The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Barb A

 

 

FArgenta

Chapter 1

Johnny sat loosely in the saddle and hunched his shoulders under the short coat he was wearing. They were getting a late start on their way to Conaway. It was an odd day; sort of cool-ish in the shade where he waited for Scott but he had no doubt that the day could eventually become sultry. He eyed his brother coming out of the hacienda, throwing his saddlebags over his shoulder as Murdoch followed closely behind.

Scott looked at Johnny and raised his eyebrows. “I think we’ve got it, Murdoch.”

“This deal is very important to the ranch, if it should fall through…”

After tying the saddlebags off and checking his cinch, Scott leaned over to snag the reins from the hitching post. “Sir, you’ve gone over this with us ten times already.”

“Wait; don’t forget the letter of introduction to Petersen.” He thrust an envelope towards Scott and sunk his hands into his pants pockets. “Oh, and there’s one thing I forgot to mention. I want you boys to ride to Argenta after you’re through at Conaway.”

Johnny looked around. “Argenta? Murdoch, that has to be thirty miles east of where we’re going.”

Murdoch wore a small grin. “More like forty. Besides, what’s your hurry? Go to Argenta and check on a friend, of sorts, for me while I run the Cattle Grower’s Association meeting here this week. I could make it worth your while.”

Johnny leaned over his saddle horn, smiling. “How much worth it?”

Murdoch stuffed his hands lower in his pockets. “Well, now, that can be negotiated when you get back.”

“Who is this ‘sort of’ friend and why are we checking on him…or her?” Scott questioned.

“It’s a him and I haven’t seen Jake Mueller in close to thirty years. Word is that he’s been having some troubles with his ranch, not exactly sure what kind but I thought you two could look into it. Mueller did me a favor a long time ago.” He paused and looked directly at Scott. “Actually, he saved your mother’s and my life and I feel I owe it to him.” Murdoch turned on his heel to re-enter the house.

Mouth agape, Scott looked at the rapidly retreating back of his father. “That’s it?! That’s all you’re leaving us with?”

Opening the large door, Murdoch did a backward wave and disappeared inside.

Scott looked at Johnny. “Why didn’t he say anything before now?”

Nonplussed, Johnny dragged his eyes away from the closed door. “Maybe he forgot. Didn’t you tell me once that Murdoch is entitled to a little private life?” He kneed Barranca and started out, yelling over his shoulder, “C’mon Scott, let’s go. The quicker we get done at Conaway, the quicker we can get to Argenta.”

With one last frustrated glance at the door, Scott swung up in the saddle and joined Johnny in an easy trot down the lane.

*****

Argenta looked tired, almost pounded down, thought Scott. Not very many people were out this time of day, with the heavy sun beating a tattoo of white on the clapboard buildings that made up the town. Those few that had braved the heat were stealing wary glances at the two men riding down the middle of the street that effectively sliced the town in half. Looking to his left, he spied a weatherworn but still readable sign bobbing creakily on rusty hinges. The notice proclaimed that ‘Mrs. Smith’s Boarding House, One Block Down’, was open for business and had vacancies. He pulled up directly underneath it.

“Friendly little town, all right.”

“Yeah, real friendly.” Johnny tipped his chin towards a whitewashed storefront at the far end of town with the words “Let’er Buck” written boldly across its roof in a slash of garish red. “I figure we can get some answers in there.” Scott nodded his assent.

Unlike the town, the saloon was bustling with activity. Johnny stopped at the swinging doors and checked the room before stepping in. Someone had taken a real care with the Let’er Buck. The inside was surprisingly large with an elaborately carved oaken bar that took up one of the side walls and melded with the stairs and balcony. Behind the bar and the numerous upright liquor bottles, was an expensive-looking gilded mirror. His eyes tracked upwards and found, to his delight, that a painting covered half the ceiling. From his position outside the swinging doors, Johnny could just make out the curved side of a filmy-clad female in full repose.

A few cowboys were scattered around at the tables in various stages of drink and cards.  Halfhearted notes were being plunked out by a grizzled older man seated before a piano. More than a few of the notes went sour as the piano player gazed up luridly at the bar maid, who was clad in a tight outfit and stood leaning on the wall beside him. Tamping down the bit of unease that he experienced in every new place, Johnny pushed all the way through the batwing doors, and he and Scott entered the saloon and went up to the bar.

The fat bartender shuffled up to his newest patrons, “What can I do ya for gents?”

Johnny took off his hat and slapped it down on the counter. “Two beers, and maybe some information.”

Intent on getting the drinks, the barkeep exclaimed, “I can get ya the beer but I’m not so sure about the information. Who is it you wantin’ to find?”

“Who said anything about finding someone?” Johnny countered.

The bartender slapped the full glasses down on the bar with a resounding thud, spilling foam. “Mister, in my line of work you’re either here to find someone or get drunk and since you’re only orderin’ beer, it don’t strike me that you’re lookin’ to tie one on.”

Johnny threw some coins on the counter. “We’re looking for someone by the name of Jake Mueller.”

“He ain’t here.”  With that, the man scuffed off to the opposite end of the bar.

Both brothers leaned on the bar and took long pulls on their brews. Scott contemplated his beer for a moment. “I’d say that went well.”

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat, Scott. Look.” Johnny angled his head towards the mirror. Scott searched the mirror until he found one lone cowboy at a side table, staring intently at them. After draining his glass, the man stood up and went out the door, casting one last glance their way.

Johnny grabbed his beer and turned around to face the tables. “Now we wait.”

“I say we wait at a table. The ride from Conaway was a long…” Scott was interrupted by loud voices to his right and the angry sound of a hand slapping skin. Piano man had latched onto the saloon girl’s wrist and was trying to pull her down to his lap when she let go with a roundhouse smack to the man’s cheek. The man abruptly stood and hauled back a closed fist. Scott moved neatly to intervene and closed his own hand around the man’s fist, “Not today, friend.”

The gentle buzz in the saloon quickly died out. Redness crept up into the man’s face and he yanked his arm away. “Mind your own damn business. Louise here knows I wouldn’t hurt her any.” The girl dropped her eyes and absently rubbed at the mottled fingerprint marks left on her arm. 

A booming female voice came from the stairs. “Why Jack, you sonuvagun! What happened to the music I was so enjoying upstairs?”

“Aw, Miss Collette, me and Louise just got into a little misunderstandin’ is all and then this yahoo steps in.”

A short, plump woman dressed in a magenta gown with a plunging neckline descended from the stairs. Bright eyes filled with anticipation peeked out from under a thick thatch of auburn hair and generous, ruby-colored lips complemented a wide smile.

Colette’s smile grew frosty when she saw the damage done to Louise’s wrist and, catching the girl’s eyes, she cocked her head towards the stairs. Louise took a quick glance at Scott through her lashes and scurried up. Colette wrapped a practiced arm around Jack’s elbow and led him to the batwing doors, “Now Jack, Louise is going to take a rest right now, why don’t you just come back in a little while?” Before the man knew what had happened, he was standing outside the saloon and Colette had turned her attention to Scott and Johnny.

Johnny had been watching the proceedings with an alert eye. The woman looked vaguely familiar and he’d been wondering where he had seen her before, but was coming up short every time. It finally it hit him. Looking quickly to the ceiling he smiled,  realizing  that  the  woman  standing  before  him  was  the  same scantily-dressed female in the picture  above his head.

“That’s right, cowboy, I’m her.” She hooked her arm easily through Scott’s and waited for Johnny to proffer his. “A fella from back east did the honors. I can always tell when a man gets clued in.”

Johnny’s grin broadened.

She led them to a table in the back of the saloon. “C’mon, let’s have a seat,” she purred at Scott. “I owe you, Handsome, for getting that rascal off my girl. Jack usually isn’t that frisky or that drunk this early in the day.” She signaled the bartender for more drinks.

“So where are you two boys from? Or maybe more to the point, who are you looking for?”

The men shared a look across the table and Scott spoke up, “We’re here to see Jake Mueller.”

She surveyed the men, her words taking on an intentional coldness. “I see. Funny, you boys don’t look to me as the type to be happy being pack dogs.”

“Colette!” She flinched in the chair, caught unawares by the cool, hard voice coming from behind her chair. “Don’t you have something better to do?”

Scott saw trepidation then disgust flit across her face before she quickly composed herself and got up from the chair. “That I do. The company was suddenly lacking anyway and now that you’re here it’s gone straight to hell.”

The man grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. “That’s enough from the likes of you.”

Scott was half way out of his chair when Colette waved him down. “Two saves in one day? I don’t think so Handsome, this girl can take care of herself. Besides, this pup’s bark is worse than his bite. I wouldn’t waste my time.” Throaty laughter accompanied her back to the bar.

If Scott read the muted fury in the cowboy’s face and the curled fists correctly, he could only think that Colette was due for some hard times. That was a shame because he inherently liked Colette and just as naturally distrusted the man before him. He could tell that Johnny felt the same way; his brother had gone quiet except for the tapping of a single finger against his beer glass.   

The man spoke again. “I hear you’re looking for Jake Mueller.”

Johnny finally looked at him, not bothering to hide his contempt. The man looked to be a little younger than him and his mouth had a cruel bent to it, especially now with it turned up in a snarl. What stood before him was a deadly combination of immaturity and cockiness that didn’t seem to be hampered by any of the inhibitions that go along with good sense. The low slung pearl-handled forty-five looked to lie heavy on his right hip, and was well used. If the boy’s actions failed to lend any authority to him, that weapon surely would. Johnny spoke in a low, deliberately calm voice, “That’s right, we’re looking for Mueller and you’re not him.”

The man pushed back his hat and a small smile played about his lips. “Well now, I might be a Mueller. I’m Jim. Jake’s my daddy and you were supposed to be here last week. He doesn’t like to be kept waiting.” His eyes flipped to Scott. “Keep in mind we only hired one of you, we ain’t paying extra. ‘Course, if you both want to stick around to share in the leavin’s then that’s up to you.”

Confusion reigned at the table. Scott looked at the man. “Who do you think…”

Johnny raised his hand. “Wait a minute, Scott; let’s give the man a chance to speak.”

“Like I was sayin’, we’re only gonna pay for one of you. So unless you’re willin’ to share the wages, then you,” he looked at Scott and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, “can hit the trail.”

Scott sat back in his chair and raised his eyebrows; a soft, slow smile crept across his lips as he looked at Mueller. “Can I?”

Amused, Johnny watched Scott’s reaction and then met the boy’s eyes with a half smile of his own. “And those wages would be for what exactly?”

Mueller peered at Johnny, “Are you stupid or just actin’ it?”

Scott cheerfully egged the man on. “Oh no, Mr. Mueller, I believe that he just needs a bit more explanation. Why don’t you enlighten him?”

“Yeah, why don’t you ‘enlighten’ me? If I’m gonna get paid for something I’d like to know what I have to do for it.”

“What? Listen, are you Red Mangus or not?”

Johnny stared at Mueller and swallowed hard.

 

Chapter 2

Jake Mueller chewed on his grey moustache as he looked out the window, his thoughts turning to the problem in Argenta. He had been quite effective in gaining control of Argenta’s pitiful law enforcement and most of the town council with the exception of one holdout, Tim McIntyre. There was a time and place for precisely meted out violence and that time would soon be here. He recognized strength in his enemies and McIntyre had it in spades.

Jake wasn’t a man overly prone to violence but he did believe that it had its purpose. Looking back, he hadn’t always been so jaded about life but over the years it had crept in and curled up inside him like some damn ivy on a fence. He preferred to get what he wanted the old fashioned way, through overselling and underbidding. That’s why he hired only the best for the more ‘active’ portions of his work. The best, in this case, happed to be Red Mangus and from what his son had related, the gunfighter had finally made it to town.

He was therefore surprised when Jimmy arrived at the ranch with not one but two men. The first one had hair the same wheat color as his son’s and rode ramrod straight in the saddle. The second man was as dark as the other was fair and while he fit the description of the expected gunfighter, he looked far too young to be the man. He went out to the porch just as his son was climbing the stairs and whispered viciously, “Are you an idiot, Jimmy? That isn’t Mangus.”

Jim looked back at the two mounted men, his face flushed in embarrassment. “I figured that out, Pa. They say they’re here to see you anyway. Their last name is Lancer.”

Mueller stilled in his tracks. He’d sent a telegram to Murdoch Lancer several weeks ago in hopes of getting him to send some men. Sending the wire on a whim, he was surprised that Murdoch had actually sent anybody; after all, he hadn’t seen or talked to the man in years. He’d been particularly elusive about what he needed the help for, just saying that his ranch was being endangered.

He would bet money that Lancer didn’t send these men out of the goodness of his heart. No, Murdoch felt an obligation, a repayment of a debt that had been incurred so very long ago in that mountain pass. If there was ever a man of principles, Murdoch was that man and it was just what Jake had counted on. What he hadn’t figured on was Murdoch sending these particular men.

He swept down off the porch. “Welcome to the Mueller ranch, gentlemen. Can I assume that Murdoch sent you?”

Scott nodded and looked over at Johnny. His brother looked casually disinterested, but he’d seen Johnny’s mouth thin out to a bloodless line at the mention of Red Mangus back at the saloon. Whoever the man was, it didn’t bode well for his brother. The fact that Mangus was somehow tied in with Mueller was still a puzzle to be figured out. “I’m Scott Lancer and this is my brother Johnny.”

Smiling widely, Mueller said, “Come on in to the house, you’re just in time for dinner. Jimmy, take care of our guests’ horses.”

As the men dismounted, Jim stalked down to the animals and grabbed the reins. “Fine, but then I’ve got things to do and we still need to talk about Mangus.”

“Leave it be,” Mueller ordered his son, then his voice softened, “at least for now; after all, we have guests in our home.”

The evening meal was served by Anna, the housekeeper, and was a casual affair punctuated with small talk centering on the hardships of current ranching methods and the weather. Scott realized that throughout dinner Mueller was fencing with them, asking questions but never really coming out with any personal information. He also couldn’t help but notice that Mueller’s son never rejoined them in the large dining room.

Shown to a well-appointed study after supper, Scott and Johnny were waved to overstuffed chairs. Large volumes of leather-bound books lined two bookcases against the far wall. Mueller’s overly large desk and chair complemented the feeling of frank masculinity in the room. Scott had a vision of deals being brokered here. Looking about the room from his chair, he spied two small frames on the fireplace mantle. Each one held a daguerreotype, the first of a woman and the second of a young girl. Side by side, they looked remarkably alike in the pictures.

Mueller spoke up in a clipped tone. “I see you’ve noticed the pictures of my wife and daughter. They’ve gone back east for a while. My daughter will be attending finishing school in your neck of the woods, Scott. She’s gone to Boston.”

The rancher handed out drinks and held his own in a mock salute. “So you’re the sons of the illustrious Murdoch Lancer.” He looked fixedly at Scott for a few moments. “You have to be Catherine’s boy. You do favor her.”

Scott’s eyes narrowed briefly. “You knew my mother well?”

“That I did, Scott, and she was a fine woman.” His gaze swung over to take in Johnny.

Johnny dipped his head, then met his look. “Well now, I happened to come along a little later.”

Mueller nodded and continued, “I knew Catherine and Murdoch from the old days. I found them with a broken axle trying to make it through an impossible mountain pass into California. I had come out west a few years earlier from Indiana, still new but knowledgeable enough to know not to try that particular pass during the rainy season. Your father wasn’t that experienced. Oh, I’d never met a greener man than Murdoch Lancer. Or one who was more stubborn.”

“I thought that combination of stubborn inexperience was a bad one at the time but he seemed to do all right by it. Your father was driven, too, but by what I never did find out. There was a hardness about him sometimes. Said he’d heard stories about the west and knew it was the thing for him.”

He turned to face out the window. “Catherine, on the other hand, wasn’t so enthralled back in those very early days. A new husband and a new life didn’t always join up real well and coming out west was harder back then, especially for the women. But she managed all right. She was a beautiful woman, your mother. Turned heads wherever she went.”

“She talked a lot about Boston and her life back there, including the harbor and great ships, but once she and Murdoch saw the valley they planned on making home, Catherine never looked back as far as I knew. She loved Murdoch; you could just see it in her eyes and together they made one hell of a team. When a woman loves a man like that he can do just about anything.”

Mueller turned back to the seated men and smiled broadly, “God, why that slip of a woman would put up with Murdoch’s bluster was beyond me. I remember things came to a head one day and your father told his wife in no uncertain terms that he was the one who ‘called the tune’”.

He glanced slyly over at Scott. “As I recall, he only did that once.”

Scott and Johnny looked at each other and smiled. 

“I take it he’s still trying to call the tune?”

Scott inclined his head and spoke up, “He does try, right Johnny?”

“Scott and I do our best to let him every now and then, it makes him feel good.”

Mueller barked a short laugh then rose and gazed into the crackling fire. “I was caught up in my own life by the time they started planting down roots in the San Joaquin and had lost track of them. I did hear that Murdoch had been having some troubles at his place and that Catherine had died. I was sorry for it. I’ve never met another woman quite like her. Ah well, we can never lose what we never had, eh?”

Comprehension slowly dawned on Scott and he wondered if Murdoch had known. He opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted when his brother suddenly stood up. 

Johnny slapped his hand against his thigh in an impatient gesture. “Thanks for the dinner and the history lesson, Mr. Mueller, but we need to be getting back to town for the night.”

Unsettled, Scott rose from his chair. “Yes, it’s getting late.”

“Nonsense, why we have rooms right here and they’re all made up. I’d never hear the end of it if I was to turn Murdoch’s sons away and besides, I know the boarding house in Argenta. The fleas outnumber the guests ten to one. I insist that you stay. Anna can take you up; I have some business to talk over with my son. Tomorrow, I’ll show you both around the ranch and possibly some areas where you might be able to help us out.”

Finally acquiescing to their host, Scott was surprised when he opened the door to his room and stepped inside. The housekeeper had told him and Johnny that the rooms belonged to Mueller’s daughter and wife. His room was almost stark in appearance with no vestige of a female’s touch. It made him wonder exactly how long Mueller’s family had been gone. Throwing his saddlebags down on the bed, he went to find Johnny.

Not bothering to knock, he strode into his brother’s room and found it much the same as his. Johnny was standing by the window holding back one edge of the lace curtains, looking out at the grounds.

Johnny turned from the window and let the corner of the curtain fall back against the wall. “What are we doing here, Scott?”

“We’re doing what was asked of us, checking on a friend of Murdoch’s.”

“Yeah, well I’d say the man has all the help he needs. Take a look.” He motioned to the window.

Scott peeled back the curtain and looked out. There were five mounted men in the yard and Mueller’s son was outside talking to them. Several of them nodded at what was being said.

Johnny sat down on the bed. “Doesn’t this seem a little odd, especially bringing up all that past?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I enjoyed hearing about my mother; at least someone talks about her freely. You know I never knew her and Murdoch isn’t forthcoming with any great details. It seems strange but I realized when Mueller was talking that I’m older now then she ever was. I also got the impression that Mueller was quite taken with her. Perhaps too taken; I think he was in love with her.”

“And Murdoch let us walk right into it.”

“I don’t think Murdoch knew about it, else why would he send us? He’d have come himself or not sent anybody.” Scott mused, mostly to himself, “I wonder what Mueller’s game is, though.”

“What was that?”

“I was thinking that Grandfather had a saying for Mueller’s type; he always said to ‘follow the money’. In this case, I think that’s about right. Something’s going on here, much bigger than what Murdoch was led to believe.”

Johnny edged up to a topic that had been bothering him. “Scott, if this turns into something different, are you gonna feel an obligation to help Mueller, I mean since he knew your mother and all?”

Scott turned his attention back to the window and looked outside while considering his answer. As hard as he had tried to find any tenuous thread that connected him to his mother; he had never been fully successful. Yet the face that looked back at him in the shaving mirror was the same face in the picture frame beside it. He had finally come to realize that the connection he was looking for had already been found at Lancer. Murdoch was the thread who tied them together, his mother and him. It had been uncomfortable and distasteful to have Mueller talk about her that way back in the study, but it was for Murdoch that he would take action. After a few long moments, he dropped the curtain and said, “We’ll do what we need to do, no more.”

Scott folded his arms and hitched a shoulder against the wall, leaning into it. “Now it’s your turn. Who is Red Mangus?”

Johnny busily unpacked his few belongings and didn’t bother to meet his brother’s eyes. “Just a man I knew once.”

“A dangerous one?”

Johnny shrugged and finally turned to Scott. “Dangerous enough. I knew Red a long time ago, in another lifetime.”

“And that’s it.”

“That’s about it.  Look, Scott, I thought the man was dead and buried a long time ago so until he really shows up here, I won’t know for certain.”

“Could he be a danger--to you?”

Johnny smiled. “Red and me, well, we didn’t exactly leave on good terms.”

“What are you going to do when he does show up?”

The smile didn’t quite reach Johnny’s eyes anymore. “I haven’t figured that out yet.”

 

Chapter 3

It had been a long night; jarring thoughts of Red Mangus had bumped up from his memories and filled his head. Johnny splashed tepid water from the wash basin on his face then over bare shoulders, sending the fluid sluicing down his chest and torso. Grabbing a towel from the side rack, he dried off and inadvertently caught some threads from the cloth on the medallion he wore around his neck. Looking into the small mirror, he stroked his jaw line and chin, rubbing at the black, scratchy stubble already formed there, and figured he could wait to shave. He cocked an eyebrow when the door swung open. “You’ve picked up a bad habit, brother.”

“I learned it from the very best.”

“Who? Teresa?”

Scott smiled. “I believe she’s actually second-best. Come on Johnny, get moving. Mueller said to meet him outside in a few minutes so he could show us the ranch.”

“I’ve been thinking about that. I really don’t need to see any more cows or fence lines. Why don’t you go for the both of us?”

“And what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to catch up with Jimmy to see what this whole mess is about, and find out a little bit more about Red’s part in all of it.”

Scott fingered the crown of his hat. “You know that Mangus could show at any time.”

Johnny looked back into the mirror. “It’s not like I’m going to forget that. I’ll check out what Jim has to say, then meet up with you later.”

He watched Scott hesitate for a moment then leave the room. Buttoning up his blue and white shirt, he finished quickly and went in search of Jim Mueller. He didn’t have far to go, only out to the corral where he found Mueller’s son brushing down a well-appointed sorrel.

Jim nodded while continuing to brush the animal. “Lancer. You just missed your brother; he and my Pa just rode out.”

“You’ve seen one cow, you’ve pretty much seen ’em all; I think I’ll let my brother handle the guided tour. Now this horse, though, is one fine animal.”

Jim snickered and turned. “That it is. This one was bred right here at the ranch.”

The boy’s left cheek was darkly bruised with a bright red abrasion running the length of it. Johnny blew out a breath. “That’s quite a shiner.”

Jim immediately put a hand up to the cheek; a blush suffusing his face to the hairline. He turned back to his horse. “It’s nothing. Never mind about it.”

Johnny contemplated the young man for a while then leaned his elbows on the fence railing. “All right, Jimmy. Are you going to tell me what’s going on here? I’m getting tired of leadin’ this dance.”

“I told him it wouldn’t work. He expected ranch hands to show up, not you two. My Pa wrote your father for help.”

“I know that, but help with what? It looks to me like you have everything you need right here.”

Jim smirked, “Almost.”

“Where does Red Mangus figure in to all this?”

Jim’s head whipped around. “You know Mangus?”

“I might have run into him a time or two.”

“Is he as fast as they say?”

Jim seemed a little too eager for Red to show, sort of like a boy waiting for his hero to come to town.  “Maybe, is that important to you?”

The young man finished brushing the animal, unhitched it from the rail and started toward the barn. “It is for what Pa has planned. I think we can take care of things ourselves but I got overruled. Still, if he’s not as fast as the rumors say then he can leave. We’ll get along okay without him.”

This was like pulling a calf from a bogged-up sinkhole, thought Johnny. Jimmy was just a young kid with no sense of what he, and his father, had bought into. He watched Jim lead the horse off and a thought came to him; Argenta should be the next step in finding any useful information on the Mueller family. He headed to the barn to collect his horse.

Johnny pulled up to the hitching post outside the Let’er Buck and dismounted. He hoped to get past Colette’s sudden disfavor and get some answers. If this didn’t work out then the General Store was next on the list. He pushed past the double doors and looked around the saloon. It was still fairly early yet but there were more than a few patrons already inside, trying to beat the heat with a drink or two. He sidled up to the bar and caught the bartender’s attention. “Beer.”

The barkeep eyed him thoughtfully for a moment. “Still not tyin’ one on, huh, Mister?”

Johnny smiled in spite of himself. He gave some coins to Jonas and asked, “Where’s Colette today?”

The bartender’s eyes hardened. “She ain’t here. Not after what your friend tried to do to her.”

“And what friend would that be?”

“Jim Mueller. I saw you leave with him last night. Then he came back later and tried to teach Miss Colette a lesson in manners, at least that’s what he said.”

<Bastardo.> Now he knew where the kid had gotten that bruise. “Mueller’s no friend of mine.”

“Glad to hear it, cowboy.”

That husky voice could only belong to Colette. Johnny turned and saw her standing at the far edge of the bar. Her hair was worn down today, a ginger-colored fall covering one cheek. He went to her, lightly cupped his fingers under her chin and tipped her face upwards, surveying the damage. “Mueller did this?”

She nodded, then added to the bartender, “Jonas, put away that shotgun. I don’t think that…what is your name by the way, cowboy?”

“It’s Johnny, Johnny Lancer.”

“Like I was saying Jonas, put that weapon away, I don’t believe that Mr. Lancer here is going to cause me any harm.”

“So where’s Handsome today?”

Johnny grinned. “That would be my brother, Scott, and to tell you the truth I don’t know exactly where he is at the moment, but he’ll show up.”

“Ah good, I wouldn’t want Louise to be disappointed. Why don’t we sit down, have a drink and wait for him? Jonas, bring us a couple, from the good stuff, mind you. Whiskey for me, and what will you be having?”

“Tequila suits me. Lead the way.”

Her rich laughter floated back to him. “I like a man who’s big enough to be led by a woman.”

They sat down at a back table, away from the rest of the saloon patrons. “I noticed that the Mueller kid isn’t one of them,” Johnny said.

Colette’s flashing eyes dimmed somewhat and she pulled her hair closer to her bruised cheek. “That’s the honest truth.”

Johnny stayed her hand and gently brushed back the golden strands. “I also saw that he came away a little worse for wear.”

Colette nodded, “I’m constantly amazed that beer mugs weigh so much, lucky for me, not so lucky for Mueller.  Then Joe Hardin stepped in and that was lucky for the boy because I would have put more than one mark on him, given the chance. Now Joe’s in jail, beaten up all because he was looking out for me.”

“What’s the story on Jake Mueller?”

“You mean the head of the snake? Jim’s mean, I’ll give you that, but he’s just a sucker from the main tree. Jake Mueller is the one who’s directing it all, although he tends to go about it in a different way. You see, the railroad is coming through Argenta sometime in the near future and Mueller wants it all for himself. He’s formed a coalition of sorts amongst the big dogs running the town and in the meantime has driven out some good people. The rest are fearful enough that they’re not going to cross either the old man or his boy.”

“Except for Joe Hardin?”

Colette shook her head, “No. Joe’s the handyman for Tim McIntyre; the only thing he’s guilty of is playing cards a little too much and having a drink every now and then. He’s a simple man,” Colette tapped her head, “but not violent and unlike some people, he does know right from wrong.”

“Tim and his wife live out of west of here. Good solid folks, but Mueller’s wearing them down bit by bit. There’s nothing they can pin on him, however. Joe’s arrest may have turned the tables, though. I wouldn’t want to be around when Tim gets his dander up. He’s done a good job trying to maintain some sort of decency in Argenta but this incident may have just put the growl in the bear.”

“Word in town is that Mueller has hired a gunfighter to do his work for him.” She looked sheepishly at Johnny. “We kind of had the idea that you were him, at least from the poor description. When you came in looking for Jake Mueller, well, that pretty much sealed the deal and it all seemed to fit. Sorry about that.”

Johnny played with the tequila glass. “Seems to be a lot of that misunderstanding goin’ around.”

A movement at the doors caught his eye. A man filled the entryway, stopped and looked around with a wary eye. He was wearing all black, meant to blend in, but that battered Montana Peak hat with the colorful leather band might as well have been a beacon in the night. Red Mangus had arrived in Argenta.

*****

Scott’s eyes turned away from the vast herd of dun-colored cows he’d been watching for the last several minutes. He flipped a leg over the saddle horn and sat comfortably, one arm propped up on his knee. Johnny happened to be right in this case, one cow does look like another, he thought. Nobody was in sight except for several cowboys off in the distance doing fence repairs. Mueller had gone to discuss something with the men and was now riding back towards him. It was certainly a long way to make a point, which Mueller had yet to do. The older man had been peppering him with questions, trying to glean knowledge of Lancer in general and of Murdoch in particular. He had been quite cagey with his answers to the man but the game was growing tiresome and his politeness was wearing thin.

The rancher emerged from the bunch of cattle he had ridden through and guided his horse to stand next to Scott’s. Mueller stared at him with hard eyes, his expression bleak. “It looks like we got hit again last night. Lost a few more head of beeves.” He turned to look at his men by the fence, absently stroking his moustache.

“Cattle rustlers?”

Mueller nodded. “We’ve taken sporadic hits throughout the last month. Every time it happens we lose a measure of fence and a few more cows to the thieves. I don’t have enough men to cover every square inch of this ranch and the rustlers know it. We started out losing a few head here and there but now it’s starting to escalate. I’ll be square with you, I can stand to lose a few head but at the rate I’m going, there won’t be a herd to round up come fall.”

“Do you have any idea of who the rustlers are? What about the law in Argenta?”

“Oh, I’ve got a good idea of who at least one of the rustlers may be, but there’s no proof of Tim McIntyre’s involvement. Meanwhile, I’ve got good beef going to market for a few dollars a head or to be somebody’s barbeque. Sheriff Brady, the law in Argenta, can’t do much without any proof.” 

“And Red Mangus?”

Mueller looked at Scott, speculation in his eyes. “Mangus is the hired help. He’s a gunfighter and is said to be the best around these parts. When your back’s against the wall, you’ll do anything to keep what’s yours. I bet your father can tell you something about that. Sorry for the confusion yesterday at the saloon; sometimes my boy doesn’t think things through but then again, your brother does bear a passing resemblance to the man.”

“The raids have stepped up recently and I’m afraid that one day they’ll go beyond just cattle rustling and then we’ll need more help. That’s the reason why I sent my wife and daughter away to Boston. I can’t have them here and not be able to protect them if it should come down to it.”

That reasoning rang sound with Scott. He’d heard a similar story from Murdoch, when he had asked about his mother. In the early days of Lancer, Murdoch had sent her away when land pirates threatened the ranch. Mueller had done the exact same thing in the name of safety. Only Mueller’s wife and daughter had survived the journey.

There was something about the rancher and his son that just didn’t sit well with him, though. By his own account Mueller was a man in trouble, but Scott was having a hard time reconciling the man with the mission. He wasn’t willing to concede to what the rancher was hinting about just yet, especially since Johnny happened to know Mangus. Scott swung his leg back down and found the stirrup. “What plans do you have to stop the rustlers?”

Mueller’s smile had a look of triumph to it. “Back at the house, I’ll show them to you and you can tell me what you think.”

 

Chapter 4

Jake Mueller sat in one of the large cushioned chairs, sipping coffee and watching young Lancer pore over the maps at his desk. The comments Scott had made were insightful and concise, something he could appreciate. Catherine’s boy had grown up just fine. He allowed his mind to wander back to the day he told her that he loved her. If things had been different back then, if Catherine had only given him the time of day after he pledged his desire for her, maybe…. His reverie was broken up by shouts from outside.

Mueller took a look out the window and frowned. It was Tim McIntyre, galloping hard into the courtyard followed by a couple of his cowboys.

A natural leader, McIntyre had almost succeeded in turning the tide against him. When Argenta was first mentioned as being a likely town for the railroad to go through, Tim was on board, as was the entire council, then things had spiraled out of control. It had been his first mistake - not getting McIntyre’s full support at the outset. He had offered the man a split of the takings but McIntyre had turned him down cold. There was a time when he had admired a man of principles but now those same principles were just a pain in the ass. It was high time that McIntyre was put out of the picture before he could garner any more support from the townspeople. This visit, though, took him by surprise and he didn’t like surprises. Mueller stalked outside.

He stood on the porch steps looking down at the big, angry man on his horse. Scott had come outside to stand behind him. “What are you doing here McIntyre?”

“I think you know, Mueller. Or has that short chain you keep your boy on been clipped off all of a sudden? Didn’t you tell your kid and the rest of your hirelings to take my man to jail?”

“Listen, McIntyre,” Mueller said, “you’re asking for trouble. You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“I know a dirty skunk when I see one, and I’m looking at one right now. Why else would you railroad Joe on trumped up charges?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“If I have to spell it out for you then I will. Joe was coming back from town last night after playing some hands at the Let’er Buck. Your boy jumped him and shoved him into jail on the pretense that Joe was trying to kill him. You and I both know that’s a load of bull, Jake. Joe doesn’t wear a pistol and couldn’t fire it if he did have one. I’m warning you now, Mueller, if any more harm comes to Joe while he’s in that jail, you’ll have me to answer to.” He looked pointedly at Scott. “And I don’t care who you’ve hired to do your dirty work.” With that, he swung his horse around and galloped out of the yard.

Mueller nibbled a little on his moustache, looking at the cloud of dust that McIntyre left when he rode off. He saw Jim’s hand in all this. He hadn’t thought to question the mark on the boy’s face this morning; Jimmy was always getting into one scrape or another. Sometimes that boy sorely tested his patience and this was one of those times. It forced his hand; this incident had set in motion a plan that wasn’t fully thought out. He needed to do two things; try to explain this somehow to Scott, and then get into town and see about the situation at the jail. 

*****

The jail house was small and nondescript just like the few other sheriffs’ offices Scott had been in. He eyed the two cells situated side by side, one of them was empty and the other held an older man who had obviously been beaten sometime not too long ago. The lone, wobbly desk in the room was occupied by a corpulent man who Scott assumed was the sheriff, since no badge could be seen.

Sheriff Seymour Brady gave the impression that he was a man who was hanging on to life by mere fingertips. Brady was not tall; rather his bulk was concentrated around the middle, nipped in by a wide belt, with the excess flopping over. His unkempt appearance was coupled with a look of sweaty desperation plainly etched across his florid face. The face was emphasized by two small beady eyes, currently fixed on Jake Mueller. 

The two were whispering furiously. Scott caught only a few snatches of conversation but came to the conclusion that the sheriff was unhappy about the events that had befallen his jail last night. Joe Hardin, a hired hand for the McIntyre ranch, had apparently gotten in the way between Collette and Mueller’s son. Scanning the man sitting in jail, it looked like he’d paid the price for interfering, too, since the bruises were already showing. Mueller couldn’t be happy with this turn of events.

Scott leaned his back against the side wall separating the sheriff’s office from the actual jail cells and observed the rancher. Mueller looked angry to Scott but not outraged like he would have expected the man to be. No demands were being made for justice or due process. He seemed almost too matter of fact about the whole business.

He left the older man and Sheriff Brady arguing in the front office while he went to have a closer look at the prisoner. The handyman from McIntyre’s ranch was ragged and exhausted-looking with a closed left eye, bloodied lip and two large purplish bruises along the side of his face. What he didn’t look like was much of criminal. A soft drawl drew his attention and he moved closer to the cell.

“I could use some water, Mister.”

Scott hastily looked around and found the water and cup, a little surprised that the prisoner hadn’t been tended to properly. He filled the cup then held it through the bars to the man. Hardin heaved himself up from the cot and he noticed then that the man’s right arm was contracted to his side, the hand curled in on itself and useless. The man took the cup in a shaky left hand and tried to drink, spilling most of the contents down the front of his bloodied shirt. Scott refilled the cup until the prisoner motioned that he’d had enough.

He walked out to where the two men were still talking. “Your prisoner needs tending. Is it common practice to lock a man up without seeing if he’s severely injured?”

“Mister, I don’t know you but I can tell you that it’s not wise to stick your nose in other people’s business. I take care of the prisoners here as I see fit. What else am I supposed to do with a dangerous criminal?”

“Dangerous? Sheriff, you’d better look again; that man can’t hold a gun, let alone try and fire one.”

Sheriff Brady dropped the papers he was holding and came from around the desk. “I don’t recall asking you for your opinion; exactly who are you anyway? A lawyer or something?”

Mueller quickly intervened. “Now Seymour, he’s just looking out for the man’s interests. This is Scott Lancer. He and his brother are both here in town, I asked them to come.”

Brady gave Scott one more cursory look then went back to his desk. “Like I was saying Mr. Mueller, your boy is pressing charges and has witnesses. It looks like it’s an open and shut case. Joe Hardin tried to kill your son last night.”

Scott looked at Mueller again. The rancher was an enigma; he certainly wasn’t the man he made himself out to be. The pieces of the puzzle hadn’t fallen into place quite yet, however. He’d been willing to give Mueller the benefit of the doubt at least until they had reached the sheriff’s office, but seeing the rancher’s lack of reaction to his son’s charges or to the prisoner’s fate set him on edge and made him question again what Mueller’s plans really were. He’d seen Johnny’s horse tied up in front of the Let’er Buck when they rode into town, and wondered if his brother had found out any more information than he had.

*****

Johnny watched Red from the depths of the saloon at the back table. He saw the man search the interior and knew exactly when the gunfighter felt it was safe to enter into the establishment. Red wasn’t a big man but the bunched muscles under the black shirt told a story of hard living. He commanded a presence as he moved with ease and grace up to the bar counter. His longish black hair was now peppered a little with grey at the sides. The years hadn’t been kind to Red; his face was lined and craggy, a permanent scowl imbedded on his bold features. He was a man that other men shunned unless they needed him for something. And Mueller apparently did need him for something. A voice at his elbow brought his attention back to Colette.

She nodded towards the man now ordering a drink at the bar. “A friend of yours?”

Johnny shook his head, “I counted him as a friend once, a long time ago.”

Colette looked closely at Johnny and then to the man at the bar. She said softly, “He’s the gunfighter that Mueller has hired.”

Johnny nodded and felt a familiar clench in the pit of his stomach. He waited, waited for Red to scan the room again as he knew he would and to finally recognize him. He saw it when recognition hit, the merest lift of an eyebrow and that ruthless stare.

Red placed his half-empty shot glass down and leaned on the counter, looking at him in the reflection of the mirror behind the bar. One hand snaked down to stroke the smooth, walnut-covered handle of his forty-five for a moment, then he brought the heavy weapon up to lay on the bar counter.

Johnny slowly stood up from the table and walked to the bar’s edge. He tapped on the counter and ordered a drink. “Tequila.”

A deep, whiskey-cured voice from down the bar answered his request. “Still drinkin’ that cow piss?”

Johnny kept his head down, intent on twirling his drink lightly in a circle. A slow smile made its way across his face. “Like I told the lady, it suits me,” he said softly.

“It’s been a long time, boy. I called you dead when the Rurales had hold of you.”

“I’d guess not.”

Red smiled into his drink. “Sounds like Madrid, must be you.”

“It’s Lancer now,” Johnny corrected.

Red’s eyebrow raised just a fraction of an inch higher. “So you went and did it, did you? Was it after Sonora?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. Mangus and Sonora would be forever intertwined in his mind. It was one of those things that would awaken him during the middle of the night every now and then, panicked and sweating. He’d been achingly young and inexperienced when he had hooked up with Red. It was a year or so after his mother’s death when he’d first met the older gunfighter. Red had taken him in at a time when he had no reason to trust anyone. Then along came Sonora, and the day that he thought Mangus had died, paying the ultimate price for Johnny’s cowardice.

Johnny had lost something that day, too, when he’d left the gunfighter alone, bleeding on the street in that dirty town. It was on his lips to reply when the saloon doors swung open widely.

Standing in the middle of the open doorway was Jim Mueller. The boy swept in like he owned the place and walked straight up to the bar, the abrasion on his cheek almost glowing from exposure to the afternoon sun. Johnny watched the proceedings, the game was in Mueller’s hands now; he’d let this one play out. He saw Colette signal to Jonas, just a slight nod of the head, but it was enough to have the bartender take his hand away from the shotgun under the bar.

The boy stopped just shy of the gunfighter, facing the man’s back. “It’s about time you showed up Mangus, you’re late.”

The silence was palpable. Johnny took a sip of tequila and felt the familiar burn ride down his throat and straight into his belly.

Red shot Johnny a glance. “You wanna tell me who this hijo de puta is, before I drill’im?”

Johnny looked up from his glass with just a hint of a smile playing about lips. “Red, say hello to your new boss, Jim Mueller.”

 

Chapter 5

Mangus turned to face Jimmy and casually leaned back on the counter while he re-holstered his pistol. He slowly looked Mueller over from boot heel to hat. “I think you’d better shove off sonny, and let the men talk.”  The words failed to register on the boy and he took a step towards the man in black.  

Johnny kept his eyes on the mirror and said softly, “I wouldn’t do that Jimmy. Just take off like the man says.”

Frustration was clearly outlined on the boy’s face; he turned to look at Johnny, then back to Mangus. After a few moments, he turned on his heel and left the saloon.

Johnny spoke again, “I think he got the message.”

Red picked up his drink and downed it. “Let’s see if he can deliver it to his old man.”

“Same Red, I see.”

“Don’t see a reason to change now. Let’s get a table.”

The two men walked over to the back table and sat down. Colette brought over a bottle and glasses, her concerned eyes sending a question to Johnny. He tipped his head slightly, telling her in effect that it would be all right. She lingered a bit longer then left to go upstairs.

Red poured himself another drink of the peppery whiskey and sat back in the chair. “Like I said, been a long time.”

Johnny glanced at Red’s face. He was still a tough-looking figure of a man and always had been as long as Johnny had known him. A bead of sweat trickled down his back and he felt uncomfortable, almost closed-in, as Mangus continued to stare at him.

“You got somethin’ to say, boy?”

Johnny was restless. He traced the scratches in the table top with an index finger, trying to delay the inevitable. “About Sonora,” he began hesitantly. “I thought you were dead after that bank robbery attempt. I saw you lying in the street covered in blood.”

Red shook his head. “No, not dead or alive, just somewhere in between. And you left me there.” He brought out a packet of tobacco and some rolling papers.

The accusation was finally laid out in the open. Johnny looked away, accepting the damning words because they were true. “I tried to tell you, robbery just ain’t my style. But I hung around that bank anyway, at least until it all started. When I saw you take the bullet, I left.”

Red wore a thin smile and his eyes turned flinty-blue in the darkened confines of the saloon. “I bet you were surprised to see me still alive then. There’s no hard feelings, Johnny-boy. At least not now. Just be glad you weren’t around when I finally woke up. Couldn’t understand why you took off but you were young back then.”

“Truth is, I probably would have done the same thing if you’d been lying in that street.” He concentrated on pouring some tobacco onto the paper. “Might have turned out different, though, if you’d joined up with us.”

Johnny shook his head. “No, we both would have been dead. Trying that bank was a stupid thing to do, even back then. You were good at a lot of things but bank robbery wasn’t one of them.”

“Don’t know until you try. I did my best to find you afterwards; basically wanted to wrap my hands around your scrawny neck, but you’d dropped out of sight by that time and then I heard about the Mexico deal. Thought that was the end of you. You got more lives than a cat, boy.”

Johnny looked towards the doors and saw an irate Jake Mueller and his son enter the saloon. Scott followed behind them. Mueller looked a shade desperate with his mouth set in such a grim line while Jim helpfully pointed out the table where he and Red sat together. The rancher eyeballed them for a few moments, then stalked over and thrust out a hand. “Mr. Mangus?”

Red looked at the proffered hand in front of him with distaste and raised his head to glare at the man on the other end of it. “I’m here to do a job, not make friends.” The gunfighter continued rolling the tobacco and after an uncomfortable few moments, Mueller withdrew his hand. Mangus fumbled for a match in his breast pocket, found it, then struck it against the table. Speaking around the cigarette in his mouth, Red motioned towards Johnny, “Don’t know why you hired me when you had Johnny Madrid under your nose all this time.”

Mueller looked at Johnny, frank surprise registering on his face. Jim spoke, excitement tingeing his voice, “Johnny Madrid? I heard that he died somewhere in Mexico. He can’t be him.”

Red shrugged and blew out a thin stream of blue smoke. “Take a look for yourself, kid, he’s sitting right here next to me. Johnny Madrid, the second fastest gun still alive. I should know, we were partners once.”

A deep voice was raised above all the rest. “It’s Johnny Lancer.”

Red’s eyes narrowed at the intrusion and he looked at the blond-haired man who spoke. “Looks like someone else has your back, now, Johnny. Who is he?”

“My brother.”

Red glanced at Scott. “He don’t look like much.”

“I wouldn’t underestimate him.”

Red looked at Scott with new eyes as he contemplated the tall man in front of him. His attention was turned away when Mueller spoke again.

“Since you so eloquently put it that you’re here for a job, I’ll expect to see you at my ranch tomorrow morning.” The rancher took one more speculating look at Johnny then turned around to find that Jim was staring at Madrid, his mouth slightly agape. Grabbing his son by the arm, Mueller hauled him out of the saloon.

Johnny watched them leave then eyed Scott, who was still standing by the table with his arms crossed. His brother’s face was unreadable except for that tightness around the jaw line. It always gave him away. And it looked like Scott was working himself up to one real bad temper. Johnny got up from the table and lightly punched him on the arm. He jerked his head towards the saloon’s bar. “I’ll buy you a drink, brother. Looks like you could use one.” Wrapping an arm around Scott’s shoulders, Johnny pulled him away from the table.

“You were partners with Red Mangus?”

“It was a long time ago, Scott. Like I said before, a lifetime ago.”

“So what are you doing now, Johnny?”

“Just having a few drinks with an old acquaintance is all.”

“You think that’s wise?”

“Hey, keep your enemies close and all that.” He worried the beads at his wrist. “Red and I go back a long ways, nothing is going to happen. I just need to make sure that we’re square on some things. I’ll tell you about it later.”

Scott looked back at Mangus for a few moments then slapped his gloves against one hand. He turned back to Johnny. “It’s your funeral, brother, but try not to make it tonight; it’s been a long day already.”

Johnny dipped his head and smiled.

“By the way, we’ll be staying in town. I’ll get a room at the boarding house so when you’re done ‘renewing your friendship’, I’ll be there. We have some things to discuss about Jake Mueller.” Taking one more look around Scott walked out of the bar.

Johnny went back to the table. Red chuckled, “That’s some brother, Johnny. Where’d you find him anyway?”

“He’s a good man, Red.”

“Didn’t say he wasn’t, just not the type I thought you would have joined up with.”

“Neither did I, at first, but it’s worked out. You need to know that I’d be real put out if my brother was to get hurt in any way.”

“So it’s that way, huh?”

Johnny’s voice challenged back. “It’s that way.”

“Then you better make sure that he stays away from Argenta in the next few days or so because there’s gonna be a lot of ways for him to get hurt. And if I were you, I’d be taking some of that same advice Johnny-boy, and skedaddle out of this town.”

“Robbery didn’t work out so you’re back to gunfighting?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say I really ever left it. Except for that botched bank raid, it’s been good to me. It’s fine money for short work, you know that.” The older man’s eyes latched on to Johnny’s. “We had some good days before Sonora, didn’t we? Too bad it all had to end. You know I had some high hopes for you Johnny, but I never really figured on you lasting as a gunfighter. You had the skill but not the guts to keep going at it for too long.”

Red fingered the almost empty whiskey bottle and signaled the bartender for another. He stabbed out the cigarette on the scarred table. “What I’m saying is, don’t cross me Johnny, not here. We did have some high times but things are different now. The way I see it, this is just a job and I’ll get it done for the right price no matter who gets in the way. Your brother…or you.  Entiendas, amigo?”

“Yeah, Red, I understand. No matter how many innocent people get in the way, it’s just business.” 

“Sometimes it does go with the territory. Now let’s get down to some serious drinking.”

*****

Mrs. Smith’s boarding house was closed up and dark by the time Johnny finally found it. The directions had been clear enough, too bad his head wasn’t. Routing the owner of the house out of bed, he was surprised when it wasn’t Mrs. Smith but rather a Mr. Jenkins who met his loud knocks on the front door with a dark scowl. Jenkins pointed a thumb in the general direction of the stairs and told him that the room that Scott had let was on the left. Grumbling, the inn keeper departed back to his own bed, leaving Johnny standing in the dark entryway contemplating the tall, narrow stairs.

He made it up the stairs without too much fuss then looked to his left. Where there should have been one door--Scott’s door--there were two instead. Taking a chance on good luck, Johnny blew out a silent breath and wavered towards the first one, reaching for and fumbling with the door knob. He had just turned the handle and opened the door partway when he heard the loud metallic click of a Colt hammer being pulled back.

Johnny peered inside the room and saw the first empty bed. Looking over further to the second bed, he spotted a glint of silvery moonlight from the window bouncing off cold steel in the man’s hand. He grinned. “Hey, c’mon Scott, it’s only me.”

The pistol was turned away from the door and uncocked. “Johnny. What time is it, anyway?”

“Oh, ‘bout midnight I suppose, maybe a little after.”

“You’re in early.”

Johnny gave up a low snort. “Yeah. You know you’re pretty slick with that handgun, brother.”

“Seems like it might be a good skill to have around here.” Scott returned the pistol to the holster by the headboard and turned to face the window, punching the pillow under his head and hitching the blanket up higher on his bare chest. He heard the thud of Johnny’s boots as they hit the floor one by one, then the softer rustle of his pants and shirt being thrown over the chair beside the bed. Finally, the creaking springs of the bed as his brother climbed in under the covers.

“Johnny?”

“Yeah?”

“What happened with Mangus tonight?”

There was silence in the room. He had matched Red drink for drink as they had talked; it had brought back memories of a better time between the two men, before Sonora, but he wouldn’t make the mistake of believing that Red could write off what had happened in that dusty border town. “I’ve had way too much to drink tonight to be talking about Red Mangus. Found out about Mueller, though. Seems he’s not exactly an upstanding citizen of the town. Or that son of his.” He chuckled softly, “You should have seen the look on Red’s face when I told him that Jim Mueller was his boss. I thought he was going to shoot the kid then and there.”

Johnny went quiet and Scott thought that he had fallen asleep until he finally spoke again, this time in a hushed voice. “I’ll tell you one thing; we need to get the hell out of this town. There’s gonna be some bad things happening real soon. Mueller’s importing gunmen and Mangus is just the first. ”

Scott turned back over and rose up on one elbow. “So we’re just supposed to leave town and forget about it? Let the people of Argenta try and stand up against Mueller and his hired guns?

“They can leave, just the same as us, which is what we need to do tomorrow morning.” Johnny rolled over and drew the covers up to his neck, effectively ending the conversation.

It was several minutes later that Scott finally laid back down, but sleep eluded him and he stared at the ceiling until well into the early morning hours.

 

Chapter 6

Jake Mueller sat at the breakfast table with a hand clenched around his coffee cup, lost in thought. <Damn it anyway!> His carefully orchestrated plans were falling apart at the seams. He glared at Anna from under bushy grey eyebrows when she came to refill his cup and managed to be just a bit contrite when she backed away. The housekeeper poured the coffee, then fled back to the kitchen. He smacked his hand down on the table in frustration, making his spoon bounce on the table. Johnny Madrid! He had no idea of just who he had given a bed to and it irritated him. He’d heard the name, of course, when he had discreetly asked for the best gunfighters in the territory, but had been told that the man had gotten tangled up in some fracas down in Mexico.

He wondered what happened when Murdoch found out that his boy was a gunfighter. He shook his head; the Murdoch he remembered from thirty years ago was half-wild himself, tempered only by the sweet Catherine. He could well imagine that this second son was a handful all right. As different as oil and water, Murdoch’s sons were, but two halves of a whole with Lancer’s strength and stubbornness in both of them. He felt a quick stab of envy. Looking out the window, he spied Jimmy walking in from the corral and sighed. Jim was still somewhere between a boy and a man. At first, it had made him uneasy when his son had taken to the gun so fast, but he had come to rely on it more and more as of late. If only the boy had the common sense to accompany those skills.

He really hadn’t known what he’d gotten himself into when he hired Red Mangus. The gunfighter had arrived at the ranch early this morning stinking of cigarettes and whiskey, listing in the saddle. He fervently hoped that the gunfighter’s reputation didn’t exceed his skill. Counting on hiring someone he could control, he knew now that Mangus was about as far away from being a mere puppet as possible. But Madrid knew Mangus. If the older man didn’t work out then maybe he would talk to the Lancer boy. Options, he mused, there were always options worth exploring and enough money to finance the exploration. Fiddling with the tip of his moustache, he sighed once more and glanced into his coffee cup. For the first time in a long, long while, he had doubts.

His head swept up abruptly when Jimmy careened into the dining room and sat down heavily in the chair, his face animated. His son seemed very much taken with the fact that Lancer was really the gunfighter Johnny Madrid and he knew that the fascination could spell trouble, not only for Jim but for his own strategic plans. He spared a cursory look at the boy and plowed into the question uppermost in his mind. “Why Jimmy? Why did you force McIntyre’s handyman into jail the other night? I thought we had discussed it.”

Jimmy pulled the gun out of his holster and laid it on the table, then reached for the well-worn bandana around his neck. He rubbed diligently on the shining pearl grip, not bothering to look at him.  “Why not? Seemed like the right time. We’re taking things way too slow.” He stopped and raised his shaggy head. “Think about it, Pa. I heard the hands talking about him; they say he’s as fast as or faster than Mangus. Once we get the two of them together on the ranch, it’ll be a cinch to take over this one-horse town and do what we want with it.” Jim lifted the gun toward the window to watch the early morning sunlight catch and jump off the luminescent handle. He shrugged, “And if Madrid doesn’t want to work with us then I’ll just have to take care of ’im.”

Jake’s voice came out in a staccato burst. “Jimmy, you don’t have the good brains God gave an ox. What makes you think in your wildest imagination that you could take on Johnny Madrid?”

Jimmy smirked and showily twirled the gun back into the holster. “Because I’m no slouch with a gun, Pa.” 

Jake looked at him in disbelief; the absurdity of Jim’s statement clashed with an overwhelming desire to take a hand and slap some sense into him. Instead, he took a much safer and well-used tact and simply left the dining room to get as far away from his progeny as possible.

*****

The window was open, of that Johnny was quite sure. He could feel the sun’s rays beating against his eyelids. Why it was open, allowing the sunlight to stream into the room from the outside was another matter. Deciding to make sure, he cracked open an eye. Yup, it was wide open with the curtains pulled all the way back. The smells of manure and horses and early morning cooking all wafted in with the breeze, accompanying an all together too loud cadence of a smithy’s hammer. The roiling in his head and stomach ominously joined in with the assaults from the window.

Warily, he looked to the other bed and found that it was made up, neat as a pin. Scott was a dead man. The payback was gonna be hell and he was just the man to make sure it got done. It hadn’t always been this way. His brother hadn’t been an early riser himself when he first got to Lancer but he’d since rectified his ways after one too many brushes with Murdoch. Despite his raging headache, cotton-mouth and now sun-blinded eyes, Johnny found himself smiling about that first year they had together. A lot of old habits had sure died a hard death during that time.

Eventually curiosity about where Scott had gone finally overcame his languidness, and he rose out of bed to find his clothes.

He found his brother in the saloon, sitting nestled between two women, looking entirely too comfortable. Colette was to the left, a demure wrapper tied tight around her waist, and the yellow-haired Louise was on the right, looking at Scott with her big doe-eyes. All three had what he hoped was strong coffee in front of them. Johnny gave the doors a vicious shove and walked in.

Jonas, already working behind the bar, smiled in sympathy and handed him a mug of the steaming brew as he made his way to their table.

Scott saw him and smiled wickedly. “Johnny! So glad you could join us…finally. The ladies here were good enough to give me breakfast this morning. Want some?” His brother lifted up the partially empty plate and, if it was possible, his grin seemed to widen.

Johnny blanched a little at the congealed food but saluted him anyway with a raised mug. “No, Scott. I’m just fine with this.”

“The three of us were just discussing what you and I talked about last night. You do remember, right?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he sat down. “Yeah,” he began cautiously, “I remember what I said last night.”

Louise piped up, never taking her eyes off Scott. “I think it’s wonderful that you’re going to try and help.”

Johnny cleared his throat. “That’s not exactly what I said.”

Colette looked at him with understanding in her eyes. “And that’s not exactly what Scott here was saying,” she said gently, turning to look at Louise. “He was saying that things need to be looked into a little further.”

Louise dropped her head a bit and studied her coffee.

Colette let out a small sigh. “Come on, honey, let’s go get freshened up for the day. These two handsome men need to do some talking, I’m sure.” Once Louise was out of earshot, she leaned on the table. “It was mighty nice to have you boys here for a while but if you had two brains to rub together, you’d haul ass out of this town and pronto.” She laughed a little too brightly. “Don’t get the wrong impression, Louise and I and the rest of us here in Argenta can take care of ourselves just fine. I’ll see you around, cowboys.”

They watched Colette leave the table then Scott turned to his brother. “Well Johnny, what about it? Do we still ride out this morning and pretend nothing’s wrong or do we stick around a little longer to see what’s going on in this fair town?”

“You can be pretty irritating in the morning, you know that?” Scott just smiled at him and took a slow drink of his coffee. No, they wouldn’t be leaving Argenta today, Johnny thought, he wanted to find out who was who in this deadly game.

“I’ll tell you what, brother, why don’t we hang around just a bit longer and see what happens. But you get to wire Murdoch and tell ’im what we’re doing.”

Scott lifted a shoulder and shrugged, raising his mug to Johnny. “Done. I want to ride out to the McIntyre ranch in the meantime and talk with him to get his take on what’s happening here. Care to accompany me?”

The heavy mugs clinked together and the lonely sound echoed throughout the empty saloon.

*****

Scott and Johnny made good time once out of Argenta; the road was clear and easy to follow. “I’m just saying that when you least expect it, Scott, I’ll be there.” His brother shook his head and laughed outright. They were arguing about the merits of rising early in the morning when a flash of white caught Johnny’s eye. He held up his hand and gestured to the side of the road. Both men dismounted and led their horses into the brush. Drawing their pistols, they slowly crept up to the spot where Johnny had seen the splash of color. Motioning to Scott, he moved forward into the thick scrub. Coming out to a small clearing he saw a man lying face down in the dirt. Looking quickly around, Johnny bent down on one knee beside the prostrate cowboy and saw blood staining the ground underneath him.

Scott joined him just scant moments afterwards. “There’s no horse around, must have gotten spooked off.” Together, they carefully turned the man over onto his back. Scott opened the cowboy’s blood-saturated shirt and found a bullet wound high in the left breast, still seeping blood.

Johnny looked at Scott. “How bad is it?”

“It’s shallow but still bleeding up here at the top where it came out, he’s going to need help and soon.” The man moaned and forced his eyes open.

“He’s coming to!” Scott exclaimed.

“Am…am I bad hurt?” The cowboy raised a shaky hand to feel around the bullet hole. He let out a short laugh. “Ha! Bullet glanced. Could have sworn they plugged me for sure. Looks like working for old man McIntyre is gettin’ to be a liability.” Pain creased the man’s face and his hand dropped away from the wound.

“Do you know who did this to you?” Scott asked.

The cowboy nodded. He spat out, “It was some of Jake Mueller’s vigilantes. Seen a couple of ’em in town. And since I don’t know you two, I’m hoping you all ain’t playin’ on his side.”

“No, but we are heading towards the McIntyre ranch.” Scott carefully eased the man back down when he attempted to sit up. “Hold on, we need to wash this wound out and get something to pad it with, then we’ll take you to the McIntyre’s.”

“Hey, look at that.” Johnny picked up a silver-plated pocket watch from the folds of the man’s shirt. The watch case was dented and defaced. “You are lucky, Mister. It accounts for the glance, all right.”

The man squinted up in wonder at the watch that Johnny held. “I’ll be. And I came near not to fetching it this morning, too.”

The brothers went back to the tethered horses. Scott rummaged around in his saddlebag and came out with a serviceable tan shirt while Johnny fetched his canteen. He stopped short of pulling the canteen off the saddle and tapped on its side.

Scott ripped the clean shirt in two. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve seen things like this before and they never end up well, somebody always loses. I was just gonna say that we don’t need to take on this fight.”

Scott gestured to the cowboy lying on the ground then looked intently at Johnny. “Do you really believe that?”

Johnny looked at the injured man once more then met Scott’s gaze. After a few moments, he again reached for the canteen and took it off the saddle horn. “Since we’re stayin’ we’d really better let Murdoch know what’s going on, ‘cause chances are this could take a while. And when you do send that message you might just let’im know what kind of a man Mueller really is.”

The injured man haltingly gave them directions to the ranch via a shortcut through the hills, then fell unconscious against Scott’s chest as he held him in the saddle. It was trickier getting to the ranch this way, not only because of the cowboy in tow but the terrain had changed significantly since leaving the road. The brothers eventually rode out of the nubby pines onto a ledge above a tumbling mass of white water and looked down into the small valley. A large expanse of house was seen in the distance with a dark plume of smoke coming from one of its chimneys. Scott hitched up the man in front of him a little higher in the saddle while Johnny checked the rigged dressing for bleeding, then they slowly started down the trail towards the house.

 

Chapter 7

Johnny’s eyes settled on the woman in the doorway. That loaded forty-four was something to make a man sit up and take notice, he thought as he stared at the muzzle. Actually two men, since he saw that Scott was looking pretty intently at the gun himself.

The weapon, pointed directly at his chest, was being held tight against the door jamb by a blond-haired woman with a just-try-me look to her eyes. That is, if he read those eyes correctly. He spied a black mongrel tiptoeing in from around the far side of the house. The huge dog reached the side of the porch then stopped, teeth bared and hackles raised, a low warning rumble emanating from its barrel chest. 

Scott blew out a breath. “What do you think?”

“I think this is a long way to come just to get shot,” Johnny threw the dog a sideways glance, “or get chewed on. Is this the house or not?” Getting no answer, he half-turned in the saddle, followed Scott’s line of vision and heard a second rifle being cocked. If this was McIntyre, he was a big man close up, about the size of Murdoch only heftier, with wide-shoulders and a thick, long-legged kind of body. Hatless, his unruly red hair was shot through with grey which only added to the gruffness about him. He didn’t look like he had any more give than the woman, less so as a matter of fact. Add to that the fact that another man was coming up to stand behind them and the odds weren’t looking too good all of a sudden.

“Keep your hands clear of those guns and you,” McIntyre’s rifle swiveled to take a bead on Scott’s torso, “what did you do to my ranch hand?”

Johnny spoke up quickly. “That’s what we’re trying to tell you, we didn’t do anything to him. We found ’im on the road, a few miles from here. He was already shot when we got there.”

The injured man moaned and tipped to the left of the saddle, fumbling for the horn to right himself. Scott took a firmer grasp on the cowhand’s shirt. “He needs help. Are we going to keep arguing while he bleeds to death?”

McIntyre gestured with the rifle. “Get down and help him off the horse. Anything funny and my wife won’t hesitate to blow a hole in your friend.” He gestured to the man standing behind them, “Sandy, go help him.”

Scott slid off from his horse and helped him down; taking care with the man’s left shoulder.

“Boss,” the cowboy started to mumble, “they didn’t do this…Mueller’s men, they caught me in an ambush.”

“Get him to the bunkhouse, Sandy. I’ll be along directly.”

McIntyre looked speculatively at the young men for a few moments, then abruptly yelled out, “Claire, ease off that shotgun.”

The woman came running out of the house to stand beside her husband. In the sunlight, her hair took on more of a silvery-gold appearance, a few wisps running loose about her handsome face, which was marred by considerable anger. She stared at them for a few moments under hooded eyes, her cocked rifle held at waist’s length, then she hastily turned to help walk the injured man away.

Johnny tried to calm the skittish Barranca as the dog continued to creep silently towards the horses. “Mister, you wanna call off your dog?”

“Nameless! Come here, boy.” The dog’s face split into a panting grin at the sound of its name and it padded away from the horses to glue himself to the man’s leg. “We don’t often get strangers out this way and when we do they’re not exactly friendly.”

“So, before I invite you in for supper and get all social, I want to know exactly why you’re here.” He pointed the barrel of his rifle towards Scott again and jabbed it for emphasis. “I saw you with Mueller at his ranch the other day, so you might understand my hesitancy to accept you two at face value.”

Scott kept his gun hand raised at waist level and held on tightly to the reins of his horse in the other hand as it tried to pull away from the dog. He exhaled slowly. Both man and animal were watching his every move and having Barranca dancing around beside him wasn’t helpful. Johnny finally quieted his horse, pulled it to one side and dismounted. An eerie quiet descended upon the place.

McIntyre moved towards him, the rifle bobbing with each step. “I asked you a question and I expect an answer.”

Scott straightened and lowered his hands a little while studying the angry man in front of him. Making a deliberate decision that honesty would probably serve him and Johnny best, he sailed right in. “You’re right, you did see me at the Mueller ranch the other day. We were sent there by our father to help him.”

He distinctly heard a clipped snort from Johnny, who was standing by his horse with hands raised in much the same fashion as him. The rifle loomed larger and larger as McIntyre came towards him. He saw, out of the corner of his eye, that Johnny was shifting a bit where he stood, his spurs producing a soft jingle in the quietness. A large bead of sweat slowly tracked down the side of Scott’s cheek and plopped into the dirt.

He held his ground despite McIntyre’s advancing, raised his voice and said simply, “Our father doesn’t know who Jake Mueller is anymore, but we do.”

Johnny’s spurs were silenced as McIntyre’s rifle wavered once then twice, and fell to the side. “Is that so?” The anger slowly faded from the big man’s face as he contemplated Scott. Unhurriedly, he released the firing hammer on the rifle.

The man nodded to Johnny and gestured past the horses. “You can take your hand away from that gun now. It wouldn’t have done you any good.” Scott and Johnny quickly turned to see a second cowhand, this one with a loosely held scatter gun in his arms and a small smile on his face.

“It pays to be real careful out here.” McIntyre said, cradling the rifle. “Now suppose you both tell me what kind of man Jake Mueller really is.”

*****

Johnny watched Nameless track around the corral a few times then, apparently satisfied, come loping up to the porch where he and Scott were sitting. As Tim McIntyre came out of the house bearing coffee and cookies, he nodded towards the animal. “Nameless is the best dog I think I’ve ever had, even if he really isn’t mine.” He smiled widely and the corners of his eyes crinkled, making him look younger than he was. Pouring out coffee and offering the plate of cookies to each of them in turn, he said, “It’s more that we belong to him. The dog showed up one day at the ranch and Claire didn’t have the heart to get rid of it. Never could settle on a proper handle so ‘Nameless’ it is.”

The topic of conversation was edging towards Scott and the cookie he held in his hands between his knees. McIntyre raised his eyebrows. “Better be careful there Scott; he’s a habitual thief, especially of Claire’s baked goods.” Scott grinned, sitting back in the chair when the rancher threw Nameless a cookie from the plate. Catching it in big jowls, the dog went to lie by the side of the door, happily munching.

“You were saying that your father knew Mueller a while back?”

Scott nodded. “Yes sir, close to thirty years or so now. Apparently Mueller helped my father and mother when their wagon had broken down in a mountain pass crossing into California.”

“So when he wired for help with Argenta, your father sent you two.”

Johnny spoke up. “Murdoch didn’t know why he needed help, just that he requested it.” He shrugged. “He felt an obligation.” Scott nodded in agreement.

“Well, I’d say you two walked into the fire all right.” McIntyre got up from his chair and raked one hand through his hair, making the short strands stand on end. “Jake Mueller is one of the savviest men I know, business-wise. He engineered this railroad deal almost a year ago now. It looked like a fine plan, all laid out to Jake’s specifications. I didn’t realize until too late that his specifications included taking the town over and pushing the citizens out. The plans I managed to get my hands on are old now, but even then they included taking over several thousand acres of prime pasture land--from me--along with the town. We’ll all pay one way or another if his plans come to fruition.”

“What concerns me the most is that we’re losing the fight for Argenta, Mueller is getting too strong for most of the ranchers around here and he’s putting heat on them to bow out. Dan Anderson pulled up stakes just the other day and he’s been here nearly as long as I have. If I still had the kids here at the ranch, then I might be doing the same thing. Our two have already left, one married and living in New Mexico, the other at school in Denver.”

Johnny interrupted, “He’s also hiring outside help. Red Mangus, one of the best gunfighters I used to know, is in Argenta right now. He’s just the start…there’ll be more on the way.”

McIntyre stared hard at Johnny. “What?! I didn’t realize that he’d stepped it up that far. Jake must either be getting desperate or the railroad has finally made a decision. This Mangus, you say you ‘used’ to know him?”

Johnny met his stare. “That’s right; I used to know him pretty well. It’s a long story.”

The rancher raised an eyebrow. “I’ll just bet it is, son.”

“What is?” Claire had come out to the porch, her hair now tidily tucked into a bun at the nape of her neck. Taking the coffee pot she poured refills for Scott and Johnny, then turned to her husband.

“Just a story that Johnny’s going to tell me about later. He also said Mueller’s hired a gunfighter.”

Her green eyes clouded for a moment. Nodding, she set the pot down then perched on the porch railing. Tim wrapped an arm around her waist as she started to speak. “We figured it would come down to that someday. I’m worried, Tim. Joe is still in jail and now Utah has been shot. Dan has moved on…what’s next?”

Tim gently chided his wife. “Claire, we’ve already talked about this.” He addressed Scott and Johnny, “I have to say that the thought of moving out of here turns my stomach, but it has crossed our minds. I think I’d rather see this house and land burned to the ground before allowing Jake to get his hands on it. But I also have to think of what I’ve got to keep safe.” He hugged his wife tightly. “We have a few good, loyal men left working at the ranch but with things the way they are now, I’m not so sure that we can put up a workable defense anymore. We’ll stay put for the time being but I don’t know how much longer we can hold out.”

“What about the state? The governor may be able to help, perhaps with the state militia,” said Scott.

A light shone in McIntyre’s eyes. “It’s crossed my mind, especially since Joe was thrown in jail. That would be something; maybe the state would send the militia to Argenta. Nothing to lose in sending a telegram and it might do some good.”

Scott reached for his mug of coffee. “When I was at Mueller’s he showed me some plans he had to fortify his ranch. They seemed rather elaborate for a few torn fences but now I think he’s settling in for a long fight. He also mentioned that he sent his wife and daughter away because of the danger.”

Claire shook her head. “No, that’s not why. She flat out left him several years ago when she finally figured out what kind of a man she married--a little late, I say. Too bad she didn’t take the boy with her, from what I hear about him.”

McIntyre looked at them solemnly. “You seem like smart young men; you should probably leave Argenta while the getting’s good.”

Scott looked at Johnny. “I think we’ve been told that before.”

Johnny grinned, “Colette from the Let’er Buck told us the same thing.”

“Ah, and so?”

“So I think we’ll be hanging around to see how this turns out.”

“You boys wouldn’t be interested in a job would you?”

Johnny shook his head. “No, not a job, but we wouldn’t turn down a place to sleep and something to eat,” he looked at Mrs. McIntyre and smiled hopefully, “especially if your wife has any more of these cookies on hand.”

Tim leaned over to shake Scott’s hand then Johnny’s. “I think something can be arranged,”

 

Chapter 8

The early morning sky was arched with pinkish hues by the time Johnny met Tim at the corral. The day held a promise of late rain with a few rumbling dark clouds already moving in from the west. He’d won the coin toss with Scott over who was going to accompany Tim and Sandy into town for supplies. Mrs. McIntyre, or Claire, as she insisted they call her, had told him to take a slicker and he grinned over that.

Tim slapped Johnny on the back as he loaded a basket of food for their jailed man into the back of the wagon. “A word of advice, Johnny, a good woman always knows what you need. Better follow her orders.” They finished hitching up the wagon then started into town. 

Tim and Sandy stopped the buckboard outside the mercantile; the rancher went into the store and the cowhand walked off to the telegraph office to send a wire. Johnny was going to meet Sandy over at the telegraphers’ after loading supplies since Murdoch’s wire was left to him to do now. He took his time tying off Barranca and looked down the quiet street; there wasn’t any sign of Mangus or Mueller, at least not out in public. His thoughts were pulled away by loud voices from within the store, arguing back and forth. He gave one last look around and went in.

Tim, red-faced and angry, took off his hat and slapped it against his thigh. “Damn it, Henry! You just can’t do this!”

Scowling, the bearded proprietor stood behind the counter with arms crossed. “I’ll do what I need to do, Tim.”

“What’s going on?” Johnny inquired.

Tim continued to look at the man. “Henry here has decided that he can’t sell any more goods to the McIntyre ranch.”

The storekeeper suddenly leaned on the counter, his voice low, “I just can’t sell you anything, Tim. You don’t know what they told me they’d do. I have a family to look out for.”

Tim slammed his hand down on the counter and saw Henry flinch. He shook his head. “Henry, we’ve known each other for a lot of years. I thought we were together on this.”

Henry’s voice rose again. “It’s not me I’m thinking about. You can’t protect my wife and children, but I need to. What would you do if they threatened Claire?”

Each man glared at the other. Tim finally relented, his eyes suddenly bleak. “I’m sorry, Henry. You’re right, I didn’t realize it had gotten this far.” He grabbed his hat from the counter and stalked out.

Johnny found Tim on the boardwalk beside the wagon, hands on hips. “Mueller,” he spat out with disgust, “I should have known. There’s nothing to do for it now. We’ll be all right out at the ranch for a few weeks, but hopefully Sandy got that wire off to the state. Come on; let’s go see.”

They found Sandy inside the telegraph office talking to the clerk. “Boss, he says the lines are down.”

Johnny watched as Tim McIntyre drew himself up to his most impressive height and towered over the much shorter clerk. The man cringed and tapped at a piece of paper with shaking fingers. “I…I…I’m real sorry Mr. McIntyre. I’m j-just doing what I was t-t-told to do.”

“Are the lines down or are you just not sending any messages out?” his voice boomed.

The clerk looked miserable and was quickly wilting under the interrogation. “No…no…they’re down all right, have been since yesterday…”

Tim’s eyes were glittering with anger but Johnny had to give him credit for not taking it out on the clerk. Instead, the big man just turned away and left the office, leaving Johnny and Sandy to follow.  

McIntyre was pacing on the boardwalk. “Well, Johnny, I’d say the noose is tightening up, wouldn’t you?” he said with a wry grin. “Sandy, I want you to go to the livery and rent a horse. Ride to Conaway and send that message. Ride fast, boy, it’s that important.” He handed the ranch hand some money.

“You bet, Mr. McIntyre.” Sandy took off at jog to the stable.

McIntyre looked at Johnny. “I’ll buy you a beer. The way things are going today I could sure use one.”

The two men stepped off the boardwalk and cut across the street to the Let’er Buck. Walking in, they both greeted the barkeeper.

“Two beers, Jonas and make’ em cool if you can,” said Tim.

“Johnny!” a joyful feminine voice cried out. Johnny turned around to see Louise making a bee-line for him. She was searching the saloon interior along the way and he knew exactly who she was looking for. “He’s not here, Louise. Scott needed to stay out at the McIntyre ranch this trip.” He managed to keep a straight face when Louise’s went crestfallen at the news.

She shrugged and leaned on the bar. “Oh. Well, you tell him that I said hello anyway. Colette and I thought you two had left town for good.”

“Not yet, there’s a few things we had to do first. Where is Colette anyway?”

“She’ll be real glad that you stuck around but she isn’t here now; she went to the general store to talk to Henry and get some things.”

“I hope she has better luck than we did,” Tim muttered under his breath.

Johnny turned back to the counter and took a drink of his beer. A familiar voice suddenly rang out.

“Madrid!”

Johnny closed his eyes for the briefest of moments when Jimmy’s voice sounded off once more, reverberating in the now-quiet saloon. Hot anger nibbled away at the edges of his constraint.

“Madrid! I want to see you. Out here in the street.”

He took another drink and laid the beer glass down on the counter. In answer to Tim’s questioning eyes he said, “I have something to see to, Mr. McIntyre. I’ll be back.”

The previously sunny day had finally gone overcast with clouds. It was breezy now, foretelling the encroachment of the coming rain. He slowly exited the saloon and a loose piece of paper caught in the wind twirled about his leg then flew off. Jimmy backed up into the street proper once Johnny had left the doorway and stepped onto the boardwalk. The boy had taken a rigid stance and looked excited in anticipation of the show, the pearl handle of his gun shining and a wide grin on his young face.

“You don’t want to do this, Jimmy,” Johnny yelled above the rising wind as he walked to the middle of the street. He’d never drawn a gun unless to shoot and never to shoot unless intending to kill. He winced a little when Mangus’ cold words of advice came back to haunt him. Here was Jimmy, making himself about the easiest draw a gunfighter could ever want. Except that he wasn’t a gunfighter anymore, a small voice reminded him.

“C’mon, Madrid. I’m calling you out. What’s the matter, you scared?”

The challenge was harsh. Johnny glanced to Jimmy’s right hand when the boy made a play for his gun. Instincts homed in and Johnny cleared his holster. The two guns belched fire in the street.

A fine mist settled over Argenta as Jimmy lay in the street holding his hand, crowing with pain. While Johnny’s aim had been true, Jimmy’s bullet had been wasted in the Let’er Buck’s roof. He walked over to the floundering boy as both the sheriff and Mangus came running out of the jail. Squatting down, he saw the wound for what it was, plenty painful but not enough to cripple. Johnny stood to meet the people running into the rain. Surprised, he saw Colette and Tim both approach.

Mangus reached Jimmy first and bent down to haul the boy up by his shirt. Managing to look at Jimmy’s hand, he nodded to Johnny and gave him a smile. Turning back to Jimmy, his voice was callous, “Quit your crying. Bein’ alive is more than you deserve, boy.”

The sheriff took out his gun and held it on Johnny. “I’m going to have to take you in for attempted murder.”

Johnny stood with his arms held loose by his sides. “Sheriff, that was anything but attempted murder. You can figure that out as well as I can.”

“There’s witnesses here, Madrid.”

Colette spoke up. “What witnesses, sheriff? I didn’t see anything. Mr. McIntyre?” When he shook his head, she turned back to the sheriff. “See? There’s no one here who will testify against Mr. Lancer. Why don’t you take the poor boy to the doctor and let that be the end of it?”

Mangus shook his head in laughter and jerked on Jimmy’s shirt to propel him towards the jail. The sheriff appeared undecided for a moment, then looked at the group in front of him, his small eyes darting from one person to another. “You people don’t know what you just bought yourselves.” He re-holstered his gun and turned to follow Mangus.

Colette wrapped her arm in Johnny’s. “Hey cowboy, didn’t anyone ever tell you to come in out of the rain?”

The three of them sat at a table in somber silence, beer glasses half empty, listening to the rain petering out on the tin roof. What conversation there was trailed off when Mangus peered over the top of the saloon doors.

Red saw Johnny at the table, pushed on through and crossed over to greet him. “Thought you’d still be here.”

McIntyre stared intently at the gunfighter as he approached the table. Finally, he turned his attention away and grabbed his hat. “Sounds like the rain’s finally stopping. I’d better be getting over to the jail to see about Joe, although I’m fairly certain that basket in the back of the buckboard is probably ruined by now.” He got up from the table and inclined his head. “Thank you as always for the fine beer, Miss Colette.”

The rancher put on his hat, adjusted it, then looked squarely at Johnny. “Son, I believe I’m ready for that long story whenever you want to give it.”

Johnny gave him a soft smile. “I’ll be along, Mr. McIntyre.”

Colette got up to leave the table, sending Mangus a look of irritation. “I think I have some customers to attend to. Johnny, if you’ll excuse me.”

Mangus pulled a chair out and sat down, his elbows on the table. “Boy, you sure do have people simpering after you.”

Johnny shook his head. “You know it’s not like that.”

“It looks to me like you hired on with the McIntyre ranch. I’d re-consider if I were you; it’s a bad move on your part. No telling what you might get mixed up in.”

“No, Red, I don’t hire out anymore but I know what kind of man Mueller is, and what he’s doin’ to this town. The McIntyre’s are good people and so are a lot of other folks in Argenta. Mueller has to understand that if he kicks out then he’s liable to get kicked in return.”

Red leaned forward and smiled widely, showing startling white teeth. “Well Johnny-boy, that’s a long shot and I’m takin’ odds.”

Johnny ran a finger down his beer glass. “You know, this can play out a different way if you want it to.”

The older gunfighter sat back and tapped the table. “Like I said, I’m here for the money and too old to change now.” A small smile played about his lips. “But you being here, well, that’s a kick of a different sort all right. What do you say about joinin’ up again?” 

Johnny studied the older man. “Are you too old or too set in your ways to change? Aren’t you gettin’ tired of looking over your shoulder every day? You can still walk away from this…and away from everything.”

“And do what? Sit around on some farm and watch the corn grow? Bust my hump pushing cows? You know me better than that or at least you did. That life ain’t for me. I thought about it for a while when I couldn’t find you after Sonora.” Red let out a chuckle, “Hell, I even hired on for a cattle drive. God, what a mess that was. No, I know who I am.”

“Yeah, I thought I knew who I was back then, too…but I figured wrong, Red. I figured a lot of things wrong.”

Mangus crossed his arms and looked hard at Johnny. “So is that your answer, boy? You and me are gonna have to go up against one another?”

He stared at Johnny for another few moments, then abruptly rose to his feet, the chair scraping loudly against the planked floor. “About what happened today…that Mueller kid is just a whelp. Sort of reminds me of another whelp I knew once, but you were never that stupid. I do figure you just about stirred up the hornet’s nest with that little display in the street, though.”

He waited a beat. “I don’t want to fight you, Johnny, and I’d gladly partner up again, but when it comes down to brass tacks there’s no in-between in a range war and that’s something you should know plenty about.” He turned around and left the saloon.

Johnny sat in silence looking at the gunfighter as he exited the saloon. He didn’t know Red anymore or maybe it was Red that didn’t know him? Thoughts tumbled around in his head. After a couple of years being at Lancer with a real family--his family--Johnny knew that he had changed. He wasn’t an angry young gunhawk looking to prove himself one bullet at a time any longer.   

 

Chapter 9

Mueller paced in the sheriff’s office. It galled him knowing that the Lancer brothers were now helping McIntyre, even more so because it was *his* telegram that had brought them to Argenta.

His son had come home yesterday with a bullet wound in the hand courtesy of Johnny Lancer. He wouldn’t say he was surprised to find that Jimmy was the one who did the challenging. If he was surprised at anything, it would be the fact that his son was still alive. Unfortunately, Jimmy hadn’t seemed to learn anything from the incident. He had shown up at the ranch, raring mad, his hand swathed in a bloody bandage, then left soon after supper, not returning until late into the night.

Over breakfast he had wanted to ask where Jimmy had been all night, but the look on his son’s face told him that he really didn’t want to know. His son was careening out of control and he was desperate to find a way to corral him back in before he ruined everything. He’d left the young man back at the ranch, firing methodically at several tin cans set up on a fence rail, despite the wound to his hand. The instructions he’d given Jimmy to meet him, here at the jail, were apparently forgotten. His patience at an end, he snapped at Mangus and the sheriff to follow him and they left the office.

Pounding hooves heralded Jimmy’s late arrival along with a couple of the hands. He almost didn’t want to look at the boy, afraid he might lose his temper in front of the gunslinger. He grabbed his son’s elbow once the horse stopped and nearly pulled him out of the saddle. “Listen to me and listen good, Jimmy. You’ll stay here and not get into any trouble. Do you hear me?” he said in a low voice.

His son reared back, eyes bright with unspent anger, and snatched his elbow away. For one sickening moment, he thought that Jimmy was reaching for the pistol on his hip. Curiously, his son wasn’t looking at him but at Mangus who, with arms crossed and a growing smile, seemed to be enjoying the show. He leaned over and tapped on the boy’s leg to capture his attention once more. “You’ll do this Jimmy or I swear to God….”

“Sure, Pa,” Jimmy muttered and dismounted, throwing the reins over the hitching post. His son’s sudden acquiescence was suspect but he couldn’t be bothered right now. There were things he had to do.

*****

Scott carried two cups of coffee out to the front porch. He had left Mr. McIntyre at the breakfast table, catching polite hell over bringing home a sodden basket of food instead of delivering it to the jail before the rain hit. Johnny had left the table much earlier, without finishing his breakfast. That in and of itself was no cause for alarm but his brother had been too quiet since returning from Argenta yesterday and he wanted to know why. He found Nameless lying on the second step and his brother sitting on the top one, lost in thought.

“Johnny.” Scott nudged him with one of the full cups and took a spot on the same top step, next to the railing. He leaned back, placed the cup down and started to roll the sleeves of his blue shirt to the elbows. Squinting up at the sun with one eye closed, he exhaled, “Yes sir, it’s going to be a real hot one today.” There was no answer when he looked to his brother. Fidgety, he picked up his cup and swirled the coffee around by quick circles of his wrist. “I said, it’s going to…”

Johnny’s voice was subdued. “I heard you the first time, Scott.”

“Then what is it Johnny? Is it that business with Mueller’s son yesterday? Because as perfect as I am, I still can’t read your mind.” He caught a glimmer of a smile over that remark.

“Since you’re not up to talking this morning, let me start. Jimmy threw out a challenge, called you out and you shot him. From Mr. McIntyre’s account it was a fair fight. Is that what you’re worried about?”

Johnny leaned over to scratch Nameless’ back and received a grateful thump of the tail and a flash of black belly in return. He shook his head. “No, it goes beyond that.”

“It’s Mangus then, isn’t it? Now that he’s here and hired out to Mueller…”

“Now that he’s here, it makes things difficult. It’s not black and white, Scott, no matter how many ways you try to pigeonhole him, me or the whole deal. Sometimes things ain’t gonna fit in the box perfectly.”

Scott’s eyebrows rose and he looked up sharply from his cup. He said, softly, “I’ve never tried to label you, Johnny. You’ve done enough of that yourself. And if Mangus had a hand in making you feel that way, then good riddance, no matter how decent he was to you.” He stood and flung the remnants of his coffee into the dirt. “We should get going. McIntyre is probably waiting for us.”

*****

Scott placed both hands on the side of the buckboard and dropped his head. For the umpteenth time he wondered how he had gotten into this predicament. He didn’t like the thought of Claire going into town this afternoon and knew inherently that McIntyre wouldn’t want her to go, either. But there she was, coming out of the house with an overly-laden basket of food and a grim set to her mouth. He had hoped to put her off until McIntyre, Johnny and the rest of the hands returned from the range and he had, that is until the woman had started to hitch up the wagon all by herself. It was at that point his decision had gone southward.

She gave him a tight smile when he lifted her into the wagon, making room so he could wedge his rifle between them on the seat. Scott knew that a million thoughts were probably running through Claire’s head right now. Not the least of which was the man in jail and the injured hand in the bunkhouse. Add to that the store owner’s reluctance to sell them goods and he was quite sure that Mrs. McIntyre had a lot on her mind.

Just as they were starting down the lane, she gave a shrill whistle and Nameless stuck his head out from around the side of the barn. He easily ran up alongside the buckboard and gave a great leap, landing with a hard thud in the back of the platform, rattling the bench springs. Scott raised an eyebrow and Claire shrugged. “That rifle is good but he’s added insurance.” Scott nodded and gave the reins a slap, sending the horses out on a fast trot.

The town looked the same as when he saw it the first time, tired and dusty. Only this time, since the shooting of Mueller’s son, there was an apprehensive air to the town, as if it was holding its collective breath, waiting for something to happen. They pulled up in front of the mercantile and with a cautious eye to the street, he escorted Mrs. McIntyre in.

They met the storekeeper on his way out. Seeing Mrs. McIntyre in the doorway, Henry’s eyes darted away from her then back again. "Claire, I’m sorry…” he began.

She nodded curtly and interrupted, “Henry, I’d like you to meet Scott Lancer. He and his brother are staying with us a few days.” No hand was proffered by either man. She added brusquely, “I’m here to see Sarah. Is she in?” Henry looked away and jerked his head to the interior of the store, then took off down the boardwalk.

Scott felt like an intruder. He walked around the front of the store feigning interest in several new buggy lanterns as Claire and the shopkeeper’s wife spoke together, in mostly civil albeit hushed tones. Sending a covert glance over to the pair, he saw Sarah suddenly blush and lower her head. It surprised him then when the woman left the counter and came back with a crate and started to fill it from the shelves.

When he ventured towards the counter, Claire explained. “We women understand one another, when we want to. That and I reminded her who helped at the birthing of her two youngest children. She needs to arrange to get the grain from the storeroom. We can come back to pick up the sacks later; it’ll give us just enough time to see Joe.”

Scott fitted the crate into the back of the buckboard beside the dog and picked up the basket of food. Loud sounds of shouting and laughter coming from the jail drew his attention. Two men came out of the sheriff’s office, holding a struggling Joe in between them. Dropping the basket back in the wagon, Scott reached up to the front bench to get his rifle. He thought he recognized one of the hands from the Mueller ranch but couldn’t be sure.

“Joe!” Claire yelled. Nameless gave a yip and bounded out of the back before Scott could get a hand on his collar. He twisted around in time to grip Claire’s shoulder, preventing her from running forward.

“No! Stay here!” he exclaimed, his voice going hard. He grabbed his rifle and took off at a dead run down the street, not seeing Jonas peeking over the doors of the saloon.

He skidded to a stop. The two men weren’t laughing anymore; they both had their eyes on the big dog in front of them. Nameless stood before the men, the hair raised up on his back in a rigid line from neck to tail. He growled the same menacing, guttural sound that Scott had heard the first time he’d seen the animal at the McIntyre ranch. All in all, he was glad that the business end of the dog was pointed away from him this time. Taking a stance behind the dog, he gestured with the rifle, “Let go of him.”

One of the men staring at Nameless automatically let go of Joe and raised his hands. As the dog took a few steps towards them, the second man released the prisoner, and Joe started to slump.

The door to the jail suddenly swung open and was flung back on its hinges. Jimmy walked out, looking down at a length of rope in his hands. “Boys, I think this might hold ’im…” His head swung up when he heard Scott’s rifle being cocked and he dropped the rope to face the weapon.

“I don’t think you’ll need that rope anymore, Jimmy. Drop the gun, too.”

Jimmy slowly took out his gun and let it fall from his hands to the ground. A sudden smile creased his young-looking face and he tipped his chin towards Joe. “Take another look, Lancer.”

One of the men now held his pistol to Joe’s head, jamming the blunt end against the older man’s cheek. He started to slowly back away, pulling Joe with him. “You’d better call off that mutt, mister, or this man won’t see another day.” Sheer terror filled Joe’s eyes as Scott locked onto them, willing him to remain still. As the men stepped backwards, Nameless took a hesitant step forward.

“Now it’s your turn, drop the rifle and your pistol,” said Jimmy, the smirk still on his face.

Scott let the rifle fall from his hands, a heavy clatter echoing in the street. He reached for his pistol, suddenly yelling at the dog. Nameless charged the men and took both the cowboy who held the gun and Joe down to the ground in a flurry of thrashing arms and fur. Mueller launched himself solidly at Scott and the pistol was wrenched from his grasp. He popped up with a roundhouse to Jimmy’s stomach and the boy folded in on himself.

The air was rent with growling and cries of pain as the dog savagely bit into the cowboy’s arm and started shaking his head back and forth. Joe was crawling away from the two as fast as his injuries would allow. The third cowhand had taken out his weapon and was desperately trying to get a bead on the dog. Taking advantage of the distraction, Scott ran to Joe and grabbed him, pulling the unsteady man upwards and pushing him out of the melee. He heard a sudden rumbling sound, turned and saw Claire coming with the wagon. He pushed Joe towards it just as he was tackled from behind. The elderly handyman was forcibly driven towards the buckboard from the momentum of Scott’s fall and staggered towards Claire.

Rolling on the ground with Jimmy, Scott yelled out, “Go on! Get him out of here. Now!”

Claire jumped out of wagon and helped the stumbling Joe into the back. As Scott grappled with Jimmy, he saw her hesitate for a second, then hastily turn away and climb back into the wagon. She finally lashed the reins and the frenzied horses bolted down the street.

Scott and Jimmy tumbled over and over. They crashed into Nameless and its grip on the cowboy’s forearm was forced away when the dog was flung sideways. Seeing the buckboard racing down the street, it gave a short bark and took off at a run towards it. Mueller picked up a pistol and scrambled to his feet, taking aim at the fleeing wagon. Scott jerked up to his knees and knocked Jimmy’s arm away just as the bullet was spent.

The younger man glared at Scott and brought the pistol down to bear on him. “Get up, Lancer,” he snarled.

Standing up, Scott heard a shuffling noise behind him and a moment later white hot pain exploded through his skull, his vision clouding with spotty blackness. He lurched towards nothingness, arms flaring wide to prevent falling. He was forced around and a second blow to his chin propelled him backwards, jackknifing his head against the hard column of wood in front of the sheriff’s office. Arms suddenly pinned tight, a heavy groan escaped his lips as a third blow to his middle doubled him over. 

Head reeling with eyes tightly closed, he fought the darkness. He heard cursing and jarringly loud voices; they were familiar, but seemed much too far away to worry about. Unexpectedly, his arms were loosened and he slumped against the railing. The pain in his head started to recede as blackness encroached, so he finally let go and welcomed it, wearily dropping a bit further. Soft arms wrapped around him and he automatically leaned into an even softer body before slipping to his knees. Hearing the whisper of crisp silk beside him he smiled, but the scent of lavender was all wrong…didn’t Julie always wear lemon verbena?

 

Chapter 10

“Come on Handsome, wake up. You have to wake up now.”

Scott heard words, faintly spoken, above his head. He stirred a bit and found that he really didn’t want to open his eyes. Just as he decided to go back to sleep, something wet and bone-chillingly cold slapped against his forehead, forcing his eyes open. Vision took its sweet time to clear but when it did, Scott found himself looking into the brightest pair of violet eyes imaginable. Those eyes looked distinctly worried right now. Colette, he thought, and if the hardness at his back and the smell of stale beer and tobacco were any indication, he was lying on a saloon table. As her face disappeared from view, it came in fuzzily for a second time. He realized that he was squinting up at the ceiling, seeing the painting of the reposed Colette in all her glory, or at least those parts not covered. Eyes closing again, the voices continued. It was Jonas, the man behind the bar.

“He can’t stay here, Miss Colette. They’ll be looking for him, sure as rain. You know Jimmy, he won’t like it that we interfered. There’ll be trouble. ”

“Now Jonas, you know that Jimmy Mueller and his friends are locked up in jail…for now anyway, until his old man and the sheriff get back. I figure we may have an hour or so. Henry? What do you think?”

<Henry…Henry…> His thoughts were sluggish. <Could it be the same Henry who refused to sell goods to the McIntyre’s? He had helped rescue him from Mueller’s beating?> Scott tried to shake his head to clear the cobwebs, then thought better of it and listened on.

“I’m sorry but I can’t hide that boy in the store. Lord knows what will happen now. I need to go.”

Scott heard the scratching of chair legs, then heavy footsteps.

“Henry, wait! I want to thank you. Jonas and I couldn’t have done it without your help.”

“It wasn’t anything, Colette. I guess…I guess I’m just getting tired of being scared in my own house.”

Heavy footsteps again then doors slamming shut. A sense of urgency pierced the fog surrounding Scott’s mind; he was a danger to these people--he needed to move. 

“No! Stay where you are!” Colette exclaimed.

Scott continued to track over to his side, found the edge of the table and lifted up, sending a shower of bright lights through his quavering vision. He managed to get to a sitting position, feet dangling, with Jonas’ help.

“Of all the idiotic things. Did I just risk my life so you could kill yourself in my saloon?”

“I need to get out of here…” he whispered through thickened lips.

Colette looked like she was back to being worried. “Just where do you think you’re going? You’ll never make it out of town on a horse by yourself.”

He tentatively put his feet on the floor and pushed off the table, swaying by its edge. His voice was getting stronger now.  “I have to leave…too dangerous for you if I stay.”

Colette held on to his arm and chewed her lower lip; she was undecided on what to do and hated the feeling. If Jonas left, then the saloon would be mostly defenseless, asking Henry was out of the question and she needed to stay here to run interference with the senior Mueller when he came back. The fact of the matter was, every minute that Scott stayed in the Let’er Buck was a liability, not only for the saloon, but for him. Jonas was right, someone was going to pay for what happened once Mueller did return to Argenta and she’d just as soon have this young man safely out of the way.

“I’ll take him.” Louise stood at the top of the stairs

Colette and Jonas shared a look. “Oh, honey, no. Now you go on back up to your room and forget that you ever saw him here.”

“No, Colette. I can ride and I know the way to the McIntyre’s.” She nodded for emphasis. “Please, I’ll take him.”

Colette watched Louise descend the stairs. Her mind was made up by the time the girl reached the landing. “I don’t know what you’ve done with my mouse, Louise, but I like this girl a sight better. Jonas, go find a horse somewhere, perhaps one of Jimmy’s since he’s indisposed at the moment, and we’ll get Scott ready to ride.”

*****

Johnny and Tim rode into the yard at a full gallop, sending stray chickens scuttling out of the way. One of the ranch hands had found them at the edge of McIntyre’s property surveying a partially downed fence and the bloody remains of a few cattle that had been slaughtered and left to rot in the pasture. All the hand had said was that there had been trouble in town and that “the Missus was all right”. It had been enough for Tim to light out like a bat out of hell for the house.

Claire was sitting with an older, beaten man when they rode up and she ran off the porch into Tim’s arms when he dismounted. Tears welled up in her eyes and coursed down her cheeks.

“What is it? What happened?” Tim asked anxiously.

Johnny’s eyes swept around; the wagon was pulled in at a cock-eyed angle to the house, horses still left in the traces. The bruised man was now limping off the porch with Nameless following close behind. 

“Where’s Scott?” he asked suddenly.

Claire pulled away from her husband. “I’m so sorry, Johnny. We saw some men dragging Joe out of the jail and Scott went after them. He managed to get Joe free but he couldn’t get away himself.” The tears came faster.

Johnny turned Barranca around.

“Hold up, son. You can’t go alone. We need to get some hands together.”

“Then catch up with me because I’m leaving now.”

Eyes reddened, Claire ran over to Johnny and placed a hand on his stirrup. “This is all my fault. I forced his hand into taking me to town.”

Johnny looked down at Claire with a rigid smile and shook his head. “Ma’am, it’s real hard to force my brother into doing anything he doesn’t want to do. He must have thought that he had it covered. This is Mueller’s doings, not yours.” He spurred his horse to a gallop, not hearing McIntyre’s shouts to wait.

Several miles down the road he saw a horse with two riders slowly picking its way towards him.

He was surprised to see Louise astride the horse, bringing Scott back to the McIntyre’s. His brother was leaning far to the right behind the girl and Johnny wondered briefly how he had managed to keep on the horse at all.  Dismounting, he grabbed Scott with ready hands and bore him off the horse. Eyes roamed over his brother’s face. “Dios, Boston, you sure look a mess.”

Scott nodded, then reached up to squeeze Louise’s hand, resting on the pommel. “Thank you.” he murmured.

Suddenly shy, Louise cast her eyes away. “Just paying you back, that’s all.”

Scott gave her another squeeze of the hand. “Need to stay with the McIntyre’s. Safer.”

Louise shook her head vigorously, “No, I need to get back to the saloon; Colette will be worried about me...she’s that way.”

An understanding passed between them, and his hand dropped away when she kicked her horse into a trot.

*****

Scott woke with a start, his breath caught in the back of his throat and his heart pounding. He clutched at the blanket that had been pushed to his hips and tried to remember just exactly where he was. It came back to him quickly--Joe being terrorized, the beating at the sheriff’s office and finally the painful ride back to the McIntyre’s with Louise.

The room was stifling despite the open window and the small breeze making its way through. The gentle current was causing the curtain edge to flap intermittently against the wall. That was what had awoken him, the noise of the curtain slapping against the wall with dull thuds, sounding like fists against flesh. He lay there counting the curtain’s tempo, concentrating on the quiet moonlight streaming into the room from behind it, until his breathing finally evened out.

Groggy and stiff but wide awake, he felt the sore spots on his chest; the lump on the back of his head was a dull ache but not overly painful. Thinking over the day’s events, he counted himself more than fortunate that he wasn’t dead; he had Colette and Jonas to thank for that. Hoisting himself up on one elbow, he looked around the room and found his shirt and pants thrown over a chair.

*****

Johnny sat on the back porch, a rifle over his knees, peering out into the blackness. Nameless had just made his rounds around the corral and barn and had fallen into a boneless heap, punctuated with a loud dog-sigh, by his feet. The night sounds were in full bloom beyond the perimeter so he knew everything was secure, at least for the time being. 

He heard the door creak open and turned to see his brother, shirttails loose, making his way out. Pulling up to the chair next to Johnny’s, he gingerly sat down. Nameless thumped out a greeting with his tail and nosed Scott’s hand.    

“What are you doing?” asked Johnny.                          

Scott cupped the big dog’s cheek and stretched long fingers around to scratch behind a floppy ear. “I need to take a watch tonight.”

“You up to it?”

“I thought I needed to pull my share.” 

“Plus it would feel real good to get a shot at the men who beat you and tried to hang McIntyre’s handyman, if they were to come around.”

Scott half-smiled, conscious of the pull on his split lip. “There is that. I can’t stand a bully and despite his manner, that’s what Mueller is, a bully with power behind him to do whatever he wants.”

Johnny sat back in his chair. “You know what, brother? I’ve been sitting out here thinkin’ that old man McIntyre should change his dog’s name to ‘Lucky’ since he came out of that altercation in town with his head and tail still attached.” He looked sidelong at Scott. “Been thinkin’ that you oughta do the same.”

Scott fingered the deep bruise on his jaw, then looked pointedly at his brother, his words infused with a soft slur, “You think too much, Johnny.” He inhaled deeply and caught the faint smell of Claire’s roses at the side of the porch. “Does Mueller remind you of anyone?”

“Yeah…Day Pardee.”

“Except Mueller may be worse. He already has power and money but wants more. It’s a dangerous combination. He has to be stopped.”

“Ain’t nothing I haven’t been thinking about myself. Just need to figure out a plan.”

Scott eyed Johnny sitting seemingly at ease in the chair. “What about Mangus, Johnny? You two rode together for a while. Did you consider him a friend?”

He took his time in answering but eventually nodded. “I was young and green, looking for something in those border towns and not findin’ it. Red came along and we fell in together.” It hadn’t been hero worship that made him connect with Mangus, he’d already seen too much hardness in life by then for that to happen, but Red had been more than a friend at the time.

He shrugged, “He was fast, better’n fast, and he taught me a few tricks all right. Helped me out of few scrapes, too--I watched his back and he watched mine.”

“We’ll have to go up against him eventually, since he’s working for Mueller. What about it?”

“You asking that if I have to, could I kill him?”

Scott nodded.

“He always told me that I’d end up face down in the dirt if I didn’t change my ways. The pot callin’ the kettle black, really. At the time, I thought he was trying to tell me that I needed to get faster with my gun. Later on, I figured out he was trying to tell me to get out of the business all together. Too bull-headed to take anybody’s advice at the time.”

His head dropped and he idly fingered the beads at his wrist. “Funny thing though, after a real rough spot one day he told me I should go find Murdoch and make him tell me the truth about my mother.” His eyes connected with Scott’s in the darkness. “But it just wasn’t the right time, you know?” He suddenly grinned. “Besides, I would’ve missed out on that thousand dollars and the pleasure of messing up your suit on the stage.”

“We finally fell out a year or so before I met up with the Rurales in Mexico. He got some half-assed notion of throwing in with a gang all set to rob banks, something he could do to use his gun and get a lot of quick money. I didn’t run that way and told him so, thinking to leave. He got into some trouble, was shot during a hold-up, and I left him for dead in the streets of Sonora.”

Johnny looked away and said softly, “I’m not proud of what I did, but I can’t change it now.”

He stared at the inky darkness past the corral and absently stroked the dog’s head, “It was a tough time, but in a way, it was a good time, too. Hard to explain it. Red gave me a direction to go in, probably saved me from myself.”

Both men sat listening to the quietness of the evening. Johnny’s thoughts strayed back to the saloon after the shooting of Jimmy Mueller. No, he didn’t know Red anymore, but a part of him wished he still did.

He slapped the rifle and stood to hand it to his brother. “It’s history, Scott, about a million years ago. Red chose which side he wants to work on. Since you and old Nameless will be holding the down the fort, I guess I’ll go and grab that shut-eye. Keep your eyes peeled.”

“I know there’s not much likelihood of it, but sleep well, brother.” Scott couldn’t help but notice that Johnny had never answered his question.

 

Chapter 11

Collette edged up the curtain a bit further. It was one of the advantages of living in town that she could pay attention to what was going on in Argenta from her very own bedside, but it was fairly dark outside and pretty soon she wouldn’t be able to see anything at all. Business at the Let’er Buck had been non-existent, not that she expected anyone to show up after the fracas between Jimmy Mueller and Scott Lancer that afternoon. No, everyone was sitting back waiting for something to happen. Henry had closed up his shop right after the incident, probably with more foresight than what she was currently displaying if the truth was told. She had decided to stick tight to the saloon. It was, after all, her livelihood, and if it went down then so would she.

She’d seen Jake Mueller, Sheriff Brady, and the gunfighter Red Mangus riding up to the jailhouse earlier. There was a fourth man, slumped in the saddle and being led by the sheriff, but Colette couldn’t make him out from her position. She could only imagine the scene that had unfolded within the jail between Mueller and his son. Sighing, she pinned hope on the outside chance that Jake could deter Jimmy from making any rash decisions about retribution.

Louise had thankfully made it back safely from taking Scott to the McIntyre ranch. She and the other girls had moved, at Colette’s insistence, to the boarding house. The proprietor of the establishment, Mr. Jenkins, didn’t seem to mind one bit.

She wanted Jonas to leave, but if there was ever a man more stubborn, she didn’t know of him. He was still downstairs moving the tables and chairs in-between checking and re-checking the rifle now ensconced on top of the bar. Dropping the curtain, she turned to check her own weapon. Hefting the weight of it in her hand, she smiled wryly and shook her head. It had all come down to this. She looked up sharply when she heard a shuffling noise outside her door. She cocked the pistol and watched the knob turn.

“Colette?”

The pistol was turned away quickly. “Louise! What are you doing here? I left you over at the boarding house…did something happen?”

“No, no, nothing happened! I just came back because you’ll need help.”

“You need to leave now, Louise. You know just as well as I do what could happen tonight. I won’t be responsible for you getting hurt or killed.”

“Then how about if I be responsible?” she said.  

Colette looked at her employee, and lately her friend and confidant. Something had changed within her. Without knowing it, the elder Lancer had started it the day he had saved her from the drunken Jack. Louise was starting to think that she had worth after all, and with it came a newly-found confidence. For that Colette could have kissed Scott herself.

She nodded and asked, “Do you know how to shoot a pistol?”

“I’m probably better with a rifle, but let me see.” Louise handily took the gun and looked down the site while spinning the barrel. At Colette’s incredulous look she shrugged a shoulder, “You never asked me before. You learn a lot of things down on the farm.”

“Well, aren’t we a pair?” Colette shook her head and laughed. Turning to retrieve a second pistol from her bureau, she heard Jonas call her from the barroom. 

They cautiously walked down the stairs, guns in hand. A grey-haired man was standing with his back to them by the counter. He reminded Colette a bit of Tim McIntyre, they both had that same take-your-breath-away height, but this man was less bulky around the middle. He was a stranger in town all right and Jonas wasn’t taking any chances; the bar rifle was already trained on the man.

Jonas hitched the weapon up a little higher against his shoulder. “I tried to tell him that we weren’t open for business but he came in anyway. Says he’s lookin’ for the Mueller place.”

The big man slowly turned around to face her, arms fanned away from his body. His clothes, though dusty, weren’t the type to be worn by saddle tramps. Nor did he have that curly wolf look to him like so many of Mueller’s hired hands did. She had made a business out of reading people, and this man struck her as true. Besides, Jonas’ rifle was good insurance, in any regard.   

Thundering hooves and gun-fire split the quietness of night. Colette ran to the doors while Jonas held the stranger at bay with the rifle. She peered out and down the street, seeing Jimmy Mueller breaking into Henry’s store. He had more friends with him this time, about six all told. Their torch lights were reflected in eerie-looking shadows, bouncing off their animated faces. Whoops and hollers brought the group to a feverish pitch, like so many demons from hell. She blanched; several of the men had now turned and were walking towards the saloon. She slammed the inside doors shut and locked them, whirling around to meet the look of frank confusion on the stranger’s face.

“Jonas! Turn down the lamps!” she exclaimed.

A rock pitched through the plate glass window of the saloon front caught her by surprise, despite seeing firsthand the havoc being wreaked on the mercantile.

The barroom was suddenly plunged into darkness. She crouched beside the stranger and motioned towards the outside. “You happened in at the wrong time, mister. Sorry for that…unless you’re tied in with Mueller somehow, then the hell with you.” 

The man finally spoke. “Jake Mueller? He’s…” His words were cut off by thumps and thuds against the doors. The yelling and cursing of the men outside had gotten louder the more they were denied entry. He straightened up and ran to one of the tables and pushed and pulled until it blocked the straining doors. Jonas fell in beside him and together they lifted another table on top of the first. Louise had moved to the window, gathering chairs along the way, to barricade it as best she could.

Garish, flickering lights were reflected through the broken window. Louise gave a short cry when a torch was suddenly thrown against it and the rest of the glass gave way, hurling jagged shards into the interior of the saloon. Hungry flames shot up the window frame and started to eat their way into the room.

Jonas lumbered away from the door to stomp out the torch, pushing Louise out of the way of the fire. Colette reached the window at the same time and pulled down the heavy drapes, trying to beat out the flames.

A shot cut through the deafening roar of the yelling men and the noise of the fire, then several more followed. Jonas cursed when a bullet bit into his arm and tossed him to the ground. The stranger drew his pistol and fired repeatedly through the opening left by the broken window, leaving Colette to help get Jonas behind the bar. Louise had grabbed the rifle from the floor where it had been dropped, returning shot for shot. They were both rewarded by several grunts and howls of pain from the men outside.

 

The doors abruptly cracked open and the lined-up tables teetered threateningly. The man turned his attention to the faltering doors and shot through them, hearing more curses from the outside. The fire was robust now, edging into the saloon proper, but the voices outside were dimmer. Sensing a change, the stranger used the drapes that Colette had torn down and beat the flames back to the window. Louise covered him with the rifle, but it wasn’t necessary anymore; the men had left.

The two women and the tall man fought back the fire while Jonas, his left arm dangling and useless, kept his right hand on the rifle, ready to shoot.

The fire was eventually stopped, but the damage had already been done to the Let’er Buck. The lamps had been turned up, showing wisps of black smoke still hanging about the ceiling, flowing to the outside through the window opening. The fire had eaten through the window, onto the barroom floor and up to the ceiling. The doors were mangled despite holding firm. Bullet holes showed in the oaken counter and were lined up in the wall behind it, where the liquor bottles--once standing up properly all in a row--were now broken. The painting on the ceiling was smeared with black smudge from the fire, half of its paint cracked and peeling from the heat.

Colette wearily looked around her and saw Jonas, sitting on the floor, propped up against the base of the bar. His upper arm was tied with a gaudy mustard-colored scarf, wet with blood. It struck her as suddenly funny seeing Jonas with that awful wrap around his arm and she bit back a strained laugh. That color was definitely not his type. Just as suddenly, hot tears prickled at the corners of her eyes and threatened to overflow. Realizing that she still had a pistol in her shaking hands, she let it drop onto the counter.

Colette took a few deep breaths to quiet the terrible churning inside of her. Dragging her eyes away from the fallen bartender, she found the stranger helping Louise to right a few chairs. Looking warily at him, she finally caught his eye and said, “I don’t think that they expected a fight.”

With his soot-streaked and sweaty face, his smile was dazzlingly white and infectious; it prompted her to smile back at him. “No, Miss, I would think not,” he said with a voice rumbly from the smoke.

She studied him for a few moments. “You’re here looking for Jake Mueller yet you just helped us fight off his men. Exactly who are you, mister?”

He took a moment to stand up a chair, then looked directly at her. “My name is Murdoch Lancer and I’m trying to find my sons.”

*****

Scott slowly made his way late to the breakfast table. His head had finally settled down to a manageable ache while he and Nameless had stood guard last night, but he still felt a lingering weariness. Going into the kitchen, he was aware of three voices, one of them Johnny’s, in quiet conversation.

Johnny and the McIntyre’s all raised their heads to look at him when he walked into the room.

Claire’s eyes looked reddened and puffy; her usually tidy hair knot was askew. She placed a cup of coffee in front of him as soon as he sat down and laid a hand softly on his shoulder. “I want to thank you for getting Joe safely out of town yesterday. I’m only sorry that you had to pay for it the way you did.”

He looked from Claire to Tim and saw the tension outlined around the older man’s eyes. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Jimmy went on a rampage last night, after being let out of jail by his father. He almost succeeded in burning down the mercantile and sent some men to do the same to the saloon,” Tim said.     

“Are you sure?”

“Henry and his family are holed up at their place but he sent out word this morning to let us know what was happening in town.”

“What about Colette and Louise, are they all right?”

Tim looked at Scott and shook his head. “Don’t know. There wasn’t any news on if they survived the attack at the saloon or, if they did, where they went afterwards. I’d like to think that if Colette did manage to come out of the fight all right, that she’s left Argenta…but I can’t really see her doing that.”

Scott palmed his warm coffee cup. “Colette and Henry…Mueller retaliated against them for helping me.”

Johnny spoke up. “And where would Joe be if you didn’t help him? Swingin’ from a tree is my guess. You did what you had to, Scott. Don’t take any credit for Mueller’s actions.”

There was a dip in the conversation and Scott had a feeling that there was something not being said. He waited, impatiently, for the news. “What else?” he finally asked.

“Mueller has Sandy in town,” Tim said. “He’s threatening to kill him.” He slammed his cup down on the table causing a clatter. “God knows what’s been done to the boy or if he even reached Conaway to get that telegram out to the state. I’ve waited too long already. Something has to be done.”

Claire reached out her hand to gently clasp her husband’s.

Tim eyed both Scott and Johnny. “I can’t ask you two to ride with me today. The stakes have always been high but Mueller has just upped the ante. I’ll round up any of my men who might still be willing to come with me. Sandy was…is well-liked amongst the boys; there’ll be a few who want to see him come back in one piece and maybe a few more who want to see the tables turned on the Mueller’s. I’ve also got a hand riding out to the neighboring ranches, but we’re almost out of time and I’m not sure who I can count on at this point. Mueller and his men have them running scared.”

Johnny gazed steadily at Tim. “I think Scott and I already have a part in this, Mr. McIntyre. And now’s not the time to be turnin’ down free help, right brother?”

Scott pushed his cup away. “We’ll need to get organized. When do we leave for Argenta?”

 

Chapter 12

Soft morning sunlight filtered past the rooftops of the town as Jake Mueller stood outside the jailhouse. Argenta was silent except for the methodical creaking of the boarding house sign suspended above the walkway. He leaned on the railing and scrubbed a hand over his moustache and chin. The wreckages of the saloon and mercantile looked vividly out of place with the rest of the buildings. Shaking his head at the sight before him, he wondered briefly if he could have stopped Jimmy’s rampage. It didn’t matter now, since the destruction, along with the capture of the ranch hand, had both served a purpose. McIntyre would be riding into town today--he’d put money on it.

It would have all been so much simpler if Tim had gone along with his plans, but the rancher wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, McIntyre had tried to rally the townspeople against him, albeit without much luck. He’d give Tim high marks for tenacity but it was high time that he quit his foolishness. There was only one way to do it, either Tim would acquiesce to his demands, or he would help drive the railhead directly through their parlor using the guns that he had hired. Red Mangus should help in that endeavor. Mangus had surprised him from that very first meeting in the saloon and it still chafed that he couldn’t figure the man out. Sighing a bit, he turned his thoughts back to McIntyre.

Yes, Tim would be riding into town all right, Armed to the teeth no doubt, with the Lancer brothers following behind for good measure. There wouldn’t be too many other ranchers in the area that would go along with him; McIntyre would only be able to count on a few at the very most. And he would be ready for them. He looked down the empty street for a few more moments then turned to enter the sheriff’s office.

*****

It was a solemn and silent trip to town for the most part, punctuated only by the rhythmic sound of walking horses. Each man was lost in his own thoughts, pondering what might happen when they reached Argenta. The small group made its way to the town’s outskirts, halted and re-checked their weapons. In the distance, they could see the jailhouse and the main street, devoid of any activity. Tim gave a slap to the reins and pushed his horse into a gallop. Seven ranch hands followed suit.

Staying his mount, Johnny surveyed the town that lay before him and pulled on the stampede strings of his hat.

Scott eased his horse alongside Barranca. “What is it?”

“There’s bound to be some fireworks today; my advice would be to stay away from Mangus.”

“And what will you be doing?”

He flashed a grin. “I’ll be stayin’ away, too, brother.”

Scott and Johnny caught up with Tim and his men as they were tying off their mounts just shy of the jailhouse. They had dismounted when Johnny nudged Scott’s elbow and tipped his head towards the Let’er Buck, a few store fronts down. The plate glass window had been broken out and a few shards of glass were strewn about the boardwalk. Where the fire had licked the front of the saloon black trails of soot and ash stood in stark contrast to the whitewash of the surrounding buildings. Scott started down the boardwalk towards the saloon but was stopped by his brother’s hand on his arm.

Johnny motioned towards the jail. “Better leave it; we’ve got bigger trouble coming.”

Mueller, followed by a dour Mangus, had come outside to stand in front of the jailhouse. The sheriff and two other men came out from the jail and took positions on either side of the slim building, rifles held across their forearms.

Muller yelled out, “You’re through here Tim; pack up and leave before it’s too late. It would have been good to have you as a partner in all this but the only place for you now is out of this town.”

Tim walked to the middle of the street. “You’re a fool Jake, if you believe that the state of California will let you ride herd on Argenta for much longer. We’ve already sent wires to the government for help.”

“Have you Tim?” He pointed to the corner of the street where Jimmy, mounted up on a big roan, was leading another horse with a man tied to the saddle. It was Sandy; he’d been beaten beyond recognition, and could barely keep his head off the horse’s neck. At his father’s nod, Jimmy led him a few steps towards McIntyre and flashed a knife, cutting the ropes encircling Sandy’s hands. The cowhand was pushed off the horse and landed in the dirt, unconscious. “I don’t like doing this, Tim, but you’re forcing my hand.”

Two of McIntyre’s ranch hands ran out and dragged Sandy to the other side of the street when Jimmy backed away.

Scott stepped closer to Johnny. “Mueller isn’t taking any chances, his men are scattered around behind the buildings,” he murmured. “Off to the left and there’s one around the mercantile.” A flash of silver from a window above the burned-out saloon caught his eye. “Make that one or two more in the windows above the saloon. Maybe about nine or ten, including Mueller.” 

Johnny’s eyes were centered on Mangus alone. “I see’em and I’d be willing to bet there may be a couple more around here somewhere.”

Mueller yelled out again, “You have to ask yourself Tim, how many more men are you going to lose? And Claire, what will happen to her when you’re not around anymore?”

Tim started at the mention of Claire’s name and a cowhand restrained him with a heavy hand on the forearm. “Don’t Boss, he’s looking for an excuse to blow you away. Don’t give it to him.”

Jimmy suddenly put the spurs to his horse, his pistol spurting fire at McIntyre as the animal leapt forward. Men on both sides scattered to places of safety as Tim crumpled to the street.  Scott and Johnny split apart after seeing McIntyre’s ranch hand drag Tim underneath a wagon. Jimmy whipped his horse around in the middle of the street, and even from his poor vantage point behind a watering trough, Scott could see enough of Mueller’s son to know that he was drawing a bead on Johnny.

Firing quickly, Scott’s rifle shot went wide and struck the horse instead. Three shots countered his one, but before he ducked down he had the satisfaction of seeing the roan stumble and fall, taking its rider along with it.

Johnny lunged to the corner of a building as shots spattered around him. A maelstrom was swirling before him, with curses and shouting coming from the middle of it all. The first person in his sights was Jimmy and he watched in slight bewilderment as the boy’s horse fell to the ground. He saw Mueller rolling off and scurrying for cover. He’d have Scott to thank for that one. He next turned to the jailhouse, expecting to see the senior Mueller and Mangus, but no one was there. Mueller was a worry but Mangus was more of one and Johnny patiently surveyed each building for signs of either men.

Beyond the shop to the right he saw a shooter moving atop the Let’er Buck’s roof. A pistol wouldn’t be of any use at this range but Scott’s rifle would. He caught his brother’s attention and pointed. Scott nodded but was pinned down by fire on two sides. Johnny knew his brother would have to find better protection soon. He yelled out, “I’ll cover you!”

Scott sprang to his feet and sprinted for shelter. Bullets whistled past and plowed into the earth beside him, flinging up dirt against his pants leg. He could hear Johnny’s echoing report as well as several others from further up the street. Surprisingly, the door to the smithy suddenly opened and he dove for the small entryway. Large hands roughly grabbed him and hauled him upwards.

Scott used the upward momentum to blindly swing out a fist. He felt the solid connection with his opponent’s face, and the man was spun away and driven backwards to fall against the flue.

“Scott! For God’s sake…stop!” the man bellowed.

“Wha…? Murdoch?! What the hell are you doing here?”

His father held a hand against his reddened cheek. “I figured out that I shouldn’t send my sons to do a job that I should be doing.” He saw the obvious dishevelment of his son and said with a wry smile, “It looks like you could use some help.”

Scott nodded curtly and peered out the door for a moment. He looked back at his father, “We’re fighting Jake Mueller.”

“I know.” At Scott’s look of puzzlement, he continued, “I happened to arrive at the saloon just as things got interesting last night. Colette filled me in.”

“Colette is all right? And Louise?”

“They’re both fine. I was seeing Colette back to the saloon to pick up a few things when I saw your party come into town.”

Scott nodded. “Mueller’s been trying to bring this town to its knees bit by bit over the last few months. A railroad may be coming through here and he wants the prize all for himself. Tim McIntyre has been the lone holdout but there’s a good chance he’s dead now; he was shot by Mueller’s son.”

Rapid gunfire could be heard down the street. “Is Johnny out there?” Murdoch asked.

“Yes, as well as a few of McIntyre’s men, or what’s left of them anyhow. You didn’t happen to bring anyone with you, did you?”

Murdoch shook his head. “No, unfortunately.”

Scott checked his rifle. “I’m going back out, Murdoch, Johnny will need help.”

Johnny had seen Scott dive into the smithy shed. He was rewarded a few minutes later by the sound of his brother’s rifle, along with a second one, ringing towards the saloon. The man on top of the building was no match for the onslaught and fell to his death a few seconds later. Another man suddenly tumbled out the Let’er Buck’s second story window shortly after the first had fallen. Johnny smiled; Colette must be all right after all.

Several of Mueller’s hired men remained in the street, hidden in various places, and from time to time Johnny could hear shouts amongst them. Using the side of the building as cover, he crouched with his back against it, mulling over his options. Deciding to try and go behind the shops, he worked his way around until he could stand up and walk out, gun held at the ready.

 

Chapter 13

Johnny had gotten partway down the back street when he heard a door scrape open. Red Mangus stepped out into the shadowy alleyway. Seeing Johnny, Red smiled and slowly holstered his pistol, slouching his back and shoulders against the splintery-looking wood of the door. Crossing his arms, Red stared at him from underneath the brim of his hat.

“Well, what’s it gonna be, boy?”

Johnny returned the older man’s stare for a few moments then shrugged as he, too, returned his weapon to its holster.  “You picked the wrong side this time, Red. I think we both know that.”

“You’re fast Johnny, but not that fast. What makes you think you can win this argument?” He shoved off from the door and tilted the brim of his hat upwards with a finger, coming to stand across from Johnny in the small alleyway.

“I don’t think it’d pay to underestimate me, Red. After all, you were the one who taught me never to let’em see all your cards at once.”

Mangus chuckled and cocked an eye at the man standing in front of him. “That I did, Johnny, that I did. I was right about one thing, though. You don’t have the stomach for gunfighting. It’s a good thing you finally found your way out.”

Johnny saw it first in Red’s eyes. Just a shift of light as they flicked away from him for a second. It was a blur, Mangus’ draw, and a glimpse was all Johnny had before starting a well-honed reflex of his own and he slapped leather. As soon as he pulled the trigger, Johnny saw that Mangus wasn’t firing at him but rather behind him. It was too late; his bullet had found its way into Red’s wide chest. He spun around to meet the newest threat and saw Jimmy Mueller, eyes wide-open in a death stare, pitching to the ground. Johnny ran to Mangus and kneeled at the man’s side.

He lifted the older man’s head up on his knee. “Why’d you do it, Red?”

“I couldn’t have that bastard shootin’ you in the back…wouldn’t be sporting.”

Red patted Johnny’s chest with the back of his hand.  “Funny thing, I’m glad it was a friend who did the dirty deed.” His breath hitched against the pain and blood blossomed out on his shirtfront. “Get me off of this damned street Johnny; I don’t wanna die in the dirt.”

Johnny helped Red to his feet and shouldered his weight. He half-carried, half-dragged Mangus past the body of Mueller’s son to the now-quiet main street of Argenta. He maneuvered the gunfighter up on the boardwalk and propped his back against the wall of the burnt-out mercantile.

Mangus clamped a stained hand around Johnny’s arm and looked down at the hole in his shirt. “That’s good shootin’, boy.” Suddenly Red looked up at Johnny, squeezing his arm tighter even as life faded from his eyes. “Seeing you brought back the good times. Make damn sure to hold on to what you got, Johnny…this ain’t the right way for you.” The hand dropped and Johnny knew that Red Mangus had breathed his last.

He stepped away from Red’s body and pushed his hat off with a shaky hand to let it fall down his back, caught by the stampede strings. Gradually, he became aware of men yelling and running feet. Scott’s voice broke through his pensiveness and he felt a warm, heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Johnny, I’m sorry.” Scott said.

He looked into Red’s now peaceful countenance and couldn’t seem to find the words, so he simply nodded. He swung his head up in surprise when his father’s deep voice cut through the quietness.

“Are you all right, John?” Murdoch asked.

“Yeah, I’m all right.” he replied.

Johnny glanced past his father and brother to the alleyway. Jake Mueller stood quietly gazing down at his fallen son. As Johnny watched, the hat that Mueller held in his left hand slowly tipped out of the man’s grasp and fell to the ground.

*****

It was almost dusk and Argenta was quiet again. Scott wrinkled his nose; the smell of sulfur still lingered in the air from the gunfight. It was one odor that he had never gotten used to during the war. There had been casualties on both sides today and several bodies had been moved from the street to a holding place in a nearby barn. A few, including Red Mangus and Jimmy Mueller had already been buried. Scott stepped off the end of the boardwalk and saw Johnny standing in the small cemetery just outside of town. His brother had been out there since Mangus’ burial. He looked a little lost, standing out there alone amongst the grave markers, his arms crossed tightly against his chest. He waited a few moments until Johnny moved and his arms came down, then he passed through the entryway in the short picket fence that surrounded the cemetery. Coming up to the grave, Scott removed his hat. Johnny’s head was down but Scott thought he saw the curve of a smile.

“He wouldn’t understand that, you know.” Johnny said.

“Understand what?”

“Takin’ off your hat.”

Scott smiled, caught in a habit of longstanding. He shifted the hat around in his hands and fingered the brim. “He deserves my respect.”

Johnny lifted his head slightly and looked at Scott sidelong. He jerked his head towards the other freshly dug grave. “And what about him?”

Scott looked at the second mound of dirt, his smile disappearing. “For him, I’ll put my hat back on.”

Johnny gave a short chuckle. “I like you, brother.”

“I think it needs a marker,” Scott said, pointing to Red’s gravesite.

“One’s comin’. It’ll have his name and date on it as soon as they can get it carved.” Johnny shook his head. “All that time and I never even knew his real name. Found it in some old papers he had on him, but I had’em put ‘Red’ on the marker, it was all he ever went by.”

“What was his real name anyway?”

“Edward W. Mangus.”

“He didn’t look like much an ‘Edward’ did he? ‘Red’ suits him much better. He was a good man--a good friend--after all, wasn’t he?”

Johnny let out a slow breath. “Yeah, he was. Mangus was a hell of a friend; you always knew where you stood with him--good or bad. But seein’ him here, after Sonora and all…it threw me off.” Johnny’s hand crept up to rest briefly on the butt of his gun then jerked outwards in an arc toward the grave. “And then all this…it could just as well have been me lyin’ in that grave.”

“I, for one, am glad it isn’t.”

Silence stretched out between them but it was a companionable one so they let it ride for a few moments.

“I guess you finally know where you stood with Red after all.” Scott said quietly.

Johnny’s hand fidgeted by his side. “Right before he died Red told me to “hold on to what I got’.”

“That sounds like good advice, from a man who ought to know.”

Johnny raised his head. “You know what, brother? He was right; I’ve got a lot to hold on to, thanks to him.”

Scott settled his hat back onto the crown of his head and exhaled heavily, “We both do, Johnny, we both do.”

Johnny glanced down once more at the grave of Red Mangus. “This is probably the last thing Red would want, to have the two of us talking about him over his restin’ place.” He pulled his hat down lower over his eyes and turned to Scott. “Come on, let’s go find the old man; I think he at least owes us dinner tonight.”   

*****

Murdoch made his way through the cleared out saloon front to the inside where his sons and the McIntyre’s were sitting.  “It’s looking better,” he mentioned, coming up to the table.

Colette smiled brightly. “That it is, Mr. Lancer. Thanks to you and your sons.” She winked at the McIntyre’s. “And to a few good people in Argenta.” Looking around at the shambles, she caught Louise’s eye. “We’ll eventually re-build when Jonas is healthy again and things settle down a bit, won’t we Louise?”

Louise nodded and cast her bright eyes to Scott. “Colette has asked me to be part owner when we do re-build.”

Claire gently laid a hand on her husband’s sleeve and spoke up, “We’d better get going, Tim.”

Tim stood, hampered by a bulky bandage under his shirt and the sling around his arm. He stretched out the kinks from his back and offered a hand to Scott, then turned to Johnny. “We couldn’t have done it without you two, we’re beholden.” He glanced at Murdoch with a smile. “Anytime you boys get bored and feel the need to quit the San Joaquin, you have a place at the McIntyre’s.”

Murdoch smiled back and shook Tim’s hand. “I think I can keep them busy enough so they won’t stray too far.”

Husband and wife turned to leave the saloon.

“Speaking of which, Lancer can’t run on its own.”

“Yeah, we know. It’s time to get back,” Johnny began, “but there is that small matter of payment for services rendered.”

Murdoch brought up a hand and rubbed the back of his neck. “Yes, well, we can talk about that on the way home.”

After saying their good-byes to Colette, Murdoch and Johnny made their way out of the saloon, leaving Scott to the ministrations of the happy Louise. Looking back, Johnny saw his brother bring up Louise’s hand and kiss it. A bright pink suffused her pretty face and she turned away with a wide smile.

“It seems your brother has an admirer,” murmured Murdoch.

“He sure does at that.” Johnny turned to look down the main street of Argenta and let his eyes shift to the boardwalk in front of the mercantile where Red had died. He shook his head, “And I’ve never been happier to leave a place.”

Scott re-joined them. “How’s Mueller doing at the jail?”

“Cramped, that’s how he is, with all his friends to keep him company, at least until the state militia gets here. I still can’t believe that Jake did this. He’s not the same man I once knew.” Murdoch looked towards the jail with a frown. “Or maybe I never really knew him to begin with. It was so long ago and your mother…”

“My mother what, Murdoch?” Scott asked.

“She never really cared for Jake, despite the fact that he saved our lives that day.” He shook his head. “I could never understand it, but I trusted her and what she felt. That’s why we never kept in touch with him after we got to the valley and why I didn’t pay much attention to the telegram when it came.”

Scott glanced over to Johnny and warned him with a slight shake of his head. The fact that Mueller had been in love with his mother was something that was going to stay with them. It would do no good to bring it up now, or ever for that matter.  

Murdoch looked at Scott and Johnny. “He was a fool to think that I would go along with him in this. Or my sons, for that matter. I’m sorry I threw you two into this mess.” He blew out a breath. “It was close.”

Johnny angled his head up to study his father and smiled slyly. “That’s all right; Scott and I have the whole way back to Lancer to figure out what our payment for this little trip might entail. It’s gonna cost you.” Suddenly serious, he lifted a finger towards Murdoch’s purpled cheek. “What did you do, Murdoch? Run into a door or somethin’?”

Murdoch shot Scott a dark look and saw his elder son suddenly stare intently at the boarded-up window of the saloon. “Yeah, or something.”

He clapped a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Come on boys, let’s go home.”

 

~end~
Jun/’08

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