The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Darla M. Poulos

 

 

Not With My Horse

Beta: Lacy. “I'll say it again. You are the best of the best!”
Becky: “Thanks for coming along for the ride!”

All non-canon characters in this story, Texas Ranger Tim McRafferty, Matt, Leah & Cal Martin, Nate, Josiah Abbott and Tom Stryker. The animals, Pippin, Tab, Buster and Chuck are the exclusive works of the author and cannot be duplicated in any way, shape or form without the express permission of the author. 

FYI: Not With My Horse is part III of a three part story. It can stand alone. But, it does refer heavily back to part I, Nothing Less Will Do and part II, Blazes. For your added enjoyment and continuity, you might want to consider reading them first.

 

Dedication: For all the Lancer Fans

 

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Johnny Lancer, mounted on his horse, immediately pulled his Colt . “What the heck?” He kicked his heels against Barranca's flanks and spurred him forward to get a better looksee down the road.

Johnny had been riding next to a covered wagon driven by his brother, Scott. On the bench beside Scott was Leah, with her son Cal Martin, from Uppity Flats. Cal had his arm around Pippin, a black mixed-breed dog of lab and collie. On the other side of the wagon on a horse was Nate, the unruly kid Marshal Val Crawford had in custody and who was temporarily the Lancer's responsibility. They were in the process of moving the Martin's to the LT. Governor's (George to his friends) ranch and had just turned onto the north passageway, which lead to Sacramento.

In the distance a lone rider, leaning low over his horse, could be seen raising dust as he quickly rode towards them. Farther behind the rider a group of men with guns drawn and blazing were in hot pursuit.

“Think we should circle the wagon?” shouted Scott, as he anxiously watched the rider's approach. He half-jested, for they only had one wagon with his and Cal's horses' reins tethered to the tailgate.

Johnny, incredulously, “Circle the wagons? Scott, you've been reading way too many of them dime novels. Block the road after the rider comes in!” Then he ordered, “Leah, Cal, Nate, get under the wagon when it stops!”

Scott directed the horses to the middle of the road and turned the wagon crossways, leaving just enough space for the rider to pass through between their horses and the mammoth stone walls. He climbed down from the bench-seat, walked to the horse on the left and held the bridle as he waited for the rider to come in. Cal, with Pippin, hopped down from the bench followed by Leah, who stopped long enough to grab her own rifle from underneath the seat.

“Ah, Johnny can't I have a gun?” needled Nate, still sitting on his horse. “Ya know I can shoot! I was a member of the Abbott gang more years than I can count.”

“No! You know what Marshal Crawford said. ‘No gun for No reason!' Now, get down off that horse and get under the wagon!” barked Johnny.

For about the tenth time, Johnny shook his head at Scott. Why'd I ever let you and Val talk me into this? His brother just grinned at him.

Johnny rode his horse to the other side of the wagon, dismounted, looped the reins around the rail of the bench-seat and joined Scott by the lead horse.

The rider was bent low over one side of the horse's neck with his left arm hanging down the side of the animal. As his mount closed the distance between him and the Lancers, the man was close enough for the brothers to see he'd been wounded. His shirt over the left shoulder was covered in red as blood drops flew off him like rain.

More gunshots were fired in the distance behind the wounded man and the rider tilted nearly sideways on his horse. A few yards and closing towards the Lancers, the man pulled himself upright on his horse's back and surprised everyone, including the men chasing him, when he returned fire with his pistol. A man fell off his horse into the dust on the road, slowing the onslaught of the men chasing him.

“Wow! A trick rider!” exclaimed Cal impressed, from under the wagon on his belly, taking in the action. “And boy can he shoot. He's almost as good as Johnny!” The last was spoken with a tone of respect and awe.

Scott nudged his brother, “Nothing like a little hero worship to warm your heart, brother.”

Johnny was disturbed by the statement and didn't respond.

Nate, lying beside Cal, didn't seem excited about it at all, in fact, he'd groaned when the lone rider had returned fire.

The lathered horse and wounded man reached them, passing through the narrow gap between the team of horses and the stone wall which was on both sides of the road.

Scott grabbed the horse's bridle as the brown bay passed by Johnny and himself. The animal dragged Scott a few feet beyond the wagon. Johnny grabbed the team's lead horse and pulled him closer to the stone wall thereby creating a barrier from the oncoming riders. The group of riders, which consisted of five men, came galloping in and stopped a few feet before the covered wagon.

“Whoa boy, easy now,” cooed Scott to the bay as he slowed the animal down. The horse halted, then reared and the rider tumbled to the ground.

Cal snuck out from under the wagon and went to help Scott by grabbing the loose reins. Pippin started to follow, but Cal gave an order of, “Stay boy!” and the dog sat down by Leah who was still under the wagon.

“Cal, get back here!” cried Leah, nervous about the horse's hooves and remembering how her husband had died years ago. A moment later her attention was diverted when she heard Johnny address the group of men.

“Well, now if it ain't the Stryker boys…” bit out Johnny with a sarcastic smile on his face and his Colt pointed in their direction.

Tom and Davie Stryker, with three other men, sat menacingly on their horses watching Scott deal with the wounded man's bay.

“Watch it Cal! He's excited,” cautioned Scott, gripping the bridle tighter to keep the horse from rearing again. The last thing he needed to see was his adopted little brother trampled into the dirt.

Fearless as twelve-year old boys are, Cal started choking up on the reins all the while soothing the horse. “It's okay. We got ya now. Easy boy.” Inch by inch, Cal took in the slack of the reins, “We won't hurt ya. Rest easy. It's okay.”

Scott continued to hold the bridle as he patted the skittish horse on the neck while Cal continued to calm the bay in a gentle voice. Slowly, so not to excite the horse further, Cal held out his hand, offering a lump of sugar. “Here boy. Crowbait, my horse, won't mind sharin.” The bay accepted the treat and Scott let go of the bridle with a sigh.

The wounded rider groaned at Scott's feet, drawing his attention. The man's shirt was blood soaked and Scott couldn't tell where the bullet wound was. He knelt down and carefully turned the man over onto his back, then froze when he recognized him.

“Johnny!” shouted Scott, looking up at his brother, whom he just realized was busy holding off the group of riders with his Colt. Not wanting to distract his brother, but feeling he should know what they both were dealing with, Scott informed him, “It's Matt from Talbot's ex-gang.”

“That's right,” confirmed Tom, holding his gun on Johnny. “We've come to collect him back into the fold.”

“Doesn't look like he wants to be collected,” replied Johnny, tipping his hat back from his face with his gun.

Matt reached up and grabbed Scott by the shirt, bringing him down close to his mouth. “Tell ‘em it's a trap…tell…bro…” Matt's eyes widened when he saw Nate in the background staring at him. More desperate now, he weakly repeated, “trap…don't fall for him…”

“Fall for who?” asked Scott, bewildered. “Matt? Fall for who? What trap?” But, the man had passed out.

At first Scott thought he had died, but then he felt Matt's breath on his face. They were close enough to his brother for Johnny to have overheard the entire conversation.

Johnny played his card, “Looks like the undertaker is gonna be doin the collecting. Your comrade just bit the dust.”

Tom said, “Then we'll just take ‘im off your hands.” He started to get down from his horse.

“I wouldn't!” advised Johnny, pointing his gun squarely at Tom.

Scott pulled Matt over to the wagon and Cal led the still excited bay to get him out of the line of fire. Cal then dropped down beside the wounded man, still holding the reins. Scott pulled out his Colt, then stood next to his brother beside the team of horses.

“You two gonna take all five of us?” sneered Tom. “Ya know, I still have a score to settle with you.”

“Likewise,” stated Johnny. A memory of Scott lying bloody on the livery stable floor flickered through his mind.

They heard a rifle being cocked from under the wagon. “This here Henry Repeater makes three,” said Leah, peeking out from behind a wheel. “I'd just as soon as shoot ya Tom, as look at ya…and ya know I can shoot.”

Tom actually nodded his head and said, “Yes, ma'am, since I'm the one that made the grievous mistake of teachin ya back in Uppity.”

“Well now,” said Johnny. “It's a good day to die. I know I can take two of ya and I'm sure my brother, who was a crack-shot in the Calvary, can take two. And I might miss my guess, but the little lady sure sounds like she can take at least one of ya, so the odds are lookin pretty good…for us. Ya want to go for it?”

Davie, remembering the last time he was shot by Madrid, whined, “Come on Tom. We'll tell ‘em the snitch is dead.”

“Ya know Abbott's gonna want to see the body.”

 Davie, scared of Madrid, “We'll say he fell off a cliff or something.”

Tom, not one to ever back down from a fight, hesitated.

Johnny cocked his gun which was still pointed at Tom. “You'll get my first bullet and Davie gets my second.” The latter moaned.

“I'll take the two on the other end,” said Scott, cocking his gun.

Leah just pointed her rifle at the middle man.

Tom gave Johnny a hated look. “As my Uncle Sam Stryker said during our last meeting , it ain't over Lancer .” The men wheeled their mounts around and headed back up the north passage.

 

---1---

“One hundred head of prime beef, there for the takin,” flatly stated Murdoch to Tim McRafferty, Texas Ranger and friend. They were on horseback at the North Mesa looking over the herd, as the cattle leisurely chewed the new grass.

“They got their trail brand on?” asked the ranger, who was a giant of a man dressed all in black.

“Yup,” assured Murdoch, “hidden just like ya said. Cropped their ears weeks ago so they're well healed.”

“Good,” replied the giant with no expression on his swarthy face. “We're ready then.”

“Got a wire from George. The rustlers are on the move. Stole his cattle right out from under the nose of his best wranglers.”

“Don't that beat all?” said the ranger with a slight grin.

“Val Crawford still trailing the rustlers?”

“Should be,” said the giant with a distressed frown. “I haven't heard from my partner lately.”

“You're worried?”

“Yeah, Murdoch, I am. I didn't like leaving him in the mix, alone.” The big man sighed. “But, there was no help for it. My gang identity was blown when I went back to Genesis to get help for Johnny.” He looked over at Murdoch's concerned face. “Mind you, I don't regret it for a moment. I know'd what those boys mean to you.”

“Just like I know what your partner means to you.” Murdoch patted him on the shoulder, trying to reassure. “He's savvy. He's had you for a mentor. He'll be all right.”

“I sure hope so. Josiah Abbott is no fool.”

They turned their horses and walked them towards a water hole.

“If he's anything like his brother, Judah, we could be in for a rough ride. I'm glad my boys are off helping Leah and Cal move to George's ranch.”

Tim, surprised, “I don't mean to pry, Murdoch, but are they mended enough to be doing that? It's only been a few weeks since we all played that crazy game.”

It was Murdoch's turn to look worried. “I didn't really have a choice Tim. The boys were restless and I needed another excuse to get them away from the ranch while waiting for the rustlers to come and steal these cows. They're not completely healed from their injuries, though they think they are. I couldn't keep them down any longer.”

“Aw, youth,” pondered the giant. “My younger brother is the same way. The problem is Murdoch, trouble seems to follow ‘em all around like their shadow.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“The truth is Murdoch, and you're not fooling me here, but ya want to keep ‘em outta the fray,” said the giant with a smile.

“All right, Tim, ya got me,” answered Murdoch a bit red in the face. “But between you and me and the gate post, I'll tell ya this…they are my sons. I just feel a need to protect them, though it's kinda late in their lives to be doin so. I mean…”

“Kinda?” The giant outright laughed. “One of ‘em is a gunfighter.”

Murdoch held up his hand, grinned and then good-naturedly reminded the ranger. “Ex-gunfighter.” A thoughtful expression crossed his face as he recalled a memory. “Johnny once told me that was what I had sons for.”

“To protect the old man?” teased the giant,

“Well, there's that,” agreed Murdoch, “But, I can't help what I feel inside. The closer we get as a family the harder it is not to worry.”

“Ya know what your problem is?”

“What?”

“You've become a full-fledged father even if it is late in the game.”

They arrived at the water hole and let the horses drink.

Murdoch sighed, “Well at least they have Cal and the kid, Nate, with them. Maybe they'll keep them busy and out of trouble.”

“Ya mean the kid Val had under arrest? The one from the Abbott gang?”

“Yes. Ya know anything about him?”

“No, not really. I've never laid eyes on him for I always rode with Talbot's gang. But, I'll tell ya this, I wouldn't trust him any farther than I can throw ‘im.” Tim dismounted, grabbed his canteen, bent down next to his horse and refilled it with fresh, cool water.

Murdoch did the same thing as he continued to talk, “He won't even give us his last name. I'm not even sure if Nate is his real first name. I think Val sees a lot of Johnny in him.”

The giant grunted, “Humph.”

“Val hopes Johnny will rub off on him and he'll be able to pull Nate out from the path he's taken.”

“I don't mean to throw a wet blanket on this,” countered Tim, “but Johnny was an exception to the rule. He wanted to change. He know'd what it was like to be alone...hell, he lived it for years.”

“Yeah, that's true enough.”

“Murdoch, Johnny jumped at the chance of a family, home and new life.” The giant bowed his head and screwed the cap back on his canteen. “I wish ya could've seen the look on his face when he thought his brother was dead and later, when he thought you'd never forgive him for winning that damn checker game.” Bout tore my heart out.

Murdoch didn't exactly know what to say. Finally, he said, “Johnny hasn't played the game since we came back home. He always comes up with an excuse of some sort to avoid it.”

“Hmm, sorry to hear that,” stated the giant pensively. “The short time I witnessed ‘im and Scott playin…well, it looked like they both enjoyed the competition…even with all us bad boys lookin on.”

Murdoch sighed while screwing the cap on his own canteen. “Well, if it makes ya feel any better, believe it or not a lot of good did come out of that game. My sons and I have never been closer.”

“Good,” smiled the giant. “I like it when good triumphs over evil.”

 

---2---

After the Stryker boys left an urgency clamored in Johnny's heart. All his instincts told him to get moving, now! He looked over at his brother, who was staring at him. “You thinking what I'm thinking brother?” asked Johnny.

“Yes. Time to pony up! We have no time to lose,” exclaimed Scott. He turned around with Johnny behind him and hurried over to Leah, who was trying to rip Matt's flannel shirtsleeve off.

“I need this sleeve for padding and I need a bullet.” She'd torn the shirt wide in both directions where the bullet entered his shoulder in the back. Blood was pouring out copiously along the furrowed path of the wound. “The bullet's way underneath his collar bone.”

Johnny took a bullet out of his gun belt. “Ya gonna cauterize the wound?”

Scott dug his fingers into the shoulder seam of the ruined shirt and yanked the material apart. At the same time using his pocket-knife Johnny pried the primer off the shell casing of the bullet, then handed Leah the cartridge full of gunpowder. 

Leah nodded, “I can't stop the bleeding. I don't know what else to do. I've already tried pressure, but it's not working and time is of the essence, isn't it? I mean, the Strykers' will be back with more men, right?”

Both men nodded, then Johnny said, “You know we can't go north. They'll be looking for us to head in that direction.”

Scott said, as he tore the sleeve off the other side of the shirt, “Maybe we'd be smarter to head for Lancer. It's shorter in distance anyways and Matt needs a doctor as soon as possible.”

Johnny added, “George could meet us there with some men or we could escort you back with some of our own men.”

“Sounds like a plan,” agreed Leah, as she poured the gunpowder into the wound. “Anyone got a match?”

Matt never so much as flinched during the process and that worried all the adults.

“Boy, he's as still as a stone cow,” said Cal. “Ya think he's gonna make it”

“Let's hope so,” replied Scott, holding the padding in place, while Leah used the rest of Matt's shirt to secure the makeshift bandage.  After that was done Scott and Johnny lifted Matt into the back of the wagon onto a pallet Cal had ready for him. Cal had moved all his pets to one side of the wagon.

It still amazed the Lancer brothers that a skunk, named Rose and a cat, called Tab, were sharing a cage. A banny rooster, in his own cage, was sitting on top of them. Cal had given all his hamsters away to good homes before they had left Uppity. “There was gettin ta be too many of them anyways,” Cal had told them, sniffling. Johnny had grinned, for Boston, the hamster Cal had given him, had become a mother herself shortly after they'd gotten back from Genesis.

Leah climbed into the wagon with a bowl of fresh water from the rain barrel and started nursing the wounded man. “He's clammy and sweaty. I really think he's in shock from losing too much blood,” stated Leah. She soaked a rag and began washing the dirt and grime off of Matt. “I hope we can avoid a fever. Unfortunately, his skin is already heatin up.”

Scott cracked some orders. “Cal, you drive the wagon. Nate tie Crowbait and Matt's horse to the tailgate along with your horse. You're riding shotgun with Cal and no you're not getting a gun.”

Nate gave Scott a stony look, but went and did what he was told after Johnny caught the expression. Johnny recognized the look and was deeply perturbed by it. He vowed to keep a closer eye on the kid, especially when Nate was around his brother and Cal.

Johnny mounted Barranca and rode up next to Scott. The Stryker gang could be anywhere and he quickly surveyed the area. They needed to get away from the rocks and into open range where they could see for miles around.

Scott, also keeping an eye on the scenery, asked, “What do you think Matt meant about a trap and who not to fall for?”

Caustically, Johnny replied, “Don't know.” He felt a pang of guilt for being so sharp with his brother. In an easier tone of voice, he added, “Depends on who his brother is and what the circumstances are.” He unconsciously lifted a hand and kneaded his left temple to ease the ache.

“Yeah, I suppose.” Scott kept the rest of his thoughts to himself. He silently observed Johnny as his brother rubbed his head. He's not fooling me, he's still getting those headaches. Doc Banning said he could have them for a while. It also explains his irritability and moodiness. Concussions are no picnic and Johnny is definitely showing signs of the after-effects. How many weeks has it been since we were thrown by the giant's horse? I've totally lost track.

Keeping a steady pace, Scott unceasingly scanned the distance both in front and in back of their little caravan. He was uneasy and not just because his brother was. He had his own instincts and gut sense. Heck, I've been in the army. I was a lieutenant. He glanced over at his brother, who had a closed look about him. Even so, he knew Johnny was alert to everything going on around them. So what gives? What has you so riled up Johnny? Is it the headaches or something else? He started grasping at straws.

Moving Leah and Cal? Naw, he seemed fine with it. Matt? Well, that did bring a lot of extra stress to the party. Anything to do with the Strykers always puts him in a rotten mood. Just mention them and ya get your head bitten off. Nate? Ever since Val foisted the kid off on Johnny he's been acting like a bear with a sore paw. There's got to be more to the kid than meets the eye.

Meanwhile, Johnny's thoughts also returned to the kid while his eyes continuously skimmed the landscape. He couldn't shake his uneasy feelings. Something is not ringing right with that kid. Who does he remind me of? He definitely has the slip-away look, but there's something more. For one thing, most the time he acts like a seventeen-year old, but there are times he seems much older. But, maybe it's because he's well-seasoned and had to grow up fast like I did. Hanging with a gang for security can do that to a person.

They rode a few miles south. With the sun low on the horizon, evening would be here soon. The rocks gave way to open fallow fields dotted with new growth of wildflowers and weeds. The winter rains had done their job in reviving the land. Scott and Johnny slowed the pace for the horses were tiring. It had been a long day on the road since they broke camp in the morning. Johnny's thoughts strayed back to the kid.

Now on the other hand, he won't leave my horse alone. He's constantly around my horse and trying to ride him. No one rides Barranca unless I say so. Nate's mean to his own horse and has no patience or respect for him. If he knows what's good for him he'll stay a mile away from my horse. Barranca is mine! He was the first gift my father gave me and I'll never part with him! And that's another thing. Why does Nate keep bringing up the fact that the Army would pay good money for a horse like Barranca? I know from what the giant said Josiah Abbott is big into horse thieving and cattle rustling. Haven't we lost a few horses and quite a few head of cattle to Abbott and the Stryker gang already? He leaned over and patted his horse on the neck. Barranca in the Calvary? Not on your tin-type!

Dusk was upon them. The boys complained they were hungry. There still was no sign of the Strykers though Johnny noticed Nate kept checking behind them, as if he expected company.

 I don't trust him. He ran with the Abbott gang for years. Then Val catches him at the mine and the kid wants to turn over a new leaf just like that? Yeah right, in my dreams, more like my nightmares. Besides, why won't he give us his real name if his life is so changed? Nope, I don't trust him, not any farther than I can throw him. What did Val see in this kid? Val has a big heart, but sometimes when it comes to kids he has blinders on. Was I ever like this kid in my tender years?

 

---3---

The moon had already risen and stars could be seen in the sky when they found a suitable place for the night.

“We'll make camp here in this open field. That way, we can keep a better eye on things,” announced Johnny, getting down off his horse. He tied Barranca's reins to the side of the wagon.

He couldn't explain it to even himself, but he was deep-down edgy and leery…his gut was telling him trouble was ahead and not just because of the Strykers. He moved over to the driver's bench and moved Leah's Henry rifle aside, which was on top of the built-in tool box under the wooden seat. Leah needs to have this gun with her. He picked it up and wordlessly slid it inside the covering where she was, then went back to the boot of the wagon.

Scott dismounted from his horse as Johnny started clanging stuff around in the lower front of the wagon. His brother's foul mood hadn't improved since they turned around and headed towards Lancer. If anything, his temper had grown shorter along with his answers to their practically non-existent conversation. Again Scott asked himself, what has him so ripped up? He's as irritable as a grizzly bear.

A hatchet flew over Johnny's shoulder to land on the ground behind him. Soon, an axe followed, then a sledgehammer, which almost hit Scott on his just healed foot.

Scott quickly moved himself and his horse to the other side of the wagon for safety's sake. Leaning over the boot of the wagon with his elbows propped on the outside edge, Scott peered into the tool box.

 Johnny yelled to no one in particular, “Where is it?!”

“Where's what?” asked Scott, afraid to move for fear he might get hit by some flying object if his brother started throwing things in a different direction. A moment later a block and tackle were thrown over the edge of the wagon a few inches from Scott's hands.

Cal and Nate steered clear of the stream of flying tools by getting down on the other side of the wagon where Scott was stationed. Leah was inside the wagon, still tending the wounded Matt. But, she could hear the commotion and grinned, with the rifle now sitting beside her.

“What's eatin him?” asked Cal, with eyes as big as saucers, standing beside Scott, as a shovel made its way to the ground. The ring echoed loudly in their ears.

“I have no idea what set him off. Ask him!” gestured Scott with a wave of his hand at his brother. The horses were nervously prancing as was the team in front of the wagon. Pippin started yelping in time to the clang of tools and Johnny's cussing.

Cal came back with, “Nah, he's as techy as a teased snake. It ain't safe to ask ‘im any questions.”

“Where in blue blazes is it?” shouted Johnny. He was now half buried in the tool box still searching when Cal shouted, “Johnny, Nate's on your horse!”

Johnny popped his head up so fast that he hit it on the bench seat and saw stars.

Sure enough, Nate was on Barranca, headed north.

A long whistle sounded and Barranca stopped short, nearly throwing the rider.

“Barranca!” called Johnny, one hand fisted and one rubbing his head. Great! Another bump to add to my ever present headache. I'm like a woodpecker with a headache.

The horse turned and looked at Johnny, then began bucking. A moment later Nate was pitched to the ground.

Johnny grinned in spite of the fact he was angry enough to chew nails. “Barranca!” he called again and the horse came running towards him.

Scott said, “Johnny, you need to teach him that trick the giant taught Sinbad.”

“Working on it, but I don't want Nate watching me do it.” He reached into his pocket and frowned. “Cal, ya got any sugar?” Barranca came up to him. “Good boy!” praised Johnny, patting his horse's neck. “Good boy!” He wrapped his reins around his left hand.

“Sure Johnny.” Cal started around the wagon and stopped. “Is it safe to come out now? Ya done with your fit of temper?”

“What?” asked Johnny, then he noticed the tools all over the ground. Sheepishly, he said, “I'm lookin for something.”

“Obviously,” quipped the blond-haired boy, digging into the front pocket of his trousers. He brought out a fist full of different colored marbles and shoved them back deep in his homespun pants. He tried the other pocket and brought out a handful of catnip, some kernels of corn and a few lumps of sugar, all treats for his pets. Pippin wagged his tail and Cal said, “Sorry, boy. You'll have ta wait for supper like the rest of us.”

Cal came around the wagon and mutely handed Johnny a cube of sugar. Johnny took the lump then offered it to his horse, once again praising him, as Barranca gobbled it up.

Scott, taking the risk of reigniting his brother's temper asked, “So, what are you looking for?”

Cal added without thinking, “And what's got ya so fired up?”

Johnny whirled around and pointed at Nate, who was slowly walking back towards them. “Him! And if he so much as touches my horse again I'll wring his neck!” He turned back around and started digging in the tool box once again, still holding Barranca's reins.

“For the last time,” repeated Scott. “What are you looking for?”

“A picket pin. I know I threw one in here before we left Uppity!”

“Why don't you just use a picket line? We have more than enough horses to stake,” innocently asked Cal, moving aside as a coil of rope flew by.

“I want it only for Barranca. I'm staking him right next to me when we sleep tonight,” replied Johnny, in a milder tone of voice than he used a moment ago with Scott.

“We're sleeping tonight?” joked Scott, reaching into the tool box and pulling out the picket pin.

“In shifts,” flatly stated his brother, turning red as Scott handed him the sought-after item. “Where'd you find this?” crossly asked Johnny, not thanking his brother.

Before Scott could answer, Nate walked to the rain-barrel tied to the back quarter of the wagon and lifted the lid, then helped himself to some water. He gave them all a sulky look, turned away and smirked, as he drank from the long-handled dipper, drawing Johnny's attention and his ire. Johnny handed the picket pin back to Scott and Barranca's reins to Cal.

Johnny strode in angry strides straight for the kid, reaching him in record time. He took his hat off and slapped him with it on the side of the head. “How many times do I have to tell ya to stay off my horse?!”

“Johnny,” pleaded the kid, “I only wanted to…”

Johnny cut him off, “Not with my horse, ya ain't!” He smacked Nate again with his hat for emphasis. “Why can't ya get it through your thick head? What part of no don't ya understand? I don't want you riding Barranca! I don't want you even touching him! Got it?!”

Cal looked up to Scott, who seemed shocked by his brother's actions. “Boy, he's angrier than a bee in a bonnet. I think he's even madder than he was with you when ya locked ‘im in the outhouse.”

Scott had to smile at that. “Yeah, he was pretty ticked off, wasn't he?”

“Ah, huh,” agreed Cal. “Why doesn't Johnny trust him?”

“I don't know, but he has his reasons. And if there's one thing I've learned about my brother, they're usually good ones.”

 

---4---

An odd noise woke Johnny out of a light sleep. He was annoyed with himself that he still had his hand wrapped tightly around Barranca's reins despite the fact they were tied to the picket pin. Sitting up, he slowly looked over their camp. The boys were asleep under the wagon with Pippin by Cal's side. Johnny relaxed when he saw the dog. He could even hear the mutt snoring. So, what woke me up?

Scott was on watch and Johnny could see him walking the perimeter of their camp just out of the firelight. Vivid stars covered the immense area with a partial moon.

The noise sounded again. A squeak by the wagon. Leah had stepped down from the front of the wagon with her rifle in hand. She slowly made her way to the fire.

“Couldn't sleep?” asked Johnny, leaning close to the fire and stirring up the banked embers with a stick. Leah silently shook her head no. He thought she looked tired. Can't say I'm getting much rest myself lately. He reached for another piece of wood stacked by the fire-pit and threw it on the flames.

“Ah, warmth,” said Leah, as she sat down beside Johnny, cradling her rifle on her lap. A moment later she let go of the rifle and held her hands near the fire.

“Wagon cold?”

“Yes, though you wouldn't think so with the heat coming off Matt.”

“Still has a fever, huh?” probed Johnny, his brow creased. “He come around at all?”

“No, only mumbles the same phrase over and over… sounds like a warning too, I think, for his brother.”  Leah rubbed her hands together, for now they were hot from the warmth of the flames. “I don't know what to think, but he's very unwavering when he's talkin.”

They sat in silence, each in their own thoughts, watching the flames in the fire-pit dance. One of the horses snorted and stamped his foot.

Scott heard a familiar noise on the other side of the vast fields. Cows? Sound travels a long way at night, especially on a clear night.  He walked farther away from the firelight to investigate with his rifle pointed up.

Pippin whined, then whined again, sounding hurt or afraid. Johnny looked over at the dog and noticed he was on his belly, head up with ears perked. Barranca's nostrils flared and his ears were back. Chuck, the banny rooster gave an awful warning squawk much like Jelly's goose, Dew Drop, when he sensed trouble. What ruffled his feathers? His hair stood up at the nape of his neck. An unwelcomed thought raced through his mind. Roosters crow when they feel vibrations in their legs. Then, Johnny heard Scott cock his rifle as the ground trembled under their feet.

Pippin whined again.

Cal, drowsy from sleep, “What's the matter boy?”

Johnny was on his feet, with his Colt in hand, shouting, “Leah, BREAK CAMP!”, as he ran in the direction of his brother, hoping against hope this wasn't what he thought it was.

Leah quickly gathered up the coffee pot and cups, thankful they'd put all the essentials back in the wagon after supper. “Boys! Wake up! Get your bedrolls in the wagon!”

Even before he felt the ground move, Scott realized the significance of hearing cows across the grasslands. He turned around and ran back to camp at a full sprint, nearly colliding with his brother in his haste.

“Stampede!” yelled Scott, handing his rifle off to Leah as she headed to the back of the wagon. “Way past the clearing somewhere!”

Both Lancers' ran for the picket line and the team's horses. Each brother untied a rope and led the horse to the wagon by-passing the boys as they went to saddle their horses.

Cal threw a blanket over Crowbait's back and shouted, “What do we do with Matt's horse?”

“Leave him,” snarled Nate, as he saddled his own horse, intent on getting out of there as quickly as possible.

Scott countered, as he hitched a horse to the wagon, “We'll get him! I want you up on your horse now!”

Cal mounted his horse just as Johnny finished hitching up the team's lead animal. Leah came out of the front of the wagon and sat on the bench, lifting the reins in her hands.

Johnny pointed to the road. A natural wall of rock ran parallel on the other side of the dirt road. “When ya hit the trail, turn right. Follow it until you find some huge boulders. There's a narrow pass just beyond them. It leads to Lancer. Take it to the top. You'll be safe there!”

“What about all of you?” asked a terrified Leah, instinctively looking around for her son. She released the wagon's brake and the wheels rolled forward a bit. Pippin barked and jumped beside the wagon, his eyes wide with fear. Johnny scooped the dog up and put him beside Leah on the seat.

Pippin continued to bark and Johnny hollered over the dog. “The boys are riding beside you.” He wacked the horse on the rump with his hat to get him moving, adding at the same time, “We'll be right behind you.” Scott quickly stepped back out of the way from the team. Nate spurred his horse, directing him ahead of the wagon, while Cal stayed beside his mother.

With each passing second, the noise of the charging herd grew louder. The ground no longer trembled, it shook.

In the matter of seconds, the Lancer boys had their own mounts saddled. Scott had Matt's horse's reins in his hand as he waited for Johnny to untie Barranca's from the picket pin. For some reason it was taking his brother a long time to unknot the reins.

Johnny's hands shook harder than the ground he was standing on as he tried to loosen the stubborn knot. Why'd I ever tie these so tight? All because of Nate. If I don't hurry, that kid's gonna be the death of me in more ways than one. He glanced towards the careening herd and could see dust swirling in the air, as the cows headed straight for them, under the light of the moon.

“Come on, Johnny!” urged Scott, feeling his heartbeat slam against his chest.

“I can't get the knot out! Get out of here, Scott!”

Johnny worked his thumb nail between the reins desperately trying to create a gap in the smooth leather. The biggest problem (beside his hands shaking) was that he couldn't see the knot in the darkness. He was trying to loosen them entirely by feel.

“Johnny try pulling the pin from the ground!”

Why didn't I think of that? Johnny instantly pulled the reins, fastened to the pin, from where he was holding them. The stake wouldn't budge!  Why'd I have to pound it in so far? He choked up on the stake, itself, and pulled with all his strength. Still, no luck. In desperation, he kicked the top part of the stake with his boot-heel trying to loosen the ground around it. He pulled at the stake again without success.

 Barranca snorted. Johnny's voice shook with anxiety as he tried to soothe his horse, still pulling at the stubborn stake. “I know boy, I know. I want to be out of here too. Don't worry. I won't leave ya.”

Scott threw a looped end of rope at Johnny, “Here tighten this under the ring!”

Johnny, never so grateful for his cool-headed brother, caught the rope, encircling the post and the ring which secured the reins, then pulled the knot tight.

Scott immediately backed his horse up, pulling the pin out of the ground.

Johnny was so relieved he could've kissed his brother. Instead he grabbed the picket pin with the reins still attached, slid the looped end of Scott's rope back over the top of the stake, so his brother could loosely recoil it, as he mounted his horse in one fluent leap.  Together, they rode their horses for all they were worth, at an angle towards the dirt road with the cows practically nipping at their feet.  

Reaching the road, they curved to the right, barely ahead of the wide herd of cows running across the field behind them. The boys hung on, leaning low over their horses' necks, as their mounts galloped the distance to the pass.  

Once at the entrance to the narrow pass, with Scott leading Matt's bay ahead of Johnny, the boys rode up the moderate incline and stopped halfway to the top. Looking behind them, they watched the bawling cows stampede past them on the road.  Now, all they had to do was wait for the drovers to make an appearance.

“I bet you three dimes to a quarter and a beer that the Strykers are involved in this somehow,” said Johnny, breathing hard and uncapping his canteen, then taking a swig of water.

“Agreed,” said Scott, heaving his own sigh. I've never been so close to becoming chopped steak before. “It'd be just like them to sneak up behind our backs.”

A voice out of the dark said, “Hands up boys where I can see ‘em.”

 

---5---

“Val!” said the boys in unison, still sitting on their horses.

“Don't Val me!” blustered U.S. Marshal, Val Crawford, squatting amongst the rocks a bit above them. “What in tarnation are ya boys' doin out here?” He took a deep breath, then added, “And keep your voices down.”

“Our voices?” mimicked Johnny, remembering a similar conversation he'd had with the giant that seemed like a lifetime ago.

“Ya know darn well that voices carry in the night-wind. Lucky for you, its blowin in a southernly direction.”

Bewildered, Johnny asked while swinging a leg over his horse's neck, “What are ya doin here?”

“Stay right where ya are!” ordered Val.

Johnny halted with his leg in mid-air, not understanding Val at all. He noticed Scott was in the same position, but his leg was over his horse's rump.

“Put yer leg right back over that there saddle and get those horses up to the top of this here pass…now! Then when ya get there, walk back down here to these rocks and be quick about it or else.”

“Or else, what?” asked Scott, moving his right leg back over his horse and putting it in the stirrup.

“You're gonna miss why you're not supposed to be here, that's what,” guffawed Val. “Oh and make sure Nate stays with Leah. I don't want him seein his kin.”

“Kin?” asked Johnny.

“Gang members,” flatly replied Val. “and don't tell ‘im I seen ‘em comin up the pass either. Now get moving!”

The boys wasted no time in getting to the top of the pass. They had a harder time getting away from two inquisitive boys and one woman before they could make the return trip.

“Look,” said Scott, “We'll tell you the whole story when we get back, but we need to hurry.”

A groan was heard from the boys.

Johnny ordered, “Now, take your blankets and sack in. We'll camp right here tonight.” The boys reluctantly grabbed their gear and stretched out under the wagon.

Leah looked concerned and Johnny quietly reassured her with, “Don't worry. We'll be with the long arm of the law.”

Before any more questions could be asked, the brothers took off down the hill to where Val was still sitting in the midst of the rocks.

“Took ya two long enough. Shoot, a drunk snail coulda beat ya,” complained Val, as he changed positions and laid down on his belly on top of a large, flat rock overlooking the road. “Ah, much better. My legs had fallen asleep.”

Johnny and Scott joined him, laying on each side of the rock, and peeked over the edge.

“Ya gonna tell us what's going on?” asked Johnny, as he observed the slow moving herd. He was quick to notice they weren't the same cows as the ones that had almost crushed them to death. These cows were dark in color with different shaped horns.

“Rustlers.”

“Rustlers?” asked Scott.

“Yeah, ya know'd the men that steal cows,” remarked Val, writing a number in a small book.

“We know what rustlers are,” griped Johnny. “What are ya doin with these ones?”

“Well ya see, they just stole these cows from a nearby ranch.”

“So?” said Scott, watching the cows slowly walk by the pass.

“Well they're not the same cows that almost kill'd ya a while ago.”

“How do you know?” asked Scott, leading him on. One glance and he'd known they weren't the same cows either.

“Cause, I've been a watchin ‘em. The cows that almost kilt ya were the LT. Guv's cows. They'd done stole them right out from under their noses, they did.”

Johnny interrupted, “Just how long have you been here watchin them?”

“Hmm, long enough for my legs to go numb.” He stretched his legs out one at a time behind them. “Dang! Now I got the pins and needles.”

“So ya been spying?” deduced Scott, more than curious. He caught the marshal's offended look, heard an exaggerated sigh, then bravely probed, “Who do you think is behind it all?”

“Josiah Abbott.”

“Abbott?” repeated Johnny, his heart skipping a beat. His stomach turned sour and then left a bitter taste in his mouth. Was that the Abbott Davie Stryker had been talking about? I think Murdoch left something out of the story he told us. But then, I was kinda out of it when he was tellin it back at Banning's office.

Scott inquired, “What happened to the warrant? Wasn't that supposed to include all the Abbotts?”

Warrant? Yup, I've definitely missed something here , thought Johnny, annoyed.

Val's answer made Johnny even sicker to his stomach, “With his brother dead, he weaseled out of it.”

Johnny gave a low moan. Murdoch did say there was more to the game.

“Didn't Murdoch tell you any of this?” asked Val, not taking his eyes off the cows.

“No, we've been on the trail, moving Leah and Cal,” said Scott.

Johnny, more than testy, “Yeah, remember Nate? Your unruly kid, ya stuck me with?”

“Us, brother.”

“Oh, yeah…how's he been?”

“A thorn in my side,” grouched Johnny. “He keeps tryin to steal my horse.”

“Barranca?”

“Do I own any other horses worth selling to the army?”

“Yeah, dozens,”

“Not like Barranca.”

“Well, his whole family's a pack of horse thieves.”

“Family?”

“Johnny, ya feeling alright? Mention the name Abbott and ya take a leave of yer senses. The Abbott gang is his family!”

“I know that,” grumbled Johnny, not happy with the turn of events.

Listening to their conversation, Scott was more than relieved. Horse stealing? Now, I know why Johnny's wrung inside out. Barranca is his pride and joy. The kid would have to be touched in the head to try and steal Johnny's horse.

Spying the drovers, Val cautioned, “Shh.”

All three men peered over the rock to see what they could see and hear.

A group of men came out of the shadows into the moonlight. Samuel Stryker was in the lead talking to Tom. Davie rode quietly beside his father. “We'll have the boys head these cows down towards Cold River while we hit the Lancer Ranch on the way.”

“That should get Abbott off my heels,” stated Tom, as he watched a couple drovers herd the cows down the road beside them.

“Ya wouldn't have had this problem if ya'd brought the body back to ‘im like he ordered. Abbott doesn't exactly trust ya yet.”

“I already told ya, it couldn't be helped. How was we to know he'd run right into ‘em boys?”

“Ya didn't. That's why we got to get Lancer's cows and the herd to Cold River in one piece. They're prime beef and these ones are the ones he wants most of all.”

“I know!”

“Don't go getting yer back up with me, boy! Abbott's a hard one. Ya cross him and you'll find a bullet betwixt yer eyes.”

The group rode out of earshot following the herd.

 

“Well, what do you make of that?” asked Johnny, sitting up on the rock and rubbing his back. His ribs were still sore from the game and the hard surface made them hurt. Dr. Banning and Dr. Jenkins, both, had told him it'd take three months or more for them to heal completely. I don't know which is worse, my ribs or my headaches.

“Sounds like Tom's in pretty deep with the Abbotts,” said Scott, also sitting up and massaging his arm. The broken bones had healed, but they ached in the night air.

“Ya know he's still wanted in Uppity for killing Dr. Hert?” reminded Johnny. “And Scott and I and Cal are the only witnesses.”

“Yeah, I know'd that,” affirmed Val, deep in thought. “Ya don't think the Strykers' ran ‘em cattle through yer campsite to get rid of ya?”

Shaken, both brothers looked at each other. “I hadn't really given it any thought,” said Scott.

“Nor I,” agreed, Johnny.

“Does give a whole new meaning to the word stampede as in stamped out,” said Scott with a frown.

“Oh, that's a good one, brother,” added Johnny, pointing his finger.

“What are all of ya doin here in the first place?” asked Val. “I thought you were busy moving the LT. Guv's lady friend north to his ranch?”

“We were, but a rider got bushwhacked and ended up with us,” replied Johnny.

“The closest place to get him to a sawbones is Lancer,” put in Scott.

“He gonna live?”

“He's unconscious and has a fever,” answered Johnny.

“He keeps mumbling the same phrase over and over,” included Scott.

“What's he saying?” asked Val, more than interested.

“Something about a trap and not to fall for someone,” stated Scott. “Leah thinks he's talking about his brother. We do too.”

“Ya know who he is?” questioned the marshal, all business now.

“No, not really,” responded Scott. “He rode with the Talbot gang when we knew him.”

Val gave a big sigh. “His name's not Matt by any odd chance?”

“Yeah, how'd ya know?” asked Johnny, surprised.

Another sigh from Val. “He's the big guy's partner.”

There was silence for a few moments, then Johnny exclaimed, “He's a Texas Ranger?”

“Yup, up here on assignment. Been missing for a few days. Tim's been more than worried.”

“Well, I'll be danged,” said Johnny, amazed. “There was two of them.”

“And that whole game with Judah Abbott was only part of the puzzle?” inquired Scott, putting some of the pieces together.

“And that was what Murdoch meant when he said, “ There were other players itching to play,” finished Johnny, also astonished.

“Other players to what?” asked Scott, still feeling in the dark about some things. “Seems like none of us has the whole story.”

“The horse stealing and cattle rustling end of things,” repeated Val, “Or don't you two remember what ya just seen?”

Exasperated, Scott asked, “So, where's this all going to end?”

“Well, its like this,” exclaimed Marshal Crawford, “We have this scheme we hatched up and these here cows are gonna lead us to the whole passel of stolen cows that are hidden somewheres on Abbott land in Cold River.”

“Ya sure it's there?” asked Johnny, not liking anything to do with Cold River.

“We know'd it's a boxed-in canyon similar to the one by the Genesis mine.”

That gave Johnny the creeps.

“The big guy has been all over Abbott's land, at least as far as Abbott's men would let him roam. The canyon is a big secret and Abbott keeps its location close to his vest.” Val stood up and stretched his muscles. He yawned big and wide. “As near as any of us can figure it, the canyon is close to the Genesis mine, but located somewheres on Abbott grazing land.”

“So,” reiterated Scott, “These cows are going to lead you all to the hidden canyon?”

“Yup, these here ones and your cows on the North Mesa. By the way, ya can't use the north passage to go home.”

“But, it's the shortest way to the ranch,” countered Johnny. “Matt's not getting any better.”

“Yeah, ya said that,” reminded Val, feeling bad. “But, the North Mesa is set up by the law and awaiting for the rustlers and ya can't mess up weeks' worth of work. Matt be the first one to tell ya that. Ya got to go back to the ranch by the eastern side.”

Scott said, “Okay, the eastern border it is.”

Johnny grumbled, “Why didn't Murdoch tell us about any of this?”

“I think he's still trying to protect us.”

“Why? He'd never cared before,” mumbled Johnny, standing up. “I mean, since we arrived we've always done the protecting for the most part.”

“Yeah, that might be true, but yer a real family now,” butted in Val. “Things have changed.”

“What things?” snapped Johnny, not understanding and feeling anxious because of it.

Scott became unsettled again about his brother's irrational disposition.

Two sets of intense, blue eyes looked at Val. Even in the moonlight, he could see their questions. He should've bitten his tongue. Now, they wanted answers from him . “What ya lookin at me fer? I'm just doin some observing. Yer gonna have to ask your pa those questions and I might miss my guess, but I'm sure he has his reasons for not tellin ya about the North Mesa.”

“Well, we'll just see about that,” grumbled Johnny, as he turned and hiked his way back up the pass. Scott stood up, shrugged his shoulders and followed after him.

 

---6---

“Just how bad is he?” asked Johnny, looking in the wagon at Matt. The man looked deathly pale to him.

Leah was sponging him down at an alarming rate of speed. “He's burning up. We need to get the bullet out soon.”

Johnny stepped away from the wagon to confer with Scott, who was by the campfire eating his cornbread breakfast with a fresh cup of coffee.

Handing him a plate, Scott said. “Here's the last of the johnnycakes. Ya better eat them before the boys gobble them up.”

Distracted and not really hungry, Johnny accepted the plate and sat down near the fire. “We're going to have to go home through the north passage like it or not.”

Scott stopped chewing his salt pork and swallowed hard. “We can't. You know what Val said. We'll mess everything up.”

“Yeah, I know. But, Matt is dying.”

Softly, Scott repeated, “Yeah, I know.” He finished his coffee in a couple of gulps.

Johnny went on hashing out his thoughts, “He's the giant's partner. Do you really want to explain to him how we let his fellow ranger die?” He slapped his hand on his leg. “Partners are like brothers. Some are even closer.”

Scott only nodded in agreement, not liking where this was leading.

“What if it was you or me? What would you do?” asked Johnny, biting into his cornbread.

“I'd take the risk.” He looked at his brother. “No matter what.”

“Exactly.”

“But, we have a woman and a couple of boys with us. And not just any woman. Leah's our friend and the LT. Governor's lady. George has entrusted us with their welfare.”

“I know that,” said Johnny sharply, finishing up his share of salt pork and washing it down with his coffee. “We don't even know who all's involved in the scheme of things. Heck, we don't even know if the rustlers stole the herd yet or even if they're in the area.

“I strongly suspect they are,” said Scott. He paused, watching the boys curry their horses. Cal gently, but firmly worked the dust and dirt out of Crowbait's mane with a metal brush, talking to his horse the whole time. Nate roughly pulled the snarls and dirt out of his horse's tail, causing the horse to dance around. If he's not careful he's going to get kicked. He's so impatient. Now, I know why Johnny doesn't want him touching his horse.

“Yeah, go on,” prompted Johnny. He turned his head to see what had caught his brother's attention and didn't like what he saw. “Nate! Take it easy with that horse or you'll end up walking.”

“Says who?” snarled Nate, yanking the tail even harder and pulling out a couple strands of hair.

“Says me!” shouted Johnny, throwing his empty plate down near the campfire and standing up. “It takes a horse over seven years to grow his tail hair that long!”

The horse kicked his back leg towards Nate, just missing him. Nate whirled on the horse and smacked him hard on the rump with his fist.

Johnny wasted no time in reaching the kid and snatched him by his hair. Not letting go of the boy's hair, he reminded him in a low, brittle voice, “What did I tell you about mistreating animals?!”

In answer, Johnny received a fist to the jaw almost knocking him down. The strength of the punch alarmed Johnny, for its strength was more from a man than a boy.

Throwing caution to the wind, Johnny baited the young man by taking a fighter's stance. His fists were up and he was crouched in position. “So ya want to fight? I'm game!” He threw his hat down on the ground. “It'll be my pleasure to whoop you kid!” 

The kid balled up his fist and growled, his voice deeper, “Any time, Madrid! I'm not the weak-kneed kid ya think I am!” He too, got into position.

Leah stepped down from the wagon and checked to see what the fracas was about. Cal, with Pippin beside him, instantly went over to his mother, exclaiming, “Nate was mean to his horse and Johnny's gonna clean his clock!” Pippin, sensing Johnny's anger towards Nate, bared his teeth at the young man.

“Hush Pippin,” ordered Cal. The dog obeyed, but kept a watchful eye on Johnny. Cal had the feeling Pippin would attack Nate in a moment's notice if the kid hurt Johnny. To be on the safe side, Cal grabbed and held his dog's collar.

Scott jumped between the two combatants. He knew Johnny could make mincemeat out of the kid, but didn't think Leah needed another patient to take care of right now. Though the kid more than deserves it. One look at his brother's angry face and he knew this wasn't going to be easy.

Scott put his hands up, warning off both opponents, “Easy now. We don't have time for this.”

“Get out of the way, Scott!” grumbled his brother with fists up and coming closer to the kid.

Nate baited, “Ya gonna hide behind your brother's shirttail? Madrid?”

Scott held his hand against his brother's chest. “You know, we've got to get going. Matt's life is depending…” Johnny put his hands on both of Scott's arms and roughly moved him out of the way.

Scott didn't let that deter him and stepped back in front of Johnny and finished his sentence “…on us.”

Nate provoked, “Ya know, I hate pink shirts…makes a man look lily-livered.”

Scott turned around, put his hand on Nate's chest and warned him with a glare to shut up. “Nate, if you know what's good for ya, you'll back off. My brother's not a champion saloon fighter for nothing.” There was something about the kid's actions that bothered Scott. It's the coldness in his eyes, the way he holds himself. He seems older somehow. Maybe it's because he ran with Abbott's gang for so long.

Using Scott as a shield, Nate took the moment to sneak in a hard, dirty-punch against Johnny's sore, half-healed ribs, knocking the breath out of him.

Pippin growled and tried to get loose from Cal's grip. “Easy boy! Heel!”

Scott, enraged, balled his own fist. “No one hurts my brother!” Scott pulled back his arm and cold-cocked Nate right in the jaw, knocking him out instantly.

Johnny, doubled-over and breathing hard, gasped out, “Well brother, all I can say is I like your style. But…don't ever come between him and me again!” Still breathing hard Johnny, with his arms around his middle, straightened up, then added, “Cause next time,” he gave Nate, lying on the ground, a pitiless look, “I'm gonna finish what he started!” Having said that, he picked his hat off the ground and squared it on his head. Then, walked over to Barranca and slowly mounted his horse. Bent slightly over his horse's neck, Johnny finished with, “I'm gonna go scout the area ahead.”

Scott shook his hand to relieve the stinging pain as he walked over to the rain barrel on the wagon. He angrily yanked the lid off the top and threw it on the ground. He deeply sighed after putting his arm in the cool water.

He had no idea where all the bottled-up rage had come from. He was kind of appalled by it, but at the same time elated. Maybe it's just stress that's built up over the last few weeks. I don't know. I only know, I'm sick and tired of seeing my brother mistreated just because he's a gunfighter…correction…ex-gunfighter. They all think he's the toughest man around, hard as nails, but I know different. The Stryker gang, Sam, Davie, Eli and Tom, Dr. Hert, Mr. Becket, Judah Abbott, Victor Talbot, even the giant Tim, though he was just doing his job, we both understood and forgave him that, now this kid Nate, who doesn't act like any kid I've ever known. They've all had a hand in hurting my brother. They've all wanted a piece of him and most have gotten their chunk. And for what? Initially, Johnny never did a thing to any of them. It was only when they forced his hand, gave him no choice, he had to react and defend. And he's done so many times without even once complaining. I wonder how deep the hidden scars go. No wonder Murdoch is trying to protect us. It has to hurt him as much as it does me.

 

“Whoa, Barranca,” ordered Johnny, nearly out of breath, as they topped another hill. He was disgruntled to find his ribs still hurt. He still couldn't believe Nate had sucker-punched him. Not once, but twice! My jaw still hurts. My instincts are off. My reaction time has slowed down. Banning said the post-concussion could be just as bad as the head injury. Will things ever get back to normal? So far, I've been able to hide it from Scott, but I know he's watching me like a hawk.

Thinking of Scott , he was stunned at his brother's actions. “No one hurts my brother!” He couldn't explain it, but Scott's actions warmed his heart.

No one had ever intervened for him before. Just like no one had ever held his head when he'd been puking into a slop bucket, only Scott. I was so sick and Scott had taken care of me. I feel bad not leveling with him about my headaches, but he's got enough on his mind. He's depending on me and so is the LT. Guv and Val. And then there's Murdoch. Things are happening at the ranch and he needs me. I didn't really want to leave, but I felt obligated to get Leah and Cal to the LT. Guv's ranch, for they'd been delayed long enough. They're counting on Scott and myself to protect them and get them safely there.

He thought about that word, protection , and his father, who had put himself bodily between Johnny and Judah Abbott. No one had ever protected him before. Shoot, no one had ever offered their life in place of mine. It was always, “Get'em Madrid. You're the gun hawk. What's another dead man to Johnny Madrid? He doesn't draw first, but always draws first blood.” No one ever cared what I thought and felt, as long as the job got done. If they only knew how the killing makes you sick inside. Every notch on my gun makes me want to hurl. I wish I could forget my past, but the Madrid side won't die. It's like Murdoch said, “He'll always be part of me.” Protection? It's a new feeling, a feeling to be revered and, not to be taken lightly. Safety. Safe within a family. Love is family. Family is home.

“I get it now.”

Scott and I are Murdoch's family. He feels it's his duty, as our father, to protect us. Just like Scott and I feel it's our duty to protect him and each other. Johnny swore again to protect his family above all else. It's gonna be interesting with three of us feeling the same way.

 

---7---

Murdoch nudged Tim's arm with his elbow. “Finally! They're taking the bait.”

The giant only grunted. They were hidden from view, high up in the rocks of the North Mesa. From where they sat in the shadows of the mountain, Murdoch and the ranger could see the whole northwest side of the range. Both men peered through their field glasses at the barb-wired fenced boundary.

Three men on horseback cautiously approached the enclosed pasture.

“The Stryker's,” murmured Murdoch, not surprised. He recognized Sam and Davie right away, but not the tall, red-headed man who took his hat off and wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “I wonder if the tall one's Tom Stryker, who Johnny got into a fight with in Uppity.”

“It is,” affirmed the giant. At Murdoch's questioning look, the giant added, “Don't forget I was shadowing Johnny and Matt was doing the same with Scott.”

Murdoch nodded and said, “That sure got out of hand in a hurry.”

“Hump,” snorted Tim, not happy with the memory. “Your boys turned out to be a handful. Protecting them was like pulling teeth.”

Murdoch chuckled.

“Ah, ya think that's funny do ya?” asked the giant good naturedly. “Ya should try pleasin two bosses on the opposite sides of the law some time. It was like straddling a fence. I had to follow orders from the boss man, given to me by Talbot, to harm my friend's son, who I was protectin.” He pointed at the red-headed man. “He's the one responsible for keepin Johnny in that there stall when he was so sick and also for crackin his ribs.”

Murdoch sobered and took an instant dislike to the tall man. If I ever get my hands on him, he'll be sorry he ever abused my son.

Tim bowed his head and regretfully said, “I feel like I failed you on that score. I never followed Johnny into town. At the time, we had our orders to stay out of sight and meet up with Talbot's gang outside of town. It was important your boys not see us. I thought Johnny would find Scott and be up in their room before he got sick from the food poison.” The big man brought his head up and with woe looked Murdoch in the eyes. “I never dreamt Johnny would be so susceptible to a few mushrooms, that he'd become so ill.”

“I know, Tim,” commiserated Murdoch, though he was still kind of peeved about it. “Look, we've been over this. There's no use in beating a dead horse. You did what you had to do in order to find out who the boss man was. If ya hadn't followed Talbot's orders, there's a good chance my boys would be dead by now.”

“Yup, that be true enough. Ya do know it was Talbot that murdered Mr. Becket?”

Murdoch gave the lawman an odd look and the giant said, “Oops, guess we never got around to that part of the story. I take it the boys don't know that either?”

“Probably not, nor George.”

“Hmm, looks like we got some talkin to do when we all get together again.”

Samuel Stryker dismounted from his horse next to the fence and quickly cut the three wires attached to the supporting post with a pair of wire-cutters. He then pulled the fencing back, forming a gate. Turning their heads in all directions and making sure no one was around, Sam Stryker walked his horse into the pasture followed by the two men on horseback.

Swiftly, they got down to business. Sam walked inward a few more feet, then knelt down and pulled some dry weeds into a small mound. Adding a few cow chips, he struck a match and lit the pile, creating a smokeless fire.

Tom and Davie, uneasy and constantly looking around in all directions, lassoed a cow and brought it over to the fire.

From up in the rocks, Murdoch said, “Running iron or cinch ring?”

The ranger replied, “Branding iron. They're too nervous for a cinch ring.”

Sure enough, a few moments later, Sam walked over to his horse and pulled a running iron out of his rifle boot. He quickly set it in the small fire to heat.

Tom and Davie bunched the maverick's legs together and tied them with a piggin string to keep the steer from kicking. Sam applied the hot iron to the hide.  A moment later, he knelt down and grabbed a handful of dirt, then rubbed it over his handy work to make the Abbott brand look old. The boys released the cow's legs and Davie herded the animal to the gate in the fence, passing him off to another drover, while Tom lassoed another heifer.

Murdoch and Tim watched the rustlers repeat their steps several times. They had to admit they were quick and efficient. In a very short spell, they'd collected over twenty head.

A whinny from a horse stopped the action of the rustlers. Sam immediately grabbed his running iron, then stamped the fire out with his boot. He mounted his horse and headed for the gate with his kin directly behind him. Once through the opening, Davie dismounted and pulled the wire-gate as close to the post as he could get it, so the line-riders wouldn't notice the cut in the fence. He remounted his horse and in a matter of moments the rustlers with their stolen cattle were gone from sight.

Murdoch looked to the east, not believing his eyes, and groaned when he saw a covered wagon, careening side to side at a fast pace, being lead, no less, by his sons on their horses, as they hurried in the direction of the ranch.

“Where the devil did they come from and why are they in such a hurry?”

“Didn't I tell you, Murdoch, trouble is only one step behind ‘em?”

“Yup, ya did. And before I jerk a knot in their tails, I guess I'd better find out where the fire's at.”

The giant chuckled. “Ah, go easy on ‘em. I'm sure there's a reason for them to be headin south instead of north.”

“I suppose.” Murdoch stood up and stretched the kinks out of his back. He was starting to feel his age. Contrary to the fact, he'd never admit it to his sons. “Ya coming?”

“Naw. I think I'll mosey around and find where Val's camped. He should be up by now.”

“Think he's heard from Matt?” asked Murdoch, worried also.

“I sure hope so,” said Tim, standing up and following Murdoch to their horses. “It's been four days now and my gut is tellin me there's more than something wrong.”

They mounted their horses. “Murdoch, go home by the way of the east boundary. The Stryker's got to be watchin the North Mesa. It was a natural thing for the boys to take the most direct trail home. I don't think all is lost.”

“What ya mean is keep things on an even keel. Stay true to form.”

“Yup, keep a regular routine. Send the line-rider around, make sure he overlooks the cut wire. Act normal. The rustlers will be payin ya a visit again.”

 

---8---

Jelly and Walt, the Lancer foreman, were in the middle of a jawing session outside the back gate of the house when a covered wagon came barreling up to them with the Lancer boys beside it.

“Well, ain't you cow-smelling, smart-alecks a sight for sore eyes,” spouted Jelly, eyeing the wagon and wondering what the commotion was all about.

“Walt,” ordered Scott, as he and Johnny dismounted from their horses, “We got a badly wounded man. Send a hand for Doc Jenkins.”

“On my way,” replied the foreman, taking the reins of their horses and heading for the barn. When he reached the corral gate, they heard him holler to a man to mount up and get the doc. A couple moments later the other corral gate opened and a cowboy was headed for town.

Cal, who had driven the wagon, jumped from the wooden seat with Pippin following behind him. Nate gave everyone a bitter look as he hopped down from the same seat and stood silently by the wagon. Pippin, sensing Nate's dislike of Johnny, worked his way beside Johnny and stood between them.

Teresa came out of the house and they all converged on the back of the wagon, including the dog. Cal untethered his horse along with Matt's bay and led them to the hitching post where he wrapped the reins around the rail. Nate roughly yanked his horse away from where it had been tethered, earning him a hard look from Johnny who silently promised to get even. Pippin, once again standing by Johnny, bared his teeth to the odious young man.

“Easy boy,” cautioned Johnny, giving him a quick pat on the head.

Johnny pulled the tailgate down and climbed in while Scott held Leah's hand as she stepped onto the ground. Pippin sat down and kept a guarded eye on Nate, who skulked by the water barrel.

Scott had the honor of doing the introductions, “Leah, Cal, this is Teresa and Jelly.” Not waiting for either party's ‘how do's' Scott turned back to help his brother unload the wounded man.

The women hit if off right away and so did Cal and Jelly.

“Oh, so nice to finally meet you,” said Leah, nervously glancing down at her soiled dress.

“Same here,” replied Teresa, putting her arm around Leah's shoulders. “I've heard so much about you. I feel I already know you.”

Jelly spied the animals in the wagon, and did a double-take at the skunk sleeping with a cat, “I see ya collect lost critters too.”

“Well, ya know how it is. I can't just leave ‘em hurt or dyin.”

“Speakin of which,” shouted Johnny to Jelly, “move out of the way, so Scott can back up!”

They hastily moved aside

Scott pulled the pallet with the wounded man to the edge of the wagon and waited for Johnny to jump down. A moment later he was on the ground and had the head of the makeshift bed in his hands. The women moved ahead of the men and hurried into the house to make a bed ready in the nearest guest room. Pippin, well trained, stopped at the doorway and waited.

Jelly, ever nosey, asked, “Who in tarnation is that?”

Cal answered, “Oh, that's some ranger's partner, who's a giant I hear.”

The giant? Murdoch's friend, Tim McRafferty? Course, there could only be one giant. Jelly, dying of curiosity and never having met the ranger's partner, asked, “How'd that happen?”

“He got bushwhacked and fell into our hands. Well, actually Scott's arms more or less.” Cal climbed up into the wagon and reached for the cage with the banny rooster in it. “Ya think it'd be okay to let him out? He's been cooped up a long time.”

“Don't see why not,” replied Jelly, wanting to hear more of the story. He took the wire cage from Cal and set it on the ground. “Dew Drop would probably like the company.”

“Hmm, if you say so,” said the boy, hopping down from the wagon with the other cage.

Jelly opened the door of the cage and the rooster came out, spying the goose right away sitting on the adobe wall. He made a squawk and strutted his stuff in front of the white bird. A second later, Dew Drop fluttered to the ground and fell into a walk behind him. 

Glad his rooster found a friend, Cal smiled and asked, “How about Tab and Rose?” The cat gave a meow and the skunk raised its tail.

Jelly slowly backed up, “That thing gonna go off?”

“Nope,” assured Cal, as he opened the door, reached into the cage and petted the skunk. “Rose can't spray. She's just like a cat. Smart as one too.”

Jelly had his doubts. “Well, if yer sure. Just, ah, keep ‘em away from the chickens.”

“Oh, ya don't have to worry. Chuck, Tab and Rose are all friends. Tab doesn't like to eat chicken anyways. She only eats table scraps and mice.” Cal let the animals out. Slowly, they slinked after the goose and rooster.

“Well, I'll be darned. How'd ya manage that?” asked Jelly, flabbergasted. “And who is Chuck?”

“Ya met him. He's my rooster, except he won't cluck and he only crows at night.”

Jelly rolled his eyes. “What good is he for then? Chicken and dumplings?”

Coming through the gate, Johnny interrupted with, “Heck no! Like Dew Drop, he's good at raising a ruckus when trouble is a foot.” He walked past Nate with Pippin at his heels to where Jelly and Cal were behind the wagon.

“Saved our lives from a stampede,” added Cal, getting Jelly's full attention again.

Jelly's eyes rounded with unspoken questions.

Johnny smiled and nodded, “He let out a squawk that woke the whole camp. Sure got my attention.” He bent down and scratched behind the dog's ears. “Of course, Pippin here, warned us also.” The dog happily leaned into Johnny's hand and wagged his tail.

With new admiration for the bird, Jelly glanced over to the rooster that was now waddling after the goose. Jelly lifted his head higher and declared, “See, animals know their business.”

 A tsking sound came from Nate. At their look of askance, he hooted, “Animals are only good for two things, eatin and serving our needs.”

Upon hearing Nate's analogy of animals, Johnny's annoyance and temper rose again. In a dangerously soft voice, he said, “That reminds me. I need to teach you some respect for animals and mankind alike.”

 

---9---

When Murdoch rode in, he found quite a menagerie had overtaken the ranch. A large contessa wagon was parked parallel to the veranda. A black buggy was by the hitching post. A squawking rooster and a honking goose were running back and forth on top of the adobe wall as a cat and skunk (Murdoch rubbed his eyes when he saw the skunk) slept in the sun on the porch.

Jelly came charging across the courtyard and entered the house, as he yelled Johnny's name. A moment later, his son, with a black dog beside him, came running out of the house and cut Murdoch's horse off with nary an apology, as he ran for the corral fence.

Jelly came back out of the house and followed a short distance behind him, shouting, “I'm tellin ya there's something wrong with your horse!”

“What do you mean something's wrong with my horse?” frantically yelled Johnny, with his hands on top of the fence and his feet flying over the rails. He landed with a thump and a few seconds later ran into the barn with Pippin just behind him.

Jelly ran for the corral gate and nodded at Murdoch as he waited for his boss to precede him through the opening and head for the barn. By the time Jelly made it to the barn, Murdoch had dismounted beside his laughing son, who was literally holding his belly with both arms crossed and a half-eaten apple in his hand. The dog was moving around the barn, sniffing at the ground.

Not amused, Jelly in a huff, spouted, “What in hades is so fire funny?”

Between chuckles, Johnny said, “He did it.”

“He did what?” asked Jelly, staring at Barranca in his stall with the gate wide open.

“He didn't move,” said Johnny with a proud grin on his face.

“That's what I'm tryin to tell ya,” exclaimed Jelly, exasperated, “I've been tryin to get him to move for the past ten minutes so I can take him to the south pasture with Scott's horse. Ya know, where the good feed is to fatten him up after days on the trail. But, he won't budge, not even an inch!”

Switching the apple to his left hand, Johnny reached up and patted his horse on the muzzle. “Good boy, Barranca,” he praised. He gave him the rest of the apple as a reward.

Murdoch smiled and pulled his own horse into the stall next to the white stallion named Rio. He began the task of unsaddling his mount and bedding him down for the night as he listened to the conversation.

Jelly, still put-out said, “Well, ya gonna tell me the great secret to makin him go?”

“Nope,” said Johnny, closing the stall gate. Pippin had sniffed his way out to the barnyard.

“No?” questioned Jelly, insulted.

“It won't be a secret long if I tell ya.” Johnny walked over to where his father was and stood outside the horse's stall.

“Why, of all the ungrateful…”

Murdoch cut him off with, “The barn sure looks nice. Did we get some new help or did someone get some extra ambition?” He lifted his saddle onto the stall rail and followed it with the blanket. Then he caught Johnny pensively staring at him.

Jelly immediately launched into the story. “Oh, Johnny taught Nate a lesson on respect. He made Nate clean out the stalls, muck the floors and re-organize the tack room.” Jelly looked over his shoulder towards the small room. “He should still be in there.”

“Still?” asked Johnny, in a soft, short voice. “You're supposed to be keeping an eye on him!” His temper was coming to the fore again. He rubbed his head where the injury once was.

“Oh, bother!” mumbled Jelly, as he hurried into the tack room. A moment later he came back out the door and angrily walked out into the barnyard, yelling “Nate!”

Johnny just sighed.

Murdoch, with a bucket in hand, stepped out of the stall. “Nate's more trouble than he's worth?”

“Hmm, you don't know the half of it,” tiredly replied Johnny. “If this is what it's like to be a parent, I don't want any kids.”

Murdoch chuckled and raised his hand to Johnny's face, gently rubbing the bruise with his thumb on his son's jaw. “Is this part of it?”

Johnny turned a bit red at the attention and ducked his head while crossing his arms in front of him. “Yeah,” he quietly admitted. “He sucker-punched me a couple of times.”

“Sucker-punched Johnny Madrid,” teased Murdoch. “My, that must have been quite a feat?”

“I'm getting old, Murdoch.” At his father's caw off, he added with more enthusiasm, “Ya should see the bruise Scott left on Nate's face!”

Murdoch could see Johnny was proud of that. They'd made their way to the horse trough and Murdoch put the bucket's handle on the spigot as Johnny pumped the water.

“I saw you boys with the wagon crossing the North Mesa. I'd have been here sooner, but got waylaid by our neighbor to the east who wanted to talk about the rustlers.”

“We ran into Val and he told us about them.” Johnny stopped pumping for the bucket was full. “That why you wanted us off the ranch…again?”

Murdoch let out a breath. He almost winced at the accusation in his son's blue eyes. “What difference? You had your plans and I had mine.”

“What difference?!” exploded Johnny with hands fisted at his sides. “We're men not children. Didn't ya once tell us we had to be man enough to hold this place?”

“I had my reasons!” grouched Murdoch in defense. He wasn't about to level with his son about his true feelings…this overwhelming need to protect his family. He wasn't even sure he could explain them to himself. I don't know what I'd do if I lost one of them.

“Your reasons, be danged. It's the principle of the thing! We're equal partners!” stressed Johnny.

“And I call the tune!” reminded Murdoch.

“Johnny!” yelled Cal, standing on the lower board of the corral fence. “Scott needs ya in the house.” Pippin, hearing the boy's voice, came running over to him.

Both men stopped arguing, and looked over to the boy. Cal climbed over the fence and came up to the men with the dog beside him. Johnny made the introductions and left with Pippin following behind him.

Murdoch and Cal sized each other up, for both had heard much about each other.

“Wow! You're tall,” said Cal, looking way up, amazed.

Murdoch amused, “If ya think I'm tall wait till ya meet Tim McRafferty.”

“The giant Texas Ranger?” finished Cal, lifting the bucket off the water spigot. “Your horse in the barn?” He started walking towards the building not waiting for an answer.

Murdoch was impressed by the boy's willingness to work. “Yes, he's partly bedded down. I still need to feed him.” As he walked with the animated boy, he realized why his sons liked the kid so much. He's innocent and smart, so free and spirited. I wonder if Johnny was ever like this. No, he had his innocence stolen at a young age. “How do you know about Tim?”

“Ah, Johnny and Scott talked about him a lot on the way to Sir George's ranch.”

Murdoch smiled at the Sir George part. George, you should feel proud to have a son like this.

“They talked a lot about you too, Mr. Lancer.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Like you're big and strong and smart and stubborn and proud. And, oh yeah, ya have princ…princ…whatever you were arguing about with Johnny…a code of conduct.” Cal switched the bucket to his other hand. “Ya know, sir, they both really love ya a lot even if they don't say it.”

Murdoch was shocked to hear that come out of Cal's mouth. “They…they talk about that?”

“Well…not in so many words. Ya know how guys are?”

Murdoch nodded.

“But, it's there in their eyes and voices. Kinda like with me and my ma. I don't tell her every day I love her, but she knows it.”

Out of the mouth of babes , thought Murdoch, as he showed Cal his horse.

“Mr. Lancer, I can finish bedding him down. That was my job in Uppity to care for the livery's horses. I already did the ones in the barn, while Nate did his and the team's out in the corral. Of course, Johnny was lookin over his shoulder the whole time makin sure he didn't mistreat ‘em.”

“Nate been making trouble for Johnny?”

“Nate's meaner'n a rattlesnake in a hot skillet and he hates Johnny. Even Pippin, my dog, knows it and has appointed himself Johnny's guardian, though Johnny don't know it.”

Murdoch smiled at that.

Nate poured the bucket of water into a barrel at the front of the stall as Murdoch got a scoop of oats out of the grain bin. Together, they grabbed a leaf of hay and dumped it in the manger with the grain.

Cal found the brush he'd been using on the other horses, and went to work on Murdoch's bay, grooming his coat.

Murdoch, seeing his horse was in good hands, turned to leave, then out of curiosity asked, “What brought you all to Lancer?”

“Oh, ya ain't heard about that yet?” asked Cal, as he combed out the horse's mane.

Murdoch shook his head no and waited for the boy to continue.

“We got a rider named Matt, who turned out to be the giant's partner. He got shot by the Strykers' and landed up with us.” He stopped brushing the horse and proudly stated, “Ya should've seen Johnny face down ‘em Strykers. Scott did too and…” a big smiled crossed his face, “and my ma with her Henry …” He stopped talking, for Murdoch had turned and ran out of the barn. “Guess he wants to see for himself.”

 

---10---

It was after supper when Murdoch heard a horse gallop up to the hitching post in back. Opening one of the veranda's glass doors, he beckoned for Tim to come in.

“Is it true? Matt's here?” asked the anxious ranger, taking off his hat and practically crushing it in his meaty fist.

“Yes,” assured Murdoch, clapping him on the back. “Doc Jenkins and the women are with him now.” He guided him past the long dining room table to one of the back bedrooms by the kitchen. “He literally rode into Scott and Johnny on the trail.”

“Oh, Murdoch, I don't know what to say. It took me a while to find Val. Wouldn't ya know it, he'd decide to sleep in an old mine shaft instead of out in the open. I lit out of there like my horse was on fire after he told me the story.”

“Well, they got the bullet out and the fever has already come down, but he's still unconscious. Doc thinks he's just exhausted and some of it could be from blood loss. Doc's staying a while yet to keep an eye on him.”

“Whew, can I see him now?”

“Sure.” Murdoch opened the door and ushered the ranger inside. Closing the bedroom door, Murdoch came back out to the great room and nonchalantly glanced around, observing his family.

On the long couch, Johnny was curled up and asleep in front of the blazing fireplace. Murdoch thought he saw him shiver, so he walked behind the couch and covered him up with an Indian blanket from the back of the sofa.

In front of the couch on the floor, Scott was playing a game of checkers with Cal, the board between them on the hassock. Out of the blue, Cal asked, “How come Johnny doesn't like to play checkers anymore? He seems to avoid the game like he does ma's ginger tea.”

“Well, we did pour a whole pot full of tea down his gullet when he was sick,” reminded Scott, jumping his king over Cal's red one. He exchanged looks with his father, then glanced at Johnny, wondering if he could hear them. More than likely he's got his ears open asleep or not.

“Yeah, ya did. I bet he could taste it for days afterwards too.” murmured Cal, as he made his next move on the board. He glanced up at Johnny when he turned over onto his stomach on the sofa and burrowed deeper under the blanket.

Scott chuckled. “Well, when you're sick some things just taste better to you. Then, when you feel better it doesn't taste as appealing.”

“Until you're sick again?” asked Cal, jumping two of Scott's kings on the checker board.

“Yes and ginger settles your stomach when you don't feel good.”

“So, what's that got to do with his aversion to checkers all at once?” questioned Cal, studying the board for his next move. “You and Johnny use to play ‘em a lot.”

Murdoch lit his pipe and sat down in his chair next to the fireplace, putting his feet on the footstool. He too was interested on Scott's ideas on this particular subject.

“How do you know that?” asked Scott, surprised, as he contemplated his next move. He didn't remember the subject of the game coming up when he and his brother were in Uppity.

“After Beckett broke Johnny's ribs in the fight in the hallway. Doc Banning made ‘im stay in bed for the night, but Johnny wasn't tired after takin all those naps during the day, so we played a couple games. I think you were downstairs with the law at the time.”

“Hmm, I guess I was, for I missed the whole exchange.” Scott moved his last single black checker to the next square.

“So, ya gonna tell me why he quit playin?”

Not wanting to tell Cal everything that had happened to his brother and himself after they'd left Uppity, Scott just said, “Someone took the fun out of the game for him and he hasn't been interested in playing since.”

“Ya mean he made someone mad at him for winning and they were a sore loser and they took it out on ‘im?” Cal moved his king closer to Scott's last single checker.

Scott had forgotten how perceptive Cal could be.  Boy, that's an understatement.  Scott sighed. “Something like that.” How do I tell him Johnny wants to play, for I see it in his eyes, but he can't get over the fear and guilt of winning the last game we played?

Cal summed it up, “Ma said it's not if ya win or lose, its how you play the game that counts.” He made his last move and jumped Scott's single checker.

The giant, waiting for the doctor to come out of Matt's sickroom so he could escort him to the door, overheard the conversation between Scott and Cal. He felt responsible and deeply exhaled. There must be some way I can make it up to ‘em.

A quarrel broke out between Jelly and Nate over a game of rummy by Murdoch's desk. “That was not a rummy. I never took my finger off the card!” sputtered Jelly.

“The heck it ain't!” countered Nate, throwing down his cards. “I quit!” He got up and stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

“Well, I never…” moaned Jelly, gathering up the cards.

“What was that all about?” asked Teresa, coming into the room with Leah and Dr. Jenkins.

“Ah, nothing,” piped Cal, setting up the checker game again. “Nate's a cheat and a sore loser most of the time, except when he wins, then he crows about it forever.”

There were smiles all around the room and a snort sounded from the couch.

Dr. Jenkins zeroed in on the sofa, as Murdoch and Scott scrambled to their feet. He noticed Johnny had his hand over his head where the bump used to be.

“Johnny still getting those headaches?”

Murdoch shrugged his shoulders, for he hadn't been around him the past few days.

Scott, not wanting to get on his brother's bad side, but at the same time concerned about him, carefully answered, “He's a bit irritable at times.”

“At times?” piped Cal. “He's been an overall cross-patch, especially when Nate's around.”

“Cal Martin,” scolded his mother, “don't talk about Johnny that way. Ya know it's just because Nate keeps him on edge so much. Why that kid would drive a wooden man plumb crazy.”

“That be true enough,” agreed Cal, contrite. “Just look at how many times he's tried to steal Barranca. He wants to join the Calvary with him.”

“Not with my horse!” was heard from under the blanket. Johnny threw the covering back and reluctantly sat up with an irritated expression on his face.

“Well,” said Dr. Jenkins, “I wondered if I'd get to see those blue eyes of yours.” He studied Johnny's pupils without him realizing it. Equal and reactive. “How's the headaches?”

“I'm fine Doc,” replied Johnny, annoyed. “I'm, ah,” he hedged, “just not getting much sleep.” He glanced around the room and frowned at Scott.

“Not getting much sleep or having trouble sleeping?”

Pulling his weary eyes off his brother and evading the doctor's queries, Johnny replied, “Both.”

“You've been taking those salicylic pills I gave you?”

“No, they tear my stomach up too much.”

“Well the Bayer Company that makes them is tryin to refine the process. Dr. Banning said this is gonna revolutionize the medical and pharmacy field.”

“That may be Doc, but it's not helping me now.”

“I told you, you have to eat before taking them.”

“Lots of luck with that,” chirped Scott, earning a sullen look from his brother. “He's been eating like a bird lately.”

Johnny on the defensive, “Only because I've had other responsibilities and no time for chow.”

“Here I thought it was my cookin,” joked Leah, smiling.

“No ma'am. You're cookin is just fine,” assured Johnny, patting his stomach.

“I'm beginning to see the picture,” said Doc. Headaches, irritability, insomnia and lack of appetite. He caught Murdoch's eye and said, “Walk me out to my buggy.”

“Sure, Doc.”

The giant followed them out.

No new orders. Johnny sighed in relief as he got up from the couch and walked in the direction of the stairs. “I'm bushed. Good night, everyone.”

Leah said, “Cal, it's time for bed.”

“Ah, Ma,” whined Cal, yawning. “I'm sleepin with Jelly in the bunkhouse.”

“I don't care where you sleep as long as you sack in and get to it. We've had a long day.”

Jelly took the hint, “Come on boy. Like the old saying goes, ‘Early to bed, early to rise. Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.' Bet, ya can't guess who said that?”

“Ben Franklin,” replied Cal, following Jelly out a set of glass doors. The boy turned back and called his dog that was sleeping by the fireplace. “Come on Pippin.”

The black lab slowly stood up, stretched his legs, glanced in the direction Johnny had gone and, followed the boy outside. Jelly and Cal waved to Dr. Jenkins as he finished his conversation with Murdoch and Tim.

“Matt should be alright. Tim, you were a medic in the army. You know what to do if his fever climbs again.” The ranger nodded in affirmation. The doctor turned to Murdoch, “Johnny is displaying some post-concussion symptoms, but I don't think it's anything to worry about. He could use some extra rest. Peace and quiet would probably help his headaches.”

As if on cue, the goose honked and the rooster crowed, as they followed Jelly and Cal to their quarters.

The men chuckled and Doc said, “Well, I doubt that's gonna happen around here. Get some good grub into Johnny, and make sure he takes those pills. Keep an eye on him Murdoch, and try not to worry.” He climbed into his rig.

Murdoch reminded him, “Don't forget to wire the LT Governor about Leah and Cal and the latest events.” The last thing I need is George breathing down my neck because he wasn't informed.

The good doctor nodded as he picked up the reins and clicked to his horse to get him moving.

 

Scott heard a moan, then his name being softly called, ‘Scott.'

It was his brother's voice and it was coming from Johnny's bedroom.

“Nightmares…again.” Drowsy in sleep, Scott waited a few moments. Maybe it'll pass. He hasn't had the dream from when we were on the train for a long time. Thankfully, it never came to pass. But, the checker game in the line shack, the run for his and Murdoch's lives in the canyon…blood on his hands…those come frequently. He can't let go. Something is still haunting him from that day.

Louder and more persistent now his name was called.

“Scott…Scott!”

Neither brother would admit it to themselves, nor each other and, heaven forbid to another soul, but during these nightmares Johnny needed comforting. Maybe because his mother never did it. Maybe it was because she was never there. Johnny practically raised himself. He was alone. Our brother-bond is all he has. Scott grinned to himself. My fearless brother having nightmares. So bad, in fact, I leave my door cracked open. If we could only discuss them during the day, but his pride won't let him. Scott sobered. It really is no laughing matter. But, he needs to get over them.

“Scott. Help me, Scott!”

That's a different plea. With that thought ringing in his ears Scott jumped out of bed and went to Johnny's room. As always his brother was sitting straight up in bed, eyes wide open and not seeing anything except the pictures in his mind.

Scott sat down on the bed and put his hands on Johnny's shoulders and gently shook him.

In a hushed voice he called his brother's name, “Johnny. Johnny. It's okay. I'm here.”

Normally, Johnny would awaken, blush a bit, sometimes squeeze his arms or give him a pat on the back, then fall back into his pillow asleep. Most the time Scott didn't even think Johnny realized he'd been there. The morning always told the story. His brother would avoid him and was more temperamental than usual. Thankfully, he hadn't had any occurrences on the trail with Cal and Leah. I had hoped he'd put them behind him, but I guess not.

This time turned out to be different in that aspect also. Instead of pushing away from Scott, his brother hugged him to his body and tightly clung to him with his arms around his neck.

“Easy Johnny, easy. It's only a dream,” comforted Scott, in the same hushed voice, though he was shocked by his brother's actions. Something's got him sideways, that's for sure.

“No. It's different this time.”

“How so?” asked Scott, surprised his brother was even talking about it. Maybe he's really still asleep. He wanted to check his eyes, but was afraid to move.

Johnny pulled back leaving his forehead on Scott's shoulder and began to ramble. Scott left his hands on his brother's shoulders, still afraid to move, in fear he'd break the moment.

In a hushed voice, Johnny spoke of his dream, “You, me and Cal are at the line shack on Abbott land…I'm on Barranca. I can't move…we…Barranca and I can't move…and there's danger lurking…and I can't…do…anything…”

Before Scott could reply a loud noise amongst the fowl broke out in the barnyard.

“What the devil is that?” asked Johnny, lifting his head off Scott's shoulder.

“Sounds like a goose and rooster having a disagreement.”

Johnny immediately broke contact with his brother and grabbed his gun from under his pillow.

Incredulously, Scott asked, “You're not going to shoot them?”

“No!” replied Johnny, out of sorts. He didn't know how he felt at the moment. Embarrassed might work. “But, they're good at giving off an alarm when there's trouble.”

He climbed out of bed and went to the window.  Sure enough, Dew Drop and Chuck were at the gate creating a rumpus. “They're loud enough to wake up everybody and his brother,” grumbled Johnny

“Loud enough to wake this brother,” cut in Scott with a chuckle. He slapped his own face. “Ops, I'm already awake.”

Johnny gave him a harassed look and started for the door when Scott stopped him.

“Ah, Johnny. You've forgotten something.”

Johnny looked askance at his brother who was now grinning. “What?”

Scott just nodded at him with one eyebrow raised.

Johnny looked down at his person and turned red. “I like sleeping naked.” Smirking at his brother, he added, “So do you, apparently.”

Scott fell back against the pillows and laughed, while Johnny grabbed his pants and put them on. Then he ran down the hallway with his gun still in his hand.

 

---11—

When Leah came in through the back door, breakfast was well underway with the Lancer family all seated at the kitchen table.

“Any of you seen Cal? No one's in Jelly's hangout,” she asked, sitting down by Scott. Teresa placed a plate of food down before her, consisting of ham, sweet potatoes and johnnycakes.

“Thanks, Teresa. It smells delicious.” She picked up a fork and started to eat.

“They're probably in the barn,” said Scott, putting his empty coffee cup on the table. “With the chores Johnny assigned Nate, Jelly's been gun ho on getting up early.”

“Yeah,” added Johnny, taking out of his trouser pocket a folded, brown papered, square package. He tapped it against his fingers, trying to decide if he needed to take one of the pills Dr. Jenkins had prescribed for him. His headache was gone when he'd woken up this morning. “Jelly's probably got Nate slopping the pigs and Cal feeding the chickens.”

“Speaking of chickens,” asked Murdoch, “what's up with the fowl on this ranch? They made enough racket last night to wake the departed.”

“That and Johnny running down the hall with a gun in his hand,” added Scott, holding his coffee cup out to Teresa, so she could refill it.

“Oh?” questioned Murdoch. “I didn't hear that part.”

Johnny testily countered, “Well, I heard the ruckus too and I got up to see what was going on.” He looked at Scott. “Someone has to defend this place.”

“Must not've found anything since I didn't hear any shooting,” stated Murdoch, chuckling.  He pushed his plate aside, having finished, and lifted his coffee cup to his mouth.

“Didn't find anything,” admitted Johnny. “Dew Drop and Chuck were just raising a stink by the corral gate. Other than that, all was quiet on the home front.”

Leah, red-faced, cleared her throat. “Sorry about that Mr. Lancer. I shoulda warned ya about the banny rooster.”

“How so?” inquired Murdoch, noticing her blush.

“Well, ya see. I was at this sodbuster's farm where we buy our eggs and this rooster was runnin from the farmer, who was chasing him with a hatchet in his hand. The banny was so scared that he ran right between my ankles and hid under my skirts.” Leah paused and took a sip of coffee. Everyone in the kitchen grinned, imagining the scene.

“Go on,” encouraged Murdoch.

“The sodbuster said he was gonna wring the chicken's neck, then stew ‘im up for supper, for he'd had it with the rooster keeping him up all night. But, he couldn't quite figure out how to ask me to raise my skirts and get the bird.”

Laughter could be heard from around the table.

“So, he said I could just have him and that's how Cal got another pet.”

The bedroom door off the kitchen opened and out stepped the big ranger, yawning. “That coffee I'm smelling?” asked the big guy in a deep voice.

“Sure is Tim. Have a seat,” offered Murdoch, gesturing to the chair at the other end of the table.

Teresa quickly poured the man a cup and handed it to him. “How's Matt doing?” she shyly asked, going around the table again with the coffee pot. Johnny lifted his cup and she filled it for him.

“The good news is his fever broke, but he ain't woken up yet.”

“What's the bad news?” asked Scott, pushing his empty plate aside.

“Hmm, darn good coffee, Teresa.” The giant closed his eyes a moment and savored the flavor. “Sure beats the trail brew.” He sipped half a cup then said, “The bad news is my little brother sure can sleep like the dead even when he's healthy.”

Total silence reigned around the table, except for Murdoch, who cleared his throat and waited for his son's reactions.

“Did I say something wrong?” asked the giant, perplexed. Teresa handed him a plate of food. “Thanks, Teresa, smells heavenly.”

“Your brother?” asked Scott, looking surprised.

The women exchanged a look, then stared at the man in black.

Johnny stopped tapping the small package he still had in his hand and stated, “But, he's your partner.”

“Yeah, he's that too,” agreed the giant. “Pass the salt.”

Scott frowned deep in thought, as his brother passed the salt.

“You're both Texas Rangers?” asked Johnny, shaking his head. “I'd never guessed ya to be brothers?”

“Why? Because he's short and fair and I'm big and dark?” grinned the ranger, enjoying Johnny's bemusement.

“Yes, no. Well, Scott's fair and taller than me. That don't mean anything,” said Johnny a bit flustered. “I'm just surprised two brothers, who are rangers, would be on the same assignment, that's all.”

The giant replied, “Well, that's not necessarily always the way it is.” He pointed with his knife. “Look at the Earp Brothers. They do a lot of marshaling stuff together. After all, this is the mid 1870's.”

“Yeah, that be true,” agreed Johnny, fiddling with the brown packet again.

“Here Johnny, let me explain,” said the lawman. “Before the war, my family were veterinarians. My brothers and I were away when some outlaws burned the homestead and wiped out our parent's lives.” The big man bowed his head for a moment before continuing. “We chose not to stay around the memories. We tried for a time to track down the outlaws, but too much time had passed and they'd gotten clean away. So, with no luck on that end, we joined up with the Texas Rangers. What better way to find the men responsible for our parent's deaths? And before you ask, yeah, we did find ‘em and I won't tell ya how they died.”

The Lancer men each understood the statement and figured it was a private manner. The women, though curious, gave Tim the respect he'd asked for.

“So ya see,” finished up Tim, for he wasn't one to talk much. “After Bart's death and the war, Matt and I made a pact that we'd not be separated by miles or years, so that's why we're up here, together in this adventure.”

“Rousting out rustlers?” predicted Johnny, glancing at Scott, who'd been awfully quiet during the giant's story.

“That amongst other things,” said the giant, casting Murdoch a cautioned look.

Scott entered the conversation, “Then, maybe you know what Matt meant when he fell into my arms and said, ‘Tell brother, it's a trap.'

The giant noticeably tensed. “He said it was a trap? He say anything else?” The lawman held his breath, listening carefully.

“Only not to fall for someone,” stated Scott. He exchanged a look with Johnny, then Leah. “You remember anything else?”

Both shook their heads no.

Johnny confirmed, “I was too busy dealing with Tom Stryker to pay close attention.”

Leah said, “I was too worried about Cal and the horse's hooves…” She let the memory trail off.

“Don't know what that could mean,” remarked the giant. “But, as ya know, Val and I have been stalking the rustlers for weeks.”

“No, we didn't know that until recently,” bitterly said Johnny, frowning at his father.

The ranger thought a moment, thinking their plans through his mind. Probably be the hidden canyon where the so called trap would be sprung. He got up from the table. “Regardless, I'd better go and find Val and warn him if need be.”

“We already told Val what Matt said,” stated Scott, getting up too.

“What did he have to say?”

“Actually, nothing,” recalled Scott, looking at his brother.

“We got to talkin about the rustlers that someone else forgot to tell us about,” tensely said Johnny, making an obvious point to his father.

“No matter,” said Tim, feeling the tension between father and son and, understanding the reasons from both sides. “I better hash it over with Val. Odd that he didn't say anything last night, but then, I didn't really give him a chance to tell me once I knew Matt was here.”

Not disagreeing with Johnny, Murdoch said, “I'll go with you.” He too, got up from the table as the backdoor burst open and a blood covered Jelly stumbled in.

Murdoch immediately clutched the little man by his arms and guided him to the vacated chair at the head of the table. The rest of the family surrounded the two men, as Murdoch examined the wound.

Tim waded into the group, grabbing a checker-linen napkin off the table. “Here let me see ‘im.”

Everyone moved back a couple steps as the ranger dabbed at the head wound. “Head wounds bleed a lot,” assured the medic. After holding pressure on the injury, he removed the cloth and carefully looked at the wound on the crown of Jelly's head. “Doesn't look too bad, about an inch in length and not too terribly deep.” He put the cloth back on his head, for the blood was seeping out of the laceration. “He'll live after a few stitches.”

A moan came from Jelly. “I suppose you'll be a doin the stitchin?”

“Ya got anyone better in mind?” responded the giant. “If ya do, I'll let'em at ya.”

“What happened?” asked both Scott and Murdoch together.

Before Jelly started talking, Johnny sat down at the table and rubbed his head with a shaky hand. He opened the brown packet and picked up a pill then swallowed it with the last of his coffee.

“Nate took off.”

Johnny groaned and was almost afraid to ask, “Please tell me, not with my horse?”

“Nope, worse,” replied Jelly, in a sorrowful voice, “He stole Rio, Murdoch's white stallion and forced Cal to go with him.”

 

---12---

The dog Pippin sat down for the second time that morning, feeling left out. First, the blonde-haired boy he loved more than anything in the world, took off on a white horse with the mean kid Nate. Cal had ordered him, Pippin, to stay while the ornery Nate had pointed a pistol at him, which the dog knew could blaze death if fired.

Now, the man with the dark hair and pink shirt, who scratched him behind the ears and gave him table-scraps while eating, ordered him to stay, while he rode out on the golden horse after his master, the blonde-haired boy.

Pippin had been confused when the dark haired man and the light haired man, dressed in a royal blue shirt, had raised their voices and were shouting at each other over the responsibility of the mean kid Nate. The dark haired man had even waved his fist under his brother's nose, thus ending the quarrel. Scott turned around and walked out of the barn with a sly smile. Johnny rubbed his head, his eyes sadly following his brother. A moment later, he mounted his horse.

A command was given from Johnny, “Pippin, stay and keep an eye on ‘em all.”

The dog followed Johnny out to the corral gate, where a cowboy opened it for him. Then the dark haired man scouted around the pasture until he found what he was looking for. Turning his horse southwest, he easily followed the white horse's tracks into the unknown. Pippin watched until Johnny was out of sight.

Now, feeling lost, the dog made his way to the house where the giant, with the Silver Star and the tall gray haired man were mounting up on their horses. In a few seconds, they also were galloping down the road, headed north.

Pippin nosed the cat on the sunny porch. He got a claw mark in his snout for the trouble and to make matters worse, the scentless skunk turned her tail up at him. The dog, bereft, walked over to Jelly who was sitting on a chair by the adobe wall, nursing his head with a damp cloth. The goose and rooster were quietly perched above his head.

Jelly, spying the dog, bellyached, “What good are ya for? Ya didn't even stop ‘em boys.” The dog put his head down, feeling dejected.

A few moments later, he heard the front door slam and Pippin ran around to it in time to see Scott mount his horse.

“Stay Pippin,” ordered the soft voice of the man who had rescued him from the desk clerk in Uppity. The dog lowered his head again, but then was rewarded, when Scott saw his sad continence. “Don't worry, Pippin. I'll help find Cal and keep an eye on Johnny for ya. He'll probably be sore and want my head, but like it or not, he's in no condition to find them on his own.” With that said, he turned his horse and followed in the direction his brother had gone.

Pippin finally walked up to the kitchen door to find it solidly closed. He whined and clawed at the door, looking for Leah, his mistress or the nice dark haired lady, who had fed him breakfast. The door remained closed. Letting out a breath of air, which sounded much like a sigh, Pippin circled three times and curled up on the stoop. Some days it really wasn't a dog's world.

 

---13---

Cal was terrified. He hadn't a clue where they were headed. When he'd asked the question, Nate had responded, “Just shut up! Ya give me any trouble and I'll shoot ya dead on the spot!”

They'd been riding for hours. Nate had set a punishing pace. Cal's backside clear to his toes was numb from sitting behind the saddle so long. He felt sorry for Rio, for Nate only let him rest a few minutes at a time and drink very little water. He was thankful Nate didn't have a whip for he could only imagine what the horse would've looked like by the time they reached their destination…if they ever get there.

He still couldn't believe Nate had clamped a hand over his mouth while they had been sleeping, made him get dressed, then forced him out to the barn. Nate had creepily whispered in his ear that he had Jelly's gun and that he'd use it on the old man if Cal made a peep. What choice did I have? None. Surely Johnny and Scott have found us missing by now. I hope Jelly's okay. Nate sure hit him hard with that gun when Jelly followed us out to the barn, no thanks to Dew Drop and Chuck. Geez, I didn't know they could make such a rumpus. I'm surprised they didn't wake the whole ranch with their caterwauling.

The only good thing was Nate couldn't get Barranca out of his stall. Johnny sure pulled a fast one on ‘im. No matter what he did, he couldn't make him go. I would've laughed if Jelly hadn't been layin on the floor bleedin like a stuck pig. I'm glad Johnny never told me what the trick was to get'em to move. At least, that ways I didn't have to lie, for I'm sure Nate would've seen right through me.

The horse stumbled nearly giving Cal a heart attack. “Nate, ya gotta let him rest. You're gonna kill him!”

Thankfully, Nate pulled up on the reins. “Okay, get down, but don't try anything.”

Cal gratefully slid off the backend of the lathered horse. When he touched the ground his numb legs couldn't hold him up and he fell on his backside. He could see Rio's sides laboring hard, as he fought for breath.

Nate dismounted and drank some water out of the canteen not offering any to Cal or the horse. When he had his fill, he poured some over his head to cool himself off.

Cal sat back on his elbows and rested. “Ya better save some for Rio or we won't be going very far. That horse is ready to drop. I'm surprised ya haven't broken his wind yet.”

Nate laughed. “Nah, Murdoch Lancer only owns the best horses. This one has more stamina then ya give ‘im credit for.”

“Ya know you're never gonna get away with this.”

“Don't matter if I get away with it. As long as we get to where we're going.”

Cal didn't understand that statement. “So, where are we going and why'd ya have to steal the horse?”

“To make my pappy proud.”

“You're doing it for your pa?”

“Yup sure am kid. My pa's eyes are gonna light up when he sees what I brung ‘im.”

 

---14---

Johnny's head was pounding in earnest when he found another shiny marble. Each marble had a kernel of corn or a lump of sugar close to it. The tracks had been pretty easy to follow for Nate hadn't taken the time to hide them. It was only when they'd reached a rocky surface that Johnny had more trouble keeping track of Rios's hoof prints.

Barranca had actually found the first lump of sugar. They had been slowly negotiating a steep incline and had just made it to the top of the plateau when Johnny spied a painted marble . Barranca reached down and nabbed a glistening white cube of sugar before Johnny could stop him. He tried to remember everything Cal had in his pockets when they'd stopped to camp in the field the night before. So now, every so many miles, a bright colored marble, a piece of chicken feed or a treat for the horse were found in a conspicuous place, usually when Nate changed directions or altered course.

At the end of the day, they crossed a familiar stream. “We've been through here before,” Johnny said to his horse. But, we were headed home. I wish we were headed home. Barranca stopped and slurped some water. Johnny shivered as if someone had walked over his grave. “I don't like this Barranca. This is the way to Cold River.” He was so cold, he turned around in the saddle and pulled his brown coat from the top of his bed roll and put it on. His headache increased twofold and he thought about taking another pill. But, I haven't eaten in hours. The last thing I need is to shoot the cat with those stupid pills. Just the thought made him unconsciously rub his belly.

After crossing the creek, Johnny found a blue cat-eyed marble on the ground beside the water. He got down off his horse and picked up the shiny boulder.  I'm gonna have a whole pocketful of these by the time we're done. At least, Cal's collection will be complete for the most part. He remounted his horse and cupped his chin in his hand, seriously thinking about all he'd seen.   How obvious can Nate be? The horseshoe tracks are right out in the open. The bushes have broken branches and the grass has been trampled. This is getting way too easy. Does Nate want me to follow him? If so, why? If he really wanted to join the Calvary why kidnap Cal? Why not just steal a horse and go? And above all, why is he headed to Cold River? To rejoin his old gang? That doesn't make sense. Didn't Val say he was done with it? Or had Nate just lied from the get go? Had it all been a ploy to make Val go easy on him? Gain sympathy? Of course, Val did say the rustlers were headed this way. There's a hidden canyon on Abbott land somewhere by the Genesis mine. I imagine once they have enough cows and horses they'll probably herd them up to the ranch's holding pens and wait for the army to come and buy them. I once overheard Murdoch and the giant discussing the legit contract Josiah Abbott holds with the army. After all, he still owns the ranch. Is that where Nate is headed?

The closer Johnny got to Cold River the more apprehensive he became. Cold River was where the rest of the Abbott family lived. Cold River was where everything had started years before with Judah Abbott, Dr. Banning and Murdoch. Cold River was where he won a checker game. Cold River was where Scott had almost died because of him.

I know Murdoch said it wasn't my fault, that I had been Abbott's pick to play his disgusting game. But, I can't stop hearing the gunshots. I can't stop seeing Talbot's face as he shut the door, locking me in the dark. They haunt me at the strangest times. The fear just won't go away. It even follows me into my sleep and every time I see a checker game I practically quake in my boots.

I did the right thing making Scott stay home. I don't have to worry about him dying again. After all, isn't it three strikes and you're out? Abner Doubleday invented that new game baseball, now called America's favorite past time. Ya hit the ball and run around the bases before the ball comes back to a player that tries to take ya out. If you're lucky you make it all the way around the bases and slide into home. Kinda like the game of life. If you make the right choices in life, ya get further around the bases before you're taken out. And if you have luck to go along with those correct choices, you might even make it home.  

Of course, like Leah said, it's not if ya win or lose, its how you play the game that counts. Sometimes you have to have luck to win. Sometimes ya have to make your own luck. Dear Lord, please help me to make a home run and bring Cal home safe and sound.

 

---15---

Scott guessed he wasn't far behind his brother . So far so good, Johnny hasn't picked up on my presence, which is unusual in itself. He must be pushing hard to catch up to Nate and Cal. I dread the moment he figures it out. What am I going to tell him? He'll never believe it's just because I'm worried about him. I know he's been on his own for years and that he's his own man. But dang it, I'm his brother. I have the right. No one can go it alone forever. And besides, I care about him and yes, I love him too. I'm man enough to admit it. Someday I'll even tell him true to his face if the right moment ever comes up.

Scott halted the bay in the middle of a brook. The brown horse bent down and slurped some cool water as Scott helped himself to some from his canteen.

“Buster, you're doing pretty well for a green horse. I know you've had little training, but you've got strength and endurance.” He bent down and gave the horse a pat on the neck. “You're definitely one of Johnny's better picks. I just hope he doesn't shoot me when he finds me on top of you.”

Jelly had already turned Scott's bay out to the south pasture and there'd been no time to go back and retrieve him. Besides, Scott wanted to give his horse a long rest before their next adventure, so he had borrowed Buster from the corral.

After resting for a few minutes, Scott pulled up on the reins, “Okay boy, lets go.” He firmly kicked the horse in his sides and Buster leaped forward anxious to run. “Easy boy,” ordered Scott, in a gentle voice. “We have plenty of time. Johnny's leaving a nice easy trail a blind man could follow.” He thought about that a moment. This wasn't like his brother. “Buster, do you think Johnny's onto us?”

They cleared the water and headed up a large hill, which lead to a dry arroyo on the other side. Scott, too, knew they were headed to Cold River. “Nothing good ever happens in Cold River,” said Scott, feeling nauseated. Johnny's not ready for this yet. I can see why Murdoch chose not to tell us about their plans. He was probably relieved that we had our own plans to move Leah and Cal.

He followed the waterless creek bed, his horse running into Barranca's shoe prints. Then Johnny's horse's hooves blended into Rio's tracks. The gulch ran in a southernly direction until the tracks veered sharply to the right and went up the bank to a rocky trail hidden in the shadows.

Buster easily made it up the bank and onto the dark trail, dodging a layer of rocks that led up the mountain pass. Suddenly, a grey mouse ran out from under a rock followed by a snake eager for his supper. Both critters entangled themselves in the horse's front feet, spooking the horse. Buster reared and Scott, having no time to prepare, tumbled off the horse, falling backwards down the path into the sandy gully. Landing painfully on his back, the breath knocked out of him, he witnessed his horse high-tailing it up the shady track.

Great! Of all the rotten luck! Scott moaned, as he lay there not moving. He tried to get up only to find his left shoulder really hurt. A moment later he realized he was on top of a small rock. He tried to maneuver off the rock onto his left side, for it was closer to the ground. He squirmed and moved an inch at a time, finally letting gravity take its course as he rolled off the granite onto his stomach in the dirt. Breathing hard, he tested the movement of his shoulder and was relieved to find, he hadn't broken it. Bruised. Whew! He then tucked his knees underneath his stomach and with some difficulty sat up and leaned against the rock.

Scott took stock of his surroundings and didn't like the circumstances. Evening will be falling soon. I have no horse, no gear and, no shelter. I'm out here in the middle of nowhere with no one knowing my whereabouts. Johnny's gonna kill me for losing his horse if I don't die from exposure first.  

A growl came from high above. With his heart rate increasing, Scott looked up. Shucks! A cougar was perched on a cliff overlooking the land. Looks just like the one that mauled Jelly all those years ago. There were only a couple things he could do. Hoping his brother was still within earshot, he drew his Colt and fired off three rounds in quick succession, then holstered his gun.

Carefully, while holding his elbow, Scott struggled to his feet and gradually climbed his way to the top of the bank. Giving his body a rest, he worked his shoulder, trying to get rid of the pain. The exercise helped some, but he knew it would be sore for some time to come. Heavily sighing and wishing his brother would hurry up, Scott walked up the incline of the mountain once more, hoping to find a place for shelter and to start a fire. In the distance, he heard the mountain cat howl again. 

 

---16---

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Murdoch had just dismounted from his horse and was looping the reins around the hitching post, when two very upset women came racing from one of the veranda's glass doors.

“Murdoch!” yelled Teresa, reaching him first and giving him a quick hug.

A more refined, “Mr. Lancer,” came from Leah, though he could tell she was just as anxious as his ward.

Murdoch slipped an arm around both their shoulders and started them towards the back door.

“Murdoch, Matt woke up!”

Leah, cut in with, “We got it wrong.”

“What wrong?” said Murdoch, halting their progress towards the house. He had a feeling he wasn't going to like this.

“He asked for Scott and Johnny right off the bat,” cried Teresa, grabbing onto Murdoch's vest.

“We got the wrong brother,” declared Leah, wringing her hands. “The trap's not for the lawmen.”

Teresa again, “Though it now could be if Nate knows anything and gets to the rustlers first.”

Leah talking over Teresa, “The trap's for your sons,”

“Especially, Johnny!” overrode Teresa.

“What?” barked Murdoch, adding, “Slow down and start from the beginning!”

“We know who Nate is,” said both women.

Astounded, Murdoch said, “Get her said! Who is he?”   

The women quickly told him.

Jelly came out of his quarters with a variety of animals at his heels, including the dog. “Boss did ya hear…?” It was as far as he got before Murdoch requested a fresh horse, tack and gear from a passing cowhand.

Turning to the women he commanded, “I need a dirty shirt from Scott and Johnny and something with Cal's scent on it.”

“Right away,” said the women, running for the house.

“Ya taking Pippin with ya?” asked Jelly, worried, but smiling at the dog.

“Yes. Why not? He's a hunting dog. What quicker way is there to find them?”

A horse was cut from the corral and Murdoch quickly transferred his saddle and gear onto it. Teresa brought what food stuff she could quickly pack while Leah brought the needed shirts. Murdoch bent down to the dog and let him sniff. “Got the scent boy? Ya ready to run?”

The dog danced with glee, prancing about.

Jelly said, “Being Nate ran with the Abbott gang, ya think they're headed to Cold River?”

“Undoubtedly. Where in Cold River I don't know, though I'd guess the Abbott ranch.” Murdoch mounted his horse. “When Val or Tim ride in…”

“I'll give ‘em the whole scoop,” said Jelly.

A moment later Murdoch was off with Pippin leading the way.

 

---17---

Scott hiked to a ridge within the mountain and stopped to rest. His shoulder pained him each time he tried to use it. The moon was on its way up and the sun was almost down. Dusk is falling and where is Johnny? Didn't he hear my gunshots? Or is he just toying with me, making me sweat for coming after him?

The sound of a horseshoe striking rock brought his eyes further up the slope. A man on a dark horse, leading another dark, rider-less horse came into view and stopped a few feet above Scott. It's defiantly not Johnny.

“Don't shoot. I'm coming down,” said a voice from the past. He slowly descended to where Scott could clearly see him. He had Buster by the reins. “This here fine animal, yours?” asked the man, who looked like Val, but wasn't Val Crawford.

“Dra…Drago?” nervously, asked Scott, holding his elbow. The two men looked identical and could easily pass for brothers. The other man stared at him for a few moments.

“Scott Lancer?” asked the man, not sure. “Is that really you?”

“Right as rain,” affirmed Scott with trepidation, putting his hand on his gun.

“Steady, man,” said Drago. “I got ya covered,” he showed him his gun, sitting on his lap, pointed at Scott, “and I go by my legal name now.”

“What's that?”

“Drake Crawford.”

“Drake Crawford?” repeated Scott confused, “You any relation to Val Crawford, the U. S. Marshal? You could pass for his twin.”

“Don't know anything about that, though I've had other people mention the fact.” He lowered the gun. “Course, I never knew who my pa was, so who knows?” He smiled.

Scott nodded and pondered again where his brother was, “Where's Violet? And I thought you were heading to Mexico?”

“Funny thing about all that. Ya see, Violet and me made it down close to Genesis when she took awful sick something fierce. She was suddenly tired all the time and kept heaving in the mornings.”

He paused, seeing Scott's concern and waved his hand. “Aw don't worry. She's fine now. Like I said, we made it by the way of Genesis. We ran into a mutual acquaintance, who was also among the willows.” At Scott's questioning air, he clarified, “Dodging the law.”

“Oh. Why am I not surprised?”

 Drago, a little irked, persisted, “Anyways, I took her to the new doctor my friend told me about, in the quaint little mining town. He seemed friendly and trustworthy enough and we found out she was with child.”

Scott sucked in his breath, though not really thunderstruck. People have kids all the time, outlaws included. It'd be a rough life on the run, always looking over your shoulder.

Smiling and proud, Drago continued, “Well, we got hitched, but only after Violet made me promise to become an out-standing, upright citizen.”

“Really?” skeptically asked Scott, but more than interested in the story. He often wondered what had happened to the couple.

“Yeah, ya bet your boots I did it too,” confirmed Drago, getting down off his horse. He handed Scott Buster's reins. “I became partners with the liveryman in town and am now, a tried and true black smithy, makin a decent, honest livin.”  The last was said a little mockingly.

Not sure if he believed him or not, Scott negatively shook his head, “Here, I thought you'd be living high on the hog with all the tax money from Spanish Wells.”

“Ah, well, there is a problem with that,” agreed Drago, looking a bit peeved.

“Go on,” said Scott, curious and folding his arms in front of him. Now, I've got to hear this, for he's probably telling the truth.

Holding up his thumb and first finger an inch apart, Drago explained, “We used a tiny bit of it to get started. Ya know, bought a small house, and started up a business and such, not to mention a family.”

“Ya spent the whole ten thousand?” interrupted Scott, holding out his hands for emphasis and not surprised in the least.

“No,” contradicted the ex-buscadero, a little testy, “we skimmed a few dollars, but it's all back in the kitty waiting for me to turn it back in.”

“Turn it back in?” repeated Scott, truly amazed and not buying it.

“What? Ya don't believe me?”

“No, I don't,” frankly said Scott, not sure where this was going. Leopards don't change their spots and where the hell is Johnny?

Affronted, the bad man turned good guy said, “Look Scott, all we need is someone to turn the money back in for us and, come up with a story the law would swallow.” Drago holstered his gun much to Scott's relief. “And it has to be from someone that is honest and well respected.”

“Namely me?”

“Yeah, you'll do,” grinned the former outlaw, then in a more thoughtful tone added, “Violet really wants us to be good, law abidin citizens for our boys' sake.”

“Boys? You have more than one?”

“Yup, and I bet ya can't guess what we named our first born?”

“Not Johnny, I hope,” said Scott, sarcastically.

“No, course not Johnny,” grouched Drago, “Ya want me to be reminded of him all the time?”

“Well under the circumstances, no.”

“We named him Lance, after you,” stated the proud papa. “And let me get this straight, it was my idea and not Violets.”

“No?” said Scott in disbelief, but pleased at the same time. “Why's that?”

“Because it was you who made the difference in our lives. You made us see we had choices.” He nervously played with his horse's reins. “And we wanted to be reminded to stay on the straight and narrow, especially me. What better way to do it than naming our kid after the man who helped us?”

Scott got the feeling he meant it. He heaved a sigh. Why not? Spanish Wells would get their tax money back even though it's a few years late. No harm no foul, right? And we'd have an outstanding black smith as a law abiding citizen to boot.

“So ya'll do it?” Drago asked with hope. He could see Scott contemplating it. “I'll sweeten the pot.”

“How so?”

“I'll tell ya where the rustler's secret canyon is.”

“Now, ya got my attention,” came a shout from the ledge above their heads. “And what's wrong with the name Johnny anyways?” asked Scott's brother, coming into full view.

“Madrid! So good of you to drop in,” returned Drago, grinning broadly, as Johnny descended from the rocks.

Johnny walked up to the pair giving Drago a suspicious look and his brother, who was still holding Buster's reins, an annoyed one.

Scott, in the way of an apology, said, “It's a long story that can keep.” He could see it didn't appease his brother one bit. He looks so dragged out. Not seeing Cal or Nate he dared ask, “You have any luck finding them?”

“No, but I think I know where they might be headed.”

“Ya talkin about those boys on a white horse?” asked Drago.

He got a glare from Johnny and a nod from Scott.

Johnny, in a hard voice, “What do you know about them?”

“Passed ‘em a ways down the road and that they're riding towards Abbott land. The older kid's one mean young'un, especially to animals.” He reached up and patted his horse, then said, “I surely wouldn't want ‘im touchin my horse.”

Johnny bit out, “How would ya know this, you being such an upright citizen and all?”

Drago let out a breath, downhearted. He's a hard one alright. It's a good thing Violet only fantasied about him. Otherwise, I really would've had to kill him. Feeling angry all over again at his former rival, (though Johnny never knew how deep it went or the private details) and knowing his chances were dwindling on getting the money returned, he said, “Even the bad boys need a blacksmith once in a while.”  He looked Johnny square in the eye, “I might be retired, but I'm not dead. I still hear things upon occasion.”

Johnny returned the look, not giving an inch, but knew what he said was true. He didn't want this man anywhere near his brother, upright citizen or not. I don't trust him. Besides, I can't forgive him for all the pain he caused Scott and the rift we almost had because of him.

Johnny point blank replied, “Tell us what ya know about the canyon and we'll let the law decide what to do with the money. Val will be here soon enough.”

“Val, the guy that looks like me?” quipped Drago.

Not smiling, Johnny nodded once. He could plainly see the resemblance. Boy, he is the spittin image of Val.

“Fair enough. He can't be all bad if he looks like me. But, I have one request and I won't back down on this.”

The Lancer boys paid attention, for they could tell he was serious.

“I'm not gonna tell ya where I live. I have to protect my family at any and all cost. I love 'em too much and I want them kept safe no matter the outcome. And if the money thing don't work out, I'll live with the consequences of the choices I made back in the day.”

“Fair enough,” said Scott.

There it was again. Choices and a man protecting his family against all odds. Love and family sure can change a man. Johnny understood that feeling well enough. He observed his brother, as he agreed with Drago. I might even forgive Scott for takin out a green horse, providing he doesn't get killed by him in the process. Of course, Scott knows horses, as well as I do, so who am I to talk?

“Johnny,” said Scott, bringing him out of his thoughts, “Ya in or out?”

“I'm in.” What choice do I have? The man wants a better life for his family. Who can argue with that? Murdoch could. He'd say it on principle alone. I can hear him now. ‘It's not for us to decide. It's up to a judge and a court of law. He did steal that money. People almost died that day.' Oh, Murdoch, I know you're so right. So, what do we do about it?

Reluctantly, with a pounding headache, Johnny joined Scott and listened to what the former bandit had to tell them about the hidden canyon. 

 

---18---

They'd camped further up the mountain where Johnny had left Barranca under a ledge by a small cave, which overlooked the road on the other side. All their horses were now picketed under the same niche for protection. Rain had started to fall in the form of a light mist. They had built a fire by the opening of the cavern. All three men were gathered around it, sharing a pot of coffee when the cougar howled again.

Drago said, “That cat sounds close.”

“Don't remind me,” nervously stated Scott, checking the load on his Colt.

“What? Ya afraid the pussy cat got's your name on his list?” kidded Drago.

“Maybe.” answered Scott. “Years ago one attacked a good friend of ours.” Scott noticeably shuddered. “It sure started a peck of trouble.”

“He's been uneasy around ‘em ever since,” teased Johnny, pulling his own gun from the holster. He spun the cylinder and clicked it back into place.

“Mention a checker game and you react the same way brother,” retorted Scott, gun still in hand, spreading his bedroll by the fire. He laid down with his back against his saddle and winced, for he'd forgotten about his sore shoulder. He turned more onto his side with the gun resting across this belly.

“Point taken, brother,” replied Johnny, apologetic.

Facing the outlaw on the other side of the fire with his head practically touching Scott's feet, Johnny rolled up in Barranca's blanket. Colt in hand, he propped it in the crook of his left elbow and pointed it in the direction of Drago.

The fugitive got the message and with new respect silently nodded to the gun hawk.

 Johnny laid his dark head against the saddle and cautiously closed his blue eyes. You think I'm gonna trust ya just because you've gone straight and started a new life? Well, think again or my name ain't Johnny Madrid.

Drago curiously asked, “A cat and a checker game? You guys need to explain.”

“Later,” said Johnny, “I'm beat.” A moment later he was asleep.

“He always fall asleep that easy?”

“Johnny always sleeps well,” said Scott, remembering when the brothers first met and Johnny had boasted about it. Just don't include the nightmares. “But, I'll warn ya, he sleeps with his ears open.”

“Huh?” asked Drago, lying down on his own bedroll.

Scott fell into a restless sleep with nightmares of a cat slinking around their campsite. He felt the soft fur and heard the low purr, almost as if it was right beside him. He could have sworn he felt the cold nose and long whiskers tickle his face.

Drago left at the crack of dawn, stating, “I've got black-smithen business to take care of. Don't worry, I'll catch up with ya all later.” He mounted up and was gone from sight in a matter of minutes, heading northwest.

Sitting with his back against the wall, inside the cave, his gun still in his hand, Scott said, “He lives here someplace.”

“Yup,” said Johnny, yawning. “How else does he know what's what around here.” He sat up and added, “I wonder how the boys fared last night?”

“Probably better than us,” said Scott, still pressed against the wall, rubbing his shoulder, his gun now on his lap. He couldn't stop shaking and hoped his brother wouldn't notice. “You bring any of those pills with ya?”

Johnny looked sharply at him and frowned, noticing his brother kneading his shoulder. But that wasn't what made him frown. There's fear in his eyes. Not having a clue why, Johnny looked around the cave and outside, finding nothing. He lightly teased, “Buster throw you yesterday?”

“No.”

“He buck you off?”

“No.”

Not liking the one word answers, he carefully probed, “Well, how'd ya get separated from him then?”

“A mouse and a snake.” Scott let out a deep breath, as if he'd been holding it.

“Ya didn't fall off ‘im, did ya?” asked Johnny, with a slight grin, sobering when he noticed Scott seem preoccupied with something. What is wrong with him? He pulled the brown, folded packet out of his coat pocket and opened it, taking out two pills. He popped one in his mouth and chased it down with what was left in his coffee cup from the night before.

“Sort of,” came Scott's tentative reply.

Sort of? Pouring what was left of the cold coffee from the pot into Scott's cup, Johnny thought, what am I missing? Surly he's not worried I'm gonna take a chunk of his hide over Buster? He brought the half-filled cup over to his brother and handed it to him with the pill.

Noticing Scott had finished rubbing his shoulder, Johnny pointed to it and asked, “Sleep wrong last night or did ya get that from Buster?”

“Both.”

“Both?” repeated Johnny, starting to worry. “Scott? The cat got your tongue this morning or what?”

Coffee spewed out of Scott's mouth all over Johnny's shirt. Johnny would've given Scott a piece of his mind, except his brother was coughing non-stop. Instead, he pounded on his back, hoping he wasn't choking on the dry pill, for they had a tendency to stick in your throat. 

“Scott!” Still whacking him on the back, Johnny continued to call his name, “Scott! Ya all right?” A few more coughs came out and finally the spasm lessoned to where his brother could take a few breaths.

“Sorry, Scott, I should've told ya, the pills are hard to swallow.”

“Not that,” gasped Scott, still sporadically coughing. “You hear anything last night?”

“Nothing but Drago's snoring. Why?”

He lifted his hand and pointed, “Tracks.”

“Tracks?” repeated Johnny confused.

He followed with his eyes to where Scott had indicated and almost choked himself. Surrounding the area where they had slept were damp paw prints imprinted on the sandy floor, the size of a large cat, leading to and fro from a side tunnel he hadn't notice the night before. It must have been in the shadows.

Needless to say, it didn't take them long to pack up their gear and get the hell out of there.

 

---19---

“What is this place?” asked Cal, wearily, as he slid off Rio's hind end yet again. He'd lost count on how many times he'd done it on the journey there. At least my legs are holdin me up now.

“It's a line shack, dummy, made to look seldom used,” answered Nate, handing Rio's reins over to Cal. “Take Rio to the back. There's a hidden corral amongst the trees and feed in the shed.” At Cal's surprised expression he added, “Don't even think of takin off or I'll shoot your lame friend here.”

“You won't shoot ‘im. What will you surprise your pa with then?”

Nate gave Cal a cold, calculated smile. “It's not just the horse I'm surprising him with. It's who is coming after it and you.”

The Lancers' , thought the boy suddenly sick to his stomach.

“Now, move!” growled Nate, kicking Cal in the seat of the pants, then roughly swatting the horse on the rump to get him to move out of his way.

Forgetting about his tummy ache, Cal, angry himself, spouted off, “It doesn't take anything away from a man to be kind to animals. Can't you see his hoof hurts?”

“I don't care if his foot hurts! And I don't do kind to animals!”

Cal, in a fit of temper, boasted, “When Johnny catches up to ya, you're gonna get more than whopped this time. He's gonna…”

“Gonna what?” asked Nate in a deeper, self-assured tone of voice, which sounded more like a man's voice to Cal. Impatient now, Nate goaded, “Beat me? I already got a good punch off him…had him almost on the ground. If that lousy, Boston-bred brother of his hadn't interfered, I'd a probably won.”

Realizing his mistake, Cal didn't answer. Didn't ma always say boasting got ya in nothing but trouble?

To emphasize his point, Nate pulled out Jelly's gun and spun it around in his hand before putting it back in the holster on his right hip. Cal held his breath as Nate bragged, “And besides, I can shoot as good as Madrid any day of the week. That two-bit, washed up gunfighter's been outta the business a long time.”

Cal, loyal to Johnny to the end, couldn't help himself and made a “tsking” sound as he started to lead Rio to the back of the cabin.

Nate grabbed Cal by the arm and spun him around to face him, then quickly back-handed the twelve-year old, knocking him into Rio's hoofs. The horse pranced nervously aside as Cal hung onto the reins, trying to save face and not cry. The boy slowly stood up and wiped his bloody lip with the back of his shirtsleeve. Rio nudged him in the shoulder as if to give him assurance that he wasn't alone.

Cal squared his small shoulders and looked Nate right in the eye and said, “Well, I guess that proves my point.”

“What point?” asked Nate, not remorseful by any means.

“That yer cruel and a bully through and through.” Cal couldn't explain it. But, he had to get the words out.

“It's in the blood, kid. My whole family's mean.”

“Johnny said the blood we're born with has nothin to do with it. It's a matter of choice. Ya don't have to be nasty.” Cal stiffened his spine, looked over at Rio and continued, missing Nate's angry glare, “It's the way we live our daily lives. A code of conduct…” Cal stopped talking when he turned back towards Nate, who had his hand balled into a fist.

“What is it with you and Johnny Madrid?!” roared Nate, raising his hand again in the air to strike the boy.

Cal stood his ground and waited, knowing it was going to hurt even worse this time. It's what Johnny would do. It's the principle of the thing. Stand up for what you believe in.

“I wouldn't,” cut in a soft voice laced with iron.

 

---20---

Murdoch and Pippin were hot on his sons' trail. The dog had a natural sense for hunting. He had to laugh as he watched Pippin's whiskers twitch, his muzzle sniff the air, darting in all directions. His body zigzagged here and there, weaving through scrub and bush alike.

They'd slept for a short time during the night, under an overhanging ledge, dog, man and horse together. The animals were exhausted. He'd pushed them hard. After feeding the critters, Murdoch himself ate the last piece of johnnycake his boys had somehow missed when gathering up their supplies for the journey. As he sat by the campfire he wondered how they'd all been so blind about Nate. How'd we let a weasel into the family nest? How'd we not see the boy was more man than boy? Because we all could see Johnny in him at that same age and Nate knew how to play the game and sucker us in.

At dawn he threw out the last dregs of coffee from his cup and packed his meager gear back into his saddlebags. He then gave Pippin a sniff of all three of the boy's shirts. They were off again. The rest had given the dog and horse new life in the pursuit of his sons.

 

---21---

Johnny commiserated with his brother as they rode towards Cold River. “Stomach bothering you, Scott?” His brother had a green cast to his complexion.

“A bit. I see now what you meant about taking those pills without food.” Scott swallowed hard. “Now, I don't think I could eat a bite if I had too.”

Holding Barranca's reins in his left hand, Johnny reached into his saddlebag behind him with his gun hand and pulled out a red, checkered napkin where a big chunk of cornbread was nestled on top of a slice of ham. He easily split the food in half and handed Scott a portion.

“Here, eat this. It'll settle your stomach.” At Scott's look of wonder, he added, “I grabbed it while the big guys were lookin after Jelly.”

Gingerly taking the food, for he didn't know if his stomach could handle it, Scott replied, “You must've gotten the last piece. All I landed up with was air tights of peaches and beans.”

“Beggars' can't be choosers,” said Johnny, noticing his brother's wince when he'd reached for his breakfast. “So, tell me again how you and Buster got separated and how bad is your shoulder, brother?”

A slight blush permeated his face. “Put it this way, my dignity is more bruised than my shoulder.” Scott took a bite of food and chewed slowly.

Johnny got the feeling his brother wasn't going to tell him the whole story. He studied his brother casually and noticed the ease with how he rode Buster. He's one with the horse, totally self-assured. They're a good match. Johnny smiled to himself.

They had followed the road and turned onto Abbott land where Drago had told them he had last seen Cal and Nate. The path was trampled and easy to track for the mud had hardened into packed prints. Long hours went by and the tracking was tedious.

“Where do ya think they're heading? To the Abbott ranch or the canyon?” asked Johnny, bored with keeping his own counsel.

Scott, aroused from his own thoughts, said, “I think they're headed to the line shack.”

Johnny inwardly shuddered, “The line shack?”

“Yes,” said Scott. “I always had the feeling it was kind of a meeting place for the Abbott and Talbot gang members.” At Johnny's puzzled expression he went on, “I don't know, maybe it was the way it was set up. They had stores, ammunition and supplies all over the place…a corral was hidden in back…”

“I don't remember any of that,” replied Johnny a bit annoyed. “But then, when we arrived we were hustled into the back room where we were made to play that…that atrocious checker game.” He stopped talking not wanting to remember how he'd almost lost it in the dark room afterwards, thinking his brother was dead. I'll never play checkers again.

Scott finished up for his brother, “Johnny, you were unconscious and Tim had carried you out to his horse when you left. When I left, it was still daylight and I got a good look around in spite of everything that happened to me that day.”

Johnny digested all that Scott had said. “Okay, so tell me where are we then?”

Scott quickly explained and pointed in each direction as he did so. “Cold River is due southeast. The Abbott ranch itself is west of Cold River. Genesis is fifteen miles southwest of it. The Genesis mine and the canyon where we played that ridiculous game is a few miles west of Genesis. The line shack is northeast of the mine. Abbott land encompasses the whole north section of land above Cold River.”

They were coming to a rocky incline when Barranca suddenly stopped and reached for an apple core laying on the ground.

“What is he doing?” asked Scott, mystified.

Johnny getting off his horse ordered, “Look for a marble.”

“A marble?”

“Yeah, any color. They're from Cal's collection.” Closely studying the trodden ground, Johnny walked near where his horse had spied the treat. “The kid must've had a whole pocket full of them.”

“Oh, that explains it,” answered Scott, dismounting and tightly gripping Buster's reins, as he looked over the rough terrain. “Like bread crumbs.”

Both boys could see why Cal had dropped the hint. The land was riddled with hoof prints going in all directions and up the hill. It was obviously a main thoroughfare across Abbott land.

Johnny, walking up the slight slope, complained, “The marble must've rolled. I don't see it anywhere.” He walked further up, then back down looking along the edge of the trail. No luck. Giving up, he then studied the muddy tracks trying to decipher Rio's lame hoof print among the mixture of horseshoes. Johnny had picked up on Rio's injured hoof a ways back, where the boys had stopped to rest.

Scott remounted Buster and rode him to the top of the hill. Something's familiar about this place. He rode up the slope of the next huge peak and stopped on the ridge. Memories unexpectedly abounded.

“Johnny!” shouted Scott, in his mind, seeing his brother bound by his wrists and hanging over a large mound of rocks.

Now, totally distressed, in a low voice he repeated, “Oh, Johnny.”  

Scott was on the edge of the canyon behind the mine where his brother had made the run for his life. The place still looks the same after Val accidently dynamited it. How can I forget? How will Johnny ever forget? His nightmares are often brutal.

Knowing Johnny would follow him up there and not wanting his brother to be reminded of the sick game they'd been forced to play, Scott quickly turned his horse around to cut Johnny off from the sight. He was too late. Johnny, white-faced, was already beside him, though slightly behind him, staring off into the barren space. Scott's stomach cramped and he thought for sure he was going to toss his breakfast. In pain, he softly called his brother's name.

“Johnny?”

Peeling his eyes away from the sight, Johnny comforted his brother, for he'd heard Scott's anguished murmur. “I'm all right, Scott.” He turned back towards the gravel pit and said, “It looks smaller than what I remember.” He actually laughed. It sounded hollow to both their ears. “This ridge is where you and the train crew defended me?”

“Yes,” replied Scott, cautiously. He felt his brother was searching for something and quietly waited for Johnny to go on.

Shaken with his own memories from the happenings of the last few months, Johnny tried to appease his mind and accept the reasons for all the pain, fear and now anger he was feeling. He had more questions than answers. He rubbed his temple for his headache was back.

“Why? Why did Abbott have to put us all through this? There had to be more than just revenge.”

Scott shrugged his shoulders. “I don't know why, but I can guess. Judah Abbott just couldn't accept how his life had turned out. He couldn't accept the fact that he, himself, was ultimately the reason for his son's suicide brought on by his own decisions and actions.”

Johnny took up Scott's train of thought, “So, he had to blame someone else, namely Dr. Banning and our father because Murdoch stood beside him. Abbott couldn't accept the choices he had made. He chose the wrong path and took his son with him.” Johnny heaved a big sigh, still trying to get a handle on his feelings. Choices. Always choices. I had to make a choice to stay at Lancer. Thank God it turned out to be the right one. “So much blood on my hands.”

Scott knew he wasn't talking about the injuries to his hands from the line shack. Guilt? For what? Staying alive? Or does he mean when he was a gunfighter?

“Johnny, Murdoch said at the end he could see the insanity in Abbott's eyes. You had no choice, but to kill him. It was either him or you and I would much prefer it to be him.” Finally, we're getting to the bottom of Johnny's anger, his nightmares and maybe even his headaches. “Don't you remember how he looked? How he acted?”

“I couldn't even see straight then. I went by the tone of Abbot's voice, the cock of his gun and then Murdoch tried to cover me. I guess my gunfighter instincts kicked in.”

“Well, your instincts were right on or we wouldn't be having this conversation.”

Johnny grinned, pleased with Scott's logic. “Okay brother, I believe you. Now, tell me your side of the story from the time we parted company from the line shack until you found me at the end of the game, for I've never heard it. I've only gotten Murdoch's and Tim's version and you know they have a tendency to leave things out.”

“Like what, little brother?” chuckled Scott, as he led the way to the line shack.

Johnny turned his horse and fell in beside him, ignoring the fact they were headed to the shack where a checker game had been played.

“Like, there's more to the story.”

“How so?”

“Josiah Abbott and the rustlers for one thing. And then there's Nate. Did he really leave the gang or was that Val's wishful thinking because he reminded Val of me in my tender years?”

“I think we'll just have to ask him when we get to the shack,” answered Scott.

No! Johnny's face turned ashen again and he swallowed hard, forcing himself to face his fear.

“You do know that's where they're headed?”

Johnny nodded, resolute now. “I found the tracks.”

This time Scott sighed. One problem solved and one to go. How do you cure a fear of a checker game? As they rode, Scott filled him in with his version of the story.

 

---22---

The Lancer brothers circled once around the line shack to make sure trouble wasn't afoot. They hid their horses by a large rock wall sitting behind the hidden corral in the trees. Slowly they crept up to the horse enclosure and stopped at the gate. Cal and Nate were in plain sight and they could clearly hear the argument. Johnny was proud and alarmed at the same time, hearing Cal's comments to the older boy. A moment later, Nate raised his fist to Cal.

Johnny's blood was boiling, as he and Scott approached the boys. Softly, he ordered, “I wouldn't.”

Nate, caught with his fist in the air, decided to swing anyways. Before he could, Scott, behind Cal, snatched him out of the way, as Johnny tackled the bully.

Cal, never so grateful, buried his face in Scott's chest, then immediately stiffened feeling foolish. He raised his head and Scott could see the pain in the boy's eyes as blood dripped down his chin.

“I'm not cryin. I'm just glad to see ya,” spouted the boy.

Scott empathized with the boy and swiped the blood off Cal's chin with his thumb. “I know you're too big to cry and there sure is a lot of dust in the air around here.” Heaven forbid if I insult a twelve-year old boy about tears. He'll learn soon enough.

Relieved, Cal smiled, making his lip split apart. Scott handed him his neckerchief and Cal dabbed at his mouth. “This ain't the first time I've been hit. Why are people so mean to each other?”

“I don't know, but Johnny is sure teaching Nate a good lesson.”

“Nate needs the stuffing beat' in outta ‘im,” said Cal, licking his injured lip. He found his tongue wouldn't leave the wound alone.

Johnny and Nate were still on the ground, rolling around, punching each other. Scott could only imagine the headache his brother was going to have again when this was over. Johnny gave as good as he got and it looked like Nate was losing.

Noticing Rio was holding his back, right hoof in the air, Scott asked, “Cal, what's wrong with Rio's foot?”

Tearing his eyes away from the fight, Cal answered, “Nate practically rode him into the ground. I think he might've picked up a stone or something.” He turned back to the fight.

Remembering a prior discussion with Johnny about Cal's questionable hero worship of his brother, Scott decided Cal needed another distraction. Putting a hand around the boy's neck, he demanded, “Come on. Rio needs our attention.”

“But what if Nate cheats on Johnny and sucker punches him again?”

“Don't worry. Johnny's a bar room brawler. He can take care of himself. He's done it for years. Besides, we can keep an eye on them from the corral.”

A punch was heard as the combatants climbed to their feet. Nate stumbled like he was dizzy and fell into Johnny. A fist came flying towards Johnny's face, but this time Johnny blocked it.

“See? No one gets one over on my brother.” Scott, proud of his brother, couldn't help but add, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

“Had enough yet?” asked Johnny, breathing hard with his hands still fisted.

Nate stood there insolent as ever, taking in deep breaths with his hands balled.

“Looks like they're getting to the tongue lashing part,” said Scott, dropping his hand from Cal's neck. “They don't need us gawking.” He turned and walked in the direction of the corral, giving an order as he went, “Bring Rio. Now!”

Reassured, Cal grabbed Rio's reins and followed Scott to the corral. Once inside Cal tethered Rio to the fence as Scott bent down and picked up the horse's injured hoof. “You're right Cal. There's a small stone in his shoe. Find me a bucket and put some water in it.”

“Okay Scott, I'll grab some feed too.” Cal ran to the shed attached to the back of the shack and found a feed bag sitting on top of the bin. He filled it with a scoop of oats, then looked for a bucket. Finding a wooden pail by the door, Cal once again took off to where Scott was bent over Rio's hoof.

Checking on his brother, Scott threw a glance towards the fight, which now sounded more like an argument. They're trading words. Sounds like he's doing fine. He could hear Johnny chewing the kid out for stealing Rio.

“You have any idea how much trouble you're in?” shouted Johnny, as he pointed a finger at Nate.

Scott had taken out the stone and now was cleaning out some debris from under the horseshoe. Cal looking on asked, “Shoe loose?”

“Yup, that's the problem. I'm afraid his hoof is a bit bruised.”

Cal moved over to the water trough and filled the bucket, then brought it back to Scott. “Let him have a drink and then we'll put his foot in it.”

Again, Scott cast a look his brother's way. Still swapping words. Oops, there goes another punch. Fights definitely on again.

Cal moved to the front of the horse and sat the bucket down. “Rio's really thirsty. Nate hardly ever gave ‘im any water.”

A grimace crossed Scott's face upon hearing that statement.  I hope Johnny teaches Nate a lesson he won't soon forget. He finished cleaning out the shoe, folded his knife and put it away in his pants pocket.

Cal changed out the bucket for the feed sack and carried the pail back to Scott, who lifted Rio's back leg and slipped his foot into the cool water. They both stood up and Scott murmured, “Was there any hay in the shed?”

“Yeah, tons of it.”

Scott chuckled at the exaggeration. Ruffling Cal's hair, he ordered, “Go get a bale. Our horses could use some too.” The boy turned to go when they heard the cock of a gun.

Turning towards the sound, Scott's heart nearly stopped. Three men stood on the other side of the corral, two he didn't know and one he did. He slid his hand towards his own gun, but stopped short when the man obviously in charge and holding a cocked gun said, “Don't waste my time.”

Rustlers was Scott's first impression. But, the leader seems more like a gunslinger.

Scott slowly put his hands up and stepped in front of Cal. “We don't want any trouble. We just came for the boy.”

The red-headed man Scott knew very well snarled, “Well if it ain't Scott Lancer, the man who broke my nose.”

“That why its so crooked?” quipped the third man, gesturing at the tall man's face.

“Tis,” intimidated the red-head, “and I'm not done yet.” He took a step around the corral in the direction of Scott. The other two men followed. The leader of the group seemed content in letting the man have his way. In fact, the man in charge seemed more interested in the fight up by the shack.

The three men stopped a few feet in front of Scott. The leader, not taking his eyes off the fight, calmly ordered, “Drop your gun belt.” The man seemed aloof, but Scott had the impression he was aware of everything around him.

Scott complied, seeing he had no choice except to fight it out and something told him, in spite of his brother's lessons, he wasn't fast enough. “Now what?”

“Now the fun begins,” said the red-head. “I'm gonna get even.”

Cal quickly moved in front of Scott and blurted out, “Yer nothin but a mean bully, Tom Stryker, and ya deserved to get your nose busted!”

“Whoa kid,” said the leader, finally taking his eyes off the fight. “Didn't yer ma teach ya to think before you speak? Don't ya think one split lip is enough for a day?”

Before Cal could reply, Scott clamped a hand over his mouth and pulled him beside him. “Thanks for the defense, but its not helping.”

Cal squirmed to get loose, but Scott kept a tight hold on his person. He heard Scott say in his most stern voice, the voice he probably used to command the troops, “Enough Cal.”

Cal got the message and stood practically at attention.

“Boys!” spoke the leader, “Always trying to be bigger than they are!” He looked back towards the fight.

Scott wanted to turn around and warn his brother, but the dower face of the gunslinger held him in place.

The man bluntly stated, “I've got business with your brother, Johnny Madrid.”

Scott was taken off guard by the fact the leader knew he and Johnny were brothers. Tom must've filled him in on who we are and our relationship to Cal.

“Tom.” The name was said softly, but with steel in the tone of the gunslinger's voice.

Just like Johnny when he's most angry, thought Scott . Matt's warning popped into his mind. ‘Don't fall for him. It's a trap.' Was Matt referring to Nate? A wolf in sheep's clothing. A groan unintentionally came from Scott. Thankfully, no one heard it except Cal, who glanced up at him with fear and questions in his eyes. We're in deep trouble if this is who I think it is.

The ex-deputy stiffened and waited for his orders.

“Lock these two in the back room. You can have your fun another day.”

Tom started to push his prisoners in the direction of the shack when the man in charge called a halt. “Take them through the back door of the cabin and be quick about it. No noise or the kid gets it.” He turned to the third man, “Follow me.”

Having no choice, Scott, with his hand still on Cal's shoulder, moved in the direction indicated. His heart was heavy and he couldn't shake the feeling of disaster. He glanced over to his brother as he walked and noticed Johnny had both his hands around Nate's neck with his thumbs under the boy's chin. He has the young man's undivided attention and is probably giving him a piece of his mind. Matt's warning nagged him again. ‘Tell brother it's a trap.' Will I ever see him again? Not liking where his thoughts were going, Scott tried to cast them aside.

Tom led them through the feed shed to a connecting door that opened into the kitchen of the shack. After entering, he turned to the right and opened the door to the back room. “Ya should be comfortable in here, though your brother rearranged the furnishings.”

Cal walked through the door first and then Scott, who received a sharp elbow to his ribs as he passed the entranceway. It hurt and took his breath away. Tom laughed and promised there'd be more before he was finished with them. The door slammed shut, the bolt slid home and they were left in the darkness. Scott was beginning to understand how Johnny had felt after the checker game. Alone...alone and desperate.

“Ya got a match Scott?”

“What?”

“A match. I seen a lantern in the corner when we first came in before the door was shut.”

“Oh,” Scott dug a match out of his coat pocket. Lifting his foot, he struck the match against the boot sole, instantly creating a flame. Cupping it with his hand, he trailed Cal to the lamp and lit the wick. The darkness faded and they got their first good look at the small room.

“Wow. Tom wasn't kiddin when he said Johnny rearranged the place,” stated Cal, reaching down to pick up part of the checker board that had been rent in two.

Holding his hand to his bruised ribs, Scott lightly panted. He keenly felt Johnny's apprehension when he'd been left behind in this room. Johnny hates small, dark, closed-in places. Talbot must've bout pushed him over the edge. No wonder he has nightmares.

The place was a mess. Boards from broken furniture were strewn all over the tiny room. Scattered checker pieces, Cal was gathering up, were in every corner. The insect eaten mattresses were ripped to shreds and the straw stuffing covered the floor.

His eyes fell on the old wooden door. The door Johnny tried so hard to open. He pictured his brother's bloody, abused fingers. His nails had been split and broken to the quick and filled with splinters of wood. It had taken Dr. Banning days to pick out all the slivers, as Johnny recovered from the game he'd been forced to play.

Scott walked to the door and put his hands up to the bloody fingerprints on each side of the cracked panel. He leaned his forehead against the rough wood, imagining his brother's hopelessness. His heart beat agonizingly in his chest and he actually felt his brother's pain. When he heard the gunshot, he was sure of it.

 

---23---

The hair raising on the back of Johnny's neck gave him the first sign he was in danger.

The second was Nate's cold, angry eyes turning into a belligerent smile. “I got ya,” choked out the kid, for Johnny's hands were still firmly around his neck. He'd been airing his lungs in no uncertain terms to Nate's unkindly behavior to both boy and horse.

Johnny let go of Nate's neck and stepped back quickly turning around with his hand on his Colt. Too late! Two men were silently approaching him, one definitely a gunslinger with his pistol in hand and cocked. The other looks like a rustler.

Johnny forced himself to take on the bored gun hawk stance, one hip up, most of his weight on one foot, arms crossed in front of him and head ducked down a bit, as he calmly waited for the men to reach him.

Underneath, he was simmering. A trap. He remembered Matt's warning to late. He coolly glanced down at the corral where he knew his brother and Cal had gone, finding only Rio with his hoof in a bucket. He slowly lifted his head, as the men came closer, and gave the hired gunman his Johnny Madrid smile. Fear clutched his belly as he speculated where his brother was. The shack. They must be inside the shack. If so, are they alone or with someone else?

The gunslinger was obviously the leader, his walk was sure and dignified, his demeanor calm. The other man walked behind him, gun now drawn and ready, while he covered his boss's back.

He's comfortable in his own boots , thought Johnny, as the two men stopped a few feet in front of him. He reminds me of me. Who are they? He racked his brain and couldn't place them.

The question was answered for him when Nate greeted them, “Hi Pa. Dewey.”

The answer came swiftly to Johnny's quick mind. Josiah Abbott! We're on his land and at his line shack. I heard once he was gun hawk like me only colder and wilder in his younger years. It all fits. Nate was at the gate because his Uncle, Judah Abbott, wanted him out of the way of his own hired guns. He didn't want him in the fray when the gunfire erupted. When it all fell apart, Nate played his own game.

The greeting returned was simple. “Son.” No warmth or coldness. Just empty eyes that barely glanced at his son.

Johnny was taken back. Surely there's more to their relationship than that? Why it must've been weeks since they'd last seen each other. Even Murdoch had more emotion the first time he met us…and he didn't even know us! No wonder Nate's the way he is.

Johnny glanced over at Nate and noticed the same cold, closed expression as the boy's father. Maybe that's just the way they are. I can hear it now, be strong in front of the men. You have to be tough if ya follow in my boots. Oh, Murdoch thanks so much for pulling me outta there, for giving me a home and a life.

“Johnny Madrid.”

His name was spoken in the same lifeless matter-of-fact tone, putting him in the same category as the man's son.

Johnny only nodded. Makes no difference to me. “Josiah Abbott,” was his quiet reply.

“Now that the introductions are over and you're done teaching my pup some manners, I have a bone to pick with you.”

Johnny had a feeling the conversation was going to be short and to the point.

“Judah Abbott.”

“What about him?” Oh no, not an eye for an eye or a brother for a brother.

“You know the code. Blood is thicker than water.”

Johnny knew. Family always first. Don't I know it? He casually brought his arm down to his waist. If I shoot Abbott first, we might all have a chance. He did a quick onceover to Nate out of the corner of his eye. The boy had his hand on his gun butt. Sorry Nate. Scott comes first.

“Grant you Madrid, I know the game wasn't your idea. My brother and his no good stepson so loved to play their games, but, blood is blood and I can't rightly let ya go.”

“I know,” agreed Johnny. He took the string-guard off the hammer of his gun and waited.

Tom Stryker stepped out onto the porch of the line shack. Seeing Johnny, he couldn't help but boast as he walked down the steps, “Got your brother and Cal all tucked into that little dark room yer so fond of.”

“They'd better be in good health or I'll nail you to the wall. And that's a promise,” coldly stated Johnny.

“There's four of us Madrid,” reminded Tom.

“As I said before, you'll get my first bullet,” repeated Johnny.

“You think ya can beat me?” egged on Tom.

Before Johnny could say anything more, Nate broke in, “Wait a minute. If anyone's going up against Madrid, it's gonna be me!”

“You?” mockingly, said his father. “Nate, you got any idea how fast he is?”

“No. But, I can beat ‘im.”

Oh, the cockiness of youth. Was I ever that foolish? thought Johnny.

“No you can't!” said Abbott, disgusted. “Tom here probably can, but not you.”

Nate scowled and unhappily backed off. Tom beamed from his boss's praise until Abbott said, “Why don't we just find out how fast Madrid is?” He looked between Tom and Johnny. “Tom, didn't you just tell me a short time ago you had to find a way to get rid of Madrid and his brother and the kid? That they were witnesses against you for murdering that doctor in Uppity?”

Tom reluctantly nodded yes. He wasn't quite as sure he could take Madrid now that it came right down to it. Then again, he just finished a fight with Nate. He's tired and rough around the edges. He studied the gunfighter. He's got bruises and cuts to his face. His lip is bleeding and he's breathing a bit fast. Those ribs I broke must still be tender though he's doin a good job of hiding it. Tom smiled.

“Well, then, what better way to do it? A show down.”

“Now, wait a minute,” interrupted Johnny, not liking where this was going. “You're talking about my kin. They're not part of this.”

“Sure they are,” said Abbott. “Your brother killed my step nephew.”

Johnny inhaled sharply.

“Talbot might've been a pompous ass,” Abbott chortled, “maybe more like a donkey's ass, but Nate liked him. My son was pretty much raised with him and Joshua…and Talbot was family.”

Now, Johnny knew why Nate was like he was. He only had Judah and Talbot for examples, while is father was busy being a gunslinger. No principles. Just selfishness and greed.

Abbott went on. “I was the black sheep of the family in my younger days, but soon found being a hired gun was a lonely time. So, I came back into the family proper, became a rancher, but it was slow on the profit and boring.”

“Hence, the rustling?” questioned Johnny, getting the whole picture.

“Yes,” smiled the gunslinger rancher. “My brother wasn't exactly happy with me nor I him, but we made do.”

Johnny weighed his options. He had to get Scott and Cal out of here or at least assure their safety. “I'll draw against your man here, but I want a deal first.”

Tom outright snorted. “Madrid you have no room to bargain.”

“Don't I?” asked Johnny with a sly grin on his face. “You tell Mr. Abbott here the truth about Matt? That he didn't fall off a cliff or something and that he wasn't dead?”

Tom lost a good deal of color.

“After all, you didn't bring his body back…”

“That's enough, Madrid!” shouted Tom, now nervous and agitated.

“No,” said Abbott. “I want to hear this.” He looked at Johnny. “Go on.”

Johnny went for broke. “He's alive and recovering at our ranch. Ya know he's a Texas Ranger and knows the whole story. You won't be getting out of the charges he's going to press.”

Abbott mulled over what all Madrid had to say and what the implications were. Tom was uneasy and fiddling with the string to his gun. Nate, still with a frown on his face, was intently listening. Johnny silently stood there satisfied and waited. He'd planted the seeds.

Finally, Abbott said, “You know Madrid I was going to call you out myself. My son here has no idea how fast you really are. He needs a lesson. I'll make you a deal.”

Johnny inwardly sighed in relief. We have a chance.

Abbott paced between Johnny and Tom. “Here's the stakes, take them or leave them. You'll go up against Tom.”

A gasp was heard from the red-head.

“What Stryker, not so brave now?” asked the gunman. He gave Tom a cold stare. “You lied to me. I hate liars!”

“The deal is Madrid if you win, I'll let your family be, but you have to go with me.”

“And if I lose?” asked Johnny, his heart rate picking up as his stomach tightened.

“If you lose, it won't matter to you what happens to them,” flatly said Abbott.

“Then I guess I'd better not lose,” calmly stated Johnny. “I'll take the stakes.”

Tom and Johnny spread out a few spaces and got ready to draw, but Abbott called a halt. He brought up his own gun. His man behind him brought up his. “I guess I'd better make this a fair fight with no cheating.”

Both Johnny and Tom looked questioningly at him. Tom nervous. Johnny self-assured.

“Empty out your guns except for the bullet in the chamber. You get one shot.”

“Fair enough,” agreed Johnny, in a deadly calm voice. He opened the cylinder and let the bullets drop onto the dirt, slammed the cylinder shut and re-holstered his Colt .

Tom did the same thing, but didn't quite let the pistol sit in his holster. He pulled his gun upwards and heard the shot, then felt the bullet enter his heart. With shock plain on his face, he dropped the weapon and fell dead on the ground.

Expressionless, Johnny put his smoking gun back in the holster at his hip.

“Well done, Johnny Madrid,” commented Josiah Abbott. “Couldn't of done it better myself. Your expertise equals my own.”

Nate seemed unimpressed. If anything, there was a harder glint in his eyes.

That bothered Johnny to no end. He finally came to the conclusion, which had haunted him since he first laid eyes on Nate when they'd all been on their way back to Genesis after the game, I'm not like him at all. I had morals and scruples even when I was a gunfighter. Johnny gave a hint of a smile, relieved.

Abbott caught the shadow smile and obviously thought it was from his praise. “Course, we still have our own business to conclude.” He motioned with his gun at Johnny to move towards the corral.

As they walked, Abbott said, “Mighty fine stallion ya got there.”

Nate bragged, “I brought him all the way from Lancer, Pa. I'm gonna join the army with him.”

“The army?” scorned his father. “The hell you are.”

“But, Pa it'll be good for me.”

They reached the fence. Abbott griped, “Yer no good at following orders. Heck, ya can't even follow mine.” Seeing the horse's foot in the bucket, he gestured at Rio, “What's wrong with his hoof?”

Johnny intercepted the question before Nate could answer. “He's lame.” I can't let him take Rio. There's too much history with my father. Hell, Teresa's father was killed over him. “He injured his hoof a long ways back and your son kept riding him, not letting him rest.”

Fury erupted from the gunman and Johnny knew, if nothing else, the man was a true rancher and that he respected horse flesh. Johnny almost felt sorry for the boy…almost, but not quite.

“How many times have I told ya Nate to take care of your horse?!” He stepped over to his son and back-handed the boy's bruised face. Wagging a finger under the kid's bloody nose, Abbott growled, “Yer not joining the army and the horse stays here!”

Nate looked at his father once again with dead eyes.

The former gun hawk turned to Johnny. “I found your horses. Ours are tethered with them. Move!”

Johnny held his ground and softly reminded, “My brother.”

“What about your brother?” snapped Abbott.

“You said you'd let him go.”

The gunman took a deep breath. “I said I'd let your family be. And I am.”

“But, there's no way outta that room,” protested Johnny, losing some of his composure. Scott! I'll do whatever it takes to get ya out.

“There is! They just have to find it!” The gunfighter shoved his gun into Johnny's belly. “Move.”

Johnny stalled again in desperation. “No, there isn't. I was…was locked in that room. I couldn't find any way out!”

“Ya didn't try hard enough!” Abbott pushed Johnny hard and he stumbled backwards, catching himself before he could fall.

The last comment was like a slap across Johnny's face and a punch to his sore belly. He looked down at his hands seeing only his bloody fingertips from that day. Did I try hard enough? It had been pitch dark and I couldn't see. The giant had brought a lantern in with him hours later…maybe he left it there. Maybe Scott will see a way where I couldn't. It gave him hope.

Abbott was done being polite. “Madrid, I'll shoot you where you stand and then I'll go in and finish off that family of yours. You have a decision to make. Ya coming with me or not?”

Johnny didn't say anything. He turned around and walked in the direction of the horses left by the rocks.

Nate sauntered ahead of the others and was seated on Barranca when the men came out of the trees. “I'm taking your horse Johnny,” flippantly said the kid. “You can have this one.” He let Buster's reins drop to the ground.

“Fraid not,” said Johnny, his face serious. “Barranca is a one man horse.”

“I'm joining the army.” He looked defiantly at his father. “This horse will buy my commission into the army. The lieutenant that's buying all the cattle and horses in a few days assured me a horse this fine will work.”

“Not with my horse, Nate.”

“Yeah? We'll just see about that!” Nate dug his spurs into Barranca's sides and the horse stood still. Again, he tried and yelled at the horse at the same time. Again the horse refused to move.

Barranca looked over to Johnny, who had his arms crossed, and waited for a command to be given.

The man named Dewey started laughing, “Don't that beat all?”

Abbott even snickered. “Give it up son, yer not gonna get him to move. I remember Talbot telling me about a giant in his gang whose horse was trained the same way. Damn, seems like Matt's horse was like that too. Always was meaning to ask him how he did it.”

Nate climbed off Barranca shame faced. Johnny read the vengeance in the kid's eyes. His father did too.

“Speaking of Matt, that gives me an idea,” said the gunman. He looked up over Barranca's head and absently nodded. “Tree looks pretty old. Yup, this thick, sturdy tree branch will work just fine. Nate, get me some rope.”

Johnny didn't like this turn of events.

The boy brought the rope. “Ya gonna string him up?” asked Nate, hopefully. It was the first genuine emotion Johnny had seen in his eyes.

Abbott cut off a length and threw it to Dewey. “Tie Madrid's hands in back.”

Johnny put his hands up and backed away from the men. “Wait a minute. Ya said I was coming with you.”

“I changed my mind and if ya don't want me to haul your brother out here, you'll stand still.”

Johnny complied and Dewey tied his hands tight behind him. “What ya got in mind Boss?”

The gunslinger made a loop at end of the coil of rope he still held and knotted it. He put it over Johnny's neck and then said, “Climb up on the tree limb, son, and move over the horse.” He handed the rest of the rope to Nate, who quickly climbed the old tree.

He turned to Johnny and began to explain. “We were going to teach Matt a lesson with this trick if we'd have gotten him back. But, since he's safe and sound at your place, you'll do.”

Johnny swallowed hard. He remembered all too well the feel of a rope from another time. Luckily, Murdoch and Scott had rescued him in time.

“Now,” added the gunfighter, “the trick of this game is to see how well your horse is trained.” Nate was on top of the tree limb waiting for his father to finish.

“Dewey, help me get Mr. Madrid on top of his horse.”

The man grabbed Buster's reins and pulled the horse away from Barranca, then tied the reins to a scrub bush. He then walked over to Mr. Abbott and together they lifted Johnny onto his horse.

Looking up at Nate, Abbott ordered, “Take up the slack, but leave enough space for the horse to move a few inches in each direction. Then tie the rope off tightly.”

Nate did as his father bid, then climbed down from the mammoth tree.

Johnny could feel the rope squeezing his neck to where it was uncomfortable. He had figured out the game. If Barranca moved very much at all, the rope would tighten. If Barranca moved a small distance in any direction he, Johnny, would slide off the horse and hang. A real no win situation.

“Madrid, keep this in mind. If you slip off your horse, you'll only drop a few inches. You will probably not break your neck, but in a few minutes you will strangle to death.”

A signal by a whistle was heard in the distance. Abbott commanded, “Come in.”

A rustler covered in dust came into sight on a flea-bitten gray horse. Abbott walked over to his man who leaned down and quietly conferred with his boss. Abbott gave him his orders. The man wheeled his horse around and galloped off into the distance, heading west.

“Mount up! Nate, take the bay!”

They all climbed on their horses. Abbott halted his horse abreast of Johnny's. “I'm afraid I have business to attend to and can't enjoy the show. If you're still hanging around when I swing by again, I'll give ya a decent burial.”

Johnny grunted.

“Don't fret. Maybe that brother of yours will find his way out of the dark room after all. It'll probably take him awhile though.”

Laughter followed, as the men rode their horses in the direction the rustler had gone.

Johnny waited until they were out of sight, but not out of hearing. He gave a long whistle to Buster, hoping the horse would do the right thing. He's still too green, too stubborn to come back to me. Little did Scott know, I'd been training him as a gift to my brother for his birthday. If Buster bucks Nate off, well, at least he'll be free, for he'll run like the wind away from them.

 

---24---

Josiah Abbott would've been much aggrieved had he known Scott and Cal had a lit lantern in the tiny room. For the sixth time, as he examined the walls, Scott said, “There's got to be another way out of here.” He'd been around the room at least that many times and had felt every inch of the wooden door a dozen times.

“That old door ain't gonna budge Scott and the walls have no secret hidden passages,” argued Cal, as he moved a checker on the broken board. He'd put the game back together and was playing it by himself for something to do.

In frustration, Scott hit the wall hard and his hand stung with pain afterwards. “How did Johnny stand it?”

“He didn't,” bluntly remarked Cal. “That's why the furniture is all tore to pieces.”

Scott swept his gaze around the room again, then hung his head and stared at the floor. The floor! “Cal help me get all this junk to one side of the room.”

“Why? Ya gonna change things around in this room too?”

“No. We're going to look for a lose board.”

“Then what? Dig a hole? Scott, there's only dirt here under these boards. Ya can see it through the slates.”

Scott, exasperated and desperate, “Well, we've got to try.”

Cal put his game aside and moved all the debris to one side. Scott pried and picked at the rough boards with his fingertips thankful for the gloves he always wore when riding.

“Nothing!” said a dejected Scott. Not giving up he ordered, “Let's try the other side.”

Once again, they both worked hard at moving stuff around, but they came up empty handed. Scott, more than angry kicked a pile of wooden slates, scattering them across the floor.

“Feel better?” asked Cal, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“NO!”

“Me neither, but the breeze feels nice though.”

“What breeze?” Scott was sweating profusely and had figured it was from being so active in such a small room. He'd even taken his shirt off and had wiped his face and neck with it. His yellow gloves were now folded across his belt.

“Up there!” Cal pointed to the rafters. “Don't ya feel it?”

Scott lifted his face up and stood still. “Dang, if I don't. There must be an opening up there.” He walked over to the end of the room and climbed on some piled up broken boards. He lifted his hands up as far as he could and felt the air.

“Cal, bring the lantern.”

Cal did as told and handed the light to Scott. He, in turn, held it high above his head so he could see the inside of the roof. The flame flickered. Scott lowered the lamp back to Cal and said with a real smile on his face, “I'll be darned. There's a way out.”

“How?” said Cal, grinning also.

“When Johnny and I were first brought here, there was a set of bunk beds here and a table and two chairs over there.” Scott pointed in the right direction. “That's how they did it. They must've climbed on the top bunk, then squeezed their way along the wall up to the cross-beam which rests on a support at each end of the shack.” He pointed to the open beam high above them, which ran the length of the shack.

“Hooray!” yelled Cal, jumping in the air.

Scott put on his shirt, which had been tucked into his belt. “Think you can climb on my shoulders so I can give you a boost up to the beam?”

“You bettcha. It'll be like walkin across a tree branch.” Cal climbed onto Scott's shoulders like he was a monkey. In a few moments, he was on the cross beam walking towards the other side of the wall with the door. A few seconds later he disappeared from sight.

“Can you see anything?” called Scott, worried now that Cal would fall and break a bone.

“Yeah, the kitchen. The stove's just beneath me.”

“Well, be careful.”

Scott jumped down from the boards and went over to the door and waited. He didn't hear a thump yet. His thoughts drifted over to his brother.  Please don't let me find him dead outside. He put his ear against the door and wondered why it was taking Cal so long to jump down. Had he fallen and I didn't hear him? A moment later he pulled his head back from the door. Was that a dog I just heard? He put his ear against the door again and listened more intently. He could plainly hear a dog panting. Oh no, don't let it be a coyote or worse yet a wolf or something. Fear clutched his heart and he felt it nearly seize. Cal! Barely able to get the name out, he yelled, “Cal!” He waited a second and yelled again, “Cal! Cal are you all right?”

After what seemed like an eternity, Scott heard the bolt slide on the opposite side of the portal. The door swung open and there stood Murdoch with Cal sitting on his shoulders.

 

---25---

“Steady Barranca, steady.” Johnny pondered on how many times he'd repeated the phrase. Steady was the command to stay put. Unfortunately, it was only part of the order. He'd connected the word with a series of pats on the neck to reinforce the command. It had worked without a problem until now.

When he and Scott had dismounted, he had set the command, but that was hours ago. At the least, it feels like hours, in reality I think it's only been a short time. With his hands tied behind his back he couldn't reach his horse… not even on the rump! The rope around his neck made it impossible for him to move. In truth, he was afraid to move. He felt frozen to the saddle like a statue.  What a pickle! I'm still shocked Barranca is still standing here waiting for me to give the signal to move. I bet the giant never had this problem. Of course, why would the horse's master command him to stay still while sitting on his back? This was supposed to be for someone else who tried to steal the horse. I'm just sitting here counting my heart beats and watching Barranca's ears move.

So far so good. His ears are pricked forward. He's interested on what's going on around him, more than likely he's interested on what I'm doing on top of him and why we ain't moving.

The air had become more humid than usual, in fact unseasonable so. Or is that just me sweating? What I wouldn't give to scratch my itches or is it to scratch my itch? Hell, I got so many itches I don't know where to start and the sweat is making it worse. Course, the flies and mosquitoes aren't helping either. They're attracted to the blood on my wrists where I've tried to untie these ropes. Where'd that character learn to tie a rope so well? Dr. Banning's gonna have a fit when he sees my wrists again.

“Barranca I need your tail. Can't you swish it up here on my back?” The horse moved a bit forward and Johnny about had a heart attack. “Steady boy, steady.”

The horse snorted and leaned his head down to crop some foliage on the scrub bush that was by the rock wall. “You just keep eating on that bush,” consoled Johnny. “Just don't go any farther. I think there's some good tasting leaves on the ground by your hooves too, but I can't see down that far to be sure.”

This is a real bear only being able to look at a stone wall and between Barranca's ears. I'd love to see behind me towards the corral and the cabin. I can only turn my head a little ways. Every time I move Barranca moves. I didn't realize a horse could move so much in one space. Scott! Ya find your way out yet? I'm here where we left the horses. I can't yell or I'll startle the horse. Not that Barranca would be scared by my voice, after all, he's well trained and used to loud noises, but just this one time, I don't wanna take the chance he'll move more than an inch. Scott, they didn't take me with them. They left me here. Don't forget to check on the horses you think they stole.

He accidently shifted in the saddle. The horse moved and he almost quit breathing. His back was killing him, shoot, he ached all over. The fight with Nate had caught up to him. He now felt every punch. He tried to relax, but the rope had very little give. He was thirsty and he knew his horse was thirsty. Barranca is going to go looking for water sooner or later. Hell, I can practically smell the water in the horse trough from here. Barranca probably can.

Barranca's head came up, one ear twitched sideways. He hears something. He's distracted. He felt his hoof stomp, his tail swished, but it didn't reach Johnny's back. The horse moved a bit and the rope tightened. Almost in a panic, Johnny softly said, “Steady Barranca, steady.”

Time crawled by. He tried counting to a thousand in both English and Spanish. He tried singing in his head every saloon song he could think of. He ended the session with, “ Don't fence me in.”

The horse shifted position back to the inch where he started. Johnny softly promised Barranca everything a horse could want if he'd just not move.

“A big stall, fresh hay, the best oats, all the carrots, apples and sugar you can eat and not get sick. I'll brush you every day, making your coat shine so bright it'll blind people. You'll be the best lookin horse in the corral. All the mares will take notice. You can have the run of the pasture every day. I won't make you jump fences or…”

A loud growl was heard from up above in the rocks. Barranca's ears laid back. The horse was clearly afraid. A moment later a cougar peeked over a ledge and yowled.

Barranca danced sideways and the rope steadily pulled at Johnny's neck. It was too tight now to get any words out. He clamped his legs around Barranca's sides as tightly as he could, but it was no use. He remembered his nightmare on how he couldn't move. How danger lurked. How he was helpless. Scott! Scott help me! Scott!

 He inhaled as much air as he could before he felt his body dragged by the taut rope from the saddle. His last coherent thought, Is this really the end of the string?

 

---26---

Scott literally threw himself into his father's arms; he was so glad to see him. Cal laughed from above as Murdoch hugged his son. “Good to see you too, son. Where's Johnny?”

“You didn't see him outside?” cautiously asked Scott, full of anxiety.

Murdoch lifted Cal down from his shoulders as Pippin licked both Scott's and the boy's hands. “I'm so very glad to see you too, Pippin,” said Scott, as he patted the dog on the head and scratched behind his ears. Cal gave his dog a big hug while the dog slobbered kisses all over his face.

While Cal played with his dog, Murdoch put an arm around Scott's shoulders and hurried him into the room Scott had just vacated. “There's a dead body beside the shack. I think it's Tom Stryker, though I've never met the man.”

Scott let out his breath he didn't know he'd been holding. “Whew, at least its not Johnny.” At his father's worried expression, he quickly explained what all he knew about Josiah Abbott and what had happened to them since coming to the line shack. “I don't know where Johnny is. Knowing my brother, he probably made a deal to go with them and keep us safe.”

Scott partly closed the door so Murdoch could see the back side of it. All he said was, “Johnny's hand prints.”

Murdoch had already taken in the shambles of the room as Scott told him his story. His reaction was much the same as his son's. He put his large hand up and covered one of Johnny's bloody, smaller ones. With his chin tucked down to his chest, he closed his eyes and recalled Johnny's bloody fingers when he'd caught up to his son in the gully near the notch. He, too, sensed the desperation and pain his son must have felt.

A howl was heard from in back of the shack.

“That's close,” said Murdoch.

“The horses! Rio's in the corral in back.” Scott yanked open the door and tore through the kitchen door into the shed with Cal right behind him. Murdoch shouted at his son's back as he made it outside, “I'll get my rifle!”

Scott didn't acknowledge him; he was so intent on reaching the horse. Once there, he was relieved to find Rio was fine. Pippin had run out with them and was sniffing the ground confused by all the fresh scents. There was one he immediately picked up on and he ran to find him.

The growl came again from behind Scott where they had tethered their horses by the rock wall. He thought he heard a horse snort. Odd? Didn't they take the horses with them? He remembered Johnny had given a command to his horse. Is Barranca still there? Is Johnny… ? He couldn't finish the thought.

Suddenly, he heard Pippin's frantic barking and then low growls coming from the dog. He vaguely realized the animal had to be near the horses by the rocks. Scott ran to the end of the corral and vaulted the fence. He ran like the very devil was after him, jumping scrub bushes and dodging trees. He was nearly clear of the trees when he saw Johnny slipping from Barranca's back.

With his heart in his throat, Scott pushed out a burst of speed as he sped towards his brother. He reached him just after Johnny cleared Barranca's rump with the rope now holding his full body weight. Grabbing a hold around Johnny's legs, Scott lifted him up to give the rope slack and take the pressure off his neck.

The cat snarled from above, pacing back and forth, making Scott feel like a sitting duck about to be shot. Barranca danced nervously around the scrub bush, his reins now caught in the shrubbery. Pippin ran between the rocks and the Lancer boys, barking and doing his best to protect them.

Johnny's body was dead weight in Scott's arms. With his bruised shoulder, he was having trouble holding Johnny high enough to keep him from strangling. With no way to untie the rope, Scott was terrified the noose around his brother's neck was too tight and that he wasn't getting any air.

Cal had followed Scott from the corral. Seeing Johnny hanging from the rope, he climbed the tree and was inching over the thick limb with his pocket knife between his teeth. Reaching the rope, he sawed at it with a dull knife.

“Hurry Cal! Hurry!” What's taking him so long to slice through the hemp? From his position Scott couldn't see anything for Johnny's body was blocking his view.

Murdoch was only a few steps behind Scott with his Winchester. He heard the cat, but saw his sons' predicament. Pippin seemed to be keeping the cat at bay so Murdoch dropped his rifle and quickly removed the rope from around Johnny's neck. He then picked up the rifle and tracked the cat, looking down at them from the edge of a rock.

Scott gratefully sank to his knees onto the ground with his precious burden. Johnny's legs folded and he was seated with his head against Scott's chest, snug within his brother's arms. Scott tipped Johnny's chin up and looked at his colorless face. He had slipped into unconsciousness.

Tenderly, he called, “Johnny,” getting no reaction. He lightly tapped his cheek with his fingers and got no response. He felt Johnny's bruised neck with his fingertips and could feel a steady pulse. But, is he breathing? He bent his ear against his brother's slack mouth, but couldn't feel any air or hear any breath sounds. In a panic, he yelled, “Johnny!” and shook him.

A moment later Scott heard a shot from Murdoch's rifle, scaring the cougar away. Murdoch dropped the gun beside him as he knelt down next to his sons. Cal came up behind them and helplessly watched while Pippin stood guard.

“He's not breathing!” cried Scott, pushing hard on Johnny's chest with his left hand, as he held him with his good arm. Murdoch was about to take over pushing on his son's chest when a whoosh of air expelled from Johnny's mouth.

“Johnny!” said both Murdoch and Scott, as Scott forcibly rubbed his brother's chest. A couple seconds later, Johnny took in a breath of air and his eyes fluttered open.

Johnny visibly witnessed his family releasing their own breath, as they smiled at him. Scott and Murdoch both hugged him for all that he was worth. So different from Josiah Abbott's greeting to his son. He rasped out, “I love you two.” He thought he saw a gleam of moisture in both men's eyes.

Scott said, “Glad to have you back.” Then, hugged him again. “I love you too, brother.”

Murdoch pulled out his pocket knife and sliced the bonds that held Johnny's hands behind him. “You alright?”

“Couldn't be better,” hoarsely replied Johnny, painfully pulling his arms in front of him. Cal patted him on the back and summed it up best, “Whew! Johnny that was too close for comfort.”

“You're telling me!” exclaimed Scott, rubbing his brother's aching shoulders.

Pippin broke into the circle of men and gave Johnny a face washing. Johnny didn't care. He was just happy to be alive.

 

Murdoch gently washed the dirt and grime out of the cuts and scrapes on Johnny's sweat soaked face with his handkerchief. The humidity was clearly on the rise and Johnny's body was soaked in perspiration. Johnny leaned back against the water trough secretly wishing he could climb into it. His body hurt all over and he was emotionally spent.

His own neckerchief had been soaked with water and was wrapped loosely around his swollen and bruised neck. Scott occasionally gave him sips of water from a canteen as they talked. Actually, Scott talked and he used short sentences. His throat felt raw inside, which made swallowing nearly impossible, and the water often spilled down his chin for he couldn't drink it fast enough.

Barranca was to the side of them enjoying his own bucket of water and hay.

Pippin and Cal were playing fetch the stick outside the corral. The boy's laughter warmed all of their hearts. Cal had been more than upset when he'd seen the rope burn on Johnny's throat.

While he cleaned Johnny's wounds, Murdoch had assigned Cal the task of finding them something to eat for an early supper from the line shack's food supply. The boy had come back with a mile-long list of canned goods, air tights and dried goods.

“They took Buster?” asked Scott, waiting for his father to finish with his brother's face.

“Whistled,” choked out Johnny, massaging his throat, “hoped he…buck Nate off.” He painfully swallowed. “Run for the hills.”

“Dang,” replied Scott. “I was beginning to like that horse. We were just starting to understand one another.”

Murdoch asked, “How's your ribs son?”

“Fine,” came the answer. Johnny got a stern look from his father and he recanted, “Sore, but breathing,” he whispered.

“And your headache?”

“Still there.” Johnny figured it was no use lying. Murdoch could see straight through him. His father silently unbuttoned his shirt cuffs and examined his rope-burned wrists which matched his throat. At least this time they're not as bad as they were after the game. They're only bleeding a little. The material from his shirt must've protected them some.

A sigh came from his father. “You got any of those pills left doc gave you?”

“Few.”

“What were they all good for?” asked Murdoch, dunking and rinsing his neckerchief in the horse trough. He wrung it out and tied it back around his neck.

Scott broke in with, “Doc said for everything that ails us.”

“Good. Johnny, you can have one with the canned broth Cal found in the shack.” Murdoch heard a moan from his son. “That's all you're going to be able to get down with that sore throat of yours.”

Scott said, “I'll go warm up the soup and open a can of beans. I think Cal said something about peaches or plums.” He handed the canteen to Johnny and stood up, calling for the boy, “Cal! Come on, you can help me make supper.” Looking down at Murdoch, he said, “I know you want to get out of here as soon as possible.”

“Darn right,” agreed their father.

“Think…come back?” croaked Johnny. He tried to drink more water out of his canteen without spilling it down the front of him. He wasn't very successful.

“I know so, just like you do. We're heading to Genesis as soon as we eat.”

“Banning's?”

“Yup.”

Murdoch heard another groan from his son.

 

---27---

“Place hasn't changed much,” stated Scott, observing the town. They'd made good time, for the sun was just starting to set in the west.

As they made their way into Genesis, Scott roused his brother, who was sitting in front of him on Barranca with his chin resting on his chest. Johnny had fallen asleep half way to town and Scott had taken over the reins, while holding him in the saddle. The giant's soothing powder had magically worked its way into the smashed pill their father had spoon fed Johnny after supper .

“Hmm,” said Johnny, lifting his head. His mind was foggy and his mouth felt full of cotton. Did I sleep my way here again? He looked over to Murdoch who had Cal behind him on his horse. Cal had the reins to Rio, which in turn, carried a tired Pippin stretched across the saddle.

The town's people were beginning to take notice and openly snickered at the black dog on the white horse. Some greeted them with silly comments and tipped their hats.

The Lancers took it in stride, recognizing many of the people who had become friends during their week long convalesce after the game a few weeks ago.

Silently watching the scenery as it passed by, Johnny suddenly nudged Scott in the ribs. “Look!” squeaked Johnny, his throat dry, as he nodded his head in the indicated direction.

Scott read a sign next to the livery stable, “Crawford's Blacksmith.” Both boys chuckled. “I guess we won't have far to go to find him.”

They rode further down the street and a group of lawmen came out of the Genesis Saloon doors. One was Sheriff Troup from Cold River. He tipped his hat to the Lancers and they nodded back.

They passed another block and three more deputies were lounging on chairs, two of them tipped back against the hotel wall with a cup of coffee in their hands. The other seemed to be perusing a newspaper. All lifted their eyes as the Lancers passed by.

“The law is all over the place,” absently stated Scott. “I think we aroused their interest.”

Under his hat, Johnny ducked his chin. He licked his dry lips. The last thing he wanted to do was get stuck jaw-jacking with a bunch of tin stars.

They halted in front of Dr. Banning's office. The good doctor was sitting outside on a bench having a smoke.

Murdoch called, “Sittin down on the job I see.”

“Murdoch!” greeted the doctor standing up. “Boys!”  His expert eyes instantly perceived trouble and he wasn't even surprised at Johnny's appearance. He humorlessly joked, “Just once can't you make it a social call instead of a medical one?”

Murdoch just grunted and Cal stuck his head out from behind the big man.

“Cal! Is that really you?” asked the doctor, stepping off the boardwalk, as all the men brought their horses to the hitching rail.

“Hi Dr. Banning,” smiled the boy, his lip swollen, as he slid down from the back of Murdoch's horse. He quickly tied Rio's reins to the hitching post.

“Well, I'll be horn swaggled,” said the doctor, “You've grown at least two inches since I last saw ya in Uppity and where'd you get that fat lip?”

Pippin jumped down off of Rio and tentatively came over to the doctor. Doc Banning reached out and let the dog sniff him. Pippin accepted his scent, remembering another time and licked his hand.

“Kinda in a fight,” proudly stated the young boy. Cal pointed behind him with his thumb at Johnny. “He needs more doctoring than I do.”

“Oh?”

“He was in a big fight and some gunslinger hung him up to dry, but Scott saved him.”

Murdoch dismounted, then turned and shook hands with his friend. “Boys had a run in with Josiah Abbott.”

Dr. Banning whistled long and hard, then murmured, “So, the game isn't done.”

“Fraid not,” affirmed Murdoch, as he looped his horse's reins on the post.  

Dr. Banning watched Scott dismount and wince. He's favoring his left arm. Scott wrapped Barranca's reins around the rail as Johnny slowly brought his foot over his horse's hind quarters and stepped down. He swayed on his feet and his brother firmly clamped a hold on his arm, guiding him to the doorway where Sarah Banning waited. Reaching the entrance, the doctor's wife invited them inside. Cal and Pippin followed behind them.

“Did you slip Johnny a sedative? He seemed pretty shaky.”

“Wait till you see his neck and you'll know why I did.”

“Well come along then,” said Dr. Banning, leading the way. “You can tell me all about Abbott while I examine the boys.”

“Boys?” questioned Murdoch. “You mean Johnny and Cal? That's quite a fat lip he has.”

“I mean Scott too. There's something wrong with his arm.” The doctor put his hand on the doorknob, turning it to push the door open.

“What? He didn't say anything to me,” responded a dumbfounded Murdoch. “He…”

Their conversation was cut off when Sheriff Troup shouted for them to wait up.

A moment later the sheriff stood in front of them and anxiously asked, “Have either of you seen or heard from Marshal Crawford or Ranger McRafferty?”

“Can't say I have,” replied the doctor. “You Murdoch?”

“I left Tim at the ranch yesterday morning. Something wrong?”

“We don't know, but none of their men have heard from them since this morning and now it's almost night.”

“Well, that's not unusual, is it? They could've just gotten delayed or something,” answered Murdoch, tipping his hat back a bit. He was tired. He wanted nothing better than to get his sons looked after and head for bed.

“No, no it's not, but Val's deputy is worried about him. Val had explicitly said he'd meet up with them all at supper after he and McRafferty had a meeting on Abbott land.”

“Abbott land?” repeated Murdoch, now uneasy. Johnny had told me a rustler had come for Josiah Abbott. Could it be…? He didn't want to raise an alarm…yet. “You're sure he was meeting Tim there?”

“Yup, that's what he'd said to me and his deputy. Told me to keep it under our hats too.” Troup shook his head sadly and decided he'd better clarify the last statement. “He, ah, did say if he got into any trouble to notify you.”

“Notify me? How'd he know I'd be here?” asked Murdoch, puzzled. “This was an unplanned trip.”

Sheriff Troup stared down at his feet, then brought his face up to look Banning and Murdoch in the eye. “I recollect Val doesn't trust me like he does you two. But, he told me if he was ever really late and I don't know for sure how really late, late is, but he…”

Murdoch tired and losing patience, “Come on man spit it out. Get her said!”

“He said that you were home base to the giant, I mean McRafferty and I'm to wire ya or whatever to get a hold of you…ah, him at any time.” The lawman bowed his head. “I guess he has more confidence in the ranger and you than he does me.”

Murdoch took pity on the man and patted his shoulder. “Don't worry about it Troup. Tim's Val's partner on this adventure and besides we go back quite a ways.”

Feeling better, Troup asked, “Then what ya gonna do bout Val bein late?”

Dr. Banning turned and went into the house, leaving Murdoch to deal with the lawman. He knew what he'd do. Wait till morning and hope he turns up. He found his wife with her son, Billy, on his crutches, pouring water into a big metal tub by the wood burning stove. Cal had another big bucket of water in his hand. A huge kettle of water was steaming on the cooktop.

“For Johnny?” asked the doctor.

“Yes, and any other body that wants a bath. The Lancer boys are in the examination room.”

“Thanks,” smiled Banning, giving his wife a quick kiss on her cheek. “Murdoch will be in directly. He got waylaid by Troup.”

“Coffee's on when yer all ready.”

Dr. Banning found the boys right where his wife said they'd be. Scott was in a comfortable chair with his feet propped up on the exam table, reading the doctor's latest medical journal. Johnny, shirtless, was laying on his back on the table with his arms under his head and legs crossed at the ankle almost asleep.

“Boys, glad you made yourself at home.”

Scott instantly removed his feet from the table. “Sorry doc.” He started to put the book aside when Banning said, “No, go ahead and read it.” He lightly chuckled. “I know you've already found something interesting.”

Johnny tried to sit up, but involuntarily moaned in pain. He put his hands around his neck to support it and used his abdominal muscles to complete the act. Then, moved his legs to the side of the table and let them dangle.

“Hurts like the devil, huh?” asked Banning.

Johnny, still using one word answers, “Yeah.”

Reaching up and untying the neckerchief, the doctor flatly said, “Let's see what we got.” A whistle soon followed and Scott chuckled, remembering the doctor doing that back in Uppity.

Johnny tried to turn his head and give his brother a dirty look, but found he couldn't move his neck. “Ow.”

“I can only imagine how much that hurts. You have a pretty purple band going around your neck.” Carefully and with upmost gentleness Dr. Banning felt around Johnny's neck with practiced fingers. “Throat sore inside?”

Johnny barely nodded yes.

“When you swallow?”

Another nod affirmative.

“How about when you speak?”

Johnny rasped, “Yes.”

Dr. Banning put his hand up to Johnny's throat splaying his fingers on one side and his thumb on the other. “Swallow.”

Johnny did and winced.

“Say something.”

“Hurry up.”

Dr. Banning grinned and dropped his hand. He picked up his stethoscope from on top of the medicine cabinet and put the ends into his ears. Putting the bell shaped cup on Johnny's chest he listened to him breathe. He moved it around the muscled chest and asked him to take a deep breath from time to time.

The doctor walked around the table to the backside of Johnny and repeated his same actions. Afterwards, his hands examined Johnny's previous broken ribs.

As he moved his fingers along each rib, Banning asked, “How are they doing and don't tell me fine either.”

A chuckle was heard from the doorway. Murdoch stood there watching the exam.

Johnny painfully swallowed, groaned and then, eked out, “Sore.”

“Got punched there again?” said the doctor, knowing his patient well now.

Johnny shrugged his shoulders and wished he wouldn't have, for it hurt his neck.

“What am I going to do with you?” asked the doctor teasingly. “These ribs are never going to heal if you don't get some rest and baby them some.”

“Blame Nate,” rasped Johnny.

“That kid Val found at the gate to the Genesis mine?”

“Yup. Josiah Abbott's pup,” answered Murdoch, coming into the room.

Dr. Banning whistled again. “Nothing like taking on a real bully.”

Murdoch stopped behind Scott and looked over his shoulder to see what he was reading. “Vaccinations? Interesting?”

“Yes,” said Scott, not lifting his head from the journal. “They are close to a cure for Cholera.”

“Oh?”

“And two gentlemen named Pasteur and Roux are working on a cure for rabies.”

“They'll find it too,” added Dr. Banning, now frowning at Johnny's rope burned wrists. He held one in each of his hands and examined them as he talked, “Those two scientists are a few of the best. Can you imagine what it'll be like to have a cure for the disease?”

Murdoch gave Scott a tender squeeze on the left shoulder to gage his reaction. Scott grimaced, but answered Dr. Banning's question. “It'll be superb.”  Murdoch left him to his reading and came back around beside the doctor who had moved back in front of Johnny.

Crossing his arms, Murdoch asked, “Well, how is he?”

“He'll be fine after a couple days rest and a hot bath.”

“Hot bath?” protested Johnny, wiping sweat off his brow. “Hot out!”

“Yeah, I know,” agreed the doctor. “Humid enough that we're probably in for some bad weather soon.” He looked Johnny square in the eye. “You have a sprained neck. We need to relax those muscles in there.”

Johnny frowned. “Cold bath?” Don't mind a bath, but a hot one? Why can't it be a cold one to cool me off?

Taking note of Johnny's stormy eyes, Dr. Banning remarked, “It has to be hot for it to work.”

Johnny gave him a stubborn look.

“Johnny listen, you were in a fight. And if that's not enough, your back is stiff with tension from sitting rigid on a horse for who knows how long.”

Johnny slowly bowed his head, admitting defeat.

“To top it off, your neck suffered some trauma from your body weight when you were pulled off your horse. If nothing else, you'll sleep better tonight and thank me in the morning.”

“Enough!” moaned Johnny. He carefully got down from the table and headed out the door.”

“Where ya going?” called Murdoch, thinking he'd have to chase his obstinate son down.

“Outhouse.”

Murdoch simpered. Dr. Banning inwardly grinned and Scott put the book aside and stood up from his comfy chair. He started to follow his brother.

“Where do you think you're going, young man?” asked his father in a firm voice.

“Ah, outside.”

“No you're not,” fired back Murdoch. “I'll take care of your brother.” With that he stormed out of the room.

Looking at Dr. Banning, Scott said, perplexed, “Well, how do you like that?”

The doctor replied, “I like it fine. Now, sit on this table and take off your shirt.”

 

Quite a while later, Johnny strolled in through the kitchen door. The room seemed busy with activity. He casually leaned against the doorjamb and crossed his arms. No one paid him any attention. Fine with me. I see the tub is ready. Well, if they think I'm taking a bath in front of everyone, they can just think again.

At the kitchen table, Billy and Cal were eating cookies accompanied by a tall glass of buttermilk. A tin coffee can sat in between them as they looked over Billy's marble collection.

Sarah Banning was in the middle of making a pot of tea. She filled the perforated bottom of a metal tea holder with leaves, (which reminded Johnny of an egg,) screwed on the cap, which had a small chain connected to the top. Holding the ring at the end of the chain, she set it in the china pot. She then poured boiling, hot water into the teapot.

Johnny could smell ginger and wrinkled his nose. Glad it's not for me. Pippin was under the table, gnawing on a bone. Murdoch and Dr. Banning stood at a window with a cup of coffee in their hands, discussing the information Sheriff Troup had brought them.

“I told them, we'll wait until morning and see what it brings,” answered Murdoch, to some question the doctor must've asked. “I also had him send a telegram to Leah that the boys were all safe.”

“Good, that should relieve her mind,” agreed Banning.

Johnny was about to go over and ask his father what they were talking about when he heard Cal sadly say, “I used to have a cat's eye like this.”

“What happened to it?”

“They got lost when…” he stopped talking when Johnny walked up to them.

“They got found,” answered Johnny, in a hushed voice, pulling a few marbles out of his pants pockets. Cal's face lit up and Johnny smiled, as he handed them to the boy. “More...coat pocket on horse.”

“Thanks Johnny! You're the best!” Cal lightly smacked his hero on the arm with his fist. “Barranca is at the livery and your gear is in the spare bedroom yer sharin with Scott.”

Johnny shook his head up and down in gratitude. A little self-conscious now, for everyone was staring at him.

Scott was at the counter with a white bowl and some kind of utensil, crushing something unknown. Johnny, curious, ambled over to the left side of his brother and watched. Scott looked up out of the corner of his eye at Johnny, but didn't say anything.

Johnny sniffed. “Liniment?”

“Murdoch caught up with me.”

Johnny lightly rubbed his brother's sore shoulder and gave him a questioning look.

“Bruised,” was all Scott said, as he continued to crush whatever was in the bowl. He heard Johnny heave a heavy sigh.

Absently, Johnny picked up a brown bottle off the counter and read the label, “Laudanum, Tincture of Opium.”

Irritably, Johnny asked, “What?” Night had fallen and the damp, humid air made his throat hurt more.

“This, little brother,” Scott held up the white bowl, “is what is known as a mortar. And this,” he held up the utensil, “is known as a pestle with which I'm crushing your medicine.”

Johnny could see the white pill being smashed into powder. He smacked Scott on the arm and pointed to the brown bottle.

“And that you're taking after I get this ready for you.”

Johnny shook his head back and forth in denial.

Scott added just a bit of water to make the powder into liquid form. “Okay, Mrs. Banning, it's ready.” He poured the medicine into a soup spoon.

Sarah poured a cup of ginger tea and brought it over to them.

Johnny folded his arms and slowly spat out, “Over…my…dead body...will I drink…anymore…ginger tea.”

“We'll see,” said Scott, holding the spoon.

“Aw, come on Johnny,” needled Cal.

“It'll cure what ails ya,” stated the doctor.

“Pretty please,” begged Sarah.

“Ah, hum.” Murdoch with his arms crossed, cleared his throat and gave him a stern-eyed look. “Take it like the man you are,” ordered his father.

Feeling the heat in his face, Johnny took the medicine, giving a glare to his brother. He drank a few sips of the hot ginger tea and was surprised it tasted good. He was shocked when it made swallowing easier too. Must be the warmth of it relaxing my throat. Now, I know why they want me to take a hot bath.

A moment later, Dr. Banning picked up the bottle of Laudanum and poured the reddish-brown liquid into another spoon. “Here, take this. It'll help kill the pain in your throat and ribs.”

Johnny had his reservations. He didn't want to take the medicine for he hated the after-effect of feeling dragged out. This stuff is worse than a night of drinking. At least, the booze tastes good going down. He glanced over to his father who was watching him very intently. Heavily exhaling, he opened his mouth and the doctor spooned it in. He swallowed and made a terrible face.

“Bitter,” he gasped. Johnny visibly shuddered.

Sarah was prepared. She had a spoon full of sugar.

Johnny suspiciously eyed the spoon. Sugar? Now what?

“It'll make the medicine go down,” assured Sarah, smiling.

Why not? Anything's better than this after-taste . He swallowed it straight down. He even drank more of the tea.

In a matter of minutes, everyone had cleared out of the kitchen, except the doctor. Johnny climbed into the tub and the heat of the water did what it was supposed to do. He found himself drifting off with his head against the rim of the tub, when Dr. Banning asked, “I hear you're having headaches from the concussion. Care to talk about them?”

A long groan was heard throughout the kitchen. “I'm sleeping.”

“You can sleep in bed. Now talk.”

Since he was trapped in the tub and knew the doctor had him at a disadvantage, Johnny talked; in short phrases.

On the other side of the kitchen door, Murdoch and Scott grinned at each other. Scott said, “I hope Banning gets him to talk about the nightmares too.” Yawning, Scott continued, “I could use some sleep.”

Sometime later, Scott felt the bed dip beside him as his brother crawled into bed, smelling like liniment. Johnny was asleep before Scott could blow out the flame of the kerosene lamp.

 

---28---

It was the crack of dawn when a man leading a horse, soundlessly walked up to the back door of Dr. Banning's practice. A boy on crutches came out of the outhouse just as the visitor was about to knock.

“I need Scott Lancer,” requested the man. “And Billy, be quiet. I don't wanna wake the whole house.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Crawford. He'll be right out.” The boy went inside to do the blacksmith's bidding.

Scott came out onto the porch still tucking his clean brown shirt into his pants.

“Drago? What are you doing sneaking around this early in the morning?”

“I told ya not to call me that. It's Drake now!” testily reminded the blacksmith. “And I'm not sneaking.”

“What do you call coming to a man's back door in the dark?”

“For your information its perd near sunup and there's more tin stars with guns roaming around this town than there are horses.”

Scott chuckled, “Nervous are we?”

Drago, still grumbling, handed Scott the horse's reins.

Scott looked confused until Drake stepped away from the front of the horse, awarding Scott a clear view of the animal.

“Buster!”

Johnny came out the door wearing his blue flowered shirt. As he walked, he wrapped his gun belt around his lean hips and fastened the buckle. His brother's gun belt was thrown over his shoulder.

Scott excitedly said, as he patted the horse on his neck, “Drago found Buster! I can't believe it.”

“Dang it! It's Drake! And you can believe it,' grouched the man. “Ya think ya can hang onto him this time?”

“Where'd you find him?” asked Johnny, handing Scott his gun belt. I can't believe it either. Buster must've bucked Nate off and took off like I knew he would.

“I didn't find ‘im. He came running to me about a mile from Abbott's line shack.”

Running? More likely you roped him . “What were ya doing over there?” asked Johnny, more than suspicious.

Drago looked Johnny square in the eye. “Takin a shortcut home.” They coldly stared at each other a few seconds. Then, Drake added, “It ain't illegal to cut across a person's land if ya got permission to do so and I got the okay straight from the horse's mouth.”

Johnny raised his hands to ward Drago off. “Okay, okay. Just askin that's all.”

Scott, with Buster's reins in one hand, held the other hand out to shake Drago's hand. “Thanks…Drake, for bringing him back.”

“That ain't entirely why I'm here,” stated Drago. He looked around carefully before going on. “Ya know I'm a black smithy and I get to go all over the place usually unharrassed.” He looked around again.

Johnny, impatient, hurried him up, “Well go on.”

“Humph, you are one hard man, Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny gave him a cool look .

“Well anyways, I was at the Abbott barn puttin on a shoe for a nice little paint, when Nate Abbott comes storming in arguing like a mad man with his father.” Drago knew he had their attention now. “Ya do know the kid ain't no kid, don't ya?”

“How old is he?” asked Scott.

“Hmm, old enough.”

Johnny cleared his throat.

“Over twenty-one.”

“No way!” retorted Johnny, putting his hands on his hips.

“Fooled ya?” laughed Drago. “He's good at that just like Talbot was.”

“How'd you know about him?” asked Scott, listening, as he checked over Buster and his gear, still on the horse's back.

“Long story, but back to why I'm here.”

Waiting impatiently, Johnny crossed his arms and cocked a hip higher than the other.

“I'm here because while I was shoeing the horse, a rustler walked into the barn and said he had the two lawmen trussed up and ready to move to the canyon.”

Johnny was not buying it. “You mean they just talked openly about kidnapping two lawmen in front of you?”

“They trust me. I've done lots of black-smithen for ‘em and they know me as an outlaw. Now do you wanna hear the rest of the story?”

“Yes,” replied Scott. Johnny just stood there.

“Well I finished shoeing and went outside to mount my horse when there they were, two lawmen dressed in black, sittin on their horses like two peas in a pod. I know'd the man that had the reins and he told me he needed ta go to the outhouse.”

Johnny burst out laughing, “This is getting good.” Scott smacked Johnny on his chest with the back of his hand.

Drago scowled at both of them, “Seriously, believe what ya want, but it's the truth. He gave me their horse's reins. And I'm lookin eyeball to eyeball at the lawman you said resembles me.”

Johnny stiffened and bit out, “Go on.”

“Well, I must a mumbled something about Madrid being right for the marshal leaned over his horse and asked if I meant Johnny Madrid? And I said yes and he said…”

Johnny lost his patience. “Get her said, man! What'd he say?”

“He said to tell Madrid to find him.”

“That's all?” asked Scott, watching his brother splay a hand through his hair and lick his dry lips. Opium headache. Dry mouth. Glassy eyes. Yup, he's got it bad. A Laudanum hangover.

  “Well,” said Drago, running a hand though his own greasy hair. “Looked like he wanted to say something else, but we got interrupted by Abbott himself.”

“And?” asked both Lancer brothers.

“Said he was heading for the canyon to bring back some cows. The army was due at the ranch tomorrow.”

Johnny asked Scott, “Do you believe all that?”

“The question is do we have a choice?”

“I need to talk to Murdoch.” And Johnny stormed into the house.

Drago nudged Scott with his elbow. “It is the truth. I'd swear it on my pa's grave if I knew where'd it was. He was killed during the war, ya know'd.”

“Sorry to hear that,” sympathized Scott, watching the sun come up.

“We want to turn the money in. Live peaceful like. Raise our family. Do right by our boys.”

“For what it's worth, I believe you.”

Drago silently nodded his thanks.

The sun burst out on the horizon painting the sky bright red.

“Ought oh,” said Scott. “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”

“Ah?”

“Old Navy saying. We're in for some bad weather and with this unusually high humidity, it'll probably be soon.”

“Ya thinkin twister?”

“Could be.”

“Not unheard of in California. I'll be over at the livery if ya need me.” 

 

---29---

“Can we really trust Drago?” asked Johnny as they pulled their horses to a stop in front of the Genesis mine. He unconsciously licked his dry lips. His throat felt better this morning and he had to admit the Laudanum had done its job. The other pill must've worked also, for the swelling in his throat had gone down. He'd been able to eat breakfast this morning without the pain of yesterday. Blueberry pancakes sure were good. Too bad, I forgot to take the pills from doc Jenkins this morning.

Scott picked up his canteen of water, unscrewed the cap and took a sip of water, then handed it over to his brother. Johnny took a gulp and handed the canteen back. Scott, pleased with himself, knew he had accomplished his intent. Johnny was still parched from the medicine he'd taken last night. His body required more water than Scott's did and he was going to make sure his brother got it. I know he's got his own canteen, but sharing a little extra from mine won't hurt him and it'll serve the purpose. At least his eyes are clear now and not as dazed as they were when we started out on the trail this morning.

Taking all this as a good sign, Scott answered, “Drago seemed sincere to me. He really loves his family. And I think he's intrigued with Val also, now that he's met him.”

“How weird is that?” asked Johnny, watching the men work inside the mine's front fenced in yard. I'm not stepping foot in there ever again for any reason.

“No weirder than us,” replied Scott, taking in the brilliant, blue sky. He pulled at his damp shirt.

“Then where is he?” complained Johnny, “He was supposed to be here before us.” He took his hat off and wiped his forehead. “Sure is sticky.” He picked up his canteen from around the horn of his saddle and uncapped it, then poured some over his head.

Scott could've kicked him. So much for conserving water. “Sure nice of Sarah to wash all of our shirts last night including the ones Murdoch brought.”

“Was, wasn't it?”

“Pippin sure was disappointed he couldn't come with us,” commented Scott, watching the clouds intermix.

“Best he stayed with Cal.”

“Billy and Cal seemed to hit it off,” responded Scott, studying the sky. “Winds picked up.”

“Why do you keep lookin at the sky?”

“Gonna storm sometime today.”

“All I feel is the hot air blowin in from Mexico.” Johnny drank another mouthful of water.

“Maybe so,” agreed Scott, “but every so often we get a blast of cooler air from the north, northwest.”

“What's that mean?”

“It's a crosswind and it means trouble. We used to get twisters all the time in Massachusetts. Of course, they call them tornados in the east.”

“Yeah? I've never seen a twister before, though I heard they had ‘em a lot down by the border towns. I just never witnessed one.”

“Well, today might be the day brother. Conditions are right.”

“Hey, you two cowboys got business at this here mine?” called the gate guard. “Ya been sittin there long enough yammering.”

Scott rode his horse to the entrance. “We're waiting on someone. Be much obliged if we could water the horses and refill our canteens though.”

The guard gave them the once over and a light seemed to come on in his eyes. “You're the Lancer Brothers. I remember you'd stayed with doc Banning a few weeks ago.”

“We are,” stated Scott, smiling at the man.

“Sure, come on in. You're always welcomed.”

Scott rode his horse inside the compound, going straight to the horse trough and, noticed Johnny still outside the gate. “What's the matter?”

Johnny scanned the countryside all around him and then squinted into the mine's entrance as far as he could see. Nothing. So why's my neck hairs standing at attention? Paranoia? He cast his eyes around one more time and held his breath as he gently nudged Barranca in the sides. A moment later the horse was beside Buster getting his fill of water.

“Jumpy?” remarked Scott, dismounting and going to the water pump with his canteen. Johnny remained on his horse. Scott cranked the handle a couple of times letting the water run before he filled the container. Afterwards, he filled the public cup and took a long swig.

Johnny didn't answer him, obviously intent on looking around. Nate was at this gate. Why don't I remember him being here?

Done with the water, Scott brought a cup to his brother and handed it up to him. Johnny took it and drank it dry, not taking his eyes off the horizon.

“Will you relax,” said Scott, putting the strap of his canteen around the horn of his saddle. He then picked up Johnny's as his brother handed back the vessel. He repeated the motions of filling the canteen and brought it back and put it on Johnny's saddle.

The guard came up to them. “Ya know, the town and especially the men who work here, really wanna thank you all and the LT. Governor for keepin this here mine open.”

“You're welcome,” said Scott, shaking the man's hand.

“Rumor is we're all gonna get a piece of it. Equal shares is what the man said. Be independent.”

“That's great!” enthused Scott, watching his brother. He hearing this or not? He reached up and squeezed his brother's calf, drawing Johnny's attention.

“Yeah, that's great. I'm happy for you people.” Johnny bent down and shook the guard's hand. “We were owners once to a mine.”

“Still are,” reminded Scott. “The Sonora Lancer Mine is petering out. The loyal workers that had stuck with us are moving up here to our ranch and the LT. Governor's ranch.”

“Oh, that's too bad,” commiserated the guard. “Ours is going strong now. Did ya hear they found gold under all that rock?”

“No,” both boys said together. Scott congratulated the man with a grin and Johnny continued to search the distance.

“If it hadn't been for that marshal dynamiting the place, we might never of found it.”

“Rider coming,” announced Johnny in a tense voice. He pulled Barranca back from the water trough and took off for the gate.

“Sorry”, said Scott. “Got to go.” He mounted Buster and was soon beside his brother.

 

---30---

“What in hades took you so long?!” barked Johnny, as he brought his horse to a halt, kicking up dust in front of Drago. Buster did the same thing.

Drago coughed and waved his hand back and forth. “Told ya I had to go home first. I can't just go galley-venting off into the unknown without letting Violet know. She'd worry.”

“Hen-pecked now?” teased Johnny, without a smile.

“No!” grumped Drago, “But, I do got responsibilities. You two will find it out someday when ya get hitched.”

“PFFT,” countered Johnny, checking his temper. Now that both drugs had worn off, his headache was back and the humid weather wasn't helping any.

“Where's your pa?”

“He'll be here,” muttered Johnny. He couldn't shake the feeling of catastrophe .

Are Val and Tim all right? For all we know, they could be dead. Or, maybe they're being held hostage to ensure the cattle deal goes through with the army. After all, there are plenty of lawmen in town waiting to act. Murdoch's rounding them all up now. One way or another, there's going to be a shootout. You can't kidnap a U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger and not pay the price.

Scott and I are only here to sneak a peek and maybe rescue them if we can. Drago is just showing us the way. That was the deal.

Is Drago in cahoots with Abbott? Abbott has to know we're all acquainted. Tim and Val could be the bait to lure us here. It wouldn't be the first time. Look what happened with the game?

Josiah Abbott is brother to Judah and like he said, blood is thicker than water. Scott and I are brothers and each other's keeper. If one of us had been killed, the other would go any length to nail the person responsible. There'd be no choice, we'd just do it.

He looked at the sky. Towards the southwest the clouds were building, getting darker. Wasn't that sky clear blue a few minutes ago? Hell, for all I know, its Scott's fascinations with the weather that's got me so jumpy.

A snort from Buster snapped Johnny out of his thoughts. The horse was nosing Drago's coat pocket and trying his hardest to get at what was in there. What in the Sam Hill is in there?

Scott pulled back on the reins to no avail. Well, the horse is green and headstrong. What in the world does he smell in Drago's pocket?

Drago put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a snack.

“Sugar,” answered the ex-outlaw to both Lancers' unspoken question. “Ya mind?”

“No,” answered the boys in unison.

The boys watched as Buster gobbled it out of Drago's hand. “Works every time.”

Scott snickered, “Ah, so that's how ya got him to come up to you. That how you caught him the first time too?”

“Yup. The treat works well with an ornery horse when I shoe ‘em. Don't get kicked so much that a way.”

Barranca strained at the bit to get a piece also. Johnny easily held him back. Barranca turned his head and looked sadly at Johnny.

Johnny heaved a sigh. I did promise him anything he wanted if he didn't move. Without saying anything, he let his horse have his head and Barranca went for the treat.

“Ya ready?” snapped Johnny, running out of patience.

“Yeah.”

“Then let's get this show on the road! Times a wasting.”

“Where're we going exactly again,” asked Scott, pulling Buster back from Drago.

“Southwest, past the gravel pit. Head to the other side of the canyon where ya came outta the notch. We'll stop on the ridge by the lake.”

Johnny took off. He didn't even want to know how Drago knew about that story.

 

They pulled up below the ridge and got off their horses. Scott grabbed his spy-glass out of his saddlebags and followed the other two to the edge. Flat on their bellies, they took in the site of a small canyon.

“Now, the trick is you have to look directly west when the sun from the east is shining on the rock wall. There's an entrance that only shows up when the sun hits it.”

The boys strained to see what Drago was talking about, but couldn't see anything. “I don't see it,” said Scott, moving his glass around.

Drago looked over his shoulder at the eastern sun. “It ain't lined up right yet.”

“We have to wait?” griped Johnny.

“You guys ever go fishing?”

“Yeah,” said Scott.

“It's kinda like you throw your hook in with a worm on it and hope you find the right spot.”

“Ya have to wait for it,” said Scott. “Wait for the fish to bite.”

“Exactly!”

“Or just plain shoot the suckers,” deadpanned Johnny, demonstrating with his Colt. “Pow, pow, pow.”

Drago looked Johnny square in the face, “Ya would, wouldn't ya?”

“He did,” confirmed Scott, nodding his head that it was true.

They waited and the sky became hazy and overcast.

“Now what?” asked Johnny, patience at an end.

“Shucks!” yelled Drago. “Okay, I'll try and get ya both to visualize it. Think of a coil of rope.”

Johnny didn't want to.

“Ya know how the outside end is curved against the coil?”

“Yes,” said Scott, watching his brother's face turn pale.

“Well if ya separate the end of the rope from the spiral you have a space between the outside and the inside.”

“Yeah, go on.”

“It is the same with the hidden canyon. The entrance itself is on the inside of a wall of rock that circles into the ravine. When the sun hits it just right, you can see the opening, otherwise it just blends into the wall of stone…like a shadow.”

“Or you can watch a rider go in and show us,” reasoned Johnny, pointing towards the wall.

“Yeah, that would work,” agreed Drago, looking to where Johnny was indicating.

A lone rider on an Appaloosa horse rode for the entrance and disappeared into the rocks.

“Well, how do you like that?” asked Johnny, grinning for the first time since they'd thrown in with Drago. “Let's mount up.”

“Now wait a minute. Ya can't just go barging in there.”

Johnny headed for his horse. “I ain't. I'm gonna just mosey in there.”

“Ya can't do that either. They all know what ya look like. And besides, the entrance is well guarded.”

“What do you propose then?” asked Scott, heading for his horse also.

“Tell me you're not volunteering,” suggested Johnny, mounting his horse in one hop. He rubbed the side of his neck, wishing he'd used the stirrup instead.

“That ain't part of the agreement,” argued the outlaw. “I was just supposed to lead you all here as fast as possible. Then go back and get the others.” He, too, mounted his horse and turned it around.

“True enough,” agreed Scott, touching his heels to Buster. The horse started following Johnny up to the ridge.

Johnny halted Barranca and turned back in the saddle. “What about the money? What about Val? He's the guy you need to turn it into.”

“I'm not goin into that…that viper's nest…but, I can show ya how to get in there without being seen.”

The boys silently fell in behind Drago as he led them around the canyon.

 

---30---

Drago brought them to a cave which faced the northeast, away from the big hidden canyon where Abbott's gang hung out. Inside the cavern, towards the back, was an inner cave with obvious signs horses were once housed there. Hay and straw were stacked against one wall. Empty buckets were beside the hay. A grain barrel, half full of oats, was on the other side of the hay.

Johnny ran his hand through the oats, “Still dry and fresh.” He checked the hay out and found no mold. Someone is still stocking this place.

At the end of the main cavern, beds of straw with old Indian blankets were laid out on the ground. A set of roughhewn chairs sat by a huge tree stump that doubled for a table. A set of dishes, eating and cooking utensils were piled in a crate. A big, black, cast iron frying pan and a deep cooking pot sat on a grate over a stone ring that was used for a fire.

Johnny was impressed. “This used to be your hideout or something?”

Drago, actually pleased, stated, “In the day. We lived, slept and ate here. We stashed all our begotten goods back in that tunnel. Some food stuff in air tights and cans are still there.”

“What else did you stash here besides the essentials?” asked Scott, his curiosity getting the better of him, as he looked around. 

“Hmm, money, weapons, ammunition…a Gatling gun .” Drago smiled at that.

Scott turned white and Johnny growled, “We're to keep the horses in back?”

“That'll work. There's a natural spring in back which runs down under the cave. They can get all the water they need.”

“Quite sufficient weren't you in the day?” remarked Scott, sitting down in one of the chairs. He found it comfortable much to his disgust.

“Yup, we were,” nodded Drago. “Most of the gang went to prison, but then you know that since you testified against them.”

After that comment, Johnny's hackles rose and his eyes darted around the cave again. He could only imagine what his brother was feeling and thinking right now.

Drago went on, not noticing, “The few that are left are drovers for Josiah Abbott.”

“Ya mean rustlers?” bit out Johnny, his hand on the butt of his gun. Memories he hoped to have forgotten came to the fore.

No one hurts my brother and gets away with it. The Gatling gun haunted Scott for weeks afterwards. His nightmares in the middle of the night…runnin to his room…I guess we're even on that score now. Recollections abounded from when he'd come home and paid the ransom / tax money to Drago. I wasn't in my own home five minutes and I had to kill a man I didn't know nor did I know the reason for it. The worst memories are the painful ones, when Scott was all torn up, both physically and emotionally, questioning his relationship with me, his brother. Am I that shadow? NO! We're even in every way. There's no more words about it.

“That they are,” continued the outlaw, not paying any attention to Johnny's state of mind. “And I'm not part of it anymore. I told ya, I done made my choice a long time ago.”

“We'll see,” sharply pronounced Johnny, going back outside to get his horse. Scott got up from the chair and did the same. 

 

“From here you can see the exit from the valley with no problem. See the eastern sun, which finally decided to grace us with its presence, is hitting it square and shining onto the range land. The cows just have to follow the curved stone passageway beside the outside wall and there're outta here and into the next lower basin, which leads to the road,” explained Drago.

All three of them were on top of the cave where their horses were being kept, looking over the edge to the small boxed canyon below. The back wall of the cave naturally blended into the ravine's walls. Large sheets of rock and small caverns dotted the canyon with a sprinkling of trees and scrub covering the steep hillsides. Cattle, of every type, could be seen as far as the eye could see, cropping grass.

“After all these years, Abbott has never found this cave?” asked Johnny, finding it hard to believe it'd been a secret all this time. 

“Nope,” chuckled Drago, “that's the sweet part about it. The cave faces opposite the hidden valley. I guess he never ventured past it.”

“What about your old gang members? Why wouldn't they say something about it?” asked Scott.

“We made a pact and there's only two of them left now.”

“So, yer breaking the deal?” asked Johnny. Another reason not to trust him.

“Not really. I only showed you the hideout. I didn't tell you where it was.”

Scott rolled his eyes. “Love your logic, Drago.”

“I told ya…”

“Yeah, we know,” said Johnny. “Where's the main hangout where they'd keep the lawmen?”

“Due southeast. Under the overhang of that big ledge,” pointed the outlaw to the opposite end of the canyon. “See that big rock sittin smack dab in the middle of that open crevice behind the scrub?”

Scott pulled his spyglass out full length and followed the direction Drago had indicated. “Yes, I see it. The opening is small. A natural entryway into their cave.” He handed the glass to Johnny and Scott summed it up, “You can see the entire canyon from it, including the entrance.”

“That's why they picked it,” added Drago, opening a tin of chew and popping a pinch into his mouth.

“Any other way in?” asked Johnny, not liking the odds of being seen. Chances are they'll kill Val and Tim before we could bust through the opening.

“Well, there is one, but you'll probably not like it.”

“Where?”

“From the cave we're sittin on there's a tunnel that runs along this side of the canyon. It ends about a half a mile up the line.” Drago pointed, “You'll come out where that big rock is.” The boys followed his line of vision to a massive boulder, sitting high on the crest, just before the curve of the rock wall. The hideout entrance was lower to the ground, by a stand of scrawny trees a couple hundred yards to the southeast. “It's tight and dark and creepy.”

He had to say the three words I hate most, tight, dark and creepy. Boxed-in, in other words. Johnny groaned. “No other way?”

“No. When ya come out of the tunnel, you'll have to make a dash down from the peak to their hideout below.”

“Great,” commented Johnny. “It doesn't connect to their cave. We'll be out in the open.”

“Yup, ya got it.”

“It's not that far,” argued Scott. “It might not be so bad, Johnny.”

“We're still going to need a distraction to get inside.”

“We could stampede the cows. That would pull everyone out of there.”

Johnny carefully looked over the lay of the land again. “I still can't believe Abbott never found this cave.”

“I'm tellin ya, he didn't for two reasons!”

The boys waited, with Johnny giving him an irritated frown.

“See that big rock by the main entrance to the hideout?”

“Yeah,” answered Johnny, annoyed.

“Well, it used to be up there by that giant rock at the tunnel entrance. It hid the opening of the tunnel really good.” He spat the wad of chewed tobacco onto the rocks. “Anyways, a while back, it rolled down this here cliff after some big explosion happened behind the Genesis mine.”

Johnny squared his hat and Scott gave a hint of a smile.

Seeing the grin, Drago added, “I don't know what happened. Must've been the trembling of the ground or something. One moment it was up there and the next it was on the range land below. Heard it wiped out a few dumb cows too.”

“Okay, that was one reason. What's the second reason?” asked Johnny, his patience wearing more than thin.

Drago snickered, “Abbott is afraid of heights and dark, enclosed places.”

Hmm, reminds me of someone, mutely thought Scott , casting a glance at his silent brother.

“Abbott wouldn't be caught dead up there,” added Drago. “After the rock rolled off the edge of the peak, he ordered everyone to stay away from the top of the plateau.”

They heard a horse's whinny from a distance. Looking over to a hill to the left of them, they saw a herd of wild mustangs in a small gully.

“They seem nervous,” said Scott, noticing all the horses had their heads up and pointed in the same direction with their ears laid back.

“Look,” exclaimed Johnny, “there's Sinbad, the giant's horse…and Val's, still saddled.”

“Must be Tim didn't use the stay command on his horse,” stated Scott.

“Hmm, or he couldn't,” finished Johnny.

A flash of lightening crackled in the air, followed by a round of thunder. They all looked to the southwest. Dark, black clouds edged with green were seen on the horizon.

“Just what we need,” moaned Drago. He headed down from the top of the cave to an opening below. “I'm outta here.”

“Where are you going?” demanded Johnny, following behind him.

“Home. There's a bad storm a brewing.”

“You're supposed to bring Murdoch and the rest of the lawman.”

“I will, after the storm. They're gonna have to hole up somewhere anyways. Believe me, you don't want to be caught with a twister banging at your backdoor.”

“You really think there's gonna be a twister?” asked Johnny. “Looks more like a gully washer to me.”

Drago smiled, “Notice at the moment how still the wind is? See the line of green in them clouds?”

“Yeah.”

“It'll change in an instant and you don't want to be out in it.”

All three of them, one at a time, climbed down a rickety ladder to a small grotto below.

“Where's the tunnel from this cave?” asked Scott, much to Johnny's annoyance.

I'm not going in there. I'll run beside the cows if I have to.

“I'll show ya on the way out. There's torches you can light to see yer way.”

They exited the grotto and came down a short passageway that ended where the horses were and Drago grabbed his horse's reins. “The tunnel starts in the supply room.”

All three went to the front entrance of the cave. All were surprised at how much darker it was now than a few minutes before when they'd been topside. The wind had picked up and was blowing over the cavern towards the east. They could hear the cattle getting restless, as the frantic bellows from the cows traveled in the wind.

“I'm glad I'm not a drover today. They're going to have their hands full,” stated Scott, as he watched Drago mount up. “You got far to go?”

“Far enough,” replied the ex-buscadero, pulling his hat down low over his head. A second later, he was galloping away from the cave, trying to beat the storm home.

They saw another flash of lightening and a few seconds later another bang of thunder sounded. “Closer, this time,” exclaimed Scott, after silently counting the seconds between the lightning and thunder. Excited now, he went on, “I wish we could watch the storm.”

“All we have to do is go back to the top…”

“Oh, no, we're not. That's a good way to end up dead in a hurry.”

“What do you suggest we do to get to the main hideout?” I know he's going to insist…

“We're going by the tunnel,” enforced Scott. There's no way we're going out there.

Johnny groaned, “No! I'll run outside and keep low to the ground.”

“The hell you will! That lightning is vicious in a storm like this…actually any storm.”

“I hate dark, enclosed places!”

“I know, but at least it's safer than being out there.” As if for emphasis, lightning zigzagged across the darkening sky and hit ground somewhere nearby. Thunder rolled a few moments later, shaking the earth. Scott grabbed Johnny's arm and led him to the supply room. Once there, they found the torches soaking in a barrel of oil. Scott picked one up and searched for a match. “Ya got a light?”

“Sure,” said Johnny, pulling a match from his pant pocket, stating, “What self-respecting cowboy doesn't have a match on him?”

“Me, they're all in my coat pocket behind my saddle.”

Johnny struck the match against a wooden box and the stick came to life. A moment later two torches were burning bright.

They found a crude ladder which lead to a hole in the stone wall. “After you brother,” said Johnny.

Scott easily climbed the ladder, holding the torch in one yellow gloved hand as he went. Johnny followed on his boot heels. On their hands and knees, they started to crawl, for the tunnel was low to the ground and narrow.

Johnny asked one last time, “Ya sure you want to go this way?”

A heavy clap of thunder outside answered his question.

“Lead on brother.”

They soon found out carrying a light with a flame and crawling down a tunnel was no easy thing. Especially Johnny, who had a tendency to singe his brother's heels.

“Enough of this,” complained Johnny, “do we really need two torches?”

“Yer the one who doesn't like the dark.”

“I never said that. I just don't like boxed in places.” He snuffed out the torch in a crevice of the wall and left the stick. Much better, now I can maneuver. Now, if anything comes at me I can defend myself. He felt for his Colt to make sure it was in place.

“Boxed in usually means dark,” argued Scott, putting his hand in something slippery. “Watch it, I think I just found some animal poop.”

Johnny sniffed, “Yup, you did.”

“Spider web coming up. Make that a big spider web that hasn't been disturbed in a while.”

“See the owner anywhere?”

“No, but I'm sure she's nearby.”

They moved up a few more spaces.

Scott barreled through the silk-netting, then warned, “Keep your hat on, the web's nasty.”

“Like I'd take it off?” grumbled Johnny, ducking low to the ground. When he thought he'd past the web he brought his face up and looked ahead at Scott illuminated by the torchlight. He could see remnants of the silk thread sticking to his brother's hat and clothes. A very, large spider perched precariously on the top of his hat.

“Scott!” yelled Johnny.

Scott's body jumped and he hit his head on the stone ceiling. “What?”

Johnny couldn't see the spider anymore. “Never mind.”

Scott, shaking his head, traveled on.

“Johnny, did Drago really say this was only half of a mile?”

“Yup.” Johnny wiped his nose for it itched, then wished he'd hadn't. For now, something was sticky on it and it stunk.

“Well why does it seem like we've covered over a mile?”

“Probably because it takes longer to get there. Or is that the other way around? It takes longer to get home.”

“What are you going on about Johnny? I can't understand you.”

Suddenly, a chirping noise was heard followed by loud squeaks. The strong scent of sulfur permeated the air.

“What the heck is that clamor?” asked Johnny, banging into his brother, then coming to a stop. He covered his nose with his hand for the rotten egg smell bothered his stomach. They could hear the noise up and down the tunnel. “Sounds like...” Heck, I don't know what it sounds like.

“Could be cave crickets,” said Scott, making the mistake and looking up through the torchlight. He swallowed hard. “Whatever you do don't look up.”

Then Scott added, but not in time, “And be quiet.”

Johnny, having just pictured a gang of crickets roaming around and unconsciously feeling them on his person, automatically looked up and loudly groaned. “Bats!”

Of course, they all took off chirping and squeaking, while dropping doo-doo all over the boys.

“Johnny?”

“Yeah, Scott?”

“You win. I think I'd rather take my chances with the lightening outside.”

Quietly, they made their way to the end of the tunnel and out into the open air, where the giant rock was.

“Dang!” was all Johnny could come up with. The wind had become so forceful they had to hang onto their hats or lose them. One moment the wind came from the southwest, a second later it changed direction and came from the north. They could feel both hot and cool air blasting them from both sides.

Horizontal rain was drenching their bodies. “I've never seen it rain sideways before!” yelled Johnny, completely captivated by the storm.

Scott pointed towards the south, southwest where the storm was coming from. “See the green color?”

“Yeah.”

“That's hail. It'll be upon us in no time. Now, look up and watch the clouds. Look for streaks of clouds intermixing, then circling.  It'll look like two fingers interweaving.”

“What about them?”

“If we see them, we take cover. A twister can drop from them anytime.”

The cows were making their unhappiness known. In fact, they were voicing their displeasure of the rain and fear of the wind quite vociferously.

“They're going to stampede,” said Johnny. Both boys could see them, stamping their feet, pushing each other and trying to move. The drovers knew it too. The Lancer boys watched from their perch high in the rocks, as Josiah Abbott and the rest of his men ran out of their hideout and climbed on their horses.

A bolt of lightning sizzled across the sky followed by an immediate boom of thunder, which shook the whole canyon. Hail descended, battering everyone and everything in its path.

Charging out the valley's only entrance, the cows moved as one.

Johnny picked up a frozen ball, enthralled by it. Ice cold and crystal clear.

Scott shouted, to be heard above the wind, “Haven't you ever seen hail before?”

“Yes, but not this large,” exclaimed Johnny, still holding the ice. It's the size of a silver dollar and so cold. I can feel it burning my fingers. He was forced to drop the ball.

Lightning flashed, hitting a rock at the top of the canyon and Scott immediately grabbed his brother around the waist and pulled him back towards the tunnel.

“I'm not going back in there!” shouted Johnny. There's creepy, crawly things in there. Besides, this is fascinating.

“We don't have a choice! Look!” yelled Scott, trying to push his brother down on the ground, so that they could fit into the tunnel. Johnny broke away and went and stood by the huge rock for protection from the fierce winds. A moment later, Scott joined him, secretly praying a bolt of lightning wouldn't find them.

“I have to admit its pretty awe inspiring,” said Scott, standing behind his brother and observing the storm. Day had turned almost into night as the black clouds rolled in.

“Never seen anything like it.”

 Johnny was transfixed as he watched the twister form about a mile away. The dark clouds were going round and round, the wind changing directions at a rapid speed. A white funnel started down, skinny at first, then gradually the color darkened and the long shaft grew wider as it hit the ground, devouring everything in its path.

They were soaked to the bone, bruised by hail and buffeted by the wind and, still they watched until the twister shifted direction and headed straight for them.

This time Johnny didn't argue. Both brothers, on their bellies, wiggled into the tunnel feet first. It was a tighter fit with them being side by side, but there wasn't time to do anything else.

“Move farther down the tunnel,” ordered Scott, “we'll get sucked out here.”

Johnny didn't think so, but his brother seemed to know his stuff. He twisted down to the point where the tunnel narrowed and the bats had flown off. Laying sideways now, facing each other, their hands and bodies slid in the gooey stuff left behind by the squeaking bats.

“Yuck, bat crap again. There goes my rain washed shirt,” moaned Johnny.

“Deal with it brother.”

They busted out with laughter, for they were on an adrenalin rush until they heard the sound of a freight train outside. It echoed like a growl down the tunnel and the canyon's wall shook.

“Cover your ears!” shouted Scott, “And bury your head!”

Johnny wondered why and the next second he knew, pressure was making his ears pop. Dirt and sand from the tunnel was literally being sucked out. He could feel it going up his pants legs, through his shirt and over his face. He grabbed his hat and ducked his face into Scott's chest. His brother wrapped an arm around Johnny's shoulders and held onto his hat with his hand, while tucking his face against Johnny's neck. They could feel the twister's incredible suction as their shirtsleeves flapped against their arms and their bodies swayed back and forth from the force of the air around them.

As fast as the twister had come, it was gone, leaving nothing but destruction in it's wake.

 

---31---

The boys climbed out of the tunnel to find the canyon much changed. The silence was deafening. The humidity was gone and the temperature had dropped to a comfortable level. The cattle were all gone, as were the horses. What trees there had been were pulled up by the roots and were laying on their sides. The grass, wildflowers and some scrub all laid flat on the ground. A shallow, wide path could be seen where the twister had traveled on its course. The oddest thing of all, the boulder they'd been standing against during the storm, had rolled into the grazing land below. Like after every storm the sun came out, the blue sky sparkled and a rainbow stretched across the entire valley.

Johnny ran a hand through his hair, stopping at his temple. “You want to hear something strange?”

“Sure, why not?”

“My headache's gone.”

They both snickered at that and Scott wrapped an arm around Johnny's neck, then squeezed. “Glad to hear it brother.”

Grinning broadly, then growing serious, Johnny said, “Come on. We need to find Val and Tim before Abbott gets back here.”

They followed the muddy path the big boulder had made to the pasture below, when gunfire erupted in the canyon by the lake.

“Oh, boy, here comes the law,” joked Johnny, as they hurried to the main hide-out's cave entrance. “Those dirty rustlers better run.”

The gun battle continued, moving away from the hidden canyon. “Sounds like Murdoch and the law have them on the run,” said Scott. “Think they'll head for Abbott's ranch or double back here?”

“They'd be a fool to come back here, but then I've seen some mighty strange things.”

“Besides,” said Scott, “people are crazy.”

They reached the opening to the main cave and both men drew their guns. Quietly they stepped inside the cavern. Nobody was in the main living quarters. There were two corridors leading to the back of the cave. One is probably an escape route , thought Johnny. The other, who knows.

Scott whispered, “I'll take the one on the left.”

Johnny nodded okay. He snuck down the unlit tunnel, please don't let there be bats or worse… He stumbled over a box and jerked his sore neck. What the hell's a box doin in the middle of a tunnel? My luck it'll be dynamite or something. He lit a match to see what it was… of course, explosives. Enough to blow us all to kingdom come. His match went out and he thought he heard a squeak. No! Scott called his name, “Johnny over here.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, he stepped very carefully over the box and backtracked to where Scott was. His brother had found the lawmen and was untying their hands.

“What in tarnation happened to you? Ya look like ya rolled in a chicken coop or something.”

Scott chuckled and Johnny raised an eyebrow.

“Hello Val. Nice to see you too,” retorted Johnny, secretly glad his friend appeared to be okay. Now, the giant was another story. He looked plum wore out. There was a makeshift bandage wrapped around his lower right leg. Gunshot wound? And he had bruises all over his face. Put up a good fight, didn't ya? Johnny looked back at Val.

The lawman rubbed his rope-burned wrists and explained, “Abbott hasn't exactly treated us like company, especially the big guy here. He's madder than a hornet Matt got away.

“He more than made up for it when he caught up to me,” said Johnny, rubbing his neck.

Both lawman noticed the dark, purple bruise and ugly rope burn.

“Stretched yer neck a bit, huh?” kidded Val, not grinning. “How'd ya come out breathing?”

“Got lucky with a noisy cougar and a brother, who was paying attention.”

“I thought you and cougars didn't get along Scott?”

“We don't,” answered Scott, throwing the rope aside from Tim's legs.

Johnny squatted down and put his hands on the bandage to check the wound. Tim grabbed his arm, stopping him. “Let it be. I already done tended it as much as it needs.

In a soft voice, Johnny asked, “You all right?”

“Been better. Will be better when I have a whiskey sittin in front of me along with some peace and quiet,” expressed Tim, glancing at his partner.

Val interrupted, “Tim's not quite himself. He lost a lot of blood when he dug that bullet out by his self, for Josiah wouldn't even let me help him. Didn't even pass out,” boasted Val. “Impressed the hell out of Abbott's men, I'll tell ya that. I'm right proud to call him a fellow lawman and friend.”

Ignoring Val's chatter, Scott observed the big guy. Eyes are glassy. He's feverish. Complexion white as a ghost. “Think you can sit on a horse?” he asked.

“Ya know damn well I can,” grumped the big guy, embarrassed to be caught like this.

Val moaned as he stood up. “Been sittin in that cramped position way to long.” He reached out a hand to Tim, who swatted it away. Rolling his eyes, Val said, “Okay, have it your way.”

Not giving Tim a chance to naysay them, Johnny and Scott each grabbed an arm under the ranger's shoulders and helped him to his feet. He swayed back and forth, but the boys kept him erect by supporting his weight with the ranger's arms around their shoulders. Being taller, Val took over for Johnny in supporting the large man, giving the giant a crooked grin.

Johnny took point with his gun drawn. They moved out of the back tunnel into the main part of the cave. Johnny spied the giant's black handled Colt in its holster and picked it up, with Val's gun belt off the ground. He handed it to the correct owner and they put them on. Feeling more secure now that everyone was armed, they headed to the entrance.

“Place looks deserted,” commented Val, as they made their way outside.

“Well, we did have a twister come through,” stated Scott, struggling to keep the giant upright. Boy, this guy is big and all muscle.

Looking at the land full of destruction, “All the cows stampeded, huh?” mocked the giant. “One way to get em' outta the canyon.”

“Pretty much,” affirmed Johnny. “I don't know where your horse went to.”

“I do,” said the Ranger and whistled loud and long. They all waited and before long hoof beat sounds could be heard. A moment later, Sinbad burst through the eastern entrance way and came running up to Tim, with Val's horse beside him.

“Well, what do you know?” said Val, in a state of wonder.

“I told you your horse was smitten with mine,” laughed the big guy, as he patted his horse on the neck. “A mare just knows a good lookin stallion when she sees one.”

“Here all this time I thought it was Barranca she was in love with,” kidded Johnny.

Sinbad stood still as Tim put his foot in the stirrup. In spite of his strength, the boys had to help him up, which was no small feat. A bit red in the face from the effort, the ranger said, “Much obliged.”

Val mounted his horse.

Johnny said, “We'll catch up to you boys after we get our horses,”

“Where are they?” asked Val.

“In a hidden cave at the other end of the canyon,” nodded Johnny in the direction of the cavern. “Bet ya can't find it?”

“Humph,” grunted both lawmen, their gazes fixed on the location Johnny indicated.

The Lancer brothers chuckled.

“All right,” said Val. “Ya pulled one over on us. Where is it?”

Scott said, “The cave faces the northeast. The back of it blends into the canyon wall perfectly. You should see the inside.”

“Yeah, it's an old hideout, still fully stocked,” remarked Johnny, having second thoughts about that. “Ya know, I wonder if Drago lied about that cave not being used.”

“Why?” asked Scott.

“Didn't you notice the fresh hay and feed?”

“Maybe someone else is using it and Drago doesn't know,” replied Scott, wanting to believe Drago had meant what he said about going straight.

“Well, there's one way to find out,” griped Tim, taking his foot out of the stirrup. “Mount up boys, we'll save you a walk and have a looksee at the same time.”

Scott climbed up behind Val, leaving Johnny the task of getting on behind the giant. Once again, he had the dilemma of mounting behind the ranger's big frame on top of his huge horse. He put his foot in the stirrup and was about to reach for the horn, when Tim grabbed Johnny's arm and swung him up behind him. Geez, even wounded the man's stronger than an ox.

They rode out the east entrance, around the canyon to the cave. Destruction from the twister could be seen all over the land. “Tornado looks to be heading east, right for Cold River,” stated Johnny.

“At least it will miss Genesis,” said Scott. “That town's known enough grief to last it a lifetime.”

They rode in silence the rest of the way to the hidden cave and stopped at the foot of the big plateau. “Follow the scrub bushes to the top. You'll come to a stop inside the opening,” ordered Scott.

The lawmen did as bid, urging their horses to dig into the soft, windblown dirt mixed with sand, as they climbed their way to the opening of the hideout. Once on top, they found themselves inside the cooler crater. After their eyes adjusted to the dimness, the three men dismounted from the horses with Tim reluctantly staying in the saddle. He didn't want to put more pressure on his wounded leg. Scott showed Val around the vast cave with Tim following on horseback.

Johnny went to check on the horses in the back of the cave. Barranca and Buster both hurriedly walked up to him with their tails down and ears back. “Hey, it's okay now,” comforted Johnny, patting and rubbing each horse at the same time on the muzzle. “Nothing to worry about. We're going home soon.”

“Fraid not,” said a cold, familiar voice, as Nate stepped away from the wall by the underground spring, holding Jelly's gun.

“So, you're the one that's been stocking this place?” asked Johnny, not really surprised at all.

“Yup. I used to play all over these here caverns when I was a kid. Never told my pa I found this place.” Nate laughed, a sick kind of sound. “Guess I wanted to pull a fast one on him…like with these here horses.”

“Nate, there's all kinds of horses out there. Why do you need mine?”

“Cause they're yours! Because I know ya love them just like I loved my cousin and uncle!” He sniffed loudly, then whimpered, “They were my family, Johnny!”

Victor Talbot and Judah Abbott. Johnny felt sick inside. “I didn't want to play their game. They forced me.”

“I know that! That's why I didn't kill Scott, though I had enough opportunities to do so.” Johnny paled at that remark. Nate ducked his head, then instantly brought it back up, his eyes hard. “But, as my Pa said, blood is thicker than water , and that's why I tricked you into following us to the line shack.”

Johnny let go of each horse's snout and slowly walked between them to their rear ends, hands skimming their backs as he went. “What now Nate?”

“My Pa thinks I can't do anything right. He thinks I won't amount to a hill of beans.”

“That why you wanted to join the army?”

“In part. I wanted to prove I could be as good as anyone else, but Pa won't let me.”

Johnny refuted, “Nate, you're old enough to be your own man. You can make your own choices…yer own decisions. You can follow the right path.” Johnny held his hands out, trying to convince the boy. “Shoot, look at me. I was headed down the wrong road and yes, my father pulled me out. But, I still had to make the decision myself. I had to make the choice!”

“You were lucky, Johnny. You have someone who cares about you.”

“Yeah, I do,” nodded Johnny. “But, luck had nothing to do with it. My father lives by principles. I can teach them to you. I know we've butted heads in the past, but in spite of that, I do care about you, Nate. We can start over, Nate and become friends.”

“It's too late for me. I'm going to prison with my Pa.”

“It's never too late, Nate,” beseeched Johnny.

Nate gestured with the gun, “I've gotten good with this gun, Johnny. I'm sure I can beat you with it.”

Johnny didn't want to find out, but Nate's eyes told a different story. I'm so sick of killing. Quickly, he slapped the rumps of both horses, yelling, “Haw! Get outta here!” Both horses took off into the other cavern.

Very softly, Johnny coaxed, “Nate, drop the gun.”

“No, Johnny.”

“Please Nate, put the gun down.”

Scott and the lawmen had turned when they'd heard Johnny yell at the horses. After watching the animals run out of the back room, they quickly made their way towards it, when they heard two rapid gunshots.

Tim instantly dismounted from Sinbad and followed Scott and Val inside the smoky room with their guns drawn.

“Johnny?” desperately called Scott, trying to see through the haze of gun smoke. He found him a few seconds later, kneeling over Nate's still form, with his Colt still in his hand.

Holstering his gun, Scott put a protective arm around his brother's shoulder. Gently, he called his name, “Johnny?”

With misery evident in his eyes, Johnny lifted his head and whispered, “I didn't want to do it. I tried to talk him out of it, but he gave me no choice.”

“I know,” said Scott, as he squeezed Johnny's shoulder, trying his best to comfort his brother. He felt Johnny put his gun back in his holster, as Val checked Nate's pulse at the neck and pronounced him dead with a negative shake of his head.

Val gave Johnny a quick squeeze to the arm, since Scott still held him around the shoulders. “It's not your fault Johnny. I'm sorry,” commiserated the marshal.

Feeling totally sick inside, Johnny got up and went to the stream of water by the back wall of the cave. He knelt down, washing his hands clean of the bright red blood where'd touched Nate after the shooting. Blood on my hands. Always blood on my hands. Will it ever end? A moment later he threw up into the water. He watched the swift current carry it out of sight.

Wanting to be alone with his thoughts, he went to the roughhewn ladder and climbed to the top of the cave where he exited. Finding a flat boulder, he sat down and stared across the plain, not seeing anything.

 Whether it was minutes or hours, Johnny couldn't say, when Murdoch found him. After thoroughly checking over his son with his eyes, he sat down next to Johnny and put his arm around him like Scott had done earlier.

“Did I pass scrutiny?”

Murdoch hugged him tighter to his chest and said, “Just makin sure you're all right.”

“Yeah. I am.”

“I know how you hate this.”

“Ah, Murdoch, I just don't understand, that's all. I mean, he had all kinds of chances to change. It didn't have to come to this.”

Murdoch heaved a sigh. They sat there in silence, watching the birds fly in the air. The mustangs had returned to their spot by the next hill. From the position on the plateau, they could see the cows being rounded up by a group of wranglers. A couple of sheriff deputies had Sam and Davie Stryker under arrest. They were leading them away in handcuffs, sitting on top of their horses.

Murdoch finally said, “Johnny, for what it's worth, let me tell you a story I heard once from an old Indian chief. Maybe it will help you.”

Johnny agreed with a slight shake to his head.

“An old man told his grandson, ‘My son there is a battle between two wolves inside us all.'

‘One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego.'

‘The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth.'

The boy thought about it and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

“The old man quietly replied, ‘ The one you feed.' ” (Author unknown)

 

---32---

A day later, the Lancer boys were sitting in front of Dr. Banning's office, each in a wooden chair, tipped up against the building,  drinking a cup of coffee as they leisurely watched the traffic go by.

“Hey,” said Scott, “there goes Val.”

They both stared down the street as the marshal dismounted from his horse in front of the livery and blacksmith businesses. Drake / Drago came out to greet him. Each stared at the other for some time, then shook hands before going inside.

“I'd like to be a fly on the wall right now,” said Johnny, taking a swig of his brew.

“I guess that'll be another story for both of them to tell,” said Scott, as Cal came around the corner of the house, looking woebegone.

“Hey, why the sad face?” asked Scott, sitting his empty coffee cup on the boardwalk.

The boy shrugged his shoulders.

You're not bored?” asked Johnny, sitting his cup down on his knee.

“Nope.”

 “Ya aren't missing your ma, are ya?” asked Johnny. “We'll be home in a few days.”

“I miss her, but that's not it,” replied Cal, kicking the dirt in front of the hitching post.

“I'm outta guesses,” said Scott.

“I don't know how to rightly put it,” remarked Cal. “I just feel bad about Nate, that's all.”

“Oh,” stated Scott, getting up and giving his brother a pat on the back. He picked up his empty cup and grabbed Johnny's from his hand.

Johnny gave him a look, “What was that for?”

“Fallen hero syndrome.”

“Oh…shucks.”

“Cal,” said Johnny, “we need to have a talk.”

“Okay,” answered the boy, sitting down in the chair Scott had vacated.

Johnny didn't know how to begin, so he just blurted it out, “Cal, I'm not a hero. I'm just an ex-gunfighter that had to learn most of my lessons the hard way.”

“Yeah, I know,” agreed Cal. “Ya told me this story back in Uppity. Remember?”

Johnny chuckled, “I guess, I did. But, what I'm trying to say is, don't look up to me. I've made so many mistakes in my life that it's pathetic. Look up to someone like Murdoch or Scott or the LT. Gov. George. They are all good teachers and they're the real heroes.”

Cal hit Johnny hard on the arm.

“Ow! What'd ya do that for?”

“Don't sell yourself short, Johnny! Yer as good as they are!”

“But, Cal I'm just a…”

Cal hit him again. “You're not Johnny. Yer a friend and yer family. My family and I love ya!” Cal socked him again. “So, don't ya ever forget it, ya hear me?” The boy took off inside the office, before Johnny could reach for him.

Rubbing his arm, he exclaimed, “Dang! I won't forget it.”

 

“Well, this just came in,” announced Tim, hobbling with a cane, holding a telegram. They were all gathered around Dr. Banning's kitchen table eating breakfast consisting of hotcakes, with fresh blueberries, eggs and sausage. “Where's Val?”

“We haven't laid eyes on him since he met up with Drag…Drake,” volunteered Johnny, helping himself to another stack of pancakes. “Pass the butter.”

“Maybe we should go and check on him,” added Scott, biting into an egg omelet filled with cheese and mushrooms. He rolled his eyes at his brother. “You should try this.”

“Only if ya leave the mushrooms out,” grinned Johnny. “Pass the syrup.”

“Naw, he's alright,” said the ranger. “Turned out he and Drago are cousins.”

“Cousins?” asked Murdoch, sipping his coffee, while watching his boys eat.

“Yeah,” confirmed the big guy, slipping the telegram into his pocket. “Turned out their fathers were twins. They went off to war together and never came back.”

“Isn't that interesting?” remarked Dr. Banning, helping himself to some more sausage. “Cal, ya want the last one? Billy?”

Neither boy nodded his head, for they were full of hotcakes.

“The telegram?” reminded Sarah Banning, as she flipped an egg in an iron skillet on the stove.

“Oh, yeah, it seems the posse caught up with Josiah Abbott. Ended in a shootout in Cold River at his brother's place.”

“Not that I care,” stated Murdoch, “but what happened?”

“Well, it seems Abbott was caught off guard.”

“Oh, how?”

“That twister we had the other day did a direct hit on Judah's house, demolishing it.”

They all stopped eating.

“Josiah was in such a state of shock, he forgot about the posse until they caught up with him.”

“Go on, my hotcakes are getting cold,” urged Johnny, then took another bite and chewed anyways.

“Sheriff Troup told him he was under arrest, but Abbott didn't take kindly to it and fired on the law.”

“And?” egged on Scott. “You're enjoying this, aren't you?”

“Yup. Needless to say, the law won. Josiah Abbott is dead.”

“Well hell,” said Johnny, as he shoveled in another forkful of pancakes and unconsciously rubbed his neck.

 

Johnny and Scott had been on the road home most of the day. They decided to leave and get a start on the older men.

The lawmen and Murdoch had loose ends to tie together with the United States Army. The U.S. Army had agreed to honor the contract they'd had with the late, Josiah Abbott, by way of paying all the ranchers, for the stolen stock they had lost. After all, the army still needed the beef and horses.

Cal wanted one more day to be with his friend, Billy, and would come home with Murdoch.

It had been a long day and night was swiftly falling. It was a no moon night with the brilliant stars lighting their way.

“Buster's getting tired,” said Scott, yawning.

“Buster? He has more energy than all of us put together. You mean you're getting tired.”

“That too,” agreed Scott. “Why don't we camp for the night?” He pointed to a copse of trees by a field. “There's a good spot.”

“Looks kinda dark,” said Johnny. “We're not by an alphalfa field, are we?” He couldn't explain it, but the hairs on the nape of his neck were standing at attention.

“Don't know. Too hard to tell in the dark.”

They pulled their horses to a halt by the edge of the tree line.

Scott argued, “It's dark in there. We wouldn't have to worry about anyone disturbing us.”

“True,” hedged Johnny, unhappily remembering a dream.

“Well, what are we going to do? It's your call.”

“Scott, how many times did I have that nightmare on the train?”

“Hmm, I don't know, but it was often. Why?”

They heard riders in the distance. As they got closer, they heard rifles being cocked.

“Come on! Ride!” demanded Johnny, touching his heels to Barranca's sides. Scott did the same thing to Buster. Gunshots were heard firing after them. Then, they grew faint as they put distance between the riders and themselves.

Glancing back, with his Colt in his hand, Johnny noticed they weren't being pursued, but he could still hear the gunfire. Strange? Reaching the top of a small knoll, he shouted at Scott to halt. He did so.

“What?” Scott also discerned something was amiss. Turning their horses around, they tried to see what was going on down the way. They couldn't make out anything until a loud growl was heard and a black, lumbering creature was headed their way.

Scott, astonished, “It's got to be a bear.”

“Well, forget that!” barked Johnny. “We're outta here!” 

 

Epilog

Sunday is the day of rest and it was no different on the Lancer ranch, except chores had to be done and the stock had to be fed. Jelly was in the middle of barbequing a side of beef near the barn. Rain had started to fall and he was cussing up a storm, prompting the men to build some kind of cover in a hurry.

A skunk, cat and dog soon joined Jelly by the heat of the fire pit. “I tell ya, it's raining cats and dogs out there,” spouted Jelly, as he basted the meat with a red sauce. “Excuse me Rose, but you know how it goes on getting left out. But, the plain fact is, it don't rain skunks.” A goose honked and a roaster crowed. “Oh shut up you two before I add ya both to the spit.”

Witnessing Jelly's antics, Johnny laughed as he walked by, heading to the porch at the house. He carried with him one of Barranca's reins that needed mending. Stepping onto the entranceway, he turned around when he spied a checker game in progress between Cal and Tim, but his father blocked his path. Not wanting to make an issue out of it, Johnny sat down in a wicker chair next to the game and started working on the rein.

It was the Martin family's last day at Lancer. George and some of his hands had come to move Leah and Cal to his ranch. Murdoch and the LT. Governor had gotten reacquainted by splitting a bottle of brandy at Murdoch's desk, while discussing future investments. Afterwards, they had come outside and joined the others on the verandah.

Matt and Teresa were snapping a large pile of green beans from her garden at a side table, then putting them in a pot to be cooked.

Tim teased his brother, “Ya know Matt, that's not a lawman's job.”

“No,” replied Matt, “but it helps get the girl.” They all laughed. Tim was especially pleased to see his brother on his feet. Distracted, Tim missed Cal's last move on the checker board. He absently moved his black checker, thinking how nice it was that Teresa and Matt were sweet on each other.

Cal did a triple jump and yelled, “I won!”

Scott, quietly sitting by Johnny, had watched the whole game and patted Cal on the back. “Who's next?” asked the winner, setting up the game again.

“Johnny?” asked Tim, getting up from the chair.

“Ah, oh no. I'm right in the middle of…”

“Nonsense,” bellowed the giant, taking Johnny's arm and pulling him into the chair. “All work and no play ain't good for a man.”

“I really don't want to play,” he softly said. I swore I wouldn't play again and I can't.

All could see it in his eyes that he wanted to play, but something was holding him back.

“Ah, Johnny, come on,” begged Cal. “Pleaseeee.”

“I…I can't.” He started to get up when a giant hand clamped down on his shoulder and pushed him back in the chair.

“Now, listen,” said the deep voice of the man in back of him. “It's my fault about the checker game. I was only following Talbot's orders. It was a dirty trick on his part to make you feel guilty. He'd be laughing in his grave if he knew how much the game had affected you. Remember, fear is nothing more than a state of mind.”*

“I know,” said Johnny, ducking his head. “but, I can't do it.”

“Ya well!” roared the big man. “And yer not gonna play Cal.” The boy left his chair immediately and headed into the house. “Yer gonna play…him.”

Scott sat down in the empty chair and shrewdly beamed at his brother. “Johnny, this has gone on long enough and quite frankly, I miss my checker partner.”

“You don't understand…”

“I do understand and the first game is the hardest to play, so let's get on with it!”

“Wait a minute,” rumbled Tim, “There's some new rules to follow to keep ya both honest. Cal!”

The boy stepped back onto the porch with a plate full of cookies, followed by Leah with a tray of cold tea and two glasses.

“What are those? They look small,” said Johnny, beginning to smell a rat. Where's Tab when ya need him?

The giant picked up a dainty cookie and said, “These here cookies are bite size gingersnaps.” He ate one and rubbed his belly. “Mighty good, these cookies are.”

Johnny and Scott both groaned.

“And the cold tea is made with ginger.”

Another moan was heard. Both boys remembered all too well the amount of ginger tea they'd been forced to drink when they'd been recovering at Dr. Banning's house after the game.

“Now,” said the big man, “to insure there will be no cheating…in other words…neither of you are going to throw the game and let the other brother win…” He paused and let that statement sink into their minds. “So, here are the rules. For each checker taken off the board, the player it belongs to must eat one gingersnap. If it's a king, you have to eat a cookie and drink some of the ginger tea. Comprehend?”

“We don't get a choice in this game?” asked Johnny, not happy at all.

“No!”

Johnny glared at Scott. “Is this your idea?”

“Truthfully…no.”

Relieved, Johnny pointed with his thumb behind his back, “His?”

“No!” boomed the giant, eating another cookie. “But, I will enforce the rules.”

“Whose idea is it then?”

“Mine!” came the reply. “And ya can quit yer bellyaching, Johnny Lancer,” demanded Cal, in no uncertain terms.

Scott shrugged his shoulders.

Resigned, Johnny gave in and said, “Well brother, may the best man win.”

 

 

~ end ~
July 2015

*Phrase coined by Napolean Hill
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