The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Caroline

 

 

FOne Day More

This story is written in the format of the TV show 24.
Each section covers 1 or 2 hours throughout a 24 hour period.

 

5am – 7am

The screeching of the rooster in the hen house roused Scott unwillingly from a deep and peaceful sleep.  The drapes were closed and the room was still dark.  Tired eyes opened and Scott rolled over to grope for a match to light the lamp on the night stand.  He picked up his watch and waited for his bleary eyes to focus.  His head hit the pillow again with a groan as he saw that it was just approaching five minutes after five. God, he hated having to get up while it was still dark.  There had been nights in Boston when he was only just rolling into his own bed at this time in the morning.  That wasn’t to say that he hadn’t been in bed…just not his own bed.  A slow smile spread across his face as he thought about some of those nights and the women he had shared them with.  A faint stirring in his loins reminded him that now wasn’t a good time to be having such thoughts.

The last two months had passed in a blur.  When he had accepted his father’s unexpected invitation to travel to California he had never anticipated finding himself with a brother or ending up as part owner of a cattle ranch.  In some respects the partnership had been the easiest part.  Getting to know his little brother was proving harder than mastering even the most skilled task on the ranch.  Sometimes he despaired of ever forming the bond of brotherhood that he had always dreamed of having. Not that he had known he had a brother, but growing up as a lonely child he had often imagined what it would be like.  The reality was proving to be rather different.

In the beginning he had felt nothing but irritation whenever he looked at Johnny.  His brother had sat and watched him take on three of Pardee’s men, doing nothing to help.  He had enjoyed punching Johnny out and had been sorely tempted to hit him again when the younger man had thrown his apology back in his face.  Johnny had repeatedly insulted him, dismissing him as a ‘tin soldier’ and refusing to participate in his plan to save Lancer.  He had found Johnny to be smug and irritating, yet had felt a deep disappointment when told that Johnny had walked away from Lancer’s fight with Pardee.

He turned on his side, pulling the covers up over his bare chest.  Another five minutes in the comfort of his bed wouldn’t hurt.  Murdoch was away so there was no-one around to ‘call the tune.’  He heard a door open and close further along the hallway.  That would be Teresa.  Johnny was no better than he was at getting out of bed although neither of them had been late more than once for breakfast.  The one and only time that Scott had been late had earned him a stern lecture from his father in front of Johnny, Teresa and Maria.  To be chastised in front of his brother and Teresa was bad enough without the hired help being a witness.  Johnny’s cheeky grin had infuriated him and he had taken great pleasure in listening as his brother was chewed out a few days later for the same transgression.

Even with the window open the air in the room was already warm and oppressive.  These last few weeks it had been getting steadily hotter with a heaviness in the air that sucked out all the moisture from your body and left tired muscles virtually incapable of movement.  He untangled himself from the sheets and cursed the impulse that had made him travel across the Continent. It wasn’t that he was unused to heat.  Boston summers could be oppressively hot as well, but he had never had to spend those summers in hard, backbreaking physical work.

For a variety of very good reasons Scott was coming round to the reluctant conclusion that he wasn’t cut out to be a rancher.  He missed his grandfather, his friends and his old life.  Most of all he missed the comradeship that he had found at Harvard and in the Cavalry.  He had hoped, fleetingly, that he was going to be able to find that comradeship with Johnny.  He was fond of Teresa, had formed a grudging respect for his father and had singularly failed to form anything other than the most superficial bond with his brother.

It wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of both young men.  There had been moments when he had felt a connection with his dark-haired sibling before one or the other had withdrawn again to hide behind their differences.  Scott snorted softly.  They had an abundance of differences.  During their first memorable argument Johnny had told him forcefully not to call him brother just because they shared Murdoch’s blood.  The blood tie clearly wasn’t enough to overcome their diametrically opposed upbringings.

This wasn’t going to work. He would speak to Murdoch when his father returned later in the day.  The decision finally made, Scott closed his eyes again and tried to ignore the sudden emptiness that swept through him.  He was doing the right thing – wasn’t he?

*****

“One of these days,” Johnny muttered to himself, “I’m gonna shoot that damn bird.”  He lay on his stomach with a pillow flung over his head in a futile effort to block out the noise.  “Damn thing don’t know when to quit,” he griped.

Many times he had stood by the henhouse, his right hand lovingly caressing the handle of his Colt, and had fantasized about sending the rooster to meet its maker.  The bird had strutted around in front of him as if daring him to take his best shot.  Oh boy, had he been tempted.

As the crowing finally died away Johnny emerged from under his pillow and lay on his back staring up toward the ceiling.  The decision he had finally made during the course of a long sleepless night weighed heavily upon him.

He wasn’t cut out to be a rancher, living his life according to the endless ticking of the clock.  Hell, he’d been running wild for over half his life and he hadn’t been lying when he had told Murdoch that he didn’t take orders well.  He also didn’t want to be tied down by responsibility.  Two months was the longest he had stayed in one place for as long as he could remember.  It was time for him to move on before he lost his edge.

He’d miss Teresa and his father.  That was a surprise.  He’d grown up hating Murdoch Lancer, yet all his preconceptions had been turned on their head.  He had a growing regard for Murdoch both as a man and as an employer.  Occasionally he felt something more, or the potential for more.  He shook the thought away.

He should get out of bed.  Having a clean, comfortable bed was something he was starting to get used to.  Not many gunfighters ever experienced luxury like this.  He burrowed deeper under the covers and then gave a resigned sigh. Just because Murdoch was away didn’t give him the excuse to slack off.  He would bet his brother wasn’t lying around lazily contemplating snatching another half hour in bed.

He had a brother…that thought still carried with it a feeling of shock and disbelief.  What he wouldn’t have given to have had a big brother around when he was a scrawny, blue-eyed misfit.  And he had no doubt that Scott would have fought for him.  After being shot in the back by Pardee Johnny had been stunned to find his brother standing over him, protecting him with his own life and an expertly wielded rifle.

Johnny had shied away then – ashamed of having sat back and watched Scott being set upon by Pardee’s men, ashamed of things he had said and ashamed of his past.  What could possibly link a fine Boston bred gentleman and a half-breed gunhawk?  He was deluding himself if he thought he could have the kind of relationship with Scott that he had imagined as a lonely child.  Better to leave before the loneliness and the feeling that he had let something good slip through his fingers became too hard to bear.

He flung his arm over his eyes and told himself that the feeling of emptiness would pass.  He would speak to Murdoch when he returned.  There was no point in putting it off.  After all he had made the right decision – hadn’t he?

*****

Teresa tossed a couple of flapjacks on the griddle and looked at the clock.  It was past five thirty and if Murdoch had been here his sons would most certainly have been at the table waiting for their breakfast.  As each second ticked by she could feel her annoyance increasing.  Did they think she liked getting up this early in the morning to cook breakfast for them?  She moved the eggs off the heat and picked up a cloth so that she could carry the coffee pot over to the table.

After slamming some dishes around, she stalked upstairs.  She couldn’t hear any sounds coming from Scott’s room or the adjoining room occupied by his brother.  She banged loudly on both doors.  “If you’re not downstairs in five minutes I’m going to feed your breakfast to the dogs.”  She didn’t bother waiting for a response.

Exactly five minutes later two dishevelled young men appeared in the kitchen.  She had rarely seen Scott looking anything other than perfectly groomed, but this morning his hair was uncombed and he clearly hadn’t had enough time to shave.

“Sorry, Teresa.  I must have dozed off again.”  Scott took his seat at the table and reached for the coffee. After pouring himself a cup he waved the pot in Johnny’s direction.  His brother held out his cup and nodded his thanks, stifling a yawn at the same time.

“Same here,” Johnny mumbled with an apologetic smile.  “You ain’t gonna tell the old man are you?”

“I’ve a good mind to.” Teresa looked from one to the other.  They both seemed pre-occupied and…unhappy.  She decided that she could afford to take pity on them.  “You know I won’t tell him.”  She handed over plates laden with bacon, eggs, biscuits and flapjacks.  “Just remember that Cipriano will be waiting for his orders soon so that he can send out the work crews.”

“I’ll see to it before I go into town,” Scott promised.

“I was kinda hoping you’d have time to ride out to the east pasture with me.  There’s some surveying to be done and you know I ain’t that good with maps and such.”

“Sorry, Johnny.  I promised Murdoch I’d see to that business with the bank.  There’s been a mix up somewhere with our accounts and we need to find where that last deposit went.  Then there are all the outstanding bills to settle and…” Scott hesitated before looking down at his hands, “I need to send some telegrams.”

“Guess I’ll just have to go on my own then.”  Johnny tried to hide his disappointment.  He had hoped to be able to tell Scott privately about his decision before speaking to Murdoch.

Scott looked up and frowned in surprise.  His brother had never pushed for his company before and now seemed genuinely unhappy at being turned down.  Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to spend some time with Johnny.  It would give him the opportunity to tell his brother that he was leaving.  “How about I help you with the surveying then you come into town with me?  We can get things done twice as fast with both of us there and then we’d have time for a beer before Murdoch’s stage gets in.”

A slow smile spread across Johnny’s face.  “Yeah, I’d like that.”

Johnny cleared his plate, as appreciative of the good food as he was of the comfortable surroundings.  He wasn’t sure where the impulse had come from to ask Scott to accompany him, but he was glad he had.  Perhaps they could have one good day as brothers before he took off.  “I’ll gather up what we need and saddle the horses,” he offered.  “I’ll meet you in the barn when you’ve done talking to Cip.”  He stood up and carried his dishes over to the sink then bent down to kiss Teresa on the cheek.  “Gracias, Teresa.”

“You’re welcome.  Johnny?  Are you alright?”

“Sure, why wouldn’t I be?”

“No reason.  You two be careful today.”  Teresa watched with a twinge of unease as the two men left.  As she started to clean up the clock struck six.

***** 

Johnny walked from the kitchen to the great room, spurs jingling.  He loved this room.  The mixture of furniture and styles should have made it look cluttered and untidy.  Instead it felt warm and welcoming.  He looked at the Lancer ‘L’ over the fireplace and his eyes crinkled in a smile.  While recovering from Pardee’s bullet he had spent time restlessly scanning a selection of the many books collected over the years by his father.  He had found one on British history and had been fascinated by the tales of knights and battles and damsels in distress.  One thing that had stuck with him was the idea of having a family crest.  Who would have thought that a half-breed gunfighter would have something in common with the ancient families portrayed in that book?  The Lancer empire was something to be proud of even if he couldn’t be a part of it.

“Something on your mind, Brother?”

The softly spoken question jolted him out of his reverie.  “Nothing that won’t keep.”  Johnny didn’t want to discuss his thoughts just yet.  There would be plenty of time once they were away from the hacienda…away from the unrealistic temptation to stay.  “Don’t forget your gun.”  Johnny turned with a grin and adjusted his own gunbelt which was already securely belted around his hips.

Scott’s gunbelt was hanging over the stand by the front door and would likely have stayed there if not for Johnny’s reminder.  It took time to get used to the idea of wearing a gun and it wasn’t yet second nature for his Boston bred brother.

Scott’s answering smile held a touch of embarrassment, a rueful acknowledgment that the gentle reminder had once again been necessary.  “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

Johnny grabbed his hat and brushed his wayward hair out of his eyes.  “You know, Boston, you’re looking a mite scruffy this morning.  If we get a move on you might have time for a bath and shave before you go to the bank.”

“That’s an excellent idea.” Scott smiled warmly.  “It pays to look one’s best when attending a business meeting.”

Johnny saw a shadow cross his brother’s face as the smile disappeared.  It seemed he wasn’t the only one with something troubling him.  What memory had that seemingly innocuous comment invoked?

As they left the house by the front door Johnny decided to pry a little.  “Guess you attended a lot of business meetings when you were in Boston.”

“Grandfather insisted upon it.  He said that I needed to understand the business world if I was going to…”  Scott paused and began to fiddle with his gloves.

“Going to what?”

“Take over when he retired.  I was his only heir and he had hoped that I would keep the business going.”

“I don’t reckon he was happy when you decided to come out west then.”  Johnny thought he had detected a wistfulness in his brother.

“You could say that.”

The finality in Scott’s voice effectively ended the conversation.  Johnny was disappointed, but not surprised.  This was the way it went between them.  Every time they strayed onto personal ground one or other of them pulled back.  He pulled his hat lower to hide his expression.  He had no right to feel hurt when he was just as reticent about his past.  They parted company without any further discussion as Johnny headed for the barn and Scott went to find Cipriano.

*****

Scott mentally kicked himself.  Johnny had given him an opening and he had slammed the door in his brother’s face.  What harm would there have been in talking about his life in Boston?  He knew the answer to that.  He was ashamed of having grown up in a nice home, loved and cared for by his grandfather while his brother was dragging himself up in the worst possible conditions.  He couldn’t talk about his life without rubbing Johnny’s nose in the fact that he had been given everything while Johnny had been given nothing but misery and fear.  He had seen ample evidence of Johnny’s pride and knew that he wouldn’t welcome being the object of pity. At least when he left he could make sure that Johnny ended up with fifty percent of Lancer.  He didn’t need his share and would feel better knowing that his brother had benefited from his decision to return to Boston.

He pushed his hat to the back of his head and strode across the yard.  He found Cipriano waiting by gate leading to the corral.  The large Mexican Segundo had treated him with respect since the fight with Pardee.  He had shown a great deal of patience with his new young employer and had taken time to help Scott learn the skills necessary to participate in the running of the ranch.  Scott had returned that respect.  Cipriano was a hard worker who was devoted to the Lancer family.  He was a trusted and valued employee.

“Buenos Dias, Senor Scott.” Cipriano removed his hat and inclined his head.

“Good morning, Cipriano.  My father will be back later today and he’ll expect a full report.  Have the men finished checking the fence line?”

“Si, senor.  There is no reason why we cannot begin to move the herd.”

“Send men out to check the streams then.  Get any blockages cleared out.  We can’t take any risks with the water supply.  Have someone check the feed stores and make sure that all the line shacks are fully provisioned.  Is there anything else I’ve missed?” Scott asked the question, knowing that Cipriano wouldn’t think any less of him for seeking guidance.

“No, senor.  I will give the men their instructions.”

“Johnny and I are going out to the east pasture and then we’ll meet up with Murdoch in town.  If any problems arise I’m sure you can take care of them.” Scott hesitated, unsure if his next comment would seem condescending.  “My father is lucky to have you as his Segundo.”

“The patron is a good man and a fair employer.  It is my pleasure to work for him…and for you and Senor Johnny.”

Scott cleared his throat self-consciously before bidding Cipriano farewell and heading toward the barn to join his brother.  As he walked he pulled out his watch.  It was only six thirty.  Even riding at an easy pace they would reach the east pasture within an hour.  The survey could be achieved between them in a couple of hours giving them plenty of time to get to town and cleaned up.  As he walked he began rehearsing in his mind what he would say to Murdoch.  Would his father be disappointed or secretly relieved?  And how would Johnny take it?  He shrugged those thoughts aside and entered the barn.

He could hear his brother’s voice, soft and melodic and smiled to himself when he realised that Johnny was talking to the horses.  It appeared that his brother had more of an affinity with animals than with his recently discovered sibling.  The one-sided conversation was in Spanish, a language with which Scott wasn’t comfortable.  He was grasping the basics, but his brother’s fluency simply underlined yet another difference between them.  His mood darkened again.

Johnny had turned in his direction, right hand automatically moving toward his gun.  The former gunfighter gave an apologetic grin before ducking down to finish saddling Scott’s mount.  An air of tension hovered between them as they led their horses out of the barn.

As soon as he had settled himself on Barranca’s back Johnny tapped with his spurs and the powerful palomino leapt away.  Taken by surprise Scott was left lagging behind.  He was suddenly overcome by a need to bury his thoughts in the exhilaration of the ride; he urged his horse forward and shot after his brother.

Johnny’s hat dangled down his back, bouncing crazily in time to the motion of the horse.  The early morning air was cool and rushed past, pushing his hair back from his face.  He laughed aloud in delight and spurred Barranca to greater speed, bending low over the golden neck.

Gradually he realised that he was not alone.  Scott’s chestnut horse was gaining on him.  He looked back over his shoulder and shouted a challenge.  The words were blown away by the wind, but Scott had clearly sensed the intent.  The blond had a fiercely determined expression on his face as he strove to catch his elusive brother.

Both became lost in the moment, forgetting fears and doubts, touching for a short time the deep bond both craved.  Although Scott pressed hard Johnny’s lead had been too great.  Mindful of their horses they both eased back until they came to a standstill side by side.

“Bein’ in the Cavalry sure taught you to ride.”  Johnny’s admiration was heartfelt.  On first meeting his brother, all fancied up in his uncomfortable eastern clothing, he had doubted that the man could ride.  That mistaken impression had been quickly rectified when Scott had taken Barranca, then barely broken, over the corral fences the following morning.

“I learned to ride when I was a child.  It gave me a…a freedom from all the rules governing Boston society.  It isn’t easy finding time alone in a large city.”

“I spent a lot of time alone.”

“Johnny, I didn’t mean…I’m sorry you grew up without the comforts I had.” Scott looked uncomfortable as he delivered his apology.

“Didn’t mean it that way.  We were both dealt different hands and it ain’t your fault you ended up with the better cards.  Just wanted you to know I appreciate you comin’ along with me today.”

“I’m glad you asked.”

Johnny’s lop-sided grin lit up his face then he found himself retreating once again behind his protective barrier.  He’d made his decision and this could only make it harder for him to carry it through.  He thought he detected a brief hint of disappointment before Scott erected his own wall of distant politeness.  Shrouded in a blanket of almost impenetrable misunderstanding, the brothers resumed their journey.

 

7am – 9am

Sheriff Val Crawford gave a final earth shattering snore and opened his eyes.  He rolled over onto his back and ran a hand over his jaw.  The small patch of sky visible through the barred window indicated that it was morning.  The presence of the bars reminded him that he had spent the night in the jail rather than in the relative comfort of his own small house.  He turned on his side and stared balefully at his prisoner.  The man was awake and glaring back at him.

“’Bout time you woke up, Sheriff.  I ain’t been able to get a wink of sleep with all that noise.”

“Shut up, Stearns.  You’ll have time enough to sleep after they hang ya.”

Reaching his desk Val rummaged in the top drawer and pulled out his watch.  He was disappointed to see that it was only a few minutes after seven.  It was going to be a long day.  He threw some coffee into the pot and filled it with water.  The stove had gone out overnight so he raked out the ashes and added fresh kindling before getting the fire going again.  After wiping his grubby hands down his trousers he made a quick visit to the small outhouse at the back of the jail.

The sky was clear, heralding another bright sunny day.  Val whistled tunelessly to himself, more to irritate his prisoner than anything else, and returned to his office.  The heat didn’t bother him.  Having spent many years in Mexico and Arizona he could cope with just about anything…except annoying town officials and whining prisoners!

He cursed the impulse that had made him travel to this particular area of California.  He’d only been in Green River for a couple of days when he’d stumbled upon an old acquaintance.  He’d laughed himself silly at the news that the notorious gunhawk, Johnny Madrid, was now a respectable rancher.  He still wasn’t quite sure how Johnny had talked him into taking up the vacant sheriff’s post, although he was fairly sure that a large amount of tequila had been involved somewhere.  The next thing he knew he’d been wearing a badge again and had found himself moving into the accommodation that went with the job.

He had a vague recollection of Johnny assuring him that Green River was a nice peaceful town now that Day Pardee and his men had either been killed or run out of the area.  He was planning on having words with his young friend next time he saw him.

Steam rising from the pot and the smell of coffee brought his thoughts back to the present.  He grabbed a cloth, gave two mugs a cursory wipe, and lifted the pot.  He always felt better once he’d finished his first cup of coffee.  It didn’t matter to him that everyone else found the brew distasteful.  He carried one of the mugs over to the cell.  Stearns reached out a hand to accept it and carefully drew it back through the bars.

Val figured that Frank Stearns was in his late twenties or early thirties, smartly dressed and with a reputation that far out-weighed his years.  He was a particularly vicious bank robber with a large bounty on his head.  His good looks and lethal charm, while making him memorable to those victims who survived the experience, still enabled him to walk into almost any bank in the state without arousing suspicion.  Once inside he would grab a hostage before being joined by the rest of his men.  As soon as he announced who he was most sensible bank managers handed over the money.  Anyone prevaricating or being obdurate found themselves with at least one dead customer and Frank wasn’t fussy about only shooting men.

Stearns took a mouthful of coffee and his face scrunched up in disgust.  He spat the liquid out in Val’s general direction.  “Hog swill.”

Val shrugged and returned to his desk.  “Have it your way.  Breakfast’ll be here soon enough.”

After putting his feet up Val unfolded the newspaper.  No doubt Stearns’ capture would make headlines.  Val hoped that the news would remain buried until the Marshall arrived to escort the prisoner to Sacramento.  Stearns usually rode with at least three other men, and so far Val hadn’t managed to rustle up any assistance from the good folks of Green River.  He decided that it might be a good idea to send a message out to Lancer.  No one would argue with Johnny Madrid’s gun, and by all accounts his brother was pretty handy with a rifle.

Finding that Johnny had a half-brother had been another surprise.  Val hadn’t been fooled by Johnny’s nonchalance.  There were deep emotions churning under that cool exterior.  It wasn’t often that Johnny was caught off balance, yet Val sensed that this was just what had happened.  He’d only spoken to Scott Lancer once.  The young easterner had been reserved without being condescending and Val reckoned that he might be worth getting to know.

A knock at the door had him reaching for his gun.  “It’s just me, Sheriff. I brought your breakfast.”  The voice belonged to Zeke Patterson who ran the local café with his wife.  As his cooking skills were extremely basic Val had quickly reached an accommodation with the Pattersons.  He hurried to unlock the front door, mouth watering in anticipation.

“Morning, Zeke.”

“Morning, Sheriff.” Zeke looked toward the cell and quickly looked away again.  “Has that dangerous criminal been giving you any trouble?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.”  Val lifted the cover off one of the plates and inhaled the welcome smell of bacon, eggs and fresh baked biscuits.  He shoved the plate and a spoon under the door leading to the cell.

“Mighty decent of you, Sheriff,” Stearns acknowledged.  “I’d tell my boys not to kill you when they break me out, but you understand how it is?”

“There ain’t gonna be a jail break,” Val growled.  “The Marshall will be here tomorrow and by this time next week you’ll be six feet under.”

“We’ll see.” Stearns carried the plate over to his bunk after giving Val and Zeke an unsettling smile.

“Sheriff Crawford, you don’t think…? Zeke began nervously.

“I think he’s got a smooth tongue and that he’s trying to rattle ya.  I don’t want to hear any talk around town about a jail break.  Understood?”

Zeke gulped and nodded hurriedly, eyes darting between the cell and the irate sheriff.  Val sat down to enjoy his breakfast under no illusions at all.  By mid morning everyone in town would be convinced that Frank Stearns’ gang was going to turn up to break their leader out of jail.  Val found that he was no longer hungry as he acknowledged the truth to himself.  Stearns’ men were never going to let him hang.

*****

A little over an hour after leaving the house the brothers approached the borders of the east pasture.  Since their impromptu horse race they had ridden in virtual silence, lost in thoughts that the other couldn’t share.  Despite that, the silence hadn’t felt uncomfortable.  They reached the fence line and drew to a halt.  Scott pulled out a bandana, removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his face.  Although it wasn’t yet eight o’clock he could already tell that it was going to be a blisteringly hot day.  He unhooked his canteen, drinking deeply before offering it to his companion.  He saw that Johnny was watching him with a faint smile.

“What’s so funny?” he asked with a hint of defensiveness in his tone.

“Just thinking how you wouldn’t last five minutes in Mexico if you’re suffering in this little bit of heat.”

“It takes time to adjust.  I’d like to see you cope with the kind of temperatures we get in Boston in the winter.  It’s cold enough to make your fingers and toes blue and turn your breath to ice.”

Johnny handed back the canteen and crossed his arms over the saddle horn.  “What about snow?  I mean I’ve seen it high on the mountain peaks, but I ain’t ever been anywhere that it snowed.”

Scott looked wistful as he remembered his childhood winters.  “I used to love the snow when I was growing up.  Watching it fall, covering everything in a layer of white.” Scott stopped, embarrassed by his enthusiasm.  He looked over at his brother expecting to see ridicule and instead found Johnny looking at him with rapt attention.

“Go on,” Johnny encouraged.

“Everything seemed so quiet and peaceful.  Then afterwards, if the sun reappeared, it was like looking at a mass of diamonds sparkling in the light.” He ducked his head to avoid his brother’s gaze.  “I suppose that sounds stupid.”

“There’s nothing stupid about being able to appreciate beauty.”  Johnny looked around him.  “See, to me this is beautiful.  Everywhere you look there’s a different shade of green.  Back where I grew up everything was dried out and withered ‘cause there was never enough rain.  This is as close to paradise as I can ever imagine getting.”

Scott followed his brother’s gaze.  He’d been overawed by the scale of the ranch without taking the time to fully consider its component parts.  Now, looking at it through his brother’s perspective, he could begin to appreciate just how lovely it was.  “How did people make a living?” he asked curiously.

“Most of ‘em didn’t have much of a living.  They scratched out an existence or worked for one of the big landowners.  Not many of them were good employers, but at least they usually paid enough to put some food on the table.”

Scott had never known hunger while living in Boston.  He wasn’t about to admit that he had experienced near starvation during his time in a Confederate prison.  That was a period of his life he wasn’t ready to share with this newly discovered brother.  It had been a brutal time which had destroyed many men.  He had clung tenaciously to the belief that he would survive long enough to be released.  And he had survived despite the mental and physical scars.  Thanks to the love and support of family and friends he had recovered his health.  Grateful for his salvation he had embraced life, eagerly grasping opportunities that were presented to him…like the opportunity to travel to California to meet his unknown father.

His ordeal had ended.  The people his brother was talking about lived each day wondering if they would have enough food for their families.  It was unrelenting hardship with no hope for the future. Was that what Johnny had experienced while he was growing up?  He only knew the briefest details about his brother’s life.  His father had shared some information with him while Johnny was recovering from his injury.  Johnny had said very little except to assert early on that he and his mother had been thrown out of Lancer.  That had been vehemently disputed by Teresa and brushed aside by Murdoch.  Scott didn’t know where the truth lay, although he couldn’t reconcile that accusation with the fair-minded man that his father was proving to be.

He shot a quick look at his brother.  Johnny appeared to be lost in contemplation of his surroundings, yet Scott had the uncomfortable feeling that he was aware of the scrutiny.  “We should get started.”

Intelligent blue eyes looked his way appraisingly.  “Yeah, you’re right.  If we head over to that copse of trees we can keep your delicate eastern skin out of the sun while we take a look at the maps.”

Scott was taken aback for a moment, eyebrows rising in surprise, until he realised that he was being teased.  “You’re in charge.  I’m just along for the ride.  Lead the way.”

They reached the shade, dismounted and Johnny pulled a sheaf of rolled up paper from his saddlebags.  “Murdoch wants to know if our boundary line around this section of pasture is still where it’s shown on these maps.  Seems someone’s been suggesting that we’ve taken more land than is rightfully ours and he wants a report to go to the Land Office.”  He looked expectantly at his brother who was studying the maps.

“Any idea who raised the issue?”

“The Old Man didn’t say.  Guess he figured I didn’t need to know.”  Johnny suddenly grinned.  “Maybe he was worried I’d shoot them.”

Scott chuckled, finding his brother’s good humor to be infectious.  “That would certainly be one solution to the problem.  However, in the interest of maintaining cordial relationships with our neighbours I suggest we carry out the survey instead.”  He experienced a sudden unexpected sensation of loss as he said the words.  Soon they wouldn’t be his neighbours and Lancer business would no longer be his concern.  Well, the least he could do before he left was to help establish that they hadn’t overstepped their boundaries.

A snippet of a conversation with his father caused Scott to furrow his brow in concentration.  “Murdoch said something a few weeks back about the land bordering Lancer in this direction being sold off.” He shook his head in frustration.  “I don’t recall the details.  I’m afraid there was so much else to think about at the time that I wasn’t paying a lot of attention.”

“We can ask around when we get to town.” Johnny released his end of the pages and they snapped shut.  “Let’s get to it.”

*****

At precisely eight o’clock Mayor Higgs unlocked the door leading to his shop.  He turned to look in each direction along the main street.  The few townsfolk already going about their business greeted him respectfully and he puffed out his chest in pride.  This was his domain and nobody had better forget it.  When he looked across the street at the jail his expression darkened.  The new sheriff didn’t understand the meaning of respect, and if it had been up to him, the obnoxious man would have been sent packing rather than being given a badge.  He had only been appointed because he had a passing acquaintance with that young gunfighter who was now pretending to be a respectable citizen.

Of course it was hard to criticise a sheriff who managed to arrest a dangerous outlaw. The Mayor walked into his shop, deep in thought.  It would have been a disaster if Stearns and his gang had managed to rob the bank.  The financial consequences for the town and for him especially, didn’t bear thinking about.

The hardware shop was stocked to the rafters with every item a growing community like Green River could conceivably need.  Stored to either side of the doorway were the display stands that would be set out on the boardwalk for the day to attract customers.  The Mayor tutted to himself in disapproval as he realised that his assistant was late again.  He’d employed Marty Timmons only because the boy was strong, muscular and able to haul around the heavier items as if they were weightless.  Marty was personable enough without having much by way of brains.

He took off his hat and jacket and ran a finger along the countertop.  As usual a thin layer of dust covered everything.  He was irritably contemplating the need to lower his mayoral dignity and get out the broom when his tardy employee appeared.  Marty kept his gaze firmly fixed on the floor as he sidled through the door.

“You’re late again.  How often do I have to tell you to mind your timekeeping?”

“Sorry, sir,” Marty mumbled, before rolling up his shirt sleeves and reaching for his apron.  “Won’t happen again.”

“If it does happen again, young man, you’ll be looking for new employment.  Now get to work.  I’m going over to the café for breakfast.” Mayor Higgs jammed his hat back on his head, gathered up his jacket and stepped out into the warm dust laden air.

He patted his rotund belly in anticipation of the fine breakfast served by Zeke and Nancy Patterson.  Entering the café with a cheerful greeting he was startled to find himself the center of attention as the owners and all the other patrons turned to look at him.

“What’s the matter?”

After much shuffling of feet and whispering Zeke was pushed forward by his wife.  “Well, Mayor, it’s like this.  When I was over at the jail earlier that bank robber said his men would be coming to break him out.”

“What did Sheriff Crawford have to say?” Mayor Higgs sat down and accepted a cup of coffee.

“Val tried to make light of it, but I could see he was worried.  One man ain’t gonna be able to stand up to Stearns’ gang if they’ve a mind to rescue him.”

The Mayor removed his hat, pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his brow.  “What are you suggesting?  I’m sure there are enough public spirited men to volunteer as deputies, but I don’t want to see a bloodbath in my town.”

Zeke hesitated as he looked round for support.  His wife stuck her elbow in his ribs and hissed at him to get on with it.  “You know how it is, Mayor.  Word’ll get around and then there’ll be panic.  What we thought was…maybe you could tell the sheriff to let Stearns go if he promises to ride out and leave us alone.”

The Mayor’s appetite disappeared.  Sometimes being in public office was more trouble than it was worth.

*****

Scott took another look at the map then studied the section of fencing running between Lancer and the neighbouring spread.  Johnny chewed on a blade of grass and watched him intently.

“So did they teach you how to read maps at that fancy school of yours?”  Johnny kicked at a mound of soil and cocked his head to one side. “What was it called?”

“Harvard.”

“Yeah, Harvard.  Bet they taught you all sorts of useful things.”

Johnny’s voice was even and pleasant, yet Scott wasn’t sure how to take the comment.  “I learned the basics there.  Mostly it was while I was in the Cavalry.”  He bent down to look at one of the fence posts.  “Something isn’t right.  This is a good fifty feet away from where it’s supposed to be.”  He straightened up and walked away from his brother, finally stopping and bending down again.  “Come and look at this.”

Johnny sauntered over and obligingly hunkered down beside the blond.  “What’s so interesting?”

“This is where the fence used to be.”

“You sayin’ someone went to all the trouble of moving the fence?  Why’d anyone bother to do that?”

Scott pushed his hat to the back of his head.  “I’ve no idea.”

Abruptly Johnny’s attention was drawn away from his contemplation of the ground in front of him. “We’ve got company.”  He uncoiled quickly, right hand hanging loosely by his side.

Hearing the sound of approaching horses Scott also rose to his full height, measuring the distance to their horses and his rifle.  “How many?”

Sapphire eyes squinted into the sun and Johnny answered thoughtfully.  “Two, as far as I can tell.  If there’s gonna be trouble it’d be best if you left it to me.”

Scott turned furiously on his brother.  Right from the outset Johnny had belittled him, believing that he was a hindrance rather than an asset.  What did he have to do to finally prove to his brother that he had what it took to survive out here?  “I’m getting a little tired of you telling me to stay out of things.  I can handle myself.”  As soon as the words were out of his mouth he wondered why it bothered him so much.  Hadn’t he come to the same conclusion?  This life wasn’t for him.  Still, it hurt to find that Johnny had so little respect for him even after the battle with Pardee and his men.

“Never said you couldn’t.” Johnny wasn’t being entirely truthful as he brushed the unwanted argument aside. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the approaching riders.  “Look, Scott, it might be nothing or they could be out here looking for a fight.  If it’s a fight they want then it ain’t gonna be the kind you’re used to.”

“How do you know?”  Scott’s rigid posture reflected his simmering anger.

The two men were now close enough for the brothers to get a good look at them.  Johnny responded to the question without allowing himself to be distracted by Scott’s obvious irritation. “I know their type…can smell ‘em a mile off.  They’re hired muscle and they won’t play by the rules.  Bet I can scare them off though.”

“And just how are you going to do that?”  Scott was still sore enough that he didn’t try to hide the sarcastic undertone.

A sudden stillness settled over Johnny.  He reminded Scott of a predator waiting for the opportunity to strike.  A cold half-smile settled on the younger man’s face, and when he replied it was without either modesty or embarrassment. “I’ll tell them who I am.”

 

9am – 11am

As he watched the two men approaching Johnny could feel a familiar pulse of excitement running through his veins.  He had felt this way the whole time that he had been playing his deadly game with Pardee.  He felt alive and invulnerable, revelling in the reputation that his prowess with a gun had bestowed upon him.

For years this feeling had nurtured and sustained him as he had travelled down the road to eternal damnation.  It had kept him going even when his conscience had demanded that he forsake his quest for fame and fortune.  The brash young gunfighter had matured into a compassionate man.  He had turned his skills to other uses, helping those with little money and even less hope.  That had brought a different kind of reward…an ability to sleep at night without seeing the faces of all the men he had killed.  Perhaps it had even bought him the luck to walk away unscathed from a Mexican firing squad.

His decision to leave Lancer was fuelled in part by an acknowledged need for this kind of excitement.  The mundane things in life bored him and left him feeling restless and dissatisfied.  And yet… He realized with a start that he had let his mind wander.  In his experience that was a sure way to get yourself killed.  He’d seen it often enough, gunfighters who just weren’t focused enough to read the signs.  Those men had drawn their last breath lying in a pool of their own blood.

He was painfully conscious of his brother standing stiffly beside him.  He’d upset Scott again, something he seemed to be adept at doing.  He wasn’t used to having someone by his side, especially someone he could come to care about.  Besides he owed Scott for saving his life and Johnny Madrid always paid his debts.  He was going to keep his sibling safe whether Scott liked it or not.  That would be his final gift to Lancer.

The two strangers reined to a halt no more than ten feet away from the brothers.  Johnny grinned when he saw that they were being very careful to keep their hands well away from their guns and in plain sight.  He could see them eying his rig as he carried out his own inspection of the likely threat.  His gaze travelled up and down in leisurely fashion, leaving no room for misinterpretation and his eyes sparkled with mischief.  Both men glared at him, the effect being spoiled by the fact that they were sweating nervously.

Johnny was surprised by a slight movement off to his left as Scott deliberately took a couple of steps away from him.  Now they both had room to move without impeding the other and they provided the two men with a less tempting target. He risked a glance at his brother and was impressed with what he saw.  Scott was relaxed and watchful, showing no trace of his former irritation.  Not for the first time Johnny found himself admiring the Easterner’s deceptively calm exterior.  He began to enjoy himself hugely.

“You’re trespassing.”

The blunt announcement drew Johnny’s attention back to the problem at hand.  Despite the smile on his face his eyes were cold as he surveyed the spokesman.  “Yeah?  Seems to me we’re on our side of that fence.”

“It’s been moved.  It ain’t where it’s supposed to be.”

“You seem quite certain of that,” Scott interjected.  “I wonder why that is?”

“Maybe they had a hand in movin’ it,” Johnny suggested brightly.

“You looking for trouble, boy?” the man growled at him.

Johnny gave that question serious consideration, pleased that Scott hadn’t immediately tried to smooth things over.  He had no idea what was going on, and stirring things up might be the easiest way to find out.  It was certainly the most enjoyable. “Sure, why not?”

He heard a slight sound which could have been his brother’s suppressed laughter.  Scott rose another notch higher in his estimation.

The two strangers looked at each other and Johnny could tell what they were thinking.  Before either could make a move his Colt was in his hand.  While he kept them covered Scott backed up to where his horse was grazing and pulled out his rifle.

The older of the two men managed a nervous laugh.  “There’s no need for things to get outta hand.”  He looked from Johnny to Scott and back again.  “Just a misunderstanding.”

“If you say so.” Neither Johnny’s gun nor his gaze wavered. “Care to tell us who you work for?”

“None of your damned business.”

The sound of Scott chambering a round in his rifle seemed to inspire the man to have second thoughts.  “We work for Mr. Randell.  He’s the new owner of the spread east of here.”

“Then I suggest you take a message back to Mr. Randell.  Lancer don’t take kindly to threats or dirty tricks.”  Johnny’s voice was as cold and hard as his eyes.

“You sayin’ you two are Lancers?” The tone was sceptical.

“Hey, you’re smarter than you look.  This here’s my brother Scott and I’m Johnny…” he paused, “Madrid.”

The effect was immediate and satisfying.

“Madrid?”

“Well, I go by Lancer now, but if your boss wants trouble me and Scott would be happy to oblige.”

“You ain’t heard the last of this,” the man warned as he and his partner hastened to pull their horses round to head back the way they had come.

“I’m counting on it.”  Johnny waited until they were out of sight before holstering his gun.  A quick look over his shoulder confirmed that Scott was sliding his rifle back into its sheath on the saddle.  “Thanks.”

Scott raised an eyebrow in surprise.  “What for?”

“For letting me handle things, and for watching my back.”

A slight inclination of the blond head was all the acknowledgment he received.  The memory resurfaced of his stubborn refusal to accept help to reach the house after he had been shot.  Scott had let him keep his pride while still remaining close enough to catch him when he collapsed.  Was that what it meant to have a brother?  If so he was going to miss it when he left.

“It’s, ah, strange seeing men being frightened off by a name.  I mean you must have one hell of a reputation.”  Scott looked slightly embarrassed, as if unsure how his implied question would be received.

It occurred to Johnny to wonder just how much Scott knew about his past life.  While a part of him longed to open up and talk to this brother of his he was afraid of Scott’s reaction.  Better that he didn’t offer any information.  After all, he wasn’t going to be around for much longer and didn’t want to sour the day by saying the wrong thing.  “Sometimes reputations come in handy.”  As he turned away he could have sworn that Scott looked disappointed.

“We’d better get back to the survey,” Scott said with noticeable coolness.  “We can ask some questions about Mr. Randell in town and Murdoch might be able to tell us something about him when he gets back.”

With his back turned to his brother Johnny closed his eyes and sighed.  He’d done it again!

*****

The unscheduled town meeting had lasted for over an hour.  Small town rumors having a life of their own, the crowd in the Patterson’s small café had grown at an alarming rate.  Everyone had their own opinion and seemed intent upon airing it.  The heat, stale air and tension had conspired to give Mayor Higgs a thumping headache.  In the end he had managed to head off a mutiny only by promising to go and speak to the sheriff.

He stood on the boardwalk and looked toward the jail with considerable apprehension.  He didn’t have to turn round to know that the windows behind him were full of people with their noses pressed up to the glass.  For all their fighting talk about storming the jail and releasing the prisoner themselves not one of them had volunteered to accompany him.  He hitched up his pants, straightened his tie and stepped into the roadway.

When he opened the door leading to the sheriff’s office he found Val sitting at his desk scowling at a piece of paper.  He knew perfectly well that Val was aware of him, yet there was no acknowledgment. The Mayor looked at the disreputable figure of his appointed peacekeeper and sighed.  How was the town’s reputation ever going to be enhanced by having a sheriff who never seemed to shave and regarded bathing as an inconvenience?

“Ahem.” The Mayor cleared his throat pointedly.

Val transferred his scowl from the paper to the man who had invaded his office uninvited.  “What d’ya want?”

“A little respect wouldn’t hurt,” Mayor Higgs huffed.

“Respect’s gotta be earned and you ain’t done nothin’ to earn it.”

The Mayor bristled at that and straightened his shoulders.  “I would like a word with you, Sheriff.” He looked at the cell, and for a split second his eyes met the amused gaze of Frank Stearns.  “In private.”

“Best go outside then.” Val reached for his hat.  “Don’t you get up to nothin’ while I’m gone,” he warned his prisoner.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”  Stearns’ complacent smile did nothing to settle the Mayor’s roiling stomach.

Val closed and locked the door as Mayor Higgs looked furtively around him.  He could feel eyes boring into him from every direction as the town held its collective breath.

“Get on with it,” Val snapped.  “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

Conscious that he was sweating nervously the rotund town official pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his face.  “Folks are worried that there’s going to be a jail break.”

“Damn Zeke and his big mouth.  D’ya really think Stearns don’t know how to play a gutless little town like this?”

“Now see here, Sheriff…”

Val forged ahead as if the Mayor hadn’t spoken. “If you’re here to tell me to let him go then you’re wasting your breath.  Let me tell you what would happen.  He’d saunter out of here and tomorrow he’d be back with his men robbin’ your bank and shootin’ anyone who got in the way.  You might not take your job seriously, but I do and I ain’t lettin’ him go.” Val punctuated his remarks by jabbing a grubby finger into the Mayor’s chest.  His disgusted stare swept round the immediate area and he raised his voice.  “Anyone who tries to take my prisoner’ll find himself eating lead.  Clear?”

“Perfectly clear, Sheriff, although I don’t know why you have to be so aggressive.”

“Go back to your store, Mayor, and mind your own business.”  Val’s tone was insulting as he turned his back, dismissing the man and the conversation.

Mayor Higgs watched the sheriff disappear back inside before setting off for the disagreeable task of reporting the failure of his mission.  In hindsight it might have been better if the sheriff had never recognised Stearns.

*****

The overhanging rocks protected the small camp from the direct rays of the sun.  Josh Carson finished cleaning his fingernails with his knife then threw it point down into the sparse grass with an oath.  “Frank shoulda been back by now.”

“Frank knows what he’s doing.”  Henry Black settled himself more comfortably against the uneven stone of the cliff face.  He scrubbed his hand over his bristles and thought longingly of a shave and a comfortable bed.

“He said he’d be back last night,” Josh complained.  “And we ain’t had a decent meal in days ‘cause we’ve had to lie low.”

Frank has insisted that they keep a cold camp, worried that smoke from a fire might attract unwanted attention. Breakfast had consisted of a few stale biscuits and some jerky, washed down by spring water.

“He probably found himself some soft female company.”

“Or found himself in a jail cell.”  This remark emanated from the final member of the trio, Joe Tate.  “His luck’s gonna run out one day and I sure don’t want to be with him when it does.”

“Oh, quit whining,” Henry snapped.  “Think of all the money we’ve made since we joined up with Frank. We’ve never been as well off.”

“Never had murder warrants hangin’ over us either,” Joe continued.  “He’s real quick on the trigger.”

“If you don’t like it you can ride out any time.”  Henry had a high regard for their leader, coupled with a healthy respect for his temper.  He also knew that the lure of the money was too much for any of them to resist.  The first time that Frank had killed a hostage during a bank robbery had shocked them all.  It had also sealed their fate.  They had nothing to lose now.  If they were captured they would swing, and none of them was under any illusions about that.

They had spent the last few months working their way southwards by various circuitous routes, robbing a few banks along the way.  Frank had decided that it would be prudent to disappear into Mexico for a while to let the heat die down.  He’d promised them that this would be their last job before hightailing it to the border.  They’d been camped out in an isolated part of the Lancer ranch for the last three days, being very careful to avoid detection.  They’d caught a glimpse of the beautiful white house nestled in the valley when they first arrived and all had felt a surge of envy.  It was only a pity that there weren’t enough of them to risk an attack as each could imagine the wealth they would find behind those walls.

Henry drew out his watch and frowned.  It was almost ten thirty.  Even if Frank had stayed with one of the saloon girls overnight he should have been back by now.  He stood up and brushed the dirt off his pants.  “Think I’ll take a little ride into town.  You two stay here in case Frank comes back.”

“Just don’t get sidetracked in the saloon,” Joe warned.  “Waiting around is making me nervous.  We need to hit the bank today and get outta here.”

He received no argument from his colleagues as Henry saddled his horse, raised his hand in farewell and rode swiftly off in the direction of Green River.

*****

Scott’s silence was beginning to grate on Johnny’s nerves.  He had tried various conversational gambits, only to give up as each one floundered against Scott’s icy composure.  They had worked their way round a good portion of the fence line and their conclusions weren’t going to be welcomed by their father.  Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to make it look as if Lancer was stealing land from its neighbours.

Johnny straightened up from inspecting yet another post hole and put his hands on his hips, moving his aching back from side to side.  “We could do this all day and it won’t tell us any more than we know right now.  Why don’t we head into town and see what we can find out there?”

“Fine.”

Johnny gritted his teeth.  His brother sure knew how to make a point with very few words.  “You gonna stay sore at me all day?”

“I’m not sore at you.”  Scott was fastidiously brushing grass stains off his trousers while conspicuously failing to look at his sibling.

"Cut the bullshit, Scott.  You’ve been mad at me ever since those men left.”

Scott’s head shot up.  “What if I have?  I can’t imagine why that would bother the legendry Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny’s brow furrowed in thought.  Since their first meeting Scott had been almost unfailingly polite.  Even when he’d been baiting the blond Scott had rarely responded verbally.  In fact, for a while Johnny had made it his mission in life to provoke some good honest reaction from his brother.  Scott had a nice line in cool sarcasm, sparingly employed, but effective.  What Johnny wanted was to see if he could reignite the passion that had led to their memorable fight by the river.  The taut anger lines on the well bred face made him realise that he might finally have achieved his goal…right at the point when he had belatedly realized that he cared what Scott thought of him.

“I’m sorry.”

Now it was Scott’s turn to look puzzled before his expression cleared.  “I wasn’t trying to pry earlier.  You have to understand, Johnny, that where I come from men aren’t feared because of how fast they are with a gun.  We don’t know each other very well, but I have a hard time reconciling the man who sits across the table from me at breakfast with the hardened killer people whisper about when they think I’m not listening.”

Johnny’s heart sank.  “Is that what you think I am?  A hardened killer?”

“I don’t know what to think.”  Scott couldn’t have missed Johnny’s reaction to that statement.  He had no way to know that he was echoing a deeply hurtful sentiment expressed by their father to his younger son.

“Think what you like.” Johnny threw the words at him, as angry then as he had been when Murdoch had doubted his intentions before the final showdown with Pardee.  He turned away and stiffened when a hand came to rest on his shoulder.

“Wait.  I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.  I was brought up to assess people, to form my own conclusions, good or bad.  I’ve never let other people’s views sway me.  I don’t know what you’ve done in the past, and even if I did, what right would I have to judge you on it?  I can only go by what I’ve seen in the last couple of months and that is a man with courage and integrity.  You treat people with decency and inspire them to respect you.  But, there’s a dark side to you and I’m not ashamed to say that it can be frightening.  It doesn’t appear very often, but it was there earlier today.  I suppose I’m afraid that it might one day take you away from Lancer.”

Johnny was frozen in place, unable to respond.  He had been afraid that Scott would condemn him for his past.  Instead of that his brother was offering him respect without reservation.  It was one of the greatest gifts he had ever been given only it carried with it a terrible truth.  Scott was willing to overlook his past, knowing nothing about it.  If he stayed it was inevitable that incidents from that past would crawl into the light.  He couldn’t bear to see his brother’s trust, so freely offered, shattered by his legacy of blood.

He swallowed hard and pushed his emotions away.  “You have a mighty fine way with words, Brother.  I spent five years as Johnny Madrid.  Before that I was a nobody, just some half breed street urchin.  Strapping on this gun for the first time felt real good.  Two months as Johnny Lancer doesn’t change who or what I am.”

“You’re my brother.”  Scott made the statement quietly.

Johnny moved slowly away and felt Scott’s hand slip from his shoulder.  The loss of that contact brought with it a profound sense of loss which he ruthlessly ignored.  He turned round and shook his head.  “You don’t want Johnny Madrid as your brother.”

“You’re wrong, but even if you weren’t, I’d remind you that you took pride in bearing the Lancer name earlier today.”

Johnny felt himself relax fractionally.  “So how about us Lancers head into town?  I seem to recall suggesting a nice warm bath followed by a few beers before we have to meet up with our old man.”

Much to Johnny’s relief Scott accepted the change of subject gracefully.  “Don’t forget I have an appointment at the bank.  I need a clear head to make sense of all those figures.”

“With all your book learning you’ll be able to run rings round that banker.”

“You’re probably right,” Scott replied with the same lack of modesty his brother had displayed earlier.  “Shall we go?”

Johnny’s teeth gleamed as he smiled broadly.  “I might just come and watch.”

“You’re welcome to come if you want, although I think Banker Roberts might be a little distracted if we both turn up.  He won’t know whether to watch me going over the books or watch you to make sure you’re not taking off with his life savings.”  Scott’s grin was enough to take the sting out of the remark.

“He’s already kinda cross-eyed so maybe I should call in on Val instead.  See how he’s settling in.”

“I don’t suppose you would care to tell me how you two know each other?”

“Oh, I could tell you a few stories about our esteemed sheriff.  Of course you’ll have to keep them to yourself.  If he finds out he’ll shoot me.”

“You can trust me, Brother.”

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny replied with a sincerity that took him by surprise.

It was with mixed emotions that Johnny headed back toward Barranca.  He had no way of knowing that Scott was feeling just as unsettled as they mounted up and spurred their horses onto the roadway.

 

11am – 1pm

The stagecoach hit another pothole in the road and Murdoch groaned inwardly.  He had been in Stockton for the past week attending a meeting of the Cattleman’s Association.  He enjoyed their periodic gatherings, not least because it gave him a chance to catch up with old friends.  And this time he had been able to impart his own momentous news.  There had been those who had questioned his wisdom in giving two unknown young men equal shares in the largest spread in the San Joaquin.  That had been easily answered…they were his sons.  A few had dared to suggest that he had made a mistake inviting a notorious gunfighter into his home.  They had been given short shrift, left in no doubt as to his feelings.  He did not, and never would, regret bringing Johnny home.  His only regret was that it had taken so long to reunite his family.

He hated travelling by coach, his height making it hard to fit comfortably into such a confined space.  Until last year he would normally have ridden by horseback to Stockton.  A bullet in the back courtesy of Day Pardee had changed all that.  The bullet had lodged close to the bottom of his back, affecting the nerves leading to his leg.  For a while, he hadn’t been sure if he would ever walk again.  Gradually, the numbness had worn off, leaving behind a legacy of pain and a pronounced limp.  Things had improved since then.  He no longer needed to use a cane, could drive a buggy and ride for short distances.  His friend and family doctor, Sam Jenkins, had cautioned against him making the long journey to Stockton on horseback on this occasion.

Sam’s opinion had been vehemently supported by his two sons.  He could have sworn that Johnny had looked positively delighted at the thought of thwarting his ‘old man.’  No doubt it was in retaliation for having been confined to bed himself for so long after he too had been shot.  Johnny had proven to be a difficult and unco-operative patient, who had driven them all half-mad with his incessant demands to be allowed to get up.

Johnny’s first attempt at disobeying Sam’s orders had resulted in him collapsing a few feet from the bed, reopening his stitches in the process.  Sam had kept him in bed for the next few days by giving him laudanum.  Murdoch smiled when he thought back to the confrontation that had occurred when Johnny finally woke up.  The house had reverberated with his angry words and there had been a revealingly frank exchange of views between father and son.  He hadn’t been wrong that first day…Johnny had inherited his mother’s temper.  Time would tell if he had inherited any other traits. The next time his wilful younger son had decided to leave his bed, he had made it as far as the great room.  Johnny had looked so pleased with himself that he had relented and allowed the young man to stay there for an hour before helping him back to his room.  After that, they had reached a compromise and Johnny’s recovery had progressed swiftly.

During that same period, Murdoch had worked hard at getting to know his older boy.  Scott had perhaps been the bigger surprise.  He had always assumed that Harlan Garrett would bring his grandson up to be hard working and conscientious.  He hadn’t expected to find a young man who was an expert horseman, fiercely courageous and willing to learn.  He could tell from the attitude of the vaqueros that Scott had won them over.  He was polite, friendly, dedicated and not afraid to ask for advice when faced with a new situation.

All in all it was going far better than he had had a right to expect.  The only cloud on the horizon was the rather strained relationship between his two sons.  They had gotten off to a rocky start, which he had thought might have been overcome by the events of that final battle with Pardee and his men.  He supposed he should have anticipated this.  After all, what did the two young men have in common?  Shared blood wasn’t going to be enough and it left him fearing that one or the other might decide to return to his old life.  That had been the deciding factor when he had been in two minds about attending the meeting in Stockton.  His absence would force the boys to work together to run the ranch.  It would also throw them into each other’s company.

The first few weeks, while Johnny had been recovering, they had seen very little of each other.  It wasn’t that Scott hadn’t been concerned.  He had stopped by Johnny’s room every day to see how he was getting along.  Conversation during those visits had been virtually non-existent and the visits had become shorter and shorter.  Once Johnny was up and about, they had gone their separate ways as each had worked at mastering the skills necessary to run a large ranch.  He hadn’t cut them any slack and was astute enough to know that both were chafing against his rules and regulations.  They might have different ways of showing it, but each was itching to assert their independence.  Well, there was no time to break them in gently so they would just have to accept it.  Only, this last week, he had missed them.

He shifted position restlessly.  They should be stopping soon to water the horses.  At least he had one side of the coach to himself.  The other two passengers sat opposite him and he realized belatedly that the only female occupant had just addressed him.

“Beg pardon, ma’am.  I’m afraid my mind was wandering.”

“That’s quite alright, Mr. Lancer.  I was only asking how your sons were settling in.”

“They are doing very well, thank you.” Murdoch was only slightly acquainted with Miss Forrester, a pleasant middle aged lady who had returned from a teaching post in Sacramento to look after her recently widowed mother.  “Did you have an enjoyable trip to Stockton?” Murdoch caught an irritated look from the gentleman sitting next to Miss Forrester before that individual returned his attention to the book he was reading.

“I had to take care of some business relating to my late father’s estate.  I’m pleased to say that everything is now in order.”

“My condolences on your loss.  Your father was a valued member of the community and will be sorely missed.”

“Why, thank you, Mr. Lancer.  It hasn’t been easy for my mother, but I’m pleased to say that her friends and neighbours have rallied round.”

“Way station up ahead,” yelled the driver and moments later they were pulling to a halt.

Murdoch opened the door, stepped out and offered his hand to Miss Forrester.  The way station was equipped with a small waiting room and outhouse.  While the driver and guard saw to the horses Murdoch escorted the lady passenger to the waiting room and poured her a glass of water.

“If you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I’m going to stretch my legs before we have to get back on board.”

“Of course, Mr. Lancer.  I quite understand.  I will be fine here.”

Murdoch touched a finger to the brim of his hat and stepped back out into the sunshine.  The other passenger, a man he didn’t recognize, was standing close to the stage checking his watch.

“We’re running late,” he commented as Murdoch joined him.  “How much further is it to Green River?”

“You’ve never been there before, Mr…?”

“Aikins.”

Murdoch offered his hand.  “My name is Murdoch Lancer.”

The gesture was ignored. “I know who you are Mr. Lancer.  I am Mr. Randell’s attorney.  I’m sure we’ll have reason to speak to one another soon.”

The attorney returned to the stagecoach without offering anything further by way of conversation.  Murdoch frowned as he tried to find the meaning behind the cryptic words.  He was aware that Walter Randell had purchased land to the east of Lancer.  He had only met the man once and hadn’t taken to him.  He’d tried to find out something about his new neighbor, but no one seemed to know where he’d come from.  He strongly suspected that it was Randell who had made the complaint to the land office.  As if Lancer needed to go around stealing land!  The whole thing was preposterous as Johnny’s survey would show.  If Randell wanted to take on Lancer, that was his problem.  Other men had tried and failed.  Lancer would take care of its own…as always.

*****

Henry Black rode into town quite openly.  One thing Frank had taught them was that you were less likely to be challenged if you looked like you belonged.  Sneaking around and trying to look inconspicuous almost always made folks suspicious.  Besides, it was Frank that was on all the wanted posters.  He was the memorable one.  As he rode down the main street he could sense an air of tension.  People were hurrying about their business rather than taking their time and no one appeared anxious to stop and exchange more than a few words with friends and neighbors.

He passed the jail, noting the sheriff sitting in the rocking chair out front, hat pulled low over his eyes.  The man looked to be asleep, although Henry had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched.  Dismounting outside the saloon he took the opportunity to look around.  The bank was on the opposite side of the road from the sheriff’s office and a few blocks further away.

When he entered the saloon he looked round eagerly, hoping to see Frank.  He’d held on to the thought all the way into town that Frank had become sidetracked by a willing saloon girl or a card game.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  His scrutiny only revealed a handful of cowboys and a couple of bored looking working girls.  One of the girls smiled at him hopefully.  Regretfully he ignored the obvious invitation and walked up to the bar, pulling a coin out of his pocket.

“Beer.”

The bartender provided the drink then returned to polishing the glasses.  “Ain’t seen you in here before.”

“Just passing through.” Henry washed the trail dust out of his throat with a long swallow of the tepid liquid.  After drinking water for the last few days it tasted like nectar.  He spared a fleeting thought for his two companions before ordering another glass.  “Don’t suppose you get much excitement in a sleepy little town like this,” he remarked as he started in on his second beer.

The bartender drew himself up self-importantly, rising inevitably to the bait.  “I’ll have you know that a famous bank robber was arrested right here, in this saloon, yesterday afternoon.”

Henry turned his back on the man, feigning indifference.  In truth his stomach was now in knots.  If Frank was in jail they were in deep trouble.  “Yeah?” he responded sceptically.  “That don’t seem very likely.”

“I’m telling you the truth, mister.  Frank Stearns was in here as cool as you please when our new sheriff recognized him.  I’ll say this for Sheriff Crawford, he didn’t think twice about pulling his gun on that vicious killer.  Stearns didn’t have a chance.  The Federal Marshall’s on his way to take him to Sacramento.”

Henry downed the rest of his beer.  “That’s mighty interesting, only I’ve gotta be on my way.”  He turned back to the bartender and laid the glass on the counter.

“And that ain’t all.”  The bar tender lowered his voice and looked around to make sure he wasn’t going to be overheard.  “We’ve a resident gunfighter as well.  One of the best.  Not that I’ve ever seen him fight, but he has a reputation from here to the Mexican border.  Only a matter of time I reckon before someone comes gunning for him.”

“Now what the hell would a top notch gunfighter be doin’ living in a place like this?”

“His daddy owns that big spread west of here.  I heard tell that he was snatched away from a firing squad down in Mexico a couple of months back by one of them Pinkerton agents.”

“What’s his name?”

“Johnny Lancer.  He used to go by the name Johnny Madrid.”

Henry couldn’t help smiling ironically.  What a hell of a place for them to have ended up.  He had no doubt that the thought of stealing from Johnny Madrid would appeal to Frank.  Not that clearing out the bank would hurt a family like the Lancers, not with all that land and cattle and that beautiful house.

He returned to his horse and risked a look toward the jail.  The sheriff was still sitting there looking as if he didn’t have a care in the world.  Well, he would by the time this day was over.  He wasn’t going to leave Frank, and Frank sure as hell wouldn’t leave the bank untouched.  And if, in the process, they happened to encounter Johnny Madrid…well, that would just add spice to the mix.

*****

The journey into town passed quickly as Johnny regaled his brother with one tale after another about Val Crawford.  Scott found himself laughing helplessly as Johnny described yet another misadventure which Scott was convinced was either entirely untrue or embellished beyond recognition.  Whether intentional or not, the stories also revealed rather a lot about his brother.  Johnny had a wicked sense of humor and an unexpected way with words.  He looked younger and happier than Scott had ever seen him and the caustic edge to his words had completely disappeared.  He felt that he was getting a glimpse of the man Johnny would have been, had he not become a gunfighter.

He found himself envying the sheriff and wondering how two such different men had formed this close a friendship.  He had been taken aback by his first and only meeting with Val.  Not that he had any experience of what a small town sheriff should be like.  Val had been scruffy and abrasive, yet Scott had sensed a competence totally at odds with the man’s outward appearance.  He’d noticed this during the war as well, and especially during his time in Libby prison.  It was what was inside a man that counted, not his external appearance.

He looked over at his cocky little brother.  On the surface Johnny was flashy and self-confident.  During their first difficult days together, he had also been arrogant and it had been a real pleasure to wipe the smirk off the younger man’s face.  Since then, and only on rare occasions, he had seen a different expression.  One that begged for approval and acceptance.  Not for the first time, he wished he could get past Johnny’s barriers.  It never crossed his mind that his own barriers were just as much of an obstacle.

They stopped in front of the hotel.  In addition to providing accommodation, a bar and dining room, the establishment had a small bath house which was open to the general public.  Neither of the brothers had needed to use the facility as they usually bathed at home.  Taking time out to relax in the middle of the day was a luxury, and their father would no doubt grumble his disapproval if he ever found out.  Scott felt like a school boy skipping out on his lessons.  From the eager look on Johnny’s face, he concluded that his brother was also relishing the prospect of stealing an hour to himself.

They entered the lobby and the desk clerk directed them to the rear of the building.  When they reached the room they found it set up with two large tubs, a couple of chairs, a table containing an assortment of soaps, shaving brushes and razors and an attendant who was cheerfully folding clean towels.

“Howdy, gents.  What can I do for you?”

Scott pulled off his hat and slapped it against his leg to get rid of the dust.  Removing his gloves he draped them over his holster.  He heard an amused snort from his sibling.

“I sure hope you never get called out, Boston, ‘cause you’d have a helluva time drawing that gun.”

Scott turned his best severe glare on his brother and was disconcerted to see that it only served to increase Johnny’s amusement.  “I don’t intend to put myself in that position.”  Johnny’s smile disappeared and Scott belatedly realized how pompous that must have sounded.  “Besides, I have you to make sure I don’t do anything stupid,” he offered by way of apology.

“Yeah, well don’t get too comfortable with that idea.”  Johnny turned away, leaving Scott unable to fathom out either his meaning or the expression that had accompanied the words.

“Sir?”

“We’d both like a bath and a shave if that’s possible.” Scott pulled out a coin and offered it to the attendant.  He had no idea what the cost should be, and gathered from the man’s obsequious smile that he had probably overpaid.

“It’ll take a few minutes to draw the water.  I’ll fetch you gentlemen a glass of whiskey each while you wait.”

As soon as the man left them alone Scott sat down.  Johnny was wandering around the room, as restless as usual.  “Want to tell me what you meant by that remark?” Scott asked.

“Didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Johnny, you’re not…?”  Scott’s question was cut off by the unwelcome return of the attendant who handed each of them a generously filled glass of amber colored liquid.  Scott took a sip and almost choked as the rough liquor hit the back of his throat.

“Not quite what you’re used to,” Johnny smirked.  “There’s a reason they call it rotgut.”  He took a healthy swig of his drink, seemingly unconcerned by its quality.

The next few minutes were filled with frantic activity as a relay of young men tipped bucket after bucket of water into the two tubs.  Finally, the attendant was satisfied and shooed them away.  “Whenever you’re ready,” he informed the brothers.

Now that it came down to it, Scott found himself feeling embarrassed at the thought of undressing in front of Johnny.  It wasn’t that he was unused to communal bathing, although he had carefully avoided it since his return home after the war.  Johnny was cheerfully stripping off his dusty clothing and throwing it carelessly onto one of the chairs.  His body was tanned and honed from long hours spent working in the sun.

In contrast, Scott’s legs and torso were pale with a light tan on the lower part of his arms and on his neck.  He had been assiduous in protecting himself from the fierce rays of the sun, something that Johnny, with his darker coloring, seemed unconcerned about.  Although taller than his companion, he was far leaner, but he was pleased to note that his own muscles were developing nicely.

A splashing noise followed by a contented sigh indicated that his brother was settled in his tub.  Scott turned round so that Johnny couldn’t see his back as he removed his shirt.  He folded it and placed it on the chair.  He noticed that in contrast to his disregard for his clothing, Johnny had coiled his gunbelt up neatly and left it within easy reach.

“Expecting trouble?” Scott asked lightly as he finished undressing and stepped into the warm water.

Johnny’s head was resting against the back of the tub, his eye closed and steam curling the dark hair across his forehead.  “Doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”

Scott relaxed and allowed his mind to wander.  He had composed the telegram to his grandfather a dozen times in his mind since resolving to return to Boston.  Harlan Garrett would be delighted to hear that his grandson was intending to return home…only he was no longer sure that Boston was ‘home.’  He had started the day so certain that he had made the right decision; yet the thought of returning to all that formality and long days spent behind a desk wasn’t as appealing as he had expected.  He took another sip of the whiskey and found that this one went down easier.

After both young men had been shaved the attendant disappeared, leaving them in peace.  Scott felt himself drifting on the edge of sleep as the water lapped gently around his body.  Finally, and with a great deal of regret, he stirred himself sufficiently to wash the grime from his body and hair. Once he was satisfied that he was clean he stood up, stepped out of the water and grabbed a towel, wrapping it securely around his waist.  Only then did he realize his mistake.

He turned slowly to face his brother who was now watching him intently.  Scott waited for the look of sympathy or the hastily averted stare.  What he received instead was a sense of understanding.  He knew, from tending Johnny after he was shot, that there were similar marks on the younger man’s back.  He didn’t know who had inflicted them or when the abuse had occurred.  He had carried whip marks on his back since the failed escape attempt from Libby.  His emotional wounds ran far deeper and he tensed, expecting and dreading the inevitable questions.

Two very different pairs of blue eyes met and held.  Without a word being spoken Scott knew that Johnny would never ask those questions, but that he would listen should Scott ever feel ready to offer an explanation.  Without any awkwardness between them, Johnny returned his attention to rinsing himself off.

“You reckon we’ve time for a beer before you have to go to the bank?”

Scott finished buckling his belt and looked up.  “I’ve some errands to run and Murdoch’s stage is due in about three o’clock.  What time is it now?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Couldn’t say.”  He pushed himself to his feet and reached for a towel.

“Don’t you have a watch?”

“Never needed one before.”  Johnny was drying himself briskly as he spoke.

“Maybe I should buy you one for your birthday.”  Scott hesitated.  “When is your birthday?”

“Twenty-third of December.  My mama always used to say I was in a hurry to be born in time for Christmas.  I always was kinda impatient.  How about you?”

“Nineteenth of December.”  Scott was overcome by a sudden curiosity.  He had no idea what the age difference was between them.  “How old are you, Johnny?”

“Twenty one.”  Having pulled on his leather trousers, Johnny was concentrating on buttoning up his shirt rather than looking at his brother.

Johnny had said earlier that he had lived as Madrid for five years. Scott sat down, shaken by the realization that his brother had been a gunhawk when he was no more than sixteen years of age. His mind couldn’t wrap itself around the concept of Johnny facing down men in a gunfight at an age when he should still have been in school.

“You got somethin’ to say?”  Johnny looked up, his tone defensive.  “Want to know how old I was when I first killed a man?”

Scott pulled himself together with an effort.  “I meant what I said earlier.  I’m not going to pry.  You can tell me or not.  It’s your choice.”

Johnny lowered his challenging stare.  “Not today.”

“I was seventeen.” Scott saw Johnny’s head snap up.  “I’d enlisted in the Cavalry and my unit was sent to join the siege of Vicksburg in Mississippi.  We were on patrol one day when we came across a group of Confederate soldiers trying to escape from the city.  In all likelihood, they were deserters and we were told to run them to ground.  I caught up with one of the men and called for him to surrender only he didn’t stop running.” Scott paused as he thought back to that day…a day that was engraved in his memory.  “I shot him.”

This time there was a look of sympathy on Johnny’s face. “I bet you were real sick afterwards.  That’s how I was at first except I couldn’t let anyone see.  I used to find a quiet spot and puke my guts up.”

Scott nodded.  “After a while it became easier to live with the consequences.”

“But never easy.”  It was a statement rather than a question.

“No,” Scott agreed.  “It was never easy.”

“I think I need that beer now,” Johnny said quietly.

“Good idea.”  Still wondering at the impulse that had made him offer such a personal piece of information, Scott led the way back out onto the boardwalk.

 

1pm – 2pm

Johnny had a lot on his mind as he followed his brother over to the saloon.  Once again, Scott had surprised him.  It had been no secret that the Easterner had fought in the war between the states.  Johnny recalled vividly his initial disparaging comments and Scott’s less than modest demonstration of his riding abilities.  It was a shock to find that his sibling had enlisted when he was only seventeen, leaving Johnny curious as to what had driven Scott to do that.  From what little he knew, Johnny didn’t think the war would have touched Boston directly.  Why would a wealthy and privileged young man choose to go off and fight?  He had no right to ask and it didn’t look as if Scott was going to volunteer any further information on the subject.  Perhaps if he had decided to stick around, he might eventually have learned more.  What was clear was that there was far more to this man than fancy clothes and good manners.

The real shock, though, was the presence of whip marks.  They looked as if they had been there for some time, leading Johnny to speculate that Scott had acquired them during the war.  His own scars were fresher, only a few months old.  They were a constant reminder of his fight against a vicious landowner and his subsequent capture and imprisonment by the Rurales.  They had openly taunted him with the unsurprising fact that they intended to execute him, only they hadn’t been in any hurry to follow through on their threat.  Having no wish to end his life in front of a firing squad he had tried several times to escape.  Following his first two unsuccessful bids for freedom his guards had contented themselves with beating him unconscious.  By the third attempt, they had lost patience and had decided that a flogging might deter him.  He had been laid up for quite a while after that, and hadn’t had a chance to formulate any further plans before he was bound, thrown in a wagon with two of his former companions, and driven to a desolate hillside to meet his maker.

Any hope he might have had of hiding the marks had disappeared the minute he collapsed at Lancer with a bullet in his back.  Nothing had been said either by Scott or Murdoch and he had never offered any explanation.  Now, he was left wondering who had taken a whip to his brother.  Scott had been concerned with more than the physical disfigurement.  There was a deeply painful memory associated with those thin white lines.

Despite his preoccupation, he wasn’t immune to the feeling of foreboding that seemed to have permeated the town.  He looked around with interest.  Nothing was obviously out of place, but something was definitely wrong.  Out of habit, he repositioned his hat to shadow his eyes and continued his scrutiny.  He decided that he would definitely pay the sheriff a visit while Scott was at the bank.  Val had a good nose for trouble and would know what was going on.

He entered the saloon after checking that there was no obvious danger.  Scott obligingly waited until he had finished his scrutiny. While Scott headed for the counter, he stayed by the door and looked around again.  He could almost smell trouble, but couldn’t pinpoint the cause. There were a few small groups of men sitting around or clustered at the side of the bar.  He identified a portly man sitting on his own as the Mayor and nodded a greeting.  He’d met him once on a trip to town with Murdoch, and he’d listened to Val’s litany of complaints about the man on his last Saturday night outing.  It had been no surprise that Val was having his usual problems with authority.

Scott turned round, holding two glasses of beer and headed for a table in the center of the room.  “Not that one,” Johnny said and indicated a table at the side of the room as an alternative.  Scott nodded, not questioning his brother’s preference, and changed direction.

As soon as Johnny sat down he found his lap invaded by one of the saloon girls.  She snuggled up against him and began to whisper in his ear.  Since being released from Sam’s medical restrictions Johnny had spent a couple of Saturday nights in town.  Both had been enlivened by the young lady now making intriguingly indecent suggestions to accompany the sensuous movements of her right hand.  He groaned faintly and reluctantly pushed her away.

“Now ain’t the right time for this, Hannah.  I’ve some business to attend to.”

Hannah brushed a strand of red hair behind her ear and pouted.  “We could take care of business upstairs.”

“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” Scott’s question was tinged with amusement.

Johnny noted that his brother was giving Hannah a thorough appraisal.  Scott looked properly appreciative of her charms as his eyes lingered on the swell of her breasts which were barely contained by her tight bodice.  It looked like Scott wasn’t as straight laced as he liked to appear.  Johnny swatted Hannah’s hand away from the top of his leg and grinned. “Sure, Boston.  Meet Hannah.  Hannah, this is my brother, Scott.”

Scott leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.  “Pleased to meet you.” He briefly caressed the nape of her neck before sitting back in his chair.

Johnny rolled his eyes as Hannah giggled and blushed.  “Looks like words ain’t the only thing you’ve a way with, Brother.”

“I’ve never had any complaints,” Scott retorted with an innocent expression.

“My friend, Nora, would be happy to keep you company if you’ve a mind.”  Hannah looked toward a slender dark-haired girl who was presently entangled with one of the other patrons.

“Unfortunately, Johnny’s right and we do have other, less pleasurable things we should be doing.”  Scott sounded genuinely regretful and Johnny began to suspect that his brother had a real talent for turning on the charm.  He started to regret never having suggested that Scott accompany him into town on a Saturday.

He stopped himself from saying anything.  What would be the point?  Once he told Murdoch he was planning to leave there wouldn’t be much reason to hang around.  In all likelihood, he’d be well on his way before the week-end.  He couldn’t fathom why he’d not told Scott yet.  He’d given himself the opening he needed to make the announcement, only to find that the words wouldn’t come.  It wasn’t even as if he was having second thoughts.

He sent Hannah on her way with a promise to visit when he could.  He felt mildly remorseful about misleading her, but she wouldn’t have any shortage of men eager to warm her bed.  Feeling slightly overheated he drank a few mouthfuls of beer. Hannah’s intervention, had, at least, served to dispel the rather sombre atmosphere that had been hovering between him and Scott since their discussion in the bath house.

“So what’s the story with the bank?” Johnny asked.

“They’ve ‘mislaid’ one of our deposits. Murdoch found out when he went to withdraw some cash before setting off for Stockton.  He wired me and asked me to look into it.  The manager’s been putting me off for days.  He only agreed to see me this afternoon, because I told him that Murdoch was expected back today.”

“How much has gone missing?”

“It’s the nine hundred dollars you paid in at the beginning of the month.”

Johnny frowned.  “They entered it in the book, just like Murdoch said they should.”

“I know, only now they’re trying to deny all knowledge of it.”

“Why’d Murdoch wire you?  I’m the one who took the money to the bank.  Don’t he trust me to sort it out?  Maybe he thinks I never took it to the bank and that I’ve stashed it somewhere.”  Johnny could feel a cold anger settling over him as all his insecurities rose to the surface.  If his father was suspicious, what was he going to think when told that his younger son was planning to leave?

“That’s nonsense, Johnny.  Apparently, this isn’t the first time money hasn’t found its way into the correct account.  Murdoch asked me to look into it because my grandfather is an accountant and I used to work for him.  I know my way round figures and ledgers, which means I have the best chance of getting that money back for Lancer.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Johnny conceded softly.  “Sorry for jumping to conclusions.”

“No harm done.  Besides, like I said before, you’re welcome to join me.”

“Think I’ll pass.  Something ain’t sitting right in this town.  I want to speak to Val, see if he knows what’s going on.”

“Oh, that’s no secret.  Our rather voluble bartender was telling me that your friend, the sheriff, arrested a well-known bank robber yesterday.  It appears the whole town is on edge, in case his gang decides to spring him from jail before the Marshall arrives tomorrow.  It seems that the courageous citizens of this fine town even tried to persuade the Mayor to order the sheriff to release him.”

Johnny looked at his brother in disbelief.  “He told you all that, huh?”

“I think he’d have started in on his life story next if I’d given him the slightest encouragement.” Scott’s expression turned serious.  “Maybe I should join you, once I’ve finished at the bank.  Sheriff Crawford might appreciate a little support.”

“He sure might.  If trouble’s comin’ Val won’t back off from it.  I’d hate to see him get shot, seein’ as it was me talked him into pinning on that badge.”

Scott frowned as he looked toward the entrance to the saloon. “I think we might have some trouble of our own.”

Johnny followed his brother’s gaze and a delighted smile lit up his face.  Three men had just entered the saloon.  They had encountered two of them earlier in the east pasture.  They stood respectfully behind the third man, who was clearly their employer.  This well-dressed gentleman looked disdainfully around the room before sitting down at the table occupied by the Mayor.  Johnny pushed his chair noisily back from the table and rested his right hand on the handle of his gun.  The men glowered at him, but made no move to approach.

The brothers conversed quietly, each keeping a wary eye on the situation.  Finally, Randell left the Mayor and walked over to stand in front of them.  “I’m Walter Randell.”

Johnny lowered his eyes to his hands which were now clasped loosely around his glass.  A smile tugged at his lips as the silence lengthened.  Scott was lounging back in his chair looking bored.  Finally, the blond broke the impasse.

“Is there something we can do for you, Mr. Randell?”

“I’ve been told that you two are Murdoch Lancer’s sons.”

“What of it?” Johnny drawled softly.

“My men said that you threatened them earlier today.” Randell’s face had turned an unhealthy shade of red and Johnny suspected that this confrontation wasn’t going quite as the man had planned.

Scott turned to his brother.  “I don’t recall threatening anyone, do you?”

“Nope.  I do seem to remember giving them a friendly warning though.”  Piercing blue eyes locked on Randell.  “Lancer don’t take kindly to folks trying to cause trouble.”

“Lancer has stolen my property.  Fence lines have been moved to enclose my land.  My attorney is on his way into town.  He tells me that theft of land is a felony and that if I press charges, you could all go to jail.”

A hard hand clamped down on Johnny’s arm, holding him in place.  “And what would it take for you to change your mind about bringing charges, Mr. Randell?”  Scott asked pleasantly.

“What the hell are you doing?” Johnny wrenched his arm free and glared at his brother.

“He’s being sensible,” Randell smirked.

“Now, Johnny, don’t be hasty.  It can’t hurt to hear what the man has to say.”

Johnny examined his brother’s innocent expression and a suspicion began to form.   He let go of his anger, nodded and relaxed back into his seat.

The faintest of smiles flitted across Scott’s face before he returned his attention to Walter Randell.  “Take a seat, Mr. Randell, and tell us what’s on your mind.”

Randell pulled out a chair and sat down.  His two men ambled over to the bar, confirming Johnny’s views as to their stupidity.  They had completely misread the atmosphere otherwise they’d have stayed close to their boss.

The older man concentrated on Scott, pointedly ignoring the youngest Lancer.  “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement to clear this matter up.”

“We’re listening,” Scott said encouragingly.

“Lancer puts the fence back where it should be and pays me compensation for all the inconvenience.”

“Yeah, I’m sure it was a real inconvenience having your men move that fence in the first place,” Johnny drawled.

Scott didn’t react to his brother’s comment.  “How much?”

“I think ten thousand dollars would be fair.”

“I’m sure you do.” Scott’s voice hardened.  “Unfortunately for you, we don’t respond well to blackmail.”

Randell spluttered furiously.  “You’d rather face jail?  I can’t see an eastern dandy like you surviving a day, let alone twelve months.  And how would your father cope?  Not to mention the tough time breeds have in the state pen.”

Scott’s reaction was quicker than Johnny would have expected.  The blond was on his feet, hauling Randell up by his lapels almost before the man had finished speaking.  Randell’s two men hurriedly reached for their guns only to find themselves facing Johnny’s Colt and his hard blue stare.

“Have you met our father?” Scott snarled.  When Randell’s head bobbed in acknowledgment he continued.  “Then you’ll know how strong a man he is.  And don’t worry about me either.  I’ve survived far worse.”  Scott shook the man.  “But do you know what your big mistake was?”

“No,” Randell responded with a strangled gulp.

“Insulting my brother.  I strongly suggest you apologize and then get out.”

Johnny didn’t try to control his broad smile.  Over the years. he had become used to hearing insulting comments about his parentage.  That didn’t mean they weren’t hurtful, only he had learned to hide the hurt away.  It wasn’t often that he had the pleasure of hearing someone else…someone he was coming to admire…standing up for him.

“Gentlemen!  Gentlemen, please.  This violence is unnecessary.”  Mayor Higgs hurried over.  “Mr. Lancer, whatever the provocation, surely you can deal with it like a gentleman.”

“You’re right.”  Scott released his hold on Randell and smoothed the creases out of the man’s jacket.  “Mr. Randell has something he needs to say to my brother, and then he’s leaving.  Isn’t that right?”

Johnny kept his gun pointed at the disgruntled men at the bar and turned his head slightly to smile at Randell.  He could see the man grinding his teeth in irritation.

“I didn’t mean to cause any offence,” Randell offered stiffly.

“That’s good, ‘cause I get real bad tempered when someone offends me.”  Johnny’s eyes flicked to his gun and back, causing Randell to turn several shades paler than he had been.

Randell gestured irritably to his men to precede him out of the saloon.  “You’re making a mistake,” he warned as the brothers returned to their seats.  “I’ll see you all in jail for this.”

“I doubt it,” Scott responded.  “You’ll have a hard time proving Lancer had anything to do with moving that fence.  You’re a con man, Mr. Randell, and you rely upon your victims rolling over without putting up a fight.  You might as well face up to the fact that you picked the wrong family this time.”

After Randell’s departure, the life of the saloon returned to normal.  Johnny collected another round of drinks and they sat in silence for a while.  “At least we know what his game is,” he eventually said.

“Yes, we do and he could cause us real problems.”

“Oh boy, I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes when Murdoch finds out what he’s tryin’ to pull.”  Johnny decided that he might just stick around a little while longer to watch the fun.  It wasn’t as if he was in any rush to leave.  He still had his edge and a few more days wouldn’t hurt.

*****

Henry Black glared at his two companions.  They had been arguing fiercely ever since his return from town.  The news that Frank was in jail had sent Josh scurrying for his saddle, with the idea of heading straight for Mexico.  “We can’t leave Frank where he is,” Henry told them for the tenth time.  “Once that Marshall turns up tomorrow it’ll be too late and we all know Frank’ll hang if they get him to Sacramento.”

“And if we try to break him out, we could all get caught,” Josh whined. “I’m in no hurry to end up dangling at the end of a rope either.

“We won’t get caught if we’re real careful.”  Henry fought back the urge to punch the annoying man in the mouth.

“What’s the plan?” Joe Tate asked.  “I ain’t sayin’ I’m gonna go along with it, but we may as well hear what you’ve got in mind.”

“A jail break’s out of the question.  I did some asking around, discreetly, and that sheriff knows his business.  The rest of the town ain’t up to much, except…” he hesitated, wondering if he was about to shoot himself in the foot.  “Well, there’s one man could cause us trouble if he’s around.  Seems that one of the owners of this ranch we’re sitting on used to go by the name of Johnny Madrid.”

“Ain’t that just great,” Josh groused, returning to his task of saddling his horse.  “They’ve found themselves a gunfighter.”

“He’s retired and there’s no saying he’ll be anywhere near town.  Even if he is, one man won’t be able to do much.”

“If we can’t break Frank out of jail what are you suggesting?”  Joe asked.

“We came for the money, so I say we start with the bank.  If we get there just as it’s closing we can take all the time we need.  We’ll grab ourselves a couple of hostages, then, once we’ve cleared out the safe, we can exchange one of them for Frank.  We’ll take the other with us as protection until we reach the border.”

“The sheriff’ll organize a posse,” Joe warned.

“He can try, but I wouldn’t bet on him getting a lot of support from the townsfolk.  They all know Frank’s reputation.  If they try anything, they’ll end up with more dead bodies than they can count.”

“I still don’t like it,” Josh complained.

“Frank wouldn’t leave any of us if we were in trouble.” Henry checked his watch.  “We’re gonna have to move soon.  It’s an hour’s ride to town and the bank’ll be closing in an hour and a half.  Well?” he challenged them.

“Deal me in.”  Joe stood up, stretched and headed for his horse.

Henry stared at Josh while the younger man kicked irritably at the dirt.  He could almost see the internal struggle as a tenuous sense of loyalty warred with Josh’s inherent cowardice.

“Alright,” Josh finally announced.

As they abandoned their camp, Henry could only hope that he hadn’t misjudged the mood of the town.  And, despite the fact that it would amuse Frank to go up against Johnny Madrid, he also sent up a brief prayer that Madrid wasn’t anywhere near Green River that afternoon.

*****

Val pulled out his watch, snapped it open, glowered at it and put it away again.  He knew Stearns was watching him and he was just itching to wipe the smirk off his prisoner’s face.  The confrontation with the Mayor earlier had increased his black mood.  It was only a matter of time before something broke and he didn’t have an ounce of backup.  He’d sent a message out to Lancer and it was some comfort to know that Johnny and Scott were expected in town later.  Not that he could go looking for them.  He was stuck in this damn office, watching Stearns acting like he didn’t have a care in the world.

“It won’t be long now, Sheriff.”

“Shut yer mouth or I’ll come in there and shut it for ya,” Val growled.

“It must be real disappointing for you.  Here you are, trying to do your job and no one is prepared to stand by you.”

Val spun round as he heard the front door opening, snatching his gun out of his holster as he turned.

“Hey, amigo.  That’s not much of a welcome. Heard you could use some help.”  Johnny leaned against the door frame, arms crossed and grinned. “Scott’ll be along in a while.  He’s just attending to some banking business.”

Relief coursed through Val and he turned a nasty grin on Stearns.  “I want you to meet a friend of mine.” He could see his prisoner studying Johnny’s low slung rig as the younger man sauntered into the room.  “This is Johnny Madrid.”

 

2pm – 3pm

Johnny stopped a few feet away from the bars and considered the prisoner.  After removing his hat he smiled lazily. “It’s been a long time, Frank.”

“You know this lowlife?”  Val took hold of Johnny’s elbow and spun him round.

“We’ve met,” Johnny replied briefly.

“Well, well, Johnny Madrid.”  Stearns grinned as he settled back on the cot.  “You wouldn’t be here to help me out, would you?”

“Sorry, Frank,” Johnny replied without a hint of regret.  “I’m on the side of the angels now.”

Frank’s grin disappeared. “You always were, Madrid.  Guess that’s why you and me didn’t get along.”

“Well?” Val growled. “Are you gonna explain or not?”

“Oh, Frank and I used to run into one another occasionally.  I seem to remember that one time in Sonora…Didn’t you get arrested then too?” Johnny asked innocently.

Stearns’ expression darkened and his voice dripped with venom.  “Thanks to you.  Lucky my men got away.  They busted me out, just like they’ll bust me out of this dump.  And when they do it’ll be my pleasure to take you down along with the sheriff.”

“Wishful thinking.  You ain’t going anywhere ‘til that Marshall gets here.”  Johnny caressed the handle of his gun.  “I’m gonna make sure of it.”

*****

After parting from his brother, Scott had visited a number of the local businesses and settled the Lancer accounts.  Now he stood in the telegraph office, pencil poised over a sheet of paper.  He had been so certain when he left home that morning that this was the right thing to do.  All it needed was for him to commit his decision to writing and send the wire to his grandfather.  He missed the old man.  Harlan Garrett had been the one constant in his life.  He could still see the sorrow on his grandfather’s face when he had said that he was going to travel to California to meet his father.  He’d been unable to explain why he had let his curiosity overcome his good sense.  To receive, what amounted to, a bribe from a stranger was more insulting than having been ignored by his own father for twenty-four years.  Yet, the lure of finally meeting the man who had sired him had proved to be too tempting to ignore.

When he left Boston, he had been convinced that it would only be a brief parting from the man who had raised him.  He’d dismissed his grandfather’s fears, assuring him that he would soon return.  And that had been his intention.  He had expected to meet Murdoch Lancer, listen to what he had to say and then turn his back on him.  So what had changed?  He hadn’t even thought about the startling proposal to make him an equal partner in the ranch before agreeing to it.  Partly, he had resented anyone trying to steal what another man had worked hard for all his life.  His own innate sense of honor would have compelled him to stay and fight, even without the lure of a third share in one of the largest spreads in California.  Deep down though, he knew it had been more than that.  He just wasn’t sure if it was enough.

He certainly hadn’t felt any immediate warmth toward his sire.  Murdoch had been hard, domineering and aggressive at that first meeting.  Now he could see it for what it was…an act to cover up fear and embarrassment.  He’d watched his father a great deal over these last two months and was impressed with what he had seen.  Little by little the shield that Murdoch had erected against his sons had crumbled.  Underneath the granite exterior was a warm and caring man, very different from the person he had been expecting. Saying good-bye was going to be harder than he had ever anticipated.

Then there was his intriguing younger brother.  He’d learned more about Johnny in the last few hours than in the two months they had lived together.  Was there a chance, however slim, that they could find a worthwhile friendship?  And was that really enough to make him change his mind? He shook his head regretfully, brought pencil to paper and began to write.

He reached the end of the message and read it through.  Closing his hand over the paper he screwed it up and dropped it in the waste bin.  Three more drafts of the telegram went the same way.  He looked at the crumpled paper in consternation.  It wasn’t like him to be indecisive and uncertain as to the correct course of action and it offended his sense of order.  He glanced up at the clock above the counter.  It was almost time for his meeting with the bank manager, and his grandfather had always insisted upon punctuality.  A wry grin appeared as he realized that was one of the few things his father and grandfather had in common.  He scribbled a hasty note to his grandfather and carried it over to the telegraph operator.

“Good afternoon Mr. Lancer.”

“Amos,” Scott acknowledged the man.  “Could you send this to my grandfather in Boston?”

Amos scanned the brief message.  “I’ll see to it right away.”

“Thank you.”  Scott laid the cost of the telegram on the wooden counter.

“I’ve a couple of wires for your father.  My boy’s been away sick for the last few days, so I haven’t had a chance to run them out to Lancer.”  Amos rummaged around on his desk and extracted two envelopes, holding them out to Scott.

“I’ll see that he gets them.” Scott tucked the telegrams into his jacket pocket and stepped back out into the glare of the sun.  He pulled on his gloves and shifted his hat from the crown of his head so that it was shielding his eyes against the harsh light. As he checked that the street was clear for him to cross he noticed his brother and the sheriff standing outside the jail, engrossed in their conversation.  For the second time that day Scott was struck by an unaccustomed and unwelcome feeling of jealousy.  Feeling even more like an outsider he quickened his stride.

The small bank was busy, with a queue of customers lined up in front of the teller’s window.  Removing his hat and gloves, he acknowledged the greetings from the people he recognized, and walked over to the door separating the manager’s office from the public area of the building.  He knocked and waited.

Charles Roberts had, according to Murdoch, been the banker in Green River for over twenty years.  He was thin, balding and wore a perpetually irritated frown which had left him with a deep crease in the center of his forehead.  He opened the door, glared at Scott through spectacles perched on the end of his nose and sniffed derisively.  “Mr. Lancer.  Right on time I see.”

“Good afternoon, Sir.  I assume everything is ready for me?”

“You’d better come into my office.”  Roberts grudgingly ushered Scott to a chair and closed the door against the interested stares of the other customers.  He settled into his own comfortable leather chair, resting his hands on the desk.  “Are you sure this is really necessary?  The bank’s records are confidential and I’m sure, given time that we will get to the bottom of the problem.”

“The ‘problem’ was identified over a week ago and you don’t seem to have done anything about it yet,” Scott reminded him dryly.  “Even Lancer can’t afford to misplace that amount of money.”

“I understand that the money was entrusted to your brother.” The banker looked down his nose at his unwanted visitor.  “Perhaps he…omitted to deposit it with us.”

Scott glared furiously at the banker as he immediately leapt again to his brother’s defence. “I resent the implication, Sir.  The transaction was properly recorded in our account book and was initialled by one of your clerks.”  He paused to regain his equilibrium.  “I would hate to have to tell my father that you reneged on your agreement to let me check the books, and that you insulted my brother.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how happy the bank in Spanish Wells would be to take over the Lancer account.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Roberts replied stiffly.  “You can use my desk, although I doubt if the ledgers will mean much to you.”

“Perhaps I didn’t mention that I used to work for my grandfather.  He’s an accountant.”  Scott smiled coldly as the bank manager’s face fell.  “I think I can find my way round a set of accounts.”

Various large, heavy ledgers were placed in front of Scott and his amusement faded.  Just looking at them reminded him of long hours sequestered in an office, surrounded by the cloying smell of dust and ink.  He thought longingly of the wide open ranges and fresh air. He could feel the walls closing in on him as he removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and prepared to get to work.

*****

Having watched his brother making his way over to the bank, Johnny sank down into the rocking chair outside the jail.  He rocked gently back and forth, watching Val pacing irritably in front of him.  “You’re gonna wear yourself out,” he observed.

“Wish Stearns had given me an excuse to shoot him,” Val groused.  “The whole town’s on a short fuse.  It won’t take much to make it blow.”

“You really think his men’re gonna try and break him out?” Johnny scanned the street as he spoke.

“He seems sure enough that they will.  If they had an ounce of sense they’d leave him to swing.  Any idea who’s running with him these days?”

“Can’t be certain.  If I remember right he had two men with him in Sonora. It must be over a year since I last ran into him so that could have changed.  What I do know is that the bastard deserves all he’s got coming to him.  I never did like his methods.  Stealing money is one thing…killing innocent by-standers ain’t something I could let pass.”

“Did you really have a hand in his arrest in Sonora?”  Val settled his backside on the window ledge.

“Yeah.  I was passing the bank as he and his men were leaving.  Things got outta hand and he shot a kid, so I took him down and kept my gun on him until the sheriff arrived.  The rest of his gang got away, but the sheriff was happy just to have Stearns in custody and didn’t bother sending out a posse.  He was a real arrogant fool.  He made it clear that I wasn’t real welcome in town either so I rode out that night.  I didn’t hear about Frank’s escape until later.  We haven’t seen each other since.  I’m sure if we had, he’d have tried to put a bullet in my back.”

“Well, I ain’t a fool or arrogant and I’ll take whatever help I can get.” Val replied tartly. “Saw a man passing through town earlier.  He was in the saloon for a while then walked around a few of the stores.  I ain’t had a chance to follow up on it seein’ as I’ve been stuck here guardin’ the prisoner.”

Johnny grinned at the less than subtle hint. “I can keep an eye on him for you if you want to go and speak to folks.  Murdoch’s stage is due in any time now and I don’t think he’ll object to me and Scott helping you out.”

“How’re you getting along with your family?”

Johnny lowered his eyes and ran a finger along the arm of the chair, tracing a knothole in the wood.  “We’re doing okay I guess, now that Murdoch’s eased off some.”

“But?” Val queried.

“But,” Johnny met his friend’s challenging stare.  “I ain’t sure I’m cut out to be a rancher.  All the rules and responsibilities don’t sit right with me, you know?”

“I know you’ve been running ever since I met ya.  Always thought you were lookin’ for something.  Kinda thought you might’ve found it. D’you really want to go back to that kind of life?”

Johnny sighed.  “I thought I did.  Now, I’m not so sure.  I’m afraid things won’t work out here and I’ll have to leave eventually anyway.  Best to go now while I’m still fast enough.”

“What about Scott?” Val asked shrewdly.

Johnny looked toward the bank while he considered the question.  He wondered how Scott was getting on with the banker.  His limited experience with the man had not been cordial.  It had been as clear as day that the bank manager hadn’t been comfortable having a former gunfighter in his establishment. “Scott’s different from what I first thought.  Usually I’m real good at reading people, but he keeps surprising me.  I’m starting to think that if I did stick around he and I could become friends.  I’ll tell you one thing…he’s a good man to have beside you in a fight.” Johnny shrugged.  “There’re some things going on right now that I want to see through before I go. That Randell character is trying to blackmail Lancer and I ain’t gonna let him get away with it.  Maybe…hell, Val, I don’t know if I’m comin’ or goin’ right now.”

Val patted his friend on the shoulder.  “You’ll work it out eventually, amigo.”

Johnny pushed himself to his feet, uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking.  Val was one of the few men he’d trusted over the years and he’d often wondered why he found it so easy to open up to him.  Perhaps, it was that Val never judged him or tried to influence his decisions.  He had the feeling that Scott would be the same, if he could only let him close enough.  But that took him right back to the fear that Scott would turn his back in disgust if he knew even a fraction of what he’d done during his time as a gunhawk.  Dios, how he hated this feeling of uncertainty.

“Get goin’,” he instructed the sheriff.  “I’ll hold the fort ‘til you get back.”

Val looked as if he was going to say something more, then he shook his head and stomped off in the direction of the saloon.

*****

Henry pulled out his watch and snapped the cover open.  The three of them had made good time on their journey to Green River.  They had left their horses tethered in an alley only a block away from the bank, before entering an abandoned store to finalize their plans.

“The bank’ll be closing in about twenty minutes.  We’ll follow our usual system, only it’ll be me going into the bank rather than Frank.  I’ll get the Manager to lock up for the day and then let you in through the back door.  Just make sure you’re in that alley by quarter past three.”

Joe looked up from checking his gun.  “Did you take a good look at who was outside the jail?”

Josh looked enquiringly from one man to the other.  He was a more recent addition to the gang and hadn’t been with them in Sonora when Madrid had been instrumental in Frank’s capture.  Joe and Henry still had vivid memories of Frank’s furious oaths and threats against the young gunfighter after they had broken him out.

“Who?” Josh demanded.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” Henry replied.  “Look, we’re gonna do this quick and smart, and we’ll be out of here with Frank and the money before they know what’s hit them.”

“Alright, but this is my last job.  Once we’re out of this town I want my share, and I’m gone.”

“Sure, Josh.” Henry stood to the side of the grubby front window and pushed the tattered drapes out of the way.  The main street was quiet as people sheltered from the fierce afternoon heat.  Once the sun started to go down, trade would pick up again until folks returned home for their evening meal.  He allowed the drapes to swing shut and checked that his gun was sitting comfortably in his holster.  “I’m going.  Don’t be late.”

He slipped out the back door and made his way cautiously down the alley to the junction with the main boardwalk.  He pulled his hat low over his eyes and adjusted his bandana so that it was ready to be yanked up to cover the lower part of his face.  He risked a glance toward the jail.  Much to his relief, Madrid had disappeared. He checked his watch again.  It was three o’clock and in less than ten minutes he would enter the bank and, if necessary, follow Frank’s example and shoot a hostage to keep the other occupants in line.  The thought made him sick, even as he renewed his determination to do whatever he had to, in order to rescue his leader.

 

3pm – 4pm

Scott slammed the heavy book closed, sneezing as a cloud of dust wafted up and assaulted his nose.  He ran his fingers through his short blond hair in frustration.  There was no sign of Lancer’s nine hundred dollars, but there were anomalies that concerned him. For the last six weeks, there had been a series of deposits into accounts belonging either to Walter Randell or to the bank manager.  These deposits always occurred consecutively, with Randell’s deposits being, by far, the larger of the two.

On the day that Johnny had brought their money into the bank there had been a seven hundred and fifty dollar credit to Randell’s account, with one hundred and fifty going to the banker.  While it could just be a coincidence, Scott’s suspicions were screaming at him. He chewed his bottom lip, deep in thought.  He could hardly start accusing the banker of embezzlement without hard evidence.

It was clear that Randell was a fraudster, using threats and intimidation to cheat folks out of their money.  Scott smiled thinly at the memory of Randell’s fear when the man realized he had bitten off more than he could chew by taking on Lancer.  However, that left him no closer to proving that Roberts was guilty of dishonesty. What connection, if any, could there be between the two men?

He was no nearer to finding an answer when he stood, stretched and crossed the small office.  Roberts was talking to his teller when Scott attracted his attention.

“I trust you found everything to be in order?” Roberts asked ungraciously, as he accompanied Scott back into the office.

Scott noticed that the man was sweating slightly.  “Far from it.  There’s no record of my brother’s deposit, which suggests at the very least, sloppy bookkeeping.”

Roberts flushed.  “I assure you that I, and my staff, take great pride in our accuracy.”

“Then,” Scott replied reasonably, “there must be some other explanation.”

“What are you suggesting?” the banker snapped.

Scott thought back to the confrontation at the fence line when his brother had approached the problem head on.  Perhaps there were occasions when subtlety wasn’t the answer.  He wondered fleetingly how his father would react to what he was about to do, took a deep breath and plunged ahead.  “What is your connection to Walter Randell?”

*****

Marty Timmons hummed to himself as he crossed the street, glad to be away from the baleful eye of his employer.  Mayor Higgs had been more irritable than usual all day, with a noticeable worsening of his mood when he returned from his lunchtime visit to the saloon.  There had been a steady stream of visitors to the store, only no one had seemed interested in buying anything.  Marty had caught snatches of the conversations, most of which seemed to relate to the bank robber who had been arrested the previous day.  As this was the most exciting thing to happen in Green River since Pardee had been killed, Marty eavesdropped shamelessly.  Eventually, his boss had noticed and, after lunch, he had been dispatched to tidy up the store room.

By keeping the door cracked open, he had been able to hear the Mayor complaining to Zeke Patterson about the Lancer brothers.  Higgs had been ranting about some ruckus in the saloon and making unfavourable comments about Johnny.  Marty wasn’t sure what the Mayor meant when he called Scott Lancer ‘condescending’, but it sure hadn’t sounded complimentary. He’d been tempted to say something in defence of the two men; only he had the feeling that would result in him losing his job.  And he didn’t want to have to tell his pa that he had been dismissed.  His large, muscular father wouldn’t hesitate to take a belt to him.

The older Lancer brother had turned up shortly after that, and Higgs had fawned all over him while he settled the Lancer account.  Marty had hidden a grin when Scott looked at him and then raised his eyes to the ceiling in mock despair.  He’d held the door open for Scott when he was ready to leave, and had received a dollar and a ‘thank you’ for his assistance in loading the wagon with the last lot of supplies.  Marty had a lot of respect for Scott Lancer.

After Scott had gone, the Mayor had dithered about taking the money over to the bank.  Everyone knew he didn’t trust banks and always kept large amounts of cash at the store.  Today, though, he was more on edge than usual.  He had just announced that he was going to the bank when yet another group of people had turned up, demanding a word.  Marty had found the cash box being shoved in his direction with instructions to hurry over to the bank before it closed.

A blast of stale hot air hit Marty in the face as he entered the building.  He caught the eye of Gus Hinkle, the bank teller, and removed his hat in deference to the female customer ahead of him.  Louisa Dunn acknowledged him with a vacuous smile before returning her attention to Gus.

Marty smirked knowingly.  Louisa had recently married the only son of the owner of the Green River Hotel.  Since the wedding, she had been putting on all kinds of airs and graces.  According to local gossip, she was in an ‘interesting condition’, and had been, before Morgan had put a ring on her finger. He snickered to himself.  No wonder Morgan, previously not known for being faithful to any woman, had looked so glum at his wedding.  Louisa had corralled him good and proper.

Marty’s enjoyment of the day fled as the door to the street opened and a man stepped into the bank.

*****

Scott grimaced as Roberts thumped the desk again to emphasis his displeasure.  The man had barely paused for breath as he voiced his outrage at Scott’s ‘scurrilous’ implication of dishonesty.  Scott didn’t believe a word the man had been saying, as Roberts denied having anything other than a business relationship with Walter Randell.

There was a sudden lull in the banker’s tirade and Scott heard a sound that had no place in a bank…an abruptly truncated scream.  “Shut up,” he hissed.

Roberts’ offended expression changed rapidly to one of fear as they both heard a man’s voice, low, deadly and self-assured.

“No-one moves unless I tell you or I’m gonna blow this little lady’s brains out.”

Scott drew his gun and took up a position to the side of the door, indicating that the banker should keep still and quiet.  He heard the man ask if the Manager was in his office, surmising that the teller had answered in the affirmative when an instruction was given to go and fetch him.  A knock on the door had Roberts practically collapsing with fright.

“Get out there,” Scott whispered, pressing himself further back against the wall.  “And leave the door open so I can see what’s happening.”

After Roberts had reluctantly left the dubious sanctuary of his office, Scott edged forward and peered into the bank.  A powerfully built man was holding a young woman in front of him.  One large hand covered her mouth and a gun was pressed firmly to her temple.  Her eyes were wide with fear and small muffled sobs emerged from behind the man’s hand.  Scott was unable to make out the man’s features as his hat was pulled low and a bandana obscured the lower half of his face. Obedient to instructions Roberts was now scurrying around, drawing the blinds and locking the front door.

Scott shifted position and found that there were two more people in the room, the teller and young Marty from the hardware store.  He swore silently, wishing that his brother had accompanied him.  Johnny’s skill with his Colt was awe inspiring.  While not being modest about his own ability with a handgun, Scott knew that he was not nearly accurate enough to risk a shot while the would-be robber was holding a hostage so close.

The man began to shuffle toward the back door, dragging the girl with him.  Scott gritted his teeth in annoyance as he realized that there was likely to be at least one accomplice waiting in the alley behind the bank.  The outlaw abruptly released his hold on the girl, pushing her toward Marty who instinctively flung out his arms to catch her.  As the man turned the key in the lock Scott took his chance, stepping out and levelling his gun.  Before he could take a shot he heard movement behind him and Roberts barged into him, forcing him off balance.  Unable to recover himself quickly enough, he caught a glancing blow on the temple from the outlaw’s gun and fell heavily against the counter, losing his grip on his own weapon in the process.

Shaking his head to clear his vision he felt something warm and sticky slide down the side of his face.  When he raised his fingers to his forehead, they came away stained with blood.  He looked around cautiously, finding that the first outlaw had been joined by two colleagues, one of whom was now pointing a gun at his face. He raised his hands slightly in surrender, desperate to keep the volatile situation from exploding out of control.

“Please,” the girl begged, tears pouring down her face.  “I’m expecting a baby.  Don’t hurt me.” She stepped shakily away from the protection of Marty’s arms, and then stood trembling fearfully.

“If all of you just sit nice and quiet there won’t be a need for any killing.” The leader of the group pushed Scott toward a corner of the room and addressed him threateningly. “No more heroics or it’ll be the last thing you ever do.  Understand?”

“Yes,” Scott replied shortly, first helping the girl to sit down, before lowering himself to the floor.

“Get the bank manager over to the safe,” the man instructed to his smaller and wirier colleague.  “Joe, get the money from the tills.”

“Sure thing, Henry.”

Scott glared impotently at the manager as Roberts hurried to open the safe.  If the idiot hadn’t interfered, he might, at the very least, have been able to buy enough time for the others to get away. He jerked his head back at a light touch on his face and then smiled sheepishly as the girl began to dab at the cut with a small lace handkerchief.  Now that he could get a good look at her, he recognized who she was.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Shut up, and keep your hands where I can see them.”  Henry’s tone was brisk and businesslike.

Scott drew up his long legs and placed his hands on his knees, trying to relax while he looked for an opportunity for escape.  “You haven’t a hope of getting out of town with the money.  The sheriff…”

“I know all about the sheriff,” Henry interrupted him.  “We’ve got a message for him once we have the money all bundled up.”

“What message?” Scott queried.

“You’ll find out soon enough. Now, I ain’t gonna tell you again.  One more word and I’ll put a bullet in you.”

Scott subsided, thinking furiously of ways to extricate them all without ending up getting shot.  He had no intention of sitting tamely while people’s hard earned cash was stolen. His best hope was that Johnny would come looking for him, but how likely was that?  His brother was probably still over at the jail.  He brought his head up sharply as his mind played with a horrible suspicion.  These could only be Stearns’ men.  Would they be content with robbing the bank, or were they also intending to find a way to free their leader?

“Mr. Lancer, do you think we’ll be alright?” Louisa whispered.

He turned to reassure the girl and instead found himself being hauled to his feet.  Standing almost nose to nose with the man identified as ‘Henry’ by his accomplice, he stared into a pair of intelligent brown eyes.

“What did she just call you?”

Scott stared at him dumbly, working through the implications of the question.

“His name is Scott Lancer,” Roberts supplied with a hint of malice. “He’s the eldest son of Murdoch Lancer.”

“Is that right, boy?”

Scott could see the futility of denying the truth, wondering bleakly if the bank manager was trying to get him killed. “Yes.”

The next question was asked with a blood chilling eagerness. “You wouldn’t, by any chance, be related to Johnny Madrid?”

*****

Johnny idly flicked his way through the stack of wanted posters, acutely aware of Stearns’ stare boring into the back of his skull.  He grinned when he came to the one depicting Frank and swung round, waving it in the general direction of the cell.  “Hell of a good likeness,” he remarked cheerfully.

“Lap it up, Johnny.  You won’t be findin’ it so funny when I get outta here,” Stearns growled in response.

“Boy, are you living in a dream world.  Face it, Frank, you’ve reached the end of the road this time.  All you have left to look forward to is a nice ride to Sacramento, a quick trial and a hanging.”

Johnny tensed as the door opened, relaxing when he saw that it was Val.  “Any luck?”

“Some.” Val looked toward the cell and Johnny, following his gaze, saw Stearns smirking at him.  “Stage is just pulling in.  You’d best go meet your pa and tell him what’s goin’ on. We can talk later.”

Grabbing his hat Johnny headed for the door.  “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t let him rile you while I’m gone.”

Johnny whistled cheerfully to himself as he set off for the stage depot, then his steps slowed.  He’d promised himself that he would tell Murdoch of his decision to leave.  Maybe, once he said his piece, his doubts would disappear.  He looked hopefully toward the bank, expecting to see his brother.  If Scott were there he would have an excuse to postpone his announcement.  He sighed in disappointment when there was no sign of his older sibling.

“Johnny.” Murdoch’s voice boomed at him through the open window of the stage.  With a sigh, he quickened his pace.

He reached the depot as his father disembarked and they shook hands.  Johnny found the gesture oddly formal, but what else was there to do?  He relished the brief physical contact, feeling bereft when it was over.  “How was the trip?” he enquired, standing to one side to let the other passengers leave the cramped stagecoach.

“Long and uncomfortable.” Murdoch offered his hand to a middle-aged lady that Johnny didn’t recognize.  “Miss Forrester, this is my younger son, Johnny.”

Johnny looked into the friendly face of the woman and smiled, the skin at the corner of his eyes crinkling.  “Pleasure, ma’am.”

“It’s good to meet you, Johnny.  Your father speaks very highly of you.”

Johnny felt himself flush as he was assailed with a sudden and unexpected surge of pleasure.  Caring what anyone thought of him was a novel experience.  It hit him suddenly that it wasn’t only his father’s approval he wanted. Scott’s opinion was equally important to him.  He looked up at his father from under the brim of his hat and found amused pale blue eyes regarding him with a touching affection.  Clearing his throat, he asked, “Can I help you with your bags, Miss Forrester?”

“That’s very kind of you.  Perhaps you could carry them into the office for me.  I have some shopping to do and will collect them later.”

As they were talking, the final passenger stepped down onto the dusty street.  The smartly dressed man made Johnny’s hackles rise.  He could almost reach out and touch the animosity between the man and his father.  He looked across the street and saw Walter Randell approaching with his two men. The rancher looked even more bad-tempered than when Scott had stood up to him in the saloon and Johnny smirked at the memory.

Randell came to a halt in front of Murdoch, ignoring the younger man completely.  Johnny stepped back and rested his hand on his gun.  He was getting real tired of running up against Randell’s men, and had hoped they might have seen the wisdom of taking off.  If they kept this up, he might just end up shooting them.  The wicked pleasure in his blue eyes caused the two bullies to take a surreptitious step backwards.

“You need to rein in your boys, Murdoch,” Randell stormed.  “Neither one of them has any manners.  Your older one dared to lay his hands on me earlier today in the saloon.  And that murdering half-breed…”  He glared at Johnny before stuttering to a halt as Murdoch grabbed hold of him.

“I’m sure Scott had his reasons,” Murdoch snarled.  “In fact, if you made such an ill-judged comment within his hearing then I’d say you got off lightly.”

“If you don’t remove your hands from my client immediately, I’ll advise him to lay charges of assault.”  The voice belonged to the third passenger from the stage.

“Who are you?” Johnny enquired softly.

“This is Mr. Randell’s attorney,” Murdoch answered, still glowering at his neighbor.  “If I ever hear you speaking of my son like that again,” he continued, “I will ensure that you are very sorry indeed.”  He released his grip and pushed the man away.

“You haven’t heard the last of this, Lancer,” Randell warned.

After Randell and Aikins had left Murdoch turned apologetically to Miss Forrester.  “I’m sorry you had to witness that.”

“So am I, Mr. Lancer.  That man had no call to insult your son.  Now, if you’ll both excuse me, I had better see to my errands.” She smiled at father and son and walked off toward the general store.

“Care to explain what that was all about?” Murdoch asked.  “And where is your brother anyway?”

“Scott’s still over at the bank.  It might be best to save the explanations for when we get home.  Randell’s trouble and we need to decide how to handle him.”

“Fair enough.  I wasn’t expecting to see you in town,” Murdoch said neutrally.

“Yeah, well, there was something I wanted to talk to you about.”  Johnny scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt and hung his head.  The silence stretched out as he tried to find the right words to convey his decision to leave.  When he looked up, he saw a hint of panic on his father’s face, as if Murdoch had worked out what he was trying to say.

While Johnny wrestled with his unexpected inability to speak he found his eyes drawn to the bank.  It hit him, belatedly, that his unease had nothing to do with Randell’s lawyer.  Something was wrong.  He drew his gun, ignoring his father’s uncomprehending stare, and set off at a run for the bank.  He was still twenty yards away when the front door opened and a young man stepped hesitantly out onto the boardwalk. The door slammed shut behind him as Johnny skidded to a halt.

“Marty?” Johnny called.

Marty Timmons was pale and shaking.  “I’ve a message for the sheriff.”

Johnny sensed his father arriving by his side and the interested stares of the townsfolk.  “Take your time.” He put an arm around Marty’s shoulders and led the young man away from the bank.  “What’s happened?”

“In the bank…some men.  They’re taking the money, Johnny.”

“Who else is in the bank?” Johnny asked gently, even though he knew, with a sinking heart, what the answer was going to be.  His eyes, brimming with concern, met those of his father.

“Miz Dunn, Gus, Mr. Roberts and…I’m real sorry, Johnny, but your brother’s in there.”

Johnny couldn’t think as the buzz of conversation washed over him.  He could feel people starting to panic, which was the very worst thing that could happen.  His blue eyes raked the gathering crowd. “Shut up,” he ordered as his father’s hand came to rest on his shoulder.

“Is everyone okay?” he asked Marty.  “They didn’t hurt anyone?”  His mind churned furiously.  This was all wrong.  They must have hit the bank almost at closing time.  If all they’d wanted was the money, they’d have tied up any witnesses and hightailed it out of town without attracting this kind of attention.

“Scott tried to get a drop on the leader, only the manager shoved him and Scott was hit on the head.”

“How badly was he hurt?” The anxious question came from Murdoch.

“He wasn’t knocked out or nothing.  It was a real brave thing he did.”

Relief coursed through Johnny, followed swiftly by a feeling of pride. It didn’t surprise him that Scott would try and fight back, but his brother wouldn’t do anything to endanger the other hostages.  Somehow, he had to find a way to back Scott up.

“What do they want?” Murdoch asked.

The pieces fell into place in Johnny’s mind. “They want Stearns,” he stated with absolute certainty.  “Val arrested him yesterday.” He turned back to Marty.  “What exactly did they say”

It was obvious that the words had been drilled into Marty as he recited the list of demands. “They said that they’ll exchange Miz Dunn for Frank Stearns.  If he’s not released within fifteen minutes they’re gonna start shooting hostages and they’ll start with her.  They want Stearns and five horses delivered to the front of the bank.”

“How many of them are there?” Johnny’s quick mind was mapping the interior of the bank and the exit points.

“Three.”

“Then why do they need five horses?” Murdoch asked.

“They’re fixin’ on taking Scott with them,” Marty told them with clear reluctance.

“Why?  Why take Scott?”  Johnny saw the young man take a hasty step backwards in response to the harsh question.

“Cause…’cause they said that Stearns is gonna want to get acquainted with Johnny Madrid’s brother.”  Marty bowed his head as he delivered the crushing blow to the youngest Lancer.

 

4pm – 5pm

Marty’s news spread out through the crowd like ripples on a pond.  Johnny knew that he should move; only he felt as if he was rooted to the spot.  He’d witnessed at first hand Frank’s casual disregard for human life.  The thought of his brother being at the mercy of such a man turned his stomach.

He suspected that they would head for the border.  Once in Mexico Stearns and his men wouldn’t have to worry about the law.  Johnny made himself a silent promise – he would see to it that Stearns, wherever he went would have to look over his shoulder for Johnny Madrid.  No one messed with any member of his family with impunity. The only glimmer of hope was that the robbers would have to keep Scott fit enough to ride, and he thought he knew enough about his brother now to know that Scott would fight his captors every step of the way.  If they underestimated the Easterner as badly as he had in the beginning they were in for a nasty shock.

“Johnny?  What should I do?” The plaintive question came from Marty.

Johnny shrugged off his lethargy.  “The sheriff’s gonna need all the information you can give him.  Let’s go over to the jail.”

“Wait.”  Murdoch’s hand landed on Johnny’s arm, preventing movement.  “What does this man Stearns have against you?”

Johnny looked frigidly down at his father’s hand.  “Let go of me,” he warned.  “We don’t have time for this.”  He could feel Johnny Lancer slipping from his mind, to be replaced by the emotionless presence of Madrid.  What had once seemed so natural to him now felt abhorrent, but he didn’t try to fight it.

He realized, too late and with deep sadness that his heart had never been in his earlier decision to leave Lancer.  He didn’t want to be Madrid any longer.  He wanted a home and a family.  He should have been brave enough to face the past and trust that his father and brother would stand by him.  Only now the past had reared its ugly head and threatened his brother.

“You’re right.” Murdoch’s calm acceptance of his words jolted Johnny.  “All that matters is finding a way to free Scott and the other hostages.”

“What will the sheriff do, Mr. Lancer?” Marty asked hurrying to keep up as Murdoch strode across the street to the jail.

“I don’t think he has much option, son,” Murdoch slowed his swift progress through the milling crowd of townsfolk.  “But we’ll find out soon enough.”

Johnny trailed along more slowly, every detail of the street imprinting itself on his agile mind.  Like it or not this was his sort of fight and he recognized with unaccustomed bitterness that he was very good at it.  He wished his brother was by his side rather than locked inside the bank.  He chuckled softly as it occurred to him that Scott would be doing the exact same thing…checking out all the angles and weighing his options.  Maybe, between the two of them, they could thwart Stearns and his gang after all.

*****

“You ain’t seriously suggestin’ that I just turn him loose?” Val’s gruff voice was incredulous.

“They’re threatening to kill my wife.”  Morgan Dunn’s voice was higher pitched than normal as he argued strenuously for the robbers’ terms to be accepted.  “She’s pregnant, for God’s sake.”  He shook off his father’s restraining hand and advanced on Val menacingly.

Val stood his ground, scowling fiercely.  His small office had been invaded by a horde of terrified townsfolk led by the Mayor and the male members of the Dunn family.  He hadn’t been able to prevent them blurting out the demands in front of his prisoner who now stood gripping the bars of his cell with a victorious smile on his face.

“Time’s awasting, sheriff,” Stearns crowed.

“Shut yer mouth,” Val growled, “Or I’ll come in there and shut it for ya.”

“Think of the hostages,” Stearns advised smugly.  “My men will start shooting them if you don’t hand me over.  Could you live with your conscience if that young man’s wife were to be gunned down in cold blood?”

Val’s hands itched to pound Stearns into a bloody heap on the floor.  “It’ll be on your conscience,” he ground out finally.

“He ain’t got one,” Johnny drawled softly as he elbowed his way over to the cell.  “Call your men off.”

“Now why would I want to do that, Johnny?  I’ve no more wish than the next man to end my life with a rope around my neck.  In fact I think it would be amusing if you were the one overseeing the exchange.  Of course, you’ll need to leave your gun behind.”

“We’re running out of time,” Morgan shoved Val in the chest then turned to appeal to the Mayor.  “You’re in charge of this town.  Order him to let the prisoner go.”

As Mayor Higgs puffed out his chest Murdoch intervened.  “He has no authority over the sheriff.  Sheriff Crawford was appointed by the Cattleman’s Association, not the Town Council.”  He turned to Val.  “May I have a word with you – in private?”

“Don’t take too long,” Stearns advised cheerfully.

Val’s fierce gaze swept the room.  “Get out, all of you.  Mr. Lancer and I have some business to attend to.”

As the people reluctantly began to file out of the office Johnny grabbed Marty’s arm.  He led the young man out of earshot of Stearns. “You stay here.  While my old man speaks to Val you can tell me everything you remember.”

Val gave his friend a grateful nod, before he and Murdoch also moved away from the grinning prisoner.  “You don’t need to say it,” Val groused sourly.  “I can’t let them shoot Miz Dunn and he knows it.”

“They’ve taken Scott,” Murdoch said harshly.  “And they know of his connection to Johnny.”

“Oh, horseshit…beg pardon, Mr. Lancer.  We gotta find a way to stop them leaving town.”

“They’ve also demanded horses.  Can we delay them long enough to get men into position, to ambush them on their way out of the bank?”

Val scratched his head, deep in thought.  “It’s risky.  They’re savvy enough to know what’s going on, and they sure ain’t gonna hesitate to shoot if they think it’s necessary.”

“Even a few more minutes might help.”

Val let out his breath in an explosive sigh. Murdoch was smart enough to know the risk they would be taking with Scott’s life.  “We’ll see if Johnny can keep them talking when he delivers Stearns.  I don’t like it.  Hell, I don’t like any of it, but it’s better than letting them leave with Scott.”

*****

Scott rested the back of his head against the wall and stared at the clock.  His temple was throbbing from the blow he’d received and the oppressively hot atmosphere in the small building wasn’t helping.  Louisa had swooned when she heard the threat to shoot her if Stearns wasn’t released.  She was now languishing in the manager’s office being tended by the bank teller.  Roberts sat stiffly on the floor beside Scott, the two men unspeaking as Scott tried unsuccessfully to overcome his feelings of irritation with the banker.

He waited until the outlaws’ attention was momentarily distracted by movement in the street to turn to the perspiring official.  “What the hell did you think you were doing?” he demanded in a fierce whisper.  “If you hadn’t interfered we might not be in this mess.”

“If I hadn’t interfered we might all be dead,” Roberts’ voice rang round the room. “I was trying to stop anyone getting shot.”

Scott bit back an angry retort.  Losing his temper wasn’t going to help anyone.  He glanced again at the clock.  There was only five minutes of the allotted time left and he was no closer to finding a way to stop the robbers.  Neither was he any better informed about his brother’s relationship with Frank Stearns.  He looked around covertly then shuffled a few inches closer to the counter.  Before being shoved back to the ground he had noticed the tidy pile of weights for the scales.  He could do a lot of damage at close range if he could get his hands on them.  Not that he was prepared to take any risks until Louisa was safely out of the building.  He was certain that Johnny would be working on a plan from the outside.  All he needed was a distraction…

Heavy footsteps drew his attention to Henry who now stood looking down at him.  He stared steadily back, his pride refusing to let him show any apprehension.

“I think I’d feel happier if you didn’t have so much freedom,” Henry informed him thoughtfully.  The outlaw reached down and pulled Roberts to his feet.  “Find me something to tie Mr. Lancer’s hands.”

As the bank manager scurried around pulling open drawers and cupboards Scott remained silent, staring straight ahead.  His options were narrowing down alarmingly and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.

Henry leaned over, speaking so that only Scott could hear.  “I’m saving you for Frank so if you try anything, the bank’ll have to recruit a new teller.” He straightened up and looked meaningfully toward the office where Gus was still fussing over Louisa.

Roberts returned from his search empty handed, causing Henry to hiss with frustration.  Scott continued to ignore him, his heart pounding painfully in his chest.  He had felt the same way during the war while waiting for a battle to begin.  There was fear coupled with an exhilaration which made him feel totally alive.  He wondered if this was how his brother had felt before a gunfight.

“Stand up and take off your belt,” Henry ordered.

Standing up slowly, Scott unbuckled his belt and slipped it from around his waist.

“Give it to him.” Henry pointed at Roberts.  “Now, Mr. Bank Manager, you’re gonna tie his hands and you’d better make a good job of it.”

Henry’s gun discouraged resistance and Scott allowed Roberts to wrap the supple leather around his wrists.  The bank manager set about the task with enthusiasm, leaving Scott in no doubt that he was being paid back for his earlier accusations. Once Henry was satisfied that Scott was secure he shoved his prisoner back toward the wall.  “It’s almost time,” he announced.  “Joe, fetch the girl.”

Scott took a step forward.  “If you know my brother then you’ll know he isn’t going to stand back and just watch you leave town.”

Henry glared at his captive.  “I’ve warned you about talking too much.” He snatched a handkerchief out of his pocket.  “Say one more word and I swear I’ll shove this in your mouth to shut you up.”

Scott glanced down at the grubby cloth.  “That won’t be necessary,” he said icily.  He slid awkwardly back to the floor.  He could hear Louisa’s hysterical sobbing as she was dragged out of the office and toward the front door.

*****

Val finished cuffing Stearns’ hands in front of him and handed the key to Johnny.  “I still don’t like it.”

“Me either, amigo, but we ain’t got a choice.” Johnny held his gunbelt out and Val accepted it with a low growl of frustration.  “Just make sure everyone stays back out of the way.”

In the short time available to them they had come up with a barely adequate plan. Once the handover was in progress Val and Murdoch would leave by the back door of the jail to take up positions from which they might be able to ambush the robbers as they left the bank. It was Johnny’s job to delay the outlaws as long as possible to allow his friend and his father to get into position.  Morgan had wanted to be involved until Johnny had pointed out that he would be expected to put in an appearance on the street.

The view of the Mayor and most of the townsfolk was that they should let the robbers leave.  No amount of money was worth risking a bullet for.  The Mayor had scuttled hastily backwards when faced with Johnny’s aggressive retort that he didn’t give a damn about the money, but wasn’t going to let his brother be spirited out of town as a hostage.

Marty had surprised Johnny the most.  The young man had offered to help despite still being shaken from his ordeal.  Johnny had gently pointed out that the boy didn’t wear a gun.  It had turned out that Marty was known to be a good shot with a hunting rifle.  Although Marty confessed that he wasn’t sure he could shoot a man he could lay down covering fire.  Johnny had acquiesced, unwilling to hurt the boy’s pride by spurning his offer of help.  The gratitude shining from Marty’s face had touched the youngest Lancer.

After Val had led his smug prisoner outside Murdoch moved to block Johnny’s exit.  “Be careful.”

“You don’t need to worry about me, Old Man.”

“I’m worried about both of you,” Murdoch confessed.

“Oh, Scott’ll do just fine.  I’d be willing to bet those men don’t know how much trouble they bought themselves when they snatched him.”  He could see Murdoch looking at him quizzically.  “Scott’s tougher than he looks.”  Johnny ducked his head, embarrassed at the unanticipated note of affection and pride in his words.

He held out his hand, desperately in need of some contact with his father.  Murdoch grasped his hand firmly before pulling him into a brief bear hug.  Johnny pulled away and cleared his throat awkwardly.  “Be seein’ you.”

He stepped out of the jail and walked over to Val and Stearns.  Gripping Stearns’ arm he pulled the outlaw off the boardwalk and into the street.  They were fifty yards from the bank when a voice rang out, ordering them to stop.

The front door of the bank opened and a young woman was pushed forward.  Johnny studied her.  Pale ringlets surrounded an even paler face.  The lace trimmings at the neck and sleeves of her dress shook as she trembled.  She was sobbing softly, tears rolling down her cheeks.  Her eyes frantically searched the crowd and Johnny assumed she was looking for her husband.  She took a step forward only to be yanked viciously backwards. She began wailing pitifully.

Johnny heard a harsh oath and turned warningly to Morgan.  “Stay back or you’ll get her killed.”

“Sound advice, Johnny,” Stearns sneered.  “Now, get these cuffs off me.”

Johnny looked back at the young woman.  He could see a hand on her arm and a gun pressed to her neck.  Whoever was holding her wasn’t stupid enough to present a clear target.  “I’ve a proposition for you,” Johnny said softly.  So far as he knew Stearns wasn’t yet aware of his connection to Lancer. Unknown to his father, he had decided on offering himself to Stearns in the hope that he could pull Scott clear before news of their relationship reached Frank. “Let the hostages go and take me instead.”

Stearns looked at him curiously.  “Don’t think I’m not tempted, but I can’t see any posse backing off for fear of you getting shot.  Besides, it sounds like Henry’s already picked out a real good candidate.  I heard that blabber mouth Mayor saying that Lancer’s kid was in the bank.  I’ve seen how rich Lancer is and he ain’t gonna do anything to risk his boy being killed. Why’re you so interested in the hostages anyway?”

Johnny looked steadily back and prayed that he hadn’t given himself away.  “I don’t like to see good people being hurt.”

“No,” Frank said thoughtfully.  “There’s more too it than that.  You used to be a better liar, Johnny.”

The tense confrontation was interrupted as the disembodied voice sounded again. “Frank?  Are you okay?”

“Just fine, Henry.  I’ll be there in a minute.” He held his cuffed hands out to Johnny.  “Get these off now.”

“Where are the horses,” Henry yelled.

“Well?” Stearns demanded as Johnny worked the key in the lock.  “You and this pathetic little town are surely trying my patience.”

“They’ll be along in a few minutes.”  Johnny fumbled with the key and saw Stearns’ eyes narrow in annoyance.

“I ain’t stupid,” Stearns snapped as the handcuffs were finally unlocked.  “Get them here now or my boys’ll start shooting.”

*****

While all the attention was focused on the drama playing out in the street Scott worked furiously to free his hands.  As he heard Henry call out a query about the horses, he felt the leather restraint loosening sufficiently for him to be able to slip free.  He bided his time, as any precipitate move on his part would certainly get Louisa killed.  Any casual glance in his direction wouldn’t alert his captors to his new found freedom.  He turned his head to find the bank manager staring at him and his heart skipped a beat.  If the man opened his big mouth again his opportunity would be lost.  Unable to risk speaking he had to content himself with glaring at Roberts warningly.

The next few minutes passed with agonizing slowness for Scott.  Finally, he heard Henry shouting that the horses were on their way and that it was time to move out.  Roberts and the bank teller were manhandled into the office and the door was locked.  Scott heaved a sigh of relief.  With Roberts out of the way he didn’t have to worry about the man betraying him again.

Josh, the youngest looking of the three outlaws approached, gun drawn, and ordered Scott to his feet.   Scott complied and managed to manoeuver himself within reach of the weights he had seen earlier.  He saw Henry release his hold on Louisa, with a growled instruction to walk slowly toward the middle of the street.  The final member of the trio was engrossed with watching through the window.

“Get Lancer over here,” Henry snarled.

As Josh reached for his arm, Scott yanked his right hand out of his bonds and lunged for the largest and heaviest of the weights.  His movement was so sudden and unexpected that Josh just stood with his mouth open.  Scott swung his arm and the metal slammed into the side of Josh’s head.  The robber collapsed to the floor, moaning in pain.  Scott bent to grab Josh’s gun and hastily snatched his hand back as a bullet hit the wooden floor only inches away from his fingers.

“Out, now!” Henry yelled.

As Joe helped his stunned colleague to his feet Henry grabbed Scott and hustled him toward the front door.  The gun pressed hard against the base of his spine left Scott with no option other than to submit to the rough handling.  They emerged into the street and Scott got his first glimpse of Frank Stearns. The outlaw’s smile was deeply unsettling.  Looking beyond Stearns he saw his brother, unarmed and standing in the middle of the street.  Johnny looked stricken and Scott managed a brief smile for his sibling, before he was propelled into the saddle.

A shot rang out, startling the horses. Henry crowded his own mount close to Scott’s and kept firm hold of the two sets of reins.  Scott’s instinctive move to slide off the other side was forestalled by Henry shoving a gun into his ribs. All Scott could do, as gunfire erupted around him, was to keep himself low to his horse’s neck and try to present as small a target as possible.

Shouts mingled with the sound of shooting, and then suddenly the horses were moving.  Scott straightened up and turned as far as he could in the saddle.  He saw Stearns, who was now armed, aim his gun at Johnny.  Before the shot could be fired Murdoch stepped out from the doorway of one of the shops, rifle raised and fired directly at Stearns.  With a sharp hiss of pain the outlaw’s arm dropped back to his side and he spurred his horse forward.  Another shot sounded and Scott watched in horror as a spray of blood erupted from his father’s body before Murdoch crumpled to the ground.  The sound of his brother’s frantic shout of denial was the last thing Scott heard before he and his abductors rounded a corner cutting off his view of the street.

*****

Johnny sank to his knees, shaking his head and staring in bleak fascination at the red stain spreading out across the checkered material of his father’s shirt.  “Dios, Murdoch, what did you think you were doing?”  He pressed his hand against the wound, the blood seeping through his fingers.

“Let me help.”

Johnny looked up into the calm face of the lady who had been on the coach.  He struggled to recall her name as she pressed a wad of material into his hand.

“Hold this against the wound.  The doctor has been sent for.”

Her hand rested on his shoulder for a minute, squeezing gently, and then she was kneeling on the other side of his father’s body, helping him to apply the necessary pressure to the wound.

The slow rise and fall of Murdoch’s chest reassured Johnny that his father was still alive.  His eyes were closed, but as Johnny looked closer he could see some movement under the lids.

“Por favor, Murdoch, you gotta wake up,” he pleaded.

“You need to go after your brother,” Miss Forrester said gently.

Racked by indecision Johnny simply stared at her.  “I can’t…”

“I promise we’ll look after him.  He wouldn’t want you to lose any time.  You boys mean the world to him.  He would want you to help Scott.”

Val’s voice came from in front of him. “She’s right, buddy.  I need your help to track them.  Murdoch wounded Stearns, but I couldn’t see how badly.  If we don’t go now we might lose them.”

“What if…what if he doesn’t make it?”  Johnny’s voice caught on the words, as he stared at his blood-stained hands.  “I was right, Val.  I should never have come back.”

“Pull yourself together, young man,” Miss Forrester instructed sharply.  “There will be time for recriminations later, although I doubt if your father will see things the same way.”

Johnny shivered as a chill swept over him.  As it had earlier in the day he felt his emotions shuttering away behind barriers that only a few people had ever breached.  One of those people lay bleeding in the dust of the street.  Another was missing and in the hands of men who would kill him without a second thought.  His face was expressionless as he stood and took his rig from Val.  By the time he had his gun resting again on his hip all trace of Johnny Lancer had disappeared.  Giving Miss Forrester a brief nod of thanks, he headed for his horse and revenge.

 

5pm – 6pm

Minutes after Johnny and Val had left town, Sam pushed his way through the crowd.  Zeke Patterson had been bursting with news of the robbery and shooting when he’d arrived at the house.  Sam had listened distractedly as he hurriedly packed his bag and grabbed his coat.  Finally, he lost patience.  “Where was Murdoch hit?” he snapped.

Zeke paused for breath and furrowed his brow.  “Don’t rightly know, Doc,” he confessed.  “There was a whole heap of blood all over the front of his shirt,” he added helpfully.

“Idiot,” Sam muttered ungraciously under his breath.

Arriving at the scene of the shooting he recognized Ruth Forrester kneeling beside his injured friend.  He’d come to know her quite well during the latter stages of her father’s illness and had been impressed by her capable and friendly nature. He lowered himself stiffly to his knees.  “How long ago did this happen?”

“No more than fifteen minutes,” she replied briskly, moving to one side to allow him to work.

Sam unbuttoned Murdoch’s shirt and eased the material away from the wound.  The bullet had entered low down on the left side of the abdomen.  He gently rolled his patient onto his side and checked for an exit wound. As he’d feared, the bullet was still lodged inside the rancher’s body.  “Has he been awake at all since it happened?”

“Not that I’m aware of and I arrived shortly after he was shot. It’s bad, isn’t it?” Miss Forrester asked.

Sam nodded.  “I’m afraid so.  I’ll need to operate to remove the bullet.”  He looked around the silent mass of people.  “I need help to get him to my office.”

Marty shoved his way to the front, followed more slowly by two of his friends.  Sam climbed to his feet and held his hand out to assist Miss Forrester.  “I hate to ask, but would you be able to assist me with the operation?  And we’ll need to get a message to his sons.”

The murmuring of sound, which had started up again, came to an abrupt halt.  Sam frowned.  “What?”

“The bank robbers took Scott.  Johnny and the sheriff have gone after them,” Miss Forrester informed him gently.

“Do they know their father’s been shot?”

“I’m afraid so.  Johnny didn’t want to leave him and heaven only knows how Scott’s feeling.  He won’t know if his father is alive or dead.”

*****

Half a mile from the town limits the outlaws’ trail turned off the main road.  Johnny slowed Barranca and waited for Val to catch up with him.  His headlong rush out of town had caught the sheriff by surprise and he had been lagging in the palomino’s wake.

“They’re heading south,” Johnny stated flatly.

Val unhooked his canteen, took a drink and offered it to Johnny. “Figured they would.  They’ve got a helluva head start.”

Johnny drank to wash away the trail dust lodged in his throat, wincing at the look of sympathy on his friend’s face.  It didn’t seem to matter how often he pushed his emotions away, they kept coming back to torment him and having Val feeling sorry for him wasn’t helping.  “Then we need to keep moving.” He kicked Barranca into a fast trot.

How ever much he tried to deny it to himself, he knew that with each passing minute the gap between him and his brother would be growing wider.  Unless something slowed Stearns and his men down, there would be nothing to stop them from reaching the border.  He refused to allow himself to think about the treatment Scott would receive from his kidnappers if that happened, just as he wouldn’t let his thoughts stray back to Green River and his father.  He needed to stay detached and calm.  Who was he kidding?  The unbidden and unwanted thoughts chased each other around his head.

Keeping his eyes on the trail, he found his mind latching onto something which had been bothering him.  He had a mental picture of everyone’s position when Murdoch had been shot.  Only, something about that picture wasn’t adding up.  Stearns had been mounted and out of action thanks to Murdoch’s bullet.  Another of the robbers had been occupied with keeping Scott under control.  That left two more.  One, with blood running down his face, had been pointing his gun toward Val’s position on the roof of the jail. The other had been shooting indiscriminately and inaccurately, apparently intent upon encouraging people to keep their heads down.  So, who the hell had shot his father?

“Johnny?” Val had drawn alongside.  “At this rate we don’t have a prayer of catching them.”

Johnny swallowed down the lump in his throat.  “I know.”

*****

Sam dried his hands and picked up the scalpel, holding it poised over his patient’s abdomen.  He had sent everyone away except for Ruth Forrester, who was assisting him, and Marty Timmons, who had offered to stay and help.  Miss Forrester had willingly rolled up her sleeves and tied an apron over her light grey travelling suit.  She looked a little pale as she stared at the wound, but her hands and voice were steady. She finished washing away the dried blood and wiped at a thin trickle of fresh blood, before stepping back to allow Sam room to operate.

It had been impossible to move the injured man from the street without causing more pain and bleeding.  Several heart rending moans had been torn from Murdoch’s lips during the procedure.  On more than one occasion, Sam had thought that his friend was going to come round and he had a bottle of laudanum close at hand just in case.

Sam looked up at Marty.  There was a fierce determination on the young man’s face.  “I want you to hold his shoulders, make sure he doesn’t roll off the bed,” Sam instructed.  “Even if he doesn’t wake up, he’s likely to react to the pain.”

Marty nodded and Sam had the feeling that he didn’t trust himself to speak.  Sam didn’t blame him.  This was probably the closest Marty had ever come to a bullet wound.

The doctor made the first incision and heard a slight gasp from his young helper.  Miss Forrester dabbed carefully at the blood that was now running freely toward the mattress.  “Tell me what happened over at the bank,” Sam demanded gently.  If he could distract Marty from the gruesome sight of the injury, there was less chance of the boy passing out.

It took Marty a couple of tries before the words would come.  Once he did start to talk, he quickly became absorbed in describing what had happened.  Sam dug deeper and Murdoch groaned, shifting on the bed without waking up.  Sam saw Marty tighten his grip and nodded his approval.  The fear Marty had felt, when the robbers burst into the bank was clear, but it was quickly replaced by admiration for Scott and concern for Louisa.

“You oughta check on her later, Doc,” Marty said earnestly.  “She’s expectin’ and she was real shook up.  I tried to get them to send her out with the message rather than me, but they just laughed.”

“That was very brave of you, Marty,” Miss Forrester said warmly.

Marty flushed at the praise.  “Thank you, ma’am.  Not sure how brave it was…I wasn’t really thinking straight by then.  Just didn’t seem right that they should treat her like that.  And I felt real bad for Scott.  I reckon if Mr. Roberts hadn’t of interfered, he might’ve stopped the robbers taking anyone hostage.  Then when they found he was related to Johnny…” Marty’s eyes widened as he found himself the focus of Sam’s scrutiny.

“Why did they care about that?”  Sam returned his attention to his patient, picking up a pair of forceps and probing for the bullet.

“They didn’t say, not in so many words.  Only it looked to me like Johnny and that outlaw the sheriff had locked up knew each other and they sure weren’t friendly.”

“Ah,” Sam exhaled with relief as the bullet came free followed by a rush of blood.  He and Miss Forrester worked to clean out the wound before stitching it closed.  While she saw to the bandages, Sam washed the blood off his hands and beckoned to Marty to follow him outside.

“You did a good job, son.  You’ve done yourself credit today and I’ll make sure to tell your father and Mayor Higgs.”

“I like Mr. Lancer and the rest of his family.  They always treat me right,” Marty mumbled in embarrassment.

“They’re good people,” Sam agreed.  “And they’ll all want to thank you for your assistance.”

Marty looked back at the examination room.  “Will he be alright?”

“I don’t know yet.” Sam felt the young man deserved honesty after all he had been through.  “The bullet was in deep and he lost a lot of blood.  You should get home now.  Miss Forrester and I can manage here.”

*****

Several grueling miles had passed before Scott was able to drag his mind away from the sight of his father lying in the street.  For all he knew, Murdoch could be dead or dying. Death was hardly a new concept for the Bostonian.  He had thought himself inured to its terrors after his experiences in the war – his experiences in Libby.  Every day for a year, he had woken knowing that one or more of his fellow prisoners would have succumbed to death during the night.  There had been times when he had envied them.

A few months ago, he would have felt nothing if he had been informed of his father’s death.  Now, the thought that he might have lost the father he had so recently found felt like a physical blow.  In his present precarious situation he could be of no practical use to his father.  Which meant all he had left was to find a means to exact revenge.

He tightened his grip on the pommel and looked for the first time at the passing landscape.  They had left the main road and were travelling cross country, angling south.  It made sense that they would be headed toward Mexico.  He had to find a way to get free before they crossed the border.  He was confident that there would be some form of pursuit, but would it include his brother?  What would he have done if their roles had been reversed? His heart went out to Johnny, knowing how hard it would be to make the choice between staying with Murdoch or following the outlaws.

The horses were slowing.  They couldn’t keep up this pace for long without foundering the animals.  A seed of unease started to grow in Scott’s stomach as they came to a halt.

Henry leapt down, still holding the reins, and dragged Scott from the saddle.  The blow to his midsection was sudden and hard, and the blond fell heavily against the side of his horse.  His retaliatory blow was equally unexpected, causing Henry to stagger back a few steps.  There was no time to follow through before Henry’s gun cleared its holster.  Scott stayed where he was, breathing hard.

“You’re almost more trouble than you’re worth, Lancer.” Henry touched his bleeding lip, looking sourly at the red stain on his fingers.  “Somebody fetch some rope and tie him up.”

The young man that Scott had attacked in the bank unhooked a coil of rope from his saddle and then drew his knife.  He advanced on Scott and held the point of the knife mere inches away from the blond’s throat, teeth bared in an unpleasant snarl.  “I oughta cut you for what you did to me.”

Now that the man no longer had his bandana pulled up to cover the lower part of his face, Scott could get a good look at him.  He reckoned that they were of similar age, while having nothing else in common.  Josh was several inches shorter and a good few pounds heavier, with lank straggly brown hair and the beginnings of an unsuccessful attempt to grow a moustache.  Scott held himself still and thought longingly of the knife.  If he could just get his hands on it…

The moment passed and Josh cut a length of the stout rope, tying it tightly around Scott’s wrists.  The blond pulled fruitlessly at the restraint, trying to ignore the pins and needles in his fingers caused by Josh’s vicious attempt to cut off his circulation.  Instead, he concentrated on Frank Stearns.

Stearns was leaning weakly against a tree, hand pressed against the bullet wound in his shoulder.  The injury was bleeding freely and there was very little color left in Stearns’ face.  Scott had enough experience with such injuries to know that the outlaw wouldn’t be able to endure the punishing pace necessary to outrun any posse.

Once Henry satisfied himself that his prisoner was, for the moment at least secure he hurried over to Stearns and tried to help stem the bleeding.  Scott couldn’t hear what was being said; although glances in his direction left little doubt that he was the subject of the conversation.

Henry tied a bulky pad of material over the wound and helped Stearns over to Scott.  “Seems like you and me have got some business to attend to,” Stearns ground out through teeth gritted against the pain.  “Your daddy, if he’s still alive, needs to understand the consequences of putting this bullet in me.” Scott’s half smile clearly wasn’t the reaction Stearns had been expecting.  “Then there’s your brother.  If he’d said he was a Lancer I might have taken him up on his offer.”

“What offer?” Scott hadn’t meant to give the man the satisfaction of a response, but his curiosity was piqued.

“To trade himself for you and the other hostages.”

Scott’s heart thumped painfully in his chest.  He should have anticipated that Johnny’s courage and sense of responsibility would have demanded no less than that selfless gesture.  He was grateful that Stearns had spurned it.

“Guess I’m gonna have to make do with you instead.” Stearns’ knees buckled and he would have fallen except for Henry’s arm around his waist.

“We have to find somewhere to hole up,” Henry stated firmly.  “That bullet needs to come out.”

Stearns’ eyes were glassy with pain as he nodded weakly.  “Gotta meet up with some people first.”

Scott’s hopes plummeted.  Even with Stearns being injured, he was badly outnumbered.  Any additional men would seriously compound the problem.

Henry grabbed his prisoner’s shirt, jerking him off balance. “Where can we take him?” he demanded.  “Where’s the nearest house?”

As the nearest house was Lancer, Scott didn’t feel like volunteering any information.  He wasn’t going to risk Teresa becoming involved.  The thought of these men being in close proximity to the young woman made his skin crawl. He kept his mouth shut and shook his head.  Henry’s scowl increased in ferocity and Scott braced himself for the blow he was sure was going to follow.

“You’re wasting your time,” Stearns gasped.  “The men we’re meeting know the area.”

Henry nodded and shoved Scott away, instructing Josh to get their prisoner back on his horse.  Scott was held at gunpoint while Josh bound his wrists to the pommel.  Helpless and frustrated, he could do nothing but worry about what the next few hours would bring.

*****

Charles Roberts picked up his glass, his hand shaking uncontrollably.  More whiskey ended up staining the battered wooden tabletop than actually made it into his stomach.  He’d been sitting in the saloon for over half hour, ever since he and Gus had been released from the office after the robbers had fled.  In his twenty year career in banking, he had never been as terrified as he’d been that afternoon.  As he had stepped from the bank he had seen Murdoch Lancer being carried in the direction of the doctor’s house.  There had been no shortage of people rushing to describe the scene in the street when the rancher had been gunned down.

The saloon was busy and the mood somber.  Many of the townsfolk had lost their life savings in the robbery. Roberts could hear Mayor Higgs blustering and reassuring everyone that the sheriff would see that the money was safely returned.  The banker snorted softly.  Most of the time, the Mayor didn’t have a good word to say about Sheriff Crawford.  Now, it was convenient for him to show some faith in the lawman’s ability.  Roberts had seen many sheriffs in his time – some good and some bad.  And he would have backed Crawford against all of them.  The Mayor had moved on to expounding the sterling qualities of Johnny Lancer, reminding everyone that the young gunfighter had a personal stake in catching up with the bank robbers.

Which brought Roberts’ thoughts back to Scott Lancer.  He hadn’t been able to believe his luck when the outlaws had chosen to take Lancer with them.   Hopefully, the easterner would continue to try and escape and would wind up dead.  Roberts reflected sourly that he couldn’t even run as his own money had been stolen along with everyone else’s.  He was penniless and, if Scott Lancer survived, would probably find himself facing an investigation that could land him in jail.

He acknowledged Walter Randell’s arrival at his table, frowning as another smartly dressed man joined them.  “Who’s he?” he asked rudely.

“My partner, Milt Aikins,” Randell replied, signaling to the bartender for two clean glasses.

“I thought we were partners,” Roberts queried grumpily.  “Though much good it’s done us.”

“You always were a pessimist, Cousin,” Randell replied good-naturedly.  “You need to concentrate on the bigger picture.  Until I came along, you were strictly second rate, skimming off a few dollars here and there.  How much have you made in the last couple of months?”

“Nothing,” Roberts stated bluntly.  “It’s all been stolen, and Scott Lancer was poking around the ledgers just before the robbery.”

“Don’t worry about him,” Aikins interjected.

“Easy for you to say,” Roberts hissed.

“Calm down, Charles.  You’re making people stare.”

The banker looked around and realized that he was attracting unwanted attention.  He lowered his voice.  “I need money.”

“You’ll get your share when my men get back,” Randell informed him.

“Back from where?” Roberts felt his anxiety and irritation rising.  “Stop playing games with me, Cousin.”

Walter Randell leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his whiskey.  “Alright.  Milt and I have been in partnership for the last couple of years.  He’s my attorney and very well connected.  Whenever he heard about a ranch going under, or someone getting into debt, he’d tell me and I’d move in.  We’d take possession for a fraction of the true value, then sell it at a profit.  In the middle of last year I set my sights on Lancer.  Oh, I know it wasn’t in financial difficulty, but it was vulnerable because Murdoch Lancer had no heirs – or so we thought.”

Randell poured another round of drinks and grew pensive.  “When Day Pardee moved in last winter it looked like we’d lost our chance.  Then Lancer rustled up a couple of sons and everything changed.  Pardee did me a couple of favors…scaring off some of the smaller ranchers and getting himself killed.  I was able to buy up the land bordering Lancer and that gave me a foothold in the valley.”

“You don’t seriously think you can run the Lancers out of the San Joaquin?” Roberts scoffed.  “Pardee had over twenty men working for him and most of them wound up dead.”

“You’re right that in a straight fight the Lancers would come out on top.  Which is why we decided to hit them where it would hurt - financially.  The trouble with the fence line would have tied them up in terms of time and money, and Milt tells me we might even have a realistic shot at getting them sent to jail.  Losing their money from your bank would also hurt them.  But, gentlemen, I’m pleased to say that things are working out even better then planned.”  Randell yelled for the bartender to bring another bottle of whiskey and settled back, a smug smile on his face.

Roberts looked at his cousin in disbelief.  “Are you saying you had something to do with the robbery?” He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his perspiring face. “I could have been killed,” he continued accusingly.

“Only if you’d done anything stupid and I figured you were too cowardly for that,” Randell sneered.  “Stearns has been working for me for the last couple of years.  I thought he’d blown it when he wound up in jail.  I was pretty damned upset with him. It wasn’t just the money; I wanted him to take care of Madrid as well. I knew he’d run across Madrid a couple of times in the past and that he had a score to settle.  I was going to tell him of the connection to Lancer once he’d done the bank job, only it sounds like his men found out first.  Luck was really on our side when Scott Lancer was at the bank this afternoon. I can guarantee that neither he, nor his brother, are going to survive to cause us any more problems.”

“Stearns only has three men and I heard he was injured in the shootout,” Roberts argued.  “You’d be a fool to underestimate either one of the Lancer brothers, and that sheriff is worth more than you’d think.”

Randell pulled out his watch.  “It’s almost six,” he stated. I sent Luke and Silas to meet up with Stearns about half an hour ago.  If Frank followed instructions for once they should meet up with him in the next twenty minutes. That’ll give him extra fire power which Madrid and Crawford won’t be expecting.  Besides, the boys’ll be distracted by the fact that their father’s been shot.  How is he, by the way?”

“No idea,” Roberts replied shortly.  “I won’t be a party to murder, Walt.”

“It’s a little late to be developing a conscience.  Besides, it won’t be murder; it’ll be a rescue attempt which goes sadly wrong.  So, you see, you have nothing to worry about.  And it really doesn’t matter if Murdoch survives or not.  Losing his sons will knock the heart out of him.  I’ll be the new owner of Lancer before the end of the year.”

 

6pm – 7pm

“How is he?” Ruth asked, gently placing a tray on the table in the corner of the room.  She handed the doctor a plate containing a thick cut ham sandwich and then busied herself pouring out the tea.  She thought that Sam looked tired, deep worry lines etched into his face.

“He’s still unconscious.  It’s probably just as well.  If he was awake he’d want to go after Scott.” He set the plate aside and accepted the tea.  “I’m not very hungry,” he added apologetically.

“You must have been friends for a long time.” Ruth settled herself comfortably in a chair by the window.

“Over twenty years.  I moved to Green River a few years after Murdoch arrived in California. I delivered Johnny and I remember how happy and contented Murdoch was that day.  He was even talking about bringing Scott home from Boston…” Sam’s voice trailed off.  “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t be discussing this.”

“I understand,” Ruth answered placidly.  “I don’t know him very well, except by reputation.  I do know that he is a gentleman, and I saw how his face lit up every time he spoke of his sons.  Folks in small towns can be dreadful gossips.  There are some who are very wary of Johnny and others who want to convince themselves that Scott is nothing more than a bored easterner looking for some way to fill his empty life.  Personally, I would rather listen to the opinions of people like young Marty.  I’d say that Murdoch Lancer has two sons to be proud of.”

The front door banged back on its hinges shattering the peaceful atmosphere, and Ruth stiffened in surprise, the delicate china of her cup rattling against the saucer.  Her quick glance toward the bed detected no sign of movement from their patient.  He still appeared to be deeply unconscious.

“Doc!” A young man’s frantic voice heralded the wild-eyed arrival of Morgan Dunn.

Sam rose to his feet, concern written all over his kindly face.  “What’s wrong?”

“It’s Louisa,” Morgan panted, chest heaving from exertion and sweat trickling down his face.  “You need to come with me.”

“Slow down, son,” Sam admonished soothingly.  “Tell me what’s happened.”

“Those bastards…” Morgan looked apologetically at Ruth.  “Since I took her over to the hotel she’s been crying and shaking, and now – now she’s bleeding.”

“Oh the poor child,” Ruth gasped.

“She’s only three months along, Doc.” Morgan was almost in tears.  “You’ve gotta help her.”

Sam nodded.  “Get back to your wife and tell her I’ll be along in a few minutes.  Settle down and try to keep her as calm as you can.”

For the second time in just over an hour Sam prepared himself to deal with an emergency.  “What kind of men terrorize a pregnant woman?” he asked, disgust lacing his words.  “I thought this land was getting more civilized.  Now, I’m not so sure.”

“I’ll stay with Mr. Lancer until you get back,” Ruth offered.  “If there’s a problem I can send someone to find you at the hotel.”

“Thank you.  I’m grateful for everything you’ve done and I’m sorry for the imposition.”

“Don’t apologize.  I’m pleased to be of assistance.  I’m used to having people to worry about and I miss having the responsibility of my teaching post.  I hope that everything is alright.”

Although Sam nodded they both knew that the chances of survival for Louisa’s child were slim, and that her health was also in serious jeopardy.

After Sam had gone, Ruth busied herself with tidying up the plates and cups.  The clock in Sam’s sitting room chimed the quarter hour and she gave a fleeting thought to her mother who was waiting for her return.  She walked to the front door and stepped out into the street.  Seeing a group of children playing on the street corner she called them over and asked them to take a message to her house.  They ran off happily with the message and a dollar to share between them.

When she returned to Sam’s office she found Murdoch displaying the first real signs of regaining consciousness and she hurried to his side.  His eyes drifted open, unfocused and confused.  She took his hand to reassure him that he wasn’t alone.

“You’re at Sam’s house,” she explained.  “You were shot and the doctor had to operate to remove the bullet.  It is important that you remain still.”

“Johnny?” Murdoch croaked weakly.

“Johnny’s fine.  He wasn’t hurt.”

Murdoch frowned as he seemingly searched for an elusive thought.  She saw comprehension return to his face and pressed a hand to his shoulder, to forestall the movement she knew would be coming.

“Scott! Where’s Scott?”

“I’m afraid they took him.  Johnny and Sheriff Crawford have gone after them.”

He struggled to push himself into a sitting position, groaning deeply as he aggravated his wound.  “Have to find them.”

“Don’t be silly,” she chided gently.  “In your condition you won’t get as far as the door.  Your sons will be worrying about you.  I don’t think either of them would be happy to think that you were compromising your own health to go rushing off on a wild goose chase.”

Murdoch’s attempted glare failed miserably as his own weakness forced him to lie down again.  Ruth patted him encouragingly on the shoulder.  “That’s better.  I’ll bring you some water.  Would you like some laudanum to ease the pain?”

“No, thank you.  I’ll be fine.” Murdoch ground the words out through gritted teeth.

Ruth smiled to herself as she fetched the water.  If Scott and Johnny were half as stubborn as their father they would do just fine.

*****

The next stage of his journey passed all too quickly for Scott.  They were still on Lancer, following Stearns’ directions to an unknown rendezvous.  Although it suited him not to be hell bent for the border, he couldn’t understand why Stearns would be delaying their escape. It was impossible to work on his bindings while they were in motion.  The rough rope rubbed uncomfortably against his wrists, and he hung on grimly.

He was grateful that the sun was now hanging low on the horizon.  Without a hat he would have struggled to cope with the direct and relentless exposure to its powerful rays. The early evening air was still and hot and he could feel prickles of sweat running down his spine.  Perspiration was dripping into his eyes, impairing his vision.  He hadn’t had a drink of water for hours, leaving his mouth feeling as dry as the desert sand.  He licked his lips, wondering wearily if he would be given water when they stopped.  Knowing that wasn’t likely to happen, he sighed heavily, closing his eyes to still the steadily increasing pounding in his head.

Shortly after that they reached a secluded canyon. Scott saw signs of a hastily abandoned camp, causing him to wonder how long had these men been skulking on Lancer.  It was torture knowing that he was so close to home while accepting that ‘home’ was the last place he wanted to lead these men. He thought despairingly of Teresa and the brutality she would be exposed to if their home was invaded by these men.

Henry helped Stearns to the ground.  The outlaw’s condition had deteriorated noticeably and Scott smiled coldly.  He still didn’t know who had shot his father, but watching Stearns suffer was some consolation.  It gave him a momentary shock to realise that he could take perverse pleasure in the suffering of another human being.  Then, he thought about the treatment these men had meted out to Louisa in the bank, and hardened his heart.

Josh used his knife to cut Scott free of the saddle, abruptly pulling him to the ground and pushing him over to a rocky outcropping.  He sat obediently when Josh growled an order to stay put and took in his surroundings.  Studying the landscape, it occurred to him that the outlaws would want to avoid firing their guns.  Since the rock faces were sheer, sound would travel a long way out here. The imposing façade also meant, however, that he wouldn’t get fifty yards if he tried to escape that way.  The only entrance twisted back and forth, but if he could get to a horse, it would be hard for his captors to get off a clean shot.  And, if he could provoke them into firing, it might draw help in his direction.

He emerged from contemplating his options to find Henry watching him.  He was starting to form a grudging respect for the man.  Henry might look like a nondescript cowboy, but there was a cunning intelligence shining from his eyes. He was certainly proving to be a formidable opponent. Scott’s gaze tracked the outlaw as he walked over to whisper to Josh.  The younger man nodded and hurried to fetch another length of rope. Scott eyed him warily as the outlaw approached.  Josh aimed a vicious kick at his prisoner, catching Scott in the ribs.  The blond doubled over in agony.  As he fought against the urge to retch he felt Josh slip the rope around his ankles, tightening it efficiently.  Scott swallowed back the bile that had risen in his throat, straightened cautiously and leaned his head back against the sun warmed stone.  Silently lamenting the loss of any chance to escape, he tried to remove his mind from this new source of pain.

He watched the third member of the original trio as he was tending to the horses.  The animals’ ears pricked forward and Scott was instantly alert. Soon he heard the sound of approaching riders.  Josh squatted down beside him and pressed the sharp knife blade across his throat.

“Not a sound,” Josh warned, leaning in menacingly.

Scott felt the sting of the blade and a thin trickle of blood running down toward his chest.  His heart began beating erratically as he tried to keep still and quiet.

Two riders emerged from the shadows guarding the entrance to the canyon and Stearns called out a weak greeting.  A deep sense of shock washed over Scott as he recognized the new arrivals.  He and his brother had run across both men, twice during the course of the day.  The fact that no one was trying to hide the connection between the bank robbers and Walter Randell did not bode well for his future wellbeing.  If there had been any doubt in his mind before he knew now that his captors intended to kill him, and the only questions were – where and when?

*****

Johnny pulled back on Barranca’s reins and was out of the saddle before the palomino had come to a standstill.  Val dismounted more sedately.  He’d never seen his young friend wound up so tight and it disturbed him.  In all their encounters over the years, Johnny had remained firmly in command of his emotions.  Even when relaxing with a woman or a bottle of tequila, Johnny had never quite relinquished control.  His family had breached his defenses, that was for sure.  Johnny might not admit it, but Val knew the truth.

The sheriff looked carefully around the small clearing.  If you knew what to look for you could see that several horses and men had been there not so long before they arrived.  Johnny was hunkered down, intently inspecting a patch of earth and dried up scrub.  Val saw him pick up a handful of dirt and allow it to sift through his fingers.

“Blood.” Johnny held out his hand, which was now dirty and blood stained.  He raised his hand to his nose.  “Still fresh.  My guess is they were here less than an hour ago.”  He straightened up and walked carefully around, wiping his hand distractedly on the leg of his leather trousers.  Having completed his inspection, he frowned.  “What the hell are they playing at?  They’ve angled west and the tracks sure don’t show them rushin’.”

“Maybe Stearns is hurt too badly for them to keep up the pace,” Val offered.

“Yeah, that’s possible,” Johnny conceded.  He pushed his hat off his head and allowed it to dangle down his back, his eyes taking on a faraway look.  “I wonder how Murdoch’s doing?”

Val didn’t see the need to answer the plaintive question.  What could he say?  The wound had looked bad and no words of his would make it any better.

Barranca had ambled along placidly after his owner and Johnny now gathered up the reins.  His next question took Val by surprise.  “Did you see who shot him?”

Val thought back.  He’d been too busy trying to avoid getting his head shot off to have a clear picture of what had been happening in the street below him.  It had only been after the robbers had ridden out of town that he had seen the rancher lying hurt in the street.  “Sorry, amigo, I didn’t.”

“Thing is, Val,” Johnny swung up into the saddle, “neither did I, and I was watching them the whole time.”

“You think someone else bushwhacked him?” Improbable as that seemed, Val wasn’t going to dismiss Johnny’s suspicions.  He began a mental tally of anyone who might benefit from the rancher’s demise.

“Yeah, and when I find out who it was, they’re gonna wind up dead,” Johnny growled.

Val cursed under his breath as Johnny took off again, leaving him to contemplate the stupidity of the men who’d upset one of the most accomplished and deadly gunfighters in the state.

*****

Scott drew his knees up to his chest and tried to reach down to the rope tethering his ankles together.  The tips of his fingers brushed against the knot and he shifted his position slightly so that he could bend further forward.  He stifled a gasp as his ribs protested.  Gritting his teeth he reminded himself what was at stake. The discussion between Stearns, his men and Randell’s two employees had been going on for some time.  They were all huddled around Stearns, who was propped up against a tree stump.  Working with more patience than he felt, Scott forced his numb fingers into motion.  Periodically he glanced anxiously over at the group, before returning his attention to the task he had set for himself. The knot started to loosen and he felt a momentary sense of optimism. He looked up slowly as he heard footsteps heading in his direction and grimaced when he saw Henry towering over him. With a dispirited sigh he sat back.

“You don’t know when to give up, do you?” Henry snarled, bending down to tighten the restraint again. Scott considered kicking out, but the prospect of a beating deterred him.  If he was going to have any chance of escaping, he had to stop provoking his kidnappers into retaliatory violence.

“Lucky our two friends there know the area,” the outlaw continued.  “They’ve told us that your fancy house is no more than half an hour’s ride away.”

“So?”

“Don’t act dumb,” the outlaw advised.  “How many people will be there?”

“All the vaqueros,” Scott replied quickly.  “You’ll be outnumbered at least five to one.”

“Don’t think so,” Henry responded.  “You’re not even close to having all the hands you need…not since Pardee paid his visit to the valley.  We heard your daddy only has fifteen or twenty men working for him, and some of them’ll be out on the range.  Besides, we’re aiming to sneak in quiet like.  So what I really need to know is who’ll be in the house?”

“You’re stupider than I thought if you try to hole up at Lancer.  Johnny and…”

Scott was getting real tired of Henry hauling him around.  He shut his mouth to contain the groan that the sudden movement provoked. Pulled to his feet once again, he was disconcerted to find the outlaw grinning at him.  “Johnny Madrid, and anyone he has with him, will be riding into a trap.  And once you’ve stopped being useful we’ll bury you as well.”

Scott felt the heat of an angry flush rising in his face. He was damned if he was going to allow himself to be used as the bait in a trap set for his brother.  “You kill us and the only person who’ll benefit is Walter Randell.  Stay around here and you’re just increasing the chances of being caught or killed.  Is Randell worth risking everything for?” Scott saw Henry’s indecision and pressed his advantage.  “Get Stearns on a horse and head for Mexico. I give you my word I won’t cause you any more trouble.”

 

For a moment he thought that his appeal had worked then Henry shook his head decisively.  “Randell ain’t worth it, but Frank is.  If we don’t get that bullet out of him, he’ll die before we reach the border.”

“You’re a fool,” Scott spat back.  “Why don’t you ask the others what they think?  Are they willing to risk their lives for a murderer like Frank Stearns?”

Henry’s vicious punch rocked Scott backwards.  Only the canyon wall behind him saved him from landing in an ignominious heap on the ground.  “Watch your mouth,” Henry warned menacingly. “I’m not gonna tell you again.  We can travel just as fast with you unconscious and tied over the saddle.”

This additional insult to his body caused Scott’s eyes to glaze over and he raised his bound hands shakily to touch his aching jaw.  Henry drew his knife and bent down to slash the rope around Scott’s ankles.  He pushed the blond over to Josh.

“We’re headed for Lancer.  Get him mounted up, and keep an eye on him.  If you see any other riders, shove something in his mouth to keep him quiet, and if he gives you any trouble, cut his throat.”

*****

While Ruth sat by the bedside of one patient, Sam was sitting with another.  Louisa was sobbing in the arms of her mother, deeply distressed by the loss of her first child.  Sam had tried his best, but nothing could prevent the miscarriage.

“It’s my fault.” Louisa’s words came in muffled uneven gasps.

“No, my dear,” Sam told her gently, knowing that, sadly, the words would mean nothing to her.  “There are many reasons for a pregnancy to fail.  You have been through a terrible ordeal today and there was nothing you could have done to prevent what happened.”

Louisa turned her tear-stained face to her husband.  Morgan was standing with his back to the window, his own face a study in devastation. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Sam waited for the young man to offer comfort and reassurance.  He hadn’t said a word since being readmitted to the room.  Neither had he made any more to touch his wife. As the silence lengthened, Louisa gave another heartbroken sob and collapsed back against the pillow.  Her beautiful face was marred by grief and unhealthily flushed with the first signs of a fever.  She barely moved as Sam examined her.  He kept his expression carefully neutral.  The blood loss which had accompanied the miscarriage was showing no signs of abating.  If anything, it appeared to be worsening.  He patted her on the shoulder and murmured a request to her mother to stay with her.

Morgan still hadn’t moved or spoken.  Sam knew that the husband’s feelings were often ignored in situations such as this and always took time to offer some comfort of his own.  This time, he also had to warn the young man that he was in danger of losing his wife as well.  If the bleeding persisted or the fever took hold Louisa might not survive.

He led Morgan over to an armchair set beside a small table and encouraged him to sit.  Lowering himself into a matching chair, he leaned forward so that his words wouldn’t be overheard.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t save the child,” he began.  “Now, though, we have to concentrate upon helping your wife.  She needs rest and I think you’re the only one who can calm her down sufficiently to ensure that she sleeps.”

A cold hard glint had appeared in Morgan’s eyes.  His temper, at the best of times, could be uncertain.  “I have something to do,” he responded flatly.

Sam felt a tightening in his stomach.  “You need to tend to Louisa,” he admonished sharply.

“I should have gone with Johnny and the sheriff.  It’s not too late.  I can still catch up with them.” Morgan stood up and Sam hastily scrambled to his feet.

“You can’t leave her.  I don’t think you understand how serious her condition is.”

“They have to be made to pay for what they did,” Morgan continued, giving no sign that Sam’s words had any meaning for him. His eyes didn’t stray even once to the bed.

As he strode from the room Louisa screamed his name, and the echo of that scream reverberated around the corridors of the hotel. Sam reached the doorway just in time to see Morgan hesitate before breaking into a run as he headed for the stairs.

 

7pm – 8pm

There could no longer be any doubt as to the outlaws’ destination.  “They’re headed for Lancer,” Johnny stated flatly.

Bad enough that his father had been gunned down and his brother taken hostage, now, his home was being invaded and that involved more lives.  The events of the last few hours had crystallized his feelings and he couldn’t fool himself any longer. Lancer represented home and family, the very things he had been looking for, ever since his mother’s death.  He wasn’t going to allow men like Frank Stearns to tear that away from him.

“Stearns must be hurt bad.  There’s no way they’d be taking such a risk otherwise,” Val surmised.  “We’ve got a chance to trap them, only it ain’t gonna be easy.  They won’t just have Scott to use as leverage.”

Johnny thought of Teresa and Maria, feeling sick at the idea of what might happen to them.  And any of the vaqueros who got in the way wouldn’t be shown any mercy. He wondered if Scott would be able to find a way to protect them.  There were few men he had come to respect over the years, men who would put the safety of others ahead of their own well being.  He was proud, and terrified at the same time, to acknowledge Scott as one of those people.

“Who do we have to worry about?” Val asked.

Val’s practical nature was a blessing for Johnny as he allowed the question to pull him back to their mission. He was running dangerously close to allowing his emotions to override his caution and common sense. “Teresa – possibly Maria.  Most of the men are out on the range.  There might be one or two around the hacienda.”  Johnny quickly considered their options and his conclusion set his blood racing in anticipation.  The need to take action, to make the outlaws pay, tore through him with a physical jolt. “I want you to round up as many men as you can.  I’ll tell you where to find them.”

Val glowered. “And what’ll you be doing?” he enquired.

Johnny bent his head, restlessly fiddling with his reins.  “Keepin’ an eye on things,” he replied evasively, darting a quick glance up at his rather too perceptive friend.

Val’s eyes narrowed.  “I know you better than that.  I want the truth, Johnny.”

Knowing that his friend could be like a dog worrying a bone, Johnny grimaced.  “I’m going in to get Scott.”

“You’re out of your goddamn mind!” Val exploded.  “D’you know what they’ll do to you if they catch you?”

“We can’t risk hitting them from outside.  They’d just start killing hostages.  And we can’t afford to wait for them to leave.” Johnny raised pleading eyes to his friend.  “You saw how they treated that girl at the bank.  I’m not gonna take the chance on them hurting Teresa or Maria.”

“And if you do manage to get to Scott – what then?”  Val’s tone was no less belligerent.

“Then we can take them from the inside.  If we’re right, and Stearns is badly hurt there will only be three of them to worry about.  If any of them make a break, you and the men should be able to handle them.”

“You’re puttin’ a helluva lot of trust in a man you hardly know to back you up.”

Johnny silently acknowledged the truth of his friend’s words, only he felt an unshakeable confidence in his brother.  “I know all I need to,” he replied forcefully.  “I trust him like I trust you” He recognized now that this trust had been present since the fight with Pardee.  Only until today he’d refused to acknowledge it for fear of where it might lead. “Besides,” he thrust away the unaccustomed emotion, “I want to get this over with and get back to town to check on Murdoch.” He knew, by the brief flash of sympathy, that his attempted nonchalance had failed miserably.

Val’s expression hardened and he put out a hand to grip Johnny’s arm.  “Just keep in mind that you’re not the judge, jury and executioner,” he warned.  “I swore to uphold the law.  As of right now, I’m deputizing you, which means you’ve got the same responsibility.  This is business – not personal.  Savvy?”

Johnny felt a surge of rebellion and resentment, and knew that Val understood him too well to miss it.

“I want your word, Johnny, or I ain’t going along with this hair-brained scheme.”

Johnny held his friend’s gaze as long as he could before sighing in resignation.  Once he gave his word, he would be honor bound to keep it as Val well knew.  “You have it,” he muttered ungraciously.

“Good.  You ain’t a cold-blooded killer and I’m guessing your family wouldn’t want you to become one to save them.”

*****

“Wait!” Scott’s desperate shout echoed over the hoof beats.  They were no more than a few minutes from the house, and any slender hope he might have had of rescue had evaporated. He ignored Josh’s snarled instruction to keep quiet and concentrated his efforts on attracting Henry’s attention. “You wanted to know who would be at Lancer.”

Henry slowed and allowed his horse to fall back so that it was keeping pace with Scott’s mount.  His face was full of suspicion as he regarded his prisoner.  “Why the sudden cooperation?”

“There are people there who I care about and I don’t want to see them hurt,” Scott replied with painful honesty. Now wasn’t the time for subterfuge – not with other lives at stake. “I’m not naïve.  Stearns has some grudge against Johnny and he’s using me to collect a debt.  Added to that, no one’s made any secret about the connection to Randell.  All of which means you’ve no intention of leaving me alive.” He was pleased to note that he’d managed to keep his voice even, hiding the sick fear that was twisting his gut.

“Go on.”

“My father’s ward and possibly our housekeeper will be there.  There may be others, although not many, and probably not in the house itself.  If anyone else sees those two,” Scott nodded toward Luke and Silas, “we both know you’ll have to kill them to protect your employer.”

Henry’s expression was unreadable, although he made no attempt to deny the logic of Scott’s words.

Scott saw the other riders reining back as they strained to overhear the conversation. “Keep them out of sight.  I’m not planning on telling anyone about Randell, so you won’t have to worry about having any more innocent blood on your hands.”

“What do we get in return?” Henry’s expression was bland, giving Scott no clue as to his thoughts.

This was the crux of the matter for Scott.  He’d known that he wasn’t going to get something for nothing.  “Like you said – my cooperation. I’ll help you get into the house without arousing suspicion.  That way, no one has to get hurt, and I’ll keep my mouth shut.  Only thing is, if anyone sees me with my hands tied…”

Scott waited quietly as Henry thought through the implications of his offer.  Josh’s immediately voiced suspicions were ignored and there was a hurried discussion between Henry and Stearns.  It was obvious to Scott that Stearns would be lucky to last another five minutes in the saddle.  He could only hope that might be the incentive the outlaws needed to take him at his word. Finally, Henry nodded and drew his knife, cutting Scott’s bindings.

“You try to double cross us and I’ll see to it that no one at Lancer survives.  Clear?”

Scott inclined his head in acknowledgment, grimacing as the feeling began to return to his fingers.  He grabbed awkwardly for his reins and then tried to relax while Henry gave instructions in a low voice to Randell’s two men.  Luke and Silas pulled their horses off the track to allow the others to pass.  When Scott looked back, he saw them heading for the tree cover at the side of the road.

The sun was low in the sky when they came within sight of the house.  Apparently trusting Scott to keep his word, Henry had announced that they would ride openly to the front door.  Scott saw a couple of the men walking toward the bunkhouse and raised a hand in greeting.  He breathed a sigh of relief as they continued on their path after acknowledging him.

The front door opened as the horses clattered into the yard and Teresa ran out.  Her smile of welcome faltered and she looked enquiringly at Scott.  He swung down out of the saddle and quickly walked to her side.  Bending his head so that his words could not be heard by anyone except her, he murmured softly, “I’ll explain later.” He slipped his arm around her waist and watched as Stearns was helped to the ground.

Teresa’s blue eyes widened.  “He’s hurt.”

Although Scott could see she had a hundred questions just waiting to be asked, he shook his head warningly.  “He’s been shot, and we need to get the bullet out of him.  Is Maria still here?”

“She’s in the kitchen.  We weren’t sure when you’d be home, so she said she’d stay and keep an eye on supper.”

“Where can we put him?” Henry asked urgently, only his firm grip preventing Stearns from collapsing to the ground.

“Upstairs in my room,” Scott told him.  “I’ll show you.” He could see Josh eyeing Teresa and tightened his hold, feeling her press against his side.  He quickly ushered her through the door.  “Everything will be all right,” he said in what he hoped was a reassuring voice.  “You just have to trust me.”

Scott felt a mounting sense of unease as the door was firmly closed behind them.  He’d had no option, he knew that.  Nevertheless, he still felt as if he’d let his family down by allowing the outlaws such easy access to their home.  He bent closer to Teresa again, speaking in hushed tones.  “Tell Maria to go home, and if…” His words were cut off as Josh grabbed his arm.  He was pulled away from the girl and slammed back against the wall.

Teresa put her hands across her mouth to stifle a scream and darted to Scott’s side.  “What’s happening? Who are these men?  Where are Johnny and Murdoch?”

Thinking of his father, and whether he was alive or dead, made Scott’s stomach roil unpleasantly.  He had no intention of telling Teresa what had happened in town if it could be avoided. She would find out soon enough and didn’t need that extra burden now. “It doesn’t matter who they are,” he hedged.  “The important thing is to get the injury tended to so that they can leave.  Neither you nor Maria will be harmed. I don’t want any of the men to know there’s a problem, otherwise, someone could get hurt.  Just do as they tell you, and everything will be fine.”

While he had been talking, Josh had gone back outside.  When the outlaw returned he was holding a length of rope.  Josh touched the bruise on the side of his head, caused during Scott’s earlier escape attempt.  “I ain’t gonna give you the chance to do any more damage,” he snarled vengefully. 

Scott didn’t resist when Josh forced him to turn around and bound his hands behind his back.  He had to try and keep things calm.  It would be all too easy for the situation to explode into violence. He caught his breath as the restraint was tightened around wrists already bruised and painful. He silently urged himself to look at the positive side. He was on his own territory now and that gave him an advantage.  He needed to think this through logically and clearly.  There were, any number of, potential weapons he could use if he could get his hands free.  Once the outlaws were occupied with Stearns, he might have a chance. 

Henry barked an instruction to Joe to take Teresa to the kitchen and sort out the supplies necessary to remove the bullet.  Scott felt a momentary relief that Josh hadn’t been sent with her.  He’d paid very little attention to Joe, who had appeared content to follow orders without argument or debate.  Now, he looked more closely at the man.  Joe was considerably older than his companions, his features unremarkable.  Scott didn’t detect any hint of the temper or instability that resided in Josh, which gave him a small crumb of comfort.

Josh contented himself with leering at Teresa and pushing his prisoner toward the stairs.  Scott stumbled, and would have fallen, except for Henry’s quick hand on his arm.

“We need you in one piece – for the moment,” Henry told him, with a frightening lack of emotion.  “Now, get upstairs and show us where we can put Frank.”

*****

Sam made his way slowly back to his house, deep in thought.  During his long career he had lost many patients, despite providing the best care possible.  The circumstances didn’t matter…each death weighed heavily upon him.  He feared that Louisa would soon join the list.  Her condition had deteriorated following Morgan’s precipitate departure.  Blood loss had drained her vital energy and fever was threatening to steal her life away.  She was showing no inclination to fight.  Losing her child and being deserted by her husband had sapped her will.

He wanted to check on Murdoch before resuming his vigil with Louisa’s mother.  Just before he had left the girl she had started to complain of pain in her abdomen.  He had given her some medication, but knew that the discomfort would continue to worsen and that only a miracle could save her now.

The streets were quiet.  All the businesses had closed up and folks would be at home, sitting around the supper table, discussing the excitement of the day.  Many families would be worrying about the loss of their money in the robbery.  Sam was more concerned by the human cost.  As he passed the saloon, two well-dressed men emerged onto the boardwalk.  Sam recognized Walter Randell, although he’d never had dealings with the man.  He couldn’t place Randell’s companion.  Being in no mood to speak to anyone Sam quickened his pace.

“Doctor.”

Sam sighed heavily and stopped, turning in response to Randell’s call.  “Is there something I can do for you?”

“I was wondering about Murdoch.  Do you think he is going to recover?”

Sam didn’t like the tone of the rancher’s voice or the anticipatory gleam in his eyes.  “I never discuss my patient’s business, Mr. Randell.”

“It’s merely a friendly enquiry, Dr. Jenkins. You could call it concern for a neighbour.”

“I’ll be sure to pass that on to Murdoch and his family.”

“I’d say his family were rather occupied,” Randell’s companion replied with a hint of levity, which Sam found to be tastelessly misplaced.

“Gentlemen,” Sam ground out.  “If you’ll excuse me, I must be going.”

His temper was simmering when he arrived back at his house.  The unfeeling attitude of the two men had touched a raw nerve.  He found Ruth sitting by Murdoch’s bedside reading a book.

She removed her glasses as he entered. “How is Mrs. Dunn?”

Sam shook his head sadly.  “The baby couldn’t be saved and I’m not sure she will recover.”

Ruth stood and touched him gently on the shoulder as she passed.  “I’ll bring you some coffee.”

“There’s no time,” he responded wearily. “I only came back to collect some supplies and to check on Murdoch.  How is he?”

“He was awake for a short while.  There’s a trace of fever, but nothing to worry about.  He was rational…and worried about his sons.”

Sam removed his stethoscope from his bag and set about checking his patient’s vital signs.  “I assume there’s been no news?”

“Nothing.  The town will be badly hit if that money isn’t recovered.”  Ruth walked back to stand beside the bed, looking down at their sleeping patient.  “And he will be devastated, if anything happens to either or both of his sons.”

*****

Scott sat on a chair in his bedroom, inwardly cursing Henry’s caution.  He’d hoped they would lock him up somewhere while they worked on Stearns, so that he could try and loosen the ropes pinning his arms behind his back.  Unfortunately, Henry had decided that he wanted his prisoner kept in plain sight.  Scott knew it was his own fault.  If he hadn’t fought them so hard at the outset they might have been less wary.  The trouble was, ever since his time in Libby, he hadn’t been very good at taking orders.  He had fallen foul of the authorities on more than one occasion during his imprisonment, being unwilling to stand quietly by and turn a blind eye to injustice and brutality.

He gazed out the window at the setting sun.  On any normal evening, he would be sitting in the great room with his family, relaxing after a hard day of physical labor.  Tension and anger infused him and he tugged at the ropes that now bound him to the chair.  His time as a prisoner of war had left him with a deep fear of being helpless.  Now, though, that fear was turned outwards.  There was nothing he could do to protect Teresa and Maria.  Surprisingly, he found himself trusting Henry not to hurt them unnecessarily, although the outlaw wouldn’t hesitate to use them to keep his more troublesome prisoner in line.

Josh was another matter entirely. The young man had deliberately brushed up against Teresa when she had arrived with the bandages and water.  Scott had seen her recoil fearfully and he had strained ineffectually against his bonds in an effort to reach her.  Henry had noticed and had snapped an order at his younger colleague to keep his thoughts above his belt.  Teresa had been sent back downstairs with Joe, and Maria had been instructed to help with the operation.

Stearns, by this stage, was barely conscious.  A dose of laudanum had put him to sleep, but not before he had roused himself enough to look into Scott’s furious gaze.

He described tersely what Scott could expect to happen to him once they reached Mexico.  The memory caused Scott’s throat to tighten unpleasantly.  From what he could gather, Johnny had been instrumental in having Stearns arrested on a prior occasion.  The outlaw had been facing the prospect of a hanging, and wasn’t inclined to forgive Johnny for his interference.  In a twisted act of revenge, Stearns was threatening Scott with the same fate.  Should Johnny be unfortunate enough to be captured, he would be forced to watch, before suffering as slow and painful a death as Stearns could devise.  Maria had paled, murmuring a prayer in Spanish until told curtly by Henry to shut up.

Scott refused to give up hope.  Someone would be tracking them and this delay would give their pursuers a chance.  He wanted to believe that Johnny would have stayed in town with their father, but knew that it was far more likely Johnny was with the sheriff, if only because of his connection to Stearns.

As Henry began the delicate task of removing the bullet, Scott’s thoughts wandered to Boston and his grandfather.  He had been so sure that returning to Boston was the right thing to do.  So why, when it came to it, had he been unable to commit that decision to writing?  Harlan Garrett must be wondering why his grandson had wasted money sending a telegram that contained only a bland greeting and an enquiry as to his health. As he worried the question around in his mind he couldn’t prevent a wry smile.  The way things were going, he might find the need to make a decision obsolete.  He brought his attention back to the events around him.  Henry was continuing to probe for the bullet, swearing fiercely.  Maria stood beside him, outrage written into her stiff posture and disapproving glare.  Josh had wandered over to watch the procedure.  Scott lowered his eyes and began to work on the ropes. Ignoring the pain and the warm trickles of blood running down his hands, he bent all his attention upon getting free.

As the sun finally slipped below the horizon, Henry gave a relieved shout and dropped the bullet into a bowl on the bedside table.  He wiped the sweat from his face and instructed Maria to clean and bandage the wound.  She looked silently at Scott.

Giving up his efforts to free his hands, Scott gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile.  “Do as he says.  It won’t help any of us if Stearns dies.”

“Damn right it won’t,” Henry growled, taking a healthy swig of whiskey from the bottle that had been used to clean the wound. He walked over to Scott and stared down at him.  “You’ve got guts, Lancer, even if you don’t know when to quit.  Now, let’s see what you’ve been up to while I’ve been busy.”  He inspected Scott’s wrists.  “Helluva mess you’ve made of yourself, boy.”  He tugged at the ropes and Scott let out a hiss of pain.

Henry chuckled.  “Let’s put these hands of yours to a better use.  Since I can’t seem to leave you alone for a minute, without you gettin’ yourself into trouble, you can make us some supper. I’m hungry.” He untied Scott from the chair and pulled him to his feet.  “Keep an eye on Frank,” he instructed to Josh.  “Make sure she takes good care of him.” He grinned nastily at Maria who glared silently in response. “I’ll send Joe up, once he’s eaten, to take over.”

They had almost reached the door when a single shot rang out.

 

8pm – 9pm

Johnny had been patiently watching the house for twenty minutes when it happened.  He’d seen nothing unusual during his vigil.  A few of the vaqueros had strolled between the barn and the bunkhouse, showing no sign that anything was amiss.  He had a nagging worry that his quarry wasn’t where he expected them to be, but the signs had been clear.  Scott and his kidnappers were at Lancer.

There were a number of ways that he could approach the house without being detected.  The easiest way to gain access was through the window leading to the wine cellar.  From there, he could enter the building close to the kitchen and the back stairs.  Fixing the lock on that window was one of a long list of routine jobs that needed doing, only no one ever seemed to have the time to attend to any of them.  That was one small mercy in a day that had been going rapidly downhill.

He was standing close to the trunk of a massive oak tree.  The leafy branches would shield him should anyone be watching from the house.  The sun had disappeared and the sky was darkening, the air remaining hot and oppressive.  Johnny removed his hat and was running his hand through his sweat damp dark hair, when the bullet struck the trunk only inches away from his head, gouging splinters from the wood.

“Mierde,” Johnny swore, ducking as he reached for his gun.

“You ain’t that fast,” a mocking voice told him.  “The next bullet’s gonna hit somewhere real painful if you don’t stand still.”

Johnny moved his hand away from his side, frowning as the voice teased his memory.  He’d heard it before, but it wasn’t the man who Stearns had been talking to at the bank. There was a rustling of sound behind him and a hand snaked round to remove his Colt.  The cold metal of a gun barrel touched the back of his neck and he suppressed a shiver.

“Seems like you’re still lookin’ for trouble, boy,” the voice continued, finally triggering the memory.

Johnny’s mind worked furiously.  What the hell were Randell’s men doing here?  He kept his face and voice carefully expressionless as he responded.  “Yeah, you could say that.”

The gun stayed where it was, although Johnny could feel the slight movement as his assailant shook with silent laughter.  “Reckon you’re not much of a threat without your gun, or that brother of yours, to back you up.” The words were hissed into his ear before the man chuckled to himself.

Movement on the periphery of his vision drew Johnny’s attention to the arrival of a second man.  This verified his suspicions, as it was the younger of the two men he and Scott had encountered previously.  That man, silent up until now, wore a smug expression on his face.

“Hey Silas,” the new arrival called, keeping his rifle trained on Johnny.  “If you’re lucky, you might get the chance to drill holes in two Lancers in one day.”

Comprehension hit Johnny like a bolt of lightening and a blind, unthinking rage consumed him. He wasn’t aware of moving, only of having his hands wrapped around the throat of the man who had been standing behind him.  This was the man who had shot his father down in a cold blooded murder attempt.  He heard frantic shouts and sanity made a belated reappearance.  Expecting a bullet, it was almost a relief to feel the butt of the rifle connect with the side of his head.  He pitched forward into the arms of the man he’d been attempting to throttle, trying frantically to hold onto his senses.

“You dirty, little half-breed bastard.” The words emerged as no more than a croak as Silas shook him like a rag doll.

Johnny tried to focus his eyes, only to wish he hadn’t bothered as he saw a large fist hurtling toward his face.  The impact with his jaw shot him backwards, and he was unconscious before he hit the ground.

*****

The knock at the door wasn’t unexpected.  Scott finished rolling down his sleeves to hide the rope marks around his wrists, before turning to look back into the great room.  Unsurprisingly, Teresa looked terrified.  Josh had his left arm around her waist, holding her pressed back against his chest.  His knife rested against her throat and he had a cold lascivious look on his face.  Scott’s frosty stare bored into him and he loosened his grip on the girl. Joe had been despatched upstairs to watch Stearns and Maria.  Henry stood to the side of the front door, gun pointed steadily at Scott.

The gunshot had provoked a momentary panic, until Henry had reasserted his authority.  They had no way of telling what had happened.  Scott only knew that it had increased the tension in the house, and lessened their chances of making it out alive.

He’d been unceremoniously dragged downstairs while Henry issued orders.  It was inconceivable that there wouldn’t be some reaction from the vaqueros.  If Scott wanted to avoid bloodshed, he would do exactly as he was told.

The knock sounded again and Scott opened the door.  “Pedro.” He acknowledged the young man standing in the porch.  Two more ranch hands waited a few feet away.

“Senor Scott.” Pedro removed his hat respectfully, holding it in front of him with both hands.  “We heard a shot.”

Scott glanced briefly at Henry who was safely out of sight of the ranch hand. “Don’t worry about it.  Johnny saw some wolf tracks when we were on our way home.  He was concerned about an attack on the calves, so he’s gone to check it out.  I’m sure that was just him taking care of the problem.”

As Scott spoke, he wondered if the truth was that the hunter had become the hunted.  Randell’s men were skulking out there somewhere, and he couldn’t see them hesitating to pounce if the opportunity presented itself.

“Si, Senor.” Pedro looked relieved.  “I am sorry to have troubled you.”

“No apology necessary, Pedro.  Why don’t you and the rest of the men take the evening off and go into town?” Scott heard a muted snarl from Henry.

“It is the middle of the week,” Pedro protested.  “Senor Lancer doesn’t…”

“My father has been delayed,” Scott interrupted smoothly, “and won’t be home for a few days.  There’s no reason for him to find out.”

Pedro looked over his shoulder at his friends who were nodding enthusiastically.  Still looking puzzled, he turned his attention back to his young patron.  “Gracias.  I will see you in the morning.”

“Good night.” Scott sighed with relief when the men turned and closed the heavy door.

“What game are you playing?” Henry shoved his gun under Scott’s chin, forcing his head back.  “You think we’re gonna let them ride out of here?  When they get to town, and find out what’s been happening, they’ll lead the posse right back here.”

As the gun dug deeper and Henry’s complexion grew redder, Scott willed himself to remain calm.  This was a calculated risk and not one he’d taken lightly.  “They won’t go to Green River.” The gun was withdrawn, leaving him free to breathe again.  “Most of the men are Mexican and they feel more comfortable going to Morro Coyo.  Besides, it’s closer to the ranch.”

Henry’s face was only inches away from his own, the outlaw bristling with suspicion.  “Why should I believe you?”

“Because I told you the truth, when I said I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt.  Think about it,” Scott implored passionately.  “What will I gain if a posse comes bursting in?  You’d just kill everyone here.  All I’m interested in is getting Stearns on his feet so that you can leave.  With the men out of the way, there’s less chance of them stumbling across the truth, which makes it safer for everyone.”

“What’re you listening to him for?” Josh challenged hotly.  “Coming here was a lousy idea, and if you let him sucker you, we’ll all end up dead.”

Scott looked on anxiously as Josh pressed the blade harder against Teresa’s throat.  After giving one terrified squeak she fell silent, a tear running down her cheek.

“Let her go.” Scott had only taken two steps toward Teresa when he heard Henry pull back the hammer on his gun.

“Move again before I tell you and I’ll shoot,” Henry warned.  “You’ve pushed me far enough.”

“Then call him off,” Scott pleaded. His gaze swung between Henry and Josh.

“Alright,” Henry said at last. “Let the girl go.  If Lancer gives us any more trouble you can do what you like with her.”

“You’re crazy.” Josh kept firm hold of Teresa.  “Frank ain’t gonna make it and we both know it.  Let’s finish this and get out of here.”

“I’m not leaving Frank,” Henry replied icily.

“Fine. Then give me my share of the money and I’m outta here.”

“Give it another hour. Frank’ll be rested enough by then.”

“We might not have another hour.” There was a trace of panic in Josh’s voice. “What about that shot?”

“All the more reason not to lose our heads,” Henry reasoned.  “If there is a posse out there, you’d be cut down as soon as you were out in the open.

As sparks flew between the two outlaws, Scott kept his eyes fixed on Teresa.  She looked steadily back, seeming to gather strength from his outwardly calm manner.  Abruptly, Josh released her, pushing her toward Scott.  The blond caught her in a firm grip and she buried her face in his shirt.

“Get him tied up again,” Henry ordered. “I’m not taking any chances. You – girl – get in the kitchen and fix us something to eat.  Try anything and I’ll make you watch while I gut him.  Then,” he added maliciously, “I’ll hand you over to Josh.”

“Go on,” Scott pushed her gently away until he held her at arms length.  “It’ll be alright.  I promise.”

“I know,” she told him bravely.

*****

Val Crawford wasn’t a happy man.  He’d never seen Johnny so emotionally unstable.  He didn’t think his friend would deliberately break his word, but was concerned that Johnny wasn’t thinking straight.  The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that he’d made a dreadful mistake in leaving the young man alone.

He was riding along the main road to Green River, it was getting dark and he was still at least an hour away from Cipriano and his work crew.  He pulled his horse to a halt, tore his hat from his head, and ran a hand through his scraggly hair in frustration.  His internal debate didn’t last long.  This felt wrong and he was a great believer in following his gut instincts.  He jammed his hat back on and prepared to retrace his steps.  Johnny would be furious, but he’d handled the Madrid temper before and was too old to be intimidated by the young gunhawk.

Through the gloom, he heard approaching hoof beats and moved hurriedly to the side of the road, drawing his gun as he did so. Peering at the approaching rider he recognized Morgan Dunn. He rode out to intercept the young man, calling out to identify himself. “What in hell’s name are you doin’ riding around on your own, with them outlaws still on the loose.” Val demanded.

There was an unsettling blankness on Morgan’s face.  “I thought I might be able to help.”

Val couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong, but the words just didn’t sound right.  “How’s your wife?” he asked and was momentarily startled by a fleeting look of animal cunning.

“She’s resting.”

“Shouldn’t you be with her?” Val queried.

“She’s being looked after,” Morgan replied shortly. Then with more eagerness, “Do you know where they are?”

Val toyed with the idea of lying and sending Morgan on his way.  He’d heard stories about Morgan’s wild ways and unpredictable temper.  He’d had a hard time equating that with the respectable, newly married man who’d been working hard to learn about the hotel business from his father.  Marriage, so the gossips said, had tamed him.  There was nothing tame about him now.  Just the thought of having to cope with two hot-heads made Val groan inwardly.  The trouble was, he undeniably needed assistance.  Would Morgan provide that assistance or cause more problems?  He almost growled in frustration. He’d wasted enough time and certainly didn’t have time for an argument. Finally he opted for the truth. “They’ve holed up at Lancer.  Looks like their leader was hurt worse than we thought.”

A slow unsettling smile crept across Morgan’s face as he gripped the reins tighter.  “What’re we waiting for then?” he asked eagerly.

Val shook his head.  This was a bad idea and there wasn’t much he could do to make it better.  “Alright, but you do exactly as I tell you.  These men are dangerous and they’ve got hostages.  You do anything to make my job harder, and I’ll shoot ya myself.

 

*****

“Where’s the rest of the posse?”

Johnny licked his lips and studied the man who was asking the questions.  The outlaw was dirty, unshaven and far too powerfully built for Johnny’s liking.  His hesitation earned him another blow and he winced.  He’d regained consciousness right after he’d been dragged through the front door of the hacienda.  By the time his head had cleared, he was securely tied to a chair and out of options.  He turned his head to the right and made eye contact with his brother, who was similarly restrained.  Scott had acquired some bruises, but all things considered, looked better than he’d been expecting.

The question was repeated and he sighed.  “How would I know? My guess would be that they’re on their way to Mexico.” He looked up, saw confusion on the man’s face, and glared, moving on to the offensive.  “Where’s Frank?”

“Upstairs with a bullet hole in him.”  Scott’s answer was laced with satisfaction.

“Shut up,” Johnny’s interrogator snapped, and Johnny thought he detected a hint of weariness in the man’s voice.  He had the distinct impression that his brother hadn’t been endearing himself to his kidnappers.  He grinned at Scott and received a faint smile in return. There was an unspoken question in his brother’s eyes, but Johnny couldn’t give him the reassurance he needed just yet.

The man snarled in irritation and leaned down to grab a handful of Johnny’s shirt.  “If the posse’s going to Mexico, why’re you here? Come to rescue your brother?”

Johnny snorted and replied with indifference, “I live here, remember?” He glanced around, avoiding looking at Scott.  He couldn’t afford to show any concern.  “Never thought you’d be dumb enough to hole up here though,” he continued nastily, turning his head away from the man’s foul breath and tensing himself for another blow.

“You and your brother ain’t so smart either,” the man hissed, “seein’ as it’s you two who’re tied up.” He pushed Johnny back against the chair, glowering impartially at his two prisoners.  “We’re leaving in half an hour and you’re both coming with us.  Sit tight,” he smirked spitefully.  “I’m gonna tell Frank the good news.  Josh, keep an eye on them.”

Johnny turned his attention to the younger man who’d been standing by the fireplace.  He didn’t like the way Josh had been looking at his brother, and he certainly didn’t like the large knife that Josh now drew from its sheath.  The two men who’d captured him had disappeared and so far, there’d been no sign of the third robber, or Teresa and Maria.  This uncertainty over everyone’s whereabouts was making him nervous.

Josh walked over and grinned down at Johnny before responding to his departing accomplice.  “Sure, Henry, I’ll take real good care of them.”  He ran the flat of the knife blade down Johnny’s cheek.  “You be a good boy now or I might just have to go and pay a visit to that pretty little dark-haired girl.  I bet she’d be a real wild one.”

Johnny’s anger burned white-hot and he leaned as far forward as his bonds would allow.  His voice was steady, soft and filled with menace.  “You lay a hand on her and I’ll tear you apart.”

The outlaw backed up hastily, almost tripping over his feet as he did so.  “You ain’t in any position to make threats.” His false bravado was undermined by the tremor in his voice.  “You want to watch?” he asked viciously, recovering his composure.

Johnny could feel the blood roaring in his head as he struggled against the ropes holding him captive. He was perilously close to losing all control over his words and actions.

“Leave it, Johnny.” Scott’s calm voice cut across his fury.  “Don’t let him rile you.”

Johnny wasn’t in the mood to listen to good advice.  He turned the full force of his anger on his brother, who stared right back without a trace of apprehension.  A procession of images flitted across his mind - of Scott backing him up during the confrontation in the east pasture and then standing up for him against Randell in the saloon.  Older pictures followed from the day he’d been shot off his horse, convinced that his short life was about to end.  He’d told Val he trusted his brother.  Now was the time to prove it.  He allowed Scott’s composure to enfold him and cool the heat in his blood.

“Yeah, you’re right.  He ain’t worth it.”

He had to struggle not to laugh at Scott’s startled expression.  Clearly, his sibling hadn’t been expecting such a quick capitulation.

Seeing that he wasn’t going to get any fun at the brothers’ expense, Josh consoled himself by raiding the liquor cabinet.  Once the outlaw was occupied with drinking Murdoch’s expensive brandy, Johnny inched his chair closer to Scott, keeping his voice low.

“Murdoch was alive when I left town.” A tight smile indicated Scott’s relief.  Johnny glanced over at their guard who now had his back to them. “Where are Teresa and Maria?”

“Maria’s looking after your friend, Stearns.  So far as I know, Teresa’s still in the kitchen preparing some food.” Scott also looked quickly in Josh’s direction to make sure he wasn’t listening. “I’m not sure your change in tactics is going to work. Henry is rather smarter than he looks.”

Johnny looked searchingly at his brother.  “What change in tactics?”

“Give me some credit,” Scott admonished him.  “They’re not going to buy into the idea that you don’t give a damn about your family, and that you just happened to stumble across them here.”

“How do you know that wasn’t the truth?” Johnny asked quietly, heart hammering in his chest as he waited for his brother’s answer.

“Because I trust you,” Scott told him, without hesitation.  “I’ll back you up however you want to play it, but I’m not sure how much good it’ll do.”

Johnny gave no outward sign of his feelings about Scott’s sentiments.  Inwardly, they calmed and reassured him, helped him reach for the strength he needed to pull himself back from the brink of emotional disaster.

Scott’s blond head drooped wearily for a minute then he sighed and looked up.  “Want to tell me what happened?  And where’s the sheriff?”

“I, uh, I got careless,” Johnny admitted.  “I didn’t know they’d joined up with Randell’s men. I thought if I could get into the house you and I…Well, I just didn’t think this was a one man deal.”  He watched his brother carefully.  Several weeks ago Scott had greeted his comment about staying out of the fight against Pardee with a mocking smile.  How would he take this attempt at an apology for misjudging him?

“Glad to hear it, Brother.” Scott’s smile was open and warm, and Johnny felt some of his pent up tension evaporate.

“Only things didn’t quite go according to plan.”

“I can see that.”  Although the tone was slightly mocking, Johnny sensed that it wasn’t malicious or disapproving.  “I’ve not done much better,” Scott continued. “I haven’t had a decent chance to escape since that idiot of a bank manager interfered right at the beginning.”

“Marty told me.  D’you think Roberts could be mixed up in this?”

“I doubt it.  The robbery took him by surprise and he was clearly terrified.  He’s been up to something though and I wish I knew where Randell fits in to all this.”

Johnny’s expression turned hard.  “It was one of his men who shot Murdoch.” He lowered his head to hide the pain in his eyes.  “It was a bad wound, Scott.”

“I didn’t…I wasn’t sure if he was still alive.  I didn’t see where the shot came from, but if he hadn’t intervened, Stearns would have killed you.”

“I know.” Johnny couldn’t speak of the guilt he felt.  He wasn’t used to discussing his feelings, had actively fought against the idea of opening up to this man who was his brother, but who was still a virtual stranger to him.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

Johnny’s head snapped up.  “Never said it was.”  He saw the hurt on his brother’s face and cursed himself for a fool.  Before he could offer any kind of an apology, he heard footsteps.

Frank might be in pain and pale from loss of blood, but there was no mistaking the feral smile and anticipatory gleam in his eyes. “Hello, Johnny.  Nice to see you again.”

 

9pm – 10pm

“I was hoping you’d show up.” Even Frank’s obvious satisfaction couldn’t conceal a wave of dizziness, and he leaned more heavily against Henry.

“And I was hoping you were dead,” Johnny responded with feeling.

Frank gave a short bark of laughter.  “That’s what I like about you Johnny – your sense of humor. Where’s your friend, the sheriff?”

“He’s around here somewhere,” Johnny replied vaguely. He studied Stearns for a moment. “You don’t look so good. Don’t you think you should sit down?”

Johnny’s mock concern wiped the smile from Stearns’ face.  He made his slow way over to a chair and sagged back with a stifled moan.  There was silence while he caught his breath.  “You’ve saved me the trouble of hauling your brother all the way to Mexico,” he finally snarled.

Johnny heard his brother’s sharp intake of breath and turned his head.  Scott had paled noticeably, and a wave of apprehension washed over him. He fought for control, projecting the appearance of polite interest.

“If I’d known you were a Lancer, I might have taken you up on that offer in town,” Stearns continued, before looking briefly at Scott.  “Then again, I might not.”

Johnny couldn’t hide his look of enquiry and Stearns’ smile returned.  “He hasn’t told you, has he?”

Dry mouthed, Johnny desperately searched the blond’s face for some clue, seeing only resolute determination. Moistening dry lips, he finally asked the question. “Told me what?”

“Ever seen a hanging?” Frank asked, with a look of eager anticipation.

It had taken Johnny years to perfect his facade of casual indifference.  He knew that opponents found it unnerving and it stood him in good stead now. He saw a flicker of uncertainty cross Frank’s face.  “You plannin’ to hang him?” he asked, casting a look of utter unconcern in Scott’s direction.  “That bullet in your shoulder must’ve affected your wits.”

“You need a lesson in manners, boy,” Henry growled.

“Don’t worry, he’ll get one,” Frank said tiredly. “Meantime, I could use a drink.”

There was silence while Josh carried over a bottle of brandy and a glass – a silence that was broken when Teresa walked into the room carrying a tray laden with sandwiches and coffee.

“Johnny!” she gasped.

Henry hurried over to take the tray.  “Get her upstairs,” he instructed Josh. “And don’t try anything with her. Find someplace to lock her and that other woman up, then you and Joe make sure the horses’re ready.”

Johnny watched expressionlessly as Teresa was hustled from the room.  Her eyes were filled with tears as she twisted in Josh’s grip to look back at the brothers. It was harder than it had been that day in Morro Coyo when he’d sat back and watched Scott being set upon by three of Pardee’s men.  He’d been undecided then about what course to follow, and hadn’t been ready to advertise his connection to Lancer.  His brother had displayed real guts that day, more than holding his own.  Of course, it hadn’t been long after that, when Scott had expressed his unhappiness about his brother’s inaction in a decisive and painful fashion.  The memory brought a fleeting smile to his face. Boston might have a way with words, but he sure didn’t hesitate to let his fists speak for him when necessary.

Frank had used the distraction of Teresa’s appearance to good use, downing a healthy slug of brandy and settling himself more comfortably in his chair. Once Teresa was out of earshot he resumed the conversation. “You want to explain why I shouldn’t have Henry drag your brother out to the barn and hang him now?” he asked, with a glance at Scott.

Johnny shrugged as best he could.  “It’s your party.  Only thing is, you’d be throwin’ away a helluva lot of money.”

“I’m listening.”

“Any fool can see how rich Lancer is.  Murdoch’d pay just about anything you asked to get his first born son back in one piece.”

Frank’s smile wasn’t a pleasant sight. “Last time I saw your old man he wasn’t looking so healthy.”

“True,” Johnny conceded regretfully.  “But it ain’t just Lancer that’d pay to get him back.  He’s also got a rich granddaddy in Boston.”

“Shut up, Johnny,” Scott instructed sharply.

“Sure,” Johnny replied placidly.  “Don’t make no difference to me.”

Stearns frowned as he looked from one brother to the other. Johnny held his breath, not daring to look at Scott while he waited to see if Frank would take the bait.

“Looks like I was right,” Scott stated in disgust.  “All you were ever interested in was the money.”

“Well, I sure ain’t here because I give a damn about Murdoch Lancer,” Johnny shot back, impressed once again by Scott’s quick thinking.

“Are you expecting me to believe that you don’t care what happens to your brother?” Frank asked suspiciously.

“We might share the old man’s blood, but that don’t mean anything.  Didn’t even know he existed until a couple of months ago.  Wasn’t a real nice surprise when I found out either.”

“Likewise,” Scott interjected frigidly.

Frank burst out laughing, catching his breath as his unwise amusement aggravated his wound.  “I’ve got to give you two credit.  You’re puttin’ on one damn fine performance.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed.  “You think this is a joke? Murdoch Lancer threw me and my mother out when I wasn’t much more than a baby.  He gave her nothing – except a blue-eyed mestizo kid and a broken heart. She had to make money any way she could just to put food on the table. And while I was grubbin’ around in those border towns getting the shit kicked out of me, he,” he glared at Scott, “was living in some fancy house in Boston.”

He could feel his breath coming faster and shallower.  Although he no longer believed the story told by his mother, deep layers of hurt remained that he hadn’t yet come to terms with.  Scott’s quiet supportive presence calmed him and he continued in a more even tone.  “It ain’t no secret that I swore to kill my father, or that he only contacted me when he needed my gun to fight Pardee and save this ranch.”

“Looks like we might have done you a favor then.” Frank’s hand was shaking as he put the glass down on the table, and Johnny watched the signs of weakness avidly. “But what I want to know, is why he was still walkin’ around if you came here intending to kill him.”

“’Cause of this.” Johnny’s gaze swept the great room.  “He made Scott and me partners.  If I’d shot him like I planned I’d have had to run or face being hanged.  Either way, I’d have lost everything and I reckoned I’d earned my share.”

“Earned it?” Scott asked incredulously. “What did you ever do to earn a share of Lancer?  You’d have sided with Pardee if you’d thought he was going to win.”

“Damn right,” Johnny agreed. “Only I reckoned you were too sneaky to let him get the better of you.  Besides, I didn’t want to share it with Day,” he paused for a beat, “or anyone else.”

“So you were just waiting for your best shot, ‘Brother’.” Scott’s voice dripped with sarcasm.

“Something like that,” Johnny admitted unabashed. “And it looks like I may have got it.” He turned his attention back to Frank, ignoring Scott’s seething anger.  “The way I see it is this. You can kill us both like you planned, or you can be smart and listen to my proposition.” He could see the look of avarice on Stearns’ face and the deeply sceptical frown on Henry’s.

“He’s playing you, Frank,” Henry stated.

“Maybe, but it can’t hurt to listen.”

“We need to get out of here,” Henry urged.  “For all we know he’s stalling to give that sheriff time to set up an ambush.”

“Then he and his brother are both dead,” Frank replied equably.  “You’ve got ten minutes to persuade me, Madrid.”

Johnny nodded.  “Not in front of him.” His gaze flicked to Scott, who was watching him with an expression of deep disgust.  Johnny’s heart sank.  Did Scott think so little of him that he was buying into his act?  If Scott really believed he’d turn on Lancer then there was no future for him here even if they did survive.  “Put him in the wine cellar,” he suggested.  “That way he can’t get too comfortable.”

“Bastard,” Scott hissed.

“Nope,” Johnny responded.  “That’s one thing you can’t accuse me of bein’.  Murdoch might have jumped the gun, but my mama made sure it was all legal before I was born.”

“I don’t like this,” Henry complained.  “Lancer’s tried everything to get away.  The only sure way to hang onto him is to keep him where we can see him.”

“He can’t get up to much in ten minutes,” Frank reasoned. “Get him out of here.”

*****

“I don’t trust you, and I don’t trust your brother.” Henry lifted the lamp and checked the knots securing Scott to a section of the racking in the wine cellar.

Scott kept his opinion to himself, wishing that Henry wasn’t so thorough.  His fingers were numb, his shoulders ached and the muscles in his arms kept going into spasms.  He didn’t know what Johnny thought he could achieve in the short time available to him.  It would likely take ten minutes to regain the feeling in his hands, even if he could rid himself of the ropes.  A nagging suspicion insinuated itself into his mind.  What if this wasn’t a ploy?  Was Johnny cynically making a deal to save his own life?  The idea was curtly dismissed.  He’d seen the look on Johnny’s face when their father was gunned down.  He’d offered his dark-haired sibling his trust, something that didn’t come easily to him.  It had been obvious from the outset that Johnny wasn’t comfortable relying upon anyone other than himself.  Yet, the younger man had offered an oblique apology for cutting him out of the plan to defeat Pardee just before they had been interrupted.  It was time to rely upon instinct and intuition, to work together as they had done earlier in the day. It was time to prove that ‘trust’ wasn’t just some empty meaningless word.

When Henry left with the lamp Scott was plunged into darkness.  He heard the sound of the bolt being pulled into place and then the key rattling in the lock. He groped behind him, his fingers brushing against the smooth glass of one of the expensive bottles of wine that his father had collected over the years.  He’d been surprised to find his father was such a connoisseur.  Discussions about the merits of one wine as compared to another had been pleasant, and formed some of the few occasions when he hadn’t felt out of his depth. He hadn’t enjoyed feeling like an outsider.  Now, he wondered how much of that had been his own doing.  Had he put up barriers to avoid being hurt if everything went wrong?  Was that why he’d been planning on running back to Boston with his tail between his legs?  Nothing ventured, nothing gained – there was truth in that old saying.  He could only hope that he would get the second chance he now realized he so desperately wanted.

The need to find out if his father was still alive gave him added impetus, and he patiently nudged the closest bottle into a position where he could take hold of it.  With the numbness in his fingers he couldn’t be certain how secure his grip was going to be.  He felt it slip and pressed himself back, pinning the bottle between his body and the shelf.  Taking a deep breath to calm himself he reached down and grasped the neck of the bottle again.

*****

Johnny rubbed his wrists, noting the bruising and abrasions marring his skin.  Both Henry and Josh, who had returned with confirmation that the horses were ready, were watching him like hawks.  While Henry had been seeing to Scott, he’d persuaded Frank that he needed a drink.  The mention of large amounts of money had improved Frank’s mood and he’d told Henry to untie him, much to Johnny’s surprise and gratitude.  He wandered over to the tray of sandwiches and helped himself, the growling in his stomach reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  Collecting the brandy bottle, he refilled Frank’s glass before pouring a drink for himself. He cheerfully acquiesced when ordered by Henry to sit down, and was now intent upon buying Scott as much time as possible.

“You really should eat something,” he advised Stearns.  “All that blood loss sure ain’t good for you.  The state you’re in, you’ll probably just fall off your horse.  Then again, if you let Teresa go, she can brew you up some of her special tea.  Tastes like hog swill, but it’s guaranteed to cure any ailments.” He paused to take a bite of his sandwich, blue eyes alight with mischief. “She made me drink gallons of the stuff when I was recovering from that bullet in the back from Pardee.  She might be kinda dainty, but she’s got a real mean temper if you try and cross her. Then maybe you should lie down for a while.  You get dirt in a wound like that and…”

“Are you gonna let him talk all night?” Josh broke in angrily.  “It’s almost pitch black outside, which’ll slow us down, and if we wait here any longer we’re gonna be caught like rats in a trap.”

“He’s right,” Henry interjected.  “We’re wasting time.”

Johnny stood up, brushing crumbs from his leather trousers.  “Fine – if you don’t want to hear my offer…”

“Sit down and shut up,” Henry ordered impatiently.

“Frank looks like he could use another drink,” Johnny observed solicitously.  He noted that Stearns was starting to look ill, having gulped down the last glass of brandy, presumably to try and dull the pain of his wound.  His move toward the liquor cabinet was aborted as Henry drew his gun and pointed it in his direction.  Johnny raised both hands to chest level and backed up, looking aggrieved.  “I was only tryin’ to help.”

He sat down, resting his hands on the arms of the chair.  As he leant back he took a look at the clock.  It was twenty to ten, which meant that it had been over four and a half hours since he had left his injured father in town.  It had also been a considerable amount of time since he had parted company with Val, and he wondered where his friend was.

Henry had holstered his gun and was checking on Frank.  Stearns was now glassy-eyed thanks to the alcohol and blood loss.  His speech in answer to Henry’s questions was slurred, and Johnny smiled in satisfaction.  Frank’s face turned an unhealthy shade of green; he groaned, doubled up and vomited onto the rug beside his chair.

“Teresa ain’t gonna be happy about that,” Johnny remarked with a satisfied smirk.

“Fetch some water,” Henry snapped at Josh.  He pulled out a bandana and wiped the sweat from Frank’s face.  “Then tie Madrid up again and get his brother. We’re leaving.”

As Johnny lounged in the chair, giving every sign of being unconcerned, he wondered anxiously if Scott had been able to free himself.

*****

With his movements being so severely restricted, it had taken Scott an agonizing length of time to break the bottle, producing the jagged edge needed to attack his bonds.  The sound of the glass shattering had appeared to his heightened senses to be abnormally loud and he had paused, his heart beating hard in his chest, to see if anyone would come to investigate. It was impossible to keep track of time in the darkness, but he was certain that he had been alone for more than the allotted time.  Was his luck finally going to hold?

There had been no time for finesse, and the fingers of his left hand were cut and bleeding.  He’d caught the skin on his wrists on more than one occasion and his teeth were firmly clamped onto his bottom lip to stop himself from crying out.  The strands of rope were parting with painful slowness, and when he was finally able to pull his wrists apart he almost called out with pure joy and relief.

He wiped his hands on his shirt, adding blood and sweat to the grime already staining the material.  His eyesight had adjusted sufficiently for him to be able to make out shapes and he quickly crossed to the outer wall.  Using a sturdy box he was able to reach up and open the window.  Exhaustion and his collection of injuries made his head swim as he pulled himself up and out.  The touch of the gentle evening air rapidly revived him and he moved purposefully toward the corner of the house.  A mixture of fear and excitement coursed through him as he carefully peered toward the front of the house, and the row of horses waiting by the hitching rail.

He needed a weapon, preferably a revolver as a rifle would be more hindrance than help inside the house.  The nearest sidearm was resting in the holster strapped around Joe’s waist.  The outlaw was waiting patiently by the front door, cradling a rifle and peering into the darkness.

Scott slowly bent his knees and lowered himself toward the ground, feeling around him for a stone or a piece of wood.  His left hand rested against the wall to steady himself, leaving bloody fingerprints on the whitewash. He didn’t take his eyes off his quarry as his fingers sought something that he could throw.

Having armed himself with a stone the size of his palm, he straightened again and considered his best approach.  Although he hated to do it, he realized that his best hope was to spook the horses.  Their movements would cover any noise he might make.  He fixed his eyes on his target, drew back his arm and froze in shock when a hand closed around his wrist and another hand clamped down hard across his mouth.

*****

While Henry plied Stearns with water, Josh tied Johnny’s hands in front of him and pushed him back onto the chair.  “Don’t move a muscle,” he instructed, eyes narrowing in response to Johnny’s insolent grin.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Johnny waited until Josh had left the room before continuing.  “You know you could just leave me and Scott here,” he suggested.  “We’ll only slow you down, given that we ain’t gonna be real cooperative.”

“I’d be happy to leave you here, with a bullet in your brain,” Henry shot back.  “But if your brother’s worth as much as you say, then he’s just bought himself a trip to Mexico.”  He had his back to Johnny as he hunkered down to check the bandage around Frank’s shoulder and chest.  “Dammit, Frank, you’re bleeding again.”

“I’ll be okay,” Frank’s attempted reassurance convinced no one.

Johnny took advantage of Henry’s distraction to edge forward on his chair.  As best he could figure it, Scott had been left alone for over twenty minutes, but had that been enough time for his brother to escape? That question was answered moments later when Josh barged back into the room, gun drawn and face flushed with fury.

“He got loose,” he yelled.

“Then get out there and find him,” Henry ordered, with a venomous look over his shoulder at Johnny.

Josh turned on his heels, dashing from the room.  Johnny waited until Henry was in the process of standing up before launching himself at the larger man.  Sheer  momentum and the fact that Henry was unbalanced, caused him to fall backwards.  Johnny swung his bound hands and caught the outlaw with a hard blow to the face.  Henry’s response lacked its usual power, but was still hard enough to wind the younger man.

Desperation forced Johnny forward again, his awkward blows being sufficient to drive Henry back.  As Henry raised his hands to protect his face, Johnny swooped for the gun sitting in the holster on Henry’s hip.  He fumbled for possession, and then staggered as something hard connected with his right ear.  Through the ringing in his head he heard one word.

“Enough!”

Frank was pale and unsteady, with sweat pouring down his face.  The gun that he was pointing at Johnny was quivering, and he didn’t protest when Henry took it from him.  Johnny looked at the gun before raising his unwavering gaze to Frank.

“Kill him,” Frank ordered.

 

10pm - Midnight

Scott’s heartbeat had almost returned to normal.  He had been readying himself to retaliate against his attacker, when he’d recognized Val’s voice whispering urgent reassurances into his ear.  Relief had flooded through him with the realization that he now had help.

It had seemed like only seconds later that he’d heard Josh’s angry shouts and knew that his escape had been discovered.  Now, he and Val were pressed back against the wall, while he hurriedly brought the sheriff up to date.  “Johnny’s probably still tied up, so we can’t count on his help.  Stearns isn’t in good shape, but Henry’s a real danger.  He’s smart and he doesn’t trust Johnny.”

“Then we need to get inside before they decide to kill him – or he does somethin’ stupid,” Val said gloomily.  “He’ll provoke them just for the hell of it.”

Scott looked at him enquiringly.  He didn’t know much about Val, and knew even less about his history with Johnny.  “Sounds like you know him well,” he said, remembering the envy he had felt when he’d seen the two of them talking so easily together in town.  It was hard to believe that it had only been that afternoon, just before his ill-fated visit to the Bank.

“Well enough,” Val replied as he looked around.  “Where’d Morgan get to?”

It had been a surprise to find Morgan Dunn with the sheriff and Scott hadn’t liked the blank expression on the young man’s face.  His brief enquiry about Louisa had been met with a non-committal reply.

“Damn that boy,” Val muttered.  “I told him to stay put.”

Scott edged back to the corner of the building and peered round.  Josh and Joe were conversing urgently by the door.  Josh was gesturing angrily out into the darkness and Scott caught snatches of his agitated words.

As he watched, he saw movement and Morgan Dunn stepped out from the shadows, brandishing his gun.  Scott had no difficulty hearing him as he was shouting hysterically.

“You killed my baby, you bastards.”

Scott’s eyes widened in shock.  If things broke loose before they were ready, Johnny’s life could be forfeited. “No!” he yelled, the sound lost in the noise of gunfire.

Joe dropped to the ground.  Scott couldn’t tell if he was injured or dead.  Josh returned fire, calling out in surprise as a bullet tore into his leg.  Even though he was still unarmed, Scott started to move forward.  Val’s hand on his arm stopped him in his tracks and he turned furiously on the sheriff.

“They’ll kill Johnny.”

“And gettin’ your fool head blown off won’t help him,” Val retorted, tightening his grip.

“Give me your revolver,” Scott demanded. “I can get in through the kitchen and maybe they won’t see me coming.  You can use your rifle to keep Josh pinned down.”  He waited for only a second before begging, “Please. I don’t want to lose my brother when I’ve only just found him.”

Sporadic shots could still be heard coming from the front of the house.  Val let go and handed over his gun, although he looked anything but happy.  “Alright.  Be careful.” He moved purposefully toward the corner of the building.

Scott didn’t hesitate.  He took off at a run for the door leading to the kitchen, praying that he wasn’t already too late.

*****

Johnny had backed up as far as he could get, stopping abruptly as his shoulders struck the wall by the fireplace.  He had breathed a sigh of relief when Henry had hesitated to carry out Frank’s order to kill him.  Stearns had started to weave unsteadily on his feet and Henry had helped him back to the chair, keeping his gun trained unwaveringly on his prisoner the whole time.

A brief debate had ensued, with Frank reluctantly conceding that Johnny hadn’t yet reached the end of his usefulness.  Henry gestured toward the door.  “Let’s go.” And that was a far as he got, before gunfire erupted outside the hacienda.

Henry might have been heavily built, but he could move fast when he had to.  He crossed the room, gripped Johnny’s arm and pressed his gun against the younger man’s side. “Is there another way out of here?”

Johnny laughed.  “Sure.  Find it yourself.” He winced as Henry ground the barrel deep into his flesh.

“Just give me an excuse, Madrid, and I’ll send you to Hell.”

“You kill me and you’ll be dead the minute you set foot outside the house.  Why not give up? Maybe if you do, the Judge’ll go easy on you.” Johnny hadn’t really been expecting an answer and wasn’t disappointed.  Henry pulled him toward the door leading to the kitchen, pausing only to give Stearns an opportunity to get up and follow them.

Johnny’s bland expression hid a deep fear.  Scott had been unarmed and there hadn’t been time for him to find a weapon.  He was certain that his brother wouldn’t have taken off and left him.  Even if Scott was harboring doubts about his loyalty, he was too honorable a man to just run out on him.  So, the gunfire was deeply concerning.

He tried to slow his steps, but Henry’s grip on his arm was relentless and he found himself being propelled forward.  With his wrists still tethered he didn’t have a hope of breaking free. They entered the kitchen, being immediately plunged into unlit gloom.  The sound of a gun being cocked commanded everyone’s attention.

“Stay where you are.”

Johnny grinned in relief as he recognized Scott’s deep authoritative voice.

“My gun is pointed at Stearns’ head,” Scott continued, “and I’m quite willing to splatter his brains on the wall, unless you let my brother go.”

For a moment no-one spoke and only harsh breathing could be heard in the stillness.  Gradually Johnny’s eyes adjusted to the darkness and he was able to make out his brother’s still figure.  The easterner was pointing his gun steadily at Frank.

“Looks like a Mexican stand-off to me,” Henry responded.  “Seein’ as I’ve got a gun in Madrid’s ribs.”

Which was true for another thirty seconds.  Instead of trying to pull away from Henry, Johnny used his weight to push against the outlaw.  The gun dug painfully into his side as he shoved Henry into the corner of the cooking range.  He felt the gun shift then fire burned across his ribs as Henry pulled the trigger.  There were two further shots in quick succession and then silence.

*****

Murdoch coughed, gave an involuntary gasp of pain, and heard a concerned voice urging him to lie still.  As he felt as weak as a new born kitten, it wasn’t hard to follow that advice.  He opened his eyes to find that it was dark.  Lamps set to either side of the bed cast feeble circles of light.  He heard a rustle of movement and the lamp to his right was turned up.

“What are you doing here?” he asked feebly.

“Someone had to look after you,” Ruth replied quietly.  “The doctor had another patient to tend to.”

The sorrow in her voice caught Murdoch’s attention.  “Who?”

“I’m afraid Mrs Dunn lost her baby and is very sick.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”  Murdoch coughed again and the room started to spin.

“Let me fetch you some water.”

He kept his eyes closed as Ruth bustled around.  The cool water soothed his throat and he relaxed back against the pillows.  The pain and the after-effects of the medication were making it hard to concentrate, and it took a few minutes for him to remember what had happened.  He forced his eyelids to open.  “My boys!”

“Take it easy,” she cautioned.

“How long…?” He could see the indecision on her face and his heart sank.  “I need to know.”

“It’s been over five hours since you were shot.”

“Five hours?  I need to get up.” Panic gripped him.  His sons were in danger.  For all he knew, Scott could have been killed by his abductors and Johnny could have walked into a trap.  He could have lost them before ever having the chance to really get to know them. His breath was coming in short, sharp bursts as he tried to lift his head, willing his pain wracked body to move.

“You should be resting.”

Sam’s no-nonsense voice drew the rancher’s attention to the doorway.  His friend looked tired, worn down with sadness.  “I’ll rest once I know my sons are safe.”

The doctor nodded and sat heavily in the chair by the bed.  “Those men have a lot to answer for.  Louisa and her baby…both are gone.”

“That’s terrible.  How is Morgan taking it?”  Ruth pulled up a chair on the opposite side of the bed.

“I think he’s in shock over the baby, but he doesn’t know about Louisa.  He set off after Johnny and Sheriff Crawford.  If he catches up with those outlaws I dread to think what he will do.”

*****

“Ow, be more careful will you?” Johnny complained as Val finished cleaning the blood from his side.

“Stop complainin’,” Val grumbled.  “You and your damn fool ideas.  Only you could be stupid enough to waltz up to the house as calm as you please and get yerself caught.”

“Well, how was I to know that Randell’s two men were going to be lurking around?”

“I’m afraid that was my fault,” Scott interjected.  “I suggested that they be kept away from the house.  I was afraid that anyone seeing them would be killed to keep Randell’s involvement quiet.”

“Where does he fit into all this?” Johnny queried, wincing as Val tightened the bandage round his torso. The exhilaration he had felt while seeking a means to escape had drained out of him now that he, and everyone else, was safe.  He felt bone tired.  Scott wasn’t looking any better than he felt.  The blond’s normally upright posture had disappeared as he sat hunched forward on a chair.

“I’ve no idea and there isn’t anyone around to ask.” Scott’s weariness was apparent in his voice, but despite everything that had happened to him, his eyes were clear and alert.

Stearns and Henry were both dead, their bodies cooling in the barn. Johnny knew that he owed his life to his brother’s quick reactions.  Scott had kept a level head and hadn’t hesitated to shoot.  He’d turned his gun on Henry before the outlaw could take another shot and had then fired at Stearns, who had been clawing desperately at his gun.

Val had rushed in on hearing the shots, arriving in time to see Scott kneeling by his brother, checking the severity of his wound. Joe and Josh had both been injured and were now in custody, having their wounds tended, grudgingly, by Teresa and Maria.  Morgan sat on the sofa, head down, pale and trembling, uninjured, but apparently in shock.

“What about those two?” Johnny nodded toward the two outlaws.  “They must know something.”

“I doubt it.  I think Stearns was the only one who really knew what was going on.”

“Then we have to find those men and get them to talk.” Johnny frowned and patted the handle of his gun.  “I can be real persuasive.”

“I deputized you and don’t you forget it,” Val warned.

“One of them shot Murdoch, and I bet it was on Randell’s say so.  I ain’t gonna sit back and let them get away with that.”

“Speaking of our father,” Scott stood up and handed Johnny his shirt.  “I’d like to know how he’s doing.”

“Yeah, me too.  Can you keep things under control here?” Johnny asked the sheriff.

“I reckon so.  The men you sent into Morro Coyo should be back soon.” Val looked to Scott for confirmation and the blond nodded.  “I’ll head for town as soon as these two can ride.”

“Thanks, Val.” Johnny finished buttoning up his shirt.  “You ready, Scott?”

“In a minute.  What do you want to do about the money, Sheriff?”

Two saddlebags stuffed with the haul from the Green River Bank rested on the table.  Johnny reached over and unbuckled one of the bags, pulling out a handful of notes.  He whistled softly.  “I ain’t never seen this much money in one place before.  How much do you reckon is there?”

“Thirty or forty thousand?” Scott speculated.  “With Randell’s men still on the loose, I don’t think I want to risk taking it back to town with us.”

“We can leave it in the safe here,” Johnny suggested.

“Good idea.”  When Scott bent down to unlock the safe, Johnny saw his brother wincing.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing serious.  Just took a bit of a pounding to the ribs.  We make a fine pair don’t we?” Scott smiled up at his brother.

“Yes, we do.”

Scott’s expression turned sober as he looked thoughtfully at Johnny.  Finally, he straightened up from stowing the money and looked at the clock.  “If we ride hard, we should make it to town by midnight. Let’s go, Brother.”

*****

Charles Roberts took a sip of his cocoa and stared round the empty kitchen.  He loved his house, although it was far too large for one man living alone.  To him, it represented a tangible symbol of his success as a Banker.  Granted, he hadn’t made as much money as he would have done if he’d been in one of the larger towns, but he had made a good living.  Then he’d become greedy.   His hand shook as he returned the mug to the table.  At first, it had only been small amounts here and there, easily explained if his customers had ever noticed and raised a query.

Then his cousin had turned up in Green River.  Walter Randell and he had never been close.  Walter had always sailed too close to the wind for his peace of mind, and Charles suspected that the rancher had sometimes resorted to intimidation and violence to get what he wanted.  It hadn’t taken long for Randell to uncover his little sideline and demand to be cut in on the profits.  He’d insisted that the banker specifically target Lancer and Roberts was too afraid of his cousin to refuse.

Murdoch Lancer was a friend and had been for over fifteen years.  His sons, however, were unknown quantities.  The younger, dark-haired, former gunfighter scared him.  The elder son frightened him in a different way.  He’d seen evidence of a keen intelligence while Scott Lancer had been confronting him earlier in the day. He took no satisfaction from his actions in allowing Lancer to be captured by the bank robbers.  He had truthfully been afraid of bloodshed, but just for a moment he had given in to the impulse for self-preservation.  If Scott Lancer was dead, he couldn’t pass on his suspicions to his father or brother.

But now, everything was spiralling out of control.  He still couldn’t believe that Walter had been working with the robbers, or that his cousin had been responsible for the attempt on Murdoch’s life.  If he kept quiet, he would be no better…would have blood on his own hands.  Did he have the courage to go to the sheriff and confess?  He would lose everything, would probably go to jail.  His nerve failed him.  He was too old to be sent to prison.  He wouldn’t be able to handle the harsh conditions, the daily violence that would come with being locked up with desperate men.  His cousin’s sneering words came back to haunt him.  He was a coward and there was no use pretending otherwise.  His only salvation lay in the demise of Scott Lancer.  With Walter Randell in control of the valley he would be untouchable.  With a sour taste in his mouth he picked up the lamp and made his slow way upstairs.

*****

Walter Randell lounged back in his comfortable leather armchair and admired the amber glow of the fine brandy in his glass.  “A satisfying day’s work,” he remarked to his companion.

Aikins smiled thinly.  “By all accounts, we will still have Murdoch Lancer to contend with.  He’s tough and it looks like he’s going to pull through.”

“He’ll be easy pickings once he finds out his sons are dead.”

“Don’t be too sure.  Pardee underestimated him and look where it got him.”

Randell sneered.  “Pardee was a thug who thought with his gun rather than his head. He should have finished Murdoch Lancer when he had the chance.  Instead of that, he gave him time to recover and send for his sons.  Well, I won’t make that mistake and he won’t have anyone to turn to for help this time.”

“What about the banker?  He’s a loose end and I don’t trust him to keep his mouth shut.”

“Charles?  He’s afraid of his own shadow,” Randell stated dismissively.  A slight frown appeared on his face as he looked at the clock.  It was almost eleven thirty and he was tired.  “I expected Luke and Silas back before now.  I’ll sleep sounder if I know those two Lancer boys are dead.  Then tomorrow I can pay a condolence call on my bereaved neighbor.”

“You’re all heart,” Aikins said sardonically, raising a glass to his partner.

The sound of hoof beats drew both men to the window in the sitting room.  “They’re back,” Randell said as he recognized the two riders.

He answered the knock on the door, his smile of welcome freezing, then dropping away as he saw the panicked expressions on the faces of his men.  “What’s wrong?” A knot of fear gripped his belly.

“The Lancers escaped.”

“How in hell’s name did that happen?”

“Stearns was hurt bad and they holed up at Lancer,” Silas explained. “Madrid turned up on his own and we got the drop on him, but something must have gone wrong after that.  We heard gunfire and saw the sheriff and that Dunn kid.  We kept watch for a while, but when we saw the Lancers headed for town, we thought we should come and report back.”

“What about the money?” Randell demanded.

Silas shrugged.  “Guess it’s either at the house or the boys’ve taken it back to town.”

“Did they both see you?  Will they be able to connect me to the robbery?”

The two men shuffled nervously, then Luke spoke up.  “Yessir, and Madrid knows that Silas shot Murdoch Lancer.

“You fools!” Randell exploded.  He began to pace back and forth, thinking furiously.

“I say we pack up and get out,” Aikins said shakily.  “I’m not waiting around for them to put a noose around my neck.”

“Run if you like.  I’m not giving up when I’m so close,” Randell snarled.

“Then, what do you suggest?”

“They’ll be on their way to town to see their father.  We just have to make sure they don’t get that far.”

Silas shook his head.  “It’s too late to set up an ambush.  They were riding hard and they’ll reach town before we can catch up with them.”

“Alright, but they’ve got to come out into the open some time.  Get into town and keep an eye on them.  When you get the chance kill them both.”

 

Midnight – 1am

The streets were dark and deserted by the time the brothers arrived in town.  They had ridden hard and fast since leaving Lancer.  Only the fact that they were both superb horsemen had allowed them to cover the distance in relative safety.  There had been no opportunity for conversation. Despite their haste, however, they hadn’t forgotten the hidden danger posed by Randell’s men.  Both had strapped on their gun belts, checking their weapons before leaving the house.  Loaded rifles rested in the scabbards on their saddles.

The lamps were still lit at the doctor’s house as they dismounted.  Johnny looked around, every sense alert, and then paused.  No longer able to hide his feelings he turned to his brother for support.  “What if we’re too late?” A fleeting touch on the arm reassured him that he didn’t have to face this alone.

“I think Sam would have sent word to Lancer,” Scott replied.  “No one in town had any reason to think that Stearns’ and his gang had holed up there.”

Johnny nodded hesitantly.  “I hated him for so long, you know?” He kept his head bowed to hide his worry.

“Me too,” Scott admitted.

Johnny looked up, vivid blue eyes gazing into the calm blue-grey depths.  He knew a bond was forming, one he’d hungered for even as he had feared it.  This time he didn’t draw back from showing the pain of betrayal.  Only, it wasn’t his father he was thinking of.  The biggest betrayal in his young life had come from the one person he had always loved without reservation.

Scott’s arm now rested around his shoulders.  “It’ll take time.  We’ve both had too many years when we felt abandoned.  That doesn’t go away overnight, or without a great deal of effort. What I do know is that I’d like to make this work.” A smile lit up Scott’s face. “And I think we should start by checking on our father.”

*****

Sam was dozing in his small sitting room when he heard his front door opening.  Ruth had finally been persuaded to return home, although he had gratefully accepted her offer to return in the morning.  Her calm presence had been a godsend in a day that had held more than its fair share of tragedy.

He stretched weary muscles and thought longingly of retirement.  He was getting too old to cope with the rigors of life as a small town doctor. He chuckled softly to himself.  How often did he think that in the small hours of the morning, only to wake with renewed purpose with the next sunrise?

“Sam.”

The barely restrained call brought a broad smile to his face.  “In here, Johnny.”

The door burst open to admit one battered and bruised ex-gunfighter and his no less dishevelled brother.  “Scott! Thank God.”

“How’s Murdoch?” Johnny demanded an answer with no pretense at civility.

“Weak, worried about you two, but not in any immediate danger.”

A look of profound relief passed between the siblings.  Murdoch had often spoken of his hope that his sons would find some common ground.  As the weeks had passed, however, that had seemed increasingly unlikely.  They had never seemed to be at ease in each other’s company – until now.

“Can we see him?” Scott’s voice missed its usual even beat.

Scott might, at first glance, seem the more restrained of the two, but Sam wasn’t fooled. A lifetime of training had taught the easterner to mask his emotions.  That mask was slipping now, and given time, Sam was convinced that Scott would come to hide behind it less and less.

“Seeing you both will be better than any medicine I could prescribe.  He’s in the back room.”

*****

A sense that he was no longer alone roused Murdoch from his uneasy sleep.  His head felt fuzzy and his senses were dulled due to the small dose of laudanum he had eventually consented to take.  It took the edge off his pain, which had subsided to an annoying dull ache.  The last time he had been shot he hadn’t known if he would regain full use of his legs.  This wound wouldn’t keep him out of action for so long, although it would be a while before he could fully participate in the running of the ranch.  This time, though, he had his sons.  Please God, let him still have his sons.

Opening his eyes he received the gift he had been praying for.  Light and dark, physically opposites, but equally precious to him, his boys looked back at him.  “Scott! Johnny!” He paused for breath, and to collect himself as strong emotions welled up inside him.  “I was worried.”

“So were we, Sir.”

“It’s good to see you, Old Man.”

“What happened? I thought…” He turned to Scott.  “I was afraid I’d lost you.”

“I’m not that easy to lose.” The corners of Scott’s eyes crinkled as he smiled.  “Johnny tracked us and…”

“And we outsmarted them,” Johnny finished for him, his expression smug.

“Sounds like you made quite a team.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, causing Murdoch to wonder if he had overstepped some invisible line.  Then, he realized that both young men were lost in thought.

“It was kinda nice to have someone to watch my back,” Johnny ventured cautiously, with an unfathomable look across the bed at his sibling.

“Any time, Brother.  And there’s no one I’d rather trust to watch mine.”

Johnny ducked his head, but Murdoch caught a glimpse of a self-conscious smile.  “So, how’re you feeling?” his younger son asked.

“I’ll be back on my feet in a few days.” Murdoch ignored the sceptical looks from both of his sons.  “Sam’s done his usual excellent work and, as I understand it, he was very ably assisted by Ruth and young Marty.”

Johnny’s smile was mischievous.  “Ruth, huh?”

He felt himself color.  “Miss Forrester,” he amended.  He cleared his throat.  “From what she told me, it seems we owe Marty quite a debt.”

“He’s a good kid.  It’s a pity he has to work for that wind-bag of a Mayor.” There was no mistaking Johnny’s views on Mayor Higgs.

“I wonder if we could find him a job at Lancer,” Scott mused.  “He works hard and I’m sure he’d fit right in.”

“I’ll give it some thought.” Weariness stole over Murdoch again, carrying with it a sense of peace.  “So it’s over,” he breathed in relief.

“Oh no, Murdoch.  It ain’t over.  It was one of Randell’s men who shot you, and he’s still out there.”

“Randell?” Murdoch tried to make sense of what Johnny was telling him.  “Why would he want me dead?”

“That’s what we’d like to know only we haven’t figured it out yet.” Scott sank into the chair beside the bed, looking worn out.  “He was mixed up with Stearns and the robbery.  And I’m almost certain that he and Roberts had been skimming money out of other customers’ accounts.  Somehow, it’s all tied together.”

The clock on the dresser showed twenty past twelve.  It had been a long day and Murdoch was quite happy for it to end.  “There’s nothing we can do about it tonight. I’m still waiting to hear back from some friends of mine, who were making inquiries about Randell’s background.”

His eldest son straightened up, brow furrowed. “I picked up a couple of telegrams for you earlier.”

Scott began searching through his pockets, while Murdoch tried not to worry about why his son had been at the telegraph office.  He had been convinced earlier that Johnny had been about to announce his intention to leave.  Of course, that had been before the robbery and Scott’s abduction.  What if Scott had been feeling the same way?  And what if his violent ordeal had only served to reinforce that decision?

“Damn, I must have left them at the Bank.”

“Then they will have to wait until tomorrow.” Murdoch swallowed down his fears.  He’d learned long ago not to worry about things that might happen and to concentrate upon what was happening now.  If either of his sons came to him with the desire to leave he would deal with it.  Perhaps it would be better if it happened now rather than in six months or a year when the parting would be that much harder.  Except he didn’t think he could bear to be parted from either one of them.  His life hadn’t been empty before, but it had been lacking.

“I ain’t waitin’ around to see what other tricks Randell has up his sleeve.”

“I agree with Johnny.” Scott’s mouth set in a determined line.  “Randell has already tried blackmail and murder.  He probably knows by now that Stearns is dead and that we’re on the loose.  If we wait until morning it might be too late.”

The look that passed between the brothers gave Murdoch hope for the future.  Somehow, in the chaos of the day, they had found a connection to each other.  Then the implications of what they were suggesting hit him like a sledge hammer.  “You’re going to break into the Bank?” he asked in a strangled voice.

Johnny’s face lit up in a beaming smile as Scott stood and walked over to him.  Side by side they faced their father.  “Well, it ain’t as if there’s any money in there,” Johnny replied, “so I don’t see how much harm it’s gonna do.”

“Precisely, and perhaps we could ‘persuade’ the manager to open up for us.”

Murdoch had a feeling that his eldest son didn’t have much regard for Charles Roberts, and resolved to get the whole story before too long – assuming that his surprisingly reckless sons didn’t end up in jail.  “I’m not happy about any of this,” he retorted weakly.

“Yeah, and we ain’t real happy sitting back and letting Randell and his men take pot shots at our old man either,” Johnny informed him.  “Face it, Murdoch, sometimes you have to break the law to protect what’s important.”

“We don’t even know if the telegrams relate to Randell.”

“And we won’t know until we get our hands on them,” Scott argued reasonably.  “You rest, Sir.  We won’t be long.”

“What about the sheriff?  At least speak to him.” Murdoch knew he was fighting a losing battle, but it wasn’t in his nature to give up.

“Best if Val doesn’t know.”  Johnny pulled out his gun and checked it.  “Besides, he might still be at Lancer.  You and Sam stay alert.  I wouldn’t put it past Randell to try something while we ain’t here.”

*****

Val paced irritably in front of the fireplace in the great room.  Pedro and the other men had returned from Morro Coyo, leaving him free to transport his prisoners back to Green River.  The two outlaws had been patched up and both were hunched miserably on their chairs, hands tied behind them.  The younger one, identified by Scott as Josh, hadn’t stopped moaning and complaining.  Val had been sorely tempted to shoot him and put all of them out of their misery.

Morgan had left shortly after the Lancers, having finally woken up to the fact that he had deserted his sick and distraught wife.  He felt sorry for Morgan now that he knew about the baby, but had still delivered a lecture.  They had been lucky that the young man’s precipitous action hadn’t resulted in a further tragedy.

“The wagon is ready, Senor Sheriff,” Pedro called from the doorway.

“Alright, on yer feet.” Val drew his gun and addressed his prisoners.

“How do you expect me to walk with this bullet hole in my leg?” Josh whined.

Val gave an explosive sigh, and took hold of Josh’s arm.  Joe walked obediently ahead of them.  He must have been in severe discomfort as Morgan’s first bullet had passed clean through the upper part of his arm.  However, he had behaved in a civil manner to Teresa and Maria and had kept his complaints to himself.  Val appreciated his reticence, while resolving to keep a close eye on him.  He didn’t trust the quiet ones.

He was leaving three men to guard the house and Maria had agreed to spend the night there so that Teresa had company.  There had been a few quiet tears from Teresa on being told of Murdoch’s injury, but then she had pulled herself together.  He was developing a very high regard for the young woman and for the Lancer family in general.  Hopefully Johnny would realize how lucky he was and would forget his stupid idea about running out on them.

Thoughts of Johnny filled him with a new urgency.  He wanted to get back to town before his friend could come up with another idiotic idea.  Until he got there he would just have to trust that Scott would be a restraining influence.

Pedro and Frank had agreed to accompany him, and the latter was waiting on the wagon.  Once the prisoners had been loaded up, Val swung up onto his horse.  “Let’s go,” he ordered, and the small cavalcade moved slowly toward the Lancer arch.

*****

Banker Roberts’ house was just on the edge of town, so it didn’t take long for two determined Lancers to reach it.  They rode round the back and dismounted.  They hadn’t seen anyone during their short journey, hardly surprising given the late hour.

Since leaving Sam’s, Scott had noticed that his brother seemed pre-occupied. “Something on your mind?”

“Yeah…no…it’ll keep,” Johnny hedged.

“Get it said, Brother.  If you’re having second thoughts…”

“It’s not that.” Johnny fiddled intently with one of the conchos on his pants.  “Just thinkin’ about some of the things you said while we were at the ranch.”

Scott cast his mind back, trying to work out what, in particular, was bothering Johnny.  “I said a lot of things.  So did you.”

“About Pardee,” Johnny challenged, eyes raised proudly to meet those of his sibling.

Comprehension dawned.  “You don’t think I meant what I said? About siding with Pardee?”

“Why not?  It ain’t far from the truth. And Murdoch sure believed it at the time.”

“Are you seriously expecting me to believe you’d have stood by, while Pardee and his men slaughtered everyone on Lancer?  I saw your face earlier tonight when Josh threatened Teresa.”

Johnny’s piercing gaze dropped and he scuffed the earth with the toe of his boot, unspeaking and withdrawn.  Scott gripped his brother’s shoulders and shook him, waiting until Johnny looked up sullenly.

“I don’t care how much you hated our father when you first arrived, I don’t accept that you would have sacrificed innocent people to get your revenge.  And, if Murdoch had seriously thought you had thrown in with Pardee, he’d have shown you the door as soon as you were well enough.”

Johnny silently regarded his brother, and then a smile stole over his face. “Remember that first morning?  I told you I don’t give anyone too much credit.”

“I remember.”

“Guess it’s time to make some exceptions.”

“If that’s an apology then I accept it.” Scott offered his hand, smiling when Johnny accepted it.  “Now, I think it’s time to wake up our friendly bank manager.”

*****

Johnny stood in the shadows of the porch while Scott knocked loudly on the front door.  Eventually, an upstairs window opened and the banker leaned out.

“Who is it?”

Scott stepped back and the light from one of the lanterns glinted from his blond hair. “Scott Lancer.”

Johnny grinned as he heard the surprised oath uttered by Roberts.  The window slammed shut and, shortly after, the front door opened.

“Mr. Lancer.  I’m pleased to see you in good health.”  The disgruntled tone, laced with fear, conveyed a rather different message.

“I left some property of mine at the bank when I was forced to leave at gunpoint.  I’d like to collect it.”

“It is almost one o’clock,” Roberts protested.  “Surely it can wait until the morning.”

“’Fraid not.” Johnny strolled into the circle of lamplight, gun drawn.  “It’s important.”

“This is outrageous.”

“We could have broken in,” Johnny drawled, “but we thought we’d come and ask nicely if you’d mind opening up for us.”

“At the point of a gun?”

“If that’s what it takes.  Why don’t we go inside?” Scott took a firm grip of Robert’s arm and led the unresisting man back into his house.  “We’ll wait down here while you get dressed.  I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that all the money had been recovered.  It will be returned to the bank in the morning.”

Roberts blanched.  “And the robbers?”

“Two are dead and the other two are under arrest.”  Scott made himself comfortable in one of the banker’s expensive leather chairs.

Having holstered his gun, Johnny leant one shoulder against the wall and crossed his arms.  “So the only question now is – what was your connection to the robbery?”

Color flooded Roberts’ face.  “Nothing.” He turned to Scott in appeal.  “I was as shocked as everyone else.  You saw – you were there.”

“And thanks to you I was taken hostage and my family was put at risk,” Scott snapped.

Johnny stepped forward in concern.  They were all on edge and it appeared that his brother was close to a breaking point.  “Let’s do what we came for and then we can get some rest,” he advised.

Scott took several deep breaths and nodded.  “You’re right.  There are more important things to take care of.”

While a thoroughly frightened banker went upstairs, Johnny wandered around the palatial sitting room.  He plucked an apple out of a fruit bowl, turning it round in his hands a few times before taking a bite.  The tart juices made his mouth tingle.  “You shouldn’t let him get to you,” he advised finally.

“I know.  He’s in this up to his neck – I can feel it.  A lot of the people in this town don’t have much.  They work hard to save a few dollars and they trust the bank to protect their money. My grandfather always taught me never to betray a position of trust.  If he has been stealing from his customers, it is not only illegal, it is morally wrong.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” Johnny promised.  “And, we’ll make sure everyone pays.”  He flashed a smile at the blond.  “Boy is Val goin’ to be angry when he finds out what we’ve done.”

“I’ll be sure to give you all the credit, Brother,” Scott replied with an answering smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

*****

Luke and Silas watched silently as the Lancers and Roberts walked toward the bank.  Once the trio had entered the building, they stepped out onto the boardwalk.

“Wonder what they’re up to now?” Luke asked.

“Don’t matter,” Silas told his partner, grinning nastily.  “When they come out, they’ll be like fish in a barrel.  And if the banker happens to get in the way, I don’t reckon Mr. Randell would be too upset.”

He drew his gun, checked the chambers and edged back into the shadows.  “All we’ve gotta do now is wait.”

 

1am – 2am

Once they were safely inside the bank, Scott lit two of the lamps.  Johnny was lounging in a chair, watching Roberts with a deeply unsettling half-smile.  The banker looked even more panic stricken than he had when Henry and his men had invaded his territory hours earlier.  Scott couldn’t blame him.  The man was hiding something, and the way that Johnny’s right hand rested on his gun was far from subtle.

He carried one of the lamps into the manager’s office, finding his jacket still slung neatly over the back of the chair.  Retrieving the telegrams from the inside pocket he sank wearily down, almost groaning with the pleasure of sitting on something comfortable.  He stretched his legs under the desk, muscles aching with tiredness.  All he wanted at that moment was to fall into his soft bed at Lancer and sleep.  However, that luxury would have to wait.  He sighed softly and opened the first telegram.

Scott had been so sure that the wire was going to be of use that he felt a crashing disappointment.  The message related to an upcoming cattle auction in Sacramento.  He rubbed his eyes and turned his attention to the second envelope.  Exhaustion blurred his vision and his brain refused to make sense of what he was reading.  After scanning the words for the third time he began to feel satisfaction.  By the fourth reading, he was feeling more inclined to rip out the banker’s lying tongue.

Johnny’s voice intruded into his reverie.  His brother was describing, in graphic detail how he had dealt with a rancher who had tried to cheat him when he had still been riding as Johnny Madrid.  The tone was perfectly pleasant, almost emotionless, and Scott could imagine the effect it would be having upon their unwilling host.  He was suddenly seized by a strong sense of disbelief.  What the hell was he doing?  He’d just kidnapped a bank official and broken into a bank.  He idly wondered what the penalty for that was in California, and then decided he really didn’t want to know.  Now, all he had to do was stop Johnny killing the man once he read the telegram!

“Anything interesting?” Johnny asked from the doorway.

Scott stifled a startled oath.  His brother could move as quietly as a cat when he was of a mind. “You’d better bring Roberts in here and sit down,” Scott advised, meeting his brother’s speculative gaze.

“You heard the man,” Johnny encouraged the banker.  A shove in the back sent Roberts stumbling toward one of the chairs normally occupied by customers petitioning for loans, or making excuses for late payments.

Scott stayed where he was.  Sitting in the manager’s chair gave him an advantage and left Roberts even further off-balance.  Once everyone was settled, he pushed the telegram across the desk.

The banker was visibly shaking as he tried to catch a glimpse of what was written on the paper.  Johnny deliberately angled it so that the words weren’t visible to anyone but him.  At the end, he let out a low whistle of surprise.  “Well, well.  Who would’ve thought?”

“What?” Roberts squeaked. “What does it say?”

The brothers’ exchanged looks and Johnny gave a brief nod, as if to tell Scott that this was his show.

“It says you lied to me earlier when you claimed you had no connection with Walter Randell.” Scott could feel his composure slipping.  He was so damned tired.  “Did you know that he was mixed up in the robbery?”

Roberts regarded him fearfully.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I guess bad blood runs in the family,” Johnny commented quietly.

Scott saw comprehension beginning to dawn as the banker shuffled uneasily, and decided to apply more pressure. “Perhaps you knew that he was planning to have our father shot down in cold blood.”

“Walter and I may be cousins, but I’m not involved in any of his schemes.”  The protest had a ring of truth about it.

“I believe you,” Scott said, waiting a beat to allow a sense of relief to pervade the banker, before adding, “up to a point.”

The older man rose in alarm.  Johnny leapt to his feet and grabbed him by the collar.  “My brother ain’t finished yet and it sure ain’t polite to leave while someone’s talkin’ to you.”

Scott felt only contempt for the pathetic little man.  Roberts was sweating profusely, his face ashen.  “I saw enough this afternoon to know that you’re dishonest.  With my testimony, the bank’s auditors will be crawling all over this place by next week and the law won’t be that far behind.  However,” he studied his hands for a moment before raising his head again, “I’ll offer you a deal.”

Johnny’s hand twisted in the material of his captive’s shirt.  “You’d better listen real hard,” he advised.  “We’re tired, and I wouldn’t want my brother to have to repeat himself.” With a jerk he returned the subdued banker back to his seat.

Roberts clawed at his collar as he was released, gasping for breath.  “What do you want?” he finally managed to ask.

“I’ll forget about your little – indiscretions – and give you the opportunity to retire.  In return, you tell us everything you know about Randell.”

Roberts shook his head.  “He’ll kill me.”

Scott leaned forward, speaking passionately.  “Do you have any idea what it’s like in prison?  You have no privacy, the food is barely adequate, and having clean clothes is an unobtainable dream.  The dirt gets ingrained in your skin and under your fingernails.  And the lice crawling…” He ground to a halt, shaken by his loss of control. He didn’t need any words from Johnny to know that his brother understood.

Roberts looked close to tears, wringing his hands together and watching with wide, terrified eyes.  “You can’t send a man like me to prison.  I’d never survive.”

“I did,” Scott said, almost under his breath, before pulling himself together.  “I’ve presented you with the terms of our offer.  If they are not acceptable, we’ll just hand you over to Sheriff Crawford now and ask that he put you in protective custody.”

“You have no right,” Roberts protested weakly.

“Or we could just let Randell know that you spilled the beans and wait around for him to kill you.” Johnny’s suggestion was laced with malice.

Scott saw Roberts’ resolve crumble.  He rested his blond head against the back of the chair and listened as the banker began his monologue.

*****

She looked so beautiful, Morgan thought.  Her hair had been brushed until it shone.  It surrounded a face that still had the power to stop his breathing and quicken his heart.  Oh, he hadn’t been pleased at first to find that she was with child.  He’d had to endure the teasing of his friends and had been pushed into a hastily arranged marriage.  But, as the weeks passed, he had realized that he was the luckiest of men.  The prospect of being a father had overwhelmed him, and the loss of his child had driven him to abandon Louisa when she had needed him the most.

He had returned to town, intending to beg her forgiveness for his neglect.  The deaths of two of the outlaws and the wounding of the others had done nothing to thaw the icy feeling in his blood.  He had needed to feel the warmth of his wife in his arms. Only…only she now lay cold and still in her coffin.  He reached out to touch her face, recoiling immediately.  She looked and felt like a porcelain doll.  Her screams reverberated around in his head.  She had blamed herself for the baby’s death and he had done nothing to console her.

Putting his hands over his face, he choked back a sob.  In one day he had lost everything that was important to him. Tears that he couldn’t restrain flowed down his cheeks.  He hunched over in silent anguish.  If he had stayed - if he hadn’t given in to the impulse to seek revenge – maybe she would still be alive.

“Morgan, you’ll make yourself ill.  Come and lie down.”

The concerned voice belonged to his father.  He let his hands drop and looked up, eyes red-rimmed and swollen by grief.  “I can’t leave her alone.  She doesn’t like to be alone at night.”

The coffin lay in the family’s private sitting room on the top floor of the hotel.  Tomorrow – no, today – it would be lowered into the ground and he would have lost her forever.  His father nodded his understanding.

“I’ll fetch blankets and a pillow.  You can rest on the sofa.  That way you can stay near her.”

With a firm squeeze on his shoulder his father was gone.  Morgan resumed his vigil, tired eyes drooping shut.  He wasn’t aware of his father returning, leading him to the sofa or covering him with a blanket.  He was lost in an ocean of hurt, adrift and alone.

*****

Luke yawned.  “How much longer d’you think they’re gonna be?”

Silas bit back a scathing retort and forced himself not to punch his partner’s lights out.  If Luke asked that damned question one more time…!

“I don’t care how long they take.  We’ve got our orders and we’ll have to wait it out.  Besides, those Lancer boys deserve what’s coming to them.”  Silas was still sore about the incidents earlier in the day.  Madrid had outdrawn him more than once. It rankled and he reckoned that the cocky little bastard deserved all that was coming his way. As for the older brother – he was too goddamn superior for his own good.

The lamps were still lit in the bank.  They could see the faint glow under the blinds.  There was no reason to believe the men would leave by anything other than the front door.  And, with a clear field of fire, they’d both go down before even realizing that they were in danger.

In the silence of the night, the sound of hoof beats and the creak of a wagon sounded unnaturally loud.  The two men stepped further back into the shadows.

“It’s the sheriff,” Luke hissed.  “Did you see who he had trussed up in the back of that wagon?”

“Damn, but if this day ain’t gone to hell and back,” Silas muttered.

“What’re we gonna do?”

Silas weighed up the options.  He was the one who had put the bullet in Murdoch Lancer.  Thanks to Luke’s loose tongue, that piece of information had reached one of the most notorious gunfighters in California – a gunfighter who also happened to be Lancer’s son.  If he didn’t take care of Johnny Madrid now, he was a dead man.  Meeting Madrid in a fair fight didn’t even cross his mind.  And, from what he had seen, Scott Lancer would be just as much of a problem, so he had to die as well.  It was simply a case of self-preservation and had nothing to do with loyalty to Walter Randell.  His boss could swing for all he cared.  He’d take care of business and then get as far away from Green River as he could.

“We’re gonna take the Lancers down, and then we’re gonna head for the border.”

“What about Mr. Randell?” Luke asked, his voice shaking with nerves.

“He got us into this mess.  Things have gotten too hot around here, so we do what we came for and save our own necks.”

*****

Val sighed with relief as they pulled up outside the jail.  He’d been jittery all the way back to town, knowing that Randell’s men were still on the loose.  After locking up his prisoners he pulled out his watch, squinting as his tired eyes refused to focus.  The temptation to bunk down for the night was strong.  Unfortunately, his devotion to duty was stronger.  He needed to check on Murdoch’s progress, to see if the outlaws were facing a possible murder charge.  He should ask the doc to come and examine them as both were wounded.  Most of all, though, he wanted to reassure himself that the brothers weren’t getting themselves into any more trouble.

“Can you two stick around for a while?” he asked Frank and Pedro.  “There are some things I need to see to before closing up for the night.”

“Sure, Sheriff,” Frank agreed.  “We’ll keep an eye on them.”

Val walked through the empty streets, enjoying the peace and quiet.  He grinned to himself as he imagined Mayor Higgs having to offer his congratulations on a job well done.  He had no time for politicians and knew that the Mayor resented the fact that he had been appointed by the Cattleman’s Association.   The pompous ass would most likely choke on the words of praise, while trying to find a way to take credit for himself.

He reached Sam’s and knocked on the door.  He reckoned that the boys would still be with their father, assuming that he had survived the shooting.  The doctor’s grumbles could be heard before the door opened.

“Howdy, Doc.” Val pulled of his hat.  “Sorry to trouble you so late.  I was wonderin’ how Mr. Lancer was doing?”

“He’s weak, but I’d say he was out of danger.”  Sam stood to one side to let the sheriff enter.  “I’ve been trying to persuade him to sleep, but he’s refusing to settle until Scott and Johnny get back.”

Val was pretty sure he didn’t want to ask the obvious question.  “Back from where?”

*****

Roberts had finally stuttered to a halt.  As he had listened to the tale unfold, Johnny had found himself growing calmer.  He recognized the feeling – it was the one he had striven to achieve before every gunfight.  Scott’s words came back to him, ringing in his ears. ‘A simple military problem – find the enemy, engage him, defeat him.’  His brother, fresh from the east, had been talking about Pardee, and he had been openly scornful of what he saw as an oversimplification.  This time, they knew where to find their enemy, and he was just as dangerous as Pardee had been.  In one stroke Randell had intended to wipe out the entire Lancer family.

But, the resolution wasn’t as clear cut.  Sure, Pardee had tried some underhanded tactics to start with – burning fields, cutting fences and using intimidation to force folks off their land.  Finally, he had resorted to murder and a direct assault on Lancer.  Guns had been met with guns, with no-one disputing their right to use force to protect themselves.  Randell, however, was a ‘shoot ‘em in the back’ kind of land pirate, which made him harder to face down and defeat.

He looked across at Scott, more willing now to listen to the easterner’s opinion.  His brother looked shocking – pale, bruised and with dark crescents under his eyes.  He wasn’t feeling much better.  The bullet wound across his ribs burned every time he took too deep a breath.

The silence lengthened, neither one of them seeming to have the energy for thought, let alone speech.  Johnny stretched and gave a stifled groan.  Scott looked up, startled from his pre-occupation.

“We should ask Sam to check you over.”

“He’ll only fuss,” Johnny replied dismissively.  “What’re we gonna do, Scott?”

“Take this information to Val, get Randell arrested and see what the judge has to say.”  Scott didn’t sound any more enthused than his brother at the thought.

It took Johnny’s sleep deprived brain a moment to recognize a partial solution to their dilemma.  “Hey,” he straightened excitedly.  “Val deputized me, remember?  If we pull Randell in tonight there won’t be anyone to give orders and then we can track those men of his when it gets light.”

“And just when are you proposing we should get some sleep?”  Despite the question Scott was already on his feet, checking the position of his gunbelt.

“Time enough to sleep when you’re dead.”  Johnny’s eyes were sparkling as he felt a new wave of energy wash over him.

“A profound thought, Brother.”

"What about me?” Roberts’ question was tentative and he shrank back in his chair as two unfriendly pairs of eyes swung in his direction.

“Go home,” Johnny advised.  “We’ll be sure to give your cousin your regards.”

“Johnny!” Scott chided.  “He told us what we wanted to know.  If, of course, it turns out he was lying…”

“I swear I’ve told the truth.”

“Then you ain’t got anything to worry about, from us at least.”

“We should tell Murdoch what we’re doing.”

Johnny considered that.  Their father had been less than pleased about their decision to retrieve the telegrams. He wasn’t likely to be any happier to find them rushing off to confront Randell. “How about we tell him afterwards?” he suggested.

Scott looked thoughtful. “You’re probably right.  We wouldn’t want to worry him – not while he’s so weak.”

Johnny chuckled.  “Scared?” he challenged.

“Absolutely.  You?”

“Damn right I am.”  They shared a smile and something more…a sense of brotherhood.  Johnny finally felt at peace with his decision to stay.  They may not have a history, but there was a whole future ahead of them as a family.

As Scott headed for the front door, Johnny caught his arm.  “It might pay to take a few precautions.  Randell’s men could’ve trailed us here.  They’ve had plenty of time to report back and get into town.”

“What do you suggest?”

“I’ll go out the back way.  Give me five minutes before you open the front door.  Stay low and under cover.”

“What if they’re covering the back entrance?”

Johnny looked at the banker, with a speculative gleam in his eye.  He hauled him to his feet.  “We send him out first.  If they’re out there, they’ll shoot at anything that moves.”

“You can’t…” Roberts twisted ineffectually against Johnny’s firm grip, looking appealingly at Scott.

The blond’s expression didn’t change.  “Be careful.”

Johnny eased the door open and listened intently.  There were no unusual sounds so he stepped out, dragging his unwilling hostage with him.  They edged along the side of the alley without incident.  Once at the end, Johnny peered across the street.  A flickering movement in the shadows convinced him that he was right.  He gave fleeting thanks for his years as a gunhawk, where every action had to be weighed and considered if you wanted to survive.

His Colt in his hand, he turned to the bank manager and, without giving any warning, struck him on the side of the head.  Roberts collapsed without a sound and Johnny dragged him away from the entrance to the alley.  He wasn’t stupid enough to leave a desperate man in a position to betray him.  He checked that Roberts was unconscious before heading away from the street.  He would have to get a few blocks down before crossing to the far side.

No alarm was raised as he worked his way into position.  He was almost at his destination when he heard footsteps on the boardwalk.  Frowning, he risked a look down the street.  The sight of Val walking determinedly toward the bank made him swear furiously under his breath.  His friend was about to be caught directly in the line of fire.

 

2am – 4am

The front door of the bank opened and there was a blur of movement as Scott threw himself behind the shelter of one of the posts holding up the awning.

“Get down, Val,” Johnny yelled as the first gunshot sounded. He didn’t have time to see if his friend had reacted to the warning before he stepped out from the shadows and fired.  A bullet whistled past his ear and he dropped into a crouch, firing again.

Brief flashes of light showed that Scott was also shooting, although Johnny thought it doubtful that his brother would have a clear target.  Lamps were starting to be lit as townsfolk living above their businesses were rudely awakened.

Johnny dove behind a water trough and glanced down the street. Val was no-where in sight.  His momentary relief was quickly swallowed by the need to stay alive.  Raising his head he fired again, ducking back down as a bullet slammed into the wood.  Intermittent shots came from the direction of the bank and he could now hear aggrieved voices as windows opened.

“Give it up,” Johnny called.  The only answer he received was another bullet, which sailed uncomfortably close to where he was hiding.

Firing back, Johnny was rewarded with a brief cry of pain.  A man staggered forward and a shot from Scott’s gun caught him in the shoulder, spinning him around.  The figure crumpled to the ground and lay still.

“Alright! Don’t shoot.” The panicked shout came from the second man.

As Johnny cautiously looked up, he saw the sheriff standing at the edge of the boardwalk, gun trained on the younger of Randell’s men.

“Drop the gun and get your hands where I can see them,” Val growled.

Johnny stood up, looking toward the bank.  He gave an unobtrusive sigh of relief as his brother emerged from concealment, clearly unhurt.  He waited for Scott to join him before walking to the man lying in the street, face down and with arms flung wide.  Johnny kicked the gun away, knelt and turned him over.

“Dead?” Scott asked quietly.

“Yeah.” He sat back on his heels, drained now that the fight was over.

“Was he the one who shot Murdoch?”

Johnny nodded as their eyes met.  Justice had been done.

“What’s going on?” a male voice enquired peevishly.

“That you, Zeke?” Val called. He’d finished handcuffing his prisoner, who was looking shaken at seeing his partner lying dead in the street.

“Sheriff?” Zeke Patterson shouted back.  “Did you get the money back?”

Johnny caught Scott’s wry smile.  Life was cheap when compared to a man’s life savings.  The blond stepped forward, looking up at the open window.  “The money’s safe, Mr. Patterson. It will be returned to the bank in the morning.”

“Go back to bed,” Val advised irritably.  “I got things to attend to and I ain’t got time to be jawin’ with ya.”

With an offended huff Zeke slammed the window shut.  Other windows were closing as well and lamps were quickly extinguished, the citizens of Green River returning to the comfort of their beds secure in the knowledge that their money had been recovered.

Val herded his prisoner out into the street, glaring belligerently at the brothers.  “Either of you want to tell me what the hell’s been goin’ on in my town?”

Johnny grinned, not in the least put out by his friend’s customary rancor. “Scott, you want to explain things to the Sheriff?”

Scott straightened up, his solemn expression not fooling Johnny for a minute.  “Well, Sheriff,” Scott began.  “It’s like this…”

*****

When the sound of gunfire erupted, Sam pushed himself wearily from the bed he had only just fallen into.  He struggled hastily into his robe.  “No rest for the wicked,” he muttered sourly to himself.

It was no great surprise to find his patient half-way out of bed.  He’d known Murdoch Lancer for over twenty years, and if there was one thing the rancher wasn’t good at, it was following orders.  Johnny had proved to be an equally bad patient, and he could only hope that the shooting going on in the distance wouldn’t result in any more Lancer casualties.  He didn’t think he could cope with more than one at a time and still keep hold of his sanity.

“Going somewhere?” he asked mildly.

Murdoch’s face was flushed and beaded with sweat.  “Don’t lecture me, Sam,” he warned, before biting his lip and turning pale.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.  I’ll just stand here and wait for you to keel over.” He folded his arms across his chest.

“My boys, Sam…”

“I know, but they can take care of themselves. You have to trust them, Murdoch.”

*****

Walter Randell drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair.  His partner had deserted him, running like a scared rabbit. Milt Aikins was heading back to Stockton, trying to put some distance between himself and what he saw as an unmitigated disaster.  A sneer marred Randell’s face.  If the Lancers survived, no amount of distance would save the lawyer.

Time crawled by slowly.  There was no telling when, or if, Luke and Silas would return.  He poured another cup of coffee, grimacing as the tepid liquid filled his mouth and soured his stomach.  He didn’t have the energy to brew a fresh pot or to leave the comfort of his worn leather armchair to climb the stairs to bed.

He’d miscalculated, should have taken more time to get to know the Lancers rather than provoking them right off.  But, the lure of one hundred thousand acres of prime land had been too much to resist.  He’d been poised to strike when Pardee had appeared on the scene.  For a year he had waited with more patience than usual.  Then, when the opportunity presented itself…

Damn Stearns for getting himself arrested and then shot.  And, damn the Lancers for having more lives than a cat.  Now, all he could do was wait. One way or another it would all be resolved within the next few hours.  A final throw of the dice.

*****

“You know how stupid an idea this is? Rushing off in the middle of the night.” Val wasn’t happy with either brother, and was downright disappointed in the easterner who seemed bound and determined to abet Johnny’s recklessness.

They were on their way to Randell’s spread, and for all they knew, he could have another dozen men waiting for them.  The sheriff was still getting over the unwelcome shock of finding the bank manager moaning in the alley.  The man had accused Johnny of pistol whipping him and Johnny hadn’t been denying it.

Val had delivered Luke to the jail and Roberts to the doc’s house, dodging questions at both locations.  Then, he’d hurried to catch up with the two young men who, by rights, should be locked in his jail.

“The only reason I ain’t arrested you – yet – is that the jail’s full,” he’d told them.

Scott’s smile had lit up his face and Johnny had muttered, “Sure, Val,” in the tone of voice that made the sheriff want to hit something.

“Your pa was worried about you,” he prodded. “Tried to get out of bed to see what all that shootin’ was about.  The doc wasn’t none too pleased with him.” That was met by silence, and it was too dark for him to read their expressions.  For Johnny at least, having someone to worry about him was a novel experience.  Val approved of Murdoch Lancer’s obvious concern for his sons. He was starting to get a good feeling about his friend’s future – not that he’d tell Johnny that. Experience told him that if he tried to push Johnny too far, he’d bolt in the other direction.  This was one decision the young man needed to make on his own.

“You know that any good lawyer is going to have Randell out on bail within an hour?” he continued.  “At best, the evidence against him is circumstantial.”

“We have Roberts’ evidence.  That must count for something?”  Scott reined his tired horse back to a walk and the others followed his example.

“And I bet, if I try real hard, that man of his you’ve got locked up could be persuaded to talk.”  Johnny’s softly spoken words sent a chill up Val’s spine.

“Now you listen to me, Johnny Lancer, I ain’t gonna let you intimidate a prisoner in my jail.”

“Just a suggestion.” The teasing edge left Johnny’s voice.  “Randell gave the order to have Murdoch shot and we all know it.  No-one goes gunnin’ for my old man and gets away with it.”

“<Our> old man,” Scott corrected.  “Johnny’s right, Sheriff.  Walter Randell is a dangerous man.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you,” Val snapped back.  “Just sayin’ it ain’t gonna be easy to hold him.”

“I’m sure Murdoch can have a word with the judge,” Scott suggested.  “At least to give you time to carry out your inquiries.”

Judge Bates was another long-time friend of the rancher.  Val had spoken with him occasionally in the few weeks since Johnny had suckered him into taking the job of sheriff, and thought that the man was probably open to any reasonable suggestion.  “Guess it’s worth a shot.”

He scratched his chin.  His stubble was more noticeable than normal and he mentally reminded himself to shave at some point during the day.  He knew perfectly well that his disheveled appearance offended the Mayor.  Higgs did his best to fool folks into thinking that Green River was a prosperous, genteel little town.  Val knew better.  Although there was plenty of money around during the good years, it could all turn on its head if there was a drought or disease among the cattle. He’d seen it happen often enough during his years of drifting. And, there was still a rough edge to the town which suited Val very well.  He wasn’t yet ready for the ‘wild west’ to be tamed.

*****

Although Johnny stretched his senses to the limit he could feel no hint of danger as they approached Randell’s home.  The man was as slippery as a snake, leaving Johnny with the unpalatable feeling that he would find a way to wriggle out of any charges.  Although, as a gunfighter, he had stayed broadly within the law, there had been times when the law hadn’t got the job done.  Now, as a rancher, he felt as if his hands were tied.

He snuck a look at Scott.  The blond’s face was set in hard, determined lines.  Johnny felt privileged to have witnessed more than once during the course of this interminable day, the passion that lurked just beneath that cool exterior.  The one positive thing to come out of all the blood, pain and worry, was the recognition of a kindred spirit.  He could only hope that Scott felt the same way.  The slight smile, when Scott turned unexpectedly and found him staring, reinforced that hope.

Johnny was so exhausted that he dropped from his saddle with far less fluidity than normal.  He leaned his face against Barranca’s neck for a minute while waiting for his tired legs to steady.

“Listen up, you two.” Val’s fierce scowl was impartially directed from one brother to the other.  “I’m in charge and there’s to be no shootin’ unless Randell starts something first.”

“Does breathing count?” Johnny muttered, loud enough for Scott to hear and too quiet for Val to catch the words.

Scott gave a strangled cough and they both looked innocently at the sheriff.  “We’re just along for the ride,” the blond reassured Val.

When the front door opened, all three men went for their guns.  Walter Randell stepped down from the porch, hands raised.  He ignored the Lancers and concentrated all his attention on the sheriff.

“I can assure you that I am unarmed.” He lowered his arms slowly.  “I assume I can count on your protection, Sheriff.” A quick glance toward the two younger men made his meaning clear.

Johnny snarled and stepped forward, Scott right beside him.  “You son of a…”

“Cool down, both of you,” Val snapped.  “Can we go inside?” His tone was no less belligerent as he addressed Randell.

“Certainly, Sheriff, although this is a strange time of night to come visiting.  Can’t this wait?”

“No, it damn well can’t wait,” Val snarled impatiently.

“Very well.” Randell led the way into the sitting room and settled on the sofa.  “What can I do for you?”

Johnny rested his hip against the wall, while Scott perched on the arm of one of the chairs.  Val stood in front of the fireplace and scowled.

“I’m here to arrest you,” Val growled, without preamble.

“On what charges?”

“One of your men tried to kill Murdoch Lancer earlier today.  He, and another man ambushed Scott and Johnny a little while back, and I’ve got evidence that they were working with Stearns and his gang.”

“I can’t be held responsible for the actions of my men,” Randell protested with a smugness that Johnny longed to wipe off his face.

“You can, if they were acting under your orders,” Scott interjected.

“That might be true, Mr. Lancer.  Only that would require proof.”

Johnny’s fingers itched to draw his gun, shove it in Randell’s face and watch the man crumble.  A minuscule shake of the head from Scott encouraged him to relax and he dredged up a lazy smile instead.  “There’s enough proof for Val to hold you.  Your cousin ain’t as cool as you, and he didn’t need much persuading to spill his guts.”

The flicker of uncertainty came and went so fast that Johnny wasn’t sure he’d really seen it.

“One of your men is in custody,” Val added.  “Just ain’t had time to question him yet.”

“One of my men?”

“Yeah.  The other got in the way of our bullets.” Johnny’s smile disappeared.  “We wouldn’t be unhappy if you did the same,” he offered encouragingly.

A thin trickle of sweat ran down Randell’s face and he swallowed nervously.  “Very well, Sheriff, I’ll come quietly, but this will all be cleared up by tomorrow morning.  And, when it is, I’ll make sure Lancer pays for all the inconvenience.”  He shot a sour look at the brothers.

“Why don’t you boys go and saddle Mr. Randell’s horse?” Val suggested pointedly.  “Then head home for a couple of hours sleep.  Teresa’ll want to know how Murdoch’s doing.”

Common sense and exhaustion won out and both nodded wearily.  It would take a lot less time to get home, than to ride all the way back to town.

“Don’t let your guard down,” Johnny warned.

Val reached into his pocket, producing a pair of handcuffs.  He directed a humorless grin at Randell.  “Don’t worry, I won’t,” he promised.

*****

The town of Green River settled down for what remained of the night.  Zeke Patterson crawled back under the covers after his visit to Mayor Higgs to tell him that the money, and Scott Lancer, had been safely recovered.  His wife, who had nagged him into his reluctant mission, continued to snore contentedly, and he deliberately bumped against her, hoping to disturb her slumber.  She muttered something unintelligible under her breath, turned over and resumed snoring.

Morgan finally slept, watched over by his anxious father.  The young widower called plaintively for his wife and sobbed once without waking.  Howard reached over and tucked the cover more securely around his son, heart breaking for the loss of a daughter-in-law and grandchild.

“You rest, Son.  I’ll be with you in the morning and we’ll face the day together.  God give me the strength to help you through this.”

Ruth turned over in bed, wrapped in a feeling of satisfaction at having been of use. Of course, it hadn’t hurt that the subject of her tender care had been a charming and good-looking gentleman.  She slipped into a deeper sleep, accompanied by the pleasant anticipation of seeing him again in a few hours.

There was no rest for Charles Roberts.  Having scurried home with a pounding headache, he was now engaged in packing up those few belongings he could carry with him.  He wasn’t stupid enough to stay around and face his cousin.

“I hope you get what you deserve, you greedy bastard,” the banker mumbled as he stuffed another shirt into his case.  “If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have lost everything.”  He snapped the case shut and took a last look around his home, tears of self-pity glistening in his eyes.  He wondered who would end up buying the house, and if they would have better luck than him in Green River.

Marty lay on his back and stared at the ceiling, replaying the events of the day in his mind.  He hadn’t been able to sleep, wondering if Johnny and the sheriff had found Scott.  He’d heard about Louisa and wished that he could have done more to help her. He would be sure to pay his respects at the funeral, and give his condolences to the bereaved family.

The praise he had received from the doctor made his heart swell with pride.  But, most of all, he remembered how Johnny had accepted his offer of help and had trusted him to help save Scott’s life.  He felt, in that moment, that he had finally grown up.

Walter Randell, hands chained, rode silently in the morose company of the sheriff, already plotting his revenge.  The desire to possess Lancer had become an obsession and he wouldn’t rest until all the Lancers were dead or utterly destroyed.  They had ruined months of meticulous planning.  He would find a way to kill the sons, and would watch the father go mad with grief – then, he would strike quickly and ruthlessly.  He would have his reward.

*****

“Any news?”

“I thought you were asleep,” Sam observed.  His patient was certainly teetering on the brink of oblivion, while still stubbornly fighting the pull of his exhaustion.  “It’s too soon for any word to have come back from the Randell spread.”

“I need to know, Sam.  I worry about them.”

Sam straightened the covers, speaking briskly to hide his own concern.  “And, they worry about you.  That’s what families do, Murdoch.  But, worrying isn’t going to bring them back any quicker, so I want you to get some sleep.”

The pain of his injury combined with the blood loss was finally pulling the rancher toward the rest he needed so badly.  His face settled into an expression of deep concern even as his eyes closed.  After waiting a few minutes to make sure that his patient was asleep, Sam turned down the lamp and headed wearily back to his own bed.  He made a mental list of the patients he would have to check on in the morning, including the two injured outlaws languishing in Val’s jail.  He was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

*****

Lights still blazed from the hacienda, when the brothers walked their tired horses under the Lancer arch. As they approached the house, they were challenged, and then recognized, by the man on guard.

“Welcome home, Senors.” The man respectfully touched a finger to the brim of his hat and stood aside.

Each brother, lost in his own thoughts, silently echoed that sentiment.

 

4am – 5am

Teresa was dozing, her head resting on Maria’s shoulder, when Carlos called out to say that riders were coming.  She was instantly awake, her hand creeping to the rifle lying by her side.  Her thoughts flew back to the morning when Pardee and his men had finally attacked the hacienda.  It has been almost a relief, after months of worry, to know that it would soon be over.  That day, though, she’d had Murdoch by her side to protect her.  Waiting at Lancer for news of his condition had been one of the hardest things she’d ever had to do. She wasn’t sure how she would cope if she lost him as she’d lost her father.

Maria squeezed her arm reassuringly and she smiled warmly at their housekeeper. She liked to think that she was as close to Maria as she would have been to her own mother.  Carlos peered through the drapes, rifle at the ready.  When he lowered his weapon and turned to give her a broad grin, she knew it was good news.

“Scott and Johnny?” she queried, hopefully.

“Si, Senorita.”

She flew to the front door, reaching it as the brothers rounded the corner of the house. A relieved smile lit up her face. She had taken an immediate liking to both men and had been saddened that they hadn’t been more at ease with each other.  It wasn’t that they disliked each other, but they rarely progressed beyond the stage of strained politeness. She had been as surprised as Scott when Johnny had asked for his company over breakfast.  She’d seen Johnny’s disappointment at Scott’s initial refusal, followed by his guarded pleasure when his brother had immediately changed his mind.

Teresa tried to gauge what had happened since she had last seen them by studying their faces. Both looked on the verge of falling asleep where they sat.  She moved forward to attract their attention and asked the question that had been at the forefront of her mind for hours.  “How’s Murdoch?”

A shared smile passed between the brothers.  “Our father is an even worse patient than Johnny,” Scott told her.  “But, Sam says he’s going to be fine.”  He slipped from his horse and held out his arms, giving her a quick hug.

“Well, we can’t all be perfect like you, Brother.”

Teresa detected a note of affectionate teasing in Johnny’s voice that she hadn’t heard him direct toward his brother before.

“True,” Scott replied, laughter dancing in his tired eyes.

Johnny dismounted and planted a kiss on the top of her head.  “How are you, querida?  Did you manage to sleep?”

“A little,” she lied, regarding them both critically.  “You must be exhausted.”

“Yeah, we could do with some sleep.”

“I’d like a drink.” Scott held the door open for her.  “Let my mind settle first.”

“I’ll make you something to eat,” Teresa offered.  “Then, one of the men can drive me into town to see Murdoch while you two get some sleep.”

“Thank you, Teresa.”

Maria and Carlos were waiting patiently in the great room for news.  “The Patron?” Maria asked anxiously.

Johnny grinned.  “He’s a tough old bird.  He’ll be back home and calling the tune again before you know it.”

“Bueno.” Her features relaxed into a smile.

“You can tell the men to get some rest,” Scott told Carlos. “Everything’s under control.”

“Certainly, Senor.”

“And, Carlos.  Tell them we are grateful.”

“Gracias, Senor Scott.”

Teresa slipped her hand under Maria’s arm.  “Let’s go to the kitchen and organize some food.  Then I’ll need to pack some clothes so that I can stay in town and help Sam, until Mr. Lancer is ready to come home.”  She frowned at the brothers.  “Sit down before you fall down,” she ordered, before bustling from the room.

*****

Johnny accepted the glass of whiskey Scott pressed into his hand.  “She’s like one of them tornados I’ve heard about,” he commented tiredly.

“The energy of youth,” Scott responded, groaning as he sat down and leaned his blond head against the back of the chair.

Johnny studied the liquid in the glass, swirling it round and round before taking a sip.  “Better than that rotgut we drank at the bath house.”

“Yes.”

Scott’s monosyllabic response made Johnny’s heart sink.  Had he been kidding himself that the events of the day had bridged the gap between them?  Maybe it was all just wishful thinking, and everything would just go back to the way it had been.  He was on the point of retreating behind his own barriers again when he caught the look on Scott’s face.

“I don’t usually let anyone see my back,” Scott offered, with a catch in his voice. “They either don’t know what to say or make some meaningless comment.  They don’t understand.”

“I do.” Johnny’s gaze was direct and serious, hiding an upsurge of strong emotions.

“I know, and someday I’d like to tell you what happened.  If you stay, that is.”  There was a challenge in Scott’s voice.

“What makes you think I won’t stay?”

“Something you said. And I don’t mean all that rubbish you fed to Stearns and his men.  You care about this family, Johnny.  Don’t throw it all away.” Scott leaned forward in his chair, narrowing the physical distance between them as he made his passionate plea.

“What about you?  Have you never thought about running back to the comforts of Boston?”

“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t.”

Johnny nodded, pleased by the honesty.  “D’you think we can make this work?”

Scott sat back and took a drink, taking time to consider his answer.  “If you’d asked me that yesterday I might have given a different answer.  Yes, I think we can make it work – if we want it to.  I’m afraid the idea of having a brother wasn’t an easy one to accept.  I didn’t really know what to expect, or how to act.  I thought we had nothing in common and nothing to build on.”

Johnny leaned forward, listening intently.  “What about now?”

“Now, I’d say we have more in common than either of us thought.  We can’t get back all those lost years, and there are a lot of memories we will never share.  But, I think – I hope - we could be friends and that’s a good first step.”

“Are you sure you want to take the risk?  Being friends with Johnny Madrid ain’t always good for your health.  You were only taken by Stearns because of your connection to me.”

“That’s true, but it was hardly your fault.  I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Besides, if they hadn’t taken me, they’d have taken someone else and things might have turned out differently.”  For a moment Scott’s gaze became unfocused.  “Stearns said that you’d offered yourself in my place.  Why?”

“I didn’t want you to be made to pay for something I’d done.”

Scott acknowledged that thoughtfully. “Stearns told me why he was so sore at you.  It made me proud to hear what you’d done to get him mad at you.”  He stretched, dredging up a small smile for Teresa as she hurried back in with plates of bacon and egg sandwiches.

“I’ll be going into town in about an hour so I’ll see you later.” She handed over the plates, giving them each an affectionate kiss on the cheek.  “I’m so glad you’re both home safely.”

“Gracias, Teresa.  We’re relying on you to keep our old man in line until we get there.”

“Oh, don’t worry.  Between Sam and I, he won’t get away with anything.  He’s a dreadful patient, but we got used to his ways when he was recovering from that bullet in his back.”

“I’d say we’ve nothing to worry about then,” Scott replied.  “We’ll be in town in a few hours.  Tell Murdoch that everything’s fine and that we’ll see him soon.”

They ate in silence for a while, both fighting to keep their eyes open.  Finally, Johnny laid down his half-eaten sandwich.  “I’m gonna go to bed.”

“Good idea.”

At the doorway leading from the great room Johnny hesitated and half-turned.  “Hey, Scott.  How about we go into town on Saturday night?  We could have a couple of beers, play some cards and then maybe spend a few hours with Hannah and that friend of hers.” Having made the offer he waited to see how it would be received.

Scott’s smile was open and warm. “You know, Johnny, I’d say we’d earned that after the day we’ve had. Sleep well.”

“I always sleep well.”

Two very tired Lancers made their way up the stairs, stopping at the doors to their respective bedrooms.  Scott held out his right hand.  “I look forward to getting to know you better, Brother.”

Johnny’s grip was firm as he returned the handshake.  “Me too, Scott.”

*****

Scott thought that his bed had never looked so inviting.  His body ached with weariness and from the pounding he’d taken, but there was a lightness of spirit that had been missing for weeks.  He’d arrived in California filled with an unfounded optimism.  That feeling had been gradually draining away as he’d found himself constantly bouncing off the walls surrounding his brother.  His own walls had been just as impenetrable, only he hadn’t realized it until now.  In desperation, he had convinced himself that this had all been a dreadful mistake.  He’d been ready to return to Boston and put the whole experience firmly behind him.

How was he to know that Johnny had been feeling the same way about him?  The cocky young man had never shown a hint of uncertainty.  If it hadn’t been for the last twenty-four hours, they might have parted forever and both would have been the losers.

Now that he had the leisure to think about it, he also realized that his ordeal at the hands of Stearns and his men had stirred uncomfortable memories from his past.  He’d worked hard to overcome those memories of his time in Libby in the months following his release.  He hadn’t had anyone to talk to either.  His grandfather had been concerned and sympathetic, but Scott hadn’t wanted to burden the elderly gentleman with details of the horrors he had endured.  How could Harlan Garrett have understood what his grandson had been through?  It was impossible to explain how lonely he had felt, even when surrounded by hundreds of men.  He couldn’t imagine discussing that year with his grandfather, or with his father for that matter.

As he settled himself comfortably under the sheets he acknowledged that he had finally found someone he could talk to about his time as a prisoner of the Confederacy.  He’d slipped a couple of times during the last few hours.  His loss of control with the banker had shaken him, until he realized that saying those things in front of Johnny had been a kind of release.  Yes, he could cope with the memories now that he didn’t feel alone.

It would take time to get to know his family and he was grateful to have been granted that time.  If Walter Randell had succeeded, they would all have been wiped out.  He shared Johnny’s fear that the man would escape justice for what he had done.  They would have to be on their guard.

He turned his head into the pillow and closed his eyes.  All that mattered in that moment was that Lancer was his home, and this was where he would stay.  Satisfied that he had made the right decision, he slipped into a deep and peaceful sleep.

*****

Johnny lay on his back, trying to persuade himself that it was all right to relax and go to sleep.  Regardless of his good intentions, the events of the day replayed over and over as he analyzed every move he had made.  It had become a habit during his years as a gunhawk – critically reviewing his responses to each situation, so that he could avoid any mistakes the next time.

The day had hardly been an unqualified success.  His father had been shot.  Scott had been taken hostage and he’d managed to blunder into a trap.  The graze across his ribs ached each time he moved, and he’d developed a spectacular bruise along the jaw line. He glowered, thinking about Randell.  They’d have to watch their backs if that greedy little bastard talked his way out of jail.

Could he have prevented any of it?  In town, he’d done the best he could in the short time they’d been given.  He knew that and accepted it.  He’d made a mistake when he arrived at the ranch, but between him and Scott they had overcome the odds.  The trust shown to him by his father and his brother meant a great deal.  The fact that Murdoch had been shot, while saving him from Stearns’ bullet demonstrated more clearly than words how his father felt about him.

His own feelings had broken through as well, and Scott had finally started to open up to him.  Things might not have gone smoothly, but they had each gained something priceless.  The bond of blood had proved to be stronger than any of them had expected.  They still had a long way to go, and there would be room for misunderstandings and unintentional hurt as they found their way.  It wasn’t possible to overcome a separation of twenty years in only a few months.  But, the foundations were there, together with a willingness to be a family.

This time yesterday he’d been ready to leave.  It was a decision he would have regretted for the rest of his life.  He knew with absolute certainty that staying at Lancer was what he’d wanted all along.  In the events of the day just ended, he had found the strength to fight for a new life – a better life.  Feeling more at peace than he had in a long time, Johnny burrowed under the covers and fell asleep.

*****

As the sun began to peak over the horizon, the rooster strutted out into the yard.  He spread his wings and shook himself before hopping up onto one of the fence posts.  Throwing back his head he began to crow.  He had just drawn breath to crow again, when there was a sudden loud noise, followed by silence.

Teresa lowered the rifle and looked dispassionately at the dead bird.  “Maria,” she called over her shoulder.  “It’ll be chicken stew for supper.”

 

~end~
Oct 06

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