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“Hang on, Scott. There’s a house up ahead.” Johnny Lancer encouraged and pulled his older brother, Scott back against this chest.
“Mmmmm, sounds good.” Scott hissed between pain filled spasms that assaulted his right leg. His head lolled back against Johnny’s left shoulder as pain caused beads of perspiration to appear across his brow. “S not your fault,” Scott slurred before his eyelids slammed shut.
Johnny cursed quietly to himself in Spanish for his recklessness that had caused Scott’s predicament. He replayed the scene over and over again in his mind, thankful that he had lowered his gun before it discharged.
Unknown to Johnny his brother had decided to follow him on his excursion up into the mountains, a two-day ride beyond the reaches of Lancer. Scott had planned to join his brother to chase down the white stallion that had eluded Johnny.
Early on the second morning away from Lancer, the sun sent shards of brilliant white gold light across the land while Johnny stirred his cup of coffee. At the sound of twigs breaking underfoot, Johnny’s body went from a relaxed posture to one of defensiveness, his gun ready in his hand. As far as he knew he was the only one up in this part of the mountains. Suddenly a large shape loomed from behind the cover of boulders and without thought, Johnny fired. In an instant he had recognized the intended target – Scott.
With the speed that had earned Johnny his name as a gun-fighter, he pulled his gun back and dragged it downwards before the bullet was released. Too late to stop it from firing he had been able to change it’s path.
“NO!” Screamed Johnny in horror. He watched as Scott’s right leg buckled underneath him and sickened when he heard his brother scream as the bullet ripped through his heavy trousers and into his thigh. Johnny let his gun fall to the ground and madly scrambled towards Scott. “Scott?” he cried in anguish pulling his brother from the ground by the lapels of his jacket.
For one brief moment Johnny’s eyes fused with Scott’s, the unspoken words between them spoke volumes. A tendril of dread crept up Johnny’s spine when he saw Scott’s eyes roll back in his head before his body went limp.
Frantically Johnny searched for a pulse and breathed a little easier when he found it to be strong albeit a little fast. The blood flowed freely from the wound, mapping its way down the material of Scott’s trousers and pooling underneath him. Reluctant to leave Scott for just a moment, Johnny finally retrieved his saddlebags and withdrew a clean shirt, which he tore into long strips and tightly bound around Scott’s thigh. “Hang on, brother,” begged Johnny as he finished fastening the last of the crude bandages. Satisfied that Scott would be all right for a few minutes, Johnny cleared his campsite. “Barranca.”
Obediently the Palomino that had been a part of Johnny’s life since his arrival at Lancer walked to him and stood patiently as he hoisted Scott up into the saddle. “Yeah, you’re a good fella, Barranca,” soothed Johnny as he climbed up behind Scott.
Several times Johnny had reined Barranca to a halt so that he could check on Scott’s wound that had continued to bleed at a steady rate. Each time he checked the wound he felt his own heart grow heavier. Never in his wildest dreams had he ever thought of being capable to shoot Scott.
As the sun continued to climb higher into the sky, Johnny could feel his own thirst rise and the mind numbing heat only served to increased the fever that now ravaged Scott’s body. The water that he had left had to be saved for Scott and even then he used it sparingly. Six hours had passed since Johnny had shot Scott. Six long hours, precious hours that had begun to eat into Scott’s life.
“Johnny,” Scott cried his voice desperately weak. “I don’t feel too good. Cold.” To emphasise his point his body shuddered and his teeth began to chatter.
Johnny could see the lean pallor of white in his brother’s face; his eyes had taken on a glazed appearance. He knew that Scott was scared. He could smell it. For Johnny fear had an unmistakable look and smell to it – almost as rancid as the smell of blood. Years of living down in the border towns of Mexico had taught Johnny a lot of things, things that he wished he could forget. Right now the thing he wanted to forget most was knowing how to use a gun. He hated the destruction that they caused. He remembered telling a young boy once that a gun could end a life in a few seconds but to bring back that life was impossible. If you were going to shoot you had to make sure of your target and the reasons behind the action.
He felt Scott shiver again and cringed inwardly knowing that he was responsible for his brother’s agony. With great care Johnny slipped his buckskin jacket off wrapped it around Scott and prayed that they would find shelter soon. Three more hours passed before Johnny began to have any hope of getting Scott back to Lancer alive. Through the trees he’d seen a curl of smoke as it trailed upwards into the late afternoon sky. With renewed enthusiasm he clucked Barranca forward.
“Hello the house.” Johnny called his voice dry from lack of water; he did not have enough saliva to be able to spit. He reached down and grabbed the canteen using a little of the water to moisten his throat. “Hola el casa.” He repeated in Spanish a little louder than his first call. With so many immigrants in the California area it paid to be able to converse in both English and Spanish, for this part of his heritage Johnny was grateful that he was bilingual.
After a few minutes an older man pushed the screen door open let it slam shut and stood in the middle of the verandah; in his hands a double barrel shot gun that he trained on the Lancer brothers. “Whaddya want?” he finally asked his words slow and deliberate.
“My brother, he needs help,” explained Johnny and brushed a wayward piece of hair from his eyes. “He’s been shot.”
The old timer sniffed back some mucus that had threatened to drip from his nose and cleared his throat before spitting into the ground. “I reckon he has.” He agreed. “Who shot him?” he asked and sniffed again, this time he rubbed a tattered shirtsleeve across his face.
“I did.” Johnny answered slowly and quietly, his voice full of shame. He dropped his head as he spoke and bit into his lip trying to keep the lump in his throat from rising.
After what seemed an eternity, but was only a few seconds the homesteader finally spoke. “Best get him off that horse then and bring ‘im inside. Let me have a look at ‘im.”
Relieved to finally get some help for his brother, Johnny slid off Barranca’s back and carried his brother into the run down house.
The interior of the house looked to be in need of many repairs as the exterior did. In the far corner of the main room a window had been boarded over shutting out the light of the afternoon sun, while smaller holes litters the walls where timbers had rotted through. “It ain’t the Gold Nugget brother but it will have to do,” Johnny quietly spoke to Scott.
“Put yer brother in here,” sniffed the old timer once more. “This here’s the only spare bed I got. Me and my dog share the other bed.”
Johnny stepped into the small bedroom, which was faintly lit with a coal oil lantern.
“This room don’t get that much sun on account a that big pine out there. Dang thing needs choppin’ down. Never did like the thing growin’ so close to the house an’ all. Good storm will prob’ly bring the thing down.” As he looked out the window he scratched idly at what was more than likely one of his dogs fleas. He turned back to watch Johnny take great care to lay his brother down on the mattress that had seen better days. “Near forgot my manners. My name’s Buck Clancy,” he said and offered his right hand.
“I’m Johnny Lancer and this is my brother Scott,” replied Johnny and looked sheepishly at Clancy’s hand. It was blackened with ingrained dirt and had and dirty kerchief wrapped around it. “What did you do to your hand?”
“Uh?” “Your hand.” Johnny said and gestured with his own right hand to Clancy’s injured one.
“Damn hog bit it” answered Clancy; he withdrew his hand and studied the wound under the makeshift bandage. “Can I git you anythin’?”
“Some hot water, some laudanum or whiskey if you’ve got it and the saddlebags off our horses if you don’t mind.” Johnny watched Clancy exit the small room before he proceeded to remove Scott’s trousers. “Sorry,” he apologized when Scott winced.
Within a few minutes Clancy was back in the small room with a basin full of hot water in his hands a bottle tucked under his right arm. “Ain’t got none of that lauda-whatchamacallit stuff no whiskey neither but I got some Tequila. Where do you want this hot water?” He placed the basin on a small table and from his pocket he produced a medium sized glass, which was dubious as to whether it was clean or not.
Johnny smiled at Scott when he saw his brother roll his eyes at the mention of Tequila. He remembered the first night that he had introduced Scott to the hellish brew and the effect it had on Scott. For two days afterward Scott scowled at Johnny for the massive headache he’d received from the liquor. Before Johnny started on the necessary ministrations he poured a liberal amount of the Tequila into a glass and held it to Scott’s lips. “Drink.”
As Scott started to protest about the foul tasting liquor Johnny took the opportunity to pour the contents of the glass down his throat and didn’t let him stop swallowing until the glass was emptied. Johnny waited a few moments for the large quantity of Tequila to take effect before he worked steadily to clear the bits of material that had dried to the wound. Throughout his ministrations he heard Scott gasp and moan, each vocalization of pain seemed to go right through him like a knife that sliced unmercifully into his heart. “That was the easy part,” he said. “Now comes the hard part.” He filled the glass once more and ordered Scott to drink.
Without protest Scott willingly drank the contents of the glass and laid his head back against the pillow. His features were more relaxed but his pallor still very pale. Within a few minutes the Tequila had worked its way thorugh his system assisted by the lack of food coupled with the blood loss it had sent him into an alcohol-induced sleep.
When Johnny was certain that Scott wouldn’t be able to feel anything he began the painstaking job of removing the bullet that he had put into his brother. He stopped several times during the course of his probing to wipe the sweat from his brown and his top lip. Finally he felt the blade of his pocketknife hit the bullet. With gentle ease he removed the bullet and quickly stopped the flow of blood. Satisfied that eh had done as much as he could for Scott, short of getting him to a doctor; Johnny covered his brother with a blanket and left him to sleep.
“How’s yer brother?” Clancy asked, and briefly looked up from the bridle he was braiding.
“He’s sleeping, just have to let him rest as much as I can before we go home.” Replied Johnny between stifled yawns. He placed his hands on his hips and arched his back working out all the kinks that had set in.
“Look like you could do with some rest yerself,” commented Clancy as he took in the younger man’’ appearance, lines of worry were firmly etched into Johnny’s brow. He handed a freshly brewed cup of coffee to Johnny and gestured for him to join him at the small kitchen table. “I reckon ya can stop here fer a night or two.” Clancy sniffed while he scratched his chin. “It isn’t much.”
Grateful for Clancy’s hospitality, Johnny took some gold pieces from his pocket.
“Don’t have no use for money,” forestalled Clancy. “Anything I need I grow or make – or kill. But what I could use is some help around here for a few days while your brother rests up.”
“Yeah? What kind of help?” Johnny asked keen to work out a trade.
“Well I’ve got me some wood that needs choppin’ ‘n stackin’. One of my horses need ta be shod and I got me a fence that needs some repairs doin’ to it.” Clancy listed and scratched behind his ear. “Course that tree out the front could do with choppin’ down ‘fore it falls on my house.”
Johnny listened to the list of jobs that Clancy rattled off and nodded in agreement. “That sounds like a fair trade for the help you’ve given my brother. When do you want me to start?”
“How ‘bout first thing in the mornin’.” The gleam in Clancy’s eye went unnoticed by Johnny as he looked over at his brother. “Say just after breakfast?”
“First thing in the morning it is,” acquiesced Johnny. “Right now I better go and tend to Barranca and Scout. You mind if I use your stable for them?”
“Nah, not at all. You wanna hand?”
“I should be okay, but do you mind keeping an eye on Scott for me? He has a slight fever.”
“Yeah, I’ll keep watch over him.” Clancy waited for Johnny to exit the room and took from its hiding place a small bottle of Laudanum. “Yeah, I’ll keep real good watch over him for you Lancer.” His lips curled into a sneer as he spoke.
“That’s it Lancer, you drink the med’cine like you should.” Clancy smiled sardonically as he helped Scott to take a drink from the bottle. “I’m gonna take care of you and your brother real good.”
Scott’s head lolled against the pillow and his eyes rolled back in his head as he felt the Laudanum take effect. He could feel the nausea rising and battled to keep it under control as little beads of sweat ran down his forehead in rivulets gathering at his shirt collar. “Johnny.” He called, his voice weakened through exhaustion and pain; he blindly reached out his hand stopped in mid air and dropped as his mind succumbed to the dark blanket that beckoned it.
Clancy stood over Scott Lancer with a damp cloth and bathed any signs of distress away from his face. Satisfied that the young man looked like he was in peaceful slumber, Clancy drew the curtain that had seen better days and left Scott alone in the darkened room.
“Is Scott okay?” Johnny asked when he finally came in from stabling the two horses. He dropped his right arm that was carrying the rifles over his shoulder in military fashion and placed the weapons on the floor near the armchair. He let a small smile cross his face when he saw Clancy nod in the affirmative. Weary and stiff he let his body collapse into the old armchair and leaned his head back, closing his eyes as he did so.
“I fixed you some supper. You hungry?”
At the mention of food Johnny opened his eyes while his stomach rumbled in anticipation. He hadn’t eaten since early that morning and was once again grateful for Clancy’s hospitality. After his second plateful of beans he was starting to feel a little better apart from the annoying sniffle he’d developed.
“Sounds like you’re gettin’ a cold.” Observed the old man. “Where’s ya jacket or ain’t ya got one?”
“Yeah I do, have a jacket I mean,” he paused to rub his eyes and sniff. “I gave it to Scott this morning when we came down off the mountains.”
“What were you doin’ up at Widow’s Peak anyways?” Clancy asked as he studied his houseguest.
For the first time since his arrival, Johnny was able to do the same with Clancy. He noted his deep brown leathery features, gained from prolonged exposure to the sun and the deep lines enclosed the corners of his coal black eyes. Clancy’s eyes had an uneasiness about them – cold and unnerving. Johnny turned his gaze away from Clancy; he couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever done that. For Johnny there was no better way to get to know your adversary or opponent other than stare into their eyes – the windows to the soul.
While Johnny evaluated the older man, Clancy did the same to him. He noted the way that Johnny wore his gun, low on the leg, a mark of a gunfighter. The oil blackened holster and the gun that had been shown great care from use. Finally Clancy broke the uneasiness between the two men. “I don’t know who you are, but I know what you are. I’ve seen your type before. You’re a gunfighter and you’ve been around, I reckon you’ve smelled enough powder to know that gunfighters don’t have a great life expectancy.” His cold tone caused Johnny to shudder involuntarily.
“I used to be a gunfighter, but that was another time – another life. I’ve given up that life now,” Johnny quietly defended himself. This was not a subject that he had intended to talk about and gave a small chuckle when he thought about lifetime habits being hard to kill. He’d tried to wear his gun higher on his leg – it wasn’t for him, it had felt cumbersome and uncomfortable. “I’m not going to do you any harm if that is what you’re thinking.”
Clancy nodded and smiled at Johnny. “No, I reckon not, but I’d feel a mite safer iffen you didn’t wear your gun around here. No cause for wearin’ one, it’s only me up here and you’re the first company I’ve had in several years since my wife died.” His voice was slick as he spoke, trying to hide his real intentions.
“I’m sorry that your wife died, I know what it’s like to lose someone close to you,” sympathized Johnny.
“You were married?” Clancy asked, one eyebrow cocked.
Johnny snorted at the suggestion and shook his head. “My mother died when I was about eight or nine. Had a stepfather he died a few years later.”
“So you and your brother been on your own ever since?” inquired Clancy and jerked his head in the direction of Scott’s bedroom.
“No. I only met Scott four years ago.” Johnny explained. “He’s my half-brother,” he quickly added. Johnny supplied the scant details of how he and Scott were brought together by their father, Murdoch Lancer, during a range war that nearly saw the demise of the Lancer ranch.
“Come to think of it, I have heard of the Lancer spread. Down Morro Coyo way ain’t it?”
“Yeah it is,” Johnny answered around a stifled yawn. “If you don’t mind I think I’m gonna turn in. It’s been a long day. And I’m pretty certain it’s going to be a longer night.” He gathered his bedroll and the rifles before he turned in. “Goodnight, see you in the morning.”
Johnny woke to the sound of Scott mumbling incoherently and was heartened to see that his fever had diminished slightly. Throughout the night Johnny had lightly dozed, alerted to Scott’s every need for relief from the pain and the fever that ravaged his body. He’d filled the glass twice more with Tequila during the night and forced it into Scott. “Brother, you may wake up with a hangover but it will help with the pain. If I had something stronger I’d give it you.” Johnny’s voice was barely above a whisper as he spoke the sorrow and remorse for his actions reflected in his tone. He laid back on his bedroll once more and listened to Scott’s even breathing before he let himself doze again. The next time he awoke it was from the redness behind his eyelids from the sun’s early light.
“How are you feelin’, Scott?” Johnny asked, in an instant at his brother’s side.
Scott blinked a couple of times in effort to stop the room from spinning and knitted his eyebrows together when he looked at his younger brother. “How much of that rotgut did you feed me? My head feels like it wants to explode.”
“Nearly half a bottle,” Johnny grinned. “How does your leg feel?”
Scott closed his eyes and inhaled deeply trying to quell the nausea. “Don’t know, can’t feel it.” He gulped in another breath and held his stomach as it flipped in protest. “Can’t feel much of anything apart from this headache.”
“Sorry about that,” grinned Johnny. He took the opportunity to check Scott’s leg wound and exchanged the dressings for cleans ones. “Scott,” he began, unsure of whether he could trust his own voice or not. Like his brother he took a deep breath to settle himself before he continued. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shoot you. I can’t offer any excuse… I just wish it had never happened.” He dropped his eyes to the floor, unable to face his brother.
“I thought I heard voices,” said Clancy as he stepped into the room. “Mornin’, Johnny.” He added acknowledging the younger man. “And you must be Scott. It’s good to see you awake.”
Scott looked confused at the appearance of the old man and groaned when he tried to push himself to a sitting position. “Who… who are you?” he finally asked.
“Buck Clancy’s the name,” Clancy said marching up to the side of the bed and offering his bandaged right hand.
Scott looked a long moment deep into Clancy’s eyes a vague recollection of him or someone who looked like him giving him some medicine the night before. He raised his own right hand to his eyes and rubbed the sleep from them with his thumb and middle finger. “Scott,” he yawned in reply when he took his hand away from his eyes. He shook his head trying to clear it, instantly regretting the move when it started to pound to the beat of a symphony of tiny hammers. “Sorry, can’t stop yawning.”
“That’s okay,” smiled Clancy, he withdrew his hand and looked at Scott with contempt. “You need your rest and Johnny has promised to help me around here today. You ready Johnny?”
“Yeah. I’ll be with you in a minute. Hope you’ve picked some easy jobs to start out with.” He turned back to face Scott to finish the conversation that he had started only to find Scott blissfully unaware and asleep once more. “Sleep well, brother.” Johnny said before he exited the room.
It had been arranged that while Johnny worked, Clancy would take care of Scott, an agreement that suited Johnny well under the circumstances. He would be able to complete the jobs early and spend more time with Scott. The old timer had worked out a substantial list of jobs that needed to be done, and from what Johnny could see Clancy fully intended to get two solid days of hard work out of him. He chuckled to himself when he complete the sixth job on the list and wondered if it wouldn’t have been easier to insist that Clancy take the money.
“Come on you, don’t be so damn stubborn,” Johnny chastised the horse that refused to cooperate. “Cut that out.” For the second time as in many minutes the horse had kicked him and sent him flying. The horse pawed at the ground with shod hooves, the iron had already worn down on some and had loosened on others. Determined to get the annoying human away from it, the horse threw its head around trying to break free.
“Why you… I oughta.” Johnny said and threw down the newly forged shoe.
“Problem, Johnny?” Clancy asked, sarcasm dripped from his every word.
“No,” Johnny replied without looking up, “no problem at all.” He firmly grasped the horse’s rear left leg and fitted the new show to it. He repeated the same task again and again until all the new iron shoes were in place. When he finished he stood with his hands on his hips and arched his back. The tight muscles finally loosened he turned to Clancy. “So, what’s the next task on your list for me?”
Clancy balled a wad of tobacco in his mouth and swirled it around as he ran his fingers down through the list. “Still gotta get that wood chopped ‘n stacked and there’s the fence that needs fixin’.”
By the end of the day Johnny had cut and stacked all the wood and started on repairs to the fence. Unable to see any more in the darkened sky he returned to house. “I’ll finish the fence in the morning,” he said as he removed his boots. His whole body ached and he longed for a tub of hot water to ease his weary body. “How’s Scott?”
“He’s still sleeping, had something to eat at lunch but that’s about it.” With his back turned towards Johnny and a quick hand Clancy quickly removed the bottle of Laudanum from the table. “He ain’t been in too much pain, reckon he’s still hung-over from the Tequila,” he added and patted his pocket. “Why don’t you go on and see him while I get us some dinner ready.”
“Yeah, I think I will,” Johnny nodded tiredly. He stepped into the room, which was faintly lit by the coal oil lantern and sat down on the edge of Scott’s bed. “Hey, brother,” he said quietly and placed his hand on Scott’s forehead checking for any sign of fever. Johnny saw Scott’s eyes flutter as if trying to open, the battle to open short lived as he sighed deeply and turned his head to face the wall. “I’ll be back later,” whispered Johnny and pulled the blanket up on Scott.
“Any change?” Clancy asked, trying to show genuine concern. He wasn’t surprised by Johnny’s response and gestured for him to eat his dinner. “Want a drink to go with that?”
While Johnny ate the meal that Clancy had prepared the older man poured him a small glass of Tequila. “Always say a man can never have enough of the pure cactus juice.”
As the night passed the two men spoke of the jobs that still needed doing while they played cards and drank. “No, no more for me, Clancy.” Johnny said and covered his glass with his hand. “I can’t think straight now.” No sooner had the words left his mouth when he had the sensation of the room revolving around him, he gripped both sides of the wooden table and let his head drop forward into the dark abyss.
“Was wonderin’ when you was gonna drop. Damn near put enough med’cine in your drink to knock a mule on its ear.” With great effort Clancy dragged Johnny into the room that Scott occupied and dumped him on his bedroll. Concerned when Johnny stirred slightly he hurried with his own plans and left the room, pleased with his work and satisfied that neither Lancer would be able to leave – alive.
“I hope Scott and Johnny are on their way home,” sighed Teresa O’Brien as the loud clashes of thunder warred overhead fighting for dominance in the blackened sky. She jumped when a savage bolt of lightning illuminated the main room in the Lancer house.
Murdoch Lancer stroked Teresa’ long flowing hair as she sat on the floor beside him. “I’m sure that they’re okay.” He said voicing her own fears for the boys’ safety. “I wonder if Johnny managed to catch the white stallion,” he added with a smile. Johnny had told Murdoch of why he wanted to catch the stallion and Murdoch had approved the time off from ranch duties that his son had wanted.
Teresa sat up and looked at the man she had come to regard as a father. “You and Johnny have been awfully secretive about this horse. Anything you care to tell me?”
The elder Lancer chuckled quietly. “Well I guess I can tell you. Johnny wanted to catch the stallion and give it to Scott as a birthday present. Seems Johnny’s developed a wary eye when it comes to horse traders.” He remembered how pleased Johnny had been to find a matching partner to Zanzibar, Murdoch’s prized buggy horse and how quickly the smile faded when the matching ‘bookend’ as Johnny had called it turned out to be the scraggliest horse he’d ever seen. Johnny had been right in his assumption that the horse he had bought from the trader was nothing more than crow-bait. Without the small doses of arsenic, the horse that was fat and spunky had lost all it’s condition – transforming from a beautiful horse to a bag of bones.
“He’s still not upset over that is he?”
“Well you know Johnny. Once he gets stuck on an idea he doesn’t let go.” Murdoch paused and closed his eyes in remembrance of Wilf’s passing. “He developed quite a friendship with Wilf Guthrie, albeit a brief one. That reminds me, when Jelly brought the mail in from town there’s a letter amongst it for Johnny from Pony Alice. Did you know that Florida had asked Johnny to be Pony’s guardian if anything should ever happen to her?”
“No.” Teresa answered in surprise. “How did Johnny take that? What made Florida ask Johnny? I thought she would’ve asked one of her sisters to take on the role as guardian.”
“Actually he took it pretty well. Admittedly a little nervous at first but after some reassurances he was quite happy to accept Pony’s proposal.” Murdoch paused when Teresa looked at him, an unasked question displayed on her face. “It wasn’t Florida’s idea. It was Pony’s,” he smiled, and answered her confusion.
“So what did I interrupt? Anything important?” Jelly asked as he entered the main room. Characteristic to Jelly Hoskin’s nature he never beat about the bush when it came to asking questions.
More senior in age than a lot of the ranch hands at Lancer, Jelly was still sprightly enough to keep up with most of the younger men. He’d arrived at Lancer some time ago, firstly under the false pretense that had had been injured when hit by the wagon team that Murdoch had been driving, so that he could locate the ‘found’ bag of money and be on his way. As self appointed guardian to eight boys the money would have been enough to provide them with some much needed clothing and food.
It was by chance the Jelly’s boys had come across an injured Johnny Lancer whilst out trapping rabbits. They’d taken Johnny in, sheltered him and given him the care that he needed. Unbeknownst to Jelly Hoskins, Johnny was the son of the man who had in turn been caring of him at Lancer. It wasn’t until Jelly returned to the shack, on one of his nightly treks from Lancer, and produced a jewellery box emblazoned with Teresa’s name on it that Johnny put two and two together. Jelly had claimed that he had come across the jewellery box on a trail, but Johnny knew better. Teresa had been given the set of pearls for her birthday, one of the first parties that Johnny ever attended at Lancer.
Following Johnny’s own recuperation he returned home to Lancer and to the news of the houseguest that had stolen Teresa’s pearls and had been taken to jail. Concerned at the boys being left to fend for themselves, he persuaded Murdoch to let them come to Lancer. During Jelly’s incarceration one of the boys had been injured in a fall from the hayloft, distressed by the news Jelly escaped from jail to be with his boy. With the matter resolved, the jewellery and stolen money returned, Murdoch paid the twenty-dollar find incurred by Jelly.
Hoskins had agreed that the boys should be allowed to be adopted, and that he would work at Lancer to pay off his debt at a dollar a day. That had been close to five years ago and still Jelly remained at Lancer, very much an integral part of the family.
Murdoch looked up from his chair and beckoned Jelly to join them by the blazing fire. “No, Jelly, you’re not interrupting anything. We were just discussing when the boys would be home.”
“Knowing those two scallywags they’ve found themselves a nice fishing hole somewhere – be lucky to see hide or hair of them before next week.”
“You may be right there, Jelly,” Murdoch chuckled. “Let’s just hope that Johnny is trying to catch the fish legitimately and not shoot them.” The sound of Murdoch’s laughter filled the room while the flames from the fire licked the floor with their light. “If they’re not home in a few days I may be tempted to go up to the mountains and join them.”
“Johnny?” Scott called, distressed and disorientated. He’d woken from a restless slumber – hot, nauseous and in agony. The bandage that covered his wound was coloured with a mixture of yellow and red. The infected wound that had been left unattended allowed the infection to grow and spread its poison down Scott’s leg in angry red lines. He continued to thrash about on the single bed, fighting hard to escape the torment that ravaged his mind and body.
“Settle down and drink this,” soothed Clancy. He put his right arm under Scott’s shoulders and raised his head. “Drink.” The older man ordered, his voice commanded authority. “It’ll help with the pain.”
Scott coughed as he drank the foul tasting concoction that Clancy fed him and shook his head slowly from side to side. “My leg… it’s burning. Help me.” He implored, unable to keep his eyes focused on the man in front of him.
“Not surprised your leg is sore. Your brother did a real number on it,” sneered Clancy. “You’ve got yourself a nasty infection goin’ in it.”
The harder Scott tried to concentrate the more his head screamed in protest. “Johnny? Where’s Johnny?” At the mention of his brother’s name he tried to scan the room for him vainly trying to fight the drug that coursed through his veins. His breath came in short pain filled gasps.
“Don’t you go worryin’ none about your brother. You let me take care of you. Ol’ Clancy knows what he is doin’.” Clancy looked down on at Johnny’s inert form and smiled sardonically. “Yeah, Ol’ Clancy will take care of ya.”
“Where’s Johnny?” Scott asked again and tried to sit up, his futile attempt was short lived when he felt Clancy’s strong hands force him back down again. “Johnny,” he rasped. His eyelids grew heavy as he fought the darkness that slowly engulfed him. He blinked several times to see Clancy’s disembodied head spin around him in circles; no longer able to focus his eyes rolled back in his head. Once more he became oblivious to the world around him.
Clancy stood over Scott and watched the younger man’s chest rise and fall in deep even breaths. “Damn you Lancers have a lot of fight in you. Must be a family trait.” With a final look at Johnny he disappeared through the door and back to his own room. He returned a few minutes later and completed the job that he’d set out to do before Scott had woken and disturbed his plans. “That oughta hold ya, Madrid.” The iciness of Clancy’s tone matched that of his eyes as he fastened the fetters into place. His response from Johnny was a soft moan and then nothing.
Clancy tipped back in is old rocking chair and rested his worn boots on the rotted porch rail. “Ya slackin’ on it, boy,” he jeered at Johnny. He dragged out a piece of jerky and tore at it with his yellowed teeth while Johnny hefted another fence post over his shoulder.
“Could work faster if you took these off.” Johnny angrily rebuked and indicated at the restrictive fetters around his bare ankles. “Why Clancy?” he asked in quiet desperation. “Did you think I wouldn’t help you. I said I would.”
“Madrid,” Clancy quietly said and caught Johnny off guard, “I’ve heard about you. I know all about you and your type.”
“Madrid?” Johnny questioned in astonishment. He hadn’t mentioned his former name to Clancy, but couldn’t be sure if he had in his drugged state. “You sure you’ve got the right man?” he asked to test Clancy’s knowledge.
“Yeah I’ve got the right man.” Clancy snarled and surveyed Johnny coolly. “I know all about your Pa too. He sent you up here after me didn’t he?”
“Now stop! What do you mean my father sent me up here? This doesn’t make sense. Scott and I only stopped here because he was hurt. It had nothing to do with you.” Johnny gauged the distance between himself and Clancy and at the rifle that lay across the older man’s lap. He knew he could reach him within four strides before Clancy would be able to get off of shot but in leg irons it was a whole new game plan.
Clancy’s voice was low, almost sad like. “No! That’s a lie. Your father sent you up here to do his dirty work. He’s a lawman and knows he can’t shoot me for what I’ve done, that’s why he sent you. To do his work for him.”
“Murdoch was a lawman a long time ago. He’s a rancher now. Scott’s injury was an accident.” Although Johnny had told himself that many times the words still cut like a dagger into his heart. He continued to talk calmly to the older man, which had fast become a futile cause. No amount of convincing that Johnny tried seemed to bring Clancy back to reality. As far as Clancy was concerned Johnny and his brother were here to take him to the law and Scott’s injury was a setup.
None of what Clancy said to Johnny made sense. One minute he had seemed quite lucid and the next he’d transformed into a madman. Johnny looked away from Clancy’s steady gaze, unable to meet the cold hard look that had replaced the friendly one of two days ago. Instead Johnny’s own gaze centered on the door behind Clancy. “I want to see my brother,” he said quietly.
“Why? You want him out here to help you?” Clancy looked back towards the door and then back at Johnny. “It’s a trap. You commin’ here was all planned and now your brother knows that you shot him on purpose.”
“That’s a lie, Clancy and you know it,” spat Johnny. In his rage he threw down the fence post and moved towards the older man. His right hand unconsciously seeking out the gun that normally hung at his side.
“Lookin’ for this?”
Johnny stopped dead in his tracks and gulped when he heard the sound of the barrel roll over and click into place.
The bullet split the air just above Johnny’s head.
“That’s right, Madrid you just hold it right there.” Warned Clancy, his voice was deep and resonant with no trace of fear. “You ain’t so tough without your gone are ya?” He aimed the gun once again at Johnny; the gun-sight aimed squarely at his chest. “I suggest you get back to work and leave the care of your brother to me – gunfighter”
Johnny shook his head in disbelief and his eyes narrowed the way they always had when someone referred to him as a gunfighter. It was a life he’d long since given away, a part of his life that he had hoped had been dead and buried. “I’m not a gunfighter anymore.” The younger man said, his voice low and the words clearly enunciated. He clenched and unclenched his fists several times and tried in vain to suppress the anger that slowly consumed him.
Clancy watched the colour drain from Johnny’s face and saw the younger man turn rigid as the killing rage grew inside him. “You just make sure you get back to work and don’t get no funny ideas about commin’ after me – I ain’t afraid to use this gun.” To emphasize his point he used the gun and gestured to the closed door and what lay behind the door.
“No, I guess you aren’t.” Johnny began, barely able to control the hate that he felt for the bitter and twisted man. “But it seems to me that your style is to kill defenseless people who can’t protect themselves, probably would shoot women and children too wouldn’t you?”
Johnny’s last tirade had hit a raw nerve with Clancy. “I expect you to have the fence finished before nightfall,” his voice as low and intense.
The sun had long since gone from view by the time that Johnny had finished repairs to the fence and a cold chill filled the air. When he got back to the house he was surprised to see that Clancy had set aside a plate of food for him – and so became the ritual for Johnny. His and Scott’s survival depended entirely on him and how he cooperated.
Two days soon rolled into four and then into a week. Clancy had worked Johnny from sunup to sundown, keeping him fettered the entire time. His hold over Johnny had been the failing health of Scott. Exhausted beyond endurance Johnny had given in, willing to pay any cost to have his brother well again. On the second day of forced captivity Johnny had decided to turn Barranca out and fervently hoped that the animal could find its way back to Lancer.
Fatigued from another full day’s work of hard physical labor made more difficult by the constant struggle with the leg irons, his muscles ached as he sank down wearily onto his bedroll beside Scott’s bed. His shoulder muscles screamed in agony with the simple act of shaking out his blanket. Bone tired he laid his head down onto his pillow and grimaced when he heard Scott call his name.
“Yeah Scott. You okay?” He pushed himself up and placed his hands firmly on his brother’s shoulders.
“No! Leave me alone,” yelled Scott and made a feeble attempt to push Johnny away. “You did this to me. Get the hell away from me.”
Pained by the ferocity in Scott’s words, Johnny sank back onto his knees, tilted his head back and closed his eyes. He clenched his jaws together to stop from screaming out his frustration and anger.
“I thought I told you that I would take care of him.”
“You,” seethed Johnny, “you did this to him? What have you been doing to my brother?” He stood and grabbed Clancy by his shirt collar. “Answer me. What have you done?” When his captor didn’t answer Johnny pushed him back into the doorframe; he didn’t look back at the resounding crack that echoed in the room, his main concern was Scott.
Some minutes later Scott had calmed enough for Johnny to reason with him. As with the nights past he redressed the wound, using a poultice made from the wild herbs that he had foraged during the day. With the wound all but healed Johnny was at a loss to understand why Scott was so lethargic.
“Didn’t you hear me, boy?” Clancy glowered.
“I guess I’m just impetuous.”
“Boss”. Jelly called from the courtyard. “Boss, it’s Johnny’s horse.”
Alerted by Jelly’s frantic calls Murdoch cast aside the books he was working on. As he neared his youngest son’s beloved horse his heart felt excessively heavy. The normally well-kept horse was covered in mud and small pieces of briar. “Oh no.” He paused a long minute and added, almost afraid to ask, “did Scott’s horse come in with Barranca?”
“No, Boss.” Jelly held Barranca’s reins and rubbed his hand over the horse’s head. A small piece of paper jutting out from the bridle caught his attention. “Whoa, easy boy,” he soothed and pulled the horse’s head down. “Well would ya look at this. Looks like Johnny’s writing.”
Scrawled on a piece of paper were two words. HELP. CLANCY’S.
Murdoch coveted the hastily written note and held it tightly in his hand. For the second time in a few minutes his heart felt as though it weighed a ton. “Saddle up some horses.”
“Do you know where the boys are?” Jelly asked. “Boss?” he repeated.
Broken from his reverie Murdoch nodded. “If they are where I think they are, Johnny’s been lucky to get away with getting a note to us. Clancy and I have crossed paths before – a long time ago.”
Murdoch recounted a time when he had been a deputy and gone after Clancy to bring him in for murder of his first wife. The details surrounding Robina’s death had implicated that Clancy had been involved.
“He was a jealous man and the thought of his wife leaving him for someone else sent him over the edge. He’d turned to drink and was prone to violent outbursts, I remember seeing Robina in town once and she turned to hide her face from me. Clancy had beaten her. Shortly after that I heard that she had died – according to Clancy she had died in her sleep but the doctor had other ideas. He rode up to Clancy’s place and never returned to town alive. One of the local men had brought his body back. His neck was broken and we never saw Clancy again.”
“How far is Clancy’s from here?”
Murdoch looked hard at Jelly and then relented. How can I force a man that has become family to my sons stay home and worry? “Half a days ride away, if we push the horses hard.”
“Well what are we waiting for?” Jelly asked. With the help of one of the ranch hands two horses were saddled and waiting for their riders.
By late afternoon the following day Murdoch found the pass that led to Buck Clancy’s house. He breathed deeply and urged his mount on. Old fears had resurfaced of a man driven by jealousy and rage ate at him. “C’mon we don’t have any time to waste.”
Johnny glanced upward towards the sun and wondered if today would be the day that help would come. He had bided his time with the older man and seriously doubted his own ability to remain calm. For his brother’s sake he’d had to follow the orders given to him and whether he liked it or not Clancy was the one that held all the aces. He sighed deeply and gave Scout some fresh food and water. “I hope your pal made it home okay,” he said to Scout. He gave the horse a pat and pushed his way past him. On the far wall of the barn he’d seen some fence cutters. “Rusty, but they’ll do.”
Unknown to Johnny he had been observed from the door of the barn by Clancy. “I wouldn’t do it if I were you, Madrid.” There was coldness in Clancy’s eyes and hardness on his face as he spoke. “I mean it.” The sound of a gun being cocked punctuated Clancy’s suggestion.
“Clancy, look if you want me to work for you, you’re goin’ to have to take these damn things off.” Johnny’s reply was heated matched by the fire that burned in his eyes. Defiant to Clancy’s order, Johnny sat down on a hay bale and proceeded to work on the leg irons.
“I don’t think so. Put those down and come over here.” The older man looked over his shoulder at the house, “or you won’t have a brother to worry about anymore.”
“Hmph. Why don’t you just get it over with now. Pull the damn trigger, that what you want isn’t it? To make sure that Scott or I never leave here! That’s what you’ve planned all along.” Johnny could feel the anger swell inside him, the desire to show Clancy that he’d been pushed to his limits was too great. In anger he threw the fence cutters against the wall.
“You’re so cynical,” taunted Clancy and jerked his head in the direction of the house.
“It’s a gift,” rebuked Johnny as he ambled out the door. With each step the unforgiving bands of metal cut into his legs. He looked over his shoulder to make sure that Clancy was close enough and rammed his elbow back into the older man’s ribcage. Without looking he knew that he’d hit hard. He knew he wouldn’t have time to make it to the house before Clancy was back on his feet, all he wanted was enough time to get away from the deranged man.
“MADRID!” Clancy bellowed and fired the gun into the air. Against the eerie quiet the bullet cracked with the ferocity of a bullwhip.
Johnny rounded each corner with care; he evaluated everything methodically and carefully. He was certain that his own heartbeat would give him away as it pounded hard and fast against his chest.
“Did you hear that?” Jelly asked, his voice quavered in answer to his own question.
“Get up,” Murdoch ordered his mount and spurred him hard in his flanks. He knew the sorrel was tired and was grateful when it responded.
Some minutes later Murdoch Lancer reined his horse to a halt outside the run-down house. He was surprised to see his oldest son stagger down the steps, the determination evident in Scott’s face told Murdoch all he needed to know. Alarmed at Scott’s stark white appearance, Murdoch was immediately at his side and ushered him to sit before he fell flat on his face.
Scott’s face mirrored the intense pain that he felt as he grabbed for his father’s arm. “Johnny. He’s out there with…” he said between ragged breaths.
“Take it easy,” placated Murdoch when he was certain that his son was not going to pass out in front of him. He gave Scott’s leg a cursory check and shook his head. “Jelly, stay here with Scott. I have to find Johnny.”
“Murdoch… I have to tell Johnny I didn’t mean what I said,” Scott implored his father. “He has to know.” He finally lost his tenacious hold on awareness before he could finish what he desperately wanted to tell Murdoch.
In his weakened condition Johnny knew he was an equal matched for his much older adversary. Like a cat, alert to the slightest moved, Johnny strained to listen and tensed at the sound of the footsteps as they approached; with total abandon he launched himself at the armed man.
Restricted by the chains that bound his legs, Johnny was limited to what he could do; his upper body strength was all but gone, diminished by hard labor and little nourishment. He pushed himself to his knees and wrestled with the enraged man. He didn’t see Clancy’s right arm come down until it was too late. Momentarily stunned he wasn’t ready for Clancy’s sudden move.
In his crazed attempt to stop Johnny, Clancy savagely pulled on the leg irons and only stopped when he heard a distinctive crack and saw Johnny plummet towards the sun-baked ground. From out of nowhere the older man seemed to have found colossal strength – strength grown of a desire to kill.
Johnny hit the ground with enough force to knock the wind out of him.
The world spun madly on it axis when Johnny opened his eyes and looked directly into the business end of a .45. His pain was replaced by a blind fury, a rage to live. With a last ditch effort he lunged for Clancy’s gun hand and struggled for possession of the weapon. A muffled gunshot ended the battle. “You picked the wrong man to hurt,” Johnny quietly said and threw the gun down in disgust. His left ankle seared with pain as though it had been pierced with a red-hot poker. He pushed himself off Clancy and collapsed face first into the dirt.
Murdoch had witnessed the last few seconds of his youngest son’s battle to live and blindly ran towards Johnny’s inert form and knelt beside him in the dirt. Slowly he turned his son over, cleared the dirt away from his face and checked his breathing. It was shallow but still there. “JOHNNY! JOHNNY!” Murdoch called in panic when he felt Johnny’s body go limp in his arms.
“Scott, don’t be a blame fool. You can’t go out there. You gotta stay here.” Jelly’s voice rose a notch as he spoke. He pushed Scott back into the chair, determined that the young man would not do any more damage to himself. “Everything’s gonna be all right,” he continued. Jelly was thankful that Scott had given up his short-lived fight at independence and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Johnny, he’s out there with that madman,” Scott mumbled and licked his lips trying to moisten them. “You’ve got to stop him, he’s going to kill my brother.”
“Scott, listen to me,” urged Jelly, his voice tight, “Murdoch is out there and he’s with Johnny. He’ll be all right, you’ll see.” The older man doubted his own words and was thankful that Scott had given in to sleep and could not see his face. He knew his expression told a different story. Jelly looked out towards the barn and prayed that he hadn’t told Scott a lie.
With his voice barely above a whisper and still hoarse from being parched Johnny weakly mumbled Murdoch’s name before he lost consciousness. The war won, and the help that Scott needed here at last, Johnny gave in to the shroud of blackness.
Murdoch’s attention was drawn to the sound of ragged breathing.
Clancy was shrunken visibly, his face a lean pallor of white, and his eyes no longer reflected emotion. He knew it was time to die. “Murdoch,” he said between drawn gasps. “I’m sorry … I never meant to kill your son.” Clancy stopped talking and drew in several deep breaths between blood filled coughs.
Murdoch looked down at the dying man, his eyes filled with sorrow. “Why? Why, Clancy… what drove you to this?”
“I thought you had sent your boys to bring me in,” Clancy coughed. “I thought they knew.” He closed his eyes and whispered in an almost childlike voice, “I had to kill her, to end her suffering. She was going to leave me, I couldn’t let her go.”
“I’m sorry.” Clancy’s head rolled to one side his eyes open and unfocused.
Sadly Murdoch shook his head and with his left hand closed the dead man’s eyes. Murdoch’s own eyes felt the pain that Johnny had endured of taking a life as if he’d pulled the trigger himself as he looked at Clancy’s body. The thought made him ache with regret. His youngest son had been forced to take a life in order to save his brother’s and his own.
“Jelly over here,” called Murdoch. He gathered the limp form of his youngest son in his arms and trudged slowly back towards the house.
“Is he alive?” Jelly asked, a lump caught in his throat and threatened to announce itself more vocally. He’d never seen Johnny so still before, so lifeless. Even in sleep Johnny was quite animated.
“Well it’s about time you came back from the dead.” Teresa fussed when Scott opened his eyes. She noted that his colour was much better and the fever that had ravaged his body was all but gone.
“How is out patient this morning?” Murdoch asked from Scott’s bedroom door.
“All in all I’d say he’s doing pretty well,” Doctor Jenkins smiled and finished dressing the wound. “It’s looking good, but I want him off that leg for a while yet,” he added and showed Scott what he meant. Crutches. “And you will use them.”
“Guess I don’t have much choice,” muttered Scott, showing his intense dislike of the wooden appendages.
“I’ll make sure that he uses them,” Murdoch assured the family doctor, “especially if he wants to see outside the four walls of his bedroom today.”
Scott’s face lit up at the news. For the past six days he’d been cooped up in his room with only Murdoch, Teresa and Jelly for visitors. “Well there’s no time like the present for putting them to use,” he smiled and threw the bed covers back. “First port of call – Johnny’s room.”
“He’s not in his room,” Teresa grinned with an ‘I know something you don’t know’ look on her face.
Scott’s brow furrowed with deep lines. “What do you mean he’s not in his room? He’s okay isn’t he?”
“Scott I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.” Johnny said from his reclined position on the couch, his left leg set in plaster and supported on several pillows.
“Would you quit apologizing. If it was anyone’s fault it was mine.” Scott bantered from the couch on which he lay, his right leg supported with cushions. “I should have made some noise to let you know it was me. It was a greenhorn mistake – one that I don’t think I will be repeating.”
The sunset that had descended over the Lancer ranch had a surreal peacefulness to it. Against the painted sky ran the band of wild horses into the light wind. Their manes and tails lifted like licks of flame. The white stallion was still amongst them. Scott and Johnny both watched in awe at the beautiful sight.
“There goes your birthday present, brother.” Johnny smiled and watched the majestic stallion lead his band across the ranch.
Scott looked at the horse, free to run as he pleased. “Hmmm …next time can you get something store bought,” he chuckled and pointed at the chessboard – “your move.”
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