The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Night Of The Hawk
Thanks to Cat for the beta

“Well, Murdoch, I hate to bear the bad news, but Scott won’t be doing much of anything for several weeks. The break was bad, and I won’t even venture a guess when he will be up and about.” Sam Jenkins, the local doctor, said as he returned the instruments back to the bag he was never without, especially when he came to Lancer.

“Sam, will he be alright?” Murdoch asked with a worried frown as he looked down at his oldest son lying on the bed, his left leg heavily ensconced in splints and bandages. He remembered all too clearly the awful sight of bones protruding through the torn skin of Scott’s thigh.

“If he does what I say and doesn’t try to push things along, yes, he should recover completely. But that’s only if he does what I say. You should be grateful this isn’t Johnny lying here…” Sam commented with a huff.

Murdoch shrugged knowing that Scott would have a better chance at recovering from such an injury than his younger brother. It was then that Murdoch offered a hint of a smile; he knew Sam was right. It was difficult for either of them to be confined to bed, but they had a much better chance for Scott to follow Sam’s orders.

“He should sleep through the night. I’ve given him enough sedative but watch him in the morning after he wakes.” Loading the bag with the cleaned instruments, Sam went to the door with Murdoch close behind. “No doubt Johnny will be spending the night in there with him…” Again, Sam stopped short of finishing the statement and smiled, shaking his head at the thoughts of the Lancer brothers. If one was sick or injured, the other was with him until he was on his feet. How many times since their return had that happened? Sam wondered. Too many…

The back door slammed, and Murdoch knew immediately who it was. He heard the scrape of rowels on the tile floors then rush of footsteps as they pounded up the back stairs. Johnny took them three at a time and ran down the hall to Scott's room; the worry was unmistakable as it flooded his dark, cerulean eyes.

“What happened?” Johnny questioned, desperate for an answer, an answer that he hoped wouldn’t bode bad news.

“Take it easy, Johnny, Scott’s going to be fine. He suffered a broken leg when the horse he was riding stepped in a hole and fell. The break is serious, though; he won’t be walking for a while.” In an attempt to allay Johnny’s fears, Sam opened the door to Scott’s room; Johnny stepped through and immediately pulled the chair close to the bed. Sitting at Scott’s side, watching him carefully and tending him was where they would find Johnny until he was certain Scott would be alright.

Sam closed the door and turned to Murdoch, shaking his head again and gave Murdoch another small grin. “Your boys are really something, Murdoch! They’re really something!” He patted Murdoch’s shoulder on the way by. “I’ll be back in the morning. If you need me before that don’t hesitate to send for me.” Sam went down the stairs leaving Murdoch standing in the hall contemplating his two sons, so very different and so much alike. Murdoch quietly opened the door to Scott’s room and watched the tenderness in Johnny’s hands as he wrung out the cloth of fresh water to lay across Scott’s brow.

Knowing Murdoch had returned, Johnny began talking in his velvet tones, tones that were a comfort, calming frantic thoughts and kept the panic under control. “When did this happen, Murdoch?” Johnny asked, his eyes not leaving his brother’s face.

“Late this afternoon. He and Isidro were rounding up strays around the boundary to the Conway Ranch, so it wasn’t very far. Isidro was able to get him back here without too much trouble.”

“Remmie?” Johnny asked, dread laced through the question knowing that Scott would take it to heart if he lost Remington. Remmie was a good horse.

“No, he took the bay with him today. Remmie threw a shoe last night, so Jelly had him all day.”

Johnny felt some relief… for Scott. Losing any horse was hard for Johnny, but at least Scott’s mount had been spared.

“Johnny, dinner will be ready shortly,” Murdoch whispered but knew in his heart that Johnny wouldn’t be joining him at the table.

Turning, Johnny met his father’s eyes with determination set in his face. “I’ll be up here,” he said, and he turned back to Scott.

Murdoch could only sigh, but in truth, he was grateful that the boys were close, their loyalty to the other rock solid. They had not been raised together, had not even known the existence of the other for very long, but the last two years had been an incredible journey to becoming a family, for all of them. Murdoch put a gentle hand on Johnny’s shoulder and squeezed tenderly in understanding.

“I’ll have a plate sent up for you, son.” Murdoch left the room to dine with Teresa.

Slouched in the chair, Johnny kept vigil next to his brother. Most of the time, he just watched Scott, making sure that there was no discomfort while he slept. Ol’ Sam musta really dosed him up good. He ain’t even so much as twitched since I been here. Said it was a bad break, though. Wonder how long it’ll be before he’s back on ‘is feet?

Johnny’s mind drifted to the times they had shared over the last couple of years. It was hard to think about life without Scott now. Their bond had grown quickly, from skeptical and untrusting, doubtful and suspicious, to that of two brothers that seemed to have known each other all their lives. Complete faith had replaced any and all doubts. Indeed, the Lancer brothers had grown into a formidable team, with honor and courage, their spirits solid and steadfast. How had this happened so quickly? In the blink of an eye, they bonded as brothers should.

The soft knock came as Johnny straightened up in the chair, relieving the catch in his back that was forming and ready to burst into a full-blown muscle spasm. Murdoch entered the room with soft footfalls and crossed over to the bed. Seeing the fatigue on his younger son’s features, he, again, put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.

“Son, why don’t you go to bed? I’ll sit with him, but I can tell you right now he won’t wake before tomorrow morning. Sam has him well sedated.” Knowing what was coming, Murdoch waited as the familiar words were uttered in the usual, stubborn tone, the same that had been spoken so many times before.

“I’m fine.” And Johnny made no attempt to move.

Turning, Murdoch spied the meal left untouched on the tray where Teresa had left it on the writing desk in Scott’s room. He frowned. “Johnny, you didn’t eat. You’re going to make yourself sick if you don’t take care of yourself! I’ll be sending for Sam to take care of you, too!”

A slight smile twitched at the corners of Johnny’s mouth, and he risked a glance at his father. “Forgot about it…” Johnny sheepishly admitted.

Murdoch could only shrug. “I’ll have Teresa warm this for you…”

“No, don’t bother, Murdoch, but thanks. Not very hungry…”

Murdoch’s brows shot up into the middle of his forehead, and surprise etched in his eyes. “Since when are you not hungry?” he said with a quiet laugh.

“Since tanight. I’ll get somethin’ ta eat later. I’m fine, Murdoch.” And Johnny focused his attention back to his brother.

At the door, Murdoch turned. “I’ll bring you a blanket.” He closed the door, knowing that Johnny would spend the night in the chair beside Scott.

<><><><> 

The clock gently chimed ten; Murdoch put away his pencil and blew out the lamp. Mounting the stairs, he walked softly down the hall stopping by Scott’s door. Looking down, he spied a dim light shining between the door and the threshold. He eased the portal open not wanting to wake Johnny should he have fallen asleep, but he needn’t have worried. Johnny was awake but slouched again in the chair leaning to the side with his chin in his hand and eyes open.

“Johnny, go to bed, please. I’ll sit here…” Murdoch started but was cut off.

“I’m fi….”

“Yes, I know, you’re fine,” Murdoch said with a quiet huff. Dragging the desk chair next to Johnny, he sat for a moment, his gaze alternated from one son to the other. Two months ago Johnny had almost drowned in an effort to save a young woman when the stage she had taken had been ambushed by outlaws and sent plummeting into a cold and churning river. Suffering only mild injuries, Scott would not leave his side until he was sure that Johnny would recover.

Forsaking his own safety, Johnny went to the woman’s aid only to have her die in his arms as she had suffered severe injury when a rib punctured her lung. Both had ended up thrown into the icy waters and washed downstream. Johnny had been tossed around in the river but was relatively lucky after sustaining bruises, a concussion, and a dislocated shoulder. And Scott had not left Johnny’s side until he knew his brother would be alright.

For not knowing of the existence of the other for most of their lives, their brotherhood had grown incredibly strong, and Murdoch was proud, very proud… and frustrated when the boys wouldn’t leave the other. Scott would be alright given enough time, but he knew with certainty that Johnny would be here all night.

“Can’t leave him, Murdoch. It’s almost like if I don’t see him awake an’ talkin’ he’ll slip away in the night an’ never see him again. That sound crazy ta you?” The softly whispered words were filled with anxiety.  

Johnny looked at Murdoch, and he saw worry etched on his youngest son’s face. He smiled and patted Johnny’s leg. “No, son, not crazy at all. Just worried. You get some rest, alright?” Murdoch left, closing the door softly behind him.

Johnny’s thoughts wandered during the rest of the night. Thoughts of Scott and the things they’d done, the tomfoolery at which Johnny had soon discovered Scott was very accomplished. There were times it was as if they were fourteen again and daring the other to try and slip something past ‘the ol’ man’.

Johnny thought about the hunting trip they took with Murdoch and the bets they made with each other, the birthday celebration for Scott ending with Johnny pulling Scott off the bar before he was either thrown in jail for disturbing the peace or completely stripped when singing about that girl Jeannie and her light brown hair. The ride home brought a smile to Johnny’s lips as he remembered Scott mounting his horse backward. And the following morning, after telling Scott a traveling photographer caught that particular pose in a picture and Scott insisting he send it to his grandfather in Boston. Yup, ol’ Scott really was upset about that…

Johnny woke at the chime of the clock downstairs. Four in the morning… Scott was resting peacefully; the strain was gone from his face until ya try movin’ Johnny thought. His thoughts going back to the night; things always seemed worse at night. In the lonely, dark hours he remembered what he’d told Murdoch; he couldn’t leave Scott when he hadn’t yet become conscious. If he, Johnny, wasn’t there to see it, Scott might slip away.

The thought did seem a bit crazy to him now. Had he just been overtired, that the situation seemed so dire? After all, this was only a broken leg, a serious broken leg, but it would heal and wasn’t life-threatening. Johnny had made decisions while overtired before, significant enough to be life-threatening without doubt or second-guessing himself, and he shook his head. But those times my brother wasn’t involved. Guess that’s the difference. I got Scott now… Johnny smiled as he watched his brother, still asleep, but there was movement beneath the closed eyelids now. He would be waking soon, and Johnny would be there for him when those blue-gray eyes opened.

Forty-seven minutes later, Scott lifted heavy lids. He found his room in pleasant darkness, but he felt a presence with him at his side. He didn’t turn to see but knew who it was. Bringing his hand up to cover his forehead, Scott groaned and tried to swallow. Johnny leaned in with a glass of water and slid an arm under Scott’s shoulders. He gently lifted as Scott took a tentative sip, then another.

“Not too much, Boston. Don’t want ya pukin’ on my shirt,” Johnny joked as a relieved smile sneaked across his lips, his voice soft and comforting.

“Thanks, Johnny, I’ll try not to mess up your shirt,” Scott replied with a gravel-like voice. “What time is it?”

“Time for ya ta get your lazy ass outta this bed an’ go ta work!” Johnny laughed as he helped Scott to lie back on the pillows.

“Wish I could instead of being confined to bed. Did Sam say how long this will take?”

Johnny’s eyes twinkled as Scott was now at his mercy, and the teasing began. “Hell, Scott, Christmas is gonna be over by the time you’ll be on a horse again.”

“Johnny, it’s only August,” Scott shrugged, staring at his younger brother.

“Yeah, so?” Johnny couldn’t help but laugh.

A slight grin fluttered across Scott’s face. “Guess you’ll have to keep the books while I’m in bed.”

“Nope, already brought ‘em up here for ya, long as you ain’t gonna be any help doin’ the, ya know, hard work!” Johnny laughed at Scott’s glare. “Ya can’t pull it off, Boston. I ain’t scared.” 

Scott sighed and relaxed, taking comfort in the jest, albeit taunting at his expense.

“Hey, Scott? Think ya can eat somethin’? Maria should be here soon an’ I bet she’ll have somethin’ really good for ya ta eat… Like soup…” Ya got this comin’, Boston! Last time I was hurt ya wouldn’t let up. What are ya always tellin’ me? ‘What goes ‘round comes ‘round’…

Scott leveled a cold eye at his brother regarding the ‘soup’ comment and knew he had it coming, and then some. He’d been particularly hard on Johnny the last time his brother was injured, even going as far as to have Maria come up to Johnny’s room to help him with his bath. As Scott sat downstairs he could hear the commotion as Johnny bellowed he didn’t need any help, especially if Scott suggested it, and Maria fled the room in tears, forcing Johnny to apologize later for his blunt remarks and threats. Suddenly he wondered if there would be retaliation, would Johnny send Maria up here to help him bathe. Uh oh… Yes, what goes around comes around. I really need to watch what I say to him because he will use it on me later…

<><><><> 

“Johnny, I’m going into town, there’s some business I want to take care of. Do you think you’ll be needing help with Scott laid up?” Murdoch watched as Johnny smiled.

“Nope, got it covered, Murdoch. Things are pretty well caught up, and Jelly can help if something comes up. Cip’s not too busy either so take all the time ya need.” Johnny gave his father the dazzling smile that had been missing from Murdoch’s life for so long. And now every time he saw it, he thought his heart would burst with joy; joy that had overcome the hurt and healed the heartbroken man Murdoch had been for all the years before his sons came home.

Johnny watched as Murdoch rode under the adobe arch that announced the road to the hacienda. The name proud and simply chiseled and painted on the adobe boldly declared all that was Lancer. Well, best get them cattle that wandered back into the North pasture before somethin’ happens ta ‘em,  Johnny thought with a sigh.

<><><><> 

“He’s comin’! Get outta sight, you two!” Ty Fletcher hissed at his partners, Reno Sutton, and Shay Castle. The three men hunkered down among the rocks as Murdoch Lancer’s horse trotted past with his usual high step, head raised and tail swatting back and forth. The rich sorrel was a head turner, fine conformation, alert, wide-spaced, and intelligent eyes were bright, and the three white stockings flashed with the beat of the trot. A small spot of brown dotted the full white blaze by the left eye. One could not mistake this horse; he was like his owner, larger than life.

The three men mounted their horses as the Lancer patriarch passed, and they followed at a safe distance all the way into Green River. Staying out of sight and acting the casual stranger may prove to be difficult. Anyone new in town was almost certainly under scrutiny often raising suspicions merely by being new.

Fletcher went into the saloon to wait. Taking in the surroundings, he kept an ear open and waited. Didn’t most men stop off for a drink after taking care of their business in town? Reno Sutton sat outside the general store, engaging old Mose Hawkins, the town drunk, in a game of checkers on the boardwalk. Shay Castle watched as he lounged in a chair sitting the shade in front of the saloon. It seemed that Mr. Murdoch Lancer was a busy man today.

Murdoch tied Toby at the hitch rail in front of the post office and stepped up to the counter. He took a piece of paper and jotted down a few lines for Billy to send. The operator tapped out the missive quickly, and the message was sent over the telegraph lines. The bell on the door jingled as a young fellow stepped over to the counter to Murdoch’s left and began to write his note to be sent out next. He stopped writing and scribbled out a word as if having difficulty knowing what words to use.

Billy looked up at Murdoch. “Are you going to wait for a response, Mr. Lancer?”

 Murdoch thought for a moment before he responded. “Yes, Billy, I have a few other stops to make, but you can probably catch me in the cafe in about an hour. Thank you.” He paid for the service then Murdoch turned and went out under the tinkling bell. Listening to that all day would make my head spin! I don’t know how Billy does it!

Suddenly the young man seemed to have lost any interest in sending his telegram and threw down the pencil stub, shaking his head, and catching Billy’s attention. The man then realized that he would have to say something. “Women! Whatever I write’s gonna be the wrong thing!”

Billy paused and then gave a chuckle. Oh, these youngsters have no clue regarding the fairer sex!

The young man gathered himself and left the office with a slamming of the door.

Murdoch stopped at the sheriff’s office next. The three men wishing that Lancer would conclude his business in town were starting to feel edgy and nervous, trying to act casual and not raise any unwanted attention. Shay Castle wandered into the saloon to make his report, and soon Reno Sutton bellied up to the bar, close enough to hear his partners talking. It was decided that they would go to the dining room, Ty and Shay together and Reno alone, not wanting to be seen in each other’s company.

“Mornin’ Mr. Lancer! Hey, how’s Scott doin’?” Sheriff Val Crawford asked as Murdoch came into the sheriff’s office, and for once, did not catch Val snoozing on the job.

Murdoch smiled broadly. “Good morning, Val. Good to see you! Scott’s going to be laid up for a while. Sam said the break was bad and he’ll be confined to bed for a time. At least two or three weeks. He’s complaining about his leg being tied too tightly. He swears it’s cutting off the circulation! ”

“Lemme guess, if I know ol’ Johnny, he’s already got them ranch ledgers up there for him ta tally! Right?”

Murdoch couldn’t help but laugh, and it felt good. “Yes, you are absolutely right. It seemed that once Johnny found that Scott had been hurt, he sat by his bedside until Scott woke up. Then after finding out Scott would recover, the worry was over, and Johnny carried all the ledgers to Scott’s room, along with plenty of pencils, pens, paper, and ink!”

Now it was Val’s turn, and his laugh could be heard out onto the boardwalk. “Oh, that boy’s a sly one, he is. Ain’t gonna pass up a chance like this one!” Johnny could turn the tables and usually make something go to his advantage and, no, he wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip through his fingers!

“Say, Val, it’s almost lunchtime, how about having a bite with me? I am waiting for an answer to a telegram and thought to go over to the diner while I wait. Why don’t you join me? I’ll buy!” Murdoch offered with a grin as Val jumped up from his chair behind the battered old desk like he’d been jabbed with a hot poker. He grabbed his dirty hat complete with three bullet holes and flipped it onto his head then followed Murdoch Lancer out the door.

The special was chicken and dumplings, and Murdoch watched in awe as Val put away his third plate. Johnny had a good appetite but nothing like Val.

Sitting back in his chair with both hands rubbing his belly, Val belched loudly then remembered his manners, coloring a deep red that crept up from under his collar. “Oh, ‘scuse me, Mr. Lancer. Was so good, I kinda forgot myself there for a minute.”

“That’s alright, Val. No offense is taken. Are you up for a piece of pie to top off that delectable meal?” Murdoch asked as he waved the waitress to their table.

Val could only smile as Millie hurried over with her questioning eyes. Surely the Sheriff didn’t want a fourth helping! she thought to herself.

“Millie, I think that we would like to have more coffee and apple pie, please.”

Millie sighed in relief. Since Val Crawford became sheriff the profits of the diner had dropped a bit. “Yes, sir, Mr. Lancer. I’ll get to it right away!” Then she hurried to the kitchen to fill their order.

“So, ya got Johnny ramroddin’, keepin’ ‘im outta trouble now that Scott’s laid up?” Val asked with a grin.

Murdoch smiled as he thought of his youngest son, the more undisciplined of the two boys, now keeping the large ranch running as Murdoch attended to the business. And Johnny was running the ranch flawlessly. “Yes, and, I might add that he’s doing an excellent job.”

Val shrugged. “That don’t surprise me. Once Johnny sets his sights on getting’ somethin’ done, it gets done.”

Millie returned with her arms full of apple pie and a large coffee pot. Setting the generous slices of dessert in front of the two men and refilling the cups, she asked if there was anything more they would need and receiving a negative reply, she left the table.

The dining room wasn’t particularly crowded, the usual patrons and a few strangers, nothing to be concerned about, so the two men enjoyed their conversation unaware that every word they said was overheard at the table behind them and by a lone man that sat across from them. The man sitting across from them seemed to be enjoying his steak and was given no heed, neither were the two behind Murdoch and Val but all perked up when Billy bustled into the dining room with the answer to Murdoch’s earlier telegram. Spying Lancer at his table, Billy handed Murdoch the message he’d been waiting for, and Murdoch flipped him a healthy tip.

“Thanks, Mr. Lancer,” Billy said as a huge smile blossomed across his face, and he turned to hurry back to the office. Murdoch opened the message and frowned a bit.

“Everythin’ alright, Mr. Lancer?” Val asked, suddenly alarmed at the older man’s countenance. Murdoch hesitated before answering.

“Yes, it’s alright, just not what I was expecting. Justin Corbett over in Denver has the stock I’ve been considering buying, but there are others interested, too. He said he’d hold the stock for me until next week, but if I can’t get there to seal the deal, the herd will go to the next bidder. I haven’t seen them yet, and I’m not going to buy sight unseen, so it looks as though I’d better get ready to go to Denver.

“Since he lost his son a few years ago, I think that he’s just gotten tired of ranching and eventually will sell everything off.” This put an element of urgency into the plan. Murdoch reached into his pocket, laying the necessary coins on the table and leaving a generous tip for Millie’s excellent service. Murdoch bid Val goodbye but not before asking Val to keep an eye on Johnny. Val gave Murdoch a lopsided grin with his solemn promise to keep Johnny in line.

After Crawford left the diner, the three men wandered out onto the boardwalk going their separate ways, not arousing any suspicions but met at their camp later to discuss options and make their plans. Lancer owed a debt, and they would help to collect.

<><><><> 

Murdoch left Toby in Jelly’s capable hands. Jellifer B. Hoskins had not worked for Lancer for very long, but in the time he was there had earned the respect of everyone, including Murdoch. His knowledge of poultices, liniments, and healing was legendary as he was a great help to Sam Jenkins, and he was an excellent handyman. There wasn’t anything that he couldn’t fix, and if he had not seen the problem before, he could figure something out. So his crabby nature was tolerated, and though he didn’t have a mean bone in his body, his tongue could be very sharp.

“Jelly, have you seen Johnny?” Murdoch asked, looking for the son that would be taking full responsibility for Lancer in his absence.

Jelly shrugged and huffed mightily. “Now, I can’t be watchin’ that boy all day, though sometimes it seems like a pretty good idea with all the trouble he can find himself in. Somebody should be watchin’ all the time…”

“Alright, Jelly,” Murdoch butted in, cutting off any further remarks, “If he comes in soon tell him I need to speak with him, oh, and saddle another horse for me, then go into town tomorrow and bring him back, would you, please?”

“Now why  in tarnation would you take a horse ta town an’ have me go back the next… Where ya goin’?” the handyman asked, turning serious.

“I have to go to Denver if I want the stock from Justin Corbett. There are others interested, and he wants me there by next week. Since this is already Thursday, I have to get going. I sent a telegram saying that I am on my way, so I need to see Johnny now. The train leaves in a couple of hours, and I don’t have time to wait.”
“If’n he show’s up I’ll tell ‘im ta go ta the house. If he doesn’t come, you’ll have to leave a note.”

Murdoch thanked the crusty older man and headed toward the house to pack.

<><><><> 

“Johnny! We got trouble up by the Conway property line! The fence is down again an’ some of the stock is caught in the bog!”

Johnny turned Barranca to the north. The stream was almost cleared and after tugging, heaving and clearing away all the debris that had threatened to dam it shut, a few bogged down cows hopefully would not be too big of a problem. Mud from head to toe after pulling a few stupid cows from the bog would be just the sort of thing to finish off his day. He topped the rise and below him were Walt, Cipriano, Isidro, and Matt all with ropes wrapped around the horns of bawling cattle pulling them out of the muck and returning them to their equally bawling offspring.

Johnny charged Barranca down the hill and stopping just short of the muddy trap, he took the rope from the strap on his saddle and shook it out, then with an experienced toss, the loop settled around a broad set of horns and he tied the rope around his saddle horn.

Barranca knew what was expected of him, and with muscles rippling, he pulled the cow free of her captivity. Riding close to her, Johnny reached over and pulled the rope from the wide-spaced horns. Surveying the bog, there were only a few bovines ensnared in the muck. Johnny looked up at the sky, hoping the rain would hold off until they were done. They did not need rain to add to their miseries.

Dusk had fallen before the men returned to the ranch. Johnny got Barranca settled, cleaned, brushed and fed before he saw to his own needs then he headed to the bathhouse.

The hot water felt unbelievably good even though it seemed that he was sitting in a mud puddle, so caked with the stuff he was. He had tried scraping it from him before he got into the large tub. He scrubbed his hair clean and submerged himself to rinse the soap, then coming up out of the wooden tub with a shake of the shaggy hair, he splattered water all around the bathhouse.

Seconds later, the door opened, and Jelly stepped into the hot, steamy interior. He watched as Johnny lounged for a moment in the tub, water dripping from his wet hair making more puddles on the wet floor. Jelly shook his head at the mess. It was no wonder why the decking had to be replaced twice since Scott and Johnny had gotten home. The shambles the two boys made of this place was disastrous.

“Murdoch wrote ya a note b’fore he left. It’s on his desk,” Jelly offered.

Without moving more than his eyes, Johnny looked at the handyman and waited.

Jelly took a mop from the corner and started cleaning the puddles on the wooden floor.

“Too tired ta ask, Jelly. Talk…” Johnny said in an exhausted tone, not moving.

“He had ta get ta Denver, somethin’ ‘bout buyin’ some beef, the deal couldn’t wait. Hey, ya better get outta that water, it’s getting’ cold an’ ya know what cold water does, don’t cha? Makes ya shrink up! Don’t think that that pretty lady a yours would like that!”

Johnny laughed and cupping his hands under the water, he lobbed a huge splash out of the tub wetting Jelly down his front and soaking the freshly mopped floor.

Johnny read the missive and let it fall to the desktop. Nuthin’ I can do about it. Just hafta see things get done around here as best I can… He shrugged his tired shoulders and flexed them as he stretched his arms over his head with a loud yawn.

<><><><> 

“Johnny, supper is ready. It looks like it’s just the two of us tonight. Hey, should we take our plates and go eat with Scott?” Teresa O’Brien asked of her ‘brother’.

Johnny’s grin slid across his face as he grabbed his food and glass of milk and headed to their brother’s room.

Delighted at the company, Scott chatted a while as they ate but soon his eyes started to drift shut. He was obviously still under the influence of laudanum, Johnny knew, so he and Teresa gathered the dirty dishes and quietly left Scott to sleep.

“I hope he’ll be alright,” Teresa worried as they went down the back stairs that led into the kitchen. Depositing their load on the countertop, Johnny smiled at her. The troubled brown eyes seemed filled with apprehension as she looked at the stairs.

“He’ll be fine, querida. Take more’n a busted leg ta keep him down for very long an’ he just broke it two days ago. It’s a bad one an’ Sam said it’ll take time.” Attempting to ease her fears, Johnny put his hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. “He’ll be fine.”

<><><><> 

“Hey, Sheriff, ya seen Johnny lately?” asked Henry, the bartender. Henry had been serving drinks as long as Val could remember and knew everyone for thirty miles around, and then some. Val took a large gulp of his beer and set the empty glass on the bar.

“Yup, I know where Johnny is. He’s stuck runnin’ the ranch. Murdoch’s outta town an’ with Scott laid up, ol’ Johnny’s coverin’ for both of ‘em. Got his hands full, too! Bet he’s so tired he’s sleepin’ sittin’ up in his saddle!” Val laughed as he thought of his friend of many years. All joking aside, he knew Johnny was up for the challenge. But the men at the table in the back of the saloon didn’t know that.

“Ya hear what that sheriff said ‘bout what’s goin’ on out at the ranch? Might be easy pickin’s!” Shay Castle muttered with a smile. ‘Bout time somethin’ goes right for us! Thanks ta ol’ Man Lancer we ain’t had much luck…

Ty Fletcher took a drink from his glass before he answered the remark. He sighed deeply. “Don’t count on it. Do ya know who Lancer’s kid is?” He held the eyes of his partner as the young man shook his head.

“Who cares who he is? We can do what we came ta do if they’re short-handed.”

“Shay, listen ta me! Murdoch Lancer’s kid is Johnny Madrid…” And Ty let the statement hang, taking time to register in Shay’s brain.

The brown eyes widened a bit then Shay thought about it again. “So what? If he’s outnumbered, I don’t care! We can take him, Ty. Tell ‘im, Reno.”

Reno Sutton leaned back in his chair, mulling over their words. Finally, Reno lifted his eyes to Ty. “We just might be able ta pull somethin’ off if we play our cards right. Madrid can only be in one spot at a time. Maybe if we keep makin’ diversions, they’ll hafta start sendin’ the other hands away from the house ta see if they can get control a things…”

Ty sat forward and stared at his drink. That just might work…   

<><><><> 

The day had been hard, and Johnny was exhausted. It was times such as these that he questioned if he’d made the best decision by staying at Lancer, but as soon as the thought hit his brain, he knew in his heart that, yes, Lancer was where he should be, with his family. So again, he soaked his cold, aching body in a tub of water, nearly asleep but, as the bath cooled and Jelly’s words echoed in his head about the cold water ‘makes ya shrink up!’  He chuckled to himself.

With one last dunk, he hoisted his weary carcass from the tub, dried, dressed, and headed to the house. He was anxious to see Scott and find out his progress. He knew Scott would be confined to bed for a good while yet, but maybe he would be a little less groggy from the laudanum tonight than last evening and up for more conversation. Johnny missed the camaraderie, he missed Scott’s presence and humor and… hell, he just missed Scott.

Dinner was taken, once again, in Scott’s room as the three of them talked, joked and laughed, something that had been sorely absent around the hacienda lately. Maria heard the tomfoolery down in the kitchen and smiled to herself. Since the boys returned, it truly felt like home!

She dried her wet hands on her apron, and taking a tray, she mounted the steps to gather their dirty dishes. Opening the door to Scott’s room she caught them, all three laughing, Teresa with tears streaming down her face, and the looks on the faces of Johnny and Scott brought a few tears to her own eyes. They were family! And her heart was near to bursting with joy! Spying the cook’s presence, Teresa jumped up to help, but Maria waved her back to the chair.

“Sit, chica, sit! You all need this. I will take care of the dishes.”

Teresa hugged the woman, Johnny stood and wrapped his arms around her broad shoulders and planted a big kiss in the middle of her forehead and she bent in front of Scott so he could kiss her cheek. Genuinely touched, as Maria had only recently expressed physical affection with Scott, he smiled warmly and was secretly very pleased.

“Thank you, Maria, I appreciate this!” And his smile went straight to her sweet motherly heart. These three were as close to her as her own children had been. She bustled out the door, shutting it quietly behind her.

Although the spell had been broken, the interruption didn’t break the connection of the trio. With the silliness aside they each told about their day, what had been accomplished, and what was scheduled for tomorrow.

“Johnny, you look tired. Are you alright, brother?” Scott asked as he noticed the blue eyes starting to droop. Johnny leaned back in his chair in his ever-present relaxing slouch, legs stretched out before him with feet crossed at the ankles. The beginnings of a smile turned up the corners of his mouth. He still had difficulty realizing that there were people who cared for him.
“Yeah, Boston, I‘m fine. Tired, but fine. Gonna go ta bed in a few minutes.” But Johnny stayed seated, not one of them wanting to break this moment, this significant, pivotal bonding so critically important to each of them, cementing them together as if they had been full-blooded brothers and sister.

“Hey, Scott, how’s the leg feelin’?” Johnny asked, wanting to keep abreast of his brother’s progress.

Scott shrugged impatiently. “I guess it’s coming along. Any progress is so slow. But Jelly and Maria are helping me with a few exercises to make sure I don’t get too weak lying here all day and night.”

Johnny smiled, feeling as if everything was going to be alright.

After a bit more chatting and a few more laughs, Johnny heaved himself to his feet and headed to the door. With his hand on the knob, he turned with his brilliant smile on his face. “’Night, Scott, ‘night T’resa.” And with their duo of ‘good night’ in reply, he quietly shut the door behind him. Once in his own room, he carefully folded his clothes and placed them on the chair, fell into bed in a boneless heap and was asleep in minutes.

There were no nightmares to plague him this night; his sleep was sound and uninterrupted, which was unusual. Perhaps they had simply been blotted out, covered up and overpowered as the exhaustion plowed into his brain as if he’d been knocked unconscious. He slept like the dead, not waking until the pounding on his door broke into the blissful slumber, rudely jarring him back to reality.

“Johnny! Wake up! Johnny!” The pounding did not let up. Bolting out of bed and yanking on his calzoneras, Johnny jerked the door open to find Jelly standing with nightshirt hastily tucked into his pants and with thin, wispy hair dancing over his balding pate but eyes wide and filled with worry.

“Johnny, some one’s cut the fence down at the south pasture. Horses an’ cows are runnin’ wild! Joe was comin’ in late an’ saw stock runnin’ all over, Said he found the break an’ the wire felt like it was cut. Cip’s already gone down there. Told me ta let ya know!”
Johnny quickly shut the door and raced to gather the rest of his clothes, and with a final tug of his boots, he was down the hall and out the back kitchen door on his way to the barn.

Jelly, anticipating his moves, and had Barranca saddled and waiting.

“Thanks, Jelly,” Johnny said as he swung into the saddle and was down under the Lancer arch in minutes.

Jelly watched him ride out thinking that boy is burnin’ the candle at both ends. He looks plumb wore out.

<><><><> 

The cold air was clearing the cobwebs, and as he rode, Johnny could feel himself shaking off the stupor of deep sleep and a foggy mind. Clarity took over, that and the cold wash of foreboding forcing into his brain, making it sharp knowing that he would be ‘calling the tune’, as Murdoch put it those many months ago. But since Murdoch wasn’t here, and Scott was laid up, it fell on Johnny’s shoulders to do the right thing. He sure hoped he would make the right call. He knew what he would do if there were no others to consider but the days of Johnny Madrid acting alone were gone, now… for the most part.

Barranca ate up the miles quickly, and in no time he topped the rise and saw in the dim light Cipriano and several Lancer hands rounding up both cattle and horses, herding them back through the temporary gate in the fence. Riding to Cipriano’s side, Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt.

“Guess we hafta wait till it gets lighter for a tally,” Johnny groused, almost afraid to hear the count.

The older man shrugged and took off his hat to brush the hair from his eyes. Slapping the worn sombrero against his leg, his gaze drifted to the bulky shapes grazing back on the Lancer side of the fence.

“It is hard to say, Juanito, there was almost one hundred head of cattle and about fifty horses out here. The sun will not be up for another hour an’ we cannot track in the dark. I think we stay here until daylight an’ then we go catch ourselves some banditos.”

Johnny caught the flash of white teeth against dark skin and returned the gesture, but only briefly. He knew Cip’s penchant for dealing justice to thieves and was happy to have the man on his side, but the mere thought of someone stealing, not only from Lancer but any other hard-working ranch set his teeth on edge. He nodded, then returned the grin in full.

“Let's just hope we can round up all the stock before too long, don’t look like they drove them out, more like let ‘em wander out. No torn up ground, you’d be able ta see that even in the dark…” Johnny added with a sigh.

The two scouted around for a while as the sky lightened, finding several cows and a couple of horses peacefully grazing in a small ravine. They rounded them up easily to return to the others. Then, knowing there was more stock to be recovered, they continued their search but turned up no clues as to why it happened or who did it.

“Juanito, we can finish up here. I will take Isidro and Joe an’ look for more stock. Maybe we can find some tracks to follow. With the Patrón gone and Scott in bed with his broken leg, you are needed at the ranch.”

Although Johnny knew Cip spoke the truth, he had reservations about leaving until he had the pendejos who did this in custody. He sat for a few minutes watching as the hands did their work, handling the stock and making a gate in the broken fence line. Satisfied that all was as good as it could be, he turned Barranca toward the hacienda.

The sun was starting to get hot already by the time he passed under the Lancer arch, and he found himself wishing it was the end of the day instead of just the beginning. Get a handle on it, Johnny, ya only just started. Murdoch ain’t gonna be back for another week anyway, ya got a ways ta go…

Tying Barranca at the hitch rail, Johnny swung gracefully out of the saddle to the ground and found Jelly at his shoulder ready to take his horse.

“Got all them critters back inside the fence?” the old handyman asked, noting again lines of fatigue marring the young face.

“Dunno, Jelly. Couldn’t pick up any tracks ta trail ‘em either. Don’t think they stole any, more like cut the fence an’ let the stock wander. Cip’s takin’ a crew out ta have a better look-see.” Johnny turned to head into the house. He hadn’t even had his first cup of coffee yet.

Sagging into the kitchen chair, Johnny rewarded Maria with his smile; the smile that he knew would get him a good hot breakfast and he wasn’t disappointed. Maria fussed over Johnny, scolding him for not taking care of himself, that he was too skinny, he needed some meat on those bones and for leaving the house without a good hot meal in his belly.

The string of Spanish flowed from her mouth nonstop, sounding like the constant babble of a snowmelt stream in the spring. He couldn’t help but smile at the chatter, and soon, a large plateful of eggs, bacon, and biscuits occupied the table in front of him. The only problem was, he felt he might be too tired to eat it, but before pressing his luck risking Maria’s temper, he picked up his fork, digging in and soon an empty plate was whisked away and his coffee mug re-filled. And he did feel better.

The day passed slowly as one problem after another raised its ugly head, begging for his attention. It seemed as if these issues were planned, but Johnny shrugged it off as part of being the boss. ‘Calling the tune’ was not that much fun, he decided. Murdoch could have the job. One problem solved or in the process of being solved, and another would arise.

After the fence issue early this morning a fire was reported burning along the west boundary and being blown northeast. It was fiercely eating dried grass that had burned in the hot summer sun, and where it wasn’t a critical loss, the fire was headed for a field of grain that would be needed for feed this winter. Again, Johnny rode out with a crew to fight the fire before the grain field was turned to charred dust. He had to get that fire put out because he sure as hell didn’t want to have to tell Murdoch they’d be buying grain for the winter.

The black, greasy smoke hung thick in the air. Bandanas had been tied across faces to avoid inhaling the smoldering field debris heavy in the wind caused by the flames. Johnny was soaked with sweat. His shirt clung to his body in a suffocating, soot-covered shroud. Bits of chaff stuck to his skin prickling and itching, a discomfort that he would remedy as soon as he could.

With Cip and the small crew still out searching for the stock that had gotten out of the cut fence, the number of men available to fight the fire wasn’t as large as Johnny would have liked, but they managed. They would just be detained longer than he expected. A bath would have to wait a while yet, but the important thing was that they had been successful and got the fire contained before it reached the grain field.

Wiping a forearm across his face, Johnny managed to catch the sweat before it burned into his eyes. Looking skyward, he watched as the smoke began to thin, not the thick billows that filled the air only an hour before. He frowned when he saw no clouds, no sign of rain that would dampen the ground and prevent any flare-ups. Well, they would have to leave a man or two out here just to make sure any hot spots ‘weren’t hot’.

Johnny made his way to the wagon that had arrived a short time ago, loaded with water and food for the men. Taking a long drink, he poured the remainder of the water from the dipper over his head and let it trickle down his face, through his thick, soot-filled hair and down his shoulders and back. Shaking his wet head like a dog, he ran his hands through the tangled mass to bring it to some semblance of order.

“Johnny! C’mon over here!”

Looking up, Johnny spied Walt, a veteran hand and a trusted one, waving him across the burned grass. Jamming his hat onto his head, Johnny swung into his saddle, and Barranca quickly carried him coming soon to Walt’s side.

“Over here Johnny,” and Walt showed him a spot where the remnants of matches, torch and empty kerosene jug lay hastily discarded under a bush. Someone had deliberately started this fire.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” Johnny bellowed out. Why anyone would do something like this was beyond him, but then most stupid things people did were beyond him. The cut fence could have been a prank, a random act in itself but to have a field burned and a fence cut was a little too coincidental, and Johnny did not believe in coincidences. Someone out there wanted to cause trouble for Lancer, and he just hoped it wasn’t because of him, his past and the trouble connected with Madrid. He would never forgive himself if someone were to get hurt as a result of Madrid being at Lancer.

“I want ya ta keep your eyes open; this fire was set an’ the fence that was cut this mornin’ wasn’t an accident. Don’t want anyone ridin’ out alone till this is settled. I’m goin’ into Green River an’ talkin’ ta Sheriff Crawford…”

“I’ll go with ya, Johnny!” Walt called out, and Johnny was about to shake his head no, he’d get it done. Then he remembered his own words spoken only seconds ago and shrugged. A slight smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

“Yeah, okay, Walt, we’ll go talk ta Val. C’mon.” The two men mounted their horses and headed to Green River forgoing the bath that had been screaming their names.

<><><><> 

“Nope, no strangers in town that I know of but I’ll keep my eyes open. I’ll talk ta Henry at the saloon an’ see if he’s noticed any but don’t think yer  gonna find anyone, amigo. If they’re out ta cause trouble, they ain’t gonna be showin’ themselves around town,” Val said with a sympathetic look.

“Yeah, figured that much but with Murdoch gone an’ Scott laid up, just thought you should know. Thanks, Val,” Johnny sighed as he made for the door.

“Y’all watch your backs, oh, an’ Johnny?”

Johnny stopped, turning to face Val. “Yeah?”

“Go get a bath, ya look like hell!”

Johnny snorted a laugh. “Fuck you, Val!” And the Lancer men left the office.

Val watched them cross the boardwalk and swing into their saddles before riding north out of town. Something was niggling at his brain, like an itch that couldn’t be scratched. What was it? Val asked himself.

The trip back to Lancer was uneventful, and for that, they were thankful. Making it straight to the bathhouse after handing Barranca off to Jelly, Johnny asked the handyman to get him some clean clothes from his room while he soaked in a tub of hot water. The tensions of the day did not flow from him as they had a few days prior. They stuck on him like axle grease and felt just as dirty. His mind was whirling, spinning with questions, thoughts, and fragments of thoughts. What the hell’s goin’ on? Who wants ta give us grief? I ain’t pissed off anyone an’ I know Murdoch an’ Scott didn’t… So what’s goin’ on?

Nothing made sense. There had been no trouble, not recently anyway and what trouble there was had been settled, legally and without violence. Everyone had been satisfied with the outcome. That left one possibility; something from the past and when the past reared its ugly head, it usually involved Johnny Madrid. It had come to be Johnny’s greatest fear - having a member of his family or a friend of Lancer caught in the middle of Madrid and the sometimes menacing, and violent past.

<><><><> 

“Good thing we got outta town when we did. No one’ll be thinkin’ of us, won’t be rememberin’ that we was in town. So’s they won’t be lookin’ for us.” Shay announced with relief as they made their camp that night.

“Yeah an’ if we kin keep up the ‘accidents’, that’ll keep ‘em busy so’s we kin get what we came for!” Reno said as he thought of the money they would soon have, courtesy of Murdoch Lancer.

“We’ll hafta think a some more things so the repairs will keep ‘em busy. With the coupla a fellas they got lookin’ for cattle an’ now one or two keepin’ watch makin’ sure no more fires start up, we cause enough ruckus there won’t be many left at the ranch.”
<><><><> 

Once again, Johnny fell in an exhausted heap on the bed. He had had dinner with Scott and filled him in on the events of the day, with Scott agreeing that these were more than coincidences, and warnings for his brother to be alert and careful when out on the range. Scott could do nothing more, other than worry.

“I think that Murdoch needs to know what’s been going on,” Scott said as he sat tensely on the bed watching Johnny, and waited for his brother’s reaction. The younger Lancer frowned; Johnny didn’t like the idea of their father having to come back from his trip. Murdoch had a long, hard struggle with his feelings regarding Johnny’s wild and impetuous behavior and questioned his ability to handle the management of the ranch, in the first place. If they sent word to him now, it would only prove he’d been right all along. Scott read the apprehension on his brother’s face and knew what he was thinking.

“Johnny, it’s not anything that you can be held responsible for! Murdoch will know that…”

“Yeah, I guess…” But the statement was not convincing. “Guess you’re right. I’ll ride inta town tamorrow an’ send a wire. Sure don’t wanna do that, though.”

“Johnny, go to bed, you’re making me tired just looking at you,” Scott gently said. 

“Am tired,” was all he could say as he rose from the chair and headed for the door. Turning, he smiled. “’Night, Scott.” And the door shut quietly behind him.

<><><><> 

Barranca was running wildly across the range as if the hounds of Hell were at his heels. Johnny fought the stallion for control, but the horse had the bit in his teeth and was not letting go.

Suddenly a blast split through the cold night air, and Johnny came awake with a start, not knowing at first where he was. Sweat ran into his eyes, stinging and making them water and burn. He shook his head, clearing the cobwebs as his heart settled to normal beating. Dios! What the hell was that about? He thought to himself. Probably just some rain comin’ in. Maybe some thunder echoin’ off the mountains…  Settling back on the bed, he slept.

<><><><> 

Hadn’t he just closed his eyes? But now it was time to get up for the day. The morning chores awaited, and there was stock that needed to be moved to other pastures. He also needed to send that telegram to Murdoch and let him know what had happened in his absence.

Johnny was still not comfortable doing that. But, Scott was right, it was the thing to do, but there was still something in Johnny that resented sending their father a wire about the issues because Johnny knew Murdoch would come home. He wouldn’t let Johnny handle it on his own. Hadn’t he proved himself to Murdoch? Why didn’t his father trust him?

Johnny rolled out of bed and dressed, and after pulling on his boots he quietly stepped out of his room and went down the back stairway that led to the kitchen. Maria had already started the morning meal, and upon seeing her niño, a broad smile blossomed across her round face. Fetching the pot from the stove, she poured his coffee and pulled out his chair.

“Juanito, sit, eat. Did you get to sleep? You look so tired!” She never stopped fussing over him and probably never would. Soon his breakfast was sitting in front of him, and as he emptied a spot on his plate, Maria was there to refill it. He laughed, not able to take another bite.

“Maria, por favor, I‘m gonna be so fat Barranca won’t be able to carry me! Can’t eat no more!”

Shoving his plate away, Maria scooped it up and took it to the wash pan, but she did refill his coffee. She knew Juanito loved his morning coffee.

Draining the cup, Johnny got to his feet, suppressing the belch that was screaming to be released; he picked up his bolero jacket and hat. Planting a hearty kiss on Maria’s forehead with a “Gracias! he left the kitchen to start his day. Liberating his belch halfway across the yard in a cloud of vapor in the cold morning, made him feel so much better.

<><><><> 

The cows balked at the move. They skittered out of the way, making a chase inevitable. Much time had been wasted on what should have been a relatively easy chore. Maybe they got spooked durin’ the night. Cougar or thunder. Then he remembered his dream that just maybe hadn’t been a dream after all.

Several hours later, with the cattle herded into a pasture with more suitable grazing, Johnny sat in his saddle leaning arms across the horn watching them settle down to munch the sweet, thick grass. He looked around the pasture at the water hole on the far end.  Might as well check the stream as long as I‘m here. No sense havin’ ta come back in a coupla days.

Nudging Barranca into a trot, he crossed through the lush pasture, keeping an eye on the cows. More than one horse and or rider had been gored by an agitated beast. Approaching the water, Johnny noticed that the level was low. Skirting around the edge of the small lake, he pulled up short as he spied the stream that fed the lake was nothing but mud. The water was not flowing from higher up. Looking around, he caught Cipriano’s attention and waved the Segundo over.

“Trouble upstream, let’s take a look, Cip,” and with that said Johnny whirled Barranca around and the two men went in search of the issue upstream and in hopes of rectifying the problem before it became another issue to tell Murdoch.

Two hours later, Johnny and Cip stood beside the pile of dirt and rocks blocking the stream that created a small lake in the high valley. It had obviously been blown shut with dynamite and would take the better part of two days, at least, to dig it out with a full crew. Fire burned in Johnny’s eyes, and if he found out who was behind all this, they would definitely have to deal with Madrid. His blood was boiling, but he knew he had to keep his temper under control and let Madrid make his appearance when they caught the bastards and not before. Losing his temper now would serve no purpose.

“Let’s get a crew up here. Gotta get this water down ta the pasture before that water hole dries up an’ we’re left with nuthin’ but mud.” As they were riding away, Johnny’s dream slipped into his mind. That’s what I heard last night! Wasn’t thunder in the mountains!

All the way back to Lancer, Cipriano watched as Johnny fought the emotions that were warring inside his head. Juanito is learning control, this is good, and he will do well.

But Johnny wasn’t so sure. At the moment he was battling, Madrid versus Lancer, temper versus control and he was struggling. He knew that getting the stream cleared was paramount, then he was going hunting, hunting for the assholes that went one step too far in their efforts to disrupt life at Lancer, one step too far that would lead them to pay dearly for what they had done.

<><><><> 

“Jelly, I want ya ta keep your eyes open ‘round here. Don’t know what’s goin’ on but all this shit happenin’ ain’t by accident. We got men lookin’ for stock ta the south an’ two men makin’ sure no more fires spark ta the east an’ now I'm gonna hafta take a full crew up ta the stream in the north ta clear it out. Makes me wonder what’s gonna happen ‘round here with most of us gone. Just keep a watch out.”

Jelly could see the worry in Johnny’s eyes, hell, he could feel it roll off Johnny’s body. “Don’t you worry none, Johnny. I’ll guard the place, you be careful, ya hear? I know ya got a habit a getting’ yourself inta trouble. Watch your back up there!” 

Johnny started for the house. “Gotta talk ta Scott. He awake?”

“Dunno, Johnny. Last time I saw him, he was sleepin’, but that was over an hour ago,” the old man said as worry settled over him
Johnny disappeared into the house. Taking the back stairs three at a time, he hurried down the hall pausing to lightly tap on the door before he opened it. Scott was just waking up when Johnny came in.

“Johnny, how’s everything…” Stopping in mid-sentence with one look at his younger brother’s face, Scott knew something was wrong. “What is it, Johnny?”

“Got some trouble, Scott. I need for ya ta be ready in case somethin’ happens here. Someone dammed up the stream with dynamite last night an’ it’s gonna take most of the men ta dig it out before the waterhole dries up. I’m goin’ inta town right now ta send that wire ta Murdoch, then back up ta help dig. Got this feelin’ with most of the men gone who ever’s causin’ all of this is gonna hit the house. I’m gonna call in the men that’s lookin’ for strays and the two that’s watching for fires ta help here an’ help up at the dammed stream. So just be ready. Got Jelly keepin’ an’ eye open but ain’t said nuthin’ ta T’resa an’ Maria. Where’s your rifle an’ revolver?”

With Scott prepared as much as could be, Johnny left the house and, again, taking Walt with him, they rode into Green River. Murdoch needed to know what was going on and Johnny would ask Val to come out and check on things while he was helping to dig out the stream.

The men had already been sent to the dammed-up stream and would work as far into the night as they could and start again in the morning. Water was crucial, and this couldn’t wait. Johnny felt like he was being torn in four different directions at once. The need to take charge of the stream seemed the most critical issue… until he got there and then all he could think about was the hacienda. What was happening there? Would Scott and Jelly be able to take care of things should the need arise? Were they alright?

Johnny worked frantically for an hour before Cipriano came to his side. The doubts had been scrambling around in his head, making him crazy.

“Juanito, we can manage here, go back to the hacienda. Take Joe with you; I have a bad feeling…”

Johnny turned worried eyes to the Segundo. “Readin’ my mind, Cip…” And with that, Johnny turned and called out to Joe, and the two men galloped off in the direction of Lancer. Barranca jumped out ahead as if he knew there was going to be trouble.

<><><><> 

Jelly started at the noise. Darkness had fallen and with the dark came… Aw c’mon, Jelly, you’re actin’ like a scared little kid! he told himself. He checked the doors and windows in the house, making sure everything was locked up tight. Then he heard it again. It was Dewdrop, his goose. Something was wrong, and that’s the last he remembered.

Teresa heard a thump and opened the door to the hallway. She knew Jelly was there with her in the house, and Scott would be in his room. Venturing out into the hall, she scooted down the stairs and into the kitchen.

“Jelly?... Jelly?” She softly called in an effort to not wake Scott should he be sleeping. “Jel…” And a hand from behind her clamped down over her mouth muffling the scream that fought to escape. Eyes wide with fear, she struggled against her attacker, thrashing arms and desperately trying to kick or stomp on a foot until she was picked up off the floor. Held in a vise-like grip she could not move, she could not make a sound. Carried out the door, she caught a glimpse of Jelly’s inert body lying in a crumpled heap on the great room floor. She had to make sure he was alright, and she struggled with a fear she’d never known before. Suddenly the arms that held her clamped down harder, and she couldn’t breathe. A sound on the stairs caught the attention of all as Scott called out.

“Teresa! Are you alright? … TERESA!!”

Ty Fletcher, with pistol in hand, stepped around the corner at the foot of the stairs and pulled the trigger as Teresa screamed. She heard a loud groan and a crashing down the stairs. SCOTT!!

“Stop fightin’, Missy! Or there won’t be nuthin’ left for them ta pay us for! Now hold still!” The gruff voice whispered hoarsely into her ear, and he gave her a rough shake. The night air brushed across her face as she was hurried outside, a gag was forced into her mouth and tightly knotted behind her head. It was salty and dirty, she knew it had been sweat-soaked. She gagged, laboring to get herself under control. She was then thrown onto a horse, and Teresa O’Brien was taken by force from Lancer, from home. Scott! Jelly! Someone help us!

<><><><> 

Johnny and Joe Carter raced as fast as their horses would carry them. The feeling of dread would not stay down, and Johnny felt it prickle at his spine; he knew there was bad news waiting for them at Lancer. He could feel it like a deathly black shroud that threatened to suffocate him right there in the saddle. He’d never felt this strangling fear before, but then, he never had a family before. With heart hammering against ribs, he almost felt out of breath, as if he, himself, were running instead of Barranca. Now cursing himself for not leaving more men at the ranch he knew it was already too late.

<><><><> 

Topping the ridge behind the hacienda, Johnny pulled on the reins, and the big stallion skidded to a halt. As anxious as he was to get to the house, Johnny also knew that it would be foolhardy and may risk his family if they were still alive and scaring off anyone that may still be there. He had to draw on Madrid to get him through this; Madrid, the persona he tried to do without but the persona that had gotten him through many, many turbulent and life-threatening situations in the past. Johnny summoned him, and Madrid was there, just like he’d always been and probably always would.

With Colt in hand, Johnny skirted around the back of the house, slipped into the kitchen and stopped. A muffled voice came from the pantry, and he paused to listen. Recognizing Maria’s cry, he quietly pushed open the door; seeing she was alone, he caught her attention and held his finger to his lips. Crossing to her, he pulled the gag from her mouth and untied her hands.

“What happened?” he whispered as she sobbed out the horrific, dreaded events.

“Juanito! Teresa, they took her! Scott and Jelly, I think they are hurt! I don’t know where they are!”

Not bothering to calm the woman any further he left her as he and Joe started their search. Rounding the corner, Johnny almost tripped over Scott as he lay at the foot of the stairs. His heart rose in his throat as he saw blood from a crease above Scott’s right eye. Turning to Joe, Johnny fought to remain calm; apparently, even Madrid had a hard time keeping the panic at bay. It seemed that Madrid felt an attachment for Scott, too.

“Joe, get ta town an’ come back with Doc and Val, get goin’ now!” Without any protests, Joe Carter turned and was out the door, and within seconds Johnny heard the hooves pounding down the road under the adobe arch.

“Scott? Hey, Boston, can ya hear me?” Pulling his bandana from around his neck, Johnny eased to the bucket of water to wet it as Maria knelt by his side, tears streaming down her full brown face. Johnny looked into her eyes, knowing the woman was terrified for the safety of Teresa and welfare for all of them.

“Maria, when did this all happen?” Johnny asked quietly as he held the wet cloth to Scott’s forehead.

“A couple of hours ago, Juanito, I heard them say they want money for Teresa! I will stay with Scott. Jelly was in the house, too, go find him!”

With Maria tending to Scott, Johnny quickly walked through the kitchen and into the great room. The fire had burned down to a bed of coals, but there were enough shadows cast from the embers that Johnny could see the old handyman lying by the door. Hurrying to the old man’s side, Johnny bent over him, gently calling his name. Slowly the lashes fluttered and out of focus eyes opened, then as if jabbed with a hot poker, Jelly’s confusion cleared as he saw Johnny bent over him.

“What… Johnny? What happened?”

Easing the old man to a sitting position on the floor, Johnny told him what he knew.
“C’mon, Scott, an’ Maria are in the kitchen. Can ya walk? Lean on me.”

Johnny heard Maria talking to Scott sounding as if Scott was coming around. With Jelly’s arm over his shoulders, Johnny settled him in a chair at the table. The old man looked as if he would cry; he looked like the weight of the world was crushing him, pressing him into a small, tiny lump of flesh. He looked guilty.

Johnny stooped again by his brother’s side. “Hey, Boston, ya alright?” Johnny knew Scott would have one hell of a headache, but he also wondered about Scott’s leg. It looked like the splint was still secure, but Sam would have to check it out. For now, Johnny would settle for Scott to regain consciousness. And finally, the blue-gray eyes blinked open.

Madrid had all he could do to stay put. With both Scott and Jelly injured, he was the only one unscathed. Johnny wanted nothing more than to mount up and try to pick up the trail of the men that had taken his sister, but he could not leave Maria to care for the injured men alone. He would have to wait.The two men needed medical attention, and once Sam got there, he would be a busy man, then Madrid would leave, he would have to find Teresa alone.

Johnny managed to get Scott on the couch in the great room as Maria fussed over him, making sure that he had water and had dosed him with laudanum to ease the pain that thundered through him like stampeding cattle. Bolts of lightning seemed to slice through his brain, just for good measure. Jelly slumped in a chair staring down at the floor.

“Johnny, I’m so sorry! I didn’t do my job…” he moaned with a hitch in his voice.

Johnny came to his side and put a comforting hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Ain’t your fault, Jelly, I shoulda had more men here at the ranch instead of pullin’ so many of them off ta clear the stream.”

It seemed hours later, but the sound of horses finally thundered into the yard, and Johnny’s pistol was in his hand so fast he didn’t remember drawing it from the holster. A loud pounding on the front door sounded before it was thrown open and Val and Doc Jenkins raced into the house. Sam went to Scott stretched out on the couch as Johnny holstered his gun and drew Val off to the side.

“Maria said there were three of ‘em, never saw ‘em before. They took T’resa, shot Scott an’ cracked Jelly on the head. Maria heard ‘em say they’re holdin’ her for ransom.”

“Johnny, c’mon, you an’ me are gonna take a look-see outside. Can’t do much till daylight anyway but maybe we can find out what direction they went and get a head start come mornin’.” Val knew keeping Johnny busy would be crucial; he also knew that Madrid would be taking off after Teresa and no one would be able to stop him.

Johnny had gotten very protective of his family in the short time they’d been together and this amazed Val. He’d known Johnny, as Madrid, for years had seen Johnny do some incredible things since he’d known him, but the family bonds that developed since he’d been at Lancer were as strong as if they’d always been family. And now nothing would hold Johnny back from going after his sister.

Sam checked Scott’s leg and found no additional trauma caused by the tumble down the stairs. Good thing that it was bound so tight! Sam thought. He had checked the bullet crease on Scott’s head, and other than blood loss, he determined that Scott would be alright, albeit, with a substantial headache.

Next, he moved to Jelly and upon pressing and probing the balding pate found nothing more than a sizable lump on the back of his head. However, Jelly was unresponsive to the ministering. The usually grumpy, gruff handyman sat still as a church mouse, not uttering a word. This was worrisome to Sam until Johnny whispered that Jelly was blaming himself.

“Well, he’ll hafta stand in line for that one. I shoulda…” and Johnny was cut off before he finished his thoughts.

“Stop it, right now! You did what you thought was right and when Murdoch gets here, he’ll tell you the same thing, so don’t even try to shoulder any of this blame. Either of you!” Sam sternly voiced the reprimand.
The sharpness of the words penetrated Jelly’s scrambled thoughts. He looked at Sam and slightly nodded, but his eyes still held a degree of blame and profound sadness emanated from his body. Maria sat by him and took his hand in hers, giving the comfort that she was noted for and smiled a bit into the dismal, forlorn eyes.

Val sat and watched Johnny as he paced, appearing deep in thought. They’d found nothing but hadn’t really expected to when they went outside. It was still too dark. But now, back in the hacienda, Val could almost read the direction of thoughts careening around inside Johnny’s head. He knew that Johnny was biding his time until he would leave in his search, and that time was just about at hand.

Johnny went upstairs to his room and returned shortly with his heavy coat, a Winchester and several boxes of ammunition.

“What’d ya doin’, amigo?” Val asked softly, knowing full well what Johnny was doing. There was no response.

“Our best bet is ta wait till they notify us with a demand,” Val said, believing that he was right.

“Then you wait. I’m goin’ ta find T’resa.” Johnny said, cold and deadly with the glare in his eyes that declared Madrid was there, but not for long. Johnny gathered up his things and started for the kitchen and the back door.

“Johnny, wait!” Val ran after him catching up before Madrid was able to leave the hacienda.

“Johnny! Ya can’t go by yourself…” Val grabbed Johnny’s arm.

With a forceful yank, Johnny pulled free of Val’s grasp. “Yeah, I can…” he hissed as his eyes burned into Val’s and Val relented. He knew that look.

“Well, wait a minute an’ I’ll get…”

“Val, I need for ya ta stay here, as long as ya can till Murdoch gets back. The longer they’re gone, the more chance they have ta hurt her. An’ if that happens, they’re dead. I’m tellin’ ya right now, they so much as look at her sideways, I‘m gonna fuckin’ kill ‘em!” Johnny grabbed for Teresa’s heavy coat, and then he was gone.

Barranca was still saddled at the hitch rail when Johnny went out the back door. The stallion’s ears perked forward on his wide head, intelligent eyes shiny, ready, and sensing Johnny’s anxiety and desperation. Johnny slid the rifle in the scabbard, tied Teresa’s coat, and the stuffed saddlebags behind his saddle then slipped into his heavy coat. Swinging onto Barranca’s back, Johnny nudged the horse forward, and like a shot, man and beast were on the hunt as the sun tinged the eastern sky with pink.

<><><><> 

The trail had not been hard to find. The kidnappers had not bothered to hide their tracks, a sure sign that time would be critical. They were headed straight north, and Johnny tried to second guess them as he thought about what was ahead… More mountains. Did they have a hideout or were they simply putting as much distance as they could between themselves and Lancer? And more than anything he wondered if Teresa was alright. He would make good on his promise to Val if any of them touched her.

Keep your mind on the trail, Madrid. Ya ain’t gonna do her any favors if ya ain’t watchin’ where you’re goin’… Madrid had taken over again. He had never let Johnny down before, and he wouldn’t let it happen today, for Teresa’s sake.

By late morning tracking the four horses was almost impossible. The ground turned rocky, making any signs near to invisible, and Johnny started to wonder if he had lost the trail on the hard ground. He almost turned around to start looking in a different direction, but then he would spot a scuff mark on a rock or a cigarette butt, and at one point he saw an empty bottle carelessly discarded in the brush.

The trees had thinned, and the air was crisp and chilly, but Johnny kept on looking for Teresa. Funny how family was. Never had no one ta care for an’ now got more than I can worry about… and worry he did. He wondered how Scott was doing back at Lancer and hoped that the splint had held during his fall down the stairs.

The high-pitched call of a hawk broke him out of his reverie, jolting him back to the present and the gut-churning task he’d set out upon. He didn’t stop to eat, but as he hadn’t found any signs of a camp, he knew the ones he was pursuing hadn’t either. He knew that a little jerky as you rode could keep you alive longer than one would think. Taking the notion to heart, Johnny reached into his pocket and retrieved the dried beef that would have to sustain him until he could afford to make a proper camp.

<><><><> 

Teresa watched carefully, hidden glances veiled under the disguise of fatigue that her captors hadn’t noticed. She had no idea where they were going, had no clue if they were even still on Lancer yet. All she knew was that she was tired, hungry, and more than anything, she wanted to go home. She knew in her heart someone would come after her, and it would be Johnny.

She was aware of his abilities with a gun, and his tenacious spirit was undeniable. So was his temper. And more than anything was his persistence and devotion to his family. Yes, Johnny would come for her and a calm spread about her, like a blanket covering her in its warmth.

So, she waited, biding her time as she discreetly let her handkerchief flutter to the ground as her captors kept watching ahead. When trouble comes, you idiots, it will be out of nowhere and you’re not going to know what hit you! she thought with a sly smile.

<><><><> 

He had almost given up on this trail. There hadn’t been any signs at all. No tracks, cigarette butts, no fresh horse droppings, nothing. The trail through the rocks was getting steeper and harder traveling caused him to slow down. He couldn’t afford to get sloppy and miss something, but the problem was, there had been nothing to miss.  The brush had thinned out, so there were no broken branches to indicate they had come this way. Son-of-a-bitch! Where is she?

Johnny mulled over and over in his head where they could be. He knew they would be sending a note demanding money for Teresa’s return, but if he could intercept them beforehand and get her to safety, which would be a better situation, then he possibly would have the chance to make them face Madrid and pay for what they’d done. Mierda! Where was the trail?

And then he saw it, her dainty, blue handkerchief lying in the rocks. He pulled up on Barranca’s reins and got down out of the saddle. Walking to where the bit of cloth had settled, still neatly pressed and folded, Johnny picked it up and closed his fist tightly around it knowing that soon, one way or another, they would be facing him and hopefully he and his sister would be going home, together. There was only one thing that he wondered about. With the direction they were going, away from any town, how would they contact Lancer with the ransom demands… Unless they had help, someone on the outside. Sure seemed awfully peculiar that all this happened just after Murdoch left town.

Night was falling, and it was getting colder. He wondered if Teresa was warm enough, had they given her food and had they kept their hands off of her. Johnny felt his blood start to boil again. The mere thought of her in the vile hands of criminals who thought nothing about taking a young girl right out of her own home and holding her for money brought Madrid front and center. They would have to deal with him, and he would not be kind. He would not show mercy.

Johnny knew he had better focus, now was not the time to let his temper and frustrations run away with him. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake. Teresa couldn’t afford for him to make a mistake, so he shook away the loose thoughts and centered on the trail, or for the time, lack of trail. But they would make a mistake and one that would be fatal, Johnny would not spare them if they pushed him, at all.

The camp was very cold. The temperatures continued to drop, chilling him to the bone. Johnny stripped the saddle from Barranca’s back and sat wrapped with his bedroll around his shoulders. Reaching for his saddlebags, he found the spyglass that Scott had given him shortly after they’d become brothers. With his arm resting on a rock, Johnny could get a good steady view as he scanned the terrain ahead. Had they made camp? No one could navigate the mountains in the dark; they would have to stop or risk injury to their horses which would mean they wouldn’t be getting out of there alive, so, stopping for the night was imperative.

Johnny watched for the glow of campfires reflecting off the rocks, but there wasn’t any glow, no indication that there were others in the immediate area. Had they found a cave that would protect them from discovery? His heart sank as he thought about Teresa alone with her captors, away from home, away from her family.

<><><><> 

She sat huddled on the ground, terrified inside but outwardly, appearing calm. She learned this from the few times she watched as Madrid took over her brother’s body, transforming him into another person, a person she feared but also respected and in some ways even admired. Teresa tried to brace herself for whatever would happen, but she was young and still ignorant in the ways of men.

She’d heard some of the crude remarks among the ranch hands when they weren’t aware of her presence, for they knew Mr. Lancer would not tolerate this kind of behavior around his ward, but it had happened on occasion, and Teresa wondered exactly what they were referring to with their remarks.

Raised on a ranch she certainly was not ignorant of how life was conceived and had helped with the birthing of cattle and now horses, but the acts between a man and a woman were a mystery, and the idea of force was something she definitely was not prepared for. She kept telling herself that Johnny would come for her but was aware enough about the situation to know that trailing her in this harsh terrain was next to impossible. That’s where Madrid would come in.

She heard Val talking one night as he and Murdoch sat out on the patio after dinner and listened as Val related an incident of how years before Madrid had, under impossible odds, pulled off an act of bravery that had been incredibly hopeless. He had successfully rescued his men after they’d been captured by the opposing side during a range war they’d been fighting. The seemingly unachievable had been achieved, and Madrid had done it. And now she hoped that Madrid would, again, achieve the unachievable.

Teresa sat quiet and still, not wanting any attention from these men and however scared she was she did not show it. She was learning control, the hard way. But she wanted to make her family proud of her, so whatever happened, she would try her best to be brave.

The night was long, long, and cold for all of them in the higher elevations, but eventually, the sky began to lighten, and they began to move. Fletcher and his men were almost at their destination, and there, they would sit and wait for word. They had done their job, and now the next part of the plan would be carried out as they sat up here in the mountains with their prize.

<><><><> 

Johnny, not knowing if he was still on the right trail or not was already in the saddle and continued up the mountain watching for any more clues left either by the men that took Teresa or Teresa herself. She’d been clever enough to leave one thing for Johnny, one small indication she’d been there, maybe there would be more. And soon he found where they had spent the night.

There looked to be four altogether counting Teresa. Johnny’s heart, pounding in his chest, pumping blood and oxygen to his brain, felt near to bursting as a spot of color caught his sight, her bandana tucked where she had slept! He followed what he thought was a trail and wondered where it would lead; trusted that it would lead to Teresa.

A small path became visible as Johnny went down the other side of the mountain and suddenly he stopped, pulled Barranca behind a pile of rocks and dismounted. Only two hours since starting this morning and Johnny felt the hairs on the back of his neck raise, his sixth sense that he’d learned to trust.

Securing Barranca behind the cover, Johnny skirted the rim keeping just under the edge and scouted the canyon below. The further down, the more trees, and brush, a perfect spot to hole up if you were waiting for something and didn’t want to be found. Johnny discovered a place in the rocks to watch; if they were staying there, smoke would eventually be seen, but he would have to be patient, patient and quiet if he were to be successful in rescuing Teresa. So, he settled in to wait, scanning the surrounding area with the spyglass and watching for… anything.

<><><><> 

Their camp had been carefully chosen, the cover was good, sheltering them from the elements and they had water. Not anticipating having to make a quick getaway, there wasn’t much of a ‘back door’. But they were sure they hadn’t been followed.

Ty Fletcher, Reno Sutton, and Shay Castle sat around the small fire discussing what was to happen next. With their part completed, all they had to do was wait, and none of them was good at waiting. Drinking their coffee, they would occasionally glance in Teresa’s direction where they had secured her and waited.

“Hey, you want some coffee, Miss?”  one of them asked. From her place on the ground, she slowly turned her head in their direction. A cool look shaded her dark brown eyes, and she turned away, not answering. She was beginning to win the respect of her captors, not once had she complained or asked anything of them, but they were also wondering at her stony silence. The only thing she had said was that she needed some privacy and they tied her, hands in front of her, to a length of rope so she could walk around a large boulder and into the bushes to tend to her needs. She then came back to sit where she had been and had not made a sound. But she listened, pretending to ignore them, she listened to every word they said and discovered a great deal. Murdoch would be devastated when he found out what had happened.

<><><><> 

Johnny kept scanning the area; he knew they had to be close. He’d changed his observation point twice now and was moving to a third. Settling again he took a careful look around, nothing… wait! THERE! Movement as he watched the camp. Three men and… Teresa off to the side. She looked alright, not hurt as far as he could tell, just slumped on the ground.

Suddenly she got to her feet, and Johnny watched as she walked around a boulder, hands tied and a rope trailing behind her and out of sight. Soon, Johnny saw her come out from the cover and again sat on the ground. With extreme patience, Johnny crept around and down the canyon wall, silently skirting their camp and came up behind the private area she used. He carefully laid her handkerchief and bandana on the ground at the base of the large rock. Then took cover and waited.

<><><><> 

Val sat with Scott and Jelly, waiting for word from Murdoch. Johnny sent the wire telling him that he was needed at Lancer, but there had not been a response yet. Scott was reclining on the couch in front of the fireplace as Jelly paced the floor. Maria fussed over them all to keep busy and not think of Teresa in the hands of kidnappers and Juanito by himself on the rescue mission.

Val suddenly sat forward, the niggling in his brain sent a spark of clarity flashing a picture of strangers that had been in town the day Murdoch got the telegram from Justin Corbett. He remembered seeing three strangers; two were together with them when Murdoch and Val had lunch and another man Val had never seen at a table by himself. Could these be the same men that broke into the house and took Teresa?

“Maria!” Val called, and the housekeeper came running at the outburst.

“¿Qué? she asked

“You did get a good look at the men that broke in here?”

“Sí.

“Tell me again what they looked like,” Val said and he waited as she described them to the letter. Why hadn’t he thought of this before?

<><><><> 

The afternoon wore on, the air turned chilly, and Teresa shivered as she draped her light jacket over her shoulders. The tether allowed her to get closer to the fire, but she stayed her distance until it was too cold to stay back.

From his vantage point, Johnny could see most of the camp. He was downwind so their horses would not be spooked and he had taken every precaution he could think of, so all he could do was to wait. And as dusk crawled over the mountains, the chance he’d been waiting for presented itself.

Teresa yawned as she stood. Her every move was watched by her captors, but as she had not given them any trouble, she could move at will as far as her tether would allow. She walked behind the boulder and brush and gasped… her things that she’d left behind on the trail were there… Johnny? Was he here to get her? Her heart skipped a beat as she looked frantically around when she heard the whisper that only Johnny could speak, and it was sweet relief to her ears.

“Scream, say there’s a snake… then get outta the way!” And with that command, Teresa screamed like she’d never screamed before.

“Snake! Help!” She crawled off to the side and out of harm’s way. As the first of them rounded the boulder, the barrel of Johnny’s Winchester crashed across his head dropping him in his tracks. With his Colt in hand, Johnny stepped into view of the other two men. Motioning with his gun, Johnny moved them aside.

“Throw your guns away… NOW!” They had no choice but to comply, especially when they met the icy glare that riveted them where they stood. Both shivered, but it had nothing to do with the drop in temperature.

“Back ta camp, nice an’ slow!” With his Colt still aimed at them, the two men turned back feeling the pierce of the blue shards directed their way. Teresa quickly stepped over the downed man and came back to camp. Johnny secured the two, then stood as Teresa screamed, for real this time, as Johnny felt white hot pain explode in his side and he drew his gun as he turned and pulled the trigger. Shay Castle crumpled in a heap not moving.

Teresa ran to Johnny as she pushed aside his jacket, exploring the wound. The bullet had only grazed him, but the bleeding was heavy. She reached into his boot where she knew she would find his knife and cut her bonds, freeing herself of the tether. He remained on his feet, but Johnny resisted her effort to tend the wound, instead stopping to secure the the two men.

“Johnny, let me bind this up, you’re bleeding too badly to let it go. Keep your gun on them, but I have to do this first!” Teresa pleaded

The gun never wavered, Johnny trained it on the idiots before him. Sacrificing both handkerchief and bandana, she stuffed them inside his shirt and began to look for other things to use for bandages.

Taking her liberties, she rummaged through Fletcher and Sutton’s saddlebags looking for something that was clean enough to use but failed as neither had anything decent. Shaking her head in frustration, she was at her wit's end until a thought crossed her mind.

“Johnny, where’s Barranca? You should have something packed in your saddlebags. Maria always insists on that…” Teresa’s eyes were bright and hopeful.

With as deep of a breath as he could draw Johnny pierced the chilled air with his whistle, the whistle he had trained his horse to respond to. He only hoped that the stallion could make it down the side of the canyon without breaking a leg. The worry was for naught, as after a second whistle, the big palomino trotted into the sparse camp. Both Fletcher and Sutton sat, watching in awe.

Going to the large horse, Teresa untied the saddlebags and untied her coat, then settled by Johnny, as he sat, with his pistol leveled at the two other men. Retrieving a roll of cloth and salve, Teresa washed and dressed the wound, wrapping it tight as Johnny held back a groan, but grimaced sharply.

“Oh, Johnny, I’m sorry!” she whispered, but he smiled at her, his dazzling smile that had come to mean so much, to all of them. She lightly smiled back then hiccupped.

“Thanks, T’resa,” he said softly when she had finished.

Her eyes widened. “Thanks? For what? Getting you shot?” She was stunned.

“Hey, you had nuthin’ ta do with it…” Johnny tried to reason.

“But I know who did! These men were not acting alone, Johnny, it was Justin Corbett…” And she watched his eyes as the implication sank into Johnny’s overtired, pain-filled brain.

Johnny started to get up, but Teresa put a hand to his chest, pushing him back down.

“Johnny, it’s too dark. None of us will make it back if we try now; we have to wait for morning.”

Seeing sense in her words, Johnny relented. “Get my rope…” he said as fatigue began to settle in and as Teresa went for the rope, Johnny eased over to Ty and Reno. “Alright, you assholes. Get over by the tree, back ta back.” And with no argument, they flanked the tree.

Johnny used his rope and tied them tightly together against the rough bark of the scrub oak. Then he used one of theirs and secured their feet. Keeping the end of the tether that tied the men to the tree wrapped around his hand, he would be able to tell if they should try to get away during the night, but neither man was going anywhere.

Johnny went back to his spot as Teresa spread his bedroll over him. She pulled his saddle from Barranca’s back and dragged it behind him so he could lean against it for more comfort. He looked up at her, and she shivered.

“Ya alright, T’resa?” he asked her softly, watching as she hugged herself.

It was as if her legs caved in, and she was sitting beside him, her eyes welled with pent up tears. He reached over and pulled her to him, letting her cry herself dry, his arm hugging her tight in her safe and protected haven. With another squeeze to her shoulders, he looked down at her as her head leaned on his chest. He could see the shiny streaks down her cheeks and felt his now wet shirt clinging to his skin.

“Johnny, I’m sorry you got hurt…” she sputtered with a hitch in her voice.

“’S okay, I’d do it again ta get ya back. Go ta sleep, querida. We’re gonna get an early start in the mornin’.” He pulled his blanket around her, and she snuggled into him, asleep in minutes.

He watched the blaze, mesmerized as the hypnotizing flames danced in seductive gyrations over the wood. Teresa had stoked fire right before she collapsed next to Johnny, and it would burn for hours. He looked down at her snuggled against him for warmth and thought with pride about how she’d held up being taken from home, not knowing if she would ever see Lancer or any of them again. He remembered watching through the spyglass, recalling her walking tall, as if unafraid, her strength of character plain to see as she was held prisoner and Johnny was proud to call her sister.

He glanced over at the prisoners, satisfied that they were out for the night and thought about what Teresa had heard them discussing when they thought she’d been sleeping.

Justin Corbett had arranged to have her kidnapped and held for ransom, but why? He would find out, and suddenly Johnny was anxious to get back to Lancer. He wondered how long it would take, now that these two would have to ride trussed up like Thanksgiving turkeys. They wouldn’t make very good time, but he didn’t think he would be making good time in their return. He was starting to hurt something awful. Bite the bullet, Madrid and getting himself under control he finally dropped off into an exhausted sleep.

He never felt it when she left his side, but when he woke, she had breakfast cooking over the fire. The two prisoners watched every move she made. Johnny supposed they wondered if they would be fed. He would have loved to deny them but didn’t think he could tolerate their bellyaching all the way back to Lancer. That’s what they made gags for… he thought.

Seeing that Johnny was awake, Teresa came to him and dropped by his side to check the bandages. Having tended him many, many times before she already knew there would be a fever. He needed some food to gain some degree of energy, but all they had was bacon and beans.

After wolfing down the meager meal, Johnny proceeded to saddle the horses and by the time he was finished his side was screaming in agony and bleeding started again, but he didn’t let on, even going so far as to take a small dose of laudanum that was in his supplies along with the bandages. Dios, that shit’s awful! He took a drink of water to wash the taste from his mouth and turned to Fletcher and Sutton.

“One wrong twitch outta either of you an’ you’re gonna be dead,” he whispered coldly, and they felt as if ice was growing in their bellies as he watched them. His deadly glare seared into their brains, warning that any shenanigans would not be tolerated. Holding his pistol on them, they mounted their horses and were surprised when they noticed not only the bridles were taken off the horses but also when they realized that Johnny was going to tie them to the saddles and their horses would be led. They would have no control whatsoever.

Motioning Teresa over to him, Johnny whispered that he would need her to ride behind them and watch as best she could. “Unless ya think ya can follow the trail you’re gonna hafta ride behind. It ain’t marked real good…”

She could read the fatigue in his eyes, and she steeled herself for a long trip home. Only now she would be helping him.

“I can watch them, Johnny, and believe me, I will let you know if I see anything. Just get us home…” She leaned over to gently hug him. Then she mounted her horse and armed with a pistol that she kept close, they headed out, toward home.

The day proved to be long and the ride strenuous as Johnny fought to stay in the saddle. He knew the graze wasn’t that bad, but grazes were often worse than an actual bullet wound. They seemed to take longer to heal, and the stitches were easier to pull out. This graze was several inches long, it was as deep as grazes could be, at least it was a clean score in his hide. The bad part of it was there were no supplies to stitch it up, and at the slightest wrong move, it would rip open, only to lose more blood. But worst of all was his fatigue. He’d been running himself ragged before this trip to find Teresa and now with an injury, even as minor as this was, he had to fight to stay vigilant enough to get them home.

Occasionally he took a quick swallow of the dreaded laudanum but only enough to take the edge off the pain. He needed to stay as alert as he possibly could, however with one look in Teresa’s eyes he knew anger had taken over, and even Madrid would have second thoughts about crossing the line and agitating her. But that was good; if she could channel her anger with control, Johnny felt confident they would make it back to Lancer with no incidents.

They had a brief repast as they rode, Johnny untied the hands from the saddles but did not untie the hands of the kidnappers for the few minutes it took to eat then bound them again and didn’t stop to make camp until the sun was low in the sky.

The day had been cool but good for travel and Johnny had carefully chosen a route that was safer, one that was easier on all of them. Where he wouldn’t have cared if Fletcher or Sutton had fallen out of their saddles, the trail was better for the horses and Teresa. Occasionally he turned as much as the sharp pull in his side would allow and take a look back, and there she was, sitting straight on her mount, a determined look in her eyes and closely watching every move.

<><><><> 

They were down in the trees now, the air heavily scented with pine and not as cold as before. Teresa cooked up another meal of bacon and beans, food that they had taken from the camp the kidnappers had set up. Thinking about the situation, Johnny came to the conclusion that they hadn’t planned to stay there very long. One could survive on beans a long time but anyone planning an extended time in the mountains also knew to pack provisions that would keep some fat on the bones; it wasn’t like planning to camp on the plains.

How was all of this coordinated? How would Fletcher and Sutton be notified when the ransom had been paid? There were missing pieces to this, but Val would help to get to the bottom of it. All Johnny had to do was to get them home, and these two pendejos to jail. And tomorrow, that would happen. But now they made camp for the night.

“Hey, Lancer, I need ta …” and before the vulgarity flowed from Fletcher’s mouth, Johnny struggled to his feet, untying him from his place, again, back to back with Sutton against a tree, he hauled the man to his feet and herded him off into the brush, soon returning to the camp.

As Johnny walked past Sutton, the outlaw reached out his leg and tripped Johnny as Fletcher turned around, brought up his knee, and rammed it into Johnny’s side, doubling him over and dropping him to the ground. Fletcher made to run, but the sound of a pistol fired into the air brought him to a halt. He turned to look down the barrel of his own gun pointed directly between his eyes. Teresa motioned with the revolver to the tree, and Fletcher did not argue.

He sat as Johnny, still gasping to regulate his breathing, struggled to his feet, and tied him tight once the burning waves of pain slowed the hot flare in his body. As he stopped by Sutton, Johnny stared into the outlaw’s eyes and with a heavy, low, strained whisper ground out his promise. “Ya try anything like that again, I’ll fuckin’ make ya a third eye!” Making sure they were both secure for the night, Johnny collapsed against his upturned saddle and Teresa was by his side, gun still in hand, eyes full of worry.

“’M fine,” was all Johnny said. “Sorry about the swearin’, don’t tell the ol’ man,” he added with a smirk.

“Yes, Johnny, I can see you’re alright,” she quipped. She knew that he would need a change of dressing and quickly tended to the chore, then she got him settled for badly needed rest. Piling more wood on the fire, Teresa again, laid close to Johnny wanting to be there if he needed her during the night.

He woke with a start. The bad dreams had returned, but he knew that sleep would not be coming again any time soon. With any luck, they would be home sometime today. He looked over at Fletcher and Sutton and seeing them still asleep, he relaxed a bit.

Turning his head, he could see Teresa, her hair falling across her face, curled on her side, deep in slumber. Carefully, painfully, he sat up and gently pulled the blanket over her shoulders as he got to his feet and silently added wood to the fire. He felt hot and knew there was a fever, but it wasn’t too bad. A little rest and he’d be good as new, well, maybe a couple days of rest. He was definitely sore but more than anything, he was tired, what did Sam call it? Oh, yeah exhaustion… That’s what he was. Completely exhausted.

<><><><> 

They had made decent time coming down out of the mountains yesterday despite Johnny’s injury and the outlaws tied to their saddles. Maybe this afternoon the Lancer arch would greet them, and some of the hands could take these idiots into Green River. Val would have to come out to see Johnny as he planned on spending the next week sleeping. Well, maybe for the next twelve hours, anyway. But if Val needed to talk he would be coming out to the ranch.

Johnny wondered if Murdoch had made it home yet; if he was there, he would not be a happy man when he heard what Teresa had to tell him. Apparently, Murdoch’s testimony had been key in convicting a young man to hang two years ago; that young man was the son of Justin Corbett.

The cattle for sale had been a ruse to get him away from the ranch so Corbett’s hirelings could cause trouble, enough to upset the ranch life and take something or someone to hold for ransom. How would that make up for a son that had been convicted and hanged? Johnny couldn’t figure out the reasoning, but he knew that people were capable of all sorts of questionable, even stupid behavior if they weren’t thinking straight. And losing a son could very well do just that.

The slow travel was about to push Johnny over the edge. As tired as he was, he knew he wouldn’t be able to stay in the saddle very much longer and wondered how close they were to crossing onto the ranch property. He didn’t have to wonder long, as soon there were riders coming over the ridge, come ta think ‘bout it, that ridge looked familiar… kinda… And very quickly, he recognized Cip, Walt, and Frank as relief rushed through him. Teresa yelled, waving them down as she stood in the stirrups, a huge smile across her  pretty, dirty face. They had made it home.

“Welcome home, Señorita!” announced Cip, returning her grin. “Juanito, are you alright?”

“Yeah, I‘m fi…” was as far as Johnny got before Teresa interrupted him.

“No, he’s not alright. A bullet creased his side, it’s deep, and he needs to be home, and someone needs to take these two to jail. Send Sam back when you get to town, please,” Teresa ordered taking control of the situation.

As Cipriano and Walt took charge of the prisoners, Teresa came protectively to Johnny’s side and smiled.

“Now I will take care of you!” she whispered to him.

Still uneasy about being fussed over, this time, though, he wasn’t going to fight it. “Murdoch make it back, Frank?” Johnny asked.

“Yeah, got in last night. He’s worried sick ‘bout you two! C’mon, let’s go home!”

The last thing Johnny remembered was passing under the Lancer arch.

<><><><> 

“Are you sure you’re alright, Darling?” Murdoch asked as he hugged her again. She rewarded him with a grin that went from ear to ear, her eyes bright and clear. Then suddenly, the grin disappeared, and her eyes darkened. Murdoch’s stomach flipped, and his heart skipped a beat.

“Yes, I’m fine, thanks to Johnny, but there’s something that you need to know. I listened to everything the kidnappers said, and I know who’s behind this.” She stopped talking as if getting a hold on her emotions; she knew these words would be a shock, and she really didn’t want to be the one to say them. But she thought about what exactly had happened, the cold, calculating plan of taking her from Lancer, of Johnny getting hurt and sparing Murdoch wouldn’t change any of it, so she quietly told him everything.

Knowing that Teresa was alright, Murdoch quickly mounted the stairs to check on his son. Maria was with him now, and after they’d settled him in bed, and finding the wound not too severe, Murdoch had spent a bit more time with Teresa.

Now, back in Johnny’s room, he sat next to his son, his younger son, and wondered how Johnny had gotten everything under control. Murdoch himself couldn’t have handled things any better. As a matter of fact, he didn’t think he would have handled them as well as Johnny had. Watching his son lying in bed, Murdoch Lancer felt a pride he’d not known before.

<><><><> 

“I gave him something to make him sleep, more like stay asleep, for a while. He’ll be alright for light work in a few days. There’s blood loss, of course, but he appears to be completely worn out,” Sam announced as he stepped away from Johnny’s bed. Murdoch and Jelly stood as Scott took the chair next to his brother and listened to Sam as he talked, all of them very relieved with Sam’s reassurances.

“That boy’s been runnin’ from one end of this ranch to the other with all the craziness that’s been goin’ on. He tried ta keep this place runnin’ as best he could an’ then things started ta happen, one right after another’n. He was beat when he left ta look for Teresa an’ from what she told me, he didn’t get much rest after he found her neither!” Jelly spoke up as he had been witness to the fatigue on Johnny before he left to rescue his sister.

“Well, sleep is what he needs now, so let’s leave him,” Sam said as he handed Scott a pair of crutches. Scott made no effort to leave the chair. He turned to Sam with a slight smile and shook his head no.

Looking Heavenward, Sam raised his hands. “Why do I even try?” he said, snapped his bag shut, and they all left the room, except for Scott.

<><><><> 

The knock sounded extra loud in the quiet of the evening. Murdoch pulled the heavy wooden door open revealing Val Crawford, Green River’s sheriff, inviting him into the hacienda.

“Val! It’s good to see you! Come on in.” Murdoch stepped aside, allowing Val to enter into the great room.

“Can I get you a drink or coffee?”

“Some coffee’ll do it, thanks!” Val said with an appreciative smile on his face.

Maria welcomed Val and turned into the kitchen for his drink.

“Hey, how’s Johnny doin’?” Val asked as he sat down opposite of Murdoch’s massive desk.

“Sam says he’ll be fine. He’s more worn out than anything.” Murdock sounded relieved.

“Yeah, ol’ Johnny was runnin’ himself ragged after ya left, an’ with Scott laid up, well, Johnny had his hands full…”

Murdoch looked Val in the eyes. “What have you gotten out of the prisoners? Anything incriminating about Corbett? Teresa told me she heard them talking about it.” The look in Murdoch’s eyes held a degree of hope.

“Better’n that, Mr. Lancer. I took ‘em one by one an’ questioned ‘em ‘bout what they did an’ why, an’ well, pretty soon they’re just spillin’ the whole story after I told Fletcher that Sutton said it was his idea! What do they say? Divide an’ conquer? ‘Course, I did kinda threaten ‘em ‘bout stakin’ ‘em out on a anthill for a coupla days, too…” Val laughed a bit.

“I had no idea that it was Corbett’s son that I helped to convict…” Murdoch said more to himself than to Val.

“Well, how was ya s’posed ta know? The kid didn’t use his father’s name. Seems they’d had a fallin’ out an’ the kid took his mother’s maiden name, then got in a passel a trouble, trouble even his ol’ man couldn’t get him outta. No way ya coulda known. Oh, an’ it was Corbett’s foreman that was gonna collect the ransom money an’ take it back ta Denver. I wired the marshal there an’ he’s gonna take care a everything for ya.”

Teresa made her way down the stairs, and Val took her statement, sealing the fate of Fletcher and Sutton.

<><><><> 

He knew that his father was there with him in the room. He’d been feigning sleep every time Murdoch came to see him and didn’t know how much longer he could pull it off. Johny knew he’d been a disappointment to Murdoch and just wasn’t up for the chewing out that he knew he had coming. But which was worse, putting it off or getting it over with? He wasn’t sure, so he cracked his eyes open, not believing how tired he still felt. How long had he been here? He didn’t really know.

“How are you feeling, Johnny?” Murdoch asked quietly, compassionately as the eyes slowly opened.

Did I hear him right? Johnny wondered. Trying to shake the cobwebs clear without actually doing any shaking, Johnny looked up at his father.

The deep blue of Johnny’s eyes always seemed to take Murdoch’s breath away, the color that came from his family line but never such deep blue, not from anyone he remembered. Johnny closed them, not really up to much talking.

“I’m fine, I think. Too tired ta know…” Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch laughed softly but didn’t go away, and Johnny steeled himself for a tongue lashing as best he could.

“Johnny, I know that you’re tired, but I wanted to tell you something…”

Uh oh, here it comes…

“What you did, what you accomplished while I was away was above and beyond anything I can imagine, the cattle and horses were all recovered, the grain field is safe, and no more fires started from the grass that burned. The stream was cleared and flowing into the lake again!”

“Didn’t keep T’resa safe, Scott neither…” Johnny mumbled, still on his side. He hadn’t moved under the blankets, only those eyes, the eyes that showed regret and Murdoch’s heart broke.

“Johnny, you couldn’t be everywhere at one time, and I guess what I’m trying but failing to say is how very proud I am of the way you handled things. You were dealing with a situation when Teresa was taken, and Scott was shot, but you stayed with Scott until help arrived and then went after Teresa. You brought her back safe!

“You know, before Paul died, he asked me if something were to happen to him if I would be her guardian and, of course, I said yes. I wasn’t here to keep her safe, even after making that promise but you were. Thank you, son, for bringing her home. Thank you for everything you did…”

Johnny lay stunned, had he heard his old man right? Had Murdoch just thanked him? But the smile on his father’s face confirmed the question. Say somethin’! Johnny thought to himself.

“Thanks, Murdoch, it means a lot.”

Murdoch wanted nothing more than to gather his son, this wayward boy in his arms and hold him tightly but couldn’t bring himself to disturb the rest that he so obviously needed. Instead, he laid a steady, warm hand on Johnny’s exposed shoulder; he felt the hard, rugged muscle in that arm and knew that Johnny would have given his life to keep Teresa safe. Overwhelmed with emotion, Murdoch pulled himself together.

“Take all the time you need, Johnny. Rest easy, son.” And with that said, Murdoch quietly left the room and closed the door.

<><><><> 

The night was cool as the sun settled down behind the mountains blanketing the valley in the soft, growing darkness. The sky with its crystal clear purity hosted the dancing and sparkling stars and full moon in spectacular display. He could never get enough of this pristine splendor, fresh and reassuring yet primal in a harsh sort of way. Johnny stared feeling cleansed and soothed; the stars had always affected him like this. They had the ability to calm ragged thoughts and troubles stampeding around in his head, release the hold and uncertainties they had on his brain; in essence, they brought him peace.

The patio door opened, and the light footfalls of his sister came up behind him. She leaned against the warm adobe wall around the patio and followed his skyward gaze. She smiled, then looked at his face.

“Are you alright, Johnny? You didn’t bring your jacket, and it’s getting chilly out here.”

He was learning to deal with the ‘fussing’ over him, and he smiled down at her twinkling eyes. “Yeah, I‘m fine, T’resa, thanks.”

Teresa shrugged and looked down at her hands before she spoke. Then meeting his eyes, she continued very quietly in soft, measured tones. “Johnny, I never thanked you for coming after me. I…”

Pushing off the wall, Johnny turned to face her and cupped her chin in his hand. “I’d do it again, wouldn’t even hafta think about it, T’resa. Ya know, sittin’ up above in those rocks, I was tryin’ ta figure out the best way ta get down there, an’ I watched ya in that camp. Ya didn’t show any fear; I‘m proud of you, that took a lot of gut… courage.”

She looked surprised, then very pleased. “I was so scared, but, inside, deep down, I knew you would come for me, and that thought made me stronger. I’ve learned something from you, from Madrid, and it happened to serve me well during this ordeal. Thank you, Johnny!” Standing on tiptoes, she placed a kiss on his cheek. “Come on, let’s go in before you catch a chill!’’ and wrapping her arm gently around his lean waist she steered him toward the house.

Home. It feels pretty good! Johnny thought to himself as he began to relish the warmth and the feel of the word. Home…

 

 

~ end ~

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