The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Buckskin

 

 

The Road From Eagle Point

Thanks to Cat and Sandy for the Beta

“Damn stupid cows!” he muttered for the hundredth time that day. Pulling the wire between the fence posts and twisting it tight, Johnny Madrid Lancer, former gunfighter turned rancher with a temper, repaired the damage that kept Lancer cattle in and other cattle out. “Gotta be one of the dumbest animals on earth!” he growled as he picked up the hammer, and with a firm hold began to pound nails into the post and promptly slammed his finger with the heavy tool.

Son-of-a-bitch!” he groaned through clenched teeth and in a fit of unrestrained anger, he threw the hammer into the bushes as he sucked the injured finger. He tasted blood, and spit. “Damn! Stupid cows!” Johnny stomped over to the bushes to retrieve the tool he had thrown in a fit of irritation. Reduced to scouring the area on his hands and knees, he peered into the weeds and dead vegetation. He’d crawled around for about two minutes before he felt the thorn puncture his palm. He let loose with a colorful string of obscenities in English and Spanish that had the ability to tinge the air blue. The blood began to ooze in a bright red trickle over the dirty skin.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” was repeated many times before he turned over on his butt and sat in the grass. He reached into his pocket for the small knife he carried with him. The sharp blade had been instrumental since his arrival at Lancer, crucial in the removal of slivers and thorns. Luckily, it was his left hand. Thorn injuries had a way of staying sore for many days and would fester easily; he couldn’t run the risk of having his right hand out of commission with his past as Johnny Madrid, gunhawk.

So, there he sat, performing minor surgery, swearing and in general, having a very bad day when he heard the approach of a horse. He dropped the knife and grabbed for the gun that was as much a part of his body as his arms and legs. Coming quickly to his knees, he leveled the Colt with deadly accuracy. Johnny aimed at the heart of the intruder and fortunately recognized his brother through his haze of temper and throbbing pain.

Scott raised his hands in the air in mock terror as Johnny dropped the gun to his side, took a deep breath then returned it to the holster. He then proceeded to work at removing the painful thorn without so much as an acknowledgment.

“What are you doing, brother?” Scott asked with raised brows.

“What’s it look like I’m doin’?” Johnny’s sarcastic reply singed the air.

“You have a peculiar way stringing wire.”

“Got a thorn in my hand an’ I’m cuttin’ it out.”

“Well, what are you doing sitting in the bushes?”

“Lookin’ for the hammer,” Johnny grumbled as if that explained the situation.

Scott was able to piece together the chain of events as he noticed the bleeding finger plus the embedded thorn and questioned no more. Shaking his head, he dismounted to lend his brother a hand.

“You look like you could use a drink, brother. What do you say that after dinner we take
a little ride into Green River?” Scott asked as he finished with Johnny’s hand.

“Sounds pretty good ta me. Can ya convince these stupid cows ta not break through the fence any more?”

“Hey, you’re the one that works his magic with animals, not me, so you’re on your own there!” Scott replied with both hands raised in the self-defense gesture and laughed. “Come on, brother, before we’re late for dinner. You know that we eat at six and I, for one, do not relish eating a cold sandwich especially when I know that the ladies have been cooking all day!”

The ride back to Lancer was spent in amiable camaraderie as the two sons of rancher Murdoch Lancer joked and raced all the way home. They arrived at the bathhouse with just enough time to get cleaned up and make it to the dinner table with only a few minutes to spare.

Entering the dining room with the usual rowdy laughter and brotherly teasing was becoming the normal state of affairs in the large hacienda. Since the two younger Lancers came to live at the ranch, Murdoch never tired of the good-natured ribbing and tomfoolery as for well over twenty years the house had seemed like a tomb. Neither son had been raised at the ranch, and now with their antics that echoed off every wall, peace and quiet were almost nonexistent. And that suited Murdoch just fine.

Sitting in their respective places, the platters of food were passed, and the Lancer family settled down for yet another deliciously prepared meal from the cook, Maria. She was fond of both the younger Lancers, but Maria tended to dote on Johnny as she was there when Johnny was born. And she grieved as if he were her own when Johnny’s mother took off with him in the middle of the night with another man when Johnny was only two.

When he returned to the ranch, now grown, she spoiled him by cooking all his favorite foods, much to Scott’s dismay. Johnny’s taste, of course, ran to the spicy side. Scott had been raised in Boston, and his delicate palate was not prepared to handle the hot peppers that were the base for most things that Johnny ate. He would grin at Scott’s discomfort and found much humor in the situation, then he would take pity on his brother and share his glass of milk that would cut the heat, and hoped that the well-intended gesture would be enough to curtail any retaliation.

“Johnny, what happened to your hand?” Murdoch asked, noticing the bandage that Johnny had unsuccessfully tried to keep hidden.

“Ah, nothin’. Just a little thorn, is all. Scott dug it out. It’s fine,” Johnny said trying to shrug it off.

Murdoch huffed. Johnny was always fine… “Do you need to have Sam look at it?” Murdoch asked Johnny but turned his eyes to Scott as if the elder brother would be more truthful.

“No, it’s fine, ain’t it, Scott?” Johnny said as he looked to his brother for backup.

“I do believe he will live, sir,” Scott answered, formally addressing his father. “If you’ve got no objections, sir, Johnny and I will be going into town tonight for an hour or so.”

“No, no objections as long as you’re back and ready for work tomorrow,” Murdoch replied watching his boys, relieved and very happy they had developed this close bond. “As long as you’re in town would you pick up the mail? There should be several days’ worth; no one has been there in a while to collect it.”

“We can do that. Anything else you need?” the always considerate Scott asked.

“No, unless Teresa needs something.”

“No, but thank you, I think I have everything I need. Have a good time and don’t be too late!” And with a sweet smile to her brothers, Teresa took her leave of them and left for the kitchen to help Maria clean up.

“Well, little brother, are you ready to go?” Scott asked as Johnny jumped out of his chair and was at the front door strapping on his gunbelt before Scott left the table. “I guess he’s ready…” he looked at his father and winked. Scott soon joined Johnny, and the two were riding under the Lancer arch on their way to Green River.

<><><><> 

The saloon was not very busy, and they had their choice of tables although it was Johnny’s habit to sit in the back against the wall to watch who came in and who left. It was an old habit from his days as Johnny Madrid. This practice had saved his life on more than one occasion, and he had no intention of abandoning the habit now.

The pile of Lancer mail was considerable. Scott picked up half of it, casually going through the stack when a letter caught his eye. Picking up the envelope he glanced at the postmark. It read Eagle Point, California and he felt his heart skip a beat. He tore the envelope open and began to read. He smiled, then a huge grin blossomed on his face, and he glanced up at his brother.

“What’s the matter, Scott, did ‘she’ say yes, or somethin’?” Johnny smirked before taking a sip of his beer.

“Better than that, brother, we just bought some broodmares! We are officially in the horse raising business!”

Johnny made a grab for the letter. “Lemme see that!” and snatching it out of Scott’s hand he read aloud.

‘Glad to do business with you. I have eight mares to sell all good sound stock with lines from Spanish Andalusian descendants, the same horses you saw when you were here last month. How many are you looking for? I have business down in Sacramento next week and could meet you there with how ever many head you choose to buy. Send telegraph message to confirm if you are still interested.

Sincerely
Tom McBride

“Damn, Scott! We did it! This calls for a celebration! Henry! Another round over here!” Johnny called for the bartender to set them up… again.

<><><><> 

“S-Scott?”

“Ye hic, ssss?”

“What'd ya do with the hors, belch, horses?”

“Dunno, thought you h-had ‘em”

“Fuck, ‘m horse is g-gone, S-Scott…” stumble and another belch. “Scott?”

“Yeah, John-Johnny?”

“I don' feel so g-good.”

“I don’t d-doubt that…”

<><><><> 

The room was spinning; it wouldn’t stop. Mierda! He clutched his head with both hands as it threatened to explode off of his shoulders. He would have fallen on the floor if his elbows hadn’t been braced on his knees to hold himself steady. He groaned, rocked back and forth and cringed as the knock on the door sounded like cannon fire.

“Johnny! Are you in there? If you are, you’re late!” Murdock informed him with an emphasis on the word ‘late’.

Hell, everyone in Mexico heard him!

“Yeah, Murdoch, gimme a minute,” Johnny mumbled barely above a whisper.

“Johnny? Did you say something?” The door cracked open, and Murdoch’s large frame filled the portal. He stood looking at his youngest son first with disappointment in his eyes then magically it changed to humor, and he laughed with great booming guffaws.

Johnny felt as if an ax had cleaved his skull. 

Thanks to Maria’s vast knowledge of most things medicinal and remediable, Johnny was able to join in the work to some degree and supervise the men with their chores. Usually, Johnny was in the midst of the work himself, as he never asked the hands to do something that he wouldn’t do, but today was a bit different. His hat was pulled low over his eyes, and there was a slouch in his posture that wasn’t there yesterday. He passed up lunch and had been seen ducking into the bushes on three different occasions.

Scott hadn’t fared much better. Working with Jelly on the best of days was a challenge. Dealing with him when one was clutched in the grips of a debilitating hangover was next to impossible. The constant yammering was like a hammer beating on an anvil inside his head, and he wished Jelly would just go away. But, that didn’t happen. All day, with as much noise and irritation as he could manage, Jelly let his presence be known. And Scott really wanted to die.

Dinner that night was a quiet affair. For the most part, both Scott and Johnny pushed the food around on their plates, and Teresa and Murdoch pretended not to notice. After forcing down a few bites, they did start to feel a little more like themselves and began to make plans for the trip to Sacramento to pick up their mares. They had wired Tom McBride and told him they wanted all eight horses, with the possibility for future purchases. The price had been settled on, and now all that was left to do was wait until next week to take possession. Murdoch had given his consent that both Scott and Johnny take a few days from the ranch to get their horses and secretly was elated that the boys would spend the days together and away from the ranch.

It had surprised Murdoch when Scott voiced his willingness to join his brother in the breeding program, and it made sense for the two of them to form a partnership. They worked well together; with Johnny’s expertise breaking and training the animals and Scott’s business sense, Murdoch had no doubt they would be successful.

<><><><> 

As the days passed, both Lancer sons were coming to the realization that it was finally going to happen. No more waiting, no more agonized wondering if they could find appropriate breeding stock, and in a few days, they would be on their way to pick up their horses! The anticipation was torturous and exciting. Johnny sometimes felt that the clock was moving backward as the days seemed to drag.

Murdoch let them use an old barn and with a little refurbishing, reinforcing and a new coat of paint it looked as if it had been made for this project. Even with all the preparations, time still dragged but Johnny thought ahead about the horses that would soon fill the pastures, and he knew it would be worth the wait.

They were to leave in four days, and all the plans had been made, supplies laid out and everything packed. Murdoch couldn’t help but grin at the enthusiasm of his sons. They reminded him of children on Christmas morning. At the moment they were bent over a map discussing the quickest route home. The front door opened and Jelly came into the hacienda with a few supplies and the day’s mail.

“Here’s a letter for you, Scott,” announced Murdoch as he slipped the missive next to Scott’s arm as he leaned on the table.

“Thanks, Murdoch,” Scott responded, not looking up from the map. “But if we take this trail, we will avoid the possibility of that waterhole being dried up. What do you say, brother?”

“Yeah, you’re right, but if we take the other trail it’ll get us back two days faster, and I don’t think water will be a problem, not with the snow in the mountains this winter. The runoff’ll still be… runnin’ off.”

“Well, I guess it won’t be too much of an issue. We did have excessive snowfall this year. You win little brother. We better finish up our chores for the day before we’re late for dinner. You know how Murdoch hates that!” They gathered up the map and put it with the pile of supplies that they would be taking in a few days and left the house.

<><><><> 

As Scott and Johnny made their way from the bathhouse on their way to dinner, Johnny’s constantly scanning eyes saw a buggy coming up the road under the Lancer arch.

“Guess we’re gonna have company tonight. Wonder who Teresa invited this time?”

They walked around to the front of the house as the buggy stopped by the hitch rail. A tall, gangly man stepped down out of the carriage looking around as if lost. His eyes were wide and constantly blinked behind thick-lensed wire-rimmed glasses. His beak-like nose, larger than anything Johnny had ever seen, gave the appearance of a huge bird that Scott had shown to him in one of those books on Ev… Evolu… Oh yeah, Evolution. A Dodo bird… Stupid name, Johnny thought. Straight, straw looking hair sneaked out from under the ridiculous looking hat resembling much like the hat that Scott had worn when he arrived at Lancer. The only thing missing was the plaid pants. I’ll be damned! He’s got them, too! Johnny smirked.

“Can I help you?” Scott asked with a formal tone. The man seemed ready to dismiss these two ruffians as beneath him when at a second glance he realized that this was his intended target.

“Scott?” the stranger asked.

Scott’s head came up, not making the connection. His eyes squinted a bit.

“Scott, it’s me! Reginald! Reginald Wallingford! Don’t you remember me? Didn’t you get my letter?” Suddenly Wallingford looked panicked. “Scott, you do remember, don’t you? Harvard? We were in several studies together!”

Reginald’s large Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, and Johnny wondered at the motion. It seemed that it would just burst out of his throat! Hell, that looks like it’s gotta hurt!

“Oh, yes! Reginald! But what are you doing out here? This is a long way from home.” Scott looked puzzled… and shocked.

Reginald now was confident that he could complete this covert task. “I am here on my father’s business, and as I was close to the area, I thought I’d stop to see you for a bit. I wrote you a letter. Didn’t you receive it? Well, this is the wilderness, I know, but you would think that mail got delivered here!” Reginald stated indignantly.

Turning to Johnny, he said, “Boy, take my bags into the house at once and be careful with them! Don’t drop them into the dirt!” Taking Scott by the arm, Reginald Wallingford steered him toward the house.

Scott ventured a glance back at Johnny who was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, weight on one leg, resting casually as he took in the whole ridiculous scene. Jelly wandered out of the house to stand next to him; his questioning eyes took in the strange carriage and all the luggage.

“What’s all the ruckus, Johnny?”

“Oh, some fancy Boston friend came out ta see Scott. Hey Jelly, ya wanna get his bags inta the house? An’ don’t drop ‘em in the dirt!” Johnny danced away as his laughter filled the yard before Jelly could swat his behind after realizing he’d been set up.

<><><><> 

“Murdoch, this is Reginald Wallingford from Boston. Reginald, my father, Murdoch Lancer.”

Murdoch held out his hand, and Reginald looked at it as if he would catch something horrible and disgusting, then remembered why he was here. He grasped Murdoch’s outstretched hand and shook it briefly with a loose and weak grip. The grip of a person that had no interest or concern, one that didn’t care for the man he was meeting.

“Yes, Mr. Lancer, of course. How very nice to meet you,” Reginald murmured, not meeting Murdoch's eyes.

“Teresa, please set another place for dinner!” Murdoch called into the kitchen. “Do you have bags, Reginald? We will show you to a guest room.”

“Yes, I told a boy to bring them in. Oh, I truly hope he is careful with them!” And as he turned to the front door Jelly struggled through, loaded with the bags and started for the stairs.

“Now where is that other person? Oh, I knew I shouldn’t have trusted that one to do any work! I just know that he’s off shirking his duties, sleeping somewhere, no doubt!” And with a disgusted pout, Reginald followed Jelly up the stairs.

Murdoch stared at Scott in disbelief. “Did you invite him here, Scott?”

“No, sir, I most certainly did not! Apparently, he said he wrote a letter but I…” Scott stopped as he remembered the letter that Jelly had brought from town earlier. He had been involved in making their plans for their trip, and he never read it, in fact, had forgotten about it. It was too late now.

“How long has it been that you’ve seen him, Scott?”

“Years, I barely knew him when I was in Boston… I wonder why he’s made this trip now?”

Dinner was late as Reginald hadn’t made his appearance until an hour later. Johnny had threatened to eat in the kitchen with Maria when Reginald strode into the great room.

“Hey, Reg, just so ya know, we eat at six,” Johnny said jokingly with a grin.

“My name is Reginald! Reginald Wallingford, the Fourth! And you would do well to remember that… And your place!”

Johnny let it slide; he already knew that during the time that Reg would be here at the ranch things were apt to be… tense and he would be biting his tongue, for Scott’s sake. And only for Scott.

“Fourth, huh? Ain’t one enough?” Johnny replied with a cold smile as he openly sized up the uninvited guest.

Reg suddenly turned his back on Johnny, he leaned over to Scott and asked, “Do you let the help eat in here with you?” Horrified at the thought of having to share the table and associate with someone of a lower class, he then looked to Teresa and snapped his fingers.
“I’ll have a glass of wine with my meal.” Not meeting her eyes, he walked past her into the dining room.

Teresa was bewildered as to what just happened. Johnny just shrugged.

“Reginald, wait a minute,” Scott said from behind him; he felt a strong need to rectify the situation before it got any more out of hand. His family deserved the respect that had not been extended.

“Reginald!” Scott raised his voice so as not to be ignored. “Reginald, I haven’t made the introductions. I’d like for you to meet my brother, Johnny Lancer.” Reginald mouthed an “O” after meeting the cold, deep blue-eyed glare that had withered other, more worthy men. “And this is my sister, Teresa O’Brien.” Another “O” formed on his mouth.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Reginald sheepishly responded, and then a very subdued “Nice to meet you…” was added, again, with averted eyes.

“Please sit, everyone before it gets cold!” Murdoch urged. Soon the meal was finished, and dessert and coffee were served. Reginald launched into another boring series of stories regarding his family’s business when Teresa saved the day.

“Reginald, tell us about Scott when you knew him! You must have some great stories to tell!”

“Well, yes I do!” Reginald replied, anxious to have their attention. He took a deep breath and prepared to stun them all with his recitation of Scott’s escapades at Harvard.

Scott, suddenly desperate to turn this conversation onto a completely different path, tried to ask other questions to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation but Teresa kept up the prompting until Reginald eagerly complied with the request.

“Oh! Where to begin? Well, I can tell you that Scott was quite the dandy with the ladies…”

“Dandy, huh, Scott?” Johnny teased, his eyes danced at his brother’s growing discomfort.

Reginald continued, ignoring Johnny’s comment, with more civilized stories he was sure this ‘savage’ would never begin to understand. After all, Reg clearly thought Johnny was certainly below him in social standing, the filthy half-breed!

Johnny wondered if Murdoch would be too upset with him if he closed his eyes and started to snore at the table. The stories old Reg droned on about was enough to put him to sleep.

“Oh, and Scott was quite the prankster! Very daring! Why, he put flour in Professor Hanson’s inkwell! Oh, the professor was certainly surprised when he picked up his quill and found the well filled with paste! And Scott went from classroom to classroom and stole all the pointers from the teachers! Imagine their surprise when none of them could find the pointers required to use in class!”
Reginald chuckled. He had their attention, and they seemed to be enjoying these little accounts. “Oh, yes, Scott was quite the scamp!”

Johnny, taking a drink of coffee, choked on hearing ‘scamp’ and coughed into his napkin until he could finally catch his breath and not have coffee spewing out of his nose. After composing himself and desperately trying not to laugh, he caught Scott’s embarrassed attention. “Oh, boy, Boston, you really do know how ta live on the edge, don’t ya?” and lowered his head before he lost his control and burst into laughter in front of ol’ Reg. Once again, he returned the napkin to his face as if to blot up the grin that threatened to escape.

Both Murdoch and Teresa were forced to hide their smiles, battling nearly as much as Johnny but with a tad more success. Reginald dabbed daintily at his mouth not trying to suppress a smile and very pleased with himself at his charm and wit. He completely missed the fact that the Lancers were not laughing ‘at’ the story itself, but at the situation.

They had moved into the great room to enjoy drinks as Scott poured and served them. Murdoch had his old standby of Scotch and Scott poured tequila for both himself and Johnny.

“Reginald, what can I get for you?”

”Something civilized,” he jeered as he eyed Johnny’s glass, then Johnny. Reginald had not been prepared to face this threat and seemed to be wondering just exactly what he’d gotten himself into.

Johnny stared back with his cold, icy eyes, not breaking the contact.

Reginald stepped back, suddenly very uncomfortable at the glare. He could have sworn that this Madrid character was sucking the life right out of him, chilling him to the bone. Yes, he’d been ill-prepared…

Scott turned with his own glass in his hand when Reg took note of what he was drinking.

“Why, Scott, what has happened to you?”

“What do you mean, Reginald? Nothing has happened to me.”

“Scott, what are you drinking? You would never have drunk that swill before!”

“You ought to give it a try, Reginald, you may like it.”

“Yeah, try it, Reg. It’ll put hair on your chest,” and with that Johnny emptied his glass, his cold stare still held direct eye contact with Reginald, then he left the room.

Reginald sat gloating that Johnny had taken his leave, secretly relieved now that the menace had gone and left the civilized ones together untarnished.

Murdoch saw the light in Reg’s eyes, and for a moment an uneasy ghost of a feeling settled in his heart, but he brushed it off deciding instead to focus on Scott and the connection from his past. “So, Reginald, how long will you be staying here as our guest?” Murdoch couldn’t wait to hear this…

<><><><> 

The knock on his door brought Johnny to full consciousness.

“It’s open...”

Scott entered quietly, tentatively, and came over to sit on the side of Johnny’s bed.

Johnny read the troubled look in his brother’s eyes and could only wonder if something had happened after he left the great room.

“I am sorry, Johnny. I didn’t mean for that to happen.” Scott looked at his brother with a sincere apology in his heart then bowed his head.

“What’d ya talkin’ about, Scott? You didn’t do anything wrong,” Johnny answered softly.

“Yes, but Reginald is here because of me…”

“Look, Scott, I know ya gotta be missin’ some of your life an’ friends from Boston, I get it. This is a whole different world from anything that he’s ever known, so I’m just gonna make myself a little scarce while he’s here. Hey, how long is he stayin’?”

“I don’t know but you and I will be leaving to pick up the mares is a few days so it won’t be that long.”

“Can’t believe that you were close friends with him…” Johnny said with raised brows and a smile.

“I wasn’t…”

“Then why is he here?” Johnny asked, suddenly suspicious.

“I don’t know. We shared one class together, and I barely knew him even then. Quite frankly, I don’t remember much about him. Well, hopefully, this ‘visit’ won’t last. I just wanted to clear the air with you. Good night, brother.”

“Night, Scott. See ya in the mornin’.” Johnny slid down into the bed and wondered what tomorrow would bring. Yeah, I’ll just stay outta sight till that fella leaves an’ it’ll be all right. Well, it should be all right. Johnny fell asleep thinking about the mares that he and Scott had purchased and would soon bring to Lancer.
<><><><> 

Morning found Johnny up at dawn, and having eaten a hearty breakfast, he was out behind the barn measuring out the position of fence posts for the new corral that the mares would soon occupy. Several hours went by, and with the sun high in the sky, the heat was building quickly. Suddenly there was a commotion in the barn and Johnny heard Barranca’s shrill and panicked neigh. There was trouble! Johnny dropped the tools and ran at full speed to the back door then threw himself into the dark interior.

Standing in the middle of the barn was Reginald, his arm raised, a whip clenched in his hand. And Barranca was the intended victim. It took all of a quarter of a second for Johnny to draw his gun and fire, sheering the whip in two a mere inch above Reginald’s white-knuckled hand.

Reg turned in stunned surprise, his knees already quaking and eyes wide with horror. He just knew this scum was going to shoot him dead!

Johnny took one look at Barranca and was nose to nose with Reginald in a few long strides.

Reg shrank away from the rage-filled eyes that bored clear into his soul, what little soul there was.

“Just what the hell were you doin’? This is my horse an’ you don’t touch him! EVER!” Johnny grabbed the halter and began to sooth the frenzied horse, talking quietly and smoothly with his velvet tones, and soft, easy words as Barranca slowly responded. Johnny caressed the silky muzzle as his fingers came in contact with a long swelling welt and rage filled his entire body. He closed his eyes to try and regain some composure. Finally, after waging a mighty battle with himself, he turned to Reginald and stood directly in front of him and only inches away. “I ever see you whip a Lancer horse, any horse for that matter, I'm gonna wrap that whip around your neck and break both your damn arms,” Johnny sneered. He spoke very softly, but the threat was loud and clear. Taking Barranca by the halter, Johnny left the barn and headed for the house.

Scott and Murdoch came out the back door together with questioning looks on their faces.

“We thought we heard a shot, Johnny. Is something wrong?” Murdoch asked hesitantly.

“There will be if that pendejo ever touches this horse again!" Johnny retorted, then, "Sorry, didn't mean ta yell at you." He then called for Jelly to come out of the house. The bewhiskered old man stepped into the hot sunlight and looked questioningly at Johnny.

“Ya got anything ta put on this welt?” Johnny stood stroking the golden neck and soothing the horse as it danced a bit, still unsettled.

“What in tarnation happened ta him? Looks like someone took a whip to ‘im,” Jelly inspected the injury.

“That’s exactly what happened.” Johnny didn’t meet Scott’s eyes. He didn’t want to put Scott in the middle of this, but Scott took the initiative and immediately headed for the barn.

Entering the dim interior, Scott saw Reginald trying to get another horse saddled, but the cinch knot was beyond him, and the saddle promptly slid to the floor.

“Reginald? What just happened in here?”

“Why, that beast tried to trample me! And then that half... your brother almost shot me! I was so scared, Scott!”
 
“Why didn’t you ask for someone to get you a horse? And another thing, if my brother was trying to shoot you, we’d be digging a bullet out of you now… or burying you. Don’t ever forget that.” Scott turned to leave, but Reginald’s whiny nasal voice squeaked out again.

“Scott, he threatened me!”

“Let me assure you, Reginald, it was no threat. Next time he will make good on it. So it’s up to you to not let it happen again.” With that Scott turned and left Reginald, shaking knees and all, to try a figure out how to saddle his own horse.

<><><><> 

Johnny reached the barn after putting Barranca out in the high pasture. He had been thinking about not riding the stallion when they took possession of the mares. Not knowing if any of them were in season Johnny didn’t want to invite trouble on the trail so he thought he’d ride Dusty, a flashy four-year-old bay gelding. His black points contrasted with a brilliant white blaze that widened out over his muzzle. Johnny would be sorry to leave Barranca home, but the stallion liked the ladies as much as his master did. So, his decision made, Barranca was set out to graze in the lush high mountain grass. Johnny spent the rest of the afternoon watching his mount chase and tease the other horses, before he leaned up against the base of a tree, pulled his hat down over his face and nodded off.

Late afternoon found Johnny dallying around the barn, not wanting to go into the house if that Eastern idiota was there, so he found little things to keep himself busy as long as he could. The dinner bell had long since been rung, and soon Johnny could hear footsteps coming toward the barn, and he knew who it would be.

Teresa stepped inside, and after her eyes adjusted to the dark interior, she made out Johnny sitting in a corner mending a bridle. “Johnny, you missed dinner! Are you all right?” she asked, concern set deep in her large brown eyes.

“Oh, I‘m all right, I guess,” he responded quietly.

“Johnny, I heard what Reginald did to Barranca today, I am so sorry! How can anyone be that cruel?”

“Dunno. But I can tell ya one thing; I wanted to shoot him.” Johnny’s vexation was still barely under control.

Teresa shrugged, and she could only agree with her brother. “Well, you didn’t miss out on any conversation at dinner. Only about the hair-raising account of Reginald rescuing his professor’s papers as they were blown away with a gust of wind…”

Johnny stopped his repairs as he slowly looked up into his sister’s eyes not quite believing if he had heard correctly. “Musta been a sight ta behold… Sure do hope no one got hurt.” Johnny deadpanned, and Teresa burst into bubbling laughter. It felt good to laugh, sincerely laugh instead of the forced polite chuckles that had been the case of late.

“I really can’t say that I blame you for missing dinner, but, come on, I saved you some supper. It’s in the kitchen.” She extended her arm, and he walked into it, putting his across her shoulders, pulling her close in a brotherly embrace and together they left the barn. On the way to the house, Johnny commented that he didn’t think he could take any more excitement and sitting on the edge of his chair while Reg related the daring escapades of his life in Boston. Again, Teresa dissolved into uncontrolled laughter.

<><><><> 

The night air had overpowered the heat and the evening was pleasant and clear. Above, the stars were shining brightly and the moon was full and beautiful. Johnny leaned against the adobe wall and let the night sounds wash away the tensions that the day left burning in his soul. He’d almost come to grips with the events of the morning that left their scars on his brain when he heard the door open, and someone stepped out onto the patio. He knew it wasn’t Scott or Murdoch. Johnny remained with his back turned; he did not acknowledge Reginald as he knew he would say or do something he would regret.

Reginald watched as Johnny retreated to the patio and stood with his back turned, leaning on the low wall that encircled and created a courtyard. Good that he’s outside where he belongs! Perhaps I will remind him of his place! And Reginald Wallingford, the Fourth, made his presence known.

“Well, you seemed to have found your niche, or should I say hole that you can hide in.” Reginald’s voice dripped with venom.

Where had this attack come from? “What’d ya want from me, Reg?” Johnny turned to face him now with a huge attempt to keep civil for Scott’s sake.

“My name is Reginald Wallingford, the Fourth and you’d better remember it! You had better remember who your betters are, you, what do they call it? Ah, yes,” and he sneered, “you half-breed!”

With no effort at all, Madrid appeared, the blue of those eyes froze Reginald in his tracks.

The piercing cold seemed to render him helpless, and Reginald took two steps back, he could not fathom what was happening! This ruffian seemed to change right before his eyes and Reginald was afraid. He’d finally gone too far, and he was fearful for his life.

The eyes that held his were like ice shards and deadly. The calm façade and cold glare only added to the menace that Reg saw shade the face and he knew he had to stop before he was killed by this monster in a fit of rage. He would have to get help to finish this as he realized he was in over his head.

Johnny responded very quietly to the poison that flowed from the Easterner’s mouth.
“Oh, I do know who my betters are. They’re men like Murdoch and Scott. Men that are honorable and true and who have proven themselves over an’ over. Tell, me, Reg, who exactly are you an’ what have you done ta make you better than me, huh? Just because you went ta Harvard, maybe because your family has money… Ya think that that makes you a better man? Ohh, boy, Reg,” Johnny suddenly laughed, the cold tones crawled down Reginald’s spine. “Ya think that number after your name means anything?” Johnny chuffed again. “But I guess it’d make someone like you feel important which is all that matters ta you,” Johnny said as a deadly smile played across his lips.

“What exactly have you done to deserve any respect from anyone?” Johnny hissed. “I may be a half-breed but lock the two of us in a room an’ I can tell ya right now which one of us would be left standing in about three seconds, or less, an’ it ain’t you.” Johnny walked past Reg and intentionally knocked his shoulder into Reginald’s chest, sending the idiot scrambling backward. Johnny watched his struggle for balance taking perverse pleasure and smiled as he entered the house knowing that Reginald had been shaken to his pompous and arrogant core.

Murdoch was sitting at his desk when Johnny entered the house, and he watched his youngest son as he slumped in the chair that faced him. Trouble had settled over him, trouble that seemed to wrap around Johnny, to suffocate the usually bright disposition that Murdoch had come to appreciate and to love. Seeing the dark countenance on the handsome features, Murdoch asked the obvious.

“Johnny? What’s troubling you, son?” Murdoch questioned, although he had an idea.

“If it’s all right with you, Murdoch. I’m gonna start out after those horses tomorrow. Scott’s busy here and Reg made it plain that he’d rather not see me. I don’t wanna spoil anything for Scott. I know he’s gotta miss parts of that life so let him visit an’ I’ll go pick up the mares. We really wanted ta do this first trip tagether, but that ain’t gonna happen so I’ll just go by myself.”

“Son, I am so sorry this didn’t work out the way you wanted it to, but I am very, very proud of the way you are handling it.” Murdoch did his best to let Johnny know that he understood, that he was behind Johnny and supported him.

Johnny’s head snapped up in shock. “You can’t be serious? I wanted ta shoot him taday!” Johnny said with a half smile.

“Yes, I know, but you didn’t. You’re showing more restraint, and for that I am thankful! Go to bed, Johnny. Tomorrow will come all too soon.”

As Johnny stood to go upstairs, Murdoch stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “You and Scott have made me very happy, Johnny, please don’t ever forget that.” And his fingers held his son’s shoulder warmly and tenderly.

The grin on Johnny’s face spread to his heart, and for the millionth time, he was glad at his decision to stay at Lancer.

“Thanks, Murdoch,” he said softly.

And Murdoch saw the sparkle in Johnny's eyes and knew Johnny felt the love of family.

<><><><> 

Still out on the patio, Reginald thought about the situation. His ride into town was productive. He would have the help he needed. The two men he found were not too bright, but they were muscle, and they were cheap.

<><><><> 

The sky had not yet begun to light the day when Johnny left the house and headed to the barn. Dusty perked up his ears as Johnny entered and snorted as if to say he wasn’t ready to start their trip, to come back later.

“Better wake up, boy, we’re leavin’ in a few minutes ta pick up some pretty ladies.” Johnny talked as he saddled the bay and got his provisions packed on the horse. Then he swung gracefully into the saddle and left the ranch, sincerely hoping that Reg the Fourth would be gone when he got back. Not meaning any offense to Scott, but Reginald Wallingford was an arrogant ass. Well, if Scott can’t be here with me, I’d rather go alone anyway, he thought as he rode under the Lancer arch.

<><><><> 

Scott had already eaten breakfast and been out working for two hours before Reginald put in his appearance for the day. Reg had Teresa wishing for a lightning bolt to wipe him off the face of the earth as he rudely demanded that she launder his clothes and fetch him breakfast as if she were his personal slave. Teresa pulled herself together before Scott or Murdoch found what had transpired as she wanted to spare Scott the embarrassment. But she had been successful at insisting Reginald take his breakfast in the kitchen and not at the formal dining table. If he wanted to eat, he had to concede.

As Scott entered the kitchen, Reginald had finished his meal and asked what was on ‘their agenda’ for the day. Somewhat taken aback, Scott muttered something about going into town and that his day had started at sunrise.

“Splendid! I do so want to see what kind of town this Green River is like! And Morra Cayo, as well.” Reginald spoke enthusiastically.     

“Morro Coyo,” Scott corrected. “ I have things to do in Green River today. I’m leaving in five minutes. Meet me out by the barn.” Scott turned and left the house half hoping that Reginald would change his mind.

Teresa smiled and went to the pantry, secretly glad that Reginald the Fourth would be gone and out of her hair for several hours but pitying Scott as she knew he would have his hands full.

Half an hour later Scott and his ‘good’ friend were riding to town, having been delayed when Reginald dallied with his riding clothes as if he were enjoying Boston social life instead of chores in Green River.

“You needn’t have taken so much time with your appearance, Reginald. Green River is hardly formal and to be honest I don’t have the time to wait for you to get the wrinkles out of clothes.” Scott, deciding the blunt, direct route would be the best way to handle the situation, announced his displeasure.

“But, Scott, you know one never leaves the house without looking his best! You never know into whom you will run!” an appalled Reginald stated.

“Reginald, look around you. We are not in Boston. This is a totally different life out here. And speaking of which, why are you riding like that? That is not an English saddle. Just sit on it and relax!”

Scott sighed in relief as he saw Green River come into view. He hoped that Reg would want to see some of the town while Scott conducted his affairs. He could use a break from the aggravation. “I have things to do at the general store and the bank. You can come with me or look around on your own,” Scott said as he tied Remmie at the hitch rail outside the bank.

“I think I will explore a bit. Where might I find a telegraph office? I need to notify my father that I arrived and what my scheduling time frame is.”

“Down the street, next to the last building on the right. Oh, and Reginald? Don’t get into any trouble.” With that said, fair warning had been given and Scott entered the bank.

“I need to send a telegram and be quick about it!” Reginald snapped at Billy. Billy had been telegraph operator for many years and never had there been the need to bark at his ability to carry out his duties. Without a word, Billy sent the note, took the money and as quickly as he could, sent this person on his way.

Reginald had been watching the front desk, and as the woman left her station and went next door to the adjoining dining room, Reginald quickly stepped through the door and scanned the registration log. He went upstairs to room 203, knocked twice then entered. Two scruffy, travel-worn men sat waiting, a deck of cards and a bottle of whiskey between them on the table.

“’Bout time ya got here! We been here waitin' on ya.” Jack Lasher complained.

“Shut up and listen, you two! I am not paying you to question me! This was unexpected. Just listen. He left this morning for someplace called Eagle Point, just north of Sacramento. I want you to wait along the trail for him on his way back. He went to pick up some horses so he’ll be traveling slower on the return trip.”

“Hey! We can take the horses!” Josh observed, light glowing in his eyes with the thought of the extra money they could get for the stock.

“I don’t care about that! Just get rid of him!” Reginald left the room to meet Scott outside Baldomero's store.

<><><><> 

Having left the ranch early, Johnny would make it to Eagle Point in a few days. Not taking Tom McBride up on the offer to meet in Sacramento meant further for Johnny to go but he had the time, and he needed to get away from Reginald the Fourth before he shot the pendejo. Then there would only be three Reginald’s left… That’d be a shame… Johnny thought with a grin and wondered if they were all as arrogant and full of hot air as this one was.

Crossing over a stream Johnny pulled up on the reins and Dusty came to a stop. The large bay was a good horse, wasn’t Barranca by a long way, but he was a pretty good horse. Stepping down from the saddle, Johnny tied the bay to a low hanging branch to let the horse rest, graze and drink.

Johnny thought about the conversation he had with Scott prior to his leaving. Both were disappointed they would not be making this journey together. It was the beginning for them. A huge turning point from dreaming and planning to actual culmination. But Scott had told him that he understood, and more importantly understood Johnny’s need to leave as long as Reg was still there. Something was bound to happen, Johnny joked that he didn’t want to shoot ol’ Reg if Scott had any more reminiscing to do.

His thoughts settled on his regret that his brother was not here to share this time with him. He knew there would be other trips like this one, but this first trip was a turning point, a beginning that the two brothers had looked forward to, had anticipated for months. Then Johnny chided himself for foolish thoughts. Madrid, you’ve had so much disappointment in your life, this ain’t nothin’. Get ahold of yourself! Making a decision that he could not change what was, Johnny thought to make the best of it. Maybe he’d spend a night in Sacramento and see what kind of soft feminine company he could find. With plans made for the next day or two, Johnny, once again, swung onto the large bay and started down the trail.

Dinner at the hotel dining room was better than Johnny anticipated. The steak had been cooked to his liking, although not as good as Maria could make, but good, none the less. He topped it off with a large slice of apple pie and strong, hot coffee. He then ventured over to The Silver Palace for a drink and possible company before turning in for the night. Pushing his way through the batwing doors, he took in all the patrons and sensing no danger scouted out a table in the back against the wall. Taking a seat, he ordered a drink and perused the girls working tables and serving drinks. Setting his sights on a slim brunette, she looked in his direction the same time he saw her, she wandered to his table and sat down.

“You in town for a few days or just passing through, handsome?” she asked as he watched her eyes.

“Depends. Anything ta do around here?” he asked, his dazzling smile that had stolen many a young heart blazed across his face as he peered up through long, thick lashes. And her heart melted.

“Oh, yes, there’s a lot around here,” she responded in a low, breathy voice, looking at him out of the corner of her beautiful hazel green eyes. Her lashes were long and dark trimming out the magnificent orbs.
 
“What’s your name?” Johnny asked quietly.

“Jody,” she smiled back at him, and he felt a tightening in his groin. Jody, it is!

“Well, Jody, mine’s Johnny.”

And she smiled again, a very sweet smile.

<><><><> 

They shared a few drinks before leaving the table to retire to her room and tumbled into her bed. She proved to be very skilled and satisfying as she kissed, touched, stroked, licked, nipped and nuzzled him. By the time it was over they both lay completely wrung out and unable to move. Sleep came quickly, a deep, hard slumber that helped to ease the tensions he’d been feeling since the arrival of the Lancer guest.

Morning arrived and with it a feeling of anxious excitement. Today Johnny would take possession of the horses that he and Scott purchased. With a deep and lusty kiss to her sweet parted lips, Johnny left Jody’s room. She had asked him to stay; maybe he would be back someday. The thought lingered in his mind that he’d have to come back and see her again mirrored her thoughts.

After a hearty breakfast, he retrieved Dusty from the livery and once more was on the road. The notion of spending extra time in Sacramento was gone as the eagerness overrode those earlier thoughts and he left the city behind.

The day was bright, sunny and the only thing that would have made it better was to have his brother with him. Although raised in entirely different circumstances Johnny realized the need for Scott to have this connection with his past. After all, how many times did Johnny get the urge for a taste of his old life? But something was out of place here and not for the first time, Johnny wondered about Reginald Wallingford the Fourth, and thought Dios; there’s four of ‘em! Why did he come to see Scott? According to Scott, they were not close in school, and Scott had not seen him in years. There was more to the story than what there appeared to be, and Johnny hoped for everyone’s sake he was wrong. Something was out of place; he felt it and could not shake the feeling.

What the hell’s wrong with me? Here I am, out here in this pretty country, going ta pick up horses that’s been a dream all of my life an’ all I can do is think about some idiota that’s miles away from me! Johnny again chided himself, but in the next second he thought, But he ain’t miles away from Scott… And that thought sent a chill through him. Johnny had no worries that Scott would ever leave Lancer, not on his own, but the thought was unsettling. Johnny took a deep, cleansing breath and tried to shake off the suspicions that kept pushing their way into his thoughts.

<><><><> 

The McBride Ranch sat in a wide, lush valley, much like Lancer and although not as large, it certainly was impressive. The great house was constructed of massive dark stained logs with light gray chinking and boasted three dormers above a wide porch. The veranda ran the entire length of and around the corners, almost circling the structure. Several immense stone chimneys sprouted from the roof line and heavy shutters bordered the windows. The place was immaculate, and the outbuildings were well kept as were the gardens and yard.
Johnny rode through the front gate and tied Dusty at the rail. Mounting the steps he crossed the wide veranda and knocked on the massive solid oak front door. A minute later it was opened, and a petite woman in her fifties, with graying hair, pulled back into a tight bun, stood drying her hands on her apron.

“Yes, may I help you, young man?” she asked in a pleasant and charming voice, her smile reaching her gray eyes.

In her day she musta been really pretty. Still is, in a way, Johnny thought to himself and as he pulled his hat from its perch, his hair tangled on the top of his head as he dragged the hat from its perch..

 Jennifer McBride fought the motherly urge to reach up and straighten it out.

“Yes, ma’am. My name’s Johnny Lancer. My brother an’ I bought some horses from Mr. McBride an’ I’m here ta pick ‘em up.”

“Tom’s down by the barn, right over there behind the house. You just go right on back and don’t you think about running off. Lunch is almost ready, and you are more than welcome to join us, Johnny.” Her genuine smile never left her face, and Johnny was touched by her kindness.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Replacing his hat, Johnny mounted Dusty and trotted around the house to the barn.
 
Tom McBride was a huge man. He was as tall as Murdoch but larger through the middle, more barrel-shaped. He was a man to be respected, and he was honest and fair, and Johnny had liked him from the beginning. At their first meeting, he struck Johnny as a person he would like to have on his side if things went wrong. Bet he was a hell of a brawler in his day. The thought crossed Johnny’s mind more than once.

“Hey, Mr. McBride,” Johnny said in his soft toned voice. “Good ta see ya again.” Johnny dismounted as Tom came out of the corral with hand outstretched and clasped Johnny’s with the grip of a bear.

“Hey there, Johnny! Good to see you, too! Where’s that brother of yours?”

“Oh, somethin’ came up an’ he couldn’t make it, so I decided ta come up on my own, is all.”

Tom’s eyes grew serious for a minute. “You gonna be all right with all eight of those horses by yourself? They’re a handful!”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Thanks, though,” Johnny smiled.

“Well, guess you wanna be seein’ them again. Got them right over here.” Tom stepped into the saddle with the agility of one who had been born there. They rode to the next corral where eight of the prettiest mares Johnny had ever seen grazed on fresh, sweet hay. Johnny looked them over and whistled.

“Mr. McBride, I gotta tell ya, can’t figure out why you’d wanna sell ‘em. But I’m glad ya are!
They’re prettier than I remember ‘em ta be!” Johnny broke into a huge grin. The horses were, indeed, beautiful, and would be the best start to the breeding program that he and Scott could ever have hoped for. Yup, this’s gonna work out just fine!

“Well, I’m glad you still feel that way and, call me Tom. Mr. McBride was my father!” Tom joked with a slap to Johnny’s back that about knocked him over. “Come on, Johnny, lunch will be ready shortly. Come in an’ share it with us!”

<><><><> 

“Hope the cobbler was all right, Johnny. It was made from canned berries, too early yet for fresh ones to be out.” Jennifer McBride fussed over her guest, little knowing he was about to burst with all the food she pushed his way.

“It was fine Mrs. McBride. Thank you,” Johnny said with his dazzling smile.

Jennifer blushed as his grin had no less effect on her than any other woman with a heartbeat.

“Everything was great an’ thanks again for feedin’ me, but I need ta get goin’. Wanna be back at Lancer in two or three days. Don’t know about the weather an’ don’t feel like gettin’ caught in a spring storm up here so guess I’ll be leavin’.” With that said, Johnny stood and met Jennifer’s warm gray eyes. She held out her hand to shake his, but he caught it and brought it to his lips with a gentle kiss on the back of them.

“Thanks, again,” and then he was out the door and gone.

He mounted Dusty and went around back where the ranch foreman had the mares tied together for the trip south. Johnny thanked him, gathered the lead rope and started his journey home.

<><><><> 

The afternoon progressed without incident. The horses were calm and trailed each other easily, and the weather seemed to be holding. Johnny rode as far as he dared then stopped to camp out for the night. After making use of the food that Jennifer McBride sent along with him, he then climbed into his bedroll. The moon was bright, and the stars twinkled like little eyes, sparkling, teasing and laughing. Johnny was a happy man as he sipped the hot black coffee and looked into the fire. With a belly full of good food he wondered to himself just how many nights had he spent gazing into the flames. Too many to count but this time was different. He wasn’t really alone anymore… and it felt good.

 It was still strange, though, and he had to remind himself you’re not alone, you have a family now and a home. And though he’d lived at Lancer for three years now, sometimes he had to think about it again; sometimes it was still a jolt especially at times such as this.

He smiled into the tin cup as he thought about what had changed over the last few years. Change was a part of life. Things had to change, sometimes for good, sometimes not, but things did change, and he’d learned a long time ago that you’d better be willing to roll with the changes otherwise you’d be pulled under and not survive. So, roll with them he did, and for once Johnny Madrid Lancer had come out on top.

Morning came, and as Johnny looked at the clouded sky, he knew that he was in for some nasty weather. The temperature had fallen throughout the night, and it felt like it could snow. He ate a quick breakfast then packed up and headed out in a valiant effort to beat the storm that was rapidly building in the sky. The clouds moved swiftly over the mountains and threatened to wash everything clean. Johnny had no desire to be out in a deluge so he hustled the horses along and made the best time he could with the eight mares in tow. And the clouds continued to darken and threaten to release their fury on all below.

Then the thunder and lightning began to fill the heavens and attack the sky with sharp, ragged, bony claws that scratched at the clouds. The mares balked and pulled on the lead, stretching Johnny’s arm close to the breaking point. He knew that he couldn’t keep up the strain for much longer, so he searched for cover. He’d passed a cave about a mile back and decided that was the best option. Turning the string of horses around, they proceeded back the way they’d come.

Large fat drops fell just as Johnny made it to the cave and all the horses cooperated as they entered the safety with no difficulties. It was a tight squeeze to get inside, but the cave was large enough to accommodate all the horses and Johnny. Sheltered from the wind, cold and rain they would have to wait it out. Johnny built a fire and spread his bedroll out on the ground then leaned against his upturned saddle.

<><><><> 

He spent the afternoon soothing the horses who had turned skittish with the noise and flashing light, and it gave him an opportunity to get to know their personalities and quirks. They all had large expressive and intelligent eyes; some gentled down right away, others needed a bit more comforting while two of them were downright sassy, almost teasing and asking for more attention. They demanded that Johnny not leave them. When he talked to the gray mare, she whinnied back, every time.

“You echoin’ me, huh? Hey, that’s gonna be your name. Echo. How’s that? Ya like that, Echo?”

And she whinnied back. He laughed and scratched her silky black ears. Gray horse, black points and one white fetlock, and her name was Echo. Yup, he and Scott had purchased wisely. The rest of the mares were just as impressive. The buckskin was handsome as were the rich chestnuts and blacks and they would be excellent breeding stock.

As he sat there with the horses, he whistled, softly at first and when Echo perked up her ears, he scratched her again. He moved further away and waited a while then whistled. She looked over at him and whinnied. Johnny thought that tomorrow he would do it again, repeat the process and see if she would still answer him. The horses settled in to wait out the storm, and Johnny stretched out on his bedroll.

Three hours later the storm showed no signs of stopping and Johnny knew it would be a long night. He fed the small fire and heated up beans to add to the last of the provisions that Jennifer McBride had given him. He once again sent up a word of thanks for the thoughtfulness of the woman, especially after he’d consumed the last of the blackberry cobbler. With his belly full, he covered himself with his blanket and promptly fell asleep.

The scream in the night brought Johnny to full consciousness. In a split second his gun was in his hand, cocked and ready. The horses were stomping and nervous, for they smelled the cougar, and it was close. Johnny quickly grabbed his hat, pulled his jacket close around him and reached for the slicker tied on the back of his saddle, throwing it around his shoulders.

With the loaded rifle in hand, he stopped at the mouth of the cave and tried to peer out into the pouring rain but could not see anything past a few feet. The rain pounded the ground turning it to mud, and water ran down the mountainside swelling the streams and lakes. It would be treacherous going for the next day or so. Especially if there was a cougar following. Johnny knew enough about them to know how dangerous they were. Just as likely to attack a man as they were a deer or any other game and they would follow a prospective meal for days before ambushing and making a kill. Fortunately, Johnny had found sufficient firewood to last the night and sitting down just far enough back and out of the wet and wind he waited for daylight. For the rest of the night, he neither saw nor heard the cat.

He had dozed off toward the early morning, but the chill began to seep into his clothing dampening everything he wore. The swirls of fog seemed to grow out of the cold, wet ground casting an eerie feel and look about the place. Water dripped from every branch, every overhanging rock and made it sound like the rain was still falling. It was another cold, gray day. The thought of Jody’s comfortable, warm bed filled his brain, but that was out of the question now that he was in possession of the horses that he needed to get back to Lancer. Maybe he’d have to see if there was anything Murdoch needed from Sacramento in a few weeks…

After seeing that the horses were watered from a small creek and giving them each several handfuls of grain he noted the sun start to break through the cloud cover. Very slowly at first, then larger and larger spaces between the clouds opened up. Soon the sky was clear and bright, but the chill lingered.

Johnny tied the horses together once again, saddled Dusty, and started on his way home but kept eyes and ears open for the hungry cat. They were still a long way from being safe. Cougars, he knew, were notoriously persistent in their quest for food and one lax moment could end it for all of them. Luckily, they were only a day and a half from Lancer.

<><><><> 

The afternoon passed without incident, so although still watchful, Johnny began to feel a bit more optimistic about their chances of getting home unscathed. Only one more night out here. Tomorrow, you ladies will have a nice warm barn with lots of sweet hay.

He traveled as far as he could, stopping only when it became too difficult to see. They would be out in the open tonight, and Johnny hoped the cat had lost interest in them. He’d seen fresh deer sign, and while not wishing any bad luck to befall the graceful creatures, Johnny thought better them than us!

Getting a fire started was a challenge as everything was at least damp if not downright soaked. It had taken a while, but soon the flames danced in their stone enclosure and with his coffee cup in hand Johnny was content as he watched his horses cropping the grass. They appeared content, no testing the air for scents of the cougar, no ears swiveled at attention.

He whistled softly, and Echo responded, eager for her ear scratch. Johnny laughed as he unfolded himself from his spot on the ground and went to her as she softly whinnied. Watching his approach, two other mares showed interest in him as Echo leaned into his gentle touch. This is a good horse! She’s smart and trains easy. He looked into her eyes and asked: “You gonna be a good mama, too?”

Up in the hills, a scream tore through the thin night air. All the horses stopped chewing the grass and stared off into the night, eyes wide and ears perked in the direction where the scream was still bouncing off of the mountains. The cat was still several miles away, but these animals could cover large distances in very short amounts of time. Can’t underestimate ‘em Johnny thought to himself, and he knew he wouldn’t get any sleep tonight. Throwing more wood on the fire, he pulled all of the horses closer to him. He then went through the ritual of checking his pistol and rifle and made sure they were ready to use if necessary. Satisfied his weapons were ready, he went to each horse and tried to calm her, including Dusty, once again gaining their trust.

It was almost dawn when Johnny was jolted awake, Damnit! That cat coulda snuck up on me… Gotta quit this! He chided himself. The shrill scream was very close and split the night air as the unearthly and blood-curdling snarl exploded in a deafening blast. There was a loud commotion in the bushes about one hundred yards out, and suddenly the cry of a quick death indicated a struggle for life had ended. Johnny almost sighed in relief had it not been so close. The deer paid the ultimate price, and he and the horses would be safe. As a precaution Johnny fired six shots into the air hoping to scare the cat but as the kill had been made he hoped that would occupy the cat until they could break camp. Johnny watched until the sun broke over the mountain tops and they were on their way again, and just maybe he could sleep in his own bed tonight.

<><><><> 

“Scott, don’t you miss Boston? Even a little?” Reginald whined.

“Of course, I do. It was the only home I’d ever known… until now. You can’t compare the two, Reginald.”

“But certainly Boston has much more to offer! The opportunities, the people, the exciting nightlife!” Reginald grew animated the more he talked, encouraged that Scott was responding.

“Boston does have advantages…” Scott admitted honestly.

And Reginald felt he was gaining ground until Scott continued.

“But California, especially Lancer, has my heart.” And Reginald’s heart fell to his feet. Scott added: “I have a family, a father,” Scott continued and Reg snorted. “And I have a brother!”

And with that Reginald Wallingford, the Fourth sneered. “Brother! What kind of brother is that? A Mex…” That was as far as Reg got.

Scott Garrett Lancer was on his feet grabbing Reginald by the neatly pressed lapels and gave a quick and hard shake.

“I’ll tell you what kind of a brother he is! He’s saved my life more times than I can count! He’s the only one I’d ever want for a brother; he’s good and honest! Is that what this is all about? Are you here to persuade me into going back to Boston? Did my Grandfather send you out here?” Scott fired these questions in quick succession.

“No! No, of course, not! Don’t be ridiculous!” But Reg could not meet Scott’s eyes

<><><><> 

At that same moment, Johnny and his horses were entering a stand of tall pines. The granite rock wall rose on the right and fell away, down to a rushing, boulder-strewn river on the left. Johnny pulled Dusty to a stop. The Bay pranced nervously and tossed his big head, trying to get the bit in his teeth. Johnny pulled on the reins and Dusty settled enough for him to take stock of their surroundings.

Johnny’s brain told him to trust his gut. This would be a perfect spot for an ambush. By whom? The cat or two-legged varmints. He had no other choice but to go forward. To turn around would cost valuable time, at least another day and add twenty miles of travel. He decided to give it a try and move ahead but before he could move a bullet ripped through his coat sleeve, grazing his arm.

He grabbed for his rifle and threw himself from Dusty’s back to the ground searching for cover. More shots rained around him and his horses scattered. He could almost see a shooter off to the right and high up in the rocks, but he thought there were shots coming from straight ahead, too. There were at least two men; he wondered who they were; what did they want? The horses? Hafta go through me ta get ‘em, boys Johnny thought. The man on the right began shooting the ground around the horses and made them run, leaving Johnny on foot. Dusty and the mares took off like the cougar had been after them and were gone in seconds.
More shots were fired in Johnny’s direction, but he waited until he had something to shoot at. He didn’t want to give away his exact position. Bullets ricocheted from the rocks Johnny used as cover, spewing chips sharp as razors in all directions. Chunks of bark were gouged from trees creating equally lethal ammunition. Suffering only minor scratches, he managed to escape any real harm.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” He crept around in the rocks, staying undercover, and tried to assess the situation. No further shots had been fired, but the horses were gone. Was that the original target, the horses? Johnny had to get moving. The thieves were getting further and further away, and he had no horse… Son-of-a-bitch! his brain screamed. Staying out of sight the best he could, he started to walk toward Lancer. He was very close to the northern border; he’d almost made it! Keep walkin’ he told himself. There was a line shack not too far, and just maybe there would be someone there mending fences or rounding up cattle or… something!

And Johnny was in luck. He topped the knoll and there, down below was the shack and horses! Looks like Cip’s horse, Johnny thought to himself. He walked around to the front of the shack and called out. Cipriano, Lancer’s Segundo, peeked through the door.

“Hey, Cip, it’s Johnny!” Johnny called out, never so happy in his life to see someone, someone friendly!

“Juanito! Que? What happened, my friend?”

“Too long ta go into. I need your horse an’ I need for you ta get back ta Lancer an’ tell Scott the horses got stole. Have him follow my trail; I’ll lay down one he’ll be able ta find.”

Johnny was already sliding his rifle into the scabbard that Cip used. He swung up into the saddle with one smooth vault, and the gelding was off in a flurry of hooves and mud, heading northwest, back up into the mountains and, indeed, leaving a trail a blind man could follow.

<><><><> 

Johnny rode as hard as he dared to cover the most ground possible before darkness fell. He left deep tracks and signs for Scott, hoping that Scott would be able to read them. Johnny picked up the thieves’ trail before sundown and discovered they had rounded up the mares. He followed until he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. He couldn’t risk injury to the horse; that was the only reason he stopped for the night. Without a mount, he had no chance to get the mares back. He hoped Scott could follow him, but if it turned out that Johnny was alone in this mission, he’d make do. He’d handled issues before by himself and could do it again. He would find the mares… and the bastards that stole them.

He was cold. His heavy coat had been tied on the back of the saddle when Dusty was spooked by the rifle shots, and all he had was his light bolero jacket. But he’d been cold before, and he’d be cold again, but he would be all right.

<><><><> 

Cipriano made it to the house in record time. He vaulted off the pack horse with an agility that he’d not known in years. Barging in the front doors, startling Reginald, Cipriano poured out the story to Murdoch and Scott, ignoring Reg as if he hadn’t even been there. Scott was stunned but recovered quickly. He stood and bolted for the stairs before Murdoch’s words broke through the fog.

“Scott! Stop and think about this! It’s already dark. You won’t be able to pick up a trail. You have to wait until morning, son,” Murdoch reasoned, relieved to see his words were sinking in, making sense and being considered.
.
“Yes, by all means, Scott, your father is right! I agree wholeheartedly!” Reginald risked putting in his two cents’ worth, which Scott completely disregarded.

“Then I’ll be leaving before sunup. I can get to the line shack and find the trail by the time the sun comes up.”

“Take some of the men with you. Any of them, as many as you need,” Murdoch offered.

“No, I’ll go alone — no sense announcing a whole army. Stealth may be the way to go,” Scott countered.

“I shall go with you, my friend!” Reginald announced with false bravado. “You will need my help; I am quite sure!”

Both Scott and Murdoch could do nothing other than stare in astonishment. Reginald had not been up before nine o’clock the entire time he’d been there and had done nothing in the way of helping with any chores. Now he was volunteering to go into the mountains to help track down horse thieves?

He’ll still be sleeping when I leave here Scott thought to himself. Scott sat down feeling absolutely useless. His brother was out in the night facing God knew what and here he sat, warm and cozy before a toasty fire having just finished a wonderful meal. Had Johnny eaten? Was he all right? Would he be all right?

<><><><> 

Scott entered the barn with only a few supplies and a heavy coat for his brother. Cip had told them Johnny had only his short jacket when they talked. Scott would travel light and fast. Saddling Remmie, he was about to leave when he heard foot-falls coming from outside, a stumble and “Oh, my, I shouldn’t have stepped in that!” as Reginald valiantly entered the barn.

“Oh, Scott! I’m glad I caught you. I am going with. I can help! I know I can!”

“No, you’re NOT going with me! I’m going alone.” Scott was adamant.
 
“Nonsense! I can help! Trust me!”

“I don’t have time to argue with you. And you’d better keep up because I am not going to wait for you! We have a long ride ahead of us. Now move!”

<><><><> 

His arms and legs were stiff with cold, and as he stood to shake himself loose he felt the blood start to flow again, he felt himself reviving. The bullet crease on his arm only bothered him when it would tighten up and split open, then it would ache like the devil. But for the most part, Johnny was too angry to pay much attention; his mind was occupied with horse thieves.

Johnny knew what he needed to do. These thieves were not going to take their horses. They were his and his brothers’, and this was Madrid Law now. Having the time to think about it during the long cold night, the time to plan and figure the best options, Johnny came up with the obvious solution, which would be to wait for Scott. Yup, that’s what I should do…

But Johnny was mad, hell, Madrid was mad, and that was a mistake on the part of the horse thieves that took their mares. They didn’t know whom they were dealing with. And during the night a thought sparked and took root in Johnny’s brain and wouldn’t let go. Reginald. Johnny had the sneaking suspicion that he was involved somehow. He hoped that Scott would come alone. And something else ignited by that same spark. Old Man Garrett. Johnny knew the old man would stop at nothing to get Scott back to Boston and Johnny didn’t think that he’d stop at murder, either.

Johnny saddled up at dawn and started searching for the trail. He hadn’t wandered too far from it after dark fell last night and picked it up in less than an hour. Watching for a man with a rifle pointed at your head concealed in heavy cover was unnerving but Johnny was cold, he was tired, and he was hungry and more than anything, he was pissed. So the way he figured it, they were in more danger than he was.

He kept searching throughout the morning when finally he stopped and dismounted. Picking through Cipriano’s saddlebags was not something that he wanted to do, but he hoped that there would be some food tucked in them. With no luck, he knew either he’d have to waste time hunting or fishing, or he could take his chances and wait for Scott’s arrival and use the provisions that he would bring. Where are you, Boston?

<><><><> 

Boston, at that moment, was following the trail to the north line shack knowing that he would make it there by early afternoon. The whole time Reginald had complained about the trip and not had any one’s welfare in mind except for his own. The desolation of the terrain terrified him. He just knew a bear would be charging out of the woods at any moment and try to eat him. This was certainly more hostile country than he had been accustomed to dealing with. They were miles and miles from civilization and Reg wondered if Scott could find his way back to the ranch.

Scott continued to track his brother, and Reginald wondered with an evil and ugly mind if it was already over. Then he and Scott could pack up and go home, to Boston. Reginald just knew that Scott would one day thank him for this rescue, once he’d had time to come to his senses. California was no place for a gentleman like Scott. He had aristocratic blood in his veins and surely wasn’t meant to live out his life in this wilderness especially with a savage for a brother!

<><><><> 

Over three thousand miles to the east-northeast, the fire burned to create a warm and comforting blanket to envelope a cold, empty, vengeful heart. By this time Madrid shouldn’t be a problem. If that bumbling fool, Wallingford, had any luck at all that filthy half-breed will be dead by now. That had been an extra $2000 if Reginald could see this carried out. Then there will be no reason for Scotty to want to live there any longer. After all, his father had abandoned him for his first twenty-four years, had not made an effort to keep in touch; but deep in the old man’s cold heart, he knew he was lying. Murdoch had made attempts to maintain contact with Scott and old man Garrett with his manipulating ways intervened, intercepted written communications from Murdoch and disposed of them leaving no trace that Scott’s father desperately wanted his son. The cold fingers gripped the brandy snifter, and he took another drink, then grinned, very pleased with himself. He would win Scotty back home, home to Boston!

<><><><> 

Johnny found a secure spot to hide Cipriano’s horse while he scouted around on foot. He had a feeling that the horse thieves weren’t that far ahead and needed to make the best plan possible because it looked like Scott wasn’t going to get there in time. Johnny looked at the sun and judged he only had about an hour before sunset. The tracks he’d been following were fresh; they weren’t far ahead. Damn! Johnny thought Scott should have been here before this. He knew Scott would have brought food and could only hope that there would be a heavier coat for him, too. Gonna hafta spend another cold night up here… Mierda! And the temperature was, indeed, dropping and quickly.

<><><><> 

Five miles away, Scott pulled Remmie to a stop scanning the top of the rise.

Reginald, not seeing anything of significance questioned this action. “What is it? Do you see anything? Can we stop now?” Reg fired off questions earning a glare from Scott. “Well, if you ask me I think we should stop for the night. No one can see in the dark, and I don’t want to fall off any mountain looking for a half… anyone.” Reginald did not catch himself in time, and Scott wouldn’t reply.
Scott wasn’t going to waste time or energy on this one-sided conversation. He turned Remmie, without a word to Reg, and continued on, sincerely hoping that Reg actually would stop for the night.

<><><><> 

It was colder than last night. Lack of sleep, no food and exposure were starting to wear him down. He hadn’t eaten in two days. Where the hell was Scott? Johnny continued to wonder about Wallingford. Why was he here? Scott barely remembered him from his classes, so what made the idiot show up now? There had to be something more behind this than just a visit out of the blue.

He kept searching for a campsite, the smell of wood smoke, the light from a fire or the whinny from horses. He surely didn’t want to stumble into their camp, although as mad as he was, he’d probably be able to handle that situation, too. Not having any luck Johnny, decided to turn around and get back to Cip’s horse, Renegado, and settle down for the night. At least he’d be out of the wind for the most part.

The moon started to rise, and the temperature fell several degrees. It was going to be another long and cold night and keeping the anger going helped slightly against the cold but wasn’t good for the concentration. He stumbled going down the side of the gully where the horse was tied. Johnny caught himself with the aid of a boulder and made his way to Renegado.

He stopped in mid-stride as he heard a branch snap. His heart increased its beating, and he hoped that those assholes had found him. Johnny pulled his Colt from the holster and stood in the shadows as two men on horseback entered the little gully. Staying concealed and quiet, he waited as they drew closer. Remmie became recognizable, and Johnny stepped out whispering, “Scott!”

“Oh! No! Don't shoot!” Reginald screamed.

“Shut up!” the brothers whispered in unison as Johnny jumped up and pulled Reg out of the saddle and tossed him to the ground to silence him. He took great pleasure in the grunt of pain and the ‘whoosh’ of air squeezed out of Reginald’s lungs as he hit the ground.
“Oh! Scott! Your brother attacked me! Oh, I may have broken something!” Reginald whined.

“Johnny! Are you all right?” a stunned Scott asked, completely ignoring Reginald.

“I’m fine. A little cold and hungry,” Johnny answered, not able to suppress the smile that erupted with Reginald’s discomfort and his chattering teeth.

“Scott! Your brother attacked me! What are you going to do about it?” Dusting off his soiled britches, Reginald straightened and became loud with his demands.

“Shut up before I put a gag in your mouth,” Johnny threatened in his cold but quiet tones. Had there been better light Reg would have seen the ice in Johnny’s eyes but this was enough as he didn’t push the issue any further.

Scott untied the heavy coat from the back of his saddle and handed it to Johnny, who didn’t hesitate to put it on. Then Scott reached into his saddlebags to retrieve food and watched as Johnny wolfed it down.

“When did you eat last, brother?” Scott had to ask, amazed at the food consumed in such a short time.

“Day before yesterday.” Starting to feel the heat build up inside the jacket and having food in his belly, Johnny realized just how tired he was. He could use about three days of uninterrupted sleep, but that wasn’t going to happen.

“Well, someone start a fire! It’s cold out here!” Reginald snapped, becoming annoyed at being ignored.

“What’d ya bring him for?” Johnny asked Scott, again, disregarded Reg and talked about him like he wasn’t there.

“I didn’t ‘bring’ him. He followed, and there wasn’t time to talk him out of it. He’s the reason it took so long to find you, too.” Scott glared as Reginald was about to start his whining regarding the fire. Knowing he had to put an end to this before Johnny did, Scott turned to Reg.

“Reginald, I’ve had about enough out of you! Sit down, shut up and don’t say another word!” Scott glared at his unwanted and uninvited guest. The he turned back to his brother. “Tell me what happened.”

”Well, got to McBride’s place all right an’ picked up the mares. Scott, they’re even prettier’n what I remember! Got almost all the way back, just about five miles north of the line shack up on Cutter’s Mountain an’ they started shootin’, scared the horses, and about took me outta the saddle. Took cover an’ they left with the horses.”

Reginald sat listening to Johnny recounting the incident, thinking to himself those idiots were to take care of the half-breed first then get the horses! Darkness covered his disappointment and neither Scott nor Johnny could see the disgusted look on his face.

“Do you know where they are now?” Scott asked, hoping Johnny had a handle on them.

“Not too far, probably about a mile up ahead. Tried ta get as far as I could but it gets dark up here so fast, couldn’t quite see ‘em. In the mornin', I’ll check it out an’ we can figure it out then. Right now, I could use some sleep.” Johnny settled down to rest and twisted his way into a comfortable spot on the ground, well, as comfortable as circumstances would allow.
Reginald could not believe that Johnny was sleeping out here in the cold with only a coat and no fire. Surely they didn’t expect him to do the same? Keeping his thoughts to himself, Reginald hunkered down. It was definitely going to be a long, cold night, he thought.

<><><><> 

“They’re camped a little less than a half mile up the trail. Figure if one of us can get behind ‘em the other close in on this side we got ‘em. There’s no place else for ‘em ta go. River’s on one side an mountain on the other,” Johnny explained as Scott listened.

“Good plan. I’ll start now. Have to get around these rocks to get behind them, though.”
Scott had started to move out when Johnny called him back.

“You sure you want to do that, Boston?” Johnny’s smile brought Scott up short.

“Yes, why do you ask?” Scott was surprised by his brother’s question.

“Oh, just ‘cause it’s a long way. How quiet can ya be?”

“They’ll never know what hit them! As soon as I’m in position, I’ll make the first move.” Now it was Scott’s turn to smile.

“’Kay, Boston, let 'er buck!” Johnny grinned and then Scott was gone.

Johnny looked down at Reginald still sleeping on the ground and shook his head. Useless, Johnny thought. He moved in closer, taking his time until he was only fifty yards away. Settled behind a rock, he waited for Scott to make his move. Time passed, and Johnny thought Scott should just about be there…

Hearing a noise behind him, Johnny quickly pivoted with his Colt in hand. Reginald stumbled up to join him. Johnny hissed between his teeth and turned back around to keep alert for Scott's move.

“Johnny, what’s going on?”

Taking his time to answer, Johnny explained the plan.

Reginald was horrified to listen to what would happen. “Johnny, I feel terrible about all of this. I want to help. Let me distract them for you. I can get their attention while you two move in on them.”

“Jus' stay here outta the way!” Johnny barked.

Reginald had to get down there to warn them. If they’d done their jobs correctly in the first place, they wouldn’t have to be out here now!

Reg hurried out and around Johnny, almost running down the trail.

Johnny held his cover. Let the fool get his head blown off! he thought as Reginald ran down the trail and around a bend out of sight.

In no time Reginald Wallingford, the Fourth, found the men he had hired to murder Johnny Lancer.

“You fools! What have you done? There are two men one behind and one ahead of you. I told them I was going to get your attention so they could sneak up on both sides. So, now you will go after him!" Reg pointed to Jack. “You go down the trail and be watchful! They are good shots! And you,” pointing to Josh, “get up on those rocks, I’m going to call that half-breed down here so get ready to shoot him, and make it good!” Reginald waited for a few minutes then engaged his deception.

“Johnny! Johnny! It's Scott They’re going to kill him! Johnny. Help! Scott’s in trouble!”

“Son-of-a-bitch!” Johnny started down the trail hoping that this wasn’t a setup. The feeling that Reg was tied up in this somehow was something he was sure of, and Johnny knew his gut was right. Reg shows up at just the right time… but if Scott really was in trouble… Johnny had no choice. He had to go. Keeping out of sight as much as he could, Johnny made good time but didn’t know if it was good enough.

“Johnny! Help! Scott’s going to be shot! Hurry! He’s not going to make it!” Reginald screamed.

Two shots rang out from up ahead, and Johnny’s blood ran cold. He ran faster as he approached the bend in the trail where he’d seen Reginald disappear. Rounding the bend, he saw Reg standing in the middle of the trail; then the Easterner took a subtle glance up into the rocks. Johnny had time to turn, and fire as another shot rang out in a deadly duet. Josh fell down from the rocks the same time as Johnny’s head snapped back, and he plummeted over the edge, sliding down through rocks and debris to finally fall thirty feet into the rushing, cold, rock-strewn river. Scott came up the trail in time to see his brother fall backward, his Colt thrown out of his hand, and he tumbled from sight.

“NNOOOOOOO!” His scream bounced off the rock walls. He ran to the edge where Johnny had gone over and couldn’t see anything. He ran as fast as his legs would carry him downstream, catching a glimpse here and there of Johnny’s body as it was rolled by the force of the water and slammed into the boulders that littered the river.

Racing past Reginald, Scott tried to keep Johnny in sight. He had to reach him! He had to get Johnny out of the water. His heart was pounding, hammering through his ribs. Johnny! No! Scott ran until he reached the horses and vaulted onto Remmie’s back. He took off down the trail, racing the water. The river had slowed, the churning not as violent as further up the rapids. Scott watched, desperately searching for his brother. Johnny! Where are you? Eyes wide with fear Scott could feel the panic set in but refused to believe that this was the end. Where else could he be? He had to be here!

<><><><> 

He had seen the flash at the same time he brought his pistol up and fired. It sounded like only one shot, but he knew he’d fired and saw the flash of the other gun. Then he felt exploding pain in his head and then he was falling, his body crashing into every tree and rock and then nothing until he hit the hard, ice cold water.

The shock of it took his breath away, and he was pulled under, water ran into his lungs, stinging and freezing. He couldn’t breathe, then his head was out of the water, he coughed and felt more pain as his body was slammed into rocks, the wind was knocked out of him, and he couldn’t draw a breath. He vomited in the water, choking and coughing and again was pulled under and tossed around like there was no weight to him at all. He knew he was going to die, but he couldn’t go without seeing his brother one more time. Scott… Hafta… to see…Sc…

<><><><> 

Still searching the surface of the water, Scott stared, his frantic attention scoured the river for some sign of his brother. This can’t be the way it ends! Scott thought. He was going to be sick. He felt dizzy, and he wanted to give up his hold on life. Without his brother, he didn’t want to exist anymore. Wasn’t worth living if he couldn’t have… wait, what was that? Scott dove into the water, shocked at the temperature that sucked the warmth from his body. How long had Johnny been in it? Too long, he knew. But there he was! Scott swam, adrenaline pumping in his body as never before. Just a little bit farther and, got him! Scott reached out and snagged the coat, heavy with water that weighed him down.

Scott dragged Johnny out of the water onto the narrow bank. He looked deathly pale, the dark red blood from a nasty, deep gash above his left temple bled down the side of his face and created a hideous contrast. Scott rolled Johnny onto his belly and began pushing heavily on his back, counting to five, then starting the process over and over. Finally, water began to pour out of his mouth, and soon he was coughing and, again, vomited. Scott pulled Johnny into his arms as the unfocused eyes fluttered open. Johnny looked at his brother and coughed again, then passed out.

<><><><> 
The fire was beginning to put out some heat. Scott spread another blanket on his brother’s shivering form. Having stripped the sodden coat from Johnny, he had replaced it with one he’d taken from the horse thieves. He started a pot of broth, made from shredded jerky and water, he wanted something to warm Johnny from the inside. The entire time Scott remained silent; he had not spoken to Reginald. He couldn’t; he didn’t trust himself.

After Scott had left Johnny earlier that morning to skirt around and come up on the thieves from the far side, Scott had overtaken the thief. Only two shots had been fired. One from the thief, which was fired in haste and went wild, the other from Scott found its mark. As the man lay dying, he told of a very interesting, sick and twisted tale and Scott couldn’t face it, yet.

He began his way back when he saw Johnny ambushed, but not before his brother took out his would-be assassin, then plummeted over the cliff and into the freezing water. His heart fell to his feet, and that began the long and terrifying search for Johnny and subsequent rescue from the river. Having later retrieved their mares and Dusty from the horse thieves’ camp, Scott began to wonder just how he was going to get all of them back to Lancer. How did that old saying go? Where there was a will there was a way. Well, Scott certainly had the will.

Now he sat watching, his eyes going from Johnny to Reginald. It took all of Scott’s control to not beat the living hell out of Reg as he sat there, pretending to give a damn about the man under the blankets, the man he had conspired to kill. Scott thought to take the matter into his own hands, but that would be murder, deciding instead to let Reginald Wallingford the Fourth answer for his crimes and face the hangman’s noose. When Scott did speak, it was only to answer a question and then in very concise and abbreviated replies.

“Scott, you act as though you think I am responsible for this,” Reginald pouted. Actually, Reg was fishing for answers. How much did Scott know, or suspect? He needed desperately to find out. Reginald made a move to adjust the blankets.

“Get away from my brother!” Scott hissed.

Reginald was shocked with the venomous tone and looked up in wide-eyed fear at the glare from Scott.

Scott lowered his voice then stated: “I’ll take care of him.”

For the rest of the day, they stayed in the camp, Scott making more broth, as much as he could get Johnny to swallow and wrapping his brother’s head wound and bullet creased arm with strips of bandages that all Lancer hands carried in their saddlebags.

The next morning Scott knew they had to try and make it back to Lancer. There was congestion forming in Johnny’s chest, and he needed to be in a warm bed, not laying here on the cold damp ground. At dawn, Scott began to break camp and head out. He secured Johnny in the saddle and draped the blankets over him. Then Scott took Renegado’s reins and began the long, cold trip home, commanding that Reginald take the string of mares and Dusty.

<><><><> 

Reginald’s mind was in turmoil. It was going so beautifully until those two imbeciles ruined all of his detailed plans. He had been so careful! Maybe he could salvage this if he thought about it. There just had to be another way! He wasn’t about to let all of that money slip through his fingers! So, he began to initiate another plan to set in motion and, hopefully, bring Scott home to Boston where he belonged.

Up until this time, it would have been someone else to do the actual murder, but now it looked that he would have to get his hands dirty. He wondered how it would feel to take a life. Oh, don’t be silly! He’s just a half-breed! Once Scott was safely back home, where he should never have left to begin with, he’ll come to his senses and maybe even thank Reginald one day…

The thought occurred to Scott that Reginald was hatching some new plan, a different strategy. He was too quiet, and Scott didn’t like the way he would glance at Johnny’s bundled up form riding limply under the blankets. He vowed to himself and to his brother that no further harm would come to him. Johnny had suffered too much as it was in his young life and Scott didn’t need to add any more.

“Scott, I really need to stop! I can’t hold these horses any longer!” In truth, Reginald did look as though he could use a rest, but he should have thought of that before he tried to kill Johnny.

“We keep going, and if you can’t keep up, I will leave you out here,” Scott spoke calmly and evenly, but Reginald knew he meant every word he said. Reg tried to tie the lead rope on the saddle horn instead of holding it in his hand, which worked for a while until the rope started to cut into the top of his thigh as it stretched behind him. Then he did something he’d never done before; he suffered in silence.

<><><><> 

Johnny knew he wasn’t in the water anymore but couldn’t get his wits together enough to know what had happened and where he was now. All that he did know was that he was frozen to the bone. His chest hurt, burned as if he’d been in a fire. He felt a cough boiling in his throat and tried to swallow it down. His head was pounding, felt as if a horse kicked him smack in the face and his stomach was rolling, threatening to explode. Mierda! What’d I do this time? And then he was out again.

Scott knew he had to stop and get a fire going to heat more broth. The more liquid he got into Johnny, the better he would be. He pulled up on Remmie’s reins in the shelter of a hillside ringed with boulders. Scott gently slid Johnny out of the saddle and tenderly lay him on the ground. He piled the blankets on top of his brother and pulled off his gloves to feel Johnny’s forehead for fever. Too warm.

Reginald gratefully dismounted and squatted on the other side of Johnny. Scott watched him out of the corner of his eyes making sure Reg did not touch his brother. Trying to look concerned Reg reached over to straighten blankets when Scott snapped.

“Go get firewood, quickly! Then I need water in the canteens from that stream.”

“Scott, I am only trying to help! Don’t be so mean to me!” Reg’s whine earned him a cold stare from Scott.

Scott thought Reg was overdoing his acting, but it wasn’t working. Reginald Wallingford tried to have Johnny killed. He learned this from Jack’s dying confession. But why? What could possibly be the reason for all of this? With the questions about returning to Boston, Scott could only assume that was the reason behind this, but why the sudden interest for Reg to want Scott back East?

The fire crackled and settled, sending sparks skyward, mesmerizing to watch, soothing with its snap and pop, sounds that usually were associated with relaxation and comfort. The warm broth seemed to settle Johnny a bit, and after an hour of rest Scott had his younger brother back in the saddle and secured. They would be home in a few hours.

The sky began to darken. They were in for more rain, and Scott didn’t know if they’d get home before it started. The booming of thunder rolled across the heavens and echoed back off the mountains. Lightning raced in wicked patterns across the sky, scratching with long claw-like, evil fingers. Flashes, blinding and powerful, preceded the violent rumbles and Scott knew at that moment they were in for a soaking. Something that Johnny didn’t need.  

Scott tumbled the thoughts around in his head over and over again. Why? And how was he going to handle this? He knew the first thing would be to send someone to town for Sam… and Val. Sheriff Val Crawford was not going to take this sitting down; Val and Johnny had been friends years before Johnny had come home to Lancer and had been Johnny’s family before he knew he had one.

Then he was going to lock Reg in the guardhouse on the ranch until Val got there, and took his statement, then Val could take Reg into town and put him in jail. Scott would find out what was behind this; Reg would break easily. He was positive about that.

“How much farther to the ranch, Scott?” Reginald asked quietly. His mind was spinning, he was running out of time, and he was losing control!

“About an hour, more or less,” Scott answered with no emotion.

An hour was all the time he had left to make something happen. And something did.

Lightning struck a tree twenty yards away; the powerful force field knocked them all off the horses and to the ground. With the tree blazing, the mares started to buck and toss their heads in panic. Reginald grabbed the rope tied to his saddle horn and tried his best to steer them to where Johnny had fallen sprawled and helpless, unconscious on the cold ground. Scott lay stunned after hitting his head on the hard-packed ground when he fell.

The sky opened up, and in seconds rain poured from the heavens as if an ocean had emptied inland. Scott opened his eyes and saw the horses stomping the mud dangerously close to Johnny, as Reg pulled them closer. Scott grabbed his gun and fired into the air. The terrified mares fled, ripping the rope out of Reg’s hand and took off running down into the valley and out of sight. Scott saw Reg sitting on the ground with his head hung in defeat.

“Get up!” Scott screamed, and as Reg stood, Scott grabbed his arms behind his back and tied him tight.

“Scott! What are you doing? You’re hurting me! Oww!” The nasal voice whined for the last time.

Not bothering to answer Scott took out his bandanna and gagged Reginald. He secured Reg, carefully keeping him away from Johnny, and rounded up their horses. Scott then shoved Reg on his horse with no thought to comfort. He then gentled Renegado and lifted Johnny tenderly into the saddle, securing him once more. With three sets of reins in his hands, he set out on the last mile to Lancer.

<><><><> 

The rain was still falling; they were all soaked to the skin and chilled as they got up to the hacienda.

“Murdoch! Jelly! I need some help!” Scott bellowed as they came to a stop. Leaving Reginald sitting in the saddle, Scott eased Johnny off Cip’s horse as the front door opened and Murdoch was at his side heedless of the cold rain. He took his son in his arms and hurried into the house. Jelly, with slicker thrown hastily over his shoulders, dashed out from his room as Cip came from behind the hacienda.

“One of you lock this asshole in the guardhouse and the other ride to town for Sam and Val! Quickly!”

 Reginald tried pitifully to talk through the gag; he tried to call Scott’s bluff.

But Scott was not bluffing.

Reg found himself yanked from the horse and roughly shoved in the direction of the small room with barred windows and a locked door.

<><><><> 

“Well, once again, I don’t know why he isn’t more seriously injured, but it’s not too bad, considering…” Sam was astounded and completely amazed. “The concussion will be the thing to monitor, just make sure someone is with him when he wakes up. I’ll have Maria make some of her special soup for him. You know the routine by now. Johnny needs to be watched.”

Scott let out a long breath, unaware that he’d been holding it. “Sam? What about the water in his lungs? There’s no damage? It was so cold, and he was in the water for a long time.” Scott looked pathetic, he looked… guilty.
“As I said, we’ll watch him, but I honestly think he will be all right, Scott. You took good care of him. Without you, I don’t think he would have been so lucky.”

The guilt Scott felt did not lessen. It was because of him that Johnny was hurt in the first place. Could his brother ever get past that? He wondered.

Teresa knocked softly and opened the door slightly. “Val is here, Scott. He wants to see you. I’ll tell him you’ll be right down.” Quietly closing the door, she left the men alone.

Murdoch sat in a chair next to the bed and watched his younger son sleep. Here we are, again. But very grateful that this was probably not as bad as it looked. The concussion was significant, but it could have been a lot worse. The exposure in the water and out in the cold and rain took its toll and definitely the water that had gotten in the lungs didn’t help, but it looked as if Johnny had beaten the odds, once again. All they had to do was keep him warm and still. And that’s the hard part! Murdoch thought with a smile.

<><><><> 

Scott entered the great room to find Val sitting before the fire with a drink that he'd gotten for himself. He stood to face Scott.

“How’s he doin’?” Val asked of Johnny.

“You know Johnny, Sam doesn’t think it’s too serious,” Scott responded, exhaling through his nose. He went to the sideboard and poured himself a drink, a large drink. Tequila, in honor of his brother.

“What happened, Scott?” Val began his investigation.

“Someone that I knew from Harvard in Boston came out here; supposedly on his father’s business and thought as long as he was here he’d stop for a visit. Reginald Wallingford, the Fourth, I barely knew him, we had one class together, but he acted like we had been close. He made it hard on Johnny, so my brother left to pick up horses that we bought, thinking that I wanted to spend time with someone connected to Boston, and Wallingford tried to arrange to have Johnny killed.

"I heard it straight from one of the men that Reg hired. I shot him during a fight, and he made a confession. After that attempt failed, Reg tried to have Johnny trampled as he lay unconscious on the ground. I saw that with my own eyes. Val, I am filing charges. What I don’t know is why…

Val shook his head and put the empty glass on the table. What could this Reginald person have against Johnny? And badly enough to want him dead? It made no sense.

“Let’s see if we can’t get an answer, Scott.” They walked to the front door stopping to drape slickers across their shoulders.
“He shouldn’t be too hard to crack, Val. He’s got absolutely no backbone.”

They ran across the yard to the guard house and charged through the door, startling Cipriano as he watched the prisoner. Seeing no threat, he smiled his wide grin knowing that this pendejo would soon pay for what he tried to do to Juanito. Cip left as Val wandered to the door and peered through the bars.

“You Reginald Wallingford?” Val asked gruffly.

Reg jumped up off the bunk and dashed to the door, holding the bars in a white-knuckled grip. “Yes, I am! I demand to know I am being held here! Scott! What’s going on?” he whimpered, staying in character of the charade.

Scott remained silent, staring at Reg with disgust and loathing in his eyes.

“Did you try to have Johnny Lancer killed?” Val asked point blank.

“No! Of course not! Why would I want to do that?” Reg defended, feigning shock at the question.

“Well, I don’t know. Why would you?” Val sparred. “You know that’s a hangin’ offense if you’re proven guilty?”

Reg’s desperate eyes slid to Scott, begging for understanding. “Scott! You can’t let them do this! We’re friends, Scott!”

“My ‘friends’ do not conspire to have my brother killed,” Scott answered flatly.

“Scott, I did not do that! Why would you think that?” Reginald whined, and Val saw the man was sweating even though it was chilly in the guardhouse.

“Because of the dying confession of one of the men you hired to murder Johnny. At the camp when you stayed with Johnny and I went around to the other side. His shot went wild. Mine didn’t. He confessed before he died. Then I saw you try to trample Johnny when the lightning hit the tree, and we all got thrown from our horses. Reg, I saw you! And I will swear to it in court. What I want to know is why… WHY DID YOU WANT MY BROTHER DEAD?”

Scott was wild as he pushed Val aside and grabbed Reg through the bars by the collar of his coat. He repeatedly slammed Reg into the cell bars as the door shook and rattled on its hinges. His rage-filled eyes terrified Reginald Wallingford the Fourth, and Reg started to shake and tried to pull away. Val put a hand on Scott’s shoulder to stop his attack.
Reg’s knees had begun to buckle, and he backed up just enough to sag onto the bunk and dropped his head in his hands and started to weep.

Speaking softly he said: “Your grandfather paid me to bring you home with a bonus if that half-breed was dead.”

Scott wanted to vomit.

<><><><> 

Scott watched Johnny sleep. He wondered when Johnny woke and found out the facts of what happened if he could ever forgive Scott. How could he?

Murdoch quietly entered the room and watched the raw emotion in Scott’s eyes. “Son, go to bed. I’ll sit with him,” he said gently.

Scott did not hear the words. “Will he ever be able to forgive me, Murdoch? My own Grandfather put a bounty out on my brother! How will he ever get past that? Every time he sees me, he’ll think of that.”

“I think you don’t give your brother enough credit, Scott. Johnny is practical when it comes to something like this. He will know that you had nothing to do with it. Give it a chance, Scott, he’ll be all right.”

“I’ll be all right… if I can get… some sleep, but you… two keep talkin’, how am I gonna get… any sleep with you yammerin’… in my ear all night? Hey, the horses,… where they at?” Johnny grumbled as he fought the cough that threatened to explode.

Scott couldn’t hold back anymore. The relief at hearing his brother talk, much less the humor he used to say the words were more than Scott ever hoped. He burst with laughter.

“They are in the barn Johnny, Cipriano and Jelly went out in the rain and rounded them up.” Scott couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe his brother! “Get some rest, Johnny. I got your back, brother.”

Johnny nodded then a thought came to his aching and muzzy head. “We don’t… gotta listen ta no… more stupid stories…do we?”

Scott and Murdoch exchanged glances and began to laugh.

“No, Johnny, no more stupid stories,” Murdoch said.

A small grin crept across Johnny’s face. “Thank God…” and Johnny relaxed and slept.

<><><><> 

The sun bathed the day in a warm coppery haze as it settled down behind the mountains. Its friendly, soothing rays eased much of the heavy pall that had blanketed the last several weeks. But it was beginning to lift.
Murdoch Lancer watched his sons as they leaned against the top rail of the corral. The eight mares, the start to Scott and Johnny’s horse raising business, stood contently munching hay and settled into their new home. Murdoch admired the fine stock, pleased and proud of the sons he’d only recently come to know. They were fine young men, both strong and courageous, honorable and loyal. And both had suffered and sacrificed more than anyone would ever know.
<><><><> 

He opened the drawer of his writing desk and removed paper and pen to begin the letter that would forever change his life.

Sir,

As of this moment, I am forfeiting any claim I have on Garrett Enterprises. I am appalled, mortified and sickened that you conspired to have my brother murdered. I have had enough of your manipulations of me and countless others and will stand for no more. I am glad that my Mother is not here to see the depths to which you have sunk. You lost her as you have lost me.

I have had legal papers drawn up and notarized and have enclosed them with this missive.

You are no longer a grandfather of mine, and I want no further contact with anyone as deplorable, despicable, cold and ugly as you.

Scott Lancer

 

 

~ end ~

Want to comment? Email Buckskin