Benjamin Jackson rode into Green River and looked around surreptitiously for the object of his visit. He had no intention of letting his prey know in advance that he was here. He had harbored a hatred of the man for years, but it had finally become impossible for him to live without getting revenge. The man was responsible for the death of both of his sons, and he swore to himself that the killer would pay. He himself no longer cared about living, and he figured he would probably be hanged for what he had in mind, but it didn’t matter any more. Any reason he had to live had died with his older son.
For the past five years, he and Amos had existed in each other’s presence; Amos blaming his father for his younger brother’s death and living with a guilt that tore him up. The guilt that said HE should have been the one to die, not his brother. And every time Ben looked at his older son, he remembered the day when he had made the choice, when he had condemned his younger son to death in order to save his older son. And he felt not only guilt, but anger. Even though it had not been Amos’ decision, although he had nothing to do with it, Ben felt anger that his older son was still alive while poor Cory lay in the cold earth.
No, even though he was not to blame for his father’s decision, Amos saw the looks of anger that passed his father’s face, and knew the depth of devastation that his father felt. Even though Ben tried to hide both the looks and the anger, Amos had known. His father’s hatred, along with his own guilt and devastating loss, had finally driven Amos to put a gun to his head and blow his brains out.
When Ben had found his son’s body, he had wept and cried, and finally cursed the fates that had caused his family’s downfall. And most of all, he had cursed the man whose fault it all was. For it COULD be traced to one man. A devil masquerading as an honest citizen, a person who lived among decent folks and pretended to be one of them, even though he wasn’t. Ben had heard the man had stopped making a living with his gun, and instead had taken up ranching. He was now a respectable rancher, but little did the innocent people of this town know they harbored a wolf in their midst. A vicious killer disguised as an honest citizen. But soon they would know. Soon they would realize just what he was. And Ben would have his revenge.
Scott watched as the hard work finally managed to calm Johnny down. It was hard to stay angry when you were doing backbreaking work, and Lord only knew they did enough of it. Scott glanced once more as Johnny threw a rotten branch out of the gully they were trying to clear, and watched in satisfaction as it didn’t sail quite as high or as far as the previous ones had, a sure sign his temperamental brother was calming down.
Scott walked up to where Charlie was tethered and grabbed the canteen off of the saddle. He took a long drink, and then walked down and silently handed it to his brother. Johnny grabbed it without a word and tipped his head back, allowing the contents to run down his face and chest. Finally, he took a few swallows, then recapped the canteen and tossed it back to Scott.
Johnny started to grab another branch, and Scott stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Come on, brother. What do you say we take a break?”
Johnny shook his head. “You go ahead. I want ta get this done. I plan on goin’ into town tonight, and I don’t want ta give the Old Man any reason ta gripe about it.”
Scott sighed and grabbed the other end of the massive branch. Johnny immediately stopped. “I told ya to take a break. I can finish this.”
Scott smiled. “No, I’m planning on going into town tonight, too, and I don’t want Murdoch having an excuse to keep me from going, either.” Scott watched Johnny, expecting a smile in return, but instead his brother’s eyes turned dark.
“What are you worried about?” Johnny spat. “He won’t get mad at his fair – haired boy. I’m the one that can’t do nothin’ right. You don’t have nothin ta worry about.”
Scott looked at his brother in shock. “You know that’s not true.”
“Yes it is, and you know it. You’re Murdoch’s favorite, and that’s OK. I just wish he’d stop rubbing it in.”
Scott didn’t know what to say. He knew Murdoch was harder on Johnny, but he didn’t think it was because he was playing favorites. Scott thought it was because his brother and father were both extremely stubborn men with volatile tempers. They mixed about as well as gunpowder and fire, with very similar results.
“Johnny, you KNOW why you argue so much with each other, and it has nothing to do with how he feels about you. You don’t exactly make things easy for him. This last fight WAS pretty much your fault, and you know it.”
Finally Scott saw a trace of a smile on his brother’s face, and decided to tease him a little. “Besides, why SHOULDN’T I be the favorite? I’m well mannered, hard working, intelligent, and MUCH better looking than you.”
Scott tried to sidestep as Johnny launched himself at him and sent both of them rolling down the rest of the way into the gully. Scott came up out of the mud sputtering, and Johnny grabbed his head and ducked it into the mud once more for good measure. “Now who’s better looking?” Johnny grinned.
Scott wiped what mud he could off of his face. “All right, I concede that point. But there’s STILL smart, hardworking and well mannered, which you have just proven you definitely ARE NOT.”
Johnny grinned. “That’s all right. I’ll settle for the best looking. That’s what gets the girls, anyway.”
Scott swatted his brother with his muddy hat. “What do you say we quit and go get cleaned up? I’m ready for town.”
Johnny looked at his brother and grinned, and then took off towards Barranca. “All right, first one back gets the bath first,” he yelled as he jumped on the horse and took off.
Scott knew he was already beaten. There was no way Charlie could catch Barranca if the Palomino had a head start, so he resigned himself to a cold bath. On the way home, however, he worried about what his brother had said. It didn’t matter if it weren’t true, what mattered is if Johnny really believed that Murdoch loved Scott the best. Scott shook his head. He still didn’t think Murdoch loved him more, and somehow he had to make his brother realize that.
Scott watched as Johnny flirted with the saloon girl, apparently out of the foul mood he had been in earlier. He had been quiet during the ride into Spanish Wells, but had gradually become more and more talkative. It bothered Scott that Johnny really believed that Murdoch favored Scott, but what bothered Scott more was Johnny’s seeming acceptance of that fact. Scott sighed and took another sip of his beer. Even if Johnny could accept it, he couldn’t, and he planned on talking to Murdoch tomorrow. Johnny was scheduled to check out one of the fence lines the following day, and Scott was going to go over the books. It would be a perfect time to confront his father.
He knew that at times his marvelously self reliant and tough brother could be remarkably insecure about his worth, especially to his family. Scott shook his head, Murdoch just didn’t see it sometimes, but he planned on pointing it out to him.
Scott was shaken out of his musings by a swat on his head, and he looked up to see Johnny grinning at him. “Come on, brother, you ready ta go home?”
Scott grabbed his drink and downed the remaining beer in one long gulp, then pushed a little unsteadily to his feet and threw some coins on the table. “Sure, but I thought you wanted to stay out a little longer tonight.”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope. I want ta get an early start on that fence line. If I don’t get it done by tomorrow, the Old Man’ll have my head and you know it.” Johnny gave the disappearing girl an appreciative glance. “Besides. If I stay any longer, I’ll never get outta here tonight, and then we’ll REALLY be in trouble.” He watched the girl disappear up the stairs and he grabbed Scott’s arm. “Come on, brother, let’s go home before I change my mind.”
Ben sat at the saloon in Green River, trying to glean whatever information he could from the mostly drunken cowboys. He stayed at the table for several hours, nursing a drink and plotting his revenge against his enemy. He knew that he could probably kill him without too much trouble; he was sure that by now the man had become at least a little careless.
After years of ranching, the man would not be the cold-hearted professional that he had met down in Texas. No, killing him would not be too difficult. The problem was, killing him would be too quick, too easy. It wouldn’t give Ben the peace and revenge he needed. He wanted the man to suffer like he had suffered; he wanted him to feel the pain that he had felt for the last five years.
As he sat and listened to the men who came and went, he learned more about his enemy. It seemed that he and his family were very prosperous, and the subject of a lot of conversations. Ben realized that just maybe he would be able to get justice after all. The man had a family now. A family that Ben could use to get his revenge. All he needed now was a plan; he needed to think about just what he was going to do, and how he was going to do it. He was under no delusions, he knew that one way or another he wouldn’t leave this territory alive. But if he could die knowing that he had his revenge, that the man would be in the same agony that he had been in for the last five years, Ben would die happy.
He sat and he came up with plans and plots, discarding them one by one, until at last he thought he had one that just might work. It was dangerous, but if he could carry it off, he would have the revenge he craved. He stayed and listened as another group of cowboys came in, and realized that there were three other people in the family. He didn’t know for sure how close the man was to the girl; after all, she wasn’t a blood relative, so he figured he would plan on using the other two. He laughed softly to himself. He couldn’t wait to see the look on the killer’s face when he told him he had a decision to make.
He figured he could wait until the three of them were at home and somehow get the drop on them. He would need a distraction to ensure that all of the hands were gone, that there was no one to interfere. He didn’t want to have to hurry; he wanted to take his time and gloat. After all, he had waited forever for this chance.
After he had them all tied up, he could tell them of his plan. He would make sure that the others knew just whose fault it was they were in that predicament, and whose fault it was that one of them was going to die. He hoped that the man remembered him, but it didn’t matter, he would remember him after it was over, Ben would make sure of that.
Ben closed his eyes in joy, anticipating their faces when he told them, and he would especially watch the killer’s face as he realized what was going to happen, as the man realized just HOW Ben planned on getting his revenge.
He wouldn’t kill the man, he wanted him to stay alive, to know the agony of losing someone close to him and knowing it was all his fault. No, he would make sure that the man stayed alive. And one of the others could stay alive, too. He would give his enemy the choice of which one would live and which one would die, just as the man had given him all those years ago. And when it was over, and one of them lay dead, he would look into the two remaining faces and see the guilt and anger, and the hate towards each other for what they had been forced to do. He laughed again. He would do it. He HAD to, to give his sons the peace they deserved.
He figured the man would plead and beg, and offer to sacrifice himself for his family, but Ben would just laugh at him. No, the man would have to come to a decision, or he would lose both of them. Ben frowned slightly. He hoped it didn’t come to that; he WANTED to leave one of the others alive, just so the one left alive would suffer too. So the one that was left could hate the man for making the decision. His smile came back. Maybe, if he was really lucky, the one that was left alive would kill himself when the burden of guilt became too much and the hatred festered and grew.
Ben leaned back in his chair and daydreamed. It would be so fitting if that happened. If the killer lost his family just like he had taken Ben’s away from him. If the man lived and then finally died knowing that it was all his fault, and that his family had died hating him. Ben smiled contentedly. It would work; it had to.
Murdoch sat up in bed, his heart pounding. He reached for a glass of water that he always kept on the table and gulped down several swallows. Shakily, he put the glass back on the table and then slowly lay back down. Taking a deep breath, he tried to calm down. Why would he dream about that day now? He hadn’t thought about it in years.
For a long time after it had happened however, he had been plagued by nightmares. And when his boys had come home, he had thought about that day once or twice; wondering just how a man could handle having to make an impossible decision like Ben Jackson had been forced to make that fateful day in Texas. He shook his head. He knew that he would never be able to make a decision like that, a decision as to which son lived and which one died.
Murdoch shivered, even though the night was warm. God willing, he’d never have to. He looked out the window at the softly blowing trees, he heard the distant call of coyotes and tried to go back to sleep, but sleep was elusive this night. His mind kept going back to that horrible day. It was the last time he had ever pinned a badge on; the last time he had ever wanted to.
Five years ago, some gambler had told Murdoch that he had seen Maria and her boy down along the border by Zapata, Texas. He had immediately gone there, and then had bounced from town to town following possible leads. Murdoch knew now that it had been a wild-goose chase; five years ago, Maria was long dead, and Johnny was already working hard on his reputation as a top gunfighter. But at the time, Murdoch had been driven by hope.
After every lead had petered out, he had found himself in a small town just outside of Laredo with no money and no way to get home. He had been bushwhacked and left for dead, and he had awakened to find not only his money, but also his horse and all of his supplies gone. He had walked into town before collapsing, and had awakened in the local jail.
Fortunately, the sheriff had been a decent man and had offered Murdoch a job as a deputy. The regular deputy had gotten himself killed a few weeks previously, and the sheriff was having a hard time keeping peace in the tough border town by himself. He didn’t mince words when he told Murdoch that there was a good chance that he would get killed; Aguilares was a rough town.
Murdoch really hadn’t had any choice. With no money, he had no way to get home, and a safer job wouldn’t pay nearly as well. He had to get back to the ranch soon; he had been away from Lancer for much too long as it was. So he had pinned on the badge and strapped on the gun borrowed from the sheriff, and he had gone to work. The first week there hadn’t been any real problems, just the usual drunks and two-bit troublemakers.
Murdoch had been working for a month when it happened, and finally had enough money to get home. He had been planning on quitting two days previously, and later he often wondered just what fates had kept him there those last few days, but at the time, it was as simple as the sheriff being laid up with a bellyache.
Ben Jackson rode into town with his two sons early one hot August morning. There was no breeze, and the dust lay thick on every surface. It was only eight in the morning, but the temperature had already climbed high into the eighties. For the last two weeks, water had been in short supply, and tempers had been even shorter. Murdoch sat on a bench in front of the jail and watched the men ride in. He had studied them thoroughly as they rode by, and he had immediately sensed that these men were trouble. When the strangers had ridden through town without stopping, he had heaved a sigh of relief. It was just too darn hot to have to deal with any idiots.
One hour later, Murdoch was inside the office when he heard gunfire coming from the general store. He grabbed his Winchester and ran outside just in time to see the three men run from the store. One of them was holding a bag of money, and they were sprinting toward their horses on the opposite side of the street. Murdoch immediately opened fire, and the three men turned and dashed back into the store.
Murdoch worked his way down closer to the building, and when he was almost directly across from where the men were holed up, he shouted at them to drop their weapons and come on out. In reply, one of the men put a hole right through Murdoch’s hat. Several townspeople decided they had had enough lawlessness, and sent more rounds into the building where the hapless men had taken refuge.
Murdoch sent another barrage into the building, and soon the elder Jackson yelled out that his boys were badly hurt and that he was coming out. Murdoch kept his rifle trained on the man as Jackson walked out of the building with his hands high in the air. He had almost reached where Murdoch was standing when one of the over-zealous townspeople tossed a lit lantern through one of the side windows of the store where the kerosene was kept. A moment later, an explosion ripped through the building, and flames appeared out of the side windows. Jackson immediately turned and ran back toward the store.
Murdoch heard the cries of both of the men who were in the building, calling for their father to get them out, and Jackson disappeared into the flames. Several seconds later, he appeared once more, carrying one of his sons in his arms. Murdoch would never forget the cries of the man who had been left in the building, entreating his father to get him out too. Jackson literally threw his son at Murdoch before turning once more to the building, but just as he reached the sidewalk, another enormous explosion erupted, and the building completely collapsed, cutting off the cries from within.
Murdoch lay awake for the rest of the night, remembering that day and that time in his life. Ben Jackson had ranted and raved, and cursed him unmercifully. Murdoch could never quite figure out why Jackson blamed him for the whole mess, but he had. Later Murdoch realized that while the townspeople had been a faceless mob, Jackson had found out Murdoch’s face and name. He was the one that had to lock Jackson up after the fire on robbery charges, and he had been the one to watch him while the man was awaiting trial. Murdoch hadn’t been some unknown person, and Jackson had turned his full wrath onto the deputy.
After the fire, while the doctor had been working on Jackson’s oldest son, Murdoch had tried to express his condolences, but had been met with cursing and accusations. Murdoch realized that the loss of his son and the guilt the man was carrying had put him over the edge, and Murdoch had done his best to avoid the man after that. Three days later, the sheriff was on his feet once again, and Murdoch had collected his pay and left, Jackson’s screamed threats ringing in his ears as he rode out of town.
For several years after that, it had been in the back of Murdoch’s mind that the man just might try to track him down and get his revenge, but as the years went by, the thought had faded. The last time he had thought about it was when the boys had come home. A fleeting thought about Jackson and the possibility of the promised retribution had crossed his mind, but that was it. After all, it had been over five years; if the man had wanted revenge, he would have tried something by now.
Finally, the sun came sneaking over the hills, and dawn broke. Johnny’s rooster announced the beginning of a new dawn, and with a sigh, Murdoch swung his feet over the side of the bed and heavily got to his feet. It was going to be a long day.
Scott had been working on the books for over an hour before his father came trudging downstairs.
“Are you all right, Murdoch?”
Murdoch nodded and headed for the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. Scott watched as he disappeared, but knew better than to bother his father before he had a chance to wake up. It was just one more thing that Murdoch and Johnny had in common.
Several minutes later, Murdoch reappeared in the great room with a cup of coffee and a few rolls that Maria had left out on the stove. He sank into the big leather armchair and tilted his head back for a moment before sitting upright once again and taking a sip of the steaming brew.
Scott watched quietly as his father gradually woke up, but he did seem more tired than usual.
“Are you all right?” he asked once again.
Again, Murdoch nodded. “I couldn’t sleep last night.”
Scott looked at his father enquiringly. “Anything wrong?”
“No, nothing at all. Just some old memories, that’s all.” He looked at Scott. “Nothing to concern yourself with. How are the books coming?”
Scott nodded. “Fine. I think the new system will work out just fine, that is if we an convince Teresa that material for a new dress does NOT fall under the category, ‘investments.’”
Murdoch chuckled. “Good luck.”
Scott grinned, and then became serious. “Murdoch, we need to talk.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows lifted. “What about?”
Scott sighed. “About Johnny.” At Murdoch’s questioning look, Scott continued. “I know you don’t mean to, but you’ve given Johnny the impression that you favor me over him, and that’s not right.”
Murdoch waved his hand in dismissal. “That’s not true, and he knows that.”
“That’s just the problem, Sir; he doesn’t.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Scott, I have never favored you over Johnny. I care about both of you equally.”
Scott sighed. “Murdoch, that may be how you feel, but that’s NOT how Johnny’s taking it. You and Johnny fight all of the time. You always seem to be having a disagreement over something, and you ARE very hesitant to take any of his suggestions.”
Murdoch sighed. He really wasn’t in the mood for this. All he wanted was to go back to bed for a few hours, but he knew that his pride wouldn’t let him. He took another sip of the coffee. “Scott, why don’t you tell Johnny to quit arguing with ME? It takes two you know. And maybe if he would try to calmly discuss something instead of blowing up, we wouldn’t have as many arguments.”
Scott’s mouth dropped open. “Look who’s calling the kettle black.”
Murdoch slammed his coffee down on the end table next to the chair. “Look, Scott, I can’t help if it Johnny and I lock horns.” He shook his head. “Both of us have the same type of temper, and you happen to take after your mother in that regard, thank goodness. It certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t care about him, but I have the feeling Johnny and I will ALWAYS be butting heads. It’s just the way it is. And just because you and I don’t argue as much, it certainly doesn’t mean that I favor you over him. And if he can’t understand that, I can’t do anything about it.”
Scott dropped his head and sighed. “Maybe you could TRY to be just a little bit more patient. I understand what you’re saying, and I realize that your being so much alike is most of the problem. And I also believe that you don’t TRY to treat us differently. The problem is, JOHNNY doesn’t see it that way. And that IS a problem.” He looked at Murdoch expectantly.
Finally Murdoch sighed and nodded his head. “I’ll try to keep my temper in check, and I’ll do my best to let Johnny know that I don’t favor either one of you over the other, all right?”
Scott nodded. “Thank you, Sir. That is most definitely all right. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some work to do.”
As Scott turned his attention back to the books, Murdoch thought once more of his dream the night before, and shuddered. The thought of losing either of his sons was terrifying, but the thought of having to chose one over the other made him break out into a cold sweat. He knew in his heart he could never make that decision.
Ben sat in the saloon in Spanish Wells, nursing a drink. He spent most of his days in one of the saloons, hoping to hear something that would help him with his plan, but so far there had been nothing. He had been going back and forth between several local towns so as to not arouse suspicion, and so far it had worked. A few men had asked his business, and he had told them that he was thinking of settling here, and was just checking things out. It seemed to satisfy them, because no one had paid any attention to him at all. And of course, he wasn’t lying. He was sure he would never leave this area. He smiled to himself. His suffering was almost over and soon he would be at peace, and reunited with his boys.
Ben took another sip of his drink, wishing he could order something other than beer, but he was afraid it would arouse suspicion. He had never been much of a drinker, and he just plain didn’t like the taste of alcohol. With a sigh, he finished the drink and motioned for another one.
He had been hanging around for almost a month now, and he still was no closer to his goal. But he was a patient man; he could wait. He was in no hurry to accomplish what he had been contemplating for years. He had dreamed last night; at least he thought it was a dream; he wasn’t so sure any more. The fine line between reality and fantasy seemed to be blurring. But last night, Amos had appeared to him and urged him to make Murdoch Lancer pay for destroying their family. Ben had talked to the young man, and Amos was adamant that their enemy must be destroyed.
Cory had spoken to him at times also. Cory was the one that had first set Ben’s mind on the notion that he just might be able to exact retribution for what had been done to them. Cory had told him that he couldn’t rest as long as Murdoch Lancer went unpunished. Before he had died, Amos had always laughed when his father had told him that he had seen Cory. But now, Amos himself had appeared, and urged his father to seek revenge. Ben smiled, he would do it, no matter how long it took, and then all of them could be at peace.
Scott watched as Johnny broke the last of the horses he had rounded up the week before. His brother had been trying to talk Murdoch into going into the horse business for as long as they had been at the ranch, but their father had always come up with some excuse. Two weeks ago, Johnny had brought it up again at the dinner table, and Scott had glanced up and caught Murdoch’s eye just as his father was getting ready to speak. Scott looked across the table and noted Johnny’s expression, and braced himself for the fireworks.
Instead, his father had looked at Scott for a few moments, and then asked his younger son just how much he thought they could make, and how much time he would have to spend. Johnny stopped and stared at his father in surprise, and then glanced at his brother before answering. Murdoch listened to Johnny and then quietly asked his older son what he thought. Scott immediately sided with his brother, because he really DID think it was a good idea to diversify. His father had then calmly told Johnny to round up a herd of horses and start working them. Johnny had looked at Murdoch with a mixture of gratitude and skepticism, and then finished his meal with a smile on his face. Scott had caught his father’s eye and smiled, and Murdoch had just nodded.
Scott had been working in the East pasture all day, and had just come back a few minutes ago. He walked over to the corral where Johnny was breaking the horses, and swung himself onto the top rail to watch. As usual whenever Johnny worked a horse, he had quite an audience, but he totally ignored the watching hands and concentrated on the horse in front of him.
Scott had every intention of going and getting cleaned up right away, but as usual, he found himself unable to tear himself away from the magical spell Johnny was weaving. Forty minutes later, Johnny gave the horse a friendly pat and then came over to where Scott was standing and ducked under the rail.
“I don’t know how you do that, brother, but it is sheer poetry to watch,” Scott said.
Johnny just smiled and ducked his head. “Thanks.” He hesitated for a moment. “And thanks for getting the Old Man to give it a try.”
Scott looked at Johnny in surprise. “I had nothing to do with that.”
Johnny shot him an angry look. “Don’t, Scott. I ain’t stupid.”
Scott shook his head. “Johnny, I can assure you, I....”
“Scott, quit lyin’. I saw the look you and Murdoch exchanged that night I brought it up. In fact, I saw both of ‘em. Murdoch was getting’ ready ta give me his ‘this is a cattle ranch’ speech, and then you gave him a look, and presto, he goes along with it. Then afterwards, it was like he was lookin’ at you for approval.”
“Johnny, I did NOT say anything about letting you try this.”
Johnny smiled slightly and shook his head. “You didn’t have to. The Old Man knew you thought it was a good idea, and that’s all it took.” Johnny dropped his head. “Look, I don’t want to argue about it, I just wanted ta tell you thanks. Now let it go.”
Scott was starting to get angry. “I DID NOT tell him anything of the kind. It was HIS decision; I had NOTHING to do with it.”
Johnny looked at his brother for a moment. “You can stand there and look me in the eye and tell me that you haven’t said ANYTHING ta Murdoch lately about givin’ me a chance?”
Scott stared back at his brother. He opened his mouth to speak, and then shut it again and dropped his eyes. “It wasn’t like that,” he said quietly.
Johnny nodded. “Scott, like I said, it don’t matter. It’s just the way it is. Quit worryin’ about it.” He grabbed his brother by the neck. “I’ll just have ta make sure YOU don’t get on his bad side, or we’ll BOTH be in trouble.”
Scott shook his head sadly. His brother still thought that Murdoch cared less about him than he did Scott, and he just didn’t know how to change Johnny’s mind.
Murdoch had just finished the last of the bookwork when Scott and Johnny walked in. “How did it go?” he asked. The boys had driven the small herd of horses that Johnny had broken to the army remount station just outside of Stockton.
“Great!” Scott answered. “We got twelve dollars more a head than we would have if we had sold them unbroken.” He grinned at Johnny. “See brother, you’re somewhat useful after all.”
Johnny punched his brother in the arm and turned to Murdoch. “They said they would buy all we could deliver at that price,” he said hopefully.
Murdoch nodded. “Then I guess it’s a good thing I listened to you, isn’t it?” he said distractedly. “By the way, there were a few problems while you were gone, and we have to make sure all of the pasture fences are in order, but after that gets done, why don’t you start with another herd. In the meantime let me fill you in on what’s been going on. It started with the ……..”
The fire bell went of with a clang, and mens’ voices could be heard yelling from outside. The three Lancer men jumped up and ran out the door, and Cipriano came hurrying up. “There is a fire in the north pasture, senor. I already sent a crew of men to battle the blaze.”
Johnny and Scott both ran to their horses and took off toward where the Segundo had indicated the fire was located. Murdoch watched them for a moment, and then he too started toward his horse. Cipriano stopped him. “It is a small blaze, senor. It is probably already out. I am sure that Senors Scott and Johnny will be able to handle it.”
Murdoch looked at his old friend for a few seconds, and then nodded with a sigh. Cipriano was one of the few people who knew just how bad his back had been the last several months. If he didn’t have to go, he wouldn’t. He wanted to avoid riding as much as possible. Scott and Johnny were more than capable of handling it, and he knew Cipriano wouldn’t lie to him about the seriousness of the blaze. He turned and went back into the house to wait.
As he sat at his desk in the deserted house, he thought about the last month. It seemed as if Lancer had suffered an unusual amount of catastrophes and troubles. On a ranch of this size, problems and accidents were the norm, and certainly nothing unusual. But lately, it seemed as if there was something evil in the wind. Several times he had come down the stairs during the night and stared out the big bay window, searching for he knew not what. He had had an uneasy feeling for weeks now, but he couldn’t put his finger on anything specific. It was more like a feeling of doom that he just couldn’t shake. He didn’t feel fear for himself, but rather for his family.
Every day he worried about the boys until they were safely home, and with each new accident, he worried just a little bit more. He had almost been relieved when Audra Barkley had invited Teresa to stay with them for a few months, and he had let her go with his blessing. He had even been glad when Jelly had told him he was going to visit his sister for a couple of weeks. For some reason, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was danger lurking at the ranch, and he wanted his family safe.
When Johnny said he was going to Stockton to sell the horses to the army, Murdoch had at first been against it. He and Johnny had fought bitterly over that decision, but finally it was Murdoch’s unreasoning need to get his son away from the perceived danger surrounding the ranch that had won out. That was one of the reasons he insisted Scott accompany Johnny on the trip to Stockton; he wanted them both gone. After they had left, he had looked at himself sheepishly in the mirror and wondered what was the matter with him. He had never been one to spook at nothing, and he wondered idly if he was going crazy. He had lived through several nightmares in the past, including Pardee, but nothing had caused this feeling of impending doom.
He had been alone in the house for several days while the boys were gone, but the uneasiness still hadn’t gone away. He had tried to ignore it, but it stubbornly insisted on lurking in his mind and popping up at various times. He was no longer even pretending to sleep well at night, and he hadn’t slept well for some time. He knew that his resolve to go a little easier on Johnny had suffered because of it; he was tired and cross, and he knew it. He had been on edge for a month now, as if he were waiting for something to happen. And every time he heard an alarm being sounded or the men yelling about another accident or a new problem with the ranch, he thought that this just might be it. It might be what he was dreading. And each time, he had almost hoped that it would be, because then things could get back to normal.
The dreams he had been having almost every night certainly hadn’t helped; in fact he sometimes wondered if they alone were the cause of his anxiety. Each time he finally managed to fall asleep, he was awakened by a nightmare. If not about Ben Jackson, then about Katherine’s death or Maria’s leaving. He knew that Jackson had nothing to do with his wives, and the dreams weren’t connected, except in two of the dreams he lost his sons and in the other, Jackson lost his. He wasn’t sure why he was dreaming about Jackson when he hadn’t thought of the man in years, but he hoped it would end soon. He felt like he just might go crazy if something didn’t change.
He sat and looked out the window, waiting for his sons to get back and praying that they were all right. He didn’t remember ever being as concerned about their safety this much. Not when they were just doing routine chores, but for some reason, he couldn’t help it. He didn’t want them out of his sight, but at the same time, he had a strong urge to get them away from him, away from this ranch. He snorted. Maybe he WAS going crazy. There was no reason for him to feel like this, and yet…. He hadn’t told them of his feelings of apprehension; he was afraid they would laugh at him, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were in danger.
He sat at the desk for another two hours, until the sun had finally gone down. He sat there pretending to do bookwork, but after an hour, he didn’t even try to keep up the pretense. He didn’t bother to get up and light the lamps, instead he sat at the desk, straining his ears and waiting in vain for the sounds that would tell him his sons were home safely.
Up on the ridge in back of the house, Ben Jackson watched the house and laughed. Soon. Very soon.
Murdoch bolted upright and looked around in bewilderment. For a second, he wasn’t sure where he was, or what had awakened him. He reached for his gun before the last shreds of his nightmare left him. After a second, when he realized that it had been nothing but another dream, he laid the revolver back on the desk. He had been dreaming once more about when he had lost his sons, and the memories were not good. He sat for another second, trying to control his breathing, and then the door swung open and Scott and Johnny walked in. He looked at them in relief, and relaxed slightly. They were covered in ashes and soot, but were apparently unhurt.
“How bad?” He asked.
Johnny shrugged tiredly. Murdoch could see where the fire had singed his son’s hair and his shirtsleeves. “It coulda been worse. If the wind had picked up, we would have lost the whole pasture. As it is, about forty acres are gone.”
Murdoch shook his head. It certainly wasn’t a devastating loss, but on top of all the other problems, it was significant. “Any indication of how it started?”
Scott nodded, and held up a battered container of kerosene. “We found this close to where Clyde said it started.”
Murdoch stared at the can for a moment, mesmerized by a memory, and then looked at Scott, noticing that he also showed evidence of being too close to the fire. “Did he see anyone?”
Scott shook his head. “No, and neither did anyone else. We already asked.”
Johnny went over to the sideboard and poured himself and Scott a drink. “We looked around for hoof prints, but the ground had been trampled so badly by the men fighting the fire that we couldn’t see nothin’. I’ll go back out tomorrow when there’s more light and see if I can find anything.”
Murdoch sighed. “After you do that, why don’t the two of you ride into Green River tomorrow and talk to Val. See if he knows of anybody new hanging around, or if he can shed some light on this.” He slammed his fist down on the desk. “SOMEBODY is causing all of these ‘accidents’, and I want to find out who it is and stop them before someone gets hurt.”
Johnny nodded grimly. “Don’t worry, we’ll find out who’s doin’ this and put a stop to it – one way or the other.”
Murdoch stared at his younger son. “You leave it to Val, do you hear me? I don’t want you going after anybody on your own.”
Johnny looked belligerently at his father. “I’ll do what I have to do to protect my family and this ranch.”
Murdoch stood up and glared at his younger son. ‘You’ll do as you’re told! I don’t want you getting into any trouble.”
Johnny took a step forward. “You think I’m stupid? You think I’m gonna go and shoot somebody down in cold blood? Can’t you give me any credit at all? I survived on my own for a long time without you, and I also managed to stay on the right side of the law without your help,” Johnny spat.
Scott stepped forward. “Murdoch, I’m sure…”
“Stay out of it, Scott,” Johnny stormed. “I don’t need you runnin’ interference all the time. He’s my father, too.” Johnny turned and glared at his father. “I know that Scott here could handle it MUCH better than I could. So why don’t you have HIM ride in to town and look around. Have him talk ta Val and take care of the problem. In the meantime, I’ll be out workin’ with the hands. That’s all I seem ta be good for anyway.” Johnny spun around and strode out the door, the slamming door punctuating his departure.
Scott turned and glared at his father. “Just what’s gotten in to you? You KNOW Johnny’s not going to just shoot somebody down.”
Murdoch sighed in frustration. “That’s NOT what I meant at all! I just know how trouble seems to find your brother.” Murdoch sat back down. “I didn’t want him to get hurt. We’re not sure who or what we’re dealing with, or even how many men are involved. I just wanted him to be careful.”
Scott slowly sat down in the chair in front of his father’s desk. “That’s not how Johnny took it, and for that matter, neither did I.”
Murdoch sighed once more and raised his hands to his head. “I know.” He looked at his older son. “I guess I did it again, didn’t I?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, Sir, you did.”
Ben Jackson sat in the bar in Morro Coyo and played with his drink. He thought of himself as a patient man, but his patience was starting to wear thin. Not only that, the longer he stayed around these parts, the more the likelihood that he would be questioned about the rash of ‘accidents’ that were plaguing the Lancers. There just weren’t that many strangers in any of the surrounding towns.
Each time he had come up with what he perceived to be a foolproof scheme to catch the Lancers unawares, and each time SOMETHING had gone wrong. Sometimes there were too many hands around, and sometimes one or more of the Lancer men had left. His hopes of catching them all at home without anyone else around seemed to be an impossibility.
He wasn’t about to give up, however. He had a few more ideas, and if those didn’t work…… well, he would go to plan B. He hated to give up on his first plan, however, because his sons wanted him to do it that way. However, if he weren’t successful soon, he would just have to settle for just killing Murdoch’s sons. It certainly wouldn’t be as satisfying, and Amos and Cory would be deeply disappointed. He certainly hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Maybe, if he saw either one of his sons tonight, he could ask them what to do. Maybe they could come up with a plan. He couldn’t wait to go to sleep so he could ask them.
Ben leaned back in his chair and smiled.
Murdoch rode out to the line shack where he knew Johnny was staying. His younger son hadn’t come home last night, and he had been worried about him until Cipriano came in this morning and told him Johnny was staying at the shack. Scott was going to ride out this morning and talk to him, but Murdoch had told his older son to stay at the house and work on the upcoming army contract. He needed to talk to Johnny alone.
As the miles went slowly by, Murdoch shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. He hadn’t ridden much for quite some time, and it wasn’t just his back that was sore. He hoped he’d find Johnny working close to the shack; he didn’t know if he could take much more time in the saddle; his back and other parts of his body were already screaming at him.
Finally, the small cabin came into view, and Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief when he caught sight of the familiar Palomino tied to the front rail. He rode up and stiffly dismounted, then threw his horse’s reins over the hitching post. He called out to his son; he didn’t want to be met with the business end of Johnny’s Colt. He had only made the mistake of catching his son unawares a few times before that lesson was permanently imbedded in his mind.
The front door swung open, and Johnny came out, a look of surprise on his face. “What’re you doin’ here? Everything OK?”
Murdoch nodded. “No, son, everything’s not OK.” As Johnny stiffened, Murdoch hastened to explain. “We need to talk about what you said last night.”
Johnny stared at him for a few moments, and then nodded and turned and disappeared back inside the shack. Murdoch followed, and noticed that the slats were torn up in one spot where Johnny had obviously been repairing the wood floor. As he looked at it, Johnny explained, “You said this shack needed some work so I thought I’d take care of it. The boys will be needing to use it in a month or so.”
Murdoch nodded and helped himself to a cup of coffee then went to the small table and sat down next to it. He waited for Johnny to join him, but his son simply stood watching him with his arms folded across his chest, as if protecting himself. Murdoch sighed and motioned to the other chair. “Sit down, Johnny. Please.”
Johnny hesitated a second, and then slowly walked to the table and sank into the seat, never taking his eyes off of his father. Murdoch watched him for a moment, and then looked at his coffee cup as he gathered his thoughts. Finally he decided to jump right in with both feet.
“Johnny, I think you’re under the impression that I care more about Scott than I do about you.” Murdoch looked up at his son, but Johnny didn’t reply and kept his eyes glued on the table. Murdoch shook his head. “It’s not true.”
Johnny glanced at his father and shrugged. “It don’t matter, Murdoch. You can’t feel the same about both of us; we’re different.”
Murdoch sighed. “Yes, you are. You are very different, but that isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t care about you equally.”
Johnny shook his head. “You don’t treat us the same. You listen ta Scott, and you don’t listen ta anything I say. You and I just always end up yellin’ at each other.” He ducked his head again.
Murdoch nodded. “You’re right. I need to start listening to you more.”
When Johnny didn’t look up, Murdoch tried again. “Johnny, you and I are both cursed with the same temper. Scott, on the other hand, took after his mother in that regard.” Murdoch smiled. “I can just imagine what it’d be like if Scott had our temper, too.”
Johnny smiled in spite of himself. “It’d get pretty loud, that’s all I know.” He thought for a minute about what his father had just said, and then looked up at his father with a glint in his eye. “You mean I don’t just have my MOTHER’S temper?”
Murdoch shook his head and smiled wistfully. “I’m afraid not.” He watched his son for a moment, and then had a thought. “Johnny, do you care more about Scott than you do about me?”
Johnny’s head flew up and he stared at his father. “NO!”
Murdoch nodded. “And I assume that you don’t care more about me than you do about him?”
Johnny shook his head; his temper starting to rise. “What’re you getting’ at?”
“Johnny, don’t you see, it’s not just me treating YOU differently, it’s you treating ME differently, too. You’re ALWAYS arguing with me, and I don’t think you and your brother fight very much, is that true?”
Johnny slowly nodded his head.
“Don’t you see, son, it’s SCOTT that keeps both of us calm when we’re discussing things with him. He’s so composed and rational that he keeps BOTH of us from losing our tempers. But when it’s you and me, we’ve got both our dispositions to overcome, and what usually happens is that it turns into a shouting match.”
Johnny looked up at his father and thought about what he had just said. Was it really that simple? He bit his lip as he contemplated his father. “But you always jump to conclusions. You never LISTEN to me.”
Murdoch nodded. “Maybe I do. But so do you.” Johnny’s eyes narrowed and Murdoch continued, “Yesterday, for example. I NEVER thought you were going to go out and kill somebody in cold blood; I know you better than that. I just didn’t want you to get yourself hurt or killed; THAT’S what I meant by getting into trouble. But that’s NOT the way you took it, is it?”
Johnny shook his head hesitantly.
Murdoch nodded. “We BOTH are going to have to work on listening to each other and not jumping to conclusions, and we also have to work on not letting our tempers get in the way when we discuss something.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I guess.”
Murdoch caught his son’s eye. “Johnny, please believe me when I say that you BOTH mean more to me than life itself… I ...” Murdoch dropped his eyes and swallowed, “…love…both of you equally, and I’m sorry if I gave either one of you the impression of anything different. I never meant to, and I’ll try my very best to make sure neither one of you ever think that again.”
Johnny nodded and gave his father a small smile. “So does that mean Lancer’s in the horse business from now on?”
Murdoch opened his mouth, and then closed it with a snap. So much for calm discussions.
Murdoch looked at his son in frustration, trying to remain calm. “Johnny, we can’t just drop everything and go into the horse business.”
“I’m not askin’ ya ta drop anything, I just want the chance ta try it. Besides, even Scott agrees that it’s a good thing to diversify, just in case.”
Murdoch sighed. “But to get started will take an investment of time and money that I don’t think Lancer can afford right now, especially after all of the losses we’ve suffered in the last month. Maybe next year.”
Johnny slammed his fist down on the table. “That’s what you said LAST year. And I’m not askin’ for any money. I’ll round up the horses and break ‘em in my spare time. It’ll be MY time, nobody else’s.”
Murdoch shook his head. “You’ll still need corrals and breaking pens, and you can’t round up the horses by yourself; you’ll need help for that and to drive them to the sales. Besides, I can’t spare you right now.”
“You got along just fine without me helpin’ ya for twenty years, I’m sure you can survive without me now.”
Murdoch made a huge attempt to control his temper. “I CANNOT get along without you OR your brother. I NEED both of you, is that understood?” Murdoch bellowed.
Johnny felt his own temper starting to boil over, but then he really listened to what his father was saying. He blocked out the tone of voice and the angry expression, and listened to the words. Finally he dropped his head and smiled. “I guess we’re doin’ it again, huh?”
Murdoch stopped and stared at his son, uncomprehending at first, and then he too relaxed. He looked at Johnny sheepishly and nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell.”
Johnny shrugged. “I guess I’m sorry for baitin’ ya like that. I didn’t mean it.”
They stood and stared at each other for a moment, before Johnny finally laughed. “I guess that’s a first. Now what do we do, now that we’re not gonna tear each other’s heads off?”
Murdoch shrugged and smiled. “I have no idea. I guess we could sit down and try to discuss this calmly.”
Johnny smiled. “Just pretend I’m Scott.” When Murdoch’s face started to darken, Johnny hurriedly added, “Kidding.”
Murdoch scowled at his son for another moment and then he shook his head and smiled. “I think”, he started, “that this is going to take some work.”
Suddenly, Johnny jumped to his feet and went to the door. Murdoch looked at him in bewilderment, thinking at first that Johnny had decided to bolt after all. Then his son shook his head and motioned for him to be quiet. Johnny cautiously opened the door a crack and looked toward the corral. “There’s somebody out there,” he said as he drew his gun and stepped outside.
Scott looked out of the great room’s large window toward the east line shack where Murdoch had gone to talk to his wayward brother. The sun was making its way behind the barn; Scott figured there were about three more hours of daylight left. He was supposed to be working on the army contract, but his mind wasn’t exactly on the job. He hoped that his father and brother would be able to calmly talk about their relationship, but he figured that was hoping for too much. Calmly wasn’t exactly how Murdoch and Johnny discussed ANYTHING with each other.
It bothered him that Johnny took it so for granted that their father would care more for Scott than for himself. Scott knew that was directly attributable to his brother’s low self-esteem and sense of worth. He had seen it time and time again, and each time he did, it bothered him a little bit more. Johnny never made excuses or apologies for having been a gunfighter, but Scott knew that his brother was ashamed of the life he had led before coming here. Scott also knew that his father had chosen to ignore that life, at least until something happened to make him remember just how his son had survived.
Scott fervently hoped that whoever had been causing problems for the Lancer ranch was not someone out of Johnny’s past, looking for revenge. Unfortunately, that was the most logical explanation. He just hoped Murdoch hadn’t thrown that in his brother’s face. As he looked out the window, another thought occurred to him. If someone WERE trying to get to Johnny, the isolated line shack would be the perfect place to try something. Since the problems had started, Johnny and Scott had been together almost continually. His brother hadn’t been alone at all.
The more Scott thought about it, the more worried he became. The east line shack was one of the most isolated on the ranch, and none of the hands were working out in that direction. If some madman wanted to get Johnny alone, his brother had ridden right into their trap. And so had Murdoch.
Scott was good at making snap decisions; it was a skill he had been forced to acquire while he was an officer in the army, and he made one now. He knew that if nothing was wrong his father, if not his brother, would be angry at his arrival. But he couldn’t take the chance of staying here when there was a possibility that his family was in trouble.
Scott grabbed a bottle of Murdoch’s scotch and some food from the kitchen, and then went to the barn to saddle Charlie. He figured even if there was nothing wrong, both his father and brother would probably welcome a drink after talking to each other for several hours. He hurriedly saddled his horse, and headed toward the shack. He knew that if there was nothing wrong, he would have a lot of explaining to do to his father for leaving the contract unfinished, but he had a strong feeling his father and brother were in trouble. And if everything was fine, at least he wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the afternoon worrying about them; he knew they would be safe if they were all together.
“Scott!” Johnny flipped the end of his revolver up so that it was pointed at the sky instead of at his brother’s head as it had been a moment ago. “What’re you doin’ here?”
“I came to check on the two of you,” Scott admitted somewhat sheepishly.
Johnny grinned. “Ya figured we’d killed each other by now, huh?”
Scott was saved from answering by the appearance of his father at the doorway.
“Scott, what are you doing here?”
Scott glanced at his brother, and Johnny smiled devilishly as he explained to his father, “Scott here was just checkin’ on us. Said he was worried about the two of us.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows shot up and he looked at Scott with an intensity that made Scott uncomfortable.
“Did something else happen?” the older man asked.
Scott shook his head. “No. I just...I don’t know….” He ran his hand through his hair. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he finished lamely.
Murdoch stepped aside so his sons could enter the shack, but continued to watch Scott thoughtfully.
“It seems silly now,” Scott started. “But back at the ranch, I had this feeling that you might be in trouble,” he tried to explain.
Johnny punched his older brother in the arm. “You’re turnin’ into a real mother hen, ya know that, brother?”
Scott sighed. “I know it sounds silly now.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Murdoch said quietly.
Both boys turned around and stared at their father. He met their gaze for a moment, and then dropped his head. “I’ve had the same feeling lately, and I don’t know why,” he confessed.
Johnny glanced at his brother and then looked once more at his father. “What do ya mean?”
Murdoch grabbed a chair and sat down at the rough- hewn table, motioning for his sons to join him. “I’ve just felt uneasy lately, like there’s something wrong, but I can’t put my finger on just what it is.”
Johnny shrugged. “It’s probably because of all of the things that have happened.”
Murdoch nodded. “That probably does have a lot to do with it,” he said quietly.
Scott studied his father. There was something else bothering the man, something that he wasn’t telling them. “There’s more, isn’t there, Murdoch?”
Murdoch nodded his head and fiddled with a cup that had been left on the table. He wouldn’t meet his sons’ eyes as he started. “I keep having this dream. Nightmare, actually.” He looked up and stared at the cabin’s wall as if looking through it into the past. Finally, he continued. “A long time ago, I worked as a deputy in Texas for a few months.”
Johnny nodded. “Go on.”
Murdoch dropped his head and studied his hands. “Three men rode into town one day; a man named Benjamin Jackson and his two sons. They tried to rob the general store, and I stopped them. I cut off their escape and they ran back into the building. We exchanged gunfire, and a few of the townspeople joined in and sent some rounds of their own into the building. Jackson came out and surrendered, saying that his two sons were badly hurt and they needed help. Without warning, one of the townspeople threw a lantern into the kerosene supply in the back of the store and a fire broke out. Jackson ran back into the building after his sons. He came back out with one of them, but before he could go back for the other one, there was an explosion. His younger son was killed.”
Johnny and Scott both dropped their heads, contemplating the horror as their father continued. “His older son survived, but Jackson blamed me for his younger son’s death. He said it was my fault that he died, and that he would get revenge.”
Scott interrupted. “Murdoch, you have to know it wasn’t your fault; you didn’t kill his son. If it was anyone’s fault it was Jackson’s. He’s the one that tried to rob the store.”
Johnny nodded. “Scott’s right, it wasn’t your fault. It was Jackson’s, and whoever it was that threw that lantern. You didn’t have any control over that.”
Murdoch sighed. “I know that, or at least I thought I did. But for some reason, I’ve been dreaming about it lately, and I’ve started to wonder if maybe I could have done something to prevent it, if I could have done something differently. I don’t know why I’m dreaming about it now; I haven’t thought of that incident or Jackson in years.”
Murdoch looked at his boys and sighed. “I’ve also been dreaming about …” Murdoch dropped his head and sighed again.
“About what?” Scott asked softly.
“About when I lost the two of you.” He looked up at Scott. “I dream about when your mother died, and finding out that Harlan took you back to Boston.” Murdoch shifted his gaze to Johnny “And I dream about when your mother left and I woke up to find you gone.” Murdoch slammed his fist onto the table. “I don’t know WHY I’m having those dreams, and I certainly don’t know why I’m dreaming about Jackson. There has to be some logical, rational explanation for it.” He shook his head in frustration.
Johnny studied his father. “Do you think Jackson’s responsible for all of the accidents?”
Murdoch looked up, startled. “I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it.” Murdoch hesitated for a moment. “No, I don’t think so. If he had wanted revenge, he would have tried to get it before now. It’s been over five years. There would be no reason to come after me now.”
Johnny shrugged. “Ya can’t always figure a man. Hate’s a mighty powerful force, and it can make a man do some pretty ugly things. I think we’d better ride into Green River tomorrow and talk to Val. Even if it isn’t him, it’s SOMEBODY, and we’d better find out who.”
Scott nodded. “I agree.”
Murdoch nodded also. “All right, we’ll go first thing tomorrow. I’d just as soon not do any more riding today, besides, it’s getting dark.” He looked at his sons hopefully. “I don’t suppose either one of you happen to have a bottle with you?”
Scott smiled. “As a matter of fact, I just happened to bring one.”
Johnny grinned. “I tell ya what, Boston. I’ll go take care of the horses and rescue that bottle, and you can cook dinner.”
“Why do I get to cook?”
Johnny grinned back at him. “Would you rather I made dinner?”
Scott shuddered. “You go take care of the horses.”
Johnny nodded, “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”
As he walked out to the small lean –to that served as a stable, Johnny thought about what his father had said. He had never known Murdoch to let something bother him like that before, and it worried him a little bit. He pulled open the door of the shed and never felt the blow that knocked him unconscious.
Scott started to get dinner ready, and surreptitiously watched his father at the same time. Murdoch still seemed preoccupied, and Scott wondered if he and Johnny had been able to resolve anything.
“Did you and Johnny talk?” he asked quietly.
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, and I hope he doesn’t feel as if he’s second best any more. I did my best to convince him otherwise. And I think we both finally realized why we fight so much.”
Scott lifted an eyebrow. “And why is that?”
Murdoch smiled. “Because we both have a temper.”
Scott looked at his father in disbelief. “No, really? I never would have noticed. It’s a good thing you pointed that out,” he said sarcastically.
Murdoch chuckled. “We may have both known it, but neither one of us realized just how much it was affecting our relationship. I think now we’ll both try harder to keep our tempers in check when we’re discussing something with each other.”
Scott nodded. “I hope so. It seemed as if the two of you are always arguing. Something certainly needs to change.”
Murdoch got serious. “Yes, it does. And I’m sorry we put you in the middle so often. I didn’t mean to, and I’ll try not to let that happen again. And by the way, I appreciate you coming up here to check on us.”
Scott smiled and nodded once more. “I thought you might be mad at me for interfering, but I was worried about the two of you.” Scott stopped and shook his head. “I just had this funny feeling that you were in trouble. I guess it was my imagination.”
Murdoch sighed. “You weren’t interfering, and as I said, I’d been having the same feeling for quite a while now. I guess we’re all a little on edge after all of the things that have happened. I just hope we can find out who’s doing these things and stop him so things can get back to normal around here.”
Scott looked at his father quizzically. “DO you think it’s that Jackson fellow?”
Murdoch shrugged. “Like I said, I hadn’t thought about it. I guess it’s possible, but it doesn’t seem very likely. It’s been too long, and I have the feeling that if it was him, he wouldn’t settle for setting a few fires. He’d have done something a lot more personal.” Murdoch shook his head. “Besides, no matter who it is, we’ll be all right as long as we stick together.”
Scott nodded as he bent down to light the stove. He opened the metal door and glanced inside, then stood up and glanced around the shack. “I guess Johnny didn’t get a chance to bring any wood in yet.”
Murdoch stood up. “There should be some inside the shed. I’ll go get some.”
“No, not the way your back’s been bothering you. I’ll get it.” He handed Murdoch a couple of cans and a pot. “Open these and I’ll be right back.”
Scott stepped out of the cabin and headed for the shed. He hoped that when they finally did figure out who was causing all of the problems that it wouldn’t be someone from Johnny’s past. He knew that no matter how much Murdoch meant what he said about remaining calm, it wouldn’t take much to get them arguing again. He shook his head and smiled. Murdoch was certainly right about one thing; both Johnny and his father certainly had a temper.
Scott called out to his brother as he pulled open the door to the shed. He knew better than to take Johnny unawares. He could see the pale coat of his brother’s horse in the far corner, and as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he could also make out the darker shape of his father’s horse standing next to Barranca. He glanced around, and saw Charlie, still saddled, nibbling on some hay in the opposite corner. Scott frowned as he realized that his horse hadn’t been put away, and there was no sign of his brother.
“Johnny?” Scott called softly.
There was still no answer, and Scott felt a prickly sensation on the back of his neck. He drew his gun and slowly approached Charlie. He looked around the floor by his horse but didn’t see anything. He turned around and cautiously made his way over to where the two other horses were stalled. “Johnny?” he called quietly once more, not really expecting an answer this time. He looked inside the stalls, and then behind the firewood stacked neatly in the corner. Nothing.
Scott frowned as headed toward the door to the shed. When he reached it, he turned and looked around one last time, searching for some answer. His eyes wandered once more to the ground, and he finally focused on something. He knelt down in the dirt, and touched his fingers cautiously to the floor. He touched something sticky, and brought his hand up to his face so he could make sure in the dim light of what he had found. Even with the fast approaching darkness he could tell it was blood.
“Johnny. Where are you brother?” He said, not expecting an answer. He took another look around, and then left the shed. He looked around the ground, but it was fast getting too dark to see. He’d have to get a lantern from the house before he could look for tracks.
As he approached the house, his mind was swirling with questions. He was pretty sure that whoever had harmed his brother was the same man who had been causing all of the other trouble. The one good thing was that he was pretty sure his brother was still alive; if whoever had done it had killed him, they would have left him in the shed. No, someone had taken Johnny, but why? He and Murdoch would have to go after his brother tonight, no matter how sore his father’s back was.
Scott pushed open the door to the shack and stepped inside. “Murdoch…..” he started, before the words died on his lips. His father was sitting in the chair, thoroughly tied up and gagged, and a man was holding a gun to his father’s head.
The man smiled at him. “Come on in, Scott.”
“Drop your gun, slowly.” The man commanded Scott. Murdoch vehemently shook his head, but Scott really had no choice. Scott hesitated, and the man cocked the pistol. “Drop it, now, or I put a bullet through your old man’s brain.”
Scott slowly undid the buckle and allowed his holster and gun to slip to the floor.
“Kick it over here.”
Scott kicked the gunbelt toward the man, and it was scooped up and put on the table.
“Who are you?” Scott asked. “What do you want? And what did you do with my brother?”
The man kept his gun pointed at Murdoch’s head and then reached around and pulled off the gag. “My name is Benjamin Jackson, I’m an old friend of your father’s, although I doubt if he’s ever mentioned me.” Ben gave Murdoch’s shoulder a shove. “Why don’t you tell him how you killed my sons?”
Murdoch turned his head and glared at the man standing next to him. “Where is Johnny?”
Jackson’s eyes narrowed as he thought. Finally, he nodded his head. “You’re right. I’d hate for you to have to repeat the story twice. We’ll get your other son in here, and then you can explain to your sons why one of them is going to die.”
Even though Jackson’s words were hardly reassuring, both Murdoch and Scott relaxed slightly knowing that at least Johnny was still alive.
Jackson once more put his gun to Murdoch’s head and he nodded at Scott. “All right, Scott, now you have a decision to make. Your brother is tied up and probably still unconscious behind the shed.” He looked at his watch. “I’ll give you…….say…… two minutes to go out and bring him back in here. If you’re not back with your brother in that time, I will kill your father.”
“Scott, don’t come back, do you hear me!” Murdoch commanded.
Jackson smiled and shrugged. “It’s your choice, Scott.”
“I mean it, Scott. You get Johnny and get back to the ranch. Is that clear?”
Scott stared at his father, and Murdoch shook his head. “If you come back, he’ll kill all of us. Get Johnny and get out of here! That’s an order!”
Scott glared at Jackson, and Ben smile got wider. “I give you my word, only one will die. It will be your choice.” He laughed and returned Scott’s look. “My sons helped me come up with the perfect plan to get revenge.”
Scott looked perplexed, and Jackson explained. “Oh, I know they’re dead, but I talk to them all the time. They help me make decisions, and they helped me decide what to do to get revenge against your father.”
Ben laughed again. “After all, Murdoch here at least let me make a choice about who I got to save that day, and I feel I should give you the same chance. So the first decision today is yours. You can do as your father asks of you, and get your brother and ride out, or you can bring your brother back in here like I ask. But if you decide to leave, I can guarantee that you’ll hear the shot that ends your father’s life before you leave the clearing. Can you live with that?” Jackson thought for a moment. “Oh, and in case you think you’ll try to break in and stop me, I will shoot Murdoch here at any sign of you trying anything. Is THAT clear?”
Scott glared at Jackson, while trying to get his mind to think. There had to be a way out of this mess, but he couldn’t think of anything. Jackson chuckled. “You’d better decide, Scott. I’m going to start timing those two minutes in exactly……fifteen seconds. When I say go, you’ll have two minutes to get your brother in here before I pull this trigger.”
Scott looked at his father in frustration. “Murdoch…..”
Murdoch interrupted him. “Scott, listen to me. He’s crazy. Get your brother and get out, or you’re sentencing all of us to die.”
Scott looked at his father hopelessly.
“Go,” said Jackson.
Scott gave his father a last forlorn look, and bolted for the door.
“SCOTT!!! I MEAN IT!! GET YOUR BROTHER AND GET OUT!!!!!!”
Scott flew through the door and raced to the shed, hoping to find his brother awake, so at least he could talk to him. Maybe Johnny could come up with a plan. But as he skidded around the corner of the shed, his heart sank as he saw that his brother was still obviously unconscious. He slid down on his knees and grabbed his brother, lifting him up into a sitting position. “JOHNNY!” JOHNNY, WAKE UP!” Scott shook his brother gently. But his brother was out cold. Scott moaned slightly and stared up at the sky, asking for guidance.
“Ninety seconds!” came Jackson’s voiced floating from the shack.
Scott had no doubt that Jackson would kill his father if he didn’t return, but he was also fairly certain that the man would kill all of them if he did. And even if he didn’t, Jackson had made it clear that either he or Johnny would die. He was willing to take the risk with his own life, but could he presume to take it with his brother’s? And he had the sickening feeling it would be Johnny that would pay the price. Scott looked down at his brother’s face. Even if he chose to run, there was nothing to prevent Jackson from cutting them down. There was no way he could get a horse out and he and Johnny mounted before Jackson killed Murdoch. And Scott and Johnny were completely unarmed.
“One minute, Lancer!”
Scott’s mind continued to whirl. On the other hand, Jackson was just crazy enough to maybe keep his word. Maybe if he killed Murdoch, he would let Johnny go. Scott looked down once more at his unconscious brother. He didn’t know if he could live with himself if he took Johnny to the shack and the madman killed his brother. On the other hand, could he live with himself any better if he rode out and let that madman gun down his own father? Scott looked up once more and felt the hot sting of tears trying to force themselves to the surface. How could he make that kind of a decision? How could he choose between his father and his brother?
“Fifteen seconds, Lancer!”
Scott looked down once more at his brother and made his decision. He scooped up his brother and ran.
“Well, I see you decided to obey me instead of your father!” Jackson grinned.
Scott looked at Murdoch, but his father just lowered his head and refused to look at him. Scott lowered his head, too. Right or wrong, it was too late to change the decision now. He started to lower his brother onto the cot, but Jackson stopped him. “Over here!” Ben motioned to another empty chair by the table.
“He’s still unconscious.” Scott ground out.
Jackson shrugged. “Not for long. He’ll be awake soon. Now put him down in the chair.”
Scot sighed and carried Johnny over to the chair and put him down as carefully as he could. Jackson kept his gun trained on Murdoch’s head. “Now get that rope over in the corner and tie him into the chair. And do it right. I’m going to check the knots when you’re done, and if it’s not right, I’ll make things a whole lot simpler and shoot him. Is that understood?”
Scott nodded angrily, and tied Johnny’s arms to the chair. As he tied his brother, Scott wondered just what Jackson was waiting for. He had expected the man to shoot at least one of them as soon as they came in. Not that Scott was complaining.
Even though that is what he had expected, he had HOPED that Jackson would wait. It was what he had counted on when he had made the decision to come back into the cabin. He knew without a doubt that Ben would kill Murdoch if he and Johnny didn’t return, but if he came back inside, there was always the slight chance that one of them could get the advantage and stop Jackson.
Scott snuck another look at his father, and Murdoch glared back at him.
Murdoch shook his head. “I TOLD you to leave,” he growled. “Now you’ve not only endangered your own life, but your brother’s. You should have gotten him and yourself to safety.”
Scott knew his father was right about endangering Johnny, and he just dropped his head and sighed. He guessed he’d find out soon enough if he’d made the right decision. Scott finished tying Johnny, and stood up. Jackson motioned to the third chair in the small cabin, and Scott went over and stood next to it.
With his foot, Jackson kicked a piece of rope over to Scott. “Make a loop at the end of that rope.”
Scott glared at Jackson and picked it up. He quickly made a small loop at the end, and then looked questioningly at Jackson.
“Put the other end through and make a slip knot.”
Reluctantly, Scott did as he was told, then once more looked at his captor. Jackson nodded. “All right, toss me the free end, and then put the loop over one hand and put your hands behind your back. Now put your other hand inside the loop and sit down in the chair.”
Scott ground his teeth in frustration as he lowered himself to the seat; he had just effectively rendered himself useless, and Jackson had never taken the gun away from Murdoch’s head. Scott felt Jackson pull on the free end of the rope, tightening it, and it wasn’t until it was tight that Ben lowered the gun and approached Scott. He quickly finished tying Scott securely, and then went over and checked Johnny’s bonds. Satisfied that they were all tied securely, he finally put the gun back in its holster and sat on the bed.
Jackson smiled. “Now that we’re all comfortable, what should we talk about while we wait for Johnny to wake up?”
“You’re crazy, Jackson. I didn’t kill your sons.” Murdoch said.
Ben’s eyes narrowed. “It was your fault. You may not have killed them directly, but you caused their deaths. That’s the same thing.”
Scott interrupted. “All my father did was stop you from committing a crime. Nothing would have happened to your sons if you had obeyed the law.”
Jackson turned his eyes on Scott. “Cory didn’t even want to rob that store. He just went along with it. And he died like an animal, trapped in that building.”
“That WASN’T my father’s FAULT! From what I heard, it was the townspeople you should be blaming, or yourself for putting them in danger by robbing that store.”
Jackson went over and backhanded Scott. “Don’t you EVER say it was my fault! I would have died for my sons. It was your father’s fault that we were forced back into that building, and he‘s going to pay for my son’s deaths!”
“Your older son didn’t die, Jackson. He was healthy when he left town.” Murdoch said.
Ben turned and glared at Murdoch. “Healthy? In what way? He NEVER got over his brother’s death. And he blamed me for it. He said I should have gotten Cory out first and left him to die.” Jackson shook his head wildly. “I didn’t mean for Cory to die. I didn’t want either one of them to die. I hoped I could go back and get him.” He looked around the cabin. “I TOLD you, Amos. I TOLD you how it was. I didn’t mean for Cory to die. It wasn’t my fault!”
Jackson looked back down at Murdoch and pointed his finger at him. “I TOLD you, it was HIS fault, he’s the one that killed your brother, and he’s going to pay, just like I promised you.”
Murdoch shook his head. “You didn’t make the choice. Jackson. You got out one son and were planning on going back in after the other one. You couldn’t have known. You didn’t choose one over the other.”
Ben brought his tortured eyes up and looked at Murdoch. “Yes, I did.” He said simply. “I saw how close the fire was to the kerosene. Some of it was already on fire. I knew I probably wouldn’t have time to get both of them out. They were side by side. I made a choice.” Tears appeared in his eyes. “I made a choice.”
Jackson dropped his head and stood staring at the floor, and then spoke quietly. “Amos killed himself. He couldn’t live, knowing I had chosen him over his brother. Knowing that Cory would have been alive if it hadn’t have been for him.” Jackson brought his head up and looked at Murdoch with haunted eyes. “How do you choose one son over the other? How do you make that choice and live with it?
Jackson smiled a far away smile. “You’re going to find out, Lancer. You’re going to have to make that same choice, and I’m going to make sure Johnny’s awake so they both can hear you tell me which on you chose.”
“I didn’t kill your sons!” Murdoch raged. “And I didn’t cause their deaths!”
Jackson shook his head. “Yes, you did. Even Amos finally admitted it.”
“What do you mean?” Scott asked.
Ben sighed. “I had wanted to get revenge against your father a long time ago. Cory had told me to, he said he couldn’t rest until I did. I told Amos that it was Lancer’s fault that his brother was dead, not ours. But he wouldn’t listen. He blamed me for wanting to rob that store in the first place, and then he blamed me for choosing him instead of his brother. Every time I talked about getting revenge, he talked me out of it. I TOLD him that Cory kept telling me that I had to do it. That I had to get revenge, but Amos didn’t believe me. He said I was crazy. Said it had been my decision, and that we had to live with that decision.”
Jackson shook his head furiously. “But he DIDN’T! He killed himself and left me here all by myself! It wasn’t FAIR!” Jackson stormed around the room, kicking anything in his path. “HE LEFT ME!”
Finally he stopped and smiled at Murdoch. “But then later, after he died, he admitted I was right. He agreed with me that it was your fault and that you should pay. He said that he and Cory had talked, and that I should get my revenge. He said it wasn’t my fault after all. It was yours and that after I made you suffer, I could join them, and we’d all be at peace.”
“Ben, you need help.” Scott said quietly. “We can make sure that you get that help. Untie us, and we’ll make sure you that no one hurts you, and I promise you’ll feel better.”
Jackson shook his head sadly. “I’ll feel better when I can join my sons. I miss them.”
Murdoch spoke up. “Ben, untie us, and let’s talk about this. You didn’t have a choice. You had to save one of them. It was an impossible decision.”
Ben nodded slowly, and then brought his eyes up to Murdoch. “Yes, it is. And you’re going to find out just how impossible it is.” He glanced at Johnny. “It looks like he’s coming around. You’d better start thinking.”
Scott and Murdoch looked over to where Johnny was tied. For not the first time, Murdoch wished his son wasn’t quite so hard headed. If he would just stay unconscious for a while, maybe he or Scott could think of a way out of this mess. Because Murdoch knew that there was no way he could make the choice that Ben was planning on forcing on him. He would die first.
Johnny came around slowly, and a groan escaped his lips as he moved his head. Slowly, he opened his eyes, and tried to focus. He heard some voices, and even though the words were scrambled, he felt reassured when he recognized Murdoch and Scott’s voices. Finally, he managed to make out their figures, but something wasn’t quite right. It took his fuzzy brain a moment, and then he realized that they were tied. Instinctively, his hand tried to go for his gun, but he found out that he was tied, too. He tipped his head around and finally focused on the unfamiliar form standing by the table.
“Hello, Johnny. I’m glad you could join us. My name’s Jackson, and your father here tells me he already told you all about me.”
Johnny shook his head slightly to try to clear it, and then glared at the man. “What do you want?”
Jackson smiled. “I already explained that to your father and brother. It’s simple. I want revenge.”
“For what? Johnny asked. “For him doin’ his job against some two –bit outlaws? It was your fault that your son died.”
Jackson covered the distance to Johnny’s chair in three long strides and raised his hand, but Murdoch and Scott’s cries of protest made him hesitate. Slowly he lowered his arm and reconsidered. He needed Johnny conscious in order to carry out his plan.
Jackson smiled. “Do you know what happened while you were out?
Johnny shook his head slowly but kept his eyes on Jackson. “That would be a neat trick, wouldn’t it?”
Jackson’s smile didn’t falter. “I gave your brother here his choice of saving you or your father. He chose your father over you. He chose to let you die.”
Both Scott and Murdoch started to protest. Jackson pulled out his gun and pointed it at Johnny’s head. “Shut up, both of you, or I’ll pull the trigger.”
The two men stopped and glared at Jackson.
Jackson smiled at Scott. “Now, I’m going to tell Johnny here what happened, and if you lie, or if you say ANYTHING without being specifically asked, I’ll shoot him, understood?”
Scott looked at Johnny and nodded, willing his brother to understand.
Ben grinned. “I gave your brother the choice of riding out with you and getting you to safety, and having me kill your father, or bringing you back here, knowing that I’d probably kill you. He chose to save your father instead of you.” Jackson looked at Scott. “Isn’t that right?”
Scott stared at Johnny, and then dropped his head and nodded.
Murdoch started to say something, and Jackson cocked the gun. Murdoch’s words died in his throat, and Jackson looked down at Johnny. “All right, Scott made his choice; he chose Murdoch over you. He didn’t care if you died. I bet that makes you feel good. Now let’s see which one of you Murdoch chooses.”
Murdoch glared at Jackson. “I’m not going to chose either one of my sons. You can kill me if you want to, but I’m not going to condemn either of my sons to death.”
Ben smiled. “You’ve got it backwards. You’ll be choosing which one lives.” Jackson shrugged. “And if you don’t choose, I’ll shoot both of them. You’re choice. They both die, or you can tell me which one to spare. And if you don’t make the decision before I shoot one, it’ll be too late, so don’t think you’ll get out of it that way.”
Murdoch looked at the madman, and then at Scott and Johnny. He felt sick to his stomach. What he told Jackson was right; it was an impossible decision.
Both Scott and Johnny had started to tell Murdoch to save the other one, but Jackson quickly put a stop to the chorus by gagging them both. He then looked at Murdoch. “Now you can make your own choice in peace. You should be grateful. You won’t have to listen to your sons begging you to save their lives like I had to listen to.”
Murdoch watched his boys and felt dizzy and weak. He felt like he just might have a heart attack, and he fervently prayed he would. Maybe if he dropped over dead, Jackson would let his boys go. Maybe. Or maybe he’d shoot both of them anyway. He stared at his sons. “I can’t,” he whispered.
Jackson shrugged nonchalantly, “It’s your decision.” Jackson closed his eyes for a moment, as if listening to something, and then smiled. “Cory just gave me an idea of how I can make this even more interesting. He looked at Murdoch. “You tell me which son you want to live, and I promise I won’t kill him. Instead, I’m going to give him a gun with one bullet in it.”
“Of course, I’ll have my gun trained on your head the whole time. When he has the gun, the one you picked gets to shoot his brother. That will ensure that he hates you even more.”
Jackson looked at Scott and Johnny and then looked thoughtful for a moment. “I’m sure you’ll think of trying to shoot me, and you CAN try. But even if you succeed, I’ll be able to squeeze the trigger and kill your father before I die. And if I have time, which I probably will, I will kill your brother too. So if you try it, the chances are you’ll lose both of them.” Jackson looked pleased. “Either way, I’ll get my revenge, and whoever’s left will have to live with their decision the rest of their lives.”
Jackson grinned. “I will finally be able to tell my boys that I got their revenge and I’ll be at peace with my sons.”
“Jackson, don’t do this.” Murdoch begged. “These two boys are innocent. They don’t deserve this. I’ll do anything you want. I’ll sign over the ranch if you want. If you want me to beg, I will. But I’M the one you want to get revenge against. Kill me instead.”
Jackson nodded his head. “I AM getting revenge against you, and you’ll find out just how miserable life can be. Killing you would be too quick. MY boys were innocent, too.” Ben’s face darkened. “Now make your choice.”
Murdoch looked at both of his boys, and both were desperately trying to tell him something. He shook his head. He was sure they were both trying to sacrifice themselves for the other one. There was no doubt in his mind that they would willingly die to save the other one. How could he make this decision? No matter which one he picked, it would tear the survivors apart. He knew now what Jackson had gone through, and he realized that his own family would be doomed to the same fate. For he knew that whichever son was spared would hate him as long as he lived, and Murdoch knew that he would hate himself as well. The guilt they would both feel would be fatal.
He couldn’t do this, and yet if he didn’t both of his sons would die, for he had no doubt that Jackson would kill both if them if he didn’t make a decision. He tried desperately to think of some way out; some solution to the problem, but his mind was blank. There WAS no way out.
Jackson watched Murdoch with glee. He saw the thoughts cross over his enemies face, and realized just what was going through his mind. His revenge was sweeter than he had imagined it; he’d have to remember to thank Cory for the idea. However as much as he enjoyed watching Murdoch squirm, he finally realized that he’d have to force him to make a decision soon. Even though the cabin was remote, there was always the possibility that someone would ride up and ruin his plans, and he would not accept defeat now. Not when he was this close.
“All right, Lancer, which one?”
Murdoch simply shook his head.
Jackson smiled. He didn’t expect Lancer to do this without a fight.
“I’ll give you the same length of time I gave Scott. I’ll give you two minutes. If I don’t have an answer then, they both die. Understood?”
When Murdoch didn’t answer, Jackson grabbed him by the head and looked in his eyes. “Understood?”
Finally Murdoch nodded, and dropped his head, unable to look into his sons’ eyes. Which one? He couldn’t make that decision, but he had to. Which one? There had to be some way out of this mess, there just had to be. Which one?
Murdoch thought about both of his sons; he though about their lives and their futures. He snorted. What futures? No matter what happened, both of their futures would be destroyed. Which one?
He shut his eyes. He really did love both of them equally. He couldn’t bear to lose either one of them, especially like this. He had always been afraid someone from Johnny’s past would destroy the family, and instead it was someone from his past. He shook his head. There HAD to be a way out. There just HAD to be. Which one?
Murdoch finally looked up onto his sons’ faces, and saw only commiserating sadness there. He knew they were both fully prepared to forgive him if he chose them to die, but would they be as forgiving if they were the one to survive? Murdoch doubted it. Which one?
Murdoch’s mouth was dry, and he was sure he was going to pass out. He couldn’t make the decision and Jackson would shoot both of his sons in cold blood. It was the end of everything, of his dreams, his world, and his life. It was all over.
Jackson cocked the hammer. “Which one, Lancer. Last chance.”
Murdoch took one last look at his sons and dropped his head. He forced the name out past his quivering lips.
“Johnny.” Murdoch’s voice quivered.
Jackson pulled the gun back and grinned at Murdoch. “Let’s make sure I’ve got this right. You want Johnny to kill Scott?”
“NO!” Murdoch exploded.
Jackson tipped his head enquiringly. “Then you want Scott to shoot Johnny?”
Murdoch closed his eyes in resignation. “No!”
Jackson brought the gun back up and pointed it at Johnny’s head. “Which one do you want to die?”
“NEITHER ONE!” Murdoch bellowed.
CHOOSE!” Jackson yelled back as he pulled the hammer back.
Murdoch dragged his eyes up to meet Ben’s. “Please don’t make me do this,” he pleaded.
“We already went through that.” Jackson said coldly. “Now which one? You chose, and you chose NOW, or they both die.”
Murdoch couldn’t look at his sons. In a few moments, one would be dead, and the other lost to him forever. This was all his fault, that he was going to have to condemn one of his boys to death. Even though he believed that Jackson wouldn’t kill them both, he knew that one way or the other, he was going to lose both of his sons today, and there wasn’t anything he could do about it. But he had to make the decision in order to ensure that at least one of his sons lived.
With a sigh, he looked back up at Jackson. “Give the gun to Johnny.” Murdoch said quietly, and dropped his head back down to avoid looking at his sons.
Jackson grinned. “There, was that so hard?” Ben turned around and walked over to the chair where Johnny was tied. He undid the gag and threw it on the floor.
Johnny stared at his father in disbelief. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He was the one who should die, not Scott. As soon as the gag was off, Johnny started. “Dammit, Murdoch, don’t do this to me! You tell him you made a mistake. Tell him to give that gun to Scott.”
Murdoch kept his head down and refused to meet Johnny’s eyes. He knew he’d never be able to look him in the eyes again. He was going to kill Johnny just as surely as he was killing Scott.
“MURDOCH! TELL HIM! Tell him you changed your mind. Don’t you do this!” Johnny was shouting at his father, but Murdoch didn’t seem to hear.
“MURDOCH, PLEASE!” Johnny pleaded.
Jackson laughed and looked Johnny in the eyes. “It’s too late for your father to change his mind. He made his decision, and he chose to let Scott die.” Ben looked at Johnny and grinned. “Guess now you’d better listen real close to the rules, boy, or you just might lose both of ‘em.” Jackson went back over to Murdoch and replaced the gag.
Madrid glared at the man, but Ben didn’t even flinch as he continued to talk. “I’m going to give you a gun with one bullet in it. You can kill Scott, or you can tell me to kill your father, and save Scott’s life. Now I know you’re supposed to be real fast, but you and I both know you’re not fast enough to stop me from pullin’ the trigger if you try anything.”
“I’m gonna have my gun on your old man’s forehead, and if you make any fast moves, or if the gun even moves in my direction, I’ll shoot him. Now you just MIGHT be able to shoot me before I kill your brother too, but even if you shoot me, the chances are I’ll be able to get off at least one more shot. I guess that’s a decision you’ll have to make.”
“You’re a dead man,” Johnny growled.
Jackson laughed. “Believe me, I’m counting on it.”
Jackson took Johnny’s gun from the table and opened the cylinder, spilling all of the bullets out. He then put one back into the chamber and flipped the gun closed. He spun the cylinder and put the gun back down on the table and walked over to Johnny’s chair. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a knife and cut almost completely through the rope that was holding Johnny’s hands. Jackson then stepped back to Murdoch and put the gun to his forehead.
“All right, Johnny, your turn. Just pull on those ropes a little, and they’ll give.”
Johnny glared at Ben. “I ain’t playin’ your game.”
Jackson shrugged. “Your choice, just like I told your father and brother. But if you don’t ‘play’, I’ll kill both of them before you can reach that gun and shoot me down. Like I said, your decision.”
Johnny dropped his head and tried to control the rage that was threatening to erupt. He knew that if he let it out, both his father and brother would die. He took a deep breath and tried to figure out some way out of the decision he was afraid he’d be forced to make. He glared at Jackson, but the man just smiled back.
“Have you made up your mind yet, boy? Which one is going to die?”
Johnny kept his head down, trying desperately to think while Jackson continued talking. “You have the same amount of time the others had. I’m going to give you two minutes to get out of those ropes and come pick up that gun. Starting now.”
Johnny gave the man one last glare, and then pulled on the ropes. They gave almost immediately, and Johnny stood up.
“Slow, boy. Remember what I said about quick moves. And you make REAL sure that pistol stays aimed away from me. That is unless you want me to kill Murdoch here.” He tapped the gun against Murdoch’s forehead.
Johnny walked over to the table and reluctantly picked up the gun, still unsure of just what he was going to do. He hefted the revolver in his hand, but he was careful to keep it pointed at the wall.
Jackson nodded in approval. “All right, now you can make your choice. Your father or your brother. I’ll give you another two minutes to decide just who it is you want to shoot.”
Johnny suddenly grinned at Jackson. “I don’t need no two minutes,” he said. He walked over to Scott and looked him in the eye.
“Sorry, Scott.” Johnny said, as he brought the gun up to his brother’s head and pulled the trigger.
Both Murdoch’s and Jackson’s mouths dropped open as Johnny pulled the trigger. The hammer clicked, but nothing happened. The chamber was empty.
Murdoch sagged back against the back of his chair in relief, and once his heart started beating again, he stared in wonder at his younger son. He shook his head slightly when he realized that somehow Johnny must have known there wasn’t a bullet in the chamber. He studied both Scott and Johnny. His older son had his eyes on Johnny but he looked almost completely relaxed, and Murdoch realized the faith Scott had in his younger brother. Somehow, he had trusted Johnny to know that the gun wouldn’t fire.
Murdoch turned his attention to his younger son, and realized that Johnny Lancer was still not present in the cabin. Ever since he had awakened, Johnny had kept Madrid firmly in place. Jackson was now dealing with the notorious gunfighter, and Murdoch just hoped that Madrid would be able to somehow outsmart Jackson. It was one of the few times when Murdoch was happy to see Johnny Madrid instead of Johnny Lancer. He turned his attention back toward Ben.
Jackson’s eyes narrowed as he thought about what had just happened. “How did you know? How did you know that there wasn’t a bullet in that chamber? You had no way of knowing,” he said belligerently.
Johnny looked at him and shrugged. “Who says I knew? Maybe I just figured it’d be better ta get it over with. I don’t like games.” He looked down at his brother. “Besides, he chose Murdoch over me, why should I care about him?”
Jackson continued to stare at Johnny uncertainly, and then made up his mind. He looked down at Scott and smiled. “Looks like your brother here isn’t too happy with the decision you made before. Looks like maybe he wants ta get revenge. How does it feel to know that your brother is going to kill you?”
Jackson’s smile widened and he looked back at Johnny. “Let’s play the game again. I’ll give you another two minutes,” he said gleefully.
Johnny glared back at the man. “I told ya, I’m not playin’ your game. And besides, maybe I was lyin’ before. Maybe I really DO know when there’s no bullet in the chamber. Maybe I’m not really mad at my brother. What do you think?” he asked Jackson.
Johnny hefted the pistol in his hand for a moment, and then brought the gun up to Scott’s head once more. “Nope, no bullet,” he said. Almost casually, he put the pistol to Scott’s head and pulled the trigger. Again, the hammer found an empty cylinder. Johnny turned toward Jackson and smiled. “We can do this all day.”
Jackson looked at Scott, who was smiling at him around the gag. Ben stood up. “You DID know! How did you know? TELL ME! HOW DID YOU KNOW? There’s no way you could know that.”
Johnny just stared at him for a moment and then shrugged. Casually, he reached down with his left hand and gave the cylinder a spin.
Jackson’s smile faded. “Shoot him,” Ben commanded.
Johnny nodded, and once more put the gun to his brother’s head. He pulled the trigger, and when the gun failed to fire the third time, Jackson got angry. He was concentrating solely on Johnny. “AGAIN!” he yelled.
Johnny shrugged, and started to put the gun up once more, but then he hesitated, as if he was listening to something. He cocked his head, and then softly said “OK.”
“What are you doing?” Jackson said, his frustration evident.
Again, Johnny shrugged. “Just listenin’.”
Johnny locked eyes with the madman. “Don’t you know?”
Jackson shook his head slightly. “Should I?”
Johnny looked at him in surprise. “I thought you said you could talk to them.” Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Or were you lyin’ about that?”
Ben looked perplexed. “Talk with who?”
“Amos and Cory.”
Jackson’s face went slack, and he gaped at Johnny. “My boys?” he asked.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, they’re tellin’ me when there’s a bullet in the chamber. They don’t want me ta kill Scott.” Johnny acted like he was listening once more, and then nodded and slowly spun the cylinder. He hesitated once again and then moved the cylinder one more notch. He nodded in satisfaction, and then looked at Ben.
Jackson’s hand wavered slightly, and he continued gaping at Johnny. “You can talk to them too?”
Johnny nodded. “Sure. And Amos is pretty upset with you. He says he TOLD ya not ta get revenge. He and Cory are both mad about your plan. They said ya didn’t listen to ‘em. That’s why they’re talkin’ ta me now. They want me ta stop you.”
Jackson shook his head vehemently. “But Amos DID want revenge! They BOTH did! Last time I talked with them they said I had to do it. They said it was the only way we could all be together in peace.” He looked around plaintively. “They DID tell me! They even told me how to do it!”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, I guess ya weren’t listenin’ real well. Amos told ya it was all your fault; not Murdoch’s. YOU were the one that chose ta rob that store. And he says he still thinks you’re crazy.”
Jackson shook his head and took a step toward Johnny. He moved the gun away from Murdoch’s head and started to bring it around toward the gunfighter. “You take that back! Amos wouldn’t say that! He KNOWS it wasn’t my fault!
Ben shook his head wildly, and then started to move the gun more toward Johnny. At the last moment, he realized that the gun was no longer aimed at his enemy, and he tried to jerk it back toward Murdoch. As Jackson tried desperately to swing around, Johnny brought his own gun up and fired. This time, the chamber wasn’t empty and the reports of two shots reverberated through the small cabin.
Jackson stood for a moment, gaping at Johnny. Only the small hole between his eyebrows gave away the fact that he was dead. Slowly, he crumpled to the ground, the gun falling from his boneless fingers.
Johnny took a deep breath, and looked over at Murdoch. The shot that Jackson had managed to get off had been too close for comfort, and his father had a neat hole in the brim of his hat. Johnny shuddered. Another fraction of a second and the hole would have been in Murdoch’s head. He went over and untied him, and then walked over and undid his brother’s hands, trying to hide the fact that his own hands were shaking. In all his years of fighting, no shot had been more important than the one he had just made.
No one said anything for a few minutes as they all tried to get their thoughts together and their nerves calmed down. Finally, Murdoch looked at Scott. “Scott, I…..”
“Not now, Murdoch.”
Murdoch looked at him for a moment, and then nodded. He looked at his younger son. “Are you all right?”
Johnny looked quickly at his father and then back down as he nodded his head. “Let’s go home.”
Murdoch went over to the cot and pulled a blanket off of the bed. He walked over and after staring at his enemy for a moment, he draped the cloth over the dead man. He then turned and walked out the door, with Scott and Johnny following close behind.
The trip home was made in silence, as each man thought about the day’s events. The silence remained as they bedded down their horses and washed up for supper, and the talk at the dinner table was confined to necessary requests. None of them knew exactly what to say, or even if they should bring up the subject. After dinner, Murdoch went to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a glass of scotch. He lifted the bottle up toward the boys in invitation, and they both grabbed a glass and filled it to the brim. Scott went over to the chair by the sofa and sat down, sitting straight and staring at the fire. Johnny went over to the couch and plopped down, also mesmerized by the flames.
Murdoch was wondering how to start this conversation when Johnny beat him to it. “You had no right doin’ what you did,” he said softly.
Murdoch’s head came up and he stared at Johnny. “Doing what?”
Johnny refused to look at his father. “Choosin’ me over Scott. Makin’ me make the decision.” He finally looked at his father. “I could have killed you.”
“But you didn’t,” his father pointed out.
“That was just luck, and you know it. The chances were he wouldn’t be distracted.” Johnny dropped his head. “You had no right.”
Murdoch shook his head and his voice rose slightly. “I HAD to make a decision. He didn’t give me any choice.”
Johnny’s voice got louder. “You shoulda chosen Scott. If things hadn’t a worked out, it woulda been better.”
“Better for whom?” Scott exploded. “Don’t be giving me the line that I’m Murdoch’s favorite. That just doesn’t wash any more. Murdoch proved that’s not true.”
Johnny whirled and looked at his brother. “He didn’t prove nothin. All he proved is that he thinks I’m better with a gun, that’s all.”
Scott shook his head. “That’s not the reason he picked you and you know it.”
“Yes it is!” Murdoch interrupted. He looked at his elder son. “Do you really think I chose Johnny because I love him more than you? I made the choice that I thought would give BOTH of you the best chance at survival.” He looked at Scott. “Please understand. When Jackson said that whomever I chose would have a gun, I HAD to choose Johnny. He had a better chance of pulling something off.”
Scott looked up at his father in disbelief. “THAT’S why you chose him? You think that I couldn’t have done anything to save us?”
Murdoch shook his head in frustration. “NO! I didn’t think that, but I thought Johnny had a better chance, and I thought that if he had to……’ he trailed off and looked down at his drink.
“If I had to WHAT?” Johnny demanded. “If I was forced ta gun one of you down that I could handle it better?” He slammed his glass down on the table. “I guess so. After all, I’m a killer; it shouldn’t make any difference to me WHO I shoot.” He looked at Scott. “Any more doubts now about how he feels about me?”
Murdoch ran his hands through his hair as he shook his head in exasperation. “I didn’t mean it that way.” He looked at Scott in frustration. “And the next time I give you an order, I expect it to be followed. If you had done what I asked, we wouldn’t be having this argument right now.”
“No, “Scott said sarcastically. “If I’d done what you ordered, at the very best, we’d be planning your burial. At the worst, we’d ALL be dead.”
Murdoch slammed his drink down on the table, too. “He would have let the two of you go. It was ME he was after.”
“You have no way of knowing that,” Johnny shot back.
Scott nodded his head in agreement. “Jackson was crazy. No ONE could foresee what he’d do.” He took a giant swig of scotch. “I did the best I could and made the decision that gave ALL of us the best chance for survival.”
Murdoch shook his head once more. “What you SHOULD have done was get you and your brother to safety like I told you to.” He swung toward Johnny. “And what YOU should have done was to tell Jackson to kill me. You shouldn’t have been playing games trying to get him to take the gun off of me. You and Scott both could have been shot.”
“I THOUGHT that’s the only reason you picked me, to try ta get the better of him. Because I sure know it wasn’t ‘cause you care about me more.”
“I don’t care about either ONE of you more.” Murdoch shouted. “Don’t you understand, I only made a choice because I HAD to. What did you want me to do? Let him shoot BOTH of you?”
“Well just maybe that woulda been better,” Johnny snarled. “At least then we wouldn’t be at each other’s throats.” He jumped to his feet and stormed out toward the barn, while Scott sprang up and headed for the stairs, leaving Murdoch alone with his thoughts.
Murdoch put his head down in his hands and sighed. He didn’t know what he could have done differently. What had Scott and Johnny expected him to do? Just sit there and let Jackson shoot both of them down in cold blood? He cared deeply about both of his sons, and he had done everything in his power to keep them safe, but for some reason they were both mad at him. Didn’t they understand that there had been no way out, and he had made the only decision that made sense in his mind?
In that small shack he had come closer to total panic than he ever had in his life. He had always prided himself on keeping his head during a crisis, staying calm when other men caved in or went crazy, but today he had come close to simply freezing. Murdoch shuddered when he thought about it. If he had, there was no doubt in his mind that Jackson would have murdered both of his sons. Just when he had convinced himself that he couldn’t do it, he had finally forced himself to make a decision that no parent should have to make. He was incapable of making the choice with his heart, so he had used logic instead.
When Jackson said that he was going to give one of the boys a revolver, Murdoch knew at that point there was only one choice. He knew that with a sidearm, no one could touch Johnny. His only concern had been the head wound, but Johnny had seemed all right. And even with a concussion, Johnny Madrid was faster and more deadly than anyone else he knew. That was what he had been counting on. He had hoped that SOMEHOW Johnny would be able to get them out of the mess that they were in. Murdoch really hadn’t held out much hope, but at least it was a chance. But for some reason, Scott had turned it around to make it seem like Murdoch didn’t trust him to save them, which certainly wasn’t true. If Jackson’s plan had involved a rifle instead of a pistol, Murdoch would have chosen Scott.
Murdoch wondered if the resentment that Scott had shown him was due to the fact that his older son was hurt that Murdoch had taken a chance with his life. That Murdoch had chosen Johnny to live instead of him. Murdoch knew that Scott would be the first one to tell Murdoch to choose Johnny, but he also knew that when the decision had been made, his son had to have been upset by the choice. Not consciously, but way down deep inside, in a place he had no control over. No matter how much Scott protested, Murdoch knew that his decision had to have hurt his son.
Both of his sons were angry with him, and both for different reasons. And even though Murdoch knew and understood those reasons, he still believed he had done what he had to do to keep his family safe. He knew that if he had it to do over again, he’d still make the same decision.
He brought his head up and stared blankly out the big window. If anyone had a right to be angry, it was he. He had given Scott a direct order, and his elder son had blatantly disobeyed it. He knew in his heart that if Scott had chosen to ride out with Johnny, Jackson would have let them go. After all, it was Murdoch that Jackson wanted revenge against, not his boys. If Scott had left, Jackson would have shot him, but his sons would have been safe. And even though it had worked out, Johnny was right, by all rights it shouldn’t have, and one of his boys could have ended up dead. Murdoch shook his head. When Scott had burst back into the cabin with Johnny in his arms, Murdoch had been angrier with his older son than he had ever been in his life.
Murdoch couldn’t understand how Scott could have taken a chance with his brother’s life like that. Johnny hadn’t been conscious to make a decision, and his older son had taken it upon himself to make the decision for him. He knew how close the two of them were, but how could Scott presume to know what his little brother would want? He wondered if Johnny was angry with Scott over that decision. He had watched Johnny carefully when Jackson had told him that Scott had chosen his father over him, and he hadn’t seen any reaction, but then he had been watching Johnny Madrid. Madrid might not care, but he wasn’t sure that was the case with Johnny Lancer.
Murdoch snorted. Of course, he was just as angry with his younger son. When he had given Johnny the gun, Jackson had explained very thoroughly to Johnny what his options were. When Ben had told Johnny that he had the choice of letting Murdoch die or of shooting Scott, Murdoch hoped he knew what his son’s response would be. He knew that Johnny would NEVER be able to shoot Scott. Murdoch had said a silent prayer of thanks that he had chosen Johnny, because he knew that his younger son would do what had to be done.
But then……… Murdoch got up and poured himself another glass of scotch. When Johnny had started playing with Jackson, Murdoch had been scared to death that Ben would get tired of the game and just shoot both of his boys. He tipped the glass back and drained the scotch. He slammed the empty glass down on the sideboard and shook his head; they might be angry with him, but HE was the one that had every right to be mad at his hard- headed boys. And when he talked to them again, he would make sure they knew just how furious he was at their defiance of his orders.
The next morning, Scott and Johnny worked side-by-side repairing a fence in the east pasture. They hadn’t really said anything to each other since the night before, and although they were both trying to forget about yesterday, it was very much on both of their minds.
As Scott strung the wire, he thought about what had happened in that old shack. He was still feeling extremely guilty about endangering Johnny’s life, and he wondered how his brother felt about it. As he went back over the event in his mind, however, he realized that he would make the same decision again if he had to. If he had tried to leave and get Johnny to safety, he knew without any shadow of a doubt that Jackson would have put a bullet into Murdoch’s head. He knew he could never have lived with himself if he had done that. And no matter what Murdoch said, he thought that Jackson probably would have killed all three of them if he had tried to run.
He also knew that Johnny would have agreed with the decision if he had been awake, but the way Jackson had explained it to Johnny had made it seem like Scott had been willing to sacrifice his brother for Murdoch, which wasn’t true. Scott shivered slightly. If he had actually been forced to make that impossible decision, he wasn’t sure what he would have done. After a moment, he shook his head slightly. No, deep down, he knew whom he would have chosen, but he wouldn’t let that thought surface, he didn’t want to admit it, even to himself. That was something he would keep locked up in his heart for the rest of his life.
Scott just hoped that his decision and Jackson’s words weren’t the reason for Johnny’s morose attitude. His brother had been downright unsociable since it had happened, and Scott was worried that he had harmed their relationship irreparably. After all, he had admitted to Jackson in front of Johnny that he had chosen Murdoch over his brother. That he had chosen to bring Johnny back into the cabin to almost certain death in order to save their father’s life. He knew he should discuss his choice with his brother, but everything he thought of saying in the way of explanation sounded like simply an excuse and terribly trite. He sighed. Even if he knew his brother would be angry, he STILL would make the same choice if he had to. It was the only one he could live with. After all, it HAD worked out all right, and they were all still alive, thanks to Johnny.
Scott eyes narrowed as he recalled the argument they had all had the night before. They had all been angry with each other, and all for different reasons. He sighed quietly. He didn’t know WHY he had gone off on Murdoch like he did. When his father had made the decision to give the gun to Johnny, Scott had been glad. He would willingly give his life for his brother’s any day. Johnny deserved a chance at some happiness, he deserved to live longer than the few short years that he had.
Scott had hoped in that moment that Johnny would have the courage to do what needed to be done, and he hoped Johnny would make the choice to shoot him. Even though he knew how close they were, he also knew that Johnny would never forgive himself for killing his own father. And he didn’t want Johnny to be burdened with guilt about his choice.
Scott’s thought s turned toward his father’s decision. Even though he knew that Murdoch had to make a choice, and even though for Johnny to live, Murdoch had to put the gun in Johnny’s hand, he was angry with his father for putting that burden on his little brother. He knew it didn’t make sense, but nothing about what had happened did. And he had been afraid Johnny would never be able to live with himself no matter WHO he chose.
When Johnny had walked up to him and pulled the trigger, however, an unexpected sense of betrayal had flashed unbidden into Scott’s mind, and that had bothered and confused him. He WANTED Johnny to make that decision, he was sure of that, but…..he still couldn’t help the feeling of….. disillusionment…. that it had seemed so easy for Johnny to pull the trigger.
When the hammer had clicked down on that empty chamber, he had looked up at his brother, and found only the cold impersonal gaze of Johnny Madrid. Part of him was glad at the change, because he figured it was the only way that Johnny could make himself do what needed to be done, and his brother would desperately need Madrid to get through this. But part of Scott needed the reassurance of seeing his brother, and not the gunfighter.
When Johnny had pulled the trigger again, Scott began to wonder if maybe his brother could somehow tell there was no bullet in the chamber. In all of Scott’s experience, he had never heard of such a thing, but it wouldn’t be the first time Johnny had surprised him. He had relaxed and grinned then, because no matter what happened, he wouldn’t give Jackson the pleasure of seeing him afraid. And he realized that he really wasn’t afraid. He was willing to put his life solely in Johnny’s hands. He knew that his brother would do everything he could to get them out of this, one way or the other, and he wanted Johnny to know that he had faith in his decision.
It wasn’t until later, after it was already over, that Scott began to have doubts. He was horrified at just how close Jackson’s bullet had come to Murdoch’s head, and he had been angry that Johnny had taken that chance with their father’s life. What his brother SHOULD have done, no matter how hard it was, was to shoot him.
Scott dropped his head. He may have been angry with Johnny for his decision, but he was still angrier with himself for jeopardizing his brother’s life. He was afraid he had ruined their relationship forever. He decided that the only thing he could do was to give Johnny some space and give his brother time to get over Scott’s seeming betrayal. He just hoped that Johnny could eventually forgive him.
Although he thought he understood what Johnny was feeling, he couldn’t understand the feeling he had toward his father. Even though he had prayed that Murdoch would choose Johnny to live, he had felt a sense of disappointment when Murdoch had actually chosen Johnny to take the gun. He knew it was the right choice, no matter what he had told Murdoch the night before, and he wanted Johnny to be the one who lived, but it didn’t stop him from feeling a little hurt. He shook his head as he argued with himself. He couldn’t reconcile the feeling of relief that Murdoch had chosen his brother to live, with the hurt he had felt that he himself hadn’t been chosen to take the gun. But both feelings were very real, and he didn’t know what to do about it. He was totally and hopelessly confused, and feeling more than a little guilty about his own choices that day.
Johnny sat in the saloon in Green River and nursed his beer. He had ridden into town alone, and even though he wouldn’t admit it, he missed Scott’s company. He knew that his brother was angry over the choice Johnny had made, and he had made sure Johnny knew it. Ever since that day, Scott had been quiet and standoffish around him. Johnny shook his head; he had made the only choice he could under the circumstances. Shooting his father or his brother simply wasn’t an option; he sure wasn’t going to shoot either one of them. He would have turned the gun on himself before he would have chosen between them.
The game he had started with Jackson was the only thing he had been able to come up with that might just possibly get them all out alive. He had played a similar game a long time ago in a different life with another man, and it had worked. He knew that Jackson’s craziness could be used against him, but he hadn’t been as sure to what extent he could shake the man. He knew that everything was riding on Jackson becoming so upset that he would forget about what he was doing. Johnny knew he was taking a gamble, but he also knew it was the only chance they had.
When he had gone over to the table and hefted the gun, he knew that there wasn’t a bullet in the correct chamber to fire. He couldn’t always tell, but with this gun, if the bullet was in a side chamber it changed the balance just a tiny bit. Enough that he could sometimes tell. He had known that the gun wouldn’t fire when he had pointed it to Scott’s head, but what he HADN’T told his family was that he wasn’t completely sure there was one in the right chamber when he had fired at Jackson.
Johnny shivered. He had hoped that if he turned his gun toward Jackson, the man’s instinct would kick in and he would fire at Johnny. He had hoped that he would have time to pull the trigger several times before Jackson killed him; time to get the bullet in the right chamber before Jackson could kill his family. What had happened instead was a nightmare. When Johnny had turned toward him, Jackson had turned the gun back toward Murdoch, but by then Johnny had already committed and had to continue his move. By then, the only chance Johnny had was to kill Jackson before the gun was brought to bear on his father.
Johnny dropped his head. If his own gun hadn’t fired that first time, if the hammer had come down on an empty chamber, he would have killed his father with the game he had played. He didn’t know if he could ever forgive himself for taking that chance with his father’s life, and the guilt was weighing him down.
He needed to talk to Scott, but he was afraid of admitting what had happened, and besides, Scott was mad at him anyway. He wasn’t completely sure WHY his brother was mad; whether it was because Johnny had taken a chance with Murdoch’s life, or because Johnny had seemingly been willing to shoot at his brother’s head. He hoped Scott knew that he was certain the gun wouldn’t fire, but he wasn’t sure that he did. He wasn’t sure if his brother would even believe him if he told him that he had known.
His thoughts turned toward his father. He knew his Old Man was angry with him too, but he was just as angry with the Old Man. It had hurt when Murdoch had told him he thought Johnny could handle it better if he had to kill one of them. Didn’t Murdoch realize that he could NEVER make that choice, no matter what? Did he REALLY think that Johnny could handle killing one of them?
He put down his drink and sighed. He didn’t know if he could ever forgive his father for putting him in that position. Johnny sat there for a while, thinking about that horrible day. He wasn’t sure any of them could get past it. It looked as if Jackson had won, anyway. It had been almost five days since the incident, and none of them were anything more than civil toward each other.
Johnny picked his drink up again and took a sip. He glanced around the room, hoping to see a friendly face, but all he saw were strangers. Of course, that was all he saw back at the ranch. Strangers, with not a friendly face in sight. He wondered if that was how his father and brother felt. He shook his head and tried to get his mind off of his family.
He sat back in his chair and thought about how the town had changed in recent months. Green River was becoming more and more crowded since the train line had come through, and it seemed like there were always more unfamiliar faces than friends roaming the streets. It was a situation that kept him on edge; strangers were an unknown quantity. He didn’t know why they were here or what they were after. And although it was becoming less common, there was always the possibility they were after Madrid.
Out of habit and boredom, he checked out the other men in the bar. Several were obviously salesmen; they had become downright common lately. Johnny didn’t know WHAT they could all be selling. There was also a gambler type, sitting over at the corner table, waiting for someone to offer to play some poker with him, and there were a few men that looked like farmers, all drinking Sarsaparilla and probably waiting for their wives to get done shopping.
Johnny shifted his attention to the other side of the room, and noticed a young man about Scott’s age sitting nursing a drink at a far table. The man kept his head down, and Johnny noticed a long evil looking scar that ran across his temple and disappeared into the hair in the back of his head. The wound looked barely healed, and Johnny wondered idly just what had caused it. Whatever had happened, the guy must have really been living right to survive whatever had caused that gash.
The man absent-mindedly twirled the glass of whisky, and Johnny’s attention was drawn to the man’s hands. Johnny shook his head. That guy must have more lives than he did, because from the scars on his arms and hands, he had also been caught in one heck of a fire. Johnny dropped his head, his mind once more going back to the hell that his family had gone through, all because of a long ago fire.
Amos sat in the bar trying to come to terms with the information he had received just a short time before. He had followed his father to Green River, hoping to stop him from what Amos was certain was vengeance on the lawman his father blamed for Cory’s death.
Amos had awakened several weeks ago in a hospital in Abilene, confused and disoriented. It had taken him a while to piece together the reason he was in the hospital, but with the help of the staff and his own slowly returning memory, he finally realized just what had happened.
The last several years had been a nightmare. His father had slowly spiraled down into the depths of madness, and had done his best to take Amos with him. Amos had wanted to escape from the grip of his father, but he knew just how sick his father was, and out of guilt and loyalty, he had stayed steadfast even when all of his instincts were telling him to get away.
Immediately after they had left that wretched town where his brother had died, his father had been eaten up with guilt and had been almost paralyzed with grief. He had continually apologized to Amos for killing his brother and swore that he would never do anything to hurt Amos again.
It wasn’t long, however, before his father’s grief and guilt had changed to hate. He started by blaming the lawman for chasing them back into the store, even though it was more the townspeople that had done that rather than the deputy. But his father was beyond reason. The hate was like a monster living inside of him that continued to grow, eventually taking over the loving father Amos had once known.
And when the monster got big enough, and when blaming the lawman wasn’t enough, his father had turned his rage on Amos, blaming him for staying alive while his poor brother had burned to death. Amos tried to tell himself that his father was ill, but it still hurt. It wasn’t until the previous month, when his father contacted the Pinkerton’s to find the hapless deputy that Amos realized just how sick his father was. Amos had been hoping that they would find out that the deputy was dead and buried, for maybe then his father would start returning to normal, but that hadn’t been the case, and the agency had responded with the information in a surprisingly quick time.
He had tried every way he could to dissuade his father from going to California and trying to get revenge, but it had been like talking to a wall. His father went into gruesome detail about just how he was going to make Murdoch Lancer pay. Amos knew that he had to stop it somehow, or he would never be able to live with his own guilt. He couldn’t sit idly by and let his father murder someone. He had gone to the local sheriff, but he was informed rather coldly that until someone actually committed a crime there was nothing the sheriff could do.
He had agonized over it at length, but as much as he loved his father, or at least the father he had once been, Amos knew it was up to him to stop the madness. He thought that maybe if he could injure his father enough to get him into a hospital, maybe someone there could give him the help he needed. After a lot of soul- searching, Amos had gotten his gun down off the shelf, where it had been sitting for a long time, and had started to clean it.
That was the last thing he remembered until he had awakened in the hospital. Apparently, somehow the gun had gone off while he was cleaning it, and a bullet had plowed along the top of his head. When he was coherent enough to finally ask about the absence of his father, he was told that according to the sheriff, the elder Jackson had found him lying in a puddle of blood and thought he was dead, and had left town that very day.
Amos knew without a doubt where his father was headed, and he had pushed himself unmercifully to get better so he could go after his father before it was too late. He knew that his father had ridden on horseback, but when Amos had finally managed to leave the hospital, he had taken the first train to Green River. He still felt weak and shaky, and a little confused, but he had made it. It had cost them their last cent, but he figured it would be worth it if he could stop a murder. Or murders.
Amos slammed his drink down hard on the table, startling several of the locals and causing one of them, a dark –haired young man, to start to reach for his gun. When the man stopped and studied him with a critical eye, Amos gave him a slight smile and raised the glass back up as if in salute. Amos shook his head. Whoever that guy was, he’d better calm down or he was likely to get himself shot.
Amos frowned. SOMEONE was going to get killed, that was for certain. Maybe several someones. He had arrived in town late the night before, and asked about his father. Several cowboys had been in the saloon, and they had told him that his father had been shot and killed by the Lancers. They had said that the three Lancer men had killed his father in an old line shack on the Lancer property. One of Lancer’s sons had shot him right between the eyes.
Amos was furious with himself for doubting his father. It seemed like Murdoch Lancer and his sons were murdering cowards after all. Three men against one hardly seemed fair, but apparently that’s not the way the Lancers thought. They had shot his father down like a dog.
He took a large gulp of his whisky, and once more slammed his glass down. His father had been murdered, plain and simple, but he knew better than to go to the local sheriff. The cowboys had said that the lawman was fast friends with the ex-deputy and his family. Those lawmen always did have a knack of sticking together. No, he wasn’t going to get justice through normal means; he was going to have to take the law into his own hands. He would make his father proud. And he would make Murdoch Lancer pay.
Murdoch absent-mindedly rubbed his aching back as he stood staring out the big bay window in the great room, waiting for Teresa to come down so they could start for church. This last week had been one of the most difficult in his life, and he was sure his sons felt the same. The near catastrophe had left them all stunned and confused, and if his thoughts were any indication, feeling guilty as well. He shook his head. They SHOULD be thankful that they were all alive and unharmed, but for some reason they were all angry about the decisions the others had made.
He had talked to his sons twice since the incident, but each time it had ended up in a yelling match with them going their separate ways. The recriminations and blame tossed out at each other had gotten out of hand each time. Well, THIS time, he was going to talk to his sons and get this straightened out once and for all. He had insisted that they accompany him to church, and afterward they would go to lunch. There he would make sure they talked about it, and with Teresa along, he HOPED they would all be able to hold in their tempers just a little bit better. He shook his head. If this weren’t so important, he would stay home. He didn’t know if his back could handle the ride in to town.
He looked up as Teresa glided down the stairs. His eyes lit up at the sight of her; she had matured into a very attractive woman, and he was extremely proud of her.
“You look beautiful, darling. Are you ready to go?”
Teresa nodded. “Where are the boys?”
Murdoch shrugged. “Outside, I imagine. Probably getting the buggy ready. I told them this was one time when were all going to go together, and I wanted everyone in the buggy.”
Teresa giggled. “And Johnny graciously agreed to that?”
“Well not exactly graciously, but with only a few mumbled complaints.”
Teresa’s eyes gleamed. “And just WHAT did he mumble?”
Murdoch looked at her with mock indignation, knowing living at the ranch she had long ago heard every cuss word there was, and he was ashamed to admit, more than a few from him. “That, young lady, is none of your business.”
Teresa giggled once again. “Don’t worry, I’ll just ask him.”
Murdoch managed to keep a grin from breaking out on his face and he scowled instead. “You’ll do no such thing. Now let’s go.”
Murdoch had been right, the buggy was parked next to the porch, and Scott was sitting in the front, while Johnny was studiously checking the horse’s harness. Murdoch sighed. Before all of this happened, they would have been wrangling good naturedly about who was going to drive. Now they were as polite as two strangers. Murdoch set his mouth in a grim line. One way or the other, he was going to get this resolved today. He was tired of living with those strangers.
As he approached the buggy Johnny came up and helped Teresa in, and then quickly got in himself, leaving Murdoch to sit up front with Scott. Murdoch hesitated a moment, debating whether to make his son get in the front, but finally gave in and clumsily pulled himself into the seat. He glanced at Scott, who remained staring straight ahead, and Murdoch grabbed the side railing and winced in pain as the buggy lurched out of the yard.
The trip into town was as expected. Teresa tried several times to make small talk, but finally gave up the effort. It was just too much work. She shook her head in exasperation. She had never known three grown men who could act more like babies than any three year old. Murdoch had told her of his plan, and she had agreed to try to help, but she had a feeling that Johnny and Scott would simply walk out, whether she was there or not.
What she’d LIKE to do was to get them all locked up in Val’s’ jail, and throw away the key for a couple of days. Maybe then they’d come to their senses; of course, with these three, it just might take a couple of months. She just couldn’t understand how they could all be mad at each other when they had all been so willing to sacrifice themselves for the others. Couldn’t they see ANYTHING? MEN! She thought as she absent -mindedly watched the scenery glide by. And they said women were illogical!! If these three were any indication of what men were like, she decided she’d NEVER get married. She loved all three of them dearly, but living with them was a different story.
When they arrived at church, she slid into the pew ahead of Murdoch, and Scott followed. Johnny hesitated for a moment, and then came around on the other side of the pew and slipped in on the far side of Teresa. She had to hold back a smile at his smugness in outsmarting his father and brother once again. She glanced at those two, and they were wearing identical grim faces, obviously angry at Johnny’s tactics. Johnny turned and gave her a dazzling smile, and she couldn’t help but return it. Well, she thought. Maybe men weren’t so bad after all.
The preacher gave a long, rambling sermon about forgiveness, and Teresa kept sneaking looks at her family to see if any of it was sinking in, but they all had that glassy eyed gaze of someone whose mind is a million miles away. She knew the reverend could talk from now until the cows came home and he would be still wasting his breath with these three stubborn Lancers.
The preacher believed in long services, and Murdoch found to his embarrassment that his back just couldn’t handle anymore. Halfway through the service, he stood and tried to slip out, but was followed by the rest of his family. Once outside, he reassured them that he was fine, except for a sore back, they walked down the street to the River Run Café. Johnny walked with Teresa, leaving Scott and Murdoch to walk together. The café had just opened recently, and Teresa had been dying to try it out. She hoped it was as good as she had heard, but it didn’t really matter; as long as she didn’t have to cook and do the dishes, it would be delicious.
They walked in, and Johnny immediately tried to escort Teresa to a back table in the corner. Murdoch and Scott immediately headed for one of the front tables, and stood there, looking expectantly at the other two. Teresa looked up at Johnny with a pleading look, and after a moment’s hesitation, he sighed and led her to where his brother and father stood. Johnny waited until Teresa had seated herself, and then took the only chair available, facing the back of the restaurant. He had to use all his will power to sit with his back to the door, but he knew his father and brother were in no mood for musical chairs, and he didn’t want to make a scene and ruin Teresa’s lunch. He guessed the chances of anything happening were pretty slim, anyway.
After they had eaten their lunch in uneasy silence, Murdoch cautiously leaned back in his chair and appraised his two sons. “All right, boys. Don’t you think this has gone on long enough? We need to talk.”
Johnny looked at him incredulously. “Here?”
Scott shook his head. “I have no intention of having our dirty laundry aired all over town.”
Murdoch set his jaw. “There is no one else in this diner, and we WILL discuss this. Things have gotten out of hand, and we are going to fix them here, today.”
Johnny sat back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “All right, Old Man, I’m listenin’.”
Scott glanced at his brother and finally he too sat back in his seat, stiffly waiting for what his father had to say.
Murdoch took a deep breath. He hadn’t planned on being the one to start this particular conversation, but realized that he had no choice. He had ridden into town several days ago and talked to Sam, and the old doctor had made him see things in perspective. Maybe he could make his sons do the same. And he was going to TRY to hold on to his temper, no matter how much Johnny baited him.
He knew that whenever his younger son wanted to avoid a discussion, he would get Murdoch to lose his temper and then the young man would storm out. It had taken a while, and Scott’s pointing it out, before Murdoch realized that Johnny used the ploy to get out of difficult discussions. And Murdoch had to admit, it worked pretty well most of the time. This time, however, Murdoch was going to do his best to avoid that scenario. Finally he looked at both of them. “We were very lucky to get out of that mess alive, agreed?”
Both of them nodded reluctantly.
“But we DID make it out, and we’re all alive, and no one got hurt, agreed?”
Again they nodded.
Murdoch smiled grimly. “All right. Don’t you think everything else is rather unimportant?”
Johnny looked up into his father’s stern countenance for a moment, and then turned his head and looked at Scott. Scott dropped his eyes, and Johnny jumped up, pushing his chair away from the table. “NO,” Johnny snarled. “I don’t think my father thinking I’m nothin’ but a heartless killer and my brother hating me is unimportant at all.” He turned and strode out of the café, slamming the door behind him.
Scott started to get up, and Murdoch grabbed him by his arm. “What does he mean? Why does he think you hate him?”
Scott jerked his arm away from his father. “I have no idea, but I intend to find out.”
“Scott, wait. Let me talk to him. Please.”
Scott hesitated for a moment, and Murdoch clumsily stood up. “Please, Scott. I need to talk to him.” At his son’s tentative nod, Murdoch headed out the door.
Scott started to stand up once more, and Teresa put her hand on his arm. “Scott, wait. Let them talk first. You can talk to him later.”
Scott stood indecisively for a moment, and then reluctantly sat down. Maybe Teresa was right. Maybe his father should talk to Johnny and try to get their differences ironed out first. But he wasn’t going to let the comment that Johnny had made slide by without an explanation, that was for sure. His little brother was going to have to talk to him no matter what. He sat back and took a sip of coffee while he waited for his father and brother to return.
Murdoch caught up with Johnny in front of the church, where Zanzibar was waiting patiently and nibbling on some leaves from an overhanging tree.
As expected, Johnny was talking to the horse and rubbing his hand along the old sorrel’s neck. Whenever his younger son was upset, he would invariably be found with the horses. Murdoch sadly wondered if they were the only ones that Johnny had been able to trust while he was growing up. He slowed down and watched his son for a moment, and then glanced back at the cafe, both surprised and grateful that Scott was still inside. He walked up to his son, and laid his hand on Zanzibar’s back.
“Don’t you think you should talk about it?”
Johnny continued rubbing the horse and put his head down, as if in thought. Finally he shrugged. “Nothin’ ta talk about. Scott’s mad at me, and I don’t blame him.”
Murdoch kept his eyes on his son. “And why do you think he’s mad at you?”
Johnny shrugged, but wouldn’t raise his head to look at his father.
“Johnny, I don’t think Scott is mad at you. And I certainly don’t think you’re a heartless killer, just the opposite. Why did you say those things?”
Johnny viciously scuffed the toe of his boot in the packed earth. “You said that I could handle it if I had to kill one of you.” He raised angry eyes to his father. “Do you REALLY think that I could kill either of you? And worse yet, do you think I would be OK about it?”
Murdoch shut his eyes. “I didn’t mean it that way, Johnny. In fact, I never really meant it at all. I KNEW you would do your best to get us out of that mess, and you did. Now let’s try to put this behind us, OK?”
Johnny looked his father in the eyes. “I ALMOST GOT YOU KILLED!”
“No, son, you didn’t. JACKSON almost killed me. You saved my life. You saved ALL of our lives.” He reached out to his son, but Johnny spun away.
“You don’t understand!! You have no idea what happened, of how close it was!” Johnny shouted. “If you did……” he let the sentence hang.
Murdoch went to grab for his son again, and suddenly he let out a yell. Johnny stood and watched in horror as his father fell to his knees in the dirt.
Amos approached the restaurant in time to see Murdoch Lancer leave and follow the dark-haired young man out of the building. He had watched the foursome leave the church, and had known that the man walking with Lancer was his son. When the blond Lancer was in town earlier this week, a helpful cowboy had pointed him out.
The same helpful cowboy had told him that the old man also had a daughter. The girl with them was probably the daughter, and the man with her was either her husband or possibly Lancer’s other son. He wasn’t sure which, and there was no one around to ask, and he didn’t have time to find out. Therefore, he had no interest in the dark-haired man. His plan centered on the man he KNEW was Lancer’s son, and possibly his daughter.
When he saw the older man leave the café and realized that his chosen prey were alone inside the café, he couldn’t believe his luck. He had hurriedly entered; delighted that they seemed to be the only two patrons of the establishment, at least until church was out.
Scott and Teresa were deep in conversation, and didn’t see the stranger approaching their table. Amos sat down suddenly and smiled at the two startled young people. “I heard you were Murdoch Lancer’s son. Is that right?”
Scott’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, that’s right. How can I help you?” he asked pointedly.
Amos nodded his head and looked at Teresa. “And you are?”
“I’m Murdoch Lancer’s…..”
Scott’s hackles went up at the man’s impertinence and he interrupted Teresa. “It’s none of your business who she is. Now what do you want?”
Amos smiled. “Just take it easy. I’m an old friend of your father’s. My name is Amos, I’m sure he must have mentioned me.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed, the name did seem familiar, but the only Amos that he knew of was dead. The man was about his own age, making it unlikely that he was an ‘old friend’ of his father’s. “No, I don’t believe he did. Maybe you could enlighten me.”
Amos nodded. “I’d be glad to. You see, your father worked as a deputy several years back in a small town in Texas. My father and brother and I met him under…..how shall I say it…..difficult circumstances. My brother was killed in a fire, and…..”
“Jackson.” Scott breathed.
Amos looked delighted as he nodded. “That’s right. Evidently he DID talk about me.”
Scott looked at the man in confusion. “Your father said you were dead. He said you killed yourself.”
Amos shook his head. “No, not dead. It was an accident. The gun went off while I was cleaning it, and my father thought I was dead. Must have put him right over the edge, and he took off without waiting to be sure. I guess he couldn’t stand to lose another son.”
Amos shook his head sadly. “I’m just sorry he didn’t know the truth before he died.” He glared at Scott. “Before YOU killed him.”
“Your father was mad. He came here looking for revenge. He tried to kill us, and we got lucky and managed to kill him instead.”
“I don’t believe that. I was told that there were three of you in that cabin. Three to one isn’t exactly great odds. My father was no gunman; he wouldn’t have tried going after all of you together. His style was more…..cautious.”
“He didn’t have to be good with a gun. He managed to take us all by surprise and get the drop on us.”
Amos looked cynical. “But somehow, you managed to kill him.” Jackson brought his hand out from under the table, showing Scott the gun that he held. “And I plan on killing the man that killed my father. I’m going to make your old man know what it’s like to lose a son, same as my pa. I was told my father was shot right between the eyes. Pretty impressive feat.” He looked at the gun strapped to Scott’s hip. “You must be pretty good with that thing.”
Teresa opened her mouth. “But Scott wasn’t……”
Scott interrupted her once again. “Teresa, be quiet.”
Teresa bit her lip in frustration. “But Scott……”
Scott turned toward her as he tried desperately to send her a message. He didn’t want Amos to know that it wasn’t him that had killed Ben. If Amos knew that, he was likely to wait until Murdoch and Johnny came back in, and kill all of them. Scott didn’t want a repeat of the scene in the cabin. “Amos here wants revenge against the man that killed his father. There’s no need to try to point the finger at anyone else or get anyone else involved. You and I know exactly what happened in that cabin.”
Teresa looked puzzled for a moment, and then finally realized what Scott was trying to do and nodded reluctantly.
Scott sighed in relief and smiled at Teresa. “Why don’t you go outside, while Amos and I talk?”
Teresa started to stand up, and Amos pointed the gun at Teresa and grinned. “No way. Now both of you get up and go in the back.” He gestured with the revolver.
Scott tried again to get Jackson to let Teresa go. “You don’t need her. I’m the one you want, she didn’t do anything. Let her go.”
Amos shook his head. “Nope. Murdoch is going to find out just what my father went through. Now MOVE!”
Scott and Teresa moved slowly toward the back of the restaurant, while Scott tried desperately to think of a way to get Teresa out of this. He expected to feel a bullet in his back any second. Instead, Amos directed them toward a small closet and motioned for them to get inside. Puzzled, Scott and Teresa entered the space, and Jackson slammed the door behind them. Then they heard a heavy piece of furniture being shoved in front of the door.
Scott looked at Teresa apologetically. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think he would keep you here. I thought he’d let you go.”
Teresa shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault. Besides, what could you do? You’re not even wearing your gun.” She looked at the door. “What do you think he plans on doing?”
Scott shook his head; by now he had an idea, but was praying he was wrong, and he certainly didn’t want to scare Teresa more than he had to. “I don’t know, but I’m sure he’s up to no good. Help me try to push this door open.”
The two shoved and pushed at the door to no avail. Teresa heard Jackson moving around in the café, and wondered what he could possibly be doing, and wondering why he didn’t leave. A few moments later, she had her answer. She looked at Scott with wide eyes, and saw her fear mirrored in his face.
“I smell smoke!” she gasped.
“Murdoch!” Johnny shouted as he rushed over to his father’s side. He knelt down in the dirt and took hold of his father’s arm. Murdoch pulled his arm back with a hiss of pain. “Don’t Johnny. Just let me be for a minute.”
Johnny watched in concern as his father sat in the dirt. “What’s wrong?”
Murdoch grimaced in disgust. “It’s just my back. Don’t worry, it’ll be all right in a little bit.”
Johnny sat back on his haunches and watched his father. “I’m going to go get Sam.”
“NO! Besides, he’s in Spanish Wells today, remember? I’ll be fine in a minute.”
Johnny shook his head. “You shouldn’t have come into town today. In fact, you shouldn’t even have gotten out of bed.”
Murdoch tried to sit up straighter. “Nonsense. My back has gone out before. It’ll be fine.” He looked up at his son. “Help me over to that bench” he ordered, nodding at a seat placed under a tree in the church courtyard.
Johnny finally managed to get his father over to the bench and sitting somewhat comfortably. Murdoch let out a sigh of relief, and then looked at his son. “All right, where were we?”
Johnny looked back at his father in disbelief. “We can talk about it later. Right now, I’m gonna go get Scott and get you home.” He turned to go, and Murdoch stopped him.
“Johnny! Wait! Please son, we need to talk.”
“Murdoch. We NEED to get you home.”
“Johnny, please,” his father pleaded.
Johnny hesitated a moment before reluctantly turning back toward his father. After watching his resolute expression for a moment, he finally walked over to the bench and sat down next to Murdoch.
Johnny’s hands twisted and turned as he thought of what to say. At last he sighed. “I almost got you killed,” he said softly. “And I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself for that.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “And I almost got both you and Scott killed.”
Johnny shook his head. “It’s not the same.”
“YES! Johnny, it is! We all did our best in that cabin, and we all made mistakes. Every decision we made could have gone bad and one of us could have gotten killed. But ALL of us were doing our best to make sure that didn’t happen. Don’t you see, that’s all we could do, was our best. And if we keep dwelling on it, if we keep feeling guilty about what COULD have happened, then Jackson won anyway.”
Johnny shook his head. “But you don’t understand. It wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did. Jackson almost…….”
“STOP!! Right there! It doesn’t matter what ALMOST happened. Everything you did was to try to get ALL of us safely out of the situation, isn’t that right?”
Johnny’s eyes remained downcast, and he didn’t answer his father.
“Johnny?” His father’s voice was gentle. Murdoch was worried. He knew his son, and he knew he would never harm either he or Scott, at least willingly. But Johnny wasn’t answering Murdoch’s question, either. Murdoch thought back to that terrible day, and what had happened right before Johnny had killed Jackson. A horrible idea crossed his mind, one that he should have thought of earlier. “You were trying to get him to turn the gun on you, but he wouldn’t.” Murdoch stated quietly, more to himself than his son, but when he saw Johnny’s reaction, he knew he had guessed right.
“And you think THAT would have been the right decision?” Murdoch shouted. He shook his head. “Johnny, no matter what, I want to know that you and your brother are safe. That’s the most important thing in the world to me. No matter WHAT could have happened that day, I would have been all right if I knew for sure you and Scott were alive and well.” He took Johnny’s face and tilted it toward him. “Don’t you EVER put my life before yours or your brothers, understand?”
Johnny jerked away. “You make it sound so easy. Do you really think I could stand by while someone hurt you or Scott, or worse yet, do you really think that I could hurt you? And then not care?” Johnny folded his arms around his body in a familiar gesture.
Murdoch sighed. “I didn’t mean what I said that day. I’m not even sure why I said it, except that Scott was so angry that I hadn’t put the gun in his hand. I…I just said the first thing that came to mind to try to explain to him.” He looked into his son’s eyes. “I’m sorry.”
When Johnny didn’t answer, Murdoch shook his head. “I didn’t want him to think that I chose to give you the gun because I loved him less.” He held up his hand before Johnny could say anything. “And I didn’t do it because I thought you could handle killing us or because I loved you less, so don’t start. I thought that you had a better chance of getting us out of that mess if Jackson gave you the gun, that’s all. It was a purely logical decision.” He shook his head once more. “I could never choose between the two of you, ever.”
Johnny looked back at his father. “Then what makes you think that I could?” he asked quietly.
Murdoch nodded, finally understanding. “Or Scott either.” Murdoch sighed. “I hope to God we never have to make decisions like that again.”
Johnny sighed. “You and me both.” He hesitated. “Are you really sure that Scott’s not mad at me?”
Murdoch smiled. “I don’t think so. He seemed awfully puzzled as to why you would think that.”
Johnny snorted. “Maybe ‘cause I was playin’ Russian roulette with his head.”
Murdoch studied his younger son, hoping for the answer to the question he had been afraid to ask. “Were you?”
Johnny shrugged. “No, but he didn’t know that.”
Murdoch relaxed. “I think he did. He trusts you completely. He knew you wouldn’t have done it if there had been any doubt.”
Johnny’s features darkened. “I did with you.”
“What do you mean?”
Johnny hesitated and then finally decided to tell his father the secret that had been eating at him. “I didn’t know for certain there was a bullet in the chamber when I shot Jackson,” he whispered. He looked at his father; fearful of the look of disappointment he was sure he’d see.
Instead, Murdoch chuckled. “Remind me never to play poker with you.”
“This isn’t funny.” Johnny stormed.
“None of what happened was funny,” Murdoch snapped back. “But as long as the three of us are all right, then I don’t give a damn how it happened, and neither should you. You did what you had to do and you made the right choice. We’re all alive, and that’s all I care about; it’s all ANY of us should care about.”
Johnny thought about it for a minute, and then nodded. “I guess.”
“Good. Now let’s go find Scott and convince your hard-headed brother of the same thing.”
Johnny started to give his father his hand, and then stopped and turned toward the café. “I smell smoke.”
Chapter Twenty- Seven
Scott took his hand and felt the door. It was just beginning to feel warm. He shoved the door with his shoulder, and the door gave slightly at the top of the frame, letting in a small cloud of smoke and verifying that the café was indeed on fire. He tried to shove the door open once again, but this time the door refused to budge.
“We have to get out of here!” Scott said grimly and then stepped back away from the door and kicked it as hard as he could. The door didn’t move. He could smell the acrid smoke that was seeping into the closet from underneath the door, and he realized they didn’t have much time. He knew that the smoke would overcome them within minutes if they couldn’t find a way out.
“Teresa, help me!” They both kicked the door as hard as they could, but once more the door held fast. Teresa and Scott began to cough and choke from the heavy smoke. Scott tore off his shirt and stuffed it in the crack at the bottom of the doorframe, hoping to keep the smoke at bay for a little while longer. He pounded frantically on the heavy wood, praying someone would hear him. He refused to give in to panic, although fire was the one thing that could do it. Just thinking about being trapped in a burning building was something that had always made him break out into a cold sweat.
When he was ten years old, he had watched a house on their block burn to the ground. The firemen hadn’t been able to get everyone out, and the cries of the people trapped within had haunted him for years. Even worse, he had watched the firemen carry out the charred bodies, and had smelled the sickly sweet scent of burned flesh. The nightmares he had of that day had gradually gone away, replaced by the very real terrors of the war, but the fear and the horror had remained, locked carefully in the far reaches of his mind. Until now. He frantically kicked at the door, the memory of that long ago fire and its aftermath driving him on.
Teresa, sensing Scott’s desperation, started to give in to panic and pounded her fists on the door too. Gulping in some air, she tried to call for help, but the heavy smoke made her cough uncontrollably and she went back to simply pounding on the door. Surely Murdoch and Johnny would notice something wrong and come save them. They had to still be in town, and the smoke and fire would certainly be noticeable. She had no doubt that the two men would get them out; she just hoped it wouldn’t be when it was too late.
Johnny took several steps toward the café before he saw the smoke starting to billow out of the windows. Leaving Murdoch, he ran toward the burning building, but was stopped short by several bullets that dug up the dirt around his feet. He dove behind a nearby wagon and looked around frantically for the gunman. He took out the gun that was hidden in the back of his belt and looked around once more, hoping to spot his attacker. When he couldn’t see anyone, he left the shelter of the wagon and again tried to approach the café. Immediately bullets darted around him, and then one whined past his face close enough to part his hair. Frustrated, he once more dove for cover behind the wagon.
Hearing a noise behind him, he spun and aimed the gun at the possible threat, only to find his father quickly hobbling toward the wagon and shelter.
“Get DOWN Murdoch!! “ Johnny yelled frantically.
Murdoch’s back gave out and he collapsed behind the wagon next to his son. “Is that good enough?” he growled.
Murdoch glared at Johnny. “I thought I told you to leave that gun at home.”
Johnny looked at him incredulously. “Do you REALLY want to discuss that right now?”
Murdoch shook his head and then worriedly looked toward the restaurant. “Do you see Scott and Teresa?” When Johnny shook his head, Murdoch continued. “They had to have gotten out,” he said unconvincingly.
“You don’t know that,” Johnny snapped. “Whoever’s shootin’ at us is makin’ sure we don’t reach that café. There has ta be a reason he doesn’t want us to get over there.”
Johnny poked his head out from behind the wagon. “Scott!” “Teresa!” he yelled. When he didn’t get an answer, he sat back next to his father.
“Did you see who was shooting at us?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny shook his head in frustration. “No. But I think the shots are coming from the livery across the street.” He poked his head out from around the wagon. “I’m going to try ta get to the café. Cover me.” He handed his father his gun and a small box of ammunition.
“NO!” Murdoch grabbed his son’s arm. “I’ll go.”
“Murdoch, we don’t have time to argue. You can’t even walk.”
Murdoch kept his grip on his son. “And I can’t cover you as well as you can cover me.”
“Murdoch!!” Johnny said in frustration. “It won’t make any difference if I can cover you if your back goes out in the middle of the street!”
Murdoch’s grip didn’t loosen. “I don’t want you to go.”
“WHY NOT?” Johnny exploded.
Murdoch hesitated and dropped his head. “If…if they’re hurt, I don’t want you to have to…..to make a decision which one to get out. I’ll go.”
Johnny looked back once more toward the burning building and then turned and looked into his father’s eyes. “Then I’ll do the best I can,” he said softly.
Johnny pulled his arm away from his father and turned and ran toward the café.
Murdoch poked his head out from behind the wagon and sent bullets flying toward the nearby livery stable. In reply, several bullets slammed into the wagon, and Murdoch nodded in satisfaction. He looked up just as Johnny disappeared into the smoky building, and Murdoch said a quick prayer for his children.
Johnny dove into the café, expecting to feel a bullet plow into his back at any moment. Once inside, he looked around, trying to force his eyes to stay open against the stinging smoke and attempting to get his bearings. The cloudy air inside the building was difficult to see though and even more difficult to breathe. He took a large gasp of fairly clean air close to the door and yelled for his family.
When he didn’t hear a response, he felt a quick surge of hope that they had somehow gotten out and were safely outside. He wanted nothing more than to abandon this inferno and dash outside to safety. But he knew that type of reasoning would cost him his family. If they had escaped, they would have let their presence be known. No, Scott and Teresa were still inside, but where? He forced himself to go further into the room.
He could barely see, and the smoke was making him cough and choke until he could hardly catch his breath. He knew he’d have to get them out soon, or it would be too late. He made his way over to the table where he had last seen them, wondering if somehow they had been knocked unconscious and were still there, but he soon discovered that wasn’t the case.
He looked frantically around the main dining room, and called out once more.
“SCOTT! TERESA! Where are you?”
Again he got no response, and he realized that the two of them were probably unconscious; either from the smoke, or maybe something even more serious. He shuffled around the room as quickly as he could, bumping into chairs and tables. His eyes were watering so badly he could hardly see, and the coughing had become continual. He knew he only had a few more minutes before he’d have to get outside himself.
He tore off his shirt and wrapped it around his head, covering his mouth and nose and hopefully buying a few more minutes. He gave one last look around the dining room, and then headed back toward the kitchen.
He called out again, hoping against hope that he’d hear an answer, but all he heard was the crackling of the fire. Evidently, it had started in the kitchen area, and as he got closer the heat was almost unbearable. He made his way as quickly as he could into the room, and the smoke worsened dramatically. A powerful coughing spasm ripped through his body, sending him too his knees. He grabbed a nearby counter for support, and he jerked his hand back with a hiss of pain. The counter was as hot as a branding iron.
He looked around in desperation, trying to see some place they could be hidden. The smoke obscured his vision to the point where it was hard to see more than a few feet in front of him. He quickly decided that he would have to feel his way around the room to have any hope of finding them. He stood up, and then realized that it was much more difficult to breathe standing up. He dropped to his hands and knees once more and his breathing immediately improved and the coughing abated somewhat.
He crawled quickly to one wall, and then followed it around, feeling his way along and trying to look for any sign of Scott and Teresa. He knocked into a barrel, and water sloshed over on top of him. He held his breath and stood up, grabbing the shirt from his head. He quickly dipped it into the barrel, and wrapped it around his face once more. Dropping again to the floor, he continued his search.
Finally, he came to a huge table that had been tipped over onto its side and jammed between a wall and a large counter. He felt all around it, and realized that it was blocking a door. He stood up in order to move it, and was immediately overcome with smoke. Gasping, he once more dropped to his knees, and after the coughing lessened, he shoved at the table. It took several tries before he was able to shove it aside and open a path to the closet door.
He reached up and tried to jerk the door open, but once again he pulled his hand back. The handle was too hot to touch so he took his shirt and wrapped it around his hand before trying it again. He pulled and yanked on the door several times before giving up. Taking as deep a breath as he could, he stood up and tried to kick it in. After several hard kicks, the door finally gave with a crack, and Johnny once more dropped to his knees so he could breathe. The lack of air was becoming critical, and Johnny realized that if he didn’t get them out in a minute or two, they would all die.
He crawled forward, and saw Teresa and Scott lying in the dim interior. He made his way over to them and shook them both.
“SCOTT! TERESA! Wake up! We have to get out of here!”
He knew immediately he wasn’t going to get a response, and realized that his worst nightmare was about to come true. He had told Murdoch the truth; he would do his best, but he knew that this time his best wasn’t going to be good enough. One of them was going to die.
There was no way he could get them both out at the same time, and he knew that the chances of the other one surviving until he could come back were almost non-existent. He looked up as an ominous cracking was heard from the roof and he shook his head. Even if the one who was left survived the smoke, he doubted if he would be able to make it back in and get them out before the whole thing collapsed.
He looked at the two people who meant so much to him, and knew there wasn’t a decision to be made. No matter how hard it would be, there was only one choice he could live with.
Murdoch sent several more rounds toward the livery stable while trying to watch the entrance of the café at the same time. He knew it was too early to even hope that his sons and Teresa would be coming back out, but he could still hope. His thoughts were interrupted by another barrage of gunfire hitting the wagon. He ducked away from the edge and quickly reloaded the pistol. When he was finished, he flipped the barrel closed and his finger tightened imperceptibly on the trigger in preparation to fire. As he did, the gun went off, sending a bullet into the side of the wagon. He cursed Johnny’s hair-trigger revolver, and wondered how his son could have possible avoided shooting his own foot off for so long.
He still couldn’t see the gunman and was getting desperate. Even though Johnny had only been inside the building for a few moments, it seemed like hours and Murdoch was sure that Johnny must have run into problems. Murdoch vowed that no matter what, he wasn’t going to take a chance on losing any of his children. He needed to get in there and help them out of the building. He knew that there was no way that his younger son could get both Scott and Teresa to safety if they were both unconscious, and Murdoch realized they probably both were or they all would have been out by now.
Murdoch sent another couple of rounds toward the livery and recklessly picked up his head to see where the sniper was. He finally got a bead on him, but just as he spotted him he realized the man had a rifle aimed directly at him. He saw the puff of smoke spurt from the end of the rifle, and realized that he had just made a very stupid mistake.
Johnny took a breath and stood up, preparing to grab the unconscious form. He knew he couldn’t think about it, or he’d never be able to leave the other one, and they’d all die. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Please forgive me.” But he knew in his heart that he would never forgive himself. A tear ran down his face as he steeled himself to do what needed to be done.
Just then he felt someone grab his arm. Spinning around, he looked into his father’s watering eyes.
“Get Teresa, I’ll get Scott,” his father coughed.
In a daze, Johnny felt relief wash over him. He didn’t know when he had ever been more relieved to see anyone. He knew he would be eternally grateful to his father for saving him from carrying out the choice he had been forced to make. He didn’t know how his father was going to manage to carry either one of them with his back out, but he knew that the stubborn Scotsman would manage, no matter what. Maybe, just maybe, they would all survive this.
Quickly, Johnny reached down and grabbed Teresa and deposited her in his father’s arms. “She’s lighter,” he explained.
Murdoch nodded, and after a longing look at the back door, he realized they would never get out that way. A sheet of fire was guarding it and he turned and stumbled toward the front door, the way they had come in. Johnny reached down and grabbed Scott, noticing that the ever-increasing cracking from stressed timbers was starting to drown out the roar of the fire. He stood up and started after his father’s disappearing form.
Johnny saw his father melt into the haze and took several steps toward the dining room. Suddenly, a sheet of fire erupted from the box of wood stacked by the stove, forcing Johnny back toward the closet. He turned and tried to go around the fire, but suddenly tripped over something and fell to his knees and losing his grip on Scott at the same time. He blindly reached out through the heavy smoke and grabbed for his brother.
Lifting the unresponsive body he felt something different about it, and glancing down he quickly realized the body he had a hold of wasn’t Scott. Johnny saw that it was the owner of the café, and stared down at the still form for a moment before woodenly dropping the body and searching for his brother. There was no way that both could be carried to safety, and he refused to let himself think about what he was doing.
After feeling around for what seemed like hours he found his brother and scooped him up. Johnny looked around in panic for a moment, realizing in the time it had taken for him to find Scott, the fire from the stove had made going out the way he had come in impossible. He spun around, determined to carry his brother out the back way, but one look back toward the rear door told him that that way out was just as bad. The two of them were trapped.
Murdoch looked around and made sure his sons were behind him before making his way out into the dining room. As he went further the air cleared slightly. He looked back one last time to make sure Johnny was behind him, but didn’t see anyone. He continued toward the door and the fresh air, knowing he had to get Teresa out as soon as possible, but he was worried about his sons. Johnny had been right behind him, and he didn’t know what could possibly be keeping him. He hesitated just outside the door, and glancing back one last time was stunned to see a wall of flames coming out of the kitchen.
Murdoch stood mesmerized for a second, and then he was being pulled out of the burning building by Val and several townspeople. Someone grabbed Teresa and then they literally shoved him into the street, where his back gave out once more and he crumbled to his knees. He fought his way to his feet, ignoring the excruciating pain, and started back toward the building.
Val grabbed him by his arm and spun him around, desperately trying to stop him from entering the inferno. Murdoch turned and blindly punched the lawman in the jaw, sending Val backwards into the dirt.
“THEY’RE STILL IN THERE!” Murdoch screamed and started toward the building once more. Val realized with horror that he was talking about Scott and Johnny. He too started toward the café but before he could take more than a few steps, the roof gave way and the whole building collapsed into a pile of burning rubble.
When the building collapsed Murdoch followed suit and crumpled into the dirt of the street, hypnotized by the sight of the end of his world. The heat was so intense that he knew there was no hope of anyone surviving it. He felt a hand on his shoulder, but never even turned around to see who it was. He dropped his head and let the tears flowed unashamedly into the dirt.
Bill Perkins who ran the general store came up and knelt by Murdoch. “Teresa’s OK. I just thought you’d want to know.”
Murdoch looked at the man in a daze and a very ugly thought, one that he couldn’t control, came into his mind. He dropped his head in shame, but he couldn’t bury the idea that he had made a very bad decision. He should have insisted on carrying Scott and then at least one of his sons would be alive. He shook his head in disgust at himself; he loved Teresa, but at the same time he didn’t know if he could ever get through this. He looked once more at the inferno in front of him and closed his eyes.
“Murdoch, let’s get you inside,” Val said quietly. He reached down and grabbed onto his friend’s arm, and this time Murdoch let Val help him to his feet without protest. He looked at the lawman’s face, but it took several seconds before it registered in his brain just who it was.
“Val,” Murdoch moaned. “My boys.”
“I know,” Val soothed. “But we need to get you into Sam’s office. I already sent Pete to go get him. He’ll be here shortly, and he can check you and Teresa out.”
Murdoch looked at Val as he talked and a frown appeared as he took in the blood trickling from his nose. “It looks like he needs to check you out too. What happened to your face?”
Val’s eyebrows went up, but he didn’t answer. Realizing that Murdoch was probably in shock, he just shook his head and guided Murdoch over to the Doctor’s office. Someone had already carried Teresa over, and Mrs. Cooper was sitting with her and reassuring her as Teresa fought to stop coughing. Val went over and pulled Mrs. Cooper aside and talked to her for several minutes, and then left the building. Murdoch looked over at his ward and she attempted a small smile, but Murdoch couldn’t manage to return the gesture. He finally looked away and walked into the back where he shut the door and collapsed into a nearby chair.
Teresa looked at Sarah Cooper in confusion as the lady came back and sat down next to her, but when the lady averted her eyes Teresa knew that something was horribly wrong. Her mind was still befuddled by the smoke, and she tried desperately to think back to what had happened. The last thing she remembered was Scott kicking frantically at the door and hearing the stubborn wood finally starting to give. She knew that Scott had to have been successful in getting them out, or she wouldn’t be here right now.
She looked again at the door her guardian had gone through and realized that something was drastically wrong. She looked up at Sarah pleadingly. “Is Scott all right?” She asked in a trembling voice. When Mrs. Cooper dropped her eyes once more Teresa swallowed hard. “How badly is he hurt?”
Sarah stood up and brushed Teresa’s hair back from her eyes. “Just rest for a while. Sam will be here soon.”
“I ASKED YOU A QUESTION!” Teresa shouted and tried to get up.
Mrs. Cooper Quickly placed her hands on Teresa’s arms, trying to calm her so Murdoch wouldn’t be disturbed. “Teresa, calm down.” After a moment the young girl broke off with a fit of coughing. When she finally stopped, Sarah handed her a glass of water that Teresa drank gratefully. When she was done, Teresa put the glass down on the nearby table and stared at the older woman. “Tell me.” She ordered.
Sarah sighed and after glancing at the door Murdoch had disappeared through, she said quietly. “I’m sorry, honey. He’s dead.” She dropped her head. “The building collapsed on him and he didn’t get out.”
Teresa shook her head in disbelief. “No. That couldn’t have happened. I would have been dead too.”
Sarah once more tried to get Teresa to lower her voice. “No, Mr. Lancer got you out.”
Teresa looked at the lady in shock. “He left Scott in the building and got me out?” She asked in disbelief. “How COULD he?” She looked over to the door once more and opened her mouth to say something, but Sarah quickly stopped her. “Shh. Not so loud. Don’t bother him now.”
“But he shouldn’t have done that. He should have gotten Scott out! How could he leave his own son?” Tears poured from her face and she sobbed several times.
Sarah once again tried to calm the young girl. “It wasn’t like that. Murdoch thought he would be safe.”
Teresa once more looked confused. “But how could he think that? How could he think he was safe if he was still inside?”
Mrs. Cooper bit her lip. “He thought Johnny would get him out.”
Teresa lay back against the pillows that had been propped behind her back to help her breathe. “I don’t understand.”
Sarah sighed. “Johnny and Murdoch saw the smoke and tried to go in after you, but there was a gunman on the livery stable roof. Every time they got close he tried to shoot them.”
Teresa’s eyes widened as she listened to the explanation.
“Finally, Johnny gave his father his gun and headed into the café. Murdoch covered him as he ran in, but the gunman realized what was happening and tried to shoot Murdoch. He almost succeeded, and probably would have, but Val heard the commotion and saw the gunman on the roof. He shot him.”
Teresa closed her eyes as she imagined the scene. “But that doesn’t explain…..”
Sarah interrupted. “Murdoch realized that Johnny couldn’t get both of you out so he went in to help. He grabbed you and carried you out, and left Johnny to follow with Scott.”
Teresa’s forehead furrowed. “But Johnny wouldn’t leave Scott.”
Sarah swallowed hard and put her hand on Teresa’s. “He didn’t.”
Teresa looked at her for a minute, uncomprehending, and then finally the truth sank in. Murdoch had saved her life, and it had cost him both of his sons. She turned her head to the wall and sobbed uncontrollably.
Murdoch lay on the cot waiting for Sam and wondered for the first time in his life if he would be able to go on. It seemed as if his very heart had been wrenched out of him, and he just didn’t know if he’d ever recover. He didn’t know if he wanted to. Since the boys had come back to the ranch it had been the best time of his life.
He loved Teresa dearly and he knew she would do her best to make him forget, but he didn’t want to go back to the life he had before his boys came home. Even with her there it had been a dull, drab existence instead of a real life. He was afraid that part of him, in fact most of him, had died today in that fire along side his sons.
The boys had brought laughter and joy, and occasionally worry and strife, but he had never felt more alive and more content. Their presence at the ranch had turned the huge mansion into a home instead of just a comfortable place to stay.
He sighed. He hoped Teresa hadn’t read his thoughts of a few minutes ago. Murdoch certainly didn’t blame her, and he would never want her to be hurt, but seeing her lying there had been a very clear reminder of the decision he had made. And the horrible consequence of that decision. He closed his eyes and sighed once more. It was going to be a long night. Hell, it was going to be a long lifetime.
Maybe he should sell the ranch. He just didn’t have the heart for it any more, and he didn’t think he could stay there with every tree and every hill reminding him of what he had lost. He was getting too old for ranching anyway; his back was proof of that. Maybe he would sell Lancer and travel for a while. Teresa would probably like to go to one of those fancy boarding schools back east, and while she was attending, he could travel the world. See the sights. And try to get his mind off of his loss.
Murdoch turned to see Val standing next to the bed, wringing his hat in his hands and looking decidedly uncomfortable.
“What do you need, Val?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to know if you knew who the gunman was, or what he wanted.”
“He WANTED us dead, and it looked like he succeeded pretty well!” Murdoch spat.
The lawman winced at the reproof, and realized he could have chosen his words better. “I mean, did you know him?”
“I didn’t even really see him.” Murdoch said tiredly. “I have no idea what he wanted or who he was after.”
Val shrugged. “Someone said he had been in the saloon earlier. Said his name was Amos…………and the last name was Jackson, same as the man Johnny killed up in the cabin.”
Murdoch felt his blood run cold and he stared at the lawman. “Amos?” he asked softly. It couldn’t be, Jackson had said his son was dead.
Val nodded. “Yep, that was it all right. Amos Jackson.” The sheriff saw how white Murdoch became. “I guess he was related to the guy in the cabin, huh?”
Murdoch nodded his head. His sons were dead all because a madman and his son were bound and determined to get revenge against him for a long ago accident. AN ACCIDENT! The unfairness of it galled him. And if ANYONE had to pay for it, HE should have been the one to die; HE should have been the one to suffer. He dropped his head into his hands as he realized that he WOULD suffer for the rest of his life, however long that was. “I guess he got his revenge after all,” he murmured.
He closed his eyes as he thought about that day in the cabin. He realized that if Ben had been successful and one of his sons had died that day, at least the other one would probably still be alive. All their frantic efforts to save each other had turned against them and had come back to destroy them all. It would have been better to have made a choice and let one of them die that day. He sighed as he realized that thinking those thoughts could drive him insane. With an effort, he brought his mind back to reality.
“How is Teresa doing?” A flush of guilt engulfed him as he realized that he hadn’t even asked about her, let alone talked to her.
Val nodded. “She’s sleeping finally.” At Murdoch’s questioning look, Val continued. “Sarah told her. She’s still sitting with her in case she wakes up.”
Murdoch nodded and realized how hard it would be on his ward. He knew how close the three young people had become, and he knew that the guilt she would feel could destroy her. He would do his best to make sure that didn’t happen, and he would make sure she never knew the thoughts that had run through his mind earlier. He didn’t want her life destroyed as well as his.
“Is she breathing OK?”
Val nodded. “According to Sarah she is. She’s still coughing a little, but it doesn’t seem too bad. I think she’ll be fine.”
Murdoch snorted. “Good,” he said curtly.
Val watched him, unsure how to take Murdoch’s reaction. He knew his friend was probably still in shock and not acting exactly normally, but he hoped his friend wouldn’t blame Teresa for what happened. It wasn’t her fault and Murdoch had to know that. He thought about saying something, but figured now was not the time.
After watching him for a moment longer, Val turned to go. “I’ll wake you up when Sam gets here. Sorry I disturbed you.”
Murdoch waved his hand in dismissal. “It’s OK, Val. And thanks for everything.”
With a final nod, Val left to go back to the café. It was still burning, but he was going to get his friends out as soon as he could. He could at least save Murdoch that bitter task.
A scream woke Murdoch up from a troubled sleep and he bolted to his feet. When he was standing upright, he stopped for a second as his back clenched in protest at the unexpected movement. As he stood there, the memories came back. At first he thought that it had all been a nightmare, but the soot and smoke stains on his clothes reaffirmed that his worst fears had come true. He stood for a moment waiting for the spasm to pass and after a moment he felt his back muscle loosen a little. But as the pain from his back subsided, the pain from his returning memories swelled. He knew the scream had been from Teresa and he was afraid of what he would find when he went into the other room. He hesitated for just a moment in front of the door, steeling himself for whatever lay beyond.
When he finally jerked open the door, he was met with a room full of people and sound. He couldn’t make sense of the commotion for a moment but then he saw Val had entered the room with a body. The lawman carried Johnny in and placed him on a cot next to Teresa. Murdoch was enraged that Val could be so insensitive, and prepared to give him a piece of his mind.
His eyes were drawn to the still dark form, but he couldn’t stand the sight and his eyes slid away. Then he heard a very familiar voice and his eyes raced back to his younger son. He stared at Johnny for a long moment before realizing that his son was moving. Johnny was alive! He ran into the room and nearly collided with another man who was just entering. He started to push his way past and then realized that the man held Scott in his arms. As if in a dream, he looked at his older son and Murdoch’s eyes locked with Scott’s ice blue ones.
Relief overwhelmed him and he sat down hard in a chair by Teresa’s bed. “How?” he asked weakly.
Val shook his head as he covered Johnny with a blanket. “We don’t know yet. Mario found them behind the café. Evidently they got out the back door just as the building collapsed. Both of them were still unconscious when he found them, but they’re starting to come around now.”
Murdoch went over to where Val had placed Johnny and took his younger son’s hand, reveling in the feel of it. Then he turned and went to where Scott was lying and placed his hand on his son’s forehead. “Thank God.” He closed his eyes. “Thank God,” he repeated quietly.
He looked over at his ward and realized the scream had been one of joy. She looked at him happily, the tears coursing down her face. This time he returned her smile.
Murdoch walked into Johnny’s room and watched as his son slowly awakened. Sam had checked both boys out and told Murdoch he could take them home, but they’d have to stay in bed for a day or two. He had brought them home last night and the terror of yesterday was already receding into a bad dream. Murdoch watched as Johnny looked around in confusion for a moment, and then those blue eyes focused on his father and he smiled. “Hey.”
Murdoch smiled back and remembered what it was like when his son first came home to Lancer. No one could have walked into his room and caught him asleep, and if they had tried they would have found themselves looking down the barrel of a gun. He was overjoyed that his younger son had finally become comfortable enough to let down his guard a little. Murdoch pulled a chair over to the bed and eased himself down with a slight hiss of pain.
Johnny looked at his father in concern. “You’re back’s still out?”
Murdoch nodded. “But it’s getting better. In a few days I’ll be as good as new.”
Johnny ducked his head and nodded.
Murdoch watched his son with concern. “How are you feeling?”
Johnny nodded. “OK.” He picked at the blanket with his hand. “How’s Scott?”
“Sam says Scott will be fine. He’s still coughing a little but it’s getting better. He took in more smoke than you.”
Again Johnny nodded. “I thought he was gone,” he whispered, unable to look his father in the face.
Murdoch closed his eyes as he remembered that horrible day. “I thought you both were.” He hesitated for a moment and then continued. “How did you get out? I looked at the back door when I was in there. It was covered in flames.”
Johnny sighed. “It was. But when the stove exploded it cut off the path to the front. That back door was our only way out.” His eyes took on a far away look. “I knew if we tried to go through we’d burn, but I remembered there was a barrel of water in the kitchen.” He looked at his father in wonder. “The outside of the barrel had already started to burn. I grabbed Scott and dumped him in the barrel just as it broke. I dropped to the ground and rolled us around in the water real good, then picked up Scott and made a beeline for the door. That’s the last thing I remember.” He looked at his father. “I guess we made it through.”
Murdoch nodded his head. “Yes, you made it. And thanks to you, Scott is alive.”
Johnny dropped his eyes once more and nodded. “Thanks for coming in after us. I don’t know… if I could have…could have left….”
“STOP! Right there! We already HAD this discussion, remember?” You did your best, just like you said you would. Just like you would have done if I hadn’t been there.”
“But Murdoch, I didn’t have a choice. I would have HAD to leave one of them. I couldn’t take both of them and I ….I” Johnny dropped his head. “I couldn’t have left….”
“Johnny!” Don’t!” Murdoch shouted, and then his voice softened. “If you had been forced to make that decision I know who you would have left, and why. You don’t have to explain or apologize to me. But you didn’t have to carry out that decision. That’s why I came in, so you wouldn’t have to. Together we can handle anything. I hope none of us has to make a decision like that ever again. But if we do, we’ll do our best, just like you would have yesterday.”
Johnny sighed and nodded. He knew what his father was saying, but Murdoch didn’t know what he had done. He just wished the nightmares would go away, and he wished he had the nerve to tell someone his secret. A secret he wasn’t sure he could live with.
Murdoch looked up as Scott came into the room. “How’re you feeling?”
Scott sat down on the sofa across from his father’s desk. “Better.”
Murdoch nodded. “Sam said it would take a while for your lungs to clear up.”
Scott nodded and looked out the window. “Where’s Johnny?”
“Out working. He said he was fine and needed to get away from our ‘hovering’ for a while. I told Cipriano to check up on him a couple of times today.”
Scott smiled. “That should go over well.”
Murdoch shrugged and frowned. “Nothing much is going over well with him right now. Something’s bothering him.”
Scott sighed. “I know. I think he’s mad at me.”
Murdoch studied his son. “What about you, Scott?”
Murdoch nodded. He got up and came around to the sofa and sat next to his son.
“Are you upset with your brother?”
“NO!” Scott protested.
“He thought you were mad at him even before the fire. He thought you hated him.”
“Why on earth did he think I hated him?” He looked at his father in confusion.
“He thought you were angry because of the way he acted in the cabin; because of, as he put it, ‘He played Russian Roulette with your head.’”
Scott shook his head vehemently. “But he didn’t! I know he knew that gun wouldn’t fire.” He looked at his father. “Does he think I didn’t know that?”
Murdoch shrugged. “It might help if you tell him. Have you two talked at all?”
Scott sighed. “No.” He hesitated. “I think he’s angry with me for the choice I made that day. For bringing him back into the cabin instead of leaving.”
Murdoch shook his head. “He wasn’t angry with you but I certainly was. You should never have endangered your own or your brother’s life to save mine. I already got that point across to Johnny the day of the fire.”
Scott looked up in surprise. “You two had a chance to talk?”
“Yes. He was feeling guilty that Jackson’s shot almost connected. I told him that he had made the best decision he could that day. And since we were all alive it was obviously the right one. I guess we ALL made the best decisions we could that day. We could second-guess ourselves from now until the day we die, and it still won’t change the fact that even though we all have regrets about HOW it was done, we all did the very best we could. And it turned out all right. We’re all alive.”
Murdoch looked at Scott. “Scott, I’m sorry I took a chance with your life when I chose for Jackson to give the gun to Johnny. As I explained to him, I could NEVER choose between you, so I made the choice that I thought would give us the best chance of getting the two of you out of that mess alive, do you understand?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, I do.” He sighed. “I always did; I don’t know WHY I reacted the way I did before.” He studied his father. “Just the two of us, not you?”
Murdoch returned his son’s stare. “I already told Johnny that as long as I knew that both of you were safe, I didn’t care what happened to me. And you’d better remember that.” He dropped his head. “You and Johnny are my whole life. I...I don’t think I could….keep going if something happened to the two of you.”
Scott shook his head. “Murdoch, don’t say that.”
Murdoch kept his eyes on his son. “It’s true.”
Scott sighed. “Val said he tried to stop you from going in after us; that the roof was about ready to collapse but you went in anyway.”
Murdoch dropped his eyes and nodded. “I realized that you and Teresa were probably both unconscious and I knew Johnny couldn’t get you both out in time. I heard the cracking of the timbers holding the café up and realized it was going to collapse anytime.”
His voice got softer. “I knew that Johnny would never be able to live with himself because of the choice he’d be forced to make; if he had to leave…. one of you… there my family would be destroyed. I HAD to go in and try to help.” His eyes came back up to his son’s. “And if we didn’t get out, at least we’d be together.” Murdoch swallowed hard. “I couldn’t live without the two of you, I realized that when I thought.….” He shook his head. “Don’t ever scare me like that again.”
Scott studied his father. “You know who Johnny would have gotten out, don’t you?”
Murdoch simply nodded and refused to meet Scott’s eyes.
“So do I.” Scott said quietly.
Murdoch looked at his son curiously. “How do you feel about that?”
Scott sighed. “I know my brother would have made the best choice he could. I also think that he knew that no matter WHO he chose, the survivor would never forgive him.” He looked back at his father. “And I think you’re right, it would have destroyed the family. But I’m certainly not mad at him or disappointed with him for having to make an impossible decision.”
Murdoch nodded. “Maybe you could talk to him. I think he’s feeling guilty and I believe he thinks you’re mad at him, both for what happened that day in the cabin and for what almost happened in the café.”
Scott nodded. “I’ll talk to him and I’ll make sure he knows that I’m not only not mad at him, I’m grateful to him for saving my life.”
Murdoch nodded and Scott looked at him quizzically. “Do you think Teresa knows who Johnny would have picked?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No, and I don’t see any point in telling her. I don’t need her feeling badly or being angry with your brother over something that never happened.” He smiled. “Besides, even though we THINK we know, Johnny could have surprised us.”
Scott snorted. “No. Not this time. I know my little brother.”
Murdoch ducked his head and nodded. “As soon as you’re feeling better, I want the two of you to iron this out and see if you can find out what’s bothering Johnny. Jackson almost destroyed our family; I don’t want him to succeed even a little bit.”
Scott smiled grimly. “He won’t. It would take a lot more than some madman to tear us apart.”
Val pulled up in front of the hacienda and climbed down off of his horse. It had been five days since the fire, and he had waited as long as he could to talk to the Lancers. He had come out to the ranch in the evening because he hoped to catch the men at home. He wanted to talk to them when they were all together and he figured that was the best time. He wasn’t even sure that Scott and Johnny were back to working yet; Sam had said it had been real close and it would take time for them to recover. A few more minutes and they both would have been dead. Val shuddered as he remembered how the building had collapsed just as he was about to enter. Everyone had been sure they were both dead; the heat arising from the burning wreckage was unbelievable. It had been a close call all the way around.
That day was just a blur in Val’s mind, and he could only guess just how it had been for his friends. They had all come so close to losing each other. They had ALL been in grave danger that day, one way or the other, and he figured it would take them all a long time to get over it. He wished he could spare them the ordeal to come, but he knew that he couldn’t.
He went to the front door and walked in, having learned a long time ago that it was expected of him. “Anybody home?” he hollered.
Scott immediately appeared from the great room with a drink in hand. Scott looked worriedly at his friend. “Val, what are you doing here? Everything OK?”
Val nodded. “Yeah. I just need ta talk to you.” He eyed the glass in Lancer’s hand. It had been a long dusty ride, and it was still hot as blazes outside. “How about a drink?”
Scott smiled and waved his hand toward the bar. “Help yourself,” he said generously. “That horrible cactus juice that you and my brother like so much is on the second shelf.”
Val walked over and poured himself a generous portion of Johnny’s tequila just as Murdoch entered the room.
“Val, what brings you out here? Everything’s all right isn’t it?”
Val smiled and nodded as he took a sip of his drink. “Everything’s fine. Just wanted ta talk to ya about what’s goin’ on, that’s all. Is Johnny around?”
Murdoch immediately felt his heart clench. “Is there a problem?”
Val shook his head emphatically. “No, no problem. Just relax. I wanted to keep you posted about what was going on, and I only wanted to have to explain it once.”
“Going on?” Murdoch asked worriedly. He really didn’t need any more problems right now. What he NEEDED was a chance to forget all about the last several weeks.
Val looked at Murdoch in exasperation. “I’ll TELL ya as soon as Johnny gets here. And like I said before, there’s nothin’ wrong, understand?”
With a sigh of relief, Murdoch nodded. “He should be here any minute.”
Val made himself comfortable on the couch, and then looked at Scott appraisingly. “I waited to come out until you were all feeling a little bit better. Looks like you recovered OK.”
At Scott’s nod, he turned toward Murdoch. “Johnny all right?” Before he could answer, they heard the sound of Johnny’s spurs on the tile entryway. Val looked up as the gunfight entered the room, and the two friends smiled at each other.
“Val, how’re ya doin’?”
“OK Johnny. Scott offered me some of your tequila.” He held out his glass.
Johnny raised his eyebrows and looked back and forth suspiciously between Scott and Val. “Uh huh.” He went over and poured his own drink from his severely depleted bottle and then sat in a chair by the fireplace, contemplating the lawman. “So what brings you out here? Everything OK?”
Val snorted and he slapped his hand down on his knee. “You are without a doubt the most suspicious bunch I’ve ever been around. Everything’s fine. I just wanted ta keep ya posted on what’s happening with that Jackson fella, that’s all.”
Murdoch’s brows furrowed. “What do you mean ‘what’s happening with him.’?”
Val sighed. “Well, I just thought you should all know that the circuit judge will be in town in about three weeks. We’re charging Amos with arson, assault, attempted murder, and murder for the café owner’s death. You’ll all need to be prepared to testify about what happened that day, and also about what happened with his father that day up in the line shack.…….”
Johnny sat stunned and Scott looked at Val in confusion.
“I though Amos was dead. I thought you had shot him,” Scott said and then looked at his father and brother and saw that it was a surprise to them too.
Val shook his head as he answered Scott. “No, he didn’t die, I shot him in the chest, but Sam managed to pull him through. He’ll live to stand trial.”
Val looked at Johnny meaningfully. “You’ll all have to answer questions about what went on, both in town and up at that shack.”
Johnny slammed his drink down then bolted to his feet and headed toward the door. The other three men sat motionless as the massive front door slammed and the sound of Barranca’s hooves reverberated through the air.
Val looked confused. “What in tarnation’s wrong with him?”
Murdoch shook his head in frustration. “I don’t know. He’s been upset about something lately, but I can’t figure out what it is.”
Murdoch looked at his older son. “I thought he seemed better the last couple of days, since you and he had your talk.”
Scott nodded slowly. “So did I. But I guess I was mistaken.”
Murdoch stared at his older son. “You did get things straightened out between you, didn’t you?”
Scott shrugged. “As far as I know we did. He still seemed like he was a little down lately, like something was bothering him, but I thought he was just still not feeling the best. I guess I was wrong.” Scott stood up and went to the door, grabbing his hat as he passed the rack. “I guess I’ll go after him and see if I can get him to talk to me.”
Val snorted. “Good luck, you’ll need it.”
“Thanks,” Scott answered sarcastically, and then he too disappeared out the door. Murdoch looked at Val and sighed. “Want another drink?”
When Scott came back late that night he found Murdoch waiting up for him. His father’s disappointment at seeing that Scott was alone was obvious. “Did you talk to him?” Murdoch asked.
Scott shook his head in defeat. “I never even caught up with him. I have no idea where he is.”
Murdoch sighed. “Scott, do you have ANY idea of what’s bothering him?”
“Try to talk to him as soon as you can. I’m worried about him.”
Scott nodded. “You and me both.”
Murdoch stood up and touched Scott’s shoulder. “If he comes back tonight, come in and tell me, even if it’s late.”
Scott nodded and watched as his father slowly climbed the stairs. He knew that even though he wouldn’t admit it, Murdoch’s back was still bothering him. Scott went over to the sideboard that served as a bar and poured himself a shot of bourbon. He would talk with his elusive brother tomorrow no matter what, and he would find out what was bothering him. He snorted to himself. That is, he would IF Johnny came home.
The next morning, Scott was relieved to see his brother out working early. He didn’t think Johnny had come home the night before, but he wasn’t sure.
Scott rode up to where Johnny was stringing some wire for a new cross fence and pulled Charlie to a halt. “Need some help?” Scott asked.
In reply, Johnny shrugged but never stopped working. Scott walked over to him and grabbed his brother by the arm. “Talk to me, Johnny,” he commanded.
Johnny whirled around and snatched his arm away from his brother. “Let go!” he snarled.
Scott looked at his brother in shock. “Johnny, what’s wrong?”
“Nothin’. Now are you gonna help me or stand there jawing’ all day?”
Scott watched his brother for a few moments, and then without a word he picked up a shovel and went to work. The two brothers worked for several hours in silence before Scott went over to his horse and got out two lunches. He walked over to a nearby tree and sat down. “Come on, Johnny, let’s eat.”
Scott watched as Johnny didn’t even slow down, but kept working silently. After a few moments, Scott tried once more. “Teresa put in some of her cookies, and some sandwiches from the leftover roast.”
“I ain’t hungry.”
Scott stood up and walked toward him. “You’ve got to eat.”
Johnny whirled and stared at his older brother. “I said I ain’t hungry. Now back off.” The voice was cold and flat, and Scott instinctively took a step back. Johnny’s lip curled at Scott’s backward movement. “What’s the matter, ‘fraid I’m gonna shoot ya? After all, I AM a cold blooded killer.”
“JOHNNY! WHAT’S WRONG with you?”
The gunfighter stared at his brother for a moment, and then turned back to his fence posts. “NOTHIN’. Now like I said before, leave me alone.”
Scott watched the stranger that was masquerading as his brother and suddenly lost his appetite. He threw down his sandwich and walked over to Charlie. He mounted with one graceful movement. “IF you want to talk to me, I’ll be at the house.” Without a backward glance, he kicked Charlie into a lope and took off toward home.
By the time Scott rode up to the house, he was convinced himself there was something drastically wrong with his brother. He had never seen Johnny act that way before. No, take that back. He HAD seen him act that way, but never toward him. His brother had turned into Madrid and Johnny Lancer seemed to be long gone. But why?
Scott strode into the house and caught Murdoch at his desk. “We need to talk,” Scott said tersely.
“I tried to talk to Johnny today, but I didn’t get very far.”
Murdoch’s concern was evident. “What happened?”
Scott tore his hat off and slammed it down on the table in frustration. “What HAPPENED was that I was trying to carry on a conversation with Johnny Madrid, NOT Johnny Lancer. And it didn’t go very well.”
Murdoch’s concern deepened. “What did he say?”
“NOTHING!” Scott shouted. “He told me to leave him alone, and then he asked if I thought he was going to SHOOT me!” Scott ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. “What’s WRONG with him?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.” Murdoch stood up and headed toward the door.
Scott stood up to follow. “I’m going with you.”
Murdoch stopped and held out his hand. “No, Scott. I don’t want him to think we’re ganging up on him. Let me try to talk to him by myself.” Scott hesitated, and then sat back down. He knew his father was right, but he would have a hard time waiting.
Murdoch rode out to the fenceline, and watched his son work for a few minutes. Johnny’s movements had an angry, jerky quality to them unlike his normally fluid motions, and he knew that his son was very upset. Murdoch nudged his horse closer, and was startled to find himself looking at the end of his son’s hair-trigger revolver. Murdoch felt his blood run cold as he gazed into Madrid’s cold eyes. Johnny gazed at him for a moment and then slipped the gun back into its holster and turned back to his work. “Ya shouldn’t sneak up on me like that, Old Man.”
Murdoch’s voice was quiet. “Son, what’s wrong?”
“Yes, there is. I’m not talking to my son. I’m talking to Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny turned toward his father. “I AM Johnny Madrid! I’ll ALWAYS be Johnny Madrid, no matter HOW much I pretend I’m not.”
Murdoch watched his son uncertainly, trying desperately to find out what was wrong. “You’re right. Part of you will always be Johnny Madrid, just like you’ll always be Johnny Lancer. But right now, I want to talk to Johnny Lancer.”
Johnny started talking without turning around. “I don’t think he exists. I thought he did, and I convinced both you and myself that he did. But when it came right down to it, he was just a figment of our imagination. I’ll always be Madrid.”
“That’s not true!” Murdoch said desperately. “I KNOW Johnny Lancer exists.”
Johnny shook his head. “NO.”
Murdoch clumsily dismounted, and walked toward his son, careful not to make any sudden movements and talking to him like he would a frightened horse. Because Murdoch had the uneasy feeling that like a nervous horse, it wouldn’t take much to make Johnny bolt.
“Johnny, Please talk to me. Whatever’s wrong we can work it out. We can make it better, as long as we stay together.”
Johnny stood thinking, his head bowed. Murdoch took another step closer, and Johnny’s head came up, his eyes blazing. “Back off!”
Murdoch froze as he studied his son. “Johnny, TALK to me.”
“Ain’t nothin’ ta talk about. Ain’t nothin’ gonna change, and the sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be. The better off we’ll both be. I tried, I really did. But I found out it’s a whole lot harder ta change than I thought it would be.”
Johnny snorted. “You were right. Madrid COULD kill somebody and not feel anything. And that day Madrid was right there ta make sure I could do it. Maybe I’ve just been foolin’ myself. Maybe it’s time I stopped pretendin’ ta be somebody and somethin’ I’m not.”
Murdoch felt the icy tendrils of fear clutching at his heart. “What do you mean?”
“What do you THINK I mean, Old Man?” Johnny snarled. He walked over to Barranca and swung aboard, then kicked the Palomino into a gallop away from the ranch.
Johnny walked into the cool interior of the church and knelt in front of the altar. He hadn’t been in a Catholic church since the first month he had been at Lancer, and the familiar ritual and surroundings eased his troubled spirit. He looked at the well- known trappings of his faith and felt soothed. When he had first come home the old priest had openly snubbed him when Johnny had tried to talk to him, and the young man had started to attend the church the rest of his family attended.
He hadn’t been angry with the priest; he knew he was a sinner if there ever was one, but he hadn’t gone back to the Catholic Church. The reverend at the church that Murdoch attended had been welcoming and kind, but right now Johnny needed to go to confession. He just hoped the new Padre would at least listen to him.
He sighed as he thought about his options. He should just leave Lancer, but he really didn’t want to. He didn’t want to go back to his old life, but it wasn’t right to stay, knowing that he would always be Madrid. It wasn’t fair to his family. He had tried so hard to change and he had thought that he had succeeded. But he had just been fooling himself as well as his family. When it mattered he found out he hadn’t really changed at all. He was still a killer.
Johnny stood up when the priest approached him. After briefly kneeling in front of the altar, the padre looked at the young man. “Can I help you?” he asked, not unkindly.
Johnny nodded, searching the priest’s face. “Do you know who I am?”
The priest nodded.
“Will you listen to my confession?”
The priest studied the young man in front of him. He had heard the rumors and wondered how many were true. If the young man had done all of the things they said, his soul was certainly beyond redemption, however that was between the gunfighter and God. It was not his place to judge. He would listen to the young man and he might possibly hear his confession, but he would talk to him first to make sure the young man was truly penitent. He motioned for the gunfighter to sit down.
Johnny sat gingerly on the edge of a pew and looked at the priest enquiringly.
“There is something that is bothering you,” the Padre stated.
“And you think confession will help?”
Johnny sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. But I have to tell somebody.”
“And you can’t tell your family?”
Johnny shuddered at the thought of them finding out. “No.”
The priest sat next to the young man. “Tell me what is bothering you and I will see if I can help,” he ordered.
For a long time, Johnny looked down and studied his hands. Finally he looked up and stared at the familiar Crucifix above the altar. “I’ve done a lot of bad things. Things I’m ashamed of. But I always…tried to do the right thing. I never shot an unarmed man or anyone that wasn’t trying ta kill me first. I ….tried to be on the right side of any fight I signed up for.” He brought his head up and looked at the priest. “And I never hurt a woman. I didn’t think I ever would. But the other day, I …” He dropped his head once more. “I…made a choice…to….to save my brother’s life and let a ...young woman….die.”
At the priest’s silence, Johnny went on. “I don’t know if I can stay here with them. With my family. If they knew what I had done, they…” Johnny simply shook his head.
The priest had heard about the fire, and the miraculous rescue. “They don’t know about the choice you made?” The priest asked curiously.
Johnny shook his head vehemently. “NO! No one knew about it. No one was around TO know about it. If they did, they’d probably throw me out on my ear.”
“Even your brother?”
“But it was his life you saved.”
“But I was willing to MURDER a WOMAN to do it!” Johnny shook his head. “My brother would never forgive me for that.”
Johnny sighed. “Maybe they’d be right ta throw me out. Or maybe I should leave and save them the trouble. I’m nothin but a cold blooded killer.”
The priest studied the young man. He didn’t know exactly what he had expected, but he hadn’t expected the man to have a conscience. When he had first arrived, the departing Padre had told him about the half -breed gunfighter and he had warned him about the tough uncaring assassin.
But despite the young man’s own view of himself he certainly didn’t fit that description. The new priest had learned a great deal more about Johnny Lancer since then and his outlook had changed. He knew that Johnny Lancer regularly made donations to the orphanage, donations that were supposed to be anonymous. But the Padre had seen the young man more than once as he was putting the money in the church.
The priest had also heard what had happened in the fire. The young man in front of him was a hero. He had risked his life to save his brother and he must be made to see that. As unfortunate as the woman’s death would have been, no one would have blamed the young man for her death. He hadn’t started the fire, and he had made a choice that no one, not even God, could fault him for. If he had saved the woman, his own brother could have died. “But you saved your brother, didn’t you?”
Johnny nodded his head reluctantly. “Yes.”
“And the young woman didn’t die after all, did she?”
Johnny’s eyes flew to the priests. “Yes, Padre, she did.”
The priest looked at Johnny in confusion. “I heard your father got the young woman out.”
Johnny shook his head. “He got out my sister, his ward.”
“Then who are you talking about?”
Johnny’s head dropped. “The lady that owned the café. On the way out, I ...I came across her. She was unconscious.” His eyes searched the priest’s face, pleading for understanding. “I couldn’t get them both out. If I had saved her, my brother would have died. I couldn’t leave him.” The next words were whispered so softly the priest could barely hear them. “I left her to die. I killed her.” He raised tortured eyes to the priest. “I killed a woman.”
Scott and Murdoch waited up most of the night, but Johnny didn’t come home. They both lay in their beds long after they had turned in, straining to hear the familiar sound of spurs clinking on the stairs, but the house remained quiet.
The next morning the breakfast table was just as silent. The two men ate automatically, and Teresa’s normally cheerful banter was missing. Finally, Scott broke the silence. “What are we going to do?”
Murdoch shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. Without knowing what the problem is, I don’t know if there’s anything we CAN do, even if we find him. And he certainly wasn’t willing to discuss it.”
Scott slammed his fork down in frustration. “Well I’m not going to just let him go without a fight.”
“Do you think I am?” Murdoch snapped. “We have to figure out what’s eating him.”
Scott snuck a quick look at Teresa, who sat with downcast eyes. “I think I know.”
Murdoch caught the look and nodded. “I think you might be right, but we don’t know for sure. Something is bothering him, and something is making him think that he messed up; that because of Madrid he made the wrong decision somewhere along the line.”
“But he DIDN’T!” Scott exploded. “He made the best decision he could, and we’re all alive. He can’t keep punishing himself for what MIGHT have happened.”
Murdoch sighed. “I think that’s JUST what he’s doing. Somehow he’s convinced himself that because of Madrid, he made a decision that Johnny Lancer never would have made.”
“That’s bull and you know it. I don’t care WHAT name he goes by, Johnny would do the right thing.”
Murdoch sighed. “I guess it depends on what you mean by the right thing. All I know is that WHOEVER made the decisions did the best he could to keep all of us alive, and he succeeded. He has no reason to feel guilty. I THOUGHT I’d already convinced him of that.”
“Well I KNOW I did. I know he was feeling better about it after we talked.”
Murdoch nodded. “He was. It wasn’t until Val showed up that he went off again.”
Scott frowned. “Do you think it was something else that Val said?”
Murdoch shook his head slowly. “I can’t imagine what it would be.” He thought back to the conversation. “Do you think he was upset because Amos was still alive?”
Scott shook his head and sighed. “I don’t know. And until we can find him and convince him to talk to us, we won’t know.” Scott stood up and headed for the front door and then turned toward his father. “I’m going into town. Maybe he talked to Val.”
Murdoch nodded. “I’ll go with you.”
When the two men went out the door they saw a buggy approaching. Shading his eyes, Murdoch made out the familiar figure of Sam sitting in the front. He waited until the doctor got within earshot and then greeted him. “Sam, what’re you doing here?”
“I was over at the Dixon’s place in Spanish Wells and I thought I’d stop by and check my out my worst patients.” He looked at Scott as he got down. “You feeling all right?” When Scott nodded, the doctor continued. “No more coughing, no fever?”
“I’m fine, honest.”
The doctor looked at him skeptically for a moment and then turned toward Murdoch. “His coughing’s all gone?”
Scott scowled at Sam’s obvious lack of trust. But Murdoch chuckled as he answered the doctor. “No. He’s fine. You don’t trust him, do you?”
Sam glared back at the second worst patient that he’d ever had. “Should I? Between the three of you, you’ve given me more gray hairs than all of my other patients combined.”
This time Scott chuckled as his father was included in Sam’s list. The doctor grabbed a stethoscope from his bag and came over to Scott. “Unbutton your shirt.”
Scott did as he was told and Sam placed the stethoscope on his patient’s chest. After listening for several moments, he smiled. “Your lungs sound clear. I was worried when you inhaled so much smoke.”
Scott nodded. “It wasn’t pleasant, I’ll give you that.”
Sam nodded grimly. “No, being caught in a fire never is. But dying from smoke inhalation is much more pleasant than dying from burns.”
Murdoch closed his eyes as his mind traveled back to that horrible day when he thought he’d lost his sons. Then he remembered that there had been another loss that day. “Is that how the café owner died? By smoke inhalation?”
Sam shook his head. “No. I examined the body. Mary was dead from a broken neck before the fire ever touched her.”
Murdoch shook his head. “What a waste.”
Sam nodded his head. “I heard the café was doing pretty good, too. It’s a shame.” Sam put away his stethoscope and then turned toward Murdoch. “How’s your back?”
“Fine.” The rancher mumbled. “I told you that the last time you were out.”
“Good. Since it’s fine reach down and touch your toes.”
Murdoch glared at the doctor while Scott was overcome with a fit of coughing that had nothing to do with his illness.
“I can’t do that even when my back ISN’T out, and I sure can’t do it now.” Murdoch thundered.
Sam chuckled. “You’re getting careless. You just admitted your back’s still not good.”
Murdoch sighed. “Look Sam, it’s better. Save the tricks for Johnny.”
Sam looked around. “All right. How is my worst patient doing?”
Immediately Murdoch face turned dark. “Last time I saw him he was fine.”
“What do you mean, ‘Last time you saw him?’”
Murdoch sighed. “We can’t find him. He left yesterday and we don’t know where he went, but we do know something was bothering him. Scott and I were just going to go look for him.”
Sam looked at them seriously. “Well, I think you’re right. Something is bothering him. And you might want to try Green River.”
“Why?” Scott asked.
“Because Mark Dixon rode into Green River this morning to get me some medication I needed for his boy. He said he saw Johnny going into the Catholic Church. I thought he’d be home by now.”
“What on earth would he be doing there?” Murdoch asked.
Sam looked at him in surprise. “Well now why do you think people usually go to church?”
Amos sat in the cell and stared out the securely barred window, trying desperately to think of a way out of his cell. He had been thinking about it almost continually, but so far he hadn’t come up with a workable plan. The jail was well built and the sheriff maddeningly competent. All he needed was one little break, but so far that hadn’t happened.
He was angry with himself for allowing Murdoch Lancer to escape unscathed. He hadn’t wanted to actually kill him, but he had at least wanted to put a bullet in him to make him suffer a little bit. He hadn’t counted on that damn sheriff interfering. Amos had seen the sheriff, along with most of the residents of the town, enter the church earlier and he’d dismissed him as being out of the picture. Amos had figured he’d have time to start the fire, shoot Lancer and get clean away before church was over, but that stupid sheriff must have left the service early, just like the Lancers.
He had made the very serious mistake of not seeing the lawman in time. In fact, he had been so focused on Lancer that he hadn’t seen the sheriff at all. He had finally gotten a bead on the elder Lancer and had been just about to pull the trigger when he’d felt the bullet hit his chest.
He had thought that at least ONE thing had gone right, though. Before he’d passed out, he’d managed to look over at the café and had been pleased to know that at least part of his plan had worked. No one could have survived that inferno. When he had been shooting at Lancer, he had seen young, dark haired man break away from the rancher and head into the building. Amos had been glad to let him go. One more person for Murdoch Lancer to lose. Amos had lost consciousness feeling content that at least he had gotten some revenge before he died.
When he had finally come to with his chest aching like it was on fire, he was alone in a jail cell. He had been weak and in pain and he had called out for help, but no one had come. Someone had obviously taken care of the wound and bandaged him, but he needed something for the pain. He had tried to drag himself to his feet, but he had given up and fallen back on the cot, panting heavily and feeling very sorry for himself.
He had drifted in and out and it was quite a while later before he came to again, only to look up and see the sheriff looking at him with a decidedly unfriendly expression on his face. The lawman was holding a tray of food, which he plopped down on the cot next to Amos. “Here. Enjoy.”
Amos looked down at some tasteless looking gruel and some bread that had obviously seen better days and had been angry. “Hey! I need something better to eat than this slop!”
Val calmly looked at the man. “Well, next time if ya want somethin’ better ta eat, don’t burn down the only café in town.” Val took a step closer and stood over the man threateningly. “And don’t EVER mess with my friends.”
Amos smirked at the lawman. “Guess you don’t have many friends left, do ya? Poor Lancer lost his son and his daughter.”
Val stared at Jackson then said quietly, “If Lancer HAD lost his kids, then you wouldn’t a had ta worry about eatin’ slop. In fact, your worries woulda been over.”
Amos’ eyes narrowed. “What do you mean IF he’d lost them? They’re dead. I saw the building. NO one could have lived through that. You’re just messin’ with me.”
Val smiled. “Nope. I’m happy ta say they’re alive and well. ALL of them. Your plan was a miserable failure.”
“All of them?” he asked suspiciously.
At Val’s nod, Amos realized the mistake he’d made. “That dark haired kid is Lancer’s son, too?”
Val nodded and Amos sent the food tray flying into the air in a fit of temper. “I should have killed him when I had the chance. I should have put a bullet in his heart.”
Val snorted. “THAT, my friend, is easier said than done. And by the way, he’s the one that got his brother out. You can thank him for messin’ up your plans.”
“Don’t worry, I plan to,” Amos had snarled.
Val laughed. “Sure you will. But you’re gonna have ta do it from your grave; the judge will be out in a couple of weeks, and you’re gonna hang for murder, among other things.”
Amos looked back sullenly. “I need a doctor. I need something for the pain.”
Val gazed at him coldly. “The doctor’s busy right now. He’ll get over here when he can, but right now you’re not exactly at the top of his list. You’ll just have ta suffer for a while.” Val had turned and walked out of the cell, clanging the door shut behind him.
Since that day, the sheriff had barely acknowledged him. He brought him meals and stood guard as the Doc tended to his wound, but that was all. And the doctor, although not unkind, certainly wasn’t as gentle as he could have been. He was also awfully stingy with the pain medication. And the food still hadn’t improved. Amos felt a cold fury at being treated so badly. Murdoch Lancer was the one who was supposed to suffer, not him. Somehow he would make sure he got his revenge. He knew he’d probably hang, but it would be worth it if he knew that he’d ruined his enemy’s life.
Like a trapped animal, he jumped up and walked around the cell again, looking desperately for any way out. He had checked the bars on the window and on the door dozens of times, but they were solid. And that Sheriff wasn’t going to give him a break. The man looked like an incompetent slob, but Amos had to admit the man knew his job. The lawman never got careless and never trusted Amos one bit. Amos shook his head; SOMETHING would happen to give him a break, it had to. There was no way he was going to die before he’d accomplished his mission.
Val was in a foul mood. Every part of his soul screamed at him to kill the man sitting in his jail cell, but his conscience wouldn’t let him do it. Amos Jackson had almost killed his best friend and his family, and he HAD murdered Mary Sommers. Val was frustrated that he couldn’t even have the satisfaction of giving the man a black eye. If the truth were known, he was a little bit afraid that if he started in on him he just might not be able to stop. He knew his temper would get the best of him, and that’s why he had been doing his best to ignore the prisoner. He snorted. There were times when he wished he were just a little bit more like Madrid. He knew Madrid wouldn’t let the man get to him.
He glanced at the clock on the wall and wondered where Sam was. He usually came by in the morning to check out the prisoner, but it was almost noon and there was no sign of him. Personally, if he were the Doc, he would have let the man bleed to death that first day, and he sure wouldn’t be in such a gol-danged rush ta make sure he was feelin’ ok. Val sighed, he guessed Sam’s hands were tied on the matter just as much as his own were.
He sat for a few minutes, wondering if he should wait for Sam, but his stomach told him that it was lunchtime, and he never argued with his stomach. With a sigh, Val lurched to his feet and stretched before walking back to the cell. Amos was sitting propped up against the wall, his usual sullen expression firmly in place. Val watched the man for a moment but the prisoner never looked up. Finally Val spoke. “I’m gonna go get ya somethin’ ta eat.” Val smiled. He may not be able to give the prisoner a black eye, but the least he could do was to annoy him. “How about a steak, nice and rare, about an inch thick? I think that’s what I’ll have for lunch. Maybe I’ll have some onions ta go with it, and of course, a shot of tequila will taste mighty good.”
Amos merely turned his head toward the wall, and Val walked out chuckling. At least baiting Amos had made him feel a LITTLE bit better. Val knew he was being childish, but he didn’t want the man to be too comfortable, not after what he had done. Val headed for the saloon, where he sat down and, contrary to what he told Amos, ordered a sandwich. Steaks were just too darn expensive. After he’d eaten, he asked the bartender to bring him whatever food he had that he was sure the prisoner wouldn’t like. The bartender was glad to oblige; Mary had been a friend.
After Val got the food, he walked slowly back toward the jail. He wasn’t in a hurry; if the food was cold when the prisoner got it Val certainly wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, and he still needed to keep an eye on his town. Guarding Jackson had put a serious crimp in the time he had to spend patrolling, and the powers that be sure weren’t likely to spend the money to get him a deputy.
He glanced down the street toward the church and saw Barranca still tied up outside. He considered walking over to see if there was something wrong, but figured Johnny just might want to talk to the Padre alone. Whatever it was, it sure was taking a long time. The horse had been there for several hours. Val looked worriedly toward the church for several moments before turning and walking away. He’d check again in a little while; if Barranca was still there in an hour, Val just might take another walk in the direction of the church.
He walked back into the office a few minutes later and put the food down on the desk and scrounged for a tray. After arranging the food on the tray, Val picked it up and headed toward the back.
“I’ve got your food here. You might not like it very much; it’s probably cold by now. I sure enjoyed my steak though.” He walked toward the cell and stopped cold. The prisoner had taken off his shirt and knotted it around his throat and then around one of the bars in the window, managing to hang himself. With an oath, Val flung the food down and headed for the cell. He quickly unlocked the cell door and ran to the man, struggling to untie the knots, but they’d been pulled tight with the man’s weight. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife and sawed at the material until it finally gave.
Amos fell limply to the floor and Val reached down to check his pulse. After a moment he found one, and he grabbed Amos under the arms and dragged him to the cot. He wrestled the man onto the cot, and then loosened the material from around the man’s neck, cursing the whole time. He tossed what was left of the shirt on the cot and then turned to leave to try and find Sam.
As he turned, Amos jumped up and grabbed the shirt. Before Val could fully turn back toward him, Amos tossed the shirt around Val’s neck and pulled. Val grabbed first at the shirt, but after several long moments he realized that it was too tight to get a grip. He changed tactics and reached for the gun strapped to his side, cursing himself for being so stupid. He knew he’d have to hurry, he was beginning to black out and the thought of what Amos would do to both him and anyone else who got in his way spurred him to try harder. His groping fingers finally tightened around the butt of his revolver, but as he drew it from the holster, darkness overcame him and he sank to his knees and finally the floor.
When Amos was sure that the lawman was unconscious, he pulled the gun from Val’s limp fingers, then stood up and aimed at the lawman’s inert form. Val never felt the shot as it tore through his chest toward his heart.
Sam rode into town with Murdoch and Scott. They had wanted to check up on Johnny and make sure he wasn’t planning on leaving, and the doctor thought that was an entirely prudent idea. Sam knew how hard the last several weeks had been on the whole family. He prayed that it wouldn’t leave any lasting scars on any of them, but he knew that Johnny was a little more fragile emotionally than the rest of them. He wasn’t sure why Johnny was so upset, but he figured it was because of something that had happened in the café that day.
Murdoch had told Sam during the ride into town that he had gotten inside the café just as Johnny would have been forced to make a decision about which one of his family to try to get out. Sam had a sneaking suspicion the decision that Johnny had made by himself was the cause of his guilt. It wouldn’t matter WHOM Johnny had decided to leave, Sam was sure the boy was eaten up with guilt over it. But Johnny had to be made to realize that it wasn’t his fault; that he was put in a no win situation and had done the best he could. Sam just hoped that someone could make him see that before it destroyed him. He hoped that the talk with the priest had helped, or they just might wind up losing him yet.
When they finally reached Green River, Sam headed toward the middle of town and his office, while Murdoch and Scott went straight toward the church. Sam guided his buggy to the shed in back of the office and proceeded to take care of his mare, Bessie.
Johnny had given Bessie to Sam soon after Johnny’s arrival at the ranch, to replace the Doctor’s aging gelding. Sam had come out to Lancer to check Scott for a possible concussion after he had taken a bad fall during round up. Johnny had complained about the time it had taken the doctor to get out to the ranch, and Sam had blamed the slow speed of his ancient horse for his tardiness. When it was time to leave, the Doctor had been startled to find a young mare in old Napoleon’s place, and a very smug looking Johnny daring him to say anything about it. Sam had accepted the gift gratefully, and the young gunfighter and the doctor had taken one more step toward a firm friendship.
Sam smiled as he remembered the incident. Since then, he and Bessie had traveled many long miles together, and he always made sure she was taken care of. Amos could wait a few more minutes. After he was done bedding the mare down, he looked toward the jail where he knew Val was waiting. The Doctor was tired and hungry; Murdoch and Scott must have really been upset, because they hadn’t offered him anything to eat, and he’d been counting on getting a decent breakfast at Lancer. Instead, they had both headed toward their horses soon after he had arrived and Sam had decided to ride along with them for the company.
He wavered there for a few moments, and then turned toward the house. A few minutes one way of the other wouldn’t matter. He went in and fixed something to eat and put his feet up for a few moments while he are his lunch. After he ate he felt sleepy, which wasn’t surprising; he had stayed up all night with Marty Dixon who had started to run a high fever after breaking his leg. He sat for a moment, telling himself that he really needed to get to Val’s, but exhaustion won out. He let his head start to nod. Val and Amos could wait for a little while longer. After all, it wasn’t like anyone was dying.
Scott and Murdoch pulled their horses to a halt in front of the church. They saw the familiar Palomino tied up to a tree on the shady side of the building and gratefully stepped off of their own horses. Leading them over to the tree, they tied the horses up next to Barranca and then stood looking at each other.
Scott glanced toward the church. “Well, should we go in?”
Murdoch thought about it a minute. “I don’t think so. He’s probably talking to the priest, and maybe the Good Father will be able to convince him he has done nothing wrong.”
Scott scowled, remembering a few comments he had heard the old priest make about his brother. “Or he could convince him he’s the ‘spawn of the devil’ and Johnny could take off.”
Murdoch looked sharply at his elder son. “Where did you hear that?”
Scott sighed and looked away from his father. He had promised Johnny he wouldn’t tell Murdoch what the priest had called him. “Nowhere.”
Murdoch stared at his son before shaking his head. “Uh huh.” He looked around toward the church. “I heard that Father Garcia is a fair man, not like Father John, thank God. Besides, Johnny won’t leave without Barranca, and he’ll have to get by us first if he plans to take off.”
Murdoch went over to a bench underneath the tree and sat down. “All we can do now is wait and hope that Father Garcia talked some sense into your brother.”
With a sigh, Scott went over and sat next to his father and settled down to wait.
Sam came abruptly awake, a little disoriented and slightly confused. He sat up and stretched, and then got up and grabbed his medical bag. He felt much better after his nap, and he left the house humming to himself. As he walked toward the jail, he looked over to the church and saw that there were now three Lancer horses tied up next to the building. He smiled to himself; if Johnny WAS planning on leaving, he was in for a fight.
He threw open the door of the sheriff’s office. “Val, you can wake up now, I came to check out the prisoner.”
As he entered the building, he realized that his little joke had gone unappreciated, because Val didn’t appear to be there. Evidently the lawman had gotten tired of waiting and had gone to get something to eat. Well, he’d just go in the back and talk to Jackson while he waited for the sheriff to get back.
He had only taken a few steps before he saw the sheriff lying in an alarmingly large puddle of blood on the floor of the jail. Sam rushed inside the cell and turned Val over. He saw where the bullet had hit, and he sat back in shock as the reality of what his decision to take a little nap had cost.
Amos ducked inside the livery stable to find a horse so he could get out of this town. He still wanted revenge, but he knew it would probably have to wait. He had murdered the sheriff in cold blood, and he knew what his fate would be. If they caught him now, they would lynch him for sure. He needed to get out of this two –bit town, and fast.
Even though there were very few people around, he couldn’t take the chance of being seen by someone and besides, there was no reason to stay. He doubted if any of the Lancers would cooperate with his plan by riding into town today. He smiled at that thought, but he knew he wouldn’t be that lucky. In fact, he wondered if his luck had finally run out. He looked around at the horses in the livery and grimaced. None of them were worth the hay that it took to keep them. He was on the run and needed a better mount.
After looking around one more time in the hopes he’d overlooked a good horse, he finally realized he’d have to look elsewhere. He carefully looked around before he slipped out the big double doors of the livery and headed down the street. He had only gone a few dozen yards when he stopped and stared at three horses tied up bedside the church. Ducking down behind a parked wagon, he looked around until he spotted the owners of two of the horses. He grinned as he realized that maybe his luck hadn’t deserted him after all. He had recognized the horses from the few times he had seen the men ride into town since the fire. He smiled and sat down to think of a plan. This time, there would be no mistakes and he would finally get the revenge his father and he had worked toward for so long. He made a silent promise to his father and Cory; Lancer WOULD pay before Amos died.
Sam felt Val’s neck and after what seemed like forever he finally found a weak thready pulse. The lawman was barely breathing, and Sam half expected his friend to simply die as he watched. The guilt about what he had done was already gnawing at the Doctor, but he couldn’t stop to address it right now. Val needed his help and Sam couldn’t succumb to his guilt until he had done everything he could to help his friend. There would be plenty of time for self-recrimination later.
He looked down at the lawman’s white face and realized he didn’t have much time. Val had already lost a huge amount of blood, and if he was going to have any chance at all of pulling through this, the bleeding had to be stopped as soon as possible. But Sam knew he couldn’t do it by himself. He had to get Val over to his office where he could operate and try to stop the bleeding. He just hoped the bullet hadn’t actually nicked the sheriff’s heart or a major blood vessel, or there would be nothing he could do. Sam realized he needed to get help, and fast. He fashioned a pressure bandage around Val’s chest to try to slow the bleeding and then he turned and ran for the door. Once outside he looked around, but the streets were deserted. After a moment’s panic however, he realized that he knew where at least three people were and started running toward the church.
Johnny dipped his fingers in the font of Holy Water by the door of the church and crossed himself. He hesitated just inside the door, thinking about everything the priest had said. He still felt guilty about what he had done, but he wasn’t planning on leaving; the Father had done a good job of talking him out of that. He’d just have to learn to live with his guilt. What the priest COULDN’T help him with however, was knowing if he had made the decision to leave the woman because of Madrid, and if he had, could he ever change. The priest hadn’t really been helpful about that part. He had simply told Johnny that he would have to keep trying and that the road wouldn’t be easy. Johnny snorted. He already knew that. But Father Garcia had told him that if he kept trying one day he would know for sure just who and what he was.
Right now, he planned on trying to be Johnny Lancer. He just hoped he could, and that he wasn’t proven wrong about who he really was. The priest had at least given him hope. Father Garcia had talked to him for several hours, addressing his problems and calming his fears. He had heard Johnny’s confession, and had imposed a surprisingly light penance for his sins. Johnny smiled, the priest probably didn’t want to stay there for the rest of his life listing the things that Johnny would need to do to gain forgiveness and had simply taken the easy way out.
Johnny stepped out of the dark church and into the bright sunlight and immediately caught sight of his father and brother waiting for him. He sighed and walked toward the bench they were sitting on. He knew he owed them an apology for the way he had acted toward them when they were trying to help, and now was as good a time as any. He watched his father and brother as he walked over toward them, studying their faces for a clue to their moods. He was unsure until he saw Scott’s smile, and then he knew it would be all right. He walked over to the still seated men and bumped his brother over a few feet. “Mind if I sit down?” He looked over at his father and received a grin. Ducking his head, he silently thanked the priest for his lecture, and began to talk to his father and brother.
At the sound of running feet approaching, all three men looked up and were surprised to see Sam sprinting toward them. They shot to their feet and watched as he rushed by a wagon parked by the hitching rail of a store. Suddenly he seemed to trip and went flying into the dirt. The men started running toward him when Amos leaped toward the Doctor, a pistol in his hand. He immediately pointed it at Sam’s head, then looked up and smiled.
The three Lancers skidded to a stop and stared at the man from their nightmares. Amos grinned wider as Sam started to get up. Amos shoved the old Doctor back into the dirt and Johnny involuntarily took a step forward. In reply, Amos cocked the pistol and stared at Johnny. “Back off, boy, or I’ll put a bullet through his head right now.”
Johnny felt the anger rising in his chest. “He didn’t do nothin’. Let him go.”
Amos shrugged. “Neither did that lady in the café, but I broke her neck anyway. She just had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Johnny froze as the words the man was saying registered in his brain. The woman was already dead? It had been so dark and smoky in the cafe that he couldn’t tell. He hadn’t had time to check for a pulse or to see if she was breathing. He felt a huge weight lift off of him as he realized that he hadn’t killed her after all; he wasn’t a murderer. He shivered slightly when he realized that he had considered, although briefly, leaving his brother there to save the lady. He said a prayer of thanks that he hadn’t made that decision and doomed his brother to die for a woman who was already dead.
Amos caught the shiver and laughed, taunting him. “Scared?”
Scott also caught the shiver and wondered what had caused it. But he didn’t make the mistake of thinking Johnny was scared. He knew what was coming, but he still watched his brother in wonder as the transformation took place.
Johnny took a deep breath and slowly raised his cold blue eyes until they were locked relentlessly on Jackson’s gray ones. Amos saw the change and looked warily back at the dark haired young man. He was confused; it was if someone had changed the rules in the middle of the game. He watched the man closely, and then decided to stop the stare down.
“You’d better back off, or I’ll kill the good doctor. Now drop your guns! All of you!”
Sam managed to raise his head. “Don’t do it!” He got out before Amos hit him in the back of the head and Sam fell back without a sound.
When Jackson turned the gun to hit the Doctor, Johnny saw his chance and drew. He couldn’t hit where he wanted to, Amos was too close to Sam, but it was good enough. Amos never even saw it coming and let out a howl of pain as the bullet hit him in the shoulder and spun him around, making him lose his grip on the gun. The revolver flew into the dirt and Amos sank down next to the wagon. Johnny went over and kicked the gun away from Amos and then turned his attention to Sam.
Scott knelt down and picked the Doctor’s head up, checking the back of his head for blood, and thankfully finding none. But Sam was deeply unconscious and a large bump was already forming on the back of his head.
From the wagon, Amos started laughing and they all turned to stare at the deranged man. He continued for several moments, and then pointed at them.
“You think you’ve won?” He laughed again. “The Doc there won’t live, I hit him hard enough to make sure of that. I heard his skull crack. Didn’t you hear it?” He laughed once more. “And how do you think I got out of that jail? You think somebody gave me a key?” he smirked. “Your pet sheriff fell for the oldest trick in the book. I pretended to hang myself and he came running right in, trying to save me. Oh I got even with him, all right. I taught him not to mess with Amos Jackson. I strangled him, and then I put a bullet through his heart for good measure. He’s lyin’ dead in his own blood over at the jail.”
Johnny felt an icy rage as the man’s words registered. This monster had killed two of the best friends he had ever had, and by God, he was going to pay for it. He wasn’t going to wait around for a jury to decide. The man was going to pay now, and Johnny was going to collect. This man should never have messed with him; he had had enough. Johnny got up and walked over until he was only a few feet from Jackson and then pulled out his gun.
As soon as his son drew his gun, Murdoch realized what he was going to do. “JOHNNY, NO!” Murdoch shouted. “Don’t do it!”
Scott took a step toward his brother, and Johnny glanced over and shook his head. “Stay right there, Scott. You’re not gonna stop this. He deserves it.”
Scott watched Johnny Madrid with a sinking feeling that he was finally going to lose his brother. “Johnny, please, don’t.” Scott pleaded. “I know he deserves it, but you don’t. They’ll hang you for murder.”
Amos laughed once more, delighting in the thought of Johnny hanging for killing him. Murdoch Lancer would suffer after all, but he had to make sure the dark haired man went though with it. He smiled at Johnny “Don’t worry, Mr. Lancer, he won’t do it. He doesn’t have the guts.”
As if in a dream, Johnny raised the gun until it was aimed at Jackson’s head. He shut out the voices pleading for him to stop and concentrated on what he was going to do. He was going to kill this enemy, this man who deserved to die, and he didn’t care if he had to go to Hell because of it. He didn’t care if he was hanged because of it. He was going to get revenge for his friends and for everything this man had put his family and friends through.
Murdoch watched in horror as Johnny slowly pulled back the hammer, and he heard the deafening sound of it being cocked. He took a step toward his son, but both he and Scott were too far away to stop it.
“JOHNNY! DON’T! HE’S NOT WORTH IT! If you do this, you’ll be as bad as he is! You’ll be a MURDERER!”
Johnny hesitated a moment as he thought about what Scott had just said then smiled at Amos. “Care to beg?” he asked.
“Go to Hell,” Amos snarled.
“I plan on it,” Johnny replied as he pulled the trigger.
“I plan on it,” Johnny said softly. “But not because of you.”
Amos looked up at the man who had just put a bullet close enough to his head to part his hair. “I hate you!! You were supposed to kill me! I NEEDED you to kill me! I needed you to hang so I’d get my revenge! I needed to make your father suffer like my father did! He needed to lose one of you! It isn’t fair!” Amos tried to scramble to his feet, but he was too weak and fell back into the dirt as Johnny stood watching him impartially.
Scott and Murdoch looked at each other and said a short prayer of thanks that they had been able to keep Johnny from killing Jackson. They both knew how close it had been, and how close they had come to losing Johnny forever.
Johnny looked at each of them and said softly, “Thanks.”
Murdoch and Scott nodded shakily, and then went over and knelt next to Sam. After going over and picking up Jackson’s gun and taking a quick look to make sure Jackson wasn’t going anywhere, Johnny joined them. He looked at his brother. “Can you and Murdoch get Sam over to his office? I’m going to take Amos over to the jail and lock him up and…..check on Val.”
Murdoch immediately started to protest but Johnny shook his head. “Don’t worry, I won’t kill this idiot.” He looked at Amos. “But I can’t promise I’ll be real gentle, either.” He looked back at his father and said softly, “Don’t worry about me, I won’t hurt him. Now go take care of Sam.”
Reluctantly, Scott and Murdoch picked the Doctor up and headed to his office, while Johnny turned toward Amos. “On your feet,” he ordered coldly.
Amos just sat there glaring at his enemy. “I ain’t movin.”
Johnny shrugged. “We can do this easy or hard. One way or the other, you’re goin. And hurry up; I don’t have time ta play your games.”
Jackson looked into Johnny’s hard eyes and reluctantly got to his feet, complaining the whole time. “I’m bleedin’ to death and you’re making me walk. I’ll make sure everyone knows how I was treated in this town.” He took several steps and then looked around at the crowd that had gathered. “I need a doctor. I’m bleeding to death and this guy’s making me walk. If I die, it’ll be murder!” He kept raving to a very unsympathetic crowd as he stumbled toward the jail. Halfway there he stumbled and went to his knees, and Johnny grabbed him and dragged the man the rest of the way into the jail while Amos cursed him soundly.
Johnny stopped long enough at Val’s desk to pick up a pair of handcuffs, and he attached one side to Jackson’s wrist and the other side to one of the bars of the cell. Amos immediately started complaining about having to sit on the floor instead of the cot and started screaming that he needed something for the pain. After Johnny was sure Amos wasn’t going anywhere, he knelt down next to Val. Swallowing hard, he felt for a pulse and was both surprised and relieved that he found one. He scooped his friend up and headed out the door, with Jackson’s curses ringing in his ears. On the way out, he ran into Bill Perkins and Johnny nodded toward the very vocal prisoner.
“Keep an eye on him, willya? And if he tries anything, shoot him.”
Bill looked at the still bleeding sheriff and nodded angrily. “Don’t worry, I will.”
Johnny burst into Sam’s office with the unconscious sheriff, and laid him on a bed in the office next to Sam. “He’s alive,” he announced. “But the bullet needs to come out. He’s still bleedin’.”
Murdoch looked at Val and shook his head. “Sam’s starting to come around, but I doubt if he’ll be in any shape to operate anytime soon.”
“He has to!” Johnny shouted. “I’m not gonna let my friend bleed ta death.”
“Johnny, Sam won’t be able to. He has a concussion, at least,” Scott said quietly.
Johnny looked at the two men in frustration. “If Val dies, so help me, I’m gonna go over to the jail and make sure that Amos fella follows him.……”
“You’ll do no such thing!” His father shouted. “And you know it. Stop thinking about revenge and start doing something constructive.”
“Like WHAT?” Johnny exploded.
“Like taking out that bullet,” Murdoch said softly.
Johnny stared back at his father. “I can’t.”
“Yes you can. You’ve taken out plenty of bullets.”
Johnny started to look panicky. “Not like this. This is too close to his heart.”
Murdoch didn’t back down. “You have to. You’re the only one here with enough experience to be able to do it.”
Johnny closed his eyes. He knew his father was right; he had taken out more than his fair share of bullets in his life, a lot of them from his own body. But this one was bad, and he had the feeling he would kill his friend if he tried. “And what if I mess up?” he asked his father pleadingly. “I don’t know if I could handle that. Maybe we can keep him alive until Sam can do it.”
“Maybe we can. Look at him; what do you think? Johnny, all you can do is your best. If you mess up then Val will die. But are you willing to make that decision just because you’re afraid? Are you willing to condemn him to death just because you’re afraid of making the wrong decision? Because you can’t live with the guilt if something goes wrong? All of us face decisions every day. All of us make decisions that affect other people every day. You can’t live your life constantly second-guessing yourself or you’ll end up as crazy as the Jacksons. All you can do is make the best decision you can at the time and pray that it works out.”
Johnny stared at his father for a moment and felt a knot loosen inside him as he realized his father was right, not just about this but about all of the decisions he had made. He nodded reluctantly. “All right, I’ll try, but I’ll need some help.”
Sam slowly fought his way toward consciousness. He felt disoriented and confused, but he knew there was some reason he needed to be awake. He moaned slightly, and at once he heard a familiar voice reassuring him that everything was going to be all right. ‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ he thought as he struggled to open his eyes. Finally he got them to work, and Murdoch’s face swam into view. Sam squinted to try to make the apparition clearer, and after several moments it worked. He smiled weakly at his friend but something was still bothering him. Something lurking just beneath the surface of his memory. He fought to remember, but his head ached and he gave up for the time being.
“How’re you feeling?” Murdoch asked.
“Fine,” Sam answered automatically.
Murdoch chuckled. “You HAVE been spending too much time around the boys, haven’t you? Now how do you REALLY feel?”
“Lousy,” Sam admitted with a sigh.
Murdoch nodded. “You had us all worried, but I guess I should have known just how hard your head was.”
Sam glared at his friend’s attempted levity and shut his eyes once more to try to stop the room from spinning. Suddenly his eyes popped back open. “Val…” he breathed and tried to sit up.
Murdoch pushed him back down. “Johnny’s taking the bullet out now,” he said.
Sam’s eyes widened in alarm. “Johnny?”
Murdoch nodded. “He’s had the most experience at it, and you know it.” Sam tried once more to sit up, but Murdoch’s firm grip held him down. Sam looked at his friend in alarm. “The bullet’s right next to the heart, if it didn’t actually graze it. He’s going to need help or Val will die.” He looked at Murdoch meaningfully. “And I don’t know if Johnny can handle that right now. Do you?”
Murdoch shook his head. “He’s not going to have a lot of choice. You’re too weak to operate and you know it. Look at your hands.”
Sam looked down and made a conscious effort to try to stop his hands from shaking, but he wasn’t very successful. Sighing, he relaxed back against the pillow. “Some surgeon I am, I look like I have palsy.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Sam, I know first hand just how good a surgeon you are, remember? As soon as you’re feeling better you’ll be back to your old self.”
Sam looked at his friend glumly. “That might not be soon enough.”
Murdoch clasped his hand on the old Doctor’s shoulder. “Rest, old friend. It’s out of your hands.”
Sam’s eyebrows went up. “Then you’d better hope that it’s in God’s, because Johnny can’t do it alone.”
Murdoch looked toward the back room where his sons were battling to save Val’s life, and sent a quick prayer for their success. Sam was right. If Val died while Johnny was operating, he didn’t know if his son could handle it after everything else that had happened.
Johnny looked down at the peaceful form of his friend. At least Val was unconscious and Johnny wouldn’t have to deal with trying to hold him down while he worked. Thank goodness for small favors. He looked up and caught Scott’s eyes before picking up the knife. Taking a deep breath, he bent over his friend and started to cut.
Johnny tried to follow the path that the bullet had taken, but it was hard to tell. There was so much blood he had to try to feel his way along, and it took him several tries before he was convinced he had the right angle. Slowly he inched his knife deeper, and then suddenly stopped. He shot Scott a panicked look. “I’m right next to his heart. I can feel it beating against the knife.”
Scott swallowed hard. “Do you feel the bullet?”
Johnny shook his head. “No.”
“You’ll have to go deeper.”
“Scott, I can’t. I’d have to go right along side his heart. If I slip even a little bit……’ Johnny’s voice trailed off.
“You HAVE to!” Scott exploded. “It’s the only chance Val has. If you don’t, he’ll die anyway.”
While holding the knife as still as he could with his right hand, Johnny brought his left arm up from beside the table and showed Scott his hand. It was trembling uncontrollably. “Still think I should?” he asked sarcastically.
Scott closed his eyes. Things were going from bad to worse. “Johnny, there’s no one else. You HAVE to do this for Val.” He stared at his brother. “After all of this, are you willing to let that bastard in the jail win? Don’t you think that saving Val’s life will be more punishment to Jackson than if you’d killed him? Don’t you want to get even?”
Johnny gazed at his brother for another second, and then with a swallow, he looked back down at his friend. After a second, he lowered his head once more to the delicate task.
Sam looked around cautiously. He had told Murdoch he needed some water, and his friend had gone in the back to get him some. He only had a few minutes, but with any luck, that’s all he would need. He knew just how delicate the surgery Johnny was performing could be, and he had no intention of letting Johnny live the rest of his life thinking he’d killed his friend. Sam knew that Val’s chances even with a top surgeon operating were slim.
He lurched to his feet and stood swaying for a moment before easing his body forward. Using the support of every piece of furniture in the room, he made his way unsteadily to the closed door leading to the room he used for surgeries. Panting heavily, he finally got close enough to yank it open and he stepped inside.
He stopped in dread when he looked up at the two men standing by the table, Val’s still form between them. Both of them had stricken looks on their faces. Johnny had a tear running down his cheek as he lifted an object up for Sam to see. “I got it, Sam. I got the bullet out.” He dropped his eyes to Val. “But he didn’t make it. He’s dead.”
Johnny looked over at the tough looking, unshaven man across from him and frowned. The man grinned a predatory smile at the gunhawk. The man knew that he held all of the cards this time, and Johnny was pretty sure he was right. Johnny dropped his head for a moment, thinking about his options. It was an impossible decision, one with unthinkable consequences, and he wasn’t going to be hurried while he desperately tried to think of a way out of this mess.
Johnny’s mind flashed back to eight months ago, when other impossible decisions had come close to destroying his family. First Ben, and then Amos, had forced all three of the Lancer men to make choices that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. Both of the Jackson men had paid the ultimate price for their deeds, but the Lancers had paid a heavy price, too. For a while, Johnny wasn’t sure that he could get past the choices that had been made that day and the day at the shack, but with time he had. They all had.
He would always be tormented by the thought that he had been willing to leave a young woman to die in that inferno, but with the help of Father Garcia he had come to realize that leaving his own brother would have been just as bad. The Padre had told Johnny that sometimes there are no right decisions; just decisions you could live with. And Johnny knew without a doubt that leaving his brother to die to save the owner of the café wasn’t something he could have lived with.
He had never told either his father or his brother the real reason he had been so upset. They never knew that he had seen, and then left, the young woman, and Johnny had no intention of telling them. It was a secret that he would take to his grave. They had hinted that they thought he had been upset because of the choice that he had made over whether to save Teresa or Scott, and he hadn’t corrected them. But even though that decision would have haunted him until his dying day if he had actually had to carry it out, he knew in his heart that it had been the right one. A decision that, although difficult, he could eventually live with.
A gruff voice interrupted his thoughts. “Well, boy, you about ready to make your move?”
Johnny brought his gaze up, and ignoring his adversary for a moment, he studied Scott’s face. The small bead of sweat forming on his brother’s brow convinced Johnny that Scott was well aware of the odds, too. As the two men locked eyes, Johnny knew they were in agreement, as usual. His mind racing, Johnny knew just how much was at stake. He put on his best Madrid mask and slowly turned toward the man. He stared hard, but the other man didn’t flinch. Johnny flashed another glance at his brother and then swiftly made his move. Scott locked eyes on his brother for a second or two, a look of shock his face.
The man grinned an evil grin at Johnny. “One down, one to go.”
Johnny looked in sorrow at his brother, knowing that Scott was out of it and it was all up to him now. Johnny looked at his brother for another moment, and then turned his full attention on the man, still unsure as to which one of them would deliver the fatal blow. Johnny and the man locked eyes, each trying to read the other’s thoughts, and Johnny’s mind once more went back in time.
He had been ecstatic when he had gotten the bullet out of Val that day, but as he rolled it out with his knife, he had felt the last beat of his friend’s heart.. He had stood there in disbelief for a moment, willing the heart to start pumping again, but all he had felt was silence. He had looked up at his brother, hoping Scott would somehow have the answer, but all he saw in Scott’s eyes was a misery mirroring his own. He had dropped his eyes, trying to come to grips with the reality of his friend’s death, but finally realizing that he hadn’t made the wrong choice; that if he hadn’t at least tried, Val wouldn’t have had even that small chance Johnny had tried to give him. In a way it was a turning point. It had helped him realize that the priest was right; sometimes things just happen and the choices you make really don’t make any difference.
Johnny forced his mind back to the present. That WASN’T the case here. He needed to make a choice, and his decision would mean the difference between survival and oblivion. It might be too late for Scott, but he wasn’t going down without a fight.
The man’s voice interrupted once again. “Come on, Madrid. Make your move. I don’t have all day.”
After a second’s pause, Johnny finally pushed all the money in toward the center of the table. “Call.”
Val threw down his three aces and chortled with glee at Johnny’s forlorn expression. “Looks like you’re out a month’s pay.”
Johnny threw down his cards and glared at his friend. “Ya know, there are times when I wish Sam hadn’t a come in when he did that day. Besides, I don’t know how he could have gotten your heart goin’ again when YOU DON’T HAVE ONE!”
Val grinned at his friends, knowing that for all the theatrics, they really weren’t THAT upset. Both Scott and Johnny knew that Val’s poker earnings went to help take care of the orphans. In fact, there were times that the sheriff was deeply suspicious that they just might be losing on purpose.
“Buy ya a drink?” He asked the two brothers. Johnny and Scott nodded and headed toward the bar. Val hung back for a moment and snuck a quick look at the cards Johnny had thrown down. He shook his head when he saw the Full House, and hurried to the bar.
By the tine he got there, the bartender had already poured three drinks. Val lifted his glass. “To friends.”
Johnny nodded, and after a quick glance at his brother, he made his own toast as he raised his glass. “To decisions we can live with.”
Val and Scott looked at him quizzically for a moment, and then smiled and raised their glasses.