The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Standing in the Rain

Thanks to Cat for the Beta

The sun felt good on his back as he rode down out of the mountains. The day was clear, the rain finally over as the swollen thunderclouds squeezed out every drop of water on the land. Rivers and streams were filled to near flood stage, but fortune was holding, and the banks kept the flow in check, just barely, but in check none the less. Having to take shelter from the storms that ravaged the area of the last several days, Johnny Madrid Lancer took advantage of the warm sunlight as it massaged the stiffness from his shoulders and soothed away the tensions of mind and body.

He’d been in Sacramento on ranch business, and although Johnny would rather it be his brother, Scott, to take on these types of issues, Scott had been restricted to bed with a slight illness leaving Johnny to navigate the ‘paper pushing’, mind-numbing meetings and the decisions that made this trip necessary. But with it now behind him, he could let his mind drift to more pleasurable matters, like his plans for the next trip to Salinas to see Holly Vasquez, the love of his life for the last year. They lived apart, and for reasons puzzling to most, the separate lives seemed to work for them, but when they were together, it was pure and sweet and heaven.

After spending the last week in the bustling city, Johnny was ready for quiet relaxation around a fire. He looked forward to his last few nights alone and a pot of hot, strong coffee before slipping into his bedroll and gazing at the spectacular star-studded sky. Returning to the ranch in the morning, his normal chores would be waiting, and he even looked forward to that, if it kept him out of a business meeting.

He knew where he would camp, a sheltered and secluded spot, protected from wind and rain, should the need arise, but the azure sky held no threat as he watched the clouds stay to a minimum. The stuffiness of the meetings and the people that conducted those meetings set him on edge. Endless hours confined in small offices tightened the rope that seemed to choke the life out of him, but now having ridden over mountains and breathed clear, clean air, he was revived. The stench and stagnant shroud of the close quarters melted away with the refreshing breeze that now caressed his face.

Johnny couldn’t figure out how Scott managed the limitations and boundaries that dictated the formal etiquette, the pomp, and propriety, not to mention the monotonous legalities. Scott was good at it so he can have it… all! Johnny thought with a growing smile. In all fairness, Scott had done his share of meetings, having just a week ago carried out ranch affairs in San Jose. And since he was feeling under the weather, Johnny had taken this trip instead.

Johnny’s thoughts wandered to his family, thinking it a mystery to have grown up alone, having no one to depend on except himself for years and to now find himself part of a family. The beginning had been difficult, and in fairness, it was an adjustment for all involved.

Murdoch Lancer had survived the grief of losing two wives and two sons. But holding onto a thread of an idea, he was determined to not give up. His dreams told him that, one day, his sons would return. And the stubborn Scotsman clung to that thread and made that dream come true.

The change had been hard on them all. Murdoch’s estranged sons hadn’t been told of the circumstances surrounding the separations. Why hadn’t they grown up at Lancer, and why had their father abandoned them? They had not even known they had a brother, and now found themselves grappling with the issues of becoming a family.

Murdoch saw the questions burning in their eyes, but upon their first meeting, he claimed the past to be gone, over. Well, maybe for Murdoch it was. But the sons had their questions.  

Discovering that he was part of a family took an enormous toll on the young gunfighter. Never having to consider anyone else in his life, Johnny made enormous mistakes at conforming to familial responsibilities and situations that resulted in confrontations between his father and him. Murdoch’s mistake had been simply expecting too much from his impetuous younger son and anticipating a much faster adjustment.

But after much head butting, heated arguments, and give and take from both, their major issues were now behind them, and the family unit was growing stronger by the day. At times Johnny found himself wondering if he would stay at Lancer, accepting his rightful place and heritage as a Lancer, and fulfill Murdoch’s dream of his sons running the one hundred thousand acre ranch but also accepting that his father reserved the right to ‘call the tune’.

Thinking back, Johnny smiled to himself, remembering all the moments, the arguments that, at the time, were split hairs away from his hasty departure, finding ranch life too rigid, demanding and forcing him to change some of his ways. Well, maybe some of those ways needed changing, but he was basically the same person, only a bit more restrained, disciplined. Yup, a lot had changed.

He reined Barranca to a stop at a swiftly flowing stream and dismounted, allowing the horse a rest. Johnny ground tied the stallion and chose a spot in the sun to lounge and enjoy the scenery. The serenity that filled him was something else that took a bit of getting used to. This peace inside him now had never been felt when he made his living as a gunhawk; he never knew if he would be alive to enjoy the dawn of the next day. Peace was definitely not part of Madrid’s life, but as a Lancer, it was something that he’d learned to appreciate. He’d learned that being part of a family took effort, but the things he had received in return far outnumbered any disadvantages, and he learned to appreciate the fact that there were now people that cared about him, loved him, and wanted him.

<><><><> 

Barranca was making good time, but Johnny knew that he still wouldn’t be home tonight, so he let the horse pick his own pace. The afternoon was wearing on, the setting sun losing the tranquility and warmth that had soothed him earlier in the day. He would have a fire built soon, and again, he thought about the hot coffee that would warm him from the inside out.

He wished that both he and Scott had gone to Sacramento together and that they were now about to make camp. He’d grown to enjoy the ‘brother time’, talking around the fire, sharing opinions, points of view and stories of their past, before they knew they were brothers.

Scott’s life in Boston had been privileged. He grew up with servants and money and… food. Scott had every advantage, everything that Johnny didn’t. Sometimes when talking about their childhoods, Scott appeared horrified at the things Johnny revealed, and Johnny found himself realizing that he had  divulged too much. Some of his early life had been violent for a young boy, and even Johnny found himself wondering how he managed to survive through it all. But Scott clearly had been shocked, although he desperately tried to conceal his thoughts and emotions.

<><><><> 

The knock at the door brought Murdoch out of the daydream that had invaded his thoughts as the numbers from the ranch ledgers blurred and faded from his sight. Thankful for the interruption, the Lancer patriarch heaved himself out of the chair and hurried to the front door. Opening the massive portal, Murdoch’s smile faded as Sheriff Val Crawford stood looking as if he had lost his best friend and horse to boot. Panic started to flow through Murdoch’s body; Johnny was the only one unaccounted for… Had something happened to his younger son?

“Val, what is it?” The anxiety was building and becoming unbearable, and in seconds, it would explode out of him as if his fuse had been lit and reached the point of ignition.

Reaching into his jacket pocket, Val pulled out a paper and handed it to Murdoch. Quickly unfolding it as he took it to the lamp, he read the missive. His face blanched as his mind struggled to absorb the sickening contents.

“What’s the meaning of this, Val? This is ridiculous, you know that!” Murdoch thundered. Teresa came running from the kitchen, alarmed at the ranting.

Val stood meeting Murdoch’s glare at a loss for words. This was part of the job that he hated, but he had no choice. The law was the law, and he had to enforce it.

“I got to take ‘im in, Mr. Lancer. Is he here?”

“Yes, he’s here! He’s upstairs in bed! He’s sick!”  Murdoch could not believe what he’d read.

“Murdoch, what’s going on?” Teresa asked, almost afraid to know what the paper contained.

Murdoch met her stare then glared back at Val when he answered. “This is a warrant for Scott’s arrest. He’s to be extradited to San Jose where, according to this, he assaulted a woman last week! Val, there’s got to be some mistake here!”

Val shrugged. “Yeah, and I know we can get it all straightened out, once we get ta San Jose…”

<><><><> 

The hot coffee in his belly did, indeed, warm him, and the drink from the tequila bottle didn’t hurt either. The night was chilly. Growing up along the border, his body was still acclimated to the hot, hot to the point of blistering the bottom of bare feet running across the sand. The northern temperatures were taking their time to settle in and prepare him for the unfriendly cold that could freeze him to the bone. But he would manage. He always did. If nothing else, never let it be said that Johnny Madrid couldn’t adapt. It’s what had kept him alive all these years, even as a small boy on his own. He was a survivor.

The wood in the fire popped, sending a shower of sparks skyward like fireflies in a race to light the heavens then to suddenly die out as if they had never been. Hunkered down in his blanket, Johnny grew drowsy, his eyes heavy as he watched the flames, mesmerized by the orange, dancing fire, gracefully reaching upward and lulling him to sleep.

Son-of-a-bitch! SCOTT! Johnny’s eyes snapped open as sweat poured down his forehead, flooding the deep blue pools with salty drops, burning and reddening in seconds. He sat straight up, the blanket fell away, and his heart hammered in his chest. What was it that woke him so suddenly, so terrifyingly real that had him gasping with eyes wide and wild? There had been no dream, just a desperate panic for his brother. Had they grown so close that Johnny could tell, could feel when Scott needed him and was in trouble? Johnny looked to the east. It was still dark, but no more sleep would come for him. He stoked the fire and set another pot of coffee to brew, gathered his things together to be ready to ride at the first sign of dawn.

Barranca was ready and answered Johnny’s call for speed. The stallion stretched out and raced for home, the sixth sense itching in the back of his brain. Scott needed help, and Johnny would be there to give it. This family thing had its good points, but Johnny had never worried so much in his life! He never thought it would be this stressful…

The hoofbeats thundered across the lush valleys carpeted with wildflowers, over the ridges dotted with groves of trees, their leaves shimmering in the morning sun and splashed through the crystal, icy streams. They chewed up the miles bringing horse and rider closer to Lancer, to home and hopefully to his brother, Scott, safe and in one piece.

Johnny pulled up on the reins slowing the large beast to a trot. With still ten miles to go, he knew that pushing the horse would do no one any good, and Johnny had never abused his horses. Barranca pranced and acted like he wanted to run, tried to get the bit in his teeth, but Johnny pulled him back, not allowing him to misbehave. They would soon be back at the ranch, and hopefully, Scott was alright.

What had unsettled Johnny so badly that he still felt like there was a block of ice in his belly and a stranglehold around his throat? Well, he would find out very soon, maybe it was all for naught. But Johnny had learned to trust his gut; all those years of living on his own, having no one else to count on, his instincts had served him well with feelings and decisions, and he would trust them now.

<><><><> 

Johnny pulled up to the hitch rail as Jelly came out of his room. He watched as the handyman took Barranca’s reins to take him to the barn; he avoided eye contact with the younger Lancer. Johnny’s senses spiraled out of control. Grabbing the man’s arm, he held on with a vise-like grip as Jelly finally met his stare.

“Jelly, what’s wrong?” Johnny asked, his voice quiet and still under control, but barely.

“Val came out last night. Scott’s under arrest an’ the sheriff’s takin’ ‘im back ta San Jose.”

“Arrest? Arrested for what?”  The eruption finally exploded, Johnny felt a dozen questions swirling in his brain as if they’d been swept into the vicious whirlings of a tornado.

“A woman up there is pressin’ charges that Scott assaulted her when he was there last week. Murdoch went with Scott an’ Val on the train. They left this mornin’.”
 
“Jelly, saddle another horse for me, will ya?  A fast one!” and without waiting for a response from the crusty old man, Johnny turned and ran into the hacienda.

With no time to lose, Johnny dashed through the kitchen, ignoring the stares from Teresa and Maria, both red-eyed from crying, and raced up the stairs, taking them three at a time. He was in his room in seconds, stuffing his saddlebags full of extra cartridges and two more shirts. Making sure his knife was in his boot, he reached into the wardrobe at the back where he kept another pistol, stuffing this, too, into the bags. He ran down the stairs and stopped to reassure the two women, giving each a kiss on the forehead, then he ran out the back door to the barn.

Jelly had the horse ready, then Johnny quickly tied his saddlebags in place and swung up onto the spirited animal. He shouted as he left the barn.

“Thanks, Jelly! I’ll have Murdoch send ya a wire as soon as we know anything!” And with that, he was gone.

<><><><> 

By train, San Jose would take the better part of two days to reach. But going across country, Johnny should beat them by a good ten hours if he  changed mounts several times. Even stopping overnight, Johnny would get there many hours before Scott, Murdoch, and Val. He didn’t know what he could do when he arrived, but sitting at the ranch was not an option. If he could help Scott, he would.

The charge was ridiculous, Scott would never assault a woman, he was, after all, the most honorable man he knew. Johnny was positive the whole thing was a mistake. The woman had to have gotten Scott mixed up with someone else. There were a lot of people in San Jose, and Johnny was sure that things happened there just like any other place, but  if a woman had been assaulted, it wasn’t Scott that had committed the crime. Jelly hadn’t known any details, so Johnny had no idea at all of the events leading up to this alleged incident. But of one thing, Johnny was absolutely sure: Scott was innocent. And Johnny would prove it. Maybe once the woman saw Scott, she would realize that she had the wrong man, had mixed up the name, and Scott would be cleared.

Having changed mounts and with a fresh horse under him, Johnny let the animal stretch his legs, eating up the distance but knew he couldn’t wear the gelding out too soon. But he could still make several miles before he would have to stop for the night.

Traveling off the road at night was not something Johnny wanted to be doing at a time like this. It would be a long walk into town should tragedy befall the horse. The scenery sped by, but he didn’t notice it. The day was pleasantly cool and perfect for travel, but, again, it went unnoticed. Johnny’s mind was on Scott, and the closer he got to San Jose, the worse the feeling in his gut became.

Slowing the horse as the end of daylight dictated, Johnny soon made camp for the night. He knew that early morning would find him in San Jose and hopefully already investigating the case against his brother. Although not legally, Johnny would find a few answers, one way or another. Madrid would see to that.

The night had been long, and sleep eluded him, just like he knew it would. The mournful cry of the coyote reminded Johnny that this very possibly may turn out badly. Funny how, on other occasions, he enjoyed the canine howls, but not tonight. They only seemed to remind him how serious this could potentially turn out, and he shook his head as if to dislodge the unpleasant thoughts out of his mind.

As dawn broke over the mountain tops, Johnny was well on his way. Today he would reach San Jose and begin the search that would hopefully unravel this tangled mess. A chance for a reasonable explanation to put this worry to rest. He needed to be there for Scott as he knew, without a doubt, that Scott would be there for him.
<><><><> 

Madrid rode into San Jose at mid-morning. Tying his horse in front of the saloon, Johnny stepped up onto the boardwalk to the batwing doors of Phoebe’s Ruby Garter Saloon. Pausing to search the street as was his usual habit, he stopped at the door, watching for any sign of trouble within the barroom. With the routine practice completed, Johnny pushed his way into the quiet interior and chose a table in the back against the wall. He settled into a chair as he took in his surroundings. The bartender took his order for a beer and hastily returned, setting the drink on the table and deftly catching the coin Johnny flipped his way.

Nursing the beer for half an hour, Johnny bided his time. Apparently, Phoebe did not rise before noon as Johnny saw no sign of life from the working girls. The train was not scheduled to arrive until later in the afternoon, leaving him a few hours to find out what he could. Going directly to the sheriff was not an option, not yet, and Johnny knew he could find out more here in the saloon where he could ask questions without raising any suspicions from the law.

The patronage in the saloon was slowly increasing. A thirsty cowboy here, a quiet poker game there, and the girls who had just started making their way downstairs, circulating around the tables to make their customers feel welcome.

Johnny watched as she brazenly approached his table, her painted-on smile blazing red against pasty white skin that hadn’t seen the sunlight in years. A thick layer of powder did its best to cover the lines etched deep into her face that, hopefully, gave her a younger appearance. The brassy yellow hair piled atop her head with bright, sparkling pins of cut glass caught the light, shiny and cheap. Before she could sit, Johnny got up from his chair, tipped his hat to her in polite acknowledgment, and walked to the bar. Her huff of disappointment was evident, as was her flounce back across the smoky room.

Dodged a bullet, Madrid, Johnny thought to himself. Tossing another coin onto the stained bar dotted with burns and gouges, Johnny got another beer. Bartender Mickey paused to pick up the money and wipe the spill off the old and battered wood left by a foam trail that slid down the side of a glass.
“Things pretty quiet around here, huh?” Johnny asked in his soft voice.

Mickey shrugged and met his eyes. “Wait till about ten tonight. The place gets pretty lively. Especially when Lexie gets here.”

“Lexie? Who’s Lexie?” inquired Johnny, taking a drink and licking the foam from his upper lip.

Mickey looked at the stranger with a puzzle forming on his pudgy face. “You’re new around here, must be. Everyone knows Lexie! She’s just about the prettiest girl in all of California!”
 
“Well, maybe I’ll hafta stay around a while an’ meet her,” Johnny said into his mug. “Other’n Lexie, anything else goin’ on around here?” he asked, hoping to turn up information. Johnny kept up the questions, and Mickey kept supplying answers. Apparently, the man liked to talk, but then, most bartenders did. Made for good business and happy customers. Happy customers stuck around and paid for their drinks.

The two men entered the saloon and took a table just inside the door. There was nothing odd or peculiar about them, but they caught Johnny’s eye. One man was dressed in an expensive suit, obviously well to do, but the other screamed trouble. Johnny knew the type, hell, he’d almost been one. So, he watched discreetly. The man in the suit had a peculiar habit of tugging on his lapels as if to straighten them, after all, a man of apparent wealth could not be seen having a mussed suit. The man Johnny thought was trouble sat slouched in his chair, staring at the neatly dressed man with him at the table.

Johnny kept an eye on the clock behind the bar. The train would be arriving in a few hours, and Johnny had yet to find out any information. He had to face the fact that maybe he wouldn’t, but it would be advantageous if he could get a jump on things without stirring up any suspicions.

Mickey set another beer in front of Johnny, taking the empty away and continued to wipe down the bar. Leaning on his elbows with his back to the polished wood, Johnny kept up the barrage of questions concealed in mundane conversation, as if bored and passing the time of day.

“Hey, Mickey, who’re those two men at the table over there in front?”

Mickey looked to where his new favorite customer indicated with a nod of his head. “Oh, that’s Mr. Champion, Truman Champion, an’ that fella with him is Joe Markham. Think he works for Mr. Champion. Shame, the Missus got roughed up last week. Heard the sheriff say they think they know who did it. Some cowboy from south a here. Comin’ in on the train in the next day or two escorted by the local lawman.”

Johnny’s belly flipped over. “How bad she get hurt?” Asking casually, Johnny took a sip of beer and appeared as if he were simply making conversation.

Mickey sighed deeply. “Well, from what I understand, she got slapped around pretty good an’ escaped with her virtue intact, but barely. Her clothes were almost ripped off her. The commotion started to attract attention an’ the man ran off. Mrs. Champion was shaken up pretty bad, though. Took to her bed for a while before she could even talk to the sheriff. Mr. Champion finally got her to talk. Heard that she was ashamed to admit what almost happened to her.”

Johnny glanced at the two men again, now he had a direction to go in, and Val would be interested in what he found out.

“What’s Champion do around here?” Johnny asked.

“Doesn’t live here, he‘s got some kind of plantation outside of Baton Rouge, L’uisiana. Heard he’s lookin’ at business ventures out here other than cotton. Still got the old family money, but after the war, the plantation’s not what it used to be. His wife sure is a looker, though. She’s younger’n him, too. Markham just started working for him a few weeks ago. Other’n that, I don’t know much about ’em except for the fact that they’ve been here about a month. Mr. Champion must have something lined up as far as investments, he’s been spending a lot of time over at the assay office.”

The more Mickey talked, the more uneasy Johnny became, and he knew he would have to ferret out more answers. Keeping an eye on these two would be a good start. With the covert observation, Johnny tried to come up with a plan of action. He wondered about Markham. Champion didn’t know him prior to his arrival in San Jose; maybe someone here knew something about the man. Johnny knew trouble when he saw it, and somewhere someone knew something. Trouble like that didn’t just go away. There would be a trail, Johnny had to follow whatever trail he could and find the answers. He would be damned before he let his brother be convicted of a crime that he had no part of committing, and he knew that Val would be there right alongside him.

Tugging once more at the lapels of his suit, Champion became agitated. Redness crept up his neck and into his face, the pale old skin changing color in a brilliant display as Markham, Johnny noticed, sat back in his chair looking smug and satisfied. A confident and snide grin stretched from ear to ear. Appearing to be interested in his glass, Johnny observed through lowered lashes, as the scene played out then abruptly ended. Champion suddenly stood, knocked over his chair, and stormed out of the saloon. Markham sat at the table looking as if he’d just won a large pot playing poker, which apparently, he did.

Casually, Johnny paid for his drinks and wandered aimlessly out onto the boardwalk, looking up and down the wooden planks as if trying to decide in what direction to go. He spied Champion half a block down crossing the street to the San Jose House, ‘The Finest Boarding House in Town’, well, that’s what the sign said, and watched as the man entered the building. Waiting a few seconds, Johnny followed the same path and entered the lobby, sauntering up to the front desk.

A well-dressed teller looked up from his books, eyeing Johnny with a look of disdain, and mumbled, making it quite obvious what he thought of the dusty cowboy standing in the lobby; he just knew there was dirt literally falling off the filthy clothes onto the clean floor!

“Yes, may I help you?” he asked in an exaggerated tone, clearly disapproving of Johnny’s travel-worn appearance.

“Just wonderin’ if ya seen a friend of mine, thought he might have checked in here in the last week or two. Name’s Dave Steele…”

Not having a chance to complete the charade, the clerk sneered out the response he reserved for those of a lesser station in life. Those who were beneath the civilized and upper crust population, those who did not deserve the time of day.

“There has been no one here by that name, and you should really look for your… friends somewhere else! This establishment doesn’t cater to people like…”

Having dealt with this caliber of haughty, condescending ignorance before, Johnny simply grinned. He reached past the insufferable man and took the register, flipping through the last few pages as Frederick made a desperate grab for the book.

“You cannot do that! It is against hotel policies…!” Frederick replied indignantly and  seethed at the audacity of the ruffian in front of him.

Johnny looked up with cold glacial eyes, the grin still in place. He watched as Frederick seemed to shrink at the glare, and observed the man shiver as if a cold flood had just washed over him, and knew the man was afraid.

Johnny read the name on the plaque sitting beside the register that announced Frederick Smyth was on duty. “Just did it, Freddie. Relax, ain’t gonna do ya no harm. Just checkin’ a few names here is all. Let’s see, nope… no Dave Steele here…” As Johnny’s eyes scanned over the names in the registry for the last several weeks, he saw when the Champions checked in, but there wasn’t an entry for Markham. He saw Scott’s check-in and out dates from last week and committed the times to memory. Closing the register, Johnny tossed it on the counter and with another broad grin, bid Freddie a  goodbye, leaving the man sputtering and aghast at what had just happened.

Johnny didn’t know if the dates held any significance or not, but the nagging suspicions regarding Markham kept growing. He had not known the Champions for long, and where the name did not hold any significance for Johnny, Markham’s ‘look’ did.

The train would be arriving soon, and he wanted to catch Scott, Murdoch, and Val before anyone knew they were in town. They needed to talk without the possibility of someone hearing their conversation that shouldn’t be listening. Johnny had no doubt that Scott was being set up to take the blame for a crime he didn’t commit, and the longer they could keep Scott’s presence hidden, at least for a day or two, the better chance they had at finding the person responsible. And Johnny had a lead. It was more of a gut feeling, but he’d learned to trust his gut before and had rarely been wrong.

He heard the whistle blowing. The train would soon stop by the platform as people gathered for their departures or were there to meet arrivals. Spying the town marshal, Johnny knew he had to act fast if he was going to get to his family before the local law knew they were in town.

The passengers disembarked onto the platform as Johnny watched carefully from his cover on the other side of the train. He saw the three men he was waiting for and sent out his piercing whistle. Val turned and saw him first. Johnny quickly put his finger to his lips and waved Val over on the opposite side of the tracks from the station.

The bulk of the train car hid their movements from those on the crowded platform. Val nudged Murdoch’s arm, then Scott’s, and they stepped down from the passenger car. He led the way to where he’d seen Johnny disappear between the buildings. Murdoch didn’t say a word when Val tugged his sleeve but followed with absolute trust, questions, too, but trust. Scott quickly brought up the rear.

Val kept walking, knowing that Johnny would show himself when the time was right, and as soon as they were out of sight from the platform, Johnny stepped out from his cover.

“Johnny! What are you doing here?” Murdoch wanted to bellow but knew in his heart exactly what Johnny was doing. Surprise lit up Scott’s face upon seeing his brother.

“Don’t know if I found out anything important or not, but we gotta talk ta a fella named Joe Markham…”

“Who’s that?” Val asked as questions began to swirl in his head regarding what all Johnny had found out.

Johnny held Val’s eyes as he explained. “Remember Luther Wilkes?” Johnny said with dread in his voice.

A spark ignited in Val’s brain as his shocked expression held Johnny’s attention. It was a name from the past that sent a shudder down Val’s spine. Luther Wilkes had been a very bad man.

“No! Not ol’ Luther?” The shock that registered on Val’s face said it all.

Johnny shook his head. “No, not Luther but the same kind of pendejo.”

Val rubbed his chin with his gloved hand.

“What are you two talking about?” Murdoch broke in, not appreciating that he’d been excluded.

Johnny turned to his father and brother. “Too long ta go inta now, but a fella we used ta know an’ always up ta no good, had his hands in every dirty deal that went down an’ bad as they come. There’s one of ‘em here an’ I got that feelin’, Val…”

The whole time Scott stood listening to what was said, and finally spoke. “What’s this Luther fellow have to do with me?” Bewildered eyes settled on his brother and the sheriff.

“Luther’s got nuthin’ ta do with you, Boston, but someone like him might an’ me an’ Val are gonna find out…”

Val hesitated a minute before speaking up. “Johnny, ‘m here on official business, I can’t go traipsin’ off with ya on a wild goose chase…”

Johnny’s frozen stare stopped Val from speaking . The mask came down over Johnny’s face, turning icy and stubborn. “Then I’ll do it alone,” Johnny said in his quiet, deadly tone. Turning away, Johnny got two steps before Val called him back.

“Look, Johnny, the marshal’s expectin’ us either taday or tamarrow an’ Scott’s technically under arrest. The woman used his name…”

“Then she got it wrong! She coulda heard his name anywhere, even saw it in the hotel register, Hell, I saw it in the register, doesn’t mean he’s guilty! But there’s somethin’ goin’ on with her husband an’ this Markham, he’s trouble, I can smell it…” Johnny had ‘the look’ in his eyes.

Val saw it and recognized it, he’d seen it before, and he knew Johnny was rarely wrong about things like this. The only difference was that this time it involved Scott and where Scott was concerned, Johnny just might be slightly biased. But Val had trusted ‘the look’ before…

“Well, I guess one day won’t make any difference. We can take ya in ta jail in the mornin’,” Val said as he turned to Scott.

Still puzzled at the strange path the conversation had gone, Scott spoke up. “Look, I’m innocent of whatever they’re going to charge me with; I have nothing to hide…”

“Yeah, but chances are that Markham does. An’ he ain’t gonna get away with whatever he’s tryin’ ta pull off. I saw it on Champion’s face taday. Markham’s got somethin’ on him an’ I think he’s usin’ Champion’s wife ta get away with it. Things are too coincidental an’ I don’t believe in coincidence, ‘specially where Markham’s concerned.”

Murdoch was profoundly astonished. This was all happening too fast. The initial news that Scott was accused of such a ridiculous crime had set off  warning bells in his head, and now to hear this conversation between Val and Johnny, regarding people and situations in the past compared with the situation now, only compounded the confusion. Murdoch was not willing to go against the law. They would fight it out in court, the right way. But after giving a second or two of consideration to what Johnny and Val were insinuating and suggesting, maybe they didn’t have to go to court…

“Listen, Scott, all we hafta do is keep ya outta sight for a day or two. Everyone knows ya ain’t gonna run, you’re a law abidin’ man. An’ ya been sick. So, a little delay ain’t gonna matter… Just let me an’ Val poke around a little an’ maybe we can turn up somethin’.” Johnny studied his brother’s eyes.

Scott looked tired, but there was a spark there, too, a spark declaring his innocence and a need to clear his name. Champion had money, but then so did Lancer and Lancer was known around here. Champion was the outsider, but where did Markham fit in? Well, however, underhanded Markham was, he was no match for Madrid and Crawford. But they would have to be careful; some folks around here knew Johnny Lancer and Sheriff Val Crawford. The question was, did Champion know them? Scott didn’t think so.

Darkness was falling, and time was running out. Both Murdoch and Scott agreed to wait before going to the Marshals office, but Johnny and Val had to come up with something quick. As dusk settled, the surveillance began.

After describing the two men to Val, Johnny and Val settled into what was going to be a very long night. The streets were quiet until around nine, then the night crowd descended on the saloons, and noisy, inebriated cowboys engaged in the usual hoopla, complete with the occasional body tumbling out of the batwing doors, to roll across the boardwalk and into the street.

Watching the commotion, Johnny thought about his father and brother tucked safely away in a camp outside of town. He knew the waiting was difficult, waiting usually was. But necessary, they all had to wait because Markham was not going to get away with whatever he was up to, especially at Scott’s expense.

Johnny suddenly tensed; Markham wandered across the street and through the batwing doors into Phoebe’s Ruby Garter but no sign of Champion. Breaking cover but keeping to the shadows, Johnny silently found Val’s side.

“Did ya see that fella go through the door just now?” Johnny asked as he watched intently.

Val nodded yes and waited for Johnny’s plan.

“That was Markham. Keep an eye out for him. I'm gonna see what Champion’s up to.” And with that, Johnny was gone.

Now knowing what Markham looked like, Val was able to watch and didn’t let the man out of his sight. From his position, the man could be seen through a side window, and he’d taken a table away from others, to sit alone and drink.

<><><><> 

Johnny walked as if he had all the time in the world, appearing aimless, wandering through the streets, but slowly threaded his way around until he stood outside The San Jose House where, again, Frederick was on duty. Remembering that the Champions had room 206, Johnny peered through the window and saw the key for 207 still in the slot behind the desk. He turned and made for the rear entrance hoping it wouldn’t be locked.

Skirting around the building and into the back alleyway, Johnny came to the door and tried the knob. It turned. Gonna hafta have a talk with Freddie when this is over an’ tell him a thing or two about keepin’ doors locked. Lots a riff-raff crawlin’ around these days an’ I’m sure he don’t want any of those kind in his hotel gettin’ his carpet dirty…

Slipping silently through the door, and up the back stairs, Johnny quietly made his way down the hall to room 207 and put his hand on the knob. It was locked. He took a few tentative steps over to 206 and heard voices inside. A man and woman were talking, but as Johnny stood listening, the conversation from inside was becoming heated, angry, and with the anger, the tones were sharp and loud. Accusatory and hurtful.

“I’ve told you before, Rheva, I will not be made a fool of! You will put a stop to this nonsense before it gets out of hand!” Champion roared. A woman, undoubtedly Mrs. Champion, responded with a sob.

“I haven’t encouraged anything, Truman, he just insisted…”

“Enough! Just end it, Rheva! NOW! Tonight!” The footsteps were closer as the door was flung open, and Champion stomped out, continuing down the hall. Johnny had just enough time to step away as Mr. Truman Champion charged out. Johnny crossed the corridor as if he were opening the door to his room. Quickly returning to 206, he listened carefully, and Johnny could hear weeping. He turned and went to the back stairs. Taking three at a time, he raced around the building and watched as Truman Champion walked briskly down the boardwalk in the opposite direction of Phoebe’s Ruby Garter.

<><><><> 

Val watched through the window from his secure place behind the stack of wooden crates in the side alley. There was something nagging him, something buzzing around like an annoying bug just waiting to sting. It was just about to land with stinger extended, split seconds away from plunging into flesh, and then just as suddenly it would again take flight. What was it about this man that put Val on edge? Johnny was right; Markham had all the signs of a Luther Wilkes, they were cut from the same cloth, but there was something about this Markham that was almost familiar… What the hell is it? Val thought as he watched a working girl sidled up to Markham’s table and sat down. They shared a drink and then went up the stairs together. Val sighed, This is gonna be a long night!

<><><><> 

Truman Champion walked, unaware that he was followed. Eventually, he marched off his mad and resumed a more natural pace as the fire inside him burned down. It left him fatigued as it smoldered. A half an hour of wandering wore the anxiousness away, now he needed a place to sit and think. He had to decide how he would handle the escalating issue regarding his philandering wife.

Consumed by the troublesome issues regarding his wife, Champion entered a café and took a table in the corner. The cheerful red and white checked pattern of tablecloths, napkins, and curtains did nothing to elevate his spirits. He ordered a cup of coffee and sat staring into his cup as he contemplated his options.

Johnny watched as the man studied his steaming cup. He looked like a man with a heavy load on his shoulders. Yup, looks like ol’ Truman’s got some pretty big problems. Wonder if he needs some help… Johnny thought about offering Madrid’s assistance, but something made him hold off. If nothing happened tomorrow, then he would approach the man. He hoped that Val had found out something about Markham that would prove useful; they were running out of time. Scott and Murdoch would go into town, and Boston was going to turn himself in. After all, he was innocent, but that wouldn’t make any difference. Men like Markham didn’t go by the rules.

Champion left the diner after the waitress told him it was closing. Johnny leaned up against the outside wall as the businessman stepped out onto the boardwalk, utterly oblivious to his surroundings, and headed straight for his hotel. Johnny followed at a discreet distance, knowing Champion had no clue anyone was there.

As Champion went inside, Johnny, once again, snuck up the back stairs having to wait around a corner as the man unlocked his door. Hearing it re-lock after he entered, Johnny resumed his post just outside, and conversation between Champion and the woman began but in more civil tones. All Johnny could make out was ‘we’ll figure something out…’ then Johnny watched as the lamplight faded to darkness under the door.

<><><><> 

“Ya find out anything, amigo?” Val asked as Johnny joined him in the cramped space behind the crates. Sighing deeply, Johnny rubbed at his eyes.

“Dunno. Heard him an’ his wife arguin’ in their room. When he left, I followed an’ all he did just stop at the diner. Guess he needed ta think ‘cuz he sure looked like he had troubles. Then he went back ta the room an’ they talked some but didn’t sound like they were fightin’ anymore. But he said ‘they’d figure somethin’ out.” Johnny rubbed at his eyes again, stifling a yawn.

“When’s the last ya slept, Johnny?” Val asked, noting the fatigue.
Johnny shook his head. “Been a while, getting’ close ta two days, I think…” Not bothering to hold back on yet another yawn, Johnny let it loose, but quietly. Val smiled, knowing that neither of them could do much good like this.

“Why don’t ya go back an’ camp with Murdoch an’ Scott. I’ll keep an eye open on this end. Our boy just went upstairs with one a the girls, so he ain’t gonna be down for a while.”

<><><><> 

“Hello, the camp!” Johnny softly called out and hearing the rifles cock then a duo of “Johnny?” he wandered toward the fire. Both Lancer men were anxiously awaiting some positive news but were disappointed with Johnny’s report.

“Scott, did ya even talk ta this woman?” Johnny asked, fishing for answers.

“The only woman I spoke to was coming out of a dress shop. She stepped in front of a team of horses that was going a bit too fast, and she wasn't watching where she was going. She looked troubled.  I pulled her out of the way. She was shaken up, so I helped her to the hotel and her room. Other than that, I didn’t speak with any other woman.”

“What hotel was she stayin’ at?” Johnny began to hope…

“The San Jose House, room 206, I believe… Why?”

“Because that’s the wife of Mr. Champion. An’ Champion’s in some sort of trouble. Don’t know what it is, but he’s got it an’ there’s this Markham character we were talkin’ about taday… He’s trouble.” Johnny said as he sat by the fire and then looked at Scott.

“Did anyone see ya go inta the hotel with her?” Johnny asked.

“Only the hotel clerk behind the desk. Why?” Scott asked.

“Did ya tell her your name?” Johnny asked, hoping the answer would be no.
“Yes, when we got to her room, I introduced myself, but she said nothing. She was shaking, and I had to unlock her door for her. She went in without saying a word except a brief ‘thank you’, that’s all she said. I wouldn’t be able to identify her. After leaving her at the hotel, I barely had enough time to make it to the train for the 6:15  departure for Green River.”

Johnny reached for the coffee pot on the fire and took a reviving drink from either Murdoch’s or Scott’s cup. He retrieved his bedroll and spread it on the ground, crawling into it without another word and was asleep in less than five minutes. Scott and Murdoch could only look at each other.

“I truly hope tomorrow will bear something more useful, but in all honesty, I would like to see if this woman could identify me because I don’t remember that she even looked at me. If I stood in a line with a few other men my size, I don’t think she would know me from any of them. And I intend to do just that!”

<><><><> 

Son-of-a-bitch!! Where the hell did he go? Val had watched all night, but Markham did not leave by the front or back doors. The only other way was over the railing of the balcony in the back and drop to the ground. But why would he do that? Val took out his pocket watch. It was almost eight in the morning and nothing… He gave up his post and went out to the Lancer camp hidden outside of town.

“Don’t know when he left or where he went,” Val apologized, but it was disregarded. They would catch Markham or Champion at something, they had to…

“I want to go to town and start to clear my name. If she can claim that I attacked her, then she’ll have to prove it. Why did it take her so long to come forward?” Scott was making a great effort  to keep calm, but the more he thought about it, his resolve to stay in control was beginning to fade. He just wanted this whole thing behind him. But they had to find Markham.

<><><><> 

Johnny and Val stood in the saloon as barkeep Mickey polished the shiny wood to a bright finish. Val started his questioning, and Mickey was not happy.

“Ya got a girl workin’ here, ‘bout five-foot, maybe a few inches, light brown hair, was wearin’ a dark green dress last night. She here?”

Mickey looked suspicious, but then Val pulled his vest aside to reveal the sheriff’s badge. Mickey, while still apprehensive about the questioning, gave Val the answer.

“Yeah, that’s Sally Anne, she hasn’t come downstairs yet, though. Had a busy night. Lots of business.”

Val’s brows knitted in a frown. “What room she in?” he demanded, no longer  questioning.

Mickey sighed but caved to the inquiry. “Third door on the right.”

“Thanks, Mickey,” Johnny said as he and Val took the stairs and were standing at Sally Anne’s door in seconds, knocking softly at first, then a bit louder. Finally, Val tried the door and found it locked. Drawing their pistols, Johnny gave the door a kick, and it broke free of the lock, slamming against the wall, and swung partway closed again.

Sally lay on the bed, not moving. Her face was bright with the bruises blossoming in a myriad of colors around her mouth and cheekbones. She was out cold. Johnny went down the stairs telling Mickey to go for the doctor.  Mickey mumbled about the commotion last night but didn’t think it had been that bad. They stayed until the physician arrived, and found out that the girl would probably recover given enough time, then left.

“Alright, now we hafta take Scott ta jail an’ pay a little visit ta Mrs. Champion.”

<><><><> 

Johnny and Val went out to the secluded campsite where Murdoch and Scott had been waiting. Happy to get this started so it would be settled and over with, Scott was anxious to be on their way but hesitated when Johnny filled them in on the turn of events about the beaten saloon girl.

“We hafta be careful an’ not scare Markham off. If he knows we’re watchin’ ‘im, he could cut an’ run.” Val explained. “An’, don’t ferget that he went out over the railing when he left the girl’s room so’s he wouldn’t be seen.” 

Murdoch frowned. “How do we know that he’s involved at all? There’s really no evidence pointing to him,” the Lancer patriarch asked.

“He’s involved, Murdoch. I saw it on Champion’s face yesterday an’ can’t say for sure what it was about but I heard ol’ Truman arguin’ with his wife, said he wouldn’t be made a fool of no more an’ ‘it had ta stop’ so’s she’s up ta somethin’, too. Just hafta find out what she’s doin’, is all. An’ I bet it’ll involve Markham…” Certain that he was right, Johnny just had to figure out how to prove his theory.

Val was deep in thought and rubbed the back of a dirty hand across the stubble on his chin. He let out a long, deep breath. “I been thinkin’, Scott, Mr. Lancer. Maybe it’d be a good thing if you two were ta stay outta sight for a bit longer, just ‘til me an’ Johnny find out where Markham is an’ get a chance ta talk ta the Champions. If there’s somethin’ goin’ on, Champion and the Missus just may already be at the marshal’s office an’ from what ya told me, she never looked at ya. I think that’s a damn good idea to have her pick ya outta three or four other men. She might have a name, but unless she can match that name ta a face, she got no case against ya. Hell, for all we know, Markham coulda roughed her up. He did a good job on Sally Anne…” Val just put into words what had been on Johnny’s mind.

“When did she say you attacked her? Was it that night?” Johnny asked.

Val was starting to warm to the line of questioning, while Murdoch still tried to make sense of things.

“Yes. I believe she said that’s when it happened. Why?”

A huge grin split Johnny’s face. “We need ta talk ta the lady at the dress shop. Maybe she noticed something…”

<><><><> 

Agreeing to stay hidden for a few more hours, much to their dismay, Scott and Murdoch took a room in a dingy hotel on the outskirts of town, several blocks from The San Jose House, away from the marshal’s office, away from everything.

“Just go along with me on this, Val. I gotta know the time that Mrs. Champion said Scott attacked her. Somethin’ ain’t addin’ up.”

Pushing open the door of the dress shop, both Johnny and Val yanked their hats from their heads when the proprietress came from the backroom.

She smiled sweetly at the two young men standing before her and sized them up. The one was a bit scruffy but the other… my, he is handsome… If I were twenty years younger… and pulling her thoughts together in a professional manner, she cleared her throat and approached them.

“May I help you, gentlemen?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.

Johnny smiled his most dazzling smile, the one he reserved to sweep females, of any age, off their feet, and it had never let him down. Today was no exception. The woman seemed to melt right in front of his eyes.

“Yeah, Ma’am, I was wond’ring, my girl saw a lady in here tryin’ on a dress an’ well, my girl really liked that dress. I wanna get her something real special ‘cuz her birthday’s comin’ up an’ thought ‘bout that dress she saw, but I don’t know who the lady is that had it or what it was exactly that she bought. But my girl really liked what she saw. It was last week sometime… That’s ‘bout all I can r’member. Think ya can help me?” Johnny looked desperate, his cerulean eyes seemed to beg the dressmaker to help him identify that dress!

Marie LeClare wanted to put her arms around the young man and tell him it would be alright, not to fret. She wanted to soothe his worries and… Oh, my! She caught her mind wandering to things she hadn’t thought about in a long, long time… She blushed slightly.

“Oh, dear, let me see, I finished a dress for Mrs. Davis last week, but she’s older and I don’t think that would be what your sweetheart would be after… Oh! I know! I bet it was Mrs. Champion! She picked up her dresses on Wednesday. There were two of them. One was dark blue, and one was a beautiful apricot color. With her peaches and cream complexion, that shade accented her perfectly! I told her she had the most beautiful skin I’d ever seen! Not a mark or blemish on her face, she was a picture!” the woman gushed, and Johnny turned to Val.

“What’d ya think, amigo? Should I send Holly over here an’ have one a them dresses made up for her?”

Val grinned and then asked: “Just ta make sure we got the right dress, ya did say she picked it up on Wednesday an’ that color on her was pretty as a picture, huh?”

Marie looked a bit surprised. “Yes, it was Wednesday, and she truly is a beautiful woman, skin like porcelain…”

Scott had checked out on Wednesday late in the afternoon and was waiting for his train. If Mrs. Champion had just left the dressmaker’s shop, she hadn’t been attacked yet, as, according to the dressmaker, Mrs. Champion had a peaches and cream complexion, she would have seen the bruises on her client’s face. Johnny and Val left the dressmaker’s shop, leaving the woman wondering what exactly had just happened.

<><><><> 

The door to the marshal’s office opened as first Scott, then Murdoch, Johnny, and Val filed into the small confines. Marshal Ben Talbot sat behind his desk and looked up at the interruption, pencil in hand hovering over his papers.

“Can I help, gentlemen?” he asked as he raised bushy white eyebrows over large brown eyes.

“Marshal, I’m Scott Lancer…”

Marshal Talbot sat with his head in his hands. I really need to consider retiring… he thought to himself. The knot behind his eyes was starting to throb. This was some story! Especially after Scott expressed his desire to have several other men about his size and coloring stand alongside him and have Mrs. Champion pick him out… What the hell is going on? Trying to grasp all that he’d been told, he sat contemplating the facts, weighing them out and unraveling the tangles to reveal the truth.

“Sheriff Crawford,” the marshal began when the door burst open, and Mr. Champion rushed into the already cramped interior. Shocked, he looked around seeing the other four men ahead of him then remembered why he was there.

“Marshal, it’s my wife… She’s gone! I’ve looked everywhere! She’s gone!” Champion was pale, his ghostly pallor alarming the marshal. Talbot jumped from the chair behind his desk and retrieved an empty one from against the wall, shoving it behind the huffing man’s knees.

“Here, Mr. Champion, siddown. Now tell me all you know,” Talbot commanded.

Champion sighed deeply and began his tale, not seeming to care the Lancers, and Val were in the office.

“We… I… Well, we had words last night. I left for a while, and when I came back we talked, I thought things were going to be alright. Then, when I got up this morning, she was gone! She took some of her things. Mostly traveling clothes and…” Mr. Truman Champion hesitated and seemed to choke on his words.

“Mr. Champion, I need to know. What else can you tell me?” The marshal’s words were softly spoken, trying to coax any bit of information out of the man. Champion met the eyes of the marshal, and they were filled with pain, not of the physical kind but of the heart. And he seemed embarrassed.

Talbot waited patiently, but Johnny, Scott, Murdoch, and Val were staring intensely, on the edge because they all knew what Champion would say next.
“She… Rheva left, taking all our money with her. I had twenty thousand dollars that was to be used in a business deal, and it’s gone, too. Along with the man that was working for me. Joe Markham.”

Val was the first to speak up. “Mr. Champion, I‘m Sheriff Crawford from Green River an’ need ta talk ta Markham. Got any idea where they coulda run off to?”

Champion looked up, seeing the other men in the office as if for the first time. The businessman sat head down and muttered, “No.” 

Val tried again. “Mr. Champion, it’s real important that we catch this Markham. He worked a girl over last night at the saloon; he’s dangerous an’ we need ta bring ‘im back. Do ya think they mighta left on horseback? Your wife ride?”

Champion jerked his head up, a small light flickered in the troubled eyes.
“Why, yes, she loves to ride…”

With that, Johnny left to check at the livery. Usually, given enough money, a person could find out just about anything they wanted to know.

“Mr. Champion, I need ta ask ya somethin’ an’ I really need the truth. Has your wife been assaulted? Hit or beaten?” Val asked as he bent down to stare Champion in the face.

“Yes! But… how did you know?” The shock was genuine on his face.

“When did it happen?” Val kept up the barrage of questions.

“Last Wednesday, later in the evening, why? What does any of this have to do with my wife going missing?”

“Ya know who did it?” Val was getting louder, colder. The questions now bordered aggression.

“Yes, someone by the name of Scott Lancer. We came and told you about it, Marshal!” Clearly confused, Champion looked between the marshal and Val.
“What’s going on here?” he demanded.

Scott then stepped forward, meeting the man and formally introduced himself. “What is going on is… I am clearing my name. Mr. Champion, I am Scott Lancer, and I left town on Wednesday afternoon, and I can prove that.”

<><><><> 

Johnny raced to the livery; time would be of the essence to follow Markham and Mrs. Champion, especially if they had several hours’ head start. His mind was swirling with ‘what ifs’ as he hurried into the dark interior and called for the old man, Lem. Where the hell is he?

“LEM!” Johnny called as he went out behind the livery. An old man ambled out of the back room, a wiry man with a shock of white hair looking like he’d just been rudely awakened.

“Yeah, young fella, what can I do…” Lem rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“Was there a fella and a lady, Eastern woman, here? Did they ride outta here early this mornin’? The man’s ‘bout six foot, dark hair, dark eyes…” Johnny asked, hoping that ol’ Lem would give him the answers that he wanted to hear. A smile crawled across Lem's mouth as he thought about the fine lady and her soft Southern accent.

“Yup, mighty pretty thing she was, too!”

“Know where they went?”

“Headed north outta town, it was mighty early that they woke me up, sky was just startin’ ta get light.”

Johnny flipped Lem several coins then returned to his family.

<><><><> 

“Mr. Lancer, I’m sorry, but as you are implicated of a crime, I can’t let you go traipsin’ off on what may be a wild goose chase.” Talbot defended his decision to put Scott in jail.

“Marshal, I can prove that I left Wednesday afternoon, and you just heard Mr. Champion say that his wife was assaulted on Wednesday night! What more do you need?” Scott asked, trying with all his patience to keep his patience. Val cleared his throat to get the attention of everyone in the room.

“I got the statement from the lady that runs the dress shop where Mrs. Champion picked up her order, that as of Wednesday, durin’ the day some time, her face was, an’ I quote, she had a ‘peaches an’ cream complexion an’ there wasn’t a mark or blemish on her face, she has skin like porcelain’…”

Scott nudged Val in the ribs, whispering: “How did you get that information?” he asked with wide eyes.

Val grinned. “How else? Your brother.”

Scott could only smirk. Yes, that sounds like Johnny… But I don’t even want to know the details! he thought. Wait, maybe I do!

“I am sorry, Sheriff Crawford, but I need more answers before I can let him go.”

Champion had heard the name of Scott Lancer; he listened to his wife identify him and glared at Scott through hate-filled icy eyes. Seeing the potential for trouble, Murdoch stepped between his elder son and the man with murder in his eyes.

“With all due respect, Mr. Champion, you just heard my son say he could prove his innocence. I see no need for incriminations until we get the whole story, and,” with words directed at Champion, Murdoch continued, “I get the impression that there is more to this than what we know right now. So I suggest we all get control of our emotions before this goes from bad to worse.”

Murdoch’s statement hung in the air and settled into the marshal’s brain, making perfect sense. Taking the keys out of the desk, he motioned to Scott with a sympathetic look, back to the cell that would cage him but hopefully lead to proving his innocence. Murdoch went with, surrendering his pistol on the marshal’s desk.

Johnny burst through the door with the news of Markham and Mrs. Champion’s departure from town earlier in the morning. Skidding to a halt upon seeing only Val and Mr. Champion, his eyes went to his amigo, questions filling them, but no words were spoken. Val stepped to his side, knowing that Johnny needed something solid to anchor him. When it came to his brother, there was absolutely nothing that Johnny Lancer would not do to keep Scott safe. Nothing.

“Take it easy, amigo, everythin’s alright. The marshal has ta lock Scott up ‘til he can get more information other than just our word. Scott’s gonna be fine. What d’ya find out?”

“Markham an’ the woman left together early this mornin’ ridin’ north, we gotta get goin’, now!” But he stood as if rooted to the spot. He had to see Scott before he left if only to reassure himself that his brother was alright.

Hurrying back to the cell just as the iron door clanged shut, signaling Scott’s incarceration, he went to the bars, grabbing onto them with a white-knuckled grip. Then he seemed to get hold of his emotions, and a grin spread across his tense features. Looking at the bars then at his brother, he laughed a bit.

“This ain’t usually the way it is, kinda backward, huh?” Insinuating that Scott was the one on the outside trying to get Johnny out of jail. Scott smiled back, Murdoch put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder in an effort to calm his younger son.

“Just a technicality, Johnny. Did you find out where this Markham is?” Murdoch’s question was laced with hope.

“Not exactly but he an’ the woman left town around dawn this mornin’, gonna bring ‘im in. Just wanted ta see Scott before we left.” Johnny turned back to his brother. “Ya owe me a drink when we get back!” Then in a softer tone, “Bye, Scott.”

As he left, he threw over his shoulder, “Behave yourself, will ya?” His Johnny Madrid Lancer smile shone through brightening up the room, and then he was gone.
<><><><> 

Johnny and Val rode north out of town after reassuring the marshal that they would most definitely return with Markham, for not only absconding with Mrs. Champion and the money but for the beating of Sally Anne at Phoebe’s Ruby Garter Saloon.

Mr. Champion sat as if in a daze after the dressing down from Murdoch but seemed to snap out of it when Johnny and Val announced they would be in pursuit of his wife in the clutches of a man that he knew he could not trust.

He’d come to that conclusion too late, and now the man had his wife under his control and had the money. But how willing had his wife been to go with Markham? Champion definitely had his ideas about that. Rheva was still young and beautiful, much younger than himself. Had she really loved him, or did she marry him for his wealth and status? The thought grated through his head like a chisel, poking and scraping at his brain, causing physical pain. He slumped as the torment chipped away at his wife’s infidelity, no longer convinced that she had loved him. He had deceived himself thinking Rheva would be satisfied in her role as Mrs. Truman Champion, and his heart began to splinter, leaving him panting and gasping for air. He had been a fool.

<><><><> 

They left San Jose mid-morning. The marshal relented and agreed to have the two pursue Markham without Talbot’s help. He deputized Johnny, just to keep things legal. Truth be told, Talbot was grateful. He was getting too old to be pounding the saddle in what could be a long journey. Let these youngsters go gallivanting all over, and I’ll stay here and keep an eye on the ‘prisoner’, Mr. Champion, too. This is not turning out the way Champion thought it would, I can tell…

<><><><> 

Johnny and Val took the north road out of town and soon picked up the trail, two horses heading off and in a hurry. After several hours the horses left the road and began traveling cross country, now heading northeast. The hoof prints showed a slower pace, the riders probably thinking themselves a bit safer the further they got from town and especially since they’d left the road. They were becoming careless, which would prove to be of benefit to the two on their trail.

“Hey, Johnny, ya got any ideas ‘bout how ta handle this?” Val asked as they stopped to rest the horses. Johnny turned surprised eyes to him.

“You’re the sheriff…” he said with a laugh.

“Yeah, well, I don’t feel so law abidin’ right now. Feel more like how we used ta handle things in the ol’ days. After what they tried ta do ta Scott an’ now runnin’ off tagether with the money, I think we should handle this more, ya know, how they deserve ta be handled.”

Johnny grinned as he thought. Val’s got somethin’ in mind… “Any ideas, amigo? You’re the law here, kinda…” Johnny let the statement hang to reinforce his intentions that he would do anything it took to clear his brother’s name. Personally, he’d rather just shoot Markham than deal with him legally. Beating women did not sit well with him, and neither did running off with another man’s wife. If there were reasons for it, that would be between the married couple to figure out first. And stealing was never right. Whatever Mr. Champion felt about Scott was one thing, but Markham stole a lot of money from the man, not to mention his wife. He only wondered why Mrs. Champion left with him. Did she do so willingly, or did Markham have some hold over her? That remained to be seen.

“Accordin’ ta that dressmaker lady, Mrs. Champion’s a real good lookin’ woman. Maybe she just got tired of bein’ married ta an old man. She saw a chance ta get out an’ took it…” Val speculated as they rode.

Johnny had thought about that, too, but there was always the possibility that she didn’t go entirely willingly. They wouldn’t know until they caught up with the escaping duo. If it was Markham that beat her, maybe he forced her to claim that Scott was her assailant. Well, Johnny and Val would get to the bottom of it soon; the tracks were fresh and plainly marked, and in a few hours, they would be stopping for the night and hopefully catch the pair tomorrow.

<><><><> 

“Joe, I’m tired, I can’t go any farther, I need to stop!” Rheva complained when he didn’t heed her pleas an hour ago. He threw a dark glare her way as she swayed in the saddle.

“I shoulda left you in San Jose! Shoulda just took the money an’ left you! Now you’ll shut up an’ stop your whinin’, we got a ways ta go yet tonight!”

She didn’t say any more, she didn’t want to push her luck and test the volatile temper any more than she already did. As much as she detested the man that was her husband, at least he had never raised his hand to her. She had misjudged Joe Markham, and in her heart, she knew she’d made a horrible mistake. Now the question would be, how would she get out of this?

They finally made camp long after they should have. Mrs. Rheva Champion lay exhausted on her blanket by the fire. Joe Markham, on the other hand, sat alert with a rifle in hand and pistol ready. He was expecting company. He had purposely continued their travels farther than what had been safe, the horses were spent and would need time to recover, but Markham didn’t think they would have that time. He had a feeling that old Champion would send someone after his wife and the money. Markham had to wonder which of the two Champion considered more important. But regardless, he knew that they wouldn’t be alone for long. The marshal was showing his age, and unless he’d gotten help recently, Markham couldn’t say, but he felt someone was out there and searching for them.

Rheva was no use in keeping watch and Joe could feel fatigue tugging at him, but they would push on in a few hours, and if Rheva couldn’t keep up, Joe would have to figure something out because she wasn’t going to spoil his plans, not with a chance at this much money.

He watched her as she slept. Did he really want her after all? He could just leave her here, but if they were being followed as he suspected, she could possibly be found and reveal his plans. He now realized he had made a mistake in telling her what he was doing. She knew it all, and if he left her alive, she would most certainly turn against him, tell a concocted story making him out to be the sole villain, more than he was. 

The truth was she had pursued his attention when she first met him. Truman brought him to dinner one night, and she felt an excitement that had been absent from her life for a long time, excitement that drew her to him. This dark and dangerous man provided something that had been missing from her life for a long time, and she felt she had drawn her first breath of air in years. Making an ill-chosen decision, she launched herself into a dangerous game that she now regretted.

<><><><> 

The sun had not yet lightened the sky. Johnny and Val shared their coffee and discussed their options but ultimately knew they would have to play this out as it happened, be ready for whatever, whenever. Having worked together in the range wars, both men knew how the other worked and could read each other's thoughts. It was easy for them to fall back into their old roles. With that relationship came the trust, courage, and knowledge that they had each other’s backs. They were as brothers born out of survival and committed to the other. Since Val had become the law in Green River, their tactics had changed slightly as now things had to be legal, but they still carried out their missions accurately and with efficiency born out of their early days together.

“Ya know, Johnny, I just wonder what ol’ Markham is thinkin’. Prob’ly ain’t thinkin’! He’s gotta know that we would find out ‘bout that girl he beat up sooner or later an’ Miz Champion’s gotta get tired of him slappin’ her around. It’s like standin’ in the rain… Know what happens? Ya get wet!” That’s as far as Val’s philosophy went, Johnny thought, very basic but direct and to the point.

Johnny smiled the first smile he felt like giving since he’d found out about Scott getting arrested, but now he knew that Scott wouldn’t be held, especially if he and Val could bring in the two no-good scoundrels that were no more than a few hours ahead of them. He’d never been after a woman fugitive before, but he didn’t figure it to be an issue considering what she had tried to pull on Boston. Woman or not, she’d done wrong by the elder Lancer brother, and that was all that mattered. Johnny would deal with her just as he would any other outlaw.

The sun was hot even in the higher elevations, but Val and Johnny did not stop unless it was to rest their horses. They were making good time and were gaining on their quarry. Mrs. Champion must be holding them back. She may like riding, but both Johnny and Val didn’t think she would have the stamina to outrun anyposse much less one as accomplished as the ones who pursued them now. So they kept going, kept gaining, and very soon they would be within striking distance. And then Scott would be a free man and rightfully so. But Markham and Mrs. Champion would be held accountable on several issues, Johnny would personally see to that.

<><><><> 

“Get on that horse!” Markham screamed as Rheva leaned against the saddle, her head throbbing as her eyes closed. The breath coming out of her body in labored huffs and her heaving chest attested to the frailty that plagued her now. Her tears traced twin paths down her face mixing with the trail dust forming dirty streaks that eventually soaked into the once clean scarf tied around her neck.

“I… I can’t go any further, Joe! Honest, I can’t…” The words weak and her voice scratchy, foreign to her own ears. Was that me? “Just a few minutes, Joe, let me have a few minutes…”

“We don’t have a few minutes! Now get on that horse!” This time the repeated words were in her ear as he walked up behind her, and with his head lowered to hers, he pinned her to the side of the horse. Grabbing her chin in his rough hand, he wrenched her head around to look into his eyes. They were wild and unstable, and she was afraid.

Trying to shake an affirmative answer, she lifted a foot into the stirrup and dragged herself into the saddle. Her jaw bruised by his callous treatment, eyes tearing until she could not see, she wondered for the hundredth time at her decision to come with this man.

<><><><> 

“Hey, Val, look at this….” Johnny squatted by the tracks. “Looks ta me that there was a scuffle here,” he surmised, pointing to the footprints and the scrape in the dirt where a body had fallen.

“Yeah, wonder if she looks as bad as Sally Anne does…” Val answered as visions of the beaten saloon girl lingered in his mind.

Johnny could only sigh in disgust. The woman was no good, but a man that beats a woman, good or not, was scum, and Johnny wondered how much longer she could last. They were still gaining on them, and hopefully, their quarry would be too exhausted to put up much of a fuss. As it was, Johnny wanted to put a bullet in Markham the minute they found him and save the town the cost of a trial, but he knew it wouldn’t happen unless Markham started shooting, giving them no other choice than to return fire.

“Got an’ idea, amigo.” Johnny looked up from his coffee as Val talked. “What say we move in on ‘em now. They won’t be expectin’ nothin’ in the middle of the night an’ if Markham’s as tired as I think he is from draggin’ Miz Champion around, he ain’t gonna be too much trouble for two of us. What’d ya think?” Val detected a slight smile turning up the corners of Johnny’s mouth.

“You’re the sheriff…” Johnny said as he put his cup on the rock by the pot.

<><><><> 

“Ya got ‘em spotted yet?” Val asked as Johnny swept the terrain with the  spyglass.

“Yeah, camped about three hundred yards out. There’s a small arroyo an’ that’s where they are. Can see their fire burnin’. Let’s go.”

Johnny and Val swung into their saddles and stayed downwind. They silently stalked the outlaws that stole money and tried to frame an innocent man. The coyote in the distance continued to howl, but the owl stopped its soulful calls.  The crickets also ended their serenade as the two men closed in, leaving their mounts ground tied more than one hundred yards out. More than once, a stray neigh or nicker from a horse had been an alert for an approaching menace.

Johnny and Val circled the camp. Coming closer, Johnny saw only one bedroll at the fire with an occupant. He knew Val was close, but Markham would be close, too, assuming that it was Rheva Champion in the blankets; he wouldn’t leave her to incriminate him, say that he forced her to come along with him. A twig snapped, and Markham came into sight, buckling his belt as if he’d answered the call of nature. They let him settle down and draw the blanket up to his shoulders, and within a few minutes, soft snores could be heard.

Joe Markham opened his eyes as the flames in the fire danced and popped, generating warmth as it blazed brightly. The campsite was awash in orange and gold light, creating what should have been a very comforting atmosphere. Then the obvious hit him square between the eyes. Trouble! Never would Rheva had even thought to add wood to the fire, would never have lowered herself to manual labor of any kind, as Joe was finding out. He woke, suddenly alert but all too late as he heard the pistols cock in the cold early morning air sounding incredibly loud to his ears.

“Nice an’ slow, Markham, toss your guns over here,” Val said as if talking to an errant child. In the firelight, Markham’s eyes glared, shooting daggers with razor-sharp edges at his captors as Rheva slept in blissful oblivion.

“Who are you?” Markham spat as he watched in vile contempt as Val picked up his discarded pistol and emptied the bullets, pocketing them in his jacket.

“Name’s Crawford, Sheriff  Crawford to you. This here’s my deputy,” motioning to the man sitting casually on a large boulder to the side of their sparse camp. The deputy smiled coldly, the firelight glittering wickedly in his eyes, his pistol aimed at a spot in the middle of Markham’s forehead.

“Stand up an’ turn around,” Val said as he readied the cuffs to secure the man. Doing as he was told, Markham tried to proclaim innocence.

“What’s this all about? I’m sure you’ve made a mistake here…” Markham said with his best indignant expression on his face.

Val smirked and shook his head, glancing at Johnny across the camp. “Can ya believe this guy, Johnny?” The snick of the cuffs in the chilly morning air accentuated Val’s question.

Johnny slid off the rock and bent to retrieve the satchel stuffed under Markham’s saddle. He opened it and tipped it to the light so Val could see the money wrapped  in neat stacks sitting in the bag. Johnny snapped the bag shut and threw it on the ground. Walking over to Rheva Champion’s feet, Johnny nudged her ankle with his boot, hard enough to move her leg. A groan was issued from the blankets, and Johnny nudged her again. This time she pulled the blanket away from her face.

“Joe! I’m tired, let me slee…” then a shriek of fright escaped her as she scrambled for safety, but her arm was clasped in a grip of iron. Johnny ‘guided’ her back to the ground.

“Siddown,” he commanded softly, and she sat as if her legs were suddenly made of water.

Eyes wide and scared, bruises showing on her face in the light of the fire, Mrs. Rheva Champion scrambled to discern what had happened. Then she spotted the cuffs on Joe’s wrists.

Val looked at her, then to Johnny. “So much for peaches an’ cream…” then he turned to Markham, and Val made the official announcement.

“Joe Markham, you’re under arrest, Miz Champion, you’re comin’ in with us. We got questions, a lotta questions for ya.”

Rheva Champion looked shocked as if she had nothing what so ever to do with all of this. After all, she had money, and people with money should not be treated this way! Her large blue eyes turned lethal, intending on piercing the hearts of the two men that now had intruded into their camp. She shot to her feet, standing rigid in an attempt for control.

“What’s the meaning of this? I demand to know!” Rheva shouted, suddenly wide awake and full of venom. “I’ve done nothing wrong! You can’t do this! Let me go! You’ve got the wrong person!”

Johnny laughed at her statement and caught Val’s smile. “Sure is funny, Val, ta hear her say that we got the wrong ones! But she can claim anything, don’t matter what it is, even if an innocent man will pay for her, ah, what’s the word?  Oh, yeah… indiscretions.”

Turning instantly toward Johnny, she opened her mouth, but the words failed to come as she saw the icy shards that stared back at her.

Val stepped toward her and motioned to her bedroll. “Why don’t you just siddown and shut up.”

Rheva Champion had never before been spoken to as Val had just done, ever. Her sharp intake of breath made both Johnny and Val chuckle. Realizing any control that she thought she had was now beyond her reach, she lowered herself to the crumpled bedroll now covered with sand.

Helping himself to the provisions that Markham brought, Val made a pot of coffee and started breakfast. With Markham and Mrs. Champion now secured, they could relax and have a brief repast without interruption.

“Sure do have lots a supplies here, like ya had some big plans travelin’ somewheres. Where were ya goin’?” Val asked but received no answers. He turned suspicious eyes to Johnny. “What’d ya think, amigo? They’re actin’ like they don’t want us ta know anythin’! Well, that’s alright. Marshal Talbot’ll get the answers when we get ‘em back ta San Jose…”

“You can’t take me back there! I won’t let you!” Rheva Champion was aghast. She sat forward, her face draining of color.

Johnny spoke for the first time since they had been secured. “An’ why can’t we take ya back?” he asked in his soft, quiet voice, his deep blue eyes reflecting the dancing flames in the fire, and quite interested in her response.

“Because I…” then she sat back, not finishing what she had in mind to say.

“Because you… what? Because ya took money that was for your husband's business deal an’ ran off with another man or because ya claimed a man, an innocent man, attacked you? That bruise ya got on your cheek, that’s new. That didn’t happen with the others, ones that are startin’ ta fade.”

Rheva looked confused. Then she tried a different approach. She smiled sweetly at Johnny, lowered her eyes then looked at him through her lashes.

“I don’t understand what it is you are implying, Mr…”

“Lancer, name’s Johnny Lancer.” He smiled back at her as she paled for the second time in as many minutes.

She swore that her heart was going to beat right out of her chest, and at this very minute, she never wanted to be back at the Champion plantation as badly as she did right now.

Now Johnny was downright grinning at her.

Lancer! That was the name that I gave to Truman to keep him from confronting Joe! She quickly tried to pull herself together again, but it was too late. Johnny had seen it in her eyes. She knew the name, and she knew she was caught.

Johnny laughed, this time out loud. “Oooowwweeee, Val, I think I just touched a nerve with Mrs. Champion!” Johnny shook his head as in disbelief and looked away in revulsion.

Rheva knew she’d been found out, but she would get herself out of this, one way or another.

With the meager meal now taken, it was time to pack up and start back. Mrs. Champion had not said a word since the exchange with Johnny. With the gear stowed away, Johnny and Val collected their horses, and the four weary people turned around and headed for San Jose. Johnny was anxious to get Scott out of jail and be rid of these two repulsive, low-life criminals.

Stopping to rest and water the horses, Markham began to talk. He would hopefully be able to catch these two lawmen off guard, maybe even get his hands on a gun. The sheriff didn’t look like much of a threat, however, the younger one had his pistol tied low and just looked like trouble, but Markham had confidence in his ability with a gun; if he could overtake that one, he was sure that the sheriff would be no problem. So he watched and waited. Maybe he could talk Rheva into using her womanly ways on one of these men while he distracted the other…

As Markham rambled on, both Johnny and Val had the same thoughts: they would have to gag the man before it was all over.

“Hey, Markham…” Val bellowed. “Shut up!”  

Their predictions rang true, and Markham had been gagged during the early afternoon. Since then, it had been peaceful traveling.

Mrs. Champion chose to remain quiet, but she was running options through her head. I bet the younger one is a ladies’ man. I wonder…  

The afternoon passed, each with their own thoughts, and as the sun began its descent behind the mountains, the temperatures dropped. Mrs. Champion shivered dramatically, but no one noticed, then she pouted as if she were a small child that had been ignored.

Val stopped their travel and chose a sheltered place to camp for the night. Johnny dragged Markham off his horse and shoved him over by a scrub pine, unlocked one cuff, and brought the other end around the tree trunk to re-lock on his wrist again.

Mrs. Champion was not tied. Val doubted if she would run being that she was afraid of everything, and if she did get the courage to run, it would not require much to track her down. As a matter of fact, they just might leave her alone to fend for herself for a day or two. Nah, can’t do that1 She might up an’ die of fright… Val thought with a smile.

Their supper finished, Val had Markham off in the bushes taking care of personal business. Rheva watched Johnny. He had stooped to refill his coffee and took a sip. She saw the grace with which he moved, no wasted effort, all muscle, and sinewy strength. The sensual aura about him was palpable, and she had to try.

“Mr. Lancer?... Johnny?” she said in a soft and hopefully seductive voice.
He’d been staring into the blaze, and when he looked up at her, the flames danced in his eyes, setting them on fire, and her heart skipped a beat. He said nothing, just watched her.

“Please, can I talk to you?” She waited several seconds before he responded.

“Talk.” But he stayed where he was.

She shrugged and looked down at her lap, then met his eyes again.

“Can you please come here, by me? I have no desire to yell across the camp.”

She smiled, and instantly he knew her game. Games he did not like but could play with the best, so he put on his ‘game face’ knowing he would beat her even if she did think they were her rules. He walked to her side and sat next to her.

She smiled sweetly again, demurely as if she were an innocent maid. She even let a small giggle escape her lips and turned on the charm.

“Johnny, I don’t see any reason why we can’t be friends. This is such a hard life, and I need to take comfort in what I can find.” Reaching over, Rheva placed a hand high on Johnny’s leg, and he smiled, bowing his head in an ‘aw shucks’ gesture. She smiled wider, her plan going well. She scooted closer to him.

“Johnny, this could be so good!” She looked up into his face, so close she could smell the natural musk of him. He looked deep into her eyes, so close… She noticed his lashes, incredibly long and thick, framing the deepest, darkest blue eyes she’d ever seen, and she wanted to throw herself into those azure pools and drown.

“Dang, Mrs. Champion, I dunno, a woman like you fixin’ her sights on someone like… well, I…” He had to fight to not laugh.

“Oh, Johnny! Don’t think about it! We can go away! Take the money…”

“Yeah, I gotta tell ya, Mrs. Champion…”

“Rheva,” she insisted.

“I gotta tell ya, Mrs. Champion, boy, this sure is somethin’, you an’ me here alone. But ya know, I’m kinda picky about my women an’… well, you ain’t it. Ya can get your hand off my leg now.” He smiled broadly into her outraged face.

And then she exploded…

“How dare you insult me! Why you… you… I’ll have my husband sue you for slander! You’ll pay…!” and with that, she drew back her hand to slap him but not before he caught that hand, gripping with much pressure and forced both her arms sharply behind her back, bending her against his body and she felt herself pressing into him. Johnny was repulsed.

“Oh! You’re hurting me! Stop!”

Johnny laughed in her face. “Sue me, huh? You’re the one runnin’ off with another man. If your husband has any sense, he’d leave ya.” And before she knew what had happened, Johnny tied her hands with his bandana and left her to sit and contemplate her future, her face red with embarrassment and tears trailing down bright-colored cheeks. Before too long, Val and Markham came from the bushes. Val situated Markham, cuffed again to the tree, and took a place by Johnny.

“Well, did you two have a nice chat?” he asked Johnny, who burst into laughter.

“Yeah, we, uh, we had a nice talk, didn’t we… Mrs. Champion?” He smiled for the rest of the evening.

“I’m gonna check the horses, Val.” Johnny left the camp, and Rheva’s eyes followed, shooting daggers into his back; the loathing flooded her features.

Val laughed at her look. “Shoulda told ya b’fore, he’s spoken for. Yup, got a real nice woman, a real lady!” Val chuckled.

Rheva sat utterly appalled at her treatment. She wiggled and squirmed, trying to get comfortable, making as much commotion as she could, then suddenly froze. An ear-shattering scream left her breathless, her heart squeezed as if held by a giant hand as a Diamondback rattlesnake crawled out from around the rock that she leaned on. It coiled and raised up in a strike pose, its black tongue testing the breeze, flicking at Rheva, and tail rattling loud in the cold air.

A blast shattered the night as the snake exploded apart, showering her with chunks of meat and entrails. A large section of bloody carcass landed in her lap, oozing as blood seeped out of the torn body, and she screamed again, then stopped as Johnny came from her right and slightly behind her, holstering his pistol. He stopped and picked up the limp body from her legs and turned to Val with the snake still in hand. A broad smile grew as he dangled the snake purposely close in front of her face, her eyes mesmerized by the swinging, tattered carcass.

“Hey, breakfast!” he said to Val.

Whew! He cut that one a little close!  Val thought eyeing the serpent; the snake looked pretty deadly, too.

Through the whole thing, Markham had not said a word.

<><><><> 

“If ya can b’have taday an’ shut up, I won’t gag ya,” Val said as they were  ready to break camp. Markham had no desire to spend the time traveling as he did yesterday with a dirty bandana in his mouth all the way back to town. He agreed to shut his mouth.

They mounted up and moved out, tying their prisoners with hands in front. Mrs. Champion had been quiet since they’d rolled out of their bedrolls. On the other hand, Johnny Madrid seemed in good spirits on this sunny, pleasantly warm day. If they could make up some time, they should arrive in San Jose late tonight, but neither Johnny nor Val thought that would happen. Hope for the best but expect the worst, that way the disappointment won’t come as a shock.

True to his word, Markham held his tongue, but Rheva caught him several times, gesturing with his eyes. What is he trying to tell me? But she didn’t dare ask him for fear of being heard. She watched him and told herself to be ready should the chance present itself.

Johnny and Val rode ahead of them, as they led the horses ridden by Rheva and Joe.  Val had been smiling since they broke camp, and Johnny had to ask. There was no telling with Val.

“What’s so funny, Val? Ya been sittin’ there with a shit eatin’ grin for hours.”

“Oh, just thinkin’ ‘bout Miz. Champion an’ that Diamondback last night. Poor snake never had a chance! It woulda died the second it bit her!” Val explained through his laughter as he was joined by his amigo.

Mrs. Champion, on the other hand, saw no humor in it at all.

They stopped to rest and water the horses with Rheva complaining about how the horses rated more care than she did. Val stood with an open mouth, not believing what he was hearing. Johnny listened to the exchange. Uh oh, here it comes… He knew Val well, and here was a chance for him to put Miz Champion in her place.

“Why, Miz Champion! Are ya suggestin’ that we’re takin’ better care a the horses, better’n we’re treatin’ you?”  His face registered feigned shock, eyes wide and questioning.

“Yes! That’s exactly what I’m saying!” she spat at him.

He grinned widely. “Well, then, you’d be right!” And turning his back, he dismissed her as easily as one would a pesky fly.

Burying her face in her hands, she cried but gained no sympathy. I want to go home to Louisiana! She wished, she prayed, but for once in her life, she was alone dealing with the consequences of her actions with no one to help her out of the situation that she created. And now she was afraid.

Eager to return to San Jose as soon as they could, Val and Johnny pushed on. Markham kept making eye contact with Rheva, and she was giving thoughts to helping him, anything to get away from the ugliness that was becoming painfully clear regarding her future. Truman will forgive me, I know it! But there was doubt there, too. What if he didn’t?

“Rheva!... Rheva?” Markham finally chanced a whisper. She turned toward him. “Be ready!... Sheriff!, stop, I need ta… stop.” Markham slumped in the saddle. Val and Johnny pulled on their reins, the horses coming to a halt.

“What’s the problem, Markham?” Val asked turning his horse around going back to his prisoner.

“Don’t know. Head… hurts, the sun maybe… Gonna be sick…”  Markham tried getting off his horse, imitating a gag reaction.

Val dismounted, coming to Markham’s side as he bent at the waist, looking like a man about to vomit. Val stood rolling his eyes, Great! Just fuckin’ great!

Johnny caught the look a split second too late. Markham grabbed Val’s pistol pulling the trigger as Val went down into the sand, a bullet tearing its way through the fleshy part of his thigh and out the other side.

Rheva’s horse danced sideways, scared from the report of the blast as it echoed from mountain to mountain. Johnny’s pistol was in his hand, but not having a clear shot over the bobbing heads of the scared horses. He desperately searched for a better angle to draw down on Markham.
Rheva saw her chance and kicked her horse ahead into the side of Johnny’s mount, trying to knock Johnny to the ground, but he was ready for her, looping an arm around her, he lifted her out of her saddle, and dropped her onto the hard-packed earth.

Markham, on foot, did his best to stay out from under the hooves of the stamping horses, Val wasn’t so lucky as one of them stomped on his foot. He howled in pain just as Johnny’s shot slammed into Markham’s hand, mangling his fingers and sending the gun flying out of the now crippled limb. Johnny jumped to the ground, knocking Joe Markham down with a command to stay put, then turned with a glacial stare at Rheva.

“You too,” he barked at her. Gun still trained on Joe, he took a minute to check Val over. The bullet passed through the flesh of his leg, not causing too much damage, but Johnny knew that the bleeding had to be stopped. He yanked Val’s bandana from around his neck to staunch the flow.

“What got stepped on, Val?” Johnny asked quietly, trying to determine the next move.

Val breathed heavily, panting at times. “Damn foot got tromped. Don’t take the boot off, might not be able ta get it back on. Let’s just get goin’.”

Johnny helped Val to his feet, then retrieved his horse and shoved him into the saddle. Scooping Val’s pistol out of the sand and blowing it off, he handed it back to him, who, with a malicious grin, aimed it straight at Markham’s head. Johnny tied Joe’s hands with a final yank on the knot, causing him to grunt, his knees close to buckling. After a second thought, Johnny loosened the ropes on one hand and drew them both behind him and re-tied them.

“Get on your horse, Markham,” Johnny said in a deadly quiet tone. With a not so gentle shove to his backside, Markham plunked in his saddle, Johnny mounted his horse leaving Mrs. Champion to seat herself unassisted!

As the sun started to set, cold reality began to cast its ugly conclusions. Rheva Champion would have to pay for what she’d done. She began to memorize the speech she would use to sway Truman. She’d always done it in the past, and it would work again, she was sure. He was easily manipulated, and she knew how to do it. She would claim that Markham forced her to go with him, that he had threatened he would go to Mr. Champion with accusations that were not true. Surely he will believe me!

Johnny watched them all. True, Markham wasn’t much of a threat anymore, wounded and badly bleeding with two fingers almost torn off his hand and Mrs. Champion, he could tell, would be trying to think of things to convince her husband to take her back.

But he was most worried about Val. The lawman sat slumped in the saddle, right foot dangling after getting stomped on by the horse and left leg bleeding from a bullet hole. Johnny didn’t think the foot had been broken, but it was badly bruised at best. He hated to put Val through this, but with no other option available, Johnny pushed on. They would be in town after midnight even though Mrs. Champion contested the idea, which fell on deaf ears. Johnny simply stared coldly at the woman until she stopped her talking and looked down at her tied hands.

At seventeen minutes after twelve, a weary and travel-worn group rode down the main street of San Jose. Only the drunks were up, not alert but watching as if seeing something unbelievable and borderline unearthly.

The marshal’s office was dark, but Johnny didn’t care. All he wanted was to be rid of the prisoners, get his brother out of jail, and get Val to a doctor.
Securing all the horses at the hitch rail, Johnny stepped up onto the boardwalk and pounded on the locked door. After several minutes a light flickered on inside and a grumble of “Alright, alright!” could be heard from inside the building. It swung open as Johnny stepped down to the horses and dragged Markham and Mrs. Champion off their mounts, shoving them both through the door and into the office. Without a word, Johnny grabbed the keys off the marshal’s desk and stormed back into the cell area, waking Scott.

“C’mon, Brother. Time ta get the hell outta here.” Johnny left the cell door open as Scott vacated, went out into the office, and took hold of Markham’s collar, tugging him without concern for his injured hand and pushed him into the cell. Slamming the door and locking it, he threw the keys back on the marshal’s desk. Not stopping to talk, he turned to Talbot as he walked out the door.

“Don’t much care what’cha do with her, but ya need ta notify her husband. Sheriff Crawford’s got the bag of money they stole. I’ll get it for ya.” And with that Johnny stepped out to Val’s horse retrieved the satchel, and that, too, was tossed on the marshal’s desk.

“Scott, help me with Val, would ya? He took a bullet. Where’s the doctor at?” Johnny asked the marshal.

“Across the street, go right to the corner and turn left. He’s three doors down.” Talbot turned to Mrs. Champion, and as Johnny closed the door, he heard Talbot say: “Mrs. Champion, I think you’d better siddown…”

<><><><> 

Two days later, Johnny, Scott, Murdoch, and Val sat in the dining room of The San Jose House as breakfast was served. Their conversation was warm and friendly and, as usual, full of laughs when the two boys were together. Add Val, and there was another element of nonsense at which Murdoch could only shake his head. Ahhh, youth… was all Murdoch could say. Johnny stopped eating when Mr. Champion walked up to their table, looking embarrassed as he stood to wait.

“Excuse me, gentlemen, I don’t want to interrupt your meal, but the marshal told me you’ll be leaving this morning and I wanted to catch you before you’d gone.” Champion stammered and stuttered, looking for the right words. Bringing his eyes directly to Scott, he began to talk.

“Mr. Lancer, I am so very sorry for what happened. My wife… she… well, she greatly wronged you, and you have my most sincere apologies. What she tried to do to you is unforgivable, and I hope you can find it in your heart…”

Scott stood and held out his hand. “Mr. Champion, you’ve done nothing wrong, you don’t need to apologize. It’s forgotten.”

Champion did not expect this reaction. His head was spinning, he was confused and had thought the worst. The ‘worst’ had been happening for a long time now. But that was about to change for him.

“Thank you for your understanding.” With that, Truman Champion turned and left the dining room.

Murdoch looked around, seeing everyone had finished their meal and laid the appropriate money plus a sizable tip on the table.

“Well, if you are all finished, I say we head for home.” The chairs scraped against the floor as the four men stood and walked out to their horses, ready and waiting at the hitch rail.

“Val, have you heard what’s being done about Mrs. Champion?” Scott asked out of curiosity.

“Well, for one thing, she’s gonna hafta stand trial for takin’ part in stealin’ the twenty thousand dollars an’ from what I heard, she’ll be on her own. Mr. Champion gave her five hundred dollars an’ is leavin’ her, said he’s done with her philanderin’, he ain’t puttin’ up with her no more so guess it ain’t the first time she’s, um, wandered. Well, she’s come ta learn somethin’, though,” Val said as he struggled into his saddle.

Scott looked over at Val. “What’s that, Val?”

“She learned what happens when ya stand in the rain,” Val said with a laugh.

Scott looked at Johnny then Murdoch and back at Val, not understanding. “What happens when you stand in the rain?”

Val looked astonished that Scott, the most educated of them all, didn’t get it. With a huff, Val explained. “Ya get wet!”

Murdoch burst into uncontrolled laughter at Scott’s shocked face. “Let’s go home, boys!” He gasped between breaths. Turning their horses, they headed out of town.

 

 

 

~ end ~

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