(Warning: death of a major character)
Word count: 8,856
Lancer in the summer sun, whirls of dust playing across the stark ranges of grass where cattle roamed, eating their fill and unaware of their soon-to-be fate–driven to the railhead, packed into cars and sent east to markets there to meet their fate as a possible meal for the wealthy and elite.
Day after day, year after year the great ranch performed the same rituals of survival for its owner and his subordinates. As in all things some years saw more prosperity than others. Then in 1869, still in the shadow of the great cataclysm known as the War Between the States, Lancer had experienced its own crisis. A salvo of bullets had struck down the Segundo and the owner of the great ranch, forcing the tall Scot who had given the ranch its name to come to terms with reality. A year later after a long recovery Murdoch Lancer had finally sent for the two young men who might have a reason to fight at his side to save the ranch which held his heart’s blood.
After the defeat of Day Pardee, the two sons had stayed on to make new lives for themselves and to learn of the man who had played no part in their lives to that point.
In the two years that followed, the Lancers strove to adjust to the new circumstances that they and Teresa O’Brien found themselves in, however, the struggle had not ended on the day Ramon Garcia rode under the great gate to hitch his exhausted horse in front of the white hacienda.
Removing his battered hat from his head, the solidly built, dark-haired man knocked on the wooden door and waited.
Strangers at the door to Lancer were not a rarity at Lancer. Frequently, men would come looking for jobs, but generally they were younger. To Teresa O’Brien’s experienced eyes, this man in his thirties was not looking for a job. He had business to discuss.
Politely, Teresa asked, “May I help you?”
In a cultured, slightly accented voice, Garcia replied, “Si, senorita. My name is Ramon Garcia. I would like to speak with John Madrid if he is here.”
For a fraction of a second, a chill ran down the woman’s straight back. Too many men had come looking for the former gunfighter, but she let none of her dismay show on her face. “He’s out on the range right now, but I’m expecting him home soon. Will you come in and wait?”
“Gracias. I appreciate your kindness. I have ridden far to find my friend and would not wish to miss him.”
At the word “friend” Teresa relaxed slightly, especially when she realized that the man was not even wearing a gun.
After offering her guest coffee and cookies, she sat down on the couch in the great room to talk with the quiet spoken man. “Have you known Johnny a long time, Senor?”
“Si. In fact I believed he was dead, but then I discovered that he had not been shot and now lives here on this beautiful ranch.”
“You knew him in Mexico ?”
“We fought together against the tyranny of those who would subjugate my people.”
Teresa blinked in surprise. The man did not seem to be the warrior type.
Ramon took a sip of the coffee and then smiled at the brown-haired woman. “I see you have noticed that I do not carry a weapon. After a time, I decided that fighting was not the way for me. I attempted to enter the priesthood, but I had not the vocation. Still I am grateful for their teaching.”
Teresa licked her lips nervously. She was more at ease with the man, but there was still something haunting about his dark eyes. “You do know that Johnny now goes by the name Lancer now, don’t you? He. . .he isn’t a gunfighter anymore.”
“Si. I had heard that, but. . .but I am here to see if he might help me.”
Baldly, Teresa blurted out, “How?”
Garcia took another gulp of coffee. “Senorita, please. I do not do this easily. I now hold the deed to a small piece of land. There have been threats against me by a man named Barker who wants my land. I would like to ask my friend to help me.”
Teresa rose to her feet. “Senor, Johnny doesn’t do that kind of work anymore. Can’t you leave him alone? He’s happy here.”
“Senorita, I do not wish harm to my friend, but he is the only person that I can trust to help me. Would it not be better to let him decide?”
The young woman flounced out of the room. She knew Johnny. He would never say ‘no’ to a friend who asked for help.
Garcia sat quietly for a short time then he stood up to walk out the door. It had been a mistake to come here to this beautiful place. Johnny Madrid owed him nothing. Why would any man leave his home for the dubious chance of being killed?
The tall man stood silently by his horse for a moment. He had been so confident that Johnny would help him and now the frustrated words of a woman had diverted him from his purpose. Patting his dusty horse, he started to climb on its back when the clatter of hoof beats approached. In the distance he could see a palomino and a bay rapidly making their way towards him. As soon as he could clearly see the dark-haired man on the palomino, Ramon knew that Johnny Madrid had returned and that it was too late for him to make his escape, but there was no need to tell him the true reason he had come so far. A few minutes of speech between two old friends and Ramon could depart, return to Mexico and somehow handle Barker on his own,
“Ramon! Ramon Garcia! What the hell are you doing here? Haven’t seen you in years.” Johnny jumped down from Barranca’s back to stride over to the gray horse. Scott followed him at a more sedate pace.
“Johnny, I am most pleased to see you. I. . .I had heard that you are now a big ranch owner and I wished to congratulate you, but now I must leave.”
“Leave? You can’t leave. Come in and stay for dinner. We’ve got lots to talk about.”
Scott took the reins to Barranca to join them with his own. Murmuring quietly, he informed his brother that he would take care of the horses if Johnny wanted to go inside with his friend.
Nodding in gratitude, Johnny practically pulled the older man off his horse, pressing him to go inside.
As they entered the great room, Johnny urged Ramon to sit down, pouring both of them a small drink before toasting the other man. “Here’s to old friends.”
Garcia flushed. “Johnny, I am most happy to see you are well, but I must not stay long. I have been away from my ranch for many days and it is still a long ride.”
Johnny brushed aside any protest. “You’re stayin’ for dinner and stayin’ t’night. No arguments. Want you to meet my father. That was my brother who took the horses to the stable.”
“Brother? I did not realize you had a brother.”
“Me neither ’til two years ago. He lived in Boston almost all his life. We’ve been gettin’ to know each other for the last couple of years. Name’s Scott.”
“I see. And your father?”
“Remember I told you my mother went off when I was two, well, he decided he wanted me here a coupla years ago so now I own one-third of all of this.”
Ramon’s mouth formed a small O in surprise then he smiled. “Who would have believed that the man I fought beside against the landowners would ever own so much himself?”
Johnny chuckled. “Guess it does sound strange, but Murdoch’s not like them we fought in Mexico .”
“Of course not. Please forgive me. I did not mean. . .I am sure your father is an honorable man, just as his son is.”
Now, it was Johnny’s turn to flush. “Ramon, after I lost track of you, I done some things that weren’t so honorable, but I got a new life here and I intend to make the most of it.”
The dark eyes of Ramon Garcia twinkled. “And have you not met anyone to share it with? The young lady who opened the door to me perhaps?”
“Who? Oh Teresa, you mean? She’s my father’s ward. She’s almost like a sister to me, but if you met her, why were you leavin’? She surely told you I’d be back soon?”
“Si, she did, but I decided not to wait. Please forgive me, amigo, but I cannot accept your generous offer of food and a place for the night. I must continue on my way.”
Before Johnny could make a gesture to stop Ramon from leaving, Scott entered the great room where he stopped by the chiming clock.
Grateful for the distraction, Johnny grabbed Scott’s arm. “C’mon in, Scott. This is an old friend from my days in Mexico . His name is Ramon Garcia. Ramon, this is my brother, Scott.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Senor Garcia. Perhaps you’ll excuse me for a minute. I’d like to wash up.”
Johnny’s eyes flickered over to the dried blood on Scott’s forehead. “You go get that cleaned up. Let Teresa put somethin’ on it.”
“It’s nothing, Johnny. I’ll be back in just a few minutes. I’d like to talk to your friend. Maybe he can tell me all your secrets!” An evil laugh parted the firm lips.
“No way. I’m like a saint to this man!” Johnny teased.
After Scott’s departure, Ramon remarked, “Su hermano, he is not like you, is he?”
“Nah, I’m the smart, good-lookin’ one, but well, for a brother he isn’t bad.”
“You do not get along with him?”
For a moment Johnny’s sapphire eyes just stared at his friend. “We. . .we get along fine. It’s just that it took some getting’ used to havin’ a family.”
Ramon nodded wisely. “I can understand that. It would be almost as difficult to gain a family as to lose one.”
“Never thought ’bout it that way. ‘Course you never had a family as I recall.”
Ramon’s eyes dropped. “That is not. . .quite true, Johnny. I had a brother, but he is dead.”
“You never told me that,” the younger man sympathized.
“There was no reason. He had already been dead for many years.”
“So what are you doing up this way? Can’t be just a coincidence you comin’ to Lancer.”
Garcia fidgeted with his battered hat. “I came this way because of business, but it is now concluded so I need to return home.”
“Where is home?”
“I, too, now own land. Nothing like your beautiful home, but it is all mine, at least for now.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Please, Johnny, I do not wish to talk about my ranch. It is too small to be of concern. Tell me how you escaped from the firing squad. I did not even know about your capture until Miguel Torres told me.”
“Miguel? Haven’t seen him since before I was captured. He still alive?”
“Regrettably no. He was captured and executed, but the priest who was with him at the end sent me a letter. Miguel said to tell me that you had escaped.”
“Yeah, well, I owe that to Murdoch. He sent a Pinkerton after me and he got there just in time.”
“You are most fortunate, amigo and now you have this magnifico hacienda to call home.”
“Guess you’re right. ‘Nother coupla minutes and Johnny Madrid would have been buried in some grave with nobody to care.”
“Johnny?” The younger Lancer looked up into his brother’s white face. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. Teresa says dinner will be ready in about an hour. I’m sure your friend can stay that long.”
“Sure he can. C’mon and sit down, Scott. How’s your head?”
“Fine. It was only a graze.”
“Still you coulda been hurt if you hadn’t hung onto your horse. Gettin’ bad when a man can’t ride ‘cross his own property and not get shot at.”
“You had an accident, Senor Lancer?” Ramon queried the older Lancer.
“Some fool kid was out huntin’ or somethin’. Spent bullet got Scott,” Johnny informed Ramon.
“It is most fortunate that you were not severely hurt, Senor.”
“I know. Guess it’s a good thing I have a hard head.”
“That’s the truth and stubborn to boot,” Johnny chided his brother.
Garcia cleared his throat.
Sapphire eyes turned on him. “What?”
“Amigo, the Johnny Madrid I remember was stubborn as the mule we used to carry our arms.”
Scott grinned. “Good to have you here, Senor Garcia. It’s nice to have an objective viewpoint about my brother!”
“Gracias, senor, but please call me Ramon.”
“Then you can call me Scott. By the way, do you know anything about Johnny that I can hold against him for the next ten years or so?” The innocent look on the handsome face brought a squeal of rage from the dark-haired Lancer.
“I told you he thinks of me as a saint. I even let him date the girl I was goin’ with at the time. Didn’t I, Ramon?”
“Si. That girl is now married and weighs more than my horse.”
“What? She was real skinny when I took her out.”
“Perhaps she gained weight from eating so much to mend her broken heart because the great Johnny Madrid left her?”
“I’m tellin’ you, Boston , you’d better be quiet or you’ll be sorry!”
Cold blue eyes matched cold voice. “And just what do you intend to do, Brother?”
“Well, uh, I, you, I’ll tell Teresa not to give you any dessert!”
“That does have me shaking in my boots. Anyway, Ramon, is there something you can tell me about this hombre?”
Garcia flushed. “Perhaps I should think that over. I know how good my friend is with a gun.”
Carefully, Johnny removed his gun from its holster and began to spin the chamber. “Now, Ramon, you know that you’re my friend and I wouldn’t do anythin’ to you so go ahead and tell Scott anythin’ you want. Just remember that time I pulled your hide out of that lake.”
Again, Ramon cleared his throat. “Johnny, perhaps the years have been more than I thought. I believe it was I who pulled you out of a lake when you had too much tequila and were trying to cool off.”
“That’s not the time I meant!”
“Just how many times have you been in a lake, brother?” Scott coolly inquired.
“Of course, it was Johnny. I remember because you turned blue from the cold water.”
Johnny growled at his guest. “Let’s talk ’bout somethin’ else.”
The blond winked at Garcia. “On the contrary, I think this is very interesting.”
“What’s interesting?” Standing in the doorway from the kitchen was the tall figure of Murdoch Lancer.
“Uh, er, nothin’ Murdoch. I want you to meet my good friend, Ramon Garcia. He’s gonna stay for dinner and if I can talk him into it, stay overnight.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Senor Garcia. Please do stay. It’s always nice to meet Johnny’s friends. They always tell us so much about my son. Isn’t that right, Scott?”
“Yes sir. Interesting things too.
“Gracias, Senor Lancer. I find I cannot say no to your invitation.”
Johnny clapped his friend on the back. “Good. Got so much I wanna ask you about and Teresa’s a great cook. Been teachin’ her how to make tortillas and real hot chili.”
“I heard that, Johnny Lancer!” Teresa walked into the room. “If you remember the last time I made it, you were up all night with a stomach ache!”
“Aw, Teresa, that was just because the beans gave me bloat!”
“Well, I don’t know what it was, but you were complaining around here for two days so the next time I make chili, I’m going to make it so mild a baby could eat it!”
Johnny groaned. “Then I’ll start makin’ it myself.”
“Suits me fine. I can use a break from cooking and speaking of cooking–dinner’s ready so go wash your hands—all of you, except Scott. He’s fine.”
Johnny glared over at his brother. “Goody-two-shoes!”
Scott’s mouth turned up into a grin. “Sorry about that, but I washed up when I cleaned my head wound.”
Fifteen minutes later all of them were seated around the table, stuffing themselves with Teresa’s chicken stew and dumplings.
After finishing one plate of the tasty dish, Johnny turned to the lady of the house. “That bird was kinda stringy, wasn’t he?”
Teresa’s mouth dropped open, but then she closed it and smiled sweetly. “You’re right, Johnny dear. It’s good that I only made enough for you to have one helping, isn’t it?”
“But. . .I. . .could force down another helping before dessert!”
“Sorry. Scott dear, you haven’t had much, would you like some more? There’s plenty.”
“Thanks, Teresa, but if you don’t mind I think I’ve had enough. Actually, would you all excuse me? My head has begun to hurt a great deal and I think I should go lie down for awhile.”
Murmurs of assent met his plea.
The quiet at the table was broken when Murdoch inquired of Johnny about Scott so his younger son filled him about the spent bullet. The rancher just shook his head in dismay.
Just as Teresa was clearing away the dishes from their coffee and cake, Murdoch mentioned to the young woman that their guest would be staying over so she would need to make sure the guest room was ready.
Teresa stopped to stare at the visitor, but said nothing. With a sigh she left the room.
“What’s the matter with Teresa?” Johnny asked his father. “She doesn’t usually mind getting the guest room ready.”
“Johnny, perhaps it is best if I do not stay. Senorita O’Brien has every reason to not want me here.”
Murdoch sat up straighter. “Just what does that mean Mr. Garcia?”
“She knows that I came here to ask for Johnny’s help in saving my ranch. She does not approve and I cannot blame her. I will leave first thing in the morning—alone.”
Johnny glanced over at his father. The lined face was stoic as always, except for a slight curling of the lips. Licking his lips, he turned back to Garcia. “If I can help you, you know I will, Ramon. I owe you.”
Ramon looked his friend straight in the eye. “No, you do not, Johnny. Whatever I have done it was for a friend. There is no debt and I was wrong to come here. Now, if you will excuse me, I am tired and perhaps if Senorita O’Brien has the room ready, I will go to sleep. I will see you before I leave.”
The tall man stood up, flinching as his tired muscles came into play. Fortunately, he didn’t have to guess which room had been made ready for him because Teresa was standing by the staircase to show him the way.
In the great room the two Lancers sat without speaking for some time before Johnny turned to his father. “I can’t just let this go.”
“He said he didn’t need your help.”
“He’s lying. I can see it in his eyes. I’m goin’ up to talk to him.”
Murdoch sighed loudly. “Johnny, you don’t have to help everyone who asks for it!”
“I helped you when you needed it or is this different ’cause he can’t afford to pay me?”
The rancher pushed himself to his feet. “There was more to that than money and you know it! I thought you would grow to love this land as much as I do.”
“But you can’t deny that you paid both Scott and me to help you against Pardee.”
Reluctantly, the big man conceded the point. “I. . .I didn’t want to just ask you for help. There was no reason to believe either one of you would do so.”
“And you’ll never know if we would have, will you? Anyway that’s in the past. Ramon needs my help now and I intend to give it to him.”
“Even if he doesn’t want it?”
Johnny ignored his father’s question, taking the stairs two at a time before knocking on Garcia’s door.
Entering, the dark-haired man stood in the door way, arms crossed over his body. “So, tell me about this Barker and the trouble you’re in.”
Dawn the next day found Johnny and Ramon in the kitchen partaking in one of Teresa’s delicious breakfasts. Knowing that they would be on the road for days, the two friends tucked into the biscuits, bacon and coffee with pleasure. Teresa had put the food out and then had gone back to her room. Johnny knew that the young woman was displeased with his decision to return to Mexico , but he also knew that she was incapable of staying mad at him for very long.
Finishing up the last of his coffee, Garcia softly murmured to Johnny, “You do not have to do this. I know your family does not wish to see you leave.”
“Ramon, my family is important to me, but they don’t run my life—not even Murdoch.”
“You are a good friend, Juanito.”
Johnny chuckled. “You haven’t called me that in a long time.”
“Much too long. I have missed you. When I thought you were dead, I grieved.”
“Well, you don’t have to grieve anymore. Even after we take care of this Barker, we’re going to stay in touch.”
“Muy bueno. Now, I shall go finish packing my things and we will go?”
“Right. I, uh, just want to go see how Scott is before I leave.”
Opening the door to Scott’s room, Johnny stuck his head in. To his relief a quiet voice urged him to go in. “I’m awake.”
“Howya feelin’, Boston ?”
“Better. Headache’s almost gone. Good thing my hat softened the blow.”
“Yeah. Scott. . .I, uh,. . . .”
“So you are going?”
The sapphire eyes blinked in the dim light.
“How’d you find out?”
“Teresa told me when she checked on me early this morning. You’re sure you want to do this?”
“He needs help. I owe him no matter what he says. Once when we were runnin’ from some soldiers, I got shot. He came back for me. Woulda been in front of that firin’ squad then, ‘stead of later.”
“What did Murdoch say?”
“Not too pleased. Said I was needed here.”
“Think you’ll be gone long?”
“No longer ‘n necessary.”
Scott closed his eyes for a second. “If I thought I could say something to stop you from going, I’d try; but I know you pretty well by now so I’ll keep quiet. Just take care of yourself.”
“I will. Figure this Barker is just a bully tryin’ to scare a man into givin’ up his land.”
“Even bullies can kill.”
Johnny’s face broke into a big grin. “Don’t worry, Boston , I’ll be back to pester you some more. Can’t let an easterner get too uppity.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
“Better get on the road. Long way to go. You take it easy now.” Johnny’s words were abrupt, but the ache in his throat wouldn’t let him say more.
“Bye, Johnny. See you soon.”
The younger man gave one quick glance over his shoulder at the man in the bed then he walked out the door, stopped by his own room to pick up his things and strode out to meet Ramon who was already on his gray horse.
“Everything is fine with your brother?”
Johnny nodded. “Let’s go.”
As the two men started down the road, Johnny glanced back at the white hacienda. Out in front stood the tall, gray-haired rancher waving to his son. At his side was the small brown-haired woman who also waved.
That night Scott felt fit enough to enjoy dinner with his father and Teresa. No one mentioned Johnny’s leaving.
When Murdoch suggested a game of chess, Scott agreed. His head had stopped hurting and it was a chance to speak with his father alone.
But the rancher didn’t want to talk. The game became an intense battle with neither man giving an inch until inadvertently the Scot left an opening for his son. A few moves later, Scott quietly said, “Checkmate.”
The grim-faced older man rose to his feet to pour himself a drink. “Do you think he’ll come back?”
Scott frowned in puzzlement. “Why wouldn’t he?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No reason except that sometimes I think he feels tied down here. Maybe he misses the freedom of his life before.”
“The freedom to be shot down?”
“You know what I mean! Sometimes I think he craves danger, taunting fate to see just how far he can go.”
A small smile caught at Scott’s mouth. “Considering the danger he’s faced on this ranch, I don’t think that’s a problem.”
Murdoch grinned. “Guess you’ve got a point there. Never imagined I’d have two sons who were train robbers!”
“Learn something new every day.”
“I just wish Johnny didn’t feel like he was at the beck and call of every man who ever did him a favor.”
“Murdoch, I wish he hadn’t gone either, but one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been here. If Johnny feels he has to do something, it would take the Lord Almighty to stop him—and I don’t think you’ve reached that level quite yet.”
“Are you being blasphemous?” Murdoch’s eyes twinkled even as he frowned.
“Me, sir? Never. Just realistic. If life at Lancer teaches you anything, it’s to be realistic.”
The rancher glanced at his son. “When I had the Pinkertons track you and Johnny down, I really never looked past the point when Lancer would be safe. Oh, I had some vague idea that you would be part owners, but the idea of a family seemed so. . .alien. I guess in a way I thought you’d be glorified ranch hands.”
“Sometimes I feel that’s just what I am. There’s been so much to learn. At least Johnny had the basic skills, but life in Boston doesn’t teach you much about branding or herding or whatever needs to be done.”
“You’ve. . .you’ve done a good job.”
Scott looked up in surprise. Praise was sparing at Lancer. “Thank you, sir. I’ve tried to fit in.”
“I know it hasn’t been easy. Part of that is my fault, but it’s difficult to change a lifetime of depending only on yourself, working until you’re exhausted just so you achieve a dream.”
“You don’t have to depend on just yourself anymore. I’m here and Johnny will be back. I know it.”
“Thanks, Scott. I guess I knew that was true. I just needed to hear someone say it. Now, why don’t you head to bed? You’re looking pale again.”
“Maybe I will. Have to take up the slack while Johnny’s gone.”
“Good night then. I’ll see you at dawn.”
For an instant Scott almost groaned, but then he decided there was no point as he headed for his soft bed.
The days on the trail were long, dusty, and exhausting. The two friends would stop each night, eat, talk some and then curl up in their bedrolls. By the time the small house which Ramon called home finally appeared, both of them were too tired to do more than bed down their horses and sleep. Unfortunately, Lewis Barker had other ideas.
Entering the small house, they found the big, burly man sitting at the rough wooden table that constituted Ramon’s kitchen. “Ah, Senor Garcia, been waitin’ for ya. Who’s your friend?”
Despite his exhaustion, Johnny’s body automatically straightened into fighting mode as his hand flickered near his gun. “Name’s Madrid . Johnny Madrid.”
Garcia nodded. “Senor Barker, this is my home and I want you to leave—now.”
The huge man got to his feet. “Sure. Just wanted to tell you I’m gonna make you one more offer for your land. I’ll up my last offer by $100. You don’t take that and I can’t say just what might happen.”
“I do not wish to sell my land at any price. Now if you will leave.”
Barker glared at both men, but said nothing more as he strolled out of the house and out to the stable where he had left his horse.
“He offered to buy your land?” Johnny inquired.
“Yes, but he offered me less than it is worth and besides I do not wish to sell. This is my home.”
“No problem. I’ll back you up. Whattya say we get some sleep? Right now, I’m not sure I could fight my way out of a pillow factory.”
The next week passed rather quietly. The two friends had begun to hope that Johnny’s presence had turned the tide and Barker had decided to leave well enough alone. Then the raids began.
Some nights random shots would smash windows. Then Ramon’s cattle began to disappear. After that, a mysterious fire broke out in the stable. Fortunately, Ramon had spotted the blaze before the whole building was lost.
Johnny tried to persuade Garcia to let him go into town to confront Barker, but Ramon had backed off. He knew that others rode with Barker and feared a trap for his friend. Finally, when it appeared that there was no choice, he agreed to accompany Johnny into town to confront Barker.
The ride into the small, dusty town didn’t take much time. By mutual agreement the two men had decided to start their hunt for Barker and his men at the cantina where he was known to enjoy the favors of the waitress, however, to their dismay, Rosa informed them that her man was out of town that morning. He might be back later in the day.
Taking a seat in the corner with a good view of the door, Johnny ordered a beer while Ramon, who was nervous in the extreme, decided to visit the bank to conclude some business that had been put off while he had visited Lancer. Johnny assured him he could take care of himself.
The beer was as warm as the day. Johnny leaned back in his chair with his hat pulled down over his eyes. Around him he could hear snatches of Spanish, bringing back memories of soft, scolding words from his mother when he had refused to go to church with her. She had never lost her devout belief in God despite the circumstances they had found themselves in. Of course, most of the language in the cantina was not the type to be used in church, but still the beauty of his mother’s native tongue was there.
Some time later Ramon reentered the run-down cantina, his face white, his body shaking. When he sat down at the table opposite his friend, the older man opened his mouth but the words did not come out. Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he whispered, “Somethin’ wrong?”
Ramon gulped and then nodded. “Barker has just ridden into town. I saw him as I crossed the street.”
“Good. Hate havin’ to wait. Better settle this now.”
“Johnny, please, I am not sure. . . .”
“Ramon, do you want to live in terror from this man? I don’t plan on killin’ him less he gives me no choice.”
Garcia grabbed the glass of warm beer and drained it. “You are right, but it. . .it is still difficult. All I want is to live in peace.”
“We all want that, but sometimes you gotta fight for it.”
Ramon straightened his sturdy body. “That may be true, Johnny, but I have also learned that many men fight just because they enjoy it. They use excuses like you use chiles in your food. I do not wish your death on my conscience if there is any chance I can prevent it.”
Madrid sighed before leaning back slightly. “It’s your land. What do you want me to do?”
“I will go talk with Barker one more time. If he agrees to leave me alone, then we will celebrate. If. . .if he does not then I will not stand in your way.”
The dark-haired man thought it over for a minute and then finally agreed. “Right. You talk, but don’t turn your back on him. He kills you and neither of us is gonna be happy.”
“You have a way with words, amigo. I assure you that I do not wish to die.”
” Rosa darlin’, bring us four cold beers!” All heads in the cantina swung towards the door where four men entered, Barker in the lead. Taking over a table, Barker and his cohorts whistled as Rosa moved seductively towards them, carrying a tray with their beers. As soon as the liquid was safely on the table, Barker pulled Rosa into his lap for a rousing kiss. This went on for some time until one of huge man’s minions nudged him and whispered something to him.
The man’s dark eyes caught sight of Johnny and Ramon at the table in the corner. Abruptly, the raven-haired waitress was pushed to her feet. “‘Nough kissin’, Rosa . Got some bus’ness ta discuss.”
Irate, the woman stalked off.
After getting to his feet, Barker sauntered over to the two men. “Well, if it ain’t my good friend, Ramon Garcia and his paid gun.” Barker sneered.
“Senor Barker, I would like to speak with you—alone.” Ramon was proud of himself that the tremor in his knees was not heard in his voice.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you trust your hired killer?”
“Senor Madrid is my friend, but he does not speak for me.”
“Oooee, didn’t think you had that much guts. Okay. You wanna talk, let’s talk. Rosa ‘s got a room in back. We can be real private like.”
Glancing over at the three men with him, he yelled, “Keep an eye on Madrid . He takes out that gun, you drill him.”
“There will be no need for that, senor. Johnny will remain here. I give you my word.”
Barker snorted but led the way to the door which led to the back room.
For the next fifteen minutes Johnny and the three men played a tense game of staring each other down. Just about the time you could hear the sweat hit the floor, Barker emerged from the room, gestured to his men and walked out of the cantina.
Just behind Barker, Ramon Garcia also emerged from the backroom with a slight smile on his face.
Johnny took a deep breath of relief as his friend approached him. “You okay?”
“I am magnifico. Do you suppose this establishment has champagne?”
“Barker has decided to leave town.”
Johnny was speechless. “I. . .I don’t understand.”
“As you have suggested, the man is a bully. When I told him what you would do if he did not leave my land alone, he collapsed of his own weight.”
“But I didn’t say anything!”
“No, but I have an excellent imagination. I told him in great detail about what you did to the man who violated one of the women who rode with us. He became as butter in the summer sun.”
Johnny laughed with glee. “You are one smart hombre, Ramon, but do you think he’ll stay away?”
“We shall have to wait and see, but yes, I believe so. When one pricks a balloon, there is only hot air.”
“So whattya say we go back to the ranch and I’ll cook up a pot of my world famous chili to celebrate?”
Ramon didn’t have the heart to deny the eager young man, even though the last time Johnny had made chili, Garcia’s tongue had burned for two days.
The following week was blissfully quiet. Without Barker to worry about the two men were able to accomplish many tasks around the rundown house. At the end of the day they would eat and then fall into a deep sleep, uninterrupted by gunfire.
On the fourth day Ramon’s friend, Carlos, one of the few men in the town who had stood by Garcia galloped up to the house, filled with news. Over cups of steaming coffee, Carlos told the two men that he had heard that Barker had indeed left Mexico with the law at his heels. No one seemed to know why exactly, but Ramon didn’t care. It was enough to know that his land was safe.
After Carlos departed, Johnny and Ramon sat at the table together. Ramon knew what was coming, but he also knew he didn’t want to hear his friend’s words, but there was no choice.
“Guess it’s time for me to get on back to Lancer. Been gone a good while longer than I figured. Murdoch’ll have my hide if I stick around here much longer.”
“Si. I understand. Your family needs you. I. . .I will miss you. I had not realized until now how lonely it is on my own.”
Johnny stared into the liquid dark eyes. “Well, I s’pose it wouldn’t hurt to stay a coupla more days. Never can tell if that Barker might not double back and try ‘n take the ranch by surprise.”
“Gracias. There is to be a fiesta on Saturday in the village. Perhaps you could stay for that?”
“With dancin’ and everythin’?”
“Ciertamente. As I recall, you always loved to dance.”
“And I been practicin’. Scott’s been teachin’ me ’bout waltzin’. Course he’s kinda stiff ’bout it, but. . . .” Suddenly, the younger Lancer didn’t want to talk about his brother. “Okay then, I’ll stay ’til Monday. While we’re in town on Saturday, I’ll send a telegram lettin’ ’em know I’ll be on my way.
“Muy bien. Now, would you care to join me in a bottle of tequila?”
The rest of the week went by quickly as the two men worked at feverish pace to finish the needed repairs on the house and stable. By Saturday they were both looking forward to the fiesta, even though Johnny could tell that Ramon was unhappy about his impending departure on Monday.
Riding into the little town, the two men found a much different place than at their last visit. Booths with food and goods filled the streets. Banners and flowers were everywhere and the day itself was sunny and not too hot as of yet. After wandering around to sample the food with its tantalizing smells, Johnny stopped to watch the dancing. Despite his boast to Ramon, he didn’t immediately join in until an assertive young lady grabbed him by the hand and pulled him into the center of the dance area. When the musicians started to play a lively tune, Johnny reacted with pleasure. Maybe all the steps weren’t correct, but he and the girl, Selina, enjoyed themselves immensely.
By the time, Ramon found his friend, both Johnny and Selina were drinking down cups of a fiery punch to quench their thirst. After Garcia reminded the younger man that he would need to send his telegram soon if he wished to do so before the office closed, Johnny left Selina with Ramon to track down the telegraph office.
After writing down his message and handing over the necessary money, Johnny started to leave but stopped when the operator called to him.
In rapid Spanish the man asked him if he was indeed Johnny Lancer.
Puzzled, the young man assured that he was. The operator then handed him a wire.
Breathlessly, Johnny read the few words.
The race north took all the strength of the two men. Hours in the saddle with quick stops for food and sleep or to change horses became the routine as the pain of stretched-beyond-endurance muscles was lost in the thought of what Johnny might find when he finally arrived at the white hacienda.
From the moment Ramon had read the words of the telegram, he had made it his business to watch out for his friend. It was the older man who had arranged for Barranca to be sent on to Lancer when it became apparent that the golden horse could go no farther. It had been Ramon who had forced his friend at the point of a gun to rest for a few hours each day. That the former warrior had taken again taken up a weapon had not escaped Johnny’s notice. He had not realized why until the sturdy man had pointed the gun at him with a trembling hand. Both men knew that Ramon would not pull the trigger, but the gesture spoke loudly of Garcia’s concern. Accepting that he did have to give in to his body’s needs occasionally was difficult to acknowledge, but realistically the gunfighter knew that he would not reach Lancer in a coherent state unless he acquiesced.
After days in the saddle, finally, in the valley below them was Lancer.
Moving down the road under the great gate until he was in front of the hacienda, Johnny jumped from his horse without even coming to a complete halt. Tearing through the door, he found a small woman in somber clothing waiting for him.
“How is he?” came the rasping plea.
Brown eyes filled with tears which did not spill over but hung like drops of dew on her lashes. Trying to control her grief, Teresa whispered, “He. . .he didn’t make it. The doctor tried his best, but . . . .”
Johnny didn’t hear the rest of her words as he started to head for the door, only to find Ramon blocking his way. Roughly, he pushed his friend aside. He wouldn’t stay and listen to lies.
“Johnny, wait!” Teresa’s frantic voice broke through the fog of disbelief. “There’s more.”
The young man whipped around, glaring at the woman who was like his sister. “More? What the hell are you talking about? You tell me my father is dead and there’s more?”
Teresa nodded. “Please try to understand. When. . .when I sent the telegram, I. . .we believed Murdoch might recover. You know how strong he was, but then. . .then he just slipped away. Thank goodness he didn’t know.”
“Johnny, Murdoch wasn’t alone when he was shot. He and Scott had gone to town so that Murdoch could collect the money to pay the hands. They also were bringing back supplies. Val thinks. . .he thinks Scott tried to stop them from shooting Murdoch, but once he was. . .down, they shot your father.”
“Scott’s wounded? Where is he? I want to see him?” Sapphire eyes looked frantically around the room as if they could search his brother out.
“Listen to me. Evidently, after the men left with the money, horses and whatever supplies they wanted, Scott started. . .tried to go for help, but he’d lost a great deal of blood. The ranch hand who found him said his last words were about you, something about telling you he was sorry he couldn’t keep his promise.”
The dark-haired man stood there motionless, his eyes a cauldron of pain. “Where. . .where are they?”
“The old cemetery. We had to. . .bury them, but waited for the funeral until you could be here.”
Blindly running for the door, Johnny pushed right by Garcia. Launching himself onto his tired horse, he headed north for the Traveler’s Rest Cemetery . He had to see for himself that what Teresa had said was true.
Stunned by his friend’s actions, Ramon just stood there until Teresa grabbed him by the arm. In a determined voice, she urged, “Go after him. He shouldn’t be alone.”
Garcia complied. Calling on his reserves of energy, he managed to follow the trail left by the younger man. It wasn’t until he saw the fenced in area where Johnny knelt between two fresh graves that he halted. He waited, knowing that his friend needed this moment with his father and brother. Finally, Johnny rose to his feet, walked through the broken gate and mounted his horse. At a more sedate pace the two returned to Lancer.
This time it was not Teresa waiting for Johnny’s return but Jelly Hoskins. “Good to see you back, Johnny. Sorry I wasn’t here when you rode in. Had to go into Morro Coyo to send a wire to Boston .” The old man hesitated then continued, “Teresa’s in her room. This has been mighty hard on her.”
Johnny barely noticed the grizzled man as he headed for the decanter of Murdoch’s brandy. Pouring himself a stiff drink, the Lancer scion demanded, “Who did it? Does Val know?”
Jelly hesitated. He knew of Johnny’s fierce temper. “They’re dead or at least Val thinks so.”
“Thinks so? What the hell does that mean?”
“Easy, Johnny. Val got news from a sheriff a coupla counties over. Seems these crooks robbed a bank, but ran into a posse. All of ’em were killed.”
“So what’s that got to do. . . .?”
“Just listen ‘n I’ll tell you. One of the dead men was carryin’ this in his pocket.”
The bewhiskered man handed over a small metal item.
Johnny gasped as he felt the warm metal. It was the money clip that he had given Scott for his birthday the previous year. His hand closed tightly over the clip, but he said nothing as he headed to his room and slammed the door shut behind him.
Ramon watched as the older man’s shoulders slumped. “Senor Jelly? I am Ramon Garcia. Johnny has told me much about you.”
Hoskins’ eyes lifted to the other man’s face. “What, oh sorry, guess I wasn’t payin’ much attention.”
“There is no need to apologize. This has been difficult for all of you. Perhaps. . .perhaps I should return to Mexico ?”
“Don’t you worry yourself ’bout that. Johnny’s gonna need his friends here. I been tryin’ to keep the ranch business goin’ ’til he got back. Teresa’s been real broken up and he’ll need to help her too.”
“I understand. I will be happy to stay as long as I am needed. If. . .if Johnny had not been in Mexico with me, perhaps this would not have happened.”
“Can’t blame yourself. Johnny’s a grown man. Makes his own decisions. ‘Sides he coulda got himself killed too if he’d been with. . .with them when they were ambushed.”
“Perhaps but I fear that Johnny might not be able to forgive my part in this.”
“Just give him time. He can be real impulsive, but he ain’t the type to hold a grudge when there’s no reason.”
“I hope you are right, senor. After all this time, I would not like to lose his friendship.”
“Like I said, give him time. Give us all time. It ain’t easy losin’. . . .” Jelly wiped at his face with one broad hand and then retreated to the kitchen to make some coffee for anyone who might need it.
Two days later Reverend Baker presided at the funeral for Scott and Murdoch Lancer. The ceremony was brief with most of the Lancer ranch hands as well as friends attending. Maria had made sure that there would be food for whoever wished to return to the hacienda with Johnny and Teresa.
In the days that followed, a grim-faced Johnny Lancer took up the reins of ownership. The family lawyer had informed him of the contents of both Murdoch and Scott’s wills which made him sole owner of Lancer although Murdoch had also made provision for Teresa and left some money to Jelly, Cipriano and Maria.
The needs of the huge cattle ranch were a blessing to the two grieving young people. Work helped make it possible to get through each day and night. Both Teresa and Johnny were determined to continue Murdoch’s dream no matter what.
Ramon was quickly accepted by the vaqueros as Johnny’s friend since he willingly lent a hand to whatever was needed. As the weeks passed, the sound of muffled crying from Teresa’s bedroom or Johnny’s restless pacing outside under the night sky, lessened.
Then came the letter from Harlan Garrett’s attorney informing them of his client’s collapse at the news of Scott’s death. At the bottom of the note was a request from the lawyer on Garrett’s behalf, asking if—when the time came—would Mr. Lancer object to Harlan Garrett’s burial next to his grandson. After consulting with Teresa, Johnny sent back a wire agreeing to the request.
Three months after the joint funeral, Ramon Garcia and Jellifer B. Hoskins stood up with Johnny Madrid Lancer when he married Teresa O’Brien. It was not a love match in the strict sense of the word, but the affection between the two and the bond created by their mutual loss made it inevitable. Added to that was Johnny’s desire to protect Teresa from some of the ugly gossip about a young woman living in the same house with a young man, not her husband. That Jelly had taken to living in the hacienda as well as Ramon, didn’t seem to still the tongues of those who saw evil wherever they looked.
Acknowledging that he was no longer needed at Lancer, Ramon Garcia left the great ranch to return to his own place a week after the wedding. He had to attend to his own life and knew that only time could truly heal his friend’s pain.
During the next year Johnny and Ramon kept in touch although Johnny’s notes were infrequent due to the tremendous amount of work for which he was now solely responsible. The ledgers had become his greatest challenge, but fortunately he had found a young man, fresh out of college, who wanted to experience life in the West and was good at bookkeeping.
One of the occasional notes did state that the grave on the other side of Scott was now full, but other than that Johnny never mentioned either his brother or father.
Eighteen months after he had visited Lancer for the first time, Ramon received a letter announcing the birth of Paul Murdoch Lancer. The baby and his mother were fine, but the father was still in shock.
That line from the letter made Ramon smile. He could well imagine the feelings of the one-time gunfighter to find himself a father. After reading the letter a second time, he carefully folded it to put in the small box where he kept his few personal belongings.
Removing the two faded photos inside, he placed the letter on the bottom. Starting to return the photo of a young man, Ramon stopped to stare at the once-familiar face. His brother Thomas had been gone for so long. There were almost times when he had to look at the photograph to remember the man he had held so dear even though Thomas had been quite a bit older than him when he had died. Poor Thomas, to fall in love with a woman he could never have. When he had lost his love to another, he had found oblivion in a fight to protect his people.
Sighing, Ramon thought of Johnny with regret. He should not have had to know the sorrow of losing a brother. Garcia had never intended for the blond one to be taken as well.
Picking up the other photograph, Ramon’s heart stirred. He had fallen in love with this woman when he had only been fifteen. She had been kind to him, but had never seen him as other than a boy, even though she was not much older. His heart had almost broken with grief when her father had sent her off to marry a gringo. He had never seen her again. Ramon had carried her in his memories during the years he carried a gun and even when he had thought to lose himself in the priesthood, but he had never forgotten that beautiful face.
Even now he could imagine her smile at the news of her grandson’s birth. “Maria,” he whispered, “can you now rest in peace knowing that the ranch you once left in sorrow now belongs to your son and will one day belong to his son? Their name may be Lancer, but they both carry your blood in them as well. Tomorrow I will ride into town to buy your grandson a gift. Be assured it will be from both of us, my love, even though I cannot tell them that.” Gently, Ramon replaced the two photographs and closed the box.
Moving over to the bottle of tequila, he poured out the last of it into a glass and offered a toast, “El rey esta muerto. Viva el rey.”
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment. Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here. You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email S. directly.