Scott yanked at the chain that was wrapped around the fallen tree and quickly inspected the ropes that were attached to it. With a wave of his hand, he signaled Cipriano to start the team that would haul the huge log up the side of the mountain. He watched as the tree slowly began its ascent, smashing the shrubbery and making deep gouges in the mud as it moved.
Scott took off his hat and wiped his brow. It was hot work, but they had a contract that needed to be filled, and the torrential rains that had fallen for several weeks had put them well behind schedule. The heat, as well as the sticky mud left over from the rains, was putting them even further behind.
He and Johnny had already cleared most of one slope, but because they were running so far behind, Murdoch had pulled Johnny off of this job and assigned him to another. Scott had been disappointed; he enjoyed working with his brother, and the day always seemed to go quicker when Johnny was around. Cipriano had taken his brother’s place the last several days, and Scott had to admit that working with Cipriano hadn’t been too bad. The segundo knew what he was doing, and had many tricks to make the work easier.
Scott looked down the slope, hoping to catch sight of his brother. Johnny was busy moving a herd to a different pasture, but he had managed to catch up with Scott almost every day so the two could have lunch together. Scott was starving and ready for a break, but judging by the sun, he had at least an hour to wait. He sighed and looked around for the next log, then walked over and began hooking up the chains. He already felt as if he’d put in a full day’s work, but out here, a man worked from sunup to sundown.
There were a lot of things that were done differently out here. Scott looked ruefully down at his clothes. He was muddy and absolutely filthy, something that would never happen back in Boston, but there was no place he’d rather be than here. Until he came to Lancer, he had been adrift, with nothing to look forward to and no real challenge in his life to keep him occupied. He had had everything he needed; at least that was what he had thought.
When the Pinkerton agent had approached him and told him of Murdoch’s offer, he had agreed to come on a whim, simply because he was completely bored with his life. He had fully expected to come to California, meet his father, tell him to go to hell, and then return to Boston and his boring life. That had been his plan, right up until the moment he had found out he had a brother, and then suddenly all of his plans had flown right out the window.
Scott has stayed because he wanted to get to know Johnny, and the more he found out about him, the more he wanted to know him even better. They had been at the ranch for almost six months, and there was still a lot about his brother that he didn’t know. One thing he DID know was how close they had become in those few months. He was closer to Johnny and trusted him more than anyone he had ever known.
In the six months he had been here, he had come to love this land, and knew this would always be his home. There had been a time when, in spite of his brother, he had thought he would never fit in here. Initially, the vaqueros had treated him with disdain, and a few were openly hostile. Johnny on the other hand had been immediately accepted. Scott knew it was because Johnny was half Mexican and spoke the language fluently, while he was an outsider. Johnny was even related to several of the workers. Cipriano was Johnny’s uncle, and Cipriano’s wife was his brother’s aunt, and they had both welcomed Johnny with open arms while staying aloof from Scott.
Lately however, the hands had seemed to accept him, and he had the sneaking suspicion Johnny had something to do with it. He knew Johnny would never admit to anything, and Scott wasn’t sure he really wanted to know. Whatever the reason, lately Cipriano had done a complete turnabout and was going out of his way to be friendly. There were a few holdouts among the men, but with the segundo finally in his corner, Scott hoped the rest would soon come around.
Scott glanced up at the log that was being moved, and noticed it had stopped. He saw Cipriano bending down and looking at the ropes at the base of the tree, and a moment later Scott heard his brother yell at him from the side of the hill.
“Hey, Scott! Quit goofin’ off or you’re gonna get yourself fired!”
“Johnny! You’re early!” Scott said in delight.
Johnny grinned back, then glanced up where the segundo was. Johnny focused on something above Scott and his eyes widened. At that instant, Scott heard Cipriano yell a warning, and Scott whipped around and looked up the hill. The log had broken loose from the ropes that had been holding it and was rolling down straight toward him, mowing down everything in its path.
Scott watched it for an instant, mesmerized by the sight, then his trance was broken by the sound of Cipriano and Johnny yelling frantically at him once more. Scott knew he couldn’t move fast enough to get out of the log’s way, so he looked for something that could give him some cover. A moment later he dove to his right behind the small tree he had just attached the chain to. He knew it wasn’t enough, but it was the best he could do.
He heard and felt the vibration as the enormous log rumbled closer, drowning out Johnny’s panicked cries. Scott crouched behind the dubious security of the tree, waiting for the inevitable, and then he felt the huge shock as the log hit. He was thrown through the air and then hit the ground hard. An instant later the trees caught up to him. He felt one of the logs slam him into the ground before he blacked out.
Johnny jumped off of Barranca and ran to where his brother lay like a broken doll, with his legs pinned under the massive tree. A second later, Cipriano joined him as Johnny frantically tried to free his brother. The two men finally managed to roll the tree off of Scott’s legs, and Johnny immediately knelt next to his brother. He leaned over and listened for a heartbeat, then straightened up.
Cipriano was shaking his head and looking at Scott in disbelief. “I’m sorry, Senor. I…I couldn’t stop it.”
Johnny ignored the man’s apology. “Go get a wagon, and send somebody for Sam. And HURRY!”
Cipriano ran toward his waiting horse while Johnny turned once more toward his brother.
“Come on, brother, stay with me,” Johnny pleaded.
Scott’s eyes fluttered open and he focused on his brother’s face. “Hey,” he said weakly.
“Hey, yourself. How’re you feelin’?” Johnny asked worriedly.
“My leg hurts.”
Johnny glanced down at Scott’s left leg that was twisted obscenely and obviously broken in several places. “Yeah, it’s broken.”
Johnny simply nodded.
“I guess I forgot to duck,” Scott said weakly.
“Guess so. “ Johnny shook his head. “Hate ta tell ya this now, but there are easier ways of getting’ out of work.”
“Now you tell me,” Scott whispered, then his eyes slid shut and he moaned slightly. Johnny scooted over and placed his hands under his brother’s head to keep it out of the mud.
“Cip went for help. He should be back soon with the wagon.”
Scott nodded, but didn’t open his eyes. Johnny tore off his own shirt and wiped the mud from his brother’s face, then wadded his shirt up and slipped it under Scott’s head. Even though he knew it had only been a few minutes, Johnny looked down the slope, willing the wagon to appear. Scott had drifted into unconsciousness, and Johnny was afraid there might be internal injuries, as well as the leg injury. Both of the massive logs had rolled right over him before being stopped by several large boulders. He checked his brother’s pulse once more, then pulled him closer and talked quietly to the unconscious man.
It was almost an hour later before the wagon made its appearance, and by then, Johnny was nearly frantic. As soon as he saw Cipriano and Murdoch running up the slope, the gunfighter eased Scott’s head down, then stood up and confronted the segundo. “What the hell happened?”
As Murdoch pushed past him, Cipriano slid to a halt and looked at the angry gunfighter cautiously. “It was an accident. The ropes broke. I couldn’t stop it.” The segundo shook his head. “I would never hurt Senor Scott.” His voice broke and he hung his head.. “I’m sorry, it was my fault. I should have used more ropes. Please forgive me, Senor.”
Johnny’s anger melted. He knew it had been an accident, but the need to blame someone had been strong. He felt ashamed he had taken his rage out on his uncle, however. “I’m sorry, Cip. I know it was an accident.”
Cipriano nodded miserably. “How is, he, Senor?”
Johnny looked over to where his brother lay. “I don’t know,” he whispered.
Sam came down the stairs and glanced at the two men. As expected, Johnny was pacing nervously and Murdoch was sitting behind his massive desk. Both men had untouched drinks in their hands. Teresa was standing by the fireplace and was the first to notice the doctor. She took several steps toward him, then stopped and waited expectantly. Immediately all eyes were on him. He nodded slightly, then took the drink out of Johnny’s hand and sat down on the nearby sofa.
“Well?” Johnny asked impatiently.
Sam took a sip of the tequila, then grimaced. He should have grabbed Murdoch’s drink instead. “Well, he was very lucky. His left leg was broken in several places and he’s bruised and sore, but I think he’ll be fine. That mud he landed in cushioned most of the shock. If that log had rolled over him on hard dirt, he probably wouldn’t have survived.”
Johnny let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, and headed for the stairs.
“He’s unconscious,” Sam called after him. “I gave him some morphine when I set his leg.”
Johnny waved to show he’d heard, but he didn’t turn around or slow down.
Sam watched as Johnny disappeared toward his brother’s room, then turned toward Murdoch, who was staring glumly down at his drink. “Like I said, he’ll be fine. That leg will take time to heal, but if he stays off of it and does what I tell him, he should be as good as new in about three or four months.”
Murdoch nodded his head. “Thanks, Sam.”
The doctor nodded. “My pleasure.” He shook his head. “Those boys of yours sure have kept me busy.”
“I’ve come so close to losing them,” Murdoch said quietly. “First Johnny and now Scott.”
“But you haven’t lost them. They’re both young and strong, and they’ll both be around for a long time yet.”
Murdoch brought his gaze up and stared at the doctor. “I hope so, Sam. They were out of my life for so long, I don’t think I could handle it if I lost either one of them.”
Sam shook his head. “Don’t be so glum. Murdoch. Like I said, Scott will be fine. He’ll be in some pain for a while, possibly for several months because it was such a bad break. But he shouldn’t have any lameness if he does as he’s told and doesn’t re-injure it. Just make sure he stays off of it while he’s healing and don’t let him go back to work until it’s fully healed.”
“Don’t worry, Sam, I won’t. I just hope Scott’s a better patient than Johnny.” Murdoch took a deep breath. Sam was right, he should be counting his blessings that Scott was alive instead of dwelling on what might have happened. It was just so hard not to worry about his boys. He was happier now than he’d ever been in his life, and he couldn’t help feeling that it would all disappear one day. He knew it wouldn’t take much to destroy that happiness; an accident, a fight, an argument; anything could tear them apart once more. Murdoch shook his head. He wouldn’t let it happen. No matter what, he was going to make sure his family remained whole.
Scott’s eyes fluttered open and his eyes immediately focused on his brother’s face. He managed a small smile and was rewarded with a dazzling smile in return.
“How’re you doin’?” Johnny asked.
Scott studied his brother. “I don’t know, how am I doing?”
Johnny sighed. “You’re left leg is bunged up a bit.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up and he continued to stare at Johnny.
“Well, I guess it’s more than a little. You managed ta break it pretty good.”
“Or bad, as the case may be,” Scott said softly.
Johnny shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. Sam said you’ve got ta stay off of it for a while, but he said it should heal ok. He said you probably won’t have a limp, at least if ya do as he says.”
Scott nodded. Actually, he was pleasantly surprised that was all that was wrong with him. He remembered waiting for the log to hit, and he remembered thinking that he’d be lucky to get out of this one alive. He sighed softly, and grimaced as the pain suddenly washed over him.
Johnny watched him for a moment, then reached for the bottle of laudanum that was sitting on the bedside stand.
“No, I don’t need that,” Scott protested.
“Yes, you do,” Johnny said implacably.
“Don’t argue!” Johnny uncorked the bottle and poured some into a glass, then held it out to his brother.
Scott glared at the glass for several seconds, but another bolt of pain made up his mind, and he grabbed the glass. Johnny reached over and helped him lift his head, and after Scott had taken a few swallows, he laid back down with a small sigh and waited for the medicine to work.
“What happened?” Scott asked.
Johnny shook his head in disgust. “It was a lousy accident. The ropes broke.”
Scott nodded his head. He had no doubt in his mind it was an accident, he just wanted to know what happened. “Don’t let Cipriano feel guilty about what happened.”
“That’s easier said than done. He feels pretty bad about it. He thinks it was his fault.”
“Why would he think that?”
Johnny shrugged. “He thinks he should have used more ropes.”
“There were plenty of ropes on that log. Besides, I was the one who tied it up. If it was anyone’s fault, it was mine.”
“It wasn’t anyone’s fault,” Johnny repeated.
Scott looked at his brother cautiously. “Is Murdoch mad?”
“Why would he be?” Johnny asked, puzzled.
“Because I won’t be able to work for a while, and we’re already short handed.”
Johnny shook his head. “He sure doesn’t act mad, just concerned.” He snorted. “I tell ya, Scott, if Murdoch got mad ‘cause ya got hurt in an accident, I think I’d shoot him myself.”
Scott grinned sleepily. “I think I’d let you.”
Johnny smiled back. “Sam said to make sure you got plenty of rest, so unless ya want Sam ta shoot ME, you’d better cooperate and get some sleep.”
“Ok,” Scott slurred. “Maybe I will close my eyes for a little while.”
Johnny sat back in his chair as Scott dropped off to sleep. He knew he should go to sleep himself; Scott was right, there was a lot of work to do. He watched his brother for several more minutes, then leaned back and scrunched down in the chair, trying to get comfortable.
Scott woke up to the smell of coffee, and his eyes popped open. His father was standing over the bed, a cup of coffee in his hands.
Scott managed a small smile. “Is that for me?”
Murdoch looked surprised. “Do you feel up to some coffee?”
Scott nodded. “Always.” He tried to sit up, and a hiss of pain escaped his lips. Murdoch immediately placed the mug on the table and hurriedly helped his son to sit up. Scott tried to hide his discomfort, but he wasn’t entirely successful. He felt as if every part of his body were bruised, and he figured there was a good chance it was. The pain in his leg had settled down to a dull throb, but Scott had the feeling it was because of the laudanum.
After he was settled, Murdoch handed him the cup of coffee. “Would you like something to eat with that?”
Scott took several small sips, then suddenly felt nauseous, and he shook his head slowly. Murdoch seemed to know what was wrong, and he gently took the mug from his son’s hands and helped him to lie back down. “Do you need some more laudanum?”
Scott shook his head once more. Talking just seemed like too much of an effort. He had forgotten just how sick he had become when he had been given laudanum before. The only other time he had had it was during the war. He had been injured and then had been deathly ill. At the time he had thought it was from his injuries, but now he realized that apparently that wasn’t the case.
“I don’t think I’d better take any more,” Scott said thickly. He fought with his stomach for several seconds, but knew it was a lost cause, and he reached for the nearby basin.
For the next several hours, Scott was horribly sick. By early afternoon, he was exhausted and hurting worse than ever, but his nausea showed no sign of abating. He couldn’t remember ever being more miserable, and by the time Sam showed up, Scott was about at the end of his rope.
Sam quickly took his pulse and listened to his heart, then shook his head. “I don’t know why you’re so ill. There’s no reason you should be.”
“It’s the laudanum,” Scott explained. “I can’t handle it.” He leaned over and was sick once more, but there was nothing left in his stomach, and he dry heaved miserably into the basin.
Sam frowned. “Have you had this reaction to it before?”
Scott nodded numbly. “Several years ago.”
Sam sighed. “Well, you’d better not take any more, but you’ll need something for the pain.” He looked thoughtful for several seconds as he contemplated the miserable man. “How does liquor agree with you?”
Scott managed a shrug. “Ok, I guess,” he said hesitantly.
Sam nodded. “Then when your stomach stops doing somersaults, when you need something for the pain, take some whisky. Make sure you have something on your stomach when you do, or you’ll be sick all over again.”
Scott nodded miserably. “Ok, Sam. ANYTHING as long as I don’t have to take any more laudanum, and IF I survive.”
Scott woke up the next morning feeling much better. His leg was throbbing unmercifully, but his stomach was no longer doing flip flops. He glanced over at his brother, who was still sleeping in the chair next to the bed, then looked out the window. He noticed the position of the sun, and wondered if Johnny was going to get his head chewed off by Murdoch. He thought about waking his brother up, but the vague memory of Johnny helping him throughout the long miserable night made him hesitate.
He looked around and spied a glass of water by the bed. He weakly reached for it and found a large hand brushing his own aside. He leaned back gratefully and smiled at his father.
Murdoch handed his son the glass and Scott sipped it greedily.
“Take it easy; you don’t want to get sick again,” Murdoch whispered.
Scott regretfully stopped and closed his eyes.
“Do you think you can eat something?” Murdoch whispered worriedly.
Scott chuckled. “You can stop whispering. Johnny’s awake.”
Murdoch turned around and glared at his younger son. “Now that you’re awake, go to sleep!”
Johnny grinned at his father. “Now that makes sense,” he said sarcastically.
“You know what I mean. Get in your room and get some sleep.”
Johnny stood up and shook his head. “There’s too much work ta do.” He walked over to the bed. “You feelin’ ok?”
Scott nodded. “Much better.”
“All right, I’ll see you this afternoon.”
Murdoch watched as Johnny walked out and he shook his head. “He needs to get some sleep,” he grumbled.
Scott hid a smile at Murdoch’s protective attitude, then he grimaced as the pain came to the fore once more. Murdoch looked at him worriedly. “I’ll bring you something to eat.”
Scott nodded slowly and shut his eyes. He had felt worse pain, but it was the constant throbbing that wore him down. He hoped the liquor would make the pain bearable, because he knew he couldn’t take laudanum again.
A half of an hour later, Scott had eaten a couple of eggs that Maria had fixed, and a biscuit. He thought he could probably eat more, but he didn’t want to push his luck. Murdoch picked up the plate from his son’s lap and placed it on the night stand, then looked at his son questioningly. “Do you want some whisky?”
Scott thought for a moment, wondering if he could do without, but the sharp throbbing seemed to escalate. “I think I’d better,” he said resignedly.
Murdoch shook his head. “It’s nothing to be ashamed about. Sam said you’d be in a lot of pain, and there’s no sense trying to tough it out when you don’t have to. Besides, I don’t know how much the whisky will help, anyway.” He reached over and grabbed a bottle of whisky that was sitting on the table and pulled out the cork, then poured a shot in a small glass. He handed the glass to his son. “Here.”
Scott accepted the glass gratefully and swallowed the burning liquid, then handed the glass back to his father. Murdoch set the glass next to the bottle. “I’ll leave it here in case you want some more. Just don’t drink so much you get sick.”
“I won’t,” Scott assured him. After yesterday, there was no way he was going to do anything to make himself sick for a long, long time.
Scott leaned back and closed his eyes, and was soon sound asleep. Murdoch watched his son for a while, the quietly stood up and left the room.
When Scott woke up, by the position of the sun he figured it was late afternoon. He lay there for several minutes, hoping the pain in his leg would go away, but when it didn’t, he reached for the bottle and took a swig without bothering with a glass. He figured he’d go through the whole bottle eventually.
Several minutes later, he heard boots on the stairs, and the tantalizing smell of roast chicken drifted into his room. Johnny walked in, holding a tray, a broad smile on his face. “Maria made this especially for you,” he said. “She and Cip feel real bad about what happened.”
Scott shook his head. “I told you to tell them not to worry about it. I know it was an accident.”
Johnny shrugged. “Don’t matter, they still feel bad.” He set the tray down on Scott’s lap, then sat gently down on the foot of the bed being careful not to jar Scott’s leg.
Johnny watched as Scott tore into the meal. “Looks like your stomach’s ok. How does the rest of you feel?”
Scott shrugged. “I’m sore, but nothing too bad. The only thing that really hurts is my leg.”
Johnny frowned in sympathy. ‘Yeah, Sam said it would hurt like hell for a while. It was a bad break.”
Scott stopped eating and looked at his brother. “Did he say it would be ok?” he asked worriedly.
Johnny nodded. “He said you’d have to take it easy for a while, but it should heal just fine. It just might take some time.”
Scott sighed. “Well, at least Murdoch doesn’t seem too upset, but I hate to put more work on you.”
Johnny grinned. “Don’t worry, I plan on getting’ even. As soon as you’re well, I’m gonna talk the Old Man inta lettin’ me have some time off, and then you can do my chores.”
Scott grinned back. “Deal.”
The two brothers sat for a moment, relishing the closeness they felt.
“Hey, Scott, how about a game of chess?”
Scott nodded. He was already starting to become bored with staying in bed. “Sure.”
Johnny jumped up and nearly ran downstairs, then reappeared with the game. He placed the board on the bed and dumped the pieces next to it. Scott quickly set up his men then took a drink of whisky. He had been pleasantly surprised to find out his brother could not only play the game, but was quite skilled. Johnny’s style was less structured than Scott’s, but quite effective. The two men were equally matched, and they had engaged in some long and bloody battles on the chess board.
Johnny finished setting up his pieces, then looked worriedly at Scott as he took another long pull on the bottle. Evidently his brother’s leg was bothering him more than he would admit.
“Take it easy,” Johnny scolded. “You know Sam will have my head if you fall and mess up your leg again.”
Scott stopped and looked at his brother. “Is that all you’re worried about?”
“You don’t care if I break my leg again?”
“Sam will break MY leg if I let you fall.”
“It’s nice to know you care, brother.”
Murdoch glanced up and watched as Johnny helped his brother down the stairs. He grinned as he listened to their easy banter, then went back to the book he was reading. He looked up again as Scott sank into the sofa across from him.
“How’re you feeling, son?”
Scott shrugged. “All right.”
Murdoch studied his son’s pallor, and decided Scott was in more pain than he would admit. Evidently Johnny had noticed that fact, too, because he brought his brother a large glass of brandy, then sat down next to him.
Scott gratefully took several swallows of the drink as his brother watched him with concern.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have come downstairs yet,” Johnny offered.
Scott shook his head. “I couldn’t stay in that room one more day without going crazy.”
Johnny smiled. “Oh, come on, Scott. It ain’t that bad.”
Scott looked at his brother in disbelief. “Oh, and I suppose that’s why you’re so cooperative about staying upstairs after you’ve been hurt.”
“I’m a model patient. Better than you, that’s for sure. You gave everybody a hard time. Just ask Murdoch.”
Both boys turned toward their father, who chuckled and held up his hands. “Count me out of this one. Personally, I’d be happy if we never had to figure it out. Maybe both of you can manage to stay healthy from now on.”
“I’m sure we’ll do our best,” Scott sighed. “I’m tired of being cooped up.”
“If you want something to do, you can work on those contracts we received yesterday,” Murdoch offered.
“I would much rather be outside, but I don’t suppose Sam would approve of me wrangling steers just yet,” Scott said wistfully, then nodded. “I’ll start in on them tomorrow.”
“You shouldn’t tire yourself out, Senor Scott.” Maria walked into the great room from the kitchen and set a tray of cookies down in front of the blond. “You must get your rest.” She glared at Murdoch and then Johnny. “He shouldn’t be downstairs yet. It is too soon, and he is in much pain.”
“I’m fine, really, Maria.”
“It was a bad break, Senor, and you have to take your time to heal. Here, let me get something to put under your leg.” The older lady bustled over and yanked a pillow from underneath Johnny’s arm, then came over and gently lifted Scott’s leg and slid the pillow underneath. “There, how does that feel? Better, si?”
“Si. Thank you, Maria.”
She looked at him a moment, and turned around and picked up the plate of cookies that Johnny was perusing. She offered Scott the cookies as his brother watched in alarm. “You’d better eat, Senor Scott, before Juanito gets started, or there won’t be any left.”
Scott grinned and purposely took several of Johnny’s favorites, then sat back and looked at his obviously disgruntled brother.
“Thank you, again, Maria, they’re delicious,” Scott exclaimed.
Maria nodded, then glared at Murdoch. “The papers can wait. Senor Scott needs his rest tomorrow.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows came up. “It’s all right, Maria, I won’t let him do anything to tire himself out.”
Maria harrumphed at him, then turned back to Scott. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure these two take care of you, and tomorrow, I’m going to make your favorite meal to celebrate your coming downstairs.” She gave his arm a pat before turning and giving Murdoch and Johnny one more glare before retreating to the kitchen.
Scott smiled as he watched the woman disappear into the kitchen. He was used to Maria mothering Johnny after he’d been hurt, but this was the first time he had been on the receiving end. Actually, it didn’t feel too bad. He’d never had a mother or any other female influence while growing up. When he’d been sick, one of the butlers would stay by his side, and although their care had been scrupulous, it had been very impersonal, and Scott knew they were simply being paid to perform the service.
It was strange seeing Maria fussing over him instead of Johnny. Always before, although Maria had been polite, she hadn’t been particularly warm towards him. It had always been Johnny who had been spoiled and catered to, but since his accident, that had changed. He felt badly that Cipriano blamed himself for his injuries, because it was obviously no one’s fault. Cip had come in many times to visit him while he had been stuck in bed, and Scott had come to genuinely like the segundo and his wife.
Scott glanced over at his brother to see how he was taking Maria’s defection, but Johnny didn’t seem upset about anything but the cookies in Scott’s hands. With a smile, Scott held them out to his brother, and with a grin, Johnny snatched them away. Scott picked out some more from the platter, and the two men sat like a couple of kids and discussed the merits of the various cookies and fought good naturedly for each one.
Scott looked up at his father. “Don’t you want any, Sir?”
Murdoch shook his head. “You boys look pretty serious. I think my life is worth more than a couple of cookies.”
Scott looked back down just as Johnny was grabbing another one that Scott had had his eyes on, and he swatted his brother’s hand. Johnny immediately stuffed the sweet in his mouth, then smirked at his brother and received another swat for his efforts. Murdoch watched his boys with a smile on his face, but wondered how many scenes like this he had missed because his sons hadn’t grown up at Lancer. With a sigh, he shook his head. It was in the past, and he would make sure they would make up for the lost time as best they could. They were together now, and nothing could tear them apart again.
Scott woke up feeling groggy and disoriented. He closed his eyes again almost immediately, trying to force his mind to function. He remembered playing chess with his brother downstairs and drinking several glasses of brandy, but then his memory blurred. He shook his head slightly and immediately felt a familiar rush of nausea. Evidently he’d had a little too much to drink, although he couldn’t really remember.
He lay still, waiting for his stomach to stop doing flip flops and trying to recall what had happened last night. Finally, he gave up and admitted to himself that he had over indulged. He hadn’t felt like this for a long time, and he’d sworn that he never would again. He was disgusted with himself that he had allowed it to happen.
He had felt this way regularly back in Boston after the war. He had come home depressed and plagued with nightmares, and his grandfather, who had never even been in a fistfight, had been entirely unsympathetic, both to his mental and his physical pain. His friends who had remained in Boston, while sympathetic, hadn’t understood. Any of his friends who might have understood had been killed in the war. With no one to talk out his troubles and worries with, he had turned more and more to the oblivion of alcohol.
Liquor had become an easy way out for him. When he was drunk, he couldn’t remember the horrors he had seen or had occasionally been forced to participate in. His immediate commanding officer during the war had been a cruel man, and there had been many times that Scott had been sickened by orders that were given. It was almost a relief to be captured; he knew if he hadn’t been, that he would have either lost his soul as the war continued, or he would have wound up killing the man.
Of course the thought that he had been lucky to be captured didn’t last long. The prison camp he had been assigned to had been a quagmire of filth and disease, and the man running it had been of the same caliber as his old commanding officer. The time spent in that hell hole would haunt him forever, as would the memory of a miserably failed escape attempt. The sight of his comrades in arms being systematically gunned down as they tried to run replayed over and over in his mind, and booze had been the only way to stop the memories.
Before the war, he had only drunk socially, but when he came back, that had changed. He had imbibed at first for the relief it gave him, both from his memories and from the aching pain that still flared up in the wound he had received during the escape attempt. Gradually, however, his drinking had escalated and he hadn’t needed a reason.
His grandfather had at first been somewhat understanding about his drinking. Most young society men over indulged in just about every vice imaginable. But as Scott’s behavior became more and more erratic, his grandfather had become impatient, then increasingly angry as the bouts of drunkenness had continued. The two of them had had some pretty heated arguments about Scott’s behavior while he was under the influence. It was after Scott had shown up at an important business meeting totally inebriated that his grandfather had finally put his foot down and threatened to disinherit him. It wasn’t that threat, though, that had finally enabled Scott to find the strength to stop. It was something that had happened at a simple party.
It was one of the few times that Scott had been sober at a social event since his homecoming. He had arrived late from an afternoon with his grandfather, and hadn’t yet had time to catch up with the other guests’ drinking. One of his friends had been totally smashed, and had been acting like an ass. Scott had watched the man in disgust, and had made a comment to another friend about the drunk’s behavior. The man had laughed and had made a comment about Scott’s behavior usually being worse. Scott had turned to another man, one that never drank much, and looked at him for reassurance. Instead, the man had snorted.
“Scott, old boy, you put all of them to shame.”
Scott had turned back and watched the drunken man in horror for several minutes, then resolutely set his own glass down and walked out of the house. He hadn’t taken another drink for several months.
At first he had been unwilling to even taste liquor, afraid that he wouldn’t be able to control his urges, but he found out to his relief that wasn’t the case. Gradually he had been able to enjoy a drink now and then without over indulging. It had only taken the memory of that drunken oaf to give him the strength to resist the temptation.
By the time Murdoch had contacted him, Scott’s drinking problem was a thing of the past. Since he’d been here at Lancer, he had managed to avoid drinking to the point of making a fool out of himself, in spite of occasionally celebrating with his brother in town. Johnny never allowed himself to get blindly drunk; it was too dangerous for a man with his past, so the two of them always left the saloon before either one reached that point.
Scott sighed. He vaguely remembered Johnny pouring him several drinks throughout the evening, and evidently he had had a few too many. He’d make sure to be more careful from now on. He had no intention of falling back into his old ways, pain or no pain. He’d just have to somehow cope. He shifted his body carefully and felt the sweat pop out on his head. It felt as if his bones were on fire and he grimaced. This was going to be harder than he thought. He glared at the half empty bottle of whisky on the nightstand next to his bed for several seconds, then with an oath, he grabbed it and brought it to his lips.
Sam pulled his buggy up to the house and stepped down. He was pleased with Scott’s progress, and he knew that he had Johnny and Murdoch to thank for it. Both had made sure Scott hadn’t overdone, and he hoped they would continue to keep the blond from overdoing it. The leg wasn’t healed yet, and if he pushed it too hard, Scott could still wind up permanently lame.
Murdoch stopped Sam on the way into the house. “He’s still in pain, Sam.”
Sam shrugged. “He will be for a while. It was a bad break.”
Murdoch shook his head. “It just seems that…” his voice trailed off.
Murdoch bit his lip. “He seems to be drinking a lot. He never drank much before, and now he’s drinking pretty steady.”
“And you don’t think it’s all because of the pain?”
“I don’t know…probably. It just seems though he should be slacking off on the booze, and he’s not.”
Sam nodded. “I’ll check it out.”
“Thanks, Sam. I’m on my way out to the north pasture. Johnny asked me to come out and see the progress of that new dam we’re building. If you need me, send one of the hands for me.”
Sam waved the rancher off and headed onto the house he knew almost as well as his own. He walked into the great room and watched as the blond studied the papers before him. Aside from being a little pale, he didn’t look sick, but the doctor noticed a half empty glass of brandy on the desk and frowned. It was only nine in the morning.
“Keeping busy, I see.”
Scott jerked his head up, then smiled at the doctor. “Trying to. I never thought I’d admit it, but I can’t wait to get away from these books and back to wrestling steers.”
“I’m afraid it will still be a while before you’ll be up to that.”
Scott sighed. “I know. I wasn’t expecting it to take this long.”
“Scott, it’s only been three weeks. That’s not even enough time for a simple break to mend. I warned you it would take time.”
“I know. It just seems like forever.”
Sam walked over and carefully examined Scott’s leg, watching the blond’s reaction as he moved the limb around.
“Does that hurt?”
Scott shook his head. “A little. Not much.”
The doctor nodded. “It will still be sore for a while yet.” He studied his patient. “Are you staying off of it?”
Scott nodded, then snorted and pointed to two pieces of wood propped up on the desk. “Between Johnny and my father, they won’t even let me move without those damn crutches.”
“Good for them.”
Scott glared at the doctor. “Whose side are you on, anyway?”
“My patient’s,” Sam said calmly. He sat on the edge of the desk and nodded toward the drink. “So if your leg doesn’t hurt, why the booze?”
Scott sighed. “I didn’t say it didn’t hurt. It just doesn’t hurt as much as it did.”
Sam nodded toward the drink. “It shouldn’t still be hurting enough to warrant that.”
Scott shrugged. “It doesn’t. Just when I move it around a lot. I bumped it going down the stairs this morning and I took some brandy to stop the throbbing. I couldn’t concentrate on my work.”
Sam nodded. “Ok. Just don’t go overboard on that ‘painkiller’, or you’ll wind up with more problems.”
“Don’t I know it,” Scott muttered.
Sam looked at his patient expectantly. “Oh?”
Scott looked at the doctor for a moment, then dropped his head. He knew his secret would be safe with Sam. “It was a long time ago. I had some trouble with drinking too much and losing control.”
Sam nodded. “Do you think you’re having the same problem now?”
Scott’s head shot up. “NO!”
“Scott, if you are…”
“I said I wasn’t!”
Sam nodded again. “All right, just make sure you don’t. If you think you’re having trouble, let me know. And start trying to work through the pain as much as you can, all right?”
“All right, Sam, and thanks.”
After Sam walked out, Scott leaned back in the chair and contemplated the drink on the desk. He HAD been trying to cut back, but it wasn’t easy. The pains in his leg were very real, and they were worse than he’d let on to Sam. He certainly didn’t want to go back to his old ways, but it was harder than he thought it would be to ignore the pain. Sam was right, though. He’d better start if he was going to avoid having problems with booze again. He could already feel its dark charm beckoning him.
Murdoch and Johnny rode into the courtyard and immediately heard the commotion coming from the house. As they hurried toward the house, Maria came running toward them. “Senors, hurry! Senor Scott, he’s gone loco!”
Johnny brushed by the woman and pushed open the door to the great room. Scott was lurching around the room, throwing things and shouting incoherently. Johnny rushed toward his brother just in time to have a picture thrown at him. The gunfighter ducked and grabbed his brother around the waist.
“Scott, calm down, what’s wrong?”
Even as he said it, Johnny could smell the liquor emanating from his brother’s frame.
“Scott! CALM DOWN!” Johnny tried to wrestle his brother over to the couch without hurting Scott’s leg any more than it already was, but Scott fought his brother wildly. Murdoch finally caught up with his two sons and helped Johnny manipulate Scott down onto the couch. The man continued to fight and curse, throwing several ineffectual punches at his father and brother in the process.
“SCOTT!” Murdoch’s voice boomed out. “STOP IT!”
The men wrestled for a few more minutes, but finally his father’s voice sank into Scott’s muddled brain, and he stopped struggling and looked at his father in confusion. “Hey, Murdoch, what’s wrong?”
Murdoch looked around at the ruined great room, taking in the smashed pictures, strewn papers and his broken ship, and he glowered at his obviously drunken son. “Right now YOU are! Now get upstairs and STAY there until you’re sober!”
Scott woke up with a blinding headache. He couldn’t remember exactly where he was at first, and he swiveled his head around to see if he could figure it out. The movement sent his stomach rolling, but when he stopped moving, the nausea gradually stopped. His memory began to slowly come back, and he realized he was at Lancer, but he couldn’t remember anything about the day before, or even several days previously. After several minutes, he gave up and slowly sat up. He managed to stay upright for several seconds before giving up and falling back with a groan. A moment later, he reached for a basin someone had placed next to his bed. When he was done, he collapsed back onto the pillows and closed his eyes, the sweat beaded on his face.
Sometime later, he awakened again and his head felt slightly better. He looked around, and was pleased that his head managed to stay on this time. After several seconds he focused on a familiar form sitting next to his bed. He tried to smile, but it came out as more of a grimace. “Hey.”
Johnny smiled back. “Hey. You feelin’ as bad as ya look?”
Scott started to nod, then thought better of it. “Worse.”
“You’re really gonna feel worse when Murdoch gets through with you.”
Scott sighed. “Is he really mad?”
Johnny snorted. “I don’t think mad is exactly the right word. Furious would be more like it.”
Scott closed his eyes. “I don’t remember anything.”
“Nothing?” Johnny asked in disbelief.
“No,” Scott sighed. “But would you answer a question for me?”
“Sure, if I can.”
“Just what did I do?”
“You acted like an ass.” Johnny grinned. “I don’t know why Murdoch’s so mad, I mean, you were just actin’ like ya normally do.”
“Thanks, but I believe it’s you that usually makes an ass out of yourself. Now, what did I do, specifically.”
Scott continued to stare at his brother, and Johnny finally shrugged. “You destroyed the great room and terrorized Maria.”
“You’re kidding, aren’t you?” Scott asked hopefully.
Johnny shook his head. “I wish I was. Maria was scared ta death. You were cursing and yelling, and you made a shambles outta the great room, and you destroyed Murdoch’s precious ship.”
Scott shut his eyes and buried his head in his hands. “I can’t believe I did that.”
“Neither could Murdoch.” Johnny looked at his brother. “Just how much did ya have ta drink, anyway?”
Scott shook his head. “I don’t remember, but I don’t think I could drink enough to get THAT drunk.”
“Well, ya obviously did. Look Scott, you’ve been drinkin’ pretty heavy lately. I think ya better slow down before Murdoch has your head.”
Scott nodded. He really couldn’t believe he’d allowed himself to get drunk enough to get out of control. His leg wasn’t hurting as much as it had, and he’d been cutting down. He sighed. It looked like he owed both Maria and his father a sincere apology. One thing was for sure, he wouldn’t let it happen again.
Johnny watched as his brother thought about what happened. “Do ya want me ta stay in here when Murdoch talks to you?”
Scott shook his head. He knew how much his brother hated arguing with Murdoch. “Thanks, but I got myself into this mess, and I’ll take my medicine.”
Johnny smiled softly. “You might change your mind when you see him. I swear he’s got smoke comin’ outta his ears. You want me ta leave you my gun?”
Scott smiled back. I don’t think that will be necessary.”
Johnny looked at him doubtfully. “If you say so.”
Both men looked up as Murdoch walked in. Johnny glanced at his brother in sympathy. “I guess I’ll see ya later.”
Scott watched as his brother left the room and softly closed the door. He unwillingly dragged his eyes back to his father. “I’m sorry,” he said softly.
Murdoch walked over to the window and gazed out. “I never expected that sort of behavior from you.”
Scott’s head dropped. “Neither did I.”
The rancher turned back toward his son. “Scott, you obviously have a problem that goes a lot deeper than your hurt leg. By the way, how is your leg? Did you re- injure it yesterday?”
“No, Sir. It’s a little sore, but I’m sure it will be fine.”
Murdoch nodded. “Good. Now as I was saying, you obviously have a problem, and I think you know it.”
“Yes, Sir,” Scott said resignedly.
“So what are we going to do about it?”
“I give you my word it won’t happen again.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Scott, did you mean for it to happen this time?”
“No, of course not.”
“I’ve known men that have a problem with drink. They never mean to get drunk, but it continues to happen. It’s like a sickness.”
Scott shook his head in denial. “I won’t let it happen again. I know I can control it.”
Murdoch stared at him for several seconds. “You know because you’ve had the problem before, haven’t you?”
Scott thought about denying it, but then thought better of it. He didn’t want to lie to his father. “Yes, Sir, I did. But I was able to overcome it. I haven’t had a problem in years.”
Murdoch studied his son for several moments. “All right. But if you need any help, let me know. In the meantime, I expect you to apologize to Maria and work off the cost of fixing the great room.”
Murdoch nodded. “All right. I won’t say anything more about it, but I expect this to be the end of it.”
Scott nodded, and Murdoch turned toward the door. “I’ll tell Johnny it’s safe to come in now.” He smiled. “He seemed to think it was safer outside.”
Scott dropped his head and smiled. “Thank you, Sir, for being so understanding.”
Murdoch nodded. “Don’t disappoint me.”
“I won’t,” Scott replied, fervently hoping he could keep that promise.
The next several weeks passed without incident, and Scott was starting to feel much better. His leg was healing nicely, and there was no longer any pain. Although he had been tempted, he hadn’t even tasted alcohol in all that time, and Murdoch seemed pleased with Scott’s efforts.
Scott stopped and rubbed his eyes. He had been working on the books all day, and the numbers were beginning to blur on the page. He was having trouble concentrating, and he knew he needed a break. He finished the last of the sandwich and lemonade that Maria had brought him, then he stood up and stretched. He began walking slowly around the room, hoping to work the kinks out of his muscles. He no longer needed the crutches, but he was still far from healed, and he was becoming impatient with his recovery. He was tired of sitting at a desk all day, and longed to be out working with his brother.
He stopped and ran his hand along the small table where Murdoch’s model ship had stood, and he grimaced. He had been spared the sight of the ruined ship, but had been assured by Johnny that it was beyond fixing. Now there was a small vase of flowers from Teresa’s garden in the place of honor. Scott shook his head sadly. Murdoch had been extremely understanding, and he vowed to somehow replace the ship as soon as he could.
He stopped next to the bar and picked up a bottle of brandy, studying it intently. It was amazing that such a small bottle could have such a huge impact on a person’s life. He felt no driving need to taste it, but he also wanted to prove to himself that he could handle the stuff. He needed to know that he was stronger than the booze in the bottle.
He picked up a glass, and after a moment’s hesitation, he poured a small amount into the snifter. He studied it for several seconds, debating with himself if this was a wise decision, then he took a drink.
Johnny walked into the great room in search of his brother. Murdoch and Teresa had gone into town, and he decided to come home and have lunch with his brother since the boss was absent. He glanced over toward the desk, expecting to see his brother at his customary place, but the chair was empty. He turned and looked around the room, then headed toward the stairs, wondering if Scott had decided to lie down.
As he passed the bar, he stopped suddenly and stared at the normally neat bottles. His tequila was untouched, as was Murdoch’s scotch, but a brandy bottle was obviously missing. Cursing, he turned away and headed for the stairs, then stopped short. Scott was sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, the missing bottle of brandy in his lap. Johnny reached over and grabbed the empty bottle and tossed it aside, them knelt down and slapped his brother’s face, none too gently.
“SCOTT, wake UP!”
Scott opened his eyes and then immediately closed them again as the light pierced them and drove daggers into his brain.
Without opening his eyes, Scott mumbled, “What do you want?”
“Damn it, Scott, what’s the matter with you? Can’t you leave that stuff alone?”
“What are you talking about?” Scott slurred.
Johnny picked up the empty bottle and shoved it in his brother’s face. “This is what I’m talkin’ about.”
With much difficulty, Scott made his eyes focus on what Johnny was holding in front of him. “Where did that come from?”
“From your LAP!”
“Who drank it?”
Johnny slammed the bottle down and ran his hand through his hair. “Come on, brother, let’s get you upstairs and see if we can keep Murdoch from findin’ out. He’s gonna have a cow if he knows you fell off the wagon.”
“Who fell?” Scott asked.
“Never mind,” Johnny said in exasperation. “Come on, let’s go.” Johnny reached down and grabbed Scott around the waist and tried to pull him to his feet. It might have worked, but unfortunately, Scott decided to try to help, and both men went sprawling. Johnny sat, nursing a twisted ankle and glaring at his brother. After several moments, he lurched to his feet and once more grabbed the inebriated Scott. This time, Scott let Johnny do the work, and soon they were both shakily standing at the base of the stairs.
Johnny looked up at the long flight of stairs and sighed. “Come on, brother, let’s go. You’re gonna have ta help, though. Ain’t no way I can haul your carcass all the way up those stairs.”
“I can do it myself,” Scott insisted, slapping Johnny’s hands away impatiently.
“No, you can’t. Come on.” Johnny grabbed his brother again and the two men slowly made their way upstairs. Johnny dumped Scott on his bed, then pulled his brother’s shirt off and covered him with a blanket. “Now go to sleep, and pray the Old Man buys my story that you aren’t feelin’ good. And whatever ya do, if he comes in here, keep your mouth shut and don’t breath on him!”
Scott nodded. trying to comprehend his brother’s words. “Thanks, Johnny!”
“Uh huh. Now try ta sleep it off. Hopefully I can keep Murdoch away ‘till mornin’.
Scott nodded, and closed his eyes. Almost immediately, soft snores started coming from the bed. Johnny took one last look, then walked out and shut the door quietly. He went downstairs and straightened up the bar, then took a full bottle of brandy from the cupboard and placed it next to his bottle of tequila. He bent down and picked up the empty bottle and headed outside to bury it. When he was done, he came back into the house and made some lunch. After checking on Scott one last time, he left the house and went back to work. He was having to do Scott’s chores as well as his own, and he was getting tired of it.
Murdoch glanced up at his son and watched him quietly. Something was bothering Johnny, but he couldn’t figure out what. Maybe he was just worried about Scott. He had been quiet since this afternoon. Johnny had told Murdoch that Scott had overdone this morning while he and Teresa were in town, and that Scott had gone to bed early. Murdoch had wanted to look in on his older son, but Johnny insisted that his older brother simply needed to rest.
“Should I take Scott some supper?” Teresa asked quietly.
Johnny shook his head. “Nah. I doubt if he’ll be hungry.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “Why wouldn’t he be? Is he that sick from just overdoing it a little?”
Johnny realized his mistake immediately. “No, but I’m sure if he gets hungry, he’ll get up and get something or let us know. I think he just needs to rest.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “I guess. I’ll check on him later.”
Johnny shrugged. “I’m plannin’ on goin’ ta bed early tonight, too. I’ll look in on him when I go upstairs. It’s not like he’s really sick or anything.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “All right. Let me know if he needs anything. We’d better let Sam know if he is still down tomorrow.”
“He’d better not be,” Johnny muttered.
“Nothing. Just thinking about all the work I gotta get caught up on.”
“You’ve been doing a lot of extra work since Scott’s been hurt, and I appreciate it.”
“Don’t worry,” Johnny smirked. “I plan on gettin’ even.”
“With him or me?”
Johnny grinned. “Maybe both.”
“As long as you don’t ‘get even’ by getting hurt,” Murdoch shot back.
Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know, havin’ ta stay in bed and bein’ waited on hand and foot seems pretty good right about now. That dam is givin’ me fits.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows went up and he looked at his son in disbelief. He knew that keeping his younger son bedridden even when he was seriously injured was almost impossible. He stared at Johnny until his son finally smiled. “Well, it would be great for a couple of hours, anyway,” he admitted.
Murdoch smiled back. “How about if I let you sleep in on Saturday?”
“Yeah?” Johnny asked hopefully.
Murdoch nodded. “I think that can be arranged.”
“What’s the catch?” Johnny asked doubtfully.
Murdoch chuckled. “Nothing. You’ve been pulling double duty for a month now, and I figure you deserve a day off. I was going to have you ride out to the south pasture and find out what needs to be done before we move the herd. Instead, I’ll have Scott do it. Sam cleared him for riding, so there’s no reason he can’t. Besides, he’s probably champing at the bit to get outside and away from the books.”
Johnny smiled. “He probably is. I can’t imagine spending a month doin’ nothin’ but bookwork.” He shivered dramatically.
“Just remember that next time you decide to pull some stupid stunt.”
Johnny managed to look wounded. “When have I EVER done anything stupid?”
Both Teresa and Murdoch simply stared at him until Johnny dropped his eyes. “All right, point taken. I’ll be sure and be more careful.”
“See that you are,” Murdoch warned.
Johnny finished the last several bites, then stood up. “I’m gonna turn in. I’ve gotta get up early tomorrow, and I didn’t sleep too good last night.”
“Everything ok?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah. Just thinkin’ about the dam. Was wondering if there was an easier way ta do it.”
“Maybe you should ask Scott to take a look at it tomorrow. Maybe he can come up with something different.”
“Ok. I’ll ask him.” He smiled at his sister. “Thanks for the good supper, Teresa. ‘Night.”
Murdoch watched his son critically as he walked off. Johnny certainly seemed fine, but it was pretty unusual for his energetic younger son to go to bed this early. He glanced over at his ward, who also looked troubled.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Murdoch assured her.
Teresa nodded slowly. “I guess. But something seems to be bothering him.”
“I’ll talk to him tomorrow. In the meantime, did I hear you say you made an apple pie?”
Johnny bounded up the stairs and then opened Scott’s door. His big brother was apparently still asleep, and Johnny walked over and covered him with a blanket. He watched Scott’s breathing for a couple of seconds, then reached over and placed a basin on the table next to his brother. He figured he’d need it when he woke up. Johnny was almost to the door when he heard a raspy voice coming from the bed.
Johnny turned around and walked back to the bed. “You ok?” he asked softly.
Scott licked his lips and tried to sit up. “What happened?” he asked groggily.
“Don’t you remember this time, either?” Johnny asked in exasperation.
“No,” Scott said wearily. “What did I do this time?”
“Just passed out at the bottom of the stairs after you polished off a whole bottle of brandy.”
“Great. What did Murdoch say, or do I want to know?” Scott moaned.
Johnny stared at his brother, tempted to make him suffer a little, but another look at his brother’s green face told Johnny he would be suffering soon enough. “He didn’t. I managed ta get you upstairs before he came home. I told him you had overdone it and went to bed early. You owe me.”
“Thanks, brother,” Scott said with feeling.
Johnny nodded. “Ok. Just don’t let it happen again. You gotta stop this, Scott. If ya need help, maybe you should talk to Sam.”
“I DON’T need help!” Scott insisted. He shook his head wearily. “Are you SURE I drank the whole bottle?”
“It was in your lap, and you were cradling it like a baby,” Johnny explained.
Scott dropped his head. “Maybe I do need help,” he admitted. “Johnny, I really don’t remember drinking that much.”
“But you remember drinking some.”
“Yes. I wanted to prove to myself that I could handle it.”
“Well, you obviously found out, didn’t you?” Johnny said quietly.
Scott nodded slowly. “Yes, I guess I did.” His eyes came up to his brother. “Will you help me?”
Murdoch watched as his sons rode out of the yard. They had been close from the beginning, but lately, they had become even closer. Since Scott had been injured, Johnny had hardly left Scott’s side. Murdoch wondered briefly if Johnny knew something was wrong with his brother and the two of them were keeping it from him, but he dismissed that notion quickly. If Scott were in any kind of danger, Johnny would be the first to make sure his brother was taken care of.
Murdoch turned back to his desk and smiled at the neat pile of contracts that his son had completed during his long recovery. Scott had been meticulous in his handling of the paperwork, as usual. His sons had fallen into the routine of the ranch with an ease that had amazed him. They worked hard, and Murdoch trusted their decisions completely. He was proud of his boys, and he knew he had every reason to be. He looked over at the bar and said a quick prayer of thanks. Murdoch had been so afraid when he realized that his older son was having a problem with his drinking, but apparently, Scott had been able to control it. He knew just what his older son had gone through. After Maria had left, Murdoch had begun to drink heavily, and it was only his realization that he would lose the ranch if he continued that had given him the strength to stop. But it hadn’t been easy, and Murdoch admired his son’s determination and success in stopping the habit. Of course, he had to admit, his sons WERE stubborn. He chuckled. They must have inherited that trait from their mothers.
Johnny and Scott rode back to the hacienda in companionable silence. They had both worked hard all day, but by trial and error they had finally been able to figure out just how the dam that had been giving them problems for weeks should be fixed. Johnny slanted a look at his brother. “Are ya sure you’ll be ok by yourself tomorrow?”
Scott grinned. “I’m sure. Really, Johnny, I don’t have the slightest craving for any alcohol. Besides, I’m sure since you’ll be goofing off, Murdoch will keep me hopping all day. I won’t have TIME to even think about drinking.”
Johnny nodded slowly. “All right, if you’re sure, but I don’t mind ridin’ with ya tomorrow.”
“No, you deserve a day off. I’ll be fine, really. Just relax.” He grinned at his brother. “But you’d better rest up, because I’m leaving all the hard work until you’re with me.”
Johnny snorted. “So what else is new? One of these days Murdoch is gonna realize that I do all the work around here, and then you’re gonna be in trouble.”
“Are you threatening to tattle on me?”
“Uh huh,” Johnny said seriously. “Gotta keep you in line.”
“Teresa promised to make a cake for me, and I haven’t told her what kind I want yet,” Scott threatened.
Johnny scrunched his face up as he thought about it. Finally he smiled. “All right, you win. I won’t tell on ya, as long as you make sure that cake is chocolate.”
“Deal,” Scott replied as he spurred Charlie past Barranca. “Last one home helps Teresa with the dishes.” Johnny hesitated a second, then spurred the palomino after the sorrel.
Johnny’s eyes fluttered open, and he glanced at the window. The sun was just starting to turn the sky a soft blue, and he smiled in pleasure and snuggled deeper under the covers. He could hear the sounds of his father and brother moving around in their rooms, getting ready for their day. He felt a flash of guilt, but he also knew there was nothing particularly pressing on the agenda for today, and Scott was more than capable of handling anything that came up. He also knew that in an emergency, Murdoch wouldn’t hesitate to come and get him.
He smelled the delicious scent of coffee and bacon, and he almost decided to get up and have breakfast, then he changed his mind. He knew there would be plenty of both left for him. With a soft sigh, he turned over and went back to sleep.
Sometime later, he got up and leisurely dressed. He went downstairs and headed for the kitchen for some coffee. He had just poured a cup and sat down with a huge piece of chocolate cake when his father walked in. Murdoch’s eyes widened at his son’s choice of food for breakfast.
“There’s some bacon on the stove,” he suggested pointedly.
“I know. I’ll have some later. Right now, I’m gonna have some of Teresa’s cake.”
“It looks like you’re going to have ALL of it.”
Johnny stopped. “Didn’t you have some last night?” he asked innocently.
Murdoch nodded. “Yes.”
“Well, if ya wanted more, you should have had some. If I wait until tonight, it’ll be all gone.”
Murdoch chuckled. “Poor Teresa is just going to have to make another one. It’s a good thing she went into town with Scott for supplies.”
Johnny looked up, startled. “I thought you was gonna have him check out the pasture.”
“I was. But we needed supplies more, and Teresa wanted to buy some material.”
Johnny nodded slowly. He knew he shouldn’t be worried, but he was. “Maybe I should ride in and see if they need help. Some of those supplies can be awfully heavy, and Scott probably shouldn’t be liftin’ that much yet.”
“No, that’s not necessary. Cipriano was going into town, too, and he said he’d load the wagon before going on to visit his friends.”
“I guess,” Johnny said quietly.
Murdoch looked at his son quizzically. “What’s wrong? They’re just going into town.”
Johnny shrugged off his feeling of dread. Scott had assured him there wasn’t a problem, and he knew his brother wouldn’t lie to him. The only problem was, he also knew that Teresa could take longer to pick out material than any woman alive, and the only place to wait was the saloon. He looked up at his father.
“If it’s ok, I think I’ll ride in anyway.” He grinned. “Teresa might need some help pickin’ out that material.”
As Johnny rode toward town, his sense of urgency increased. He knew he was being silly, but he didn’t like the idea of Scott being in that saloon without him. He didn’t know why his brother was having such a problem lately, but he knew that the problem wouldn’t just go away. Since they had first come to Lancer, he and Scott had spent many hours in saloons, and he had never seen his brother drunk. Scott always knew when to quit, just like he did. Apparently, that was a good thing where Scott was concerned, because he was obviously a mean drunk, something Johnny wouldn’t have believed until he’d seen it with his own eyes.
It still didn’t make sense to him. It seemed that if his brother had a problem, they would have seen it before now, but evidently having to drink regularly to mask the pain of his leg had triggered something. Johnny spurred Barranca up a small ridge above the road leading to Morro Coyo and looked toward town. He had cut across country in order to save time, but now it was time to return to the road. Besides, it was possible that if Teresa had hurried, they could be on their way back by now, and Johnny didn’t want to miss them.
He headed toward town, his mind a million miles away. He was worried about Scott, and he was worried what impact his brother’s ‘problem’ would have on their family. He knew that Murdoch wouldn’t tolerate what he considered a weakness for very long before he would blow up. Johnny had been surprised by his father’s seeming patience so far, but he also knew it wouldn’t last.
A soft snort from Barranca brought his attention back from his musings, and he saw a cloud of dust coming toward him. A moment later he was aware of the rumble of wheels and the thundering of hooves. He pulled Barranca up short, trying to see what the problem was. A woman’s short scream galvanized him into action, and he spurred the palomino toward the rapidly approaching wagon.
As he neared the wagon, he recognized the people inside, and he hauled on the reins, pulling Barranca around so he was aimed in the same direction as the wagon. The wagon thundered by, and Johnny saw Scott in the driver’s seat, hanging on to Teresa. The reins were flying around the horses’ hooves, and the spooked horses had flecks of foam on their sweating bodies. Johnny sent Barranca after the wagon, and the powerful horse easily caught up to the tired team. Johnny reached over and grabbed the closest dangling rein and pulled back on the palomino, gradually slowing the spooked team to a halt.
As soon as the wagon had stopped, Johnny jumped down and ran over to the wagon. Teresa was sobbing hysterically, and she held out her hands to him. He reached up and grabbed her by the waist and lifted her down.
“Are you all right?” he asked anxiously.
Teresa nodded, unable to talk yet, but the tears were still evident on her face, and she was trembling uncontrollably. Johnny reached out and pulled her close, relieved she hadn’t been hurt. He looked over at his brother, who was still sitting on the seat.
“What happened, Scott?”
Scott looked up at his brother with bleary eyes, and he shrugged. “I guess I lost the reins.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Have you been drinkin?”
Scott shook his head and looked at Johnny indignantly. “I only had one beer.”
Johnny turned back and looked at Teresa questioningly, and she dropped her head. He lifted her chin with his hand until he was looking into her eyes. “What happened?” he demanded softly.
“I don’t know.”
She shrugged. “He seemed a little quiet when I met him out by the wagon, but I thought that maybe he was just tired. Then after we had left town, he started acting strangely. I asked him what was wrong, but he didn’t answer me, and then he started cursing at the horses. He was using the whip on them, and they bolted. Instead of trying to stop them, he just yelled at them to go faster. Finally, he lost the reins.” Teresa shuddered. “I was so afraid,” she said in a small voice.
Johnny took a deep breath. If he hadn’t come along when he did, Scott’s stunt could have been tragic. A mile or so further on, the road turned sharply, with a steep bank on either side. They both easily could have been killed. He looked up as Scott was trying to climb down off of the wagon. The blond missed his step, and he fell down next to the wagon. Johnny walked over and hauled him up by his arms.
“Damn it, Scott! What’s the matter with you! Can’t you stay away from that damn booze? You both could have been killed!”
Scott pulled away from his brother. “I had it handled.”
Johnny snorted. “Oh, yeah, you had it handled all right.”
Johnny pushed Scott away from him, then went over to his saddle and pulled his canteen off of it. He uncorked it, then walked back to his brother and poured it over his head. Scott threw a punch at Johnny, but the gunfighter easily stepped away, and Johnny grabbed him once more.
“You’d better sober up fast!” Johnny growled, and dumped some more water over Scott’s head. Scott sputtered and shook, then tried to push his brother’s hand away.
“I mean it, Scott!”
“Leave me alone!”
Johnny pushed him back down. “Don’t tempt me, brother. Right now, I could leave you out here with no problem. In fact, it just MIGHT be a good idea, ‘cause if the Old Man sees ya like this, he’s gonna shoot ya. And that’s BEFORE he finds out what kind of a stupid stunt ya pulled.”
Teresa grabbed Johnny’s hand. “Don’t tell Murdoch.”
Johnny shook his head. “Teresa, you could have been killed.”
“But we weren’t,” she argued. “Please. He didn’t do it on purpose.”
Johnny sighed and looked over at Scott, who was sitting on the ground where Johnny had shoved him. As Johnny watched, his brother leaned over and was sick. Johnny closed his eyes, then went over and put his arm around Scott’s shoulder. “Let’s see if we can get you fixed up, and then take you home. I can’t guarantee anything, but we MIGHT be able to convince Murdoch nothing happened. But you DAMN well better get a handle on this, and soon.”
Johnny was jumpy the rest of the week. He kept expecting Murdoch to confront him, and he wasn’t sure he could lie to his father, or even if he should. When the three of them had come home after Scott’s stunt with the wagon, Murdoch hadn’t said anything, but Johnny could tell by his expression that he had somehow known they were hiding something. Since then, Johnny had seen Murdoch looking at both he and Scott in an appraising manner that made him nervous.
Johnny had waited several days to talk to his brother, because he had wanted to make sure his temper wouldn’t get in the way when he finally confronted him. He had never been as angry with Scott as he was now, but he also knew that Scott was unable to help himself. Still, it was the first time Scott had ever really disappointed him. He had always thought of Scott as completely responsible and someone he could look up to. This last couple of months had shaken that belief, and it bothered him to think he had been so wrong.
He had finally talked to his brother when they were both out working. They had been alone, and Johnny knew there was no one around to eavesdrop. He had watched as Scott angrily tore out the tangled brush and sent the debris flying. Scott hadn’t said a dozen words since the incident, and he wasn’t talking now. Johnny went over and laid a hand on his brother’s arm.
“We need ta talk.”
Scott stopped, his chest heaving and his breath coming in short pants from the exertion. He stood there several seconds, thinking, and then he finally nodded and climbed out of the wash and headed for a nearby tree. There he leaned against the trunk for several seconds, and then slid down, as if he were too tired to stand. He buried his head in his hand.
“I can’t believe I endangered Teresa like that,” he whispered. “I’d never do anything to hurt her…to hurt any of you.”
Johnny sat down next to his brother. “I know that, we all do.”
“Johnny, I’ve been thinking about it ever since it happened, and I KNOW I didn’t have that much to drink,” Scott insisted.
“You hold it right there! You’d had PLENTY ta drink. If you want our help, you have ta stop denying this.”
“I only had one beer!”
Johnny looked at his brother in disgust. “Don’t you mean that’s all you can remember having?”
Scott hesitated for several seconds, then hesitantly nodded his head. “I guess. I don’t remember, but I just can’t believe I would have had more, especially when I knew I had to drive Teresa home.”
“Maybe I have some sort of a reaction to alcohol all of a sudden!” Scott said eagerly. “That would explain it!”
Johnny shook his head. “I already thought about that, but that ain’t the way it happened.”
“How do you know?”
Johnny dropped his head. “I asked Cip. You had said you had been with him when you had the beer, so I asked him. He didn’t want to say, but I finally convinced him he had to talk.” He looked at his brother. “I want you to know he was tryin’ to protect you, but I got him to tell me the truth. He told me that you’d been sitting there when he walked in, and had obviously had at least one. When he ordered another one, so did you. He said in the hour or so that the two of you were in the saloon, he had two beers, and you had at least six. He said he finally talked you into leaving, and he helped you out to the wagon. He offered to drive the two of you home, but you refused, in fact, he said you were pretty rude about it.
Scott’s eyes closed. “I guess I owe him an apology.”
“Yeah, you do. I assume you’ve already apologized to Teresa.”
Scott nodded glumly. “It seems I owe everyone an apology, including you. Teresa said I tried to hit you.”
Johnny grinned at his brother. “Yeah, you tried, but you weren’t in the best shape. It was pretty easy to a get outta your way.”
“I know.” Johnny hesitated. “So what are we gonna do about it? Unless you can get this under control, Murdoch’s gonna find out eventually.”
“I thought I HAD it under control!” Scott exploded. “I could have sworn there wasn’t going to be any more problems! I don’t know what happened.”
“That’s what worries me. Scott, I can’t stay with you all the time. You’re gonna have ta stay away from booze. You can’t have even one drink, not unless I’m around ta stop you from makin’ an ass of yourself.”
Scott took a deep breath. “That’s easier said than done. It seems that’s ALL I’ve been doing lately.”
“Well, I have to admit, you’ve been doing a pretty good job of it.” He dropped his head. “Scott, I don’t like lyin’ ta Murdoch, and unless I see that you’re at least makin’ an effort, I won’t keep coverin’ for you, especially if I think you’re gonna hurt yourself or somebody else.”
Scott nodded slowly. “Thanks, brother, for trying to help me, and I won’t let you down.”
Johnny locked eyes with Scott. “You already did,” he said quietly.
Scott’s eyes dropped. “I know, and I’m sorry.”
“All right, just don’t do it again.”
“I won’t, and thanks.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what brothers are for. Of course, I WILL make ya pay,” Johnny informed him seriously.
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “And what am I gong to have to pay?”
“Don’t know yet. You’ll be the first ta know when I figure it out.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. Don’t you know it’s illegal, not to mention unethical, to blackmail your own brother?”
“Then you’d better start behaving yourself, hadn’t you?”
Scott smiled at his brother. “I guess so.” He turned serious. “I give you my word, Johnny, I won’t mess up again.”
Johnny nodded, then stood up and offered his brother his hand. “Let’s get back ta work before the old man fires both of us.”
Murdoch watched as his two sons ate their suppers. He knew something was going on, and he had a pretty good idea just what it was. He had spoken to Cipriano a few days before, and even thought his segundo hadn’t really told him much, he had let slip enough for Murdoch to know that his older son still had a problem with alcohol. Although he was glad that his sons were close enough to protect each other, he was disappointed that they felt that Scott had to be protected from him.
“Johnny, I’d like you to take Teresa into town tomorrow, and pick up some supplies,” Murdoch said.
Johnny’s head shot up, and his father didn’t miss the quick look he gave his brother.
“I was plannin’ on workin’ on that bad fence line with Scott tomorrow,” Johnny countered.
“I’m sure your brother can handle it himself. I need you to go into town,” Murdoch insisted with finality.
Johnny shot his brother another look, then shrugged. “All right. But I should be back in time ta help him in the afternoon.”
Murdoch nodded. “If you want. But you don’t have to.”
Johnny looked steadily at his brother. “I’ll be there.”
Scott nodded slightly, and Murdoch watched as his two sons communicated silently, and he frowned. Whatever was going on, Johnny didn’t want to leave Scott alone, and that worried Murdoch.
The next morning, Johnny put up another argument against going into town, but Murdoch insisted. The gunfighter finally gave up and after shooting a warning glance at his brother, he left for town with Teresa. Scott left to work on the fence line a few minutes later, and Murdoch walked out and found Cipriano working in the barn.
“Cipriano, I wonder if you’d do me a favor,” Murdoch asked.
“I wonder if you’d ride out and check on Scott in a few hours. He’s working in the east pasture.”
The segundo looked confused, but nodded, “Si Senor.”
Murdoch walked back onto the house, worried about his son. If he still had a problem, they would have to do something about it, and soon. A ranch was a dangerous enough place without trying to work in a less than a normal state.
Murdoch worked around the barn for the rest of the morning. He noticed when Cipriano rode out, and checked the time, impatient for his segundo’s report. He hoped he was overreacting, but from Johnny’s unwillingness to leave his brother even for that short of a time, Murdoch had the sick feeling he wasn’t.
Sometime later, Murdoch looked up as Cipriano rode back into the yard.
Cipriano nodded. “Si, Senor. Senor Scott was working on the fence, and only had a little bit left to do. He should be back in a couple of hours.”
“There weren’t any problems?”
Again the segundo looked perplexed, but he shook his head. “No, everything seemed fine.”
Murdoch nodded with relief. “Thanks, Cip. I really appreciate it.”
Murdoch relaxed. Apparently Scott wasn’t as out of control as he had feared. He went back to work, feeling much better than he had that morning. As the afternoon wore on, Murdoch started glancing down the road, expecting to see his older son any time. Instead, almost three hours later, he saw Johnny and Teresa approaching from town. He walked over and helped his ward out of the buggy.
“How did it go?” he asked.
Teresa gave him a dazzling smile. “I have enough material to last me for months,” she laughed. “They just got a new shipment in.”
Murdoch smiled and his attention turned toward his son. “Any problems?”
“Except for havin ta wait two hours while Teresa tried ta make up her mind about what she wanted ta buy, everything went fine.”
Murdoch chuckled. “I wouldn’t think you’d complain too much, since you probably waited in the saloon.”
Johnny shrugged. “I guess.”
Murdoch looked at his son quizzically. “Something wrong?”
Johnny shook his head. “No. I just don’t like drinkin’ as much as I used to,” he admitted.
Murdoch studied his son. “Just how bad is Scott?”
Johnny’s head shot up. “How should I know?”
Murdoch kept Johnny’s gaze. “I think you do know. You’ve been too protective about him lately.”
“So? I just don’t want him ta have a problem, that’s all.”
Murdoch watched his son critically, and knew he was avoiding the truth. His son was standing with his head down, his arms wrapped around himself in a protective gesture, and Murdoch tried to decide whether to push him. Before he could make up his mind, however, he saw Scott ride into the yard. The look of relief on Johnny’s face was obvious, but short lived.
Scott’s horse came to a wavering stop, and Scott dismounted, half falling when he hit the ground. Murdoch took a quick glance around, and his mouth tightened as he saw the hands pointedly look away. Murdoch marched over and grabbed Scott around the shoulders.
“Come on, get inside before you make more of a fool out of yourself,” he hissed.
Murdoch helped his son inside, with Johnny trailing behind. Murdoch pushed Scott down on the couch, then stood staring at him in disgust.
“I have HAD it with your behavior! It IS going to stop! Understand?”
Scott looked at him and nodded, then grabbed his mouth. “I don’t feel very well.”
“I’m not concerned about how you feel. I’m concerned about what you’re doing to yourself and this ranch! I have had ENOUGH! Do you understand? And I don’t think I even know all of it, do I?” He turned and looked at Johnny, who dropped his head.
Murdoch whirled back around toward Scott. “I mean it, Scott. I don’t want to make you have to leave, but I will if you can’t get this under control, NOW!”
Johnny grabbed his arm. “What are you sayin’? You don’t mean that, and you know it!”
“I just mean to get him help,” Murdoch explained, as he shrugged away from his younger son’s grasp.
“You’re not gonna send him away!” Johnny insisted. “We can help him, right here.”
Murdoch dropped his head, and Johnny pressed further. “Come on, Murdoch. He can’t help it. Don’t be so hard on him.”
Murdoch shut his eyes, then opened them quickly as the front door slammed open. One of the foremen came running in.
“Mister Lancer, the cattle in the east pasture stampeded and hit the fence. It looks pretty bad.”
“What spooked them?” Murdoch asked as he headed for the front door.
The cowboy glanced over to where Scott was collapsed on the couch. “Apparently, some barbed wire was left strung out on the ground, and they got tangled in it.”
Murdoch looked back over at his older son, who was trying to stand up.
“I’ll help,” Scott slurred.
“You stay here! I don’t even want to see you right now,” Murdoch snarled. “In fact, I’m not sure I want to see you when I get back, either.” He looked at Johnny. “Let’s go.”
Johnny thought briefly about suggesting he stay with Scott, but one look at his father’s face convinced him he’d better go with Murdoch and try to calm him down before things got even worse, if that was possible.
The two men rode in silence, each of them thinking about the man back at the house. Johnny was worried that Murdoch had really meant what he had said about sending his brother away, and although Johnny agreed that Scott needed help, he didn’t want to lose his brother, even for a little while. If he could just stay with him until Scott lost his urge to drink, they would all be ok. Maybe now Murdoch wouldn’t be so stubborn about it. On the other hand, he HAD stayed with Scott for long enough for him to get his problem under control, and it hadn’t done any good. Maybe Murdoch was right. Maybe Scott needed more help than they could give him. He just wasn’t sure any more.
They topped a rise, and Johnny looked down into the pasture and winced. There were carcasses of steers all along the downed fence line, and the hands were still trying to free some of the injured animals from the tangle of wire. The sharp report of a rifle proclaimed another lost battle. Johnny glanced at his father and saw the grim set to his mouth, and knew that his brother was in big trouble. The steers in this pasture were fat and market ready, and each one lost was like burning money. With a small sigh, Johnny kneed Barranca down the slope and started working. From the looks of things, they’d be out here for quite a while.
It was well past dark, and the funeral pyres of the slaughtered steers still lit up the night when Johnny and Murdoch finally climbed on their horses and headed for home. Johnny quickly spurred Barranca up next to his father’s sorrel.
“He didn’t do it on purpose,” Johnny said quietly.
“If I thought he did it on purpose, I’d kick him off the ranch,” Murdoch said matter of factly.
“Isn’t that what you’re plannin’ on doin’ anyway? Makin’ him leave?”
Murdoch sighed. “He needs help, Johnny. If we don’t get him that help soon, I’m afraid he’s going to wind up hurting himself or someone else.”
Johnny’s head dropped, remembering the runaway wagon.
Murdoch glanced at his son. “You know that already, don’t you?”
Johnny nodded silently.
“I’m not going to ask you what happened, but you’ve been covering for him, haven’t you?”
Johnny shrugged. “A little.” He turned pleading eyes toward his father. “He’s tryin’ so hard.”
“I know, but he obviously can’t do it himself.”
“Murdoch, please. Give him another chance. Let me stay with him and help him.”
Murdoch studied his son for several seconds. “Johnny, I know how close you and Scott are, and how important this is to you. I think it’s a bad idea, but I’ll give him one more chance. But if he messes up again…”
“He won’t,” Johnny hurriedly cut in. “I won’t let him.”
“All right. But I want your word that you’ll tell me if anything else happens.”
Johnny hesitated, then nodded. “All right. And thanks, Murdoch.”
Murdoch nodded uncertainly. “I just hope you’re not disappointed.”
Johnny shook his head emphatically. “Scott won’t disappoint me.”
Johnny was relieved that Scott was already upstairs asleep when they got home, and Murdoch made no move to go up and confront him. Johnny checked on his brother quickly, then went to his own room, knowing he’d have a hard day tomorrow. It took him quite a while to get to sleep, and his thoughts whirled around in his head. He hoped he hadn’t bitten off more than he could chew. He couldn’t take a chance on leaving his brother alone for even a minute, and he had a pretty good idea what his brother would have to say about that. It didn’t matter, though. Even if Scott got mad at him, he wasn’t about to let his brother down. Or Murdoch either, for that matter.
The next morning, Johnny was up early, and went out and checked his brother’s saddlebags to make sure there wasn’t a bottle hidden somewhere, then he came in and sat down at the table and waited for Scott to come down. So far, Murdoch hadn’t made an appearance, and Johnny was grateful. Evidently Murdoch was staying away from Scott for a while, and Johnny thought that was a very good idea.
Scott finally showed up almost an hour late, looking decidedly worse for wear. He plopped down in his seat and shoveled some eggs onto his plate without even looking up. Johnny smirked and looked down at his own empty plate. He knew from sad experience just how Scott was feeling right about now, but he wasn’t about to give his brother any sympathy.
“You about ready?” Johnny finally asked after watching his brother stir his food around for a while and try to get up enough courage to put it in his queasy stomach.
Scott sighed and gave up. “I guess. I suppose Murdoch told you what he wants done today.”
Johnny nodded. “Yep, we have ta finish up that pasture before we can move what’s left of the herd.”
Scott looked up sharply. “What do you mean, ‘what’s left of the herd’?”
Johnny studied his brother. “Apparently, you left some wire out yesterday. And also apparently, you were too busy drinkin’ ta notice.”
Scott turned even paler than he already was. “What happened?”
“Some of the cattle got caught up and started to stampede. The ones that could get out of the barbed wire on the ground ran right into the fence.”
“I wouldn’t do that!” Scott said emphatically.
“NO! I’m tired of getting’ blamed for things I didn’t do! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.” He stood up and headed for the door, but Johnny grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around.
“Now you listen ta me, brother. You DID do it, and you’d better start ownin’ up to the fact you have a problem, or you and me are gonna have an even BIGGER problem, understand?”
Scott stared at his brother for a moment, then his eyes dropped. “All right. I’m sorry.” He shook his head slowly. “The truth is, I can’t remember a thing.” He looked deep into his brother’s eyes. “Johnny, I’m afraid.”
Johnny quickly ate his supper, trying to avoid looking at his brother. Scott had been glaring at him throughout the whole meal, and Johnny doubted whether it would end anytime soon. His older brother had made it perfectly clear just what he thought about being shadowed every minute of every day, and to tell the truth, Johnny was pretty sick of it, too.
Finally, Scott jumped up and headed out the door.
“I’m going outside, IF it’s all right with you.” He glared at his younger brother, daring him to follow.
Johnny ducked his head back down and continued to eat. If Scott wanted to go off the wagon, then let him. He was tired of catching hell just because he was trying to help his big brother. Out of the corner of his eyes, Johnny caught his father looking at him, but Johnny chose to ignore the pointed look. He was tired of being a babysitter.
The door slammed behind Scott, and Murdoch spoke up. “Don’t you think you’d better go with him?”
“NO!” Johnny grumped.
Johnny slammed his fork down and glared at his father. “Look, I’ve checked the barn. There’s no booze hidden out there, and ta tell ya the truth, if there is, that’s his problem. I’m tired of him yellin’ at me.”
Murdoch looked silently at his son, and then nodded. Johnny sat for a minute, his fingers drumming on the table, then he jumped up and followed his brother outside.
Johnny walked around the back of the house, taking a deep breath and letting the stress roll off of him. As hard as this had been on him, he knew it had been harder on his brother. He headed over to Teresa’s garden where a dark shape was sitting on the stone bench. The shape sighed loudly when Johnny approached.
“Can’t you even trust me to sit here for a little while by myself?”
Johnny grinned and sat down next to his brother. “Sure. Just thought ya might be missin’ me.”
In spite of himself, Scott chuckled and moved over enough to give Johnny some room.
They sat for a while, both of them lost in their own thoughts.
“It’s pretty out here tonight,” Johnny observed.
Scott nodded. “I never get enough of watching the stars. They seem so close here.”
Johnny nodded at the sky, where a spot of light was moving rapidly among the stars.
“Make a wish.”
Scott smiled. “I think you already know what I wish for.”
Johnny looked at his brother curiously. “You think you’re still havin’ trouble?”
Scott shrugged. “I didn’t think I was having trouble before,” he snapped. He looked at his brother and sighed. “Look, I’m sorry. I know this hasn’t been exactly fun for you, either. I’m just so frustrated. How the hell do I know if I’m ‘cured’ if I don’t remember having any real craving for it before? It seemed like it just happened. But I appreciate you helping me and trying to keep me out of trouble with Murdoch.”
Johnny nodded. “You’d do the same for me.”
“But I haven’t had to,” Scott observed glumly.
“Give me some time,” Johnny grinned. “I’m sure I can get even with ya.”
Scott grinned back. “All right, brother. Anytime.”
“Don’t tempt me,” Johnny snorted. He stood up and stretched. “I think I’ll turn in. Comin?”
Scott shook his head. “No, I want to sit here for a while.” At his brother’s worried look, Scott smiled. “I’ll be good, I promise.” He held out his hands. “See, no booze. Go on. I’ll be in in a little while.”
Johnny hesitated, then nodded. “See ya in the mornin’.” He headed through the kitchen, and gave Maria a quick peck on the cheek as he went by.
“These for me?” he asked as he grabbed a handful of cookies. She smacked his hand with the spoon, making him drop the loot back on the counter.
“What did you do that for?” he asked in a hurt tone.
“Those are not for you. Those are for Senor Scott.”
She picked up another bunch. “THESE are for you.”
“What difference does it make?”
Maria shook her head. “None. Except those have raisins in them, and you know you hate raisins,” she explained as she handed him the bunch.
Satisfied, he took a bite. “Well ya didn’t have ta hit me,” he complained.
“Next time, you ask instead of grabbing,” she countered. “You should have manners like your brother.”
“Now you know you love it when I steal cookies,” Johnny grinned.
Maria waved her spoon at him, and he retreated toward the stairs. He had worked hard today, and he was tired, although he knew it would be some time before he could sleep. There was too much on his mind, and Scott was at the top of his list. It had been over a month since the incident with the cattle, and Johnny fervently hoped that the problem was behind them, but he wasn’t sure. Apparently, Scott wasn’t sure, either, and that bothered him.
Tiredly, he closed his door behind him and tore off his shirt, draping it over the chair for tomorrow. Instead of falling into bed, he plopped down into the chair that faced the barn and put his feet up on the bed. He looked out the window for a while, then tipped his head back and rested it on the back of his chair and closed his eyes. Some time later, he drifted off.
Johnny’s feet hit the floor, and he automatically went for his gun before he realized the threat wasn’t from inside. He heard shouting and screams, and he ran to the window and looked out. The smoke was billowing out of the barn, and the hands were already trying to stop the blaze. Johnny tore out of the room, taking the stairs at a dead run, and was out of the door in seconds.
He ran toward the barn, and as he ran, he yelled at one of the hands.
“Are all of the horses out?”
The hand started to answer, but his voice was drowned out by a horse’s terrified scream.
Johnny head came up and his eyes widened. “Barranca!”
Johnny ran toward the barn, and Cipriano grabbed him around the waist from behind. “No, Senor. The fire is too far along.”
“Let go of me! I have ta get Barranca!”
The segundo tightened his grip, knowing Johnny could not be reasoned with when it came to his horse. The bond between Johnny and the wild palomino was legendary, but Cipriano wasn’t willing to lose his nephew because of a horse, not even that one. He knew Johnny would be devastated, but he would be alive. There were other horses.
Johnny rammed his elbow into his uncle’s stomach and wrenched free. He dove into the horse trough, then leaped out, barely escaping his uncle’s grasp once more. He took several deep breaths, and then headed into the smoky building. His eyes started watering immediately, and the black smoke filled his lungs. He could feel the heat as it singed his hair, and he could see the steam coming off of his wet clothes before the smoke made his eyes slam shut against the assault.
He gave up trying to see, and headed toward the sound of his horse’s frantic cries, feeling his way along cautiously. He could hear the hard hooves as they battered against the sides of his prison, and Johnny cursed silently. He had reinforced the stall himself, after Barranca had broken out and gone after a mare in heat. It hadn’t been the first time, either, and Murdoch had made it clear it had better not happen again. Johnny had used the thickest oak boards he could find, then put iron strapping around the whole thing. He had put massive iron hinges on the door, and the lock was strong enough to hold an elephant. There was no way the palomino could break free. If Barranca was to live, he’d have to get him out. He tried to ignore the pleading cries of the other horses. In a few moments, the whole barn would come down and he’d only have time to rescue one. That is, if he were lucky. If he wasn’t, they’d both die. But it didn’t matter, he wasn’t going to lose his horse. Except for Scott, Barranca was his best friend and he had no intention of letting the palomino down.
Johnny doubled up coughing as the smoke filled his lungs, and he desperately tried to catch his breath. He could feel the heat intensify, and knew he was running out of time. The rafters were burning, and would soon give way. After a moment, he straightened up and forced himself forward. Barranca’s screams were closer now, and he lurched forward, desperate to save his friend. He had only gone a short ways when he went to his knees as something rolled underneath his foot.
He reached down and grabbed an empty bottle of brandy. He looked at it dumbly for a second before the implication registered. “Scott,” he breathed. He saw an overturned lantern a few yards away, obviously the beginning of the inferno. It was right next to where his brother liked to sit when he wanted to get away from things. Was Scott still inside the barn? He threw the bottle aside and cursed.
“Scott!” he yelled as best he could before a coughing fit overtook him once more. There was no answer, and as his coughing subsided somewhat, he looked around, but didn’t see anything. Surely Scott would leave, no matter how drunk he was. Johnny wasn’t sure how long he had been asleep, but he didn’t think Scott would have had time to get drunk enough to pass out. His brother HAD to be outside. He took another step toward his horse, whose cries were becoming even more frantic, and then Johnny caught something out of the corner of his eyes. He whirled around, and saw a form slumped over a bale of hay. Johnny glanced toward where the horse was pleading for help. “Sorry, compadre,” Johnny whispered as he turned toward his brother.
He reached Scott, who was apparently unconscious, and he grabbed him under the arms and began dragging him toward safety. He heard the roaring flames coming closer, and the creaking and groaning of the rafters as they started to give way. The very air seemed to get sucked away by the flames, only to be replaced by the thick smoke. A beam fell across his path, and he automatically skirted around it, his breaths coming in agonized gasps. He tried not to think, and concentrated simply on making his way back to the door and safety. Barranca’s screams turned into shrieks of agony, and Johnny felt the tears running down his face at the choice he’d had to make.
He doubled over once more, unable to breathe. He knew he’d never make it. He didn’t have the strength, but he refused to leave his brother. He sank to his knees, hoping the air would be fresher down low and began to crawl, pulling his brother behind him. Barranca’s shrieks followed him unmercifully, and then there was a loud crash as part of the barn roof finally gave way. The horse’s cries were cut off, and Johnny couldn’t help but look around in the direction of the palomino’s stall. There was just a pile of burning lumber, and he quickly turned away from the sight.
He dragged his brother a few more yards before giving up. He could see the welcoming doorway through the flames, but it was just too far, and he couldn’t breathe. Resignedly, he lay across his brother’s limp body and closed his eyes, waiting for the end. He held his brother tightly, thankful that Scott was unconscious and wouldn’t know what was going on. He just hoped the smoke got him before the fire did.
The barn gave a massive groan, and the timbers screamed in protest as the rest of the roof gave way. Johnny’s eyes flew open, and he grabbed his brother tighter as a beam came crashing down on top of them. His last thought was that he hoped his father could get past their deaths.
Johnny’s eyes fluttered open, and immediately he started coughing uncontrollably. He felt Murdoch’s strong arms around him as his father sat him up and pounded him on the back. It was several minutes before Johnny was able to catch his breath, and every time he inhaled it felt like someone was sticking a knife in his ribs. Finally, he was able to stop coughing, and he felt his father’s firm grip ease him back on the pillows.
“Are you ok?” Murdoch asked worriedly.
Johnny tried to answer, but the effort set off another bout of coughing, and he sat up, trying to catch his breath. When he was able to breathe again, he nodded in answer to Murdoch’s question. His father looked at him doubtfully, then handed him a glass of water, and Johnny gratefully accepted it. It felt like his throat was full of broken glass. He took several gulps, but it hurt to swallow, and he set the glass on the nightstand, then leaned back and closed his eyes.
“What happened?” he croaked.
“Don’t you remember?”
Johnny started to shake his head, the stopped as the memory surfaced. “The barn – it was on fire,” he whispered.
Murdoch nodded. “I thought I’d lost you,” he said quietly. “We almost didn’t get you out.”
Johnny studied his father’s face. “Scott?” he asked hoarsely, starting another bout of coughing. It was several minutes before he could stop the attack, then he looked at his father enquiringly.
Murdoch nodded. “He’s in better shape than you are. Apparently you protected him from being hurt worse than he was. We found you together, both unconscious. You were sprawled on top of him, and the beam had fallen on you.”
“Well, you have several cracked ribs and a slight concussion. You also have some burns on your back and legs and you dislocated your shoulder. Sam put your shoulder back in, but he said you’ll have to take it easy for a while. He was more worried about your lungs. You inhaled a lot of smoke, and he said we’ll have to watch closely to make sure it doesn’t turn into pneumonia.”
“What’s wrong with Scott?” Johnny whispered before coughing some more.
“A few minor burns, a bump on the head, and smoke inhalation.”
Johnny nodded, relieved that his brother was all right, but that reminded him of the choice he’d made in the barn. “Barranca’s dead,” he said matter of factly, but he still looked up at his father, hoping for a miracle.
Murdoch sighed deeply. “I’m sorry, son. None of the horses survived.”
Johnny closed his eyes once more, trying to block out the memory of his horse’s screams from his mind. At least his brother was all right. He had really thought that neither one of them would get out, there at the last. They had both almost died, all because of a stupid fire. Johnny’s face darkened as he remembered the empty bottle, and he licked his lips nervously, wondering what had really happened. He didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but the evidence pointed toward only one thing.
“Did you figure out how it got started?” he asked nonchalantly.
Murdoch’s continued silence made Johnny open his eyes and look at his father questioningly.
Murdoch finally nodded. “I think so.”
“Apparently a lantern was knocked over,” Murdoch said abruptly.
Johnny felt his stomach churning. “You don’t know how it got knocked over?” he asked cautiously.
“I think you know, don’t you?” Murdoch asked softly.
Johnny thought about lying, and then the memory of Barranca’s screams forced itself into his mind. “I think so,” he admitted miserably.
“We found an empty bottle of brandy in the wreckage, and Cipriano saw Scott go into the barn about an hour before that.”
Johnny closed his eyes and shook his head. He tried to simply be grateful that he and Scott were alive, but he couldn’t stop the anger from surfacing.
“Damn it, he promised me! He looked me in the face and promised! I really thought he was strong enough to do this. And now…” Johnny shook his head. “I’ll never forget Barranca screaming for help, and I had to leave him in there to die. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Scott for that.” He looked up at his father. “You were right. I never should have tried to help him. We should have gotten him professional help. I guess now we won’t have a choice.”
“No, we won’t. It’s too dangerous to try to keep him here.”
Johnny’s head bowed. He had mixed feeling about sending Scott away. He didn’t want to lose his brother, but the memory of his beloved horse tempered that feeling. Scott needed help, and if he didn’t get that help, he might lose his brother permanently, one way or the other.
“Have you told him that yet?” Johnny asked softly.
“No, I haven’t. I thought I’d wait until he was better. Maybe if we both talk to him, it won’t be so hard.”
A ghost of a smile appeared on Johnny’s face. “I doubt it. No matter how we bring it up, I have the feelin’ Scott won’t be happy about it.” He looked up at his father. “He could refuse, you know.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “Yes, he could. But either way, he can’t stay here.”
“Scott was always so strong, so…proper. I just can’t believe he’s havin’ this problem. I just could never imagine him EVER getting’ out of control. It just doesn’t seem like him somehow.”
“No, it doesn’t, but that’s beside the point. We were wrong about him, that’s all. And it doesn’t mean I don’t still love him and want him to get better and come back.” He looked at his son. “What about you? How do you feel about him?”
Johnny shrugged. “He’s my brother, and he always will be. But I can’t say I’m not mad as hell at him right now.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “I think he needs to know that. It might help him make the right decision.” I know he’d never do anything on purpose to hurt you. Your opinion is important to him.”
Johnny snorted. “If it was that important, he woulda quit a long time ago.”
Johnny heard his door open, and a second later, soft footsteps hesitantly approached the bed.
“Johnny, are you awake?”
Johnny thought about pretending to be asleep, but he knew he’d have to have this conversation sometime. He just wished Murdoch was in here, too. It had been four days since the fire, and each time his brother had come into his room, Johnny had feigned sleep. He really didn’t want to talk to him.
He waited a minute, then heard Scott’s soft sigh as he turned to leave. Johnny’s eyes came open.
Scott immediately turned back toward the bed. “How are you doing?”
Scott stood next to the bed, uncertain what to say. “I’m sorry.”
Johnny’s head dropped and he didn’t answer.
“Murdoch told me about Barranca and he said that I was the one that started that fire,” he said flatly.
Johnny glanced up sharply. “Don’t you remember?”
Scott shook his head slowly. “The last thing I remember about that night was sitting in the garden. Then, I woke up in my bed.”
“You have a pretty convenient memory.”
“I don’t think it’s convenient at all!” Scott snapped. “IF I’m doing these things, I’d like to know it.”
“What do you mean, IF?” Johnny shot back.
“I mean, I can’t remember doing ANY of the things I’ve been accused of doing. I think someone’s trying to frame me.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, sure. I SAW you wreckin’ the great room, remember? I SAW you passed out at the bottom of those stars.” He glared at his brother. “Or do you think I’M lyin’?”
Scott stared back for a minute, then dropped his head. “No, I know you’re not,” he said quietly. “But I just don’t understand why I can’t remember.”
“Scott, you need help. More help than I can give you. More help than WE can give you.”
“What does that mean?”
Johnny hesitated, wishing Murdoch would show up. “Murdoch and I think it would be best if you got some professional help.”
“You think I’m crazy?”
“No. But you obviously have a problem that you can’t control, and it’s too dangerous for you to stay here until you CAN control it.” Johnny’s head dropped, not wanting to see his brother’s reaction.
“You want me to leave,” Scott said in disbelief.
Johnny didn’t reply, and Scott shook his head slowly. “I can’t believe it. My own brother.”
Johnny’s head came up, and he glared at Scott. “You didn’t hear Barranca screamin’ for help. He could see me, he knew I was there, and he was wonderin’ why I didn’t help him.”
“Why didn’t you?” Scott asked softly. “If you were there? Couldn’t you get to him?”
“Because I chose ta get my brother out instead!” Johnny barked.
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t have,” Scott spat back.
“What the hell is THAT supposed ta mean?”
“You obviously hate me. Maybe you should have gotten your beloved horse out and left me to die. Maybe you made the wrong choice.”
“I don’t hate you! And if you think ANY horse means more to me than my own brother, you’re crazy! But yeah, I’m mad. You KILLED my horse! Johnny’s eyes closed. “I thought you were stronger than that. I thought that together we could handle it, but I was wrong.” His eyes flew open. “But I’m not going to make that mistake again! I’m not goin’ ta let anybody else get hurt or die because of your ‘problem’, including you, understand? I’m not gonna cover for you any more. You need ta go get help.”
“Whether I think I need it or not,” Scott said flatly.
“You NEED it, Scott! And if you refuse, I swear, it’ll be over between you and me.”
Scott glared at his brother for a moment, and then turned and left the room, shutting the door behind him.
Johnny tossed and turned all night, debating with himself whether he should get up and try to talk to his brother again. He certainly didn’t want to lose him, but he also knew things couldn’t continue the way they were. Scott HAD to admit to himself that he had a problem, and then get help. He finally drifted off into a troubled sleep, just as the sun was coming up.
The smell of coffee woke him, and he looked up groggily to see the unmistakable form of his father standing by the bed. Johnny pushed himself into a sitting position. “Hey,” he said softly.
“Hey, yourself. How do you feel?”
Murdoch handed him a mug, and Johnny took it gratefully. He took a few sips, then looked up at his father. “I talked ta Scott last night.”
“How did it go?”
Johnny’s face darkened. “He still doesn’t think he has a problem. In fact he said he thinks someone’s framin’ him.”
Murdoch shook his head and sighed. “He’s in denial. He doesn’t want to admit it, even to himself, especially when I told him about Barranca.”
Johnny nodded. “He got mad at me when I told him. He said that maybe I should have saved Barranca instead.”
Murdoch sighed. “He needs help, and we have to make him realize that, before it’s too late.”
Johnny’s head dropped. “I told him if he didn’t get help, I… I wouldn’t be his brother any more.”
Murdoch studied his son. “Did you mean it?”
Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess not.” Finally he shook his head. “No, I didn’t mean it. But he can’t keep doin’ stuff,” he said miserably. “Somebody’s gonna get hurt.” Johnny drained the rest of his coffee.
“SOMEBODY already did,” Murdoch pointed out. “And I’m not going to wait until I lose one of you to insist that he do the right thing. He’s GOING to get help, whether he wants to or not.” Murdoch took the empty cup back from his son. “Now get some rest. Sam said if you behave yourself, you can get up tomorrow.”
“About time,” Johnny grumbled as his eyes slid shut.
Johnny woke up early. He had been doing nothing but lying around for what seemed like forever, and he was eager to get up and get back to work. Usually, his first trip would be out to the barn, but that was the last place he wanted to go this time. Maybe he would settle for the great room.
As he passed Scott’s room, he glanced in, and then stopped. His brother was obviously packing, and Johnny suddenly felt his stomach knot. He leaned against the doorframe, waiting for Scott to acknowledge him. Finally, the blond looked up and nodded. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
Johnny walked over to the bed and sat down. “Did you talk to Murdoch?” he asked quietly.
Scott nodded. “Yes, I did.”
Johnny waited, but his brother didn’t offer any more information.
“And?” Johnny finally asked.
“And, he told me I’d have to leave the ranch and go get some help.”
He’s right, you need help.”
Scott stopped and stared at his brother. “No, I don’t. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, and I’m convinced that I can handle this by myself.”
Johnny stared at him in disbelief. “Handle it? HANDLE IT? BARRANCA is DEAD because of your ‘problem! You can’t handle it and you know it!”
“I think I can,” Scott replied calmly. “I just need to get away from here for a while. I’m sorry about your horse, but I’m also convinced that I wasn’t the one that set that fire. I wouldn’t have done that.”
“Do you even REMEMBER what happened?” Johnny demanded.
Scott stopped for a moment, then shook his head. “No.”
“Then what makes you think you didn’t do it?”
Scott shut his eyes. “I don’t know. A feeling maybe. I just know I wouldn’t have done that.”
Johnny stared in disbelief. “You’re foolin’ yourself, Scott.” He nodded at the clothes Scott was packing. “So if you’re not gonna get help, then where ARE you goin? Boston?” he spat.
Scott glared at his brother. “NO!” he said abruptly. “I plan on staying at a line shack until I can get this figured out.”
“Murdoch’s ok with that?” Johnny asked in disbelief.
“It’s none of his business.”
Johnny snorted. “I have the feeling he MIGHT disagree with you, and I KNOW I do.”
“It’s none of your business, either,” Scott said abruptly.
“None of my business?” Johnny’s voice rose. “I’ve been coverin’ your ass through this whole mess, and the only thanks I got for it was a dead horse.”
“Well maybe you shouldn’t have covered for me,” Scott snapped. “Look, I’m sorry about Barranca, but I’m not going to apologize again, because I don’t think it was my fault.” He picked up his gear and started to leave, but Johnny grabbed him by the arm.
“Then whose fault is it? I told ya we were gonna have problems if you didn’t own up to this. And what happens when you mess up again? Who’s gonna drag your carcass outta that cabin when you set THAT on fire?
Scott wrenched his arm away from his brother. “Then I guess I’ll get what I deserve, won’t I, and then you won’t have to worry about it any more.”
“What’s the matter with you? WHY can’t you just admit you need help?”
Scott looked at him accusingly. “I THOUGHT you trusted me, and I thought I could trust you.”
“You CAN trust me!”
“Can I? I believe you were just fine with sending me off to one of those snake pits they call asylums.”
“You think I WANT you to go there?” Johnny shut his eyes. “Scott, you almost DIED. I tried to help you, but it didn’t work. YOU…NEED…HELP!”
“You don’t trust me.”
“TRUST has nothin’ ta do with it. I’m not gonna let you kill yourself or anybody else just ta make you feel good.”
Scott pinned his brother with his gaze. “If you REALLY trusted me, you’d believe me when I tell you that DON’T have a drinking problem, and you’d help me convince Murdoch that I don’t have to leave.”
Johnny shook his head “I can’t do that, Scott,” he said quietly.
The blond nodded, then brushed past his brother. “Then I guess I’m on my own.”
Johnny watched as his brother disappeared down the stairs, then he slowly followed. He stood just inside the great room and listened while his brother and father argued, but he didn’t interfere. He was angry as hell that his brother doubted him, but for some reason he also felt guilty for not backing him. He didn’t want to give Scott any more reason to doubt him, but he couldn’t bring himself to help him argue with his father, either. Finally, Scott stormed out and a few minutes later, he heard Charlie’s hooves galloping out of the yard.
Johnny slowly walked over to Murdoch’s desk, and Murdoch looked up at him angrily. “Why didn’t you help me convince him he was wrong?”
“I did. He and I locked horns pretty good upstairs.”
Murdoch calmed down a little. “You obviously didn’t have any better luck than I did.”
“All I managed ta do was convince him that I don’t give a damn about him,” Johnny snapped.
“He knows better than that,” Murdoch said impatiently.
“Does he? I’m not so sure about that. He asked me ta trust him, to believe him when he said he didn’t need help, and I couldn’t.”
Murdoch stood up and walked around the desk, then put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “He knows better, and he’ll come around and realize that eventually.”
“Yeah,” Johnny snorted. “If he doesn’t wind up killin’ himself or somebody else first.” He shook his head. “Murdoch, I have a bad feeling about this.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “So do I. Maybe we can keep an eye on him.”
“He’d probably shoot me if I showed up,” Johnny looked at his father. “Probably shoot you, too.”
Murdoch shrugged. “Then we won’t go. I’ll send Cip or Frank up there with some supplies. They can check things out.”
“What about Jelly?”
Murdoch frowned. “Jelly has made himself pretty scarce for the last week or so. I’ve only seen him once or twice. Says he’s busy.”
“Ok.” Johnny said tiredly. “He’s probably workin’ on one of his famous projects. I guess it’s up to Frank and Cip. We’d better alert Val, too. Just in case Scott decides ta fall off the wagon.”
“I don’t want you workin yet, but Sam said you could ride. Why don’t you go into town tomorrow and talk to Val, and I’ll tell Cipriano to have the boys keep an eye on the shack.”
Johnny felt a lump form in his throat at the thought of riding without Barranca. “All right,” he said quietly.
“I’m sorry, son.”
Johnny nodded. “Maybe Scott was right. Maybe if he’s by himself he can beat this thing.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “Maybe, but somehow I doubt it.”
Chapter Twenty One
Johnny walked into the great room and poured himself a drink. He stared at the liquid for a moment in indecision, and then threw it back. He wondered again how Scott was doing, and decided he’d ride up to the line shack the next day and find out. He didn’t like being at odds with his brother, and no matter how mad he was at him, Scott was still his best friend. He knew Scott couldn’t help what had happened, but losing Barranca hurt more than he could have imagined. What hurt most was that Scott still denied any wrongdoing. Johnny had decided to give him some space to see if his brother could figure things out on his own, but it had been long enough. Scott had been staying at the shack for almost a week, and it was time for the two to have a serious talk. He hoped Scott would at least admit he had been wrong. If he didn’t, or wouldn’t, Johnny wasn’t sure what he would do.
He glanced over to the desk where Murdoch was supposed to be busy with the books, but his father was deep in thought. With a sigh, Johnny headed for the sofa and plopped down. A few moments later, he jumped to his feet when he heard a horse galloping into the yard. Everyone knew that only the direst emergencies called for disobeying the rule of running a horse inside the arch. Johnny’s mind immediately went to his brother, but he resolutely pushed the thought away. It could be anything. He raced to the door and threw it open, with Murdoch a step behind.
One of their hands threw himself off of the horse. “Mr. Lancer, you’d better get into town, fast!”
Johnny grabbed the man by his shirt, the icy tendrils of fear licking at his heart. Unreasonably, he KNEW his brother was in trouble. “What’s wrong?”
The man licked his lips, his eyes darting between Johnny and Murdoch. Johnny gave him another shake, and the hand finally found his voice. “Mr. Scott, he’s …he’s in jail. Sheriff Crawford arrested him.”
Johnny felt the blood drain away from his face. “For what?” he demanded.
“WHO?” Murdoch bellowed.
Johnny shook his head in shock. Frank Cooper had been a Lancer foreman since before Johnny and Scott had returned home. He had helped both of the boys adjust to ranch life and was a good friend and poker buddy.
“There’s been some mistake. Scott wouldn’t do that,” Johnny said pleadingly to his father.
“Scott tried to kill Cipriano, too,” the hand offered reluctantly. “He’s at the Doc’s, gettin’ the bullet out.”
Murdoch took a deep breath, but didn’t meet his son’s eyes. “Let’s go.”
For a second time that day, the rule about not running horses inside the arch was shattered. The two men raced their mounts toward Green River, each of them lost in their own thoughts, and each praying this was all some sort of horrible mistake, but knowing in their hearts that it wasn’t. When they reached town, they knew the word had already spread. The townspeople glanced their way, but wouldn’t meet their eyes. The two men guided their horses to the jail and jumped off, then bolted for the office. Val met them out in front, a grim set to his face.
“You’d better get in here,” he ordered as he held the door open.
Johnny ignored the lawman and went directly to the cell that held his brother. Scott was sitting on the cot, his head in his hands
“What happened?” Johnny demanded of his brother.
Scott slowly raised his head and looked at his brother. “You were right,” he whispered.
Johnny grabbed the bars and shook them. “What do you mean I was right? About what?” The fear in his voice was obvious.
Scott smiled sadly. “I couldn’t handle it. I should have admitted it, and gotten help instead of trying to do it myself.”
Murdoch walked up to the cell. “Scott,” he said hopefully. “What happened?’
Scott shook his head. “I don’t know.” At Johnny’s expression, Scott’s sad smile widened slightly. “I really don’t.”
Scott’s face grew thoughtful. “I remember working on the pasture this morning, and I remember coming back to the shack to eat.” He shook his head on resignation. “That’s all.” His voice trailed off.
“THEN WHAT?” Johnny demanded, his voice rising. “You have to remember more than that!”
Scott took a deep breath. “I came to sitting in the cabin, holding my rifle. I vaguely remembered firing it at someone, but I couldn’t quite remember who. Before I could figure it out, Val came and got me.” He dropped his head again. “I don’t remember…I couldn’t…wouldn’t… shoot anyone in the back, but especially Frank. He was a friend.” Scott shook his head in resignation. “I just don’t understand.”
Johnny shook his head emphatically. “Just because you had a rifle and Frank died doesn’t mean you shot him. Someone else coulda shot him.”
“That ain’t the way it happened, Johnny,” Val said quietly.
“How do YOU know? YOU weren’t even there!” Johnny shouted.
The sheriff glanced at Murdoch before returning his gaze to his friend’s face, willing him to understand. “Cipriano WAS there, and he said,” he hesitated, unwilling to say the words. “He said that he and Frank came to the cabin to check on Scott. He said as they rode up, Scott stepped out of the cabin and opened fire. Both of them turned to run, but Scott kept firing, hitting both Cip and Frank. Cipriano brought Frank into town, but it was too late, he was dead. I made sure Cipriano knew what had happened, and then rode out to the line shack. I found Scott barely conscious, still sitting on the floor, holding his rifle and this.” He reached over and picked up a bottle of whiskey from the desk and handed it to Johnny. “And yes, I smelled his breath. He drank it all right.” He held up his had. “And the rifle was empty, but had obviously been fired recently. There were empty casings scattered on the porch.”
Val shook his head and looked at Johnny. “I’m sorry, but I had to arrest him for murder.” He turned his look on Murdoch. “If I were you, I’d get him a damn good lawyer. If ya don’t, he’s gonna hang.”
Chapter Twenty Two
Johnny paced nervously in Val’s office, waiting for their lawyer to finish talking to his brother. Murdoch had sent for the man immediately and Mr. Barnes had taken the first stage east and arrived in record time. Very few of his clients had the monetary assets that the Lancers had, but the man was also a friend.
Before Barnes had arrived, Johnny and Murdoch had questioned Cipriano extensively, but they couldn’t shake him from his story. Things didn’t look very good for Scott at this point, but Johnny was desperately hopeful that the lawyer could pull off a miracle. He wouldn’t even let himself think about the alternative.
He glanced over at his father, who was sitting morosely in Val’s chair, staring off into space at nothing at all. Murdoch hadn’t said anything the whole time the lawyer had been in with Scott, and Johnny was afraid that his father had already given up.
Johnny looked over at Val, who was furiously whittling an innocent piece of wood. The sheriff’s frown was what worried Johnny most of all. He knew that for all of his friend’s sloppy appearance, Val was a sharp lawman. The fact that Val was badly worried was enough to make Johnny almost panic. He glanced up at the clock on the shelf, and sighed. Barnes had been in with his brother for over an hour. Johnny’s fingers began drumming on the desk, drawing a scowl from Val, but Johnny blithely ignored the sheriff.
The door to the cell areas opened, and Johnny’s head snapped up and Murdoch jumped to his feet.
“Well?” Murdoch and Johnny demanded in unison.
The lawyer sighed. “It doesn’t look good. If it goes to trial, it’s almost certain that he’ll be handed a guilty verdict. If that happens…” his voice trailed off.
Johnny’s face hardened. “Then I guess we’ll have ta make sure it doesn’t go to trial.”
The lawyer immediately looked at Murdoch. “I don’t want to hear this,” he protested.
Murdoch ignored the lawyer and stared at his son. “What do you mean by that?”
Johnny shrugged nonchalantly. “I’ll talk to Cip. He won’t testify if I tell him not to.”
Murdoch shook his head regretfully. “We can’t just sweep this under the rug, Johnny. The whole town knows what happened.”
“Your father’s right,” Val agreed. “Even if I looked the other way, which I won’t, there are plenty of people that already know what happened.”
“You’d let Scott hang?” Johnny asked the sheriff belligerently.
Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder. “Johnny, calm down. The sheriff has a job to do.”
Johnny jerked away from his father. “Yeah? Well so do I. It’s my job to protect my brother.”
Barnes stepped up. “I believe that’s my job, Johnny. And it’s my job to make sure this case doesn’t go to trial.”
“How are you gonna manage that?” Val asked suspiciously.
Barnes took a deep breath and locked his eyes on Murdoch. “I told Scott that the only chance he had was to plead guilty by reason of insanity.”
“WHAT?” Johnny howled. “They’d lock him up in some nut house for the rest of his LIFE!”
Barnes shook his head. “Not necessarily. If he showed some progress once he was locked up, there’s a very real chance he would be released.”
“He’s not insane,” Johnny argued.
Barnes shrugged. “We’ll have to convince the judge he is.” He turned toward Val. “Did he try to deny or hide what he had done?”
The sheriff shook his head slowly. “Nope.”
“Did he act like he was in full control of his senses when you arrested him?’
Val looked at the lawyer warily. “If do ya mean did he act like he normally does, then no, he didn’t.”
“How did he act?”
Val glanced at Johnny who was glaring at him. “He ACTED drunk.”
Barnes blew out a breath. “Are you sure?” he asked pointedly. “Think, sheriff, because your answer is very important.”
Val hesitated, staring at the lawyer and trying to figure out what the right answer was. “I guess I wouldn’t swear to it,” he said slowly.
Barnes nodded. “Good.” He turned toward Murdoch. “If you can convince Scott to plead guilty by reason of insanity, he’ll have to appear before a judge, and there’s a very good chance he’ll escape the gallows.”
Johnny shook his head. “But he’ll be sent ta some loony bin for the rest of his life. Some choice. If it was me, there’d be no contest. No way I’d let myself be sent ta one of those places. Prison was bad enough.”
“As I said before, there’s a very good chance he’d be released fairly quickly.”
“How quickly?” Johnny asked belligerently.
The lawyer shrugged. “A few years.”
Johnny shut his eyes and shook his head.
Murdoch put his hand on his son’s arm. “A few years is better than losing him forever,” he said softly.
Johnny nodded miserably. “I guess.” His eyes went to the lawyer. “Did Scott agree?’
Barnes shook his head. “Actually, no, he didn’t. He said he wasn’t going to plead guilty for something he’s not sure he did.”
Murdoch’s mouth set in a grim line. “After all of this, I can’t believe he’s still denying things!”
“What things?” Val asked suspiciously.
“I REALLY don’t want to hear that,” Barnes insisted.
“Nothin’,” Johnny snapped at the sheriff belligerently.
Val glared at Johnny for a moment, and then nodded reluctantly. “All right.
Murdoch turned toward the sheriff. “I’d like to talk to Scott.”
“Me, too,” Johnny added.
Murdoch shook his head. “Please, Johnny, let me talk to him first.”
Johnny hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. He plopped down on the sheriff’s desk while Val took Murdoch’s gun and opened the door to the cells. Johnny winced when he heard the door clang shut behind his father. He knew exactly how his brother was feeling right about now. He just hoped Scott was stronger than he was, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to handle even a couple of years of being locked up. He was afraid Scott would make the choice he would in that situation, and he shuddered. No matter what he had to do, he wasn’t going to let his brother hang.
Chapter Twenty Three
Murdoch stomped out of the cell area, shaking his head. “He is the most stubborn, hard headed…”
Barnes shook his head in frustration. “He won’t do it, will he?”
Murdoch grimaced. “No. He says he won’t be locked up for the rest of his life, and he DEFINITELY won’t go along with an insanity plea. He says he’d rather hang.”
The lawyer sighed. “Well, that’s JUST what will happen if he doesn’t plead guilty. If it goes to trial, he’ll be found guilty, and the judge will have no choice. It’s a simple as that.”
“He says he won’t be locked up again.”
Barnes’ eyebrows went up. “He was in prison before?”
“During the war,” Murdoch growled. “He was in a confederate prison camp.”
The lawyer looked at the rancher thoughtfully. “He served in the union army?”
Murdoch nodded. “He was a lieutenant serving under Sheridan.”
Barnes smiled. “Well, that will certainly help him. We’ll be sure to bring up that he’s a veteran, and also that he was a prisoner of war. It might help explain his ‘problem’, and the judge MIGHT go a little lighter on him because of it. I assume his army record was good?”
Murdoch nodded. “Excellent.”
“Every little bit helps.”
Murdoch took a deep breath. “Anything you can do to help get the sentence lowered. I don’t want to lose my son again.”
“I’ll do my best,” Barnes promised. “But I won’t be able to anything if you can’t talk him into doing what I say. He HAS to enter that insanity plea, and then we can worry about everything else.”
Murdoch sighed and looked at Johnny. “Please, Johnny, talk to him. I know if he’ll listen to anyone, it will be you. You have to convince him it’s the right thing to do.”
The gunfighter brought his eyes up to his father. “How can I talk him into doin’ somethin’ that I couldn’t do?”
“If you don’t, you’ll lose him forever,” Murdoch said quietly.
Johnny dropped his head and nodded slowly. “I’ll do my best.”
Scott glared at his brother when Johnny approached the cell. “So are you going to try to talk me into pleading guilty, too?”
Johnny grabbed the bars and stared at his brother. “All I want is to get you out of there. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
“Well, pleading guilty sure won’t do that!”
“Barnes says pleading innocent won’t do it, either,” Johnny said softly. “All that will do is get you hanged.”
“Thanks for the optimism,” Scott snorted.
Johnny shook his head. “Scott, I don’t think you’re going to have a choice. If you plead guilty, maybe Murdoch can pull some strings and get you out early.”
Scott leaned back against the wall and shut his eyes. “Johnny, I don’t know if I can handle going to one of those places. I’ve heard about them, and they’re worse than any prison. I swore to myself that I’d never let myself get locked up again.” He shook his head. “At least during the war, I could convince myself that the war could end and I would be released the very next day. It was part of what kept me sane. I just don’t know what I would do if I KNEW there was no way out for years. I don’t know if I could handle it.” He smiled grimly. “I really WOULD be insane by the time I got out. IF I got out.”
“I know,” Johnny said quietly. He looked at his brother with tortured eyes. “What do you want me to do, Scott?”
Scott’s head came up. “What do you mean?’
Johnny took a deep breath and dropped his eyes. “I told Barnes I would make sure Cip didn’t testify, but he said there were too many people that already knew what had happened, and that it wouldn’t do any good.” He brought his head up and stared at his brother. “Do you want me ta break you out?”
Scott shook his head in disbelief. “I hate to tell you, but I think Val would know who’d done it.”
Johnny nodded, a smile slowly forming. “Oh, yeah. He wouldn’t have any doubts.”
“You’d be wanted.”
Johnny shrugged. “And you’d be alive and not locked up. We could go somewhere. South America, maybe.”
Scott smiled. “If we went anywhere, I vote for Montana. I’ve heard it’s beautiful up there, and there’s plenty of land available. Plenty of country to get lost in. I always thought I’d like to live there.”
Johnny nodded, a slight smile on his face. “So is that what we’re doin?”
“No,” Scott said emphatically. “I don’t want to be on the run the rest of my life, and I SURE don’t want you to be.”
Johnny shrugged. “Don’t matter, as long as we’re together. Nobody would be lookin’ for us up there.”
“I thought you were mad at me.”
Johnny smiled sadly. “I am. Madder than I’ve about ever been at anybody without shootin’ ‘em. Don’t change the fact that I don’t want you locked up.”
Scott dropped his head. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I wish I could change what happened.”
“I know you do. And I know you didn’t do it on purpose.” He slanted a look at his brother. “So are we goin’ to Montana?”
“Like I said, I don’t want to be on the run.” He looked at his brother. “Do you know what it would do to Murdoch to lose both of us?”
Johnny grabbed the bars tighter. “Well, he sure as hell ain’t gonna lose ONE of us!”
Scott leaned back once more. “Johnny, you warned me. So did Murdoch. I should have listened, but I thought I could handle it myself. I was wrong, so now I’ll have to take my medicine.”
Johnny looked at his brother. “You’re gonna plead guilty?” he asked uncertainly.
Scott stared at his brother for a long time. “Is that what you want me to do?” he asked softly. “Tell me, brother.”
Johnny returned his look, blinking several times as the tears threatened. “Yeah, Scott, it is.”
Scott nodded and dropped his head. “Tell Barnes I’ll do what he says.”
Johnny watched him for a moment, but when Scott kept his head down, Johnny turned and walked out. He had the terrible feeling that he’d just betrayed his brother.
Chapter Twenty Four
Johnny sat in the courtroom and tugged nervously at his tie. He had never been so nervous in his life, and the absence of his Colt hadn’t helped settle his already rattled nerves. He had spent the last several weeks trying to reassure Scott that all would be well, but he hadn’t convinced himself. He was scared to death that somehow this would all backfire and he would lose his brother for good.
He looked over at Murdoch, and although the rancher was sitting quietly, Johnny noted that there was a fine bead of sweat on his brow. Jelly was conspicuously absent, and the others. Teresa’s lip was trembling, and Cipriano had a deep frown on his face. The segundo hadn’t wanted to come, he said he didn’t want to testify against Scott. Barnes said that with any luck he wouldn’t have to, but he should be there, just in case. The segundo was twisting his hat nervously in his hand, and Johnny looked down at his own nervous fingers and made an effort to still them.
Johnny looked up at the judge, trying to read his mind, but it was impossible. The man was as inscrutable as any gunfighter. He was older, and had white hair and mustache, with wire rim glasses perched on his forehead. He hadn’t said anything in the twenty minutes they had all been sitting there, and he had studiously avoided the rest of the people in the room. He sure didn’t look any friendlier than he acted, and Johnny felt another wave of fear.
The back door opened, and Johnny swung around in his seat and watched as Val walked in with Scott. The gunfighter winced as he noticed the handcuffs on his brother, and he shot a glare at the sheriff, even though he knew it wasn’t Val’s fault. Val looked pale, and Johnny knew that this had been hard on the sheriff as well. Val and Scott were friends, and the sheriff had done everything he could to make Scott’s stay comfortable. He had turned a blind eye to the smuggled in food, blankets, and books, and had allowed Johnny to stay overnight with his brother more than once. Johnny snorted. He had spent almost as much time locked in that cell as Scott had, and only Val knew how hard that had been for the gunfighter.
He would do it again though, Johnny decided. He would do anything to keep his brother safe. And free, if that was possible. He didn’t know what he was going to do during the time Scott would be gone. Barnes had figured that with any luck, Scott would be able to come home in a few years. Murdoch had vowed to use all of the resources he had to gain his son’s freedom, and had been cautiously optimistic that Scott would be safely back at home soon.
Johnny wasn’t as optimistic. He knew firsthand how capricious the judicial system could be, and he knew better than to have faith in anyone in a position of authority. In Mexico, most people in office had attained their positions by less than honest means, and he had little more faith in the American ones, either.
One thing he was thankful for, though. The courtroom had been closed to spectators. He didn’t want his brother to suffer the indignity of being gawked at by nosey gossip mongers when he entered his plea. Johnny knew it would be hard enough on him as it was. Besides Scott, Barnes, and Val, the only ones in attendance were he and Murdoch, Teresa, and Cipriano.
Johnny kept an eye on his brother as Scott approached the judge. He had to admit, Scott hid his nervousness well. He knew his brother was scared to death, but it didn’t show.
The judge pulled his eyeglasses down on his nose and shuffled through some papers, stopping to read something here and there, while Scott stood nervously in front of him. Finally, the judge pushed his glasses back up on his forehead and glared at the prisoner.
“Are you Scott Lancer?”
“You have been charged with the murder of one Frank Cooper. How do you plead?”
Scott hesitated for a moment, and Johnny’s stomach clenched. For a moment, he thought Scott just might change his mind and opt to not be locked up, but after licking his lips, his brother took a deep breath.
“Guilty, your honor.”
The judge nodded, and Barnes stood up. “Your honor, my client is pleading guilty by reason of insanity.”
The judge’s eyebrows went up. “Is that right?” He looked down at Scott. “Are you insane?”
Scott hesitated once more, and Barnes spoke up. “He was at the time of the incident, sir.”
“And how do you know that?” the judge demanded.
“Well, your honor, he didn’t try to hide the fact that he’d done it, and he wasn’t acting normally afterwards.”
“Uh huh,” the judge said. He looked again at Scott, and then went back to perusing his papers. Johnny felt his heart drop as the judge shook his head.
“Personally, I don’t believe in that ‘insanity’ nonsense. You’re either guilty or you’re not. I think this case should have gone to trial, but I’ll accept your guilty plea and save the good taxpayers some money.”
Barnes looked at the judge in shock. “Your honor, if I might…”
“Quiet!” the judge barked and he tapped the papers on the desk. “I have everything I need to make a decision right here. Now sit DOWN!”
The judge frowned at Scott. “I notice you served honorably in the war, and that you attended Harvard. I also see that this is absolutely the first time you’ve ever been in any kind of trouble with the law, so I feel that this was a one time incident, and you’re not likely to kill again. By pleading guilty, you SHOULD get the death penalty, but I’m inclined to show leniency because of your record. Therefore, I sentence you to the San Quentin prison for a period of thirty years, starting immediately. ” He rapped his gavel down on the desk. “Court adjourned.”
Chapter Twenty Five
Johnny leaped to his feet. “NO!” he shouted. He started for the judge, but both Cipriano and Murdoch grabbed him and prevented him from moving.
The judge watched calmly as the two men fought with the dark haired man. Val looked up at the judge with loathing. “If I were you, I’d get my carcass out of town while I still could.”
The judge drew himself up. “Is that a threat?”
“Nope,” the lawman drawled, “but that don’t mean you’re safe. Scott has a lot of friends.” He looked over to where Johnny was still struggling to reach the judge, a look of pure hate on his face. “And a very determined brother.”
The judge looked thoughtfully at the struggling man, and then picked up his papers and scurried out the back door. Val sighed and looked at Scott, who hadn’t moved. The lawman thought the blond just might be in shock. Scott turned dazed eyes toward him and shook his head. His lips moved, but nothing came out. Val gently took hold of the man’s arm, and started to guide him out of the room. As they left, they passed Barnes, who was also sitting in shock. Val leaned over. “If I were you, I’d make yourself scarce, too. I don’t think Johnny’s going to be very happy with you, either.”
Barnes took one look at the gunfighter and followed the judge. Val guided an unresisting Scott out the door and quickly made his way to the jail. He locked his prisoner in; thankful that Johnny hadn’t made an appearance yet, but knew it was only a short reprieve. He had barely walked back into the office area when the front door slammed open, and Johnny stormed in, followed by Murdoch and Cipriano.
“Open up the cell,” Johnny snarled at the sheriff.
Val shook his head. “Nope.”
Johnny grabbed the sheriff by the shirt and slammed him up against the desk. “Don’t tell me no,” he breathed. Murdoch grabbed Johnny by the arm, and the gunfighter took a swing at him. Cipriano grabbed the arm before it could connect.
“Johnny, calm DOWN!” Murdoch ordered.
“Calm down! CALM DOWN! How can you tell me to calm down? Don’t you care that your son was just handed what amounts to a life sentence?” he spat.
“YES I care!” Murdoch shouted. “But fighting with each other isn’t going to solve anything. We have to do this the right way.”
“We tried doin’ it ‘the right way’ and it didn’t work. Now I’m gonna do it MY way.”
“And what way is that?” Murdoch demanded.
“Anything that works,” Johnny snarled.
“Johnny, stop.” Scott commanded from the cell. “Murdoch’s right, you need to calm down.”
Johnny looked at his brother, then took a deep breath and walked over in front of the cell.
Murdoch watched him, and then said a few words to the sheriff. Val nodded and Murdoch walked over and joined his sons. Johnny looked over at him when he walked up, a look of pure misery in his eyes.
The rancher swallowed hard, and his attention turned toward his older son.
“We’ll appeal.” Murdoch promised. “No matter what, I’ll figure out some way to get you out, I promise.”
Scott nodded. “I know you’ll try,” he said resignedly.
Johnny looked at his father belligerently. “I’m stayin’ with him.”
Murdoch nodded. “I figured you would.” His gaze went back to Scott. “I’m going to take a ride to Sacramento and see if I can do something to get you out.”
Scott nodded. “Thank you, Sir.”
Murdoch’s eyes closed. “You don’t have to thank me. I’ll do everything I can to get you out.”
“I know.” Scott’s head dropped. “Murdoch, why don’t you go back to the ranch? You can’t do anything more here.”
Murdoch reached out and took hold of Scott’s arm. “I’ll leave for Sacramento as soon as I can get packed. You take care of yourself. I…I love you, Scott.”
Scott grabbed his father’s hand and squeezed, and Johnny turned away, trying hard to keep the tears from forming. He walked away, giving his father and brother some privacy, and he stopped next to the sheriff and Cipriano. “I ain’t gonna let him go to prison, Val,” Johnny warned.
“Senor Johnny, let your father handle this,” Cipriano pleaded.
Johnny shook his head. “I’m stayin’ with him tonight.”
Val shook his head. “I can’t let ya do that, Johnny. Not tonight.”
“WHY? I’ve been doin’ it all along!”
“Yep, you have. But now you have a reason to break him out, and I can’t give you that chance.”
“Val…” Johnny said threateningly. “I’m stayin’.”
Val stared at his friend and then shrugged. “Ok. But you can’t be in the same cell. You can sleep next to him, but leave your gun on the desk.”
Johnny glared at the lawman, but he really couldn’t blame him, and he nodded reluctantly. He looked up as a pale Murdoch walked out from the cell area. Murdoch stopped and looked at him. “You behave yourself, understand? I’m going to need your help watching the ranch and taking care of things while I’m gone.”
Johnny met his gaze and then nodded reluctantly as his father gripped his arm for a moment, and then walked out the door. Johnny watched him go, and said a short prayer that his father would be successful, but he wasn’t going to count on it. He unbuckled his gunbelt and laid it on the desk, then turned and walked back to the cell adjoining his brother’s. He plopped down on the cot and scooted over as close to his brother as he could. He looked at the office area, and knew Val couldn’t hear them.
“We need ta talk, brother,” he said softly.
Scott snorted. “Not much to talk about.”
“Yes, there is. I don’t think Murdoch will be able to do anything.”
“Thanks for raising my spirits.”
“Do you think he can?” Johnny asked.
Scott slowly shook his head. “No.”
“So we have ta come up with a plan.”
“The plan is I go to prison.”
“Well that ain’t part of MY plan. I’m gonna get you out.”
Scott shook his head. “Johnny, we already discussed this.”
“Scott, I ain’t gonna let you go to prison, and it ain’t open for discussion.” He smiled. “It looks like you’re gonna find out what Montana’s like, after all.”
Scott slowly smiled. “Are you sure?”
Johnny nodded. “I’m sure. Now we just gotta come up with a plan.”
Chapter Twenty Six
The blond looked at his brother hopelessly. “You know Val isn’t going to give you a chance to try anything.”
“I don’t aim ta try anything here. I figure I can make my move when he’s movin’ you to that prison. Take him by surprise.”
“He won’t just let me go, even if you threaten him. He knows you won’t hurt him.”
Johnny stared at his brother. “He knows I’ll do anything I have to do ta get you free.”
Scott looked at his brother in shock. “Johnny, I don’t want you hurting ANYONE, no matter what. I couldn’t live with myself if it came down to that. You promise me.”
Johnny looked into his brother’s eyes, and then sighed. “All right, but I’m gonna have at convince Val that I will, or it won’t work.”
“All right,” Scott said reluctantly. “Now how are we going to do this?”
“I don’t know, but just make sure you duck when the shootin’ starts,” Johnny grinned. “And don’t just sit there, take off. I’ll cover you.”
Scott didn’t smile. “Johnny, are you really sure about this?”
“Yeah, brother, I am.”
Scott nodded slowly. “All right, but it’s going to be hard on Murdoch.”
Johnny shrugged. “Not as hard as losin’ you. He’ll know we’re all right, and that we’re together, and that’ll help. He’ll be ok.”
Scott took a deep breath and nodded.
Johnny smiled, glad that his brother was going along with it. He glanced once more at the sheriff, and then leaned over and began to talk quietly.
The two men talked most of the night, making plans, but mostly just enjoying each other’s company. The sun was well up when Val wandered back to the cells, and Scott looked up at him in apprehension. The sheriff’s eyes dropped, and then he quickly reached over and pulled the door to Johnny’s cell closed.
Johnny flew off the cot and lunged at the bars, shaking the furiously. “You let me out, Val!”
“Sorry. I can’t do that.”
“Val, so help me…”
The sheriff looked at him sadly. “Sorry, I got my orders.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “From who?”
Val hesitated. “Your father. I woulda done it anyway, but he made me promise.” He turned toward Scott. “Sorry, Scott, but we’re gonna have ta leave.”
“DAMN HIM!” Johnny exploded. “And damn YOU!”
Val ignored him and walked over to his prisoner. “Let’s go.”
Scott nodded numbly and locked eyes with his brother. It’s ok, Johnny. Don’t be mad at Murdoch. He’s just trying to protect you. I’ll be fine.”
Johnny hung onto the bars, unwilling to let his brother go. “Scott…” he didn’t know what else to say, and the two brothers stared at each other for an eternity before Scott finally turned and followed the sheriff out the door. Johnny sank down on the cot, plotting revenge on both Murdoch and Val.
Val rode next to his friend, wondering if he should have left the keys within reach of Johnny. He had thought about it, but had finally decided not to. As much as he liked Scott, he didn’t want Johnny to have to leave Lancer, and that was what would happen if Johnny was loose. The sheriff had no doubt that the gunfighter would free his brother come hell or high water if he got the chance. He figured that was what the two of them had been talking about all night. Their quick glances in his direction and sudden silences when he walked by confirmed that belief. He figured Johnny was the one pushing things and Scott was merely going along with his brother, but he was somewhat surprised. He knew Scott would never agree to anything that would hurt Johnny.
Val glanced over at the grim set of Scott’s mouth and sighed. He knew Scott must be desperate to have agreed with Johnny’s plan, whatever it had been. He wished he could turn the man loose himself. He knew he’d lose his job, but it would be worth it. Whatever had happened with Frank, he knew that Scott wasn’t a murderer. He was a fine man and didn’t deserve to be in prison. The more he thought about it, the more he regretted not leaving those keys in Johnny’s reach. He sighed. Maybe Johnny would escape somehow, anyway. The gunfighter could be awfully slippery. With any luck, he’d figure a way out of that cell and show up anytime to rescue his brother. If he did, Val wouldn’t argue with him. In fact, if the gunfighter didn’t show up soon, he decided, he would turn Scott loose himself.
Val looked at their surroundings and knew that if Johnny had been able to get free, this was where he’d try something. By Scott’s surreptitious looks at the nearby cliffs, the sheriff knew that he was right. Johnny had told his brother where he would make his move. Val looked up, but didn’t see anything. Of course, one way or the other, he wasn’t expecting to. He looked ahead, and saw the bridge suspended high above the rampaging river. Once they crossed that bridge, the chance for an ambush would be over. The land was flat on the far side, and offered no concealment. Val looked up again, hoping that Johnny would somehow turn up. He saw Scott look around, too, and the lawman smiled. Evidently, Scott hadn’t lost hope.
Even though he was half expecting it, when the gunfire came Val jumped. Scott froze for a moment, then whirled and looked at Val. Despite the bullets whizzing around his head, Val smiled and nodded, and Scott grinned back before spurring his horse onto the bridge. Val ignored the bullets and made no move to fire back, although when one came a little too close for comfort, he shot an angry look toward where the gunman was hidden.
Val watched as Scott coaxed his horse across the narrow bridge. He was halfway across when the blond turned around and looked back at the lawman. Val raised his hand and then froze in shock as Scott’s body lurched and a look of confusion appeared on his face. He watched in horror as Scott looked down at the growing red stain on the front of his shirt. His confused eyes rose once more to Val, then he fell off of his horse and rolled over the edge. A moment later he was swallowed up in the roaring rapids far below.
Chapter Twenty Seven
Val spurred his horse over to the bridge and jumped off. He ran out to where Scott had fallen off and looked down, hoping against hope that somehow Scott had survived. He stared at the maelstrom below for several seconds, and then shut his eyes. Even if Scott had somehow survived the near dead center chest shot and the seventy foot drop to the water below, there was no way he could have survived in the churning rapids. Scott hadn’t stood a chance. Val slowly stood up and scanned the rocks above, expecting to see Johnny appear at any time, but there was no movement.
Val looked in disbelief once more at the spot where Scott had disappeared. As soon as his friend had fallen, the gunfire had stopped, and Val shot another glance at the rocks above. He had to admit, he was confused. Johnny wasn’t as good a shot with a rifle as he was with a handgun, but he was still better than most. And he was way too good to have missed that badly. Val knew the gunfighter shouldn’t have been aiming anywhere near Scott, but apparently for some reason, Johnny had erred badly. There was no doubt in his mind that no matter what, it had been an accident. He knew Johnny would die for his brother, and would certainly never harm him. But if Johnny had seen his brother fall by his own hand there was no telling what he’d do.
Val grabbed the reins to Scott’s horse and led the grey off of the bridge. He took one last look below, then slowly climbed aboard his own horse. He felt like he just might be sick any second. Scott had been a friend, and he had precious few of those. He turned his horse downstream, hoping that he could at least recover his friend’s body. He wondered once more where Johnny was, and he felt a flush of worry. Val turned around and looked back toward the rocks, and finally saw some movement. He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or upset. No matter what, this wasn’t going to be easy. Resignedly, he pulled his horse to a halt and waited for his friend to appear.
Several minutes later, Johnny cautiously approached. Val watched him come, wondering what to say to his friend. The gunfighter pulled his horse to a halt, his hand resting on his gun. He looked around curiously.
Val’s eyebrows went up. Evidently Johnny hadn’t seen what had happened, although he didn’t know how Johnny could have missed it. The sheriff glanced back toward the bridge, and then looked at Johnny carefully.
“Don’t you know?”
“If I knew, would I be askin’ ya?” Johnny said flippantly.
Val frowned. Johnny sure didn’t seem upset. He couldn’t believe Johnny hadn’t seen what had happened, but that was evidently the case.
“Val, Where is he?” Johnny demanded impatiently.
Val licked his lips nervously, then nodded his head toward the bridge.
Johnny whipped his head around and stared at the bridge. “What do you mean, he fell? Fell where? How?” He swung back around and looked at the sheriff. Val shook his head sadly. Johnny turned pale and spurred his horse toward the edge. He jumped off before his horse had even come to a halt, and he ran onto the bridge and looked over the side for several seconds.
Val watched sadly as his friend looked desperately for a miracle that wasn’t going to happen. Not this time. The sheriff slowly rode his horse over next to his friend and dismounted as Johnny whirled around toward Val.
“WHERE IS HE?”
“Johnny…” Val shook his head as Johnny walked toward him, a panicked look on his face.
“Didn’t you see what happened?’ Val asked softly.
“No! Now tell me!”
Val swallowed hard. It wasn’t going to be easy telling his best friend that he had just killed his own brother. Maybe he could skip part of it.
“He fell, Johnny. He fell off the bridge and into the river.”
The gunfighter grabbed Val by the shirt. “HOW? How did it happen?”
Val met his friends gaze for a minute, then dropped his head. “It was an accident.”
“What do you MEAN an ACCIDENT? What did you do, you son of a bitch?” Johnny shouted as he gave the shirt another shake.
The sheriff’s head shot up. “ME? Don’t you try pinnin’ this on ME!” He wrenched free of the gunfighter’s grip and watched as a friend ran to the end of the bridge and started to climb down the rocks toward the water. Val followed and grabbed him by the arm before he could fall. “Johnny, don’t,” he said softly.
“What do you mean, DON’T? My BROTHER is down there! He might be hurt! I hafta get down there!”
Val tightened his grip, knowing Johnny wasn’t thinking rationally. “Johnny, he’s gone. He never could have survived that fall and those rapids.”
The sheriff kept his grip as the gunfighter struggled to free himself as he watched the churning water in disbelief. Finally, he felt Johnny’s struggles slowly come to a stop, and then Val slowly released him.
Johnny looked at the sheriff, misery etched on his face. “What happened?”
Val took a deep breath and dropped his eyes. “Like I said, it was an accident. A bullet musta ricocheted. Hit him in the chest.” He cautiously raised his head and looked at his friend, expecting to see anger, guilt, anything but the confusion that he saw there.
Val sighed. His friend wasn’t making this any easier. “The bullets YOU were sendin’ down here, tryin’ ta free your brother. For your information, you were getting’ awful close to me, too. If I hadn’t known it was you, I woulda been runnin’ for cover.”
Johnny stared at the sheriff and slowly shook his head. “Val, it wasn’t me.”
It was the sheriff’s turn to feel confused. “What do you mean, it wasn’t you? Who else would be shootin’ at us?”
Johnny shook his head, and then his eyes turned hard. “I don’t know, but as soon as I find Scott, I aim ta find out.”
Chapter Twenty Eight
“Johnny, he’s gone,” Val said for the hundredth time. “We ain’t never gonna find him.”
The gunfighter didn’t even acknowledge the sheriff’s words, but kept on going. After a moment, Val reluctantly followed. They had been traipsing down the side of the river for hours now, and had found nothing. Not that Val expected to. There were too many submerged snags and too many small tributaries branching off to ever find the body. And if it hadn’t been snagged, it would be miles away by now. Val had mounted and dismounted dozens of times, and now he was simply following his friend and leading Johnny’s horse. With a sigh, Val stepped off of his mount one more time and walked over to where Johnny was poking in a pile of debris that had washed ashore.
“Johnny, I’m sorry, but we’re not gonna find him. He’s gone.” When Johnny turned and started downstream once more, Val grabbed his arm.
“Let go of me,” Johnny snarled as he pulled away from Val’s grip.
“Johnny,” the sheriff said quietly, trying to get through to the distraught gunfighter. “If we’re gonna try ta find the guy that did this, we’re gonna have ta go back and look for tracks before they get blown over. We can look for the body later.”
Johnny stopped and stared at his friend, thinking about what he had said. Finally he nodded. “You’re right.” He grabbed his horse’s reins away from the sheriff and swing aboard. He spurred his horse in the direction they had just come from, but suddenly he halted.
“Val,” he said quietly, “I think you’d better go back to town.”
Johnny stared at the lawman. “Because we ain’t gonna arrest this guy. I saw how the law works around here, and I ain’t gonna take any chances of him getting’ away with this.”
“Johnny…” Val said threateningly.
The gunfighter shook his head. “Go back to town.”
Johnny shrugged. “Your choice, but I’m warnin’ you. Don’t try ta stop me.”
Val sighed. “Let’s catch him, first, and then we’ll talk about it.”
Johnny nudged his mount to a faster pace, and Val trailed along, hoping he could talk some sense into his impulsive friend. He knew how badly Johnny was hurting, and now he regretted suggesting they go after the shooter. Val was afraid that Johnny had meant it when he had said he wasn’t going to bring this guy in, and it worried the sheriff. Personally, he felt the same way, but he still couldn’t just let his friend put his head in a noose. He should have let Johnny go on looking for his brother’s body, and he should have tried to find the murderer. He sighed once more. Too late now.
When they got back to the bridge, Johnny halted his horse. “Where?” he asked the sheriff flatly.
Val scanned the rocks above, trying to remember exactly where the shots had come from. Finally, he pointed up toward a group of boulders near the top. “There.”
Johnny nodded, and stepped down from his horse, then started to climb. Val followed, thankful that the way up wasn’t very steep. Suddenly, Johnny stopped and squatted, sifting some dirt through his fingers. Val saw numerous rifle casings scattered around, and he glanced at his friend. He didn’t like what he saw. Johnny Madrid was firmly in place, and something more. Johnny was showing no emotion, no anger. He was keeping it all bottled up, and Val was afraid when it finally exploded, whoever was in the way would be in big trouble. The sheriff knew he’d have a hard time convincing Johnny not to just blow away whoever had done this.
Abruptly, Johnny stood up and began to climb once more, and Val hurriedly followed. When they reached the top, Val leaned over, trying to catch his breath, while Johnny looked around for tracks. When Val saw his friend stop and stare, he straightened up and walked over.
Johnny stood staring at the hoof prints as if in a trance. Val looked down, and saw that one of the hooves had an obvious defect.
“That shouldn’t be too hard ta identify,” Val said confidently. When Johnny didn’t answer, he looked curiously at him. The gunfighter had gone pale.
“What’s wrong, buddy?” Val asked, concerned.
Suddenly Johnny’s face turned hard, and the sheriff felt a flash of fear. Although the killer didn’t know it yet, he was a dead man.
“That son of a bitch!” Johnny cursed.
“You know who it was?” the sheriff asked in surprise.
“Oh yes, I know him,” Johnny said coldly. The gunfighter suddenly turned and literally ran down the hill.
“Johnny STOP! You’ll break your damn neck! JOHNNY!”
The gunfighter never even slowed, and Val started after him, grumbling the whole way. With any luck he’d break his own neck before he had to arrest Johnny for murder, because he was pretty sure that was what was going to happen.
Val was only half way down when Johnny reached the bottom.
“Johnny WAIT!” the sheriff implored, knowing full well it was useless. He picked up the pace. If Johnny got too far away, he’d never catch him in time to stop the mayhem.
By the time Val reached the bottom, the gunfighter was already out of sight. Cursing roundly, he climbed onto his own horse, and turned him in the direction Johnny had disappeared.
Val occasionally saw some dust being kicked up by Johnny’s horse, and was able to follow. After several miles, he looked around, puzzled. Whoever it was was headed, knowingly or not, right toward the Lancer hacienda. The sheriff kicked his horse faster, wondering if maybe the ranch itself might be under attack.
Val watched as his friend’s horse flew under the arch at a dead run and went pounding down the lane. Val was still a hundred feet behind when the horse was yanked to a sliding stop in front of the barn. Johnny sailed off and bolted into the building. Val desperately spurred his mount, knowing he was going to be too late. All he would be able to do was pick up the pieces.
Chapter Twenty Nine
Val was several seconds behind Johnny, and ran into the barn just in time to see his friend grab Cipriano by the throat. Val watched in shock as the gunfighter punched the segundo in the face, hard, sending the man to his knees.
“WHY?” Johnny screamed as he grabbed his fallen uncle by the shirt and hauled him upright once more.
“WHY? You answer me, you son of a bitch!”
Val stepped forward and grabbed Johnny and tried to pull him off. “Let go of him!” he ordered. “Let’s hear what he has ta say for himself.”
Johnny punched his uncle again before Val could wrestle him away.
“JOHNNY! Stop IT!” Val cried desperately as he struggled to subdue his friend. “If ya don’t stop, I’m gonna have ta knock you out. Now let’s find out what’s goin’ on.” Slowly, Johnny stopped fighting, but kept his eyes firmly locked on the segundo.
“I know what’s goin’ on,” he spat.
Val cautiously let go, and turned toward the segundo.
Cipriano shrugged. “I do not know what you are talking about, Senor.”
Johnny lunged again. “Don’t you deny it, you son of a bitch! I shod that horse myself. YOUR horse!” Val once more grabbed his friend and pinned his arms behind him.
“Cipriano,” Val panted. “You have a choice. You can either tell the truth, or I’m gonna let him go and walk out of this barn, understand? And ya better hurry, ‘cause I can’t hold him much longer,” he threatened.
The segundo paled considerably, and he hesitated while he thought about his options. Another desperate lunge from Johnny made up his mind.
“All right, but you keep him away from me.”
Val nodded. “I’m gonna let you go, Johnny. Let’s here what he has ta say, OK? We need ta hear his confession.”
Johnny stopped struggling, then finally nodded curtly, his eyes never leaving Cipriano’s face. “You tell me,” he said coldly.
The segundo licked his lips. “We did it for you, Juanito. This is your birthright, not that dandy’s. If something happened to Murdoch, Scott would have inherited everything!”
“What are you talkin’ about?” Johnny demanded. “It would have gone to both of us.”
Cipriano shook his head. “No, Juanito. The eldest son inherits everything. You know that.”
“IN MEXICO! Not HERE!”
The segundo shook his head stubbornly. “We had to get rid of him! It was the only way! Please believe me; it was for your own good!”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he considered what the man said. Suddenly he froze. “We?” he asked quietly.
Cipriano nodded reluctantly. “Your aunt and I.” he dropped his head. “I tried to kill him that day with the logs, but it didn’t work. Then, when he had the trouble with the laudanum, Maria had an idea. She knows lots of herbs and potions. She gave him things that made him go loco or knocked him out. We made you think he had been drinking.”
Johnny took a step forward and drew his pistol. Val tried to grab him, but Johnny turned the Colt toward the sheriff and cocked it. Val wisely let go.
Johnny put the pistol to the Segundo’s face. “You tell me the truth, or I’ll blow your head off.” he said flatly. “You’re responsible for everything, aren’t you?”
Cipriano glanced at the sheriff and then nodded reluctantly. “Si.”
“You burned the barn, too, didn’t you?” Johnny asked quietly.
The segundo nodded slowly. “I am sorry about Barranca. I did not intend for you to lose him.”
“Yes, you did,” Johnny snapped. “Who else was going to get him out? But worse than that, you intended for Scott to die in that blaze, too! And we would have blamed it all on his drinking.” Johnny shook his head. “We did, too,” he said quietly, almost to himself. “We didn’t believe him. We were gonna send him away.” He glared at his uncle.
“You killed Frank, too, didn’t you,” Johnny said flatly.
Val interrupted. “Then how did you get shot?”
Cipriano hesitated. “Frank and I brought Scott some lunch. His food had something in it to knock him out. After he had eaten it, I said we were leaving and went outside. I killed Frank, but Scott saw me. Even though he was almost unconscious, he saw me and he shot me.” He shook his head. “Thank God he didn’t remember anything, but I was afraid he would, eventually.”
“Is that why you shot him? So he wouldn’t testify against you if he remembered?” Val pressed
The segundo shrugged. “I was concerned, but not badly.” He glanced at Johnny. “I thought even if he did remember no one would believe him. They would just think he was desperate to get free.”
Johnny snorted and shut his eyes. “You’re right. No one ever would have believed him.”
Val shook his head. “So why did you kill him? He was goin’ to be locked up for a long time.”
Cipriano looked at Johnny again and then dropped his head. “No. Juanito never would have let his hermano go to that place. And if he freed him, everyone would have known who had done it. Juanito would have had to leave and never come back. He would be wanted, and it would have all been for nothing.”
Johnny glared at his uncle. “If you knew I would have done that, you KNEW how much I loved him, and you killed him anyway.”
Cipriano nodded, pleading for his nephew to understand. “We did it for you, Juanito,” he said pleadingly.
“You did it for yourself,” Johnny growled as he moved the gun barrel so that it was aimed between his uncle’s eyes.”
“Johnny, don’t,” Val pleaded. I know he deserves ta die, but let the court handle it.”
“You think I trust them ta handle anything, after what they did ta Scott?” Johnny snarled.
“Please, Juanito, don’t kill me, no one has to know!” his uncle pleaded. He looked around at the men gathered in the barn. “They won’t say anything, they are all relatives and friends of mine. And the sheriff here is your friend. No one has to know what really happened.”
Val winced. Cipriano pointing out to Johnny that no one would testify against him was like committing suicide. “Johnny, put your gun down,” Val said desperately. He knew Johnny was beyond reason right now, and he was desperately afraid his friend was going to let his rage and his hate destroy him.
Johnny looked around at the faces in the barn, and saw that his uncle was telling the truth. None of them would testify against the segundo, and his and Val’s testimony would be outnumbered. Cipriano would get away free and clear.
“Johnny, please,” Val said once more.
“We did it for YOU,” Cipriano said, triumphantly. Now you will inherit everything! You can have anything you want!”
“I WANT MY BROTHER, you son of a BITCH!” Johnny screamed as he pulled the trigger.
Val watched in shock as Cipriano crumpled to the ground, a bullet through his brain. Johnny stared at the body for a second, and then turned his gun toward Val. Val froze, and then slowly the gunfighter flipped the gun around so the handle was facing the sheriff. Val numbly took the offered gun. He saw the pain in Johnny’s eyes before Johnny dropped his head in defeat.
Johnny sat in the cell, his knees to pulled up to his chin with his arms wrapped around them and his eyes closed. If he didn’t open his eyes, he wouldn’t see the bars that were locking him in, and he MIGHT just get through this without going crazy. He had always hated to be locked up, but he knew that this time there would be no miracle, no last minute reprieve. He would be behind bars until he died, and that thought sent a shudder through him. He snorted softly. The only good thing is that the rest of his life wouldn’t be too long; he figured they’d hang him within a week or so, as soon as that so called judge could get back into town. He thought his trial would last all of ten minutes. Plenty of witnesses and a known gunfighter as the defendant. Maybe five minutes, he though wryly. At least no one would be trying to talk HIM into pleading insanity.
He smiled softly as he remembered the long trip from Lancer to the jail. Val had given him a dozen or more chances to get away. Val had cuffed Johnny’s hands in front of him instead of behind his back, and the bonds had been plenty loose. The sheriff had ridden slightly in front of his prisoner, with both his hand gun and his rifle within easy reach of the gunfighter, and Val had made a point of not paying attention.
The disgruntled sheriff had finally pulled his horse to a halt just outside of town and looked in exasperation at his friend. “Are ya gonna run or not?”
Johnny had shaken his head. No, he wasn’t going to run. He wasn’t going to live the rest of his life with a murder warrant out on him, with every bounty hunter in the country after him. He wouldn’t do that to himself and he sure as hell wouldn’t do it to his father. He had lived on the run once before, and he had no intention of doing it again. He wasn’t going to die alone with a bullet in his back and then have the bounty hunters drag his carcass back here for his Old Man to see. It was the least he could do for Murdoch. Hanging might not be the best way to go, but at least it was relatively quick and he knew he’d get a decent burial.
Val had looked at him in disgust. “Johnny, you’re gonna hang.”
Johnny had shrugged. It was done, it was past. Nothing could change things now. He had known full well what he was doing when he’d pulled that trigger. He had known it was murder and he would have to pay, but it had been worth it. It was the first time in his life he’d ever killed anyone in cold blood, but he didn’t regret it, not even now. There was no way he was going to let Scott’s murderer off, and that’s just what would have happened.
His face darkened as he thought of his uncle. He had trusted Cipriano with his life. Cipriano was his only relative on his mother’s side. His uncle had been a link to his mother, and Johnny had both respected and loved the older man. He had loved Maria, too, and they had both betrayed him. He had hoped she would pay for murdering Scott as well. Val had promised him that she would, and Johnny knew the sheriff would have kept his word. Johnny was thankful that she hadn’t appeared when he still had the gun in his hand. He didn’t think he could kill a woman, but until a few hours ago he had never thought he was capable of cold blooded murder, either. Of course, it hadn’t really mattered. He hadn’t had to actually pull the trigger to kill her. Val had told him she had killed herself a few hours after they had left the ranch, and heaven help him, Johnny couldn’t feel any sympathy for her. Not after what they had done to Scott.
Johnny sighed deeply. The only regret he had was Murdoch. He knew how the loss of both of his sons would affect the Old Man. He knew for all Murdoch’s bluster and orneriness, his father cared deeply about his family. Now all he’d have left was Teresa. Johnny prayed it would be enough.
Johnny had made Val promise to go find his brother’s body, and the sheriff had promised that he’d try. He had left as soon as he’d locked Johnny up. Well, he HAD swept the floor first. Johnny raised his eyes and looked at the broom still sitting right next to his cell and then at the key ring sitting on the desk within easy reach of the broom. Val had even made sure the ring was propped up to give him an even easier target.
Johnny smiled, then shut his eyes once more. As soon as they were in town, Val had sent a telegraph to Murdoch in Sacramento, and Johnny wondered if his father would get back in time. Part of him, the selfish part, hoped he would. He wanted to talk to Murdoch again, tell him how sorry he was and how much he appreciated the chance Murdoch had given him. He wanted the Old Man to know that he loved him. But there was another part of him that hoped his father would be delayed or not get the telegram altogether. Seeing his son hang would be hard, and Johnny knew that his father would be guilt ridden that he hadn’t been able to save his son.
Johnny snorted. At least he thought the Old Man would try to free him. But then again, maybe not. Maybe Murdoch would think he deserved it. And of course, he did. He just hoped his father wouldn’t completely turn his back on him. He didn’t think he could face that. But he was a murderer, after all. The dread of the noose wasn’t nearly as horrifying as the prospect of seeing the look of disgust and disappointment on his father’s face. No, he decided, it would be much better for both of them if Murdoch didn’t come back until it was all over. At least then Johnny could pretend that his father still cared.
Chapter Thirty One
Murdoch pulled out the torn and crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and stared at it for the hundredth time as the stage lurched along on its way back to Morro Coyo. As soon as he had arrived in Sacramento, there was a telegram waiting for him at the front desk of the hotel. It had been sent by Val, and had been maddeningly vague. The one thing that hadn’t been vague, however, was the urgency of the message. ‘BAD TROUBLE HURRY BACK NOW.’ He had turned and raced back to the stage, managing to catch it as it was pulling out of town, heading back toward Morro Coyo.
Murdoch frowned, his imagination running wild. He wondered if maybe his impetuous younger son had tried to break Scott out of jail after all, then he shook his head. If Johnny had, it wouldn’t be an emergency. Either Johnny and Scott would be well away, or they would both be safely locked up in Val’s jail. He wondered if one of them had been hurt in an escape attempt, but in that case, Val wouldn’t have said there was trouble. He would have said one of them was hurt. Besides, for all of his bluster, he knew the sheriff wouldn’t shoot either Scott or Johnny, no matter what. Then another thought hit him. Why hadn’t Johnny sent the message? Another pang of worry hit him, and he silently urged the stage faster. This whole thing had been a nightmare, and he knew it wasn’t over yet.
In exhaustion, he leaned back against the stage seat and closed his eyes. He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, and he had the feeling he wouldn’t for a while. He just couldn’t believe that Scott was capable of murdering anyone, even if he had been drinking. Nothing about this whole mess made sense. Scott had never shown that he had any problems with booze before this started. Why now? Murdoch tiredly rubbed his eyes with his fingers as he thought back to what Cipriano had told him about what had happened that day at the cabin. Cipriano had seen Scott gun down Frank, and he himself had been shot. Val had said he had looked for tracks around the cabin. Johnny had thought that maybe someone else had been inside when the murder had taken place, but Val had reported that the only prints around the cabin had belonged to the three men’s horses. It had to have happened the way the segundo had said, and yet… With a sigh, Murdoch shook his head and tried to force himself to sleep in the lurching stage. He had the sickening feeling he was going to need all the strength he had in the coming days.
The stage finally jolted to a halt in front of the depot in Morro Coyo, and Murdoch rudely pushed his way out past the other passengers and stepped down almost before the wheels had stopped rolling. Val immediately walked up and grabbed his arm and started leading him over to Sam’s office. Murdoch felt his heart drop. One of his sons was hurt. He looked over at the sheriff.
Val just shook his head. “Wait until we get to Sam’s,” he said quietly.
“Val,” Murdoch threatened.
The sheriff shook his head once more and pulled the rancher into the doctor’s small office, shutting the door behind them. Immediately, Sam stood up from behind his desk and walked over to Murdoch.
“Sit down, Murdoch,” he said quietly.
Murdoch stared at the doctor for a moment, and then looked back at the sheriff. The fear he had been trying to keep at bay during the long stage ride broke free and landed with a jolt in the pit of his stomach. His mouth went dry and he felt he like just might be sick
“Tell me,” he ordered.
“Sit down,” Sam said once more, and the rancher allowed Val to push him into a waiting chair. Murdoch looked up, waiting for whatever was coming, knowing his life was about to be destroyed.
Val glanced over at the doctor and sighed. His head went down and he swallowed hard.
“TELL ME!” Murdoch said, as close to panic as he’d ever been.
“Someone shot Scott when we were on the way to prison,” Val said quietly.
Murdoch felt the blood drain away from his face and he bolted to his feet. “Shot him? How? WHY?” he demanded. He looked from the sheriff to the doctor. “Is he all right?” he pleaded.
Val’s head remained down. “No.” His eyes came up and locked on his friend’s. “I’m sorry, Murdoch, he’s dead.”
Murdoch stared at the sheriff for a moment before sinking slowly back into the chair. “No,” he whispered. He felt Sam’s hand on his shoulder and he looked up into the doctor’s compassionate face. Murdoch turned back to the sheriff.
“Who did it?” he asked flatly.
The sheriff hesitated.
“WHO?” Murdoch barked.
“Cipriano,” Val said slowly.
Murdoch shook his head in confusion. “Cipriano? WHY?”
Val turned and looked out the window. “Apparently, he thought Johnny should be your only heir. He’s been trying to get rid of Scott for a while. The logging accident, the barn fire, and the supposed drinking episodes were all his doing.”
“I don’t understand.” Murdoch said numbly.
“He and Maria thought that Johnny would get everything if they got rid of Scott. Maria kept drugging Scott to make you think he had been drinking. Cipriano shot Frank and made us think it was Scott.”
“But why would he shoot him, if he was already on his way to prison?”
“Because he didn’t want Johnny to break his brother out and get in trouble. He said he was doing it for Johnny.”
Murdoch shook his head angrily. “So he MURDERED Johnny’s brother?” His eyes flew to the sheriff’s. “Where is that son of a bitch? I’m going to kill him!” He took a step toward the door, and Val grabbed his arm.
“Murdoch, STOP! There’s more.”
Murdoch stared at Val for a moment before the sheriff glanced over at Sam pleadingly. Another thought pushed its way into Murdoch’s mind.
The doctor took hold of Murdoch’s other arm. “Murdoch, sit down.”
Murdoch shrugged away from the two men, his fear making him almost insane. “Where is he?” he demanded.
Sam handed him a small glass of something. “Here, drink this,” he demanded.
Murdoch stared at the glass for a moment, and then sent it flying. It hit the wall with a crash. “TELL ME!” he shouted in panic.
“Murdoch,” Sam said quietly. “Johnny killed Cipriano.”
Murdoch looked over at the sheriff, who shook his head. “He put a gun to his head. Cipriano confessed, and then…Johnny shot him, Murdoch.”
Murdoch froze, keeping his eyes on the sheriff. Finally Val continued. “The judge was here day before yesterday. We tried to convince him Cipriano would have hanged anyway, that Johnny was doin’ the state a favor, but Cipriano’s friends that were there wouldn’t testify against him and the judge wouldn’t take my word for it. Johnny is sentenced to hang day after tomorrow.”
Chapter Thirty Two
Johnny heard the outside door to the office shut, and he closed his eyes. He had heard the stage pull up a few minutes before, and he figured Val had had time to fill Murdoch in on all of the sordid details. He took a deep breath, trying to remain calm for the upcoming confrontation. He knew exactly what his father would have to say about what he had done, and he knew he deserved it. He was a murderer, pure and simple. He still wasn’t sorry about killing Cipriano, but he was sorry for what he was going to put his father and the rest of them through. His head dropped as he heard the footsteps approaching his cell. He heard the jangle of the keys in the locked door, and he wondered briefly if his father was going to come in and beat him up. He kept his head down until he felt his father’s weight on the cot next to him, and then he forced himself to look up.
He met his father’s eyes, and to his surprise, he didn’t see the expected anger. Instead, all he saw was an immense sadness.
Johnny dropped his head once more. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Murdoch’s hand reached out and rested lightly on Johnny’s arm. “For what?”
Johnny looked up in surprise. “I murdered Cipriano.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “The only thing I’m sorry about is that I wasn’t here to do it first. Then you wouldn’t be sitting in this cell.”
“You don’t hate me?” Johnny asked cautiously.
Murdoch closed his eyes. “Of course not.” He shook his head. “Johnny, I don’t have time to go to Sacramento to try to fix this. We’ll have to think of some other way to get you out of here.”
Johnny smiled sadly. “Ain’t no way ta fix this, Murdoch.”
“We don’t know that!” Murdoch snapped. “I’m not just going to give up, and neither are you!”
Johnny took a deep breath. “I shot him down in cold blood in front of dozens of witnesses, including the sheriff. It was murder, pure and simple.”
“He murdered your brother,” Murdoch said, his voice breaking.
Johnny nodded slowly. “But I guess I should have let the law handle it. I was just afraid that he’d get off, and I couldn’t let that happen.”
“I know. I won’t tell you that you did the right thing, but I don’t blame you.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Unfortunately, the law doesn’t see it that way, though. We have to figure out a way to get you off.”
Johnny’s head dropped again. “It ain’t gonna happen, Murdoch.”
Murdoch stared at his son for a moment, then looked around cautiously. “Then I’ll break you out,” he said calmly.
Johnny looked at his father in disbelief. “YOU? Break me out?”
Murdoch nodded solemnly.
Johnny laughed as he shook his head. You think bein’ an outlaw sounds like fun?”
Murdoch’s face flushed. “Having you ALIVE is all the ‘fun’ I care about.”
Johnny studied his father, and knowing Murdoch was serious made him feel warm inside, but he knew he would never allow his father to make that sacrifice for him.
“I ain’t gonna run,” Johnny said quietly.
“And I’M not going to let you hang.”
Johnny shook his head slowly. “I don’t want to live on the run, and I don’t want you to, either.”
“You were willing to do it before,” Murdoch said softly. “Why not now?”
Johnny’s head dropped. “Because before, it was the only way to keep Scott alive,” he whispered.
“So you were willing to live a life you hated for your brother’s sake, but not for your own,” Murdoch mused.
Johnny shrugged. “I guess.” He stared at his father, pleading for understanding. “Please Murdoch, let it go. I’ve been on the run before, and I don’t want to do it again. I don’t want to live the rest of my life lookin’ over my shoulder, wonderin’ if I’m gonna feel a bullet in my back any second, never bein’ able to settle down or get close to anyone. I don’t want to die in some filthy alley somewhere, knowin’ I’m not gonna even get a decent burial.” He looked up at his father. “And I couldn’t live with myself knowin’ you lost everything because of me.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “Johnny, if I lose you, I WILL have lost everything.”
“You’ll still have Teresa, and you’ll still have the ranch.”
Murdoch slowly shook his head. “It’s not enough, and I don’t give a damn about the ranch. It doesn’t mean anything to me without you and your brother,” he choked.
“It does to me,” Johnny said. “I want to be there.” A tear ran down his face. “Val couldn’t find Scott. Please, Murdoch, find him. I want to be buried with my brother.”
“Johnny, I can’t do this,” Murdoch said shakily. “I can’t lose you, too.”
“Teresa will help you through it. And you have a lot of friends. It’ll be ok.”
“NO! IT WON’T be ok!” Murdoch stormed. “If I lose you, nothing will ever be ‘ok’ again! We’re going to figure something out!”
“Murdoch, there’s nothin’ ta figure out. I did it, and the law ain’t gonna turn me loose just ‘cause you want ‘em to, and I ain’t runnin’. Now go on home. Teresa’s probably out of her mind.”
Murdoch’s eyes closed for a moment. “I don’t want to leave you.”
“I’m fine. Been beatin’ Val at checkers every night. Besides, you need ta get back to the ranch. I don’t trust any of Cipriano’s friends.”
Murdoch looked worriedly at Johnny. “Are you sure you’ll be ok tonight? I’ll be back first thing in the morning.”
Johnny smiled. “I’ll be fine if I can keep Val from wakin’ me up all night and tryin’ ta get me ta escape. Go on home.”
Murdoch smiled back at his son. “Val’s a good friend.”
“Yes, he is. So is Sam.”
Murdoch hauled himself to his feet. “Maybe between the four of us, we can come up with something.”
Johnny nodded, but didn’t meet his father’s eyes. “Yeah, maybe.”
Chapter Thirty Three
Johnny stood at the window of his cell, looking out at the soft darkness of the night as it slowly changed to the violet of dawn. He breathed in the familiar and reassuring scent of horse that wafted over from the livery stable across the street, and felt some of his nervousness lessen. In a way, it was a relief to be alone with his thoughts. Murdoch had been at the jail first thing yesterday morning, accompanied by Sam. The two of them and Val had spent the whole day coming up with plans, then discarding them one by one. Johnny had stood in the corner, only half listening. He preferred to watch the normal comings and goings of the town, and pretend that this wasn’t his last day on earth.
“Johnny!” Murdoch’s voice sounded frustrated. “Can’t you come up with anything?”
Johnny shook his head slowly. “No. And the three of you are just wastin’ your time.”
“We’re tryin’ ta come up with a plan ta save your hide!” Val snapped. “The least you could do is help!”
“Help what?” Johnny asked. “There ain’t no way outta this, and the sooner you all realize that, the better off you’ll be. You’re gonna drive yourselves crazy.”
“We’re going to go crazy if we CAN’T think of something!” Murdoch snarled.
Johnny gave up and watched the town, only half listening to the urgent conversation surrounding him. Several hours later, Johnny turned and looked at the three exhausted men as they discussed their latest plan.
“I don’t like it,” Sam grumbled. “It’s too risky.”
Murdoch buried his head in his hands and shook his head resignedly.
Johnny watched his father for a moment, and then walked over and took the older man by the arms. “Murdoch, stop. Please.” He glanced out the window. “It’s almost dark. Whatever happens tomorrow, happens. Let’s just sit and talk for a while. Please.”
Sam looked cautiously at Murdoch, who nodded before sinking to the cot next to his son. Val and the doctor stood uncertainly for a moment, and then left the father and son alone for what would probably be the last time.
“Johnny…” Murdoch shut his eyes. “I…I don’t know what to say except I love you, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t keep you safe. I’m sorry I didn’t find you sooner, that I couldn’t make your life better.” He slid his arm around his son’s waist and drew him close. “I’m sorry for everything.”
Johnny resisted for just a moment, and then relaxed into his father’s embrace. He had longed for that touch for so many years. “I love you, too, Murdoch, and I want you to know that none of this is your fault. It wasn’t your fault that my mother left, and it wasn’t your fault that she was determined you wouldn’t find us. You did your best, Old Man.” He smiled slightly, knowing how much his father hated to be called that. This time, however, Murdoch didn’t seem to mind.
Johnny dropped his head once more. “Murdoch, if it wasn’t for you, I would have died in front of the firing squad, and I never would have known I had a home and a family. I never woulda known you or Scott.” His voice broke slightly. “The time I spent at Lancer was the best of my life, even when we was buttin’ heads.” He slanted a look over at his father. “And before you start, that wasn’t your fault either.” Johnny noticed a tear leaking from his father’s eyes, and he sighed.
“Murdoch, no matter what, I don’t want you to blame yourself for anything, and I don’t want you to worry about me. Whatever happens, I’m ready for it, and I ain’t afraid. You and Sam and Val did your best ta get me outta this, and I appreciate it.” He bit his lip. “I want you to promise me that you won’t go beatin’ yourself up over what happens tomorrow, and you won’t let Val or Sam blame themselves, either. It’s out of all of our hands.”
Murdoch nodded slowly and he looked deeply into his son’s eyes. “Thank you for coming home, Johnny. Thank you for giving me a chance.”
“Seems like you got that backwards.” Johnny looked out the window. “You’d better get goin’, it’ll be light soon.”
“No, I’m staying.”
Johnny whirled around. “NO! I don’t want you here!”
“And I don’t want you to face this alone.”
“I won’t be alone! Sam and Val will be there. Murdoch, please, I don’t want you there. I don’t want to have to be worryin’ about you.” He stared into his father’s eyes. “Please, Murdoch, I don’t want you there.”
Murdoch stared back at his son before his head dropped. “Are you sure?” he asked quietly.
“I’m sure. Go home and be with Teresa. This has been hard on her too you know. She’ll need you, and you’ll need her. Now go on, and don’t worry about me. I promise I’ll be fine, one way or the other. Sam and Val will make sure of that.”
Murdoch pulled his son closer, and Johnny could feel his father’s tears as Murdoch buried his face in Johnny’s hair.
“You have nothing to be afraid of, Johnny. You’re a good man.”
Johnny hugged his father back, but finally, Johnny felt his father’s grip lessen, and Johnny gently pulled away. “Go on home, Murdoch,” he ordered softly.
Murdoch nodded, then walked over to the cell door and stood for a moment, trying to regain his composure before calling to Val. When the sheriff arrived and opened the door, Murdoch hesitated another moment before straightening his shoulders and striding out.
As Johnny watched the dawn arrive, he took a deep breath as he remembered the last sight he had seen of his father. He hadn’t prayed at all; he figured it wouldn’t do any good, not with his past. But he did say a quick prayer for Murdoch, and for the soul of his brother. He wondered if he would be reunited with his brother today, then glumly decided it wasn’t likely.
His musings were interrupted by the sound of horses approaching, and a smile erupted on his face as he caught sight of Jelly approaching, leading a familiar horse. The handyman tied the horse to the rail in front of the jail, and Johnny’s smile faded as the handyman quickly turned and left town.
Johnny heard footsteps approaching his cell, and he turned and faced the sound. The door to the office opened, and Val and Sam appeared, both looking as bad as Murdoch had. In fact, Johnny decided, they both looked like they had been crying. Val wouldn’t meet Johnny’s eyes.
“It’s time, Johnny.”
Chapter Thirty Four
Johnny took a deep breath, then brought his head up and nodded slightly as he held out a hand to the sheriff. Val looked into his eyes for a long moment, and then slipped a handcuff over the wrist. Johnny turned and put his other hand behind his back and Val attached the other cuff. Val gently grabbed his friend’s arm and guided him toward the door, with Sam following. Johnny hesitated a second, then he took another deep breath, steadying himself for what was to come.
Johnny stepped out onto the boardwalk and glanced around. The streets were deserted, and he looked at the sheriff questioningly.
Val shrugged. “I made sure that Cipriano’s friends knew that if they showed up, they just might be arrested for somethin’. I know some will show, but I doubt if they’ll get too close.” He smiled grimly. “I haven’t been in the best of moods lately, and they know that I just might shoot first and ask questions later.”
“What about everybody else?” Johnny asked.
“They’re your friends, Johnny. This is the last place they want to be,” Sam said quietly.
Johnny dropped his head again. It helped to know that if he had to die, he wasn’t going to die hated. He was surrounded by two of his closest friends and he knew Murdoch didn’t hate him for what he had done, either. Val had refused to let anyone to build a gallows, and now it was too late. An ancient Oak tree just outside of town would have to suffice, and for some reason, that made Johnny feel better.
Johnny brightened when he saw Barranca standing by the hitching post. At least he’d have his compadre under him. Jelly had saved the palomino against all odds, nursing him night and day. The horse was still weak, but at least he was alive. Another debt Johnny owed,
He walked over to Barranca, and spoke reassuringly to his friend. Barranca rubbed his head against Johnny, and the gunfighter felt a lump in his throat as he rubbed his own head against the golden coat. Val undid the reins from the post, then helped Johnny up before mounting his own horse. Sam walked over to the waiting wagon and climbed aboard, then the three of them headed slowly out of the silent town.
Johnny looked with morbid fascination at the coffin in the back of the wagon, and then his thoughts turned inward and he wondered again if he would be reunited with his brother when he died. He’d like to think that he’d see Scott again, but he figured that they probably wouldn’t be going to the same place. He smiled slightly. Knowing Scott, he was arguing right now with St Peter, trying to convince them that Johnny belonged there, but Johnny knew that was a hopeless task. He was a killer, and he had proven it once again.
He sighed quietly, and his thoughts skittered around in his head. His father. His brother. Teresa. Lancer. He refused to think about the bad things.
Barranca came to a halt, and Johnny looked up. They were beneath the tree, its massive branches spread above them like a canopy. Johnny glanced around, and noticed a few people standing at a small distance, watching. He recognized most of them as Cipriano’s friends, and up until a little while ago, they had been his friends, too. Now they reminded the gunfighter of a bunch of vultures, just waiting for his death. They were there to make sure that he really paid for killing Cipriano, and there wasn’t a friendly face in the bunch. He turned away and focused on Val.
“Damn vultures,” the sheriff mumbled, apparently thinking the same thing as Johnny. Val walked over to the wagon and pulled out a rope that had been carefully wound and knotted. Johnny found himself staring at it, then he forced his eyes away and looked at Sam. Sam gave him a sickly smile, then shut his eyes and dropped his head.
Johnny allowed his eyes to stray back to the sheriff, who was inspecting the rope closely. Johnny knew that the way the rope was knotted and the position it was placed on the neck would determine whether a man died quickly of a broken neck or strangled slowly. Johnny knew that Val wasn’t taking any chances, but Johnny also knew that ropes had been known to slip at the last minute. He prayed that it wouldn’t slip this time, not only for his sake, but for Val’s. He knew his friend would never forgive himself if that happened.
Finally, the sheriff nodded slightly and walked over and mounted his horse. Johnny lowered his head, unwilling to watch as the rope was tossed over a limb, but the sound of the rope slithering over the branch sent an involuntary shiver down his spine. He opened his eyes, studiously avoiding what Val was doing, and gazed off into the distance, letting his mind wander back to the first time he had seen Lancer. He tried to visualize the scene, and a smile formed on his lips until he realized he’d never see it again, and the smile slowly faded.
The voice was hesitant, unlike the sheriff’s normal bellow. Johnny glanced up and met his friend’s eyes, and he nodded slightly.
“Let’s get it over with,” Johnny said quietly. He glanced over at Sam, who stared back, his eyes relaying his feelings admirably, and Johnny smiled back. He knew what this was costing his friends, and he’d never be able to repay them for the loyalty they were showing him. He tried to ignore the pull of the rope as Val adjusted it carefully around his neck. As Val continued to fiddle with it, Johnny lost his patience.
“Quit fussin’. I’ll die of old age before you’re satisfied.”
“Well, that wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Val snapped back, but the crack in his voice gave him away.
Johnny locked his eyes on the sheriff. “You’ve done the best you could. If somethin’ goes wrong, it ain’t your fault, understand? I don’t want you or Sam to be blamin’ yourselves for any of this. Just promise me you’ll take care of Murdoch, ok?”
The two men nodded silently, and Johnny continued, “Thanks, both of you, for everything. You don’t know how much I appreciate you bein’ here for me.”
Val dropped his head, and Johnny was surprised to see a tear rolling down the sheriff’s check. For just a moment, Johnny thought about giving him a hard time, then wisely decided against it. Val could still adjust that rope, he thought wryly.
The seconds ticked by, and Johnny didn’t think he could handle it anymore. He slipped his feet out of the stirrups.
“Go on, Val. Let ‘er buck.” Johnny was glad that his voice didn’t betray the deep fear he felt at this moment.
Another second, and then Johnny felt Barranca’s muscles bunch as the Val’s hand came down on the horse’s rump. The palomino shot forward, and Johnny automatically strove to keep contact with the horse, but he felt himself being propelled backwards. He felt his neck jerk as he hit the end of the rope, but instead of oblivion, he felt the rough strands bite into his neck. He couldn’t breathe, and even though he knew for some reason he shouldn’t fight it, he began to struggle madly to free his hands so he could loosen the rope. The feeling of being trapped and not being able to breathe sent him into a panic, and he fought harder, even as he began to lose the battle. He had time to register Val’s horrified look before the blackness mercifully closed in.
Murdoch looked up as the wagon rumbled down the drive, with Sam and Val in the front. He had been standing here for hours, looking out at the ranch and praying for a miracle, but the sight of the wagon with its gruesome cargo made him close his eyes and say another prayer. Please Lord…As the wagon approached, most of the wranglers took off their hats and stood silently watching, but a few of Cipriano’s friends just watched sullenly. The rancher looked back at the approaching wagon and studied first Sam’s and then the sheriff’s face, but they were carved in stone. Swallowing hard, Murdoch stepped off of the porch, and his eyes moved unbidden to the casket in the back of the wagon. With an effort, he focused on the sheriff once more as the wagon came to a halt in front of him.
Val set the brake before allowing himself to look at his friend. “He’s gone,” he said quietly as Murdoch felt his knees buckle beneath him.
Murdoch sank to the ground and closed his eyes, his mind mercifully blank. He knew he should pray, but the thoughts and the words wouldn’t come. A moment later, he felt the doctor’s arms around him. Murdoch shuddered, but when he heard the front door open, he forced himself to his feet. Teresa was staring at him, then her tear stained face turned toward the wagon. She stared at the coffin for a moment, and then turned and ran back into the house.
Murdoch took a deep breath and dropped his head, unwilling to look Val in the face. “Was it…did he…” he was unable to finish the sentence.
Sam nodded slowly. “It was fairly quick.”
Murdoch’s head came up and he opened his mouth at the words, but the sheriff cut in. “It’s over,” Val said quietly. “He’s safe now. No one can hurt him.”
Murdoch nodded numbly. That’s what he had always wanted for his son; to be safe. Now he was, but he hadn’t wanted it to happen like this. He hadn’t wanted him to suffer.
“Thank you, both of you, for everything. Thank you for helping Johnny through this.”
He looked up at the sheriff. “Will you help me get the casket into the house?”
Val nodded and a few hands quietly joined them as the box was lifted out of the wagon and carried into the great room. The men set it gently on the dining room table, then the hands disappeared, leaving the three friends alone.
“The…burial… will be this afternoon,” Murdoch said hollowly.
Val nodded as he walked over and grabbed a bottle of tequila. He stared at it for a moment, knowing it was Johnny’s, then wrenched the cap off and drank right from the bottle.
Sam watched the sheriff for a moment, and then turned toward Murdoch, who was running his hands along the top of the casket.
“When are you leaving?”
Murdoch forced his mind to focus on the doctor’s question, and he frowned. “Morgan Bandfield has wanted Lancer for a long time, and he agreed to buy it at my price. He’ll be out tomorrow with the lawyers to sign the papers. I told him we’d need a few days to pack.”
“Only a few days?” Sam asked in surprise.
Murdoch nodded. “Teresa and I aren’t taking much. We won’t be needing it. We plan on starting over, and we’ll have the money to buy what we need. With the government opening up Montana territory and allowing anyone free land as along as they develop and work it, we’ll be able to claim a spread at least the size of Lancer for next to nothing.”
“It’s still a lot of work,” Sam argued.
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, but it will help keep our minds off of…things,” he said quietly.
Sam put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I know how hard this has been on you,” he said quietly. “But you’ll get through it. Who’s going with you?”
Murdoch shrugged. “Jelly, of course.” He shook his head. “He’s been hiding in his room since he came back from town.” Murdoch sighed deeply and shook his head again. “Bill, Pete and Ben and about twenty of the others are coming with us.” His face darkened. “Most of the Mexican workers are staying, and that’s fine with me. I can’t help but think that at least some of them knew what Cipriano was up to and turned a blind eye.” Murdoch’s eyes closed. “I should have suspected something. I should have known that Scott wouldn’t behave like that.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Val snapped. “It wasn’t no one’s fault, it just happened.”
“Maybe”, Murdoch sighed. “But I still let Scott down. I let them both down.”
“You did no such thing,” Jelly stormed as he walked in. “You did your best, and those boys knew it!”
“Maybe, Murdoch said sadly. “But it sure doesn’t feel like I did my best.” His eyes stared at nothing. “I couldn’t even find Scott’s body, and I promised Johnny.” Murdoch’s hand trembled as he brought it up and wearily rubbed his eyes.
“Murdoch, I want you to go upstairs and try to get some sleep,” Sam ordered. “I doubt if you’ve had any sleep for quite some time, have you?”
Murdoch shrugged. “I have things to do,” he said, his voice breaking as he touched the casket once more.
Jelly looked away, unwilling to look at the stark reminder resting on the table. He turned toward Val. “How’s Barranca?”
The sheriff nodded. “He’s tired, but he’s all right.”
Jelly nodded. “I’ll go see to him. He shouldn’t have been out yet. Those burns haven’t healed completely, but I knew he’d want to be there for Johnny.”
“Thanks, Jelly,” Murdoch said softly. “You’re a good friend.” Murdoch dropped his head as he remembered the joy on his son’s face when he found out the old handyman had gone against orders and actually managed to pull off a miracle. Murdoch had told Jelly to put Barranca down when they had found the palomino badly injured but miraculously still alive in the wreckage of the barn. Instead, the old man had spent every waking hour nursing him back to health. Murdoch hadn’t even known about it until love had finally won out and the horse was well on his way toward recovery. The palomino was still weak and would always have scars, but he was alive. Murdoch had told his son about it that last day in jail, and Johnny had been ecstatic, but the thought that the horse had survived but his son probably wouldn’t had driven Murdoch to tears.
Jelly was staring at the coffin on the table, and Sam took hold of Jelly’s arm and pulled him toward the door. The handyman resisted for a moment, then crossed himself and followed the doctor out of the house.
Murdoch stared at the box for several seconds, and then forced his feet closer. He stared at it as though mesmerized, and then slowly reached out and touched it with a shaking hand.
Chapter Thirty Six
Scott opened his eyes and looked around. He wasn’t sure if he hurt worse physically or mentally, and he halfway wished he had died in that water. For some reason however, he had survived, and he would have to do the best he could. The thought of never seeing his brother or father again was just about killing him, but he knew he had no choice. If he went back, he would be sent to that prison, and even though he knew he was being a coward, he just couldn’t face it.
His mind was still blurry about what had happened that day, but it was gradually coming back in bits and pieces. He had awakened in an old prospector’s cabin, with the old miner hovering over him. The next several days had passed in a blur of fever induced dreams that Scott couldn’t quite remember, except for a sensation of falling, and then blackness. He tried to remember how he had ended up in the cabin, but he had no memory of that at all. When the fever had finally abated, he had gradually pried the story out of the taciturn old man.
The prospector had found Scott washed up on the bank where the river made a sharp turn inside of a canyon. He had thought Scott was dead, but when he detected a pulse, he had heaved the cowboy onto a burro and taken him back to a cabin hidden deep in the canyon.
Scott touched his chest, then winced. He still felt as though he had been kicked by a mule, but he knew it could have been much worse. Evidently something had hit him in the chest, although he wasn’t sure what. Whatever it was had taken a deep gouge of meat out of his chest and he had obviously bled profusely. He couldn’t remember how he had wound up in the water at all. The last thing he could remember was riding along with Val, hoping that somehow Johnny would get loose and rescue him, then immediately feeling guilty for that thought.
Scott sighed. Well, evidently SOMETHING had happened. He wasn’t a prisoner any more, but he wasn’t exactly free, either. If anyone saw him and recognized him, he would be right back where he started. Of course, if he remained out of sight and everyone thought he was dead, all he had to do was disappear and no one would be the wiser. The problem was, his family wouldn’t know any different, either.
He knew that his brother would be beside himself with worry, and he finally admitted to himself that even if it cost him his freedom, he would at least have to let Johnny know that he was all right. He couldn’t just disappear, leaving his family to worry about his fate. As soon as he could walk, he would have to head back to the ranch. With any luck, he could talk to Johnny, then get away without being seen by anyone else.
Sam locked his office door for the last time, then turned and climbed into the wagon. He was moving on. He no longer had any desire to stay in Green River. There was a younger doctor in Spanish Wells, so his patients wouldn’t suffer, and Sam no longer had any reason to stay.
Val had ridden out the day of the hanging; his deputy had found his badge lying on his desk and his few personal belongings gone. Everyone knew how close he and Johnny had been, and no one was surprised that the sheriff had disappeared. No one had heard from him since, and Sam figured no one around here ever would. He doubted if they would hear from Murdoch, either. The rancher, Teresa, Jelly and a few hands had left for Montana two weeks ago, and Bandfield had already taken over the ranch. The doctor shook his head. No, things weren’t the same, and he just didn’t have the heart to stay here.
Sam took one last glance around at the town he had called home for most of his life, then clucked at the team. Several townspeople waved, and he waved back as the horses slowly jogged out of town for the last time. As the wagon bounced along, Sam let his mind wander. He thought of how his life had improved the day his friend had finally succeeded in bringing his sons home. Since then, he had felt as if he’d finally had a family of his own. Scott and Johnny had been like his own sons, and he had worried about them and fussed over them about as much as Murdoch had. He sighed. This last month had been the worst of his life, and the day he had watched Val put that noose around Johnny’s neck had just about done him in. He had actually cried while feeling for a pulse afterwards, but then, so had Val.
The doctor was jolted out of his musings and blinked as the form stumbled toward him. His brow furrowed as he watched the figure, and then suddenly recognition dawned.
“SCOTT?” Sam pulled the horses to a halt and jumped down. He ran to the man and hugged him. “Scott! Thank GOD!”
The exhausted man clung to the doctor as Sam helped him over to the wagon. The doctor reached into the back and pulled out a canteen and offered it to Scott. The man took several long swallows, and then looked at the doctor. “Sam, what happened?”
Sam shook his head in confusion as Scott continued.
“There are strangers at Lancer, and then I saw…I saw…” His grip tightened on the doctor. “I saw my grave, and next to it…Sam, tell me Johnny’s Ok.”
Sam’s mouth opened as he realized that Scott didn’t know what had happened. He eased the exhausted man to the ground, but Scott still clung to the doctor’s arm.
Sam swallowed hard. “Scott, there’s something you need to know.”
Chapter Thirty Seven
Scott impatiently waited for the team to climb the hill, hoping they were finally going to find Murdoch in the valley beyond. They had been looking for weeks, but a man could get lost forever in the vastness of this land. He had never imagined it could be so large and so…empty. There was nothing but rolling plains as far as the eye could see. Scott could tell that it was ideal cattle country. Plenty of graze and ample water, and enough brush and cutbanks to give the cattle some shelter in winter. He could imagine Murdoch’s reaction when he saw the richness of this territory they called Montana.
As the team reached the top of the rise, he looked down into a beehive of activity. Men were busily working on several buildings, and others were busily cutting lumber. There were tents and wagons scattered around, and a small corral that held numerous horses. One small structure was already completed, and as he watched, Teresa walked out of it and dumped some water onto what looked like the start of a vegetable garden. Even from up here he could hear Jelly’s strident orders, and noticed that, as usual, everyone was ignoring the handyman. A small smile formed as Scott slapped the reins down on the back of the horses, urging them down the hill.
As they approached, he saw the men stop and watch them warily. There was no law in this territory, and he noticed that every man wore a gun. As the wagon closed the distance, he could see the expressions on the faces of the people watching, and saw the looks of wariness turn into puzzlement, then finally recognition. He heard Jelly’s whoop of delight, and a moment later saw Teresa start to run toward the wagon. He handed the reins to Sam and jumped down to meet her.
“SCOTT!” she yelled as she grabbed him and hugged him tightly. He hugged her back and then looked up to see his father approaching, a wide grin on his face.
“Scott.” It was half disbelief and half prayer. Scott gently pulled away from his sister and turned toward his father.
“Scott!” Murdoch breathed. “Thank God.” He grabbed his son tightly. “Thank God.” Murdoch finally loosened his grip and took a step backwards to examine his son.
“Are you all right?”
Scott nodded. “I was pretty weak for a while, but I had Sam here for a nursemaid on the trip.”
Murdoch’s gaze flew to the old doctor, and his grin widened. “Sam, welcome. I thought you said you were too old to travel this far.”
Sam grinned back. “Well, when I ran into Scott, I decided that with the Lancers up here, I might have the start of a good practice. Besides, with you up here there wouldn’t be much work for me in Green River, anyway.”
“Well, we’re glad to have you.” Murdoch grinned. “It’s beginning to feel like home.”
Scott looked around. “It certainly looks like you’ve been busy.”
Murdoch nodded. “We still have to get the barns and bunkhouse up before winter. The winters up here are pretty harsh.”
“The land office said you had put a preliminary claim on almost a quarter of a million acres,” Scott said, looking at his father for confirmation.
Murdoch nodded. “We each filed on all we were legally able to, then the men turned their claims over to me. With you here, we’ll be able to claim even more.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “Do we need more?”
“The railroad is due to come through here in less than five years, and that’s the length of time we have to make improvements on each parcel. There will be a land boom up here then, and we can sell whatever land we don’t need or aren’t able to develop at a nice profit.”
Scott nodded, and Teresa grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the house. “You can discuss business later. I have lunch almost ready. Come sit down, you must be exhausted.”
Scott nodded, then followed his sister into the small building. Sam and Murdoch followed along behind, talking quietly. Scott stepped through the doorway and smiled as he looked around at the rough hewn walls and bare floor.
“Not too bad considering how long you’ve been here. But it certainly isn’t like Lancer.”
Murdoch shook his head happily as he entered. “Not yet, but it will be. In fact, it will be even better. I’ve already ordered supplies and furniture from back east, and we’ve laid out the foundation for a grand new house up on that hill. We’ll be able to make a fortune here in cattle.”
“And horses?” Scott asked quietly.
Murdoch’s face darkened for a moment. “Yes, and horses,” he admitted grumpily.
“You don’t seem too pleased.”
“I really didn’t have a choice. Between Jelly, Val and your brother, they had claimed almost as much land as I did, and they refused to add it to the ranch unless I agreed to Johnny going into the horse business,” Murdoch groused.
Scott grinned. “Looks like my little brother is getting smart.”
“Yes, too smart,” Murdoch grumbled.
“For some reason, Murdoch, I don’t think you’re as upset with Johnny as you want Scott to think you are,” Sam observed with a grin.
Murdoch dropped his head. “No,” he admitted quietly. “I was so afraid I’d lost him that day, and when Val told me he had left, I was so thankful I couldn’t even stand up.” He looked over at the doctor. “I was so afraid that it would go wrong, that you wouldn’t be able to revive him, or that his neck would break…” his voice trailed off and he turned and wiped his face quickly with his sleeve before turning to his older son.
“And now I have both of my sons.” He grabbed Scott once more and hugged him. “I must be the luckiest man alive.”
Scott smiled as he gently pulled away from his father. “Where is Johnny?”
Murdoch laughed. “Where do you think he is? He and Val are out chasing some wild horses Johnny spotted. He was pretty sure there were some palominos in the bunch.”
“Which direction? I think I’ll take a ride.”
Murdoch’s grin widened. “East, I think.”
Scott nodded, then headed for the door. Murdoch watched him go, a silly grin on his face. It would be hard starting over, but this time, he would have his sons at his side, helping him the whole way, and loyal friends that would stand beside them. Together, they would carve out an empire.