“Anytime you’re ready, friend.”
Scott Lancer stood face to face with the man who was about to kill him.
The tall, blond Easterner almost smiled to himself as he considered the irony of his situation. He had lived through months of shot and shell while serving in the War Between the States; suffered a year enduring horrendous conditions in a Confederate prison camp: and now he was going to die because of a simple argument over a girl.
Given his past record where women were concerned, maybe it should not have come as such a surprise. Back in Boston Scott had been popular with the ladies; good looks, charm and impeccable manners went a long way, but to most people, money was much more important. The heir to a very successful accountancy business, Scott was considered a ‘good catch’ and hopeful mothers had thrust their pretty ringleted daughters his way with a view to marriage. Scott had no regrets about his dalliances with women; it had been a means to try and forget the horrors of war. He was alive while others had died. Surely that was something to be grateful for, wasn’t it? However, he had quickly become tired of his feckless way of life.
Starting afresh at Lancer had opened his eyes. Scott had embraced the freedom from the bustling city and revelled in the beauty of the mountains, valleys and lush grasslands which surrounded his new home. Most of all, he had discovered his family – a father who he had never known and a brother he never even knew existed - Johnny Madrid Lancer, ex-gunfighter.
There lay the greater irony, he thought grimly. Johnny had faced countless gunfights in his life and yet he was still alive to tell the tale. His brother never spoke of his time as a gunfighter and although he was curious, Scott never asked. Although they were close, the two young men still held secrets of their own, and each respected the other’s reticence on their pasts. Now, faced with his own gunman, Scott wondered if he should have asked Johnny for some advice on how to defeat such a determined and lethal opponent.
In a matter of minutes, Scott knew he could be dead and yet time had seemingly stood still. Less than a week ago, he had been at Lancer with no inkling of the tragedy which was about to unfold. No way of knowing that his life might well end in a small, unremarkable town miles away from home and that the unexpected turn of events had all begun with the innocent arrival of a letter.
Five days earlier
Scott glanced up from his book and looked across at his father who was standing by the French doors.
“How many parcels has Teresa brought home this time?” he asked with a smile.
“Oh, not that many,” Murdoch answered as he watched his youngest son help his ward down from the wagon. “And Johnny doesn’t look that unhappy.”
Scott chuckled and set aside his volume of Dickens before rising from his seat and crossing to open the front door.
Going outside, he stood on the porch grinning as Teresa grumbled at Johnny as he started to unload the wagon. Spotting Scott, the young girl turned her attention to him and he forced a serious expression onto his face as she came forward.
“Scott, your brother is impossible!”
“I couldn’t agree more,” he replied, casting an amused glance at his dark-haired sibling.
“Hey!” protested Johnny. “What did I do?”
“What did you do?” Teresa exclaimed, rounding on her ‘brother’. “I’ll tell you what you did, Johnny Lancer. I asked you to wait by the wagon for five minutes until I’d collected my purchases, but when I came out from the shop, you’d disappeared!”
“I only called in the saloon for one little beer,” Johnny reasoned. “And I figured you’d be hours in the drapery store anyway.”
“I was there for fifteen minutes, that’s all,” Teresa argued. “And I looked in at the saloon, but you weren’t there either.”
“Where’d you go, Brother?”
“I went to see Val, and then headed over to the General store for the post,” Johnny told him. He piled the last of Teresa’s parcels just inside the front door and then returned to pick up a bundle of correspondence from the wagon seat.
“Anything interesting, Son?” Murdoch asked as he appeared on the threshold.
Johnny leafed casually through the letters. “Oh, the usual - bills and stuff, although….” He looked up at his brother, a gleam of mischief in his blue eyes. “There is a letter for Scott, postmarked Boston.”
The blond shrugged. “It’s probably just from Grandfather. He owes me a letter.”
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t think so, big brother. Not unless ol’ Harlan’s taken to using scented envelopes.”
Scott’s face coloured and he made a sudden grab for the envelope, but Johnny danced quickly away and hid it behind his back.
“Johnny…….” His brother’s warning tone only served to amuse him more and he playfully held the letter teasingly above his head when Scott lunged towards him.
“Johnny, let him have his letter,” Murdoch interceded, a smile on his lips at the childish antics of his grown sons.
Johnny glanced at his father and then back at Scott. He hesitated a moment longer, then grinned and handed the envelope over.
“Thank you, Scott said a perplexed frown on his face as he eyed the unfamiliar handwriting.
“Well, ain’t you gonna open it?”
The slightly exasperated note in Johnny’s voice brought the smile back to Scott’s lips. “All in good time, Brother,” he replied, tucking the letter into his belt. “All in good time.”
The younger man watched open-mouthed as his sibling turned and walked into the hacienda. It was obvious that Scott had no idea whom the letter was from and yet he had chosen to wait before opening it. Hearing Murdoch and Teresa chuckle Johnny glanced at them briefly, before he shrugged his shoulders and joined in with their laughter.
It was well after dinner that the subject of the letter came up again. Johnny had been out to the barn to check on his beloved palomino, Barranca. The horse had sustained bruising after being kicked on the offside hind leg by a new mare. The limb had stiffened up and Johnny had rested the animal for a few days. Happily, the move had paid off and Barranca was now recovering well.
Returning to the house, a much-relieved Johnny entered the great room to find his family quietly occupied in their own way. Murdoch was at his desk sifting through some paperwork and Teresa was engrossed in the never-ending task of mending work-clothes. However, the ex-gunfighter’s gaze immediately alighted on his sibling’s lean form sitting on the sofa and a slow grin spread across his face as he spotted the thin sheets of paper in Scott’s hand.
Crossing the room, Johnny plopped himself down on the sofa next to the older man, jogging Scott in the process and strangely reminiscent of the first time they had met on the stage to Morro Coyo.
“So, who is she?”
Scott gave a slight smile, carefully folded the letter, and returned it to the envelope before looking around at his brother. “She is an old friend.”
Johnny waited, his head turned quizzically to one side as he regarded the blond. “Ah, huh. Just an old friend?”
His persistence amused Scott and he glanced briefly down at the envelope on his lap before answering. “Her name is Caroline Harvey. I went to college with her older brother, James and the family lived near us in Boston. James became a lawyer and the family moved away just after I joined the Army. When I came home after the War, I learned that James had died…”
“Hey, I’m sorry.” Johnny’s humour faded swiftly as he realised he had stirred up sad memories for his brother.
“It’s all right,” Scott answered. “It happened a while back now. James was killed in a riding accident and there was talk of Caroline and her family coming back to live in Boston.”
“And did they?”
“Not until after I came out here. Grandfather wrote and told me a few months back.”
“So, were you sweet on her?” The teasing note was back in the younger man’s voice.
Scott laughed. “Johnny, the last time I saw Caroline, she must have been around fourteen or fifteen!”
“Oh.” Johnny fell silent as he did a little mental arithmetic and then he smiled and punched his brother lightly on the arm. “Guess she’s all grown up now, huh?”
“That she is,” Scott agreed. “As a matter of fact, she’s about to get married.”
“Married! You going to the wedding?”
“More than that, Brother,” Scott replied. “Caroline has asked me to give her away.”
Teresa glanced up from her mending, a puzzled frown on her face. “What about her father?”
The blond glanced across at his ‘sister’. “He’s been an invalid for virtually most of his life. That’s why they moved away in the hope the climate would improve his health. Needless to say, it didn’t and now Charles Harvey is bedridden. Caroline has been forced to put off her wedding twice now and her father doesn’t want her to postpone it again.”
“So she asked you instead?” Johnny said.
Scott smiled. “A poor substitute, I know, but yes she did”.
“When’s the wedding?” Teresa asked brightly. Any news of a wedding, however far away was always of interest to the young woman.
“Just over a week,” Scott replied with a quick look at the letter lying in his lap. “The twenty-fifth.”
Murdoch, who up to now had been listening silently to the three-way conversation, stopped what he was doing and glanced over at his elder son.
“The twenty-fifth, you say?”
Scott turned round to look at his father. “Yes, sir. Is that going to be a problem?”
The Lancer patriarch lifted his large frame from his chair and walked over to stand in front of the fireplace. “It might,” he admitted, smoothing down his grey hair. “Don’t you remember I asked you to go down to Fort Bryant to negotiate that livestock contract with the Army?”
Scott swore softly under his breath. He had forgotten that he had agreed with his father to travel to the fort north of Fresno. If he went, there would no way he could make it back in time to leave for Boston.
“Hey, I could do that,” interjected Johnny. “Don’t need no silver tongue to sweet-talk those horse soldiers.”
Scott shot him a grateful glance, but Murdoch seemed far from happy.
“I want Scott to go, Johnny,” he replied. “He knows how the Army works. Besides, I want you here to oversee the branding while I’m away in Sacramento for the Cattlemen’s Association meeting.”
The two brothers looked at each other, recognising their father’s inflexible tone and they knew it was going to be difficult to change his mind. It did make sense for Scott to go Fort Bryant, while Johnny remained at the ranch. A former solider like Scott knew all about Army procedures, which could sometimes be frustrating and fraught with delays. Johnny might not have the patience to hang around to broker the deal and the enterprise could prove costly to the Lancer ranch. There seemed to be no simple way out of the situation and Murdoch was not a man to be easily swayed.
Scott, on the other hand, could be just as determined as his father and in his mind the trip down to the fort could wait. He felt honoured that Caroline had asked him to give her away at her wedding and he did not want to let her down.
“With respect, sir, I’m sure the Army can wait a little longer for their contract and even if Johnny went in my place, he could negotiate a good price for the stock. As for the branding, Cipriano is more than capable of supervising that.”
Johnny nodded in agreement and looked up at this father expectantly, but Murdoch’s stern expression told a different story. The older man glared pointedly at Scott and from the firm set of his brother’s jaw, Johnny could see trouble brewing.
“The contract won’t wait, Scott. I’ve arranged with General Soames that you will be at the fort by the twenty-third...”
“Murdoch,” Scott interrupted. “As you rightly pointed out, I know how the Army works and I can guarantee you that even if I get there by the twenty-third, the General will keep me waiting around for much longer.”
The tall rancher’s steely gaze did not falter as he regarded his elder son.“I don’t care how long you have to wait around, young man,” he growled. “You’re going and that’s final!”
Scott went white with anger and clutching his letter in his hand, he rose abruptly to his feet. “Fine! I’d better go pack my things if I’m to leave first thing in the morning.”
He went to go, but Murdoch caught him by the arm as he realised he had spoken too harshly.
“Scott, you don’t have to leave for a few days….”
“Oh? I thought that’s what you ordered!”
Murdoch winced at the younger man’s bitter tone. “Son, I didn’t mean it to sound like that.”
“No? Well, that’s just how it sounded.” Scott snapped back. “And as you keep reminding Johnny and me, you’re the one who calls the tune around here.” He snatched his arm from his father’s grasp and took a step away. “Now if you will excuse me, sir, I have a letter to write to Caroline, explaining why I won’t be able to escort her at her wedding. I’ll leave for the fort at first light.”
Scott turned quickly on his heel, but Murdoch was not prepared to let him go like that. “Son... wait.”
The blond paused and suddenly swung around to face his father. “This isn’t about me just wanting to go to the wedding, is it?”
“What do you mean?” Murdoch sounded edgy.
“This is about me going to Boston,” Scott went on tersely. “You’re so convinced that once I’m under Grandfather’s roof again, he’ll persuade me to stay.”
The senior Lancer’s gaze slid away guiltily. That was exactly what he was thinking. His ex father-in-law was a devious and conniving man and on his previous visit to the ranch, he had resorted to blackmail to try to force Scott back to Boston. Although he knew his elder son was intelligent enough to see through Harlan’s schemes. Murdoch feared that Scott might find it difficult to resist the old man’s influence during his stay.
“He tried it before,” he admitted grudgingly.
“And you don’t trust me to say no, do you?” Scott replied.
Murdoch made no reply and shaking his head in disbelief, Scott walked over to the doorway, but turned back to glance at his father.
“You need to learn to trust your sons’ judgement, Murdoch,” he added. “Or one day, you might find you’ll lose them forever.”
Murdoch blanched, but could only stand impotently as Scott stormed from the room. His quick footsteps upstairs and the subsequent slamming of his bedroom door heralded an uncomfortable silence in the great room. Johnny and Teresa exchanged anxious glances and watched warily as Murdoch continued to stare after his absent son, his large hands clenched in tight fists. Feeling their gaze upon him, he turned and looked directly at Johnny.
“Well, no doubt you’ve got something to add?”
Johnny pursed his lips and got up slowly from the sofa to face the older man.
“Nope, I reckon Scott said it all.”
Scott pushed his chestnut mount steadily southwards. As intended, he had left the ranch at first light the previous day. Although the empty miles had taken the sting out of his anger, he was still annoyed with his father. Murdoch’s dictatorial manner had infuriated him and although Scott realised it was somewhat childish to leave the hacienda in such a churlish mood, he felt it would be better for all concerned if he were as far away as possible.
Despite the fact it was impossible for him to conclude his business at the fort and make the journey to Boston, Scott was travelling with a sense of urgency. It made him feel better to be moving quickly, and helped to ease his sense of guilt over having to disappoint Caroline regarding her wedding plans. No doubt, she would find someone to take his place, but Scott felt that he had let her down. He would also have liked to see the Harvey family again after all these years, but his father seemed determined that all his past connections with Boston should be severed completely.
Although Scott was happily settled at Lancer, however, he did not intend to do anything of the kind, especially of course while his grandfather was still alive. Murdoch’s dislike of his former father-in-law bordered on hatred, although the two men had parted on rather more amicable terms at their last meeting. Scott knew that his father still did not trust Harlan and would rather keep him well away from his influence.
Scott slowed his horse to a walk, then stopped and reached for his canteen. Taking a long drink, his took off his hat and wiped his sweaty brow with his sleeve. The trail was hot and dusty, and after a night sleeping on the hard ground, Scott was ready for a proper bed. Soft Easterner, he thought wryly. He had to admit that sometimes, he still hankered for the comfortable life he had had in the city. However, in his heart, he knew he would never be able to stomach it again. He had adapted to life out West quicker than he and everybody else expected, and Scott was not about to throw that away now.
Now that he had calmed down somewhat, Scott was also beginning to see his father’s side of the argument. Yes, Murdoch had grudgingly admitted the real reason why he objected to Scott’s plans to go to Boston. However, the contract to supply livestock to the fort was a lucrative business plan, and as a part owner of the ranch, Scott should play his part in the negotiations. Maybe he was being selfish in wishing to forgo the chance to make good money for the ranch, merely to fulfil a social engagement hundreds of miles away.
When he and Johnny first came to Lancer, Murdoch had told them he wanted their arms, legs, and guts to help in the fight to keep the ranch from land pirates. What he had really meant was that he wanted their commitment. Scott and his brother had worked hard to demonstrate their commitment, yet there were times when they felt like hired hands. Their father had put his heart and soul into Lancer and had made it one of the largest and most successful ranches in the area. Although Scott did not want to forget his old friends and life in Boston, his first loyalty should be to Murdoch and the ranch. Perhaps, he now thought, he had been wrong to lose his temper with his father and he should swallow his pride and apologise for being so self-centred.
Replacing his hat, Scott hung the canteen back on the saddle horn and gathered up Charlie’s reins. If he was going to sleep easy tonight, he ought to get going. He would stop in the next nearest town; maybe stay for a few days, before continuing his journey to the fort. If he could negotiate a good price for the livestock, he could return home in a better frame of mind than when he left. He needed to talk his father and find a way to convince him that he made his home at Lancer and that he intended to stay. There had to be some common ground they could agree on, and together work towards ensuring the livelihood of the ranch was paramount. It was the only way forward if they were going to maintain the partnership.
Fastening the last of the straps of his saddlebags, Murdoch took a final look around his bedroom to check he had everything. Satisfied, the tall rancher slung them over his shoulder and strode from the room. The rest of his luggage was already loaded onto the wagon and Jelly was waiting to drive him to town where he could catch the eleven o’clock stage to Sacramento.
Walking down the hallway, Murdoch noted that the house seemed unusually quiet, until he detected the faint sound of someone singing. It was Maria, busy as she went about her cleaning chores. Murdoch smiled wistfully to himself as he recognised the Mexican tune. Johnny’s mother, another Maria, used to sing it in her happier days at Lancer. It was a long time since he had heard that song and the memory was still bittersweet.
His youngest son’s bedroom door was closed as he passed by. Johnny had barely spoken to him since the night of his disagreement with Scott. Murdoch knew Johnny had sided with his brother following the altercation and probably still blamed him for Scott’s premature departure. Maybe he had been too harsh with his elder son; but the thought of Scott going to Boston, even for a social occasion, filled him with trepidation. His son had accused him of not trusting him sufficiently, but Murdoch also believed Harlan would try every trick in the book to persuade Scott to stay. Garrett had kept his firstborn away from him for twenty-four years and Murdoch was adamant that there would be no repeat of the situation.
As he walked on, he noticed that the door to Scott’s room was open and after a moment’s hesitation, he entered. Murdoch was always pleasantly surprised on how neat and tidy his son’s room was. Johnny’s bedroom always looked like a hurricane had torn through it. Scott’s bed had been stripped off and the windows thrown open to air the room. Although it was part of the normal cleaning routine, it felt as though Scott had gone for good. When his sons first came home, Murdoch always thought Johnny would be the one to leave. His younger boy had a wayward spirit, no doubt inherited from both his parents, and Murdoch always feared that he would return to his former life as a gunfighter.
Scott was the stable one, a man who normally thought before he acted. He had settled in at Lancer surprisingly quickly. For all his privileged upbringing, he was no arrogant snob and he was well respected by the ranch hands and townsfolk alike. Murdoch valued both his sons’ worth, but he tended to think that Scott would always be there and that maybe he sometimes took him for granted.
Murdoch sighed and glanced around the bedroom, unconsciously searching for some sign of his son’s physical presence. The empty room unnerved him somehow and he found himself wandering over to the bureau where Scott kept his personal items. The silver hairbrush, a gift from his grandfather, was still there. It was a reassuring sight, as Scott would never have left it behind if he did not intend to return home. A shaft of sunlight picked out a strand of ash blond hair and Murdoch felt a tightness in his chest as he recalled his son’s anger the other night. The business contract at Fort Bryant was important, but it could have waited until Scott came back from his friend’s wedding. His refusal to budge on the matter had antagonised his son and inadvertently caused a rift that could prove difficult to heal.
Acting on sudden impulse, Murdoch crossed quickly over to the wardrobe and opened the double doors. To his relief, most of Scott’s clothing was still inside. His smart city suits and shirts hung alongside his functional work-clothes. Now he was experienced at riding the trail, Scott had only what he needed, a spare shirt, socks and undergarments. His son was coming home again and Murdoch was thankful for it. Scott was right; he should trust him more and recognise that he was perfectly capable of making his own decisions. Murdoch now realised he had overreacted when Scott had said he was going to Boston. He had let his poor opinion of Harlan Garret colour his judgement and he had underestimated his son’s determination to resist all his former father-in-law’s tricks. Scott had learnt the hard way how cunning his grandfather could be and it was highly doubtful he would fall into the same trap again.
The female voice made him turn to see the surprised face of Maria. She had her hands full of clean bed linen and it was obvious she had expected to find the room empty.
“Maria. I’m sorry, I startled you,” Murdoch apologised quickly. “I was just…..” He paused as he realised he was still standing by Scott’s open wardrobe and conscious of Maria’s curious expression, he closed the doors guiltily.
“It is all right, Senor,” Maria answered. “I just came to make up Senor Scott’s bed for when he comes home.”
Murdoch gave a faint nod. At least she believed Scott was coming back, he thought wryly. Scott was not a man who ran away from his troubles, no more than his brother was. However, Murdoch’s paranoia over Garrett had driven his son from the house and he needed to apologise to Scott on his return. He just hoped the boy was in a mood to listen.
“Well, I’d better get going,” he told her. “Jelly’s probably chomping at the bit to be off.”
Maria smiled. “Have a good trip, Senor.”
Exiting the room, Murdoch felt a happier man than he had before. Maybe the time away from each other would soothe the tempers of both father and son, and they would be able to resolve their differences when they returned home. They were still adjusting to family life together and every family had their fair share of problems. Sometimes though, Murdoch just wished there was less of them to worry about.
Stapleton was a pretty nondescript kind of a town. The usual mix of shops and businesses peppered the rutted main street. There was a small bank, the telegraph office, bathhouse, and the sheriff’s office. A church, with its white, flaking weatherboarding, stood at one end of the town and the livery stable was situated at the opposite end. As usual, the main hub of the town was the saloon, the Golden Bear, and it was here Scott Lancer sat at a lonely table in the corner.
He had arrived in Stapleton late the previous evening and managed to find a room in the town’s only boarding house. His room was tiny, but adequate for his needs; and Scott just had time to snatch a hasty meal before retiring to bed. Because of his hurried supper, he had slept badly and woken the next morning just as tired as when he climbed into bed. Loath to spend another long day in the saddle, Scott decided to stay another day in Stapleton and leave the following morning.
Fort Bryant was still two days ride away, but he had plenty of time to get there, even though he knew he would be cooling his heels when he reached it. A further day away from the ranch, had given him more time to consider his troubles with his father. Another day to realise what an utter idiot he had been! It had been unfair of him when he told Murdoch to trust his sons or lose them forever. Scott had seen the shock on his father’s face and he knew he had gone too far. Murdoch had been without both of his sons for over twenty years and although he was strong, it was doubtful he could face that prospect again. The three of them had led their own independent lives before coming together as a family and they were just as stubborn as each other. They had all said and done things they regretted, but it was too late to put things right now.
“Join you, cowboy?”
Scott looked up, startled by the sudden female voice. The young saloon girl was undeniably pretty, with her long, wavy, auburn hair and clear green eyes. Her taffeta green and black dress complimented her slim, but well-formed figure, and there was an inviting smile on her rouged lips.
Scott’s mouth widened in response; it would be all too easy to forget his worries for a night of passion with this attractive woman, but his problems would still be there in the morning.
“I’m afraid I’m not much up for company tonight, ma’am,” he replied with an apologetic smile.
The girl gave a petulant pout, but she was not about to give up that easily.
“Well, at least you could buy me a drink?”
The blond had to admire her persistence, so he shrugged and signalled to the barkeep for another glass. His female companion gave a triumphant smile, settled herself onto the chair to his right, and waited patiently as he poured her a whiskey. She nodded her thanks as she reached for the glass and took a tentative sip.
“That’s good stuff,” she observed with a surprised lift of her eyebrows. “Better than the rot gut Joe usually dishes out.”
Scott gave a quick grin at her forthrightness, but his smile faded as he lowered his gaze back to his own glass.
“So how come you’ve barely touched yours?”
“What?” he replied, as he glanced back at her.
The girl took another sip of the amber liquid before answering. “Well, you’ve been sitting there all afternoon with that bottle and it’s still almost full.”
Scott sat back in his chair and regarded her steadily. “You’re very observant.”
She shrugged. “It comes with the job.”
Scott frowned, not quite sure what she meant by her remark, but his companion did not elaborate.
“So, handsome,” she went on, leaning forward slightly. “What’s your name?”
“It’s Scott. Scott Lancer.”
The girl smiled and held out her hand. “Glad to know you, Scott. I’m Sophie Lawrence.” She paused and cocked her head to one side thoughtfully. “Hey, don’t that mean we got the same initials?”
“Why, yes it does.”
“Then we must have been destined to meet each other,” Sophie stated emphatically. “I think that calls for a drink,” she added holding out her glass.
In spite of his despondent mood, Scott was amused by her happy-go- lucky attitude and he lifted his glass to clink against hers before taking a drink.
“So, you gonna tell Sophie why you look like you lost your last cent? Good lookin’ fella like you, I bet it’s over some woman.”
He shook his head. “Ah, there you would be wrong.”
“Oh? Then tell me, honey.”
Scott hesitated, reluctant to say anything He was a man who rarely revealed his innermost feelings. His grandfather had instilled that into him at a young age. To do so was a sign of weakness – a chink in one’s armour – and pave a way for enemies to get in. The only person who had got close to him was Johnny and even then, his brother was not privy to everything. Scott had once said to someone that he was a hard man to get to know and he felt the same thing when he tried to talk to his father. He supposed that Murdoch loved him in his own way, but there always seemed to be a barrier between them, which prevented them from getting to know each other. Maybe they were just too much alike.
He glanced at his companion again. Perhaps this was what he needed all along – to unburden his troubles onto a complete stranger and for that person to listen to him without interruption. He would move on tomorrow and she would forget all about him. Scott took a thoughtful drink of whiskey, gave her a faint smile and started talking. To his surprise, he told her everything from receiving the letter from Caroline through to his subsequent argument with his father, which resulted in him leaving the ranch in such a rage.
Sophie sat quietly as Scott spoke, taking occasional sips from her glass. From the moment he had first stepped into the saloon, she had been attracted to his lean physique and blond good looks, but now she was seeing a different side to the young man. In her line of work, she had met many men, some good and some bad, but this one was different. There was a lot of pain and sadness in his blue-grey eyes and it was obvious that he needed to get some things off his chest. His deep refined voice fascinated her and she wondered what had drawn him from back East to a seemingly unfeeling father. From what Scott had told her, she could understand perfectly why he had left his home the way he did.
When Scott finally fell silent, he took another generous swig of his drink before lowering his gaze to the beer-stained table. A slight flush coloured his cheeks as he realised just how much he had told her.
“I’m sorry, Sophie. I shouldn’t have plagued you with my problems.”
She smiled and laid her hand gently on top of his. “It’s alright, honey. You needed to get it said”
Scott nodded. “Maybe you’re right.”
Sophie watched as he dipped his head, his long fingers drawing invisible circles on the table. Most of the men she met were only interested in taking their pleasure in her bed; and although she hated their fumbling, sweaty bodies pressed against her, she knew that for the moment they had forgotten their cares and worries. Although she was physically drawn to the young man beside her, she was keen to find out more about him and find a way to ease his pain.
“Do you love your father, Scott?”
He glanced up quickly at her question, surprised by the look of genuine interest in her green eyes. Scott was still slightly embarrassed that he had opened his heart to the girl who seemed so young, yet spoke with great maturity. ‘Love his father?’ The blond had to admit he had never really considered the question. There was a time when he was growing up in Boston when he had hated Murdoch Lancer. His father had never contacted him once and apparently had abandoned him completely. When the summons came to go to Lancer, the resentment and bitterness he felt had almost been enough to make him refuse, but in the end, curiosity had won out.
The discovery of a younger brother had been a complete shock, but when he found that Johnny shared his animosity towards their father, it had somehow drawn them closer to each other. When Murdoch had offered them both a third share in the ranch and a thousand dollars each, he had been naturally intrigued. Of course, there had been the condition that he and Johnny stay to defend the ranch from Day Pardee’s land pirates. The military man in Scott and Johnny’s past acquaintance with the outlaw had seen to that, although it almost cost his brother his life. After the fight, there was no question about him going back to Boston. Johnny was recovering from his bullet wound and Scott found himself spending a lot of time with a father he had never met. He had come to admire and respect Murdoch for what the man had achieved, but love him. Scott was not sure.
“I don’t know,” he answered at length.
“Sure you do,” Sophie scoffed. “You just don’t want to admit it. Why else would you be beating yourself up over this if you didn’t care about your pa.”
Scott shook his head, amazed at her astuteness. She was right of course. If he really resented his father that much, why was he so troubled about the argument they had had? He sighed and spread his palms across the table.
“It’s just sometimes I think he expects too much of Johnny and I.”
“All parents expect too much of their kids, Scott,” Sophie replied, a little wistfully. “Most times we disappoint them.”
Scott looked at her curiously. From the pensive expression on her face, it was obvious she had a tale to tell too; but was she, was willing to share it with him he wondered.
“It sounds like you’re speaking from personal experience,” he prompted gently.
For the first time since he met her, Sophie seemed unsure of herself. She fiddled with her glass and as she looked down at her drink, there was a glimmer of tears in her eyes. “You don’t want to hear about me.”
“Why not?” Scott asked. “I bored you enough with my ramblings. Besides, I think you’ll find I’m a good listener.”
Sophie studied the Easterner’s handsome features, her resolve almost melting at the sight of his intelligent blue gaze and the sincerity written on his face. Careful girl, she warned herself, you could fall for this one completely, and in her profession, that was a foolish thing to do. Tomorrow he would probably move on and she would never see him again. Sophie was in no doubt that, Scott Lancer was a good man and she envied the woman who would eventually become his wife, but did he really want to learn of her misfortunes in life?
“There’s not much to tell, really,” she said casually. “Dirt poor country girl leaves home hoping to make an honest living, only to find herself working in this God-forsaken hole. Still, if I stayed where I was, I wouldn’t have met you, honey.”
Her seemingly indifferent tone did not convince Scott one bit. The young girl clearly had a lot more to tell and he would remain patient until she felt able to continue. It did not take long before she relented and this time it was he, who remained silent.
“My mama died when I was twelve and with me being the oldest, my pa expected me to help bring up the young’uns. I stuck it out for nearly four years working from sunup to sundown while my pa drank himself stupid on the little money we had. He said he was still grieving for ma, but he was just a pathetic old drunk. I wanted to earn some real money for the kids, so I told him I was leaving. He tried to stop me, but I left anyway. I found me a job here in town with a dressmaker. She was real good to me at first, but then there was some trouble with some money going missing in the store and she accused me of stealing. I told her I weren’t no thief, but she didn’t believe me and fired me. After that, I kind of drifted from job to job until I met Joe and I ended up here.” Sophie paused as she fingered her half-empty glass. “It isn’t easy being a woman on her own, Scott, so I did what I had to earn some money. Anyhow, about a year ago, I’d put enough aside and decided to go back home and see my folks”
“What happened?” Scott enquired softly.
“My pa threw me out!” Sophie cried, her voice breaking into a half sob. “He called me a two-bit whore and told me to get the hell back to the cat-house I came from. He told me he didn’t want any money from me and he didn’t want me under his roof ever again. I’d let him down and I’d let myself down. He never wanted to see me again.”
The blond stared at her sympathetically. As a man, he could not imagine what it was like for a young girl like Sophie to make her own way in the world. Scott was raised in a privileged household and had wanted for nothing, except of course during the war. Yet here was this girl, not much older than Teresa, who had been forced into a life ‘entertaining’ the men who frequented the saloon – a life she clearly hated, but could see no way out of. Nevertheless, Scott was no prude. He had enjoyed the company of saloon girls on more than one occasion, and back East he had been considered as something of a womaniser. However, he could understand Sophie’s plight and it made his own troubles pale into insignificance.
“You should go back, Scott,” Sophie implored, clutching at his arm. “Talk to your father before it’s too late. “
“The longer you leave it, the harder it’ll be,” she continued. “I should have gone home before, instead of thinking I could make it on my own. My pa don’t want me back now. Don’t make the same mistake as me.”
Scott bowed his head as he considered her words. The anguish in her voice told him she was speaking from the heart and she was not spinning him a tale to entice him to her bed. He wished there was some way to help her out of her predicament and reconcile her with her family. As for his own problems, Scott knew that Sophie was right when she said that the longer he left it, the worse it would become. Once he concluded his business, Scott would head home and sort out his difficulties with his father. He only hoped Murdoch was in the mood to listen.
He was just about to say the same to Sophie when a group of men entered the saloon. They were talking loudly to each other and laughing as they made their way over to the bar, but Scott did not give them a second glance until he saw Sophie pale and quickly lower her head.
“What’s wrong?” he asked concerned.
“I was hoping he wouldn’t come here tonight.”
“Larry Holton,” Sophie replied. “His pa’s got a big spread just south of here.”
Scott looked over, his gaze alighting on the dark-haired young man who stood at the centre of the group. He was clearly popular within his circle of friends and he displayed an air of confidence, which bordered on arrogance. Holton also seemed to consider himself as something of a ladies man from the way he was openly appraising the saloon girls, but he was obviously looking for someone in particular.
“He always asks for me,” Sophie continued haltingly. “But I can’t. He always….. hurts me”
The tremor in her voice made Scott glanced at her sharply. He realised that the girl appeared genuinely afraid of the man. He cast another look at Holton hoping he would stick with his friends and leave Sophie alone, but he was quickly disappointed.
“Hey, Sophie,” he called as he finally spotted the hunched figure. “Get over here!”
The girl gave a resigned sigh and made a move to rise, but Scott put his hand on her arm.”
“Stay where you are.”
“Scott, please don’t start anything,” she pleaded.
“I don’t intend to start anything,” he assured her. “But you’re staying put.”
“Sophie!” Holton sounded impatient now and the smile was gone from his handsome features.
“In a minute, honey,” Sophie called back as she looked meaningfully at the blond. “Scott, please let me go to him. I don’t want to see you getting hurt.” She went to get up again, but Scott tightened his grip on her arm.
“Sophie. You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do,” she answered, her eyes bright with tears. “I do what I have too to survive. I don’t have a choice.”
“Everyone has a choice,” Scott insisted.
The girl jumped and her heart lurched painfully as she turned to see Larry Holton striding towards them, his face dark with anger. She swallowed back her fear and stood up only to find Scott rising to place himself between her and the younger man.
“The lady’s with me, Holton,” he stated emphatically.
The other stopped, surprised that the tall stranger knew his name. His cool gaze raked Scott from head to foot and a slow smile broke out on his face.
“Is that right?” he replied disdainfully. He regarded Scott for a moment longer and then his eyes flickered over to Sophie. “You’d better tell your new boyfriend to back off or I might be forced to shoot him.”
Holton made to push past Scott, but the Bostonian stood his ground.
“You obviously didn’t hear what I said, Holton. Sophie’s with me.”
The younger man shot him a hostile glare. “And you obviously don’t know my reputation.”
“I know you like to hurt women.”
Holton laughed. “Is that what she told you?”
Scott did not reply; but a flicker of doubt made him glance quickly at Sophie. However, the girl still looked scared and instinct told him she was telling the truth.
Holton saw the brief uncertainty in the other’s eyes and knew he had the upper hand. However, there was a more effective way to resolve the situation. “Seems to me there’s only one way to settle this, mister.”
He backed away from Scott until he was effectively blocking the saloon’s main exit and his right hand dropped to his hip, fingers inches away from his Colt. “Anytime you’re ready, friend,” he breathed.
Chairs were hastily scraped back and vacated as the other occupants of the saloon realised what was about to happen. Scott looked around, surprised at the swift turn of events, and could only stare in shocked silence at the young man standing resolutely before him. He had sat down earlier that afternoon looking forward to nothing more than a quiet drink, only to find himself in a life or death situation. If it had not been so serious, he might have been moved to laughter, but it was obvious that Holton was intent in his actions.
Sophie Lawrence, too, was surprised by the speed in which this confrontation had come about, but she knew she had to do something to avert tragedy. Pulling herself from Scott’s grasp, she hurried over to Holton.
“Larry, this doesn’t have to happen,” she cried, reaching out her hand. “I’ll go with you tonight.”
“Get away from me, you bitch!” Holton spat back, his eyes never wavering from Scott. “I don’t want you no more.”
Sophie gasped and she shrank back in horror. Everyone in town knew that Larry Holton was the fastest gun around these parts. Scott did not stand a chance against him. It was her fault that it had come to this and she was powerless to stop it. Moving aside, she stole a quick glance at Scott who stood tensely facing the gunman. She should have known that Holton would react badly if he found another man paying her attention. Not that she considered herself a great beauty, but she knew how possessive he was. Holton liked nothing better than to intimidate people and his prowess with a gun assured him of that. However, she sensed that Scott Lancer was not a man who was easily frightened. His eyes bore no sign of fear, although his tightly clenched jaw belied his tension.
For his part, Holton knew he was in complete control of the situation and was supremely confident. His opponent might not look scared, but deep down he had to be quaking in his boots. Holton knew he was not from around town – his accent sounded too dandified for that – but that was no excuse for trying to steal his girl. Sophie Lawrence was his property. He owned her and he could do what he liked with her. Too bad the stranger did not know how fast he was with a gun. It did not really matter now. He would be dead soon.
“I’m waiting, Mister,” he taunted, an expectant smile on his lips.
Even though Scott was proficient with a handgun, he suspected Holton was better and faster. However, there was no question of him backing out. It was ironic that he was the one who faced this test, not his brother who had lived by the gun most of his young life. Scott wondered how Johnny had felt before a gunfight – fear or exhilaration - probably both. His brother had never spoken much about the men he had faced, the men he had killed. How could he, even though it had been all he knew before he came home to Lancer. Was Johnny as scared as he felt now or did he face the prospect of death with studied indifference?
Scott wet his dry lips, his gaze fixed on those of his opponent waiting for a single flicker that meant he was about to draw, but all he saw was a stony impassive stare. It was time.
It is said that, when one is faced with certain death, your whole life flashes before your eyes. Scott Lancer had faced the prospect of dying many times. He was not sure the old cliché was untrue. Time certainly slowed down and you saw the world with startling clarity. However, all Scott saw was the confident face of Holton; the other people in the saloon were merely hazy shadows in the background. Maybe he should try to talk his way out of the situation, but not because he was a coward. He wanted to argue for common sense to prevail, even though he suspected his adversary would not want to listen. There were also his three friends to consider and Scott had a feeling that they would back Holton all the way. There was no way they were going to let him leave the saloon unscathed. It was now or never and he knew he just had to take his chances and draw.
His right hand flew to his revolver, but even as he snatched it from his holster and fired, he knew he was way too slow. A searing pain in his left side confirmed this and Scott staggered backwards to collapse onto the chair he’d previously occupied, his gun clattering to the ground. The stunned silence, which followed, was almost a relief, along with the realisation that he was still alive. Slumped in his seat, Scott felt the hot blood trickle through his fingers as he pressed his hand to his side and he shut his eyes tightly as the pain started to build. Then a sudden tumult of voices assaulted his senses, shattering his skull with sickening intensity.
“He’s dead! The bastard’s killed Larry!”
Scott’s eyes flew open and he forced his blurred vision towards the group of figures huddled around the fallen body of Holton. What were they saying? How could he have killed Holton? Startled by the speed of his opponent‘s draw, Scott had fired involuntarily hardly expecting to hit anything except the woodwork, and yet the evidence was there in front of him. The young man lay sprawled on his back, eyes wide open in surprise and his once white shirt now drenched with blood.
There was a flutter of skirts as Sophie appeared at his side, her fingers digging painfully in his thigh as she knelt beside him.
“You killed him, Scott!” she cried excitedly. “You really killed him!”
The shocked Easterner opened his mouth to reply, but his words came out as a stifled groan. Sophie gasped as she suddenly noticed the blood seeping through his fingers and her green eyes widened in horror.
“Oh, my God. You’re hurt!” she exclaimed. “Someone fetch the doctor”
Sophie turned her head as she sought help for the wounded man, but fear clutched at her stomach as one of the men clustered around Holton rose and came towards her. She leapt to her feet and placed herself protectively in front of Scott as the tall figure halted in front of her.
“He’ll need more than a doctor when we’ve finished with him.”
Hank Chambers stood a full foot above Sophie, but the girl did not budge an inch. She knew that if Chambers took the young cowboy from the saloon, he was as good as dead.
“Leave him alone, Hank,” Sophie shouted defiantly. “He beat Larry fare and square.”
“You know nothing, slut,” Chambers retorted harshly. “Now get out of my way!” He made a move towards Scott, but she grabbed at his arm. Chambers shook her off easily and backhanded her across the face, which sent her spilling to the floor.
Incensed by his violent act, Scott scrambled for his fallen weapon and lurched unsteadily to his feet, only to find himself faced with three gun barrels as Chambers’ two companions joined him.
“Looks like you’re outnumbered, friend. And we don’t need an excuse to kill you.”
For the second time in a matter of minutes, Scott Lancer came face to face with death. He had no doubt that these men would shoot him down, despite the number of witnesses in the saloon. Their friend was dead because of him and they wanted revenge. He was vaguely conscious of Sophie getting slowly to her feet, but nobody made a move to help the girl.
Hitching a breath, Scott tried to tighten his grip on his revolver, but already he could feel it dipping in his trembling hand. His knees were threatening to buckle under him as blood loss and shock set in. Scott blinked hard as his vision started to blur again; he knew it was a matter of time before he collapsed completely.
“Hold it right there.”
All heads turned at the sound of the new voice. Scott felt a sense of relief as he realised that the man who spoke was wearing a sheriff’s star. Hank Chambers looked disappointed, but put away his gun and motioned to the others to do the same.
“Glad you showed up, Sheriff,” he said turning to the lawman. “We were just about to bring this feller to you. He killed Larry.”
“It was self-defence, Sheriff,” Sophie protested. “Larry called him out.”
Sam Eldridge glanced at the saloon girl, his eyes narrowing when he saw the red mark on her cheek, before turning back to the young man. “That right, son?”
Scott gave a tight nod, then swayed precariously and would have fallen had the Sheriff not grabbed him by the arm.
“He’s lying, Sheriff,” Chambers argued. “He pulled his gun on Larry first. Never gave him a chance.”
Eldridge did not believe that for a second. He knew Holton was a troublemaker and he was not sorry the kid was dead. Unfortunately, he also knew that old man Holton was not going to take his only son’s death lightly and it could spell a lot of trouble for the young cowboy and the town in general.
“I’ll take that gun, Mister,” he said. He removed the weapon from Scott’s unresisting hand and tucked it in his belt. “Let’s go.”
“No, Sheriff!” Sophie cried. “That ain’t fair. He was helping me.”
Eldridge looked from her to the weary looking man in his custody and bent forward to whisper in his ear. “It’s for your own protection, son.”
With his hand clasped firmly around his prisoner’s upper man, the Sheriff led Scott to the door, pausing briefly beside his deputy who was crouched by Holton’s body. “Best find the doc, Pete, and bring him over to the jailhouse.”
“What about Larry?” Chambers demanded as he crossed back to his fallen friend.
Eldridge shrugged nonchalantly. “Ain’t much the doc can do for him. The undertaker’s down the street.”
The late afternoon sun seemed brutal to Scott’s eyes as he stumbled the short distance across to the Sheriff’s office. Don’t keel over yet, he told himself, although every step was pure agony. He was too sick and dizzy to feel any sense of injustice that he’d been arrested. Scott was, however, concerned for Sophie. With him locked up in jail, Holton’s friends would be looking for someone to blame and Scott did not want the girl to be in the firing line.
Eldridge could feel his prisoner slipping in his grasp and he only just stepped inside his office when the younger man’s strength suddenly failed him. “Whoa,” he cried as he quickly caught hold of him. “It’s okay. I got you.”
The lawman pulled the blond’s right arm across his shoulder and half-dragged, half-carried him towards the rear picking up the keys on the way through. There was only one other occupant in the cells, the elderly town drunk that had been sleeping off last night’s indulgences. However, he was now awake and sitting on the edge of his cot. He stood up and looked on with interest as Eldridge hauled the young man into the next cell and eased him onto the bed.
“What’s ‘e done, Sheriff? You shoot him?”
“None of your damn business, Charlie,” Eldridge replied tersely, staring worriedly down at the semi-conscious cowboy. He was still leaking blood from the bullet wound in his side and he was pale as a ghost. Pete had better find the doctor soon or he would have another dead man on his hands. He turned and left the cell, not bothering to lock it. Charlie saw him vanish into the outer office and he shambled across to stare into the other cell.
“Hey! What you in fer, boy?”
Scott heard the gravelly voice through a haze of pain and he struggled to open his eyes. Lifting his head slightly, he peered at the bearded face of the man in the next cell. “W..what?”
“You kill someone?”
“Leave him be, Charlie,” Eldridge said as he returned bearing some clean cloths. Entering Scott’s cell, the Sheriff grabbed a stool and sat down beside the cot. “Here, use these.”
He prised Scott’s bloodstained left hand away from his side and pressed one piece of bunched up cloth against the bullet wound. The injured man winced at the added pressure, but nevertheless pushed down hard to staunch the flow of blood. Eldridge lifted him slightly and wadded more cloth next to the larger exit wound in his back.
“Thanks,” he hissed through clenched teeth.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Where’re you from?”
The old man in the next cell cackled. “He’s asking ya in case yer folks want ya body back after they hang ya.”
“Will you shut up!” Eldridge turned and glared at him angrily. Charlie grumbled some, but took the hint and went back to his cot.
“Pay him no mind, Lancer.” The Sheriff saw the look of alarm in the young man’s blue eyes and was gratified to see him relax a little when he answered his question.
“Morro Coyo, north of here. My family…. has a ranch there.”
The lawman frowned. “Can’t say I’ve heard of it. What were you doing in town?”
This was rapidly beginning to sound like an interrogation, Scott thought. He knew the Sheriff was only doing his job, but it sounded like he was having doubts about him acting in self-defence.
“Just passing through,” he replied. “I…I was heading for Fresno on business for my father.
The older man still did not look wholly convinced, but Scott was getting to the point of past caring. His left side felt as though a fiery dagger had pierced his flesh and now the pain was starting to shoot down his leg.
“Well, it doesn’t look like you’ll be going anywhere for a while,” Eldridge went on.
“Am I …under arrest?”
The Sheriff hesitated before answering. He knew for certain that Lancer had not committed murder, but convincing Holton’s father would be a different thing all together. Like the dead man’s friends in the saloon, he would want revenge for his son’s demise and he would not care how he got it. Lancer’s life would be in great danger if he was released from jail, and Eldridge did not want the young man’s death on his conscience.
“That’s not what I meant,” he replied. “I’m just saying you’re better off in here. Old man Holton’s a powerful man around here and he’ll insist on getting justice for his boy. Now the circuit judge is due here in three weeks time………”
“Three weeks!” Scott exclaimed as he tried to sit up only to cry out as a wall of pain hit him. He slumped back down, breathless and sweating and felt the lawman’s hand’s grip his shoulders firmly.
“Now, just take it easy,” Eldridge ordered. “You’re in no shape to go anyplace as it is. You’re safe enough here for the time being and when the judge comes, we’ll sort everything out.”
Scott doubted his words, but knew he was hardly in a position to argue. He was feeling distinctly light-headed now and he was finding it increasingly difficult concentrating on what the Sheriff was saying. One thing was certain his business for Murdoch was going to be held-up indefinitely, as was his return home. Given his earlier argument with his father, it seemed ironic that the reason for the delay came as no fault of his own. He shivered violently and was grateful when the Sheriff placed a blanket over him.
“You best rest up, son,” the lawman advised. “I’ll go see what’s keeping the doc.”
Scott nodded slightly, his eyes already sliding shut. Eldridge stood, eyeing him critically for a moment before exiting the cell, this time locking the door behind him.
“Don’t look like the boy’s gonna make the hanging.”
The Sheriff stopped and glowered at the old timer in the next cell.
“I know, I know.” the older man said. “Shut up, Charlie!”
Eldridge regarded him solemnly for a few minutes, then shrugged and put the key in the door.
“Yer letting me out?” Charlie asked in surprise
“Yeah, I’m letting you out. Only way, we’re gonna get any peace round here.”
Charlie chuckled and picked up his battered hat. “See ya soon, Sheriff.”
“No doubt,” Eldridge replied sardonically. “Here.” Fishing in his pocket, he produced a couple of dollar bills and stuffed them in Charlie’s gnarled fist. “Have a few drinks on me”
“Well, thanks Sheriff. I might jest do that”. He scooted out of the cell far quicker a man his age should, but paused as he passed and jerked a thumb back at the prone figure on the bed. “Take care of the kid, eh?”
Eldridge shook his head in bemusement as he followed Charlie out. Even in the short acquaintance the old man had with Lancer, he obviously believed he was innocent.
Alone once more, the Sheriff busied himself with the pot-bellied stove in the corner of his office and put some water on to boil. The doc would need hot water when he came to tend the injured man. ‘When he turned up’, Eldridge thought impatiently. He hoped the ex-army surgeon was not drunk, and that Pete was not trying to get him sobered up. Like Charlie, Doc Hampton was a bit too fond of his liquor and had a tendency to take to his bed when he’d had too much.
Eldridge sighed irritably, strode over to the door and walked out into the boardwalk. His eyes narrowed as he spotted the wagon outside the saloon. He watched as four men emerged from the building carrying a rough-hewn coffin. They placed it in the wagon and one of them, obviously the undertaker, climbed up onto the driver’s seat. The remaining men then mounted their horses and started to follow the wagon down the main street. A fourth horse, a bright bay that the Sheriff recognised as Larry Holton’s, was tied to the rear of the wagon. As the party moved slowly past the jailhouse, Hank Chambers turned his head and glared menacingly at Eldridge. It was clear he wanted nothing better than to take Scott Lancer by force and serve him up before his boss. Thomas Holton might be an important person around here, but the Sheriff was determined that the ranch owner was not going to take the law into his own hands.
Eldridge continued to watch as the wagon and riders disappeared from view and then turned to re-enter the jailhouse. As he did, he caught sight of his deputy with the shorter figure of Doc Hampton trailing behind him. The Sheriff waited, hands on hips, as the two men approached. His gaze settled on the doctor appraising his condition. Although Hampton looked somewhat flustered, to Eldridge’s relief the doc looked sober enough.
“Ah Sheriff,” Hampton greeted affably. “I hear you have a patient for me and a hero at that. Your deputy tells me the man killed Larry Holton.”
Eldridge shot Pete a stern look, before glancing back to Hampton. “That’s right, Doc, only he ain’t looking too heroic at the moment.”
“Well then, I better take a look at him.”
Scott twitched and fidgeted in an uneasy sleep. He was dreaming he was back in the saloon facing three men who were prepared to kill him. There was no escape and no one willing to help him. He backed away from them until he found his way blocked by the bar. As they levelled their guns to fire, Scott went to pull his own trigger, only to hear it click onto the empty chamber. Horrified, he tried again, but the result was the same. He was defenceless and as he looked up, the men laughed.
‘Too bad, friend’ one said, and then looked to his companions. ‘Let’s do it’.
‘No,’ Scott breathed. ‘No!’
His involuntary cry jerked him awake and he opened his eyes in confusion. As the iron bars of the cell came into focus, Scott remembered everything that had happened. The gunfight in the saloon, the smell of blood and the sharp tang of cordite. The fact that he had killed a man.
Scott had killed before, during the War and since, when he had no choice. However, it was the manner of Larry Holton’s death that disturbed him the most – one moment alive, confident and assured – the next lifeless on the dusty floorboards. Did it ever play on Johnny’s mind, Scott wondered. The sudden act of violence, which robbed a man of his life and the knowing that one day it might well be his own. Perhaps one day, he should ask his ex-gunfighter brother how he coped with his demons. The question was of course; would Johnny choose to tell him?
He shifted his body, uncomfortable on the narrow cot and the resulting pain drew a sharp gasp from his dry lips. The doctor, Hampton, had been efficient, but none too gentle in his ministrations. Scott was grateful he did not have to dig a bullet out from his side. However, both wounds had to be cleaned and stitched and despite the laudanum he had been forced to drink, the whole procedure had hurt like hell. By the time Hampton had finished, Scott was sweating, nauseous, and glad to be left in peace.
Scott moved again, cautiously this time and he wondered how long he had slept. It was obviously after dark and the only light came from two lanterns outside the cells. Craning his neck further to the left, he was surprised to see a sliver of light shining under the door, which led to the outer office. Maybe it was not as late as he first thought and the Sheriff was still present. There was also a low murmur of voices beyond the closed door, although Scott could not distinguish what was being said.
He sighed and ran a hand over his clammy face. Tired though he was, Scott knew he would not be able to get back to sleep now. His current predicament was worrying him considerably and at present, he could not see a way out of it. Sheriff Eldridge had told him he was not technically under arrest, but that his case would have to be reviewed by the circuit judge. There was also the fact he was under protective custody and from what he had heard about Thomas Holton, he realised he could be in serious trouble if he were let out of jail.
Eldridge had retrieved Scott’s saddlebags from the boarding house and promised to send a telegram to the ranch in the morning to inform his family of his plight. Scott could just imagine Murdoch’s face when he read it. His father might have expected it if it was Johnny in trouble, but for Scott to wind up in jail, was unforgivable. It would only add fuel to the fire as regards their current difficulties. Given his father’s mood when he left, Murdoch might be tempted to let him languish in prison for a while.
The sound of the door opening made him turn his head and he waited as the Sheriff emerged from his office and come over to unlock his cell.
“How you feeling, Lancer?” Eldridge asked as he entered.
“You up for a visitor?”
Visitor? For one crazy moment, Scott thought it could be his father or Johnny, but then he remembered his family had not even been notified yet. He nodded absently and Eldridge went back to beckon someone from the office.
Curious, Scott lifted his head from the bunk and his face broke into a smile when he saw who it was.
The girl returned his smile as she entered the cell. Eldridge pulled the stool forward for her and she murmured her thanks as she sat.
“Not too long now, Sophie,” he warned.
“I won’t,” she promised.
The Sheriff nodded and left them alone, but neither spoke until he had disappeared.
“Oh Scott, I’ve been so worried about you,” Sophie began and Scott was surprised to see tears well up in her green eyes.
“You’re not!” she cried. “Look at you, you’re sweating and in pain and it’s all my fault!”
Scott reached out and took her hand. “It’s nobody’s fault, Sophie.”
“A man died because of me, Scott,” the girl asserted, her voice catching.
Scott frowned. “You sound almost regretful.”
She shook her head. “Oh no. I’m not sorry he’s dead. He hurt a lot of people besides me. I just feel responsible for everything’s that happened.”
“I’m not blaming you for anything, Sophie,” Scott reasoned. “What’s done is done.”
“But what’s going to happen to you? What if the judge doesn’t believe you acted in self-defence? What if old man Holton gets what he wants and sees that you hang?”
“It won’t come to that,” Scott told her, a slight shudder rippling through his lean frame. “The Sheriff is sending a wire to my father tomorrow and Murdoch will arrange for his lawyer to come and sort it out. Trust me, it will be all right.”
Sophie gave him a wan smile and wiped at the tears trickling down her cheeks. “I hope you’re right. You’ve been hurt enough and I couldn’t stand it if something happened to you.”
She stopped abruptly realising she had said too much, but she could not help it. Even though Sophie had only met Scott Lancer a few short hours ago, she knew she was infatuated with him. By the look on his handsome face, she could see he was a little perplexed at the passion in her voice and she was sorry she had let her true feelings show. Scott was far above her league and when and if his current situation was settled, he would move on and forget all about her.
“I’m sorry,” she said, composing herself. “I’m being stupid. I’m sure it’ll all be fine.”
Scott smiled encouragingly and gently squeezed her hand before lifting his fingers up to her face. “Are you alright? Hank hit you..”
“It’s okay,” Sophie replied, blushing slightly as his hand brushed her skin. “Nothing that a little powder don’t cover.”
“Working?” she finished for him. “No, not tonight. Nor any night if I can help it. I‘m thinking of quitting. Moving on, maybe. Get a respectable job someplace else.”
“Well, I hope that won’t be too soon,” Scott said. “I’d like to see you again.”
His deep voice sent a thrill of anticipation through her and her breath quickened as she saw the teasing look in his blue eyes.
“Scott Lancer! Are you flirting with me?” Sophie exclaimed with a laugh. “’Cos if you are, you sure ain’t in any condition to do anything about it!”
Now it was Scott’s turn to blush and he dipped his head in embarrassment. Sophie found his reaction even more endearing and she thought it would be wise to leave now before things got out of hand.
“I ought to go. Leave you to rest.”
Scott looked back at her and opened his mouth to protest, but she pressed her fingers to his lips. “No arguing. You’re hurting, more than you’re letting on and you need to sleep.”
Sophie reached down and pulled the blanket up to his chin. “I’ll see you tomorrow, honey.” She bent forward and pushed aside tousled blond bangs before kissing him softly on the brow.
Scott shifted a little and grasping her arm, pulled her towards him to kiss her fully on the lips. Sophie closed her eyes, savouring the moment until a scraping of boots and someone clearing their throat loudly made them break apart.
She turned her head to find Eldridge standing by the open cell door, his arms crossed and looking self consciously down at the floor. Sophie glanced back at Scott and grinned before getting to her feet. “I’m coming, Sheriff.”
Following the man out, she paused as he locked the door after her and then looked back to the man inside the cell. “Bye Scott.”
The young rancher smiled as she left his mood lighter than it had been for a while. Sophie’s brief visit had boosted his spirits and given him hope that his troubles could be resolved soon. With that thought in mind, he settled himself more comfortably on the bed and went straight off to sleep.
Thomas Holton stared down at the body in the coffin. His son, his only child lay pale and still and Holton swore vengeance. When the wagon had rumbled into the yard earlier that afternoon, the rancher thought it was some of the hands returning with supplies. However, when he had looked out of the window and saw who drove the team, his heart had plummeted.
Running outside, Holton had flown to the wagon and seen the coffin. He had not had to look up at the bowed heads of the three riders to know who was inside. Gripping the wooden sides of the wagon with both hands, he had just uttered a single word.
“Don’t know his name, Mr Holton,” Chambers had told him apologetically. “A stranger.”
“Where is he now?” the older man had demanded harshly.
“In jail. He was hurt. The Sheriff took him in and sent for the doc.”
Holton had not looked up, but a murderous rage inside him had started to build and overwhelm his initial shock and grief.
“Stoner. Get a fresh horse and ride back to town. Find out who he is and where he came from. Anything. I don’t care what it takes to get information.”
He had told the cowhand, who had glanced at his friends for a moment before he had replied.
As he had headed off, Holton had glanced at the others bleakly. “Let’s get him inside.”
Now as the hour approached midnight, the rancher stood alone in the darkened drawing room and mourned for his boy. Larry had always been wild and Holton had granted him his every wish. Perhaps he had been trying too hard to make up for the fact that his mother was dead. Elizabeth had died two days after Larry was born, but instead of resenting the boy for his mother’s death, Thomas had doted on the child. Larry soon learned he could do no wrong in the eyes of his father and by the time he was ten, he had developed the cocksure, arrogant attitude that he continued, as he became a man.
His son’s ability with a gun had at first pleased Holton. Then he started to worry that it would prove the boy’s downfall and Thomas had tried to persuade Larry to quell his enthusiasm. The young man had told his father not to worry. He was fast and he could handle himself. Larry would practice every day in the old corral at the back of the house, shooting at tin cans until he was satisfied with his accuracy and his speed. The first man he had killed was aged thirty-five and Larry just seventeen. He was a former gunfighter, looking to settle down, but Larry had called him out. His son had bragged about it for weeks.
Holton had hoped the shooting would be the last, but it wasn’t. His son soon built up a reputation around Stapleton and the surrounding area. People learned not to look him in the eye and Larry used his newfound notoriety to his advantage. Everything was for the taking and that included women. Thomas was not surprised when Chambers had told him that the gunfight had been over Sophie Lawrence. Larry considered the girl his property and no man claimed her when he was in town. Sophie had been his downfall and she was just as much to blame for Larry’s death as the stranger who had pulled the trigger.
Tomorrow, Holton would start to prepare for his son’s funeral and had instructed the undertaker to spare no expense on a suitable coffin. His child would not been be laid to rest in a plain pine box. No, Larry would be buried in an oak coffin with gold plated handles and silk cushions. The undertaker had protested that it would take to long to make what he required, but Holton had insisted the finished article be delivered by sundown the following day. Larry would be interred next to his mother – reunited after an absence of twenty-three years. Then and only then, would Thomas Holton turn his attention to the man who had taken his son’s life.
As if on cue, there was a muffled knock on the drawing room door and at his bidding, Hank Chambers entered, his hat held respectively in his hands.
“Stoner’s back, Mr Holton.”
“Feller’s called Scott Lancer. He’s from a place called Morro Coyo, north of here.”
“Don’t know, sir,” Chambers answered, “Had to be though to take Larry down.”
Holton gave him a hostile glare and Hank looked away uncomfortably.
“When we gonna make our move, sir?”
The older man turned his gaze back to the open coffin. “When Larry is decently buried. Lancer isn’t going anywhere for a while.”
“What about the Sheriff?”
“If he gets in the way, we deal with him and anybody else that tries to stop us.”
Chambers hesitated. “Somebody already tried.”
Hank told him and for the first time that day, Thomas Holton smiled.
“Morning, ladies.” Pete Gresham tipped his hat politely at the two women he passed on the boardwalk. The older one nodded in acknowledgment while the younger giggled and looked away shyly. The deputy smiled and continued on his way towards the jailhouse. After the excitement of yesterday’s shooting, the town seemed to be returning to normal. Like the Sheriff, he was not sorry that Larry Holton was dead. The young man had been nothing but trouble and the town was better off without him. Of course, old man Holton could stir things up if he had a mind to, but Pete was confident that he and Eldridge could handle any problem.
Reaching his destination, the young deputy entered the office to find Eldridge coming from the cellblock. The Sheriff looked tired and he wore a worried frown as he sat down heavily at his desk.
“You been here all night, Sam?” Pete asked as he hung his hat on the hook by the door.
“Pretty much,” Eldridge admitted, scrubbing wearily at his stubbly chin.
“You still think Holton will try something?”
“Never can tell, Pete,” the Sheriff answered. “You know how much he thought about that boy of his.”
“Yeah.” The younger man understood his boss’s concerns, but he still believed that together they could tackle anything Holton might attempt. After all, they had the law on their side and maybe the townsfolk would feel inclined enough to help them out if things turned ugly.
“How’s Lancer doing?” he asked.
“Not so good,” Eldridge replied. “Mite feverish.”
“The doc coming back today?”
“Said he was. Not sure when though.”
The Sheriff yawned and stretched his stiff muscles before lumbering to his feet. “You stay here, Pete. I’m going to the telegraph office. Promised Lancer I’d send word to his family.”
Gresham nodded. “Why don’t you head off home when you’re done and get a few hours sleep? I can look after things here.”
Eldridge regarded his deputy thoughtfully. His suggestion sounded tempting and was worth consideration. Worries over Tom Holton and concern for his prisoner had cost him a sleepless night. He did not believe Holton would act before he had a chance to bury his son. However, his men were a different case entirely. There was often trouble from Holton’s ranch hands, especially when they had received their pay and descended on the town’s saloon. Larry Holton had usually been the chief instigator of any ruckus. With him gone, things might quieten down in Stapleton, but somehow Eldridge had his doubts.
“Nah. I’m okay,” he said, fetching his hat. “Be back in a while.”
Opening the door, the Sheriff did not see the younger man’s look of disappointment. Pete Gresham had been Eldridge’s deputy for nearly a year now, but Sam still treated him like some kind of kid. He was not resentful; he just wished the man would show a bit more faith in him.
Gresham sighed and went over to the stove to pour himself some coffee. It was bitter and lukewarm, but he shrugged and carried his mug through to the cells to check on the sole occupant. As Eldridge reported, the fair-haired man looked sick. There was an unnatural flush on his cheeks and even from a distance, Pete could see his forehead was beaded with sweat. He was obviously fighting a fever and judging by the basin and cloth placed beside the cot, it was evident that the Sheriff had been tending to him during the night. Eldridge was clearly concerned about Lancer and Pete would not be surprised that when he returned, he would have Doc Hampton in tow.
Retracing his steps, Gresham picked up the keys from Eldridge’s desk and started to turn back to the cells when suddenly the main door crashed open. Pete immediately went for his gun, but then relaxed slightly when he saw who it was.
“Tommy! What the hell..?”
The youth looked around the office wildly. “Where’s the Sheriff?”
Gresham felt a flash of annoyance at his demand. ‘Wasn’t he good enough,’ he thought angrily? Tommy was Joe Neville’s nephew and helped out at the saloon. He was somewhat simple-minded, but earned his keep sweeping up and washing glasses.
“He’s gone to the telegraph office.”
Tommy nodded quickly and turned to leave.
“Hey! Wait a minute,” Pete yelled. “What’s the matter?”
The boy stared at him for moment, mouth hanging open as he tried to decide if he should tell the deputy.
Fear clutched at Gresham’s belly. “Who?”
Sam Eldridge was deep in thought as he made his way back from the telegraph office. He had sent the wire to Lancer’s father and hoped it conveyed the right tone. The Sheriff had not wished to alarm the young cowboy’s family, but it was difficult, if not impossible, to inform them that one of its members was in jail, possibly facing a murder charge and at the same time try to assure them that everything would be fine. He also neglected to tell them that Scott had been injured, and Eldridge just hoped his prisoner’s condition did not deteriorate too much.
Thus preoccupied, the Sheriff did not look up until he reached his office. Turning the handle, he was surprised to discover the door locked. Frowning, he tried again, but it did not budge. Thinking he would not need any keys for the short time he had been away, Eldridge had left his own set inside. Going to the window, he peered inside, but he could see no sign of Pete. ‘Where the hell was he,‘ Sam thought impatiently? He had specifically told the younger man to stay where he was and seemingly, he had ignored his order. At least, Gresham had the presence of mind to lock the office behind him, but that did not explain where he had gone.
Baffled, Eldridge turned back to the street, his eyes narrowed as he tried to guess where his deputy was likely to be. As his gaze settled on the saloon, he tensed as he saw several of the townsfolk milling around the entrance, and instinctively, he knew there was something very wrong. Stepping off the boardwalk, he hurried across the street and shouldered his way through the milling crowd. Seeing who he was, they willingly stepped aside, but he quickly realised that the focus of attention was not downstairs. The sound of clamouring voices made him look up and he ran to the staircase, mounting the steps two at a time to reach the doorway where more people stood.
“What’s going on?” he demanded as he pushed them aside to enter the room. “Pete?”
The young deputy turned towards him, relief plainly showing on his pale, strained face when he saw Eldridge.
Gresham made no reply, but pointed to something out of Sam’s line of sight. The Sheriff moved closer and he gasped aloud when he saw the prone figure on the floor.
“Dear God! Sophie!”
The young girl was lying on her back in front of the small fireplace, sightless green eyes staring up at the ceiling. A dark pool of blood surrounded her head and had soaked into the cheap wool rug beside the hearth. She was wearing the same clothing from the night before, although her shawl lay draped upon the bed.
“One of the other girls found her this morning.” Pete explained.
Eldridge glanced at the small group gathered by the door. A saloon girl was comforting the one who had discovered Sophie. Tommy Neville stood gawping into the room and his uncle, Joe seemed to be shouting at no one in particular.
The Sheriff looked back at the body and then at the helpless expression on his deputy’s face and knew it was up to him to take charge.
“Right, I want all you people out of here now. Me and Pete have work to do.”
Joe started to protest, but Eldridge quickly stopped him. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and go fetch the Doc.”
“What good is that?” the saloon boss whined. “The girl’s dead!”
The Sheriff glared stonily at him. “I know that! Just go get him, Joe.”
The man grumbled some more, but then herded the girls and his nephew out of the room. Shutting the door behind them, Sam sighed and turned back to find Pete still standing looking down at Sophie’s lifeless corpse. The deputy appeared to be in a state of shock and Eldridge felt a touch of sympathy for the young man. Pete was no stranger to violent deaths. That was part of the job of being a lawman. Sam realised, however, that this was probably the first time his deputy had seen a girl, not much younger than himself, brutally murdered. He went over and touched him lightly on the shoulder. Pete flinched, but turned to look at the older man.
“It’s my fault she’s dead,” he said shakily.
“What d’you mean?” Eldridge asked. “You did make sure she got to her room okay, didn’t you?”
Gresham hesitated and looked away uneasily.
“She wouldn’t let me, Sam. I saw her across to the saloon as you told me, but she said she’d be fine on her own.”
The Sheriff’s sympathy quickly evaporated and was replaced by a smouldering rage at the man’s naivety
“I specifically told you to go up to the room with her!”
“I know. I know and I’m sorry,” Pete cried. He felt terrible that his stupid mistake had been the cause of Sophie’s death. With Scott Lancer out of their clutches, the girl was bound to be the next in line for revenge. He should have insisted he accompany Sophie to her room and check it out, but it was too late now.
“Someone must have been waiting for her,” Eldridge went on, going back to stoop down beside the body.
Sam shook his head. “It could have been any one of Holton’s men. We’re gonna have to talk to everyone who was in the saloon last night and see if they saw anything.”
“Why don’t we just go out to Holton’s place and question his men now?”
“Because we have no proof, Pete! We need something to connect them to the murder. Start looking around and see if you can find anything.”
Gresham looked dubious, but dutifully began to search for any clues, while the Sheriff started to examine the body. Eldridge closed the dead girl’s eyes with difficulty and the touch of her cold flesh confirmed that she had been killed several hours ago. The cause of death was obvious by the wound on the back of her head and he wondered what had been used as the murder weapon. He glanced around briefly and his keen gaze fell on a rusty brown stain on the corner of the cast iron mantelpiece. Rising, Sam went over to look closer and running his finger over the mark, he realised what it was.
“Where?” Pete asked, turning round.
“Here, on the mantle. She must have been pushed.”
“It could have been an accident.” Gresham pointed out.
“Could have been,” the older man admitted, “but somehow I doubt it.”
Pete doubted it too. He had only said that to alleviate the guilt he was feeling. Sophie Lawrence had been murdered because of her connection to Larry Holton. Now they had to find the guilty party.
“You find anything?” Eldridge questioned.
“Nothing,” the deputy replied, although he was not sure what he should be looking for. If Sophie were forcibly thrown back against the fireplace, there would be no murder weapon.
“What I can’t understand is, why didn’t she put up a struggle or scream out,” Sam added. “You know Sophie. She wasn’t the kind of girl not to put up a fight.”
“Yeah,” Pete agreed. “But it was pretty noisy in the saloon last night though. Lot of people in and music playing. I think folks were celebrating the fact that Larry’s dead.”
The Sheriff nodded thoughtfully. The younger Holton had instilled a lot of fear in Stapleton and people tended to keep out of his way. If the saloon were as noisy as Pete had said, then no one would have heard much above the din. Intentional or not, the killer had picked his time well.
“Hand me that bedspread, Pete,” he ordered. “Let’s cover the poor girl up.”
The younger man did so and the body was decently hidden. Maybe the doctor could tell them more when he examined the dead girl. Eldridge knew they faced an uphill task figuring out who killed Sophie. They would question the townsfolk and Holton himself, but he was not confident of much success.
There was also the problem of how to tell Scott Lancer about Sophie’s murder. He had seen for himself that the girl was sweet on the young rancher and Lancer seemed fond of her too. The man was already sick and the shattering news would hardly improve his health much. Overall, it added up to a very worrying time for Eldridge and he was not looking forward to the days ahead.
“Lancer! Wake up. Lancer!”
Scott groaned and tried to bat away the hand that was shaking his shoulder, but whoever it was proved insistent. His eyelashes seemed to be glued together and when they finally opened, it took him a while to realise where he was.
“Sorry to wake you, son,” Eldridge apologised. “Figured you could use some food.”
The mere mention of the word made Scott’s stomach churn ominously. He had last eaten at lunchtime the previous day and although he had been offered some last night, he had refused. He was about to do so again.
“No… thank you,” he replied. “Could use some water though.”
The Sheriff looked disappointed, but put the plate he was holding on the floor and reached for the mug on the table.
Scott tried to struggle into a sitting position, but the white-hot pain in his side stopped him and he slumped back with a stifled curse.
“Here. Let me help you.” Sam leaned forward and passed his right arm around the wounded man’s shoulders, gently lifting him up.
Scott sipped slowly at the water, careful not to drink too much for fear of starting a coughing fit. The Sheriff held the mug to his lips until he indicated he had enough and then laid him back down.
“Thank you,” he murmured.
“No problem, son,” Eldridge said, eyeing the blond with a frown. “The pain bad?”
“Getting…there,” Scott admitted. His left hand was pressed against the thick bandages around his middle as he tried to will the agony to subside. He could feel the fever building inside him, and was grateful when the Sheriff wiped a cool cloth across his face and neck.
“Doc left some laudanum for you. You want some?”
Scott shook his head. Although the drug would ease the discomfort, he hated the bitter taste and the heavy lethargy it caused. If he lay quite still, the pain from the twin wounds in his side was tolerable.
“Well, the doc’s coming in later to change the bandages,” the Sheriff added, “might want to change yer mind after that.”
His attempt at humour brought a slight smile to Scott’s lips. Obviously, the doctor’s lack of bedside manner was well known to the people in town. He wondered if the Sheriff had suffered under his hands.
“I sent the telegram to your pa,” Sam went on. “You reckon he’ll come?”
Scott’s smile faded. Although he had no idea how the lawman had worded the telegraph, he was not sure how Murdoch would react to the news. “I don’t know. We didn’t exactly part on good terms.”
“Oh?” Eldridge was intrigued to learn more.
The younger man turned to him. “It’s ….complicated.”
‘In other words, mind your own business’ Sam thought. Clearly, something had happened before Lancer had left home and it was obviously a family matter. The trouble was, he was not going to help matters much when he told him about Sophie. Maybe he should wait until the boy was stronger, but he had a feeling he was going to get worse before he got better, and anyway, Lancer had a right to know.
Uncertain, Eldridge got to his feet and paced to the cell door as he tried to decide how to broach the subject. Thinking he was about to leave, Scott closed his eyes, but opened them again after a few minutes when he sensed the man was still present.
“Something wrong, Sheriff?”
Eldridge turned around, he stared at him for a moment before coming back to perch uncomfortably on the stool. “Yes, I’m afraid so.” He paused when he saw the other man tense. ‘Just get it said and over with’ he thought.
“It’s Sophie. She’s dead, son.”
Scott gasped; his throat constricting. Swallowing hard, he clenched his fists as the pain in his side surged alarmingly to his chest. “How? When?” he managed to force out.
“Last night,” the Sheriff replied, looking on with concern at the young rancher’s ashen face. “She was found in her room at the saloon….”
Eldridge sighed heavily. “It looks that way.”
Scott had to look away as bitter tears of anger sprung to his eyes. Ever since Holton’s death, he had been afraid that something might happen to Sophie. From what he had heard about Thomas Holton and his men, he knew he was not the only one in danger from them. Why hadn’t the Sheriff seen that and why hadn’t Sophie been kept safe from their vengeance?
“Why wasn’t she protected?” he hissed, turning back to the lawman. “You knew Holton might try and get to her!”
“I didn’t,” Eldridge retorted. “Not this soon anyway. Holton hasn’t had a chance to bury his boy yet. Besides, Pete saw her back to the saloon after she left here…”
“Didn’t he check her room?”
Sam looked down and shook his head. “She told him that she would be fine I’m sorry, Lancer. I truly am.” He pursed his lips, knowing how inadequate his words sounded. However, there was nothing more he could say. He and Pete had failed the girl and her death on was their hands. Scott Lancer’s anger was justifiable and now it was up to them to track down the killer and make sure the young man did not become the next victim.
Scott was still speechless with rage, although his heart was full of sorrow. He had only known Sophie for less than twenty-four hours, but he had opened his heart to her and she to him. She had listened to his problems with a sympathetic ear and had offered advice to his dilemma. In turn, Scott had learned of her estrangement with her father. Now Sophie would go to her grave without having a chance to reconcile herself to her family and would never know if her father forgave her. Inadvertently, Scott had acted as the catalyst to the young girl’s demise and along with the Sheriff and his deputy; he had to assume the blame.
“Have you questioned Holton?” he asked.
“Why not?” Scott exclaimed. “You know he and his men are behind it.”
Eldridge gave an exasperated sigh. “I need proof before I can accuse anybody! We’ve spoken to people who were in the saloon last night and no one saw or heard anything suspicious.”
‘Very convenient’ Scott thought. He had quickly discovered that this town lived in fear of Holton and the Sheriff’s reluctance to pursue Sophie’s murderer seemed to indicate that he too was afraid of the man. It was only a matter of time before Holton came after him and although he was not scared of meeting danger head on, Scott was not sure he could count on Eldridge to help.
“Sheriff, I have to get out of here,” he said, levering himself painfully onto his elbow.
“And go where?” the other retorted. “After Holton? Because there’s nothing he’d like better. And how far d’ya think you’d get? I doubt you’d get five yards before you fell flat on your face.”
Scott knew he was right. Just sitting upright was pure torture. What did he hope to achieve by going after Holton? He wanted justice for Sophie, but all he was likely to get was another bullet to end his life. With a groan, Scott sank back onto the thin mattress, clutching at the scratchy blanket as cold sweat trickled down his face. Until he was stronger, he had no choice but to rely on the Sheriff to hunt down Sophie’s killer and protect him.
Seeing his distress, Eldridge squeezed the younger man’s shoulder for a moment before rising from the stool. “Get some sleep. You let me worry about Holton.”
Picking up the unwanted plate of food, the Sheriff crossed to the cell door just as Pete appeared from the office.
“Sam. Doc’s here.”
Eldridge noticed the grimace on the blond’s face before turning back to his deputy. “Tell him to wait there. I wanna talk to him before he sees to Lancer.”
Pete nodded, disappearing back into the other room. The Sheriff locked the door behind him and glanced back at Scott. The young man was looking decidedly peaky now. Whether it was the thought of the doctor’s impending examination or - the reaction over Sophie’s death, he wasn’t sure. Probably both, Eldridge surmised grimly. Whatever the cause, Sam was determined to put an end to this whole sorry mess and ensure an innocent man was safe enough to leave his prison cell. Unfortunately, that could be a long time coming.
“Whatd’ya mean you don’t know if she was murdered?” Eldridge demanded.
Perched on the corner of the desk, Hampton stared belligerently back at the Sheriff. “I didn’t say that! I said that the girl’s injuries do not necessarily suggest she was deliberately killed!”
Sam glared at the doctor, trying to keep a lid on his fraying temper. He had asked Hampton to examine Sophie’s body to see if he could throw any light on her killer. All he had confirmed so far was that the girl had met her death the previous evening and that she had suffered a fractured skull. Now Hampton had thrown his whole investigation into doubt by saying her injuries could have occurred accidentally.
“Look Sheriff,” the doctor reasoned. “I’m a simple Army sawbones. I probe for bullets, stitch wounds and set bones. I can only tell you how she died, not who might have killed her.”
“What about any bruises? Surely that’s a sign that she fought off her attacker?”
Hampton nodded. “There was some bruising to her body, but again they could be attributed to a fall. I’m sorry; I can’t give you any more.”
“Damnit!” Eldridge swore as he paced back and forth. How could he confront Holton with no real proof Sophie had been murdered? The man would laugh in his face and rightly so. He was still convinced Thomas Holton was behind her death, but without any proper evidence, how was he going to pursue the matter?
“What’re we gonna do now, Sam?”
The Sheriff stopped pacing and looked at Pete. “I don’t know, but I sure as hell know I ain’t gonna let Holton get away with it.”
Hampton regarded the two lawmen with a measure of indifference and disdain. He did not doubt that Eldridge would do everything he could to find the girl’s alleged killer; however, he did wonder at the Sheriff’s intelligence and ability to carry it off.
“The girl have any kin round here?” he asked.
“None than I know of,” Eldridge answered, annoyed that he had not thought that there was any family to contact.
“Well, her body’s at the undertaker’s now,” Hampton informed him idly. Then he smiled. “Ike’s a busy man these days.”
The Sheriff gave him a withering look and realising he was pushing his luck, the doctor stood up and reached for his bag. “You want me to check on Lancer now?”
Eldridge grabbed the keys from his desk. “Come on.”
The clanging of the door roused Scott from his light doze and his heart sank when he saw the doctor enter the cell accompanied by Eldridge.
“How’re you feeling, Lancer?” Hampton asked, looking down at the young man.
“Well, you let me be the judge of that,” the doctor replied brusquely.
He put his bag on the floor, squatted down on the stool, and pressed the back of his hand against Scott’s forehead.
“Too warm,” he pronounced. “You’re running a fever, boy.”
“Could have told you that,” Sam muttered, almost to himself.
Hampton ignored him and felt for the wounded man’s pulse. As expected, it was beating rapidly and when he drew back the blanket and shirt to check the bandages, he could see spots of blood.
“Hmm, these will have to be changed.”
Scott flinched as the doctor produced a large pair of scissors from his bag and started cutting away at the bandages. The metal was cold against his bare skin and he let out a sharp yelp as Hampton yanked at the soiled dressing.
“Jesus, man; go easy on him!” Eldridge cried as he saw the agony on Scott’s face.
Hampton glanced around, his eyes narrowed with anger. “Don’t tell me my job, Sheriff and I won’t tell you yours! Now get me some water. The bandage is stuck to the wound and I’m going to have to soak it off.”
Sam sighed irritably, but left anyway leaving the doctor to carry on with his task.
“I need you to roll over onto your right side,” he instructed his patient.
Scott sucked in a ragged breath, not certain he could do as he was asked. The man’s rough handling had rekindled the white-hot flames of fire in his side and moving about would only make it worse. However, he gritted his teeth and slowly manoeuvred himself onto his good side while Hampton peeled back the bandages wrapped around his back. It was then that he noticed the faded marks on the younger man’s lightly tanned skin and he figured them curiously.
“Where did you get these scars, son?”
Scott was barely hanging on to consciousness as the increased pain threatened to push him over the edge, but he forced aside the dark clouds enough to answer him.
Hampton lifted his eyebrows in surprise. “You don’t look old enough to have been in the War.”
His strained tone had the ring of truth about it, but the doctor was interested to learn more. “How long were you in prison?”
Scott wished the man would stop talking and let him rest. He knotted his long fingers into the grubby pillow under his head and took another shaky breath. “Long….enough.”
The doctor nodded knowingly. Lancer had undoubtedly experienced the unrelenting horror of the War and suffered privation too. Probably still had the nightmares too, Hampton thought with a slight tremor. Prisoner or not, the young man deserved his respect and Hampton resolved to heed the Sheriff’s words to treat him with more care.
He held off probing and prodding until Eldridge returned with the water, and then he carefully started to soak off the stained dressings. Apart from the occasional gasp, Scott remained silent, but the Sheriff could tell that he was steadily weakening. When he noticed the fierce grip on the pillow slowly relax, he tapped Hampton lightly on the shoulder. “He okay?”
The doctor stopped and leaned closer to check on his patient. “Passed out. Good, at least it’ll make the job easier.”
Hampton finished removing the bandages, which had also stuck fast to the exit wound and inspected the stitches. “Well, they’re holding, but there’s some infection around the edges.”
Eldridge could see the reddened flesh around both wounds and could not help but feel partially responsible due to the unsanitary condition of the cell. Hampton was obviously thinking the same thing when he glanced around and sniffed in disapproval.
“Of course, this is hardly the ideal place to treat a wounded man; although I’ve seen worse.“
“Better here than in some hotel room,” the Sheriff commented. “He’d be an easy target for Holton’s men.”
“Are you so sure they’ll try and kill him?” Hampton asked as he applied salve to the raw wounds.
“They killed Sophie.” Eldridge replied simply. “Whatever you think.”
The doctor looked quickly at him, but then started to wind fresh bandages around Scott’s torso. “Help me turn him back over,” he said when he had finished.
Scott groaned a little when they moved him, but his eyes remained closed. Hampton fastened the young man’s shirt, pulled the blanket back up and sat back on the stool.
“He’ll probably be in lot of pain when he wakes up. Make sure he takes the laudanum I left before.” He stood and started packing his equipment away.
“You’re coming back, I hope?” Sam exclaimed, feeling a sense of panic that he was expected to cope with his ailing prisoner.
“Later, yes,” Hampton assured him. “I’ve a feeling his fever’s going to worsen before it improves. It could be a long night.”
Johnny was bored. It was mid afternoon, beautiful weather, and he was stuck behind his father’s desk looking at interminable columns of figures. Murdoch had left for Sacramento the previous day and as the branding was going well with minimal supervision, he had suggested Johnny should look at the books in his absence. His protests had come to nothing and Johnny had reluctantly agreed to do as he asked. Although he hadn’t had much formal schooling as a child, Johnny knew how to add and subtract as well as anyone. However, that did not mean he enjoyed it.
A heavy sigh escaped his lips as he tossed his pencil aside. Swivelling around in the large leather chair, Johnny stared morosely out of the picture window. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and only the gentlest of breezes played through the leaves of nearby trees. A perfect day for riding, not for being cooped up inside a stuffy house staring at stupid ledgers. ‘Damn it!’ he thought, ‘why not leave it all and get out into the fresh air. Murdoch was miles by away now and he would never know. There was plenty of time to look at them before he returned. Checking accounts was more his brother’s field anyway and besides, Scott seemed to enjoy it’.
Thoughts of his brother brought him to his feet and he stood with both palms pressed against the windowsill as he stared out. Johnny had rarely seen Scott so steamed up following his argument with their father. His brother hardly ever lost his temper, although he undoubtedly had one. Boston was usually the calm one – the peacemaker in the family. In the early days at Lancer, Johnny and their father had numerous rows and Scott had been the one to pour oil on troubled waters. As they all got to know each other better, the arguments had eased and for his part, Johnny no longer had the urge to up and leave. Scott had always seemed more settled and yet it was clear that they had both inherited their father’s fiery Scottish temper.
Johnny had sympathised with his brother when Murdoch had insisted he go to Fort Bryant. It was obvious that Scott would rather have gone to Boston for his friend’s wedding, but Murdoch had given his sibling no choice in the matter. Johnny had not even seen Scott leave that morning. The older man had left before the rest of the household had barely stirred, leaving Teresa and Maria fretting that he had gone without any breakfast. Johnny, however, was more concerned about Scott’s frame of mind than his empty belly. He had tried to speak to his brother after he had stormed up to his room, but Scott had been too angry to even let him in. It had been similar to when Scott had retreated to his room after announcing to his stunned family that he was returning to Boston with his grandfather. The circumstances might be different, but there was one common factor – Harlan Garrett. Although the old man was not around this time, his hold on Scott was still strong. Johnny knew that Murdoch believed that Garrett would try to exert his influence once again if Scott went back to Boston. He could not blame his father for thinking that, but Murdoch should have given his brother the benefit of the doubt and trust him to say no to Harlan’s pleas.
A flicker of movement caught his eye and when he looked closer, he saw that it was Jelly returning from town with the wagon. Grateful for the distraction from his bookwork, Johnny closed the ledgers shut with a satisfying thump and headed out back to the kitchen courtyard. Settling down on the bench, he rested his head on the adobe wall with his eyes shut as he savoured the warm sun on his face. The eventual jiggling of harness made him open them, although he remained in his relaxed position.
As Jelly brought the team to a halt, he looked over to the young man, a scowl on his face.
“I thought you were supposed to be looking over yer daddy’s books.”
Johnny smiled and raised his head. “I was, but I got bored.”
The old handyman gave a disgruntled grunt and looping the reins around the brake, climbed down. “Well, don’t blame me if he bawl’s you out when he gets back.”
Johnny shrugged nonchalantly and lazily got to his feet to walk to the back of the wagon.
“What’cha got here then, Jelly?” he asked, poking at the various sacks and boxes piled up.
“You know full well I went to town for the dry goods for the kitchen,” the other retorted as he stomped around to join him. “And seeing as you’re so bored, you can help me unload them!”
“Well, I don’t know,” Johnny drawled. “It being such a great afternoon, I was thinking of taking Barranca for a long ride. You know, exercise that leg of his a little.”
He paused, glanced at the older man’s indignant face and then laughed. “Okay, I’ll give you a hand. It beats bookwork any day.”
Johnny unlatched the wagon flap and leapt up nimbly to start unloading the supplies. They worked together for a while, Jelly grumbling every now and then about the weight of the sacks. It was on their third trip back to the wagon, when he suddenly stopping working and drew out an envelope from his jerkin pocket.
“Almost forgot,” he said. “Picked up a telegram for yer father.”
Johnny took it from him and eyed it for a moment before he started to open it.
“Hey, that’s addressed to yer pa!” Jelly protested.
“Well, Murdoch ain’t here,” Johnny replied as he pulled the piece of paper out to read it.
“He ain’t gonna like it…” He stopped abruptly when he saw the worried frown on Johnny’s face. “What’s wrong?”
The young man did not reply for a moment and then looked up at him.
“Jelly, go saddle Barranca. I need to pack some supplies.”
“What? Where yer going?”
Johnny said nothing and simply handed the telegram back to him before hurrying into the house.
Jelly watched him leave in bewilderment and then glanced down to read the sheet of paper.
-YOUR SON SCOTT IN JAIL-STOP-INVOLVED IN GUNFIGHT- STOP- LAWYER ADVISED-STOP- SHERIFF ELDRIDGE, STAPLETON.
“Sam, we got trouble.”
Eldridge was just coming back from the cells where he’d been checking on Lancer. Pete was standing by the window, peering anxiously out onto the street beyond.
The younger man looked around. “Holton and his men.”
The Sheriff cursed softly and after a quick glance back at the cells, he entered the office and swiftly locked the adjoining door. Throwing the keys in his desk drawer, he crossed over to join Gresham at the window. Sure enough, the sombrely dressed rancher was riding slowly towards the jailhouse accompanied by five of his hired hands. From the apprehensive looks on the faces of the passer-by’s, it was clear they expected trouble too.
Going over to the weapons rack, Eldridge removed the security bar and took out one of the rifles. He checked it and tossed it over to Pete before grabbing another for himself. His deputy looked scared and Sam had to admit to a case of the jitters himself. If Holton and his men tried anything to get to Lancer, they were sorely outnumbered and it was doubtful whether they could count on any of the townsfolk for help. Checking both his rifle and handgun, Eldridge walked over to the main door.
“You stay here, Pete,” he ordered, his face grim. “Cover me if you have to.”
The other nodded mutely as Eldridge went outside. Taking a tight grip on his rifle, he just hoped to God that he wouldn’t have to use it.
Parking himself on the wooden bench below the window, the Sheriff laid his rifle across his lap as he waited. He looked the picture of relaxation, but his armed appearance did little to reassure the townsfolk. They hurried on past, anxious to be indoors in case the bullets started flying.
Holton was in no hurry as he made his way down the street. He was gratified to see that his presence instilled fear into the populace. Yesterday, he had laid his only child into the earth and his heart felt like a cold stone in his chest. He wanted justice for his boy even though he knew it would never relieve the ache of his loss. As he neared the jailhouse, he saw the Sheriff was sitting outside. Holton permitted himself a sardonic smile when he noticed the man was visibly armed. Yes, you should be worried, he thought. The man responsible for Larry’s death was not getting off easy.
Eldridge pushed himself to his feet as Holton and his men stopped in front of the hitching rail. His heart was pounding loudly, but he forced himself to remain calm as the black clad rancher got down from his horse.
“Mr Holton,” he began, nodding politely at the man.
“Sheriff,” the other acknowledged as he stepped up onto the boardwalk.
“I’m sorry for your loss, sir.”
Holton stiffened and came closer, narrowing his eyes as he searched for any hint of sarcasm on Eldridge’s face.
“No you’re not,” he hissed. “No more than anyone else in this God-forsaken town.”
Sam sighed. “What do you want, Mr Holton?”
“I came to see the man who murdered my son.”
“It was self-defence, not murder,” the Sheriff told him.
“If that’s the case, why have you got him locked up?” Holton argued.
“To keep him away from you and your men,” Sam retorted, his voice rising slightly. “When the circuit judge comes, we can sort it out with him. In the meantime, Lancer stays put.”
Holton was mildly surprised by the man’s determination. Perhaps Eldridge possessed a little backbone after all. He smiled thinly and spread his hands.
“I just want to see him, Sheriff. That’s all.” He saw the other’s gaze flicker to his ranch hands lined up beside him. “My men will stay outside. No trouble, I assure you.”
Sam was doubtful, wondering if he should take the chance. Surely, Holton’s men wouldn’t start shooting if their boss was inside. He hesitated a moment longer and then nodded his head. “All right.”
Motioning the rancher to the door, Eldridge took a wary look at the waiting horsemen and then followed him inside. Pete was still standing by the window and seemed surprised that Eldridge had actually permitted entry.
“It’s alright, Pete,” Sam said.
The young deputy was not convinced, but retreated to his desk making sure his rifle was in easy reach.
“I need your gun, Mr Holton,” Eldridge said, putting his own rifle back in the weapons rack.
“Why, of course,” the rancher replied smoothly as he reached for his revolver, holding out butt first. The Sheriff took it and placed it in his desk drawer. “Perhaps you’d like to search me for any other weapons,” Holton added, spreading his jacket wide.
Sam glared at him, realising he was being tested and then went over and did just as Holton suggested.
The man’s face darkened with anger, not quite believing Eldridge had actually done so. The deputy’s audible snigger behind his back only served to increase his ire.
“Satisfied?” he snapped, when the Sheriff had finished his search.
“Yep,” Eldridge quipped. He retrieved his keys from his desk and went over to the inner door. “Pete, keep an eye on our friends.”
“Sure thing.” The deputy gathered up his rifle and resumed his position by the window. He was feeling more confident now that Sam had taken control of the situation. He watched Eldridge lead Holton towards the cells and then turned his attention to the men outside. If they so much as moved a muscle, he would be ready for them.
The young Bostonian groaned softly as he struggled to ease the cramps in his long legs. Alternatively, hot then cold, and with a desperate thirst, Scott felt thoroughly miserable. He turned irritably onto his side and hissed sharply as the stitches pulled. The wound still burned with intermittent fire and the fever was sapping his strength. Scott was beginning to rue the day he ever set foot in Stapleton.
He lay quietly for a while, as he waited for his various aches and pains to diminish, but something was preventing him from drifting off to sleep. Someone was watching him. Scott jerked spasmodically as the realisation kicked in and he struggled to open his heavy eyelids to see who it was. His vision was blurry, but he could just make out a shadowy figure standing beyond the bars of his cell. He blinked hard, wondering if it was the doctor coming to disturb him again. Then he became aware that the person was a complete stranger to him.
Frowning with confusion, he lifted his head and looked harder at the man staring at him. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but Scott’s muddled senses could not fathom out what. The man suddenly smiled, not a pleasant, welcoming smile, but one that chilled the blood in his veins. Scott found himself holding his breath and his stomach bottomed out when the dark clad stranger raised a finger and drew it slowly across his neck.
“Hey, that’s enough!” someone cried out.
It was the Sheriff, who he had hitherto unnoticed and Scott felt a sense of relief. The man turned briefly to glance at the lawman and then looked back at Scott. He did not say a word – he didn’t have to. The threat was there in his eyes and Scott knew for certain who he was.
“Let’s go,” Eldridge said, and the two men left him alone, the heavy door slamming shut behind them.
Scott let out a ragged breath and slowly pushed himself up to sit on the side of his cot. The resulting pain helped to sharpen his mind and he rubbed a hand across his eyes. Thomas Holton had come to visit and the man wanted him dead. He knew he should not expect anything less, but it was still a shock to find Holton’s father standing outside his cell, gloating on his demise.
He reached for the mug of water beside him and brought it to his lips. Scott was alarmed to find his hand shaking and knew the tremor was not wholly down to his weakness. If he had been in any doubt that Holton wanted to do him harm, it had just been confirmed by the blatant threat he had exhibited. Scott was also surprised that the Sheriff had allowed him into the jailhouse at all. Eldridge had treated him well since his enforced stay. However, he was now wondering if he could really trust the Sheriff. Had the older man even sent a telegram to Murdoch telling him what had happened? For all he knew, the lawman might have been in cohorts with Holton all along and up until now, had been lulling him into a false sense of security. No, if that were the case, the Sheriff would have unlocked the cell and let Holton drag him out. In his present state, Scott was uncertain if he would be able to offer up much resistance.
He sighed, returned the mug onto the battered stand and placed both hands on the side of the cot. Getting to his feet was a painful process and he almost fell straight back down again. Scott waited until the dizziness eased a little and then lurched unsteadily over to the door. Gripping the bars tightly, he pressed his face against them; the feel of the cold metal a welcome balm to his flushed skin.
‘I’ve got to get out of here’, he thought desperately. He was in a town full of strangers and there was no one he could count on for help. After a year spent in a Confederate prison, Scott hated being caged up and the pain of his present confinement hurt more than any wound. He also began to experience renewed feelings of resentment towards his father for sending him on this ill-fated journey. Scott knew he was being unreasonable, but right now, he was in no mood to be charitable.
The sound of the other door opening made him look up and he tensed slightly when he saw Eldridge enter the cellblock. At least he seemed to be alone this time, but Scott remembered his earlier doubts and watched warily as the Sheriff approached.
Sam was surprised to see him on his feet, but then he frowned with concern as he regarded the younger man’s pale, sweaty face.
“Best sit down, Lancer, ‘fore you fall down.”
Scott looked at him blearily, noticing the keys in his hand and quickly calculated his chances of overpowering the Sheriff when he entered his cell. If he could grab his revolver and knock him out, he might just make it. Of course, there was also the deputy to worry about and there was no way of knowing if he was in the outer office. He gave a wry smile. Who was he kidding? Even if he managed to escape from the jailhouse, where was he going to go? His horse was still stabled in the livery, and even if maybe he stole one, he doubted he would get far before he was caught. Horse stealing was a hanging offence, so he was damned if he did, or damned if he stayed put.
“Come on, Lancer. Move away from the door.” The Sheriff sounded annoyed now and there was a suspicious tone in his voice. He could probably guess what was going through Scott’s mind and he was sending out a clear warning.
Scott hesitated a few minutes more, although not out of defiance. He was afraid if he pushed himself away from the bars, he would fall down on his butt. His legs were trembling underneath him and a cold sweat was trickling down his spine. Taking a steadying breath, he swung himself around, and groped his way back to his bunk and sat down heavily.
Grateful the younger man had seen sense, Eldridge let himself in and stood beside the open door, his arms crossed across his chest.
Scott looked up. “Oh, I’m just fine, Sheriff,” he replied sarcastically. “You just granted visiting rights to a man who wants to see me dead. Who’s next? The undertaker coming to measure me up for my coffin.”
Eldridge sucked through his teeth. Lancer was pissed all right and he couldn’t really blame him. He had been wrong to let Holton in and he should have refused the man’s request point blank. The man had threatened Lancer in full view of him and he had left the jail with that same chilling smile on his face. He was determined to kill the young rancher and he did not care who knew it.
“Holton’s not going to get to you.”
“No?” Scott retorted sharply. “And how are you and your deputy going to stop him? He or one of his men already murdered Sophie; even though you say you have no proof. I don’t think Holton and his men are going to have any qualms about killing the two of you to get to me.”
Although he did not want to admit it, Eldridge feared he was right. Thomas Holton had always stayed just this side of the law, but with the death of his son, there was no telling what he would do.
“You have to let me go, Sheriff,” Scott insisted.
“I can’t do that, son.”
“Why not? You know I killed Larry Holton in self-defence. There is no case to answer for and you could turn a blind eye if I walked out of here.”
Eldridge shook his head firmly. “Believe me, I have thought about it, Lancer. But I can’t take the risk. Holton’s men are now watching the jailhouse like hawks. You’d be dead before you even left town. I couldn’t save Sophie, but I sure as hell am not gonna lose you too.”
Scott groaned in despair and dropped his head into his hands. The Sheriff sounded genuinely sympathetic to his plight and it seemed he was determined to keep him safe. It was just the odds were against him and Scott did not want anyone else getting hurt on his account. The fact that Holton’s ranch hands were outside watching every movement was another worrying factor. However, the thought of waiting for the circuit judge to turn up was intolerable.
“Look, I’ll send a wire and see if there’s any way the judge can get here any sooner,” Eldridge suggested, thinking along the same lines. “And in the meantime, your father could show up with a lawyer in tow to help you.”
The injured blond closed his eyes wearily and massaged his temples as he could feel a headache coming on. After everything that had happened with his father, Murdoch’s arrival did not exactly fill him with confidence. He also did not believe that Holton would abide with any decision the judge would make, especially if he were exonerated from all blame.
He heard the Sheriff come over to him and settle down on the stool beside him. A moment later, he felt the mug pressed against his cracked lips.
“Here, drink this.”
Remembering how thirsty he was, Scott drank greedily, but then jerked his head away as he detected the bitter taste of laudanum. “No!”
“You need to take it, son.”
“I’m fine without it,” he countered, opening his eyes to flash blue fire at the lawman.
“You look like shit, boy,” Sam told him. “I don’t want to force it down you, but I will if I have to. Now drink up and let me figure something out about Holton.”
Scott regarded him silently as he decided whether he would really carry out his threat, but the older man looked pretty determined. The throbbing in his side was becoming unbearable and he longed to sleep to escape the pain and the worry of his situation. He glanced at the cup in Eldridge’s hand for a moment longer before he reluctantly nodded his acceptance. The Sheriff rose, placed a hand on the back of his head and tipped the contents into his mouth. The dosage was strong and Scott almost gagged as the drugged water slid down his throat. His limbs began to feel heavy even before the cup was drained. He was unable to offer any resistance as Eldridge pushed him firmly back onto the cot and swung his legs up. A blanket was spread over him and his drooping eyes flickered shut. By the time, the lawman locked the cell door, Scott was already unconscious.
Sam scratched his head and walked back into the office. He hated drugging the young man, but it was only way to keep him quiet and restrained. Looking across, he saw Pete stationed by the window and his face bore a worried frown.
“I take it they’re still out there?”
Although Holton had left with his foreman, Hank Chambers and another hand, he had left three men behind. Two were positioned across the street and although the third was no-where in sight, Eldridge was in no doubt he was somewhere in town keeping an eye out. It was beginning to feel like they were under siege and Sam was becoming increasingly anxious.
“We should let him go,” Pete said, coming away from the window.
His deputy sounded edgy, and although Eldridge shared his nervousness, there was no way he was going to let Lancer out from under his sight. “They’ll kill him for sure and you know it,” he answered grimly. “Do you really want an innocent man’s death on your conscience?”
Better his than mine, Gresham thought, as he perched himself on the side of his desk. Thomas Holton could call on ten or more of his hands to force their way into the jailhouse, and he and Sam wouldn’t stand a chance against them.
“How about we wire Sheriff Pearson in San Jorge for more men?”
Eldridge snorted with derision. “He ain’t got one man worth spit and he ain’t likely to stir himself to help us.”
“Well, what are we gonna do then, Sam?” Pete exclaimed. “I ain’t getting killed over some yahoo who don’t even come from round here!”
“Then you should have thought of that when I gave you that badge!” Sam snapped. “Lancer’s under our protection and it’s our job to make sure he stays alive till the judge comes.”
Pete stared at him belligerently, tempted to throw his damned badge back into his face. However, common sense prevailed. The pay was better than he would get anywhere else, except perhaps Holton’s outfit. Somehow, he did not think that would be such a good idea. Giving a resigned sigh, he rose and sat down at the desk and idly started to leaf through wanted posters.
Throwing his keys back into his drawer, Eldridge helped himself to some coffee. He ignored the silent figure of his deputy and walked outside to resume his place on the bench. Eyeing the two cowboys over the rim of his cup, he toyed with the idea of arresting them for loitering. Trouble was, where would he put them? The jailhouse with Lancer? That was too much like temping fate. Across the street, one of the ranch hands nudged his companion with a smile and tipped his hat mockingly at Eldridge. The Sheriff ground his teeth in frustration.
Maybe he should try Pearson for reinforcements before things turned ugly. Sam did not quite see eye to eye with the Sheriff in San Jorge and it galled him to have to ask for his help. Something had to be done though and at the moment, Eldridge had no solution. Holton wanted Lancer’s head on a plate and he would do anything to get it. The circumstance surrounding Sophie’s death also continued to baffle him. Whoever was responsible for her murder had covered their tracks well and it infuriated him that he might not be able to obtain justice for the poor girl. It all added up to one heap of trouble, but as he told Pete, you took on that responsibility when you pinned on a badge. They just had to cope the best they could and hope to God that it was good enough.
Joe Neville was a nervous man. The owner of the Golden Bear stood on the landing looking down at his customers. However, his main object of interest was the small group of men who sat at a table beside one of the large windows. From their vantage point, they could see most of the main street, but they were only really interested in the Sheriff office, which was situated virtually opposite the saloon. Three of Holton’s hands had been hanging round the town ever since the rancher’s unexpected and unwelcome visit.
Now Hank Chambers had joined them and they were starting to become a permanent fixture in Stapleton. Their intimidating presence was definitely having a detrimental effect on the townsfolk and although it was only just past seven in the evening, the saloon was virtually empty. After the initial relief people felt following Larry Holton’s death, there was now a sense of foreboding.
Neville did not envy Eldridge’s job one bit at present. Keeping his prisoner from the clutches of Holton was a full time job. Still if ‘ol Charlie, the town’s drunk, was to be believed, the kid was at death’s door anyway. So far, Holton’s cowhands seemed content to sit around and watch the comings and goings over at the jailhouse. Nevertheless, Joe feared it was only a matter of time before they made their move and then, all hell would break loose.
Well, if the Sheriff expected folks to help out, he’d be disappointed, he thought. The stranger - Lancer was it? – might have rid Stapleton of its chief troublemaker, but the people owed him nothing and would sooner see him taken rather than jeopardise their own lives. One thing was certain, Lancer was to blame for Sophie’s death, inadvertently or not, and Joe had no cause to be grateful for that. The girl had been popular with his customers, and although Sophie had always complained, he had always taken a good percentage of her earnings. He was sorry she was dead, but with her and young Holton gone, Joe had lost a lot of his regular earnings. Maybe, it would not be such a bad idea if Lancer got his comeuppance after all!
Smoothing the sparse strands of hair across his balding pate, Joe started down to take over at the bar. He hesitated at the bottom of the stairs and then made his way over to the group by the window.
“Get you anything, gents?” he began congenially. “On the house, of course,” Joe added, although it pained him to be that generous.
“Yeah, I’ll ….” one of them said eagerly, but stopped when Chambers glared in his direction.
“No, we’re fine,” the foreman said.
Relieved, Joe wiped his sweaty palms on his waistcoat, smiled briefly and left them alone.
“I could have done with another beer, Hank,” the cowhand moaned, indicating his empty glass.
“We’re here to watch, Tob. Not drink,” Chambers told him as he transferred his gaze back out the window.
The disgruntled man signed and sat back in his chair. “So when are we gonna do anymore than watch?”
The other two glanced expectedly at Chambers too. After a couple days of inactivity, they were getting bored and the prospect of work back at the ranch was actually looking more appealing.
“When Mr Holton says so. Not before.”
“I don’t know why we don’t just go in there and drag Lancer’s sorry butt out of there right now?” Jeb Cutter demanded angrily. “There’s only the two of them in there to guard him.”
“One” Hank corrected. “Gresham’s just left.”
The other men looked guilty that they had not spotted the deputy go, but then Cutter spoke again. “All the more reason to do it now.”
Chamber’s dark eyes swivelled to stare at him. “If you want to try it, go ahead, Jeb. I’m sure Mr Holton will appreciate your effort.”
His icy tone made Cutter quiver slightly and he looked away quickly, his enthusiasm suddenly gone. He knew better than to cross his boss. Holton could be every bit as dangerous as Larry had been. Jeb had once seen a former hand dragged behind a galloping horse around the corral for fifteen minutes on the rancher’s orders. The man was suspected of stealing from the main house and that was his punishment. By the time Holton called a halt, the ranch hand had suffered three broken ribs, a broken arm and severe lacerations. Cutter had cheered and whooped with the rest of his companions during the man’s ordeal, but they all realised the seriousness of the message their boss was sending out.
At least that time, the cowhand had survived to tell the tale, although he never worked for Holton again. Jeb could hardly forget the night when Larry shot another man dead during the usual Saturday poker game in the bunkhouse. Larry was convinced the other man was cheating and without any warning, he had pulled out his gun and killed him. Young Holton was a callous bastard and had gone on playing as if nothing had happened. It all proved that one had to be careful working for the Holton’s. The boss might pay top wages, but he expected complete loyalty in his men and his rule of fear meant he usually got it.
The four sat in stony silence for a while longer; Tob still eying his empty glass gloomily while Cutter closed his eyes in a light doze, hoping Chambers did not notice. It was Stoner’s voice calling Hank’s name that jerked him awake and he saw that the other three were staring hard out the window. Dusk was fast approaching, but they could all see the stranger riding slowly down the street. His gaze seemed to be everywhere at once, as if he was expecting trouble. For all his caution, he was hardly inconspicuous. The showy palomino he rode stood out against the usual mix of bays and chestnuts in the street. The rider, himself, was wearing a reddish-pink shirt, with dark pants decorated with silver conchos down the sides. He appeared to be young, but held himself with the assurance far beyond his years.
“A Mex?” Stoner questioned, looking at Chambers.
Hank frowned, but made no reply. He watched with interest as the stranger stopped his mount outside the Sheriff’s office and swung smoothly from the saddle. Looping the reins around the rail, the young man took another glance around before stepping up onto the boardwalk and walked straight up to the door. He paused briefly as he knocked lightly on the door and then went inside.
“Who the hell is he?” Cutter asked.
“Don’t know, but I aim to find out.” Chambers unfolded his tall frame from the chair and strode purposefully to the swing doors. “You stay here.”
His three companions looked at each other, but did not argue with him. Although they were just as curious as Chambers, they were more than content to let him find out. Tob grinned as the foreman went outside and got eagerly to his feet.
“Come on. Let’s get another drink!”
The trail had been long and hard and Johnny was beat. It had taken him almost three days to reach Stapleton. That was because he had not wanted to push Barranca too much after the injury the palomino had sustained. He knew he could have taken another mount for the journey, but his horse was eager to get out after his enforced confinement and had stood up to the trip well.
Johnny did not know what to expect of Stapleton. On first viewing, it seemed like an ordinary kind of town; a little run-down maybe, but hardly the type of town where gunfights took place as the norm. However, as he rode slowly down the main street, he could sense an underlying atmosphere of tension and people cast nervous glances his way as they passed. Johnny certainly knew he was being watched, especially when he stopped at the Sheriff’s office. Dismounting, he looped Barranca’s lead reins and took another glance around before going to the door. He knocked once, heard a muffled voice inside and entered, only to find himself on the business end of a revolver.
He stopped, his hands held away from his hips to show he proved no threat and looked quizzically at the older man.
“Who are you?” the other asked brusquely.
“My name’s Johnny Lancer. You’ve got my brother Scott locked up here.”
The lawman seemed surprised. Relief flittered briefly across his haggard face and then he looked suspicious again. “You got anything to prove you’re who you say you are?”
Johnny frowned with confusion. The man was as jumpy as a mountain cat and he did not wish to make him anymore agitated. He was just baffled as to why the man was so edgy.
“No. Not on me,” he answered steadily. “Maybe something in my saddlebags….”
“You just stay where I can see you,” the Sheriff warned.
Johnny was starting to get exasperated, but he stood silently as the man came over and removed his Colt from his holster and backed away.
“Now, why do you think your brother is here?”
“’Cos we got a telegram from Sheriff Eldridge saying so. That’s you, right?”
The other did not acknowledge the fact; nor did he lower his gun. “The telegram was sent to Murdoch Lancer. Where is he?”
“My father’s in Sacramento and not due back for a few days,” Johnny told him. “Look Sheriff, I’ve had a long ride here and now all I want to do is see my brother.”
Eldridge regarded the young man wondering if he could really trust him. He bore no resemblance to the man in the cell, other than the fact his eyes were blue like Lancer’s. He wore his rig low on the hips, but the Sheriff found it difficult to believe Holton would hire a gunfighter to do his dirty work for him. Judging by yesterday’s visit, he would rather have that pleasure himself.
Tucking ‘Lancer’s’ gun into his belt, Sam waved the younger man to stand aside. He did so, without complaint, and Eldridge moved quickly over to the window and glanced out. Narrowing his gaze, he saw Chambers standing outside the saloon, but the man looked as curious as himself. Surely, this implied, the stranger was unknown to him too, and maybe his visitor was who he said he was after all.
Eldridge shut the blinds and turned the key in the lock before turning back to the other.
“What’s going on round here, Sheriff? Everyone seems to be nervous as hell, and someone was watching me as I rode up.”
Sam sighed wearily, un-cocked his revolver and returned it to his holster. He was taking a chance, but one he thought was worth it.
“You’re right, Mr Lancer…..”
“It’s Johnny,” came the soft reply.
“Johnny,” Eldridge corrected himself. “Supposing we sit down and I tell you.”
The two men sat as the Sheriff launched into his tale. He started from the time he had first encountered Scott after the gunfight with Larry Holton over Sophie. Sam went on to tell him of Holton’s reputation with the gun and that his brother had been lucky to come through it alive. Johnny remained silent throughout, although Eldridge saw his face darken when he spoke about Sophie’s subsequent death.
The mention of Thomas Holton and his threats to Scott saw a spark of anger ignite in Johnny’s blue eyes. By the time, Sam had finished with the news that Holton’s men were keeping constant watch on the jailhouse, he could see the young man’s tight rein on his temper was beginning to fray.
Eldridge got up and poured two mugs of coffee. Johnny glanced as his, but made no attempt to drink. He had removed his hat as he had listened, and Sam was struck once again by the difference in appearance between the two brothers. However, he had also seen the worry and concern on his face and realised his reaction was genuine.
“Is Scott all right?”
Sam took a sip of his coffee. “Like I said, Holton was good with a gun and he rarely missed. Your brother took a bullet through the side. The doc’s tended him good, but the fever’s troubling him.”
“I want to see him.”
Again, Johnny spoke quietly, but Sam sensed he would brook no argument.
After the comparative brightness of the office, the cellblock seemed dim and it took Johnny a few moments to adjust his vision. Eldridge’s description of events had left him angry and apprehensive. His brother had been hurt and even now, his enemies were circling like vultures to finish the job. Johnny had not been surprised that Scott had acted in defence of a woman. He had done so before and he had found trouble then. Johnny would never see a woman hurt, but one day, Scott’s knight errant attitude was going to get him killed.
There were three cells to his left, but only the middle one was occupied. Johnny’s stomach tightened when he saw the supine figure of his brother on the bunk. Scott was either asleep or unconscious and Johnny could see a cloth draped across the injured man’s forehead. A small table stood alongside the bunk, with a bowl on top together with a brown, glass bottle.
“He was in a lot of pain yesterday and his fever got worse this morning.”
“Has the Doc seen him today?” Johnny asked, his voice hoarse with anxiety.
“He looked in,” Eldridge said. “Re-dressed his wound and told me to keep him as cool as possible.”
“Why ain’t he here?” Johnny felt his anger returning. From where he stood, Scott looked terrible and yet the Doctor was nowhere in sight.”
“Hampton weren’t too happy to hang around with Holton’s men outside,” the Sheriff told him, contempt evident in his tone. “Can’t say I blame him much. He’s just as scared as everyone else.”
“Let me inside.”
Eldridge nodded and inserted the key in the lock. “Have to keep hold of your gun, son.”
Johnny glanced sharply at him, but declined to comment. He was hardly about to break his brother out of jail, even if Scott was well enough. The Sheriff was only doing his job, he reasoned. He just wished he would show a bit more trust.
Stepping into the cell, Johnny paused and looked round at Eldridge. The man was clearly reluctant to leave, but after a moment’s hesitation, he walked back to his office. Johnny exhaled slowly, relieved he had taken the hint and then turned toward his brother. Scott had not stirred, although he did not appear to be resting peacefully. A worn woollen blanket was tossed aside and was tangled around his long legs. His shirt, grubby and bloodstained, was only half fastened and Johnny could see the thick bandages wrapped around the blond’s torso. Those, at least, seemed clean, but Johnny was concerned at Scott’s flushed features and obvious weakened condition.
Hooking the stool towards him, he sat down and regarded his sibling anxiously. The slow rage, which had been simmering inside him, was threatening to erupt again. He was mad at the sonofabitch who had shot Scott, mad at the men who continued to endanger his brother’s life. Hell, he was even mad at his father and Scott for the argument that had led up to the present situation. If his brother had gone to Boston as intended, he would not be lying in this filthy cell with a hole in his side.
Reaching forward, Johnny removed the cloth from Scott’s forehead. It was almost dry and he dropped it into the bowl. As he waited for it to soak through, he picked up the small brown bottle. Laudanum and he was surprised to see it was nearly empty. Knowing how much Scott hated taking the stuff; Johnny wondered how the Doc had managed to get him to swallow it. His brother was no stranger to bullet wounds, but he must have been in a lot of pain to agree.
Wringing the cloth out, he gently bathed Scott’s face, neck and upper chest, before folding it lengthways and laying it back across his forehead. The older man groaned and bronze coloured lashes flickered a few times before Scott’s eyes finally opened. He stared at Johnny as though he could not quite believe what he was seeing and then he whispered his name.
The dark-haired man smiled. “Hey, Brother. What’cha got yourself into this time?”
Scott returned his smile. After seemingly endless days of worry and pain, it was wonderful to see a familiar face and none was as welcome as his little brother.
“How…did you find me?”
“Sheriff sent a telegram,” Johnny answered, worried about his vagueness. “Didn’t he tell you?”
Scott raised a hand to scrub at his eyes. The laudanum was still in his system and dulling his senses, but it was good to have confirmation that the telegram had indeed been sent.
Johnny shook his head. “He was still in Sacramento when we got the news. Tried to get word to him there, but not sure if he got it.”
Scott nodded, not sure if he was pleased or not his father was in town. He was still uncertain how Murdoch was likely to react to him.
Taking a steadying breath, he started to push himself up into a sitting position and was grateful when Johnny bent forward to help him.
“Not sure that’s a good idea, Boston.”
The simple act of moving had left him gasping and Scott slumped heavily into his brother’s strong grasp as he recovered his breath.
“Sick….of lying down.”
“No, Brother,” Johnny corrected. “You’re just good and sick. Can’t say I’m surprised in a dump like this.” He eased him back against the bars and retrieved the cloth that had fallen into his lap. Johnny was alarmed to find the older man shivering and reached for the blanket to wrap around him.
Scott nodded his thanks and closed his eyes briefly before looking back at his sibling.
“The Sheriff tell you what happened?”
“Pretty much,” Johnny replied. He smiled again. “You thinking about giving up ranching for gun fighting, Brother?”
Scott gave a harsh laugh. “Hardly.”
“You killed your man though.”
“That was more of a fluke than anything else, Johnny,” Scott answered. “Unfortunately, his death has only made things worse.”
His brother nodded. “Yeah, I heard about Sophie. I’m sorry. She sounded like a good kid.”
Scott lowered his gaze. “She was and she certainly didn’t deserve to die like that. It’s my fault she’s dead.”
“Sounds to me like you had no choice,” Johnny pointed out. “It was him or you and I know who I’d rather see alive.”
The older man fell silent for a few minutes, long fingers picking at the frayed edge of the blanket and then he looked up at him.
“How did you cope, Johnny?” he asked. “How did you deal with the suddenness of it all? The knowing you could be dead within a few seconds.”
His questions took Johnny by surprise. No one had ever asked him that before and he was not sure he wanted to answer. He had lived by the gun ever since his Mama had died and had grown up in a world of violence. It had become his way of life and it was not something he was proud of.
“You’ve killed before, Scott,” he responded, deliberately trying to avoid the subject. “During the War........”
“That was different, Johnny,” the blond countered, realising what his sibling was attempting. “Yes, sometimes it was kill or be killed, but we were soldiers following orders and doing our duty. It’s not the same and you know it.”
A shadow passed over the other’s face and he stood up abruptly and he started to pace.
Scott waited, worried than he overstepped the mark and that Johnny would clam up completely. However, he wanted to know – needed to know, so he watched and hoped his brother would feel inclined to speak.
Long minutes followed and with each passing minute, Scott became more convinced that Johnny would retain his secrets. Then the younger man stopped his pacing and came back to resume his seat. Running his hands down his pants legs, he let them rest on his knees as he searched for the words. He did not look up and when he did eventually start to talk, it was in such a soft voice that Scott had to strain his ears to hear.
“I was just a dumb-assed kid when I first killed a man in a gunfight,” he began hesitantly. “He was a hard-nosed bastard who deserved to die, but when it was over, all I felt was sick. I remember running down an alley where I puked my guts up. I knew how it could have been me lying in that street and if I carried on doing what I did, that time would come one day.” Johnny paused and this time, he did glance up and look at his brother.
“I didn’t choose to become a gunfighter, Scott, and every time I killed someone, I vowed that person would be the last. But it’s something you can’t walk from, not even now. I don’t remember all the names of those men I shot down, but I remember their faces. Every last one of them. And I know they’ll haunt me till the day I die. The thing is, I don’t want to forget them, because if I do, that makes me just as bad as the likes of Holton, who from what I hear, enjoyed killing.”
“You’ll never be like that,” Scott stated.
“Maybe not, but I could have been. “ Johnny knew it had been a fine line between hiring out and overstepping the law. He had seen it happen to others and if his life had not taken the path to finding his family, he might well have gone down that route.
“You asked me how I coped with it,” he added. “Well, the truth is, I don’t know. All I could do was face each fight as it came; watch the eyes of the man I was up against and hope to God, I could clear leather faster than he could.”
Scott said nothing and resting his head against the bars, regarded his brother with a mixture of sympathy and pride. He was pleased that Johnny had felt comfortable enough to share his thoughts and fears about his days as a gunfighter. Johnny had never admitted he was probably as scared as hell when it came down to facing another man in a gunfight, but Scott knew he must have been. For his own part, he was not ashamed that he had felt the same when he and Larry Holton had met that day in the saloon. It was something that Scott did not want to experience again and he respected his brother’s courage and inner strength for living the kind the life he had led.
“Thank you,” he said gently.
Johnny looked at him in surprise. “What for?”
“For telling me,” Scott replied. He paused for a moment, then added “It’s not wrong to admit you were frightened…..”
“Who says I was frightened?” the younger man said fiercely.
“You’re only human, brother,” Scott replied. “I was terrified when Holton challenged me. It’s only natural.”
“Yeah, well it’s said now.” Although Johnny was glad he had told him how he had felt, he was slightly embarrassed he had spoken so freely, even to his brother whom he trusted implicitly. It had also distracted Scott from his current situation and now they had to find a way to resolve the problem regarding Holton.
“So, what we gonna do about getting you out of here?” he asked.
Scott sighed and rubbed again at his eyes. “You could bust me out.”
Johnny smiled. “Thought of that, Boston. Only the jailhouse is being watched every minute of the day according to the Sheriff and I think it’s gonna be a while before you can ride.”
“We can’t stay here, Johnny.” Scott implored. “Pretty soon, Holton’s going to get tired of waiting and the whole town could be in danger if he stages an attack on the jail.”
Trust his brother to think about the whole damned town instead of his own safety, Johnny thought. The trouble was, he could not be sure when Murdoch was likely to hear what had happened. He might well be back at Lancer by now and trying to arrange for his lawyer to accompany him to Stapleton. The ranch was at least a two to three day ride away and by the time they got here, violence could have already erupted and more people hurt.
“You’re right, we can’t afford to wait for Murdoch to show up,” he agreed. “I can send another telegram tomorrow, but there’s no telling when he’s gonna get it.”
Scott nodded. He was growing increasingly tired and even though they were discussing something vitally important, he could feel his eyelids drooping. “We need a plan,” he murmured softly.
His struggle to keep awake had not gone unnoticed by his brother and reluctant as he was to leave him, Johnny had his own and his horse’s needs to attend to.
“We’ll work on it, Boston,” he said. “But right now, you should get some rest.”
Scott looked disappointed, but then he realised Johnny had been travelling for several days and was probably just as exhausted as himself.
“Yes. You should go,” he agreed. “There’s a boarding house and livery down the street.”
Johnny nodded, but made no attempt to move. His brother was looking so ill now that he felt he ought to forgo his own requirements and stay with him.
The blond saw the indecision on his face and raised a hand to wave him away. “It’s alright, Johnny. I’ll be fine.”
The former gunfighter sighed and got slowly to his feet. “Okay. I’ll be back real soon.”
Scott could not help but shudder, remembering Sophie’s last words to him before she left, only to meet her killer a short time later. He experienced a momentary sense of panic as the younger man turned to leave. Sophie had never returned and with Holton’s men on the lookout, his brother could be next.
“Don’t let anyone know you’re a Lancer.”
Johnny stopped and looked at the anxious expression on his sibling’s face. “How about Madrid?”
Only the slight smile and the teasing glint in his blue eyes told Scott he was joking. Johnny’s smile widened and he shrugged. “Maybe not, huh?”
“Just be careful,” Scott warned.
“Ain’t I always?”
“No. That’s what worries me!”
The livery stable was easy to find and as Johnny led his mount inside, a hollow-cheeked little man appeared from the shadows.
“It’ll be two bits to stable yer horse, Mister. Three bits extra for feed.”
Johnny cocked an eyebrow. “How about two and I take care of him myself?”
The liveryman frowned and thought for a minute. The young man looked unshaven and travel-worn. However, he also wore his gun low at the hip and that was more convincing than the paltry amount of money he was willing to pay for his horse’s upkeep. “Deal.”
Johnny smiled, handed over some coins and led Barranca over to a nearby stall. The chestnut in the next one whickered a greeting and he was surprised to find it was Scott’s horse.
“Hey, fella,” he said as he reached over and stroked the animal’s velvet muzzle.
“Nice hoss, ain’t he?” the liveryman commented. “You wanna buy ‘im?”
“He for sale?” Johnny asked innocently.
“Not really,” the older man admitted. “The one who owns him is in jail.”
“Shot someone. Not that anyone in town is sorry, but I reckon it won’t be long ‘fore his pappy gets even.”
‘Not if I can help it,’ Johnny thought grimly. He shrugged and started the business of unsaddling and grooming Barranca. The other man hung around for a few minutes more and then drifted off without another word.
Johnny worked steadily on his horse for fifteen minutes, rubbing his golden flanks and checking his previously injured leg. Tired as he was, he was trying to work out a way to get his brother out of jail and home safely. At present, he did not have any answers, but he had to work fast if they were going to get away.
His saddlebags over his shoulder, Johnny wandered back outdoors, intent on finding the boarding house and some food. It occurred to him that this must have been exactly what Scott had done when he first arrived in Stapleton. It had not been long before his brother had run into trouble and Johnny was going to have to be careful he did not do the same.
Unfortunately, as he started walking down the boardwalk, a tall man leaning casually against a shop front moved to intercept him and Johnny was forced to stop.
“New in town, friend?”
Johnny drew back a step, careful to keep his hand from straying to his gun and openly appraised the other.
“If you’re the one who’s been watching me since I arrived, you know the answer.”
Chambers smiled slightly, disappointed that the stranger did not seem intimidated by him. On closer inspection, he could see that the shorter man was not a Mexican as he had first thought. His hair might be dark under his hat, but his eyes were blue and right now, they were as cold as ice.
“What’s your business with the Sheriff?” he asked, his smile fading.
“Now that ain’t very friendly,” the foreman replied.
“Well, I ain’t feeling too friendly right now,” Johnny retorted. “I’ve been travelling for three days and all I want is some food and some shuteye.”
The other nodded and to Johnny’s surprise, stepped aside. “See you around then.”
Exhaling a slow sigh of relief, Johnny continued on his way, well aware that the man was still watching him. It was obvious that he was one of Holton’s men and he wondered how many more were in town and, more importantly, what they were planning. They could quite easily create a situation, a brawl or even a fire, to lure the sheriff and deputy from the jailhouse. Thus occupied, Scott would be vulnerable to attack and although Johnny knew his brother would fight tooth and nail to protect himself, he would not stand a chance in his condition.
The boarding house was as easy to find as the livery. ‘Nancy’s’ proclaimed itself to provide ‘clean, cheap accommodation with a homely welcome.’ Johnny gave a wry smile as he walked inside, noting the threadbare rugs, faded curtains and dusty cobwebs. A bored looking middle-aged woman sat behind a high counter, leafing disconcertedly through a newspaper and did not even glance until he came over and plonked down his saddlebags.
“I need a room.”
The woman, who he assumed was Nancy, looked him over, sniffed and produced a register from below the counter.
“How long for?”
“Don’t know yet,” Johnny answered. “A day or so.”
Nancy sniffed again, opened the book and handed him a pen.
“Two dollars a night. Take it or leave it.”
‘So much for the homely welcome,’ thought Johnny and he fished for some bills. Two dollars a night was a bit exorbitant, but he did not argue. He needed sleep, even though he was worried about his brother. As he went to write, he scanned the page for Scott’s name and recognised his sibling’s signature immediately. ‘Don’t let anyone know you’re a Lancer.’ Scott had said and Johnny had seen the apprehension in his eyes. What name should he sign then? Madrid was his first choice, but that could be a very bad idea. If any of Holton’s men, or even the man himself, had heard of Johnny Madrid, they might think Scott had gun-fighting connections after all.
He knew Nancy was waiting for him and she would soon become suspicious if he delayed any long. A sudden idea sprung into his head and a faint smile settled on his face as he scrawled down a name. Putting down the pen, he swivelled the book around and watched her peer at the signature. With another disinterested sniff, Nancy turned and reached for a key behind her.
“Number eight. Top of the stairs, Mr Garrett.”
Johnny grinned and took the key. ‘Ol Harlan would have a fit knowing that he was using the respected Garrett name, but that was the alias he was going to use while he was in Stapleton. John Garrett had quite a ring to it, he thought, and no one would suspect his relationship to Scott. His brother never signed his full name fortunately and Johnny was glad he didn’t.
Heading up the stairs, he found Number 8 and unlocked the door. Taking no chances, Johnny eased his gun from his holster and slowly pushed it open. He waited, listening for the merest hint of movement, but all he heard was the sound of his own breathing. His eyes now accustomed to the gloom, Johnny edged inside, his senses still alert for any danger. There was nothing; everything was all right and he breathed a sigh of relief as he locked the door behind him.
Lighting no lamps, he dumped his saddlebags onto the bed and moved over to the window. As he hoped, his room overlooked the main street. As he drew back the curtain, he swore softly as he spotted the man he had just encountered standing beside the main door of the boarding house. The man stood there for a few minutes and then entered the building. Scooting back to the door, Johnny wedged the back of a chair under the handle for added security. He was in no doubt that, the other was trying to obtain information about him and he hoped no harm would come to Nancy. They had already killed Sophie and one more death along the way would matter little to them.
Johnny stood by the door, gun at the ready, straining his ears for any sound of commotion. A few minutes later, he heard a door slamming downstairs and going back to the window, Johnny saw the man outside again. The tall figure remained on the boardwalk for a moment and then stalked off, heading in the direction of the saloon.
Holstering his revolver, he returned to the bedroom door, removed the chair and unlocked it. Hurrying downstairs, he was glad to find Nancy unharmed, although the expression on her face marked her displeasure.
“I don’t want no trouble round here, Mister,” she told him. “Hank Chambers is a hard man to cross.”
At least he had a name now and Johnny remembered the Sheriff telling him that he had been present at the gunfight.
“Chambers? Never heard of him,” he lied. “What did he want?”
“Yer name and where you come from,” Nancy replied. “I just showed him the register and told him I didn’t know where.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Johnny said, with a smile “There won’t be any trouble.”
She grunted, unconvinced. “Better not be. This town’s fit to bust any day what with that young fella in the jailhouse. Some people are thinking of getting out while they can.”
“That bad, huh? The man down the livery said there was a gunfight a few days ago.”
Nancy nodded, seemingly eager now to have a sounding board. Maybe it was due to a sense of relief after Chamber’s visit. Johnny did not mind, but he also knew it was wise not to seem too interested in the goings on in the town.
“Never thought we’d see the day Larry Holton was took down. Stranger to town, the man was. Stayed here for one night. Seemed real nice and polite. Never took him for a gunhawk. Trouble was, he picked on the wrong man when he gunned down Holton. His pa’s as mad as a rogue bull.”
So, some townsfolk believed Scott was a gunfighter, Johnny thought, and judging on his own experience, it was highly unlikely they would be willing to help the lawmen if Holton attacked the jail.
“What’s the Sheriff gonna do about him then?” he asked.
“Don’t know,” Nancy answered. “If he’s got any sense, he’ll let Holton have him. That way, no one else in town’s likely to get hurt.”
Johnny fought back a tide of anger at the woman’s callous attitude. He realised it was a natural reaction of a person who saw the place where they lived under threat, but this was his brother she was talking about. He gave a casual shrug feigning indifference.
“Well, I ain’t gonna be here long anyway. Probably moving on soon.”
“Wise move, I say,” Nancy said.
Johnny treated her to his most charming smile. “I just came down to ask you if there’s anywhere in town I can get a meal.”
“If you want to avoid a bellyache, you’d best not go to the saloon,” she told him. “Try Lottie’s down the street. She’s usually okay.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat. “Much obliged.”
As he left the boarding house, Johnny kept a weather eye out for Chambers or anyone else, but saw no one. It was now fully dark and there were few people on the street. He kept thinking back to what Nancy had told him about Scott and how she never imagined him to be a gunfighter. An idea was forming in his head of how to get his brother out of jail and away to safety. It was an idea fraught with danger and they could well lose their lives. However, Johnny knew he had to risk it if either of them had any hope of survival.
The small graveyard was a peaceful spot. Situated on a low rise, it was surrounded by elegant, iron railings and was sheltered by a large elm tree. Thomas Holton visited it on a regular basis, tending his late wife’s grave and reflecting on what might have been. Larry’s death had changed all that and now when he came to this lonely place, it was to reaffirm his pledge to avenge his son’s murder.
Now he had seen for himself the man who had killed his boy, Holton was determined to end his life soon. It pleased him to see that Lancer was sick and in pain. When he finally had him within his grasp, he was going to ensure the bastard would die a slow, painful death. A swift lynching would be too damned quick and Lancer was going to suffer for what he had done.
He sighed and got to his feet, brushing the early morning dew from the knees of his pants. The freshly dug earth covering Larry’s grave was already starting to sprout a few weeds and he had savagely pulled them out. The flowers on the single wreath were fading also and the simple wooden cross had yet to be replaced with a more permanent stone marker. For all his faults, Holton missed his son and knew he would mourn his loss until his own life ended.
Retracing his steps, he closed his wicket gate behind him and walked over to his horse. Mounting up, he turned the animal towards the ranch house. He knew he had to put his grief behind him and concentrate on the job in hand. It was difficult, but it was the only way he was going to get any form of closure.
Chambers had returned last night and told him that a stranger had arrived in town. His foreman was suspicious and Holton was too, especially when he learned that the man had been to see the Sheriff. All Chambers had managed to discover was a name, John Garrett, and that told them nothing. Holton had ordered Chambers to return to town and find out more, even if it meant leaning on the man. He was confident the younger man would get a result, although he was now considering riding into town himself to see the stranger for himself. Garrett might be an innocent drifter just passing through town, but Holton wanted to make sure he didn’t pose a threat to his plans.
Holton also knew his men were hungry for action, whereas he was content to pay the waiting game a while long. Holding off would increase Lancer’s and the Sheriff’s anxiety or maybe, even lull them into a state of false security. Either way, Holton was certain he was going to get Lancer and then take his revenge.
The ranch house was in sight now and he reined in his horse to take in the view. It was an impressive building – a solid timber and brick structure that spoke of wealth and power. When Holton had first seen it over twenty years ago, it had been little more than a tumbledown shack. With the help of a small inheritance from his father, he had built it up to the place it was now. Yes, he had ridden rough shot over some neighbouring smallholders who had stood in the way of his expansion plans. Eventually, they had been driven out and now his land covered nearly six thousand acres. Everything he owned would have gone to Larry, but now that dream was shattered forever. A single bullet had ended his boy’s life and now all Holton had to look forward to, was to spend the remainder of his time alone.
‘Damn Lancer to Hell’, he thought angrily. Why should he be allowed to live and breathe while his son lay cold in the earth? His father, if he had one, should suffer as he himself now suffered. He had waited long enough to exact his revenge and it was time to settle the score. No one was going to stand in his way, no lawman, townspeople or strangers. With a determined growl, Thomas Holton jerked his horse around, kicked the animal into motion and headed off in the direction of Stapleton.
Sheriff Eldridge looked up from his desk. His deputy was peering out the window and climbing to his feet, he walked over to join him.
“Yep. That’s Lancer’s brother,” he answered as he spotted the young man hurriedly crossing the street.
“Don’t look much like him,” Gresham commented. “You sure we can trust him?”
Sam chuckled softly and went back to his desk. “We can trust him, Pete. I also think he’d be a good man to have in a fight.”
The deputy looked unconvinced, but stepped away from the window as the other approached the door.
“Morning,” Eldridge greeted as Johnny entered.
The younger man nodded and glanced expectantly at the second lawman.
“This is my deputy, Pete Gresham,” Sam explained. “Pete, Johnny Lancer.”
The two acknowledged each other’s presence briefly and then Johnny turned back to the Sheriff.
Sam rose and went over to fetch some coffee. “Better, I think. Anxious to see you.”
Johnny smiled. He was anxious to see his brother too, although he suspected Scott would not be too happy when he told him of his plan.
“Need to speak to him,” he said. “You too, Sheriff.”
Eldridge frowned slightly, wondering what the young man had to say. “You want some coffee first? It’s fresh made.”
Johnny shook his head and with a sigh, Sam put down his mug and collected his keys.
“Pete, you best stay in the office and keep a weather eye out.”
The deputy tightened his jaw Once again, he felt he was being excluded from everything and it angered him. He realised someone had to keep a look out, but Holton had not made a move against the jailhouse yet. Maybe it was all just a bluff on the rancher’s part and the threat of attack was over.
Eldridge saw nothing of his colleague’s displeasure and after Johnny had offered up his gun, he led him through to the cells. Scott was sitting on the edge of his bunk when they entered. To Johnny’s critical eye, his brother looked no better than the previous evening. He looked tired and there were dark shadows under his eyes. Although he was wearing a clean shirt, Scott was still unshaven and his blond hair was dull and dishevelled.
His sibling glanced up quickly when he heard their footsteps and relief brightened his face when he saw Johnny.
“Hey. How you doing?”
Scott lurched unsteadily to his feet as Johnny spoke and took a step forward as the cell door was unlocked. He swayed dangerously and his brother hurried over and caught him as his knees started to buckle.
“Easy, Boston,” the younger man said gently. “Not so fast.”
“Sorry,” Scott murmured. “Just a bit dizzy.”
“Well, let’s sit you down again, okay?”
The injured man nodded, fighting back the nausea, which had risen in his throat. Johnny peered at his pale face worriedly as he sat down beside him and then glared back at the Sheriff. “Better, huh?”
Sam looked away guiltily as he pulled the stool towards him. Doc Hampton had been nowhere near the jailhouse since his brief visit yesterday. The man was not answering his door and Eldridge suspected the doctor was seeking solace in a bottle.
“I’m all right, Johnny,” Scott claimed. “Don’t fuss.” He paused and took a steadying breath before glancing back at his brother. “Glad to see you didn’t run into any trouble.”
Johnny stalled a moment before answering. “I ran into Hank Chambers last night.”
Beside him, Scott stiffened with anxiety, but he remained silent.
“What did he want?” Eldridge asked.
“He wanted to know what my business was with you. I told him nothing, but he followed me back to the boarding house and tried to find out my name. I’d given out a false one and he left soon after. He ain’t gonna be satisfied with that though.”
“No, he won’t,” Sam agreed.
“Is he still in town?” Scott questioned.
“Yeah. I spotted him this morning, but made sure he didn’t see me.”
Johnny had risen early that morning and foregone going out for breakfast. He still had some supplies in his saddlebags, so he had made do with those. When he had come downstairs, Nancy had warned him that Chambers was keeping watch outside and he’d asked her if there was another way out. After a disapproving glare, she’d let him use the rear exit and he had made his way along the back alleys before quickly crossing the main street to the Sheriff’s office. Johnny was fully aware that Holton’s other ranch hands might have seen him, but it was a chance he’d had to take.
“They’re never going to give up, are they?”
Johnny gave his brother a sharp look. It was not like Scott to be so defeatist, and although he realised the older man had been through a lot in the last few days, Johnny had to make sure he remained positive.
“Hey, neither are we, Boston,” he reiterated. “We’re gonna get out of this.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a plan, son,” Eldridge stated.
Johnny looked from him back to Scott. He hated adding to his brother’s worries, but they could not afford to wait much longer.
“Yeah, I have. Don’t like you’re gonna like it much through.”
The blond regarded his sibling warily. The look in Johnny’s eyes told him the idea was likely to be highly dangerous and possibly improbable. Scott desperately wanted to get out of this prison cell and go home, but preferably, he would like both of them to get there in one piece.
“Spit it out, Brother,” he said resignedly.
“Well, I figure Chambers has told his boss about me and Holton’s bound to be suspicious. A complete stranger to town has to have a reason for going straight to the Sheriff’s office.”
“That’s true,” Sam agreed.
“So I aim to give him a reason.”
“Hear me out, Scott,”
The other compressed his lips in a tight line to indicate his displeasure, but heeded his words.
“The woman in the boarding house said she never took you for a gunfighter and maybe other folks in town think that too.”
Scott looked at him in surprise. He had never given it a thought that other people would believe he was anything more than someone just passing through. The fact that he had killed a man who was renowned as a fast gun made that seem feasible. However, he was mystified as to what Johnny was planning and he waited for his brother to continue.
“Supposing word got to Holton that Scott really was a gunfighter and that a bounty hunter has been on his trail for some time…”
“You proposing to be that bounty hunter?” Eldridge cut in.
Johnny nodded. “Maybe there’s a personal score to settle and I’m keen to take Scott off your hands. Now I think Holton will be very interested in offering me a deal to hand his son’s killer over to him. I could pretend to go along with it and we set up a time and place to meet.”
“That’s crazy!” the Sheriff exclaimed. “He’ll kill you both.”
“He’ll will if we turn up, which, of course, we won’t,” Johnny replied. “Hopefully we’ll be halfway home before he realises it’s a double-cross.”
“This is stupid,” Sam retorted, rising to his feet. “I’m not going to get your brother go and then find out Holton’s caught up with you and killed the two of you. Besides which, there’s no way Scott can ride in his condition….”
“I can ride,” Scott grated, looking long and hard at Johnny. As expected, the younger man’s idea sounded reckless and highly risky. Holton was unlikely to trust Johnny’s word and suspect he was being tricked. Even if they did get away with it, Scott hated the idea of leaving with Sophie’s murder still unsolved. He was also unhappy about the consequences for the town and, in particular, the Sheriff. Holton might well take out his frustration on the lawman and anyone else who had tried to help him.
“No, I can’t agree to it, “Eldridge said firmly. “We should wait….”
“It’s too late for that, Sheriff,” Johnny replied, his voice rising with anger. “This whole town’s gonna turn into a bloodbath real soon if Scott stays here.”
“And what about the people left behind?” Sam retorted, echoing Scott’s fears.”
“You really think Holton’s that vindictive?” Johnny cried. “It’s Scott he wants. No one else”
“You don’t know the man, son,” Eldridge answered. “He thought the world of that boy. I don’t know what he’s likely to do.”
“Then get some help and deal with him once and for all. I’ve seen towns living in fear before. In the end, that fear destroys all hope. You need to start fighting back, Sheriff, otherwise there’s no future for this place.”
Sam was a little surprised by the young man’s impassioned plea. It was true that Stapleton had been under the shadow of Thomas Holton for several years and when his son had been alive, it seemed that things were unlikely to change. Eldridge had done all he could to protect the citizens of the town from the excesses of the wealthy rancher, but maybe it was time for him to be stopped. As Johnny said, to do that, he needed help. One of Holton’s men was undoubtedly guilty of Sophie Lawrence’s murder. At best, Holton could be seen as an accessory to that crime. Surely, the law could find a legitimate reason to use to prosecute the man.
“What do you think, Scott?” he asked.
“I think Johnny’s right,” the Easterner replied. “You can’t go on with this threat of violence hanging over you. Before all this, I was heading for Fort Bryant. If Johnny and I are successful in escaping Holton’s clutches, we should go there, inform the Army what’s been happening here. I think they’ll be willing to help.”
“Scott, you’re in no shape to ride there,” Johnny protested. ‘Trust Boston to think of the Army’, he thought. He knew Scott wanted to help, but Johnny would much rather they make their way home.
“What difference does it make, Brother? The ranch is just as far as the fort and, if need be, I can rest there,” Scott reasoned. “I don’t like leaving here without a fight, Johnny. The people of this town need protection from the likes of Holton and the Sheriff cannot do alone.”
Sam looked at the blond gratefully. He appreciated what Lancer was saying, although it was hard to admit he was not able to do his job without assistance. The Army might be the answer to bring a little order to the town. Any help was better than none.
“All right, suppose I let you go, I’d still feel happier going part of the way of you and make sure you got away okay.”
“No, that’s ain’t no good, Sheriff,” Johnny replied. “Holton will know it’s a trick if he spots you. We gotta make out that you refused to release Scott and make it look like I’ve sprung him from prison.”
Eldridge nodded solemnly. He knew the younger man was right – Tom Holton was no fool. However, he hated the thought of them trying to make a run for it alone and would feel mighty guilty if anything happened to the pair. Glancing at Scott, he noted his strained features and obvious discomfort. It would be a hard ride to Fort Bryant for a wounded man, although he was sure that Johnny would look out for his brother. He pondered on his dilemma for a few moments longer, but in the end, his decision was made for him when Pete came through from the office.
“Boss, Holton’s just rode into town and it looks like he means business.”
The three men in the cell all looked at each other and then Johnny gave a smile.
“Well, it’s a good time as any to talk to him, Sheriff.”
Eldridge sighed and ran a hand through his salt and pepper hair. “Where is he now, Pete?” he asked, looking up at his deputy.
“Headed for the saloon.”
Johnny got to his feet. “Guess that’s where I’m headed then.”
Scott could not help the ominous sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he regarded the determined expression on his brother’s face. He suspected Johnny would draw on his Madrid persona and strengths when he faced Holton. Scott wondered what the Sheriff would think if he found he had the former gunfighter in his town. Probably be more worried than he was now, he thought with a touch of amusement. He did not like what his brother was about to do and felt useless as he was unable to back him up. However, it was better than doing nothing.
“Watch yourself, Johnny,” he warned.
His sibling nodded and gave his shoulder an affectionate squeeze before following the Sheriff out into this office.
Handing Johnny back his gun, he watched silently as the other checked the weapon and slid it into his holster.
“I still think this is bad idea, son.”
“Yeah, well let’s see what old man Holton has to say,” Johnny replied. “Wish me luck.”
‘You’ll need it’ Sam thought grimly. There might be a smile on Lancer’s lips, but there was also a steely resolve in his blue eyes. He just hoped the young man could pull off his bold plan.
Thomas Holton was as mad as Hell. He had ridden into Stapleton to check for himself who the newcomer was. The rancher had expected to find his men watching the jailhouse as he ordered, but was incensed to discover three of them in the saloon nursing hangovers over strong cups of coffee. To top it all, his foreman was nowhere in sight.
After much shouting, swearing, and a few well-placed kicks, one of the bleary-eyed men was dispatched to find Chambers. Now Holton sat, drumming his fingers impatiently on the tabletop, while the other two ranch hands looked on warily. Five more minutes dragged by before the red-faced, flustered looking foreman rushed in and Holton leapt to his feet.
“Where the hell have you been?” he yelled.
Chambers cast a critical eye at his colleagues sitting at the table before replying.
“Watching the boarding house like you wanted.”
His sullen tone only incensed Holton more. “And where is Garrett?”
The tall man flushed slightly and lowered his gaze. “I don’t know, sir,” he admitted. “He may still be in there. I haven’t seen him come out this morning.”
That was not what Holton wanted to hear. He needed to know the stranger’s whereabouts and alleviate his suspicions.
“Did you not think to go in and find out?”
“I was going to,” Chambers lied, “but Stoner here came to fetch me before I could try.”
The ranch hand in question gave him a curious look. He knew full well that the other was not telling the truth. It had taken him almost fifteen minutes to find his superior and when he had, Chambers had been nowhere near the boarding house. Intent on his foreman, Tom Holton missed Stoner’s sceptical glance, but he was far from satisfied with Chamber’s explanation.
“Did you know that they were drunk last night?” he snapped, jabbing an accusing finger at the seated men.
“We weren’t drunk, Mr Holton,” Jake Cutter protested.
“Was I talking to you, man?” The rancher glared at Chambers. “Well, did you?”
“Not ‘till I got back from checking out Garrett,” the foreman man stated. “They only started drinking hard after I left the saloon.”
“You lying bastard!” Cutter hissed.
A brutal backhander from Holton sent him spinning to the floor. He looked up, dazed and wiped the blood from his split lip.
“Get the hell out of here, Cutter,” Holton spat. “You no longer work for me.”
“I said, get out and if I ever see your face around the ranch, I’ll kill you.”
The man blanched and scrambled quickly to his feet without another word. Cutter was in no doubt the other meant what he said and knew better than to argue further. Grabbing his hat, he nodded a brief farewell to the other two men and hurried to leave.
Holton did not give him a second glance and glanced back at Chambers. “I suggest you get back and find Garrett.”
“No need, Mr Holton.”
The rancher turned round to see Cutter standing by the bat-wing doors, a self-satisfied smirk on his face. “Looks like he’s headed this way.”
Holton dashed over to join him and peered out. Sure enough, a young man was just leaving the Sheriff’s office to cross the street. Garrett appeared to be annoyed and irritated from the way he strode purposefully towards the saloon. Holton was naturally curious as to the reason why and was determined to find out.
“All right,” he said, turning back to his men. “Sit tight and act dumb. That shouldn’t be hard for you. I’ll find out what’s he’s doing here.”
The others meekly complied and Cutter went back to join them, but Holton stopped them in his tracks. “Not you, man. You’re still fired.”
“But, Mr Holton….”
The older man silenced him with a baleful glare and Cutter had no choice but to go. Jamming his hat firmly on his head, he pushed his way angrily through the doors.
As he approached the saloon, Johnny hoped his terse expression conveyed the right sense of ill temper. He was not sure if he was being observed, but he knew Holton was inside and he needed to make sure his presence was noticed.
Just as he stepped up on the boardwalk, a man rushed out of the saloon, almost crashing into him in the process.
“Hey, watch where you’re going,” the man snapped.
Johnny bit back the harsh retort that sprang to his lips and merely stepped aside with a murmured apology. He guessed the man was one of Holton’s hands and had to wonder where he was going in such a hurry. He watched uneasily for a moment as the other stalked off down the street, then turned and pushed open the swing doors.
The saloon was empty except for four men seated just inside and one anxious looking barman behind the counter. Ignoring the quartet, Johnny walked past them, straight up to the bar and rapped loudly on the scratched wooden surface.
The barman licked his lips nervously and took an involuntary step backwards. “I don’t serve liquor this early, Mister.”
“What, you some kinda temperance missionary?” Johnny asked scornfully. “Tequila. Now!”
“Give the man what he wants, Joe.”
Johnny turned around to face the speaker as he came up to the bar. Thomas Holton – the man who wanted to kill his brother. He was younger than Johnny expected, perhaps in his late forties. Of medium height, he had dark hair and shrewd grey eyes. Those eyes were openly appraising Johnny and the ex-gunfighter could see that the man was no fool and he would have to tread very carefully to pull off his ruse. Johnny nodded his thanks and fished in his pocket for some coins.
“No, let me, friend,” Holton said, dropping the money on the bar. “And I’ll have a whisky too, Joe.”
The saloon owner nodded briskly and hurried to serve their drinks. The rancher waited silently, still staring at Johnny and then he picked up his glass.
“Let’s sit, shall we?”
‘Here we go’ thought Johnny as he took his own drink and followed Holton across the room to sit at a corner table away from the others. He noticed that the older man sat with his back towards the room, leaving Johnny to take his preferred position against the wall. Then again, Holton did have his men to watch his back and Johnny was effectively trapped in the corner. Yes, the man was shrewd all right and not to be underestimated.
Holton took an appreciative sip from his glass and set it down carefully on the table before glancing up.
“So, what brings you to Stapleton, Mr Garrett?”
“How come you know my name?” Johnny asked with feigned surprise. “You the mayor or somethin?”
Holton gave a slight smile. “I make it my business to know of any strangers in town.” He held out his hand in greeting. “Thomas Holton,” he added by way of an introduction. “I own a large spread near here.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Johnny took it and they exchanged a brief handshake. “That one of your men I ran into last night?”
The other nodded. “My foreman, Hank Chambers.” He paused, his features hardening. “You didn’t answer my question.”
The affable tone had disappeared now and Johnny knew it was time for plain speaking. “No offence, Mr Holton, but I don’t really see what’s it got to do with you.”
A spark of anger appeared in the rancher’s grey eyes, but he held his temper. “I know you’ve had dealings with the Sheriff and you’ve just come from his office. It looks like your business did not go well.”
Johnny took a drink before answering. At least he had conveyed the right impression when he had left the jailhouse.
“I didn’t get what I wanted. No.”
“Fella called Scott Lancer.”
In spite of his enforced cool exterior, Thomas Holton could not suppress his sudden interest.
“Lancer, you say?” he said, leaning forward attentively. “What do you know about him?”
The bait was taken; all Johnny had to do was pull him in. “I know he killed a friend of mine, along with a whole bunch of others.”
Holton felt his heart lurch with excitement. This was music to his ears. He always knew there was more to Lancer than the innocent victim he purported to be. Perhaps he had heard of Larry’s reputation with a gun and came to Stapleton to deliberately seek him out and challenge him. Holton could feel his anger returning as he considered that possibility. He needed to know more and he was determined that the stranger tell him.
“Go on,” he prompted eagerly.
“The death of my friend made me turn bounty hunter since the law can’t seem to catch him,” Johnny answered. “I’ve been tracking Lancer for some time and heard of a shooting here…”
“He killed my son,” Holton grated bitterly. “Here in this very saloon. Claimed it was self-defence, but it was damn murder.”
Johnny nodded sympathetically, although inside, he was fuming that the other had accused his brother of being a murderer. “I’m sorry. Didn’t know it was your son, although what the Sheriff said makes more sense now.”
“What did Eldridge tell you?”
Johnny took a drink before answering. The tequila was somewhat watered down and for once, he was grateful. He needed to keep a clear head when dealing with a snake like Holton.
“Not much. Only that he had Lancer in protective custody and he weren’t about to release him until he’s talked to the judge.”
“Is there a reward for Lancer?”
The line was tightening now, Johnny thought with satisfaction. He almost had him and although an offer had yet to be mentioned, it could not be far off.
“Not as such. He’s too damn smart and so far has escaped the law. Only reason he’s in jail now is ‘cos your boy put a bullet in him.”
“I wish to God he’d killed the bastard!” Holton retorted hotly. “Lancer never gave Larry a chance.”
Johnny nodded again. He was painting quite a black picture of Scott now and he wondered if his brother would be amused.
“It ain’t the first time he’s pulled this self-defence ploy before; probably why the law don’t know what to make of him. Same thing happened with my friend and by the time I heard about it, Lancer had skipped town.”
Holton’s fingers were gripping his glass so hard that it looked like it was about to shatter. “I want him dead!”
“Figgered you would,” Johnny agreed. “You and me both, though you got more cause.”
The rancher gave the younger man a grim look and then tossed the contents of his glass down his throat in one swallow. “So what are we going to do about it?”
“We? I work alone, Mr Holton.”
“What about your friend? Didn’t you work with him?”
Johnny shook his head. “Sometimes, but I work better on my own.”
The other looked thoughtful for a moment. “How about coming to work for me?”
“You!” Now Johnny was genuinely surprised. He fully expected to be offered a deal, not a job. “Why?”
“Because I’m a man down, but more importantly, because I intend to bust Lancer out of jail.”
“Tonight,” Holton stated firmly. “I’ve waited long enough.”
‘Dios, it was way too soon’ Johnny thought. It meant that they had to make their getaway this morning and judging from his brother’s weakened state, it was too much to ask of the injured man. However, there seemed to be no alternative if they were to going to reach the comparative safety of the fort. He took a slow sip of his drink as he considered his response.
“What’s in it for me?” he asked.
“The satisfaction of seeing Lancer die; oh, and five hundred dollars in your pocket by midnight.”
Johnny whistled. “That the going rate for all your men?”
Holton smiled. “No. Consider it a welcoming gift. If you decide to stay on after the job is done, I pay forty dollars a month.”
The rancher certainly paid good money to his hands, although Johnny suspected there was more than top wages that kept them loyal to the man.
“What about the Sheriff?” he asked.
“If he’s got any sense, he’ll hand Lancer over without a fight,” Holton answered. “If not…”
“You kill a lawman, you’ll have the whole county after you,” Johnny pointed out.
“Do you think I care?” Holton spat fiercely. “All I want is Lancer’s head on a plate. That’s all I want. Now are you interested or not?”
Johnny took a moment to consider, although he was desperately thinking how he could get Scott ready to ride. Then he smiled and held out his hand. “I’m in.”
Holton shook his hand and then stood up, “Meet us on the south side of town at eleven tonight. Me and my men are going back to the ranch now to prepare for our guest.”
“You ain’t planning stringing him up to the nearest tree then?”
The other shook his head. “That would too quick. No, Lancer’s going to die slow and painful. I can guarantee that. Eleven tonight. Don’t be late, Garrett.”
Johnny remained in his seat as the four men left the saloon, casually finishing his drink. His first instinct was to hurry over to the jailhouse and tell Scott and Eldridge what Holton was planning, but he wanted to make sure the rancher had indeed left town. Rising to his feet, he walked slowly outside and stood on the boardwalk. There was no sign of them, although that was no proof. Johnny did not trust Holton a bit and he would not put it past the man for him to leave someone behind to keep an eye out on his movements.
He glanced over to the Sheriff’s office as he decided what to do next. Then he turned and headed back to the boarding house. If he and Scott were going to make their escape, he needed to pack his few things and purchase some provisions. Food wasn’t the only thing he wanted. Fresh bandages, whisky and maybe a bottle of laudanum could prove essential to his wounded brother. Maybe he should try to find the doctor and get him to check Scott before their journey. The Sheriff said that the man hadn’t been around for a while and Johnny hoped he hadn’t suffered the same fate as Sophie Lawrence.
Saddlebags packed and items bought, Johnny made his way to the livery. Time was of the essence now and he decided to forgo his search for the doctor. There was no one around at the livery and he quickly saddled Barranca and Charlie. The chestnut was eager to be on the move after days cooped up. Johnny just hoped the skittish animal wouldn’t be too much for Scott to handle.
Leaving the livery, he took a good look around before leading the horses out. Johnny knew he was taking a big risk going to the jailhouse, but he reasoned that if there were anyone left to spy on him, they would have to ride to the ranch and alert the others. He and Scott might have a head start, but it wouldn’t be long before Holton and his men came in pursuit.
As he went, a shadowy figure emerged from where he had been hiding. Jake Cutter hadn’t left town as he intended after being fired from his job, and he was mighty glad for it. Garrett, if that was his name, was up to something and it had to involve Lancer. Cutter knew the chestnut gelding was Lancer’s, so what was the stranger doing with it? Careful not to be seen, he followed Garrett and wasn’t surprised when he tied the horses outside the Sheriff’s office. Garret was either going to break Lancer out of jail or he and Eldridge had devised some plan to get Larry’s killer out of town.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Lancer and Garrett were going to make a run for it and Holton could lose his prey. Cutter knew he could have shrugged if off as bad luck for his former boss. However, what better way to get back in Holton’s good books and get his job back. Cutter smiled and turned to hurry back to fetch his own horse from the livery. Holton might not have made it back to the ranch yet and if he caught up with him, they could easily double back. He just needed to see which direction Garrett took and they’d have them. Mr Holton was going to get his revenge after all and he was going to be the one who ensured it happened.
They had been only riding for little over an hour and already Scott was exhausted. As he struggled to sit up straighter in the saddle, the blond recalled his horror when his brother had hurried into the jailhouse and told him of Holton’s plan. The Sheriff had voiced his own protests about the urgency to go, but at the time, Scott had been more concerned at placing one foot in front of the other as Johnny led him from the cell. His sibling had murmured his soft apologies as they prepared to leave and Scott knew the sudden need to move was not of Johnny’s making. He was still worried for the Sheriff and the townsfolk’s safety when Holton rode back into Stapleton and found them gone. Nevertheless, Eldridge had finally assured him it would be fine and to get out while they could.
Now as the brothers cantered along the uneven trail, Scott was beginning to wish he were back in the jailhouse. The thin, flea-bitten mattress and fetid air of his cell seemed much more appealing than bouncing along on the back of his horse where every jolt sent shock waves throughout his body. Gripping the reins fiercely in his determination to keep up the pace, Scott almost ran into the back of his brother’s mount as he belatedly realised that Johnny had stopped.
“You okay, Boston?”
Scott nodded quickly, as he swallowed back the bitter taste of bile from his mouth.
Johnny eyed him anxiously for a moment, noting the older man’s strained features, and then reached for his canteen. ”Let’s take a breather.”
“No! We should go on.”
“No one’s after us, Scott,” Johnny reasoned quietly. “We can afford to stop for a while.”
Giving his brother no time to argue further, the former gunfighter dismounted and led Barranca over to a small copse of trees. Settling down in the shade, he eluded an air of relaxation and calm, although Scott knew that he was constantly on the alert for trouble.
Fuming silently at the delay, which he knew was entirely down to him, the blond kneed his horse over to join his brother. Gritting his teeth, he climbed down carefully, his movements slow and deliberate. Scott was aware that Johnny was watching him, ready to leap to his aid if need be, but despite a slight stagger as his feet touched the ground, he kept his balance.
Grabbing his own canteen, Scott made his way over and sat down beside his brother. He was disconcerted to find his fingers were trembling as he fumbled for the lid. In the days locked up in his cell, Scott had barely eaten and his sudden return to the outdoors had heightened his weakness. Ignoring Johnny’s concerned gaze; he tipped the brackish water into his mouth, coughing a little as the liquid hit his dry throat.
“Take it slow, Brother.”
“I’m all right,” Scott muttered as he wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
Johnny smiled. “Sure you are, Boston. For a man with a coupla holes in him.”
Scott glared at him. “You’re the one who insisted we leave town in such a hurry.”
“We had too, Scott and you know it. A lot of people might have got hurt if we’d stayed to fight it out.”
The older man sighed irritably. “I know. I just don’t like running away, Johnny.”
“We ain’t running. Like you soldier boys say, we’re making a strategic withdrawal.”
In spite of his foul mood, Scott had to laugh. Once again, he was glad he had his brother with him. They still had some tough obstacles to overcome before they reached the safety of the fort, but at least they could face them together. Taking another drink, he tried to ignore the nagging pain in his side and aching limbs as he focused his thoughts on the journey ahead.
“Do you think Holton believed your story?”
Johnny shrugged. “Don’t know. Man’s no fool and he’s hell bent on revenge.”
Scott nodded, barely suppressing a shudder when he recalled the rancher’s threatening gesture when he had visited the jailhouse. Holton was unlikely to rest until he got what he wanted. Would Murdoch be that way if either of his sons were killed, Scott wondered. He liked to think that his father would seek justice legally, but who knew what grief and anger could do to any man who had lost a loved one to a sudden, violent death?
So much had happened since his acrimonious row with Murdoch and although Johnny had tried to apprise their father of the situation, Scott still didn’t know what the older man was planning to do. Murdoch might very well be on his way to Stapleton, unaware that they had already left. Despite their past differences, the last thing Scott wanted was his father to ride into a hornet’s nest if his arrival coincided with Holton’s. Maybe they should have tried to warn Murdoch of possible trouble, but the haste of their departure had made that impossible.
Scott sighed and rubbed wearily at a spot above his left eye where a throbbing headache was starting. The heat of the day and the gruelling ride was combining to make him feel physically sick. Suddenly restless to move, he gathered his flagging strength and clambered to his feet.
“We should go,” he said. “We’ve barely covered five miles.”
“Bit more than that, Brother,” Johnny replied, as he too stood up. He frowned, as he looked at the blond, noting with concern the harsh glitter in the blue-grey eyes and flush of fever on his cheeks. Scott should be resting, not traipsing about the country. They should find somewhere to hole up for a few days and give him time to recover a little. However, he knew his stubborn brother would refuse.
Johnny chewed on his lip, wondering if he should voice his suggestion, when the sound of a distant horse made them both reach for their guns. The sight of a lone man made them relax slightly, but they remained wary until the rider came close enough to recognise him.
“Gresham?” Johnny exclaimed in surprise. “What the hell’s he doing out here?”
Scott shook his head. The deputy had been at the jailhouse when Johnny had first arrived that morning, but left before they departed saying he was going to make sure the coast was clear for them to go. The brothers waited until Gresham’s horse galloped towards them, and from the animal’s lathered coat, it looked like the young deputy had been riding hard for some time.
“Thank God I’ve caught up with you!” the lawman gasped as he reined in. “It’s Holton….he’s coming after you!”
Both Lancers’ stared at each other with a questioning look, but it was Scott who spoke first.
“How did he know we left town?”
Gresham made an audible gasp, while trying to regain his breath. “When I left the jailhouse to check if anyone was hanging around, I saw one of Holton’s men leaving in a hurry. I followed him and he met up with his boss. They know you’ve skipped town, boys and they’re coming for you.”
“But they don’t know where we’re heading,” Johnny pointed out.
“No, but they’ll soon pick up your trail. We need to move now!”
“We?” Scott asked.
“I know a quicker way to the fort,” Gresham replied. “Come on, what are you waiting for?”
His sense of urgency made them hurry towards their horses, but Johnny still had his doubts as he helped Scott into the saddle. They took off fast, the deputy in front with Johnny taking up the rear. That way he could keep an eye on his brother and another eye on the trail behind. However, after only a few miles, it soon became evident that Scott could not keep the pace and Johnny whistled loudly to alert Gresham.
“What’s up?” Pete said as he trotted back to them.
“My brother can’t go on any further.”
“Johnny…” Scott started, but the younger man shook his head firmly.
“We need to find somewhere so he can rest up,” Johnny insisted.
“We can’t afford to stop now,” Gresham protested. “Holton will be on our backs in no time.”
“I’ve been keeping a look out, Deputy.” Johnny grated tersely. “No one’s following us.”
“You don’t believe me. Or maybe, you don’t trust me.”
“I ain’t saying anything,” Johnny replied. “I just want to get Scott somewhere safe.”
Pete glanced from him to Scott. He had to admit the injured man looked bad. Drenched with sweat, he looked like he was barely hanging on to consciousness and without the supporting hand of his brother, ready to tumble off his horse. He scanned the horizon anxiously, searching for the telltale signs of pursuit, but there was nothing. Maybe it would still be okay.
“All right,” he conceded. “There’s an abandoned small holding not far from here. We could go there. You gonna make it?”
The question was directed at Scott, who nodded his confirmation.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
The three men set off again, the pace slightly slower this time. Johnny stayed close to Scott, praying his brother could stay mounted. Finally, after about forty minutes, Gresham led them down through a small wooded area, before emerging into a clearing where a single-storied log cabin stood. Although it had obviously been empty for some time, the structure looked well-built and the roof was in relatively good shape. The nearby barn was in a worse state, but it was still serviceable.
“I’ll hide the horses,” the deputy said as he climbed down from the saddle. “You get your brother in the house.”
Johnny was not happy taking orders from a virtual stranger, even though he was a sworn officer of the law. However, his main concern was for Scott, so he merely nodded and dismounted. Handing over Barancca’s reins, Johnny went to help Scott, but the older man waved him away and slid down himself. He was clearly in a lot of pain, clutching hard as his wounded side and wavering unsteadily on his feet as he turned towards the house.
“Come on, ol’ man,” Johnny quipped. “ Lean on me.”
Scott shot him a sharp look, but gratefully accepted his brother’s strong arm around his waist as they walked to the entrance of the cabin.
The door was stiff to open and Johnny had to put his shoulder to it before it gave. The interior was stuffy and both men had to cough as years of dust filled their nostrils. Due to the boarded-up windows it was hard to discern anything at first, but the light from the open door did reveal a fairly large main room with a brick fireplace situated on the left. A small table and a few battered chairs were the only sticks of furniture left and a rusty iron pot was sitting on a bed of blackened ashes in the hearth. Two further doors to the rear called for further investigation, so Johnny led Scott to the least rickety of the chairs and gently sat him down.
“Now stay put and don’t pass out,” he ordered, a finger raised in warning.
“Yes, sir,” Scott answered with a wan smile.
Johnny patted him lightly on the shoulder and crossed over to the other doors. The first room was empty except for a few broken utensils, but the second contained an ancient bedstead, complete with a worn, stained mattress. The bedroom was even stuffier than the main room and hardly a suitable place for an injured man, but it would have to do.
Wrinkling his nose at the musty smell, Johnny dragged the mattress off the bed and took it outside into the fresh air. Finding a length of wood, he beat at it vigorously, raising clouds of dust in the progress. Gresham was no where in sight, but muffled sounds from within the barn indicated the deputy was still in there.
Satisfied that the mattress was as clean as he could possibly manage, Johnny began to haul it back inside when he heard a soft thud. It came from the cabin and he knew instinctively what it was.
“Shit!” he swore as he dropped the bedding onto the porch and hurried to the doorway. Scott was sprawled face down a few feet away and when Johnny reached him and eased him over onto his back, he saw he was completely unconscious.
“Damnit Scott! Why couldn’t you stay put for two minutes?” he muttered to his insensible sibling. There were streaks of fresh blood on his shirt and judging by the rusty brown stains on Scott’s outstretched right palm, it looked like he’d been bleeding for a while.
Johnny rose and fetched the mattress from outside and put it back on the bed. Checking Scott again, he saw that he was still out like a light, so he went back outside and yelled for the deputy. When he didn’t appear, Johnny shouted again and the man finally appeared at the entrance to the barn.
His sullen tone only annoyed Johnny further. However, he kept his temper and told Gresham to fetch some blankets, then come and help him with Scott. Leaving the other no time to argue, he dashed inside and gathered his brother up into his arms.
“Scott? Hey, Boston. Come on, wake up now.”
There was no response, not even a flicker of an eyelid.
Johnny was getting worried. Had Scott hit his head when he fell? Freeing one hand, he probed the older man’s scalp for any signs of injury, but found nothing. It must have been the shock of his fall which caused him to pass out, Johnny told himself, although the thought did nothing to relieve his concern. He sighed and settled the unconscious man more comfortably in his grasp as he waited for Gresham to reappear.
It always came as a shock to him when he realised how important his family had become to him. Johnny Madrid never had to worry about anyone other than himself. A gunfighter had to rely on his own wits and to trust no one. Friends could easily turn into enemies. There had been no one to watch his back – no one who he could really count on. That had all changed when he’d discovered he had a family and people who genuinely cared about him. Scott had been the biggest surprise of all. Firstly, that he even existed, and secondly, that first impressions could sometimes be deceptive. His brother had proved time and time again that he was nobody’s fool and that he could handle himself without help. The fact that he’d taken down a fast gun proved that, although Scott had insisted it had been a lucky shot.
Lucky shot or not, Scott became a marked man when he had killed Larry Holton. Johnny knew that Holton’s vengeful father would stop at nothing to find and destroy Scott, along with anyone else that stood in his way. Perhaps it was stupid to rest up here if Holton was indeed on their trail. However, despite his brother and Gresham’s objections, Johnny intended to go no further until Scott had at least a night’s rest.
Footsteps on the porch made him look up warily, but he was relieved to see the deputy come through the door with an armful of blankets.
“Spread one of those over the bed in the back room,” Johnny ordered, his authoritative tone brooking no argument. “Then come give me a hand with him.”
Gresham scowled and grumbled some, but did as he was told. Together, they carried the unconscious man into the musty bedroom and set him down. There was still no response from Scott, even when Johnny sat down on the covered mattress and unbuttoned his brother’s shirt to inspect the bandages. They were stained, but not excessively. Hopefully, if Scott rested, the bleeding would stop. That was, of course, if they were allowed the chance of a respite from the chase.
“We can’t stay here.”
Johnny’s jaw tightened grimly. He was getting mighty sick of the deputy whining on, and comments like that only served to irritate him further. He ignored the other for the moment before turning his head to give him a long hard stare.
Gresham flew to the other side of the bed, alarm written on his face. “You don’t understand! If Holton finds us here, he’ll kill us all.”
“He know about this place?” Johnny asked coolly.
“Yes. No. I don’t know!” The deputy began pacing the small room anxiously. “We need to get out of here.”
Johnny shook his head. “We ain’t leaving. At least, not till sunup.”
“Sunup? You’re crazy!”
“Been told that before. Still alive though”.
Gresham snorted. “Yeah, but for how long?”
“No-one asked you to tag along, Deputy,” Johnny retorted. “You can leave anytime you want to.”
Johnny waited until the other stepped into the main room before he spoke again.
“Hey, Gresham, before you leave, how about rustling me up some water. I need some to cool my brother down and change his bandages.”
The other man drew a sharp intake of breath, but refrained from turning around. “Fetch it your damn self!”
Angry footsteps and the loud slamming of the front door marked his exit. Despite everything, Johnny had to smile at the man’s somewhat petulant behaviour. He realised the deputy was only trying to help and that it had been probably unwise to antagonise him. However, Johnny believed that he and Scott were better off on their own. although an extra gun might come in useful if Holton caught up with them.
Looking down at his injured brother, he wondered how he would fare in a firefight. The answer was obvious. Like himself, Scott would go on fighting until his dying breath. However, Johnny wanted to avoid trouble at all costs and reach the fort unharmed. He hoped it would stop there, but somehow he doubted that would be the case. Holton wasn’t the kind of man who gave up easily.
Touching Scott’s forehead with the back of his hand, Johnny swore his brother felt warmer than before. He checked the bandages again and then got up to spread the other blanket over the older man. The spare medical supplies were in his saddlebags and as it looked like Gresham had decided to cut his loses and go, Johnny had no alternative but to fetch them himself.
Confident that Scott was not going to wake in the next few minutes, Johnny left the bedroom, leaving the door slightly ajar behind him. He remembered seeing an old water pump in the yard. Whether it still worked remained to be seen. Opening the front door, Johnny went out to investigate.
He never made it. As he stepped onto the porch, his world exploded into a shower of stars as something heavy struck him on the side of his head. Johnny pitched forward, his senses reeling, but his assailant gave him no time to recover. A hand on the back of his scalp smashed his forehead hard against the wooden steps and he knew no more.
There was no gradual awaking. No gentle surfacing from a deep, restful sleep. Scott came to with painful awareness; his heart pounding wildly with the certain knowledge that there was something wrong.
He was lying on a bed, covered with a blanket. The room was stuffy, unfamiliar, and for one panic-stricken moment, he imagined himself to be back in the Confederate prison camp where he had spent one miserable year of his life. It was only when he attempted to move and felt the pulsing ache in his side that memory returned. He and Johnny had made their escape from Stapleton and had ended up in this abandoned cabin. Now there was no sign of his brother, or of Gresham, the deputy from the town who had warned them of Holton’s pursuit. Pushing himself up onto his elbow, Scott called out their names, but he was met by an ominous silence.
Struggling free of the confining blanket, he swung his legs out of bed, hissing sharply as the half healed wound pulled. He sat and rested for a moment, waiting for the pain to ease and the dizziness to go. Scott pushed himself cautiously to his feet and despite a slight wobble, managed to walk into the next room. That too, was empty and Scott was beginning to get a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Stumbling to the door, he wrenched it open. Stepping out onto the porch, he looked around anxiously for his brother and the deputy. Nothing, only the gentle sighing of the wind through the trees and the distant sound of birdsong.
“Johnny,” he called out again, although he suspected he would be met with silence. ‘Where the hell are they’ he thought. If Holton had found the cabin, he would hardly have taken Johnny and Gresham prisoner and left without searching for his main target. Where then, were they? Scott’s worried gaze turned towards the run-down barn. It was the only place he could look. If the horses were still there, they had to be around somewhere. He refused to think of the alternative.
As he stepped off the porch, something caught his eye and even as he bent down to inspect, Scott knew with a sinking heart what it was. Blood, still damp - his brother’s? He hoped to God not. His hand went automatically for his revolver and realised rather belatedly that his gun-belt was gone. It might have been removed by whoever had placed him upon the bed, but he was unnerved by its loss.
Scott stood up, the abrupt movement causing him to grasp the porch upright as his head began to swim once again. He shut his eyes and took a few deep breaths until the sensation passed. Opening them again, he focused his gaze on the barn and broke into a lurching run towards the building.
There was only one door to the barn and that was half off its hinges. The interior was dark after the bright sunshine outside and Scott had to pause a moment to let his eyes adjust. Like the cabin, it was cluttered with various broken pieces of furniture, rusting metal tools and scattered piles of lumber. Even with all the mess, one thing was certain. The horses were gone, Gresham’s as well. Did that mean the Deputy had run out on them? Worse still, had he thrown in his lot with Holton and was even now leading the rancher to this place? Scott knew that Johnny had been suspicious of the man after he had turned up out of the blue to warn them about Holton. He too, was doubtful of Gresham’s motives, although the man had not given him any cause to suspect anything during the time he was locked up in the jailhouse.
Refocusing his thoughts, Scott started to explore the barn, stepping around and over debris in his continued search for any clue of his brothers’ disappearance. The silence and the long abandoned nature of the run-down building gave it an almost eerie atmosphere and Scott almost jumped out of his skin when he heard something over to his right. Defenceless, he snatched up a metal rod to protect himself and moved cautiously towards the source of the sound. A dark bulk against the far wall slowly emerged from the shadows to reveal itself as a broken wagon. A smaller shape lay beside it and Scott stole closer to see what it was, his eyes widening with alarm as realisation struck.
Dropping his improvised weapon, Scott rushed over to his brother. Johnny’s wrists were tied to the wagon wheel and his ankles were lashed together. His dark head had fallen forward, hiding his face, but Scott could see blood on his shirt collar, confirming his fear that his brother had been hurt. Gently cupping the younger man’s cheeks with both hands, Scott raised Johnny’s head. He frowned with concern when he saw the trail of blood that had streamed down from a large gash on his forehead. Scott also found an egg-shaped lump on the side of his scalp – further evidence that he had been attacked. It all pointed to Gresham, he thought angrily. The deputy had betrayed them and was probably now on his way back with Holton. They had to get out of here now, although how far they’d get without horses was anyone’s guess. Scott knew he was in no condition to carry his brother, but he would if he had too, somehow.
“Johnny? Come on, Brother. I need you awake.”
A soft groan came from Johnny’s lips and Scott realised that was the sound he’d heard earlier. The younger man was coming around, but he would have one hell of a headache and most unlikely not be able to move anywhere in a hurry. Checking his brother for any further injuries, he noted Johnny’s gun was gone; the holster empty against his hip. Their rifles were with the horses, wherever they were. The only weapons they now had between them were their pocket knives and they would be virtually useless against men with guns. As much as Scott hated to admit it, their only option was to run.
“Johnny? Can you hear me?” he urged, lightly slapping his brother’s face.
Black lashes flickered and Scott saw a glimmer of blue as Johnny’s eyes cracked open a fraction. “Scott..?”
“Yes, it’s me,” he answered, glad of a response. “Look, I know you’re hurting and I’m sorry, but Gresham’s gone and so are the horses. He may have gone to get Holton.”
“He the one.. who hit me?” Johnny breathed, opening his eyes wider.
“Remind me to kill him … when we find him.”
Scott smiled grimly, appreciating how he felt. Finding his knife, he began to saw through the ropes that secured his brother. “We need to get out of here, Johnny. Without guns, we’re sitting ducks.”
Johnny looked groggily down for his sidearm. “Sonofabitch, I’m definitely gonna kill him.”
He groaned as the last of the ropes fell away and the blood started flowing through his veins again. His head felt like it was coming off his shoulders and right now, he wished it would. Flexing his stiff legs and arms, he peered owlishly at his brother as he tried to recover his muddled senses.
“You look like shit, Boston,” he observed.
“So do you, Johnny,” Scott countered. “But we have to move. You think you can stand?”
The former gunfighter wasn’t sure, but hitched a breath and started to struggle to his feet. Scott grasped his arm and helped pull him up. He winced as he felt something pop in his side and knew another one of the stitches had burst.
“You okay?” Johnny asked, seeing the grimace on his brother’s face.
“I’m fine. Let’s go.”
The two stumbled towards the doorway, neither sure who was holding whom up. They emerged, blinking in the mid-afternoon sunshine and stood for a moment as they considered their next move.
“Where now?” Johnny asked, wishing the sun wasn’t so damn bright.
Scott looked at the surrounding woodland. There was really only one approach to the cabin and that would be the way Holton was likely to come. They could head off into the trees behind the house and hide until dark. It meant an uphill climb, which would be tough on both of them. He glanced at Johnny, tottering beside him. His brother was probably suffering from a concussion and he, himself was slowly leaking blood from his re-opened wound. They badly needed to rest, but could not risk staying put.
“Look, maybe I’m wrong about Gresham,” he said, expressing his self-doubt. “Maybe he just ran out on us.”
“And knocked me out and took our guns and horses?” Johnny pointed out. “No, the bastard’s turned traitor.”
“But why now?” Scott questioned.
“You’re not locked up in a nice safe cell anymore, Boston. He’s probably been waiting for the opportunity.”
Scott nodded thoughtfully, although he still couldn’t understand why Gresham had suddenly decided to side with Holton. It was true the rancher was a rich man: he had offered Johnny a considerable sum when he tried to hire him. Was money the only motive for his change of heart?
“What d’ya want do, Scott?” Johnny prompted, pain giving a hard edge to his voice. “Run or stay and fight?”
The blond glanced back at his brother, his reply on his lips. Then he heard the unmistakable sound of a jingling harness coming from the direction of the approach road. The time for indecision was over. Holton was here and judging from the loud thunder of hooves, he was not alone.
They could have run, but the two Lancers gave each other a nod of silent agreement as the first of the horsemen broke through the trees. The black-clad rancher was in front and Scott felt his stomach clench with fear when he saw the five other riders behind him. Six against two weren’t good odds, but he and Johnny had faced worse before. As one, they ran towards Holton, surprising both horse and rider. The animal reared and even with the older man’s best efforts, he lost his seat and went crashing to the ground.
The brothers were on him in seconds and, despite their injuries, made a desperate scramble to overpower him and grab his gun. Holton’s men hurriedly dismounted to run to their boss’s aid. Scott was immediately dealt a glancing blow to his head, which sent him down on all fours. Someone behind him pulled him to his knees and an arm was clamped around his throat. He gasped as his assailant tightened his grip, but then he froze as the cold barrel of a gun was pressed to his head.
“Give it up, mister, or I’ll scatter his brains all over!”
Scott opened his eyes to see his brother still grappling with Holton, who had proved to be a very tenacious adversary. Without losing his grip, Johnny paused and looked up, paling as he realised Scott was in mortal danger. Holton took advantage of the situation and drove a fist into Johnny’s jaw, sending him crashing onto his back. Shattered spikes of pain exploded in his head and he almost blacked out again. By the time he recovered his wits, two of Holton’s men had dragged him up and now held him with his arms pinned behind his back.
The rancher was on his feet, breathing hard, but brushed himself down and straightened his rumpled suit. He glanced at Johnny and gave a self-satisfied nod as he saw the young man no longer posed a threat, before turning his attention to Scott. He smiled; the same bone-chilling smile he had shown in the jailhouse in Stapleton. His foreman, Chambers, held his captive firmly in his grasp and Holton gestured to him to take his gun away. He moved closer, his expression turning to undisguised hatred as he glared at his son’s killer and then, without warning, delivered a hard kick to Scott’s wounded side.
The blond gave a gut-wrenching cry and as Chambers released him, fell to the ground. Horrified, Johnny tried to break free from his captors to go to his brother, who was writhing in agony, but the men held him back.
“You bastard!” he spat vehemently at Holton.
“Watch your mouth, boy” the other retorted, and then turned to look at Johnny. “Or should I say, Lancer?”
Seeing his reaction, Holton smiled and walked over to him. “Gresham told me that you’re his brother. I don’t like being lied to, Lancer.”
Johnny immediately looked around for the deputy, but frowned when he realised he was not with the others.
“Oh, don’t bother looking for him,” Holton continued smoothly. “He’s dead. I put a bullet in him myself. After he told me where you were, his usefulness ran out.”
“Was he working for you all the time?” Johnny wasn’t sorry Gresham was dead, but Holton’s ruthlessness sickened him.
The rancher shook his head. “No, he only came to offer his services this morning. Told me you and your brother had skipped town and were making for the army fort. He wanted five thousand so he could lead me to you. We agreed to meet near to the spot where the road forks south, but then you decided to make this little detour here. He got nervous and had to make sure you stayed put until we got here. Then he took your guns and horses and hightailed it back to me”.
He paused and grinned again as he recalled the deputy’s demands for his money and the shock on his face when he was shot. “Gresham would never have worked for me, Lancer. I expect absolute loyalty from my men and I could never have trusted him.”
Johnny’s nodded slowly. He understood now why Gresham was so agitated earlier. His plans were going awry and his chance to get his promise of reward was likely to be ruined if they stayed at the cabin. ‘Blood money’ he thought grimly as he turned his gaze back to Scott. His brother was still lying on his back, both legs drawn up as he tried to combat his pain. There was fresh blood seeping though his fingers as he clutched at his side and Johnny ground his teeth with frustration because he was unable to help him.
“So what happens now/” he asked, although it was inevitable what the answer would be.
Holton followed his gaze back to Scott. “Well, I could just shoot him like a mangy dog, but that would be too quick and charitable. He killed my boy and you tried to deceive me, so I figure you both deserve a more fitting end. And believe me, it won’t be pretty.”
He glanced back at Johnny, hoping his words would intimidate the younger man, but all he received was an impassive stare. Disappointed and a little chilled by the other’s apparent indifference, Holton turned to the other two hands, who were covering the brothers with their guns.
“Get their horses and tie them over the saddles,” he snapped.” We’re taking them back to the ranch.”
The men responded quickly to his orders and fetched Scott and Johnny’s horses, whose lead reins were tethered to their own mounts. The smell of blood made both animals skittish, but they managed to fetch them closer. Scott was manhandled onto his horse first, tossed belly first over the saddle; his wrists and ankles bound to the stirrup irons.
Their rough treatment produced further groans of pain from the wounded man and Johnny made another effort to get free of his guards, but to no avail. Once Scott was secured, they started to drag Johnny over to Barranca, but Holton told them to wait a moment
“Oh, I thought you might be interested to hear what else Gresham said before he died, “ Holton said, the self-confident smile back on his face. “He was the one who killed Sophie.”
“You’re lying,” Johnny growled.
A back-hander across the face rocked his head again and he felt the salty taste of blood on his lips. “Shut up and listen to me, Lancer.”
Johnny focused his blurring vision onto the man, even though he could himself sag in his captors’ grasp
“Gresham swore it was an accident that she died, but he must have thought he could curry favour with me if he admitted he’d killed her. Apparently he escorted her back to her room at the saloon like he was told to and then tried to get a little too cosy with her, if you know what I mean. There was a struggle and she fell and hit her head on the mantle. Cracked her skull like a nut. Time my man got to her, she was already dead.”
Holton paused and then shrugged. “Saved us the job, really. The little whore had it coming.”
He dismissed his men with a curt nod of his head and waited until his second prisoner had been similarly secured before strolling over to his horse. Taking the reins from Chambers, he swung aboard and settled himself comfortably in his saddle.
“Lets go, boys.”
Their whoops of delight seemed to cut straight through Johnny’s aching head as his horse was abruptly jerked forward. Trussed upside down across Barranca’s back, he gasped as the ropes binding him cut into his flesh. He shut his eyes as the ground beneath him began moving faster and he fought to quell his sudden nausea. Johnny hated to think how the ride ahead would affect his wounded brother. Better if Scott passed out, at least he would be spared further pain – for now. Holton was likely to make their final hours as unpleasant as possible, but at the moment, Johnny felt too sick and weary to worry. The darkness was reaching out to claim him again, and with a sigh, he fell into its welcome embrace.
Sam Eldridge threw down his newspaper in frustration. He had read it twice which wasn’t surprising as there was rarely anything of interest in it. Standing up, he wandered across the office to look out the window. He’d done that a lot today as well, but he always came away in disappointment. His deputy had gone missing and Eldridge didn’t know whether he should be angry or concerned. The truth was he was both. Gresham was a capable young man, but not always a reliable one. However, his absence was unusual and at the hour grew later, more worrying.
The Sheriff had last seen Pete early that morning, when he had gone to check and make sure the coast was clear for the Lancer brothers to go. Sam had gone in search of him around town when the young deputy hadn’t returned after an hour. No one had seen him leave town, yet his horse was gone. Anxious that he had run into Holton, Eldridge had locked up the jailhouse and ridden out to search for him, but with no real idea where to look, his attempt was futile. He needed more men if he was going to carry out a full scale search and that would take time. It might even turn out that there was nothing to worry about at all and Gresham could show up at any time with a reasonable explanation for his disappearance. Sam could only hope that was the case.
Restless, he walked outside and stood on the boardwalk to look up and down the main street. It was getting dark and with the stores closing, many people were heading home for supper. Word had somehow got around that the man involved in Larry Holton’s death had gone and the fear of reprisal was fading. The residents of Stapleton would always remain wary of the powerful ranch owner, but the immediate threat has passed.
Eldridge sighed and parked himself on the bench. If Gresham failed to appear by tomorrow, he would go out and search for him again, maybe take with him a few of the braver souls in town. He had a nasty feeling that his deputy had run into trouble and that trouble could only mean Tom Holton. He also couldn’t even be sure the Lancers had got away. Maybe he should have escorted them to the fort, but that would have left the town unprotected and the people’s safety was his priority. Eldridge had the further problem of what to tell the circuit judge when he turned up. He could hardly tell him he had deliberately let Lancer go and to say he’d escaped would only bring further trouble. Sam brushed a weary hand across his face. Despite the problems he’d faced as Sheriff, he had enjoyed his time in the job. Now the prospect of becoming an ordinary citizen was definitely looking rosier.
He looked up as a wagon trundled past and he nodded sociably to the driver who he knew lived just outside of town. Eldridge watched him head down the main street, almost envious of the man going home to his humdrum life with wife and kids. Then he tensed as he caught sight of a rider coming from the opposite direction. He stood, hoping against hope it was Pete, but his shoulders sank in disappointment when he realised the horseman was older and more heavily built than his deputy. Sam frowned curiously as the man came closer. He failed to recognise either horse or rider and he was even more surprised when the stranger stopped in front of him and climbed stiffly down.
The man was tall, broad, and he appeared tired and drawn. Nevertheless, he stepped purposefully onto the boardwalk and walked straight up to him.
“Sheriff, my name’s Murdoch Lancer and I’ve come looking for my sons.”
Johnny was cold; so cold that he imagined he must be dead. No, he couldn’t be dead, he decided. He hurt too much. His head throbbed, his face felt sore and his body ached all over. Opening his eyes didn’t help much. It was so dark that he thought he’d gone blind and the cloying smell of damp earth made him feel like he’d been buried alive. He shuddered at the thought and then tried to move, but found he couldn’t. It took his numbed brain a few minutes to realise his hands were tied behind his back and secured to something solid. Johnny flexed his arms, but his bonds held fast. His ankles were also ties, although he was able to flex his knees to ease the cramps in his legs.
The darkness was less intense now. He could discern lighter shadows amongst the gloom. Although he had no firm idea where he was, Johnny was sure he was underground, albeit the feel of wood behind him was confusing. It had to be a cellar of some kind then, with an earthen floor. He looked up and around, hoping to see a chink of light somewhere, but there was nothing.
Leaning back against the wall, Johnny tried to assemble his scattered thoughts. His memory was sketchy, probably because his head ached too much to think. Closing his eyes, he struggled to remember what had happened. He had the vague recollection of being tied to his horse and the animal moving along at high speed. Before that, there were just hazy memories of harsh voices, the sound of prancing hooves and more disturbing, the smell of blood.
The effort to remember was making his headache worse and despite the cold, it would be all too easy to drift back to unconsciousness. Something, however, was nagging at him and not allowing him to rest. Minutes later, he was sitting up, eyes wide open and heart pounding with apprehension as he realised what it was.
Scott! Where was he? His brother had been with him, hurt and then further injured by that brutal kick from Holton. Johnny remembered everything now, his anxiety for his sibling triggering his memory. Was Scott in the cellar with him now? If not, where was he? Was he even, still alive?
“Scott? You in here?” he called urgently, eyes and ears straining for any indication his brother was nearby. Only silence greeted him and Johnny cursed the darkness, the buckskin strips binding his wrists, and most of all, Tom Holton.
Johnny was getting frantic now. The thought that his brother might already be dead filled him with rage and panic. He wrestled furiously with his bonds; ignoring the painful chafing and the slippery feel of blood on his wrists.
“Hey, anyone?” he hollered, stamping his boots loudly on the ground in the hope someone would answer him. He didn’t care whom, as long as he heard a human voice.
After about ten minutes of shouting, he finally heard a faint scrapping noise above and he looked up hopefully. A faint rectangle of light appeared in the gloom accompanied by the squeaking of badly-oiled hinges.
“Shut the noise down there or we’ll come down and shut it for you.”
Johnny looked up at the two shadowy faces framed in the opening, willing them to come down and carry out their threat. However, he knew he would come off worst.
“Where’s my brother?” he demanded instead. “Where’s Scott?”
One of the men laughed. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about him anymore.”
Johnny’s blood ran cold. “What d’ya mean? What have done with him, you bastards?”
“We ain’t done anything to him,” answered the other. “He’s with the boss right now and I’m sure he’s having a real nice time.”
They both laughed again, leaving Johnny to fume in silence. He vowed that if he ever got out of this hole in the ground and found that Scott had been killed, Holton would be a dead man.
Disappointed in not having more of a reaction from their prisoner, Holton’s men started to shut the trapdoor on him.
“Hey, I’m dying of thirst down here,” Johnny shouted. “How about some water?”
His plea fell on deaf ears as the opening was closed once more. He slumped back against the wall, angry and frustrated. There was nothing he could to do help his brother and he had to accept some measure of responsibility for getting them into this situation. It was his idea that they leave Stapleton and although he hadn’t trusted Gresham from the start, he had let himself be suckered into the deputy’s trap. Now Scott was in Holton’s hands and God knows what was happening.
The renewed creaking of hinges startled him and he looked up expectedly. The resulting bucketful of ice cold water thrown over him took his breath away and drenched him from head to foot. Moisture dripping from his hair, Johnny glared up at his tormentors, while they jeered and sniggered at his misfortune.
“That enough water fer ya, boy?”
The trapdoor was kicked shut with a crash, leaving him sitting in a freezing puddle. ’Well, you asked for that’ Johnny thought as he shivered in the darkness. Holton and his men seem determined to make his and Scott’s final hours as miserable and unpleasant as possible. The chance of anyone coming to their aid was remote. Their Sheriff would believe they were on their way to the fort and with Gresham dead, there was no one to tell him otherwise. Johnny wasn’t a man who gave up easily, however, and he knew Scott shared the same view. Their odds on survival did not look good, but they weren’t dead yet.
With that thought in mind, Johnny tried working his hands free again, sawing at the wooden post pressing into his back, but the water had made the buckskin even tighter. All he succeeded in doing was taking more flesh off his abused wrists.
Wet and cold, Johnny gave up his efforts and drew his knees up to his chest to try and keep warm. Right now, all he and his brother could do was pray for a miracle.
“How far is this ranch?”
Sam Eldridge peered over his coffee mug at the man seated opposite his desk. Lancer’s own mug remained untouched, concern over his sons overriding his need for the beverage. Sam had told him all that had transpired since Scott’s arrival in Stapleton, including his flight with his brother and the subsequent disappearance of his deputy. The worried frown on the tall rancher’s face had deepened as he had relayed his tale and the Sheriff had also seen guilt and anger in his expression. It was obvious Lancer cared a great deal for his sons and he would do anything to find them.
“It’s about 5 miles south of town,” Eldridge answered. “But I hope you’re not planning riding out there tonight?”
“What else do you suggest I do, Sheriff?” Murdoch replied tersely. “Sit here doing nothing knowing this man Holton has my sons?”
“We don’t know that.”
“No, but until we get word from the fort that they’ve arrived, it seems highly likely doesn’t it?”
Eldridge had to admit Lancer was probably right. For all he knew Gresham might be a prisoner of Holton’s too; he had no other clue as to his deputy’s whereabouts. Scratching his head, Sam rose and went over to the stove to refill his mug. He didn’t really know what to say to Lancer. He could understand his anxiety, but riding out alone to Holton’s ranch was courting trouble. Making a sudden decision, he turned to face the seated man.
“Look, why don’t you get a room over at the boarding house for the night and tomorrow we’ll both go out to the ranch. Tom Holton’s a dangerous man, but with me along, I doubt he’ll try anything stupid.”
Murdoch gave the Sheriff a cynical glance. The man was either full of his own importance or a damn fool, he decided. Although there was no clear evidence Scott and Johnny had been taken by Holton, the fact he had threatened his eldest son in this very building made it clear he was out for revenge. He realised Eldridge had his own concerns about his missing deputy, but Murdoch couldn’t help feeling his disappearance was linked somehow.
He rubbed a hand across his weary face. Nearly three days in the saddle had caused havoc with his back and his horse was too exhausted to travel any further. At this time of the day, Murdoch knew it was too late to hire another, even if he had the stamina to keep riding. As much as he hated to admit it, the Sheriff was right. His search for his sons would have to wait until the morning.
Suppressing a groan, Murdoch climbed slowly to his feet and picked up his hat from the desk.
“All right, Sheriff. We’ll do it your way. I just hope you’re right about my sons.”
Eldridge looked at him sharply, but there was no sign of menace in Lancer’s face. Just a man worried about his family. He took a sip of his coffee, grimacing as he found it had gone cold, and came back to his desk.
“So am I, Mr Lancer.”
Murdoch nodded and crossed over to the door. “I’ll be back first thing in the morning.”
He left the office and trudged down to the livery to bed his horse down for night. Then he headed back to the boarding house as suggested by the Sheriff, although he doubted if he would get much rest. As he signed his name on the register, his heart gave a little lurch when he recognised both his sons signatures further up the page. Johnny’s use of the surname Garrett puzzled him for a moment, but then he remembered Eldridge telling him that his younger son had tried to pass himself off as a bounty hunter to gain Holton’s trust. Murdoch gave a wry grin as he laid down the pen and picked up the key to his room.
“Sometime funny, Mister?” demanded the female behind the desk.
“No Ma’am. Nothing at all”
She looked at him strangely and then closed the register without a second glance. “Room’s on the left upstairs.”
He tipped his hat politely and climbed the stairs to his room. Tossing his hat and saddlebags onto the bed, Murdoch dragged a chair over to the window and opened it to let in the cool evening air. Sitting down, he stared out unseeing, his earlier amusement gone as he brooded over the fate of his sons. He had missed Johnny by a day when he’d arrived home to find the opened telegram. Jelly had told him how Johnny left in an ‘all-fired hurry’ when he learned that his brother was in trouble. ‘I should have been there’ thought Murdoch grimly. It was he who had insisted that Scott go on this trip and it had turned into a nightmare. His eldest son had been forced to face a gunman and although he had defeated his opponent, things had gone from bad to worse.
Now both his boys could be facing the wrath of a vengeful father and if God forbid anything happened to them, Murdoch would be wholly to blame. If Scott had been allowed to go to Boston for his friend’s wedding, none of this would have happened, he kept telling himself. Ever the practical man, however, Murdoch knew there was nothing he could do to change anything now. All he could do was hope and pray his sons were safe and on their way to Fort Bryant.
Pounding the arm of the chair with his fist, Murdoch rose and went over to sit on the bed. His tired and aching body craved rest, but all he wanted was the morning to come so he could be out on the trail again. Although he couldn’t be certain Holton had his boys, Murdoch needed to see Holton for himself, reason with the man somehow and try to make him realise Scott had acted in self-defence. Judging from what Eldridge had told him about his fellow rancher, Murdoch did not hold out much hope, but he had to try. As a father, he could understand the man’s grief and his anger, but the continuing spiral of violence had to end.
Murdoch kicked off his boots and lay down, staring up at the cracked ceiling. It was going to be a long night and he would be glad to see the dawn. He turned his head towards the open window. His boys were out there somewhere. Scott was hurt and in no condition to travel, but Murdoch knew Johnny would do everything he could to help his sibling. They were so close, friends as well as brothers and he was glad they were at least together.
Murdoch felt his eyelids start to droop and he jolted awake guiltily. How could he think of sleep? He fought the fatigue for a while, but found himself drifting off again. Eventually he had to give in and reluctantly surrendered to his body’s demand for rest. The morning would come soon enough and with it, maybe some cause for hope.
Thomas Holton sipped appreciatively at his brandy. It was an old Armagnac imported from France and it had been very expensive, but worth every cent. He took another sip and replaced the glass top of the decanter before turning to face the man slumped in the chair opposite his desk. Scott Lancer looked a mess. A large patch of blood marked the left-hand side of his shirt where the original bullet wound had reopened. His face also bore the signs of the beating he had received after he had been untied from his horse on arrival at the ranch. Realising he was being separated from his brother, the injured man had surprised his captors by breaking free and trying to reach him. He hadn’t got far and had paid dearly for his abortive attempt. Now as Holton looked at him, he smiled callously when he surveyed Lancer’s cut and bruised face, the right eye swollen and almost closed. The next few days were going to be interesting.
Carefully placing his crystal glass onto the bureau, the rancher walked round to the front of his desk and perched himself on the edge in front of his prisoner. Lancer hadn’t moved; he couldn’t if he wanted to. His arms were tied to the back of the chair and the presence of Chambers and Stoner in the room acted as a further deterrent. Although his eyes were closed, Holton could tell he was conscious; his laboured breathing indicated he was in pain. ‘Good, let the bastard suffer’, he thought, as he himself suffered with the pain of loss. Soon Lancer would know just how that felt.
Holton reached forward and yanked the young man’s head up by his hair. His captive gave a sharp gasp and one blue-grey eye opened blearily to look at him.
“Why did you murder my son, Lancer?”
His question caught Scott a little off guard and he looked curiously at Holton for a moment before his bloodied lips could form a reply.
“Not…….murder. Self defence.”
Holton let go of him and glanced up at Chambers. “That right? You were there”
“Course not, Mr Holton,” the foreman replied. “He shot Larry down in cold blood.”
Scott almost smiled. Well, that was to be expected, he thought. He was unlikely to tell his boss anything else. Despite his discomfort, he tried to sit up straighter in the chair and look Holton in the eye – which wasn’t easy as he could only see out of one. He was desperately worried about Johnny. His brother was still out cold when he had been pulled from his horse and Scott had panicked when Holton’s men started to drag him away. He had tried to get to him, but had been violently thwarted. Now he had no idea where Johnny was or if he was even alive.
“Where’s my brother?”
Holton sat back on his desk and folded his arms across his chest. “Oh, you’ll see him soon – in hell.”
“Is he dead?” Scott was surprised that his voice sounded so calm: he certainly didn’t feel it, but he wasn’t going to give the older man the satisfaction of showing his fear.
Relief flooded his senses, but the threat to his brother still hung in the air.
“Let him go, Holton,” he pleaded. "You’ve got me now. You’ve no quarrel with Johnny.”
The rancher held up a finger. “Ah, there you would be wrong. He lied to me and the very fact that he’s your brother means he deserves to die. Now if you admit to me, you came to town with the sole purpose of killing my son in a gunfight, I’ll let you and your brother die quick and easy. If not, I’ll make sure you’ll both suffer for days. So what’s it to be?”
True to his word, Murdoch Lancer was back the next morning. The Sheriff saw him pacing back and forth on the boardwalk outside the jailhouse as he led his horse along the street. It was just after seven and Sam sighed wearily as he knuckled sleep from his eyes. He wasn’t looking forward to the day ahead. Pete was still missing and the thought of riding out to Holton’s ranch filled him with trepidation. He wasn’t a coward, but he felt like he was riding into a lion’s den. Sam wondered briefly if he could talk Lancer out of it. Wait until he could raise a posse and have more firepower at his back if Holton tried anything stupid. Sam shook his head; he knew how determined Lancer was to find out what had happened to his sons. He was unlikely to change his mind.
“You’re late!” the rancher snapped as he stopped beside the hitching rail.
“I wasn’t aware we set a time,” Eldridge countered, his tone equally terse.
He tied his horse next to Lancer’s and fished in his vest pocket for the keys to his office. Brushing past the other man, Sam stepped up to the door, unlocked it and went inside. As expected, Lancer followed him and waited impatiently beside the desk while he busied himself unbarring the gun rack.
“Will this take long, Sheriff?”
Eldridge looked around at the rancher. The man’s lined face looked grey with fatigue and there were dark circles under his eyes.
“Did you get any sleep at all, Mr Lancer?”
His solicitous question seemed to take the big man by surprise and his tense features softened a little as he regarded Eldridge.
“Enough,” he answered after a pause. “Is there any news on your deputy?”
Sam shook his head as he came back to his desk and laid down his rifle. Sitting down, he unlocked the drawer and took out a box of cartridges.
“Don’t suppose you want to wait until I can rustle up some more men?”
“You think you’d get anyone?”
“Nope,” Eldridge answered grimly. “Guess we’re on our own.”
Murdoch watched as the Sheriff loaded his rifle, putting extra cartridges in his pocket. Despite the lawman’s words of assurance last night, he obviously expected trouble. The rancher knew they would be severely outnumbered at Holton’s place. He had woken that morning as the first fingers of light had stolen into his room. Terrifying dreams that he would find his sons dead had tormented his sleep. If that were true, he didn’t think he would be able to go on. The last year had been one of the happiest he could remember. Scott and Johnny were home, where they should have been all along. Murdoch could not bear the thought of being separated from them ever again, and if he lost them, he would himself, welcome death. Although he rarely showed it, his love for his boys was intense and the ranch, the acres of land he had acquired over the years, would mean nothing. He had to cling to the idea that Scott and Johnny were still alive and safe, so they could all return home together.
“Mmm?” Lost in thought, Murdoch suddenly realised Eldridge was on his feet, rifle in hand. “Yes. Let’s go.”
The two men left the office and mounted their horses in silence. A few curious townsfolk looked on as they rode slowly, but purposely down the main street. Sam hoped it wasn’t the last time they saw their appointed sheriff alive. He put that sobering thought aside and focused on the task ahead.
Once clear of town, they increased their pace. The sun was already shining brightly in the sky and it promised to be a hot day. Murdoch paid little attention to the road ahead, letting Eldridge lead the way. Being back in the saddle had re-awakened his aches and pains of yesterday, but he gritted his teeth and ignored them. His discomfort was not as important as finding his sons.
They had travelled a couple of miles when they came to a fork in the trail. The two men reined in and the Sheriff turned to Murdoch.
“That’s the road that east to the fort,” he said, pointing to the left. “The other goes to Holton’s spread.”
“Then that’s where we’re going,” Murdoch replied, staring determinedly at the trail to the right.
Sam swore under his breath. Lancer was one stubborn sonofabitch, but, given the circumstances, he didn’t expect much else. He glanced back at the road to the fort, his eyes narrowing as he peered at the churned up ground. Dismounting, he went over to take a closer look.
“Looks like fairly fresh tracks; could have been your boys.”
Murdoch didn’t move. He was still staring at the other road – the road he knew could lead him to Scott and Johnny.
“We go south,” he growled at length. Leaving Eldridge no chance to argue, Murdoch kicked his horse into motion, little caring if the Sheriff followed or not.
Sam puffed out his cheeks in exasperation and hurried back to his own mount. He already was starting to regret this venture. They continued onward until the land started to change from rough scrubland and rocks to rich pastures and abundant water. Good cattle country, Murdoch thought approvingly. Had the purpose for his meeting Thomas Holton been different, he might have looked on the rancher as his contemporary, a friend maybe. Instead, Holton was an enemy, a man who threatened to end his sons’ lives: someone who had to be stopped.
As they went on, a few scattered ranch hands were seen working on the fences and branding. It wasn’t long before they themselves were spotted, but surprisingly no one challenged them. Then they saw one man run to his horse and ride off fast. It was obvious where he was heading.
“Gone to warn his boss,” Eldridge observed.
Murdoch nodded. For the first time, he wondered what sort of reception they would get: Wary certainly, possibly hostile. There were only two of them and if things turned ugly, they could be cut down in seconds. If his death meant that Johnny and Scott were safe, Murdoch would happily make that sacrifice.
They slowed their horses to a walk as they found themselves on the long approach road to the ranch house. The Sheriff turned to speak to Murdoch, his face grave.
“Mr Lancer, I’d appreciate it if you let me do all the talking.” he began. “I’ve know Holton for years. I know how he thinks, although since he lost his boy, he seems to have lost all reason.”
“What are you saying, Sheriff?” Murdoch asked.
“I’m just warning you to be careful, that’s all.” Sam replied. “In spite of what you think, Holton might not have your boys. He might not even know they left town. As far as Johnny’s concerned, Holton may still believe he’s a bounty hunter who didn’t deliver what he should have done. “He paused and scratched his head. “What I’m saying is there are a lot of things we don’t know and if we go in there like a bull in a china shop; all hell’s likely to break loose.”
Murdoch sighed and compressed his lips. What the Sheriff said, made sense, but it didn’t stop him wanting to grab Holton round the throat and demand to know what had happened to his sons. He was a plain talking man, used to get getting what he wanted, preferably by peaceable means. It wasn’t going to be easy to face Holton and damn near impossible to say nothing. Murdoch looked at Eldridge and saw the apprehension on his eyes. He was a man trying to do his job, but he was also a man who feared for his life. His deputy had gone missing and for all they knew, he could be dead. The Sheriff didn’t have to accompany him to Holton’s place, but it was his duty to protect the town’s citizens and as a visitor to Stapleton, that included Murdoch. Unsavoury as it was, Murdoch would have to hold his temper and control his emotions when he finally met Thomas Holton. It wouldn’t be easy, but for the sake of his boys, he had little choice.
Holton was enjoying a leisurely breakfast when the word came. He had slept well, better than he had in days; content in the knowledge he had Larry’s killer where he wanted him. Therefore he barely raised an eyebrow when his foreman entered the dining room and told him riders had been spotted on the north range.
“Two, one of them looks like the Sheriff. Never seen the other one before.”
The rancher looked thoughtful. “Searching for Gresham maybe?”
“Ain’t likely to find him though,” Chambers answered a smirk on his face.
“No.” Holton was sure of that. “You say they’re heading this way?”
The younger man nodded.
“Yeah, they’re not going anywhere.”
Holton relaxed and reached to pour himself another cup of coffee. He could afford to sit for another ten minutes or so, and even if Eldridge asked some awkward questions, there was no cause to worry.
“All right. Tell the men to act natural and get on with their work. I’ll handle the Sheriff and his friend.”
After Chambers left the room, Holton sat back in his chair and sipped his coffee. He was slightly surprised that Eldridge was brave enough to come out to the ranch. The man was a spineless fool. He had been so scared of keeping Lancer under lock and key any longer that he’d let him escape with his brother. Perhaps he thought that his troubles would be over now he didn’t have to protect his prisoner. Gresham had complicated that. The deputy might have been working on his own when he revealed where Lancer and his brother were hiding out, but his disappearance was obviously causing Eldridge some concern.
Holton shrugged. The Sheriff would get nothing from him. He would soon get rid of him and his mysterious companion. Not permanently, the killing of a deputy was one thing. If the Sheriff died too, other lawmen would come to investigate, and Holton did not want suspicion pointed his way. He needed time to take his ultimate revenge on the Lancer boys and nothing was going to ruin that.
Smiling to himself, Holton put his empty cup down and wiped his lips on his napkin before rising to his feet. He retrieved his jacket from the back of the chair, put it on and walked unhurriedly to the front door of the house. Once outside on the porch, he took a few breaths of the clear morning air and went over to his favourite seat: the one where he could oversee his domain. Settling himself down comfortably, Tom Holton prepared to wait for his visitors.
“Now remember what I said, Mr Lancer.”
Murdoch didn’t reply. His gaze was fixed on the house ahead and more importantly, the man seated on the porch. Holton was sitting in an old rocking chair waiting. The rancher looked as cool as a cucumber; the smug expression on his face just asking to be wiped off. Murdoch heard what Eldridge was saying, but rage was slowly simmering inside him.
Tearing his eyes away from Holton, he glanced around at the outbuildings and corrals clustered around the ranch house. Who was he kidding? Did he expect to see Scott and Johnny’s horse’s milling around with the others? If his sons were here, their horses were unlikely to be in full sight. Murdoch wished he wasn’t so convinced his boys had fallen victim to Holton. That conviction was clouding his reason and he only hoped he could face up to the rancher without letting loose of the burning urge to rip the man’s head off.
“I hear you, Sheriff.” Murdoch replied harshly.
Eldridge looked at him quickly. Lancer was as mad as hell and he couldn’t blame him. Sam had never married or had children, but if he had, he would probably be feeling the same. Pete Gresham was around the same age as Lancer’s sons and Sam was fond of the boy. Would he become just as angry if he found out Holton had done the boy harm? The answer was certainly yes and he would make sure the rancher paid for his crime.
As they got nearer the main house, more ranch hands appeared, vigilant and ready to protect their boss if necessary. Holton probably wasn’t even armed, Eldridge thought. He was an arrogant bastard and was confident of his men’s loyalty. Sam would love to bring the rancher down once and for all.
Holton didn’t move from his chair even as they stopped their horses in front of his house. The Sheriff saw Lancer’s fists clench tightly on the reins and he hoped to God, the man was able to control himself and remain mounted.
“Morning Sheriff,” Holton called. “What brings you all the way out here?”
His mocking tone made Sam grind his teeth in frustration, but he held his temper.
“My deputy’s gone missing,” he began. “Hasn’t been seen since yesterday morning. Have you or any of your men seen him?”
His words sounded pathetic even to his own ears and Eldridge wasn’t surprised to see the look of amusement pass across Holton’s face.
“No,” the rancher replied. “Looks like you’ve ridden a long way for nothing.” Holton paused, his eyes flickering over to Murdoch. “Who’s your friend? I don’t see any badge.”
Eldridge took a breath. “This here is Murdoch Lancer.”
At last, there was some reaction from Holton. He stopped his rocking, the chair settling onto the porch with a loud thump.
“As in Scott Lancer? The man who murdered my son?”
“My son is no murderer, Holton” Murdoch snarled.
The seated man bristled at the other’s use of his surname, but he brushed it aside knowing he still held the ace card.
“Well, you would say that. The fact remains my boy is dead because of him and nothing is going to change that.” Holton had recovered from his surprise now. As much as he would love to brag to Lancer that his sons were his prisoners, he had to make sure he did not reveal too much.
“So have you come to watch your boy swing? Because if I get my way, he will! ”
“That’s not going to happen!” Murdoch shot back.
“Easy, man” Eldridge hissed softly.
Murdoch forced back his anger and looked stonily at the rancher. “I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Holton. I know what it’s like to lose loved ones, but if anything happens to my sons and I find out you’re responsible, there won’t a place on earth you can hide.”
His threat caused a restless stirring amongst the ranch hands scattered around the house, but Holton held up a hand to pacify them. Rising to his feet, he walked over to the edge of the porch and stared directly at Murdoch.
“Sons, Lancer?” he enquired curiously. As far as I’m concerned, you only have one son and he’s locked up safe and sound in jail.”
Murdoch felt like kicking himself as he realised his mistake. He was so convinced Holton held both Scott and Johnny as prisoners that he had spoke without thinking. Now the other man was suspicious and rightly so. He remained silent, but Holton seemed determined to pursue the matter and he turned his gaze to Eldridge.
“Unless you know different, Sheriff?”
Sam squirmed uneasily in the saddle. “Of course, he damned well is.”
“Tut, tut. Without anybody guarding him?” the rancher replied. “That’s very careless of you, considering you just told me your deputy has gone missing.”
Although Eldridge was rattled and was silently cursing Murdoch for speaking out of turn, he wasn’t going to let Holton get the better of him.
“I don’t have to answer to you. And if I find out my deputy’s disappearance is down to you, it won’t be just me you have to answer to.”
For a moment, Holton looked as though he was going to make more of it, but then he shrugged in dismissal.
“Well, as much as I enjoyed our little conversation, I think it’s time you both left. I don’t like being threatened and accused of things I know nothing about. So why don’t you both just turn around and ride back to your cosy little town.”
Murdoch stared at him in impotent rage. How could he just leave when he was certain his sons were close by? Maybe it was a parent’s instinct that made him so sure. They might have only been together as a family for a little over a year, but the feeling was still strong. Beside him, he could sense Eldridge’s nervousness and knew the Sheriff was eager to be gone. As much as he hated admitting it, they could do nothing here without more men. Murdoch did not know what he had hoped to achieve by coming out to Holton’s ranch and in end, he was going to have to leave with his tail between his legs.
He scanned the ranch house and outbuildings again, almost wishing he could see through walls. He had done this before – ridden away when a child of his had been in danger. Then it had been just Scott, held in his own home by a ruthless party of men armed with a gatling gun. The leader had mistaken his eldest son for Johnny and seemed determined to mete out his revenge. Intent on rescuing his son, Murdoch had been forced to give up his attempt, sent away by Scott himself, who for his own reasons was maintaining the masquerade of being Johnny Madrid. It had been hard walking away then. It was harder still knowing both his boys could be in potential danger.
Glancing back at Holton, Murdoch made a vow he would return, find his sons and make sure the rancher never threatened innocent lives again. Without another word, Murdoch wheeled his horse around to retrace his steps back to town. It was the hardest thing he had ever done, but he was going to come back.
Scott awoke to darkness and pain. The pain was familiar, almost like an old friend. The darkness, however, was unexpected and disorientating. With awareness, came feeling and he realised he was lying on his injured side. As he rolled over onto his back, Scott also discovered his hands were tied behind him and this in turn, added to his discomfort. He must have groaned aloud because seconds later, he heard a voice.
He almost cried with relief. His brother was alive and close by. The only problem was, he could not see him.
“Johnny? Where are you?”
“Just a couple of feet away from.”
Scott strained his eyes for a glimpse of the younger man. “Why is it so dark? Where are we?”
“Underground somewhere,” Johnny answered. “Root cellar, maybe” He paused and Scott heard him shift slightly. “Thought you were never gonna wake up, brother. You’ve been out for hours.”
Scott could hear the anxiety in his voice and despite his pain, he started to struggle up into a sitting position.
Hearing his grunts and groans, Johnny leaned forward anxiously. “What’cha doing?”
Scott didn’t reply, but continued to move around with obvious difficulty. In spite of his concern, Johnny was glad his brother was at least conscious. Ever since Scott’s limp body had been dumped in the cellar, Johnny had been unable to rouse him despite calling his name until he grew hoarse. The longer his brother remained unconscious, the more worried he’d become. In the end, his own pain and exhaustion had got the better of him and he had sunk into an uneasy doze. It was only when he’d heard him moan that he realised that Scott had woke up at last.
A bump on his left shoulder indicated that Scott had settled down beside him and the physical contact of his brother was welcome. Hearing his laboured breathing, Johnny turned towards him, peering at his shadowy form through the gloom.
Scott had to take a couple more steadying breaths before he could answer.
“I’ve been better,” he admitted at length. “How about you? Your head still hurting?”
“Yeah. Bit like your worst hangover, but without the tequila” Johnny replied, a wry smile on his lips.
“Da nada, So, what happened with you and Holton?”
Scott leaned back against the wall. “Oh, he just wanted to talk.”
“Talk! What about?”
“He said that if I admitted I deliberately set out to kill his son, he’ll let us die easy. If not, he’ll make sure we die slowly and painfully.”
“Comforting,” Johnny commented. “He sure knows how to make folks welcome. So, what did you tell him?”
“I told him to go to Hell.”
Even though it meant their fate was effectively sealed, Johnny nodded in approval. That was exactly what he would have told Holton. People sometimes made the mistake of underestimating his Boston bred brother and it appeared that Holton was one of those people. The rancher’s threats may be genuine, but Scott wasn’t about to give up yet.
“So, how are we planning to get out of here?”
Johnny’s grin widened. Despite the odds, his brother’s irrepressible spirit was still strong.
“No idea,” he admitted. “You’re always telling me you’re the smart one.”
“So you’re saying we should just sit here and wait to be slaughtered?”
“Hey, hold up, Scott,” Johnny replied quickly. “I’m as mad as you are, but stuck down here, tied up with no means of escape, we don’t have much of a choice at the moment.”
Scott sighed, knowing his brother was right, although it did nothing to allay his sense of frustration. He was tired and just wanted an end to everything, but that would only come with their deaths.
“I’m sorry Johnny. I just want this to be over,” he answered. “Too many people have been hurt. First Sophie and now the deputy.”
“You remember about Gresham?”
Johnny was surprised Scott recalled anything that had been mentioned about the deputy. When Holton had said – no, when he boasted that he had killed the lawman, Scott was being bundled onto his horse and seemed incapacitated with pain. In his condition, it was a wonder he remembered anything.
“Holton reminded me.”
‘He would’ Johnny thought grimly. The rancher was quite proud of the fact.
“I think his son’s death has driven him over the edge,” Scott went on. “He doesn’t care who he hurts to get even. Now you’re involved and because of me....”
“Hey, don’t start that, Scott.” Johnny said harshly. “I became involved when I read that telegram. You think I was gonna sit at home knowing you were in trouble? You would have done the same for me.”
The older man made no reply and lowered his head. Scott knew he was feeling sorry for himself, but he could not help feeling responsible for everything.
“You were just in the wrong place, at the wrong time, Brother,” Johnny continued. “If you want to blame anyone, blame Murdoch for sending you down here in the first place.”
Scott glanced up at his words. There was a hard edge to Johnny’s voice, but Scott could not find it in his heart to blame his father. As Johnny said, he had just been unlucky to find himself in the saloon at Stapleton when Larry Holton had come in. A chance encounter which had led to tragedy. Johnny was right. There was no point beating himself up over what had happened. He just wished innocent lives hadn’t been lost due to his actions.
The pair lapsed into a doleful silence, punctuated only by the slow drip, drip of water seeping into the cellar. When they heard the sound of the trapdoor being shifted, it was almost a welcome relief. A short ladder was lowered and a figure carrying a lantern started to descend, followed by another man. The bright flare from the lantern made their eyes water and when they could see, they found Holton standing in front of them, accompanied by a ranch hand with a drawn revolver.
“Check their ropes,” Holton ordered brusquely.
The other handed him the lantern and came over to investigate. Holton kept his eyes on his prisoners, wary of any sudden move and his hand hovered over his own holster. When his man gave him a curt nod, Holton visibly relaxed and hooked his thumbs confidently in his belt.
“Well boys, I hope you’re comfortable down here.”
The brothers looked stonily at him, but Holton was unperturbed. He knew he had something that would make them sit up and take notice.
“I had some visitors this morning,” he told them smoothly, pausing as he gauged their reaction. His captives remained impassive, but Holton could tell he had their attention.
“Sheriff Eldridge ......and your father.”
“Murdoch?” Scott breathed casting a quick glance at Johnny.
“That’s right,” Holton answered with a smile. “The good Sheriff made up this story he was searching for his deputy, but we all know he was really looking for you two.”
The fact that Murdoch was in Stapleton could not fail to generate a glimmer of hope for Scott and Johnny, although they knew the prospect of escape was still virtually impossible.
“Now, your daddy seems to think I have both of you and I reckon if he can persuade the Sheriff to help him, he’ll be back here with a posse.” Holton continued. “I can’t let that happen, so tonight under cover of darkness, we’re moving you.”
This brought another ray of hope to the brothers. If they were going to get out of the dismal hole in the ground, there might be a chance to make a break for freedom. However, the anticipation of escape disappeared with the rancher’s next words.
Holton fixed his eyes directly at Scott. “I wanted to make sure you died slowly, boy. To make you suffer as I suffer every day without my son. Tonight, you and your brother are going to die and your bodies left to the buzzards. Maybe I’ll leave you alive just long enough to watch them pick Johnny’s bones clean.” He sniggered. “I’d like that.”
Johnny met his gaze defiantly
“Bad move, Holton. Our ol’ man will know you’re responsible and there won’t be a rock you can crawl under.”
The older man spread his hands. “And where will be his proof? Your bodies will be found far from here. Try as he may, your father will prove nothing and I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing what really happened. It’s not quite what I had in mind, but the end result will be the same.”
He jerked his head to his ranch hand and the two moved over to the ladder. As the other man started to climb, Holton glanced back to them.
“Enjoy the rest of your day, boys. It will be your last.”
“I’m going back!”
Murdoch started to turn his horse around, but Eldridge quickly grabbed the bridle.
“Don’t be a fool, man!” the Sheriff exclaimed. “You’ll just get yourself killed.”
“I can’t just leave them there.”
“You don’t know they’re there for certain.”
Murdoch gave him a withering glare. “I do. And I suspect you do too. For all we know, my sons might be dead already!”
Eldridge let his hand fall slowly from the bridle and he looked pensively back towards Holton’s spread. Lancer could be right about his sons. If they were still alive and in the hands of Holton, their future looked bleak. He had an awful feeling that Pete was dead too. In a way, he would prefer that as the alternative meant that his deputy had been in league with Holton and had betrayed the Lancer boys.
“So what’s it to be, Sheriff?”
Sam looked back at him, seeing the deep lines of worry and concern etched on Lancer’s face. The man was waiting and a decision had to be made. As a lawman, Eldridge couldn’t sit around and do nothing. Lives were at risk, but how many more would be lost if he went up against Holton? However, it was the only way to go if he was to bring the man down once and for all.
“If we’re going back, we’re gonna need help,” he said at last.
“But that’ll take time,” Murdoch argued. “My boys might not have that luxury.”
Eldridge sighed. “I understand that, Mr Lancer, but we can’t do it alone.”
Murdoch ground his teeth in frustration. The Sheriff was telling the truth, unpalatable though it was. Outnumbered, they had no choice but to return to Stapleton in the hope they could recruit volunteers to help. Given what he had learned about Holton that would not be easy. Why should the townsfolk risk their lives for total strangers?
“All right, Sheriff, we’ll do it your way,” he replied. “I just hope we’re not too late.”
They made good time getting back to Stapleton. Murdoch was glad; the sooner they got there, the quicker they got back.
Eldridge headed straight for his office. He still held out the vain hope Pete might have turned up, but the door was still locked as he had left it.
“We’ll check the saloon,” he said. “He may have come back and gone out again.”
Murdoch touched him lightly on the arm. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”
Sam hesitated a little before answering. “No. But like you, Mr Lancer, I have to hold out some hope.”
The two men left the jailhouse and Eldridge was in the process of locking up again when an urgent shout made them both look around. Joe Neville, the saloon owner, was rushing across the street, almost getting run down by a wagon in his haste.
“Sheriff, it’s Pete. He’s been found!”
“Where is he?”
“At the doc’s place,” Neville replied. “He’s hurt bad.”
Eldridge drew a sharp breath and exchanged an anxious glance with Murdoch before running off down the street.
Murdoch followed, almost losing sight of the Sheriff when the man darted down a side alley. He hurried to catch him up and saw Eldridge climbing a flight of steps to a building to the left.
“Sheriff, wait,” he called.
The lawman turned at the top of the stairs and paused as Murdoch ascended. Eldridge nodded briefly, giving his unspoken permission for him to accompany him and the two went inside.
The room was sparsely furnished and careworn like the faded pictures on the walls. A battered desk and chair stood just inside the door and this was piled high with papers and dusty books. Eldridge frowned as he noticed the half empty bottle of whisky on the desk, but he ignored it when he heard a noise from the back room.
“Hampton,” he called.
A few minutes later, the curtain separating the two rooms parted and the doctor emerged. Hampton had his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows and he was wiping his hands on a towel. Splatters of blood stained his shirt front and his face was grave as he regarded his visitors.
“How is he?” Sam asked, although the doctor’s expression said it all.
“He’s dying,” Hampton said shortly. “It’s a wonder he’s held out this long.”
The Sheriff swallowed. “Who found him?”
The doctor sighed, walked over to his desk and sat down heavily on the chair.
“Old man Forrester. He was on his way into town for supplies.” Hampton poured himself a drink, but left it untouched on the desk. “Gresham was lying by the side of the trail. He looked like he’d been crawling all night. Forrester said he was also covered in dirt, like he’d been buried in a shallow grave.”
Eldridge paled and barely suppressed a shudder.
“I want to see him.”
Hampton nodded and gulped down his drink before getting to his feet.
“He’s been asking for you.” He glanced past the Sheriff at Murdoch and lifted an eyebrow. “Who’s this?”
Sam had forgotten no one apart from himself knew of Murdoch Lancer’s purpose in Stapleton.
“This is Mr Lancer....”
“Lancer?” Hampton repeated. “I reckon you might want to hear what the deputy has to say.”
The doctor led the two men through to the back room. It reeked of carbolic and the sharp metallic smell of blood. Pete lay on a bed at the rear of the room, his chest swathed in bandages. His wheezing breath and sickly grey features told them the young man didn’t have long. As Eldridge slipped into the chair beside the bed, he could see that Pete’s eyes were already sunk into his head and there were beads of blood on his pallid lips.
“Lung shot,” Hampton said wearily, “I could try and get the bullet out, but he’s lost too much blood already. I’m sorry.”
Sam nodded. It was obvious Pete was fading fast and Eldridge knew exactly who was responsible. He reached forward and laid a hand gently on the wounded man’s forearm.
“Pete? Can you hear me?”
The young deputy gave a painful gasp and struggled to open his eyes.
The Sheriff leaned closer. “Yes, son. It’s me.”
Gresham’s eyes opened wider and his right hand closed about Sam’s wrist with surprising strength.
“Sam,” he panted breathlessly. “It’s my fault……sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” Eldridge asked. “Listen, you’re going to be okay.”
Gresham laughed harshly, the blood bubbling from his month. “No …I’m not, but you have to ..listen to what….I tell you.” He stopped, closing his eyes briefly as a spasm of pain caught him before continuing.
“Holton.....he’s got the Lancers.”
Behind him, Eldridge heard Murdoch’s hiss of anger, but he focused his attention on his dying friend.
“I told him.....they’d skipped jail and where they were hiding.”
In spite of his concern, Sam was appalled. “Why, Pete?”
“I figgered ...if Holton got what he wanted, he.....leave the town alone. I was mad at you too... for protecting Lancer. I’m sorry, Sam.....I was wrong.”
“Where are they being held?” Murdoch couldn’t stay silent any longer.
Gresham’s eyes flickered curiously at the large man standing behind the Sheriff and then he looked back at Sam.
“He’s their father,” Eldridge explained. “Tell us where they are, son.”
“At the ranch,” Pete breathed. “You....have to help them. Holton’s....gonna kill them.”
Murdoch was all for heading back to Holton’s ranch immediately. He had the confirmation he wanted, but the warning glance from the Sheriff made him wait.
“We’ll get them, Pete,” Sam assured. “Holton too. He’s escaped the law too many times. Now, you just rest.”
Eldridge went to rise, but Gresham tightened his grip on his wrist.
“Sam, there’s something else....”
“Sophie........I killed her.”
This revelation was even more shocking to Sam than the news of Pete’s betrayal of the Lancer brothers. He sat down hard on the chair again and stared at Gresham in disbelief. “Why?”
Pete coughed and a rush of blood spurted from his mouth.
“Didn’t mean too.....” the injured man gasped. “Went back to her room. We…fought. I hit her. She….fell. Accident...sorry.”
He broke off again as a violent cough shook his whole body. More blood, thick and dark, burbled from his lips and a look of panic formed in his eyes as he fought to breathe.
Alarmed, Sam reached forward and lifted the young man up into his arms.
Gresham took another rasping breath which rattled through his congested throat and then he suddenly went limp in Sam’s grasp.
Hampton quickly stepped in and placed his fingers on the deputy’s neck. He sighed in resignation and shook his head. “He’s gone.”
Eldridge gazed sorrowfully at his friend’s face for a moment and then gently laid him down, closing the staring eyes. Although he was stunned by what Pete had told him and saddened by the young man’s painful end, a slow anger was beginning to burn inside him. Holton had crossed the line with Pete’s murder. One might argue that Gresham had got what he deserved when he had tried to side with the rancher, but Eldridge could not help but feel sorry for his deputy. He only wished that he had recognised the apparent signs in Pete’s behaviour beforehand. His part in Sophie’s death was deplorable, but Hampton had been right when he said it had been a tragic accident. Sam would never know all the circumstances of the girl’s death, but it didn’t matter now.
Now the priority was to rescue the Lancer brothers before they too fell victim to Holton’s thirst for vengeance. One way or another, Holton was going to pay for Pete’s murder, and for all the trouble he and his son had caused in the past. He had left it too late for Gresham, but Eldridge was determined no one else was going to suffer because of the arrogant, bullying rancher.
Sam took a last look at his deceased friend and then rose purposefully to his feet. He looked round at Murdoch and saw the same look of resolve on the man’s face.
“All right, let’s go and get ourselves together a posse."
Murdoch looked at his pocket watch and sighed impatiently. He had lost count how many times he had checked the time and every time he looked, he swore the hands had stopped moving. Evening was fast approaching and there was still no sign of the Sheriff arriving with the posse. Murdoch had elected to return to Holton’s ranch to keep a lookout for any sign of movement. He guessed that if the rancher had plans to move his sons, he would do so under cover of darkness. At least, he hoped that was what he’d do. Murdoch realised Holton could just as easily kill Scott and Johnny at the ranch and dispose of their bodies later. All he could do was pray his sons were still being held captive and more importantly, still alive.
From his vantage point in a copse of trees overlooking the ranch, Murdoch had a good view of the house and outbuildings. On Eldridge’s advice, he had taken a back trail and he was confident he had not been spotted, although he remained on the alert. His horse, Toby, was tethered nearby and munching contentedly on the sparse blades of grass. Other than that, he was alone and therefore vulnerable. If anything happened at the house, Murdoch knew he had very little chance of saving his sons lives.
He put his watch away again and looked back along the trail, peering through the gathering gloom for the overdue posse. Perhaps the Sheriff was still trying to persuade Stapleton’s reluctant townsmen to join him. Maybe Eldridge had even chickened out himself, although Murdoch couldn’t really believe that. He had seen the anger and determination on the Sheriff’s face when Gresham had died. No, the time had come to stop Holton’s murderous ways.
A screech owl suddenly took off from the trees, its distinctive cry making him jump. Murdoch watched as the bird swooped down on some unseen prey and take off again, before turning his attention once more onto the ranch house. Like the owl, Murdoch was waiting on his prey – Holton – and his prize would be to get his boys back safe and well.
Twenty minutes ticked slowly by. The night was closing in rapidly now, dark clouds scudding across the sky. An unseasonable chilly wind had blown up, but Murdoch barely felt it. His gaze was fixed on the ranch house and the front door, which had suddenly opened, a pool of light spilling onto the porch. Two men emerged and even from a distance, Murdoch could recognise the proud figure of Thomas Holton. He was talking to another man, obviously a subordinate, and gesticulating every so often as if to emphasise a point.
Murdoch waited, his heart pounding loudly against his ribs and his rifle gripped tightly in his hands. Was something about to happen? After hours of inaction, Murdoch hoped so, despite the fact he was still without help. He had no idea what he could do on his own, besides get closer to the house and start firing if it seemed his sons looked to be in danger. He gnawed on his lower lip as he considered his next move.
The two men spoke for a few minutes longer and then the taller man left Holton on the pouch as he went over to speak to some other ranch hands. Murdoch watched intently, wondering what was going on. Holton disappeared back into the house, but returned almost immediately and Murdoch tensed as he saw the rancher was strapping on his gunbelt.
He had to make his move now, but where were the damned Sheriff and the posse? Murdoch rose slowly to his feet, and then ducked down when he saw four ranch hands hurry over to the corral. Two started catching and saddling the horses, which had been running loose, while the others went inside the barn. More horses were brought out and Murdoch’s heart almost stopped when he spotted the unmistakable golden shape of a palomino. Barranca, Johnny’s beloved mount, was being led out followed by the taller, spirited bay belonging to Scott.
Murdoch cursed under his breath. The animals’ appearance was all the confirmation he needed to know his sons were where he’d thought all along. Gresham had said so before he died, but this was even more convincing. He looked around anxiously for the posse that had never arrived and knew that he had no choice to act on his own. Murdoch realised that he would probably be killed in the attempt to save his boys, but he found he didn’t really care. It was better to die protecting his own than to do nothing.
Scott and Johnny were exhausted. Ever since Holton had left them earlier that day, they had been feverishly working on their ropes. Shut down in the darkness, they had no concept of the passing hours; they just knew they had to get free in they any hope of escape.
Both young men were now in a sorry state. The dank and frigid atmosphere of the cellar had crept into their limbs making them stiff and aching. They were desperately thirsty and famished, not having eaten for almost forty-eight hours. In Scott’s case, he had barely eaten at all since he had been shot and as a result, he was feeling weak from hunger. Despite the peril that awaited them, the two brothers had lapsed into an uneasy doze and it was only the sound of the trap door opening that roused them from their stupor.
They jerked awake as three men descended into their prison, lanterns swinging eerily in the gloom. The tallest, who they recognised as Chambers, came over to Scott and dragged him away from Johnny. Then he drew his revolver and pointed it at the blond’s head. For one terrifying moment, Johnny thought he was going to shoot Scott right before his eyes, but then Chambers looked at the other two men and ordered them to cut him loose. As the ropes were severed from his ankles, Chambers glanced stonily at him.
“You try anything, your brother gets a bullet.”
“Thought your boss wanted that privilege,” Johnny replied, wincing as the blood started to rush back to his feet.
Chambers grinned. “Don’t reckon he’d mind too much. You’re both gonna be dead in a little while anyway.”
Johnny’s hands were then released, but not before his guards realised the bounds were loose. The brief respite of having his hands free was all too short-lived when the foreman told them to retie them in front instead. Holton’s men were certainly taking no chances.
The two ranch hands hauled Johnny to his feet and pushed him over to the ladder.
Johnny hesitated, not out of defiance; he just wasn’t sure he was able. His legs felt like lead and his headache had escalated to new heights. He glanced up at the opening and saw more men waiting for him at the top. Any thoughts of escape seemed pretty remote. He cast an anxious glance back at his brother and then started his shaky climb.
“Your turn,” Chambers growled, toeing Scott in the ribs.
The ropes around Scott’s sore wrists were cut and then bound again like his brother’s. Then he was jerked to his feet and frog-marched over to the ladder. He felt so light-headed; he almost slipped off the first rung, but then felt hands on his back pushing him upwards.
Scott made it up to the top without falling and emerged into what appeared to be a large shed. He immediately looked around for Johnny and saw him being hustled out of the door by two men. Another man was standing by the entrance; his gun drawn to prevent him leaving until Chambers and the others climbed out of the root cellar. Then he too was dragged outside to join his brother.
Both Lancers were surprised to find that night had fallen, but they barely had time to reflect on this as Holton appeared.
“Howdy, boys. Ready for a little trip?” He smiled. “Off course, for you, it’ll only be one way.”
“Why don’t you just get it over with right here, “Scott asked. He was getting tired of the older man’s threats.
“Tempting, but I’d much rather drag out the anticipation. Make you sweat a little.”
“We ain’t sweating yet,” Johnny replied icily.
“Oh, trust me, you will.”
The rancher turned to Chambers. “Let’s get this done. Get them on their horses.”
Johnny and Scott didn’t attempt to break free as they were forced over to their mounts. The horses were their way out. If they could hit out at their captors and saddle up without getting shot, they had a chance to escape. They almost made it.
Just as they neared the corral where their horses were tethered, a single rifle shot rang out and all hell suddenly broke loose. They were pushed to the ground as their guards reached for their guns to return fire. Although they had no idea who was firing, it seemed someone was trying to help them, so the brothers leapt to their feet and threw themselves at the ranch hands. With their hands bound, Scott and Johnny were at the disadvantage, but after a brief, violent struggle, they managed to wrestle the guns away from the men.
As more shots came their way, they ran the short distance to the corral, dived through the rails and took cover behind the water trough.
“You okay?” Scott asked his brother.
Johnny nodded briefly, although he had blood streaming from his nose where one of the ranch hand’s flailing fists had hit him.
“You think it’s Murdoch?” Scott added, as he squeezed off a shot.
“Could be,” Johnny replied. “If it is, he’s on his own. “
He had only heard one rifle shot and although another came, he would have expected more if there was a posse present.
The brothers continued to return fire, although they were mindful of their limited ammunition. Holton and his men had taken what cover they caught and were directing their guns both at the corral and the unknown rifleman. They too, had figured out there must be only one man and Holton ordered Chambers and Stoner to try to get around behind him.
The main focus of fire, however, was being aimed at the Lancer brothers and Johnny and Scott needed more substantial shelter from the relentless hail of lead. The obvious place was the barn and after a few more well-placed shots which saw two men fall, they scooted through the half-open side door.
Crouching down just inside, they quickly checked their pilfered guns.
“How many?” Johnny asked.
Scott nodded grimly. They needed to make every shot count in order to conserve bullets. Peering out, he swore softy as the door swung shut as a sudden gust of wind caught it. He pushed it back open, and then ducked swiftly as a slug whined over his head. In spite of some casualties, Holton’s men were getting closer and it was only a matter of time before they overran their position.
The sound of that first rifle shot had enraged Tom Holton. Ever since the Sheriff had turned up that morning with Murdoch Lancer, Holton had made sure his ranch hands were on full alert for any hint of a posse. As the day had worn on, the possibility of one arriving seemed less likely. He supposed it was his fault for being complacent, but Holton wasn’t about to admit it. Instead he took it out on his men for not being diligent enough.
It hadn’t taken him long to realise that there was only one gunman firing and there was no posse. He could almost guess who it was - Murdoch Lancer. The man had returned in a single-minded mission to save his sons. Lancer was a fool, or suicidal. Either way, he was going to be dead soon, just like his boys.
As he and his men had taken cover, Holton was already certain the situation would be back under his control very soon. Sending his foreman and Stoner to deal with Lancer, he and the others concentrated their firepower on the two brothers. They might be armed, but Holton was determined they weren’t going to escape with their lives.
When they retreated into the barn, Holton smiled with satisfaction. He knew his prisoners were low on bullets, with no means of reloading. Holton had them where he wanted them. Ordering his ranch hands to keep firing, he called several of the others over to him.
The first two men were apprehensive. They were the ones who had lost their guns to the Lancers. Fearing retribution from their boss, they were even more alarmed when Holton outlined his plan. However, they knew better than to argue or disobey.
Holton sent them curtly on their way and calmly reloaded his revolver. He could almost taste victory now. When the Lancers, father and sons, were finally dead, he would go after the Sheriff. Eldridge had tried to thwart him, but he was obviously too frightened to raise a posse to help Lancer, leaving him to fight on alone. Maybe he could replace Eldridge with one of his own men. Chambers had proved loyal and with him in charge of Stapleton, the town would be his.
The rancher shook his head; first to the business at hand. It would not bring his son back, but at least Larry could rest easy in his grave.
Murdoch had made a mistake. He had panicked when he’d seen Scott and Johnny being led towards their horses and had fired too soon. Although he was closer to the house, he was in no better position to help his sons. The element of surprise had gone and if he have left it until Scott and Johnny were on their respective mounts, the boys would have had the chance to make a run for it.
Now crouched down behind the bunkhouse, he was effectively pinned down by gunfire, although the main focus of Holton’s firepower seemed to be directed at his sons’ position. His heart had been in his mouth when he’d seen Johnny and Scott attack their guards. Of course he was relieved to see them both alive, but then concern had set in when he realised that their hands were tied. Murdoch could not risk firing for fear of hitting them. Fortunately, his boys had prevailed and had procession of weapons. Now they were safe for the moment in the barn, but Murdoch could see Holton’s men were closing in.
He wished he could get a clear shot at Holton. Murdoch had a feeling that if the rancher was brought down, his men would lose heart and give up the fight. He hated the thought of killing a man in cold blood, though Lord knows, Holton deserved it. The man would undoubtedly hang for the murder of Gresham if he were caught, but at the moment that prospect seemed unlikely.
As he paused to reload, a fresh burst of gunfire made him look up in surprise. Shouting accompanied it and when Murdoch peered out cautiously around the side of the bunkhouse, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes. A large group of horsemen, brandishing rifles, were riding through the main gates and Murdoch was amazed to see them being led by the Sheriff. He stood stunned for a moment and then snapped back into action to support the relieving posse.
Some of Holton’s men panicked at the new, unexpected threat and threw down their guns. Eldridge seemed to be everywhere at once, shouting orders to his motley crew of townsfolk and heartened by their courage, Murdoch carried on firing. He had lost sight of Holton, which worried him, but he was certain the rancher wasn’t about to give up.
The ensuing gun battle was fast and furious with casualties on both sides. Eventually it petered out to a few sporadic shots and Murdoch could see the remainder of the surviving ranch hands, realising they were outnumbered, were surrendering. As he stepped warily from the shelter of the bunkhouse, he saw something out of the corner of his eye.
A dark clad figure was running for one of the few horses milling about in the corral. It was Tom Holton. The rancher was making a break for freedom knowing his cause was lost. Murdoch clamped down on his jaw and took a firmer grip on his rifle. Holton couldn’t be allowed to escape – not after all he had done, and Murdoch was determined to stop him.
He ran the short distance to the corral and shouted his challenge just as the younger man clambered into the saddle.
The other’s head whipped around and rage suffused his features as he saw who was confronting him. His gun was in his hand in a flash and he fired off a wild shot. However, Murdoch was more accurate. His bullet caught Holton in the neck and he toppled backwards off his horse, crashing heavily to the ground.
Murdoch rushed over the fallen man, covering him with his rifle, but he could see that it was unnecessary. Holton was done for. He knelt down beside the dying man and pulled out his bandana to try to stem the flow of blood, but Holton pushed his hand away.
“Leave ...me be.” He gave a shuddering breath and his mouth widened into a grotesque smile. “You’re ..too late anyway”
Murdoch frowned. “Too late for what?”
Holton rolled himself over painfully and lifted a trembling hand.
Murdoch followed his pointing finger and his heart lurched with sudden fear. In front of him stood the large bulk of the barn and as he looked he saw bright, orange flames bursting through the open door of the hayloft. Even as he stared in horror, the fire seemed to intensify and the roof was starting to smoulder.
“Your boys are in there, Lancer,” Holton gasped, “and I hope they burn in Hell.”
“What d’ya mean?”
“The door, Johnny.” Scott repeated tersely. “It won’t open!”
The younger man brushed by him. “Lemme try.”
“Be my guest.” Scott moved aside as Johnny pushed at the door, then tried again using his shoulder. It wouldn’t budge an inch and the thought went through Johnny’s head that this was no accident. Glancing at his brother, he could see that Scott had the same idea. As one, they both dashed to the main double doors and pushed hard, but they too were as solid as a rock. Holton had them trapped, and they were now just as much prisoners as they had been down in the root cellar.
“Come on, let’s see if we can find something to shift ‘em,” Johnny said. “And get out of these damn ropes.”
They separated and scoured the barn for anything to batter the doors down. Getting out would mean facing Holton’s guns again, but the brothers were prepared to take that risk.
Searching on opposite sides of the barn, it was Scott who heard it first. A faint crackling from above alerted him and he stepped from beneath the overhang of the hayloft to look up. Orange flames, almost a foot high were starting to spread rapidly from the small opening to the loft, setting the tinder dry straw alight, Grey plumes of smoke already hung thickly below the roof.
The former gunfighter turned quickly at his brother’s urgent cry. His blue eyes widened as he saw the strengthening flames and he ran over to follow Scott up the ladder to the hay loft. A smashed lantern lying by the opening pointed to the obvious source of the fire. Someone had climbed up from outside and had deliberately thrown it to ignite the straw, knowing it would not take long for the entire building to catch fire.
At first they tried to stamp the flames out, but they were taking hold too quickly, leaping up the walls of the barn towards the rafters. The smoke was thicker too, making their eyes smart. They started to cough as the smoke caught in their throats. There was no hope of escaping through the loft opening as it was well ablaze. Beaten back by the heat, Scott and Johnny retreated down the ladder and tried the doors again. Pounding and shouting for help did no good and, although they tried to cover their mouths and noses with their bandanas, breathing was becoming increasingly difficult.
The fire had now spread to the roof. Pieces of charred timbers were starting to drop, which in turn was igniting more straw on the floor. Before long, the whole place would become an inferno. If they didn’t burn to death first, they would surely suffocate. Either way, the end would not be pleasant.
Murdoch got to his feet as Holton breathed his last; his eyes were fixed on the burning barn, as the dying man’s final words echoed in his head. He started running towards the building, praying Holton had lied to him about his sons. However, he had seen Scott and Johnny enter the barn himself, but he hadn’t seen them leave. God, don’t let them die like this, he pleaded silently.
He stopped as he saw Eldridge hurrying towards him.
“Sheriff, quick! Help me. Scott and Johnny are inside!”
Sam stared at him in shocked silence for a moment, and then both men dashed towards the barn.
Murdoch forced back his fear and anger when he saw that not only had both entrances been barred, obstacles had also been placed in front of the doors to prevent any escape. Ignoring the main double doors, he and the Sheriff started shifting barrels and lengths of timber which had been piled in front of the side door.
“Dead,” Murdoch replied hastily.
Eldridge was surprised, but also relieved. He had no reason to doubt Lancer. There was too much certainty in his voice.
With the last of the debris cleared away, only the bar remained. Murdoch tossed it aside and wrenched the door open. He was horrified by the amount of smoke which billowed out, but plunged inside anyway, closely followed by the Sheriff.
“Johnny? Scott?” he yelled frantically, as he tried to peer through the gloom.
Eldridge was just as anxious, although at the moment, he was more concerned with the roof, which was now engulfed in flames.
“It’ll be down on us in a minute,” he shouted.
“I don’t care,” Murdoch shot back. “We have to find them.”
They moved quickly through the barn, coughing because of the fumes and trying to avoid falling pieces of burning wood. Then, near the back of the building, Sam spotted two dark shapes lying close to each other.
Murdoch turned round and ran back to him. Johnny and Scott were lying face down by the rear wall. For one heart-stopping moment, he thought they were dead, but then he saw Johnny’s dark head lift slightly when he called their names.
“Let’s get them out of here.”
There was another single door nearby, but that too was impossible to open, so they dragged the semi-conscious pair to their feet and headed back to the other exit; the four of them emerging coughing and spluttering. Murdoch, who was half carrying his elder son, almost fell to the ground as Scott’s legs buckled under him.
“Come on, son, we need to get away from here.”
Scott opened red-rimmed eyes to peer blearily at his father. “Murdoch…?”
The older man gave his son a faint smile and wrapped a strong arm around Scott’s lean waist, guiding his stumbling feet toward the house and easing him down on the steps of the porch. Eldridge was right behind with Johnny and he too was settled next to his brother. Both young men were coughing and breathing hard; their faces were streaked with grime and their clothing reeked of smoke, but at least they were alive and safe.
“I’ll fetch Hampton,” the Sheriff said.
“Hampton?” Murdoch exclaimed in surprise.
Sam grinned. “The doc insisted on coming. Said he reckoned he’d be needed.” He turned to go.
“Sheriff,” Murdoch called. “I just wanted to say thank you.”
Eldridge shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah, well, I’m sorry I left it late. It took me a while to get folks to come. I think it was Pete’s murder that swayed them.”
Murdoch nodded. The Sheriff was probably right: if Holton could kill an officer of the law, then no-one in town would be safe.
When he’d gone, Murdoch turned his full attention to his sons, cutting their bonds at the same time. Apart from the fact they were both suffering from the effects of the smoke, Johnny had an untended gash on his head, and there was dried blood down the side of this face and on his shirt collar. There was more blood, some of it fresh, on Scott’s shirt and when Johnny told him his brother had been shot, Murdoch’s guilt returned.
Hampton arrived and examined both of them in turn, tutting with displeasure when he saw the state of Scott’s bandages. However, there was little he could do to at the moment, as he had only brought basic medical supplies with him.
“How many did we lose, Doctor?” Murdoch inquired
“None of the posse; thank the Lord,” Hampton replied. “Few got shot up, but nothing too serious.”
Murdoch was grateful. He hated the thought of any of the townsmen getting killed on their behalf. “What about Holton’s men?” he added.
“Well, apart from Holton himself, two others are dead. The foreman, Chambers, and another hand. More injured.”
“Holton’s dead?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, son,” Murdoch answered. “He tried to get away.”
Johnny glanced quickly at him. The grim look in his father’s eyes told him all he needed to know. There was no doubt Murdoch had been responsible for the rancher’s demise.
“Bastard had it coming,” he muttered softly, looking across at his brother.
The doctor and Murdoch were anxious to get Scott and Johnny back to town where they could be treated properly. However, there were quite a few things to be done before they left. The ranch hands who had suffered wounds were patched up. Two who were more seriously hurt were loaded onto a wagon to be taken to Stapleton. The bodies of Holton, Chambers and Stoner were conveyed into the house by the surviving hands. Most of them seemed glad their tyrannical boss was dead. Although it meant they had lost their jobs, they didn’t seem to care. There were other ranches, and an experienced hand would soon find work. Although he gave them a stern warning about causing further trouble, Eldridge arrested no one, knowing the wrong doings of the past had been instigated by Holton and his son
The horses were gathered up and the hastily formed posse began to disperse. Murdoch was surprised just how many had volunteered. Like the Sheriff, they had finally had enough of Holton and felt it was about time they stopped cowering in their shops and houses every time he and his men came to town.
Scott and Johnny insisted on riding back, despite the fact they were still suffering from smoke inhalation. Now they were out of danger, the adrenalin leached out of them leaving them drained, and with every bone in their bodies aching. Murdoch eyed them uncertainly, wondering if they’d make it to Stapleton without falling off their horses. He felt happier when Hampton said he would drive the wagon carrying the wounded back and keep a watch on his sons at the same time.
As they started to leave, there was a great whooshing sound as the roof of the burning barn finally collapsed. No one had bothered to try to extinguish the fire and it would eventually burn itself out anyway. Murdoch suppressed a shudder as he considered how close he had been to losing his sons in the inferno.
It was late by the time they got back to town. Hampton’s first priority was to treat the wounded ranch hands, so he left the Sheriff’s party and drove the wagon on to his place. After taking his leave of Eldridge, Murdoch took Scott and Johnny to the boarding house, where he settled them into the largest room available. Both boys were dead on their feet, and would have gone straight to sleep if he’d let them. However, Murdoch made them drink some water to ease their scorched throats, and managed to get them to eat something light before he let them rest.
Hampton stopped by nearly an hour later, after leaving his charges with Widow Simpkins, who had had some medical experience during the Civil War. In spite of their protests to be left to sleep, Hampton cleaned them up and bandaged their wounds. Scott was running a low grade fever due to some infection arising from the original gunshot injury. He also diagnosed that Johnny had a concussion, and ordered Murdoch to wake him every two hours to make sure there he was coherent.
Eventually he left and Murdoch settled into a battered, overstuffed armchair to watch over his sleeping sons. He was utterly weary too, and it was a struggle to keep his eyes open. However, he was determined to stay awake in case he was needed. He sank deeper into his seat and regarded his boys in turn.
They were both so precious to him now, and the thought of losing them felt like a knife in his heart. Johnny and Scott were so different, yet so alike in many respects. Proud, stubborn – ‘all his own characteristics really’, he thought with a wry grin on his face. He loved them equally, and although he had never told them so, he hoped that they knew. It had taken so long to get them both home, and now he never wanted to let them go.
His gaze settled on his first born, and once again the guilt welled up. He should never have sent him on this trip. Scott should have been allowed to go to Boston for his friend’s wedding instead. He could easily have been killed, either by Larry Holton or his father. When he had recovered sufficiently, Murdoch intended to talk to him and apologise for his pig-headed nature. At least now he had the chance to do so and for that, Murdoch was extremely grateful.
Scott and Johnny spent most of the next day resting after their ordeal. Johnny was grouchy and irritable as Murdoch had woken him several times during the night to see if he was alright. Doc Hampton came to check on his patients and much to Johnny’s delight, prescribed that the best thing for them was sleep. They were both still troubled by occasional coughing fits and the doctor dispensed water, flavoured with lemon and honey. Hampton also ensured that the windows were left open, to let in as much fresh air as possible.
Satisfied that his sons were on the mend, Murdoch left them to rest while he went to see the Sheriff. Eldridge had been back out to the ranch that morning and found the place was a mess. Most of the hands had left and the house was ransacked. The bodies of Holton, Chambers and Stoner were still lying as they had been left, but the rancher’s gold watch, wedding ring and quality leather boots were gone. Sam gathered up the few hands he could find and gave the dead a decent burial. Then, after collecting paperwork relating to the ranch, he locked and barred the house to prevent further looting. Eventually the property would have to be sold. Sam hoped the next owner would be a better man than Holton.
“Maybe you should buy it, Mr Lancer,” he suggested, with a glint of amusement in his eye.
Murdoch laughed, “I think I’ve got enough with my own ranch. And keeping my boys out of trouble!”
“That happen often?” Eldridge asked.
“You have no idea, Sheriff!”
The two men were sitting comfortably in the jailhouse, drinking Eldridge’s strong coffee. It was good to relax after the events of the past few days and Murdoch was content to remain for a while in the Sheriff’s affable company.
“I expect the townsfolk are happy Holton’s gone,” he said.
Sam nodded. “Relieved, I’d say. Tom Holton and his son have terrorised this town for years, Mr Lancer. People have moved on and businesses have suffered. It was in danger of becoming a ghost town.”
He paused and put his mug down on his desk, “I’m as much to blame as anyone else. I let them get away with things for far too long. There was many a time I thought of quitting and turning in my badge.”
“But you didn’t,” Murdoch replied, seeing how bad Eldridge felt about his inaction.
“No, but it took two deaths to make me realise I had to do something.”
“One was an accident, Sheriff,” Murdoch reminded him. “Or don’t you believe that now?”
Sam looked up sharply. “Pete was a lot of things, Lancer. But he was telling the truth about Sophie!”
Murdoch sighed and put down his own mug,. “I’m sorry, Sheriff. Perhaps I should get back to the boarding house.”
Eldridge put up his hand. “No, it’s all right. I know you didn’t mean anything by it. I’m just mad at myself for not doing something before.”
Murdoch stayed chatting with the Sheriff for another half hour, before taking his leave. He headed over to the laundry to collect Scott and Johnny’s clothes which had been washed to get rid of the dirt and smell of smoke. When he got back to the boarding house, both boys were awake and, in Johnny’s case, hungry. Clean clothes made the brothers feel more human and the three of them went in search of supper.
Seated in the restaurant, Murdoch was concerned to see that Scott seemed a little withdrawn, picking at his food and talking little. He could have put it down to tiredness, and Johnny did not appear to notice anything amiss. Murdoch refrained from saying anything to his eldest at the table, but he was even more resolved to speak to Scott sooner rather than later.
The opportunity came the next morning. Murdoch had returned to the room he had occupied when he’d first arrived in Stapleton. Being a traditional early riser, and the fact that his bed was extremely uncomfortable, he rose, dressed and crept along to his sons’ room. He gave an affectionate smile when he saw Johnny sprawled diagonally across his bed. His youngest was sound asleep and snoring loudly.
However, his smile quickly vanished when he glanced over to the other bed. It was empty and the blankets were smoothed down. Scott had disappeared and Murdoch felt a painful stab of fear. He left the room, closing the door quietly so not to disturb Johnny and went downstairs. There was no one at the desk to ask whether his son had been seen, so he went outside.
To his relief, he discovered that Scott was sitting on a chair just past the entrance. Although happy to find him safe, Murdoch frowned with concern as he regarded his son. Scott, always so neat and tidy, looked like he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards. His blond hair was dishevelled and his shirt was un-tucked. He seemed to be staring into space although his head turned as he heard Murdoch’s boots on the boardwalk.
“Scott,” he began.
God, how he hated it when Scott answered him in that formal manner. It was so distant, so impersonal; like he was addressing a stranger, not his own father. Murdoch quashed his annoyance and went over to his son, pulling another chair closer.
“Mind if I join you?”
A flicker of something registered in Scott’s blue-grey eyes at his words, but it was gone as soon as it appeared. He merely nodded and Murdoch sat. Father and son remained silent for several minutes. Murdoch could keenly feel the awkwardness between them, almost like a physical barrier, and he knew it was up to him to break the ice.
“I was worried when I found your bed was empty,” he said.
Scott shrugged. “I was awake. Johnny was snoring like a bear and I wanted some fresh air.”
“The cough still bothering you?”
“Some,” Scott admitted. “It’s not too bad. I’m alright.”
‘No, you’re not!’ Murdoch thought, ‘but I’m going to make it right.’
He took a deep breath. “Scott, I was wrong and I’m sorry.”
His son turned to look at him, waiting.
“I was wrong to try and stop you going to Boston,” Murdoch continued. “The truth is, I was worried that once you were in your Grandfather’s house, you’d want to stay.”
Scott opened his mouth to protest, but Murdoch held up his hand. “No, please hear me out, son.” He paused for a moment as he carefully considered his next words. “I know in spite of everything, you still love your Grandfather. Harlan was there for you while I …wasn’t. However, I also know how manipulative he can be and once you were there, he’d try every trick in the book to make you stay.”
Scott lowered his eyes. “Maybe so” he agreed, “but I also think you should trust me by now to know my own mind.”
“Yes, I should.” Murdoch replied. “If I had, you wouldn’t have landed up here where you could have got yourself killed!”
The passion in his voice surprised Scott and he looked back at his father. “It could have been Johnny as well.”
Murdoch blanched and Scott instantly regretted his words. It was a low blow and his father didn’t deserve that.
“I know,” Murdoch went on. “Because of me, I could have lost both of you and I would never have forgiven myself if that had happened. I spent too many years without you and your brother. I’m not about to let that happen again.”
Scott was silent for a long while and Murdoch was afraid that his clumsy attempt at an apology had fallen on deaf eyes. Then his son sighed and looked round at him.
“I was mad at you. I felt like you were forbidding me from ever going back to Boston. I liked it there and I still have a lot of old friends there. I didn’t want to lose that.” He paused and then a smile lit up his face. “But, Lancer is my home now and I know that’s where I’d rather be.”
Murdoch smiled back and he placed his hand on Scott’s shoulder.
“I’m glad, son. It’s where both you and Johnny belong. I wish it had always been, but what’s important is that you’re here now.”
Scott nodded gratefully. Murdoch, too, was grateful that his son seemed to have accepted his apology, and to know that Scott was happy at Lancer. He gave the younger man’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze and got to his feet.
“Well, what do you think? Shall we go wake that lazy brother of yours and get some breakfast or leave him to sleep all day?”
Scott rose. “I think we’d better wake him. Otherwise, we’ll never hear the last of it.”
The Lancers left Stapleton the next morning. Doc Hampton had given Scott and Johnny a final check over and was satisfied that they were fit to travel, as long as they took it easy. Murdoch was as keen to head home as his sons, so he left it to them to collect the horses from the livery while he settled the bill at the boarding house and bid farewell the Sheriff.
Returning to the boarding house some fifteen minutes later, he found Johnny adjusting the girths on the horses. Scott, however, was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s your brother?” he asked suspiciously.
Johnny did not look up from his task, but answered quietly. “Oh, he had something he wanted to do before we left.”
“What?” Murdoch demanded, a little testily.
His youngest son glanced round at him. “Didn’t say, but I’m sure he’ll be here in a little while.”
At the other end of town, Scott Lancer entered the white picketed fence cemetery and made his way over to the grave. He was pleased to see that a new wooden cross had been erected and, removing his hat, he knelt down to read to read the inscription.
‘Sophie Lawrence 1853 – 1871. Taken too soon’
He didn’t know who had added those last words, but they were all too true. Scott looked at the dates. Sophie had only been eighteen. So young, and yet she had seemed so wise for her years. Scott had only known her for a few hours, but he would always remember her fondly.
He looked down at the flowers in his hand, wild daises and violets procured from the general store, and then he laid them gently on the soil.
“Sleep well, Sophie,” he murmured softly.
Scott stayed a few minutes longer, then replaced his hat, rose and quietly left the cemetery to join his father and brother.