The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Darla M. Poulos

 

 

Blood On My Hands

Beta: Lacy. Thanks for the bang up job! I’m beholden.
This story can stand alone. It does occasionally refer back to the short story Bygones.
As before, The Texas Rangers, Tim & Matt McRafferty, are the exclusive works of the author and cannot be used without my permission. Oh yeah, be on the lookout for the bad guy, Snake Cutter…because he’s mean!

“This is our land. We want you to get off.”

“What ya gonna do Johnny Madrid? Kill all six of us?” heckled a gunslinger, materializing out of the fog in the middle of the field.

The mist swirled and Johnny could see the dark forms closing in as he stood there, alone, staring the man down.

“No,” he softly said.

“No?” questioned the gunman uneasily. He knew Madrid was good at his trade. “What are you tryin’ ta pull?”

“Oh, nothing special,” replied Johnny, with his hand on the butt of his Colt. The shadowy figures behind the leader were becoming clearer and closer as dawn approached in the east. Johnny, facing west, slowly moved the hammer guard aside and waited for the first rays of light. “Except…”

“He has help,” cut in a calm voice, as Scott Lancer stepped from the shadow of a tree and stood to the left of his brother.

“Who? Him?” smirked the gunman. “He don’t look like any gunslinger I ever seen.”

“Maybe not,” agreed Johnny with a slight grin, knowing his brother was going to later question him about his attire. Brown work shirts just don’t quite pull it off, Scott. “But he can shoot like one. I’ve made sure of that.”

Hesitant, but not backing down, the gunmen opened fire just as the sun burst onto the horizon.

 

                                                                        ---1---

 

The fog was thick with the smoke fired from their guns as the day was born. Dead bodies littered the field, as the unknown gunfighters’ life blood seeped into the damp, cold ground. Men who had paid the price and had failed to take what wasn’t theirs.

A third of the ranch is yours if you’re man enough to hold it.

Johnny Madrid Lancer felt sick inside, as he always did after a gun battle. Defend. Always defend. Kill or be killed. Another notch on my gun. How many now? Too numerous to count.

From the time he was young he’d known the intricate workings of a gun and all the emotions that came with using it.

He and Scott began the grim task of getting the bodies ready to transport into town. Quickly, with a length of rope, they tied the dead men’s hands together, and then their feet. Taking a bedroll from each man’s saddle, they unfolded the oil cloth and rolled the lifeless man inside of it. Together, they lifted each man onto a skittish horse, face down across the saddle. The animals were nervous with the iron smell of blood strong in their nostrils.

Getting a whiff of the acrid gun smoke from his clothes mixed with the bitter scent of fresh blood, and feeling the stickiness of the red substance on, and between his fingers, Johnny murmured, “Blood on my hands.” Always blood on my hands. Will it ever end?

“Our hands, brother.”

The gentle reminder gave him heart. He wasn’t alone anymore and hadn’t been for years. Beside him stood a man with strength and character which rivaled his own. A privileged man who had fought at a young age, witnessed countless atrocities of war and survived the depravity of a prison camp.

Scott, his brother, was the other half of him. Tried and true, sustained through the test of time. Their bond of brotherhood was unbreakable, their friendship and respect everlasting. The blood running through their veins served to seal their relationship.

Summoned by their father, Murdoch, all those years ago, neither man, at the time, could have envisioned they would become a true family. But, they had. Blood had been spilled on the ground many times as the family came together and fought for the land and home alike. Today was no different.

“Well, you can’t say you didn’t warn them,” said Scott, lifting his canteen off his saddle horn. He unscrewed the cap and brought the container to his mouth. The water was warm, but did the trick of quenching his thirst. He then handed it to his brother.

“True,” agreed Johnny, as he gulped a couple mouthfuls and poured some over his head, rinsing some of the sweat away. He wiped his brow with the sleeve of his shirt careful not to touch any part of his body with his bloody hands.

Scott pulled a blue handkerchief from his pocket and Johnny poured water from the canteen, soaking the cloth. Scott wiped the bloodstains off his hands the best he could without soap. He then held the wadded material out and Johnny doused it again with liquid, handing the canteen back to his brother when he was done in exchange for the neckerchief. He, too, rubbed the congealed blood from between his fingers and hands, then tossed the rag to Scott.

“Humph,” grunted his brother, as he put it back in his brown coat pocket.

Together they divided up the horses of the dead men, tying each set of reins to the saddle horn of the horse in front of it. Both men mounted up and moved out.

“Home or town?” asked Scott, falling in beside his brother.

“Hmm, town I guess,” replied Johnny. “It’s Sunday mornin’. Most of the men I expect are still in Spanish Wells…where we’re supposed to be.”

“Probably drunk, passed out and in jail.”

“Yup.”

“Couldn’t be helped and you know it.”

“Nope,” said Johnny, shaking his head. “Dang cows anyways. Why’d they have to pick last night to get into the special feed field?”

“Cause it was fate or we’d have never found those tracks.”

“Yeah, there is that. Ya think they’re part of the gang the Rangers are dogging?”

“Could be.”

“I hope we didn’t mess up things. I can hear Tim bellerin’ already,” frowned Johnny. “But, we really didn’t have a choice, seein’ them boys came out of the fog so unexpectedly.”

“And well-heeled with obvious intentions to kill,” stressed Scott.

“So ya noticed that too?” asked Johnny, worried. Hired gun hawks. Why?

“Kind of hard to miss those guns they had pointed at you,” answered Scott, noticing his brother’s pensiveness. As usual, he’s keeping his cards close to his vest.

After a long pause, Johnny said, “I’m glad the Rangers decided to make Lancer their home base while they’re here. It helps having them lookin’ out for the ranch’s interests.”

“Yes,” agreed Scott. “Besides that fact, as you know, they did get another assignment.”

“Val’s not gonna be too happy with us either,” continued Johnny.

“Probably not.”

“Look at all the paper stuff he’s gonna have to do when we show up.”

Both boys chuckled, then Scott grew serious. “Why do you think they were on our land to begin with? I really doubt they were just passing through. And besides, they knew you by Madrid.”

Johnny was quiet a long time. Scott figured, There he goes again, thinking and not answering. Of course, it is his way.

Finally, Johnny said, “Something’s not ringin’ right. Either my past is catching up to me again,” he heard Scott moan, “Or something we don’t know about yet is in the wind.”

“You have no clue who those guys were?”

“None. But this is the second time in a month we’ve caught strangers on Lancer land.”

“True enough.”

“Murdoch’s gonna have a cow when he hears this.” If it’s about my past the blame will land square on my shoulders…again.

“About the six dead guys we’re bringing in or the ruined feed field?” teased Scott, getting a rise out of his brother.

Johnny smacked Scott with his hat on the arm. “Knowing Murdoch, both…and it’ll be all my fault.”

“How so?”

“Cause anything with guns and dead men are always my doings.”

“Not this time,” encouraged Scott. “Three of them died by my hand.”

“True,” lamented Johnny. He didn’t like the idea of Scott becoming a gunfighter. But, the ranch needs all the protection it can get.

Scott didn’t like the guilt his brother was unfairly feeling. To get Johnny’s mind off the problem, Scott asked, “What did he mean I don’t look like a gunfighter anyhow? And what’s wrong with my clothes?”

 

                                                                  ---2---

 

 

The Lancer brothers were on the outskirts of Spanish Wells approaching the jail from the back side of town. Johnny had fallen into a quietness and had not answered any of his brother’s questions.

Scott, used to Johnny’s ways, kept his own counsel during the trip to town. Riding on Johnny’s left side, Scott, with hooded eyes, observed his brother.

He’s like a sleeping cat, every bone in his body appears to be relaxed, but in reality, he’s aware of everything around him. Knowing him, he’s deep in thought about these dead men we’re bringing in. He doesn’t fool me. He’s troubled for our sake as well as the ranch’s. Something’s definitely afoot.

As they rode, Johnny hashed things out in his mind. He was more than uneasy about the dead gunslingers.

Where did they hale from? The border towns? It’s got to be the border towns. Texas maybe? I don’t recognize any of them, but I’ve been away a long time now. I wonder if Tim will. Scott hit it on the barrel-head though, they’re well-armed and seasoned gun hawks. What is their game? Who hired them? Why are they on Lancer? Why were they in the new feed-field up by Jelly’s mine, the Lorelei? I’m gonna have to have a looksee when we get the dead men settled proper at the undertakers.

As if only a minute had passed by in time, Johnny answered Scott’s question about his clothes, “They’re not flashy enough.”

“What?” asked Scott, caught off guard.

“Ya need some pizazz,” said Johnny, fingering his own pink shirt at the shoulder. “I can see ya in something soft and silky.”

Scott groaned incredulous, “If you think I’m wearing pink…well, you can think again.”

Johnny, not insulted in the least, reminded Scott, “Pink’s my color. Ya need to pick your own color.” He watched Scott look down at his cotton work shirt. “Anything, but brown.”

“Too plain I take it.”

Johnny smiled, “Yup. And ya need to come up with a gunfightin’ name too.”

“I already have,” replied Scott, not sure if his brother was going to like it.

“Okay, let’s hear it,” seriously stated his brother.

“I dropped the Lancer and am going by my mother’s maiden name, and my middle name, Scott Garrett…like you did.” Scott held his breath and waited. He watched his brother’s hand come up to rest under his chin, as he contemplated the name.

“I like it.”

“You do?” questioned Scott, surprised.

“Yeah. It’s got a nice ring to it,” grinned Johnny.  He tested it out on his tongue, “Scott Garrett. Good strong name like Johnny Madrid. I predict Garrett will go down in history.”

Well what do you know, thought Scott, satisfied.

They’d reached the back of the jail and dismounted.

Johnny, observing the pleased expression on his brother’s face, said, “Come on Scott Garrett. Let’s see how ya do explaining all these dead guys to the law.”

 

                                                                        ---3---

 

“You did what?!” bellowed Tim, the Texas Ranger and friend of the family. “Yer Pa’s gonna have apoplexy when he hears this.” The lawman was a giant of a man dressed all in black.

“I know. I know,” agreed Johnny, helping himself to a cup of coffee from the pot on top of the old Franklin stove.

“Scott Garrett, the gunfighter who rides with Johnny Madrid,” flatly tested the Giant. As the names flowed out his mouth, he shook his head skeptically. “And the reason behind this is…what?!”

Johnny and Scott both inwardly winced at the Giant’s pointed stare and bellering loud voice.

“Look Tim,” placated Johnny, “Ya can’t be everywhere all the time and protectin’ things on the ranch and such. So, well…”

“We came up with a plan of our own,” concluded Scott, taking a careful sip from a cup of hot coffee he held in his hand. He grimaced at the strong burnt taste. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this rotgut stuff.

“Oh, ya did, did ya?” sarcastically questioned Val Crawford, United States Marshal, entering the conversation for the first time. “I can plainly see how well that turned out,” he gestured at the dead men outside the backdoor.

Johnny countered, “I already told ya they just appeared from nowhere. We had no choice.”

“And you’re sure they’re gunfighters…like yourselves?” smirked Val, taking in Scott’s appearance.

“Yeah, that’s right,” agreed Johnny, glancing at his brother.

Scott took exception with both men, “Look, I know I need a couple new shirts if we’re going to pull this off.”

“Humph,” grunted the ranger, showing his doubts. “A shirt don’t make the man, but it sure helps.” He pulled at his own collar. “Now see how black makes me look authoritative?”

“Tim, your size alone covers that,” complimented Scott.

“That and that nice shiny star ya got pinned to your vest,” confirmed Johnny, trying to get back on the big man’s good side.

“Madrid! It plain ain’t gonna work. No one in their cotton-pickin’ right mind is gonna believe Scott’s a gunfighter.”

“It’ll work if we play it right,” argued Johnny, putting his cup down on a stack of wanted posters sitting on top of the desk.

Val pulled out a pile of paper forms from the first drawer of his desk. Laying them beside the wanted posters, he griped, “Then, after we’ve completed business with the dead guys, ya better mosey over to the mercantile and pick out some shirts.”

“Oh no,” said Scott, “I’m not wearing any flowered shirts pink, blue or otherwise.”

Johnny gave Scott his most serious Madrid look and asked, “And what’s wrong with my shirts?”

“Nothing, Johnny, but they’re your thing. I want to pick out my own look.”

“Okay, fair enough,” replied his brother. “Now Tim, did ya eyeball those dead guys out there?”

“Ya know I did.”

“And?”

“I reckon the oldest one to be from south Texas. A long ways from home.”

“The others?”

“Just babies. Probably new to the game.”

Johnny’s face fell. He wasn’t really surprised. After all, I’m much older now. There’s dozens of kids out there makin’ their way by a paid gun. Sons that won’t be comin’ home to their mama’s…as if mine had ever been waitin’. Privately, he laughed cynically. My mama would’ve been happy to see me gone by the wayside.

 

The big guy patted Johnny on the shoulder, “Don’t take it too hard, they were already dead before they got here.”

“I know,” murmured Johnny.

The ranger took in Scott’s crestfallen face and boomed, “If you’re gonna be a gunfighter, then ya gotta know’d it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.”

Scott straightened to his full height and lifted his head.

The giant went on, “Yer brother’s just a tad bit glum. He know’d how the game be played. It’s just tougher when they die by your own hand.”

“And as you get older it gets harder,” interjected Scott, now coming to terms with his brother’s various moods. He looked down at his own hands, seeing the blood that had been there.

“Yeah. It wears ya out. Tears at your innards. Gets old after a while,” explained the Ranger. “Never take killing lightly.”

“Okay, now that ya had your pep talk,” broke in Val, “I need an official explanation for these here reports.”

They all heard Johnny groan.

“What?” asked Val, looking perplexed, “Ya think I like fillin’ out these paper things any more than you do?” He put the lead of the pencil in his mouth and wet the tip with his tongue. Then he brought it down to the stack of forms. “Let’s see, ya were up by Jelly’s old mine, what were ya doin’ up there?”

“Counting cows,” supplied Scott, now standing behind the Marshal.

“Countin’ cows.” Val looked up. “Ain’t it a little early fer that?”

 “Naw,” said Johnny, “these are special cows that go hand in glove with the special feed we’re growin’ up there.”

“I see,” though he didn’t and Scott took pity on his confusion.

“It’s Murdoch’s and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s experiment.”

“Oh, that’s about as clear as mud,” stated Val, writing it all down. “Hey, I haven’t seen the old man around for a while. Where’s he been hidin’?”

“Murdoch’s at the LT. Governor’s ranch in Sacramento,” volunteered Scott.

“As ya know, he and the LT. Guv go a long ways back,” spoke Johnny. “Clear to when they got off the boat to hear them both tell it.”

“Oh yeah, I plum forgot. Didn’t Murdoch go up there about something over water rights?” asked Val, writing as he talked.

“Yeah, he did,” affirmed Johnny, picking up his coffee cup from the top of the wanted posters.

Scott filled in the reason for his father’s trip. “Seems the State of California is trying to pass an act in Congress that the rancher’s don’t own the water beneath the ground, only what is open and running freely.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” spouted Val. “What they’re tryin’ to pull anyways? Anyone with a lick of sense, knows if ya own the land, ya own the ground below it and above it.”

“That may be,” replied Scott, “But, as sure as I’m standing here, some day they will get the act passed.”

“Which is why Murdoch is in Sacramento fightin’ it,” supplied Johnny.

The giant, who had been silent, spoke up, “Which probably accounts for all these here land speculators roaming the area.”

“Speculators?” asked Johnny, now all ears.

“Yeah, they’re lookin’ for any loop-hole they can find to claim the land.”

Johnny immediately jumped to a conclusion. “Ya think these gunfighters were protection for them speculators?”

“Wouldn’t be surprised none,” replied the Giant. “Matt’s been out there trailin’ the hired help for some time now.”

“Oh, that explains why Teresa’s been so down in the mouth. Yer brother and partner being pre-occupied elsewhere,” snickered Johnny.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” stated the Ranger.

All the men chuckled over that.

Val piped up, “Now get this story straight. Ya were both cow countin’, then what?”

 “We noticed the fence had been cut in the feed field,” reported Scott, drinking the last of his coffee with another grimace.

Johnny, noticing his brother’s facial expression, grinned and said, “And the cows were all over the place munching on the tender plants. We had to get them outta there before they ate themselves into oblivion.”

Scott chimed in, “We noticed the tracks when we entered the field heading up towards Jelly’s old mine.”

“But, we couldn’t follow them,” clarified Johnny, “It was getting dark and we had to get the cows outta there.”

“Yeah, I get that,” said Val, not looking up.

“It took us most of the night to find the cows and herd them to the other side of the fence.”

“All night?” questioned Val in doubt.

Johnny shot back, “That field is huge. The cows are black and the night was dark. There wasn’t much of a moon either.” He took in a breath and continued, “We had to get them all out of there because when Murdoch gets home and hears about it, he’ll be havin’ a cow himself.”

Scott rolled his eyes at his brother’s way with words. “The gist of the matter is it took a while to herd the cows outside the fence. Then, the fog rolled in.”

“Oh boy,” said Val, still writing.

“We could hear voices and complainin’ as the men walked through the fog, leading their horses. They made enough racket to wake the dead,” stated Johnny. “And ya know the rest.”

“Why’d they lead their horses?” asked Val.

“Probably because they didn’t want them stepping in some hole in the ground. It was foggy after all.”

“Makes sense,” agreed the Ranger.

“Okay, got it. Sign here,” ordered the Marshal, printing an X on the spot.

Both boys signed their names.

“Now what?” asked Scott, new to the game.

“We go to the general store,” replied Johnny, squaring his hat.

“I’ll go to the store. You find something else to do,” argued Scott.

“But, Scott don’t ya want my help…?”

“No.”

Val chipped in, “Hey, Kirby’s Saloon has changed hands again. It’s now owned by the Cooper brothers from...”

“The Cooper brothers?” repeated both Lancer brothers in unison and exchanging glances. Then, Scott asked, “From Juniper?”

“Yeah,” said Val, not looking up from his paperwork. “I think Jelly is over there right now havin’ breakfast.”

 

                                                                        ---4---

 

The Lancer brothers exited the Marshal’s office, stepping onto the boardwalk. Scott took a couple of steps towards the general store when Johnny stopped dead in his tracks.

A moment later, Johnny took off at a run after a black-hooded carriage. He followed it up the street until the vehicle had out distanced him.

Scott waited for his brother to turn around, then met him halfway up and in the middle of the street.

Johnny, looking like he’d seen a ghost, panted, “Did you get…a gander at her?”

“Who?”

“The woman in the…carriage!”

“No, sorry.”

Distraught, Johnny pulled his hat off and smacked the side of his leg with it.

Not understanding his brother’s agitation, Scott lightly asked, “Johnny, who was she?”

White-faced and watching down the road at the fleeing buggy, he uncertainly answered, “She…she looked…just like my mama…she was the spitting image…of her.” Helplessly, he looked up at Scott as if his brother had all the answers.

Scott brought his hands up to Johnny’s shoulders and held them. “That’s not possible.” Gently, Scott repeated himself, “You know that’s not possible.”

With his chin tucked against his upper chest and eyes downcast, Johnny whispered, “Yeah, I know.”

“You said you saw her grave.”

Head still down, Johnny nodded, “I did.”

“And Murdoch confirmed it in your baby book, that he too had seen it.”

“Yeah, he did.” Johnny pulled away from Scott’s hands and brought his blue eyes up to meet his brother’s. “But, it doesn’t mean she was in there.”

“Johnny, that’s wishful thinking…” Scott let the rest trail off for his brother’s eyes had a determined look about them.

“I know,” emphasized Johnny, ‘but, I know what I saw!” With that thought in mind he walked away from his brother and entered an establishment called The Cooper’s Den.

 

                                                                        ---5---

 

Having realized the day was Sunday and all the stores were closed, Scott gave up the idea of shopping for a new shirt. He, instead, followed his brother into the new Saloon.

Johnny’s mood is less than social and I know he’s boiling for a fight. He always covers up the hurt with his temper. Just the thought of his mother is like striking a match to brushwood on parched open range.

Scott scanned the interior of the place as Johnny bellied up to the long mahogany bar.

Place hasn’t changed much since Charlie, the fix-it man’s son, Kirby, had owned it. Come to think of it, it hasn’t changed much from all the other former proprietors either.

Tables were scattered all over the room. A mirror was above the well-stocked bar with all the various types of alcohol bottles. An upright piano stood in the corner with a player doing his best at making the music sound half way decent. Only one saloon woman was playing hostess and she was over by the gaming table.

There’s Jelly playing cards with Harmon Cooper and a few less than reputable characters.

Bringing his eyes back to the bar, Scott observed the other two Cooper brothers standing aloofly behind the counter. They haven’t changed much either. Still bad-tempered, I’d wager, behind those unfriendly eyes of theirs.

Trouble started the moment Johnny had stated his drink preference. “Tequila.”

“Sorry,” said Crocker Cooper, the barkeep. “I can’t serve ya.”

“And why not?” returned Johnny with a sharp edge to his voice. “Cause I’m a Lancer?”

“Nope,” came the reply. “It’s Sunday and we can’t serve any liquor until church gits out and it’s after twelve.” He looked over at his well-groomed brother, Bobby, dressed in a three-piece suit, who was holding an open gold pocket watch. The man seemed to be biding his time as he perused his watch.

From the corner of his eye, Johnny caught Scott behind him and turned towards his brother and asked, “Well, how ya like that?” His right hand was in a tight fist on top of the counter.

Isn’t killing six men enough for one day, thought Scott, not wanting to get into a fight as he came up and stood beside his brother. He put his left arm on the bar beside Johnny’s fist.

Calmly, Scott tried to defuse the situation by saying, “Well, Murdoch was on the committee that came up with the no drinking on Sunday and any holiday ordinance before noon.”

“He was, wasn’t he?” repeated Johnny with a slight grin.

His brother raised his eyebrows and nodded yes.

“But, then, I’ve never been one to follow orders,” stated Johnny with a slight smirk on his face and a twinkle in his eyes.

A groan came from Scott, for the spark had lit the fuse. He felt his brother stiffen and knew he was ready to throw the first punch when the clock in the town square suddenly began to chime.

“Shucks!” complained Johnny, relaxing. “That dang clock just ruined my fun.”

Scott expelled a deep breath and ordered two tequilas.

Crocker, the barkeep, looked askance at his own brother, Bobby, who nodded in the affirmative. The bartender poured each Lancer brother a drink and a whiskey for Bobby.

Receiving their drinks, Scott, still trying to avoid a fight between the two sets of brothers, toasted, “To the illustrious Cooper brothers.”

“I’ll drink to that,” stated Bobby, picking up his shot glass of whisky from the bar.

They drank their drinks. Then Bobby Cooper said, “Another round on me.”

The barkeep poured the liquor into their glasses.

“To the Lancers.”

Johnny said, “I’ll drink to that.”

Scott felt Johnny tense again and watched his fingers curl into his hand. Ah oh, formalities are over and all bets are off.

Johnny ordered, “Another round.”

When the alcohol was poured, Johnny asked very softly, “What should we drink to this time?”

Bobby suggested, “How about let bygones be bygones?”

“Nope,” said Johnny, “Can’t drink to that.”

His brother’s eyes were dead serious and Scott knew this was it.

                                   

                                                                        ---6---

 

At the same time, in a corner opposite the bar, Jelly B Hoskins, the Lancer’s best ranch-hand and friend, was in the middle of a hot streak with a winning hand at poker. Having finished breakfast, he’d spouted, “Teresa’s fried eggs and johnnycakes beat yours hands down.” He then had grudgingly paid for the meal.

Harmon Cooper, hearing the complaint challenged him to a poker game to make up for the lack of cookery.

Jelly accepted despite the fact the man and his friends looked shifty.

The game had been in play for a while with Jelly winning most of the hands. Now, there was a big pot of money at stake in the middle of the table.

“I’ll raise ya fifty,” stated Harmon, throwing his money on the pile.

It was Jelly’s turn to ante up and he pulled out some money from his left shirtsleeve, dropping the quitclaim deed to the Lorelei on the table. His face contorted at the misdeed, but in actuality, it was done on purpose so the players could see he was a man still with means.

“What ya got there old man?” asked Harmon, more than interested.

“Just a piece of paper to a mine I own,” proudly stated Jelly. “The Lorelei.”

Hearing the name of the mine in the background, Johnny, ready to land the first punch at Bobby, turned around and shifted his attention to his friend’s conversation.

“It worth anything?” asked one of the shifty fellows.

“Maybe fifty dollars,” meekly replied Jelly, becoming aware that Johnny was now standing behind him with a stern expression on his face.  

“Ya gonna play it?” asked Harmon Cooper, in a cunning voice.

“Nope,” said Jelly, firmly.

“No?” harshly questioned Harmon.

“Oh bother,” whined Jelly, pulling out some money from his shirt pocket and then, his other sleeve. He slowly counted his money and put fifty dollars on the kitty in the middle of the table. “I’ll see ya fifty.”

Harmon Cooper didn’t seem happy and looked at his cards.

The other three men put their cards face down on the table, two stating, “Out.” The other said, “Too rich for my blood.”

Jelly peeked at his cards and Johnny got a looksee from behind his shoulder. They waited for Harmon Cooper’s next move.

Harmon Cooper laid down his cards, four kings with a deuce.

With a sinking heart, Jelly laid down four queens with a five card.

Harmon grinned and claimed the pot. “Better luck next time old man.”

“Who ya callin’ old?” spouted Jelly, down in the dumps.

A laugh came from the middle Cooper brother. “I’ll tell ya what.”

Jelly looked up and Johnny, edgy, stiffened.

“I’ll buy that mine from ya for fifty dollars.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” sadly replied Jelly, glancing at the money on the other side of the table as he slowly stood up.

“Double the money.”

Jelly hesitated.

Johnny firmly said, “No!” and snatched the quitclaim deed off the table where it had been sitting. He then handed it off to his brother, who was standing beside him. Scott put the deed inside his inner coat pocket as Johnny ushered Jelly towards the door with a hand wrapped around his right upper arm.

Harmon took exception to the slick move by grabbing Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny was more than delighted to skin his knuckles against the man’s chin and relieve some pent up tension.

---7---

Jelly, peeking over the bat-wings doors, had a bird’s eye-view of the fight between Johnny Lancer and Harmon Cooper. Sparks are sure flyin’ betwixt those two.

Johnny fell onto a table with Harmon on top of him. Both men punched at each other as the table collapsed beneath them. Rolling around on the floor, they traded a few more licks with each other, then made it to their feet, each with a hand latched onto the other’s shirt.

Bobby entered the fray by coming up behind Johnny and locking his arms around Johnny’s chest. Harmon tried to get a couple punches into Johnny’s ribs, but the champion saloon fighter kicked out his feet to ward off the blows.

Scott took exception to the dirty move and started for Bobby only to be intercepted by Crocker Cooper, the bartender. The younger Cooper brother landed a punch in Scott’s stomach area and tried reaching into Scott’s inner coat pocket at the same time.

Scott, taking offense to both the blow and the man-handling, grabbed Crocker’s wrist, whose hand had a grip on the deed to Jelly’s mine.

Nearly out of breath, Scott asked, “You…trying to steal…that deed?” He dug his fingernails deep into Crocker’s skin and the man let go whining, “Just a slip of the fingers.”

“Just a slip of my hand,” angrily countered Scott, as he gave Crocker a right upper cut to the chin with his fist, knocking the man out.

Jelly, still watching from outside the doors, jumped a mile when Val and the Giant came up behind him. Val issued a low whistle and mumbled, “I might’ve known. That didn’t take ‘em very long.” 

“Bad blood?” asked Tim, not knowing the history between the two sets of brothers.

“That’s an understatement,” affirmed Val, as he walked through the doors with the ranger following him. Jelly stayed where he was.

“Hold up!” shouted Val, stepping in front of Scott and taking a hold of Bobby Cooper by the back of his shirt collar, thus freeing Johnny from Bobby’s strong hold around his chest.

Johnny turned to punch Bobby only to come up short with the body of the Giant standing in his way. That didn’t discourage Johnny by any means and he growled, “Get outta my way!”

The big man grunted as he grinned, then stated, “I ain’t gonna do it.” Seeing the steely eyed determination on Madrid’s face, the giant added, as he blocked Johnny’s punch to his person by bringing his arms up in front of him, “We’ve been through this before and ya know’d how this is gonna end.”

Johnny didn’t really want to fight Tim. He was a friend after all. He only wanted to get a few punches in at Bobby for fighting dirty. And he wanted to let off more steam for everything that had happened to him today.

Johnny feigned a left at the giant and came around to the right side of the big man with the intention of hitting Bobby.  But, the giant called his bluff and Johnny found two huge hands clamped around his own arms.

Tim ordered, in a low deep voice, “That’s enough!” He gave Johnny a brief shake, then released him.

Val interceded, “Now this is Sunday! The day of rest.” He let go of Bobby’s shirt and pushed him towards the bar. Watching Harmon Cooper pick himself off the floor behind Johnny, Val gave them both the Devil’s eye and finished up, “I want some peace and quiet in this here town for the rest of the day or else…”

“Or else what?” griped Johnny, wiping his bloody lip.

“Or else, ya all gonna land up in the calaboose where’d I just released most of yer ranch hands!”

Bobby pleaded, “Look sheriff…”

“That’s Marshal Crawford to you, Cooper,” growled Val, pointing at his badge.

“Marshal Crawford. I run a reputable establishment here. We were just about to have lunch when these two…Lancer boys came in demanding drinks.”

“Don’t respectable me!” snapped the Marshal. “This here place is a saloon ain’t it?” asked Val, lifting his hat and scratching his head. He was trying to mollify the situation and give the Lancer boys a respectable departure. Church had let out and there was a crowd of people at the doors behind Jelly, taking in the doings. “Ya do serve drinks here?”

Scott immediately got the hint. He picked up his hat along with Johnny’s, then walked over to his brother and handed it to him. Johnny snatched the hat out of Scott’s hand, still angry at the turn of events. A moment later he strode to the entrance and slammed through the double doors, forcing Jelly and the crowd to jump back a few steps. Scott followed in his footsteps.

The horde of people, realizing the show was over, dispersed into different directions with some of the men going inside the saloon.

“Well, that worked out well,” sarcastically stated Scott, as he handed back the deed to Jelly. They both watched from a distance while Johnny, with jingling spurs, stomped across the road and headed towards the jail where his horse was tethered behind the building.

“Do me a favor Jelly and put this some place where the sun don’t shine…like Murdoch’s safe.”

“Ya know I didn’t figure all this to happen,” mourned the little man. “I just wanted…”

“I know,” sharply replied Scott, cutting Jelly off. With a pat to Jelly’s shoulder, Scott moderated his temper and gave Jelly some advice, “Next time, just think before you act.”

“Humph.” A moment later, Jelly said, “Scott.”

“Yes.”

Jelly handed him the deed. “Here, stash this some where’s safe where I won’t be tempted to make a fool outta my self again.”

“Okay, I’ll store it in Murdoch’s safe, so if you ever want it…”

“It’ll be there,” ended Jelly making a dejected face.

Stepping off the boardwalk, Scott turned and issued an order, “Jelly round up the men and head back to the ranch. I’ll go and catch up with Johnny.”

With a contrite expression on his face, Jelly protested “They’re probably all over at Moe’s eatery, fillin’ their faces.”

“Let them eat, then herd them home!”

 

                                                                        ---8---

 

Scott found Johnny on his knees, examining Barranca’s left back hoof.

“Something wrong?”

“Yeah, his shoe is loose,” explained Johnny, standing up. “I’ll have to roust the blacksmith.”

“No doubt Gus just got out of church,” reminded Scott. “You know she always faithfully attends each Sunday.”

“Too bad she don’t rub off on Jelly,” remarked Johnny, pulling the reins from the hitching-post. “I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard them talkin’ about the Lorelei in the middle of that poker game.”

“There’s something strange going on about that deed Johnny.”

“How so?”

“While we were fighting, Harmon tried to lift it out of my pocket.”

“Why? It ain’t worth a plug nickel.” Johnny, leading Barranca, started walking towards the blacksmith barn.

“I know, that’s what bothers me.” Scott pulled Buster’s reins from the post and fell in beside Johnny. “We both know Murdoch bought all the land around the Lorelei fair and square.”

“Yup, it’s now the special feed fields. And the cattle are all a special breed eatin’ only the new feed.”

“Right. Murdoch made a deal with Jelly that he could keep the mine for nostalgia sake if nothing else.”

Johnny chuckled, “Yup, he seems to enjoy flashin’ that quitclaim deed around, makes him feel important like.”

“The man has pride, Johnny, just like you and I do. It’s important to Jelly that he owns something. Even if it’s in the past and is nothing but a worthless pile of dirt.”

“Okay, I get it. The sad part is if the shaft hadn’t run vertical into the ground, he’d still be loaded.”

“True enough,” smiled Scott. “But, that brings me back to my point. Why all the interest in the claim?”

“Ya sure ya ain’t reading more into this Scott?”

“First Harmon Cooper tries to win it in a poker game. He gets ticked when Jelly refused to be baited.”

“And when that failed he tried to buy it, even doubling the money,” put in Johnny.

“And when that didn’t work, he tried to steal it,” concluded Scott.

They walked in silence for a ways. Then Johnny said, “Maybe the Cooper Brothers, being new to the area, don’t know the history behind the Lorelei.”

“Could be. But, I think there’s another ulterior motive.”

“Maybe we should ask Gus how her brother obtained it.” At Scott’s questioning look, Johnny expanded on his train of thought, “Ya know, find out the history behind the claim. Maybe the Coopers know something we don’t know.”

“Good idea, brother.”

They met Gus as she was coming down the narrow flight of steps from her rooms at the top of the stairs.

“Boys!” exclaimed Gus, always happy to see them. “Ya seen Jelly anywhere’s?”

“I just sent him to round up the men,” said Scott. “I expect he’ll be stopping by before he heads to the ranch.”

“He’d better be! I have his lunch ready like I do every Sunday.”

“Ah, Gus?” tentatively asked Johnny, “I hate to bother ya on a Sunday, but Barranca’s shoe is loose. Can you help me?”

“Ya know’d ya don’t have to ask,” answered Gus, leading the way to the side door of the barn. She went through the entranceway and a moment later opened the main door to her business. “Bring ‘im in.”

Johnny walked by her leading Barranca and Gus instantly noticed which hoof had the loose shoe. Scott looped the reins of his mount to the hitching-rail and joined them as Gus bent over the horse’s hoof.

“This will only take a few minutes,” said Gus. As she pulled the nails out of the shoe with a claw hammer, she asked, “Haven’t seen you boys in town in a coon’s age. What all have ya been up to?”

The men chuckled and Johnny got right to the point.

“We all sort of, including Jelly, got into a little fuss at the new saloon.”

“Cooper’s Den?”

“Yeah, how’d ya guess?”

“Ain’t many new drinking establishments around here. ‘Em Cooper boys are shifty if ya ask me.” Gus had the horseshoe off the hoof and was cleaning out the debris.

“Speaking of which,” continued Johnny, sitting down on a bale of straw, “them Cooper boys seem to have a powerful interest in Jelly’s deed to the Lorelei.”

“How powerful?” asked Gus, examining Barranca’s old shoe.

“Hmm, enough that they are up to some interestin’ shenanigans.” Johnny pulled a piece of straw from the bale and put it between his lips.

“Why?” Shoe seems to be right fine.

“Trying to steal it for one thing.” He chewed the straw into two pieces and spit it out.

“Why? It ain’t worth nuttin’.” She refitted the shoe and carefully tapped in the nails.

“We know,” broke in Scott. “We’re hoping you can tell us the history of how your brother, Joseph, came by it.”

Gus, done with the shoe, released Barranca’s hoof from between her knees. “Well, let me put my thinkin’ cap on a few seconds.” She walked over to a rickety group of shelves nailed against the barn wall and lifted a jug off the ledge, pulled out the cork and took a swig.

Exhaling in satisfaction, she offered a drink to the boys, who both declined.

“Suit yourselves.”

“Long way home,” said Scott, by way of explanation.

“Mighty fine shine. Helps me think more clearly.” She replaced the cork and put it back on the ledge.

“Okay, I’s got it!” Sitting her large frame down on a wicker chair she started her spiel. “Joseph, my brother, took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 signed into law by President Abe Lincoln himself. Seems ya got 160 acres of U.S. Government land in exchange for a small fee and meetin’ the requirements.”

“What requirements?” asked Scott, more than interested.

“Ya had to homestead it for five years by building a cabin and plantin’ crops and makin’ trivial improvements.  In Joe’s case, he got a mine with his acreage.”

“Oh, that explains the run down shack still standing in the middle of a field by the mine,” exclaimed Johnny, chewing on another piece of straw.

“Yup, Joe planted whatever he could get ta grow and built the required 12 X 14 cabin. After six months of residency, he paid a dollar twenty-five an acre. Then, he was given the title free and clear. After five years, the General Land Office in Washington D.C. forwarded the final certificate of Eligibility.”

“Bert said your brother was within eighteen inches of striking gold,” reminded Johnny, “How come he gave it up?”

“He got sick and couldn’t dig anymore,” flatly said Gus. “He died soon after deeding the claim over ta me.”

Scott completed the story, “Then, you signed it over to Jelly during our poker game and we all know what happened after that.”

A round of moans was heard, each remembering the events of Jelly’s ownership of the Lorelei.

 

                                                                        ---9---

 

Scott was getting ready to climb onto his saddle outside of Gus’s blacksmith business when a horse clattered down the street heading straight for them.

“Look Johnny! It’s Jake,” called out Scott to his brother, who was still in the barn. The blonde Lancer held onto Buster’s reins and waited for the buckskin to stop, as Johnny and Gus joined him by the road.

Jake brought his mount to a halt in front of the boys. He leaned backwards and pulled out a sealed parcel from his saddlebags and handed it to Scott.

With Scott eyeing the package, Johnny made the introductions to Gus. “This here fella is Jake, the LT. Guv George’s personal messenger.”

“How’d ya do?” replied Gus, with a short curtsey.

“My apologies, madam, but I’m afraid…I’m feelin’ poorly,” moaned Jake, bending over at the waist.

They instantly took in his appearance. Under the dust it was plain to see something wasn’t right.

Scott murmured, “You look kind of emaciated.”

Not knowing what that term meant, Gus ended with, “He looks down right sickly and green to me.”

Johnny kept his thoughts to himself. He looks like death warmed over. “What’s wrong Jake?”

“Stomach ailment of some sort…I think I gots food poisonin’ from my last stop.’’ He swayed in the saddle and Johnny reached up and pulled him down. Boy, this sure brings back some unwanted memories from my time in Uppity Flats.

“Jake, I know where you’re at,” commiserated Johnny, holding him up against the horse.

“Ya don’t understand. I gotta get that there parcel to the LT Guv and your Pa before the birds get up in the morning. It has to be sittin’ on the barrister’s desk when they walk in there. I was told it’s vitally important.”

Knowing exactly what Jake was going through with his stomach pains, Johnny volunteered, “We can do that. What’s the big bug’s name?”

“Barkley, Jarrod Barkley,” grunted Jake, leaning heavily against Johnny’s body. “Agh, I feel as helpless as a newborn.”

“We’d better git ‘im settled upstairs in my place,” stated a worried Gus. “Scott, run for the doc. Johnny, ya think ya can get ‘im up the steps?” She whirled around not giving him time to answer. A moment later she was halfway up the stairs deep in thought of what she needed to do to help the sick messenger.

                                                              -----------

 

 

“Well, how is he?” asked Scott, holding a package wrapped in brown paper under his arm. Both Lancer brothers were standing by their horses at the hitching rail in the yard of the blacksmith.

“Doc Jenkins got here right away and gave him some ginger tea to calm his stomach. He’s done with the spewin’ stage and doc said he’ll be all right after some rest.” Noticing the bundle under his brother’s arm, Johnny curiously asked, “What ya got there? Shirts?” He reached for the package with the intention of looking them over.

“Oh no you don’t,” replied Scott, with a slight smirk, “Not until we get home.”

“Don’t what? Give over Scott. I just want to see them.”

“No.”

Confounded, Johnny asked, “Its Sunday. How’d ya get into a store anyways?”

“Ran into the owner,” was Scott’s guarded reply, as he tied the package behind his saddle.

Johnny drew his own conclusions, “They’re either outrageous or way too old-school, ain’t they?”

Scott said, while mounting his horse, “You’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Stop being cagy with me,” argued Johnny, putting a foot up into the stirrup when he noticed Jelly, staggering down the boardwalk holding a hand to his head. “Jelly,” he swiftly called, dropping Barranca’s reins where the horse stood.

Scott, seeing Jelly’s uneven gait, got off his horse and joined his brother in leading the little man to Gus’s place of business.

Anxious, both Lancer boys asked, “What happened?” as they lead him up the stairs to Gus’s living area.

“Some sidewinder nailed me behind the eatery.” Jelly sniffled and moaned. “Said he wanted the deed I’d gave ya Scott amongst other things.”

“What did ya tell them?” butted in Johnny, opening the door at the top of the landing. Both boys steered Jelly inside.

“Told ‘im the poker game plum cleaned me out.”

“And the deed?” persisted Johnny, pulling out a chair for Jelly to sit in. The noise drew the attention of Dr. Jenkins and Gus from the other room.

“Said it was in a place where the sun don’t shine and the curly wolf clobbered me.”

“Can you describe him, Jelly,” asked Scott, moving aside so that Dr. Jenkins could examine him. The doctor pulled Jelly’s hand away from his head and requested, “Gus, fetch me a clean washrag.”

Gus immediately pulled one out from under the dry sink in the kitchen. She handed the cloth to the doc, who put pressure on the little man’s head where the cut was.

Jelly crossly tried to describe the culprit who hit him. “Hmm, he’s a real hard case. Bigger than Matt, the Ranger, but smaller than Tim. I done think he’d a beat me black and blue, but a mangy dog kicked up a row and scared ‘im off.”

Johnny, more than upset, asked, “Doc? He sounds a speck touched in the head. Is…is he gonna be alright?”

“I think he’ll be fine once he settles down. Some peace and quiet will probably help,” answered the old doctor. “He’s just had a nasty blow that’s all. The contusion and laceration itself isn’t too bad.” He lifted the washrag off the head wound, thereby relieving the pressure. “See?” indicated Doc Jenkins with his hand. “The bleeding is down to a trickle.”

Gus huffed out a sigh, “If it makes ya feel any better Johnny, Jelly can sack out here today. After all, this is Sunday and the day of rest.”

“Hmm,” pondered Johnny, “Seems I heard that once already today. Yer sure Gus its okay to leave him here?”

“I’ll put ‘im in with Jake. Speakin’ of which, go wind up your business with him so he’ll rest easy. He’s dreadfully nervous about that parcel gettin’ to Stockton.”

After reassuring Jake that the important package would be in Stockton by morning, the Lancer Brothers, once again, mounted their horses and headed home.

 

                                                                        ---10---

 

The boys were on Lancer land, crossing the main stream by the mine. Johnny said, “Jake sure is good at that messenger job he does.” He studied the peak of the rocks as he always did when they passed through the area.

“He has to be or he wouldn’ve worked all these years for the LT. Governor,” replied Scott, also checking out the scenery. The quitclaim deed buried in his shirt pocket felt like it was burning a hole against his skin. Though he couldn’t explain it, the paper felt like a warning. He glanced behind them as they rode out of the creek on the other side. Someone there or not?

Johnny interrupted his thoughts. “How long ya had that feeling Scott?”

Startled, but not really surprised, Scott answered, “Since the time we left Spanish Wells. Why?”

“Just checkin’ to see how sharp your instincts are,” grinned his brother. “I’m gonna make a good gunfighter out of you yet.”

“I should hope so with all the paces you’ve put me through,” complained Scott, following the line of rocks up above their head with his own eyes.

We need to check out that mine,” stated Johnny.

“Its dusk and we’re out of time if we want to deliver Jake’s package at dawn tomorrow.”

With his eyes on the ridge, Johnny said, “I could go mosey around and you could go home and snatch a few hours of sleep, then go to Stockton.”

“No,” sighed Scott. A little testily he asked, “What did we agree on?”

Johnny turned his head towards Scott and squarely looked him in the eyes. “That we are partners as well as brothers.”

“And?”

“And that we’re not to be gallivanting off into the wild blue yonder without first lettin’ the other person know what we’re up to until this is over.” Johnny glanced up at the rim of the rocks. “So I’m lettin’ ya know, there’s something up there. I can feel it. Can’t you?”

“Yes. I feel it too and I know you’re itching to get up there.”

Johnny nodded.

“But, you also said, and I agreed, to the fact that two guns were better than one!”

“We don’t have to stick together like glue. Just let each other know what we’re doing!”

Knowing his brother wasn’t going to like it, but feeling the need to be on the same page, Scott argued, “Yes, but we have to prioritize. Murdoch and the LT. Governor must need these documents. Jake said they came all the way from Los Angeles and then there’s some that came from Doc Banning.”

He saw Johnny observe the rocks again. Patience brother.

“They must be extremely important or Doc Banning would’ve held Jake there in Genesis, being he’s ill and all.”

Scott could plainly see by Johnny’s facial expressions or maybe it’s the lack of expression and just his silence, that he was winning the argument. After all these years, I’m finally able to decipher his moods and personality…somewhat that is. Feeling better about the outcome, Scott pushed the final argument.

“Besides, the mine isn’t going anywhere. We stopped at the marshal’s office and told Tim where we are going tomorrow. And he told us Matt had stopped in and was on his way home. The men will all be back at the ranch soon, if they’re not there already. The ranch will have protection. We’ll be free to go.”

With a spark in his eyes, Johnny grumbled, “You should’ve been a lawyer Scott.” With that having been said, Johnny nudged his heels into Barranca’s sides to pick up speed. “Come on I’ll race ya home. I’m dying to see what color you picked out for those shirts!”

 

                                                                        ---11---

 

The boys came in through the kitchen door hoping to find some hot food, instead they found a note on the table from Teresa.

Boys,

In case you’ve forgotten, Sunday is the day of rest. You’ll find cold cuts with a vanilla cream pie in the cooler and fresh bread in the breadbox.  Teresa.

 

“Why is everyone reminding us it’s Sunday?” complained Scott, pulling out the bread from the box on the counter.

“Don’t know, but I’m famished,” answered Johnny, digging out the leftover roast beef slices and pie with a jar of butter. “I’m hungry enough to eat a horse and run the rider down.”

Scott chuckled as he put two plates with the silverware on each side of the table. He scooted the package with his shirts along with the important sealed parcel of Jake’s to the other end of the kitchen table, then sat down across from his brother.

“You’d eat anything wouldn’t you?”

“Perd near, except mushrooms,” answered Johnny.

Both boys shivered at the memory of Johnny’s food poisoning illness.

Johnny spread the butter thick on a piece of bread, then piled on four big slices of meat and a slab of sliced cheese. Putting the other piece of bread on top, he squished it together. Before taking a bite he said, “When you grew up always hungry, ya learn not to be picky.”

Scott made his own sandwich, then got up and poured them each a glass of buttermilk. After setting the glasses on the table and then the pitcher of milk, he too sat down and devoured his food. Too hungry to talk, they ate most of their meal in silence.

Over their second piece of pie, they discussed their plan of action. Sleep until midnight, then head to Stockton.

Johnny joked and pointed at the brown package, “Ya gonna open that so I can see your new shirts?”

Swallowing the last bite of his pie, Scott remarked, “I could…you’ll never guess what they look like.”

Worried now about what his brother had picked out, Johnny said, “It’s not polka dotted is it?”

“No.”

“Striped?”

“Nope.”

“Plaid?”

“No.”

“Doesn’t have those stupid fringe things does it?”

Scott burst out laughing. “No.” He heard Johnny sigh in relief. “What if it did?”

“I’d disown you as my brother.”

“Give up?”

“No.” Johnny licked his lips, then bit the bottom one. “I’ve got it! Just plain with a solid color.”

“No,” smiled Scott, getting up and putting the dirty dishes in the sink. He came back and reached for the package.

“No?” Johnny eyed the brown paper as if he could see through it. A moment later he picked up what was left of the food and shoved it all in the cooler. “Okay, have at it!”

Undoing the bundle, Scott said, “I have two new shirts.” He pulled out the first one that was dark navy blue in color.

“Ah, Scott isn’t this a lot like your royal blue shirt?” asked Johnny disappointed.

“Yes, I needed a new one. My royal blue ones are about shot and they didn’t have the exact color.”

“Oh?”

“You ready for the next one?”

“Can’t wait.” I knew it. I should’ve gone with him to pick out the shirts. He’s just too ordinary…old-style…unadventurous…

Johnny didn’t know if he wanted to laugh or cry when Scott pulled out the other shirt. He actually closed his eyes for a moment against the brightness of the shirt.

“Well?” asked Scott, snickering to himself. “It’s soft, silky, shiny and…bright.”

“Bright? Bright as the sun, ya mean? Gold Scott? I can’t wait to see it in the daylight. They’re gonna see you for miles away. They’ll see ya clear to Timbuktu.” He then chuckled trying to hold in the mirth. But once it started, Johnny burst into utter hilarity.

Scott stood there quietly holding the shirt against his chest. It was the gaudiest shirt he could find in the store. The proprietor probably thought I took a leave of my senses, but I like it.

Wrapping his arms around his mid-section, for now his ribs hurt from laughing so hard, Johnny asked, “And what’s this busy pattern? You can barely see it for the brightness of the color, but it’s there.”

“Paisley.”

“Paisley? That’s gonna clash with my flowered shirts something dreadful!” He fell into merriment again.

“You told me to pick out something different,” sniped Scott, holding in his own laughter. After all, this whole gun fighting business is more or less a lark…only temporary…to give the ranch more security. I might as well play the part. Though I do thank you brother for making me an expert with a pistol.

“Besides,” contradicted Scott, “You can wear a fresh pink one. You have at least a half a dozen in your wardrobe.”

“Okay, I will,” confirmed Johnny, yawning. “Boy, this has been a long day of rest. I think we better hit the hay for a while.”

“I’m with you brother.” Scott picked up the parcel, then remembered he needed to lock up Jelly’s deed. Pulling out the deed from his shirt pocket, he said, “Johnny take this parcel up with ya. I need to go to the safe.” Leaving his shirts on the table, Scott headed for the great room.

Johnny took the package and with another yawn headed up stairs. He was almost to the top of the steps when he heard a crash from down below followed by a moan.

 

                                                                        ---12---           

 

“Scott?”

Getting no answer, Johnny dropped the parcel and drew his gun, then hurried down the stairs. He ran through the kitchen into the dining area and came to a halt in the dark great room by the table with the ship sitting on it. Listening to the stillness of the house, he moved cautiously towards Murdoch’s desk where the safe was located. Breathing in small amounts of air, he caught the whiff of an old familiar scent. His stomach turned over and his pulse raced as he slowly crept in the direction his brother was supposed to have gone.

“Johnny? That you?” asked Scott from down on the floor.

Letting out his breath in relief, Johnny said, “Yeah. What happened to you?” He holstered his gun and walked towards the noise Scott was making as he stood up.

“I fell over the footstool.”

“What’s it doin’ over here?” asked Johnny, as he struck a match and found the lamp on Murdoch’s desk. A moment later the gloomy room glowed in the soft filtered light of the green desk lamp.

“No idea,” replied Scott. “But my dignity sure hurts.”

Johnny would’ve answered, but he was struck dumb at the sight before him.

Murdoch’s normally tidy desk was in complete disarray with papers strewn all over the top of the surface and down on the floor. The desk drawers were all ransacked and wide open. Too make matters worse, the safe door was standing ajar, its contents all over the floor in front of it.

“What the heck?” exclaimed Scott, almost speechless.

“Ya mean what the hell, don’t ya Scott?” seethed Johnny, getting another whiff of the eerie, cloying sweet scent from his past. His stomach rebelled again and so did his mind as he shrank from the memory of it. No it can’t be. It just can’t be.

Scott didn’t know what to think. The first thing he did was check out the contents of the safe laying on the floor.

“Someone must have known the combination or they’re a first rate safe-cracker. I’m glad we don’t have the payroll money yet. Though robbery doesn’t appear to be the motive.” He held up the petty cash box still full of money. His brother scarcely nodded that he had heard.

Scott gathered all the papers that were askew on the floor and stacked them in a neat pile. Standing up, he laid them on top of the desk and started collecting the loose sheets spread over the surface. Once he had all the paper stuff together, he left them beside the general account ledger. Thumbing through the pages of the book, he said, “Murdoch’s going to have to go through this stuff. I can’t make head nor tails of what is missing.”

Johnny remained silent, still standing by the lamp and staring off into the unknown.

Scott, accustomed to Johnny’s quiet behavior, at first took it with a grain of salt. But, something was off. His face is totally blank. His eyes are…what? Unfocused, far off…like he’s in another world. A moment later, they changed. Is that fear I see in them?  Now completely confused and somewhat apprehensive, Scott lightly called his brother’s name.

“Johnny?”

His brother deeply sniffed. “You smell that Scott?”

“Smell what?”

“Inhale through your nose.”

Scott did as told. “Smells like…like sickly perfume. Not the scent Teresa wears. Hers smells like powder.” Scott inhaled again. “No, this smells like the kind most saloon girls wear.” As soon as he said it he wished he could’ve bitten his tongue.

In a soft voice, Johnny mysteriously said, “Smells like the kind my mama used to wear.”

“Oh, no. We’re not going there again,” responded Scott, now really concerned.

In a stronger voice, Johnny came back with, “I tell ya Scott it’s her perfume. Someone’s been in this house that was wearing it!”

“When Johnny? No one’s been here all day…” Scott had to back-pedal since the mess on Murdoch’s desk was proof enough that there had been someone here. “Okay, so someone has been here. You smell her anywhere else except in this area? Maybe she’s still in the house.”

With that thought in mind, both boys started sniffing like dogs around the great room, coming up empty handed.

“This is dumb,” stated Johnny, walking from the dining table to the entranceway. “I can only smell it around Murdoch’s desk to the glass doors.”

“What?” asked Scott, “She robbed the place of something and left?”

“Hell if I know!” snapped Johnny, his anger getting the best of him now. It can’t be my Mother. She’s dead. I know she’s dead. But, I’m sure that was her I saw this morning. But, it can’t be. Oh, I’m so balled up!

“What could she have wanted? You think it was Jelly’s deed to the mine? Everyone else seems to want it.”

Scott felt his shirt pocket for the paper remembering at the last second it was in his hand when he fell. Not seeing it on the floor, he started working his way through the stack of papers on Murdoch’s desk.

“I don’t know,” mumbled Johnny, looking bereft as he stared out the window.

Scott was becoming more worried. This was not like his calm and cool-headed brother at all.

“Johnny?”

“Yeah?”

Well, at least he’s still listening. “You see that deed anywhere? I must’ve dropped it when I fell. Now I can’t find it.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, where is it? I’ve already looked through these papers, twice,” criticized Scott starting to lose his own patience.

Johnny didn’t answer, but went directly to the footstool and moved it, revealing the quitclaim deed.

Scott exasperated, “Did you know it was here the whole time?”

“Yeah.”

Scott sharply exhaled. “Then you take it and hide it somewhere where the sun don’t shine. I’m going to bed!” With that, he marched up the stairs, then heard a loud knock as he reached the top of the steps. He stopped to listen.

“Teresa?” said Johnny, knocking on her bedroom door again.

An angry Teresa opened the door and confronted him. Her hair was a mess, her lips were pursed and her eyes positively shot sparks at him. Looking over her shoulder, he saw why. Matt McRafferty, the Texas Ranger and brother of Tim, had come home.

Not thinking, Johnny asked, “What’s he doing here?”

Teresa, taking offense, hotly said in a too calm voice, “He’s my husband or have you forgotten?” Not giving Johnny time to answer she ended with, “Course, he’s been gone two weeks without nary a word! So you might’ve forgotten what he looked like!” She then slammed the door in his face.

“Teresa!’ yelled Johnny through the door, not giving up. “Just tell me if there was a visitor today? A woman perhaps.”

“NO! But then, I wasn’t here all day!”

Well that answers that question. Out loud he mumbled, “Women! You’re damned if ya do and damned if ya don’t.” He thought he heard his brother snicker.

-----------------

Johnny, holding a kerosene lamp, slowly walked down the attic stairs after hiding Jelly’s quitclaim deed to the Lorelei. While he’d been up there he hadn’t been able to resist sneaking a peek at his hand-carved wooden horses tucked away in an ornate trunk that once was Scott’s mothers. They’re still there. My boyhood ranch is still there.

“Of course, they are. Where else would they be?” he said out loud, chagrined at his thoughts. “No one even knows about them, but the three of us.” A real-life treasure trove hidden in an old trunk in the attic. A thing stories are made of. Who would’ve thought? Who would ever believe after that discovery we’d become even closer as a family? I can’t even imagine not having them in my life now. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost one of them.

He made the bottom of the stairs and slammed the door, making the pitcher in his wash basin rattle. For some odd reason, the attic door was in his room. He absently shook his head at the builder who designed it.

The trip to Stockton was going to be long and he needed to sleep. Restless, Johnny sat the lamp on his night stand and picked up his baby book. He reverently ran his hand over the surface of the book as he did every time he touched it. My life before mama stole me away. Why mama, why, couldn’t you have left me here?

He knew some of the reasons. But, they had been lies. All lies. What were the real reasons she left besides my step-papa? Did she hate me and Murdoch that much? I know she hated America. She wasn’t happy here at all. Did she even try to be happy here? Why is this such a closed chapter on my life? Mama wouldn’t talk about it except to curse Murdoch. Murdoch doesn’t like to talk about her leaving because it hurts too much. Bygones, he calls it. How am I ever gonna find out why she disliked me so much? Was it just her sickness during pregnancy or is there more to it?

Johnny tried to remember everything he could, but just couldn’t recall much when he’d been two or three. Fleeing in a buggy. Crying…for what? My pink blanket? Papa? Being cold? It was dark and mama was angry.

Johnny shook himself. He’d had dreams about that night as a child. Sometimes they still came back and haunted him. Setting the book down on his bed, he kicked off his boots and shucked his pants and shirt. Climbing into bed, he picked the book back up and flipped to an entry Murdoch had made long ago. His father had always written about the past year on his birthday.

December 23, 1859. I am still looking for you Johnny. Word had reached me in mid-summer about the whereabouts of your Mother and the gambler you both were living with. I came as quickly as I could. But, I was too late. My wife was dead and you, my son, were gone. A man told me there’d been a shootout in the cantina where your mother worked. She’d been shot in the back. All that was left was the burying. I made the arrangements and paid for the stone. I stayed as long as I could gleaning any information on your whereabouts. I tracked you to a rancho where you’d worked that summer and was told you’d been sent back home to start school the next day since it was fall. I’m sorry my son that I missed you. Please know, I’ll never give up looking for you.

Johnny sniffled, as he always did after reading this part. He closed the book. I’m sorry I missed you too, papa. He hugged the book to his chest.

I had been eleven and had come back from the rancho I’d been working at all summer. It was the first time I had three square meals a day and I’d grown in body and strength. It had been a long walk and I had darkened their door with my unexpected arrival. Mama, for a moment, had seemed glad to see me. She’d smiled real big when I gave her the money I’d earned. I had hoped to buy some new boots with a shirt and pants for school. I was so proud that I could contribute to the household. What a fool I was.

Johnny placed his baby book under the book his brother had given him when he’d been sick. He didn’t like where his thoughts were going and he didn’t want to relive his past. He was tired and edgy. Was my mama here? Was that her perfume? I swear, I’d know it anywhere. He blew out the lamp and drifted off into a troubled sleep.

 

                                                            ---13---

 

Welcome to Stockton, California 

1870 population 10,066

 

“Look at that sign bragging about how many people live here,” commented Johnny to Scott as they rode across the city line. “Morro Coyo got some catchin’ up to do.”

“Yes, a nice big growing town. I imagine it has quite a few more people living here now that it’s the spring of 1876.”

“Why don’t they change the sign to read this year?”

“Probably because they only do an official census count every ten years.”

“I reckon.”

They rode in silence for a few blocks, taking in the sights of the well-established town.

“If I remember correctly,” stated Scott, “Jarrod’s office should be in the next block unless he’s moved it since we were last here.”

Both boys had recognized the lawyer’s name right off the bat when Jake had mentioned it. Living in the same valley, the Barkley’s and Lancer’s went back many years as friends.

“Boy, Scott yer sure getting some strange looks in that new shirt of yours,” ragged Johnny. “So bright and shiny against the sun. I’m glad I wore my flowered one.”

Scott just grunted as he read the signs along the way. He had to grin, for people were giving him odd looks. Some of the women were even clearing the boardwalk and ducking into stores as the Lancers passed by. A few men waited to cross the street and stared slack-jawed at them.

They can’t really think we’re gunfighters can they? He glanced at his brother. On second thought, upon seeing Johnny I bet they do. He always looks tough. He has that certain appeal about him. The way he rides all relaxed, sitting up straight, reins held easily in his left hand, hat squared on his head, taking in the scenery like he has all the time in the world.

Scott tried to imitate his brother, but couldn’t quite get the hang of it.

Johnny drawled, “It takes time to perfect it Scott.”

Sighing, Scott pulled his horse to a halt next to a lone bay with the Barkley brand on his hind quarters.

The big plate glass window read, Jarrod Barkley, attorney-at-law. Offices in Stockton and San Francisco.

“Looks like we made it before the big meetin’,” remarked Johnny, dismounting and flipping Barranca’s reins around the hitching rail.

Scott dismounted and decided to put on his short brown jacket to hide some of the glare. He was still smarting from the laughter the giant had razzed him with before they’d left home. While tethering Buster to the rail, the office door opened.

A handsome, mature man in his early thirties with sparkling blue eyes greeted them. “Boys! So nice to see you again.” Holding out his hand in welcome, each Lancer brother shook it. Johnny could’ve sworn Jarrod blinked a couple of times before reaching for Scott’s hand.

“Murdoch’s not here yet?” asked Johnny, spying a saloon down the street.

“No, you’re both early. I got a wire from Jake that you two were bringing the parcel. How’s he doing?”

Scott lifted one of the flaps to his saddlebags and pulled the package out as Johnny answered the question. “He’s been laid pretty low, but he’s on the mend.”

“Well, come on in boys and take a load off your feet,” invited Jarrod, heading into the doorway.

“You all gonna be talking about lawyer stuff?” asked Johnny, stalling at the open door.

“Probably,” replied Scott, handing the parcel to Jarrod. “Don’t you want to know what’s in here?”

“Ah, no, not really,” Johnny glanced down at the saloon and licked his lips. Immediately, Scott knew where his brother’s thoughts were. “I mean, I don’t understand all that lawyer jargon and you can explain it all to me later. No offense,” he said, looking at Jarrod.

“None taken,” replied the barrister with a grin, “My brother, Nick, is the same way.”

A moment later they could hear Johnny’s spurs jangling as he walked down to the saloon named Notorious.

                                                                       

    ---14---

 

It was early morning and Johnny was surprised at the number of men gathered in the saloon eating breakfast. He stopped just inside the doors and looked around as was his habit from his gun fighting days. Never hurts to be too careful. Always pays to know what yer dealing with.

He recognized the Indian sitting alone on a stool to the left of the bar by a side wall from his Warburton days. Memories I’d like to forget. I expect he stills holds a grudge against me for killing Isham. Then there’s Day, also, even though Scott was actually the one who shot him, but the Indian had been close to Pardee. So much blood spilled over the years. So much blood on my hands. The man gave him the silent treatment which suited Johnny just fine.

As he sauntered up to the bar, a cold-eyed snake of a man caught Johnny’s attention, making his skin crawl. Snake Cutter, aptly named, from down in southern Texas by way of El Paso.

“Tequila,” ordered Johnny, keeping an eye on the reptile in the mirror. The man was busy jaw-jacking with two other unkempt men. The barkeep was good at his job. Johnny had his drink in less than five seconds. He drank it in one gulp and felt it burn all the way down to his empty stomach.

Smelling the food, Johnny’s stomach growled and reminded him he hadn’t eaten since last night with Scott. Knowing his brother would be along shortly, he ordered two helpings of ham, cornbread, fried potatoes, and eggs if they had any. The barkeep assured him they did. He paid for the meals, ordered a beer and sat down with it at a corner table with his back against the wall.

Nursing his beer, Johnny listened in on the conversations around him. He soon gleaned the scuttlebutt on the happenings of the area around Stockton. His ears perked up when he heard words being bandiedabout, like water rights, speculators, train revenuers, protection, and mines petering out. Then, his ears really burned when they started talking about killing…killing the main hard head.

Main hard head to what? Is the water rights issue heatin’ up that much? Is he talkin’ about Murdoch or the LT Guv or some other fancy dude? Of course, George has his own protection, but Murdoch’s only got us. Slouching further down in his chair and resettling his hat, Johnny continued to eavesdrop.

 

                                                                        ---15---

 

Scott reached for the bat-wing doors of the Notorious. Had to be this saloon. The name said it all. Couldn’t have been a nice quiet place like Darcy’s café. Oh no, that wouldn’t be my brother’s style.

He’d finished his polite conversation with Jarrod Barkley just as the LT. Governor, George to his friends, and father had come into the office. Murdoch had dubiously eyed his new shirt. Scott was still chuckling from the unspoken questions he had seen on his father’s face. More men had arrived before they’d had a chance to trade many words.

“Is the ranch still standing?” asked Murdoch jesting, but with a hint of seriousness to the inquiry. “And where’s Johnny?”

“We’ve had some trouble. I’ll tell you about it after the meeting,” replied Scott, thinking of the six men they’d killed yesterday. More blood on the land. Will it ever end?  “And Johnny’s at the closest saloon where I’m heading.”

Murdoch blinked at his shirt and grabbed Scott’s arm, “I’m riding home with you after this is over.”

Scott had nodded and excused himself, then followed in Johnny’s footsteps down the boardwalk to this not so reputable saloon.

Coming inside, Scott paused by the door and observed the company like his brother had taught him to do. A dirty ruffian stood up and blocked his path giving him a cold stare. Not to be outdone, Scott returned his best steely eyed glare back at the man who made his skin crawl.

After what seemed an interminable amount of time, the man grudgingly let him pass to where his brother was sitting by the wall. Johnny had just been served two heaping plates of food.

Johnny had coolly watched the proceedings with a hand on his gun, secretly proud of his brother. All those hours of practicing have paid off. Scott’s got it down pat. He really listened to me. Smiling, he kicked out a chair for his brother to sit in.

“You see Murdoch?” asked Johnny in a very low voice. He didn’t want their conversation to carry over to the others.

“Yes.”

“What’d he say about your…shirt?”

Scott could see the glee in his brother’s eyes as he shoveled in a big bite of egg.

“He, ah, raised his brows in question.”

“I just bet he did,” spoke Johnny tongue-in-cheek.

Scott returned a wry look and said, “He’s coming home and he wants us to wait for him.”

“What was in the packet?” asked Johnny between bites of food.

“Hmm, dozens of petitions from the lower part of the state protesting the water rights act,” said Scott, reaching over, then taking a sip of Johnny’s beer.

“Do any good?”

“Don’t know. The LT. Governor will present them to the state of California when congress convenes again.”

Johnny nudged his brother under the table as the Snake slithered in their direction.

“Madrid! I don’t believe my eyes,” chortled the serpent, his smile not reaching his dark eyes.

“Cutter,” dryly said Johnny, resting his hand on the butt of his gun hidden by the table.

“Who’s the gun hawk?” demanded Snake, ignoring Scott for the most part. “He ain’t from these parts.”

“Nope,” said Scott, standing up for himself. “East of the divide.”

“That how they dress?” jeered Snake, looking back over his shoulder at two of his gang members. “In the Old States back east of the divide?”

All the men on that side of the room cackled as if on cue.

Tired with all the razzing over his shirt from everyone, Scott, in a deadly serious tone of voice, retorted, “What’s wrong with my shirt?”

“Nuttin,” deadpanned the gunman, “If ya like people wearin’ blinders around ya.”

Scott slowly placed his fork onto his plate. He felt his brother’s left hand brush his knuckles, steadying his nerves.

A moment later a hunting knife clutched in Snake Cutter’s square hand stabbed the center of Scott’s glass plate, cracking it, as it came to a halt in the wood of the table.

The room went deathly still and all could hear Johnny pulling back the hammer on his gun.

Scott swore he heard Snake Cutter hiss as he let go of the knife and indifferently put his hand flat on the table a few inches from Scott’s broken plate.

In a blink of an eye, Scott grabbed the knife and jabbed it into the table between Cutter’s thumb and first finger, eliciting a gasp from the onlookers. Fed up, Scott said, “Count your digits and make sure they’re all there.”

“Madrid?” called Snake, not moving his hand, but his eyes showed a reluctant respect for his brother.

“Yeah Cutter?”

“Who is this gunslinger?”

“My partner, Scott Garrett,” deadpanned Johnny, lifting his Colt above the table.

In a flash, Snake had the knife pulled out of the table and back in its scabbard hooked to his belt, while stating, “The dude’s got guts.”

“Yeah, he does,” agreed Johnny, smiling for the first time and holstering his gun.

Scott, more than perturbed, looked sideways at his brother. This was all a game? Of course it was. Johnny warned me they’d pull crap like this. Oh that’s rich! Silently fuming, he picked up his fork and resumed eating, despite the fact his plate was broken in two. Well, let him think I eat shards for breakfast too!

Snake Cutter turned a chair around and sat down, ordering, “Barkeep! Another round. What ya gents drinkin’?”

Johnny went to hold up the glass mug, but Scott grabbed it first and guzzled what was left, swishing it around in his mouth. He’d cut his tongue and spat the sliver of pottery back in the beer mug.

Trying not to grin, Johnny frankly said to Cutter, “See? Tough as nails.”

The snake had to agree. It wasn’t every day he saw a man eat shards of crockery. The barkeep brought the round of beer and gathered up the dirty and broken dishes.

Snake guzzled half his mug of beer, then belched loudly. Putting the glass on the table, he asked, “So Madrid, ya here on a job?”

Scott, his feather’s still ruffled, turned away from both men and let his brother do the talking. He’s great at it anyways. Or maybe I should say great at not saying anything. He’s a man of few words. Didn’t he once tell me listening was half the battle won?

Johnny tilted his chair back against the wall and sipped his beer. After a long pause, he only said, “Protection.”

“Oh, that’s good.” Snake took another swig of beer, then added, “Course, ya know our specialty is blowin’ things up.”

Johnny grinned, for he knew that to be true enough. From his earliest days of being a gunfighter he’d known this man, and the two gang-members by the bar, loved to watch things blow sky high.

Raising his eyebrows over the rim of his mug, Johnny said, “Go on. Scott, here, don’t know nothin’ about your specialty.”

Scott leaned forward, as if interested and quietly tasted his beer, while letting the man go off on a wild tangent.

“As ya probably guessed, we’re just up here on a job at the moment killin’ time and awaitin’ on developments for some paper thing to come through.”

Scott, playing dumb now, asked, “Ya mean, yer waitin’ on some paper thing before ya blow something up?”

“Yeah, ya got it.”

Hugging his beer with both hands, Scott asked, “Like what?”

“Gest some old mine that’s done petered out.”

“Oh, that don’t sound like much fun,” wittily said Scott, drinking some of his brew. “If there ain’t no gold, where’s the reward?”

“Who said there ain’t no gold!” objected Snake, letting out what sounded like a hiss. “The Boss just said, its hard ta git at. He has ta have the paper in case there is any gold to claim.”

“Oh,” whispered Scott in a conspiring way. “Ya might want to keep that under yer hat.”

“Why?” asked Snake. “No one dares to cross us.” He gave an evil leer at some secret memory. “We’ll slice ‘em up into pretty pieces.” He pulled his knife out again and started cleaning his filthy fingernails with it. “Ya know’d this is my specialty, Madrid, after the fire power.”

“Yeah, I remember. Ya can skin a jackrabbit faster than I can say, Jack Robinson.” Johnny brought his chair down on four legs and in a serious tone dropped a suggestion, “Still Cutter, ya don’t want ‘em getting a hunk of the pot do ya?”

Scott expounded on Johnny’s comment, planting an idea in the gunslinger’s head, “It might behoove you boys to hire some extra protection when ya blow the mine.”

“Hmm, hadn’t thought of that.” Snake’s eyes turned cold again as he drank the rest of his beer. “But, that’s up to the Boss to decide. Right now he’s fandangling a way to get the paper he needs fer us ta do the job.”

Johnny gave up the pretense of beating around the bush, “Where is this mine anyways?”

“Hmm, some hole in the ground around Morro Coyo.”

“Hole in the ground?” repeated Johnny, his temper on the rise.

Scott heard the hard-edged inflection in his brother’s voice and his heart skipped a beat. Come on Johnny not here. These men aren’t the Cooper Brothers. Though, I know, that never stopped you before.

“Yeah, some two-bit ranch,” rattled on the snake, now picking at his eyeteeth with the razor-sharp tip of his knife.

Scott thought they looked more like fangs than teeth.

“Two-bit ranch, huh?” said Johnny again, standing up now and leaning slightly over the table with his hands on the surface. I’ve lived on Lancer a long time now. When I first came here I couldn’t understand why Murdoch loved the land so much. But, I do now. And no one has the right to disrespect it, especially this scum of the earth.

“This two-bit ranch got a name?”

“Yeah,” said the snake, now digging out a sliver from his hand. “Dancer, Prancer, Lancer or something corny like that.”

Johnny straightened up and kicked back his chair against the wall. He moved to the side of the table to stand in front of the gunfighter.

Scott instantly came to his feet with fists clenched.

The snake slid his forked tongue across his lips and Johnny had forgotten the man had intentionally sliced it that way years ago to intimidate people.

“Johnny Madrid and Scott Garrett? You two protectin’ that pile of dirt?” calmly asked the crafty serpent, not taking his eyes off his task.

“Pile of dirt huh?”

Johnny didn’t like the way the sneaky cold-blooded Snake was acting. Calm, too calm. Any second now he’s gonna strike like the snake he is. Scott, ya ready? Cuz, I’m goading him into drawing…

“We are,” defended Scott, with a hand hovering over his gun butt. Come on you snake in the grass. No one’s going to call our home derogatory names and get away with it. I’m ready and I know Johnny’s ready. He was born ready.

“That’s a dirty shame. Ya know’d the railroad wants that right-away.” He jammed the knife into the wood table, then rested his hand beside the gun on his hip. “They’re willin’ to pay some big money for that land.”

“What do ya know about that?” bit out Johnny with his hand once more covering his gun. He took a step closer to Snake.

The Lancer brothers heard a hammer to more than one gun being drawn back. Johnny, lightning-fast, pulled his own gun with Scott backing him up. The next moment the bat-wing doors pushed inward.

Sheriff Fred Madden, Stockton’s lawman, with his young deputy, Billy Norris, slowly walked inside with Murdoch Lancer following in their tracks. Both lawmen had an authoritative look on their faces as they observed the rough and ready gunslingers.

With a hand on the butt of his gun, Sheriff Madden informed, “Party’s over boys.”

A second later, in the dead silence of the room, hammers from the pistols were released and clicked back into place as the weapons were slid into their holsters. 

The tension was so sharp in the large space, that Johnny swore he could’ve cut it with Snake’s knife. He was relieved, but apprehensive at the same time. Dang! Just when we were getting somewhere. Scott must be feeling the same way. Johnny heard his brother address their father with a formal greeting. “Mr. Lancer.”

Murdoch with a stern look merely nodded in his sons’ direction.

Scott, trying to keep the game in play and their gun-fighting personas as hired gunfighters intact without anyone knowing they were Murdoch Lancer’s sons, asked, “Sir, are you ready to head for home?”

Murdoch noticed the seriousness of his sons’ faces and taking note of Scott’s proper words played along. Blinking at Scott’s shirt, he confirmed, “Yes, if you boys will meet me outside we can get a move on.” He turned around and stiffly walked out the door.

Scott and Johnny followed in his boot steps, keeping a solemn face. Johnny passed by the Indian and in his heart knew the charade was all for nothing. The man will spill the beans to Snake Cutter about who we really are as soon as we’re out the door. We’re gonna have to be on guard and on our toes every second from now on.

 

---16---

 

The Lancers three were walking down the boardwalk towards their horses with Johnny in front of Murdoch and Scott. Johnny stopped so suddenly that his father nearly ran into him.

“What is it son?” asked Murdoch, puzzled.

“Over there! By the dry goods store…she looks just like her,” pointed Johnny, already moving at a run in the woman’s direction across the street.

Murdoch tried to see what Johnny had meant, but didn’t understand who he was talking about. Scott quickly filled him in, as they both crossed the street. “Johnny thinks he saw his mother the other day.” They dodged a wagon in the middle of the road. “And he must think he’s seeing her again.”

This time it was Murdoch who halted, “That’s impossible.”

“I know,” said Scott in a nervous voice. “But, he said she looks just like her.”

They made it to the other side of the road, but lost Johnny in the throng of people on the boardwalk.

“That might be, but it’s not her!” emphatically stated Murdoch, searching the crowd for his son’s blue flowered shirt.

“How do you really know?” quizzed Scott, also looking for a sign of his brother.

“Because she died in my arms,” heatedly replied Murdoch. At his son’s dumbfounded expression, he gentled his voice, “It’s a long story Scott. One that Johnny doesn’t know all about, though he thinks he does.”

“When are you going to tell him? Or is that another bygone moment in the past?” At his father’s loss of color, Scott swallowed hard, but relentlessly continued anyways.

“Johnny’s haunted by the callous way his mother treated him. He doesn’t understand why she didn’t love him. He thinks it’s his fault.” Scott removed his hat and ran a hand through his fine hair. “He doesn’t even comprehend the fact he thinks that, but I can see it in his actions and hear it in his tone of voice at the strangest of times.”

A pained expression crossed Murdoch’s face and he snapped, “I didn’t know that! But, here and now is not the time to be discussing this! Now where’d he go?”

They both looked up and down the boardwalk, not finding him. Murdoch suggested, “I’ll go into a few of these shops and ask if he ducked in there and why don’t you have a look around the block.”

“Sounds reasonable,” replied Scott, still perturbed at his father.

Squaring his hat, Scott walked the short block and turned right at the corner. He followed the side of a store to the back of the building where he found his brother on his knees and bent over a horse trough.

“Johnny!” shouted Scott, as he ran towards his brother. He could clearly see Johnny holding his blue handkerchief against the right side of his temple.

“What happened?” asked Scott, coming up beside his sibling.

Johnny, dazed and disgusted with himself, answered, “I got blindsided.”

“How?”

“I ran outta the store and someone clobbered me.”

“Did you see who did it?”

“Only a glimpse…but he’s supposed to be dead…too.” Johnny leaned his head on his left hand, clutching the side of the water trough. His stomach rolled and he shivered.

Scott was more than concerned, “You seem to be having a problem lately with people coming back to life.”

Johnny would’ve laughed if things weren’t so serious. Instead, he defended his statement, “He was the first notch on my gun. I killed him. I saw him layin’ in the street with my bullet in his chest…not moving…not breathing.”

Scott, really worried now, put an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Who Johnny?”

Johnny didn’t move from Scott’s arm, in fact he leaned into the warmth of his brother’s chest. “My…my stepfather.”

He heard Scott’s indrawn breath. Saw the unanswered questions in his brother’s eyes. Shoot Scott, how do ya think I feel? I’m as cold as a lion with no hair and my head hurts. I’m probably in shock if I knew the truth. But, I owe him an explanation. I can’t just leave ‘im hanging.

“It’s a long story Scott. But, this ain’t the place or time.”

Scott saw this wasn’t the place for a winded explanation. “Besides Murdoch’s looking for us.”

Still on his knees and holding the blue cloth against the wound to his head, Johnny relaxed with Scott’s arm around him. Brothers. We’re brothers in arms. Where would I be without my brother?

“Speaking of the devil,” said Scott, nodding towards the back of a building.

“There you boys are!” boomed their father from the rear door of the dry goods store.

Johnny turned around, sat down, and put his back against the trough. Scott did the same thing. Johnny dropped his hand from his head wound and Scott got a look at the swollen purple bump below his brother’s hairline.

Ouch, thought Scott.

                                                               ---17---

 

“This is our land. We want you to get off.”

“What ya gonna do Golden Garrett? Kill all three of us?” jeered the gunfighter, standing his ground on the other side of the creek by the Lorelei.

“No,” answered Scott, releasing the trigger guard to his Colt.

“No?” came the expected, uneasy reply.  “Madrid with you Garrett?”

Johnny soundlessly stepped into view from the shadow of a rock.

Both boys heard one of the gunfighter’s moan.

Johnny acknowledged the gun hawk doing the talking. “Shorty, ya picked a good day to die.”

“Ah, Madrid. We were just a fun-in ‘im. We like his snappy shirt and all. Besides, we ain’t gettin’ paid to kill ya.”

“So, why ya on our land?” asked Johnny, now standing by his brother. Must be the Indian didn’t tip his hand after all. Why?

“We’re just doin’ our job Madrid. Like you all.”

Scott asked, “What job?”

“Speculating.”

“Say again,” stated Johnny with a hard glint in his eyes.

“We’re gettin’ the lay of the land for a speculator.”

“Who?” questioned Scott.

“Don’t rightly know’d his name.”

“Don’t know his name huh?” repeated Johnny, pulling his Colt.

The gunfighters shook their heads no and grew more nervous.

“Well, you tell Mr. No Name, this is Lancer property and that there is no land up for sale now or otherwise.” Johnny waved his gun towards their horses. “Now, get off our land!”

Grumbling the gunfighters turned to go.

“Shorty?” called Johnny. The gunman turned back around with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“This is to ensure you give Mr. No Name the message.” Johnny aimed and pulled the trigger, shooting the gun hawk in the foot. The man rolled on the ground a while, clutching his extremity.

“Dang it Madrid. Ya didn’t have to do that,” complained Shorty, stumbling towards his horse.

“Yeah. I did,” came the quiet reply that only Scott heard.

“Another group of strangers on our land,” stated Scott, watching the bad men mount up.

“Look at it this way Golden Garrett,” razzed Johnny, as he turned towards his own horse in the shadows off the rocks. At Scott’s scowl, he snickered and said, “They liked your shirt.”

“Ha ha,” sniped Scott, walking behind him. “I think I’ll just laugh at myself all the way home.”

Reaching their horses, they gripped the reins where they had ground tied them. “We need to water the horses,” said Johnny, leading Barranca to the wide stream.

Scott quietly did the same with Buster.

Kneeling down beside the horses, each man, one at a time cupped a hand and helped himself to the fresh water, while the other kept watch.

Scott quickly went through the motions of drinking the water, then he washed the grime off his face.

Removing his hat, Johnny splashed his face and hair repeatedly, working the sweat and dust off his person. Untying his bandana, he soaked it and held it up to the bump on his head, wincing as he did so.

“Contusion still bothering you?” asked Scott, catching the motion out of the corner of his eye.

“It’s nothing,” replied Johnny, wringing out the excess water from his handkerchief.

“Nothing,” repeated Scott, derisively.  “Like the man who put it there?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Johnny, taking offense on purpose with a sinking feeling in his stomach. Time to pay the piper…

“Johnny, you’ve been avoiding it long enough.”

“It’s not important,” he hedged. When you hear my tale of woe, will it change how ya think of me Scott? Will you be ashamed of me? Is it gonna cost me my brother and the friendship we share together? Will you walk away from me…forever? If ya do, it’ll tear my heart out.

“Not important?” repeated Scott, affronted. “You tell me you killed your stepfather and now he’s come back to life to what? Haunt you? He is the one who assaulted you? Correct?”

Johnny nodded his head, not looking up.

“Don’t you think I deserved some kind of explanation after making a comment like that?”

Johnny kept his head down. Inside he was petrified. Will ya hate me like mama did?

“I know, I owe ya one…”

Scott lost all patience, “Then get her said, boy! I am your brother after all! I won’t walk out on you ever!” In his anger, Scott stomped over to his brother and roughly grabbed his arms, bringing him to his feet. “You hear me Johnny?” Scott shook him to make his last point. “I’ll never abandon you!”

Those words were the catalyst, breaking Johnny’s fear of losing his brother. Keeping a leery eye on their surroundings, both boys went and sat down on a large rock. With his brother’s reassurances ringing in his ears, Johnny began his story.

“I was eleven and my mama and step-papa farmed me out to a rancho for the whole summer. When I got back, mama was packin’ up to leave. I had no idea where my step-papa was, though I assumed he was at the cantina. Mama already had the wagon loaded for the most part.”

Johnny brought his eyes up to meet Scott’s. “At the time, I don’t know if she’d a waited for me or not.” Dropping his chin to his chest and wrapping his arms around his ribs, he sadly said, “My mama didn’t care for me much.”

Scott squeezed his brother’s shoulder with reassurance.

Fidgeting with the blue cloth, Johnny started talking again, “Mama took my money I’d earned easy enough. She then told me to get a crate off her bed to put into the wagon. The box was open and on top was a black book. I’d never seen her with a Bible before, so bein’ curious, I opened it to the first page where some writin’ was.”

Johnny looked up at his brother, “Scott, ya got to realize my mama never talked about our father. Every time I’d asked about him she always cracked me one and stormed off. Until I opened the book I always thought his name was Madrid, but the name in the marriage section of the book was Lancer. And I found my birth name of Johnny Madrid Lancer under the births under their marriage part. I was shaken to say the least.”

Scott could well picture his younger brother getting the shock of his life. He put his arm around Johnny’s shoulder.

“Well, I took too long starin’ at the information I had just found and my mama caught me reading the Good Book. I made the mistake of asking her why she never told me.”

Johnny took in a deep breath and Scott steeled himself for what his brother was about to tell him.   

“She flew into a rage, hittin’ me and pushin’ me, the whole time yelling, he didn’t want me…that he hated me and because of him, she…hated me too.” The last was said with the barest of whispers. The hurt was so deep, he couldn’t go on.

Scott’s eyes went dewy and he didn’t know if he could stand to hear the rest of the story. He turned his head in the other direction and blinked several times, as he scanned for unknown riders. Johnny’s head was tucked downward with his arms once again around his middle and he hadn’t noticed Scott’s watery eyes.

“Mama was riled up real good and she latched onto my step-papa’s belt. She laid into me. When she was done she grabbed me by my hair…”

Johnny stopped talking and cynically chuckled. “She literally threw me in the mud…”

The light went out of Johnny’s eyes and he finished in a voice as soft as a whisper. “Then, she told me…that I was never to darken her door again…”

Why Mama, couldn’t ya have just sent me home to Lancer? What had I ever done to hurt you so?

Scott’s own chest ached and he found it difficult to breathe. Now I know why he keeps his past hidden. How did he ever bear it? Sucking in a deep breath, Scott had to know the rest. Tenderly, he asked, “What…what did you do next?”

Lost in his own hell, Johnny took a while to answer. “It was pourin’ rain and I crawled under the porch. I must’ve passed out at some point. When I awoke, I crept from under the house to find the wagon gone and most of the stuff inside the house gone with it.”

“What did you do then?”

“I forgot about school and started walkin’ back to the rancho hoping I could get my stable job back. Along the way, I ran into two of my ranch hand friends. Being tender and wet behind the ears, they’d looked out for me.”

“What about your step-father?” Scott had to know the end of the story.

“I’m getting to that,” grumbled Johnny, wishing he’d never brought his past up. When am I gonna learn?

Scott became quiet and Johnny knew he’d wait until the end of time to hear the rest of the sordid story. Stubborn, just like me.

“The rest of the tale is pretty boring.” Johnny felt a thump to his shoulder from Scott’s thumb. Grunting, he began his narrative again.

“Well, ya know the two hands.” 

Scott lifted a brow, asking the unspoken question. Who Johnny?

With a shrewd grin, Johnny continued, “One was Rico, our ramrod from the former Lancer Sonora mine. And I might add I’m glad he and his family like workin’ for the LT. Guv.”

“Me too,” tacked on Scott.

“The other was Val Crawford.” At Scott’s look of surprise, Johnny grinned. “Gotcha! Ya didn’t know how far back we went, did ya?”

A grunt from Scott, “No. Though I surmised you two went back quite a ways.”

“Well, they told me they’d quit the rancho and asked if I wanted to go with them to Sonora. I, being so tore up both inside and out, didn’t care one iota where I went. It was a whole year before I heard from some passing gunfighter that my mama had been shot dead by a gambler. After we found our baby books, I pieced the story together that there had been a shootout at the cantina on the night she’d kicked me out.”

“Johnny, did you know Murdoch was there that night?”

“What?!” asked Johnny, at a complete loss. “I thought he got there a couple nights later and I was already gone.”

“No. You’ll have to ask Murdoch the details, but, he told me your Mother died in his arms.”

Johnny literally shook. His whole body trembled as the anger grew inside him over the fact that if his mama hadn’t beaten him almost senseless, he’d have probably found his father that night. I was so close to going home.

Now in a hurry to get the story done, Johnny raced through the rest of it.

“For over two years I hated perd near everyone and everything around me. I spent all my time practicin’ with my Colt Rico had bought me. He claimed it was for my protection. That a gunfighter gets looked up too, earns respect. During all the time we were lookin’ for the gambler, I was gettin’ good at practicing my soon to be trade.”

“What do you mean? Killing?” asked Scott, a bit confused on the time line of his brother’s life.

“No,” grinned Johnny. “Lining up bottles, tin cans whatever you could shoot at. I really got good enough to shoot the spots off of a lady bug.”

Scott didn’t doubt it for a minute and it must have showed on his face. Johnny roared with laughter. The merriment was a release of tension and Scott joined in with his brother.

“Well, anyways, in Yuma, we finally tracked down my step-father, whose name was Raymond Reyes.”

Johnny stopped talking. The memories were getting dark and he didn’t know if he really wanted to burden Scott with them.

My first kill. So much blood on my hands, I didn’t know a man could bleed that much. I was sick inside for days afterwards. How old was I? All of fourteen years. From there on it was all downhill. I got better and better at my trade. Made a name for myself. Val left to become a deputy lawman. How ironic was that? Rico and I stuck with what we knew best and earned a living for years by the gun. I was on my own and proud of it…and the hate kept me going.

Yeah, Scott now knows I killed my step-papa, but he doesn’t know all the particulars. Like how I stalked him, how I goaded him into drawing first. I even claimed the money I’d earned that year working on the rancho by going through his pockets. But, I wasn’t a thief. I only took the amount of dinero that was mine.

Scott has no real idea what a gunfighter is all about. He’s only had a taste. He thinks what he’s doing is a lark. He’s heard the stories, even seen me in action a few times. But, he doesn’t know that you lose your soul and become dead inside. Thank God Murdoch pulled me out when he did. I know, Scott just gave me his word that he won’t turn against me, but will it be enough?

Johnny intensely studied his brother’s face, taking note of the concern and love he saw there. Yeah, it’ll be good enough.

Jelly came tearing around the bend on his horse.Scott could’ve screamed at the interruption but, Johnny felt nothing but relief, until Jelly said, “Murdoch’s been shot.”

 

                                                                        ---18---

 

Scott dropped the pencil between the pages of the account-ledger book he’d been adding numbers too. He splayed his fingers through his fine hair putting it in disarray.

On their way home from Stockton, the boys had filled their father in on the happenings at the ranch. Murdoch had put his desk back in order and stated he couldn’t find anything missing. It was a mystery what the woman was after. Johnny had omitted the fact about the perfume smelling like his mother and Scott had followed his lead.

Getting up from his chair at Murdoch’s desk, Scott walked over to the brandy bottle and poured himself a couple fingers full into a snifter glass.

Though it was spring, the evening was cool. A fire burned cheerfully in the fireplace and Scott sat down in the chair by the hearth. Kicking his feet up on the footstool, he sipped his drink. The house felt empty and bleak, like the life had been sucked out of it.

On the couch, Johnny moaned and turned over onto his stomach. His gun belt was on the floor beside him. It was the first time Scott had seen his brother sleep in three days.

Exhaustion had won out in the end. And if anyone wakes him up I’ll shoot them myself. At least the bump on his head has gone down in size. It’s now a yellowish green bruise. Thank the Good Lord for small favors.

After hearing Murdoch had been shot, in a blink of an eye his brother had transformed from Johnny Lancer into Johnny Madrid. I wouldn’t have believed it possible if I’d hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. His whole personality had changed. His eyes had become cold, more cynical, as he had constantly scanned the area for anything out of kilter. He was as sober as a judge, no wisecracks, no teasing, and quiet as a mouse with all nuances set aside.

Scott swirled the contents of the glass around in his hand. His drink was almost forgotten as he recalled the nightmare of that day.

By the time they’d ridden in from the Lorelei mine, the hands who brought Murdoch in by wagon had him stretched out on the kitchen table. His head was swathed in bloody bandages and his feet were hanging over the edge of the table top.

Funny what you recall in a crisis, thought Scott, taking a small sip of brandy. By the time we’d reached the house, Johnny was all business. But, judging by his lack of color, I think he was scared to death…as I was.

Running through the kitchen door, Johnny had stopped in his tracks. He hadn’t been prepared for all the blood seeping from his father’s head wound onto the table and dripping on the floor, creating a puddle. Head wounds bleed a lot. I know this, he reminded himself. Besides, I’ve been through this before when he got shot at the south mesa. Well, it’s on the same side of his face, but it looks worse than it did before, much worse.

Trying not to step in the blood, which proved impossible, Johnny leaned over his father and softly called his name, “Murdoch?”

To his surprise Murdoch’s blue eyes opened. “Son.”

Scott, standing on the other side of his father, gently put his hand on Murdoch’s shoulder drawing his attention.

Murdoch turned slightly and gave Scott a sheepish half grin. “Son.” A moment later, he groaned and tried to touch his head.

“Easy,” crooned both boys, as Johnny, who was on the right side of their father, carefully restrained Murdoch’s hand.

“The doctor is on his way,” assured Scott, taking his other hand.

Murdoch feeling hemmed in, grouched, “I don’t need Sam. It’s just a crease.”

Both boys noticed his voice lacked strength and volume.

Jelly, who had followed the Lancer brothers inside, thought they all looked like a bunch of ghosts. He loudly sniffled into his handkerchief.

“Stop it,” came the order from Johnny. Over his shoulder, he murmured, “Don’t be jumpin’ the gun.”

Teresa came bustling down the stairs with her arms full of bandages, old sheets and a couple of blankets. Scott went and relieved her of the blankets. Quickly, he spread them both over his father.

Johnny asked, “Murdoch, ya know who did this?”

“Not a clue. I was by the rocks on the east side of the pasture. I thought I heard a snake hiss…”

Johnny’s eyes hardened as he looked over at Scott. Both boys recalled the saloon scene with Snake Cutter.

Scott raised a hand towards his brother, “Easy Johnny. We both know men do not hiss. Only snakes can do that.”

“Ya wanna bet?” sniped Johnny. “Snake Cutter has perfected that routine as long as I’ve known him.”

Murdoch weakly grabbed his younger son’s arm. “Johnny, I saw the snake. I leaned over my horse to shoot it when I got shot.”

Unreasonable now, Johnny came back with, “It don’t mean he didn’t put it there.”

Emotions running high, Scott chuckled at that. “I think that’s a bit far-fetched.”

“No,” emphatically stated Johnny. “I’ve heard of him doin’ it to lure his prey into his sights. They hear the rattle and they come to take a looksee.” He took his hat off and almost wacked his leg with it remembering to be quiet at the last second. He didn’t want his father’s head to hurt more than it did. He hung it on the corner post of a chair back by the stove.

Scott asked, “Did you see anyone Murdoch?”

“No,” came the reply, weaker than before.

Both boys exchanged glances again along with Jelly and Teresa. Something was wrong. Their invincible father was failing, going downhill fast. They could all feel it and they felt helpless.

Johnny took Murdoch’s big hand in his own and gently squeezed, hoping for a response back from his father. It came, but was noticeably lax in strength. Murdoch don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I don’t think I can bear it if you leave me.

Not letting go of his son’s hand, Murdoch pleaded, “Johnny?”

“Here Murdoch,” replied Johnny, his voice cracking from his inner turmoil. He pulled himself together and tightened the grip on his father’s hand in hopes of keeping him there. I’m scared. I’m so scared.

“Johnny, I have to tell you something about your mother.”

“Not now Murdoch, it can wait…just relax. Save your strength. Okay? We have all the time later to trade words,” begged Johnny, his stomach threatening to spill itself.

Paybacks are a bitch. All the people I know’d dead or dying…all the men I killed…some so senselessly. Why am I having trouble with this gunshot wound? Because…this is family…and blood is thicker than water…and this is home...the home I’m supposed to be protectin’…somehow I let my guard down and look at the consequences.

More persistent, Murdoch tried again, “Johnny, listen. It’s important. Your Mother…I found her just before she died. She…she…”

Murdoch’s words drifted off and his fingers went limp inside Johnny’s hand. Johnny stared at his father’s still hand in horror not even looking up at his face. He didn’t want to see the death mask come over his features. Assuming the worst, he turned pure white and gently put down Murdoch’s hand.

He walked over to the back door and noticed the hired hands gathered outside…waiting for news no doubt. Not able to face them yet and not knowing exactly where he wanted to go, Johnny turned and blindly ran up the stairs in the kitchen.

Scott understood what his father was trying so hard to do. He wanted to give Johnny some hope to cling too. No human-being alive ever wants to think the one person in their life, the one person they can count on for everything…their mother, hates them.

Thinking what his mother had written in his own baby book before he was even born, Scott knew his mother had loved him. She wanted to give me a lifelong gift and she had.

Doesn’t a mother automatically love and nurture her child no matter what the circumstances in her child’s existence? Isn’t this a given? No matter what her child might do in life, be it good or bad...she loves them. Parents never give up love and hope for their child.

Lost in his own thoughts, Scott didn’t see the stricken look on Johnny’s face. He’d been watching Murdoch’s facial expressions and trying to decipher what it was that his father was trying to say to his younger son.

Between what he’d read from Johnny’s baby book and the comments made by his father in Stockton, along with the story Johnny had told, he’d pieced together some of the events of that night long ago when Maria had died.

Maria was leaving. The wagon was packed. Was she running from the gambler like she’d run from Murdoch? Did she work that last night to pretend nothing was wrong? To throw the man off the scent so to speak? Why beat Johnny to a pulp? Why say all those horrible things to her own son, and her own flesh and blood? Was she completely unbalanced? Murdoch had said she was terribly sick during her pregnancy and Johnny’s birth had been long and hard. Had her pregnancy mentally and emotionally changed her?

While I was in college there had been documented cases that they’d studied like that. I was going into psychiatry, a relatively new field of study. But, for reasons I don’t care to think about I changed my mind.

Scott was jolted out of his thoughts as Dr. Jenkins came through the back door. He got the usual couple blinks when the man caught sight of his shirt, as he’d greeted him.

“You trying to put the sun out of business Scott?” asked Sam, setting his medical bag on an empty chair by the table. Turning to Teresa he asked, “You have the water boiling on the stove?”

“Yes Sam. From the moment I heard Murdoch had been shot.”

“Fetch me a wash basin full, my dear.”

Teresa turned to do as bid. She knew the routine by heart. Someone’s always in a fix around here. Wash your hands in the first batch of water. Throw it out and bring more for the instruments, sterilize them and bring an empty basin for the bloody ones. Dr. Banning has sure rubbed off on more than one doctor around these parts. He’s the newest doctor from medical school and his knowledge about doctoring is paying off. But, his new techniques make sense and they seem to keep the infection down.

After washing his hands and drying them on a clean towel, Dr. Jenkins said, as he lifted a pair of scissors. “Let’s see what we got here.” He neatly sliced the bandages on Murdoch’s head and the patient groaned.

It was then Scott realized his brother wasn’t in the room. “Anyone see where Johnny went?”

“Upstairs,” responded Jelly, from a corner where he’d been sitting in a chair, handkerchief in hand. “He, ah, looked pretty skeersome, when he left.”

“Now, why would Johnny look frightful?” asked Scott, bemused.

“Don’t know, but he got a terrible look on his face when Murdoch passed out...like he was gonna hurl or something.”

“Well it can’t be because of the blood. Johnny’s used to seeing blood.”

Scott studied Murdoch’s face and watched as Sam cleaned the wound to his head. A deep furrow above the right temple. Same place Johnny had been hit with a board. Murdoch looks like death warmed…oh, no! Surely Johnny doesn’t think he…Scott couldn’t complete the thought.

A moment later Scott took the steps two at a time, heading straight to Johnny’s room.

 

                                                            -------------

 

The grandfather clock chimed nine times pulling Scott from his musings. His glass of brandy was empty and he set it on the nearby table.

Johnny stretched and immediately reached for his rig beside the couch on the floor. Completely alert and focused on his surroundings, he stood up and slid it around his lean hips. His eyes landing on Scott, he automatically asked, “How’s Murdoch?”

It was always the first question out of his mouth. Actually, the past three days, it was the first question hovering on everyone’s lips, be it family member, ranch hand or visitor. The answer was always the same.

Standing up and reaching for his own gun belt sitting over the back of the chair he’d been resting in, Scott dismally said, “Still unconscious. Still in a coma.”

“No change at all?”

“None. Not so much as a flicker of an eyelash,” replied Scott, tightening his belt buckle.

“Who’s with him now?”

“Maria.”

“Hmm, that’s good. Ya know Scott, this might be wishful thinking, but I think there’s something there between Maria and Murdoch.”

“You have that feeling too?”

“Yeah,” said Johnny, grabbing his hat off the back of the couch and putting it on his head. “It’s the way they look at each other sometimes.”

Scott picked up his hat from the table where he’d set his brandy glass. “Well, she’s been here at the ranch since the beginning. They’ve known each other a long time. She has a history with him that she could probably write a book about.” He squared his hat and started walking towards the back door.

Johnny followed in his wake and mumbled, “I just hope this ain’t the last chapter.”

 

 

                                                                        ---19---

 

The Lancer brothers met the Texas Rangers at the corral gate.

“Anything to report?” asked Johnny, holding a tin coffee mug. He swallowed the last of the brew and set the cup on a fence post.

“A couple things,” replied Matt, wishing he had some coffee. “Walt and I found dynamite in Jelly’s mine again.”

“Great,” complained Johnny, kicking a stone. “Why do they want to blow that mine so bad? There’s absolutely nothing of value there.”

“You hid the deed, didn’t ya?” asked Tim.

Johnny smiled, “Yup, right where the sun don’t shine.”

“So, they’re gonna do it without it,” chimed in Matt.

“They’re gonna try,” grinned Johnny. He sobered a bit, then added, “Gonna try what’s left of my patience, which ain’t much.”

“Well,” said the big guy, “That’s what ya get when ya burn both ends of the stick.”

“Amen, to that,” avowed Scott, getting a dour look from his brother. Holding up his hands, Scott placated, “Look Johnny, you’re wearing thin, like it or not.”

“Someone has to take up the slack. Handle the responsibilities. Murdoch would be the first one to tell ya all so.”

The giant broke in, “He’d also tell ya to use some common sense. Johnny, yer only one man. Ya can’t be takin’ everything on yer shoulders boy.”

“I know, but I feel I have too. I’m…we…” Johnny nodded at Scott, “We’re his sons. The responsibility is ours to take and still I don’t feel we’ve done enough.”

“Why?” asked Matt. “Ya’ve done all ya can do in securin’ this place.”

“Yeah, ya have,” agreed Tim, leaning a big arm on the gate. “You’ve established rules, no one rides by themselves. You’ve got all the men practicin’ with their guns. Shoot, there ain’t a tin can around here without holes in it. And I think all the glass bottles are now in shards.”

“You’ve doubled the boys riding herd both day and night,” said Scott. “Even the line riders have a partner.”

“Jelly’s made more keep out signs than the apothecary has pills,” stated Matt. “I think he’s tried every way there is to word the warning.”

All the men chuckled at that.

“Besides that,” seriously voiced the giant, “Ya taken to riding the range at all times of the day or night. Johnny, ya gotta get some sleep before ya pass out.”

“I did catch some shut eye just a little while ago. Ask Scott here.” Johnny elbowed his too quiet brother.

“Humph,” grunted Scott. “He slept maybe two hours. I almost shot the clock for waking him up.”

“Oh,” smirked Johnny, “That would’ve solved the problem. I can hear Murdoch grumbling about that now, wanting to know what time it is.”

“Speaking of which, how is he? Any change?” asked the big man in a gentle tone of voice.

“Fraid not,” was Johnny’s soft reply.

Tim cleared his throat and said, “Val and I leaned on the Cooper brothers a bit.”

“A bit?” probed Scott, curious.

“And?” asked Johnny, lifting the latch to the gate.

“The details of the man who wants Jelly’s deed are sketchy. But, the word is out whoever brings it to the land speculator will be well paid.”

“Who in hades is this land speculatin’ fella?” grouched Johnny. He whistled for his horse. Barranca came running.

“Damned if I know,” said the lawman.

“You know, I’ve been thinking about that,” interjected Scott, following his brother inside the corral. “I think I know why they want to blow the mine.”

“Why?” from all three men.

Remember when Bert was blasting for Jelly to get some ore samples?”

“Yes,” said Johnny, closely listening, then quickly threw in, “Murdoch was anxious about the ridge being unstable and we all hightailed it over to the mine.”

“Think about this. What would happen if the ridge gave way?” proposed Scott. He then whistled for Buster. A moment later the horse ran up to his shoulder. Scott fed him a piece of sugar.

“It’d dam up our stream and possibly put us out of business,” supplied Johnny, hitting his brother on the arm. “Blasting was Murdoch’s greatest fear.”

“One stream?” asked Matt in doubt.

“It’s the main creek that runs from the mountains all the way down the valley,” stated Scott. “It would affect many ranches.”

“And,” Johnny pointed his finger in the air for emphasis, “If the ranches went belly up, the land would sell cheaply and the speculators would snap it up for the railroad’s right-away.”

“There it is in a nut shell,” concluded Scott. “They’d make a killing.”

“Humph,” grunted the giant. “That’s quite a pickle we’re in.”

Johnny asked, “Did ya leave the dynamite?”

“Yup, just like ya said. Only pulled the blasting caps and destroyed ‘em.”

“That’ll stall them for a day or two,” stated Johnny.

“I have another idea,” interrupted Scott. “It’s kind of a drastic move.”

“What?” asked Johnny, more than interested.

“Instead of blowing the mine, I think we need to implode it to discourage this kind of activity again.”

Johnny, astounded, “How do we do that?”

“A man who knows about blasting can do it. I think if we implode it the ridge will remain intact.”

“Okay, so if we cave it in instead of blow it up…” Johnny thought it over for a moment. “Scott, I think you’re right! And I know just the guy that can do it.”

“Not Snake, I hope,” moaned Scott. He wanted nothing more to do with the slippery varmint.

“No,” answered Johnny, appalled. “Rico knows how to do it. I watched him down in Mexico and the best part is he’s at the LT. Guv’s ranch.”

“Okay, then, we’re in business,” grinned Scott, mounting his horse.

“Why’d they need the deed?” asked Matt, bewildered.

“My guess,” said Scott, “To make the blasting strictly legal from their stand point. And as Snake said, any gold that came out of it would be theirs…a bonus.”

Johnny continued Scott’s vein of thought, “So, that’s why they probably shot Murdoch. To cut the head off the snake.”

“But, they don’t know they didn’t kill him,” cut in Matt.

“Nope,” replied Johnny, mounting his horse. “And all we have to do is catch them in the act of tryin’ to dynamite the mine, then force ‘em to give up the name of the speculator.”

“And I have no doubt, you’ll pull that off,” smiled Tim.

A cold, hard expression crossed Johnny’s face. “They’re gonna wish they’d never heard of Johnny Madrid.”

“Or Scott Garrett,” said his brother.

“See ya in the morning,” said the giant, opening the gate.

 

                                                                        ---20---

 

 

 

Lancer Ranch

DO NOT ENTER

TRESSPASSERS WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT

 

“What part of that sign do ya not understand?” emotionlessly asked Johnny of the hapless man, who dared to cross Lancer property at an animal access path. The signs had been posted at every gate and trail and entrance point to the property.

“I think the T word got me,” meekly responded the man, holding the reins to his crowbait of a horse, as he stood in front of the gunfighter. Johnny, with his gun drawn and resting on his crossed arms looked menacingly at the scruffy man.

“Oh, I see,” unwelcomingly exclaimed Johnny, as if a light went on inside his mind. “And I take it ya don’t know what do not enter and shot on sight means either?”

“I do. I swear I do, but…”

“But, what,” enunciated Johnny, now standing in front of the unlucky man with his gun inches from the guy’s nose.

Johnny was close enough to count the warts under the filth on the character’s face and breathe in the stench of his body.

He immediately took a couple steps back to the hidden amusement of his brother, Scott, still mounted on Buster.

“I’m in a hurry,” continued the miserable man, squeezing his hat in his hands. He looked up into the clear sky. “It’s gonna rain.”

Ignoring the last part of the statement, Johnny intolerantly asked, “So big a hurry, ya couldn’t come to the front door and ask permission to cross our land?”

“Look, Mr.…”

“Madrid, Johnny Madrid.” He pointed a thumb at his brother. “And this here is Scott Garrett.”

Not familiar with the names, the man sighed, “Makes me no never mind.”

Johnny for a moment was speechless. He swore he heard Scott choke off a chuckle.

Meekly, the poor fellow explained, “I just live over yonder with my wife and young’uns’. Mr. Lancer always lets me cross without askin’. Been that way fer years.” He gave Johnny the saddest look, better than anything Jelly could ever come up with.

“Why don’t I recognize you then?” hedged Johnny, not quite buying it.

“Probably, caused I’m dressed up.” The man was wearing dark overalls with a patched black threadbare coat over a dingy white shirt. A black tie completed the outfit.

Johnny heard his brother snicker behind him as he dismounted from his horse.

Scott said, “You heard the gent. He’s in his Sunday best.”

“What’s your name?” point blank asked Johnny, agitated at his brother.

“Hubert.”

Breathing in a deep sigh, then secretly cursing himself that he’d forgotten the fetid odor of the disgusting man, Johnny took a couple more steps backwards. Harassed, he asked, “Hubert what?”

“Hubert Maximillian, pig farmer.”

“Johnny,” said Scott, recalling the fellow’s name and entering again into the ghastly conversation. “That explains it all. He lives about twenty miles southeast of our property line.”

“I know’d where that pigsty is!” griped Johnny, barely hanging onto his temper. “I supposed ya run yer pigs through here too?”

“I do. Once in a blue moon,” affirmed the stinky man, swallowing hard while observing Johnny’s unyielding face.

“We neighbors got to look out fer each other, scratch each other’s backs upon occasion,” smiled the pig farmer, more than relieved that the gunslinger with the sunny gold shirt knew who he was. He blinked a couple times for the brightness hurt his eyes. “I rightly don’t get off the farm much. I’m not much of a social butterfly.”

That’s an understatement, thought Johnny, staring at him in disbelief.

“You ain’t by any chance Murdoch Lancer’s boys are ya?”

“Yes, we are,” stepped in Scott, walking up next to his brother, leading both horses.

“After I got to town I heard he done got shot. What a pity. How’s he doin?”

“He’s ailing,” brusquely said Johnny, holstering his Colt. I still can’t believe I’ve forgotten what this pig farmer looked like. But, then I don’t get near his farm much. Hell, I forgot we even had one in the surrounding area. I must be more tuckered than I thought.

“Been thinkin’ about that as I was ridin’ through. I mighta seen something the other day.”

“Like what?” curtly asked Johnny, his attention and nose unwavering.

“When I was comin’ through a few days ago, I seen a man up in the rocks by the east pasture. Didn’t think anything of it. Just figured it was one of yer men. If I recollect right, I waved to yer pa a short time later.”

“Go on,” prompted Johnny, still barely hanging onto his temper. After hearing about Murdoch in town, why didn’t he tell Val?

“There ain’t much else to tell.”

Scott asked, “What did he look like?”

“Didn’t pay much attention, ceptin’ he had short hacked off dark hair under a black hat.” The farmer rubbed his chin, “Does seem like now that I recall,  he’d wore a plaid work shirt with a fancy type patterned vest over it with some buckskin britches. Tell ya the truth, he reminded me of a gunslinger.”

Both boys groaned, “Got to be Snake Cutter,” reflected Johnny. “He has greasy cropped hair that he wears under that snake-banded cowboy hat of his and busy shirts like yours.”

“But, he didn’t have buckskins on,” reminded Scott.

“Sorry I couldn’t be more help.” The man mounted his slumped-back horse. “I gotta git home. The misses gonna be wonderin’ where I’ve got too.”

“Much obliged,” stated Scott. Johnny said nothing. Just waved his hand in front of his nose.

The farmer gave a nod of his head and rode off in an easterly direction.

“Well how do you like that?” asked Johnny, staring after the man. He turned towards his brother who was mounting his horse.

Scott handed Johnny the reins to Barranca and said, “Interesting. Who do we know that dresses in buckskin with a fancy shirt?”

Johnny mounted his horse in one smooth leap onto the saddle. Feeling so weary, he was surprised he still had enough strength to do it. “No one that I can recall off the top of my head, but then I’m so worn-out I can’t think straight.”

“Yes brother, you are a bit out of sorts,” agreed Scott, nudging his horse forward.

“Of course, I’m out a sorts. Lack of sleep will do that to a man, not that I’m complaining,” defended Johnny, prodding his horse too. “Shoot, the responsibilities alone exhaust me. I don’t know how Murdoch ever did it by himself all those years.” Johnny yawned just thinking about it.

Scott rolled his eyes, “When we first rode out last night, you were crowing you had more than enough sleep.”

“That was then, this is now. I hope Teresa has flapjacks for breakfast. I’m starving.” Johnny yawned again. “I can already smell the coffee.”

A crack of thunder rent the air. Both boys could see the rain off to the west. “What do you know? The old codger was right,” exclaimed Johnny, urging his horse to run faster.

 

                                                                        ---21---

 

The rain stormed in from the west coast, picking up cooler air currents from the north, making it an all-day affair. Man and beast, alike, took a breather.

Scott and Johnny were no different, especially after riding the beaten path of the fence line all night on the range. They had made the barn before the downpour started, but had gotten soaked when they made the run for the house.

After toweling off, they’d sat down to a hearty breakfast of flapjacks, fried potatoes, and eggs, with salt pork. A fresh pot of coffee was boiling on the stove. Wasting no time, both boys dug into the vittles.

The rangers, having gotten a good night’s sleep, made an appearance in the kitchen. They’d helped themselves to a cup of Arbuckle’s before sitting down at the table. Matt had shyly given his wife, Teresa, a good morning kiss to the amusement of the others.

“Any trouble last night?” asked Tim, sipping his coffee. Teresa set a plate of food down in front of him and Matt. All the men noticed Matt had the biggest flapjacks.

“Just a pig farmer Johnny hassled on the way in this morning.”

“Is it my fault the man can’t read?” irritably asked Johnny, cutting into his flapjacks with his fork. “Besides he did give us some needed information.”

“Oh?” asked the big man, digging into his eggs.

“Seems there was a man in the rocks when he passed by on his way to town, dressed in buckskin pants with a ragged haircut.”

“Don’t forget the fancy vest over a plaid shirt,” reminded Scott, biting into a piece of salt pork.

“Kinda like your shirt Scott, except yours has that busy paisley look about it,” smirked Johnny, fingering his brother’s shirt. “And Mr. Maxamill…Maximil…”

“Maximillian,” corrected Scott, swatting at Johnny’s hand to get him to leave his shirt alone.

“Huh?” asked Matt, salting his potatoes.

“Hubert Maximillian is the pig farmer’s name,” frankly stated Scott with a hidden smile.

“Well hell,” said Johnny, giving up on pronouncing the pig man’s name correctly. “He didn’t say if the shirt was bright and shiny like yours either.”

“Hmm, that describes a hunk of the population around these parts, especially in the wilderness,” said Tim, pouring some cream into his second cup of coffee. “Love this stuff when I can get it.” He took a sip and sighed in pleasure. “It’s the little things that count.”

The men smiled and Scott confirmed, “So true.”

“Indians dress a lot like that,” frankly stated Matt, before taking a bite of flapjacks. “They wear a lot of castoff’s nobody wants and the gaudier the better.”

“We ain’t had any trouble with the Indians though,” tacked on Johnny. “Murdoch’s always been fair with them.” Something in the back of his mind niggled at his memory but, he couldn’t quite get a grasp on it.

A bolt of lightning rent the sky followed by a loud boom of thunder, shaking the entire house.

“Good sleeping weather,” said Tim, finishing his pancakes.

“Yeah, if ya like storms,” sarcastically grumbled Johnny, putting his empty plate aside.

Tim mocked him, “Ya afraid of storms Johnny Madrid?”

Sheepishly, he half smiled, “As a kid I hated them.” Hurt, alone…the rain pouring down. Under the porch lying in the damp dirt, soundlessly crying…both from the beating and loss of the only home I’d known…and my mother’s love. What love? I only seemed to have her spite. I could never win her love no matter how hard I tried.

Shrugging off the bad memories, Johnny casually looked around the kitchen, drawing comfort from his family. Teresa was making her own plate of food while Maria was cleaning up the dishes. Scott had finished eating and was holding his coffee cup in his hand, listening intently to a tale Matt was spinning about Texas. Tim was smiling as he ate. Probably knows the story well. The only one missing is Murdoch.

Thinking of his father upstairs Johnny asked, “Who’s sitting with Murdoch?”

“Jelly,” said Teresa, sitting down by Matt.

Standing up, Johnny said, “I’ll get changed into some dry clothes and go spell him for a while.” He vamoosed up the kitchen stairway.

“You two headin’ for the mine when ya both git up?” asked Tim, lifting his cup to his mouth.

“That’s the plan,” answered Scott, standing up. “So I’d better get some sleep.”

“Good idea. We don’t need two of ya dead on yer feet,” muttered the giant.

 

                                                                        ---22---

 

Johnny crept into Murdoch’s bedroom nearly scaring Jelly half to death when he’d asked, “How is he?”

Johnny was barefoot and had resigned himself to putting on only the bottoms of a pair of pajamas Murdoch had given him long ago. “Not for your modesty, but for the sake of the women folk in this house.”

“Ya mind tellin’ me why no one can just plain walk into a room normal like?” grouched the little man.

“Okay Jelly. I see yer point.” Then, he asked in an overloud voice. “So, how is he?”

In a despondent tone, Jelly sniffed, “The same…as always. Sure wish he’d open ‘em peepers.”

“Me too,” tenderly said Johnny, pushing a pillow up against the headboard of his father’s big bed and sitting down. He stretched his legs out on top of the comforter as Jelly got up from the chair beside the bed. The little man shuffled out of the room surprisingly not saying another word.

“Well Murdoch here we are again,” softly said Johnny, getting more comfortable. It had been his habit to sit beside his father while talking to him.

Dr. Jenkins had encouraged everyone to carry on a conversation with the patient, even if it was one sided. “Ya never know what all he can hear,” advised the doctor.

“What should we talk about this time? I already talked your ear off about my gunfightin’ days. You’ve learned all my secrets. I hope ya don’t think any less of me because of it.”

He yawned and continued, “Mama would though. She’d tell me I was lower than a snake’s belly.”

At the mention of his mother, Johnny had hoped for some kind of a reaction from his father. Even a frown would be nice. Instead, Murdoch just slept serenely on.

“Your wound is getting better every day.” The bandage had been taken off his head to air the wound. The stitches, resembling black railroad tracks, stood starkly out against his pale skin. Johnny unconsciously rubbed his own head where his bump had been.

A hopeless feeling came over Johnny as he watched his father sleep.

“Oh Murdoch, ya got to wake up…Scott needs you.” I need you. Facing the truth for the first time, Johnny blurted out, “Hell, who am I fooling? I need you Murdoch. I probably need ya more than anyone else.”

Not knowing where to go from there, Johnny just said what was on his mind.

“I heard you were there the night mama died. I wish I’d hadn’t missed ya.” How much do I tell him? I don’t wanna hurt him more than what he’s been hurt. But, there’s so many questions from the past I need answers too. So much left unsaid.

Completely at a loss on how to go about finding out what he desperately needed to know, Johnny ran his hands through his messy hair and drew his knees up to his chest. In a voice he didn’t even realize was laced with pain, he miserably asked, “Why didn’t mama love me?”

He turned towards his father and tried to amend the statement. “I know you tried hard to make up for it. I read the words between the lines in my baby book. You loved me enough for two people.”

He seesawed back and forth with his thoughts, trapped between wanting to make Murdoch understand about his childhood and feeling guilty because he was.

“From what I can remember, it never got any better after she took me. I always had to be quiet. She hated noise. Probably because of all the commotions of the cantinas where she all worked. I learned to speak softly, so she wouldn’t think I was sassin’ her and tread carefully on my feet.”

Putting his head down on his folded arms that were wrapped around his knees, he continued, “Murdoch, she…she didn’t talk to me overly much…except to yell at me. She had an unreasonable temper.” He chuckled sadly, “You know that was the first thing ya said to me right after the formalities when I came home, ‘You got your mother’s temper.’   How strange was that?”

He looked over at his father and as far as he could tell Murdoch hadn’t moved a muscle. The storm outside intensified and Johnny blanched.

“That night when mama died I was there Murdoch, but I didn’t know she’d been shot. It was the same night I’d found out who I really was…and I believed all her lies.”

He looked down at his father with his heart in his eyes. In a whisper, he begged, “Can you forgive one lonely boy, papa? I didn’t want to believe her lies, but I didn’t know any better. I know the boy makes the man and I grew up hatin’ because of it.” The bitterness overcame him and he swallowed hard.

“You see, Mama kicked me out…I don’t even know why…still don’t. It was raining like this when she literally threw me in the mud. I was only eleven and so…so scared. You couldn’t find me because…I hid under the porch. I…prayed you would find me.” He grunted, at the irony of it. “I guess ya almost did. If only I hadn’t passed out. Our little hole in the wall was right across the street from the cantina. If you had looked real hard ya might’ve found me under the porch. But, I know ya had other things on your mind that night.” His thoughts continued as turbulent as the weather outside.

“How much do ya want to know about mama, Murdoch? I don’t think you have a clue to what she really was. What the gambler made her do. How we were both treated. He was totally mean. He often beat me for some slight and locked me in the woodbin when I was small. Half the time, I didn’t even know what I’d done. He’s the reason I hate dark enclosed places. My greatest fear.”

The rain pounded in a steady rhythm against the window. Johnny yawned again and scooted down further on the bed. He was physically exhausted, emotionally stressed and mentally drained. He was so tired he fell asleep without completing his last sentence. “Four days now. It’s been four days since you were…”     

 

Papa, please find me. It’s dark and creepy under here…I’m so cold…and I hurt…so bad. If you find me I won’t believe anything she said…I promise I won’t. All ya have to do is find me…

 

Scott, thinking his brother’s insomnia had worn off on him, climbed out of bed and donned his robe. He walked down to his father’s room to see how he was. He walked into a picture that warmed his heart.

Johnny obviously had fallen asleep while talking to Murdoch. That in itself was no surprise. But, what got his heart pleasantly pumping was the sight of his brother asleep within their father’s arms. Johnny was on his side, facing Murdoch, with his head resting against their father’s neck and shoulder. Like he’d been pulled over to him. Johnny’s left arm was draped across Murdoch’s chest while their father’s arms protectively surrounded him.

Had Murdoch held Johnny as a baby this way? Had he soothed his tears and fears? Protected him from the Boogieman or maybe a storm or two?

The room was cool with the rain beating against the glass windows. Scott picked up an Indian blanket from the back of the chair Jelly had vacated. While covering his brother up, Scott noticed the dried tears on Johnny’s face.

While watching the two of them sleep, another thought occurred to Scott. Is Murdoch more cognizant than we thought? I don’t know the reason behind Johnny’s tears, but Murdoch must have felt the emotion and comforted him. I doubt Johnny even realizes he’s in Murdoch’s arms. Is it possible Murdoch will be waking up soon? 

Hope swept through Scott. The feeling of relief made him giddy and he wanted to dance as he left the room.

 

                                                                        ---23---

 

It was three days before the Lancer boys made it back to the Lorelei. The rains had created a few problems of their own. Cattle had stampeded during the storm. A few head had torn through a cut fence and ended up in a gully. It took a day to pull them all out.

More problems arose and the boys had to contend with them. A tree had been struck by lightning, toppling over a creek in the west mesa. To Johnny’s aggravation, a family of beavers he’d trapped in early winter, had made their way back from the swamplands and had started a new home in the stream he’d once trapped them in.

The only good thing to come from the last three days was Murdoch had shown signs of improvement by moving around in his bed, but he still had not awakened.

They were almost to the mine when Johnny asked, “Where’s your bright shirt Golden Garrett?”

Scott was dressed in his navy blue shirt. Johnny was in his blue flowered one.

“In the wash with all your pink ones,” came the reply. “I think the ploy of us being gunfighters is working. We haven’t seen hide nor hair of a stranger on Lancer land since the pig farmer.”

“I know,” touchily replied Johnny. “That could mean trouble.”

“You’re worried?”

“Yes, for a couple of reasons.” Johnny’s tone was abrupt.

Scott’s eyes shifted to his brother, noticing his set face. What has his back up? “What’s bothering you?”

“I’ll lay it on the barrelhead. There’s no ploy about it. We are gunfighters. You’ve more than proved yourself, Scott.”

That was high praise coming from his brother. Scott actually gloated for a moment until Johnny said, “Don’t get to big for your britches.”

Scott’s ego came back down to size in a hurry. “Johnny, you really have a way with words.” He saw his brother grin. “Okay, that’s the first reason, what’s the second?”

“They’re up to something.”

“I got that feeling too,” remarked Scott. “Think they’re going to try and blow the mine?”

“Probably. That’s why we’re gonna leave the horses by those rocks up ahead and sneak up there.”

They rode to the rocks, dismounted and threw the reins over a big scrub bush. “Grab your rifle Scott. We might have a need for some sharp-shooting.” Johnny pulled his out of the boot on his saddle and together they headed towards the stream that ran beside the mine.

“Let’s cross the stream here,” suggested Scott. “I think its low enough not to get soaked.”

It was and the boys crossed, then they climbed up the bank coming to a stop on a few rocks overlooking the entrance to the mine. From their vantage point, the brothers observed the happenings around them.

Three horses were tethered to a tree far from the mine. Just outside the opening, the boys could see a wooden box marked dynamite with a spool of wire sitting beside it. The blasting caps were in a separate box away from the dynamite.

“Guess you were right brother. Now the burning question is do you want to wait for them to come out or go inside?” queried Scott, sighting in his rifle.

“Hmm, let’s wait.”

As luck would have it, Snake Cutter swaggered out of the mine. He had a smoke in his hand and walked over to the huge stone where the boys were laying on their bellies on top of the boulder. He struck a match against the rock and Johnny leaped onto Snake, knocking him flat on his back.

Snake doubled his fist, crushing his smoke, and drew back his arm to punch Johnny, when Scott from above ordered, “I wouldn’t.” He had him covered with his Winchester.  

Johnny reared up and slid backwards onto his knees pulling his Colt at the same time. Coldly Johnny ordered, “Take your gun out and throw it in the water below this rock.”

Snake started to reach for his gun.

“Slowly,” reminded Johnny, as he watched Snake grip it by the butt and cast it down the steep bank where it landed in the water.

“Now, the hunting knife.”

“Oh, Madrid, that’s my pride and joy,” complained Cutter.

Johnny just cocked his gun and aimed it between Snake’s eyes.

Snake reluctantly threw the knife where the gun had gone.

“Now, your skinning knife.”

Again Snake protested as he withdrew it from his boot. He hesitated and Johnny just motioned with his gun.

“Ya happy now Madrid?”

“No,” was the hard reply. “I want some answers now.”

“Ya got me at yer mercy. Have at her,” sneered Snake, sitting up, then coming to his knees.

“That’s far enough Cutter!” ordered Johnny, standing up and backing up a little.

“Why’d ya shoot Murdoch Lancer?”

The snake flicked his forked tongue across his lips, then flatly said, “I didn’t, but I thought about it.”

“I don’t believe you.” Johnny tightened his grip on his gun, then forced himself to relax. Too close to home. Too personal. Lighten up, don’t give the game away.

“Tis the truth, Madrid, as sure as Golden Garrett is a standin’ there.” He cackled and asked, “Hey, Garrett ya made a name fer yerself.  Where’s yer snazzy shirt?”

Scott didn’t answer. He just kept his rifle trained on the snake of a man. Great, now I have a reputation.

Johnny stepped closer and leaned over Snake Cutter, his gun just out of the man’s reach. “If you didn’t shoot him I’m sure ya know who did. Spit his name out.”

“Again, I swear I don’t know’d, but he did me a big favor by cutting the head off the snake.” The man had the nerve to smirk and Johnny kicked him in the jaw with the heel of his boot, knocking him flat on his back.

Feeling somewhat satisfied, Johnny changed tactics, “What is the name of the land speculator that hired ya to blow the mine?”

Still on his back and rubbing his sore jaw, Snake furiously jeered, “Hell if I know!”

Calmly, Johnny moved his gun aside an inch and pulled the trigger. The bullet struck the ground beside Snake’s ear, making the man cringe. “Next time I won’t miss.”

Snake clapped a hand over his ear, to stop the ringing, then checked his fingers for blood.

He sneered, “Ya livin’ up to yer motto Madrid?”

Johnny gave him the self-confident Madrid scowl.

Snake’s two gang members came running out of the mine with guns drawn and blazing. From on top of the rock, Scott aimed and easily took out the man to the right with his Winchester. In the same instant, Johnny killed the other with his Colt. In the next second his gun was pointed back at Snake.

Snake Cutter’s beady eyes rounded in fear, now seriously believing the gunfighter’s motto. What’s another dead man to Johnny Madrid?

Johnny’s eyes blazed fire and froze Snake’s innards at the same time. In the lowest, coldest voice Snake ever heard in all his born days, Johnny repeated the question. “Who is he?”

Between seeing his two friends cut down and Johnny Madrid’s eyes boring into his soul, Snake Cutter swallowed convulsively, then grudgingly spat out a name, “Angus McGovern.”

 

                                                                        ---24---

 

“Angus McGovern,” repeated Johnny with a bad taste in his mouth. He stepped backwards a foot to think, keeping his Colt aimed at Snake.

Scott put it all together, “McGovern had money from bilking and murdering all those people in Rim Fire. Remember Johnny, you thought he had stashed his ill begotten earnings in a hideaway somewhere.”

Johnny nodded his head in the affirmative, keeping a leery eye on Snake, as he listened to his brother’s theory.

“He must’ve retrieved the loot and set himself up somehow with the railroad as a land speculator.”

Johnny broke in with, “He always did have connections with the railroad. He was always hankering to get Murdoch to sell the ranch.” He once was our friend. Greed. Money. It always boils down to the money.

Johnny’s eyes glittered with anger. “Nothing I hate more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

The man at the end of his gun was coiled to strike. Nothings more dangerous than a man backed into a corner with nowhere to go.

A hiss was heard from behind a rock, followed by a rattle.

Johnny, tired of the game, issued a warning of his own, “Oh no Snake. Did ya leave one of yer pets behind for us to find? Hoping he’ll strike one of us? I’ll make you a promise.”

Johnny squatted down and leaned in closer, cocking his gun and putting it inches from Snake’s face. “I will personally step on your head and kill ya just like it said in the Good Book.”

“You’ll bruise your heel,” quoted the snake, surprising Johnny that the man knew anything about the Bible. “And that rattler ain’t one of mine.”

Still on the wide boulder above Johnny, Scott cocked his rifle and went over to investigate the sound further down by the edge of the rock.

Johnny’s hairs stood up on the back of his neck. Something’s not right. Fearful for his brother, Johnny glanced away from Snake Cutter to see the Indian from the Stockton saloon, Notorious, stand up from behind a boulder. With a rifle in his hand the Indian aimed it at Scott. Johnny slightly pivoted and pointed his gun at the man.

Scott’s own survival instincts had kicked in. Remembering what the pig farmer had told them about seeing the man on the rock when Murdoch was shot, he ignored the sound of the snake only a few feet away from his feet. Looking up higher in the rocks, he caught sight of the Indian and fired at the man, hitting him square between the eyes. His second shot nailed the coiled rattler in the head, decapitating it.

In the same moment, Snake Cutter, seeing Johnny’s distraction with the Indian, wiggled out a small knife from his shirtsleeve into his hand. In a flash, he grabbed Johnny’s wrist holding the gun and squeezed it tightly, causing Johnny’s fingers to go numb and drop his gun. Within the exact same second, he swiftly jabbed Johnny at an upward angle beneath the lowest rib, moving the blade side to side and sliding it along the rib bone. Johnny, feeling the red hot pain deep in his side, slightly doubled over as he tried to catch his breath. Snake took advantage and brought his knee up and caught his adversary in the chin, knocking Johnny flat onto his back. An instant later, Snake ran to his horse, reached it, climbed on and, galloped away.

Using his gun hand for leverage, Johnny struggled to his knees while holding his left hand tightly against his bleeding wound. The warmth of the blood gushing between his fingers and the hard fact that it was his own lifeblood, made him feel light-headed.

Scott jumped down from the rock with his and Johnny’s rifles tucked under his arms and took in the carnage around him. Three dead men in as many minutes. Well, at least this time it isn’t six and why is Snake high-tailing it out of here? Did Johnny let him go? Baffled, he also wondered why his brother hadn’t moved from his kneeling position when the shooting had ended. Johnny’s back was to him and Scott could see he was having trouble standing up.

“Johnny?”

Before Scott could reach him, Johnny suddenly keeled over onto his right side.

 

                                                                        ---25---

Hurriedly dropping the rifles on the ground beside the rock, Scott knelt beside his brother. Carefully, Scott turned him over onto his back and was rewarded when Johnny opened his eyes and spoke to him.

“That was good shootin’…brother,” gasped Johnny. He lifted his blood covered hand and, as if mesmerized, stared at it as the bright red blood dripped onto his flowered shirt.

Johnny finally grimaced, “More blood on my hands.” He gave a half-hearted chuckle, “This time it’s my own. Took my eyes off the enemy…know better…broke the cardinal rule.”

Johnny felt the need to keep talking. “Burns like a house afire…always does before the numbness kicks in.”  

“Stop talking,” curtly ordered Scott, tearing the hole bigger in Johnny’s shirt, then ripping a chunk of the material apart to form a padding. He pressed it onto the wound to slow the bleeding. Wide and long enough to be troublesome.

Johnny stared up into Scott’s face as his brother checked the bleeding. Johnny saw the waning of Scott’s coloring and took in the worry in his eyes. “I’ll be good as gold. I think he just hit bone.” he reassured. “What’d he stick me with?” Johnny lifted his head and looked around, trying to find the weapon.

Scott reached down and picked up a well-honed dirk from beside Johnny and closely examined the bloody knife. “You’re lucky he didn’t slit your throat instead of your ribs.”

Dirk? A short knife. “One of Cutter’s weapons of choice he uses to ply his trade. It’s how…Snake Cutter got his name,” faltered Johnny. “Always liked to play…with knives and snakes.” He threw back his head and gritted his teeth.

“Don’t forget blasting things for fun,” sardonically reminded Scott, as he checked the wound. The bleeding wasn’t slowing down.

“How bad is it?” asked Johnny, lifting his head to see. All he saw was Scott’s hand covered in blood holding the padding.

“A long swipe. How’d you get caught off guard?”

“I remembered at the last second the Indian bein’ at the Notorious. Back in the day, he hung with Day and Isham. We were once all…they were…all friends until I came along.”

“We came along,” reminded Scott. “So you think he shot Murdoch for revenge?”

“Yup, and you were…next on his list.” Johnny moaned again and rapidly blinked his eyes,

“Easy Johnny. I want you to hold still. No more talking.”

“Can’t…have to keep yammering…don’t like the stars I keep seein’…it’s only a cut. Why am I having so much trouble?”

A cut? Sorry, brother it’s much more than a cut. “Because every time you inhale, you’re lungs are pushing against your ribs, making the wound bleed.”

“What are we gonna do? I can’t lay here forever bleeding like a stuck pig.” The agony was finally lessening, but now he was cold and clammy.

“I know. I need to bind the wound and find a safer place for you to rest before I get help.”

“How about Gus’s brother’s old shack? It’s just over yonder.”

Scott took his coat off and started to unbutton his shirt.

“What are ya doing?”

“We need something to tie around the wound.”

“That’s your new shirt. Use mine. It’s already ruined anyhow.” Johnny unbuttoned one of his shirtsleeves. “Besides, that’s your gunfightin’ shirt.”

Scott grabbed Johnny’s left wrist and moved it on top of the makeshift wadding.

“Hold this,” commanded Scott. He then worked the top buttons of his own shirt. “There’s more to gun fighting than a shirt. You all made that clear enough at the beginning.” 

“At least it ain’t your golden one,” muttered Johnny.

Scott pulled his shirt off over his head blocking Johnny’s view of his face. He was glad for the momentary respite. It gave him a chance to pull himself together and face what he had to do. The laceration’s laid wide open. Ground beef comes to mind the way the tissue is torn up. It looks like Snake twisted the weapon going in, then carved the sides and probably scored the bone all in one swipe. Scott groaned. Snake succeeded in inflicting as much pain as possible…and now, I’m going to have to hurt him more.

Johnny, hearing his brother’s moan, “Scott? What ain’t ya telling me?”

Scott lifted the bloody saturated padding and tossed it aside, then heavily exhaled as he studied the wound. How dirty was that knife? He picked the knife up and examined it again.

Johnny felt Scott rip more of his shirt apart without moving him overly much though the discomfort rippled throughout his body. He then watched as his brother folded the material into a tight wad.

Scott, somewhat evasive, answered, “The more you move the more you bleed.”

The answer didn’t ring right in Johnny’s ears. He intently watched Scott’s facial expressions as he worked in getting the bleeding to stop and drew his own conclusion. “I’m in trouble, huh?”

“Yes, little brother, you’re in trouble.”

Johnny closed his eyes.

“Johnny?”

At the concern he heard in Scott’s gentle voice, Johnny opened them and stared at his brother and saw his own fear reflected in his eyes. “Scott, right now you’d make a terrible poker player.”

“Johnny I need to get the horses. I need some supplies in my saddlebags before I can properly bandage you. I want your word, you won’t move an inch.”

“What’s so fire wrong that I can’t move?”  

Scott sighed. He was afraid if he told him, Johnny would over compensate and make things worse. On the other hand he has the right to know. It’s his body. So what’s the solution? Six of one, half dozen of the other.

Common sense won out. “Johnny, its imperative you relax. No sudden moves. The stiller you are the better. Got it?”

“Scott if you’re tryin’ to frighten me…it’s working.”

“I’m not a doctor.”

“Yeah, I know that. So, get her said.”

“In your own words brother, when Snake knifed you he tore you up inside. You’re bleeding heavily and I can’t get it to slow down.”

Scott ran a hand over his sweaty brow and briefly wondered where his hat was.

“Sounds bad.”

Exasperated, Scott spontaneously replied, “Well it ain’t good, brother.” He couldn’t believe he just said that. Johnny you’re rubbing off on me.

“So how do we fix this?”

“A doctor has to go in, look around, then remove any foreign body like threads from your shirt and finally stitch you up.”

Johnny closed his eyes again. He was suddenly exhausted. Without opening them and trusting his brother completely in all things, he innocently asked, “What’s your plan?”

Scott, pleased with his brother’s faith in him, said, “I need to flush the wound in hopes of keeping an infection at bay.”

Johnny opened his eyes and asked, “How?”

“I can flush the wound with whiskey to get rid of the grit and then pack it with a cloth soaked in alcohol until a sawbones can stitch you up. The whiskey’s in my saddlebags.”

“Whiskey sounds good right now,” stated Johnny, licking his dry lips. His mouth felt parched. “By packing the wound, it’ll slow the bleeding down?”

“Correct.”

Johnny didn’t bat an eyelash. “Do it. And Scott?

“Yes?”

“Be careful when ya go for our horses. McGovern has got to be around here someplace and ya know Snake’s out there too. Keep your eyes peeled.”

“Okay, I will. Meanwhile…”

“Don’t move,” ended Johnny, putting an arm over his eyes and yawning. “Hmm, I think I’ll just take a nap till you get back.” He felt Scott move his left hand to his wound. “Keep pressure on that.” Then, his brother placed his Colt in his gun hand and said, “Shoot first and ask questions later.”

Johnny just grunted.

Scott studied his brother as he laid there in the middle of a puddle of blood on the rocky surface. He’ll be all right. He’s been through stuff ten times worse than this. Escapades that would make my hair stand on end if I knew the truth. He inwardly smiled.

Scott stood up and scrutinized the area for anything out of the ordinary, finding nothing, though his instincts screamed danger. He bent down and picked up his jacket with his hat and put them on.

“Johnny. Something doesn’t feel right.”  

“I know brother, so hurry.”

Scott grabbed his rifle lying at Johnny’s feet and quickly ran for their horses.

 

                                                                        ---26---

 

When they’d first come up with this plan of Scott becoming a gunfighter, he had listened to Johnny’s sage advice and taken it all seriously. This is the west and the code is completely different. Get them before they get you.

Johnny’s rules: never take anything for granted. If it’s a coincidence don’t believe it for a second. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Always look before ya leap…even if ya know the place you’re coming into...even if you’d just been there. Things do change in a blink of an eye and above all trust your instincts!

The same information had been drilled into him during his military days. Johnny’s reminder just served to enforce what he already knew.

Scott quietly dismounted just before reaching the mine to survey the area. 

All clear, but the hairs are standing up on the back of my neck. I get the eeriest feeling we’re being watched.

“Johnny I’m back,” called Scott, in a low undertone as he moved towards his brother, leading both horses.

As far as he could tell, Johnny hadn’t moved an inch, except for the Colt in his hand, which was pointed straight at Scott.

Still gripping the gun, Johnny laid his hand on his midriff. “I heard something besides you.”

“Where?”

Scott dropped both horse’s reins and picked up Johnny’s rifle that had been lying on the ground beside the rock just beyond Johnny’s feet.

“Back by the mine.”

“Inside or out?”

“Can’t tell…without moving.” Don’t have eyes in the back of my head Scott.

Scott inaudibly sighed. We’re sitting ducks. Squaring his hat on his head to shield his face and hide his eyes, he nonchalantly scanned the perimeter.

In a voice barely above a whisper, Johnny asked, “See anything?”

“No, but I feel that he’s there.”

A scrape of a boot on stone was heard a few yards away.

Johnny, completely tuned in to the sounds of nature around him, honed in on the direction. “North of the entrance.”

“Got it,” murmured Scott, still amazed at his brother’s sensory abilities. It’s what kept him alive all these years.  

A shadowy figure could be seen creeping along the north side of the mine. Scott cocked the gun and took aim with the rifle.

The rack of the rifle stopped the intruder in his footsteps. “Comin’ in!” called a familiar voice. A moment later Jelly stepped into the sunlight with his hands up in the air.

“Jelly,” murmured Scott, releasing the trigger of the Winchester and laying it down beside Johnny. “You trying to get shot sneaking in here?”

Skirting the dead guys, Jelly scrambled over to the boys. “I wasn’t sneakin’. I heard shootin’ and didn’t want to get caught in the cross fire, so I snuck…” He had the good grace to grimace before continuing, “I thought ya might’ve needed my help.” Observing Johnny, he swallowed and stopped with, “But, I see I’m a speck too late.”

Johnny kiddingly grouched, “Why can’t a person enter a clearing proper like or was that normal like?”

Jelly getting the unspoken message, sputtered, “Oh go on with ya.” Curious and worried he asked, “What happened to you?”

“Had a little run-in.”

“And where’s your riding partner?” seriously asked Scott, walking around his horse to the saddle bags on Buster’s back. He opened a flap and pulled a bottle of whisky out of the pouch.

“You know the rules Johnny laid down. No one rides alone.”

“I wasn’t. I rode within a mile or two of the mine with Val and the Rangers, then broke off to come here. They’re headed for the south mesa.”

“What they doin’ there?” asked Johnny. “I don’t recall them saying they were headed there this morning.”

Scott came back around the horse and set the bottle down next to his brother’s wounded side. Not giving Jelly time to answer, Scott ordered, “Here give me a hand.” Scott quickly untied his kerchief from his neck, then with his own pocket knife, ripped a hunk of the material off the scarf. 

Jelly’s eyes widened with concern at the amount of blood he could see dripping from under Johnny’s hand. He hid his apprehension as Johnny tried desperately to reach the alcohol with his gun hand and not move his body in the process.

Johnny had almost succeeded in reaching the whiskey bottle when Scott scooped it up and pulled the cork out with his teeth. Dropping the cork from his mouth, a moment later Scott helped himself to a nip of it.

“Medicinal purposes.” Scott grinned at his brother’s frown. “Needed that to steady my nerves.”

“Damn!” swore Johnny, snatching the bottle out of Scott’s hands with his bloody one. He quickly lifted his head as far as he could and swallowed a hefty draught before his brother could stop him.

“Well, don’t be stingy,” whined Jelly, reaching for the bottle. “After all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Scott almost said no, but relented after viewing Jelly’s dejected countenance.

Jelly drank a gulp before the bottle was seized by Scott.

“Okay, now that we’ve all taken care of our anxiety, let’s get down to business.” Looking at Jelly, Scott ordered, “Hold out your hands.”

At Jelly’s questioning look, Scott poured a small amount of whiskey into his hands. “Rub them together. I want them clean as possible.” Scott did the same thing to his own hands.

Copying Scott, Jelly did as bid. “What ya plannin’ on doin’?”

Scott placed the smaller piece of cloth from his handkerchief inside the bottle of whisky, holding only an end over the rim, then sloshed the bottle around. He pulled it out and having nowhere clean to put it, he stuffed it in his jacket pocket.

“I’m going to flush his knife wound, then pack it before he bleeds to death.”

“Now Jelly I want you to hold the wound open as wide as you can.”

Jelly, feeling queasy with all the blood, asked, “Can’t Tim, bein’ a medic and all, sew him up?”

“Yes, but he’s not here now. You can get him later.” Moving his eyes to Johnny’s pale face Scott asked, “You ready?”

Closing his eyes he moved his hand from the wound and said, “Let her buck.”

Jelly unhappily held the laceration open and Scott poured the whiskey to the brim of the wound. Johnny sucked in a deep breath and clinched his teeth until they hurt.  The sting was horrific and he had all he could do to keep from screaming out. Sweat poured off his body as he fought to keep himself from moving. He curled his fingers tightly into his palms to help absorb the pain.

Dark red blood and matter ran over the edges of the knife wound.

After a few moments Scott lifted the bottle upright to give his brother a moment to catch his breath.

“Easy Johnny, relax,” coaxed Scott. “Breathe through your nose and out through your mouth.”

“Tryin’,” gasped Johnny. He did as told, then gave up and sucked in a deep breath, as Scott poured more alcohol into the wound. This time the blood was lighter in color, as it drained out of the jagged incision.

Jelly swallowed repetitively as he watched Scott blot the wound with the dry cloth from the other half of his neckerchief. When Scott removed the bloody hanky, to Jelly’s amazement, he could see the white layers of tissue intermixed with blood clear down to the bone inside of the wound.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the pain receded and a warm sort of numbness set in. Johnny opened his fists and unclenched his aching jaw as he let out a big whoosh of air.

Scott gave him a few minutes to recuperate and swallowed another nip of the whiskey. He then let Johnny have a long pull.

He offered it to Jelly who shook his head no. “I’d rather have mine when we’re done.”

“Okay Johnny just breathe in and out slowly.”

Again Johnny did as his brother told him.

Scott nodded at Jelly to hold open the gap of skin as wide as he could. Jelly gently pulled the laceration apart.

Scott looked around the clearing. The feeling of danger had not left him. He exchanged glances with his brother and knew Johnny felt the same way. “I think we’re on borrowed time. We need to hurry this up. Now, are you both ready?”

Jelly shook his head yes and Johnny just groaned.

Scott said the two words Johnny was beginning to hate, “Relax and breathe.”

A moment later, Scott packed Johnny’s wound with the alcohol soaked bandana he’d pulled from his pocket.

“Ow!” Bit out Johnny as he tried not to move from his brother’s insistent fingers. Scott quickly and efficiently accomplished the task.

“Breathe Johnny,” reminded Scott, pouring more whiskey into the wound, then setting the bottle within arm’s reach of his brother.

“Easy for you to say,” sniped Johnny, grabbing the whiskey bottle and drinking what was left in it.

Ignoring Johnny’s outburst, Scott ordered, “Jelly find me Johnny’s bandana. I think it’s in his coat pocket.”

Jelly looked around for Johnny’s coat, spying it tied to Barranca’s saddle. He then got up to get it. A few seconds later Jelly dropped the handkerchief in front of Scott. Who in turn, folded it tightly and combined it with Scott’s torn one, thereby creating a thick pad for Johnny’s wound. Placing it on top of the injury, Scott then reached for his navy-blue shirt lying beside his brother. Wrapping it tightly around Johnny’s ribs and tying it off with the sleeves of the shirt, he secured the bandage in place. 

After it was all done, Scott asked Jelly, “What brought you out to the Lorelei?”

“I didn’t say…exactly,” grouched Jelly, eyeing the empty whiskey bottle still in Johnny’s hand. Bringing his eyes up, he met Johnny’s too satisfied ones, and spouted, “Boy if you don’t look like the cat that got the cream.”

Johnny just saluted him with the empty bottle before closing his eyes.

“Well?” asked Scott, rinsing his hands with the water from the canteen he’d gotten from his saddle.

“Humph,” grunted Jelly. “The lawmen are hot on the trail of Angus McGovern,” smirked Jelly, like he knew something they didn’t.

“Sorry to burst your bubble, but we’d heard he was in the area.”

Jelly pouted.

A little inebriated, Johnny frowned and grouched, “Can I get up now?”

“Yes, if you don’t move around too much.” replied Scott, reaching a hand out to his brother who took it. Scott pulled Johnny to his feet, who weaved a few seconds, then regained his equilibrium.

“I can’t believe a little cut can drag ya so low,” said Johnny, shaking his head as if to clear it.

Little cut? Scott inwardly smiled. He still thinks it’s a little cut. Boy little brother, wait until you look in the mirror. This time, you’re going to have a scar to boast about to the sporting girls.

“Loss of blood with too much whiskey will do that to you.” stated Scott, amused at his brother’s antics. “Glad you’re on your feet brother.”

Holding his hand against his wound, Johnny held his brother’s eyes with his own and softly replied, “Much obliged.”

Jelly butted into the moment and happily said, “I’ve got some news that I bet ya don’t know about.”

“What?” asked Scott, taking the bait. Johnny just stood quietly next to his brother not sure if he wanted to move yet or not.

Grinning broadly with a twinkle in his eye, Jelly reported, “Murdoch woke up.”

At the boy’s indrawn breath and wide grins, he declared, “He already wants out of bed and a big meal. Says he’s hungry enough to eat a bear.”

“Not a horse?” asked Scott, smiling pointedly at his brother, who looked kind of green. Too much whiskey. He’s as full as a tick.

Johnny only nodded that he got Scott’s play on words as he swayed slightly on his feet. Swallowing hard he asked, “What’s next?”

“We get you to the shack so you can lay down before you fall down and Jelly goes for the lawmen.”

“What if they’ve picked up the scent of McGovern?” asked Jelly.

“Then bring back Tim. Johnny’s lost too much blood to ride all the way back home on horseback without getting stitched up first.”

“I could just git a wagon.”

“No!” emphatically stated Johnny, stepping back from the men. “I’m not riding in a wagon like some mail-ordered cowboy.”

While nervously watching his sibling move side to side on his feet, Scott shook a finger at him and teased, “Careful brother that term could’ve applied to me at one time.”

“Why? Just because you arrived from the Old States all smarted up in some fancy eastern duds.” Johnny chuckled at the memory of his brother’s clothes. At Scott’s slight blush, he went on, “Remember your first fight ya had with some of Day Pardee’s gang members?”

Scott nodded in the affirmative with some resentment in his eyes. “How can I forget? You sat there in a chair observing the whole commotion.”

“Yeah, I did,” agreed Johnny, feeling his face heat up. “But, I was Madrid at the time and not a Lancer. I didn’t want to give the game away. Besides you more than held your own, Golden Garrett. You were tough as an old boot.”

That seemed to mollify his brother. Scott gave him a knowing grin and started gathering up all their gear. He handed Johnny his hat, pistol and rifle along with the empty whiskey bottle.

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“You drank it. You take care of it.”

Johnny just said, “PFFT,” and put the empty bottle in his saddlebags.

 

---27---

 

“Easy Johnny, just take your time,” coaxed Scott, standing beside his brother as he dismounted from Barranca at the shack in the middle of one of the experimental feed fields.

Between the happenings of the day and the loss of blood, Scott could plainly see his brother was washed out and needed some rest. Blood was seeping from the wound, covering Johnny’s pants and the side of Barranca. He needed a heavier bandage than the thin handkerchiefs Scott had improvised for padding. And his silky navy-blue shirt wasn’t absorbing the liquid very well either.

“Gonna have to give Barranca a bath when this is over,” mumbled Johnny, stepping away from his horse and putting his hat on the horn. “Don’t want him tainted red forever. Red horses remind me of blood and I’m sick of blood. Now, gold is the color…bright shiny gold…like my horse and yer shirt, Scott.”

Johnny wasn’t making much sense to Scott. Forget the shock. It has to be all that bottled courage he drank.

Walking past the water pump to the horse trough, Johnny latched onto the handle. “Really need a drink Scott and I need to get this blood off my hands.”

Pulling his brother away from the handle, Scott said, “I’ll pump. You hold the cup.”

Johnny grabbed the community tin cup off the spigot and held it under the spout as Scott moved the handle up and down. When it was full Johnny drank the cool water straight down. He hung the cup back on the spigot and started to put his hands in the trough when he stopped short.

“Yew, how long has it been since they dumped the trough?”

Scott looked closer at the water. “Does look a little green doesn’t it?”

“A little? It looks greener than Teresa’s garden.”

“Well you know Johnny we haven’t had any hands up here in quite a few days with all the goings on around here.”

“Yeah, that be true enough.”

“Come on. You can wash them inside,” assured Scott. Gripping his brother’s arm, Scott led Johnny through the storage shed attached to the back of the shack.

Coming through the back door, they by-passed a sink with a water pump and a small wood burning stove in the corner. A wood bin sat next to the stove and a little window was over the sink, letting in some feeble light. A short counter separated four chairs tucked under a square table from the kitchen area.  

Finding a cot behind the back door in a corner, Scott led Johnny over to it where he sat down. Scott grabbed the pillow and gave it a couple of whacks with his hand to get the excess dust off it, then dropped it on the makeshift bed.  “All the comforts of home, brother.”

“Humph,” snorted Johnny, as he swung his legs up on the cot and laid down, glad to be off his feet. He was too exhausted to even take his gun belt or boots off. The ordeal of mounting and dismounting, combined with movements of Barranca’s gait and in general the smell of his own blood had made his stomach woozy. I wish I hadn’t drank all that whiskey, though at the time it seemed like a good idea...

Scott, taking pity on him, unbuckled Johnny’s rig and pulled the belt out from under him, noticing the coolness of his brother’s skin against his knuckles. Shock from blood loss? “This is going to need some cleaning. There’s blood all over the leather and the ammunition.” Scott took it with him and set it on the counter.

Johnny held up his hands and inspected the dry tacky blood, secretly wondering if he’d ever get the stain off of them. The smell alone is enough to knock my socks off. After all this time, you’d think I’d be used to blood on my hands. Never. Maybe it’s the Good Lord’s way of keepin’ me honest. He rubbed his hands together trying to get the sticky blood to loosen with no luck. Next, he swiped them across what was left of his ragged shirt, finding that didn’t work either.

The clang of the stove door being slammed shut brought Johnny’s attention to his brother. “Cold Scott?”

“No, but you are.”

Johnny hadn’t even realized he was, until now. He felt his body trembling and yeah, he was rather chilly. “That from bleedin’ too much?”

“Probably,” came the answer.

“Why ain’t the whisky helping? I more than drank enough of it.”

“The whiskey thins your blood. It’s a myth that alcohol keeps your body warm.”

Leave it to my educated brother to know about booze. “Scott is there anything you don’t know?” asked Johnny, hearing the creak of the water pump. A few seconds later, he heard water splashing in the sink.

“I read a lot, remember?” reminded Scott, bringing a wet washrag over to his brother and handing it to him.

Grateful, Johnny took it and started wiping the blood off his hands. “Yeah,” exclaimed Johnny, “That college education ya got helps too.”

“College wasn’t everything Johnny. Most of my education came from the school of hard knocks,” regretfully answered Scott.

“Like me, learning my lessons the hard way?”

“Something like that,” his tone was blue. Scott picked up a heavy blanket from the foot of the bed and covered his brother up to his waist. “I need to find something else to pad that wound with. You’re soaking the bed.”

That was true enough. Johnny could feel the warm wetness every time he moved. Curious about his brother’s past he couldn’t let the subject drop.

“Scott, ya gonna tell me about school and the Calvary some time?”

Like his own past to a certain degree, Scott’s was just as mysterious. Sure, they’d discussed bits and pieces of it, even swapped a few dozen stories, but they’d never really dug into each other’s past unless warranted.

“You mean the deeper, uglier side of my life?”

“We all have them. Ghosts in the closet.” Johnny set the washrag on the floor and closed his eyes. The far-away look and the pain in his brother’s eyes bothered him. “Look at me, I’m still dealin’ with my past. Half the time it creeps up on me at the craziest of times.” The heat from the wood stove was making him drowsy. “You got caught in the middle of it once. Then, there’s my mama…who didn’t even love or want me…and I still don’t even know why…”

Scott watched his brother fall asleep. He bent down and picked up the bloody washrag and whispered, “Someday Johnny when we’re both good and drunk…I’ll tell you my story before I came to Lancer.”

Shrugging off thoughts of his past, Scott decided he’d better concentrate on the here and now. He needed to find something better to pad Johnny’s wound with until Jelly found Tim.

Where would the linens be? There has to be some towels around here someplace. Of course, knowing the men they wouldn’t take a bath until they got back to the bunkhouse. Shoot, they don’t take a bath but once a month, if we’re all lucky. He smiled at that and shook his head, still marveling at the differences of east vs west.

He rummaged around under the counter and found the pots and cast iron fry pans to the wood stove. For the heck of it, he looked inside the bin next to the stove and found a sack of coffee beans, sharing space with the wood. Odd place to store coffee, but why not? Coffee goes hand in glove with wood and a hot stove. I could use a cup right now. The stove’s already hot enough to make a fresh batch. He dumped some beans into the large coffee pot and added water, then set it on the stove to boil.

While waiting for the coffee, he continued to look for something to pad Johnny’s wound with.

They have to do dishes and things. The essentials are all in their correct places so what gives?

Scott’s thoughts meandered back to the past couple of hours as he continued to hunt for the missing linens.

How long will it take Jelly to catch up with the lawmen? If McGovern is on our property more than likely he’ll end up by the mine. He could already be in the mine, except I didn’t see any trace of him when Jelly and I laid the dead guys in there.

And what about Snake? Is he still hanging around? Has he linked up with McGovern yet? Obviously, they’re in cahoots together. Didn’t Snake say that in so many words at the Notorious Saloon back in Stockton? We just didn’t know who his boss was yet.

The coffee was at a hard boil in the pot, spitting excess moisture on the surface of the hot stove. The sizzling noise brought Scott out of his wandering thoughts.

He’d worked his way over to the front door where a long crate was pushed against the wall. Opening it, he found it packed full of Indian blankets, towels and washrags. Johnny must’ve bought every blanket Val had been given by those kids to sell. He picked up a couple of hand towels and walked back to the stove. Using one of the towels, he removed the coffeepot from the wood stove, then poured himself a cup and set the pot back on top of the water reservoir on the right side of the range.  The coffee was too hot to drink, so he put the mug aside on the counter to cool for a little while.

Picking up the other towel, Scott ambled over to where Johnny was sleeping on his back on the cot. Bending over Johnny, Scott pulled back the blanket and untied his ruined navy shirt without waking his brother. Whiskey’s really done the trick this time. He carefully removed the saturated dressing and replaced it with a clean tightly folded towel. Having no other alternative, he retied his shirt back around the makeshift bandage. I hope Tim gets here soon. He recovered his sleeping sibling and went to drink his coffee.

 

                                                                        ---28---

 

Johnny couldn’t have said what woke him if his life depended on it, which it did. No thanks to the whiskey, he’d been deep asleep in dream land.

Quiet. Too quiet. Maybe that was it. The stillness of the room and…where’s Scott?  Alarmed, Johnny came fully awake. He sniffed the air, smelling fresh coffee. He spied a cup sitting on the counter. How long have I been out? Minutes? Hours? He moved and pain lanced through his being, especially in the side of his mid-section. A bulkiness had replaced the thin padding that had previously been tied around his ribs. Was Tim here? Did he sew me up? No. I’d of felt that…wouldn’t I? Besides, there’d be bandages around my ribs. Tim was once an animal vet and a medic, he always carries a medical kit with him wherever he goes.

He glanced out the window and was surprised it was raining. The sky had been clear blue…how long ago? He felt in his front pants pocket for the gold watch Murdoch had given him. Then recalled it was in his coat pocket, which was still behind his saddle. That must be where Scott is, tending the horses. He felt relieved, but only for a moment, then tensed again. So, what woke me up?

He slowly inspected the room, not moving out of his bed. What is out of place? What am I looking for? I haven’t been inside here in a long time. I never came in here unless for a cup of coffee or to get out of the rain. I can’t recall ever having slept here. Only the men tending the cows and fields do and they’re all back at the bunkhouse. Since this thing with the land speculators started we’ve kept everyone closer at hand.

He reached for his gun only to find it not around his hips. Scott had removed it to clean the belt. He looked down on the floor beside the cot. Sure enough, there it is. He bent over to pick it up and felt pain shoot its way across his ribs as a warm wetness moved against his skin. Grabbing his rig, he was surprised by the lightness of his belt. His gun was missing and he hadn’t even noticed. He threw the cover aside and carefully swung his legs around to get up when the front door slowly opened.

The sweet cloying scent from his past preceded the woman standing in the doorway. The smell paralyzed him, as he sat on the cot. He watched as she unhurriedly walked up to him holding a gun, a gun that looked much like his own. By the way the older woman held it, she gave him the impression that she knew how to use it.

Stopping a foot in front of him, she coolly sized him up with her piercing dark eyes. By her frown and the way she bit her lip, he knew, she found him lacking. I still don’t measure up…even after all this time.  It crushed him inside. Not giving so much as a hint of his turbulent emotions, Johnny openly studied her. 

With a shock Johnny realized she was older now, and much more matronly in body, than what he remembered as a child. The picture he’d carried in his memory all these years was of a much younger woman. An angry young woman who had thrown him out in the mud.

His pulse pounded in his ears and unreasonable panic filled his heart. His hands trembled, indeed his very being inside shook, as he clamped his fingers around the edge of the cot. His mouth filled with a bitter taste as his stomach cramped and rolled. Needing to be on equal footing and remembering his manners he’d been taught as a small child with the aid of a belt, he stood up on rubbery legs not caused by the knife wound across his rib.

Much to his annoyance, all he could manage to get out of his arid mouth was one weak word, “Mama?”

A crack across his cheekbone from the back of her hand was his answer. “I am not your mama!”

Shaken from the blow and reverting back to his old fiery self, Johnny spat, “Then who the hell are you?!”

The angry spark in his eyes and the harsh sound of his voice made the woman step back a few paces.

Tasting blood and rubbing his abused cheek, Johnny stood over her, surprised he was now taller than her. He couldn’t get over the fact she looked just like his mama, indeed, he still wasn’t totally convinced otherwise. She sure got her temper, picking up right where she left off.

Before the woman could answer there was a slight sound at the door and Johnny received another jolt when a man entered through the portal.

Raymond Reyes, my stepfather? My first kill in revenge for my mama’s, he turned slightly and looked straight at the woman, supposed death. He stared at them in silence, completely bewildered.

Finally he quipped, as his brother had done on that long ago day when they’d both come home to Lancer, “Far be it from me to spoil the family reunion.” Not getting so much as a crack of a smile, he then coldly asked, “Where’s Scott?”

“My, my you always were an impertinent child, even at the age of three. You really don’t know who I am, do you?” asked the woman, sounding put out.

“No ma’am, I surely don’t. Though you look just like my…mother,” replied Johnny, backing out of reach of the woman and licking his dry lips.

Johnny saw a flash of irritation cross the woman’s face reminding him of his mama so much that it hurt. He could actually feel the physical pain that was to come. Any moment now she’s gonna fly off the handle and I’m gonna be at the receiving end of her anger. Make no bones about it. Never mattered if I did or didn’t do something right or wrong, all I had to do was be under her feet when she unleashed her temper.

In a tone of voice that was cold as a block of ice, she introduced herself, “I’m your mother’s younger sister, Rosa Madrid Reyes.”

Johnny realized the implications of the last name and darkly stared at his stepfather. “How long after ya killed mama did you marry her?”

With a cruel smile, the man took a step towards Johnny with his hand fisted. Answering Johnny’s question, he firmly said, “Boy, you got it all wrong. I was never married to your mama. Your mother never divorced or had her marriage annulled from your father. She liked living unconventionally. She liked being wild and wooly. I married Rosa shortly after Maria took off with your father.”

Confused by the memories of his childhood and the insinuations that his stepfather was blatantly hinting at, Johnny blurted out, “But, you slept with her. You lived with us.”

The despised man had the nerve to laugh, “Boy, you must be lacking in education. You don’t need to be married to have a sporting good time. Your mother was fine with it and so was your aunt. I pretty much divided my time between the both of them, depending on where the next game was being played.”

No wonder Murdoch never remarried. Once again, things are becoming clearer about what my life really was. Lies. My whole childhood was full of lies. Now that I think about it, I remember him being gone a lot. Never gave it any thought, I was just glad when he was gone. Mama must not’ve cared either. She had a different man in her bed every night he was gone.

Johnny would have spit if his mouth hadn’t been so dry. As it was, he gave his stepfather his most feared Johnny Madrid scowl, a look most men would’ve quaked in their boots from.

His stepfather mocked him, “Not so tough now that you don’t have a gun to back up the guise.” The man studied him with penetrating dark gray eyes that started at his boots, moved up his body to pause on his wound, then finished by looking hard into Johnny’s blue eyes.

Johnny felt like a child again about to be whooped. Even so, he gave no quarter as he returned the man’s steely eyed stare. Blue to gray eyes steady and never blinking, as they glowered at each other. Who will look away first? It was one of Johnny’s favorite games and he was an excellent player.

The woman interrupted their contest of wills. “Enough of this gunslinger crap! I want some answers and Johnny Madrid, you’re going to give them to me one way or another,” she promised with her own stony brown eyes.

She reminded Johnny of a black widow spider all dressed in black silk with red trim and out for the kill. Her dark icy brown eyes alone put my mama’s fiery ones to shame. But then, doesn’t water put out the flames? Which one is more dangerous? You can die in agony by both.

More confused than ever, he said, “That’ll depend on the questions.” Another crack across his cheek was his only answer.

Viciously, his aunt criticized, “I’ll take no more sass from you, Johnny Madrid. I know my sister taught you well, when to speak and when to listen.”

Yup, she did with the back of her hand amongst other things. You’re so much like her in yer actions, in your words. I can’t get around it. He shook his head to scatter his thoughts.

With his cheek stinging, Johnny silently stood there, waiting for her next move. It seemed to infuriate his aunt beyond reasoning, just as it always did with his mother.

Stalemate, I hate this part. I can’t hide and there’s nowhere to run. I can only take it like the man I am, just like I did as a kid.

Suddenly, his stepfather dug his fingers into his shoulder and with a closed fist he punched Johnny in the wound. Pain shot through Johnny’s whole torso and he doubled over as the angry man kneed him backwards to fall on top of the pillow laying on the cot.

“Consider this as payment for the bullet you pumped into my chest!”

Landing in a sitting position, he felt under his right thigh a hard lump beneath the pillow. Johnny inwardly smiled for the first time even though he was struggling not to show his physical pain on the outside. Never was he more grateful for his brother and the fact Scott had stayed true to form.

 

---29---

 

Now that his gun was near at hand, Johnny breathed a might easier. I could end this farce now, but I need to find out what they did with Scott. I know they didn’t outright kill him. They’d need him in order to force whatever they want from me. Well I have questions too. Maybe if I play my cards right, I’ll even find the answers to the ones that have nagged me for years.

His Aunt Rosa gave her gun over to her husband. She’s obviously gonna do the talkin’ and he’s the protection. He had yet to come up with a new nickname for his stepfather. It was a game he’d played from the time he was little to prepare himself for what was to come. Hide my feelings and mask the hurt.

Blowhard might work. He is full of himself and a bully, and an all-around ass of a hard case. Hard ass might work even better. The bastard has no heart. Leastwise not ever, when I was a young boy.

His aunt loudly stomped her boot heel to get his attention. “Stop wandering off and look at me! I see you still play those silly games to escape reality.”

Escape? My imagination was all that was left to me. Mama left everything else behind. I had to make do with what I had, which was pretty much nothin’. You try playin’ in the dirt with broken toys and castoffs. I wasn’t allowed to have friends. I always had to be quiet or pay the price. My backside was plum wore out by the age of five though that didn’t stop either of them from layin’ it on thick with a belt.

Johnny sat there caught between the past and the present. He wasn’t so sure any longer if he really wanted to know everything about his past. Murdoch was right. Bygones bring up a lot of hurt and unwanted pain. Am I ready for this?

“First question,” demanded his aunt, “Where did Murdoch hide the promissory note?”

“What note?” instantly asked Johnny, automatically putting a hand over his cheek. Gun or no gun, I’m done being slapped.  His other hand protectively covered his knife wound. “What are you talkin’ about?”

Through gritted teeth, his aunt ground out as if talking to a small child, “The note that my father, your grandfather, Juan Madrid, sent to Murdoch when you were three years old.”

In Johnny’s mind, a few things fell into place. “You’re the one that looted Murdoch’s desk a few nights ago. The whole house reeked of your perfume.” He leaned just a bit forward, “Did ya know mama wore that same scent?”

Her hand, which was almost quicker than the eye, reached for him again, but this time Johnny was ready. He grabbed both her wrists as she bent over him and yanked her down beside him.

Glancing at his bastard of a stepfather, he made sure to keep the intimidating woman in the line of fire. I guess bastard’s it, the rest just don’t fit. He wrapped his left arm around her neck and held onto both wrists with one hand.

“Now,” snarled Johnny, still struggling with the irate woman and pulling his own gun out from underneath the pillow, “It’s my turn for some questions and I’d like some peaceful answers to go with them.” He brought the gun to her temple and calmly ordered, “Hold still!”

Surprisingly, the woman stopped moving. She hollered instead, “Wound him somehow!”

That statement told Johnny they needed him…alive. But, it could bode ill for Scott.

Raymond Reyes was at a loss at what to do next. Madrid was hidden behind his wife and his gun was now pointed directly at Reyes right between the eyes.

Johnny was done playing around. His knife wound was throbbing and he could feel fresh blood dribbling down inside his pants. He’d had all the physical and emotional abuse that he was going to take. “First question. Where’s Scott?”

“Below you in the root cellar,” easily answered Raymond Reyes. Seeing Johnny’s look of disquiet, he quickly amended, “He’s alive…just…”

“Just what?” asked Madrid, in a too calm voice. If they’ve hurt him…

“He’s unconscious from a blow to the head,” eked out his aunt.

Rosa felt the gunslinger’s arm tighten around her neck, slightly cutting off her air. Grasping at his arm to keep it from squeezing her more, she placated, “He’ll be alright if he has a hard head like yours.”

Johnny eased up on his stranglehold. “True enough, but he’d better be right as rain or so help me woman, I will kill you where you sit. A little more blood on my hands will make no difference to me.” He felt her tremble. Right on cue. You’re good aunt, real good.  “Now, tell me about this note.” He kept his aim steady on his bastard of a stepfather. Johnny was warming up to the nickname he’d bestowed upon the man. “You can drop that gun anytime.”

I wonder if he can kill a family member, especially one who looks just like his own mother. Reyes heard the cock of the gun and reluctantly laid his on the counter.

“Look Johnny,” nagged his aunt, “We could have a polite conversation about all of this right there at that table.”

“We could.” He was losing strength and he didn’t know how much longer he could hold onto the feisty woman. Yer not spinning your silken web around me. I don’t like Scott being trapped in that dark, cold, creepy cellar, but if he’s out of sight, he’s out of mind and safer that way.

“It’s a long story, Johnny, one I know you’ve never heard.”

“How would you know?” he retorted back, not trusting her for a minute. Sweat was beading his forehead. He had to do something fast before he lost the edge he had gained.

“I saw the questions in your eyes when I first came in,” she gently responded back. “You have no idea why your mother never loved you, do you?”

The question hit too close to home and it was almost his undoing. Finally someone who can give me the answers to the questions that have haunted me for so long. But, can I trust her or will she just give me some cock and bull story?

Johnny said, “How do I know you won’t lie to me too?”

“Why would I lie? All I want is the money,” she twittered.

“The money. It’s always about money,” mocked Johnny. “Is that what all this is about?”

She could hear the hurt in his irritated tone, still using your temper to hide your true feelings. She used it to her advantage. “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give you the story, the answers to your questions, though I promise you won’t like them, in exchange for the promissory note.”

Not really caring about the money, Johnny softly said, “All right.” He pointed with his gun, “You both sit down at the table.” Where I can keep an eye on ya.

Raymond Reyes exchanged a calculating smirk with his wife and sat down at the table.

Johnny, going against his instincts, let go of his aunt. He could no longer hold her anyway. Between his wound, loss of blood, the whiskey and his anxiousness about Scott, he felt his body had betrayed him. He needed to keep the game in play in order to find out the longed for answers to his questions about his childhood. ‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ floated through his mind.  He had to bluff that his wound wasn’t serious and that he was as strong and tough as ever. As a result, he shrugged the warning off.

Rubbing her neck, his Aunt Rosa went and sat at the table. He picked up his rig from the cot and walked over behind his aunt and leaned against the counter, placing his gun belt on the surface in plain sight. He didn’t trust his stepfather enough to tie up both his hands while fastening the belt around his hips.

He picked up Scott’s coffee cup in his left hand and found it half full. Cool to the touch. He took a sip wetting his dry mouth.

“You mind if I have a cup of that?” asked his aunt, indicating the pot on the stove behind him.

“Oh, ya want to be social now?” incredulously quipped Johnny, still holding Scott’s cup. She’s up to something, I know it. She is a spider after all. I wonder if my step-papa knows a black widow kills the male after they mate and eats them for breakfast.

“Johnny, its one cup of coffee and it’s raining outside.”

Deciding to put a little distance between himself and his relatives Johnny worked his way around to the back of the counter, keeping an eye on his stepfather.

“Okay. Stay where you are. I’ll get it.”

He then leaned back against the warm stove and with his knuckle touched the coffee pot and was surprised to find it quite warm. A few deductions from earlier questions filled his mind. Scott must’ve boiled the beans to death. No wonder he likes weak coffee. He’s only been down there a short time. I must not’ve slept very long. My body is definitely telling me that. I wonder if Jelly found Tim yet.

Picking up the pot, he set it on the counter next to his rig and then quickly reached for two mugs sitting upside down on the drain board. A moment later, they joined the pot on the counter. Grabbing his stepfather’s gun from the surface, he deposited it under the counter with everyone hearing the clank as the weapon found a pot to rest in. He shoved his own gun into his belt at his waist.

“Help yourself,” invited Johnny, as he slid his rig off the counter and hastily donned it as his aunt got up to pour their coffee. A moment later his Colt was in the holster.

His aunt came to the counter and poured the coffee, giving him a sorrowful look at the same time. Just like mama used to do before she cut me to ribbons. What’s so special about this note? Money can’t buy love or happiness. My aunt looks greedy. They need me to tell them where the note is, like I even have a clue. Hell, I don’t even know what they’re talkin’ about yet. What can they really tell me about my mama? I know mama wrote letters a lot when I was a kid. Did she tell her sister everything about us? Did she confide in her sister like I do with Scott?

His aunt took the two coffee cups back to the table and handed one to her husband as she sat down.

Johnny couldn’t help but notice they seemed to carry on a silent conversation between themselves. Well-tuned into each other. Totally relaxed. They’ve known each other a long time. Married couples do that just like Scott and I can practically read each other’s minds at times. Why do I get the feeling it spells trouble for me with a capital ‘T’? What do they know that I don’t know?

“Enough with the silent words, Aunt. Time to get her said.”

Johnny poured some coffee into Scott’s cup. Leaning against the counter for support, with both hands in view, he locked his knees in place to steady himself. With elbows on the surface and still holding Scott’s mug in his left hand, he slowly sipped his coffee. Steadily peering over the rim, he waited for his aunt to begin the story.

 

                                                                        ---30---

 

Down below in the root cellar Scott was awake. Rubbing the back of his head to ease the pain from the blow, he heard raised voices through the boards from the ceiling above. He couldn’t always hear the distinguished soft timbre of his brother’s voice nor that of the other man or what was said between them. But, he certainly heard the slaps his brother received and the angry words from Johnny’s supposed aunt when she’d introduced herself. The woman’s got quite a disposition. She reminds me of a lethal spider on the attack. Johnny’s tough. He can take it, but for how long? His wound sticks out like a sore thumb. How long does he have before the black widow devours him? I have to find a way out of here and fast. Johnny will never believe how easily they hoodwinked me after all the lessons he gave me to keep me on my toes.

Gus’s brother, Joe Guthrie, during his homesteading days had dug the cellar after he’d built the shack. I would guess to store all the food he’d grown and canned. The walls were hard packed dirt with little structural support. The floor was entirely covered in loose soil. The ceiling was barely above his head. A set of narrow steps led upward to the world outside with a wooden door that covered the stairwell. It reminded Scott of a hidden bunker.

The scientists from the USDA used it mainly to store various chemicals and seeds needing a dark, cool place. Scott had been down in the deep crawl space more than once when he’d helped put the experiment together for the USDA and his father. Johnny had wanted nothing to do with the space at all. After some of the things his brother had told him about his childhood, he more than understood why.

Scott tried to lift the door, but knew what he would find. A rusty padlock kept the wooden door in place, doubling as a deterrent in keeping the critters and elements out of the cellar.

“What a fix,” he moaned. “What would Johnny do? Find a way out, that’s what.”

Taking a matchstick from his coat pocket he struck it on the bottom of his boot and looked around, finally spying a wax candle in a tin holder sitting on a small keg. He lit the wick and then examined his hole in the ground.

Place needs shoring up. Dirt walls are bulging. Why didn’t we notice this the last time we were all down here? Of course, the rains hadn’t come yet. And by the sound outside I can hear it storming now. Good thing I put the horses in the makeshift corral. Wouldn’t want them spooked and then we’d be stuck here. ‘As if we ain’t already,’ came Johnny’s words unbidden to his mind. He laughed out loud.  I can see why Johnny hates dark enclosed places. This place does give me the creeps, especially with the door closed. Talk about claustrophobic.

He tested the ceiling, which was an inch above his head and found some weak spots in the wood. He was dismayed at the quietness. What are they talking about up there? I swear I could hear a feather drop. She better not be feeding him some kind of poppycock.

Scott walked the perimeter of the small room and to his consternation found leakage from a wall. Water was slowly trickling down the foundation reminding him of Johnny’s wound.

Premonition of things to come? Is the wall going to cave in? Memories of another time when he’d been trapped in a room in a line shack abounded. No rafters this time, only a dirt barrier. I need to find a way out and soon. Johnny needs me. I know he does. I can feel it deep in my soul. My unshakable brother is in trouble and that malicious female up there is the cause of it.

He walked the boundary two more times, poking and prodding the earth that was becoming soft mud in more than one place. If the wall gives way will the shack collapse inward on top of me? He examined the top edge corner of the interior foundation where the wood met the dirt and found it crumbling. He checked another corner. Yes, the whole thing can give way.

More than apprehensive now, Scott followed the ceiling around to where the front porch would be located on the outside and found a small hole in the upper wall. Some animal must have dug his way into the cellar. Is it hollow under the porch? Can I dig a bigger hole? He swallowed hard. A tunnel? He moved some of the dirt out of the hole with his hand and examined it. Yes, loose and dry, maybe a bit hard packed. But feasible.

A door banged against a wall up above, catching his attention. Loud voices, all arguing at once, could be heard. Johnny shouted, “Nooo!” Gunfire erupted and the woman screamed. A crash, sounding like a table overturned and something or someone landing on the floor. More thumps, hard breathing, moans and groans, scuffling…then silence.

The stillness was deafening. It stretched out a long time. Scott found himself watching the upper floor as if he could see through it. Finally, he was able to hear low inaudible voices. Then, more quarreling all at the same time making it impossible to decipher what was being said. The door opened onto the porch directly above his head. Footsteps creaked across the floorboards and down the two steps. A horse snorted and then hoof beats leading into a full gallop were heard, as the animal ran from the site.

Scott’s heart was racing, his ears straining for a hint of his brother’s voice, a moan, anything that would indicate Johnny was still alive. Surely his own relatives wouldn’t kill him? But, then look at Cain and Abel.

The back door creaked open and a few seconds later Scott could hear the padlock being unlocked to the root cellar. He blew out the candle, not wanting them to know he had it. Clutching it in his hand, he carefully groped his way to the steps. The brief light from the cellar door turned dark as a body came tumbling down the narrow stairs and collided against him, knocking him to the floor. The door instantly thumped shut afterwards, leaving them in the dark.

 

                                                                        ---31---

 

Murdoch came suddenly awake from a nightmare he was having. It reminded him of the night Maria was killed. The same urgency to act filled his being.

He was more than disgruntled that Teresa and Maria, his longtime housekeeper and friend, had made him take a nap in the middle of the afternoon.

“For heaven’s sake I just woke up from a week’s long snooze. Why do I need more sleep?”

He had lost the argument because of Sam’s orders. “You need to gradually get back into the swing of things, not go whole hog back into your old way of life. You have two boys that have done a bang up job taking care of the ranch. They’re young and you’re not. They are handling the responsibilities just fine.”

“Something’s wrong. I just had a premonition about the boys,” he told Maria, as he climbed out of bed. “Hand me my clothes and get out.” Thankful Murdoch was in a nightshirt she hurried to the wardrobe to do his bidding.

The kitchen door slammed and a disheveled, soaked to the bone Jelly puffed his way up the backstairs, nearly crashing into Murdoch at the top of them.

The little man wheezed, “We got trouble boss.”

“Go on!”

“McGovern and some sot, I swear hissed like a snake, nabbed me at my horse by the mine. They took me to the shack in yer experiment field and made me silently wait outside fer what seemed like hours.”

Murdoch impatient, but needing to hear Jelly’s tale, urged, “Hurry man.”

“They got tired of waitin’ and busted into the place and demanded to know if Johnny knew where some promise note was.”

Murdoch stiffened and dreaded hearing the rest. Jelly adverted his eyes as he continued the tale.

“They pushed me down on the floor and said they were gonna shoot me, but Johnny drew on ‘em.”

He shifted his eyes to Murdoch’s. “McGovern’s dead and the snake person got clean out the front door. Some fancy gent dressed like a gambler and a floozy of a woman remindin’ me of a black widow, attacked Johnny during the ruckus. Johnny held his own for a time, but the blood he’d lost slowed ‘im down.”

At the worried and confused look on his boss’s face, Jelly clarified, “Johnny got stuck by some knife-weldin’ hardhead.” Jelly heard Murdoch’s indrawn breath. “He’ll be alright, though the cut’s laid wide open, but Scott said the giant can sew ‘im up…”

“Jelly!”

Murdoch’s use of his name sounded full of exasperation and the ranch hand swallowed hard, “I tried to yank the lady that was no lady off ‘im, but she bit me and kicked me. I hope she doesn’t have rabies…” He heard a strangled moan from Murdoch and hurriedly went on.

“That snake feller slithered in the back door and clobbered Johnny from behind. I was holdin’ the woman off ‘im.” Jelly took in Murdoch’s pained expression of disbelief and ranted, “Between the gambler dude and the snake varmint…they…” At Murdoch’s stormy expression and tightening of his mouth, Jelly ended the tale with his small shoulders slumped, “They worked him over pretty good and they want the promise note or they’ll kill Scott and...”

“And what!?” boomed Murdoch, visibly upset.

In a small voice, Jelly concluded, “They’ll make Johnny wish he’d never been born.”

Murdoch closed his eyes for a second and murmured, “Will it ever end?”

“What boss?”

Jelly watched as Murdoch pulled himself together. It was in the way his boss stood and the stoic expression on his face. When Murdoch sternly issued his orders, Jelly had no more doubts.

“Jelly change out of those wet clothes and get our raingear and my gun. Saddle my horse.”

“But, boss ya ain’t ready yet to ride a horse with that head wound and all.”

Murdoch, already tired of hearing that phrase, barked, “Then hitch up the buckboard, but move it!”

Jelly literally ran to do his boss’s bidding.

Murdoch backtracked to Johnny’s bedroom. Walking by the nightstand he noted his son’s baby book lying under the epic Scott had given him. He wrenched the attic door open and took the steps two at a time. Coming to an ornate black trunk with silver trim, he opened it and pulled out a hat box, then slammed the trunk lid closed. He was down in the kitchen at the long table by the time Jelly came from the great room, carrying Murdoch’s slicker and gun belt.

“All ready boss.”

Noticing the open box full of carved wooden horses, Jelly gave a weak smile. He watched as his employer worked at peeling an inner layer of the lid apart. Curiosity getting the better part of him, he asked, “What’s all this?”

“Johnny’s childhood before Maria kidnapped him,” was the terse reply.  Murdoch pulled the velvet material back from the lid and an envelope and a piece of paper fell onto the table.

Jelly recognized the folded vanilla-aged paper immediately. “My deed to the mine. Johnny said he hid it where the sun don’t shine.”

“Kind of sardonic considering this promissory note is worth quite a bit of money,” stated Murdoch, stuffing them both into his inner vest pocket.

“Well, that deed’s nothin’ but a jinx. I’d just as soon as burn it,” complained Jelly, shaking his head.

“You can do it when we get back” rumbled Murdoch, as he snatched his rig out of Jelly’s hand and put it on. “Now, let’s go,” impatiently said Murdoch, grabbing the slicker from Jelly’s hand and putting it on while walking out the door. A few seconds later, they were on the buckboard heading towards the Lorelei and the shack in the middle of the special feed field.

 

                                                                        ---32---

 

Scott worked his way out from under the still body on top of him, then fumbled for a match inside his coat pocket to relight the candle still in his hand.

Once that was accomplished, he gently turned the body of his brother over onto his back. Scott quickly took note of Johnny’s injuries. They beat him. Of course they did. Johnny wouldn’t go down without a fight. His left eye is swollen and well on its way to becoming black and blue. And what are these? The slap marks I heard? Oh Johnny, she wangled you a good one, didn’t she?

He got a whiff of the iron smell of blood even before he moved his hands down to untie the knot of his saturated navy blue shirt. Scott worked at the snug blood soaked knot, wishing he hadn’t tied it so tight.A strong tug by his thumb and index finger loosened the knot so he could then pull it apart.

A set of swollen bruised knuckles covered his hand and he glanced upwards at Johnny’s face to see his brother observing him from under hooded eyes.

“Leave it Scott…I’m okay,” he softly said. By the inflection of his tone, Scott got the impression that his brother felt he didn’t deserve the attention.

“Nonsense, you’re bleeding copiously.” Scott heard his brother grunt.

Johnny didn’t know what the word, copiously, exactly meant, but figured it wasn’t good. Doesn’t matter. Nothing matters anymore except getting Scott out of here. If I’d only known, I would’ve given ‘em what they wanted a long time ago. Blood on my hands…again. Please don’t add my brother’s blood too.

Lost and defeated, he felt like he was eleven again, as he had walked back to the rancho. Johnny bleakly said, “Some gunfighter I am.”

Scott amended, “We are. Some gunfighters we are Johnny.”

“Not your fault…Scott,” flinched Johnny, as Scott wiped down the knife wound with his ruined shirt.

To Scott’s frustration, it didn’t do much good as drenched as the material was with blood. Unbelievable, the packing’s still there, but completely soaked. And what happened to the towel I’d used for padding? Had it slipped out from under the shirt or been torn out? The beating they gave him ripped the wound wider. I’d give anything for some more whiskey.

Not liking the despondency of his brother, Scott said, as he wrung the blood out of his shirt. “Johnny, I’m the one that opened the door, so stop doubting yourself.”

Confused, Johnny asked, “Opened the door?”

“A lone woman knocked on the door, acting like she was in distress. I’m from the east. We men open doors for women in trouble.”

“I’d a slammed it in her face,” stated Johnny, frowning as Scott unbuttoned what was left of his shirt.

That sounds more like the brother I know and love. “You would, wouldn’t ya?” teased Scott, as he pulled one of Johnny’s arms out of the sleeve, then the other.

“Darn right, I would’ve.” A few beats later, he did a complete about face. “Oh Scott, if ya only knew what she told me,” moaned Johnny, letting his brother do whatever he wanted to him. “I feel so…worthless…”

Worthless? Scott was totally incensed. What happened to my vibrant brother? Where’s the fire and grit? What kind of a tale did his aunt spin to tear him up so inside? It looks like she unsettled him pretty good. He should know better. But, they’re family, his only family on his mother’s side. He desperately wants to believe in them. He needs their acceptance. Something he’s been denied his whole life.

Annoyed that Johnny’s aunt had conned his worldly brother so easily, Scott literally yanked the shirt out from under his sibling’s shoulders. Scott then gathered the ragged material into a thick pad and placed it on top of Johnny’s wound and exerted pressure. He reined in his temper when he saw Johnny wince and bite his lower lip. “You’re not buying into what they said up there?”

“It’s the truth…she said she wouldn’t lie…I’m only worth the money my mama would’ve of gotten if she hadn’t been killed.”

“Hogwash!”

“Mama only took me…to ensure the fact…that she’d get the dowry money when I turned three…but it didn’t work out that way.”

“What dowry?”

“The one that mama and Murdoch would’ve gotten when they married. Grandpapa Madrid was a rich and religious man and he punished them for creating me before the weddin’ vows.”

Johnny stopped talking and turned his face away.  Scott was pretty sure Johnny was reliving the conversation he’d just had with his aunt. Then, he heard the most wretched thing to ever come out of his brother’s mouth.

“Mama tried to abort me…but, I was too stubborn to die…”

Appalled, Scott was totally speechless. No! Please tell me she didn’t make him feel guilty about that? Surely his mother didn’t hold that against him during the innocent days of his life? She couldn’t hate him for that, could she?

Johnny turned his head back and emptily looked at his brother. “Murdoch didn’t know.”

Scott was so enraged he wanted to kill the bitch himself. He wasn’t sure if he was thinking of Johnny’s mother or the woman who was filling his brother’s mind with poison. He actually pictured himself strangling one of them. How much guilt had they heaped on him? Everyone wants to be born and to live. It’s their God given right!

Johnny went on unaware of his brother’s inner thoughts. “Grandpapa Madrid was gonna settle it on me at the age of three. All mama had to do was present me to him. Murdoch had been against it because he didn’t want the money. Said it was blood money.”

Johnny felt Scott tie his navy shirt back around his ribs. It was too tight and it hurt, but he didn’t complain. “My grandpapa took one look at me when mama introduced us and…rejected me.”

Johnny turned his face away from Scott and closed his eyes. He didn’t want Scott to see his shame. Even Grandpapa Madrid didn’t want me. I remember him bellering to get me out of his sight. There was something about blue eyes and walkin’ across his grave. I reminded him of someone. Grandmama maybe? Such a long time ago.

“Did Rosa Reyes tell you all this?” clipped Scott, still hot under the collar at how easily Johnny’s aunt was manipulating him. She’s feeding him a silken line of bull to make him feel guilty and give up the money that is rightfully his…and she’s browbeating him in the process. Why? Wasn’t Johnny’s mother’s condemnation of him enough? How long does he have to pay for being born?

“Yeah, she did. Turns out, grandpapa was mad at mama. She’d left Murdoch and was living in sin with the gambler, who was married to her sister.”  

“Grandpapa knew my mama wanted to live independent and because she was married she could with no one to gainsay her. So, to punish her again he changed the dowry money into a promise note and made the payout date on my twelfth birthday and sent the paper to Murdoch to keep...”

“So that way she would have to contact Murdoch to get the note in exchange for you,” surmised Scott.

Smart man, his grandfather. He ensured Johnny would remain with his mother during his tender years. Then, when he was old enough, he’d go to Murdoch, his father, for his formative years. The theory looked good on paper, but unfortunately the plan didn’t work in practice.  

“Something like that. Ya know I don’t understand this paper stuff much.”

Scott elaborated on the paper stuff. “Most promissory notes have a written promise to pay a stated sum to a specified person, which in this case would be you. Or the bearer, which would’ve been your Mother if she was still alive. Murdoch technically owns the note now as the bearer, but you are of age now, so it’s yours. All notes have a specific date to be paid or can be collected on demand after the payout date. In a nut shell, you or Murdoch could collect the money anytime.” 

Johnny whispered, “Ya know, I’d be as rich as you if I took the money, but I don’t want it…Murdoch’s right. It’s blood money. I don’t want any more blood on my hands…real or otherwise.” He lifted his hands and looked at them, seeing the red stains. “How strange is it that a thousand dollars brought me to Lancer?”

“Brought us to Lancer. Johnny that was fate. A mere means to an end to get us both out here.”

Johnny snuck a peek at Scott and realized he had his brother’s rapt attention, but he seemed wound up. Not understanding his brother’s anger, he took it to heart. I just want ya to hear the story, Scott. I have no one else to tell it to. I desperately need someone to listen to me…just this once. When I’m done, I’ll shut up about it and never bring it up again.

“I think I know how Murdoch must’ve felt and why he rejected the dowry before mama kidnapped me.”

“Why?”

“He didn’t give a hoot about the money. He only wanted mama to love him.”

But, your mother only wanted the money and she married Murdoch to get it. And when that didn’t work out she kidnaped you to ensure that she did get it, but she was murdered before she could collect it.

“Johnny, this story has more holes than Swiss cheese.” Scott pulled his brother into a sitting position. “I want the story from the beginning, but you’re going to have to tell it to me while we dig a tunnel.”

                                                                          ---33---

 

“Dig a tunnel?”

“Yes, in case you haven’t noticed it’s raining outside. The place is old and the walls down here have absorbed all the liquid they can. They’re weak and leaking.”

“It’s gonna flood and drown us?” asked Johnny, anxiously looking around. It was the first time he’d ever been down here. He always avoided the small space like the plague.

“Worse. If the foundation gives way, I think the shack’s going to collapse on top of us.”

“What about the stairs? No way out?” He stood up, climbed a few steps and urgently pushed on the slanted wood door to no avail. Bitter memories assailed him about another time and place as he unconsciously examined his fingers for nonexistent splinters.  

“None. The door is locked tighter than Fort Knox.”

Johnny’s heart rate increased, “We’re boxed in?” His distress was tangible. I have to get Scott outta here. I have to do at least one thing right in my life. They can have the money. I’ll make them a deal. They can leave me here to rot if they just get my brother safely out of here.

“Easy Johnny,” soothed Scott. Boy, his paranoia has him by the short hairs. He’s completely sideways. That she-bitch of an aunt has torn him asunder to press home the advantage.

Scott blotted his hands in the loose soil of the floor, then rubbed his palms together, removing the blood off his skin. He was just about to elaborate on the tunnel when Johnny looked towards the ceiling and took a deep breath.

“What are you doing?”

More than prickly, Johnny said, “I’m gonna make them a deal.” He bent down and picked up a clod of dirt.

“A deal?” repeated Scott, raising his eyebrows.  He watched as his brother threw the hard-packed rock up in the air and caught it with his hand. The second time he did it, the chunk of dirt hit the ceiling and shattered into a million pieces.

“See what’s left of that rock?”

“Nothing,” said Scott, puzzled.

“That’s me.” At his brother’s blank expression, he continued, “That’s all that’s left of me. Nothing. I’ve done nothing but cause my mama and papa heartache. I won’t hurt Murdoch anymore. I’m trading you for the money, then I’m going away.”

“The hell you are!” ardently stated Scott, standing up. He could see his brother was wound as tight as a drum. That bitch of a female has him entangled deep within her web.

“I’ve made up my mind Scott. No more of my family is gonna get hurt by Johnny Madrid ever again. I can’t have your blood on my hands too. I’m gonna get you out of this mess I’ve gotten you into and then I’m gonna…gonna…”

“What? Turn tail and run? Turn into nothing?!”

“Dang it Scott!”

“We’re partners Johnny! You made me a gunfighter, an equal to rival yourself!” Scott slammed his hand down hard on top of a barrel to make his point, his own temper coming to the fore. “And furthermore, we’re brothers! Nothing and no one is ever going to change that…especially…not that…that bitch of a woman you have for an aunt!”

“You don’t understand,” pleaded Johnny, totally miserable. “Murdoch was shot because of me. They have Jelly and I don’t even know if he’s alive or dead.”

He ran an obviously shaky hand through his messy hair, putting it in more disarray. “Any time now, they’re gonna come down here and use you to force me to tell them where that promise note is. And I have no idea where it’s stashed.”

Scott thought, I’ve never seen him so out of sorts. She cold-bloodedly used every trick she could on him. If his mother was even half like her sister…perish the thought. Trying to give his brother hope and ease the burden, Scott encouraged, “Johnny, I heard a horse gallop off. More than likely Jelly was on it.”

“Why?” asked Johnny, no longer able to think straight. He rubbed his sweaty forehead to ease the pressure.

“Obviously, to send a message to Murdoch.”

“How would they know Murdoch was up and about?”

Scott shrugged his shoulders, “Maybe Jelly told them so they’d put you on the fence for a while.” He could plainly see what drove Jelly to involve Murdoch. His brother was more than reeling from the family reunion. The conversation alone has him in a quandary, what alone the beating they gave him. 

Johnny wrapped his arms tightly around his ribs, totally ignoring the pain in his knife wound and everywhere else. “Like I told ya before, they can have the blood money, Scott. They can have it all.”

Scott, at his wits end, clapped his hands and smirked. He couldn’t help it. The emotions and tension was so high he needed to release the stress and capture Johnny’s undivided attention.

He now understood the extent Johnny’s aunt had gone to hurt him. Insight had come upon him from Johnny’s last statement. Oh little brother, how am I going to explain this to you?

Like the lieutenant he’d been while in the Calvary, Scott analyzed the whole scenario.  Attack him while he’s most vulnerable. Make him, a one-time innocent child, pay for their greed and sins. Cast the blame on him instead of themselves. They’d heaped it on strong from the time he was little. Denied him everything, especially love, support and family. Heaven only knows where Johnny would have ended up if his mother hadn’t died. But then, maybe the plan would’ve worked out. Johnny would be with Murdoch and his mother could’ve wallowed in happiness with her ill begotten gains.

As it was, Val and Rico had taken him in and treated him as their own. They’d looked out for his interests. Through them, Johnny had developed a strong sense of right and wrong and no doubt a feeling of belonging.

Now, here comes his mother’s sister wanting another piece of my brother. She’s using his childhood to tear him apart, once again, from the family who loves him. The bearer of the note can collect on demand any time after the due date.

I can only imagine what she said to him upstairs, ‘Let’s make him feel guilty over something he had no control over. We’ll tell him the truth about his mama. Why she didn’t love him. We’ll make him feel so guilty and worthless that he’ll be glad to hand over the note when we’re done.’

Johnny thought his brother was being unnecessarily cruel. He didn’t understand the mocking laughter. He wanted to punch the smile off Scott’s face.

“Why Scott? Why are you making light of this?” In hurt and anger, he picked up another rock and threw it hard into the wall where it bounced back and almost hit him. “I’m trying to save your ungrateful life.”

“And I’m trying to save yours,” answered Scott, putting an arm around his brother’s shoulder. He then squeezed his neck like Johnny usually did to him. It was their way of showing affection to each other.

Johnny, totally unsettled, regarded his brother. “Today seems to be the day for misunderstandin’s.”

“We don’t have a lot of time to discuss this Johnny. We need to be digging that tunnel if we both want to get out of here.”

Resigned, Johnny choked out, “You’re not gonna change my mind Scott on leaving.”

“I want you to think of one thing brother.”

Johnny silently waited.

“What does the words divide and conquer mean?” He could tell Johnny was taken aback by the phrase. “And then apply it to all your aunt told you up there. Hell, apply it to your childhood too.”

Johnny stood in the middle of the dark, dank room with his head down, his thoughts whirling through his chaotic mind.

So my aunt lied after all. She’d blown up the story to her way of thinking…to get me to throw in. But, I know with every lie, with every teasing word, there’s always a thread of truth. That’s why it always hurts when yer at the receiving end of things. Mama didn’t love me, in part, because she knew she was leavin’ me behind. She didn’t want any emotional attachments when she left. She’d just want to cut the cord and go. Why love someone if yer gonna leave? Didn’t matter if ya had a son who had adored her. She was all I had. I didn’t know any better. And what about Murdoch? She hated him because he loved her. Made her feel things she didn’t want to feel. So, to spite him, she made me hate him too. Filled me full of lies and half-truths…just like my aunt did.

                                                                       

 

---34---

 

Scott did a quick glance around trying to find something to dig a tunnel with. Not much here except canning jars, some rusty tin cans, kegs and bottles of chemicals, a few mixing pins, no tools of any type, not even a spoon. He grabbed two empty cans sitting on some dilapidated shelves next to the stairs.

Picking up the candle, he handed a can to Johnny and led his brother over to the wall under the porch. They both could easily see the water oozing from the earthen walls. Small puddles were forming in the dirt floor at the base of each wall.

Scott disturbed, “It’s coming in faster now.”

Setting the candle down away from where the dirt would be flying, Scott started to remove the soil from the small hole in the upper wall by the ceiling. Johnny, his mind still spinning from everything he’d just learned, forgot about his fear of closed in spaces and began to dig also.

One can of dirt at a time made the process slow. The ground under the porch was harder in consistency than the other three walls. They weren’t protected from the elements like the soil under the porch was. Consequently, neither man could dig with their bare hands in the packed dirt.

Scott dropped the can and pulled his knife out of his jacket pocket. Stabbing the dry dirt hard, he was able to break it up into moveable chunks. Then, Johnny used his hand and the can to excavate the dirt from the hole. As time went by, both boys worked in silence, each lost in their own thoughts.

Curiosity eating him up, Scott finally demanded, “Okay Johnny tell me the whole story and don’t leave anything out.”

Enough time had passed and Johnny, somewhat ashamed of his childhood and at how easily his aunt had deceived him, said, “I don’t really want to talk about it anymore.”

“The heck you don’t,” contradicted Scott. “You’ve been haunted long enough about your past and like it or not you’ve dragged me into it. Now, brother mine, out with it.”

“I don’t know where to start,” was the too quiet answer.

“The beginning will work just fine.”

Sighing heavily, Johnny began the story his aunt had told him.

“Maria, my mama, was twelve and Rosa was ten. They were the apple of my grandpapa’s eyes until their mother had a boy and she died in childbirth.

“Like me,” flatly stated Scott, putting his knife away, then picking up the can once more.

“Yeah. But the son got all the attention.”

“Ah oh, I see the green monster coming,” interrupted Scott, wiping his forehead with the dirty sleeve of his coat.

“That and then some,” agreed Johnny. His wound ached something fierce, but he kept on digging. The story was helping him get his mind off his physical problems and, not to mention, his fear of small dark places.

“Well, the girls were difficult and spoiled. Grandpapa was at a loss on how to raise girls and knew they needed a woman’s hand.”

“In other words, he was lost at sea.”

“Yeah,” smiled Johnny. “The only relative was my grandmama’s almost penniless sister who lived in another village. So grandpapa moved them there, paid for their keep and practically forgot about them.”

“I bet that didn’t set well with the girls.”

“Hmm, yes and no. They learned to be independent, but didn’t have money for things girls like.”

“The nonessentials,” interjected Scott. “Let me guess, they had to find a way to make extra money.”

“Sort of. The aunt took them to a cantina where she worked and you might say they learned the tricks of the trade in more ways than one.”

“Oh no,” expounded Scott, trying not to snicker. This is Johnny’s mother we’re talking about. “Your grandfather must not have known about his sister-in-law’s work ethics.”

“Nope, I’d guess not. This is where my mama met the gambler, Raymond Reyes and later in life, Murdoch.” He paused gathering his thoughts.

“Go on,” prodded Scott, totally hooked on the story.

“Well, the gambler taught them all kind of tricks on how to bilk people and roll them without actually sleeping with them. Murdoch had been no different. He was lonely after your mother died. He was away from the ranch and down in Mexico on business. The biggest thing was he had money.”

“Like you’ve said before, money, it’s always the money.” Scott, again, took his pocket knife out of his coat pocket and worked at getting a large stone out of the dirt.

“My mama played him well. Made him feel alive. She tricked him into sleeping with her, except something went wrong and she ended up with…me.”

“Probably Murdoch’s pervasive charm,” jested Scott, only noticing afterwards his brother’s pensive mood.

Johnny hung his head. “She…she wrote letters to her sister all the time about how she hated being with child and that I made her sick all the time.”

How many times did she fly into a rage and pay me back when she caught me watching her? I ruined her perfect body while growing inside her. I remember only too well how persnickety she was about how she looked. The fear, then anger, was always in her eyes whenever she stood in front of the looking glass. Was she afraid that my step-papa wouldn’t want her anymore? That’s a real clinker. He was plain crazy about her and was so jealous of any man who came sniffing around her skirts.

Self-consciously, he gazed up at his brother. “Remember what all Murdoch told me after we read our baby books?”

“Just about her being sick,” answered Scott, throwing the rock on the floor and folding his knife. He put it in his coat pocket and started digging with the can again. “I think he tried to protect you about how she really felt.”

“Yeah, I know he did. But, he has no clue as to what really went on. Mama was sick in a lot of ways.”

“How so?” softly asked Scott, feeling his brother’s pain.

“Aunt Rosa said mama was insanely jealous of me. She hated any attention I got. She couldn’t understand how a man could love his son so much.” But that doesn’t make any sense. Had she felt cheated of Murdoch’s love and attention like Aunt Rosa said? How could she when she hated him? Hated me.

Johnny took in a deep breath and concluded with what was bothering him the most. “She also said I only have myself to blame for my mama’s hatred.”

“Johnny, don’t go there,” warned Scott, afraid of what was coming.

“Don’t ya see? She didn’t like kids and never wanted one. When she found out she was expectant with me she was horrified.”

“Johnny,” pleaded Scott.

“I was born ass-backwards. I tore her up real good. It’s no wonder she didn’t want anything to do with me.”

“Johnny don’t…”

“Don’t what Scott? Do you know what it’s like to watch other kids get hugs and kisses for no reason? To watch them climb on their mama’s lap and have her listen to all their stories? You have any idea what it’s like not to have a mother’s love?”

“Of course I do. I killed my mother. Remember?” It was said with the lowest of whispers filled with regret.

That stopped Johnny in his rant. He’d forgotten Scott never knew his mother and she’d died giving birth to him. Completely contrite, he didn’t know what to say. He could clearly see that he had hurt him.

Reaching out, Johnny grasped his brother’s arm. “Scott, you can’t be blamed for that. You were just a little baby. It was completely outta your hands. She took sick at the end. Things just happen that way sometimes. Murdoch’s told you the story.” Johnny paused, swallowed, and looked up into Scott’s sad eyes with pain and misery in his own. “I’m sorry.”

Scott stared at his brother and knew he meant every word. Not breaking eye contact, he said, “Johnny. Listen to the words you just said.”

He waited, letting his brother recall the words in his mind. Enlightenment flashed in Johnny’s blue eyes.

“Yes Johnny, you too, were just a baby. You had no say in it. Your mother was also sick with a different type of illness and unfortunately it lasted throughout your childhood.”

Johnny closed his eyes somewhat relieved of the guilt he’d carried for so long. Sheepishly, Johnny said, “Aunt Rosa really has a silver tongue and is a true con artist. She suckered me good, Scott. I wonder what else she’s fibbed about.”

“They tell you anything about the night your mother died?” Scott knew he was treading on thin ice, but he needed to know what Johnny’s thoughts were on this touchy subject.

“Yeah, they did.” He was quiet for so long, Scott thought he wasn’t going to say anything more.

“Seems mama was waiting for Murdoch to show up with the promise note. I was to be traded for the money.” Just like ya barter for a horse. Now I know how Pony Alice felt. “One troublesome boy for a lump sum of money. Murdoch never wrote this part in my book.”

“Of course he didn’t. Look at how it’s tearing you up inside now that you found out. He probably didn’t want you to know what lengths he’d been forced to go in order to get you back. And when it didn’t work out there was no point in writing about it.”

“Scott, it’s amazing how you make sense.”

“Go on with the story.”

“Mama had double crossed my stepfather. Told him Murdoch wasn’t due for a couple more days. There was a big poker game that would last all night, so she wouldn’t be missed.”

“But, something went wrong obviously.”

“I showed up at home unexpectantly and seen the wagon was loaded. Like I told ya, she flew into a rage when I found out who I really was. I guess she was terrified I was gonna mess things up for her.”

Johnny shifted positions, his side was killing him. At each movement of his body, he felt fresh blood stream down his side. In a cowed tone, he lamented, “All I was to her was a means to an end.”

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself!”

“I’m not!”

“You are. Now get over it and move on!”

Johnny quit talking and worked faster at getting the dirt out of the hole. He was furious at the world. His thoughts and emotions were in an uproar. Doesn’t anyone understand? She would’ve sold me like cattle. I meant that little to her…but I would’ve gained a father’s love…a love I never lost…and in time a brother’s love too…

As he worked, Johnny studied his brother out of the corner of his eye. Determination was on Scott’s set face to get them both out of there.

He’s as sweaty and filthy as I am. Hell, he gave me the shirt off his back without even thinking twice…his new shirt to boot. He’s taken care of me so many times without complaining that it’s pathetic. I owe him. No, it’s more than that. He’s my brother, the one person besides Murdoch I trust completely. The one person who’d never hurt me.

The tunnel to under the porch was about half done. A man could almost fit through it. Scott glanced over to a side wall and noticed the rain water was leaking at a steady pace now. Clods of dirt were giving way and falling onto the ground. He dropped the can and began to dig faster, using his hands and nails to get more dirt out at a time. Now that they’d gotten the surface dirt out, the loam was softer and more pliable.

Feeling the urgency and tension radiating from his brother, Johnny followed Scott’s lead. Licking his dry lips, he asked with trepidation, “It’s getting closer to caving in?” He silently scanned all four walls and decided Scott didn’t need to answer, it was plain to see.

“Finish the story,” commanded Scott. The tale was getting his mind off the mess they were about to find themselves in. Besides, he really wanted to know the end of the story.

“There ain’t much left to tell. My stepfather filled in the blanks if I can believe his words.”

“Yes Johnny, for a while there I thought they’d pulled the wool over your eyes completely.”

“Well, that’s why I got a level headed brother, to keep me on the straight and narrow.”

“The story,” persisted Scott. He could hear the rain pounding harder against the ground. Won’t be long now and she’s going to give.

“Turns out the gambler saw me crawl under the porch. He waited for mama to come to work and confronted her about why I was home.” Johnny stopped talking again. I still can’t believe I was laid out under the porch, right across the street, when my parents had their reunion without me.

“And?” prodded Scott, still digging as fast as possible and listening to the tale at the same time. Boy, it’s like pulling scared beef out of a gully to get a story out of him.

“Oh, she panicked and grabbed a gun from a customer. I guess in a way I did mess up her plans. She started firing the gun at my stepfather and was totally enraged. Said she wasn’t sharin’ any of the money, and that she’d sacrificed enough.”

The tale was interrupted by a crash of thunder. The water was coming in faster, making one huge puddle on the floor. The boys continued to dig for their lives. They were making headway. The tunnel was almost big enough to fit through.

Johnny picked up where he left off with the story, “She was a terrible shot. When she ran out of bullets, she turned to go and someone shot her in the back.”

“Not the gambler?”

“No. He still denies shootin’ her even to this day.”

“When did Murdoch get there?”

“I guess shortly after the shootin’ stopped. The gambler took off out the back door. He waited till night and took off with the wagon.”

“And Murdoch?”

“You know as much as I do on that end.”

They both feverishly worked in silence for a while longer, then Scott asked, “If the gambler was your first kill, why’s he still alive?”

Johnny, a bit red in the face, “I was a green horse out for revenge. I shot him. He still has the bullet in his chest.”

“No,” exclaimed Scott in disbelief.

“That’s why there was so much blood. He didn’t die. I only gave him a long enforced rest.”

 

---35---

 

A boom of thunder outside reverberated through the land and shook the old shack clear to its foundation. The boys could hear the creaking and splintering of the wood from upstairs. A window shattered apart. Loose lumps of dirt cascaded down the wall farthest from them. The ground was crumbling fast beneath the cabin’s back side where the stairway was located.

The front door banged open above them. Rushing footsteps were heard crossing the wooden porch. The rain beat hard against the boards with some moisture dripping into the tunnel.

“Digging time’s over,” yelled Scott. “You think you can fit through that hole?”

Johnny looked uneasily at the dark, small portal, then at his brother. “You first.”

Scott didn’t argue. There wasn’t time. He had no idea how high the ceiling under the porch was either. His only hope was that they didn’t have to dig to get out from under it.

Stepping into Johnny’s interlaced fingers, Scott was given a boost into the hole. Quarters are tight. Johnny’s going to hate this. He could barely lift his head above the ground, but he was more than satisfied the porch was hollow underneath. Scott turned around in the open space and reached for his brother’s hand.

Johnny had no strength left. Between the blood-loss from the knife wound, the fight, no water, lack of rest and, let’s not forget the whiskey, he was exhausted. He grabbed his brother’s hand and did the hop up as if mounting Barranca. He landed on the edge of the impoverished tunnel square on his open wound. Pain lanced its way through his whole upper body and stole his breath away.

Scott pulled with all his might. He was more than disgruntled to find his own energy was ebbing. How long has it been since we ate or drank anything? Breakfast seems to ring a bell. Well there was that measly half cup of coffee.  

“Come on Johnny, you’re dead weight. I need your help.”

“Trying,” gasped his brother. Johnny weakly struggled to get his legs moving and push his body forward. With the aid of Scott literally yanking on his arm, he succeeded in moving a few inches through the short tunnel.

“A little more,” coaxed Scott, realizing his brother was out of steam. “You can do it. We’re almost there.”

Johnny redoubled his effort and to his amazement and relief made it fully under the porch. One problem down another to go. “Which way…do we head? I don’t see an out.” All he could see was a shadowy darkness all around him reminding him of when he was eleven. His heart was beating faster than the rain hitting the boards above their heads.

I was afraid of that, reflected Scott. “Seems I recall the long porch had some kind of wood skirting around it to keep the animals out.”

“Great,” grumped Johnny, still trying to catch his breath.

A crack of lightening and a roar of thunder sounded in the air. The shack groaned and both boys swore it moved.

Scott desperately scanned their wooden prison. “We need to find the weakest board so we can kick it out.”

“There,” said Johnny, clutching his brother’s shoulder. “Three feet to the right.” A sliver of light shone between the boards.

Scott made his way towards the slit where the wood didn’t overlap and Johnny followed at a slower pace at his brother’s feet.

Lightening sizzled across the sky and an explosion of thunder echoed in the air. The cabin responded by creaking and shivering. The very ground under the boys trembled. Time was running out before the building either sank inward or fell down around their ears.

Scott reached the wood panel and tried to push it out. It wouldn’t budge. He tried to pull it inwards and again it wouldn’t move. Figures they did a bang up job at nailing it in place. Why is it when you want shoddy workmanship you can never find it?

“Johnny, move back a few inches, I need to turn around.”

Johnny groaned and reluctantly moved back so Scott could make the maneuver. “Hurry Scott,” he panted, wiping the sweat out of his eyes. Please hurry.

The shack shuddered verifying the time was short. A loose board fell from the floorboards of the porch narrowly missing Johnny’s head. An overwhelming feeling of fright was slowly taking root inside of him and Johnny had all he could do to keep it at bay. I’ve never panicked in my life, but this is gonna be close. “Scott? Did I ever tell ya I hate dark, enclosed places?”

“About a half a dozen times,” was his brother’s response as he moved into position.

Scott, laying on his back, kicked hard at the skirting and knocked one end of the trim out. Before he could kick it again, the board was wrenched away. In another second, he felt a set of strong hands grasp both his ankles and pull him out from under the porch.

Watching his brother’s quick exit, Johnny didn’t know if it was friend or foe on the other side of the light. He decided he’d better sneak out quietly. Before he could move, another round of thunder resounded in the air. The shack protested by dropping a few more boards from the porch into Johnny’s small space. One particular plank grazed the side of his head. The cool wind unleashed its fury and tore through the opening where the wood had previously been. Cold and dazed, Johnny succumbed to the terror that had been eating at him.

 

                                                                        ---36---

 

“Murdoch!” exclaimed Scott.

In that precise moment, Scott couldn’t say which emotion he relished most. The joy of seeing his father up and about or the relief of being free of the shack. His father helped him to a sitting position.

“Johnny’s still under there,” declared an anxious Scott, as he turned onto his belly. “He’s hurt and can’t move very fast.” He started to crawl back under the porch to help his brother when Murdoch stopped him.

“I’ll get him.”

Scott looked sideways at his father, “But, Murdoch, your head…”

He was cut off by his father’s glowering frown. Murdoch rumbled, “I lost you two once, I’m not about to lose you both again.” With that being said, Murdoch got down on his own hands and knees while Scott rolled out of the way. “When I say pull…”

Scott nodded, wondering if he’d have the strength to do it.

Murdoch wiggled part way under the porch and let his eyes adjust to the dimness. A few beats later, he located his youngest son who looked down for the count.

“Johnny! Can you hear me?”

There was no answer from his son.

He’s in some kind of a stupor. Vaguely, Murdoch remembered a dream from when he had been unconscious. Something about Johnny being trapped under something, hurt and afraid. He’d called out to me in a child’s voice.

Murdoch inched in closer to his son. The fit was extremely tight for the big man. He moved his ankles apart, hitting the sides of the entrance. He was now fully under the porch and didn’t dare go any farther or Scott wouldn’t have the length for leverage he needed to pull him and Johnny out. Murdoch stretched for his son, chagrined to find he was still a few inches short of reaching him.  

“Johnny,” he gently cajoled, “Snap out of it son.”

For the first time since he was eleven Johnny was frozen with fear. He couldn’t explain it in a million years. He could hear the rain pouring down, hitting the ground, creating a weariness within him. His body stubbornly refused to move.

The building overhead moaned as if it was dying. Fine particles of dirt fell from the cracks above him, landing on his bare back, his face and hair. From somewhere inside boards were ripping apart, nails were popping out and glass was shattering. The ground beneath him quaked and his surroundings seemed to be shifting on their very foundation.

Lost in the nightmare of his youth, Johnny was cold, alone and hurt. He could no longer tell what was real and what wasn’t. All he could feel was the darkness closing in around him.

 

“Papa, please find me.”

“I’m here son. Just give me your hands,” firmly instructed his father.

“It’s dark and creepy under here…”

“I know Johnny. Just reach out and give me your hands.”

“I promise, I won’t believe anything she said, if ya just find me.”

“Johnny, you’re not alone anymore. I found you,” insistently coaxed Murdoch, trying his best to remember the lines in his dream. He couldn’t for the life of him understand why this was important, but deep down he knew that it was.

Johnny couldn’t believe he was actually hearing his father’s voice. Did he really find me or is this wishful thinking again? Hoping against hope, that he had really heard his father’s voice, Johnny, in faith, stretched out his arms.

Two strong hands latched onto his wrists and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt his father wouldn’t let go.

“Pull!” shouted Murdoch.

Scott wearily clutched each side of his father’s ankles only to be shoved aside by a pair of huge hands. Tim, the giant Texas Ranger, had taken his place. With very little effort, he pulled Murdoch, who had Johnny by his wrists, out from under the shack.

Val, Matt and Jelly helped them all to their feet. Scott was quickly supported by the two lawmen, Val and Matt. Johnny was wedged between the giant and his father with his arms held in a tight grip by each man. Rapidly, they moved as a group away from the crumbling cabin towards the horses and buckboard beside the corral.  

The cabin seemed to scream when it went down in a splintering of wood. The back side caved completely into the foundation of the cellar, giving it a lopsided look as the windows shattered glass all around the perimeter.

---37---

 

“Well, that’s that,” mourned Jelly, absentmindedly dusting his hands off, then reaching into his pocket for a kerchief.

Scott, cold, wet and shaken, asked, “Did anyone see a woman and possibly two men come out of the shack? They would’ve come through the front door.”

“Ya mean that female that reminds me of a spider?” asked Jelly, futilely wiping his rain soaked face with his handkerchief. “Or do ya mean the man that hisses like a snake?”

“One and the same,” replied Scott, glancing over at his brother sitting mutely on the edge of the buckboard. Tim was already busy untying the makeshift bandage that was around Johnny’s ribs.

Johnny’s face was starkly white except for the bruises forming on his left cheek bone. The light purple matched the color of his naked skin exposed to the elements of the storm. Raised goose bumps were covering his torso and arms as he shivered in the rain. Johnny looks beat. I hope he isn’t in shock, thought Scott, moving in closer to his brother and father.

Murdoch had come to the same conclusion. He took off his rain slicker and wrapped it around Johnny’s bare shoulders.

Feeling the warmth of the oil-cloth rain poncho, Johnny snapped out of whatever lassitude he’d been in. “Murdoch ya can’t give me this. Yer just out of your sickbed. The last thing…”

He was cut off by a glower from his father. “For once, let me be the judge of that!” snapped Murdoch.

Val answered for the lawmen, “No, we didn’t see no one. We just got here in time to help Murdoch pull ya all out from under the mouse trap.”

Murdoch, raptly watching Tim as he examined Johnny’s wound, declared, “There are two dead men in the shack, one of them is McGovern.”

“McGovern?” repeated both Val and a surprised Scott. I guess we never did get around to that part of the story.

Johnny entered the conversation, feeling more like himself now that he was free from the dark shadows of his past.

“McGovern was the land speculator paying Snake to blow the Lorelei. He hoped to put Lancer outta business and sell the land to the railroad.”

“What were they doin’ in cahoots with yer relatives?” asked Jelly, also observing the giant attending to Johnny. Such big hands, but so gentle in touch. He needs to go back to bein’ an animal doc.

Johnny shrugged his shoulders making his bare wound bleed more. “My guess they threw in together. Ya know, scratch my back and I’ll stick a knife in yours.”

The men all chuckled and the giant roared, “Dang it Madrid, hold still! Yer gettin’ blood all over me.”

“Lots of luck with that,” chirped Scott, leaning over Tim’s shoulder. “How is he?”

“Ya did good Scott. That packin’ probably saved him from bleedin’ out.”

“Now wait a minute,” protested Johnny, looking down at his wound. “It’s only a cut.”

“Fraid not, son,” sourly said the ranger. “Snake do this?”

“Yeah, how’d ya know?”

“Hmm, looks like his trademark. Reminds me of a saber cut from my medic days.” The big guy frowned at the memory. “Shove the knife in and turn, so it’ll do the most damage. Yer lucky Johnny he didn’t puncture a lung.” He pulled Johnny’s left hand to the wound and put it on top of his ragged flowered shirt, doubling as a bandage. “Snake must’ve takin’ a liken’ to ya, though I don’t know why,” kidded the ranger.

“Humph,” grunted Johnny. Wanting it to be over with, he snipped, “So can ya sew me up or not?”

The big guy smiled, “I can, but we need to git outta the rain.”

“The mine’s dry,” butted in Jelly. “Course, there’s three dead bodies cooling their heels in there.”

“Three?” asked Val, confounded, standing beside Johnny as the big guy worked on his friend.

“We had a little run-in before this all got started,” said Johnny, flinching, as the giant retied Scott’s shirt too tight. “Geez, I can’t breathe.”

“That’s the ideer,” bellowed Tim. “That way you’ll stay on this here buckboard until I can get ya stitched up and not bleed all over creation.”

“Okay, I surrender!” grouched Johnny, scooting back against the bench seat. He was tired, cold and wet and most of all he just wanted another bottle of whiskey to forget the happenings of the day.

The lawmen mounted up and Val said, “We’ll meet ya all over at the mine.”

Jelly yelled, “Hold up, I’m comin’ with ya.” He quickly mounted McGovern’s horse, which had been tethered to the corral fence, mumbling, “A man needs to know when to git outta the rain. Besides, they’ll never figure out where we stashed those dead guys. They’ll just be stumblin’ around in the dark…” That was the last the Lancers’ heard when he rode out of sight.

 

                                                                        ---38---

 

Murdock folded his arms and studied both of his wet and filthy sons with a slight grin on his face. “You boys really are a sight for sore eyes. You have anything you want to say before we join the others? Anything I need to know?”

With a look of mirth in their eyes, Murdoch saw them exchange glances.

“Nuttin’ needs sharin’ right now Murdoch, except I’ve never been so glad to see anyone in my life.”

“That goes double for me,” quipped Scott. “We have a long story to tell you, but it can wait for a bottle of brandy and a roaring hot fire…and maybe a bath.”

“What for?” questioned Johnny, holding his hand out. “We’re already getting a shower.”

All three men laughed and Murdoch started for the corral gate. “I’ll get Barranca and Buster.  You can drive the team, Scott.”

“In a minute. I’m going around to the back of the shack to see if I can find my hat and gun.”

“You can’t be serious?” asked Johnny, a tad worried. “You’re not going back in that ramshackle place?”

“No, I haven’t taken a leave of my senses…yet. Your aunt made me take my gun belt off in the feed shed. That’s where your stepfather hit me too. See?” pointed Scott at the small shed in the back of the ruined shack. “It’s still standing.”

When Scott was almost behind the building, Johnny yelled, “If ya see mine…”

Truth was Johnny didn’t know where his gun was. He remembered leaving his hat on his saddle horn though now he couldn’t recall why. Something about wanting to wash the blood off. He looked at his hands covered in dirt and his own blood. More blood on my hands. Dang I hate the feel of it. The smell of it. He held is hands out, palm side up, hoping the rain would wash some of it away.

Johnny thought hard about his gun. It has to be in the shack. He felt his rig still fastened around his hips. So much commotion when they’d busted in the door. Snake demanded the promise note. I remember drawing on McGovern and his man when they were gonna shoot Jelly. I had no choice. I was literally overpowered in the fracas. I still managed to get a few good punches in before they took me down. He actually smiled at that.

A nicker at the gate drew Johnny’s attention. “Hey, Barranca.” He wished he could move to pat his horse, but his father was giving him his sore foot look, which meant, if he so much as scooted an inch…

“Ya enjoying the shower Barranca? I see it washed some of the red stains off your coat. Of course, you’ve been out here a long time. Ya look much better in gold. Gold is positively your color.”

Murdoch chuckled at that as he brought both horses through the gate. “Looks like the rain is going to let up soon. I can see the sun’s rays to the west.”

Murdoch tethered Buster to the end of the buckboard while Barranca visited Johnny. “Hey, my hat’s still on the horn.”

Petting Barranca on the muzzle, Johnny leaned over and moved a few inches closer to his horse, grabbing his waterlogged hat and putting it on his head. As if it’s gonna do any good. His father, standing next to Barranca, cleared his throat. Johnny heavily sighed, getting the point. While patting his horse, he absently watched Scott slowly come around the backend corner of the tumbledown shack.

Something caught his eye in the way Scott was walking. It just didn’t feel right. I see he found his hat, which is now on his head. His gun belt with his Colt is wrapped around his hips. What’s off? Johnny closely honed in on his brother’s stride. He’s walking slower than usual and his hands…his hands are up and not relaxed.

“Murdoch. Give me your gun,” he swiftly ordered.

“What? Why?”

“Just do it. Hurry,” was the hushed reply.

Murdoch, totally trusting his son’s instincts, quickly did so, then nearly stopped breathing.

Scott went around his horse and walked up to the buckboard. “Johnny, I found your gun.”

 

                                                                        ---39---

 

From behind him, Rosa Reyes, holding Johnny’s Colt practically in Scott’s back, made herself known.

“Murdoch,” she tweeted, as if it was an every Sunday morning polite greeting, “Johnny.”

Again Johnny would have spit, but his mouth was too dry. “Aunt Rosa,” was the cold, bitter address. He didn’t move from his sitting position, indeed he didn’t even tip his head in the way of courtesy. What’s she up too? What kind of flim-flam is she gonna pull now?  Instead, he kept Murdoch’s gun aimed square at her head.

At Johnny’s lack of warmth, Murdoch broke out of his inertia and said to his son, “Is that what she told you?” He actually had a smile on his face that didn’t reach his perceptive eyes.

Johnny, not so sure about anything anymore and with the words divide and conquer ringing in his ears, flatly replied, “Yeah.” His gun hand didn’t waver. If nothing else, his fingers tightened on the butt. Warnings went off in his keen mind that nothing was as it seemed.

Murdoch turned slightly towards the woman, dressed all in black with red trim, reminding him of a black widow. Jelly called the tune right on that one.

“So you finally came for the money?” wryly asked Murdoch, moving in the woman’s direction.

“The money’s mine!” cried Rosa. “It was all mine until he came along!”

They all knew who he was and Johnny licked his lips. 

“You know, you could’ve done this civilly?” Murdoch glanced at his younger son, noting the deadly gleam in his eyes and the barely visible tenseness of his body. “I’m not speaking for Johnny, but I think he would’ve made a deal with you.”

“The only deal I’ll make with her is with this gun if she doesn’t take that Colt out of my brother’s back,” acidly demanded Johnny. “What’s a little more blood on my hands?”

“All right,” agreed the woman, surprising them all by laying it down in the bed of the wagon. Scott hastily picked up the weapon and moved to stand between the corral fence and his father, giving Johnny a clear shot at the menace in black.

Murdoch took a couple steps forward to stand in front of the woman. He slowly looked her over and decided she hadn’t changed much over the course of time. Still beautiful as ever.

“Did you bring it?” she anxiously asked, unable to contain her enthusiasm. The sparkle and greed shined in her eyes.

“Yes,” said Murdoch, disgusted.

Scott still wanted to strangle her for all she’d said and done to his brother.

Johnny just wanted to spit.

Murdoch pulled out an aged manila envelope from his vest pocket. The writing on the front was still clear as the day he received it and addressed to Johnny Madrid Lancer. The stamped seal on the back remained unbroken. The envelope had never been opened.

Rosa’s eyes widened and lit up even brighter than a moment ago when she recognized the handwriting of her father. “At last,” she breathed, as she reached for the stationery.

“Not so fast,” stated Murdoch, his face grim.  His eyes went to Johnny, who was now on his knees in the back of the buckboard. “I think Johnny should see what’s in here first.” He extended it to his son.

“No,” refuted Johnny, emphatically shaking his head. “That’s blood money. I don’t want it. I don’t want anything to do with it now or ever!”

“You heard him! Give it to me!” screeched his aunt.

“Johnny, it’s important you know what you’re giving up,” sternly stated Murdoch, his hand still extended.

“No. I don’t want to know. I’m content with what I have. I’m happy with my life and family.” Johnny pushed the hated envelope away from him, but Murdoch was insistent, though secretly pleased with his son’s declaration.

“Read it!” he barked.

Not understanding his father’s dictates at all, Johnny snatched the envelope from Murdoch’s hand and reluctantly tore it open, taking out a single thin parchment of paper. It was, without a doubt, a promissory note written in old Spanish. With trembling hands, Johnny slowly read the much sought over document. He didn’t understand most of the old words or the formal phrases, but he was able to pick out his name and the amount of money involved. When he was done, he handed it to Scott, then burst out laughing with gut wrenching amusement.

“What’s so damn funny?” snipped his aunt, itching to grab the document from Scott’s hands.

Between gasps of glee and holding his ribs, for the mirth pained his tightly bound wound, Johnny replied, “I think…if I figured it right…in American money…I’m worth about…about five hundred dollars.”

“What?” shrieked Rosa, yanking the old parchment from Scott’s hands and ripping it nearly in two in her haste. Her eyes grew twice their size and she swore, “No! This can’t be! There’s supposed to be thousands in here. That’s my dowry money! That wily old fox! Damn him anyways!”

She glared at Murdoch with daggers in her eyes. “This is all your fault!” she screamed, pounding on Murdoch’s chest with her fists. “You and that whelp of a son!”

Johnny quit laughing. Soberly, he nudged his silent wide-eyed brother to give him his Colt in exchange for Murdoch’s white handled gun.

In a low whisper, Johnny asked, “Who does she remind you of?”

“Zee,” was Scott’s quick reply. “She bit me and kicked me too.”

Both boys, at a complete loss on what to do with a cantankerous woman, watched helplessly as their father brought her under control with a long kiss.

When the kiss ended, Murdoch received a slap across his cheek for his trouble. Johnny snickered, recollecting all too well how it felt.

Scott asked, in a hushed tone, “Why’d he kiss her?”

“What else do ya do with an unreasonable female?”

Both boys grinned until a shot rang out from beside the destroyed shack and caught the woman high in the right shoulder.

Murdoch pulled her against him as he knelt down and protectively held her in his arms.

Johnny, still on his knees, instantly fell forward onto his stomach as Buster moved to the side of the buckboard. Johnny, his view now clear of the horse, fired three shots at the man beside the rickety shack. A second later his stepfather fell to the ground. Johnny emptied out three shells with the other spent ones from the gunfight he’d had earlier with McGovern and his man in the shack.

Scott crouched beside the buckboard’s back wheel, in front of Barranca, and ordered, “Stay where you are! I’ll check him out!” He then slid by Johnny’s aunt in Murdoch’s arms and ran towards the downed man.

Getting back up on his knees, Johnny scanned the area while reloading his gun, seeing no one else. Is Snake out there too? Again his eyes darted in all directions through the misty wetness, taking in every nook and cranny of rock, scrub bush and the growing experimental feed, in the surrounding fields. In the distance he could hear the special cows bellowing, startled by the noise of the unexpected gunshots. 

“Oh, my stars and garters,” gasped Rosa, looking coolly up at Murdoch’s face, her eyes sparkling with unshed tears. “He was always so jealous of you.” Blood was streaming down the back of her arm.

“Shh, don’t try and talk, honey,” soothed Murdoch, gently moving some hair out of her face. He pulled out his handkerchief and sat her up against him. She groaned at the movement. Because of the heavy black material of her dress, Murdoch couldn’t tell precisely how bad the wound was, so he put pressure on the ripped cloth to slow the flow.

Honey? Johnny, disturbed by the endearment, dropped his eyes to the sad scene below him. I didn’t hear that right. It can’t be.

Once more Johnny swept the area with his intense eyes, coming to a halt on his brother. Scott slowly stood up and shook his head negatively at him, that the man was dead.

There’s no satisfaction in the kill this time. If anything, I feel...what? Regret? Sick? He just shot my aunt. I had to do what I had to do. So why do I feel so…conflicted? Maybe because Reyes was once upon a time family? Well it didn’t stop me before. He was my first supposed kill. I didn’t feel guilty back then, I felt justified. So what’s the difference? Maybe the hot revenge back in the day has become cold over the years?  He climbed down from the buckboard and knelt down in front of his father and his aunt.

The woman sneered at him through gritted teeth, “You killed him didn’t you…you son of a pup?”

Johnny simply bowed his head and wrapped his arms around his ribs. What can I say? I killed the man she loved…again.

Murdoch answered for him, “He had no choice. Raymond shot you just like he did Maria.” He checked the bleeding. It seemed to be slowing.

The woman had the nerve to giggle. In a voice neither Murdoch nor Johnny had heard in years, she said, “My sister, Rosa and I were such fools. We both fell head over heels in love with the same man at an early age.”

Scott caught the statement, as he knelt down beside Johnny, who noticeably tensed at the declaration. Both boys instantaneously moved their eyes to Murdoch’s stunned face.

Johnny, completely unsettled, shook his head in denial and mumbled under his breath, “Mama?”

 

                                                                        ---40---

 

“I told you I’m not your mama, boy!” shouted the woman, sounding just like his Aunt Rosa, disturbing all the men. She brought her other hand up and tried to clutch her shoulder. Murdoch stayed her hand with his big one.

She giggled again at all of their shocked expressions. “You didn’t know? Never figured it out?”

No one replied. After a beat, Scott finally said, “Why don’t you enlighten us?”

“Nothing like a deathbed confession, huh, Maria?” giggled Rosa.

“Sure thing,” answered the woman, using Maria’s voice.

“Multiples,” breathed Scott, more than excited. “The gunshot wound must be bringing them out.”

Thinking his brother had gone loco and that the woman was more than touched in the head, Johnny, totally uneasy, asked, “Multiple what?”

Murdoch broke in with, “I’ve heard of it, but never thought it was true.” He checked the bleeding again. It had stopped.

“Multiple what?” asked Johnny again, apprehensive of the unknown malady.

“Multiple personalities,” answered his brother, as if that explained everything.

Now that the bleeding was controlled, Murdoch tore the back of her dress open at the bullet’s site. Why it’s just a graze across the back of her shoulder. Reyes must be a poor shot. I wonder if he really was aiming at me and she got in the way by accident.  He followed the shallow wound and found an exit hole in the puffy material at her shoulder. While he was at it, Murdoch took the opportunity to check for any scars from old wounds on her back, and found none. At least one question is answered. He breathed a sigh of relief. He negatively nodded at Scott, who had been watching, and he was reassured also.

“Oh, it’s true all right,” twittered the woman, as if it was an everyday occurrence to share her body with another woman. “You see, Maria had a big argument with the gambler before he left for an out of town game in the States.

“And to prove to myself I didn’t need him, I went looking for a man…a real man and found you, Murdoch,” said the voice from his past.

Murdoch, turning white as a sheet, swallowed hard.

The creature went on in the voice of Maria, “You wined and dined us so nicely. Simply swept us off our feet in a whirlwind romance.”

Rosa said, “The offer of moving to California and getting out from under our condescending father was a dream come true.”

Maria stressed, “And the dowry would’ve been ours except for the likes of him!”

“But, he’s our son,” angrily protested Murdoch. “He’s innocent of your hatred.”

“Maybe so,” weaseled Maria, “but his birth cost us.”

“Because, I was born ass backwards?” flippantly questioned Johnny, shaken to the core of his being. Inside, he had all he could do to control the heartache of his mama’s rejection.

“Yes,” icily spat his mama. “After your breech birth the damage was done and we couldn’t have any more children.”

“You mean with my stepfather?” coldly clarified Johnny. All this time she hated me because she couldn’t have another child to give to the man she really loved. She never got over the fact and held it against me. It really was all my fault…

He brought his eyes up to Murdoch and saw the same pain reflected in his father’s eyes. Sickened inside, he hung his head. Wednesday’s child is full of woe. Ain’t that what the nursery rhyme says? The same verse you wrote in my baby book? Oh Murdoch, maybe it’d of been better if I’d never been born. She’d have still left, but it would’ve been done and over with.

“Well, I certainly wasn’t going to have any more kids with your father!” Maria said cuttingly, making Johnny cringe.

Scott was simmering inside. She’s conning Johnny again. I can see the self-condemnation on his face. He’s taking all this malarkey to heart once again. He’s too close to the picture and can’t see it objectively.

Again, Murdoch unknowingly drew the same conclusion as his son. She’s sucking the life right out of Johnny. I’ve never seen him so low.  

Scott interjected, “Even though you couldn’t have any more children, you ran off with the gambler anyways,”

“Yes,” she grimaced, feeling the pressure of Murdoch’s hand on her back, as he roughly stuffed his neckerchief inside her dress. “I found it was better to live with the man I loved, than not to have him at all.”

The intriguing creature became silent. She supported her wounded shoulder by grasping the elbow with her good hand. The pained look had left her face to be replaced by various conflicting manifestations as if the two fiery personalities were fighting within her.

While the woman was quiet, Murdoch picked her up and set her in the back of the buckboard. He stood on one side of her supporting her body against his chest while his sons took a position opposite him and Barranca.

Scott leaned against the edge of the wagon and picked at a dirty finger nail, cleaning it with another. He mulled over everything he’d witnessed so far, applying what he’d learned in his psychiatry studies at Harvard. Who is the dominant personality?  Adjusting his position, he rested his arm along the back of the bench seat and slightly leaned over the disturbed woman.

“Am I talking to Maria or Rosa?”

“Maria,” came the answer.

“If you loved him so much, why’d you trick the gambler into believing Murdoch was arriving two days later? Why were you leaving him after Murdoch brought you the note?” asked Scott, curious about the story she had told Johnny.

“Because…” hesitated Maria, a secretive smile crossed her face. “I had my reasons.”

Scott, caught the odd look, but couldn’t read it. What is she hiding? He relentlessly went on. “The wagon was packed and ready to roll. Johnny came home early. Why were you so upset with him?”

Only half listening and lost in his own dreary thoughts, Johnny’s ears perked up at the mention of his name. Why is he hashing all this again? He was about to ask when Scott cut him off with a squeeze to his arm.

With outright cruelty, Maria spat, “He was snooping in my things and found out who he really was. He deserved his punishment.”

“Deserved his punishment?” repeated Scott, completely sickened. “You beat him nearly unconscious and threw him out in the mud! Then disowned him. Why?” asked Scott, his stomach turning. “What difference could it possibly have made? You were meeting Murdoch in a few hours.”

Maria spitefully answered, “I wanted the money, but I wanted them kept apart. I didn’t want them to find each other!”

“Why?” droned on Scott. “This was your chance to get rid of one troublesome boy. You were trading him for the money, your dream was about to come true. Why would you want to upset the apple cart?”

Maria rolled her eyes and forcefully bit out between locked jaws, “To get even with your mother!”

All the men were taken aback.

“My mother?” asked Scott, astonished. “What could she possibly have to do with…you?” A few moments later, he got it.

“You were resentful of a dead woman?”

“Not a dead woman,” she sniped. “A memory. I couldn’t compete. I never even came close.” Her brows snapped together and her eyes positively shot sparks. “The ranch was the most important thing in Murdoch’s life until I had…Johnny. That’s all he cared about! What better way to get back at a man than to hurt the one he loves most?”

“So you took your jealousy out on your own son?” asked Scott, in disbelief.

“To pay them back in kind! Together, they ruined me in heart and body for the man I really loved!”

Scott shook his head, trying to absorb everything she said. He glanced at his pale brother. Johnny was as still as a stone statue beside the buckboard, his face unreadable.

Scott went on, “What were you going to do when Murdoch arrived with the promissory note? Double cross him? Take the money and run? You obviously weren’t going to tell him where his son was. Did you want Johnny to run off and disappear? Is that the real reason you beat him so bad?”

“Yes!” cried Maria, her hands clenched in anger.

“NO!” contradicted Rosa in an ominous voice, she pointed at Johnny, forgetting about her injured shoulder, “she really wanted to hand him, gift wrapped, to his father, so that Murdoch would never forget how much she hated both of them.”

“Why?” asked Murdoch, dumbfounded. “I never mistreated her.”

“Didn’t you?” spat Maria. “You seduced me…got me with child…the wrong man’s child. I wanted to marry Raymond…not you. But, papa wouldn’t hear of it if I wanted the money.”

Scott secretly assumed, probably because the gambler would squander it all away.

“And because I was expectant I couldn’t wait for Raymond to get back from his never ending poker games. My father was a proud man and he was angry that I had shamed him.”

The voice switched back into Rosa’s. “She had no choice, but to carry out the farce of a marriage to you. I thought she was gone for good and never dreamed she’d write and talk my Raymond into going and getting her!”

“So,” wheedled Scott, “she did upset the apple cart?  Your loving husband went and got Maria. Then, a triangle developed and you had to go along with it or be cast aside.”

“That wasn’t it at all!” shouted the irate woman. “Maria wanted to be free of all men! She hated men! She hated being controlled by any man. That’s why she never divorced Murdoch. Why she kept hiding from him. Why she kept the boy until his almost twelfth birthday to get the money and then she’d be truly free to go where she wanted.”

“No Rosa, that wasn’t it at all,” softly corrected Scott. 

“After Maria beat Johnny in a fit of rage, she was afraid Murdoch wouldn’t give her the note after seeing the condition of his son. She went to work at the cantina. Raymond had seen Johnny crawl under the porch and argued about it with her. Johnny thought his mother was leaving the gambler, but in truth, they were leaving you.”

“Nooo!” screeched Rosa, totally irate and taking a swing at Murdoch as he tried to restrain her from getting up and attacking Scott. Fresh blood splattered on his white shirt sleeve.

Johnny, completely bewildered, started to lean over the wagon to help Murdoch only to be stopped by Scott’s hand once more around his arm. He gave his brother a silent, dirty look, only to have Scott’s firm hand squeeze his arm again. Fuming, he quietly asked, “What in the hell is going on?”

“Later,” was Scott’s terse reply.

Johnny shrugged off his brother’s hand.

Murdoch locked the fighting livid woman’s arms behind her back in spite of the bullet wound and forced her to sit, facing the boys.

“Rosa,” softly said Scott, insistently continuing the tale. “You might as well cough up the rest of the story instead of spinning lies.”

“I’m not!” she squealed, trying to break Murdoch’s grip on her arms. Then horror of horrors, she began to cry.

Pain or acting? Murdoch and Scott exchanged glances. Scott hardened his heart. We’re too close to cave in now.

Not falling for the tears, though he gentled his tone, Scott revised the tale, “Maria tricked you into thinking, she, was the only one leaving. When did you figure out Raymond was going with her?”

Heaving out a long sigh, Rosa whimpered, “The money was to be split three ways. Raymond was supposed to come and get me and when he didn’t show up…I went and found him at the cantina.”

“Go on,” carefully prodded Scott, keeping a nervous eye on Johnny. He needn’t have worried, Johnny’s aunt had his brother’s full attention.

“I overheard their argument about Johnny. Raymond was totally riled about Maria’s temper and her jeopardizing the chances of getting the money. He then hit her and said something about wishing he’d never heard of either of us.”

Rosa looked at both boys, her eyes full with malice. “Can you beat that? We give him all our love and he rejects us in the end.”

She giggled again. A strange full bellied laugh followed.

“Maria got mad and pulled a gun from a customer’s holster. Said she was going to fix him once and for all…for all the times he’d hit her…and whored for him…and all the things she’d given up for him. She started firing the gun and missed him every time.”

The woman cackled hard and an eerie laugh followed, then she suddenly went limp, inadvertently breaking Murdoch’s grip. She scrambled off the buckboard and fell onto the ground and moaned, holding her shoulder. More blood dripped from her wound. A few more tears slipped from her expressive eyes. Both Murdoch and Johnny knelt down beside her and Scott stood over her.

“Oh Murdoch, she tried to love you in the beginning. But, it wasn’t in the cards. Too many years had passed with the three of us together. She never got over me marrying the man of her dreams. She wasn’t willing to give up and I had no choice.” She coyly stared each man in the face, then went on, “I waited for the firing to stop, then aimed from the curtained back door…my gun jammed. I didn’t kill her, I swear I didn’t.” She looked helplessly up at Johnny and mesmerized him with her dark wet eyes.

Johnny couldn’t help himself, he reached for the woman that reminded him so much of his mama. He pulled her into his strong arms as she slowly sat up and lovingly gazed into his blue eyes, making him feel loved for the first time by his mama. She reached up and rubbed a red stained thumb gently over his bruised cheek, the same cheek his mama had hit so many times in the past. It’s the first time her touch didn’t come with a price. She gave him an earth-shattering smile. A smile that went all the way into the corners of her eyes, making Johnny wonder if his mama ever looked like this. If only she had smiled at me like this. I would’ve forgiven her anything.

He wanted to believe what all she’d said…that she was innocent…that there were no lies. He wanted to believe in her because she was his mama’s sister. He tried. He really did try right up to the moment when his aunt dug her elbow into his wound and pulled out a knife much like the dirk Snake had used on him.

Scott was quicker and pulled out his Colt. “Drop it!” he ordered not taking his eyes off Johnny’s aunt.

Murdoch, at the same time, furiously grabbed her wrist, exerting bone-crushing pressure to force her to drop the knife, which she did.  He then stood up, yanking her up with him. She screamed in pain and fought to get away. No longer caring if he hurt her more or not, Murdoch held her hands behind her as she shrieked and heaped curses on all of their heads.

Johnny clutched his wound and rolled over onto his side, face away from the spectacle, and tried to bring his pain, both physical and emotional, under control. Suckered again.

Scott, on the other hand, was angrier than he’d been in a long time. Hurt my brother, you hurt me and you’ve more than torn him apart.  He wanted to squash the spider, rub her into the ground until there was nothing left. He cocked his gun. With hate filled eyes, he extended the pistol out until it touched the struggling woman’s forehead. She stopped moving and fear crossed her lovely, but lethal face.

Scott, in a deadly tone, asked, “How’s it feel? How’s it feel to be caught in a web with nowhere to go?”

“What do you mean?” she dared huff.

“This is for all the pain and abuse you and your sister,” he couldn’t bring himself to say the word mother, “heaped on my brother.”

Maria came out again, “You wouldn’t shoot your own brother’s mother. You can’t. He’d never forgive you.”

“Wouldn’t I?” bit out Scott, lowering his gun. “You made his childhood a living hell. You stole him from our father. You starved him, beat him and abandoned him!”

He had the satisfaction of seeing her flinch, but it wasn’t enough. I need the confession.

“On top of all the guilt you put on him for just being born you have the nerve to want the little bit of money his grandfather bequeathed on him.”

She screamed, “The money was ours!”

“No, it was Murdoch’s and Maria’s, then given to Johnny.”

“No! My damn brother got the ranch and the bulk of the estate when papa died. Maria and I were given a dowry to split...a rich dowry.”

Scott obstinately carried the story forward, “But it didn’t work out that way. Instead Maria got the money and your husband’s love. Why do you think she didn’t hit him with a bullet? It was all part of the charade to make you think she hated him. When in reality they loved each other. He was going to join her after she received the note from Murdoch and they were going to leave you behind in the dirt where you belonged.”

“No they weren’t because I killed her! I waited until she ran out of bullets and I had the gambler’s derringer and I shot her right in the back!”

Scott, again, roughly pushed the gun against her forehead. He wanted her to hurt, to be afraid. He wanted her to feel what his brother must have felt growing up under those same circumstances…an innocent child scared and alone. Above all he wanted her fear. He could taste the revenge and it wasn’t sweet. It was cold and bitter.

“I’m itching to pull this trigger. I always wondered how gunfighters felt just before the kill, but now I know. It ain’t pretty.”

“No it ain’t,” said the soft voice of his brother, standing beside him and putting a bloody hand on top of Scott’s gun. “I know what you’re thinking Scott and feeling…and she’s not worth it.” He slowly guided the gun away from his aunt until Scott relaxed his grip on the pistol.

“No, but you are,” countered Scott, reluctantly holstering his gun. He was rewarded with Johnny Madrid’s biggest smile.

Murdoch let out a deep breath that he’d never realized he’d been holding. “Cons over,” he stated to his former sister-in-law. “You’ve stung us enough for one day.”

Still holding both her wrists behind her back with one hand, Murdoch felt her skirt pocket and pulled out a small silver gun. He grunted and to his annoyance his hand shook. “I’d bet my last dollar and the ranch that this is the gun that killed your mother, Johnny.”

Johnny stared at the gun in repulsion as if the weapon was alive. He wanted no part of it. He deeply shuddered just knowing his aunt had it on her person when they’d all been in the shack haggling over the promise note.

“Scott do the honors,” stated Murdoch, his hands obviously full with the now cowed woman. “Give the signal the charade is over.”

Scott pulled his Colt and shot three bullets into the air. A few minutes later, horses could be heard galloping their way.

Johnny, not understanding any of this, got the shock of his life when Raymond Reyes stumbled back to life for the second time.

 

                                                                        ---41---

 

Many hours later the Lancer family with the lawmen were gathered around the kitchen table. Big bowls of beef stew with hot biscuits was the late evening repast.

Tim had given Johnny some soothing-powder mixed in a flask of water, thereby making him drowsy. The medic turned ranger, then cleaned and painstakingly stitched his wound. On his father’s orders, much to his disgust, Johnny was transported home in the back of the buckboard. Resting easy, he none the less slept most of the way there.

Once at home, all the men had washed up for supper and had helped themselves to the big kettle of food simmering on the stove. Sitting down at the kitchen table, they discovered the wooden animals in the hat box.

“That’s my ranch,” stated Johnny, protectively removing the box from the table.

“Ah, come on Johnny, show us what’s in the box,” crooned Val, more than interested in his friend’s childhood. “After all, didn’t I help raise you?”

“Yeah, ya did, Val.” Johnny sat down at the table and set the box before him and his bowl of stew beside it.

“Well, come on then,” coaxed his friend, waving a hand to hurry it up.

“As if ya really want to know,” countered Johnny, not comfortable with the idea. He lifted his spoon with his gun hand and took a bite of food, keeping his other hand wrapped possessively around the box. He was too hungry to take it back up to his room and put it away.

“We are interested!” boomed the giant in a deep voice. In a quieter manner, he said, “There’s nothing to be ashamed of in showing off your toys from your childhood.”

“I’m not ashamed…this is just a…a new notion for me. I mean, I never had…” Johnny stopped and swallowed a lump in his throat. “I mean, I’ve only shown off a gun or a horse before…nothing so…so personal.”

“Personal?” questioned Val. “I’d seen a lot more than that from you Johnny Madrid,” he smirked. “Now getter done. We’re all family and we want to see what’s in the box.”

“You might as well show them,” commiserated Scott. “They’re not going to quit ribbing you until you do.”

“Well…if ya put it that way.” Johnny took the lid off the box and got his first taste of what it was like to share something precious from his childhood. 

A little red in the face, Johnny proudly said, “This black horse is my favorite.” He picked it up from inside the box. “See how he’s rearing on his hind legs, tellin’ all those fillies whose boss?”

The men chuckled and their interest warmed Johnny’s heart.

Encouraged, he brought out the next animal, a roan. Using his imagination, he gave a brief explanation for each critter, thereby weaving a tale. By the time he was done, his whole ranch was displayed on the table with a completed story behind them.

Scott, listening carefully, finally understood the concept of his brother playing in the dirt as a child. Fun. He was having fun even with an old beat up cow and a couple of horses.

Distractedly flipping the velvet material back from the lid, Scott asked, “So Johnny, you never noticed the promissory note when you hid Jelly’s deed in the lid?”

“Nope, can’t say as I did. It was dark when I tucked it in there. Ya did tell me to put it where the sun don’t shine. Remember?”

Scott nodded yes, recalling his backside had ached all night from tripping over the footstool.  

Johnny turned towards Jelly, eating his second bowl of stew. “What did ya do with the deed?”

“I’m gonna burn it when Murdoch gives it back to me.”

A folded piece of paper floated down from above him to land beside his glass of milk as Murdoch walked behind Jelly’s chair. The little man quickly stuffed it in his shirt pocket.

Murdoch, reaching the head of the table, sat down holding a bowl of stew and a week’s worth of newspapers under his arm. Doc Jenkins joined them a moment later with his own bowl.

“Got everything squared away out in the old Spanish guard house?” asked Johnny, starting again on his food.

“They’re about as comfortable as they’re gonna get tonight,” vaguely replied Murdoch, already deep into one of the newspapers.

“What he means,” said Sam, “is their wounds were minor and they’re sore. I cleaned and stitched them up. Considering what all they pulled today, they’re fortunate your father even gave them the basic comforts to sleep on.” He took a bite of stew and groaned in pleasure. Looking up at Teresa, he said, “Oh, this is so good.”

Smiling, Teresa said, “Thanks Sam. At least someone appreciates my cooking.” She ignored all the men’s statements to the contrary, except her husband’s. Matt gave her a big kiss instead.

Sam grinned at their antics and continued, “Furthermore, Mr. Reyes was just plain lucky he only received a head graze and a shoulder wound. The bullet came out pretty easy.”

Johnny snickered, “That and the fact Scott can’t tell a dead man from a live one.” At the time, I was angry enough to have finished him off. Probably a good thing Scott couldn’t tell the difference.

“It was in the heat of the moment,” defended Scott. “It was pouring rain. I was cold, my fingers were practically numb and there was so much blood. I couldn’t feel a pulse.”

“Good thing ya took his gun. I’d hate to think what could’ve happened if he’d come around while we were all jawing about my...mama…err…Rosa and the happenings in Mexico.”

Scott curiously asked, “Sam tell us what you know about multiple personalities.”

“Dang little. It’s almost unheard of.” He lifted his glass of milk and swallowed a sip. “My guess on this particular case is Rosa was eaten with guilt over killing her sister. You all did get the impression the women had a love / hate relationship because of Johnny’s stepfather. That compounded with the fact she and her husband, Raymond, ran off together in the end. Well, I think she just plain missed her sister and unconsciously created her personality to be with her all the time.”

“Or my mama haunted her.” Johnny actually smiled. “I could see her doin’ that.”

“What’s going to happen to them?” asked Scott, buttering another biscuit.

“Hard to say,” said Val, shoveling a spoonful of stew into his mouth.

Tim proclaimed, “It was a long time ago and happened on the other side of the border. I doubt if there’s any witnesses willing to testify.”

“Well, we do have the gun that killed her,” stated Val, “But, lots of luck provin’ it was indeed the one that did the dirty deed, even if we did find it on her person.”

Switching newspapers, Murdoch entered the conversation, “I have the Pinkerton report stating the fact it was a small caliber bullet.”

Johnny surprised, asked, “You have a report?”

“Hmm, yes. While I was down in Mexico I obtained a copy of all the statements given to what law there was at the time. I paid for your mother’s burial and then had the Pinkertons’ investigate the incident along with the whereabouts of a certain lost boy.”

Johnny smiled, “Ya almost found me that night. If only I hadn’t been…”

“Under the porch unconscious,” kindly cut in Murdoch, giving his son a fond look. Turning to Val, who was sitting at his right, he said, “Did I ever thank you for looking out after my boy?”

While he was in the coma, Scott had repeated the story Johnny had told him after they’d gotten back from Stockton. Things are becoming clearer and the secrets I’ve learned…

“Ya just did,” beamed Val, finally understanding the whole story behind Johnny’s abandonment and the part he’d inadvertently played in it. Rico and I had a great time raising the youngster. What a handful he’d turned out to be. But, lookin’ at ‘im now, we done good. Rico must be proud too.

Tim, getting back to the original question Scott had asked, “I see two problems. One, a man can’t testify against his wife.”

“Don’t forget,” interrupted Matt, hearing his brother heave a long suffering sigh, “he just shot his own wife today.”

“Only because he was possessive and jealous of Murdoch kissing her,” stated Scott, observing his father’s face for a hint of emotion.

“Yeah, why’d ya kiss her Murdoch?” asked Johnny, more than curious.

Murdoch gave both his boys, who were sitting beside each other, the one-eyed look over the top of his newspaper. He blushed to a certain extent, surprising his sons. “If you really have to know…I wanted to be sure it really was Rosa and not Maria standing before me.”

“And the proof was in the kiss?” asked Johnny, smirking.

“Well, no woman kissed liked your mother, Johnny. And as you said, the proof was in the pudding.” He cleared his throat, then said, “If you remember correctly, I did check Rosa’s back for any old bullet wounds.”

“Finding none,” professed Scott, a bit red on the tips of his ears. “It was the one fact we needed to be confirmed, so I could proceed with our own humbug caper.”

“You mean conning my aunt to get her to confess?” asked Johnny confused. “How’d ya know?”

Murdoch said, “We didn’t know for sure. But after I buried your mother, I found out her sister and the gambler were married.  They were at this particular timeliving in the same village as you and your mother, just over the border. I heard the rumors…of their relationship…and knowing women…”

“The little green monster had to be involved someway,” concluded Johnny. “That’s why she killed her.”

“Well, there’s that. But when you saw Rosa in Stockton and was attacked by your stepfather, I knew I had to get to the bottom of why they were here. I had an inkling it was over the promissory note I’d put in the horse box for safe keeping. I knew for sure when you both found my desk ransacked.”

“The envelope was unopened, so how’d ya know it was a promise note?” quizzed Johnny, picking up his glass of milk. Still thirsty from the soothing-powder, he chugged it down.

“Your grandfather sent me a separate letter in the same packet explaining why you were getting it and what was in it.”

Finished with his milk, Johnny asked, “So what did you do when I saw them in Stockton and Spanish Wells?”

“I backtracked your aunt’s footsteps and asked a lot of questions. They’d been to the bank amongst other places. Bobby Cooper even told me they’d had supper at his place with Snake, and the gambler had lost quite a bit of money to the man in a poker game.”

“Oh, that explains why Snake wanted the note so bad,” said Johnny. “McGovern must have gone along with him to get it.”

Jelly moaned, “Couldn’t they of just gotten together and discussed this instead of bullying their way around?”

Val smiled, “They did, sort of.” At Jelly’s look of disbelief, he went on. “Raymond Reyes was in fear of his life. After all, he had Snake with a wicked looking knife threatenin’ him fer a gambling debt and no money to pay him. So to stall for time, they told Snake about the promise note.”

“Okay, I get that part,” said Johnny. “How’d ya all land up at the shack?”

“Well, Raymond came and had a talk with me during supper one night at the jail.”

Tim affirmed, “So we set up a meetin’ at the shack. But, it never came to pass because things went wrong when Murdoch got shot.”

Matt confirmed, “Then you, Johnny Madrid, cracked down on everyone living here at the ranch, making it near to impossible for anyone to get on the place.”

“Not only that, but you two actin’ as gunfighters kept the riffraff away,” chimed in Jelly, eating his third helping of stew.

The men all chuckled over that.

“And then?” asked Johnny, pleased with himself that he’d done the right thing.

“Well, we waited,” said Tim. “And this mornin’ Walt told me he’d seen McGovern up at the south mesa.”

“So, we sent word to Val,” added Matt, putting an arm around his wife and giving her a squeeze, as she poured him a cup of coffee.

“I got here and we all knew you both were up at the mine,” stated Val, finishing his coffee. He then held his cup out to Teresa for more.

Jelly butted in with, “I rode with ‘em and broke off a mile from the mine, to come and warn ya about the latest happenings, while the law chased down McGovern.”

“We found his tracks at the south mesa and followed ‘im to the shack, which weren’t hard for the ground was soft from the rain,” emphasized Matt.

Tim picked up the tale with, “Fortunately, we got there in time to help Murdoch pull ya out from under the porch.”

“And unfortunately,” Val frowned and heaved a big sigh, “we, ah, told ya a little white lie on seein’ anyone come out of the shack before we rescued ya.”

“We, ah, pretended we didn’t see anyone else and hoped we didn’t spook ‘em away,” threw in Matt. “We couldn’t be sure if they were overhearing us or not.”

“Sorry, boys, but the sham was suddenly in play, and we high-tailed it outta there and hid as soon as possible,” explained the big ranger.

“Yeah, we didn’t want to blow our one chance of getting her to confess,” said Val, hoping the boys would understand.

Johnny turned to his brother with fire in his eyes, “And you were in on this?”

“Ah, sort of…only when we were at the mine before Murdoch was shot. I was supposed to get you over to the shack so you and your relatives could talk. But everything went wrong.”

Holding his anger in check, Johnny asked, “What about today?”

“Today was totally out of the blue. After you were stabbed, I never even gave your aunt a thought before she showed up at the door. Then, it was too late.”

Johnny felt relieved, though he couldn’t explain it even to himself why he felt that way. He said, “Then things just happened…”

“Yup, they shore did,” agreed Val. “No hard feelings Johnny?”

“No.” He looked around the table at his family and friends. “I know ya had my best interests at heart. I’m obliged.”

“Oh what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive,”* quoted Murdoch, turning a page of a paper. He sat up straighter and grunted, reading out loud, “They tabled the water rights bill until further discussion.”

“Don’t that beat all,” exclaimed the giant.

“Mark my words,” stated Murdoch, “Maybe not in our lifetime, but some day in the future, they’ll pass it.” He put the papers aside and reached for his coffee cup.

“Well,” said Scott, “that’ll at least get rid of the land speculators for a while.”

Val asked, “When’s Rico gonna implode the mine?”

“Soon,” answered Johnny. “He should be here any day.”

“Humph,” moaned Jelly, “That’ll only keep ‘em speculatin’ people away until ‘em Congress do-gooders bring up the water ownership thing again. Then, ya two will be out ridin’ the range as gunfighters again.”

Johnny snickered, “So Golden Garrett, don’t lose yer bright eye-blinding shirt.”

“I won’t. I need something to wear for Halloween anyways.”

Johnny was aghast, “Ya have to wear it more times than that. We always want ‘em thinking we’re protecting the ranch.” He smiled. “Remember Johnny’s rules, never let yer guard down.”

“I don’t recall that rule,” teased Scott. “Was it on the list somewhere?”

Johnny scowled at his brother, “I’m sure it was. Ya just didn’t listen good enough.”

Tim boomed, “What about us? Ain’t that why we’re here?”

“That amongst other things,” threw in Murdoch, looking over at Teresa and Matt with fondness.

“Hmm, yeah, that be true enough,” grouched the ranger. “Now that my brother is married into the family, the ranger business is getting old. I’ve been thinkin’ of going back into the animal vet business.”

“Well, we sure could use more animal docs,” agreed Murdoch. “We only have one veterinarian for the whole valley.”

“So about my Aunt Rosa. What’s gonna happen with her and Raymond?” asked Johnny, not able to let the subject drop.

Val swallowed the last of his coffee in one big gulp, “Well, as Tim said, a husband can’t testify against his wife and I doubt if she’ll press charges against ‘im for shootin’ her.”

“The murder of your mother happened a long time ago in Mexico,” exclaimed Scott, putting his bowl aside.

Dr. Jenkins emphasized his own opinion, “She will probably end up in an institution for the insane where she’ll receive the medical attention she needs.”

That didn’t set well with any of the men.

Seeing their dejected countenances, he continued, “There really is no other choice. She needs help.”

“I know,” agreed Murdoch, hating to see the fiery woman locked up. “But, this is Johnny’s aunt we’re talking about. What can we do?”

Sam huffed a deep breath, “This is relatively a new area of medicine. I do know of one very fine asylum near San Francisco which can treat her.”

Johnny, not happy with the idea, started to get up from the table when his father grabbed his arm and stayed him.

Looking askance at his father, Johnny watched as Murdoch pulled the promissory note out of his shirt pocket.

“Son, I know you don’t want the money, but this could go a long ways in taking care of her.”

Johnny, feeling downcast, asked, “How ironic is that?”

 

 

                                                                        __________

 

 

Late that night, the horse and buggy the Reyes’s had arrived in at the shack were hitched up. A moment later, the luckless couple were escorted to the conveyance. Shoving the promissory note in his stepfather’s pocket, Johnny made Reyes swear on everything that was holy that he would take his Aunt Rosa straight to Mexico…and stay there for the rest of their lives.

Johnny backed the oath up with the promise of his Colt.

“If I ever see you again, I’ll kill ya on sight. No questions asked.”  

Johnny was pretty sure his stepfather believed him. Once they’d noiselessly cleared the arch, Raymond Reyes whipped the horses into a frenzy like the fires of hell were after them and they couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

                                                           

                                                                        ---42---

 

“This is our land. We want you to get off.”

“What ya gonna do Johnny Madrid and Golden Garrett? Kill all ten of us?” heckled Snake, as he and his gang materialized out of the fog across the stream by the mine.

“No,” came the soft reply from Johnny.

“No?” questioned the gunman uneasily. He knew both men were good at their trade. “What ya tryin’ to pull?”

“Oh, nothing special,” replied Scott, with his hand on the butt of his Colt.

Dawn approached in the east. The Lancer brothers were facing west, as they both slowly moved the hammer guard aside and waited for the first rays of light. “Except…”

“They have help,” boomed a deep voice, as a giant of a man with a Texas Ranger star stepped from the shadows of the rocks. Two more men, a little shorter in height with badges pinned on their vests, joined him.

“Dang, Madrid,” smirked Snake. “They don’t look like any gunslingers, I’d ever saw.”

“Maybe not” agreed Johnny with a slight grin, his hand hovering over his gun. “But, they can shoot like one. I can promise ya that.”

“Shucks,” hissed Snake. “Them there guys is the law and if there’s one thing I hate…it’s ‘em shiny stars a starin’ at ya.”

“Yer under arrest,” declared Val, done with the preliminaries.

“What fer?”

“A list longer than my arm,” replied the United States Marshal, his hand resting on the handle of his gun.

“You comin’ in peaceful like or dead?” asked the big guy, backing Val up.

“I call Snake and the guy next to him,” said Johnny, loud enough for Snake’s gang to hear.

“I got the two on the right,” stated Scott, his golden shirt glinting from the first flickers of the sun.

“I got the two on the left,” continued Val, with the game of intimidation.

The Rangers didn’t need to state their preference. Their size and fierce eyes silently said it all to the men standing in back.

“Last chance,” called Johnny, his eyes blazing fire.

“It’s a matter of pride,” answered Snake, as the sun emerged brightly over the horizon.

 

The blast was felt clear to Lancer, almost knocking Murdoch from his desk chair. He sadly shook his head.

Jelly came bustling in, “They just implode the mine?”

“Yeah, I think so,” grouched his boss. He picked up his pencil and tried to concentrate on the books. He was way behind on the entries.

Jelly turned to leave and mumbled, “I wonder if there’s anything left of the ridge?”

“Rico swore he could bring her down with no repercussions.”

“Ya sure?”

Throwing the pencil down, Murdoch growled, “No I’m not sure. Let’s go!”

 

A long while later, they crested a hill and got their first look. The Lorelei as they knew it was no more. In its place stood a huge pile of rubble. The ridge itself, which had stood the test of time, remained the same. Not even a rock was displaced.

Jelly was oddly quiet and Murdoch wondered what was on his friend’s mind. Perhaps mourning the end of a dream?

Murdoch, from his birds-eye view, immediately looked for the colors of pink and gold, spying his sons down by the water’s edge. He and Jelly quickly rode down to meet them.

A grungy group of men sitting on horseback with their hands tied together with a length of rope were ready to move out with the three lawmen. One particular man in handcuffs, Murdoch swore, hissed at him as he rode by. Val nodded as he slapped his filthy hat against his thigh, creating his own sand storm.

The Lancer brothers were covered in a heavy layer of dust with Scott sporting a bloody wound across his forehead. Johnny was trying ineffectively to staunch the blood flow with a light blue handkerchief and at the same time keep his brother still.

“Johnny, it’s only a cut,” protested Scott, reaching up to move his brother’s hand away from the wound.

“No it’s not,” refuted Johnny, stubbornly holding his hand in place. “It’s a deep scratch, but lucky for you Golden Garrett, Tim said you don’t need stitches. So, sit still until it stops bleeding!”

Glancing at the men on horseback and recognizing some of them from the Notorious Saloon, Murdoch asked, “What happened?” He dismounted and dropped Rio’s reins to the ground, then continued with a worried frown, “That’s not a bullet graze is it?”

“No, Murdoch,” answered Johnny, checking the bleeding. It was down to a trickle. “Here Scott, hand me your bandana.”

Scott, feeling foolish, reluctantly did so. “Rico imploded the mine and we got caught in the fallout.”

“Yeah,” spoke Johnny, blotting some more blood from the wound. “Rico didn’t know we were downwind of the mine. He couldn’t see or hear us.”

“Otherwise, it went off without a hitch,” concluded Scott, taking his brother’s ministrations in stride.

“So, I see,” replied Murdoch, getting a charge out of his younger son’s nursemaiding abilities. He watched as Johnny wadded the bloody cloth and made his brother hold it against his head while he tied Scott’s navy blue neckerchief around the padding.

When he was done, Johnny smirked, “Scott, ya look like a pirate now with that gaudy shirt.”

Casting a glare upwards at his brother and squinting with one eye, Scott repeated, “A pirate? Not a gunfighter?”

Johnny smiled, as he knelt down and washed his bloody hands in the water. “Hmm, same difference. The shirt works both ways.”

“I thought you told me the shirt doesn’t make the man?”

“It don’t, but it sure helps,” snickered Johnny, rubbing his wet hands on his pants and standing up.

Tim bellowed, as the lawmen moved out with their prisoners, “We’ll catch ya back at the ranch.”

The Lancers three all nodded.

Snake called out, “Hey, Golden Garrett! I like the bandit look. Ya want to join my gang?” His laughter could be heard until they were out of sight.

Jelly, still mounted on his horse, deeply sighed as he stared at his mine now reduced to a pile of rocks. “Easy come, easy go,” he murmured.

“What’d you say, Simple Simon?” asked Johnny, trying to get his goat.

Jelly took the bait, “Simple Simon? Who ya callin’ Simple Simon?”

“Well, if the shoe fits…” grinned Scott, recalling another time when he and his brother had teased the little man.

“Well, I never…” spouted their friend. “We’ll just see about that,” bellyached Jelly, as he nudged his horse in the sides and headed to the top of the mound where the mine originally stood.

Johnny, running for his horse, “I’ll race ya Scott!”

Scott turned towards his father and asked, “Rico’s waiting. You coming?”

“Yes,” replied Murdoch, watching his younger son leap onto Barranca. “I have some overdue thanks to give the man.”

Scott merely nodded, not completely understanding the statement. A moment later he, too, was running for his horse.

Murdoch chuckled and watched in pleasure as his sons took off after Jelly and raced up the hill.

 

 

~end~
April 20, 2016

Note of interest: A short cross-over from the show, The Big Valley, was used with the character of Jarrod Barkley.

*Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practice to deceive! Felicia Hemans used two lines from Marmion as an epigraph for her poem of 1827, The Homes of England.

Lancer episodes referred to in this story:
The High Riders / The Homecoming
Chase a Wild Horse
The Lawman
The Heart of Pony Alice
The Escape
Warburton’s Edge
The Fix-it Man
The Great Humbug
Juniper’s Camp
Man without a Gun
Zee
The Kid
The Lorelei
The Buscaderos
Lifeline

I also referenced all my own stories within this epic.

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