnny?” Scott asked before Murdoch could respond.
“What are ye daft, of course I mean Johnny.”
“Where is my son?” Murdoch asked before Scott could work up any indignation over the barb to his mental capabilities.
Before the man could respond a single shot shattered the night. Eerily the sound echoed, bouncing off the walls of the mountains, thundering in their ears.
“I think, Sir, you just got the answer to your question,” said the younger of the three men, dressed in an outfit that would have rivaled the plaid pants and turtle neck sweater Scott had worn during his first week at Lancer. “I suggest we lower our arms and wait like gentleman.”
“If that means I can finally put down this buffalo duster, I’d surely be obliged.”
Murdoch might have smiled at the old timer if the situation wasn’t so extreme. He lowered his rifle and motioned for Scott to holster his gun, not knowing why but feeling it was the right thing to do.
Hard footsteps pounded at his back and Murdoch turned to find Jelly running up behind him with a rifle in his hands.
“What the Sam hill is going on ‘round here?” Jelly asked breathlessly.
“It’s alright, Jelly. Put your rifle down,” Murdoch said catching his friend by the shoulders and stopping his headlong plunge toward the three strangers.
Huffing, Jelly lowered his rifle and stared at the other men. “Well I’ll be, iffen it ain’t them fellers that Johnny told us about.”
Murdoch frowned, his eyebrows drawing together. “What friends?”
“I think I know the ones he’s talking about, Murdoch,” Scott answered.
“Who?” Murdoch asked having forgotten about Johnny’s supposed wild adventure and the friends he’d made along the way. In fact, he hadn’t given his son’s tale much more than the obligatory nod of the head, thinking Johnny had dreamt most of it while he lay unconscious.
The three strangers had lowered their weapons and the older man spoke for all of them, “I’m Andrew Duggan, and this,” he pointed to the dandy, “is Wayne Maunder and Paul Brinegar. Friends of ye’re son, Johnny.”
Murdoch shook his head, closing and opening his eyes as if trying to clear a fog from his brain. “You can’t be…”
At that moment Charlie Bear Claw and Obadiah joined the group. Charlie walked right past everyone, his black obsidian eyes glued to the darkness beyond the pale lights glowing from the house.
“It’s almost over,” Obadiah whispered.
Seconds ticked by while everyone stood stock still, waiting, watching. And then as if from out of nowhere, from the blackest void that ever was came the soft footfalls of a walking man.
Murdoch held his breath; Scott stepped forward, hesitantly, hopeful, his face a granite mask until he saw that it was his brother.
The smile that broke all their faces would have lit up the world if such a thing could happen. Johnny walked toward them, smiling back at them, his eyes glowing with success, his arms laden with the willowy figure of a girl. Belle, his Sleeping Beauty.
The family made their way back to the house, greeted by a throng of party guests who spilled out the front door anxious to see if all was well. When they saw that Belle was safe, cradled in Johnny’s strong arms, their voices raised in joy for his success, the cheerful harmony of their praise a welcoming sound after the thunderous passing of the tumultuous storm that had driven them all inside with fear.
Murdoch steered Johnny and his burden towards the patio and the French doors, thinking perhaps they would be able to move whatever debris the raging storm had tossed against them, blocking them closed. All around the patio lay the evidence of the wicked wind’s fury, chairs were turned over, some of the lanterns had been ripped from the line holding them, the table cloths had been torn from the tables, and the dishes and utensils littered the stone floor.
Glass crunched and cutlery scattered with a metal ting as their feet displaced the ruined remains as they traversed the patio area. Scott hurried forward to open the French doors. The little procession halted at his sharply declared question.
“How the hell did that get there?”
“What, Scott?” Questioned Murdoch as he stepped forward.”
“That!” He stipulated as he pointed to the black cane, decorated with the silver ornamental top, which had been pushed through the metal looped handles of the door, like a locking bar.
Johnny pulled Belle in closer to his chest, and increased the pressure of his hold on her. He swallowed back the sick ominous feeling churning in his stomach that the sight of the cane induced.
“Weir . . .” Johnny whispered.
“Did you say something, Johnny?” Murdoch inquired as he easily slid the walking implement from the handles and swung the doors open.
“I said it was Weir . . .Weird.”
Stretching, Johnny tried to force his body to get moving, but instead he relaxed his limbs and burrowed his head back down onto his pillow. He relished the breeze wafting across his room, teasing his skin with its cool caress. It was a welcome relief from the heat they had been experiencing lately. The current of air lifted the sweaty hair from his brow, and chilled the moisture on his face, until it evaporated all together. His eyes were betraying his intentions of waking, slowly fluttering closed again. He breathed in deep as sleep enticed him to return to its arms, as he did he realized the air had the scrubbed clean smell that proceeded rainstorms.
The thought was already fleeing his consciousness, when he was rudely pulled towards alert wakefulness by a knock on his door. The bedroom door swung open as the rap on the wood was still ringing in his ears. Scott entered the room and grinned at the site of his little brother, hair raked about his head at odd angles and sleepy blue eyes.
“You planning on staying in bed all day?”
Throwing back his covers and swinging his legs over the bed, Johnny further mussed his hair as he scrubbed his hands up and down his face and then forced his fingers to comb through the dark strands. Scott cleared his throat and drew his attention upward. His cut off long johns dangled from the end of his brother’s finger.
“Oops…sorry…I got hot and took them off last night.” Johnny explained as he tried to coordinate his sleep heavy limbs into the drawers.
Johnny stood up and looked curiously at Scott, blinking his eyes and then forcing them wider open. / I wonder if Scott shaved this morning, if he did it already looks like he has a five o’clock shadow./
Scratching his head in perplexity Johnny shuffled to his washstand, he did a double take when he saw his favorite shirt was soaking in his washbowl. He had put that in there over a week ago…why was it still there? His mind roared with confusion until he didn’t even realize Scott was speaking to him.
“Huh. . .what did you say, Scott?” he asked, as his eyes darted wildly about the room trying to decide what day it was.
“I asked why you didn’t pick up Murdoch’s saddle when you were in town yesterday. You know, the one you ordered for his birthday. The party is just a week away.”
Johnny spun and stared at his brother in befuddled mystification. His puzzlement left such a blank look on his face that Scott moved beside him, fearing his brother was about to pass out.
“Are you all right, Johnny?”
“I’m fine,” he stated, though his heart was beating erratically. “Walt delivered the saddle out to Buck Morgan’s by mistake. I have to ride over there and get it.” For some reason the words left him feeling an out of control sensation, and oddly enough it seemed familiar.
“That could turn into a real adventure,” Scott snorted as he turned to leave his brother to his morning ablutions. “Buck’s not known for his friendliness.”
Neither brother noticed the strong breeze that blew in through the open window, ruffling the curtains and fluttering them away from the wall, revealing a black, silver tipped walking stick hidden behind the folds of the voluminous cloth.