The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Caroline

 

 

FAn Eventful Journey

 Chapter 1

Johnny shivered as he pulled his jacket tighter around his body.  “This damn wind’s cutting through to the bone.”

“The train will be here soon.”

“We could’ve stayed in the saloon and had another couple of beers.”

“Stop complaining.”

The silent and gloomy platform couldn’t have been further removed from the warm, bright saloon with the noise of the out of tune piano and lively conversation.  Yet, here he was, stuck waiting with his brother for a train he didn’t want to board.

The planks under his feet creaked as he shifted his weight.  “What d’you think the old man would say if I took off?”

A raised eyebrow and half-smile was the only reply he received.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Surprisingly, given the late hour, they weren’t alone. A young couple was standing a few yards away.  The girl was pretty, in a washed out kind of way, with strands of blonde hair which had escaped from her bonnet resting on her pale cheeks.  Although he preferred women with more fire in their eyes, she was worth an admiring glance. She was standing so close to her young man that they were touching at shoulder and hip. Looking down, he saw how their hands were entwined and a grin briefly chased away his irritation. 

The only other person on the platform was an older woman, dressed in black.  She sat on a bench looking sad and lonely, with three bags piled around her feet. As he studied her, she looked up and caught his eye.  His brief nod of greeting was silently acknowledged, before she returned to her contemplation of the darkness.

Another gust of wind swept along the platform, sending the lamps outside the depot swinging.  The flames leapt and spluttered, threatening to go out and deprive them of the little light there was.

Restless and discontented, Johnny elbowed his brother in the ribs.  “Tell me again why we’re getting on this train in the middle of the night.”

Scott looked to be on the verge of losing his patience.  Johnny had quickly discovered his brother liked a certain amount of order in his life, and didn’t take kindly to having his carefully-laid plans disrupted.

“Because we have a meeting tomorrow morning at ten and you ‘forgot’ to come home last night. Taking this train was the only way to get there in time.”

“I didn’t forget,” Johnny said, feeling defensive because he knew damn well that he was in the wrong.  “Just lost track of time, is all.”

“That wasn’t what you told Murdoch. Out of interest, Brother, which of your girlfriends in Morro Coyo had the pleasure of your company for the night?”

Johnny pulled his hat lower to shadow his eyes.  Scott could be a little too smart sometimes.  “Emily,” he admitted.  “You gotta admit she’s worth riskin’ the rough edge of our old man’s temper.”

“She certainly is.”

Johnny peered out from under the brim when he heard Scott’s smug tone.  His brother’s profile gave nothing away.  With a heavy sigh he turned his attention to tormenting the beads wrapped around his wrist.

“Anyone would think that you were trying to wriggle out of this trip,” Scott continued.

Which, of course, was the truth and Johnny had no doubt that everyone knew it.  He hadn’t exactly kept his views to himself. “You coulda gone without me.  I mean, you don’t need me along for something like this.”

“Murdoch wants you to sit in on the meeting and get used to negotiating contracts.”

Johnny grinned.  “I know how to negotiate contracts.”

“You know how to do a deal to sell your gun.  This is different.”

If anyone else had said that to him, Johnny would probably have punched them.  Instead, he took the offensive, mostly to see how much he could irritate his brother.  “Don’t see how.  We’ve got something they want and we just need to haggle until we agree on a price.”

“You know perfectly well it’s not that simple.”

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny conceded.  He was tired and Scott was proving a little too hard to bait this evening.  “I just hate sitting in offices listening to pompous businessmen, droning on about every little word.  Hell, I’d rather be chasing cows.”

“The exact wording of a contract is important…”

“You know, Scott, sometimes you scare me.  You’re starting to sound like our old man.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Well, Brother, you can take it any way you like.”

A slight humming rose from the rails, followed by a shrill whistle.  Johnny peered down the tracks, seeing the steam rising from the engine.  He closed his eyes and turned away as the train rounded a bend, its bright light almost blinding him.  When he could see again, he noticed two scruffy cowboys stepping up onto the platform carrying saddlebags.  Out of habit, he looked at their guns before studying their faces.  They were a mismatched pair, but there was nothing about them that marked them as trouble.

The station master had come out of his office, settling his cap on his grey hair.  He was carrying a lantern which he swung from side to side as he walked to the end of the platform. Johnny’s last hope of escaping the boredom of the next few days disappeared when the train pulled into the station.  Noticing that the older lady was struggling with her bags, he shoved his own bag into Scott’s hand and walked over to her.

“Can I help, ma’am?”

“Thank you.”  A smile lit her face, chasing away the haunted look and making her appear younger and less worn down.

Johnny gathered up the bags and followed her to the last of the three passenger carriages, where Scott was waiting at the bottom of the steps to help her inside.

“Last chance, Brother,” Scott said.  “You could always make a run for it.”

“Very funny.”  Johnny climbed up after the woman, stowing her luggage on the overhead rack while she made herself as comfortable as possible on the hard bench seat.

“I am obliged to you, young man.”

Johnny touched the brim of his hat before turning to join his brother. The young couple had taken seats at the far end of the carriage, sitting side by side and gazing into each other’s eyes.  The two cowboys had entered from the opposite end and were sitting in the row of seats in front of Scott.  Johnny’s bad mood evaporated as he got his first look at the two young women who were already settled in the carriage.  One, fair-haired and blue-eyed, returned his appraising stare with a frankness that surprised him although the other, dark-haired with green eyes, was giving him an icy glare.  He sauntered along the aisle to join Scott, giving the women a cheeky grin on his way past.

He slid into his seat and leaned forward. “Those are two mighty fine looking young ladies,” he said softly.  “Maybe I can talk them into having a late supper with us when we get to Sacramento.”

“You’re more likely to frighten them off.  It takes a certain level of sophistication and finesse to handle a situation like this.”

Johnny leaned back.  “Last time you exercised all that sophistication and finesse you ended up in jail.”

“That was hardly my fault,” Scott protested. 

“Yeah, I know.  She suckered you real good.” Johnny smirked at Scott’s offended expression before turning to look out of the window.  The mail clerk, who would be riding in the baggage car at the back of the train, walked past.  Johnny moved closer to the window, eyes narrowed as he watched the man talking to the station master. “Be right back.”  He got up and walked out onto the narrow deck at the back of the carriage. 

The clerk strode quickly back as the whistle sounded again.  As he walked past Johnny their eyes met.  When the train inched forward, the man pulled open the sliding door in the side of the car and swung himself inside, and then he slammed the door shut, leaving Johnny alone.  Leaning back against the railing, Johnny considered what he’d just seen.  He had a good idea who the man was – or at least what he was.  What he didn’t know, was why a Pinkerton agent would be pretending to be a mail clerk.

He was lost in thought as he went back into the carriage, wondering if he should say something to Scott.  He stopped just inside the doorway and took a long look at his fellow passengers. The young couple was huddled together talking softly and oblivious to what was going on around them.  The older lady had pulled out some knitting and was sitting with it in her lap, staring out of the window. 

The lamp light was casting ever-changing shadows, the lanterns swinging gently to the sway of the train as it slowly gained speed.  Scott was bent down, rummaging in his case as Johnny waited by the door.  He felt for a moment as if he were invisible.  No one paid him any attention, each person living in his or her own little world.  He liked being a spectator and his willingness to watch and listen had helped to keep him alive during his years as a gunfighter.  Even though he was now a respectable rancher it was hard to shake the habit. 

He turned his attention to the two cowboys, just in time to see one exchanging a look with the dark-haired woman.  Her blonde companion turned to look over her shoulder at him.  Her smile was flirtatious and inviting, and he couldn’t help smiling back.  She sure was a fine looking woman, with curves in all the right places.  Embarrassed at being caught staring, he suddenly found himself the focus of too many pairs of eyes as both cowboys looked his way.

The train lurched forward, forcing him to grab hold of the nearest seat back to steady himself.  As it settled into its rhythm he walked back to join his brother. 

Scott straightened up as he approached, holding a pack of cards. “Want to try to win back some of the money you lost last Saturday night?  ”

“Sure.  Look, Scott there’s something…”

“Mind if we join you?”

Johnny looked up slowly.  The two men were now standing beside them.  Before either he or Scott could answer, the men had occupied the aisle seats, crowding them against the side of the carriage.  Johnny had an almost irrational feeling that they were being penned in, particularly as his gun was now wedged against the wall.

Scott’s expression was amiable as he pushed his hat to the back of his head and set his case on end to act as a makeshift table. He began to shuffle the cards.  “I’m Scott Lancer.  This is my brother, Johnny.”

Johnny looked at the man sitting next to him.  He reckoned the stranger was about twenty years old, with sandy colored hair and pale blue eyes.  He was fidgeting so much that it looked to Johnny like he was sitting on an ant hill.  The other man was almost twice that age, with light brown hair, a moustache, and penetrating brown eyes.  Johnny casually looked down as Scott began to deal the cards.  Neither of these men had hands that bore evidence of a hard day’s work.

“Name’s Art,” the older man said.  “My friend over there is called Rick.”

Johnny settled back in his seat, sorting his cards, although his mind wasn’t on the game.  He dug in his jacket pocket and pulled out a handful of coins.  After the first round of betting he lay two cards face down, accepting two new ones from his brother.  He studied the random assortment of cards, keeping his expression carefully neutral.  Whichever way he looked at it, he had a lousy hand, but he’d won often enough in the past thanks to his ability to bluff convincingly.

“Where’re you boys headed?” he asked casually.

“Sacramento.”

“I guessed that much seein’ as this train don’t stop ‘til we get there. You looking for work?”  He concentrated on his cards, still unsure why he was feeling so on edge. 

“Eventually.”

Scott raised the stakes and leaned back.  “Plenty of the ranchers around Green River and Spanish Wells are hiring.”

Johnny smiled to himself.  He could tell by the tone of Scott’s voice that his brother had noticed something as well.

“We ain’t interested in herding cows and stringing wire.”

Art sent a sharp look in Rick’s direction following that comment and the younger man quickly shut his mouth. 

“What are you interested in? Call.”  Johnny threw a couple of coins down to join the growing pile.  “You boys ain’t gunhawks and, even if you were, I ain’t heard of any range wars brewing round Sacramento.  Hell, the place is becoming too civilized for that.  Reckon it won’t be long before they ban everyone from wearing guns in town.”

“We can turn our hands to most things.”  Art laid down his cards.  “I fold.”

Rick called and his hand of three nines was good enough to beat the brothers.  He gathered up the money gleefully. 

“What about you boys?” Art asked.

“We have some business to take care of in Sacramento.” Scott collected the cards, shuffled and prepared to deal again.  “Another game, gentlemen?”

“Sure.  It’ll pass the time.”  Art stretched his legs out, blocking the brothers’ route to the central aisle. “You work for one of them ranchers you were talking about?”

“You could say that.”  Scott dealt five cards to each player.

Silence returned as each man studied his cards, although Johnny’s mind wasn’t on the game.  This time it was Scott who took the winnings.  “If your luck doesn’t turn soon, Johnny, you’ll find yourself owing me next month’s wages.”

“Just giving you a head start, is all.”

 Art leaned forward to look at Johnny.  “What makes you so sure we’re not gunhawks?”

“The way you’re wearing your guns.”

“Sounds like you know something about it.”

Johnny’s stare was a challenge.  “I used to.”

“I think I could use some air,” Scott interjected hurriedly.  “Johnny?”

Johnny heard a rustling of material as one of the women stood up.  The scent of a delicate perfume reached him, far more subtle than the one used by the girl whose favors he had enjoyed the previous night.  He ignored her as he edged his hand toward his gun, keeping his eyes locked on Art’s.  The older man licked his lips before showing his teeth in as insincere a grin as Johnny had seen in a long time. 

“I would prefer it if you gentlemen stayed right where you are.”

Johnny looked up. The soft southern drawl was appealing, although the expression in her green eyes remained unfriendly and the hard line of her ruby tinted lips wasn’t exactly welcoming.  He stared at her beautiful face for several heartbeats before his gaze swept lower. What really captured his attention then was the revolver pointed steadily at his chest.

 

Chapter 2

It was a Colt, single action, clean and well-oiled from the looks of the barrel Johnny was staring down.  He spread his hands wider, away from his gun.  No sense in making her as nervous as he was.  In this confined space there was no chance she would miss, and it wouldn’t do his reputation a hell of a lot of good if he was shot by a woman.  “You’d best be careful with that,” he warned.  “Wouldn’t want it to go off accidentally.”   

“Trust me, if I shoot you it won’t be an accident.”

Johnny saw no reason to doubt her. The revolver was heavy, at least four pounds, but she held it steady and had her finger hooked firmly around the trigger, ready to squeeze.   He tipped his head back to look into her eyes.  She held his stare, reminding him of a mountain cat intent upon its prey.  Her lack of expression sent a chill down his spine that he hadn’t felt for a long time.

Rick crowded closer, his gun drawn and his body pinning Johnny against the wall.  There was nothing to do except sit still, watch and wait. He hadn’t heard any noise from the other passengers which meant that they hadn’t noticed anything wrong yet.  That wouldn’t last much longer.

“What’s this about?” 

Scott’s voice was low and steady and, if he was surprised or worried, he was giving nothing away. 

Johnny glanced quickly at Art.  The older man was standing in the passageway, his gun held on Scott and his left hand resting on the back of the seat to steady himself. Scott was sitting very still and not making any threatening moves.  Johnny returned his attention to the woman.  It looked like she was in charge and the others would follow her lead.

“I asked you a question,” Scott persisted.

Johnny saw some of the coldness leave her face as she turned her head to look at Scott.  If she had been about to answer, the moment was lost when a piercing shriek sounded.  Johnny winced and craned his neck to get a better look at the young female passenger, who had fortunately lapsed into silence again.  She was cowering in the shelter of her companion’s arms.  The man, looking equally terrified, was trying to calm her down. 

Johnny couldn’t see the older woman who was sitting behind his seat.  He started to rise to his feet, concerned for her welfare, only to be brought up short by Rick’s gun digging painfully into his ribs.  He hated when people did that, especially when he was penned in so tight that he couldn’t move. 

“Your guns, please,” the dark haired woman said.

Johnny exchanged a quick look with his brother, who shook his head before turning his attention to the buckle of his gun belt.  Johnny hesitated to follow Scott’s example even though it was clear he had no real choice.  He delayed until Rick started to twitch and the gun pressed even harder against his side.

“Damn,” he muttered under his breath.  He kept his anger hidden as he complied, handing his gun belt to the blonde girl.  She looked completely at ease as her fingers brushed against his.  He watched, frustrated and helpless, as she packed both his and Scott’s weapons away in a large bag.

“You want to tell us what this is about, Miss…?” Scott asked.

“You can call me Cherry.”

“Under any other circumstances I’d be pleased to make your acquaintance.  My name is Scott Lancer.”

Johnny ducked his head to hide a smile.  Charm could be as deadly as a gun, and he’d watched his brother working his magic on a number of women during the few months they’d been at Lancer.  Not that Scott seemed to be in any hurry to commit to anyone in particular, much to the disappointment of some of the girls’ mamas.

He sobered quickly.  He’d never raised his hand to a woman.  This woman, though, had changed the rules by pulling a gun on him and if the chance came to disarm her he’d take it.  There were too many lives at stake for him to treat her as anything other than an armed and deadly opponent.  He studied her profile.  Her mouth was set in a hard line and there was no longer anything attractive or feminine about her.  In all his years skirting the edges of the law he’d occasionally come across female outlaws.  Most of them were content to do the planning and stayed in the background.  He suspected this woman could be ruthless and cruel and that it would be a fatal mistake to underestimate her.

Rick was chuckling to himself as he stood up and stretched.  “That was easy.”  He smirked at Johnny before sauntering down the carriage toward the young couple.

Johnny eased himself away from his cramped position up against the side of the train and watched him. 

“Hand over your gun, Mister,” Rick demanded.

Rick was blocking Johnny’s view of the passengers and, if there was a reply, he didn’t hear it.  He leaned forward to get a better look.

Rick bent his head.  “D’you think I’m stupid?  Hand it over.”

This time the response was loud enough to carry over the noise of the train, although the words came out hesitantly and with a noticeable tremor.  “I’ve already told you.  I don’t carry a gun.” 

“Don’t lie to me.”

Johnny could tell by the way Rick was standing that the outlaw had managed to work himself up into a temper.  He knew the type all too well – young, cocky and desperate to prove that they held the upper hand.  It was an explosive mixture, and he reckoned that Rick just might get himself killed before he got much older.  In fact, if he’d still had his gun he’d have been happy to oblige.

Scott had half turned in his seat to watch.  As Rick raised his gun, Scott launched himself to his feet, pushing Art to one side and then racing down the carriage.  The outlaw fell back with a startled oath, knocking against Cherry and sending her crashing to the floor. 

Johnny didn’t hesitate.  He leaped out of his seat, his fist swinging toward Art’s face.  The motion of the train threw him off balance and he stumbled.  He caught Art’s cheek with a glancing blow, too weak to do any damage.  Turning his attention to the gun, he closed both hands around the outlaw’s right wrist.  He squeezed as hard as he could, forcing Art’s arm down and trying to get him to loosen his grip on the weapon.  When that had no effect he brought his right knee up and drove it into Art’s groin. He was just starting to believe he had the upper hand when he felt a gun barrel against his spine.

“Back off, cowboy.”

He released his hold, breathing heavily.  Cherry had recovered far quicker than he’d expected and she wasn’t looking real impressed with him.  For a split second he thought she might shoot him, but the moment passed.

“You can’t blame me for tryin’,” he muttered as he sat down again, taking some pleasure from the fact that Art’s face was pale with a patchwork of red blotches. 

It didn’t look like Scott had done any better as he was facing the business end of Rick’s gun.  The look of eager anticipation on Rick’s face displayed a disturbing blood lust.  Johnny was beginning to think that the young outlaw wasn’t right in the head.

“Rick!” Cherry shouted.

Scott raised his hands to show that he was no longer a threat.  Johnny tensed as he waited to see how Rick would react.  Despite the guns pointed at him, he’d be damned before he sat back and watched his brother being shot down in cold blood.

“Just take it easy, friend,” Scott said.

“Mr. Lancer,” Cherry continued calmly.  “Come back over here and bring those two with you.”

It was easy to see Rick wasn’t happy.  “You just gonna let him get away with that?” 

Rick sounded so much like a whiny child that Johnny began to wonder what the real connection was between him and Cherry.  He wouldn’t have figured Rick for the type to let himself be bossed around by a woman.

“I think Mr. Lancer’s learned his lesson.  If he tries anything else you can shoot his brother.”  Her cold green stare swept over Scott before she turned an equally unfriendly look on Johnny.  “The same applies to you.  You might like to consider the consequences before making any more stupid moves.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Johnny laced his words with a heavy dose of sarcasm.

Rick backed away and Scott held out his hand to the young female passenger.

“What’s your name?”

“Susan,” she stammered. The blue of her eyes now stood out starkly against her pale skin.

“You and your young man need to come and sit with me and my brother.  Everything will be fine if we all keep calm.”

“Bobby?”  She was staring at her companion, almost rigid with terror.

A slight nod seemed to give her the confidence she needed to trust Scott.  Johnny stood slowly to let the young couple sit, taking the opportunity to look back at the older woman who was watching the scene bleakly.

“Ma’am,” he called over the noise of the train.  “Come and sit here.”  He looked enquiringly at Cherry as the woman stayed in her seat. 

“Go and fetch her, but no more tricks.”

He walked down the carriage, well aware that there would be at least one gun pointed at his back.  “It’ll be alright, ma’am.  You’ve just gotta trust me.” 

Although she was looking at him, she didn’t move.  He sat down opposite her, coldly furious that she had been caught up in this situation.  He gave her a reassuring smile, pitching his voice low and level.  “My name’s Johnny.”

Some life came back into her eyes.  “You’re Murdoch Lancer’s boy.  I thought you looked familiar.  I’m Martha Wells.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Wells.  Me and my brother there’ll make sure nothing happens to you.  Now, that young couple are scared out of their wits and I reckon they could use someone to reassure ‘em.”

A slight smile flitted across her face.  “Someone older you mean.”

Johnny decided he liked this lady.  “Someone kind,” he amended.

Mrs. Wells gathered up her knitting, putting it carefully back in a small bag which she took with her.  Johnny looked at her thoughtfully. They’d been deprived of their guns, but if it came to it, the sharp knitting needles would make deadly weapons.

Once all the passengers were gathered in one place under the watchful eyes of Art and Rick, Cherry laid her gun out of reach of the prisoners and began to undo the buttons at the side of her skirt.  Johnny watched in shocked amusement as the material slid to the ground to reveal long shapely legs clothed in tight black trousers.  With an impudent grin he turned his attention to the blonde who had also shed her skirt, giving a low appreciative whistle at the sight of her enticing curves.

“Can’t say as I enjoy bein’ held up but at least the scenery’s pretty.”

Dimples appeared in her cheeks as she smiled at him.

“Don’t you let him sweet talk you, Livvie,” Cherry warned.  “We have a job to do and it’s time we got on with it.”

Livvie twirled a lock of her blonde hair between her fingers, her gaze fixed on Johnny’s face.  Then, with a sigh, she looked away.  “I know.  He is kinda cute, though.”

“Hey,” Johnny protested.  “D’you mind not talkin’ about me as if I wasn’t here.”

“Sorry, handsome.”

Livvie certainly didn’t look sorry.  In fact, her gaze had strayed to the area below his belt.  Johnny shifted uncomfortably.  He didn’t know which was worse – Cherry threatening to shoot him, or Livvie eyeing him up like some prize stallion.

Art cleared his throat and scowled at Johnny.  “We’re running out of time, so if you ladies could get your minds back on the job.”

“Time for what?”  Scott asked.

Cherry ignored the questions as she studied each of the passengers in turn.  “Take her.”  She pointed at Susan who gave a little shriek and shrank even closer to Bobby.

“Wait a minute…” Scott began to protest as Art reached over to take hold of her.  He shut his mouth when Cherry picked up her gun and pointed it at Johnny.

Bobby clung tightly to her until Art yanked her out of his arms.  “You’re coming with me.”

“You don’t need her,” Johnny said, even though he knew that it was hopeless.  He had a pretty good idea what was going to happen and it only made sense for them to choose the hostage who was least likely to fight back.  Meantime he and Scott were helpless to intervene without risking one of them getting shot.

Susan had gone limp in Art’s hands and was shaking uncontrollably.  With Rick’s gun almost in his face, there was nothing Bobby could do to help her.  Art backed up, dragging the unresisting girl with him.

“Everyone just sit tight,” Cherry ordered.  “There’s no reason for this to get ugly.”

“Wouldn’t it have been easier to stop the train?” Scott had settled back into his seat.  “You’ll break your necks if you try to get off while it’s still moving.”

“Don’t you worry none about us,” Rick replied.  “It ain’t as if this is the first job we’ve pulled.”

“It’s your first in these parts, though.”  Johnny was sure he’d have heard if anyone had tried this before on any of the lines around the San Joaquin.  “I’m guessin’ things got a mite too hot for you further east.”

“Now don’t you be getting too nosey, Sugar.”  Livvie’s hand brushed against his sleeve.  “Be a good boy and keep your mouth shut.”

Silence returned as they waited for Art to return.  Johnny knew that the outlaw would be using Susan to persuade the mail clerk to open up the baggage car.  Would the undercover agent sacrifice an innocent woman and the rest of the passengers to try and prevent the robbery?  He doubted it, but it depended upon what was being carried in the safe.  Things just weren’t adding up.  It was like the railroad company had expected this robbery, but what could one man do to prevent it?  He had to be missing something.

One of his questions was answered soon after when Susan stumbled back into the carriage.  Physically she looked unhurt although her eyes were red and puffy.  She was followed more slowly by the mail clerk, who was bleeding from a cut on the side of his head.  He seemed confused as he looked at Johnny.  He’d probably made his own assessment back at the station, and was surprised to find that the young gunfighter wasn’t part of the gang.

“He says that he doesn’t know the combination for the safe,” Art growled.

“Is that right?”  Cherry didn’t look convinced.  “Perhaps you didn’t try hard enough to persuade him.”

“You think I’d lie when he had a gun to that girl’s head?” the man replied sullenly.  “It’s company policy now.  The only man who can open the safe is the railroad agent who meets the train in Sacramento.”

Johnny didn’t know if the man was telling the truth or not, but he sure sounded convincing.

“What do we do now?” Livvie asked.

“That’s easy.”  Rick pointed his gun in the direction of Susan and Bobby.  “We shoot one of them and see if he still says the same thing.”

“You’re a real stupid bastard,” Johnny said, hoping to draw Rick’s attention away from the young couple.  “He can’t tell you something he doesn’t know.”

“Only one way to find out.”  Rick pulled the trigger.

Johnny leapt to his feet as the force of the bullet threw Bobby away from the girl.  Her scream went on and on as Bobby slid from the seat, leaving a smear of blood on the wooden paneling.

Rick swung round to face Johnny.  “You’re next, cowboy.”

 

Chapter 3

For the second time that night, Johnny found himself looking down the barrel of a pistol.  His heart thudded once before a familiar icy calmness settled over him.  This weapon had already been used to deal out senseless violence, but he gave only a passing thought to the young man lying dead or dying a few feet away.  All his attention was fixed on Rick.

“I bet you feel real proud of yourself,” Johnny said, with mingled contempt and anger.  “That’s a hell of a reputation you’re making for yourself.”

Rick’s pale blue eyes narrowed.  “You ready to die, cowboy?”

Johnny gave a slow smile.  “If you’re expectin’ me to beg, you’ll be waitin’ a long time.” 

He was aware of movement beside him and then Scott’s voice calm and unhurried. “You’re losing control.”

Johnny suspected that Scott’s words were aimed at Cherry.  Meantime, the naked aggression on Rick’s face was slowly being replaced by uncertainty.

“He’s right.”  For the first time Cherry sounded strained.  “Put the gun down, Rick.”

Rebellion, indecision and finally a sulky expression made Rick look younger and a lot less intimidating.  Not that Johnny had been impressed by the attempt to scare him.  He’d faced down many harder and tougher men. The gun wavered and then Rick released the hammer and jammed the weapon back into his holster.

Johnny took a deep breath before turning to look down at the floor.  Bobby lay wedged between the seat and the wall.  His dark jacket had been pulled open and the front of his white shirt was heavily stained with blood.  The bullet had caught him squarely in the chest, without being merciful enough to kill him immediately.  The young man was barely conscious.  If he was lucky the shock and blood loss would quickly combine to blot out the pain and the knowledge that he was dying.  The look of unspoken terror, however, showed that Bobby hadn’t yet reached that point.

Susan, on her knees beside him, had her hands pressed uselessly against the wound.  Her screams had faded to wordless sobs and the cuffs of her pink coat were now stained with blood.

To Johnny’s surprise, it was Mrs. Wells who took charge. 

“Don’t just stand there,” she snapped to no one in particular.  “Find something I can use to stop the bleeding.”  She sank to the ground, gently moving Susan out of the way.  “You stay awake, young man.  Do you understand me?”

Johnny didn’t miss the catch in her voice.  Scott’s case was still between the seats on the opposite side of the passageway surrounded by the discarded playing cards.  Under Art’s alert and watchful gaze, Scott picked it up and pulled out two clean shirts.  Johnny took them from his brother and quickly passed them to Mrs. Wells.

“Thank you.” There was a brief flash of anger on her lined face and something else Johnny couldn’t identify.  “Would you mind putting my bag over there?”  Mrs. Wells indicated the seats opposite, where Scott had once again settled under threat from Art’s gun.  The mail clerk was sitting beside him, shoulders slumped and hands gripped tightly together as he stared silently at the results of Rick’s actions.

Johnny nodded in understanding and gave Mrs. Wells a reassuring smile.  Any hope of ending this peacefully had disappeared the minute Rick pulled the trigger.  He slid into the seat opposite Scott, placing the bag between him and the window.  Mrs. Wells looked capable of dealing with the injured man and the upset girl, and he could better use his time to study their captors and try to find any weakness that they could use. 

Rick had backed up to the far end of the carriage and would have a clear view of everyone.  It didn’t look like it would take much for him to pull the trigger again.  Cherry was showing a rigid self-control, only betrayed by the tightness around her mouth.  Johnny’s gaze lingered on her, wondering what hard lessons had wiped away all traces of warmth and compassion.  She barely glanced at the dying man before beckoning to Art to join her out of earshot of their prisoners. 

Johnny turned his head to find Livvie watching Mrs. Wells and Bobby.  She didn’t look as unmoved as the others.  Would she be a potential ally?  The lack of information about the gang frustrated Johnny.  What held them together?  What would it take to drive them apart?

The brief discussion between Cherry and Art had ended. “Rick, fetch the bag and come with me.”  Cherry didn’t wait to see if her order was obeyed.  Instead her cold gaze raked the three men.  “If you want to avoid more bloodshed, you’ll all stay where you are and not cause any more trouble.”

Her warning was greeted with silence.  Rick stalked back down the carriage to where Cherry and Livvie had been sitting.  He leaned over to pick up a small bag from the floor.  The careful way he cradled it in his arms got Johnny to thinking about what it contained.  Rick and Cherry then disappeared through the door in the rear of the carriage.  That left them with only two guards and better odds than they had faced so far.  He had the feeling that the weak link here was the young blonde who, so far, hadn’t shown the same toughness as the other three.

Livvie had retreated and now stood with her back pressed against the end wall of the carriage.  Johnny could see that she was holding a gun but that she didn’t have the same easy familiarity with the weapon as Cherry had shown.  Did that make her less likely to fire if threatened?  He turned to face forward again to find that Art had taken up a similar position at the opposite end.  To reach either of them he would have to cover at least fifteen feet and the chances of doing that without being shot were non-existent.

Johnny leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees and hands loosely clasped together.  He was aware of Art’s sharpened interest, although the outlaw was too far away to hear any conversation over the noise of the train.

“Want to tell us what the hell’s going on?” Johnny asked, his gaze fixed on the mail clerk, who was looking a little sick.

“What do you mean?”  The man’s attention slid away to rest on the huddle of people around Bobby.

“Why don’t you start by telling us your name?” Scott suggested, his tone friendly.

“Steve Jackson.”

“D’you have a gun?” Johnny asked, getting right to business.

Jackson shook his head.  “It’s not company policy…”

“What company’re you talking about?” Johnny pressed.  “The railroad, or…” He saw Jackson’s eyes narrowing.  “You might have fooled them, but I’ve seen enough hired guns over the years to know when something don’t smell right.”  He glanced at Scott, wondering if his brother had already worked it out.  He’d found that Scott had pretty sharp instincts.

Jackson looked pained and his knuckles were now white, betraying the strain he was under.  Johnny tried and failed to capture the man’s gaze.  It was clear as day that Jackson was hiding something.

“The way I see it, we’re all in this mess together,” Johnny said.  “I don’t give a damn what it is you’re protecting in that safe.  I do care about the innocent people who’ve been caught in the middle and who can’t look after themselves.  Take a good look at the damage that’s already been done.”  He made an effort to calm down.  “Now, I figure Rick’s as loco as they come and it’ll only be a matter of time before Cherry loses control of him.  I’d sure like to have a plan before that happens.”

“My brother’s right, Mr. Jackson.  I think you’d better tell us what this is all about.”

Johnny sat back so that he could keep an eye on Art.  “You’d better talk fast, ‘cause it won’t take them long to find a way into the safe.”

“Nitro?” Scott asked softly.

“That’d be my guess.”  They had both seen what could happen if that was mishandled.

They lapsed into silence as they waited for Jackson to make up this mind.  Johnny could hear Mrs. Wells talking softly to Bobby and Susan.  Her words were too low to hear clearly, but he took heart from the fact that she was keeping them calm.  He doubted that Bobby would hold on long enough for them to get him to a doctor.  Maybe if they’d been free, they could have found someone in one of the other carriages who could help.  Right now, though, they were on their own.

“We were hired by the railroad,” Jackson said.

“We?” Scott asked.

“The Pinkerton Agency.  We’d heard that there was a gang of robbers in Texas who were clearing out money and valuables without stopping the trains.  There were good descriptions of the gang, but no one seemed to be able to find out where they holed up.  Some people refused to believe that two of the gang were women, but eventually the evidence couldn’t be ignored.”

Johnny eased round so that he could look at Livvie.  Although she was supposed to be guarding them, her attention was fixed on Mrs. Wells.  Her right arm now rested at her side, but Johnny wasn’t going to underestimate the danger.  She could raise her gun and fire in seconds. As he studied her face she turned to look at him.  Her smile wasn’t as bright as previously and he didn’t find it hard to resist the impulse to smile back.  He turned away.  “Who are they?”

“Sisters, believe it or not.  I don’t know any more than that.”

Johnny rubbed the back of his neck.  “Sisters, huh?  Anyone ever been shot before?”

“Not that I’ve heard.”

“What about the other two?”  Scott asked, his level gaze resting on Livvie.

“I don’t know.”

“How’d you know they’d hit this train?” Johnny asked.

“There were rumors that they’d moved west so we put out the word that a large amount of jewelry was being shipped to a bank vault in Sacramento.”

“You supposed to stop them on your own?” Johnny asked skeptically.

“Not exactly.  There were meant to be agents in every carriage.”

Well, that was something, Johnny thought.  If they could find a way to alert the passengers in the other carriages they might have a chance.

“What happened to the agent in this carriage?” Scott queried.

“How should I know?  He must have done something to make them suspicious.”

“Why the hell aren’t you armed?”  Johnny felt his temper rising again.  The railroad and the Pinks had set them up and to hell with the unsuspecting passengers.

“Mail clerks don’t carry weapons.  If I’d been armed they’d have known something was wrong.”

“You tellin’ us you don’t have a gun stashed somewhere?”

For the first time, there was the ghost of a smile on Jackson’s face.  “What do you think?”

Johnny leaned forward again.  “Where is it?”

The sound of the train whistle almost drowned out Jackson’s words.  The train began to slow down as it reached a steeper part of the line.  Scott pulled out his watch and opened the lid.  “If we’re running to time we’ll be in Sacramento in just over an hour.  They’re going to want to get off long before that.”

“How do they make their getaway?” Johnny asked Jackson.

“According to the witnesses they wait until the train slows, either for a signal or because it reaches a difficult bit of track.  There must be another gang member waiting with horses, because they’re always long gone before anyone can reach the driver and get him to stop the train.”

“So if we don’t manage to stop them here there’s a good chance they’ll get away,” Johnny said, looking over at Mrs. Wells and Susan.  Up to the point where Bobby had been shot he’d have been content to let the law handle the problem.  The unprovoked shooting of an unarmed man had changed his way of thinking.

Mrs. Wells looked up and met his concerned gaze.  “Do you think anyone has any water?”

Johnny stood up, his hands partly raised to show that he wasn’t trying anything.  He would have liked to appeal for help to Livvie, but that would have meant turning his back on Art and he wasn’t in any hurry to do that. 

“Where do you think you’re going, boy?” Art called.

“He needs water.”  Johnny gestured toward Bobby.

“I ain’t got any.  Sit down.”

“I have some,” Livvie said.

Johnny looked at her over his shoulder.  “I’d be obliged if you could fetch it.”  He remained on his feet, turning toward her as she walked forward.  He couldn’t risk looking at Scott and hoped that his brother would be ready to follow his lead.  If he could get within striking distance of the blonde he would have a good chance of snatching her gun and using her as a shield against Art’s gun.

Five steps brought her to her baggage.  Johnny waited as she rummaged through the bags until she pulled out a canteen.  Another two steps brought her almost within reach.  He took a deep breath and then two things happened at once.  An explosion muffled but still powerful, sounded from the direction of the baggage car.  It mingled with Susan giving a single high pitched scream.

 

Chapter 4

Livvie stopped moving, just out of reach.  The lurching movement of the train made it hard for Johnny to keep his balance.  Instead of fighting it, he used it to add force to his forward movement.  He flung himself at Livvie, using the strength of his body to drive her sideways.  As they fell he heard a shot.

“Get down!” he yelled, the only warning he had time to give his fellow passengers as he and Livvie landed in a heap on the floor. 

The sturdy wooden frame of the seat was their only protection as another shot sounded.  He grasped Livvie’s right wrist and twisted it, feeling only a twinge of guilt.  He needed her gun and didn’t have time to be gentle.  With a cry of pain her fingers sprang open and her eyes filled with tears.

He could feel her soft body under his and knew that his weight would be crushing her.  His face was only inches away from hers and he had an impression of huge blue water logged eyes.  His hand closed around the gun and he rolled off her.  Another shot sent splinters of wood flying close to his cheek.  He risked one quick look and squeezed off a shot as Art ducked out through the rear door of the carriage.

As he scrambled to his knees Livvie began hammering her fists against his back.  He swung round to face her.  “Settle down.”

She shrank away from him, her bottom lip trembling.  “You hurt me.”

Johnny looked at her in amazement.  “You’re the one who…” he stopped and shook his head.  There wasn’t time to get involved in an argument.  “Scott?”

“Right here, Brother.”

“Get our guns.”

Johnny kept his weapon pointed at the rear door as Scott ducked into the space previously occupied by Livvie and Cherry.  It didn’t take long for Scott to retrieve their gun belts from the bag.

“Watch her.”  Johnny pulled Livvie to her feet and shoved her toward Scott.

“What did I do to deserve this?” Scott asked as he led her over to a seat.

“You’ve got a way with women, and I don’t think she likes me much any more.”  Johnny shared a brief smile with his brother.  “Try asking her what the plan was to get off this train.”

Johnny turned his back on the girl and hunkered down by Mrs. Wells.  She had her arms wrapped around Susan who was sobbing inconsolably.

“He’s gone?” Johnny asked.  He looked at Bobby.  All the pain had vanished from the young man’s face.  His eyes were closed and he lay still.  “Damn.”  Johnny bent his head for a moment.  What a hell of a waste.

“That was very foolish of you.”  Mrs. Wells looked up and he met her concerned gaze.  “You could have been shot.”

“My brother has a tendency to act first and think later,” Scott said.

“Yeah, well, it worked didn’t it?”

“It was an unnecessary risk, young man.”  Mrs. Wells stumbled as she tried to rise.  Johnny caught her arm and guided her to her feet.  “What do we do now?” she asked.

Johnny helped Susan to stand up.  She was shivering violently and her red-rimmed gaze fell on Livvie.

“You bitch,” she shouted.  “We’ve only been married for two months.  You all deserve to hang.”

Susan lunged for Livvie, her nails raking down the blonde’s face.  Livvie yelped and tried to hide behind Scott.  “Keep her away from me.”

“You should sit down Ma’am,” Johnny suggested to Susan.  “Leave her to us.  She’s got some talking to do.”

“I don’t have anything to say to you.”  Livvie edged away from Susan. 

Scott caught her arm and pulled her down onto a seat, sitting beside her to prevent her from moving.  “Oh, I think you do.  You’re an accessory to murder and I don’t see a jury showing you much sympathy unless you help us.”

“I can’t.”  Livvie’s face crumpled.

Johnny stared at her.  “You want to hang?” he asked with calculated brutality.  Leaving her to think about that he handed her gun to Jackson, picked up his own gun belt and buckled it in place.  “The rest of the gang are likely to stay holed up in the baggage car at least for now.  Go and tell the other agents what’s going on.  This isn’t over yet.”

Jackson nodded in understanding and moved away.

Mrs. Wells drew Susan back to her side.  “We have things to do, my dear.”

Johnny sank into the seat opposite Livvie.  “You know what’ll happen if we keep this train moving until it gets to Sacramento?  As soon as the law finds out about the killing, they’ll fill that mail car full of lead and your sister’ll probably wind up dead.”  He saw her small jerk of surprise.  Scott sat grim faced and silent at her side.  “If you want to help her we can get the driver to stop the train and you can persuade her and the others to give themselves up.”

“I don’t want to hang.”  Livvie’s hand rested against the front of her throat as she looked from one brother to the other.  If she was hoping to find any evidence of compassion, she was disappointed.  “What happens if I help you?”

“You, your sister and Art will be sent to jail.  Rick’ll swing for murder.”

“Jail?”

“What the hell did you expect?” Johnny asked.  “You’ve been robbing trains up and down the country.  You’re just lucky no one was shot before today.”

“If you want us to help you, you have to cooperate.”  Scott threw Johnny a warning glance.  “How were you planning to get off the train?”

Her words were hesitant as she answered.  “We have horses waiting about ten miles outside of Sacramento.  There’s a bridge where the train has to slow down enough that we could get off without any problems.”

“How far do you reckon we are from Sacramento?” Johnny asked his brother as he stared through the window at the featureless darkness.

Scott consulted his watch before shaking his head.  “It’s hard to say, but I doubt if we have too much time if we’re going to stop the train.  They might try to make a run for it when we do, but without horses they won’t get far.  Besides, we’ll have a lot of irate passengers to back us up.”

Johnny could hear raised voices and looked down the carriage.  Steve Jackson was heading back their way, followed by a well-dressed man and couple of others who were more casually dressed.

“Guard the door,” the newcomer instructed.

Johnny let the men pass before standing up.  He studied the Pinkerton agent, deciding that he didn’t like what he saw.  This wasn’t a man who was used to getting his hands dirty and he had a bossy manner about him that they could do without.

“I am Special Agent Charles McParland.”

“Special, huh?”  Johnny saw the man’s mouth tighten in response to the jibe.

“I understand that the Agency owes you two gentlemen a debt of gratitude.” 

He didn’t look very grateful, Johnny decided.  In fact he looked decidedly put out.  “We need to stop the train.”

“Nonsense.  The outlaws are secure and we will deal with them when we reach Sacramento.”

“If you don’t stop the train there’s a good chance they’ll escape.”  Scott had also stood and Johnny noticed that his brother seemed to be using his body to shield Livvie from McParland’s cold stare.

“I am in charge of this case and I don’t need advice from civilians.”

“It looks to me like you’re the sort of man who usually works in an office.”  Johnny laid his right hand on his gun, a cold smile resting on his lips.  “Now, I ain’t worked in an office in my life, but I know how outlaws like this think.”

“Do you, Mr….?”

“Lancer.”  Scott stepped between the two men.  “The outlaws have horses waiting for them not far from here.  If we try to make it to Sacramento they’ll make an attempt to escape.”

“Are you saying they’ll leave her behind?”  McParland turned his attention to Livvie for the first time.

“You’ve got a lot to learn,” Johnny said.  “If they get away they’ve got a shot at breaking her out of jail.  If they try to free her now, they’ll likely be gunned down.  Besides, they’ll count on her not being hurt, seein’ as she’s a woman.”

“The fact that she is female has no effect upon how she will be treated.  Jackson, get over here and take her into custody.” He held out a pair of handcuffs.

“That ain’t necessary,” Johnny protested. 

“I believe I was just told that they have horses.  Do you want to take the chance that she’ll try to escape?  Would you be willing to shoot her down to stop her?”

“Leave it, Johnny,” Scott advised softly.  “They have a job to do.”

Johnny turned his back on the sight of Jackson fastening the shackles around Livvie’s slim wrists.  He wouldn’t stand for any rough handling, but Scott was right.  By choosing to walk on the wrong side of the law Livvie had sealed her own fate.

He looked over at Mrs. Wells and Susan.  They had stripped off Bobby’s blood soaked shirt and had used the water in the canteen to wash his body as best they could.  As Johnny watched, Mrs. Well’s gently laid the discarded jacket across his face.

“Are you alright, Ma’am?” Johnny asked.  “You’ve had a rough night.”

Her face was deeply lined and her eyes were hooded and dull.  “There is too much violence.  Too much.”  Her voice drifted away to silence.

“I’m sorry.”  He looked again at her black clothes, wondering.

“You have nothing to apologize for, young man.”  Her voice was very nearly steady.  “But, I think you had better make that rather pompous man listen to you and your brother.”

Johnny couldn’t help grinning at her.  “Yes, Ma’am.”

“I think I will take this poor girl into another carriage.”

Johnny saw that Susan had lapsed into a state of shock, her fingers twisting a lace handkerchief as she stared at the still body of her murdered husband.  “She was lucky you were here to help her.”

“No one should have to go through the loss of a loved one without support.”

They looked at each other in silence as Johnny considered the implications of that statement.  He knew that words would be meaningless so moved away to let Mrs. Well’s coax Susan into moving.

Livvie was still sitting by the window, staring at the chains tethering her hands together.  Scott and the Pinkerton agent were arguing about the wisdom of stopping the train.  Johnny kept out of it.  Scott was talking in a low, controlled tone, making his case as persuasively as a good lawyer.  McParland was listening, his arms firmly crossed over his chest. 

“You have a significant victory within your grasp,” Scott said.  “I wouldn’t like to be in your place if you have to explain how the outlaws escaped.  I understand that they are wanted for crimes in several states.  The man who brings them to justice will really make a name for himself.”

Johnny smothered a grin.  Scott had read this man well.  Appeal to his vanity and he’d do anything they wanted.

“I’m sure you mean well, Mr. Lancer, but being a private detective is a very specialized profession.”

“I’m not trying to imply anything else,” Scott replied gravely.  “However, my brother and I have had the advantage of seeing these outlaws for ourselves.  They’re desperate men and women.  One at least knows that he’s facing the hangman’s noose.  They won’t give up easily and would rather risk death trying to escape justice.  That poor young man over there,” he pointed to Bobby, “was gunned down in cold blood.  They won’t think anything of shooting anyone who tries to impede them.  Stop the train now.  Your men can uncouple the baggage car and this carriage, and then the train can continue its journey.  News will reach the Marshal in Sacramento within the hour.  Even if we can’t convince them to give up, we can keep them penned here until the Marshal arrives.”

“I suppose there is nothing to be lost by doing that.”

“It will also protect the good citizens of Sacramento,” Scott continued.  “If the outlaws try to break out here, they’ll be facing men armed and ready to stop them.  If shooting were to start at the station…” he shrugged, letting McParland draw his own conclusion.

“Very well.  I’ll have one of my men pass a message to the driver.  I assume I can count on you and your brother assisting us?”

“I don’t like leaving a job half done,” Johnny drawled slowly.

He sat down opposite Livvie as McParland began issuing instructions.  Bobby’s body was lifted carefully and carried into the next carriage.  Word of the failed robbery was passed to the driver and it wasn’t long before the train began to slow.

“How’d you get into this business?” Johnny asked.

Livvie looked up at him, her face white.  “Our father was a train robber.  Of course we didn’t know that when we were children.  Our mother just used to tell us that he traveled around for his work.  I’m not even sure that she knew the truth until,” she swallowed, “the end.”

“What happened?”

“Our mother was taken ill.  Cherry was eighteen and I was a couple of years younger.  Somehow, pa got to hear about it and he came back.  He was arrested at her funeral and put on trial for murder and robbery.  He…”  She looked away and Johnny watched her face in the reflection from the window.  “He was convicted and hanged.  All our neighbors turned against us and, one night, the house was set on fire.  We were lucky to escape with our lives.  We were left with nothing.”

“So you went into the same line of work?”

“Not at first.  We lived as best we could for a couple of years, taking any menial job that came along just to scrape together some money.  Cherry became very hard.  She’d watched them hang him and she was never the same after that.  Art used to ride with our father and he tracked us down to tell us how sorry he was to hear of his death.  It was Cherry who convinced him that we could go into business together.”

“What about Rick?”

“He’s our cousin.  He was never quite right in the head, but I swear I never thought he’d kill anybody like that.”

The train whistle sounded and there was a squeal of brakes.  The carriage shuddered as it finally ground to a halt.  Livvie gave Johnny a pleading look and then turned to stare out into the darkness.

 

Chapter 5

As the train came to a standstill, Livvie leaned over and rested her hands on Johnny’s knee.  He looked down, trying not to be affected by the sight of the chains around her wrists and the gentleness of her touch.

“You have to help me.”

It was the tone of her voice, more demanding than pleading that caught his attention.  He studied her face closely, finally seeing what he had missed before.  The trembling pink lips had been subtly tinted to make them fuller and more attractive.  Her eyes, no longer full of tears, were a hard and appraising blue.  This woman, who had openly flirted with him, was no weak innocent to be pitied.  She was just as cunning and manipulative as her sister and wouldn’t hesitate to use her female charm to try and escape justice.

He moved his leg so that her hands slipped off to dangle in the air between them.  “You should go on the stage.  That was one hell of a performance.”

“I don’t understand.” 

She was still leaning toward him and he couldn’t help noticing the swell of her breasts.  Damn, she was an attractive woman.  “It might have worked with Scott.  He was raised as a gentleman.”  Johnny waited for his words to sink in.  “You see, I didn’t grow up among nice people.  I spent a lot of years selling my gun to the highest bidder.  I got real good at seeing behind the false smiles and soft words because that was the only way for me to avoid a bullet in the back or a knife between the ribs.  You’re good, though.  For a while there you had me fooled.”

Livvie straightened.  “Looks like I misjudged you, cowboy.”

“How much of that story you just told me was true?”

“Most of it.”  There was no shame or regret on her face.  “Our father was hanged, but he was a mean and vicious bastard who got what he deserved.”

“Why’d you do it?  You’re smart enough to know what you were risking by taking up train robbery.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

Livvie clasped her hands together, although that didn’t quite manage to stop them shaking. “Do you know what life is like for a woman living in a small town?  What did Cherry and I have to look forward to?  Marriage to some farmer or storekeeper?  Years of keeping house and raising children?  Never having an adventure?  We watched our mother getting worn down by hardship.  I don’t think I ever heard her laugh or saw her getting any enjoyment out of her life.  There was never enough money, and when our father did turn up he only wanted one thing.  We didn’t want to end up like that.  Men can do what they like.  They can just abandon their responsibilities and no one thinks any the worse of them.  Look at you.  What did your family think when you took up gunfighting?”

Her passionate appeal failed to impress Johnny, who was in no hurry to justify the choices he’d made in his life.  He’d seen too many people scratching a living out of the bare earth while still keeping hold of their sense of decency to accept her reasoning.  “So you decided to break the law just so that you could have some fun?”  He didn’t bother to conceal his contempt.

Livvie flushed.  “Don’t you dare judge me!  Can you honestly say that you never strayed onto the wrong side when you were selling your gun?  How many men did you kill in a range war who didn’t have the same skill as you?  You did what you were good at.  How often has your conscience kept you awake at night?”

Johnny wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her.  “A man died.  Don’t you understand what you’ve done?  He was young, with a wife and his whole life in front of him, and he died because you and your sister wanted excitement.”

Livvie looked away, unable to meet his searing gaze and he was left with the uncomfortable feeling that Bobby’s death meant nothing to her.  As the silence lengthened between them he caught the sound of raised voices from outside the train. 

“Stay here,” he ordered.

On his way to the door he noted that McParland had left one of his men on guard.  The man wouldn’t have been able to overhear the conversation and wouldn’t know what a devious little bitch he was dealing with.  Johnny stopped.  “Don’t let her fool you,” he advised, alert to the lustful look on the man’s face.  “She ain’t as harmless as she looks.”

“I can handle her.”

Johnny had a pretty good idea how the man would like to handle Livvie and would have delayed longer except that the noise levels were rising.  “I just bet you can,” he said as he walked past.

He drew his gun and stepped outside into a thick inky darkness that momentarily left him blind.  Having anticipated this, he’d left the carriage through the door furthest from the baggage car.  There was no sense in leaving himself wide open to getting a bullet in the back.  So far there had been no gunshots and that worried him.  He’d expected Rick to at least try and shoot his way out as soon as the train stopped, even if the other two were more careful.  The outlaws had no reason yet to think that they were facing any worse odds than a couple of interfering passengers.  The longer Cherry and her companions waited, the larger the opposition would grow as more angry passengers became involved.

His eyesight was clearing, aided by the lanterns which were now being brought out of the other carriages.  Of course anyone carrying a lantern was making an inviting target of himself.  He could now see that McParland and his men were holding back a line of irate passengers.  A large flabby man in a suit was demanding loudly that the outlaws be taken into custody so that they could be on their way.  He was supported by an overdressed woman with a shatteringly high-pitched voice.  Johnny moved quickly away, unwilling to become involved in the dispute. 

He looked around for Scott, quickly spotting his brother and Steve Jackson partly hidden behind a couple of large boulders close to the track.  They would have a clear view of both exits from the mail car.  Trusting to the darkness to hide him, Johnny sprinted over to his brother’s side.

“Any sign of them?” Johnny asked, as he settled into position.

Scott didn’t take his eyes off the train.  “Nothing.”

“They could already be dead or injured,” Jackson suggested.  “That explosion we heard was pretty loud.  If they misjudged the amount of nitro they could have blown themselves to pieces.”

“Cherry and Rick were the only two in there when that nitro went off.  At the very least Art’s still alive and well.”  Johnny had no problem with the thought of Rick’s death.  Cherry, who had shown herself to be cold, heartless and cruel, still stirred a shred of pity in him.

“Any suggestions?” Scott asked.

“It ain’t really our call, is it, Brother?”  Johnny watched the train driver uncoupling the last two carriages from the rest of the train.  Soon it would be on its way to Sacramento.  He was willing to wager that McParland would want to end this standoff before the Marshal and his posse arrived so that he could take the credit.

The passengers were being herded back onto the train.  Johnny spared a brief thought for Mrs. Wells and Susan.  That old lady had been a hell of a lot tougher than she’d looked.  He tightened his grip on his gun, grateful to feel the familiar shape of the handle and weight of the weapon.  At least he hadn’t had to use...”Mierde!”  The word escaped before he had even finished the thought.

“What’s wrong?” Scott asked.

“Don’t move.  I’ll be back in a minute.”  Johnny left the shelter of the rocks, praying that he was wrong.  He wasn’t the only person who had seen Mrs. Wells carefully stowing her knitting in that small bag.  Livvie, because she had been watching him, had been witness to it as well.

“McParland!” Johnny yelled as he reached the train, gripped the handrail and dived up the steps.

The carriage was quiet and, at first glance, appeared deserted.  Johnny walked slowly down the passageway, gun cocked and ready.  Half way down he saw the toe of a boot sticking out from between the seats and he quickened his pace.  The Pinkerton agent who had stayed behind to guard Livvie was sprawled on the floor, a knitting needle stuck fast in the side of his neck.  A thin trickle of blood was edging its way down his skin. His eyes, open and sightless, mirrored his shocked recognition of his own death. Johnny felt a surge of nausea.  Through the pounding in his head he heard footsteps behind him.  Caught on the thin edge of violence, he spun round, his gun raised.

McParland stopped.  “Where’s the girl?”

Johnny backed away from the dead agent.  “Gone.”

“Gone?” McParland’s voice rose in incredulous fury.  “If you helped her...”  The threat was left unfinished as McParland moved close enough to see his dead colleague.  “My God!”

“She was scared she was gonna hang.”  Johnny wasn’t sure why he was trying to justify her actions. 

“She’ll hang alright.  I’ll string the murdering bitch up myself when we catch her.”

Johnny dropped heavily onto one of the seats.  “You’ll have to catch her first.”

McParland bent down and gently closed the man’s eyes.  “She’s on foot, miles from anywhere and she’s in chains.  She won’t get far.”

As Johnny moved his foot he heard a metallic sound and looked down.  “I don’t think you’re giving her enough credit.”  Handcuffs lay at his feet, partially hidden under the seat.  He scooped them up and McParland snatched them out of his hand.

“I should never have listened to you and your brother.  Phelps would still be alive if we’d kept the train moving.”

Johnny glared at the Pinkerton agent.  “If it hadn’t been for me and Scott that gang would’ve cleared out the safe and got away.  You’d have looked pretty damn stupid when you reached Sacramento and found they’d managed that right under your nose.”

McParland cleared his throat and his shoulders slumped.  “I didn’t mean to imply that we weren’t grateful for your assistance.”

“Good, ‘cause you’re gonna need it.”  Johnny wasn’t about to compromise and continued to hold his chilly gaze on the man.  “You’ll be wasting your time trying to track Livvie in the dark and you’ll need all the men you have left to deal with the rest of the robbers if they decide to fight.” 

He looked over at the dead agent and let go of his aggression.   They were, after all, supposed to be on the same side.  “Look, I know you want revenge.  Hell, I’d feel the same way.  But, you don’t have enough men to split your forces.”

The agent held his gaze for a moment and then looked down at Johnny’s gun belt.  “I’ve heard of Murdoch Lancer.  He’s used our agency a time or two.”

Johnny bent his head to hide a smile.  “Then I guess you know I wasn’t always a rancher.”

“Let me be honest with you, Mr. Lancer.  Company policy discourages the involvement of bystanders in our business.  I should have packed you and your brother off to Sacramento with the rest of the passengers.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Would you have gone?”

Johnny was starting to change his views on McParland.  “Probably not.”

“In this situation, I don’t need ranchers.”

Johnny reckoned that was probably as close to an apology and plea for help as he was likely to get.  “I think it’s time we let our train robbers know who they’re dealing with.”  He stood up.  “Lead the way, Agent McParland.”

It was very quiet when they stepped out of the carriage.  Johnny felt a shiver run down his spine.  This wasn’t right.  He made his way back over to Scott.  “Livvie killed the agent left on guard and then ran.”

The look of shock on Scott’s face mirrored his own reaction.  “I imagine McParland wants to finish this quickly so that they can get after her,” Scott said.  “What I can’t figure out is why they haven’t tried to shoot their way out by now.  Do you think they realized it was a trap?”

“Don’t see how, although they’re about to find out.”

Charles McParland was standing in the open facing the sliding doors of the mail car.  “I am Special Agent McParland,” he shouted.  “Give up now and I guarantee you a fair trial.”

The single gunshot, blasting through the wooden walls of the carriage, sent him diving for cover. 

“If you don’t all put down your weapons and let us leave peacefully,” Cherry called in response.  “I’ll blow up this train and everyone within a hundred yards.”

 

Chapter 6

McParland scrambled backwards until he was pressed behind the cluster of rocks where Johnny and Scott were sheltering.  He was breathing heavily and sweat ran down his face.  “She’s bluffing,” he said.

“You ain’t got any brains if you believe that,” Johnny said bluntly.  “They’re desperate and besides, what have they got to lose?  It was pretty obvious Bobby wasn’t going to survive that bullet, so if they surrender they’ll get a quick trial if they’re lucky, and a death sentence.  If they fight it out they’ll likely end up dead, but it’ll be quicker and cleaner than a rope.  If they can get you and your men to back off, they have a chance of making a break.”

“I’m not prepared to give them the chance to escape.”

“What’s it going to be, Agent McParland?” Cherry called again.

“I won’t negotiate with outlaws,” McParland hissed.  He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead.

Johnny turned to his brother.  “Keep her talking.”

Scott raised one eyebrow in enquiry before nodding.  “Cherry?  It’s Scott Lancer,” he called.  “Agent McParland is considering your ultimatum, but we need some time.”

Johnny scooted closer to the Pinkerton Agent.  “I need to talk to you.”

“There’s nothing to discuss.”

“I’m not a fool, Mr. Lancer,” Cherry called.  “I know you’ve sent for reinforcements.”

“I’m not going to deny that we’ve sent for help,” Scott shouted.  “But, it’ll take time for them to get here so there’s no reason for you to make any hasty decisions.”

There was silence from inside the mail car.  Johnny hoped that was a good sign.  He leaned forward.  “Let me go in and talk to them.”  He kept his voice low so that Scott wouldn’t hear what he was proposing.

“I’m not going to let you risk your life.”

That, unfortunately, got Scott’s attention.  “What are you talking about?”

Johnny turned and looked him steadily in the eye.  “Jackson stashed a gun in there.  If I can get inside I might be able to get the jump on them.”  He expected Scott to argue, to say it wasn’t their fight, so it was a surprise to see only calm consideration.

“They won’t hesitate to shoot you if they get suspicious,” Scott said.

“Are you crazy?” McParland asked.  “All you will be doing is giving them a hostage.”

“Not if Cherry thinks we have her sister,” Johnny argued.  “Talk to her, Scott.  Keep her occupied.”

“I could go,” Scott offered.  “She might be slightly less inclined to blow my head off the minute I get within range.”

“No offense, Brother, but we both know I’m a better shot with a handgun.  Besides, if Agent McParland loans you one of the Agency’s rifles, you can watch my back.”

A familiarly stubborn look crossed Scott’s face.  “That’s not happening, Johnny.  If I’m going to back you up, I need to be a great deal closer.”

Johnny recognized that look.  “You’ve got an idea?”

“I’ve got an idea,” Scott confirmed, leaning closer to outline his plan.

***** 

The silence from inside the mail car had been going on for some time.  Once Johnny was satisfied that everyone knew what to do, he moved as far away from Scott as he could get without sacrificing the protection of the rocks.

“Cherry?” Scott called.

“You have five minutes to withdraw out of rifle range,” Cherry shouted, “or I will carry out my threat.”

“Are you prepared to kill your own sister?” Scott asked.

Johnny could imagine the reaction to that.  Cherry had no reason to think they had worked out the relationship.  He only hoped that the sisters were as close as he was to his brother.

“Where is she?”  For the first time Cherry sounded less than confident.

“She’s out of harm’s way for now, in the custody of one of McParland’s men,” Scott lied.

“Let me speak to her.”

“That’s not possible.  Let us send someone in to talk to you.  This doesn’t have to end badly.  You aren’t responsible for what Rick did.  Johnny and I are willing to testify to that.”

“I ain’t gonna swing.”

Johnny recognized Rick’s voice and the fear underneath the bravado.  “Just hear us out,” Johnny said.  “Let me come in.”

“What about my sister?” Cherry asked.

“She won’t be harmed so long as my brother is safe,” Scott replied.

“How do I know she isn’t already dead?”

“Do you think either of us would have let an unarmed woman be shot down?” Scott asked.

There was the briefest pause.  “No, Mr. Lancer, I think you’re far too honorable for that.  Alright, we’ll listen to what your brother has to say.”  The sliding door opened a crack.  “But, I want to see him throw down his gun.”

Johnny looked over at Scott.  “Nicely done.”

“Be careful, Brother.”

Johnny straightened up and walked out into the open.  He stopped once he was in plain view, unbuckled his gun belt and let it slide slowly to the ground.

“Keep your hands where I can see them,” Cherry called.

Johnny could see a gun poking out of the opening in the doorway, but couldn’t see who was holding it.  He took a deep breath, raised his hands and started walking.  When he was only a few feet away from the mail car, the door slid open another couple of feet.  He grabbed the handrail and pulled himself up.  The air was unpleasantly tinged with a metallic tasting smoke.  Almost immediately a hard shove sent him crashing face first into one of the racks.  He tasted blood as he bit the inside of his cheek.

“Search him.”  Cherry’s voice was close to his ear.

A cold circle of metal touched the side of his head, encouraging him to keep still.  He kept quiet as Art established that he wasn’t carrying any concealed weapons.

“Turn round and take off your boots.”  Cherry stepped back a pace, although her gun remained trained on his head. 

He leaned back against the railing, tugging off each boot in turn and tossing them to the floor.  The whole time he was wishing that Murdoch hadn’t talked him out of carrying his knife.  When he had finished he turned his head and spat to clear the blood from his mouth.  He also took the chance to look toward the place where Jackson had hidden his gun.  “Satisfied?” he asked.

“Yes.” 

He saw that Cherry’s blouse was streaked with dirt.  Her face was pale, making her green eyes even more striking and cold. 

“The safe was empty,” she said, her voice flat.

That didn’t come as a surprise, although it fueled Johnny’s anger again.  The railroad hadn’t had the right to risk so many innocent lives.  “Yeah, it was all a set up.”

“Are you a Pinkerton agent?” Cherry asked.

“Nope.  Me and Scott were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Why did you interfere?  Why are you still interfering?  Doesn’t it bother you that you could both die for something that isn’t any of your business?”

“Well, Ma’am, it’s like this.  We don’t take to seeing people hurt when they can’t fight back.  Besides, you made it our business when you pulled a gun on us.”

Johnny looked around before ambling over to sit on a large box.  He now had a good view of the whole carriage.  The sliding door was still open a few inches.  Rick, who presumably should have been keeping watch, was looking at him instead.  Art was between him and where he needed to be.  The door to the safe hung open and boxes and bags were scattered around.  Johnny hoped the outlaws hadn’t stumbled across the gun, otherwise he was completely defenseless.  The door at the end of the carriage was bolted.  If luck was on their side Scott would now be on the other side of it.

“What do you want, Mr. Lancer?” Cherry asked.

“Just thought we could talk.”

“Told you he was trying to stall us,” Rick burst out.  “I say we shoot him and throw his body out.  That’ll show them we’re serious.”

“Serious, huh?”  Johnny glared at Rick.  “I think everyone got that message when you shot an unarmed man.”

“Did he die?” Cherry asked.

“Yeah, so your cousin there’s facing a rope just like your old man.”

Cherry’s face flooded with color.  “What do you know about my father?”

“Your sister told me some of it.”

“Is Livvie safe?  They didn’t hurt her?”

“No one touched her.”  Well, that was the truth at least.  He didn’t think Cherry would react well if she heard the rest of it, though.  “You shoot me, though, and she won’t last thirty seconds.  Look, Scott’s already told you that we’d confirm you weren’t responsible for the shooting.”  Johnny stood and moved closer to Cherry, lowering his voice.  “You and Livvie don’t have to die, but if you insist on fighting this out, I can’t guarantee she won’t be caught in the cross fire.”

“Is that a threat?”

“No.  Me and my brother wouldn’t stand around and watch an execution.  But, things’re likely to get crazy out there, particularly when the marshal arrives from Sacramento.”  His words were little more than a whisper and he could see Rick straining to hear the conversation.

“What’re you two talking about?” Rick asked, suspicion clear in his voice.  He moved quickly across the carriage and caught Cherry by the arm.  “Are you selling me out, Bitch?”

“Let her go,” Art shouted, pushing past Johnny to shove Rick backwards.  “Get back over there and calm down.”

Johnny backed up quickly, stopping when he reached the rack where the weapon should be hidden.  He felt behind him with his right hand, pushing boxes out of the way.  His breath caught as his fingers brushed across the handle of the gun.  The outlaws were still arguing, just as Scott had said they would.  ‘Divide and conquer’ was how his educated brother had described it.

In one smooth movement, Johnny pulled out the gun and thumbed back the hammer.  The sound brought immediate silence from the outlaws.  Rick raised his gun and Johnny fired.  He didn’t need to watch as the young man slid to the ground.  Art and Cherry hadn’t reacted as quickly and Johnny had them in his sights, the gun inching from side to side, before they could raise their own weapons.

“Drop your guns,” he ordered.  When they hesitated, he took two steps to the side and unlocked the door.  The handle began to turn so he stepped away to give Scott room to get into the carriage.  “This ain’t a game,” he continued.  “You can give up or take your chances that I’m not as fast as you think I am.”

Art let his gun drop to the floor.  “It’s over, Cherry.  I’m sorry, girl.  I promised your father I’d watch out for you and your sister.  Guess I didn’t do a very good job.”

Johnny felt cooler air entering the carriage as Scott opened the door and joined him.  “Don’t make me shoot you,” he said, his attention riveted on Cherry. 

She raised her head and looked him steadily in the eye.  “Looks like we picked the wrong train to rob,” she said bitterly.

Scott walked over to her and took the gun from her hand.  “Let’s get out of here.”

“My sister?”

Scott kept hold of her arm.  “She killed her guard and escaped.”

Cherry swayed in his grasp.  “No!  She wouldn’t.  No!  Oh, God, what have I done?  We didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt.”

“It’s too late for that now.”  Johnny said, bone weary as all the tension drained out of him.  “The day you picked up a gun it was too late.”  He jerked his gun at Art, gesturing toward the door.  Scott could deal with the woman.  He heard Cherry start to sob as he followed Art out into the darkness.

 

Chapter 7

McParland took charge as soon as Cherry and Art were brought outside.  Now that the crisis was over he’d clearly decided that he needed to remind everyone that he was the boss.  Under different circumstances it might have amused Johnny, but right now he was too damn tired to care.  The two prisoners were shackled and sent into the carriage under guard.  Cherry’s eyes were still red and swollen, although the brief storm of tears had passed. 

When Rick’s body was tossed into a corner of the mail car Johnny had to force himself to remain silent.  Rick had deserved to die, and he had no regrets about being the one to pull the trigger, but everyone was entitled to some dignity in death.  In contrast, the dead agent was carefully wrapped in blankets by colleagues who talked loudly about taking revenge for his murder.

Johnny, with Scott beside him, kept out of the way now that their assistance was no longer required.  After a while, as the night was growing cooler, they climbed back into the carriage and sat down.

“Are you alright?” Scott asked.  “You look like someone punched you in the mouth.”

Johnny grimaced at the reminder.  The inside of his mouth had been aching just enough to be irritating.  “They wanted to make sure I wasn’t armed so they shoved me face first against one of the racks and searched me.  It probably looks worse than it feels.” 

“You’re lucky they didn’t shoot you.”

Johnny had no problem agreeing with that statement.  “I told you this journey was a bad idea.”

“You won’t get any argument out of me, Brother.”

“I guess I owe you an apology.”  Johnny realized he was fiddling with the beads around his wrist and dropped his hand.  “If I’d just come home when I was supposed to we’d never have had to take the train.”

“That’s true, but Bobby would probably still be dead, and there wouldn’t have been anyone around to protect Susan and that old lady.”

“Mrs. Wells,” Johnny said.  “Her name’s Martha Wells.  You gotta admire her guts.”

“Maybe we could check on her when we reach Sacramento.”

Johnny smiled.  “Yeah.  I’d like to see how she’s doing.”  He heard footsteps and looked up.

Charles McParland walked into the carriage, stopping only inches away from where Cherry was sitting. “Where is she?” he demanded aggressively.

Johnny frowned when he saw that the agent’s hands were tightly bunched into fists and his face was colored by an angry flush.

“You must have an agreed meeting place,” McParland persisted.  “I want to know where it is.”

Cherry stood up to face him.  She was at least six inches shorter than the Pinkerton agent and had the added disadvantage of being shackled.  However, her spine was straight and she kept her head raised.  “I don’t know where she is.”

“She murdered one of my men and I’m not going to let her get away with it.  I intend to see that bitch swing.” 

“I’m not giving you my sister,” Cherry responded quietly.

McParland raised his right hand and, before Johnny could react, smacked Cherry viciously across the face.  She cried out in pain and fell against the seat.  Art shouted a protest as he lunged forward.  A punch to the stomach from one of McParland’s men sent him staggering back out of the way.

Johnny shot to his feet, reaching for his gun.  He wasn’t happy to find Scott blocking his path.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Scott advised.

“Are you gonna stand there and watch him beat the answer out of her?” Johnny demanded furiously.

“No, but tempers are running high and, if you draw your gun, we might all regret it.”

“Why do you always have to be so damn reasonable?”  It didn’t help that he knew Scott was right.

“Years of practice,” Scott replied solemnly.  “You’ve done enough tonight.  Why don’t you leave McParland to me?”

“Alright, but if he touches her again I’m gonna take him outside and beat the crap out of him.”  Johnny deliberately raised his voice, remaining on his feet as Scott turned away to speak to the Pinkerton Agent.

McParland glared at him, but didn’t make any further move toward Cherry.  Johnny watched while Scott helped Cherry back to her seat, before inviting McParland to step outside to talk.  Once his brother and the Pinkerton agent had gone Johnny leaned against one of the seats and made sure the two guards knew he was keeping an eye on them.

***** 

The time passed slowly.  There were no further attempts to question the prisoners.  Johnny wasn’t fool enough to think that McParland had given up, but there was a limit to what he and Scott could do.  Besides, Cherry and the others had chosen to live outside the law and it wasn’t likely that the law would protect them now.

Johnny was standing alone on the platform at the back of the carriage when he heard horses.  He walked back inside.  “Riders coming,” he announced.

Although it was likely to be the posse, no one was taking any chances.  Guns were drawn while they waited to be certain. 

“Agent McParland,” one of the riders called.  “I’m Marshal Fenton Harkness from Sacramento.”

McParland holstered his gun.  “Bring the prisoners,” he ordered.

Cherry and Art were hauled to their feet and hustled toward the door.  Johnny looked over at Scott.  “I could use a drink.”

“It just so happens I can help with that.”  Scott reached into his pocket and pulled out a small silver flask.  “Murdoch’s best whiskey.”

Johnny took a mouthful, savoring the taste.  The whiskey slid smoothly down his throat.  “Thanks.”  He stood up and adjusted his gun belt.  “Guess we’d better get out there.  Wouldn’t want to get stranded here.”

Torches had been lit to push away the darkness, giving Johnny a good view of what was happening.  There were half a dozen newcomers, twice that many horses and a high sided wagon filling the space between the tracks and a dirt road he hadn’t noticed before.  Cherry and Art were already in the wagon, sitting on a bench seat with their backs to the driver.  Cherry was staring straight ahead, composed despite the ugly red mark on her cheek.  She flinched, but said nothing as Rick’s body was heaved over the side and dropped into the bed of the wagon to land by her feet. 

Art edged closer to her and began talking.  Johnny wasn’t near enough to hear what was being said, but he saw her nod before her shoulders drooped.  Considering what was waiting for her in Sacramento, she seemed unnaturally calm.  His suspicious nature reared its head and he was thinking about moving closer when Scott caught his arm.

Johnny swung round to look at McParland, who was talking to an older man wearing a badge pinned to his brown vest.  “Oh, boy, he’s all puffed up like that old rooster at Lancer.  You think he’s taking all the credit?” he asked softly.

Scott gave a snort of suppressed laughter.  “I’m sure he is.”

Johnny studied Marshal Harkness.  The lawman looked to be in his early fifties with a slight paunch hanging over his gun belt.  Short grey hair topped a weather-beaten face which was presently settled in a deep frown.  Over the years Johnny had met a lot of lawmen, some competent and others who were a disgrace to the badge they wore.  This man held himself confidently and carried an air of authority, which didn’t come as much of a surprise seeing as Sacramento was an important and growing town.

It wasn’t long before the Marshal turned to study him and Scott.  Johnny was used to being sized up.  He rested his right hand on his gun and returned the stare steadily.  The relaxed stance that he’d spent years working on came as naturally as breathing.  Inside, though, he was wound up tight.  McParland had accepted without question that they were innocent bystanders.  A more suspicious lawman might take a different view.

The two older men walked over, with Marshal Harkness in the lead.  “You boys did a good job tonight.  I’ll be sure to tell your father next time he’s in Sacramento.”

“You know our father?” Scott asked.

“Murdoch Lancer and I go back a long way.  He’s a powerful man now, but he was just a young rancher starting out when we first met.  He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.  I’m glad to see that his sons feel the same way.”

“What’ll happen to the prisoners?” Johnny asked.

“I think you know the answer to that, Son,” Harkness replied.  “It isn’t often we come across a woman outlaw and a judge might have been persuaded to be lenient if there hadn’t been two killings.”

Johnny looked over at the wagon.  “Neither of them killed anyone.”

“A court’s not going to see it that way.”

Scott stepped forward.  “That may be so, Marshal.  However, Johnny and I will both testify to that fact.”

“That’s up to you.  My job is just to take them in and hold them until their trial.  It won’t give me any pleasure to see that young lady hang, but I’ll do my duty.”

“I will leave them in your charge, Marshal.  My men and I are going after the other one,” McParland stated.

“Fine with me.  I’ll send a couple of my deputies with you to give you jurisdiction.”

“I’m coming along,” Johnny said.

“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Lancer.”

Scott caught his arm and held him back.  “Leave it, Johnny.  This isn’t our business any longer.”

“You trust him not to shoot her if he catches up with her?”

“He’s a lawman, not a vigilante.  You have to let this go.” 

McParland was flushed.  “I’m not a murderer, whatever you might choose to believe.  Besides, I want her to have plenty of time to think about what she did before she swings.”

Johnny stared at McParland for several heartbeats.  Perhaps Livvie would prefer a clean death.  He knew that he’d rather die fighting than at the end of a rope.  He turned away, catching a glimpse of Cherry’s pale face.  He shook his head and took a deep breath.  They’d been caught up in something ugly and now it was time to move on.  They had their own business to attend to and responsibilities to their father and the ranch.

Whatever happened to the remaining outlaws had been brought upon themselves.  Still, it was hard to imagine watching a woman hang.

He could hear McParland and Harkness talking, making their final preparations.  He stared out into the night while a cool breeze ruffled his hair.

“You boys have had a busy night,” Harkness said.  “Take your pick of the horses.  Come over to my office in the morning to give your statements.  Which hotel are you staying at in case I need to reach you?”

Johnny folded his arms and bent his head, content to let Scott deal with the lawman.

“The Union Hotel,” Scott said.  “We have a business meeting at ten, but I’m sure we can rearrange it.”

“Take your time, Son.  The judge is out of town right now so it’ll be a couple of weeks before the trial.  You two will need to come back to give evidence.”

“There was a lady on the train – Mrs. Wells.  She was one of the passengers who was taken hostage.  Do you know where we can find her?” Johnny asked.  “She had a rough time and we’d like to make sure she’s alright.”

“Martha Wells?  She’s had her sorrows right enough.  Lost her husband a month ago.  Her daughter owns the dress shop on the main street.  She lives above the shop and told me she had talked her mother into coming to stay with her for a while.  Dreadful thing for her to get caught up in this robbery.”

“She was a great help after that young man was shot,” Scott said.  “We’ll call on her tomorrow.”

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate your concern.  Now, I think we should get moving.  The railroad will send an engine out to collect the carriages, so there’s nothing more we can do here tonight.”  Harkness moved away.  “Mount up, men,” he called.

Johnny walked over to one of the spare horses, checked the girth and adjusted the stirrups before settling in the saddle.  “Reckon we can grab a couple of hours sleep before our meeting.  Not that we’re gonna make much of an impression dressed like this.”

Scott looked down at his own dusty and sweat stained clothes.  “Then we’d better hope the carriage with our bags arrives early.  I don’t know about you, Brother, but I’m too tired to worry about that tonight.  We’ll deal with tomorrow when it arrives.”

The wagon carrying the prisoners creaked as the horses began to move forward and they began the final stage of their journey to Sacramento.

 

Chapter 8

Johnny breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped out of the marshal’s office.  He had been aware of Cherry and Art watching from their cells the whole time he and Scott had been giving their statements.  He hadn’t liked the appraising look on Cherry’s face on the one occasion he’d caught her eye.  It left him with the unpleasant feeling that something was brewing.

The bright sunshine hit his tired eyes, forcing him squint and turn away.  He’d only managed a couple of hours sleep and he’d had to fight the urge to yawn his way through their earlier business meeting.  Pulling his hat lower brought some relief from the glare.  Standing on the boardwalk, with Scott beside him, allowed him to drink in the sounds and smells of a prosperous town.  Horses and wagons clogged the street, causing the townsfolk to weave among them to cross from one side to the other.  Children called to each other as they were hustled along by their parents.  It seemed that everyone was in a hurry.

His attention was caught by a smartly dressed man who had just stepped out into the roadway.  An approaching farm wagon laden with vegetables forced him to move quickly out of its way.  Johnny snickered as the man stepped in a pile of horse manure.  The look of shock and disgust made him laugh out loud.

Scott elbowed him in the ribs.  “Where are your manners?”

Johnny recognized that mock serious expression for what it was.  “Guess I forgot to bring them with me.”  He leaned against one of the posts supporting an awning in front of the dry goods store, his thoughts returning to the train robbers.  “Did you get a feeling that Cherry was waiting for something?”

“I’m sure she is hoping her sister will find a way to rescue her.  It can’t be easy accepting that she will either go to jail for a very long time or hang because two people died.”

A bead of sweat was trickling down Johnny’s face and he swiped it away.  He was hot and his shirt was sticking to his skin.  “I think it’s more than hope.”

“The marshal strikes me as being very capable.  I’m sure he’ll take precautions.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Johnny said, a hint of doubt coloring his tone.

“We still have time to call on Mrs. Wells,” Scott said.  “Then I suggest we have an early supper and try to catch up on some of our lost sleep.  The train leaves at eight in the morning.”

Johnny took the hint.  Scott wasn’t about to let him become sidetracked.  “The dress shop’s a couple of blocks down.”  He pushed away from the post and started walking. 

“Do you ever think about going back to Boston?” he asked, more to keep his mind off the outlaws than anything else.

“Trying to get rid of me, little brother?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Nope.  Just wondering.  You sure looked like you were enjoying yourself during our meeting this morning.”

“You didn’t do badly yourself.  Maybe you’re right that it isn’t so different from negotiating the sale of your gun.”

“Just don’t tell Murdoch that.  I’d rather pull dumb cows out of mud holes than spend hours sitting in an office.”

“Sometimes I think you don’t give yourself enough credit.”

Johnny threw his brother a sharp look, remembering a similar conversation on the morning after their arrival at Lancer.  “Saves a whole hell of a lot of disappointment,” he replied, a grin tugging at the corner of his lips.  Trust Scott to remind him that he’d underestimated Murdoch and warn him not to underestimate his own abilities.

He led the way into the dress store, the tinkling of the bell above the door alerting the woman behind the counter.  She had been measuring out a length of bright blue material which Johnny thought would look good on Teresa.  Despite the welcoming smile, she looked tired. 

Johnny removed his hat.  “We’re looking for Mrs. Wells,” he said.

A faint shadow crossed the woman’s face and her smile wavered.  “My mother is resting.  I would rather not disturb her.”

“We only want to see how she’s doing,” Johnny continued.  “My name is Johnny Lancer.  This is my brother Scott.  We were on the train last night with your mother.”

“I didn’t realize who you were.”  She hurried round from behind the counter, offering her hand to Johnny.  “I’m Alice Carson.  My mother told me how you tried to protect the other passengers.  I am very pleased to meet you both.”

“We don’t want to impose,” Scott said.  “We’re leaving in the morning, so perhaps you could tell your mother we called.”

“Nonsense,” Mrs. Carson replied.  “She would never forgive me if I let you leave without giving her the chance to thank you.” 

“We’re not looking for thanks, Ma’am,” Johnny said.

 “Then, perhaps you’d settle for some coffee and a slice of home-made strawberry sponge cake.  Just let me close up the shop for the day.”

“That would be very welcome.”  Scott stood aside to let Mrs. Carson lead the way through a doorway at the back of the shop. 

A narrow stairway led up to the top floor.  The doors off the upper hallway were all closed except for the one at the far end.

“Mother?” Mrs. Carson called out.  “We have visitors.”

Martha Wells was still dressed in black.  There was a book resting on her lap, but her unfocussed stare led Johnny to believe that she hadn’t been reading.  She’d looked tired and sad when he’d first seen her at the railroad station.  Now she looked completely drained and it took her a few seconds to acknowledge her daughter’s words. 

Johnny walked further into the room, a sincere smile directed toward the elderly lady.  “It’s good to see you again, Mrs. Wells.”

She blinked a few times before her own smile emerged.  “Johnny!  Scott!  I am so pleased to see you.  I was worried when you stayed behind to deal with those outlaws.”

“Sit down,” Mrs. Carson urged.  “I’ll fetch that cake I promised you.”

Johnny looked round the room.  It was small and the walls were covered in a heavily patterned red and gold wallpaper.  The furniture looked worn and well used, but everything was clean and tidy.  He could smell the beeswax that had been used to polish the wood.  Johnny stepped around a side table to reach a faded red armchair while Scott sat on the matching sofa.  The window was partly open with a slight breeze causing the lace drapes to flutter.  Despite this, the heat of the day had seeped into the room, making it uncomfortably warm. 

“Marshal Harkness said that he told you what happened after you left.”  Johnny settled comfortably in the over-stuffed chair.

“Yes, and I was surprised to hear the blonde girl killed someone.  I didn’t think she was as cold-blooded as the others.  Have they caught up with her yet?”

Scott shook his head.  “McParland and his men are still out looking for her.”

“That boy, Rick, the marshal said he was dead.  Life is precious and I know I shouldn’t feel satisfaction, but he was a wicked young man.”

“I reckon he got off easy,” Johnny said, keeping his voice carefully free of expression. 

The sound of china clinking and the smell of coffee distracted him.  Seeing Mrs. Carson struggling with a heavily laden tray, he leapt to his feet to help her.

“What happened to Susan?” Scott asked.

“She was taken in by the minister and his wife.  They were going to send a telegram to her parents this morning.  I imagine they will come to take her home.  Such a shame.”  She turned away, delicately wiping the corner of her eye with a white handkerchief.

Johnny accepted a plate which was almost overflowing with cake, saddened to see her obvious distress.   “You did a good thing last night, Ma’am.  You kept calm and you helped that young lady cope with her loss.”

“I did what I could.”

To cover an unexpected feeling of awkwardness Johnny took a mouthful of cake.  The light sponge practically dissolved leaving a pleasant sweetness.  “That’s a mighty fine cake,” he said after he’d swallowed.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Carson replied.

“Are you planning to stay in Sacramento long?” Scott asked. 

“A few weeks.”  Mrs. Wells appeared to have recovered herself.  “My daughter would like me to move here permanently but I’m not sure that I’m ready to give up my house.  I spent my whole married life living in the San Joaquin.”

“If you need any help when you get home just let us know,” Scott offered.

“That’s very kind of you.  Please give my regards to your father.  I don’t know him well, but I’m sure he’s proud to have two such fine sons.”

Johnny shot a quick look at his brother.  There had been times when he’d wondered if Murdoch was proud of him.  His father sure as hell wouldn’t be proud of his past if he ever learnt the whole story.  “We should leave you ladies in peace,” he said. 

Scott stood and Johnny heard his brother smoothly complimenting Mrs. Carson on her baking.  Johnny walked over to Mrs. Wells and hunkered down in front of her.  “Are you gonna be alright?” he asked softly.

“Thanks to you and your brother.”

“I was wondering something.”  He hesitated, unsure about pursuing a thought that had stuck with him since the previous night.

“I think you’ve earned the right to ask your question,” she replied.

“I was thinking of something you said.”  He ducked his head, unable to look her in the eye.  “You said that no one should have to cope with the loss of a loved one alone.  I wondered what you meant.”  He looked up to find her eyes were bright with tears.  “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have asked.”

“My husband died when our wagon overturned and he was trapped.”  Her voice shook and her fingers were twisting the handkerchief.  “I was with him.  It was late afternoon and we were on a stretch of roadway that isn’t used very much.  There were no houses nearby – no one to ask for help.  I tried to free him, but it was no use.  He was in a lot of pain and his heart...” The tears started to flow.  “His heart gave out.  I watched him die and I sat with him all night until we were found the next morning.”

Johnny stood up, his own throat tight with regret.  “You’re a real fine lady and you’ve got a lot of guts.  Like Scott said, if you need anything you let us know.”

“Thank you.”

Johnny turned away, angry that he’d caused her more distress.  “Take care, Ma’am,” he said before leaving the room and closing the door gently behind him.

*****  

Johnny hadn’t had to say anything to his brother.  Scott had taken one look at his expression and had steered him purposefully toward the nearest saloon.  He hadn’t pried, and that was another thing Johnny liked.  They’d downed a couple of beers in companionable silence as the saloon had started to fill up.  A short stroll had taken them to a small cafe where they’d eaten dinner.  Now all Johnny could think about was crawling into bed and closing his eyes. 

They entered the hotel and were passing the front desk when the manager called them over.  Johnny rested against the counter, almost ready to fall asleep standing up.

“I have a message for you,” the manager said, pulling an envelope out of one of the pigeon holes on the wall behind him.

Scott took the envelope and opened it.  Johnny yawned, unable to work up any curiosity.  That changed the second he saw the fury flaring in Scott’s eyes.

“What is it?”

“Who delivered this?” Scott asked the manager.

“Scott?  What does it say?”  Johnny took the letter from Scott’s unresisting fingers.  His tired mind refused to accept the words scrawled on the paper.  He read it again, hearing the manager’s voice, but not taking in the words.  When he looked up at his brother he saw the same fury and determination as he was feeling.  The paper fell to the floor as he turned and walked back out into the night.

 

Chapter 9

The night air did nothing to cool the fire raging through Johnny’s blood.  Two men approaching along the sidewalk stepped out of his way.  He saw the expression on their faces and had no trouble recognizing it.  He quickened his pace, but hadn’t taken more than a dozen steps before Scott caught up with him and grabbed his arm.

“Where are you going?” 

The sharp question only inflamed him further.  “Back to the dress shop.”  Scott’s fingers dug painfully into his skin leaving him with no choice but to stop.

“Think about this, Johnny.  You read the note.  Do you want to risk their lives?”

Johnny’s breath left his lips in an explosive sigh.  “Damn!” 

Scott released his hold and held out the note.  “I didn’t think it was wise to leave this lying around.”

Johnny took it and smoothed it out, angry at his momentary loss of control.  It hadn’t even taken many words to ignite his temper.  Just a time, a place and a threat to kill Mrs. Wells and her daughter if he and Scott didn’t show.  The brief message wasn’t signed, but it didn’t have to be.  He knew who’d sent it.  “What time is it?”

Scott pulled out his watch, flipping open the cover and stepping back to catch the light from a lantern hanging outside the hotel.  “We have less than ten minutes.”

“She could be bluffing.”  Johnny couldn’t convince himself of that, no matter how badly he wanted to.  Livvie had already shown how deadly she could be and, having got her claws into them, she wouldn’t stop until she got what she wanted.

“I don’t get the feeling that she’d hesitate to carry through with her threat.  We underestimated her last time and we can’t afford to do that again.”

“How much help d’you figure she has?”  Johnny’s gaze roamed the deserted street.  All the businesses were shut up for the night, leaving the windows dark.  He thought he caught some movement in the mouth of an alley across the way, but there wasn’t enough light to be certain and they didn’t have time to check it out.

“There must have been at least one other member of the gang waiting with the horses,” Scott said.  “Clever.”

Johnny drew his gun, checking automatically to make sure it was loaded.  He slipped it back into its holster.  “Guess we shouldn’t keep the lady waiting,” he said with heavy sarcasm, before setting off down the street with Scott beside him.

It didn’t take long to reach their destination.  They turned off the main street and walked quickly down the side of the livery stable.  The door at the back was unlocked and when Johnny put his hand against the rough wood, he saw that the padlock had been forced.  The hinges creaked as he pushed the door open.

He entered the building warily, his boots stirring the dust and straw on the floor.  Lanterns had been lit inside, throwing all the stalls into shadow so that he could only imagine unseen eyes watching him.  His searching gaze was immediately drawn to Livvie, who was standing in the open, her hands empty of weapons.  He stared at her, grateful that the first heat of his anger had gone, to be replaced by an icy calm which he knew from experience only made him more deadly. 

“Well, isn’t this just a wonderful surprise?”  Johnny stopped just outside the circle of lamplight, his right hand resting gently on the handle of his gun.  “Where are they?”

“Safe, and they’ll stay that way so long as you do as you’re told.”

“How do we know you’re telling us the truth?” Scott asked.  “We have no proof that you’re holding them.”

“You’ll just have to take it on trust, but I can describe their home if that will convince you.  Alice was real sweet to me, right up until I pointed a gun at her head.”

Johnny tightened the grip on his gun, barely suppressing the urge to beat the information out of her.  The thought that he might be capable of doing such a thing made bile rise in his throat.  “What do you want?”

“What do you think I want?”  Livvie’s voice rose sharply, betraying the depth of the strain she was under.  “I want my sister, Art and Rick out of jail.”

“Your information is a little out of date,” Scott said.  “Rick’s dead.”

Livvie’s face was pale, emphasizing a long thin cut on her cheek and the marks made by Susan’s nails.  Now that he looked closer Johnny could see numerous scratches on her arms and small rips in her shirt.  She must have had to travel over some rough country to get to safety.

“I didn’t know.  It doesn’t matter.  You have two hours,” she said, her voice flat and empty.  “Don’t be late or I’ll kill them both.”

Her order was immediately backed up by the sound of a rifle being cocked.  Johnny turned slowly, trying to identify the location of the threat, but the shadows were too deep for him to tell exactly where the gunman was standing.  He moved his hand away from his gun and returned his attention to Livvie.

“Assuming that we do what you want, where do we meet?” Scott asked.

“There will be horses waiting for you here.  Leave town by the west road.  About ten miles further on you’ll see a barn.  Turn south there and keep riding and we’ll find you.  Once Cherry and Art are free, I’ll tell you where to find the old lady and her daughter.”

“If anything happens to them I’ll hunt you down myself,” Johnny warned, staring into her expressionless blue eyes.

“Save your threats.  You’re running out of time.”

Johnny held her gaze for another few seconds before turning to Scott.  “Let’s go.”

There was no debate – no argument.  To save two innocent women they would break the Law, and deal with the consequences.

*****

The Wells Fargo office was four blocks away from the jail.  The square, ugly single storey building sat alone, separated from its neighbors by wide side streets.  The night was still and quiet, exactly what they needed to put their desperate plan into operation.

Johnny stood in the shadow of a doorway across the street from his target.   For the past five minutes he’d been watching the front window, making certain that no-one was inside.  While he waited Scott was checking out the streets around the office.  They had already walked the route from here to the marshal’s office, ensuring as far as possible that nothing would hold up their escape.  Footsteps on the boardwalk make him tense in anticipation and press more closely against the door at his back.

Scott walked past without even looking in his direction.  “It’s all clear. Be careful.”

Then, Scott was gone and it was time.  Johnny drew his gun, still focused on his target.  The weapon fit comfortably into his hand although, for this job, a rifle would have been better. He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly and growing steadily calmer.

He squeezed the trigger and his first bullet pierced the glass causing it to crack.  Two more shots followed quickly and then Johnny ran without waiting to see how much damage he’d done.  He heard shouting and doors slamming, but didn’t look back and didn’t slow down until he was close to the back door of the marshal’s office where Scott was waiting.

“The marshal and two deputies have gone to investigate,” Scott said.  “They left in a hurry.”

“The door?” Johnny asked after drawing in a gulping breath.

“Unlocked, which means there is probably someone still in there.”

They moved quickly to the front of the jail, keeping carefully out of sight in the shadows.  When Johnny looked back toward the Wells Fargo office he saw that a large crowd had gathered.  Most were dressed in nightshirts and had clearly been roused from their beds.   “We don’t have much time.”  He drew his gun and led the way into the jail.

The young deputy sitting behind the desk hesitated a second too long before reaching for his gun.

“Don’t,” Johnny warned softly as he heard Scott close and lock the front door.

“You were on the train,” the deputy said, his confusion clear.  “You helped catch the outlaws.”  His hand moved away from his gun.  “What do you want?”

“We’re taking your prisoners.”  Scott snagged the keys from the desk.

Johnny kept his gun pointed steadily at the lawman.  “We don’t want anyone to get hurt, so just do as we tell you and everything will be alright.”

Scott slipped the key in the lock, it clicked, and he swung the cell door open, squeaking on its hinges.

“Put your gun on the desk and get into one of the cells,” Johnny ordered.

The deputy didn’t argue, for which Johnny was grateful.  He didn’t want to think about the possibility of shooting a peace officer.  The deputy backed away until he was standing by one of the cots.  Johnny took his time locking the cell, giving Scott time to usher Cherry and Art toward the back door. 

He waited until he was alone before shoving a piece of paper toward the deputy.  “Give this to the marshal,” he said.  As soon as the man had taken the paper Johnny hurried back out into the night.

He had to run to catch up with the others, keeping his eyes and ears open for sounds of alarm or pursuit.  He kept his gun drawn and noticed that Scott had done the same.  As far as he was concerned Cherry and Art were still prisoners and he fully intended to see them and their colleagues behind bars before the night was over.  He knew that he and Scott were taking a hell of a chance and any number of things could go wrong, but they hadn’t been left with any choice. 

They reached the livery stable without incident and found four horses waiting for them just as Livvie had promised.  Johnny immediately boosted Cherry into the saddle of the nearest animal.  She looked tired and strained and there was none of the smug self-satisfaction he’d been expecting.

“You’ve seen Livvie?” she asked as she gathered up the reins.

“Yeah.  She’s a real devious bitch.”  He swung easily into the saddle.

“She’s my little sister,” Cherry said.  “She’s all the family I’ve got left.”

There was an unspoken plea buried beneath her words which Johnny ignored.  “Get moving,” he said.  “It won’t take long for the marshal to find out you’ve gone.”

“Why are you doing this?”

Scott and Art were already on their way and Johnny had no patience for this conversation.  “Your sweet little sister forced us into it.”  He leaned over and slapped Cherry’s horse on the rump.  It leaped forward, almost catching her off balance.  With his mouth set in a hard line he followed.

They rode hard until they reached the barn.  It was dark and neglected, with broken and rotting timber and only part of the roof still intact.  Scott had taken the lead, followed by the two outlaws.  Johnny brought up the rear, occasionally checking over his shoulder to see if there was any sign of pursuit.  At the turn off Scott slowed, allowing Cherry and Art to draw level with him.

“We take the south road,” he said.

Cherry nodded and kicked her horse into a canter.  Scott dropped back until he and Johnny were riding side by side.  “Anything?” he asked in a low voice.

“No.  I hope the marshal’s smart enough to hold back until we find out what’s happened to the women.”

They rode side by side in silence until Johnny saw three riders moving out from the shelter of the trees ahead of them.  By the time he and Scott reined in, Livvie and Cherry had dismounted and thrown their arms around each other.  The two men with Livvie, however, had their rifles trained on the brothers.  Helpless until they knew that Mrs. Wells and Alice were safe, they dismounted and allowed Art to take their guns.

Johnny studied the sisters as a shiver ran down his spine with the knowledge that Livvie was facing the gallows.  But, despite knowing that Livvie was guilty of murder, it was clear that Cherry was going to stand by her.  It stirred uncomfortable memories.  He hadn’t always walked on the right side of the law and had done things that lay heavily on his conscience.  Scott and Murdoch had taken him on trust.  Would they still have welcomed him if they’d known all he’d done? 

He shook those thoughts away and concentrated instead on his surroundings.  The four horses they had ridden from town were tired, their sides heaving in and out.  They wouldn’t be fit for prolonged hard riding, but would still be capable of making a reasonable speed.  The sisters had broken apart, but Cherry still had an arm around Livvie’s waist.  The two unknown outlaws hadn’t taken their eyes off him and Scott.  They were too far away to be rushed, and any move in their direction would be suicidal.  Art was closer and was in possession of their guns.  Johnny looked longingly at his Colt.  He was getting very tired of giving it up.

“You got what you wanted,” Johnny said to Livvie and he didn’t have to feign the bitterness in his voice.  “Where are they?”

“They’re tied up in the barn you passed on the way here.”

Johnny kept his relief from showing.  This game wasn’t over yet.  “What happens now?”

“We leave you two here without your horses, guns or boots.  You’ll have a long uncomfortable walk back, and the women will slow you down even more.  We’ll be long gone before you find help.”

“McParland won’t give up,” Scott said.  “You won’t be safe even if you make it to the border.”

Although Livvie shrugged, Johnny could see a flicker of fear.  She didn’t deny that they were headed to Mexico. Even without flogging the horses to death, the outlaws could make it to the border in two days.  He had a feeling, though, that it was all too predictable and that the sisters had another destination in mind.

“We should leave,” Cherry said.  “The marshal will be rounding up a posse.”

“Get your boots off,” Art ordered.

Johnny bent down, giving the appearance of complying while taking the chance to grab a handful of dirt.  Straightening quickly he flung the dirt into Art’s eyes.  Scott was already moving, keeping Art between him and the two gunmen.  Art dropped the gun he’d been holding in his left hand so that he could scrub at his eyes to try and clear his temporary blindness.  The weight of Scott’s body knocked him off balance.  As Johnny dived forward, reaching for his gun, a bullet whistled past his ear.  Scott scooped up his own weapon and fired.  Johnny didn’t hear any cries of pain, but the shot would be enough to keep the outlaws occupied and scrambling for cover.  He punched Art in the face, grabbed his gun and raced to join Scott behind the meager shelter of an oak tree. 

“Nice move,” Scott said.  “How about giving me some warning next time?”

Johnny ducked as more bullets headed their way.  “Sorry.”  He peered out and took a shot.  All the outlaws had disappeared into the cover of the trees on the opposite side of the road.  He got a glimpse of Livvie’s blonde hair and then had to press himself flat against the trunk as more shots came their way.

“Now what?” Scott asked as he deftly reloaded his gun.

“Hold them here until the marshal turns up.”

“Not much of a plan.”  Scott fired again, dodging quickly back behind the tree.

“Nope.  Got a better idea?”

Scott shook his head.  “No.”  He took another quick look.  “I’d say the marshal had better turn up soon.  I get the feeling Livvie and Cherry aren’t planning on waiting around.”

 

Chapter 10

Bullets filled the air, thudding into the trees around them.  All they could do was keep their heads down and wait for an opportunity to return fire.

“They’re giving the women a chance to escape,” Johnny called above the noise of the guns.  “And there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it.”

The shots became less frequent and he risked a return shot even though he had no clear target.  His brief glimpse of the roadway showed him Livvie and Cherry running toward the nearest pair of horses.  Before he could squeeze off another shot he had to duck back to avoid getting a bullet in the head.

As he stood shoulder to shoulder with Scott, filled with frustrated anger, he heard the sound of horses being ridden hard from the direction of town.  More shots sounded and the bullets headed toward him and Scott died away.  They both took the opportunity to move in opposite directions so that they could get a better view of what was happening.  Johnny crouched down, his gun raised, and aimed at the trees on the far side of the road.  There were close to a dozen horses milling around in the roadway as the members of the posse sought cover of their own.  He spared them only a brief glance, just long enough for Marshal Harkness to acknowledge their presence.

Rather than firing indiscriminately, he waited until he saw movement before squeezing off a shot.  The movement stopped, although he couldn’t tell if his bullet had hit anything.  He tried to see past the horses for some sign of the women.  He didn’t know if they had escaped or been caught in the cross-fire.

“Don’t shoot.”

The shout came from one of the outlaws.  Johnny held his fire, but kept his attention firmly fixed on the trees.  The shooting died away and everyone waited to see what was going to happen.  Slowly three men emerged with two of them supporting the third, who was bleeding heavily from a chest wound. 

“It looks like it’s finally over,” Scott said.

“Not yet.”  Johnny pushed through the members of the posse as they emerged to take custody of the outlaws.  He realized that some of the men were Pinkerton agents which meant that McParland was likely to be there somewhere.  A few of the posse muttered as he passed and gave him unfriendly looks.  He glared back at them and they moved out of his way. 

Not more than a hundred yards away he could see a figure kneeling in the roadway.  He quickened his pace as a cold feeling settled in the pit of his stomach.  Cherry had her back toward him and her head was bent.  As he got closer he could hear her speaking.

“It’ll be alright.  We’ll get you to a doctor.  Just stay with me a little longer.”

The words were disjointed and mixed in with sobs, so that Johnny was almost prepared for what he saw when he reached her.  Livvie was beyond help, her head resting in Cherry’s lap and her blue eyes closed forever.  All the harshness had disappeared from her face, leaving her looking young and innocent.  Cherry was running her fingers through her sister’s blonde hair, still murmuring words of encouragement in a broken voice.

Johnny hunkered down beside her.  From the look of the wound Livvie had been shot in the back and death would have come quickly.  “I’m sorry.”

When she looked up her green eyes were awash with tears.  “She came back for me.  She could have gotten away.” 

“That’s what family does.  They look out for each other.”  He couldn’t offer any more comfort than that.  What use would it be to say that this was a kinder end than facing the gallows?

He stood up and turned away, feeling far more regret than he had expected.  Scott was approaching with McParland beside him.  The Pinkerton agent was grimy and unshaven, his clothes bearing the evidence of a day’s hard riding.  He walked past Johnny and stopped to look down at the sisters.

“They tracked Livvie and the others to Sacramento,” Scott explained.  “They arrived in town just as the marshal was assembling his posse.”

McParland turned away with a cold, satisfied smirk.  “She got what she deserved, although I’d rather have watched her twitching at the end of a rope.”

Johnny’s vision clouded and he clenched his fists.  He was barely aware of his right arm moving until he felt the impact with McParland’s face.  Hands fastened around both his arms and he was dragged back as McParland fell to the ground.

“Easy, Brother,” Scott said.  “We’re in enough trouble as it is.”

“He’s a sonovabitch,” Johnny said.  He stopped struggling and spat in the dirt by McParland’s head.

The Pinkerton agent rose shakily to his feet, his right hand pressed against his jaw.  “You’ve crossed the line, Lancer.  Even your daddy’s name won’t keep you and your brother out of jail.”

“That’s enough.”  Marshal Harkness strode over.  “We can discuss the rights and wrongs of what happened once we get back to town.”  His fierce gaze seemed to quell McParland’s protests and was enough to cause Johnny to look at the ground.  “Did you find out what they did with the hostages?” he asked the brothers.

“Mierde,” Johnny said, furious with himself for putting the fate of Mrs. Wells and her daughter out of his mind. 

“Yes,” Scott interrupted smoothly.  “They were being held in the barn at the turn off about ten miles back.  If you’ll accept our parole we can go on ahead and free them.  You’ll need to send a wagon back for them as I don’t imagine either will be able to ride.”

“You boys took a real chance by helping those outlaws escape.  I’m gonna have to speak to the judge, and I can’t guarantee that you won’t face charges.”

“We understand and we’ll surrender to your custody once we get the women back to town.”

Johnny waited impatiently for the marshal to make up his mind.  “You’ve got our word,” he said.  “Please.”

“Alright, I reckon I owe you that.”

“Marshal...” McParland spluttered.

“Shut up,” Harkness replied.  “It’s time we got the prisoners back to town.  Get your men mounted up.”

Johnny cast one last look at Cherry.  She hadn’t moved, although she had tightened her hold on her sister’s body.  Then, Scott put an arm around his shoulders and gently steered him away.

*****  

The sky was turning grey, edging toward dawn as they approached the barn.  Johnny’s concern had been mounting steadily with the thought that Livvie might have lied.  What would they do if the women weren’t here?  What if they were dead?  He could tell from Scott’s tightly controlled expression that he was equally worried, but neither of them put their fears into words.

They halted their horses out of sight of the building, alert to the possibility that there could be a guard.  Johnny dismounted and looped the reins over a sapling at the edge of the road.  He drew his gun.  “Let’s go.”

They kept within the tree line as they approached the derelict building.  Apart from some bird song the whole area seemed to be deserted.  Johnny stopped and stood perfectly still while his gaze ranged from one end of the building to the other.  Nothing moved, so he looked at Scott and pointed to his left.  There was twenty yards of open space between them and the barn.  Johnny took a deep breath and ran, weaving from side to side to present a harder target for anyone who might be waiting in ambush.

He reached the wall safely, checked that Scott was alright, then made his way silently toward a gap where two planks had sprung apart.  He looked inside.  The interior was in darkness so he could only make out the dim shapes of posts and partitions.  He moved away, continuing his slow circuit and peering through several other gaps in the walls.  There was nothing to suggest that the barn wasn’t deserted.

Scott had completed his inspection and met up with him outside the main door.  A shake of his head confirmed that his brother hadn’t seen anything either.  The door was hanging from the top hinge only and it swung open easily.  Johnny led the way, secure in the knowledge that Scott would watch his back. 

“Mrs. Wells?  Alice?” he called.

He heard a scuffling sound to his right.  He glanced at Scott.  “Keep watch.”  The noise increased as he got closer to one of the stalls.  He grabbed a lantern that was hanging from a hook and quickly lit the candle.  Pale light pushed away the gloom and allowed him to see clearly for the first time.

“Scott!” he called.  Johnny set the lantern down and knelt in the straw beside Mrs. Wells.

The old lady had been bound hand and foot and her eyes were wide above the cloth covering her mouth.  She looked tired and dirty, but otherwise unharmed.  Alice lay beside her tied just as securely.  Johnny pulled out his knife and sliced through the ropes pinning Mrs. Wells’ arms behind her.  He raised her up so that she could sit with her back to the wall and slid the gag from her mouth.  Scott had arrived in answer to his call and was taking care of Alice Carson.

“Are you alright?” Johnny asked.

Mrs. Well’s eyes filled with tears, although she nodded bravely.  Johnny wrapped his arms around her frail body and held her until she stopped shaking.

*****

The hotel dining room was hot and the purple flowers in the vase on the table were wilting sadly.  Not even the heat, though, had prevented Johnny from eating a healthy serving of meatloaf, gravy and mashed potatoes.  The plates had been cleared away, leaving only the cups and a solid silver coffee pot resting on the white tablecloth.

He leaned back in his chair with a contented sigh.  “That was a fine meal, but I bet Teresa and Maria will be cooking up a storm for dinner tonight.”

“I’m sure they are,” Scott said.  “I’m also sure our father is busy making a very long list of unpleasant chores for us to do starting tomorrow.”

“It ain’t our fault we’re three days late getting home.  He should just be grateful he didn’t have to come and bail us out of jail.” 

“I’m sure he’ll be very glad to see you,” Mrs. Wells said.  “When it comes right down to it, family is all that matters.”  She smiled fondly at her daughter.

Alice nodded, smiling in return.  “Mother has decided to stay in Sacramento.  Our little...ordeal made us realize that life is too precious to waste.”

“If you need any help to move your belongings we’d be happy to help,” Johnny offered.

“I would be obliged, although I think you two have done more than enough for us.”

Johnny sipped his coffee as he thought about that.  “It was our fault that Livvie found you.  She must have followed us when we called on you.  If it hadn’t been for that...”

“Don’t you dare blame yourself, Johnny Lancer.”  Mrs. Wells glared at him severely.  “You and Scott risked your lives, and risked a jail sentence, to save us.”

“How did you persuade the marshal not to press charges?” Alice asked.

“He decided that there had been extenuating circumstances,” Scott replied.  “Special Agent McParland was harder to convince, though.  Especially as Johnny had assaulted him.”

“He deserved it,” Johnny muttered, defensively.

“Oh, I don’t disagree, Brother.  But, he would have been within his rights to file charges.”

“He was a disagreeable man,” Martha Wells said.  “He was more concerned with his career, than with the people he trampled on his way.”

“That, ironically, is what made him change his mind.”  Scott’s smile contained a touch of malice.  “It seems that our father’s name carries a lot of weight in this state.  The railroad company, who hired the Pinkerton Agency in the first place, didn’t want to offend a prominent member of the Cattle Growers Association and a personal friend of the lieutenant governor of California.”

“Yeah,” Johnny added with a smirk, “he was told that he couldn’t expect any more promotions if he upset his clients.”

“We should be going.  The train leaves in half an hour.”  Scott stood and offered his hand to Mrs. Wells.  “It was a pleasure meeting you.”  He nodded to Alice.  “Mrs. Carson.”

Johnny got to his feet, waiting until Scott had moved away to settle their bill.  He bent down and kissed Mrs. Wells on the cheek.  “You take care of yourself, ma’am.”

“I will.  And you tell your father not to be too hard on you both.”

“Don’t worry about us.  Murdoch’s bark’s worse than his bite – mostly.”

Johnny sauntered over to join Scott.  “There’s one good thing that came out of this,” he said as he picked up his bag.

“Really?  Care to enlighten me?”

“Well, the way I see it, next time Murdoch wants a contract negotiated he’ll do it himself.”

A slow smile spread across Scott’s face.  “You know something, Johnny?  You’re smarter than you look.”

Johnny was pretty sure he’d just been insulted, but he was in far too good a mood to care.  He set off happily toward the station.  This was one train he wasn’t going to mind boarding.

 

~end~
July 08

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