This is an A/R that takes place about 5 years after The High Riders
Scott glared at his son over the flower arrangement that Teresa had put on the table as a centerpiece. The youngster’s whole attitude irritated him, and he was close to exploding. “Did you hear me?”
The boy nodded sullenly, and Scott once more tried to rein in his temper. “Don’t you realize how important school is? You need to learn things and get an education or you’ll never amount to anything.”
The boy continued glaring down at his plate, pulling his fork absently through his mashed potatoes with his right hand while his left tapped the table impatiently.
“I don’t want to hear that you’ve skipped school anymore, and if I find out that you have, you will be severely punished. Is that understood?”
“I don’t need any more schoolin.” The boy spat back. “I can read and I can write, and I can do sums. Besides, for what I want to do, I don’t need any of that.”
His grandfather raised his head and glared at the young man. “Don’t you EVER say that’s what you want to do again, do you here me? I won’t allow it!”
“I wasn’t askin’ you, Old Man! I wasn’t askin’ anybody’s permission.”
“You apologize to your Grandfather RIGHT NOW!” Scott roared.
The boy hung his head, and finally ground out a mostly sincere “I’m sorry.” He looked up and flipped the hair out of his eyes as he stared at his father. “I’m old enough to make up my own mind about what I want to do with my life.”
Scott shook his head in frustration. “I don’t want to hear any more talk about it. I will not allow you to throw your life away like that.”
“I’m not throwing my life away. I’m good. Everybody says so.”
Murdoch slammed his fist down on the table. “You will get that stupid notion out of your head once and for all! It doesn’t matter how good you are, this is going to stop RIGHT NOW! From now on, you’ll be doing too many chores and spending the remainder of your time with your schoolbooks to be able to practice.” He shoved his chair away from the table and stomped into the Great Room.
The boy looked back at his father. “I have no intentions of staying on this ranch and living the life you and grandfather have mapped out for me. I want to BE somebody! I want people to respect me and know who I am.”
Scott glared back at the boy. “The way you get people to respect you is by getting an education and a decent occupation. And your grandfather’s right. I will not tolerate any more of this nonsense. From now on, you will be kept too busy to even think about practicing.”
The youngster finally threw down the fork and raised defiant eyes at his father. “May I be excused?”
Scott glanced around the table to where his sister and her husband were still finishing up their meals. “No. You will sit there until everyone is done.”
The boy leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, looking everywhere but at his family.
Scott shook his head. He was about at his wits end with his son, and he really didn’t know what to do with him. If only he had grown up here at the ranch instead of being brought up by his stepfather; a man who obviously despised him. Scott’s head dropped as he thought about what his son’s life must have been like; growing up thinking he was unwanted by his own father and having to deal with an alcoholic and abusive stepfather. Scott once again cursed the woman who bore him. If only she had been honest with him, with both of them. Scott hadn’t even known of the boy’s existence until a little over three years ago.
The boy’s stepfather had shown up at Lancer, obviously hoping to get some money from Scott. He informed the Lancers that his wife, the boy’s mother, had died many years ago, and that he was tired of taking care of another man’s brat. Scott had been shocked to learn that the sullen, dirty boy accompanying the man was his son; a son conceived from a long ago youthful affair with the first girl he had ever been with. She and her parents had moved away shortly after, with no word of warning, and at the time, he thought he would die of a broken heart. He had never heard from her again, and in time, her memory had faded.
When the man had told Scott that the boy was his, Scott had been skeptical. That was until he really got a good look at the youth. When he had looked into those blue eyes that matched his own, there was no doubt. Even Murdoch had never questioned the boy’s parentage, commenting more than once that the young man looked just like his father.
Even though the stepfather had complained, he didn’t really want to give up the youth. Scott found out much later that because of his slim size, the boy would climb in a small, unlocked window of an unoccupied house and then open up the door for the thieving older man. By the time he was ten, Scott’s son had already been arrested several times, and was street wise and much older than his years.
Scott was desperate to get his son away from that life, and took legal action against the stepfather. Because there was no real proof that Scott was the real father, Lancer had to fight a long and bitter legal battle to gain custody. But in the end they had won, and Scott had gained a son.
The boy had been at Lancer for over three years now, but it had been a very trying time. The boy was rebellious and uncooperative most of the time, and it had been an uphill battle every step of the way. Scott had finally thought the boy was starting to come around, but this new battle was threatening to destroy everything that they had worked for.
He took a deep breath and tried to calm down. It would work out, it had to. He wasn’t willing to lose his son now that he was just beginning to know him. But as he watched the boy, something about the way he looked reminded Scott of another angry young man that had sat at the same place a long time ago. A young man who had so much in common with his son. A young man that they had lost.
Johnny pulled Barranca up to the hitching post and after another quick look around he quickly dismounted. Grabbing the Winchester from its scabbard, he shot another look up and down the street, and then headed for the hotel. The man never looked up as Johnny signed the register, he just reached behind him and grabbed a key from the board and tossed it to his customer. Johnny smiled; the man had obviously stayed alive in this town long enough to know how to mind his own business.
Johnny climbed the stairs and headed for his room. Pushing the door open cautiously, he glanced in to make sure there were no unwelcome visitors before stepping in and locking the door. He went to the window and peered out, noting the location of both the saloon and the sheriff’s office; the buildings were important in his line of work. So far, his luck was holding and the sheriff had yet to make an appearance. That meant that either the lawman didn’t care who he was, or that he didn’t want to know. Either way, it was a pretty good sign.
Finally relaxing just a little, he slipped off his boots and lay down on the bed, intending to take a quick nap before dinner. As he lay there, he let his mind wander to the upcoming job. There was a range war brewing in Southern California, and the call had gone out that both sides were hiring guns. He figured he’d wait till he got there to figure out what was really going on and which side to hook up with. He normally didn’t work in California but he figured this was far enough away from Lancer that there was no chance of his family being involved.
He wondered how they all were. He hadn’t spoken to any of them since he had left, although he had managed to write them a few letters. He hadn’t expected them to reply, and if they had written back, their letters had never found him. Of course, that wasn’t surprising. He never stayed very long in any one place. For a man like him, it wasn’t healthy.
He slipped his hands underneath his head and gazed up at the ceiling. God, how he hated this life. He never should have left Lancer, it was the biggest mistake he had ever made, but it was too late now. He had had a chance at a new life handed to him on a silver platter, and he had turned his back on it and walked away. They had done their best to get him to stay, even the Old Man, but he had let that famous temper of his ruin everything. He sighed. He had been so stupid.
Early that evening, he walked over to the bar. After checking out the interior for possible trouble, he found a seat with his back facing the wall, where he could keep an eye on the whole room. Glancing around the crowded saloon, he relaxed slightly. Nobody paid him any attention, and none of the men looked like trouble. He ordered tequila from the over-the-hill barmaid and sat nursing it while he waited. He had heard Martinez was in this town, and the old gambler was always a good source of information. He looked over at the poker game in progress and figured it was just a matter of time before Martinez put in an appearance.
After about an hour, Johnny saw his friend walk through the door. The old man hadn’t changed at all, and it had been what? Three years since he’d last seen him? Johnny grinned. Martinez had seemed ancient ten years ago, but he never changed. Johnny kept his eyes on the man until the gambler looked up and saw him. Martinez’ eyes got wide for just a second, and a slight grin showed on his face. Johnny smiled back, and motioned the old man over to his table. The gambler hesitated just a moment before grabbing a beer from the bar and joining his friend.
“So, Johnny, what are you doing in this dump, amigo?”
Johnny dropped his head and smiled. “Just waitin’ for you.”
Once again Martinez’ eyes widened and he looked at Johnny questioningly.
“I heard you was down by Los Angeles a few weeks ago.” Johnny started. When the gambler nodded, Johnny continued. “Hear anything about a range war that’s brewin’ down there?”
“Si. A big one. Lots of bad blood down there.”
Johnny nodded. “So who started it?”
The gambler shrugged. “Hard to say. It started over water rights.”
Johnny snorted. “Naturally.”
“This time, the matter is not so simple. The original owner of the land where the water is located agreed to let the ranchers use the water for a small fee. But he recently sold the land to a man who intends to farm the property. He will need the water for his farm. If the ranchers get the water, he will lose everything. On the other hand, if the ranchers don’t get the water, many cattle will die. It is complicated.”
Johnny nodded his head. “It usually is. Any idea who started callin’ for guns?”
Martinez shook his head. “No. Does it matter?”
Johnny sighed. “No, I guess not. Had they hired many men by the time you left?”
“Si, a few.”
“Any that I need ta know about?”
Martinez thought for a moment. “Dan Vega was in charge of the men for the ranchers, and I heard a rumor that Chase Caldwell was coming in. Don’t know for sure which side, but probably the farmer.”
Johnny nodded. He’d better get there quick, or it would be all over. With those two in charge, things were sure to escalate real quickly. “Thanks, amigo.” Johnny nodded towards his drink. “Can I buy ya another?”
Martinez shook his head. “No, I need a clear head for the game, si?”
Johnny laughed. “Si.”
The gambler smiled. “Care to join me at the table?”
Johnny shook his head resignedly. “No, I gamble enough every day without playin’ poker.”
Martinez smiled sadly at his friend. “Si, Johnny, I know.”
Scott came out of the barn in a foul mood. He had been trying for hours to save a mare and her foal, but he had lost both. He washed up quickly in the trough by the barn before heading for the house and dinner. By the time he reached the dining room, the rest of the family had already started. He looked over and noticed his son’s seat was empty.
“Where’s Jeff? He asked.
Murdoch shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought he might be with you. I haven’t seen him since this morning.”
Scott looked enquiringly at Teresa, and she shrugged her shoulders. “I haven’t seen him, Scott.”
Without a word, he turned and headed for the stairs. He had had just about enough from that boy. It seemed as if all he knew how to do anymore was test the whole family, and he was determined to put a stop to it once and for all. He walked up to Jeff’s room, and rapping once, he walked in. He wasn’t surprised to see that the room was empty. A few forlorn looking schoolbooks sitting on the desk attested to the fact that he had probably been at least trying to study, but as usual, he had taken off without finishing the job.
Scott clenched his fists as he tried to control his temper. He didn’t think he had ever been as angry with anyone in his life as he had been with that boy. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. There had been another boy a long time ago that had made him just as angry, and the outcome of his anger that time had helped him to control his rage at his son. He shook his head. If he didn’t do SOMETHING soon, he would lose his son just like he had lost his brother, and that wasn’t an option. He had lost all the family members he was going to. He would do whatever it took to keep Jeff here, even if he had to resort to drastic measures.
He stormed down the stairs and out the doors without a word of explanation to his watching family, but no explanation was necessary. They all knew who was responsible for his anger, it was nothing new. Murdoch watched his son disappear out the door and heaved a sigh. He just wished SOMEONE could talk some sense into that boy before it was too late.
Scott saddled Charlie and left the yard, heading to the most likely spot. He knew Jeff was there long before he saw his son. The gunshots reverberating from the canyon were hauntingly familiar, and Scott felt his temper rise once more. He rode up to the entrance to the gully and dismounted. Looking around, he spied Jeff’s horse and tied Charlie up next to him.
He climbed up the side of the gully so he could watch his son practice without being seen. He looked down and saw the boy draw and fire, the cans flying in every direction. There was no doubt that the boy WAS fast, but Scott had been around Johnny long enough to know that there was more to it than just being fast. Johnny had told him once that being fast killed more men then being slow did. His brother had told him that if a man knew he couldn’t win, he’d usually back down. But if the man was fast enough to think he had a chance, he’d go for it. It didn’t matter if he could hit the broad side of a barn. It wasn’t being slow that got men killed, it was over confidence.
As Scott watched his son, he realized that the boy was probably just fast enough to get himself killed. And that was all he needed to get his blood boiling.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” The words weren’t even out of Scott’s mouth before he felt the bullet whiz by his ear. Instead of being frightened, it just served to infuriate him further. He started down the side of the gully towards his son, whose face had turned white as he realized how close he had just come to shooting his own father.
Jumping down the last several feet, Scott crossed the gap to his son in three long strides. Anger took over, and he grabbed the unresisting boy by the back of his shirt. “Give me the gun!” He shouted.
Jeff tried to pull away from his father, but instead found himself pulled around into his father’s embrace. Scott grabbed the offending weapon and hurled it as far away from them as he could. He grabbed his son by the shoulders and forced the boy to look him in the eyes. “Look at me.” He commanded.
Jeff was furious at his father for throwing his gun. Didn’t his father know how much damage could be done to a firearm that way? He tried to scramble away to retrieve it, but his father held him fast.
“LOOK AT ME!” Scott ordered again.
After a brief battle, the boy finally looked sullenly up at his father. “You had no right ta throw my gun.”
Scott resisted the urge to shake the young man, and instead pushed him towards a nearby rock. “Sit down!” He ordered.
When the boy sat, Scott paced back and forth in front of him, searching for the right words to say. Before he got the chance, Jeff broke into his thoughts. “Ya can’t stop me. I’m gonna do this.”
Scott ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. “Why?” He finally asked. “Why would you want to throw your life away for no reason? You have a home and a family that loves you. And you’re willing to give it all up to be a ….. a...gunfighter.”
“There’s nothin’ illegal about it.” The boy said.
Scott closed his eyes “That doesn’t make it right.” He looked down and sighed. “Jeff, you’re not even fifteen years old. If you follow through with this, you’ll be dead before you’re twenty.” A shiver went through him as he remembered saying something similar to his brother.
“I’m not gonna die. I told ya, I’m good. There ain’t nobody around that can touch me.” The boy said arrogantly.
“I know at least one that could.” Scott said softly.
Jeff looked at his father suspiciously. “You think you could take me?” he asked incredulously.
Scott glared at his son in disbelief. “You would draw on me?” he thundered.
Jeff vehemently shook his head. “No! But I thought you meant that you thought you were faster than me.”
Scott dropped his head and shook it. “No, I’m not faster. And there probably aren’t many men that are.” he said resignedly.
Jeff started at his father. “But you said you knew of one.”
Scott stared out at the canyon. “Yes, I know of one.”
“Who?” Jeff asked belligerently.
Scott hesitated a moment before replying. “Johnny Madrid.” Scott said softly.
Jeff snorted. “Him? He’s over the hill. I could take him, no problem.”
Scott swung around and grabbed his son by the shirt. “Don’t you EVER say that, do you understand? You stay away from him! Don’t you EVER even THINK of going against him, do you understand?” He let go suddenly and shoved Jeff back away from him.
He looked at his son’s angry and hurt eyes, and drew a shaky breath. “I’m sorry, son. I didn’t mean to grab you like that. But you don’t understand, you don’t…..know…..” Scott shook his head in frustration. “I don’t want you getting killed.” He hesitated. “I don’t want ANYONE getting killed. You stay away from him.”
Jeff dropped his head. “I know you’re worried about me, but I can take care of myself.” He looked back up at his father belligerently. “And I KNOW I’m good.”
Scott nodded his head shakily. “Yes, you are. But that doesn’t mean you’re the best. And you’re not. And it only takes one man who’s faster than you to kill you.”
Jeff narrowed his eyes. “And you think Madrid is faster than me?”
Scott sighed. “I know he is.”
“You’ve seen him?” Jeff asked excitedly.
Scott nodded his head, suddenly tired of this conversation. He had never touched his son in anger in the three years he had been home, and in the space of a few minutes he had not only grabbed him, he had come perilously close to striking him. “Yes, I’ve seen him. And I don’t want to talk about it.”
Scott closed his eyes against the painful memory. “It happened a long time ago, and I’d just as soon forget, all right? I really don’t want to discuss it right now. He looked down at his son. “Please, Jeff. Forget about this. I don’t want to lose you too. Promise me that you won’t do anything foolish.”
After a moment, Jeff looked up at his father and nodded his head slowly. “I promise.” He went over and picked up his gun and slid it into the holster.
Scott watched as the boy handled the gun; it was almost like a caress, and he knew the problem was far from over. “Give it to me.” He said.
Jeff looked up in surprise. “What?” He asked suspiciously.
“You know what. We’ve gone through this before. You aren’t supposed to use a hand gun without permission, now give it to me.”
The boy looked sullenly at his father. “No. Nobody takes my gun.”
Scott felt his temper rising once more, and with an effort he clamped it down. “You WILL give it to me, or I will take it from you. And if that happens, I’ll make sure you never see it again, is that clear?” He stared at his son without flinching.
Finally, Jeff grudgingly handed the pistol to his father.
Scott took it and nodded. “I’m going to lock this in Murdoch’s desk for a while, until your grades come up and you prove to me you’re grown up enough to handle it.” He softened his tone. “Now let’s go eat. I don’t know about you, but I’m as hungry as a bear.”
That evening, Jeff looked out at the ranch from his upstairs window and came to a decision. He knew his father would never understand his need to do this. Ranching wasn’t for him; it was boring. He yearned for more from his life. He wanted the excitement, the glamour of being somebody. Of having people respect him and fear him. He knew how people talked about the legends; in hushed and awe –filled tones. He wanted people to talk about him like that, to know that he was somebody to be reckoned with.
He picked up the packed bag and walked over to the desk where his schoolbooks still lay. Closing them, he realized he was closing a chapter of his life. He would never again be made to do anything he didn’t want to, never have to do menial chores or struggle with illogical numbers. People would respect him because of who he was. And no matter what his father said, he wasn’t doing anything foolish.
He felt a moment’s regret at having disappointed his father, but at last he knew how to win his father’s respect and gratitude once and for all. He had replayed this afternoon’s conversation over and over in his mind, knowing he was missing something. After thinking about it all evening, he suddenly remembered his father’s exact words and a previously missing piece of the puzzle had finally slipped into place.
Through unfinished sentences and random comments, Jeff had long ago figured out that his father had once had a brother. A brother that for some reason wasn’t talked about. He had asked Teresa about him one time, and although his aunt hadn’t told him anything, tears had come to her eyes. So he had figured that his uncle was probably dead, although he didn’t know for sure.
But after what his father said today, he knew there was more to it. When they had been arguing, his father hadn’t wanted to discuss Madrid. He had said it was too painful. And then he had told Jeff that he didn’t want to lose him TOO. And now, he had finally figured out the mystery. So he would leave and find Johnny Madrid, and he would finally make his father happy. He would find him, and he would kill the gunfighter for what he did to his family. For killing his uncle.
Johnny rode into Madera a few days later. He figured another couple of days he’d be in Los Angeles, and be able to find out all he needed to know about the range war. He was closer that he’d ever been to Lancer since he had left, and the feeling made him uncomfortable. He usually gave that area of the state a wide berth, but he was in a hurry this time, and didn’t have time for detours. Besides, he figured, the chance of running into anyone he knew was slim.
He put Barranca up in the local stable, and after getting a room, he went down to the saloon to get a bite to eat. The crowd was the usual mix of local cowhands and drifters that he had come to expect in most bars. Because it was a Thursday night, it was quieter than usual, but not by much. Madera was a rowdy town.
As he ate the leather tough steak that was supposed to be the place’s specialty, he had a chance to casually size up the other customers. He didn’t see anyone that worried him, although a few of them caught his eye for various reasons. The two big old cowpokes standing at the bar talked tough, but Johnny figured if it came to a fight, they would cut and run.
He turned his attention to the poker game in progress over in the far corner, and noted that the local card slick hadn’t amassed the amount of chips that was to be expected, in fact the pile in front of him was downright puny. Johnny smiled. It probably had something to do with the fact that two of the men that were playing against him were tough old mountain men that wouldn’t hesitate to slit his throat if they thought he was cheating.
The only other person that caught his attention in the crowded bar was a young blond kid, maybe fifteen or sixteen, judging by his looks. What got Johnny’s attention was the rig the kid wore. He was wearing it tied down low and tight, but it was obviously new and the leather stiff. The boy kept darting looks around, as if he expected somebody to kick him out, but in towns like these, if the boy had the money to pay, nobody cared if he drank a man’s drink.
Johnny finished up his meal, and motioned for another drink. It looked like it was going to be quiet night, and that was fine with him. He didn’t need any problems before he reached Saugus, because once he reached there, he knew that peace and quiet would be at a premium. He looked over to the poker game and noticed that the gambler seemed to have hit a winning streak, and was looking decidedly nervous.
The two good old boys at the bar were arguing with another man good naturedly, and Johnny turned his attention to the kid. They locked eyes for a moment, and Johnny saw the hunger in the boy’s blue eyes, the hunger that would probably get him killed. The kid had come in after he had, and Johnny hoped he hadn’t spotted the rig that Johnny wore, or figured out just who he was. He was tired of trying to talk the young punks out of killing him. Johnny casually took a sip of tequila, and relaxed slightly when the kid’s glance slid off of him and started looking around again.
Johnny had just decided that he might get lucky and be able to slip out before the kid noticed who or what he was, when the door burst open and a group of men walked in. Johnny cursed softly to himself and pulled his hat down over his eyes.
The ax fell a moment later. “Johnny! Johnny Madrid!” The booming voice rang through the entire bar, and the hushed silence that followed told Johnny that his hopes for a peaceful evening had just been shattered.
“Hey, Johnny! What’re ya doin this far north? Last time I saw ya, you was down in Old Mexico and swore you’d never set foot in Californy again!”
Johnny looked up at the man in disgust. “Whitey, you have a big mouth.” He said softly.
Whitey looked around, perplexed. “Why? You hidin’ from somebody?”
With a sigh, Johnny gave up. He shot a glance over at the kid, and as expected, he saw the triumphant look of victory on the boy’s face.
Johnny shook his head. “Well, as a matter of fact, I was.”
Whitey’s expression turned from his usual perplexed look to downright confusion. “Who’re ya hidin’ from?” he asked conspiratorially.
Johnny dropped his head and smiled. No matter how exasperating Whitey was, he just couldn’t stay mad at him.
Johnny opened his mouth to reply when the kid spoke up. “I reckon that’d be me.” he said confidently as he stood, letting everyone get a look at his tied down rig.
Johnny remained sitting, and glanced at Whitey. “Go, on, Whitey. Go over with your friends. I’ll talk to ya a little later, OK?”
“OK Johnny. I guess I’ll see ya later.” He looked at the boy in confusion before wandering over to where his friends sat watching the drama.
“All right, Madrid. I’m callin’ you out.” The boy’s voice wavered slightly.
Johnny took a sip of his drink and pointed to the outside. “It’s pitch black out there, and it’s a little crowded in here; what do ya say we wait till mornin?”
The kid’s face clouded over. “NO way. I’m not gonna let you sneak away in the middle of the night; you’re gonna face me whether ya want to or not. You owe me.”
“Kid, back off. I don’t want ta fight anybody tonight. Now why don’t ya just simmer down.”
“Draw, Madrid, or I’ll cut ya down where ya sit!”
Johnny went to take another drink, hoping that the boy was bluffing. He wasn’t. The kid made his move, and Johnny jerked his gun from it’s holster and fired one shot.
Johnny remained seated as the bartender walked around to the front of the bar and knelt down. He put his hand to the boy’s chest and shook his head. “Right through the heart.”
Johnny dropped his head and sighed. It was such a waste. And he knew that somewhere out there, the boy’s family was waiting in vain and praying that he was all right.
Scott rode into Green River once more to see if Val had heard anything at all about where Jeff might be. Since the boy had left, the whole family had been trying to find him, but to no avail. Scott and Murdoch had ridden to every town within a hundred miles in the last several weeks, but no one had heard anything. The best they could do now was to keep their ears open and chase down any leads.
Scott wearily dismounted in front of the sheriff’s office and tied Charlie to the hitching rack. He walked into the office and watched as Val came slowly awake. The sheriff yawned and stretched slowly, then thumped his feet down onto the ground from the desk. “How’s it goin’ Scott?”
Scott nodded. “Have you heard anything?”
Val shook his head. “Nothin. Sorry, Scott.”
Scott walked over to the desk and sat on the edge. “Val, have you heard ANYTHING that might help?”
Val bit the inside of his lip. “The only thing I heard was there’s a range war brewin’ down by Los Angeles somewhere. If he really WAS going to turn ta fightin’, he might go down there ta build his reputation.”
Scott sighed. “I guess that’s the only lead we’ve got. Can you find out just where this is going to take place?”
“I’ll try, but so far it’s just a rumor. But I’ll do my best, I promise.”
Scott dropped his head. “Why did he do it, Val? Why would he leave his home and family to pursue that life?”
Val shook his head. “I don’t know, Scott.”
Scott looked up at his friend. “Do you remember how badly Johnny wanted to quit? How much he hated that life?”
Val nodded his head. “And now Jeff is headed for the same fate.”
“It’s not the same!” Scott lashed. “Johnny never WANTED to be a gunfighter, he felt he had no choice. Jeff has lots of choices.” Scott shook his head. “I just don’t understand.”
“Did Jeff leave any kind of a note, explainin’ anything?”
Scott nodded. “He left a note. It said he was sorry he was leaving without telling me, but he was going to make me proud of him and not to worry about him.”
“And that’s all?”
Scott nodded wearily. “Not much to go on, is it?”
Val shook his head. “I’ll keep my ears open, and let ya know if I hear anything.”
Scot got up to go. “Thanks, Val, I appreciate it.”
Two days later, Val started out toward Lancer ranch. He wasn’t in a particular hurry, in fact he was sincerely hoping that someone would rob the bank so he’d have an excuse not to go. He had been putting it off all morning, but finally decided that he’d better get it over with.
A couple of drifters had been raising cain in the saloon the night before, and Val had arrested them for being drunk and disorderly. By this morning, they were mostly alive, and like all of the other drifters, Val had asked them if they had seen a boy fitting Jeff’s description. The answer they gave him left him cold. He had questioned them thoroughly, but their story didn’t change. And now he was the one that would have to go out to the ranch and break the news to his friends. It was times like this that he hated being a sheriff.
He rode up to the hitching rail in the back of the house, and walked into the Great Room. He had long ago learned not to knock; friends were expected to walk into the hacienda. Teresa came in and offered him a lemonade, and although he would have preferred something a little stronger for this particular chore, he accepted what was offered.
It seemed as if he had only waited a few moments when Murdoch and Scott came in from the barn, although when he looked at the clock, he saw that forty minutes had gone by. With a sigh, he placed his lemonade on the desk and wiped his hands on his pants. “Mind if I have a drink?” he asked to no one in particular.
Murdoch looked pointedly at the clock, while Scott looked quizzically at the lemonade, but Val walked over and helped himself to a shot of whisky. After he had downed it, Murdoch started. “What’s wrong, Val?”
Val dropped his head. “I heard some news.”
“About Jeff?” Scott said excitedly.
Val nodded but didn’t raise his head.
“What did you hear?” Murdoch’s voice was deceptively gentle.
Val took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “I arrested a couple of drifters last night. This mornin’ before I let ‘em go, I asked about Jeff.”
And?” Scott asked impatiently.
Val blew some air out through his mouth. “And, they said they saw him down in Madera a few days ago.”
Scott sighed with relief. “I’ll go down there tomorrow. I can track where he went from there. Thanks Val.”
Scott turned to his father. “”I’ll probably be gone at least a week.
Scott turned around. “What?”
Val looked at the floor. “They said he …….. they said he got himself shot.”
Scott froze. “How bad?”
Val finally raised his head and looked into his friend’s eyes. “Bad.” He dropped his eyes once more. “He’s dead, Scott.”
Scott sat down abruptly on a nearby chair. “No.” he whispered.
“I’m sorry. But they were real sure.” Val looked at Murdoch. “They said he was hit dead center. He was dead before he hit the floor. I’m sorry.”
“Who did it?”
Val shook his head. “Scott, it was a gunfight.”
“What are ya gonna do? Go after somebody lookin’ for revenge?”
“Maybe!” Scott fumed. “He was my son!”
“Scott, those guys said that Jeff started it. Said he’s the one that pushed the fight, and that he drew first.”
“Who, Val. I want to know his name.”
“What difference does it make? It’s done, and it was a fair fight. Ya can’t change anything.”
Scott whirled around and grabbed the front of Val’s shirt. “I want to know, Val. I want to know the name of the man that killed my son.”
Val opened his mouth, but no words came out.
Val dropped his head. “It was Johnny.”
Scott let go of Val’s shirt as if it were red hot. He took a step back and stared at the lawman. “What do you mean it was Johnny?”
Val sighed. “Scott, I’m sorry, But Johnny was just defendin’ himself. He didn’t know.”
Scott swallowed hard. This was a nightmare, he couldn’t believe that his brother had actually killed his son. He shook his head. There had to be a mistake. There just had to. “Maybe he was just hurt.” Scott said, and looked hopefully at Val.
Val dropped his head. He couldn’t stand to see the pain in his friend’s eyes. “No, Scott. They were standin’ ten feet away. They said there was no doubt.”
“Maybe it wasn’t really Jeff………….Or maybe it wasn’t Johnny….. that’s it, they were mistaken. It was somebody else…….” Scott looked around hopelessly.
Murdoch came over and took his son by the shoulders. “Scott, don’t.” He handed his son a glass of whisky. Drink this.”
Scott looked at the glass in confusion before throwing it against the fireplace. “I don’t WANT anything to drink!” He turned towards his father. “WHY?” He pleaded. He lowered his voice, “why?” After taking one last glance around he stormed out of the house and headed for the barn.
An hour later, Scott finally pulled a lathered and blowing Charlie to a halt by a small sheltered lake. He didn’t know why he had come here; he hadn’t been to this particular spot in years. He looked out at the water and cursed, wanting nothing more than to leave this spot now that he was here, but one look at his horse made him realize he had to wait at least a little while. He dismounted reluctantly and unsaddled him, then slipped the bridle out of Charlie’s mouth and turned him loose, knowing the horse wouldn’t wander far. He let Charlie have a few swallows of water before chasing him away from the lake and then he turned and sat down on a large rock overhanging the water.
He stared at the lake once more, as if it could give him the answer he was looking for, but instead the memories came flooding back.
That last day he and Johnny had come here to this very spot. They had been working hard for the last month, and had finally found time to sneak away for a few hours of leisure. Teresa had packed a lunch, and the two boys had brought their fishing poles and a deck of cards. They had spent the whole day enjoying each other’s company and bantering back and forth. Scott didn’t know when he had felt more contented and at peace.
Then, out of the blue, Johnny had dropped his bombshell. They were both sitting on this very rock when Johnny had spoken.
“I’m leavin’ tomorrow, Scott.”
Scott turned and looked at his brother. “Leaving? Where?”
Johnny dropped his head. “Mexico, probably.”
Scott had sat straight up when he realized his brother wasn’t talking about a short trip. “What do you mean, you’re leaving?”
Johnny shrugged. “I can’t stay. It just ain’t workin’.” He said wistfully.
That was when Scott had first started to lose his temper.
“What do you mean it isn’t working? Everything’s been going fine. Murdoch has eased up, you’re getting along, what’s the problem?”
Johnny shrugged and played with the bracelet on his wrist.. “I’m just not cut out ta be a rancher, that’s all.”
“Well don’t give me any nonsense that you’d rather be a gunfighter; we already HAD that discussion, remember? And you told me you hated fighting.”
Johnny shrugged again. “It don’t matter.” He hesitated a moment and stared out at the water. “Scott, it’s what I am. It’s what I’ll always be, no matter how much I wish I weren’t. I can’t turn into a rancher just ‘cause I want to; I’ll always be Johnny Madrid. They’ll always be somebody lookin’ for me and gunhawks turnin’ up at the ranch ta take me down. If I stay here one of you might get hurt, and I’m gonna wind up getting’ killed. It’s as simple as that.”
“We can work this out, Johnny. That’s what families are for.”
Johnny shook his head. “Ain’t nothin’ ta work out. I made up my mind.”
“Just like that!” Scott fumed.
“So you’re just going to sacrifice yourself for our safety. How noble.” Scott said sarcastically.
“I ain’t sacrificin’ nothin.” Johnny said sharply. “And it’s ME I’m tryin ta keep from getting’ killed. I’m losin’ my edge. I don’t have time ta practice, and I’m getting’ careless. That last gunhawk that came after me almost had me, and a year ago I woulda taken him before he even cleared leather.”
“So practice. No one is stopping you.” Scott said angrily.
“I don’t have TIME, Scott. When am I supposed ta practice? This ranch takes every speck of time we got and then some.”
“We’ll work something out. I’ll talk to Murdoch, and maybe I can take some of your chores…..”
Johnny interrupted. “NO! It ain’t gonna work, and you know it. It’s over.”
“And we don’t have any say in the matter.”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope.”
Scott was getting desperate “And after you’ve been here for over a year you can just turn your back and walk out on your family without a backwards glance.”
“You make it sound so easy.” Johnny said quietly. He sighed. “It’s what I have ta do, Scott. I can’t worry about hurtin’ your feelins’. I gotta leave.”
The hurt Scott was feeling was evident in his voice. “I thought I meant something to you. I THOUGHT we were brothers; I thought we were friends.”
“We are.” Johnny said resignedly. He looked at his brother. “But it don’t matter, I ain’t stayin’.”
“And our relationship isn’t important enough to you to make you stay and try to work things out.”
Johnny looked out at the water and shook his head slightly. “There’s nothin’ ta work out. I can’t stay.”
Scott’s anger and pain at his brother’s words made him lash out. “Then leave! What’re you waiting for?”
Johnny looked at him in surprise.
“Go on, get out of here. If you don’t care about me……. about us…. enough to stay, then go! I don’t give a damn! Go on, get out of here! Go get yourself killed!”
Without a word, Johnny had gotten up and walked over to Barranca. He had looked back at Scott for a moment, and then he was gone. Scott had stayed after Johnny had left in order to calm down, but it took him quite a while. He had never been as angry, or as hurt.
He had already regretted his words, but he had also meant what he had said. Johnny had hurt him badly when he had acted like he didn’t care enough about their relationship to even discuss it, and if Johnny was bound and determined to leave, then Scott wanted him to do it before he came to care any more about his little brother than he already did.
After about a half of an hour, Scott had finally headed for home. The whole way back he was going over in his mind the arguments that he planned on using on Johnny to get him to stay. But by he time Scott had gotten back to the ranch, Johnny had already packed up his few belongings and disappeared. And he hadn’t seen his little brother since.
Scott looked out at the water, remembering that horrible day that his brother had left. He had gone back to the hacienda with every intention of talking his brother into reconsidering, and found Teresa crying and Murdoch downing a water glass full of scotch. He had walked into the Great Room, his hopes at finding his brother there quickly sinking, and Murdoch had turned and faced him. “What did you say to him?” His father growled.
Scott shook his head. “Where is he? I need to talk to him.”
Murdoch swung back around towards the bar. “It’s a little late. He’s gone.”
Scott felt his heart plummet, and he cursed and turned around, intending to follow his brother until his father’s voice stopped him.
“What did you SAY to him?” His father asked again.
“Nothing!” Scott started, then dropped his eyes. “No, that’s not true. But we fought AFTER he said he was leaving. His mind was already made up. I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t listen.” Scott ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “He made me angry because he was so calm about it, like it really didn’t matter.” He sighed. “I lost my temper and said some things that I shouldn’t have.”
Murdoch nodded. “So did I. He was the same way with me. That’s why I thought that maybe you had fought. He walked in, and told me he had finished the fenceline this morning before he went with you to the lake. Then he nonchalantly told me he was leaving and wouldn’t be back.” Murdoch snorted. “He offered to sign something giving up his right to the ranch.”
Scott looked enquiringly at his father. “Did you have him sign something?”
“NO!” Murdoch shook his head and snorted, “he also requested a bill of sale for Barranca, which I gave him.”
Murdoch took a gulp of his drink. “Why, Scott? Why did he leave? He didn’t act mad or hurt. Nothing had happened that I was aware of.” He dropped his head. “We were getting along; all of us. Everything was fine.” He looked up at his elder son. “WHY?”
Scott sighed. “He said he was afraid one of us would get hurt or that he would get killed because he was losing his edge.”
Murdoch slammed the glass down on the bar. “He didn’t NEED an edge. He wasn’t Johnny Madrid anymore.”
“You’re wrong, Murdoch, you and I both know that men wouldn’t stop coming after him just because he said he’d quit. He needed to stay sharp. He said that he didn’t have a chance to practice because the ranch took so much time. I told him that we could work something out, but he wouldn’t listen.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “I know. I tried to talk sense into him too. I know he had to practice, I just didn’t want him to have to do it. But I told him I wouldn’t complain anymore, and for him to do what he needed to do.” He looked up at Scott. “Do you know what he told me then?”
Scott shook his head.
“He told me he WAS doing what he needed to do; he was leaving. Just like that.”
“Are you going to discuss it all day, or are you going after him? Teresa said from the doorway. “I know that he doesn’t really want to leave.”
Scott dropped his head. “I know he doesn’t either. But for some reason he feels he has to.” He looked up at his father. “Are you coming with me?”
Murdoch nodded. “I don’t know how much good it will do, but we’ll try.”
Scott shifted his position on the rock. They HAD tried, but Johnny was too good at disappearing. By the time they figured out he had headed north, they were already two days ride south. They had turned around and headed north, just to find out that he had also changed direction and was then going south. A week later, they finally admitted defeat and came home, and things had never been the same since. They didn’t talk about him anymore, the memory of what they had lost just too painful.
Scott picked up a small rock and tossed it into the water. When he had first left the house after learning of Jeff’s death, he had been enraged at his brother. If he had run into him then, he probably would have drawn on him himself. But in his heart, he knew that what Val said was the truth. He could just see Jeff calling out the famous gunfighter, neither one of them knowing the irony of the meeting. He was sure that if Johnny had known who he was fighting, he would have refused to fight, even if it had cost him his life.
Why had Jeff been so determined to follow that path? He would never understand his son’s reasoning or what drove him to seek that kind of a reputation. He had seen Johnny try so hard to leave that reputation behind. It had enraged him when he found out that his son was trying so desperately to gain what Johnny was trying to lose. He dropped his head. He and Jeff had fought so hard and for so long over this subject. And it hadn’t done any good. He had failed to keep his son safe, and he was dead before his fifteenth birthday, and nothing would bring him back.
He thought briefly of trying to find Johnny now that he had a pretty good lead to where he was, but he didn’t think he could face him right now. In fact, he wasn’t sure if he could ever be comfortable around him again. He knew it wasn’t Johnny’s fault, but that didn’t change the facts. His son had been gunned down and killed by Johnny, and nothing could ever change that. A tear rolled down his face. He felt as if he had suffered a double loss today, and in a way he had.
Up until now, there had always been the hope, no matter how far fetched, that Johnny would someday return to Lancer and once again join his family. But today, all of that had changed. Scott didn’t think he could live with Johnny again, even if he did come back, and he mourned his loss as well as his son’s. He knew Murdoch and Teresa were also devastated by what had happened. It was a complete accident; a cruel twist of fate that had succeeded in destroying a part of his family’s hope for the future.
How many lives ruined by the choices made by those two young men? Scott shook his head. Too many.
Are you sure that you don’t want me to come with you?” Murdoch asked his older son.
Scott shook his head. “No, I’ll be fine. I don’t know how long it will take me, but I’ll send you a telegram when I arrive.”
Murdoch nodded his head and then put a hand on his son’s shoulders. “Take it easy, and be careful.”
Scott nodded once more, and then climbed up into the wagon seat and picked up the reins. Taking a deep breath, he clucked to the team and started out. He figured it would probably take him a week to get to Madera in a wagon, and then a week to get back with his son. He really didn’t want to do this; he had come so close to asking Murdoch to go in his place. He wasn’t sure if he COULD do this. But it was his responsibility; his duty. He just hoped that when he got to Madera that Johnny wasn’t still there. He really didn’t want to see him right now, and knew that if he did, things would get ugly. He sighed. How had things gone so wrong?
Murdoch watched as his son drove out of the yard. He looked for all the world like a beaten man. Murdoch knew what this was costing his son, and knew how difficult it was for him. Scott had not only lost a son but, Murdoch suspected, finally a brother as well. He knew how close Scott and Johnny had been the short time that his younger son had been at the ranch. They had been inseparable. And then, after Johnny had left, Scott had been angry for a long time. They all had. Angry and hurt and feeling betrayed. They had tried so hard to get the young gunfighter to stay, and it had all been in vain. He had stayed just long enough to turn their lives upside down before taking off and ripping their hearts out. But he knew that through it all Scott still cared about Johnny and hoped he would someday return.
Murdoch and his younger son had argued bitterly that last day. Johnny had come into the Great Room and nonchalantly told his father that he would be leaving. Murdoch was totally taken by surprise; they had been getting along so well lately. He had tried to talk sense into the gunfighter, but Johnny had been adamant. As predicted, Murdoch’s temper had finally flared. He had yelled at Johnny and told him to go ahead and leave if he didn’t like it. He regretted those words almost instantly, and hadn’t meant them. But by then, Johnny’s temper had also kicked in, and he had also said some pretty hateful things to his father in return.
Murdoch thought back to that last argument. Johnny had offered to sign something, giving up his rights to Lancer, but in the vain hope that his son would someday change his mind, Murdoch had refused. And then Johnny had asked for a bill of sale for Barranca, and Murdoch’s temper had erupted.
“Why do you need that? Lancer belongs to you as much as anybody else.”
“I just don’t wanna get hanged for bein’ a horse thief, that’s all.”
Murdoch had glared at Johnny for several moments before stalking to his desk. He ripped a drawer open and yanked out a bill of sale. Throwing it at Johnny, he said “fill it out yourself.”
Johnny had walked over to the desk and filled out the paper, and then handed it to his father to sign. Murdoch had signed it without reading it, and tossed it back to his son.
Johnny had grabbed it and stuffed it into his shirt pocket, also without looking at it. “You always have ta have things your own way, don’t ya Old Man? Ya don’t get your own way and all hell breaks loose.”
‘This is NOT about me getting my own way! It’s about my SON walking out and leaving his family without a word of warning!”
“I THOUGHT that was what I was doin’; givin’ you warning.”
Murdoch slammed the drawer of the desk. “You call this warning? You won’t even TRY to work this out!”
“Ain’t nothin’ ta work out. I told you, I’m leavin’, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do to stop me.” he said belligerently.
The frustration at Johnny’s leaving had made Murdoch say things he hadn’t meant. He was hurting and wanted to hurt back. “I should have known you wouldn’t change. Well, that’s fine with me. I’m sorry I wasted my time on you. Go ahead and get out, go back to being a killer and don’t ever come back.”
“I don’t plan on comin’ back Old Man. My mama was right. I don’t belong here, I never did. I’m sorry I wasted MY time at this miserable ranch doin’ all your dirty work. That’s all I ever was to you, somebody ta take care of all the hard labor while you sat in this room countin’ your money. That’s all you care about; your money and this ranch. And if I’m a killer, maybe there’s a reason for it. Maybe if had been raised like your other son, we wouldn’t be havin’ this discussion right now. YOU made me a killer when you kicked me and my mama out, and don’t ever go blamin’ anyone for the way I turned out but yourself.”
Johnny had stormed out and had never come back. Murdoch had been devastated at the way they had parted. He knew that he hadn’t meant the things he had said, and he hoped Johnny hadn’t either. They had both just been so mad. He regretted that the last time he had seen his son they had parted on bad terms, and he had long held out the hope that someday his prodigal son would return. But with each year the hope had faded, and now it was gone forever. Murdoch knew that any hopes for a reconciliation had been shattered with the bullet that had found his grandson’s heart.
Johnny waited until nighttime to ride into Saugus. He went directly to the hotel and checked in; he figured he’d wait until the next day to let his presence be known. All he had to do tonight was figure out which side he was going to join up with.
He had stopped off at a nearby town and gotten all of the information he could about the range war going on in the town. It hadn’t escalated yet; both sides were maneuvering for position and hoping for something that would give them the winning edge. He had talked to a lot of people, but everyone was pretty much divided as to just who was in the right. Neither the main rancher involved or the farmer were known to be mean or even unreasonable. He sighed. He hated this kind of fight, one where both sides were right; it just depended on how you looked at it. He knew that whichever side he picked would probably come out on top. He hadn’t been on the losing side for a long, long time. Not since the revolution down in Mexico that almost got him killed.
That fight seemed like a million years ago. He had thought then that his time was finally up. He had actually been standing in front of the firing squad when the Pinkerton agent had come tearing up and rescued him, just like in a fairy tale. The year that followed had been like a fairy tale, too. He smiled to himself. When he was little, he had once heard a story about a girl named Cinderella. That’s just how he had felt the year he had stayed at Lancer. He had had everything he ever wanted; a home, a family, peace. He dropped his head as he remembered the life he had given up. He shook his head; he had made his choice, all those years ago. Now he had to live with it.
He mentally shook himself. He needed to concentrate on the upcoming fight. Thinking of past mistakes and regrets could only get him killed. He lay down on the bed and tried to go over in his mind everything he had learned about the two sides, but the unbidden memories kept intruding, and after an hour, he finally gave up and tried to go to sleep.
The next morning, he went to the livery stable to get Barranca. During the night, he had come to a decision. As he usually did in these fracas’s he just sort of naturally sided with the rancher. And he had found out from the clerk at the desk that the ranchers HAD offered to buy the farmer’s land at a fair price. The farmer was just bein’ stubborn. He had been told that the rancher that was hirin’ most of the guns had a spread about ten miles out of town, called the Lazy J. He swung up on Barranca and headed for the ranch.
He knew he was being watched when he got within about two miles of where he figured the ranch house would be. He made sure he didn’t make any sudden moves, and he made sure the sentries saw his rig. Even if they didn’t know who he was, they would let him pass, knowing he was probably there to hire on. And in their way of thinking, the more men on their side, the better.
He rode up to the house about an hour later. He stayed on his horse and told one of the kids that were standing around to go get the boss. After looking at him for a moment, the boy disappeared. He came back out of the house a few moments later with a middle aged man who was obviously a rancher and not a gunhawk. The man appraised him ,and then asked unnecessarily. “You here to hire on?”
Johnny smiled, the man obviously didn’t know who he was. “Yeah, maybe.”
The man perused him cynically. He pointed to the gun. “You know how to use that?”
Johnny smile widened. “Sometimes. Depends on how much I get paid.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t need any wise guys workin’ for me. Maybe you’d better move along.” He stared at Johnny meaningfully. “Besides, we don’t need your kind here.”
Johnny’s smile fled. “Maybe I will move along. But don’t come chasin’ after me tryin’ ta get me ta change my mind.”
The rancher snorted. “Now why on earth would I do that?”
Johnny’s eyes were cold. “Ya never know.” He swung Barranca around and loped out of the yard.
A few minutes later, a man came riding up. He glanced around, perplexed, and then dismounted and walked up to the rancher. “Mr. Henderson, where is he?”
The rancher was still watching the road that Johnny had disappeared down. He didn’t have time for word games with the man he had hired to run this operation. “Where did who go?” He turned and looked at Vega. The man always irritated him a little. When he had first heard about Vega, he had been hesitant to hire him. He had never met the man, but he assumed he was Mexican because of the name. It turned out that Henderson was right, but Vega was supposed to be the best around, so he tolerated him. A half breed was a different story. “You mean that half – breed? We didn’t need him. I sent him on his way.”
Vega turned a shade lighter. “You sent him away, senor?”
Henderson nodded impatiently. “Yes, I told him to get lost. So what. We have plenty of good men.”
Vega crossed himself. “We may not have enough.”
Henderson looked at the man impatiently. “What do you mean we don’t have enough? You told me just this morning that we had plenty of men and that you could guarantee that we’d wipe out that miserable farmer.”
Vega stared at his boss. “Si, senor. But this morning I didn’t know that Johnny Madrid would be fighting against us.”
“Johnny Madrid will be fighting against us? How do you know?”
Vega shook his head. “Because THAT is who you sent him away, senor. And if you insulted him…….” He let the sentence hang.
Henderson whirled around and stared down the road. “Johnny Madrid? THAT was Johnny Madrid?”
Vega nodded glumly.
The rancher cursed. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
Vega shrugged. “You didn’t ASK , senor.”
Johnny rode into the farmer’s yard about an hour later. He knew that this was the weaker side; there were only two sentries that he had noticed, and the men were obviously less organized. There were fewer men on this side, too, and the few gunhawks that he saw weren’t as good as the ones in Vega’s camp. He sighed. How did he always manage to get into theses predicaments? As he rode up into the yard, he looked around for any familiar faces. He saw several, but he relaxed slightly when he didn’t see any that appeared to be a threat. He dismounted and one of the men he knew approached. “Johnny, good to see you again.”
Johnny nodded. “You too Bill. Heard ya got yourself killed down in Waco.”
Bill smiled and shrugged. “Almost.”
Johnny nodded in understanding; a gunfighter’s life was made up with a lot of “almosts”, that is, if he was lucky.
“Who’s in charge?” Johnny asked.
“You are, now that you’re here. But Chase Caldwell has been.”
Johnny looked at Bill sharply. “Chase might have somethin’ ta say about that.”
Bill looked uncomfortable. “Yeah, he might. But the men will back you, Johnny. Things aren’t goin’ so good.”
Johnny studied the younger man. “What’s goin’ on?”
Bill looked down and shrugged. “It’s just not bein’ run right. Security is lax, most of the men are goofin’ off, and Chase is actin’ like it’s a personal grudge or somethin’. He’s done a few things that nobody’s real comfortable with.”
Johnny nodded. “We’ll see, OK?”
Bill looked up and smiled. “OK.”
Just then, Johnny heard a door slam and turned to face the threat. Chase Caldwell was about his age, but had reddish hair and blue eyes. His eyes had long ago lost any trace of compassion or life. They were about as warm as a couple of blocks of ice. Johnny shifted around slightly to get a better angle in case things escalated, and Chase noticed the movement and shifted also. The two men stood staring at each other for several moments before Chase spoke. “Johnny. You’re welcome to join us, but I’m lettin’ ya know from the start that I’m in charge.”
Johnny stared into the other gunfighter’s eyes, and saw the challenge there, and knew that it couldn’t be left like that. If he backed down from Chase now, it would be all over, he might as well hang up his gun.
The answering challenge in Johnny’s voice was evident when he spoke. “You mean you WERE in charge. I’m takin’ over now, and you’re NOT welcome to stay.” The two men continued to lock eyes as Johnny waited for Chase’s reaction.
The rest of the men stopped what they were doing and watched the unfolding power play. Most had seen Chase take down a punk kid the day before. The kid had called Chase out and made the first move, but he had been dead before he had even managed to touch his gun. They all knew just how fast Chase was. The men also knew Johnny’s reputation as the fastest gun around. They figured this match up should be interesting, and they waited expectantly for the outcome.
Chase licked his lips and cursed himself for not being more subtle. He should have just let Johnny join up. If he had, he knew Madrid probably would have been content to back Chase’s play. But Chase had overstepped his bounds, and he knew it. Now he had to make a choice. If he cut and run now, everyone would know that he was scared of Madrid. Jobs would be scarcer, and the pay not quite what he had come to expect. On the other hand, he knew without any shadow of a doubt that Madrid would take him down.
As he considered his options, he realized that maybe there was another choice. Maybe there would be time for revenge later. And if he killed Madrid, it wouldn’t matter if it was a fair fight, people forgot things like that pretty quickly. He swiftly made up his mind and smiled. “All right, Johnny, I’m goin. But you and me will settle this later.” Trying his best to look nonchalant, he took one last look around and walked to a waiting horse and took off.
Johnny turned around, a look of challenge still in his eyes, but nobody met his stare. With a final look around, Johnny motioned for Bill and one or two other men he knew to follow him, and he disappeared into the house.
The farmer looked up in surprise as the new man entered the house. “Where’s Mr. Caldwell?” he asked.
Johnny studied the man in front of him. He was small of stature, but obviously used to doing hard labor. He had an honest, forthright face, and Johnny knew he’d made the right choice. Well, the right choice with a little help from the rancher, he thought ruefully. “Mr. Caldwell decided the climate around here was unhealthy for him right now.”
The farmer’s eyes opened wide as he realized what Johnny was saying. “Am I to assume you’re now in charge?” he asked in a soft, cultured voice that somehow sounded out of place coming from a farmer.
Johnny grinned. At least the man was no dummy. “Yeah, you can assume that.”
“And may I ask your name?” the farmer replied.
Johnny nodded slowly. “It’s Johnny. Johnny Madrid.” Johnny watched for the man’s reaction.
The man’s eyes got even wider. “Mr. Madrid, I’m not sure I can pay you what you are used to collecting.”
Johnny ducked his head. He was right about the man; he was honest. He slowly raised his head and looked into the farmer’s eyes and grinned. “Let’s worry about that when it’s over, OK?”
The man nodded hesitantly. “OK.”
Johnny turned toward his friends. “All right, tell me what’s goin’ on.”
An hour later, Johnny emerged from the building with a clear idea what was going on and what needed to be done. He had talked to the farmer about his plan, and the man had given him free rein to do what was necessary. At least he had to a point, but Johnny wouldn’t cross that line anyway, so he was free to do what he wanted.
Johnny set up a perimeter around the farm so they would have warning of a sneak attack, although he knew that wasn’t Vega’s style, and he also organized the men into teams to watch the opposing force. As he looked at the men, Johnny was saddened to see so many young kids that had signed up. They were treating this like a game, and Johnny knew that a lot of them, most of them in fact, would be dead within a year. It was such a waste.
Scott pulled the wagon up to the livery in Madera and put on the brake. It had taken him nine days to get here instead of the expected seven. Scott knew that was mostly his doing. He had allowed the horses to set their own pace the whole way, not really wanting to arrive at this particular town at all. Left to their own devices, the team had taken their sweet time, and Scott wasn’t sorry.
With a sigh, he climbed down and headed toward the hotel. He thought he might as well wash up and get a good night’s sleep before taking care of what he needed to do. He snorted to himself. He knew that he was shamelessly putting off the inevitable, but he couldn’t help it. He kept hoping this was a dream, and maybe if he waited long enough, he would wake up.
He stopped outside the hotel and looked down the street toward the saloon before walking up the steps and entering the hotel. The clerk had him sign the register, and then handed him the keys to his room. Scott asked for a bath to be brought up, and a steak dinner. He certainly didn’t have any intentions of going to the saloon to eat; he didn’t think he could make himself enter the same saloon where his son had died.
After washing up he tried to eat what passed for a steak in this cruddy town, but he really wasn’t hungry, and shoved the meal away in disgust. He had lost his appetite a few miles back, and he didn’t think it would come back for quite a while. He walked over to the window and glanced out at the street. It was pretty busy for a weekday night, but this town had a pretty tough reputation. He snorted. Just the sort of town where Jeff would want to come to earn a reputation.
He turned back toward the bed and wondered if he could sleep tonight. He had been having nightmares almost every night for the last couple of weeks, ever since he had found out about Jeff’s death. He would lie down, but he had the distinct feeling that sleep would be elusive this night as it had so many other nights since Val had broken the news.
He finally lay down in bed with his hands behind his head, thinking about Jeff and Johnny and fate.
He woke up with a start and looked around the room, disoriented for a moment. He had been having a nightmare, the same one he had been having for days. He shook his head. If only he could wake up from the reality of what had happened as easily as he could from this latest dream.
He lay in bed, waiting for the town to come awake, and praying that Jeff was all right, that it was some big mistake, but in his heart he knew that it wasn’t. He tried to go back to sleep, but it was no use. Finally he got up and got dressed and headed directly for the sheriff’s office. He had sent a telegram before he had left Green River, and the lawman was expecting him. Scott was numb as the sheriff explained all that he knew about what happened.
The sheriff shook his head sympathetically. “Ya gotta understand, I couldn’t hold Madrid. Couldn’t charge him with a darn thing; he wasn’t the one that started it. In fact, all the witnesses said he did his best ta stop the kid from drawin’. I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer, but it appears that your son was at fault, and Madrid was just defendin’ himself.”
Scott nodded numbly. The sheriff reached into his desk and pulled out a few items that Scott didn’t recognize and then dug once more and came up with a familiar rig with an ‘L’ carved into the leather. Scott closed his eyes; his hopes of this all being some sort of mix up were fast evaporating. The lawman looked up at Scott and noticed how pale he had become. “You recognize that?” He asked quietly.
Scott nodded, and the lawman sighed. “I’m real sorry.”
Scott nodded once more. “Can we just get this over with?” He said numbly. The lawman looked at him with understanding and then turned and led the way across the street to the undertaker’s Parlor. Hesitating for a moment outside the building, Scott said one last prayer that it wasn’t Jeff lying inside. Finally he took a deep breath and followed the man through the door. The proprietor immediately came in from a back room and upon seeing the two men, inquired, “Are you Mr. Lancer?”
“I’m keeping the body in the icehouse. If you’ll follow me,” he said, tuning and walking outside. It was the longest walk that Scott thought he’d ever taken. His mind was screaming at him to turn and run; if he didn’t see the body, he could always pretend that his son was still alive, but for some reason his feet obediently followed the man into the icehouse.
The man walked over to a makeshift bench and grabbed a blanket that was covering a body. Looking at Scott enquiringly, he waited until Scott nodded slightly and pulled the covering back to expose the face.
Scott felt as if a bullet had found his own heart as he looked into the ghastly white face of his son. All of his resolve to remain calm and not to blame Johnny for what happened flew right out of his head as he stared at the motionless form. His son was dead, and someone was going to pay. He felt the fires of revenge forming in his heart, and was powerless to stop them. He wasn’t even sure if he wanted to. It didn’t matter that his son had pushed the fight, it didn’t matter that Johnny had tried to talk the boy out of drawing. It didn’t matter that Johnny hadn’t known who Jeff was. The cold hard fact was that his son was dead by Johnny’s hand, and Scott knew that he WOULD get revenge.
Scott had seen Johnny in enough fights to know that his brother was fully capable of wounding someone to stop them instead of killing them, especially a kid like Jeff. The Johnny he knew would have gone to great lengths to keep from firing a fatal shot at a boy Jeff’s age. Why hadn’t he this time? Had his brother gotten harder with time, or maybe a little slower? He didn’t know, but he would find out. He resolved to find Madrid and confront him, and if one of them wound up getting killed in the confrontation, so be it.
Scott remembered the funeral. It had an unreal quality about it. He remembered looking down at the grave and silently cursing his brother. His father had kept shooting worried glances in his direction, as did Teresa. Both Sam and Val had tried to talk him out of going, but he had made it clear he wasn’t going to be stopped. Something was driving him, and he couldn’t control it.
He had told them that he would stay to see his son buried, and then he was going after Johnny. He was going to confront Jeff’s killer. He had found out from a reluctant Val that Madrid was in a range war down south, and Scott was going to leave that very afternoon, right after the service. His horse was saddled and ready, and Scott’s Winchester was in its scabbard and his revolver hung over the pommel.
When he had found out that he couldn’t talk Scott out of going, Murdoch had wanted to come with him; but Scott hadn’t let him. He had the feeling that either he or Johnny were going to wind up dead, and he figured his father didn’t need to see that. He wasn’t sure why his anger had become so all- consuming, but it couldn’t be denied. His rage surprised even himself, but he knew that he couldn’t ignore it. He had to find Johnny. It was the only way to stop it.
He had ridden into the small town a few days later. He had pushed Charlie to the point of exhaustion, but again, he felt as if something was driving him. He no longer had any say in the matter. He had heard that Johnny was involved in a local range war, and since this was the only town within thirty miles, he figured that Madrid would eventually show up here. He had hoped to come across him immediately, but that wasn’t the case. He had spent two days downing whiskey at the small saloon, waiting for either news or for Madrid to ride in.
It seemed as if he had sat in this bar forever. Time seemed to stand still. Every person that walked in got his immediate attention, but none of them got more than a passing glance from Scott. It was eating at him to have to sit there and wait for Madrid to show himself, but he didn’t really have a choice. He snorted. It would be ironic if Madrid got himself killed before Scott had a chance to confront him. He shook his head. No, that wouldn’t happen. It COULDN’T happen. He needed to do this. He needed to confront Madrid so his son’s spirit could rest.
He really wasn’t even sure what he planned on saying to Johnny. He wanted to look in Madrid’s eyes when he told him what he had done; when he told him whom he had murdered. Because it WAS murder, plain and simple. He wanted to see the pain and regret. He wanted to see remorse. Maybe he was fooling himself, maybe Madrid already knew who Jeff was. Maybe he just didn’t care.
He wanted to see Johnny’s reaction, to judge for himself just how culpable Madrid was. He wanted to hear Johnny apologize for his actions. He wanted Johnny to beg. Maybe if he thought that Johnny was really sorry, he would let him go. Maybe.
Scott lifted the whisky glass to his lips once more and took a swallow. It promised to be a long evening.
It was a little past dark when Scott heard a familiar voice. He raised his head blurrily from the table and saw the dark haired gunfighter standing at the bar, having a drink with some friends. He saw Madrid tip the bottle of tequila back and take a swig, then slam it down on the bar. Scott watched for a moment before calling out.
Johnny whirled around and looked over at Scott in disbelief. “Scott” he said quietly. Johnny watched him for a moment, unsure about something, and then hesitantly walked over to where Scott sat. “What’re you doin’ here?”
Scott looked up and smiled; a cold and calculating smile. “Looking for you, BROTHER.”
Johnny looked back at Scott in confusion. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Scott continued to smile. “Oh nothing much. You remember a kid up in Madera? A kid that you shot?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah, what of it?”
“I just want to know, BROTHER, why you killed him.”
Johnny continued to act perplexed. “I killed him ‘cause I had no choice. The kid drew on me, and I took him down.”
Scott studied Madrid, trying to keep his anger under control. “Any particular reason you didn’t just wing him like you could have done?”
Johnny shook his head and snorted. “No reason to. The kid was a no good killer. He would have taken me down if he had gotten the chance.”
Scott sprang up and grabbed Madrid by the shirt. “You son of a bitch, that was MY SON!”
He flung Johnny away from him and Johnny fell back against the neighboring table. “It don’t matter, Scott, he was stone cold killer. He deserved to get killed. If I hadn’t of done it, somebody else would’ve. You’re better off without him.”
“Just like we were better off without you.”
“Yeah, just like that. If I had stayed I would’ve wound up getting’ you all killed.” Johnny turned to walk away.
“Madrid!” Scott called out. Johnny whirled around, and Scott, realizing that Johnny was drawing on him, grabbed for his own gun and raised it. Scott’s gun became level as Johnny continued to turn, and as Johnny finally finished turning, Scott squeezed the trigger. It was only then that he saw that Johnny’s hand was empty, that he hadn’t been drawing on him at all.
Scott realized that as he locked eyes with his brother and saw Johnny’s expression of surprise. Then he watched as his brother slumped to the ground, a bullet right through the heart, just like his son.
Scott woke with a start; the nightmare had been so real. His heart was pounding and he could feel the cold sweat on his body. He reached over to the small table and took a sip of water, trying to calm his racing heart. He had been having this dream for over a week now, ever since Val had come to the ranch and broken the news of Jeff’s death.
Every night in his nightmare, he wound up killing Johnny. He shook his head, trying to clear it. He didn’t know why he kept having the same dream, over and over. He had done a lot of thinking about what had happened, and he realized that no matter what he found out this morning, it wasn’t Johnny’s fault. His brother had no way of knowing who the young man was, and his brother had acted purely in self-defense.
What Scott didn’t understand was, why did Jeff go after Johnny? Was it strictly a coincidence, or was there another reason? Scott shook his head. He realized now what a mistake he had made in not telling Jeff about his famous uncle. He and Murdoch had discussed whether or not to tell Jeff about Madrid, and at the time, they had decided not to. Not because they were ashamed of Johnny, but because they were afraid of how Jeff would react.
Jeff had been angry from the moment he had set foot on Lancer, and from the beginning he had always talked about running away and being a gunfighter. Both Scott and Murdoch were afraid that if Jeff knew that Johnny Madrid was his uncle, he would leave and try to find him. And neither man wanted to do anything to make it easier for Jeff to decide to follow that path. They knew how desperately Johnny wished he had never started down that road, and they didn’t want the boy to fall into the same trap. The both had tried repeatedly to try and talk sense into Jeff. Scott had tried calm discussions, not so calm arguments, punishment, and down right bribery; nothing had worked. The boy had been adamant that was what he wanted to do.
He looked out the window and realized it was almost dawn. With a sigh, he turned over. He was dreading today, when he’d have to identify and pick up Jeff’s body. He still clung to the faint hope that it wasn’t really Jeff; that Johnny hadn’t really killed his son. He wasn’t sure how he would handle it if he found out that Jeff really had died by Johnny’s hand. He knew Johnny wasn’t responsible, but it still hurt.
Part of him wanted to confront Johnny and see his reaction, just like in his dream. But unlike in his dream, he knew that Johnny would be devastated, and he still didn’t want to cause his brother pain, no matter what. They may not ever be able to be friends again, let alone brothers, but he still loved Johnny and missed him, and wished things could have been different.
He still didn’t really understand why Johnny had left, and it still hurt. He missed his little brother, and was bitter that he had only get to know him for a little while. He knew that Johnny’s leaving had hit Murdoch hard, too. Although he hid behind the bluster and temper, Scott knew that Murdoch had been devastated, and blamed himself for his son’s leaving. But Scott had thought a lot about that day, and the days leading up to it, and he honestly couldn’t remember any fights or problems that would have made Johnny leave. He didn’t think it was anyone’s fault, except maybe Johnny’s. Maybe Johnny had told them the truth; he just felt like he had to leave.
Although there weren’t any problems that he knew of that caused Johnny to come to that decision, the arguments and words that had been shouted after his announcement were different. Both he and Murdoch regretted their words, and he had the feeling Johnny did too. He just hoped that those words weren’t what prevented Johnny from returning.
But the more he thought about it, the more he thought that maybe Johnny, and Jeff too for that matter, needed something that traditional life couldn’t give them. Perhaps there was something in them that needed the danger and excitement in their chosen profession. Scott shook his head. He’d probably never know.
Time dragged slowly for Scott as he remembered both his brother and his son. They were so much alike, those two. They were wild and impetuous, and could be cold and sullen one minute and charm the birds right out of the trees the next. Scott’s face darkened as he realized they were alike in another way, too. Scott remembered times when both young men had done very foolhardy and downright dangerous things and thought nothing of it. Scott had scolded each of them more times than he could count about some hair-brained stunt or the other, but they both had the same reaction, they just laughed it off. Scott wondered if deep inside, they both had a death wish. It would sure explain a lot.
Finally, dawn broke over the distant hills, and Scott slowly got up and got dressed. He went to the window and looked out, never realizing it was the same window his brother had looked out over a week earlier. He saw the town come to life, and figured the sheriff would probably be in his office after breakfast. With a sigh, he decided to go to the restaurant to eat, once more putting off the chore awaiting him.
After breakfast, Scott noticed the shades were up in the sheriff’s office, and finally could put it off no longer. He stood up resolutely and tossed some coins on the table, then walked out the door and over to the other side of the street. An eerie feeling came over him when he walked into the sheriff’s office; it was just like in his dream.
The sheriff looked up. “Can I help you?”
Scott nodded. “I’m Scott Lancer. I’m here to….” His voice trailed off.
The sheriff nodded. “I’m real sorry about your boy.
Scott nodded numbly as the sheriff went to the door. “He’s down the street.”
A strange sense of déjà vu came over Scott as he walked over to the undertaker’s parlor and then followed the man into the icehouse. It was unfolding just like in his dream. A strange case of premonition? He fervently hoped not.
When the undertaker finally lifted the sheet covering the body, Scott’s eyes closed and he felt his knees get weak. This time, he knew it wasn’t a dream.
The sheriff grabbed Scott’s arm. “Are you OK?”
Scott nodded, thinking he’d never been more OK in his life. All of a sudden, he felt hope again, for the first time in a long time.
The sheriff watched him carefully, and then came to a conclusion. “It’s not him, is it?”
Scott studied the young man lying so still and felt a stab of guilt for being so happy about someone else’s loss. “No.”
The sheriff nodded, and the undertaker replaced the sheet as Scott left the building. Scott took a deep breath of fresh air as he left the icehouse, reveling in the feeling of relief after being so afraid for so long. As the sheriff walked out, Scott turned to him. “I heard there was a range war starting not far from here. Do you know anything about it?”
The lawman studied him for a moment before answering. “I heard it’s down by Saugus. A dispute between ranchers and a farmer over water rights.”
Scott nodded. “Thanks.”
The sheriff watched him for a moment. “You figure your boy’s down there?”
Scott stopped and looked back at the man. “It crossed my mind.”
“Well, ya better get goin’ then. I heard it’s about ready ta erupt any time, and those things can get pretty dirty real fast.” He thought for a moment. “If ya want ta get your son outta there alive, I’d hurry if I was you.”
Scott nodded once more. Then he had a thought. “Do you know if Johnny Madrid is involved?”
The sheriff shrugged. “I just heard rumors, but I heard he was in charge of the men for the farmer. Could be mistaken.” He looked sideways at Scott. “You’re not still thinkin’ about goin’ after him, are ya?”
Scott studied the lawman. “What gave you the idea I was going to go after him in the first place?”
The sheriff shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess ‘cause that’s what I woulda done if I thought he’d killed my son.”
Scott smiled slightly and nodded. “As a matter of fact, I AM still going to go after him. I’ve waited long enough. I’m going after BOTH of them, and I’m going to bring both of them home.”
“Both of them?” The sheriff said quizzically.
“That’s right. My son and Johnny.”
Scott watched as the sheriff’s mouth opened in surprise. “You know him?”
Scott nodded. He was tired of trying to pretend that Johnny no longer existed. “He’s my brother.”
The sheriff whistled. “And you thought he’d killed your son?”
Scott was angry with himself about what almost happened and felt the need to protect his brother. “Yes, but Johnny didn’t know about Jeff; he didn’t even know I had a son.” Scott dropped his head for a moment, thinking how close he had come to causing a tragedy. He HAD to get Jeff back, and Johnny too, if he could. He didn’t even know if his brother would even want to talk to him after the things he had said before Johnny left, but he was going to try. “Do you have a telegraph office in this town?”
The sheriff nodded. “Right down the street.” He studied the man in front of him. “And good luck.”
Scott nodded, he would need it. He went back to the hotel and checked out, and then headed for the telegraph office. He would send Murdoch a wire, telling him that it hadn’t been Jeff, and that he was going to Saugus to try to find his son.
Jeff sat on his bedroll, watching the fire. He had arrived three days ago, and had been hired on by Chase Caldwell. Jeff had been in awe of the older man, and had been flattered when the gunhawk had hired him. Jeff had heard stories about the man for years, and knew he was a top gun. He was pleased he’d be learning from the best. Jeff had been disappointed to learn that Johnny Madrid wasn’t here, but he hadn’t really expected him to be. He hadn’t signed on with the idea of facing Madrid; he was just trying to learn the trade. Jeff wasn’t dumb. And no matter what his father thought, he wasn’t foolhardy. He knew he needed to get some practice in before facing his enemy.
Yesterday, he had seen Caldwell gun down a boy a little bit older than himself, and the incident had shaken him. Somehow, he hadn’t expected Caldwell to be so brutal. The kid hadn’t stood a chance, and the gunfighter hadn’t given him one. The boy had even tried to back down at the end, but Caldwell had pushed until the kid’s temper had taken over and he had finally drawn. Jeff was impressed as to just how fast Caldwell was, and a little bit intimidated. He had wondered at the time if Madrid was nearly as fast.
He had gotten the answer to that question this morning, when Madrid himself had ridden in. He heard the whispers and the tone of respect the men had used when they said his name, and Jeff had made sure he had a ringside seat for the confrontation that everyone knew was coming. He had hoped that the two gunhawks wouldn’t actually fight, because that would destroy his own chance of getting revenge and making his father happy. He had seen just how fast Caldwell was, and knew that Madrid didn’t stand a chance against him.
But what had happened had shaken him to his core. Caldwell, who Jeff figured was just as fast as he was, maybe a little faster, had shamefully backed down and left. He had watched Caldwell’s face carefully, and had recognized the fear and uncertainty in it before the man had cut and run. He had looked into Madrid’s eyes and seen nothing but confidence. No trace of fear, no nervousness, just eyes like ice and a bored expression, like he knew the outcome already. He had known he was faster than the other man, and Caldwell knew it too.
Jeff had squashed his first impulse to call Madrid out there and then. He knew that if he did, Madrid would cut him down without even trying. So he figured he’d bide his time. He wasn’t a back shooter, he knew that, but maybe something would happen to give him an edge. It would be hard working for the man and not tipping his hand, but Jeff knew he had to wait. Then, when the time was right, he would take the gunfighter down.
Johnny had spent all afternoon watching the men and getting a feel for just how badly they were outgunned. He knew he should have signed on with the rancher; the farmer just didn’t have the money to back a large war. They had a few old timers on their side, but they were far from being at the top of their game. However, between them they did have a lot of experience. The new kids, on the other hand, seemed pretty good with their guns, but were woefully lacking not only in experience, but for the most part in common sense. Almost without exception they were firmly convinced that they were invincible.
He spread out the older men so they could keep an eye on the younger ones, and prayed that Vega was just uncertain enough to wait a few days before trying anything. If an attack came now, they would lose, no question. So, he had to come up with a plan to keep Vega off balance, and convince him to wait for a while, until he could figure out something that would give them an edge.
Normally, he would have attacked. He found that a lot of times an opponent was so confident that an attack would catch them by surprise, and a victory could be won quickly. The only problem with that was that Vega knew the same thing. There was no way that Dan would let his guard down, especially now, when he knew Johnny was in charge. Johnny shook his head. He and Vega had worked together quite a few times, and he genuinely liked the man. Vega was one of the reasons that he had originally decided to join forces with the rancher.
But that was one of the hazards of being a hired gun. You couldn’t always choose which side you were on, and frequently you found yourself warring with friends. No one took it personally, it was part of the job, but it still made for a lonely life. You couldn’t afford to get too friendly with anyone, because you never knew who you’d be forced to shoot during a future job. And showing mercy, even to a friend, was dangerous. You could never really know what was going on in a man’s mind, that was the problem. And Johnny had seen to many men killed by the men they had shown compassion toward. No, if he and Vega met, he knew that both would be going for the kill. There was no other way.
The other thing that was worrying Johnny was where Caldwell was. He knew the man wouldn’t just ride away. He would be after revenge, and would stick around. If Chase told Vega just how weak this side was, they were in big trouble. The only thing that might save them is that he knew there was no love lost between Vega and Caldwell. Vega would be slow to take the other man’s advice simply for that reason. At least, he hoped he would be. However, he knew that if he were in Vega’s shoes, he would attack tonight, before Johnny got a chance to even the odds. Johnny thought for a few more moments, but he knew if he was going to act tonight, he’d have to make the decision soon.
Finally, he decided to take the risk. He wasn’t going to really attack, just cause a diversion that might make Vega think twice about leaving his own camp undefended. He decided he’d only need a couple of men, and he would just take a few of the kids with him. What they were going to do didn’t call for a lot of experience, just some dumb luck and confidence. He smiled; those young punks had both in spades.
He woke up Bill and told him he was in charge till he got back, and told him of his plan. Bill wasn’t thrilled with it, but then, neither was he. He just hoped it would buy them some time. He went over to the camp where most of the men were staying, and woke up the first five men he came to and pulled them aside.
He noticed with irritation that they all seemed groggy and disoriented, and he found himself being sharp with them. “The first thing ya gotta learn, is ya NEVER sleep so hard that ya can’t wake up at a moment’s notice. If I was one of Vega’s men, you all woulda been dead.”
“I thought that’s what sentries were for.” retorted one of the kids sarcastically.
Johnny looked at the boy. He sure was glad he wasn’t this particular kid’s father. He just bet he’d been a handful before he left home. “Ya can’t trust the sentries to be awake.” He said quietly. In fact, you’ll soon learn ya can’t trust anybody but yourself ta keep ya alive.”
Johnny noted with satisfaction that the kid ducked his head at the reproof, but then all of a sudden he brought his head up and looked square into Johnny’s eyes.
Johnny felt a moment’s confusion. There was something about this kid’s eyes……. He mentally shook himself. Now was not the time to figure it out, and he had to squash the rebellion in that kid’s manner before it wound up getting the boy killed. He stared back, and then said softly, “Do you think you can take me?”
The kid held his gaze for a moment longer, then dropped his head and shook it. “No.”
Johnny grinned. The kid had guts, that was for sure. He’d held his glare longer than Caldwell had. “OK, then start listening and learning, and maybe you’ll stay alive.”
The boy nodded and then brought his gaze up once more. Johnny noted that even though the kid had admitted he couldn’t take Johnny, he didn’t seem very happy about it. Johnny sighed. Another one that dreamed of taking him down. But there was something different about this one. Something that would bear watching.
Johnny rode back into the yard with his remaining men just as dawn broke. He jumped down from Barranca and threw the reins over the hitching post in the farmer’s yard. The kids dismounted, then stood around watching him nervously. The rage coming off of him was frightening, and they were unsure of what to do.
He finally turned and gestured toward their camp. “Go on and get some sleep.”
As they turned to go, he reached out and grabbed the same kid that had sassed him earlier by the scruff of the neck. “Not you. You and me are gonna have a talk.” The kid went for his gun as he was spun around, and Johnny let go and drew his with one smooth motion, leveling it before the kid even had a chance to touch his.
Johnny glared at him. “Don’t give me an excuse, it wouldn’t take much right now. Now get in the house.” When the kid hesitated, Johnny gave him a shove. “NOW!”
The boy literally ran up the steps into the house, and then turned around to face his enemy.
Johnny walked into the house and noticed that at least the kid was finally showing a little fear. Johnny had to admit, though, he was hiding it pretty well. This kid was tough, all right. Johnny didn’t know if he could ever get this one straightened out. He pointed at a nearby chair. “Sit.”
The boy continued standing until Johnny took a step towards him, and then slowly sank into the chair, giving Johnny his best glare.
Johnny watched the boy for a few moments, unable to shake the feeling that he was familiar somehow; that he ought to know just who this kid was. He shook his head; it didn’t matter. If the kid kept on like he was, he’d be dead before Johnny had time to figure it out. What made him angry wasn’t as much that the kid had disobeyed him, as that he not only endangered his own life, but everyone else’s as well. And he’d gotten one of the boys killed.
He stood glaring at the young gun, trying to figure out just how to get his point across. What he wanted to do was grab the kid and beat some sense into him, but he knew from personal experience that force wasn’t the answer. Most of these kids had been kicked around all their lives, and another beating wouldn’t make any more impression on them than saying ‘please’ would.
Johnny finally lowered his head and sighed. “What’s your name, kid?”
Johnny nodded. “Well, Jeff, you know what you did was wrong, don’t ya?”
Jeff looked at Johnny defiantly. “I was tryin’ ta take out one of ‘em. I THOUGHT that was the point of all of this.”
Johnny shook his head again, trying to remain calm. “No, it wasn’t. Not this time.” He sighed. “Look, Jeff, I know what you were tryin’ ta do. But the timing was wrong; nobody else knew what you were up to. And when you left your post, it left another man unprotected. He THOUGHT you were there, watching his back, but instead you were off trying ta get some glory, isn’t that right?”
Jeff sent one last defiant look at Johnny before finally dropping his head. “I didn’t mean for Matt ta get killed.” He said quietly.
“I know ya didn’t. But that’s what happened. When you’re workin with a group, ya gotta do what you’re told. Ya can’t go off on your own, or somebody else can get hurt. Do you understand?”
Jeff nodded his head. “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.” He said softly.
Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe there was hope for this kid after all. “OK. Just see that you don’t.” He studied Jeff some more, and finally he broke a rule he had about asking personal questions. “Have I seen you before?”
Jeff looked up at him and shook his head as Johnny studied him.
“You from around here?” Johnny asked.
Jeff shook his head. “No. I grew up sort of all over.”
Johnny dropped his head for a second, remembering his own childhood. “Me to.” He looked back up. “Do ya have any family?”
Johnny watched as the kid’s face darkened. “None of your business,” he spat as he jumped up and headed for the door.
“You hold it RIGHT THERE!” Johnny thundered.
Jeff froze, and then turned cautiously around.
“I don’t care HOW you acted with your family or your friends, I’m not gonna put up with it, understand? Now you can sit back down and we can finish our conversation, or you can ride outta here right now. Your choice.” Johnny watched as the emotions flickered across the kid’s face, and then Jeff finally sat back down. Johnny knew he didn’t want to, and wondered why the kid didn’t just up and leave. Something was keeping him here, but what?
Johnny studied the sullen young man as he thought back to their conversation. The kid hadn’t gotten upset until Johnny had asked about his family. Johnny decided to find out what this was all about. “I asked you a question. Do you have any family?”
Jeff tightly controlled his voice as he answered, “Yes, I have a father and grandfather, and an aunt.” Then his anger got the best of him and he accidentally tipped his hand. “And I HAD an uncle.” He said, glaring at Johnny.
Johnny leaned back and closed his eyes briefly. It suddenly made sense. “And I killed him.” It was said as a statement.
“Yes, you killed him.”
Johnny nodded. “And you came here lookin’ for revenge.”
Jeff simply nodded, then said defiantly, “So now what, are ya gonna kill me?”
Johnny snorted and shook his head. “Look kid, what makes you think I killed your uncle?”
“My father told me.”
Johnny shook his head again. “Jeff, if I had actually killed all the men I was blamed for killin, they woulda hanged me a long time ago. Maybe your father was mistaken.”
Jeff shook his head furiously. “My father doesn’t lie.”
Johnny sighed. “What was his name?”
Jeff shot one more defiant look at Johnny, and then raised his chin as he answered. “I don’t know his first name, my father and grandfather won’t talk about him. But his last name was Lancer.”
Johnny stared at the young man, trying to hide the shock on his face.
“You remember him, don’t you? I can tell.” Jeff said accusingly.
Johnny swallowed hard. “I’m not sure.” He looked at Jeff and shook his head slightly. It didn’t make sense. “What’s your father’s name?”
Jeff looked back suspiciously at Johnny. “Scott Lancer.” He said finally.
Johnny continued to stare at the kid until finally Jeff got uncomfortable. “Can I go now?”
Johnny nodded woodenly, not even noticing when Jeff left.
The more he thought about it, the more confused Johnny became. Scott’s son? Jeff must be at least fifteen. He was sure his brother would have told him if he had a son. Unless……maybe he hadn’t known. But what about Scott saying Johnny had killed his brother? Did Scott have ANOTHER brother out there that he hadn’t known about? And if so, was he Murdoch’s son? Johnny felt sick. Was it possible that he had confronted and killed his own brother without even knowing it?
Johnny sat down in the chair that Jeff had just vacated and tried to make his mind function. The more he thought, the more confused he became. He’d have to talk to Jeff again and try to figure it out. Jeff. The boy wanted to kill him; he’d have to be careful. He doubted that any son of Scott’s could be a back shooter, but then he never would have figured one would be a gunfighter, either. One thing he knew, he’d try his best to make sure nothing happened to the boy in the upcoming fight, and then he’d try to see that the boy went home. Scott must be worried sick. He sighed. What he DIDN’T need right now was this kind of distraction. He’d better get his mind back on the job, or they’d both wind up dead.
The next morning, after a sleepless night, Johnny got the men together and gave them their assignments for the day. Johnny made sure that Jeff was paired up with Bill, and given an assignment that wasn’t too dangerous. He knew the older man had plenty of savvy; he would make sure the kid didn’t get into any trouble.
Johnny had decided that they would use basically the same strategy that he and Scott had used against Pardee. He would lead a group of men out and make sure that Vega’s sentries saw them. He had talked to one of the farmer’s hands, who had been born and raised in this area, and found out that one of the roads leading to a nearby town wound between some cliffs and outcroppings. Then man had said that there was a trail that cut off from the main road among those outcroppings, and the trail led back toward the farm. They would let Vega’s men believe that they were heading for town, and then Johnny and his men would cut back to the farm and wait for the attack that was sure to come.
Johnny knew that he would have to be in the group of men that left; Vega would jump at the chance to attack if he thought Johnny was out of the picture. He decided to wait until the following morning and then put his plan in motion. That meant another night of harassing the rancher’s sentries and outposts, and keeping Vega and his men busy for one more night. He knew that Vega would guess that the nightly forays were just a ruse, but he also knew that Vega couldn’t take the chance that he was mistaken.
Johnny knew he should act today, but he was waiting for a group of about ten men who were on the way to join them. According to Bill they should arrive sometime tonight, and ten men might make the difference between winning and losing; right now they were badly outnumbered. He just hoped he hadn’t made a mistake in waiting. He hung his head. He also knew that his mind hadn’t exactly been on the upcoming fight last night.
After all of the men had ridden out or taken their positions for the day, Johnny wandered back into the house. He decided to take a short nap to make up for the sleep he had lost the night before. He knew this was his last chance to get some sleep for quite a while. But again, sleep was elusive as his thoughts kept turning back to his angry young nephew.
Jeff rode out with Bill grudgingly. He had wanted to do something exciting, but it seemed that all they were supposed to do was to watch the road into town and report any activity. Jeff shook his head. For a range war, things had been pretty calm so far. He sure hoped it livened up a little; a man could die of boredom doing the things Madrid had ordered. He didn’t know why they didn’t just go storming into that rancher’s yard and start shooting.
As they rode along, Jeff thought back on the conversation he’d had with the gunfighter the night before. He didn’t understand why the man had asked the questions he had. He was sure though that Madrid knew his uncle. He had been watching the gunfighter when he said the name ‘Lancer’, and although Madrid had tried to hide it, he had seen the shock on his face.
“Hey, Bill, what do you know about Madrid?” He asked the older man cautiously.
Bill snorted. “I know enough about him ta stay on his good side and do what he says.”
“He killed my uncle.” Jeff said quietly.
Bill pulled his horse to a stop and looked at the kid. “You just get any notion you have of getting’ revenge right outta your head. If he killed your uncle, it was a fair fight.”
Jeff looked back at the man. “How do you know?”
Bill shook his head. “Madrid doesn’t need ta cheat. He can beat anybody fair and square. He ain’t like that Caldwell fella.”
Jeff dropped his head. “He still killed him.”
Bill nodded. “Maybe he did. But maybe it was your uncle that pushed, ever think of that?”
Jeff sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “It don’t matter. He’s still dead, and my father and grandfather have never gotten over it.”
Bill stared at the young gun. “And do you think they’d get over you bein’ killed any better? Don’t get no crazy notion that you can take Madrid, ‘cause ya can’t.” Bill saw the uncertainty in the boy’s eyes. “Why don’t ya wait for awhile and try ta figure out the truth of what happened, before you do somethin’ stupid and your pa has ta bury you too.” Bill gave the boy a meaningful look. “And just so ya know, Madrid has friends that’ll guard his back.”
By that evening, Johnny had come to a decision. He was going to take Jeff with him to try to keep Vega on his guard; maybe he could talk to the boy a little bit and find out exactly what was going on. To tell the truth, he was more worried about what the young man had told him than he was about the upcoming battle. Jeff had said that he had killed his uncle, and Johnny wanted to know specifics.
He didn’t know if he had really killed Scott’s brother, or there was another explanation. The more he thought about it, the more likely it became that Scott and Murdoch had simply told the young man that Scott’s brother had died. He knew that he deserved it; he had hurt them badly when he left, and it was probably easier for them to think of him as dead. In a way, it was true. Johnny Lancer certainly no longer existed, no matter how much Johnny wished he did.
He could just imagine Murdoch and Scott’s reaction to Jeff becoming a gunfighter. He smiled slightly. He could almost hear Murdoch’s bellowing from here. What he couldn’t understand is why a young man with everything going for him would pick this lifestyle. He would give anything to go back in time and change that decision.
But, he realized, it hadn’t always been that way. He dropped his head when he realized he had done the same thing Jeff was doing. He’d had a chance. He’d had the support and love of his family and he had thrown it all away for the glory and the fame. He had told both himself and them that he was doing it to protect them. He had also told them that he would get killed if he stayed. And maybe those things were true.
But it was also true that he had found the never ending work and the restraints of living at Lancer more than he could take. It seemed like every time he turned around there was a new rule or a new responsibility to bear. The free and easy lifestyle that he had grown up with had disappeared and been replaced with rules and work and restraints.
Looking back now, Johnny realized that he had been too immature and too impatient to see the truth. He had been too hasty in his decision to leave. He hadn’t really thought it out. Murdoch had tried to break him to work, and he had bucked, hard. He had realized not long after he left that the one he’d hurt the most by not giving in and changing was himself. He had destroyed any chance he had of a normal life, and he’d been paying for it ever since.
He’d hurt himself and his family because he decided he couldn’t make the effort to change and fit into his new lifestyle. He had decided that it was just too much work. He knew how hard his family had tried, and even though he and Murdoch had fought and locked horns almost continually, he knew the Old Man loved him, and way down deep, he knew that his father had been right all along.
And for all of their love and support, he had given them nothing but heartache in return. No wonder they had told Jeff that his uncle was dead. Well, he could make it up to his family; he could make sure that Jeff knew just what it was like to live this life. Just what he would be giving up, and just what he was letting himself in for. It was too late for him, but he would do his best to get Jeff back home where he belonged.
When he asked Bill to bring the young man to the house, Bill shook his head. “You know, don’t you, that he came here ta kill you.?”
Johnny nodded and grinned at his friend. “Ya, but I figure I’m better off if I know where he is.”
Bill shook his head as he left, and a few minutes later, Jeff came into the house. “What do you want?” He asked sullenly.
Johnny glared at the young man. He wondered if he had a mouth on him like that when he was that age. “What I WANT is for you to go to work. You and me are goin’ ta take a ride tonight and check out the rancher’s camp. Is that OK with you?” Johnny asked sarcastically.
Jeff nodded sullenly, but kept his watchful eyes on the gunfighter.
Johnny pointed toward the door. “Go on, get your gear and meet me back here in about a half of an hour.”
“Why do I need my gear?” The boy asked suspiciously.
Johnny smiled. “What’s the matter, you think I’m gonna kill ya?”
The boy didn’t answer, but kept staring at the older man.
Johnny shook his head. “Look, l don’t work that way. If I wanted you gone, believe me, you wouldn’t be around right now.” He locked eyes with the young man. “We have enough ta worry about with Vega and his men. We don’t need ta be worryin’ about each other. We can settle whatever differences we have after this is all over, OK? How about you and me callin’ a truce for awhile?”
Jeff thought about it for a moment, and then reluctantly nodded his head. Johnny wasn’t entirely satisfied. “Promise?” he asked.
After another long moment, Jeff hung his head. “Promise.” he said softly.
Johnny nodded once. “All right, let’s get ta work.”
Two hours later, Johnny and Jeff were within sight of the rancher’s house. So far, they had managed to avoid any sentries, but as they got closer, Johnny got more and more concerned. It had been too easy. Something wasn’t right. Even if the sentries hadn’t seen them, they should have seen at least some activity by now, but everything was quiet. As they got closer, and Johnny got a better look at the rancher’s house and yard, Johnny realized that he had made a major mistake in not attacking tonight. The place was empty, and there was only one other place that all of Vega’s men could be.
Johnny sighed. It looked like Vega had figured out Johnny was leaving and taken advantage of the situation. Johnny and Jeff had cautiously ridden into the ranch yard and it was totally empty. There was enough of a moon that Johnny could tell that a large group of horses and riders had been there several hours previously, but there was certainly no sign of anyone now. They searched the barn first, but there was no one inside. Johnny checked out the house, just to make sure, but it too was empty.
As Johnny slammed his way through the house, checking to make sure no one was hiding, Jeff followed along, looking perplexed. “Where could they be?” He finally asked.
Johnny whirled and looked at the boy in disbelief. “Now where do you THINK they are?” He snarled.
Jeff started to shake his head in confusion, and then realization suddenly dawned on his face. “They went to attack the ranch?” He looked at Johnny for confirmation, and when the gunfighter nodded, Jeff said eagerly, “Well, let’s go!”
Johnny stopped and looked at the boy. “This is NOT a game. And if WE go stormin’ back there, we’ll be dead. We’ve got to realize that and be just as cautious goin’ back as we were comin’ here.”
“But we’ve got to hurry and help them!”
Johnny sighed and said patiently, “Jeff, we’ll get there as fast as we can. But we’re not gonna go chargin’ in there and get gunned down. That won’t help anybody. We’ve gotta take it slow. Whatever has happened is already over by now. The men that are there will have ta watch out for themselves for a little while. The best thing we can do now is ta stay alive.”
Jeff looked at Johnny furiously. “I thought Bill was your friend. And you’re just going to abandon him? You’re not even gonna TRY ta help him?”
Johnny dropped his head, and said quietly, “I didn’t say that we weren’t gonna try ta help ‘em. I told ya, we ‘re gonna go back, and if things work out, Bill will be OK. We’ll do everything we can ta stop Vega and his men. But we’re not gonna be stupid, either. And you’re right, Bill is my friend, but he knows the rules, and the rules are that people get killed.”
“Well, maybe I don’t like those rules!” Jeff yelled.
Johnny grabbed the boy by the shirt and looked him in the eyes, glad that Jeff was beginning to realize this wasn’t a game, and determined to drive that point home. “Do you think I do? This is what those men signed up for; this is what YOU signed up for. It’s the way it is. Did you think that we were just going ta throw rocks at each other and then go home? You signed up to kill or be killed, just like everybody else. People die in theses wars, and ya can’t change that. All you can do is do the best ya can ta make sure it isn’t you.”
Johnny softened his voice slightly. “You can’t afford ta have friends or feel sorry for people in this line of work, or you’ll end up dead. Believe me, I know.”
Johnny looked into Jeff’s eyes, willing him to understand what he was saying. “Is that the way you want ta live? You’d better be damn sure that it’s a choice you can live with, because you’ll be livin’ with it the rest of your life. And if you decide ta go ahead, there’s no way out, ever. You can’t just decide ta quit, because they won’t let you. You can forget about havin a family or friends. You can forget about havin’ a wife or kids. The only thing you’ll ever have is acquaintances and enemies. And of course, your reputation. Can you live with that? Is it worth it?” Johnny flung the boy away from him. “You think about it long and hard before you make up your mind.”
Jeff looked at Johnny in shock, and then dropped his eyes. “You were supposed to be the best. And ya made a stupid mistake and got your friends killed, and you don’t even care.” He said softly.
Johnny watched him for a minute, and then said quietly. “Let’s go. Hopefully things won’t be as bad as ya think and we can stop Vega.”
It took them a little longer to get back to the farm than it had to get to the ranch, because it was darker. Johnny looked up at the moon and figured they’d been gone almost five hours; more than long enough for Vega to take over. He shivered; he hoped that things weren’t as bad as Jeff thought. Johnny knew that Vega wasn’t a cold -blooded killer, and any man that surrendered would probably eventually be let go. He was counting on that to save them.
The only problem was that Johnny wasn’t sure if Vega was still in charge. Caldwell could easily have taken over. And even if Vega was still leading the men, Johnny knew that hired guns were sometimes hard to control. In the heat of battle men did things that they normally wouldn’t do. And if Caldwell were riding with them, he would kill as many of the enemy as he could. Caldwell was a heartless killer. Johnny shook his head. He hoped that Vega was still in charge and had been able to keep his men in check, or there was liable to have been a bloodbath.
When they got within a few hundred yards of the house, Johnny and Jeff left their horses securely tied in a thicket of trees, hopefully away from prying eyes, and went the rest of the way on foot. As they crept up on the farmhouse, Johnny could hear voices coming from the yard. He motioned for Jeff to be quiet, and they slowed their pace, then cautiously hunkered down behind a stand of bushes.
Johnny peered down into the yard and saw utter chaos. There were at least a couple of dozen of Vega’s men that he could see, and more in the house and barn. There were a couple of bodies lying around, but it was too dark to tell who they were. Johnny took a deep breath and sat back down. He looked at Jeff, and noticed that the boy had turned pale.
“Looks like Vega’s taken over.” Johnny whispered.
Jeff nodded mutely, and Johnny had the feeling the boy was on the verge of tears. “Did ya see Bill?” Jeff whispered.
Johnny shook his head. “No, but then, I didn’t expect to.”
Jeff’s fists were clenched. Madrid didn’t seem to care at all that his friend was probably dead. Not only his friend, but also all of the men that had followed him. They had trusted him to lead them, and Madrid had made a terrible mistake and they had paid for that mistake with their lives. “Maybe he’s in the barn. I can see some men tied up in there.” Jeff said hopefully.
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t think so. He might be, but I DO know it’d be suicide ta try to find out. There are probably forty men down there.” He looked at the boy. “Come on, let’s get outta here, and see if we can find some help.”
Jeff took one last look at the yard, and then stood up and started to follow Johnny. Suddenly, he darted down toward the back of the barn. Johnny cursed, and then after a moment’s hesitation, he followed his nephew.
Jeff darted toward the barn, staying in the shadows as much as he could, with Johnny following closely behind. Jeff hesitated just outside the back door, and peered in through the opening. He was shocked to see only about a half a dozen men tied up. Where were the rest? Surely they hadn’t all been killed, or there would have been more bodies. Unless…..maybe Vega had time to get rid of some of them. Jeff felt sick. Only six out of how many? Three dozen?
Jeff pulled back behind the door and glanced around as Johnny came running up. He could tell by the look in the older man’s eyes that he was furious. Well, that was fine; so was he. There was no way he was going to let Vega kill these men, no matter what Madrid said.
Johnny grabbed Jeff’s arm. “What do you think you’re tryin’ ta do? Get yourself killed?”
Jeff wrenched his arm away from Johnny. “I’m gonna help those men, and you can’t stop me.” He said defiantly.
Johnny grabbed his arm once again. “You need to learn to follow directions.” Johnny said quietly. “Now you’ve put EVERYBODY in danger with your hair-brained stunt.”
“What do you mean?” Jeff asked.
Just as Johnny opened his mouth to explain, a bullet dinged off of the side of the barn right over their heads. Knowing the barn was full of Vega’s men, Johnny grabbed Jeff and pulled him behind some bales of hay that were stacked next to the building. Crouching down, both men started returning fire, but they were exposed on two sides and both knew it was only a matter of time before Vega’s men figured that out.
As they returned fire, Jeff suddenly realized that there were other men firing on their attackers as well. There was gunfire coming from the hill behind the farm, as well as from a small grove of trees next to the house. Within seconds, there was a deafening barrage from dozens of guns being fired back and forth.
Jeff didn’t have time to wonder about it; he was to busy trying to defend himself. He realized that the attackers knew where Madrid was and were determined to take him out. He and Jeff seemed to be drawing the most fire, and both men were valiantly trying to answer the shots.
Johnny was desperately trying to return the fire while keeping Jeff safe at the same time. He kept having to push the boy down when the young man got a little too enthusiastic with returning the gunfire and forgot to duck. Johnny had to admit, though, that the kid was a good shot, and he sure didn’t lack in the courage department. Between them, they took out quite a few of Vega’s men.
After several minutes of intense fire, the gunshots started to taper off. Johnny looked cautiously from his shelter, and saw that there were many more bodies littering the yard than before, but almost all of them appeared to be Vega’s men. He saw that Bill had managed to take over the house, and he and his men had several prisoners.
Within minutes, the noise had ceased entirely, leaving a deafening silence in the farmer’s yard. Cautiously, Johnny stood up and looked around, then he entered the barn and cut the men loose that had been tied up by Vega.
Jeff followed, in a daze at the turn of events. He looked over at Johnny. “I don’t understand.”
Johnny shook his head angrily. “It wasn’t your job TO understand. It was your job to take orders. You could have gotten us both killed, not to mention you putting everybody else’s life in danger.”
Jeff looked down. “I was just trying ta help.” He looked up at Johnny accusingly. “And you didn’t care! You were going ta let them die!”
Bill walked up just as Jeff said the last sentence. “Boy, do you really think that we’d follow someone that would let his men die for no reason? This is a job; people die. That’s just the way it is. But Johnny here has been around a long time, and if he didn’t care about his men, that would get out and pretty soon no one would work with him.”
Jeff looked at Bill. “But, he said…..” Jeff looked around at the carnage and he suddenly realized that Madrid had planned that Vega would attack. “It was a set-up, wasn’t it?” He whispered.
Johnny nodded. “I wasn’t sure if he would fall for it, but either way, we were prepared.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Johnny shook his head and snorted. “Like I said, it was your job to follow orders, and that was all. What I had planned was none of your business.”
“But if you had told me, I would have done what you told me to.”
“ You should have done what you were told to do no matter what. You weren’t getting’ paid ta think.”
Jeff looked at Madrid belligerently. “If I had KNOWN I could have helped with the set up.”
Johnny sighed. “Yes, or run to Vega with the information.”
Jeff looked up angrily. “Is that what you think of me? That I’m a traitor?”
Johnny ducked his head, recalling asking his own father a similar question. “No.” He said quietly. “But I wasn’t sure, and I couldn’t take the chance of being wrong with men’s lives at stake. Do you understand?”
After a moment, Jeff dropped his eyes. Finally, he did understand. “Yes.”
Johnny nodded. “All right. But next time you disobey orders, you can pack up and leave. Is that understood?”
Jeff sighed. “Yeah.”
Johnny stared at him. “What?” He asked coldly
Jeff looked up at the gunfighter. “Yes, sir.”
Johnny nodded. “All right, go help the men with the clean up.” As Jeff started to walk away, Johnny spoke up again. “And be careful. An injured man can still pull a trigger.”
Bill watched as the young man walked away, then turned and looked at his boss. Madrid’s eyes were still watching the kid. Finally Bill’s curiosity got the better of him. “Who is he?”
Johnny glanced at the man quizzically, and Bill shook his head. “I ain’t never seen ya that protective of anybody. So don’t tell me he’s nothin’ to ya. You woulda let anybody else get their fool head shot off, or maybe shot it off for ‘em. Now what’s he to ya?”
Johnny shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
It took almost all night to get things sorted out, the dead buried and the wounded taken care of. Johnny walked in to where the prisoners were being held and squatted down next to Dan Vega, who had caught a bullet in his shoulder.
“How’re you doin?” Johnny asked.
Vega nodded. “I’ll live.” He looked up at Johnny enquiringly. “At least I think I will.”
Johnny smiled slightly and nodded his head. “We’ve known each other a long time, and I’ll take your word you and your men will ride out and won’t start nothin.”
Vega nodded. “I’ll be laid up for a while anyway.” He grinned. “Besides, that rancher was a bigoted S.O.B. I woulda changed sides if I could. Did ya get him?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, he’s dead.”
Johnny watched him for a moment. “Where’s Caldwell?”
Vega looked at Johnny in surprise. “I thought he was runnin’ with you.”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope. He left the first day after he and I had a little disagreement as to who was goin’ ta run the show. I thought he might have wandered over to you.”
Vega shook his head. “Haven’t seen him, Johnny, but you’d better watch your back. He’s a mean one, and he ain’t liable to forget it.”
Johnny nodded in agreement and slipped a knife out of his boot. Johnny reached down and cut Vega’s hands free. “O.K. You and your men can leave when you want to.”
Vega nodded. “Thanks. See ya around.”
Later that morning, Johnny walked into the farmer’s house to receive pay for he and his men. The farmer put a small sack of money on the table and looked at Johnny nervously. “It’s all I got.”
Johnny sighed and dumped the sack out on the table. After counting it, he looked at the farmer in disbelief. “There’s only about five hundred dollars here.”
The farmer bobbed his head. “I told Caldwell that’s all that I had, but he said it would be enough. He told the men they’d get twenty dollars apiece, and he said that when we won, we’d get some more money from the rancher.”
Johnny shook his head. “The rancher’s dead.” Johnny stared at the money and sighed. “There are twenty-six men left, that’d be about nineteen dollars each. Most of ‘em will probably take that.”
“And what about you?” The man asked nervously.
Johnny stared at him for a moment, making the farmer decidedly uneasy, before he finally shook his head. “Don’t have much choice, do I? Besides, ya DID warn me.”
The farmer started to breath again. “Thanks. If there’s ever anything I can do…….”
“Yeah, don’t start another war unless you can afford it.” Picking up the sack of money, Johnny walked outside and started paying the men. There were a few grumbles, and one or two outright protests, but Johnny convinced them that there wasn’t any more money to be had, and finally they settled for what they got.
Johnny looked down at the money that was left after he paid everyone. There was six dollars left. Sighing, he stuffed the money in his pocket. At least he was still alive. A dark look crossed his features as he thought of the stupid stunt that Jeff had pulled. By rights, both of them should be dead. They were just lucky that Bill had been in position and had been able to start the assault on the house early.
He thought about what he should do with Jeff. He had sworn he would try to get the boy home, but he doubted that Jeff was ready to give up either his dreams of glory or his thirst for revenge just yet. He knew if the boy took out on his own, he’d be dead within a few months, and that was being optimistic. He was pretty good with a gun, but he didn’t stop to think things through. Johnny smiled. He sure didn’t take after his father.
Johnny had planned on going down to Mexico from here. There was some unrest down around the border, and plenty of skirmishes and outright wars to get involved in. And hopefully some money to be made. Although he was far from being poor, he did need to replenish his supply pretty soon, or he’d have to go back to camping out on the trail, and that had lost its appeal a long time ago.
He looked around, and spied Jeff standing off to one side, speaking with Bill. He was glad the two of them had become friends; maybe the old gunfighter had talked some sense into the boy. He walked over and heard Bill say he was heading for Arizona, and Jeff casually asking if he could tag along. Bill glanced over Jeff’s shoulder at Johnny as he approached, and Johnny shook his head once.
“Sorry, kid, but I don’t want no company. I work alone.”
Jeff ducked his head, disappointment apparent in his stance. Johnny came up casually. “So you’re goin’ ta Arizona?” He asked Bill.
Bill nodded. “Yep, heard of another range was over there.” He looked disgustedly toward the house. “It has ta better pay better than this one did, that’s for sure.”
Johnny laughed. “We sure didn’t do this one for the money.”
Bill walked off to get his gear ready, and Jeff watched him with a forlorn expression.
“So where are you headed?” Johnny asked innocently.
Jeff shrugged, “I haven’t decided yet. Maybe south.”
Johnny hid a smile. He was counting on it. He knew Jeff wouldn’t go east, the way Bill was going, and he figured Jeff would want to put as much room between he and Lancer as he could.
“Yeah,” Johnny said. “I’m plannin’ on headin’ south myself. Heard things were pretty tense down there.” He glanced at Jeff, watching the boy wrestle with his conscience. “Do you want to ride together for a while?” Johnny asked innocently.
Jeff looked at him with suspicion. “I told ya what I wanted. Why would ya want ta ride with me?”
Johnny ducked his head. He was asking himself the same question. “Because you’re smart enough ta know you can’t take me yet. You figure you need some practice before ya try it.” He said truthfully.
Jeff stared at him for a moment. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll shoot you in the back?”
Johnny stared at him; that was the question, but he had no choice if he was going to try to save this young man. “Nope. If you was just out for revenge, I’d be worried. But you want the fame more.” Johnny shook his head. “No, you’ll make sure it’s a fair fight and there are witnesses. You’ll want everybody to know it when you try ta take me. Wouldn’t do ya any good ta kill me if ya couldn’t get credit for it, isn’t that right?”
Jeff stared at the gunfighter for a moment, and realized Madrid was right. When he made his move, he’d make sure everyone knew it was a fair fight. Jeff nodded his head. “Yeah, you’re right.” He thought for a moment. He might as well learn from the best, and at least for now, that was Madrid. But Jeff knew that someday soon he would be the best, and he would make sure everyone knew it.
Scott pulled his horse to a halt outside the hotel in Saugus. He had been traveling pretty much continually since leaving Madera, and he and his horse were close to exhaustion. He had done his best to get here before the range war started, but evidently he was too late. He had been hearing reports from the last several towns that he’d ridden through that the war had been over for a couple of days.
He had been told that the farmer had won, and that the main rancher and a lot of his men had been killed. The rest of the ranchers had conceded defeat, and agreed to leave the farmer alone, at least for now. He had heard quite a story about how Johnny had laid a trap for the rancher and his men, and they had ridden right into it. Scott smiled. Johnny was pretty good at figuring out what someone would do in any given situation and planning accordingly. He was good at reading people; when he had been at Lancer, there were times that Scott swore Johnny could read his mind.
Scott’s face darkened. That last day there had been no need for his brother to read his mind. He had made it perfectly clear what he had thought, and Scott was deeply ashamed at the things he had said to Johnny that day. He had been so angry and hurt, and almost panicked at the thought of Johnny leaving that he had lashed out in anger. He hadn’t meant what he had said, and he hoped that somehow Johnny knew that. Scott just hoped he would get the chance to tell his brother he was sorry.
He had breathed a little easier when he heard for sure that Johnny had been leading the men for the farmer and hadn’t been injured, but he was still worried about Jeff. He hadn’t been able to find out any particulars about the dead men, and Scott was scared to death that at least part of his nightmare was about to come true.
He decided to come to Saugus even though the war was over in the hopes of finding one or both of them still here. He wasn’t even sure that Jeff had been here at all, but he knew that there was at least a chance that his son had heard about the war and been drawn here. But even if Jeff hadn’t been here, he knew Johnny had been, and had heard rumors that Johnny still was. And his brother might know something about Jeff. Scott took a deep breath. Even if he didn’t, Scott was going to try to convince Johnny to come home.
He handed Charlie over to the liveryman and went inside. He grabbed the register and spun it around to sign it, then froze as he saw the first name on the page.
According to the book, his brother had been here a week ago. He quickly scanned the rest of the register looking for his son’s name, but if Jeff had been here, he hadn’t used his real name. He looked again at Johnny’s distinctive writing, and felt his throat tighten at the memories that came flooding back.
God, how he missed him. He should have tried harder to find him five years ago. If he had it to do over, he would have tracked his brother down and dragged him back to Lancer even if he had to hog tie him to do it. Johnny belonged at Lancer just like he did, and he was going to make sure he came home where he belonged.
He looked up as the desk clerk finally made an appearance. “May I help you?”
Scott nodded. “I’d like a room and some information.”
The Clerk nodded. “The room will be a dollar a night, and the information will be two dollars.”
Scott dug into his pant pocket and drew out five dollars. “I’m looking for Johnny Madrid.”
The clerk glanced at Scott’s gun, and then looked quizzically at the rancher. “Mister, let me give ya some free advice; you ain’t wearin’ the right kind of gun to be lookin’ for a man like Madrid.”
Scott glared at the man. “I have no intention of fighting him; I just want to know where he is.”
The clerk’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t hold much with backshootin. Maybe ya better finds somewhere else ta stay.”
Scott sighed and shook his head. “I have no intention of shooting him at all, I just want to talk to him.”
The clerk nodded his head knowingly. “Ya should a said ya wanted ta hire him in the first place.”
Scott sighed in frustration, unwilling to give the clerk an explanation, but pleased that at least there were a few people out there that seemed to be watching his brother’s back.
Scott handed the clerk the money. “If you could just tell me where I can find him, I’d be obliged.”
The clerk grabbed the money and stuffed it into his shirt. “Sure, he rode outta town two days ago.”
Scott glared at the clerk. “And I don’t suppose you know where he was going?” He said sarcastically.
The clerk shrugged. “He rode outta town headin’ east.”
“Thanks for all your help.” Scott ground out. He shut his eyes, he was so close, but he knew his horse needed to rest, and if he was honest with himself, so did he. He’d get some sleep and start out first thing in the morning. He picked up the key the clerk had laid on the register and turned toward the stairs. Before he reached them, a crazy thought occurred to him. “Did he ride out alone?”
The clerk though for a moment, and then shook his head. “Nope, he left with some kid.”
Wild hope surged in Scott’s heart. “What did the kid look like?”
The man shrugged. “Just a kid. Blond hair I think. Maybe fifteen.”
Scott could feel his heart thumping in his chest. “What color horse was the kid riding?”
The man thought again, obviously a difficult task judging from his expression. “A pinto. Black and white; real flashy.”
Scott smiled as some of the tension left. Jeff was with Johnny, and he felt a little more confident of finding his son alive. But how had they met up? And why would Jeff be riding with Johnny? Scott was pretty sure Jeff hadn’t known Johnny was his uncle when he had left. He shook his head. Somehow one of them must have figured it out. But now he didn’t feel quite as panicked about finding Jeff; he knew that Johnny would do his best to keep his son safe.
After he sent Murdoch a telegram, Scott rode out of town, heading east. He didn’t know where he was going, and hoped he would catch up with Johnny and Jeff before they cut off from the main road. The next town was about twenty -five miles ahead, and Scott was counting on them still being there when he finally caught up. He was glad he had stopped and rested last night, both he and Charlie were going to need all their strength for the pace he planned on setting.
As he rode along, he tried to figure out how Jeff and Johnny had found each other so quickly. It was too quick to be a coincidence, but he couldn’t think of any other explanation. He shook his head, it wasn’t important. The important thing was to find them and bring them both home.
When Johnny had headed out of Saugus heading east, Jeff had immediately been suspicious. “I thought we were going south.”
Johnny had nodded his head, but hadn’t slowed Barranca down. “We are. But we’re gonna head east for a while first, just in case.”
“In case of what?”
Johnny sighed. Had he EVER been that stupid? “In CASE someone is followin’ us.”
Johnny waited for the inevitable, and after a few moments, it came.
“Why would somebody be following us?”
Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and looked at the boy. “I don’t know, but if they are, you can just about bet they ain’t gonna be friendly. Look, in this business, you’ve always got to be careful. It only takes one mistake ta wind up dead.”
Jeff had nodded, but Johnny wasn’t sure that he really understood what being a gunhawk was like. He’d have to show him.
After they had ridden several miles, Johnny pulled Barranca off the road and headed south, with Jeff following close behind. Because of the detour, they didn’t reach a town the first night, which was just fine with Johnny. For once, he didn’t mind sleeping out. It would give him time to have a much- needed conversation with the kid. He hadn’t had time before, and he hadn’t decided yet whether to tell Jeff that he was Scott’s brother. He would talk to him first and find out what was going on and then make his decision.
Right before dark, Johnny pulled up next to a small stream and dismounted. It was fairly sheltered, and out of the way enough to discourage company. Johnny took care of the horses and told Jeff to gather up some wood to make a fire. As he was brushing Jeff’s horse, his fingers traced the L branded into its hide. He was glad that he’d never had Barranca branded; he didn’t think he could have handled seeing that brand every time he groomed his horse. It was too much of a reminder of the way things could have been.
After they had eaten their dinner, they sat by the campfire and talked.
“How old are you?” Johnny asked.
Johnny nodded. “You said you have a family...” When Jeff nodded, Johnny continued. “Why did you leave?”
Jeff didn’t know why he was answering theses questions, but he guessed it didn’t hurt. It was better than just sitting and staring at the fire, and maybe he could find out some information of his own. “I left ‘cause I didn’t want to be a rancher.”
Johnny nodded. “And you thought bein’ a gunhawk sounded a lot better.”
Jeff nodded. “A lot better. I hate stringin’ wire and wrestling those dumb cows. Never have time for anything else.”
Johnny smiled to himself. He knew what Jeff meant; it was just one of the reasons he had left. Not the main one, but those stupid cows sure hadn’t helped. Johnny shook his head. Getting a chance to do those chores now almost sounded like heaven. “I take it your father didn’t approve.”
Jeff snorted. “Nope. He hated the idea. Said that to amount to anybody I needed to get an education, that I needed to earn people’s respect by working hard and being honorable.”
Johnny smiled again. He could imagine his brother saying that. “What about your grandfather and aunt?”
Jeff sighed. “Grandfather tried to talk me out of it, too.” He grimaced. “Of course, “talking” isn’t exactly what my grandfather does.”
Johnny ducked his head so that Jeff couldn’t see his smile. Murdoch had never been very good at ‘talking’ with him, either. For some reason it gave him a little bit of comfort to know that he wasn’t the only one that Murdoch reacted that way with. He sighed. Of course, he guessed both he and Jeff had given the Old Man plenty of reason to yell.
Johnny looked up at the boy. He wanted to know how and when he had come to Lancer, but he couldn’t just ask, or the boy would become suspicious. “How old were you when your mother died?”
Jeff looked up quickly. “How do you know she’s dead?”
Johnny shrugged. “Before, when I asked you whether you had any family, you didn’t mention her.”
Jeff looked down and nodded. “She died when I was five.”
Johnny did some quick math, and knew that he hadn’t been with Scott since then. “It must have been pretty hard on you and your dad.”
Jeff snorted. “He didn’t even know she was dead; they weren’t together. In fact, he didn’t even know about me until my step dad brought me to Lancer a few years ago.”
Johnny nodded. That would certainly explain it. And from the way the boy talked and acted, Johnny could bet that Jeff’s step dad was about as understanding and kind as his own had been.
Johnny picked up a stick and poked at the fire for a few minutes. He wasn’t really sure he wanted to ask the next question, but he figured he’d better know, one way or the other. Finally he spoke softly. “And what about your uncle. Did your father tell you I had killed him?”
Jeff’s expression immediately turned hard. “He didn’t have to. It was the way he acted, and the things he didn’t say.” He said belligerently.
Johnny shook his head. “Look kid. I don’t want ta be getting blamed and maybe killed for somethin’ I didn’t do. I think you at least owe me an explanation of why you think I killed your uncle.”
Jeff sighed, and then told Johnny about the day in the ravine. “And it makes sense. They never said anything to me. The only reason I knew he existed was because of a couple of things that other people have said.”
Johnny looked up and stared into the boy’s eyes. “They never told you that you had an uncle? They never mentioned him at all?”
Jeff shook his head. “No.”
Johnny dropped his head. He had always hoped that someday he would get up enough nerve to go back and ask for a second chance. He had hoped that the bitter words that his family had said that last day weren’t really meant, but that didn’t appear to be the case. And he guessed that now he had his answer as to what their response would be.
Jeff saw the troubled look on the gunfighter’s face. “Did you kill him?”
Johnny looked at the boy, wondering what he should tell him. In a way, Jeff was right; he HAD killed Johnny Lancer. Murdered him just as sure as if he’d put a gun to his head. But he knew that if he told Jeff that, the boy’s need to get revenge just might get him killed. Johnny shook his head, he had planned on telling Jeff that he was his uncle, but maybe Scott and Murdoch were right, maybe it would be better if he didn’t know.
Johnny didn’t think that revenge was the only reason Jeff had left; the boy wanted to be a gunfighter; revenge was secondary. He somehow had to convince Jeff that being a gunfighter wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. If Jeff truly believed Johnny was his uncle, he might want to stay with him, and Johnny worked alone. Besides, he knew that if the boy kept going the way he was, he would wind up dead, no matter how hard Johnny tried to protect him. It would be better to try to convince Jeff that he hadn’t killed Jeff’s uncle and somehow get through to the boy that he was better off at home.
“No, I didn’t kill your uncle.”
Jeff glared at the older man. “You’re lying.”
Johnny shook his head and sighed. “No, I’m not. I didn’t kill your uncle.”
“How can you be so sure?” Jeff challenged.
“Because I am.” Johnny said firmly.
Jeff looked at the man seated across the fire from him, unsure whether to believe him or not. Jeff had been so sure when he had left the house, but he wasn’t as sure now. He guessed he’d wait and see. He watched as Johnny absent- mindedly stirred the fire and knew that there was more to the story than he was being told. He felt sure that Madrid had at least known his uncle. Maybe he could get the gunfighter to give something away. Jeff figured that Madrid had asked him questions, now it was his turn. “So do you have any family?”
Johnny looked up at Jeff, thinking again that the kid had guts. Normally he would tell the kid in no uncertain terms to mind his own business, but this time was different. Again he was tempted to tell the truth, but finally decided, like Jeff, to wait and see. He just wasn’t sure what would be best. He wished Scott were here. “Not anymore.”
Jeff nodded. “But you did? Jeff prodded.
“Yeah, I did.” Johnny sighed, wondering why he had brought up the subject when all he wanted to do now was to get some rest.
“So why did you leave?”
Johnny finally let his temper flare. “Because I was stupid, just like you. I thought that being a gunfighter was a lot easier than bein a rancher, and I didn’t stop ta think it through.”
Jeff thought about that for a moment. “But it IS easier. And a lot more fun, too.”
Johnny looked at the boy in disbelief, wondering if he had misjudged him that badly. “FUN? You think killin’ is FUN?”
Jeff shrugged, a little uneasy at Johnny’s anger. “I was talking about the way people look at you, about the way they respect you. When you ride into a town, everybody knows you, you can get or do just about anything you want. You’re treated like a king.”
Johnny shook his head. “You’ve never killed anyone, have you?”
Jeff dropped his head, reluctant to admit it. “Not yet.”
Johnny sighed loudly and poked at the fire some more, unsure how to get through to this boy. “Jeff, it’s nothin’ ta be ashamed of. Killin’ isn’t fun, and it certainly isn’t glamorous. In fact bein’ a gunfighter is about the least glamorous job you can have.”
Jeff looked up in surprise. “But the way people act, and all those stories they tell…..there’s even books about you.”
Johnny snorted. “Those stories are made up, for the most part. And people act respectful to your face, but behind your back, that ain’t what they’re thinkin’ at all. The only reason they treat ya right is ‘cause they’re scared ta death of you. And those same people will turn on you in a heartbeat if they think they can get away with it.”
“There’s nothin’ glamorous about getting shot up, and believe me, you will be, more times than you can count, that is if ya live that long. And ‘cause ya can’t trust anybody, you’ll have ta hole up like some kind of animal and try ta recover on your own. The first time ya try ta dig a bullet out of your own leg, things get in perspective pretty fast. And when ya do finally cash it in, they’ll take your body like you was some kind of freak and put it on display for everybody ta gawk at. Doesn’t sound too glamorous does it?”
Jeff dropped his head and mumbled. “It’s still better than ranchin’.”
“Is it? So you’ve got ta dig a stubborn cow out of a mud hole or string barbed wire. At least you can go home at night and know you’re safe. You can sleep in your own clean bed and eat decent meals and not have ta worry about one of ‘em deciding ta pull a gun and shoot ya. And if you DO get hurt, they’re there for ya, and someone ELSE can dig that bullet outta you and figure out how ta get your fever down.”
Jeff shook his head. “But ranching is so……boring.”
Johnny smiled. “Sometimes it is. But right now, leading a boring life sounds a little bit like heaven.”
Jeff looked at the gunfighter in disbelief. “You’d quit?”
Johnny snorted. “I’d quit right now if I could. But that’s the problem. Once you’ve done it long enough to realize just how bad the deal is, it’s too late to quit. It’s like sellin’ your soul to the devil.” Johnny dropped his head. “And maybe that’s just what happens.”
Jeff laid back on his bedroll and thought about what Madrid had said. He didn’t think the gunfighter was right, but maybe he’d think about it a while. In the meantime, he’d watch Madrid and learn.
Scott rode into town the morning after he had left Saugus. He had hoped to make it the previous evening, but Charlie had picked up a stone and bruised his hoof, and Scott hadn’t been able to push him. Instead, he and Charlie had kept going at a slow pace all night. He shook his head in frustration; it seemed as if nothing was going right. He hoped that Johnny and Jeff were still here.
He tied up Charlie to the hitching post and walked inside the hotel. There was no one around, so Scott reached over and checked the register. Disappointment flooded his face as he realized that they hadn’t been here. He was torn between riding on and trying to catch up with them, and waiting until the saloon opened to see if they had stopped here at all.
Finally, common sense prevailed and he decided to get some sleep and then get something to eat. He would ask around and see if the pair had passed through, and try to get an idea of where they might be headed. He wanted to make sure he was still heading in the right direction.
Late that afternoon, Scott went down to the saloon to get a bite to eat and some information. He asked the bartender if he had seen any strangers in town, and the man snorted. “Nothin’ BUT strangers passin’ through.”
The man’s eyebrows rose. “Now what makes ya think that?” He said sarcastically.
Scott looked at him in confusion. “Look, I’m looking for two men, gunfighters, that may have passed through here in the last day or so.”
The bartender sighed. “Ya have to be more specific, mister. There have been at least a dozen gunhawks through here in the last couple of days.”
“Why? Is there something going on?”
The bartender nodded. “Yeah. There’s a big range war goin’ on over in Arizona. All the gunhawks are headin’ that way, it seems.”
“Do you know where this war is supposed to be taking place?”
After a surreptitious look at Scott’s rig, the bartender shrugged. “Heard it was a few miles east of Prescott.”
Scott sighed. At least now he knew which way to go and wouldn’t have to worry about tracking the pair. “Did you happen to notice if Johnny Madrid was one of the guns that came through?”
The barkeeper laughed. “You’re kiddin’ right?”
No, I can assure you I’m not.”
The bartender looked disbelievingly at Scott. “Mister, believe me, I WOULD have noticed if Madrid had been here.”
Scott frowned. “And he wasn’t?”
The bartender shook his head. “Nope.”
Scott thought for a moment. Maybe Johnny had decided to circumvent the town for reasons of his own. He was pretty sure though, that his brother and son were heading for the war in Arizona. He would get to Prescott as quickly as he could, and catch up with them there.
Scott went to the telegraph office and sent a note to Murdoch, and then headed Charlie out of town, heading east.
In the morning, neither Jeff nor Johnny talked much. As they broke camp, they were both thinking of the conversation of the night before, and wondering what to do with the information they had. Johnny was having second thoughts about his plan; he knew that to show Jeff how miserable a gunfighter’s life was, he’d have to expose him to danger. And he didn’t even know how fast his nephew was. Johnny knew that if Jeff were killed, he’d never forgive himself. Maybe he’d better find out just how good the boy was before he went any further.
“Hey, Jeff. How about showin’ me how good ya are with that gun?”
Jeff turned and looked at the gunfighter suspiciously. “Are you callin’ me out?”
Johnny shook his head and grinned. “No. I was thinkin’ more of some target practice.”
Jeff relaxed slightly. He knew he could use some practice, he hadn’t shot his gun in days. He grinned to himself; he had used it more at the ranch than he had since becoming a gun for hire.
“O.K, what do you want me to shoot?”
Johnny looked around, and spotted some small rocks by the stream. He went over and picked them up, placing them on a large boulder about fifteen feet away from the boy. He stepped back, and gestured for Jeff to go ahead.
Jeff took a deep breath, and then drew, trying to aim as fast as he could. He wanted to show Madrid just how good he was. A couple of seconds later, Jeff was stunned to see all of the rocks still sitting on top of the boulder. He dropped his eyes, and then glanced at Madrid, angry and humiliated.
Johnny sighed. The kid was fast, and probably had decent aim, but hadn’t learned how to put the two together yet. Now, the dilemma. Should he show the boy, and take a chance that the kid would try to take him on? He knew that he could take Jeff, even if the boy practiced. It would be years, if ever, before Jeff would be able to beat him, at least in a fair fight.
But if the boy got good enough, it was possible that Johnny would have to hurt him to prove that to him. He doubted that Jeff would take his word. On the other hand, the way the boy was now was a liability to them both. And if someone did challenge the young man, which was highly probable in the circles they were going to run in, he wouldn’t stand a chance. He was just fast enough and cocky enough to get himself killed.
Johnny shook his head. He really didn’t have a choice. He had to keep the young man alive, and to do that, he’d have to make sure that Jeff was good enough to at least hold his own in the company he was going to keep. Johnny knew that if he cut the boy loose, Jeff wouldn’t go home, at least not yet. No, if Jeff and Johnny split up, the boy would try to do it on his own and wind up dead.
Finally, Johnny stepped up to the young man. “Do you want to learn?” He asked softly.
Jeff stared at the gunfighter for a moment in disbelief. “You’d teach me, knowing I want ta kill you?”
Johnny stared back at the boy. “I told ya, I didn’t kill your uncle.” When Jeff continued staring at him, Johnny sighed. “Look, give me your word that you’ll let it go until you know the truth, and I’ll teach ya what I know.” Although not all of it, Johnny said to himself.
Jeff didn’t have to think long. Learning from a legend like Johnny Madrid was something that he had dreamed about more than once. “All right. You have my word.”
Johnny nodded. “We need ta go get some more ammunition, and then find someplace outta the way, we don’t want anybody surprisin’ us.”
Jeff nodded. He couldn’t wait to get started. They finished breaking camp, and then headed back to the nearest town. The gunsmith looked at them warily when Johnny asked for the ammunition, but he didn’t argue. When it was time to pay, Johnny gestured to Jeff, and Jeff started to protest. “That’ll take all the money I got!”
Johnny shrugged. “You’re the one that wants ta practice, now do ya want that ammunition ore not?”
Jeff grudgingly laid down his money and then Johnny went to the General store and picked up a few supplies and some food and paid for them. When they were done with their purchases, they headed back out of town. It was late afternoon before Johnny found a spot he was satisfied with, a small canyon with another way out, just in case. He and Jeff set up camp, and then began setting up targets.
Johnny started at the beginning, and was surprised and happy to find out that Jeff was a quick study, but he was also very impatient. That was his worst fault. He tried to hurry everything, from his aim to pulling the trigger. Johnny had to slow him down continually, and Jeff was getting upset over the delays. The boy felt like he was going backward. They practiced until dark, and then stopped to eat.
Johnny looked over at the boy as he ate, and noticed the disgruntled expression on his face. “Not goin’ fast enough for ya?” Johnny asked.
Jeff threw down his spoon. “No. You’re treatin’ me like some green kid that doesn’t even know how ta pull a trigger.”
Johnny put down his own spoon. “I hate ta break it to ya, but that’s what you are.”
Jeff scrambled to his feet, his gun in his hand before he even knew what he was doing. Johnny just sat there, watching him. “What are ya gonna do now? Goin’ right from bein’ a would be gunfighter to a murderer?” Johnny said sarcastically. “So much for your word.” Johnny saw the uncertainty in the boy’s face.
“Not everything can be settled with a gun, or should be.” Johnny said in a calm tone. “And if you try, you’ll get yourself shot over somethin’ stupid, just like this. You got to pick your battles.”
Jeff kept his gun up, glaring at the gunfighter.
Johnny shook his head. “No matter how much ya want ta be grown up, you aren’t. No matter how well you use that gun, you’re still just a kid. And that’s somethin ya can’t hurry. The only way ta grow up is ta get experience, and if ya keep goin’ the way ya are, you’ll never make it. You have ta learn ta listen to people, and to learn from your mistakes.”
Jeff lowered the gun. “You sound like my father.”
Johnny ducked his head and smiled. “And did you ever listen to him?”
Jeff dropped his head. “Sometimes.”
Johnny sighed and shook his head. “Jeff, no matter how much you disagree with your father, he deserves your respect.
Johnny stared at the young man. “Because he’s your father, that’s why. And that’s how ya learn, by listening to people. You can save yourself a whole lot of grief by learning from other people’s mistakes.”
Johnny nodded. “Like mine.” Johnny dropped his head. “All them things you said, about gunfighters bein treated like royalty, they’re all true. But there’s a price ta pay for it, and you have ta decide whether that price is too high. Your father was right; there are other ways to get respect. A lot easier and more honorable ways. You should think about that before you make your decision.”
Jeff dropped his head. “I ain’t good at anything else.”
Johnny shook his head. “What about ranchin’?”
Jeff sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “I wasn’t very good at that, either.”
Johnny smiled. “Maybe ya just didn’t try very hard. Do you think maybe that was it?”
Johnny shook his head. “Look, I know what it’s like ta want more. But I’ll tell ya right now, I never had more than when I had a home and a family. Everything else just isn’t important, and everything else disappears eventually. Your family is the most important thing you’ve got, and you’d better think twice before turning your back on them.”
Jeff looked belligerently at Johnny. “If havin’ a family was so important to you, why didn’t you go back once you decided you’d made a mistake?”
Johnny looked down, and said softly. “Because I wasn’t welcome there any more. My father and brother made it clear when I left that I wouldn’t be welcome, but I left anyway. Somehow, I didn’t think they really meant it.”
Jeff looked uncertain. “My family would always take me back.”
“Don’t bet on it!” Johnny lashed out. “You can only expect them to forgive so much, and you can only hurt them so much before they’ll wash their hands of you. And that’s only fair. So like I said, ya better make up your mind real quick, or ya just might not have a home to go back to.”
Jeff sat down and thoughtfully put his gun back in its holster. Johnny was glad to see the boy a little less sure of himself. Maybe he really could get through to him.
Johnny and Jeff stayed in their camp for almost two weeks as Johnny showed the boy how to improve his draw and aim. Johnny was pleased with Jeff’s progress, but he knew that he’d never be at the top. Jeff, however, was ecstatic. He was by far faster than he’d been before, and his aim had improved considerably. He knew that if he had to, he could take his teacher.
After two weeks, they broke camp and rode out, heading toward Mexico. Johnny thought that Jeff could probably hold his own against most challengers at this point, and he figured he at least stood a whole lot better chance of surviving. He just hoped HE’D survive if Scott ever found out what he’d done.
Scott rode into Prescott two weeks later. He was tired and cross, and just wanted a hot meal and a bath before trying to chase down his wayward family. He went to the telegram office to send a wire to Murdoch telling him he’d arrived, and then went to the hotel to check in. He glanced at the book and didn’t see their names, but that didn’t mean anything. They could be camping out or staying at one of the other hotels in town. Right now, he was too tired to figure it out. Maybe tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, Scott got up and wandered over to the local café for a bite to eat. He kept his ears open, and learned that men were gathering in two places not far from here, depending on which side they were taking. He didn’t hear any mention of Madrid, however, and that bothered him. He did find out that there was a definite right side in this war, and unless his brother had changed completely, which he doubted, he knew which side Johnny would be on.
The longer he sat there, the more he thought that the best way to do this was to ride out and pretend to hire on. At least then he’d be able to talk to Johnny and Jeff. If they weren’t there yet, he could catch them as soon as they arrived.
That afternoon, he mounted Charlie and rode toward the spot he’d been told the men were meeting. He was watched with interest as he approached, but no one tried to stop him. When he finally reached the camp, he asked around, and was finally directed to a tent.
Two men stood at a table, studying a map of the surrounding land. They glanced up when he walked in, but then ignored him. Scott stood there for a few moments and then spoke up. “I hear you’re hiring.”
The younger man turned around and glanced at Scott, taking in his demeanor and his rig, then turned back around to the map he was studying. “Nope. Got all the men we need.”
Scott took a step forward in frustration, and immediately had two guns pointed at him. He froze, and looked the younger man in the eyes. The man returned his stare, and then said softly, “I said we don’t need no help, especially from beginners. Now ride outta here before ya get hurt.”
Scott kept his gaze on the man. “I’m looking for someone.”
The man’s eyebrows went up, but he didn’t answer.
Scott tried to remain calm; he knew this was probably his only chance. “I’m looking for Johnny Madrid, I heard he might be here.
The older man snorted. “Well, ya heard wrong, and if I were you, I’d be thankin’ my lucky stars that you did, cause if he were here, you’d be dead by now.”
Scott shook his head in frustration; why did EVERYONE think he was gunning for Johnny? Was that the life his brother had been leading ever since he left; with men coming after him all the time to try and kill him? Didn’t it ever stop? “I’m not gunning for him, I want to talk to him.”
The older man snorted once more. “Sure ya do, just like everybody else.”
“I’ll pay you for the information.”
Before either man could answer, there was a commotion outside, and the two men went to the entrance of the tent to see what was wrong. A group of riders had come in, and two of them were obviously hurt. The older man directed them to be taken to a neighboring tent while the younger man left to talk to the remaining riders to see what had happened.
The older man walked back into the tent, and studied Scott carefully. “Look mister, Madrid ain’t here, now why don’t you just get on your horse and ride outta here before ya get hurt.”
“Do you know where he is?” Scott asked in desperation.
The man stared at Scott. “Why are you so all fired anxious ta find him?” He asked softly.
Scott decided to tell the man the truth. “He’s my brother, and I have reason to believe my son is traveling with him. I’ve got to find them.”
Bill studied the man. He seemed to be telling the truth, but you never knew. “What’s your name?”
Bill’s eyes narrowed. “Got any identification?”
Scott reached in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to the man. As the man studied it, Scott pulled out a worn and frayed picture from his wallet and also handed it to him. Bill looked at the picture of the two men, their arms around each other and then handed it back to Scott. “That don’t mean you ain’t out ta kill him.”
“I told you, he’s my brother, why would I want to kill him?”
Bill looked at the man and shrugged. “What does your kid look like? Maybe I’ve seen him.”
Scott shook his head in frustration. “He’s blond, a little shorter than I am, and he’s not quite fifteen. And he’s riding a pinto.”
Bill shook his head in disbelief. “That young punk is YOUR kid? He’s Johnny’s nephew?” He shook his head again. “That don’t make sense.”
“What doesn’t make sense?”
“Your kid is out ta kill Johnny.”
Scott heart skipped a beat. “What makes you think that?”
Bill locked eyes with Scott. “Because he told me. He said that Johnny killed his uncle.”
Now it was Scott’s turn to look confused. “Johnny’s the only uncle he has.”
Bill nodded. “Does your kid know that?” He asked sarcastically.
Scott dropped his eyes. “No. I never told him about Johnny.”
“And I don’t suppose Johnny knows about your kid?”
Scott shook his head shamefully.
Bill snorted. “Well, that was pretty stupid, dontcha think? What was the big secret? I’ll tell ya one thing, ya better tell both of ‘em pretty soon, or that kid of yours is gonna get himself killed. He and Johnny rode out together, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. Johnny knew the kid was out ta get him, and I think Johnny was still gonna try ta take care of him. But if that kid of your tries anything…..”
“Which way did they go?” Scott asked desperately.
“He and the kid headed for Mexico, that’s all I know.”
Scott sighed. It would be a monumental task finding them down there, if he ever even could. “Do you have ANY idea where they might be headed?”
Bill thought for a moment. “Maybe Nogales. There’s a lot of unrest down there right now.”
Scott drew out a bill from his wallet. “Thanks.”
Bill took the money and stuffed it into his pocket. “Good luck, you’ll need it.” Bill said.
Chapter Twenty- Nine
Scott left the tent and went to where his horse was tied up. He still looked around just in case the man had been lying to him, but he didn’t see anyone familiar, just the younger man standing next to the tent. After one last look, he mounted up and headed back to Prescott. He figured he’d send a telegram to Murdoch to let him know he was heading to Mexico and then start out in the morning. He shook his head in frustration. He could have caught up with them by now if he hadn’t listened to that crooked bartender in Saugus.
That night, Scott lay awake once again thinking about his son and brother. He thought about what Bill had said, and realized that like Bill, he couldn’t quite figure it out. If Johnny knew that Jeff was out to kill him, it certainly wouldn’t make sense to have him ride with him. Scott could see Johnny letting a threat go if he thought the kid couldn’t beat him, but he also knew that Johnny was no fool. If he thought the kid was serious, he wouldn’t invite him to tag along, and he certainly wouldn’t be protecting him.
He knew his brother would do his best to avoid a fight with a young man, but taking that same man under his wing was something else. Unless……… the more Scott thought about it, the more he thought that it was likely that Johnny had figured out exactly who Jeff was. In that case, Scott was positive that Johnny would do everything in his power to keep Jeff from harm, even if it meant putting himself in danger.
Scott shook his head angrily. He should have told Jeff about Johnny. At the time, it seemed like a bad idea, but now that decision could prove deadly. If for some reason Johnny didn’t tell Jeff who he was, then Jeff would still be after him. Scott wasn’t sure where Jeff had gotten the idea that Johnny had killed his uncle, but if Jeff continued to believe that, then both his son and brother were in danger.
If Jeff drew on Johnny, he was afraid that Jeff was fast enough that Johnny would have to make a decision whether to let Jeff shoot him or to shoot Jeff. Either way, he had no doubt that the effect on Johnny would be catastrophic. He could easily lose both of them permanently simply because he had made a stupid choice to not tell his son about his uncle. He shook his head once again, tempted to get up and go after them right then. He refused to lose either one of them. He HAD to catch up with them, and soon. Finally he lay back down. One more night wouldn’t make a difference.
The next morning, he rode out of town, heading south. He wasn’t sure where in Mexico they might be, but he would head due south and then make his way to Nogales. Maybe he’d hear something on the way. As he rode along, his mind wandered back to his thoughts of the night before, and he was more convinced than ever that he was right. Johnny knew who Jeff was, but he doubted that Jeff knew who Johnny was. A bad situation.
Up ahead, he saw one of the men he had talked to the day before waiting in the road. Maybe he had more information about Johnny and Jeff. He pulled his horse to a halt next to the man and waited. The man appraised him for a moment, and then said. “So you’re Madrid’s brother.”
Scott nodded. “I told you that yesterday.”
The man grinned. “Then I guess this is my lucky day. Put your hands up where I can see them and don’t make any fast moves.”
Scott raised his hands slowly. “I thought you were a friend of Johnny’s.”
The man laughed. “Friends? No way. In fact, I’ve been tryin’ ta get him killed for a long time, he’s just been a little too lucky. At least up until now. But with you as bait, I bet that’ll change.” He reached over and grabbed Scott’s gun out of its holster. “All right, put your hands behind your back.”
Scott thought briefly of fighting, but finally did as he was told. He really didn’t have much choice. The man quickly tied his arms behind him, then reached down and grabbed Charlie’s reins. “You and I are goin’ on a little huntin’ trip my friend.”
The man spurred his horse on, and Charlie followed behind, Scott desperately trying to get his hands undone. After a long and uncomfortable ride, his captor stopped beside a small stream. “All right, you can get down. And believe me when I tell you that I’d just as soon kill you as not. Seeing Madrid’s expression when he found out I’d killed his brother would be almost as good as killing him.”
Scott shrugged nonchalantly. “You may be disappointed. He abandoned his family a long time ago. I don’t mean anything to him. He certainly won’t risk his life for me.”
The man laughed. “Good try. But I heard how protective your brother is over your kid, someone he’s never even met, so I figure you’ve GOT to be important to him.”
“So are you going to keep me tied up all the way to Mexico?” Scott asked.
“Yep. I’m not goin’ ta take any chances. And like I said, if ya give me any problems, I’ll just cut your throat and get my revenge that way. It’d be a lot easier, so don’t tempt me.”
Scott was hoping his captor would make some sort of error or get a little careless that evening, but the man was obviously a professional. Scott realized he’d be extremely lucky to get away; he’d have to figure out something else. He shook his head; he just hoped neither Johnny nor Jeff got hurt because of him.
That evening, Bill looked out of the tent, and called for one of the men to come over. “Hey, Hank. Have you seen Caldwell?” When the man shook his head, Bill realized he hadn’t seen him since last night, when Madrid’s brother had been there. He sure hoped Caldwell hadn’t overheard their conversation, or both Johnny and his brother would be in big trouble.
Johnny stopped just outside of Nogales and dismounted, telling Jeff to do the same. When Jeff had gotten off of his horse, Johnny motioned for him to sit down on a nearby log. Confused, Jeff sat, wondering what was going on.
Johnny looked at the young man for a moment, and then started to speak. “I know you think ya know everything, but you don’t. Nogales is a rough town; ya can’t make a mistake here, or you’ll likely wind up dead. I want you to keep your mouth shut and don’t do ANYTHING to draw attention to yourself. If somebody insults you, I want you to just ignore them.
Jeff’s mouth flew open. “You’re not serious!”
Johnny turned and stared directly at the boy. “I’m dead serious. I don’t want any problems right now. I just want to get in and get some information and get out. I don’t want to do ANYTHING to draw attention to us, or we’ll be in trouble, understand?”
Jeff put his head down and sighed. “But NOBODY’S gonna mess with you!”
Johnny shook his head in frustration. “Don’t you get it yet? EVERYBODY messes with me. And in this town, the pistoleros run in packs, and they don’t exactly care if the fight is fair. I don’t want to get in over our heads, now do you understand?”
Jeff nodded reluctantly, and Johnny bent down and looked him in the eyes. “I mean it, Jeff. You keep that tongue in your head, and ya don’t make eye contact with anybody over the age of five, do you hear me?”
Jeff nodded again, reluctantly. He just didn’t understand how a gunfighter like Madrid could act like he was scared of going into a town. If it were him, he’d go riding down the center of town daring somebody to mess with him. He didn’t understand why Madrid was being so cautious.
Johnny continued his lecture. “OK. Now when we ride into town, we’re gonna ride in and not look at anybody. We’re not gonna pay any attention to anybody, and we’re gonna keep our eyes in front of us. Is that clear?”
Jeff nodded again, still not understanding all of the rules, but willing to follow Madrid’s lead, at least for now.
A few minutes later, the two gunman rode into town and stopped at the saloon. Johnny walked in first, hesitating to look inside before pushing the batwing doors open and heading for a table against the back wall. He sat down in a chair at the far side of the table with his back to the wall. Jeff started to sit in front of him, and Johnny shook his head curtly and gestured to the chair next to him.
Jeff slid into the chair Johnny indicated and looked around. A saloon girl approached and before Johnny could order, Jeff spoke up. “A beer.” Johnny smiled and ordered tequila. When the girl brought back the drinks, Johnny handed her a coin, and then she turned to Jeff. The boy looked at Johnny with big eyes. “Aren’t ya gonna pay?”
“I already did.” Johnny kicked back in his chair and smirked.
“What about mine?”
“Johnny,” Jeff said urgently. “You know I don’t have any money.”
The front legs of the chair hit the floor, and Johnny leaned over toward Jeff. “Then ya shouldn’t have ordered a drink, should ya?”
Jeff looked up at the glowering girl and then over at the mean looking bartender before looking back at Johnny. “Johnny, please!”
Johnny finally nodded at the girl and threw another couple of coins on to her tray. “A sarsaparilla please.”
Jeff looked at Johnny in amazement. “Why didja order that?”
Johnny grabbed the beer and put it in front of him. “Because if I’m payin’ that’s what you’re drinkin’.” Johnny looked at Jeff and saw the anger showing in his face and grinned. “Come on, kid. You know you’re too young ta drink.”
“I bet YOU drank when you were my age.” Jeff spat.
Johnny’s face immediately darkened. “Yeah, you’re right. “Cause I didn’t have anybody that gave a damn enough ta stop me. But YOU’RE not. Not as long as you’re runnin’ with me.”
Jeff looked down, still angry, but for some reason it made him feel good, too. Grudgingly, he grabbed the drink that the girl had brought and raised it to his lips. “Not too bad.” He said grudgingly, looking at Johnny.
Johnny relaxed a little and looked around. It was pretty quiet so far, and part of him was hoping it would stay that way. He knew eventually though, they’d need to take a job. The money he had couldn’t last forever. Besides, he wouldn’t be able to show Jeff what he wanted to sitting in a bar.
Several hours later, Jeff was getting very bored, and Johnny was becoming more and more alert. The clientele was changing, and not for the better. Johnny glanced at Jeff; the boy wasn’t paying any attention. He reached over and whispered to him. “Take a look around.”
Jeff looked up in surprise, and then glanced around. He didn’t really notice anything different, but it seemed as if the atmosphere in the room had changed. There was a tension that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He looked back at Johnny enquiringly.
Johnny sighed, and catching his eye, he nodded toward the bar where three men were standing. Jeff followed his glance, but didn’t see anything different about them. He studied them closer, and when one moved, he finally got a good look at the tied down and well worn rigs. He looked at their faces just as one of them happened to glance his way. Instead of looking away, Jeff met his stare, and Johnny cursed softly as the man nudged his friends. “Look over there, boys. I think we got us a real tough kid.”
The three men turned and stared at Jeff, and he immediately realized his mistake. He glanced at Johnny to see his reaction, and was stunned to see the transformation in the man as he stared back at the three gunslingers. “Stay out of it.” Johnny whispered to Jeff, without taking his eyes off of the men.
Chapter Thirty- One
Jeff looked back at the men, and saw that they had taken a step closer. “Hey boy, ya think ya want ta try it?” One of them asked. “Come on, how about it, kid? Ya feelin’ lucky?”
Jeff glanced at Johnny once more, unsure of what to do. Madrid had told him to stay out of it, but there were THREE of them, and he knew that Johnny couldn’t take them all on. He glanced back at the men, undecided, and then he heard Johnny speak. He had never heard him use that tone before, even when Madrid had been angry with him, and it frightened him just a little bit.
“How about backin’ off, boys?” Johnny said quietly.
The first man studied him. “Is that a threat?”
Johnny locked eyes with the man and shook his head. “Nope. But the kid didn’t mean nothin’, he just don’t have good manners. Why don’t we all just go back ta what we was doin?”
The man scowled at Johnny as he thought over what he had said. “Why should we?” He said belligerently.
“Cause ya don’t know who you’re playin with.” Johnny responded quietly.
The second man’s eyebrows shot up and he stared at Johnny incredulously. “All I see is a punk kid and a half-breed with a big mouth. Maybe you don’t know who YOU’RE playin’ with.”
Johnny glared at the men, his eyes like ice. “I’m tellin’ ya ta let it go.”
One of the other men laughed. “Are you threatening US?” The man turned to his friends. “Are we gonna let those two chase us out of OUR bar?”
Johnny kept his stare on the men, a small smile forming on his lips. He knew that the first man was in charge; the others would follow his lead. His eyes slid to him, and his smile grew into a grin, like they were sharing a secret.
The first man looked back at Johnny, suddenly undecided. He knew that there was something not quite right; something important that he was missing. The man at the table was too confident; like he knew something that the others didn’t. It made the man at the bar uncomfortable, and his instincts were telling him to let it go.
Jeff looked back at Johnny and saw his eyes boring into the first man, like he was trying to will him to back down. Again, Jeff was confused. Between the two of them, he knew they could take these three idiots. Why was Madrid hesitating?
The second man turned to his friend. “Hey, Clyde, whatcha waitin’ for? Those two need ta be taught a lesson. I say we take ‘em down right now.”
Again, the first man hesitated. He wanted to walk away; by now his instincts were screaming that he was making a mistake, possibly the biggest one of his life. But he knew that if he backed down, his friends would never let him hear the end of it and his authority would slip drastically. He shook his head; it was probably just his imagination anyway. His eyes suddenly hardened, and his head came up slightly as he made his decision.
Jeff saw Johnny smile a sad smile as he continued to stare at the man. “It’s your call.” He said quietly.
The man hesitated one last time. There was something familiar about that half-breed, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He thought he’d seen him before, but where? The man shook his head; it wasn’t important. Besides, he’d made his decision and he liked the odds. He turned and faced the man at the table fully, and felt his friends also move into position.
With a sigh, Johnny calmly put down his drink and slowly stood up, keeping his eyes locked on the leader. He saw the man’s expression change to fear as the man finally recognized him and suddenly realized just who he was dealing with.
Johnny smiled once more; the man had recognized him and now there was a good chance he could back them down without gunplay.
At that moment, unaware that the probability of a gun battle had just been dramatically reduced, Jeff decided to even the odds. He quickly jumped to his feet and grabbed for his gun. The sudden movement made the three men swing towards the boy, their hands grabbing for their own guns. Johnny cursed and went for his revolver, and Jeff got his out a second later. Johnny’s first shot caught the first man in the heart, dropping him before his gun was out of its holster and before he could make a sound. The bartender dove for cover when the big mirror in back of the bar shattered from one of Jeff’s bullets, and the other patrons also scattered. Johnny’s second shot hit the second man in the right shoulder, spinning him around, and then one of Jeff’s bullets finally connected. He hit the same man in his stomach and the man went sprawling on top of the bar, blood pouring out of his mouth.
Jeff froze at the sight, and the third man at last had time to get off a shot. The bullet went whizzing past Johnny’s ear, and he heard it find its mark before he dropped the third man with a shot to the head. He glanced at the three men to make sure they were out of the game before turning his attention to Jeff.
Jeff stood and stared at the man sprawled on the bar. The man was still alive and moaning pitifully. Those moans suddenly turned to screams as the pain ripped through his gut. Jeff watched as more blood flowed out of the man’s mouth, shutting off the screams and the man scrabbled weakly as if trying to rise. The man locked eyes with the boy and whispered, “Help me, please”, before finally going into a convulsion and dying.
Jeff had turned pale as the man finally lost his battle with death, and the boy suddenly leaned over and threw up before collapsing in Johnny’s arms, his own blood staining his shirt.
Scott sat by the edge of the fire, trying once again to free his hands. Caldwell sure knew his business; he hadn’t given Scott any chance at all to get away. At night the man made sure that Scott was almost totally immobilized and his captor stayed awake most of the time. Scott never knew when Caldwell was really sleeping or just pretending to be. He had received several hearty kicks when his captor caught him cautiously trying to free himself.
During the day, the man kept him securely tied and never let Scott get behind him. Caldwell kept a hold of Charlie’s reins, dashing Scott’s hopes that somehow he could send his horse into a run and at least get someone’s attention. However, the further they traveled, the more Scott realized that that plan wouldn’t have worked anyway. They had skirted all of the towns and had only come across a few solitary travelers. None had shown the slightest interest in the pair, much to Scott’s chagrin.
They had been traveling for over a week now, and every night Scott was forced to listen to Caldwell’s litany of hate against his brother. The first night, Scott realized that his chances of escape were slim. About the only thing he could do to stop Caldwell was to try to put some doubt in the man’s mind about the effectiveness of his plan. Scott remembered back to that particular conversation; it was hard to forget.
“Look, Caldwell. You’ve made a mistake. I’m not really Madrid’s brother.”
The gunfighter snorted. “Oh, yeah, OK. Then I guess I’ll just cut ya loose.” He said sarcastically.
Scott shook his head. “I’m telling you the truth; I lied to Bill and those others. Come on, think about it. You say you know Madrid. Do we look ANYTHING alike?”
Caldwell didn’t answer, and Scott continued. “You say you know him. DO we TALK anything alike? If we were brothers, don’t you think there would be some resemblance SOMEWHERE?”
Caldwell looked up and studied him thoughtfully.
Much to Scott’s delight, Caldwell had allowed Scott to plant the first seed of doubt in the gunfighter’s mind. Caldwell had asked, “If you ain’t his brother, why did ya say you was?”
Scott shrugged. “I heard from Bill and a few others that my son was running with Madrid. When I asked where the gunfighter was, no one would give me any information.” He snorted. “I guess they thought I was going to try to gun him down or something. I thought that they were trying to protect him. I could care less about Madrid; all I wanted to do is find out where my son was. When no one would tell me where to find Madrid, I told them he was my brother to convince them I wasn’t out to get him.” He shook his head. “All I want is to get my boy back.”
Caldwell shrugged. “Sorry about you luck. But you still may be useful anyway.”
“How? I already told you, Madrid doesn’t care about me one way or the other.”
Caldwell shook his head. “Maybe, and maybe not. I don’t know. But that kid that Madrid took under his wing sure will, and if your boy comes after ya, Madrid will probably tag along just ta make sure the kid doesn’t get hurt.”
“Why would he do that?” Scott asked.
Caldwell laughed, a harsh grating sound. “Cause Madrid’s stupid. I know him, and he’ll try ta protect that kid no matter what.” He shook his head. “I don’t know HOW he’s survived this long thinkin’ like that. He knows that for gunfighters, it’s every man for himself, a fact that I firmly believe in.”
Scott dropped his head. “So you’re going to use me as bait and try to lure my son in, and HOPE that Madrid follows my son.”
Caldwell nodded, “That’s about it.” Caldwell smiled. “And I plan on killin’ that kid of yours before I take Madrid down. Make him feel real bad for not takin’ care of him.”
Scott temper got the better of him and he struggled against his bonds. “You have no reason to kill my son. He’s never done anything to you. Besides, he’s just a kid; he’s only fourteen.”
Caldwell shrugged. “He shouldn’t be playin’ at a man’s game if he don’t want ta get hurt. He woulda been dead before now if Madrid hadn’t been ridin’ herd on him. Bill told me that half-breed saved the boy’s life in that range war and almost got himself killed doin’ it.” He shook his head. “No, Madrid will be there all right.”
“Why do you hate Madrid that badly?”
Caldwell smiled. “It ain’t so much that I hate him; he just always seems ta be in my way. Every time I get a job, people are comparin’ me to him, not payin’ me what I should ‘cause I ‘ain’t Madrid’. Whenever we meet, it always seems like we’re on opposite sides, and that filthy half-breed has all the luck. He’s always makin’ me look bad and costin’ me money. The last job we had I was supposed to make a bundle, that farmer was loaded. And then he rides in, and all of a sudden I ain’t in charge anymore. I’m tired of eatin’ crow ‘cause of him, and he’s gonna pay.”
Scott laughed. “Maybe the reason he has all the luck is because he’s better than you, did you ever think of that? Maybe he has all the luck because he’s good at what he does. Did you ever think………”
Caldwell’s foot had connected with Scott’s thigh and Scott was sent rolling into the fire. Caldwell grabbed him by his hair and dragged him out, but not before Scott had burned both of his arms. His captor had given him another couple of kicks before finally leaving him alone.
The rest of that night and the following day had been agony. His burns had blistered and his thigh throbbed unmercifully. The only thing that had kept him in the saddle the following day was the certainty that if he fell, Caldwell would kill him. He was in enough agony that he really didn’t care for himself, but he knew that the gunman would still go after Jeff and Johnny. He HAD to find a way to warn them when the time came.
Jeff drifted in and out of consciousness several times. One time when he came to, he thought he was being carried and looked up and saw Johnny’s face above him. Another time he thought he might be on a horse, but he just wasn’t sure. Everything had a dreamlike quality about it. Everything, that is, except the pain and the memory of the man he had killed. Both of those were all too real. He drifted off once again.
The next time Jeff came to, he was a little more alert. He thought he might be in a cave, but that didn’t make much sense. He looked around frantically, and when he didn’t see anyone, he tried to sit up. Immediately, he felt himself being restrained. He fought against his captor as best he could, but he felt awfully weak for some reason. He continued fighting until Johnny’s voice finally broke through to him, telling him to calm down. At last he did, and relaxed back against Johnny, his chest heaving in exhaustion and pain.
He looked around. “Where are we?” He said, close to panic.
Johnny talked reassuringly. “We’re in a safe spot. I’ve used this place more than once in an emergency, don’t worry, no one will bother us here.”
Jeff tried to clear his head, but he still felt fuzzy, and the pain was making him feel sick. “What happened?”
“What happened is that you didn’t listen to me.” Johnny growled.
“Sorry.” Jeff managed.
“I’ve heard that before. I TOLD ya to stay outta it.”
Jeff sighed. “I was just tryin’ ta help.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, I heard that before, too. ”
Jeff licked his lips, for some reason they were awfully dry. Johnny moved over and handed him a canteen. Jeff had only taken a swallow or two before Johnny stopped him and handed him a small flask. “Here, take a few swigs of this.”
Jeff looked at the flask quizzically. “What’s in it?”
Jeff looked at Johnny in confusion. “I thought ya didn’t want me ta drink.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, well this time I’ll make an exception. I think you’re gonna need it; that bullet’s still in there and it’s gonna have ta come out.”
Jeff bolted up before Johnny could restrain him once again. He looked at Johnny in panic. “Where’s the doctor?”
Johnny smiled. “There ain’t no doctor in Nogales. He got himself shot a few months ago. We’re on our own.”
At Jeff’s panicked expression, Johnny shook his head. “Don’t worry, I won’t make ya dig it out yourself.”
That didn’t do much to reassure the boy, and Jeff stared at the gunfighter. “Are ya any good at it?”
Johnny stared back at the boy. “I haven’t heard any complaints.” He chuckled. “Of course, most of ‘em were unconscious at the time.”
Jeff swallowed hard. “Is it gonna hurt?”
“Now what do you think?” Johnny replied sarcastically.
Jeff looked at the flask in his hand for a long time before bringing it up to his mouth. He grimaced at the smell, and looked at Johnny. Johnny shrugged. “Sorry, that’s all I got.”
Jeff tipped the bottle up and gulped down a large swallow. He immediately choked, and spent the next several minutes trying to catch his breath, while Johnny tried desperately to keep from laughing.
Finally Jeff managed to stop choking and he lay back down and closed his eyes. He was scared to death. For some reason, even though his father and Madrid had both warned him, his getting shot just hadn’t seemed like a possibility. He never thought that it could happen to him. He wondered if he was going to die, and he tried hard to fight back tears.
Johnny watched the boy’s expression and realized just how scared he was. He put his hand on Jeff’s arm. “Look, kid,” he said softly. When Jeff looked at him, he continued. “You ain’t gonna die, I promise. You’re not even hurt that bad. Ya caught a bullet in your shoulder, and that’s the best place ta catch one if ya gotta get shot. It ain’t even in your gun arm. You’ll probably feel sick for a while, and you’re gonna be real sore, but that’s all. And you’ll still be able ta handle a gun.”
Jeff turned his head away from Madrid as he remembered the man in the bar dying in agony. “I don’t know if I want to anymore.” He whispered.
Johnny dropped his head, thankful that the man’s death had affected Jeff that way. He never wanted to see anybody suffer, but at least this time it was for a good cause. The man’s miserable death just might have saved his nephew’s life. It made the boy see that killing somebody wasn’t fun. Of course, getting shot wasn’t exactly fun either, but Johnny would have let his nephew avoid that particular lesson if he could have.
He handed Jeff the flask one more time. “Go on, you’re gonna need it.”
Jeff looked at the tequila in disgust, and then resolutely managed to take a small sip without gagging. Without a word he handed the bottle back to Johnny, who shoved it into his pocket.
Johnny reached into his saddlebags and brought out a clean rag, which he twisted and handed to the boy. “Are ya ready?”
Jeff stared at the rag, not knowing what to do with it, and finally with a sigh, Johnny put it up to Jeff’s mouth. “Here. Bite on it. It’s better than breakin your teeth.”
Jeff opened his mouth and accepted the rag, and then his eyes got big when he saw Johnny reach into his boot and pull out a sharp knife and place it in the fire. He started to sweat, and his fear forced the tears to start flowing once more, but he no longer cared. The gunfighter grabbed the knife and poured some tequila over it, then looked at Jeff. “This is gonna hurt like hell. I’m gonna pour some of this onto the wound to keep it from becoming infected, and then I’ll get the bullet out as quick as I can. I don’t have anybody ta hold you down, so you’re gonna have ta keep as still as your able to. The less ya struggle and move around, the easier it’ll be on ya. If I have ta fight ya, it’s gonna hurt more, and it’ll take longer, do you understand?”
Jeff nodded, and then turned his face away, waiting for the pain. When it came, he tried to scream through the rag. He had never felt anything like it, and he never wanted to again.
Jeff swam up through the haze and blinked several times, trying to clear his vision. His eyes felt like they had been glued shut, and his whole body ached. As he became more aware, he tried to look around, but the pain in his shoulder stopped him. Moving his head down as far as he could, he saw that there was a fresh bandage wrapped around his chest and shoulder. Exhausted, he lay back down and shut his eyes.
When he came to again, he felt the warmth of the fire and tried to scoot closer. He was so cold. He could feel himself shivering, and tried again to reach the fire, but he just couldn’t move. His body felt weak and clumsy. He felt a blanket being draped over him, and gratefully snuggled into it. In the back of his mind he knew he should be worried about something, but for some reason he felt safe.
While he was unconscious, his mind continued working. He relived various times of his life, both good and bad. He remembered the death of his mother, and the beatings he received from his stepfather. He relived the terror of running from the police back east, after he and his stepfather had robbed a local merchant, and knowing he was going to get caught. His stepfather had abandoned him, choosing to save himself and leaving the boy to his fate.
He remembered the first time he saw Lancer, and trying desperately to seem unimpressed with the grand hacienda and all of its trappings. And he remembered meeting his father for the first time, and his grandfather and aunt. He didn’t know why they wanted him to stay so badly, he thought they had some reason of their own that meant more abuse for him. It was a long time before he trusted them, and he still acted up occasionally, just to prove to himself that the expected beatings would never come.
He relived his leaving the ranch, and the fear and loneliness he had felt on the trail. And he remembered the fight in the saloon with crystal clarity, watching the whole thing over and over in his mind in slow motion. Watching the man die in agony, seeing the other men fall, and then seeing Johnny turning toward him, the concern and fear in his face when he caught sight of the blood on Jeff’s shirt. He remembered collapsing in Madrid’s arms, and somehow knowing that the gunfighter would take care of him.
It was two days later before he once more woke up. He looked around and saw Johnny sleeping sitting up, propped against the side of the cave in a decidedly uncomfortable position. Jeff cautiously looked around, and saw that they were still in the same cave. He slowly moved his arm, and found out that while it was still sore, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as it had. He reached over with his good hand and picked up the canteen that was next to him and undid the cap. He took a sip, then put the cap back on and lay back down, exhausted.
A few minutes later, he heard Johnny stirring and he opened his eyes. Johnny smiled at him as he added more wood to the fire. “Hey, sleepyhead. It’s about time you woke up.”
Jeff smiled back. “How long have I been out?”
“Three days, off and on.”
Jeff sighed. “I don’t remember.”
Johnny nodded. “It’s just as well.”
Jeff looked down. “Thanks.”
Jeff shrugged. “For everything. For takin’ care of me and showin’ me stuff.” He raised his eyes and looked at Johnny. “For not lettin’ me get killed.” He hesitated. “Why didn’t you?”
Johnny looked at him a moment, considering, before looking down. “Cause maybe I owe your father somethin.” He said quietly.
Jeff tried to sit up straighter. “You know my father?”
Johnny nodded slowly. “At least I used to.”
Jeff stared at him for a moment before whispering, “You DID kill my uncle, didn’t you?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, I didn’t.” He looked at Jeff. “I swear.”
Jeff dropped his head, still not sure whether to believe him. “I knew there was something else, some reason you let me tag along. Bill said you always worked alone, but you asked me to come with you.” He shook his head, almost afraid to ask. “How did you know my father?”
Johnny considered the question for quite a while before answering. Just when Jeff thought that he wouldn’t answer, Johnny spoke. “It was a long time ago. I worked at Lancer for a while when I was trying ta quit fightin.”
“Why didn’t you stay?”
Johnny dropped his head. “Like I told you, I was stupid, and I was afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
Johnny hesitated. “Afraid of losin’ my edge. Afraid somebody would get hurt because of me, afraid that I’d get killed ‘cause I didn’t have time ta practice, afraid that maybe I just wasn’t cut out for ranchin.” He snorted. “You name it. It was all of those things. But mostly, I was just stupid. I made a bad choice.”
Jeff looked down. “Just like me.” he said.
Johnny nodded. “Except it’s not too late for you ta change your mind. You can go back if ya want to.” He looked at the boy hopefully, but Jeff avoided his gaze. He wasn’t sure WHAT he wanted right now.
Jeff looked down. “Did you and my pa get along?”
Johnny smiled. “Yeah, we got along, at least most of the time.”
Jeff smiled. “What about my grandpa?”
Johnny chuckled. “Now he was a different proposition altogether. We was always buttin’ heads.”
Jeff laughed. “Everyone’s always buttin’ heads with grandpa.” Jeff stopped suddenly and became serious. “I wish you would’ve stayed.” He dropped his head and bit his lip. In fact, I wish…….” He trailed off.
Johnny looked at him curiously. “What do you wish?”
“That you were my pa.” He whispered.
Johnny stared at Jeff for a moment, and then jumped up and started pacing. “You don’t mean that, and you know it! Your pa’s the best man I ever met, and you should be proud he’s your father!” He turned and glared at the boy.
Jeff looked down, unprepared for the gunfighter’s wrath. “I am.” He said uncertainly. I just meant……” he shook his head.
“What did you mean?” Johnny snapped.
Jeff sighed. “My pa just doesn’t understand me. We don’t get along.”
A small smile formed on Johnny’s lips. “And you think that we do?” He asked sarcastically.
A similar smile appeared on Jeff’s face. “Maybe not all the time,” he admitted. But at least I know where I stand with you. And you let me make my own mistakes and you don’t treat me like a baby and you don’t try ta run my life.”
Johnny went back and sat down across from the boy. “Jeff, your pa is just tryin’ ta keep you safe. He doesn’t WANT you ta have ta learn things the hard way and maybe get hurt or killed in the process. He’s tryin’ ta help you grow up the best he can.”
Jeff sighed. “But he’s always tellin’ me what ta do; and what he wants for me I don’t want, and I can’t make him understand that.”
“He’s always after me ta study or practice ropin’ or somethin. And I’m just not interested in those things. I wouldn’t mind doin’ ‘em sometimes, but that’s all there’s ever time for. And there’s always more chores that HAVE ta be done; more cattle ta brand and more fences ta mend or some emergency that HAS ta be taken care of. I never have time ta just be myself and figure out WHAT I want.”
Johnny thought back to his time at Lancer, and knew what the boy was talking about. He had felt the same way when he had been there.
“Jeff, Lancer’s a big place. It takes a lot of men ta run it and ta keep it goin’. He’s not askin’ you ta work harder than anyone else, and I bet he works harder than anybody, right?”
Jeff nodded reluctantly.
“If you don’t like ranchin, then you’ve got to do somethin’ else. And for most things, that requires an education. He’s tryin ta give you your choice. He doesn’t want you to throw your life away. He’s tryin ta get you to be good at something you can be proud to do.”
“But I’m not good at either books or ranchin’. They’re too hard.”
Johnny snorted. “And bein’ a gunhawk is real easy, huh?”
Jeff sighed. “I don’t know, I guess not. But I’m GOOD with a gun.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, you’re good. But not the best, far from it. And you know there’s more ta bein a gunfighter than bein’ fast.”
Jeff nodded as he picked at the blanket that was draped over him. “Yeah, I found that out the hard way.” he sighed.
Johnny looked at the boy. “How many hours a day did you practice with that gun of yours?”
Jeff looked up in surprise. “I don’t know.”
“Come on, I think you have a pretty good idea.”
Jeff looked around and shrugged. “Every chance I got. Maybe three, four hours a day.”
Johnny nodded. “And how long each day did ya spend at your books, or trying’ ta improve your skill with a rope?”
Jeff looked down and didn’t answer.
“Jeff, ta get good at anything takes time and practice.” Johnny’s voice softened and he stared into the fire. “And anything worth havin’ requires some sacrifice. Ya have ta work for what ya want. Ya can’t expect the good things ta be easy.”
“I don’t know what I want anymore.”
Johnny nodded. “You’re still young. You have plenty of time to make that decision, that is if ya don’t decide to throw it all away and get yourself killed. Why don’t ya give your schoolin’ and your ranch work an honest try before ya make up your mind? Then if ya decide ya don’t want ta do it, at least you won’t always wonder if ya made a mistake. In the meantime, you can keep your eyes open and see what else appeals to you. You just might be surprised. And I bet your Pa would go along with just about anything that you wanted to do that didn’t involve you usin’ a gun.”
Jeff hung his head as he thought. “I guess. But everything else just always seemed so boring.”
Johnny nodded again and lightly touched Jeff’s shoulder. “Sometimes boring isn’t so bad.”
Jeff smiled and nodded. He looked up at the gunfighter. “What about you?”
Johnny looked surprised. “What about me?”
“Why don’t you give somethin else a try, again, too?”
Johnny snorted and shook his head. “I told ya, it’s too late for me ta change. I’m a gunfighter, and there’s no way out for me. I had my chance and I messed it up and threw it away a long time ago.”
Jeff looked earnestly at Johnny. “You could come back to Lancer with me, I know my pa would hire you on, especially when I tell him how you helped me.”
Johnny looked down, a surge of emotions tugging him every which way. Finally, he brought his head up and stared at Jeff. “I TOLD you, I wasn’t welcome there any more. It wouldn’t work now anymore than it did then. And the less you tell your pa about what happened when you were with me the better. In fact, it would probably be best if ya didn’t even tell him about me at all.”
Jeff shook his head in bewilderment. “WHY?”
“Because I don’t think he’d be real happy about it, that’s why.” Johnny jumped back up. “I’m gonna go check on the horses. I’ll be back in a little while. Get some rest.” He turned and walked out of the cave, leaving a very confused Jeff trying to figure out how to get Johnny to come back to Lancer with him and get him to leave the life that he said he hated. He owed him that much.
Jeff didn’t bring up the subject again, and neither did Johnny. The next couple of days Jeff spent getting his strength back and thinking about everything that had happened. He realized that Johnny was right; his father had just been trying to keep him from getting hurt. He realized that his father had always been supportive of everything he ever did, except for that one thing. And maybe he hadn’t given schoolwork the effort he should have. Johnny was right about something else; boring didn’t sound nearly as bad to him as it had.
“What now?” Jeff asked as they were sitting eating an early breakfast.
Johnny looked at him quizzically. “What do ya mean?”
Jeff shrugged. “What do we do now?”
Johnny smiled. “Well, I’m gonna head for the range war we heard about, but first I’m gonna put you on a stage back home. You’ll be ready ta travel in couple of days.”
Jeff shook his head. “I ain’t gonna take a stage.”
Johnny stared at him in disbelief. “Wanna bet?” He asked softly.
Jeff shook his head. “Come on, Johnny. I ain’t refusin’ ta go home. But I’m NOT gonna leave Chief.”
Johnny dropped his head. He knew that Jeff felt almost as strongly about Chief as he did about Barranca. And he sure as heck wouldn’t leave Barranca. “O.K.” he said with a sigh. I guess I can find some work in California just as easy.”
“You’ll come with me?” Jeff said delightedly.
Johnny shook his head. “Only part way. Just far enough ta make sure you can get home OK. Don’t want ya runnin’ into any trouble on the way back.”
Jeff shook his head angrily. “Ya don’t have ta baby sit me. I’m not a kid.”
Johnny smiled. “I think we already had this conversation, didn’t we?” He dropped his head. “Look Jeff, just humor me, all right? I know you could make it home on your own, but you’re still hurt and I don’t want ta be worryin’ about you when I need ta have my mind on other things.”
“Like stayin’ alive.” Jeff said quietly.
Johnny shrugged. “We’ll start for California in three days, you should be feelin’ up to ridin’ by then.”
Jeff nodded slowly. “It’ll be good to go home.” He hesitated and then looked at Johnny hopefully. “Do ya think my Pa will be mad?”
Johnny laughed. “I don’t think mad will even BEGIN ta cover it. You’re gonna be lucky if you’ll be able ta sit down for a month.”
Jeff glared at the gunfighter. “You sure know how ta make me feel grown up.”
Johnny laughed once more. “Just remember ya ain’t, and nobody’ll have ta keep remindin’ you.”
Jeff hung his head and nodded, then looked back up at Johnny. “Are ya sure you won’t come with me? I mean all the way? I KNOW my Pa and Grandpa would give ya a job.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, that’s probably about all they’d give me.” He said quietly.
“What do ya mean?” Jeff asked.
Johnny shook his head. “Nothin’. Just thinkin’ out loud. And no, I won’t go with ya. I have ta live with the choice I made a long time ago.”
Johnny shook his head. “Look, Jeff, ya don’t understand. Let it go.”
Jeff looked at the gunfighter belligerently. “You’re right, I don’t understand. You tell me I can quit, well so can you.”
Johnny smiled. “Well, I see ya got your dad in you, you sound just like him.” He shook his head. “Jeff, would you really want me at the ranch, knowing somebody could use your pa or grandpa ta get to me? That they could get hurt simply because I was around?”
Jeff shook his head. “No, but what about the times that you could help them from BEING hurt? Both my grandpa and my pa have gotten shot since I’ve been there. If you had been there, maybe they wouldn’t have been.”
Johnny sighed. “Yeah, well maybe and maybe not. And maybe it woulda been a whole lot worse. But people aren’t gonna stop comin’ after me just ‘cause I said I quit. I know, I tried it before.”
Jeff smiled slightly. “You told me that anything takes time. How much time did YOU give it?”
Johnny glared at the boy. “That’s enough.”
“I think you’re scared.” Jeff said quietly.
Johnny’s head shot up. “Scared? Of WHAT?”
Jeff shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Johnny jumped to his feet. “You’d better watch that mouth, boy, or you’re liable ta get shot again.” He grabbed his saddlebags and headed for the entrance. “We need some supplies; I’m goin’ into town. I’ll be back in a few hours, TRY ta stay outta trouble, all right?” He turned and stomped out of the cave.
Jeff watched him leave, and then lay back down with a sigh.
Jeff lay there and thought about what would happen when he got home. Maybe Johnny was wrong, maybe his father would be so glad to see him he wouldn’t be in trouble. He could hope, anyway.
About a half of an hour later, he heard a noise outside of the cave. He figured it was Johnny, but then he realized that the gunfighter had only been gone a short while. Too short of a time to get to town and back, and he doubted if Johnny would turn around and come back without getting the supplies that they needed.
He grabbed the rifle that Johnny had left then went to the brush shrouded entrance and cautiously looked out. He saw a man standing about thirty feet or so away, and looking around like he wasn’t really sure where the entrance was. Johnny had done a pretty good job of covering it up. Jeff thought the man looked familiar, and suddenly he realized where he’d seen him before. He started to move back into the cave, but his movement was evidently seen by the man, because he jerked his head up and stared in Jeff’s direction.
“Hey, kid. Tell Madrid I have something for him.”
Jeff cocked his rifle. “Mr. Madrid isn’t here.”
The man barked a short laugh. “For your sake, he’d better be.”
“Mister, if you try anything, I’ll blow you away.” Jeff told the man.
The bartender from Nogales laughed again. “Johnny wouldn’t be real happy with ya if ya did. He and I go way back. How do you think I know about this place? Besides, kid, I ain’t threatening you.”
“Then what did you mean?” Jeff asked.
The bartender shrugged. “Some guy rode into town this morning; said he was lookin’ for Madrid. I thought Johnny had better know about it. Now where is he?”
Jeff still wasn’t sure if the bartender was telling the truth, and he sure wasn’t going to tell him where Johnny was. “Johnny’s not here. He may not be back for a couple of days.”
The man shook his head and then stared at Jeff as if trying to decide something. Finally, he sighed. “Well, I sure hope he will be. And you’d better hope so, too. That man that was lookin for Johnny said that he had your pa, and that he wanted Johnny to come into town and ‘talk’ about it. Said his name was Caldwell, and that Johnny would know him.”
Jeff felt the blood rush to his head. How in the world could Caldwell have gotten a hold of his father? He tried to think, but he was close to panic. He knew that Chase Caldwell had been humiliated by Johnny and would seek revenge, but why did he think that Johnny would risk his life for Scott Lancer? It didn’t make sense.
He knew that he should probably wait for Johnny to get back, but he wasn’t sure if the gunfighter would even try to rescue his father, and besides, it was Jeff’s responsibility. He looked at the man. “I’ll give Johnny the message.” He said more calmly than he felt.
The bartender looked at him suspiciously. “Kid, don’t get any idea about going after this guy on your own. He looks like he knows what he’s doin’.”
Jeff nodded. “Thanks.”
With a last backward glance at the boy, the man walked over to his waiting horse and mounted.
Jeff walked back into the cave and tried to come up with a plan. Johnny had told him that most men get killed because they rushed in to a situation without thinking. He sat down and tried to think things out, but he couldn’t come up with anything. How could he when he didn’t know any details?
He didn’t know where Caldwell was, and didn’t know if his father was with him, or being held somewhere. And he didn’t know if Caldwell was working on his own or he had help. He realized now that he could have asked the bartender a few more questions, but it was too late for that now, he’d just have to try to figure something out when he got there. But for now, he had to find his father and Caldwell. He thought one more time of waiting for Johnny, but he knew that the gunfighter had gone into town to get supplies. He’d probably run into him on the way to town, and Jeff was afraid that time was of the essence.
Jeff grabbed up the rifle and checked to make sure it was loaded, and then picked up his gun and strapped it on. It was hard to get it right with only one hand, but he finally managed. He picked up a box of ammunition and stuffed it into his pocket, and then grabbed his saddle and lugged it out to where Chief was tethered. By the time he was done saddling and bridling his horse and securing his rifle, he had worked up a sweat. His arm was throbbing, even though he had tried hard not to use it. He just hoped he wouldn’t pass out before he got to town.
He clambered up on Chief, and turned the Pinto toward what he hoped was Nogales. Nudging the horse into a lope, he concentrated on staying in the saddle and keeping his arm from jarring too badly. He wasn’t sure exactly how far out of town they were, or even which direction, but he headed the way the bartender had gone when he had left. He just hoped the man had been headed back to his saloon.
Johnny rode at an easy pace back toward the cave. He had picked up some more supplies at a store on the outskirts of a small town just east of Nogales. It was safer than going into the main town, besides, they didn’t need that much; it had just been an excuse to get away. After he picked up some more food he had headed immediately back toward camp. His initial anger at Jeff had subsided some. He knew the boy was just trying to help, and it certainly wasn’t his fault that he didn’t understand the situation. Johnny shook his head. He really didn’t understand why Scott and Murdoch hadn’t told Jeff about him. It seems like it would have been smart to use Johnny as an example of what a bad choice being a gunfighter was.
He was fairly confident that the boy had gotten any illusions about being a gun for hire out of his system, and Johnny was glad. It was a rough, lonely life, and Johnny wouldn’t wish it on anyone, let alone his nephew. He wondered briefly whether he should tell Jeff who he was, and then decided against it. If Scott wanted the boy to know, he could tell him.
When he reached the cave, Johnny immediately noticed that Chief was gone. He dismounted and with gun drawn he cautiously entered the cave. Seeing it was empty, he cursed; how could he have misread the boy that badly? He really thought that Jeff had given up his desire to be a gunfighter and was going to go back to Lancer. He thought the boy had learned his lesson, but apparently he hadn’t. He looked around, and noticed that Jeff’s saddlebags were still there. Frowning, he went over and looked inside. All of the boy’s possessions were still there. Taking another look around, he realized that the only things missing were the boy’s rifle and sidearm.
Cursing again, Johnny spun around and headed back outside. He jumped on Barranca and kicked the horse into a lope. If that kid was headed for Nogales to try to prove himself as a gunfighter, he could be dead within minutes. He urged Barranca faster, and the horse broke into a ground -eating gallop.
Jeff slowed his horse on the outskirts of Nogales and tried to think things through, the way Johnny had taught him. He thought he should have run into Johnny by now, and was a little worried about it. If he really had come to town to get supplies, Jeff should have met him by now. He realized now that he should have waited for Madrid. Jeff sighed. It was too late to change things now, he’d just have to do the best he could without him; he just hoped that it wouldn’t cost his father his life.
Jeff tied Chief to a tree behind the saloon so he couldn’t be seen from the street, and cautiously approached the back entrance of the bar. Jeff hoped that the bartender would give him the information he wanted. If he really WAS an old friend of Johnny’s there was a good chance he would. He hesitated just outside the door and cradled his arm for a moment. It was throbbing painfully, and it made Jeff feel ill. He took a few deep breaths, and then set his jaw and forced himself to ignore the pain.
After a moment, Jeff pushed the door open and stepped inside a small storage room at the back of the bar. He took a second to let his eyes adjust to the darkness, and listened to see if he could hear anything useful from the main room. All seemed quiet, and when he looked up, he saw the bartender cleaning some glasses. He relaxed slightly; the man didn’t appear nervous or distressed. Jeff figured he’d go ask the man some questions and try to find out just where Caldwell was. Stepping in to the main part of the saloon, Jeff started to walk up to the bar to talk to the bartender when a voice from the back of the room froze him in place.
“Hold it right there, kid.”
Jeff moved his head and saw Caldwell sitting at the same table that he and Johnny had sat at the night he had gotten hurt. He looked at Caldwell until a movement next to the gunfighter drew his attention and Jeff’s stomach dropped. Sitting next to him was his father, tightly bound and gagged.
Jeff took a step toward his father, and Caldwell spoke again. “I said hold it. You take another step, and I’ll kill your old man. Got that?”
Jeff nodded. Caldwell stood up slowly. “Where’s Madrid?”
Jeff shook his head. “I don’t know, he’s gone.”
Caldwell’s eyes narrowed. “Gone? What do ya mean, gone?”
“I don’t know where he is. He took off and hasn’t come back.” Jeff said truthfully.
Caldwell studied the boy. He could be telling the truth, but then again, he could be lying, too. He realized that if Lancer had been telling the truth, and he wasn’t Madrid’s brother, he’d have to come up with a different plan. He watched as the boy’s fingers flexed several times. “You want ta try me, boy?” Caldwell asked.
Scott shook his head furiously back and forth at his son, but Jeff ignored him. He didn’t know if he could take Caldwell or not, but he knew he was a lot faster than he had been when he had watched the man kill the kid in camp, and he knew that if he didn’t do SOMETHING, both he and his father would die. He slowly nodded.
Caldwell smiled; this was going to be too easy. He glanced at the boy’s father, and was amused at the look of panic in the man’s face. He watched as the man tried to shake his head even harder. “Your Pa don’t think you can take me. Why don’t ya just give it up and toss me the gun, boy.”
Jeff’s voice sounded calmer than he felt. “I can take you. You’re the one that should give it up. You don’t stand a chance.”
Caldwell grinned. “I can see some of Madrid’s rubbed off on you. I suppose he’s been helpin’ you learn how ta fight, too.”
Jeff nodded. “Maybe.” He glanced at his father and noticed a dark look cross his features.
Caldwell laughed shortly. “He must not a done a very good job. Looks like ya caught one bullet already.”
Jeff shrugged as best he could with one arm. “Coulda been worse.”
Caldwell moved away from Scott. “Oh, it will be,” he grinned.
Scott stared at Jeff, willing him with every fiber of his being not to do this. He knew that his son didn’t stand a chance. Damn Johnny for making him think that he did. Scott struggled once more against his bonds, but it was no use; Caldwell had made sure of that. Finally, Scott stopped fighting and watched. It was all he could do.
Caldwell took one more step toward Jeff. “It’s your move, boy.”
Jeff shook his head and smiled. “You’re the one that wants ta dance.”
Scott shivered as he watched Jeff and listened to the words. His son sounded just like his brother.
Caldwell’s smile disappeared. “Draw, boy!”
Jeff’s eyes bored into his opponent’s, looking for the signal that Johnny had shown him. Finally, he saw it, and grabbed for his gun as Caldwell made his move. Even as he drew, Jeff knew that he’d made a mistake. He was nowhere near fast enough, just as Johnny had warned. He hand continued to move toward his gun in a vain attempt to catch up with Caldwell.
He finally felt the cold steel and wrapped his fingers around it, jerking it from its holster. He had just cleared leather when he felt the impact, and he staggered back against the bar. He looked at Caldwell, who was standing there smiling, and then glanced at his father. His father had a look of disbelief on his face, and the two of them locked eyes for a long moment before Jeff looked down to where the bullet had hit and then slowly closed his eyes.
Jeff leaned back on the bar in a daze. He had been so sure he could take Caldwell, and he had been shocked to find out just how fast the gunfighter really was. He knew he would never be able to be that fast, and the thought sobered him. If he hadn’t run into Johnny when he did, he was sure he would have been dead by now. He had been so sure he was the best, and even after the incident in the bar he wasn’t totally convinced he was all that slow; but Caldwell had just proved to him that he wasn’t even in the running. He had made the right choice when he had decided to forget about being a gunhawk and go home.
He glanced over at his father, and just hoped it wasn’t too late, that they’d both have the chance to go home. His father looked exhausted, and the boy noticed that his father had some nasty looking burns on both of his forearms and his hands. Jeff glanced at his father’s face and guessed that he was running a fever, too. He needed a doctor, but Jeff knew there wasn’t one in Nogales. He hoped that when they got out of this mess they could find one. That is, IF they got out of this alive. Jeff looked up at Caldwell’s grinning face and knew the man would have no qualms about killing both of them.
Caldwell came over and bent down to pick up Jeff’s gun that had been shot out of his hand, and then shoved Jeff around so he could check to make sure he wasn’t carrying any other weapons. When he was done, he shoved him roughly toward his father, and told him to sit down. Jeff couldn’t resist asking; he was confused. “Why didn’t you kill me?”
“Cause if your Pa here is tellin’ the truth, you’re the only hole card I got. I need bait ta get Madrid into town. If I killed you, I might not be able ta get him. Now shut up and hold out your hands.” Caldwell quickly tied Jeff securely, and then reached over and checked Scott’s ropes. Satisfied, he sat down on top of the table. “Now we wait.”
Jeff looked at the man. “I told ya he was gone, and I don’t think he’s comin’ back.”
Caldwell smiled. “For your sake, he’d better not be gone. If he doesn’t show in a couple of hours, you and I are gonna take a ride and try ta find him.”
“What about my pa?”
Caldwell grinned. “Can’t handle two hostages. And if I kill him, Madrid will know I mean business.”
Jeff looked at his father in a panic. “You can’t do that! It’s murder!”
Caldwell shrugged. “It won’t be the first time. Now shut up before I gag you too.”
Jeff dropped his head; this was all his fault. No doubt his father had been looking for him when he had run into Caldwell. He wondered if Johnny would figure out where he was, or if the gunfighter would even care. Looking back, he realized he’d been nothing but trouble to Johnny from their first meeting. He guessed he’d been nothing but trouble to everybody.
He had made such a mess of everything; he didn’t understand why both Madrid and his father kept bailing him out. If he somehow managed to get out of this mess, he vowed to try harder to do what was expected of him and listen to what people told him. He sighed. He could have saved everybody a lot of grief if he had listened to his family in the first place.
Johnny approached Nogales twenty minutes later. He tied Barranca up next to Chief, and then went between the buildings toward the street. Before stepping out into the open, he glanced at the hitching post in front of the saloon, and saw two horses tied there. It took him a second, but he had spent enough time around his brother’s horse to know it was Charlie. He immediately stepped back into the shadows to think. He poked his head out again, to make sure it really was his brother’s horse. He shook his head; he hadn’t seen Charlie for a long time, but he would know that particular sorrel anywhere.
The other horse looked familiar, too, but Johnny couldn’t quite place it. He had to think for a moment, and then he knew. Chase Caldwell had been riding the chalk- faced bay when he had left the farmer’s camp. Johnny stood in the shadows and tried to make sense of it. Why was his brother riding with Caldwell? And what were they doing in the bar? It wouldn’t be open for business for several hours.
He knew that his brother would be trying to find Jeff, and he had expected him to show up at any time. But he also knew that Scott would have a hard time finding them; they’d been on the move pretty steadily. Had Scott hired Caldwell to find them, not knowing the bad blood between them? Or maybe Scott had run into Caldwell while looking for Jeff and let it slip that Johnny was his brother.
Either way, Johnny figured, Caldwell was out for himself, and out to take Johnny down. And he wouldn’t much care who else got killed in the process. Whatever the reason he was here, it wasn’t good. And now Jeff was inside, too. At least he hoped he was. Caldwell wouldn’t flinch at killing the kid. Johnny thought for a moment, but realized he really didn’t have a choice. Jeff could be in serious trouble right now, and if he waited to go in, Jeff could get killed.
Johnny checked his gun and flipped the safety off and then walked toward the saloon door. He hesitated outside just long enough to see that Caldwell had his brother and nephew tied up; evidently, Caldwell was waiting for him. He took a deep breath and then pushed the doors open and stepped inside. Immediately, Caldwell put his gun to Jeff’s head. “Don’t make one move, Madrid, or I’ll blow the kid’s brains out.”
Johnny froze and took in the situation. He could see at a glance that neither Jeff nor his brother were going to be able to help him much. They were both tied securely and Scott was gagged. And Johnny was relieved to see that although Scott seemed a little worse for wear, neither he nor Jeff appeared to be badly injured.
Caldwell motioned toward Johnny with his gun. “Drop your gun.”
Johnny stared back at Caldwell and shrugged. “Why should I? They’re nothin’ ta me.” He calmly walked over and picked up a glass from the bar and motioned to the bartender for a drink before turning around and looking at the other man.
Caldwell smiled as he met his gaze. “Don’t tell me this kid don’t mean nothin’ to you. You’ve been protectin’ him since you met.” Caldwell’s eyes narrowed. Something had just occurred to him. “Now I wonder why that is? I know you, Madrid. You work alone, you always have. I know you’d be dumb enough ta try ta help a kid, but he wouldn’t still be ridin’ with ya. Not unless he’s more than just some stupid wet behind the ears wannabe.”
Caldwell walked over to Scott and grabbed him by the hair. “You been lyin’ ta me Mister Lancer? You told me that Madrid was nothin’ to you, but I’m beginning to wonder.” The gunfighter looked over at Johnny and smiled. Then he viciously slammed Scott’ head back against the chair and looked for Johnny’s reaction. He was disappointed when Madrid never flinched, but just watched calmly. Caldwell looked at Johnny; he still wasn’t sure. Madrid was good at hiding his emotions. “Maybe he really IS your brother.”
Johnny stared at Scott before turning to Caldwell and answering slowly. “You think WE’RE brothers?” Johnny snorted. “Do we LOOK like brothers?” Johnny smiled, “you got it wrong, Caldwell, I don’t know who told ya that story, but I ain’t his brother.” Johnny stared at Scott once more. “In fact, I KILLED his brother, a long time ago.” Johnny pointed at his brother. “Lancer here swore he’d kill me. I ain’t nothin’ ta him, and he’s sure nothin’ ta me. I ain’t gonna risk my life for him.”
Jeff stared at Johnny in disbelief. “You lied to me!” He yelled. “You told me that you hadn’t killed him! You swore!”
Johnny shrugged and said quietly, “Yeah, kid, I lied.” Johnny smiled slightly. “I didn’t have no choice, I didn’t want ya gunnin’ for me.”
Jeff struggled with his bonds for a few moments, and looked down, trying to get his emotions under control. He had trusted Johnny, and the man had been lying to him all along. He had wished he was his pa, when he should have been hating him and trying to see him dead. He looked over at his father, who had been watching Madrid before looking down and closing his eyes. His father stayed that way for a moment, and then looked at Jeff and nodded his head, before closing his eyes again. Jeff looked back at Johnny. “I trusted you, and you lied to me. I hate you.” Jeff said softly. “I wish I woulda killed you.”
Johnny glanced at Jeff and then dropped his head for a moment before taking a sip of tequila that the bartender had put in his glass. “So now what, Caldwell? You think I’d risk my neck for a kid that’s out ta kill me? Now that ya know the truth, it looks like you’ll have ta face me fair and square. I know that ain’t your style, but hey, that’s the breaks.”
Caldwell looked at Jeff. He knew the boy wasn’t acting. Evidently he had been wrong when he thought that these two meant anything to Madrid, and he was seething about all the trouble he had gone to in order to get Lancer down here. He should have just blown his brains out. He looked down at the gun he was holding in his hands. It was in the wrong position to give him any kind of advantage over Madrid, and he cursed to himself. He had been so sure of Madrid’s reaction that he had let himself get careless. If he made a move with the gun now, he knew that Madrid would cut him down.
He had to make a decision. If he walked out now, he knew it would be all over for him. The word would get out, and no one would hire him, at least not for the money he was used to getting. He really had no choice. He looked at Madrid and wet his lips. “All right, Madrid, I’ve been wantin’ ta take you down for a long time.” He slowly put the gun back in its holster and moved slightly to give himself a better angle. Johnny followed his moves and adjusted his stance slightly.
With a grin, Caldwell moved until he was standing directly in front of Scott. “Just in case”, he said with a grin.
Caldwell was once more disappointed when Madrid never flinched, but continued to stare into his eyes.
Caldwell stared back at Johnny. “Your move.”
Johnny kept his eyes locked on Caldwell and shook his head slightly.
Caldwell hesitated for another second to calm his nerves, and then took a breath.
Johnny saw the flicker in Caldwell’s eyes and went for his gun.
Jeff watched in disbelief as the two men drew. He couldn’t even follow their motions, but one gun fired well before the other one. The wild shot missed the bartender by at least a foot and broke a bottle of gin that was on the shelf.
The first shot found its mark, and Caldwell slowly slid to the floor. Johnny stood staring at the man for a moment to make sure he was dead, and then glanced at the two men who were tied up. He stared at both of them for a long moment, and then went over to where Jeff was tied. The boy glared up at him and Johnny sighed.
He looked at his brother once more, taking in Scott’s appearance before he spoke to Jeff. “Your Pa needs a doctor for them burns, and it wouldn’t hurt ta get that shoulder of yours checked out. You follow the road straight out of town goin’ north, and you’ll come ta Tucson as soon as ya cross the Rio Grande. There’s a pretty good doctor there. Ya should reach there by tomorrow if ya leave this afternoon.”
Johnny turned toward the bartender. “Keep ‘em tied up for another hour, then turn ‘em loose.” The bartender nodded and Johnny threw him a couple of coins. “Thanks, amigo.”
Johnny turned and strode out of the bar. He stopped when he reached Barranca, and put his head against his horse’s neck for just a moment before mounting and riding out of town.
Chapter Forty- One
Exactly one hour later, the bartender walked over to Scott and Jeff and cut the ropes that had held them bound. Scott was worried because Jeff hadn’t said one word since Johnny had left. As soon as they were untied and they both stiffly stood up, Scott reached over and grabbed his son and looked into his eyes. “Are you all right?”
Jeff kept his head down and refused to look in his father’s face, but merely nodded.
Scott tried to raise Jeff’s head, but the boy ducked away from him and moved toward the bar. Scott followed and stood next to him. “What’s wrong, son?”
“I’m sorry.” Jeff whispered.
Scott nodded. “You caused everyone a lot of worry.”
Jeff shook his head. “I don’t mean that, although I’m sorry about that, too. “I’m sorry I didn’t kill him.” He looked at his father imploringly. “I believed him, Pa. I believed his lies. I trusted him.” He dropped his head again. “I’m sorry.”
Scott gently pulled Jeff over to the table and sat him down, and then motioned to the bartender for a couple of drinks. He turned back toward his son and took a deep breath. “No, son, I’m the one who’s sorry. I….I never told you about your uncle, and I should have. I made a bad decision.”
Jeff looked up at this father. “Why didn’t you?”
Scott looked down and sighed. “Because you kept talking about wanting to be a gunfighter. Your Grandfather and I were afraid if you knew about your uncle, you’d want to be one more than ever. We were afraid you’d run off and try to find him, and that we’d lose you, too.”
Jeff’s brows furrowed. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
Scott locked eyes with his son. “No.” he said slowly. “He’s not.”
Jeff shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
Scott dropped his head once more, and then said quietly, “Johnny’s your uncle.”
Jeff shot to his feet. “Johnny Madrid?”
Jeff looked at his father in disbelief. “I don’t believe it. I could have killed him! Why didn’t you tell me?”
Scott shook his head. “I told you why.” Scott ran his hand threw his hair in exasperation. “And I never expected you to go gunning after him. Why did you think he had killed your uncle? Where did you get that idea?”
Jeff shook his head in confusion. “I don’t know, just ….things. Things that had been said, and things you said about Johnny that last day. And then you told me that you didn’t want to lose me, too. I thought…..I thought that Johnny had killed your brother, and …..” his voice trailed off and he glared at his father. “You lied to me!”
Scott shook his head. “I never lied to you. I should have told you about him, but I never lied to you.”
Jeff whirled around and started pacing the room. “Johnny didn’t even tell me. He saved my life, more than once, but he wouldn’t tell me. ”
Scott looked at his son. “Why?”
Jeff turned and aimed a furious look at his father. “Because he thinks you hate him, that’s why. He thinks that you didn’t want me to know about him.”
Scott shook his head in protest. “I don’t hate him, he’s my brother. I want him to come home.”
Jeff shook his head vehemently. “That’s not what he thinks, or me either.”
“What did he tell you?” Scott asked quietly.
Jeff shook his head slowly. “He said that he had been at Lancer a long time ago, when he had been trying to quit. He said that he wasn’t welcome there any more, and that I shouldn’t even tell you I had been riding with him, ‘cause it would make you upset.”
Scott closed his eyes. “What else?”
Jeff glared at his father as he thought. “He said that he would quit in an instant if he could, but that it was too late for him. He said he had thrown the one chance he had away.” He looked up at his father. “And when I asked him to come back to Lancer with me, he asked me if I would want him there knowing that you or Grandpa could get hurt because of him.”
“Is that why he left? Did he say?”
Jeff nodded. “It was one of the reasons.” He looked at his father accusingly. “He still cares about you, even though he thinks you hate him. But he said mostly he just made a stupid choice. He said he knew it, but he couldn’t go home. He said that he wasn’t welcome at home any more; that his family had made it clear he couldn’t come back if he left.” Jeff dropped his head. “I didn’t know he was talking about you and Grandpa when he told me.”
Scott dropped his head and closed his eyes. So it was the heated words that had been spoken that had kept Johnny away all of these years. He shook his head sadly. The words that had been spoken in anger, the words that no one had meant. He’d give just about anything to take them back.
He looked at Jeff. “How did he know you were his nephew?”
Jeff shrugged and said sarcastically, “I told him my name.” He looked at his father angrily. “And then I told him I was going to kill him for shooting my uncle. I told him I had figured out that you had had a brother, and he got real quiet when I said you or Grandpa had never mentioned my uncle. I didn’t know why then, but I do now.” He continued to glare at his father.
Scott shook his head and sighed. “We need to find him, and try to bring him home.” He stood up and looked at Jeff’s shoulder. “But first we need to go to Tucson and have a doctor look at that wound.” He hesitated a second. “How did it happen?”
Jeff dropped his eyes. “A gunfight.” He looked up. “Here in this bar. There were three of them. Johnny told me ta stay out of it, but……..it was my fault.” He shrugged. “Johnny was real mad at me for interferin’. There wasn’t no doctor, so Johnny dug the bullet out. He saved my life.”
Scott shut his eyes and sent a silent prayer of thanks to his brother. “We’ll find him and bring him home.” He put his arm around Jeff, but the young man stiffened at his father’s touch, and then pulled away. Jeff hesitated for a second, and then without looking at his father, he strode out of the bar toward his horse.
Scott followed, and was surprised to see Jeff gather up Charlie’s reins as he mounted Chief. “What are you doing?” Scott asked.
Jeff looked down at his father. “I’m going after Johnny.”
Scott looked at his son in confusion. “I told you we’d go after him.”
Jeff shook his head. “WE’RE not going anywhere. There’s a cave outside of town, you can ask the bartender where. I’ll leave Charlie there. It’ll take you about an hour ta walk it.
“JEFF!” Scott said threateningly.
Jeff shook his head. “I’m gonna catch up with Johnny and ride with him. We’ll go wherever the wind takes us, but I ain’t comin’ home.” He kicked his horse into a lope, with Charlie tagging along behind.
By the time Scott reached the cave, it was nearly dark. It had taken him a lot longer to get to the cave than it should have because he had to keep stopping and taking a short rest. He had spent the time while he was walking to work off some of the anger he felt at his son. He knew now that Jeff should have been told about his uncle, but at the time, it had seemed like the best choice. He realized though, that he should have at least made sure that Jeff knew about Johnny Lancer, if not Johnny Madrid. It was the uncertainty of what to say happened to his brother that had stopped him. That, and the pain that came when he talked or even thought about Johnny.
He and Johnny had become so close, he still couldn’t believe that his brother had just up and left. The two had become both fast friends and then true brothers. He would have trusted Johnny with his life, and he still would. It didn’t matter how long they had been apart, and he fervently hoped that they would be together again soon. He still wanted to be able to catch up with Johnny and Jeff, but he knew he was getting pretty weak and he wondered if he would be able to. He didn’t even know in which direction to look. When Scott finally reached the cave, he stood and stared at it for a moment, wondering if he should take a chance of resting there for a little while.
Finally, he glanced up at the sky and saw that he had at least an hour of daylight left, and he knew he would need every minute. With a sigh, he untied Charlie and clumsily hauled himself up. He knew his fever was high, he felt woozy and a little disoriented. He turned and grabbed the canteen that was strapped to the saddle and took a drink. He sat still for a moment, and then turned Charlie toward Tucson.
He knew that finding Johnny would be next to impossible with even an hour’s head start, and he had decided to get his burns treated and some more supplies in Tucson before trying to track either one of them. He figured it would be a while before he found them, and he had to make sure he was prepared for a long ride. Besides, he needed to let Murdoch know what was going on. He just hoped Jeff knew how to find Johnny, and that Johnny would be able to keep Jeff safe.
As he rode along, his mind turned to the things that his son had said. It saddened him to know that one of the reasons Johnny had never returned was because of the hurtful things that had been said that fateful day. He knew that neither he nor Murdoch had meant them, but they had been uttered in desperation, hoping to stop the young man from leaving. They hadn’t stopped him, however, and now those words had come back to haunt them. Apparently, they had haunted Johnny, too.
After several hours, Scott decided to stop by a small stream and get some rest. He was afraid he would pass out if he didn’t. He guided Charlie through the bushes to a small clearing that wouldn’t be readily visible from the trail and tied his horse to some low bushes that he could nibble on. He dragged his bedroll off and tossed it down, and then started to gather some small sticks. Thankfully, there was a lot of dead brush around and he didn’t have to look far.
After he got a fire going and had some food in his stomach, he felt much better. He realized that he hadn’t eaten very much the whole time he was with Caldwell, and that probably had more to do with his weakness than his fever. He thought briefly of getting up and starting out again, but as he was deciding, he fell asleep; he hadn’t been able to sleep much with Caldwell, either.
Johnny sat with his back against a large boulder and watched the stars. He hadn’t dared to light a fire in case Scott and Jeff were tracking him, although he doubted that they would. He knew that Scott would get Jeff to a doctor as soon as he could, and that even if he wanted to find Johnny, he would take care of his son first. Johnny smiled; he knew Scott so well, and he knew he would do the right thing, no matter what.
He pulled the blanket up a little tighter around his shoulders and watched as a shooting star streaked across the sky. When he was little, his mother had told him that if you made a wish when you saw a shooting star, your wish would come true. He snorted and shook his head. He had faithfully wished on more stars than he could count, and none of his wishes had ever come true.
Well, that wasn’t exactly correct. There were two wishes that he had made that had eventually come true. When he had been about ten, he had wished that he had a brother, and Scott had finally come into his life. The other wish was made from a filthy cell in a Mexican prison. He had wished he could meet his father, although he had to admit, his thought toward his father when he had made that particular wish hadn’t been very friendly.
He looked back up at the sky and sighed. He hoped this one would come true. His thoughts turned to Scott and Jeff. He wondered how they were doing, and hoped that his brother was all right. Scott had always run high fevers, and from the looks of him, he was already working on a dandy one from those burns. Johnny just hoped they had headed right toward Tucson so the doctor there could check both of them out.
He reached behind him and scrunched up his bedroll up a little bit to make his makeshift chair a little more comfortable. Turning his attention once more to the stars, he thought about his wish. Always before he had wished to be able to return to his home and family, but he knew now that particular wish would never come true. So instead he had made a wish for Jeff. He wished that the boy would return home and find happiness at the ranch with his family. He didn’t want another Lancer lost in the darkness.
Scott woke up the next morning feeling much better, although he was angry with himself for sleeping so long. He hurriedly broke camp and started out toward Tucson. He still knew that he needed to get some supplies and let Murdoch know what was going on. As he rode along, he practiced the argument he would give Johnny for returning. Now that he knew Johnny wanted to come back, he wasn’t going to let his slippery brother take off again.
He was about halfway to Tucson when he came to a large fast moving stream strewn with rocks. He rode downstream a mile or so, but the conditions didn’t change. He looked for the best place to ford, and chose what he hoped would be a safe spot. He nudged Charlie into the water, and let the horse make his way cautiously toward the other side.
He was well past mid way and had just let out a sigh of relief when he felt Charlie stumble. Scott let the horse have its head in the hopes he could recover, and after a wild scramble, Charlie managed to keep his feet and make it to the other side. Before he had taken more than a couple of steps, however, Scott knew that he was in trouble. The horse was obviously lame.
Cursing, he jumped down and checked Charlie’s legs. There was heat and some swelling in one of his forelegs, and Scott wasn’t sure if he had strained a tendon or just bruised it. He led the horse back into the stream for a few feet, and made him stand there for several minutes, hoping the cold water would help. Finally he once more led the horse to dry ground, but it was obvious that Charlie would be lame for some time. With a sigh, Scott grabbed the reins and started walking.
Johnny sat on the hill just below where his camp had been and watched the trail. He was beginning to become concerned. Scott and Jeff should have passed this way by now, and he hadn’t seen a sign of them. When he had left them the day before, he had every intention of going west to where he had told Jeff that they were hiring guns for a range war. But the further he had gone, the more he worried about Scott and Jeff’s condition and their ability to make it if they ran into trouble.
After arguing with himself for quite a while, he had turned Barranca around and set up camp high above the trail so he could see when they came by, but so far, he hadn’t seen any sign of them. Early this morning he had cautiously gone down to the trail and checked for hoof prints. He thought that maybe they had gone by while he was sleeping, but the only prints were several days old, so he had returned to the hill to watch.
Finally, he decided to backtrack to Nogales and see if he could spot them. With any luck, he would see them before they saw him, and once he knew they were all right he could take off without them being the wiser. He had ridden a little more than an hour when he saw a familiar horse being led by an even more familiar figure. He watched for a moment, and then noticed that the horse was obviously limping, and that Jeff was nowhere to be seen.
He once again debated with himself, but he finally headed Barranca toward his brother.
As the sound of hooves finally penetrated his consciousness, Scott looked up to see his brother approaching. He sighed in relief, and then noticed that Jeff wasn’t with him. When Johnny got within earshot, Scott yelled at his brother. “Johnny!” He said in relief. Then he looked past his brother and saw that his son wasn’t with him. “Where’s Jeff?”
Johnny pulled Barranca up beside his brother and dismounted. “What do you mean, where is he? He’s with you!”
Scott shook his head, but the motion almost sent him reeling. Johnny came up and grabbed Scott around the shoulders and guided him to a small grove of trees next to the trail. Pushing him down, he made him sit on a small boulder and handed him a canteen. After he took a swallow, Scott shook his head again. “He went after you.”
Johnny looked skeptical. “And you let him?”
Scott sighed. “I didn’t have a choice. He grabbed Charlie and took off before I knew what he was up to.”
“WHY?” Johnny exploded. “I thought I had gotten through ta that kid!”
Scott looked at his brother. “Evidently you did.” He dropped his head. “Johnny, I’m sorry. I……I’m sorry. I never meant those things I said. I….we want you to come home.”
Johnny sighed and sat down next to his brother. “How’re you feeling?”
Scott shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. We need to talk, and then I have to go find Jeff. He said he was going to join up with you.” He looked at his brother hopefully. “Johnny, will you at least come home so we can at least discuss this?”
Johnny started to reply, and then stopped. “Damn!”
Johnny sighed. “I’m going to have to go after him. He thought I was heading west, to a range war. That’s where I told him I was going.” Johnny got up and headed for Barranca.
Scott immediately stood up. “I’m going with you.”
Johnny turned around. “No, Scott, you ain’t.” When his brother started to protest, Johnny cut him off. “We don’t have time to argue about this. We don’t have time ta go get ya another horse, and besides, you need ta see a doctor. You got a fever, I can tell, and I don’t need ya slowin’ me down. If I’m gonna have any chance of catchin’ him, I have ta leave right now. And believe me, I need ta catch him before he rides into that mess by himself.” Scott shut his eyes and reluctantly nodded. He knew Johnny was right.
Johnny walked over to Barranca, and then looked back at his brother. “Can you make it to Tucson? It’s another five miles or so.”
Scott nodded. “I’m fine, just go after Jeff and try to bring him home.” He looked at Johnny and his voice softened. “And bring yourself home, too, no matter what. We still need to talk.”
Johnny met Scott’s gaze for a moment, and then dropped his head. “I gotta go. I’ll do my best ta send him home.” He grabbed Barranca’s mane and vaulted into the saddle.
“JOHNNY, you BRING him home, do you HEAR ME?”
Johnny turned his horse and kicked the Palomino into a lope.
Johnny rode into Valdez’s camp three days later. He wasn’t sure where Jeff was, or even if he was in the vicinity, but he figured this was as good a place as any to start looking. He ground tied Barranca, and then went looking for Valdez.
He found the man a short time later, sitting in a tent looking thoroughly frustrated. Johnny smiled; Valdez was always frustrated. “Hey, amigo,” Johnny said.
Valdez looked up and smiled. “Johnny! Just the man I want to see.”
Johnny smiled back; the two of them had worked together more times than Johnny could count. Miguel Valdez was a good man; sometimes too good. His soft heart occasionally got him into trouble, and Johnny often wondered what he was doing in this business. “What’s goin’ on, amigo?” Johnny asked.
Miguel shrugged. “Nothing good. Both of these men should be dead. Neither one is worth the time of day.” He smiled. “But they have lots of money.”
Johnny smiled. “I’m lookin’ for someone.”
Valdez squinted at the gunfighter. “You aren’t staying?”
Johnny shook his head. “Not this time.”
Valdez sighed. “We could use you, Johnny.”
Johnny shook his head once more. “I already got a job; I gotta find a kid. Maybe he’s here? About fifteen, blond, and arrogant.”
Valdez laughed. “Lots of them around.” He gestured out toward the camp. “Help yourself, and you’re welcome to camp here tonight.”
Johnny nodded. “Thanks, and good luck.”
Miguel nodded. “We’ll need it.”
Johnny wandered around the camp, asking a few men that he knew about Jeff, but nobody knew a kid answering that description. Finally, he sat down and helped himself to some stew. He figured he’d bunk here tonight and then ride over to the opposing camp the next morning. He certainly wasn’t looking forward to it. Ramiro Santillan was a cold brutal killer. He might accept Johnny into the camp, but he wouldn’t take kindly to his leaving, especially if he took one of Santillan’s recruits. If Jeff WAS in the man’s camp, he just hoped Jeff was still alive.
The next morning, Johnny rode into Santillan’s camp. He had the safety off of his gun, and was scanning the group of men for possible trouble. Ramiro didn’t keep a very tight leash on his men, and they got pretty rowdy. He stepped down off of his horse, and Santillan immediately approached him. “Madrid.” The man said in a neutral voice.
Johnny turned and looked into the man’s cold eyes. “Ramiro.”
The man’s eyes narrowed at Johnny’s familiar use of his name. “What do you want, JOHNNY?”
Johnny shrugged. “I’m lookin’ for somebody. Figured he might be here.”
Johnny looked around. “A kid. About fifteen, blond.
Ramiro Shrugged. “Maybe. But if ya want ta know about him, it’s gonna cost ya.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “How much.”
Ramiro grinned and considered. “A hundred bucks.”
Johnny snorted. “That kid ain’t worth that much, in fact, in a day or two, I’ll probably be givin’ ya money ta take him.” Johnny turned and headed for his horse.
Ramiro considered the gunfighter for a second. “What will ya give me?”
Johnny leaped back up onto Barranca’s back, then turned and smirked at the man. “How about if I don’t draw on ya? I mean how much is your life worth?”
Santillan glared at Johnny for another second and then bowed his head and nodded. “He went with a couple of the other men up to California.”
Johnny shut his eyes for a second. So much for a quick job. “Why? Did he say?”
Ramiro shrugged. “He came ridin’ in here yesterday mornin’ lookin’ for you. One of the men was headin’ for California and he told the kid he heard you were goin’ there too. The kid asked if he could tag along.”
“Who did he leave with, did you know them?
“A couple a two –bit drifters. Never seen ‘em before.”
Johnny nodded. “All right. But if you’re lyin”……” He left the sentence unfinished.
Ramiro shook his head. “I ain’t no liar.”
Johnny nodded once more, and then turned Barranca and headed north.
Ten days later, Johnny rode into Modesto. He had trailed the boy from one town to another, but he was always a day or two behind. Jeff and the men he was riding with weren’t very hard to follow: they had been chased out of a few towns and had nearly gotten themselves lynched in another. It seemed like they didn’t believe in paying for anything that they could steal. He was almost hoping he wouldn’t run into the boy for a while. He had spent the last week fuming over Jeff’s antics, and he was afraid if he ran into him now, he just might resort to violence to get the kid to listen. He had had enough.
He rode through town slowly, checking out the numerous stables and saloons. He was just thankful that Chief was easy to spot. He glanced down a small alleyway, and noticed the pinto tied with several other horses behind the saloon. He was just getting ready to turn down the alley when the door opened and several men walked out. An older, dark haired man mounted Chief, and the three of them rode toward Johnny.
As the men came abreast of him, Johnny drew his gun and pointed it at the man who had Chief. “Hold it right there.”
The men stopped and considered the gunfighter. Johnny kept his eyes on the men. “Where’s the owner of that Pinto?”
The older man met his gaze. “Mister, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
Johnny cocked the pistol and moved it closer to the man’s head. “I think you do.”
The man met his gaze for a moment, and then shrugged. “He was ridin’ with us, and got himself in trouble over in Granite. The sheriff locked him up, and it didn’t look like he was getting’ out anytime soon, so we took his horse.”
“All right, but I’m takin’ the horse back. Now get off, slow and easy.”
The man hesitated. “I just wanna get….”
“Get off, NOW!” Johnny’s voice left no room for arguments.
The man grumbled and then got off the horse. Johnny grabbed the reins and pulled Chief’s head over toward him.
Johnny led the Pinto away from the men, and then turned around “What’s he in for?”
Johnny rode into Granite the next day. He was tired, hungry, and cross. In fact, even if he could get the kid out of this mess, he was thinking very seriously of killing him himself. He stopped Barranca in front of the sheriff’s office and went inside.
The sheriff looked up for a second or two and stared at the gunfighter, then his feet hit the floor with a thud. “Johnny Madrid! What’re you doin’ around here?”
Johnny smiled at his old friend. “Hey, Ray, how’ve ya been?”
Ray shrugged, “Same as always, old and slow.”
Johnny grinned. “You’ve been sayin’ that for what? Ten years?”
“At least twenty,” Ray grumbled. “What do ya want, or is this a social visit?”
Johnny’s grin left and he sighed. “I heard you was holdin’ a kid, about fifteen, on a murder charge.”
Ray nodded. “I was.”
Johnny froze. “What do ya mean, you were?”
Ray laughed. “Don’t worry, we didn’t hang him. It’s just that another witness came forward and said that the kid wasn’t the one that shot the storekeeper, that it was one of the other men. The witness said the boy had nothin’ ta do with it.”
Johnny heaved a sigh of relief, a reaction not unnoticed by the sheriff. “The boy means somethin’ to ya, huh?”
Johnny nodded. “He’s my nephew.”
Ray snorted. “Well, you’re gonna have your hands full with this one, I’ll tell ya that.”
Johnny shook his head. “I already found that out. Where is he?”
The sheriff jerked his thumb toward the back. “He’s in there till the trial.”
Johnny looked confused. “I thought you said he didn’t have nothin’ ta do with it.”
Ray shook his head. “He didn’t. At least with the murder. But he was still ridin’ with the other guys who robbed the storekeeper and killed the deputy.”
“Any chance of getting’ it thrown out?”
Ray shrugged. ‘The storekeeper says he lost quite a bit.” He looked at Johnny. “And the deputy was a friend of mine.”
“You said yourself that the kid had nothin’ ta do with either the murder or the robbery, he was just ridin’ with them. If I talk to the kid and find out that wasn’t the case, I won’t say another word about it. But if he really did just make a bad choice of travelin’ companions, what do ya say ya release him to me, if I make good on the money that was lost?”
Ray shook his head. “I don’t know, Johnny.
“Come on, Ray, ya know ya owe me.”
Ray blew his cheeks out and reluctantly nodded. “But I want your word you’ll straighten that kid out, and he won’t give me any more trouble.”
Johnny smiled coldly. “Oh don’t worry, he won’t be givin’ ANYBODY any more trouble.”
“Do ya want to see him?”
Johnny hesitated. “Yeah, but he might not want ta see me. You’d better take my gun, or I just might be the one tried for murder.” Johnny handed the sheriff his gun.
Ray reached over and grabbed Johnny’s gun and then walked toward the back and opened the door, gesturing Johnny to go in.
Johnny approached the cell, and saw a very forlorn looking boy sitting huddled in the corner. Some of Johnny’s anger disappeared as he watched the boy and saw where tears had left tracks down his dirty face.
Jeff looked up at the visitor, and he jumped to his feet. “JOHNNY!”
Johnny forced himself to remain still and he simply glared at the boy.
“Johnny, am I glad to see you! I was lookin’ for you, and I didn’t think I’d ever find ya! Ya gotta get me out! I didn’t do anything!”
Johnny continued glaring, until Jeff finally realized something was wrong. “What’s wrong?”
Johnny snorted in disgust. “What’s wrong? WHAT’S WRONG? Oh, I don’t know, where should I start?”
Jeff dropped his head, but Johnny was just getting started. “How about you leavin’ your father ta try to get to a doctor on his own when you knew how sick he was. Or MAYBE runnin’ me all over the state tryin’ ta find you? Or how about you hitchin’ up with those no account outlaws and goin’ on a two bit crime spree? TAKE YOUR PICK!”
“Johnny, don’t be mad.”
The gunfighter looked at the boy in disbelief. “Don’t be mad? And just how SHOULD I be? I THOUGHT that you had started to get it. I THOUGHT you’d been listenin’ to me, but I guess I was talkin’ to a wall. You didn’t learn nothin.” Johnny took his hat and slapped it against the bars.
Jeff shook his head. “Yes I did, honest. I know I’m not any good at bein’ a gunfighter….”
Johnny interrupted him. “So ya decided being a thief was a whole lot less dangerous?”
Jeff shook his head. “No! I didn’t steal nothin’ Johnny, I promise.”
Johnny shook his head and looked at the boy. “You had ta have realized what was goin’ on. You’ve been kicked or chased out of a half a dozen towns between here and Nogales. That SHOULD have given you a clue. Don’t tell me you’re totally innocent.”
Jeff hung his head. “I knew what they were doin’.” He looked up at Johnny. “But they said they knew where ta find you. And they said they’d take me to ya if I stuck with them.”
Johnny dropped his head and sighed in frustration. “Jeff, don’t you know when you’re bein suckered? The only reason they kept ya with ‘em is because they figured they could hang the blame on you if they got caught.” He looked up at his nephew. “That’s what happened, isn’t it?”
Jeff nodded miserably. “They said they were friends of yours. I believed them.”
Johnny shook his head. “One of the hardest lessons you’ll ever learn is ya can’t trust most people. At least not completely. It’s a hard lesson, but the quicker ya learn it, the easier time you’ll have. The only ones you can trust completely are your family.”
Jeff looked up and locked his eyes on Johnny. “Like you?”
Chapter Forty- Six
Johnny froze and looked at the boy. “He told you who I was?”
Jeff nodded, and then spat out. “He SHOULDA told me a long time ago. I coulda killed you.”
Johnny smiled. “I think the chance of that was pretty slim.” Johnny ducked his head and sighed. “Jeff, you have ta realize why your father didn’t want you to know about me. He had a good reason.”
“NO, he didn’t! I had a right ta know about my uncle. He was wrong to keep that from me.”
Johnny shook his head. “He was tryin’ ta keep you from turning out like me. He was afraid of losing ya.”
Jeff shook his head. “Yeah, well his plan sure didn’t go the way he wanted it too, now did it. He DID lose me.”
Johnny stared at the boy. “What do you mean?”
Jeff grabbed at the bars in frustration. “I told him I was gonna go with you. I told him that I wasn’t comin’ back ta Lancer.”
Johnny looked at Jeff in disbelief. “Just like that.”
Jeff looked at Johnny defiantly. “Yeah, just like that. Johnny, he LIED to me. He’s always talkin’ about bein truthful, well how truthful was he?”
Johnny studied Jeff closely. “Why are you so angry with him?”
“I TOLD you, because he LIED to me!” Jeff exploded.
“So did I.” Johnny said quietly.
Jeff dropped his head in frustration. “But you had a reason to. You were just doin’ what you thought my Pa wanted.”
“And your Pa did it to keep you safe.” Johnny shot back. “Your father had a reason not to tell you, more than I did. And I know your Pa. I doubt if he actually lied to you, did he?” Johnny watched Jeff until the boy finally shook his head and then he continued, “I think you’re just using that as an excuse. I know you’re mad at him, but not enough ta take off and never go back.”
Jeff dropped his head and didn’t say anything. Johnny watched him for a minute before he spoke. “I think you’re scared.”
Jeff’s head shot up. “Of what?”
Johnny smiled, remembering a similar conversation in the cave. “I don’t know. Maybe of bein’ in trouble with your Pa, and what your Pa has planned for you when you get back.”
When Jeff didn’t answer, Johnny continued. “I told ya what it was like, livin’ by the gun, and you saw a little bit for yourself. Is that REALLY how you want to live the rest of your life?” He asked softly.
After a long pause, Jeff shook his head without looking up.
“Jeff, If you go with me, that’s what you’ll be doin’. You can’t let one mistake ruin your whole life. If you run now, that’s what’s going ta happen. You’re goin’ ta have ta face what’s comin’ to ya like a man, and then try to do better.”
Jeff nodded his head reluctantly. “I guess. But I’m sure not lookin’ forward to it.” He looked up at his uncle and bit his lip. “I know he and Grandpa talked about sendin’ me ta some military school back East. I’m afraid they just might do it this time,” he blurted out. “I’m afraid he’ll send me away.” He looked at Johnny beseechingly for a moment before dropping his head once again. He shook his head miserably. “I guess he won’t get the chance. I probably won’t be able ta go back anyway, at least for a while. The sheriff told me I was lookin’ at least five years.”
Johnny nodded. “Five years is a long time, especially in prison.”
Jeff nodded miserably. “Would you tell my Pa?” He asked Johnny softly.
“Jeff, look at me.” Johnny ordered.
Jeff looked up, and Johnny saw the traces of tears. “Jeff, if you got off, what would you do?”
Jeff looked at Johnny for a moment before answering. “Go home.”
Johnny stared into the boy’s eyes. “Do you really mean that? Even if it means getting punished?”
Jeff nodded. “Yes,” he whispered.
Johnny slowly nodded. “All right, I think I can arrange that. But I want your word that’s exactly what you’ll do. And I don’t think you have to worry about your Pa sendin’ you away, not if you start behavin’ yourself and .…..”
Jeff interrupted. “You can get me outta here?” He asked excitedly.
Johnny held up his had. “You be quiet and finish listening to the conditions.”
“Conditions?” Jeff asked dubiously.
“Conditions,” Johnny repeated firmly. “First, you go home and TALK to your father about what happened, and you LISTEN to what he says. Second, you stay at Lancer, even if things get rough. You got to promise you’re not gonna take off; remember, prison would be a lot worse, and I ain’t bailin’ you out again. Third, you forget all about tryin’ ta be a fast gun. You just don’t have it, kid, and you’re liable ta get killed. Fourth, I’m gonna have ta make good on the money your ‘friends’ stole, and you’re gonna work your tail off ta pay it back, and ya ain’t gonna whine about it. And fifth, if you give me ANY trouble on the way home, I’m going ta turn right around and bring you back. Is that clear?”
Jeff nodded. “You’re going with me?”
Johnny nodded. “Part of the way. After that, we’ll see.”
Jeff smiled. “Yes, SIR!”
Johnny shook his head. Ray was right. The kid was definitely a handful. “Come on, let’s go. Hey Ray!! Come let the kid out.”
The sheriff reluctantly unlocked the cell door. “I think you’re makin’ a mistake, Johnny.” He glared at Jeff.
Johnny smiled. “It won’t be the first one. Now, how much do I owe ya?”
Ray shook his head. “They got off with two weeks worth of receipts. It’s gonna cost ya five hundred dollars. Actually, five hundred and three dollars is what they took.”
Johnny turned and glared fiercely at Jeff. “You better not even talk to me on the way home.” Johnny sat down and pulled off his boot, and then reached in and grabbed some notes. “Here.” He handed them to the sheriff. “And if ya see this kid causin’ any trouble again, you have my permission ta shoot him.”
The sheriff nodded. “Don’t worry, I will.”
Johnny grabbed Jeff by the arm and guided him outside. Jeff tried to pull away. “Ouch, Johnny, that hurts.”
“It’s supposed to. And as soon as we get outta town, I’m gonna turn ya over my knee.”
Jeff looked at the gunfighter cautiously. “You wouldn’t.”
Johnny looked at the boy and grinned. “Wanna bet?”
Jeff swallowed hard. “My Pa doesn’t believe in whippins.”
Johnny grinned wider. “I ain’t your Pa, lucky for me. And besides, I think he just might have changed his mind. Now get on your horse.”
Jeff looked up and saw Chief. “You got him back! I saw them take him, and I couldn’t stop them.”
Johnny nodded. “I got him back. Now get on and ride while ya still can.”
Jeff looked at Johnny and then dropped his eyes. “Yes Sir,” he said resignedly.
That evening, Jeff gratefully got off of his horse. They had covered about twenty-five miles, and the last twenty- four had been exceedingly uncomfortable.
Johnny smirked when he saw the boy’s careful movements. “You take care of the horses, and I’ll get camp started.”
Jeff nodded and started pulling the saddles off. Suddenly he stopped and stared at his saddle. “This ain’t my gear.”
Johnny looked up. “What do ya mean?”
Jeff looked in confusion. “These saddlebags and bedroll. They must be Tom’s.
Johnny came up and grabbed the saddlebags. “You mean the guy you were ridin’ with?”
Johnny looked at Jeff, and then opened up the saddlebags. He looked for a second and then sighed. “I guess ya don’t owe me the five hundred dollars any more.” He said quietly.
Jeff’s eyes got big. “The stolen money?”
Johnny nodded and looked around. “Come on, we’re gonna change our camp.”
Johnny looked at his nephew patiently. “Because this one is too vulnerable. And I have the feelin’ we’re gonna be getting’ company.”
They saddled the horses back up and headed out. At this point, Jeff was more worried about spending another minute in the saddle than he was about getting shot, but Johnny finally guided Barranca off of the trail and up a steep slope. About halfway up the bank, Johnny found a clearing with a rock overhang. “We’ll bed down here tonight.” He told the boy. “At least our backs are safe.”
Jeff gratefully slid off of Chief, and once more pulled off the saddles and took care of the horses while Johnny tramped down the underbrush around the camp in order to put their bedrolls down.
Jeff looked up. “What about the fire?”
Johnny shook his head. “No fire tonight. We’ll have ta eat jerky.” He handed a piece to the boy.
Jeff pulled Tom’s bedroll over and put it on top of a smashed bush, and then gingerly sat on it. Johnny suppressed a grin as he watched, and got a glare for his efforts. Finally he chuckled. “Go on to sleep. I’ll take first watch.”
Jeff nodded gratefully and lay down on his blankets. He watched the stars for a few moments, but soon fell sound asleep.
The next morning, Jeff awoke to bacon frying. He looked up in confusion, and was met by Johnny’s smiling face. “You hungry?” He asked.
Jeff nodded. “I didn’t think we could have a fire,” he said.
Johnny nodded. “Not at night. But light doesn’t carry too far in the daylight, and I used the right kind of wood, there shouldn’t be any smoke.”
Jeff nodded, and hungrily bolted down the bacon and some coffee. When they were done eating, they broke camp. Johnny came up to Jeff while he was saddling the horse. “Come over here a minute,” he said. Jeff followed him over to an old log and Johnny motioned for him to sit. Jeff remembered when Johnny had done something similar outside of Nogales, and wondered if he was in for another lecture. This time, he’d be sure to listen.
Johnny turned and faced Jeff. “Those friends of yours are almost certainly on our tail. I want you to keep your eyes and ears open. If you see or hear anything strange, even if you’re not sure, you let me know. OK?”
Johnny nodded back. “All right, another thing. If they stop us, you keep your mouth shut, no matter what I say, and if it comes to gunplay, you stay out of it if you can. If I get hurt, I want you to hightail it back to Lancer. Do you know where we are?”
Jeff looked around and shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“We’re about twenty miles south of Lancer. If ya have to, just keep headin’ due north, understand?”
Jeff nodded. “But I won’t leave you.”
“You’ll do as I say!” Johnny shouted.
Jeff looked down and nodded.
“All right, let’s go, and remember, keep an eye out.”
They headed down the embankment, and turned their horses south, following an old road. They hadn’t even gone ten miles when Johnny suddenly stopped. “What’s wrong?” Jeff whispered.
Johnny ignored him, listening. The birds had suddenly gotten quiet, and the hackles on the back of his neck stood up. Something was wrong. He turned to Jeff. “Don’t turn your head. Do you see that bunch of boulders over to your right?”
“All right. We’re gonna try ta make it over there. Don’t hurry, just act casual.”
Jeff turned and headed Chief toward the pile of rocks. Just before they reached them, Johnny spoke once more. “When we get closer, grab your rifle and jump off and dive behind the rocks; I’ll be right behind you. And don’t worry about Chief, he’ll be fine.”
Jeff felt the sweat break out on his forehead as they neared the rocks. Right before he jumped, he heard a shot ricochet off of one of the boulders, and he jumped off of Chief and dove behind the rocks. A second later, he felt Johnny tumble in behind him.
“You OK?” Johnny asked.
“Yeah, I think so. Johnny, how did ya know?”
“Practice.” Johnny said grimly. Johnny picked up his rifle and aimed it at the trees on the opposite side of the road. “Don’t shoot till ya see somethin’ ta shoot at. We don’t have a lot of ammunition.” Johnny leveled his rifle, and when the next shot came, he pinpointed the muzzle flash and fired.
Jeff saw what he was doing, and followed his example, and Johnny nodded approvingly. “How many of them are there?” He asked the boy.
Jeff shook his head. “ I’m not sure. There were three of them when I was with them, but they said they were supposed ta meet a few more when they got to Stockton. I don’t think anyone else is with them yet, but I’m not sure.”
Johnny sighed. Why couldn’t it ever be easy? He brought his rifle up once more and squeezed off a shot. He figured by either his or Jeff’s gun, they had probably dropped two of the men, and they were fast running out of ammunition. He watched the trees carefully, and took another shot when he saw movement. He heard a man fall, and then silence. He waited several minutes, and fired a few more rounds, but there was no movement from the trees.
After waiting fifteen minutes, he motioned Jeff to stay down, and he cautiously stood up, keeping his eyes glued on where the men had been. He took a few steps, and then ran at a crouch toward the trees. The impact of the bullet hit him hard in the chest, and sent him rolling into blackness.
Johnny lurched toward consciousness and he could hear the panic in the boy’s voice as he yelled at him to wake up. He opened his eyes and tried to focus, but it was difficult. Jeff’ s face swam in front of him, making him feel sick. He put out a hand to stop the movement, but Jeff grabbed it and kept yelling. All Johnny wanted to do was to go back into the blackness, but that darn kid wouldn’t let him. He had half a mind to take another switch to him. Finally, Johnny got his voice to work. “Be quiet, I’m awake.”
“Oh thank goodness, Johnny. Johnny, I don’t know what to do. You got shot in your chest. It’s still in there, I checked. There’s no exit wound. I don’t think it’s in your heart, it’s too high, but you’re bleedin’ real bad. I put a bandage on it, but you’re still bleedin’.” Jeff’s voice betrayed his panic.
Johnny tried to raise his head and look around. He noticed he was lying on a bedroll off of the trail, and he had no idea how he had gotten there. He tried to remember what happened, and after concentrating intently, it finally came. “The gunman?”
Jeff shook his head. “He’s dead, I shot him. They’re all dead…... Johnny, what do I do? I’ve got ta get the bleedin’ stopped and nothing is working!”
Johnny hated saying the next words as much as he knew Jeff would hate to hear them. He took a ragged breath and then spoke “You gotta take the bullet out.”
Jeff sat back in horror and shook his head. “I can’t.”
Johnny tried to catch his breath. “You HAVE to. We’re too far from a doctor, and if ya don’t I’ll bleed ta death. There’s not enough time ta go get help. You have ta do it, you’re the only one around, and I sure can’t take this one out by myself.” Johnny looked up at the boy; he was as white as a sheet.
“Jeff, you can do this. I know you can. You just have to calm down and THINK!”
Jeff shook his head frantically. “Maybe I can get the bleeding stopped till I can get you to a doctor. Johnny, PLEASE!”
“There’s no time!” Johnny said roughly. He grabbed the front of Jeff’s shirt. “I’ll talk ya through it, but ya gotta hurry, it’s my only chance.” When he finally got a faint nod from the boy, Johnny relaxed his grip. “All right. First, get a fire goin’.”
Jeff looked around for a moment, as if trying to make someone appear simply by wishing, but he finally scrambled to his feet and started gathering wood. Five minutes later, he had a decent fire started, and he knelt back down by his uncle. “Now what?” He got no response, and panicked, he shook the wounded man. “Uncle Johnny, PLEASE! You’ve gotta help me. I don’t know what to do!”
Finally Jeff saw his uncle’s eyes flicker open. Johnny wet his lips before speaking. He was fast losing consciousness. He nodded at the boy. “Get the bottle of tequila out of my saddlebags, and give me some, then get the knife outta my boot. Put the knife in the fire for a while, and then ya got ta pour the tequila over your hands, and then over the knife. When you’re done doin’ that, you gotta pour some of the alcohol into the wound. Make sure it goes in, and not just on top. I may pass out when you start, so let me tell ya what to do now. Whatever you do, you go after that bullet, and don’t hesitate. You’re right; I don’t think it’s near my heart. The easier ya try ta be, the more time it’ll take, and the more blood I’ll lose. And right now, I don’t think I can lose a whole lot more. I’ll try ta hold as still as I can, but whatever you do, DON’T stop even if I’m hurtin. Just get it done. Get in and get it out, and then pour some more tequila into the wound and then pack it off. Use my shirt for padding, and soak the shirt in whatever tequila there is left. Then wrap a bandage around it good and tight.”
Johnny grabbed Jeff’s shirt once more and looked his nephew in the eye. “No matter what happens, IT ISN”T YOUR FAULT, ok? Don’t go blamin’ yourself if I don’t make it, just do your best. And you promise me right now, that you’ll go home no matter what.” Johnny saw Jeff’s hesitation. “PROMISE ME!”
Jeff nodded, and Johnny lay back down. “All right, let’s get this done, and don’t worry, I know you can do it.”
Jeff went over to Barranca and got the bottle, and then came back and handed it to Johnny and helped him take a couple of swallows. He laid him back on the bedroll he’d put down, and reached for the knife in Johnny’s boot. He put the knife in the fire, and then picked up the bottle once more. His hand was shaking as he poured the alcohol over his hands, and then he soaked the knife. He reached down and got a piece of shirt he had torn for a bandage, and twisted it. Johnny smiled at him. “I see ya know what it’s for now.”
Jeff nodded, terribly afraid he might cry. He put the rag up to Johnny’s mouth and when Johnny opened it, he put in. He looked at his uncle for a short time. “Thanks, Johnny, for everything, And I promise, I won’t let you down.” He took a deep breath, and then he poured the tequila into the wound. Johnny’s body stiffened, and sweat broke out on his forehead, and then he finally relaxed. The gunfighter’s eyes focused on his nephew and he gave a short nod. Jeff smiled a sickly smile at him, and then bent over and put the knife into the wound.
Scott went to the large windows in the Great room and looked out. It had been almost three weeks, and there was still no sign of Jeff and Johnny. He watched for a few moments, and then turned and slammed his hand down on the desk. “What’s taking them?”
Murdoch looked at his older son and shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe Johnny had a hard time finding him.”
“Or maybe he DID find him, but Jeff was hurt or…….” He let his voice trail off.
Murdoch dropped his head. “If there had been a problem, Johnny would have let us know.”
Scott nodded his head in frustration. “I know.” He said quietly. “It’s just that…..I don’t know, I should have gone with him. I should have insisted.”
Murdoch shook his head. “It sounds to me like you didn’t have a lot of choice. You did the right thing. You’re still not well.”
Scott looked back out the doors. “I just hope they’re all right. They were riding into a range war.”
Murdoch looked at his son. “Johnny’s smart. He’ll be able to keep them safe.”
“If he even FINDS him.” Scott muttered. “And it’s not too late.”
“You have to have faith.” Murdoch said. “You can’t give up on them.”
“I’m NOT giving up on them. It’s just………” Scott sighed. “I want them home. BOTH of them.”
Murdoch came and put his arm around Scott’s shoulders. “So do I.” He looked for the thousandth time out of the doors and then said in a softer voice. “So do I.”
Murdoch turned once more toward his son. “We’re not going to let Johnny go again. We have to convince him that he’s not a danger to us, and that he’s wanted here. That Lancer is his home.” Murdoch sighed. “It’ll be harder this time, but we can’t take no for an answer.”
Scott nodded. “I’m not losing my brother again. If….WHEN he comes home, he’s not going to find it that easy to leave. Jeff told me that Johnny had admitted he’d made a mistake when he left.” Scott shook his head. “I just hope that Jeff has realized what a mistake he made, too. I’m not going to lose either one of them again.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Neither am I.”
Jeff was exhausted. To his surprise, he had managed to get the bullet out and stop the bleeding, but Johnny still wasn’t awake, and now he was running a fever. He had performed the makeshift surgery two days ago, and he was beginning to think Johnny wasn’t going to come out of it. Maybe he’d just lost too much blood, or maybe Jeff had done something wrong.
Jeff threw a couple more pieces of wood on the fire. It was daytime, and certainly not cold, but Johnny seemed to be freezing. He was shivering almost uncontrollably in his sleep. Jeff made sure the blanket was wrapped around him, and felt his forehead again before sitting back against a log. His eyes shut for a moment. He was so tired, but he was afraid to fall asleep in case Johnny worsened. He shook his head. He wouldn’t know what to do if he did get worse, but he didn’t want to take the chance of falling asleep.
Jeff had thought long and hard about leaving Johnny and making a run to Lancer. He figured he could get there in about two hours, but he was afraid of leaving Johnny by himself. He had been debating with himself all day, and so far he still didn’t know what to do. He kept hoping someone would come by, but so far, the trail had been uncharacteristically empty. Jeff had finally figured out exactly where they were right before the ambush, and he knew that this trail was used by the men to get to Spanish Wells. It was fairly wide, and a wagon could negotiate it without too much trouble. He hoped he’d see a familiar face soon.
Jeff got up and tried to get Johnny to take a few sips of water, but most of it ran down his face. The one time Jeff had tried to force the man to drink, Johnny had choked and scared Jeff nearly out of his wits. He was sure that he had killed him, and now he was afraid of giving him very much at a time.
Jeff got up and walked around to try to stay awake, but he knew that very soon he would have to give in and go to sleep. Right about now he would give just about anything to crawl into his own bed at home. He sighed. Even though Johnny had told him that what happened wasn’t his fault, he knew in his heart that it was. If he hadn’t behaved so badly, none of this would have happened, and Johnny wouldn’t have gotten hurt. He just hoped he would get the chance to tell Johnny that he was sorry.
Jeff watched his uncle for the next hour, and finally made up his mind that he’d have to leave to get help. If he left right now, he could make it to Lancer and they would still have time to get back here with a wagon before dark. Jeff knew he couldn’t handle being out here another night. It was bad enough during daylight, but at night he felt even more alone. He stood up and walked over to Chief, preparing to saddle him, when he heard a sound.
He spun around and stared at Johnny. The man was jerking uncontrollably. His eyes were open, and at first Jeff thought he was awake, but then he realized there was no recognition in those eyes. He ran back to his uncle and grabbed him, but the spasms continued. “JOHNNY!” Jeff yelled. The boy knew the gunfighter couldn’t hear him, but he was in a blind panic. He knew that Johnny was dying, and he couldn’t do anything to prevent it. “JOHNNY, PLEASE!” he said over and over.
After an eternity, the jerking stopped, and Jeff felt Johnny go limp. He looked down at his uncle, frightened by what he would find.
Jeff sat there for a moment, petrified that Johnny had died, but at last he saw the man’s chest move. He felt Johnny’s forehead once again and realized he was burning up. He looked around in frustration, knowing he no longer had a choice; he HAD to go get help. Johnny couldn’t last much longer without it, and he no longer had any hope that his uncle would get better by himself. He laid Johnny down carefully and covered him with the blanket, and then put more wood on the fire. He stood up resolutely, and went over to Chief and swung on. Taking a last look at Johnny, he kicked the horse into a gallop toward the ranch.
Chief tore down the road, but he had only gone a short distance when he saw a wagon approaching with a familiar figure at the reins. Jeff said a quick prayer of thanks, and guided Chief toward the wagon. He didn’t bother to slow his horse, but went tearing up as fast as he could, making Chief do a slide stop beside the irate man.
“JEFF! What in tarnation’s gotten into you boy? Don’t you know better’n that? And where have you been? Your Pa’s just about torn his hair out worryin’ about you. You’d better git your rear home right now.”
“Jelly, It’s Johnny. He’s hurt real bad. He caught a bullet, and I managed ta take it out, I got the bleedin’ stopped, but his fever’s gotten real high, and he’s been havin fits.”
The concern on the old man’s face was evident. “Where is he?”
Jeff turned around and pointed back the way he had come. “Down around the bend there’s some big trees on the right. He’s in there. I’ve gotta go get the doctor. Can you watch him for me?”
Jelly shook his head. “Now just hold on a minute boy. Doc Jenkins lives on the other side of Lancer in Green River. Help me get Johnny in the wagon and I can start home with him THEN you can go after the Doc.”
Jeff nodded in frustration. “All right, but HURRY. He’s real bad.”
Jelly didn’t need any coaxing. He slapped the reins down on the horse’s backs and tore down the road following the boy. Jeff was already back at Johnny’s side by the time Jelly got the wagon stopped. He made his way over to his friend as fast as he could and knelt down next to him. “It’ll be all right, now. Johnny. Ole’ Jelly’ll take care of ya. You just rest easy, we’re gonna take you home and get Sam ta take a look at ya. He’s missed yellin’ at ya, and it looks like you’re really gonna give him a good reason ta yell this time.” He motioned to the boy. “Get your bedroll and put it in the back of the wagon, and then come back and help me carry him.”
A few minutes later, Johnny was placed gently in the back of the wagon. Jeff hurriedly tied Barranca to the back, and then mounted his own horse. Jelly nodded at the boy. “All right, now you hightail it ta town and get the Doc, and I’ll be seein YOU at Lancer.” He looked at the boy meaningfully.
Jeff nodded. “I’ll be back as soon as I get Doc Jenkins.” He turned Chief and kicked him into a gallop.
Jelly headed the team back toward the ranch, and kept one eye on his patient. He knew the fever was bad, but Johnny always did get high fevers after a gunshot wound. He shook his head. He didn’t know HOW Johnny had survived all those years without somebody lookin out for him. Who took care of him when he got himself hurt? Well, Johnny wasn’t goin’ ANYWHERE if Jellifer B. Hoskins had anything ta say about it. That boy needed his family, even if he was too durn stubborn to admit it. He impatiently slapped the reins down on the horse’s backs one more time.
Jelly had never seen a more welcome sight than the Lancer arch. Johnny had had another seizure, and Jelly had been scared to death that he was going to lose him, but at last the spasms had abated, and Jelly had continued. He had kept the wagon going as fast as he dared, but he didn’t want ta bounce Johnny to death, either. He was pretty sure though, that he’d beaten the Doc. He figured if Sam were already here, Scott and Murdoch would have ridden out to meet him.
Jelly started hollering before he’d even come close to the estancia, and he soon saw both Murdoch and Scott appear from inside the house. As soon as what he was saying had registered, they both came running toward the wagon. Scott reached him first, and swung into the back. “What happened?” Scott asked.
“He got hisself shot. He’s burnin’ up with fever and he’s been havin’ fits. Sam had better get here quick, he’s real bad off.”
Murdoch arrived just in time to hear the last part, and he motioned to one of the men who had ridden up. “Go get Sam, and hurry.”
“No need,” Jelly hollered. “Jeff already went ta get him.”
Murdoch noticed Scott’s look of relief when he realized his son was all right, and he himself said a quick prayer; both of thanks and pleading, and then turned toward his younger son. He sat down and pulled Johnny’s head onto his lap and started to pray in earnest.
Scott and Murdoch carried Johnny onto the house and placed him in his old bedroom. Murdoch was grateful that Teresa had insisted on keeping it clean in the hopes Johnny would someday return. She had also made sure that it was never used by guests. It was her way of coping with Johnny’s loss.
As they got him comfortable and covered him with a blanket, he started mindlessly fighting them. Murdoch grabbed him and held him, speaking reassuring words to him. “It’s all right, Johnny. You’re safe. You’re at Lancer, and Scott and I will guard your back. Just rest, son.” Murdoch didn’t know if his son understood, but Johnny gradually relaxed and was soon peaceful once more.
Johnny was in the middle of a convulsion when Sam walked in with Jeff right behind him. The doctor immediately went to Johnny’s side and helped hold him down. When it was over, he took the blanket and flung it back. “Get this off of him, and open up all the windows in the room. Scott, go get some room temperature water and some clean cloths. We’ve got to get the fever down.”
Jeff interrupted “But he’s freezing.”
Sam nodded his head. “He’s freezing because his temperature is so high that the surrounding air feels cold to him. As soon as we get his body temperature down, he won’t feel as cold. He’s having convulsions because he’s too hot, and if he stays that way, it could cause brain damage. Now go on, and do as I say.”
Scott ran downstairs to get the items, wishing that Teresa were here. She had gone to visit a friend and wasn’t supposed to be back for several days, but Jelly had reluctantly gone to bring her home, and with any luck, they would both be back by tomorrow morning. He sure hoped so; he had the feeling that they would need all the help they could get.
By the time he found the items and got back to Johnny’s room, Sam was gently taking off the makeshift bandage that was wrapped around Johnny’s chest. He peeled it off, and as Scott came closer, he could see that the wound was infected. He looked over at Jeff and saw a look of guilt on his face.
“It’s all my fault.” The boy whispered.
Sam glanced up at the boy. “Scott, get Jeff out of here and in to bed. He’s exhausted. Then come back and help me.”
Scott stood up and went over to his son. “You heard Sam, come on.” He put his hand around Jeff’s shoulder. “You need to rest.”
Jeff spun away from his father. “NO! I want to stay with Johnny! I can help!”
Scott looked sternly at his son. “I said into bed, NOW!”
Jeff locked eyes with his father, but after a second, he dropped his head. ‘Yes, sir.” He said as he turned and left the room.
Murdoch looked up and caught Scott’s eye as Jeff walked out. Scott shook his head and shrugged, and then came back to the bedside.
“What’s gotten into him?” Murdoch asked quietly. Scott shook his head once more. “I have no idea, but whatever it is, I’m not complaining.”
After Jeff left, Scott and Murdoch helped Sam clean out the wound and re-wrap Johnny’s chest. All three men were saddened by the numerous new scars that they saw as they took care of him, and Sam shook his head at one that appeared to be dead center in his chest. He traced the outline with his finger, wondering how Johnny could have survived what should have been a fatal wound.
Finally he covered Johnny with a sheet and stood up. “Someone will have to keep an eye on him at all times to make sure the fever doesn’t shoot back up. Keep sponging him down, and don’t cover him with anything heavier than this sheet. If he comes around at all, try to get some water down him. I have to go check on the Payson kid, and then I’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
“Will he be all right?” Murdoch asked.
Sam shrugged slowly. “I don’t know. It’ll depend on how fast we can get the infection under control and if we can keep his fever down. We’ll just have to wait and see.” He looked at the two men’s forlorn expressions and smiled. “Don’t look so glum. You know how stubborn he is.”
Sam turned toward Scott. “By the way, did Jeff tell you that he took that bullet out of Johnny himself?” When Scott shook his head, Sam continued. “He did a very good job; if he hadn’t have taken it out, Johnny would have certainly died. And the infection probably wasn’t his fault, so when he wakes up, make sure you tell him that.”
Scott nodded, wondering again at the change in his son.
The next morning, Jeff woke up, confused at first as to just where he was. As he realized he was in his own bed, the first thought was relief that the nightmare was over. Then he remembered Johnny, and jumped out of bed; he couldn’t believe he had slept through the whole night. He grabbed his pants and put them on, and then went down the hall to his uncle’s room.
He cautiously peered in, afraid of what he would find. The first thing he saw was his father sitting by Johnny’s bed, holding the unconscious man’s hand and speaking softly to him. His grandfather was asleep in a chair by the window, his snores soft and even.
Jeff crept silently up to the bed keeping his eyes on Johnny’s chest until he was sure he saw him breathe, then turned and looked at his father. “How is he?”
Scott nodded. “His fever has come down a little bit, and he hasn’t had any more convulsions for several hours.”
Jeff swallowed hard, hesitant to ask the question. “Will he be OK?” he finally whispered.
Scott looked into Jeff’s eyes. “We don’t know yet. Sam says we’ll just have to wait and see, and take one day at a time.”
Jeff bit his lip and looked down. “It’s my fault he got hurt,” Jeff confessed.
Scott looked at him for a moment, and then asked with a sigh, “Jeff, what happened?”
Jeff sighed, and started to tell his father about the ambush, when Scott interrupted him. “Start at the beginning. Tell me what’s happened since you left here.”
Jeff hesitantly told his father the whole story. He was tempted to leave a few things out, but figured if he was going to make a fresh start, he might as well come clean.
Scott kept shaking his head throughout the story as his son told him about all the stupid choices he had made, all of the trouble he had gotten into. Scott was grateful his little brother had been willing to help his son. And Johnny had obviously talked him into coming home, but Scott was angry with Jeff for putting both himself and Johnny in danger. Finally Scott glared at his son. “I ought to take a switch to you for all the problems you’ve caused everyone.”
Jeff dropped his head. “Johnny already did.” He said quietly.
Scott’s mouth dropped open, and he glanced at his father, who had awakened and been silently listening to the exchange. “He did?”
Jeff kept his head down and nodded. “Yes, sir.” He glanced up at his father. “I didn’t think he’d really do it.” He confessed.
Both Murdoch and Scott tried to hide smiles. “Never underestimate your uncle.” Scott told his son.
Jeff nodded. “Believe me, I learned that the hard way.”
Scott sighed and looked at his son. Under his father’s intense glare, Jeff dropped his head. “I’m sorry, Pa. I never meant to cause so much trouble. I…I just wasn’t thinking. And I’m sorry I got Uncle Johnny shot.” Jeff took a deep breath. “I’m sorry about everything. I know I really messed up, and I promise I’ll listen to you from now on and do my best ta stay outta trouble.”
Scott shook his head, unsure of what to say. Jeff looked up at his father, who was still holding Johnny’s hand. Jeff’s eyes narrowed as he looked at them. He was also unsure, but determined to find out what had happened between his father and Johnny. “You act like you still care about him.” Jeff said accusingly.
Both Murdoch’s and Scott’s heads shot up. “Of COURSE I do!” Scott protested, “He’s my BROTHER. What made you think I didn’t care about him?”
Jeff held his father’s gaze and shook his head in disbelief. “You never said ANYTHING about him. I had ta find out you had a brother from the people in town, and from hearing bits and pieces. You never even told me I had an uncle. He looked at his Grandfather. “Either one of you. WHY?” He asked beseechingly.
Scott shook his head. “I already explained that to you.” he said angrily.
Jeff shook his head angrily. “No, Pa, you didn’t. You told me you hadn’t told me about Johnny Madrid because you were afraid I’d run away and try ta be just like him. Well I wish I WERE just like him, and I don’t mean because he’s fast with a gun. He’s a good man, and he doesn’t deserve ta live that kind of life. He saved my life, and he still cares about you and Grandpa, even though he thinks you don’t care about him.” He shook his head. “If ya didn’t want me ta know about Madrid, ya could have at LEAST told me about Johnny Lancer.”
Murdoch spoke up. “Jeff, we were wrong about not telling you about Johnny, but we were afraid of losing you, too. We realize now how wrong we were, but don’t EVER think we didn’t tell you because we didn’t care about your Uncle or because we were ashamed of him. Nothing could be further from the truth.” He sighed. “And you’re right, we SHOULD have told you about Johnny Lancer, because that’s who your Uncle is – much more than he’s Johnny Madrid, no matter how hard he tries to hide it. We made a mistake, a bad one, and I’m sorry.”
Scott looked at his son. “I didn’t tell you anything about your Uncle because it was difficult for me to talk about him. I was angry and disappointed, but most of all, I was hurt that he left. I didn’t want to think about it, and I didn’t want to have to talk about it. I was wrong, and I’m sorry. Jeff, I love Johnny, and I’d do just about anything to get him to stay here where he belongs.” He glanced at his father. “Both of us would.”
Jeff looked at the two of them for a moment and shook his head sadly. “I’m not the one you have to convince, Johnny is. He thinks you hate him and that you don’t want him here.”
“That’s NOT TRUE!” Murdoch bellowed.
“Then why does he think it?” Jeff shot.
Scott closed his eyes and sighed. “Because the day he left all of us said some things that we didn’t mean.” He hesitated. “Murdoch and I both told Johnny that if he left, we wouldn’t want him to came back. We were trying to get him to change his mind. We were angry and upset, and very, very desperate. We know now just how bad of a mistake it was to let our tempers get in the way. We didn’t mean it, any of it, but we never got a chance to tell him differently; he left that day, and we never saw him again.”
Jeff looked at his father with narrowed eyes. “You could have gone after him; you could have found him if you had really wanted to.”
Scott shook his head in frustration and raised his voice as he remembered the futile searches. “You think we didn’t TRY? We did, more times than I could count. But your Uncle is a very difficult man to find when he doesn’t want to be found.” He lowered his voice once more. “And after a while, we had to accept the fact that he didn’t WANT to be found. He knew we were looking for him.”
Jeff looked at his father with troubled eyes. Pa, you HAVE to convince him to stay. He HATES what he’s doin’. He belongs here.”
Scott nodded as he looked at the still form of his brother. “Believe me, we will do our best. We have no intention of losing him again.” He looked up at his son for a long moment before asking the question he’d been avoiding, “What about you? Are you staying?”
Jeff dropped his head. “I’m gonna stay.” He looked up at his father. “If you’ll let me.”
Scott shot a glance at Murdoch before answering his son. Of COURSE we’ll let you. Did you think we wouldn’t?” Scott said in amazement.
Jeff shrugged. “I thought you might send me to that school back east. I….I was afraid.” He grinned suddenly. “Johnny said you wouldn’t, but I thought he was just sayin’ that ta get me to agree ta come home.”
Jeff looked thoughtful for a moment. “Besides, I don’t have a choice. I promised Johnny I’d stay and work hard on my schoolin’ and chores before I made up my mind about what I really wanted to do.” He dropped his head again. “I know one thing, though. I don’t want ta be a gunfighter, that’s for sure.” He looked at his Uncle. “Johnny made sure of that.” He shook his head and said quietly, “I don’t know how he’s survived for so long, livin’ that kind of life.”
Scott sighed in relief and moved over and squeezed Jeff’s shoulder. “Jeff, we never wanted you to go; this is your home. And you’ll always be welcome here; we’ll never make you leave. I’m glad Johnny helped you make the decisions that you did. I’m grateful that he convinced you to come back, son. We all owe him a lot, more than we can ever repay. But one thing we’re ALL going to do is to try to make sure he makes the same decision about coming home that you did. All right?”
Jeff nodded. “I just hope he’ll listen.”
“Well, Sam?” Murdoch jumped up and asked the Doctor before Sam was even fully down the stairs. The Doctor had chased them all out of Johnny’s room while he examined him, trying to figure out why he wasn’t waking up. Scott had been pacing like a caged lion, while Teresa and Jelly had pretended to play a game of checkers. Murdoch noticed, however, that in the forty minutes that Sam had been upstairs, they had each made exactly one move. Jeff had sat on the couch, pretending to watch the game, but the forlorn look on his face was all too easy to read. The boy still blamed himself for Johnny getting shot.
Sam took in the depressing scene and shrugged his shoulders. “The infection is almost cleared up, his lungs are clear, and I went over him again, and didn’t see any other wounds. I don’t know of any reason he shouldn’t be coming around. If you want my educated guess, I think he’s just exhausted for some reason.”
The Doctor looked at Jeff. “Before this happened, had he been getting much sleep, do you know?”
Jeff dropped his head. “I know he didn’t sleep at all the night before it happened. He was supposed to wake me up so I could take my turn at watch, but he didn’t.” He was silent for a moment. “And he told me after he bailed me outta that jail that he hadn’t had much sleep for quite a while; he was too busy chasin’ after me.”
Sam nodded. “I think he just needs to rest. If he comes to, try to get some fluids down him, but let him sleep if he wants. He needs to rest in order to heal.”
“Then he’ll be OK?” Teresa asked.
Sam nodded. “As far as I can tell, he should be fine.” He glanced over to where Jeff was sitting forlornly. “Jeff, you did a good job of digging that bullet out and getting the bleeding stopped. It looks like it was in fairly deep. You saved your Uncle’s life, and you should be proud of that.”
Jeff looked up and managed to give the Doctor a weak smile. “Johnny told me exactly what to do. I was panicked. I never coulda done it if he hadn’t a talked me through it.”
Sam looked surprised. “He was awake when you took it out?”
Jeff nodded. “Yeah. I thought he’d passed out a couple of times, but he hadn’t. Not until it was out. I think he knew how scared I was, he kept reassuring me it was OK.” Jeff shook his head. “I have nothin’ ta be proud of; it was my fault he got shot in the first place.”
Sam went over to the boy. “Maybe it was, but I think Johnny would be the last one to want you to feel guilty about it. Everybody makes mistakes, it’s how much you learn from them that matters, and how much you try not to make the same mistake again.” He studied the boy. “So, did you learn anything from all of this?”
Jeff met the older man’s eyes. “Yes, Sir, I did.”
Sam nodded, and put his arm on Jeff‘s shoulders. “Good. Now how about concentrating on helping your Father and Grandfather to convince your mule-headed Uncle to stay here?”
Jeff smiled. “Yes, Sir.”
Johnny slowly swam toward consciousness. He could hear a voice, but the words seemed jumbled and blurry. He made an effort to open his eyes, but they refused to cooperate. Normally, he would be in a panic to wake up and find out just what kind of trouble he was in, but for some reason that he couldn’t quite remember, it didn’t seem as important this time. He didn’t know exactly why, but he felt safe. Giving in to his body’s exhaustion, he allowed himself to sink back into the comforting darkness.
The next time he awoke, he just lay there without moving for awhile, trying to figure out where he was without opening his eyes. Playing possum had saved his life on many occasions, and even though he felt no threat, it never hurt to be careful. He tried to remember exactly what had happened. The familiar pain in his chest told him he had been shot again, and from the aching in the rest of his body and his confused state of mind, he knew that he’d had a pretty high fever. He let his mind wander back over the events he could remember, while trying to figure out just where he was. He caught the smell of cows, and the cloying smell of night blooming Jasmine. Taking a slightly deeper breath, the faint odor of Lavender coming up from the bedding came into focus. All of the smells were reassuringly familiar and he opened his eyes to a well-known figure sitting in a chair next to his bed.
“Well, it’s about time. We thought you’d decided to sleep your whole life away.” Scott’s concerned face came closer, and Johnny felt him put a hand on his forehead. “Your fever’s finally down; how do you feel?”
Johnny nodded. “Fine.”
Scott snorted. “Well, I see you haven’t changed any. Now how do you REALLY feel, and don’t lie, because Sam’s going to ask you the same thing, and I KNOW you wouldn’t lie to him.”
Johnny narrowed his eyes and tried to scowl, but for some reason a smile kept trying to win out. He finally managed to settle for a draw and he stared at his brother. “Then I guess I’ll just have ta tell HIM, won’t I?”
Scott sighed. “We were worried about you, brother.”
Johnny ducked his head. “How’s Jeff?”
“He’s fine.” Scott smiled slowly. “I heard you tanned his hide.”
Johnny nodded. “I’m surprised he told ya. I guess I sort of lost my temper.” He glanced up at his brother. “He saved my life.”
Scott shook his head. “From what I can figure out, he almost lost it for you.” He said angrily.
Johnny shook his head once more. “That wasn’t his fault. And don’t be too rough on him; he’s a good kid.” He gave his brother a small smile. “He’s just a little impulsive.”
Scott nodded. “We talked, and I think he’ll be a little more willing to listen in the future.” He looked into his brother’s eyes, “Thanks, Johnny, for taking care of him and setting him back on the right path.”
Johnny nodded, and then lay his head back down on the pillow and shut his eyes. For the first time in a long time, he felt safe enough to let himself totally relax into a deep sleep; he knew he was safe.
Johnny cautiously opened his eyes and looked around. Murdoch was sprawled in a chair, his feet resting on the open windowsill. The soft night wind was fluttering the curtains and letting a welcome breeze into the room. Murdoch’s soft snores brought a pang of homesickness rushing through Johnny, and he forcibly pushed it away. He watched his father, drinking in the sight of him, before he tiredly shut his eyes with a moan.
That soft sound was enough to awaken his father, and Murdoch sat up in the chair, watching Johnny and trying to figure out whether his son was awake or not. He sat there uncertainly for a moment, and then relaxed back in his chair, studying his son.
Even though he was five years older, Johnny still looked impossibly young. There were a few new scars and he was thinner than Murdoch remembered, but he still looked like the young man that had left them so long ago. Murdoch wondered what his life had been like in those five years, even though he was afraid he had a pretty good idea. Johnny Madrid had become a legend in that time. When he had first come to Lancer all those years ago, Johnny had been well known around the border and even up as far as the ranch, at least in certain circles. But in the last several years, his fame had grown.
Murdoch remembered when he and Scott had visited a bookseller in Sacramento and had stood in stunned surprise as they read the titles of several books supposedly about Johnny’s exploits. There was also a whole rack of “Penny Dreadfuls” with his name in the title. And it had been not quite a year ago when the San Francisco Bee had published their “Most Dangerous Men in the West” list. Johnny wasn’t the first name on the list, but he made the top five, and he was the only one of those five who wasn’t an outlaw.
Murdoch wondered just how many of the stories and legends were true. He knew Johnny well enough to know that probably most of them were. His son had a knack for reading people and for sizing up a situation instantly. He supposed that ability had kept Johnny alive more than once. He had also seen his son’s skill with a gun, although he had a feeling that Johnny had hidden from him just how fast and proficient he really was.
From the beginning though, Johnny couldn’t hide his familiarity with that Colt. It would become almost a live thing in Johnny’s hand, and his son was forever cleaning it and checking it. Murdoch had been somewhat surprised when he had seen the revolver a few days ago. As far as he could tell, it was the same gun, lovingly and unceasingly cared for. When he had seen it, his first reaction had been anger, as if that inanimate object was the cause of all of their heartaches. But he realized that in some ways, he loved it, too. After all, that gun is what had kept Johnny alive all these years.
Murdoch stood up and brushed a stray lock of hair from his son’s forehead, smiling at the unruly mop of hair that he remembered so well. As he brushed the hair aside, he again wondered how someone that looked so young could be so lethal. But Murdoch knew there was another side to his son; at least he hoped there still was. Murdoch had seen first hand the gentle side of the gunfighter, a side that had revealed itself more and more the longer Johnny had been at Lancer. A side that he thought Johnny had finally been able to allow to surface once he felt loved and safe. It showed a Johnny that might have always been if the circumstances had been different.
Murdoch shook his head sadly; he wondered if that side of his son had finally died from lack of use. A gunfighter with a soft spot was sure to wind up dead fairly quickly. Johnny wouldn’t be able to allow that side of him to surface in the business he was in. But Murdoch knew from what Jeff had said that his son still had a soul; if he didn’t, Jeff would have been dead several times over. But Johnny had proved that he cared, and it had almost cost him his life.
Johnny was unlike the dead-eyed gunhawks that Murdoch had frequently seen, who only cared about killing and money. He wondered how his son had managed that in the line of work he was in. But he knew that it didn’t necessarily mean that Johnny hadn’t become too hard and too bitter to ever come back. He hoped with all of his heart that it wasn’t too late for Johnny. That this time, they could convince Johnny to stay.
Johnny lay still, waiting for his father to go back to sleep. When Murdoch had brushed the hair out of his eyes, it had brought back memories so painful that he almost gave himself away. But finally his father had gone back to the chair and after what seemed like an eternity, the snores had started again.
Johnny lay there in the dark, wondering how long it would be before he could ride. As much as he wanted to stay, and as much as he wanted to be with his family, he knew in the long run it would be less painful for everyone if he just slipped away before any false hopes surfaced. As caring as his father and brother had been, he knew that he no longer had a place at Lancer. He had made sure of that a long time ago, and he didn’t want to make his family have to tell him to leave.
From the way he felt, he figured he could probably be able to sit a horse in another day if he had to, but he knew that he’d have to try to leave at night to get a good head start. He was afraid Jeff, and maybe even Scott would come after him to “talk”. Johnny shook his head slightly. All the talking in the world wouldn’t change what he was and the things he had done. And they sure wouldn’t change the things that had been said that afternoon five years ago. Besides, the reasons he had left Lancer were still valid, and if anything, more so.
No, his dream of someday coming home to stay had been just that: A dream.
Johnny slipped the covers back and cautiously sat up. He had managed to avoid any serious discussions with anyone, using his wound as an excuse to feign exhaustion anytime the subject got past much more than the weather. And he had managed to avoid talking to Murdoch all together. He just wasn’t sure if he could handle talking to the Old man, so he had conveniently dozed off every time Murdoch came around.
He knew that his ruse couldn’t last much longer, however. Scott had told him this afternoon that Sam was coming out tomorrow morning, and he figured the wily old doctor would catch on to his tricks. So, he either had to leave tonight or he’d have to break down and have those talks with his family, talks that he knew would end up in yelling matches and hurt feelings.
He sat on the edge of the bed, watching his brother as he slept in the chair. He had tried to convince Scott that he didn’t need anyone to baby-sit him, but for some reason his brother didn’t believe him. He looked at Scott for a long time, wondering if he’d ever see him again, his heart clenching at the thought.
Finally, he took a deep breath and cautiously stood up. The stitches in his chest pulled, and he was extremely sore, but at least the fever was finally gone. He felt a little light –headed, but not too bad, considering. He walked slowly over to the dresser where he had seen Teresa put his clothes the day before, and opened the drawer.
Getting dressed without waking up his brother was difficult, but getting his boots on was close to impossible. After a few futile attempts, he finally grabbed them and started down the stairs. Halfway down he had to rest for a moment and wait for the dizziness to pass. He just hoped he could make it out to Barranca. Once on the horse, he knew that his faithful companion would take care of him. When he finally made it to the Great room, he sat on the couch and managed to pull his boots on; his muffled curses too soft to wake the people upstairs.
He walked cautiously into the barn, but it seemed to be empty, except for the horses. He found Barranca with little trouble; the horse was in his old stall, apparently enjoying his reunion with Charlie. The Palomino had his head over the short partition separating the two stalls, and was resting his nose on the withers of his brother’s horse.
He grabbed his bridle off of the peg and slipped it onto his horse, then braced himself and resolutely picked up the saddle, unable to hide a moan of pain as the stitches pulled. By the time he was done cinching it up, a line of perspiration was showing on his face. He leaned against the stall partition to rest for a moment, and then led Barranca out of the stall. He heard a small noise to one side, and whirled toward the sound, his gun out and pointed at the sound before he locked his eyes onto his nephew’s furious ones.
“So you’re just runnin’ off. Just like that.” Jeff spat.
Johnny slipped his gun back in its holster and sighed. “Jeff, You know I have ta go.”
Jeff took a step forward. “NO, I don’t. I don’t understand at all. You said you hated fighting. You said you’d give anything ta quit. So quit.”
Johnny shook his head. “It’s not that easy. I can’t just walk away; I know. I tried it before.”
“For how long? You admitted it wasn’t that long.”
“Long enough.” Johnny said shortly.
“So no one here means anything to you? I don’t mean anything to you?”
Johnny glared at the young man. “That’s not true, and you know it.”
“NO! I DON’T know it. It seems ta me if you cared, you’d stay.”
“I already told you, I CAN’T!” Johnny said angrily. “Now drop it.”
Jeff didn’t back down. “So all that advice you gave me was just talk. It didn’t mean nothin’. Maybe I’ll just take off, too.”
Johnny took a few steps toward Jeff. “You do, and I’ll……”
“You’ll WHAT?” You’re not gonna be around.”
Johnny dropped his head. “Jeff, you need ta stay here. It’s where you belong.”
Jeff shook his head in frustration. “It’s where YOU belong, too. You told me not ta let ONE mistake ruin my whole life, but that’s what you’re doin’.”
“It wasn’t ONE mistake; it was dozens. Besides, they don’t want me here anymore.”
“THAT’S NOT TRUE! Both My Father and Grandfather want you to stay. They said that things had been said the day you left that nobody meant, and that they’d tried to find you, but you wouldn’t let them. They WANT you here.”
“He’s right,” Jelly spoke up.
Johnny turned and faced the old man as he came from the doorway. “They went after you more times than I can count.” Jelly continued.
Johnny shook his head in resignation. “I’m a danger to ‘em, and you know it.”
Jelly lifted his chin up in indignation and glared at the gunfighter. “And how many times were they in danger ‘cause you WEREN’T here? Both Murdoch and Scott have gotten themselves shot while you were gone, and I’d be willin’ ta bet they wouldn’t have if you’d a been here ta help.”
“Jelly…..” Johnny said warningly.
“And how many times did ya save their lives when ya were here? Mine too? Don’t ya think THAT counts for somethin?” Jelly shook his head. “Johnny, when it’s your time, it’s your time. Ain’t nothin’ gonna change that. You could ride outta here tonight, and tomorrow mornin somethin’ could happen that YOU coulda prevented. Ever think a that?”
Johnny shut his eyes and shook his head. “Or I could stay and tomorrow mornin’ someone could come ridin’ in, lookin’ for me and get my family killed.”
“Well I can tell ya right now, everybody in that house, and me included, are willin’ ta take that chance.”
“Well I’m not.” Johnny tried to stifle a moan as he swung up on his horse.
Jeff started toward him, and Jelly pulled him back. “Let him go. He’s nothin’ but a coward.”
Johnny glared at the old man. “Do you know who you’re callin’ a coward?”
Jelly nodded furiously. “Yeah, I do. The Great Johnny Madrid, but let me tell ya somethin; he’s scared ta death a Johnny Lancer, and scared ta death of failin’. Well let me tell ya, boy, you already have failed.” The old man looked at Jeff. “Don’t ya be listenin’ ta anything he says; he doesn’t have the sense ta make the right choices in his own life, let alone somebody else’s.”
Johnny looked furiously at the two of them before kicking Barranca and tearing out of the barn and away from the ranch.
Johnny rode hard for almost an hour, not paying attention to where he was going or what he was doing, content to let Barranca find his own way. Finally, the horse slowed, and the change in gait finally got through to the angry man. He looked around, and noticed where he was. He blew out a disgusted snort, and started to turn Barranca away from the lake, but the tired and thirsty horse pulled his head toward the water.
With a sigh, Johnny clumsily dismounted and loosened the cinch. “Sorry, amigo, didn’t mean ta take it out on you.” He slipped off the bridle and let his horse take a drink from the lake before chasing him away to let him cool down on his own. Johnny walked over to a rock overhanging the water and sat down, staring absently out at the lake as he thought about what Jelly and Jeff had said.
Were they right? WAS he being a coward? Johnny shook his head. He couldn’t take the chance of any of them getting hurt because of him, and no matter what Jelly said, it WOULD happen. He thought back to something else that the old man had said, that he had saved their lives. So what? he thought. Scott and Murdoch had saved his, too. It’s what families did.
Johnny thought back to the times that he had been put in danger because of one of them, and knew that was part of being a family, too. You couldn’t keep track. But he also knew that he attracted far more trouble than the others combined, and that wasn’t fair. He knew that neither Murdoch nor Scott would blame him if they got hurt because of him, but he would blame himself, and he didn’t know if he could live with himself if something DID happen.
Jelly had said that he could maybe save their lives in the future, but what good would that be if he just turned around and got them killed? He picked up a rock and flung it into the dark water, instantly regretting it as he felt some of his stitches give. He immediately pressed on the wound, hoping it wouldn’t bleed too badly, and started thinking about the last time he had been in this particular spot. It had been the day he left; he and Scott had come here to take a break and they had had a picnic and played in the water. It had been one of the best days he could remember, and he had almost changed his mind about staying.
When he had told his brother he was leaving, he remembered how angry Scott had been, and how he had insisted that Johnny give him a reason. Johnny sighed as he remembered trying to explain to Scott something he hadn’t even understood himself. All of the things he had told him that day had been the truth, but there was more. He had been afraid that he had made a mistake in trying to become a rancher.
The work had been overwhelming for months, and while Johnny wasn’t afraid of hard work, it seemed that it never stopped. And the harder the work got, and the longer it kept up, the more he missed the freedom and the excitement, not necessarily of being a gunfighter, but of wandering wherever he liked. And he knew that if he stayed at Lancer much longer, it would be too late for him to ever do that again.
The last couple of gunfights he had been in had been too close for comfort, and he knew he was losing his edge. On top of that, his enemies seemed to ferret out that he had a family now, and use that to their advantage. It seemed like just a matter of time before someone would come and take him down because Johnny had been too busy mending fences to practice or was too worried about his family getting hurt to react the way he should.
It was all of those things combined, and none of them. It had been a stupid choice of a young man who was afraid to settle down, who had been so afraid to lose his freedom that he had walked away from the only good thing that had ever happened to him, and given up his freedom entirely. He had grown up a lot in the last five years, and he knew now how stupid it had been, but by the time he had realized it, it had been too late to change his mind.
He thought back to the last conversation that he had had with both his brother and his father before he had left. He had long regretted that the last things that he had said to them had been said in anger, and from what Jeff and Jelly had said, maybe Scott and Murdoch had regretted what they had said, too.
Jeff had said that neither Murdoch nor Scott had meant the things that had been said that day, either, and he wondered if it were true. He knew that he certainly hadn’t meant the things he had said. He had reacted to their words with an outburst of his own, but he hadn’t meant any of it. Was it possible that they hadn’t meant any of it, either? Had he stayed away all this time because of stupid words that none of them had meant?
Maybe Jelly was right. Maybe he WAS a coward. He had been so afraid of being rejected that he hadn’t even tried to come back.
He sat back against another rock and sighed. He knew he wanted to come home, in fact, before he had gotten shot, he had planned on riding all the way with Jeff, just to see Murdoch and Scott again. He missed them terribly, all of them. He hadn’t planned on staying and talking, but maybe he should have.
As he sat there, he realized that this WOULD be the last chance he’d have. He’d never get another chance to come home. He would have to be sure this time; whatever choice he made would be final. He couldn’t change his mind again.
Could he change back to being Johnny Lancer? Was he willing to take the chance of maybe causing one of them to be hurt? Was he brave enough to face that possibility? He picked up another rock and started to throw it, and caught himself just in time. If he DID go back, Sam would already have his hide, because he could feel the blood dripping down the inside of his shirt.
“Pa, wake up!” PA!”
Scott was jolted out of a deep sleep by the frantic shouts of his son.
“He’s gone, Pa, he’s gone!”
Scott looked around in confusion until his eyes lit on the empty bed. With a curse, he sat up and turned toward Jeff. “He couldn’t have gotten far. Go check the barn.”
Jeff shook his head. “He’s gone. Me and Jelly tried ta stop him, but he wouldn’t listen to us.”
Scott took a deep breath. When he found his obstinate brother, Johnny just might find out what a switch felt like. “Did you see which way he went?” He asked resignedly.
Jeff shook his head. “Toward the hills, but there’s not much light, and we lost him before he went too far.”
Scott ran a hand through his hair in resignation. “We’ll never find him at night, we’ll have to wait until morning to go after him.”
“Should we wake up Grandpa?”
Scott shook his head. “No. Let him rest. He hasn’t gotten much sleep for a while.” He looked at his son. “There’s nothing we can do tonight. Go try and get some sleep; we’re going to have to get an early start tomorrow.”
Jeff reluctantly left the room, and Scott sat back in the chair with a sigh. Part of him was angry about always having to chase after Johnny, but he knew that Johnny’s leaving was at least partially his fault. And besides, he wanted his brother back and he didn’t care how long it took or how many times he’d have to chase him. It was as simple as that.
Johnny rode into town and stopped in front of Sam’s office. He knew now that he shouldn’t have tried his escape so soon. He’d have to get Sam to sew him up again before he headed out or he’d be in big trouble. He had thought about riding to one of the different towns and seeing a doctor there, but while he was thinking about it his horse had been aimed unerringly toward Sam’s office.
He sat on Barranca for a moment before dismounting, steeling himself both for the jolt of dismounting and the impending tirade from the Doctor. Finally, he slipped clumsily to the ground and walked into the office.
Johnny looked up at the clock in the Doctor’s outer office and noted the time. He made a face; Sam would shoot him if he woke him up at 3 in the morning if it weren’t an emergency. He walked over to the stove and picked up the coffeepot. It was at least warm, so he helped himself to a cup and then went into the inner office and lay down on a bed that Sam used for patients that were too hurt or sick to go home. He’d wait until Sam got up in the morning and then have the Doctor stitch him up.
Johnny had just dozed off when he was abruptly awakened by the door slamming. He lunged to his feet, grabbing his gun and pointed it at the startled physician. The two men stared at each other for a second before Johnny lowered the gun. “Sorry Sam.”
Sam continued to stare at him, and then noticed the blood soaking Johnny’s shirt. “What in blue blazes are you doing here? You’re not even supposed to be out of bed yet.”
Johnny shrugged sheepishly and dropped his head.
Sam sighed in resignation. “Take off your shirt.”
Johnny remained silent as Sam sewed up the ripped stitches, even at the beginning when Sam was a little less than gentle because of his anger. By the time Sam was done, however, he was convinced that something more than just some pulled stitches was troubling his friend.
Finally Sam put the suture material on the small table beside the bed and looked at the troubled young man. Johnny just sat there with his head down.
“What’s wrong, Johnny?”
The young man shook his head slightly and then brought his head up and looked Sam in the eyes. The Doctor saw the anguish in those blue eyes before Johnny dropped his head once again.
Finally Johnny spoke, his voice not much more than a whisper. “I don’t know what to do.”
“About what?” The Doctor asked, although he had a pretty good idea what Johnny was talking about.
“About whether to stay or go.”
Sam sighed. “Johnny EVERYBODY wants you to stay. And I think it’s what you want too. Why are you even considering going?”
Johnny’s head shot up. “You KNOW why!” Johnny snapped. “My just bein’ at Lancer puts my family in danger.”
Sam shook his head and sighed once more. “You’re right. It does. But your NOT being there puts them in danger, too.”
“Sam….. it’s not the same. I don’t know if I could live with myself if I stayed and somethin’ happened to one of them because of me.”
Sam nodded his head. “All right, fair enough. But could you live with yourself if you rode out of here tonight and then found out somebody had gunned one of them down tomorrow, or they got killed when they were out looking for you? Which rest assured, they will be.”
Johnny shook his head in frustration. “What am I supposed to do?” He pleaded.
“Stop blaming YOURSELF for everything that happens. You have no control over what other people do, and at some point you just have to trust in God that things will work out. You can do all of the right things and STILL have something go wrong.” He reached out and put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Johnny, all you can do is your best. Murdoch and Scott NEED you, and for that matter, so does Jeff. You need to follow your heart on this one.”
Slowly, Johnny raised his head and nodded, and slipped his shirt back on. “Thanks, Sam. He got to his feet.
“Oh no, you don’t. I want you to lie down. You can leave in the morning.”
Johnny shook his head. “That might be too late. Sorry, Sam, I gotta go.”
Johnny sat on the hill overlooking the ranch for a moment before letting Barranca wend his way slowly down the trail. He pulled the horse to a stop in front of the patio, and walked in through the back door. Murdoch, Scott and Jeff were eating breakfast, even though it wasn’t even light out yet, and the three men looked up in surprise when he walked in. Johnny glanced at the floor and noticed that their bedrolls were ready to go.
“We have to talk,” Johnny said quietly.
Johnny had gotten up at dawn and been working hard all day. He was tired, hungry, and dirty, and he had never been more content in his life. He almost smiled as he straightened up and watched the irate cow run off with its tail standing straight up. Stiffly he slogged out of the muddy gully where he had been wrestling the cow for the last hour and wiped his hands on his pants.
He walked over to where Barranca was standing and undid the rope from around the saddle horn. He coiled it up and then tied it back onto his saddle. Barranca turned and nuzzled him and he rubbed the horse’s cheek with his hand. “You’re happy ta be home, too, aren’t you amigo?” In reply, the horse butted him with his nose as Johnny whispered to him.
After giving Barranca a final pat, Johnny reached into his pocket for the watch Murdoch had given him all those years ago; he finally had a need for it. After checking the time he swung up on the horse and headed toward a small gully. He urged his horse into a faster gait; he only had two hours or so before dinner, and he didn’t want to be late. Maria was making tamales and enchiladas.
When he reached the gully about twenty minutes later he dismounted and tied Barranca to a shrub at the entrance. He reached into his saddlebags and drew out a small box and then went into the ravine on foot. The gully was narrow with steep sides and totally isolated. A minute later, the sound of gunfire erupted from the small canyon as Johnny practiced.
Johnny smiled to himself as he automatically drew and fired, drew and fired in endless repetition. As he performed the familiar ritual, he allowed his mind to wander. He and Scott and Murdoch had finally sat down and talked when he had come home three weeks ago. They had discussed things for most of a whole day. They had all brought up their own worries and concerns, but the shouting match that Johnny had expected and had worried about had never materialized. It had been difficult for all three of them, and there were a lot of things that still needed to be straightened out, but there was no longer any doubt in Johnny’s mind that he was wanted here. And there was no longer any doubt in his mind that he’d finally made the right choice.
As he continued to practice, he let his mind wander to his nephew. The boy had grown up considerably in the short span of time since he had known him, and Johnny was pleased at the change in the young man. Jeff had really buckled down and was studying hard, and the boy had made the amazed observation that he was actually starting to enjoy doing his schoolwork.
The young man was also making an effort with his chores and ranch work, although Johnny could tell that it wasn’t his first love. He did try, though, and Johnny had to give Jeff credit for keeping the promise he’d made to him.
Johnny smiled. Jeff had lost all interest in being a gunfighter and Johnny was glad. He just hoped the boy would continue to behave himself and wouldn’t get into any more trouble. The boy did have a knack for it, that was for sure. He chuckled to himself as he thought back to the first week he had been back. Jeff had smarted off to his father about something and Scott had marched his shocked son out to the woodshed. Since then, Jeff had kept a civil tongue in his head and had been the model of cooperation.
Johnny continued to draw and shoot for almost an hour. He didn’t have to practice that much each day, but sometimes he needed to get away and be by himself for a little while. He had been on his own for a long time, and he occasionally needed to get away from the commotion of the house so he could think. And when things weren’t going right, the familiar routine of practicing his draw calmed him down and let him think clearly.
Finally, satisfied with the practice, he reloaded his gun for the final time and slipped it back into its holster. He hadn’t practiced for long today, he didn’t feel like he needed to. Right now there was nothing he was upset about and he was eager to get back to the hacienda. He and his family were getting along and working things out, and he knew that he was home for good. This is where he belonged, where he had always belonged, if he had just had the sense to know it. He shook his head when he thought of all of the years that had been wasted because of a stupid choice.
He smiled to himself once more. He had been surprised when Murdoch had agreed to let him practice every day. In fact, his father had been the one to suggest it. Johnny had been relieved that it was O.K. with the Old Man, because he knew that as much as he didn’t want to, and as much as he wished he could forget about it, he still had to keep up his speed. He knew that there would be times in the future when his life or the lives of his family might depend on it. He was still worried about someone hurting his family, but he figured he’d take it one day at a time and hope for the best. It was all he could do. It was all any of them could do.
Johnny tossed and turned, but for some reason he couldn’t get to sleep. His mind kept wandering back to the time, almost twelve years ago now, when he had finally come back home for good. He had never regretted his decision and was eternally grateful he had been given one last chance to make the right choice.
He thought about everything that had happened in those twelve years, both good and bad, and knew that he had been blessed. There wasn’t much in those years he’d change, even if he could, but he did regret Jeff’s leaving. He and the young man had hit it off from the start, and Johnny had been looking forward to teaching him some things about ranching instead of a fast draw, but it wasn’t to be.
Jeff had decided ranching just wasn’t for him, and Johnny had to reluctantly agree, but he wished Jeff had stayed at Lancer. Jeff had stayed at the ranch for only two years after Johnny had come back before leaving once more. In the last ten years, Johnny had seen his nephew a few times, but the young man had changed. He was no longer a kid, but a very determined man, and nothing was going to prevent him from being the best.
Johnny rolled over once more, and then finally gave up and decided to go downstairs. Maybe a drink would help him sleep. He got up and pulled on a pair of pants, glancing at his sleeping wife before quietly leaving the room. As he descended the stairs, he noticed that there was a light in the Great Room, and he cautiously peered into the room to see who was up, although he had a pretty good idea.
“Hey, Scott.” Johnny said quietly.
Scott turned around and gave his brother a smile, and lifted a glass as if in a toast. Johnny went to the sideboard and poured himself a drink before joining his brother on the couch.
“I couldn’t sleep” Scott said.
“Me either.” Johnny took a sip of brandy. After as few moments of silence, Johnny spoke up. “It’ll be good ta have him home again.
Scott nodded. “Yes, it will.” He hesitated. “If he’ll stay this time.”
Johnny shrugged. “It’ll have ta be his choice, Scott. We can’t force him.”
Scott nodded his head in resignation. “I know. It’s just that he’s been gone such a long time.”
Johnny stared at the fireplace, where a log still smoldered from this evening’s fire. “He had ta leave. There wasn’t no way he could stay here when he chose that path.”
Scott nodded once more. “I know.” He sighed. “I just wish he would have been content to be a rancher. That way he wouldn’t have had to leave.” He lowered his head. “I’ve missed him.”
Johnny reached over and put his arm around Scott’s shoulder. “We all have.” He looked at Scott’s face and saw the uncertainty in it. “We’ll find out tomorrow when he gets here if he’s plannin’ on stayin’. And I know that I for one plan on tryin’ ta talk him into it.”
Scott smiled. “I thought you said it had to be his choice.”
Johnny grinned. “Yeah, but we can help.”
“We need him here now, more than ever.” Scott stared into the embers. “Since the accident……..”
Johnny dropped his head, remembering the old man’s death. It had been hard on all of them, and left a gap that would be very hard to fill. It had been such a stupid accident; a buggy overturning on a windy night, and the panicked horse bolting into the familiar Lancer yard, dragging both the overturned buggy and the lifeless man. Johnny closed his eyes and swallowed hard. He just hoped that death had come quickly; he didn’t deserve to suffer.
Johnny shook himself away from the bitter memory and looked at his brother once more. “He’ll stay, especially now. He knows we need him.” He lightly punched his brother in the arm. “He knows how much you get yourself hurt, big brother; he’ll HAVE ta stay, just ta make sure somebody’s here ta take care of ya.”
Scott raised his eyebrows at his brother. “I get hurt a lot? What about you? You’re the one that spends half his time laid up.”
Johnny shook his head. “That’s not fair. I don’t get hurt half as much as I use to…….”
“That’s because you only do half the work that you used to.”
Johnny punched him in the arm once more before continuing “……..and I haven’t gotten shot in what, four years?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, that must be some sort of record.” He said dryly.
Johnny dropped his head. “It’s strange how things work out, isn’t it?”
Scott looked at his brother in understanding. “It was because of you that he decided to do what he did.”
Johnny nodded silently.
“When he had to dig that bullet out of you. He said that he had never been as frightened in his life, and he had never felt more helpless. He said he was scared to death he was going to kill you.”
Johnny brought his head up. “But he didn’t. He saved my life.”
“And because of that, and because of you, he’s going to save a lot more.”
Johnny grinned. “When I first met him, I never woulda thought he had the brains for it.”
It was Scott’s turn to punch his brother. “He’s MY son, not yours.”
Johnny grinned and ducked his head. “Yeah, but ya have ta admit, he DID make some pretty dumb choices.”
Scott smiled. “And you didn’t?”
Johnny nodded, “I guess we both did. And both of us finally made the right ones.”
Scott grinned. “Yes, you finally did.” He looked at his empty glass. “Are you going to come with me tomorrow to pick him up? Murdoch begged off.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, we can gang up on him.” Johnny stared at his brother. “He’ll stay, Scott. I know he will. You know he misses all of us, and now that he knows that we haven’t had a doctor around here since Sam was killed in that buggy accident, it’ll help him make up his mind. We need another doctor here, and I know Sam would be proud to have him take his place. And this time, I KNOW he’ll make the right choice.”