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Darla M. Poulos

 

 

Johnny Saving Time

All of Darla's stories are linked on a specific timeline. To read them chronologically, here's the order

Beta: Lacy. As always my hat’s off to you again. Thanks my friend.
Honorable mention: Terri Derr. Thanks for giving me the title, which worked out right fine in time.
Dedicated to Darcy: Who doesn’t remember giving me the idea for this story a few years ago.
This epic can literally stand alone. But, it does follow my two short ficlits, I Got Time and Time Will Tell. You might want to consider reading them first for a better understanding of the story line
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Family

“Faster!” urgently commanded Johnny Lancer, slapping the reins on the rumps of the draft horses pulling the work-loaded buckboard. The animals increased their speed, eating up the dirt trail in front of them.

Johnny knew he was pushing them too hard, but time was of the essence. Things had been happening at the ranch and in town to his family. Unexplained extenuatin’ circumstances said Clyde, the gabby line-rider, who had found him mending fences in the north pasture. The ranch hand can’t explain the stories behind the injuries or the instances. He only knows how it happened, but not the why or who had done the nasty deeds…just like Scott’s refusal to tell me who gave him that black eye though I’ve tried my damnest to figure it out. His shiner was the beginning of it. I should’ve seen it comin’. My gut’s screamin’ trouble. Why didn’t I pay more attention? Because I was too busy arguing with Murdoch. That’s why. He sure rousted my tail out of bed that mornin’. Blind-sided me completely. Got me so sidetracked I didn’t know which way was up. Why? What had been the big hurry? Our soon to be house guest? I know he’s part of the reason I was sent up here. So what if Scott was late in pickin’ him up? Coincidence? No! I’ve never believed in ‘em. Someone’s after my family or maybe it’s the Lancer ranch itself. From what Clyde was able to tell me I can read between the lines. Someone’s putting pressure on Murdoch and Scott. What for? What’s behind it all? Why didn’t they send for me to help protect them? Well, I’m gonna be there whether Murdock likes it or not. I’m tired of lookin’ from the outside in. 

For over two weeks now Johnny had been doing repairs at the North Mesa’s line-shack and the surrounding country side. He’d been ordered there in anger by his father over a silly prank gone wrong. Who cares about one hour on a clock? Murdoch, that’s who. How was I to know it would cause so much trouble? It was Sunday after all. No one does work on the day of rest except for the chores that need doing. Never, ever gave it a thought that the whole ranch set their watches to one measly clock in the kitchen. Never dreamed it was Jelly who got the ball a rollin’ either. He comes in winding his railroad watch then sets the time. After which he passes the time on to Walt, our foreman. From there on the time trickles down the line of men. After the old man got done chewin’ me out Jelly had to add his two cents worth too. “We all have to be on the same clock or we’re all off schedule.”

The work horses were making good time coming down from the North Country. Johnny prudently worked the team around a curve and up a steep hill that led to the main pasture of the ranch. “Well hell,” griped Johnny, as he slapped the reins once more on the rumps of the horses. “I never had to run my life by a clock before, but here on this ranch I sure do.”

In order to save time Johnny had sent the gossipy line-rider to the shack to retrieve his personal gear, his horse, Barranca, along with the three tri-colored wild pinto ponies in the corral. Johnny had already sent another pair of the rare animals, colored red and white with a mix of black on white manes and tails, down to the main corral as a peace-offering to his father. A lot of good that did. Murdoch still wouldn’t let me come home. Said I hadn’t learned my lesson yet. “PFFT!”  Well I have some big plans for those horses. I need to break them, breed them and then sell ‘em. And that will only happen if I ever get some spare time to call my own, which ain’t likely at the rate I’m a goin’.

Topping a large rolling hill Johnny felt the elation he always felt looking down at the land as far as he could see. My home, my life. Only today his belly hurt, there was a bad taste in his mouth and unease in his heart. Something’s wrong. I can feel it. Instead of pulling back on the reins of the horses, Johnny let them fly at their own pace. It was dangerous and fool-hardy, but he felt the urgency to hurry. In spite of the danger and worry, Johnny flashed a wide smile as the wind blew through his hair and the scenery sped by.

High on the thrill, he yelled, “Yahoooo!”

Arriving at the bottom of the hill and reaching the flatland of pasture at a high rate of speed, Johnny gave the horses their head. Two gunshots rent the air. Shot dead in their harnesses the horses stumbled, then went down, skidding along the ground in the traces from the momentum of their run. The wheels from the light work-wagon flew upward over the dead animals until the tongue of the buckboard snapped, causing the wagon to flip.

After hearing the gunshots, Johnny had crouched down low in the front boot of the wagon. A moment later the reins were yanked out of his hands. A feeling of helplessness overtook him as his body and the buckboard turned over and slammed into the hard packed ground.

 

—01—

“Well?” asked Scott, turning the key in the face of the grandfather clock which raises the weight inside the time piece. “What are you going to do about Johnny? When are you going to bring him back home?”

The key abruptly stopped with a kickback motion in his hand, indicating it was wound tight enough. Scott pulled the key out of the crank and set it on a hidden hook in the lower box of the clock. Then he started the pendulum in motion and shut the glass door of the long wooden case that held it. Next he went back to the open door of the face and carefully put his index finger on the long minute hand. Not looking at his father, who was sitting at his desk, he moved it into the correct position, waiting on the hour for the clock to chime. This is where Johnny had messed up in moving the hand around the clock. He didn’t wait for each hour to chime while racing the hand around the face to set it back an hour. Instead, the old boy ended up out of sync and it took, unfortunately, a clock maker to undo the damage. Boy, I never seen Murdoch so angry. I have to admit it was a good prank though.

Murdoch grumpily replied, not raising his eyes from the ledger of accounts he was reading, “Not until he learns the value of an hour.”

Scott closed the glass door of the clock and turned towards his father. He felt a little guilty, for it had been himself, who had planted the idea in his brother’s head by leaving the newspaper with the time-change article on top of the kitchen table. All I’d wanted to do was divert Johnny’s attention from the black eye I had received in town. Johnny’s so good at cutting to the quick of things. He would’ve seen through any story I’d have concocted about it. Scott beseechingly said, “Don’t you think you’ve been a little hard on him? After all, it was only one hour.”

Murdoch threw the pencil down on top of his account book and exploded. “That’s not the main reason he’s up at the North Mesa and you know it!”

“Yes, I recognize that fact,” retorted Scott, walking angrily up to his father’s desk. “But, I think we made the wrong decision and he has a right to know!”

“And just what am I going to tell him? We can’t even discern if all these incidents are related!” yelled Murdoch, slamming his hand down on his desk and wincing at the pain in his back.

Scott took pity on his father and lowered his tone of voice, “Back still hurt?”

“Yes,” growled Murdoch. “How’s your eye? Color’s looking better. At least it’s not black anymore.”

Scott smiled, then grimaced at the pain. “More like a sickly yellow-green. The bone is taking its sweet time to heal.”

“Well you know what Sam said, anything around the eye takes a while to mend. You were lucky the bone wasn’t broken.” Murdoch thoughtfully studied his son’s face a moment then asked, “You still getting those headaches?”

Scott turned a bit red high on the cheekbones and immediately looked away and declared, “Only once in a while.” Turning the topic back to his father, he inquired, “You still getting those back spasms?” As if I can’t tell when your hand goes to your back each time.

Murdoch dropped his eyes to his ledger and repeated Scott’s words, “Once in a while.” He harrumphed at the irony of it. “Who are we fooling? We’re both worse for wear.”

Scott grinned and added, “Johnny’s going to have apoplexy when he sees us and Jelly.”

“Let’s not forget Walt and a couple of the hands,” summed up his father, closing his account book. “Though I still think what happened to them and to us are separate occurrences unrelated to the other.”

“I agree,” nodded Scott. “They didn’t get the whispered, ‘Thank Madrid’ before the altercations happened.” He began to pace in front of his father’s desk. “They only had to deal with spooked cattle, cut fences, burned fields, and our foot bridge being blown up.” He ran a hand through his fine hair, messing it up. “Oh, and don’t forget the creek Johnny worked so hard to unclog last month. They did a great job of damming that back up. The beavers won’t even have to do any work to make it their home this winter.”

“Scott, will you lite somewhere? You’re making me dizzy. Besides, I don’t want our house guest, your grandfather, to overhear our conversation.”

Murdoch heard a sarcastic sound from his son. Ever since Scott had brought Harlan Garrett home for a visit nothing had been the same. Tension ran high in the house between all members of the family. He was glad he’d sent Johnny to the North Mesa and had kept him out of this conflict of wills. Harlan made no bones of his dislike of Scott’s brother and had gotten as many barbs in against him as he could, despite the lecture Scott had given him on their way to the ranch.

Nothing much had changed since his last visit. The bitterness abounded between Murdoch and Harlan. Scott’s grandfather, at every opportunity, pleaded his case to make Scott change is mind about going back to Boston. Scott was at his wit’s end in trying to convince his grandfather how much he loved Lancer. He repeated over and over how much he loved his father and brother and they needed him and wanted him here. He felt much like a cornered fox being torn apart by hunting dogs.

“Knowing my grandfather, he’s already heard our entire conversation and is cackling with glee. I know he can hardly wait to sink his claws in Johnny’s back when he does get home. It’s the only reason why I’ve gone along with this plan we made.”

Scott glanced at his father to see if he had his attention and he did. Relieved they were on the same page, he continued. “After all, we did make a promise to never hide anything from each other again even if it was for our own good. No more secrets. Everything out in the open. No more trying to spare the others’ feelings. We get it said. That way nothing festers between us. Remember?”

“Yes, you don’t have to remind me,” sharply stated Murdoch, getting up from his desk and slowly heading over to the brandy decanter. He stretched a moment, which seemed to help his stiff back, then poured them each a drink. Murdoch handed one to Scott, who took it and gladly brought it to his lips to sip.

Murdoch sighed in pleasure and went on, “But, as Tim, our retired Texas Ranger turned veterinarian and part-time Deputy U. S. Marshal for Val would say…”

Scott chimed in with Murdoch and together repeated the words, “He’s your father first and a friend second even if it’s late in the game of life.”

“Okay Murdoch, I get that,” allowed Scott, putting his glass down on the table. “But, Johnny’s going to explode when he gets a look at us and Jelly. You’re going to have a time soothing his ruffled feathers.”

“He already knows about your eye son.”

“Yes, but I never gave him an explanation how it happened.”

Recalling, Scott slyly grinned, “You, ah, chewed him out and sent him up north before I could come up with a story to tell him.” He saw his father tense and he held out his hand to ward off the explosion. “At the time, I wanted to think about the repercussions of the assault before I gave Johnny all the facts. I didn’t want him running back into town hell-bent on revenge or something.”

Scott paused to gage the effect of his words on his temperamental father. “You know how close we’ve become? And you know how protective he is of us, especially when we’re in a fix?” Scott saw his father’s half smile and knew he was pleased. “I wanted to confer with you first, but then you had your own accident.”

“Darn snake anyways!” spouted Murdoch. “I can’t accept the fact I heard those words, Thank Madrid, as I was mounting my horse. Who would believe a snake would slither right over Lancelot’s hooves causing him to rear and throw me off? I mean, I’ve been riding that horse for years without incident.”

“Jelly would,” reminded Scott. “It was the very next day when he was in town that he’d heard those same words murmured from behind him as he was descending Gus’s apartment stairs. As you know, he was pushed down the steps resulting in a broken ankle.”

“Yes,” absently said Murdoch, looking out a long, glass-door window, “And he didn’t see hide nor hair of the man that said it. Just like we didn’t.”

“All Jelly said was it was like a ghost had spoken to him,” replied Scott, following his father’s gaze out the window. “He’s really spooked now.”

A couple of horses carrying U.S. Marshal Val Crawford and his deputy Matt McRafferty, brother to Tim, nicknamed the giant, came into view. They pulled up to the wood hitching rail outside the courtyard and dismounted. Even before Murdoch and Scott greeted them as they stepped out of the door, Matt asked where Teresa was. There was an odd tone in his voice and a worried look in his eyes.

“In the kitchen,” assured Murdoch, “Making pies for supper.”

A brief smile of relief lit the deputy’s face as he went inside to find her.

Murdoch privately thought, so, he’s on edge too. Probably wondering if it’s safe here on Lancer for his expectant wife.

“What’s up, Val?” asked Scott with some trepidation. He waved the lawman to a chair on the porch. “Here, have a seat. Can I get you a drink?”

Val took his hat off and wiped his sweaty forehead with his sleeve before squeezing the brim in his hand. “I just as soon be a standin’ with the news I got. Johnny around? He might as well hear it all at the same time.”

“He’s in the North,” replied Murdoch, uneasy now.

“In the North?” barked Val. “With all the tom-foolery goin’ on around here? I’ll be danged.” Remembering all at once where he was and who he was talking to, Val replaced his hat and sheepishly said, “I’m jest plumb amazed that’s all.”

Scott informed him, “Johnny didn’t get a choice.”

Murdoch cleared his throat.

Val got the message. “Oh, so that’s the way it reads. Well ya might want to consider gettin’ him back down here.”

Starting to lose patience, Murdoch cleared his throat again.

Val swallowed hard, “Well ya know from the last time ya all were in town the telegraph wires had been down. We was just cut off from the whole world fer a while.”

Val looked up at Murdoch’s stern face and Scott’s serious one. “We, ah, just got word there was a break from the San Quentin Prison a while back.  Ah, Snake and a few of his gang and some men from Abbott’s old cow rustling band broke out and are in flight as we speak.” He kicked the dirt with the toe of his worn boot. “They’re supposed to be sendin’ me a list of all who was involved. And the prison bein’ only one hundred and thirty-three miles or so from Lancer and the like…”

He heard both Lancers’ indrawn breaths. “Well, ah, with the threats Snake made at his trial and such, especially against Madrid and you Golden Garrett, err, Scott, I thought it best I warn ya first thing.”

Scott asked, “You think they’re responsible for the events happening on Lancer, or to us personally or both?”

“Maybe, maybe not. They haven’t been out long enough for ‘em to ambush ya all individually,” reminded Val. “But, the wrongdoin’s on Lancer this past week could be a tossup.”

Jelly, hobbling on his crutches, came out of the shadows of the long porch. No one had noticed him sitting on a wicker chair with Dewdrop on his lap. He had eavesdropped to his heart’s content. But now he had something to say.

“Knew it. I just knew there was more wood ta add to the fire,” complained Jelly, coming up beside Scott. Turning to Val, Jelly asked out of the blue, “Ya ever heard of the Gray Ghost?”

Astonished, Val gasped, “The legendary gunfighter who is never seen?”

“Yeah, that be’d the one,” spat Jelly, leaning heavily on his props. His ankle was swollen and throbbing much to his dismay.

Val in awe, “He’s the one that’s hauntin’ you all?”

“You mean he’s real?” asked Scott, astonished. He had taken the tale Jelly had told with a grain of salt and had not really believed the story behind the elusive gunfighter.

“Far as I know’d,” rasped Val, putting on his hat to keep the sun out of his eyes. “He’s cagy and quiet as a church mouse. One moment there, the next gone with the dead guy left layin’ in the dust.”

“Oh come on. No one’s ever seen him?” questioned Scott a bit puzzled. It’s just a legend…nothing more.

Resentfully, Val responded, “Yup, bout sums it up. That’s why we can’t get a bead on him.”

Letting out a short puff of air, Scott asked, “Well, then how does anyone hire him for a job?”

Frustrated, Val replied, “Look I don’t rightly know all the details. But, they find him or have a way of gettin’ word to ‘im. He does the job and gets paid lots of mucho money.” At Scott’s look of disbelief, Val continued, “All I knows is the men he’s hired ta kill are dead…and some of ‘em were faster than even Johnny is…and that’s saying a lot!”

Jelly whined, “But why would he warn us to thank Madrid?”

It was a question on both Murdoch’s and Scott’s mind too. Murdoch stated, “I wondered that also. Why would he mention Johnny’s gun hawk name at all? Why not just call him out like all the others?”

“Cause, he ain’t like all the others.” Val wiped his mouth and wound up for the explanation. “Remember his trade name is the Gray Ghost. He likes to get under his prey’s skin…rattle their cage…scare ‘em to death first. Kinda like he’s studyin’ them, like he wants to see how far he can push ‘em and bully ‘em. Then outta nowhere he just appears, does the deed, then presto…” Val snapped his fingers. “He disappears.” The U. S. Marshal took a breath and finished his tirade, “Besides, Johnny hasn’t been to town since Scott got suckered punched and now I know why, because you ordered him to the North Mesa.”

Murdoch griped, in his own defense, “Only for a short time so we could get a handle on Scott’s attack and try and figure out what or who is all behind it.”

“Ya mean to keep Johnny in the dark for his own good?” sourly asked Val, shaking his head back and forth in disgust.

Murdoch frowned to cover the heat in his cheeks. “At the time it seemed like a good notion. Now, I’m not so sure,” he reluctantly admitted.

Rattled and growing more apprehensive for his brother, Scott declared in no uncertain terms, “Johnny needs to come home. He needs to know what he’s up against. He needs to know we have his back.”

“Amen,” replied Jelly, glancing at his dour boss. “Besides, I miss him.”

Scott softly seconded the opinion, “Me too.” He met Murdoch’s eyes and dared his father to say no.

“All right!” sounded off Murdoch. “If it makes you all feel any better I’m in complete agreement.” Turning to Scott, he boldly asked his son, “So what are you waiting for? Go get him!”

Scott ran back into the house and was up the stairs to his room to change his clothes before the men quit chuckling.

******

A few minutes later Scott came out of his room dressed in a golden paisley shirt and dark brown work pants. He had his Colt strapped around his slim hips and a tan colored hat in his hand when he bumped into Harlan Garrett in the hallway.

“Scotty,” breathed his grandfather, batting his eyelashes at the brightness of his shirt. “Those clothes…”

“Grandfather,” said Scott with no warmth or coldness in his eyes. The plain fact was he didn’t care much anymore. He was grateful for his upbringing, but the old man and his cunning bag of tricks had pretty much shattered any feelings for him. Now it was like greeting an old acquaintance from the past on the boardwalk.

Seeing the look of distaste on his grandfather’s face, Scott offered a small explanation, “There’s a specific reason why I am wearing these clothes though I don’t expect you to understand.”

The old man spat out, “Let me postulate. It has to do with that half-breed brother of yours?”

Scott’s heart turned over in his chest. For a moment he couldn’t breathe with the pain he felt. He’ll never understand the bond we share. He’s so jealous and bitter. Why, oh, why can’t he be happy for me? Scott answered his own question. Because I’m just a pawn to hurt Murdoch with. Ever since my mother died my grandfather has used me against my father…held me over his head. Well it’s going to stop. So help me it is. If only I had the time, I’d do it now. But, Johnny’s more important and I need to bring him home pronto.

Scott wiped his face clean of any disappointment he felt and rigidly stood at his full height. Recalling one of Johnny’s lessons on intimidation, he leaned slightly into the old man.  In a voice so soft you’d think butter would melt in his mouth, he ordered, “No more Grandfather.”

“Whatever do you mean Scotty?” huffed the elder man, taking a step backwards.

Taking no gratification in his grandfather’s small retreat, Scott leaned over him a bit more and stared unwaveringly into the man’s eyes. “There will be no more slander against my brother. Johnny is to be respected in his own home. That includes all of the ranch, inside and out. There will not be any more ill words used in front of him or behind his back. Do I make myself clear?” The last sentence came out like the Calvary officer he had been.

Unsettled and feeling a speck of anxiety for the first time in the dealings with his grandson, Harlan bit out, “Perfectly!”

“Good,” replied Scott, stepping back a foot. “We’ll talk about the rest of your visit later.” With that he did an about-face and literally marched down the stairs.

Harlan, with malice in his eyes, watched Scott descend the stairway. Oh Scotty, you are a chip off the old block. You might have a lot of Murdoch’s stubbornness in you, but you have some of mine too. And I can assure you I’m even more ruthless. You run to your uncouth brother’s side. Enjoy his company while there’s still time.

 

—02—

“Looks like the end of the string,” gasped Johnny, as pain lanced its way down the left side of his body. He laid his head on his right forearm stretched across the back leg of the dead work horse. Doesn’t smell none to good either. The horse’s body had done the natural thing in the throes of death. “Expect I’m gonna have to tie a knot and hang on till help comes.”

Johnny knew he was in dire straits. He was trying to convince himself to make light of the situation he now found himself in. Things could’ve been worse. I could be dead…crushed by the weight of the wagon sitting on top of me. If I hadn’t bounced off the horse beneath me before I hit the ground my family be buryin’ me six feet under. He thanked the man upstairs for watching over him once again.

As it was, he was in a real pickle. The buckboard had landed crosswise over the sides of the horses. Johnny was facedown and his body was pinned between the horse’s front and hind legs with the belly of the animal tight against his left side. His left arm was under his ribcage and numb of all feeling. He’d been in the front boot of the wagon and the concave small space was all that had saved him. When the vehicle had flipped the tiny hollowed out area, the floorboard, had engulfed him within its confines.

Johnny squirmed only to find he couldn’t move an inch. Something hard, probably the armrest, was digging into his left shoulder. He could feel the smooth wood of the seat wedged against the length of his back clear to his hip as it pinned him onto the ground. His left leg was bent at the knee and tight against the upside-down backrest, which sat on top of the horse’s belly. He could stretch his right leg and tap the broken wheel-spokes with the toes of his boot. Last, but not least, his neck with his right arm, under his head, were trapped on the outside of the grooved opening of the footrest. One more inch either-way and I’d of lost my head. Dang it all anyhow! I’m as snug as a bug in a rug. Good thing the wheels are smaller in the front, leaving me some breathing space. There’s enough gap from the wheel to the ground I could crawl under it if I could just move. Still if the buckboard shifts…I’m a goner.

He let out a loud moan. On top of all this I’m not outta the woods yet. Who fired those shots? Killed my horses? Are they coming in for the final shots to finish me off? Reality check, Madrid. Keep your wits about ya. He lifted his head as far as his neck was comfortable and glanced around. The day was dull and dreary, the clouds hanging low in the sky over the pasture as far as he could see. A glint of sunlight would be nice if only to spot those rifles.

Those thoughts had no sooner flown through his mind when he heard more rifle shots tearing into the wood of the buckboard. Thankful for the dead horses absorbing the impact, Johnny, never-the-less tried to flatten himself against the ground as much as he could. It was impossible for him to bring his right arm down underneath him to pull his gun. Too damn tight. Can’t get my elbow to bend enough. Not an inch of give anywhere and I can’t move my left arm. I’m gonna have to wing it by playin’ dead. Clyde how far behind me are ya? Can ya even hear the shots? I doubt it…not enough time has passed since I sent him to the line shack and if he takes his sweet time… He sucked in some air. Dang, if I’m not caught like a rat in a trap!

 

—03—

Scott, with his saddlebags across his shoulder, gave a sharp whistle as he ran over to the corral gate. Two horses hurried over to the entrance in hopes of a snack.

Scott greeted each animal with a smile giving a pat to Charlie, his father’s first gift to him besides the listening money. He slipped him a cube of sugar in the way of an apology. “Sorry Charlie, but I need Buster’s fierce spirit today. You know what Johnny said about him? He can out run anything on this ranch.”

Buster, born to run with a free spirit as wild as the land around us. One of the best gifts my brother ever gave me, pleasantly mused Scott.Johnny had captured and trained him from the time he was a green horse. Unknown at the time, Scott had borrowed the feisty horse to chase after his father’s stolen white stallion, named Rio, and a kidnapped family friend, aptly called Cal, short for Calvin. My how I miss that kid. Really need to get up Sacramento way to visit him. A fishing trip would be nice…

“Buster, you ready to run and get Johnny?” asked Scott, slipping a treat of the sweet stuff to the eager horse. The bay easily took it and nodded his thanks, making Scott smile. “Boy, if Johnny ever catches me doing this there is going to be hell to pay. You know how he doesn’t like me to bribe either of you with candy?” He quickly gave Buster a pat on the neck, then grabbed the halter from the fence post and slid it over the horse’s muzzle. A moment later, they both headed to the barn to get his gear and the horse’s tack.

A little while later, after giving a quick wave to his family, Scott mounted Buster and they headed out the back corral gate. Once clear of the arch, Scott touched his heels to the horse’s sides and Buster took off like a shot.

While riding the many miles to the North Mesa, Scott had time to analyze the whole situation at Lancer. His thoughts were as torn and turbulent as the times he lived in.

What do I do with Grandfather? The crafty old bird seems to want to roost here. Why? To be close to me? Naw, I’m only his legacy, nothing more. He’s found me a challenge now that I’m living independently of him. He can no longer manipulate and control my life though he’s trying his damnedest to do so. That’s one thing I’ve learned out here in the west. Every man must think and take responsibility for themselves. You cannot demean the duty. Murdoch and Johnny both have taught me valuable lessons on the subject. You are your own man. And if there’s one thing I know, there can only be one rooster to a hen house and that’s Murdoch, not Grandfather. Murdoch calls the tune. No bones about it. He sure laid down that rule on the first day we were here.

So where does Grandfather fit into the equation of what’s happening on Lancer? Is he paying someone to create a commotion at every turn? Trying to split the family? Turn us against each other? Create doubts and make us weak? The ‘thank Madrid’ could be nothing but a ploy to do just that. I know I’ve told Johnny this many times in the past, but the old divide and conquer theory seems to be coming into play again. Is it? Then what? Does Grandfather think I’ll drag my tail between my legs back to Boston? No way in hell will I go back there!

What about the Gray Ghost? I can’t believe I’m even thinking this, but did Grandfather hire him? It’d be like him to find someone to do his dirty work again. I see through you Grandfather as much as it behooves me and so does Murdoch. He’s bluffed you pretty good and has acted as a buffer between you and Johnny, though my brother doesn’t know the half of it yet. Well, it’s all coming to an end and Johnny’s going to have to face the music himself. Knowing my brother he’ll find it a real challenge. Still, I feel for him. He’s tried so hard to put his past behind him. We both have. All I can do is back him and be there for him as much as possible. Thus, in part why I’m wearing this shirt. After all, we’re partners and brothers too. Dr. Banning and the LT. Governor, George, Murdoch’s old friend, once told me we’re each other’s keeper and we are. No shame in that. 

Snake? What great timing was that with him breaking out of prison? Was it really a breakout or did someone help him? Is someone paying him to make it look like revenge as he creates havoc on Lancer? And what about the others that broke out with him? Are they all in cahoots with Snake or are there other factors involved?

So many questions. Johnny’s going to have a royal headache when I get done bringing him up to snuff on the events happening on Lancer during the past two weeks. Then again, once he gets a look at the shirt I’m wearing he’ll know something’s in the wind without me even saying much.

Hours later, while making his way through a grove of walnut trees, (the Lancer’s latest money-making venture of three years) Scott heard two shots. He reined Buster to a halt and listened warily before moving on.

Blinded by the thick trees and only able to hear the muffled jingling sounds from the pasture, Scott honed in on what he thought he heard, Horses and harness? Why the gunshots? There were two, not three. No distress signal. Not knowing what to think, he slowly brought his horse to the grove’s edge.  

A volley of shots hitting what sounded like wood was heard in the distance. The day being dreary and gray made it hard to see up the way toward the pasture. Scott wasted no more time and followed the tree line, staying hidden within its confines.  He worked his way up a small knoll and stopped Buster once again as he peered down the expanse of a quarter mile of flat land.

Scott could make out two dead horses lying on the ground with the buckboard upside down and extended catawampus over the top of them. He automatically glanced around for the driver, not finding him. The wagon looks somewhat compressed. Who was driving this? Did Clyde take a load of supplies to the North Mesa? I can’t recall and Murdoch and Jelly never said. Squinting his eyes, he thought he saw a slight movement of pink trapped under the wreckage.

Johnny?

A scattering of shots hit the buckboard again, spewing chunks of wood into the air.

Scott felt his heart jump into his throat, aggravating the headache he’d developed on the way to where he was. No! Please not now. He rubbed his left temple to help ease the throbbing ache as he stared at his brother’s motionless form.

On the edge of the grove of trees, with his heart beating fast and furious, Scott recognized the discharge from a pair of rifles and looked in the direction he heard them fired from. Cautiously he scanned the North Mesa Mountains, spying a bright red patch that was out of place on asmall ridge overlooking the pasture. Bingo! A man shouldn’t wear bright colors if he doesn’t want to be seen. Scott looked down at his own bright gold shirt and smirked. Look who’s talking? I need to distract them or find a way to bring them down here. I don’t think they’ve spotted me yet or they’d be firing at me. He second guessed himself. Wouldn’t they? Or are they only after Johnny? It can’t be the Gray Ghost. According to Val, it’s not the way the man works. But then, what do I know about gunfighters? I only have the example of one and my brother isn’t like any of the others I’ve heard about. For one thing, he has a conscience, a strong sense of right and wrong. Bloody hell, I knew Murdoch and I should’ve warned Johnny. So what if he’d have taken off to town to find the culprit that punched me? At least, he wouldn’t be caught unaware of all the trouble the family and ranch have been facing.

Scott studied Johnny’s precarious position from a military viewpoint.  How many more shots can that buckboard take before the wood is splintered and a bullet finds him? Well they are pretty solid, built to last. And why isn’t Johnny firing back? I can’t tell if he’s just trapped or injured. He must be injured. How can anyone survive a wreck like that without being hurt? Or is he waiting for them to come and finish him off? That would be just like my brother. Bluff them into showing their faces. He reflexively grinned, as he tried to figure out what his next move was.

His next move was made for him as Scott watched the two men vacate the ledge above the wreck. Going for their horses? That’ll buy me some time to get to Johnny. They’ll have to descend the rocky path and wind around behind the cliff to get to us. He tapped the stirrups against Buster’s sides and the horse instantly began to run down the short hill towards Johnny.

Buster barely slowed his pace when Scott came off his horse, running at full tilt and then sliding on his belly under the raised front wheel of the overturned buckboard. Once free of the constraints of the reins, Buster ran like the wind, from days of old, away from the scene of the crash.

Johnny, with his own heart pumping wildly, had watched Scott’s hell-bent-for-leather charge. Scott was coming in fast and Johnny held his breath, praying a bullet wouldn’t find him. After Scott’s valiant dirt-eating entrance, Johnny gasped, “Where’d you drop in from?” He gave a brief grin, then added, “Not that I’m complainin’.”

He’s wearin’ his gun fightin’ shirt. My gut hadn’t lied. Scott swore he’d never wear it unless we’re actin’ as partners, keepin’ the rift-raft off of Lancer. Well hell, I suspect Clyde wasn’t too far off the mark on explainin’ the happenings. His stomach cramped at the thought.

Scott teased, as he quickly assessed his brother and the situation, “A little bird whispered in my ear that you missed me.” He heard his brother snort and his eyes came back to Johnny’s face, who silently questioned him, raising one brow. Johnny looks a bit rough around the edges, but otherwise appears okay. But then again, he’s good at hiding his injuries and the pain which goes with them.

Grinning, Scott answered, “I was on my way to the North Mesa to get you. I thought you might be tired of your own company by now.” He saw Johnny relax. “Brother, you are in quite a fix. You hurt?” The last was said with baited breath.

“Only my pride,” grumbled Johnny. “Half of me is numb.” Taking in the unease of his brother’s eyes, he broke the tension on purpose by impatiently griping, “Will ya get me outta this mousetrap?”

Scott visibly relaxed and replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”

Johnny countered with a warning, “And keep your head down brother if ya don’t want to add to that shiner.” Johnny hadn’t missed the fact Scott’s eye should be well healed by now. What’s up with that? There’s a story behind his injury that more than meets the eye. And when I find out what it is and who did this… A devilish grin crossed his face at his own play on words.

 

—04—

 

Scott caught his brother’s smirk and asked, “What’s that look for?”

“Thinkin’,” came the answer.

“About what?”

“Yer shirt. What’s up Scott?”

“Mayhem.”

“Mayhem?” repeated Johnny, in a wistful tone. I’ve sorely missed my brother’s way of talkin’. Who am I kiddin’? Scott hit it on the barrel head, I missed him too. I don’t like much bein’ alone anymore. Murdoch sure knows how to punish a guy. Give ‘em what they think they want. Let ‘em hang themselves. Figures he was right in my case.  He cleared his throat and in a stronger voice tacked on, “Clyde already told me about some of the shenanigans on Lancer.”

“Mmm, the line-rider’s gossip,” joked Scott, as he looked around the perimeter of the wreck. No riders yet.  He hadn’t missed the pensiveness in his brother’s speech. It warmed his heart. I’ve missed you too, brother. He gave a soft, knowing smile behind Johnny’s bent head, resting on his arm over a horse’s hind leg. “You’re completely stuck,” stated Scott, trying to wedge his hand behind Johnny’s shoulders.

“Just like a pig,” offhandedly said Johnny, lifting his head. What am I hearing? Horses? He unhurriedly scanned the outskirts of what he could see, his vision limited by the position he was in. Can’t tell where the bushwhackers are. They’re not raining bullets on our heads, so they must be on the move. The hairs on the back of his neck rose. Question is, how long before they get down here?

Pulling his hand free of Johnny’s back, Scott said, while mentally taking note of the work tools, the spilled bucket of nails, fence posts and the roll of barbwire, scattered in the proximity of the small work-wagon, “I’m going to have to try something else.” He moved to the corner of the buckboard where the wheel was dangling a few inches off the ground. The weight of the wagon was clearly on the other side where the wheel had broken and wedged itself into the ground, giving the buckboard a lopsided appearance.

“Well hurry,” griped Johnny, wishing he could reach his gun. “We’re about to have company and I doubt if it’s our ranch hands.”

“I know,” concurred Scott, putting both hands under the corner edge of the wagon, “The men that ambushed you left the ridge.”

“Yu’ seen ‘em?”

“Yes, I was on the hill in the walnut grove,” stated Scott, bending his knees. He tried to lift the buckboard and found he could a little and was pleased with himself.

“Johnny, I can lift this a bit. I don’t know how long I can hold it. You’re going to have to roll somewhat to your right and move forward at an angle all at one time. You think you can do it?”

“Yeah. Half of me has got feeling.” Johnny lifted his head off his arm and used his right hand to grab the wheel in front of him. At the same time he dug his toes into the hard dirt. “Ready?”

“On three,” ordered Scott. “One, two, three.” He strained to lift the wagon as high as he could, which was precious little. Who’d believe a buckboard could weigh so much?

Now free of the heavy weight, Johnny rolled a tad right and forced his toes to push himself forward, as he pulled with his hand at the wheel. He was astounded that half his body felt like dead weight.

Scott, with muscles bulging, strained to hold the broken vehicle off his brother. Fast becoming short of breath, he panted, “Move it Johnny…get the lead out. Crawl!”

“I’m tryin’!” was the retort. He made it a few inches, then had to reposition his toes again in order to push himself forward more. The process was going slower than he liked too. Without even looking up, he could hear Scott’s short, gasping breaths coming faster now.

Dang! This is hard. How heavy can half of me be? Come on body wake up!

He was part way out when something caught him at his hips and kept him from moving any further. Draped over the dead horse’s legs, practically face down in the dirt with his left arm trapped under his chest, and his upper body at an odd angle under the hanging wheel, Johnny came to a nasty conclusion. My own gun gonna get me killed…squished…like an ant on the boardwalk. All because I can’t get outta one stinkin’ opening smaller than my hips. Talk about yer rabbit in a hole…at least they have the sense to dig a bigger one.

The handle of his Colt, at his hip, had caught on the curve of trim wood where the floor board meets the foot board in front of the wagon, holding him in place. It’s what I get for not strappin’ it tighter against my leg. I can feel it now floppin’ away from my thigh.

He let go of the wagon wheel and moved his hand to the side of his body, trying to find a way to squeeze it past the wood at his hip. Too dang tight. I don’t believe this.  

In desperation, he tried lifting himself onto his knees, but again, there was no room to do so. The up side down seat was crushed too close to his body. Besides, his left leg wasn’t exactly co-operating. Not enough feelin’ or strength yet to move it…but its coming…and it’ll practically bring me to tears when it does.

He could already feel the numbness starting to wear off. The blood was freely flowing and the other half of his body was coming back to life. All along his left side, the pins and needles were making themselves known, picking and stinging him. I’m a train wreck pure and simple, thought Johnny, and I didn’t even have the pleasure of climbin’ a board one.

“Scott! My gun belt’s hangin’ me up.”

“All right,” huffed Scott, then, taking in a breath. “I’m going to let this down. Line…”

He had to take another breath. His muscles were weakening. Moisture was dripping down his face and running into his eyes. He blinked a couple times and further ordered, “Line your waist up by the boot’s opening and keep your legs to the right, so I don’t crush you.”

Scott watched as his brother did what he was told, then carefully let the wagon rest as it was before. He swiped at his face with his sleeve, then said, “Well at least you’re half out.” He stared at the dead animals, their pupils fixed and dilated. “Good thing the horses underneath are holding the weight away from you or you’d have been a goner.”

“Don’t remind me,” moaned Johnny, lying on his right side with his ribs over the dead horse’s back legs and his gun under his hip. He could feel the bulge of it digging into his leg. Traitor. Yer supposed to be protecting me not hamperin’ me. He was more than ornery at the moment and it didn’t help that the horse’s carcass was attracting flies by the droves.

His shoulder was another matter. The numbness in his shoulder was now giving way to a dull ache and he knew the pain would strengthen and hurt like the dickens in a short period of time. He wiped the dampness from his face with his good arm and swatted at the errant flies that had the nerve to land on him. Then, he moved his hand to cradle his left elbow. Shoulder doesn’t feel right, but there’s nothin’ I can do. Just have to baby it when Scott ain’t lookin’. He’s got enough on his plate right now.

Johnny was brought out of his silent thoughts by his brother’s chuckle.

“What?” he sharply asked, not seeing anything that was funny.

“If you could only picture yourself right now,” stated Scott, doing a sweep of the country side and not spotting the bushwhackers.

Johnny fumed. He wasn’t in the mood to be made fun of. I can only imagine the scene with a horse’s tail for a pillow which stinks to high heaven. Not to mention the vultures up there flyin’ around ready to eat me. He got mad and snapped, “I don’t care, just get me outta here!”

“Okay, okay, I know it’s not fun.”

“Fun? I’ll show you fun, Scott, once I’m free of this…this mess!” In his anger, he couldn’t come up with a better word.

“All right, just settle down,” placated Scott. “I had to catch my breath.”

Johnny, not appeased, “Well do it in a hurry. Someone’s coming.”

Horses Scott hadn’t seen a moment ago, were on the horizon and he knew the riders were not from Lancer. He could just barely make out the red shirt one of them was wearing.

“Scott, I need my gun!”

“I know,” hastily acceded Scott. “I need something to prop up the buckboard so I can pull you out,” he added, looking frantically around for a tool or anything he could use.

“Forget that! There ain’t time!” Johnny was leaning on both elbows with his chin propped on the horse leg.

Scott pulled his gun from his holster and handed it to him. “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” he ordered. “Play dead. Hopefully they haven’t seen me yet.”

Johnny took the gun and threw his brother a questionable glance and said, “Oh that’s rich Scott. Ya recall the color of the shirt yer a wearin?”

“I know, it’s as bright as the day is long,” flippantly answeredScott, squatting down at the corner of the wagon. A moment later Johnny felt Scott touching his leg.

“What ya doin’?”

“Tend to business while I try and get your gun. There’s a gap between the wagon and the ground. I can see your pants.” There was only room enough for him to wedge one hand into the space. He had to move it entirely by feel, for he couldn’t see beyond his own extremity. Scott groped at his brother’s leg, using it as a guide to the holster. From there, he felt the hardness of the Colt. The brown butt of the gun was tight against the wood of the wagon.

In spite of the fix they were in, Johnny wiggled and snickered.

“Confound it Johnny, this is no time to be ticklish! Your holster’s under your leg. Turn as much as you can onto your stomach.”

Scott heard his brother groan and puff a breath as he turned a speck to the left.

“That’s as far as I can go.”

Again, Scott felt his way around Johnny’s leg to the gun. His brother pulled away, then moaned. The gun was stuck fast inside the holster and he couldn’t get at it.

Johnny tried not to move, but he couldn’t help it. No matter how he positioned himself sharp pains tore through the pins and needles of his other leg.

“Stop squirming!” commanded Scott.

“I’m not!”

“The heck you aren’t!”

Johnny, never taking his eyes off the riders in the distance, countered, “Hurry up!”

Scott tried another tactic, groping under Johnny’s stomach and trying to unbuckle the belt. He heard his brother suck in a breath. “I’m trying to loosen your rig. Why do you wear it so low anyways?” he griped.

“It’s the fashion.”

“A lot of good it does us now,” mumbled Scott, giving up the idea of loosening the belt. “Johnny move more to your left and down a bit!”

Johnny, with sweat dripping down his face, gritted his teeth and strained to do as bid. Pain shot the whole length of his leg. His eyes widened from the shock of it, and at the fact the bushwhackers were only a few yards away and closing fast.

“Hurry up Scott, we’re outta time.” He cocked the pistol and took deadly aim. I hope I can fan the hammer, my arm’s not movin’ too good. “Scott! The whites of their eyes are about here! Get your head down!”

Scott, not heeding the warning, gave another desperate attempt at the stubborn, stuck gun. Goes with the owner. He moved his hand to the top of the pistol and removed the string from the hammer. Then he grasped the top of the holster and pulled it downward as far as he could get it to go until he felt the Colt come loose from its home. “Gotcha.”A moment later, still on his knees, he had it cocked and aimed over the corner of the buckboard.

 

—05—

 

The riders rode within range, their horses snorting and blowing air. Each man held a gun, cocked and ready to fire. Their eyes, cold and dead, surveyed the scene before them.

With the pounding in his ears, Scott barely heard Johnny’s soft call of which man he was going to shoot, “Left.”

Scott aimed right, directly over his brother’s back, at the man in the red shirt a few feet in front of him.

Red Shirt calmly said, “Yer dead, Madrid. You, too, Garrett.” And he steadied his gun.

Gunfire flashed from both sides. The Lancers’ marks were true, hitting both men dead center in the chest, as the bushwhackers returned fire at the same time. One bullet missed Johnny’s head by inches, plowing into the hapless buckboard by Scott’s position, spraying wood chips all over him. Red Shirt’s bullet twanged harmlessly off the wagon’s hanging wheel into oblivion. The men slid off their horses and the animals, in their confusion, ran away from the smell of death.

“I think not,” whispered Johnny, his heart sore as another notch was added to his gun.

The air was dense with the gun smoke and the acrid scent of gun powder. The Lancer brothers were temporarily blinded by the fallout and wearily held their positions until the haze was blown away by the breeze.

Even then, they didn’t relax. Both knew many a cowboy or soldier had needlessly died, thinking his enemy was dead, only to have him lift a gun and end their life.

“Cover me,” ordered Scott, as he moved in the downed men’s direction.

“As if I wouldn’t,” mused Johnny. Geez, Scott what do ya take me for? A greenhorn? He smiled at that. He loved being partners with his brother, though he had some regrets about helping him become a fast gun. I didn’t have a choice. He needed to be the best he could be. Scott got there on his own dime. I only coached him on the finer points. At least, he didn’t start out green like I did. He’d been in the army. Knew how to use a gun and is still a crack shot with a rifle. Besides, Murdoch did say we had to be man enough to hold onto this place…and we both are. And bein’ Johnny Madrid’s brother ain’t easy either. There are men who would call him out just to get even with me. Yes, he has to be faster than anyone else for the protection of the ranch and his own good. He smiled a smug smile. Well anyone other than me.

Johnny watched his brother kick away the pistols from the dead men’s hands and feel for a pulse. Scott shook his head negatively both times.

“Ya recognize either of ‘em?”

Scott called back, “One of them is from Snake’s gang. Don’t recollect the other one. Could’ve been one of Abbott’s men.”

“Abbott?” asked Johnny, a shiver ran down his back. He hated that name with a passion. He rubbed his neck, trying not to remember the feel of the rope. Nothing good ever comes from Cold River. The town the Abbotts once owned. Most of the people have left the disgustin’ place, even Sheriff Troup. He’s now a lawman for Genesis. He smiled in spite of his present circumstances. That town is better than ever.

“I take it you remember our run-in with the Abbott gang,” ribbed Scott, surprising his brother and making him jump. He was a little bothered by the far-away expression on Johnny’s face. Mention the name Abbott and he takes leave of his senses. That’s not like my brother at all.

Tightening his hand on the butt of Scott’s Colt, Johnny nervously asked, “Ain’t they supposed to be in San Quentin?”

“They escaped with Snake and some of his gang.”

“When?”

“Val said a few weeks ago.”

“When were ya gonna tell me?” It’s not like I was a million miles away.

“Just did.”

That answer obviously didn’t sit right with Johnny and Scott got a heated glare from his brother while walking back to the buckboard. Deciding to stay out of his reach, he stopped short of Johnny’s hindered position. What do I tell him? The story is longer than my arm and now’s not the time to explain it to him, but I don’t like the hurt and anger I see in his eyes. Funny, how he always mixes the two emotions when he feels put upon. What do I say to satisfy him? “I was on my way to tell you when I ran into this.” He spread his hand out to encompass the carnage.

He stepped closer to his brother and handed him his gun. “Here, trade you.”

Johnny handed Scott’s back and took his. “Much better. A man always likes the feel of his own gun.” He opened his gun and pulled out the spent shell. Scott took a bullet from his belt and handed it to his brother. Then he repeated the procedure with his own gun, wondering the whole time what really was on his brother’s mind.

Scott didn’t have long to wait. Without batting an eyelash, Johnny insistently demanded, “Get it said Scott. Start at the beginning and tell me how ya got that shiner.”

“Now?”

“Yes now! Ya can do it while yer gettin’ me outta here.”

“No.”

Scott’s voice sounded thin to Johnny and he narrowed his own eyes on his brother’s pale face. He tracked over to Scott’s left bruised eye. There’s somethin’ not quite right about it besides the fact he needs a haircut. He watched Scott swipe at the side of his face and into his hairline. “You okay?” he hesitantly asked, a sneaking suspicion little by little coming to light.

“Fine!” came the annoyed reply. “You?”

“Couldn’t be better,” mocked Johnny, at his brother’s irritability. And Murdoch tells me I’m the moody one with a temper.

Scott, in a repentant tone, said, “Johnny, I’ll explain it all when we’re on our way home.” He swayed and side-stepped. A hand went to his head. “First I’ve got to find something to…to use…” A second later he went to his knees against the horse’s hind legs and fell sideways in front of his startled brother.

 

—06—

“Scott!” cried Johnny, his heart skipping a beat.

With his gun free of its holster, Johnny tried to propel his way through the opening and succeeded only in making the buckboard wobble. Unstable, the whole thing could shift and crush us. He glanced at Scott, sort of on his back and, sprawled on and in-between the horse’s hind legs. Dang! The thickness of my gun belt is still holdin’ me up. What’s it caught on now? A damn bullet?

Full of dread, Johnny leaned over the horse leg and painfully extended his left arm and slid his hand under Scott’s head. The numbness with the pins and needles was gone, leaving only a steady throb. Setting his Colt on his brother’s belly, Johnny then tugged at Scott’s belt, bringing his brothers legs down to a more comfortable position and his body closer to himself.

Not giving in to the pain radiating from his left shoulder, Johnny stubbornly leaned his good arm on Scott’s chest and gently tapped the side of his sibling’s face with his hand. “Scott, wake up. Come on brother, wake up.”

Scott didn’t move a muscle.

Johnny inwardly groaned. No such luck. He patted Scott harder and hoped he’d at least stir.

No movement.

“Shucks!” Scared now, Johnny rubbed his brother’s chest harder and said louder, “Scott open your eyes! Now’s not the time to be takin’ a nap. Wake up!”

When that didn’t work, Johnny grabbed a handful of his work coat with one hand and shook him the best he could. Nothing!

Next, he threatened, “So help me Scott if ya don’t get up I’m gonna make ya wish ya would have.” He knew he wasn’t making any sense and didn’t care if he wasn’t.

With his heart painfully hammering in his chest, he anxiously thought, we’re trapped. We got no way to get help. He licked his dry lips. We don’t even have any water. Where had the canteen gotten to? It was right beside me before the crash. He quickly looked around and didn’t see it.

Trying to reasonably think what to do, Johnny stared at his brother’s unmoving form. He gradually became aware of something warm and wet dripping onto his hand under Scott’s head. With his other hand Johnny gently turned Scott’s face towards himself. A moment later his own blood ran cold.

“Yer bleeding,” he accused.  Captivated, Johnny watched a drop of blood run down the length of Scott’s hairline, by-passing the ear, to drip from the corner of his jaw onto Johnny’s fingers.

Glumly, he reminded his brother, “I told ya to keep yer head down…”

Johnny stifled a frustrated sob and hugged his brother’s forehead against his own cheek. In misery, he ran a hand through his brother’s fine hair, coming to a halt when he felt the sticky substance.

Why’d I let ya talk me into this? Should’ve known better. Yer Grandfather’s gonna have a hey-day with this…and he’s right. It’s all my fault. Murdoch doesn’t even have ta get his nose outta joint this time. I accept the blame. He closed his eyes, knowing what he was just thinking wasn’t true. His brother had known the risks same as he did when they’d formed their gun-fighting partnership. You can’t fight men out for blood and not expect to spill some of your own. Scott, you’ve proved yourself a hundred times over. I’m proud to have you for a brother…proud to stand beside you. It’s you Scott, who gave me a new meaning to life and made me feel like I was worth something out here. You brother are the one person I can’t bear to lose.

Smelling the iron scent of blood in Scott’s hair, he was jolted out of his momentary daze and his thinking became clearer.

He gave himself orders. Need to look at the wound and stop the bleeding. He gently pulled his hand out from under Scott’s head. With the other hand, he moved his gun aside from Scott’s belly barely remembering he’d placed it there when he’d reached for his brother’s belt.

My gun! Lightning fast, he picked it up, cocked the hammer, and pulled the trigger. Repeating the action two more times, he hoped someone would hear the universal signal for help. Feeling better that he was in control of himself once again, he put the gun down beside him.

He then gently parted Scott’s hair to see the wound. To his astonishment it wasn’t a bullet wound, but a jagged, thin piece of wood a little bigger than an inch in width. It was tightly embedded into his brother’s head at the hairline, by his left temple! Any closer to the soft spot and it could’ve killed him. Bright red blood welled up and beaded around the puncture wound, then sluggishly trekked its way down Scott’s face.

Johnny inhaled air so deeply it made his chest hurt. Then, he almost forgot to exhale and it all came out in one whoosh.

His hands shook. He bit the inside of his lip to keep it from quivering. What do I do about this humongous chuck of wood?  He knew it wasn’t a big chunk of wood, but in his mind, it might as well have been. Talk about your mountain and the molehill.

Right now I have two choices. Do I pull it out or leave it in? He groaned. He didn’t want to make the decision, but he knew he had too. Come on Madrid, you’ve made split-second decisions all your life. What’s the beef with this one? He answered himself.  He’s my brother, that’s why.

All right Madrid quit arguing with yourself and get down to brass tacks.

How deep is it? Has it reached his brain? Is that why he’s unconscious? What if it doesn’t come out clean when I pull it out? What if it splinters inside his head while I’m pullin’ it? What if I cause ‘im brain damage? He needs a sawbones not a gun hawk with an unsteady hand. Worse yet, what if I kill him?

His gut squeezed him so tight, he swore it was wringing itself out.

On the other side of the coin, what happens if I don’t pull it out? What if it causes an infection and he gets the fever? That piece of wood has to be filthy with hidden creepy, crawly things on it. What did Doc Jenkins call them?

A word burst from his lips, “Germs!” He was proud for a moment that he remembered and wished with all his heart he could share it with his brother.

Johnny watched another drop of blood make its way down the side of Scott’s cheek. What do I do? If I pull it out won’t it bleed even more? What if I can’t stop it? What do I have for bandages?

He took a mental inventory. Two neckerchiefs, two shirts, Scott’s coat, but I need that for warmth in case he goes into shock.

“Dang it all Scott! My brain is scrambled! I’ve never been so unsure of anything in my life! I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t!” Silently and never feeling so alone in his life, Johnny weighed the pros and cons in his mind once more, finally coming to a conclusion.

Johnny wiped his hand on the front of his dirty shirt, trying to get some of the germs off. Looking at his soiled hand, he muttered, “A lot of good that did.” He repositioned Scott’s head in his left hand and thumbed his brother’s hair back and forth just above the wound, giving what comfort he could. Working up his courage, he unsteadily reached for the thin piece of wood.

 

—07—

Sick to his stomach, Johnny stopped at the last second. Chicken. He swallowed the bile that had come up into his mouth.

“Can’t do it, brother. I ain’t no doctor.” He did the next best thing and untied his neckerchief along with his brother’s. He made a thick pad out of Scott’s blue one and placed it on the wound. After wrapping his red one around the pad against Scott’s head and tying it into place, he heaved a heavy sigh. It’ll have to do ya until we get outta this mess.

Stretching as far as he physically could from under the buckboard, Johnny rested his head on one side of Scott’s chest and took ease in the steady beat of his heart. Strong and steady like the man he is. Feeling like he had let Scott down, emotionally worn out, cold and hurting, he continued to lay there watching his brother breathe. His only comfort was the warmth of Scott’s breath repeatedly fanning his forehead. He’s alive. That’s all that counts.

How long Johnny laid there he had no clue. Time seemed to stand still until he heard a cricket chirp. Night sounds? He bolted up onto his elbows. Whew, it’s only dusk.

His left shoulder didn’t like the rough treatment. Pain shot all the way down his left side to his hip.  Nice to know I’m not numb this time around. Except for the deep ache in his left hip and knee, his battered leg felt better now that he was leaning somewhat on his right side. Bruised was the word that came to the back of his mind. He gingerly stretched the sore leg, keeping it to the right of the crushed bench seat and aligned with his other limb. Then he turned a bit onto his stomach and stretched the kinks out of that leg as well.  

Next, he took stock of his surroundings, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. Scott’s still out cold. He could hear his brother’s rhythmic breathing and was reassured by it. One of us is gettin’ some sleep. (For his own peace of mind, Johnny now preferred to think of Scott as sleeping versus being unconscious.) He put his hand on Scott’s forehead and was relieved when he didn’t feel overly warm.

“Scott? You gonna wake up or sleep the night away?”

Getting no answer, Johnny stared at his brother’s healing eye. While tracing the many colored bruise gently with his thumb, he softly asked, “Who did this to ya Scott? Who’s hurtin’ our family?” He swallowed and in a hushed voice went on, “It’s eatin’ me up Scott. I don’t like lookin’ from the outside in. Why’d ya wait so long to come and get me?”

Again, there was no answer and his brother slept on.

The end of the day was upon them. The dampness of the overcast day gave way to a rolling fog as it spread over the land. We got no fire and no way to make one. Unless I set the buckboard on fire. “Scott, we got nothing to keep us warm or to keep the wild animals at bay, except for our guns.” The rotting flesh of the horses, not to mention the two dead guys, has to be attractin’ the predators by now. I can feel ‘em watchin’ us and if we’re not payin’ attention, we’ll be their supper.

He picked up his gun and spun the cylinder, checking the rounds and was stunned that he’d forgotten to reload after shooting off the distress signal. Quickly, he pulled three bullets from Scott’s rig, dumped the spent shells from his Colt, reloaded and fired another round of shots.

“How many bullets ya got left in your belt Scott?”

He didn’t wait for an answer and counted them himself. Taking three more new shells, he reloaded his pistol once again and then pulled Scott’s Colt and put it by his side. Two guns primed and ready in hand are better than one in the holster.

He deeply sighed and heard his stomach growl.

“Ya hungry Scott?”

He waited for his brother to answer and of course, he didn’t. Maybe I can talk you awake.

“I had left over beans for breakfast. My last good meal was when we were in town…before I changed the clock. Murdoch sure blew a cojone. He let me have it with both gun barrels. I never should’ve touched his precious clock.”

In boredom, Johnny picked up a few strands of hair from the horse’s tail and tickled his brother’s nose and face. “Can ya feel that Scott?” With his own eyes watering from the ripe smell, Johnny intently watched his brother’s eyes and nose for any involuntary movement.

There was none.

“How about a twitch of the nose?”

Nothing.

“A sneeze?”

Still nothing.

He cast the stinky tail aside with disgust, “The smell alone shoulda woke you up.”

Troubled and running out of patience, Johnny drummed his fingers on Scott’s chest. “What are we gonna do Scott? I can’t keep firin’ and wasting bullets. Night time will be here soon.”

“Speakin’ of time, Clyde should’ve been here by now.” Another thing to worry about. Maybe I should make a list. “Hope he didn’t have trouble corralling ‘em horses and getting a rope around their necks. Of course, Barranca wouldn’t have been a problem. But, those other three might’ve given ‘im a run for his money.” He pictured the line rider doing his job and finally said, “Any cowboy worth his salt can rope a horse…even a wild one.”

He shifted his position, turning more onto his right leg. “Then again, he mighta taken the easy way home goin’ down yonder on the eastern side of the pasture. It’s longer, but easier on the horses…and he could check the rest of the fence line as he went.”

Yawning, Johnny continued his one-sided chat with his brother. “Scott? Are you hearing me at all?” He took a breather. This talking stuff is hard. What do people talk about all the time? A few words is a mouthful to me. Maybe they just save it up until they all get together. Scott’s got the gift of gab, using all those big college words. Murdoch does too. He’s never short on words. And let’s not forget Jelly. He’s down right gabby as a magpie. He and Clyde probably give each other lessons.

“Scott, ya ever gonna come around? I’m tired of talkin’ to myself.”

Twilight, the time between when the sun sets and the night comes. “Sure is cold Scott,” repeated Johnny for the third time, as he snuggled against his brother for warmth. “Even my nose is cold along with my ass.” He nosed his brother’s neck in hopes of getting a reaction of some kind. No dice. How much longer can he sleep?

Scott had his work coat, but Johnny was only in his thin pink shirt. I have no clue where my coat went…or my hat. It’s got to be around here somewhere mixed in with the tools dumped all over the place. One thing’s for sure, Murdoch’s gonna get his back up when he sees this mess.

Doing his best to keep his teeth from chattering, Johnny rested his chin on top of Scott’s chest. He had his Colt in one hand and Scott’s was within easy reach tucked into the front of his brother’s pants. “No tellin’ what varmint might sneak up on us Scott. Don’t worry your golden head none. I’m ready for ‘im.”

Again, his brother made no comment and slept serenely on.

As he’d done a dozen times before, Johnny placed his hand on Scott’s forehead and then tenderly cupped the side of his jaw. No fever. Each time afterwards, he breathed a sigh of relief.

“What would I do if I found one? I expect we’d both be up a creek without a paddle.” The creek crack made Johnny think of water and wishing he had some. He licked his dry lips and wondered how his brother was faring so long without water.

Deciding to check, he put his thumb inside Scott’s mouth and felt around. Dry, like me. Before he could pull it out, his brother clamped down on the digit and bit him. He yanked the offended appendage out from between Scott’s teeth and swore a blue streak as he examined the teeth marks in his thumb. Geez, I’m sounding like Pony Alice and Cal now. Out loud, he grudgingly said, “Well at least ya responded to something.”

He then checked the makeshift bandage wrapped around his brother’s head. As with the other times, Johnny saw no active bleeding nor did he smell any foul odor. Whew, still no infection or is it too early to even get one? Before covering the wound back up, the same questions haunted him. Should I pull the wood out? Is that what’s keepin’ him unconscious? If only I could see how deep it goes inside his head.

Not only was Johnny anxious about his brother’s welfare, but he was having some troubles of his own. His shoulder ached something fierce with each movement. He didn’t think it was broken, but something was out of whack. His legs were both stiffening up due to his enforced inactivity despite the stretching movements he often did. Being half way out from under the buckboard, he got a good look at his predicament.

I’m jammed in here pretty good. The wooden armrest is all that saved me from bein’ crushed. Scott didn’t tell me how close I’d come to visiting the next world.

The mist swirled and danced in what was left of the day’s light. I can’t see a thing beyond our little piece of heaven. Heaven? I must be touched in the head. A tremor ran down his back that had nothing to do with the cold. Something’s strange is goin’ on in the midst of the gloom. Why doesn’t it feel right?

“Scott it’s so eerily quiet that the night critters ain’t even talkin’…only me…and my voice is about done. My throat is raw from usin’ so many words. I’ve never talked so much in my entire life.” He moved his chin and propped it on his gun hand. “Now you, on the other hand, can sweet talk practically anyone, including Judd Haney’s wife. Ain’t that what the sheriff told us last time we visited ‘em?”

Warily, Johnny kept watch on their surroundings, as he continued the one-sided conversation with his brother. It was a matter of survival now. He had to stay awake at all costs to himself as the night closed in. Problem was, he had to stop and listen for every hint of sound. He’d lost count on how many times he had done this. I’ll do it to the end of time if I have too. My instincts are screaming trouble. Somethin’s out there watchin’ us.

His brother moaned and mumbled, “Head hurts.”

At the suddenness of Scott’s voice underneath him, Johnny’s body jumped as if scalded.

He leaned down and whispered in his brother’s ear, “Scott, can you hear me?”

Scott licked his dry lips and demanded, “Water.”

“Sorry brother, there ain’t none. And shut up.”

He couldn’t believe he was telling his brother to shut up after waiting all this time for him to wake up. But, he didn’t want whatever was out there to know his brother was coming around and there was no time to explain.

“Hmm.”

Staying immobile as possible, Johnny urgently murmured in Scott’s ear, while sliding the gun out of his brother’s pants, “Go back to sleep. Play dead.” He then, thrust the weapon in Scott’s right hand, hoping he’d get the message.

A moment later, Johnny leaned over Scott’s ribs as far as he could move (which wasn’t far) with his hips stuck in the boot of the wagon. By doing this, he was able to conceal the gun in Scott’s hand and protect his brother if need be. Next, he propped his chin in his left hand on top of his sibling’s torso, ignoring the pain of his shoulder. In his right hand he held the Colt, cocked and ready to shoot.

His plan of action was simple. Lull who or whatever was watching them into thinking he’d just changed positions. After all, didn’t I just talk Scott’s ear off half the evening?

 In short, he laid still and continued to listen, like he had all the time in the world.  After what seemed like forever, he heard a scrape of a hoof against rock. Trying not to alarm the intruder, he slowly pointed his gun in the direction of the noise.

A nicker came from a horse. Buster? I wondered where he’d gotten to. Probably lookin’ for more sugar. He threw a quick glance at his sleeping brother.  I’m onto you brother in more ways than one. He smiled at that thought as he silently waited for the horse to appear.

It wasn’t Buster who made the entrance.

 

—08—

A craggy older man on a flea-bitten dapple gray horse glided to the edge of their makeshift wreck leading Scott’s horse, Buster. The quietness of the evening with the obscurity of the fog gave them a ghostly appearance.

Buster? Ya turncoat, you’d cozy up to anything wouldn’t ya? I bet he offered ya a treat too.

“That’s close enough,” softly ordered Johnny into the murkiness.

He could just barely make out the plainly dressed rider and horse against the grayness of the mist. They blend perfectly. A good cover actually. I wonder how we look to him. Probably a real sight.

The man noiselessly halted his horse and silently waited.

Suspicious of every stranger on Lancer land, Johnny coolly asked, “State your business.” He backed it up by lifting his Colt and driving home the business end of his gun. Something familiar about him, but I know I’ve never seen ‘im before.

The man didn’t so much as flinch and answered in the same tone of voice, “Heard the shots.” He lifted his hand with Buster’s reins. “Horse found me.”

“I just bet he did,” cynically answered Johnny, irritated and holding his gun steady. Odd, I see no fear. He’s not bothered by it at all. Lawman or gunslinger? Makes no difference. He’s a stranger on our land.  

“Lookin’ for sugar,” affirmed the stranger with a small grin. He gave his own horse a pat on the neck.

Johnny got the feeling it was some personal jest known only to the man. A man of few words, usually like myself. His thoughts raced on. No badge, but the rangers never wore theirs much either. Tim said it was too much of a target. Val on the other hand…

“Sounds plausible,” whispered Scott, joining the conversation, but not opening his eyes. He got a very discernable pinch from his brother’s fingers resting on his rib cage.

Johnny didn’t take his eyes off the stranger, but had a few choice thoughts for his brother. Plausible Scott? Does that mean reasonable like I think it does? All because Buster has a sweet tooth and ya feed him too many snacks. Dismissing his brother for a time, Johnny concentrated fully on the man in the mist.

Gunfighter. Retired maybe. He wears his rig low on the hip. His eyes are hard and shrewd. They’ve seen a lot of good and bad. Mostly bad, I reckon, but I can also see warmth and humor. It’s in the way he handles his horse. He loves that horse like I love Barranca. I’d bet my last dollar on it. I like him but I can’t trust him.

These thoughts chased each other through Johnny’s mind as he sized up their unexpected visitor. Friend or foe? And most importantly, what’s he doin’ on Lancer land?

The stranger didn’t offer any more by way of explanation much to Johnny’s annoyance.  

Johnny allowed, “He’s ours.” Proud and to prove ownership he gave a soft shrill whistle.

Buster immediately perked his ears and started towards them. The stranger threw the reins over his back as he went. The horse stopped in front of them and nosed Scott’s coat pocket, blocking Johnny’s view.

Grabbing the bridle, Johnny firmly said, “Buster move.” He tried to sound carefree, while underneath his heart was racing. If the stranger is gonna fire on us, now would be the time. I should’ve known better. Stupid of me to let pride get in the way.

Struggling with the horse and expecting a bullet at any time, Johnny was astounded when he heard the man chuckle and say, “No doubt. I’d expect Lancer to have nothin’ but the best horse flesh.”

“You know my father?” asked Johnny relieved, but still feeling him out. He refused to lower his gun. Buster wouldn’t budge and continued to nibble at Scott’s pocket, smelling the treat. His brother reached in with his left hand and pulled out a cube and gave it to the animal.

Trying to get the horse to move and at the same time, keep an eye on their visitor, Johnny grumbled to himself, Dang it Scott! Don’t I have my hands full enough without this overgrown pony blindsiding us? You have to feed ‘im too?

“No. But, he gave me permission to cross your land.”

“That explains it,” butted in Scott and giving up the pretense of sleeping. “And it’s our father.” He opened his eyes in time to get an angry scowl from his brother. He tried to sit up only to feel a sharp pain flash through his head at the temple. Lying back down, he let go of his gun and inadvertently brought up the hand to feel the wound.

Johnny, losing all patience between the horse and his brother, let go of Buster and grabbed Scott’s wrist, holding it captive, as he forcefully ordered, “No. Don’t you dare touch it.”

Buster raised his head and shook it. A rein fell from the saddle beside Scott and he snatched it with his left hand to keep the animal from wandering further away. Buster moved to the side of the wreck, giving Johnny a clear view of the stranger, who hadn’t moved an inch and was intently observing the proceedings.

Johnny, no longer sensing danger from the man, let his gun hand go lax on Scott’s belly. At the same time he squeezed his brother’s wrist he was holding, in warning, not to touch his head wound. Johnny heard a grunt and felt the tug as Scott pulled his arm free to land on top of his gun. Feeling an unaccustomed heat in his cheeks, Johnny sarcastically said to the outsider, “Go ahead and shoot us. We deserve it.”

“Now why would I do that Johnny Madrid?” came the reply.

Both, Johnny and Scott froze for a second hearing the name and looked hard at the man. Beneath his ribs, Johnny felt Scott grip and slowly cock his gun.

Startled, but inwardly pleased at the recognition, Johnny quickly raised his Colt again. Gun hawk, most assuredly. In a cold voice, Johnny demanded, “Again I ask, what’s yer business?”

“It’s not yer day to die Madrid…nor Garrett’s,” directly replied the gunman.

He knows Scott’s gunfightin’ name. The name he only uses when he wears his gold shirt. Well, he conceded, we are partners as well as brothers. His name was bound to get around riding with Madrid and Snake has a big mouth. At the time, we only wanted to put the fear of God into any stranger crossing our land. “You seem to know a lot about Lancer, Mister,” plainly said Johnny, watching the man’s sharp eyes.

“Enough to get by,” stated the stranger, calmly sitting tall on his horse. Gesturing towards the wreck, he ended with, “Appears you’ve got some kind of trouble.”

Johnny relaxed. Moving his eyes from the stranger to look at Scott, he declared, “Today’s not the day, brother.”

“No?” doubted Scott, mutely questioning what he was missing. What does Johnny see that I don’t?

“Nope,” assured his brother, lifting his gaze back up to the man on the horse.

Scott noticed Johnny still held his gun with intent. Rough and ready. Always ready. Never let your guard down. Rule number one of Johnny’s rules. He heard his brother simply say, “We could use a little help.”

The man in gray dismounted from his horse and led him into their space. Johnny released the hammer to his gun and rested it on his brother’s belly. Scott breathed a sigh of relief and uncocked his gun.

 

—09—

In no time flat, with the aid of his horse pulling on a rope tied to the front wheel of the buckboard, the stranger lifted the wagon off of Johnny.

At the same time, Scott, weaving in front of his brother, bent down and grasped both of Johnny’s wrists. He pulled with all his might when the man said, “Go!”

Pain shot throughout Johnny’s left side like he knew it would. The agony in his shoulder was even worse. He sucked in air through gritted teeth and saw momentary stars as a hot, white sting exploded on the top of his shoulder and surged down his arm to his fingertips. A deep moan escaped from his mouth though he tried hard to suppress it.

Scott heard the groan and miserably felt his brother’s pain while assisting him to his feet. “Sorry brother, it couldn’t be helped. How bad is it?”

“I’ll be fine.” As soon as the stars go away. “Just a bit banged up,” softly assured Johnny, giving Scott a forced quirky half-grin. At the moment he was just glad to be free. From behind them, they heard the buckboard slam back down into position.

Johnny pulled free of Scott’s hands and quickly turned around to eyeball the stranger. Satisfied with what the man was doing, he unsteadily bent down and retrieved his gun, tucking his sore arm across his midsection.

The man was removing the rope from his saddle horn while praising his horse, “That’s a good horse, Dusty. Yeah, you’re the best.” He followed his words with a few pats to the animal’s neck. Then, turned to the business at hand.

As soon as Johnny was on his feet, Scott heavily sat down on the ground beyond the dead horses, burying his face in his hands. He felt light-headed and his eyes had blurred. His stomach didn’t feel so good and he had a rip-roaring headache.

Holstering his Colt, Johnny limped around, working the stiffness out of one leg and the pain out of the other, as he kept a keen eye on the gun hawk.

The man followed the rope around the wreck, coiling it as he went until he came to the wagon wheel. He untied the end and when it was free, asked Johnny, “You havin’ much trouble with that leg?”

Not surprised the stranger had noticed, Johnny simply said, “Cramped up once while playing the hat game with a bull.” He didn’t want the hawk-eyed gunfighter to know the extent of his injuries.

The gun hawk chuckled and shook his head. “Let me bet? The bull won?”

“Almost,” returned Johnny, grinning at the memory.

The stranger gave a soft whistle and his horse came up to him. He affectionately gave him a rub on the nose and a scratch behind the ears, then attached the rope to his saddle. A moment later he was mounted.

Johnny watched the proceedings, which made him homesick for Barranca. He hoped Clyde had made it home by now with him and the other three horses.

“Fine horse ya got there Mister,” offered Johnny, in a warm manner.

“We get along,” came the quiet answer.

Johnny could see the stranger wanted to leave. “Much obliged.” Then on a whim, stated, “I didn’t catch your name.”

“No, ya didn’t.” The gun hawk wheeled his horse around.

Johnny bristled and stepped in close to the horse and stood his ground, giving the older man the Johnny Madrid air. I know he’s got his reasons, but I want to know his name.

From the sidelines, Scott witnessed what he could see of his brother facing down the man on horseback. What’s eating at them now? He had no idea what it was about, but could feel the tension radiating off of both men. A moment later the stranger leaned over towards his brother and said something Scott couldn’t hear. His expression unchanged, Johnny nodded once and backed off from the horse. The man in gray rode back into the fog and disappeared as the gloominess swallowed him up.

“What was all that about?” asked Scott, rubbing his scalp close to the wound. He felt around the padding trying to decipher what was poking him. Lowering his head with his eyes closed, he heard muffled boot steps which stopped in front of him. Next thing he knew, his brother had his fingers wrapped tightly around his wrist.

“Let go Johnny. What’s with you and my wrist?” he griped, wrenching his arm free. His hand immediately went back to his wound only to be intercepted once again by strong tanned fingers. He protested by pulling back his free fist. “Dang it Johnny! It feels like a thorn’s in my head! Will you let go?!”

“A thorn?” hooted Johnny, holding onto Scott’s wrist. “I wish it was so brother.”

Giving up on pulling his arm free for a moment, Scott harrumphed a breath and dully asked, “What is it then? A sledgehammer?” He had no idea other than the fact it hurt and it was annoying the hell out of him.

“If ya promise not to touch it…I’ll tell ya.” Johnny let go of Scott’s arm.

Feeling harassed, Scott warned in his firmest voice, “Johnny?”

Johnny knew that voice. It was the one his brother always used before Scott exploded with him, Johnny, being at the receiving end. It also reminded him of someone else and he said so, “Why do you always sound like Murdoch when ya get mad?”

“Johnny!”

“Okay Scott, ya don’t have to yell just because yer sore.” He saw his brother close his eyes and rub his forehead. “Headache Scott?” Johnny saw his brother open his one good eye and darkly stare at him. “I’m a…ah afraid this is gonna make your head hurt more. Ya see, ya got…” Johnny stumbled around trying to find the right words to make his brother not want to touch the wound.

“Out with it Johnny!” growled Scott, losing all patience with his brother.

“Ya got a chunk of wood the size of a rock stuck in your head.” Johnny watched his brother’s eyes grow bigger. Then added, “I don’t know how deep it is.”

His words had the desired effect on his brother somewhat. He was speechless for five whole seconds. Scott raised his hands to his eyes and rubbed them.

Forgetting about his shiner, Scott grimaced in pain, as his brother made a tsk sound and stood there waiting to grab his wrists. “Johnny I didn’t promise,” reminded Scott.

“No ya didn’t,” agreed Johnny, not enjoying this in the least. He saw how pale his brother was and was troubled by it. “Why don’t ya rest yer eyes some more and sit a spell?”

Scott complied and closed his eyes. Johnny was glad he didn’t have to waste his breath arguing about it.

Relieved now that Scott’s focus was on himself, and not on him, Johnny looked around the site and found Scott’s hat, laying in the dirt where his brother had slid in under the wheel. Picking up the hat, he dusted it off and set it on Scott’s head.

“I’ll check on Buster and find my hat and coat.”

Scott nodded affirmatively. From under the brim, his eyes were open and waiting to see what his brother was up too.

Johnny, holding his left arm tightly against his ribs, turned and quickly limped around the site, glad his brother couldn’t see him. Buster was tethered to a nearby tree munching on some leaves. He went over and looked the horse over first. He gave the horse a pat on the rump as he walked behind him and said, “You’re as fit as a fiddle.”

He found his hat with the canteen a few feet from the dead horses’ heads. Picking up the items, Johnny gave the animals a quick apology. “Sorry Violet and Purdy. You gals were a good team and Jelly is gonna kill me.”

With a heavy heart, he slapped the hat on his head and drank some of the water, saving the rest for Scott. He had to look longer for his coat and finally found it under the bucket of spilled nails. He shook out the leather jacket and slipped into it, grateful for its warmth. From a distance, he could hear the coyotes howling and it made him uneasy. Another pack bayed from a different direction and he shivered. He hurried back to his brother and gave him the canteen.

While Scott drank, Johnny said, “I’ll be glad to get outta here.”

Scott finished off the water and put the cork in the canteen. “What’s keeping us from leaving?”

“Waitin’ on the old man to find the dead guys’ horses.”

“They shouldn’t be far,” stated Scott, licking the excess moisture off his lips.

They both knew it was the right thing to do. Bad men or good, they couldn’t leave them for the wild animals to eat. The dead horses were another problem. Johnny thought about burning their remains. He could make a pile of kindling on top of the splintered buckboard and dose it with a bottle of whiskey Scott always carried in his saddle bags for what he called medical purposes.

Before Johnny could think much further on the issue, they heard thrashing in the dry grass as the stranger called, “Found ‘em.”

“I believe that’s my cue,” said Johnny, moving off in the direction of the dead men.

Scott got up and said, “Not just yours brother. I’ll help.” He staggered after his brother.

Together, they loaded the two horses with the blanket wrapped corpses and tied them to the saddle.

The man in gray said, “I’ll take’em to Bart’s place where that ranger turned vet has his place of business.”

Johnny indifferently asked, “Ya know Tim?”

The man frankly answered, “Yup, before the war.”

“And?” chimed in Scott, noticing his brother’s sudden interest. Given the ranger’s line of work, a lot of people must know who Tim is.

The gray haired man spat into the grass. “Knew him as a vet doctor back then too.” He smiled a knowing grin.

Johnny could read him, but Scott couldn’t.

The man let Scott off the hook. “Damned good one if I recall.”

“Good what?” asked Scott perplexed. After all these years, I’m still having trouble with the way these westerners talk at times. “Ranger, veterinarian or both?”

“Yup,” said the man and Johnny laughed.

“Tell me,” asked Scott, “Back then, did everyone perceive him as a giant like they do now?” The man looked blankly at him. Scott tried again because he was curious about the ranger’s past. “Did he always stand tall dressed all in black?”

“Yup.”

Scott rubbed his forehead making Johnny nervous. The questions hadn’t come out right. What’s wrong with me? I can’t seem to think straight. All I wanted to know was what people thought of Tim back in the day.

“Any more questions?” asked the man in gray.

Not trusting his voice, Scott shook his head no.

The man dug out a bottle of tequila from his saddle bags. “For the horses. They deserve nothing less.”

“We got whisky,” stated Johnny, asking his brother with his eyes. “Right brother?”

Scott got into the western lingo, “Yup.”

The man refuted, “You’ll need both of ‘em. Too damp out otherwise to make a good pyre. Do it now while the wetness can control the burn. By mornin’ it’ll be too late.”

Scott said, “Because by morning the fog will be gone and the grass will be too dry?” More like golden. As far as I can see the land is gold in color. Not a speck of green due to the drought. No wonder they call California the golden state of promise. He looked down at his shirt. My shirt should blend right in.

“No,” spoke Johnny, trying to keep a straight face. “By morning, there won’t be anything left.” He could see his brother didn’t get it. “Scott, the call of the wild?”

“Oh, I knew that,” said Scott, feeling the heat in his cheeks. “Not thinking too clearly I guess,” he said for an excuse. He rubbed his head by the puncture wound and received a worried frown from his brother. Making up for his lapse of memory, he finished with, “The animals would’ve picked them clean.”

“Yup, nary a bone will be found,” accorded the stranger, as he mounted his gray horse once more. Johnny handed him two sets of reins and the man took off into the soupy darkness.

“Come on Scott,” prompted Johnny, throwing his good arm around his brother’s shoulders. “We’ve got to get goin’ or we’ll be part of that feast and soon.” He smiled when he felt his brother shudder.

Johnny hated what they had to do and he suspected his brother wasn’t any happier about it either. A waste of good horse flesh and Jelly’s gonna have a fit when he finds out. The team was his babies. But, we can’t have blood on the land. It’ll attract every predator for miles and it won’t be safe for man or animal. It’s one thing to lose a calf or even a cow, but we usually get it taken care of before they do.

 

—10—

The deed was done. The mixture of smoke, wood and animal in the dampness turned both of their stomachs. Scott’s especially since it was already sensitive due to his head wound. Or maybe it’s the fact we’d lost two good horses to human predators on our land. What difference? Johnny said they’re gonna pay. Two men have already.

Scott knew his brother would get to the bottom of all their difficulties that had plagued Lancer and its family the last two weeks. Scott had told Johnny the whole story as he knew it while they were waiting for the fire to burn down.

Johnny had gathered up all the horse’s tack and work tools into one spot under a tree to be picked up later. He’d been very quiet as he’d listened to Scott’s story as he’d leisurely gone about his chore.

All Johnny said when Scott had finished his tale was, “You have no clue who hit you?”

“None.”

“Humph.”

Scott could tell Johnny was thinking hard on the issue and wasn’t going to say anything more until he was ready.

It took a long time for the fire to burn down to where the boys could cover the embers with dirt. With the drought in force, they couldn’t leave the fire unattended.

“Murdoch’s gonna have a cow when he finds out about this buckboard,” lamented Johnny, as he poked at the remains with a long stick. “Not to mention the horses.”

“Well, it was old and rickety,” chipped in Scott, trying to make his brother feel better. “I think Murdoch was about ready to part it out anyways. I mean, look at how easily the tongue had snapped when you flew over the animals.”

“That was some ride Scott,” chuckled Johnny, tossing the stick aside.

“I bet it was,” grinned his brother, shoveling the last of the dirt on the fire. “Though I couldn’t imagine it in my wildest dreams.”

“Ya ready to ride?”

“Any time you are,” replied Scott, throwing the shovel on the pile of tools where it bounced off the roll of barbwire and hit the ground with a clang.

Johnny untethered Buster’s reins from the tree limb and led the horse to his brother.

“You first,” offered Scott. He knew his brother would never be able to climb on behind him with his injured shoulder and leg. You’ve done a good job at hiding it brother, but who’s kidding who?

“Oh no, he’s your horse. I’m just along for the ride,” quipped his brother. I see ya weavin’ all over the place Scott. Who’s gonna keep ya in the saddle?

Scott didn’t want to get into a contest of wills. Besides, it was the dead of the night and cold out. He pictured his warm bed waiting for him at home. He quickly mounted Buster, feeling woozy afterwards. Maybe Johnny had the right idea after all. Still, he couldn’t help but tease his brother.

“So smart ass, how are you getting up here?”

“Smart ass, huh?” kidded Johnny, holding Buster’s reins. He led the horse to a rock big enough for him to stand on, which he did. A second later, he gave the reins to Scott and climbed on behind him, settling on top of the bedroll. “You tell anyone I did this and I’ll not speak to you for a month of Sundays.”

“Threat or promise,” quipped his brother, bringing the horse around to head south.

In the eerie, damp darkness, Scott asked, “This is south?”

Johnny looked up at the sky and couldn’t see a thing but inky blackness. “No, dead reckoning tonight.” He gave his best advice, “Let Buster have his head. He’s got good horse sense.”

Scott did as told, nudging his heels against the horse’s side. Buster took off and Scott wittily said, “Nothing like the blind leading the blind.”

He got a squeeze around the waist from Johnny’s arms and heard him say, “He’ll get us home. Didn’t give you no crowbait, brother.”

They rode in companionable silence. Buster took them up the short hill and through the walnut grove, coming out on the long access road to the house.

“He’s taking us home the same way I came,” said Scott, having nothing better to say.

“Hmmm…”

Scott gathered his brother was asleep. Amazing to me how he can sleep almost anywhere, though I know he’s on full alert.  Heck, he sleeps with his eyes open. I’ve seen him do it I don’t know how many times. Out loud he bellyached, “I hate this not being able to see beyond the horse’s nose. I wish I could sleep.”

“Ya did Boston, pert near all day.”

Scott started at his brother’s voice and heard him chuckle. “We’re even now, brother.”

“How so?”

Sleepily, “Later.”

Scott, not wanting to hear himself talk, asked, “Who was that stranger anyways?”

“Don’t know exactly.”

“Oh come on. I saw you talking to him by his horse. He must’ve given you a name.”

“Dusty.”

“Nice try brother, but I know that’s what he called his horse.”

“Nickname. Said no one would forget either of ‘em.”

“Really?” grumbled Scott.

“Daemon Grayson.”

Scott felt like someone walked over his grave. A tremor shook his body.

Johnny, feeling his brother shiver, grew concerned. “Ya cold Scott?”

“Freezing.”

Johnny wrapped his arms tighter around his brother and leaned against his back. Fever? He doesn’t seem overly warm.

“Johnny, you know what Daemon means in English?”

“Haven’t a clue.”

Evil, comes from the Latin origin and spirit from the Greeks, thus, Evil spirit.”

“So?”

“So, his last name is Grayson.”

“So what?”

“So, he looked like a ghost coming out of the mist when we first met him.”

“Come again,” said Johnny, not getting what his brother was talking about.

“Put them together. Evil spirit, ghostly appearance, wearing gray, even his hair was gray and he was riding a gray horse. Put it all together, Johnny. There’s a man after you called, The Gray Ghost.”

Johnny laughed so hard he about fell off the horse. He had tears streaming down his face in his hilarity. “Oh boy.” he wiped the moisture off his face, trying not to laugh again. “You’ve…you’ve been had brother…by one ’em Jelly’s stories.”

“Dang it all Johnny, be serious,” snapped Scott. “The man is out to get you.”

Between chuckles Johnny gasped out, “Scott…he’s a legend…a myth.”

“Val backed up Jelly’s story,” refuted Scott emphatically.

“Val would,” wheezed his brother, still trying to get air from laughing so hard. Oh Scott, if ya only knew.

“What do you mean by that?” grouched Scott, beginning to smell a rat.

“It’s a yarn.”

“A what?”

“A tall tale.” A snicker later, Johnny added, “Did they mention if you see the Gray Ghost ya don’t live to tell about it?”

“Not in those exact words. I think they said something about being left dead in the street and he just disappears afterwards.”

Johnny laughed all over again.

“I don’t see anything funny about it Johnny. That Daemon character could be him…in person.”

“Yup, live flesh and blood Scott. And if ya didn’t notice he’s a gun hawk through and through…probably retired.”

“That why he’s so secret about his name?”

“Maybe. He told me he bought the Gomez place next to the pig farmer, Maxi…Maxa…whatever his name is.”

“Hubert Maximillian,” finished Scott. “He’s settling down? Wants some peace and quiet in his doddering old age?”

“He look old to you?”

“Maybe Murdoch’s age.”

“Whoa Scott,” laughed Johnny again, “I wouldn’t let Murdoch know ya think of him as, what did ya call him?  Doddering?”

Scott came back in jest with, “I don’t…just ghost like gunfighters retired or not.”

“I ain’t afraid of no ghost,” joked Johnny. He got an elbow to his good side from his brother.

“Maybe not,” said Scott, becoming serious. “But, someone believes in the legend besides Jelly and that’s no joke.”

“Ya think that’s why none of you’ve seen ‘im when he did what he done?” broodingly asked Johnny. Sickened deep down inside, he felt the recent sordid goings-on would at some time in the near future be laid at his feet. My past is catching up with me again. I know it!

“Yes,” replied Scott matter-of-factly. Not wanting to point a finger in his brother’s direction, Scott had left out one small detail of the story. Knowing Johnny, he’ll draw his own conclusions anyways. “I think they’re trying to create a rift in our family. And I’m pretty sure I know the person behind it.”

Johnny didn’t have to ask who.

 

—11—

Morning had arrived by the time Buster broke away from the tree line of the access road to cross the expanse of the pasture and head towards the back corral gate.

Johnny thought Lancer never looked so good until he saw all was not well beyond the barnyard.

Holding Scott in his arms with his brother’s head resting on his good shoulder, he said with trepidation, “Looks like we got more trouble.”

Smelling and seeing the lingering smoke, the boys attention was first drawn to two out buildings a short distance behind the barn that were now in a smoldering ruins.

From under hooded eyes, Scott had followed his brother’s gaze to the burnt structures. He hurriedly sat up straight in the saddle only to have a wave of light-headedness swamp him. He moaned and covered his painful eye with a hand, as Johnny expertly guided Buster past the corral fence towards the hacienda.

“Ya gonna heave again Scott?” asked his apprehensive, worn-out brother. 

“Not if I can help it,” replied Scott, cradling his stomach with one arm. “There’s nothing left to toss.” Having little strength, he leaned his head back on his brother’s shoulder.

“Good. My boots thank you,” lightly said Johnny, worried sick about Scott’s condition. He wasn’t faring too well himself, but he wasn’t going to tell anyone about it. He’d already figured out what he had to do. It’s simple…don’t move the shoulder and support the arm as much as possible when no one’s lookin’.

Buster rounded the bunkhouse and worked his way to the hitching rail at the side of the house. Back by the kitchen door, they could see a solemn, rag-tag group of ranch hands soundlessly milling around.

Scott and Johnny wordlessly observed the soot covered men. Some of the guys had dirty bandages wrapped around their heads, hands and other various parts of their bodies. It was apparent all had been fighting the fires. Unknowingly, the same questions ran through each of their minds. What are they waiting on? Murdoch? News of some sort?

The men turned as one and stared at the brothers, equally, in the same state of shock. Neither Lancer moved from the horse.

Not knowing what to think, Johnny finally asked, “What happened?”

No one responded outright. A look of foreboding and concern crossed most of the men’s faces.

Walt and Jelly, each on crutches, came hobbling over to them. Frank, a longtime friend and trusted cowpoke, followed in their footsteps.

Scott murmured into Johnny’s ear. “The bandaged ones are from the prior goings-on I told you about.”

Johnny could only nod, speechless. Scott, ya didn’t do the tale justice. I had no idea it was this bad.

Covering his alarm, Johnny glanced back towards the corral absently looking for Barranca, when he spied Sinbad, Tim’s big bay horse and Dr. Jenkins’ buggy, tethered to a rail. His stomach did a flip and he knew in that moment how Scott’s belly must be feeling.

Before he could ask why the ranger and doctor were there, Jelly broke the stalemate, “If’n you boys ain’t a sight for sore eyes.” The old man raked their bodies with an affectionate eye, not missing a thing in their disheveled appearance.

Hearing Jelly’s statement, the paralyzed inaction seemed to break and the others joined in with a nod, a grin or a wave of a hand.

Both boys were acutely aware of their own filthy looks and smelly, ash stained clothes. Not lifting his head off his brother’s shoulder, Scott gave a nervous chuckle in greeting, while Johnny sort of smiled. Looks like we fit right in. By their raised brows, Scott’s head wound is drawing some interest. And no doubt they’re wonderin’ why we’re both on Buster.  

Before anything else could be said, the kitchen door opened, drawing everyone’s attention. Out stepped Tim dressed in black, as always, and their father. Their worried features scanned the small crowd and came to rest on the brothers, still on the horse.

Murdoch, upon seeing them, immediately headed for his sons as Tim bowed his head and cleared his throat.

Johnny’s stomach turned over again. Somethin’s really wrong. Scott tried to sit up again and Johnny felt him gag, then wipe a hand across his mouth. He urgently whispered, “Hold still brother or yer gonna end up flat on your face.”

Scott retorted, “Maybe it’d be better than facing what’s coming.”

Johnny immediately got the drift when he noticed Murdoch’s stormy countenance headed in their direction. Swallowing hard, he wished he could jump off the horse, but didn’t think his legs would hold him up when he landed.

Murdoch reached his sons and was greeted by the nose of Buster nibbling against his arm. “What’s the matter? Didn’t they feed you?”

Johnny would’ve laughed if his father hadn’t been so serious.

Murdoch gave a pat to the horse’s neck, then grabbed onto the saddle horn and placed his other hand on the cantle of the saddle between his two sons. With an angry expression on his face, he stared into two sets of leery blue eyes. His own eyes softened and he sadly said, “Welcome home boys.”

That was not what either brother had expected to hear. Before either could say anything, Tim’s voice, normally booming in volume, softly stated, “Teresa’s gonna be all right.”

A cheer went up from amongst the men. A few slapped each other on the back. Jelly smiled like a Cheshire cat.

Tim put his hands up to quiet them down and bellowed sorrowfully, “There’s more!”

They all became silent again and held their breath, except Murdoch, who knew what was coming. He fervently wished he could tell his boys in private, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, he moved his hands to grip each of his son’s knees, (Johnny’s bruised one, though he didn’t know it) and waited for their reactions of what was to come.

The big guy in black dropped his head, as was his way, before he gave the bad news. His voice cracked and tears streamed down his hard face.  Pulling himself up to his full height, he announced, “She lost the baby.” He rubbed both eyes with a swipe of his big hand. “Matt and Teresa ask for your thoughts and prayers.” With that, he turned to go back inside, thought better of it, then turned again and headed towards the Lancers’ three.

To say the least, the brothers were stunned. Johnny came around first, so angry he could barely get his words out. Biting each one, he coldly asked, “What…happened…Murdoch?”

Scott needn’t say a word, his brother was livid enough for both of them. He sat and waited, feeling Johnny’s fingers digging unknowingly into his side. He reached down and covered his brother’s wrist, stilling the ever moving digits.

Johnny was glad for Scott’s calming touch and didn’t pull his hand back. Truth to tell, he wanted to strike out and hit someone and didn’t especially care who.

Murdoch kicked the dirt and with a forbidding scowl, said, “We got raided.” He almost couldn’t believe it. “I…I never thought they’d bother us this close to the house…I got careless.”

That was quite an omission from their father and it helped, curiously enough, to deflate some of the anger.

Commiserating, Johnny softly said, “Well Murdoch that could’ve happened to any of us.” Trying not to move his shoulder, he cautiously reached out and squeezed his father’s arm. “But, what happened to Teresa?”

It was a loaded question and Jelly took up the tale.

“She was in the henhouse, collectin’ eggs fer breakfast when they started the tool sheds on fire and a couple of ‘em was gonna torch the pigpen and the chicken coop. Dewdrop put out the alarm.” He took a big breath, but Walt picked up the tale.

“Bein’ I can’t do much with this broken leg, I was sittin’ there milking Daisy, when I heard the commotion. Dewdrop came runnin’ into the barn and I looked out to see a guy with a torch in his hand inside the pigpen.”

Jelly cut in with, “Yeah, he was tryin’ to steal one of Arabella’s piglets and mama sow wasn’t havin’ it. She chased the varmint around her pen until he dove over the fence. A moment later he got the short end of a shotgun by Frank here.” The black man gave a grin that didn’t reach his eyes.

“And Teresa?” asked Johnny, holding on to his temper.

Murdoch summed it up, “She came out of the henhouse, just as a man was ready to throw a flaming stick inside, and plowed into him, knocking both of them to the ground. The man hit her in the jaw and shoved her away from him. It was the last thing he ever did.”

“Who killed him?” asked Johnny, in his coldest voice.

“Matt did,” boomed the giant. “He heard the fire bell ring and knew where she had gone.” He didn’t need to say more.

Johnny spat out furiously, “Did anyone see who led the raid?”

Jelly answered, “T’was that Snake feller that always teases Scott about his sunny, bright shirt. Remember?” He pointed at Scott’s shirt under his coat. “And gave ‘im the nickname, Golden Garrett.”

“They’re dead!” stated Johnny. “As soon as I find ‘em, they’ll all be dead.”

The men, who had been listening to the tale, all agreed. Each started talking about what all they were going to do to help Johnny get them.

Walking a few steps towards the men and with a glower, Murdoch put a quick stop to their blather. “Now listen, none of you are in good enough shape to chase Snake’s gang down.” He heard grumbling and an “I am,” from Johnny. He whirled around and pointed a finger at his youngest. “You hold your horses boy!”

Embarrassed at being treated like a half-grown boy between the hay and the grass, Johnny turned his set face away from his father to stare at the ground.

Murdoch confronted the men again. “You all know Marshal Val Crawford is after them. What he needs from us is to follow Johnny’s rules that my sons laid down when I was incapacitated. Do I need to repeat them?”

The men settled down.

Murdoch issued the first rule, “No one rides alone. We put two lookouts on the roof. We double the men riding herd…”

Johnny was grudgingly impressed. His father was actually barking out the rules he and Scott had given the men during his absence. Wonders never cease.

 

—12—

While listening to Murdoch issue orders to the men and what their next plan of action was going to be, Johnny suddenly realized neither he nor his brother had dismounted.

“Scott, ya ready to get yer head looked at?”

His brother didn’t move and said in amazement, “Johnny, are you hearing that? He’s using your rules.”

“Yeah, I heard,” sullenly replied his brother.

Scott smiled broadly, even though he couldn’t keep his eyes open. “But brother, he actually listened to us.”

“Yeah, he did,” conceded Johnny, looking at the giant for help in getting his brother down off the horse. He wasn’t getting down himself or the jig would be up. They’d know in a minute once they see me limp. Nervously, he cast a fast look over to the barnyard and spied the three rare pintos he’d sent down with Clyde, in the paddock with the other two matching horses. Barranca must be in the barn. As soon as I know Scott’s alright, me and Barranca are going after Snake.

Johnny got a hard stare from the giant and he wondered if the big man could read his thoughts. “Tim, Scott’s got a piece of wood in his head as big as that rock he brags about back in the good ole state of Massachusetts.”

“You talking about Plymouth Rock?” asked the man dressed in black, taking a long gander at both boys. They both look done in.

“Yup, that be the one ‘em pilgrims first stepped on,” smiled Johnny. “Ain’t that right brother?”

“You got it Johnny,” weakly said Scott. He didn’t like the way the giant was assessing him. The man doesn’t miss a thing. Well, he was a medic at one time.

Tim squinted from the reflection of Scott’s gold shirt, as the sun hit it square on his chest. Dang shirt anyways! By the looks and smell of ‘em both, they’ve seen some action.  Scott must’ve been at the wrong end of the stick. Don’t like the pastiness of his color either nor the fact his eyes don’t seem focused. “Come on Golden Garrett. Time ya got off this horse.”

He put Scott’s arm around his massive shoulders and pulled him off the animal. Scott groaned at the movement that made his head spin. His legs felt like rubber and they nearly gave out. He leaned heavily against the man in black.

The giant swore, “Some gunfighter you make. Letting an itty, bitty rock to the head lay ya low.” To Scott’s chagrin, the big man swung him up into his huge arms, asking at the same time, “What happened?”

“Ambush,” mumbled Scott. “Johnny’s…” He couldn’t seem to finish the sentence and closed his eyes against the morning sun.

Murdoch, hearing the word ambush and watching the ranger’s actions, hurried back over to them. The men, including Jelly, all listened in.

Deeply troubled all over again, Johnny quickly said, “He did that all the way home.” Wanting everyone’s full attention on his brother and not on himself, he described Scott’s condition. “Talks to ya one minute and he’s out the next.” For good measure he added, “Said his head hurt and he’s pukin’ up stuff.”  Johnny unthinkingly lifted his foot and checked his right boot.

“I bet it does if that chunk of wood’s as big as ya say,” sympathized Tim, catching Murdoch’s worried eye. The older man appeared temporarily at a loss for words. He’s frightened for his sons. He stepped away from the horse and adjusted Scott’s weight in his arms. I need to find out what’s all behind this.

“Bigger,” stressed Johnny, fidgeting with the reins and hiding his fear. I can’t lose my brother.

The giant’s movement brought Murdoch out of his inertia. “Let’s get Scott into the house. I just sent Sam to bed, but we can get him up again.”

The big guy remarked, “On my way.” He bent his head a bit so only Murdoch could hear and said, “Keep an eye on Johnny. He’s gonna bolt.”

“I know.”

Yelling over his shoulder to Johnny, the ex-ranger ordered, “Madrid, stick like glue to that spot! I’ll be right back!”

Having interfered as much as he was gonna between Murdoch and his sons,  the giant effortlessly carried Scott inside the house right past a flabbergasted Harlan Garret, still dressed in his robe and slippers.

Eyeing the older man, he barked, “What ya standin’ there for? Go get the doc!”

Harlan, disturbed by the man in black and seeing his grandson almost unconscious in his arms, scurried off to do his bidding.

Johnny groaned and slid over the cantle of the saddle. He wasn’t up to all the questions the ex-lawman was gonna ask, but he needed to tell him about the two dead guys he and Scott had shot. I need to take Buster to the barn, but Tim will just hunt me down. And if he or Murdoch gets wind of how beat up I really am, I’ll never get outta here. My best bet is to stay here and wait despite the fact I’m getting’ a few odd looks.

One of the men offered to take the reins and care for the horse, but Johnny said, “Naw, I’m headed there anyways to check on Barranca. I’m obliged though.” The hand nodded with a grin, knowing how much Johnny loved his horse, then left to join his comrades a few feet away.

Murdoch’s attention went back to the men. “Boys, you held your own and showed that gang of ruffians your true colors. I’m proud of ya and…” he put his hand out to include Johnny, “my sons and I thank you for a job well done in protecting the ranch.”

The men hooted and hollered with one guy yelling, “Yeah, we showed ‘em!” Another shouted, “Teach ‘em to mess with us, huh?” 

Murdoch smiled and dispersed the men to their respective chores. “The day’s a wasting. Get cleaned up. Eat breakfast if the cook’s got it ready. If you need your bandages changed and it looks like most of you do, Tim will meet you at the bunkhouse in a while.”

One of the cowpokes, limping by with a stick for a cane, asked, “What about Scott?”

Murdoch replied, “I’ll let you all know as soon as possible.”

“Fair enough,” said the hand, leaving with the others.

Jelly, full of unanswered questions of his own, stood his ground, keeping an eye on Johnny. Hope the boss is thinkin’ what I’m thinking. Besides, I want to hear how this business with Scott’s injury and all came about. And where did Johnny leave Violet and Purdy?

Before Jelly could voice any of the questions, Tim came out of the house and walked up to Murdoch. “Doc’s doing an exam on Scott’s noggin and his person now.”

Tim found and held Johnny’s tormented eyes. “Sam’s not sure how deep the chunk goes. His instruments are bein’ sterilized in boiling water, so I have a few minutes.”

Uneasily, Johnny shifted in the saddle as he met the big guy’s shrewd brown eyes. He’s probably wondering why I’m still sittin’ here like a bump on a log.

“What then?” asked an anxious Murdoch, grabbing a hold of Buster’s bridle for support.

“He’ll remove it and we’ll go from there.” No longer in the mood to tease, the ex-medic point blank asked Johnny, “Son, how’d Scott get that sliver of wood in his head?”

Wanting to save time and afraid it would take too long to tell the whole story, Johnny bowed his head and said, “We got bushwhacked and a stray bullet splintered the buckboard.” He hoped the explanation sounded…plausible.

All three men looked questioningly at him as if waiting for more. Tim gruffly asked, “Do you know who did it?”

“Not exactly, but there’s two dead men at yer place.” For Jelly’s benefit, Johnny added, “Some gun hawk dressed in gray shoulda brought ‘em in early this morning.”

Jelly’s eyes grew round and he sucked in his breath. Then gushed, “The Gray Ghost?”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” deadpanned Johnny, hiding his grin, though it was no laughing matter. He winked at the ex-ranger and his father to let them know there was more to this part of the story.

The big guy said, “Wouldn’t know. I’ve been over here since dawn when Hank came and got me. I hope the man has sense enough to put ‘em in the ice house until I get there.”

“Seemed level headed,” remarked Johnny, breaking eye contact with the older men.

“Who was he?” asked the giant, watching Johnny closely.

“Not sure,” came the wry reply from Johnny, looking over at the barnyard again.

Something in the way Johnny had said it gave the ex-ranger pause. He knows something, but he’s not tellin’.

Sam called from the kitchen door, “Tim, I need your assistance.”

“Times up, gotta go,” said the big guy, already walking towards the house.

Johnny started to back Buster away from the rail, hoping his father would just let go of the horse’s bridle.

“Where are you going?” demanded Murdoch, scratching behind Buster’s ears with his free hand. He hadn’t missed the exhaustion on his younger son’s face or Scott’s last spoken words. Ambush. Johnny’s…Johnny what? Injured? Hard to tell under all the grime. He closely scrutinized his son and thought he had it figured out, seeing the reins in Johnny’s right hand. No sooner had the thought crossed his mind when Johnny moved them to his left hand.

“To bed Buster down. He deserves a rest,” crossly responded Johnny to his father’s request. He had a feeling his father was on to him and that he’d not gotten past the giant’s eagle eye either.

“And then?” flatly asked Murdoch, refusing to let go of the horse.

“Say hello to Barranca. I assume he made it here okay.”

“He did,” said Murdoch, not taking his eyes off his son. After all these years, Murdoch was finally getting good at reading his son…most of the time. He’s got killing on his mind and I know he’s itching to go after them. Just knowing Val’s out there makes it even more tempting.

Feeling his father’s intense blue eyes on his person, Johnny asked, sharper than intended, “What?” He was anxious to be on his way, to find Snake and his gang and teach them a lesson from Johnny Madrid. No one messes with my family.

Murdoch could see the angry gleam in his son’s eyes and the need for revenge. But, he saw something else as well…weariness.  He’s not in any shape to go out after a gang like that in his present condition. I don’t even know if he has any injuries, but I know he’s hiding something. What to do? He decided to use his own rules against him.

“Now that Scott is laid up who are you riding with?”

“What?” tiredly asked Johnny again. What trick are you playin’ old man? Old man? I hadn’t thought of him like that in years. It must be Scott’s fault for bringin’ up that word doddering.

“Your hard and fast rules are in force.” Murdoch could see the wheels turning in his son’s head. “No one rides alone and that includes you, Johnny my boy.”

“I can take care of myself,” defensively sputtered Johnny, though he knew his father had him. What’s that phrase? Don’t con a con man.

“I have no doubts you can. But, rules are rules and I expect you to obey them…especially your own rules.”

Johnny actually laughed. “Murdoch, ya should’ve been a barrister.” He looked down at his own hand, holding the reins. Hell, what am I thinking? I can barely hang onto ‘em. How am I to go up against Snake and his men by myself? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. But, Murdoch’s right. If I want the men to respect the rules and me, I have to follow them myself.

Refusing to give in, he tried one more time. “I could take Tim. He’s the law.”

“Tim has his hands full with helping Jenkins attend Teresa and now your brother. Or have you forgotten?”

“No. I haven’t forgotten,” replied Johnny, lowering his chin to his chest.

Murdoch firmly drove home his point, “He’s also been treating all the minor injuries of the men that have been hurt this morning.”

Feeling he should be helping to track down the raiders, Johnny’s head popped up and he pleaded, “I just don’t want the trail to grow cold. I know the lay of the land, Murdoch. It could save valuable time.”

Murdoch showing more patience than usual, “Val’s a good tracker. Didn’t he teach you everything about it?”

Johnny grinned at the memory, “Yeah, pert near. Who’s with Val anyways?”

“Deputized men for starters and a few good men from this ranch.”

“Well, that’s reason enough to join them, ain’t it?”

“You’d be riding alone to get to them.” Murdoch ran an unsteady hand through his hair. “I don’t want to find you bushwhacked somewhere dying or dead on the ground!”

“Well hell!” Johnny wasn’t about to tell him yet that it had already happened. Snake took me out of the picture and now I know why…the raid…

“NO! And that’s final!” adamantly yelled Murdoch, making the horse sidestep.

“Whoa, Buster, easy,” gentled Johnny, giving him a couple pats on the neck.

Murdoch wished he could gentle his son in a like manner. But, then he wouldn’t be the son you know and love. He stuck his lower lip out and pulled rank. “Johnny, I want your word you will not leave this area of the ranch until Scott is on his feet.”

“When will that be?”

“I don’t know, but I’d like to find out!” shouted Murdoch. They stared at each other in their stubbornness, neither willing to give in. Finally, in a very firm voice, Murdoch issued a thinly veiled warning with a question, “Do I have your word son?”

Put like that, Johnny reluctantly gave in and secretly wondered not for the first time, what his old man was like at his age. “Yeah, I promise.”

“Good,” was all Murdoch said, letting go of the horse and then hurrying towards the house.

“Well, that went well,” said Johnny to Buster, as he guided him to the corral gate. “I can’t wait till he finds out about your friends and the buckboard.” A shudder ran through his body. “I’ll be banished to the North Mesa for the rest of my life…not that I’d stay there.”

 

—13—

As soon as Murdoch stepped inside the house he was accosted by a dithering Harlan Garrett.

Not acting like his usual assured self, Murdoch’s former father-in-law blurted, “They locked me out!”

Negatively shaking his head and rubbing his brow, Murdoch headed towards the stairs, not saying anything to the older man. I couldn’t agree with them more.

Harlan, seeing where Murdoch was headed, whined, “Didn’t you hear what I said? They threw me out of Scotty’s room.”

Murdoch stopped with a foot on the first step and turned partly around. “I sincerely doubt that. But, they need peace and quiet!” he snapped, taking another step.

“Then why are you going up there?” whittled Garrett, coming up behind him.

Through gritted teeth, Murdoch ground out, “I’m his father and he’s my son!”

Cattily, Harlan came back with, “Well, I’m the one who raised him. I have the right to see him.”

“I don’t care a tinker’s damn,” contradicted Murdoch, rubbing his head harder, as he took another step up the stairway.

“Why?” asked the wretched older man, doing his best to get his way.

Losing some of his composure, Murdoch gruffly retorted, “This is my house and I call the tune!”

“Call the tune to what?” asked Harlan, totally out to sea.

“In other words, what I say, goes! So stop carrying on and get a hold of yourself!”

“But Murdoch,” sniffed Garrett, “Scotty’s my only family.”

Murdoch fully turned on the step he was standing on and towered ominously over the other man. “Harlan, you’ll make a fuss and Sam needs to work without interference.”

“I’ll sit in a corner and be quiet.”

The hell you will.

Murdoch’s patience was at an end. He was about to tell Scott’s grandfather in no uncertain terms what he could do with himself, when he realized the man spoke the truth. He is family, so to speak. I can at least be civil for Scott’s sake. But I know Sam doesn’t want him in the room kicking up a row.

Seeing Garrett was in his slippers and robe, Murdoch tried a different approach. In a milder tone of voice, he proposed, “Harlan, you haven’t even had time to bathe and dress yet. Why don’t you take this time to use the bathhouse while it’s unoccupied?”

The staunch easterner turned red in the face at being caught in his bedclothes. He hedged, “Maybe I will.” He held his head high and made the excuse, “I’m not used to getting up at the crack of dawn.”

The grandfather clock chimed ten times and Murdoch had all he could do not to smirk at the melodic tones. Making no apologies, Murdoch further stated, “Maria’s with Teresa. You’re on your own for the day which includes breakfast and probably lunch.”

The man looked appalled. Murdoch took a tiny bit of satisfaction in his discomfort. You’ll be lucky if we even get supper with the way things are going today. But, I or Jelly can cook or we’ll get our meals from the bunkhouse. Someone has to feed our sick and infirmed. 

Murdoch offered one last suggestion before turning to go up the rest of the steps. “There’s coffee on the stove.” At Harlan’s noticeable displeasure, he quickly amended, “Or fix yourself a drink…of tea…” or whatever you Easterners have for breakfast. “There’s plenty in the pantry.” He snickered under his breath as he made his way to Scott’s room.

******

Meanwhile back in the barn, Buster eagerly walked into his comfy stall and up to his barrel of fresh water where he helped himself to a drink. Johnny couldn’t help but chuckle. “Thirsty Buster?” He gave the horse a solid pat on the neck. “Ya did good boy. Ya got us home in one piece and did Scott proud.”

Johnny kicked free of the left stirrup and dropped down heavily onto his right foot, keeping most of the weight off his aching leg. His limbs barely held him up after riding for so many hours on top of Scott’s bedroll and not once getting down from the horse.  As if I’d ever get back up without big brother teasin’ me again.

He soon found himself leaning against the wooden boards of the stall with his right elbow propped on top of the rail. The other arm he held tucked in close to his ribs. Waiting to gain strength in his legs, he looked over a couple stalls and spied his horse munching on some hay.

“Hi Barranca.”

The palomino glanced at him, then turned away and took another bite of food, ignoring him completely.

“Well, that’s a fine how-do-you-do,” griped Johnny. “I love ya too.” He watched Barranca chew another mouthful of dried yellow grass. Wanting his horse’s attention, he patiently coaxed, “Barranca look at me.” The horse turned his head towards him for a second, then went back to eating.

Disappointed, Johnny asked, “What’s the matter? Ya mad because Clyde had ta bring ya back home ponied up with three paints?”

Barranca stared at him while chewing his feed and then looked over at Buster, who was in turn, staring back at Barranca. Buster turned his head and regarded Johnny with mournful eyes, as if to say, “Where’s mine?”

“It’s comin’.”

Barranca eyed Johnny as if to say, “What ya doin’ with him?”

“Look Barranca, this isn’t what it seems. It’s all Scott’s fault for not ducking when he should’ve.” Johnny spread his hands in a helpless gesture forgetting about his painful shoulder. He grimaced and said, “I had to bring Scott home and Buster was the only way to get here.”

The two horses stared at each other again. Buster whinnied and Barranca snorted.

Johnny followed the exchange of horse talk and thought he was way overtired and seeing things he really wasn’t seeing. They’re laughin’ at me. He even wiped his eyes in the crease of his elbow and put more weight on the other foot. Surprisingly, pain didn’t shoot through his leg, but his knee sure was stiff and swollen. Alright, I’m gonna have to limp for a bit. I can’t stand here all day…someone’s bound to notice.

He turned around and with his right hand brought up the stirrup over the seat of the saddle. Cradling his bruised arm against his chest, he bit by bit loosened the cinch straps which proved difficult using only one hand. As he worked to get Scott’s saddle off Buster, he tried to make up with his horse. “Barranca, ya want to go ridin’ after I check on Scott? Murdoch didn’t say we couldn’t.” We might even stumble onto Snake’s tracks for later use. The posse ain’t gonna be hard to trail. All I gotta do is figure a way not to break my word and my own rules.

He glanced over his shoulder to see if Barranca was listening.

The horse perked his ears at Johnny’s voice, then ignored him by turning his head to look at Teresa’s pretty bay mare, named Lady, in the next stall over.

“You’re not thinkin’ what I think yer thinking…because ya can’t…and ya know it,” testily said Johnny, pulling the saddle off Buster and letting it drop to the floor, narrowly missing his feet. The horse blanket soon followed to land on top of the saddle. Next, he unbuckled Buster’s bridle and pulled it off the horse’s head and hung it on a nail driven into a corner post.

No sooner had he done that when Buster head-butted him in the back.

“Whoa, breakfast is comin,’ just give a guy a chance,” implored Johnny to the impatient horse as he picked up the blanket and stuffed it under his throbbing arm. Grabbing the pommel of the saddle, he limped into the tack room and flung it over the nearest empty sawhorse, then dropped the blanket on top of it.

“Whew,” he groaned, kneading his sore arm at the shoulder. Pain instantly followed the touch. What in the heck is wrong with my shoulder? Not giving in, he walked over to the feed box and scooped out a portion of grain, then grabbed a sleeve of hay and walked back into Buster’s stall, dumping his breakfast in the manger. “There ya go Buster, ya earned it.”

So tired he could hardly see straight, Johnny reached for the horses’ brushes sitting on a shelf above the stall. Knowing he would expect no less from Scott, if he was attending Barranca, he began to brush the dirt, sweat and his brother’s vomit out of Buster’s coat. His thoughts went flying back to his brother. Scott, I’ll be in as soon as I can to save ya from yer grandfather. Hang in there brother and don’t let’em all spoil ya to death.

As he diligently worked at his task and to make the time go by faster, Johnny continued to talk to his captive audience. He always found it easier to talk to animals than people. At least they don’t back sass ya. They might step on yer foot. Or they might nip at yer shoulder or slobber kisses behind yer neck… He heard Barranca cut one and he swore Buster stopped chewing and blew air through his muzzle when the fumes wafted over them. 

He looked over at his horse as Barranca raised his tail. “Yer doin’ that on purpose to get even with me, ain’t ya?” fumed Johnny. He heard a couple plops hit the ground. “For shame and right in front of a Lady too.” Afterwards, Johnny swore the horse grunted at him.

“That mean you’re sorry or relieved?”

By the time he was done, the bay’s coat glistened and the mane was silky soft. Johnny, proud of his work, said. “Buster, yer coat shines as bright as Scott’s shirt. Everyone will see you two comin’ for miles.” Johnny moved to Buster’s back quarters and gave him a pat on the rump, then went to detangling his tail with a thick comb.

“Sorry boy for workin’ ya so hard. But, Scott and I thank ya.” The apology made Johnny think of the dead draft horses. “OhBuster,” he moaned, “I’m really hard put as to explaining about yer friends to Jelly. And ya know, he’s gonna take on something fierce.”

“Take on about what?” asked the little wiry man, shuffling in on his crutches.

I must be more dragged out than I thought. How’d I miss hearin’ Jelly? He’s usually loud enough to wake the dead. Come on Madrid, get back on your game or yer gonna be plannin’ yer own funeral. Bad enough we have ta go to one as it is. Poor little tyke, never had a chance at life.

Shaking himself from his morbid thoughts, Johnny entreated, “Jelly, I’ve been meanin’ to talk to ya about something.”

“Well, go ahead. I’m listenin’.” Jelly hobbled over to the nearest bale of hay and sat down. Nervously, he continued, “I’m a waitin’ like one horse waits for another.”

Johnny, just as edgy, winced at Jelly’s choice of words as he carefully reached out with his left hand and grasped Buster’s tail. Running the comb through the coarse hair over and over, Johnny racked his brain trying to come up with a compassionate way to tell Jelly, who at times was like a father to him, about his lost charges. Finally realizing there wasn’t an easier way, he stilled the comb in his hand, hung his head and turned towards the older man.  “Ah Jelly, we lost Violet and Purdy today.”

Jelly spouted, “Ya lost ‘em? How in tarnation can you lose two lumberin’ horses the size of Gibraltar?”

Using his softest voice, Johnny sadly said, “No Jelly, it wasn’t like that.”

Jelly went on like he didn’t hear him. “Did ya turn yer back and they just wandered off when ya weren’t lookin’ to who knows where?”

Johnny, feeling very guilty, a little louder said, “Jelly, will ya just listen?” After putting the comb on the nearest corner post of the stall, he went and sat down beside Jelly on the hay bale.

Jelly folded his arms and huffed, “All right. I told ya, I’m a listenin’.”

Johnny wanted nothing more than to get the words out and let come what may. “Jelly, we were on our way home. The…the horses were shot out from under me. I’m sorry.” Recalling the horror of the incident, Johnny wrapped both arms around his ribs and stared at the ground.

“Shot? As in dead?” asked Jelly in disbelief, grabbing onto Johnny’s tender arm. In his dawning sorrow, his grip increased and Johnny silently endured the pain.

Gently, Johnny told Jelly a shortened version of the story. “They died doing what they loved…running. They never knew what hit them. Scott and I shot the men who did it. They’re the ones the gun hawk took to Tim’s place.”

“You and Scott avenged ‘em?” asked Jelly, letting go of Johnny’s arm. He pulled out a red handkerchief and nosily blew his nose and wiped his eyes.

“Yes,” softly said Johnny. “And we took care of the horses too. Gave ‘em a fine send off.”

Living on the land for years, Jelly knew what Johnny meant. He sniffed and said, “Well, there’s nothin’ better a horse can ask for…better than some glue factory anyhow.” The little man got up onto his crutches, patted Johnny on his injured shoulder and shuffled out of the barn.

With one arm wrapped around his ribs and the other babying his shoulder, Johnny didn’t move from the hay bale for a long time.

 

—14—

“Johnny!” called Walt from outside the back barn door. “My father’s back from the saw mill with the lumber.” The foreman had gone to town at the crack of dawn before the raid.

“What lumber?” asked Johnny, perplexed. He stood up from the bale and worked the kinks out of his bad leg by stretching his toes. He then measured his steps to hide the limp as he walked out after his assistant foreman.

“Figures ya wouldn’t know ya bein’ up at the North Mesa for so long. The raiders blew the foot bridge a while ago.”

“I heard,” replied Johnny, watching an older version of Walt bring the draft horses to a halt in front of them. “You know that was Snake’s specialty, blowin’ things up.”

Walt Jr, nodded and then greeted his father with another dip to his head.

With a dumbfounded expression on his face, Walt Sr. climbed down from the big green wagon full of fresh cut wooden planks and supplies. Looking around speechless, he absently handed Johnny a thin envelope.

Johnny read out loud, “To Scott Lancer. Official business. To be opened by addressee only.” Puzzled, he looked at the return address. “From the Pinkerton Agency.” In abject repulsion, he wanted to throw it in the burn barrel. What do they want with Scott? Or better yet, what does Scott want with ‘em? Thoughts from his first rocky days at Lancer flew through his mind when his father had shown him the reports on Johnny Madrid. Please tell me it’s nothin’ to do with me.

Seeing the stricken look on the younger Lancer’s face, Walt Sr. asked, “Ya all right Johnny. Ya look like ya seen a ghost.”

Trying to cover up his trembling hands, he one handedly unbuttoned his shirt a couple of notches and slipped the hated document inside. Lying against his skin, Johnny swore the paper thing was burning him alive. A moment later, he was given another piece of paper, a sealed telegram addressed to Val.

“From the Sheriff in Spanish Wells. Said it just came in from San Quentin.” The older Walt grinned at Johnny’s reluctance to even touch it.

Putting it next to the other packet, Johnny sniped, “Thanks a heap, Walt. Boy, yer just full of bad news, ain’t ya?” He hoped it might not be that kind of news at all, but his gut was tellin’ him different.

Walt grinned and exclaimed, “Well they had some excitement in town while I was there, but it appears Lancer’s seen more.”

“Go on,” said Johnny, only half listening. He desperately wanted to know what was in that report and why Scott was getting it.

“Saw a bounty hunter bring in two dead guys that had been killed in a shootout.”

That captured Johnny’s interest in a hurry. “Do tell.”

“Don’t know the details exceptin’ it happened yesterday.”

Johnny bit his lip. “Wasn’t dressed all in gray?”

“Yeah, he was.”

“PFFT,” spat Johnny. “”Reckon I’d better tell Tim he ain’t havin’ company.”

******

Seeing the destruction of the out buildings behind the barn, Johnny thought he’d better inspect the damage since his father was tied up in the house. Knowing Murdoch, he’s already gotten a report, but I wanna see for myself.

 The men were sorting out the good stuff that had survived the fire, and putting them in one pile. Then, there was the needed fixin’ pile, where the tools such as shovels, rakes and hoes only needed a handle changed out. The iron part of the implements were scorched black, but were salvageable. The last pile was for the trash or recycle barrel. Melt down the wasted apparatuses and make new when they could with the forge. All the rest went to the burn barrel.

As he moseyed along, Johnny was impressed with how little made the last barrel. Why even the burned wood was set aside for kindling. A list for new supplies was thrust into his hand by Walt Jr and he quickly approved it, stressing that four men, instead of two, were needed to go to town.

Johnny stopped at the pigpen and said hello to Arabella, but mama sow wasn’t in a happy mood. She had all her babies tucked deep inside the hovel that housed them.

“Hey Arabella, ya really euchered ‘em. Show’d ‘em bad guys’ yer best side and sent that scoundrel head over heels back across the fence. I’ll never call you a pig again.”

From where Johnny stood, he could hear the chickens all cackling, as Jelly soothed their feathers and cleaned out their henhouse. “I never heard of such goings on girls. I know’d ya all were scared to death. Ya probably won’t lay eggs for a month. Don’t blame ya none either.” He sniffed loudly while raking the filthy hay out of the chicken coop, leaning on one crutch. The other was propped up against the wall of the small building. He then piled it into a small cart sitting next to a few broken baskets used for collecting eggs.

Johnny wandered over to see how the older man was handling the bad news he’d given him earlier. “Jelly?”

“Jelly what?” asked the little man affronted. He was having all he could do to keep his emotions in check from everything that had happened.

“Just wanted to see how ya were doing,” mournfully said Johnny, watching his friend shuffle around. Gotta hand it to him, he’s gettin’ around pretty well using only one foot.

“A sight better than you!” criticized the wiry man, giving Johnny the once over.

“What do ya mean by that?” asked Johnny, trying to act natural and not give the game away with his own problems.

Disgusted, Jelly dropped the hay rake where he stood, then leaned against the cart and picked up the broken baskets. “Here, throw these in the burn barrel when ya walk by. Teresa must a landed on ‘em during the fight with the intruder.” He dumped them in Johnny’s arms and bent back over, picking up another basket half full of eggs. “This is all she got collected this morning before the ruckus, so be careful with ‘em and take them into the house. We might as well have eggs for lunch though it was a high price to pay for ‘em today.”

“I asked you a question,” reminded Johnny, adjusting the baskets that had been shoved into his arms.

“About the eggs or your injuries?” snidely asked Jelly, picking up the rake once more and not giving Johnny time to answer. “I do have eyes in my head, Johnny Lancer. It’d doesn’t take a blind man ta see yer limpin’ and tryin’ to hide that arm injury. Why just look at ya! You’re so worn out ya can’t even walk a straight line!”

Johnny hung his head and looked down at his arm, resting against his belly. He tightly held the basket of eggs in his right hand with the others draped by their handles over his arm.

Bringing his chin up, Johnny rebutted, “Anyone ever tell ya, you have a big mouth?”

“A few cow smellin’ smart alecks’ have,” snipped Jelly, furiously swatting at some flies with his hand. The clucking noises rose in volume in time to the quarrel the men were having.

“So help me Jelly…”

“So help me what?” snapped the older man with smoke coming out of his ears.

“Humph,” groaned Johnny. I have to make ‘im see it’s not important. My injuries are nothin’. “Listen up,” he gritted. “They have enough goin’ on at the house with Teresa and Scott, They don’t need to worry about me. I can take care of myself.”

“Oh ya can, can ya,” mimicked Jelly, full of piss and vinegar. “We’ll just see how well ya do that by this time tomorrow.” With that, the little man turned and using the one crutch and the rake for support, hopped back into the hen house, where Johnny heard Dewdrop squawk.  

Mumbling under his breath about Jelly not always being right, but he’s never wrong, Johnny angrily limped up to the burn barrel where he was to throw in the broken baskets. The fire was smoldering with black smoke. He looked inside and couldn’t believe his eyes. Scott’s golden paisley shirt was on fire!

Johnny dropped everything, including the eggs and reached in and quickly pulled out the beloved shirt. Not even thinking, he dropped it on the ground and stomped the embers out, then kicked dirt on top of it. Picking it up once more, he examined what was left of Scott’s gun fighting wardrobe. Holes, too many to count and melted buttons. Not knowing what to think, he nevertheless, felt sick inside with a tinge of hurt. Why Scott? Why?

 

—15—

Looking around, Johnny quickly surveyed the area to see if anyone was near the barrel. He saw no one except Jelly, in the distance, hobbling now on both crutches coming towards himself. When the cantankerous little man was even with him, Johnny asked, “Ya seen anyone hangin around here?”

“Nothin’ but a few ornery cows chewin’ on their cud.” Curious, Jelly was about to ask why when he was temporarily blinded by a golden flash from Johnny’s hands. “What in hades…” His question was answered when Johnny turned away from the direction of the sun. “Holy…” Jelly opened his mouth, but no sound came out,

“Well, that’s gotta be a first,” cracked Johnny, not grinning at all. “Ya might want to put your jaw in a sling to keep the flies out.”

“Ya might want ta do the same with yer arm to give it a rest,” came back Jelly, staring at the ruined shirt. “What’s Scott’s shirt doin’ in that there barrel?”

“That’s what I’d like ta know,” snapped Johnny, holding the shirt up for inspection again. To totally convince himself, Johnny heatedly continued, “I know he’d never part with this shirt. It means too much to both of us.”

Jelly knew that to be a sound fact. He and only a few other men, namely the lawmen and Murdoch, knew the true meaning behind the golden paisley material. Brother-connection, partnership, and a symbol they were united in keeping the ranch protected and safe from any and all invaders that dare to cross its boundaries. And I’ve seen a lot of ‘em over the years. Land pirates, raw hiders, Indians, land grabbers, land speculators, settlers, squatters, downright dirty outlaws, gunslingers and any and everything else the west can throw at us.

Scott had picked the brightest shirt possible to let ‘em all know that Johnny wasn’t alone anymore. By doin’ so, Scott had knowingly taken on some of the consequences of his brother’s reputation. It had been a big and bitter battle between the brothers before Johnny, finally, had reluctantly given in. He didn’t want his brother to be connected in any way to the stench of being a fast gun. But Scott had felt honor-bound to holdin’ his own weight in the responsibilities of the ranch.

 So they’d devised a plan when their father had been shot down. Johnny Madrid was still the best at his former trade and he was makin’ damn sure his brother could hold his own and be the best he could be in defending the ranch.

Scott had seen the seamier side of life during the war, at the Libby Prison and a lot of the atrocities which happened after the war. He, too, is just as strong and fearless as his brother. ‘Em Lancer boys get the top dog reward in my book for courage and darin’.

Scott’s biggest argument for the partnership had been that they were better prepared working together as two men rather than one man goin’ it alone. Thus, Johnny, tired of bein’ by himself, let Scott talk him into forming the partnership. And boy, what a partnership it’s turned out to be. I’ve never in all my born days seen two men, blood brothers or not, become any closer in trust and friendship. They truly have each other’s back and then some. I know Murdoch’s more than tickled pink with that part alone.

“Ya want my two cents worth?” asked Jelly, putting one crutch with the other one and bending down to pick up the basket of eggs again. Silently observing the cracked eggs with the yellow yolks seeping out, he counted what was left of the original two dozen before he handed off the dilapidated basket to Johnny.

“Not really,” simmered Johnny, throwing Scott’s ruined shirt over his right shoulder and then snatching the basket from the little man. But, I know I’m gonna hear it anyways.

“Just sayin’. There’s only one man that didn’t like the color.” Jelly rolled his eyes. “Heard ‘im tell Teresa in the kitchen yesterday that it was too garish…whatever that means.”

“Harlan Garrett,” huffed Johnny, turning towards the house. In his fury, he totally forgot about his painful knee as he hotfooted it to the kitchen door.

Bursting through the back door, Johnny would’ve slammed it off its hinges if he hadn’t remembered, in the last second, that Teresa’s bedroom was located a short distance from the kitchen. As it was, he shut the door with a resounding crack. Then, in his haste to confront Harlan, he tripped over a dirty clothes basket he hadn’t seen sitting by the entrance and did a little dance to keep from dropping the eggs again and falling on his face.

“Shucks!” he swore, as he came down hard on his sore leg, barely keeping his voice down to a dull roar. Hopping on his right foot a couple of feet, he maneuvered his way to the counter by the stove and roughly set what was left of the eggs on the surface by the stove.

“Who in their cotton pickin’ mind left a basket there where someone can break their neck?” he nosily mumbled, rubbing his knee. Belatedly, he recognized the family’s clothes with Scott’s work coat lying on top of the pile. Is that where the old goat got a hold of Scott’s shirt? They must’ve changed after the fire and someone must’ve brought it down for the washer-woman.  

Completely out of sorts, Johnny didn’t know if he wanted to bite Harlan’s head off first or visit Teresa and Scott. He did neither. Instead, he took his hat off and dropped it on the kitchen table along with his coat. Then, he poured himself a cup of strong, black coffee from the hot, gray pot sitting on top of the stove. Settling into Murdoch’s chair at the head of the table, he sipped the brew. Teresa’s probably sleeping and I need to calm down before seeing Scott. If I run into his grandfather, I don’t think I can be held responsible for what I’d like to do. He nastily grinned at the thought.

Chomping at the bit, Johnny really wanted to go up and see how his brother was doing. The coffee settled like a rock in the pit of his empty stomach. In his nervousness, he played with the salt shaker on the table trying to come to terms with his brother’s injury. Scared. Murdoch, Sam and Tim have been up there a long time now. I need to face the music and see what’s goin’ on. He absently pushed the shaker back and forth between his hands over and over until it slipped out of his fingers and fell over, spilling some granules on the table.

Ah oh, great. A story instantly popped into his mind that he’d been told, as a small child a life time ago at the mission, when he and his mama used to attend services. Judas Iscariot spilled the salt-cellar at the last supper and look what happened to all of them.

Not particularly religious or superstitious, but feeling like he and his family didn’t need any more bad luck, he tossed a pinch of salt over his left shoulder. “Hope it blinds whatever devil is makin’ merry in my home.” And because he felt nothing was going right at this time in his world, he added, “Come after any of us again, I’ll shoot ya first and then spit in yer eye.”

Scott’s gonna be all right, he just hasta be. Needing some comfort, he fingered Scott’s burnt shirt that was still slung over his shoulder. Inhaling the burnt residue of smoke, Johnny sneezed hard causing a small piece of paper to blow over the edge of the table. He lunged and snatched it in midair before it could fall onto the floor. Noticing two words printed on the little scrap, Johnny read the short note.

Thank Madrid.

Harlan Garrett, carrying his robe and slippers, opened the door and kicked the basket of clothes aside. By the look of his damp hair and the smell of the spicy cologne, he’d just come from the bathhouse.

Seeing what Johnny was reading, (for he’d been sneaking a snack when an unconscious Teresa had been brought in by her husband,) he snidely commented with hidden delight, “Poor girl, that note was found clenched in her hand.”

Engrossed by the small phrase and thinking furiously about its implications, Johnny felt like he’d been lanced in the heart. Unable to get the words past his clogged throat, he lifted a brow.

Harlan, covering his glee, rubbed the salt in the wound further and said conspiringly, “You know all of them were told the same thing before misfortune struck.”

“All of them?” croaked Johnny, bewildered. Scott didn’t tell me this part of the story. Is that why he’d been so quiet on the way home from town a couple of weeks ago? His black eye had involved me somehow? Knowing him, he didn’t know how to figure it. Probably thought I’d go back to town and wring someone’s neck or shoot ‘im at best. And I probably would’ve had I known. He must’ve left it out to explain his reasoning to me at a better time and I can only imagine why.

“Why, yes,” smoothly empathized the older man. “It was a warning to stay away...from you.”

Johnny’s heart skipped a beat. Feeling hurt and bruised in more ways than one, the words burst from his lips, “That why Murdoch sent me north?” To be alone? Outta his hair? NO! Those days are over. We’d promised each other to never keep things hidden, no matter what.

“Of course it was my boy. He had to keep his family safe, didn’t he?” Harlan missed the violent glitter in Johnny’s eyes and twisted the burr in deeper. “After all, anything related to Johnny Madrid is your fault.”

Johnny took exception to the comment and snarled, “I ain’t yer boy and neither is Scott!”

“No?” questioned Harlan, enjoying Johnny’s discomfort to no end. He pointed to the golden shirt on his shoulder. “He’s done with you.”

“NO!” refuted Johnny. “Scott said you’d try and get yer claws into me…” and not to trust ya any further than I can throw ya.

“Did he now?” asked Harlan, his voice doubtful. “Then why did you find his shirt, your unbreakable brother-union symbol, in the burn barrel?”

His voice sent chills down Johnny’s spine, creating doubts where there should not have been any. He shrugged off the bad feelings and stood up to his full height. With intimidating cold eyes, he met the old man’s heartless stare. How did Scott ever come out here without losing the skin off his back? No wonder he joined the army so young. Refusing to back down from the old goat, Johnny continued relentlessly glaring at Scott’s grandfather. “Because you threw it in there,” was his quiet answer to the older man.

“Only because Scott ordered me too,” came the hateful reply.

“No, you’re lying,” ardently stated Johnny, not changing his soft tone. “He’s unconscious.”

“Is he?” asked Harlan, with a sneer on his lips. 

Johnny, not falling for his tricks this time, said, “Yes and I’ll just go upstairs and prove it.” He was half way up the stairs when Harlan indifferently called, “Ask him why they didn’t tell you about the warning of, ‘Thank Madrid.’” He cruelly smiled and expounded, “Ask him why they didn’t send for you sooner.”

Johnny ignored him never missing a step though his knee was on fire. He pulled on the handrail with his good hand to keep his momentum moving as he angrily climbed the stairs. I know he’s lying. But why are his words gnawing at me so? I know there’s always a shred of truth in every lie. Why did they send me away? Come on I’m an ex-gunfighter. I can take the barbs of one old man. Calm down Madrid. Get the facts before ya fly off the handle. Hasn’t time taught ya that? There’s a reason, ya just don’t know it yet. The burning questions will get answered. Patience man.

 

—16—

There was a light knock and Murdoch didn’t have to envision who it was before he unlocked the door and opened it. Rigidly, his youngest son stood there looking skeptically at the key in Murdoch’s hand.

Out of breath with a worried look on his face, Johnny murmured, “No one bothers to knock or use a key in this house. Is he that bad?” Or am I bein’ shut out again? Being forced to look from the outside in? Ticked at his own negative thoughts, he hesitantly moved into the room, by-passing a small table with a metal bowl full of bloody rags. In a china bowl, dirty instruments were soaking in red tinged water. Smelling fumes of rubbing alcohol and whiskey within the room, he wished he could have a hit from the bottle. Liquid courage. Yup, wouldn’t mind a shot of that.

Murdoch tossed the key on the table and thankfully said, “No, he’s resting comfortably. I just needed to prove I’m still king of my own castle.”

“Harlan?” asked Johnny, not waiting for an answer, as he moved towards the bed.

Three men chuckled in varying degrees of tones with Tim baldly stating, “Had to man wrestle him right outta here.”

Doc Jenkins was sitting beside his patient, tying off a strip of bandage around Scott’s head. Tim was on the other side of the bed, patiently watching and holding a pair of scissors along with a small spool of white sheeted material in his large hands.

Scott had his eyes closed and looked paler than the cloth wrapped around his wound. His shoulders were bare under the covers. Restless, Johnny fingered Scott’s soot stained and tattered shirt, hanging over his own shoulder. He wasn’t sure what he was gonna do with it, but for the time being, it wasn’t going anywhere. Besides, it’s really Scott’s decision to make and no one else is doin’ it, especially that old man.

Getting a strong whiff of smoke from the shirt, Sam loudly sniffed and made a suffering face at Johnny as he reached into his medical bag. Pulling out a small brown bottle marked Morphine and a glass syringe, he remarked, “Appears you’ve run into some trouble too. You alright son?”

Moving his arm away from his ribs, Johnny gestured and said, “I’m fine. How’s Scott?” He brought his sore arm back against his chest and crossed it with the other one in front of him, thereby discreetly giving support to his injured shoulder.

Doc set the bottle down on the nightstand and picked up a thin, scrap of wood which ended in a sharp point, then handed it to Johnny.

“This chunk of rock is what I pulled out of your brother’s head,” said Sam, waiting for his friend’s reaction.

“Ya sure? It looks small,” said Johnny, inspecting it. Suspecting he was gonna be the butt of their jokes for some time to come, he continued, “I could’ve sworn it was twice this size.”

“Nope,” frankly said Sam, “Just a nasty puncture wound.” He uncorked the bottle and dipped the needle first into the open bottle of rubbing alcohol, then the Morphine.  Pulling back the plunger from within the barrel to the correct dose, he withdrew the needle and explained, “This little piece of wood was nestled tight against an artery. It was a good thing you didn’t pull it out.” Lifting the needle, he tapped the sleeve dissolving the bubbles in the clear liquid before pushing the plunger forward to eliminate any air in the syringe.

Johnny’s knees went weak and he quickly sat down on the edge of a chair beside the bed. “I didn’t exactly know what to do and...and I almost did it.”

“Well I’m glad you didn’t. There was a lot of blood when we extracted it and we had to apply heavy pressure to stop the bleeding. In Scott’s case, this mighta been a good thing.”

“How’s that?” asked Johnny, lifting a shaky hand to wipe his suddenly moist forehead.

Sam pulled back the covers, exposing a bare hip, where he proceeded to give Scott an injection of medicine while stating, “He’d been having bad headaches nearly every day.” He smiled and said, “Course, some of it I think was attributed to the tension with his grandfather.”

Murdoch inhaled a deep breath and gasped, “I knew it.”

Johnny’s expression grew mutinous.

Tim folded his arms and switched his weight from one foot to the other.

Covering Scott back up with the blanket, Sam missed all of their varying expressions and went on with, “I got a good look at his arteries by his eye when I pulled the wood out. To my relief I didn’t see any excess blood that can exert pressure on the brain and create pain. In other words, there’s no concussion or bleeding from the brain. If anything, the puncture wound might’ve relieved the pressure if there was anything building up. Medicine just isn’t advanced enough to tell us these things.”

Needless to say, three men widely smiled at each other.

“That mean he’s gonna be okay?” asked Johnny, needing clarification and assurance.

“Yes,” assured Sam, carefully examining Johnny with intense knowing eyes. “He’s going to sleep the rest of the day away and should wake up good as new. Now, as for you…”

“Oh no, I’m good to go,” hurriedly stated Johnny, practically jumping to his feet and putting his weight on his right foot. Unbuttoning a toggle from his shirt, he reached inside and pulled out the telegram for Val and handed it to the ex-ranger.

Knowing he could get away with it, where Murdoch couldn’t without a major row, Doc scolded and probed, “When’s the last time you’ve slept, Johnny?”

Looking straight into the doctor’s caring eyes, Johnny calmly replied, “I’ve slept.” Some. Back before Scott became a chatterbox on the way home and got sick. Not only that, but I laid there pert near all day…resting…until Scott woke up.

“Johnny, ya look beat,” flatly stated Sam, taking Scott’s pulse.

Murdoch stepped in and added, “Son, ya need a bath and some rest.”

“What fer?” he griped, “I’m just gonna get dirty all over again helping the men. One of us has to be out there workin’ with ‘em.”

“Well that might be true enough and I’ll be out there in short order,” settled Murdoch, beginning to lose his temper.”

“I beg to differ,” firmly stated Johnny, notching his voice up a bit. “Seems to me you have priorities in this house involving Teresa, Scott and…and Garrett.” Geez, was it only a few minutes ago I was peeved because I was looking in from the outside? Be careful what ya wish for Madrid.

“Enough!” ordered Murdoch, in a voice louder than he intended, making all the men, including Scott, who had been asleep, jump.

Shaking his finger at his son as fathers are wont to do, Murdoch commanded, “NOW, you’re gonna do as I say. You’re going to take off those grubby clothes and get in that tub that is already prepared for you in your room. Cherice is waiting for your clothes so she can wash them with all the rest of our stuff at the same time.”

Johnny didn’t agree or disagree. He just stood there with fire in his eyes. I ain’t gonna do it. I got things to do.

Noticing for the first time, the golden shirt on Johnny’s shoulder, Murdoch swiftly asked, “And what are you doing with Scott’s shirt? I know I put that in the basket.”

Johnny hastily held up the shirt, so all of them could see the damage done to it, and spouted, “I found it in the burn barrel.”

“Who would put it in there?” asked Murdoch, baffled and lowering his voice a little. He knew how much that shirt meant to both of his boys.

“Harlan Garrett,” snapped Johnny, angry all over again. “He told me Scott ordered him to do it.”

“That’s impossible!” vociferously whispered Murdoch, throwing his right hand towards the bed. “Scott’s been unconscious since he was brought up here!”

“I wish I was unconscious. You two are making my head hurt,” a much loved voice weakly complained from the direction Murdoch had just pointed.

“Scott!” His name echoed around the room.

Hushing everyone, the good doctor asked, “How ya feeling son?”

“Tired,” came the answer. Scott’s eyes fluttered open for a moment and a slight smile graced his lips before he went back to sleep.

“Don’t worry, he’s sleepy from the shot I just gave him,” said Jenkins. He put his stethoscope into his ears, which had been draped around his neck, and listened to his patient’s heart rate and respirations. “Good, clear breath sounds and normal heart rhythm,” pronounced Sam with a satisfied grin.

The other three released their pent up breaths.

“I want him to sleep in peace and quiet for the rest of the day.”  Sam quietly gestured to Murdoch and Johnny, “You two can carry on your fuss in Johnny’s room where he’s going to do what his father said.”

Over my dead body was Johnny’s rebellious thoughts. I’m gonna find a way to look for Snake.

The older three men gave him the evil eye as if they could read his thoughts and doc said, “Tim, you too, can join them.”

Insulted, Tim almost boomed, then very lightly objected, “What did I say?”

In his strictest no nonsense professional voice, Sam replied, “It’s not anything you said. It’s what you’re directly gonna say about that telegram you’ve been perusing. Don’t forget I can read people like a book.”

“That so?” teased the ex-medic. “I swear ya wouldn’t be much of a sawbones if ya couldn’t.” He took a last gander at Scott and said to Sam, “I’ll look in on Teresa and my brother in a few minutes. Holler if ya need me.”

Sam nodded affirmatively and sank down in the wing chair by Scott’s bed, as the giant ushered both Lancer men out the door. Leaning his head on the back of the chair, he thought it was going to be a long next few days. Johnny looks bushed and I know he’s hiding something. Stubborn to the core just like his old man. Murdoch’s obviously worried and I can see it in Tim’s eyes too. He let out a big sigh and lifted his feet to rest on Scott’s bed. You can lead a horse to water, but ya can’t make him drink. Well, time will tell.

 

—17—

After entering Johnny’s spacious and quite tidy room, the two older men sat down at the small table by the window. Murdoch poured a shot of tequila in each of the two glasses from a half full bottle sitting on a tray.

“Make yourself right at home,” smirked Johnny, grabbing the bottle and taking a swig himself. He then put the bottle down between the men and pulled out the official envelope addressed to Scott from within his shirt.

“What do you have there?” curiously asked Murdoch before swallowing his drink whole.

“Something for Scott,” coolly said Johnny, opening a drawer to his dresser and shutting it again. Not there, too easy to be found.

“Why didn’t you leave it in his room?” quizzed Murdoch, pouring another drink.

“Because I don’t want Harlan to see it and open it,” answered Johnny, looking intently around his room. Hide it in plain sight. “That old man’s nosier than Jelly.”

“Don’t trust the old goat much do ya?” asked Tim, putting the telegram aside and then tossing back his drink. He reached for the bottle again.

Johnny chuckled, glad the ranger saw things the way he did. “Nope. I wouldn’t put it past him to even snoop in my room,” agreed Johnny, looking behind his headboard. Extra gun’s still hidden in my hidey-hole.

“You trust us son?” asked Tim, watching the ex-gun hawk walk around his room, doing his best to hide the limp. He nudged Murdoch in the arm, when Johnny hesitated at the water filled tub, casting it a longing look despite his earlier protests. He grinned when Johnny stuffed the golden shirt under his pillow for safe keeping.

“With my life. Ya both know that,” distractedly replied Johnny, lifting up the white horse on his credenza and carefully with his left hand, sliding the mysterious envelope under the statue. When he wakes up he can have it.

Satisfied with his choice, he asked, “What’s in the telegram?” Johnny grabbed the bottle from the table and sat down in a rocker he had acquired after visiting the kid. He took a long pull and finished the rest of the tequila.

“Just a list of names Val’s been waitin’ for,” quipped the giant, picking up the telegram again. “Val said to read it when I got it.”

“Such as?” asked Johnny, yawning. He shook his head to get rid of the tiredness he felt. He set the empty tequila bottle on the floor next to his chair.

“Hmm,” sighed the big guy. “Let’s see, there’s Snake Cutter and what’s left of his gang. Then there’s a few from Josiah Abbott’s old cow rustlers.”

Rubbing his eyes with the fingers from his right hand, Johnny asked, “How many?”

“Three.”

“Well, that leaves two, then. Scott killed one of ‘em when we got bushwhacked. Oh by the way, that gun hawk, dressed all in gray, turned out to be a bounty hunter. He turned the bodies over to the sheriff in Spanish Wells,” informed Johnny.

“Well, if that don’t beat all,” remarked the giant, casting a grin at Murdoch, who was intently watching his son struggle not to fall asleep.

“Who else?” questioned Johnny, moving the rocker back and forth. Should’ve never had that drink. I’m all played out.

“Here’s a familiar one,” chuckled the ex-ranger. “Remember Davy Stryker?”

“Yeah. What about him?” Johnny blinked his eyes a couple of times and stopped rocking, belatedly realizing it was making him more tired. “I shot him and his brother. Eli died by my hand. That’d be one reason for ‘em to go up against us.”

“His pa died in prison,” bluntly stated Tim.

“Sam Stryker?” asked Murdoch, flabbergasted. “I hadn’t heard that.”

“Couldn’ve happened to a nicer man,” sarcastically said Johnny. He remembered all too clearly it was on Sam’s orders that Davy shot Scott all those years ago. He yawned again and found himself struggling to keep his eyes open. His vision was starting to swim. This reminds me of that time after the cattle drive when I got drugged by that barkeep. Drugged? He narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Tim and his father.

“Here’s another name you should recognize, Billy Joe.”

“The ex-deputy of Judd Haney?” asked Murdoch. “He’s the one that tried to kill Johnny.”

“Yeah,” confirmed Johnny, standing up and rubbing his temple. “I…I plugged him…too.” From a distance Johnny heard his father ask, “Son? You all right?”

There’s something familiar about all of this.  He recalled the time his father and Tim had put the soothing powder in his water for the ride to Doc Banning’s office from the Genesis mine. He’d been exhausted and severely hurt after making the run for his and Murdoch’s lives.

“Mur…Murdoch, ya dddidn’t?” stammered Johnny, as his good knee gave out. He felt himself falling, then being swept up into his father’s arms and placed on the bed. A big hand splayed through his thick hair and he felt a kiss on his forehead. Not understanding any of it, he mumbled, “Why?” He was asleep before he heard Murdoch’s humble heartfelt answer.

“Because I love you son.”

******

When Johnny came around he was startled at the dimness in his room. Only a kerosene lamp was lit on his nightstand. He tried to sit up only to be hindered by his left shoulder and arm, which was wrapped tight against his bare chest. What the heck?

“Easy brother,” cautioned Scott, sitting in a chair beside his bed. “Did you sleep well?”

“You know I always sleep…Scott!” exclaimed Johnny, his eyes losing the last visages of sleep.

“In the flesh,” grinned his brother, holding an ever present book.

“Yer supposed to be sleepin’,” faulted Johnny, drinking in Scott’s rested face. He sure looks a sight better than he did a few hours ago even with a bandage wrapped around his head. Why’s he in his robe and slippers? Is it that late? I see he swiped my book, Tom Sawyer, off my night stand. “How long ya been up?”

“Maybe a couple hours. I’ve been downstairs explaining to Murdoch and our extended family everything that had happened to us.”

“Everything?” question Johnny, honing in on the single word with a tumbling feeling in the pit of his belly.

“Yes, we needed to let them know where we stand in the mix of things.”

“Who’s all down there?”

“Besides Murdoch, Jelly, who’s cooking up a storm, Grandfather, Doc Jenkins, Tim and Matt. Teresa was up for a little while. She’s weepy, but coming around.”

“Oh,” moaned Johnny. The cat’s outta the bag now. I’m afraid to ask ‘im how Murdoch took the loss of the horses and buckboard. I’m probably crowbait now.

“If I sleep any more I’ll be older than Rip Van Winkle,” drolly replied Scott, stretching and suppressing the urge to yawn. He set Johnny’s only novel on top of his brother’s baby book, lying on the nightstand.

“Rip who?” asked Johnny, confounded and irritated, trying to push the covers off his shoulders and sit up again in the bed.

Rip Van Winkle is a character from a story Washington Carver wrote about a man who slept twenty years,” informed Scott, watching his brother do battle with the bedcovers in order to be free of them. “Then, when he woke up everything was different in his life.”

“Pftt, I can relate to some of that right now,” grouched Johnny, reaching for the bandages. “Dang it! They got me wrapped up tighter than a swaddled baby. This has got to go!”

Scott reached over and gain-stayed his movement. “Here, let me help you sit up so I can put your pillow behind your back.”

Johnny stopped fighting the now twisted blankets and let his brother help move him into an upright position.

Next, Scott moved the pillow against the headboard and noticed the golden-paisley material which had been tucked under it.

“What’s my shirt doing here?” asked Scott, nonplussed, holding up the shiny cloth. He inadvertently inhaled a strong odor of smoke and, with a sinking heart, saw the damage done to it from the fire. “What the hell happened to it?” he loudly cursed.

Johnny witnessed Scott’s stricken expression and was secretly satisfied that it was Harlan’s doings and not his brother’s. Whew! Sad, but true. The shirt means as much to him as it does me. Nice try Harlan, but it’s gonna take more than a ruined shirt to break the bond we share.

Johnny replied indignantly, “Yer grandfather didn’t, ah, like the color. Scuttlebutt was he said it looked gar…shit or somethin’ like that.” Can’t remember the exact way Jelly described it.

“You mean garish as in gaudy?” tightly asked Scott, already thinking what he was going to say to his grandfather in a few minutes. I just know this is his handy work and I’m going to set him on his ears.

“Yeah. That’s it,” replied Johnny, with a cheeky smile. “Oh, there’s an important envelope from the pinks under my white horse.”

“Why’s it under there?” touchily asked Scott, getting up and walking over to the credenza. Scott held up his hand, “Wait. Don’t tell me. Let me presume. Grandfather?”

Johnny nodded yes and inhaled a deep breath while clutching at the quilt to keep his fingers still. Wearing an unreadable expression on his face, he was barely able to hide his anxiety that the contents of the envelope might be about him. Though, he couldn’t for the life of him come up with a reason why his brother would’ve had the pinks investigate him.

Old memories and fears die hard. What did the pinks come up with this time? Hadn’t Murdoch’s earlier reports covered most of my wretched past life? Did they find something else that I did that was really bad? Something I’ve wanted left in the past to be forgotten and to never, ever be brought to light again.

Maybe I should’ve tossed the envelope in the burn barrel when I’d had the chance. No one would’ve ever known about it, but that’s the chicken’s way out. Besides, there’s a slight chance that it might not be about me. Fat chance, the pinks only bring bad news and if I had tossed it…well, we’d never know what it said.

He couldn’t believe how torn up he was about it and now that Scott was about to open it and reveal the contents, he couldn’t stop his anguished, runaway thoughts. Harlan Garret’s words came back and taunted him, “They’re done with you.”

Is it something so bad that my family couldn’t ask me about it and instead requested more information? Is that the real reason they sent me to the North Mesa? So they didn’t have to deal with me before they had all their answers.

It must have something to do with the ‘Thank Madrid’ warnings. Is that why they drugged me and left me here in my bed? Will the door be locked when I try it? Murdoch did have a key in his hand.  This way, I’m outta the way and not causing a ruckus until they know different. I did start home without Murdoch’s royal command and caught ‘em all unawares, like the raid had done.

 If it’s really something horrible from my past and, only God knows there are many things I’ve done that I’m not proud of, will they turn against me for the sake of the family? Will they, this time, give me those proverbial keys and tell me to hit the road? Even after all this time spent as a family? Has it all really been just a lie? Will the bubble I’ve lived in all this time finally bust? When did I start believing in ‘em all? How did I forget the disappointment that always follows time and time again when I put my trust in people?

Scott pulled the envelope out from under the horse and opened it. “You did well, brother mine to hide this,” complimented Scott, pulling out a single sheet of paper. “The fur is going to fly in the house tonight after supper.”

“Did well?” repeated Johnny, almost struck dumb. He wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or not. “It’s not about me?” he rasped, in his nervousness.

“Why would it be about you?” asked Scott, coming back and sitting down in the chair beside Johnny’s bed. He quickly scanned the sheet, refolded it and slid it back in the envelope with a thoughtful expression on his face.

Not looking at his brother, Johnny kept his eyes downcast and picked at the quilt on his bed. Softly, he said, “Well with…the thank Madrid thing and all…”

Distracted, but noticing his brother’s dejected air, Scott asked, “All what?” He couldn’t have really thought this was about him.

Johnny shrugged his shoulder, remembering in the last second not to move his injured one, and continued, “You know, being sent to the North Mesa and…” With his heart hammering in his chest so hard that he could actually hear it in his ears, Johnny, in trepidation, asked what was most on his mind, “Did…did my past catch up with me again?”

Scott could plainly see his brother was troubled. “Not your past little brother, but mine.” Scott witnessed Johnny’s eyes getting a little bigger. “Floored brother? For once it isn’t about you.”

Smiling, for he couldn’t help himself, Johnny commiserated, “Scott, trouble usually follows me everywhere. I don’t know what to say.”

“Say nothing, brother. This business is over twenty-five years old. Correction, well actually, it’s now thirty-one, being its now the fall of 1876. I’m afraid there are a few men downstairs in for a rude awakening.” Scott could see he had Johnny’s rapt interest. “As to the Madrid thing. Well…truth to tell?”

Johnny nodded affirmatively, though he was edgy about the telling part and not sure any more if he really wanted to know, except given the fact that his family was under attack.

“When I first was sucker-punched, I couldn’t believe my ears about the, thank Madrid, part. I was angry and…embarrassed.” Scott looked directly into his brothers eyes, “I mean I can take care of myself. For heaven’s sake, I was in the cavalry. You don’t have to hold my hand…and the lessons and advice you’ve given me have been invaluable. For which, I do thank you.”

Johnny, pleased, continued to silently listen.

“The truth is I didn’t tell you when it happened a couple of weeks ago, because I didn’t want you to go off half-cocked and beat someone up. And then, it was late and I didn’t want to spend the night in jail because I’d have to back you up. After all, my honor was at stake…” Scott stopped talking, because Johnny was rolling on the bed laughing.

“What’s so dang funny?” asked Scott, his own temper on the rise.

“You are. Did ya really think I’d just beat the stuffin’ outta some poor soul who dared punch my brother?”

“In this case I did, with the Madrid thing and all,” mocked Scott, putting the envelope in his robe pocket.

“Damn right I would’ve,” granted Johnny, chuckling again. “And for yer information brother, when I do find out, I’m gonna make them sorry.”

Scott grew serious, “The plain fact was Johnny I wanted to handle it on my own. I can’t have my brother, gunfighter or not, fighting my battles for me. I was trying to figure out how to explain it to you when Murdoch blew up about the prank with the clock and sent you packing to the north.”

“Don’t remind me,” joshed Johnny, picking at his quilt again. “You’ll never believe how lonely I was after the first few days up there.”

“Ah, so my little birdy friend was right,” grinned Scott.

“Yeah, he was,” smiled Johnny, the hurt a shadow in his eyes.

“Well, I was going to let it all blow over and come up and be with you, but things got out of hand here rather quickly.”

Johnny’s head snapped back up. “What things?”

“Well, Grandfather for one. It turned out he arrived a day earlier than was expected and had to pass the time playing cards with the locals in Cold River.”

“Bet he just loved that,” snickered Johnny, picking at his bandages that held his bruised shoulder in place. Cold River. I wouldn’t want to be caught dead there. “Why didn’t he just take the train to Cross Creek or the stage to Spanish Wells or Morro Coyo?”

“Good question little brother. He telegraphed me that there was no stage running until the next day. Remember the day in question was Sunday. And he never has given me a reason why he got off the train in Cold River instead of Cross Creek.”

“Then, the time change wouldn’t have made any difference…only to Murdoch and maybe the ranch. You weren’t even late I bet.”

Scott chuckled. “No indeed. I met Grandfather in Morro Coyo right on schedule. But the problem’s been, he’s demanded most of my time even when I’m working. You don’t know how many times I almost headed north just to get away from him, but I couldn’t bring myself to foist him off on Murdoch.”

“Scott, Murdoch can take care of himself.” Johnny snickered again, picturing the two older men in a boxing ring, but instead of gloves, they used words. “Okay, that’s one thing. What about the others?”

 Feeling guilty for his part in leaving Johnny out of the loop, Scott repeated the story behind all the happenings on the ranch and to their family, including how they each got the dreaded, Thank Madrid before each incident.

Johnny exclaimed, “Scott, that’s a callin’ card to a dance, as if I ever got one.”

Scott scowled and came back with, “At least, we don’t have to worry about it being the Gray Ghost, though I tell you, Johnny, someone is imitating him. You’re sure he’s just a myth?”

“Dead sure,” chuckled Johnny. Hard put not to laugh, he demanded, “Ya gotta swear on yer word, you’ll not repeat this.”

“Go on,” answered Scott, more than interested in what his brother was going to tell him. “I swear and I hope curiosity doesn’t kill the cat.” Johnny’s eyes are full of mischief.

Conspiringly, Johnny lowered his voice so as not to be overheard, “Val and I made the story up one night around the campfire when we were sittin’ with a gang of green as grass, young guns.”

“You don’t say,” said Scott, not really surprised at all. “And?”

“And,” smiled Johnny, “I was savin’ it for when we take Cal fishin’. Don’t ya think that’d make a great ghost story?”

“Yeah, it would,” approved Scott. “But, how did Jelly get wind of it?”

Johnny brought his legs over the side of the bed and was glad his knee didn’t hurt so much anymore. Keeping the sheet over his lower half, he said, “It must’ve made the rounds. It’s been years since that night.”

“Funny how that works,” said Scott, thinking about the information he was going to impart to a few choice men in a little while.

Unable to let it go and for his own peace of mind, Johnny asked, “So tell me Scott even though you all knew it involved me with the Madrid thing, why’d you wait so long to come and get me?”

Not wanting to pass the buck, but not wanting to lie either, Scott simply said, “You’ll have to ask Murdoch why he wouldn’t let me come after you.”

The brothers became quiet then. Johnny mulled over all that he’d learned while Scott reread the contents of the secretive envelope.

Johnny’s stomach growled long and loud.

“Ah, Scott? Ya ain’t hungry by any chance because I’m suddenly starved.”

“Yes, little brother I am,” replied Scott, with sparks dancing in his blue eyes. “I think it’s time we march downstairs and have supper. I do believe I smell eggs frying with a side of sow belly.”

“Bacon and eggs?” asked Johnny, losing a bit of his appetite.

“That’s what Jelly said we were having. I think he mentioned flapjacks too when I came up here to wake you up.”

“Oh,” moaned Johnny, sliding out of bed, frowning and looking around, “Ya see my pants anywhere?” I must’ve slept like the dead. I don’t see my clothes anywhere and I feel clean. The tub of water is even gone. Pftt, scary how drugs can do that to a person, even mild ones. And I don’t want to even think about booze…

“I saw them on the clothes line drying when I was downstairs.” Scott moved over to the dresser and opened a drawer, closed it and opened another until he found what he was looking for. Pulling out the bottom half of a pair of pajamas, he handed them to his naked brother. “Here, this will be better suited for tonight. We’re eating informally in the kitchen. Where’s your robe?”

“Don’t know, haven’t seen it in ages. Ya know I always run to the water closet just as I am?” grinned Johnny, having trouble getting his legs into the pants with his arm bound against his chest. “Bloody hell! This one arm stuff is hard.” Finally, after a couple of attempts and misses, he got his leg in one side of the bottoms and then was able to get the other leg in and pull them up haphazardly. “Doc say what’s wrong with my shoulder?”

“As a matter of fact he did,” responded Scott, locating the elusive robe in the bottom drawer of the bureau. “You have a chipped tendon. And your arm’s black and blue from your shoulder down to your elbow.”

“Ah what?” asked Johnny, baffled. “Never heard of that.”

“It’s a flexible cord of tissue that attaches your muscle to the bone. The tendon or sinew moves the bone.”

“How’d doc come up with that?” asked Johnny, shaking his head at the wonders of modern medicine and putting his good arm through the sleeve of his robe Scott was holding for him.

“It’s what he figured out when he examined you. I assume, probably by the bruising pattern on your arm.” Scott draped the bathrobe around Johnny’s other shoulder and said, “This will have to do you. There’s no way I’m going to undo those bandages. I value my head too much.” He tied the sash into a knot at his brother’s waist to hold it.

“Humph,” grumped Johnny, sliding into his never used slippers Scott had found under the robe. “This seems like a lot of trouble just to go down and eat.”

“Well, we’ll be down there a little longer than that. I have an overdue revelation to share with my grandfather.” Scott opened the door and ushered his brother out into the hall.

“Humph,” groaned Johnny again, thinking about the spiked tequila. “I have a few words to share with Murdoch too.”

Scott turned to shut the door and instead, went back inside. Johnny watched as his brother tucked his ruined shirt back under Johnny’s pillow and then came back out into the hall.

“That for safe-keepin’?”

Scott wrapped his arm around Johnny’s good shoulder and squeezed his neck with his hand. “No better place than beside a gun hawk’s pistol.”

“Ex-gun hawk,” reminded Johnny with a grin.

 

—18—

If Murdoch noticed his sons were unusually quiet, he gave no indication. Scott’s eating like a bird and Johnny’s eating like there’s no tomorrow. Reminds me so much of when they’d first come home. Their unusual silence tells me something’s eating at them. With those two around, there’s never a dull moment. What’s up now? Harlan’s chattering like a magpie and Scott’s ignoring him for the most part. Looks like Harlan isn’t too happy with the cuisine. Well, Jelly did his best. If Harlan would’ve stayed out of the kitchen, it would’ve gone much smoother. Too many cooks do spoil the broth. Tim and Sam both look like they’d rather be anyplace, but here. Jelly’s the only smart one. He took his food to his own quarters with the help of Maria, who decided to go home for some badly needed rest.

Scott noticed his Grandfather picking at his food. “Eat up Grandfather. We don’t waste food out here like we do back east.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” staidly asked the older man.

“It means we respect the land and make everything we use and eat count. There’s no gluttony or surplus,” simmered Scott. The envelope was burning a hole in his pocket. The more he thought about the contents the more upset he became, which affected his dwindling appetite. He could hardly wait to confront his Grandfather with what he’d found out.

Not understanding that statement at all, Harlan gave his grandson a quelling look, which Scott noticeably ignored. “Well, I never,” grumbled the easterner.

Johnny snickered under his breath, not looking up from his plate. Real cozy supper we got goin’ here. I wish I’d eaten with Jelly.

Sam waded into the tension by saying to Tim, “You and Matt gonna head over to your place to look in on the animals?”

“Yeah, soon as he and Teresa get done eating their supper.” Both had chosen to stay in their room.

Johnny helped himself to some more hash browns and burnt fried eggs. He didn’t care how the food tasted. I’ve had much worse.

Murdoch got up and poured himself some coffee, then took the pot around the table. Everyone but Harlan refilled their cup.

“Teresa’s gonna be fine. Luckily, if you can call it that, she was only three months along. She’s young and strong.” Sam sipped his coffee and after setting the cup on its saucer, he informed them, “I’ll check on her after dinner when Matt leaves with Tim. If I’m not needed further, then I’m going back home.”

The men nodded and Murdoch thanked him for his time and effort. “Don’t know where we’d be without you Sam.”

“Humph! In the doghouse with this big one,” kidded the doctor. A round of polite chuckles was heard. Sam stared across the space at Johnny, sitting to the right of his father at the head of the table. The dark-haired, young man brought his hand to his chest still holding his fork.

“What?”

Sam bristled a bit on purpose, “Johnny, you have any questions for me?”

“Nope,” came the answer before he took another bite of pancake. Feeling like a mummy partially wrapped up in bandages, Johnny’s eyes’ held a promise of what he was gonna do with them when the doctor left.

Sam harassed, but loving it, complained, “Look young man. I know exactly what yer gonna do. So do me a big favor and at least wait until morning.”

Giving an innocent smile, Johnny lightly said, “Only till morning doc.”

Sam had to give one more piece of advice in order to clear his conscience that he’d done all he could for the stubborn man. “Just keep that shoulder still as much as possible. Support it with a bandana at least. I know you already figured out you can freely move your arm and hand without pain. Just don’t overdo it or you’ll be flat on your back again.”

Overly touchy about the last comment, Johnny’s eyebrows arched closer together and his eyes became more intense as he sarcastically remarked, “What? You’ll all drug me again?”

Johnny hoped he’d made his point that he wasn’t happy with the outcome.

Sam forcefully said, “For your information no one drugged you with anything.”

“No? I recall differently.”

“When’s the last time you ate?” asked the doctor, who also noticed the large amount of food Johnny was putting away.

“Two days ago.”

“And before that?”

“When I was hungry.” Johnny dropped his fork and stared at his plate.

Sam continued to drill him, “When’s the last time you really slept?”

“Hmm, I reckon today,” came the flippant reply.

“Johnny!” admonished Murdoch, embarrassed. “Answer the question.”

Johnny, heated now, reluctantly gave in, “A couple nights ago.”

The doctor concluded, “So, no sleep for two nights which accounts for how exhausted you looked when you and Scott arrived home.”

Johnny was going to say something, but Sam cut him off. “No food in your belly for two days and if I miss my guess, you haven’t been eating right to begin with.”

Again Johnny started to defend himself, “Doc…” but Sam wanted to finish his medical opinion. “Now listen, you had more than two shots of tequila on an empty stomach, combined with no sleep. You were all balled up and worried about Scott’s condition. On top of that, you had injuries you weren’t sharing with any of us. Son, I don’t want to offend your manly pride, but you were completely dragged out when you got home. I’m afraid the alcohol went straight to your head and you simply passed out.”

Feeling an unaccustomed heat suffuse his body, Johnny couldn’t quite swallow what the good doctor was telling him. “Ya sayin’ I can’t hold my liquor?”

“I’m not saying that at all,” refuted Dr. Jenkins. “It’s just a combination of unfortunate things that caused you to collapse.” Seeing a skeptic look on the young man’s face Sam tried again. “In your own terms, Johnny, you were at the end of the string.”

Johnny thought long and hard. The bottle was between Murdoch and Tim, where I’d left it. It felt like before, the dizzy tiredness. Hell, it’s not like they hadn’t done it to me before. I saw Murdoch stand up and heard him ask if I was alright and then I was… falling. Turning to his father, he asked suspiciously, “I never hit the floor. You caught me. How’d ya know I was gonna pass out?”

“That was easy son. You couldn’t keep your eyes open and a hand went to your head when you suddenly stood up. I could see something wasn’t right.”

“I remember asking you why.” To Johnny’s amazement, his father’s cheek bones turned red. 

Scott had a feeling the topic was about to turn personal and that his brother and father needed some alone time. “Grandfather, I need to talk to you in the Great Room.”

Harlan, enjoying the trouble between Murdoch and his half breed son, grudgingly complied. Balderdash! I’d love to be a fly on the wall to hear the conclusion of this conversation. Scotty always did have lousy timing. He accepted Scott’s invitation and stood up from the table. The food was awful anyways. I’ll have indigestion all night.

Dr. Jenkins and the giant excused themselves also and headed, together, to Teresa and Matt’s bedroom.

Murdoch watched his son toy with the food on his plate. “You can feel free to eat that. I know you hate wasting food.”

“Only because, I know what it’s like to go hungry,” answered Johnny, not looking up from his plate.

“I don’t get it John. The North Mesa line shack is well stocked. Why didn’t you eat?”

Not looking up at his father, Johnny sadly said, “Bein’ alone does strange things to a man.”

Murdoch understood that statement all too well. He recalled the loneliness each time after losing a wife. “So you were ready to come home?”

“Yeah,” softly responded his son, bringing his chin up.

“Clyde said you did a good job. Said he’d found the list and everything was checked off and that you did even more than I had asked.” Murdoch chuckled, “Said you chopped enough wood to last the whole winter.”

Johnny just nodded and gave a small grin that didn’t reach his eyes. Why were you so angry that you sent me away? It can’t all just be over that stupid clock. And why did it take you so long to bring me home when there was trouble? The clock! He heard it chime seven times. “Ah Murdoch, about the clock.”

He got a heated look from his father. Still a sore subject I see.

“Ya gonna take the repairs outta my pay?”

“You assumed right,” gruffly came the answer.

“That extra hour of shuteye is gettin’ costly,” muttered Johnny. Swallowing hard and contritely looking into his father’s irate eyes, he tacked on, “You might as well add the buckboard and horses I lost.” He bowed his head and wrapped his good arm around his ribs, suddenly cold from the inside out. “They were my responsibility. I don’t know how I can make it up to you and Jelly. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” barked Murdoch, making Johnny inwardly cringe. Can’t I say anything right? Murdoch went on a tirade, “You were ambushed and almost killed! None of that was your fault!”

Johnny could only stare stone-faced at his father.

“You know what galls me the most?”

Johnny shook his head negatively for he couldn’t seem to get his talk box to work.

“I sent you up there…alone! You want to know why? You want to know why it took me so long to have Scott come and get you?”

This time, Johnny could only shake his head up and down. He cleared his throat, but no sound would come out.

“This is gonna sound odd, but I was scared.” Murdoch watched as Johnny’s eyes grew wide in disbelief. My big, larger than life father was afraid…for me?

Murdoch smirked and sighed, “Yeah, I’m a big enough man I can admit it. You see son, as you know, it’s been a long time since anyone has come looking for Johnny Madrid. I thought, maybe, we were over that hurdle. The, Thank Madrid, took me by storm too and made my knees turn into jelly. As much as it behooves me to say this, I too, had believed in the legend of the Gray Ghost.”

Murdoch got a wide smile and a snicker from Johnny that tickled his heart.

“To tell you the truth, my boy, I literally panicked.”

“Not you, Murdoch?”

“Yes me. Oh don’t get me wrong. I know you’re more than capable of handling yourself, but I had already sent you to the North Mesa for the prank with the clock. I was really ticked about that, ya know. But, laying that incident aside, I wanted to give you a reprieve from Harlan’s soon to be visit. I thought we, Scott and I, could flush out the person who so obviously was calling you out.”

“Murdoch, I understand. You were only being a parent. Tim once told me that’s what a parent does. They try to protect their children, though we’ve had this talk before.”

“Yeah, we have and I’d forgotten…well some of it.”

They finished their meal in the quietness of the kitchen only occasionally hearing raised voices from the Great Room. Johnny felt warm inside for the first time since being sent to the North Mesa. Thinking over everything that had happened to him during the last two days, he looked his father square in the eye and shyly asked, “Murdoch? When ya put me to bed I asked you why, what did ya think I meant?” Sorry, but I’m all tore up inside and I have ta know.

Murdoch’s own gut instinct kicked in and he could plainly see this was very important to his son. Without hesitating and with feeling, he calmly answered, “You asked me why I’d kissed you on the forehead. Right?”

“Yeah,” said Johnny with a smile that lit the room. Whew! It’s got nothing to do with drugging me. He then went back to eating his cold, scorched, flapjacks. A second later, he gently pressed, “I never heard your answer.”

Murdoch got up from the table, holding his dirty dishes. He walked behind Johnny’s chair and before he lost his nerve bent over and kissed the top of his boy’s head. “That’s because I love you son.”

“U wee, Scott’s gonna be jealous.”

Murdoch chuckled with pleasure as he started cleaning up the kitchen.

 

—19—

Meanwhile, in the Great Room, Scott was trying his very best to keep a tight rein on his ever growing temper. He’d already been reprimanded for his behavior by his Grandfather. It seemed the man had drudged up the past and berated him for every slight and most notably his move out west six years ago.

“How could you desert me like that? After everything I’ve done for you. I’d given you the best. You didn’t want for anything,” pompously blustered Harlan, helping himself to his second glass of brandy.

“Nothing, but my real father,” groused Scott, having a drink himself.

“How’s that?” arrogantly griped the old man. “Don’t forget Scotty, I’m the one that raised you. Your father was too busy carving out his little empire to fight for you.”

“Grandfather, we’ve hashed this all out before. I am not coming back to Boston…ever!” I don’t even have a desire to visit there anymore.

“You have a legacy there Scotty and I intend for you take it over when the time comes with my passing. I will go to any extremes to achieve this!”

“What? Like burn my shirt? Hurt my family, my real family?” exclaimed an exasperated Scott. I don’t really want to demean my grandfather, but I’m beyond reasoning at the moment.

Hasn’t he done enough to hurt me and mine? He hates Johnny, that’s more than evident. It wouldn’t astound me at all if he’s the one behind the whole thank Madrid thing. I wouldn’t put it past him. I need to play my hand and break all ties with him. Like it or not, I know it’s coming down to that. 

“That shirt is the most vulgar thing I’ve ever seen. It deserved burning,” said Harlan, in a condescending manner and choosing to disregard the real family remark. “Traipsing around the countryside with that rogue brother of yours is just plain ridiculous. Just whose idea was that anyhow? I bet it was that no account Johnny’s. He seems to have the worst influence on you.”

Scott couldn’t get a word in crossways and let his grandfather go off on a tangent, hoping he’d burn himself out soon.

Murdoch and Johnny came from the kitchen. Frozen in their footsteps, they quietly stood at the entrance of the room. Upon hearing his name, Johnny wanted to air out his own lungs and took a step forward to do so. Murdoch lightly grasped his right shoulder with his hand and said, “Hold on son, this is Scott’s party.”

“And for what?” thundered Harlan. “You have the law to protect your property and your person, at least what I’ve seen of the law. Of course, the marshal looked kind of shifty. No telling if you can trust him or not. Doesn’t really matter, he took an oath to uphold it.”

Scott wordlessly shook his head back and forth at the older man’s diatribe. How could I have forgotten how forceful and opinionated he could be? The man is ruthless when he’s wound up.

Harlan slammed his glass down on the ship’s table, making the vessel nearly keel over the back of the couch, and declared, “No grandson of mine is going to stoop so low. You are better than that! It’s time you realized that and came back to the civilized world!”

“Enough Grandfather!” commanded Scott, in a stern voice, which used to send chills down the backs of the men in his Cavalry unit. “I do not want to hear any more disparaging remarks about my life here and especially about Johnny! He’s my beloved brother! You and no one else will ever change that!”

Scott tried one last time to make his grandfather see the importance of his last statements. In a lighter voice with much sentiment, he explained, “Grandfather, Johnny and I have a very special relationship which goes way beyond the union of friendship. I know you don’t understand it, but please and I beg you, please be happy for me if nothing else.”

Secretly amazed at the boldness of his grandson, Harlan Garrett, unkindly countered, “You have no right to talk to me that way, Scotty Lancer. I will not have it! You hear me? Obviously living here, in this heathen land, you’ve forgotten the decorum you were taught.”

Well that answers that question. Selfish. He’ll never change his need to control, even after all these years. Everything was always to his dictates throughout my entire childhood. Murdoch never had a chance of claiming me. No wonder Mother married Murdoch and moved out here. She couldn’t, no doubt, deal with his stubbornness and cold selfishness either. With his heart splintering into pieces, Scott mentally and emotionally cut the cord that had bound them together during his whole life.

“Sit down, Grandfather,” ordered Scott, in the same tone of voice he’d used a few moments ago. “I have something of great importance to go over with you.” Scott watched his elder take a seat, in Murdoch’s favorite chair, by the glowing fireplace.

Chagrined, Harlan made much to do about adjusting the foot stool to accommodate his shorter legs. When he was done, he impatiently waited to hear what his grandson had up his sleeve.

Out of the corner of his eye, Scott caught a slight movement by the dining room table and waved his family over to the living area. “Murdoch, Johnny, you need to hear this too.”

Feeling like he was going to need it, Murdoch helped himself to a brandy and sat down on the rust colored couch.

Swearing off spirits for a while, Johnny sprawled on the long flowered one and covered up with an Indian blanket from the back of the sofa. Feeling light-hearted after hearing his brother’s avowal of their brotherhood, he casually teased, “Do I need my gun?” I’d love to run the stinkin’ polecat outta here. I’m tired of hearin’ ‘im shootin’ off his mouth. Scott’s sure worked up into a lather. This is gonna be some show when he pulls that paper out.

Scott was in a quandary and, for the most part, ignored his brother’s wisecrack. On second thought, it might not be a bad idea, he sarcastically thought. Now that the time was upon him, he briefly wondered if he should just let sleeping dogs lie. He glanced down at his attire and belatedly realized how inappropriate it was with the importance of the information he was soon to impart. It’ll just have to do. My headache’s back anyways and I’m sure it has nothing to do with my head injury.

Wanting a drink in the worst way and knowing he didn’t dare have another one, Scott plunged ahead. “Grandfather, something’s come to light and we need to address it immediately.” Scott felt three pairs of eyes keenly watching him with varying degrees of interest. Boredom from my grandfather, curiosity from my father and of course, amusement from Johnny. Well, he does have a small inkling of what’s to come. 

“Remember Judd Haney?”

The tension in the room became instantly palpable.

His grandfather nervously cleared his throat and hatefully said, “Of course I do. He’s the reason your mother, my dear Catherine, is dead.”

“Is he?” steadily asked Scott, pulling out the envelope from his robe pocket. “Seems to me he had help.”

Harlan sputtered with no words coming out. Murdoch openly gasped stupefied and Johnny hid his grin, waiting for the blow-up. Oh this is rich…poor Scott! I wouldn’t wanna be in his boots…err slippers right now.

Harlan quickly recovered his aplomb. Dryly, he asked, “Whatever do you mean, Scotty?”

“Let me digress back in time, Grandfather.” Scott heard the old man grunt in displeasure, but he had the full attention of his father and brother.

“Once upon a time, Murdoch met a fair maiden by the name of Catherine and had the audacity to fall in love with your daughter…”

“This is not a fairy tale!” spewed Harlan, getting up from the chair.

Scott gently pushed him back into the seat. “No, unfortunately it isn’t and you are going to hear the whole sordid story.”

Scott could’ve sworn he heard Johnny smirk but, when he glanced over at his brother, his lips were as tight as a clam. If it wasn’t for the sparkle in his blue eyes, he’d of thought he was hearing things. His eyes unconsciously roamed over to his father, who had paled considerably. Oh Murdoch, I know this is going to hurt, but you need to know.

Scott picked up the tale in the vein he had started with, “Now, the fair damsel, my mother, also returned his favor and decided to spend the rest of her life with him. In doing so, they traveled as far away as they could from her…father to California, the golden land of milk and honey, where they’d hope to live happily ever after.”

“Scotty!”

While watching Scott perform, Johnny sat spellbound, he’s missed his true calling, as had Murdoch, he’s hit it right on the nail head.

Scott, not missing a beat from his grandfather’s outburst, went on. “But, staid father of the fair maiden was unhappy, to say the least, and wanted revenge on my good Scottish father, who’d dared to take his precious daughter away from him.”

“The story sound about right so far Grandfather?” directly asked Scott, lifting a brow.

The old man snapped his own brows together and glowered at him with a twist of his lips.

Undaunted, Scott continued the story, “In his anger and maybe jealousy, the father started plotting a way to steal his daughter back to his side. He soon sent the pink messengers out to make discreet inquiries into the ways of the west and found a hungry villain by the name of Judd Haney.”

“Enough Scotty. This story is no longer entertaining!” screeched the old man with his fists clenched on the armrests of the chair.

“It ain’t?” cynically butted in Johnny, hanging onto Scott’s every word. “I thought we were just gettin’ to the best part.” He glanced at his father and noticed the volatile eyes staring daggers at Harlan and pulled up the blanket more around his chest. Glad it ain’t me he’s mad at this time.

Persistently, Scott advanced the tale, “Now, the baron of the land named Lancer was a stubborn man who never bowed down to any challenge. With his fair wife at his side, who gave him courage and strength, he fought the imposed will of the raiders.”

The bright blaze crackled and popped loudly in the fireplace, sending a shower of embers over the hearth, reminding Murdoch of Catherine’s last evening spent at the ranch. We’d sat right here on the big couch where Johnny’s at now and thought we’d made the right decision. If only we’d known how it was all going to end…

Proud of his son, Murdoch listened on as Scott revealed the next lines to the well-known story.

“The battles raged as the months moved on until Baron Lancer was the only one left standing between the raiders and full control of the land. Alas, time was running out for the cattle baron and his lady, who was heavy with child near Christmas. Afraid for their lives, my mother’s and mine, he took some heated advice and let the father of his fair wife move them to somewhere presumably safer.”

With unshed tears in his eyes, Scott stopped the story. Blinking rapidly and looking at his father, Scott softly asked, “Do you know why the raids intensified at this point?”

“Why, yes,” stonily replied Murdoch. “They were at the end of their objective. Christmas was around the corner. I imagine they were tired and wanted to win and have done with it.”

“Yes,” solemnly repeated Scott. “According to Mrs. Haney, they were sick and tired and living in caves when she turned her husband in.”

“And your point is, son?” asked Murdoch, trying to understand what Scott was getting at.

“Did it ever occur to you Murdoch, to ask why?”

“Why what?”

“Why was my grandfather in such a hurry to get my mother off the ranch? Why was it Judd Haney’s last ditch effort to win the battle?” Scott looked coldly at his grandfather, but kept talking. “I mean they had the whole valley in their hands. They were collecting extorted protection fees from the ranchers and sodbusters alike. Why did they need to live in caves, sick and tired?”

“Is that what Mrs. Haney told you?” quizzed Murdoch, thinking back to that awful time in his life. “I had no idea.”

“Yes, but it was the way she said it. Like they were defeated or something.” Scott pointed a finger in the air. “With all that money they were bringing in, why were they lost? Did the funds dry up? Where did the money go?”

Scott looked directly at his grandfather, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“Who did they have to repay? Better yet, who financed the raids to begin with?” Scott sharply glared at his grandfather and unfolded the paper he held in his hand. “Judd Haney served eighteen years in prison, so he had nothing to lose by giving us this.”

Holding it out for his grandfather to read, Scott expounded on the contents. “This is an affidavit sworn out by Judd Haney in front of an authorized official. It explains in complete detail where he and his raiders obtained the money to start their venture. It even includes the suggestion of where they should start their raids. The San Joaquin Valley, rich for their pickings…especially Lancer, your own daughter’s and son-in-law’s ranch.”

Harlan’s eyes narrowed and turned to ice as he reached out to snatch the paper. But, Scott was quicker and in turn, whirled around and handed it to his stunned father, who had come up behind him. Murdoch took the paper with a shaky hand and leaned against the mantel to read it.

Scott, wanting all the dirt dug up and the truth out in the open, surmised the rest of the events. “Things weren’t moving fast enough for you, were they Grandfather? You came out west to take matters into your own hands. That’s why the money had dried up on Judd Haney’s end and why he became a desperate man. He had no choice, just like my mother had no choice, being left in that filthy wagon to bear a child and…die.” Scott swallowed hard and looked at his brother for courage.

Johnny, with a shimmery wetness in his own eyes, nodded his head in support.

Murdoch was oddly quiet now, holding the folded paper clenched in his big right hand.

Simmering under the surface with pain in his heart and sick to his stomach, Scott angrily asked, “Why Grandfather? How could you do this to your own daughter? Did we mean so little to you?”

“The raids were a ploy, my boy, to get Murdoch to let her go.” Harlan wickedly grinned. “I’m only telling you this because the statute of limitations has run out.”

“Let her go? But, she loved him and belonged here with her husband,” beseeched Scott. “Lancer was her home.”

“NO! He stole my daughter away from me. The one person who I loved unconditionally.”

“Loved? You controlled her life as assuredly as you’ve tried to control mine. That’s not love. Love is learning to let go. To let them have their free will, to live their own lives. You can’t own love, Grandfather.”

“The hell I can’t. Catherine left me just like you did. I had to do something to force her into coming back,” snapped the old man, giving Murdoch a hateful glower.

“But Grandfather, don’t you see what it cost us? She died and me almost along with her. Why couldn’t you just let them be?” A sickening thought crashed through Scott’s mind and he glanced quickly at his family to ensure they were really there and okay. They’re safe, but for how long? Look what happened to Johnny and the ranch only hours ago.

His eyes full of pain and mixed with regret, Scott accused, “You financed Snake Cutter’s prison break too, didn’t you?”

Harlan sucked in a breath, then snidely boasted, “You can’t prove that.”

“Can’t I?” countered Scott. “All I have to do is find Snake.”

Johnny jumped up from the couch, flinging the blanket on the floor. “We’ll find Snake,” he amended, his blue eyes reflecting the blaze in the hearth.

“Now wait a minute,” barked Murdoch, putting an arm around each of his sons’ shoulders. “No one would like to get to the bottom of this quicker than me.”

Scott, slightly amused, said to his brother over their father’s blustery rejoinder, “I feel a but coming on…”

Murdoch grinned, in spite of himself, “Need I remind you two that neither of you have been out of your sickbeds for more than a couple of hours?” He watched as his boys glanced down at their attire, then concluded, “Like it or not your health comes first and tomorrow morning will be early enough for you, both, to go gallivanting off in search of Snake.”

“But, Murdoch…” protested Johnny. “We’ve, especially Scott, have gotten more than enough shuteye.”

“No, you’re both going to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning with all your wits about you after a good night’s rest.” Murdoch squeezed their shoulders and guided them with a light push towards the upstairs. “It’s night anyways and you can’t track Snake and his gang in the dark.”

“Wanna bet?” asked Johnny, more than raring to go.

Murdoch put his foot down. “No. As long as I call the tune, you’ll do as I say.” He turned to Scott and ordered, “And don’t you dare say, will I!

“What about him?” detachedly asked Johnny, nodding towards Harlan, silent for the moment, sitting in the chair.

The old man quickly stood up from the chair and reiterated, “There’s nothing you can do to me without proof. I’m a free man to come and go as I please. You cannot keep me here.”

“That’s correct,” gloomily allowed Scott, washing his hands of his grandfather. “So you might as well pack your belongings and ride back to town with Dr. Jenkins tonight.” He sorrowfully turned away and didn’t wait for the old man’s reaction as he made his way to the stairs with a silent Johnny following in his footsteps.

They’d made it to the top of the steps when livid, overly loud voices echoed up to them.

Johnny sardonically thought, maybe they’ll go ten rounds before they do each other in.

The argument was short lived when Tim, Dr. Jenkins and Matt, with Teresa behind him, came out of the back bedroom, hearing the racket. Apparently, the lawmen hadn’t left yet for Tim’s place.

“What the hell is going on!?” boomed the giant. “You’re both loud enough to wake the dead.”

Upon seeing the lawmen, Murdoch ordered, “Arrest that man, he’s beneath contempt!”

“On what charge?” asked Matt, trying to keep his spunky wife protected behind him.

Teresa was having none of that and squirmed her way beside her husband to see what all was going on.

The boys turned around from the landing, in time to witness Harlan shaking a fist under Murdoch’s nose and spitefully saying, “There is no charge. I haven’t done anything wrong!”

“You’re breathing. That’s good enough!” shot back Murdoch, shoving the affidavit into Tim’s huge hand.

The giant lawman quickly scanned it with Matt reading it over his shoulder. He whistled long and hard. “Mr. Garrett, you are treading on thin ice.” Tim passed it onto Doc Jenkins and Teresa to read. “If I was you, I’d get the hell outta Dodge!”

“Now wait a minute,” said Scott, coming back down the stairs. Johnny stayed on the top of the stairwell, where he could better keep an eye on things. Briefly, he thought about going for his gun, but realized the lawmen had theirs, if needed.

 Scott entreated, “Can’t you hold him until Johnny and I find Snake?”

“What’s Snake Cutter got to do with this?” asked the big man.

“After reading that,” Scott did a quick frown down at the paper in Teresa’s hand, “You don’t see the correlation?”

“Well, when ya put it that way, I’m game,” affirmed the ex-ranger, staring pointedly at Harlan.  “I reckon we could demand a pound of his flesh on suspicion alone and put ‘im under house arrest. Maybe we should take him to Spanish Wells where the sheriff can handle him until the marshal gets back.” Tim smiled, warming up to the idea.

Harlan, on the other hand, was having a fit. “You can’t do that. It’s all supposition. There’s no proof. It’s illegal,” he shouted.

“So’s payin’ someone to raid a ranch and I ain’t talkin’ about Judd Haney, either!” loudly growled the big man. “Now, go pack your things, we’re goin’ to town.”

Harlan, beside himself with rage, threatened, “You haven’t seen anything yet Scotty. I’ll get even with you too, Murdoch. See if I don’t. You and that…that half breed, scum of the earth, piece of trash, gunslinger son of yours had better watch his back or the Gray Ghost will…” Harlan got no farther for Murdoch’s fist knocked him out cold.

Johnny couldn’t believe it. A knockout in the first round.

Scott came pounding back up the stairs as Tim and Matt lifted Harlan onto the couch with Doc Jenkins hovering over the older man. Murdoch went and poured himself a badly needed drink.

Doc asked Murdoch, “The boys going after Snake?”

“You heard Scott. In the morning.”

“I figured with everything that’s happened here you wouldn’t be able to hold ‘em for more than the day.”

Murdoch swallowed his drink whole and poured another one. “Yes, but they’ll be rested and stronger tomorrow.”

Doc Jenkins shook his head as he examined Harlan’s bruised jaw. “Remind me to never cross you, Murdoch, when it comes to your boys. It’d be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

Murdoch gave him a half-smile. “They’re my sons. I love them like I never loved before. I’d do anything within my power to help and protect them.” He glanced down at his ex-father-in-law still unconscious on the sofa and smirked, “Especially against ridicule from foolish old men like Harlan Garrett.”

******

“Where ya going?” asked Johnny, when Scott passed him on the landing.

“To pack my grandfather’s things,” he huffed.

“You okay?”

“Yes, no. I don’t know,” shakily replied Scott. “I’m doing okay considering what all I’ve learned tonight. You do realize Grandfather is using you and Murdoch in order to force me to come back to Boston?”

“Yeah, but it ain’t gonna work, is it?”

“You’ve seen what he’s capable of doing,” stated Scott, walking into his grandfather’s guest room with Johnny on his heels. “It’s only a matter of time before he gets out of jail, if they even get him into one. Knowing Grandfather, he’ll lawyer up with the first attorney he sees.”

“Brother, ya can’t give in,” demanded Johnny, worried now and sitting on the edge of the bed, resting his aching knee.

“I don’t like the idea of you or anyone else on this ranch being dead because of me,” emphatically commented Scott, opening up a suitcase beside Johnny. He hurriedly gathered up all of his grandfather’s belongings.

“Scott, be reasonable. We could be dead just walking out the door,” protested Johnny, flexing his knee.

“How so?”

“An adobe brick could come loose and hit ya on the head.”

“You can’t be serious?” asked Scott, trying not to snicker.

“Why not?” deadpanned Johnny. “The place is old. Bricks come loose.”

“And that’s why Murdoch’s so strict on maintaining the outside of the house,” explained Scott, dumping his grandfather’s personal supplies into a small portmanteau. “You should know, you’ve done enough patching and whitewashing over the years.”

“Yeah,” admitted Johnny, watching his brother pack the old goat’s clothes. He must be really sore to throw ‘em in any-old-ways. So unlike my nice and neat brother. He’s hurtin’ and I can’t blame ‘im. What a rotten thing to find out from someone ya love. I’d feel betrayed too. “But Scott, it could happen. Right out of the clear blue sky. Whack! A brick right on the head. You’d be just as dead as if somebody shot ya.”

Scott chuckled, “I know what you’re trying to do, brother. You’re trying to distract me and I thank you for it.” He closed the case and threaded the straps.

“Who’s to say it can’t happen?”

“No one, Chicken Little.”

Johnny playfully wacked his brother on the shoulder with a pillow.

Scott almost pulled Johnny into a wrestling match, but stopped short when he remembered his brother’s injuries. Instead, he wrapped an arm around his neck and squeezed, rubbing his thick, dark hair with the knuckles of his other hand.

“That’ll have to hold you until you’re up to snuff.” He let go of Johnny’s neck and picked up the suitcases, catching Johnny’s melancholy frown. “Don’t fret, Johnny,” assured Scott, “I’m not leaving Lancer…ever.” He was rewarded with a smile as bright as the sun.

 

—20—

It was daybreak and unseasonably warm. Wasting no time, the Lancer boys mounted their horses and passed through the back gate Murdoch was holding open from within the corral.

“Godspeed, you two!” called Murdoch, as he let go of the gate. Please come home safe and in one piece.

Scott, dressed in his royal blue shirt with a thin strip of bandage wrapped around his head and hidden under his hat, called back, “Wish us luck.”

Murdoch nodded in response.

Johnny, true to his word, was free of his bandages. A chambray bandanna supported his left arm and blended in with his blue flowered shirt. He chose it specifically, hoping it wouldn’t draw to much notice.

Both of them had their jackets strapped down on top of their bedrolls behind their saddles for the chilly evenings and even colder fall nights. None of them knew how long it would take to apprehend Snake and his gang of misfits.

“They’re takin’ off?” asked Jelly, hobbling up to the front gate Murdoch was coming out from.

“They’re going to join Val and his posse at Tim’s place by the West Mesa line. That’s the word on their location that came back with Hank last night.”

“Then, why they headin’ south?” asked the little man, watching the boys in blue alter course after they’d ridden under the arch. “Hank said Snake’s leadin’ Val on a merry chase. And Johnny said he had a couple ideas to where they might’ve gone to ground.”

Murdoch groaned, “Yup,” and slammed the gate shut. “I just hope they don’t try and catch them red-handed on their own.”

“Don’t worry, Boss. ‘Em boys of yours have more cow sense than that.”

******

Once through the arch, Scott asked, “Where to?”

“The Gomez place.”

“Johnny that’s south not west,” corrected Scott. “You know what you told Murdoch.”

“Tim’s is southwest if ya want to be exact,” amended Johnny, with a smug grin on his face. “I told ‘im we had to check something out first before we joined Val.”

“Isn’t that where Dusty, the guy dressed all in gray with the same horse name, was headed?” asked Scott, bringing Charlie even with Barranca. Scott didn’t want to mention the man’s real name for it gave him the creeps. No sense in testing the fates with evil omens. We’ve had enough bad luck as it is.

“Yup.”

“Didn’t he say he just retired and bought the place?” asked Scott, maneuvering Charlie around a hole in the ground. “Remind me to have somebody fill that hole will ya?”

“Yup.”

“You think he’s the one imitating the Gray Ghost?”

“Don’t know.”

“Boy, you’re real talkative this morning.”

“Thinking.”

“How long you going to keep that sling on your arm?”

“Just until we’re in range of the place. Don’t want to give ‘em any ideas we got problems.”

“I concur,” said Scott, squaring his hat. “I miss my gold shirt.”

Johnny busted out in laughter. “Scott remember, the shirt doesn’t make the man. You do.”

“Yeah, but I liked wearing that shirt.”

“Why, so people can see ya comin’ from miles away?” teased Johnny, punching his brother’s arm.

“No,” replied Scott, pensively. “I liked that it represented a united front between us. You know, our brotherhood and our partnership. It stood for good. And…I have to admit, I’ve gotten to the point where I like seeing everyone’s reaction to the bright colors. It’s quite comical at times.”

“Hmm,” mused Johnny. “That was well done of ya brother. What are ya gonna do with it now that it’s ruined?”

“Wash it and keep it as a memento.”

“You can buy a new one when we get to town,” suggested Johnny, his eyes scouring the countryside.

“It won’t be the same,” amended Scott, also searching the horizon for anything out of the ordinary.

“Then we’ll pick a new theme,” said Johnny, with a sly grin on his face.

Scott groaned, “I can just imagine what you’d pick.”

“Ya sayin’ ya don’t like my shirts?” complained Johnny good-naturedly, swatting at a patch of mosquitos they’d just ridden through.

“Not at all,” smiled Scott. “Remember, I arrived here in a white frilly one. You can choose no worse.”

More laughter from his brother. “Hmm, then the choice is mine?”

“I didn’t say that. I’m not that gullible.”

Acting putout, Johnny came back with, “I thought you trusted me?”

“With my life little brother, but not my wardrobe.”

“I want to be part of the decision this time,” needled Johnny. “It can be a new brother-type partnership.”

“Johnny didn’t you just say the shirt has nothing to do with the person wearing it?”

“Yeah.”

“Isn’t our family ties as strong as ever?”

“Yeah.”

“Then, we don’t need a new shirt or a new look for that matter.”

“Yeah,” hesitated Johnny, “But then, the desperados won’t take ya serious.” He expounded, “Brown work shirts don’t hold a candle to yer golden one. Ya have to measure up brother.”

Scott just rolled his eyes.

They rode amicably, each feeling his oats, as the morning sunrise shone brightly over the horizon. A good while later they traversed the southern Lancer fence-lined boundary at the access gate. Once they crossed the border, Johnny’s whole demeanor changed into the serious persona of his former profession.

Off came the sling, holding his arm, to be worn as a neckerchief. He tied it around his neck. Then, he pulled his Colt and spun the cylinder, checking the load. A moment later it was back in its holster. “Ya ready?” he asked Scott, his eyes missing nothing as he skimmed the land around them.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” lamented Scott, having checked his pistol. Fully loaded primed and ready, I wish I was. “I’m not looking forward to finding out how deeply involved my grandfather is in all of this.”

“It’s gonna hurt like hell Scott. I wish I could tell ya different,” bemoaned Johnny. “Take it from Madrid, who’s had a belly full of tears. Broken trust and betrayal from a family member is the worst.”

“Now, I know how it feels and what you meant when you first arrived at Lancer.”

Johnny lifted one brow in question and waited.

Scott heaved a sigh, “You were right. Not giving anyone much credit does save disappointment.”

Johnny patted his horse on the neck to ease the tension within himself. “Well, I had ta adjust that ideal a bit. As long as you have the love and backing of Murdoch and me,” he grinned a little thinking back to all his past troubles when he’d first arrived, “The rain ain’t so hard on yer head.”

Scott nodded in understanding. Its Johnny’s way of telling me I’m not alone and the family really has their heart in the right place. They love and care about me no matter what may come to pass. They’ll always be there for me. It was a hard concept for my brother to learn in the beginning of our family’s reunion, but now it’s strong and unbreakable just like our friendship and the silken ties that bind us together.

“I’m ready,” softly said Scott. Thanks to his brother’s pep talk, he now had the confidence to face whatever was waiting for him.  “Let’s go round up the nest of vipers.”

With that having been said, the two brothers silently rode to the fringes of the worn out cabin.

“Pewieee. I forgot this place was downwind of the pig farmer,” remarked Johnny, holding his nose, as he dismounted behind a grove of trees. “No wonder old man Gomez sold out.”

“Yes, it’s pretty rank to say the least,” added Scott, tethering his horse’s reins to a tree branch. “Farmer Max does a ripe business.”

“Farmer Max?”

“Hubert Maximillian. He asked me to call him that,” explained Scott, coming up beside his brother, who was observing the lay of the land. “Said since we were neighbors…”

“He never asked me to call him that,” said Johnny, feeling slighted and closely studying the forlorn cabin.  “Down right unneighborly of him if you ask me.”

“That’s because Farmer Max is intimidated by you,” replied Scott, doing his own reconnaissance.

“He’s scared of me?” said Johnny with a cynical grin. “Glad to know Madrid hasn’t lost his touch.”

Scott grunted, then said, “I don’t see any tracks. Do you?”

“None,” replied his brother with a baffled expression on his now serious face.

“Place looks like a ghost lives here. Nothing’s been moved in a long time. Not even the dirt,” added Scott, seeing no footsteps anywhere. Strange…

Exasperated, Johnny grumbled, “Scott will ya get off the ghost stuff. I told ya, how it is. There ain’t no ghost.”

“Think again, boys,” said a hauntingly familiar voice behind them.

 

—21—

“Dusty,” choked out Scott. The eerie feeling overcame him again. Ghostlike. He blends so well sitting on his horse with the backdrop of the morning sun.

Johnny, with a slight grin, only gave a nod in acknowledgement. After all, we are on his land…without an invite.

Ignoring his name, the man in gray with his gun hand at his hip, quietly asked, “I take it this ain’t a social call.”

Scott grinned and said, “Yes and no. You see…”

Johnny, angry he’d been out foxed, cut in with, “We’re lookin’ for marauders.”

“And you thought you’d find ‘em here?” sarcastically asked the bounty hunter not moving from his horse.

“Seems like a logical choice since the place looks abandoned,” replied Scott, getting a stern look from his brother.

“Hate to disappoint ya boys, but they ain’t here.”

“But, they could be headin’ this way,” challenged Johnny, spreading his left arm slowly out towards the cabin. “Or is the untouched ground purely for looks?”

The man dismounted from his horse. Turning, he held Johnny’s unyielding blue eyes with the cold gray eyes of his own. 

Fascinated, Scott silently stood by and watched the drama play out. Johnny’s eyes are the key to his soul. No one does the eye-stare better. Much to his disappointment, the game was cut short when Johnny stated their business, “We don’t want the bounty money…”

This statement surprised Scott, for he hadn’t known the gun hawk was a bounty hunter.

“We only want the guilty parties that raided our ranch,” finished Johnny, catching the startled expression on Scott’s face. Squaring his hat, he said to Scott, “Sorry brother, I think I forgot to tell you about that.” He cracked a crooked grin, “Seems we’re even now in keepin’ secrets.”

Scott got the message about him not explaining the thank Madrid thing earlier.

Johnny brought his cool eyes back to Dusty.

“So, what’s yer plan boys?” asked the Lancers’ new neighbor satisfied with the arrangements.

“Well, that all depends,” drawled Johnny, acting like he had a new best friend. “We gotta corral ‘em and herd them this way.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” grinned the man in gray.

“Rider coming,” said Scott, nodding at the dust in the distance. “And do you smell bacon?”

“Only the raw kind,” replied Johnny, rubbing his nose as the wind gusted from the southeast. “Boy Dusty, I don’t know how you’ll stand this place.”

“A man can stand anything if he’s willin’,” quietly stated the bounty hunter. “Besides, the smell will keep the riff-raft away.”

“That’s a fact,” agreed Scott, getting another whiff of bacon out of the south. Maybe Max’s wife is cooking? Odd though, it’s not from the direction of their farm.

The rider turned out to be a worse for wear Val Crawford. “Had an inkling I’d find you boys here,” said the marshal, dismounting from his bay horse. He turned and immediately took in the stranger.

Before the introductions could be made, Val’s face lit up. “Well you old son of a gun,” he shouted, as he reached out and quickly hugged the other man, then slapped him hard on the back.

Daemon Grayson more than returned the favor with a wide grin and hand-pounding of his own, giving the boys some insight into his past.

“Ya know ‘im,” flatly commented Johnny, somewhat amused and watching, out of the corner of his eye at his brother’s fascination with something towards the south.

“Yeah,” affirmed Val, “We go back a ways before I met yer sorry self, Johnny.”

Scott snickered and turned his attention back to the men in front of him. Johnny caught his eye with a quizzical expression of his own. Scott nodded to the south and sniffed. A moment later, his brother was unobtrusively as possible smelling the air, as the two old friends quickly hashed over good times.

“What ya doin’ here?” asked the marshal.

“Retired,” came the reply.

“Retired, my ass,” hooted Val completely in doubt.

Scott knew the moment Johnny got a whiff of the smoky pig-flavored scent. The fiery spark is in his eyes. The need to get even is upon us.

“You thinkin’ what I’m thinking?” quietly asked Johnny of his brother.

“Yes.”

Val, still grinning, shouted to the Lancer brothers, “This old dog is as underhanded as they get. He can sneak up on pert near anyone and blind-side them.”

The choice of words gave Scott pause to reflect on his own shiner.

Turning back to his old chum, Val asked, “That was you, Dusty, who left ‘em dead guys in Tim’s ice house? Ya should’ve seen the big ranger’s face when he pulled the door open...”

The man in gray gave a shrewd grin.

Hearing that explanation, Johnny had a surprised look of his own. “Now wait a minute.” Turning to Dusty, he asked, “Didn’t ya take ‘em into town yesterday mornin’?”

Somewhat incensed, the bounty hunter replied, “Took ‘em where I said I was gonna.”

Trying to clarify his reasoning, Johnny added, “But our foreman said a man in gray brought in…two dead bodies…”

“Wasn’t me,” grouched the older man, an odd expression on his face, as he exchanged one with Val.

Mystified, Johnny pushed his hat up further on his head. “Don’t mean ta be stickin’ my nose in yer business, but if it wasn’t you who was it then?”

Scott stepped in, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you Johnny. Someone is imitating the Gray Ghost. He’s doing everything Val said a gun-slinging apparition would do…”

He stopped short when the two older men burst into hilarity. Feeling the heat in his cheeks to the tips of his ears, Scott persistently finished the sentence, “to make us believe the specter is real.”

Johnny wasn’t laughing this time. He was beginning to see things the way his brother did. “Look Val, you’re the marshal. Who were those two dead men that bounty hunter brought in?”

“Don’t know,” the lawman answered, untying his red bandanna. “Could’ve been a couple dead members from Snake’s gang. Yer father said they’d nailed a few during the raid. I haven’t been back to town since the attack on your ranch.” He wiped his sweaty forehead and his eyes dry from the merriment with the handkerchief and continued, “I’ll know more when Matt gets back to Tim’s place this mornin’. The giant filled me in on the happenings at yer place last night with your grandfather.”

Looking directly at Scott, Val commiserated, “Terrible thing to find out about a family member. I feel fer ya man.”

Scott accepted Val’s sympathy with a nod of acquiesce.  

The lawman then exclaimed, “There’s two reasons why I’m here.”

The boys silently waited while watching Val retie his handkerchief around his neck. 

“I’m only here because Tim told me you two had come home all banged up from an ambush and I wanted to see for myself how bad off ya were.” Carefully eyeballing both of his friends, the marshal finished up with, “And I’m glad to see yer both in one piece.”

“Barely,” said Scott, smiling at his brother. He turned to the bounty-hunter and went on, “Luckily we did have some help.” Scott held his hand out to Dusty, forgetting that gunslingers always protect their gun-hand even from a handshake. “My brother and I thank you.”

Standing next to Scott, the man in gray gave him a light tap on the arm with his knuckles and didn’t say anything.

“Covering his brother’s mistake and getting another whiff of cooked pork as he distractedly rubbed his aching shoulder, Johnny asked, “And your second reason, Val?”

“Well,” Val paused and cleared his throat. “I know ya both won’t stay out of the fray until we catch these guys and find the schemer behind it all.”

The Lancer brothers gave him a mocking grin.

Ignoring the scornful air of his friends, Val stubbornly continued, “I also know ya both won’t just let the law handle it. So, I figured you’d both be lookin’ for some out-of-the way, abandoned place where the outlaws would bed down for the night and that brought me here,” expounded Val, relaxing now that he knew where Dusty stood with the Lancer boys.

Johnny added, “That’s right.”

“Heard ya had a new neighbor, didn’t know it was Dusty though. Just heard he was a bounty hunter and I wanted to check things out while the posse took a much needed rest. Besides, the pig farmer caught me at Tim’s and lodged a complaint.”

“Hubert Maximillian?” asked Scott, casting a glance in the direction of the farmer’s land.

“Said a couple of his piglets got stolen last night.”

“Bacon!” called out the Lancer boys in unison.

“Hmm…smells good,” agreed Val, finally getting a whiff of the cooked pork aroma. “Where in tarnation is that coming from?”

“Due south. Probably by the lake,” filled in Johnny, getting on his horse. Scott did the same.

“Hold up there you two,” ordered Val, instantly coming to a conclusion. Those renegades are camped somewheres close by. I’d bet all my Indian blankets on it. Reaching for the reins of his horse, he quickly reminded, “I know yer hot under the collar to catch ‘em fellows, but I’m the law here and don’t ya forget it.”

“Of course, Val,” concurred Scott. He felt the cold rigidness of his too silent brother beside him. Val’s ace-high on Johnny’s respect list, but he’s got his back up and is dying to put a piece of lead right between Snake’s beady eyes…though cutting off his head is more my preference…after we squeeze the truth out of him about Grandfather.

“And,” said Val, mounting his horse and glaring at Johnny, “We’re gonna do things…my way. Comprehend?”

Johnny gave Val a defiant stare until Scott tapped him hard on his abused arm, directing the glower over to himself. Scott playfully held up his hand to ward it off.

“Come on Johnny. He is the law,” reminded Scott, while squaring his hat to hide the bandage around his head.

Johnny broodingly gave in with a slight tip of the hat, though in this case, he didn’t see eye to eye with his friend. “Just one thing,” softly said Johnny.

“What’s that?” grumbled Val, watching Dusty effortlessly swing onto the saddle of his horse with the same name.

“Snake is mine,” adamantly stated Johnny, turning Barranca towards the south in the direction of a small valley and lake a couple miles from them.

“We’ll see,” was all the lawman said, taking the lead. Val deeply sniffed the air and spouted, “Smells more like ham to me.”  He then tapped his horse’s sides with his heels and let the scent lead them to their quarry like a dog finds his prey.

 

—22—

Meanwhile in Spanish Wells, Turk Caudle, the youngest and newest sheriff’s deputy, was following orders given to him the night before by the ex-ranger named Matt McRafferty. It was his job to be on the sly and keep tabs on the dignified, old man from back east named Harlan Garrett. How hard can it be to keep up with one old man? He soon found out differently.

Watching from the saloon’s swinging doors in the later hours of the evening, Turk had witnessed Doc Jenkins dropping off a very vocal older gentleman. The U.S. Deputy Marshal had dismounted from his chestnut horse and was having quite a time herding the gent into the jail across the street. The old man had kicked up quite a row, blowing-up his talk with, “This is false arrest! You can’t charge me on suspicion alone. I’m going to take this town for all its worth. You wait and see…!”

As luck would have it, the slickest lawyer in town was enjoying a beer and had come to the tavern’s entrance to see what the ruckus was about. In no time at all, Mr. Harlan Garrett was snug in a room at the Spanish Wells Hotel.

Now it was early morning and Turk had followed the old man all over town. Garrett had started with breakfast at the hotel, then went to the bank, the mercantile, had a cup of tea at the eatery and now was walking towards the livery stable.  Sure wish he’d lite somewhere. My dogs are killin’ me in these new boots. Good thing I still look young enough to be a kid and he hasn’t caught on yet. I blend in right good with the folks on the boardwalk.

Of course, Turk had dressed accordingly. He’d left his gun and star at the sheriff’s office. He sported a gray plaid shirt with a fistful of peppermint sticks in the pocket. A slingshot was tucked inside the back of his worn pants. He had scoffed up his new boots to make them look older. His hat was tipped at the back of his head and in his hand he carried a dog-eared dime novel.

Harlan Garrett ducked down an alley a block up the boardwalk. A man dressed all in gray soon followed him. Slowly, Turk sauntered to the edge of the corner. The sun was blazing brightly into the passageway making it difficult for the two men to see him as he peeked around the edge of the barber shop. To his amazement, the men were close enough to be overheard. Not wanting to get caught eavesdropping, Turk sat down in a beat up old wooden chair and tipped it back against the wall of the front of the building. Sucking on one of the candy sticks, he opened his paperback book, never so grateful for the teacher who had taught him to read. He then pretended to read the story about a ghost in the west.

A wry Harlan Garrett angrily ordered, “Snake’s men didn’t get the job done. It’s up to you now. I want him dead!”

The man in gray softly responded, “You can count on it. When do you want it to happen?”

“Sometime after Snake’s gang is done with the raids on the ex-ranger’s veterinary place and Mesa Roja. Everything must point to Judd Haney.”

The gunslinger quietly chuckled, “He’s takin’ the blame for it all, huh?”

The old man’s eyes squinted with hatred. “He failed me thirty years ago. I want him and Murdoch Lancer to lose everything they hold dear.”

“Don’t worry Mr. Garrett. I’ll get ‘er done. You forget, I have a bone to pick with Johnny Madrid, though he unknowingly helped me become the Gray Ghost.”

Harlan Garrett coldly chuckled and said, “You do play the part well, but don’t get a swell head and think you are the real thing.”

“Yes, Mr. Garrett,” grudgingly said the man. “I’ll keep a clear mind.”

“I hope you do for your sister’s sake. I’d hate to have to terminate the lovely young woman from my accounting firm. She’s quite scrupulous at what she does and I don’t want to replace her. So, don’t fail me!” 

“I said I’d get the job done,” testily replied the younger man. “Johnny Madrid will be dead and your grandson will high-tail it back to Boston in order to protect his father.”

“Very well,” acceded the older man, sounding pleased. “I’ll send the money with a trusted friend from Cold River to Mesa Roja, when the deed is done.”

A ghost of a smile crossed the younger man’s face as they parted company.

Turk Caudle kept his eyes peeled to the pages of his book. He was actually getting to the exciting climax when the man in gray by-passed him on the boardwalk, casting him a fleeting glance.

Keeping his eyes hooded and acting as if he was engrossed in the novel, Turk didn’t look up. His belly felt full of the willies. There’s something cold and vile about this guy…like he’s dead or something inside.

“Whatcha ya reading son?” asked the gun hawk, turning his attention to him.

Turk could already feel the heat of the bullet if he screwed up. He lifted the book so that the man could read the title, his eyes never leaving the page he was on.

The Gray Ghost.” A chuckle followed. “I read that once after a bad fall. It was one of the books the sawbones had at his place. Good story…”

Turk mumbled, “Ah yeah.” He was never so relieved when the man turned and walked over to his gray horse, mounted and rode out of town.

Unhurriedly, Turk surveyed the town trying to find where Mr. Garrett had gotten to. Standing up, he saw him walking into the stage depot. I bet he’s buyin’ a ticket for Cold River. A short while later, Turk confirmed his suspicion with the ticket-master of the stage line. Giving up all pretense of following the old man, Turk quickly made his way to the sheriff’s office where he reported the day’s events.

In a matter of minutes, as if the hounds of hell were after him, Matt McRafferty, was racing his horse onward towards his brother’s home and place of business.

 

—23—

“What do you see Scott?” asked an inpatient Johnny, lying beside his brother as he observed the silent camp with his brass telescope.

They were on top of a rocky precipice overlooking the small valley with Val on the right side of them and Dusty on the left.

“Nothing. We missed them,” came the reply. Scott handed the spy-glass to his brother, who took a long gander.

“Nothing left but ham hocks and bones around a smokin’ campfire,” confirmed Johnny, handing off the glass to Val on his right.

“Shucks,” griped Val.

“That’s not quite the word I had in mind,” provoked Johnny.

“Tryin’ ta be respectable,” snipped the lawman, closing the scope and handing it back to Johnny.

“Since when?” asked his friend, giving the cylinder back to his brother.

“I’m a U.S. Marshall. The guys that hired me laid down the law on swearin’ and spittin’.”

Laughter from all around.

“We ain’t exactly around decent folk,” reminded Johnny.

“Speak for yourself,” rejoined Scott. “Isn’t that right Dusty?”

“I think ya all like to hear yer selves talk,” replied the bounty hunter.

Another round of quiet chuckling.

“Think they’ll be back?” asked Val of no one in particular.

Johnny and Dusty exchanged a knowing peek at each other.

“Maybe,” conceded the man in gray.

“Maybe not,” allowed the man in light blue.

“Which is it?” asked Scott, somewhat amused. Geez old Pete, a three-way tussle.

“Not,” said the gun hawks together.

“Shh,” cautioned Johnny, looking over his left shoulder to the road down below that led to town. “I hear horse’s hooves.”

“Sounds like he’s ridin’ that horse into the ground,” stated Val, waiting with the others for the rider to become visible.

A large man with a ten gallon hat riding a lathered chestnut horse made his way around the bend and came into view down below the cliff.

“It’s Matt,” declared Johnny, heading for his horse. He was mounted before Barranca could even swish his tail. “Something’s wrong. He never rides a horse like that.” He kneed his horse and took off down the slope.

“No,” added Scott, “Because Tim would kill him.”

He and the others were only seconds behind Johnny heading for the road.

They cut Matt off at the pass to Tim’s ranch. The deputy barely slowed his horse’s pace as he yelled, “Raiders!” The boys didn’t need any more by way of an explanation.

******

The group rode hard for the next few miles. Tim McRafferty’s ranch was west of their location. (Bart’s old place) Matt’s horse was about to drop from exhaustion. The big deputy swore he’d cater to his horse’s every want and need if he got him to his brother’s place in time.

They flew through the southern boundary of Lancer without as much as a by-your-leave, taking the shortest route there. A little while later, they topped a hill and came to a dusty halt when they saw smoke on the horizon.

“We’re too late,” moaned Matt, trying to see through the haze of gray.

“Maybe not,” replied Val, hopefully. “The posse was still camped in the barn when I left.”

“What’s yer plan Val?” asked Johnny, anxious to get moving.

 Concentrating on the picture below, the lawman bit out, “What?”

“Yer in charge,” reminded Johnny. “What ya want ta do?”

“You and Scott sneak down to the front. Distract ‘em if ya have too. The rest of us will come up from behind the cabin.”

No more was said and each party took off in their appointed directions.

“I don’t like this Johnny, it’s too quiet,” asserted Scott, dismounting from his horse and then wrapping the reins around a branch of a bush. They were in the shadows of a large tree overlooking the front of the cabin. It was plain to see the raid was over. There was no sign of horses or live humans alike.

“Yeah,” agreed Johnny, drawing his gun. “Smokey, still and creepy.”

The description reminded both boys of the first time they’d been to Bart’s place after coming to Lancer.

“You had to use that term creepy,” murmured Scott, following Johnny up to the front porch. He knew it was his brother’s favorite word when it had to do with something of the unknown.

“Ya got a better one?”

Looking at the dead, bloody bodies littering the dirt, Scott moaned and whispered, “Maybe ethereal…”

Johnny silently turned on the top step and gave his brother a dour smirk. Softly he argued, “I thought for sure you’d say ghostlike…”

“Humph,” groaned Scott, a step behind Johnny. “You’re just using that word because of this.” Scott spread his arm out over the yard of corpses to drive home his point. “They remind you of that nightmare of a couple weeks ago and the fact something’s supposed to be after you.”

“Now that ya got to admit was creepy,” murmured Johnny, stepping onto the porch.

Scott still arguing went on in an all-out whisper, “You talking about the dream or Murdoch rousting us out of bed madder than an old wet hen that morning?”

They were on either side of the front door when it suddenly opened and a big guy, dressed in black with a Colt in his hand, stepped out and barked with a deep voice, “I thought I heard some racket out here!”

Not batting an eyelash, Johnny stepped by Tim and pointed over his shoulder at this brother, “Blame him. He’s the one seein’ ghosts.”

Scott gave his brother a shove from behind, making Johnny catch his tender knee and limp into the living room. A second later, Scott got a whiff of something that wasn’t bacon as he followed his brother into the room. The windows were open and letting in a pungent odor of smoke.

“Whew Tim. What’s burning in back? It smells dreadful,” remarked Scott, holstering his gun. From the corner of his eye, he could see Johnny with a hand over his nose.

“The outhouse,” declared Tim, turning a bit red in the face. “Just got done using it and was headin’ back inside when I saw a man with a torch come up beside it.” The big man snickered. “Don’t know how it happened, but it just exploded before I could draw down on the curly wolf. Expect he got his just rewards. Sure did wake up everyone in the barn. Good thing too fer we were about to get raided.”

Scott’s eyes rounded in incredulity. He caught sight of his brother soundlessly holding his sides as he tried not to laugh out loud and incur the wrath of the giant ex-ranger.

“You mean your fumes caused the explosion?” asked Scott, in a state of wonder.

Johnny, watching his brother’s face and the giant’s indignant expression, could no longer hold in his chuckles and he let the laughter fly.

A moment later, Matt and Dusty busted through the back door with guns drawn and ready to fire.

Tim just shook his head and boomed, “Glad ya could join the party, brother, though the guest of honor has flown the coop!” He did a double-take on seeing the man dressed in gray.

Johnny instantly became serious, “Snake got away?”

“Yup, but as you can see, we bushwhacked some of his cronies. Snake must not’ve realized the posse was hangin’ out in the barn.” Tim gave the older man in gray a long look. Where do I know this gun hawk from? It’s been quite a spell I’m plumb sure of that. It slowly dawned on him and he questioned, “Dusty?”

“In person before yer eyes,” came the answer. Another back-pounding, how do ya do’s took place with Matt joining the reunion. “We sure had us some hog-killing good times.”

Tim stated, “It’s been a long time. You still in the business?”

Chuckling, Dusty said, “I left two of ‘em in the ice house for ya.”

“Should’ve known,” smirked the big guy.

In a hurry before the trail turned cold, Johnny urged, “Now that you’ve all had a fine family reunion will ya tell us what happened? Times a wasting.”

“Pull in your horns, Johnny,” interrupted Val from the back door. “I got a surprise for ya all.” He roughly pushed inside one of the raiders. The hapless man had a bullet wound in the right shoulder, which he was holding with his other hand.

“Well, well, look who we have here, Scott?” taunted Johnny, walking up close behind the outlaw.

“None other than Davey Stryker,” replied his brother, standing beside Johnny.

“I thought ya might like that,” stated a pleased Val. “Found him cowering out back amongst the bushes.”

Johnny drew his gun and pointed it under Davey’s jaw.

“What are ya gonna do?” whined the scared, shiftless man.

“Something I should’ve done six years ago before Murdoch stopped me,” coldly replied Johnny, cocking his gun.

“Wait a minute Johnny,” intervened Scott. “Let’s not be hasty. He can give us some needed information.”

“Then what?” wailed the disgusting man.

“You’ll go back to prison,” flatly said Val. “Unless ya don’t collaborate.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow at Val. “Collaborate Val? That’s one of Scott’s words.”

“Yeah, ya like it?” smiled the lawman. Then, he proudly stated, “I do know some real words.”

A round of chuckles.

Davey didn’t see anything funny. In fact, he was scared to death. “Snake will kill me if I snitch.”

“You’ll be just as dead if ya don’t,” threatened Johnny, pushing the gun into the soft skin under his jaw.

“You can’t shoot me,” quivered Davey, finding his spine. “There’s lawmen all around us.”

Looking around Scott asked, “What lawmen?”

Tim took the hint. “We need to go check on my patients in the barn. I have some four-legged friends along with some wounded.”

Val said, “Why didn’t ya say so?” He herded all the lawmen to the door, including Dusty.

“Wait! Ya can’t leave me here with ‘em!” cried Davey.

Matt, being the last one out the door, stopped and turned around. “You and yer kind didn’t give my wife and our child any thought when you raided the Lancers. Why should I be any different?” Not waiting for an answer, he slammed the door shut.

“Well, I guess ya heard,” calmly stated Johnny, not lowering his gun. “My brother here has some questions he wants answered. I suggest ya be honest with him or you’ll soon find yourself in hell.”

Scott took his cue starting out with an easy question. “Where is Snake heading to and why?”

The man moaned and visibly shook.

“Quit sniveling and answer the simple question,” prodded Johnny, rubbing the tip of his Colt up and down Davey’s jawline. He made another pass and rested the end of the barrel on Stryker’s lips just under his nose.

Davey could plainly smell the black gunpowder from prior firings mixed with a metallic iron odor from the barrel of the gun. Shaking even more, he squeaked out, “Mesa Roja.” He looked at Johnny pleadingly and got a cold stare in return. Swallowing hard, Davey explained, “A guy named Billy Joe, who used to be a deputy there, wants to get even with the sheriff.” He relaxed thinking he’d given enough information and the interrogation was over. “Can I go to jail now?”

“Not yet,” testily replied Johnny. “I know there’s more to the story.”

Another groan came from Davey.

Scott logically said, “Snake wouldn’t go there on a whim even if Billy Joe wants revenge. There must be another real reason.”

Johnny tossed in a suggestion, “Money Scott. It always boils down to the money.”

Scott got it. Dropping his nice guy manners, Scott grabbed Davey by his oily hair and growled, “Who’s paying Snake? Who broke you all out of prison? Who…is…his…boss?”

Davey wailed anew, “I don’t know. I swear I don’t.”

“Go ahead and shoot him Johnny. He’s worthless,” encouraged Scott, not liking the grease he felt in the man’s hair. He didn’t even want to think about the vermin that was probably crawling around the scalp.

“No please,” begged Davey, truly believing Madrid was going to shoot him. “I only know the man’s from the east…Boston or somewhere’s. That’s all Snake ever told us.”

The mention of his hometown filled Scott’s heart with pain. Grandfather’s really involved, no more doubts about it.  He suddenly felt cold from the inside out. Letting go of Davey’s sweat-soaked hair, Scott grabbed a towel lying on the dry sink and fastidiously wiped his hands as he went to the door and motioned for Val to come back in.

“Well now,” nastily tormented Johnny, “That wasn’t so hard…was it?” He dropped the gun to his side and pushed Davey away from himself. He holstered his gun and wiped his pants, trying to get the feeling of filth off his hands. A moment later there was a thump. Davey Stryker had fallen into a dead faint at his feet.

“Ya lilly-livered, yellow-bellied excuse for a man,” spouted Val, as he bent down and handcuffed the man. Getting back up he said to Dusty, “This one’s on me. Take ‘im to town and collect the reward.”

The man in gray replied, “Much obliged.”

“While yer at it collect all the other dead guys too. It’ll help feed the kitty,” reminded Val.

“You have a cat?” asked a puzzled Scott, throwing the rag back in the sink.

“My retirement fund,” clarified the bounty hunter with a cynical grimace. “The Gomez place.”

“Yeah,” chipped in Val. “It’ll help buy a rocker for the front porch.”

 

—24—

“Welcome to Mesa Roja,” read Johnny from a sign posted at the edge of town.

“Here we are again,” said Scott, halting his horse beside his brother’s. “Still a quaint place from what I can see.”

“Quaint?” snorted Johnny, giving it the gun hawk’s once-over. “Try quiet and still flea bitten.”

“How do you want to play this?” asked Scott. “Val said to stay out of trouble until he, Murdoch and what’s left of the posse get here. Remember?”

A clearing of the throat was heard from his younger brother. Sarcastically Johnny replied, “Sure Scott. I’ll bet Haney’s badge he already knows we’re here.”

“Then where to? The Haney’s residence, the hotel, the sheriff’s office…?”

“How about the saloon?” Johnny licked his dry lips. “I could use a drink,”

“I might’ve known,” teased Scott, nudging his horse with his heels in the direction of the town’s only watering hole. Once there, they dismounted, looped the reins over the hitching post and went inside.

“Good afternoon, gents. What can I get for you?” asked the barkeep, wiping the top of the counter with a white flour-sack cloth.

“I’d like a drink,” returned Johnny, glancing around. “Place hasn’t changed any.”

“Tequila for you both?” asked the bartender, reaching for the bottle.

Scott gave a curt nod of yes.

“How’d ya know what I was gonna order?” asked Johnny, not forgetting the last time he had been in the establishment and had been denied a second drink.

“Hmm,” hesitated the barkeep not sure if he over stepped his bounds with this patron. “I never forget an order nor a face.”

“Really?” asked Johnny, not believing it.

“Johnny,” warned Scott, in a very low voice.

The barkeeper poured them both a drink and asked, “You boys ever find Murdoch Lancer?”

The boys belted their drinks to the back of their throats. Johnny slammed his glass down on the counter and replied, “Ya know we did.”

“Sorry sir. I was just makin’ conversation.” The bartender saw the doubt in the fiery blue eyes. Too make amends, the man offered, “This here place is a friendly town. Tell ya what? The next drink is on me.”

“That’s right friendly of you,” said Scott, nudging his brother’s painful arm.

“So what will it be?” politely asked the barkeep with a smile.

Before Johnny could state his preference, he heard a familiar voice ask, “You two boys causing trouble already?”

“No sheriff,” argued Johnny, “I was just about to have another drink.”

“No time,” hurriedly stated Haney, looking disheveled and harassed. His blue-gray shirt was unbuttoned at the collar, his black string tie was gone and, his jacket had dirt on the sleeves.

Johnny was about to protest they’d done nothing wrong when he noticed the fresh blood on the lawman’s knuckles. “Sheriff you got…”

Johnny was cut off when Haney snapped an order, “I want ya both in my office. Now!”

“Well, when you put it that way,” firmly stated Scott, unintentionally pulling his brother’s sore arm in order to get him to move. “I suspect we can’t refuse.”

Johnny resentfully shrugged his aching limb out of Scott’s grasp and bellyached, “Kinda ironic ain’t it? I still can’t get a second drink in this place.”

 

—-25—-

“Okay Sheriff, what’s so fire important that you had to haul us in here like a couple of kids?” griped Johnny, holding his throbbing arm with his good one. He gave a scowl to his brother as he reached up and rubbed his shoulder to reduce the pain.

Pacing the jail, Judd Haney spit out, “It’s my wife, Ellen. She’s been kidnapped.”

A gasp flew out of Scott’s mouth and Johnny licked his suddenly dry lips. In an easier tone, he asked, “What happened?”

Agitated, the sheriff went on, “Ya know she means more to me than my life.”

“Glad to know you two have that part of your lives straightened out,” consoled Scott, leaning against the lawman’s desk.

In a louder voice, Johnny said, “I asked you a question. What happened? Do you know who did it?”

Scott butted in with a question of his own. “Is there a ransom?”

More frazzled than the boys had ever seen him, Judd replied. “We were on the porch of our home. They attacked me and grabbed her at the same time.” He slammed a bloody fist down on his desk next to the elder Lancer. “It was over before it even began.” He ran a hand through his disarrayed hair, then pulled a crumbled note from his coat pocket. “They knocked me out and when I woke up I found this piece of paper in my hand.”

Scott took the paper and quickly read it, turning white as a sheet.

While watching his brother’s complexion change colors, Johnny asked, “You know who’s behind it?”  Not liking the paleness of Scott’s face, he went and stood by him. “What is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Not believing he’d just said that, Johnny swallowed hard.

Judd said, “All I remember is some fool with a snakeskin band on his hat hissed in my ear the words, thank Madrid, and clobbered me.”

Johnny’s heart skipped a beat. They’re all in cahoots together.

Judd went on, “I tried to fight back, got my fist into someone’s teeth, and then for a moment I could’ve sworn I saw Billy Joe. Then someone hit me from behind.” He pointed at the brown, scrap of paper Johnny was now reading and explained the contents of the note. “They want five hundred dollars in small bills and someone named Golden Garrett to deliver it!” Haney wiped his sweaty brow with a shaky hand and muttered, “Whoever the hell that is.”

Johnny was relieved that Scott could help, but didn’t like the idea that it involved his brother. He gently said, “Well ya don’t have to worry about that…because…he’s right here.”

“Who’s right here?” asked the sheriff, totally baffled.

“Golden Garrett,” repeated Johnny, pointing at Scott in his royal blue shirt.

Judd Haney looked at both boys like they’d lost their minds.

Scott, getting a little color back and feeling a bit piqued, emphatically said, “That’s how Snake Cutter knows me.”

“Huh?”

“Look sheriff, it’s a long, long story,” stated Johnny matter-of-factly. “But right now we just need to know when they want the money. It doesn’t say.” I’ve never seen him so outta whack. Creepy what a woman can do to a man’s soul.

“That’s another thing,” complained Haney, walking the boards again. “Where am I to get the money? Dang, I don’t even make enough money to spit on to cover it. We don’t even have a bank in this town to get a loan. Do I have to beg, borrow or steal it? And from where?”

Scott grabbed the note from Johnny’s hand and reread it. “Says here, you’re not to tell anyone except us about the kidnapping or they’ll make you and this town sorry.”

“What difference do we make?” asked Johnny, more than stumped. “I mean up until a few days ago we didn’t know nothin’ about Snake and his gang even breakin’ outta prison.” He paced the floor with the sheriff involuntarily curling and stretching his fingers into a fist. “If it hadn’t been for a deputy in Spanish Wells we still wouldn’t have known they were even headed here.”

“Don’t forget Davey Stryker,” added Scott. “It was just dumb luck our U.S. Marshal found him in the bushes and we were able to get any information out of him.”

“Luck,” scorned Johnny. “I’ve never believed in luck. Did you notice that bullet wound he had in his shoulder?”

“Yeah, why?” asked his brother. “It looked like he was shot from the back.”

“What if it came from Snake’s gun instead of the posse’s? He sure was scared to death.”

“Yup,” verified Scott. “Trembling in his boots.” Scott thought a moment, then said, “So what does that prove? Did they know Stryker would rat on them? Did they want us to know where they were heading? That doesn’t make sense. We’d have followed their tracks anyways.”

Johnny pointed a finger as he walked back and forth. “What if Stryker was more afraid of Snake than he was of me? After all, I’m the lesser of two evils.”

Scott grunted, finding that comment an understatement. Little brother you could probably put Snake to shame if you had a mindset too. “Go on,” prodded Scott, noting that Haney was closely listening.

“What if they wanted to make a hundred percent sure we would come to Mesa Roja?”

“The burning question is why?” deduced Scott.

“And why kidnap Ellen?” threw in the sheriff.

“Maybe,” hedged Johnny. “Maybe this is where it is all gonna come to a head.”

Scott snapped his fingers. “Well we know for a fact Grandfather wants you dead at the hand of some guy playing the Gray Ghost.”

“Yeah, ya think he’s faster than me on account of my sore arm?” asked Johnny, unconsciously testing his handling of his Colt. He took out the pistol and spun the cylinder. A second later he snapped it back in place and then twirled the gun on his finger before he holstered it.

“No,” instantly said Scott, bolstering his brother’s self-esteem. “No one’s faster than you. But, be serious for a minute. We haven’t a clue who he is.”

“Well, he’s gonna have to make an appearance sometime soon if he wants to get the job done,” reminded Johnny. “Better yet, there’s no time like the present. Then he’s gonna demand payment and not want to chase your grandfather all over creation to get it.”

“You think Grandfather will show up here and not stay in Cold River?”

“I doubt he’s in Cold River at all, Scott.”

Scott accused his brother, “You think he’s going to want to see the results of his handy work, don’t you?”

“Yup and not just me gettin’ gunned down either. I think he wants you outta the way. By having Snake kidnap Mrs. Haney and you, Golden Garrett, delivering the ransom…”

“I’ll be preoccupied with that task and won’t see the fruit of his labors in bringing you, Murdoch and Judd Haney down,” finished Scott. Both boys heard an audible gasp.

“Revenge huh?” said the sheriff. “For me not getting the job done in conquering your father twenty-five years ago and for your mother’s passing, Scott.”

“Actually Mr. Haney, we’ve lived here six years now so its thirty-one years ago,” gently corrected Scott.

“Long time to carry a grudge,” remarked Haney. “And here I thought Murdoch was stubborn.”

“So the bottom line is,” countered Johnny, “If Mrs. Haney and I land up dead, both Murdoch and you, sheriff, will be…will be…will for a better word be broken-hearted. And Scott, I know this is hard to take, but by the way yer grandfather’s thinkin’, at least in his old feeble mind, you’ll come back to Boston a defeated man.”

“Feeble Johnny?” amended Scott. “Tell it like it is. Don’t candy coat it. Grandfather knows what he’s doing.”

“Yeah? Ya really think so, huh?”

“Yup, and don’t forget to mention Billy Joe and Snake Cutter will have their revenge as well, because we all had a hand putting them in prison,” finished Scott, feeling down in the mouth. Why Grandfather? Why couldn’t you just let go?

“Well then,” grinned Johnny. “We’ve got to out-fox all of them by drawing ‘em out into the open.”

“You have a telegraph here?” inquired Scott. “We need to wire Murdoch for five hundred dollars.”

“Down the street,” answered Sheriff Haney. More than curious, he asked, “What in the dickens are you two hatching up?”

“A plan sheriff,” a now sober-faced Johnny replied. “We’re gonna give ‘em what they want.”

“How so?” asked the lawman, wiping the blood off his hand with a rag he found by a tin washbasin in a cell.

“The money’s the key,” explained Scott. “Someone around here, who is inconspicuous, is keeping an eye on the events.”

“In other words,” simplified Sheriff Haney, “someone around here has a nodding acquaintance with everything that is going on?”

“Exactly,” confirmed Scott.

Johnny added, “Sure would save a lot of time if we could figure out who.”

“Okay let’s put our heads together and sort it out.” suggested Scott. “After what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Haney, we now know Snake Cutter and the Gray Ghost are connected.”

Incensed, Johnny griped, “Scott, ya just had to say that, didn’t ya?”

“It makes sense, Johnny,” dogged Scott. “Didn’t Val say the Gray Ghost was good at coming and going without being seen? That he was a master at slipping in and out of town after doing the dirty deed of gunning the guy down?”

“That old yarn?” chortled Judd Haney. “Is nothing but a far-fetched tale, but thanks for the laugh.”

Scott, indignant now, said, “Mr. Haney you have no idea what’s been going on at home.”

“Then spill it, Scott,” replied the lawman. “From the beginning.”

Quickly, both Lancer brothers retold the story as they each knew it, leaving nothing out to the amazement of Judd Haney.

“That’s a real corker of a story boys,” admitted the sheriff impressed. “I can swallow both sides of the tale. Val’s a very good yarn-spinner. But, I have to tell ya after what just happened to me that someone is definitely trying to make us all believe in the ghost and I agree they are all in cahoots with each other.”

The brothers glared at each, then grinned.

Johnny suggested, “Mr. Haney, is there anyone around here still left from your old gang of raiders?”

“As a matter of fact there is. You’ve met him twice now I believe.” The lawman pointed across the street to the saloon.

“The barkeep?” asked Johnny surprised, but not surprised. “Ya think he’s still on Garrett’s payroll after all these years?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me none. Not all of Haney’s raiders went to prison. In fact, some never even got arrested,” informed the sheriff.

“Well that stands to reason, doesn’t it,” remarked Scott. “Lay low all these years and give out tidbits of information when warranted.”

“Until he hits pay dirt and surfaces again when needed,” added Johnny.

“Funny ya should say that Johnny,” said the lawman. “It was Ray, the bartender that got me this job.”

“Well there ya have it,” stated Johnny. “Now what are we gonna do about it? Because we gotta get them before they get us.”

Scott chuckled with a gleam in his eyes. “I have a plan…”

 

—26—

“This is Becky,” introduced Sheriff Haney. “She’s the telegraph operator, mail lady and owner of this general store.” A wire was coming in lickety-split and the lady with gray hair quickly jotted down the message on an official Western Union note pad.

“Can we trust her?” asked Johnny, impressed with the speed she could write.

“Completely,” said Judd. “She’s Ellen’s sister.”

Before looking up, the woman took another sheet of paper, wrote the date and time and copied the script from the original sheet. When she was finished she immediately put it in a white envelope with the party’s name on the front. Sitting the stationary aside, she looked up with a smile and said, “Pleased to meet you gentlemen. Always good to see you Judd. What can I do for you?”

Scott said, while watching her tear off the original message and flip it over into the received box, “We need to send a wire.”
“No problem,” assured the lady, who reminded him of Mrs. Haney.

“And do you have an overland messenger?”

“Why yes, my son-in-law,” she smiled. “He helps me run the store and makes very good time with his deliveries.”

“With a good tip, I bet he saves lots of time,” teased Johnny, straightaway liking the woman.

Becky grinned, “A little incentive always helps.” A door squeaked open from the back of the store and Becky picked up the envelope. A moment later a young man stepped behind the group of men. “Todd I have another telegram for you to deliver.”

“Yes ma’am,” politely said the guy, taking the missive from his mother-in-law and looking over the two strangers. A deep indrawn breath was heard by all.

“Johnny? Johnny Lancer?” the young man hollered in his excitement. “It’s me, Todd Wilson, Turk Caudle’s best friend, from yer school teachin’ days.”

“Boy, this must be the week for reunions,” laughed Johnny, slapping the boy on his back, then grabbing his shoulders to hold him in place. “Here let me get a gander at ya. You’ve sure filled out some since I saw ya last.”

Grinning from ear to ear, Todd burst out with, “Well I’m married now. My wife’s and her ma’s cookin’ sure beats pa’s all to pieces.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” agreed Johnny. “Saw Turk just last week in Spanish Wells. Got ‘im a job bein’ a deputy.”

“Yeah, I know,” replied Todd. “We trade messages on the wire now.” The boy ducked his head a second, then brought it up and said, “We, ah, both got ya to thank for makin’ us come to school and such. Mr. Cameron turned out to be a right fine teacher.”

“See? What did I tell ya? Glad to hear that I didn’t waste my time with you two.” Turning to his brother, Johnny proudly said, “Todd, this is my brother, Scott. He’s from the east like Mr. Cameron.”

“Yeah, I remember you tellin’ us how he talked such proper English all the time.”

Smiling broadly, Johnny verified, “Yeah, he still does.” A second later, he felt himself being swatted with his brother’s hat, as Scott said, “I heard a lot about you and Turk also. I bet you gave my brother a run for his money.”

Johnny kidded, “What money? I did it only as a favor to the Cameron’s.”

“Speaking of which,” reminded Scott. “We’d better get down to business.”

Looking around the store to see if anyone was listening and finding no one in the place, Scott was satisfied. He hastily outlined his scheme and took in the many questions and suggestions from all involved until they had a plan.

 

—27—

Morning of the next day.

“Telegram for ya,” drawled a weary Todd. He handed it to Scott, who was sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the Mesa Roja Hotel. The Lancer brothers had spent the night in the room Murdoch had once rented.

Scott asked, “Did you have any trouble finding the Lancer ranch yesterday?”

“Nope, it was right where ya said it would be,” yawned the boy. “Course it’s kinda hard not to miss, it bein’ so big and all.”

“Murdoch feed you supper?” probed Johnny, sitting on the steps enjoying a cup of Arbuckle’s coffee. He clearly remembered the desperate ride he had made one night from Mesa Roja all alone with no ammunition. Didn’t like leavin’ Scott behind either with the same problem.

“Yeah. We had a nice steak, smashed potatoes and chocolate cake,” chuckled Todd. “He even gave me a fresh horse to come home on.” Todd turned to go back down the steps.

Licking his lips and with a dreamy look on his face, Johnny asked, “The cake alone was worth the ride, wasn’t it?”

“You bettcha!”

“Pay the man,” ordered Scott to his brother, who instantly snapped out of his daydream.

“Me?” asked Johnny, dumbfounded, feeling his leather coat pockets with one hand. “Ya know I’m clean out of money from the poker game ya forced me to play last night at the saloon.”

Scott let out a big sigh. “Figures.” Resigned, he good-naturedly handed Todd a twenty-dollar gold coin.”

The young man about choked on his own spit in his amazement, “Thanks, but its way too much.”

“You more than earned it,” said Johnny, bringing his coffee mug up to his lips and taking a sip of the delicious brew.

“Consider it a wedding present from your former teacher and me,” kindly said Scott, exchanging grins with Johnny. Both brothers stood up and shook hands with the young man. Todd, not believing his good fortune, literally skipped down the steps.

“Don’t forget,” called Johnny, “Half of that gold piece is for your bride.”

“I won’t,” replied Todd, a bit less enthused. None the less, he hot-footed it towards the general store where he and his wife lived above it.

Johnny snickered as Scott tore open the telegram. “Life’s responsibilities come harder when yer older, huh brother?” asked Johnny distractedly putting the coffee cup on top of the white porch rail. In the distance, he could see Judd Haney making his appointed rounds. “Well? What’s it say?” he asked, moving behind his sibling, as they went down the wooden steps to the street.

Walking towards the sheriff’s office, Scott read out loud, “Money’s at Red Rock Bank. Everything’s all set. Murdoch.”

Clamping a hand across Scott’s shoulder, Johnny quipped, “Looks like ya finally get to wear that new shirt ya bought yesterday.”

“Mundane dark yellow,” groaned Scott, not liking the color at all. “It was the closest thing I could find to the old one.” Johnny had hated it on sight. Putrid is what he had called it. Reminded him of some kind of animal dung. At least this time he didn’t howl with laughter like when I showed him my golden-paisley one. Never would’ve dreamed that shirt would come to mean so much to the both of us.

“Won’t matter,” bemoaned Johnny, “You’ll have yer tan coat on to cover most of the ugliness up. More than likely they won’t even be able to tell the difference.”

“Let’s hope so for Mrs. Haney’s sake,” replied Scott, opening the door to the sheriff’s office. The boys went in as Judd Haney came up behind them.

“Ya sure this plan of yours is gonna work?” asked a worried Haney. I’ll die if something happens to her.

“Now sheriff,” placated Johnny, secretly thinking the same thing. Scott, this plan of yer’s had better work or so help me…I don’t think I can live with the consequences, if in, it don’t. “Now’s not the time to get cold feet.”

“Just take care of your town, Mr. Haney, and we’ll take care of the rest,” added Scott. Grabbing the hated new shirt off a peg beside the front door where he had left it the night before, Scott put it on over his tan shirt and tucked both hems into his pants.

Still arguing intermittently about this part of the plan, Scott turned to Johnny, and ordered, “And you, dear brother, just sit tight and act the decoy, okay?” He got a dirty look from his sibling. “This is the part that will make the plot all worthwhile.”

“Sittin’ just ain’t my style,” protested Johnny, impatiently twirling his gun on his trigger-finger. He faked a sudden draw with his left hand over the hammer, and was disgruntled to find his shoulder hurt like hell with pain shooting down his arm. He was glad his brother was preoccupied with getting dressed and didn’t see the distress cross his face.

“I know, but it’s the only way to flush them all out,” commiserated Scott, slipping on his jacket. Especially the Gray Ghost.

“I just wish there weren’t so many people dependin’ on us. That’s all,” said Johnny, finally coming to terms with the plan.

“That can’t be helped,” answered Scott. “It’s not just Mrs. Haney, but the whole Lancer ranch too.”

“Yeah, you’ve got the right of it,” pronounced his brother, practicing his draw again. He bit his lip, trying to keep the torment from showing on his face.

“How do I look?” lightly asked Scott, not fooled by his brother’s antics. He’s stiff and he’s sore.  “And if you say pretty, brother, so help me, I’ll wrinkle up that fresh pink shirt you put on this morning,” he warned.

“Scott, I don’t think ya’d want me to wear my blue one another time. Heck, it smells so bad even the flowers are wiltin’.” Johnny drew his gun again, faster than before. But he couldn’t stop the red-hot stabbing pain in his upper left shoulder each time he reached over the barrel of the gun.

As he watched him practice over and over, Scott was subconsciously scared for this brother. Finally, he coached, “Mind over matter, Johnny. It’ll come.”

Johnny understood what his brother meant. “Ya sayin’ when it comes to the crunch, it’ll ease up?”

“You won’t even think about it. You’re one with the gun…a natural,” encouraged Scott. “It’ll happen spontaneously when he appears.”

“Ya mean the Gray Ghost?” cynically asked Johnny, as he drew again and crouched into a new position. At least, my knee don’t hurt no more.

“Him and anyone else that gets into the mix of things.”

Johnny slid his Colt into its holster and pushed his hat back on his head, then gave his brother the once over. “Kinda big ain’t it? Murdoch could easily wear it.”

“I’ll gladly give it to him when we’re through here,” wryly replied Scott. “It’s more his color anyways.”

“Well I gather, it’ll pass muster then,” snickered Johnny, “Even if it ain’t as…brilliant…as yer other one.”

“Well, when you’ve had the best, it’s hard to accept less,” quoted Scott, heading for the back door.

Following his brother to his horse and then watching him mount the animal, Johnny asked, “Which one of ‘em authors said that?”

“Scott Lancer,” smiled his brother. “I’ll be back in no time at all. Meanwhile, find a rocker…”

“And do what? Kill time?”

“Johnny!” warned Scott, as he maneuvered his horse in the right direction. “You gave your word.”

“Yeah, I know and I’ll keep it.”

Scott was relieved, but felt compelled to reinforce the issue, “See that you do.”

A moment later Scott worked his bay horse around the jail to Main Street and took off down the road. By-passing Judd Haney’s house on the outskirts of town, he saw some saddled horses at the hitching rail in front of the house.  Strange? On my way back through I’ll have to check that out. I know Judd Haney’s horse is at the livery in town. Ellen’s missing. These horses are not the same as the one Haney had lent us years ago to bring Murdoch home. Besides, they wouldn’t be saddled if they were. So, why are these horses here?

Having no time to investigate, Scott rode to the first crossroad and turned Charlie north. Boy, I hope this works. We sent a fake telegram to Murdoch in order to fool the kidnapers of Mrs. Haney that we are taking their demands seriously and are getting the ransom money. That part has at least worked since the sheriff reported someone had jimmied the backdoor of the general store last night after closing. Becky had stacked all the ‘sent’ correspondence in a certain way and had put it in a folder marked with yesterday’s date. It had been rifled, but not stolen. So the perpetrator took the bait, hook, line and sinker.

We sent Todd to Murdoch with a missive on how we were going to pull all the loose ends together. Sure didn’t want to trust the wire service with that information. Now, if only we can pull it off.

Scott rode for a couple of miles occasionally glancing back over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. Yup, there’s a speck in the distance. Probably wants to make sure I’m headed to Red Rock. Anytime now, he’ll stop and report back to Snake. It’s the return trip we have to worry about. Right now, I have some time to find Mrs. Haney before I’m expected back in Mesa Roja with the money. Timing is going to be everything. Judd Haney is doing his normal duties and Johnny is acting like he hasn’t a care in the world. Is that what gunfighters do with their spare time? Of course, I know this is all a ploy on both men’s parts. Especially Johnny, he’s probably chomping at the bit. I can see his fingers’ moving uncontrollably now, bored stiff if I knew the truth. Patience little brother, it’ll all soon come into play and you’ll have your showdown with the Gray Ghost.

The older Lancer brother came to a wide bend in the road with a thick clump of trees, filling in the rocky land. Quickly, Scott halted his horse in the shadowy, midst of the shrubbery. He took off his coat, then the dull yellow shirt and stuffed it in his saddle bag. So much more discreet with just a brown work shirt on my back. Blends right in with the overcast day. After tying down his tan jacket behind his saddle, he then maneuvered the horse through the trees to a back-road pass that paralleled the main road. A moment later, thanks to a map Mr. Haney had drawn, he was doubling back towards the town of Mesa Roja.

 

—28—

Sticking to the lawman’s daily routine, Judd had completed his morning duties pertaining to the small town. Now, he and Johnny, were settled on the boardwalk in front of the sheriff’s office, playing a friendly game of checkers.

Johnny kept his word to his brother and did exactly what he hated most…nothing. Sittin’ on the fence. Killin’ time. Watchin’ the dust settle. His restless fingers moved another black checker on the board, capturing one of Haney’s kings.

Haney took his game-piece off the board and asked, “Ya seen hide nor hair of Scott yet?”

“Soon Sheriff,” reassured Johnny, sitting on a barrel, facing the hotel at the end of the street. Scott should return from that direction and sneak his way behind the jail. Johnny smiled to himself. Let’s see if he can get past me without me knowin’.

Time crawled by. The gentle breeze changed to a stiffer wind with a chill in the air. A tumbleweed rambled half-hazardly across the street and got stuck under the swinging doors of the saloon. Ray, the barkeep, with an ever present towel thrown over his shoulder, came to the entrance and kicked the overgrown weed back into the street where it continued on its way. Observing the men across the street, he heckled, “Ain’t payin’ ya time to sit on yer arse, Sheriff.”

Good naturedly, Judd waved back and shouted, “I’ll be in soon for my coffee.”

“Everyday thing?” asked Johnny, moving his checker to the end of the board.

“Every day,” repeated Haney, kinging Johnny’s game piece.

They continued to aimlessly move the checkers around the board. On-lookers came and went each, giving advice on how to win the game. Small town gossip was exchanged, “The Dixon’s cow is off her feed.” And, “That Henderson whelp ain’t gonna amount to a hill of beans.”

Nothing proved fruitful by way of any gang related activities in or out of town.  No one had seen any strangers in days, except the Lancer boys.

Judd asked, “Ya really think Snake and his gang are here?”

“Probably hiding in plain sight, Sheriff.”

Time dragged further along. Johnny won the game. They started a new one just as a fancily dressed older man approached them with a young, blonde woman holding his arm. Johnny thought, something’s familiar about them.  Before he could get a better looksee, a group of women opened a door beside the sheriff’s office and stepped out onto the boardwalk before the couple could reach them. Upon spying the town’s lawman, they descended upon them asking why Ellen hadn’t been at their quilting bee. A moment later Johnny felt something hard hit the edge of his boot. A rock, Scott?

Glancing into the shadows, Johnny saw the barely visible outline of his brother getting into position for their next move. “The fix is in,” he stated to Haney, who was fending off the Women’s Auxiliary.

Judd Haney had to come up with an excuse that was feasible, so as not to insult his wife’s friends and incur the wrath of his spouse. He helplessly looked at Johnny, who only shrugged his shoulders in reply.

He only knew of one thing that would speed the ladies on their way. Blushingly, he explained, “She’s, ah, indisposed.”

“Oh, the poor dear,” twittered one of the older ladies. “I’ll have to make her some Jasmine tea.”

Judd didn’t have any idea what Ellen liked to drink when it was that time of the month, but he was sure it wasn’t tea. He said instead, “I think all she wants is some peace and quiet. Ya know how it is, ladies?”

A great amount of giggling was heard on the street as the women made their way down the boardwalk to the town’s only eatery.

“Whew,” was the only explanation Judd gave as he wiped his sweaty forehead with the sleeve of his jacket.  

Johnny, trying not to smile, commented, “I think it’s time to prod the bait.” He got up and ambled across the street to the saloon.

Judd hollered, “Bring me back a pot of coffee.”

“Another routine thing?” called Johnny, stepping onto the boardwalk across the way.

“Yup.”

Judd got a wave of acknowledgement from the gunfighter, turned friend, before Johnny went inside.

Johnny bellied up to the bar and said, “I’ll take that free drink now.”

Ray, who had been drying a mug with a less than clean linen rag, asked, “What will it be?”

“A beer.” Johnny saw the barkeep halt for a moment in surprise. “I like to mix things up a bit,” scoffed Johnny. “Don’t like anyone gettin’ to personal. No offense.”

“None taken,” remarked the bartender, as he put the mug he’d just cleaned under the tap for the beer. As he filled the glass with the amber liquid, he asked, “Where’s yer brother?”

“Hmm, out on an errand.” Johnny smiled, then filled him in, on purpose, with the information the barkeep was no doubt listening for, “He’ll be back soon.”

Barely able to contain his excitement as he handed Johnny his beer, Ray asked, “Judd want his coffee?”

Taking his time, Johnny blew on the foam, spraying it out of the glass and onto the shiny counter. Slowly, he sipped his drink before answering, “Yeah.”

In a blink of an eye, the barkeep wiped the spill off the surface with the sack-cloth he had just used to dry the glass Johnny was drinking from and sullenly replied, “Coming right up.” He turned and went through an open door at the right side of the bar into a room Johnny figured was the kitchen.

A few moments later, Ray came out of the same door, holding a tin coffee pot with a small towel wrapped around its handle. He placed it in front of the gun hawk on the bar’s surface. “It’s boilin’ hot, just the way he likes it.”

“Much obliged,” replied Johnny, putting his empty mug on the counter and carefully picking up the pot. He nodded at the bar’s wooden top. “Ya missed a spot.”

Johnny could hear the man sputtering as he walked through the swinging doors and into the street. He quickly made his way to the sheriff’s office and noticed no one at the checker board. Opening the door to the office, he hurried inside to find Haney and Scott deep in conversation.

“I know I saw three horses at the hitchin-rail when I left town,” emphatically stated Scott, pointing towards the sheriff’s house. “And after I came back into town, I snuck over to your place and they were still there.”

“What else did ya see?” asked Johnny, sitting the scalding hot, tin pot down on Haney’s desk. He then rubbed his backside to cool his hand.  

Ignoring the coffee, Judd remarked, “That’s mighty odd. Ya sure they were saddled?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” came the reply from Scott. “And another thing,” went on the older brother, “There’s too many horses at the livery…”

“Hold up,” anxiously called Johnny, viewing the outside world from behind the curtained window. “Ray’s taken the bait.”

The other two men hurried to the window and peered through the pane. Johnny indicated with a finger on the glass which direction Ray was headed.

“There’s Mr. Ferguson,” stated Scott. The liveryman greeted the barkeep and then appeared to listen closely with his ear near to the tavern keeper’s face. A moment later, they both rushed inside the stable.

“What do you make of that?” asked Judd.

“Keep watch,” demanded Johnny. “What better way to hide a gang’s horses than in a livery stable?”

“Where people come and go all the time,” added Scott. “No one pays any attention to how many horses are in a place like that. Nor do they keep track of the stock when they leave.”

A few minutes later, the two men in question came riding out of the barn with three other unknown men behind them. “They’re headin’ towards my place,” huffed Haney.

“Or maybe to where Scott’s supposed to be riding back from Red Rock,” suggested Johnny.

“Regardless, I’m going home,” argued the sheriff, heading for the back door.

“I’m going with you,” said Scott, following behind him.

“So am I,” added Johnny, glad the waiting part of the game was over.

Scott turned and held out a hand against his brother’s chest. “No you’re not. You’re the decoy or have you forgotten?”

“Besides,” fretted the Sheriff. “I need you to mind the town while I’m gone in case they do come back.”

Not believing his ears, Johnny grouched, “You want me to mosey around the town and do what…make sure the boardwalks are swept?”

“Johnny, you’re the gun hawk, you can handle it,” smiled Scott, letting go of his brother. “I have my upmost faith in you.”

“Ex-gun hawk,” mumbled Johnny under his breath as he watched, once again, his brother and the sheriff mount their horses.

“What if Snake and what’s left of his gang double back while yer both gallivanting off somewhere? What if they’re at Haney’s and you need my help?”

Exasperated, Scott felt his brother’s impatience. “Look Johnny. Someone has to protect the town. The bait’s been taken. Somewhere in time, they’ll head here. We are only going to Haney’s for a few minutes. By the time you walk around the town once, we’ll be back.”

Hating the whole situation, Johnny gave in, “Okay, I’ll save some time.” How am I gettin’ roped into this? All because of some fool who’s pretendin’ to be the Gray Ghost that’s in cahoots with Snake and his gang and is possibly getting paid by my own brother’s grandfather. Johnny warned, “I’ll circle one time around the block Scott. But in short, you’d better be back here by the time I’m done or so help me I’m comin’ after ya both…and the town can be damned!”

The men turned their horses towards the west and Haney took off. Scott glanced back over his shoulder and halted Charlie’s movement after seeing the fire in Johnny’s eyes and something else…

Scott relented. “Johnny? Why don’t you go and I’ll stay.”

Touched beyond words, Johnny shook his head. “No Scott. It’ll ruin the plan.”

“Brother mine, you be careful, you hear me?”

“Scott? No matter what happens…don’t blame yerself.” With that having been said, Johnny turned and with spurs jangling, stomped back into the sheriff’s office.

Scott swore a word he hardly ever used, then kneed his horse and followed after Judd Haney.

 

—29—

Scott Lancer caught up with Judd Haney just as he reached the outer edge of his property. Both men dismounted and looped the reins around the white, wooden fence surrounding the barn furthest from the house. Slowly, they crept past all the out buildings including the main paddock and the barnyard.

Coming to a standstill across from the too quiet place, the men studied the house.

“Boy, it’s as silent as a graveyard,” whispered Scott, recalling another night when he’d snuck onto the Haneys’ porch. Only now it’s around noon and broad daylight “The horses are all gone except for one,” murmured Scott.

“Probably the lookout watchin’ my wife.” A moment of doubt crossed his face. “Ya don’t…ya don’t think they killed ‘er?”

Scott had never seen the sheriff so unsure of himself. He avoided the question and suggested instead, “How about we find another way in other than the front door?”

“There’s a broken latch on a window in the kitchen I never got around to fixin’.”

“Good enough. Let’s go.”

They made their way over to the windowpane and found it cracked open to let the fresh air in. “I wonder if this is Ellen’s doings,” muttered Haney as he silently pushed up the glass. They halted their movements and peered inside. Seeing and hearing nothing, Judd gestured to Scott to climb in.

“Oh no,” contradicted Scott. “Age before beauty. Besides you know the layout.”

Turning over one of Mrs. Haney’s orange, clay pots, the sheriff used it for a stepping stone to heft a leg over the sill. Once in, Scott followed suit.

With guns drawn and not making any noise, the two men moved further into the kitchen. The room was a mess. Spread over the counter was the fixings of a meal. On the stove sat a black skillet with remnants of what looked like beef hash. In a hushed voice, Judd filled in, “Probably my supper from last night.” Three dirty plates were on the table with glasses left with varying amounts of water. One plate, full of food, sat untouched on the counter. “Knowing Mrs. Haney she was undoubtedly waitin’ to bean one of the men with the fryin’ pan,” smiled the lawman. 

Tickled, Scott whispered, “Mrs. Haney is a pretty feisty woman.” A rifle in his back came to mind when she had ordered him inside the house one evening a long time ago. “You think they were here all night?”

“I had the duty. I usually only come home for meals and a change of clothes. They probably knew I’d be preoccupied with Ellen’s kidnapping so I wouldn’t show up here. What better place to hide out?”

“Sneaky,” replied Scott. “Just like a snake in the grass.”

Judd led the way to the living room and stopped when he saw the front door was wide open. Both men could see a man sitting in a rocker on the front porch. Slowly they tiptoed to the entrance. Judd cocked his pistol and stepped outside, startling the man.

“Mr. Ferguson,” gushed Scott, in an over friendly voice. “Fancy meeting you here.”

The man jumped out of the chair, blubbering, “Oh Sheriff! Ya scared me all to pieces.”

“I’m gonna do more than that if ya don’t tell me where Mrs. Haney is!” yelled the lawman.

Mr. Ferguson’s eyes grew wide and a tremor entered his voice as he frantically looked around, “I swear I don’t know what yer talkin’ about.”

“Cut the crap. Yer in this up to your ears,” growled Haney, bringing up the barrel of his gun and pointing it at the man’s chest.

“You’d better cough up the lady,” suggested Scott, gesturing at the weapon in the sheriff’s hand with his own. “I believe he means business.”

Before the man could say anything there was a thump from the trunk on the porch next to the rocking chair. A muffled voice followed from under the lid. “Please! Let me out!”

“Ellen!” shouted Haney, shoving his gun into his holster. “Keep ‘im covered!” Instantly, Judd knelt down by the trunk and unlatched the lid, throwing it open.

Out popped Mrs. Haney followed by a musty smell. “Oh Judd,” she cried, falling into his arms. “I was never so scared.” The lawman lifted her out of the box and hugged her tightly. “You alright?” he gently crooned.

She nodded yes into his shoulder as she held onto his person for dear life.

“What happened after they knocked me out?” asked Judd, still holding his wife.

“They tied my hands, threw me in a wagon and covered me up. We drove around for what seemed like hours. Then, in the middle of last night we came back here. The guy with the snake band on his hat made me fix breakfast for the three of ‘em.

Butting into the conversation, Scott asked, “What three?”

Hearing Scott’s voice and realizing he was there, Mrs. Haney grew confused, “I’ve been expectin’ you for some time.”

Feeling her unease, Scott teased her by saying, “I’m glad I didn’t disappoint you.”

She let go of her husband and gave Scott a shadow of a grin. Wringing her hands she went on with, “That’s all they talked about. You and some guy named Golden Garrett and the money they were gonna get on this job.” Anxiously, she ended with, “That snake feller wants to get even with yer brother Johnny Madrid…him and the man dressed all in gray who doesn’t talk much.”

Scott’s heart skipped a beat. “The man in gray. Was he young or old?”

“Hmm, young. About yer age. Never saw him before. He took off with Billy Joe when Mr. Ferguson and Ray pulled up with the news that Golden Garrett was almost here with the money.”

Not Dusty then, though I never thought it was. So it’s some other new player. Billy Joe? Naw, he doesn’t have the smarts to pull off the Gray Ghost. Who then? Who did you hire Grandfather? “Where’d they all go?” asked Scott, ready to bolt off the porch and run for his horse. He holstered his gun and Haney pulled his.

“Don’t know exactly,” nervously replied Ellen. “Ray and Snake with a few men took off west.” She glared with contempt at Mr. Ferguson. “They left ‘im to keep me in line. I kicked ‘im in the leg and the big oaf put me in the trunk for safe-keepin’.”

“And the other two?” impatiently asked Scott, already down the steps.

“To town. Said something about it being time to take care of some unfinished business.”

Scott, now frightened for his brother, wasted no more time and ran for his horse.

 

—30—

Meanwhile, about the same time on the road from Red Rock…
A young man wearing a bright, golden shirt, which reflected the rays of the muted sun through the overcast sky, was riding a brown mustang towards the town of Mesa Roja. He was minding his own business and enjoying the scenery when a gang of men surrounded his horse, bringing him to a stop.

“Hold up there, Golden Garrett,” hissed a man with a snake band on his hat.

The kid did what he was told and waited for the snake to state his business.

None the less, the man gave the boy the creeps as his beady, dark eyes swept over his person.

Drawing his gun, Snake coldly stated, “Yer not Golden Garrett.”

“No Mister, I surly ain’t,” replied the young man, in an innocent voice.

“What do you call yerself?”

“Name’s, Turk, Turk Caudle.”

“What ya doin’ with that there shirt on?” asked the varmint.

“Bought it off the rack in the mercantile store. Kinda dazzles the eyes don’t ya think?” asked Turk, proud of the shirt.

Testily, Snake bit out, “Man’s gotta have a name with a shirt like that. What do ya call yerself? The Golden Stud?” The gang of men laughed and slapped one another on the back. The snake man chortled too, sticking out his forked-tongue.

Turk didn’t know what to make of that and grinned along with the men. He watched mesmerized as it curled in and out of the outlaw’s mouth.

The man hissed again and impatiently ordered, “Yer name boy!” The laughter died away. The hands of the men went to the side of their guns.

Turk gave them a wide grin. “Oh I get it. You want my gun name. They call me the Mischief Maker!” He reached up with his left hand and pulled his hat off his head, revealing a very large bullfrog. Quickly with his other hand, he flicked the amphibian in the behind, causing him to jump down amongst the horses’ hooves.

The animals went wild with fright. They reared, bucked and turned in circles, tossing some men onto the ground, including Snake Cutter. Before the outlaws could pick themselves up and gain control of their horses, they were suddenly encircled by a group of lawmen.

“Hold it right there and drop yer guns!” ordered Val, in a no nonsense voice. “Yer surrounded and under arrest!”

Besides the U. S. Marshal, holding his gun like he’d shoot them as well as look at them, were his deputies, the ex-Texas Rangers, Murdoch Lancer and Turk Caudle. The kid, now looking more like a man, aimed a gun directly at Snake. In defeat, the outlaw threw his hat on the ground and stomped on it.

Once all the weapons hit the dirt, Val commanded, “All right! Round ‘em up and let’s get ta town!”

Murdoch chuckled and said, “I think Sheriff Haney’s gonna need a bigger jail.”

 

—31—

Johnny Madrid, feeling like a lone wolf, solemnly made the rounds of the too quiet town. He had started out at the Sheriff’s office front door and had strolled in the direction of the hotel at the end of the street. What in the world do ya do during the day when everything is unlocked and the townsfolk are just about their business? No wonder Haney likes workin’ the night duty.

Unbeknown to him how the events of their plan were being played out, Johnny could do nothing but wait for who may be coming for him. Today’s the day, no doubt about it. I can feel it in my bones. Jelly’d get a good laugh if he heard me say that.

He thought about the nightmare he’d had around Halloween time. Scott had rescued me…from Hell of all places. He smirked at the memory. How terrifying is the real Hell? I hope I never find out. The message had been real enough. Thought about it dozens of times. It won’t stop eating at me. Who is coming after me? Who wants to gun me down? Is it the Gray Ghost? Is there really a Gray Ghost and not just a story Val made up? Or is it just someone pretendin’ to be the elusive phantom? Are they related? The same person? Are they tryin’ to twist me inside out using the tactics from the tale? Why? For revenge? Against my family? Or Me? Dang, I feel as jittery as I did in that cornfield goin’ up against Weir. Creepy.

Johnny laughed out loud at his choice of words and said, “Yeah, Scott, the whole thing is creepy.” He wished his brother would hurry and get back.

Johnny was primed and ready for the soon to be gunfight. His gut was telling him it was gonna happen anytime. Just knowing his brother was around and having his back always made him feel better. Though at the same time, it terrified him if Scott should become entangled in the middle of the action and take a bullet meant for himself.

He’d worked his way to the hotel half expecting the man in gray to materialize out of the bushes. It didn’t happen. Johnny climbed the four steps to the porch and turned around. Not a soul in sight. Flea-bitten just like Morro Coyo. Now I know how Murdoch felt that day when he’d chased down Pardee.

 Flexing his fingers of his left hand, Johnny tried to limber up his arm and shoulder. The pain was still there. Gonna have to work with it Madrid. Ya got no choice. He strode to the end of the porch and searched the boundaries of the town. House hasn’t changed much, same old laundry hangin’ on the clothesline. None of the buildings seem any different after all these years.

Where is the Gray Ghost? This is the perfect set up for him. Sun is in the west, facing me. Is this gun hawk a green horn? Heaven help me if he is. New gunfighters are so unpredictable.

******

With the Santa Ana Winds at his back, Scott had literally flown into town on his horse. He left Charlie at the hitching rail behind the jail. Grabbing his rifle out of the scabbard, Scott made his way through the building and onto the boardwalk where he encountered Todd Wilson running across the street.

“I saw ya ride in from my bedroom window at the general store,” huffed Todd, trying to catch his breath.

“You see Johnny?” asked a harried Scott, searching for his brother’s pink shirt.

“Yeah, been keepin’ an eye on ‘im. He’s down at the hotel.”

Noticeably relaxing, Scott let out a pent up breath. “Any trouble?”

“If ya mean by way of the Gray Ghost, no,” reported Todd. “But, Billy Joe is in town. I seen him skulking around.”

“That is trouble with a capital T,” added Scott. “Where’s the best advantage point to oversee things?”

“Probably up those stairs beside the saloon. You can see the whole street from on top of the buildin’.”

“Good, now listen to me.” Scott had Todd’s rapt attention. The young man’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “I need you to stay by the jail until Sheriff and Mrs. Haney make their way here. They’ll be bringing Mr. Ferguson, who is knee deep in this mess. If things went according to our plan, there’ll be even more men to lock up in a little while. They might need your help.”

“Scott, I heard once Mr. Ferguson and Billy Joe were best friends.”

“That’s good to know. Now keep everyone off the street. I don’t want anyone catching a stray bullet if the shooting starts, ya hear me?”

Todd nodded and said, “Got it.”

“Okay, I’m going to the roof.” As Scott ran across the street, he identified his brother by his pink shirt, leaning over the railing at the end of the hotel porch. What is he doing? Checking out the scenery behind the hotel? Dang it Johnny! Why are you turning your back? You making yourself a target on purpose? Over my dead body will I let that happen!

Quickly Scott made haste, taking the stairs two steps at a time, until he reached the landing. Finding a door, he opened it and stepped inside a narrow, dimly lit hallway.

******

Johnny came down off the steps and walked the chalk straight towards the saloon with his brother and father in mind. Pausing in the middle of the street, he thought, Murdoch had been shot about right here. He climbed the two steps onto the boardwalk and leaned into the swinging doors of the saloon. No customers were in the establishment. A young man tending the bar never looked up from the cards he was amusing himself with.

Johnny sauntered on coming to a halt in front of the forge at the livery. The fire had burnt down to mere embers. A horseshoe was left forgotten in the bucket of water. The stable doors were flung wide open with only a few horses, one being his own, in their stalls. The rest were in the barnyard alongside the building. He had now almost completed the loop. There was only a corral and a large barn to check on before he would cross the street to the sheriff’s office.

Barranca greeted him with a snort as Johnny slipped into the barn.

“Hi big fellow,” whispered Johnny, carefully checking all the corners and shadows of the vast place. He took time out to give his horse a pat on the neck. Barranca nosed him looking for a treat.

“Sorry Barranca, I’m fresh out. If ya see Scott…nail him. Ya know he always has candy of some sort hidden in his pockets.” Johnny gave him another pat and a scratch behind the ears. My pride and joy. The best gift I ever got besides Scott and a father who wanted me…not to mention Lancer. Reckon I have a lot to be thankful for. He contemplated mounting up and going after his brother when he heard the jingle of spurs and soft footsteps outside the building.

Johnny reached down and moved the trigger-guard on his gun, then squared his hat.

******

Strong perfume assaulted Scott’s nostrils as he made his way down the shadowed hall on the second floor of the tavern. Moans and groans could be heard coming from behind one of the closed doors of the various rooms. Sporting girls? Saloon women? Why not? It’s private enough.

“Can I help you?” asked a woman in a low sultry voice. The redhead was scantily clad with long red nails. She sashayed up to Scott, her cloying scent taking his breath away.

“Yeahhh. I, ah, ah…” Come on man untie your tongue and get her said. Johnny’s life could be at stake. The self-reprimand gave him the push he needed. “I, ah, ne…eed to find the stairs to the roof. It’s important and I don’t have ti…time to explain,” stuttered Scott.  He hoped he got his urgent point across.

Acting disappointed, though Scott didn’t think she really was, the painted lady pointed to a door at the end of the hall. “It’ll take ya to the attic, then the roof.” She gave him a kiss on his lips then whispered, “Ya take care now pretty boy and come back and see me when ya got time. Ya hear?”

“Yeesss, ma…ma’am,” demurely answered Scott, chagrined he’d stumbled over his words again. With his face flaming red and discreetly wiping the oily taste of the ruby lip-rouge from his mouth, he headed to the entrance of the hidden stairs. Johnny, I almost have a mind to…to rumple that pink shirt when I get a hold of you. Gray Ghost or no Gray Ghost.

Practically bursting through the door onto the roof, Scott came to a screeching halt when he found a man dressed all in gray, holding a rifle. With the dullness of the day, he blended right into the faded façade on the edge of the building. Scott froze where he stood. No, not the Gray Ghost. It can’t be. Val said he played fair.

Aiming his rifle at the man in gray, relief overcame him when Scott realized just who he was. Moving to the roof’s edge, he asked, “Dusty? What are you doing up here?” Not waiting for his answer, Scott quickly peered out one of two square glassless portals in the frontage and looked for his sibling. Panic seized him when he couldn’t find him.

“Tending to business,” was the reply from the bounty hunter, standing watch at the other empty window. “Johnny’s in the livery.”

Trying not to look as worried as he felt, Scott asked, “Whose business?”

“Yer father’s for one.”

Scott’s eyes rounded at the admission. “He’s still protecting us, I see.”

“Hmm, that’s what fathers do.”

“Seems I’ve heard that same statement before from a certain Texas Ranger,” responded Scott, walking to the corner of the roof to see if the position gave a clearer view of the street and especially the livery below. It did.

The older man quietly chuckled.

“Then again, Murdoch always did have a good taste in judgment, especially in the people he hires,” tacked on the older Lancer brother.

“Didn’t hire me.”

“No?” questioned Scott, honing in with his rifle sight at the stable’s open doors. “The money then?”

“Yup.”

“Which one you taking in?”

“Whichever one makes me shoot him.”

“What if I plug him first?”

“Then you collect the bounty.”

“I don’t want the bounty. All I want is for Johnny to come away from this in one piece and unscathed if possible.”

“There you have it, son.”

“Have what?”

“The real reason I’m here. A favor to yer father.”

Scott rubbed his forehead. “Will you tell me one thing on the true?”

“Sure, ask it.”

“Is there a real Gray Ghost?”

“Hmm.” The older man cracked a small, knowing smile. “Maybe,” he hedged. “Yer brother only knows half the story.”

Before Scott could ask him to stop talking in riddles, another man in gray stepped in front of the livery stable.

 

—32—

With all the cool confidence in the world, Johnny Madrid stepped out of the barn with his right hand on the butt of his Colt. He could feel the warmth of the timid sun hitting his back. The wind had picked up blowing the dust around.

A man with a gray shirt and vest, and light tan work pants stood a few feet away.

Johnny could only shake his head as he glumly said, “Billy Joe.”

“That’s right. Ya expectin’ someone else?” smirked Haney’s ex-deputy.

“Yeah.” He ain’t got the smarts to be a gunfighter like the Gray Ghost. But then…there are dumber ones.

“I told ya once to stay outta this town.”

“Ya forgot one thing,” reminded Johnny, “I don’t follow orders too good. And ain’t you still on the run from the prison break?”

“Not me. I got released early…for good behavior,” sneered Billy Joe. And with the help of an old man from back east. “But yer right. I’m not the one with a grudge against ya.”

Johnny didn’t respond. Instead he acted bored by resting all his weight on his good leg and bending his left knee forward in a nonchalant pose. Underneath, he was ready for anything the man was gonna spring on him. He flexed his fingers on his left hand a couple of times.

Billy Joe crowed a little louder, “In fact, he don’t want anything to do with Johnny Madrid at all.”

“No?”

“Nope. It’s Johnny Lancer he wants.”

In spite of all the years of hiding his true emotions during a crisis or shootout, Johnny’s puzzlement became evident. When did Johnny Lancer last make a hated enemy? Maybe one of Isham’s old cronies? He was in the nightmare. Pardee too. I played both sides of the coin back then. Weir didn’t have any friends. Who else?

A new voice with an eastern accent, said, “I’ll give you a hint, Twin Rapids.”

Johnny stared at the man dressed all in gray. He couldn’t help but gawk, as the memory busted wide open. He’s older now. After all this time, he still looks like Scott except his hair is gray.

“Jonas Barrett.” Yeah, I can see him pretendin’ to be the Gray Ghost.

“One and the same, just like you, Johnny Lancer. Too bad you didn’t tell my sister, Julie, who you really were, Madrid.”

“I am Johnny Lancer,” disputed Johnny. “And I don’t like ya callin’ me Madrid.”

“You dropped me in those raging waters so I’d drown like the cold-blooded killer you are!”

“No, it was an accident,” regretfully replied Johnny. “You slipped outta my hand. I didn’t have the strength to hold ya.” He took a step forward, putting his palm out. “I didn’t want to kill you. Hell, ya were my brother’s only hope against those two bounty hunters that wanted to take ‘im back to Denver.”

“Well, I survived no thanks to you.”

“Yer sister and me looked for you. We went all-fire crazy tryin’ to find ya.”

“I got washed down the creek. Was injured multiple times after hitting rocks, branches and everything else until I could grab onto a tree root. A doctor saved me who had been fishing downstream.”

Feeling bad, Johnny offered, “Look, I’m sorry.” A moment later, his own anger came through. “But, it doesn’t give ya the right to take it out on my family!”

Jonas outright smirked, “Part of your extended family wants you dead. That’s what that old man from back east is paying me to do.”

From the roof, Scott sucked in air, then held his breath. Even after everything he had learned during the past few days, he still had a glimmer of hope that there was a credible explanation for his Grandfather’s actions. The pain of his betrayal cut deep into the core of Scott’s well-being, making him sick to his stomach. Disappointment reigned. He wanted to deny it, even now, but knew in his heart it was true. I’m sorry Johnny.

“You all right boy?” asked Dusty, hearing the low intake of breath and then seeing the stricken expression on the man’s face.

Scott only said, “Keep an eye on Billy Joe. He’s a back shooter.”

“Those kind usually are.”

Billy Joe had stepped out of the picture and had worked his way behind Johnny, as the two antagonists were going at each other.

“Anytime you’re ready, Barrett,” coldly stated Madrid. “We’ve danced around it long enough.” He had cleared his mind of all emotion. This one’s for Scott’s peace of mind.

Their eyes stared at each other, brown versus blue.

Unseen sparks flew between them.

The noise around them ceased to exist.

Their hands were steady.

Both cleared leather.

A hand covered the hammer faster than his opponent.

A finger pulled the trigger quicker than his foe.

Two shots were heard followed by two from above and one behind Johnny. Gun-smoke filled the air.

Two men fell to the ground and one went to his knees with his head bowed. Sorry Julie, but I had to think of my brother once again.

Scott handed off his rifle to Dusty as soon as the gunfire had ended. He made a beeline for the edge of the roof nearest the outside stair’s upper landing. It was a bit high and risky, but he made the jump anyways, landing with ease by grabbing onto the top rail that bordered it to steady himself. He then raced down the steps.

Judd Haney made a wild dash out the door of his office, reaching Johnny at the same time as his brother. Dusty followed at a more sedate rate carrying both rifles.

Scott fell to his knees in front of his brother and pulled him into his arms not taking the time to examine him first. “Johnny, you alright?” he asked, as he ran his hands up and down his back searching for something warm and wet. It was hard to tell for his sibling’s body was soaked with sweat. “Come on Johnny, talk to me.”

“I will if ya let me get a word in edgewise.”

Scott hugged him harder against himself.

“Scott, I’m fine,” reassured Johnny, squeezing him back.

“You’re sure?” asked Scott, pushing him to arm’s length and doing a visual assessment. Whew, no red on the pink shirt. The, ‘I’m fine’, is a given with him. Why don’t I believe him? “How’s your shoulder?”

“A bit sore.”

Scott instantly let go of Johnny. Both boys looked at each other and broke into a grin.

“Glad that’s settled,” said Johnny, climbing to his feet with his cheeks tinted red from the display of emotion, but loving it none-the-less. He reached down and pulled Scott up to his feet just to show him he really was okay. “They both dead?”

“Deader than a flea on a frozen dog,” replied Dusty, who had noiselessly come up behind them.

Judd recounted the events, as his wife and Todd hurried over to the scene. Taking her into his arms like he was never going to let her go, he said, “The man in gray,” he paused and pointed to Jonas, “Johnny shot ‘im right between the eyes and Billy Joe took one to the head and chest.”

Johnny ducked his head. He felt Scott’s arm around his shoulders silently giving him support.

Val and his posse of lawmen with their prisoners rode into town. “Thought I heard shootin’,” spouted the marshal, dismounting from his horse. “Figure’s I missed it.”

Snake Cutter yelled, “Hey Golden Garrett! Ya been upstaged by this young whippersnapper!” He elbowed Turk on the horse beside him.

A few snickers and outright laughter was heard from his gang. Val reached up and pulled the wily man off his horse. “Quit your blatherin’ and get movin’,” he ordered.

Murdoch, seeing his boys, dismounted and hurried over to them. “You both okay?”

“Couldn’t be better,” assured Johnny, rubbing his left shoulder. “Though Scott’s not quite himself.”

“Oh?” asked their father, noticing both of his sons’ too serious faces.

Scott turned to Sheriff Haney and inquired, “Do we still need Snake’s confession even though Jonas told us an eastern man had hired him to…to kill…” He couldn’t finish the sentence of what his grandfather had done.

“He didn’t give us a name Scott,” softly filled in Johnny, feeling bad for his brother.

******

Snake wasn’t happy with the way the fates had turned against him. He had seen his two comrades dead in the street when they had ridden in. Being no fool, he figured it had to be the doings of Johnny Madrid. And he also knew he was the only one who could put the finger on the man who had hired them all. Well what’s it gonna be? Rot away in prison for the rest of my life or kill Madrid? I shoulda killed him before when I had the chance. Problem was, he wasn’t worth anything then. Now I could finish the job and collect the money the old salt owes me. He’d gladly pay too. I could live high on the hog down in Mexico for a long time. Got to make my move now while there’s confusion. It’ll be tricky with all these lawmen around. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll go out in a blaze of glory?

Snake craftily studied the goings on in order to find the weakest link. Old man Lancer is with his boys. The sheriff’s wife is with her husband. I see the kid with the golden shirt managed to recapture the bullfrog and is showin’ it to another boy his age. Bet their old friends. Shit, this is just one big happy family, ain’t it? The marshal and his deputies are tryin’ to herd my men into the jail…hmm…

Snake tripped over his own feet, crashing into Val and knocking him down. He scampered over the lawman’s body and grabbed the kid with the frog, lifting his gun out of the holster. Pushing the kid into the other one, Snake spun and aimed at Johnny as he ran for the only horse standing alone in the middle of the street. It was the giant deputy marshal’s mount he called Sinbad. Snake fired a wild shot straight at the man in pink and saw red on the side of his nemesis’ shirt. Feeling vindicated, he jumped on back of the lone big bay only to find he couldn’t force him to move. This ain’t my day. He heard a long whistle and the horse began to buck, throwing him off onto the hard packed ground. A large hoof came down before he could roll away and Snake knew life no more.

 

—33—

Johnny complained as two sets of hands pulled his shirt out of his pants. “I’m okay. He only winged me.”

“You’re idea of a graze and mine are two different things,” argued Scott. “Most likely it’s a deep furrow that needs stitches. There’s a lot of blood here.”

“Son, will ya hold still so Tim can take a gander at you.” wheedled Murdoch, holding him down on the boardwalk.

A long suffering sigh was heard from the ex-gun hawk. They all knew they were in for a row if they didn’t hurry. Johnny would stay down only so long before he’d put up a fight with their nurse-maiding.

“Tim get a move on! I’m up a tree here…in difficulty…cornered and unable to do anything. Tell ’em all it’s just a scratch.”

“I think he protests too much. Tell him, it’s a nasty crease,” sniped Scott, his nerves completely frayed. “After all, it is a bullet wound!”

Turned out Tim McRafferty was the only person with any medical sense in the flea-bitten town.

The medic, ex-ranger, sometimes deputy marshal, turned veterinarian, leaned on his knees by his patient and opened the medical kit he always carried with him.  Pulling out a dingy-white washrag and then carefully lifting the shirt, he patted the wound with the clean cloth and examined the injury.

“Well?” asked the Lancers’ three in unison.

“It’s just a laceration…”

“Humph,” rumbled Johnny at all of his unwanted nursemaids.

“That needs a few stitches.”

Scott mimicked, “See?”

“You’ll live to fight another day.”

“Good to know, Tim,” stated Murdoch satisfied. He let go of his son, then helped him sit up.

“Here hold still while I wrap you up, Johnny,” ordered the big guy. “I’m serious about the stitches. You’ll have another scar to match the one Snake gave you with the knife the last time you two crossed paths. Funny, it’s almost in the same spot. They can be twins.”

“Ha, ha,” growled Johnny, watching his brother walk over to the stage that had just arrived. “I wonder what’s up with Scott.”

All the men’s eyes followed Scott to the stage where an elderly gentleman and a blonde young lady were boarding.

“That’s the couple I saw earlier on the street,” declared Johnny, to no one in particular. “I’m sure I know them, but can’t think of her name right off.”

Murdoch took an interest in the pair also. “Why isn’t that Glory Smith and her grandfather? The ones who tried to swindle us?”

Johnny didn’t answer. He was too intent on watching Scott’s expressions as he chatted with them. Surprise, anger and now disgust. His brother slammed the door of the conveyance and the stage driver slapped the reins on the horses’ rumps. Soon they were nothing but a cloud of dust.

With shoulders slumped and a frown on his face, Scott made his way back to his family still on the boardwalk.

“What was that about?” asked Murdoch, holding a thick pad to Johnny’s side as Tim wound the sheeted bandages around his middle.

“Yeah, what’d they say that’s got ya so riled up?” asked Johnny, keeping his shirttail out of the way as the men worked on him.

Glumly Scott reported, “Grandfather sends us his regards.” He hit the hitching post with his fist, more than perturbed at the statement.

“That’s kinda mean ain’t it? Considerin’ he knew what was gonna happen here?” asked his brother. Damn the old goat anyways.

“Come on Johnny think about it. He just wanted to shove the knife in deeper and see what I’m made of.”

Tim said, “That’ll hold ya until we can get to a more private place to sew you up.” Feeling it was a family matter the Lancers were discussing, he picked up his kit and went to his horse now tethered to a post in front of the jail.

“Does he now?” asked Johnny, absently looking around. “In all the confusion I’ve forgotten he might be here,” replied Johnny, dropping his shirttail. “Is he here?”

“Nope,” exclaimed Scott. “He’s in Cold River where Glory and her grandfather had left him. Seems they’ve become fast friends over a deck of cards.”

“Huh?”

“What are you saying son?” asked Murdoch, also puzzled.

“Remember when you first sent Johnny North? Grandfather had gotten off the train in Cold River on Sunday and had to wait until Monday to catch the stage to Morro Coyo?”

“Yes,” affirmed his father.

“They were the reason. Sometime in the past, they had become acquainted and were his safety net in case anything went wrong. And it did when I received the affidavit from Judd Haney.”

“Go on,” said Murdoch, helping his younger son to his feet.

“With suspicion cast on Grandfather, he couldn’t very well been seen any more associating with his henchman in town or otherwise. He needed someone to carry out his orders. But Glory insisted they were only doing Grandfather a favor by bringing the money to the men here in Mesa Roja.”

“What money?” coldly asked Johnny.

“The money I told them to keep.” Scott rubbed his temple, his headache was back. “After all, there’s no one to collect it. The key players are all dead. The rest of the gang is locked up and going back to prison.”

“Oh, I bet old man Collier liked that,” grinned his brother, rubbing his hands together. “Yer grandfather should be more careful with his money.”

“Yes, there was a rather bright gleam in both of their eyes,” accorded Scott, watching the undertaker give orders to bring the bodies over to his place of business.

Observing the proceedings also, Murdoch asked, “What about the bounty?”

“There isn’t one for Billy Joe. He was released early for good behavior if you can believe that,” filled in Johnny. “And Dusty can have the money I’m gettin’ for killin’ Jonas. I’m sure there’s still an old reward out on his head.”

“How ironic is that?” asked Scott. “You collecting the reward instead of those two bounty hunters that wanted to kill me on the way to Denver?”

Johnny chuckled, “I wonder what Sinbad is gonna do with his share?”

Scott tsked, “Who ever heard of a horse collecting a reward?”

“Well, he did step on Snake’s head,” argued the man in pink.

Smothered laughter was heard from all three Lancers.

******

Across the street, in front of the jail, Dusty and Val were having their own conversation.

Dusty decided to speak his mind about something he couldn’t get a read on and asked, “Val? Does Madrid still believe that yarn ya told him all those years ago?”

“Ya talkin’ about the tale he and I made up about the Gray Ghost?” quizzed Val, with a toothy grin.

“That be the one.”

“Horn-swaggled ‘im pretty good, didn’t I?” smirked the marshal.

“Yeah, ya did,” smiled Dusty, pushing back his hat and scratching his head. “He still thinks he helped with the story-telling.”

“Yup.”

“Full of half-truths,” added the man in gray with a twinkle in his eyes.

“Oh someday, he’ll figure it all out,” surmised Val, shaking his friend’s hand. “You ain’t gonna tell ‘im any different are ya?”

“Nope.” Dusty mounted his horse. “His brother’s gettin’ wise to it though.”

The two men shared a hearty laugh. “Ah, time will tell. Ya headin’ home to yer new place?”

“Yup. Time I got settled.”

“See ya when I bring the reward money out with a bottle of whiskey. You’d better have those rockin’ chairs awaiting.”

******

Johnny, who had been observing the banter between the old friends, remarked to his brother, “If I didn’t know better…”

“Know what?”

“I’d swear, that story Val made up back in the day was based on…”

“Go on, sounds interesting.”

“Naw, it’s just plain too far-fetched…”

The Lancer family watched Dusty ride off into the gray gloom. The wind picked up, swirling dust into the air as another tumbleweed rolled down the street.

“He’s a loner,” stated Scott. “I wonder why he likes it that way.”

“He has his reasons, Scott,” softly answered Johnny. Sometimes it’s just better that way.

 

—Epilogue—

It had been late afternoon by the time the dust settled. Val had taken quite a while to finish all the paper things. According to the lawman, it was the one thing he hated most as a U.S. Marshal…documentation. He’d interviewed each person and had written their accounting of the part they’d each played in capturing the bad guys on a single or multiple sheets of paper.  At the end of the statement, each man signed their name and dated it.

Lunch had come and gone and supper was on the horizon when the big group of men and one woman had made their way to the hotel. Finally able to pen Johnny in one place, Tim had sewn his friend’s wound closed after their meal. Murdoch, always worrying about his boys, decided they’d spend the night and go home in the morning.

******

Scott irritably waited. The noise was driving him crazy. Each time he heard it a sharp pain tore through his own heart.

Why Grandfather? Why can’t you let me go? Why can’t you leave my family alone?

Johnny’s bed squeaked in the small hotel room. A muffled moan always followed as he tossed and turned, trying to find a more comfortable position. His brother was hurting and he couldn’t sleep.

The same thoughts were going through Johnny’s mind. Why can’t the old goat leave Scott alone? Can’t he see how he’s tearin’ his grandson apart? The hypocrite says he loves him. If that’s love I’ll eat my hat. Scott’s hurtin’ and can’t sleep.  

“Scott? I know yer awake.”

“Same here,” was the response. “You sore?”

“Ya know I am,” kidded Johnny, chuckling out loud.

“What’s so funny?”

“We are. What’s on yer mind Scott?”

“I bet old Snake got the shock of his life when he couldn’t make Sinbad move.”

“I can relate to that,” answered Johnny, struggling to sit up in the bed. “Don’t ya just love the way Tim orders his horse to stay put before he dismounts?”

Scott broke in with, “As in stay put, being the key word. No one within earshot would ever surmise it was a command for his horse to do just that.”

Both boys guffawed loudly.

Johnny moved to the edge of the bed and reached for his boots.

“What are you doing?”

“Since I can’t sleep. Think I’ll take a walk,” replied Johnny, sliding a boot over his right foot.

“It’s the middle of the night. We’re not at home and you should be resting.”

“If we were home, I’d probably be takin’ Barranca out for a moonlit ride. Still might,” griped the younger Lancer, pulling on his other boot. What else is there to do around here except count sheep?”

“Well we could split what’s left of the bottle of whiskey Tim gave us…or play cards…talk.”

The last word stopped Johnny in his tracks. “So, you do have something on yer mind, huh, Scott?” And I know just what it is.

“I do,” smoothly said Scott, reaching for his shirt at the end of the bed. “Let’s go sit on the porch.”

Without another word, both boys finished dressing and put their coats on. Scott grabbed the whiskey bottle. “For warmth,” he teased and headed for the door. Johnny followed behind him carrying a small burlap bag full of pistachios he’d bought earlier in the day.

Unlike the day, the night sky was clear with the stars shining down in all their splendor.

Sitting down beside each other on the top step, Scott pulled the cork from the whiskey bottle. Johnny cracked a shell between his teeth and sucked out the nut, throwing the remains of the covering on the ground beside the wooden stairs.

“What should we drink to?” asked Scott, gazing at the moon.

“Hmm, how about yer Grandfather?”

Scott grumbled, “Why him?”

“How about…because he didn’t get the job done and I’m still breathing?”

“Johnny’s that’s nothing to joke about!” Scott took a big sip from the bottle, then handed it to Johnny. His brother offered him some green nuts from the bag, which he accepted.

“Yer soundin’ like Teresa now, brother.” Johnny gulped a portion of the whiskey.

“Only because I love you and have your welfare at heart. Johnny, what are we going to do about him?”

“Finish this bottle for one thing.” Johnny took another swig from the bottle and passed it back to Scott. He then cracked and ate another pistachio.

After taking a long pull of whiskey, Scott asked, “Well?” He helped himself to more of their salty snack from the sack between them.

Johnny didn’t answer right away. This is Scott’s grandfather we’re talking about. Not just some run of the mill gunfighter I can kill and be done with.

“This is the size of it Scott. It all goes back to my hard and fast rules. We go on living day to day to the fullest cause we never know when it’ll be our last.”

“That’s it?”

“Yup. Just like earlier today Scott. Snake coulda killed me…”

“Yeah? Why were you caught so off guard anyways?”

“Ya see, there it is. He coulda killed me dead,” smirked the younger Lancer. “In all the confusion I was watchin’ Ray, the big bartender messin’ with Tim, when they’d gotten off their horses. You ever notice they’re about the same size?”

“Now that you mention it…no.”

“Well it was a distraction and Snake took advantage of it.”

“Well he’s dead now. Squashed like the snake he was. So what difference between him and Grandfather? What are you trying to say?”

They finished the bag of pistachios and polished off the last of the liquor. Scott set the empty bottle on the porch’s wooden floor.

“In my past they’re many men who’d like to try me and my gun. As time goes on, they’re gettin’ fewer, but it doesn’t mean one doesn’t have a bullet with my name on it.”

“Oh, you mean like today?” Scott elbowed his brother in the side causing Johnny to wince. “That was a little close, wasn’t it?”

“Too close fer what ails me,” teased his brother, feeling warm inside from the booze and Scott’s words.

“Problem is Johnny, even if we find Grandfather and have him arrested, there’s not enough evidence to convict him.”

“No?”

“No. All the witnesses are dead. We have Turk’s statement from what he’d overheard, but it’ll all likely go down as hearsay.”

“Hear what?”

“Idle talk, unfounded information.”

“Oh. So they can’t lock him up, which leaves ‘im free to do as he pleases.”

“Yup, something like that.”

“So, we best be on our guard all the time…in case he tries something again.”

“Yes, brother mine that’s about the size of it.”

“Remember big brother, live yer life like there’s no tomorrow…”

“I think we just did,” agreed Scott, standing up and pulling Johnny to his feet. “Come on, it’s time we get back to bed.”

“Hey look! A shooting star,” pointed Johnny to the night sky. “Make a wish Scott.”

“All right.”

Both boys did.

“What’d ya wish for?” asked Johnny, wrapping his good arm around Scott’s back.

Scott did the same and they walked each other across the porch to the front door. “Can’t tell you or it won’t come true.”

“Hmm,” thought Johnny out loud, leaning into his brother. “I always heard you had to tell it to make it come true.”

“Not in my book,” grinned Scott, as they made their way inside the hotel.

“Ya think Murdoch will roust us outta bed at the crack of dawn?”

“Probably.”

The grandfather clock chimed two times from the parlor.

Johnny yawned, “Maybe I should save us some time and turn…”

 

 

~end~
January 18, 2018

Credits where due.
Lancer guest characters with their episodes:
Val Crawford – Man without a Gun
Harlan Garrett – Legacy
Judd & Ellen Haney, Billy Joe, Mr. Ferguson and Ray the bartender – Yesterday’s Vengeance
Turk Caudle & Todd Wilson – Measure of a Man
Jonas & Julie Barrett – Julie
Davey Stryker – Chase a Wild Horse
Glory Smith & Grandfather Collier – Glory
Just references in general from these episodes:
Pardee – The High Riders / the Homecoming
Isham – Warburton’s Edge
Weir – A Scarecrow at Hackett’s
Pony Alice – Heart of Pony Alice
The Kid
Cut the Wolf Loose
The Lion and the Lamb
The Gifts
The Buscaderos
(If I’ve forgotten any it’s purely an oversight)
My own characters, which are the exclusive rights of the author: Tim & Matt McRafferty, Snake Cutter, Hubert Maximillian and Dusty / Daemon Grayson.
Also, many references from my own line of stories.
“I ain’t afraid of no ghost.” From the film and song, Ghostbusters.
Send me a wire. The door is always open dmpnascargal0118@gmail.com


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