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“Do you know how much this is hurting Murdoch?” Scott Lancer asked when he finally caught up with his younger brother on the more seedy side of town.
“No. Why don’t you tell me,” Johnny replied without lifting his eyes to face Scott. He kept his voice low; his tone matched his mood – sullen. He picked up his glass and rocked it so that the liquid moved in a clockwise direction.
“Do you know where Val is?” Without waiting for Johnny to reply, Scott continued. “He’s out at Lancer. It’s the second time this week he’s been out there to see Murdoch..,”
At the mention of Val’s name, Johnny stopped swirling the colourless Tequila around in his glass and looked up at Scott. “Val? What did he want?” His voice was full of concern, anxious to know what had made Val ride out to Lancer.
Johnny and Val Crawford had become friends since first meeting in Green River during Val’s first year as Sheriff. With Johnny’s encouragement Val had secured another term as lawman, a position that very few men wanted. At that time word had spread of a shipment of gold that was to be leaving Green River for San Francisco. Outside interest had grown about the gold shipment and with it the plans to take over the seemingly quiet town of Green River by a newcomer – Cresswell.
Val had been leading his horse to the livery when the first part of Cresswell’s plans fell into place. Literally. A hay-bale had been purposefully pushed from the loft of the livery, by one of Cresswell’s henchmen. Its intended target was none other than Val Crawford – he’d been lucky that the bale only caused minor damage to his leg. Had he been a step quicker in his stride the bale would’ve meant certain death or at the very least a severe head injury.
While his leg healed Val’s position of Sheriff had been temporarily filled by Cresswell. A man who used his fast and smooth talking ways the acting Sheriff soon fooled the townspeople into thinking that he was a man who upheld the law without the use of a gun. A man without a gun as Johnny Lancer had put it. The only thing that Cresswell had tried to uphold was the wagon carrying a load of gold.
Together Johnny and Val had brought Cresswell’s attempt at an easy robbery and defamation of Val’s good character to a quick end. Now in the long years that lay ahead of Cresswell he would also be upholding a pick on the chain gang. Still not up to strength from his leg injury, Val had relied on Johnny to assist him when needed with his duties.
“What he wanted is what we all want… to know what is making you act so recklessly. Val said that if you keep going the way you are he’s going to have no choice but to lock you up.”
Johnny bit his top lip and slumped his shoulders forward and sighed “You wouldn’t understand.”
“I beg to differ, brother. Try me. What wouldn’t I understand?” Scott lowered his own voice and made it more difficult for those around him who strained to hear their conversation. He waited a while and watched as Johnny picked up a wedge of lemon in his left hand, dipped it in the salt and bit into it before downing his drink. “Johnny.” He prompted; his gray-blue eyes desperately pleaded for his brother to answer him.
‘Would you really understand, brother?’ Johnny silently asked. ‘Would you understand what it is like to have your past used to someone else’s advantage. To be manipulated to protect your family at any cost, to be at the beckon call of a man who can rip from you something that you’ve finally been able to call your own. No, Scott, you wouldn’t understand.’
“Scott, just drop it. I can’t tell you.” Johnny finally said and reached for the Tequila bottle. As he reached he felt Scott’s right hand clamp down forcibly on his own.
“You can’t or you won’t tell me!” stated Scott, he held his brother’s gaze and saw the war that raged within his limpid blue eyes. He knew that Johnny wanted to tell him what was going on, but it was almost as if he were afraid to do so. The quick glances that Johnny made to the table a short distance away did not go unnoticed by Scott. He wanted to turn and seek out the man that his brother kept looking at, maybe then another part of the mystery could be solved.
Johnny shook his hand free from Scott’s and poured himself another drink. “Please, just let it drop. It doesn’t concern you,” he begged, a quiet desperation evident in his voice.
“When I see Murdoch get eaten up like he is, it concerns me all right, brother.”
Johnny put his hands on the table and pushed himself away. The chair scraped across the floor and toppled as he stood up in a hurry. “It’s my problem, Scott and I will take care of it my way!” There was no expression on Johnny’s face, only a tightness around his eyes, his voice thundered as he spoke.
At the sound of Johnny’s raised and angry voice the card playing and talking stopped immediately. The patrons were more interested to see what had forced the two Lancer brothers to be pitted against one another. Each knew that the brothers had had their fair share of disagreements as any normal siblings would, but never before had they witnessed anything so heated.
One patron in particular watched with great interest as the scene before him played out. Content with seeing where the debate was going he quietly slipped out of the saloon.
“Johnny, I’m not going until you tell me what this is all about.” Scott pushed his own chair away from the table and stood to face his younger brother. “For the past three weeks you’ve been moody, unbearable and down right rude. It’s become impossible to live with you any longer.”
“Well if I’m that bad maybe I should leave ‘Lancer’. Hell, who needs you anyway? I got on just fine before I met you and I’m sure that I will be again.” He spun on his right heel to exit the saloon when he felt a vice like grip on his left shoulder.
“You don’t mean that.”
Johnny let go a pent up breath and turned to face Scott. “Don’t I?” he asked, his tone even -almost defeated. He closed his eyes briefly and clenched his jaw. “Just drop it, brother.” He added and shot Scott a warning look.
“Johnny, can’t you at least tell me what’s wrong? For Murdoch’s sake if not for mine.”
“No, Scott. Not this time. It’s something I have to deal with.” Without waiting for Scott to reply he stalked out of the bar. Johnny took one final look at the older man who had been watching with interest at the exchange between the two Lancer brothers and pulled his hat down over his eyes. Scott looked around the murky interior of the bar once more before he finally followed Johnny out of the saloon. Against his better judgement he’d refused to let their conversation end without the answers he needed.
“Something from your past again?” Scott asked angrily as he gripped Barranca’s bridle, and stopped Johnny from leaving. “When is it going to end, Johnny? When all your enemies are dead or -when you are?”
“Just get out of my way, brother. I don’t want to drag you into this mess with me. Like I said, it’s my problem to sort out – not yours.” He jerked Barranca’s reins in his hands and pulled the horse’s head clear of his brother. Johnny backed his horse carefully away from Scott and cast him one more glance. “Don’t follow me. I mean it.”
“Johnny? What do I tell Murdoch?”
Johnny closed his eyes and battled the lump in his throat that threatened to make itself known. “Tell him what you want.”
“Will you be back at the ranch tonight or are you planning on staying in town?” Scott’s last question went unanswered as Johnny quickly spurred his horse into a slow gallop. “Brother, you’ve got yourself into something more serious than you care to admit,” Scott quietly said to himself as he watched Johnny ride away.
Three miles from town Johnny reined Barranca to a halt and dismounted. Johnny Lancer was a cautious man a skill he had learned over time and experienced through life’s toughest lessons. As he had told Scott, lessons he had learned the hard way. His blue eyes swept over the land and absorbed every detail around him – the pines, formation of the boulders, a river that cascaded over rocks that jutted up from its bed like fingers reaching towards the sky and finally to the black roan and its rider. “I didn’t think that you’d be far behind.” Johnny dryly commented as he addressed the newcomer.
“That was a good show that you put on at the saloon. Do you think that your brother bought it?”
Immediately on the defensive at the mention of his brother’s name Johnny withdrew his gun from his oil blackened holster and pulled the hammer back. “Donnelley, you leave my brother out of this.”
“Now, Johnny, there’s no need for such a display of violence. Why don’t you put your gun back into its holster before my men are forced to cut you down where you stand.” Donnelly gestured with his hand in the direction of where his men had taken cover amongst the boulders and gave Johnny a sick smile. “Admittedly it would bring a premature end to our arrangement – but I guess Scott would be a willing replacement.” He paused and then added ”it would be such a shame to see anything happen to the lovely lassie, Teresa, don’t you think? Not to mention what it will do to Murdoch Lancer when news gets out about..”
“You win,” forestalled Johnny and lowered his gun. “Tell me what you want done. I’m tired of playing your mind games; it’s tearing my family apart. It’s tearing me apart.” He bowed his head and sighed deeply when he thought about how much hurt he had already caused his family. The family that he’d become a major part of just over four years ago.
Before the Pinkerton agent had located Johnny in Mexico he had been ready to face death at the hands of a firing squad. Fate had intervened that day, his life had been spared and a family had awaited him at Lancer, one of the biggest ranches in Morro Coyo. Now he fought for not only his life but for those he loved and protected.
For the past few weeks he had become a pawn in a game of power. A game-piece to be used at will by the player – Donnelly. His every moved was controlled, if he was to forfeit his position the price would be the death of someone close to him – a move he had no intention of making. As a result of the game rules he had deliberately gone against his father’s wishes and had disobeyed him at first with seemingly minor things like leaving chores unattended, letting cattle wonder and arriving back at Lancer on the nights he did return home, drunk and combative. He was deeply ashamed of his actions and begged silently that Murdoch would forgive him once the game had ended. “Aye. A sensible idea my boy. I am so pleased that you approve.” Donnelly’s voice had an air of smugness to it as he spoke the Scottish brogue unmistakable. He’d not been off the boat long from Aberdeen and it showed as he raised his hand to shield his eyes from the blinding light of the sun as well as its fierce intensity. “Murdoch is going to pay for cheating me out of what was rightfully mine – my birthright, and now with your help I will destroy him as he did me.” Donnelley caught Johnny fingering his gun and once more instructed him to put it away.
Reluctantly Johnny re-holstered his gun. A gun that felt much a part of him as his own hand did. He looked at Donnelly and snorted to himself. Before him stood a wiry man, close in age to Murdoch, but with no real discernible features. His face was weathered and sported a gray beard, neatly trimmed. His dark eyes made Johnny feel uncomfortable as they bore into his own. “Now what?” Johnny asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
Murdoch Lancer looked out the panoramic window for the fifth time as in many minutes. He looked deeply at the vast empire he had created. The Lancer ranch was surrounded by breathtaking beauty with peaceful sloping hills, an abundance of healthy cattle that fed on the emerald green range grass and stands of pines that grew like giants against the sky. He thought back to when his sons had both returned to Lancer and helped him defeat the notorious land pirate, Day Pardee.
As promised Murdoch had given both Scott and Johnny one-third shares in Lancer, they had both earned it – through their courage and determination to see their father retain his land. The past few years had seen the three Lancers bond as a family, no longer the distant strangers that they had once been to each other. Murdoch had been pleasantly surprised at the smooth transition Scott and Johnny had shown in their new roles, not only as his sons but also as brothers.
“Murdoch I hate to press you for an answer but if I’m going to get back into town before nightfall I need to know now.” Val’s words carried a double meaning. He knew that come nightfall if Johnny hadn’t returned home he would be at the saloon again continuing on his self-destructive path. “Murdoch?” Val pressed again.
“Val, do what you think best. I’ve tried but I don’t seem to be getting through to the boy.” Murdoch answered without turning away from the window.
“You mean lock him up? You can’t be serious,” Val choked in bewilderment. He couldn’t believe that Murdoch Lancer would want to see one of the sons that he so fiercely protected locked up.
The older man ran his right thumb over his top lip and faced the Sheriff. “You said yourself that if he kept up with his recklessness that you’d have no choice but to lock him up.”
Val scratched at the side of his head and sniffed. “Yeah… but that was only as a last resort.”
“So. Make this a last resort.” Murdoch suggested his voice a little lighter than it had been.
Val scratched at his scraggly beard and wiped his hands against his shirt. “Could always do it for his own protection,” he said and inspected the axle grease under one of his nails.
“Look, Val, both you and I know that Johnny isn’t going to be happy about it, but he may just open up to you and tell you what’s troubling him. Scott and I don’t seem to be getting very far with him.”
Still not happy with the idea of having to incarcerate his friend, Val tried another approach. “What about Jelly? Hasn’t he been able to talk to Johnny at all?”
“In Jelly’s opinion, Dewdrop is a lot friendlier than Johnny is right now.” Murdoch picked up the silver-framed photograph of Johnny off his desk. “Val, I’m asking you as a friend, if Johnny causes any trouble in town lock him up. I’ll come and arrange bail in the morning.”
“Dewdrop’s a mite friendlier huh?” grinned Val as the sound of honking filled the air. “Well, that’s sayin’ a lot for Jelly’s goose. The dang thing nearly scared my horse when I rode up.”
Since Dewdrop’s arrival at Lancer, the male goose had caused horses to bolt, including a team that were still harnessed to a wagon load of supplies, had hissed at ranch-hands and had on occasion feasted on Maria’s freshly baked pies.
“Murdoch, if I see Johnny in town I’ll keep a close eye on him and if it looks like he gonna start anything he can spend the night in my company.” Val picked up his hat off the table and started to move towards the glass doors. “I’m sorry I had to be the bearer of bad news.” He added.
Murdoch followed Val to his horse and extended his right hand to the Sheriff. “Val, I appreciate you coming out here. I know it can’t have been easy for you.”
“You can say that again,” agreed Val and clasped Murdoch’s right hand with his own. “Let’s hope that it’s a quite night in Green River.” He then turned to mount his roan when Dewdrop started to hiss at the horse and caused it to rise on his hind legs.
“Any more disagreements with the livestock and you’ll be invited to Sunday dinner,” cautioned Murdoch as he gathered up the offender in his arms.
“Come now, Johnny,” Donnelly smiled, “surely by now you should know what we need to discuss.” He straightened his tweed jacket and patted the .45 that hung on his hip in a tied down holster. “And you will continue to help won’t you?”
Johnny remained obstinately silent, mulling over the conversation that he wished he’d had with Murdoch. Each time he’d tried to ask Murdoch about his past in Scotland, he’d faltered and couldn’t bring himself to it – Donnelly’s warning of what he would do weighed heavily on his shoulders.
“Lancer, Mister Donnelly asked you a question,” Reid sneered and prodded the younger man in his ribs with the barrel of his Winchester. “Are you stupid or deaf?”
“That’s quite enough, Reid,” Warned Donnelly, “I’m certain that Mister Lancer knows what is best for him and his family. Aye, especially that bonnie lassie with the long brown hair and fair skin.” He watched with interest as Johnny’s calm expression slowly turned to one of suppressed rage.
“You leave Teresa out of this,” rebuked Johnny and instinctively drew his gun from its oil-blackened resting-place. Johnny loved his father’s ward like a sister, with Teresa his family was complete.
“I wouldn’t do that, boy,” Reid’s cocky voice stabbed at him. “You see that scatter-gun,” he added and gestured with his head to the left, “ol’ Simon, he’s never been known to miss.”
Johnny felt the swift tug of sudden anger and his face showed his hardness. “Yeah I see it.”
Donnelly took a tin form his breast pocket and pulled a cigarette from it. He whisked a match from another pocket and lit it. His face hollowed like a phantom as he took his first drag on the cigarette that refused to draw. After a second attempt the paper-covered tobacco was alight and Donnelly savored its taste. The smoke trickled up from the cigarette and into Donnelly’s thin eyes for a brief second. “I admire your fight, lad, but it’s a lost cause. You will do as I say. I intend to have what is mine.”
“Donnelly,” Johnny spat, “you keep talkin’ about what is rightfully yours. I wanna know what it is that you’re aimin’ to get.”
“Lancer.” The Scotsman gloated. “Lancer is mine and one way or another I am going to get it. Murdoch will pay for ruining me.”
Johnny snorted at Donnelly’s statement and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s gonna take more than driving a spur between the old man and myself to get that land. He loves it more than anything else on earth.”
“Aye, that he may do, but I’m a betting man, and I’m willing to bet that Murdoch will gladly hand over the land and all its holdings when he knows that his son’s life is at stake.”
“Well, you’re gonna be waitin’ a long time. Do you really think Murdoch would give it all up just to save my neck? To save the life of a son who has been hell bound since he could shoot a gun – I doubt it.” Johnny laughed and cocked his head in arrogance, “you have a lot to learn about Murdoch Lancer. Why… why’d you wait so long to come after Murdoch?”
“Timing, my boy,” sneered Donnelly. “It was all a matter of timing. The winds of change are here now and it is all going to blow my way.” With a quick nod of his head two of Donnelly’s bigger henchmen grabbed Johnny’s arms and held in firm in their grasp. “Let’s send you home with a reminder of what will happen to Scott and Teresa if you don’t cooperate.”
“I intend to earn my wages,” Reid said surly and rubbed his blocky jaw before he balled his fist.
“You what?” asked Scott incredulously. He couldn’t believe that Murdoch had given Val his approval to have Johnny arrested. “I know Johnny’s been out of hand lately, but do you think having him arrested and thrown into jail for a couple of nights is going to help solve anything?” Scott paced around the main room stopping briefly at the beautifully crafted dining room table and finally at the open set of French doors. He rubbed his right hand over his face and shook his head. “It won’t work.”
“Scott, you’ve tried, I’ve tried and neither of us can seem to get through to Johnny. His path for self destruction has got to be stopped – before he hurts himself or someone else.”
Scott turned when he heard Murdoch pour two glasses of brandy.
Murdoch handed his older son a glass of the imported liquor and sat opposite him. “I’m hoping that Johnny will open up to Val. Maybe he feels too pressured to tell us what has got him so agitated and with Val as a neutral party, Johnny might tell Val what’s eating him.” Murdoch swallowed the contents of his glass and looked at the ring of alcohol left around the rim. He watched as it slowly ran down the edges and back into the bowl of the balloon shaped glass. “Johnny’s so stubborn,” the older man finally said before he set the glass on the table.
“Don’t I know it! He’s half mule, half panther with a touch of earthquake for added measure. I had a talk with him at the saloon this afternoon.” Scott agreed and looked once more at the rolling hills that surrounded Lancer.
Scott sadly shook his head. “Whatever Johnny is involved in, I get the feeling he’s in over his head. I tried talking to him, but he just said that this was something he had to handle himself.” He paused and then added. “You don’t think it has something to do with his past do you?”
“Scott, I don’t know what to think anymore,” replied Murdoch on a long drawn out sigh. “I was beginning to think that things were going well for Johnny – he hadn’t been in trouble for a while and he was enjoying himself here, even opening up a little more each day. Where did it all go wrong? Where did I go wrong?”
The two men sat in silence as they both thought about what had transpired over the past weeks.
The quiet was interrupted by the familiar sound of hooves hitting crushed stone and Barranca’s soft whinny. Anxiously Murdoch and Scott waited for Johnny’s arrival and listened to the clink of his spurs as he walked towards the house.
His eyes were cold and restless, his shoulders and back muscles tight with tension, his whole outward demeanour served as a warning to those around him to leave him alone. This had become a normal appearance for him of late, but tonight as Johnny stalked through the main room of the Lancer hacienda, the telltale signs of a fistfight were clearly evident.
“Johnny,” Murdoch called, his one word voiced everything he felt – worry, concern, frustration and grief. He watched in despair as his youngest son continued to walk towards the kitchen. “Johnny,” Murdoch repeated.
No answer – Johnny kept walking.
Scott looked at his father and then in the direction that his younger brother had gone. He was torn between wanting to give his father the support that he needed and the desire to find out what was wrong with his younger brother. He sighed heavily and bit his top lip. Murdoch had returned to staring out the large window, effectively closing any further discussion. Unable to take much more of the deafening silence that filled the air, Scott went after Johnny. “What’s your problem?” Scott asked when he finally caught up with the dark haired man.
Seated at the far side of the table, Johnny raised his head to look at Scott. “Nothin’,” he answered, the word slightly muffled by his cut lip. He lowered his head once more and pressed a piece of raw beef against his left eye.
“Well it doesn’t look like nothin’, boy. Looks like a whole lot of something if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you,” Johnny replied sullenly. He rested his head in his right hand and inhaled deeply when he heard Murdoch enter the room. He didn’t need to look up, the heavy tread of the footsteps and the scent of the cologne confirmed who it was. ‘Great. Two of them now to gang up on me,’ Johnny thought bitterly to himself. Determined not to make the first move he waited for the inevitable.
Murdoch saw the dried blood crusted around Johnny’s eye and sighed. He damped a cloth with cold water and held it out to his youngest son. “Here, take this.” He waited for Johnny to take the proffered cloth before he pulled out a chair and sat down. “Care to tell us what is going on?”
“No.” Johnny sniffed and winced when the cloth made contact with the gash, causing it to sting.
“If you don’t tell us what is going on, how are we to help you.” Murdoch tried again; his voiced edged with a quite plea that his son would let him help.
Johnny figured it wasn’t any use keeping his head down and made eye contact but was frustratingly silent. He turned abruptly when Jelly Hoskins entered the kitchen through the back door.
“Ya look like you’ve been mule kicked,” Jelly winced when he saw the angry looking cut and the purple bruise that had formed on Johnny’s eye. “What hit ya?”
Without answering Johnny scraped his chair back across the floor and threw the cloth down on the table.
“Where do you think you’re going?” commanded Murdoch.
“Johnny, wait,” cried Scott and started to follow his brother. He looked down when he felt his arm tugged backwards.
“Scott, let him go,” said Murdoch, a defeated timbre in his voice.
They watched as Johnny trotted Barranca to the coral gate, his weight high on his stirrups. Murdoch sighed deeply when Johnny spurred his horse into a gallop and never looked back.
Outside of Green River, Johnny slowed Barranca to a walk as his mind drifted back to the one sided conversation that had taken place. Again he was ashamed of his actions and how much they’d hurt both Murdoch and Scott. He desperately wanted to tell them what was going on but the consequences of his actions were far too high a risk. This was one hand that he would have to play out himself to keep his family safe. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” Scott’s words kept coming back to haunt him. He sighed and rubbed his dust-covered sleeve across his forehead.
The sun had dipped behind the horizon when he’d arrived in town and his first concern was bedding down his palomino for the night. “Hey, Harvey, you gotta spare stall for Barranca?”
“Yeah, Johnny over this way,” Harvey answered. He was an older man but fond of horses and devoted a large amount of his free time to them. “You plannin’ on being in town long?” he asked through friendly concern. He’d seen Johnny spend several nights in Green River over the last few weeks and knew that Murdoch Lancer did not appreciate any of his hands out drinking during the working week – especially his sons.
“Not sure but more than likely,” uttered Johnny and paid Harvey the two bits for Barranca’s keep. “I’ll see you later on if you’re here.”
“Okay, Johnny. You have a good night and stay out of trouble.”
“I’ll try to, Harvey.”
Light spilled from the saloon, and washed the wooden sidewalk outside. Silhouettes of people caught in the light of the oil lamps also adorned the wooden planks. When he entered the saloon Johnny moved immediately to one side and let his eyes adjust to the murky interior. He surveyed the patrons, evaluating each man and looked for any sign of trouble. His eyes took in details that most men would normally discard; this had become a habit for him, mostly through necessity and instinct but a habit that had been hard to break.
He’d elected to sit in the far corner of the saloon and sat on a low-back chair; his legs out in front of him as his left hand nursed the glass he held. From the front part of the bar came the sounds of men drinking and shouting; the noise filled the entire building. Tobacco smoke swirled over gambling tables while cards continued to fall, hands won and lost.
It wasn’t long before his unwelcome company arrived and at Donnelly’s insistence he soon found himself involved in a game of poker. He’d played a few hands and only bet what he could afford to lose. Money wasn’t a commodity that he had a lot of since Murdoch had cut his pay. He didn’t begrudge Murdoch for his decision not to pay him his full wages and was grateful that the cards had fallen in his favour most of the night.
“Been playing long?” Val Crawford asked. Harvey had informed him that Johnny was in town and out of respect for Murdoch he kept his word about checking up on Johnny.
“Ask the bartender, he’s got a watch,” Johnny replied sullenly without looking up from the hand that he held. He hated to have to speak to his close friend like that and could feel the hurt it inflicted as soon as the words had left his mouth.
The portly man opposite Johnny rubbed his sweat soaked brow and tried to disguise his nervousness for the cards that he held. Each time someone upped the ante he would close and fan his cards. He closed his eyes briefly and swallowed. “I’ll raise you ten,” he stammered and threw a coloured chip onto the ever-growing pile.
Johnny could feel Val looking over his shoulder and bent his cards towards himself, masking them from prying eyes. “I’m in,” he calmly said. He’d played poker often enough to be impassive to the looks of other players as they toyed with their chips before finally deciding whether to stay in the game or not.
A short time later, Johnny felt himself become drowsy and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Cash me in,” he said and pushed his hands in to the small of his back, stretching weary muscles.
He’d opted to go out the back door and head for the livery. The darkness was an ally to anyone who wanted to go against him. A gun came crashing down and smashed against his temple as he walked out the back door. The blow sickened him and drove him to his knees. But even as he went down, Johnny pulled his .45 from his holster. He saw a confused blur of a man in the dark and aimed in its direction. Again something smashed against his head; dimly he heard the roar of his own gun as his thumb dropped the hammer. The world dipped and dived before his eyes as a sensation of pain washed over him, drowning him in its embrace.
When he came to he was lying on a bunk bed in the jail cell. He gingerly opened his eyes and closed them immediately as the bright shards of light assaulted them. He heard a pitiful moaning sound and wished that it would stop, it wasn’t until a few moments later that he realised that he was the one making the noise.
“Take it easy, Johnny,” a familiar voice soothed.
“Good idea,” Johnny mumbled and lay still on the bunk, fighting back the nausea that threatened to override him. The distinctive taste of something metallic in his mouth gave him all the warning he needed; he turned over on his right side and retched violently.
Doctor Jenkins had been expecting this when his patient awoke and held a bowl close to Johnny’s head.
Spent and sore from retching Johnny lay back on the bed and closed his eyes while he waited for the room to stop its continual spinning. His head ached and his stomach spasmed as he fought to control the unrelenting pain. “What happened? What am I doing here?” he asked, confusion evident in his voice as he looked at the iron bars of the cell.
“Johnny, what do you remember?” Doctor Jenkins asked, he felt the clamminess of Johnny’s skin and the quickened pulse.
“I don’t remember much at all. Played cards, upset Murdoch again and the livery.” Johnny’s eyes grew heavy as he recounted what he could remember. His eyes finally closed and his head lolled to one side.
Val’s breath caught when he saw how still his friend had become. “Is he?” He couldn’t bring himself to ask the full question and waited while Jenkins examined Johnny once more.
“No, he’s not dead,” Jenkins replied alleviating Val’s fears. He turned his focus back to his patient and tried rousing him. “Johnny, come on open those eyes.” Time seemed to drag by slowly until Johnny finally opened his eyes.
“Hurts.” Came a slurred reply from the bed.
“I know it hurts, Johnny, but you’ve got to try and remember what happened,” Val encouraged and knelt down beside his friend. “Doc do you think we oughta move him to your office?”
Jenkins shook his head. “He’s better off here for now. I really don’t want to move him around too much, with a head injury like this it’s best if he stays still.”
“How bad is it?” Val asked. His answer came in the form of a non-verbal reply. He could see the anguish in the ageing doctor’s eyes. “I’ll send a rider out to Lancer. Murdoch’s got a right to know what’s going on. But how do I tell him that his son murdered an unarmed man.” Val blew out a long breath and looked at the stone floor of the cell. “I should’ve done something sooner,” he berated himself.
“What could you have done? Arrested Johnny for playing cards?” Jenkins waited for the Sheriff to answer before he continued. “Are you certain that it was Johnny who killed Señor Paulo? Were there any witnesses?”
“The bullet that killed Paulo was from a .45, and Johnny’s gun had been fired – same calibre. I just don’t know what he had against Paulo, I thought that they were pretty good friends. Just one thing puzzles me.”
“How Johnny ended with a head injury,” Jenkins forestalled Val.
“Who reported the shooting?”
“It looked like one of the guys that Johnny was playing cards with. Not sure who he was, I’ve never seen him around here before.” Val paused and looked towards the door that separated the cells from his office. “Will you be okay with Johnny… I’ve got an idea that I want to follow up on.”
“Val.” He heard a weak voice call before he’d made it out of the cell. He turned to see his friend breathing heavily and struggling to sit up. “Take it easy,” coaxed Val and pushed Johnny back down.
“Why am I here?” Johnny asked and repeated his earlier question. “Did you arrest me?”
Val couldn’t help but grimace when he saw the mask of confusion on Johnny’s face. To tell Murdoch that his son had murdered a man was going to be hard enough but to tell Johnny tore the soul right out of him.
“Johnny, Paulo is dead,” Val finally said. “We found his body behind the saloon,” he paused for a long minute and added, “he was shot in his heart – with a bullet from your gun.”
“No, it can’t be,” Johnny swallowed and gritted his teeth as a small cry caught in his throat. “I didn’t do it, Val, you’ve got to believe me, I didn’t do it.”
For the first time in the past three weeks Val saw the old Johnny he used to know. Not the one that had been hell bent on destroying everything he had – but the Johnny who was his best friend. “I was hoping that you would say that, why don’t you get some rest and let me do what I get paid to.”
“Val, someone set me up,” protested Johnny his voice raised. He winced, as the sound of his own voice jarred the scrambled pieces of his mind.
“That’s what it looks like, my friend,” agreed the Sheriff and gave Johnny a reassuring pat on his shoulder. “I’m going to have to ride out to Lancer and tell Murdoch. Is there anything you need brought back?”
“A clean shirt,” Johnny mumbled and looked at the bloodstains on his blue shirt.
“Yeah, I think I can manage that,” smiled Val. “You just make sure you listen to the Doc while I’m gone.”
Johnny nodded in agreement and closed his eyes and let his body fall into the welcomed abyss of unconsciousness where pain did not dwell.
“I’m going to stay with him,” Jenkins said indicating to Johnny.
“Take care of him, Doc. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“He’s what?” Murdoch almost bellowed at the news that his youngest son was in jail with a head injury. “How bad is it?” he asked as he wrapped his gunbelt around his waist. Before giving Val a chance to reply he was giving orders. “Jelly saddle up some horses. Scott, you’re coming in with me.”
“What’s wrong? What’s going on?” Teresa asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She tightened the belt around her dressing gown and padded across to where Murdoch stood with Val and Scott. “Where’d Jelly go in such a hurry.”
With the attention focused on him, Val told of how Johnny had been injured and that he had been involved in a murder. He raised his hands at the collective gasp and quickly added that he felt Johnny had been set up.
“Did he say who was with him?” questioned Scott.
“No, when we found Johnny he was unconscious and still had his gun in his hand. I don’t mean to be rude but we’re wasting valuable time standin’ around here when we could be out looking for the real killer. But at the moment all the evidence is pointing towards Johnny.”
“Sorry, Val,” apologised Murdoch. “You’re quite right. Lets get moving.”
“Does Johnny need anything?” Teresa asked as Val moved towards the door.
“Yeah he did,” Val said. “I nearly forgot… he wanted a clean shirt.”
“I thought he would’ve wanted a lawyer and a fast horse to Mexico,” Scott offered and winced when he saw the scowl on his father’s face. He realised his attempt at trying to lighten the mood wasn’t well received.
“Here,” Teresa puffed and handed Murdoch one of Johnny’s shirts. “It was the only one I could find in his room.”
Murdoch took the white shirt and kissed Teresa goodnight. “Thank you, sweetheart. I’m sure Johnny will appreciate it.”
The older Lancer wasn’t fully prepared for what he saw. The anger that Murdoch had been feeling towards his youngest son for his behaviour of the past weeks subsided when he saw Johnny. His normally animated son now lay so frighteningly still on the bunk bed. Johnny’s dark hair accentuated the paleness of his waxen complexion as it fell haphazardly across his forehead. Murdoch drew a deep breath and crouched down beside his youngest son. “Johnny?” He softly called his son’s name. He let go his pent up breath when he saw limpid blue eyes watch him from beneath a thick fringe of black lashes.
Johnny slowly opened his eyes and watched as the blur before him swam into focus. “Murdoch?” he asked his voice weak and parched. He tried to sit himself up but quickly gave the idea up as a bad one and let himself be pushed back.
“Do you want a drink?” Murdoch asked, unsure of what to say to his son.
“Please,” croaked Johnny and grimaced as he tried to clear the metallic taste from his mouth.
Both men were at a standstill. Neither knew what to say to the other or where to begin. Murdoch felt the urge to embrace his son but bitterly fought back the overwhelming desire and nodded his head as he exhaled through his nose. Murdoch cursed his own stubbornness and propped Johnny up a little so that he could drink.
A part of Johnny wanted to reach for his father and feel his supportive arms around him; the ache to reveal all to his father burned like a fire out if control inside of him. He silently begged that he could cast aside his stubborn streak just this once and seek the comfort and support he desperately needed. “Thanks,” he said after the cool water soothed his throat.
“I heard about Paulo,” Murdoch said. “I’m sorry.”
Johnny nodded and bit into his top lip, holding back unshed tears for a good friend that had been killed. “So am I.”
“You didn’t do it?” Murdoch asked. He instantly regretted what he said as soon as the words left his mouth. He couldn’t believe that he’d been so careless and effectively drove the spike further into the already widened gap between Johnny and himself.
Johnny struggled to an upright position and fought for control over his weakened body. “Is that what you came here for, Murdoch, to see if I really did kill Paulo? Is that what you think of me?” His words were terse and full of venom.
Murdoch shook his head and leaned against the iron bars of the cell. “I don’t know what to think.” He closed his eyes and titled his head back. “You’ve become distant lately. I just don’t know what to say anymore.” He turned back to face Johnny and held his son’s gaze with his own. “Why don’t you tell me.”
Scott intervened when he saw both tempers of the people he cared most for start to flare. “Murdoch, why don’t you let me talk to Johnny.”
His father quietly nodded and sat down on the bed opposite.
Scott Lancer knelt down beside his brother. “Johnny, you know that they will hang you for Paulo’s murder if there isn’t any evidence of another person involved. Did you see anyone other than the people you played cards with? Did you talk to anyone? Did you have an argument with Paulo?”
“I’ve tried, Scott. I don’t know what happened.” Johnny shrugged his shoulders in defeat at not being able to recall what had happened since he left the saloon.
“Val, you said that the witness to the shooting was the same guy that Johnny was playing cards with. Did anyone see this man afterwards? Did you get a description of him?” Scott asked.
Unable to follow the conversation any longer between Val and Scott, Johnny felt himself driven to seek refuge from the pain and welcomed the darkness that beckoned him. The last words he heard were those of his father as Scott left his side.
“Scott, be careful.” Warned Murdoch and watched his oldest son leave the cell.
“I will, I have some ideas I want to follow up on,” Scott said as he departed.
The next four days seemed to drag past for Johnny. His only visitor during his time in the jail was Scott. Each time he asked where Murdoch was Scott would give him the same answer. “Ranch duties kept him busy.”
Conversation with Scott had been very limited and focused around details of the attack and Paulo’s death. Each time Scott would come back with a little more information. Like a dog with a bone he kept going over the same things making sure that he hadn’t missed a vital piece of information.
“Well, Johnny, the Doc’s given you the all clear, you just remember to follow his advice though okay,” cautioned Val.
”Sure, Val.” Johnny said and rubbed at a still sore spot on the back of his head. “Do you know who posted my bail? Was it Murdoch?”
“No, Johnny, it wasn’t. I don’t know who it was. I’ve never seen him before. Oh wait, maybe one time I did. That night you were playin’ cards. Spoke kind a funny like. Some weird accent. Do you know him?”
“Yeah, I know him,” Johnny answered, his voice low. He tightened his gunbelt around his waist and gingerly put on his hat.
“You know the conditions of your bail, so I ain’t goin’ to go over them again. You jut keep outta trouble or you’ll be back in here for the duration until the circuit judge gets here.”
“You wanted a job done, you got it done. Next time do it yourself.” Dean Barlow snarled and glowered at his employer. He was a sudden kind of a man, one that Donnelly watched very carefully.
His tone was bestial. The savagery of it made Donnelly look at him suddenly. “You’re a killer – when you want to be.” He stopped talking when he heard the sound of hoof beats on the hardened ground. “Go see who it is,” he ordered and hid himself from view.
Barlow stood stock still in the fading light and waited for the rider to approach. “It’s Scott Lancer.”
“See what he wants,” called Donnelly and watched Scott approach.
Barlow allowed the rider to get closer before he closed the bolt on his rifle. The distinctive noise of a bullet being locked into place made Scott rein his horse to a halt. “That’s close enough Lancer, state your business.”
“Four days ago someone set my brother up after they nearly killed him. I’ve asked a lot of questions and all answers point in your direction. You were the one that set Johnny up,” Scott snapped his words and dismounted. He didn’t care any more about the consequences he wanted to clear his brother of murder and that was all that mattered.
Barlow didn’t deny the accusation and scratched idly at the side of his face and spat into the ground at Scott’s feet. He turned and pivoted on his left foot bringing his right fist up fast and hard. He smiled when his solid blow sent the blonde man reeling backwards and grabbed his shirt collar stopping the inevitable fall. Barlow’s fist slammed hard into Scott’s midsection; the debilitating blow drove the wind from him.
Scott sucked in a pain filled gasp of air and balled both of his fists. “You want to fight dirty, huh? Bring it on.” His right fist connected with the side of Barlow’s jaw and sent the heavier set man stumbling backwards.
The same height neither of the battling men had the advantage with reach but Scott’s punches were power packed and inflicted damage. The two men fought for control as their feet shuffled backwards and forwards across the dirt floor.
Scott managed to get in some solid blows and took what was given back. His vision was blurred by the blood that ran freely from a gash above his right eye mixed with the sweat from, the exertion of the fight. He was breathing heavily and the power of his punches had weakened. He blocked with his forearms deflecting the blows that relentlessly rained down on him. He quickly wiped the blood from his eye and narrowly missed the right hook that Barlow delivered. Scott staggered slightly on his feet, his shoulder ached and his knuckles were raw.
The left uppercut that followed Barlow’s right jab, crushed in naked power, knocked Scott backwards. He swayed slightly and never saw the last right cross that sent the earth rushing up to meet him.
With a final fierce burst of fight, Barlow delivered a blow that rendered Scott unconscious. Barlow nudged the fallen man with the toe of his boot and beckoned the two vaqueros who had been watching the fight to take Scott away.
Barlow stepped back and braced his hands on his thighs, dragging in precious gasps of air to fill his starved lungs.
“You nearly let Lancer get the better of you,” gloated Donnelly
“It’s time to pay old Murdoch a visit,” Barlow said to Vaughn Reid and Simon Butler. “Time we earned the money that Donnelly’s been payin’ us.”
“Yeah I wouldn’t mind havin’ me a bit of fun,” leered Reid. “Hear tell, that girl that lives with Johnny’s old man is a beauty.”
Barlow grabbed Reid’s shirt collar causing the younger man to choke. “Reid, you touch that girl in anyway and I’ll make sure it’s the last thing that you ever do.” He pushed Reid away in disgust and shook his head. “I mean it,” he added, his tone ice cold.
“Ya goin’ soft,” rebuked Reid.
“No I ain’t. Gettin’ the old man is one thing, but the girl gets left out of it,” said Barlow, his voice low and intense. “You put one hand on the girl and I’ll drop you as quick as look at you.”
Reid slowly inhaled and nodded. He’d seen Barlow in action and knew that he was a man of his word.
The three men mounted their horses and rode in silence to the Lancer ranch and waited in the shadows until the vaqueros had gone to bed. With their horses tethered to a large oak tree, the trio stealthily walked towards the hacienda.
A still had fallen over the Lancer ranch now that the daily activity had ceased. The chirp of crickets and the soft lowing of cattle were the only noises that filled the night air.
Unable to retreat to a deep and comforting sleep, Teresa dozed lightly as the moonlight that came into her room cast shadows across the bedcovers. She had expected Scott Lancer to return home hours ago and had become increasingly worried for his safety. Like Murdoch she’d learned that Johnny had been released on bail but was at a loss as to who would’ve fronted the money. These thoughts and more had kept her from the sleep she needed.
Murdoch Lancer had opted to stay up and worked on the ledgers. Like Teresa he’d been unable to sleep and couldn’t shake the nagging feeling of hopelessness. He’d wanted to ride in and visit with Johnny but his stubborn pride had stopped him. An action that he now regretted.
“Be quiet,” hissed Reid when Butler’s spurs clinked together. “Can’t you take those damn things off?”
“Cut it out you two,” Barlow intervened and beckoned for Butler to enter the house upstairs while he and Reid went in through the kitchen door.
Limited by the darkness, Reid couldn’t see properly and held his breath when a pot he’d knocked fell from the bench to the floor.
“Maria?” Murdoch called upon hearing the noise and pushed himself away from his desk.
“Maria?” Murdoch called again and when there was no response he automatically reached for his gun.
The sound of chambers as they clicked into place resounded around the quiet room. “Drop it, Lancer.”
“Who are you? And what are you doing in my house?” Murdoch asked his voice raised, in hope that Teresa would hear him and remain in her room.
Barlow stepped into the light and curled his top lip as he spoke. “Nice place that Johnny boy has got here with you.” He seated himself on the couch and put his feet up on the table. “Sit,” he added and gestured with his gun for Murdoch to sit. “Where is Johnny?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him for a few days,” Murdoch’s voice got heavier with regret. “If you’re looking for Johnny he isn’t here.”
“Oh I don’t doubt that he isn’t,” said Barlow. “Reid.”
Murdoch turned to see a heavyset man approach. “If it’s money you want,” he started to say.
“Money doesn’t interest us that much,” Reid snorted and knocked an expensive vase to the floor. “Not as much as it interests some people.”
“Boss, I heard some…” Jelly said and cut himself short when he saw the scene before him.
“Over here, old man,” Reid ordered. “How many more hands are likely to come bustin’ in here, Lancer?”
Murdoch took a pensive breath and released it slowly. “None,” he paused and quietly added, “I hope.” He gestured with his head to Jelly to sit. “Are you going to tell me what you want with my son?”
Before either man could say anymore the sound of furniture being tipped over and a frightened voice were heard.
“Nooooooooo,” screamed Teresa. “Leave me alone.”
Teresa had heard the familiar sound of spurs as they clinked together like wineglasses, on the landing outside her room. “Johnny,” she whispered excitedly, her heart in her mouth at the thought of the youngest Lancer son returning home. She quickly threw back the bedcovers and padded across to the French doors.
She couldn’t make out the figure properly, but saw the dark hair, the tan coloured leather hat, the buckskin jacket and the way that the gun hung loosely at the man’s side. “Johnny,” Teresa cried, elated that it was Johnny outside. Her expression turned from one of pure joy to sheer terror when the man turned to face her. “You’re… you’re not Johnny,” she stammered and tried to shut the door.
“No, I ain’t,” leered Simon Butler. His yellowed teeth showed a stark contrast to his thin, pale lips. A thick scar ran from his right temple down to his jawbone and distorted the shape of his eye. “But I more handsome than that Johnny boy is gonna be.”
Teresa’s heart sunk at the implication of Butler’s words. His features made him a hideous caricature of a man. “Do you know where Johnny is?” she asked and moved backwards to her dressing table. She reached her hand out behind her and coveted a broach pin in that Scott had given her for a birthday.
“Now Lil’ lady, what say you and me have some fun,” Butler chuckled and pulled Teresa to him with one strong grasp. “I ain’t had me a woman’s comfort in a long time. ‘N you standin’ there in your night-gown and all, lookin’ so invitin’ like.” He pulled her closer to him and ran his hand over petite waist.
Teresa turned her head to escape the pungent smell of Butler’s breath and froze when his hands started to caress her body. She knew what she had to do and rammed the pin into his groin. When his hands released her from his hold, she scrambled over her bed and towards the door.
Butler yelped in pain and angrily overturned her dressing table, sending the contents flying in all directions. Just as Teresa had made it to the door he lunged at her and knocked her to the carpeted floor. Without compassion he roughly turned her over and backhanded her. “When I want a woman I have me that woman. You understand?”
Teresa shuddered and closed her eyes as she felt his hands slowly pull her dressing gown undone.
“Nooooooooo, leave me alone,” she screamed as she continued to kick and punch at her attacker.
“Reid, go ‘n see what that mongrel is doin’! I told both of you to leave the girl alone,” berated Barlow. “The old man and his half-breed are the ones we want.”
Vaughn Reid had only made it as far as the third step on the staircase when he met Butler and Teresa descending the steps. He took one look at Teresa and shook his head at Butler. “Barlow’s gonna skin you alive boy. You heard what he said ‘bout not touchin’ the girl.” He took Teresa by the arm and directed her to the lounge.
“Murdoch,” Teresa cried and broke free from Reid’s hold.
Barlow glared at Butler and narrowed his eyes. “Ya couldn’t leave well enough alone could ya?”
“She ain’t nothin’ but a…” Butler never got any further with his derogatory comment, the force of Barlow’s punch knocked him out cold. “Get him out to his horse.”
Reid nodded in silence and hefted Butler’s limp body from the floor. “You,” he snapped, “no, not you,” he added when Murdoch started to rise. “Yeah, you,” he said as Jelly acknowledge him. “Get up and give me a hand gettin’ this useless son of a bitch out to his horse.”
“You stay her, honey,” Murdoch said to his ward and gently pushed her aside. “I’m going to see if Jelly needs any help.”
“Uh ah, you just stay right where you are,” cautioned Barlow. “Ol’ Reid, he can handle things. You still haven’t told me where Johnny is.”
“I don’t know where he is.” Murdoch’s voice got louder as he spoke. “The last I heard he had been bailed and I haven’t seen him since.”
Barlow stood in front of Murdoch and looked between him and Teresa. “Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t keep denyin’ his whereabouts iffen you really knew where he was.” He spun on his heel as if to follow his partner and with the speed of a lightning strike he delivered a mind-numbing blow to Murdoch’s jaw. “Tell Johnny we was lookin’ for him,” Barlow smiled sardonically while the older man crumpled in front of him like a hamstrung stag.
“No! Teresa screamed and rushed to Murdoch’s side. She pushed Barlow out of the way only to be backhanded and thrown into the couch.
“Is it done?” Donnelly asked when Barlow rode into the camp followed by Reid and Butler.
Barlow swung his leg over his horse’s rump and followed the older man back into the run-down house. “Yeah, it’s done. Don’t figure ol’ man Lancer will give you too much trouble.” He snorted and looked at Scott.
“What have you done to Murdoch?” Scott struggled against the ropes that bound his hands together behind him.
“Don’t worry about your old man just yet. You’d be better off thinking about yourself and that brother of yours.” Barlow sneered and crouched beside Scott to check that the ropes were still tight.
Donnelly looked hard at Barlow. “I take it you didn’t find Johnny Lancer anywhere then?”
Barlow nodded slowly and stood up to look Donnelly in the eye. “No, but we will,” he said with certainty in his voice. “Somehow I get the feelin’ that we won’t hafta look too hard. Reckon he’ll come lookin’ for us.”
“What makes you say that?” Donnelly asked, his curiosity heightened. “Murdoch is still alive isn’t he?”
“Yeah, he’s alive,” drawled Barlow, “but he’s got one helluva headache.” Barlow looked down at where Scott sat and added, ”that foreman of yours put up a good show too.”
Scott closed his eyes and sighed heavily as he leaned his head back against the wall. “What do you want with Johnny?” he finally asked. “What does he have to do with all this?” he asked and gestured with his head to the small table that was covered with a map of Lancer.
“Apart from making it easier for Murdoch Lancer to give up his empire to me – nothing.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Scott asked in disbelief. He couldn’t imagine anything that would make his father give up his life’s work and dream.
Before Scott’s question could be answered, Donnelly heard a door close behind him and one of his hired guns adjusting the gunbelt he wore around his waist. “Butler, where are you going?”
“Mr Donnelly asked you a question, boy?” grilled Barlow.
Butler sniffed and cleared his throat. “Into town. Do you have a problem with that?”
“No. But you just keep away from Lancer, you understand?”
Butler shrugged his shoulders and shook his head slightly to the side. “I’ll go wherever I damn well please.”
“I mean it, Butler,” cautioned Barlow, his eyes narrowed. “You stay away from Lancer and away from that girl.”
“Teresa,” Scott quietly said to himself and added under his breath, “you go anywhere near her and I’ll break every bone in your body.”
“I’ll be back later,” Butler said and slammed the wooden door behind him.
The rattle of hoofs sent a swell of panic through Teresa. “No,” she whimpered. She silently prayed that it wasn’t the man who’d attacked her returning.
Through the curtains Teresa watched as a rider came fast into the courtyard. She shuddered involuntarily as the rider let the reins drop and stepped off his lathered horse.
“It’s Johnny,” she finally breathed. She would recognise the palomino anywhere and the familiar chime of Johnny’s spurs as her walked.
Murdoch nodded and let himself relax for a moment while Jelly finished his ministrations. “That’ll do fine, Jelly.” He said and gently massaged his head through the bandage.
Johnny stepped into the room that was faintly lit with coal oil lanterns. He let his eyes adjust to the light while he took in the sight before him. Everyone that was family to him was in the room – everyone but Scott. “Where’s Scott?” he finally asked.
Murdoch’s lips were hard and his eyes fixed as he looked at his son in disgust. “What do you care?”
“More than you give me credit for,” Johnny rebuffed and walked to where Teresa stood. “Teresa, who did this?” He placed two fingers under her chin and raised her head to look at him. “Please, I need to know.” His eyes probed hers, seeking answers to his questions.
“There were three of them,” she quivered and buried her head into Johnny’s chest. For a moment she felt safe, wrapped in his protective arms. “Will they come back?” she asked, almost afraid to voice the words out loud.
“I don’t know, Johnny whispered and rested his chin on top of her head as he continued to embrace her. “I hope not.”
“Why did you come back?” Murdoch growled. The question had festered inside him since he heard his youngest son walk through the door.
The dark haired man gently pushed Teresa out of his way and stood toe to toe with his father. “Murdoch, you’ve got every reason to hate me, but I need to know where Scott is.”
“What gives you the right to stand there and demand to know where your brother is? Isn’t it enough that the people you’ve chosen to spend your time with broke into my home and attacked us?” The timbre in Murdoch’s voice grew louder as he spoke.
“Murdoch,” Johnny sighed, “why is it you’re willing to believe the worst of everything.” His eyes locked with Murdoch’s. “Maybe you’re right. It is my fault. Like you said they broke into your home. Your home, Murdoch. Not mine – Yours.”
During the confrontation between father and son, Jelly stood quietly by and offered a comforting hug to Teresa. It hurt him to see the two men at each other’s throats and he knew it was painful for Teresa to witness.
“He rode out of here looking for you,” Teresa sobbed and held a handkerchief to her cut lip. “But we haven’t seen him… he was due home six hours ago.”
“Teresa, did he say where he was going?” Johnny asked and held the frightened girl in his arms.
“No, just that he was…” Unable to fight back the tears anymore she let them fall unbidden and unchecked down her cheeks.
“Let her go! Can’t you see that you’ve caused enough damage already?” Murdoch fumed and harshly pulled Johnny’s hands away from Teresa’s arms. “When is your past going to stop catching up with you, Johnny”
Johnny stiffened at Murdoch’s icy tone and clenched his fists. “Not my past, Murdoch – yours.” Johnny answered bitterly. “It’s your past Murdoch that I’m protecting everyone from. Not mine!” He spun on his left heel and stalked out of the room without giving Murdoch the opportunity to reply.
“Johnny, wait.” He heard a voice call as he swung his leg over Barranca’s rump. The saddle creaked as he swung himself up into it with practised ease. He fought back the urge to face the owner of the voice and clucked his palomino forward. His heart was heavy with the pain that his father’s mistrust had inflicted.
The moon hung like a bright lamp in the night sky, surrounded by stars that glittered like a myriad of tiny diamonds. Johnny was thankful for the clear night and put his trust in his horse to find his way. While his own mind was cluttered with visions of Teresa as she held onto him not wanting to let him go; and of his father and the anger that crossed his face in disappointment at his youngest son.
Certain that he’d put enough distance between himself and Lancer he finally reined Barranca to a walk. He stared off into the distance for a long time. The hills were cool, and a breeze kept his shirt billowed out. He shivered slightly and pulled his buckskin jacket on. “We’ve got to find Scott, Barranca.”
The palomino’s ears twitched forward at the familiar mention of his name and under the gently spur from his rider, he moved forward. He went to the last place that he’d met with Donnelly and studied the impressions left by the horses; on the lower hanging branches he found tufts of horsehair, all valuable clues to the experienced tracker.
Sometime later, Johnny topped a rise and studied the tracks in the dirt. He’d been taught a long time ago that it was impossible to lose yourself completely to a good tracker. Johnny pieced together the signs that were left behind and set off again in the direction that Donnelly had taken.
The scuff-marks on shale and hair left against trees told him he was on the right trail. He mentally complimented Donnelly on his effort of trying to conceal his trail. “Not a man who wants to be found too easily.” He clucked Barranca on again.
Barranca picked his way carefully down the side of the small foothill, surefooted but not hurried. He stood patiently and nibbled at the grass while Johnny made his way to a huge collection of boulders that lay half buried in the dirt. Scattered on top of one another as though the Gods had thrown them like a child had dropped marbles into the dirt. He smiled contentedly when his eyes found what he had searched for.
With his voice barely above a whisper, Murdoch berated himself, “what have I done?” He felt a sense of loss, and he had no words to fit the situation. He’d doubted his own son. His own flesh and blood. He sat heavily on the concrete seat and dropped his head to his hands. “I should’ve listened.”
“Murdoch?” a soft-spoken voice called.
The older man looked up and saw the reddened eyes of his ward. “Teresa, why didn’t I listen? Why did I doubt Johnny?”
“It works two ways,” Teresa offered, her words conveyed the hurt that she felt. She’d seen Murdoch and Johnny in heated go-rounds before, but this last one rocked her world; she’d never felt so scared or alone. “We didn’t know what Johnny was up to, he could’ve told us sooner.”
“Could he?” Murdoch asked, burdened with shame. “I didn’t exactly give him the chance.”
Johnny tipped back his hat and wiped the trail dust from his face before looking through the binoculars to the secluded camp below. He picked rifle up from the ground, broke it open and peered down the barrel, ejected the shells, and replaced them with fresh ones. It had become part of his nature to be certain that his weapons were in pristine condition. Life as a gunfighter had taught him several valuable lessons and they’d become the rules that were so much a part of his life.
Johnny was careful, methodical, and held two rules above all others. One of the most important was to care for his guns at all times, and ensure that they were in good condition. The second to ensure good care of his horse, Barranca a testament to this rule. He never took his horse or his guns for granted, never assumed that his gun was loaded, or clean, and never assumed that his horse would be cared for when he dropped it off in a livery. Most times he opted to take care of Barranca himself. These things were life and death for Johnny – their importance deeply understood.
He was about to lean forward and look around at the entire camp below when the faint breeze behind his back ceased. The small change around him was enough to give him cause for concern. He spun on his heel at the distinctive noise of a rifle bolt pulled back.
Scott shifted himself to a more comfortable position and tried to restore some feeling back into his hands. He grunted when the already tightened ropes bit into his skin. He felt a small trickle of blood seep from his raw wrists into the palm of his hands and drip from the ends of his fingers.
He felt vulnerable and helpless. He could only pray that Johnny would have the sense to return to Lancer and stop Butler before he made good on his threats. He grunted again as the ropes burned into his wrists from continued rubbing.
“Somethin’ the matter, Lancer?” Reid asked, his voice full of venom for his prisoner.
“No,” Scott answered and choked back the pain of his swollen hands. “Just trying to find a more comfortable spot, if you don’t mind.”
Reid nodded and smirked. “Just so long as you ain’t getting’ no fancy notions of tryin’ to escape and run back home to your old man.”
“I haven’t entertained the slightest notion,” Scott replied. “I mean with such hospitable conditions I’d be a fool to give all this up wouldn’t you think?” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Problems, Reid?” Donnelly asked when he overheard the conversation.
Reid looked with disdain at Scott and then turned his gaze back to his employer. “No, sir.”
Donnelly blew out a long breath and snorted. “Aye, just like Murdoch you are. You canny not leave well alone. If ya had not of come snooping, you wouldn’t be finding; yerself in this predicament now would ye?”
“This predicament as you put it,” Scott said and leaned his head back in exhaustion against the pine wall, “what has it got to do with my father and Johnny?”
“It’s a long story, laddy.”
“I think I’ve got time to listen,” encouraged Scott and set about trying to loosen the ropes again. “You want my father to give up Lancer to you. What makes you think he will?”
“Aye, he will. Your father cheated me out of my birthright… I should have been the one to come to this land of opportunity not Murdoch. Instead I was left to eke out my own failed existence in the highlands, while he walks away a free man. He should’ve been hung.”
Scott’s interest was heightened. “Hung?” he pressed.
“Just you take it nice an’ easy like,” warned the man as he stepped out from the shadows.
“Was wonderin’ when Donnelly would send out a welcoming party.” Johnny feigned surrender and casually lowered his right hand and let the binoculars fall towards the ground. “Guess I got a bit careless,” he shrugged when the taller man approached. Johnny sized him up and knew that his opponent had an advantage of at least 50 pounds and a good six inches.
“Yeah, ya did,” chuckled the larger man and gestured with his gun the direction that he wanted Johnny to take. “Heard ya ridin’ up, so I hid out and waited.” Self-assured that his prisoner wouldn’t try anything, he allowed his arms relax and let the rifle drop idly at his side. He soon learned that he’d gravely underestimated the man before him.
Johnny heard the relaxed sigh that his captor expelled and turned his head slightly to see the gun no longer a threat. With deadly speed and accuracy he pivoted on his left heel and delivered a powerhouse punch that debilitated Butler.
The bigger man’s lungs screamed for air as he doubled over and dropped the rifle. Butler took a swift intake of air and tried to right himself. In vain he pulled at the hands that had encircled his throat and threatened to squeeze the life out of him. His struggle was brief as he slumped forward.
Johnny laid Butler gently onto the ground, then removed the man’s gun, and tied Butler’s hands behind his back. He looked back at the camp and then to the fallen man. He knew that he had to conceal his body and dragged him to some nearby bushes. Satisfied that Butler wouldn’t be able to be seen Johnny finished the job and used his neckerchief as a gag.
He mounted his horse and guided it quietly down the slope to the eastern side of the house where the shadows were more prevalent. He was about to move closer to the house when a dark shape moved slowly on his right.
“You really should ride a darker coloured horse at night, Johnny,” smirked Reid, “an’ leave that flashy palomino of yours at Lancer. No matter, meant that Barlow and the boys didn’t have to try hard to find ya. Get down, toss your gun down first.”
He withdrew his gun from his holster using his left hand and tossed it onto the ground as he swung his leg over the saddle horn and slid off Barranca’s back. The palomino tossed his head and rolled the bar in his silver-inlaid spade bit.
“Murdoch, you can’t be serious. You are in no condition to go riding into Green River. Let one of the vaqueros go,” pleaded Teresa. “Jelly?”
“Teresa’s right, Murdoch, you can’t go into town. More likely you’d fall off of your horse ‘fore ya got further than the front gate. C’mon listen to reason. You’re not goin’ to do yourself any good.”
Jelly looked at Teresa and raised his hands, palms up in defeat. “You’re as ornery as a mule when you wanna be.”
Murdoch pushed himself upward from his chair and reached for the table as his legs faltered. He leaned heavily on his right arm and pressed his left hand up to the gash on the side of his head. “Maybe you’re right, but I can’t sit here and do nothing.”
“I’ll send one of the boys into get Sheriff Crawford,” Jelly said triumphantly when Murdoch finally listened to reason.
“Good,” Teresa agreed and assisted Murdoch to the couch in front of the fire that was now well ablaze. She could se that the man she’d come to love and respect as a father was having a hard time dealing with Johnny’s parting words. “He didn’t mean it, you know.”
Murdoch let out a long breath as his youngest son’s words replayed themselves over and over again in his mind. “Not my past, Murdoch – yours. It’s your past Murdoch that I’m protecting everyone from. Not mine!”
“What did he mean? Something from my past? What didn’t I see?” weary beyond belief Murdoch rubbed his hands over his face and closed his eyes. “What was that boy trying to do?”
Teresa knelt on the floor beside Murdoch and held his hands in her own. “I don’t know. You know how quiet and distant Johnny has been lately. Like a part of him wanted to tell you what was happening and another part closing off from everyone.”
Murdoch knew that Teresa meant well and returned the gentle squeeze of reassurance. “ He’s my son, I should’ve seen what he was trying to tell me. If only I had asked him. If I had been more…”
“Do you really think he would have told you? He was doing what he felt was best – for everyone. Johnny didn’t bother to say a word to anyone, maybe he didn’t know how. He’s always been self sufficient and probably thought he could stop whatever was happening given time.”
“I’ve sent Frank into town to fetch the Sheriff,” Jelly said as he entered the room and saw Murdoch and Teresa in deep discussion.
“Jelly, did Johnny talk to you of what was bothering him?” Murdoch asked, seeking an answer in his foreman’s vibrant eyes.
The older man slowly shook his head and sat down opposite Murdoch. “No, boss, not a word. And the way he rode…” Jelly stopped what he was saying and rolled his eyes upward.
“Go on, if you’ve got something to say, say it.”
“Well, the way he rode out of here, almost like he knew what direction to head. Do you think he might know where Scott is?”
“Scott,” Murdoch voiced all the agony and frustration he felt expressed in his tone. “What if this thing from my past has cost him his life as well as Johnny’s?”
Johnny dropped Barranca’s reins when Reid indicated with his gun for him to move away from his horse and the fallen gun. He raised his hands in surrender and complied with Reid’s requests. He watched as Reid collected the gun from the ground and reached towards the horse’s bridle.
“Barranca,” Johnny commanded.
The palomino pulled its head away and tossed it back to hit Reid on the side of his face.
Stunned Reid fell to the ground like a marionette that had just lost its strings. His .45 flew from his hand as the air rushed out of him.
“Whoa, “ soothed Johnny. “Yeah, you’re a good fella.” Johnny continued to placate his horse and gave him a reassuring pat as the horse whinnied excitedly. “Shhhhhh.”
The whinny of the horse did not go unnoticed by Donnelly or his crew inside the house. He sent out his men to investigate why the horse had been upset. “Horses are better than a watch-dog,” he smirked when he saw Scott’s eyes dart around the room. “Maybe it’s your brother come to play hero and rescue you.” He turned his focus to Barlow. “Stay here, if it is Johnny out there we’ll let him come into the house.”
Barlow nodded and pulled Scott Lancer to his feet. “A little added insurance,” he smiled smugly and waited behind the door.
Donnelly resumed his position at the table and waited for their visitor to make an entrance. He didn’t have to wait long for the new arrival to make his way inside, and confirm his suspicions of someone being outside.
“Scott, Scott,” Johnny whispered. He reached for a match from the small tin he carried in his pocket and struck it against the heel of his boot. He found an oil lamp and lit it kept the flame low.
“Now ain’t this jus’ too touchin’ for words! Drop it, Johnny.” Snarled Barlow as he ground the end of his gun into Scott’s left temple. His other hand clamped down tightly across Scott’s mouth.
Johnny turned to face the voice and saw the silhouettes of his brother and Barlow as the light form the oil filled lamp washed the interior of the room. His shoulders slumped in defeat when the third person came into view. “Donnelly,” he whispered.
Some of the swelling had left Scott’s face but one eye was coal black. His hands had lost all sense of feeling from being bound for so long. He shrugged hopelessly at his brother and flinched at the gun dug deeper into his skin.
Barlow laid the barrel of his gun gently against Scott’s ear and said softly, “I meant what I said, Johnny. Iffen you don’t drop the hardware, I’m gonna give your brother the worst ear-ache he ever had, ’cause this ear is gonna be missin’.”
“Just not my night is it?” Johnny commented wryly. He silently berated himself for letting thoughts from the heated argument that he’d had with Murdoch interfere with his ability to slip into Donnelly’s camp inconspicuously. Twice before he’d been lucky to thwart the attempts of Butler and Reid, but this time his brother’s life was at stake. For the second time he let the colt fall from his hands and winced as it hit the floor. “Can’t be doin’ my gun much good,” he mumbled. His lips lifted in a faint smile as he acknowledged his brother. “Scott.”
Barlow released his hand from Scott’s mouth and shoved him forward into Johnny. “Was wonderin’ when you was gonna show up.”
“Yeah, well, I hate to disappoint,” Johnny smiled ruefully. He was about to add to his comment when he felt cold steel pressed into his back. He turned his head sideways to see Reid behind him. “Hope Barranca didn’t do too much damage to your head. You really should be a lot more careful around that horse of mine.”
Scott rolled his eyes at Johnny’s comment and briefly shook his head. “Shut up,” he warned and sat on the floor with his back against the wall.
“You oughta listen to your brother, Johnny boy.”
Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “Well, there’s a lot of things I oughta do but right now I’d rather not bother.” He looked Reid in the eye and added, “you know how it is, get tired of being told what to do. Gets to a person after a while.” Johnny’s eyes danced as he spoke and a small hint of a smile brushed his lips.
“Barlow, rope the comedian up, then we’ll see him laugh.” Reid threw the younger man a length of rope from the table. He watched as Johnny’s arms were pulled unceremoniously behind his back and roughly tied.
Johnny winced when he felt the rope pull his elbows in tight and then rip into the flesh around his wrists. He silently commended Barlow on his technique but fervently wished that he hadn’t been so thorough in his job. Johnny’s shoulders screamed in unrelenting protest at being pulled back so tight.
“Comfy?” Barlow jeered and finished securing the rope.
Johnny cocked his head to one side and grinned. “Very.” He moved towards the far wall and joined his brother on the floor. “Been here long?” he asked.
“Long enough to become accustomed to your friends wonderful hospitality,” Scott answered dryly.
“Does Murdoch know where you are?” he added.
Johnny looked at the rowels on his spurs and bit his top lip.
“Johnny?” Scott prompted. “You did speak with Murdoch didn’t you?”
“Not exactly,” Johnny mumbled and continued to stare at his boots.
“What does not exactly mean?”
“It means that he had his way of dealing with things and I had mine.” Johnny leaned his head back against the wall and exhaled deeply through his nose.
Scott realised the implications of Johnny’s words and joined his brother in a quiet sigh. “You know what Donnelly has over Murdoch don’t you,” he finally uttered after a long silence.
“Yes,” Johnny replied. His one word expressed everything he felt. He closed his eyes and let his head drop onto his chest.
“Señor Lancer,” Frank called from the doorway of the Lancer casa, “the Sheriff he is here.”
Murdoch walked stiffly to the oak door and invited Val Crawford inside. “Gracias, Frank.”
As if reading his employer’s mind, Frank looked towards the barn. “Do you want your horse saddled, Señor.”
“Si, por favor,” replied Murdoch in Chico’s native tongue. “We won’t be long.”
Teresa and Jelly overheard Murdoch’s brief conversation with one of his ranch-hands and were dumbfounded that Murdoch could think of going chasing after Johnny tonight. “Murdoch, you can’t. You need to rest,” pleaded Teresa.
Murdoch smiled and said softly, “I’ll be fine. It’s important that I pick up Johnny’s trail as quickly as I can.”
“What happened here?” Val asked as he surveyed the damage to some of Murdoch’s prized possessions.
“That’s what I want to talk to you about. We had a visit earlier on this evening from three men, very much interested in finding Johnny.” Murdoch explained.
Within a few minutes Murdoch, Teresa and Jelly had explained what had taken place, followed by what had transpired during Johnny’s visit.
“And Johnny didn’t say what it was that was being used against you?” Val queried and scratched absently at the side of his face. “I knew I should never have doubted Johnny right from the outset. It’s not like him to be disloyal. I remember when Cresswell tried to turn me against Johnny that something was wrong.”
“Well, we’re wasting valuable time here,” Murdoch said and strapped on his gunbelt. “Jelly, stay here with Teresa. I don’t want her alone in case those men return.
“I never get to go anywhere,” Jelly grumbled and sat in the chair nearest the fire.
Murdoch chuckled at Jelly’s usual protest and gave Teresa a quick peck on the cheek.
“I hope you find Scott and Johnny,” she said.
“So do I, Teresa, so do I.” Murdoch said and shut the door behind him.
“Which way did Johnny ride out of here?” Val asked.
“Apart from in a hurry? He left taking the west boundary.”
Together Murdoch and Val studied the deep impressions made by Barranca and followed the tracks.
“What happened to you?” Reid asked when he saw Butler supported between two men. “Look like ya tangled with a bear.”
“Wasn’t no bear,” Butler seethed, “not unless that bear has Lancer written all over it.” He dabbed at the gash above his eye and hissed through clenched teeth as the damp cloth he’d been given made contact with the open skin. “Who got him?” he asked and jerked his head at Johnny.
“I did,” smiled Barlow. “Took the fire outta him when he saw his older brother all trussed up.”
Butler walked to the window, slow with thought and then turned back to pull Johnny to his feet. “Maybe I should just finish you off here and now. Mister Donnelly ain’t gonna need you now he’s got your brother over there.” His tone was filled with the same iciness as his stare.
Johnny saw the mean rise up in his eyes. The man’s voice was deep and vibrant with no trace of fear. He could feel Butler’s gaze lock on his own, daring him to retaliate. “I guess if looks could kill rigor-mortis would be settin’ in.” Johnny commented wryly.
Scott winced when he heard Johnny’s comment and had to bite down on his bottom lip to stop himself from laughing.
“One day soon you and I are gonna settle our differences and see who is the faster of us,” he paused and puffed out his chest. “Donnelly told me you was a gunfighter.” Butler sneered and waited for Johnny’s reaction.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed the way they always did when someone referred to him as a gunfighter. His expression has changed from one of calm to being hard and dangerous. “When you feel man enough, Butler, you let me know when and I’ll be glad to take you on.”
“How about now?”
“Yeah you would attack a man with his hands tied,” Johnny cocked his head to one side and added, “probably the sort to shoot a man in his back too.”
Butler could feel everyone’s eyes on him as Johnny taunted him; it had come down to saving face in front of his peers. “I ain’t got no problem with havin’ the advantage, shootin’ people in the back don’t worry me none either.” He said and dragged Johnny to his feet but left his hands still tied.
Johnny was not used to situations where he was so constrained; he liked more freedom of movement. He spread his legs apart slightly and grounded his left foot; he knew he had one chance to get the bigger man and brought his right knee swiftly up into Butler’s abdomen. He watched as Butler grabbed his belly and grunted.
Surprise widened in Butler’s eyes as Johnny’s knee made contact and forced the air from him. He staggered and fell to the floor. A vicious smile slowly crept across his face as Reid brought the butt of his .45 down with relentless force on Johnny’s shoulder blades.
Johnny staggered as a blinding white light of pain crashed through and his world turned red, then black. He never heard his brother’s anguished cry when the floorboards reared up to meet him.
Butler stood over Johnny and pulled the hammer back on his gun. “Lancer, tell me why I shouldn’t kill your brother right now,” he said and looked at Scott.
Beads of perspiration dotted Scott’s brow as he held his breath. He surveyed Butler coolly and swallowed. “You don’t need to kill him, you’ve hurt him enough already.” He finally said, openly contemptuous of Butler’s display of violence.
“I want them alive,” Donnelly said. He’d let his hired help have his retribution with Johnny Lancer but now he was back in control. “ Put your gun away, before you shoot yourself in the foot with it.”
Butler moved to one side and his voice got lower, “I ain’t finished with either of you yet.” He slid his gun into his blackened holster with practised ease and backed off.
Reid dragged Johnny’s prone body back to where Scott sat and shook his head. “You wanna keep an eye on that brother of yours, his mouth is gonna get him killed.” He resumed his position next to Donnelly and ordered two of his men to stand watch over the Lancer brothers.
“I couldn’t be more fortunate,” Donnelly said, the pleasure in his voice reflected in his eyes.
“Why do you say that?”
“Reid, my dear fellow, not only do we have Johnny to do our bidding and undermine his father but we also have Scott.” He stopped and rubbed his chin. “Getting Lancer couldn’t be easier. Aye Murdoch will hand over his empire to me in return for the lives of his sons.”
“So you’re goin’ to keep them alive?” Reid asked and looked back over his shoulder at their captives.
“For now,” Donnelly said his voice low and intense. “Get some sleep, we have a busy day tomorrow,” he added and extinguished the lamp on the table.
Twice during the night Johnny had stirred and asked for water. His throat felt like it was packed with all the dust off the floor. One of Donnelly’s hardcases finally relented and held a canteen to Johnny’s lips. Grateful he nodded his appreciation and pushed himself to a more upright position next to his brother. He’d remained silent for the most part. No trace of the agony he felt showed on his face. Occasionally he would clear his throat but very rarely anything more. “Scott,” he said and nudged his brother in his side. He saw Scott’s blue-grey eyes flicker open.
Scott shook his head trying to clear it. “You okay?” he asked, concerned that Johnny was hurt more that he cared to let on.
“Yeah, I’ll live, I’ve had worse,” he grinned. “You asked what Donnelly had over Murdoch,” he whispered his voice hoarse.
The morning sun washed across Scott’s face, reddening the backs of his eyelids, and brought him awake instantly. Small golden lances of light streamed through the cracks in the wooden planks on the walls and washed the interior of the house with light.
He hadn’t been able to get much sleep after what Johnny had revealed to him about a dark part of Murdoch’s history and Donnelly’s intentions. Thoughts of how he and his father had doubted Johnny plagued him. He leaned his head back against its wooden headrest and closed his eyes.
Scott opened his eyes to find he and Johnny surrounded by Donnelly’s hardcases. Their faces were covered in grime; their shirts almost threadbare and their chaps were criss-crossed with scars from needle sharp cactus. “Johnny,” he urged and tried to shake his brother’s head off his right shoulder.
“Hmmm. Leave me alone,” yawned Johnny and hunkered down to a more comfortable position.
“I can’t leave you alone, our hosts want the pleasure of our company.”
Without opening his eyes Johnny yawned, “can’t you order room service to come back later.” He peeled an eye open and saw Butler standing over him. “Bout time you got here, I was just about to complain to management.”
“You never give up do you, boy?” snarled Butler.
“Johnny!” Scott reprimanded.
“You got problems, Butler?” Reid asked. “Donnelly wants to get movin’ Get these two onto their horses.”
Scott and Johnny exchanged puzzled looks at Reid’s piece of news.
“We gotta move you two, get up.”
“Just why do we have to get going?” Scott ventured.
“A precautionary measure, gentlemen,” Donnelly answered. “Our secluded haven isn’t as safe as we’d like it to be. Murdoch is getting to close.” He finished speaking and then sent one of his riders to do the task he’d assigned him. “Get them up.”
Both Lancer brothers were yanked roughly from the floor. Johnny’s injured shoulder sent fresh shards of pain through his entire body while his world began to grey around the edges. He felt a knife slice into the ropes and his arms throbbed as the circulation was restored.
“You okay?” Scott asked and shook the ropes free from his own hands.
Yeah,” Johnny snorted, “just remind me next time not to be so impetuous and take on someone when my hands are tied.”
“I could, but would it do any good?”
“No, probably not,” Johnny grinned.
They were directed outside to where Barranca and Outlaw stood waiting patiently for their riders. “Guess breakfast is off the menu,” commented Johnny. “Whoa,” he exclaimed when he tried to pull himself up into the saddle, his hands slipped and he fell hard against Barranca’s side.
“Might be that you could sit a horse or we leave you behind,” jeered Reid. Never for one second did he underestimate Johnny.
“I can do it.” Johnny’s tone was full of defiance. He stole himself inwardly for the pain that was to come and mounted Barranca with less than his usual finesse and hissed in a sharp breath. He nodded an ‘I’m okay’ to Scott and slowly exhaled.
“Murdoch if we keep ridin’ at this pace we’re gonna tire out the horses. They need a break,” Val said and reined his mount to a halt. He dropped the reins and let the horse nibble at the grass. The leather seat creaked as Val stood in the stirrups and leaned back. “That feels better,” he said and worked out the kinks in his back.
Val Crawford and Murdoch Lancer had been riding since before daybreak and still had not found any substantial tracks. They’d lost Barranca’s hoof prints when they crossed the river. They searched the same stretch of land over and over for any signs that Johnny had exited the water in the shallows.
“If Johnny knew that we would be likely to follow him he’d have probably ridden further down river before crossing.” Val surmised. He’d found plenty of upturned stones but put it down to the animals that watered at the river.
“Still protecting me from my past,” Murdoch said, disheartened. The smile was now gone from his face and his eyes had taken on a haunted look. He wiped the back of his shirtsleeve across his brow and looked up into the sky and at the sun that continued to climb higher and higher across the heavens.
Val could see the emptiness in Murdoch’s eyes and instantly understood the look. ‘So close yet so far’. He removed his hat and shook the trail dust from it. “We’ll find them, Murdoch.” He replaced his hat and clucked his horse forward slowly, and carefully observed the rocks for any signs if scuff marks.
Scott and Johnny rode so close that their saddle-skirts touched. Barranca’s flanks touched Outlaw’s and caused the brown roan to skitter. “Easy, boy,” soothed Scott as Outlaw began to rear.
“Let’s have a little fun with Lancer eh?” Barlow smiled sardonically and slapped the frightened roan on its rump.
The horse retaliated and rose sharply on its hind legs. Scott fought for control as Outlaw lunged forward and threw its burden.
Johnny pulled Barranca around. He sat there, tense in his leather, his left hand held the latigo-leather bridle reins and watched while his brother vainly tried to calm the mount. With a coldness in his voice that matched his eyes, he turned on Barlow. “What the hell do you think you are doing?” He didn’t give the bigger man a chance to answer as he launched himself from his saddle and pulled Barlow from his horse.
Barlow was a big man, bigger than Johnny was and he’d taken advantage of the size and power he exuded as they tousled for position.
Johnny heard the loud report of the gun and stopped rolled off Barlow. He lay on the hard baked ground and panted from both pain and exertion.
Scott finally managed to bring Outlaw under control and prepared to dismount to separate the two brawling men when a bullet split the air.
“You really do have one helluva death wish, Lancer,” Barlow growled and pulled Johnny to his feet. “Tell me, is it ignorance or apathy?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Johnny retorted and pushed the heel of his left palm to the corner of his mouth.
“Get up on your horse,” bellowed Reid “and you stay where you are.” He added and trained his gun on Scott.
“I was only going to make sure that my brother was okay,” rebuffed Scott and watched as Johnny pulled himself into the saddle.
“Well you’ve made sure he’s in one piece.” Reid turned his focus to Barlow. “Tie his hands I don’t want to see that happen again.”
“It’ll be my pleasure,” sneered Barlow. He leaned over in his saddle and tied Johnny’s hands to the saddle horn.
Johnny bit back a cry as a searing pain that shot through his right arm and travelled up to his shoulder made itself quite prominently known. He wasn’t about to give Barlow the satisfaction of knowing that he’d managed to hurt him. Instead Johnny sat back in his saddle and locked his gaze on Barlow. He smiled inwardly when he saw little beads of sweat form on Barlow’s top lip.
Barlow held the younger man’s stare and eventually looked away, unable to meet the frosty, hard look in the blue eyes that bore into his soul. “Somethin’ on your mind?” he asked.
“You are,” Johnny replied, there was no expression in his voice, just a cold look in his eyes that served as a warning to Barlow. A strong sense of self-preservation stopped Johnny from uttering the rest of the words that he so dearly wanted to say. He saw Scott nod in approval and moved Barranca forward. He knew that Barlow was a dangerous man who possessed an evil demeanour. He was a dangerous man who would look at another man like most men look at a deer over a rifle sight. And that looked worried Johnny. He’d seen the look plenty of times and knew it intimately.
Scott moved his roan up beside Johnny but remembered to keep a little space between them, he was not ready to encounter another episode like the last one with his horse.
The sun was at its noon height when Donnelly finally called for a rest. The noon sun was fatiguing and the further into the vastness of the open land they rode the more intense the heat became. In another two hours the sun would be at its strongest and the sun-baked ground would’ve soaked up enough heat to become unbearable to man and beast.
Donnelly sent Butler on ahead to scout out a suitable campsite, while he took his rest under a grove of shady trees. His fair skin was not used to the Californian sun and suffered badly. “Reid, I don’t want Barlow to guard the Lancers, I don’t trust him. They are a valuable commodity to me.”
“Understood,” replied Reid and selected three of his best men to watch over Scott and Johnny.
“Mind if we water our horses?” Johnny asked and pushed his hat back on his head. “I prefer to do it myself,” he added when one of Donnelly’s hardcases advanced to take the reins from him.
“Guess not,” Manuel answered, “but I got orders that your hands stayed tied.”
“Goes with the territory I guess, don’t it?” grinned Johnny.
Johnny squatted near the small trickle of water and sopped a neckerchief in the water and held it over his face, squeezing the water onto his face. His eyes were mere slits as they stared intently at the outside surroundings and his movements were unconscious, the act of a man who’d done such a thing hundreds of times. “Scott,” he whispered “you think we can make it outta here?”
“You’re not thinking of… no, Johnny be reasonable. Donnelly will gun you down as soon as you make a move.”
“Figured you’d say that, but I had to ask.” Johnny grunted as he lowered himself onto a flat rock near the water’s edge. “Scott, you know what your problem is?”
Scott rolled his eyes as he joined his brother on the flat rock. “As much as really don’t want to ask, no. What’s my problem?”
“You worry too much.”
“With a brother like you, that’s a given.” Scott laughed and wrapped his right arm around Johnny’s shoulders. He felt his brother flinch at his touch. “What did you do to your shoulder?”
“Maybe night time would be the best time to make a break for it,” Johnny said and deflected the conversation away from himself.
“You two,” barked Manuel, “you’ve had enough time to water your horses. Come back up here.”
“C’mon, Barranca,” ushered Johnny. He grinned at his horse as he pricked her ears forward at the familiar mention of his name. He’d let the palomino drink his fill of water, and had cooled him down with a damp neckerchief.
Scott followed suit and walked Outlaw back to the afternoon resting-place. “Just don’t go tryin’ anything, brother,” he warned.
“Would I risk my life to get us out of here?”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” the older Lancer chuckled quietly.
The sun had begun to move down and would soon nestle itself among the distant hills while Johnny’s eyes followed the rippled hill-lines far to the east back towards Lancer – home.
Scott caught the look in his brother’s eyes and saw what Johnny looked at. “We’ll get back home,” he said and placed his hand on Johnny’s right shoulder. He pulled his hand away when he felt Johnny cringe under his touch. “Sorry, I forgot.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Johnny hissed between clenched teeth. “C’mon we better get movin’ el hombre don’t look too impressed.” He looked again towards the hill line and up at sun that was outlined by a ring of thick haze. From past experience Johnny knew that as fatiguing as the noon sun was, by three o’clock the desert would have soaked up enough heat to begin an oven-like effect. A heat that radiated from the ground as the blistering sun beat down would bring most of those who dared to walk upon it to their knees.
Two vaqueros took the reins to Barranca and Outlaw and led the magnificent looking animals to where the other mounts were tethered. Manuel directed the Lancer brothers to the edge of the hastily set up camp. He backed off enough from them to give the men a little privacy but still held his gun on them. For the most part they sat in companionable silence or lightly dozed.
Scott nudged Johnny in his side when he heard a horse approach. “Butler’s back,” he quietly said.
The dark haired man looked up and shrugged. “Shame. Was kinda hopin’ he’d fall off of his horse and break his neck. Guess beggars can’t be choosers.” Johnny sniffed tentatively at the air, the scent instantly recognisable.
A small fire had been made and men had begun to lay strips of a rabbit onto a flat stone laid in the fire, while others poked pieces of the meat affixed to a stick into the fire. A second rabbit was cut up, then a third. One man carefully scraped each fur free of flesh and laid it flat on a rock.
As Butler rode into camp from his search, he saw Scott and Johnny Lancer watch him. He turned his horse to ride past them and drew rein. There was acid in his faint smile when he looked at Scott and Johnny. “Still alive I see was kinda hoping that you’d met with an unexpected accident.”
“Feeling’s mutual,” replied Johnny, his tone curt. “Next time I’ll try prayin’ a little harder.”
One corner of Butler’s mouth turned up in a half smile. “That’s what I’m gonna miss about you when I kill you, Lancer – your wit.”
“Well, guess we all gotta go sometime,” rebuffed Johnny and looked towards the cloudless sky. “You might wanna make peace with your maker while you’ve still got the chance.” He added without looking back at Butler. He heard Butler gig his horse forward and smiled.
“Why do you let him get to you?” Scott asked when he saw the whimsical expression cross his brother’s sun tanned features.
“I ain’t lettin’ him get to me. It’s just kinda fun to wind him up a little.” Johnny replied and settled himself back against the trunk of the tree.
Butler reported to Donnelly that he’d found the perfect place to set up a fortified camp. It was sheltered, with clear water and plenty of places to lose yourself in and most of all the advantage of a clear view of the surrounding land. “So what do you think?” he asked.
“You’ve done well. We will break camp tomorrow morning, go and join the other men. I want to speak with Mister Reid.”
Barlow squatted near the fire chewing on a piece of rabbit that was more raw than cooked. He spat out a piece of gristle, then stuck the piece of rabbit back onto the stone, and watched it sizzle. “Hey, Butler… wanna piece?” He asked and held up a blackened stick with skewered rabbit.
“Is it cooked?”
“It is now. I’m more partial to my rabbit been well done as opposed to still hopping around my plate like it was in search of wild carrots.” Barlow snorted and tore at the piece of meet with his teeth.
“Where are ya goin’ with that?” Butler asked when he saw two plates of fried rabbit and beans carried by one of the vaqueros.
“Señor Donnelly he said to feed the prisoners.”
“Yeah well I don’t reckon they’ll be needing two plates. Just give ‘em one between ‘em.” Butler snarled and took one of the plates.
“Butler at times you’re more ornery and mean than a rattler.” Barlow shook his head and continued eating.
There was no humour in Butler’s harsh bark of a laugh. “And don’t you go forgettin’ it none either.” He watched the vaquero carry the lone plate and smiled to himself.
“Señor Donnelly say to give you this.” The vaquero said and handed to Scott the plate of rabbit and beans.
“Did he give you any utensils?” Scott asked and took the plate from the man before him.
“Knives and forks.”
“No, Señor only a spoon. He says not to give you a knife or fork. He say that you might use the knife to cut his ropes.” Replied the vaquero and pointed at the younger Lancer.
Johnny rolled his eyes and snorted. “Well we can’t have that now can we?” He shifted his position and sighed. “Wouldn’t matter any way… I lost all feeling in my hands hours ago.” He closed his eyes and leaned back against his wooden back support.
“Let me untie my brother’s hands,” pleaded Scott, “you have my word that he will not try anything… yet.” He muttered the last word under his breath and waited for the guard’s reply.
“Iffen he does try anything,” a new voice started to say, “I’ll personally give you both your final six by four plots of land.” Reid’s stare was unnaturally sardonic.
Johnny sat relaxed as he spoke, his words clipped and delivered without emotion. “Reid, when I lived down in the border towns, I ran across a lot of hard men. I’ve faced men like you.” He shrugged his left shoulder and snorted. “Some of them will never see the light of day again. Some lived to talk about.” He paused for a long moment and then added, “they were the ones that had sense enough to leave.”
A chill ran through his blood, a coldness more frigid and barren than anything he’d ever known. “If that’s meant as a threat Lancer, it ain’t workin’. You don’t scare me,” Reid said with a lot more confidence than he felt.
“That’s good. It wasn’t meant to scare ya. Just tell you what you’re up against.”
“I heard you ain’t hired out in a while. Gone soft living at that fancy ranch with your father and brother.”
“Minor technicality.” Johnny smiled. “Like I said to Butler, you might wanna make your peace while you can.”
Scott was quietly amused at the exchange and watched as he saw Reid try to hide a shudder. He remained silent and felt the animosity build between Reid and his brother.
Reid knelt down and sliced the ropes that had bound Johnny’s hands. He eyed the plate of food contemptuously. He said softly, “You might wanna think of this as your last meal.” He spun on his heel and left the guard to oversee that the Lancer brothers did not try anything.
“Can you manage?” Scott asked, concerned that Johnny wasn’t able to use his hands properly. “Let me help,” he insisted and lifted a spoonful of beans to the younger man’s mouth.
“I’m too old to be spoon-fed,” protested Johnny.
“And your point is?”
“I can do it myself, give me the…”
Before he could voice his protests anymore Scott slipped the spoon of overcooked and dried beans into his mouth. “They’re disgusting,” complained Johnny as he forced himself to swallow the foul tasting beans. “And I thought your cooking was bad.”
“I never said I was a good cook – just that no one had died from it… that I know of,” Scott bantered good-naturedly.
When the riders and hired guns had settled for the night Johnny watched the night guard with a sober attention for the small, indefinite details that could mean so much. Satisfied that the guard had fallen asleep on duty, Johnny nudged his brother.
“He asleep?” Scott asked wearily. He’d tried not to fall asleep himself but had succumbed to its enticing rewards of rest and dreams.
“Yeah, we better make a move ‘fore he wakes up.” Stealthily Johnny moved with the grace and prowess of a mountain lion and took from Manuel the rifle that lay against a rock and the gunbelt from around his waist.
Scott held his breath when he saw Manuel stir slightly before turning over. He let the breath go when Johnny came back to him with the rifle in one hand and gunbelt in the other. He looked in the direction of where Outlaw and Barranca were tethered and sighed. “No chance of getting to the horses I guess.”
The desert had cooled rapidly once the sun descended, and they walked several hours after dark, across the sun-baked earth. They moved across shadeless, parched desert – two specks in a vast waste of waterless ground.
The lopsided moon washed yellowishly over the adobe stones. A lone coyote howled off toward the west, the drawn wail shrilled along the prairie. Ahead, the tree branches and leaves shone with a silver tint under the moon, the shadowed spaces as thick and black as velvet.
The night coolness ended. The sun came up its warmth on them almost from the first moment of light. The heat accented in the rocky, almost treeless hills bothered Scott more than it seemed to affect his younger brother. On horseback they’d have a chance – they had no hope on foot.
“Johnny, we gotta rest,” Scott uttered his voice dry and cracked. He’d been able to maintain the pace set by Johnny but now his footsteps had become heavy and sluggish. He felt his knees buckle underneath him and an arm slither around his waist.
“We’ll stop in a few more minutes,” conceded Johnny. “Try and stay with me a little bit longer and then you can rest.”
“Thirsty,” Scott slurred and battled to regain his footing.
Johnny nodded quietly and winced when Scott pulled on his shoulder. “Yeah, I know. When we stop I’ll get you something to drink.”
Scott stopped dead and looked into Johnny’s crystal blue eyes. “Water?”
“Sort of,” Johnny grinned.
“What do you mean ‘sort of’?”
“You just have to know everything don’t you? Now what would be the fun in revealing my surprise for you.” Johnny saw Scott’s eyes close again and slapped his face to rouse him. “I take it you don’t want to know what my surprise is?”
“Somehow I get the feeling I am going to regret asking, but what…” Scott stopped talking and tried to clear his throat. He couldn’t muster up enough saliva to spit.
“What is the surprise?” Johnny forestalled.
Scott felt his stomach flip. “I was afraid that you were going to say that.”
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Johnny chuckled and directed Scott towards a cave that he had seen.
“How soon before Donnelly knows we’ve gone do ya reckon?”
Johnny rubbed his chin and looked at the sun as it began its slow journey westwards across the sky. “Oh I’d say that he already knows.”
Scott looked at Johnny, a strange expression washed over his face as his eyes rolled back in his head.
The trail curved away from the stream and shortly ahead lifted sharply up the slope of a low ridge. Murdoch approached the rise with a restless interest in all the details around him. After a few minutes he found what he was looking for – a broken branch with strands of flaxen coloured hair attached. “This way.” He called over his shoulder to Val.
Further along the trail Murdoch and Val drew rein and dismounted. They made their way to a large boulder and climbed carefully across the broad face. The older man moved from one boulder to another, until he was high above the camp, looking west. There was nothing visible, but then he hadn’t expected anything yet. What he was thankful for was that he definitely knew that he had been on the right trail.
He’d started to doubt himself when he couldn’t find so much as a hoof-print from Johnny’s horse; it had been gut instinct that he had relied on to find his way again. The land had risen sharply and finally levelled atop a mesa. The climb to the top had been especially hard on his roan; it laboured under the strain and heaved its sides when it finally reached the top. Murdoch had seen a spot where rocks and sand had fallen away with evidence that a horse had fallen and rolled.
Val Crawford had a fair idea what was going through Murdoch’s mind as he came up beside him. “It might not have been Johnny’s horse.” He said and tried to conceal the doubt in his own voice.
The hot sun slanted down to throw long shadow’s behind the men while they watched for any signs of activity from the small house below. Movement in the distance caught Val’s attention. “You see what I see?” he asked and pointed to what he’d seen.
On the horizon to the west, a lone horseman, dwarfed by distance to inch height was etched against the deepening blue of the afternoon.
“Could be he is tied in with the people we are looking for.” Val surmised and pulled his hat down further on his head. He watched a solitary buzzard make a slow, wide circle against the deep blue. He unconsciously shuddered at the sight and silently prayed the buzzard’s appearance was not for sinister reasons.
“Maybe,” replied Murdoch. He looked down again at the house and strained to hear any sign that it was still occupied. Only the small and neutral sounds stirred against the quiet of the afternoon. Insects hummed above a pool in a creek behind him and the fluttery snort of his horse. Satisfied that the house was empty he slowly made his way down to it.
The sandy earth that surrounded the house was covered in maze of tracks; signs of recent activity, the dirt marked with the unmistakable scars made by horses’ hooves a few of them unshod. Inside the house footprints traipsed through the dust revealed that people had been there.
“Murdoch, over here.” Val’s voice rose a notch at his find. On the floor he had found the yellow gloves that belonged to Scott Lancer, his initials written on the back of them. “Scott’s?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
The older man took the gloves from the lawman and nodded. “Yes, they are.” A lump caught in his throat when he saw the drops of blood that were splattered on the floor as though flicked from an artist’s paint brush. He dropped to his knees in prayer, tilted his head backwards and closed his eyes. Lost deep in his own turmoil he was unsure of how much time had passed and only registered Val’s hand on his shoulder when he heard his name called over and over.
“C’mon we better cover some more ground ‘fore the sun goes down on us,” spurred Val as he tried to break Murdoch from his self-imposed guilt.
“Bring me the man who was supposed to be guarding the Lancers.” Donnelly’s voice roared. He was livid and his tone edged with a knife cutting clarity of malice.
Reid flinched when his employer walked past him. He was certain that a wall of cold air had brushed over him as he watched Donnelly pace like a caged tiger. Inwardly he felt sorry for whoever had been on guard duty that they now had to face the Scotsman’s wrath. His outward demeanour displayed a show on nonchalance.
“Señor, you wished to see me.” A timid voice spoke.
“You let the Lancer brothers escape.” Donnelly said, it was a statement not a question. Without provocation he pulled back the hammer of his colt.
The explosion of the shot propelled Manuel from his feet. An infinite agony filled his body as the fatal bullet seared a burning path across his chest. The young Mexican finally came to rest on the hardened earth and his hand clenched his heart. “Madre de Dios.” He uttered as the pain subsided and his eyes closed for the final time.
Donnelly prodded the fallen man with the toe of his boot to make sure he was dead. He watched as Manuel’s hand slid from his chest and settled in the dust. “Let that be a lesson to all of you.” He turned his attention to Reid. “Take some men with you and scour the hills. They could not have gotten far, without their horses. You know the signal to use when you’ve found them.”
Reid nodded in agreement and gestured for Butler and Barlow to accompany him. “We’ll find them, Mister Donnelly,” he said and walked towards his horse.
The three men saddled their horses and rode with the sun’s red flare blazing in the sky behind them. It was still early and the sun had only begun to crest the tops of the hills. Reid, Butler and Barlow rode flank to flanks, heads high and hands low. Each determined to return the Lancers to Donnelly. Two would see that Scott and Johnny would be returned alive – the third rider couldn’t have cared less.
“How far do you reckon they got?” Simon Butler asked. He’d been following the footprints left by the fleeing men as best he could, the task had been made difficult by the wind that had blown the shifting sands and filled in the impressions.
“Not sure,” replied Reid. “We’ve been at this for nearly four and a half hours so far and still no sign of them.” He shivered slightly in his saddle and sniffed the air. The morning had been unusually hot but now the temperature chilled swiftly. There was a fragrance of rain in the air.
Huge drops of rain stitched the parched dust and pocked it with miniature craters. Within minutes a churning darkness of a cloud-front rolled out of the north-east. A sheet of rain raced across the dry land and caused the small craters carved out by the heavier splashes of water to overflow and become rivulets that spread like tendrils across the land.
A raw chill in the wind accompanied the rain as it lashed the riders and horses. The full fury of the storm was unleashed as it beat down relentlessly on those who dared to be out in it. Lightning flared, silver-blue followed by an earth trembling roar of thunder that erupted overhead.
“Reid, we gotta get out of this storm,” Butler shouted to make himself heard aware of the complete futility of the situation. Wind driven rain slashed at him as he clucked his frightened horse forward.
“Over there,” Reid pointed to a cluster of rocks, stacked like poker chips.
It had taken another half-hour of riding through blinding torrents of rain to reach the rocky shelter that nature provided. The three men were soaked and chilled to the bone, their gear sodden and heavy on the horses’ backs.
Reid bustled around in the rain-laced darkness to gather wood to build a fire while Barlow and Butler attended to the horses and tethered them underneath an overhanging ledge.
The wood was wet and sputtered smokily in the flames. Reid continued to poke at the small fire to encourage it to build up heat. “Butler, you still got the dime novel you’ve been carryin’ round with you everywhere?”
“Yeah,” Butler drawled and looked at the fire, his eyes grew wide in apprehension. “Aw man, you can’t be serious. It’s my favourite story.”
“But it’s for a worthy cause,” countered Reid, “besides when we get this job done I’ll buy you a whole box full of books to read.”
Butler withdrew his book from under the cover of his jacket and turned it over in his hands. He flipped through the pages once more, catching words here and there and sighed audibly. “A whole box full huh?” He watched Reid nod his head and handed out the book to him, not yet ready to let go he held it in the tip of his fingers. “Can I get that in writing?”
Reid laughed heartily, took the book from Butler and swatted him with it. Within minutes he had a bigger fire going that soon filled the compact area of the cave with light and heat. The three men sat in silence and listened to the wind as it howled like a rabid coyote and the wet wood that hissed when ignited by fire.
The sharp edge of a rock dug into Reid’s back when he tried to change position; unable to get back to sleep he sat upright and listened to what was happening outside. The storm seemed to lessening as it grumbled off into the south-east. The wind was gone and except for an occasional spattering flurry the rain had stopped. It would be light in a few hours and time to be moving again. He wondered idly how the Lancer’s had feared in the elements of the storm and had they taken refuge like he and his partners had. He stood up slowly and eased a cramped agony from his joints. His long legs had been curled in an awkward position and had numbed during the night.
Reid looked over at Barlow and Butler and saw that they were still asleep. He quietly moved from the cave to where the horses had been tethered. From under the ledge he saw the clouds as they drifted apart and revealed the carpet of stars behind them as bright as polished nail heads.
Like Reid and his companions, Scott and Johnny Lancer had been caught in the storm. Johnny thought it was ironic, a few moments ago he had fervently hoped for rain and now that it had been delivered he wished it away. He supported his brother’s dead weight in his arms and staggered to the cave he’d seen earlier.
The rain had started to fall in short angry bursts; the wind was raw and cut through Johnny’s clothes like a knife. He repositioned Scott over his left shoulder and brushed his dark rain drenched hair out of his eyes. He still had some distance to go before he made it to the cave with his precious burden.
Throughout the night Johnny tried to remain awake, starving off the sleep that threatened to take him from his duties – the care of his older brother and a way out of their predicament. Finally fatigue won out and he slipped into an exhausted sleep.
Scott’s face was ashen. His skin was cool and damp from the rain. He groaned and turned his head slightly. Scott came awake in a shuddering, fever-sweat darkness. A spasm of pain stabbed through his chest as he returned to consciousness, so raw and intense that he couldn’t suppress the groan that came tearing upward through his throat. He felt a hand touch his forehead and he swung at it blindly.
“Hey, take it easy,” soothed Johnny. He narrowly missed being hit in the face and pushed Scott’s arm back down. He felt the heat that radiated from his brother’s body and cursed under his breath. “You don’t believe in making things easy for me do you?”
“Thirsty,” Scott moaned and lolled his head to one side.
“I thought you might be,” replied the younger man and held a cupped handful of water to Scott’s mouth.
Scott gratefully swallowed the cooling water and looked at his brother in bewilderment. “Not cactus?”
“Rain water.” Johnny supplied and laid his hand against Scott’s forehead. He ripped a sleeve from his shirt, doused it with water and placed it on his brother’s brow. “Lie still, I want to see if it’s finished raining yet.” Truth be known he was more concerned in finding out whether they had been pursued. If they were being followed he needed to know how soon it would be, before they had to be moving again.
Johnny was silently thankful for the rain; it not only provided the much-needed water but also helped to wash away the tracks. Those thoughts cheered him. He noted that apart from the occasional drop of rain the storm had passed and the sky had begun to clear. He stood still for a moment and inhaled the fresh air. He always enjoyed the smell that the rain would leave behind, a kind of clean that washed away the grime from the earth. But the wind carried with it a familiar scent – the smell of wood-smoke.
“Johnny.” Scott coughed and struggled to a more inclined position.
“Yeah. I’m here, brother. Just seeing if the storm had passed.” He knelt beside Scott and gave him some more water. “You feeling any better?”
“You wanna ask me that again in about four hours. Feel like I’ve been mule kicked… what hit me?”
“Heat exhaustion, lack of food and water, and to top it off you went and got yourself a cold when you got wet.” Johnny replied categorically.
Scott nodded his head and sniffed. “Are we being followed?”
“Why don’t you just lie back and get some rest, it’ll be sunup in couple of hours. I’ll go and see what I can round up for our breakfast.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Johnny groped for words but found none. “Get some rest,” he said and sat near the mouth of the cave.
“Murdoch,” began Val. “I’ve been thinkin’ a lot about that rider we saw yesterday. This ain’t the kind of place that anyone would ride alone in. What if that rider we saw was a scout?”
“Searching for us?” Murdoch asked as the idea started to make sense to him. “Could be.” He looked off towards the hills in the distance and sighed. “I would give anything to know where my sons are.”
Val stood in mute silence. He was at a loss to know what to say. He’d never been in the same situation as Murdoch. Never had a son to hold. He couldn’t say he knew how Murdoch felt because he didn’t. The closest feeling of loss that he had was Johnny. The dark haired son of Murdoch had become a trusted friend, a confidant – a brother that he never had. “We’ll find them,” he finally said with certainty in his voice.
The ranch owner and sheriff continued to follow the tracks where they had left off the night before. The pattern of hoof prints had been easy to follow; no one had taken the care to disguise them in any way.
They reached a wild, lonesome gully; lined with oaks and a stream with the water so crystal clear that it glistened in the sun’s dazzling light. Water tumbled over rounded boulders, the noise akin to a child’s laughter. “Johnny would like that,” Val said quietly as he brought his horse to a halt and let it drink at the water’s edge.
“Yes, he would.” Murdoch agreed. His voice startled Val and caused him to jump.
Dusk seemed to arrive early as black foaming clouds rolled overhead. Before long the clouds that had threatened to dump water on the sun dried land emptied with huge drops of rain. Val sat spellbound on his horse while lightning cracked like a whip and tore through the clouds.
“Over there.” Murdoch shouted as wind and rain whipped at him. Val followed his direction and together they sheltered as bast they could from the storm underneath the largest of the oak trees.
The dusk soon changed to darkness and still the rain continued to fall madly and marched in sheets across the land. The wind was just as strong. Usually when the sun went down the wind abated for a while – such was not the case on this night.
Neither man gained much sleep that night, both lost in their own thoughts of whether they would find Scott and Johnny alive.
Orderliness was the key with which Murdoch Lancer opened up each day of his life, but this day like the ones before it had dawned with a dreaded uncertainty. By nature he was a fastidious man who liked to be in control. It had never occurred to him that much of his daily routines could be chronicled on the dial of his watch. He took great pride in knowing what to do and when to do it, now he was at a loss. Nothing seemed certain he had no idea of what direction he should be headed in or if his past had cost his sons their lives.
With a heavy heart he mounted his horse and moved in the direction of the trail that he and Val had been following.
Val had moved his horse away from the stream and found an occasional hoof print that had not been completely erased by the storm.
They’d been riding for just over two hours when they heard the distinctive sound of rifle fire. A volley of shots fired in quick succession. Signal fire.
Ian Donnelly had waited the storm out before he moved his vaqueros out at first light. He had a feeling well deep inside him that today would be the day that he faced the man he’d come to despise with every beat of his heart.
Unsure of where the sixth sense had come from, Donnelly drew rein and pulled his steed to a stop.
He leaned back in his leather seat and checked his gun. It was loaded and ready for use, its power destructive and deadly. He slid the gun back into the holster that hung at his hip and flexed his fingers as he shook his hand. Donnelly sat almost nonchalant relaxed a deadly calm in his face as he clucked his horse forward.
“Today Murdoch, today will be the day that your empire falls.” Donnelly said to himself, a small smile of satisfaction danced on his lips.
At sunrise Johnny chanced looking for some food. Without a means to cook fresh meat and not wanting to alert anyone with the scent of roasting meat, rabbit and rattler were off the menu. Instead he would settle for berries. His hat was three quarters filled with a selection of berries when Johnny thought he could hear someone behind him. Out of the corner of one eye he saw that Reid stood silent, his hands discreetly kept away from his gun.
“And so we meet again,” Reid said. “Where is your brother?”
Johnny cursed his carelessness for not surveying the area around the cave for any signs of trouble. His foremost concern had been to get food for his brother. “He’s not here,” he answered curtly.
“Butler! Barlow!” thundered Reid. He turned back to face Johnny. “We’ll see.” His voice was soft and matter-of-fact as it drifted over the quiet morning air.
Johnny nodded. His eyes did not rest on the Reid, but instead, focused just to the left of the man where he could see any movement, particularly the men that Reid had brought with him. He was ready for whatever came.
“You don’t have to follow Donnelly’s orders you know.” The words were delivered matter-of-fact, devoid of emotion. “You can ride on out of the valley same way you came, before someone gets hurt or killed.”
Reid was a little surprised at the blunt command. “Like I’ve already told you. It ain’t whether I like you or not, actually I kinda admire your guts. I’m in it for the money and Donnelly pays well. Very well.”
Johnny frowned and replied his voice deep and resonant as the concern crinkled the corners of his eyes. “Well, it was worth a try.”
A few minutes later a voice shouted out from the cave that the Lancer brothers had taken refuge in. “We got him, Reid.”
Together Barlow and Butler dragged a semi-conscious Scott Lancer to where Reid waited with Johnny.
“Not here huh?” Reid glared at the man before him.
There was no clarity in Barlow’s mind at that moment only the white flame of violence that ruled him. “I say we finish them off now and save old man Donnelly a job.”
Johnny checked the gun. He hefted its weight and balance and it was like an old and trusted friend in his hand. “You could try,” he said with a coldness in his voice that matched the iciness in his eyes. “But I plan on taking you three with me.”
Barlow stood motionless under the high slant of the sun and felt the hard thrust of fear ram through his mind, but refused to buckle under it. This was the ultimate test of a man. There was no ignominy in fear. Only when a man let himself be torn wide open by it, as Barlow had, did he know the torments of contempt and shame. “I wouldn’t be so sure,” he tried to counter. “Are you willing to risk your brother’s life?”
Scott felt the muzzle of a six-gun pressed against his spine. “Johnny,” he slurred, his mind consumed by the fever that continued to rage inside him. “Kill them.”
Johnny looked at his brother and then at each of the three men in turn. He studied their faces and saw the first flickers of doubt cross their faces. “You know,” he said with utmost calm, “a bullet has a way of killing a man and it is impersonal about who it kills.” He slowly pulled back the hammer on his gun; a small smile grew on his face as the chambers clicked into place.
“If you’re willin’ to risk it all, Lancer, go ahead. Be my guest,” jeered Barlow.
There was a gruelling silence as the two considered the situation.
Johnny’s attention was broken when he heard Scott call his name, followed by the quick retort of a gun. Johnny saw the hate filled malice in Barlow’s eyes and with cat like reflexes fired his .45 as his brother fell to the ground.
Thorugh the red-rimmed vagueness Barlow saw the flash from Johnny’s gun. Barlow staggered back; blood seeped from the corner of his mouth. There was a roaring blackness all around him and then there was light a blinding brilliance that carried him upward with ever-increasing velocity… upward into nothingness.
With the same fluid motion, Johnny drew the slack out of his trigger and squeezed off a shot with studied care and then another. Butler cursed as the bullet hit him high in his shoulder. Reid dropped his gun as the bullet drove a path into his hand.
Without looking back Johnny gathered Scott in his arms and carried him over his shoulder and moved as fast as he could towards the cover of trees. The colour drained from his face as he laid his brother’s lifeless body on the ground. He heard the sound of rifle fire and flinched as each of the three signal shots were fired.
Stunned, Reid flattened himself against a boulder as another heavy slug splintered into the side of it. Dust particles filled the air in front of Reid’s eyes and caused him to blink. “Give it up, Lancer.” He barked. His voice sounded like a horse with distemper.
Butler had gone down hard on his knees and rolled to his left. He came up firing. Bullets bit into the ground and made small fountains of dirt to swirl around Johnny’s legs. He pushed himself off the tree and with the speed and accuracy of one who knew his weapon very well. The shot hit the attacker and the man staggered in his run then went to his knees with a whimper.
The signal fire had brought Donnelly and the rest of his hired guns, eight in all, riding hard into the battle zone. Guns blazed red in the morning sky.
One of Donnelly’s young vaqueros jerked at his gun and before he cleared leather. Johnny spun on his heel and fired a shot into his chest. He dropped from the saddle with an anguished cry.
Riderless horses were in a blind panic and ran in a tight bunch through the men. Hooves thundered across the dirt and shale. A dismounted rider was crushed to death under the wild fury of a blood red sorrel.
Johnny rolled, then fired again twice, one shot struck a rider in the shoulder while his next shot burned across the cheek of another. He didn’t see the man approach from behind until the rider was upon him. The .45 flew from Johnny’s hand as he and his attacker rolled several feet, driven by the momentum of the vaquero’s leap. Johnny’s face was rammed into the dirt and then jerked back as the cold steel blade of a knife was pressed against his neck.
A hand stabbed out for the attacker’s knife arm, and dislodged the knife. The hand lunged upward with the heavy Bowie into the vaquero’s chest. He felt the other man stiffen, then suddenly relax.
“Thanks, brother,” Johnny breathed heavily and pushed the dead man off his back.
“Anytime.” Scott nodded weakly as his eyes closed.
Johnny’s body stretched into the shadows as he continued to return fire. He twisted in mid air, jacked a shell into the chamber and fired.
Rifle’s barked in fire simultaneously. Hot powder burned Butler’s face and he went crimson-blind. His momentum carried him forward before he finally fell over Barlow’s unconscious body. A second bullet slammed into Butler’s arm He flew back like a calf jerked up short by a rider’s rope. He screamed, grabbed at his arm and rolled in the dirt. He stopped moving when the last of his strength ribboned out of him.
It was like the kick of a mule. The impact of it was a huge explosion of violence that seemed to tear the earth from under Johnny and send him spinning through the air. He saw the ground rush up at him, felt it beat at his body. He did not hear the roar of the gunshot but he knew that he had been shot. His head throbbed and he could feel something warm running through the leg of his pants. Blood. And a lot of it, too.
The signal fire had also brought two other riders to the middle of the furore – Murdoch Lancer and Val Crawford.
From the screened concealment of the cottonwoods Murdoch had witnessed the brief but savage flurry of the fight between his younger son and the man known as Butler. He watched him, braced and ready. Murdoch felt a tinge of admiration at Johnny’s skill. “NOW!” he shouted to Val and spurred his horse forward at a gallop.
Murdoch rode directly into the path of his adversary and reined his horse short as surprised rippled through his bloodstream. “Donnelly.” He uttered in disbelief.
A purple vein pulsed in Donnelly’s forehead. “And now you past comes back to haunt you.”
“Move again and you’re a dead man.” Val grated and pulled the hammer back on his gun.
The man lifted his hands slowly and he said, “I’m for peace, mister.” Butler moaned and held his arm at his side. “You’re supposed to be a law man, Crawford. You can’t shoot me in cold blood.” Sweat stood out in great beads across the man’s forehead as the sheriff pulled back the hammer of his .45
Val Crawford tore the badge from his shirt and threw it into the dirt. “I hereby give up my office.” He jacked the cartridges out of Butler’s rifle, then tossed it to the ground. He turned when he heard a pitiful moan come from behind him. The voice sounded familiar to him. “You just…” he started to say to the wounded gunman before but stopped when he saw that he’d passed out.
Reid stayed behind the cover of boulders and watched the scene before him play out. His employer had met with the shadow from his past, the two Lancer brothers were down and the sheriff of Green River was in control of anyone left alive.
The cloth on his face was wet and cool. A lazy weakness flowed through his body, warm and reassuring. The pain had subsided to a dull, continuous throb in his ribcage. Scott slowly peeled his eyes open and looked up into the dirt-covered face of Val Crawford. “Murdoch. Johnny,” wheezed Scott as he struggled to sit up.
“Hang in there, brother. Murdoch and Val are here now.” Johnny comforted his older brother. “I’ve got a job to finish.” He turned to face an old friend. “Val, will you watch over him for me?”
“Where are you goin’?” Val asked, concerned at the look on Johnny’s face.
Johnny tried to stem the flow of blood from his left leg with a bandanna. “Donnelly.” He said, his one word voiced what he felt. As he limped past the men that Donnelly had employed he bit his lip and shook his head. So many men had given their lives – for what, he thought. He was satisfied to see Reid, Barlow and Butler trussed like turkeys for one of Maria’s holiday feasts.
Donnelly marvelled at the terrible ferocity in Murdoch’s tone.
“Next time you send a man out to kill me, have the guts to come yourself. Don’t try and get to me through my family.” Murdoch Lancer had always fought his own battles and rubbed his own hurts.
The high sun slanted a hawk’s shadow across one side of Donnelly’s face and his voice sounded out at Murdoch savagely, harsh and flat with the overbearing thrust of his will. “Aye and if I had come to you directly where would have been the fun in that. I wanted to destroy you Murdoch like you had destroyed me.”
There was nothing new in this pressure now piling up so swiftly and darkly against him. It was an old page out of his book, the details etched into his mind with epitaphic clarity. Murdoch’s stare was one of rash and thorny intolerance, his mouth flat-lipped above the blocky shelf of his jaw. The intolerance roiled higher in Murdoch’s thorny glare and his voice jarred out savagely.
He threw aside his cigar and his face grew hard. “Let’s get it over with.” Donnelly sneered. “Drop your gun or fight, Murdoch.”
Murdoch looked at Donnelly and saw no pity there, only a gleam in his eye. “Donnelly, I know what you want. What happened in the past was a very unfortunate mistake. I tried to help you afterwards but you refused my help.”
Donnelly didn’t wait to hear Murdoch out. His body was like one giant spring as he drew his weapon. His first shot boomed, then another shot sounded. He didn’t hear that second shot. Instead, he felt something akin to a giant fist slam into his chest, and then blackness shut out the brightness of the morning sun and closed his eyes.
“Damn you, Donnelly,” Murdoch cursed, driven by instinct and self-preservation he fired.
As the last breath of life escaped Donnelly’s lips he looked into Murdoch’s non-condemning eyes. “I was wrong to accuse you of…” he started to say as he took a ragged breath and slowly exhaled. “It wasn’t your fault at all, you were so very right a big part of me refused to see it that way though. Funny how clear it is now, how much sense it makes. I can see things clearly now, how I should’ve seen them all those years ago.” He closed his eyes briefly and struggled to keep the darkness at bay for a moment longer. “I wanted the riches, the land, the finest things money could buy and the respect that you had. I wanted it all.” He paused and coughed very slightly. “I’m sorry, Murdoch.” He looked up and saw a figure appear behind the older Lancer. “Johnny, I admire you, your loyalty to your family,” he drew in another ragged breath and murmured on a whispery note of wonderment, “I’ve never met a man as remarkable as you are with a gun. The speed and finesse.”
Murdoch felt Donnelly’s body go limp in his arms and saw the fixed stare in his eyes. He saw a shadow cast on the ground and the laboured breathing that accompanied it.
“Is he?” Johnny asked.
The older man silently nodded his head and laid Donnelly’s lifeless body on the ground. “Yes,” he finally replied and pushed himself up. He looked into his youngest son’s eyes and saw a sadness reflected in them. Murdoch wondered what there was about his youngest son that always disturbed him by his carefully guarded composure. “Johnny, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for doubting you.” He felt his voice catch in his throat. “I suspect Donnelly told you of a part of my life I’m not proud of.”
Johnny reached a shaky hand out to his father for support. The pain in his leg had deepened and had become unbearable. Still he managed a weak smile. “Murdoch, it’s not important let’s go home.”
End of Volume 1
© Starbuck December 2000
It’s better when people wonder why you didn’t say something than why you did.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story J
Any feedback would be appreciated – (even flames which will be laughed at).
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