The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Marilyn

 

 

Friends And Guns United

Chapter One

On a majestic hill above Lancer Valley, silhouetted against the sky of a fading day, a lone figure sat astride his horse. He slumped heavy in the saddle as though the weight of the world was a burden upon his drooping shoulders. Sheriff Crawford gazed down at the Lancer hacienda and grounds and couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty and grandeur of it all. The sight took his breath away every time he visited, not to mention lightening his heart with gladness that his young friend had found a place to call home and a family to call his own. He had always been welcomed with open arms but he wasn‘t so sure that he would be again, after today. Sucking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Val pondered whether he should do this or not. He hated the thought of having to ask a friend for a favor this big. However, the telegram he had received this morning had jolted him from the complacent existence he had been living since the defeat of Clay Criswell…and just like then he needed Johnny’s help. He needed his gun. 

Resigning himself to the fact that he would be getting a lot of flack and arguments from Murdoch and Scott, he needed to prepare himself for the heated confrontation to come. Pulling out his canteen, he took a big gulp, and then wiped the sweat off his scruffy unshaven face. Hanging his canteen back on the pommel, he took up his reins and headed down into the valley.

“Come on boy, let’s get this over with,” Val grumbled, straightening his back and rolling his shoulders as he tried to shake off the guilt and remorse that made him want to fold in on his self.

On his way down, Val scanned the area hoping to spot Johnny working off somewhere by himself, so he could speak to him in private. Lady Luck was not gracing him though, it was getting close to dinner time and he figured that Johnny was already back at the house by now. Knowing his amigo’s appetite, Johnny would be the first one sitting down at the dinner table, with fork and knife in hand. An amused smile temporarily lit his face as he thought about how much that boy could put away and still stay so slender. It had to be due to his age and youthful energy, it seemed like he never ceased motion. At times like these, Val had to admit he was feeling the effects of increasing years and waning stamina; he was slowing down a bit, and it bothered him. Oh he could still handle a gun, however, he was not as fast as Johnny and he needed that quickness and skill on his side, just like the last time.

The Lancer arch loomed into view and Val saw some of the hands waving to him, he smiled and waved back. “We’ll here we go,” he muttered nervously to himself.

*********

Teresa hummed a cheerful tune as she strolled about her garden picking fresh flowers to decorate the table for the evening meal. Rounding the corner, she spotted Val just entering the main gate. She felt a flutter of alarm as she took in his brooding face and distressed posture. The concerned girl waved to him, and then hurried inside to inform her family of Val’s arrival.

“Murdoch, did you send for Val?” Teresa asked breathlessly as she sat down her basket full of flowers by the kitchen door.

“No, I didn’t, honey.” Murdoch replied as he rose from the table where he had been enjoying a cup of coffee before dinner. “Why, is he here?”

“Yes, and he doesn’t look very happy,” she retorted with a frown. “I wonder if something is wrong?”

Murdoch quickly strolled into the Great Room with Teresa right on his heels and peered out the window, immediately concerned by the gloomy expression Val was sporting. “Well, go let him in and let’s see what he wants.”  Teresa nodded and hurried over to the door and opened it just as Val was about to knock.

“Howdy, Miss Teresa,” Val politely greeted the girl with hat in hand. “Is Johnny home?  I need to talk to him about something.”

“Yes, he is, come on in, Sheriff,” Teresa stated as she stepped back for the hesitant lawman to enter.

“Don’t just stand there, Val, come on in,” Murdoch called out. “What’s this about Johnny? What do you need to talk to him about?”

Val slowly walked into the Great Room and started to nervously fiddle with his hat.  “Well sir…” he stuttered and hesitated when Johnny and Scott entered the room.

“VAL!” Johnny cheerfully shouted thumping his friend on the back. “What brings you all the way out here?” Johnny’s wide grin disappeared when Val shot him a look of utter dismay, his morose countenance telling the young ex-gunfighter that something was dreadfully wrong. “Val, what’s the matter?” he asked, placing his hand on Val’s slumped shoulder.

“It’s not good Johnny,” he muttered. “I…I need your help.” 

“Need my help? Why, Val?” 

Val looked over at Murdoch’s and Scott’s questioning frowns and knew they were not going to like this one bit but he had no choice. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he asked, “Well do you remember Bull Dog Harrison?” 

“Bull Dog Harrison?” Scott asked, confusion muddling his face. “What kind of name is that? And who is he?”

“It’s a nick name his friends and enemies call him. He’s one of the meanest, blood thirstiest hombres around,” Johnny answered his brother’s question, and then turned his attention back to his brooding buddy. “Now, what’s this about Bull Dog?”

“He’s free, Johnny!” Val blurted out, as he ran his trembling fingers through his hair, and then walked over to the fireplace and leaned against it. “He broke out of prison a few weeks ago and…”

“And you think he’s gonna come gunning for ya?” Johnny asked softly. His dead calm demeanor giving his observant father and brother an ominous feeling.

“Oh, I know he is!” Val huffed. “I received a telegram from a friend who…well kind of ran into him. He said that Bull Dog had found out I was made sheriff here and he’s on his way.”

“What does this have to do with Johnny, Val?” Murdoch abruptly spoke up, worried as to where this visit might be leading. “You’re the law; you can stop him if he tries anything. It’s your duty.” 

“Yes sir…if he was alone!” Val stressed. “But he’s not. He has rounded up some of the meanest hombres this side of Hell and formed a new gang. They’re on their way to Green River as we speak and I need Johnny’s help.”

“Why, Val?” Scott demanded. “Why, Johnny?”

“Because I helped put Bull Dog behind bars, Scott,” Johnny snorted. “It was a couple of years ago when he and his old gang caused a big ruckus down south. It’s long story but in the end we caught up with him and Val had to testify at his trial. Bull swore revenge. He’s as bloodthirsty as he is vindictive. He won’t give a damn who he hurts if they get in his way. He’ll burn down towns and kill innocent folks just to get what he wants.”

“And that’s me!” Val stated bluntly. “And since I’m the sheriff of Green River that means the whole town is in danger too.” 

“Then hire more men to help you, Val,” Murdoch growled loudly. “Why drag Johnny into this? You’re only putting his life in jeopardy too. Or didn‘t you stop to think about that?”

“Murdoch!”  Johnny admonished, giving his father a look of disgust. “That’s no way to talk to Val. Can‘t you see this is hard on him too?”

“It’s okay, Johnny. I knew they wouldn’t be none too happy about this. And in answer to your question, I tried, Murdoch! But no one wants the job. And Clem, my lame brain deputy, is not as capable as Johnny and I to handle this,” Val desperately explained. “That’s why I need his gun and I’ll make it legal too. I’ll make him my deputy as well, if it will ease your mind.”

“That’s if I agree to it!” Murdoch scowled. “I’m not too thrilled about the idea of my son going off to play lawman, when he can stay right here where it’s safe. Hasn’t he gone through enough in his life?” Murdoch snarled his rigidly held body giving away his anxiety. 

“Murdoch, listen to me, will ya!  I know how men like Bull Dog operate. Val is going to need all the help he can get and the town too. You have to think about them too,” Johnny pointed out trying to reason with his stubborn father.

“Johnny, how are you and Val going to handle a whole gang alone?” Scott pointed out, “It will be like signing your own death papers.”

“Your brother is right, John!”  Murdoch agreed with his eldest. “It’s senseless to try this without more men backing you up!”

“Scott, Murdoch, if I don’t try, then it’s certain death for Val and the town. I told you what he’ll do and I can’t just sit by and let that happen,” Johnny stated, and then walked over to his brother. He placed his hands on Scott’s tense shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “I’ll be okay, don’t worry. We‘ll come up with a plan.” 

“You can say that again because I’m going with you!” the blond declared adamantly.

“NO! Not this time, Scott!” Johnny protested. “Murdoch needs you here to finish up with the branding. Val and I will handle this. We did it the last time and we will this time. I’m not dragging you into this. It’s not your fight!"

“Answer me one question, brother. Where were you when Val testified against this Bull Dog?” Scott asked curiously.

“Well…I was kind of laid up,” Johnny coyly answered.

“I see and I assume that one of those scars you carry is from that fracas? “And how bad were you laid up?” Scott interrogated.

Johnny slyly smiled, “Scott, you don’t live the life I led and not take chances,” he replied, ignoring the last question. 

“And there’s a good chance you might not come out this alive this time, Johnny!” his father angrily pointed out. “There has to be another way to handle this?”

“Yes! Val can hide out somewhere until this Bulldog person gives up and leaves,” Teresa blurted out. “It’s worth a try, isn’t it?”

Johnny shook his head negatively, “Teresa, honey, haven’t you heard a word I said? The man will NOT give up until he finds Val and innocent people will get hurt in the process.”

“Well, why didn’t they just hang him in the first place?” she snapped. 

“Because the judge was a fool who thought that raping a young girl and burning down her parent’s home, after he had brutally beaten them was not a hanging offence,” Val fumed. “He gave the bas…well he sentenced him to twenty-five years instead.”

Johnny had no intentions of continuing to argue the point with his family.  He knew what he was going to do with or without their backing. “LOOK! With or without your support, Murdoch, I’m going to help Val! Someone has to stop Bull Dog before he hurts another innocent girl, or burns more homes… if he hasn’t already.”

“ALL RIGHT!” Murdoch boomed, his face red with fear born anger. “But I strongly stress to the both of you to use extreme caution. Don’t do anything that will blow up in your faces. And the minute it’s over I want you back home pronto! Do you hear me, young man?” 

 “Sir, you can’t be serious? You’re not actually going to allow Johnny to go?” Scott sputtered in outrage. “I hardly think two men against a whole gang is a smart move. They should at least inquire around at the other towns for assistance.”

“There’s no time for that, Scott!” Val barked. “WE have to get the town ready now.”

“Scott, your brother has made up his mind and you damn well know we’re not going to change it!” 

“That’s right, Scott!” Johnny snorted, and then turned to Val. “Give me a few minutes to get my gear ready, Val.” 

“Sure thing, Johnny, I’ll wait for you outside.” Val wearily nodded to the others and left the room feeling like he had committed a crime for asking Johnny to help him.

Scott threw up his arms in defeat and stomped over to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a stiff drink. “At least have something to eat before you go,” he then suggested to his brother.

“I’ll get something in town,” Johnny said as he raced by his brother and ran upstairs to fetch his gear.

Once Johnny was out of hearing range, Murdoch walked over to his brooding older son and said, “Scott, it shouldn’t take more than a day to finish branding. When it’s done, if it’s not too late by then, I want you to pick out two of our best men with rifles, and have them head on into town. I’ll feel much better if your brother and Val had a little extra help.”

“I was thinking the same thing!” Scott agreed quietly. “Whether Johnny likes it or not he’s going to need the help.” 

Murdoch nodded and poured himself a drink as well. “I just pray that this doesn’t turn out to be a blood bath.”

“Me too, sir, me too,” the blond Lancer affirmed, silently vowing he was going to have a serious discussion with his father later.

**********

Val and Johnny rode in silence for most of the way to town.  They were lost in deep thought, pondering as to how they were going to do this without too much bloodshed. Harrison was a mad man capable of cruel and inhuman torture; the destruction he had left behind on his last rampage was proof of that. Both men unconsciously shuddered as they recalled the violence. The last thing they want was another massacre on their hands, if Bull Dog should let loose his fury on the town. They had to think of something and fast.

“Val, did your friend tell you when he’ll get here?” Johnny asked breaking the silence between them.

“Yeah, he said that they were at least four to five days away, depending on how fast they travelled. So that gives us some time to figure out how we are going to do this, and then perhaps some of our braver citizens will volunteer to help,” Val stated.

“Well, do you have any ideas off hand?”

“Yeah, the first thing we do is call a town meeting.”  

 

Chapter Two

Sheriff Val Crawford’s office sat in a strategic location, right across the street from the town hall, which gave the troubled lawman an unhindered view of the activities of the citizens. Val stood at the window, his face marred with a scowl of disheartened contemplation while he watched as one by one the local residents entered the building. He could see the questioning looks on their face as they paused and spoke to each other.  Though he couldn’t hear their words he could imagine their confusion over being called to this emergency meeting this late in the evening.  Apprehension warred with the guilt that seemed to be consuming him.  He could not in good conscience let the people he was sworn to protect retire to their homes for the evening without informing them of the approaching danger.  Immediately after he and Johnny arrived in town he had Clem quickly going from home to home announcing an emergency meeting, informing people their presence was an absolute must.

The only saving grace in this whole sordid mess was that Mayor Higgs was out of town for a few days. Without the presence of the bumbling official, Val would have full authority over the town. Whether they liked him or not, he had to convince these people that they had to listen to him, if they wanted to stay alive and kept their town safe. Dreading the coming confrontation, Val tore himself away from the window and began anxiously pacing back and forth in front of Johnny.

“Val, will ya relax?” Johnny pleaded with his nervous amigo. “You did the right thing calling a meeting even if it is late in the day, time is a factor here. The sooner we prepare the town, the better.”

“I know that!” Val grumbled. “But how am I going to tell them…that’s it’s me Bull Dog is after, not them? And being the sheriff here, I’m only putting their lives in danger too. And I have no doubt that they’ll ask me to leave town, especially after that bank fracas a few months back and I don‘t mean Criswell either!” he growled, rubbing his arm as he thought back to another bank robbery that took place shortly after the Criswell incident . "I know a few people that would be more than happy to hog tie me and hand me over to Bull Dog.” 

“I know, I know! But don’t forget you stuck your neck out too, took a bullet and still got their precious money back, now didn’t you?” Johnny reminded the brooding sheriff.  “Listen Val, you’re just going to have to explain to them, that even if you left town, he’s the kind of man who would set a torch to this place and kill innocent people just for the pleasure of it, if he takes the notion too.” 

“Well, I know that and you know it too, but will they listen?” Val hissed as he ran his fingers through his already disheveled hair. 

Seeing his old friend was in dire need of some reassurance, Johnny quickly got up from Val’s chair and walked over to the man. He placed a comforting hand on his sagging shoulders. “Val, I’ll back ya, you know that. That’s why I came right? And with this deputy’s badge I’m wearing now, they‘ll know you mean business.” 

Remorse contorted Val’s face as he looked at his friend. “I just wished I didn’t have to ask for your help, Johnny. It was because of me you got shot up the last time we messed with that murdering bastard,” he sadly recalled that horrible day. “And now I’m dragging you into it again.”

“Val, it doesn’t matter, sooner or later he’s gonna find out I’m alive and in these parts. It’s best we face him together rather than you doing it alone,” Johnny reasoned. “And then maybe we can put an end to this once and for all.”

“Well, if you put it that way,” Val reluctantly agreed. He walked back over to the window and watched as the last of the crowd arrived. “Here comes Clem looking like he saw the devil himself,” Val commented after noticing the terrified expression on Clem’s face as the deputy exited the town hall.

The door to the office abruptly flew open and the deputy came rushing in, shaking like a leaf in a windstorm. “She….riff you…had…had better get over there…and soon. Before…they tear …down the building!” Clem stuttered out and staggered over to the table, his hands trembling so hard he had a hard time pouring himself a glass of water.

“It’s that bad huh?” Val gulped and swallowed the lump in his throat. “Well come on men, let’s get this over with.”

“Not me! I’m not going… not back in there,” Clem admitted his cowardice.

In no mood for the deputy’s over wrought emotions, Johnny roughly grabbed him by the collar. “Listen, Val is gonna need all the help he can get!” he growled in the man’s face.  “And as I recall he gave you this job, hoping it would make man out of you, so you’re not gonna to back out on him now. Comprende?” 

“Yes…yes…sir, Mr. Lancer,” Clem stammered as shivers ran down his spine from the cold glare he received from Johnny’s intimidating blue eyes.

“Good! Now let’s get going. Time’s a wasting,” Johnny demanded, releasing the trembling man from his strong grip and giving him a hard shove towards the front door.

“You do have a way with people, don’t ya?” Val sarcastically remarked.

“Yeah I guess I do, don’t I?”  Johnny smiled devilishly, as the three of them left the office and headed over to the hall to face the mob waiting for them.

********

Inside the huge one room building, the tension pulsated with a malicious throb as the gathered throng speculated on the reason for the meeting…no one feeling it was for anything good. Men were loudly grumbling to the person next to them, while the women fanned themselves to keep from passing out as the room grew hot from body heat and tempers flaring up.  Most of them were furious to be kept out this late and in the company of what they call undesirable people, such as the bar tenders and saloon girls. Val had summoned everybody who lived in town and on the outskirts for it meant their lives too. The loud debating and shuffling about continued until they heard the main doors open, and then deliberately slam shut.  Dead silence reigned as attention turned to Val and Johnny as they entered the room.

The two men slowly made their way through the crowd while Clem stood guard by the closed doors. He had been ordered to stop anybody from leaving before the meeting was over, no matter how long it took. Val had a strong feeling it was going to be a long one, just by the way they were eyeing him and especially Johnny, who now wore a deputy’s badge. Little by little the discontented buzzing started up again with whispers of confusion and alarm. Finally they made it to the front of the room and Val took his place behind the chairman’s desk with Johnny by his side. The commotion continued so Val took hold of the gavel and gave the table a few whacks, signaling the meeting was ready to begin.

“Now everybody please take your seats and listen carefully to what I have to say!” Val demanded loud enough for all to hear.

“Val, what’s this all about?” Sam was the first to speak up. “And why is Johnny wearing a badge?” the old doctor frowned.

“Yeah, Sheriff, why is Madrid wearing a badge?” asked Tom, the new store clerk who had a hard time accepting Johnny was a Lancer. To him the gunfighter had no right to claim that name as his own. “Why do you need a gunfighter with you?” 

“The name is Lancer, Mister. And if you all would please be quiet, Val will tell you why,” Johnny coldly answered. “Go ahead, Val.” 

Val cleared his throat stalling for time as he pondered on how he was going to say this. The sea of faces in front of him, some of them with narrowed and distrusting eyes glaring at him, didn’t help matters. “Well there is no easy way to say this… then to just say it!” confessed Val. “A… few years back, Johnny, me and a few others apprehended a mean hombre by the name of Bull Dog Harrison.”

“BULL DOG HARRISON! I heard of him,” one man shouted. “I also heard tell how he likes to burn down homes and murder for the fun of it,” he screeched anxiously to the crowd.

“Yeah, so have I. What does this have to do with us, Val?” another citizen asked nervously.
 
Just as Val feared it would, the mention of Harrison’s name soured the already tumultuous mood of the crowd. They began to loudly mumble amongst themselves again, their anxieties growing more intense, with some on the verge of full blown panic. 

“Everybody please calm down and let us explain!” Johnny shouted over the noise as he tried to restore the order.

“I bet it has something to do with you, Madrid, don‘t it?” Tom growled. “I bet he’s after you and the Sheriff here is going to ask us to protect you and make them believe you are his deputy. That way he can’t touch you, am I right?” Tom blathered frantically making no sense at all. “Why can’t you just go home and fight your battle there?”

“WRONG!” Johnny shouted defiantly and in a blink of an eye he had his gun drawn and pointing right at Tom’s heart. “I don’t need any one to protect me. And this is the last damn time I’m gonna tell you the name is Lancer,” he grimly reminded the man as loud gasps escaped the others. Tom’s eyes widened in pure terror as he choked down the lump of fear lodged in his scrawny throat.

Val picked up the gavel and aggressively pounded the desk. “NOW EVERYBODY JUST SHUT THE HELL UP AND LISTEN,” the irate lawman bellowed. “And to answer you, Mr. Peabody, no he’s not after Johnny. It me he wants!”  

“You? Why, Val?” Sam asked.

“Cause’ after we brought him in for trial, I had to testify against him and he swore revenge against me,” Val clarified.

“Why not Johnny too?” Mrs. Dunbar snipped uncaringly, “You said he helped you.”

“Because he thinks he killed me, ma’am. I was shot up but not dead and was unable to testify with Val,” Johnny calmly answered the woman’s rude question.

“That’s beside the point and we’re wasting time,” Val intervened. “The fact is I received word that he has broken out of jail, rounded up a new gang and they’re on their way here, as we speak!” he informed them bluntly. “And we have to take precautions to protect our town.”

“What do you mean take precautions? He’s after you not us,” Tom shrieked as he shot out of his seat and began to wave his hands around like a raving lunatic. “Why put us in danger?” he shouted, shaking his fist at the two men before them.

“Yeah! I think you’ll…you should leave, get far away from here, Val, maybe then he’ll leave us alone,” someone agreed as he stood up as well. “Don’t you all think that’s what he should do?” the distraught man asked the crowd. Everyone anxiously nodded in agreement.

“It’s your problem, Sheriff, you take care of it!” Tom heartlessly told Val, and then turned to seated crowd. “Come everybody let’s get out of here. This is not our fight!” he announced arrogantly and headed for the door. All of the others made to follow except Sam, who stayed seated while shaking his head in disgust for their actions.

“Yeah, let’s go!” yelled another, grabbing his wife’s arm and trying to maneuver his way through the mass of bodies that were shoving their way towards the door.  

Val’s temper exploded, he had had enough. He was just about to slam the gavel down again when Johnny drew his gun. Without a word of warning to the crowd or Val, he fired a single shot into the air. The ear shattering report and shock of a gun going off in an enclosed space quickly halted their departure. All eyes were on Johnny again. He deliberately held the smoking gun up for all to see as he glared at them, sending a silent threat with his eyes that some picked on and so they returned to their seats.  

“That’s’ more like it!” Johnny remarked. “Now listen to me, all of you. It doesn’t matter if Val leaves or not. Bulldog will still do what he wants. If he wants to torch the town then he’ll do it, simple as that.” 

"What I want to know, since he broke out of prison, Sheriff, there has to be a posse after him and his gang?" Jeff the stable owner questioned. “Maybe they’ll catch up with him and take care of the problem for us.”

Voices were raised in agreement as a little ray of hope tried to shine through the fear but Val had to dash it. “There was, until he got wise and turned the tables on the posse and the Marshal who led them. They… were… ambushed and every man on that posse was killed.” Val was a little hesitant to reveal. This was not something he really wanted to share but thought they had a right to know since they asked. “So until they get another posse on his tail again, we’re on our own!”

“WHAT, IN THE HELL, ARE WE GOING TO DO?” Carl the postmaster shouted.

Val blew out a nervous breath and replied, “Johnny and I were thinking if any of you want to leave for the time being, until this blows over, then go right ahead, we‘re not going to stop ya,” Val explained. “But it would be very appreciated if ya would first help us get things ready before they get here, and then leave if you must.

“And go where?” Sam questioned.

“To family, friends, Moro Coyo or Spanish Wells, anywhere but here, that way none of you would be hurt or killed,” Johnny suggested. 

“I’m not going to leave my business or home!” Harry the banker proclaimed. “If we leave and he burns the town down, then what’s there to come back to? I say we fight to keep our town safe.” 

“Harry has a good point, Val. I, for one, have too much at stake to leave. I’ll stay and help you and Johnny,” Zeke stood up and faced the crowd, “Who’s with me?”

“Well, I’ll stay,” Sam promised. “I can’t just leave when I know I’ll be needed, that’s for sure.”

Suddenly there was an uneasy calm in the room as the two lawmen looked down from where they stood at the pondering expressions of the townsfolk’s. It was apparent many were struggling with their inner conscience, on whether to stay or leave. Then quietly, one by one, a few hands were raised signifying they would stay, while others were still undecided.  Val and Johnny looked at each other and smiled, relieved that they were not going to be alone in this fight.

“Well what do you want us to do Val?” Zeke asked.

“First, as of now I’m cancelling school. I don’t want children running free in the streets. I want all you parents to keep your children home for now. Or if you have to go out for something, keep them close by you, understand?” Val announced.

“Then we want all you shop keepers to have a weapon handy, whether its hand gun or rifle, keep it within reaching distance for your protection. But don’t use it if you don’t have to.” Johnny instructed.

“Should we board up our shops?” Hank inquired.

“No,” Val replied, “It won’t do no good.  I know it’s going to be hard but I want everyone here to act as normal as possible when he gets here. We don’t want to spook him and give him any reason to start something.”

“We want to try to avoid a blood bath,” Johnny conveyed. “Like I said, he’ll do whatever he wants too…and it won’t take much to get him started. But chances are since all he wants is Val, so maybe, just maybe he’ll leave the rest of you alone,” he added hoping to ease their minds some.

“What about you, Johnny?” Sam questioned out of concern for his young friend.  “I mean if he finds out you’re alive, it will just make it harder on the both of you.” 

“I don’t know just yet, Sam, but we have a few days to figure it out,” Johnny softly answered the old doctor.

“I suggest that ya all go home and get some rest now. We have a busy few days ahead of us and I thank you all for coming. I know this was a shock to ya, but if we stand together we can make this work,” Val informed the brooding crowd. He tried to voice his confidence in the ones willing to stand and fight.  He knew some would back out and run but they could hardly be blamed for being fearful.

One by one, they calmly exited the warm building into the cool night air with grim looks of despair etched on the faces. Some were angry and some were scared out of their wits. Some old timers thought back to the lawless days and had to admit life had been much easier since the law came to Green River. They were too old to fight but they truly hoped that the younger generation would appreciate what Val and Johnny were trying to do.

As the last man left the room, Val sighed in distress. “Ya know maybe I just should leave. Send out word that I quit, and then maybe he’ll leave this town alone.”

“Val, what good would that do? You know damn well he’ll come storming through here looking for ya anyway.”  Johnny frowned and placed a strong hand on his amigo’s shoulder. “It has to end here and now, Val, one way or the other.” 

“You would have to put it that way, wouldn’t ya?”

Johnny smiled, “Come on let’s go and have a drink to soothe our nerves.” 

“You mean my nerves?” Val quipped heatedly. “Well, I just hope this town don’t die because of me!” he grumbled as he and his new deputy left the building and headed for the saloon. 

 

Chapter Three

The sun had not yet reached the height to effectively bleach the gray cast of dawn from the sky or warm the chill of night from the air. Val stood as quietly as the slowly climbing orb of light, hands pressed against the cool glass of the window, despondently watching another family leave town. He had been rudely roused from his restless slumber by the creaking sound of laboring wagon wheels rolling along the quiet streets in the wee hours of the morning, before the sun even peeked over the mountains. The wagons were loaded down with furniture, family treasures and anything that was of valve to the fleeing residents. Most knew not where they were going and it didn’t matter to them, as long as they got out of town before all hell broke loose.

“I figured as much,” Val whispered in dismay, “Well, I can’t say I blame them.” 

“What are you mumbling about, Val?”  Johnny slurred sleepily as he emerged from the jail cell he had slept in, stretching his lean form and letting out a jaw cracking yawn.

“Well, it seems that after last night’s meeting a few of our good townsfolk had a change of heart. I’ve already counted three families leaving town with wagons packed full.” 

“Like who?”

“Mrs. Dunbar and her no account nephew, Harold. She’s too old to help but he’s young and strong, but she babies him too much, I figured she would slip him out of town, afraid he’d get hurt.” Val huffed. “And that loud mouth Tom Peabody turned tail and left earlier this morning after he boarded up his precious store despite me telling him not to.”

“Well, Harold is the only family she has left. And Peabody, well we don’t need a trouble maker like him around with it gets to the crunch. Beside he’s a coward to boot,” Johnny stated, as he poured himself a cup of Val’s strong coffee. He took a swig and his eyes began watering. “Whew! Val, this stuff is strong enough to eat your insides out. You used too many coffee beans!” 

“It’s just the way I like it!” Val growled, “If you don’t like my coffee then you’re welcome to go and get some from the café! And I don‘t see why you had to sleep in my jail anyway, when there was a nice soft bed waiting for ya at the hotel,” he added as he flopped down wearily into his chair.

“Cause’ I felt a lot better staying here with you, that’s why!” Johnny retorted.  “You never know what Bull Dog will pull. And I wanted to be here just in case he did try something.”

“Well he didn’t, at least not yet,” the agitated sheriff huffed, and then looked up at Johnny’s determined face and realized he was not going to win this debate, so he conceded. “Okay, have it your way. You’re welcome to use my humble jail as your sleeping quarters. But I ain’t making my coffee different just to please ya.”

“Fine with me! Now can we stop this foolishness and put our heads together and think of a plan before Bull Dog gets here?” Johnny asked curtly.

Val didn’t get a chance to utter a response because Clem came stumbling in carrying a tray of steaming hot food for the two lawmen. He was practically tripping over his own two feet in his haste to get it to them before it cooled down.

“Whoa, Clem, let me help ya with that!” Johnny offered as he took the tray out of the deputy’s arms. “It smells good and I‘m starved,” he added, licking his lips as he sat the tray down on the desk.

“I figured you would be mighty hunger after last night,” Clem smiled. “So I had Clara over at the hotel fix ya both a plate.” 

“Well, tell Clara thanks, we appreciate it,” Val replied as he took a plate for himself, inhaling the enticing aroma of fresh eggs and ham. “Now aren’t you supposed to be on your rounds?” he reminded the deputy after taking a bite of the eggs.

“Yeah… on my way. Oh, I see you already have men staked out on each end of town. Who did you get to volunteer?” Clem asked curiously.

“What do you mean I have men staked out?” Val asked in confusion as he jumped out of his seat and hurried to the window and peered out. “Neither Johnny or I left this office last night after the meeting and having one drink. And we never talked to anybody about volunteering, figured it was no use too.”

“Then if you didn’t, who did?”

“That would be me!” a smooth voice answered from the doorway.

Johnny’s eyes locked onto the blond standing there and groaned in disbelief. “SCOTT! What in the hell are you doing here?” he loudly chastised as he stormed up to his brother. “I told you this was not your fight. Murdoch needs you back at the ranch, so I suggest you head right back there, NOW!” he firmly ordered his older sibling, while pointing to the door.

“Wrong, little brother, our father sent me here, along with Cipriano and a couple of others to help out you two mule headed fools,” Scott calmly informed them.

“Is that so? What about the branding, huh? Murdoch needs all the men we have to get it done, we had more to handle this year than last,” Johnny reminded his brother, raising his eyebrows for emphasis.

“True, but after a long discussion last night, we both came to the conclusion, that if it takes longer to get the branding done then so be it. And after thinking more on the subject, we decided the main concern right now is you and this town. So here we are, whether you like it or not,” Scott boldly stood his ground, not being intimidated by the hard look his younger brother was giving him. 

“You have to admit, Johnny boy, we could use their help!” Val eagerly pointed out; pleased that Johnny’s family had not been swayed by his argument of taking care of this without them.

Johnny looked at Val, than back at his brother’s smug expression and threw his hands up in defeat. “Alright, you stay, but it’s not going to be pretty if things get out control. A lot of good people could get killed if we don‘t play our cards right.” 

“Believe me, brother, I know very well how that goes,” Scott muttered, as he reflected back to his days in the army and how he lost a few good friends.  “I saw a few wagons pulling out this morning. I assume you called a town meeting last night and things didn’t go well?” 

“Oh, it went as well as can be expected but I guess a few people had a change of heart and hightailed it out of here. I guess you can’t blame them,” Johnny sighed heavily. “Some will stay, like Sam and Pete, to help out as much as they can.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m here, little brother. Do you have any plans on how you are going to handle this?”  

“No… no…we didn’t get that far yet. It’s hard to think clearly when there’s a whole town involved,” Johnny answered softly. “Val and I told everybody to act as normal as can be but be on their guard and have weapons ready if need be.” 

“That’s a start,” Scott nodded. “So what do you think this Bull Dog will do first?”

“He’ll probably send in a spy to scope out the town to see if I’m really the sheriff here,” Val answered. “Then he’ll go back and report to that bastard, and then he‘ll come for me and kill anybody who gets in his way,” Val grimly added as he peered out the window. 

“In that case, Val, we’ll have to stop whoever he sends in before he has a chance to report back to Bull Dog. We’ll need to keep an eye out for strangers lurking about,” Johnny stated.

“Oh, I know, maybe we’ll luck out and spot him first, Johnny boy. You know he only hangs out with the ugliest, meanest and dirtiest looking scum there is.” 

The young Lancer had to smirk, “Yeah like the last bunch he rode with, boy you could smell them a mile away. They made buzzard bait look pretty.”

“This ain’t no joking manner!” Val groused.

“I know, I know. I was just trying to lighten the mood, I’m sorry!”  Johnny said; shrugging his shoulders and walking over to the desk to fiddle with the papers Val had lying around.

“If we could stop the spy, it would be one less man to worry about.” Scott theorized, “It might give him something to think about if his man doesn’t come back.” 

“Yeah, but one less man don’t mean squat to him. He’ll still find out somehow I’m here. And like Johnny said he’ll burn this town down to get to me,” Val warned.  “I’m pretty sure he has a bigger gang this time and well armed too!”

“How did you stop him the last time you tangled with him?” Scott inquired.

“Well, Val and I joined a posse to help out a friend who was a sheriff at that time,” Johnny started hesitantly.

“Was?”

“Yeah, he was killed during the ruckus,” Johnny sadly answered. “Jed heard that he was on his way and formed a posse of guns to head him off before they reached town. Needless to say he was easy to find, all we had to do was to follow the trail of blood and burned downed farms he left behind.” 

“Then what?” 

“Well, the murdering bastard was finishing up with his latest conquest when we ran into him and we chased them into a small canyon where all hell broke loose. All his men and most of the posse were killed or badly shot up and the others ran off with their tails between their legs,” Johnny explained sorrowfully.  “Jed was killed so it was up to Val and me to finish the job. We thought we had him but he somehow managed to pin us down and he got a lucky shot off. I took a bad hit and there was a lot of blood so he thought he killed me.”

“Yeah, while he was gloating, I was able to get around him and catch the scum bag off guard but just for a second. He turned around and fired at me, grazing my arm, throwing my aim off, so that I only wounded him. There was enough impact that he went tumbling down the hillside but lived. I wished he had broken his damn neck though!”  Val growled through is teeth. “It sure would have saved us the trouble of bringing him to trial.”

“Let me get this right, he thinks you’re dead. Am I correct?” Scott glared at his brother as Johnny nodded in affirmation. “But yet you have to get involved again,” he added shaking his head. “Sometimes, brother I don’t understand your thinking.”

“Scott, that monster has to be stopped, once and for all!” Johnny again stressed the urgency of the situation.  “God knows how many people he has killed since he escaped.”

“Well, why don’t we get another posse together and go find him before he gets here, like the last time,” Scott said, rubbing his chin as he waited for an answer.

“OH NO! I’m not going through that again,” Val declared. “He’s after me this time, remember?  And I’m not going to drag those innocent folks out in the open to be gunned down. Nor leave this town unprotected while I go chasing him after him.” 

“Well what do you suggest we do?” Clem asked nervously.

“I don’t know yet. I’ll think of something. We still have a few days left before he gets here. I hope,” Val muttered as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Now git on out of here and do your rounds, and then report back pronto if you see anything suspicious,” he ordered his deputy.

“Sure Val, see ya later,” Clem acknowledged, and then quickly left the office.

“Well, at least I have men posted as look outs. We’ll know when this Bull Dog is close…hopefully,” Scott pointed out. “By the way what is his first name?”

Johnny lowered his eyes before he looked at Val, and then back at his brother. “It’s Morgan and ah, Scott…”  Johnny hesitated for a second and scratched his head, “There’s something else you should know.”

“And what is that?” The elder Lancer brother asked, dreading the answer.

Johnny cleared his throat and sputtered out, “He’s… he’s Day Pardee’s uncle. And he didn’t like me none too much, never did…and he’s going to like me even less when he finds out I’m still alive.”  

“Wonderful! And why is that?” Scott scowled.

“Cause’ I never did cotton to his way of doing things, nor Day’s for that fact as you know. And before this fracas, I had a run in with him once and I left a nice big scar on his face,” Johnny confided with a cheeky grin. “So he’s not going to be too happy when he finds out I’m alive and Day is dead.”

“To say the least, little brother, so now what?”

“We’ll just have to worry about that when the times comes. Right now we have a town and Val to think about,” Johnny proclaimed. “So use that Harvard brain of yours and think of something.” 

“I will, just give me a few minutes,” Scott retorted.

“Well, the first thing we have to do is scope out the town ourselves. We need to find its weak and strong points just in case there is a battle so we can fortify what we can,” Val advised. “I’m more concerned about the women and children. I plainly recall what he does to them just for fun. And it ain‘t pretty.”

“But what can we do? Where can we send them out of harm’s way, that‘s if they’ll go?” the young gunfighter pondered. “We already told everybody to act as if there’s nothing wrong, once they get here. He‘ll get suspicious when there aren’t any women and children around town. We already closed the school remember? I think that alone will put on his guard.”

“Lancer!” Scott blurted out.

“Come again?” Johnny glared at his brother.

“We’ll send them to Lancer. We can put up tents around the house. Have a few men posted close by to keep an eye on them, just until this is over.”  

“I don’t know, Scott, Murdoch might not go for that,” Johnny worried. “Not with branding going on. It’s too dangerous to have too many kids hanging around, you know that! Besides you heard what I said. Now how is that going to work?” 

“You got any better ideas to assure their safety?” Scott barked.

“I do!” Sam intervened as he had entered the room unnoticed and had heard their conversation.

“Sam!” Val shouted in surprise, “We didn’t see you come in.”

“It’s obvious. Now do you want to hear my idea or not?” the old doctor asked.

“Sure, Sam, let’s hear it,” Johnny said as he offered the old gentleman a chair. “Come over here and sit a spell.”

Sam smiled at his young friend and thankfully sat down. “Well, as I see it, if he is coming in with an army so to speak. What if we somehow reduce its size, without any bloodshed if possible? That would make it easier for you to take this Bull Dog fellow.”
  
“And how are we going to do that?” Val huffed.

“With these!” Sam smiled and pulled a bottle of chloroform and sleeping dust out of his black bag.  The three younger men stared at the doctor. They were confused by his actions at first, thinking Sam had gone daft. Then it suddenly dawned on them what the sly doc had in mind. “That’s right. We catch one or two alone if possible when they do come into town. Slip a little drug into their drink, incapacitate them, and then you take them in custody. We may not get all his men but at least it will give us a fighting chance.” 

“Yeah, and he just might send more men in to look for them. One man missing will not concern him but two or three might,” Johnny pointed out to the others.

“Then we just subdue them too,” Sam added. “It’s the best plan I can come up with, like you said Johnny, there are women and children to think of.”

“Sam, you old sly dog you, it just might work!” Val smiled and patted the doctor on the back. “Well, I sure hope you have enough of that stuff to go around.”

“Well, what do we have to lose, right?” Scott declared.

Everybody agreed to give Sam’s idea a shot. The possibility of quietly apprehending Bull Dog’s men was the first step to maybe stopping this before it turned ugly.  So they went about preparing the town for its unwelcome visitors.

 

Chapter Four

Once Val and the Lancers discussed Sam’s idea, and then added some bits of inspiration of their own, they felt they had a workable plan. After making sure each man understood their part in the scheme, the four anxious men rushed from the office. Sam hurried over to his place and gathered up all the bottles of chloroform and packets of sleeping dust that he had on hand, and then met the others outside of the saloon. Dividing the items up amongst them, they were galvanized into action as each man took their portion of the potions and took off for the businesses they were assigned to enlighten about Sam’s suggestion. They hoped the shop owners would be receptive to this non-violent method of subduing part of Bull Dog’s gang. While they visited each store they reminded everyone to have rifles and guns ready and loaded just in case things went sour. If Lady Luck would just be kind enough to grace them they just might not have to resort to more extreme measures, such as gun battle in town.

By the time they finished explaining the plan and answering questions at each business they visited, most of the day was gone or as Johnny commented when they met back up in the middle of town, the day was done and dusted.  Val and the Lancer’s headed back to the saloon for a much needed cold beer before going back to the jail to talk over other strategies they could use. Upon entering the smoky, quieter than normal bar, Johnny scanned the room for any suspicious looking strangers that could have wandered in while they were gone. He spied just the regulars and a few cowhands from others ranches standing around chatting to the saloon girls or playing cards.

“Three beers, Pete,” Johnny called out as they stepped up to the bar. “Boy, I tell ya, all that jawing we did today, sure makes a fella mighty thirsty.” 

“You can say that again, brother. Too bad we wasted all that talking on a few deaf ears though,” Scott tiredly commented. “For the life of me, I can’t understand some people’s thinking.” 

“I take it not too many wanted to go along with what you had in mind?” Pete asked in hushed voice as he handed them each mug of beer.

“I can’t really blame them. They have a right to be scared, not everyone is cut out for confrontation…passively or aggressively,” Val confessed.  “But, I pointed out that they had better have a loaded gun handy and have the guts to pull the trigger, if they were going to stay to protect what’s theirs.”

“Well, don’t worry about me, Sheriff, I have old Betsy right under here,” Pete vowed and motioned with his hand to his loaded shotgun under the bar. “And my girls know what to do with…” Pete stopped and looked around before whispering, “That sleeping powder when the time comes.”

“Thanks, Pete. I knew I could count on ya.” 

Johnny blew the head of white foam off his mug and took a healthy swallow of beer before asking his brooding brother, “Did you check on our men, to see if they needed anything or to be spelled a while?”

“Yes, I had Cipriano, bring them something to eat and fresh water. They told him they were fine,” Scott replied. “I don’t think any of the people left in town would be appropriate choices to relieve our men on duty.  I trust their judgment after all they helped us fight Pardee.”

Johnny nodded and stared into his now half empty mug, “Where’s Cip now?” 

“I sent him on scouting mission and…” Scott’s words were halted by the hard look his brother gave him. He held up his hand to ward off the protest, “Don’t worry!  I only sent him a little ways out of town. That way he can get a better view of anybody coming in from the south, just a little extra precaution,” Scott explained. “I understand from your information that’s the direction Bull Dog would be coming from, right?”

“Yeah, but I wished you would told me first,” Johnny hissed, his worry getting the best of him. “I would hate to see anything happen to Cip out there. You know how I feel about him?”

“Yes, little brother, I do,” Scott said softly. “He’s like uncle to you, isn’t he.”

“Yeah, sort of, between him and Murdoch, one of them is always on my case about something. For some reason they both still think I’m in knee britches. Maria and Cipriano say they remember me when I was a baby, so it’s kind of like having an Aunt and Uncle, if you know what I mean,” Johnny admitted, dropping his head to hide his emotions when Scott smiled and gave his brother a gentle squeeze on his shoulder.  “Hey, want to grab something to eat before we head back to the jailhouse? It’s a lot better than Val’s cooking,” he snickered.

“Oh ha ha, I heard that!” Val snapped. “But then again I ain’t in no mood to do any cooking even if I had the means to at the jail! I do dine out ya know,” he snapped at his buddy.

“Dressed like that?” Johnny teased and pointed to his ripped shirt and mussed hair.

“Now you don’t start on me again! I had enough of you and others trying to make me into something I’m not!” Val snarled as he remembered back to the time Johnny pressured him into cleaning himself up in order to keep his job.

“Okay, you win. Now can we go and eat?”

Before they could depart, Cipriano burst through the bat wings doors with a look of distress etched on his face that sent a shiver down their backs. “Senor Sheriff, I spied one of the hombre’s men coming this way!”  Cipriano breathlessly announced as he approached the startled men.

“Take it easy amigo,” Johnny recommended, placing his hand on Cipriano’s shoulder. “Are you sure he’s one of them?”

“Si, he’s dressed like a bandito and coming from the direction Senor Scott told me to scout, south of town,” the old foreman described, as Johnny handed him a mug of beer to wash down the dust he inhaled while riding in. 

“Which means Bull Dog is even closer than we were thinking,” Val groaned. “And he’s sending his spy ahead to bring back information, just as I thought he would.” The sheriff nervously looked around the room, trying to gather his thoughts before asking, “How long until he gets here, Cip?

“I’d say in a half hour or so. I rode as fast as I could to tell you,” Cip replied in between chugs of his beer.

“Well, what are we going to do Val?” Scott questioned, though he had a good idea what Val still had in mind.

“We let him come and do as we planned, that’s what,” Val answered bluntly, and then turned and instructed Pete, “You have a special glass ready for the man when he gets here.” Pete nodded at Val and held up the packet of sleeping powder. “Good, and now I want you two to head back to the jail!” Val proclaimed. 

“And what are you going to do?” demanded Johnny, his eyes trained on Val’s.

“I’ll be right around the corner. I’ll let him have his drink, and then I’ll mosey on back in and talk to the man,” Val calmly replied. “After all, it’s only one man, what can he do?”

“Plenty, that’s why I’m staying with you!” Johnny argued.

“No, Juanito, it is too soon for you to be seen by these men,” Cipriano cautioned as he grabbed Johnny‘s arm. “Senor Scott has told me how this hombre thinks you are dead, por favor, wait until it is the right time.  If this man does escape and runs back to his boss and tells him you are alive. He will not rest until he kills you too,” he pleaded desperately.

Johnny looked into his old friend’s concerned eyes, smiled and nodded. “Alright, mi amigo, I’ll hide for now, but I won’t run!” Johnny conceded and gave Cipriano a pat on the back. “You sure do look after me, don’t ya…tio?” he whispered in the man’s ear.

The old segundo’s expression softened and he smiled back, “Si, mi sebrino.”  They stared at each other momentarily, sharing a private understanding.

“Now go, before he gets here,” Val ordered. “Wait until I give you a signal that it’s safe to come back over, comprende?” 

“We understand,” Scott answered quickly as he took hold of his hesitant brother’s arm and practically pushed him out the door. They made a mad dash for Val’s office and waited.

Cipriano took his mug of beer and went to sit in a dark corner, with his back towards the wall and his hand resting on his gun. While Val left the bar and walked next door to the new barber shop Zeke owned. He darted in and pulled the shade down as Zeke looked on in confusion.

“What’s wrong, Val?” he asked nervously. “Is that gang coming in now, so soon?”

“Shhh, Zeke, keep your voice down,” Val hushed the sweating barber, “No, not yet, but one of his men is. Most likely a spy and I want to stop him from taking any information back to his boss, understand?”

“Yeah…yeah, I do,” Zeke stuttered as he quickly fled to the back room and returned with a rifle and stood beside Val, who was peering out behind the shades. “I’m with ya, Val!” he bravely stated.

“Thanks Zeke, but you stay here. I may need your gun later, okay?” Val instructed as he continued to stare out the window, Zeke nodded in compliance. 

********

Over at the jail, Johnny paced back and forth, his fingers nervously tapping the butt of his gun. “I don’t like this, Scott! I should be there with Val. I know it’s only one man but you never know what could happen,” Johnny worried. “I wouldn’t put it pass Bull Dog to try some of his tricks.”  

“Val knows what he’s doing, now will you stop that pacing and come look at this,” Scott commanded his preoccupied sibling.

“What…what’s going on?” Johnny inquired as he hurried to where is brother was standing and peering out the window.  His eyes narrowed and his blood turned cold as he watched a lone man riding into town dressed as Cipriano had described. A bandito if he ever saw one. “That’s him alright, Bull Dog’s spy,” he growled through his teeth.

“Do you think he’ll go right to the bar?” 

“No doubt he will; the first thing they think about is filling their bellies and getting drunk,” Johnny scowled with disgust. “Ah see, he’s heading right for the saloon now.”  He pointed out when the man steered his horse towards the hitching rail outside the saloon.

“Now we just wait until Val gives us the signal, right?” Scott stressed firmly when he saw the determined look on his brother’s face. “You promised you would stay clear of there, remember?” 

“Yeah, yeah, but I don’t like it!”

“Like it or not, we stay put!” 

“Okay, I got ya. Now let’s keep an eye out for Val!” snapped Johnny, his eyes glued to the front door of the saloon. “I sure hope Pete doesn’t get nervous and blow it” 

“Pete will do just fine! He’s not one to take any bull from men like that,” Scott assured his younger sibling.

“Yeah I guess you’re right.” 

********

The batwings doors were flung open, rattling against the door frame and the hinges squeaking in protest at the rough treatment. A cruel looking character stood in the doorway. His clothes were thick with dirt, his hair matted down with sweat and it looked like he hadn’t taken a bath in months. His smell was even worse than his looks, an ungodly stench radiated from the filthy man. He glared at the patrons that were staring at him, his mouth contorted in an ugly sneer, exposing his yellowed and decaying teeth. He boldly strolled by the others, secretly delighting in the looks of disgust on their faces.

“Beer and I want it now!” he shouted pounding his grimy fist on the top of the polished bar.

“Yes, sir, coming right up,” Pete calmly replied, and then turned his back to the man and picked up the glass he had already dumped the powder in and filled it full of beer.  With a steady hand he turned around and gave him the glass. “Here you go, enjoy,” the barkeep smiled slyly.

The man took the mug and guzzled the beer down in two long gulps, ignoring the liquid that escaped to run down the sides of his mouth to his neck, and then into the collar of his already soiled shirt. “Another one, pronto!” he demanded loudly, his rancid and beer scented breath assaulting Pete’s nose. “And do you have a man by the name of Crawford here?”

“Yes, he’s the sheriff. What’s it to you?” Pete questioned boldly.

“Just wondering, that’s all,” the man sneered.

********

Val waited a few minutes, and then left the barber shop and slowly walked to the entrance of the saloon and peered in. Pete had seen Val and when the man wasn’t looking he nodded to the lawman, indicating the man had taken the bait.

“There’s Val!” Johnny exclaimed, “And he’s going in.” 

“Now we wait until he lets us know the coast is clear,” Scott reminded his eager brother, placing his arm on his shoulder to keep him still.

Val pushed the doors opened and casually walked up to the bar, while everybody there held their breaths in apprehension, including Cipriano, who still had his hand resting on his gun. Val leaned up against the bar and practically gagged after he got a whiff of the hombre‘s bitterly sour odor. He covered his mouth with his hand, and then coughed to get the man’s attention.

“Beer, Pete,” Val calmly called out, and then he cocked his head and smiled at the bandito. “Howdy, I understand you’re looking for me?” Val struck up a conversation, buying time until the drug could be take effect.

The man looked at the star on Val’s shirt and a devilish grin grew on his filthy face. He began to sway back and forth and rubbed his eyes as they lost focus. “Yeah…Bull Dog…is…looking fer…you…you… re…memer…him don’t ….ya?” he slurred as he fought to keep his balance and consciousness. “He….has…a bone…to pick…” he taunted drunkenly before his eyes rolled back, his grin disappeared and he fell face first to the floor.

“A bone to pick with me? Yeah, I already know,” Val replied sarcastically. The lawman stepped over the inert scum bag and walked to the door. He waved his hand to the jail, and then hurried back to his sleeping prisoner.

“That’s his signal!” Johnny shouted and flew out the door leaving a cloud of dust for Scott to run through after him. “Val, Val!” he called out as he pushed the doors open and hurried into the bar. He nervously scanned the room for his friend.

“Over here, Johnny, it’s okay. He’s sleeping like a baby,” Val reported with a satisfied smirk as he kneeled down by the snoring bandit.

“That was a fool thing you did, letting him see you like that, Val!” Johnny declared angrily and slapped his amigo’s arm when he stood up.

“He ain’t going nowhere but my jail, don‘t worry!” Val retorted, “After we throw a bucket or two of water on him to wash away that smell. I ain’t having him stink up my jail with that nasty smell.”

“Well, you got lucky this time,” Johnny said as he turned over the man with his boot and his eyes winded in dismay. “Ohhh…crap,” he groaned.

“What’s wrong? Do you know this man?” Scott inquired with concern.

“Yeah, I do,” Johnny answered grimly, shaking his head. “He’s one of Pardee’s men, one of them that got away during the ruckus at Lancer. I should have known he would go running to Day’s uncle once he heard he broke out of prison,” Johnny explained as he leaned his slender form against the bar. “And I can assure you that he told him about me and how I betrayed Day. So the cats out of the bag now for sure, there’s no need for me to hide now.”

“You’re forgetting one thing, little brother. I was the one who shot Day, not you!” Scott asserted.

“Well, as far he is concerned,” Johnny said looking down at the man, “Anybody could have shot Day. I mean lead was flying everywhere.  So I’m aiming to keep it that way. He’s not to know about you. Besides, he has a score to settle with me already, remember? He’ll be too busy with that to be worried with a green horn from Boston, as long as Madrid is around.”

Scott’s eyes were mesmerized by the protective and determined look Johnny’s face now sported. Truthfully it scared him to think of what lengths Johnny would go to and the danger he might place himself in trying to defeat Bull Dog. “So, what should we do now?”

“Wait!”

 

Chapter Five

The foul smelling bandit lay insensate at the feet of Johnny and Val. The sleeping powder had put him in such a deep state of slumber he began to snore and drool. Johnny grimaced and stepped back when the grimy man mumbled in his sleep, scratched at his crotch and expelled gas.

“Sheriff, you have to get him out of here. He’s going to run off my customers,” Pete exclaimed.

“Just a dang minute and we’ll move him to the jail,” Val grumbled. “Come on Johnny, let’s get this over with.”

Val and Johnny sucked in their breaths, pulled out their bandanas and tied them around the lower portion of their faces, covering their mouths and noses in an attempt to filter out the stench. Val grabbed a hold of the bandit’s arms while Johnny held his legs.

“Awww…man… this feller’s scent would make a skunk sit down and cry. He smells worse than a cow pie mixed with a rotten egg and fried on a hot rock in August,” Johnny complained.

For the sake of their churning stomachs and the pungent odiferous assault on their nostrils they quickly hauled the man out the saloon. By the time they were in the middle of the street they were gulping the fresher outdoor air; flies began buzzing around the filthy unconscious man. Scott hurried ahead of them and opened the door to the jail as well as the cell. A minute later Johnny and Val roughly tossed the outlaw onto the bunk and rushed back out, and then Val slammed the door shut. They exited the cell area, closing the outer door, in attempt to keep the foul odor at bay.

“Well, I won’t be sleeping in there tonight,” Johnny declared as he walked over to the water bucket, dipped the ladle in and took a nice cool drink. “How many buckets of water do you think it will take to clean that pig up? Of course it might be better to boil him in lye soap.”

Scott was surprised at his brother‘s relaxed and joking demeanor. Shaking his head he inquired, “How can you be so calm when you know that murdering mad man will be looking for you too? Sometimes I don’t understand you, little brother.”

“Look, Scott,” Johnny said, glaring at his brother, “I learned a long time ago not to let men like Bull Dog intimidate me. If I did I’d be dead by now and I don’t run from a fight!”

“And what makes you so sure you’ll survive this if he gets his hands on you?” Scott asked, as he grabbed the ladle out of his brother’s hand and took a drink himself. “He’s out for blood, Val‘s and now yours. I have to admit it scares me,” he confessed his fear of losing his brother to the likes of Harrison. “Whether you like it or not, I will be keeping an eye on you. I’m going to do my best to make sure Bull Dog fails!” the blond Lancer firmly declared.

“You scared? I never thought I’d see the day,” Johnny teased, and then his expression turned to a frown. “And I‘ll tell you again, I‘m going to make sure that he don‘t find out about you either,” he vowed, and then flopped down in Val’s chair. “Besides, he doesn’t know I’m in town or that Val knows he’s coming…I hope.”

“All right you two, just stop it! I‘m in no mood to listen to ya bickering,” Val growled. “The question now is, just how close is he and how many men does he have?” Val paced nervously to window and peered out as though he expected to find the answers in the dusty street.

“Yeah, I was wondering that too. You know how he likes to split them up if he has enough men,” Johnny added, his right elbow braced on the arm of the chair and his chin resting on his hand, his feet busy swiveling the chair back and forth. “I hope he doesn’t!”

“Split them up?” Scott questioned, raising his eyebrows in concern as he looked at his brother, and then at Val. His brother and friend were being a little too closed mouth for his liking, “What do you mean he splits them up? Will somebody tell me?”

“Well…you see there was one minor detail Johnny left out of his story,” Val stalled, hating to reveal how dastardly the man could be. “The one reason why I don’t want to leave this town unprotected.”

“Oh really and what reason is that?” Scott demanded to know.

“Well, it’s like this,” Johnny started, “Bull Dog somehow got wind that Jed had a posse after him and he sent a few of his men to town while we were off tracking him down. And, well, he had them set fire to a few buildings before they were gunned down by some good people who were brave enough to take them on. It was like he was making a statement of sorts.”

Scott threw his hands up in disgust and growled, “Is there anything else I should know about before this Bull Dog gets here?”

“No, that’s about it,” his brother sheepishly replied. “Look, Scott, we have to take this slow, if we do anything to aggravate him, he’ll come storming into town and go on a killing spree. We need to let his men come in and hopefully Sam’s idea will give us an edge without too much bloodshed.”

“You know we won’t be able to subdue all his men?” Scott reminded.

“I know, I know, but it will cut the odds down some,” Johnny reasoned. “It’s just a chance we’ll have to take when there’s a whole town at stake.”

“Well, I think it’s an absolute necessity that we come up with a back- up plan and soon,” Scott suggested. “He’ll get suspicious when most of his men start disappearing on him.”

“I’m working on it,” Val huffed. “But you know I’ll have to confront him at sometime, or another, when he gets here. And like Johnny said we can‘t get him riled up,” he added as he continued to peer out the window, looking up at the setting sun. “It’ll be dark soon and he’ll be setting up his camp out there somewhere, so that will at least give us a little more time. Why don‘t you two go get yourself a room and something to eat.”

“What about you?” Johnny quietly asked

“Oh, Clem and I will stay here and guard sleeping beauty in there, Harrison won‘t try nothing tonight, it‘s not his style,” Val assured his worried amigo. “You can bring us back something to eat.”

“Yeah, sure, Val,” Johnny agreed. “Be back later, see ya.” Johnny left with Scott, knowing he would be back as soon as he could because he didn’t like leaving Val there with just Clem with him.

Val walked over to his chair and sluggishly sat down with a grim look on his face. Deep down in the pit of his stomach he had a strange feeling that Bull Dog might be planning to try some new ploy and the thoughts of it was eating at him. He didn’t want to burden the boys with this, for all he knew it could be nothing just his age and nerves working against him. The best he could do after making plans was to tackle any problems as they came up and hope that he, the Lancer’s and this town would come out of this in one piece.

********

Not more than a day’s ride away from town, a group of raunchy looking men lay sprawled around a camp fire snoring and grunting as they slept. The scent of whiskey and beans filled the night air along with the odor of their unwashed, trail soiled bodies. All but two had given into the intoxicating effects of the liquor, as they sat there on guard duty staring into the bright sparking embers, deep in thought.

“Hey, boss, don’t you think Slim should have been back by now?” asked Boone a short blond man. “I mean it couldn’t have taken him that long to see if Crawford was there or not.”

“Yeah shouldn’t of, but most likely he found out, and then had one too many and is sleeping it off somewhere outside of town. He knows better than to stay in town too long,” Bull Dog snorted. “Don’t really matter; we’ll catch up with him tomorrow. And then we can kill two birds with one stone,” he said with a deadly glare in his eyes.

“Yeah,” Boone chuckled. “It was lucky Slim found you, otherwise you wouldn’t have known that Madrid is still alive and in this neck of the woods, huh?”

“Lucky for me but not so lucky for Madrid, no one betrays me or my kin and gets away with it. No one! He‘ll pay for what he did to Day. He was my only kin left,” snarled Bull Dog coldly as he rubbed the scar on his face. “And if he thinks changing his name to…what was it again?”

“Lancer… Slim said he goes by Lancer now,” the man clarified.

“Yeah… Lancer. Well if he thinks that will keep me from finding him, he has another thought coming,” Bull Dog declared. “First I’ll take care of Crawford, and then him. But just killing Madrid is too easy, no I’ll make him suffer first, and then end his miserable life.”

“So what are you going to do?”

Bull Dog stared at the dying flames for a few moments, and then threw another log on the fire and watched in delight as the flames rose up from the embers and began to flicker and dance around the wood, sending of tendrils of gray smoke as the wood began to burn hotter. An evil scowl grew on his dirt crusted mug, as he vowed, “Fight fire with fire!”

********

Across the street from the jailhouse, Johnny and Scott sat quietly, in the corner of the small café, trying to enjoy their meal and the calm before the coming storm. They were pondering on what they should do if this upcoming confrontation with Harrison goes awry and all hell breaks loose.

“What’s on your mind, Johnny?” Scott asked his brooding brother, who was fiddling with his empty coffee cup.

“This whole thing with Bull Dog… I never gave him a second thought once he was sent to prison. Hell, I never thought he would escape prison. I heard it was pretty well guarded,” Johnny muttered, as he continued to run his finger around the rim of the cup.

“Well, I guess he just got lucky.”

“Lucky for who?” Johnny hissed and slammed the cup down. “I don’t like this, Scott. I’ve been thinking if that scum bag over at the jail told him I’m alive then he could have very well told him who I really am, that I’m a Lancer and that has me worried for Murdoch and the ranch.”

Scott leaned forward, grasped his brother’s arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Don’t you dare try to take on the blame for something that hasn’t even happened yet and might not even happen. Besides, you don’t know for sure what he reported. Perhaps he said that you turned on Day and were now working for Murdoch,” he offered an alternate explanation. “Think about it, nobody knew, not even Pardee, until it was too late that you are a Lancer,” he added in an attempt to ease his brother’s mind.

“Still, he could have found out later and used it to get on Harrison’s good side once they hooked up,” Johnny added grimly. “ And God only knows what he’ll do. That’s why I want you to go back to Lancer and warn Murdoch,” he insisted.

“No!’ Scott exclaimed defiantly. “I’m not leaving you or Val.”

“What do you mean no? Haven’t you been listening to me?” Johnny growled in a low voice as he leaned over the table, eyeball to eyeball with his brother. “I told you what he’ll do and Murdoch has to be warned. He has to protect Teresa, Maria and our home!”

“Yes, I heard every word you said and so did our father before you left!” Scott snapped back. “Like I said before, we talked this over and not only did he send me here with a few men but he also put the ranch on alert. He has men posted as look outs and is keeping Teresa and Maria from wandering too far from the house. So don’t worry about the ranch, just worry about yourself and getting Val and the town through this!”

Johnny blew out a long breath of relief and leaned back in his chair. “Alright, as long as he’s taking precautions but I still have this itch that’s nagging at me. I don’t know what but I have a bad feeling about this,” he added, stretching his stiff back.

“Look, you’re exhausted. I bet that bed at the jail was not very comfortable. Why don’t we head upstairs and try to get some sleep,” Scott suggested firmly. “You’re not going to be any good to anybody if you don’t get some rest.”

“No, you go ahead. I’m going to take a tray over for Val and Clem, and then I’ll turn in,” Johnny said around a jaw cracking yawn and frowned at the look he was getting from his brother. “Don’t go looking at me like that! I said I’ll come right back after I deliver their dinner! Didn‘t I?” he said shaking his head.

“You better! And I’ll be checking on you too,” Scott proclaimed.

“Scott, I’m a big boy. I can take care of myself,” Johnny half-heartedly protested with a grin. “Look I’ll be right back, I promise,” he vowed, and then stood up when the waitress approached the table with the tray of food he had ordered for Val and Clem. “Their dinner is ready, so go on upstairs and leave the door unlocked for me, since you insisted we share a room.”

“There’s safety in numbers, brother,” Scott advised.

Johnny smiled with fondness at his big brother’s protectiveness and wished he had that comfort when he was a child. He sure could have used it when he was being outnumbered by those border town bullies and had to fight them tooth and nail to keep from being beaten to death.

Scott stood up and watch as his brother left the café’, a sad smile gracing his face. He wondered what it would had been like growing up with Johnny and found himself cursing his grandfather and the fates for denying them the opportunity of doing so. Maybe if he had been there and could have somehow warned his father of Maria’s actions, she would never have stolen his brother away. And there would be no Madrid. But he also had to admit, that getting to know his brother now, had been one hell of a ride, both intriguing and joyful. Scott signed heavily and headed for their room, stopping long enough by the window to scan the quiet street, watching Johnny’s back as he entered Val’s office.

********

Johnny walked through the door of the jail and without warning his dinner threatened to come back up when he got a whiff of the horrid odor coming from the jail cell. “Damn it, Val, why don’t you do something about the smell!” he shouted as he sat the tray down on the desk and took out his bandana, covering his mouth. “How can you stand it?”

“I was just about to when you walked in,” Val replied as he stood there with a bucket of water in his hands. “Care to join me?”

“No, no, I just ate. And I kind of want to keep it in too,” Johnny remarked sarcastically. “You and Clem, go ahead, I’ll just stay out of the way. Besides, I don’t want him to see me. It might bring up bad memories for the poor boy,” the young Lancer teased.

Val rolled his eyes. “Come on Clem let’s get this over with,” Val snorted as he and his deputy opened the door to the cell room. They were almost overpowered by the vile odor that floated off the filthy man still out cold from the sleeping drug. “And they say I need to clean up,” Val hissed as he threw a bucket water on his prisoner.

The second the cold water hit him, Slim’s body jerked and his eyes flew open and he sprang up from the bed so fast it made his eyes balls rattle. “DAMN! DAMN! WHAT IN THE HELL DID YOU DO THAT FOR?” he screamed at the men laughing at him as he danced around like a chicken with his head cut off.

“Cause’ you smell like something that was rotting for days not even a starved buzzard would want to touch you!” Val growled back and handed the empty bucket to Clem to refill. “And you’re stinking up my jail!” he explained to the shivering man, when Clem came back, he took the second pail of water and gave him another drenching. The deputy threw a bar of soap and a towel at the soaked man. “Now wash up, I run a clean jail here and no scum bag like you is going to ruin my dinner!’ Val stated bluntly as he and Clem turned and left the room.

“BULL DOG KNOWS YOU’RE HERE, SHERIFF AND HE’S COMING FER YA!” Slim hollered as Clem was about to shut the door. “AND IF YA SEE YOUR BUDDY, MADRID, TELL HIM HE KNOWS WHAT HE DID TO PARDEE AND HE AINT NONE TO HAPPY ABOUT IT! HE’S GONNA GET THE BOTH OF YOU REAL GOOD!” he exclaimed and started to laugh.

“Oh shut up you,” Val grumbled, and then looked at Johnny’s concerned face. “You heard him. I guess that answered your question. So now what?”

“I’m going to sleep on it, that’s what. We can’t do anything tonight,” Johnny replied. “I’m going now. You enjoy the meal I brought ya, now that the smell in here is more bearable,” he grinned. “Oh, Val, you know I’m a light sleeper when it comes to these kinds of situations. If I hear something like gun fire I’ll come running. So don’t shoot me when I come through this door, you hear.”

“I won’t buddy, just holler first, okay?”

“I will. See ya,” Johnny called out as he left the office and headed back to the hotel.

Johnny felt a pair of eyes on him as he stepped off the boardwalk but he didn’t sense any danger and he knew why. He briefly glanced up at the hotel window and smiled when he spied the curtain quickly moving back into place. Scott hurried and jumped in bed and pretended to be asleep. He waited patiently to hear the jiggle of Johnny’s spurs as he headed up the stairs, a sound that eased his worried mind.

The door opened slowly as the youngest Lancer quietly entered and peered around the semi-dark room. He stared at his brother laying there still as could be. He unbuckled his gun belt and hung it over his bedpost, and then proceeded to get ready for bed. He left only his pants on, in case he had to make a fast exit. He slid under the warm blanket and laid his tired head down on the soft pillow, closing his eyes and smiling.

“You can go can go to sleep now, big brother.”

“Just making sure, little brother, just making sure,” Scott confessed.

 

Chapter Six

In the safety of their room, with each other for security and company, the Lancer brothers should have been able to enjoy the tranquility normally found at the end of a hard day’s work.  However, these were not normal circumstances, true they had worked hard but they had the worry of what was to come pressing on their minds. Scott laid there with his back to his brother, listening to the springs on Johnny’s bed creak in protest as he fussed, tossing and turning as he tried to get settled for the night. He knew from past experiences with Johnny, like when they slept under the stars during cattle drives, or when he walked by his room at home and heard him thrashing in his bed, that when there was something preying heavily on Johnny’s mind, he had trouble drifting off to sleep. He listened as his younger brother continued to wrestle with his blankets, and then Scott heard faint muttering escaping his sibling’s lips.

“It’s too stuffy in here,” Johnny complained, as he rolled off the side of the bed making the springs sing in objection to his inability to be still. Johnny got up and opened the window half way, took a few deep breaths of the cool night air, and then tipped toed back to bed, thinking his brother had fallen asleep.

“Night, brother,” Scott whispered, his back still turned towards Johnny.

“I thought you were asleep?” Johnny said.

“I’m trying, but your inability to sleep is preventing me from doing the same, not to mention that infernal squeaking every time you move.” 

“I’m sorry, it’s just…”  Johnny slurred through a hard yawn.

“I know; there’s no need to explain. Just try to relax and get some sleep…” Scott advised, his words trailing off as he let out a jaw-cracking yawn that signaled his descent into sleep. 

Johnny smiled, pulled his covers up and willed his body to relax. “Night, Scott.”

********

Seconds turned into minutes and minutes turned into hours, as time ticked languorously by for Johnny. His eyes refused to close so he stared restlessly about the room, his sharp eyesight able to detect the night shadows dancing on the ceiling and walls caused by the minuscule amount of light filtering into the room.  His troubled mind finally gave into his body’s demand for sleep and he drifted off. However, it was not a peaceful sleep and it was rudely interrupted a few hours later by the town drunk. The inebriated man stopped under the window of their room, and then heaved noisily in the dirt. His loud coughing and gagging made it sound like he was expelling his stomach and lungs, and then he stumbled off. Johnny’s eyes flew open at the beginning of the distasteful occurrence.  He groaned, knowing there was no way in hell he would be able to get back to sleep. He carefully eased himself off the bed being careful not to wake his brother. He slumped despondently into the chair as dark thoughts churned through his mind.

A few hours later, Scott was roused by a hard sigh coming from the direction of his brother’s bed. He turned over to find the bed empty and Johnny standing by the open window clad only in his pants, his mussed hair gently blowing in the breeze.  Scott gazed past his brother’s slim form and noticed it was still slightly dark out.

“How long have you been standing there?” Scott asked sleepily, as he forced himself to a sitting position and lit the oil lamp on his bed stand. “And what time is it anyway?” he added rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

“Oh, I don’t know… a couple of hours at the most,” Johnny muttered softly, “It’ll be light soon.” 

“Well, come away from the window and get dressed before you catch a chill,” Scott ordered. “The last thing we need is you getting sick. And did you manage to get some sleep?” 

“You’re beginning to sound like our old man, big brother,” Johnny huffed, as he continued to stare out the window. “I’m fine and yes, I got a little shuteye, so don’t worry.”

“When it comes to you, I do worry,” Scott admitted, shaking his head. “You know, Johnny, I was thinking. It would be a wise and courteous gesture to send a wire to Spanish Wells and warn Gabe of what is going on. Just in case this Bull Dog happens to make a detour and head his way.  We also need to inform the prison of his location, who knows there might be another posse after him as we speak,” he added stretching his lean form, and then proceeded to get dress.  

“I’m ahead of you on that one, brother,” Johnny revealed. “Val sent a wire off yesterday, while you were otherwise busy, asking Gabe if he could send a few men here to help out.”

“And?”

“And he said he’ll try to send some men but he couldn’t promise anything, not when they have their own town to think of,” Johnny replied and walked away from the window to grab his shirt off the chair.

“Did Val also send off a wire to the prison?” 

“He tried to but…”

“But what?” 

“It seems Bull Dog is getting smarter because the line went dead just as they sent it off and we don’t know if it went through or not. We were lucky to get a hold of Gabe before the line was cut. I…I was going to tell you but I forgot, sorry.”  Johnny snorted in anger and frustration, and then threw his shirt on the bed.  “Dios, when will this all end?” 

“What do you mean, when will it end?” Scott questioned and frowned at the bleak expression his brother was sporting.  “Johnny?”

Johnny picked up his shirt and turned his back to his scowling brother before slowly slipping his arms through the sleeves, and then over his slender shoulders. He sighed heavily with remorse. “Me, my past, everything… when will they leave me…all of us alone?”

“They will eventually,” Scott offered, wishing there was more he could say to soothe Johnny.

“Yeah, when I’m dead, if Bull Dog gets his way, it might be sooner than we think and all our troubles will be over.” Johnny blurted out bitterly as he stood there with his shoulders slumped.

Scott sprang to his feet and stormed over to his brother, grabbed his arm and flung him around until they were facing eyeball to eyeball. “I don’t ever want to hear you talk like that again, do you hear me?” Scott growled in Johnny’s stunned face. “What happened to that lets make sure he don’t kill me attitude, huh?  This does not sound like you, brother. What happened?” Scott demanded.

“I still have it and I’m not giving up. But I’ve been thinking, I’m getting sick and tired of my past coming up and threatening to take away all I have now!” the youngest Lancer snarled back. “Before it didn‘t bothered me as much if someone came looking for me to settle a score, or plain just wanted to make a name for himself by gunning down Madrid. But that was then and I have a family now, you, Murdoch and Teresa,” Johnny explained. “It would be like putting a knife through my heart if something should ever happen to any of you, just because of who I am or was.” 

Scott swallowed the lump in his throat and looked into his brother’s misty blue eyes and didn’t like what he saw. “What are you getting at?”

Johnny closed his eyes and murmured, “You know I would do anything to assure my family’s safety, don’t ya? So if …if it should come down to any of you for me, don’t stop me. Just…just let me go,” he sternly instructed as he opened his eyes and gazed at his brother’s horror stricken expression.

“No!”  Scott croaked out shaking his head in disbelief. “NO! I’m not going to let you do that! Not after it took us this long to finally be united as brothers. We still have a lot of catching up to do. I’m…I’m not going to let someone like Bull Dog take that away from us…again,” Scott loudly protested. “And I’m not going to let you sacrifice yourself if it can be helped.”

“Don’t you think I feel the same way? But what if we don’t have a choice, huh? I’m not going to stand by and watch one of you die because of me. I can’t, I just can’t!”  Johnny vowed as he lowered his eyes, unable to look at his brother at that moment.

“Look at me, Johnny. Look at me!” demanded Scott, putting his hand under his brother’s chin and lifting his head until blue eyes met. “You are my brother and I don’t give a damn who you were. We will fight this battle, together, and any other battles to come. We will stand against all enemies as brothers… we remain a family. It’s what our father wants and it’s what I want too. And I will not stand by and watch you throw your life away if we can find a better way to beat this, understand?”   He gave Johnny’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.

“Yeah, I understand, it’s want I want too. But it’s not going to as easy as you think.” 

“You’re forgetting one thing, little brother. I fought in a hard and ugly war. I have a few tricks up my sleeve too,” Scott said, giving his brooding brother a smile. “Now what do you say we finish dressing, go get something to eat, and then head to the jail and talk over strategy with Val?” 

Johnny nodded and buttoned up his shirt. “Boy, you sure are beginning to sound like our old man!” he quipped.

“Thank you. I’ll take that as a compliment. Somebody has to knock some sense into you when he’s not around,” Scott commented.

“Well, I sure hope you’re right. Cause’ I sure would hate to be the one to say I told you so,” Johnny added as he grabbed his gun belt and hat.

“Come on. Let’s get something to eat and coffee. We’re going to need it,” Scott urged as they headed out the door and down to the café.

********

As the sun rose slowly over the mountains, Bull Dog’s camp started to buzz with activity as the outlaw went around barking out orders to his men as they got ready to move closer to Green River. He figured if they could make good time that by tonight they would be making camp outside of town. And in thinking that, he decided to put his other plan into action by dividing up his men into two groups. He sent off one bunch to fulfill their assignment, while he and the others headed towards their main destination, Val and Johnny.

“So what’s your plan of action, boss?” Boone asked his leader as they mounted up. “Are we going to storm the town, burn a few building to get Crawford’s attention?” he suggested with a sneer.

“No, not if we don’t have to,” Harrison replied with an evil leer.  “We’ll play it cool for now.”

“Huh? Where’s the fun in that?” Boone huffed in disappointment. “I don’t understand?”

“Then let me explain it so your feeble little brain can understand,” Bull Dog snarled. “I had time to think while I sat in that hell hole. And while burning down buildings is one way, I thought of a better way to get my revenge on the good Sheriff and Madrid,” he explained coldly. “Think about it, what would hurt them the most?”

Boone thought a few seconds, and then it dawned on him, “I think I see what you mean. But Crawford, as I recall, don’t have nobody but that town. So why not burn it down?”

“Ah, but he does. There is one person he thinks highly of, more like a brother, and that’s Madrid,” he clarified.

“I see! Make him suffer first by killing Madrid. Then put him out of his misery.”

“Yes! But not before Madrid pays dearly for betraying Day like he did.  So you see it’s like a full circle, with me in the middle calling all the shots,” Harrison chuckled evilly.

“Smart, boss, real smart,” Boone replied in total agreement. “So are we just going to hang outside of town while we wait for the rest of the boys to get back?”

“No, I figure you boys can go on in town a few at the time. Have a couple beers and maybe enjoy the company of those pretty saloon girls,” Bull Dog smiled wickedly. “But don’t do anything to rile up the sheriff. I have a notion that Slim did that already and is sleeping it off in his jail since we should have met up with him by now,” he warned. “And knowing his big mouth I have a feeling Crawford knows I’m coming for him.”

“Well, what are you going to do?”

“I’ll just wait outside of town and let him sweat some wondering where I am. While I wait for my package to arrive, and then I’ll pay the sheriff a friendly visit,” Harrison calmly proclaimed. Boone nodded as they continued on their way to Green River.

********

Scott watched his gloomy brother carefully and by the way Johnny was playing with his eggs, he knew their earlier conversation was still weighing heavy on his mind. Scott still couldn’t believe what he heard coming out of his brother’s mouth. Johnny’s stance on the matter had scared him and he prayed that his words really did put his brother’s fear to rest for now. 

Suddenly their thoughts were interrupted by a loud ruckus from just outside the café. Johnny’s eyes widened and without a word he grabbed his hat and was out the door before Scott could open his mouth.  Scott took out some coins, tossed them on the table and took off after his brother.

“Damn it, Johnny, will you slow down!” Scott hollered.
 
Upon reaching the street, Johnny skidded to a halt and watched Clem trying his best to break up a fight between two local teens, over a girl they were both sweet on. Johnny glanced up and saw the object of their affection standing on the sidelines giggling. Johnny walked over and pulled one the youths off of the other, tossing him to the ground.

“Now, listen the both of you, we have enough to worry about other than some squabble over who she’ll go out with!” Johnny growled. “Now go home and stay there, NOW!”   Both boys jumped when they saw the fire in Johnny’s eyes. Then he turned to face the girl, “I suggest the same for you, missy, and don’t be playing those boys against each other like that, it might bring you trouble later,” he softly warned in a gentler manner.

“Yes, Mr. Lancer,” She nodded, bowing politely as her heart raced with thrilling pleasure that the handsome Lancer had spoken to her.

Scott smiled in awe at his brother’s way with people, even the younger set. Once things were settled they followed the eager new deputy to the jail. Opening the door they found Val eating his breakfast and sipping on his bitter coffee. “Morning, John, sleep well?” Val asked.

“Oh, I slept like baby,” Johnny remarked curtly. He walked over to the cell door and peered in.

“Don’t believe a word he said, Val.  He was up half the night,” Scott contradicted his brother. “And we had an interesting conversation this morning that has me worried.”

“Oh really and what would that be?” asked Val, worry causing his scruffy whiskered face to twitch.

“Never mind, Scott worries too much,” Johnny retorted, and then he pointed to Val’s prisoner. “Why do you have him gagged and his hands tied up? He isn’t going nowhere. And didn‘t you hear that ruckus outside?”

“Yes, I did, that’s why I had Clem take care of it. I didn’t want to let my food get cold. And as for him being tied up, I got tired of listening to his annoying jawing, that’s why!” Val replied snidely. “It was the only way to shut him up, other than knocking him over the head. I couldn’t think straight, let alone get any sleep.” 

“Well, did you come up with any ideas, besides Sam‘s, once you shut him up?”

“No, did you?”  Val grumbled.

Johnny looked at his frowning brother and knew better than to say what was really on his mind. “No, but maybe my Harvard educated brother here might have a few up his sleeve as I was told,” Johnny revealed. “How about it, Scott?”

Scott shrugged the remark off and replied, “It would help if I knew their line of attack?” 

“That’s just it, we don’t!” Val said. “I don’t know how close he is, or how many men he has.” 

“Well, then maybe we should send Cipriano or one of the men on a discreet scouting mission and find out,” Scott suggested.

“What good would that do?” Johnny barked. “Bull Dog is a cunning man. He’ll have his own men watching out for anything suspicious. It would be putting our men at risk of being caught. And he don’t cotton to being spied on. How do you think he found out that Jed had a posse after him?”  He looked at his brother and nodded, “Yes, we sent somebody out to get an idea of where he might be and they found him first.”

“So we just wait until he gets here?” Scott asked, raising his eyebrows.

“It’s all we can do for right now,” Val admitted. “We’ll know soon enough when he gets here. And then we’ll have to watch him carefully.” 

“That and Sam’s idea of evening out the odds some if there was to be a fight,” Johnny added. “I have a strong notion he has something planned for Val and me, so we better be prepared for anything.” 

Johnny walked over to the window and peered out with weary eyes. He pressed his head against the warm glass, heated by the morning sun, and stood there deep in thought. Scott knew what was on his brother’s mind, those words Johnny spoke earlier still haunted him.

Scott walked over to his sibling and placed a firm hand on his shoulder and whispered in his ear. “Remember what I said we stand together as brothers, no matter what.”

“I remember. I just hope it’s easy as that!” Johnny softly replied and gave his brother an uncertain look. “Well, would you care to escort your brother on his rounds?  After all I‘m a deputy too and I gotta make sure that everybody will be on their toes when he gets here. And to make sure there aren’t any more fights over girls,” he said with a half grin.

“Lead the way, brother,” Scott said pointing to the door.

 

Chapter Seven

Scott and Johnny marched purposefully about the dusty streets of town double checking with the citizens that they understood their roles in the plan and made clarifications for those that had questions. They were unaware as they went about their patrol that the insidious next phase of Harrison’s sinister scheme was under way.

The five men Bull Dog had sent off that morning on an important assignment lay in wait for their targeted victim.  Earlier they had come across an unfortunate ranch hand, who had wandered too far from the rest of his group because he was so focused on his task of rounding up strays.  One second he was sitting in his saddle and in the next second he was startled by a rope descending over his head and down his torso, tightening painfully as he was jerked from his horse.  After being beaten unmercifully for information, the ranch worker was bound securely with the rope and tossed callously into a scrub brush filled ravine, where he lay in a semi-conscious state.  The five outlaws retreated to a clump of trees, where they hid in the shadows as they waited for the opportunity to use the forcibly obtained information to capture their intended prey.

 

“How much longer do we have to wait?” grumbled Matt, the shortest of the group of five. “I’m getting hungry. I ain’t eat nothing since this morning”

“Will ya stop thinking about your dang stomach for once? That mex said that he normally rides up this way about this time of day to check on a friend,” huffed Bret, the bigger man. “Just be patient and don’t do nothing to spook him. You all hear that?” he warned them.  “We can’t afford to let him get away from us.”

“There’s five of us and only one of him. How can he get away?”  Matt asked.

“Easy, if we’re not careful. Slim said he’s a sly old fox,” Bret reminded them. “And you heard what the boss instructed; he’s not to be harmed. He has special plans for him.” 

“Hey Bret, I see someone coming!” whispered one of the men as he pointed to a buckboard coming in their direction.” 

“Yeah, that’s him alright. He’s just as big as Slim described him. I think I’ve seen smaller mountains, be careful and don’t let him swing on you he could probably knock you into next week with those massive hands and arms!”  Bret snorted. “Okay you know what to do.” 

The men nodded and readied their rifles. They moved into position as they patiently waited for the buckboard to get close enough to overtake it without a problem. The driver of the buckboard was so preoccupied with his own troubled thoughts he did not heed the warning signs around him, such as the flock of birds that suddenly flew upwards. Murdoch would pay for his inattention.  The five men on horseback scrambled quickly down the slope advancing on their victim. Their seemingly abrupt arrival startled the rancher and the horses.

“Whoa!” Murdoch shouted as he pulled back hard on the reins in an attempt to get the frightened team under control. By the time he managed to accomplish the feat he found himself staring down the barrels of five rifles aimed right at him. “What’s the meaning of this? Who are you?” he boomed angrily.

“Mr. Lancer, I presume?” Bret asked, his cold voice dripping with arrogant sarcasm.

“What if I am? What’s it to you?” Murdoch inquired, his eyes narrowing in displeasure at the men, outlaws from their appearance. Their presence on his land obviously meant they had nefarious intentions towards him. He was also quite certain he knew who they worked for.

“Never mind who we are. My boss would like to see you,” Bret informed him. “So you’re going to take a ride with us,” he commanded boldly.  

“Like hell I am!” Murdoch declared vehemently, raising the reins to give them a snap to take off. Before he could flex his wrists to begin the motion he was dealt a crushing blow to the head from the butt of Bret’s rifle. Murdoch grunted in surprise and slowly tilted to the side as his body went limp. He ended up sprawled across the wagon seat.

“I thought we weren’t supposed to harm him?” Matt questioned in confusion.

“It’s nothing but a bump on the head, he’ll have a big headache once he wakes up, that‘s all,” Bret replied calmly. “So jump aboard and take over the reins. We can‘t leave no sign that he was here,” he ordered.

Matt gave Bret a put upon look but quickly dismounted his horse and climbed aboard, “Help will ya, he… weighs a ton,” he puffed breathlessly as he tried to push Murdoch’s dead weight over the seat and into the back.

Bret motioned to a couple of others to help the struggling man and they roughly pushed Murdoch over the seat, snickering at the loud thud when his body landed in the wagon bed. They grabbed some rope and swiftly tied up his hands and legs, making sure he was tightly bound just in case he returned to consciousness and tried to make a break for it before they met up with Harrison.  Once that was done, Matt crawled back up front and followed the others as they headed off in direction Murdoch had come from, back tracking over the wagon ruts.  No one knew they had even been there except for the near dead ranch hand they had beaten and tossed in the ravine.

********

It was close to mid-afternoon when Johnny and Scott finished talking to the storekeepers and local residents. They were bone tired, thirsty and hungry from traipsing up and down the sandy streets, going from door to door on their duty. They were as tired in spirit as they were body because over the course of the day they were informed that a few more families had moved out sometime in the middle of the night. It seemed that they had a private meeting amongst themselves and having given it a second thought decided they weren’t up to the fight. This further reduced the man power they desperately needed to fight and protect their town but it was much better for them to pull out now than to freeze up in the middle of a battle.

The brothers, in a bid to delay having to share the disturbing news of their reduced man power with Val, decided to give their own men a break from lookout duty before heading to the jail. Johnny took one end of town and Scott, the other, and sent their friends off to get something to eat and a cold beer or two before resuming their positions.

“Boy, Val is not going to like this news one bit,” Johnny stated apprehensively as he and Scott walked towards the jail.

“No, I imagine not,” Scott sighed. “I guess you can’t blame them though. It was a lot to ask them to do. I mean standing up to someone with a reputation like Harrison.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Johnny admitted disappointedly. “It makes it harder now, with less manpower to count on.”

“That’s why Sam’s idea is crucial. The more men we can quietly eliminate without any bloodshed, the better the odds,” Scott expounded as they reached the jail.

“After you brother,” Johnny teased sheepishly and pointed to the door, trying to delay by mere seconds the moment of having to relay the bad news.

“No, after you, don’t worry, I’ll be right behind you when he hits the roof and starts throwing stuff at you,” Scott stated with acerbic humor.

“Thanks, brother,” Johnny hissed as he opened the door to find Sam sitting next to the desk and Val with a scowl that even scared him. “I suppose you heard, huh?” he asked the obvious.

“Yes, I did,” Val growled. “Sam here was kind enough to inform me of their leaving,” he added as he slowly stood up and walked over to the window and stared out at what had once been a busy town. Now only a few brave souls wandered about. “It’s beginning to look like ghost town, something we wanted to avoid in the first place. This will make Bull Dog suspicious for sure.”

“Well, we’ll just have to do without them,” Johnny vowed. “The main thing is getting ready. Soon it’ll be dark and I have strong notion Bull Dog will be here before we know it.”

“He’s right, Val.” Sam intervened. “I gave out all the sleeping dust and chloroform I had on hand. I sent wires to various towns asking for more before the lines went down. I don‘t know when it will get here, or even if they can make it before the outlaws.  I pray what we have is enough to at least stop a few of his men.” 

“And still be ready to fight the rest of his blood thirsty mob,” Val grumbled under his breath. He continued looking out the window, wishing he could go back in time and do what he should have done in the first place, put a bullet in Harrison, and then none of this would be happening.

“Val, where’s Clem?” Johnny asked curiously.

“I sent him over to the café to get something to eat for that scumbag, in the cell, and himself.” 

“Have you eaten yet?” 

“No, not yet,” Val answered.

“Then why don’t you three go and get something to eat,” Johnny insisted.

“What about you?” Scott questioned. He didn’t like the idea of leaving his brother alone, even though it’s daylight and the prisoner was secure behind bars.

“I’ll stay here and guard our friend in there,” Johnny stated and rolled his eyes at the unsure look he was getting from his brother. “Look, Clem will be back soon, so I’ll have somebody with me here.” 

“Somehow that’s not too reassuring, brother,” Scott said with a frown.

“I’ll be okay. Now get on outta here. I’m getting hungry myself and when you come back then I’ll go,” the younger Lancer urged and held the door open for his hesitant sibling.

“You know there is no use in trying to urge with him, don’t ya?’  Val said as he grabbed his hat.

“That’s right!” Johnny crowed with a smile.

Scott glared at his brother and exclaimed, “Alright, but I’ll be back as soon as I can. And I better find you in one piece when I do!”

“You know what your problem is?” Johnny asked sharply.

“No, what is my problem?” 

“You worry too much,” Johnny smirked as he threw one of his brother’s lines back at him.  “You keep forgetting I’m a big boy, and I can take care of myself.”

“Well, past events prove to me that you’re a survivor when you do get into fixes,” Scott added as he was almost out the door, and then stopped and turned to face Johnny.  “One of these days your luck just might run out, little brother and I for one would rather see that day come when you’re old and gray, not when you still have a whole life ahead of you.” 

“Scott, just go, will ya?” Johnny softly smiled. “And…” he confessed as he put his hand on his brother’s arm, “I would like to see that day too.”

“Good, you just keep thinking that,” Scott advised as he walked out and Johnny slowly shut the door behind him. 

Standing with his back against the door, pondering as he stared at the cell room, Johnny finally pushed off and strutted over and peered in the small window. The sulking prisoner was sitting on his bunk, with his eyes trained on the floor.

“Thirsty?” Johnny asked

Slim raised his head up and anxiously looked around the room to see where the soft drawl came from. He spotted Johnny glaring at him through the bars of the window and within seconds his demeanor grew dark with anger.

“I want nothing from you, Madrid!” he snarled. “You’re nothing but a murdering traitor.” 

Johnny smiled and slowly opened the door, its rusty hinges creaking and causing an eerie echo in the empty cells, which sent a shiver down Slim’s spineless back. “Now why do you say that?” Johnny asked, as he stood leaning against the door frame, coldly eyeing the nervous man before him.

“You know damn well what I mean!”  

“You mean, Day? Well, let me tell ya something,” Johnny said as he moved closer to the cell and pulled up a chair just a few feet from the door. “I’m nothing compared to what Day was. He was so low he was six feet under everybody in the business even before he was dead and buried.”   

“That’s not what I heard!” Slim challenged.

Johnny’s eyes narrowed and he slowly pulled out his gun, laying it on his lap with his hand caressing the handle and the barrel pointing at the man. “I don’t give a damn what you heard!” he hissed. “I never once hurt a woman, nor a child, for the sake of money or power like Day did. And I never used my gun for the wrong cause if I could help it,” he sneered. “But, I sure wouldn’t mind using it on you right now,” he threatened as he flicked the gun upwards causing Slim to practically jump out of his skin and frantically scoot back towards the wall.

“You…you stay away from me!” the sweating bandit begged. “I did nothing to you.”  

Johnny shook his head and chuckled. “Well now, I don’t see it that way at all.  After all you rode right along with Day and murdered those good people after you burned down their farm. You helped set fire to MY property and almost killed MY father!” he shouted angrily, and then got up and began pacing back and forth, twirling the gun gracefully in his hand.

“That…that was all Pardee’s doing. We….we were only following orders,” the man stuttered as he kept an eye on the gun Johnny was confidently manipulating. He tried to calm his racing heart. “And…and it was Day who shot Lancer. I was nowhere around that day,” he added in his defense, though he figured it would do no good. 

Johnny stopped, stared at the weasel momentarily, and then resumed his pacing. He paid no mind to the man’s futile pleading. “After the ruckus was over and you managed to escape our guns, you hightailed right it to Day’s uncle the minute you heard he was out,” he bitterly reminded the bandit. “And you just couldn’t wait to tell him about it, right?”

“He had the right to know how you betrayed Day!” Slim blurted out. “And he’s gonna make you pay.” 

“How?” Johnny asked as he moved closer to the cell and waved his gun menacingly. “You may as well tell me because you’re not going anywhere soon, but to hell, if I don’t get my answers.”

“I don’t know!” Slim snarled. “He …he don’t tell us much, not until he’s ready and we don‘t dare ask questions. Then we just do as he says, just like Day.” 

“Yeah, well, you’re just a fraidy cat, scared if you don’t do as the big dog tells ya, he’s gonna bite your head off or worse,” Johnny barked.  “Well let me tell ya, don’t think he’ll care about saving your worthless hide. Because he won’t, he’ll let ya rot in here before he gives you a second thought,” Johnny stated the cold hard facts and holstered his gun.  Clem came back in carrying a food tray. “Well, I guess even a gutless pig like you has to eat, so enjoy your meal, it just might be your last!” Johnny taunted snidely and walked out of the room.

“Did he tell you anything useful, Johnny?” Clem asked as he was about to take the tray in to the prisoner.

“No, damn it!” Johnny huffed in disgust. “I just wasted my breath on him.   We’re no closer to finding out Bull Dog’s plan and that scares me,” he admitted as he flopped down in Val’s chair.

“Aw come on, Johnny, you scared?” Clem said giving the brooding ex-gunfighter a crooked smile.

“Yeah, Clem, I am. I have a lot to lose now and that scares me more than I can say,” Johnny confessed softly.” Go on give him his dinner, will ya?” 

“Okay, Johnny.”  

Johnny smiled at the deputy, and then slowly stood up and walked over to the window pressing his head against the cool glass and looked up at the setting sun, as another day was about to come to an end . Somewhere out there was Bull Dog and his murdering mob. The not knowing when or where he would strike first was eating at his insides. He thought about what he promised Scott and he prayed he would be able to keep that promise, but if things got to the point where there was no other choice… then he was prepared to break that promise.

 

Chapter Eight

The dimming gray of dusk robbed the sky of color as the last vestiges of the rose streaked sunset disappeared.  Johnny sighed loudly as the encroaching darkness cloaked not only the town but also his heart, pulling him into a blackness he had fought so hard to escape after coming home.  He blew out another long breath, more forcibly this time as his agitation increased, the sound of it whistling through his teeth. He pulled away from the window and began pacing back and forth in front of the cell room. He was frustrated and angry over the fact that he hadn’t been able to obtain any information from the prisoner on Bull Dog’s whereabouts and plans. His worried march would occasionally stop long enough for him to glare at Slim, who was sitting in the cell, stuffing his face full of food as though he hadn‘t a care in the world. The more he stared at the man, the harder it was to fight the urge to open the door, wrap his hands around the weasel’s scrawny neck and choke the information out of him. As satisfying as he thought that action would be, Johnny knew it would only lower him to the outlaw’s level and that was one thing he would never do. He had always thought the hardest part of any plan was the waiting…and that and worry was all he could do for now, until Bull Dog decided to strike.

With night falling, Harrison began setting up camp only a few miles outside of town, in a secluded area hidden by thick trees and large rocks. It was the perfect place to hide out because it gave them an overall advantage. They could see the road from different angles without being seen themselves if he posted men in just the right spots. These placements gave them the ability to ambush or apprehend anyone that approached, if they thought they were a danger to them. Once they had settled in, Harrison sent off one of his men to meet up with the others to show them, and hopefully his unwitting guest, the way back to the hideout.

The outlaw did a quick survey of how much ammunition and supplies they had on hand. The ammunition was holding up, but their food and whiskey was not. Since it was time to replenish his supplies, Bull Dog picked out four men to send to town with a list and strict instructions. They were also being given the chance to enjoy themselves with a few drinks and some female company.  

“Okay, you four, I’m sending you into town first and I’m giving you a couple of hours to enjoy yourselves. The rest of the men will be eagerly waiting for their turn, so don’t be getting yourself so liquored up that you can’t make your way back here. Understand?” he sternly instructed. “And don’t do nothing to rile up Crawford, you hear me?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure boss!” they all mumbled together, anxious to be on their way.

“Good! Now get ready,” he barked, and then grabbed Boone and took him off to the side. “Alright you know what to get?” Bull Dog pressed. 

“Yeah, boss, I got the list right here,” Boone said patting his shirt pocket. “Uh, boss, what about Slim? He‘s been gone a long time.” 

“That’s another thing I wanted to talk to you about,” Harrison whispered. “He’s a liability to us now and I have no doubt he’s sitting in that jail right now, shooting his mouth off. I want you to pay him a quiet visit and do it unseen,” he ordered coldly.

“Boss, are ya sure? He don’t know nothing to tell,” Boone questioned his employer’s motives.

“Don’t back talk me! I don’t like loose ends and he’s one,” Bull Dog snarled in the man’s face, exposing his yellow teeth like a mad dog. “Now get those supplies and take care of Slim, understand?”

“Alright, alright, I understand!” Boone agreed.

“I’m also putting you in charge of making sure these men get back in one piece and sober. They can finish their drinking here where I can keep an eye on them.” 

“Okay, Boss. You can count on me,” Boone said with a weary smile. Then he mounted up with the others and took off for town at a full gallop. 

Harrison walked over to the supply wagon they had stolen from a small farm a few weeks ago while on their way here. After murdering the family, they had raided the house and barn and filled the wagon with whatever they thought they could use: food, blankets and booze. He took out one of the last bottles of whiskey, and then flopped down on a log and waited for the others to show up with Murdoch. An evil sneer grew on his scared face as he thought of what he would say to the man responsible for bringing Madrid here, which led directly to his nephew’s untimely death. 

********

When Scott and the others returned to the sheriff’s office the elder Lancer brother was relieved to see his younger sibling still there and in one piece, as promised. From what he had heard about the mad man they were preparing for, he was afraid his unpredictable brother would slip off and try to handle things on his own. He was greatly relieved to find Johnny greeting them with a weary grin. As soon as they were in the office, with nothing but a wave goodbye, Johnny grabbed his hat and hurried out the door. He intended to head to the café first and then maybe to the saloon for a stiff drink.

“He was eager to get out of here,” Val commented as Johnny whizzed by him.

“I think the talk he had with the prisoner put a sour taste in his mouth,” Clem informed them. “And he needed to wash it down with something stronger than your coffee, Sheriff.” 

“Now why would he want to talk to that slime ball?” Val questioned with a scowl.

“I guess to get information out of him, ya know like what Harrison‘s plans are and that kind of thing,” Clem answered shrugging his shoulders.

“And did he?” Scott asked.

“Not a word, just a lot of back talk and it didn‘t sit well with him. Johnny just paced back and forth, all worried liked,” Clem revealed.

“We’re all worried, Clem,” Sam expressed softly. “Well, I have paper work to do, so if you would excuse me, gentlemen?” he added as he put his hat back on. “If you need me you know where to find me.” 

“Sam, wait!” Scott anxiously called out as he peered out the window. “It looks like we have company,” he warned, and then waved them over to the window and pointed to the four riders slowly coming up the street. “Any of them Bull Dog, Val?”

Val took a long hard look at the riders and shook his head. “No, but no doubt they’re some of his men. They look just like the type that rides with him,” he snarled. “So I guess the fun begins, huh?”

“It depends on your idea of fun, Val,” Scott quipped. 

“How would Pete know for sure if these are indeed Harrison’s men?” Sam asked in a hushed voice, as he didn‘t want to rouse the now sleeping prisoner. “Shouldn’t we give him and the others a sign of some kind to warn them?”

“They have instructions to watch out for strangers, ugly, dirty men… the type that look like they would shoot their own mother if she dared crossed them,” Val sneered. “They’ll know it’s them, they will seem as out of place as whores in a church because these outlaws don’t know how to act around normal people. We’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out.”

A few minutes later, Johnny walked out the café with a full belly. He was ready for that drink and was about to cross the street when he stopped dead in his tracks. Johnny’s right hand eased down to his side, relaxed though ready for action, his blue eyes narrowed as he gazed at the four men dismounting in front of the saloon and without a shadow of a doubt he knew who they were. He cautiously stepped back inside the café, pulled down the shade and peered out, watching their every move.

“Hey, Boone, I’m starved and that café over yonder looks mighty tempting. I haven’t had a home cook meal in coon’s age. I’ll catch up with ya later,” stated Mack, a short bulky built man.

“Alright, Mack, but make it quick! You heard what the boss said!” Boone warned. “I have few things to take care of too,” he added as he looked over towards the alley way leading to the back of the jail.

“Okay, see ya,” Mack said and started towards the café, licking his rotting teeth in anticipation of some good cooking besides the slop their own cook drums up.

Johnny quickly stepped back from the window when he spied the bandit coming his way, alerting Harry, who was the only one there other than himself. Johnny motioned to the man to stay calm and seated as he dashed to the kitchen to warn Clara.

“Clara, darling, it’s time and it‘s only one man to contend with,” Johnny whispered in the startled woman’s ear.

“So soon?” she stammered fearfully.

“Yes, do you remember what we talked about?” he asked the nervous waitress and owner of the café. “Now just stay calm and take his order. Then all you have to do is put the sleeping powder in his coffee before you bring him his meal,” he reminded her when she looked at him with an air of uncertainty and fear in her brown eyes.

“Okay…you’re…not leaving are you?” she asked in a trembling voice.

“No, I’ll be right in here in case you need me. Okay?” he assured the terrified woman with a soft smile. “I know you can do this, go on.”

Clara wearily nodded and was just moving towards the door to the dining area when a loud shout made her stop in her tracks.

“SERVICE!” Mack hollered rudely after entering the café and flopped down in the chair so roughly it creaked under his weight. He pounded on the table so hard dust particles escaped his fifthly sleeves. “WHERE’S THE WAITRESS?” he demanded.

The outlaws commanding shouts terrified the normally timid woman and she shrank back in fright and took shelter in Johnny’s comforting arms. He cradled her trembling body for a few seconds, and then turned her around to stare in to her eyes.

“Go on, you can do it,” Johnny gently urged. “I’m right here.”

Clara took a deep, though shaky, breath to calm her nerves, plastered on a fake smile and walked out to the table where the rowdy man was waiting. “Yes, sir, what can I get for you? We have a nice dinner special.  It’s…it’s beef steak with all the trimmings.”

“Well, now that sounds mighty tasty. I’ll have that and hot coffee,” Mack smiled back exposing the decrepit state of his teeth, which made him look sinister.  “And what’s for dessert? You my pretty?” he winked wickedly at her, while attempting to pinch her bottom, but Clara quickly stepped away and frowned at the disgusting man.

“NO, SIR!” she snapped. “I have apple or cherry pie, take your pick! I‘ll be right back with your coffee.” She stormed out the room and gave Johnny a determined look as she entered the kitchen. “Where’s that sleeping powder?” she hissed. “I’ll be happy to put his lights out, even if it’s temporary. Try to pinch my bottom, indeed.” she grumbled under her breath as she poured the whole packet in the cup and filled it with hot streaming coffee.

Johnny chuckled. “I knew that would change your mind. No one messes with you Clara, now do they?” he remarked, giving the woman a kiss on the cheek. “Go get’em!” 

Clara smiled at Johnny and held her head up high as she walked out with the coffee and calmly strutted over to the table and sat the cup down in front of the grinning man. “It’s nice and fresh, enjoy it while I get your dinner,” she said curtly, and then rushed back to where Johnny was hiding behind a door.  “How long will it take?”

“Not long, he‘ll get all fuzzy eyed and dizzy.  I ought to know, I was drugged once and woke up the next day without my boots,” he snickered as he recalled his stupidity for trusting a man like Durham. 

They anxiously watch as the vulgar bandit took a few sips of his coffee, sat it down to let cool a little, and then took a few more swallows.  Just as he was about to take the last sip, he started to blink rapidly and rubbed at his eyes as his vision went blurry. “What…the…hell,” he slurred as he tried to lift himself up but fell back down in the chair, “Why… th…at….bit…ch…,” he muttered, and then everything went black.

“One down, three to go,” Johnny stated.  “Clara, my darling, you did great. Now do you have any rope handy?” he inquired. The woman gave Johnny a thankful hug, and then rushed over to the pantry and came back with a couple pieces of rope. Johnny dashed out and swiftly hog tied the man as Harry kept a watch out.

“All clear, Johnny,” Harry said as he peered out the window, his eyes trained towards the saloon for any signs of his friends leaving. A quick glance in the opposite direction revealed Scott headed their way. “Hey, Johnny, Scott is coming this way.”

As the blond Lancer approached the café, he noticed Harry looking out smiling and nodding at him. He knew right then and there that Johnny had things well under control, which put his worries to rest for now.  Scott calmly opened the door to find his brother and Clara standing over the sleeping bandit, all tied up and slumped over the table.

“Well, I see you have things under control, brother,” Scott smiled. “I was getting worried there for a minute when Val and I noticed this one entering the building. Frankly, I didn’t know how you would handle it,” Scott admitted his doubts.

“Don’t worry, brother, I stayed with the plan and it was a piece of cake, thanks to Clara here, for being so brave,” Johnny praised the woman again and gave her another tender kiss on the cheek.

“Oh, you stop,” Clara blushed. “I don’t think I would have had the courage to go through with it if Johnny wasn’t here.”   

“Well, I’m honored you think that, darling,” Johnny said, flashing her one of his dazzling smiles. “Now let’s get this piece of trash over to the jail before he wakes up. Give me a hand, will ya?”

“With pleasure, brother,” Scott replied eagerly as he grabbed the man’s feet and Johnny latched on to his arms. They snuck out the back way to avoid being seen by the rest of his associates.

The Lancer boys reached the back door of the jailhouse just as Boone was leaving, heading in the other direction. Luckily he didn’t notice them carrying Mack as he disappeared around the corner and hurried over to the general store.

Johnny banged on the door with his foot and hollered, “Val, let us in!”  The startled sheriff rushed to the back and opened the door, paying no mind to Slim.

“Well now, I see you have one already taken care of,” Val chortled as they carried the unconscious man past him. “I guess you’re going to have some company,” Val informed his other prisoner as he turned around to unlock another cell. All of a sudden a cold sensation invaded his belly; he pivoted and glared, stopped short by the unexpected sight. “I might have known. It’s just like Bull Dog to do something like this.”

Johnny and Scott stared dispiritedly at Slim’s lifeless body. He was slumped over on his cot that sat under the small cell window. A knife protruded from his throat and red rivulets ran down his neck and saturated and stained his shirt a deep crimson. Neither brother was very surprised at the desperate measure that had claimed the man’s life. They had seen it many times before but it still was unsettling.

“I warned him that bastard wouldn’t care less if he lived or died,” Johnny stated.

“Well, he knows now,” Val retorted as he opened up the cell door next to Slim’s. “Throw this one in here, and then help me take Slim’s body over to the undertaker, without being seen, mind ya.” 

“Here we’re trying to prevent as much bloodshed as possible and he’s killing his own men,” Sam grimly noted as he stood by the door.  “I just don’t understand.”

“You can’t understand men like Harrison, Sam. They don’t have any respect for human life but their own,” Johnny explained as he walked over to Slim and pulled the knife out. “That’s why people hire gunfighters to stop men like Bull Dog, or the other way around. It’s a vicious circle that I don’t see an end too,” he added and threw a blanket over the body.

“I couldn’t agree with you more, brother,” Scott said. “That’s why I want you to stay here. Clem and I will take him over to the undertaker.  It would be less conspicuous if we’re seen with the body.  I’m quite sure that Harrison gave them a good description of you.” 

“He has a point, amigo. It would be good idea if you stayed out of sight until we can take care of these men without any commotion,” Val advised.

“So you want me to just hide out, is that it?” Johnny growled. “Come on, Val, you know me better than that! I don’t hide or run from a fight.”

Val walked over to his friend and put his hands on Johnny tense shoulders. His worried eyes bore into Johnny’s blue ones, “Look, he’s after me and now you. So why give him two targets to hit right away. He has something up his sleeve, otherwise he would be here with his men,” he explained. “I don’t know what, but it can’t be good.”

“Johnny, listen to Val,” Scott exclaimed as his stress level rose.

“Alright! Just until you take care of the three left,” the young Lancer reluctantly agreed. “But I’ll tell ya, he’ll send more men when these four don’t come back… then what, I still hide?”

“Yes! Until we know for sure what he has in store for you and Val,” Scott proclaimed. “One way or the other he’ll show his hand, so until then I don’t want you attempting anything heroic, for once in your life stay out of the line of fire.” 

“Yeah, he won’t show his hand until it’s too late,” Johnny added. He walked over to a chair and dropped down. “Go on and take that stupid fool to the undertaker, and then check up on how the others are handling the other three. You don‘t go playing hero either, big brother,” Johnny returned the warning.

“I don’t plan on it, brother,” Scott stated as he and Clem grabbed Slim and snuck out the back door with Sam and Val right behind them. Sam headed for his office and Val over to the saloon, hoping to find Harrison’s other men sleeping like dogs.

 

Chapter Nine

Fighting the urge to rush towards the saloon, Val made a conscious effort to traverse the street with his normal, unhurried and loose limbed gait. It appeared he didn’t have a care in the world but that was only because his beat up old hat shaded his worried face from possible prying eyes.  Under the shadow of the brim, his brown eyes were alert and scanning the street for any signs of danger, his hands came up and pushed the curls of hair away from his ears as he concentrated on listening for noises coming from the buildings. The town seemed eerily quiet with no piano playing, or loud laughter filtering out. Crawford figured the hombres must have put a damper on the merriment he usually heard this time of day. Still being vigilant, Val strolled up to the horses tethered outside the building, which the four men had ridden into town. He immediately noticed a couple of the horses were packed down with bags of goods. Inspecting the area, he spied clumps of mud next to one horse and muddy boot prints going up the steps and right into the bar. The gruff old sheriff raised his eyebrows, rubbed his unshaven face and nodded.

Val stepped up to the batwings door and peered in; scanning the room cautiously to find a few cowboys calmly sitting and staring at Pete. Pete was standing over Boone’s slumped body.  The grinning sheriff coolly walked in, shaking his head in amazement that so far Sam’s plan was working like a charm; with the exception of Slim, not an ounce of blood had been shed.  He looked down at the muddy trail that stopped under Boone’s soles and knew without a doubt that this was the murdering bastard that had slit his prisoner’s throat. The unconscious bandit had clay, the same color of the patch behind the jailhouse, coating his boots.

“Well, well, this has to be the feller who put the knife in my prisoner neck,” Val scowled in a low tone of voice.  “Let’s see how well he fairs in my jail, tie him up Pete.” 

“Yes sir!” Pete complied eagerly.

Val looked around and frowned, “Hey, Pete, I know for a fact that he was not alone, where are the other two?” 

“Marcie took one upstairs with her, after he roughed up Ken over there and snatched her away from him,” Pete replied and pointed to a tall man sitting over in the corner, nursing a bloody lip. “She also took a bottle with her and the…” he looked around… “Sleeping powder I slipped in her hand, she’ll know what to do.” 

“She’s one brave girl, that’s for sure,” Val exclaimed.

“Like I said, Sheriff, my girls don’t take shit from men like these! They can handle themselves,” Pete proudly proclaimed.

Not more than a minute elapsed after the bartender’s statement when they heard a thud sound coming from one of the rooms and moments later Marcie appeared half dressed and with a big smile over her conquest. The pretty red headed saloon girl gave the thumbs up and Pete motioned to two of the locals, including Ken, to go secure the bandit. They grabbed their rope and hurried upstairs.

“Well that takes care of him but where’s the last man?” Val wondered nervously. 

“I got him!” Zeke announced breathlessly as he rushed into the saloon. “The man came into my shop and wanted a shave, can you believe that? He smelled horrible; he needed a bath more than a shave. He gave me the jitters but I stayed calm and was able to slip a cloth doused with chloroform over his mouth and he was out just like that!” he added snapping his fingers. “I have him all tied up for you, Val.”

“Good job, Zeke, I knew you could do it!” Val praised and gave the man an appreciative slap on the back.

“Did I miss anything?” Scott asked as he and Clem entered the saloon and found everybody just standing around talking.

“Nope, everything is under control, Scott. We have the last three of Bull Dog’s men all tied up,” Val crowed happily. “So I guess my jail will be full of loud smelly hombres once they wake up. I better have plenty of water on hand to clean them up,” he added with a weary smile. “I’m running out of room, if we’re lucky enough to capture more of his men, I don’t know where we’ll put them!”

“You’ll have to hide them where they can’t be found,” a soft voice replied from the vicinity of the entrance, causing the men to spin around and stare at the speaker. 

“Johnny! I thought I told you to stay put!” Scott snarled at his head strong little brother.

“Yeah, until they were all taken care of and it seems to me that they are,” Johnny retorted.  “I suggest we hide their horses too, cause’ ya know he’s gonna send more men to look for these guys. And we don’t want any signs of them hanging around. That’s why I think we better find another place to hold them.” 

“He has a point,” Scott said raising his eyebrows, “But where?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking about that and there’s an old mine shack north of town, oh I’d say about five or six miles out. We can load up these sleeping beauties and haul them out there. We need to do it now before it gets any later,” Johnny advised.

“Clem, go over to the livery and get a wagon to cart these varmints in and somebody to help ya. I don’t care who, just somebody,” Val instructed his deputy. “And then hightail it back here pronto.” 

“Sure thing, Val,” Clem replied and hurried out of the saloon.

“What are ya going to say to them, if they do come looking for these scoundrels, Val?” Johnny inquired.

Val lapped his tongue over his front teeth and sucked noisily as he pondered, and then answered, “Well, I’ll just say I booted them out of town or they spent the night in my jail for being drunk and disorderly and that it’s not my fault if they didn’t make it back to camp.”

“So, now what?” Scott asked.

“We go back to the jail and wait and see how many he sends next, if any at all,” Johnny said shrugging his shoulders. “I have a strong notion we’ll have a harder time drugging them if he does send more. Like I said before Bull Dog is not stupid, sooner or later he’ll figure out we’re on to him.” 

“He’ll be suspicious alright and fighting mad!” Val hissed as he waited for Clem to get back with the wagon. “You two head back to the jail and I’ll be along shortly.  We can worry about whether he sends more men or not later.” 

The Lancers nodded and left Val to oversee the loading of the unconscious bandits.  If, Johnny was right then the easy part of their plan was over and the real battle was about to begin.

********

Two hours after the kidnapping of Murdoch Lancer, Bret and the others arrived in camp with Bull Dog’s hostage, still unconscious from the hard blow to his head. It took four men to carry Murdoch’s heavy limp body over to a tree where they roughly lowered him down and leaned his back against the trunk. Harrison staggered drunkenly over to the where Murdoch sat slumped over. He had an empty whisky bottle in one hand and a gun in the other as he paced back and forth, sneering down at him.

“Wake… him… up!” he slurred loudly.

Matt jumped to his feet and grabbed a bucket, and then hurried to a nearby stream and filled it up. He ran back and dumped it over Murdoch’s head. It took a few seconds for the cold temperature to register in his dulled senses but Murdoch finally started to come around moaning in agony from the pressure and piercing pain in the back of his neck. Slowly he raised his head, blinking to get his blurry eyes to focus on the disgusting looking hombre snarling down at him.

“Where…where…am I?” Murdoch asked sluggishly, still blinking rapidly in attempt to clear his clouded vision.

“You’re in my camp as my guest,” Harrison replied coldly as he walked around the tree studying the big man, who was now at his mercy.

“If…if I’m your guest why am I tied up like this?” Murdoch questioned as tried to focus on the man, slithering around him like snake.

“You can say you’re my reluctant guest, my trump card in the little game I want to play,” Bull Dog clarified coolly.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Who the hell are you?”  Murdoch demanded, licking his dry lips. “What do you want with me?” 

“Please forgive my manners,” Harrison begged sarcastically in a mock polite tone. “The name is Harrison but my friends and enemies call me Bull Dog. I know who you are, Mr. Lancer,” he taunted as he kneeled down in front of Murdoch and angrily spat in his face, “You’re the son-of-a-bitch that brought Madrid here and he killed my nephew.”

“Who in the hell is your nephew?” Murdoch hissed.

“Pardee, Day Pardee,” Bull Dog snarled. “Does that name ring a bell?”

Murdoch‘s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. “Oh yes it does, loud and clear. He’s the bastard who put the bullet in my back and tried to take over my land! But he didn’t succeed did he? I lived and fought back with all I had and put a stop to his terrorizing the valley and killing innocent people,” he boasted with bravado, for which he felt the back of Harrison’s hand across his cheek.

“Yeah, with the help of that traitor Madrid,” Harrison snarled. “I heard how he got all friendly with Day, and then stabbed him in the back by switching sides… to your side; you and that dandy son of yours. Oh yes, I was told of him too, but he’s of no concern to me right now. And I also know something else… you’re Madrid’s papa, the man who sired that half-breed murdering snake.” 

Murdoch boldly stared the man right in the eyes, showing no fear. “You’re damn right he’s my son and I’m proud of it too. He did whatever he had to, to save his home, even if it meant playing both sides. He took a big chance and it paid off even though Pardee did get a lucky shot at Johnny…right in the back! It seems that’s his best line of fire,” Murdoch added with nothing but deep contempt, which earned him another blow to the cheek.

“SHUT UP, OLD MAN!” Harrison raged. “It don’t make no difference what you say, he helped kill Day and put this scar on my face,” he said pointing to the ugly jagged mark on his left cheek.  “I have a big score to settle with him. So I’m going to kill two rats with one trap, first Madrid, and then that Sheriff Crawford for sending me to that hell hole. But not before they suffer plenty before I put them out of their misery. After that maybe I‘ll go after your other boy. I’ll take up where Day left off and wipe out the whole damn family!”  

Murdoch eyes widened and his body stiffened as he swallowed hard when Bull Dog pulled his knife from his boot and waved it in front of him, taunting him. The outlaw leaned in closer and with a quick flick of his hand he nicked the rancher’s broad chin and watched with pleasure as the blood trickled out. Harrison snatched the hand embroidered handkerchief, Teresa had made for Murdoch‘s birthday, out of his jacket pocket and wiped the blood off with it.

“Boss,” Bret quietly spoke up.

“What is it?” snapped Harrison, his eyes never straying from his victim.

“Well, ah, the boys tell me that you sent Boone and a few others into town and that they should be back by now,” he stated with concern.

“You’re right; they should be back by now. Damn that Boone!” Harrison growled. “I gave him simple orders and it seems that he can’t even follow through without fouling things up. I bet they got themselves all liquored up and are now sleeping it off in jail, knowing how Crawford works” 

“Should we send somebody in to find out?” 

Bull Dog rubbed the back of his head as he pondered. “No, let them be. I’m not going to risk losing more men.”  He looked down at the bloody handkerchief in his hand and tightened his fingers around it, so forceful his knuckles turned white. “We’ll wait until morning and I’ll pay a visit to the good sheriff, and then personally deliver my invitation for Madrid.  One he can’t turn down,” he exclaimed with an evil glare in his eyes.

********

 “Scott, will ya get away from the window,” Johnny demanded, a little irritated at his brother’s relentless vigil, as he stood there watching for more signs of Harrison’s men. “We’ll know soon enough when they get here, if they come.” 

“What do you mean, if they come?” Scott questioned with a frown.  “I thought you said he‘ll send more men.” 

“Yeah and I also said he just might not, too,” Johnny explained as he stretched his lean form. “If he didn’t give a hoot about killing Slim, he sure as hell couldn’t care less about these four, at least not for right now. Eventually he’ll send men looking for them, if he really needs them. I mean he just might have a big enough gang that five less men is nothing to him.”

“Well, if that’s the case, then we’re back to square one!” Scott declared curtly. “Because as of right now, we don’t have enough man power to fight his whole gang and we have the women and children to consider too,” he pointed out.

“You don‘t have to remind us, Scott,” Val whispered grimly. “I know damn well what we’re up against. He’ll show his hand sooner or later.”

The blond Lancer walked over to the jail, stopped, and then turned on his heel. “I still say we send a scout out and assess the situation to give us an idea of what we’re up against.” Scott suggested, “Or we could interrogate one of them for information on the other outlaws whereabouts.” 

“Scott, we’ve been through this before, it‘s a risk we can‘t take,” Johnny barked. “Besides we don’t know where to start and time is running out. Val’s right, he’ll make his move sooner or later and I have this itch nagging at me that it’s gonna to be sooner. And besides I tried, remember? If Slim didn’t talk, then the others sure as hell won’t either. Bull Dog has them so scared of what he’ll do to them; they don’t dare spill their guts. So we just wait!” 

“It’s your call, brother.  I just hope it’s the right one.” 

“No, it’s my call and I say everybody stays put. I’m still the sheriff here, damn it,” Val angrily declared. “And I have a town to protect, even though it’s me he wants.”

“And me,” Johnny reminded his friend, sheepishly raising his hand.

“And you. That’s why you are to stay out of sight when he’s around. Not until we knows what’s he’s up to. Understand amigo?” Val instructed sternly.

“Val, what good am I as your deputy, if I stay hidden? I have to show my face sometime. After all that’s why I’m here, to help you,” Johnny tried to reason with his friend as he sat there with his feet propped on the desk.

“Yeah, until we found out he’s after you too!” Scott jumped in, scowling at his brother. “So it’s your turn to listen to Val, little brother.”

“Alright, you win. I’ll lay low if and when he shows up. But only until then,” Johnny stressed. “I have rounds to make, just like Clem. I have to uphold the law. Ya know stopping those fight’s over pretty little fillies like the other day.” he added, giving them a cocky grin.

They rolled their eyes at that brash remark. “Good, you do that,” Val smirked. “Now you get out of here and get some rest. Morning will come soon enough.”

“Good idea, come on, little brother.  I could go for a nice hot bath and a cold beer. Not necessarily in that order,” Scott confessed. 

“Yeah, me too,” Johnny admitted as he sprang up from the chair. “Night, Val. Remember what I said, if I hear anything I‘ll come a running.”  

“I’ll remember. Night, boys,” Val said shaking his head as the Lancer brothers left, leaving the sheriff alone to ponder and dreading what tomorrow might bring.

 

Chapter Ten

Val sat in his rickety old chair with his feet propped up on his cluttered desk, watching the sun slowly rise over the sleepy town. Normally the start of a new day brought the promise of a chance to fulfill hopes and dreams…this day brought only dread. Though the night had passed without any disturbances, no bar fights to break up, nor signs of Harrison‘s men, the Sheriff had to admit to himself it kind of unnerved him. He felt like that Sword of Damocles, which Scott had spoken of before, was not only hanging over his head, but that the sharp point of it was embedded in his skull. There was a dull throbbing ache building behind his eyes. He didn’t like this dangerous mind game Bull Dog was playing, one which had him fretting it might personally affect both Johnny and Scott in some way. He wished the outlaw would get it over and show his hand. Val sighed and rubbed at his gritty eyes; he took in a deep breath and let it out. He got up and poured himself another cup of his bitter brew and wondered if the Lancer brothers had been able to get a good night’s rest.  

Scott, who was now well accustomed to this early to bed and early to rise way of life, was the first one up and had already crept downstairs while his brother slept soundly for once. He made his way to the hotel kitchen, where the cook was preparing the morning meal and politely asked if she could brew a pot of coffee just for him and Johnny. She smiled sweetly at the young Lancer and did as he asked. Scott hurried back up to the room, with the steaming pot and a couple of clean cups.

Johnny was pleasantly awakened by the stimulating smell of hot coffee tickling his nose and the gentle, yet persistent tapping on his arm by his brother. He forced his crusty eyes open to find Scott grinning down at him. “What’s…so …funny?” he asked around a jaw cracking yawn, as he tried to sit up and couldn’t.

“That’s, what’s so funny, little brother,” Scott chortled and pointed to his brother’s lean legs which were entwined with his sheet like a half-wrapped mummy. “I don’t know how you can sleep like that?” he chuckled. “And I see you chose not to sleep in your pants this time, nice cut offs you have there, brother,” he teased.

Johnny looked down at his legs and smiled. “Thanks! I’m used to sleeping this way! I reckon it’s the only way to stop myself from fussing and moving around the bed too much, and I then just drift off,” he explained sheepishly as he maneuvered around in the bed trying to untangle and free his self. “Can ya give me a hand?”   

Scott shook his head in amusement as he unraveled the sheet from his brother’s legs. “I guess you’re right, at least I didn’t find you standing there by the open widow, making yourself an easy target,” the blond remarked as he poured a cup of coffee and handed it to his sluggish brother. “Drink up, before your coffee gets cold and it gets any later, remember you have early morning rounds. I’m going to be right beside you watching your back, especially after last night.”

Johnny rubbed the sleep out of his eyes with one hand while sipping his hot coffee with the other. He gazed out the window as the sun finally peeked over the surrounding mountains. He drained the last sip of brew from his cup, and then turned away from the window. 

“What time is it, anyway?” he asked as he sat the cup down on the nightstand and stood stretching his stiff limbs.

“Close to six and every establishment will be opening up for business, so the sooner we get going the better. Then we can grab something to eat later,” Scott answered.

“You don’t have to tell me twice. And I don’t need anybody watching my back but if it will make ya happy, you can come along,” Johnny conceded while he slipped his pants on, followed by his shirt and boots.

Thanks, brother.  I wasn’t intending to take no for an answer anyway,” Scott smiled and slapped his sibling’s arm. “Come on, hurry up. Val’s probably wondering where we are.”

“I’m coming!” his younger brother snapped as he grabbed his hat and gun. “I tell ya, I’m beginning to miss my own room back home.”

“And why is that?”

“Because I don’t have to share it with a bossy big brother,” Johnny quipped sarcastically as they headed out the door.

********

Murdoch watched in agony, from the base of the tree where he had laid all night, while Bull Dog loudly belted out orders to his remaining men while preparing for his trip to town. Much to his surprise, last night they had untied him from the tree trunk so he was able to lie down on his side even though his hands and legs were still tightly bound. His only shelter from the elements had been the clothes on his back, until Harrison felt some pity for him and threw an old horse blanket over him. The outlaw had claimed he didn’t want his ‘guest’ to get sick because it wasn’t part of his plans; he needed him healthy. He wouldn’t care less what happens to him afterwards.

Murdoch moaned and grunted as he fought with all he had to push himself up off the cold ground and sit upright. He had almost accomplished the task when he lost his balance and fell backwards, hitting his already throbbing head on a small log. His futile efforts and loud exclamation of pain caught the bandit’s attention.  

“You there, help our guest up and bring his some grub,” Bull Dog ordered one of his men. The man jumped into action at his leader’s command and helped the struggling Lancer up. “Well now, did you sleep good?” he coldly inquired as he slithered up the Murdoch.

“What do… you think?” Murdoch sneered back.  “I appreciated the blanket, that was very kind of you,” he stated brashly with contempt in his eyes as he glared up at the man. “And how am I suppose to eat with my hands tied behind my back?” he asked when a small man appear with a plate of food.

Harrison motioned to his man to untie the rancher’s hands, and then waved over two more rifle bearing men. “Now don’t get any funny ideas, Lancer.  My men will be watching you carefully, once you get done eating, they’ll tie ya up again, this time to the tree. I‘m not taking any chances of you making a run for it.”

Murdoch hissed as he shook, and then rubbed his hands and wrists to get the circulation going in them before he picked the plate up. “My legs are numb from these damn ropes.  I highly doubt I could run anywhere!” Murdoch growled. “And what kind of slop do you call this?” he asked with a sour frown after taking a bite of his food.

“You better eat it and make my cook happy or he just might cut your throat,” Bull Dog spat in Murdoch’s face. “You boys watch over our guest while Bret and I take a ride into town. I have a Sheriff to see and a message to deliver to your son, Lancer!” he added waving the bloody handkerchief in his face.

Murdoch’s heart sank as Harrison mounted up and took off in the direction of Green River. He knew damn well that when Johnny saw the handkerchief his temper would ignite like dry brush after a lightning strike.  He prayed the boy’s older brother could prevent him from doing anything reckless, like coming after him, alone.

********

 “Val, where are ya?” Johnny hollered as he and Scott entered the jail and Val was nowhere to been seen. “Val?”

“Stop your hollering.  I’m right here!” Val called out, entering and closing the back door to the jailhouse.

“Well, where were you?” Johnny demanded.

“You do have to know everything, don’t you,” Val taunted. “I was cleaning up the bloody mess in Slim’s cell. It was beginning to stink in there. And where were you two?” he returned the question as he sat down.

“WE were doing MY rounds,” Johnny said giving his brother a disapproving glare. “Then we grabbed a bite to eat. Did you eat yet?” 

“No, not yet, that smell was kind of ruining my appetite,” Val grumbled. “But I think I’ll go get something to eat now that you’re here,” he replied as he grabbed his hat and peered out the window.  “Did everything look alright while you were on your rounds?”

“Yeah, everything seemed okay. We didn’t seen hide nor hair of Bull Dog’s men lurking about,” Johnny stated as he took over Val’s chair.

“Not until now!” the Sheriff groaned.  “And it looks like the big dog himself is riding in,” he hissed and pointed out the window.

The Lancer boys rushed to the window and focused on the two rough looking, scowling hombres slowly riding into town. The riders scanned the streets as though they were looking for someone or thing. They gave deadly sneers to the few bystanders gawking at them, sending them scurrying for the closest doorway. Zeke stepped away from his door and ducked into the bar to warn Pete, in case there was any trouble. The bartender had his shotgun ready.

“Yep, that’s him, Bull Dog in the flesh, looking uglier and meaner than he did back then,” Johnny snorted in disgust.  “I never thought I would ever see his hideous mug again, in person!”

“And you’re not…at least not yet,” Scott announced as he pulled his brother away from the window. “Remember you are to stay out of sight, until we know for sure what he’s up too.” 

“The element of surprise, huh, big brother?” Johnny asked snidely.

“Let’s say it’s to assure you staying alive,” Scott retorted. “Our father sent me here to make sure you come home in one piece and I’m going to make sure that happens!”

“What about you? What if something should happen to you while I hide out?” Johnny pointed out grimly. “You know damn well, I could never live with myself if you were killed because of me! That goes for the rest of my family, Scott!” 

“It will only be until he we find out what he‘s up too, amigo,” Val intervened. “And that might be sooner then we think, cause’ he’s coming this way!”

“Listen to me, Johnny, please stay out of sight. I’m begging you,” Scott pleaded until his brother reluctantly nodded in compliance. “Good, now Val and I are going to walk out there and talk to this man and see what he wants.”

Johnny grabbed his brother’s arm as he was about to leave. “Scott be careful, you never know what he’ll pull.”

“I will, brother, don’t worry,” Scott vowed with a weary smiled.

Johnny fought with all he had to keep from following his brother out. He wanted nothing more than to put a bullet in Harrison‘s heart so he could put an end to this madness for once and for all, but he knew they had to play this with a level head. He didn’t know what the man had up his sleeve but his gut feeling was telling him it had something to do with Lancer.  He stood back in the shadows, gun ready, as Scott and Val walked over to greet the outlaws.

“Well, well, if it isn’t Bull Dog Harrison,” Val hissed. “I heard you escaped from prison but I never thought you had the guts to come looking for me, since I’m now a lawman,” he stated bluntly. “Ya know the penalty for shooting an officer of the law, don’t ya?  It’s a lot worse than going to jail.  I have every right to take you in right now for breaking out of jail!”  

“You know I don’t give rat’s ass about the law! If you try to take me now a lot of good people will be hurt when I don’t return to my camp…I’ve seen to that!” Harrison growled with sinister intent. “And your time is coming, Crawford. You can count on it!” He pointed to Scott who quietly stood by Val’s side, glaring at the man. “Who’s the greenhorn?  I don‘t like the way he‘s staring at me!”

“A friend…and why does that bother you?  You should be used to it by now,” Val replied with a hint of sarcasm. “State your business, I know you well enough to know you have something no good up your sleeve.”

“Now what kind of hospitality is that?” Harrison snarled. “Bret, mosey on over to the saloon and get us a couple of bottles to take back with us, since we don’t seem to be welcome here. I have a few things to discuss with the good Sheriff,” he instructed as he dismounted, and then gave Bret a secret hand signal unseen to Val.

“Sure boss,” Bret nodded as he dismounted and hurried towards the saloon. He gave every indication he was going in, when in fact he waited until Val and Scott weren’t looking, and then he ducked in the alley way between the bar and post office.

“What is it you want?” Val asked impatiently.

“I have a message for your buddy, Madrid. Is he here?” Harrison calmly asked and took a step towards the jail door.

Val abruptly stepped in front of him, holding up his hand, halting the man’s advance. “You stay right there, no need to go any further cause’ you’re leaving remember?” Val reminded him.  “And no he isn’t. I haven‘t seen him in a while, last I heard he was killed down in Mexico.” 

“You’re a bald face liar, Crawford,” Harrison spat. “I know for a fact he’s alive and in these parts cause’ I heard how he helped take down Day! He was all the kin I had left and Madrid is going to pay.”

“Yeah, well, your nephew was nothing but a murdering, low life scum bag just like you! He got what was coming to him. If it hadn’t been Johnny, it would have been somebody else, perhaps me, if I had been here!” the lawman loudly proclaimed, letting his anger get the best of him.

Harrison‘s eyes burned with rage. “Why you…!” he growled exposing his yellow teeth as he lunged forward and went for Val’s neck. He didn’t get very far as he was stopped short by Val’s gun, as well as Scott’s.  Clem took the opportunity to quietly slip in behind him and pointed his gun at Harrison’s back.

“I wouldn’t if I were you!” Scott warned coldly.

Bull Dog chuckled and promptly held up his hands and backed away from Val. “Well it seems I’m out numbered, for now!” he admitted. He carefully reached in his pocket for the handkerchief and slowly pulled it out and tossed it at Val.

“What’s this?” Val questioned with a confused frown, fingering the silky material in his hand.

“It’s my message to Madrid. Or should I say Lancer?” Harrison boldly declared.

The mere mention of Lancer, had Val swallowing hard, forcing down the lump in his throat.  He nervously turned the blood stain handkerchief over, exposing the beautiful hand embroidered M to the young man standing next to him. Scott’s eyes widened in disbelief and horror, he didn’t want to believe what he was seeing. He snatched it out of Val’s hand.

“Where…where did you get this?” he asked anxiously, as he tried to calm his racing heart. “What have you done…to…my…Mr. Lancer?” he demanded to know, catching himself before he gave his identify away to the bastard.

Harrison sneered at the young man, not knowing who he was talking to. “Let’s just say Lancer is my guest… a reluctant guest. But don’t you worry; my boys have strict orders to make sure he’s comfortable until I get back.”

“What in the hell do you want?” Val asked, growing concerned about his buddy in the jail and frustrated with this man’s games.

“Simple. I want Madrid. Unless, he comes to me willingly, his papa and this town will suffer the consequences.” 

All of a sudden the old church bell, which was used as the fire alarm, began ringing loudly throughout the streets along with the screams of men and beasts, from the other end of town. Shop keepers quickly exited their establishments and cowboys came barreling out of the saloon in a panic, all headed down towards the burning livery stable.

“This was your warning that I mean business. I’ll give Madrid no more than two days, and then I’ll send one of my men into town to find out his answer and bring him to me. If he wants to see his papa alive again he better come forward. If I have to, for every day he stalls after the deadline, a piece of this town will mysteriously burn down,” he threatened.

Val and Scott were unaware the jailhouse door was slightly ajar, and that Johnny had heard every word Bull Dog said and the mention of his father in the man’s clutches had almost set him off.  It took every fiber of his being to keep from opening the door and putting a bullet right between the murdering bastard’s eyes. Instead, he sat on the floor next to the window, clutching his gun so hard his knuckles were turning white, waiting for the outlaw to leave so he could sneak out and follow him. When the horrifying sounds of men screaming for more water and horses whinnying desperately in fear floated through the windows, his loyalties were pulled in two different directions. The cries for help intensified and Johnny made up his mind, fleeing out the back door.

“GET THE HELL OUT OF MY TOWN NOW!” Val shouted at the grinning monster.

Harrison mounted up as Bret was coming back with a sack full of whiskey bottles he had stolen from the bar. “Remember two days, or this town starts burning down a building at the time! And old man Lancer will suffer for his son‘s crime against me,” he warned and rode off at a fast gallop, laughing like the Devil himself.

With the blood stained linen squeezed tightly in his hand, Scott suddenly blurted out, “Johnny!”  Scott and Val dashed back inside the jail to find Johnny gone. “Where is he, Val?” Scott asked desperately as he scanned the empty room.

“He must of went out the back door!” the Sheriff groaned.

 

Chapter Eleven

Standing in the empty jail, Val and Scott stared at each other in disbelief, their mouths pressed shut in grim lines of aggravation. It seemed Johnny had disappeared on them. Simultaneously, they dashed for the back door that had been left wide open when Johnny fled, the key still dangling in the lock. They stepped out into the alleyway and stood there dumbfounded as the cries for more water filled the air. On the opposite end of town chaos reigned as people scrambled about in a desperate attempt contain the burning livery stable.

“I can‘t believe it, I just can‘t believe it! How much do you think he heard, Val?”  Scott growled with both worry and irritation at his brother’s irrational behavior.   “Surely, he wouldn’t go after that mad man, alone. Not after we had told him to stay out of sight.”

“Yeah, well, there’s no doubt that he heard everything. And knowing him, I wouldn’t put it pass him to do just that!” Val hissed, rubbing the back of his neck. “He can’t go chasing after Bull Dog on foot, so either he’s stolen somebody’s horse or hightailed for the livery stable.  And if he did there’s a good chance he’s still there.”

“Then what the hell are we waiting for? I have a few words to say to my brother, if we find him!” Scott declared angrily as he and Val rushed to the other end of town to find nothing but total mayhem before them.

Just before they reached the harrowing scene, a strong gust of wind whistled through town and fanned the flames making them undulate hungrily and engulf the dry wood of the aged building. The swirling current of air whipped the heavy smoke and ash residue around until visibility was seriously hampered.  The men, of the bucket brigade, frantically ran to the water troughs in a futile effort to battle the fire while others were working desperately to calm the frightened horses that had escaped the fire.

“LET IT GO, WE CAN’T SAVE IT!” One man hollered, as the building started to collapse.  The crowd backed up and huddled together and watched with great sadness as pieces of the stable began to break loose and fall. The flames grew higher and the temperature unbearable.

“I can’t see Johnny anywhere through all this smoke, Val!”  Scott shouted as he took out his bandana and covered his mouth to keep from inhaling the suffocating fumes of smoke and ash.

Val followed Scott‘s lead and took out his handkerchief and tied it around his face, though it didn’t help his eyes one bit as they began to water and sting due to the thick gray haze. “Look there!” he hollered and pointed to the other side of the street, where they had taken some of the horses. “Isn’t’ that Barranca?”

“It sure is!” Scott exclaimed with relief, after focusing on where Val indicated. “And there’s Johnny right beside him! Thank God, he had the good sense to stay and help instead of chasing off after Harrison and getting himself killed,” Scott said, seeing that his little brother was standing there wet from head to toe.

“Yeah, and I’d bet you my eyeteeth that he was probably the first one to run into that burning stable, risking his neck to get those horses out,” Val exclaimed with a thankful grin.

“Of that I have no doubt,” Scott agreed. “JOHNNY!” he called and waved to his brother as they hurried over to where he was standing, with a look of uncertainty etched on his young soot smeared face.

“We were worried about you boy!” Val said as he approached the brooding Lancer and placed a hand on his drenched shoulder. “Thought there for a minute you had gone and chased after Bull Dog.”

“Well, believe me, there for a minute I wanted to,” Johnny confessed, as he gently patted Barranca’s neck. “I couldn’t stand by and not help, even though it didn’t do a whole lot good; we still lost the stable. But at least we got the horses out, yours and Val’s too, Scott,” he stated sadly as he led Barranca over to a tree and tethered the rope securely so he wouldn’t bolt. “I’ll be back, boy, and then we’ll go for a nice long ride.” 

“What do you mean you’re going for a ride?” Scott demanded to know. “You had no business taking off like that. You scared the life out of us taking off like that!” he scolded pointing an angry finger at his quiet sibling. 

Johnny scowled at his brother. “What do you mean I had no business? Give me that!” Johnny snapped and snatched his father’s handkerchief out of Scott’s hand and held it up to his face. “See this? That bastard kidnapped our father right off of our land. He drew first blood, Lancer blood, just to get at me. So it has everything to do with me,” he clarified. Turning on his heel he marched angrily back to the jail, his pace quickening with every step.

Scott chased after him, grabbed his arm and spun him around. “Where do you think you’re going in such a hurry?”

“You heard him, if I don’t go to him, he’ll burn this town down and God knows what he’ll do to Murdoch!” Johnny exclaimed. “And I’m not going to stand by and watch that happen.”

“Yes, I heard him and I also heard him say you have two days. What about our talk?” Scott reminded him. “I told you that we’re in this together. And I meant every word of it. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember, but now he made it personal, Scott. He has Murdoch. How can I stand by and wait until his deadline is up? You tell me how!”

“Because it gives us time to figure out how to get Murdoch out of there, alive!” Val advised. “I’m shocked though that he gave us a deadline, must be getting soft,” he sarcastically snorted.  “Anyway, how were you going to find him?” 

“I can read tracks ya know,” Johnny hissed.

“Yeah, and be gunned down while following those tracks. I wouldn’t put it past him to have a man, maybe two, waiting out there somewhere with itchy fingers,” Val added.

“Alright, you win!” Johnny barked irritably and kicked open the door to the jail and stormed in. He spun around, glaring at the other two as they entered, and then pointed his finger and announced, “But now that he has made his play, I’m not gonna to hide no more, understand?”

“Okay, brother, you made your point. Now let’s get cleaned up and in dry clothes.”

“What I don’t understand is why didn’t somebody from the ranch come and tell us that Murdoch was missing?”

“I can answer that!” a deep voice replied from open door way.

Heads turned quicker then lightning and eyes widened in both shock and delight when they saw the big man holding a medicine bag in his hand and sporting a big grin.

“Jack!” Johnny shouted, elated to see his friend. “What brings you here?” he asked as he walked over and playfully slapped the doctor’s arms.

“I’m answering the request Sam sent out since I was coming this way anyway,” Jack inform his friends.  “I stopped by the ranch to say howdy before coming to town and Miss O’Brien told me they were searching for your father. She said he told her he was going to check up on something by the north line shack and to drop in on an old friend too, so he would be late but he never came home.” 

“So that’s how they took him!” Johnny snorted. “But where?”

“I told Miss O’Brien I would let you two know but it’s apparent that you already do. She also explained what was going on here in town. I gather this is all tied in with your father’s kidnapping?” Jack questioned.

“Yes, it does Jack.” Scott answered grimly.

“It’s a big mess, Jack, a big mess,” Johnny added as he paced back and forth, his fingers nervously tapping the butt of his gun. “It’s a long story but he’s after Val and me and he’s using every means to do it and that includes Murdoch.” 

“Maybe I can be of some help?” 

“Oh no, Jack!” Johnny said shaking his head, “You did enough for us in Montana. I can’t ask ya to do anymore.” 

“And you gave me a new lease on life, remember? So we can call it even and I want to help.”  Jack insisted.

Johnny placed his hands on Jack’s arms giving them a gentle squeeze. “Look, for the sake of my sanity go deliver Sam’s supplies and go back home. Please, my amigo. I don’t want you getting hurt because of me,” Johnny softly pleaded, looking up into Jack’s worried eyes.
 
“I’ll deliver Sam’s items but I’m going to stay around town a few days, just in case he needs my help, whether you like it or not,” the doctor stated. “And I’ll be staying at his place, just so you’ll know where I am.”

“Alright, have it your way,” Johnny conceded, throwing up his hands, realizing there was no use in arguing with his mule headed friend.

“I normally do, young man,” Jack answered back with a weary smile. “Well, I’m off to see Sam and grab a bite to eat, later gentleman.”  Jack tipped his hat and quickly exited the office. 

“He’s a very persistent man,” Scott commented.

“Yes he is and that worries me,” Johnny agreed, as he watched his friend cross the street and enter Sam’s office. “So, now what are we going to do? If I don’t give my answer in two day, he’ll burn down another piece of this town, if he doesn’t do it anyway just for the hell of it.” 

“Somehow that remark is not too reassuring brother.”

“Well, I agree with him. We’ll have to keep a close watch on things from now on,” Val confirmed, “So one of you inform Cip and the others to keep a close eye out, most likely he’ll try something while the town sleeps.” 

“I’ll do it. I need to walk and think,” Johnny volunteered as he grabbed his hat.

“I’ll go with you, that‘s if you don‘t mind, brother?” Scott asked and received an ambivalent look from his brother. “I’ll take your silence as a yes. Shall we?”  He took a step back to let his brother pass.

Sighing, Val uttered, “If you need me, I’ll be down at the livery stable taking a look at the damage.”  He put his hat on and whispered under his breath, “Should of shot the bastard when I had the chance.”

********

Back at Lancer, the search continued for Murdoch until Frank and Walt stumbled across the badly beaten ranch hand while retracing Murdoch’s movements from the day before. They quickly sent for a wagon to carry him back to the ranch. He died shortly after his arrival from being exposed to the elements and his untended wounds. Before he died he told of the five men who were looking for Murdoch. The disturbing news of Murdoch’s abduction set off a panicked reaction, prompting cautionary measures to be taken at Teresa and Jelly’s instructions.

“Are ya sure, Teresa?” Jelly asked with uncertainly etched on his breaded face. “I mean maybe they won’t bother us.”

“No, I’m not absolutely sure, but I have lived on this ranch long enough to know when to prepare for trouble, like what happen with those land pirates,” Teresa huffed, with her hands on her hips. “I have a strong feeling that whoever took Murdoch has something to do with Val and what’s going on in town. Just call it a woman‘s intuition.” 

“Well, since you put it that way, who am I to argue with a woman’s intuition,” Jelly curtly replied, and then turned to face Frank, who was standing by awaiting orders. “Well, ya heard her, get men posted around the house, pronto and tell them to keep their eyes peeled. From what I heard of these hombres, they will stop at nothing to get what they want.”

“Frank if we can spare a few men, I would feel much better if you sent them into town and let the boys know that we found out what happened to Murdoch. And that we’re taking precautions here,” Teresa instructed. “I know that Doctor Myers was going to tell them about their father being missing but I think they might already know.”

“Woman’s intuition, again?” Jelly asked, raising he eyebrows.

“No, common sense,” Teresa answered.  “Like you said, Jelly, they’ll do anything to get what they want. And I’m afraid they just might want Johnny too and will use Murdoch to get at him.” She sniffled, as a single tear escaped and trickled down her cheek, though she was trying to be brave for the Lancers’ sake.

“Now see here, missy, none of that,” Jelly admonished and frowned seeing that she was about to cry. He walked over to Teresa and put a strong arm around her trembling shoulders. “Ya got to be strong for their sakes. And don’t ya fret none, Johnny and Scott will not let nothing happen to their pa. I’m sure of that and that ain’t no woman’s intuition, that’s pure fact!”  He assured with a peck on her forehead.

“I hope you’re right, Jelly,” Teresa said, sniffing and wiping her face.

“Sure I am. Now get on inside and out of sight, as I ramrod these men. Gotta make sure things get done right around here!” he boasted while escorting Teresa back into the house.

After making sure that Teresa and Maria understood the importance of staying indoors, the trusted old handy man and friend to the family went around barking out more orders to the men. He wasn’t about to let anybody else be taken off this land against their will if he could help it. Every man, available on the ranch, was well armed and lookouts were posted at each corner of the house and grounds. Satisfied he had accomplished this task, he headed back for the house to watch and wait for the Lancers or any unwelcome guest.

********

Meanwhile, Harrison returned to camp feeling mighty good about his visit to town, even though he was disappointed he didn’t get to lay his eyes on Madrid. He would have loved to have seen the look on the gunfighter’s face when he delivered his message, personally handing him the handkerchief with his father’s blood on it. But no matter, it was delivered and now he just needed to wait until the deadline was up. The gloating bandit walked over to his guest tied securely to the tree, Lancer’s angry eyes throwing daggers at the grinning bandit.

“Now, now, what kind of look is that, haven’t my men been treating you well?” Harrison asked smugly. The rancher glared at him. “I asked you a question and I deserve an answer!” he growled and gave Murdoch a swift kicked to his shin with the toe of his boot.

Hissing and squeezing his eyes tightly shut while waiting for the excruciating throbbing in his leg to stop, Murdoch sputtered out, “You deserve a rope around your neck!” 

“What was that?”

“You heard me!” Murdoch snarled. “I’ve heard all about you and in my humble opinion they should have hung you instead of just sending a cold hearted killer like you to prison! That was too good for you.” 

“Why you…!” Harrison snarled, seething and hissing spit through his yellow teeth as he backhanded Murdoch right across his cheek hard enough to draw blood from his lip. “Well, I got news for you, Mr. Lancer. I delivered my little message to the good sheriff and I gave him strict orders to relay your son, Madrid.

“His name is Lancer,” Murdoch corrected boldly. “He doesn’t go by that name anymore and before you go on, he’s nothing like you!” 

“THE HELL HE AIN’T!”  Harrison bellowed for the whole camp to hear. “He sold his gun to the highest bidder and did the some of the same things I have done. So how can you say he’s not like me?”

“Because when I look into my son’s eyes I can see who he really is. Madrid was just a front, a masquerade, a means to stay alive, it was all he knew. But that‘s changed now,” Murdoch explained. “Sure, I know about all the things he did but it was never for pleasure, like you. And he would never purposely gun down innocent women, children and old men, just for money. So you see he is nothing like you!” 

“Ah, I’m so choked up over your touching plea for Madrid’s life,” Harrison said, rolling his eyes and patting his chest.  He looked down at Murdoch, without a shred of sympathy in his thieving eyes, “But it’s not going to help. Now as I was saying, he has two days to show himself, or that town will slowly burn down building by building and you will slowly die little by little.” 

“Johnny knows better than to walk into a trap!”

“Oh does he now? Well if he wants to see his papa alive, he’ll come. But I’ll tell ya something, neither one of you will not be leaving this camp alive,” the confident outlaw spat, and then turned and walked over to the campfire.  He flopped down and began sucking down the whiskey they had stolen from town. “So enjoy the last few days you have left, Lancer! I know I will.”  He laughed as Murdoch prayed.

 

Chapter Twelve

Harrison was acting like a proud peacock; his twisted mind enjoying the vision of the horrified look he imagined would be on Madrid’s face when he received his father’s bloody handkerchief. He laughed and sneered over at Murdoch, raising his whiskey bottle to the rancher and toasting the Lancers impending demise. Whereas in town, the atmosphere in Val’s office was not so jovial, the jail was reminiscent of a funeral parlor, the mood depressing and quiet. The only sound came from Johnny’s continuous pacing and the tapping of his fingers against the butt of his gun. The youngest Lancer was like a walking stick of dynamite with a two inch fuse, he was at the point if he didn’t hear something soon he was going to explode.

It took a lot of reasoning and cajoling but Scott and Val finally convinced Johnny it was crucial to send Cipriano on a scouting mission. After Johnny, Cipriano was the next best tracker.  Murdoch’s life was on the line and Johnny had to admit this was the best plan; Cipriano would be less conspicuous if by chance he was seen. Other than not being able to go his self, the hardest part was waiting for the Segundo to return, worrying about his safety and whether or not he would gather some information that could help rescue his father. 

“Where is he?” Johnny growled as he stopped his pacing long enough to peer out the window. “He should have been back by now.”

“He will, give him a little time, will you!” Scott huffed. “Cipriano knows what he is doing. We can‘t do anything until we know where Harrison is.” 

“Well, I should have never agreed to let him go off on a scouting mission,” Johnny said rubbing his tired eyes. “I know we didn’t have a choice but it’s just so damn dangerous. I will never forgive myself if anything should happen to him,” he claimed, and then fell quiet for a few moments and turned away from them before muttering, “Too many have died because of my past…and maybe.” 

“And maybe what?” Scott questioned, as he got up and walked over to his brooding brother. “Spit it out brother!”

Johnny stared into his brother’s concerned eyes and softly confessed, “I’m beginning to wonder if being spared from the firing squad was a curse instead of a blessing. Maybe if I had died none of my family would be going through this hell because of me! Madrid would be dead and forgotten and Murdoch would not be in the hands of that murdering bastard,” he explained, the deep fears and regrets from his past just about overwhelming him. 

“Johnny!” admonished Val, “That’s balderdash and you know it!” 

Scott grabbed his brother’s shoulders and gave Johnny a teeth-rattling shake, hoping it would bring him to his senses. “You don’t really believe that, now do you?” he snarled fervently in his brother’s glum face.

“I don’t know what to believe anymore, Scott!” Johnny practically howled in distress. “All I know is this waiting around is eating my guts out and I just can’t hang around and wait. I have got to do something.”

“Well, I’ll tell you something brother, the one thing you’re not going to do is give yourself up,” Scott announced. “Think about it, do you really think he’ll let Murdoch go once you do?”

“No, knowing him I’m sure he wouldn’t,” Johnny admitted grimly.

“So what’s the point?” 

“The point is, he still has our father and we have got to do something!”  Johnny retorted stubbornly. “I don’t know how you can be so calm about this?”  

“I’m just as worried and scared as you are, brother, but we have to keep a cool head about this,” Scott insisted. 

“Easier said than done,” snorted Johnny. He walked away from his brother’s relentless glare and poured himself a cup of water, wishing it was tequila.  

Cipriano came barreling through town as though he had the devil on his tail and pulled his horse to a sliding stop in front of the jail. His boots thudded down, kicking up dirt as he dismounted and rushed in the office. “Senors…I have…found…his … camp,” he informed them breathlessly.

“Take it easy, Cip,” Johnny said anxiously as he hurried over to his friend and handed him a drink of water and then guided him over to a chair. “Here sit down and tell us what you found out.”  

“Gracias, Juanito,” stated Cipriano. “As I was saying, I have found his camp. I was lucky to get out of there unseen. He has it well guarded.”

“Where is it?” Scott asked. “Did you see our father?” 

“It’s a few miles south of town, in the rocks by the old Miller mine,” the old Segundo informed them. “And no, Senor Scott, I did not see the Patron. I could not get close enough to see clearly,” he added, disappointment coloring his tone.

“Damn!” Val loudly grumbled and kicked the desk.  “If it’s where I think it is, we don’t have a prayer of getting in there unseen.”

“Si, from the way it’s laid out, this hombre can see anybody coming from the road. I had to hide in the trees and still was almost seen.” 

“Well, that’s just great,” Johnny fumed, snatching his hat off and throwing it down in a fit of anger and despair. “Now what are going to do? We can’t just going storming in there and risk him killing Murdoch right on the spot.” 

“I KNOW!” Val barked back. “We still have two days before the deadline, so we‘re bound to think of something to do!” 

“And if we can’t think of something… then what?” Johnny asked as he stood eye ball to eye with his amigo. “If I don’t give myself up, then he’ll start to burn this town down and Murdoch will be tortured. You can count on that! If I do give myself up, he’ll kill us both, and then go after you and the town,” Johnny summed it up. “It’s a no win situation and I don’t know what to do…I…I…just don’t know,” Johnny proclaimed. He dropped his chin to his chest, feeling vulnerable and defenseless, something he thought he would never feel again, once he became Madrid.

Brown eyes, set in a compassionate but frowning face, peered in from the corner of the open window, his heart breaking at the grim scene inside. He felt the pain and desperation etched on their faces, especially on the young man he had come to love as a son. He heard every word they said, even the unspoken ones and he was not going to stand by and not help his friends. Jack turned to dash to Sam’s office to see what he had to say about his plan, just as two Lancer ranch hands came riding in.

“Johnny, look its Hank and Juan,” Scott announced eagerly as he opened the door for some fresh air and spied the men riding towards the jailhouse.

“What are they doing here?”

“We’ll soon know because they’re headed this way,” Scott replied as he and Johnny walked out to greet their friends. “What brings you boys here?” he asked as they approached them.

“Miss Teresa sent us, Scott,” Hank informed the brothers. “She instructed us to let you know that we now know what happened to Mr. Lancer.”  

“How?” Johnny asked.

“Well, when we were searching for your papa,” Juan started to explained, “We found poor Jose laying in a gully, badly beaten and tied up like a animal,” he shuddered and continued , “We took him back to the Hacienda and he told us how those men beat him to get information about your papa.” 

“His daily rides!” Scott exclaimed, raising his eyebrows in disgust. “That‘s how they knew when to take him, when nobody was around. He didn‘t stand a chance against them.”

“Si, Senor Scott,” Juan confirmed. 

“How’s Jose?” inquired Johnny with concern.

“He…he… didn’t make it, Johnny,” Hank replied regretfully.

“Just another innocent soul snuffed out by that bastard’s evilness!” Johnny ranted, hissing through his teeth and clenching his fist tightly into a ball, until his knuckles turned white. He relaxed, letting go of some of the tension when he felt his brother’s strong hand on his shoulder. He shrugged it off and slowly walked away, trying to get a grip on the anger and despair that fought to take control of his sanity. 

“She also said to tell you that they’re taking extra precautions at the ranch. Jelly has men posted around the house and he gave strict orders to stay close to the grounds, no wandering off,” Hank added.

“Well, at least that’s some good news. It looks like our little sister has things under control there,” Scott stated with pleasure.

“Yeah, got to give her credit for that,” Johnny agreed wearily.  “I can almost hear Jelly’s jaw going a mile a minute as he gave those orders too! He’ll keep things in line for us,” he added fondly, feeling a little better hearing this news from home, despite the loss of a friend.

“Frank said he can spare us, if you need our help here.” Hank said.

“Splendid, yes indeed, we can use your help. You can give Joe and Carlos a break from guard duty. We have them posted on each end of town.” Scott was quick to reply and pointed to where he had them stationed.

“Sure thing, Scott,” Hank said and motioned to Juan to take the south end of town where Joe currently was, and he turned to take the north end to relieve Carlos.

“Well, it’s good to have more men with us but still it doesn’t solve our problem,” Johnny reminded Scott, who nodded in agreement.

“Well, I don’t know about you two but I need a drink to calm my nerves,” Val said scratching his head. “Then maybe something will come to us.”

“We can all use a stiff drink,” Johnny declared. “Then I’m going to walk around town and inform folks to keep an eye out for any signs of strangers lurking about where they shouldn’t be tonight. I still wouldn’t put it pass Bulldog to set a few fires as a reminder.”

“Good idea brother,” Scott retorted. “I’ll join you but first let’s get that drink.”  He placed a reassuring arm around his little brother‘s tense shoulders. “Don’t worry; our father is a strong and wise man. I‘m sure that he would agree with me that it‘s best you wait this out. He knows Harrison would never allow you to leave alive.” 

“So you’re saying our old man would rather be tortured to death, just so I can live!” Johnny scowled in anguish. “How am I supposed to live with that on my head? No Scott, I would rather die than to see that happen. Murdoch is too good of a man to die that way. It’s not like it matters much about me.”

“I told you, I don’t want to hear you talk like that!” responded Scott angrily. “We will think of a way to get Murdoch out of there!” 

“He’s right, amigo, we’ll find a way. One way or the other we‘ll find a way,” Val promised.

“Well, I’ll tell ya what we need and that’s a damn miracle,” Johnny stated bleakly, and then stormed off towards the saloon.

“I’ve never seen him like this before, Val, and it’s scaring me,” Scott confessed.  “He’s always been in control, so strong and self-reliant, now he’s like a lost kid, who doesn’t know which way to run.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean but think of it this way, he’s never had anybody to fret over but himself,” Val softly explained. “I’ve seen a big change in him since he came home. And that’s mostly due to having someone back in his life, who he thought had abandoned him, his father. Johnny may not admit it but he loves Murdoch more than he can say. And I hate to see what would happen if he should die at Harrison’s hand,” he stated somberly. “Your brother is right, what we need is a miracle.”

Scott sadly nodded. “I have to admit, I feel the same way,” he mumbled as he considered how much Murdoch had come to mean to him, despite the lies his grandfather had told. Inside he was as scared of losing his father as Johnny, not to mention terrified of losing his little brother as well. Truthfully, he didn’t think he would ever be able to bear losing them, prematurely or years down the road.

********

Just across the street in Sam’s office two distinguish medical men were discussing a matter of great importance. A scheme that just might be the miracle the boys were looking for.

“Well, what do you think?” Jack eagerly asked Sam, after laying out his plan to his doubtful peer.

“I don’t know, Jack, this is something I would never attempt to try,” Sam said shaking his head. “Are you sure?”

“Nothing in life is sure, Sam. It’s a chance, I’ll have to take,” Jack answered. “I can’t stand by and do nothing, not after what the Lancers did for me,” he added as he walked over and sat down.

“Yes, I agree, but not informing the boys of what you have planned before you do it, is not going to sit well with them, especially Johnny,” Doc Jenkins warned.

Jack smiled softly. “I have come to love that boy as if he was my own. This is tearing him up inside. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place and according to what you have explained already, his father will die either way. If I can help keep that from happening, I will do it.” 

“Still this is a dangerous chance you’re going to take,” Sam said as he let out a heavy sigh. “Well, I’m just grateful Scott is here, having his older brother around is helping Johnny cope with this, though this has to hard on Scott too,” Sam observed, and then raised his eyebrows as a thought came to him. “Maybe you should let Scott in on this.”

“Scott’s a very level headed young man and I highly doubt he’ll go along with this,” Jack scoffed. 

“Yes, I see your point. So when are you going to attempt this daring feat?”  Sam questioned.

“Tomorrow morning, right after first light, the sooner the better,” Jack declared. “And from what I’ve heard, it shouldn’t take them long to spot me, and then I can put my plan into action,” Jack added as he got up and walked over to the box he had delivered to Sam. “After all they wouldn’t suspect a doctor, would they?” Jack smiled broadly.

“Jack, you’re one cunning man.”  Sam grinned in admiration. “And when do you want me to inform the boys?”

“Give me a few hours, and then you can tell them. You need to have them keep a watch out for us, in case my plan works,” Jack instructed.

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Then I failed my friends. But Sam…” Jack paused and gave Sam a determined look. “I don’t intend to fail. I didn’t survive all those years up in the mountains for nothing. I believe I was given this opportunity at a new life for a reason. And one of those reasons is staring us in the face, as we speak. I made a vow to save lives using everything in my power, even if it’s to put my own life at risk. And I’m not going to stop now!” Jack defiantly proclaimed.

“You’re not only cunning but one brave man, Doctor Myers!” Sam praised. “I pray that this will work and you and Murdoch come back safe and in one piece.

“So do I, Sam, so do I!” Jack assured.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Jack and Sam worked feverishly, as night approached, preparing the necessary ingredients and honing the details needed to carry out Jack’s plan. Just a few miles away, unaware of the doctor’s brave intentions, Murdoch sat tightly bound to a tree. The fact that he was cold and hungry were the least of his concerns because his heart was heavy with worry and dread, as he wondered what was going on in the minds of his sons, especially Johnny, who by now must have received Harrison’s deadly ultimatum. His imagination was conjuring up all kinds of scenarios for what Johnny might be doing…or about to try, as well as how this must be affecting him. He silently thanked God that Scott was there for his brother; if anybody could keep his youngest from going off half cocked it was his older sibling.  

In an effort to take his mind off his sore back and stiff limbs, Murdoch leaned his head back on the tree and wearily stared up to the twinkling stars shining brightly against the black velvet sky. He marveled at their majestic beauty and the calming almost magical effect they seem to have on his troubled soul, something he had taken for granted these past few years. However, with the return of his boys, he was once again enjoying all aspects of his life, great and small, simple or complex, as long as he had his sons to share it all with. Star gazing was one of the simple pleasures he treasured in the company of his boys on the occasional fishing trip that ended with an overnight campout. His life before was nothing but ranch business, around the clock, everyday, making the almighty dollar was his only objective but now he worked hard so he would have the time to spend with his family.

Murdoch smiled as he thought how different his boys were; like night and day. Scott his eldest, with his Boston bred manners was always the gentleman, as required. Scott was well educated and had a level head on his shoulders; Murdoch could always rely on his strong sense of diplomacy in all matters, not just business. It truly saddened him that he never had the joy and satisfaction of watching his son grow up, however, he was very fortunate that Harlan Garrett made sure that his son was never hungry and his every need was met.  He smiled again as he considered how well Scott had adjusted to ranch life and was now learning things from him that Garrett could never teach him.

Johnny, his youngest, had a life story that would break the stoutest of hearts. Despite the fact he had survived and proved himself more than capable of tending to himself, Murdoch worried about him most. Because of his mother’s selfish and misguided ways, Johnny never had a decent chance at a good life without violence and prejudice intervening. Johnny did not have the opportunity for an education like Scott received but he was just as smart and naturally cunning. Murdoch was very proud of how well Johnny had finally adapted to ranch life and the rigid work ethic that came with it; hardships were nothing new to Johnny.  He prayed that Johnny would use those smarts of his and stay away from Harrison regardless of his own slim chance of getting out of this alive.

In an effort to forget the smell and horrid noises coming from the bandits as they slept, with bellies full of beans and whiskey, Murdoch let his mind wander back in time. He concentrated on remembering the day he was reunited with his boys, the victory against Pardee, and the signing of the new deed to the land, thus making them equal partners; binding the trio as a family, in blood and honor. 

********

On a farm outside of town, an old rooster ruffled his tail feathers and crowed, announcing the dawn of a new day and rousing those who were early risers. A lone figured quickly boarded his buggy and quietly headed out of town. Before he left, Jack reminded Sam of the importance of not telling the Lancer boys where he was going for at least a couple of hours. He needed time to set his plan in motion and with the grace of the Lord, by tonight he would be back with their father. And then they would be free to deal with Harrison once Murdoch was in safe hands.

Sam shook his head in admiration and apprehension as he watch Jack leave, because he realized it takes a man with a heart of gold and the courage of a lion to do what he was about to do. “God be with you, my friend,” he whispered and slowly walked back into his office.

Remembering what he had heard Cipriano say about how they could spot anybody coming from the road, Jack made sure to take his time, acting as casually as possible but still keeping up his guard. The ornery mountain man also had a loaded shotgun hidden under the seat just in case, even though the doctor in him would never want to kill a man, just slightly wound or scare him off if need be. Keeping his eyes peeled, Jack traveled on. As he got closer to where the old Miller mine was located, he slyly smiled when he caught a glimpse of a flash. It seemed to come from a pair of looking glasses up by the rocks in the distance.

“Here we go,” Jack whispered. “It shouldn’t be long now, boys,” he informed the horses as he noticed a shadowy figure disappear in to the rocks. 

“Boss, boss, we have company!” shouted the guard as he hurried on down the hillside and ran towards Harrison.

“Madrid?”  Harrison asked hopefully as he shot up from where he was sitting.

“No, boss, it’s just a man in a buggy, a fancy dressed man from what I can see,” the man informed.

“Well, now, I wonder where he is headed?” Harrison muttered suspiciously. “Maybe he’s going for help or reinforcements? Won’t help none, cause they don‘t stand a chance if they try to ride in here and free Lancer,” he grinned devilishly.

“So what do ya want us to do?” 

“Bring the intruder here!” Harrison harshly ordered. “Maybe he has some money, he doesn’t need,” he added with a hard cold laugh. The guard motioned to one of the men and they mounted up and headed out.  “Looks like we’re going to have some company, Lancer,” Harrison said as he walked over and snarled down at the quiet rancher.
 
Murdoch glared up at him and swallowed the lump in his throat. “Johnny?”

“Nope, I wish it was, just some poor soul who wandered where he wasn’t supposed to be,” Bulldog hissed in disappointment. 

“Let the man be, he’s probably just some traveler, who has nothing to do with this,” Murdoch pleaded, in a relieved tone since it wasn’t his son.

“He’s coming from the direction of Green River, Lancer! So that makes me suspicious that they might be pulling something,” Harrison accused.  

“There are other roads that lead into this one, so he could be coming from any direction!” Murdoch angrily disagreed.

“Well, we’ll soon find out, when my men bring him here,” Harrison growled. “And if you know what’s best for ya, you had better keep your big mouth SHUT!” 

Murdoch laughed and shook his head, “Well, don’t you think he’ll know something is up when he sees me all tied up like this?”  

“Oh no, I’m not going to untie you if that s what you think! I’m not stupid, Lancer. Besides, he won’t be going anywhere once he gets here. Nobody leaves this camp unless I say so!” he proclaimed loudly. “So sit back and relax, remember your precious son has one more day left, and then all hell will break loose if he don‘t show his face!”

Murdoch’s heart sank further; distressed that one more innocent victim was falling prey to Harrison just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time while going about his business. He couldn’t help but wonder how many more Bulldog would hurt or kill before this was over.  As he scanned the area, he recognized the wagon they had stashed in the trees, it belonged to a friend he visited whenever he got down their way. Despair swept over him because he knew without a shadow of a doubt that his friend would never give up that wagon without a fight, and they, like others, probably met their demise at this monster’s hands. This man had to be stopped and soon.

Jack’s muscles tensed and the hairs on the back of his neck tingled, he could hear Harrison’s men coming for him from behind, but he stayed as calm as he could. Using the toe of his boot he nudged his shotgun towards his feet just in case he had to grab it in a hurry.

The two men darted out from behind the trees with guns in hands, quickly coming up along side of the buggy, thus cutting Jack off. “Stop right there, Mister!” the taller one said. “You’re trespassing on private property,” he lied as he pointed his weapon at the doctor.

“Really, I didn’t see a sign saying this is private land,” Jack huffed arrogantly as he settled the horses down.

“Well, it is now, and our boss wants to see ya,” the stout one snorted.

“Now see here! I’m a doctor and I’m going to the next town…” Jack started to say when they raised their guns higher.

“You can tell it to our Boss, now get mister!” the tall man motioned with his gun for Jack to move in the direction of the trees, where there was a narrow pathway he could take with the buggy. “You heard me, the boss is waiting!” he growled when Jack hesitated.

Jack nodded, shrugging his shoulders and did as he was told, feeling confident his plan was working so far.  “How have you boys been feeling lately?” he asked, feigning concern.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, as I was trying to tell you, I’m needed elsewhere. By chance have any of you gentlemen passed through a small town to the south of here, Dead Rock?  If so you just might be getting sick,” Jack stated bluntly.

“HUH?” the tall one muttered in confusion.

“Well,” Jack smiled as he set his trap, “I’ll tell your boss all the details when I see him,” he taunted, “and it’s not good, gentlemen.”

The two men looked at each other, bewildered, because they did indeed travel through Dead Rock to get here. Now the doctor’s words were beginning to worry them.  What does he mean, getting sick?  Nobody looked sick when they were there. These questions preyed on their minds as they escorted the cunning doctor up the path.

Once they reached the campsite, the men waved to their boss, that caught Murdoch’s attention, the rancher’s eyes widened in awe and alarm at the sight of his friend, who had no business being here. ‘What in the hell is Jack up to?’ Murdoch asked himself.

As Jack was pulling up, he looked over at Murdoch and frowned at the cruel spectacle they made of the man he had come to admire and it made his blood boil with fury.  However, he quickly put aside the anger he felt building up inside and gave Murdoch a quick nod and wink, as though he was telling him to stay calm and to just play along.  Jack peered over at the sneering bandit and smiled as he was about to set his plan in motion.

********

Sam stood apprehensively outside the jail house; he took out his time piece checking it, and then he swallowed the lump in his throat. He knew that what he was about to tell the three antsy men inside would not sit well at all with them. Dreading what he had to tell the others, Sam none the less decided he had better get it over with, so he daringly opened the door and walked in. Within a few seconds the tranquil silence around the building was abruptly shattered by Johnny’s angry voice after Sam informed them of Jack’s plan.

“HE DID WHAT?”  Johnny bellowed as he glared at his old friend. “Why did you let him do a damn blasted thing like that Sam? You should have stopped him!” he added heatedly and started to rapidly pace the floor with his hands on his hips, shaking his head.

“There was no stopping him, Johnny. Jack’s mind was made up,” Sam explained. “You know Jack.  It‘s something he needed to do, as idiotic as it sounds,” he stated in a wounded sounding voice. 

Johnny stopped and looked at Sam’s hurt face. “Yeah, and sorry I yelled at ya. But still that was a foolish thing to do, risking his life like that,” he apologized. He walked over and placed a hand on Sam’s shoulder and gave it a tender squeeze. “I know you did your best to stop him.”

“He’s a brave man, I’ll give you that.” Sam said and smiled at his troubled young friend.

“I must say, Jack does have a good plan, brother,” Scott commented, raising his eyebrows. “If he can pull this off and trick Harrison and his men, and then subdue them long enough to free Murdoch. I say more power to him.” 

“He has a point,” Val agreed. “Cause’ so far we sure as hell couldn’t think of anything to free your pa,” he huffed. “Short of storming the place and getting everybody killed.”

“Ya know you’re not making this easy on me,” Johnny snorted and flopped down in Val’s chair.

“Johnny, Jack said he just couldn’t sit back and watch you and Scott suffer like this,” Sam explained earnestly.  “He knows that if you give yourself up to that mad man, you and your father will die no matter what you try.”  

“I know, Sam, I know,” Johnny admitted, bowing his head in distress. “So now we’re back to waiting and hoping. Right?” 

“It’s all we can do. If his plans works, he’ll have Murdoch back here before night or maybe sooner,” Sam speculated.

“If his plan works,” Johnny muttered, as he silently asked the Holy Madre to help his friend.

“Well, we have your men on lookout, so they’ll let us know if and when Jack and Murdoch appear, and then one of us can ride out and escort them in,”  Val suggested.

“And that will be me!” Johnny replied adamantly. “They’ll need a gun, my gun, to help just in case they are followed. And I’ll tell you now, that we had better be prepared for a war, because Bulldog will be coming after us with everything he has!” he exclaimed, boldly reminding them of the cold hard facts. “And believe me, he hates to lose, plus he can always get more men too, of that I have no doubt.” 

“So what do you suggest we do?” Val asked anxiously.

“We take this battle away from town,” the youngest Lancer eagerly explained. “If and when Jack gets back with Murdoch, we hightail it out of here and head for a place where we know we’ll have a better chance of winning.”

“Lancer!” Scott proclaimed.

“Yeah, Lancer! The same place we defeated Pardee. If that bastard wants me, then he’ll have to fight me on my own land,” Johnny declared, feeling a little more like his old self.

“Our land, brother!” Scott corrected. “You’re right. Lancer is better suited to stage a war. We did it before, we can do it again.” 

“You’re forgetting something important, amigo… what about this town and me?” Val hissed. “He’s after me, too, remember?” he added giving Johnny a look of despair.

“Yeah, I remember, Val.  But think about it, he’ll be too distracted with going after me, after he finds out he’s been tricked and we have Murdoch back. He’ll leave you alone for the time being because he’ll be after me,” Johnny assured.  “But to make sure, we can leave him a message outside of town, all tied up with a note telling him where to find me,” Johnny grinned.

“You have this all worked out don’t you, brother? Glad to see the brother I know back!” Scott smiled nervously.

“Like I said, Scott, he made it personal when he took our father!” Johnny crowed.

 

Chapter Fourteen

Once the shock of what Jack was attempting wore off the Lancer brothers had time to review the aspects of his impromptu plan. Jack’s help had been unexpected but now that they thought about it, it certainly put a new spin on the situation. Depending on whether or not he would be able to pull it off, they realized they needed to give some serious thought to the new options opening up and devise a contingency plan as well.

Scott rubbed a slender finger over his chin, squinting as he studied his little brother’s face, and then offered his opinion, “I think Robert Burns was certainly right, ‘The best laid schemes o’Mice an’Men, Gang aft agley.’ His words absolutely fit this state of affairs.”

Chewing thoughtfully on his leather storm string, Johnny turned to stare at his brother as he spoke.  The light of understanding lit Johnny’s blue eyes, and he dropped the leather cord from his teeth and stated, ‘Is that yours and Robert’s way of saying no matter who makes a plan or how good it is, things can still happen to make it fall apart?” At Scott’s nod, Johnny continued with his assessment. “If that’s the case then we need to get busy making plans to cover any conditions that might arise, depending on which direction things play out,” Johnny declared, the cool mask of Madrid slipping into place as he called upon his skilled persona to deal with the situation. 

Scott glanced at Val and grinned, they were relieved to have the old Johnny back. Both men had been very concerned with the way Johnny had been acting, since the news of Murdoch’s abduction. But in light of Sam’s information about Jack’s gung ho plan, Johnny’s faith seemed to be rejuvenated.

It was easy for all three men to believe in Jack and his plan, after all the gruff and cunning man had managed to keep a severely injured Johnny alive in the brutal mountains of Montana.  However, this wasn’t a case of a determined hermit battling the weather, he was going against some evil men and when you factor in the things they might try to pull it still left a shred of uncertainly to nag them all.

While new strategies were being discussed in town, back at Harrison’s camp, Murdoch was still bound to a tree, defenseless to help his self or anyone else for that matter. He watched in distress as Jack was roughly ushered over to where Harrison was waiting.  Jack gave Murdoch a silent signal by twitching his finger as he walked by, the keen eyed rancher acknowledged it and leaned his head back. Murdoch couldn’t help but wonder what his crafty friend had up his sleeve. He groaned as he thought how alike Jack and Johnny were, because either of them would walk into a lion’s den like this, knowing they might not make it out alive, if they thought they could help someone they cared for. He prayed that whatever Jack was attempting, worked, and he would soon be reunited him with his sons.

“Well, well, who do we have here?” Harrison hissed as Jack approached.

“He says he’s a doctor, boss!” 

“A doctor you say?” Harrison huffed as he walked around Jack, eyeing the man’s tall and stout form. “You sure don’t look like a doctor, ya kind of big for a doc, don‘t ya think?” he rudely asked as he poked at Jack’s wide midsection. 

“I assure you that I’m a doctor. We do come in all different shapes and sizes,” Jack answered back, though he didn‘t appreciate being touched by the filthy outlaw. “As for my size, it certainly comes in handy when I have to hold down people of your persuasion while digging bullets out of their hides,” he added sarcastically.

“Well now, not only are you brave for trespassing but you also have a loose tongue on you too!” Harrison snarled. “Now tell me where were you going?” 

“As I endeavored to explain to these two ruffians of yours, I’m on an important mission,” Jack calmly answered in a condescending manner. “Perhaps you would be so kind as to enlighten me on how one trespasses on *open* land,” he added with the emphasis on the word open.  

“He…he asked us if we were feeling okay boss,” the shorter man stuttered.

“Why? Why would you ask such a thing as that?” Harrison demanded.

Jack raised his eyebrows and coolly stated, “Because if you passed through Dead Rock, a small town south of here, you might have been exposed to…” he paused and looked around the camp, noticing he had everyone’s attention.

“To what? Tell me!” Harrison snapped anxiously.

“Smallpox,” Jack informed them in an ominous voice, and then looked over at Murdoch who had his eyes trained on his friend. 

“SMALLPOX!” Harrison shouted, his panicked voice echoing throughout the camp and alarming his men.  “I didn’t see anybody sick when we were there. And we weren’t there long enough to be exposed,” he added with fear and disbelief coloring his face.

“So you were there,” Jack confirmed, secretly thinking his plan just might work after all. “Well, for your information, an old sick Indian had wandered in town, and then left. However, later they found him dead and his body covered in spots. It doesn’t matter how long you were there, the germ spreads fast. Symptoms can show up as soon as a few days after exposure, as the occupants of the town soon found out. That’s why I asked if your men were feeling well,” he explained making it sound very serious.

“WELL, ARE ANY OF YA FEELING SICK?” Harrison boomed as he looked around at his dumbfounded and fear stricken men.

Every man there looked at each other in apprehension, quickly checking themselves over and shrugging their shoulders. “Not as far as I can tell boss,” Bret answered.

“Good, then I came along at just the right time,” Jack revealed with a false sigh of relief.

“What do you mean?” Harrison questioned.

Jack smiled. “I happen to have in my buggy a large supply of tonics and quinine that I was transporting to the sick in Dead Rock,” he informed them and paused as he rubbed his chin. “Well, I could spare some for you and your men. It just might help since you’re not showing any signs of pox, yet.”

Harrison suspiciously looked at the big man, “Now why would you want to help us? You obliviously know what we are.”

“Sir, I’m deeply shocked, that you would even asked that question,” Jack admonished. “I’m a doctor. I took an oath to help the sick and infirm, regardless of their station in life. If you would please gather all your men in one spot, I can distribute the medicine needed and perhaps we can stop this disease from spreading into an epidemic,” he sternly ordered, glaring at the stunned bandit.

“You heard the man!” Harrison belted out to Bret. “Get the men together, the last thing we need is for you all to get sick on me!” He turned to Jack and whispered, “Are going to give us shots? I don’t like shots.”

“No, that would take too long,” Jack answered, as he cautiously walked over to his buggy and pulled out a large glass jug filled with what looked like clear water. Murdoch smiled as he watched with amusement; he had a good idea what Jack was up to.

“I have prepared a large dose of tonic mixed with quinine that you can drink, it will get into your system faster that way and there is no time to waste,” Jack warned.

Still unsure of the doctor’s motives, the bandit leader walked up to Jack and pointed to the jug. “How do I know that this is not some sort of trick?  That looks just like plan water to me! You just might be a part of a plan to rescue him!!” he accused as he pointed over at Murdoch.

Jack stood his ground, shaking the jug until the contents became cloudy as the mixture inside blended in with the water, and thought to himself ‘you’re not too far from the truth, my friend.’  The doctor calmly answered, “I don’t even know that man. I’m new to these parts. Now, what you see,” he explained as he held up the glass jug, “is the tonic mixed with quinine. I put it in large containers for passing out to big groups such as yours.” 

Harrison studied the jug for a few moments, and then nodded, thinking it was better to be safe than sorry, after all this man is a doctor sworn to uphold his oath. “Okay you can hand out the stuff,” he reluctantly agreed.

“You heard your boss. Everybody grab a cup and be ready as I come around,” Jack instructed the hesitant men. “What about him?” he asked and pointed to Murdoch.

“He don’t get any!” Bulldog hissed cruelly. “He’s not going to live long enough to get sick anyway and neither are you if this don’t work,” he threatened.

‘Oh it will work alright, just not what you think,’ Jack thought wickedly. “You, sir, get the first dose so you can show your men it‘s okay to take this,” he said eagerly and filled the man’s cup half full of his potent concoction. “It may taste bitter at first but you have to drink it all down.” 

Harrison looked at the old doc with suspicious eyes and took a small swig, puckering his lips in disgust at the raunchy taste, and then he took a deep breath and chugged it all down. Jack nodded in satisfaction and quickly went around to each man, urging them to drink fast to spare them the vulgar taste. Once every man there, excluding Murdoch, was given the medicine, he slowly edged his way over to where his friend was tied-up and anxiously awaited, ready to move when the opportunity arose.

And just as Jack had hoped, it didn’t take long for the sleeping powder to take effect. One by one Harrison and his men started to weaved and staggered about, intoxicated like after a night of heavy drinking. Then they began dropping like flies, first falling to their knees and finally succumbing to the potency of the drug.  All but one, Harrison, who fought with all he had to stay awake, as he pulled out his gun and aimed it at Jack.

“Why…you…noooo…acou…nt…bastard…you tricked…me,” Harrison growled drunkenly as he bobbed back and forth, wildly waving his gun.  “You…you call…your…self a doc…tor who saves…lives,” he slurred out as he was quickly losing the battle to stay awake. He blinked rapidly, rubbing his eyes as everything started to go dark. Then he took one step forward and fell flat on his face. However, as he hit the ground the impact caused the gun to go off and the bullet hit Murdoch’s left arm.

“DAMN!” Murdoch grunted loudly as he felt the stinging, burning pain of the bullet penetrating his flesh. 

Jack swiftly kneeled down next to Harrison and angrily hissed at the unconscious bandit, “Yes, I save lives, and that is actually what I’m doing now.”  Then he turned his full attention to his wounded friend. “Sorry about that Murdoch, I didn’t mean for you to get shot,” he sincerely apologized as he took a look the rancher’s arm. “Thank goodness it only a flesh wound. Nothing I can’t fix up when we get back to town.” 

“You took a big chance letting yourself be taken like that, Jack!” Murdoch scowled at Jack.

“All part of my plan, Murdoch,” Jack said as he quickly untied Murdoch’s hands and legs.

“Your plan?” Murdoch asked in confusion. “You mean they agreed to let you do this?” 

“Nope! They didn’t find out I was coming until it was too late,” Jack said as he finished uniting Murdoch. “Do you really think Johnny would allow me come in here alone?” 

“Not if he had any sense, no,” Murdoch snorted as he grabbed hold of his wrist and rubbed the numbness out.

“That’s why I chose not to tell him or Scott,” Jack explained. “Can you walk?” he asked and grabbed hold of Murdoch’s good arm and helped him up off the ground.

“Yes, just give me a few moments to get my circulation going in my legs,” Murdoch grunted as he slowly straightened his sore and stiff body, standing on wobbly legs. “What did you give them?” he inquired as he pointed to the snoring group of men before them.

“Oh, just a strong dose of sleeping powder and a little extra something,” Jack smirked.  “They’ll sleep for hours which will give us time to get away from here.” 

Murdoch glared at Jack, “A little extra?” 

“Well, let’s just say when they wake up, not only will they have headaches from the drug but they‘ll also have a bad stomach ache. They won’t be going anywhere not until the side effects wear off,” he finished explaining and gave Murdoch a wide grin. “Don’t worry it’s just a little something extra to slow them down.” 

“Jack,” Murdoch said shaking his head in awe, “you sly old dog. It’s no wonder you survived in the mountains all those years,” he laughed despite their precarious situation. “Harrison will be angrier than a bull seeing red when he wakes up, so we better get out of here.” 

“After you, my friend, my buggy awaits us.” Jack pointed to it. “And you’re right; this is the calm before the storm. I fear we’ll have a real battle on our hands. At least you’re no longer in the middle.”

“I have you to thank for that, my friend,” Murdoch said gratefully as they walked over to the buggy. “But I’m still in the middle of this whether I like it or not! And now I’m bound and determined to see this through with my sons. He made it personal when he threatened Johnny.  I won’t allow my son to be put in that position…to have to choose between his life or mine. That bastard over there will not get away with it! I should end this right now!” Murdoch vowed as his blood started to boil with rage, and fought the strong urge to pick up a gun and pull the trigger.

“But you won’t because that’s not the Murdoch I know. We can send the Sheriff and a posse back after them.”  Jack added softly as he placed a comforting hand on rancher’s arm, giving it a gentle squeeze.

Murdoch looked at Jack’s kind eyes and nodded. The doctor helped Murdoch up into the buggy, and then they headed back to town. Jack figured that by now Sam had told Johnny and Scott of his plan, and that they would be on the lookout for them. With that in mind Jack snapped the reins to get the team to move, hoping they would be back in town within an hour. 

Jack turned and looked back beyond the camp, when he heard a sound in the distance. He grimaced when he got a glimpse of something that made his heart stop; something that even Murdoch was not aware of. Time was definitely of the essence, he had to get back to town so he could tell the Lancer boys and Val to ride out here and capture the sleeping bandits. He’s afraid that might not happen due to this new setback. He prayed that what he just saw would not be used on the town in retaliation for his actions. 

********

After going over the final details, Scott sent Hank and Juan out to where they had Harrison’s men hidden away, with instructions to bring one of them back with them. They needed the man to act as a messenger for Harrison, a backup plan to steer him away from town and towards Lancer. They were taking extra precautions just in case Jack’s rescue attempt didn’t go as planned. Johnny knew that Harrison, if he was able, would be in hot pursuit with murderous intent. If that happened then they would resort to their first plan and head for home. When their ranch hands returned they had Boone with them.  The outlaw who had done the bandit’s dirty work and assassinated Slim while he was still in the jailhouse. Val thought Boone was the perfect man to give the gang their message.

Boone stood before the Lancers and Val, shaking in his boots. “What…what are ya going to do with me?” he asked nervously.

“You, my friend, are going to be our messenger, if and when the time comes and we need you, you will give this note to your boss,” Scott declared.

“What’s makes…you think I’ll do that?” Boone argued. “What’s make you so sure that I won’t just run off?” 

“Because you’ll be tied to a tree in plain view with the note pinned to your hide,” Johnny snarled in the man’s face. “That way you’ll have no choice,” he added coldly, and then walked over and grabbed the knife off of Val’s desk. “I believe this is yours, Boone, isn’t it? It has your name carved on the handle. We also identified the tracks left by your muddy boots… it was you that killed Val’s prisoner.” 

“I…I…didn’t want to, Bulldog forced me to do it, to shut him up,” Boone croaked out.

Val walked over to the sweating man and glared at him. “Well, it was waste of time and effort, cause’ he didn’t tell us a thing, nothing that we didn’t already know.  Let’s hope he shows you some mercy and lets you live, unlike your friend, until then you can be my guest,” Val snarled. “Now, lock him up!”

“You heard the man, get going!” Hank urged roughly as he pushed the hesitant lackey towards the cell room with Clem right behind them, jiggling the keys in his hand.

Now that they had that detail taken care of, Johnny strolled over to the window and peered out. “Where are they, if Jack’s plan had worked they should be back by now,” he muttered, dread rasping his voice.

“The way I see it, brother, is, if Jack’s strategy had not worked, we would have heard something from Harrison by now. I mean if Jack was subdued before accomplishing his daring deed, then no doubt Harrison would send word, that he has now two hostages to bargain with,” Scott reasoned.

“You always have to look at things logically, don‘t you?” Johnny huffed.

“It helps puts things in perspective, brother.”  

“Yeah, well, if Jack’s idea doesn’t work it will give me all the more reason to go in there and try to get them out, somehow,” Johnny retorted as he continued to stare out the window. “I’m not going to let my old man and friend die because of me. Not if I can help it.”

 

Chapter Fifteen

Time, as always, was being a tricky and contrary entity, it seemed to fly by when a person wanted a day to last forever, yet when you wanted it to be over and done with, it seemed to crawl like a half dead snail. The Lancers and Val waited impatiently for Jack to either return or for word that his plan had failed. As time ever so slowly ticked off the clock, the tension in the room sucked the substance from their hope for success, leaving it as dry and brittle as a fall leaf. Everyone in the room was feeling guilty that they had not come up with a way to stop the murdering fiend before now, especially Sam, who was also worrying that he had agreed to Jack’s plot a little too quickly.

Feeling a little fatigued from the long day, Sam Jenkins, his tired bones reminding him of his age, rested in a chair by Val’s desk. The doctor glanced over at his young friend standing by the window; Johnny’s eyes were glued to the horizon. He observed Johnny’s rigid form with a heavy heart, as the youngest Lancer nervously chewed on his storm string in between deep rasping sighs. Johnny’s fingers twitched fretfully as he drummed them rhythmically on his hip, just above his gun. That was a sure and unsettling sign that if something were to happen to Murdoch or Jack, there would be no holding Johnny back. He would be out the door so fast his shadow would not be able to keep up with him. Sam silently prayed that would not be the case.

Meanwhile, just minutes away from town, Jack frantically urged the horses to go faster, as there was no time to waste. It was imperative that he warn the boys and Val, about this new situation. He feared it would definitely put a hamper on a posse riding out and capturing the bandits while they were still incapacitated and putting them behind bars. If he didn’t make it back in time to inform them, then they would have to prepare the town for a battle.

“I sure hope they have somebody watching for us, Murdoch,” Jack stated tensely while staring straight ahead.

“I thought you said they didn’t know about your plan?” Murdoch replied, confusion and pain marring his face as he held on to the side of the seat with his good arm, wincing as the buggy hit almost every bump and dip in the road.

“Sam knew,” Jack quickly answered. “After all who do you think helped me with preparing the drugs?” he slyly admitted. “After I left, I instructed Sam to let the boys know of my intentions and to keep an eye out for us.” 

“I can’t believe that Sam would allow you to try such a daring stunt as this, Jack,” Murdoch exclaimed.

“Well, he tried talking me out of it, but you know me. Once I get a notion there’s no turning back,” Jack crowed.

“Yes, I know you too well, Jack. I’m very grateful your plan has worked so far,” Murdoch smiled.  “I hope my sons have a plan worked out because Harrison will come at us with both barrels,” the big rancher cautioned. “If we’re lucky they’ll get out there before the gang wakes up and throw them in jail.”

“Yes, I know,” Jack agreed, dreading that they might be too late to do that.  “Well, we’ll know soon enough what your boys have up their sleeves because there’s the town straight ahead.” 

********

Perched on a boulder just outside the town’s limits, Cipriano eyes widened and his thick mustache twitched as a nervous smile began to grace his face when he spied a fast moving buggy headed his way. He knew from the two large forms occupying it, that it was the doctor with his patron. Cip hastily mounted up and raced back into town as he was instructed to do and hollered at the top of his voice as he galloped through the street.

“JUANITO, JUANTIO!”

The second he heard Cipriano’s excited voice, Johnny spat out the chew moistened storm string and rushed out the door with Scott and Val right on his heels.  “What is it, Cip?” the young Lancer asked anxiously as his amigo halted his horse right in front of him.

“Senor Jack, he is coming and he has your papa with him!” the old foreman announced happily, and then added “and with no sign of that hombre behind them.” 

The old Segundo’s words were like music to their ears and you could hear a chorus of loud, heavy signs escaping their lips. “Well, I’ll be! Jack’s plan worked!” Sam shouted in astonishment as he turned and looked at the relieved expressions on the Lancers boys’ young faces.

“Gracias, Holy Madre,” Johnny whispered, and then without warning he quickly turned and untied Barranca’s reins from the hitching rail and mounted up.

“Hold on, where do you think you’re going?” Val demanded.

“I’ve already told ya, I’m not taking any chances, so I’m riding out to meet them,” Johnny snarled and without saying another word he gave Barranca a gentle kick.

“I hate it when he does that! I wish he would just wait,” Val growled as he fanned at the swirling cloud of dust Johnny left behind him.

“I know, Val, just let him go, at least he’s not riding into a trap,” Scott replied with relief, and then asked the Segundo, “Cipriano, how did they look, was anybody hurt?” 

“It was too far for me to get a good look at them, Senor Scott,” Cipriano answered. “But they ride fast so we’ll know soon, if anybody is hurt.”

Johnny raced like a streak of lightning, his rapid heartbeat matching the thunderous rhythm of Barranca’s hoofs. The rider and horse were so in tune to each other they moved as one, a thing of striking grace and beauty. Despite the ease with which he rode, Johnny was wound tight with tension that would not be released until he saw for himself that his father and Jack were okay.  

“Jack, look, it’s Johnny!” Murdoch anxiously pointed out. “JOHNNY!” he called out heartily and waved to his son.

“It sure is,” Jack said with a weary smile and pulled the team to a stop.

“MURDOCH!” Johnny shouted back as he approached the men and came along the side of the buggy and jumped down. “What happened? Are ya okay?” he breathlessly questioned after he noticed Murdoch bloodied arm. Then he saw the deep purple bruise on his father’s cheek and his blood pressure rose long with his anger. “Did that bastard do this to you?”

“Johnny, it’s okay. It’s mostly my fault. I said something to make him mad, that‘s all,” Murdoch stated calmly, and then place a reassuring hand on his son’s arm. “And this is just a flesh wound, I’ll be okay.”

“Are you sure, it looks deep?”  

“Yes I’m sure. I would have been a lot worse off, if it wasn’t for Jack,” Murdoch admitted gratefully.

“Jack, you old fool, you took a big chance going into that camp like that,” Johnny scowled at his friend. “At least you could have told us of what you wanted to do.” 

“Would you have let me do it?” Jack asked.

Johnny shook his head and confessed, “No.”

“Well, then I rest my case,” Jack stated. “We better get moving again, I have some important information we need to discuss.” 

“Like what?” Murdoch asked, the hair on his neck rising in apprehension. 

“I’ll tell you when we get back to town and we don’t have much time,” Jack proclaimed.

“Well, then let’s get moving. I’ll take the guard your rear, you just keep your eye on the road,” Johnny ordered as he remounted.  Jack acknowledged his instructions and snapped the reins, and then with a hard jerk they were off again.

Scott and Val didn’t have to wait long after Johnny’s departure before he and Jack came racing into town, with no signs of Harrison or his men following. The two men grinned at each other as the buggy sped into town.

“Thank God, they’re alright!” Scott exclaimed as Jack brought the buggy to a halt in front of the jail house.

“Yeah, but your pa looks a bit roughed up there,” Val noted with a frown.

“How are you, sir?” Scott asked with deep concern etched in his voice as he approached the buggy, cringing at the sight of his father’s arm. “What happed to your arm?”

“It’s just a flesh wound, it’s nothing,” Murdoch assured his eldest as Scott helped him down from the buggy. “I could use a stiff drink right about now.”

“Well, come on inside, I might have a bottle stashed somewhere,” Val said as Jack hopped down as well looking like he lost his best friend. “What’s troubling you, Doc?”

“I’m afraid we might not have much time to take those men into custody, Sheriff,” Jack answered.

“Why? What is it you know, Jack?” Johnny questioned as they all entered the jail.

“It’s not good, Johnny,” Jack paused and thought of how to break the news to them. Finally he blurted it out, “As we we’re leaving, I heard something behind us and when I turned to look I saw a group of riders headed straight for Harrison’s camp and…”

“What Jack!” Val snapped impatiently.

“I…I saw what looked like a… Gatling gun,” he stuttered morosely as he looked into Johnny’s piercing blue eyes. “I’m afraid that they might have already found Harrison and his men. We were lucky they didn’t see us as we rode off.”

“Oh, for the love of God,” Murdoch whispered worriedly and rubbed his sore shoulder. “Not another one,” he groaned as he thought back to the Comancheros.

“What should we do, Val?” Scott growled staring at the stunned sheriff.

“Let me think,” Val hissed. “Well, if Jack is right and they have already found Harrison, it would be a waste of time going out there to round them up. Sleeping men we could handle but not men who are awake and armed with a Gatling gun.”

“But how can you be so sure they were Harrison’s men you saw, Jack?”  Sam wondered.

“I’m sure as I can be, Sam. They were headed straight for those rocks and I say it’s too dangerous to find out.” 

“Jack’s right! I say we have no choice but to go back to our original plan,”  Johnny suggested.

“What plan is that, son?”

“We take this fight to Lancer!” Johnny answered bluntly, giving his father a determined look. “It’s the only way to spare the town the unnecessary bloodshed, Murdoch. Bulldog will be madder than a wet hen and he’ll be coming after us with everything he has. I can tell you right now, if you thought Pardee was bad, you haven’t seen what his Uncle can do yet,” Johnny cautiously explained.  “And I suggest we get a moving and soon.”

“Lancer,” Murdoch replied somewhat disquieted.

“Déjà vu,” Scott whispered, remembering the original battle to defend Lancer.

“Now don’t go getting your selves in a pucker,” Johnny snarled. “We beat Day, right? Well, we sure as hell can beat Harrison, even with that Gatling gun. Don’t forget we also have something left over from our battle with those Comancheros.”

“He’s right,” Scott agreed. “The canon will give us an advantage.” 

“The only problem is we’re not going to have time to vacate the women and children around the hacienda like the last time,” Johnny announced grimly.  “We just have to make sure they are nowhere near the house when the fighting starts.” 

“Instead of standing here jawing, I suggest you get moving!” Val ordered.

“Well, let me run and get some more medical supplies from Sam‘s,” Jack insisted. Before either one could protest, Jack added, “Now don’t go giving me any lip!” He looked straight at Johnny, “You know damn well you’re going to need my help, so I’m not going to take no for an answer.

“Okay Jack you win. In fact, I do need you to take Murdoch back to the ranch. I’m not leaving just yet,” Johnny requested.

Jack nodded and took off to gather his medical needs, calling out, “Care to help, Sam?” 

“Why not? Clearly, I can’t talk you out of this, now can I?” Sam said shaking his head as he followed the swiftly retreating man.

“Johnny?” Murdoch muttered.

“It’s okay, Murdoch. I‘ll be along soon,” Johnny promised as they walked out the office. He helped his father back up into the buggy as Jack was hurrying back from Sam‘s. “Now get going, times a wasting. Jelly and Teresa already know how and why you were kidnapped and have taken precautions, but now we need to update them and get that cannon ready”   

“And what are you going to do?” Murdoch questioned his son.

“I’m not going out there if that‘s what you think.  No, I’m going to send Cipriano and Juan to confirm what Jack saw. We need to know for sure. Then we will put the other part our plan into action if we have too,” Johnny stated.

“Right… the note,” Scott said. “In that case, little bother, I’ll stay here with you until we know for sure.” 

“Scott, I’d rather you go with them. I’ll have Cip and Juan with me.”

“I’m staying, brother. Hank and the others can escort our father and Jack back to the ranch,” Scott insisted, staring eyeball to eyeball with his mule-headed sibling.

“Alright, have it your way,” Johnny conceded. “Now get going, Jack and don’t worry we’ll be there as soon as we can.”

Jack nodded and snapped the reins and they were off at a fast trot with Hank and the rest of the Lancer men close behind. Johnny and Scott watched as they left, feeling a lot better since their father was safe from Harrison’s clutches. Now they had to wait again to see if Jack really did see a Gatling gun, if so then Lancer could be facing a bigger battle.

“Cip, you and Juan, head out and be as careful as possible, and then hightail it back, pronto,” Johnny instructed his old friend.

“Si, Juantio. We’ll be careful. Adios,” Cipriano said as he and Juan mounted up for one last scouting mission.

“I had a feeling that Harrison would send for more men, but I never thought he would get a Gatling gun,” Val admitted.

“Yeah, but now we know what he has up his sleeve, we just need to wait and see if it’s true. Then we get our messenger ready,” Johnny softly reminded them as they continued to watch their father and Jack disappear into the fading sun.

 

Chapter Sixteen

In years past, the San Joaquin valley, due to its fertile soil, had been plagued by money hungry land grabbers and their murderous raids.  Men like Pardee and Harrison had wrought death and destruction with their vicious attacks to gain possession of the land. Homes were destroyed and hard working innocent people had lost their lives trying to hold on to what they had labored so valiantly to build.  Out of the necessity to assure their safety against future strikes most of the larger ranches, such as Lancer, developed a warning system to alert everyone of impending danger.  They had found the most effective system was to post watch guards, who would ring a bell at the first sign of invaders or trouble. However, that was not the case today, the sounds, from the old tower bell, perched high above the main house, were joyously announcing the return of their patron and Jack. The men who were posted on the rooftops and upper level balconies started whooping and waving their hats at the approaching buggy. Some shot off a few rounds in celebration.

The loud reports of gunfire made Teresa and Jelly rush out of the French doors to see what the commotion was. They stopped short of the porch pillars and smiled happily at the long-awaited sight before them. Tears of relief began to fill the girl’s eyes as she clung to Jelly’s arm. Teresa had been gravely worried that she would never see her foster father again.

Jelly patted her hand and softly said, “There, there, see I told ya, he’d be okay, the boss is a tough old coot. It’d take a lot to keep Murdoch Lancer down,” Jelly boasted as Jack finally pulled the buggy to a halt by the house. “Boss! I sure am happy to see you back,” Jelly shouted as he eagerly approached the buggy with Teresa still clinging to his arm. Their smiles quickly faded when they saw Murdoch’s bandaged arm and bruised cheek. “But dang it boss, you went and got yourself hurt,” he huffed in disgust.

“Murdoch, what happened?” Teresa gasped, as she let go of Jelly and placed a gentle hand on Murdoch’s.

“It’s nothing, honey, just a flesh wound. Jack will fix me up, don’t worry,” Murdoch assured the girl with a smile.

“Uh, boss, where’s Johnny and Scott?” Jelly questioned as he gazed past Hank and the others and towards the gates, expecting to see the Lancer sons.

“They’ll be coming soon. They had to take care of something in town first. We don’t have time to waste ourselves, those men, who were after Val and Johnny…” he started to say when Teresa rudely interrupted.

“Johnny? I just knew it. I had a feeling they were after him too?” Teresa shrieked, her heart aching at the thought of her foster brother being in danger too. 

“Yes, honey, but I assure you he’s okay. Johnny can take care of himself and Scott‘s with him to make sure he doesn‘t do anything foolish,” Murdoch calmly replied as he climbed down from the buggy. “As I was about to say, if all of Jack‘s plan works, then they will have those men in custody.  If, however, it does not….then we‘re going to have a fight on our hands, so we need to prepare for either scenario.  Jelly, I want you and Frank to get that cannon out of storage and get it ready,” he ordered.

“Cannon? What in blue blazes you want that old thing again, fer?” a confused Jelly questioned. “And what plan?” he added, nervously stroking his beard.

“I’ll tell you later, Jelly, but we’re going to need that cannon. Jack spotted something I thought I would never have to face again,” Murdoch revealed.

“You mean?” Jelly gulped, his eyes widening in frightened realization.

“Yes, Jelly, that son of a… he has a Gatling gun and plenty more men, even more than Pardee had.  We’re going to have another tough war on our hands,” Murdoch stated.

“In that case… FRANK, GET OVER HERE AND HELP ME!”  Jelly bellowed as he raced over to the big shed where they stored the cannon.

“Murdoch, we’re going to win this fight, right?” Teresa asked hopefully, as she took hold of her foster father’s hand as they entered the house followed by Jack, carrying his medical bag.

“I sure hope so, darling, I sure hope so,” Murdoch answered as he sat down in the chair by his desk.  Jack began to clean up Murdoch’s wound as he gazed out the picture window, at the land he labored and fought so hard to tame. He wondered how many times he would have to fight men like Harrison to keep it; to sustain the legacy he build to pass on to his sons.

********

Cipriano and Juan returned to town a little over an hour after riding off. They brought back some disturbing news, which confirmed what they had feared all along. Jack’s old eyes had not failed him, he was right, at least ten more men had arrived and they had a Gatling gun. They reported that the reinforcements were trying their hardest to revive Harrison and his men, so there was no chance in hell of taking them into custody. They were lucky Jack was able to get Murdoch out of there just before they arrived, thus giving them some time to get ready for the impending battle.  With no time to waste, they readied the messenger for Harrison and took him to where he would be easily spotted by the bandits once they started their pursuit.

“I hate to leave you like this, Val. Are you sure you can handle things here?” Johnny asked. He loathed the thought of leaving his buddy but he had no choice he was needed at home.

“Sure as I can be, now get, you’re wasting time!” Val grumbled and gave his amigo a half hearted smile.

“You want us to leave a couple of men here to help you?” 

“No, you need all the men you can get. They’ll be after you more than us, once they read that note. Now off with ya!” Val urged.

“Alright, wish us luck,” Johnny smiled and gave his amigo a tap on the arm, “See you around, Val.” 

“You got it buddy boy, see ya soon,” the Sheriff nodded, as he watched Johnny and Scott, along with Cipriano and Juan, mount up and quickly head out of town.

 

After they left, Val began belting out orders to Clem and the townsfolk who were still willing to defend their town. He explained that the danger level of being attacked was not as high as before, but they still needed to take precautions to assure the town’s safety. With those encouraging words in mind, the town came alive as they ran around checking their weapons and making sure the women and children stayed indoors and out of harm’s way, until given the all clear. Val sent a man out to where they had Boone tied up, with instructions to hide and watch to see if Harrison took the bait, and then headed towards Lancer.

********

Breaking one of their father’s cardinal rules, Johnny and Scott galloped under the Lancer arch and didn’t slow down until they reined to a stop by the corral.  A couple of hands came running out to lead the huffing horses into the barn. The Lancer boys made a mad dash for the house, practically tripping over each other as they pushed through French doors. They headed straight for the liquor cabinet and poured themselves a drink to wash down the trail dust they inhaled.

“Well, did you see anybody behind you?” their father asked anxiously.

“No, not a soul,” Scott informed him as he sat his hat down on the chair and took a swallow of his drink.

“But they will be and we had better be ready,” Johnny declared as he too tossed his hat down and wiped the sweat off his brow with his sleeve.

“I gave them a pretty good dose of that sleeping mixture, plus a little something extra to help delay them. So that will give us more time to get ready,” Jack replied. “I’d say we have at least a few more hours to prepare.”

“A little something extra…what will it do to them?” Johnny grinned wickedly, his blue eyes twinkling in his dirt and sweat streaked face.

“Never mind son,” Murdoch answered. “I have Frank and Jelly getting the cannon ready to use, they won’t be expecting that.  I just hope we have enough of cannon balls.”

“We have a few left, but we can always use something else to fire at them, like nails, or anything sharp,” Johnny suggested, thinking back to how he used gun powder and nails when he was blind and trapped in the cellar with Mattie.  “We should have enough gun powder, or we did the last time I checked.”

“Good idea, son,” Murdoch praised. “Why don’t you get the men started on boarding up the windows and spread the word to the hands with families to make sure their spouses and children stay indoors. Better yet, if they have root cellars hide down there until it’s over.” 

“I’m on it!” Scott said as he bolted out the door.

“And that goes for you too, Teresa, you and Maria,” Johnny ordered.

“I’m perfectly safe behind these doors with you,” Teresa argued, she didn’t like the idea of being sent to the cellar with Maria. She feebly tried to plead her case, “I can be of some help to Jack, in case he needs it.”

“No, Teresa!” Murdoch growled at the girl’s obstinacy. “Your brother is right, if things get out of hand, I want you down in that cellar along with Maria. Understand, young lady?” 

“But!” she tried to protest but the look she received from both Johnny and Murdoch told her it was useless to argue.  “Alright, if you’re going to be mule headed about it. I’ll go down there…but… only when it gets too bad, until then I’m staying put!” Teresa quarreled, stomping her foot, and then took off for the kitchen to help Maria with tearing up old sheets for bandages and preparing dinner.

“Are you sure she’s not related to you by blood?” Jack laughed, “Because she sure acts like a Lancer.” 

“No, but I guess hanging around us, the stubbornness has rubbed off on her.”  Murdoch said shaking his head. “You have to be tough when you grow up on a ranch.” 

“I guess so,” Jack agreed.

“Well, I’m going to help Scott and the men,” Johnny announced as he sat his empty glass down and turned to face his friend. “I’m sorry you have to be dragged into this, Jack, but I’m glad you’re here!” 

“That’s what friends are for, John.  I wanted to get involved. I just couldn’t sit by and do nothing, you know that?” Jack replied. 

“Yeah, I do, and thanks,” Johnny said as he grabbed his hat and headed outside.

“Well, Murdoch, now that I have your arm fixed up, how about I give you a hand battening down the hatches?” Jack willingly offered. “Where do we start?”

“We start with checking all the guns I have in the house and make sure they are loaded and ready to use. Then we gather all the ammo and pray it‘s enough,” the tall rancher declared as he got up and unlocked the gun cabinet.

********

Jason, the tall and stout leader of the new arrivals at Harrison’s camp, stood over the last sleeping man and threw another bucket of water on him. The other bandits, now awake but still groggy, started to fuss and moan at their rude awakening, including the big man himself. One by one they slowly forced opened their sleepy eyes. Their heads wobbled and bobbed as they tried to clear their cloudy minds. Tongues, gummy from lack of moisture, licked at parched lips; their throats burned like hot, dry desert sand. As their alertness increased they began gagging and coughing, desperate for water or anything wet to wash away the foul taste of the potion Jack gave them. A few stood up a little too fast and fell butt first back to the ground as the world tilted.

Once full awareness returned to them, their bodily functions made themselves known.  Bulldog, who took the mixture first, felt the repercussions first.  His stomach and bowels began to rubble with a vengeance. Then he began to groan in agony from the hard cramps that tormented his abdomen.  He tried to hold in the discomfort and be discreet, but it was to no avail. He was forced to make a mad dash for the trees, unbuckling his belt as he ran. Then like a domino effect, moans and groans began issuing from the other men as they followed in his desperately quick footsteps and headed into the woods, belt buckles jingling in the wind. Some never did make it that far, squatting in the first bush they came to. 

The only ones, left in the camp, were Jason and his men. For the life of them, they couldn’t keep from laughing at the predicament of Bulldog and his men as they suffered the indignity of their affliction. Harrison came staggering out from behind the bush he had fled into, tugging and pulling at his pants while he walked bow-legged style over to the wagon and grabbed a bottle of whiskey. He gulped the hard liquor down with a vicious snarl contorting his face.

“Why, that dirty no good son-of-a-bitch so called doctor,” he angrily growled in one breath, as Bret also reappeared from the trees and slowly approached his seething boss.

“What in the hell did he give us, boss?” Bret asked with disgust. “I haven’t felt this bad since I was a kid, after my mama gave me castor oil for cussing.” 

“I don’t know,” Jason spoke up, after composing himself.  “Whatever it was, you sure were sleeping like a baby, boss.” 

Harrison sneered at the man, “Yeah and he’s gonna pay for that too! Good to see you here finally, Jason, and I see you brought my secret weapon. Did you have any trouble?”

“Nope, boss, none at all,” Jason retorted smugly.

“Why, boss, why would a doctor do that?” Bret wondered out loud as his foggy mind was clearing up.

Bulldog backhanded Bret right across the face and spat, “Use your brains for once, you idiot! It was a ploy…a TRICK… to get Lancer away from us,” he shouted and pointed to the tree where Murdoch had been tied up. “And it worked pretty damn good! He’s probably back in town by now.”

“So what are we going to do?” Bret asked, rubbing his smarting cheek.

“We go after him and Madrid, that’s what. I have no doubt it was his idea to sneak his old man out and take away my edge,” Harrison snarled. “Well, he has another thought coming. Get the men ready, cause we have a town to storm and a couple of rats to stomp.” 

Bret and Jason nodded and started shouting for the men, who were emerging from the trees, to get their mounts ready for a hard ride.  Harrison strutted over to the Gatling gun and smiled wickedly as he ran his hand over its cold and deadly steel frame.

“Let’s see how they handle my little surprise,” he whispered ominously. ‘It’ll be like shooting sitting ducks. This will teach Madrid to mess with me. Nobody pulls the wool over my eyes and gets away with it, nobody,” Bulldog proclaimed angrily.

 

Chapter Seventeen

“MOUNT UP!” shouted Harrison, as he spun away from the Gatling gun. In a fit of anger he threw his empty whiskey against a boulder, sneering as it shattered into jagged shards and laughing manically as he thought that was what he was going to do to Madrid and his family. Revenge burned in Harrison’s bloodshot eyes as he walked about the camp, angrily glaring at his gang. The ridiculous sight of grown men groaning and whining like children only fueled his fury towards the ones responsible for this. “Look at you, acting like a bunch of sissies. Well, I don’t give a damn how bad you feel, we ride NOW! Once we take care of that conniving doctor and Madrid, you‘ll feel much better. Now get your sorry asses on your horses!” 

“You heard the boss, mount up!”Jason shouted, seizing the opportunity to resume his second in commanded position now that he was back with the Gatling gun. Thinking he was in good with the boss for a job well done, he stated with authority, “We have to make tracks and now! You two help my men with the gun!” 

“Your men?” Harrison admonished loudly, walking over to his horse that Bret had waiting for him. He coldly sneered at Jason as he mounted up. “Let’s get one thing straight, Jason. I still give the orders here… me alone. You don’t have any men, get it? Just because I put you in charge of a few things, like that Gatling gun, don’t mean you’re taking over, understand?” 

“Yeah, sure boss. I was just helping out, since you’re…well a little under the weather,” Jason replied.

“I‘ll be all right, once I get my hands around Madrid’s miserable neck and choke the life out of him,” Harrison fumed, his nostrils flaring like a mad bull. “Now get mounted up and let’s move!”

A little nervous about having been rudely put in his place in front of the men, Jason dashed over to his appaloosa, Roscoe, and in his hurry to mount up, he missed the stirrup and landed flat on his butt, further wounding his pride after the dressing down by Harrison. 

“Are you feeling alright?” Harrison asked, though he laughed coldly as Jason picked himself off the ground.  He shouted over the sounds of mirth in the background, “Now let’s ride!”

“Whoa, Roscoe, easy boy,” Jason cooed, patting the horse’s neck while easing his long leg over the saddle, and then giving Bret a hard scowl.

Bret shook his head and smiled as he and the rest of the gang fell in behind Harrison as he started for town, with Jason and the Gatling gun in the rear position. It was Jason’s responsibility to maintain the gun and its ammunition. At over five hundred pounds the heavy weapon would slow the journey down but its destructive power and the edge it would give the outlaws far outweighed that drawback. 

********

In a clearing just a few miles out of town, sat Boone with the Lancer’s note pinned to his shirt.  He was securely tied to a tree off to the side of the road, but in plain view. There was no doubt that he would be seen by Harrison when they reached this point. Boone was gagged but awake and trembling, not from the exposure but from fear. He knew that his days on this earth might be over soon and so he closed his eyes and said a silent prayer in hopes to atone for his past sins. Suddenly his eyes shot open and his heart jumped when he heard the unmistakable sound of the movement of many horses and the slow rumbling progress of Harrison’s artillery wagon.

“Oh God,” Boone cried through the gag and swallowed the lump of fear rising in his throat. 

Harrison’s eyes narrowed in confusion the closer he got to Boone, and then he raised his hand, halting his men as he pulled his mount to a stop. “What in the hell is this?” he growled loudly, sneering down at Boone.

“It looks like old Boone done got himself all tied up, boss. No wonder he didn’t make it back to camp,” Bret cackled.

“This ain’t no joking matter,” Harrison scowled. “I don’t take kindly to my men failing me and getting themselves caught and making me look like a fool,” he angrily added pointing to the note pinned to Boone’s shirt. “What’s that? Go get it and give it to me.”

Bret quickly dismounted and walked over to his friend. He whispered in his ear as he leaned over to unpin the note, “Oh, Boone you damn fool, why did you go get yourself caught fer? Ya know the boss is none too happy right now.” 

Boone stared morosely up at him and shook his head. Bret loosened the gag just a tad to give his friend a chance to talk.  “It ain’t like I had a choice,” Boone said in a hushed voice. “We were tricked, drugged and hauled off somewhere.” 

“Where?” 

“I don’t know. When they came for me, they blind folded me, so I couldn’t tell where they have the others hidden,” Boone whispered despairingly. “Come on, untie me, so I can ride with ya, cause ya’er gonna need my gun,” he pleaded. “Ya can’t just leave me here.”

Bret shook his head and sighed in regret. “I can’t, not until the boss says so, ya know how he is. Besides, Jason‘s back with the gun so we have plenty of gun power.”

“That backstabber? You watch your back,” Boone warned.

“What’s taking you so long?” Harrison bellowed impatiently.

“Sorry, amigo, but I have to do this,” Bret stated sadly as he placed the gag back over Boone’s mouth. He stood up and walked over to where their boss was waiting and handed him the note.

Harrison quickly opened the piece of paper and an indescribable look of pure evil grew on his face as he read Johnny’s goading letter.

Howdy Bulldog, you son-of-a-bitch!

I hear you’re looking for me?  What’s the matter, can’t you face me one on one, you coward? Are you so low that have to use my old man to get to me? Well, you made it personal and you know how mad that makes me. No one messes with my family and gets away with it. Since you no longer have Murdoch to use as your pawn, if you want us, then you’ll have to come and get us. You can find me and my father at Lancer. You know the place, where Day drew his last rotten breath.  See you there.  

Johnny Madrid Lancer.

Harrison’s face turned bright red, his nostrils flared and his lips tighten in a flat line, while he crumpled the note in his hand, squeezing the wadded up paper until his knuckles turned white.

“Boss, what does it say?” Jason asked cautiously, knowing better than to provoked his boss when he was this mad.

“We ride to Lancer,” Harrison angrily rasped as bile rose up his throat caused by Johnny’s words turning his stomach sour.

“Lancer? But Boss, that’s where they killed Pardee. I hear tell it’s like a fortress and they have more men then we do,” Jason blurted out, letting his fear take over his thinking. “How can we…” his complaint ended at the hard cold look he received from Bulldog.

“Stop your whimpering, you damn fool,” Harrison snarled. “They may have more men than we do, but do they have a Gatling gun? I’d like to see how they can stand up to that? Now let’s get going, times a wasting and I have a personal score to settle with one smart mouthed gunfighter!” 

“What about Boone, boss?” Bret asked.

“Kill him, he’s of no use to me now,” Harrison answered heartlessly.

“But boss, we can use his gun,” Bret pleaded desperately for his friend’s life.

“What did I just tell you about the Gatling gun? Kill him, we don’t need him,” Bulldog ordered as he signaled for his men to move forward, on towards Lancer.

Not having the guts or heart to do the deed himself, Bret motioned to one of the men to do it as he rode off after his leader. When he heard the rifle boom, his heart stopped for a brief moment as remorse filled his soul, wishing he had been able to stop the execution. 

“See ya, buddy,” he sadly whispered and rode on, not looking back.

From his lookout post in the trees, Miles shook his head in disbelief at the cruelty Harrison displayed towards his men. Once the coast was clear, he stepped out from his hiding spot and walked over to Boone’s bloody lifeless body and untied him. He dragged Boone over to a tree and gently laid him down and covered him up with a bedroll blanket. Miles’ first priority was to inform Val of what occurred, and then send a wagon out to claim Boone’s body for a proper burial. 

Miles quickly mounted up and before he headed for town, he looked towards the cloud of dust made by the outlaws, traveling away from Green River. He was grateful that his town had been spared for now but he was greatly concerned for the Lancers. He could only imagine what the battle would be like.

********

There was no calm before the coming storm at Lancer.  There was no time for anything but preparation and a few whispered prayers as every able body busied themselves with the task of fortifying their line of defense.  The tension was thick and palpable especially for those who remembered the last battle for Lancer. Inside the main house, Jack and the Lancers were making sure all the windows were boarded up and the side doors secured.

“Well, everything is secured upstairs, sir,” Scott informed his father as he came marching downstairs after checking all the bedrooms.

“And so is the rest of the house, Murdoch,” Johnny added as he entered and poured himself a glass of whiskey to help take the edge off his nerves.

“Go easy on that stuff, Johnny, we need to stay alert, not to mention we may need all of it we can get for later,” Murdoch cautioned. Grimacing, he stated, “Well, now all we can do is wait and pray that this battle won’t be as bad as the last.

“Murdoch, he has a Gatling gun, this will be worse than the last time,” Johnny declared as he gulp the last of his drink. 

“Well that’s certainly looking on the bleak side of things, brother,” Scott quipped little un-nerved. 

“Sorry brother, but right now that’s all I can think about,” Johnny replied. “You’ve seen what that thing can do. We do have a better chance fighting it here, rather than in town but it’s only a slight one.” 

“Well, maybe that slight chance is all we need,” Murdoch commented. He looked around at the boarded up windows and longed to see the view of fields and sunlight now being blocked out. He offered a weak smile to Jelly as he paced about rubbing his trouble forecasting elbows.

“I’m beginning to agree with John’s point of view; they should have hung the murderer to begin with and be done with it,” Jack exclaimed. “As a doctor, I’m supposed to save lives, not condone the taking of them but I have no feelings of remorse or sympathy for men like this Harrison. Where’s justice when you need it the most?” 

“Well, Jack, that’s why they hire guns, like me, to take care of men who manage to escape justice,” Johnny stated. “What the law can’t or won’t do, we take care of it. You see it’s a vicious game some gunfighters play, if they don’t have anybody to care about but themselves,” Johnny admitted.

“Unlike you?” Jack inquired softy.

“Yeah, unlike me…and it’s eating me up inside, knowing because of me, my whole family is in jeopardy,” Johnny confessed as he walked over to the window and peered out the small peep hole, scanning the grounds. “But as I said, we do have a better chance here, than in town. That big gun would make mince meat out the buildings and the people there.” 

“It’s a hard choice to make I know but it’s a necessary one, son,” Murdoch proclaimed as he walked over and placed a reassuring hand on his brooding boy’s shoulder. “Now, we’ll just have to do our best to win this fight, no matter what it takes.”

Scott joined his father and brother by the window, each looking through an open space that had been left to aim guns through, as the sun started to set over the valley. “Remember, we’re Lancers and we don’t go down after the first punch! We get back up and keep on fighting until it’s over,” he proudly added, giving his brother a confident smile.

Johnny smiled back and sighed, “You did some boxing, huh?”

“A little in my Harvard days, it comes in handy when you’re defending a lady’s honor,” Scott smirked. “Not to mention, when the other man is a tad bigger then you.” 

“I bet the *lady* was so grateful that she threw her arms around you and laid a big kiss right here,” Johnny teased pressing his finger to Scott’s lips.

“Well, you could say that,” Scott winked. “Don’t worry, brother, we’ll get through this.”

“I guess with all the positive thinking, we had better win,” Johnny vowed.

“That‘s that the spirit, brother,” the blond grinned and ruffled Johnny’s dark hair.

“Well, they should have found the message we left for them by now. And I can assure you, he’ll be coming here,” Johnny stated. “I kind of left him an invitation he can’t refuse.”

 

Chapter Eighteen

The view from the south mesa, above the valley where the Lancer hacienda sat, was a picturesque vista.  The large building gleamed white against the verdant green backdrop.  It was a deceptively tranquil scene and it hid the defensive preparations that had gone into fortifying the ranch for the battle Johnny predicted was coming their way. 

The copper sun was descending towards the mountain peaks, the light waning on a weary day when Harrison and his horde arrived. They pulled up on the rise that overlooked Lancer and sat observing the ranch as they waited for the Gatling gun slowly approaching from the rear position.  Harrison dismounted and walked over to a tree and gazed out, unaware that he was standing in the same spot Day had before he led the disastrous attack on the hacienda. His nephew had died on this very ground after a premature charge down the hillside provoked by Johnny’s confession about his true identity. 

The bandit’s eyes narrowed and filled with envy and hatred as he stood holding the crumpled note, Johnny had left for him, in his hand.  He held it up and snarled out a threat. “I’m here you son-of-a-bitch and there’s no getting away from me this time,” he vowed stuffing the piece of paper in his pocket, thinking perhaps later he might shove it down Johnny’s throat.  Bitterness welled in his soul at the rich bounty around him…the thought that Madrid was heir to all this made him loath him more. In his twisted mind, Madrid had to die for things to be put right. Bulldog promised himself he would succeed where his nephew failed and take over Lancer for his own.

“So this is the land Day wanted so bad,” Harrison snorted contemptuously.  “I have to admit, I can see why.  Maybe when I destroy Lancer and kill Madrid, I’ll make this my new home,” he grinned wickedly.

“If you can get close enough, boss this place is a fortress,” Bret warned.

“It don’t look that hard to take,” Harrison stated smugly.

“Yeah, I guess Day thought so too and look what happened to him,” Bret retorted.

“And like I said before, my nephew didn’t have what I have,” Harrison angrily pointed out as he looked over at the fully armed Gatling gun. “So I’d say the odds are in my favor right now.” 

‘Well, we’ll see about that,’ Bret thought to himself.  He still had his doubts about this whole thing. Now that he had a good idea of what they were up against, his worry increased. “Now what do we do, storm the place?” 

Harrison took off his hat, and then wiped the sweat off his brow as he pondered for a moment. “No, not just yet, let them sweat awhile. Besides, I’ve been thinking,” he murmured.

“About what, Boss?” Jason asked as he joined them.

“Well, I was thinking it would swing the odds more to our favor if we had another ace up our sleeve, so to speak.” 

“Like what?” Bret questioned, a little annoyed with all this asking and getting no answers.

“Well, I bet there are women in that house, right? And I bet that they would do anything to get them back if they somehow got themselves captured,” Harrison explained.  “If Madrid didn’t think his old man was worth giving himself up for, then maybe he’ll do it for his women folk.” 

“Do you mind telling me how you expect to get at them with the house so well guarded?” Bret bravely demanded in his boss’s face, and then stood his ground when Harrison raised his balled up fist as if he was going to clobber him one.

Instead, Bulldog sneered at Bret and growled, “Use your brain, we create a diversion so big that when they come out of the house to investigate, you sneak in and grabbed the women. Then you hightail it out of there before they get back. That‘s how we do it!” 

Bret studied his boss and the determined and demonic expression on his scarred face.  For the first time since he joined this gang a cold shiver ran down his spine.  He had never seen firsthand what this mad man could do to innocent young girls but he had heard about it and he began to fear for whoever was in the house once Harrison got his hands on them.  Though his own unsavory background was nothing to be proud of, he had never hurt females, young or old.

Swallowing back the words he wanted to say… that he knew would get him killed, Bret nervously asked, “What are ya going to do with them, I mean the women folk?” 

“Well, if and when we take them, we use them as bait. We send Madrid and his old man a message they can‘t ignore,” he grinned. “And if I feel the need for soft, sweet smelling female company well….” he paused as images of lustful pleasure inundated his twisted mind.

“Tarnish the goods and they might not want them back,” Jason blurted without thinking and received a deadly glare from Harrison. “I mean, boss, you know how some men get, if their women folk are…well… ya know, they ain’t so pure to them anymore,” he tried to reason to his leader. “If ya want Madrid, you’ll have to give him something worthwhile to trade for.” 

“I agree with Jason, boss,” Bret spoke up.

“You ain’t turning yellow are ya?” Harrison snorted as he glared at his two top men.

“No, boss, just being reasonable and cautious, that’s all,” Bret replied. 

“Well, you do have a point there,” the frowning leader admitted hesitantly when he thought about it, it did make sense.  “It will be dark soon, so I suggest we get closer in and make camp and look for something we can use as a diversion. We’ll strike when it’s dark, when they least expect it. Get the men ready!’

Bret nodded and left to round up the men and get ready for their ride down into the valley, as Harrison took in the fading surroundings and smiled wickedly. If he played his cards right, this could all be his in a few days or sooner.   He could have his own personal fortress, to continue his quest for power and domination… no more would he have to go from town to town, raping and murdering, taking what he needed or wanted, when he had it all right here.

********

Teresa sat, frustrated and disappointed, as she watched the Lancers, along with Jelly and Jack, fiddle and pick at their food. She and Maria had gone out of their way to prepare a hardy meal, with all of their favorites and yet barely a third of it had been touch. The young girl knew that this was not a joyous occasion but she had hoped they would enjoy a good meal and each other’s company. The deadly quiet and irritating sound of forks tapping the china was enough to send her up the wall.

“That’s enough!” she abruptly snapped and slammed her hand down on the table. The force of the blow caused the china plates to rattle and pulled the men out of their preoccupied dazes. “Maria and I slaved over a hot stove just to make these dishes for you and this is the thanks we get?”

“I’m sorry, honey.  I guess our minds are on others things,” Murdoch apologized to his ward.

“I know but at least you could try to eat something to help keep your strength up. You can’t fight on an empty stomach…I mean… you,” she flustered to a halt.

“We know what you mean, Teresa. We’re just not that hungry but everything looks delicious,” Johnny stated softly. “Besides, I’ve fought many times on an empty stomach, it helps to keep you from getting sick from the smell of death all around you,” he added grimly as he reflected on his days in the Mexican war.

“Johnny, not at the dinner table,” his father admonished, shaking his head. “We’re not at war, at least not like that and this is not a battle field.”

“Isn’t it?” Johnny disagreed and waved his hand about the room. “Take a look around you, Murdoch, we have all the windows boarded up, guards posted all around the house. We’re shut up in here just waiting for the first shot to be fired,” he grumbled as he took a sip of milk. “And it’s too quiet for my liking,” he added, swiping his mouth with his sleeve.

“I agree with Johnny, it‘s a little unsettling if you ask me,” Scott observed. “Something is brewing out there and it has me worried,” the blond Lancer stated as he nervously twirled with his fork.

‘Yeah… me too,’ Murdoch thought to himself.  He didn’t want to admit it but he was plenty troubled by the unnatural stillness outside.

“That‘s why, I fer one, sure feel safer here in the house than out there,” Jelly snorted. “And I think Teresa is right, we should fill our bellies, cause’ ya never know when we’ll get another chance,” he added and took a healthy bite of potatoes.” 

“I assure you we will have plenty of times to enjoy a good meal, Jelly,” Murdoch declared.  “I also agree, we can’t let this splendid meal, Teresa and Maria prepared for us, go to waste. So I suggest we try to make the best of this night, unsettling or not.”

“Here, here!” Jack said raising his glass. “As the doctor of the house, I prescribe a delicious meal and a nice glass of brandy. Like the lady said, we need to keep up our strength,” Jack announced, and then he gave Teresa a wink.

“Thank you, Jack,” Teresa nodded and smiled at the doctor. “You heard the man, now eat up please, at least some of it,” she pleaded flashing her big brown eyes like a sad puppy.

Murdoch and Jack chuckled, while the boys rolled their blues eyes at their foster sister’s pathetic expression. They tried to muster up an appetite to please her, for fear they would never hear the end of it.

The quiet moment was shattered as the air filled with the frantic sounds of men shouting outside and the ringing of the fire bell. Shaken by the abrupt ruckus, the men darted out of their chairs and bolted for the door where they had their gun belts hanging.

“I told ya it was to quiet out there,” Johnny snarled as he reached for his gun belt and quickly placed it around his slim hips. “I can’t believe he would try something at night, it’s not his style.” 

“Make up your mind, brother, either you wanted it to start or not,” Scott stated.

“You know what I mean, Scott!” Johnny retorted curtly. 

“Jelly, you stay in here with Teresa and keep an eye out for anything suspicious,” Murdoch ordered.

“You have no argument on that, boss,” Jelly answered back and threw his arm around Teresa’s trembling shoulders.

Once geared up, they dashed outside to see what the fracas was all about. To their horror, they found the large barn where they stored the hay was on fire. Men were frantically running about with water buckets.

The heat from the burning building was intense as the flames grew higher, lighting up the sky with a hot yellow glow. Each man, including the Lancers and Jack ran back and forth throwing buckets of water on the walls and hay bales that surrounded the barn.  They were praying that they could save the building but knew it just might be futile.

“Can you see what’s going on out there, Jelly?” Teresa asked.

Jelly opened the door a crack and peered out, his heart sank and he sighed in dismay. “Yeah, honey, somebody has done gone and set the big barn on fire. It looks like they got a fight on their hands too,” he said, shaking his head as he walked away from the door, paying no mind to the fact that it didn’t quite close all the way when he pushed it shut.

“Well, come on and help me clear the table, dinner is ruined and there’s nothing we can do out there,” Teresa said as she turned and walked over to the table. “I just pray that nobody gets hurt or killed while trying to put it out.”

Hidden within the shadows of the large pillars outside, Bret and a couple more of Harrison’s men lurked, just waiting for the right opportunity to make their move. So far their tactics were working, it didn’t take much to set the barn on fire and for the Lancer’s to come barreling out of the house. Bret hoped that his boss was watching and ready to help when they obtained their objective. Satisfied that all the men folk were busy with the barn, he motioned the all clear to his men and staying low as possible they crept along the porch until they reach the slightly ajar front door. They slowly opened it.

Bret and the three men hid inside the foyer, scanning the Great room for the women folk. They noticed Teresa and Jelly with their backs towards them. Just as they were going to move in, Maria appeared to help gather up the dishes and they quickly hid behind the foyer walls. When Maria turned her back towards the kidnappers, Bret hand signaled one of the men to get ready to sneak up and knock Jelly out, while he and the other two grabbed the girls.

‘On the count of three,” he whispered and the men nodded. “Okay, here goes, one, two, three go!”

In the blink of an eye the shortest of the four quickly darted out and clobbered Jelly over the head with the butt of his gun. The old handy man didn’t have a chance to even grunt as he fell instantly to the ground with a hard thud, his hand knocked over a cup on the table as he dropped. Startled by the sudden noise, Teresa and Maria turned around and were about to scream when they were seized and gagged by Bret and the others. However, Teresa wasn’t going without a fight and began kicking and squirming so much that it was trying Bret’s patience as he fought to get her under control. He didn’t have time to fuss with this girl.

“She’s not going to quite down, Bret,” Mac stated as he glanced around the room, with his gun drawn. “Hey a doctor’s bag,” he pointed out and hurried over to Jack’s medical bag and found a bottle of chloroform inside. “This should do the job,” he boasted and poured a little on his bandana, and then handed it to Bret.

“I didn’t want to do this, but it’s for your own good, missy,” Bret whispered in her ear, as he placed the bandana over her mouth and within seconds Teresa went limp in his arms. He picked her up and threw her over his shoulders. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

“What about him?” Mac said, pointing to Jelly.

“He’ll keep, you hit him pretty hard there, Mac. Now let’s get, the boss is waiting.”

Not bothering to look back, Bret and the men quietly left, closing the door behind them. They backtracked until they managed to disappear unseen into the darkness, taking with them two innocent women to deliver them right into the hands of Bulldog.

 

Chapter Nineteen

The flames from the burning hay barn rose like undulating dancers into a sky rapidly darkening due to night and billowing clouds of black smoke. Around the blazing structure the intense heat and brightness stung the eyes of the men battling the inferno, hindered by those conditions and the lengthening shadows of evening they were oblivious to the arrival and departure of Bret and the others as they slipped in and out of the hacienda, and then disappeared into the darkness with their hostages.

The horrific scene grew more intense and out of control. The roar of the fire grew louder and was joined by the sound of wood cracking and popping as beams fell. The men fought valiantly but it was useless, no matter that they did, it wasn’t enough to save the burning building as the walls began to collapse under the weight of the roof.

"LET IT GO, WE CAN’T SAVE IT, IT’S TOO FAR GONE!" Murdoch bellowed as he and sons watched the barn being engulfed in flames. They all backed away from the fire, their sooty and sweaty faces looking defeated in the glow of the flames as the walls caved in and the roof crashed down. "We can rebuild later, at least the damage was contained to this one structure and nobody was hurt," Murdoch stated, as he wet his handkerchief and wiped his stinging eyes.

"It seems that Harrison is using Pardee’s tactics, or vice versa," Scott snorted as he took out his bandana and wiped the sweat and soot off his face. "I don’t understand his strategy, if he wanted Johnny why would he go through the trouble of burn down a barn at night? It doesn’t make sense. What do you think, Johnny?" Scott asked as turned to face his brother who had an indescribable look on his smudged face, "Johnny?"

Scott’s question didn’t register in Johnny’s preoccupied mind, the young Lancer stood there as if frozen in place, unable to move a muscle as his heart pounded frantically. It was apparent that whatever he was thinking had render his speechless, until he finally croaked out in a shaky voice, "God… no."

"Johnny what is it?" Murdoch demanded anxiously as he moved towards his son.

Johnny took one look at his father, and then slowly turned his eyes towards the house, "NO!" he shouted as he forced his legs to move. He ran as fast as he could, slamming open the huge front door. "TERESA, MARIA, JELLY!" he screamed rushing into the Great room. The sight of Jelly crumpled on the floor unconscious and in a small pool of blood abruptly stopped his frenzied flight. He dropped weakly down next to his friend. "Jelly, oh Jelly," he whispered fearfully as he carefully turned the old man over putting his ear to Jelly‘s chest. "Oh, thank God," he sighed in relief upon hearing Jelly’s heartbeat. "MURDOCH," he called loudly for his father.

"Johnny, what‘s wrong?" his father asked as he entered the room, stopping short at seeing Jelly’s condition. "JACK, WE NEED YOU!" Murdoch shouted out to the doctor. "What happened here?" he questioned as he approached Johnny and Jelly.

"Right behind you Murdoch," Jack breathlessly announced as he ran into the house and stood beside the tall rancher. "Oh for the love of…we need to get Jelly over to the couch so I can take a closer look at him. Careful with him, it looks like he took a nasty blow to the head." he cautioned as Johnny grabbed a cloth napkin off the table and placed it under Jelly’s head, and then he and Scott lifted their old friend off the floor and carried him over to the couch.

"I repeat myself, what happened here?" Murdoch growled impatiently. "And where is Teresa?" he demanded as he desperately scanned the room looking for his ward.

"He was ambushed, that’s what happened and she’s not here, Murdoch! I can guarantee you that," Johnny snarled.

"What do you mean she’s not here?" his father questioned, his eyes dilating in alarm.

"Scott, go upstairs and see if she up there hiding somewhere," Murdoch ordered anxiously. "Johnny you check the pantry and kitchen."

"I’m on it!’ Scott replied and dashed upstairs calling Teresa’s name as he went.

"I’m telling you she’s not here…and," all of a sudden a look of horror transformed Johnny’s face, "Maria, no…" Johnny croaked out. He took off for the kitchen, shouting for his beloved housekeeper. "Maria, Maria, where are you?" he called out, entering the kitchen. Finding no sign of her, he flung open the cellar door and peered down into the darkness, "Maria, Teresa?" His calls went unanswered.

Moments later, Scott came barreling down the staircase, taking two steps at a time, "She’s…not up there, I checked …every room." he informed his father, a little winded.

"DAMN, DAMN!" Johnny shouted angrily as he came out of the kitchen, taking his frustration out on a chair by kicking it. He stopped and leaned against the wall and closed his weary eyes and muttered, "They got them both. They used the barn as a diversion to get at the girls and we fell for it."

"They took Maria too?" Murdoch groaned. "My God, are you sure?"

"Yes, I‘m sure," Johnny replied in despair and walked over to the couch where Jack had finished his examination of Jelly and was covering up the old handy man with a blanket. "How is he?" he softly asked as he looked down at his old friend.

"He’ll be okay. They conked him pretty good and he has a deep gash on the back of his head. We’ll have to keep cold compresses on his head to take the swelling down and keep a close eye on him. But I don‘t foresee any complications other than a bad head ache when he wakes up," Jack bluntly informed them. He added, "From the angle of the blow, I don’t think he saw it coming."

"Well that figures," Johnny grumbled. "So, now what? They have the girls to use as they wish," he shuddered thinking about it.

"Don’t even think that young man," Murdoch scowled in disgust, just the thought the girls in that mad man’s clutches scared the hell out of him.

"Sorry, Murdoch, I didn’t mean to make it sound like that. It’s just now that they have the girls, they will use them to their advantage," Johnny grimly stated the hard facts. "He wants me and no doubt you and he will do anything to draw us out of this house and into the open."

Just as Murdoch was about to address his son‘s bleak words, the rapid fire blast of a Gatling gun rent the night air. Bullets riddled the ground in front the house. The artillery stopped for a few seconds, and then the deadly message was repeated, forcing all everyone inside and out to hit the floor or take cover to avoid being hit. Johnny threw himself at his father, using his powerful legs to push the larger man to the ground. Scott quickly took shelter behind the couch and helped Jack shield Jelly. Suddenly the firing stopped and there was an eerie silence.

"MADRID, LANCER! I HAVE BOTH YOUR LADIES AND IF YOU WANT TO SEE THEM ALIVE AGAIN, YOU’LL DO AS I SAY!" Harrison shouted to the house. "PLUS, I HAVE A GUN THAT WILL RIP YOU AND YOUR MEN APART, IF YOU DON’T DO AS I SAY."

"He won’t give up, not until he gets what he wants," Johnny whispered in his father’s ear.
"I know!" Murdoch growled, as he struggled up from the floor and walked over to the boarded up window. "WHAT IS IT YOU WANT?"

"SIMPLE, I WANT MADRID, YOU, AND THIS LAND!" Harrison answered manically.
"AND WHATS MAKE YOU THINK I’LL GIVE YOU MY LANDOR MY SON?" Murdoch shouted boldly.

All the men inside the house anxiously listened for an answer, but what they heard was a horrifying scream from Maria. The sound of it echoed across the yard and into the house and sent an indescribable chill down their spines. Johnny leaped up from his squatting position and attempted to make a mad dash for the door, letting his heart over rule his common sense. The only thing that stopped him was his father’s strong arms grabbed him and pulled him back.

"Let me go," Johnny angrily mumbled as he fought his father’s tight grip. "I have to get to Maria!"

"NO! Don’t you see this is just what he wants you to do, so he can gun you down the minute you step out of the house?" Murdoch stressed to his stubborn son.

"Johnny, calm down, we have to be careful how we play this. He’s already hurt Jelly and God knows what he’ll to the girls if we go charging in there," Scott pointed out as he stood up from behind the couch and walked over to his fretting brother.

"Don’t you think I know that?" Johnny snorted pig-headedly as his father let go of him.

"I’m sorry, but Maria’s scream I…I…just want this to be over with," the youngest Lancer muttered as he flopped down on the chair and buried his face in his hands.

"We all do son, we all do, and it just got started," Murdoch replied.
 
Jack got up after making sure Jelly was okay and strolled over to where Murdoch and Scott were standing. "Is Johnny going to be okay? I hate to see him like that," he stated in great concern.

"He’ll be alright. Johnny is a rock when it comes to matters like this. The girls being kidnapped, right from under our noses, has him a little unsettled," Scott quietly explained to Jack. "Teresa is a like sister to us and Maria is more of a mother to Johnny than a housekeeper."

"I see. I can understand what he is going through," Jack uttered softly.

"LANCER, DID YOU HEAR ME?" Harrison shouted out, with an evil laugh, which had the men’s skin crawling. "WELL, IF YA DON’T DO AS I SAY YOU’LL HEAR MORE OF THAT. I’LL GIVE YOU A DAY TO THINK IT OVER, EITHER YOU GIVE UP AND HAND THIS LAND OVER TO ME, OR THESE LADIES WILL DIE AND I WILL DESTROY EVERYTHING AROUND YOU. I ALREADY STARTED WITH THE BARN!" Harrison gleefully pointed out, and then he added, "SWEET DREAMS"

"How are we going to fight this, Murdoch?" Jack questioned.

"I’ll tell you one thing we can’t do and that’s use the cannon, not with the girls out there somewhere," Scott stated.

"He’s right, that bastard could have the girls hidden anywhere. We’re liable to kill them ourselves with just one stray shot if he has them close to the house. He’s ain’t no fool," Johnny hissed. "That’s why I’m going out before first light and look for them," he boldly declared, much to his father’s dismay.

"Like hell you are," Murdoch admonished. "What if he happens to capture you too, then what?" Murdoch asked glaring at his brooding son. "No, Johnny, I can’t let you take that chance!"

"Murdoch’s right, we have to be sensible about this," Scott agreed.

"Murdoch, Scott, it’s a chance I have to take. I’ve done it before," Johnny argued.

"Yes and you also took a bullet to the leg, Johnny," Scott reminded him. "Why do you always have to be the one to play hero? Let a couple of our men chance it," he suggested selfishly because he hated to see his brother putting himself in harm’s way like this.

"Listen to me, somebody has to go out there and rescue the girls. I‘m the best bet, you know that," Johnny maintained. "It’s the only way to get the girls away from him, so we can use the cannon if need be. You know damn well even if we surrender, which will never happen, he‘ll still do whatever he wants to them and kills us too."

Against his better judgment, Murdoch bowed his head and firmly ordered, "Alright, but I want you to be as careful as can be. Take one of the men with you for back up this time. Do you understand me, young man?"

"Yeah, I understand, haven’t I always been careful?" Johnny replied. "I’ll take Cip with me. He won’t let those bastards harm Teresa or his Maria."

"John, take this," Jack stated, handing Johnny a small bottle of chloroform from his medical bag, "Just in case you need to take somebody out quietly."

"What’s wrong with the butt of my gun, Jack?" Johnny asked with a cocky grin.

"I said quietly, John," Jack shook his head, "With men like these you have to be as cautious as possible."

"I know, Jack, I was just joshing," Johnny confessed.

"Now that we have that settled, I suggest we try and get some rest, it‘s going to be a long night," Murdoch proclaimed. "Johnny, since you will being going out there soon, I suggest you get some sleep. I’ll take first watch."

"No, no, I couldn’t sleep even if I tried. I’ll take first watch, Murdoch. Besides you need the rest more than I do. You need to take care of that arm of yours," Johnny retorted and pointed to his father bandaged arm.

"He’s right sir, you need to take it easy," Scott agreed with his brother. "By the looks of it, you aggravated it while fighting the fire."

"I’ll take it easy when this whole ordeal is over with," Murdoch declared. "But to make my sons happy, I’ll just sit over there in my chair and close my eyes for a while," he huffed, admitting to himself that he indeed needed to sit down, because his arm was throbbing and he was feeling drained from this whole situation.

Scott followed his father’s example. He walked over to a comfortable chair and flopped down with his rifle by his side, loaded and ready to use. Jack resumed his place by Jelly, taking a cold compress and placing it under the old handy man’s head. Johnny stood there, smiling sadly as he gazed at his family and friends. He took a spot by the boarded up window and peered out the small hole, watching and silently saying a prayer to the Holy Mother that his family and home would be spared.

********

Huddled next to a tree a good distance from the main house, Maria sat with her legs and wrists tied in front of her. Teresa’s head was resting on the housekeeper’s lap. Since her fingers weren’t bound, Maria gently ran them through Teresa’s hair while softly speaking in Spanish, urging the sleeping girl to wake up. The old woman’s heart constricted in terror for the few seconds the Gatling gun riddled the ground and walls full of bullets. She prayed that her niño and his family would not be hurt or killed.

"Wake up, chica, you have been asleep too long," she softly whispered in Teresa’s ear.

"She’ll wake up soon, don’t worry old woman," Bret spoke from where he was crouched down and staring at the two. "I didn’t give her that much stuff, just enough to settled her down."

"Why do you do this, Senor? Why do you take innocent women like this and tie us up, like we‘re animals?" Maria questioned, her voice filled with confusion.

"For leverage, to get your boss to listen to reason," Bret quietly answered, "Either he turns over Madrid and the ranch to my boss or they will die."

Maria‘s eyes narrowed and her anger flared, "That does not make sense, Senor. I know men like your boss, he will not honor his word and let them live," she snarled at the stunned man. "Senor Lancer knows this. Therefore he will not give up his land or his son!"

"You’re a feisty one, aren’t ya?" Bret said laughing at Maria’s spunk. "Well, we’ll see about that!" In a split second his smile turned to a concerned frown when he saw the heartbreaking look of despair on the woman’s face. He looked down at Teresa’s young face, she kind of reminded him of his kid sister. He added, "Don’t you worry, ma’am. I will do my best to see that no harm comes to you or the girl. There’s one thing about me you should know and that is I don’t cotton to hurting women or children, no matter who they are," he stated and nodded to Maria.

 

Chapter Twenty

Bret’s empty words of assurance in no way comforted Maria; after all he was the man who had taken them from the safety of their home. The only solace she had in this situation was the knowledge that Cipriano and the Lancers would stop at nothing to find them. She had to hold on to that hope, it was the only way she could stay strong for herself and Teresa. Maria nervously stroked a trembling hand over Teresa’s head, occasionally glancing up at the full moon, praying to the heavens for deliverance. She was startled, yet gladdened by a slight moan coming from Teresa as she was awakening from her drug induced slumber. Teresa was shivering and struggling to push herself off the cold ground with her bound hands.

Noticing that the women were beginning to quiver from the cool night air, Bret grabbed his blanket and threw it over them, and then buttoned up his own coat to ward off the chill. Though he hated it, on orders from Harrison, there was to be no camp fire going at night because it could easily give away their location, just in case somebody should be brave enough to try a rescue attempt. They only had the light of the moon and a lantern dimmed down low to help them to see.

Bret continued watching over the girls as the other man slept on the opposite end of the camp. He was getting very annoyed with Teresa’s continuous staring. “What are you staring at, missy?” Bret snarled. 

“You,” Teresa muttered, as she huddled closer to Maria.

“What’s so interesting about me?”

“The fact that you’re so low and mean that you would even think about kidnapping innocent women and keeping them out here in the cold like this, without a fire to keep us warm!” Teresa angrily answered back. “Why?”

“Cause’ I have my orders and no one dares to defy the boss and lives to tell about it,” Bret huffed defiantly.

“If you do not like this man, then why don’t you leave, senor?” Maria asked in a low tone of voice, making sure the other man didn’t over hear her.

“Ma’am, the only way anyone leaves, is if you’re dead,” Bret snorted. “It’s just the way it is. The boss don’t cotton to deserters.”

“Well that’s your choice but do you have to keep us tied up like this?” Teresa whined. “My wrists are beginning to hurt from the rope.” 

“Sorry, Miss, but I can’t take the chance of you running off if I happen to doze off,” Bret stated regretfully. He took out his bandana and walked over to the girls and gently took a hold of Teresa’s bound hands and loosened the ropes some. He carefully tucked the bandana in between the rope and her wrist for padding. “There, how does that feel?” he asked softly.

“Better,” Teresa sniffed. “Thank you.” 

“Do you both want some water?”

Teresa shook her head no and nestled closer to Maria. Tears welled in her eyes and spilled out to trickle down her cheeks when she closed her eyes, stating sorrowfully, “No, all I want is to go home.”

“Well, if the boss has his way, there might not be a home left to go to,” Bret stuttered out. “But like I said before I’ll do my best to see that no harm comes to you both. I can’t say the same for the rest of your family. It’s not in my control, only the fates can decide that.” 

The slight hint of remorse in the man’s voice made Teresa open her eyes and study the man before her. She thought he might be in his late thirties and not all that bad looking, despite his dirty clothes and handle bar mustache that overlapped his upper lip.

“Why did you join this gang anyway?”

“Because at the time it was the only work I could find, when I came up from Texas,” Bret confided.  “Somebody told me about this tough hombre looking for men to work for him.”

“You knew what kind of man he was and you still joined?” Teresa asked with confusion. “What he does to innocent people, doesn’t that bother you?” 

“Ma’am, I’m no saint, either. I have done many a terrible thing in my day, some I regret, some I don’t.  Good paying jobs don’t just come to folks like us. So we do what we can to survive, to eat,” Bret confessed.  “But to answer your question, I don’t care for everything he does and I try not to get involved in all of it, if I can help it,” he admitted, hanging his head.

“So you stand by and watch as they destroy families and homes?” Teresa snapped angrily. “You can always redeem yourself and help us now. Let us go and try to help my family somehow. Maybe they will go easy on you, if you do. My family will see to that,” she pleaded.

“No, Miss, I’m beyond help. They’ll throw the book at me and I’ll rot in jail and that is one thing I vowed I’d never do. I rather die than go to prison,” Bret declared.

“You could ride off and never look back,” Teresa suggested, playing on the man’s conscience. “I’ll make sure they’ll let you go.”

“No, ma’am, it will never work. Now please get some rest it’s going to be a long night.” 

Teresa shook her head in defeat and resumed her comfortable spot next to Maria, who managed despite her bound hands to wrap the blanket tighter around them. Before she closed her eyes again, Teresa looked over at the brooding outlaw and whispered, “Think about it!”

********

After completing his nightly rounds, making sure that everything was well secured, Val hurried back to the jail and flopped down in his rickety old chair for the night.  He knew there was no way he was going to get any decent shut eye this particular night. No matter how hard he tried to clear his mind of the harrowing images that invaded his waking thoughts, Val was afraid to close his eyes knowing they would morph into nightmares.

This whole sordid situation had the lawman torn between two loyalties; the responsibilities as a sheriff to protect this town and his friendship with the Lancers. The indecision of it was eating at his innards, twisting his stomach into knots. He just couldn’t sit back and do nothing. He had made his choice and sent a wire off to Spanish Wells, asking Gabe if he could round up a few good men to help him. Val had then given Clem clear instructions that he would be in charge of the town when Gabe and his men arrived. He would take Gabe and a few men with him and ride to Lancer. The rest of them would stay with Clem to help keep order in his absence. It was the only possible way to do this without leaving his own town unprotected just in case they tried to retreat from Lancer back to town.

Val got up and walked over to the window and peered up at the moon.  He smiled as he remembered the old tales he had heard of how magical it can be. He made a silent wish it would bestow some of that magic on Lancer to aid in their fight until he could get there with reinforcements.

“Hang on, buddy, I’m coming as soon as I can,” Val vowed.

********

Johnny stood staring out into the darkness, lost in his own deep thoughts when Scott cautiously approached his brother, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. Expecting Johnny to react to his appearance with his cat like reflexes, Scott became worried when his brother didn’t flinch a single muscle or bat an eye. 

“Penny for your thoughts, brother,” Scott quietly asked.

“Brother, a penny would never cover my thoughts,” Johnny answered sullenly, still looking out the small hole. “Is it time?”

“Yes, I have Cipriano waiting for you in the kitchen and Johnny please be careful,” Scott urged, while he watched his brother grab his gun belt and hat. “Are you sure you’re alright? I mean you haven’t slept a wink. You look drained and it worries me,” he frowned at the fatigued and pale expression Johnny was sporting.  

“I’m fine, Scott, being tired is the least of my worries right now. It’s getting the girls away from that bastard that has me concerned,” Johnny admitted. “I just hope I can find them before first light. He could have them anywhere on the ranch by now.”

“Well, just take it slow and cautious, we don’t need anything happening to you or Cip.”

“Don‘t fret about it, brother, you’re forgetting what I was, or am,” Johnny assured with a crooked grin.  “Just watch for us and keep a guard by the kitchen door. I’ll be bringing the girls in that way and right down to the root cellar for safe keeping.” 

“Will do, brother, now you better get going, you don’t have much time,” Scott replied, as he and Johnny quietly walked by their sleeping father, who was stretched out in the chair by the fireplace with his long legs resting on the foot stool.

“Whatever you do, keep our old man inside the house. We don’t need to give Bulldog an easy target,” Johnny demanded, and then looked over at the couch at Jelly’s supine form and inquired sadly, “How’s Jelly?” 

“Jack said he came around for a few seconds then dozed back off.  Jack is watching him carefully,” Scott stated. “Don’t worry, he’ll be okay.”

“That’s good. I don’t want anything else happen to that old coot,” Johnny expressed. “Well, wish us luck,” he said as he turned and gave his brother a tap on the arm, and then took off for the kitchen where Cipriano was waiting.

“Good luck, brother. I haven‘t forgotten you were a gunfighter. You’ll find the girls, of that I have no doubt, just don’t forget who you are, my little brother, you better tell Madrid to take care of him,” Scott called after Johnny.  The blond walked back to the window and took up his brother’s position and peered out just as his father started to stir. 

“Scott, did Johnny leave already?” Murdoch asked as he pushed his tired body up off the chair, rubbing his sore arm as he walked over to his eldest.

“Yes, sir, Johnny and Cipriano just left a few moment ago,” Scott informed his father.

“They’ll find them, I just know it,” Murdoch proclaimed, as he stood beside Scott. “Johnny will see to that,” Murdoch added and placed his hand on Scott arm, giving it a slight squeeze.

“I know he will. Johnny has never let us down,” Scott said with confidence in his brother’s capabilities at handling situations like this.  He turned to see his father favoring his arm, “Why don’t you go sit back down and let Jack take a look at your arm.” 

“I’ll be fine, it’s just a little stiff, besides he’s asleep,” Murdoch grumbled.

“Not any more, not with all that jabbering,” Jack huffed. “Your son is right, it’s time I recheck that wound. I don’t want it getting infected. We‘re going to need you well enough to handle a gun when it comes time,” Jack replied. “Now sit down in this chair and let me do my job.”

“He has a point,” Scott agreed.

“I guess you’re both right,” Murdoch conceded and walked back over to the chair while Jack took a quick look at Jelly. “About Jelly, will he be alright?” 

“Yes, he came around while you were sleeping, long enough so I could check his eyes, and so far everything looks good. I gave him a little laudanum to help with the headache and he should sleep the night through,” Jack explained.  “Alright, Mr. Lancer let’s take a look at that arm.”

Scott watched as Jack examined his father but his mind was elsewhere, it was on what was going on outside. He hoped that Johnny would take extra precautions while he searched for the girls. The blond tilted his head slightly and spied a shiny object in his peripheral vision. It was Johnny’s spurs laying on one of the chairs. A wide grin graced his young face and he nodded happily, pleased his brother had indeed been thinking wisely.  Without that jingle of those spurs, the element of surprise was on Johnny’s side. Scott knew, with Johnny’s stealth like movements nobody would realize he was there until it was too late and they were facing his gun.

********

Creeping along the sides of the house, staying as close to the walls as possible, Johnny and Cipriano quickly gave hand signals to the men close by, letting them know it was them and not to shoot. Recognizing their young boss and Segundo, they nodded and continued on with their watch while Johnny and Cip darted from wall to wall, ducking behind various objects that would cover them, until they reached the far gate.  The moon acted as their lantern while their anxious eyes scanned around for Teresa and Maria. Not a trace of them could be found, which meant they must have them somewhere outside the gates. 

“Where should we look, Juantio?” Cipriano whispered. “They can be anywhere and we only have a few hours until sunrise.” 

“I know, I know,” Johnny hissed under his breath. “Past these gates there are only trees scattered around and I don’t see any signs of campfires out there, except over there, closer to the other side.” He pointed to a small clump of trees past the main gate. “I’m betting that’s where Bulldog is camped. He has to be to use that Gatling gun, any further out he would be out of range.”

“So what do you suggest we do?”

“We head that way and see if we can spot the girls, if not then I guess we head on further out,” Johnny replied.  “Don’t worry my amigo, we’ll find them. I’m not going to let anything happen to Maria or Teresa,” he promised, patting the old foremen’s arm.

Cipriano smiled sadly. “What about the Gatling gun? Do we try to disable it if we can get close enough to it?” he asked.

“No, not now, my main concern is to get those girls away from that bastard. We‘ll worry about the gun once the girls are safe and down in that root cellar,” Johnny ordered.

“Si, you are right, Juantio,” the old Segundo quickly agreed. “My Maria will take care of Teresa until we find them. She is a strong woman,” he proudly boasted.

“That she is,” Johnny retorted, smiling at the thought of his beloved Maria. “Now let’s get a moving and find the girls, and then we can deal with this mad man on our terms.” 

 

Chapter Twenty One

From high above in the bell tower, Frank watched apprehensively as Johnny and Cipriano crouched and ran, camouflaging their movement amongst the shadows while making their way over to Harrison’s camp. The trusted hand kept an eye peeled and rifle ready for any indication of trouble.  He had a ringside view of the grounds and could pick off any of the bandit’s men if they made a threatening move towards his friends.  He knew that a few others were also on the alert.  Isidro was lurking beside the bunk house and Hank was by the far wall in front of the house. Frank smiled and nodded in gratification to see that the men were ready for action, to protect their home and family.

Johnny and Cipriano slowly and cautiously continued to the far side of the main gate where Bulldog had made camp, with a sense of assurance that their backs were covered. From the corner of his eye, Johnny caught a glimpse of Isidro and Hank, with their guns ready and watching every move.  The others kept a close watch on the main house and the rest of his family. This helped the young Lancer to relax a little and concentrate on the task ahead, without the added worry of his family’s safety clouding his train of thought.

The closer they got to the camp they could hear the sounds of Harrison’s men snoring in a drunken slumber. Not wanting to chance being seen, Johnny and Cip quickly got down on their bellies and crawled the rest of the way, slithering amongst the dark shadows. They found a spot in the undergrowth that hid them well enough but yet they could see clearly around the area. Right away, Johnny’s keen gunfighter’s eyes spotted two guards on duty.  One was sitting by the fire, looking like he was half dozing. The other was standing alertly by the Gatling gun. Johnny scanned the outside of the camp for signs of the girls and shook his head in dismay.

“I do not see the women anywhere, Juanito,” Cipriano whispered disappointedly.

“Neither, do I,” Johnny groaned, as he continued to scan the campsite. “He must have them close by though, just in case he needs to fetch them in a hurry.”   

“Si, men like this Bulldog, like to keep their victims close by,” the old Segundo hissed angrily. “But where, it’s a wide area to look over?”

“Well, we just can’t spread out and look. I’m not taking the chance of one of us getting caught, if we don’t watch each other backs,” Johnny stressed in a hushed tone of voice. “It won’t do us or the girls any good if that happens.”

“Si,” Cip nodded. “So where do we begin?”

“Well, we’ll just have to keep an eye out for any signs of smoke from areas other than this camp. I’m guessing he has them hid in the trees somewhere out there, with orders to sit low and without starting a camp fire,” Johnny speculated.

“Ah, and since it’s getting colder by the minute,” the old Segundo grinned, “They will have no choice but to start a fire for warmth. That is, if they dare to defy their boss.” 

“My thinking exactly, mi amigo,” Johnny agreed. “So let’s get out of here and start looking, the stench in here is turning my stomach.”  He grunted at the vulgar smell of the unwashed bodies and leftover food.

“I do not understand men like this? Why does he let them drink so much the night before the deadline?” Cip asked. “Does he not need them to be sober and ready to fight?”

“Cause he thinks he going to win and we’ll give up that easily. Well, he has another thought coming,” Johnny muttered as he and Cipriano quietly backed away and were able to slip away unseen.

With the help of the beams of moonlight that peeked out from behind the scattered clouds, Frank noticed the forms of two men darting out from the distant camp area and into the open. He let out the deep breath he was holding when they disappeared into the trees, sighing in relief that they escaped in one piece. However, he was troubled to see they did not have the girls with them. He prayed for them to find the women folk and get back alive, for Johnny and Cip were now out of his firing range and on their own, with only Johnny’s skills and the fates watching over them.

********

Teresa’s words *think about it* still echoed in Bret’s ears and that’s all he could do, was think about it. His mind played with the notion of letting the girls slip away into the night to find their way back, and then he could take off in the other direction. But where would he go? What could he do for money or a job besides join another gang? As he told the girls, he was beyond help in his confused mind. Then he thought about Boone and Slim and how they had met their fates after failing in their duties to the boss. He shuddered at what Harrison would do to him if he found out if he had decided to let them go. He was caught between a rock and a hard place and all he could think of was the grim side of things.

Bret continued pondering and buttoned his jacket around his neck as tight as he could get it to ward off the chill as the temperature dipped.  He glanced over at the girls and didn‘t like what he saw. Teresa and Maria were huddled together shivering from the cold despite the heavy blanket he gave them. Bret’s sense of decency rose above his loyalties to Bulldog and he knew what he had to do, if not for him at least for the girls.

“Oh what the hell?” he muttered. He scrambled for some firewood and commenced to build a small warming fire just big enough to help take some of the chill away around the girls. “That should do it,” he whispered and nodded to Teresa as she smiled widely at him.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and then cuddled a little closer to Maria.

The sudden burst of warmth against his face and the brightness, close to where he was sleeping, alerted the other man, who then threw off his own blanket and sprang to his feet.  “What the hell are ya doing?” he growled. “You heard the boss, no campfire.”

“Listen, I don’t think he’ll want these ladies here getting sick! They‘ll be no good to him if they did,” Bret argued. “If it didn’t get so damn cold at night in these parts, I wouldn’t have do this. One little fire to warm them will not hurt.”

“Yeah, well… what about attracting attention, did you even stop to think about that?” Gus hissed. “You’re walking on a thin line with the boss as it is, going against his orders.” 

“I’ve been walking a thin line all my life, so what’s the difference about this time?” Bret asked sullenly. “Now go back to sleep, Gus, and let me worry about this.”

“Okay, it’s your hide,” Gus warned as he grabbed his blankets and picked a place to sleep by the fire, deciding he might as well take advantage of the warmth.

“Yeah, I know,” Bret muttered. “If they do find us, then maybe it’s for the best,” he whispered as he gazed into the flames.

********

Johnny and Cipriano desperately searched for anything out of the ordinary that would lead them to the women, each step they made taking them further away from the safety of the grounds around the ranch. They kept stopping and listening along the way for voices, whispers or cries but they heard nothing but the sounds of night. Suddenly the old foreman’s eyes spotted a clump of trees off to the side, with a luminous glow about it.

“Juanito look! It is as you said, somebody has started a fire and I bet that is where we will find the women,” Cipriano said, anxiously pointing towards the trees.

Johnny’s eyes lit up. “This is where we split up, mi amigo. We have to be as quiet as ghosts. If the girls are in there, we can’t chance spooking those hombres and risk the girls getting hurt,” Johnny instructed his friend.

“You can count on me. They will not know I am there,” Cipriano promised.

Johnny smiled. “I have no doubt of that. You head off that way and I’ll take this end of the woods.”  

“Si,” Cip agreed and cautiously headed towards the other side of the thin patch of woods and disappeared from Johnny’s view within seconds.

Before Johnny took off, he scanned around the dark terrain for any others that might be lurking about, listening intently for noises that might indicate horses close by. Hearing none, he figured the kidnappers were dropped off here with just the means to get them by, until they were sent for. Which meant they were all on foot, making his task a little easier.  He proceeded to his end of the woods hoping to find the girls, alive and well.

Gus tossed and turned, groaning so much that it was starting to annoy Bret. “Gus what is your problem?” he scowled at the man, who was now sitting up a little bent over.

“I have to go and it‘s too cold to get up and do it,” Gus grumbled.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, get up you lazy bastard and get it over with, and then go back to sleep. You’re bugging me!” Bret snapped. “And don’t do it in front of the girls, go into the woods.” 

“Alright, be back soon,” Gus grunted and got up holding the crotch of his pants, and then darted into the woods.

A few minutes had passed, when Bret heard what sounded like some rustling noises by the edge of the trees where Gus had disappeared.  At first he thought nothing of it, assuming it was Gus coming back after relieving his self, until he heard a muffled moan, a twig snapping, and then the sound of something falling hard to the ground. Bret had a very strong notion what had happened to his partner and there was nothing he could do about it, what was done was done.

The Texan continued to sit there calmly staring into the flames, his senses detecting a presence behind him. “Don’t worry.  I’m not going to put up at fight.” 

“That’s good, cause’ you would have lost,” an ominous voice answered back as Johnny slowly emerged from the trees with his gun pointing right at Bret. “Now toss your gun and rifle over there!” he demanded, and then motioned for Cipriano to come on out from where he had taken care of Gus to collect the fire arms.

Teresa and Maria’s heads popped up at the sudden sound of Johnny’s soft voice. Their eyes grew big at the sight of the young Lancer and Cipriano, who they knew would come to their rescue.

“Johnny! You found us,” Teresa exclaimed.

Johnny looked over at his sister and smiled for her; a smile that would always brighten her day. “It took awhile but we found ya, honey. Are you two okay?” he asked. 

“Si, Juan, we are alright, this man here saw to it,” Maria quickly answered.

“What, by kidnapping and tying you up like animals?” Johnny hissed as he watched Cip untie the girls, and then gently helped them up off the cold ground.

“It’s okay, Johnny,” Teresa said as she flung herself into Johnny’s arms embracing him. He cradled her with one arm while still holding his gun on Bret with the other. “He was going to keep us safe from that mad man if he could. He‘s not as bad as the others. Why he even started a fire to keep us warm when he was told not to.”

“Is that so?” Johnny snorted distrustfully, glaring at the man. “And who are you?”

The name’s Bret!” he replied as he slowly stood up with his hands in the air. “And what are ya gonna do with me, now that you found us?”

“I don’t know yet,” Johnny answered truthfully. “I don’t take kindly to men who kidnap defenseless women and use them as bait.” 

“I say we tie him up like the dog he is, let his boss deal with him,” Cip suggested angrily.

“No, no, let him go free, Johnny. If he goes back or they find him tied up they’ll kill him,” Teresa pleaded.

“Yes, I know what his boss does to those who fail him,” Johnny acknowledged grimly.  “But it’s up to him, what he wants to do,” the young Lancer said as he stood there studying the unusually composed man before him. Most men would be trembling when facing Madrid’s gun.

“As I told, Miss Teresa, there’s nothing out there for me but she got me to thinking, maybe I can help you,” Bret stated. “At least let me put right a wrong that was done.”

“Help us how?”

“You tell me what I can do,” Bret answered back.

“How do we know we can trust you?” Cipriano growled as he held Maria close to him.

Johnny holstered his gun and walked right up to the man, until they were facing eyeball to eyeball. He looked deep into Bret’s hazel eyes, down into his soul and saw a genuine sincerity in the man. Somebody with a conscience, who had regrets for his past wrongs. Someone much like he used to be a long time ago.

“You say you want to help us? Well there is one way you can,” Johnny declared.

“How?” Bret asked, not batting an eye.

“By somehow disabling that Gatling gun,” Johnny announced bluntly. “And it has to be done tonight.” 

“Johnny! You can’t ask him to go back there, when you know what they’ll do,” Teresa protested. “It would be suicide.”  

“Listen, Teresa, you know very well we don‘t stand a chance against that gun. We‘re like sitting ducks,” Johnny stressed to his foster sister, and then turned back to face Bret.  “We have a cannon but not enough gun powder and ammo for it. So any kind of help we can get, I‘ll take.” 

“But,” Teresa muttered but realized it was futile to argue. 

“It’s okay, missy,” Bret told the fretting girl, and then turned his attention back to Johnny. “Nevertheless, she’s right, I have my orders to stay put until sent for but I’ll risk it to help ya,” Bret agreed. “When I show up alone, he will not let me near that gun because he’ll have no trust in me. Not after he finds out I let the women get away. My only hope is he will be so pissed off at you, he’ll forget about me for the time being and concentrate on getting his revenge.”

“Your point is?” Johnny asked impatiently.

“My point is there is another way I can help. All the ammo for the gun is stored in the wagon and while they’re not looking I can throw a lit stick of dynamite in it and run for the hills and hope to get away before they get me. That way they‘ll use all the ammo up they have in the gun, and then the gun will be useless after that.” 

“Sounds like a plan. But can you pull it off?”  

“How can we trust you, Senor?” Cipriano demanded. “How do we know this is not some kind of trick?”

“I’ll give it my best.  You can trust me. Talking to this young lady helped me put a few things in perspective,” Bret revealed.  “But there is one thing you need to do for me.”

“What’s that?”

“Hit me a few times, it will show them I put up a struggle before you over took me and got away with the women.  If I go in untouched then this plan will never work.” 

Johnny agreed and said with a sly grin, “Okay, this is going to hurt you more than me!” 

“I’m ready!” Bret said and closed his eyes waiting for the blows to come. The girls turned their heads and listened to the grunts from Bret while Johnny landed a couple of punches which knocked the man off his feet. He stopped when Bret held up his hand. “That’s… enough …now get home as fast as…you can,” he urged a little breathlessly from his prone position on the ground. “When you hear a loud explosion you’ll know I got the job done.” 

“You make sure you hightail it out of there as fast as you can. Understand? And try to make a better life for yourself somewhere. Anybody who would help my family like this can’t be all that bad,” Johnny proclaimed.

“I will and now get going before we’re found out,” Bret warned.

Johnny nodded and tipped his hat to the man, and then he and Cip disappeared into the night with the girls as Bret got up off the ground. Before heading for the main camp, he doused the fire and paid his respects to Gus, who lay dead by the edge of the woods. These actions would give the others a little more time to get away.

“Good luck to you and to me,” he whispered, and then when he couldn’t detect any signs of them, he turned to go face Harrison.

 

Chapter Twenty Two

Emerging from the cover of the woods and out into the open, Bret glanced up at the sky and frowned in apprehension. He knew there wasn’t much time left before day break, maybe an hour or less. Taking a deep, nerve steadying breath and steeling his courage he turned towards Harrison’s camp. He had a promise to fulfill and he had every intention of keeping it.

Bret’s eyes were not the only ones that had been checking the sky; Scott watched in fretful concern as the sun started to slowly peek over the horizon because there were no signs of Johnny or the girls, yet. Dispirited, the blond pressed his head against the cool wood frame of the front door, signing heavily, before closing it, and then walking back into the great room to stare bleakly at his father.

“Where are they?” Scott implored as he shuffled sluggishly over to the boarded up window, with rifle in hand. “They should have been back by now if they had found the girls. I just pray that nothing has happened to them.” 

“Your brother will find them, I just know it,” Murdoch declared as he slowly stood up, and stretched his cramped back. “He has to,” he whispered.

“Well, I hope it’s soon, he’ll be losing the cover of night shortly,” Scott stated despondently. “And God knows what that mad man will do once it gets light out.”

“I don’t want to think about that,” Murdoch replied, scowling and shuddering. “We have to give Johnny a little more time. There’s a lot of territory to search, that bastard could have the girls hidden anywhere.”

“Murdoch, Scott! Jelly is coming around,” Jack shouted, interrupting Murdoch’s tirade.

The Lancers hurried over to the couch where Jelly had been placed after being conked on the head and where Jack had kept a close eye on him during the whole time he was out. They hovered over the old handy man while Jack rechecked his vitals. The doctor was pleased to see that the blow Jelly took to the head had not caused any damage that would affect Jelly later.

“Easy does it, Jelly,” Jack cautioned when Jelly began to moan, a little disoriented.

“What…what…happened?”  Jelly asked weakly. “One…minute I was watching Teresa, and…the next the…lights went out.” 

“You were ambushed from behind, Jelly,” Murdoch answered his old friend.

“Ambushed…in the house?” Jelly huffed in confusion, and then a horrible thought assaulted his clouded mind. “The girls, where are the girls?” he cried and tried to get up off the couch, only to fall back when a wave of dizziness washed over him.

“Settle down, Jelly, you took a nasty blow and you need to rest,” Jack cautioned, holding the old man steady with his hands on his shoulders.

“Teresa, Maria, they took them, didn’t they?” Jelly uttered mournfully with his eyes closed.

“Yes, Jelly, they did,” Scott replied sadly. “They set the fire as a diversion to distract us, and then they snuck in and…well you know the rest,” the blond muttered, placing a gentle hand on Jelly’s head.

Jelly’s face grew pale with remorse. “I’m…I’m sorry, boss.” 

“It’s not your fault, Jelly. They would have found a way to get the girls, no matter who was on guard,” Murdoch hated to admit. “Thank God, you’re okay, my old friend. Don’t worry. Johnny and Cipriano are looking for them right now. They‘ll find them and bring the girls home safely.”

“You let that boy go out there, knowing what they’ll would do to him, if’n he gets caught!” Jelly growled, his teeth clenched against the throbbing in his head.

“Don’t worry, Jelly, they never saw hide nor hair of us,” a soft familiar voice announced as he entered the room by way of the kitchen, with two very grateful and cold women by his side. “Glad to see ya awake and still as ornery as ever.” 

Scott spun around and a big smile bloomed on his face, replacing the anxious frown he had worn while Johnny was gone. He rushed over to his brother and embraced him in a brotherly hug.  He released his brother, and then affectionately took Teresa and Maria in his arms and gave them a thankful hug and kissed their foreheads.

“JOHNNY!” his father shouted in elation.  “Thank heavens you made it back and with the girls in one piece. Ladies, are you alright?” Murdoch asked, with his arms stretched out wide, welcoming them both home.

Teresa burst out in tears as she flung herself into her fosters father’s waiting arms. “Yes…yes…thanks to Johnny… and Bret,” she sobbed into his chest, while Maria gave her employer a big smile and nodded.

“Bret. Who is this Bret?” the tall rancher demanded.

“Well, I’ll tell you about that, Murdoch,” Johnny replied. “If he’s true to his word, we’ll be hearing some loud noise coming from their camp, soon.”

“What are you talking about, brother?” Scott questioned. “Who is this Bret person?”

Johnny walked over to the table and poured himself a glass of cool water and took a long swig. “He’s one of Harrison’s men, he was guarding the girls and he has agreed to help us,” Johnny informed them with a sly grin. “I guess he had a change of heart.” 

“Help us, how? How can you trust a man who’s employed by that monster?” Murdoch growled at his son. “After all he might be the one who hit Jelly, almost killing him. God knows what Harrison would have done to the girls if you didn’t find them.”

Teresa pulled away from Murdoch and wiped her tears. “I trust him, Murdoch. He’s not like those others, not really, and yes he has agreed to help us.  He was gentle, respectful and wasn‘t going to let any harm come to us,” she pointed out. She turned her attention to Jelly and scurried over to the couch kneeling by him. “How are you, Jelly?”

“Fine, honey, now that you and Maria are safe back home,” Jelly replied, and then smiled sweetly at the girl, taking her small hand in his. “I’m sorry, I got you kidnapped.”

“Don’t worry, Jelly, none of us saw it coming. We’re safe now,” Teresa sweetly assured him and kissed the old handy man’s cheek. “Now, I want you to rest.”

“So how is this man going to help us, Johnny?” Scott asked, his doubt plain on his face while looking down at Teresa fussing over Jelly.

“By putting himself at risk and getting rid of the ammo for the Gatling gun,” Johnny announced boldly. “As we see it, Harrison will not trust him much anymore, now that the girls have escaped and he lived to tell about it. He is taking a big risk for us, by taking the edge away from them, while they are not looking.”

“How do you know this is not some sort of a trick, Johnny?” his father asked, “When a man is out numbered, he’ll say and do anything to get out of being capture or killed.”

Johnny sighed in aggravation at their lack of faith in his judgment and walked over to the window. “Well, if I’m wrong then we have a Gatling gun to face with a wagon full of ammo. But if I’m right, then soon after he does pull this off, we’ll have a fighting chance at least,” he said peering out the peep hole, “We’ll find out, soon.” 

********

It was almost daybreak when Bret staggered into the main camp, gasping for air from the long walk back. His face was marred with a few deep bruises Johnny had bestowed on him to help make his story more believable. He stumbled into the clearing and fell to his knees, calling out for help. Jason was the first to see Bret. He jumped up from where he was sitting and hollered to Bulldog as he hurried over to Bret.

“Bret, what the hell happened to you?” Jason hissed. “The boss, ain’t gonna be happy about this.”

“I… was… bushwhacked and Gus was…killed!” Bret stammered breathlessly.

“By who?” growled Harrison as he approached the man.

Bret thought for a moment, he had to choose his words carefully in order to make the story realistic, so he said the one thing he knew would infuriate his boss. “By Madrid, Boss, and he had a big Mexican with him. The Mex snuck up on Gus while he was taking a piss and snapped his neck,” he revealed.

“I see and how did you managed to stay alive?” Harrison asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion and his nostrils starting to flare.

“You know, Madrid, Boss, he knew better than to draw attention to himself, so he caught me off guard and when I put up a fight, well, you can see,” Bret pointed to the marks on his face. “He knocked me out and ran off with the girls,” he said, cringing at the hard deadly look from Harrison.

Bulldog’s face turned a dark shade of red and after a swift kick to Bret’s ribcage, he loudly snarled, “YOU SON OF A BITCH, MARDID! I’LL MAKE YOU PAY YET!”  He turned his attention back to Bret, who was bent over in excruciating pain from the sharp blow to his side. “I’ll take care of you later. You’ll wish that Madrid had killed you, when I’m done with you! Take him over there and let him stew about his betrayal of me and what I might do to him!” he ordered angrily.

“Give me a gun boss… I’ll make it up to you,” Bret begged, knowing he’d need a gun once he escaped.

“NO! Now take him and watch him carefully,” Harrison commanded, with an evil glare in his eyes. He watched as they roughly manhandled Bret as they hauled him over to the wagon and threw him down, without bothering to tie him up. The Texan was relieved they didn’t because it was lucky for him he didn’t have his hands tied to impede his escape.

“So now what, boss?” asked Mack, a tall stout man.

“We wage war on Lancer!”Harrison snarled coldly. “Nobody attacks me three times and gets away with it. I want this land and I‘ll kill every man and woman in that house to get it.” 

Harrison‘s declaration of war was loud enough for even Bret to hear, even though his ears were ringing from the searing pain in his side. The ache was slowly fading to a dull throb and he was getting his mobility back. Bret slowly scooted over to a small wooden box to his left and cautiously pulled out a stick of dynamite, slipping it under his legs. He had to wait for the right time to light it and throw it inside the wagon, and then make his escape. He hoped that Johnny had made it back to the house by now, as he looked up at the rising sun.

‘Well there’s no time like the present,’ he thought to himself.

On Harrison’s orders the men were scrambling about getting themselves and the Gatling gun ready for battle. Seeing the case of open ammo by the gun was only half full, Bret smiled, he knew it would not last long, and then the gun would be useless. He scanned around looking for a horse close by to use for his departure once the fireworks started. Lucky for him, there was one already saddled and waiting, as if the fates were smiling down on him, which would be a first in his pathetic life.

Bret slowly stood up with his back to the wagon. The man, who was guarding him, was preoccupied with something else, giving Bret the opportunity to put his plan into action. He eased around the side until he was out of sight, lit the stick and threw it inside. After a few seconds, he ran as fast as he could to the horse, quickly mounted up and took off at a fast gallop. The loud sound of hooves pounding the ground behind him alerted the guard and he called out to his boss.  Harrison fumed and pulled out his gun aiming it right at Bret’s back as he rode off but by then it was too late.  The wagon exploded with a tremendous, ear shattering sound that shook the earth. Men were running for any cover they could find as deadly debris was flying everywhere.

‘WHAT IN THE HELL WAS THAT!” Murdoch boomed as he ran to the door.

“That was Bret keeping his word,” Johnny crowed happily. “I just hope he got out of there in time.”

“I knew it. I just knew he would do it,” Teresa yipped. Johnny looked at her and shook his head in amazement. “Well, it was your idea to send him back in there. I’m just happy he was able to do it,” she stated with a frown.

“Okay, I get your point,” Johnny snorted. “And now the real fight starts so I want you girls to get down in the root cellar and take Jelly with you,” Johnny instructed sternly.

“But the gun will be of no use to them soon, so why can’t we stay up here?” Teresa whined 

“You heard your brother! Now you and Maria quickly gather some supplies and head for the root cellar and that’s an order young lady,” Murdoch demanded loudly.

Teresa was about to protest when Maria stepped in. “Now, come on, niña, Senor Lancer is right, we do not belong up here. We can make up a bed for Senor Jelly, so he can be comfortable and let the men be,” she gently urged the pouting girl to move. They headed towards the kitchen. “Patron, I will put some coffee on for you and set out some food before we go downstairs,” Maria informed her boss, with a reassuring smile. 

“Thank you, Maria, that would be appreciated,” Murdoch gracefully thanked her.

“But, Boss, I’m okay. I kin help ya,” Jelly protested as he again tired to sit up, and then groaned from the throbbing still lingering in the back of his head.

“No, Jelly, as your doctor, I agree with them, you’re in no shape to fight. You need to rest,” Jack insisted. “Scott, can you give me a hand with Mr. Hoskins here?” 

“Sure, Jack,” Scott said as he walked over, lending Jack a hand with easing Jelly off the couch and carrying him to the kitchen. “I’ll be back up soon. So don‘t start without me,” he sarcastically joshed, expressing some relief that the odds were somewhat on their side now.

“We won’t,” Johnny quipped, smiling despite the fact he knows it’s still going to a tough fight no matter what the odds.

“And when we come back up, have a rifle handy for me too,” Jack requested.

“Jack, there’s no need to pick up a gun just to help us, you’ve done enough,” Murdoch replied. “Just keep an eye on Jelly and the girls.”

“Now listen, Murdoch, with Jelly out of commission, you’re going to need all the help you can. You know I can handle a rifle,” Jack pointed out, as he left the room with Scott and Jelly.

“But not to take a human life, Jack!” Johnny shouted to the departing doctor.

“We’ll talk when I get back up,” Jack called back.

“Murdoch, talk some sense in him when he gets back here, will you,” Johnny beseeched.

“I’ll try, son, but I don’t think it will do any good. Jack’s a determined man. But when the battle starts I’ll have to admit we’re going to need his help,” Murdoch confessed regretfully.

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny sighed heavily and peered out the hole in the window. “Well, it‘s light enough now and Harrison will show his hand at anytime. I wonder how much ammo they have left?”

“I pray not enough, son, not enough.”

 

Chapter Twenty Three

Scott and Jack escorted the ladies and Jelly to the cellar.  Lanterns were lit and blankets were spread out along the dirt floor for Jelly to rest on. Further preparations were performed for the safety and comfort of the people seeking refuge in the cellar during the expected battle. When they were satisfied they had done all they could Scott and Jack climbed the stairs back into the kitchen. Before heading back to the great room, Scott grabbed the coffee pot off the stove, while Jack gathered up a few cups and a plate full of fruit and left over biscuits Maria had put on the table for them. After leaving strict instructions with the guard posted at the back door, they hurried back to Murdoch and Johnny.

“All is secured down in the cellar and I have some hot coffee for us, thanks to Maria,” Scott announced as they entered the room.

“Yes, the ladies and Jelly are tucked in safe and sound,” Jack confirmed. “So, where’s my rifle?” he asked anxiously as he sat the cups and plate down on the long dining table and stared at his frowning friend.

Sighing, Johnny replied, “Here, ya go, Jack. Not that I’m happy about you having to pick up a gun like this but Murdoch is right, we can use your help,” the youngest Lancer sullenly admitted as he handed the loaded rifle over. “Do me a favor, will ya?”

“And what’s that?” Jack asked softly.

“Don’t go getting yourself killed on my behalf, okay. Too many people have died because of Madrid and I don’t want that happening to you,” Johnny remarked sorrowfully, glancing over at his father and brother.

“Don’t worry, John, I’ll do my best to stay alive. I didn’t survive the mountain to let a little squabble get the best of old Jack,” the old doc declared.

“This is more than a little squabble, Jack, a lot more,” Johnny huffed. “Just be careful, alright?”  Seeing Jack nod in consent, Johnny stated, “Good.”

********

On the hillside, after the cessation of the flying debris and the ringing sound in their ears, what was left of Harrison’s men regrouped, awaiting orders from their boss. No one even bothered to check the bloody bodies of the men who had been unable to find cover. Bulldog paced back and forth, preoccupied with his thoughts and the more he pondered the more his blood boiled. He was outraged that Johnny had once again foiled his plans by rescuing the girls. He also came to the conclusion that Bret was in cahoots with Madrid, something that was unconceivable in his twisted mind. He vowed he would hunt Bret down and inflict him with pain and torture before ending his miserable life, but first things first.

Harrison looked up at the morning sky, the pale grey wash of dawn made the light just right to start the war. He called out to the house.  “LANCER! LANCER, DO YOU HEAR ME?” 

“YES, AND BEFORE YOU ASK, THE ANSWER IS NO!” Murdoch hollered, knowing what the bastard had on his mind.  “I bet he didn’t like that answer,” he snorted.

“DO YOU HAVE A DEATH WISH?  I KNOW THAT BASTARD SON OF YOURS WAS IN CAHOOTS WITH THE TRAITOR WHO DESTROYED MY SUPPLY WAGON BUT I STILL HAVE ENOUGH AMMO TO SHRED YOU TO BITS,” Harrison proclaimed angrily.

“MAYBE SO, BUT WE WON”T GIVE UP OUR LAND TO YOU AND THAT’S MY FINAL ANSWER!” Murdoch declared loudly and proudly. “SO GIVE US YOUR BEST SHOT!”

“That’s telling him, Murdoch,” Johnny laughed. “Though, I don’t think you can make him any madder than he already is.”

“Who’s trying? I think you, Jack and Bret, have done a splendid job of foiling his plans so far,” Scott crowed, “So, I’d say he’s fighting mad!”

“Why… that son of a bitch!” Harrison hissed under his breath. “OKAY, IF YOU WANT WAR THEN YOU GOT IT. PREPARE TO DIE, LANCER!”  Then he turned to his men, “Is the gun ready?”

“Sure is, Boss,” Jason stated.

“Good! Then aim it at anything you see moving and riddle that house with bullets!” he ordered heartlessly.

“All at once, Boss? We only have a few rounds left,” Jason voiced his concern.

“THEY DON’T KNOW THAT!” Harrison shouted. “Now do as I say and make sure each hit counts.” 

“Okay, if you say so. You heard the boss, aim the gun towards the house,” Jason instructed while lending a hand in moving the gun closer to make sure that they have a clear path to the house.

In the house, a notion dawned on Murdoch. “You know he’s acting like a very desperate man,” he said pacing the floor and rubbing his sore arm.

“How so?” Johnny asked.

“I could hear it in his voice. The extra ammo for the gun is gone, he’s wants us to believe he still has enough to last him a while,” Murdoch explained.

“That’s fairly obvious,” Scott said, raising his eyebrows. “So, what do you think he’ll do?”

“Desperate men, do desperate things,” Johnny softly commented.

“You’re right, John. I have a feeling he’s going to hit us hard all at once with that Gatling gun, hoping he can disable us,” Murdoch stated. He walked over to the door, opening it slightly, and then called for Hank, who was close by, motioning for him to stay low.

Hank nodded, crouched down as low as he could get using the pillars and small adobe walls as shields and made his way over to the doorway.  “What is it, Boss?” he asked as he quickly entered the house.

“I want you to pass the word on; Harrison will probably hit us all at once with that gun.  I want every man to stay low, don’t show themselves,” Murdoch instructed. “Get behind anything that will shield you from those bullets. Do it fast because you don’t have much time.  It’s best if you go out the back way,” he added. 

“I’m on it, Boss!” Hank vowed and made a beeline for the side door.

“I’m not going to give him anything to shoot at,” Murdoch muttered.

“Just the same, he’ll fire that thing no matter, hoping he’ll get lucky,” Johnny predicted. “So, I suggest we get away from these windows and get behind something sturdy. Those bullets will cut through wood and glass like they were paper.” 

“I’m with you on that, John.” Jack agreed nervously. Then the big man headed for the far corner of the fireplace and squatted down behind one of the big chairs. 

With rifles in hand, the Lancers followed Jack’s lead and hurried away from the French doors and windows, taking cover behind anything solid they could find to protect them, and then they waited.

Outside, Harrison glanced around from one end of the ranch to the other, looking for a target to shoot at but not a soul was in sight. The outlaw grunted a harsh laugh, realizing that they were just as cunning as he, but it didn’t matter, somebody had to get this party started. Furthermore, it was going to be him to draw first blood; the first kill. In his pathetic and warped mind he was going to be the victor.

“Alright! Let’s get the show on the road,” he shouted and after counting to three, hollered, “FIRE!”

Mack took hold of the gun’s handle and began to crank away, within seconds the air exploded with a rapid, deadly rhythm, a menacing tune that brought an evil grin to Bulldog’s face.  Shell casings flew everywhere as the bullets went sailing through the air, slamming into the adobe walls of the house. The artillery shattered the hanging pots into dust and ripped through the exterior furniture, like they were butter. The huge oak door, which was always open to friends, withstood the bullets’ impact, stopping them so they looked like silver studs embedded in the wood.

The Lancers and Jack held their breaths as the bullets came crashing through the glass and boards, pinging and whizzing by their ears, missing them by only inches.  All they could do was not move and wait it out.

The horrifying noise of bullets riddling the walls echoed down into the cellar, the sound rang in Teresa’s ear. Suddenly the girl became extremely terrified for her family upstairs, so she did the unthinkable. Despite Maria and Jelly's desperate pleading, she ran up the root cellar’s stairs and headed straight for the Great room. Johnny’s heart beat frantically when he caught a glimpse of his foster sister entering the room.

“TERESA, GET DOWN!” Johnny hollered to the petrified girl as the bullets continued to spray the room, and then without a second to lose, he shot up from where he was laying and flung himself at Teresa. The impact knocked them both to the ground but not before a stray bullet hit Johnny.  The youngest Lancer rolled over on his back groaning in agony, as he grabbed his throbbing and bleeding left thigh.

“JOHNNY!” Murdoch cried out in horror. “JOHNNY, TERESA…ARE YOU ALRIGHT?” 

“I’m…fine…but… Johnny’s hit,” Teresa answered hysterically and began to weep as she took hold of her brother’s bloody hand. “Johnny…I…am…so sorry… I…got scared…and,” she begged for forgiveness.

“It’s…okay, honey, as long as you are…alright,” Johnny assured her, through the burning pain. “Now please…stay down and crawl back to the kitchen, please for me?”

“NO! I’m not leaving you, you’re hurt,” she snapped, refusing to leave.

“How bad is he hurt?” Jack asked and without thinking he went to get up, only to be stopped by Murdoch’s strong hand tugging at his pant leg.

“Jack, no! Stay down, until it’s over with. It shouldn’t be long now,” Murdoch stressed urgently.

“It’s okay, Jack, it’s only my leg,” Johnny informed him painfully. He pulled out his bandana and had Teresa help him tie it around his wound. “I stopped the bleeding for now. I think it’s only a deep flesh wound.” 

Everybody stayed as still as possible, while they waited for the deadly siege on the house to stop. Then just as suddenly as it had started, it was over. The deafening sound ceased and sunlight beamed through the many small holes that now decorated the windows.  Before even attempting to move about the room they all waited for a few minutes before they slowly pushed themselves off the floor.

Jack hurried to Johnny’s side to check out the damage. “I swear, young man, you do get yourself in some awful predicaments, don’t you?” Jack asked, with a slight hitch to his voice.

“Well, you know me, Jack… I can’t stay out of trouble,” Johnny hissed as Jack loosened up the bandana to get a better look at the wound.

“It’s all, my fault, Jack, I should have stayed downstairs but I was scared …I just had to …” Teresa said sobbing. “And… Johnny got hurt because of me.”

Murdoch quickly took his ward in his strong arms to comfort her, while Scott looked on in concern for his brother. “It’s okay, honey. I know it must have been terrifying for you but the worst part is over with now, I hope,” he softly cooed and gently patted her dark head.

“How bad is it, Jack?” Scott asked as he kneeled down next to his brother.

“Well, it looks like the bullet missed the major muscles and went right through, mostly tearing some outer tissue from what I can tell,” the old doc informed him. “Help me get your brother to the couch, so I can get a better look.” 

Scott slipped his hands under Johnny’s armpits, while Jack carefully held his legs and they carried him over to the sofa.

“I’ll get some bandages ready,” Teresa stated after gaining her composure and was about to leave to fetch some when Murdoch stopped her.

“You’ll do no such thing,” Murdoch huffed. “I want you to go back down in the root cellar and stay there, young lady. This is not over with yet.” 

“But Johnny?”

“Jack will take care of him. I need you down there with Maria and Jelly and out of harm’s way. I wouldn’t put it past that mad man out there to try and take you again. Understand?”

“He’s right, Teresa, it’s better you keep out of sight until this is over,” Scott agreed with his father. “It’s for our peace of mind and your safety. You will stay down there.”

Teresa looked at her foster father and frowned. “Alright, but please be careful and don’t take any unnecessary chances,” she sniffed wiping her eyes, and then leaned down and kissed Johnny’s cheek. “I’m so sorry, Johnny, I didn’t mean too,” she sadly whispered in his ear. Teresa was about to leave when Harrison shouted out.

“LANCER, HAVE YOU HAD ENOUGH?  I HAVE PLENTY MORE AMMO AND I WILL USE IT, IF YOU DON’T SEE IT MY WAY!”  Harrison bellowed. “WELL?”

“He can’t have anymore ammo left, not after that heavy fire,” Murdoch scowled. “He’s bluffing.”

“I think so too, but how can we be sure?” Scott worried. 

“Well, I say we answer him with a little fire power of our own,” Johnny suggested as he slowly sat up with the Jack‘s help.  “I say we fire up the cannon and show him we mean business. After all, he doesn’t know that we only have two cannon balls.”

“Kind of a Mexican standoff, isn’t that right, little brother?” 

“You can say that! It just might buy us more time too,” Johnny pointed out.

“It’s worth a shot. Scott, go out the back way and signal Walt to fire off one shot towards their camp,” Murdoch instructed his eldest. “And be careful you’re not seen and get back in here as fast as you can!”

“Right!” Scott nodded, grabbed his rifle and headed out the back way.

“I pray this works, at least until help arrives,” Murdoch muttered.

“Meaning, Val?” Johnny asked glancing up at his father’s troubled face. “Yeah, knowing him, he won’t stand by and not do anything, if he can help it.” 

“That’s what I’m counting on, son,” Murdoch said. “How’s the leg?”

“Oh, I’ll live, right, Jack?” 

“Fortunately, the bullet passed through the fleshy part of his thigh, without causing too much damage. But you have to stay off the leg for a while, Johnny,” Jack ordered sternly.

“I will after this is over, Jack, as long as I can use my hands, I’m fighting alongside my father and brother, even if I have to crawl,” Johnny exclaimed.

“LANCER, I’M WAITING!” Harrison demanded.

Murdoch walked over to the window and boomed, “YOU’LL GET MY ANSWER WHEN I’M GOOD AND DAMN READY TO GIVE IT!”  He peered out the window and watched for Walt and the cannon.

 

Chapter Twenty Four

Pacing like a restless cougar in front of a now useless Gatling gun; Harrison berated his self for putting himself in this precarious position. In a moment of rage he had foolishly used up all his ammo. The only fire power left was their rifles and a limited amount of bullets amongst the men. Stopping to glare at the big white house nestled in the valley, he vowed if he had to sneak around and kill every person on this ranch with his bare hands he would do it. One way or another he would take over the Hacienda and annihilate Madrid. The bandit’s temper boiled as he waited for Murdoch answer, hoping his ruse worked.

“I’M TIRED OF WAITING, LANCER!” Harrison shouted to the house. “YOU HAVE FIVE MINTUES.” 

Murdoch didn’t bother to answer back; he just continued to peer out the shattered window, watching for Walt and the cannon. “Come on, boys, get that blasted cannon out here and ready to fire,” he whispered desperately. As though they heard him, Walt and Cipriano appeared from around the corner pushing the heavy weapon into place. 

“Well, is he ready, yet?” Johnny asked impatiently, just as Scott hurried back into the room.

“Yes, they’re aiming it right now,” his father replied. Murdoch turned and asked his eldest, who was bent over and puffing from his quick run around the house, “Is your sister back downstairs?”

“Yes, I made… sure of it. I have Jose… standing guard… over by the door to make sure they stay down there,” Scott remarked breathlessly.

“Good! Well…it‘s,” Murdoch began, only to be interrupted by the outlaw.

“WELL, WHAT’S IT GOING TO BE, LANCER, GIVE UP OR DIE WHERE YOU STAND?” 

The tall rancher grinned wickedly and bellowed his answer out the door. “HERE’S MY ANSWER, YOU SON OF BITCH!”  He waved his hand to signal Walt, who then lit the fuse on the cannon. “Cover your ears, it’s going to loud in a few seconds,” he warned his sons and Jack.

A rumbling bang vibrated in the air as the heavy metal ball shot out of the cannon, followed by an eerie high pitched whistle.

“BOSS, RUN FOR IT!” Jason screamed. “THAT THING IS COMING RIGHT AT US!”

Harrison’s eyes widened in horror, as his men started to panic and scrambled for cover. Bulldog was speechless, his mind couldn’t fathom what his eyes were seeing and without a second to spare he flung himself into a nearby ditch, deep enough to shield him from the impact. 

The whistle ended with a deafening boom as the artillery hit its target, the Gatling gun, and then detonated. The result was an explosion that sent the gun sailing into the air, part of it was blown up into little fragments of deadly shrapnel, striking a few of the bandits as they ran for cover. The ground shook when what was left of the gun plummeted back down colliding violently with the earth.

Bulldog pulled himself out of the ditch, and then on shaky legs he walked up to the remains of the gun. Staring at the destroyed weapon, a hard look filled with hatred hardened his face to the point Mack was cringed at the sight.  Harrison’s nostrils flared and his face grew darker than a thunder cloud, when the sounds of victorious cheering from the house floated uphill on the breeze. This made him even more determined to destroy Lancer.

“Hot dang! That was a dead on hit,” Johnny crowed loudly as he stood by the widow with Jack holding him up. “Did you see that, Scott?”

“I sure did, brother,” Scott agreed with a big grin. “That cannon might be old but it still has the capability and range.” 

“Yes indeed, and I bet it did some damage to that gun too,” Murdoch predicted. “Well, I wonder how he liked my answer? No one is going to take this land from us! Pardee couldn’t and neither will his Uncle.” 

“Here, here!” Johnny cheered.

“I definitely agree but we still have a fight on our hands. He‘ll be more determined to win now than before,” Scott pointed out.

“Oh …you can …count on that, brother,” Johnny hissed through the pain in his leg.

“Come on young man, let’s get you sitting down and resting that leg,” Jack advised as he held on to Johnny’s slim waist.

“Not over there, Jack, please. Pull up a chair right here by the window. I can yank off this piece of board and use my gun just fine from right here,” the young gun- hawk pleaded. “I told you I’m not gonna sit on the side lines and not help my family.”

“You better do what he says, Jack. I hate to admit it but we’re going to need his gun,” Murdoch reluctantly agreed with his strong willed boy.  He’d rather see Johnny laying down and resting his leg but he knew he was going to need all the gun power he could get.

“Okay, Murdoch! But you listen here young man, if I see you really hurting, I’m pulling you away from that window!” Jack declared sternly, yet with compassion etched on his face.

“Okay, okay, I hear ya,” Johnny retorted.

“Well, it’s up to Harrison now,” Murdoch said, rubbing the back of his neck, “Let’s see what he does this time.”

********

Bret made a clean and fast getaway after blowing up the wagon; he eventually slowed his horse down to an easy trot and attempted to slow his breathing. He was counting his lucky stars that Harrison didn’t send men after him. However, it was hard to find much comfort in that, since he had no idea where to go or what to do. He realized with his background, it would be impossible to get a decent job, once folks found out who he was. He reined in his horse, so he could stop and ponder, thinking a nice cold beer right about now would help him think, as well as soothe his parched throat. Not considering all the ramifications of his decision, the outlaw headed for Green River.

About an hour from town, Bret ran into Val and Gabe, with a contingent of well armed men, all heading for Lancer. His first instinct was to retreat but they were too close and he was unarmed. Bret feared he would get a bullet in the back if he turned tail and ran, so when they were within shouting range, he raised his hand up.

“Don’t shoot!” he hollered. “I’m unarmed.”

Val quickly approached the nervous man and carefully looked him over. “I gather you’re one of Bulldog’s men?” Val asked.

“I was, Sheriff,” Bret clarified, “I quit, didn’t take to his kind of work, so to speak. And for your information, Sheriff…” Bret paused and gazed into Val’s narrowed eyes. “I ‘helped’ the Lancers out, that‘s how I was able to make my escape.”  He finished informing them with a look of confidence on his face.

“HELP? What kind of help could you offer them?” Val snarled.

“It’s a long story but I disabled the Gatling gun, which gave the Lancers a fighting chance.” Bret stated.

“Well, that’s a relief,” Gabe sighed as he took out his bandana and wiped his sweaty brow. “We don’t have to worry about that gun, now.”

“Can I lower my arms now, Sheriff?” Bret requested.

“Yeah, sure. Ya know I might have to take you in for all the other things your boss did since you did ride with him,” Val pointed out. “How long were you with him anyway?” Val asked, because as he studied the man, he saw something in the Bret, sort of what he imagined Johnny probably saw.

“Not long, just before he took Mr. Lancer as hostage. I was low on money; just up from Texas, and well, it was hard to find work. So I grabbed a hold of this job, some choice, huh?” Bret said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, you could of done better,” Val snorted.

“So what are ya going to do with me, Sheriff?” 

“Well, I don’t know yet. What do you think, Gabe?” 

The seasoned lawman thought a minute. “Well, in my opinion, he doesn’t seem to be much of a desperado, not like the others. I say there might be some hope for him yet,” Gabe offered. 

“Well, I don‘t have the time to fuss with ya anyway, I’ll let you go this time. But if I ever see your mug around Green River causing trouble, I’ll shoot first and ask questions later, ya understand?”  Bret nodded. “Now get while you can,” Val ordered.

“Thanks, Sheriff, but I really don’t have any where to go, what with me being new to this territory. So if ya don’t mind, I think I’ll ride with you, as dumb as that sounds,” Bret stated after he had made up his mind. Thinking he had rather do something good for one once in his life, other than blowing up the wagon.

“Now why would you want to go back there?” Val asked scratching his face. “It don’t make any sense?” 

“You’re right it don’t but I figure you can use another gun, if ya can loan me one,” Bret answered sheepishly. “Let’s say I’m doing this for a young lady, who got me to thinking.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about but I guess we can use an extra man. I can trust you can’t I?” Val questioned wearily.

“Yes, Sheriff, you can,” Bret smiled. “And we better hurry, times a wasting. I thought I heard a big gun going off earlier from back there. A cannon maybe? I seem to recall Johnny talking about a cannon they had, though I thought he was just bluffing.” 

Val’s eyes lit up. “Damn tooting that’s a cannon. Jess, give this man a gun and let’s get going, there’s a battle we have to stop,” Val shouted and took off with the others with Bret right behind him.

********

Harrison quickly regrouped what men he had left, callously ignoring the wounded and dead. He deployed them around the main grounds, with a limited supply of ammunition for each man, hoping it would be enough. He had no choice but to try another line of attack.  First, as quietly as possible, they needed to take out every Lancer defender they could find lurking in the shadows, leaving Murdoch and his kin inside to defend themselves.  Most of all, it was imperative they find that cannon and somehow disable it. He was hell bent on taking over this land and killing Johnny, to the point he could taste the gunfighter’s blood already; a sweet taste of revenge. 

“Jason, tell the men, to show no mercy. I want every one of Lancer’s men taken out! Use whatever means you must to do it. I take NO prisoners this time. Lancer had his chance,”   Harrison ordered heartlessly.

“Will do boss,” Jason confirmed, and then took off relaying the deadly orders.

Frank, hiding up in the bell tower, happened to glance down towards the bunkhouse and noticed some of Harrison’s men scurrying about, and then swiftly disappearing out of his view.  He knew without a shadow of a doubt that his friends, the men he worked alongside of, were being set up for an ambushed. There was no time to climb down and alert the Lancers or the men but he had to let them know somehow. He had to do something that would catch the attackers off guard, so he did the first thing that came to mind.

Inside the house, the men were checking their weapons and counting what ammunition they had on hand. They were satisfied they were more than ready for the fight but they all knew that could change and fast if they didn‘t play their cards right. Murdoch seized this quiet time to calm his nerves with a shot of brandy, until the bell tower bell rang out danger.

“What the hell?” Murdoch cried out, startled by the tolling bell.  “Not another fire,” he groaned as he and Scott made a beeline for the front door, only to be stopped by Johnny.

“NO, DON’T GO OUT THERE!” Johnny warned as he peered out the window, using his keen gunfighter’s eyes to scan the grounds.

“Why not?” Scott asked anxiously.

“I don’t see any signs of smoke or fire anywhere. I think Frank is trying to warn us about something else,” Johnny announced.  He had a gut feeling so he continued to scan the area.

“Warn us about what?” Murdoch asked.

“Like an ambushed, that’s what,” Johnny hissed.

Murdoch slowly opened the door enough to peer out, his anger started to rise at the sight of Harrison’s men creeping around despite their cover being blown by the warning bell.  Suddenly, some of the Lancer men darted out from their posts surprising the outlaws, exchanging heavy gun fire, before ducking back to safety. From the bell tower, Frank targeted attackers, hitting a few and mortally wounding them. Isidro, stepped out a little too far, and was about to shoot when he caught a bullet in his right shoulder. The old ranch hand fell to the ground in agony and was trying to drag himself away with his ambusher.

“NO!” Johnny yelled in horror, and then carefully aimed his rifle at the bandit as he was about to finish off Isidro. Johnny fired, hitting his target dead center in the chest.

Murdoch’s patience was worn thin with this bastard. His men were being targeted like animals and he was not going to stand by and do nothing. “Jack, you keep Johnny here. Scott, you’re with me,” he instructed, and then he and Scott made a dash for the front door.

“Murdoch, no! Stay in here with us,” Johnny beseeched. “It safer in here, please.” 

“Don’t worry about us, Johnny, you just stay here and keeping shooting!” Murdoch firmly ordered his worried son.  “We’ll be okay.” 

“Don’t worry, Boss, I’ll help Johnny,” Jelly huffed as he wobbled into the room.

“Jelly, what in the blue blazing are you doing up here?” Jack scowled as he walked over to the old handy man.

“I’m fine! My headache is gone, Doc, and don’t worry, Jose is keeping the girls safe,” Jelly assured. “Just give me a gun and I’ll perch myself over by that there window.”

“I don’t have time to argue with you, Jelly. Jack, give him your gun and make sure these two stay put,” Murdoch demanded as he and Scott dashed outside, ducking behind the pillars and helping their men by shooting off a few rounds.

“You got it, Murdoch,” Jack acknowledged, closing the door behind them. He helped Jelly to the window next to Johnny. “You heard the man. You two are to stay put.”

“Yeah, sure,” Johnny retorted in a tone of voice that worried Jack.

 

Chapter Twenty Five

The gun battle raged relentlessly, the outlaws refusing to retreat and the Lancers declining to surrender. Harrison's men desperately maneuvered around trying to draw their adversaries out into the open hoping for a lucky shot, in a bid to save the ammo that was quickly being depleted. But Murdoch's men were not fools, they held strong to their posts, well protected behind thick structures around the barn and house. Some even fought from inside the bunkhouse, giving them the advantage of being unseen to their attackers. They were able to pick off the bandits, who strayed out into the open. 

Johnny was getting more frustrated by the second; from where he was sitting it was getting harder to get a decent shot off because the very pillars that protected him also blocked his view and aim. He had been lucky enough to take out the man who shot Isidro. However, he needed a better spot; he needed to be out there. Johnny knew that Jack, a man bound by his word, would never allow that, so he talked the doctor into moving him over to the front door. He cracked it open just enough to see and aimed his rifle with less structures blocking his view. Johnny breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Hank and another man helping Isidro up off the ground and carrying him around the side of the house.

"Jack!" Johnny called out. "Be ready, they're bringing Isidro in by way of the side door. "He's hurt bad, and needs your help."

"It looks like my work has really begun," Jack sighed as he grabbed his bag and waited in the hallway for the men carrying the injured Isidro. "Over here men, lay him on the couch," he instructed as they entered the room. "That's it nice and easy, now." 

"Is anybody else hurt?" Johnny asked as he watched them ease his friend down on the sofa. 

"Not as bad as Isidro, Johnny. Just a few minor flesh wounds, nothing they can't handle," Hank informed him.

"Well those flesh wounds can get infected," Jack warned. "Make sure they keep them covered up until I can take a look at them."

"Will do, Doc, just take care of our friend here, will ya?" Hank replied. "Come on, let's get back to our post," he ordered the other hand and they were headed towards the back of the house when Jelly put his two cents worth in.

"You men be careful out there and lay low. Don't need any more of ya getting shot or killed," Jelly groused at his comrades, and then glanced over at Isidro, who was moaning in agony as Jack poked and prodded at his shoulder. Despite the man's obvious pain, Jelly knew he was in good hands with Jack.

"We'll try, Jelly," Hank assured. "It's nice to see you back to your old cantankerous self."

"Oh, hush up and get back out there, the boss needs yer help," Jelly scowled, while he listened to the continuous exchange of gunfire outside. All of a sudden a bullet came whizzing by his head, missing him by a good foot but none the less causing him to practically jump out of his skin and off the chair he was sitting on. "Damn!" he shouted in shock.

"Jelly, are ya alright?" Johnny asked anxiously.

"Yeah, but I dern near… got my head blown off!" 

"Get back further from the window," Johnny instructed the old handy man. "You men do as Jelly says, we'll keep ya covered, now go," he ordered and resumed his position with his rifle ready.

"Okay, Johnny," Hank replied pulling out his gun, and then he the other man slipped out. Johnny and Jelly covered them as they ran until his men were safe behind their barricades again. 

"Hold off for a while, Jelly," Johnny commanded. "Best we save as much as ammo as we can because it seems like they're doing the same," Johnny stated as he realized that Harrison's men had backed off for now and had taken cover behind anything they could find.

Jelly nodded and asked, "Do you see your Pa and Scott?" 

"Yeah, they hightailed it for the patio. They should be okay behind those walls. I hope they closed the gates after Hank took off," Johnny sighed heavily. "I don't want to give those bastards the opportunity to sneak up and ambush them." 

"Yup, I know how that feels," Jelly grumbled, rubbing the back of his head.

"How's the head feeling, Jelly?" Jack asked.

"Better by the minute, Doc," he lied, his head still hurt some but he was not going to sit back and not help his friends when they need him the most. "How's Isidro doing?"

"He'll be alright. He's sleeping now and I was able to get the bullet out just fine," Jack informed them happily while wiping the blood off his hands.

"Thanks, Jack. He's a good man and friend," Johnny replied appreciatively with a weary grin. "I sure would hate to lose him." 

Jack smiled and continued to aid the fallen man, while Johnny and Jelly kept watch for any sudden movements by the bandits. So far it was quiet out there, not even a cow could be heard lowing in the background; they had all scattered once the fighting started. Every man there held their breaths in anticipation as to when and where the next shot would be fired. 

Harrison sat alone behind a wagon, concealing himself from the others and nursing his bleeding right leg after taking a slug. He took out his bandana and tightly tied it around his thigh to stop the bleeding. He would be damned if he was going to let a bullet stop him from winning this battle. It would take a direct shot to his heart to stop him and he wasn't about to let that happen. He knew his men were laying low for right now and sparingly using what ammo they had left, so this gave him a chance to rest and think. 

********

"What do you think he's planning, sir?" Scott asked his father. "It very quiet out here and it has me worried." 

Murdoch grunted, as he struggled to turn around and lean his back against the wall he and Scott had taken refuge behind, and stretched his long legs out. The tall rancher groaned a little as he rubbed his aching thighs from squatting too long in one spot. Scott followed his father's lead but with less effort and waited for an answer to his question.

"Sir?"

"I heard you, Scott." His father finally answered, "I'm guessing that they're running out of ammunition and they're waiting to see who makes the next move." 

"I'm sure our ammunition is on the low side too," Scott added. "I guess right now we're, as Johnny would say, at a Mexican stand off!"

"You could say that," Murdoch admitted sullenly, and then tilted his back against the wall. "Is the gate securely latched?" 

"Yes, I double checked it, after Hank left. I wonder how Isidro doing?" 

"Yes, me too, he didn't look so good when they brought him through and Hank was in such a hurry to get back to his post, he didn't say anything," Murdoch muttered.

"Jack will take care of him, don't worry," Scott declared confidently. "I just wish this would was over with so we can get back to normal around here." He laughed and added, "Or at least normal for us."

"Well, you'll get use to it, son, this is not Boston, this is the west and out here you have to be prepared for anything to disrupt your daily routines. and Lancer sure has had its share," Murdoch snorted.

"Yes, I'm finding that out," the blond agreed. "So we sit here and wait, until somebody makes a move, right?"

"That's all we can do, it's too dangerous to do anything else. I`m sure you encountered this kind of situation during the war you fought in, right?" Murdoch asked his quiet son.

Scott took in a deep breath, and then slowly let it out, "Yes, many times, you never knew what was going to happen next. But I'll tell you, this is nothing like what I saw," Scott replied with a cringe as he recalled those dark days.

"Yes, I'm sure it was horrifying. I'm so grateful you survived the war and are home now with me," Murdoch confessed, giving his son's leg an affectionate pat.

"Same here, Sir," Scott confirmed with a smile for his father. "You want me to check up on Isidro?" 

"No, stay here, like you said Jack will take care of him. Let's hope he is able to keep your brother from doing anything rash," Murdoch replied, worried about what plans might be going through Johnny's mind.

"I hope so, too," Scott concurred, knowing how his little brother could be impulsive.

********

The Lancer arch loomed just ahead of Val and Gabe as they raced to help their friends, fearing the worst and praying that they were not too late. The closer they got, the more alarmed Val became. He didn't like what he heard or actually was not hearing, gunfire or men hollering. The worried sheriff swallowed the lump in his throat then held up his hand.

"WHOA!" he shouted. "Hold up, men."

"Why Val, what`s wrong?" Gabe asked anxiously as he peered around. "I don't hear or see anything."

"That's just it. I don't hear nothing," Val hissed. "It's too quiet and I can't see from here if anybody is moving." He turned to Bret who was watching. "What do you make of this…er?"

"It's Bret, Sheriff. Near as I can tell, it seems to be a standoff. I mean their ammo is bound to be running out by now. They know better than to fire if they don't have enough to spare. That could go for the Lancers, too." Bret spoke honestly. 

"Yeah, well, I was thinking the same thing," Val grumbled as he took his hat off and wiped his brow with his dusty sleeve. 

"What are we going to do, Val?" Gabe questioned the brooding sheriff. 

"We're gonna rush in and draw them out by turning their attention on us. Get them in a cross fire to even the odds," Val spoke out boldly. "Now, let's get going!" 

With a plan in place, the rescuers took off at a fast gallop, firing their guns in the air to draw the bandit's attention. The sudden sound of gunfire coming from behind, not only startled the outlaws but Lancer's men as well. Just as they had hoped, the blood thirsty bastards automatically turned their sights on the charging posse. Most jumped out into the open and foolishly fired wildly at Val and his men, which penned them in the crossfire between the posse and the Lancers. Their mistake was deadly and they fell to their deaths, while the rest knew they were out gunned, so they either fled or gave up like cowards.

"IT'S VAL!" Johnny crowed. "Good old, Val, I knew he wouldn't let us down." Then Johnny spied a familiar face amongst the posse. "Well, I'll be damned, he came back." 

"Who, Johnny?" a confused Jelly asked. 

"Bret, the man who knocked you on the head and helped blow up the ammo for that Gatling gun," the youngest Lancer answered.

"Oh, really… well, I have a bone to pick with that varmint," Jelly huffed and rubbed his head. 

Johnny wasn't the only one to see Bret. From where he was sitting Harrison saw the man who betrayed him and became so outraged he almost choked on the venom that rose up his throat. First it was the sight of his men being gunned down or giving themselves up that had infuriated the outlaw, and then to see Bret riding with the posse was more then he could take. Bulldog pushed himself up off the ground and painfully wobbled around the wagon with his gun drawn, still keeping himself out of view.

It appeared like the bloody fracas was finally over, so Val and his men dismounted and began rounding up what was left of the beaten outlaws. They tied them up and had them lay down face first on the ground. Murdoch and Scott came out from behind the gate to help, with smiles of relief that reached from one ear to the other. 

This really set Harrison off; it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. He couldn't fathom the turn of events. He was so sure he was going to have his revenge and this land, and now it looked like he was defeated. He blamed Val and Johnny, as well as Bret, who betrayed him and was currently standing next to Val. He set his sight on both men, thinking he'd kill two birds with one stone.

Leaning against the door frame, sighing in relief, Johnny scanned the remaining gang members as they were being rounded up in the hopes one of them was Bulldog but so far the leader was not among them. From the corner of his eye, Johnny noticed a lone figure off to the right, with a gun in one hand and a rifle in the other. He was slowly advancing on the group of men hovering by the bunkhouse. They had their backs towards the bandit, totally unaware that two of them were being targeted by a mad man.

Johnny's eyes narrowed and his fist tightened into a ball, calling on his Madrid persona to give him the strength to face Harrison. His leg was throbbing and burning with a rising fever but he had to stop this monster at any cost.

"BULLDOG! It's time to face me, one and one," Johnny called out angrily. "You wanted me so now you have me." 

The sound of Johnny's intimidating voice shook not only Harrison but his father and brother as well. "JOHNNY, NO!" Murdoch boomed out frantically but his son paid no mind.

Harrison armed with two loaded weapons seized the moment. He swung around to face Johnny, taking no chances with a superior gunman, like Madrid, he fired off both weapons wildly but to no avail. He didn't even see where his own bullets hit as Madrid's pierced his heart. A wet crimson bloom flowered across the front of the dirty shirt he wore. Shock dilated his eyes and he sputtered in disbelief. Blood smeared on his lips as it leaked dark and red from his mouth. He looked down to assess the damage and knew without a doubt he was a dead man when his body felt like it was melting as he slowly sank to the ground. He collapsed in the dirt, briefly in a sitting position until gravity knocked him over, he landed on his back, lifeless eyes fixed on the sky. Harrison knew nothing of the crowd that gathered to stare at the corpse of the man who had caused so much grief. His days of terrorizing and murdering were over and his victims avenged. 

Murdoch quickly ran to his son's side as he succumbed to his throbbing leg and fell after firing the fatal shot. He laid there until his father and brother picked him up and carried him back into the house. They settled the youngest Lancer on the couch next to Isidro. Feeling slightly sick and in need of a breath of fresh air, Murdoch walked back outside and surveyed his land while breathing deeply and thinking, another battle fought for ownership of this bountiful land and another battle won. He had told Scott, earlier, that this wasn't the first land fight and it probably wouldn't be the last but he took comfort in the fact he now had his sons beside him. Murdoch nodded to himself and sighed heavily with relief, and then walked back into the house to join the others, closing the huge bullet ridden oak door behind him.

 

 

Epilogue

After all was said and done, the remaining bandits, who were able to ride, were escorted back to Green River. They would await the arrival of the circuit judge and their fates, in this open and shut case. Harrison and his fallen men were loaded up in a wagon and taken to a small cemetery outside of town for burial as Murdoch refused to have them buried on Lancer land.

As for Bret, he agreed to make restitution for his crimes. With the support of the Lancers and Jack, Gabe decided to mentor the young man and made the former outlaw his new deputy, with the solemn promise to uphold the law and to protect. Bret was a little leery at first; this was beyond his thinking, him a lawman. However, when he considered how Johnny Madrid was able to put the past behind him, he decided to give it a try. After all, the citizens in Spanish Wells and Green River didn't know him and he needed a place to call home.

"Well, you have a fresh start now, Bret. So, you do your best to make sure it stays that way," Johnny said with a wide smile for his new friend as he sat with his leg resting on the footstool. 

"I will, I promise, Johnny and thanks for sticking up for me. It does mean the world to me," Bret replied gratefully, and then turned to Teresa who was standing over by the fireplace. "And you, Missy, thanks for making me think and bringing me to my senses. I hope I can own up to it." 

"I have no doubt that you can. I'm happy for you," Teresa stated and smiled sweetly at the man.

"Well, I better get going. Gabe is waiting and I have a lot to learn, so adios for now and thank you, all of you," Bret said tipping his hat and headed out the door to his new life.

"He'll be a good deputy. He just needed somebody to give him a second chance at life, that`s all," Johnny said softly, and then leaned back in the chair, closing his eyes. 

"Yes, son, you are absolutely right," Murdoch agreed as he looked at his boy and smiled.

 

 

~end~

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