The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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

Darla M. Poulos

 

 

Blazes


Dedicated to: James Stacy and Wayne Maunder.  You'll always be my hero.
December 23, 2014

Beta: Lacy “Once again, you did a superb job! I'm grateful!”
All non-canon characters in this story Tim, the giant, Talbot, Jake, Floyd, Al and Mack are the exclusive works of the author and cannot be duplicated in any way, shape or form unless by the express permission of the author. 

Blazes is part II of the storyline. It can stand alone. The story starts at the end of part I:  Nothing Less Will Do. For more added enjoyment and continuity, you might want to consider reading it first.



“Scott! Get down!”

With gun in hand Scott dropped to the ground, so quick he ate dirt and split the inside of his bottom lip. Bullets screamed all around him and his brother, Johnny Lancer. They rolled for cover under a copse of trees and scrub at the edge of an alphalfa field. The horses they had just dismounted from, went galloping off into the distance. Their only light was the brilliant stars shining down for it was a new moon night. The bullets rained, zinged and tore through branches, bushes, undergrowth, seemingly coming from the very ground, pinning them down.

They worked their way on elbows and knees, sliding their bellies on the ground, with arms covering their heads, towards the back of the trees for better protection. The gunpowder smoke from the enemies' guns was strong in their nostrils, mixing with the cool night breeze, blowing their way. The noise was deafening as the ground heaved with particles of wood, dirt and rock, peppering their bodies. The assault continued and time stood still.

“Who in blue blazes is firing at us?” grumbled Scott.

“What difference?” grouched Johnny. He felt a chunk of bark from a splintered tree branch fly past his head as another bullet honed in on the tree he was behind.

“How many do you count?” asked Scott. Another volley of shots sprayed the thicket, splattering them both with slivers. Something sharp stung Scott's left upper arm. He ignored it and took aim into the darkness.

“Count?” smirked Johnny. “Big brother, its pitch dark. You got eyes of a cat?” Johnny paused with a grin Scott couldn't see. “All I can see are the blazes from their guns.”

More bullets hailed down on them, a bit spread out this time, but still close enough to keep them pinned down. “I'd say seven if I counted the flashes right.”

“That's my guess also,” agreed Scott, in a low voice. “Too bad they're shooting at us. Any other time the light show, arching across the trail, would be phenomenal.”

The guns barked again, spitting out a belch of fire from the bullets discharged, creating a temporary beam of light.

Leave it to Scott thought Johnny to come up with a big, fancy word during a gunfight.  Flat on their stomachs, ensconced in the shrubbery, they watched the fireworks continue. The flashes from the unknown enemy's guns were more spread out now and moving slowly towards them.

“Whoever is firing at us wants us bad,” murmured Scott.

Johnny readjusted his hat to see better from under the brim, not that it helped much in the darkness. Gun cocked and aimed, ready to take his first shot he hesitated, watching the gun play. “Ya know, I think they're just guessing where we're at.” A moment passed. “Look at the flares of their guns. They're changing directions, moving slower. Shots are lessening.” He tapped Scott's arm with his knuckle as another gunshot went to the left of them.

“Well, we haven't fired our guns yet,” mused Scott in a hushed tone. “Maybe we confused them as to our position. After all, they can't see us only hear us and we're down wind of them. So maybe they think we're doubling back on them.”

“Sooner or later they're going to work their way here where they last heard us and that gives me an idea,” stated Johnny in a soft voice, as he got to his knees. “We're going to play a little Blind Man's Bluff.”

 Scott gasped, in a choked whisper, “What?” A shudder went through him as an ugly memory flashed through his mind when Johnny had been really blind.

“We're going to flank them and flush them out.”

“Then what, take all seven?” asked Scott in a tight voice, knowing full well his brother would do it for nothing more than the excitement and challenge.

“It's better than staying here like sitting ducks.” Johnny got to his feet. “Besides, can you think of a better idea brother?”

Scott shook his head then realized Johnny couldn't see him. “No, it sounds like a plan brother.”

Johnny started to his right. “Keep your eyes peeled and don't get caught in the crossfire. I'll give you to the count of ten to get into position.”

“Johnny,” his brother hesitated, “and if it doesn't work?”

“Then, we'll go out in a blaze of glory.”

Even with only the light of the stars Scott could see the white of his brother's teeth, the Johnny Madrid smile, as his brother turned and disappeared into the darkness.

Scott took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he got to his feet. Every gunfighter's dream. He started to circle the opposite way with a bad taste in his mouth and an ache in the pit of his stomach.

Johnny quietly circled back towards the men who were trying to gun them down, counting slowly to ten. He was at eight when he heard an audible snap from where Scott should be positioned.

Unfortunately, there was a lull in gunfire when the noise had occurred and the unknown assailants opened fire in Scott's direction.

Johnny immediately hit the dirt and began firing his Colt, trying to draw the gunfire in his direction, only half succeeding. The bad guys split their fire power between them, shooting at both sides.

Aiming for the blaze of fire, Johnny managed to hit a few targets, hearing their moans and cuss words as the enemy fell to the ground. No gunfire came from his brother's side of the field. Gun empty and with a sinking heart, Johnny rolled away from his position, reloading his Colt as fast as he could. Back on his stomach, he waited for the next flash of fire.

It didn't come. The men were making noisy tracks to their horses, mounting them and galloping away into the dark night. In a matter of seconds the echoes of the horses disappeared into the eerie silence.

---1---

 

“What ya gonna do, Boss?” asked Jelly, longtime ranch hand and friend of the Lancer family, twisting his hat while standing in front of Murdoch's desk.  

“Do, Jelly?” replied a solemn Murdoch Lancer, father and head of the family as he folded two pieces of paper and put them in his inner coat pocket.

“Well, ya not goin ta give in, are ya?”

 “Jelly, if I had my way, he could have the gold mine, lock, stock and barrel.”

“Yeah, but…”

Murdoch held up his hand. “You know I was out voted by my two sons going into this venture. I've always felt more comfortable with cows. That's why I never took up your offer on the Lorelei. Gold always seems to go hand in hand with greed and heartache.”

“Yes, but Boss, ya know the boys were just tryin ta look out for the future of Lancer and with your friend, the LT. Gov. George, being the one ta put it all together, they thought it was a sure thing.”

“One thing I've learned in life, Jelly, there's no such thing as a sure thing. There's always an exception or a complication.” 

“So, going ta Cold River is gonna give ya all the answers?”

“That's what the note says.” Murdoch got up from his desk and walked over to the long sofa.

Jelly followed him. “Since when do ya give in to demands from a note?”

Murdoch, somewhat exasperated, “Since the LT. Governor's train's next stop on the campaign trail is Cold River and Johnny and Scott are on that train.” He grabbed his hat and saddlebags off the couch. “Coincidence?”

“Ya know, I don't believe in coincidences any more than you do.”

“All right then, quit your yammering and let's go!”

Jelly made a sad face and followed Murdoch to their waiting horses.

---2---

 

“Scott!”

“SCOTT!”

“NOOO!”

Johnny bolted up into a sitting position on his berth aboard the LT. Governor's private train car. Taking deep breaths, he struggled for air in his chest and instantly felt sharp pains lance their way through his tightly wrapped broken ribs into his back. Sweat poured from his forehead into his eyes and dripped down his face to land on his drenched pink shirt.

“Easy Johnny,” soothed Scott, handing him a dry towel. “Your nightmares are getting worse.”

“Yeah, I know,” came the muffled reply as Johnny wiped the perspiration from his head and neck, then buried his face in the towel. He didn't want Scott to see how shaken he was. Scared is more like it.

Scott sat down in his own berth across the aisle from his brother's and stretched his long legs onto the edge of Johnny's bunk.

Their beds were located in the back of the Pullman sleeper car. The Pullman was the last car in the line of cars which made up their short train. Dr. Banning from Genesis and the LT. Governor's, George to his best friend Murdoch and family, were located in the front of the same car. In between the sleeping quarters were the living area with a couch and a few comfortable velvet chairs on one side. An oak desk sat on the other side of the car which doubled as a table.  All the other niceties, including bookshelves, cupboards and a dry sink were built into the car's walls.

Not having much hope, Scott asked anyways, “You going to tell me about it this time?”

“No,” hedged Johnny, refusing to look at his brother, “you know, it always fades after I wake up.” Except for the part where I find you all bloody on the ground. It's got to be a carry-over from the livery stable. Scott looking dead, lying on that stable floor with blood all over his Sunday best shirt. All because he broke Tom Stryker's nose. That image is going to haunt me for the rest of my life.

Ignoring the excuse Johnny always used when asked about the nightmare, Scott tried a different tact. “You've heard of the old adage, if you talk about the dream it won't come true?”

“No Scott,” refuted Johnny, “I always heard if you talk about the dream it will come true and I'm not about to let this nightmare come true.”

“So, you do remember it.”

“Some of it,” grouched Johnny, pitching the towel at his brother. He could see the determined look on Scott's face. He wasn't going to give up on the subject this time. What to tell him?

  “We're in a field somewhere, trapped. There's guns blazing all around us.”

Johnny swung his legs off his berth and stood up, stepping over Scott's legs still on the bed. He leaned over the washstand that was at the end of his brother's berth and poured some water from the matching pitcher into the bowl. Sitting the vessel on the floor, he proceeded to wash up from the residue of his enforced afternoon nap. Dang engineer, anyways. So I fell asleep in the cab. It's warm and cozy in there.

“And?” prodded Scott, wadding the towel up in his hands and tossing it to his brother when Johnny came up with his neck, face and hair all wet.

“There is no and!” snapped Johnny, catching the cloth. He wiped his face and his dark hair damp dry, leaving it standing in a mess. He picked up his toothbrush and dug into the dried tooth powder container, then vigorously scrubbed his teeth, then spit into the bowl. Lastly, he picked the pitcher back up and poured some water into a glass, rinsed his mouth out where it too ended up in the washbowl. He then drank what was left of the water in the glass.

Scott waited while his brother washed up to ask the next question. He was more than curious about the sequences of events in Johnny's nightmares. Johnny talked a lot in his sleep about this particular dream. They were always the same until the end when Johnny would wake up yelling. He watched patiently as Johnny picked up the washbowl, stepped over his legs, which Scott refused to move. Johnny went to the back door of their car by the head of their berths, opened the door and threw out the dirty water behind the train.

Johnny returned to the sink and left everything in order the way he had found it. Taking a quick look in the mirror, he ran splayed fingers through his unruly hair, taming it the best he could before reaching for his hat and putting it on his head. He was ready to return to the engine cab of the train where he had been spending most of his time since boarding the LT. Guv's train days ago.

Johnny was on the mend from a bad case of food poisoning, which left him constantly tired and nauseated with little appetite. He also had suffered a couple of broken ribs from a few fights in Uppity Flats. He had found he couldn't sit a horse for any length of time, so now, he was doing the next best thing, learning all the ins and outs of engineering an Ironhorse. It took care of the boxed in feeling he hated so much. It was almost like being on Barranca with the open cab of the engine, the wind in your hair and the feeling of horse-power beneath your feet. His horse, along with all the other horses, were enjoying the ride in the stockcar.

“Johnny.”

The sound of his name stopped him in his tracks by the washstand. He should've known Scott wasn't done with him yet. Turning around, he waited for his brother to state whatever was on his mind.

Scott swallowed hard. Johnny gave him an obstinate look, but he felt compelled to get to the bottom of the nightmares. “Do I get killed in this dream like I died in the livery stable?” He was really asking two questions.

Johnny, caught completely off guard by that particular question, paled considerably. He unconsciously reached up and scratched at the stitches on his cheek bone.

Scott put his feet down from Johnny's berth and stood up, reaching for Johnny's wrist. “Stop scratching. They're healing. You want to get them infected?”

Johnny shook his arm loose from his brother's grip and asked, “Why are your stitches out all ready?” Scott had a few stitches above his left eye. The lacerations on both brothers' faces were from two different fights, but the same man had created the injuries.

“Probably because I sit in this car more than five minutes. Besides, my cut wasn't as deep as your laceration was. I didn't get hit by a gun butt, just a fist. And if you'll notice, my bruises are gone too. I can still see some remnants of green and yellow on your face. You still look pretty though.”

Johnny sounded off a “PFTT” and turned away, once again heading to the other door when Scott grabbed his arm, yanking him back. “You didn't answer my question.”

“Dang it all, Scott! There's nothing to answer!” Johnny broke Scott's grip and treaded heavily down to the end of the car. He wished he had his spurs on to make a better impression. He grabbed the doorknob, then turned back to Scott, “Just keep that golden head of yours down when you hear gunfire!”

He opened the glass door to the front platform and started to step through it when Scott yelled, “You know, you started having these nightmares before the stable incident. It's eating you up!” He watched Johnny reach back for the knob and finished with, “We're going to have this conversation sooner or later!”

Slamming the door hard, Johnny made the window rattle. “It's gonna be later.” He hoped he had gotten his point across. He did not want to talk about either the stable or his re-occurring nightmares.  

Feeling foolish now, he almost turned to go back in and apologize to his brother. He knew Scott was worried about him. They'd been through a lot together in the last few weeks. Instead he sat down on the steps located on the side of the platform. Were the dreams before the stable fight? He thought back to when he'd been so sick. Afterwards, Scott had asked if he remembered anything about blazes. “Guns firing.” The fight with the Strykers had been later in the morning. He saw Scott on the ground again.

“What does it all mean?”

---3---

 

Dr. Banning opened the door from the work car, stepped onto the platform, then crossed over to the platform of the Pullman car. Seeing Johnny sitting on the stairs he asked, “Getting some fresh air?”

“Yeah.” Johnny ducked his head. He didn't want anyone, especially this hawk-eyed doctor, reading his thoughts. The man was way too intuitive. After getting to know the doctor he could see why Murdoch and Scott had vouched for his good character and ethics. He could also understand why they had loaned him the money to finish medical school at Harvard from where Scott had also graduated.

“Stitches bothering you yet?”

There he goes again, right on the money. “Yeah, how'd you know?”

Taking out a stump of a cigar, Dr. Banning lit it. Puffing and exhaling a stream of smoke, he said, “Hmm, wild guess.” He smiled at Johnny's solemn face. “The stitches are pulling and you're scratching at them. I can see a few loose threads.”

Johnny didn't answer, just sighed.

“Tell you what, as soon as we hit the pass track and stop I'll take them out. Dinner's going to be late tonight anyways.”

Mentally kicking himself for not checking the engineer's schedule during their last stop, Johnny asked, “How long are we being held on the pass track?” He then recalled, he never would've had the chance anyways for Floyd, their engineer, had ordered him out of the cab and off to bed. Curse this food poisoning anyways. It's sure curtailed my life style in more ways than one.

“Mack, the conductor, said we have about a ninety minute layover before the east bound train passes. We're short too much mileage to make it to the next full service depot before she catches us on the tracks.” The doctor inhaled another puff off his cigar. “Time enough for you and Scott to exercise your horses on two conditions.”

Looking up with a spark in his eyes, Johnny asked, “What's that?”

“You ride your horse at a sedate pace. You need to ease into riding again. Your bruises might be gone, but your ribs are just starting to knit.”

Johnny held up his hand, “Yeah Doc, ya've reminded me often enough. What's the second condition?”

Dr. Banning took a deep breath, knowing this wasn't going to sit well with his patient. “Your word, you'll come back and not take off for Cold River on your own.”

Johnny stiffened and slightly raised his voice, “What's so all fired important that we stay on this train?”

“Your health for one.” Dr. Banning didn't want to elaborate. He knew the LT. Governor would tell both Lancer brothers everything in good time.

Johnny reluctantly nodded in agreement, secretly ticked, for he'd been thinking of taking off before he had sat down on the steps. If he separated himself from Scott would the nightmare come true? Of course, that meant he would've had to break his word to the LT. Guv not to leave until they were home, which didn't sit well with him at all. Being honorable always seemed to have a price. He just hoped the cost wasn't going to be too high.

The conductor opened the work car door and stepped out, followed by the LT. Governor. Mack crossed over to the Pullman where he met Scott coming out the door. They traded places, Scott stepping onto the platform and the conductor heading though their car to get to the back platform where he would operate the train's brakes.   

George, leaning against his car, took out a cigar. “Must be getting close to the pass track.” He struck a match on the rail and started puffing on his cigar to get it to light.

Johnny leaned out from the steps, peering down the track line. “Yup, the red post marker is just ahead.” He turned and called back to Mack, who was watching from the back of their car, “I'll make the switch!”

“Much obliged,” came the reply. Everyone knew Mack was feeling his age and tried to help the older man when they could. The man also was their chef and, boy, could he cook. What he lacked in strength he made up for with his culinary dishes.

The engineer let off the throttle and the men could feel the train slowing down. They passed the red marker and after a few yards up the line the train stopped. With the other men looking on, Johnny hopped off the steps, landing with a grimace on his face.

The sigh came from Scott, feeling his brother's pain. “I'm going to saddle my horse.”

“Saddle Barranca too. Johnny's going for a ride,” stated Doc Banning, earning an odd look from both Scott and George.

“You sure he's ready for that?” asked Scott, perplexed, hesitating at the work car door.

“Hmm, no.” Doc inhaled and blew out some smoke from his cigar. “But, you know your brother. He'll go riding one way or another and I'd like you to be out there with him.” The last said with candor.

Scott, getting the doctor's hint, hurried through the work car and entered the stock car from the side door. He lit a lantern and saddled both horses.

As he climbed down the stairs George, worried, asked Dr. Banning, “Is this the modern doctor talking? You really think he's ready for a horse?” After all, Murdoch's boys were in his care and Johnny's health was one of the reasons they were on board this train.

“We'll see.” Doc threw his cigar butt in the dirt and ground it out with his foot. “My father was a free thinking country, shirt-sleeved doctor. He taught me to use common sense and he also taught me, by observing the little things, you could learn a lot. I saw Johnny wince when he climbed down from the steps. He's going to find out he's not feeling as good as he thinks he does. But, it won't be long and he'll start feeling his oats. The boys are restless. They want to go home.”

“Don't you think I know that? I already told Murdoch in my last missive I'd be lucky to hold them on the train till we get to Cold River. I need to come up with a way to stall them, to give Murdoch time to do what he needs to do.”

 

Johnny was deep in his own thoughts as he walked the length of the train to the switch track. He was very disgruntled that his ribs hurt at the slightest provocation. He didn't feel ready for action and wondered how it would go if he had to take some on. His gut was telling him there was trouble ahead and not because of the nightmares he was having.

He couldn't put his finger on it, but something just didn't seem right with all the correspondence the LT. Guv was getting. The messenger seemed to come and go at all hours of the day and night. He must have some kind of a schedule so he can keep track of the LT. Guv like the railroad does with its trains. He always seems to know when we're at a pass track or a depot. And not only that, but why does everyone quit talking when Scott or I enter the work car? Why is everything so hush, hush? Government business? Campaign strategies? Who cares? Or is it something to do with us? And if it is…what?  

The car had been dubbed by the train crew as the work car. It held the crew's quarters, consisting of two bunk beds, a galley kitchen where all food was prepared and housed the two Pinkerton security guards for when the LT. Guv was in town campaigning. The last third of the car was used as an office by the LT. Guv's aide, Mr. Talbot, and his press agent Al. The refurbished private car belonged to the governor as did the Pullman, but, the stockcar, the engine and tenders were leased from the railroad.

Waving at Floyd, the engineer, Johnny walked the distance to the switch track to open the gate. Once there he grabbed onto the switch handle and moved the well-oiled track over to align with the pass track.

Floyd throttled the engine and slowly moved the train onto the other track. When the last car was clear of the main track, Johnny moved the switch track back into its original place, thus closing the gate. Quickly, he ran up the pass track to catch up to the last car of the moving train. Reaching it, he grabbed onto the handrail and jumped up on the high bottom step. Totally out of breath, he sunk down onto the top step and silently cursed his broken ribs and Tom Stryker who had done the damage.

The train followed the pass track until it came to the other end where it connected back to the main track and stopped. Scott lowered the boarding ramp of the stockcar using the block and tackle system from inside the car. He walked both horses down the ramp and waited for his brother.

When he could breathe without hurting, Johnny got up from the platform steps and opened the back door, hurrying inside. He was more than chagrined at himself that he had forgotten his Colt. For crying out loud, I might as will have forgotten my pants . In his hurry to get away from Scott, he'd walked right past his gun, sitting on George's desk by their pet hamsters.

Putting on his gun, he whispered to Emerson and Boston, “Guys, don't you dare breathe one word of this…especially to Scott.” Taking the lid off their cage, he reached in and petted each hamster, noticing Boston, his hamster, was getting fat.

“Scott needs to build you two a wheel to run on. I think you're bored in here…kinda like me, boxed inside this tin can of a train…PFFT!”

Before putting the lid back on, Johnny filled their dishes with some fresh water and special feed Cal, the stable boy and new found friend from Uppity Flats, had given the Lancer brothers, along with the hamsters as a parting gift. His emotions in better spirits, Johnny went out the front door to saddle his horse.

Much to Johnny's surprise, Scott was waiting for him. “What took you so long? We just lost five minutes of riding time,” complained Scott, getting on his horse.

“Hmm, I had to feed our hamsters.”

Putting his foot in the stirrup and trying to hop up onto his saddle proved harder than it looked. Hiding his grimace of pain and stifling a moan, after the third hop, he finally managed to climb onto Barranca's back, catching Scott's consoling look and the doctor's elbowed reminder to the LT. Governor. I used to be able to do this without even touching the stirrup. With his pride stung from the rough mount and feeling too many sets of eyes on his person, Johnny took off at a more than sedate pace west down the tracks.

Scott, not knowing what to think, but quickly coming to the conclusion it had to be his brother's pride at fault, took off after him.

George complained to the doctor, “You sure you know what you're doing?”

“We'll know soon enough,” replied the doctor. “Johnny has to decide for himself if he's up to riding to Cold River or not.”

“And Scott?”

“Scott will do whatever is necessary to keep his brother in line until Johnny's injuries are healed.”

 

Johnny knew before he rode a mile that Dr. Banning had proven his point . Chalk one up for the good doctor. Lesson learned by doing . His ribs couldn't take it. He slowed Barranca down to a sedate walk as Scott went flying by on his horse. Barranca wanted to follow too and strained at the bit, but Johnny reluctantly held him back.

“Sorry boy, Scott will have to take you for a run. Just do me a favor and don't buck him off.”

Johnny had to admire what he called the doctor's way of free thinking . The man freely gave his medical advice, but let Johnny make his own decisions and draw his own conclusions of what was right for his body. If he messed up, Johnny only had himself to blame. After all, I'm a man, an ex-gun hawk ta boot. Not some kid wet behind the ears. I should have that right.

Scott glanced back and noticed Johnny had reined in Barranca to a walk. Slowing his own mount, Scott waited for his brother, falling in beside him when Johnny had caught up. One look at his brother's stony face told the story.

“I take it your ribs aren't up to snuff yet?”

“Yeah.” Johnny let out a big sigh. “Doc said it takes weeks for ribs to heal…just like it takes the dang food poisoning weeks to get out of my system.” He was reflective for a moment then added, “Scott, I know we're on this train because of my ribs, but don't you get the feeling there's more to the story?”

“How so?”

“I mean the telegram. Why would Murdoch order us to board the train? How would he know so quickly that I was hurt? I'd only been in the fight that morning with Tom. The telegram was sent to George that afternoon. Even the LT. Guv's courier couldn't have reached our father that fast. How did Murdoch find out so quickly?” Johnny paused and watched his brother fiddle nervously with his reins.

Boy, oh boy, time to pay the piper , thought Scott, sweating bullets. Before he could defend himself, Scott was cut off with Johnny saying, “Even if Murdoch got a telegram, explaining it all, it would've taken hours before he received it, unless he was already in town,”

Looking at Scott with a cool I've been had expression, Johnny asked, “Does any of this makes sense to you?”

“No,” hedged Scott. “I've asked myself some of the same questions. But, Murdoch has never lied to us, so, what part of the telegram is true? Or is the whole thing true and we're just not being told the whole truth?”

“Yeah, like what's really happening at home? Why do I get the feeling the wool's being pulled over our eyes?” Johnny grunted when Barranca's hoof came down on a big rock, jostling his ribs. “Why wouldn't Murdoch level with us if there is trouble at home?”

“Maybe… maybe because he doesn't want us to know,” replied Scott, relieved they were getting away from the telegram business.

“Why?” grouched Johnny, rubbing his side to relieve the ache. “That doesn't make any sense. We both landed up at Lancer because there was trouble…a thousand dollars-worth.”

They both kept their own counsel for a while as they walked their horses further down the tracks.

“And that's another thing,” said Johnny out of the blue. “Why are we stopping at all these extra whistle stop towns that were not on the original schedule? I thought we were supposed to be only on this train for a short time? At least, that's what Doc Banning had told you in our room in Uppity.”

Scott realized with a start Johnny must have overheard the doctor's and Scott's conversation about getting home. He should have known his brother wasn't sleeping when it had taken place. I wonder how much other stuff he's overheard?

“Well, look at it this way, brother, you've learned what it's like to be an engineer. I've learned what it's like to help the governor get re-elected and I for one have found I'm not crazy about politics and would never chose it as a career.”

The brothers came to a bend in the track and followed it around. They could see a man on horseback in the distance, heading their way.

“Looks like the mail's coming,” said Scott. A thought occurred to him. “Is it my imagination or does the LT. Governor seem to get a lot of correspondence?”

“I was just thinking the same thing earlier, brother.”

“Course, he is the LT. Governor,” reiterated Scott. “He probably does get a lot of mail, but then again, it seems excessive. But, he does work for the government and anything with the government is excessive.”

Johnny grinned, “Give it up Scott. You'll never figure it out.”

When the messenger, a young man in his early twenties, was within hailing distance, Johnny yelled, “Hey Jake!”

“Any mail for us?” asked Scott, observing the bulging saddlebags.

Jake brought his horse to a halt beside Scott, taking off his hat and wiping his forehead on a too ripe shirt sleeve. “Don't know if there is or isn't. Ya know by now, I can't just give the parcel over to ya anyhow. Regulations state, I have to have the LT. Guv sign for it first and make sure the seals ain't broke.”

“Yeah, I know that,” said Johnny in a soft voice. “We just thought you might know if Murdoch included anything in the package, that's all.”

“Oh, I reckon he did. Seems I seen ‘im at the Western Union when I picked it up in Cold River.”

“Cold River?” repeated both Lancers surprised.

“Ya mean Morro Coyo, right?” asked Johnny.

“No, Cold River. I know'd where I just come from,” affirmed Jake.

Scott finished with, “What's he doing there?”

“Don't rightly know,” replied Jake. “Not my business to know why they're all there. I only git paid to deliver.” With that, he kicked his horse into moving and galloped towards the idling train.

“Well, how do you like that?” flatly asked Johnny, as both brothers turned their horses around to head back to the train, cutting their ride short.

---4---

 

“The LT. Governor's train is on schedule and due to arrive at first light,” reported Murdoch to Jelly, waiting outside the station master's office. “We might as well get a room and have supper.”

“The sooner Scott and Johnny get here, the sooner we can leave. This place gives me the willies,” stated Jelly, rubbing his arms. “I can't explain it, but it does.”

Murdoch, used to Jelly's outbursts, grinned and took it in stride as they walked over to the Cold River Hotel. “If only it could be that simple,” frowned Murdock.

Jelly just said, “Humph!”

Walking down the board walk they came face to face with a stoic, well-dressed gentleman about Murdoch's age.

In a harsh tone of voice, greetings were exchanged.

“Lancer.”

“Abbott.”

They passed each other without another word.

“See,” said Jelly, “Cold as ice. He might as well of been a dead fish for all the expressin he gave.”

Pulling Jelly aside, Murdoch heaved a sigh, “Jelly that was the man who took a shot at me a few years back when Sheriff Troup saved me. Scott was already on the way home with you in the wagon. Remember? I told you the story when I returned home.”

“Ya mean, when Doc Banning had to go and dig the bullet out even though he didna want to?”

At Murdoch's nod of yes, Jelly continued, “Then the man couldna charge him for the supposed murder of his son for he was beholden to the doc for savin his life.”

Again Murdoch nodded.

“Talk about bein caught in the middle,” replied Jelly, shaking his head in commiseration. “Ya think he still holds a grudge against Doc Banning after all this time?”

Murdoch shrugged his shoulders. “Don't know, Jelly. Be sad if he did though.” He patted the little man on the back of the shoulder and nudged him to start walking again. “As you know, I had to learn my lesson about vengeance the hard way. Twenty-five years was a long time to hate. Maybe he'll be wiser.”

---5---

 

The Lancer brothers didn't get a chance to talk to the LT. Governor for the man was chin deep in paperwork in the work car. Supper was usually when they discussed business anyways.

To occupy their time, Scott exercised his horse by racing him around the pass track a few times. When the bay grew tired, Scott brought him back to the stock car where Johnny started wiping him down at the foot of the ramp. Scott then climbed on Barranca, getting an envious look from his brother.

Johnny called out, “Mind your manners, boy!”

Barranca was more than eager to run and Scott gave him his head.

Watching from the sideline, Johnny couldn't help but feel proud as his horse ran like a champion. He was a magnificent sight with his golden coat shining in the sun.

Out of breath himself, Scott reined Barranca in and brought him back to his brother. “I'd forgotten…how fast he is,” wheezed Scott, dismounting as Johnny patted the horse on his sweat-soaked neck.

Johnny took the towel which was draped around the back of his neck and started wiping down his horse. “Yup, all ya needed was some fences to jump.”

Both boys grinned, remembering the first day on the Lancer ranch when they received their horses. In brotherly camaraderie, they tended their horses, then returned them to the stock car where they fed and watered the animals.

As they were pulling up the stock ramp Johnny said, “Ya know, if Murdoch is in Cold River, we can get off this tin can and ride back home with him when we pull in there.”

“Yeah, we could. I wonder how many stops we have to make between here and there.”

Johnny, with sarcasm, “Too many.”

---6---

Beef stew with drop biscuits was the simple fare for supper. It suited Johnny's stomach just fine. Since his food poisoning incident, he'd found the rich and fancy foods served at most whistle stops didn't agree with him. Somehow the leftover treats always found their way back to the train and they'd end up eating the food for lunch the next day. He knew the old saying, waste not want not , but he was tired of it.

Shoot, he was tired of a lot of things. Living on a train with a passel of men was no picnic. Scott seemed content enough with the poker games played with the crew and LT. Guv's staff. Then there were plenty of books to read from the Governor's library, which occupied a great deal of his time.

Johnny was restless. It had been weeks since he had left for Mexico to pay a quick visit to the Sonora Lancer mine. He missed his father, his home, his friends, his bed, in general his whole way of life. But, most of all he missed Murdoch's big, long couch. The first thing he planned to do, when he returned back home, was lay down on the couch in front of a roaring fire and sleep for a week.

The LT. Guv brought him out of his daydream. “I have some news.”

They, including the train crew, were gathered around the long, oval table in the work car, sharing their meal in compatible companionship. After weeks on the rails, they were like a small family, except for Victor Talbot, the LT. Guv's aide de camp. He reminded Johnny of a slippery used horse trader. They didn't get along and often traded barbs on the trip.

“The campaign trail is coming to an end. I'm being ordered back to Sacramento.”

“What?” exclaimed Talbot, visibly upset. “You can't do that. We have commitments.”

“Well, we'll just have to find a way around them. I don't have a choice in this. As you know, we only added on the whistle stop towns because we had the time.” The LT. Governor exchanged a glance with Dr. Banning. “Time has run out and after we stop for a few minutes at Brookside and refuel at Katydid Junction, we're headed straight to Cold River.”

Scott and Johnny exchanged glances too. “How ironic is that?” Johnny whispered to his brother, “It must have something to do with us. I can feel it.” He received a nod from Scott.

Floyd, the engineer, asked, “Has this been cleared with the railroad?” Dessert was served by Mack and the burly engineer took a big piece of apple pie. A boy of about eleven, who was their fireman and the engineer's nephew, named Casey Jones, took another piece. He'd been out west visiting his extended family when the campaign had started up and his uncle had been assigned to engineer the train.

George dug through his stack of papers and handed Floyd the latest schedule. “Train orders straight from the dispatcher.”

“Well, I'll be durned,” said the engineer, reading the orders.  “Things sure have a way of changing. Seems, after the eastbound train passes, we have the right of way all the way to Cold River.” Looking over at Johnny, he said, “No more switch monkeying, boy.”

“Amen to that,” replied Johnny with a chuckle. “Those switches are heavy.”

Picking up the schedule the engineer had laid down on the table to eat his pie, Johnny quickly read it, taking note that Katydid Junction was only twenty miles east from Cold River.

“Hey, Doc, isn't Genesis a short ways from Cold River?”

“Why, yes. Fifteen miles southwest to be exact. This is the end of the line for me. I'll be debarking in Cold River and George's own physician, Jeff Turner, will be coming back aboard.”

“You'll get to see Murdoch then,” said Scott, pushing his plate away after eating his pie.

“I'm looking forward to it,” replied Banning, surprised at the mention of Murdoch's name and once again exchanging glances with the LT. Governor.

Catching the exchange, Johnny threw his napkin down on top of his pie, “Okay, I've had it. The jig is up. What do you two know that we don't? And don't give me any cock and bull story it's about my health.”

The doctor smiled and the LT. Governor sighed.

Dr. Banning said, “I'm going to our private car. If there's any doctoring that needs to be done, come and get me.”

“Chicken!” replied George, now looking peeved at Jake, the messenger, who swallowed his last piece of pie whole. He was riding back to Cold River with them on the train.

“Look, LT. Sir, Guv. There's nowhere in the rules that states a man can't talk to the party sendin out the parcel and there's no rule that says a courier can't talk to the peoples at the other end either. So, please understand Sir Guv. I'm only the messenger that brings yer mail.” He stood up and pulled out the makings for a cigarette. With shaking hands, he felt around his person for a match.

Johnny handed him one. “It's okay Jake,” sympathized Johnny, giving a solemn look to the LT. Guv. “No harm done. In fact you did us a favor.”

The LT. Governor swallowed hard, but then pulled himself together. He hadn't gotten this far in politics cowing down to people, least of all his friend's son. Murdoch would be first in line to kick him in the pants to remind him.  

Johnny ushered the messenger to the door, softly advising, “Why don't you have a smoke, then go check on your horse. Make sure he's happy in his stall.” The man left without another word. The engineer and his nephew were right behind him, with Floyd stating he needed to inspect the train.

That left Al, the governor's pressman, who suddenly decided he needed to take a walk with Mack, who had decided to check the emergency brakes. “Never know when ya gonna need them.”

Scott smirked at his brother, “Boy Johnny, you sure know how to clear a room.”

“Wouldn't be the first time, brother,” replied Johnny, taking out his gun and spinning the cylinder.

The two Pinkerton men got the hint, but were hesitant to leave.

George, taking pity on them, ordered, “Its all right men. Get some fresh air. Johnny and I are just going to trade a few words.” The men obediently stood up and left, leaving Victor Talbot.

“Mr. Talbot, ya gonna be the lone holdout?” asked Johnny, still tinkering with his gun.

“I pretty much know the story,” slyly insinuated Talbot, bringing a surprised look of horror to the LT. Guv's face. Both Lancers went on the offensive at the comment and George's reaction. Seeing the dislike on both brother's faces, Talbot back tracked, “I'm the LT. Governor's aide. It's my job to know all of his business.”

George sputtered, “Not all of it. Not my personal stuff!” He grabbed the glass of brandy that had been served with his dessert and swallowed the rest of it.

Johnny plainly said, while cocking his gun, “I don't like you very much Mr. Talbot. Now, get off this train and take a walk before I really plug you one.”

Mr. Talbot angrily threw down his napkin and stomped to the back door, slamming it as he stepped outside.

Johnny put his gun in his holster and sat back down at the table. His Madrid facade, which could make hardened gunfighters' quake in their boots, was firmly in place.

The LT. Governor, being friends with their father for a lifetime of years, took on Murdoch's facade.

Scott, watching George who was a kindred spirit of their father and Johnny who was a chip off the old man's block faceoff against each other, busted out chuckling, breaking both men's concentration. “If only Murdoch was here to see this. He'd…he'd take ya both out back to the wood shed.”

Johnny, not seeing the humor, snapped, “Whose side are you on?”

“Yours brother. But, as usual you're going about this the wrong way.”

The criticism earned Scott a heated glare from his brother.

Scott, not to be deterred, chuckled harder. “You forget, George here is on our side and I'm sure there's a good reason behind all…all this cloak and dagger stuff.”

Johnny leaned over to his brother and seriously said, “Scott, you've been reading way too much of that guy Sherlock Holmes. Cloak and dagger indeed.” Johnny removed the napkin off his pie, picked up his fork and started eating his dessert.

It was the LT. Governor's turn to chuckle. As the boys looked askance of him, he said, “One things for sure, Murdoch must never get bored with you two around.”

“Speaking of which,” interceded Scott, “why's our father in Cold River?”

Johnny lowered his chin and concentrated on his pie, inwardly grinning at how easily Scott had slipped the question into their conversation. Sneaky Scott, I'm proud of ya.

The LT. Governor studied the two sons of his best friend. Yes, Murdoch, I can see why you love these boys so much. You have a right to be proud of them and I know you'd skin me alive if I so much as give a hint as to why they're really on this train. Though Johnny's health had been the main reason, it had inadvertently provided the cover we needed for keeping them on board as long as we have. What to tell them? Oh, what a pickle.

Deciding honesty was the best policy, George simply said, “I'm not at liberty to discuss your father's business affairs.” He waited for the explosion. It wasn't long in coming. After all the time they'd spent together on the train, they had become a family and formality had all but disappeared.

Surprisingly, it was Scott who spoke up first, “With all due respect, Sir, you and Murdoch have been trading missives almost daily since we boarded this train.”

“And how do you know that?” asked the LT. Governor, in a dry tone of voice. He was trying to put Scott off the scent, but then his brother lifted his head and gave him a determined steely-eyed stare.

The tips of Scott's ears were tinged in red. “I've seen the stack of missives. I know that's the Lancer stationary, sitting in a drawer in your desk…I wasn't being nosey, just looking for a plain sheet of paper.”

“Did you read them?” asked George sharply, knowing this son wouldn't for his proper Boston upbringing would not allow it.

“No,” the word sounded affronted.

“Bull, I would have,” said the other son.

George grunted and had to grin for he expected nothing less of the man. “Yes, Johnny I believe you would.”

Johnny had the good grace to duck his head. “Well, how else do you find out anything around here when everything is so hush, hush?” He brought his head up and looked George straight in the eye.

“I understand your frustration. I know you hate being boxed in…”

Johnny, losing all patience, threw his fork down and stood up. With hands splayed on the table he bent towards the LT. Guv, “Tell me again why we're on this train and why you insist we stay on this train.” He leaned over further, nearly out of breath, “And while you're at it tell us what the difficulties at home are and why Murdoch sent both Scott and me on this wild goose chase to begin with? We both know the paperwork could've come by your courier. Jake seems to visit our father often enough. And anyone could've brought the gold ore up to Uppity to meet the train. Why is Murdoch keeping us away from the ranch?”

“Enough!” yelled George, standing up and leaning over the table with his hands splayed also. They were nose to nose, facing off again. The LT. Governor, being a Scotsman himself, decided it was time to pull rank. Murdoch had warned him Johnny would rake him over the coals if given the chance. Scott, who usually intervened when his brother's temper was out of control, was unusually quiet, meaning he wanted answers too. He couldn't blame them. He knew they were worried. He had to get control of the situation without giving the game away. Their lives were at stake and Murdoch was depending on him.

Nose to nose and eye to eye, the LT. Guv ordered in a commanding voice similar to Murdoch's, “Johnny Madrid Lancer sit down in that chair!”

Johnny sat.

The LT. Guv with fire in his eyes launched into his own tirade. “Johnny, you are here on this train because not that long ago you were flat on your back with a puke bucket doubling as your best friend. You had a severe case of food poisoning and a fever you nearly died from.” George paused, letting his words sink in. “Now, I might miss my guess, but by your pale coloring, lack of appetite and sleepless nights, you are still having some lingering effects from the illness. Am I not right?”

Sleepless? Only because of the nightmares…guns blazing.. . Scott… Johnny reluctantly nodded yes.  The man sees too much or did Doc Banning fill him in? They're like two peas in a pod. Of course, we're staying in the same train car…how long have we been living together? He didn't know. He'd lost track of all time. He spent so much time up in the engine he was actually used to living by train schedules now.

“You were only out of your sickbed a few hours when you got into a major fight with the Stryker gang, not to mention again that same night you got into another altercation, resulting in two broken ribs. You, my friend, were a train wreck. There was no way you were able to sit a horse, let alone ride one home. In fact, more than a few minutes ago you proved it to yourself, you still can't ride a horse. Am I not mistaken?”

Johnny nodded affirmative. He was beginning to see where this was going. He wanted answers and he was afraid he wasn't going to get them.

Johnny interrupted, in a deceptively calm voice, “Why did Murdoch really send that wire?”

Taken off track, George didn't answer.

Johnny fiddled with his coffee cup, found it empty and reached for the big silver pot on the table that had been delivered with the pie. He poured himself a cup and sipped it, waiting for the LT. Guv to answer his question.

When the answer didn't come, something clicked inside Johnny's mind. “It wasn't a fake wire in answer to Scott's plea.” Johnny pointed his finger as he talked, “Murdoch really wanted us on this train.”

Scott sucked in his breath. Johnny gave him the look of I'll get even later. Scott poured himself a brandy.

“There simply wasn't enough time for Murdoch to receive and return the telegram from Scott.” Johnny turned to his brother, “When exactly did you send that wire? I don't remember you leaving our room after Banning told you about my ribs.”

Scott sniped, “How would you know? You were snoring logs most of the afternoon.” He thought about that a minute, then added, “Of course, like Cal said, you sleep with your ears open.”

Johnny actually grinned.

Scott gave up the pretense, “I had one of the maids send it when she brought me lunch.”

Johnny turned his face back to George. “And Murdoch's wire just happened to land up with your daily correspondence?”

“Ah, Johnny, you are too perceptive for your own good sometimes. But, then you had to survive by your instincts most of your life, being a gunfighter and all.”

“So, what's so imperative we had to get on this train and why is Murdoch in Cold River?” asked Johnny in a hard voice.

Scott chimed in with, “And what's happening at the ranch and why can't we go home?”

Two sets of Lancer eyes watched his every move. This is harder than giving a speech before congress , thought George. “Boys, your father has never lied to you as you know. You are on this train for more than one reason though your health, Johnny, was the number one reason and still is. Murdoch is awaiting developments in Cold River. You will see him in a few hours...”

Hearing the east bound train approaching, George poured himself another brandy and slowly sipped it, never so thankful for an interruption. With a short whistle blast the train passed by rattling the windows, shaking the dishes and vibrating the floor as it barreled on down the track.

Their own train engine started building steam. Johnny knew Casey, being the fireman, would have shoveled coal into the firebox. Then he would go down and switch the track.

The LT Guv stood up as they heard voices and feet climbing the platform steps.

“You will have to ask your father these questions. I, for one, am done.” Seeing their downcast faces, Johnny's with a tinge of anger, he reached into his inner coat pocket and pulled out a letter. “Maybe this will take the sting out of the day's events,” commiserated George, handing Scott a letter from Cal. “It came enclosed with his Mother's correspondence to me. I surely look forward to having him as a son someday.” The letter had the desired effect. He could see a spark back in the Lancer brothers' eyes.

The car was becoming crowded and nosy with everyone re-boarding the train. The Lancer brothers followed George out the back door to their own train car, feeling the train moving onto the main track as they crossed over the platforms.

Johnny turned to Scott, “Don't read that till I get back in here.” He quickly walked to the back, opening the door to the platform and was surprised to see Casey had already switched the track back into place. Running for all he was worth, the boy came even with the handrail where Johnny leaned down and grabbed his arm, pulling him up onto the steps.

Out of breath, Casey said, “Thanks Johnny…Uncle Floyd must be in a hurry…to make good time…ya know how important it is to be on schedule.”

“Ya, I know, Casey. You gonna be an engineer like your uncle some day?”

“Hope too,” said the boy proudly as he hurried back through the train to the engine.

Johnny closed the door then settled crosswise onto his berth with his back against the wall and his feet propped on Scott's bed. His brother had a book propped open on the bed. He noticed the LT. Guv was sitting at his desk going over some paperwork and Dr. Banning was going through his medical bag as it sat on a table between two chairs

“What no poker game tonight?” asked Johnny, scratching at his stitches.

“Nope,” said Scott. “George has a speech to make in a couple of hours.”

Johnny had forgotten they were making a quick stop at Brookside. “Well, in that case, read Cal's letter.”

Before Scott could open the letter Dr. Banning stepped in between their berths with a small tray in his hand. Handing Johnny the tray, he said, “I need to take those stitches out.”

“Okay, Doc, have at her.”

Picking up a pair of scissors and some tweezers, Banning ordered, “Schooch to the edge of the bed.”

Johnny put his feet down in the aisle and moved to the edge of the bed like an obedient patient. Dr. Banning held the first knot with the tweezers as he clipped the thread just behind it. Putting the knot down on the tray, he proceeded with the tweezers to pull the catgut thread out of the skin of Johnny's cheek, then dropped the suture beside the knot on the tray. He methodically did the same with all the rest of the sutures. When he was done, he counted the knots and threads to make sure all were accounted for.

“Done. Not even a scar to boast about,” smiled the doctor. Scott grinned too, for he remembered what the doctor had said when he put them in.

Johnny got up and looked in the mirror, seeing a bunch of dots and dashes. He rubbed them, wanting them to disappear.

“Don't rub them or scratch at them,” ordered Banning. “They're healing. You'll have some small scabs in a day and before you know it, they'll be gone.”

“I don't know, doc. I kinda like having the Morse code on my face,” teased Johnny, sitting back down on his berth. “Okay, Scott, read the letter!”


Dear Scott and Johnny,

DANG! It's boring in Uppity Flats now that ya all are gone. I'm actually watchin the grass grow.


“Wait a minute,” complained Johnny, sitting forward. “What's he doin starting out with a slang term?”

Scott shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe that's how he feels.”

“Maybe I'm going to have to buy the kid a bar of soap,” griped his brother.

“Johnny. Since when do you care if Cal turns the air blue?”

“Since the moment he became my adoptive little brother…yours too if you want him.”

“Well, yes, I'd like that. When did all this happen?”

“When he…ah…saved me from the hayfield.”

“Oh, yeah,” recalled Scott. “You'd fallen asleep in a freshly razed hayfield, making it so you couldn't breathe.”

“I didn't do it on purpose…besides, I was only…”

“Only what?”

“Dang it all, Scott! I was napping! Okay?”

“Sounds like I need to buy my little brother a bar of soap.”

“Read the letter Scott!”

Scott stared at the next sentence, then asked, “What were you doing napping in the middle of a hayfield anyways?”

“It happened after the livery….I rode too far and got…sick…I remember putting my head down on Barranca's back and couldn't get back up. Next thing I know, Cal's yelling at me to get out of the hayfield.”

“It was horrifying, wasn't it?”

“What?”

“Those moments when you saw the blood all over my chest and you thought I was dead.” Scott dared not move. Please Johnny open up about the fight with Tom Stryker. Tentatively, he went on. “I heard the fear and pain in your voice…could only imagine the helplessness afterwards, the anger during your ride…”

Johnny picked at the coverlet on his bed. “Yes. It's right up there with the moment when I came across Murdock lying beside the stream at the South Mesa.” They sat in silence a few moments remembering. “Scott, I failed you that day.”

With a start, Scott realized his brother was serious. In a steady, comforting voice Scott replied, “No Johnny. You're wrong. You are only one man. Your responsibility that day was to protect a twelve year old boy and I might add, you did it very well.”

Johnny was as silent as a graveyard, head down, eyes shuttered. Scott couldn't tell if he was getting through to his brother or not. The last thing Scott wanted was for Johnny to feel responsible for anything that happened to him that day in the livery stable.

“It's not your fault, Johnny. It was way beyond your control. If you need to blame someone, blame the Strykers or blame me.” Johnny brought his head up and looked at him like he'd taken leave of his senses. “I should have shot Tom instead of breaking his nose. Of course, that would've brought the whole gang into the livery and we'd probably have never made it out alive.”

Scott worried the paper he was holding, crinkling the edges. Johnny still hadn't said anything more nor had his closed expression changed. Scott took a deep breath and tried again.

“We make our own decisions in life and are responsible for ourselves and our own actions. You might be a gun hawk, but you're not God. You can't control the events of another person's life. Heck, most the time you can't control what happens in your own life. It's just the way it is.”

“Ex-gun hawk,” murmured Johnny, waiting for his brother to get the jest and to quit picking at Cal's letter. He was comforted to know how Scott felt about him.

It took Scott a moment for the comment to register, for he was deep in the next line of thoughts, thinking what Murdoch would say to help his son.

Johnny caught Scott's eye and smiled, relieved to see the concern and worry lines disappear from his brother's face. “Promise me one thing, Scott.”

“What's that?”

“Don't ever leave me.”

Scott saw the smile on his brother's face, but caught the seriousness of the statement in Johnny's eyes. He wasn't just serious, he was dead serious.

“Only if you can promise me the same thing,” answered Scott, holding out his hand. “Deal?”

They shook hands.

“Deal.” Johnny relaxed, sitting back in his bed. “Now, finish Cal's letter.”


Nonchalantly, listening in to the Lancer brother's conversation, both the LT. Governor and Dr. Banning were relieved one problem had been resolved. They had talked this over many times during the past few days. Scott had taken his advice and done well by way of exclamation. He knew it came from the heart and was proud of Murdoch's son. Hopefully, now Johnny's nightmares would lessen.


Scott went back to reading the now dog-eared letter.

I have a new pet, but ma don't think it's appropriate. In fact, she says its too ripe to keep as a pet. I mean, it can't help herself if she stinks. I don't know why she stinks for she can't spray. I even gave her a bath and she didn't spray me. There must be something wrong with her sprayer. I named her Rose, though she doesn't smell like any flower I ever smelled. I thought about calling her Stinky or Stinker, but that is just plain dumb.

Scott had to quit reading for a moment for he was laughing too hard to see the words on the paper. Johnny was rolling in his berth, trying to protect his ribs from his own laughter.

The other two men, who were trying to give the Lancers some privacy, ended up snickering at first, then out right joined in with the laughter of the brothers. George tried to apologize for eavesdropping, but Scott waved him off. “This car is too small for that. We've heard your conversations more times than we can count.”

When he was able, Scott picked up the letter and began reading it one more time.

Oh, yeah, guys I have to mention from Sheriff Colter, he said to tell ya he tracked the Stryker gang down to the north passage where he lost them. They done split up, some going north and some going south. He thought they might be headin towards the Lancer ranch being ya got that wire and all about the north passage. Of course, they coulda been headin for Sir George's ranch too. Anyways, he contacted an old marshalling friend of his named Val Crawford. Said he was a U.S. marshal now down your way and not to worry for Val will look out for ya. Ma felt a little bit better about that, though she's still worried about all of ya.

Johnny cut in with, “How'd they know about the north passage?” Turning his blue eyes to the LT. Guv, who had a worried expression on his face, Johnny asked, “What kind of trouble are both of our ranches having? And does this have anything to do with that stockholder takeover?”

George put his pen in the inkwell. “Johnny, you've just hit the nail on the head.”

He could tell them this part of the story, just not all of it. How Johnny made the jump from the Strykers to the lone stockholder, he'd never know. Has to be that survival instinct of his. The LT. Governor took a deep breath and began to talk.

---7---

 

Brookside was a small dusty town, but full of life. They had arrived there just before sundown. It looked like the whole town turned out to hear the LT. Governor's speech about getting the Governor re-elected. George was on the back platform of their car, giving a speech worthy of the president. The Lancer boys were amazed how a speech could be so much alike, but so different in each town.

The Lancer brothers were standing by the stockcar, watching all the shenanigans that went with a whistle stop speech.

“What do you really think of this stockholder, what was his name?” asked Johnny, sucking on a licorice chew.  A girl had come by and given each of them a handful.

“We don't have a name. We only have the name of JV Tobb, owner of the shell company that owns 49% of the stock to our mine. The Pinkertons have to keep digging to find out more about Tobb for his name is probably an alias.”

“And this shell company does what?” Johnny didn't quite understand all the ends and outs of the stock market business. The LT. Guv had explained it some. Scott had understood it all, being his grandfather's businesses were involved with the paper stuff all the time. Shoot, he was still kicking himself for not reading Rico's, their foreman down at the Sonora Lancer mine, reports he sent up religiously to Murdoch.

“The shell company is a cover for another company or person who actually owns the stock shares. In fact, our mine's stock was the only asset listed under JV Tobb's ownership that the Pinkerton's could dig up.”

“That makes no sense,” said Johnny, popping another chew into his mouth. “Our mine isn't worth much. What did that assay report say, something about net worth was $58.00 a ton?”

“Yes, that was it. Glad to see you were paying attention, brother.” Scott received a punch in the arm from Johnny. “The assay report also stated we need to do a study. There were variances in the ore depending on where you pulled them from in the mine.”

“I just grabbed some here and there. I even cracked the wall a few times for samples, that's how I got this the first time around.” Johnny rubbed his cheek for emphasis. “Why would there be variances?”

“It's possible the mine is about to peter out. That might be why the owners decided to sell after the revolution.”

“And why we suckers got it so cheap.” Johnny took his hat off and wacked his knee with it. “What I don't get, is how the LT. Guv got bamboozled? I mean he did set it all up, didn't he?”

Scott chuckled, much to Johnny's consternation. Scott said, “You really weren't paying attention when this all got started were you?”

“If I remember right, I was out breaking horses at the time. You just said sign on the dotted line and I did.”

“Well, there's that.”

“So, what did I miss?”

“It seems when Victor Talbot first was assigned to the LT. Governor, who was just starting to campaign for the Governor, they were reading the morning stock newspapers. Talbot brought up he knew someone who wanted to unload a mine and he had asked if George knew anyone who might be interested in getting in on the ground floor.”

“That would've been us.”

“Well,” said Scott. “Yes, but George's ranch needed the extra money too. Remember we're in a drought and last winter we didn't get near enough rain.”

“So,” said Johnny, putting on his hat and watching Mr. Talbot walk up to the Western Union telegraph window of the train depot. “The LT. Guv jumped on it, bringing us along for the ride.” A thought passed through his mind. “Who owned the Sonora Lancer mine before us?”

“Don't know, but Talbot probably knows. He's the one that actually put the deal together.”

Johnny noticed Talbot filling out a few forms and paying for them. “I wonder how many towns we're passing by before we get to Cold River. It didn't seem like that many were on the schedule.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Scott, perplexed. Johnny nodded towards the depot window. “Oh, that. He said earlier he had to notify all the whistle stop towns we were going straight through, so they wouldn't be put out.”

They both watched as Mr. Talbot finished his business and turned in their direction. Seeing the Lancer brothers standing by the stockcar, he turned to walk in a different direction. Scott yelled out, “Mr. Talbot!”

The aide stopped in his tracks, reluctantly turning their way and walked over to the brothers. Grumbling, he said, “Three towns we're by-passing and for what?”

“Sorry sir,” commiserated Scott. “But, I wonder if you could help us?”

“Do what?”

“Do you remember the name of the previous owners of the Sonora Lancer mine?”

Talbot seemed surprised at the question. “Hmm, no. No I don't recall. It'd be in your paperwork though.” He turned towards the work car platform and boarded the train.

Johnny sarcastically, “Doesn't remember? He puts a big deal together like that with the LT. Guv's name on it and doesn't remember? Bull sh…feathers!” A group of young saloon women walked by and the boys nodded their heads. One handed each of them a horn of beer. “Much obliged,” said Johnny.

“Nice friendly town. Nothing like Uppity Flats,” smiled Scott, watching the women walk away,

“PFTT!” from Johnny before he drank half his beer. “Ya think the LT. Guv will remember?”

“We could ask him when he's done with his speech.”

“Scott, how many papers did Talbot write out for those wires?”

“I didn't notice. He said something about three towns though. Why?”

“He filled out five.”

“So what? He's a busy man. He works for the government…excess remember?”

Johnny smiled, “Yeah, there is that.”

The LT. Governor finished up his speech and came down into the crowd to shake hands, working his way to where the Lancers were standing. “Whew, quite a crowd for a small town.” Spying the boys' beer, he asked, “Got any more of that? I'm dying of thirst.”

“Dance hall girl walked by. I'll go find her,” said Johnny.

Scott asked, while they were waiting, “Sir, do you recall who owned the Sonora Lancer mine before us?”

“Not off the top of my head. Talbot would know.”

“We asked him and he said he didn't remember.”

“Strange, he never forgets anything like that. The man's a walking text book. Is it important?” A group of people came by and shook hands with the LT. Governor.

Johnny followed in their wake with a flagon of beer and handed it to the LT. Guv.

“Oh thanks, Johnny.” George chugged half of it before coming up for air. “Mighty fine stuff. Speech makin always makes me thirsty.  Now let's see. What were we talking about?”

“Previous owners of the Sonora Lancer mine,” reminded Scott, finishing his own beer. “Johnny has an idea.”

“Like I said, I don't recall, but I could wire my office tonight and we'd have our answer by the time we get to Cold River in the morning.” He gave Johnny his empty beer mug and walked over to the Western Union window.

The train whistle blew and it was time to pull out. “I'm riding in the engine for the last time,” said Johnny. “Floyd's even letting me take her to Katydid Junction.” Excited, he handed both beer mugs to Scott and took off for the engine.

Scott handed off the empty mugs to a kid, who was pulling a wagon and collecting all the glasses, as he waited for the LT. Governor. His father's friend was quite a man. He could see why George and Murdoch had hit if off so well. They had a lot in common. The LT. Governor turned and shook hands with a group of youngsters with their proud parents standing by. He made his way back to Scott where together the men boarded the train.

Johnny was in his glory. How many cowboys get to drive a steam engine? This was the next best thing to being on Barranca's back. Lot easier on the ribs too.

Johnny let off the brake. He moved the Johnson bar forward and pulled back on the throttle. The Engine built up combustion in the boiler from the coals Casey had shoveled in. He could hear clouds of steam escaping the drain cocks onto the cylinders. Johnny pulled down on the whistle cord, giving two long blasts. The engine started to move forward…chug…chug…chug…off from the switchyard to the main track…chug…chug…chug…whistle blew long and hard, chug…chug. Chug, chug, chug, chug…soon they were flying down the tracks.

---8---

 

Must be Katy did 'er and disappeared , thought Johnny as he eased the train under the water tank named Katydid Junction. The place was dark and desolate with a line of thick trees separating the small depot from the town behind it. Is that even a town? Looks like ya could be out of it before you were even in it. Floyd was outside and before long Johnny heard the waterspout come down and fill the tender.

 Johnny glanced up at the full moon. Pretty bright, but then again its four in the morning . Floyd had sent his nephew to bed hours ago, since Johnny was playing engineer tonight. When the water tender was full, he heard the spout being pulled up and he eased the throttle a bit and lined up with the coal tower. The coal chute came down and he could hear the rocks tumbling down into the other tender box behind the engine. They hit the empty iron tender with a banging sound, echoing into the cab of the engine.

It was a few moments before Johnny realized the banging sounds were bullets, being fired from a round of guns. Windows were shattering, wood was splintering and pings from the train wheels could be heard above the coal emptying out of the tower.

Johnny set the brake and dove out of the engine cab on the opposite side of the barrage. Staying close to the train for cover, with his Colt in hand, he ran down the length of the train towards the end car. Passing by each platform, he could see the blazes arching from the guns in the dense tree line.

Scott was in the middle of a delicious dream when he was rudely awakened by exploding gunfire and breaking glass. For a brief moment he thought he had fallen into one of Johnny's nightmares, instead he found himself in one of his own.  Covered in wood particles, broken glass and smelling sulfur, he rolled out of bed onto the floor. Stocking footed and shirtless he felt the broken slivers bite into his skin as he crawled towards the end of his bed where his gun was hanging on the mirror of the washstand. Now I know why Johnny leaves his gun under his pillow, his ace in a hole. Reaching the dry sink, he quickly stood up, grabbed his gun belt and ducked back down just as another round of gunfire hit the train rafters.

George and Doc Banning nearly collided heads when they dove out of bed. Doc went for his medical bag where he had a Derringer, and George rolled for his pistol which he kept in the top drawer of his desk. Pulling the gun from the drawer and annoyed with his shaking hands as he checked the load, George couldn't help but think of Murdoch and what it was going to do to his friend if he failed. Slamming the desk drawer shut, he noticed the hamsters were in a dither, running around in circles in their cage.

“Poor things, they're probably scared out of their minds.” Like me. Quickly, he scooped up the cage and set it under his desk.

Feeling a little better now that they were all armed, the men peeked out the broken windows and caught site of a row of blazing gunfire.

A moment later, George yelled, “Incoming!” as a round of fire power flashed and lit up the sky. The bullets hit the upper part of the train, tearing up the roof and destroying what was left of the windows.

At the same time, the door burst open and in ran Victor Talbot. The two Pinkerton agents were right behind him when they were cut down by gunfire.

Reaching the coupler between the work car and their Pullman, Johnny found both Pinkerton men, either unconscious or dead, on each side of the car's platform. The doors to both cars were wide open. A fully dressed Victor Talbot was in the Pullman car and the other three men Jake, Mack and Al, along with the boy Casey, were all in their long johns, crouched on the floor in the work car. Jake, holding his holster, had his Colt and Mack had an old Spencer Rifle pointed out the window.

Johnny yelled, “Now don't either of ya be a hero! Keep your head down and only shoot after you see a blaze from a gun.” Turning to the Pinkerton men he noticed one moaning and feebly moving. Noticing Talbot by the door, he yelled, “Talbot! Pull him in!”

Talbot ignored Johnny and went deeper into the Pullman car. Johnny was about to climb up the steps, when Scott, without a shirt, reached out and pulled the wounded man inside, where Dr. Banning immediately began treatment. The other Pinkerton agent started thrashing on the platform, holding his leg. Al, who was laying on top of Casey, scrambled over to the doorway and grabbed the man by his collar and dragged him inside.

Johnny mentally counted everyone but could not find the engineer, nor had he physically seen the LT. Guv. He must be all right or Scott would've said something when he pulled Pete inside.

Johnny ducked under the Pullman car for cover and was between the tracks, behind the massive train wheels. He and the other men from the train opened fire on the men behind the trees. The sound was deafening with the coal still falling from the chute.

More bullets rained from the tree line, hitting just underneath the train and chewing up the trim of the car. Lying flat on his belly, Johnny felt the splinters of wood rain down on him as bullets whizzed dangerously close to his head and body when he peeked out and returned fire.


Back in the train car, Talbot whined, “It's got to be a kidnapping.”

“No one's kidnapping the LT. Governor as long as I'm on this train,” snapped Scott, scanning the depot. He knew his brother would feel the same way. Taking advantage of the lull in gunfire, Scott grabbed his brown shirt off the bed and boots from the floor and put them on.

“It's not the LT. Governor they've come for,” snipped Talbot.

“Shut up, Talbot!” ordered Banning.

George looked at Dr. Banning with doubt on his face, “They wouldn't go that far…would they?”

“I don't know,” replied Dr. Banning worried, as he applied pressure to the chest wound on the Pinkerton agent. He had the man flat on the floor between their berths. He was unconscious and bleeding copiously.

“Maybe you should tell them,” suggested Talbot, with a strange glint in his eyes. “Before they kill you all.”

“Tell us what?” flatly asked Scott, having figured out the stilted conversation was about him and his brother.

No one answered. The silence was telling in itself. Scott drew his own conclusions based on what he'd seen and heard the last few days on the train. Looking straight at George, he declared in amazement, “We're under your protection. You and Murdoch never thought they'd buck the system, the LT. Governor's position would be secure…”

George didn't say anything. He threw Talbot a warning look. I'm not throwing in the towel. If only Talbot would shut up. How did he find out so much? Had to be snooping is my guess. Damn busy body anyways.

Scott went on. “It started that day in the hotel room, in Uppity, when you received the wire from Murdoch. You said it yourself. Murdoch entrusted our safety to you by sending that wire and come hell or high water we were going to be on that train.”

The LT. Governor kept his poker face. He'd given his word and they weren't going to find it out from him.

Scott scanned the shadowy horizon. All was quiet for the moment. He wished Johnny was in the car and not below it. He wondered what Johnny's thoughts would be. His brother had quite a way of cutting to the quick.

Talbot cackled, “ It started long before the hotel room. There's a man leading Murdoch Lancer on a merry chase. The man is not giving up until one or both of you boys are dead. But, don't worry, there's time yet. The game has to be played out.”

“TALBOT!!” yelled George, totally incensed. He would have tackled the man and beat him senseless, but another round of fire power erupted, shaking the train as the bullets hit.

 

Watching the volley of gunplay, Johnny counted ten flashes of gunpowder. They had aimed high again. Odd? Why aren't they shooting to kill? They took out the Pinkerton agents easy enough. What do they want? Could it be a robbery? We have nothing of value on board. A kidnapping? Do they want the LT. Guv? Are they afraid they'll kill him by accident? Why the show of power if they don't want us dead? Are they trying to waste our ammunition or what?

Johnny counted his bullets, emptied the spent ones and reloaded . Bloody hell, not enough. There's an extra box in my saddlebags. By memory, he did a quick inventory of the guns on board . Let's see…Scott and I have our Winchesters, there's ammo in our tack, Scott has his Colt, the LT. Guv has one in his desk drawer, Jake had one on his person, Mack has a .50 caliber Spencer that can kill at a mile and we have the two guns from the Pinkerton Agents. He smiled. Odds are looking better.

The coal chute slammed shut. The silence was strangely unsettling. Johnny, familiar with the workings of the coal tower, looked up and saw Floyd quietly drop down to the ground. He must have been up there the whole time, witnessing the havoc to his train. Johnny followed the engineer's shadow as he slipped under the train. In a few moments he was beside Johnny under the Pullman car.

“I saw you climb under the car when the firin started,” huffed the engineer. “I got a good looksee from the tower. Moon's light is just right. There's twelve of ‘em, two ain't firing their guns. The leader is the big one. He's huge, a regular giant.”

Great , thought Johnny. Like that's all we need. “Did we wound anyone?”

“Yeah, ya did. Looked like one got it in the leg, the other maybe in the hand, by the way he was shaking his arm and caterwauling. The big guy just took him out with a sucker punch.”

“Why'd he do that?”

 “To shut him up, be my guess,” said Floyd, shaking his head. “I've seen mean before, but this beats all.”

Johnny scanned the trees. All was quiet. Too quiet.

“What's the plan of action?” asked Floyd.

“Ya got a gun?”

“Nope, never needed one on the train.”

“Crew have any guns other than Mack's Spencer?”

“None that I know of.”

“Know how to use one?”

“Yup, was in the war between the states.”

“Here, take mine. I'm going to the stockcar to grab a couple of rifles.” But, before Johnny could leave a deep voice called out from the line of trees.

“You all on the train! We want to parley!”

Johnny called out, “Okay parley. What do you want?”

“Who are we talkin to?”

“Johnny Madrid!”

There was a long pause.

Johnny smiled and took back his Colt, sending Floyd to the stockcar for the rifles.

“We mean you no harm.”

“Could've fooled me!”

“All we want is two men on that there train.”

“What two men?” Johnny had a bad taste in his mouth. The LT. Guv and who? Not that fool Talbot?

“Their names are Lancer!” A pause, then, “Ya got five minutes.”

Johnny heard feet pounding down the steps. A moment later Scott joined him under the car. Scott brought him up to date about the happenings above and Johnny gave an account on the defense situation.

Floyd came back with the rifles and heard the Lancer boys hashing things out from under the train car.

“Johnny, I got the ammo.”

“Toss it under the car, then take the rifles and go inside the work car with the crew.”

Floyd knelt down by the steps and tossed the ammo to Johnny, who deftly caught the box. He quickly turned back to the steps, taking them two at a time, and joined his men.

“Loyal man we got there, Scott,” said Johnny, refilling his gun belt.

“Nice crew too,” agreed Scott, replenishing his gun belt also. “What are we going to do?”

“Nothing much we can do unless we want to see all our friends get hurt defending us.”

“What kind of enemy does Murdoch have that he's gone to all these lengths to protect us?”

“What difference? An enemy is an enemy no matter what shape or form.”

Johnny started moving out from under the train, inadvertently scraping the broken ribs in his back against the bottom of the railroad car. He immediately rolled onto his right side, sucking in air. “Oh man…hurts like the dickens.”

There was nothing Scott could do except give advice. “Take short breaths like Banning told you.”

Johnny tried. It didn't help much. He just had to wait until the pain subsided enough so he could sit up. Once that was accomplished, Scott helped him to his feet and then made him sit on the train steps by the coupler. 

“Times up! What's it going to be?” yelled the guy with the deep voice. For some reason the man's voice seemed closer than before, and louder.

The LT. Guv came out to the platform, took one look at Johnny's pale face and assumed command. “Get your brother inside!” he ordered Scott. To the engineer, who had just handed him the rifles, he commanded, “Get this train moving.”

“Yes Sir,” replied Floyd, turning and running through the car to the other door. He made it to the engine cab only to have a man step out and point a gun at his face.

Johnny had just turned around and was slowly negotiating the steps when Scott stepped down a step and reached for his forearm to help him up the steps.

The LT. Governor had gone back inside the car with the rifles and Talbot had come out. A step above Scott, Talbot reached into his coat pocket and brought out a gun, jamming it into Scott's neck. Hanging onto Scott's shirt collar, he pulled Scott back up the step and across the platform to the other side with Johnny following in their wake steadily reaching for his gun.

In the oily voice Johnny hated, Talbot ordered, “Both of you, take off your gun belts and throw ‘em in the car.”

Much too both Lancers' dismay, the man Talbot had taken on a whole different persona. A cold, ruthless, self-assured man now stood before them.

Since there was a gun pointed at his neck, Scott very carefully took off his gun belt and tossed it inside the car next to the unconscious Pinkerton agent.

Johnny had hesitated in taking off his gun. Talbot moved his gun hand, which held a small caliber pistol and at point blank range shot Scott in the left foot. His brother collapsed in a heap at Johnny's feet. The bullet had gone through the foot and into the floor board.

The men in both cars ran to the door, but Talbot held them off with his gun pointed at Scott's head. A very large, well-muscled man, dressed in black, who Johnny was sure was the giant Floyd had told him about, boarded the train behind Talbot.

“Trouble?” he asked in a deep voice.

“None that I can't handle,” replied Talbot. In a voice of authority, he ordered, “Round everybody up and get them off this train.” He pointed to Johnny, “Except him.”

“Where's the Lancers?”

In a tone cold as ice, he answered, “You're looking at them.”

“Where's Madrid?”

“You're looking at him.”

The giant looked at Scott's blue, pained filled eyes, then over to Johnny's icy, blue eyes. The Johnny Madrid presence was in full view.

“Like the pink shirt,” seriously said the giant. Turning to Talbot he asked, “Ya going to make him toe the line?”

“Undoubtedly.”  

“My advice to you Madrid, do what he says. I hate to have to mess up that pink shirt of yours.”

Johnny didn't respond though he had a million questions on his mind.

“Now, I won't ask again,” reminded Talbot. “Drop the gun belt in the car. You see, we only have to get you where we're going. It doesn't matter what shape you're in when we get there. The boss man only wants you alive.”

Johnny reluctantly complied by putting his gun belt on the floor inside the Pullman car. He noticed the LT. Guv and Dr. Banning were being herded out the back door to the staging ground in front of the coal tower by two hefty men. Cowboys, miners, guns for hire? The Pinkerton agent was still lying on the floor either unconscious or dead. He couldn't tell which.

Talbot reached inside the work car door and picked up his bulging saddlebags and a horse quirt. They exited the train, with Johnny helping Scott down the steps, to where all the other men, including the boy Casey, were standing disarmed.

“Timothy,” said Talbot to the giant, “Madrid's your responsibility. Don't trust him for a minute. He's a slippery one and as you know the key to the whole game. Keep your eyes on him at all times.”

Two big buckskin horses were brought up to the train.

“Only two horses?” asked Talbot, displeased.

“That's all the boss man sent,” replied the giant.

“Hmm, there's been a change of plans. My job here is done. Mr. Madrid here was starting to figure it out and they'll know soon enough when they get the wire on who owned the Sonora Lancer mine before them. I'll take one horse. The Lancers can ride double.” At the LT. Governor surprised expression, he said, “You think I didn't see you send the telegram?”

George didn't give him the satisfaction of an answer.

Snidely, Talbot boasted, “It's what you've been paying me for. Too keep a step ahead of you.”

The giant wasted no time in scooping Scott up like a small child by the back of the waist and slamming him down on the saddle. Scott lost all the color he had. His foot throbbed and he could feel the blood flooding his boot and draining through the hole in the sole.

The giant ordered one of two men covering them with a gun, “Matt! Tie his hands to the horn. Make sure they're tight,”

When it was his turn, Johnny knew it was going to hurt, so he took a deep breath and clenched his teeth when he felt himself lifted into the air. He too was slammed down hard behind Scott. Pain vibrated up his back and down his left leg, making him light-headed for some time. His hands were roughly tied around Scott's waist. Then to his horror, his right foot was tied to Scott's right foot and secured to the stirrup. One misstep from the horse and we're done for. The other foot was tied the same way. Trussed up like a turkey ready to be delivered to the chopping block.

“Now, if'n you boys keep your bazoo shut, I won't gag you. Ya hear?”

 Johnny, with fire in his eyes, nodded his head yes as did Scott.

“Good. We'll get along real fine like.”

The giant put a big hand around the back of Johnny's neck. “Son, I know'd you're the angry one. Heck, I've heard stories all up and down and around the border towns about you.” He moved his hand down to Johnny's sore ribs and felt the wrappings, thumping with his middle knuckle along the bone until he got a noticeable reaction from Johnny. This time Johnny couldn't hide the pain nor could he sit still. He bit the inside of his lip, hard, swallowing blood to keep from crying out. I made it through a Mexican prison, I can make it through this.

“You're one tough hombre, Johnny Madrid. But, I'm afraid this trip is going to be a bit rough on you.” Laughter followed the statement from the giant, his men, and most of all from Talbot who seemed to be enjoying Johnny's torment immensely.

Dr. Banning stepped in, not amused. “Mr. Talbot, you have wounded men. Would you like me to attend them before you go?”

The giant was still by the horse holding the Lancer brothers. Dr. Banning walked over to him, standing as close as possible to Scott and Johnny. “I don't know where you're going, but you don't want those wounds infected,” he nodded to Scott's foot where the blood was covering the horse's side, “or bleeding, leaving a trail, do you?”

Talbot replied, “The wounds can go unattended. It's what the men get for being careless.” Turning to the LT. Governor, he said, “It's been a pleasure working with you. Tell Murdoch Lancer to head for Genesis when you see him in Cold River.” Then he tacked on, “Dr. Banning, nice little family you have there. I hope they stay healthy.  Now, it's time to go. Can't keep the boss waiting.” He kicked his horse in the side and went to the head of the line where most of his already mounted men waited.

The giant grabbed the reins of the Lancer's horse and mounted his big bay stallion. The rest of the men assigned to the task of guarding the Lancers followed suit.

While the men were getting on their horses, Dr. Banning slipped his Derringer into Johnny's boot, hoping his friend would get to use it. Johnny nodded ever so slightly.

Talbot's group of roughnecks pulled out with their prize captives, leaving a subdued group of men behind. 

---9---

 

Talbot set a grueling pace under the moonlit night sky. There was no talking, only hard riding. The men seemed to be in a hurry and stopped only long enough each time to rest and water the horses. The Lancer brothers were kept on their horse and not given any water.

Scott knew the moment Johnny had lost consciousness. His body relaxed and his head came down hard on Scott's shoulder with Johnny's face turned towards his neck.  Given the condition of his ribs, his brother had stayed upright behind Scott longer than he thought was possible. Must be the Lancer stubbornness.

Though he had been expecting Johnny to pass out, when the time came Scott's heart still skipped a beat and then sped up to pound in his ears. Forcing himself to relax by taking deep breaths, Scott was then able to think more rationally.

Earlier in the week he and Dr. Banning had been sitting on the back platform steps of their train car, chewing the fat in a depot switchyard, waiting for a train to come in so their train could go out. They had watched Johnny holding his ribs as he climbed aboard the engine cab. Scott had asked Dr. Banning what to do if his brother should ever pass out or puncture a lung. Never dreaming it could come true, Scott was thankful he had listened carefully.

Check and see if any blood is coming from his ears, nose or mouth. Out of the corner of his eye Scott observed his brother's face. No blood that I can see. Of course, his hair is covering his ears. His face, what I can see of it, looks pasty. He has Cal's description of dead but not dead, look to him. Can a person die and you not know it?

A moment of panic overtook Scott, causing his heart to speed up again. A shudder went through him and he realized he was cold, but his brother was warm where their bodies touched. Okay, he's not dead. Get a grip

How is he breathing? Hear any breath sounds? Gurgling?

Scott leaned back and tilted his ear towards Johnny's mouth as far as he could, but Johnny's mouth was closed, and besides the horses were making too much noise galloping for Scott to hear anything. He got a strange look from the giant, who frowned in disproval at his movements.

Check his pulse and respirations.

Well, he didn't have his hands free to check a pulse, nor could he watch his brother breathe. The horse jostled them and Johnny's face slid deeper into the curve of Scott's neck. He could feel Johnny's warm breath on his skin. It gave him an idea. Scott estimated fifteen seconds, then tried to count the number of times he felt Johnny's breath on his neck. He had to start over a couple of times for the horse's stride threw his count off. They had to be steady respirations. Finally, he got the number five (give a breath or so) then he had to multiply it by four, which equaled twenty.  Dr. Banning had given him an estimated scale to go by on the respirations and pulses. He's breathing 20 times a minute.  A little fast, but not bad for a man with broken ribs. Scott breathed a sigh of relief. Johnny was breathing at a steady rate. His brother's limp body was leaning against his back and he was feeling little or no pain. So much better than when we'd first started out.

Johnny's breathing had been ragged when they first hit the trail and he had been constantly shifting his weight, trying to find a more comfortable position. His body had broken out in a cold sweat, soaking them both, as he tried to stifle the moans of pain, which were low enough that only Scott could hear.

The worst moments were when the horse broke his stride, coming down hard on his hoofs, jarring both riders. Johnny's arms would inadvertently tighten painfully around Scott's own ribs. Scott could practically feel the spasms of pain shoot through his brother's body, as Johnny stiffened and ducked his forehead in the back of Scott's neck to keep the other men from seeing his distress.

It was during these times Scott would take the risk and whisper, “Breathe Johnny just breathe.”

“Trying,” came the murmur. Not moving his head off Scott's shoulder, Johnny would from time to time ask, “How's…your…foot?”

“Fine.”

It was all they dare say, for the giant was ever watchful. But, the words gave them both comfort and encouragement.

Scott's foot would go numb until he rubbed it against the stirrup. Then, it had a life of its own. He thought the bleeding might have stopped or at least slowed to a trickle. He was sure the bullet had hit the fleshy part of the inside of his foot. The gun had been a small caliber, so he wasn't sure if a bone had been broken or not.  He wouldn't know until he could get his boot off and examine his foot.

The giant, riding beside them, leaned over from his horse, bringing Scott out of his thoughts. “He pass out yet? He's got a lot of gumption.”

With much bitterness, Scott sharply answered, “Yes.”

The giant back-handed Scott on the right side of his face, hitting his cheekbone hard. “Watch your tone of voice. Boy. I don't like sass and I especially don't like my orders disobeyed. You keep your lip hobbled. No more jawing betwixt you.”

Scott secretly wondered what he'd do if he found the Derringer in Johnny's boot.

---10---

 

The band quit playing in mid-song, instruments dying out one at a time as the disheveled Governor's train limped into the switchyard at Cold River Station.

“That's the sorriest looking bunch of…of…” Jelly, for once, didn't know how to describe the solemn, too-quiet group of men as they debarked from the shot-up, windowless train. A few of the town's men carried the wounded Pinkerton agents to the doctor's office.

Al, the pressman, immediately declared, “We were bush-wacked. They kidnapped two of our boys. There was nothing we could do. We were out gunned and out manned!” Actually, the press agent knew they weren't, but it sounded good and it was always better to play on people's sympathies to get a vote.

Murdoch closed his eyes and bowed his head, taking the pain silently.

The LT Governor waved to the crowd and politely stated, “I'm not letting them cow me. Under the circumstances, I have to take care of this matter first. Their lives might depend on it. I will speak to you all later. Any questions, Al, my pressman, will handle them. Please excuse me.”

George made a beeline over to Murdoch where both men looked around for a private place to talk. They chose the stockcar with the horses. Jelly followed them inside with Dr. Banning, who seemed worried and kept looking around. At the side door of the stockcar, he said, “I'll be back in a few minutes. I need to find my wife and son first.” He took off towards the station master's building.

George, being a politician, never ran out of words to say, but this time nothing came to mind that would comfort his best friend. “Murdoch,” he swallowed over the lump in his throat, “I…I have no excuses. They just plain out foxed us.”

“My sons?” It was all Murdoch could get out through his clogged throat.

George gained a fascination for his feet, then slowly brought his eyes up to Murdoch's. “They, ah, shot Scott in the foot.” At Murdoch's angry scowl, he quickly added, “I think he's okay.”

“You think he's okay?”

“He didn't lose consciousness. They put him on a horse with Johnny behind him.”

Murdoch blanched, “They put Johnny, on a horse, with broken ribs?”

“Yes.”

“What are they trying to do? Inflict more pain? Kill him?” growled Murdoch, now pacing the floor. “You know he's the one they've singled out to get to me!”

“Yes, Murdoch,” agreed George, not pointing out that Murdoch had mentioned it in his last missive.

“Hurt my son. Hurt me. Isn't that how the old adage goes?”

“Something like that,” mumbled George. “Look, maybe they didn't know about his ribs…” the LT. Governor thought about that a second, remembering how the giant had zeroed in on Johnny's back. “Then again, maybe they did.”

“How's that George?” boomed Murdoch, still pacing.

Talk about your mama bear protecting her cubs . “Murdoch, Talbot was in on it,” declared George, still kind of in shock. “He knew everything.”

“Well, that explains much,” sighed Murdock. “It's how they stayed a step ahead of us.” He took his hat off and slapped his thigh hard, making even the horses start.

His initial anger finally spent, Murdoch reached out and squeezed his friend's shoulder, “It's not your fault…He's changed the rules.”

 

It was finally out in the open. No more beating around the bush. Murdock could get straight to the point now. The attack on the train changed the rules of the game.  His sons were missing. He could enlist help now, even get the law involved.

Murdoch's biggest question was, why ? Why after all this time is he bringing it out into the open? No one knew the particulars except Jelly, George and Dr. Banning, for it involved him too. Why do they want a gold mine that's about to peter out? At least, we now know the lone stockholder and the man behind these ridiculous notes is the same person. He as much as said so when he demanded the stock in exchange for one of my sons. Now, all we have to do is find out the real identity of the person who owns the shell company. Will he want the ranch too, in exchange for my sons? And above all, why does he want me to choose only one son? One son to do what?

  For months now he'd been getting cryptic notes, “Choose one son. Only one or pay the price.” At first he didn't even take it seriously, thinking it was a prank or a sick idea of a joke. He wrote back as instructed, “Not on my life will I choose one son over another.” Thus, the game had started. It was tit for tat for a while until serious incidents started happening on the Lancer ranch, then on the LT. Governor's ranch and finally in the small town of Genesis.

The three men were linked and the next step of the game came to Murdoch by mail. Hand over the Sonora Lancer mine. Choose one son, only one or pay the price.

Subtle threats followed Dr. Banning's family and friends. Patients came in with unexplained injures, “I know I put that rake away, It shouldn've been where I stepped on it, or the bull got out of the pasture. He about skewered me.”

While campaigning by Genesis, the LT. Governor's own physician, Jeff Turner, had broken a leg when his horse became spooked and threw the doctor into the gravel. It was then he and Dr. Banning had exchanged places with Dr. Turner promising to keep an eye on Banning's family.

Leah and her son Cal were brought into the mystery, according to Murdock's latest note ordering him to ask George about their welfare. George was sweet on Leah and had offered her a job at his ranch, so she'd be near him and he could court her. Mother and son also had a genuine friendship with his sons. Is this another way of hurting my sons? It had only been a few weeks ago that they had all met. How had the man known so fast? Had to be Talbot sending telegrams to someone at this end. But to who?

As for Murdoch, happenings had been evident on Lancer also. Fences in the north pasture had been cut, beef and horses stolen. A creek had been dammed up, a water hole poisoned with arsenic. He, himself, pushed out of the hayloft.  

The threats in the notes became more violent against his sons, prompting him to send them on a wild goose chase to get them away from the ranch. Even then, the missives continued, ridiculing him about the Rurales chasing Johnny through Mexico. Taunting him on how easy it had been to put poisonous mushrooms in his son's food. The man bragged about the drugged coffee, which either son could have drunk. With relish, he described the fight between Johnny and Mr. Becket, who broke his son's ribs. Always the notes seemed to be one step ahead of him and the others, often arriving before Jake could deliver the LT. Governor's missives.

Each note always ended the same, “Choose one son, only one or pay the price .” It was always signed, “The Man .”

 

Barranca reached over his stall and nosed Murdoch on his shoulder. Absently, Murdoch reached up and patted the horse's neck. “Miss Johnny?” he asked. “I miss him too.”

Jelly was in the back of the stall, pitching fresh hay into the manger. He watched and just shook his head at Murdoch's worried countenance. I swear, the man's aged ten years since the boys been gone. That no good, side-winding, scoundrel. If I ever get my hands on him, I'll…I'll think of something…that's for sure or my name ain't Jelly B Hoskins.” He sniffed into his shirt-sleeve.

Murdoch asked the LT. Governor, “Did Talbot leave any messages?”

“Said for you to head to Genesis. I'm going with you. I told Al to go back to Sacramento without me. After the attack on our train and the kidnapping in Katydid, we telegraphed all the proper authorities. Val Crawford and the Pinkertons are on their way here. We'll find them.” Ducking his head, George added, “Talbot threatened Ted's family too.”

Murdoch just nodded and rubbed his chin. “Probably wouldn't have mattered if I'd sent the boys away or not. They'd have gotten them one way or another.” He turned to his best friend. “You gave them your protection. I know you did your best to keep them from harm's way. I'm grateful.”

“Humph,” replied the LT. Governor, “Too bad it wasn't enough. Talbot did say something strange about Johnny being the key. You have any idea what he meant by that?” asked George, sitting down on a bale of hay. He pulled out a cigar, then thought better of it and put it back in his pocket.

Jelly went to the next stall and took care of Scott's horse, listening in quietly.

Still standing by Barranca's stall, Murdoch answered, “No, but this morning I received a note under my hotel room door stating I forfeited my right to choose. A checker game will settle the outcome for one. He wants the stock from you and the Lancers in exchange for the winner. He told me he'd send me instructions later, so that makes one son expendable.”

“No,” cried Jelly, almost knocking over the water bucket as he latched onto the stall's boarded wall. “They won't just outright kill one of em…will they?”

In a quiet voice, Murdoch said, “I don't know, Jelly.” Murdoch turned and leaned his forehead against Barranca's neck. “I couldn't choose. What right does the man have to make me choose one son over another? How would I ever face either of them if I'd have chosen one? How would I ever look the surviving son in the eye again?”

“Boss, don't even think that way. We'll get ‘em back.” Jelly sniffed loudly, not bothering to hide the noise this time. “We'll get ‘em back,” he repeated. “We have to,” moaned Jelly, angrily pitching hay into the other horse's stalls.

Murdoch reached into his pocket and rubbed his thumb over a smooth piece of tin. It was all that gave him hope.

Dr. Banning burst through the entrance, banging open the door. “They're not here! My family's not here! They said they'd be here and they're not!” It was the nearest to a panic Murdoch had ever witnessed from the doctor.

“Easy Ted, easy,” soothed Murdoch, as if he was talking to his horse. “Here, sit down.”

“I don't want to sit down! I want my family!” yelled Banning, beside himself.

“And I want my boys!” replied Murdoch, in a louder voice. “So settle down. Panicking is not going to bring them all back.”

“All right, all right,” grouched the doctor. He took out a cigar, then realized where he was and sheepishly put it back. “Maybe an emergency came up.”

“Yeah, that's it,” chimed in Jelly. “Like a baby or someone gettin' attacked by a wild cat or somethin'.”

“All right,” said Murdoch, impatiently, “Let's get to Genesis and remember, the man might have won the round, but he hasn't won the game.”

Murdoch opened the door to find Sheriff Troup ready to knock. “Sheriff Troup.”

“Mr. Lancer, I'm here on business. I need to talk to the LT. Governor about the attack and the kidnappin of your sons.”

“George and Jelly, this is the man who saved me from getting a bullet in my back.”

“Well, I couldn't just let Abbott shoot ya. I mean it goes against my ethical sensibilities and all.”

“Tell me this, does Abbott still own the whole town?” asked a skeptical Murdoch.

Troup ducked his head, “Yeah, still pretty much.”

“Thank you Sheriff. We'll be on our way.”

“Don't you all want to make a report? Shouldn't we go lookin for the gang who kidnapped your sons?”

“Gang Sheriff?”

“Yeah, the men who did it.”

Murdoch, exasperated and worried, still didn't trust the Sheriff, at least not with his sons' lives at stake. “You really want to help out?”

“Yeah, I would. I did save your life, ya know.”

“Well, there's that,” said Murdoch, stepping outside the door. “Tell you what, take some men and ride to Katydid Junction and see if you can pick up a trail. They shot my son, Scott, in the foot and Dr. Banning said it's bad enough to leave a blood trail. See if you can find where it leads. The Pinkertons and a U.S. Marshal are already on their way here. We'll all be in Genesis if you find anything.”

---11---

 

The sun was high in the sky when Johnny came around. How long have I been out? Judging from the sun it has to be at least four or more hours. Four hours? How could I have been out that long? Much to his consternation he was still on a horse tied to his brother. They seemed to be going up a steep, rocky incline to a mammoth hill or was it a mountain? Johnny didn't know. He couldn't seem to focus and his head was fuzzy…he had a bitter after-taste in his mouth… like when I woke up that morning in Uppity .  He became aware of three things at once. His ribs were still protesting their treatment, he was thirsty and he needed to relieve his bladder. He wasn't sure which was worse, the difficulty breathing, the need to pee or the hankering for a mug of beer. The beer lost and the other two tied for first place.

Forgetting about the threats at the beginning of their ride, to keep still, Johnny asked, “Scott, when's the last time we stopped?”

A quick distressed, “Shut up, Johnny!” was his reply.

Frowning and staring at his brother in confusion, he noticed Scott looking out of the corner of his black and blue eye. Where'd he get that shiner? Scott seemed to be apologizing, but at the same time warning him with a brief nod at the giant.

The giant! Holy smokes, how could I have forgotten about him? Peeking over Scott's shoulder, Johnny came eyeball to eyeball with the man, who looked decidedly unhappy. He suddenly forgot he had to pee. Hell, he forgot to breathe.

They had come to the top of a very large plateau dotted with stunted trees, brush and lots of barren rocks.

Talbot called a halt. All the men got off their horses and most went to take care of business. The giant dismounted, still holding the reins to the Lancers' horse in his meaty hand. He wrapped the reins from the Lancers' horse around his own horse's saddle horn. It appeared the horse was well trained for it stayed where it stood.

Surprising both boys, he gruffly asked, “Ya got to go?”

Both boys held their tongue, not sure if it was a trick question. Johnny fidgeted just a bit, feeling the opportunity slipping away.

The giant, amused, “What's the matter? The cat got your tongue? You two better answer me if ya want down off that horse.”

Scott finally took the bait and replied, “Yes sir.”

That seemed to appease the giant. “Ya see, Madrid. Ya toe the line and we'll get along fine. Your brother only needed one reminder.” He gestured to Scott's face, then in a booming, deep voice, he snarled, “Ya hear me?”

Johnny didn't flinch and he didn't answer. The words just stuck in his craw. He refused to give the giant the satisfaction.

“Boy! You are a hard one,” roared the giant and Johnny wondered if it was natural for the man to always talk so loud. The giant untied the ropes to Scott's hands, then untied their feet on both sides, leaving Johnny's hands for last. “Now, see that big rock over there?” pointed the giant.

The boys followed his finger with their eyes.

“You go one at a time.” He untied Johnny's hands, then roughly pulled Scott off the horse. “Either of you boys try anything…and you'll wish you would not have.” Both Lancers heeded his warning for they were surrounded by his men.

Both of Scott's legs felt numb from sitting on the horse for hours. His foot came to life as soon as he set it on the ground. His legs tingled as circulation was restored. He stepped away from the horse and found he could walk by inching either on his heel or the other side of his foot.

The giant yelled, “Ya got two minutes. Any longer and I'll take it out on your brother.” He pulled a gold watch out of his pocket and looked at the time.

Scott quickly hobbled to the rock, did his business and hobbled back, making it with twelve seconds to spare.

The giant ordered Scott, “Here, sit on that there rock for a few minutes. Matt keep him covered while I deal with this one.”

Johnny didn't want the big giant manhandling him again, so he swung his right leg over the saddle and slid off the big bay by himself, covering his wince with a frown.

“Well now, don't that beat all? Ya ribs startin to feel any better? That Laudanum must've taken the edge off.”

The big man reached out to pat Johnny's back, but Johnny angrily jerked away and headed for the rock, by-passing Talbot on the way. He gave him his coldest Johnny Madrid scowl.

“Madrid,” roared the giant. “You have sixty seconds and you'd better be on time.” He gave Scott a menacing glance as Talbot came and stood beside the giant. “You'd better hope your brother heeds my advice.”

Scott could only nod. He knew what the giant was capable of. But, he had mixed feelings about the man. One moment he could be a real bully and the next, well not gentle as a lamb, but he did pour some medicine down his brother's throat after Johnny passed out, in spite of Talbot's protests. Said it was to keep his brother quiet for he hated moaning. Funny thing was, I never heard Johnny moan one time before he gave him that medicine.

Talbot, with a cocksure attitude, said, “If the Boss man didn't want Madrid so bad, I'd just as soon shoot him and leave him for the buzzards to enjoy.”

“Well, there's that, but unfortunately, it's not our play,” stated the giant, keeping an eye on Madrid. He watched Johnny as he finished with his business and turned around. The excitement was in his eyes. He'd been around gunslingers all his life. He knew Johnny wanted to make a break for it and that he was contemplating it.

The giant drew his gun.

He was just about to yell at Madrid not to even think it, that the first bullet would be for his brother, when Johnny's expression changed and he came back around the horse.

The giant had caught the soft expression Johnny had unknowingly tossed his brother's way. If Scott hadn't been here, Johnny would've tried getting away no matter what the odds. He briefly wondered what kind of a bond these Lancer brothers shared and how it was going to affect their future.

The giant and Johnny stood there, by the horse, one a few inches taller than Murdoch and the other in a pink shirt quite a few inches shorter, but just as fierce, coldly facing each other with a glint in their eye. Neither wanted to be the first to break eye contact. A grudging respect started to take root between the two antagonists.  

Talbot walked away, shaking his head, and shouted, “Mount up!”

The men scurried to their horses with Matt roughly pushing Scott towards the big buckskin with the butt of his rifle.

White faced, Scott put his foot in the stirrup and felt shockwaves shoot up his leg as he tried to mount. Fresh blood leaked from the holes in his boot, sprinkling the side of the horse and the ground. Weakened by the loss of blood and woozy from lack of water, with difficulty, Scott hopped once, twice and then felt Johnny's strong hands guiding him up by his arm and the seat of his pants, so he could swing his leg over the saddle. Embarrassed, but grateful, he let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, and moved his foot out of the stirrup for his brother to use.

Johnny noted Scott's pale face and lack of strength, together with the coolness of his brother's skin which he could feel through Scott's shirt, and it filled him with dread. He figured the wound in his brother's foot was deteriorating. Preparing to mount, he was aghast at the amount of blood covering the horse's side. How much blood has he lost? Is shock setting in? Instead of mounting the horse, Johnny turned to the giant and complained, “He needs a doctor.”

The giant towered over Johnny with his huge hands on his hips and bellowed, “Now just where do ya think I'm gonna find a sawbones out here? Ya expect me to pull one outta my hat?”

“No, but we're heading west right?”

Johnny saw the giant nod. He crossed his meaty arms before him. Johnny took heart, the man was at least listening. “We could stop at one of these little towns around here. Genesis has one…”

“NO!”

“Ok, no doctor. How about if we just get some bandages and medical supplies?”

“NO!”

“I'll use my own shirt,” appealed Johnny, “Just give me a couple minutes to tend him.”

The giant hesitated, saw Talbot heading their way and yelled, “NO! What part of NO don't you understand?”

Talbot rode in and stopped his horse inches from Johnny. In an angry voice he inquired, “Why isn't he mounted?”

His own temper rising, Johnny butted in, “My brother needs his foot tended. He's bleeding all over creation.”

Talbot sneered. Johnny actually saw Talbot's lip curl in scorn with no compassion. “Is he now? And you expect us to take care of him? We haven't even tended our own men. Why should we bother with him?”

“It's the decent thing to do and I'll take care of him myself,” replied Johnny with heat. “Besides…” He held his hand out encompassing the other wounded men, whose conditions looked as bad as Scott's. “They all need tending! Can't ya see they're about to fall out of their saddles?”

Talbot leaned off his horse towards Johnny, holding a bloody horse quirt. With a feral growl, which reminded Johnny of a wild beast, the man bitingly said, “I don't do decent! And I don't need the likes of you or your stubborn father gainsaying me.” Then in a fit of fury, he took his riding quirt and slashed down hard with the weighted leather thongs at Johnny, slicing him on the back across his broken ribs.

Johnny, upon seeing the whip, had thrown up his arms to defend himself and turned away, thinking Talbot was aiming for his face, never believing he'd go for his injured ribs. The pain was like liquid fire, burning through his skin and radiating outwards across his back, taking his breath away. He immediately dropped to the ground, writhing in pain as he struggled to catch his breath.

Talbot jumped off his horse and attacked Johnny in a pique of fury, adding two more welts to Johnny's already stinging back. Johnny turned around and kicked out against Talbot's abdominal area, grabbing, then yanking the whip out of Talbot's hand. Appalled by the wet blood on the quirt, he threw it away from himself as far as he could. Knowing what his own back felt like, Johnny could only imagine the pain of Talbot's horse. It infuriated him to no small degree.

Mass confusion had broken out amongst the men. Without getting off their horses, bets were placed on who was going to be the winner of the blow-up. Talbot was a known cheat and dirty opponent, not very well liked by his men. Johnny Madrid was a known champion saloon fighter in the border towns and well respected.   

The giant was half tempted to let the fight go on, but Talbot was his superior, second only to the mysterious boss man. Johnny Madrid Lancer was his responsibility and he knew he had to deliver the man alive or pay the price himself. And with those broken ribs, Madrid was at a clear disadvantage, though it didn't seem to bother the gunfighter one whit. He waded on foot into the group of men on horseback surrounding the combatants.

Scott had an idea of his own, like getting out of there, while the getting was good. The men were all preoccupied with the fight. He slowly leaned over from his horse to the giant's horse and unwound the reins from the saddle horn. Then, he proceeded to lift the rifle from the saddle boot.

Cocking the rifle, Scott shook his head back and forth, as Johnny and Talbot circled each other. He found it hard to believe, but wasn't surprised, his brother was in the middle of another fight. Silently, Scott carried on a one-sided conversation with his brother to relieve his annoyance. What did Dr. Banning say about breathing, Johnny? Does stay out of fights or stop breathing provide a clue? Like that would work. Johnny punched Talbot with an upper cut to the jaw, knocking him out cold. The men groaned, either because the fight was over too soon or their man had lost too easily.

Scott moved his horse closer to the circle of men and shot off the rifle into the air, immediately re-cocking the gun and pointing it at the giant.

“Sorry to ruin a hog-killing' good time, but it's time for us to go.”

Johnny, breathing hard from the forced melee, quickly made his way past Scott to the giant's horse. It was the only available horse, except Talbots, which was clear on the other side of the group. Its buckskin coat showed red on the flanks.

Much to Johnny's annoyance, he found the giant's bay to be a few hands taller than Barranca. What did I expect, the man is a giant after all, stands to reason he'd have a giant of a horse too. The stirrups were low enough, but the distance to the saddle was quite a stretch, taking all his strength to hop up and throw his right leg over the horse. Boy horse, what does he feed you? Once mounted, Johnny found his legs were too short for the long stirrups. No time to make adjustments, this will just have to do.

Johnny kicked the horse in its side to get him moving, but the horse just stood still. Glancing at the men, who were starting to smile, he tried again, adding, “Giddy-up.” The horse refused to move.

Scott murmured over his shoulder, “What's the problem?”

Disgusted and red-faced, Johnny whispered back, “I can't get ‘im to move.”

“Sweet talk him or something.”

The giant had moved from the circle of men and was resting one huge arm on the backend of Matt's horse, grinning at Johnny's antics.

Johnny tried every command in the book and in desperation, even made up some that were accompanied by a few four letter words. Still, the horse refused to move from his spot.

“Insulting him won't get ‘im to go,” called the giant, not in the least bit fazed that Scott was holding a rifle on him.

For the heck of it, Johnny asked, “What's his name?”

“Sinbad.”

“Shucks,” said Johnny, realizing how this was going to end up. “I bet you have him trained to answer a whistle too.”

“Yup, sure do. Would ya like me to demonstrate?”

Accepting his fate, Johnny got off the horse, not wanting to re-injure his ribs if the horse started bucking. He quickly went over to Scott and mounted the buckskin horse, settling behind his brother. Before they could move out, he heard the giant whistle, then give a command of “Charge!” And Johnny knew it was all over.

---12---

 

When Murdock and the men reached Genesis, he noticed the town had grown in size. He saw men, women and families out on the boardwalk. The place was prosperous. So different from when we were here before.

Dr. Banning, seeing the amazement on the older man's face, proudly stated, “Yes, Genesis has grown in leaps and bounds since Abbot kept his word and reopened the mine, which had caved in years before. It's drawn many people here from all walks of life. Remember when I said, I save him and you save me?”

Murdoch smiled, “And you said, saving his life should account for something. Well, it did Banning. You got to finish medical school and Genesis got a new lease on life.”

The men were all on their horses with Murdoch leading Barranca and Jelly leading Scott's horse, Charlie. They had brought all the Lancer boys' saddles, tack, and gear from the train, including the two pet hamsters that Jelly was now in charge of. They pulled up in front of the General Store, which doubled as a post office, doctor's office and living quarters upstairs.

Murdoch recognized a few people from his last visit three or more years ago. Luther, the kid who had been treated years ago for a sliver in his foot, was on the boardwalk barefoot. He had grown quite a few inches. Luther greeted Dr. Banning with affection.

“Hi Doc. Before you say anything, Ma bought me some new shoes, but they ain't broke in yet.”

Dr. Banning replied, “So, why don't you wear your old ones till the new ones get broke in?”

“Well, they got holes in the bottoms, so what difference?”

Dr. Banning just shook his head. Then he asked, “Luther, can you and Vinney take a couple of horses down to the livery for me?”

“Sure Doc, no problem.”

“Just stow their gear up in Billy's room. He won't mind.”

 They waited for the men to dismount then Vinney yelled, “I know you!” A few people stopped and listened. “You're the LT. Governor and you're Mr. Lancer! The man who saved us!”

A couple of women walked by, carrying packages. One stopped and turned around, “Why, it is! Oh my, so good to see you again, Mr. Lancer.”

Before long they had a crowd of people gathered around them. Most of them were talking like magpies all at the same time.

“Oh, Mr. Lancer, you'll never know what you did for this town. Dr. Banning is a dream come true.”

“Thank you so much, Mr. Lancer, for getting our town back on its feet.”

“Mr. Lancer, thanks so much for sending our dear Dr. Banning back to medical school to get his degree.”

“Yeah, now that mean old Mr. Abbott can't say anything about ‘im not havin' his license,” added Luther, who was puffed up with self-importance, as he and Vinney left the crowd and led the horses down the street to the livery stable.

After a few minutes, they arrived at the corral and turned the horses over to Sam, who owned the stable. “Who'd you say these fine horseflesh belong to?”

“Mr. Lancer,” replied Luther. “He said he'd be down directly to pay for ‘em. They're his sons' horses.”

“Ya tell Mr. Lancer there's no charge. He's done enough for this here town. Will ya do that?”

“Sure thing, Sam.”

The boys walked outside, heading back to the general store, when a man walked up to them.

“I need you boys to deliver a message to a Mr. Murdoch Lancer. Can you boys do that?”

“Sure can, mister.”

Dr. Banning made his way into the store with the men following. They found a lady putting bolts of cloth on a shelf. “This is Mrs. Holt, Luther's ma.”

The men all tipped their hats. She smiled, a bit flustered with all the men in the store. “Oh goodness gracious, it's the LT. Governor. And Mr. Lancer, you've returned.” She held out her hand and shook George's hand first, then Murdoch's. “So nice to see ya again.”

Jelly cleared his throat.

“Oh, Mrs. Holt, this is Jelly, a good friend of the family.”

“Yes, I remember. Right proud to know you. You were the man that got mauled by that cougar a few years back. Nice to see you on your feet.”

“Ma'am,” replied Jelly, blushing.

“Mrs. Holt, where is Sarah and Dr. Turner?” asked Dr. Banning, not seeing them and chomping at the bit for information about his family.

Her eyes still on Jelly, she said, “Oh, they went out to the Websters' place.”

“Way out by the west boundary by the Abbott place?”

“That be the one. Seems the Mister ran into a cow last night in the pasture.”

“Ran into a cow?” asked Banning.

“Yes, didn't see ‘im apparently. Cow didn't see Mr. Webster either and they collided, with the Mister getting his leg broke. Doc Turner went out right away when Webster's son came and got him.”

“And Sarah and Billy?”

“Oh, ya know, the Missus has been feeling poorly, so Sarah went with him and Billy went, because his friend Merriam was all upset when he got here, so Billy rode out there too.”

The conversation was interrupted when two women came in the door. “Hi Mrs. Avis and Mrs. Kinney. Ops, plum forgot,” stated Mrs. Holt to the blushing women. “Ya have a new name now. Mrs. Rogers.” Turning to Murdoch she said, “Town's women are marrying up now that Abbot's put some money back into his mine. They're working on the safety regulators now.”

“You mean regulations?” asked Banning.

“Yeah, that too. Anyways, Sarah was upset that she would miss you at the station. But, under the circumstances, she knew you'd all understand. And she and Billy and the Doc will be here lickety-split as soon as they can get away.

Luther ran into the store right up to Murdoch. “Mr. Lancer, a man said to give you this.” He handed the note to Murdoch, who took it, looking anxious.

“What'd this man look like?”

“I don't know, a cowboy I guess,” replied the boy, looking over at the candy jars. “Never see'd ‘em before.”

Murdoch gave each of the boys a nickel and asked Dr. Banning, “You have somewhere private we can…”

“Here, in my office,” replied the doctor, leading the way to a side door. It opened into the waiting room of his doctor's office. As soon as they were inside and the door was closed, Murdoch opened the note.

Bring stock certificates to Genesis mine. Wrap them around a rock and throw it into the fenced in area in front of the mine. Do not follow. Sons not there. One will be released after the checker game completed. Signed the Man.

“Hmm, the winner of the checker game,” mumbled Murdoch under his breath. He reached into his pocket for assurance.

“What's that, Boss?” asked Jelly, nervous and worried.

“Nothing,” said Murdoch, turning to the LT. Governor. “George, you did bring your stock certificate?”

“Have it right here, Murdoch,” replied George, pulling a piece of paper out of his inner coat pocket.

“Good.” Murdoch took out one of two papers from his coat pocket. “Only problem I have with this certificate is the way it was issued. My sons' names and mine are all listed on one certificate. I can sign my name, but the cutthroats will have to have Scott and Johnny sign theirs after they receive the paper. I, ah,” Murdoch swallowed hard, “I hope the boys won't give them a hard time about signing away their gold mine.”

---13---

 

Talbot had kept his distance after he regained consciousness. Of course, it hadn't made much difference, for both Lancers had been down and out. When Sinbad had charged, he ran right into the face of their big buckskin horse. The horse, affronted, reared. The brothers managed to keep their seat, but then the great horse ducked his head and bucked, throwing both men onto the hard packed dirt.

Scott landed on his left side with Johnny on top of him. Johnny's knee dug into Scott's left arm, breaking it in two places. One obvious break below the elbow and another at the wrist. Pain lanced the whole left side of his body.

Johnny landed face first in the dirt, receiving a big goose-egg above his left temple and seeing double. He couldn't move for a few moments for his breath had totally been knocked out of him. His stomach rebelled and black spots abounded.

The giant yelled, “Dang! I hate it when he does that!”

Surprisingly, the giant himself, along with Matt, tended them, much to Talbot's disgust. The giant had given the former aide a fierce scowl and had growled, “I might be mean, but I'm not cruel like you are. Now, either help us or skedaddle.” Talbot, clearly afraid of the hulking man, chose to leave them alone.

They anchored Scott's arm in his bandana tied with Johnny's for length and put it around his neck. Johnny found a piece of a tree branch to use as a splint and the giant wrapped a hunk of rope around Scott's wrist, tying it to the branch to hold it in place.

Johnny reached for Scott's wounded foot and Scott halted him. “I think you'd better just leave it alone. I can tell it's swollen and if you take the boot off, we'll never get it back on.”

“Ya sure?” asked his brother, worried.

Scott shook his head yes. “It's self-contained, away from the dirt, for the most part. No use…opening a can of worms till we find a sawbones.”

Johnny didn't like the idea of not tending the wound, but he understood Scott's logic. After all, he's the one that went to Harvard. He must've learned some stuff from the doctors there.

The giant was handed a brown bottle by Matt and he made Scott chug a dose of Laudanum, stating he always carried a bottle of it in his saddlebags. “Better for pain than whiskey any day of the week,” chuckled the big man. Scott didn't care as long as it cut the pain in his arm and dulled the throb in his foot.

It was Johnny's turn to be tended, but Johnny outright refused to let them even touch him. “Take care of the other men. They need it worse.”

“Suit yourself,” said the giant, putting the bottle inside his coat pocket. “Talbot won't let them be treated. They disobeyed orders in shooting the Pinkertons on the train. I had to shoot them to get them to quit firing.” The giant seemed sorry for it. His mood instantly changed before their eyes. He slapped his knee with his hat, seriously stating, “Ya just saw my one moment of decency, don't bank on it again.”

 

They were back on the horse with Scott's good wrist tied to the pommel of the saddle and Johnny's wrists were tied again around Scott's waist. Johnny could feel the clamminess of his brother's body and pulled Scott tighter into his arms, lending his own body heat to his brother's. Scott was unconscious, his head lolling against his chest. Johnny's breathing was ragged once again. But Johnny forced himself to take short breaths, and to relax when the horse hit the rough spots. He stoically ignored the pain in his ribs, the sting in his back and the pounding headache from the bump on his head.  He had no choice, one of them had to stay alert and it was his turn to be responsible for his brother's welfare.

Time passed and they stopped at a shallow stream to water the horses. Scott's body tensed and Johnny wasn't sure if it was from the pain of his injuries or because Scott was waking from the drug-induced sleep or both. A moment later Scott lifted his head from his chest then let it drop back to rest on Johnny's shoulder.

“Welcome back, Scott,” whispered Johnny, relieved his brother seemed okay for the moment.

Groggily Scott replied, while rapidly blinking his eyes to get them to focus, “I was hoping this was just a nightmare.”

“SHUT UP you two!” ordered the giant, sitting beside them on his horse. Before he could say more, Talbot's horse splashed his way back to them and pulled up opposite the big man.

Talbot gave the Lancers a hated look. His lip curled again. “You're not going soft on these two?” he coldly asked as he heatedly glared at Johnny.

His eyes flashing fire, the giant, offended, bit out, “They're my responsibility! I'll treat them as I see fit!” The hulking man leaned forward in his saddle, “And not you or anybody else is gonna naysay me!”

Johnny could see a flash of resentment in Talbot's eyes, but the man was smart enough not to push the giant. Talbot would literally have to be out of his mind to go up against the giant. The man could devour him whole. But then, Talbot's been spawned by the Devil himself. I can still feel the sting of the whip on my back.

Talbot, not backing down, sharply retorted, “Just be sure you do. Remember no water. You know the plan!” He then wheeled his horse around and headed back to the front of the line where he yelled, “Move out!”

The giant didn't move. He let both horses drink at their leisure. He glanced over at the Lancers and frowned, then bellowed, “What ya two staring at!?”

Both Lancer brothers turned their heads, straight ahead not wanting to cross the grizzly bear.

They finally arrived at an abandoned line shack somewhere between Cold River and Genesis as, near as Scott could figure it. He tried to remember the scenery from when he'd past through the towns a few years ago.

Half of the men split off to ride north and join up with a gang by Morro Coyo. At least, that had been the scuttlebutt the brothers' had overheard when the men had been jawing among themselves. Neither Lancer brother knew the particulars, but surmised these boys might be part of the gang by Morro Coyo, along with the Stryker gang, causing all the trouble on the LT. Guv's ranch, the Lancers' ranch and any other ranch located on the north passage.

---15---

 

Johnny could not believe he was sitting here playing checkers with his brother. Matt had brought out a dusty checkerboard from somewhere and the men had started playing the game in the back room. An old table, two chairs and a couple of bunk beds with vermin eaten mattresses was the only furniture in the room.

“King me,” ordered Scott, half-heartedly.

“The winner gets to go home,” stated Matt. “You two could try a little harder to win.”

Scott and Johnny were each trying to lose in order to send the other home.

After watching the game for a while the giant said in a bored tone of voice, “This ain't no fun. Where's the challenge, the excitement?” He swiped the board clean with one big hand, scattering the checkers over the table and onto the floor. “Now, we're going to play for new stakes. The winner gets to stay here with us. The loser is going home. But, first you boys have to give up something.”

Curious, the boys waited without saying a word. Johnny wondered, what game's he playing now? The giant pulled out a piece of paper that looked familiar. “This piece of paper was delivered a short time ago. I believe your father already signed this, giving his share of the gold mine to my boss. Now, it's up to you two. If you sign it over and win the game, one of you will be on his way home.”

The brothers exchanged glances.

“I'll give you two minutes to sit there and hash it out.”

 

“I'm not signing it!” declared Johnny.

“Don't go complicating it,” said Scott, knowing his brother was going to be stubborn on this issue.

“It's the principle of the thing.” Johnny picked up a checker off the table and worked it between his fingers, moving it from one to the other.

“We don't have a choice.”

“We always have a choice, Scott.”

“You saw the reports, the mine is petering out. Why hang onto it?”

“Because its mine. No one has the right to take it away!” snapped Johnny, as he dropped the checker on the board.

“Ours, brother.” Scott waited for Johnny to react. He did with a slight smile and nod.

“Gold isn't everything,” said Scott, licking his dry lips. They still hadn't had any water since leaving the train early in the morning. In fact, they hadn't been offered any food all day, though the men had been seen eating hardtack and jerky from their saddlebags.

“No, but people's lives are. What about Rico, and the others that depend on that mine?”

“Well, they either work for a new company or go to another mine.” Scott ducked his head. He didn't like the answer he'd given.

“It's not that simple and you know it Scott.” Johnny rubbed the bump on his head like he had a headache.

Turning to the giant, who was leaning against the wall with arms folded, Johnny asked, “Who is this boss man you're all in cahoots with? He the stockholder that's been buyin up all the stock? Making Murdoch dance to his tune?”

Moving away from the wall, the giant hesitated. “You boys ask too many questions. But, I'll lay it out in the open. I've never met the main auger. Talbot is the only one of us who has. We just follow orders and you two had better follow ‘em too or ya gonna be in a peck of trouble.”

“How so?” asked Scott, absently massaging his throbbing broken arm at the elbow.

The giant slammed his fist down on the table, making what was left of the checkers jump on the board and table. “Don't ya kin? Sign the papers or pay the consequences!” roared the man.

Truth was, Timothy liked the Lancer boys. They had courage and grit. I don't want to do what I have to do next. Such a waste. The giant set the stock certificate down in front of Scott and dropped a pencil.

Johnny sat back in his chair, crossing his arms and somberly waited. He thought about what Rico and he, Johnny, had talked about when he'd been down in Mexico. Responsibilities. I'm still kickin myself for not reading the reports. These people depend on me. I can't just abandon them. It goes against the grain. I told Scott once that I learned my lesson the hard way…well, I can do it again. I can take the consequences.

Scott picked up the pencil and held it over the paper. Glancing at Johnny, he noticed the set face of his brother. There is no way out of this, but Johnny is right. He broke the pencil in two, by whacking it hard against the table's edge. “I'm not signing either!”

A deep angry sigh came from the giant. Snatching up the paper, he yelled. “Set up the game. The winner stays!”

It took three games before they had a winner. The first two games ended in a draw. The men were all gathered around the checkerboard, watching the game. It was the last move of the game. All Johnny had to do was jump Scott's red checker with his king.

“Sorry, brother.” He made the jump and the brothers exchanged good-byes with their eyes. “Don't forget your promise.”

“Yours either, brother,” replied Scott, as the Lancer brothers were separated.

Matt and another man pulled Scott to his feet and forced him out the main door. Johnny was left in the small back room with no windows. The candle was blown out. At the door Talbot stood and mocked, “You should have let him win.”

Johnny, missing his brother already, gave a questioning look, raising an eyebrow.

“He's going home…face down in the saddle.” Laughter followed as Talbot slammed the door then bolted it.

Shouting, “NOOO!” and throwing the table aside, Johnny rushed to the closed door. Frantically he pulled on the latch. When it refused to open he dug his nails and fingertips into the frame of the door, pulling and digging into the wood, hoping against hope he could get the door to open. Heart racing and taking in deep gulps of air, Johnny worked and worked at the door, pulling at the bottom, yanking at the top. “Please open,” he pleaded, working all the harder to loosen the bolt, a hinge, a piece of rotted wood…ANYTHING. When that didn't work, he tried kicking the door and then ramming his left shoulder into the door…over and over and over…not feeling the pain to his ribs or back or the shoulder he was abusing. He had one thought and one thought only in mind and that was to get to Scott.

The crack of a gunshot exploded outside from a pistol.

“Scott! Scott!” Johnny hit the door again with his closed fist. “Scott!” You promised! You promised...”

Johnny didn't give up. Sweat poured off his body as he worked harder at the door, going around the frame again with his bloody fingers and scraped knuckles, desperately trying to find a weak spot in the old wood. He pried, wept and dug his fingertips into the crevice between the door and the frame. He rattled the latch till his ears rang with the sound, then kicked it multiple times, trying to jar it open. Breathing hard, he doubled over and saw dizzying, black spots as he stubbornly refused to give up. Johnny went back to pounding on the door until his strength gave out and he couldn't lift his arms any more. He scarcely felt the pain in his injured and bruised hands, only the throb and numbness from the repetitious abuse to them.

Heart beating in his ears and gasping for breath, Johnny leaned his forehead against the door with bloody fingers splayed on each side. He thought he heard a horse gallop off, which gave him hope his brother had gotten away. A few moments later a rifle shot echoed through the air and Johnny could hear the horse running in the distance. Outside the door he heard…

“You kill him?”

“I'm a sharp-shooter. I put the bullet right where I wanted it,” replied the giant's deep voice.

“Ya think the horse will make it to Genesis?”

“That's where you stole it from, ain't it?”

“Ya know I did.”

“Well, then, he'll make it to Banning's.”

A second later the men could hear sounds of furniture being smashed from the other side of the door. The gang member put his hand on the bolt, when the giant stopped him. “No, let'em be. Don't forget who he is and what we just did to his family.”

 

Hours later the giant opened the door, holding a lantern. The room was in a shambles.

“Madrid? Ya settled down yet?”

The furniture, consisting of two chairs and a table, were in pieces, not just pieces, but splintered pieces, attesting to the gunfighter's fury.

“Madrid? Ya sure tore this place up. Can't say as I blame ya.”

The giant held the lantern high, inspecting the destruction. The checkerboard was torn in half, the game pieces scattered amongst the ruins. Even the bunk beds hadn't been spared. The boards lay broken all over the dirt floor. The mattresses were shredded with the stuffing of straw strewn across the room.

“Madrid? We have to talk. There's something important I have to tell ya.”

The giant stepped into the room, worried that he still hadn't heard a peep out of the gun hawk. Shining the light around, he found his quarry, sitting in a corner. Never had he seen a more fearsome sight and it struck him deep in the heart. 

Head ducked down with his arms crossed and wrapped around his shoulders, knees drawn up to his chest, Madrid looked forlorn, like he'd lost his best friend. His blue eyes told the story when he lifted his head…cold, blank and desolate.

The giant actually took a step back, then chided himself for being melancholy.  He came fully into the room and walked over to the bent man, kneeling before him and sitting the lantern down on the floor.

“Madrid? I know'd how you must be feeling.” A strange sound came from Johnny's throat and the giant thought maybe the gunfighter had lost his mind. It sent chills down his spine.

“Madrid, ya have to pull yourself together. Your pa's life depends on it and you're the key.”

The words had the desired effect. Johnny's eyes changed from blank to fire in a split second. A Derringer appeared out of nowhere and was pointed at the giant. “I could kill you for what you've done to me and mine,” said the softest, coldest voice the giant ever heard. “Right between the eyes.”

“Yeah, I speck ya could, but ya won't, if ya want to save your father.”

“Right between the eyes,” repeated Johnny, still holding the gun inches from the giants face. “Tell me about this key…get her said man.”

The giant sighed, “Madrid, this here is the hard part. I can't tell you a thing, but…”

 Johnny raised himself to his knees and cut him off by pressing the gun up against his forehead between the eyes. “But what?”

The giant could feel the cold metal of the gun and the even colder feel of Madrid's eyes and knew this could be the end of the game for him. “I only know'd you're the key betwixt my boss man and your pa. You're gonna have to trust me if ya want to see your father through this pickle he's in.”

Johnny stared into the stark brown eyes of the giant, who was almost a foot taller than him and said, “Trust you? Do you think after all the stuff I've done, that I will stop at that?” He shoved the gun harder against the giant's forehead for emphasis.

“No, but you will,” flatly stated the giant.

Blue eyes to brown eyes, they stared at each other for a long period of time. Neither wanting to give in. Each trying to drive home a point. Still holding Johnny's eyes the giant said, “Madrid?”

“Yeah.”

“Put that peashooter back in your boot. We've got to get going.”

Still eyeball to eyeball and not surprised that the giant knew the gun had been in his boot, Johnny asked, “How long have you known it was in there?”

“From the time the Doc put it in there.”

“Trust?” skeptically asked Johnny, finally breaking eye contact and sliding the gun back in his boot.

“Trust works both ways.”

They heard a slight noise at the door. Talbot was standing there, listening. Neither man knew for how long.

The giant, resigned, knew what he had to do.

Still on their knees. “Johnny that trust thing starts now.” The giant pulled back his massive fist and hit Johnny square in the jaw, knocking him out immediately.

Talbot walked away before the giant even caught the gunfighter in his arms. Carefully, he laid Johnny over his broad shoulder. I had a brother like you once. He's the reason why I am what I am today.

The giant walked out of the line shack to his horse. The men and Talbot were mounted, waiting. There was no extra horse since the one Scott was riding was headed to Genesis. He roughly put Johnny face down across the back of his horse in front of the pommel, the highest part of a horse's back. Madrid was his responsibility and he didn't trust any of the men with the gunfighter. The giant mounted and they took off for a rendezvous with all the players of the game.

---14---

 

Scott didn't know how long he'd been riding. It was dusk now. He had let the horse have his head like the giant had instructed him. He never saw the snake, only heard its rattle. A gunshot sounded and the giant had literally thrown him on the horse's back, ordering Scott to duck and hang on. The big man then slapped the horse hard on the flank and the animal had bolted forward in a dead run.

Loosening the reins in his right hand, Scott felt his left side to check on the bleeding, where the bullet had grazed him. It had finally slowed down to a trickle. His broken arm and foot were pulsating to the same rhythm in time.

Talking to his horse to keep himself alert, Scott said, “I guess the giant knew what he was talking about. I get the feeling he'd put the bullet right where he intended.”

Feeling dragged out and light headed, Scott licked his dry, cracked lips. “I wonder how long it has been since we (Scott unconsciously thinking Johnny was still with him) had any water.” He thought about that a few minutes, then said, “Oh yeah, the beer I had with Johnny. Was that only last night before we boarded the train in Brookside? Seems like a lifetime ago.”

He wondered how his brother was faring. He could still hear Johnny frantically calling his name and pounding on the door. “What kind of sadistic games are these people playing?” His heart went out to his brother. “Surely he doesn't think I'm dead again? I don't think he can take it with everything he's been through the last few weeks. Then again, he's Johnny Madrid…the toughest man I know.”

Scott himself wasn't doing so well. He knew between the two bullet wounds he had lost more than his share of blood. He was cold, clammy and weak. He thought he might be going into shock. His black eye was swollen and his head was pounding in time to his foot and he didn't even want to think about his arm, resting in a sling pressed against his chest.

Sooner or later he was going to pass out and fall off this horse. I understand what the giant meant now. The horse will head for home. Why did the man help me? And Johnny? Will he look out for Johnny too? I have to stay awake and get help for Johnny. With resolve, he clenched his teeth and bit back the blackness, which was threatening him with every step of the horse.

Scott crested a huge, wide hill that overlooked a steep, rocky canyon covered with brush and scrub. A road of sorts wound beside it and he followed it with his eyes to a big wide curve, which dropped off into what looked like a deep rock quarry on one side of the trail. An old mine's back entrance for dumping excess rock and dirt faced the steep ravine from half-a-mile away. Upon closer inspection, Scott could see the ravine or quarry spilled into the canyon which was boxed in, with trees only on the north side. If an animal or a rider wasn't paying attention they could ride right into thin air and crash to the bottom fifty feet below.  A giant rock sat beside the curved road and Scott could see from where he was positioned a group of men on horseback sitting…or waiting? Waiting for what?

Scott followed the road as far as he could see in the opposite direction and noticed dust being kicked up into the air. A buckboard? A buggy? He turned the horse towards the moving conveyance and carefully came down the side of the wide hill at an angle, so the men couldn't see him,

The man driving the buckboard pulled the horses to a halt when Scott came abreast of them. Scott recognized Sarah Lockwood, now Mrs. Banning, right away. Billy, who was in the back of the wagon, turned and peered out at him. He's grown at least a foot. Scott surmised the driver must be Dr. Jeff Turner, the LT. Governor's private physician.

Before Scott could say anything, Sarah burst out with, “Scott Lancer? Is that really you?”

“In the flesh,” smiled Scott. He noticed all three of them staring at his blood soaked clothes, his injured arm and his shining black eye. He was feeling faint now that the horse had stopped moving, or maybe it was because Scott had unclenched his teeth and let down his guard against the dizzying black spots.

“What happened to you?” anxiously asked Sarah, getting down from the buckboard. The doctor slowly got down also and hobbled over to Scott, reaching up to lend assistance in helping him down from the horse.

“Ran into some trouble at Katydid when we stopped to refuel. Johnny and I were kidnapped. They still have Johnny.” At Sarah's indrawn breath, Scott was quick to reassure, “Your husband's all right…all the other passengers are.” He didn't mention the Pinkerton agents. “For some reason they just wanted us.”

The black spots were getting bigger. His legs were growing weaker and he found himself leaning on the doctor, who with Sarah, was leading him to the back of the buckboard, where they made him sit down. He was cold and shivering and he thought he heard the doctor say, “He's going into shock. Get me some water.”

A moment later he felt Sarah holding him up as the doctor brought the canteen to his dry, cracked lips. He started to drink greedily, never tasting anything so good.

“Easy Scott. Little sips or you'll toss it back up,” cautioned the man. Scott forced himself to slow down. The black spots were there even with his eyes closed, for he could no longer hold them open. He drank a little more water, then remembered he had to warn them about the men by the rock.

Pushing the canteen aside, he weakly gasped out, “Men up ahead…I think they're up to no good...” It was all he could get out before the darkness claimed him.

Sarah caught Scott as he slumped against her. “Billy, hand me that blanket.”

Billy picked up the blanket from the buckboard bed and unfolded it. He leaned over and helped his ma wrap it around Scott's shoulders. Then, all three pulled Scott more fully onto the back of the buckboard. The doctor tied the horse's reins to the back end of the buckboard. Sarah, being the doctor's nurse, quickly examined the wound in Scott's side.

“Looks like a bullet crease.”

“There's blood seeping through his boot too,” added the doctor from the end of the wagon. Moving beside the buckboard, he reached over and checked Scott's pulse, then his eyes. “Throw another blanket over him. We have to keep him warm.” Looking down the road, the doctor frowned, “Sarah is there another way home from here?”

“Yes, we can cut around that hill and bypass the big curve. It's tricky, but it can be done.”

The doctor gingerly climbed up onto the buckboard's seat and flicked the reins, directing the horses on a new course for home.

---15---

 

Johnny was decidedly unhappy…unhappy to find himself face down on a horse. He was fit to be tied even being on a horse. He really got his back up when he realized he was on the giant's horse. He felt totally indignant. Looking upside down at the aggravating man was… scary, no not scary, disgusting, disquieting, maybe unnerving will work. No I used that term last time I couldn't think how I felt. Doesn't matter. I'm as mad as a peeled rattler! More so, I'm sick and tired of waking up some place different from where I was knocked out.

Throwing caution to the wind and knowing something had changed in their good guy, bad guy relationship, Johnny reared up on his elbows and growled, “Why'd ya hit me for?”

“Had to, but it was only a light tap,” growled the giant in a low tone of voice, which amazed Johnny.

“Light tap, my ass,” mumbled Johnny, rubbing his sore jaw.

Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny saw the giant glancing at the head of the line. Looking around the horse's neck, Johnny saw Talbot sitting on his horse in front of the other men on horseback. He then realized they were at the tail end of the procession. Accident or on purpose?

In that same low tone, the giant added, “And keep your voice down.”

“My voice?” mimicked Johnny, trying to get comfortable. His ribs were killing him and his stomach was nauseated. The horse's shoulder blades were digging into his belly, creating havoc with his stomach and ribs.

“Yeah, keep it down so Talbot don't hear ya. You think we're back here for your health?” Not giving Johnny time to answer, the giant went on, shocking Johnny with his chatter. He'd never heard the giant string so many sentences together at one time. “I know'd the delicate condition you must be feeling.”

“Well if that's true, then ya know my health's about to take a nasty turn for the worse,” snapped Johnny.

“How's that?”

“I had a bad case of food poisoning and ever since I still have to shoot the cat once in a while.”

Timothy, the giant, thought the gunfighter was pulling his leg until he noticed the wan coloring of Madrid's face and the tightening of his mouth.

Johnny started dry heaving and the giant jerked his horse to a halt. Moving like greased lightning, the giant was off his horse, taking Johnny with him, where he dumped him on the ground.

“Dang it Madrid! You'd better not have puked on my horse,” griped the giant, running around the horse to check Sinbad on the other side.

Boy, for a man his size, he sure can move fast, thought Johnny, as he continued to spit into the dirt, on his elbows and knees. He couldn't put any pressure on his sore hands, especially the left one, which looked bruised and possibly broke. Thank goodness, I didn't lose my head completely and protected my gun hand, though the fingers look pretty beat up.

The giant came back around his horse, “You are one lucky dog for ya missed my horse. Otherwise, I would've had to make ya clean ‘im up.” Seeing only a small pile of vomit, he declared, “Is that all you managed to upchuck?”

Johnny wiped his mouth and shakily stood up. With resentment, he replied, “It's not like ya been feeding and watering us since we joined your company.”

“Well, hell,” said the giant. “Talbot's under orders from the boss man, no food or drink.”

“Why?”

“I reckon to drag you out.” At Johnny's expression of incredulity, the giant said regretfully, “They want to break your spirit to get back at your old man.”

“Why?” asked Johnny, biting at his dry lips. He had a sick feeling, not related to the nausea of a few moments ago, that he knew the reason.

“Revenge would be my guess.” The giant watched Johnny as he tried to put the pieces together. Usually keeping a closed lip, the giant felt compelled to help the charismatic gunfighter. “The LT. Governor and Dr. Banning are involved in this crazy game too.”

“Revenge is my guess too,” said Johnny. “It all started when we bought the gold mine. Who owned that gold mine before us?” asked Johnny, holding his ribs and pacing back and forth beside the horse.

“I assure you I don't know, but I do know the gold mine was a ploy to start the game. A sick game forced on your father and his friends, with the boss man in control.”

“And I'm the key?”

“Appears so,” confirmed the giant.

Disconcerted, Johnny spit out, “Key to what?” He stopped pacing and stood toe to toe with the giant, craning his neck upwards and sharply asked in an overly loud voice, “Why am I the key?”

The giant didn't want to tell Johnny. He thought back on all the stuff he'd been ordered to do. For cryin out loud, the man's been through the wringer. All because of me, following orders, from the boss man who wants to inflict as much pain as possible. And for what? So the boss man can get even with his father. Hurt the son, hurt the father? I almost killed his brother and can't even tell him Scott's alive. The man's been chased by Rurales, though I waited till the last minute to inform them. Poisoned by my own hand, though if it'd been someone else, he'd truly been dead. I only used half what they'd gave me. He's been beaten and forced to sit on a horse with broken ribs for hours. Now, there's gumption for ya. Never even heard a moan from the man. What's more, he has a major bump on the head because of my horse, been sick twice, doesn't even remember it and probably has a concussion. I'll never be so glad to finish a job in my life.

Johnny, losing all patience, grabbed the giant by his open coat and tried shaking him. It was like shaking a tree. He didn't move. Sighing heavily, Johnny turned away from him and crossed his arms. Changing tactics he asked in a soft voice, “Why Timothy? Why?”

The big man caved in, though he couldn't explain it to himself why. “In this sick game, they want to hurt ya…by doing so, then, they hurt your father.” He let Johnny absorb that statement, then added, “As you know, they've already done a number of things to you…and the boss man made sure your pa knew about it…in detail each time.”

Johnny sucked in his breath, remembering. How could he forget? He was still recovering from most of it. Murdoch!

“I have to deliver you for the final round of the game. If I don't, they'll kill your old man outright.”

“And Scott?” Johnny swallowed hard over the lump in his throat. Bitterly, he had to ask, though he already knew the answer, “Was he just a casualty…a piece to be taken off the board and discarded?”

In his mind, Johnny saw Scott riding Barranca as they jumped the corral fence that first day home. He felt Scott's nudge on his shoulder, giving him assurance when the sheep had paraded through Lancer when the Cattleman's Association had been against them. He felt the kinship of his brother when they hid on the ridge, watching over Murdoch at the prison work camp. Had it only been a few hours since Scott had commiserated with him about the livery stable ordeal and they had laughed themselves silly over Cal's pet skunk?

Johnny had been in agony when he thought he'd lost Scott in the livery incident and now he had. The second time around was even more horrifying. He couldn't lose his father too. He just couldn't.

Johnny turned back around and faced the giant, who stood there silently watching him. Infuriated, Johnny yelled, “You gonna answer me?!”

“Nope, ya said it all!” roared the giant, glad to see the fire back in the gun hawk's eyes. He waited for Johnny's next move. It wasn't long in coming.

Johnny pulled his right arm back and with all the fury he possessed hit the giant under the jaw with his closed fist, knocking him back a couple of feet. The mammoth man didn't fall. Johnny didn't feel any pain, he was too angry.

“Is that all ya got?” teased the man. It was a powerful punch, but he wasn't telling Madrid that. He needed him to be good and angry for what he was going to be facing tomorrow.

Johnny stood his ground, taunting back, “Ya know the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” He feinted to the jaw, but hit the giant's midsection instead. It was like hitting a rock. This time, Johnny felt the pain all the way up to his shoulder.

“Had enough?” blasted the giant, smiling broadly.

“Never,” replied Johnny, feeling short of breath. His broken ribs were putting pressure on his lung. He was wearing out and his head was beginning to spin. If he didn't knock the giant out in the next punch, he didn't think there'd be another one. The man hadn't even swung at him yet.

“Well, I have.” He took a silver flask out of his front coat pocket and handed it to Johnny. Pausing, the giant checked out the trail. “So far so good. Talbot's not missed us yet.” He returned his attention back to Johnny, who was breathing hard and staring at him oddly through smoldering eyes.

“Whose side are you on?” asked Johnny, totally confused by the giant's actions.

“Make no never mind. I have a job to do and I intend to do it, till it's done. Now, there's water in that there flask, drink it before Talbot gets back here.”

“Oh, no,” said Johnny shaking his head. “You're not trickin me. I've had enough medicine to last me a lifetime.” He tried to hand the flask back, but the giant took exception.

Incensed, the giant exploded, “By my recollection, you ain't had a drop of liquid since we snatched you off that there train!”

Johnny knew he was right. His mouth was beginning to feel like a cotton ball had taken up residence and his lips were starting to chap. He unconsciously licked them.

The giant caught Johnny's minute gesture. “See, ya just wetted your lips. Ya need a drink now. So drink it!”

“No.” Johnny backed up, still holding the flask. “No…I…don't!”

“Madrid? You're gonna drink that there water even if I have to throw ya on the ground and pour it down your gullet.”

Johnny unconsciously pictured the giant doing what he said he would, “Ya would, wouldn't ya?”

“Ya bet your life, I would.” The giant took a step forward.

“Okay. Okay. I'll drink some,” demonstrated Johnny by pulling the cork and taking a small nip, fully expecting it to be laced with Laudanum . To his surprise, the water was cool and fresh tasting…and he was so thirsty. He chugged the whole bottle, missing the giant's sly grin.

Giving the flask back to the giant, Johnny said with cold, hard eyes, “This doesn't mean anything. You killed my brother. When this stupid game is over, we're going to have that dance.”

“Fine with me, any place, any time.”

“Ya in a hurry to die?”

“Nope,” said the giant, getting on his horse. “And neither are you. The dance will wait till you're completely mended.” He moved his foot out of the stirrup.

“You are one strange owl hoot.”

“Who said I'm an outlaw?” boomed the giant, offended. “Ever heard the old saying, don't judge a book by its cover?” 

“Yeah,” said Johnny, then asked, “What are you then…some kind of a pistolero or a hired gunfighter?”

The giant shook his head negative.

Exasperated Johnny asked again. “A gun hawk?” He snapped out louder, “Albeit, an ex-gun hawk like me? And I don't read many books.”

“That's a shame. Books are like windows to the world.”

“Ain't you educated?” bit off Johnny. He didn't want to go into the paper thing.

The giant just grinned. “Ya gonna get on this horse or not?”

Sighing, Johnny stepped over to the horse and looked up at the big man, wondering how he was going to climb on behind him.  It had taken all his strength to mount the giant's horse last time, let alone with the man now sitting in the saddle.  He put his foot in the stirrup and hopped up after the third try, grabbing onto the horn with his injured hand and swinging his leg behind the saddle. Intense pain shot through his bruised hand into his arm, causing him to almost lose his balance. Grabbing onto the back of the saddle with his gun hand, he managed to complete the mount.

“Madrid? Don't go lookin at my peacemaker either. I'm from Texas and I can hog tie you up in enough knots, it'll take you a week to get loose from.”

“Wouldn't dream of it,” answered Johnny, though he had already eyed the black ivory Colt around the giant's hips. But, with Murdoch's life hanging in the balance and this crazy game they were being forced to play, he thought he'd better see where the trail ended.

The giant kicked Sinbad into a gallop and Johnny was forced to hang onto the man's waist.  After a few minutes, they could see the tops of the men's heads up the trail. The giant pulled the horse to a halt and took a familiar piece of rope out of his front pocket where he kept the silver flask.

“Sorry Madrid. Got to keep you honest.” He pulled Johnny's wrists all the way around his own waist and deftly, but loosely, tied them together with the gun hawk's injured hand on top. The giant couldn't help but notice the hand was bruised and swollen. Upon closer inspection, he saw the knuckles were scraped raw with congealed blood staining them and Johnny's fingers. But, what gave mute testimony to how frantic the gunfighter had been while locked in the back room was his fingertips. Timothy didn't want to contemplate the fingertips. His stomach turned and a shudder went down the giant's back. How he wished he could tell this fearless man the truth. That he only shot his brother to keep him alive.   

“Madrid? In a while everything will be made clear…” he stopped talking, when he turned his head, peeked over his shoulder and looked at Johnny.

The soothing powder he had slipped into the water, had done its work. Johnny was asleep, sitting up behind the saddle. He knew the gun hawk would object to being drugged again, but it had been the right thing to do. He also knew that Talbot would kill him if he ever found out. It was his job to protect this man and by Job, he was going to do it.

He thought of his own brother, dying in his arms during the War Between the States. How he missed him. Well, this man ain't gonna die and neither is his father.   I owe Murdoch Lancer and it's time for him to collect. The giant reached around and pulled Johnny's head down on his shoulder. “Ya sleep son. Ya rest up real good and build your strength. Tomorrow you're gonna need it.”

---16---

 

Dr. Turner pulled the buckboard to a halt in front of the general store with his wounded patient in the back. Sarah and Billy had done some tending on the way back to town by giving Scott sips of water and keeping him warm. Murdoch reached the wagon first only because of his long legs, with an anxious Dr. Banning right behind him.

Sarah and Billy rushed into Dr. Banning's arms, not even getting out of the buckboard. Dr. Turner climbed out of the buckboard and stood by Murdoch, who he surmised, must be the injured man's father.

Murdoch stood frozen, drinking in the sight of his unconscious son. George and Jelly silently stood beside Murdoch. “How is he?” asked the large older man. Murdoch bent over and in a caring move, felt his son's forehead. He briefly skimmed a thumb over Scott's black and blue eye, wishing he could erase it, and then ran a hand through his fine, golden hair.

“He's in shock,” softly said Dr. Turner. He exchanged eye contact with Dr. Banning, who was helping Sarah out of the buckboard. Then, Dr. Banning helped Billy down and handed him his crutches.

“Mmm,” mumbled Murdoch. “Explains his cool temperature. He's lost a lot of blood, hasn't he, since the train?”

“Yes,” answered Dr. Turner. Not knowing how Murdoch Lancer would react, the doctor treaded lightly on the next bit of information.  “He's suffered two gunshot wounds.” He watched Murdoch tense as if he'd been shot himself. “And he has a double-break in his left arm.” Murdoch blanched and the doctor finished with, “We need to get him inside.”

All the men bent into the wagon to lift Scott up, but Murdoch stopped them. In an unsteady voice, but laced with iron, Murdoch said, “I've got him.” He carefully picked his son up in his strong arms, and carried him, cradle style, into the doctor's office. Sarah indicated the examination table and Murdoch gently laid him on it. As the two doctors took over Scott's care, belatedly, he realized that was the first time he had held his first born son in his arms.

“I'll get some water boiling,” said Sarah. “You want some ginger tea to warm him up with?”

Dr. Banning smiled, “Correct, with sugar to bring up his blood levels. Bring enough hot water for two basins.” Pointing to a closet, he ordered, “Murdoch, grab a couple of blankets in there. Billy, get a fire started in the fireplace. We need to get this room warm.”

Billy put his crutches aside and started putting kindling in the fireplace. Jelly helped him by adding wood. “We're going to need more wood. When a person's in shock the room has to be good and hot,” ordered Billy.

“Oh, what are you? A sawbones too?” asked Jelly.

“No, but someday I will be.”

Murdoch found the heavy wool blankets and brought them over to Scott and was instructed to double them in length and cover his son, who was now shivering. Wasting no time, he did as bid, not liking the pallor of his son's skin. 

Dr. Banning put a basin under Scott's foot and held his leg up by the calf, bending his knee. Murdoch slowly pulled the boot off as blood dripped off his son's foot and drained out of the boot into the basin. He dropped the boot on the floor, then carefully peeled off the blood soaked white sock, dropping it next to the boot. The basin immediately started filling with blood.

Sarah brought another basin with warm water and exchanged it with the bloody one. Working quickly, she and Dr. Banning cleaned the two wounds, one on the side of Scott's foot and one on the bottom where the bullet went through. After they were cleaned, Sarah applied two thick padded bandages to both wounds, holding them in place with pressure.

Dr. Banning gave his report while Dr. Turner pulled Scott's shirt open and started examining the wound on his side.

“Looks like a small caliber bullet went through his foot. I remember Talbot holding a small gun. In all the confusion I couldn't tell what type. The bullet nicked the bone, taking out a chunk. Once the bleeding slows I can get a better look. I'll have to cleanse the wound by debriding it. There's bound to be some debris from his sock and any foreign body that his boot might have picked up.”

Dr. Banning picked up the boot and put his hand inside, feeling all around the interior. A smile crossed his face as he pulled his hand out, holding a piece of bloody bone. “Whew, well at least I know where the bone is. So glad it's not in the wound. This find will speed up the cleansing process and lessen any infection setting in.”

Dr. Turner smiled also. “Good news Mr. Lancer, he has a bad graze in his side that is only going to require a few stitches. Whoever shot him knew what he was doing or was a plain bad shot.”

Murdoch grunted and George slapped him on his shoulder for encouragement. Murdoch asked, “What about his arm?”

“Getting to that,” replied Dr. Turner, applying a temporary bandage to Scott's side. Dr. Banning finished tying up a temporary one on Scott's foot at the same time. Hearing the teakettle boiling, Sarah went to make tea and bring back some extra water for the suturing.

The doctors worked together on Scott's arm. Dr. Banning picked up a pair of scissors and cut the shirt sleeve up the seam on both sides. Dr. Turner untied the handkerchiefs and cast them aside.

Very slowly and methodically, Dr. Banning examined and felt each break with his long fingers. “Arm seems to be a clean break. The wrist, I'm not so sure. It's pretty badly swollen and it's hard to tell if there's more than one broken bone.”

Dr. Turner examined it also, voicing the same opinion. “We're going to have to get the swelling down for sure. I wonder how he broke his arm.”

“Got throwed off a horse into the dirt,” said Scott, startling everyone. “Johnny landed on top of my arm with his knee, though he doesn't remember and I'm not telling him.”

Murdoch, so relieved his son was talking, could have danced a jig. Sensing a story and with a big smile, he asked, “Why doesn't Johnny remember?”

Dr. Banning cut in anxiously, “Please tell me he didn't get into another fight.”

“Sort of.” A groan was heard from Dr. Banning and his father. “Talbot got mad at him because Johnny wanted medical supplies for me…he whipped him…with a riding quirk…right across his broken ribs.”

There was dead silence in the room except for the crackling of the wood in the fireplace. The room was steadily getting warmer.

Murdoch could've been made of stone. George stood silently beside him, with Jelly by Billy tending the fireplace.

Scott continued, but he was tiring out already. “Make story short, we made a break for it, but the giant's horse was trained…crashed into us…our horse threw us and Johnny was knocked out…doesn't know…or remember…”

“Did he throw up afterwards?” asked Banning.

“Yeah, giant…real name Timothy…brought him around…something odd about the man…”

Murdoch leaned over from one side and Dr. Banning on the other, giving Scott the hemmed in feeling. Scott fidgeted. He was so cold. His foot and arm throbbed, he had a stitch in his side. He was worried about his brother. No terrified for him was a better analogy. “Can I sit up?”

Three voices, being two doctors and his father's, said, “NO!”

Dr. Banning took his pulse. “Rapid, but weak.” He counted Scott's respirations, “Rapid, but shallow. He's still in shock.”

Scott was shivering, but he had to get the story out. Johnny's life depended on it.

“Can't figure out the giant…seems angry all the time…but protective…helped me get away…”

The men thought Scott had passed out again, but he surprised them. “Kept talking about some strange game…Johnny is the key…but, I think he's the bait…” Scott reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “Said to give this back…”

Murdoch took it and opened it. Both George's and the Lancers' gold certificates were there. “You boys didn't sign it?”

“Johnny refused.  Me too.”

“Why?” Murdoch asked, perplexed but not surprised. “It's only a small gold mine hardly worth anything.”

Scott mumbled, “Responsibilities…”

George said, “Sounds like your sons have grown up.”

“Yes, but at what price?”

Sarah brought the teapot into the room, with a mug and a big bucket of hot water. Dr. Banning helped prop Scott up as Murdoch worked to get his son to drink the ginger tea. Scott had slipped into unconsciousness again, making it difficult for him to swallow.

“You know Murdoch, Scott did a night of nurse-maiding just like this when Johnny got that food poisoning. I never seen a more devoted person. I never told Scott how close we came to losing his brother.” Since they had nothing but time on their hands, Dr. Banning told the whole story to Murdoch.

Murdoch's hand shook as he poured more hot tea down his son's throat. He had read about Johnny's illness in one of the man' s letters. Talbot must have really relished the idea of telling the man all about it. More than likely, he had pumped George or Ted for the information, being at the time he was the LT. Governor's aide. The man's letter had been explicit. George's missive had been tempered to spare him pain, but to hear it now, first hand, was, well, even more horrifying . Oh, how I wished I could've been there for my sons. Lord, please help me to save them now.

Hours later, after the doctors stitched Scott's wounds, set his broken arm and put him in a warm bed, Murdoch paced the bedroom floor with his hand in his pocket. Sarah had offered to sit with Scott, but Murdoch told her no.  He was told Scott was sleeping comfortably in a natural sleep. Barring any complications, such as an unknown infection, he should be on the road to recovery. He bent over and felt his son's forehead. No fever, that's a good sign . Relieved, he ran his hand through Scott's silky hair, marveling at the softness of it and feeling more like a father. He briefly wondered what it would've been like to have raised his sons on Lancer. No use crying over spilt milk, forget the past and just think about the future or in my case, the present. We've got enough problems with the here and now. He started walking the floor again.

One son home and one to go. Murdoch stopped pacing and rubbed his tired eyes. If Scott came back like this, how much worse will it go for my stubborn, temperamental son? The key to my heart. What will they do to break him? For he had no doubts that was what the man intended.

Murdoch collapsed in a chair by Scott's bed, wishing he had a brandy. Instead he started reminiscing.

The key to my heart. I told Maria that once when Johnny was just a baby. Such a long time ago. We were visiting friends here in Genesis and staying in Cold River at the hotel. Johnny was just learning to walk. He had toddled over to a man about my age, dressed in fine clothes, and clutched his pant leg. Johnny had a wooden palomino in his hand and was about to fall when the man caught him. I remember rushing over to the man to get my son, who he was now holding. “Horse,” said Johnny. The man had said, “Such a handsome son, expressive blue eyes and curly black hair. I bet he is the key to your heart.” I laughed and agreed. And I laughed again when I told Maria about it later.

Murdoch bolted straight up in the chair. “The man! Who the hell was that man?”

---17---

 

It was hard to say who was more surprised, U.S. Marshal Val Crawford from Green River or Sheriff Troup of Cold River. Both had approached the abandoned line shack from different directions, literally stumbling into each other in the dark.

Introductions were quickly made when they each saw the other's badge. Val was traveling with two U.S. deputies and a couple of Pinkerton men. Troup had one deputy and a bloodhound hunting dog. The dog had led him to the shack.

“Find anything?” asked Val, looking inside the door. Troup held the lantern high so the marshal could see.

“Back room's been smashed to smithereens,” replied Troup. “Take a looksee and tell me what ya think.” He handed off the lantern to Val.

Val took his time going through the place, lifting up stuff from piles of nonessentials, poking things here and there, working his way into the back room. He gave a long whistle, standing in the middle of the destruction. He closed the door and stared at the bloody wood panel, then opened it back up.

After a couple of minutes, Troup followed him in. “What do you make of all this?” asked Troup, bewildered.

“Well, either a very angry varmint or a cyclone went through here,” declared Marshal Crawford.  He closed the door, showing Troup the backside of the portal. “Of course, those bloody hand prints on either side of the door make it out to be a person unknown…an angry person unknown, probably in a rage, if'n he's the one that did the destructing in here.” Dang, I hope it wasn't Johnny.   Val expounded, “Looksee at the finger tips, they be all bloody, like he tried to dig his way out or something.”

Troup studied the bloody door.

Val shook his head, “Not good. Not good at all.”

“Ya got all that from one door?” asked Troup, perplexed and scratching behind his ear.

“Yip. Who's this here place belong too?” He stooped and picked up a black checker, examining it. “What do ya think this here game is doing here? Place don't look like its been inhabited for a long spell.”

“Don't likely know, Marshal,” said Troup. “Place is on Abbot land though.”

“Abbot from Abbott Mining?” asked Val, picking up interest. “What brings ya out here with the sniffer dog?”

Troup, trying to sound important, “Following up on a kidnappin from the LT. Governor's train. Betsy here, followed the blood trail to this here shack.”

“Lancer's sons?” asked Val, opening the door and heading to his horse. The other four men who had waited outside followed the marshal to their horses and mounted.

“Yeah, how'd ya know?”

“Been asked to join in,” replied Val, mounting his horse. “I think we'd better head to Genesis pronto.” With that he wheeled his horse around and with all his men took off south, leaving nothing but dust behind.

Troup sighed. He knew he wasn't the best lawman in the territory, but he knew how to do his job. Betsy had picked up another trail, different from the blood trail but headed in the same direction. Which one to follow?

---18---

 

Jake was bored and anxious.  The train crew, including the boy Casey, had joined him for a late supper and a game of cards at the saloon. When the Western Union office closed for the night, they all camped out in the back room of the saloon.

“Telegram still didn't show up?” asked Al, yawning. He had been keeping company with Jake and the train crew. Besides, now that Talbot had absconded, he was doing double duty, acting as pressman and aide de camp to the LT. Governor. The train was in the midst of getting refitted with new glass windows and repainted in the switchyard. It would be laid over for a few days until all the repairs were completed.

“Would I be here if'n it did?” grumbled Jake.

“Yeah, I reckon ya would've high tailed it out of here.”

“The LT. Governor said it'd be marked urgent so I'll be gone in a twinkling of an eye when it comes in. Besides, I already sent Casey over to the telegraph office first thing this morning. Nothing.” Jake poured Al a cup of Arbuckle's from a huge gray coffee pot, then poured himself another cup. “Get any sleep?”

“Man, that engineer sure can snore. Can't tell you how many nights he's kept me up on the train when Johnny was doin the engineering. It was nice of your barkeep friend to put us up last night.”

“Yeah, he owes me a few. Breakfast should be along shortly.”

Floyd, Mack and Casey stumbled out from the back room armed to the teeth.

“Why are you guys all so well heeled?” asked Jake, sipping his hot brew.

“Cause, “said Mack, holding his Spencer rifle, “When that there wire gets here, we're all goin with you to Genesis.” He patted the colt around his skinny hips. “This here gun is just extra protection in case we need it.”

“Yup,” added Floyd, holding a rifle borrowed from the barber who was an old train boomer of his. “We figure to lend a hand since we heard the sheriff's gone from town and there is no law in Genesis.” The engineer also had a gun around his broader hips.

“What are you two gonna do? You ain't no lawmen?” asked Jake, knowing the men were serious.

“We're backing up Lancer and the LT. Governor when they go to get their boys back.”

“The LT. Governor told me they have real lawmen on the way to do that. All we have to do is sit tight, well, you all do. I have to deliver the wire whenever it gets here,” reminded Jake, taking another swig of coffee.

Breakfast arrived by the way of a pretty waitress. She passed out the plates and utensils. The cook from the kitchen brought eggs, salt pork, fried potatoes and toast on a big platter. They ate in silence for the most part. Casey finished first and went to check on the telegram again.

Mack said, wiping his mouth on a checkered napkin, “Ya know, them Lancer boys are like part of our family. We can't just abandon them to the likes of them kidnappers.”

“That's why we're goin to Genesis, to help any way we can,” put in Floyd, with his mouth full of eggs.

“I know'd what ya mean,” added Al, his hand feeling his own gun that had been tucked into his waistband. “I'm going with ya too.”

“Gonna need a fast horse to keep up with me,” flatly stated Jake, finishing his coffee.

Mack pointed to the bat wing doors, “They're all saddled, tacked out and hitched. Casey's riding double with me.”

Floyd added, “And even if we can't keep up with ya, we'll meet ya in Genesis at Doc Bannings.”

Casey came running into the saloon, “I've got it!”

They all jumped up, ran to their horses, mounted and took off almost before the money settled on the table.

---19---

 

Murdoch and George rode their horses through the wide open iron gates, up the crushed stoned, curved driveway to the very proper mammoth, white-washed, three-storied house. They'd been on the road before sun-up.

George yawning, “Sure be obliged for a cup of coffee. Probably not much luck in that.”

“Probably not,” replied Murdoch, his anger barely under control.

At the horse-shoed hitching post, they dismounted and tied their mounts to the connecting iron rail between the two posts.

Neither man was really impressed with the house or the grounds.

“Reminds me of Scott's Grandfather's house in Boston,” said Murdoch, not bothering to look around. “Cold and empty.” He momentarily recalled the memory of having no luck there retrieving his son. He shook it off as a bad premonition.

“Reminds me of the White House,” flatly stated George, walking up the wide front steps beside Murdoch. “I was told this was his townhouse and his ranch is located a few miles out of town.”

“PFTT.”

“You sure this is the man you remember?” asked George, knocking on the door.

“About as sure as my name is Murdoch Lancer.”

The door opened and a maid dressed in gray greeted them without smiling, “Good morning, Sirs. May I help you?”

Murdoch, cutting off formalities, “Is he in?”

The maid frowned, taking offense at Murdoch's bluntness, “No Sir.”

“When do you expect him?”

The maid closed the door part way. “Not for a few days Sir. If you'll leave your calling card I'll be sure and give…”

Murdoch gave her a dark look and rumbled, “Tell him Murdoch Lancer wants to see him NOW!”

The maid, very cold and formal, “I told you SIR, he's not here.”

George, forced to interpose, “Look Madam, I'm the LT Governor, George…”

“I know who you are,” cut in the dour maid. “My benefactor is voting for the other party.”

George blustered, “That's all well and good, (not believing he just said that) but we've come here on a matter of grave importance about Mr. Lancer's son…”

“Oh, that matter,” said the maid, as if the men's names were just dawning on her. “I have a note for you, Mr. Lancer. Stay here,” she said sourly, as she turned and went over to a table in the vestibule.

Murdoch gave George a sour scowl of his own as he folded his arms and waited.

George just coughed and said, “As Jelly would say, you have your sore foot look on. We'll never find out anything doing it your way.”

Before Murdoch could reply, the maid came to the door and handed him a note in a sealed envelope with his name written on the front of it. “I hope this answers your questions. If not, I've been instructed to tell you he's in Genesis.” She quickly stepped back and slammed the door.

Murdoch started to open the envelope, then changed his mind. “Come on, let's get out of here. I feel like there's too many prying eyes watching us.

George had the same feeling as he mounted his horse. Both men spurred their horses into a gallop and hurried out of Cold River.

Pulling up a few miles from Genesis, Murdoch confirmed, “Jelly's right. There's something about that town that gives me the willies.” No longer able to contain the trepidation, he pulled the envelope out of his pocket, opened it and pulled out the white vellum sheet of paper. George leaned over from his horse and together they read the note.

An eye for an eye,

A son for a son.

You sided with Dr. Banning,

Now see what you have done.

The price was one son.

“Is he talking about Scott or Johnny?” asked George, confused.

“I don't know,” sadly replied Murdoch. He flipped the note over to the second page. “There's more.”

Now what will you pay for the other son?

What will you give up for the return of your son?

Find him in time and you might have won.

Don't find him in time and my task will be done!

Justice might be slow, but it will have won.


At the bottom of the note, the man wrote an addendum:

The little boy with the wooden horse, the sparkling blue eyes and curly black hair, the key to your heart. So tell me Murdoch, what will you part?


George commiserated, “Talk about rubbing salt in your wounds.”

But Murdoch didn't hear him. He whispered instead, “I'd give it all up, every dollar, every stock and bond, every steer, the ranch itself.” He put his hand in his pocket and felt the tin. “Ya hear me, George?”

“Yes,” said George, his heart aching for his best friend.

 Murdoch repeated himself, louder this time, “I'd give up everything…EVERYTHING, including my life to have Johnny back…” his voice cracked and he urged his horse into a fast gallop all the way to Genesis.

George gave him some time alone, then followed after him.

---20---

 

“Come on Madrid, wake up!” roared the giant. He heard a few of the men up ahead snicker, for they were used to his loud ways.

Timothy pulled on Sinbad's reins and slowed the horse to a walk, putting distance between them and the line of men, so they couldn't be heard. Then, in a much lower tone of voice said, “I know'd I didn't give ya that much soothing powder. It was only enough ta take the edge off the pain in your ribs. Now, wake up before Talbot suspects.”

Johnny's head had lain listlessly on the giant's shoulder the entire time they had traveled on horseback. As far as the giant could tell, the gunfighter hadn't moved a muscle. They had left the line shack after dusk and had ridden for hours by the light of the moon towards the other side of Genesis, skirting the town. Now, they were nearing their destination at the dawning of a new day.

“Talbot is never going to believe I knocked you out for this many hours, now wake up,” grumbled the giant, getting out of sorts. “I need to talk to ya gunman to gunman before we're in hearin distance.”  

No response.

He reached down to pinch the gunfighter's left hand and thought better of it when he noticed the swelling and dark bruising, mixing with the dried blood across his knuckles.   

Separating Johnny's loosely tied hands by wedging his own big one between them, the giant carefully felt the knuckles with practiced fingers. “The middle ones are broken, Madrid. Ya must have vented all your fury on that poor door.”

Still no response from the gunfighter, though he thought he felt a tug from Madrid's injured hand. He went on to examine the hand itself and was relieved when he could find no giving of the bone. “Hand looks good,” he softly murmured.

He started to work his way down the fingers, carefully avoiding the bloody, torn and raw fingertips. He felt the fingers curl inward into the protection of the palm and knew it had caused Madrid a great deal of pain to move them. The giant withdrew his hand and rested it on his wide thigh, waiting for the gunfighter to speak.

In a huffy voice, Johnny lashed out, “What are you now? Some kind of a doctor?”

“I was a medic during the war before they killed my brother. Then, I became a sharpshooter.” He felt the gunfighter stiffen.

Johnny lifted his aching head off the giant's shoulder, and said in a cold, bitter voice, “Scott never had a chance!” He fought to keep his emotions under control. “Don't do me any more favors. You're still going to be dead when this is over.”

“I wouldn't be expectin anything less from ya, Johnny Madrid.”


Johnny had been awake for hours. He had a belly full of tears he couldn't shed. If he was still alive when this was over, he'd go away somewhere and lick his wounds. He had done a lot of reflecting on his past, both good and bad, as they quietly rode. His life was all laid out before him. The best part of his life, of course, had been living on Lancer. He had a family, a home and he truly belonged. He had felt so blessed, coming out of the darkness into the light. The best gift of all had been finding out his father really wanted him. Oh, they'd had their ups and downs, but his father was proud of him and had told him so many times.

One of his memories was when the sheep had pastured on Lancer land. They had stayed a few weeks so the ewes could lamb in safety.  The town and cattlemen had been against it. Murdoch had knocked and come in while he'd been taking his bath. They'd talked for a short time and his father had patted him on his sore shoulder and had told him he was proud of him for doing the right thing. He knew his father wasn't a man to show emotion, but it was always in his eyes. He hoped to never disappoint his father.

Later, after a trying time in town, where his former gang had fed him the raspberries about being a sheep man, he'd found a note on his dresser in his father's hand writing, giving him succor.

It's easy to stand with a crowd. It takes courage to stand alone.

Boy, what a difference a few words can make .

And then there was Scott, his sibling.  Scott, the brother who he never knew he had, the only person he had let become a part of him…after all, blood is thicker than water. He'd never dreamed they'd become so close. He'd often thought about what it would've been like growing up with his father and brother on Lancer. Now Scott was lost to him and he wondered if his father would be disappointed in him and condemn him back into the darkness, where he felt he belonged.

  I shouldn've won the checker game. I killed Scott. I should've known it was a trick. That they had lied. No excuses. I've been around riff-raft like this all my life. I know how they think, how they act. Scott hadn't a clue. I should've known better. How can Murdoch ever forgive me? How can I look him in the eye, knowing what I've done?

All night, as they rode, Johnny thought of different scenarios or plans of action he should take when they reached their destination. In the end, he decided he had no choice. He'd play their macabre game. He'd save his father, who he loved more than anything in the world. He'd find a way to avenge his brother. And if his father couldn't forgive him? I'll…I'll…


“MADRID! Stop woolgathering and pay attention!” rumbled the giant.

Johnny jumped in spite of the fact he was getting used to the man's loud ways. “Quit bellering and I will,” snapped Johnny, in his own foul mood.

“Look man, once we're there, as far as Talbot's concerned, my responsibility for you has ended.”

Johnny very sarcastically, “Ya lookin for me to be obliged? A thank you? Well, look again, because you're not gettin one from me.”

The giant lost patience. He quickly untied Johnny's hands, turned around and knocked him off his horse. He dismounted from his horse and grabbed Johnny by the arms before the stunned gunfighter could pick himself off the ground. He pulled Johnny to his feet and literally shook him till his teeth rattled.

The giant was so exasperated, he enunciated each word, “I'm…tryin…to…save…your…ungrateful life…and that there one…of your father's. You can shoot me later, but there's some stuff you need to know!”

When the giant let go, Johnny took a couple of dizzying steps back. Not many people could get away with doing what the mammoth man had just done. Considering the man's size and the fact that he looked as angry as an old bear, Johnny held his hands out to ward off the angry man, “Okay,” he simply said, as he crossed his arms over his chest, “Okay ya got my attention. I'm listening.”

The giant, not appeased and still looking like he could eat Johnny for breakfast, started into his tirade, “I don't know what kinda game they got planned, though I suspect it's a cat and mouse kind. Ya do know the lone stockholder and the boss man are the same person? You'd as much as figured it out when ya were playing that checker game.”

Johnny, growing serious and quiet now, slowly put things together. “No, I didn't know for sure. This is all about him?” A light went on in Johnny's mind, “The ambush at the train? The kidnapping?! SCOTT'S MURDER?” Each question steadily grew louder. He couldn't believe his ears, he'd guessed right.

“Oh man,” groaned the giant. “Murdoch really kept his word. Ya boys are totally in the dark, ain't ya?”

Johnny was totally confused. “What's Murdoch got to do with all this?”

“The man's been harassing your father for months. I don't have time to go into it all.”

“Months?” repeated Johnny in a shaky voice, as more pieces fell into place. “He's the reason for this wild goose chase? He's the reason why Murdoch felt he had to protect us?”

“It's more complicated than ya know, but the gist is the man's wanted on securities and equities fraud, salted mines…the works. It's how he became rich. He's gone and swindled people for years, but your mine was different. It was used as a revenge tool…a tool to get even with your pa and Doc Banning.”

“How so?”

“Dat cum it! There's ain't enough time!” exclaimed the giant, looking up the rocky trail. “They'll be missin us.” He climbed back on the horse and moved his foot aside off the stirrup. “Come on!” he ordered.

Johnny reluctantly put a leg up on the stirrup, while still trying to sort out all he'd just heard. He hopped one time when the big man grabbed his arm and thrust him behind the saddle. Frantically Johnny tried to piece together what he could recall about his father's relationship with Dr. Banning when they'd first met.  He remembered Murdoch and Scott telling the story of when Jelly was attacked by the cougar and the wild ride to find a doctor. Who could forget it? Jelly alone must have told him the same story a dozen times. The doctor was in jail for operating on some rich man's son and didn't have a medical license. The son later committed suicide.

“Give me your hands,” gruffly ordered the giant.

Johnny passively did so.

“Now, listen,” commanded the giant. “Talbot's a real snake in the grass, a con man, liar and cheat and most of all a master manipulator. You should know'd his type. He's gonna try and get ya to believe things that ain't true. He's gonna make you believe what he wants you to believe in order to get ya to play the game better.”

“What kind of a game?” retorted Johnny, still trying to recall all the events that had happened in the Lancer household, leading up to this point in time. He scarcely felt the giant tie his hands together again, this time more tightly. I must've had blinders on. Both Scott and I must have…and it cost Scott his life…

“Madrid, you're the bait to draw your father.” The big man felt the gunfighter go rigid. Ducking his head, the giant added, “And unfortunately, you're also the bait to draw the boss man out into the open. He's been real cagey up to now.”

Reality started to sink in and Johnny found he had more questions than answers, “So, this has all been a real game? A life or death game and Scott was one of the casualties and my father's about to become another?”

The giant didn't give an answer. He simply couldn't without giving the game away. They were close now and they needed Johnny to play the grieving brother. It wasn't supposed to have worked out this way. Neither of Lancer's sons were supposed to be involved and that was one of the reasons why they were on the LT. Governor's train to begin with…for protection. Murdoch had been adamant about keeping his sons out of harm's way. Johnny's broken ribs and his health made the excuse that much more believable. The giant still found it hard to believe the LT. Governor's protection hadn't been enough. I bet Murdoch feels he's walking on eggs about now.

But, the boss man wanted to extract his full revenge and evidently Talbot hadn't been able to talk him out of it or he hadn't wanted too. Talbot seemed to have his own reasons for playing this game and the giant hadn't been able to figure out why. It really didn't matter. Once the game was under way, the boss man's men would take over.  Talbot and his gang would head to the north passage to join up with the Stryker gang, who were all in cahoots with the boss man's brother. Their game being horse stealing and cattle rustling.   Geez, the whole family's as crooked as a dog's hind leg.

Something wasn't ringing right with the giant's silence and Johnny was a bit overwhelmed with all he'd just learned. “Where do you fit into all of this?”

“What ya mean?”

“Ya don't fit the puzzle.” Johnny fidgeted, trying to find a more comfortable position. His ribs ached something fierce since the giant had shaken him. His hands weren't in much better condition. His fingertips, being so raw, stung and shot waves of pain up his hands every time he touched something. On top of that, he was starting to feel the effects of not having had anything to eat and very little water over the last thirty or more hours. He had a headache. He felt dizzy at times and lightheaded. He shook it off. He had to persevere for his father's sake.

“How's that?” growled the giant. He had to know if it was going to make a difference. Had he been found out?

Johnny started his story, “During the war, I hung out at the border towns in Texas. I was too young to join up. I remember hearing stories about a giant of a man and his two brothers. It seems this huge man rode with some very distinguished gentlemen before Texas joined the war. They did good deeds and upheld what law there was at the time. At the end of the war, a brother was killed. The giant and his other brother were in dire straits, about to be killed too.”

Johnny paused for effect. No reaction came from the man in front of him. Disappointed, Johnny angrily finished the story. “A rancher and his foreman from California came along and intervened at the last possible moment and saved their lives.”

The giant was totally silent and Johnny could have sworn he felt him tremble for a moment. Acidly, Johnny went on, “Of course, he'd have to be a good guy and he would never have killed my brother...so, I guess that lets you off the hook…to being that giant.”

“Ya keep that hate, Madrid, and don't listen to Talbot. You got grit and you're stronger and savvier than him. You fight him with everything ya got. Fight him with all your know how from your'n gunfightin days. Take heed, all ya got to do is find your pa and get him and you outta that boxed in canyon.”

“Boxed in canyon?”

“Yeah, it's connected to a rock quarry adjacent to the old Genesis mine. When they free ya, find your pa and make your way to the north side of the canyon. Ya have to get away from the mine. They'll be gunning for ya there.”

“And then what?” asked Johnny, listening intently.

“At the north end is a small gully where the water drips down from the rocks. It leads to a notch where an old Indian trail leads to another canyon. The pathway is very small and tight, only a man can fit through it.”

“What about the boss man?”

“He's the one that will try and stop you from reaching that point. It's his game.”

“And why should I believe you?” asked Johnny, having more than his share of doubts.

“Cause, I have my reasons and…” the giant kicked his horse into a gallop. “That's where the trust thing comes into play again.”

“Trust?” scoffed Johnny, not believing. “After you knocked me out? Drugged my water? I'd have a hard time believing you if you told me Hell was hot!”

“Suit yourself, Madrid.”

They rode in silence and caught up to the trail of men winding through the rocky hills. The dirt was hard packed from the sun beating down upon it. Foliage was scarce, scrub and brush was scattered over the many layers of rock and dirt. They rode around a mammoth rock on a curve of a road only inches from a fifty foot drop into what looked like a rock quarry. Johnny could see the back of a mine from where they were riding. Cave like openings gaped from the back in various places. He surmised they were there for the miners to dump the excess dirt and rock, though they were different from the mines in Mexico. There was a huge pile of debris under the tallest break in the wall, with a rope and pulley suspended high above the pile. From the advantage point from which they were riding, Johnny quickly took stock in his bearings and learned the lay of the land, especially paying close attention to the few miles north of the quarry, which overlapped the boxed in canyon. Straining his eyes, he couldn't find the notch the giant had talked about.

“It's hidden,” murmured the giant. “Ya have to stumble onto it. Follow the goat trails and you'll find it.”

“Great,” griped Johnny, still darting his eyes over the landscape. The place was dense and desolate with rock piles scattered every which way. The walls were steep with no way to climb them. The pit itself was as big as the boxed in canyon next to it. He could see the land was just like the ground above it, full of scrub and brush with a few trees surrounding it.

The men rode around to the front of the mine where the yard was fenced in. A man at the gate opened it from the inside and Talbot and his gang rode through to the entrance of the mine. The men gathered around the entrance were rough, hardened and dead emotionally. You could see it in their eyes . They'd seen a lot of bad things in their lives, done a lot of bad things and had a lot of bad things done to them. Fallen angels.  Johnny knew, once upon a time, he would've been like these men if his father hadn't pulled him out when he did. I never told Murdoch how grateful I was that he found me. So many things left unsaid.

The men dismounted. One of the dead-eyed men (Johnny nicknamed them thus, remembering Tallie's description of the gun hawks her father had hired) ordered the giant to untie Johnny's hands. He did as told and Johnny was roughly yanked off the horse even before the giant could stop them. A man dressed in fine clothes and about Murdoch's age approached him as the dead-eyed men pinned Johnny's arms behind his back.

The man stared him in the eye and Johnny didn't flinch. In fact, he made it a point to hold his own and not cow down to these gunslingers. Never in all his born days could Johnny remember anyone having such dark, cold, heartless eyes. Sexton could have taken lessons from this man. Still, he held his ground, playing the game. It earned him a hard back-handed slap across the face and a comment he didn't understand.

“That's for soiling my trousers.” The hateful man turned towards Talbot and snapped an order, “Give him the rules and then hang him out to dry.”

---21---

 

Jelly swaggered out the doctor's office door complaining, “You train boomers need to quit cluttering up the boardwalk. Church will be lettin out soon and the good doers' will need the space to walk in.”

“Train boomers? Who ya callin a train boomer? We're the Big Four from the Brotherhood,” barked Mack, sitting on a chair tipped back against the general store's boarded wall. He, Floyd and Casey were enjoying a cup of coffee made by Mrs. Banning. Jake and Al were inside talking to Dr. Banning, and Scott Lancer.

They were pleasantly surprised to find Scott at Doc Bannings and much relieved to find him up and about when they had ridden in a few minutes ago.

“Four? I only count three unless my eyes are a failing me,” grouched Jelly, as he leaned against the buckboard, still out in front of the store. “Let's see, the engineer, the fireman and the conductor. I don't see any railroad men.”

“Dern Jelly,” drawled Floyd, “Ya know we're a special handpicked crew for the LT. Guv. Course, it's nothing like you were used to on the Santa Fe.”

“Darn right,” grumbled Jelly, taking out his railroad watch and making a point of looking at the time. “Spect the Boss and the LT. Guv should be riding in any time now. Per'd near noon now.”

Dr. Banning and Jake came outside to join the men folk, with a cup of coffee in their hands. Two boys, walking down the street, were throwing a ball back and forth to each other.  One boy overthrew the ball, causing it to roll under the buckboard. Jelly, grumbling about boys playing in the street, crawled under the wagon to get the ball. Reaching for the ball, he hit his head on the underside of the buckboard, causing him to look upwards. He didn't like what he saw.

“Doc Banning, ya better take a gander at the tongue of this here buckboard,” requested the little man, as he threw the ball out from under the wagon.

Dr. Banning knelt down on his hands and knees and peered under the wagon. He paled considerably at the implication. “A cracked tongue?”

“Not just cracked, but cut,” corrected Jelly, running his fingers over the split wood. “If yer family had made a sharp turn or run over something it would've snapped in two, probably overturning the buckboard.”

In a very shaky voice, Banning replied, “So, the man's not done with me yet. Just what we figured. My family is still in the line of fire.”

“Fraid so, doc,” commiserated Jelly.  They scooted out from under the buckboard just as Murdoch and the LT. Governor pulled up on their horses.

“Well, this is quite a surprise,” said Murdoch, sober as a judge. His heart felt so heavy. He dismounted and looped the reins of his horse to the hitching rail. He went inside the doctor's office.

 Now that Murdoch was here, the rest of the men saw no point staying outside.

Jake quickly handed the fat telegram to the Lt. Governor. “I hope this is what ya been waitin for.”

The LT. Governor nodded his thanks and followed everyone inside the doctor's office. As George read the telegram, Murdoch went to check on Scott. The others just milled around the room.

Dr. Banning found his wife and Billy, who were with Scott in the very large examination room, gathered around the table playing with the hamsters. They had built a wooden wheel for the critters to run on and Billy was just finishing up with a square tunnel for the animals to sleep in. Dr. Banning said, “Boston's getting fat.”

Murdoch came into the room when he hadn't found his son in bed. “I didn't expect to find you up so soon,” said Murdoch, looking older to Scott.

Scott had his foot propped on a pillow, which was sitting on a chair, his gun belt was looped over the corner spindle of the same chair.

“Think I could sleep with Johnny's life in danger?” At his father's discouraged frown, he added, “Didn't have any luck finding out more about his whereabouts did ya?” Scott sighed, threw down the piece of wood he was working with and ducked his head.

“I know the boss man is in Genesis, so it stands to reason Johnny is here too.” The room became silent as a tomb. The men from the antechamber filed into the examination room. “I also know who the boss man is,” announced Murdoch, moving behind Scott, as George came up beside him, still reading the telegram.

Murdoch absently put his hands on Scott's tense shoulders and started massaging them. Scott bent his neck back and looked up at his father, who winked at him, still rubbing his shoulders. Scott not knowing what to think decided to go with the moment. He gave his father a tight smile, but Murdoch caught the twinkle in his son's eyes. Assurance passed between them, adding a new warmth to their relationship.

Jelly became impatient, “Well Boss? Who in thunderation is he?”

The LT. Governor cut in with his own eyes shining. “We got him! Ya hear me Murdoch? We got him! It's all here!” He shook the telegram in his excitement and smacked Murdoch on the chest. “The warrant's been issued, we can go after Johnny right now and avoid the game.”

Murdoch smiled for the first time. “Explain it all, George.”

Holding the telegram before him, George said, “First of all, the original owners of the Sonora Lancer mine were Joshua Abbott and Victor Talbot…half-brothers.”

“Like Johnny and Scott,” asked Jelly.

“Yes…no…same mother, different fathers,” corrected George. He went on, “JV TOBB, the lone stock holder is the shell name for the following people, Joshua Abbott, Victor Talbot Abbott and Josiah Abbott, all related to the one and only Judah Abbott of Abbott Mining.”

A murmur went through the room.

George continued, “Seems Josiah is the younger brother of Judah. Josiah runs the ranch and is ahead of the gang from the north passage. Judah has always run the mining end of the business. Talbot is Judah's step son whose mother was a widow when he married her.”

Another murmur circled around the room.

Murdoch asked, “So the grand jury has enough evidence to arrest all the Abbotts without drawing out the boss man?”

“Yes,” said George, smiling broadly. “They even have an iron clad witness, who won't cow down to the Abbotts, willing to testify.”

“Who might that be?” asked Jelly. “I mean, he'd have to be tough and brave to go against all them there Abbotts.”

“That would be me,” said a loud, deep voice from the backdoor. In stepped a giant of a man.

In half of a second, the whole train crew, including Scott had their guns pointed at the man.

“Wow, I feel like a lone tin can sittin on the fence post,” exclaimed Timothy, putting his hands up.

Before Murdoch could rescue him, Val Crawford and his deputies rushed into the room from the front door.

Boy, this room is sure getting smaller , thought Jelly, moving beside Scott, who looked frozen in time.

Val shouted, “Well, hell, wonders never cease to amaze me. I haven't seen you since my tender years in Texas. If it ain't the shootenist, rope' in…”

Desperate, the giant shouted, “We don't have time for this! Murdoch…!”

While moving his hands up and down, trying to settle everyone down, Murdoch quickly said, “Its okay. He's on our side.”

“Ya couldn't prove it by me,” snapped Al, refusing to put his gun down.

“Look, it'll all be explained in the end, but right now we need a new plan of action. Johnny's life is dependin on it,” bellowed the giant.

That got everyone's attention. The room became deathly silent.

“All right, you have the floor,” the LT. Governor said, while putting his gun in its holster. The rest of the men did the same. Scott laid his on the table within arm's reach.

“Getting down to brass tacks, here's the skinny. Talbot and his gang left the mining camp. The boss man's changed the rules. He has the mine surrounded with gunslingers…hardened gunslingers.”

He took a breath and looked straight at Murdoch. “I know'd Johnny is my responsibility and I'd done everything I could to help and protect your sons.”

He looked over to Scott's accusing eyes. “And I'm much aggrieved I had to shoot you, but it was the only way to save your life.”

He brought his eyes back to Murdoch's complacent ones, thankful the man understood what he'd been up against. “The boss man's bent on playing this crazy game. He's obsessed with it.”

“Revenge is best served cold,” said Murdoch. “And Johnny? Don't candy coat it, Tim. How is he?”

The giant actually winced, which made Murdoch's heart pump faster. Looking like he'd rather be anywhere but reporting to Johnny's father, the giant said, “He's in a bad way. The boss man has it in for you something fierce. I've never met anyone like him. He…ah…” The giant's eyes moved downward, then he sighed, straightened his shoulders, and brought his dark brown eyes back up and stared Murdoch square in the face. “I saved Johnny from a severe beating, but I couldn't stop them from hanging him out to dry.” The big man looked chagrined and rubbed his neck. “He's tied up and hanging above a rock pile in the quarry, been so, for about three hours now.”

“Three hours? It's got to be ninety degrees out,” roared Murdoch, finally losing some of his composure.

“The worst part is he's had no water…only what I snuck him last night.”

“What?!” shouted Murdoch. “Even horses get water from time to time!”

George put an arm around his friend's shoulders. “Easy Murdoch, easy.”

“Yeah, I know'd.” The giant took his hat off and slapped a meaty fist into it. “I couldn't leave the mine earlier for fear they'd shoot Johnny if they found me gone. I had to wait till Talbot pulled out. After all, I've been riding with Talbot's gang, since I infiltrated it, even before we all hatched this crazy plan. As it was, I had to ride a few miles before I could slip away.”

Scott, feeling left out in the dark, “Will someone please explain…”

“There ain't time! We have to rescue Johnny now, while there's still time.”

They all knew what the giant meant by that. Johnny was ailing.

“The boss man wants his game played!” shouted the giant. “He doesn't care about anything else!”

“How?” said Murdoch in a hard voice. “It's me he wants. It's me he's angry at for siding with Dr. Banning all those years ago. Mind you, I don't regret my decision for a minute. But, it's me he wants to take a pound of flesh from, namely by using my sons.” He started to pace. “What am I supposed to do? Walk up to the front entrance of the mine and say here I am, let's play the game?”

“NO, the man ain't like that! He wants a challenge. He wants ta make ya hurt. He gets his jollies from hurting people!” yelled the giant. “Don't ya kin? Johnny's the bait, the key to this whole malicious game!”

“Remember,” recalled Scott, “You had words with Abbott in the Cold River Saloon. He took exception. You beat him in a fist fight. He tried to shoot you in the back. He couldn't continue to press charges against Banning for the doctor saved his life. I mean, how would it look, and the charges were suspect anyways? After all this time, his son's suicide has gnawed at him and he wants someone to blame…someone to take it out on.”

“And Abbott found it by the way of Johnny. The one person who had nothing to do with any of it,” remarked Dr. Banning. “But, why Johnny?”

“Because,” said Murdoch, “When Johnny was a baby we accidently met at the Cold River Hotel and Abbot remembered how much Johnny meant to me.”

“So, we play his game?” asked Scott. The room was uncannily quiet.

“No,” countered Murdoch, “We make up our own game and play it by our rules.”

 

With much debating, the men came up with a plan of action. They relied on what the giant had observed the few times he had been to the mine. Murdoch didn't like the odds of so many civilians being involved.

“You men know about trains, not hired gunmen who would take great pride in cutting your throats.”

“We were all in the war, Mr. Lancer. We can handle a gun,” said the engineer. “Besides, Johnny is our friend. The short time we spent together we became a family.”

“George, you're the LT. Governor. You're a Politician, not a gun fighter. I can't let you take the risk.”

“This country was built on risks,” stated George, infuriated. “You don't think I get shot at, being a Politician?”  George was still fuming, “Well, think again. Besides, Johnny's like a son to me.”

Al nodded his head in agreement.

Murdoch smiled, glad for the support.

Watching Scott, as he awkwardly wrapped his gun belt around his lean hips with his broken arm out of the sling, Murdoch just shook his head at his stubborn first born son.

Scott put his good foot down and obstinately declared, “I'm going, gunshot wounds or no gunshot wounds, broken arm and all. Hell will have to freeze over first before you leave me behind...besides, Johnny is my brother, and he'd be there for me.”

With a big sigh, Murdoch brought his arm around Scott's shoulders and gently squeezed the opposite shoulder, “Yeah, I know he would.” Then, he did a very unMurdoch thing, but a very fatherly thing, he whispered four words into Scott's ear that astounded the young man. He then put Scott's broken arm back in the sling still around his neck. Afterwards, Scott could only smile and think his father had missed his family more than he'd ever thought possible.

Next on Murdoch's list were the two doctors. Both had determined countenances. “You two ever been in a gun fight?”

Dr. Turner, “I was a saw bones during the war and the Mexican – American War before that.”

Dr. Banning, “I wasn't in any war, but I know how to doctor people. Besides, if Johnny is ailing, he's going to need me and I've been his doctor since Uppity. Once you get him back home, your own doctor can take back over.”

There was nothing Murdoch could say to that logic.

“Well Boss,” said Jelly, standing in the front doorway. “We're all ready. Let's bring Johnny home.” Jelly turned and went to mount his horse.

Sarah Banning grabbed Murdoch's hand and said, “The women of this town know how to sit and wait and pray.” Billy and Casey Jones solemnly stood beside her.

Murdoch gave her a hug. “Thank you, Sarah. Today is Sunday, the Lord's Day. I know he'll hear your prayers.”

He walked out the door to where the giant, Timothy, was waiting for him. “Murdoch, ya know I'll do my best.”

Murdoch reached into his pocket, “You want this yet?”

“Nope, not yet. Not till I bring Johnny home safe. Then, my job will be done.” The big man mounted his horse.

Murdoch looked at all the men assembled before him. Lawmen, trainmen, politicians, doctors, friends and family, all with one purpose in mind, to bring Johnny back. He looked up to the sky and truly felt blessed.

---22---

 

The men assigned to the ridge were all lying flat on their bellies on the hill Scott had originally crested when he rode from the abandoned line shack. The ridge was high and wide, which overlooked the winding road, the steep rock quarry and the back of the dry-dug mine.

“I told ya, it wasn't a pretty sight,” simply said the giant with his head bowed.  He deeply felt the father's pain of the man next to him. Johnny's brother was taking it just as hard on the other side of Timothy. Both men hadn't said a word yet, but their sharp intake of breath and their rigid bodies had said it all.

“As I live and breathe, they strung ‘im up good,” moaned Jelly, positioned beside Murdoch and shaking his head back and forth.

Johnny was hanging by his wrists under the quarry's tall rope pulley over the highest pile of discarded rocks with his feet just skimming the peak of the pile.

Through Scott's spy glass, Murdoch could see a bird's eye view of his son. Johnny's eyes were closed and his head leaned limply against his raised arms. Moving the glass up a bit Murdoch could see his shirt cuffs were open and the sleeves hung down around his elbows. His rope-bound wrists were saturated with blood as it dripped down his arms.

“How is he?” anxiously asked Scott.

“Don't exactly know,” gravely reported Murdoch, handing the glass to Scott. “His shirt is plastered to his body. He's still sweating.” Murdoch unconsciously felt the canteen of water strung over his shoulder. “That's a good sign at least. His eyes are closed. He's conserving energy. He's lived in this heat his whole life. He knows what he has to do to stay alive. And he must know we're coming for him,” the last said with hope.

“Good,” said the giant in a relieved voice. “Madrid's one of the toughest men I know'd. He'll be all right,” advised Timothy, trying to bolster Murdoch's flagging spirits. He knew the man was torn up inside to see his son like this.

“Course it could mean that there sun is too bright and he can't see worth a dime,” added Jelly, giving his own two cents worth of advice. “Anyone in his right mind would have closed his eyes against it.”

The giant gave Jelly a hard look, but softened it when he saw the tears in the older man's eyes.

Not taking his eyes off his son, Murdoch asked, “You sure you can hit that rope?”

“Ya know I can, especially with this here Winchester, one of one thousand.” He patted the big gun like it was his baby. “Course, this here gun is just window dressing to get things started, shows ya mean business. My Colt's gonna take care of the rest.”

The men could all see Abbott's gunslingers scattered around the perimeter of the quarry, men hidden in among the rocks and at the cave-type holes in the back of the mine. It was anyone's guess as to the whereabouts of Abbott.

Scott gave a tight smile for he remembered a similar story Johnny once told him when they'd been protecting Charlie, the fix-it man, as he built the jail in Spanish Wells.

“It is loaded?” asked Scott seriously. He also remembered Johnny's scattergun had been empty at the time. Johnny had held up his Colt and said, “This one is a hit or miss kind of gun. Gives you a little hope, but not always. Stand up to it, you figure you have a chance.”

Outraged, the giant said, in a low voice, (for he didn't have a choice, after all, they were supposed to be sneaking up on the bad boys.) “Of course, it's loaded,” He then broke open the weapon and double-checked to make sure it was. “What dad blamed Texas…?” He sighed and was relieved when he confirmed the bullets were in place. Growling at Scott, he guiltily said, “Fine. I know'd I had that one a comin.” He squared his hat. “Can ya forgive me son for takin ya out?”

“Only if you get Johnny back,” replied Scott, peeking through the spy glass at his brother. He thought he saw Johnny open an eye and look around without moving his head. I wonder if he's sleeping with his ears open. My, how we laughed when Cal said that.

“Deal,” agreed the giant.

Lost in thought and not taking his own eyes off Johnny, as he slightly swayed in the wind, Murdoch missed the whole exchange. Memories of his youngest son tumbled over each other in his mind.

“Johnny,” whispered Murdoch, unaware some of the men had heard him.

Scott cleared his throat.

In a gruff voice, Murdoch asked, “Think Val and his deputies are in position yet in the front of the mine?”

“Should be,” confirmed the giant, all business now.

In a hard voice, Murdoch ordered, “Get Johnny off that rock pile!”

“Yes Sir, on my way,” said the giant. “I'm headin to the south side to that there pile of scrub where the sun's at my back.” Timothy pointed out the spot that was directly in front of where Johnny was hanging above the rock pile. “First shot is for Johnny and the second goes to the sharpshooter on that there big rock on the curve of the road. I'll cover Johnny. The rest of you will have to draw their fire.”

“You're sure Johnny will know what to do?” asked Murdoch, worry evident on his tired face.

“I wasn't privy to the rules Talbot laid down to Johnny on how to play their sick game. As ya know, Talbot and Abbott are both as cold-blooded as a snake in a snowbank. It'd be just like them to tell Johnny one thing and then do another. Don't be surprised if he runs the opposite way when he sees you. The end result will be whatever benefits the boss man.”

He started backing down the hill, then stopped. “Murdoch, knowing your son, he'll try to protect you. He thinks his brother is dead. I didn't know we had the warrant when I left or I would have told him the truth and gotten him outta there. He'll do all that he thinks is necessary to keep ya alive, including laying down his own life.” The big man backed the rest of the way down the hill to where his horse was waiting, climbed on and rode out to get into position.

Murdoch heaved a sigh and said to himself, “Ya didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, Tim.”

Murdoch got up onto one knee, squeezed Scott's shoulder and said, “Keep your eyes peeled with that spy glass. I don't have to tell you there's a lot of hills, valleys and goat trails to hide or get lost in. You're the base for coordinates. Time is of the essence. Johnny needs water. Whatever you do don't lose track of your brother. I'll be checking time to time to see what direction you're pointed at with my own double glasses.”

Scott nodded, “Don't worry, I'll stayed glued to him. A pink shirt shouldn't be that hard to keep track of.” Scott's coat had been rolled into a tight bundle to prop his broken arm on while it helped steady the heavy spy glass. Scott's Colt was on the ground beside his right elbow, ready for action.

“Never the less there are blind spots.” Murdoch gave his oldest son a slight grin, “You keep your head down, son.” Looking around at the rest of the men spread out over the ridge, “That goes for all of you too. Take careful aim, fire when ready, but don't take any chances unless warranted.”

The men nodded their heads and got into position, spacing out along the ridge from the quarry to the canyon. Once the players reached the canyon, they would be on their own for the most part.

Murdoch was still nervous about using inexperienced men, men who were his friends, against professionally hired, blood-thirsty gunfighters.

The plan was a simple one.

Val and his two deputies would broach the front gate of the mine and work their way to the back of the mine, then to the rock quarry.

The two Pinkerton agents (who were originally with Val) would cover the ridge with the train crew, Floyd, Mack and Al. Jelly would cover Scott as he manned the spy glass, keeping track of his brother.

Jake would cover the giant, who in turn would cover Johnny, as he made the wild dash for the canyon. After Johnny made the canyon, Tim would mount his horse and head for the north side of the canyon and sneak through the notch between the two canyons.

The two doctors would cover the north end tree line from above the canyon wall. Timothy had said Johnny would run in that direction to the notch by the gully, using the goat trails, hopefully intercepting his father with the life-giving water. The gamble was, would Johnny be in any condition to complete the run. Would he be able to outfox Abbott, who would be out in the canyon waiting to ambush Johnny and Murdoch?

George would lower Murdoch into the canyon with the aid of a horse and rope. Murdoch would enter the canyon in an atypical place, a blind spot, hidden from the quarry. His goal was to reach his son as soon as possible. The LT. Governor would then cover Murdoch until he was out of sight, then George would be free to cover whoever needed help.

 If the plan works , thought Murdoch, it'll be a miracle.

“Come on, George. Let's find that blind spot.”

---23---

 

Well, they hung me out to dry alright. I guess I can't be much worse for wear. My clothes are soaked, my hair is dripping sweat and even my socks are wet. I shouldn't complain because that means I'm not completely dehydrated…yet.

Johnny licked the excess moisture off of his upper lip, tasting salt. At least it's wet. My lips are so chapped and cracked that I could peel them off, if I could reach them.

Another problem had taken root. His arms and legs had started to cramp. Sure sign of not enough water. He stretched as far as he could to help relieve the pain in his limbs. If I could just touch the ground. He tugged at the blood-soaked ropes at his wrists and thought he felt them give a little. The rope had been tied tight and had deeply scored his flesh. His skin was slippery from his own sweat and blood. He had worked a little at a time to loosen the rope by rubbing his wrists against the hemp. His toes could now touch the rocks beneath him. Fresh blood splashed onto his face and he could feel it run down his arms into the sleeves of his shirt.

This shirt is a goner. Talk about your wear and tear. Between Uppity and all the days on the train and now this, end of the string for you shirt… probably have a half dozen more in my dresser. Teresa is still gonna be mad at me for not taking better care of my clothes. He swallowed a dry chuckle. Why do I care about a pink shirt anyways?

Murdoch! Where are you?

Hmm, never thought I'd say this, but thank you, Timothy, Mr. Giant. Who would've thought that little bit of water ya practically forced down my throat last night would sustain me? Well, for at least a little while anyways…I'd drink it again, medicine doused and all right now if I had the chance. It was a dirty trick. Too bad I was so worked up that the effects didn't last longer. He licked his lips again.

Ya sure had a funny look on your face when the dead-eyed boys started playing the water game. Did ya really think I'd give it away and tell them I wasn't thirsty? What's a little dance? Course it was leadin to a beaten. I could see it in their faces and I know the type all right. Glad I never hit the bottom like them. Murdoch saved me from all that.

Murdoch! Are ya here yet?

Now, ‘begging please', that was another thing entirely. Ya know my pride wouldn't allow that. They sure got to pushing and punching pretty hard, for a while there I felt like their own personal punching bag, especially in my ribs. Talbot must've told them where my weak spot was because my ribs sure feel like they're trying to come through my lungs now. How am I ever going to run like hell when the time comes? But, I do thank ya, Tim, for breakin up the fight.

Murdoch! How much longer?

So tired. My eyeballs feel like they're gonna burn out. Hard to see…against the sun…

Rules of the game: per Talbot, the snake. 

If Murdoch finds you, he's dead. But, he has the water.

If Murdoch doesn't find you, you're dead. How long can you go without water, Johnny?

If you don't find your father and get him to the notch, Abbot will kill you both.  The boss man is hidden in the canyon, ready for the hunt.

A real no win situation. You decide Johnny Lancer, your life or your fathers? Which is more important to you?

My father's.


Abbott is the cat.

Murdoch is the rat.

And I'm the cheese.

A real cat and mouse game.

Where's the dog that ate the cat? Must be the giant. Who else is big enough to eat a cat? And if the cat eats the rat, that would be Murdoch and I know he wouldn't taste good…Man, the farmer might be in the dell, but his animals sure are runnin around gnawing on each other.

So, how's the rhyme really go? The dog takes the cat and the cat takes the rat and the cheese does something. What does the cheese do?

Can't stand the heat...thirsty… feel like I'm losing my mind...so hot…need water…must…have…water. Johnny involuntarily licked his lips again.

Murdoch! Hurry!

 Back to the cheese. What happens to the damn cheese? Johnny thought about that for a while.

Something hit his knee. Felt like a rock, too heavy for bird poop. Stupid buzzards anyhow. I'm not gonna be your supper tonight…once more, back to the cheese…what did the cheese do? Oh yeah, the cheese stands alone! Now, that's a sobering thought. All alone, discarded and…unwanted.

Talbot said Murdoch wouldn't want me anymore for getting Scott killed. I won the checker game…never will I play checkers…again…never…ever…again…

What else did Talbot say? Something about home…think Johnny, what'd he say….?

 Oh, that Murdoch might not even show up…to take me home…and that I'll hang up here till the cows come home. It's what I deserve…even if I should survive this, my father will always be…be disappointed and disgusted with me…I'll be like the cheese...all alone.

Where does a person go when they're not wanted anymore?

Madrid!

Johnny jerked, as if hit.

Stop listening to Talbot!!! I told you he's as mean as a snake, a con artist and a manipulating jackanapes! Get your head straight boy!

How did the giant get into my daydream?

Johnny opened one eye, taking a peek as far as he could see. From the corner of his eye, he could see over to the ridge where some men seemed to be lying on the ground. Is that Murdoch with the LT. Guv?

He felt something hit his leg again from a direction in front of him. He turned his head towards the southern edge of the quarry. The sun hit him directly in the face. Squinting into the hazy light, Johnny could make out a patch of scrub that had a shiny object in the middle of it, surrounded by a big black blob. The blob materialized into the giant with a Winchester pointed directly at him.

Bang! Smoke blazed out of the barrel of the rifle.

Johnny felt the rope pull him back a step and snap above his hands. He felt himself tumble backwards, as his legs collapsed underneath him and he hit the rocks on his back.

The giant belted a command.

A moment later Johnny heard another gunshot. A man screamed from the huge rock in the curve of the road.

Johnny was on the move, as he half ran, half hurled himself down the side of the rock pile. He didn't even feel the scrapes and bruises he was picking up on the way. Hitting bottom, his last coherent or incoherent thought, depending on how he looked at it, but didn't have time to think about it, was the giant's command to RUN!!!!

---24---

 

Marshal Val Crawford with his deputies came around the bend a ways from the front gate of the Abbott Mining Company and unexpectedly intercepted Sheriff Troup with his deputy and Betsy, the sniffer dog.

“Let me guess,” said Crawford, “Betsy lead you here.”

“Sure enough did,” affirmed Troup.

“I got a warrant to arrest Abbott, who is inside. Ya want to back us up?”

“Arrest Mr. Abbott?” asked Troup surprised, taking his hat off and scratching his head. “On what charges?”

“Kidnapping for one,” said Val. “and a passel of others.”

“A whole passel, huh?” repeated Troup, squaring his hat. “Who'd he kidnapped?”

“Johnny and Scott Lancer. Johnny's still kidnapped,” said Marshal Crawford. “We're here to get him unkidnapped now.” Val looked over to the front gate. “Don't know how many hired guns they got, don't make no difference anyhow, we're going in.”

Troup regarded his deputy, “Well, Frank, ya been itching for a fight. Ya game?”

The deputy nodded yes and Troup said, “We're in.”

They rode up to the front gate of the mining yard. The gunslinger manning the gate hesitated to open it. Val dismounted, thinking the hired gun looked young. He reminded Val of Johnny in his more tender years.

“What can I do for ya Sheriff?” asked the smooth-faced kid.

“That's Marshal Crawford to you boy and we have some marshaling business to take care of. So, open the gate,” ordered Val.

“I have orders not to open it for no reason, including the law,” smirked the kid.

“Oh, ya do?” Val turned and glanced up at his deputies with his own smirk, then turned back to the smooth-faced boy. Val lifted his sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun from behind his right leg and at the same time pulled both hammers down with his thumb.

Realizing he'd overlooked the gun, when the marshal had dismounted from his horse, the kid's eyes grew wide.

Val, losing patience, pointed the gun square in the kid's face. “NOW! The long arm of the law is about to reach out and touch you, BOY! OPEN the gate!” ordered Marshal Val Crawford.

The kid turned white as paste and did so immediately. Val wasted no time in ordering his deputy to disarm and cuff the boy's hands behind his back. Leaving Betsy with the horses, they all moved to the front entrance and were surprised to find no men there.

“What? They left a kid, wet behind the ears, to guard the hen house?” asked Val, not believing it for a second. All of a sudden they heard gunfire coming from the back of the mine.

Anxious for Johnny, Val angrily turned on the kid. “Ya know'd that man ya got strung up out there?”

With a sneer in his voice, the kid retorted, “Yeah. What of it?”

“The man's name is Johnny Madrid. Ever hear of him?” asked Val, as he roughly pushed the kid though the entrance. One of the deputies took down a lit torch from a bracket and followed behind with the rest of the men.

In the flame's glow, Val could see the kid had lost more color. Not giving the boy time to answer, Val said, “Ah, so ya have heard of him. Then ya know his motto, ‘What's another dead man to Johnny Madrid?' So, ya better listen hard. I don't know'd what all ya've done to him, but he will survive this and if ya don't want Madrid callin ya out for a dance, ya better lead us to him by the shortest route possible. Do ya hear?”

The kid said, “Surely do.” Subdued now, he started down the tunnel with the lawmen following in his tracks.

A short time later, they came to the back of the mine where there was a dumping exit to the quarry several feet below. Val surprised the two men who had been manning the portal.

“Hands up boys unless ya want to join your brethren down below.” Both men dropped their rifles and pistols at their feet. The deputies quickly cuffed them and moved the gunmen to stand with the kid.

Val did a looksee from the exit, noting the positions of the gunslingers around the quarry and in various places from the mountain that made up the mine. What he couldn't see he could hear, as the gunmen returned fire on his friends across the way. Not liking that one bit and knowing time was of the essence, the marshal turned around and accidently kicked a box full of dynamite.

“Oops, what in Sam Hill is this explosive doin here?”

The smooth-faced kid snipped, “It's to blow your ba…” he stopped when he saw the marshal's face turn dark as powder.

“Say what?” asked Val, picking up the dynamite.

---25---

 

Johnny ran as fast as his lungs and broken ribs would allow. His hands were still tied by the rope. Abbott had made sure his hands had been tied separately before his men hung him from the pulley. The games the dead-eyed boys had played with him had taken a toll, Johnny was really having trouble breathing. He didn't even want to compound his problem with the fact that it was ninety-degrees out and he'd had no food and very little water over the last two days. He was in rough shape.

He had tumbled down the rock pile closest to the inner-wall which ran parallel to the road fifty feet up. He recalled the layout from when he'd been on back of the giant's horse. Keep to the outside, skirt the rock piles, use them as cover. The gunslingers are mostly by the mine and intermixed in the piles of rocks. Run a zig-sag course as much as possible. Main goal, get out of the quarry and into the canyon where Murdoch should be. Murdoch must have a plan of his own. He wouldn't just blindly walk through the front gate of the mine to play Abbot's stupid game.

First goal, make the next pile of rocks. Johnny ran a zig-sag course towards the rock pile. A gunman popped his head out from the top of the pile with a Colt aimed directly at him. A rifle shot rang out from behind Johnny, hitting the gunman in the chest. The giant?  Johnny didn't know, nor did he have time to turn around and find out. He chided himself for even thinking of the giant. After all, he's the one who had brought me here. He didn't free me, he just started the game.

Gunfire erupted high above him. The ridge? Murdoch's plan of action?

He could hear Abbott's gang returning fire. Bullets whizzed and pinged off the rocks on both sides. He was below the crossfire! I should be up there helping Murdoch's men, not down here running for my pitiful life. He corrected himself. It's not my life I'm running for, it's my father's. It gave him hope to keep going.

Next objective the dirt pile. It was directly in his path and spread all the way over to the quarry's wall. He'd have to go around it, which meant it would bring him closer to the mine. No help for it, Johnny ran. Again, a couple of gunslingers started to shoot at him and they were both hit by rifle fire. Someone's definitely covering me.

On he sprinted, a couple more piles of rocks, a few more dead gunslingers. Johnny held his ribs with his elbows for he was really short of breath. He had to find a sharp rock to cut his hands free from the cursed rope. He needed to rest his lungs, but knew he couldn't. He ran back towards the wall by the road and rounded another rock pile with bullets hounding his feet. Someone was shooting directly at him from behind! Johnny could feel the tufts of dirt and rock kicking up into the air as he ran, He heard the crack of a Winchester and the bullets stopped bullying his heels. Had to be the giant's. The rifle had a distinct sound and it came from the south.

He cleared the rock pile and found a work wagon filled with buckets of various sized rocks and mining tools scattered around the hauler. It was sitting between the mound he'd just come around and a loose stack of gravel he needed to skirt. He dove under the wagon, breathing hard. Quickly, Johnny crawled to the front of the wagon and pulled a shovel to him that had been by the wheel. Straddling the shovel's long handle to hold it in place, he sawed at the rope binding his hands against the blade until it separated. His hands were free, but the rope was still knotted around each wrist. No time to worry about it.

Johnny poked his head out from under the wagon and looked back behind him. With the rock pile in the way, all he could see was the crest of the hill, which was in the shade now. The sun was full in the south, casting long shadows from the big rocks over the peak, protecting Murdoch's men. Johnny could see the blazes fired from their guns, as his father's men fought with Abbott's gang in the quarry.

He crawled out from under the wagon and climbed to his feet, then ran around the heap of gravel only to encounter another stack of the loose stone near the outer wall by the road. Carefully, he worked his way around the pile and stopped beside the wall. There was just enough room for him to squeeze through. Only problem was he could hear voices on the other side. Squatting down, Johnny slowly snuck to the other side of the pile and stopped at the edge before he could be seen.

“We're missin all the fun,” grouched one of the gun hawks. “What in tarnation did Madrid do to put such a burr under Abbott's tail anyways?”

“Don't know if it's Madrid or his old man Boss man's put out at. All I knows, is I wouldn't wanna pull either Talbots or Abbott's chain.”

“Gunfight's lastin a while now. Madrid should be comin through.”

“Remember we let him through and no one else. Boss man's waitin in the canyon to play his game and we don't wanna foul it up.”

“Shame we can't even up the tally with Madrid for gunnin down our buddies in Nogales a few years back.”

“Get any licks on ‘im when ya had the chance?”

“I gotta few punches into his ribs. Couldn't make him beg like a dog though…too much pride.”

The gun hawk laughed. “You'd better hope the Boss man takes Madrid out in this game of his or Johnny boy will be comin back to make ya dance.”

“I ain't afraid of ‘im.”

“Ya should be. Johnny Madrid's good at his trade. Always has been. Always will be.”

“I heard he's retired now.”

“Did he look retired all strung up and hangin there?”

“Nope. He looked as ornery as a bull in a fightin ring.”

“That's right boys,” drawled a soft voice, as Johnny came out from behind the huge gravel pile, holding a Derringer with the bold Madrid look fixed on his face.

“You,” Johnny pointed with the small pistol he held in his hand to the gunslinger on the left, “drop your gun. And you,” he pointed with his weapon to the man on the right, “throw me your Colt.”

Both men with eyes wide started to comply when a loud explosion rent the air and shook the very ground under all their feet. The large pile of gravel swayed precariously, then fell over the two gunmen, crushing them. Johnny, being at the back of the pile, only had time to jump against the outside wall as the pile gave way in the opposite direction from the concussion of the explosion.

Shaken with his ears ringing, Johnny looked back towards the mine only to find a monstrous cloud of smoke and debris headed his way. Instinctively, he ran for the clearing, which lay before the canyon and the hills beyond it. He made it to the base of the first foothill when the fallout from the explosion overcame him, knocking Johnny to the ground. Chunks of dirt and rock fell like rain all over his body. Hands over his head, he gasped for what air he could find as the cloud descended.

A moment later he heard rifle shots, but not from the mine's direction. They were coming from the west side of the clearing. Ears still ringing, he popped his head up to hear more clearly. He slowly moved his eyes along the clearing's perimeter, unable to see anything due to the smoke and haze from the explosion.

Abbott?

Another burst of gunfire echoed across the canyon as a bullet ricocheted off a rock near his foot.

“Murdoch!”

Fear for his father made Johnny get up in haste and take off up the rocky incline, which lead into the canyon. The cat and mouse game had clearly begun.

---26---

 

Judah Abbott climbed out from under a bush. He was dressed to blend in with his surroundings, not like his nemesis's son, who was wearing a pink shirt…a nice easy target.

“I'm gunning for you Murdoch Lancer. I've waited years for this day. I bought Dr. Banning. I paid for him and I intend to collect. He and he alone is responsible for the death of my son. You sided with him. Now, you're gonna pay the price. How did it feel Lancer when your oldest son arrived at Bannings? How's it going to feel when the key to your heart lies broken and bloodied at your feet?”

Evil laughter rang throughout the clearing.

********

Johnny felt the touch of death. He swore he heard its echo in the breeze. Mine or Murdoch's? Please, not my father. Let it be me.

---27---

 

Meanwhile on the ridge, Scott had kept the spy-glass aimed at his brother from the moment Murdoch had left his side. He could well imagine Johnny's eyes growing big when the giant had drawn him out of the stupor his brother had fallen into. I wonder what he thought of the Winchester pointed directly at him. Confusion, and disbelief would be my guess.

Scott heard the order of “RUN!” bellowed by the giant after he pulled the trigger, splitting the rope over Johnny's hands. The plan went off without a hitch. The men on the hill drew the hired gunmen's attention in a blaze of fire power. They'd caught them seemingly off guard.

This is too easy, thought Scott, as he watched his brother tumble down the rock pile. Scott had a few heart stopping moments when a gunslinger took deadly aim at Johnny, but the giant took him out with his Winchester. The feeling persisted. Scott could feel his own hair stand up on the nap of his neck. He'd been in the war, engaged the enemy and had been a prisoner of war. Something's not right . Abbott is a sneaky son of a gun. Has he laid a trap for Johnny? Our father? Or us?

Murdoch's rag-tag band of men were holding their own against the hired gun hawks of Abbotts. Some of the gunslingers were in the various piles of rocks returning fire, but most were on the hill, surrounding the back of the mine, leisurely firing at will.

Scott rationalized his thoughts, I know Murdoch made up his own rules and beat the boss man to the punch. We showed up here before the invite came. Murdoch's entering the canyon on his own terms in hopes of finding Johnny before Abbott knows my father is there. We're the distraction to keep the gunmen busy. So why aren't they returning fire in earnest?

“I don't like this,” complained Jelly. “Something ain't right. Can't put my finger on it exactly. But Abbott's hired help ain't returning the fire proper like.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I concur with you,” agreed Scott, not taking his eye off Johnny as he came out from under a wagon and ran for another pile of rocks. While holding the spy-glass steady, Scott tried to figure out the strategy Abbot would use in playing the game.

Abbott wants to play a cat and mouse game with Murdoch, using Johnny as bait. So, the gunslingers probably have orders not to shoot Johnny…only make it look like they are…the gun hawks are playing the game too. The game of illusion. Johnny can't get out of the quarry because the walls are too steep. For that matter, the canyon walls are too steep also. The only way out is the notch on the north end. Why hang Johnny out to dry at all? Why not just let him make a run for it when the time came? Is it a ploy to break Murdoch down? Hurt Murdoch emotionally by being unnecessarily cruel to his son to gain an edge? Talbot never played fair so, why would Abbott? The giant had said Talbot had lied about the checker game. It hadn't mattered who won for Johnny had been the target all along. Johnny is feeling guilty over my supposed death. Hurt the son, hurt the father. Is it a way of forcing Murdoch to make rash judgments when the game starts? Show Murdoch who's in control?

The word control stuck in Scott's mind. A dawning realization came to light.

Abbott already started the game, psychologically, months ago with my father. Abbott's been breaking Johnny down a little at a time, starting with the trip to Mexico, the Rurales chasing him, the food poisoning…the fights with Tom Stryker and Becket was just an added bonus. Talbot took us off the train, gave us no food or water. Another way of breaking us down. Then, the final affront, make Johnny believe his brother is dead. And knowing Johnny, he'll think he didn't do enough to save me and Talbot will twist the knife until he breaks, adding insult to injury.

At the end of the game Abbott wants Johnny broke and dead. My brother is just another piece of the game like I was. Can Murdoch take the stress of losing Johnny? Abbott wants to break Murdoch. The Boss man wants to see if Murdoch is stronger than he, Abbott, was when his son committed suicide. He wants Murdoch to feel what Abbott felt when his son died...empty and alone.

“Dang! I lost him,” moaned Scott, moving the glass around the area where he'd last seen his brother.

“Where was he?” anxiously asked Jelly, looking over the quarry.

“Down by the last gravel pile. I can't see around it. He must be by the wall nearest the road.”

A hail of bullets hit the rocks just below the ridge from where Scott and Jelly were stationed. Jelly returned fire with his rifle while Scott frantically searched for Johnny's pink shirt with his spy-glass.

A moment later Scott felt a hand tug on his broken arm, causing him pain. He shrugged it off determined to find his brother. He heard Jelly say in a puzzled tone, “What the heck is that?”

Scott ignored him, intent on finding his brother.

“Scott,” said Jelly, in a scared voice, as he inadvertently tugged harder on Scott's arm to get his attention. “Scott, that bad feelins about to take on a life of its own.”

Exasperated, Scott asked, “What?!” He refused to move the spy-glass from where'd he'd lost Johnny.

Jelly, really rattled now, jerked the spy-glass with his hand, moving it over so Scott could see behind the mine. “They're about to blow us to kingdom come!”

Scott only caught a quick glimpse of a box, of what looked like dynamite with a lit fuse in midair, falling from behind the mine before he yelled, “DUCK!”

---28---

 

“What in blue blazes was that?!” shouted Murdoch up at George, who was sitting on a horse. He'd just finished lowering Murdoch fifty feet down into the canyon.

“Don't know. Can't see anything. We're in a blind spot remember?”

Murdoch grumbled, “Ya sure? Sounded like an explosion of some kind.”

George strained to see, then wish he hadn't. “Black smoke coming from the direction of the mine.”

Murdoch blanched, his immediate thought was for his sons. Are they all right?

George added, “Fallout seems to be coming our way. Probably being carried from the southwestern winds.”

Murdoch yelled up to George and pointed, “I'm going to the top of that rise about a half mile in and see what I can see. With any luck maybe I can find Scott's spy-glass or Johnny's pink shirt.”

“Ya want me to wait?”

“No. Go on George and see what happened to the others. We'll…I'll find Johnny and we'll be okay.” In his heart Murdoch believed that. He'd know if something had happened to either of his sons. With that note, he started across the rough terrain to the peak of the small mountain he'd indicated to George.

******

The giant rode up to Scott, hell bent for leather. “Ya all alright?”

Scott lifted his head up, took off his hat and shook the dirt and pieces of stone off of it. “I'm fine. Jelly?”

The little man moaned as he clutched his ears, “My ears feel like they're part of a belfry that kept on a ringin. Not like there's any kind of church around these parts.” He shakily climbed to his feet, helping Scott up on the way. “Looks like a tornado ripped through here.”

Both men dusted their clothes off as they looked around. The train crew down the line was up and going through the same routine, appearing a bit stunned.

The sky was black with smoke from falling fragments of dirt, rock and stone alike. The winding road had been obliterated. The huge boulder on the curve had rolled into the quarry and pulverized the rock pile Johnny had just escaped from. The rock now leaned against the open backside of the mine. The mine itself looked like it had been ripped open like a tin can. All the rock and dirt piles had been scattered or demolished. Most of Abbott's men looked dead or incapacitated.

Scott, still holding the spy-glass, lifted it to his eye and was relieved it was operational. He immediately tried to find Johnny. Pointing the glass in the direction he had last seen his brother proved futile. The gravel pile was knocked over and strewn over the clearing adjacent to the canyon. He heard a volley of gunshots coming from the west side of the clearing just as the LT. Governor rode up.

“Those are gunshots,” declared George, dismounting from his horse.

“I know,” confirmed Scott with a sinking heart. He pointed the glass where he thought he'd heard the gunshots. He sighed in frustration, “The air's too dense to see anything.”

Another shot was heard and Scott honed in on the location. The other men stood quietly around, waiting for Scott to find something. Scott anxiously scanned the clearing, his heart beating double-time in his chest as he tried to project a path Johnny would've run. Please don't let him be buried under that pile of gravel. Scott scanned the ground again. The air was still heavy with smoke and everything blended into one color…gray. Scott was about to give up and run to the quarry when he saw a hint of movement at the base of the first foothill. His heart now beating in triple-time, Scott saw what looked like a pink shirt pick itself off the ground and run up the hill.

“I found Johnny!” Relieved his brother wasn't crushed to death, and full of adrenaline, Scott shouted, “He's headed into the canyon!”

The giant, who had never dismounted from his horse, took off at break-neck speed for the notch.

The rest of the men looked at Scott and the LT. Governor. “We're going in after them, aren't we?” asked Floyd with a hopeful expression on his ruddy face.

“No!” reluctantly, replied Scott. “You know what Murdoch's last orders were.”

 The men were clearly disappointed.

Scott somberly added, “You gave him your word not to interfere with the game no matter what happens.”

The men nodded. Jake said, “We might've agreed to it, but we don't have to like it.”

“No ya don't,” chimed in Jelly. “None of us like it, but it's Murdoch's party. He has to be the one to end the game.”

George put his arm around Scott's shoulder, knowing he was taking the inactivity the hardest. “He'll do fine. Murdoch will do just fine and so will Johnny. Remember who your brother is.”

Scott, with a heavy heart, gazed across at the mine where he could see a soot covered Val Crawford as he stood in an opening, waving them over. Scott nodded his head and said, “I believe Val needs us.”

The men reluctantly descended the hill to their horses. Jelly looked back at Scott, who had remained behind, his spy-glass back up to his eye as he attempted to track his brother. The faithful family friend and ranch hand silently took a position next to Scott to lend whatever support was needed.

The LT. Governor mounted his horse and simply stated, “I'm going down to bring your horses back up. I think we need to move closer to the canyon.”

Mack, hearing what the LT. Governor had said met him beside Scott's horse. “Here sir, take my Spencer and give it to Scott. I know he's a crack shot.” He handed George the rifle. “I once told Johnny it can kill at a mile and it can. I've done it in my younger days.”

George took the rifle and simply said, “Scott will appreciate it.”

---29---

 

When Johnny first topped the hill he was surprised by the size of the canyon. It hadn't looked so big and wide when he'd been on back of the giant's horse.

How am I ever going to find my father and get to the notch? At the moment, the task seemed formidable. The run had already cost him most of his reserve energy. A deep weariness had taken over his body. He was going to have to slow down and save his strength. But how? Abbot is already dogging my heels.

As he ran, Talbot's snide comments pricked his conscience and his thoughts.

Why did Murdoch come after me? After Scott, I'm not even worth saving. Course, Murdoch doesn't know about the checker game yet. I have to be the one to tell him about that. Had Scott's horse even made it to Bannings yet? How did my father take the loss of his oldest son? Was Banning and the LT. Guv there to comfort him? Was Murdoch even supposed to be at Bannings and how'd he know I was here? Oh yeah, I'm the cheese, the bait. Talbot and Abbott had bragged about it when they first gave me the rules to the game. They want Murdoch to hurt. They want to break Murdoch by using me. Make him pay for their petty revenge. What did Murdoch do to make Abbott hate him so much? And if Murdoch should win? What then? Where does the cheese stand then…alone…or does it just get eaten?

“Stop it Madrid! You're listening to Talbot again! He sure got his hooks into you! Buck up boy!”

Johnny inertly realized he had let Talbot's comments eat at him and they had him wrapped up something fierce.

“He's a con man! He'll use everything at his disposal against ya, including your own emotions and insecurities.”

I can't believe I'm letting the giant play the devil's advocate. The giant on my right shoulder and Talbot on my left. It must be the heat and I must be delirious.

---30---

 

It took longer than he wanted, but Murdoch made it to the top of the rise. He was thirsty and was tempted to take a swig from the canteen of water he carried. If I'm this thirsty now, I can't even imagine what Johnny must be. Thinking of his son, Murdoch decided he'd better conserve the water.

Murdoch picked up the double-glassed field-glasses that were on a strap around his neck and peered through them to the vast canyon in front of him. It hadn't looked this big when he'd been on his horse. How am I ever going to find Johnny?

To get his bearings, Murdoch started in the direction of the mine. Not much luck there, it was shrouded in black and gray smoke heading in his direction. He tried the ridge. No luck there either. It was completely hidden by the fallout of the explosion. The clearing that lead to the foothills wasn't much better, but he was able to trace a path to the first knoll.

Slowly Murdoch looked for the color of pink. The whole south side of the canyon was covered in rock, packed red clay dirt and green scrub bushes. A few scrawny trees created pockets of shade scattered here and there on the various hills. He located a goat trail and followed it up to a layer of rocks. Then, pay dirt! He found Johnny bent over a rock.

What is he doing? pondered Murdoch, as he carefully observed his son. The field glasses weren't the best for clarity. He couldn't see his son's face, but he could plainly see Johnny's body language and was instantly alarmed. He's sick.

Johnny brought his head up and wiped his mouth off with his sleeve. He then laid the side of his face down on the cool, smooth surface of the rock, for it was partly shaded by a skimpy tree, which overlooked a small basin. He appeared to be resting and gathering his strength.

Murdoch knew Johnny had just exhibited one of the classic symptoms of dehydration and heat exhaustion, or both. Given the length of time without water, and the heat Johnny had been exposed too, o ne illness usually lead into the other. Murdoch ran a list of the most dominant symptoms through his mind as he swiftly started to climb down from the rise. No tears, dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, profound fatigue, headache, dizziness, disorientation and confusion . Murdoch had the only cure, the water he carried in a canteen over his shoulder.

Gunshots rang out from the direction Johnny was in and Murdoch froze. He quickly retraced his footsteps and peered through the field glasses. Johnny was no longer on the rock, but scampering down the slight incline he'd been on top of. Gunshots followed and nicked at his heels as he ran for cover in the dense brush at the foot of the basin. Murdoch wasted no more time watching. He was on the move himself as he dashed down the rise and into the brush towards the last position of his son. Johnny had no gun or water. Time was running out.

---31---

 

Time was running out for Johnny. He knew the heat and his dehydrated body were already playing tricks on his mind. Did I or did I not just see Murdoch on that ridge? If that was really my father he'll blaze a trail straight for me. I can't let him get too close to me or Abbott will have him in his sights. The trick is to lead Murdoch to the notch without Abbott knowing.

Follow the goat trails. They lead to the gully and the gully leads to the notch!

The goat trails wind through the rocks. Well there's more than one way to skin a cat, so why not wind around these hills on a different goat trail? Maybe I can get Murdoch to follow me and lose Abbott at the same time? Johnny turned and walked east until he stumbled onto another trail. He started aimlessly following it up a rocky hillock. He stopped and wiped his forehead with his hand, glad to see moisture on his skin. He licked his hand tasting sweat, iron (blood) and grit. Running was no longer an optional part of the game. His ribs hurt too much, so now he held them as he walked, thinking goats were a tough, stubborn bunch.

Where does the goat fit into the pecking order with the farmer in the dell? I can't remember any animal taking the goat. Maybe it's old MacDonald who had the goat? After all, doesn't he have the horses and pigs like Arabella and cows that go moo? He might even have a bull like Hump. Poor Hump, he gets a family and we pack him off to some experimental farm to live on. How did he really feel about that? All alone like the cheese.

Madrid!

Johnny jumped or at least it felt like a jump. It snapped him out of the lassitude he'd fallen into. He was so tired and his eyes stung like fire. There were no tears to wet them with. His tongue was thick and he was having trouble keeping it from sticking to the roof of his mouth. His deeply cracked lips hurt the worst. They bled at the slightest provocation. Dry. I'm bone dry.

Still, Johnny persevered as he hurried to the top of a hillock, then down and around its rugged terrain, taking each unknown step and expecting an encounter with Abbott at any given time. He topped another rise, crept down into another valley, walked around another curve, and ascended another slope up to the top of a small plateau, which veered sharply down into a draw. Exhausted, Johnny sat down on a rock and looked over the canyon. He felt someone watching him. Yeah, Abbott for sure. He's sticking to me like glue or maybe its bees to honey. Did I finally lose him or is he just waiting? He sure likes this cat and mouse game. I feel like the cheese is soon to become Swiss cheese, full of holes. Murdoch have you found me yet? He rubbed his head where the bump was, trying to ease his headache. He wearily glanced around again, narrowing in on the next rise. There stood Murdoch looking at him with his field glasses. Murdoch lowered his glasses and time seemed to stand still.  

Not having seen his father in weeks, Johnny feasted his eyes upon the man. He looks older to me. His hair looks whiter. He seems…tired.

Johnny quickly stood up and tried to yell his father's name. His tongue wouldn't cooperate and only half of his father's name came out.

“Mur… doch .”

His father must have heard him for he ordered, “Johnny! Stay where you are!”

After coming to the top of the rise, Murdoch had seen Johnny sit down. Out of breath himself, he rested a moment, lifted his glasses and studied his son. Murdoch was shaken at what he saw.

Earlier, when he'd peered through Scott's spyglass on the ridge, Murdoch had been in a state of shock. He hadn't been prepared for the anger and pain he'd feel at seeing his son strung up and hanging over a pile of rocks. Johnny's back had been to him with his shirttail hanging out. There had been no way to see what had been done to his body. Murdoch's only concern then, had been to get Johnny off the rock pile.

Now, looking through his glasses he was angrier than before. George and Banning had told him Johnny's food poisoning illness had taken a toll on his body and it had. His hale and hearty son who had left for Mexico a few weeks ago was no more. The son that sat before him now was gaunt with sunken eyes. Johnny had lost a noticeable amount of weight. There was a raised contusion above his left temple that must hurt for he kept rubbing it.  Headache from heat exhaustion or head injury from being thrown by a horse? Tim sure felt bad about that. Murdoch studied him further, taking in a dark bruise on his right cheek and a fresh scar from stitches on his left. His anger with Abbott grew.

Johnny waited as his father maneuvered his way down the rise. Oh, how I've missed you. You don't know it old man, but you're everything to me, home, family and life. It really was like coming from the darkness into the light. Can you forgive me for Scott? Cause, if you can't then no one can…not even myself…

Johnny took a step forward. He felt the need to be near his father as soon as possible. He had this crazy urge to throw himself into Murdoch's arms.

Talbot's voice intruded, “You decide Johnny Lancer, your life or your fathers? Which is more important to you?”

“My father's.”

Johnny took a step back. He was ready to run. Murdoch must have sensed something was wrong for he'd looked up at Johnny and had stopped coming down the hill.

“Johnny?” He held up the canteen of water.

Johnny shook his head no and pointed towards the notch. Funny, I never noticed the water he carried as much as I need it. I only saw my father. Fear filled his heart. A new urge to get Murdoch out of the canyon took precedence. He started down the steep side of the plateau when a shot rang out and struck him in the left arm, spun him around and knocked him down the hill.

With the echo of the shot still in the air, Murdoch ran like a bat out of hell towards his son. He returned fire in the direction the shots had come from. He knew the range of his pistol would come up short, but some coverage was better than no coverage. Still randomly firing his gun, Murdoch ran the quarter of a mile to where Johnny had fallen. When he arrived at the spot, Murdoch fully expected to find his son crumpled on the ground. Instead, he was nowhere to be found. The only sign that Johnny had been there were the splotches of blood on the ground that lead down the trail.

“Johnny!”

No answer. Tim had been right. Talbot had fed Johnny some song and dance story to keep us separated. No doubt in the guise of protecting me. Murdoch heavily sighed.   Abbott when I get a hold of you, you'll wish you never heard of the name Lancer.

Murdoch closely observed the surrounding landscape. Abbott was out there with a need for revenge. The rules of the game had changed again. Johnny was no longer the bait. He was the target.

---32---

 

Johnny held his hand tightly over the wound in his arm. It didn't feel like the bullet hit the bone, but it was definitely a nasty flesh wound. He could feel the warm blood as it ran down both sides of his arm to his elbow where it dripped onto the ground. He had his wounded arm clamped tightly against his aching ribs, as he ran.

  I guess running is still an option. It's do or die time. He slowed and swayed on his feet, while trying to hear if Murdoch was behind him. Talbot said I only have to get Murdoch to the notch. Then what? We'll be safe? Not in our lifetime will we be safe. But, Murdoch has a gun. And I know my father has a plan. The LT. Guv is out there and I'm sure they brought help. Maybe we can lure Abbott in.

“That a boy, Madrid!”

******

Murdoch followed Johnny's blood trail. It was erratic in nature. His son was having trouble staying on course and on his feet. Wound, concussion or heat exhaustion? All? Dizziness, confusion and disorientation. Johnny's showing all three symptoms. He's off his game, his instincts are failing him. We've been around these same goat trails already. We're going to have to step up the game. We're going to have to gamble. Why didn't I get a better look at Johnny until now? They'd warned me Johnny had been sick. I should have pulled him out instead of using him as the bait. Why'd I have to push so hard? Because, if Abbott wins, my sons will never be safe. Abbott's like a dog with a bone. He'll never let go.

Before Johnny had been shot, Murdoch had shadowed his son, playing Abbot's game and hoping to draw him out. As long as Johnny had stayed on his feet, Murdoch hadn't been too worried. Johnny was tough and resilient.

After the smoke had cleared from the explosion, Murdoch had found Scott above the canyon's walls. They'd taken precautions and gone back to the original plan.  Unbeknownst to Johnny, Scott, Jelly and George were camped out in the blind spot, (where the LT. Governor had lowered Murdoch into the canyon,) keeping an eye on Johnny's whereabouts. Murdoch only had to consult the direction of Scott's spyglass a couple of times, to locate Johnny, when he'd lost track of him on the goat trails. It had saved valuable time.  

Now, Johnny was wounded and it changed the game. The involuntary lead was no longer his son's responsibility. Murdoch had to catch up to him and fast. Murdoch followed the spots of blood, the broken branches and the trampled scrub. Johnny was in the draw on the west side of the canyon up against the steep fifty foot walls headed north. Stay in the draw son, just stay in the draw. I'm right behind you.

Murdoch sped up his pace and at the same time watched for any hint of Abbott. So far the man had stayed hidden, just taking potshots at his son, until the last one. Murdoch felt like he'd straddled a fence. Johnny needed water and now a doctor's attention. They'd bluffed as long as they dared, in drawing Abbott out. Murdoch put his hand in his pocket and felt the tin. He hoped Tim was as good as he remembered.

---33---

 

Johnny recognized the fact that he was in trouble. His thinking became chaotic each time the dizziness returned. Using the sun that was constantly at his back, Johnny kept heading in a northerly direction. The giant said you have to stumble into the gully. Stay on the goat trail. He had to get out of the draw and back on the goat trail. He was confused. Wasn't he in a gully now? He needed to find a hill and check his bearings. Problem was that would expose him to Abbott. And if Murdoch's following me, that'll expose him too. What to do?

Spying a rocky slope deep in the shadows of the rocks, Johnny decided he'd climb it to see what his exact location was. He was almost to the top of the rise when both his legs cramped and brought him to his knees. “Dang!” he cried, vigorously rubbing his calves. He stood up and stretched his legs, trying to ease the muscles. It helped a little and he walked the rest of the way up to the peak. Once there, exhausted and breathing hard, he sat down under a spindly tree. Time is running out in more ways than one. He grasped the skin on the back of his hand and pulled it upwards. Then, watched it very slowly deflate. The slower it goes down the dryer I am.

He gasped out loud, “I need water…I really need water…Murdoch has water…”

Talbot intruded again. “Whose life is more important Johnny?”

“My father's. MY father's!!!” he yelled, in torment, “But, I need…water.”

The heat was slowly killing him. He felt like he was being roasted alive by the sun. I must have a fever. I can't even see straight and I'm so hot and dog-tired. Nothing makes sense anymore. He ran both hands through his thick, damp hair and rubbed his temple where the bump was.  I can't even remember why I came up here. His stomach rebelled and he moaned. I can't shoot the cat again…surely it's not the food poisoning paying a visit…again… I haven't eaten in…in forever…it's got to be the heat.

Frustrated, Johnny looked back at the sun and recalled why he was up there. Directions. Sun in the southwest. North is where the tree line sets. He turned his head north. Trees not too far. Notch is by the gully hidden somewhere behind the trees. Murdoch? He looked down in the draw from where he had come and could see his father hurrying down the trail. Just a little water. Just a few sips. He involuntarily licked his lips, tasting blood.

Talbot reminded him of the rules. If your father finds you, he's dead.

“NO!” He put his hands over his ears, but couldn't shut out Talbot's sly voice.

If he doesn't find you, you're dead. How long can you go without water, Johnny?

“I can go longer! I can make it!” The plea was desperate. Abbott was out there, watching, probably enjoying it too. He had to get his father to the notch.

Johnny scrambled off the top of the hill and headed down the other side. Once again, his head spun and his legs cramped. The heel to his boot slipped on the rocky surface. He felt himself falling, end over end until he crash landed at the foot of the slope.

Breathing hard, he laid there for a time as the world spun around him.

“Johnny?”

He heard his name from the sky. His father was on top of the hill.

If your father finds you, he's dead.

“NO!” Johnny painfully staggered to his feet with his arms wrapped around his ribs.  As he half stumbled, half ran towards the trees, Johnny shouted, “Curse you Abbott! I'm not going to let you win Abbott. I'm not!”

“Johnny!” shouted Murdoch, perturbed by his son's irrational actions. He was close, almost to the bottom of the hill, as he watched Johnny run for the tree line. What did Talbot say to hoodwink him so?

Short of breath, with muscles constricting, Johnny rushed past a few skinny trees. He looked back to see where his father was and another wave of dizziness overcame him. He tripped over a tree root in the undergrowth and landed in a gully, sprawled on his belly. The wind totally knocked out of him, Johnny could do nothing but lay there.

Murdoch finally caught up to his son. He stepped down into the gully, took off his hat and field glasses and sat them on the ground. He reached for Johnny only to have him get up on his hands and knees.

Urgently, Johnny panted, “Stay away…I'm…the cheese….”  He tried to crawl away, but Murdoch was faster and tackled him. “No Murdoch!” Johnny twisted and tried to get loose from his father's tight grip. “Let me go!” he shouted as he squirmed beneath his father, frantic to get away.  

“Easy Johnny,” coaxed his father, as if calming a wild stallion. The cheese? Murdoch didn't understand the statement, but his son's actions were speaking louder than words. What did Abbott do to him?

Johnny was winding down, but tried again. “I'll get ya killed…just like…I did… Scott .” He couldn't say his brother's name out loud. He was suddenly terrified of what his father's reaction was going to be.

“Settle down!” ordered Murdoch as he pulled Johnny into a sitting position with his back against Murdoch's chest. Holding one arm tightly around his struggling son's mid-section to keep him in place, Murdoch lifted the strap of the canteen of water from around his neck and pulled it over his head. He brought it in front of Johnny to his other hand and unscrewed the lid, then brought it up to his son's dry, cracked lips.

When Johnny got a whiff of the water, he froze. He inhaled the first gulp and choked, spewing half the water out of his mouth. Murdoch bent him over his arm and wacked him on the back until the coughing subsided.

When the spasm was over, Murdoch pulled Johnny into a straighter sitting position. His father cajoled, “Now, let's try this again. Sip a mouthful and let your tongue absorb the liquid. Swish it around in your mouth before you swallow.”

Johnny wanted to drink the whole canteen straight down. The little bit of water he'd just gotten had been warm, but it had tasted so sweet. Never had he tasted anything better.

Murdoch brought the much anticipated water to Johnny's lips and Johnny grabbed the canteen as he gulped a mouth full with the intention of drinking it all. He just couldn't wait, he was so thirsty. But, his father had other ideas and forcefully pulled the canteen away, spilling some down Johnny's chest.

“Easy Johnny, easy. You're only going to throw it back up, then where will ya be?” He brought the water back to Johnny's mouth.

This time, Johnny did as bid. He swished the water around his mouth and then swallowed. He found the warmth of the water had relaxed his throat so he could swallow more easily now. Once again, he greedily gulped the water, not even coming up for air until Murdoch pulled the canteen away.

“More…”

“Please…”

He closed his eyes, embarrassed that he had begged, especially in front of his father. Thirsty so thirsty. Now that he had wet his whistle, he couldn't get enough.

The word please struck a worry-cord deep in Murdoch's heart. He only had a fair idea of how much it had cost his son's pride to tack the word onto his plea. This wasn't the standard , ‘table manner's request' of “Please pass the salt.” No, this was more like a request asked in desperation and expecting it to be denied. Again, he wondered what all Abbot had done to his son and his anger grew.

Murdoch gave Johnny a few more sips of water. When he thought it was enough he pulled the canteen back stating, “Let's see how this settles.” He could clearly see Johnny wanted more for his son's eyes followed the canteen as Murdoch set it aside, but Johnny didn't ask. Instead he just waited with his head ducked down, eyes averted and arms limp across his belly.

Murdoch checked out the bullet wound in Johnny's arm. He was relieved to find the bullet had only grazed him.

 “A few stitches should take care of it,” assured Murdoch, as he pulled his neckerchief from his pants pocket and wrapped it around the flesh wound to slow the bleeding.

He received no response from Johnny. Murdoch leaned over his son's shoulder and studied his downcast face. With a start, Murdoch realized the Madrid façade was in place. Full of apprehension, the question that haunted Murdoch came to play in his mind. What did Abbott do to my son? What did Talbot say to tear him up so? Murdoch could taste the bitterness of his own revenge as his anger boiled.

There's something dead wrong here . I have a feeling Abbott's revenge is going to reach far and wide. Why won't Johnny meet my eyes? I know he's exhausted, but under that Madrid facade there's a world of pain and sadness. I know him well now. He can't hide his feelings under the guise now. There's something inconsolable about him. Where's the spark? The fire? What's on his mind?

---34---

 

Now that he'd had some water, Johnny's mind was starting to clear. He had to get his father out of here and to the notch. Any moment Abbott could swoop down and kill his father. Besides, he needed to tell Murdoch about Scott and the checker game. Just the thought made his stomach cramp. He was nauseated and wondered if he was going to toss the water he'd just drunk.

It was nice being in his father's arms. A whole new experience. I used to dream about this when I was a kid…what it would be like…what it would feel like. The only other time he could remember being so was when he'd just killed Sexton. He'd run into Murdoch's arms and had quickly asked if he was alright. Then he'd shot it out with Isham. His father had squeezed his shoulder in commiseration. Things had been pretty new back then, and of course Murdoch doesn't show his feelings often, except when he's angry. Boy, he doesn't have any trouble then.

Unable to meet his father's too perceptive eyes, he simply said, “Murdoch…they killed Scott…”

In a voice so low and full of hurt, Murdoch had to strain to hear Johnny's next sentence.

“I won…the checker game…”

Johnny raised his hands, drawing Murdoch's attention to them.

“I tried…I tried…” Johnny let the rest trail off as his hands fell to his lap. He ducked his head and didn't have the heart to continue nor the courage to lift his eyes to his father's face.

Chicken! Said Talbot .

 Johnny felt Murdoch stiffen. I'm scared. He had this stupid urge to laugh. I've faced down all kinds of notorious gunmen and outlaws…and I'm afraid of my own father's eyes…because my whole future lies in his hands…whether I stay or go…or live or die…

“I'm just the cheese,” mumbled Johnny.

“Stop it Madrid!”

“Not this time. I have to know!” With that thought in mind, Johnny brought his eyes up to Murdoch's stormy countenance. It was worse than he ever thought possible. His heart plummeted to his feet and his veins filled up with ice water. Cold, so cold…

Johnny shuddered and whispered, “I'll go away…”

Pulling his eyes off Johnny's abused hands, Murdoch sharply asked with bottled-up fury, “What?” 

He'd been transfixed on his son's hands when Johnny had held them up. Pain, he must be in terrible pain.   Murdoch took in the bloody rope still tied around each of his son's wrists. He noticed the scraped, swollen and bruised knuckles on each hand. But most of all, it was Johnny's fingers that he inwardly grieved for. They looked like pieces of raw, pulverized meat with ragged fingernails split, cracked and torn beyond the quick. Upon closer examination, Murdoch could see bits of slivered wood embedded deep under the nail beds and protruding from his fingertips.  Where had they kept him? What hell did he have to dig himself out of? Why didn't Tim tell me? He answered his own question. There wasn't time for him to fill me in on everything…I'm going to kill Abbott!!!

Unfortunately, Johnny had picked that moment to look Murdoch in the face, getting the wrong impression. Pain flashed through his eyes before the Madrid expression dropped firmly in place.

Murdoch caught the flash of pain. The same painful expression he hadn't witnessed since the horse incident. The Strykers had come calling and he, Murdoch, had fed Johnny a pack of lies to get him to leave the ranch for his own protection. Murdoch would never know how that would have played out if Scott hadn't come through the door wounded that day. Would Johnny even be in my arms right now?

“I'll get you to the notch…then…I'll go away.” Johnny wrenched himself out of his father's arms and onto his knees, facing Murdoch. But, once again Murdoch was quicker. His fatherly instinct kicked in at full force and he snatched Johnny to his chest. Murdoch's long, strong arms encircled Johnny's back, pinned his son's arms to his sides and held him in place, as he struggled to get free.

“Let me go!” snarled Johnny, using his anger to hide his hurt.

“Never!” replied Murdoch. “I'll never let you go.” His son quit moving, but he remained rigid in his arms, agitated and breathing hard.

A father feels his child's pain. That statement was never truer than right now, thought Murdoch. He had to set things right. Abbott was out there and they might only have moments to live. But, if he didn't get ‘er said now, Johnny would never believe what he had to say at a later time, no matter how contrived he planned it.

Keeping one arm around Johnny's back, Murdoch brought his other hand up into his son's thick hair and curled his fingers around it. Forcing Johnny's forehead against his collar bone, Murdoch gave his son a gift…vindication.

“Johnny, it's not your fault. None of this is your fault. The checker game was rigged. No matter who won, Scott would have ended up on the horse and you were already targeted to stay there.”

Murdoch felt the air leave Johnny's body as he relaxed against him.

Then, Murdoch gave Johnny another gift. One that he secretly always wanted, but never expected to receive.

“I love you son.”

Murdoch felt Johnny breathe in and hold his breath. Johnny tried to lift his head off his father's shoulder, but Murdoch held him firmly in place. He felt Johnny put his arms around his back.

Then, Murdoch gave Johnny the greatest gift of all.

“Your brother is still alive.”

Murdoch heard Johnny suck in a great amount of air, then jerkily let it out of his lungs, as his son sagged against him. Johnny's body trembled and Murdoch could hear the soft dry sobs of relief against his own neck. There were no tears for his son's body was as dry as the desert. And Murdoch held him.

---35---

 

A hated voice intruded. “How's it feel to hold your broken and bloodied son in your arms, Lancer?” Abbott stood inside the tree line with a rifle pointed at them.

It was a loaded question and Murdoch refused to take the bait. He knew they were at the point in the game where Abbott wanted to gloat and Murdoch refused to give him the satisfaction. It bought them a little time.

Without moving, Johnny whispered into his father's ear, “Give me your gun Murdoch.”

Uneasiness evident in his voice, Murdoch firmly said, “No. It's what he wants you to do.”

“But, I can take him,” assured Johnny, sneaking a peek over his father's shoulder. “All ya gotta do is duck.”

Murdoch grunted as he pushed his son into a sitting position against the shallow gully's rock wall. Murdoch grabbed the canteen of water and handed it to him.

To Johnny's amazement, his father seemed in no hurry to acknowledge Abbott.

“Drink,” Murdoch commanded. “You're looking peaked.” Murdoch fell silent as he watched Johnny lift the canteen to his dry mouth. He didn't like the unfocused look in his son's eyes or the fact that one pupil was larger than the other.

Johnny immediately took some sips to appease his father. His vision became distorted again and his stomach rolled with nausea. He lowered the canteen and sharply shook his head to clear it, but it didn't help. He rubbed the bump above his temple in a circular motion to ease the throb, then asked with troubled eyes, What's your plan Murdoch? Ya trying to bring the pot to a boil, make Abbott lose his patience?”

“Something like that,” replied Murdoch, then added, “There's more to the game than meets the eye. Killing Abbott won't end it. There's another set of players out there just itching to play.”

“Lancer!” shouted an agitated Abbott. “Answer me!”

“Sounds like he's stewed long enough,” said Johnny, resting the canteen on his lap. “Ya sure, ya don't want me to take him? I might not be able to see straight, but I can shoot straight.”

Spoken like a true gunfighter , thought Murdoch. “No,” repeated Murdoch. “You're in no condition to face Abbott.” At Johnny's disgusted look, he tacked on, “I've been following your tracks all afternoon.”

Remembering how mixed up he had been on the goat trails, Johnny got the point. For a while there, I think I was out of my mind. Did I really tell Murdoch I was the cheese? Did I really let the giant play the good guy?

His father finished up with, “Like it or not you're out of the game. Besides, it's my party. Abbott and I need to exchange a few words.”

Johnny groaned and not because of the headache. “Ya know, he fights dirty. Don't trust him for a second or give him an inch.”

“Yes I know. That's why I have backup.” Murdoch pointed to the canteen. “Keep drinking.”

Johnny obediently drank more water. Who is his back up? It must be me, I don't see anyone else.   Shoot, I don't even have a gun worth a plugged nickel.

---36---

 

Murdoch turned and stepped up and out of the gully. As he blocked Abbott's view of his son, Murdoch faced his enemy.

“Broken Abbott? My son might be a little worse for wear, but he's not broken.”

“You're lying Lancer, I heard him sniveling.” Abbott, with hatred in his eyes, moved over a step, so he could better see Johnny.

“Sniveling, Abbott? What you heard were tears of joy and relief. “ We need never be ashamed of our tears, said Dickens ,” quoted Murdoch, as he moved over a step and blocked Abbott's view of his son.

“What's Dickens have to do with it?” asked Abbott, as he moved to the side again. He wanted to see how much damage he'd done to his enemy's son and then throw it in Lancer's face.

Murdoch blocked Abbott's view again. He wasn't about to let Abbott have any more clear shots at Johnny. “Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations . The tears are the cleansing of a hard heart. Maybe if you'd shed some towards your son, he'd still be here today.”

Murdoch got the desired result. Abbott took his attention off Johnny and planted it firmly on Murdoch.

“How dare you? You know nothing about our relationship!” angrily sputtered Abbott, as he advanced on Murdoch, stopping a few feet in front of him.

“I know enough that your son could not live up to your expectations,” countered Murdoch, as he held his ground in front of the gully, keeping Johnny out of sight. “Or maybe it's like I said before, it's you who couldn't live with the thought of having a cripple for a son.”

Murdoch knew he was being excessively cruel and that his words cut deep. But, he no longer cared. He was furious. This man had more than just threatened his sons, he had almost killed them! If it hadn't been for the grace of God, and one giant of a man, they'd both be dead right now. As it was, they still weren't out of the woods.

Abbott took a few steps back and pointed with his rifle. He coldly ordered, “Toss your gun over there away from your pup.”

Murdoch took his gun belt off and tossed it in the direction Abbott had indicated, well away from both Johnny and himself. “What now Abbott? Ya going to kill us both in cold blood?”

“No, one life will do.”

Murdoch heard Johnny clear his throat from behind him. Murdoch turned slightly and could see out of the corner of his eye that his son was on his feet with his back against the gully's stone wall. Tired of the game, he asked, “What do you really want Abbott?”

“What are you willing to give up to save your son, Lancer?”

“I already told you I'd give it all up, including the ranch, but…”

Johnny interrupted from behind him. “No Murdoch. That's your life's blood. Remember, for every good blade of grass you got a gray hair and all that...?”

Disgusted now that he had ever given his boys that speech, Murdoch turned and indulgently smiled at his son. Concussion's really muddled your thinking hasn't it Johnny? Or is it the heat exhaustion? He noticed the canteen sitting sideways on the ground, obviously empty.

“Johnny, there's nothing, including the ranch, I can't replace except for you and Scott.”

“You got the deed Lancer and the stock certificates for the gold mine?”

Murdoch turned back to Abbott. “Right here in my vest pocket.”

Johnny angrily stepped up and out of the gully. “No Murdoch! I still own one third and I won't sign either of them!”

“Insolent pup,” complained Abbott. “Didn't you learn anything when I cracked you one earlier today? When I let the boys beat the pride and stubbornness out of you?”

Johnny gave Abbott his coldest Madrid glare, but Murdoch stared at the dark bruise on Johnny's cheek bone. I dread seeing what the rest of you looks like. When Murdoch turned to face Abbott his eyes were even colder than his son's.

Murdoch's fury bubbled over, “There's no more bargaining, Abbott! So say what ya got to say!”

Abbott had the audacity to laugh. “Did I finally get under your skin, Lancer? Hurt the son, hurt the father?” he taunted.

Murdoch glared at Abbott and refused to answer. There was something that had caught his attention on the hill behind Abbott. What was that?

In a silky voice Abbott asked, “Tell me Lancer, you willing to give your life for that impertinent pup of yours?”

Murdoch felt Johnny tense beside him. Abbot was getting to the root of their meeting. The game was coming to an end. Murdoch looked up over Abbott's head to the hill. There it was again…a glint. He nonchalantly gripped his son's gun arm and answered, “I'd give that too if it would save him.”

 Stunned, Johnny looked up at Murdoch and tried to pull his arm free, but his father's iron grip only increased. What game is he playing?

In that same smooth voice, that both Lancers hated, Abbott asked, “What if I told you I don't want the mine or the ranch?”

Neither Lancer answered.

Abbott took a couple steps back and threw the rifle down and immediately drew his pistol and cocked it. “What if I told you Lancer, I don't want your life either?”

Murdoch did a quick glance to the hill. The glint was still there, caught by the late afternoon sun. He had a sour taste in his mouth and a bad feeling in his belly. Not releasing his son's arm he took a step in front of Johnny.

Johnny was having none of that and stepped up next to his father.

Abbott continued, “You have any idea what it's like to have it all Lancer and have no one to share it with? What it's like to be utterly alone?”

Murdoch simply said, “I did it for twenty years. It's not easy,”

“Banning killed my son.”

Murdoch refuted, “Your son was terminally ill. By operating, Banning gave him more time to live. More time to spend with you.”

“By being an invalid!?” yelled Abbott, incensed. “My son shut me out. He didn't want anything to do with me. He couldn't accept the fact that he wasn't whole!”

“That wasn't it at all. It was you who couldn't accept the fact. Family members are not possessions Abbott. They're loved ones. Your son needed you! He needed your support, understanding and love!”

“He had all that. I gave him everything,” moaned Abbott.

“Did you?” asked Murdoch, showing no pity. He was still furious about what Abbott had done to Murdoch's own family. He let go of Johnny's arm and took a few steps towards Abbott, holding his hands out in supplication. “Then why the guilt? Why this game?”

Enraged, Abbott's eyes blazed fire. “You and Banning played me for a fool. I'm the laughing stock of the whole town!”

Murdoch could see the insanity in Abbott's eyes. That unwelcome feeling was back in the pit of his stomach. He glanced again to the hill, the glint was still there. Friend or foe? His gut told him the latter. He backed up against Johnny and at the same time searched for his gun, spying it on the ground a few feet away. Too far. I should've let Johnny shoot him when I had the chance.

Johnny wasn't about to let Murdoch protect him with his body, so he stepped back down into the shallow gully and stood on the right side of his father. His vision was still blurry, but his hearing was excellent and all his instincts were screaming defend.

With a cocked gun pointed at Johnny, Abbott harshly said, “The whole point of this game is for you to watch…your…son…die...” and he pulled the trigger.

Johnny responded at the same time with the Derringer just as his father covered his body, knocking him to the ground. Two bullets hit the rock wall behind them and ricocheted down the draw. A gunshot exploded high above them, sounding much like a Spencer rifle, as it hit the target on the hill.  

A moment later the giant was in the gully, covering them with his Winchester.

“You two all right?” he asked, as Murdoch picked himself off of Johnny. He helped his dazed son to his feet.

“Fine,” they both said. Then Johnny complained, “Murdoch, ya didn't have to cover me, I had ‘im in my sights.”

“PFTT,” growled Murdoch. “A few moments ago you couldn't even see straight.”

The giant interjected, “Madrid, it's a father's duty to protect his son. It's what they do.”

“Oh, so now you're a parent?” bit out Johnny defensively. He'd had enough of the giant giving him advice, both in person and imagined. Boy, I'd better never tell him about that for he'll never let me live it down.

They sobered and looked at Abbott lying on the ground with a small caliber bullet between his eyes.

“Good shot, son,” praised the giant. “Couldn't of done it better myself.”

“Who was on the hill?” asked Murdoch, as he headed to pick up his gun belt.

“That would've been Talbot. He doubled back after I left ‘em.”

Still holding the smoking Derringer, Johnny totally confused asked, “Just whose side are you on anyways?” He swayed on his feet, wishing he could better see the giant. He wanted to look him in the eyes and size him up.

He got a chuckle from the giant and his father, who had walked back while putting his gun belt on. Murdoch stopped and picked up the empty canteen and field-glasses, putting the straps over his shoulder. Then he reached for his hat and squared it on his head. “Should we tell him, Tim?” asked Murdoch, reaching into his pants pocket.

 “Tell me what?” asked Johnny, not happy his father was on a first name basis with the giant.

“Don't see why not,” said the giant, “Don't wanna keep the lad a waitin.”

“Ahoy, down below!” shouted Scott from above the trees.

It was music to Johnny's ears. He looked way up through the trees to see his brother standing on the ridge, holding a Spencer rifle. The train crew, Jelly and the LT. Guv were beside him, along with Dr. Banning and a man he didn't know. Looking that far up made Johnny's stomach roll and his head spin, but he yelled anyways, “Hi Scott! Was that your shootin I heard a few moments ago?”

“Sure was brother.”

“Thanks brother for saving my hide.” Johnny took a couple steps back to steady himself. He shook his head to clear it and was only partially successful. Bringing his eyes back to his father and the giant he asked, “Now, what were ya gonna tell me?”

Murdoch smiled and pulled a piece of tin, shaped like a star, out of his pocket and handed it to the giant. Tim leaned his rifle against the gully's stone wall and proudly pinned the badge on. “Johnny, I want you to meet Timothy McRafferty, of the newly reformed band of Texas Rangers.”

“Shucks,” said Johnny. “How can I call out a Texas Ranger?”

He took a couple steps towards the men when the whole world tilted and he felt himself falling. A pair of beefy arms caught him before he hit the ground and swung him up like a child to lean against a broad chest.

Johnny heard the giant say, “Well Murdoch, my responsibility for your son is done.” Johnny felt himself being transferred to another pair of strong arms, the strong arms of his father. Murdoch adjusted the weight and Johnny's head spun again, as it came to rest on Murdoch's shoulder with his left arm hanging over his father's back. The last thing he heard before he passed out was Murdoch accepting the responsibility.

---37---

 

Picking up the Derringer Johnny had dropped and grabbing his rifle, Tim anxiously said, “Follow me, Murdoch. The notch is just over here. The men and the horses are waiting for us at the other end where it's connected to a much larger canyon.”

To Murdoch's surprise they had only been a few feet away from the notch's hidden entrance. A couple of small trees protruded from the rocky wall, hiding the natural tunnel. He entered the dark passageway, smelling dirt and decay. It was a close fit and he held Johnny tighter against his chest. The tunnel was dead quiet and he could easily hear his son's steady breathing by his ear.  Johnny's brow rested against his neck and his skin felt cool and clammy with a light coating of sweat. Murdoch knew any amount of moisture on the skin was important and he was thankful for it. He's not completely dehydrated if he can sweat. The canteen of water must have helped. So, why's he unconscious? Exhaustion or concussion from when he was thrown by the horse?

Being tall, Murdoch could see a pinpoint of light over the giant's shoulder at the other end of the passageway. It was a good thing for the narrow tunnel gave him a closed in feeling, which made him very uneasy. Now I know why Johnny hates boxed in places. He was relieved Tim had the lead and soon they were on the other end of the notch where Dr. Banning, with the rescue party met them.

“Lay him down here in the entrance. Its cooler here and we have some light to work by,” instructed Banning. A blanket had already been spread out and Murdoch carefully laid Johnny down on it. The two doctors went to work on the patient.

Dr. Turner opened his medical bag and pulled out a pile of dry washrags. “We're going to need lots of water,” said the doctor as he unscrewed the lid of his own canteen.

The men scrambled to their horses to bring their own canteens in to the doctors.

The giant propped his Winchester up against the notch's entrance and gave Dr. Banning back his small pistol. “There's a big basin of good, fresh water about a mile away if ya need more,” stated Tim, leaning over the doctors' shoulders. “I used to be a medic, I can help.”

“Okay, let's get his shirt off,” ordered Banning, putting the Derringer back in his medical bag. “He's in a cold sweat. We need to get as much fluid into him as possible. I want to cool him down some too.”

“But, he feels cool to the touch,” said Murdoch, looking extremely worried, as he bent over his son by his head. He put his hand on Johnny's forehead to reassure himself.

“You can still have a fever even though your skin is cool to the touch. I'm pretty sure he is suffering from heat exhaustion so he probably has a low grade temperature. I'll know in a few moments when I take it with a thermometer. He's been out in the heat a long time without any water. The good thing is he's still freely sweating, albeit not as much as I would like.”

Dr. Banning felt Johnny's pulse in his neck, for he didn't want to touch the bloody ropes at his wrists yet. “Rapid, but weak and thready. Get his shirt off. I don't want this going into heatstroke.”

“How much water has he drank?” asked Banning of Murdoch.

“A whole canteen. I had a hard time slowing him down. He was totally parched.”

“He throw any water up?

“No, not recently, but he puked earlier when we first entered the canyon.”

What symptoms did you notice on the goat trails?”

“Well, he seemed to rub the bump on his head a lot. I figured he had a headache from the fall or maybe the heat was getting to him. I know he couldn't see straight for his tracks were all over the trail and his gait was unsteady…like he was dizzy. Johnny's an excellent tracker and we kept going around the same trails. He had to have been confused or something. When I was following him and was close enough, I could at times hear him talking to himself…it sounded as if he was arguing with someone and then when I caught up to him he told me…” Murdoch let out an exasperated sigh. “He told me he was the cheese. Does that make any sense?”

 “Hmm.” Banning checked Johnny's pupils. “Unequal. He probably has a concussion in conjunction with the heat exhaustion. The symptoms can be similar.”

The giant quickly unbuttoned the ruined pink shirt and pulled Johnny's arms out of the sleeves. Tim slightly lifted Johnny and pulled the shirt out from under him.  Dr. Banning cut off the filthy bandages from around his ribs. There were dark bruises covering much of his torso and especially the left ribcage. Tim and Dr. Banning both turned Johnny onto his right side so that the doctor could examine his back where the ribs were actually broken. Deep purple lash marks could be seen amongst the bruises.

His ribs look a little more concave than they did before, thought Dr. Banning. He's a bit short of breath, but his respirations are steady. Whew! At least he didn't puncture a lung. More than likely he's going to have to start over with the healing process. I can't give him any Laudanum  for he's too dried out for that. A soothing powder might work…

A loud, angry groan came from Murdoch. “Tim, are these bruises from the beating you told us about back at the doctor's office? The same one Abbott had indicated when he was taunting us a little while ago?”

“Yeah. Fraid so, Murdoch,” confirmed the giant, in a hushed voice. “The lashes are from Talbot's horse whip.”

Banning added, “The faded green and yellow bruises are from his fight with Tom Stryker.”

“Abbott, I wish I could bring you back to life just so I could kill you myself!” cold-bloodedly thought Murdoch.

Not taking his eyes off his pale unconscious son, Murdoch stood up as did the big Texas Ranger, who clamped a hand behind his thick neck. Murdoch watched as Dr. Banning examined all of Johnny's ribs while Dr. Turner waited to start the cooling down process with the water soaked washrags.

Scott, with his arm in a sling, limped to the inside of the notch and stood on the other side of his father, quiet and solemn.

“I want every detail of the story from the time you let Scott go from the line shack,” demanded Murdoch.

“There ain't much to tell until we got to the Genesis mine.”

“Then start there!” rumbled Murdoch, as he watched the doctors bathe his son with the wet rags.

Reluctantly, Tim said, “Abbott and Talbot forced Johnny to do the water dance and ah…”

“And what!?” shouted Murdoch, irate. He couldn't hear the story fast enough.

“Abbott wanted him to say the word, please and to beg…like a dog….for water.”

The giant paused, swallowed and then continued, “Abbott was in his glory lording it over Johnny's head that he'd had no water since we took him off the train. I don't know what your son would've done if I hadn't forced him to drink that flask full of water the night before. But, you woulda been proud of him, as he played right along with them till they tried to make him beg.”

Tim stopped talking for Murdoch was as white as the shirt he was wearing.

“Finish it Tim,” said Scott with apprehension, as Dr. Banning re-checked each eye and examined the bump by Johnny's temple. When he was done, the doctor laid a cool, wet compress over the bump and across his brother's forehead.

“Well, ya know Johnny, his pride wouldn't allow it. So, Abbott let his ruthless hired gunfighters have a go at ‘im. I had to knock some heads together and fight off a couple of ‘em before I could reach him.” Tim smacked a huge meaty fist into his other hand.

”Murdoch, I almost blew the whole operation tryin to get to him. Johnny was out numbered six to one and I had to make Abbott see if they beat him severely he wouldn't be able to play the game. The game was Johnny's only chance, for it meant everything to Abbott. And a few of ‘em gunslingers had grievances against Madrid from past acquaintances'. Do ya kin?”

Murdoch's color had returned and now it was deep red. “And his hands Tim? What the hell happened to his hands?”

“Ya really wanna go there Murdoch?” asked the Ranger with concern.

“Yes, I have to know.”

Scott was interested too, for he had no clue what had happened after the giant had literally thrown him on the horse and sent him on his way. He automatically looked down at his brother's hands and was sickened, much like Murdoch had been. He could still hear Johnny yelling his name through the door. Had he tried to force his way out by tearing apart the old wooden door?

Tim bowed his head and looked at his own hands. He wasn't proud of the part he'd been forced to play. “Johnny thought I'd killed ya, Scott. He tried and tried to force open the door. I could actually hear his fingernails a digging in the wood. Then he must have heard us talkin, for he, ah, went a little crazy in that back room…tore the place up real good. It was all part of Abbott's game to break him.”

The giant winced, remembering the look on Madrid's face when he'd opened the door and found Johnny hours later. “If it hadn't been for the fact that he loves ya so much Murdoch, I think Abbott mighta won then and there.” Sick to his stomach, the big man quickly turned and grabbed his rifle, then walked over to his horse and mounted.

“Tim,” called Murdoch, coming up beside him. “Johnny reminds you of your brother, doesn't he?”

“Yeah, Murdoch. Bart was all fire and full of life just like Johnny.” He wheeled his horse around.

“Tim,” called Murdoch again. The big man halted his horse, but didn't look back. “I'm grateful,” said Murdoch.

Tim silently nodded his head in acknowledgement, then touched his heels to Sinbad's side and galloped off.

---38---

 

Johnny was on a horse again. At least if wasn't the giant's horse. It was Murdoch's horse and this time he didn't mind waking up somewhere different from where he'd passed out. His father was behind him, with his arms around him, holding him in the saddle. From time to time fresh, cool water was poured into his mouth from a canteen as they rode. When he was able to keep his eyes open, Johnny literally drank in the sight of his brother, who was riding his horse to the left of them.

Johnny wanted to pinch himself to be sure he wasn't dreaming and that the nightmare of the game was really over, but he couldn't find the energy to lift his bandaged hands.

He could only recall bits and pieces of reality after he'd passed out in his father's arms.

“Johnny? Open your eyes,” commanded Dr. Banning. “Johnny? How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Four,” gasped Johnny. Through a haze, he saw Banning shake his head at his worried father. “What? Did I guess wrong?” he'd asked.

His headache wouldn't go away and he was always thirsty. He was given water, plenty of water, but it didn't quench his thirst.  

Murdoch had been angry at Tim for some reason. He hadn't been able to make out what all was said, but the loudness of their voices sure penetrated his dreams.

He had awakened just as Murdoch was cutting off the rope from around his wrists. The ropes had become embedded within his flesh and it had stung like fire when Murdoch had pulled them away from his wrists. His father had then thrown them as far as he could. Banning had poured whiskey over the raw wounds on his wrists, hands and fingers, then painstakingly wrapped them in clean bandages. The same procedure had been done with the bullet wound in his arm. The alcohol had burned like no tomorrow, but after a while it had made all his wounds feel numb. 

He heard Doc Banning say to his father, “We'll remove all these splinters from his fingers when we get back to the office. I'm afraid it's going to be a long meticulous undertaking.” His stomach had flipped at the explanation and he didn't even want to think about it.

Mostly, he remembered the coolness of the water and how good it had felt when the docs and Murdoch had soaked his body. He'd been given water to drink each time he'd asked for it. And the best part was he didn't have to beg.

Now if only I could keep my eyes open. Why is it every time I drink the water I'm so sleepy afterwards? He thought about the trick the giant had played on him with the flask of water and the soothing powder. Surely, they didn't let the giant drug me again? Dr. Banning's a straight shooter…he would've told me…and I know Murdoch wouldn't stoop so low…nor would Scott…must be the concussion…

Lastly, he recalled the docs changing his bandages from around his ribs. He heard Banning tell his father, “It's a good thing I had the foresight to put extra padding around those broken bones when we were still on the train. Johnny had been chomping at the bit to ride Barranca, but I never in my wildest dreams expected all this to happen.”  

Now he could hardly breathe because his ribs had once again been padded and fresh bandages had been wrapped tightly around them for the journey back to the doctor's office. The ride was proving to be a long and uncomfortable one.

There had only been one wagon to load the dearly departed gunslingers, who were truly dead-eyed now, to take them to the undertaker in Genesis. Jelly had been reluctant to drive the wagon, especially with some surly kid sitting beside him, who Val had under arrest. The kid reminded Johnny of himself in his younger years when he was full of hate. The bodies of Abbott and Talbot were each face down under a blanket on a couple of horses, being led by Sheriff Troup and his deputy Frank. They were taking them back to Cold River.

The train crew and the LT. Guv had ridden on ahead to get to Cold River before nightfall. The crew had business to take care of with the outfitting of the train. The LT. Governor wanted to file an injunction with a judge for control of the Genesis and the Sonora Lancer mine. Now that Abbott was dead, they needed to take the appropriate steps to keep the mines open. The doctors had also ridden ahead to get back to Dr. Bannings' office to make things ready for when the Lancer family arrived.

Val Crawford, covered in soot and reeking of gunpowder, rode up next to Murdoch. They could hear Jelly and the kid arguing. Scott directed his horse over to the wagon to see what the fracas was about.

Murdoch, seeing the lawman's clothes torn and dirty, asked, “What did you do?”

Val looked down at himself and said, “Oh, that.”

Murdoch nodded. Johnny was asleep with his head resting on his father's shoulder.

“Well, ya see, there was this box of dynamite just a laying on the floor of the mine. That mouthy kid sittin there by Jelly spelt the beans and told us Abbott had planned to set it off against us.” Val swatted at a fly buzzing around his head.

Murdoch said, “Go on.”

“Now the long and short of it is since we followed your plan and got there early, we got first dib's on it. And of course, I didn't exactly like ‘em gunfighters firin on our boys, so I lit a fuse and threw it out the opening. What that kid, whose name is Nate by the ways, didn't tell us was that there was an empty bottle laced with nitro under that there dynamite.”

“And?” said Murdoch, getting the picture. He heard Johnny's breathing change and knew he was listening.

“And,” said Val, “It all went kaboom and the rest is history.”

Looking at Johnny, Val asked, “How's he doin and please don't say he's fine. He looks worse than my Squaw on her best day.”

“He's awake, why don't you ask him?”

Leaning towards his friend, Val loudly asked, “Hey Johnny! How ya feeling?”

Johnny immediately put his hand up to his head where the bump was and rubbed it.

“Val, there's nothing wrong with my hearing and in answer to your question I feel like a herd of wild horses and cattle both ran over me.”

“Glad to hear it,” replied Val unfazed. “Hey, the big guy and I are gonna be going out to catch us some horse thieves and cattle rustlers. His partner is still deep in the mix…I need a favor.”

“Val, I'm not up to takin on any of your Indian kids. Nor am I buying or selling any of your Indian blankets.”

“This ain't about them.”

Johnny opened one eye. “No?”

“See that kid sittin with Jelly on the dead guys' wagon?”

“Ya mean the one that needs a whoopin?”

“Well, I don't mean Jelly,” replied Val sarcastically.

Johnny closed his eyes. They were still sensitive to the sun and he didn't have his hat, for it was back on the train. “Yeah, what about him?”

“Doesn't he remind you of you?”

“No, Val.”

“I need someone to look after ‘im while I'm out doing the marshaling stuff.”

“No, Val.”

“Well, will ya think about it Johnny?”

“No, Val.”

“Good. I'll talk to ya later.” Val rode off.

Murdoch brought the canteen of water to Johnny's mouth and he instantly drank from it, then sighed. “The last thing I need is an insolent kid to take care of.”

“Maybe all he needs Johnny, is someone to care about him,” countered Murdoch.

“I can't Murdoch. As soon as Scott and I are on our feet, we're supposed to help move Leah and Cal to the LT. Guv's ranch. In Cal's letter, he told us Leah wanted to do it all by wagon instead of using the train. I guess she felt it was less time consuming that way.” He looked over to his brother and watched him interact with the kid and Jelly. “Scott seems to be doing alright with the kid.”

“Well, you could take him along.”

“Naw,” said Johnny, yawning. His eyes were getting heavy again. “Too much trouble.”

Murdoch softly chuckled. Tim's soothing powder was working fine. His son was feeling little or no pain. He noticed Scott now had Nate on the back of his horse and wondered what the kid's life had been like growing up.

They rode for a few miles in silence. Johnny slept and Murdoch kept his own counsel.

Johnny stirred. “Murdoch?”

“Hmm?”

“What's your connection to the giant?”

“The giant?”

“Yeah. Tim Mc…whatever. The Texas Ranger?”

“It was during the war and Paul and I were just passing through Texas on our way home. There'd been a skirmish between the Union and Confederate armies. There were heavy casualties on both sides. Tim and his youngest brother were medics and they were out in the field looking for wounded. They found their middle brother Bart, who had a fatal wound. He died in Tim's arms.”

Johnny licked his lips, engrossed in the story. Murdoch, used to the routine after miles on the road, lifted the canteen from around the pommel, unscrewed the cap and gave Johnny a drink of water.

“So, how'd you save his life then?” asked Johnny, more than curious now.

“How'd you know about that? Tim mention it?”

“No, when I hung around the border towns, I heard the story. But I never knew who the giant was or who the rancher and his foreman were and I never knew the end of the story.”

“Small world isn't it? The story is really Tim's to tell.”

“Murdoch!” grouched Johnny, yawning again.

“Well the short version is the wounded on both sides were left behind by their units. A field hospital had been set up for both sides. Scavengers and murdering bandits descended on the group of survivors. The wounded from both sides had to band together and fight or be killed. The wounded put up a pretty good fight, but they were weak. They only had one good fighting man and that was Tim, a former Texas Ranger.”

“Wait a minute,” said Johnny, licking his lips again. “Why was Tim a medic when he'd been a ranger and a crack shot before the war?” Murdoch gave his son some more water.

“Well, he told me when he joined up they needed men with medical experience. Before he was a ranger, he was an animal veterinarian.”

“Let me guess, that's another story.”

“Why yes, it is son.”

“So, what happened with the bandits and the wounded? How'd you get involved?”

“That was by accident. We were just in the right place at the right time. Ya have to remember, Texas Rangers are a tough, fearless bunch and Tim wasn't about to give up his life or the lives of his comrades or patients. They all fought and they lost a good amount of men on both sides. But, it was becoming more and more one sided. Paul and I had come up on the back side of the battle. From our position in the rocks we could see Yankee and Confederate alike waging war on the bandits. So, we started picking off the bandits until we got them on the run.”

“And?”

“Well, we went down and helped Tim with the wounded as much as we could. Through the years, we've kept in contact with each other.”

Johnny yawned again and shook his head. He refused to go back to sleep. “So, Murdoch, how did Tim land up here and please don't tell me it's another long story?”

Murdoch chuckled. “Well, it is. I ran into Tim a few months ago while in Stockton. I'd just received one of Abbott's sporadic notes, though at the time I didn't know it was Abbott sending the notes. Anyways, I was having a drink in the saloon.  We got to talking and found out there was a connection between the North Passage, Cold River, Genesis and George's ranch and Lancer. Since Tim was already part of Talbot's gang we used it to our advantage. All four of us got together and hatched a plan of our own. Of course, the game didn't play out like we expected.”

“By all four, ya mean Dr. Banning, the LT. Guv, Tim and you?”

“That's correct.”

“Boy, ya all did a good job of acting like ya didn't know the giant.”

Murdoch chuckled. “We had too. Your lives depended on it. Now remember we started having trouble with the stock shares and the Sonora Lancer mine's paper reports not matching up. We needed ore samples…” Murdoch stopped talking when he heard a light snore coming from his son. Johnny was asleep. Mention paper stuff and he's out like a kerosene lamp.

-****-

They were only a few miles from Genesis. The trip back had been slow with both his sons' injuries to cope with.  Scott looked bushed and needed to be in bed. Murdoch could tell by the strain on his face that he was at the end of his endurance.

The boy, Nate, was now mounted behind Val Crawford. A deputy had taken over Jelly's position on the dead-eyed wagon. Jelly was on his own horse, riding up ahead with Scott. They'd come to a cross-road where Marshal Crawford and his deputies broke off with what was left of Abbott's gang to head to Cold River.

Val told Murdoch, just before he departed from their company, “Tell Johnny, I'll catch up to him later.”

“Only if he can run me down,” mumbled Johnny, totally relaxed against his father with his head lolling against Murdoch's shoulder. He'd finally figured out there had to be something in the water.

“Texas is sure a long ways from home, Murdoch.”

“Yup, it is.”

“Murdoch?”

“Hmm?”

“What were you and Paul doing in Texas anyways?”

“We'd gotten word from the Pinkerton's that a sixteen year old boy calling himself Johnny Madrid, was hanging out in the border towns of Texas.”

“Johnny Madrid, huh?”

“We'd only missed him by a few days. Word was he'd gone into Mexico with a man named Rico.”

“It was hard to find me after that.”

“It took time.”

The edge of town was coming into view. Scott and Jelly spurred their horses ahead.

“Murdoch?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for never giving up on me. I'm grateful you found me.”

“I'm grateful too, son.”

---39---

 

A few days later, back in the Town of Cold River, Sheriff Troup thought that was the coldest burial of any person he'd had the misfortune to witness. Only one lone man had been at the gravesite to see Mr. Judah Abbott and his stepson, Victor Talbot Abbott off for eternity. The reverend finished his prayers and left.

Josiah Abbott, younger brother to Judah came up to the lawman and coldly asked, “I want the name of the man who killed my brother and his stepson.”

Sheriff Troup was leery of giving the information. He'd heard about the vile reputation of the younger Abbott. He waited too long to answer and Abbott grabbed him by the lapels of his shirt.

“Spit it out man!”

Hoping to deter him from doing violence to his person, Troup spit out a name, “Johnny Madrid.”






End of part two.   Stay tuned for part three, “ Not With My Horse .” 

Want to comment? Email Darla